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; prove that you're sincere, or you're not out of place, you know what you're doing; impress, intimidate, trick, act natural.
*Imagine* futures, pasts, and impossibilities; recognize patterns; express yourself creatively; take part in ritual; understand and humanize.
*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; get hunches or gut reactions.
*Fix* a broken tool; sabotage, hack, modify, or build something; treat a wound; understand & diagnose a complex system, technological or social or ecological or otherwise.
Spooky: You have these uncanny extrasensory hunches. Choose how they manifest: gut feelings, instinctual response, tingling skin, intrusive thoughts, foreign memories, ____. Push on this to scan for or imagine things that you couldn't possibly know, or to act on intuition more than practice when you should be out of your element.
Hardened: You don't remember how many people you've killed. You try not to think about how many times you've almost died. You're afraid something about you is broken beyond repair. Push on this to face down battles and other threats that nobody should be able to survive with calm bordering on disinterest, to intimidate or threaten people, or to withstand unreasonable injury or strain.
Affable: You're altogether too charming. People want to trust you, want to like you, or just plain want you. Push on this when you're asking too much, when you're being reckless or annoying or nosy, or when you need forgiveness or mercy.
Genius: You have a terrifying knack for a particular skill (technology use/repair, piloting, marksmanship, dueling, politics, a field of study, ____) and a passion that is probably closer to obsession. Push on this to make it look easy, to make wild & intuitive guesses, and to attempt the impossible.
Already Dead: You have no real attachment to life, anymore. You've lost something that you're never getting back, so what does it matter to you? Push on this to act without fear, to luck your way out of disaster, or to take leaps of faith.
Unthreatening: Something about you comes off as innocent, or uninteresting, or harmless. Push on this to go unnoticed, blend in, or evade or brush off scrutiny.
Flexible: You just tend to be pretty good at everything you do. Push on this when trying new things, adapting to unusual circumstances, or rolling with the punches.
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 physical harm.
Cool is from Swagger, Imagine, and Lurk. Use it to resist NPCs reactions.
Sharp is from Focus, Scan, and Fix. Use it to resist system breakdowns, tool failure, or chain reactions.
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!
- start with the character options for the setting module
- 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
- they choose a perk
- 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
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 or singular solution. What are the obvious approaches, and why might they not work?
- Weird problems should have multiple ways to interact with them. At least 3? For each: how does it respond to it? What can it accomplish? What are the risks?
- give characters a limited, human perspective. they should have a simple, coherent ideology or way of thinking. What softens their heart? What hardens it? What is their default approach? What do they resort to under duress?
- 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 they need
- someone who could help, but lacks crucial information
Scan through this for every action until you get the hang of it. Name each risk that applies.
- *Is movement challenging or dangerous? Are things hectic or chaotic? (Physique)* They could get pinned down or separated.
- *Is there an immediate phsyical danger? (Physique)*
- *Could it end up taking valuable time? (Poise)*
- *Are they mis-applying, jury-rigging, overusing, or straining a tool? (Reason)*
- *Is there anyone or anything that shouldn't be left unattended? (Nerves)*
- *Could they fail to notice something crucial? (Wonder)*
- *Are any NPCs or threats actively pursuing a goal? (Wit)*
- *Are there any NPCs under duress? (Heart)* They might act according to their instincts.
- *Could this draw attention or make someone suspicious, alarmed, desperate, enraged, or distraught? (Swagger)*
Ranged weapons will have either have the close, far, or close/far tags. If you try to use your weapon outside of its appropriate range, you'll have reduced (or potentially negligible) effect.
Melee weapons will have a reach tag: most commonly reach-0 (hand-to-hand) through reach-3 (a long spear), though vehicles may use larger numbers. You only risk injury from a melee weapon if your action begins, ends, or passes through its reach. Otherwise, you risk them putting you inside their reach.
Similarly, you can only injure someone with a melee weapon if your action puts you within its reach.
An action can't force an NPC or a player to make a specific decision. Instead, you can do any of the following:
- convince them that something is true
- induce a particular emotion in them
- figure out what it would take for them to willingly do what you want
Generally speaking, the thing a machine does is transfer states. It takes power (fuel, manual, electric, ammunition, __), converts it into an output (force, motion, transferal, information, computation, __) while also generating waste (heat, emissions).
Just borrow from AW basically.
Speed, handling, armor, weight
Harm isn't a resource or anything like that. Instead, when you suffer harm, it becomes an immediate problem that may require an action to contend with.
1-harm: dazed, dizzy, nausious, winded. Will get better in a few seconds or minutes, ignoring it might mean reduced effect.
2-harm: bleeding out, blacked out, fractured or broken bone, vomiting. May get worse without help. First aid might get you back on your feet but healing will take days or weeks.
3-harm: spilled guts, braindead, multiple broken bones, failed breathing, heart attack. Without immediate medical attention you'll die; with it you're at best going to be conscious and able to limp along.
4-harm: immediately & irrevocably dead.
If you find yourself stuck, uncertain, or hestitating, you can always call upon your senses. Once per dot in a stat, you can ask "What does my ___ tell me?" It may tell you something new about the sitaution, offer its advice, or both. You get +effect if you follow its advice.
- in a bottle: a spaceship? a remote station/lab? a prison?
- someone who wants something desperately and isn't worried about fucking you over to get it
- someone you're responsible for who is a little hard to manage
- a disaster or two brewing in your bottle: alien entity? natural disaster? technological malfunction?
- a neat toy or three
- You pilot a small cruiser (for whatever reason)
- There's a dangerous macguffin
- You have a partner who is planted there who has a different plan for the macguffin than you
- You're both about to get caught in something that could be more pressing than your squabble.
- The macguffin is a person!
- A distress signal?
- A gray goo? Xenomorph?
- A hijacker?
- "her mother beckons from beyond the frail plane. The messenger has been waiting for your arrival."
- A mechsuit/spidertank?
- Alien consciousness slowly working its way into your mind?
- You are stranded in a barren waste in a small bunker
- Your ATV bike is dangerously low on fuel and has a broken [part]
- Your food is running short
- A severe sandstorm is approaching
- Someone in a spider-mech-thing is passing by
- You are riding an ATV bike across a barren waste
- TODO bike stats & info
- You have an important person riding on the back with you
- Twenty-One, a cloned diplomat, sent to negotiate and prevent the breakout of war
- it didn't work
- She is charmed by people who speak frankly and crudely with her, and resents being made to reflect on her bleak and utilitiarian existence.
- She defaults to following orders and to trying to get on people's good side. Under duress she will grow stiff and try to actively manipulate people and push their buttons.
- You were tasked with extracting her out of a battlefield
- The next safe town is a ways away. You might not have enough fuel
- might be able to stretch the fuel with careful use, or by going in and tinkering a bit
- Twenty-One is carrying an alien conscious which lives inside of thought & language.
- It only recently took root and is still spreading
- Talking to Twenty-One could result in being infected
- TODO how does it work??
- There's some sort of weird alien vehicle/structure you could stop at
- TODO what is it, who built it, what's interesting about it
- You're being pursued by someone in a slower (but better-stocked) vehicle. They have orders to capture the other person alive. They don't have orders about you.
- TODO who are they, what is their vehicle
- a first aid kit, 3 days' rations, a heavy AR (close/far lethal-2), a big knife (lethal-2 reach-1),
- Fight withstand swagger scramble
- Phsyique Swagger Poise
- Trained in heavy firearms, combat tactics, survival, first aid
- documents for a plausible cover identity, a concealed gun (close lethal-2), a long-ranged communicator (must be assembled & stationary)
- Swagger Wits Nerves
- Trained in espionage, close-range martial arts, light firearms, fluency in most languages and cultures
- First aid kit, mobile surgery kit, scalpels (lethal-1 reach-0) collapsable stretcher, medications (painkillers, tranquilizers, stimulants, antibiotics, etc),
- Reason Poise Nerves
- Trained in triaging & addressing most things that can go wrong with a human body
Average character: 4 approaches, 1 perk, 1 attribute, 8 stress (???)
Approaches: 3 then 2
Stress: 1 (start with 5, max... 15?)
Okay what if
*Heart:* Inspire or encourage someone; crack a joke; withstand pain (physical, emotional); make someone feel seen or included; show compassion, humility, charm, or zeal.
How are they feeling? [TODO]? [TODO]?
*Nerves:* Read the room; pick something out from a jumble; get reliable hunches, gut reactions, or premonitions; pick up on vibes; notice lies, misdirections, or small details.
What am I missing? What do I feel about this? [TODO]?
*Physique:* Run, jump, swim, climb, lift, and tumble; overpower someone or something; barrel through; carry yourself with power, speed, grace, or balance.
Am I strong/fast/nimble/graceful enough to ___? What's my best escape route/way in/way through? [TODO]?
*Poise:* Act under fire; take aim; hold your breath; keep your cool, your balance, or your dignity; avoid distractions; closely monitor or observe something; keep your cards close to your chest.
*Reason:* Fix, sabotage, hack, modify, or build something; understand & diagnose complex systems (technological, social, ecological, etc); treat a wound; draw conclusions.
How does this work and how can I fix or tinker/interfere with that? What's the most likely outcome of ___? [TODO]?
*Swagger:* Display confidence, bluster, or power; prove that you're sincere, or you're not out of place, or you know what you're doing; impress, intimidate, trick, act natural, or blend in.
Who's in control here? [TODO]? [TODO]?
*Wit:* Outwit an opponent; plan or strategize against threats; react quickly or instinctually; win battles, arguments, & competitions; cut where it hurts; guess intentions.
What are they planning? What's my best
*Wonder:* Imagine pasts and futures; recognize patterns; humanize, empathize, narrativize, internalize; take part in ritual; express yourself; dream; grapple with the unknowable.
What does this remind me of? What does this mean?
Possible: Trivia? Knowledge? Recall? Access? It'd be cool to have a sense to check in with that tells you Facts, but I don't know how to map that to actions.... (memory is a diorama, tug on strings, pattern matching improves it... is this connected to wonder? feels like the part that says "here's a potentially useless fact about ___" is different than the part that extrapolates and imagines new things, and similarly feels distinct from Reason which should be more focused on extrapolation and interactions than information... obviously you can use it to Memorize Something... maybe I could take close observation from Poise, that feels appropriate... also, distilling things down to the gist/key points... navigating databases, libraries... maybe there's something there?? pathfinding?
*Access/Recall/Trivia/Memory/Detail/Atlas:* Commit something to memory; dig through a database, archive, library, or cluttered pile; navigate a maze; retrace your steps; summarize or get the gist of something; communicate & receive information efficiently & accurately