On the Frames (Them Deeper Bones, design diary 4)

Them Deeper Bones is my OSR-adjacent retro adventure game. The current full text (as of writing, version a.8.0) of Them Deeper Bones can be found in google drive. In this diary I’m going to talk about Gameplay Framing, a thing that moved the project forward by a huge leap.

Flowchart. 4 connected boxes:“Downtime Frame (logistics) Action duration half a month (about 14 days). Long term actions. Company scale things.”, “Expedition Frame (hex crawl). Action duration half a day (about 8 hours) Traveling between locations. Detailed preparation.”, “Delve Frame (dungeon crawl). Action duration about 10 minutes. Travel at a location. Exploring a delve. Brain teaser puzzles” and “Tactical Frame (blow by blow) Action duration about 10 seconds. Combat. Time-sensitive puzzles”

First of all, this is not my original idea, as few things actually are these days. The place where I encountered framing presented similar to this was Ville Takanen’s Al Presa (link contents only in Finnish, sadly) where the game has 4 modes, ranging from freeform play to bullet time with rules of play for each. Al Presa is action shooter done in a more Nordic RPG style than where I was going, so I adapted the idea to fit a bit wider scale, where the Frames explore the differing scales the play happens in Them Deeper Bones. And second thing to note is, that this is putting into a flowchart and words something that I’ve been doing as a GM for a long time. Even if you come from D&D, the idea of 10 minute turns and 6 second rounds is something that you know.

What this Framing allows us as GMs and players look at an individual moment on the scale it deserves and give the players an opportunity to make decisions on the level that is interesting.

Let’s start from the bottom — During an adventure, there is a deadly rye ooze inching towards the characters. Because this is a tense situation and a misstep could cause a terrible death, we are doing things the Action Frame. The fighter could try break down the door, the magic-user cast the Enlarge spell to help them, and the expert might see if there is something they can grab before the group runs away from the room. We determine the order of initiative — every character acts one after the other (including the rye ooze) and the order is important, for if the magic-user can get their spell cast first, it will help the fighter break down the door right now. The position of the character in the situation is meaningful — if the expert is at the desk, they’ll be looking through it for anything to grab, but can’t react the bookshelf, so items there won’t be discoverable with their quick look. And while the door will eventually break from the fighter’s blows, what is important here is if this is the kick that will allow the party move to safety. The Action Frame is so very detailed that it takes longer for the action to play out at the table than it would in the few seconds it is in the fiction. Things are done at the “task resolution” level where failure might you don’t succeed right now, but it might be interesting to see if you do in a moment.

On the other hand, if we zoom out and look at this at the perspective of the Delve Frame, the situation is a bit different. First of all, we remove the immediate threat (that pushes the situation to the Action Frame to begin with), there is a discussion amongst the group, and the fighter’s player decides that the fighter will force the door open. This is an action and provokes a “ok, while that’s going on, what do you do?” from the GM to the rest of the group, and we can gauge the group’s actions in the same Frame. The magic-user’s player could say that they are casting Enlarge spell to help with the door and again, the expert wants to go through the room to see if there is anything of value there. As the timeframe for an Action here is 10 minutes, not 10 seconds, the actions happen more or less at the same time and there is time to co-ordinate things. So the magic-user’s action is still to cast Enlarge, but its effects will come to play in the attempt. The expert will go through the room, but it’s not a question of what’s immediately available where they’re standing, but instead what they can find in the 10 minutes or so. There would be discussion about where the expert is looking and if there is anything in particular they are looking for. This discussion will take a few moments, but since the Frame is different, the timeframes at the table and in the narrative pretty much sync up. And when the fighter tries to break down the door, it is really a question of if they can get it broken or not. A “stakes resolution” system of determining what’s the end result.

Then there are the two large scale ones. First is the Expedition Frame. This is the frame where we’ve zoomed out to overland travel and not even concerned about which individual tasks are completed, but how things progress in the bigger picture. The group makes decisions together and the Action they take in this Frame further their journey. We can zoom in to the Delve level if we encounter something interesting and want to play out what happens with it, but on this level we’re not even interested in what the exact location of the characters is on the map — just the hex they are in and how far along they are in moving through it.

And finally there is the Downtime Frame of logistics and long term play between adventures. This is the frame where the characters train, make hires, gather information and do other stuff that takes time and is not necessarily interesting as moment to moment play. As with the previous zooms out, at the Downtime Frame level, we can ignore the essential things from the previous things when it comes to location. A character can travel to the nearby village to meet a sage as a part of their Downtime Frame action and we don’t have to bother with the Expedition Frame stuff during this trip. Instead, things cost money here. This is the logistics level of the game.

This approach to gaming gives some and loses some things. One loss is the hyper-realism angle. We lose some of the numerical granularity by having the zooms be as drastic and abstracting as they are. “Why can’t my wizard cast all the spells during the Delve Frame Action when they clearly can cast a spell every 10 seconds in the Tactical Frame?” is a valid question, and one that has to be answered with either pointing that it’s how the rules work, or that when there is no adrenaline rush to get effects up, there is no hurry to do them either. If the situation calls for second-to-second accuracy, the game can zoom in, but that’s the GM’s call.

On the upside, the main adventurous challenge gameplay of Them Deeper Bones being a lot like escape rooms, and the Frame way of thinking allows us as players and GMs to bring focus on the challenges at hand on the level that are most interesting to us at each point, while also allowing everyone the chance to act equally. In an ideal situation, it should take the same amount of time to solve an Action at the table at each of the four Frames. While in fiction, the effects would be very different.

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