Hacking a New Phase

Part of the brilliance of Swords Without Master is how simple and elegant it is. These qualities lead people to think that hacking it is as simple as changing the tones of the game. While this may be a necessary step, it is not sufficient. One must look at all the moving pieces of the game.

Having spent time doing so, I saw a void in the Phases that I felt needed to be filled in order to hit all the moods of a proper Western game. I wanted to create a new Phase to juxtapose the smallness of the characters against the grandeur of nature/the works of humanity/the unknown. This might be considered a sort of “Anti-Rogues” phase; instead of showing off against the background of the story, you are the background that the story shows off upon. For now I decided to call this the Lonesome Phase.

In the Swords Without Master Alchemical Laboratory Epidiah notes that each Phase serves both player and audience.

  • Choose the Perilous Phase when you are restless or in search of bloodletting.
  • Choose the Discovery Phase when you are directionless or in search of wonder.
  • Choose the Rogues’ Phase when you wish to wander and seek adventure.

So how does the Lonesome Phase fit into this? I would say:

  • Choose the Lonesome Phase when you wish to take a breath and show scale (grandeur).

A standard Six Guns Phase starts with a tableau of three cards in the center of the table. This tableau sets the tone to either Gritty or Polished and also provides oracular inspiration to the GM. For the Lonesome Phase, I think a tableau is likely to lead the GM off in a direction they may not wish to go. When you choose the Lonesome Phase you should already have a strong idea of what you wish to showcase – perhaps the hugeness of a canyon, the aridness of the desert, the hustle and bustle of the town or the eerie stillness of the haunted mesa.

To help show that the landscape is in charge, I wanted the active PC to have no cards; they would literally be at the mercy of other elements. While thematically appropriate, I am concerned that this may prove too difficult to pull off in practice. For the first attempt, every player who is not the active PC will get a card to interpret and create the landscape around that PC, who will then respond.

Let’s playtest.

– – –

What a glorious mess!

After trying it in play, I find a few things. Firstly, there needs to be a seed (such as the tableau in the other phases) to offer a jumping off point to the player. Without it the scene struggles to get started. This seed need not be for the PC; it could be something for the GM to use to paint the picture of the landscape or for the other PCs to add challenges or ask questions (see below). The widely distributed cards of the playtest made it difficult for anyone to have enough information to begin the narration and also make it unclear who should do so.

This brings up the point that the scene needs limitations on its scope. What kinds of things should and should not be said and who should be saying them? How much narrative authority does each participant have?

Questions could serve as good signposts to direct the narration. The PC could ask questions that the other players could answer with their cards, or the other players could ask questions of the PC (such as “how are you affected by the harsh and biting wind?” or “how does the swamp’s lack of potable water hinder your passage?”)

It’s very important to know when to select the Lonesome Phase. In our playtest, I was forced to select it in order to try it out and I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with it. This is the problem with playtesting something so context dependent. Having a good reason to choose the Phase would likely also help mitigate the trouble beginning the Phase.

Some more questions were raised during the playtest:

How do we know when the Phase is finished? How long should it run? Does everyone get one? What if everyone wants one and can’t have one?

These and other questions will have to be address at the next playtest!

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