The Tightrope Transaction

“Tightrope” is what I’m calling my in-progress pulp action game. Right now I’m focusing the system on chase scenes and the theme of risk, specifically bidding and push-your-luck mechanics. I’m putting the core transaction here (transaction, as coined by Paul Beakley, is “the steps players engage in to settle outcomes in the fiction”), then I’ll roll out a few example scenes.

I’m working with a framework built from the Year Zero Engine with additional inspiration from Cortex Prime, FFG Star Wars, and Modiphius’ 2d20 system. Underlying all of it is the idea of Fate Core’s Approaches.

Doing the Thing

  • Who is acting? They have the initiative. What are they doing?
  • Who is reacting to the acting character? What are they doing?
    • You might have a situation like a race, where everyone starts off on equal footing and competes, rather than opposes each other directly. In such a situation, all sides are the acting character and roll at the same time.
  • Each character bids on momentum. This is how recklessly you’re driving, how aggressive you’re fighting, how much you’re exposing yourself in order to make that shot.
    • The acting character bids a number of d6 to represent what they’re risking. The reacting character may bid any number of d6s in response. If they bid more, ask the others if they wish to increase their bid, and so on until everyone is settled.
    • The character bidding the highest gets the difference in momentum added to their roll as bonus dice.
    • Each character’s bid becomes their starting peril pool. If you lose the exchange, your peril pool is added to your harm pool, which can take you out of the scene. The GM might add to the peril pool based on situational risks as well.
  • Make your dice pools. You start with a number of d6s equal to your rating in either Force, Daring, Wits, or Precision, and is usually between 2-6 dice.
    • You’ll have appropriate skill/talent/job dice. These will replace some of your d6s with bigger dice. You might have a d12 and a d8 in Driving, for example, so if you were driving with 4d6 in Precision, your final dice pool would be 1d12/1d8/2d6.
    • Add momentum dice if you won the bidding war.
    • There’s space here for bonus dice for situational advantages and assistance.
  • The acting character rolls their dice. Any six or higher is a success.
    • You can push the roll like in Mutant Year Zero, because that is a hot, hot decision point. Reroll any dice that aren’t ones and aren’t already successes. Ones on this roll are added directly to your harm pool.
    • By rolling first, the acting character has to decide if their total successes will be enough. Remember that if it’s a race, not a chase, everyone’s technically the acting character and they roll simultaneously.
  • The reacting character rolls their dice and may push the roll, as above.
  • Compare total successes. Use the highest single die value as a tiebreaker, granting that character one success. If it’s dead even, everyone loses and adds their peril pool to their harm pool as explained below.
    • The winning character spends the difference in successes to:
      • Add a die to an opponent’s harm pool.
      • Take the initiative.
      • Add a bonus die for their next exchange.
      • More TBD.
    • Add the losing character’s peril pool to their harm pool and roll it. Successes on this roll take the character out.
      • PCs and major NPCs mitigate harm pool successes by taking on conditions.
      • Minor named NPCs can’t mitigate harm pool successes.
      • Minions don’t even roll. Each die in the harm pool takes out a minion.

The Velocious and the Vexed

Vin and Paul are playing street racers out to prove themselves with one final stunt: a drag race across a train crossing. The GM adds 1d12 to the starting peril pool for both characters since there is an oncoming train, then nominates Vin to bid first. They could’ve chosen Paul; as it’s a race, both characters are considered to be the acting character. Vin bids 2d6 momentum dice but Paul immediately raises to 3d6. Vin doesn’t want Paul to get any bonus dice and so bids 5d6. Paul shakes his head and stops his bid at 4d6. Vin gets one bonus die added to his pool.

  • Vin’s peril pool: 1d12+5d6
  • Paul’s peril pool: 1d12+4d6

There’s a very, very good chance whoever loses this exchange is getting taken out.

Vin describes how he’s relying on his Charger’s raw power – he’ll be rolling his Force of 5d and swapping in his Driving skill of 1d12 and 1d8. Paul says how his Supra can beat Vin with split-second shifting while the former lets the horsepower make him sloppy. Paul will roll his Precision of 5d6 and swap in his Driving of 3d8. With Vin’s single bonus momentum die, the PCs’ dice pools look like this:

  • Vin: 1d12+1d8+4d6
  • Paul: 3d8+2d6

Vin rolls and gets 10, 7, 5, 5, 4, and 2. That’s two successes. Paul’s dice come up 6, 6, 5, 4, and 4. Two successes as well, but with the higher single value (a 10), Vin would win the exchange. Both players push their rolls. The crossing arms are coming down and that train’s almost to the tracks!

Vin rerolls the 4d6 that didn’t help him before and they don’t help him here. 3, 3, 2, and a one. Oh no! Vin adds 1 die to his harm pool and stands at 2 successes. Was his father right? Was the Charger too much car for him?

Paul doesn’t want to snort that awful peril pool so he rerolls a d8 and 2d6: 8, 6, and 3. He ends up with 4 successes. He spends his two successes to add 2d6 to Vin’s harm pool – the big guy’s at 3d6 now already.

It’s a close race, but Paul squeaks out ahead. Vin takes his peril pool and adds it to his harm pool and rolls 1d12 and 8d6 (!!!): 1d12 for the train danger, 5d6 from his reckless bidding, 1d6 from pushing his roll, and 2d6 from Paul’s successes. At least his poor dice luck follows him here: all those dice only roll two successes. Vin soaks one harm success by wrecking his car after barely making it past the train, then soaks the second success by taking a condition, the details of which I’m still figuring out.

But What About the Movie?

Sure, in the film it’s a tie and then Vin flips his Charger. Let’s say Vin and Paul push their rolls and end up with the same number of successes with a six as the high value in each pool. Both of them would add their peril pool to their harm pool and roll it. Paul would get lucky with no successes on 1d12+4d6, while Vin’s harm pool would’ve rolled one or more successes, taking him out like my example above.

The Mook Blender

My second example involves a player that we’ll call Keanu. He’s playing a retired assassin forced back into the life after personal tragedy, and he’s about to enter a darkened kitchen infested with four gun-toting goons. Keanu describes how he’s going to enter low and dart from one to the next, taking them out while shielding himself with their bodies. The GM suggests it could be Daring to do that, but Keanu says he was envisioning the stealth and tactics of using the floorplan to his advantage and would rather use his Wits pool. The GM agrees. Does the GM have to agree? It’s probably simpler to let the player say what they use and why, and only step in if the table calls shenanigans.

Keanu is clearly the acting character, takes the initiative, and bids 4d6 for momentum. He figures he’s got a highly-skilled PC and he wants to force the GM to bid up to keep him from getting a ton of bonus dice on top of his prodigious skill pool. The thing is, these are minions. Each die the GM bids will kill one of them if they lose the exchange. The GM sighs, says they see the game Keanu’s playing, and counters his bid with 4d6 in the minions’ peril pool. Keanu’s fine with that – he’s got 6 dice in Wits and a Headshots skill of 2d12+2d8.

  • Keanu’s pool: 2d12+2d8+2d6.
  • Minions: 2d8+2d6.

Keanu rolls and only gets one success: 7, 5, 5, 5, 4, 1. He’ll push the roll, rerolling the four dice that didn’t succeed or roll a one. He gets no extra successes.

The GM rolls for the goons: 7, 4, 3, 1 – one success! This is their one chance to actually put the hurt on Keanu and they push their roll. A 2 and a 1. That’s one dead minion before the roll’s even over. Keanu’s assassin twists one of the goons into the path of his comrades’ shots as the kitchen erupts into chaos.

The roll’s a 7-to-7 tie. Keanu’s 4d6 peril pool becomes 4 dice of harm and they come up 2, 4, 4, and 6. One of the kitchen nightmares slips a knife into Keanu’s ribs during the melee, forcing him to take a condition.

Now, the good news. The minions also convert their peril pool into harm, which is enough to take out the rest of the mooks. Keanu describes each mook’s death as he counts off harm dice: a mozambique drill, a ground execution, and crushing the last one underneath the fridge. Keanu’s bleeding character staggers downstairs to look for painkillers, leaving human ruin in his wake.

Killer GM

Once Keanu opened with a 4 dice momentum bid, could the GM have simply bid 8 dice or something equally ridiculous, knowing the minions were dead anyway if they lost? It’s definitely an area I need to patch. Should there be a maximum bid? Maybe secret bidding is a better option.

Apprehension

I like the decision points in this process. I like that there’s a lot of gambling and there’s not really much in the way of metagame resources to adjust the outcome. I want that element of risk. I do worry that it’s a lot of dice and that the transaction is complex enough to let narration fall by the wayside. I also think it degrades fairly elegantly, however. If you forget to bid, the process still works. If you don’t push your roll, you can still figure out successes. If you don’t spend those successes, you still know who won the exchange.

It’s time to get this in front of some people and just do some vignettes like this, see how it runs trying to teach it to multiple players.

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