Blades in the Dark designer John Harper spent the last week teasing a new project on Twitter. The spooky art and coded messages counted down to the release of two projects: a stripped-down, hack-ready version of Agon’s system called Paragon, and a supernatural 1960s setting using that system, Chamber.
Dicebreaker sat down with Harper for a quick chat about inspiration for the setting, described as a world of Cold War sci-fi intrigue and danger, his plans for Paragon and what’s next.
“I first created the setting for a different game project, several years ago,” Harper says of Chamber. “I always wanted to play a game in the vein of the X-Files, mashed up with Cold War espionage stuff. That game was abandoned, but the idea for ‘the signal’ always tugged at my brain a bit.”
The main goal for Chamber was to present a micro-hack of a game in a very compact form, while still being playable.
That signal is the seeming source of Chamber’s weirdness, though player agents will need to work together against threats both from this reality and others to uncover the mystery. Harper had recently dived down a Cold War espionage YouTube hole (who hasn’t been there?), suffusing his designer brain with conspiracies, plots and international subterfuge.
“That, along with a playthrough of the excellent video game, Control, really got me in the mood to release the Chamber setting in some form. It turned out to be a good fit with the Paragon system, and I realised that I could present it as a template for other hackers when we announced the Paragon publishing guidelines,” he says.
Paragon was announced on Harper’s Twitter on November 30th, advertised as a way for designers to take advantage of Agon’s emphasis on collaborative storytelling, player prestige and rippling consequences without tying them to mythological Greek trappings. Chamber was positioned as an example of what Paragon could accomplish.
“The main goal for Chamber was to present a micro-hack of a game in a very compact form, while still being playable,” Harper says. “I wanted to create a short, simple template for other designers to use for their own Paragon hacks - something that wouldn't be very time consuming or intimidating to make.”
I always wanted to play a game in the vein of the X-Files, mashed up with Cold War espionage stuff.
Chamber offers a taste of how the Paragon system works when applied to radically different themes. Harper says the mechanical structure of play is similar, so those who have proudly announced their names while staring down cyclopi, gorgons or despotic kings in Agon will find familiar ground.
Requiring little preparation from whoever runs the game, Chamber generates missions from the included booklet that send agents out to investigate and acquire rogue artifacts as their collective insight gradually pieces together the source and intent of The Signal. Those in their way aren’t angry gods but Soviet agents seeking The Signal for their own shadowy means.
Harper’s offerings run the gamut from Blades in the Dark’s relatively lengthy playbook to the one-page Lasers & Feelings. He says designing a system with others in mind, offering them enough to latch onto without lashing them to his own creative choices, provided an interesting problem.
“The main challenge lies in judging how compact to make the material without losing playability. For some very simple Paragon hacks, only a new character sheet is needed, as with the Mythic Norse adaptation. That's usually the best place to start with a hack, and then judge which elements need further explanation and what new tools you might need to include for your hack.”
Chamber is already iterating, thanks to a public design process that Harper admits he enjoys. Initial feedback has led to clarifications and expansions that he hopes will also provide documentation for newer designers about how games can and should react to player feedback.
Paragon’s own initial test drive involved subject matter with a bit more horsepower.
“The first hacking I did with the Paragon system was for a project called Ride or Die, which is still in development. It adapts the glory-seeking, mythic heroes of Agon to the world of modern street-racing adventurers, in the style of The Fast & The Furious franchise,” Harper says. “Plus an added dash of dimension-hopping sci-fi thrown in, just for fun.
He adds that the internal playtests conducted on Ride or Die have been extremely fun, so far, and he remains hard at work finishing the design and readying it for public release.