Making the heat system work

I have played a couple of campaigns of Blades in the Dark now. One where I was a player, and another in which I wrote and ran a huge sprawling campaign. Both times were very enjoyable. However, my RPG group has a couple of problems that make it hard to pitch a return to Doskvol to them.

I want to talk about one of them in depth in this post. That problem was with the way heat was handled in the game.

The problem my players had was how boring heat was. They tried as hard as they could to avoid it, and never got above 7 for a score. Then they easily spent 2-4 downtime activities to get rid of all of it. This meant that their wanted level never went above 0. This meant that their entanglements were never that bad, and also meant that the blue coats and other enforcement agencies were never a problem at all. I found this to also be the case when I was a player. I would consistently spend my two downtime activities on reducing heat and indulging my vice. Then if I felt like it I would spend a coin for another activity.

We all looked at the fancy entanglements and the system for going to prison and we all scratched our heads. Why did John Harper, a designer we all admired, spend so much time and effort on a system you were so obviously incentivized to avoid like the plague?

Now, I can understand if you are telling me that your players don’t reduce heat and just let their wanted level go up, as they are following the directive to play their characters like they stole them. But I would counter with the argument that there is no incentive to play that way, and players the world over don’t do bad things to their characters unless you give them the right incentives.

Is my group misunderstanding the heat system? Or is it set up to incentivize keeping your wanted level as low as possible? If it is set up to be boring, what should be done to make it more dynamic? Should going to prison come with bigger upside? Should heat be harder to reduce? Or Should the heat system as a whole get a revamp in favor of something more fickle and harsh?

Tell me what you think.

Are you letting your players reduce their heat before rolling entanglements?

I’m also curious to how safely your crew plays it. Do their scores ever go south badly? Have they ever been left so tattered that even after paying for an extra downtime they’ve still got a level 2 harm? How narratively do you play entanglements? I once had a low heat Rivals entanglement drive my players to decide that enough was enough and they needed to wipe those upstarts from the face of the earth.

Definitely not letting them reduce heat before entanglements, however, with 2 dice and take the lowest, they get the easiest entanglement a full 3/4 of the time. Even then, you can pay off almost all of them with Coin (which my players did right away without any thought). The worst results only happen a paltry 1/36 times, probably never going to happen in a campaign.

Now, I agree that I could twist the system a bit and make the idea of pay offs feel really bad for my players, like having a rival gang be so mean that they feel like they could never pay them off. But, that is stepping outside the rules to create the correct feel, if you just follow the rules, or if the players decide to be realistic about the situation, they should almost always just pay the piper and treat it as the cost of doing business.

As far as how safely my crew plays it, they have gotten harm plenty of times, but because they are good at managing heat they have plenty of coin and downtime activities left to deal with that too. These other things I could talk about in my other problem with the system (Power ramp is too fast and too strong). I will open a second thread to talk about that later.

The same issue crops up with training. If players aren’t forced to juggle priorities in downtime, they’re liable to spend downtime moves training, quickly resulting in overpowered protagonists. In general, what I’ve found is that, if your group consistently uses downtime to completely reset, or surge ahead, the solution is to give them more problems to deal with between scores. Wounds for example. The system doesn’t force you to deal them to the PCs, so it’s easy to go multiple scores without anyone needing to heal. But one benefit of wounds, from a game balance point of view, is that they can force players to make priority decisions during downtime. And if they don’t heal, then the odds of more complications piling up during the next score increases.

Or you can set up a score that requires some long-term project work, and put a deadline on when it has to be done, so that they’re using those moves to work toward something, rather than constantly using them to avoid complication. Which is what Heat leads to, after all: complications that can then be played out as more story.

Of course, you don’t want downtime demands to pile up so much that the players feel overwhelmed, but the game is built to force prioritization in downtime—that’s why players only get two moves per downtime, and one during a gang way—while being flexible enough for wardens to adjust those pressures as needed.

I would be much more Okay with downtimes if you couldn’t pay coin for more of them. I found that my players would spend their downtime resetting, spending as much coin as was necessary to do so, and even being willing to spend one coin training. As you said, they quickly became too powerful. I personally accounted for this when I was writing my campaign and just ramped up their problems (to a frankly absurd degree).

My problem with the system is this: It has no easily applicable system for ratcheting up the pressure and making you have to prioritize downtime activities. If your players do a score well, they get very little heat, and don’t get hurt, they get a bit of stress, but not so much that they can’t deal with it. They then spend their coin and downtime activities on power ramp (because they are no fools). They then insure fairly quickly that scores go down easier, it quickly goes from grimy and dark to pulpy and light unless you power ramp with them, (Which leads to absurd situations.)

I think heat is at the beating heart of this problem. It is too easy to shed it, which means that you always have lighter entanglements (because of rolling two dice and choosing the lowest) lighter entanglements and less heat create free time during downtime, and that is where the danger lies for the delicate power balance of the game.

I propose that we theorize about what could be done to keep the pressure up. How do we make a system where the players are forced to make harder choices. Because without an arbitrarily mean move from the GM, it seems like the power ramp is a natural state of BitD.

It’s possible that I experienced this problem less simply because the scores my crew ran were less lucrative—in part because my players were more interested in resolving their characters’ narrative arcs, and in part because I was more interested in throwing plot complications at them than offering up juicy heists. And it probably helps to start out that way. If a crew succeeds at enough coin-making scores early on, that sets up the situation where they can just spend their way out of most complications. The really lucrative scores tended to be season finales or mid-season peaks, with a bunch of smaller scores between that were about setting up that big haul.

Lets talk over the economics of a few standard scores, and maybe I can understand where my problem lies.

My first problem might be that my players tended to always try for a stealthy low impact score. They would prioritize low heat whenever possible.

Lets take the first score of my sprawling campaign. My PCs choose a cult, and realize because of our last campaign that coin is all important. The two upgrades they choose are offertory and vice den. The first score is the traditional heist from a gang as suggested by a rival gang. This time the dimmer sisters ask the PCs to steal from the Reconciled. It was a little chaotic of a score, but because they had chosen a stealth engagement and they succeeded very well on the way in they had little harm done (they had a little bit of a chaotic exfil though) 5 heat is generated (4 from the chaos 1 from a well connected target). They get through with 3 coin left over after paying off the questioning they get, They would normally have 1 but their offertory gives them +2. They spend 3 down time actions getting rid of heat. After heat hits zero they roll two dice and take the worst for their vice den (they get a 2). They spend 4 down time actions on vice. They then spend the 5 coin and 1 remaining downtime action (it is a 4 person crew) to power their PCs hard. Even if they had gotten busted up pretty bad, they had the coin and downtime to deal with it. These are obvious upgrades that are available to almost every crew. I had even shafted my crew with only 4 payoff on their first target and made it smaller than standard. With 2 more coin they could have gone even harder.

Give me an example of a standard score for your campaigns and how you manage to make your PCs barely eke by. I am honestly interested in figuring out the economy of the game.

To be a rules lawyer here, the offertory and vice den are claims, not upgrades. They’re supposed to be things you go on scores to claim, not get for free at the start

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I don’t think that is being a rules lawyer. And it would have definitely helped in my campaign, but I think it just pushes the problem a couple of scores down the road. Very soon your crew will make tons of money per score, the individual scores are not that likely to get them a wanted level by themselves, and the coin from the scores is easily converted into ways around entanglements/ lower heat. Why would a group ever let the heat get to another wanted level? If the coin in the game were throttled and the heat went up just a little we could easily get a spiral that felt more desperate. As it is, it feels much more robust. Should we just always only pay 2-4 coin for a score, and never let the PCs get the +coin claims, or is there some other way to keep them from power creeping?

I don’t think that’s unreasonable for an initial score. Unless things had just gone hilariously sideways, I wouldn’t want the players getting too banged up right off the bat, and having a downtime to work off all the dings is fine. The second score, on the other hand…

(I should maybe mention that I didn’t come to role-playing via DND or related systems, so dungeon crawling for loot is very much not in my GM DNA. I’m very much on the storygame end of the spectrum, and that’s reflected in how I run a game like Blades.)

Your players choosing Cult as a crew playbook seems like a good opportunity to offer fewer big hauls. Presumably, they’ve got some arcane god to appease or incarnate or something to that effect, and you can plant all sorts of seeds around that. They need the desiccated foot of Ahr-Baal for their ritual—that sort of thing. If they don’t already have a narrative explanation of what their cult is after, you should talk that out, either in character or just as a sidebar.

I’m about 4 months out from the end of our previous season, so I don’t have any particular scores in mind, but generally speaking, what kept my players from having free reign during downtime was a combination of stress, wounds, and prep for long-range scores. Stress I’m always pushing. Every time they get an iffy roll, I remind them they can nudge the results in their favor, but they’ve gotta take stress. And if they don’t take the stress, then the complication sets things up to get worse. Maybe they get a roll that bails them out. Or maybe the get a worse roll and have to take a wound.

It sounds like your players are pretty cautious, so my guess is that they consistently choose actions that play to their strengths. So the first thing I’d do with a partial success or a soft failure is push them out of their comfort zone. Put them in situations it would be difficult to get out of using their preferred action scores. That sets them up to take more stress or wounds.

My two cents.

To me, Heat is another tool in the box that builds the fiction. The mechanical events that happen via entanglements are fine and can be hand waived most of the time, but each entanglement should cause ripple effects that stick around. Just because the crew paid off the Blue Coats doesn’t mean that that file sitting on a desk somewhere just goes away. I always ask myself who the mechanic affected and how it relates to their disposition towards the crew. Sure, maybe the crew paid off the Blue Coats and now they think they’re in the clear, but maybe they pissed off a couple of coppers during the transaction, or maybe those same cop partners see an opportunity to bleed the crew for even more coin down the line. Give those coppers names and viola, two new NPC’s I can use to put pressure on the players.

And, of course, entanglements don’t just apply to Blue Coats. They can relate to other criminal factions, powerful individuals and supernatural entities. Sooner or later they are going to catch the attention of a demon. Sure, they’ll probably just satisfy the mechanic that takes care of the initial entanglement, but that demon doesn’t just go away. The crew is on it’s radar now, and that is pure plot gold to me.

The Heat system is as abstract and boring as you want it to be. Every entanglement has the option of simply paying the coin or losing the rep, or what have you, OR you can zoom in on the situation and role-play it out, which generates NPC allies and enemies, all with their own agendas and potential axes to grind.

As SymbolicCity pointed out, it sounds like your players are very cautious and do everything they can to avoid heat. So it’s your job to put them in situations that turn that heat up (so to speak). One of the easiest Devil’s Bargains to offer up is a simple +2 Heat. They should be pulling scores against high profile and well connected targets (+1 Heat). They should be pulling off scores in hostile territory (+1 Heat). And remember, if killing was involved in a score -even if they didn’t do the killing- that’s another +2 Heat. And if you can push them into a war with another faction, not only do they take +1 Heat during payoff, but they each only get a single free downtime activity. And you don’t have to be the mean, manipulative GM to put them into these positions. The game does that for you. The system itself generates complications, any one of which can push a PC towards killing a guard or the crew angering another faction to the point of war.

You wondered if maybe the economy should be toned down to 2-4 coin per score. Honestly, I think the suggested book payoff for scores is a little stingy. I regularly pay out 8-10 coin for a score and my PC’s still end up having to take money out of stash to pay for more downtime activities. In my own recent post I talk about my current crew having ridiculous amounts of coin. Recently they earned 48 coin in a single session from two scores and their coin generating claims! With four players that came to 12 coin per player! And yet they still wound up spending almost all of it to recover wounds, get rid of stress, replace cohorts, get rid of Heat, and work on about a dozen long term project related clocks they have going on.

My point is, the more you complicate their lives, the more things they have to spend coin on, and the less easy it becomes to simply knock off all their Heat. And if you can really take advantage of when things go sideways during a score it should be relatively common for their Heat during payoff to shoot into a wanted level. At least that’s how it’s been for my players, although I will admit that they are generally a bloodthirsty bunch and have no qualms about using high explosives and leaving bodies in their wake, so obviously YMMV.

Finally, a word about Doskvol law enforcement. I think of LE in Doskvol as having three official branches: The Blue Coats, the Inspectors, and the Spirit Wardens. I think of most entanglements relating directly to the Blue Coats. They are the ones who are corrupt and easy to pay off. The Inspectors, on the other hand, are famously incorruptible, and that’s where things get interesting. Even if your crew is regularly paying off the Blue Coats and keeping their wanted level at zero, they are still committing crimes, and it doesn’t require an entanglement roll for an Inspector to take an interest in that.

For example: One of my crew carried out an assassination at a masquerade ball. While the PC doing the actual killing was strangling the mark he took a Devil’s Bargain of +2 Heat. In the fiction I equated that with the victim pulling a button off of the PC’s coat. The victim was a noble, so the Inspectors get involved in the investigation and the lead detective finds the button clutched in the dead woman’s hand. I named that Inspector, Drochack, and modeled him off of Beretta from the old show of the same name. Drochack is like a dog with a bone, and so now all of a sudden he’s showing up at random times to ask a PC “Just a few more questions; it’ll just take a moment of your time.” It got to the point where he had my crew seriously spooked. They couldn’t just kill him for fear of bringing down the wrath of the Inspectors as a faction, and they couldn’t just pay him off, so they were constantly working on clocks to frame someone else or otherwise throw him off their trail. The point is, law enforcement exists outside of the Heat system and you can use it to your hearts content. The same holds true for the Spirit Wardens. If your crew is a cult, it’s probably only a matter of time before they draw the attention of the Spirit Wardens, and that can bring on no end of headaches.

To answer your question: Should the Heat system incentivize the players to keep their wanted level as low as possible? I think the answer is, yes. But the overall game system tends to make doing that very difficult.

Should going to prison come with bigger upsides? I don’t know that there are ANY real upsides to going to prison. Usually it means sending some cohorts to Iron Hook to take the fall for the crew, which can sting, or it can mean one of the PC’s taking an extended vacation. I think it’s meant to be an undesirable thing, but it’s the price of doing criminal business in the Doskvol underworld.

Anyway, I’m sorry for going on and on. I just found your question very interesting. Good luck!

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Hmmm, I think we are having an establishment problem here. We are each trying to have fundamentally different arguments. It seems as if you are arguing that the system is fine, I have just not been implementing it correctly.

I am arguing for a systemic change to make the implementation easier.

Let me give you some background. I am a big believer in Robin Law’s essay “system matters”. My playing group has spent the last 15 years or so playing indie role playing games from “Apocalypse world” and “troll babe”, “Trail of Cthulhu” and “Blades in the Dark”. Right now we are considering our next RPG and “Under Hollow Hills” and “Spire” are both in contention, along with “Brindlewood Bay”. We haven’t played D&D in twenty years. We focus on story.

But we are also intensely focused on system. A project we have just finished is to play a list of games John Harper had said you had to play before you could understand RPG development. It had games with radically different systems on it like “inspectres” and “grey ranks”, and really hard to play themes like “Steal away Jordan”.

What we found over that long quest is that if you want players to make interesting and tragic stories, you needed to reward them for doing so. “Apocalypse World” gives you a prompt you don’t want, then rewards you with narrative rights; it says “tell me how you came to murder your best friend”. “Polaris” makes each player have a turn at being the bad guys and the good guys and the bystanders. “Montsegur 1244” confines you and then only lets you loose to die. Each of these gives the player a reason to hurt their character for the story.

“Blades in the Dark” does it right in so many different ways, but the heat system is always a no brainer: You should always reduce it to zero. John Harper has written a bunch of great RPGs, but this part of blades sticks with me. I want a dark tale like “The Wire” and I keep getting “Robin Hood.”

I can understand if I and the GM before me have just been too nice. But we felt like we were following the instructions in the book. We had done the same in “Apocalypse World” and gotten a dark and twisting narrative, but the same approach just led to very powerful PCs in our “Blades in the Dark” campaigns. We ended the first one after like 10 scores with the PCs retired in riches. My campaign was more elaborate with a sprawling narrative led by a look through artifacts of the past to understand why the dead were not going to the afterlife. I put a ton of work into it including an epic challenge at the end that I thought would maybe be too hard for the players. I had brought out maybe the biggest gun you can in the game. My players handled it like it was nothing.

I was still happy with the campaign, it took a ton of work and I produced some beautiful props and puzzles and genuinely intriguing drama. Convincing my group to go back to BitD is a big ask though. They felt like it was too low on drama.

My players are like any players, they don’t want bad things to happen to their characters. They will do so when put in the right frame of mind. All I am asking is if we have done enough with the system to do just that. I think in the faction play BitD does it just fine, but if I have one gripe it is that the heat system never truly gets interacted with. Players have to have a catastrophic score to get a wanted level. If they don’t get an immediate wanted level then coin and downtime just make it zero again, this seems like an under utilized system. Like in Apocalypse world, we should offer them a carrot to do something bad to their crew, which will make the game darker.

I certainly wouldn’t say you’re playing Blades the wrong way, but it sounds like you’re not satisfied with the way that you’re playing heat, so I’m trying to suggest a different angle that is consistent with the rules as written.

I don’t see it as a no-brainer. I see heat as an opportunity for more play. A rising wanted level is an opportunity for police chases and drug den raids. If a player gets nicked, that’s an opportunity for a prison scenario. Maybe they’re building alliances behind bars. Maybe the rest of your crew is arranging a prison break. It took me a while to realize that even reducing heat can be an opportunity for play.

To my mind, the thing to watch out for is an avoidance of play. If players are investing heavily in avoiding heat, it could mean that they’re just not interested in the sorts of play that mounting heat leads to. Or it might mean that they don’t recognize the opportunities more play. As GM, I see it as my job to figure out which is going on. If they’re just not interested in the narrative avenues opened up by the Bluecoats breathing down their necks, that’s fine: I’ll let them work off their heat, and if things get out of hand, I’ll play the consequences relatively light. But if I suspect that they just don’t see the opportunities for play in rising heat, increasing wanted levels, even a stint in Ironhook, then I let them know that letting their heat ride a little while the chase other opportunities isn’t the end of the world. Living with risk is part of what makes Blades fun.

Incidentally, you don’t have to plan out campaigns in Blades. Arguably, it works better if you just start out with a few plot hooks and let things build from the complications that arise while playing. By big campaign, for instance, started with the War in Crow’s Nest hook. My players had written some character hooks, so I gave them opportunities to build those arcs. They seemed to respond to the spooky stuff, so I made sure there were plenty of opportunities to chase down ghost oriented scores. Some bad roles brought in interesting antagonists. And all of this coalesced into a two-season plot where the crew sought revenge against a noble who got one of their family members killed, and ended with them turning his body into the vampire vessel for a ghost they had picked up in an early score that initially had nothing to do with that plot line.

Which isn’t to say that you have to play that way, but Blades is built to facilitate it, and I find it much less frustrating than setting up a big campaign only to find my players pushing in another direction.

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It’s really interesting how vastly different our experiences are with this game. For me, the system does exactly what you seem to be asking for. In the four or five long term campaigns I’ve run I consistently get The Wire, and very little Robin Hood.

It certainly sounds like you know what you’re doing; you have far more experience with indi games and esoteric systems than I do, so I don’t know what advice I can give other than my own examples.

I do have a couple of questions. Your overall experience with the game, beyond just the Heat system, has me curious. You mentioned that you brought out one of the biggest guns in the game and your players handled it like it was nothing. Can you describe that situation, because I have yet to see anything like that happen in all my years of running Blades. Did your players just have amazing rolls? Was it just crit after crit? Were they so incredibly clever that they outflanked every move your BBEG made?

Going up against a gun that big would suggest some Desperate/No Effect rolls so I’ve scratching my head wondering how that walked away from that with the ease you describe.

And how on earth did they retire in riches after ten scores? My current game is nearly thirty sessions long, and they are only just talking about retirement, not to mention that we’ve had two character deaths, and one of the surviving original characters has at least three traumas at this point.

Just to be clear, I am absolutly not saying that you are running your game wrong. You sound like you know your business. I’m just honestly curious about how our experiences are so completely different.

Question: Have you watched any of Jon Harper’s actual play vids? My favorite is the Roll Play Blades series, but the Bloodletters series is excellent too. Watching how he handles the Heat system might give you a better handle on how to implement it. It did for me.

In closing, it sounds like what you really want is for the Heat system to have some incentive for the PC’s to lean into it; for it to give them reasons to WANT wanted levels and possible prison time. To that, I can only say that the system reflects reality in that no criminal WANTS to go to prison. It is always something to be avoided.

And maybe you can further clarify what you mean when you say that the Heat system never truly gets interacted with. To my mind, the system always generates an entanglement that the PC’s must interact with. My take is that the Heat system, with it’s wanted levels and possible prison time, is secondary to the entanglement system. Entanglements are where you find those carrots that your crew might follow into the darkness once you see them less as mechanical asides to be paid off and forgotten, and more as plot hooks to further complicate the crew’s lives.

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So, I can talk a little about the campaigns of the past, though they are 3 or more years ago, and my son was born right around then, which makes everything around that time foggier.

But let me try to explain. I am not absolutely sure on the 10 sessions number, but it was not far off from that. The crew really prioritized coin and coin claims, and was easily pulling down 18-20 coin per score after the vice dens and +2 coin upgrades did their work. The numbers got out of hand quickly and the whole thing ended fast.

As for my own campaign, for the final adventure, I dropped a tier 6 villain on them. I expected the team to have to push themselves just to hold him off while they completed a huge magic ritual just to get their goal done before they were all killed fulfilling their quest.

That is not what happened, they wrecked that poor villain. It turns out there are a ton of ways to up the tier of your equipment and virtually make your crew super high tier. They were tier 3, but they fought and did almost everything at tier 5, some good rolls is all they needed.

As for the original topic of this discussion, I want to start by defining what rules are in a game to create.

I personally think Vincent Baker (writer of Dogs in the vineyard, apocalypse world, poisen’d, 1001 nights etc…) said it best :

As far as I’m concerned, the purpose of an rpg’s rules is to create the unwelcome and the unwanted in the game’s fiction. The reason to play by rules is because you want the unwelcome and the unwanted - you want things that no vigorous creative agreement would ever create.

The rules are here to create stories that are interesting that would not normally be created. Of course no criminal WANTS to go to jail, and I don’t WANT my character to have bad things happen to them. But with the right rules, those things will happen and I will be forced to do unpleasant things. But those scary moments are the moments of true drama.

With the faction game we can see a situation a little like this. Your status with different factions goes up and down depending on the complex interplay of the political scene and your own actions. We could be forced to choose sides as is the case in the standard campaign prompt.

But, lets say that I could use a simple downtime action to effect my status. We will call it diplomacy. Roll what ever skill you want and get +1 on a success or +2 on a crit with any faction in the game. This quickly makes the faction game have less teeth, I would never be at war with anyone I didn’t want to be. I would always have allies to get my assets.

I think that John Harper intended for heat to be a squeeze on the team, but it just felt like a chore. To get an outcome that I would normally never choose, we must bait my player into doing something bad/interesting for their character. The entanglements could and should be more like the faction system. Coin is not enough to avoid them. We must force the players to interact with the consequences of their choices instead of simply paying their way out.

The heat/entanglement system, as I see it, is an “extra drama generator,” there to add just that extra bit of flavor and chaos to the crew’s existence. Every once in a while, it’ll have a big impact, unexpectedly, or inspire the GM to push something tough and interesting into the story… but the real meat of a Blades campaign comes from the world responding to the crew’s actions. The faction game, their rivals, the movement of the world around them and against them (not generated randomly by the system, but engineered by the gm in response to the players choices). Heat is a “cost of doing business” that the players have to be aware of, and keeping it low is another thing (in the long list) they have to spend money on.
It does seem like the crew in your game had a lot of coin to throw around. In my experience is has taken a lot longer to grab all those coin-generating claims (each one likely involves a score, and RAW it’s usual to work your way across the claims map to reach them). If you’re spending all your time grabbing claims, you’re likely making lots of enemies (who used to own those claims), who will shortly be coming after you with their friends. That’s on top of your rivals, pressures from your ward boss, your local bluecoats’ investigation, and anything else you might want to be doing. (All of those other groups should be coming after the crew independently of the heat system.)

I’d really recommend watching some of Harper’s videos if you haven’t already. He talks a lot about the rules and features of the game as being like levers and dials the GM can operate in order to ratchet up or down the tension as needed. You may have a preference for the sort of game where a strict interpretation of the rules is meant to create a predictable level of challenge, but that doesn’t appear to be what Harper had in mind when he designed Blades.

Ok, I will happily watch some of John Harper’s real play examples, a long time back I watched on session he did, but that was not exhaustive. I will try to go to my play group with what you have said, and maybe we can get the game to where they want to go. Here’s hoping. We vote in a few weeks, after the current Cthulhu Campaign ends.

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