Making Stress Squishier

Hi there,

I’ve been mulling over ideas for a rules-lite Blades hack. I’m wondering how I might build more narrative into Blades’ stress mechanic. I love how it works in Blades, but I am looking for ways to make stress feel stickier and more emotive.

For context, the setting is loosely inspired by the graphic novel DIE, with a dash of Veronica Mars. It stars a group of high-schoolers who find themselves living a double life in a strange and terrifying otherworld. The system is a mashup of Blades, Ghost/Echo, Paul Taliesin’s wonderful And Thus Began the Adventures of Eowyn, and the relationships in Belonging Outside of Belonging games. I’ve never done any design before, and I am wondering if you’d mind giving me your two cents on this overview. It went long, so thank you in advance!

Each session is divided into two phases: the Crew’s ‘score’ into the otherworld, then ‘downtime’ for family and group drama, family relationships, plotting, etc.

Instead of Stress tracks and Action dots, characters have a set of Traits (relationships, resources, possessions tangible & intangible) that each have a circle rating, showing how much Strain they can take. Traits are divided between our world and the otherworld. A character might look like this:

our world

  • my hardworking single mom oo
  • my childhood copy of anne of green gables o
  • my David Bowie playlist


  • my vixen spirit mask oo
  • the favor I did for the terrifying & pitiful Faceless Ones
  • the debt owed to me by the jealous & glamorous Empress of Mirrors

Whenever their character does something dangerous, the player declares a Goal. The GM declares a Desperate, Risky, or Controlled Danger (or, in the case of special abilities, chooses from a list) commensurate with the fiction and the Goal. The GM may also include an additional Danger.

The player starts with 2 dice. They can Risk any number of Traits, gaining a die for each Risk they take. Traits with no circles cannot be Risked, they are simply erased in exchange for a die. After the dice are rolled, players assign one die to each Goal, Danger, and Risked Trait, reading the results like this:

Results for Goal / Danger / Risked Trait

1 - 2: the Goal fails & the opportunity is lost / the Danger comes true / the Risked Trait gets 2 Strain

3 - 4: the Goal is partially achieved & the opportunity remains / the Danger partially comes true & the danger remains / the Risked Trait gets 1 strain

5 - 6: the Goal is achieved / the Danger does not come true / the Risked Trait gets no effect

The player decides where to assign each die. I like the tactical and narrative decisions that get made here. Do I Snap my special item and get a full success on the goal, or can I risk a partial success on the goal? Can we weather this danger partially coming true, or should I put my only 6 toward it? I also like how the player has final say over what’s possible for their character (it’s like giving them control of the Effect lever in Blades).

When a Trait has any of its circles filled, it becomes Strained. If a Trait with all its circles filled gets any amount of Strain, it Snaps. A Snapped Trait cannot be Risked.

When a relationship Snaps, players roleplay an Aftermath scene. They can decide whether to erase the Snapped relationship and create a new one, or decide how the relationship deepens or gets more complicated.

If a certain number of your Traits become Strained (5?) or if all of your Traits are strained, your character character has a meltdown and is knocked out of the current conflict, as in Blades.

Instead of earning a Trauma, though, they learn a Lesson about the world, their place in it, other people, or their own limits. Each Lesson is tied to our world or the otherworld. Meltdowns are how you advance, earning new special abilities and overhauling your Traits list.

When a character has learned enought Lessons (3 or 4?), they grow up and are no longer a part of the story. They narrate an epilogue about them finding a place in our world or leaving for the otherworld, depending on which world they learned more Lessons in.

Action will probably be more zoomed out than I normally run my Blades games. A blow-by-blow narrative would eat into player’ resources really fast. During scores and downtime, characters will have a few tools to clear Strain (I’m thinking a Lure, like in Dream Askew). There will also be some shared Traits from the Crew sheet, than any player can Risk.

But overall, I want the economy to be unsustainable and the arc of the game to be tragic (You can’t avoid growing up). At the moment, I’d like a narrative to run for 5 - 8 sessions, with the characters and the world changing very fast.

A few questions I’m having after typing it all up: Are there potential downsides to making the same economy cover Stress, hitpoints, and XP points? Are there mathematical issues that are going to sink this system? Or emergent behaviors to the system that I should know about? Are there FitD games that make stress more thematic? What questions do you have that I could take into the next iteration of this core mechanic?

If you made it to the end of this, thank you SO MUCH!


This reminds me of a book series I read when I was younger, but I can’t remember the name. A small group of teens find themselves in an alternate realm when they sleep - a sort of viking realm where they meet Loki and other Norse myths. One of the kids figures out how to join his worlds and things get weird.

My main feedback is on assigning dice. Im not convinced on this part, but maybe it will work better with a “zoomed out” method as you said. Are you rolling separate little pools for each Goal, Danger, Trait? That sounds confusing to interpret and will slow down gameplay. If not, it still sounds like a conversation I dont want to have every single time someone rolls. Maybe Im not imagining it in a streamlined way?

It also doesn’t feel like much of a choice. You will always assign dice to the Goal (or else why are you rolling?) The second dice either goes to Danger or Trait, so the only decision is “do I risk my trait or take harm here?”. Just simplify it down to that choice: when you fail a roll (or before the roll) the player gets to decide if the character or trait takes the hit. Not sure how Dangers/Harm works but I think this still holds.

Overall its interesting and reminds me a bit of Aspects from Fate and also a little bit Lady Blackbird.
Is there any built in world cross over with the Traits? Like when you learn something in one world can you write it in the other? Can you risk a trait from the world you are currently not in?


The biggest drama with being stressed is when one let it out on your friends and family. Drama is fun.

I think that your technique handles that.


Thank you so much for your feedback and questions! I’ve been mulling them over all weekend.

To clarify how the dice mechanics work, the idea is that you have a pool of dice, and then a list of Dangers, Goals, and Risked Traits, each of which will be assigned one die. Take the example character I included in the last post. She might be in a situation where her Goal is ‘Convincing rival factions to put their weapons away.’ The Danger is that the ‘factions remember her reputation as a coldhearted killer,’ and the GM decides to not drop another Danger that ‘stuck around’ from a previous conflict. She Risks her Trait “my hardworking single mom,” and narrates remembering how her mom would arbitrate conflicts between her and her siblings. She rolls 3 dice, and gets 1, 1, and 6. Now, she has to decide where that 6 goes (toward succeeding at the Goal, avoiding the Danger, or preserving her Trait resources for later?) If she drops a 1 in her Trait, 2 bubbles will be filled, meaning it won’t be as much help later in the score. She’s a Mourner, so if she drops the 6 in the Danger, she might get to erase some Strain for distancing herself from her violent past.

I haven’t tested this yet, but I imagine this system would focus on building pools, swelling toward the big, dramatic rolls. The players would narrate their actions and Goals, the GM would narrate the Dangers that get in their way. The players narrate how their Traits come into play. Other players might chip in with special abilities, Lures, etc. Then, once the situation has been painted, the player rolls. I’m thinking the GM might have moves like ‘cut away to another conflict right before a big roll,’ or ‘cut away after a big roll to give the player time to decide how they’ll assign their dice.’

With all that being said, I love your idea of wrapping Strain into the fail/succeed with consequence mechanics. It feels like it would make the pace really snappy, closer to Blades. I will write out those rules and try them out. I’m curious, do you think the process of ‘painting the scene’ before a roll would feel like a drag? Would it give players more space to describe and roleplay their characters?

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