When playtesting it can be frustrating to get a session where there are no rolls. After all, you’re trying to test the system and where was the system? But the system is more than the dice you roll — there are other mechanisms, usually, and there is also the negative space: when the roll doesn’t happen because of what it would mean if it did. That is, when the system engages the story by being declined. Exactly because of what it will do.
Yes, this is a true story.
Our last playtest session had no rolls. So how did the system engage?
Negative space: there was one situation where an action led to an offer of a roll but was declined.
JB: So no passages leading off? Just a fuck-you huge pit? I’ll try to commune with a vegetable machine. Like grab a less mobile appendage and see if I can somehow mind-meld or something.
Brad: You see nothing that seems sentient. Just vegetable labour. So nothing talks. But that sounds like SOCIALIZE to me with risk HARM. Only because you want to get close to what’s essentially industrial machinery.
JB: Hmm. [examining character sheet which has DENY for SOCIALIZE] Ah, fuck it.
Brad: But your scar counts.
JB: So 2d6 or just 1?
Brad: They aren’t insects, so 1d6. Very probable injury.
JB: Seeing the OSHA-violating implications, Marc beats a hasty retreat.
So nothing happened but we have an interesting choice: Marc isn’t that confident in his new ability to communicate with alien vegetable monsters, and also reinforces his denial of SOCIALIZE as a method. It’s not what he’s good at, it makes him uncomfortable, and adding the significant risk of an industrial accident, he lets that opportunity go by. The system is doing what it’s intended to do: the player plays into the choices they made about their character (denying SOCIALIZE in this case) and the player is making risk calculations based on the risk and sometimes not taking an action. The possibility of information from the vegetable machines is abandoned and a different path must be taken through the narrative because of the system. Working as intended.
This is the same as a party in a D&D campaign deciding to rest for the night because they are wounded, branching the narrative from pressing on wounded through the wilderness to resting, telling campfire stories, and getting jumped by bugbears while asleep in their armour. Negative space is important: if every choice to engage the dice is answered with “yes please!” then there is a missed opportunity for the system to forge another path.
And then there’s instruction to the ref. In Sand Dogs there is a ref prep sheet, just a few lines, and one of the prompts is “introduce someone interesting”:
Brad: You hear a high pitched buzz of insect wings. A speck on the other side of the pit slowly resolves as a large flying insect person. What do you do?
JB: I’ll wave at them.
Dune: Duarte waves his arms as well.
Brad: The bug thing flies over the pit to you. It is multi-segmented like a flying centipede and has dozens of arms and/or legs. As it comes close it strokes a beard of tiny eating legs thoughtfully. “I thought you were Tik but you are not!”
JB: “Tik has asked us to help.”
Brad: “Help how? This vegetable machine thing makes no sense at all. What was she thinking?” It throws a dozen limbs upwards in exasperation. “Would it be rude for me to land?”
Dune: “Please land.” I make room.
Brad: It lands. “Kanikalakiwinazzztakila. You may call me Kan.” It waits expectantly.
Yes, sure, you can add an NPC any time you want without a rule. But I have a rule: when you’re in a lull, wondering how to push things forward, check your prep sheet. And one of the things there is to invent someone interesting to talk to. System engaged. Kan now exists and branches the narrative. Casual statements like “flying insect person” turn into story inflections — if the characters make friends can they fly with Kan? That’d be handy.
You might think of it on your own. But with this you have a recipe and you won’t flounder because you didn’t.
Another ref cue is “recall a missed hook”. Ages ago the characters met and befriended a tough sand dog named Rachael but they left her in the previous plane. She wasn’t that interesting. So I find this cue and think, “maybe she is”:
Brad: Tik says “Well don’t I look foolish. What a waste of land the vegetable machines are.”
JB: “Harrison told you it would be good?”
Brad: “Not-Harrison did. Harrison just demanded things. I thought perhaps you were all mentally ill.” [Tik was under the impression until very recently that humans were a hive mind, all the same, because they look so similar and she had named them all Harrison.]
JB: “Well, he was.”
Brad: Tik says, “Well the meet is moot. Will you do a last thing for me? I cannot bear the waste.”
Dune: “Of course.”
Brad: Tik says, “Find not-Harrison and bring her to here. It seemed so important. She went by Rachael.”
Hurray! I get Rachael back into play. I liked her then and now she’s way more important than previously. Now it’s implied that she’s a planewalker and maybe an enemy or rival of this Harrison villain. The story opens up wide.
The system is more than just the conflict mechanism and its side effects. It is also in how the conflict system inspires people to sometimes deny operating it. And it is in all of the bits and pieces that guide the referee. Don’t focus too hard on your conflict system — there’s a lot of other game to play.