Blood and Bourbon
Declaration and Setup
“The best way to keep something bad from happening is to see it ahead of time.”
—William S. Burroughs
One of the classic twists is the revelation that a character has anticipated a misfortune, and already planned for it—indeed, perhaps even made the disaster part of their larger plan. The audience smiles or gasps. Playing smart characters is tricky because typically, you’ve got to be out ahead of things, and anticipating complicated circumstances in the chronicle actually requires the player be as smart as his character, and as invested in long-term planning in the game. So, to provide a way to keep character intelligence separate from player intelligence, and to establish a pattern of play that maps fairly well to the revelation-of-genius thing, we’ve got Declaration.
This element gives players mechanics that allow them to retcon (the mashup of “retroactive continuity”) events that have already happened in the chronicle, casting them in a new light and revealing actions or preparations taken in a brief descriptive flashback. Within the story, this happens as if by dramatic reveal. The player makes the required rolls at the moment when the effects become relevant, and then explains how their smart character, at some point in the past, foresaw this situation or one like it, and planned ahead. Given the perspective of having seen events unfold in the story, players can then counterfeit genius fairly easily without having to do any mental heavy lifting along the way, and it partially removes player intelligence as a hard cap on effective character intelligence. Added bonus, the “revelation” moment in the game mirrors that in the source media that inspired this module.
Declarations can alternately be flavored to have characters dramatically become aware of something or recall something relevant, and in gameplay terms, allow the player to declare certain details to be true and retroactively to have always been true in the chronology of the game. Declaration also simulates both the keen observer and the broadly knowledgeable, and lets players fill in undefined elements of the chronicle’s setting.
What Declaration Can Do:
• Add details that become fact within the chronicle’s setting.
• Make statements about Storyteller characters or small groups or organizations.
What Declaration Can’t Do:
• Contradict previously established facts.
• Redefine a player’s character without her permission.
• Make sweeping statements about whole populations rather than small groups or individuals.
• Add details to the chronicle’s setting that player characters are unaware of.
GM’s Note: This last one is new. PCs, not just players, need to be aware of their Declarations when they happen IG. Declaring “NPC X has arachnophobia” is okay if your PC knows they’re arachnophobic (either through prior investigation or immediate observation), but not if your PC has no way of immediately knowing that tidbit. That means Declarations like “My dad called a lawyer while I was in jail” are out in favor of ones like “I’m friends with a lawyer who I’m going to call.” The PC has no immediate way of knowing about their dad’s decision to call a lawyer and is a nonparticipant in the former Declaration’s narrative. The latter Declaration has the PC as a more story-driving force, and also keeps player and PC knowledge on the same page.
GM’s Note: Expanded, as this previous point has been unclear to players:
Off-limits Declarations are independent NPC actions, rather than PC-influenced NPC actions and NPC facts. If you want to make a Declaration that you’ve talked your mom into doing X course of action, that’s fine. If you want to make a Declaration that X fact is true about NPC Y (they have acrophobia, they had a bad breakup with NPC Z, they were born on January 31st), that’s fine.
Declarations that NPCs, on their own and without PC influence, chose to respond in X way to situation Y aren’t very good Declarations. They are invariably used to have NPCs take PC-beneficial actions that the NPC was either going to do anyway, or which they weren’t because of X reason that makes the Declaration a contradictory one anyway. Moreover, they usually make for lame narratives. Let’s look at one that George’s player made and I tweaked.
Lame Declaration: I run into attackers on the road to Matheson’s. Uriah Travers shows up and saves me.
Good Declaration: I anticipated I’d run into trouble on the road to Matheson’s. I made prior arrangements with a contact to pledge Uriah Travers a debt in return for dealing with any attackers I run into.
Same Declaration in terms of consequences (Travers’ aid warranted a debt anyway). The first Declaration casts the world as one where NPCs show up and save PCs whenever they get in trouble, while the second Declaration makes the PC look smart and proactive.
Dice Pool: (Mental Attribute or Social Attribute) + (relevant Skill). Recognizing (and Declaring) a Storyteller character as an acquaintance (and notorious drunk) you knew in high school could be rolled with (Presence or Manipulation) + Socialize, for example. Noting a gun with a particular modification is prone to jamming could be Intelligence + Firearms. Spotting that a mark is religious, and would respond well to a con fronted by a fake preacher would be Wits + Academics (or Occult).
The Storyteller may impose penalties for Declarations that seem too far gone or implausible, ranging from –1 for small stretches to –5 for ridiculous and highly improbable ones, or can veto it entirely if need be. This is particularly likely to apply towards multiple Declarations that are invoked in the same scene. (“Your character really knows and is owed a favor by every person in the room?”)
Action: Reflexive. If the Declaration involves your character directly competing against another character in some way, such as saying you stole the keys off a guard when he wasn’t looking, it may also be contested.
Cost: First use is free during each game session (over our medium, each OOC week of play or IC day); each one after costs a point of Willpower.
Dramatic Failure: You anticipate trouble or notice something and… and you were completely wrong, or whatever you spotted was dangerously misleading. The Storyteller introduces a new twist to the scene that makes things even more difficult for your character.
Failure: You weren’t able to anticipate or notice anything of use after all.
Success: Your ability to cleverly anticipate events, or to notice helpful details, lets you retroactively introduce a new element to the story.
• Gain bonus dice on another roll equal to the successes gained. Example: Saying you know an NPC and have done a past favor for him, granting a bonus on your next Social roll.
• Access equipment or services with an Availability rating equal to the successes gained. Example: Happening to find a gun under the couch of your paranoid friend.
• Gain immediate, one-time use of a Social Merit you do not possess with a dot rating equal to the successes gained, or immediate use of any Social Merit you do possess. Example: Having the police sergeant you know through Allies (Police) show up in the middle of a firefight.
• Instantly spend a number of unspent Experiences equal to the successes gained, even during the middle of a scene, to suddenly manifest new powers and talents (or reveal hidden ones you’ve “had” all along).
• Retroactively take a single action that would call for a dice roll, using the result of the Declaration as the roll result. Example: Revealing you stole a guard’s keys with a Dexterity + Larceny roll.
• Add new Storyteller characters, locations, or events to the game’s setting. The scope and/or usefulness of these elements is proportionate to the successes gained. Example: Declaring a Rank 1 ghost haunts a nearby house with 1 success.
• Add new details to existing characters, locations, and events within the setting. The scope and/or usefulness of these elements is proportionate to the successes gained. Example: Declaring a hostile character suffers from severe acrophobia during a rooftop chase.
• Anything else in line with the above effects. Example: Having an escape route in your apartment building that lets you bypass the toughs coming after you.
Exceptional Success: Things go even better than you planned, or the detail you notice is especially useful. The Storyteller can introduce a new story element that makes the Declaration particularly helpful, grant your character a beneficial Condition, or have the Declaration’s use be for free.
The introduction of new facts into the chronicle has story-level effects that can become dramatic, and these Declarations can be marvelous hooks onto which to hang future plots. A casual use of Declaration and Wits + Empathy to recognize the signs of someone who’s suffered in abusive relationships might spin off into a whole subplot dealing with that character’s fucked up family life. Every time a player adds additional details to the chronicle’s setting, it gives the Storyteller, cruel mad genius that she is, more parts with which to build the narrative equivalent of a biting cyborg Doberman.
Investigation: Swiss-Army Skill?
So, can Investigation be used to make any kind of Declaration? Well, sort of. Investigation is a skill focused on uncovering things. That’s all it does. So is it the only skill you’ll ever need to make Declarations? Nah. Investigation has some limitations on how it’s used in this context. You’ve got to say in some general terms at least how you’re looking and what you’re looking for, and this serves to focus the details you can declare with success. If you’re searching through the morgue at the local paper, looking back over their archive of dead papers for references to a suspect’s criminality in the 70s, you can’t make Declarations about their current activity online. You just don’t have the access within the scope of the roll.
Investigation is also most frequently used to uncover true things the Storyteller has already pre-plotted rather than giving you, the player, the power to define those things on the fly in play. Both forms are exciting and provide a different experience. In fact, with the Storyteller prerogative to decline Declarations if they contradict as-yet unrevealed but significant facts, both modes of representing the smart and observant character are really important.
“I knew you would double-cross me, and that’s why I notified the police before coming here, and look, here they are now.”
“Oh bravo, very good. Yes, it was very inconvenient hiring someone who could convincingly portray for you a senior narcotics officer as well as ‘Officer’ Murray did. The other fellows don’t share his acting ability, though they are quite excellent shots with those automatics of theirs.”
No reason a character, suffering because an opponent’s anticipatory action hosed them, can’t respond with their own Declaration. Whether played out within the immediate action of scene itself, or across a broader plane of the whole chronicle, Declaration makes a good set of mechanics for handling battles of wits. I knew you’d put the poison in my glass, so I’ll pick your glass. Well, I knew you’d think this, which is why I used a poison I’m immune to, and put it in both glasses. This can be played out as an extended contested action, with each participant trying to accumulate enough successes to beat their opponent before running out of the Willpower they need to keep rolling. The battle ends when one or both choose to stop or can’t continue.
Take this to a grander scale, and you have masterminds controlling people, organizations, public opinions, and laying down plans within plans within plans to defeat their unseen opponent. On this level, the anticipatory battle of wits can provide the structure for a whole session of play, with each scene spawned by the results of the battle of wits (er, not necessarily Wits) rolls, with the players finding themselves dealing with the fallout from the battle “on the ground.”
The Storyteller’s Prerogative
Sometimes, Declarations might contradict things the Storyteller has already plotted out, planned, or built into the backstory or personality of a significant one of her characters (note we didn’t say, “things the Storyteller has already established”—if he hasn’t put them into play yet, they don’t “exist”). A Storyteller can always decline a Declaration by saying it is contradictory. This itself gives the player some useful information—there’s something there to be uncovered! Some secret to be wheedled out! But further, the player gets to make another Declaration instead of the declined one, so it all remains equitable.
The Setup is like Declaration, but involves a deeper level of detail. Instead of the character simply explaining how they took precautions or saw this coming, the story instead moves to a flashback scene, and the preparations are actually played out. When this nested scene is completed, the focus of the chronicle snaps back to the “present” and the interrupted scene is resolved, with the flashback now reframing what’s going on. (For added fun, begin a game session with the after-effects, and then use this Setup element to flashback on how it got here.) Unlike Declaration, Setup lets characters make more than one retroactive dice roll, so they can potentially make much larger changes to the chronicle’s continuity.
The Setup roll is not used to determine the advantage earned like in Declaration, rather this is generated by what the characters do during the flashback scene. If you initiate one, you get to frame the scene—say where it is, when it is, who’s there, what’s going on (the latter two within reason). Then the Storyteller picks up and provides the usual opposition and challenges. Setups can break the flow of a game pretty dramatically, putting an intense scene on hold to play out a humdrum one. Storytellers and players should come together to create a dynamic scene of suspense and tension, rather than some yawn-worthy extrapolation of events. Ideally, players should get to feel clever and excited by the possibility of turning tables on an already existent scene.
Dice Pool: (Mental Attribute or Social Attribute) + (relevant Skill). If additional player characters want to participate in the Setup, they can do so through using a teamwork effort to aid his roll.
Cost: 1 Willpower. If additional player characters want to participate in the Setup, they must each spend a point of Willpower.
Dramatic Failure: The character’s planning backfires and results in some new present complication. No flashback sequence takes place.
Failure: The character’s planning wasn’t good enough to meaningfully change the current situation. No flashback sequence takes place.
Success: The flashback sequence takes place. The character can make a number of dice rolls during the flashback equal to her rolled successes. Rolls called for by the Storyteller do not count towards this total. If the character wants to make additional dice rolls when she runs out, she can spend another point of Willpower and roll her original dice pool again (though at a cumulative -1 penalty) to see how much longer the flashback plays out. Nothing that takes place during the flashback can contradict previously established facts.
Exceptional Success: The flashback sequence takes place, and things go even better than the character planned. The Storyteller can introduce a helpful new story element, grant the character a beneficial Condition, or waive the limit on how many dice rolls the character can make during the flashback.
Example: The characters are pinned down by gunfire from across the street, and they’re stuck hiding behind a dumpster, and are totally out of bullets. It would seem that they’re fucked, but one player initiates a Setup by spending a Willpower point—the Storyteller allows for a Wits + Streetwise roll to go back and allow a change of conditions on this city street. The player gets two successes, and thus, two rolls.
They decide that they showed up at a sanitation company earlier in the day. They spend one roll for one character to sneak them into the building, and they spend the second and final roll to “convince” (read: bribe) one of the truck drivers to do a little freelance for them that night.
Fast-forward back to the main scene, and just as they run out of bullets, along comes Joe the Trash Truck Driver, who not only blocks the bullets with his giant monster of a truck, but also backs up, allowing the characters to hop in the back, thus making their escape.
Your Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal
Combine the Setup with Social Combat, and you can pull such marvelous bastardry as having your enemy’s henchmen suddenly turn their guns on him. You try and use the Setup flashback to suborn an enemy, imposing the Swayed Condition to turn their loyalties (at least temporarily) in your favor. Bribery (using your Resources as a “weapon” on the roll) or other forms of influence can work to generate Sway and change up the scenario.
An even more devious way to do this is to run the Setup when you’re carrying enough Experience to add some Allies, and then spend them to make the guy you’re trying to win over an actual on-your-character sheet Ally who’ll help you beyond your immediate desire to have him screw somebody over for you.