Cascade is a sci-fi thriller tabletop role-playing game about solving complicated problems using strange tools while under high time pressure and emotional duress.
The core rules are mostly solidified but it is still a work in progress. I intend to add some setting modules to help kickstart games, and to eventually lay the game out in a zine format.
Cascade is forged in the dark. For now I’m working under the assumption that you’ve already read Blades in the Dark or a similar RPG.The Blades in the Dark
Actions from Blades in the Dark are called Approaches in Cascade. You might ask “how are you approaching this?” or “what’s your approach here?”
The actions are:
Fight someone; defend yourself from an attack; pull two people apart; survive or add to a chaotic brawl.
Scramble into a new position; climb, swim, run jump, and tumble; dodge out of the way; maintain or recover your balance.
Withstand an attack or harsh circumstance; soldier on despite great setbacks; ignore or recover from wounds or illness.
Swagger with confidence or bluster; intimidate, impress, or trick someone; fit in with a group or a crowd.
Imagine futures, pasts, and impossibilities; recognize patterns; express yourself creatively; take part in ritual; express empathy and love.
Lurk unnoticed; sneak and hide; take subtle action; blend into a crowd; ambush an unsuspecting enemy.
Focus intently on something, take time to study something or someone closely, hold your breath, keep your cool while doing something scary.
Scan the room to get a general impression; make snap judgements; keep watch; pick something out from a jumble.
Fix a broken tool; sabotage, hack, modify, or build something; treat a wound; understand & diagnose a complex system.
Instead of having dots in each approach, your character has 4 (maybe 5?) approaches that you can rely on: when you roll for these approaches, you get an extra die.
Making a roll follows these steps:
- the player tells you what they are doing, what they hope to accomplish, what approach they’re using, or some combination thereof
- If they don’t give you all three, say “great” and then ask for the missing info (“Great! What’s your approach?”, “Great! What do you do?”, “Great! What are you hoping for?”). Remember that the players get to decide what’s possible, and you just get to set risk/reward.
- Tell them the risk/reward (“that’s a desperate half-measure”). Consider your rules for threats in this, if appropriate.
- They choose: back off and try something else, or go forward with it and roll the dice
- When they roll, look up the result in the hit/miss table and describe what happens.
- On a miss, remind them that they can resist to prevent what you just described
Attributes are used for resisting. Each attribute is equal to the number of actions under that stat you have. You also have one favored attribute that you get a +1 bonus to.
Hard is from Fight, Scramble, and Withstand. Use it to resist consequences from physical harm.
Cool is from Swagger, Imagine, and Lurk. Use it to resist consequences from emotions and social interactions.
Sharp is from Focus, Scan, and Fix. Use it to resist consequences from mistakes or misfortune and complex situations.
Maxing out stress doesn’t cause trauma. Instead, you reset your stress, suffer minor harm and trigger a stress response of your choice. Stress responses are actions you must undertake that will cause problems for the group.
- bring up an unresolved conflict with a friend at a bad moment
- lash out or push away someone because of unresolved conflict without explaining why
- choose a single task and obsessively pursue it, ignoring everything
- break something
- shut down and stop responding
- lose hope and languish in defeat
- get distracted by bad memories
- suffer from flashbacks
Don’t be scared of stress responses! Take this as an opportunity to step back and have a little fun causing a mess before diving back into the problem solving.
I don’t like clocks for most situations. You can use the threat definition rules (below) for things that qualify as threats. For other tasks where a clock might make sense (like “I’m working on fixing up this truck a bit every evening”), instead make a to-do list with 1, 2, 3, or 4 items on it depending on difficulty.
Risk & Reward
Position is renamed to risk and effect is renamed to reward. The risk levels are reliable, risky, desperate. The reward levels are half-measure, plan, gambit. Communicated to the players like “That’s a reliable plan”, “That’s a desperate gambit”, “That’s a risky half-measure”. Default is risky plan.
Bonus reward levels for special circumstances: folly (no effect), decisive gambit (incredible effect)
Because there are no clocks, reward won’t ever be about how many segments get filled. Instead, plans can complete a task fully, half-measures only half-complete a task (another half-measure will finish it), and gambits get you halfway to accomplishing a second thing.
Players are expected to write down everything they have available to them (on their person, on their spaceship, etc), and any rules about how it works if it’s not intuitive. You can’t ad-hoc invent gear: if it’s not written down you don’t have it. Make sure you’re prepared.
Some tools will (ideally) be Strange, which is to say, unfamiliar to the players, maybe because it is very specific, or science-fictional, or supernatural, or whatever else. Everyone should be in agreement in how the tool works, maybe even writing down the things that are decided about it.
If you end up in the situation where there’s something you haven’t written down that nevertheless you should obviously have available to you (and everyone agrees), roll a die. On a 4-6, you do indeed have it. On a 1-3, it’s true that you should have it, but it’s missing, or broken, or otherwise has an unexpected issue.
Your expertise is the thing that you will always be assumed to be capable of. For specialized tasks, not having an appropriate expertise may make your approach desperate or a half-measure. For non-specialized tasks, a relevant expertise might make your approach reliable or a gambit.
The harm system works similar to blades. Minor harm has no effect. Major harm causes reduced effect when relevant. With severe harm, you can’t take relevant actions unless you have help or push yourself.
You can help one another to give the other player an extra die. No stress cost, but it does mean you can’t be doing something else at the same time. If your problems come one at a time, it should be fine!
There aren’t any. You are entirely unprepared for what comes next. Good luck!
- everyone chooses an expertise. talk about what kinds of characters you want to be
- explain what approaches are. walk thru each action and talk about examples
- they choose 4 approaches. (maybe 5? idk ugh)
- they choose 1 favored attribute
- talk about how equipment works and invite them to start writing down what they think they would reasonably have on them
- make a common sheet for their spaceship/mech/department and just write down some things about it. what it feels like, how it works, what benefits and challenges accompany it, etc.
How to teach the game:
- Discuss the setting
- Make characters
- For the first roll, walk thru the flow of an action rules step-by-step. Skip steps 3 and 4 and just invite them to roll the dice.
- When they’re doing something desperate, introduce the risk mechanic. On step 3, tell them “That will be desperate”, and that the consequences will be much higher if they miss. Invite them to change their plan if they want (step 4). Start telling them the risk on every action from now onward.
- When they’re attempting a half-measure, introduce the reward mechanic. On step 3, tell them “That will be a half-measure” and that they’ll only get halfway to their goal. Invite them to change their plan if they want to. Start telling them the reward on every action from now onward.
- Introduce reliable actions and gambits after desperate actions and half-measures, as appropriate.
- When someone suffers a nasty consequence, teach them the resistance mechanics.
- When someone’s stress is almost full, teach them about stress responses. Remind them that the goal of the game isn’t to avoid stress!
- When someone gets hurt, introduce harm
- Make the world feel real
- Place the players in the middle of messy, complex, & catastrophic situations
- Play to find out what happens
- face down overwhelming odds, and sometimes overcome them
- embrace messiness
How to make interesting problems
Principles of problems:
- the problem should work consistently under some sort of logic, even if that logic is obscured, arcane, or convoluted
- there should be a time pressure at work: a system is collapsing, the people involved are making decisions with or without the players, a resource is running out, a threat is approaching, etc
- the problem shouldn’t have an obvious solution that comes down to “do you succeed at doing it or not?”
- give characters a limited, human perspective
- make communication difficult (not enough time, broken tools, bureaucracy, etc)
- create a system with feedback loops
- someone who is purposefully making the situation worse
- someone who is unwittingly making the situation worse
- bystanders who have been thrust into the situation
- someone who wants to help, but doesn’t have what the need
- someone who could help, but doesn’t know what’s going on