Space Train Space Heist - Designers Commentary
How do you take one of the most popular tabletop games and mash it up into something new? Sam Dunnewold shares a designer commentary for the game Space Train Space Heist!
Hi, Alex here! I’m excited to share the first guest article on the Wait, Roll That Again! Substack, written by fellow TTRPG design podcaster Sam Dunnewold. Sam’s showis a real delight, and he’s kickstarting his third season!
Enjoy this fantastic breakdown of how Sam designed this game, and maybe you’ll want to write a designer commentary yourself!
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Hello! This is Sam Dunnewold, designer of Space Train Space Heist and host of the Dice Exploder podcast. Thanks to Alex for letting me share this designer’s commentary with you all!
If you’d like to follow along with the game at home, pick the game up on itch. It has ample community copies, and I encourage you to take one.
If you like this, check out the Kickstarter for season 3 of my podcast.
Space Train Space Heist (STSH) was a product of two things. The first: strong desire to run Blades in the Dark as a one shot at cons, while also believing Blades makes a bad one shot.
Why is that? To me, Blades is most elegant as a full loop: score to downtime and back and forth, looping around, having a ball, a snowball specifically, always gaining momentum, tumbling down hill. The XP system is one of my favorite parts, encouraging you to hit flavorful character beats.
But that whole loop is just a little too big and complicated for a new player to get their head around in one sitting, let alone experienced players to get all the way through in one sitting. It’s fundamentally a campaign tool. One a love, but still a campaign tool.
If you’re only playing once, there are so many pieces that you’ll never engage with and thus are bogging you down. Things that in a full campaign act as lift instead act as drag. It’s like you’ve turned the wings around on the plane.
I said there were two things that led to STSH though. So the second: the pandemmy. I was already coming off a period of my life where I hadn’t done a lot of creative work, which always makes me feel down (I’m in therapy, don’t worry). Lockdown anxiety made my usual creative work, writing screenplays, impossible because it felt too high stakes (I’m trying to do that professionally). I couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I turned to game design. Won’t it be fun to come out of lockdown with something to run at GenCon this year? He thought, in March 2020.
Anyway, lockdown was super depressing. For once I didn’t want to deal with the gritty themes of Blades. I wanted pure escapism. Cartoons. Something you could sit down at Games on Demand and have a gas with.
My goals were clear: strip Blades down to its absolute minimum, and make it as bright and fun as possible.
Aside: I don’t think enough people, especially in the fitd hacking community, make small (1–6 session games). I like small experiences and want more of them. Also if you make something longer, who are you expecting to play it? Barely anyone in this hobby full stop has time to play a several month long campaign, let alone longer. And if you make a game of that length, you’re suddenly competing with not just Blades proper, but most everything else Evil Hat puts out, most everything other indie publishers put out, and uh Dungeons & Dragons. Plus it takes way longer to make and then playtest a big game. Why not make something little? Something your dad wants to play with his non-RPG friends and their 6 year old daughter (one of my best playtests)?
Anyway, I want to both play and make little games. Another reason to aim for the one shot “bring it to Games on Demand” club.
With those goals set, the flavor and “setting” side of STSH were immediately clear to me. I wanted to match the vibe of “Superman vs Sonic the Hedgehog” pop culture mashups. Not like the Space Jam corporate crossover kind, but like the “2000s flash game,” “12 year old smashing action figures together” kind. I wanted Salty Bet, but with the color palette of Rainbow Road. I wanted, and indeed made, picklists with weird references to every fun thing I was into at the time. Vibes.
Mechanics took a lot longer. In a foolish move, at some point I trashed all my old versions of STSH (keep your shit, it’s fun to digitally horde if you have good organization), so I have to do most of this next part from memory, but I believe I started by asking “what makes a game FITD?” There’s a lot of conversations about this, and my preferred answer, much like with PBTA, is “I dunno, what do you think? Show me with your designs.” Stras (of Scum & Villainy and Band of Blades) has said position and effect are the core for him. Sure! But I feel like there’s a game that’s just Blades downtime but expanded slightly, lurking out there, waiting to be designed.
I quickly figured out a better question to suit my goals: what part of the core Blades experience, the thing I loved doing with my friends every week, did I want to translate into a con one shot? I landed on “the smooth as butter action sequences.” Like, come on. The name of the game is Space Train Space Heist. I zeroed in on the core action roll as I suspected that would be 90% of my game.
The thing I love about FITD action rolls is that they’re so so so good at facilitating a conversion about what exactly is happening so we’re all on the same page. Plus they slow down the scene to bullet time speed and let everyone really take in the drama of the moment. Position & Effect plus the various ways people can get dice give you a lot of control over how this roll is going to go. And then after all that build… we get to… THE ROLL!! The whole process naturally builds tension, and then very often snowballs into more action with that so-frequent partial success. Just great. That’s what I wanted to capture.
So: downtime? Gone. XP? Gone. Crew sheet? Gear? Harm? STRESS? Yeeted. It wasn’t my first draft, but even before the first playtest I’d cut the GM role because why bother. If it’s not supporting that core thing, why have it?
I am a professional editor for a reason: I like to make cuts.
The first action roll rules looked something like this:
1. Set effect (no position)
2. Assemble dice pool
+1d for an action dot (each playbook has exactly 1 action dot in a different action)
+1d for assistance
+1d for devil’s bargain
I knew I wanted people to be consistently rolling ~2 dice because I wanted tons of consequences. 1 never feels like enough, and 3 feels slightly too many for my Fiasco-esque approach to play and getting into trouble (i.e. it rocks). To consistently get to 2, I knew I’d have to offer 3 or 4 ways to get dice. I started with 3 because I wanted to really just load on the consequences. Keep the amount of dice low.
Next I wrote a playbook. I think they were called the Socialite at first, but they ultimately became the Con Artiste. I can’t remember which thought came first: “I love how easy Dream Askew // Dream Apart character creation is” or “does this game really need a GM? Maybe I should reread DA.” But anyway, DA character sheets are unreal good, so I stole those and reworked them.
I kept the “3 columns” thing DA does: blank column, flavor column, mechanics column. It’s amazing how good it feels to have a bunch of white space on a character sheet. My mechanics column was a bit more technical than DA’s, but that was basically the idea. I put the playbook’s action verb (later favored verb) at the top, then wrote abilities underneath until I’d filled up the column. Then I’d start another playbook.
Okay, walk with me for a second: remember Divekick? The fighting game with only two buttons: dive and kick? I’d always thought Street Fighter, Smash Bros, etc looked like interesting games. There was clearly an almost chess-like game taking place at the higher levels. But I did not have the skills to get there. Then Divekick comes out and it’s like, two buttons? I can do that. I played a buttload of Divekick. Game rocked.
Remember this controller? Omg.
I’m a guy who likes a simple system with deep emergent complexity. Coup is perhaps my favorite board game. I want, like, 3 mechanics that gel in interesting ways, and I want to dive 80 hours deep into all their intricacies. Then I’m interested in a game that takes those same 3 mechanics and adds a 4th. Maybe a whole 4th, maybe just a half a new mechanic. Swap out Ambassador for Inquisitor and I bet we can go another 25 hours.
This is especially true when I sit down for a game I’m not going to be able to easily play at home. Like at a board game party with friends. Or a 10 person party game. Or... a con one shot. When you hand me my one shot character sheet, I want it to look like a Divekick controller.
Think for second. How many times does a person really take narrative spotlight in a 2 hour con one shot anyway? 4? 5? With 5–6 people around the table, even 4’s ambitious, frankly. And I’m not really gonna use more than 1–1.5 abilities in any of those moments. So don’t give me more abilities than I can use. Give me just the goods. Let me slam dive, then kick, then divekick, then whichever one of those three was my favorite a second time. Then we’re done.
This is a long way of saying I wanted really really simple playbooks.
So back to playbooks. I’d made a list of heist archetypes to try and hit, but another piece of design tech I’d figured out was that Blades had all these cool playbook-based systems I wanted to cut so that people didn’t have to think about them (crew book, gear, flashbacks, rituals, XP triggers, etc). But what I *could* do was divide those systems up between the different playbooks.
Like, I didn’t want to have to explain gear to everyone. But the second playbook I made was the Gearhead (later the Gadgeteer). I more or less just transcribed the rules for gear onto the playbook, wrote “+1 tinker” at the top, and called it a playbook. And that’s basically how the playbook remained through publication.
Finally, before the first playtest, I knew we’d need to do some background setup before the heist. For party gelling, I stole DA’s “question to your left” but simplified it to basically be Fiasco relationships. I made some random tables for “why are you heisting” (originally everyone needed their own reason) and “what are you trying to heist.” I added on some instructions for setting up cars (“come up with NPCs or obstacles, I dunno”) and finishing the game (“get through 3 cars? That seems fair. Rule of threes it up.”)
I also really liked the idea of something like a theater warmup game to get everyone in the mood for playing. I remembered back when I first went to GenCon in like 2005, I spent the whole time in the card hall playing Magic. And the Legend of the Five Rings tournaments were the coolest. Before every tourney, every player would stand up and do this big battle chant together. All the Magic players would stop and just marvel and laugh and secretly be jealous of all these Lot5R folks bellowing out a war cry before sitting down to play cards together. I loved that.
Also, I took a couple levels in theater kid as a high schooler, so I knew how much fun warmups could be. Great for group bonding. I wanted all that, plus I wanted to set tone and convey my favorite safety tools. So I wrote the “How To Play” page’s Buy In section.
My first playtest went SHOCKINGLY well. It was already a blast to play, even if it was a little clunky. It felt like Fiasco + FITD action sequences. That opening How To Play thing worked perfectly. I think it was me who got stuck shouting “HYAHH!!” over zoom, because I remember the way my partner looked at me from across the room: exact same way I looked at the Lot5R players. I hope one day the GenCon Games on Demand room collectively looks at me the same way.
The mechanics needed a lot of refining, but when you end your session on a dragon with its head stuck in the entrance to a fancy train dining car breathing fire and eating table cloths while the Train Police are trying to grease it up to unstuck it and the PCs escape out the side door, you know you’ve got a winner.
I did probably 12 playtests, each leading to fairly minor changes. Here’s generally what happened:
Locking in the Action Roll
Position and effect I scrapped after one playtest. The whole dice roll conversation I wanted from FITD dice rolls didn’t need them. Yeeted.
I did realize I should be offering 4 dice for action rolls. In a game that was supposed to be bright and fun, it just made more sense to give people more dice. Plus, 3 is just a more satisfying number of dice to pick up than 2. It feels like a full grip. Mmm, yeah.
I had to decide on what things should offer dice. This was super important now that P&E were out, as this was the whole conversation now. Here were the options I was choosing from: 1 favored verbs (aka action dots), 2 luck dice (see below), 3 fool’s bargains (aka devil’s bargains), 4 assistance, 5 free die on every roll.
I stumbled on Luck Dice by my second playtest, a combination of Scum & Villainy’s gambits, DA’s lures, and Night Witch’s mission pool. They immediately rocked and basically never changed. My biggest problem with DA has always been that it’s a big mental load to keep track of everyone else’s lure (what, you mean I can’t just dive and kick, I have to pay attention to everyone else’s dives? Head hurt.) So I tried to keep luck die triggers to things you would trigger or prompt others for rather than something they needed to track.
Luck dice were locked in. So were favored verbs. I originally came up with the “describe a cinematic detail of what you do for +1d” mechanic as the Space Cowboy’s favored “verb,” but it played so well I eventually just gave it to everyone as effective a free die. That left bargains or assistance as the final die.
I went back and forth a lot of times, but eventually decided on bargains. I just wanted more consequences. If people want to flavor themselves as assisting, great, but bargains are where it’s at. Love that mechanic.
Locking in the Playbooks
Playbooks went through some tweaks, but few were truly tough.
Con Artiste went through a bunch of versions of abilities of the form “pay a cost to introduce an NPC that might be helpful.” Forex: “you know someone here; how? What favor do you owe them?” Eventually I gave them flashbacks instead and leaned more into the Ocean’s 11 heist feel, because…
The Space Cowboy was the trickiest playbook to crack. I knew I needed a playbook called Space Cowboy because Cowboy Bebop is great, so is the song Space Cowboy, those were both great push-pins on my red-string covered pop culture corkboard, and the playbook name “Space Cowboy” is hilarious. For a while the whole playbook basically rode on the “describe a cinematic detail” favored verb thing, but when I gave that to everyone, I needed something more. I found the idea of “white hat vs black hat” and loved it, but still felt like I needed one more mechanical piece. Finally I figured out a way to skin the Con Artiste NPC abilities I’d been playing with as a “mysterious past” thing and gave it to the Cowboy. I think it works.
The Space Wizard was basically untouched from my first draft. I was inspired by some OSR one shot I played in for the magic system, but like, not super heavily. Listen, if you want to Eat Lasers, just say you’re doing so and roll, who am I to judge.
Also no one ever picks anything other than the relationship ex-bandmates, which is fine because ex-bandmates is a great joke, but it does mean that the whole game has a very stoner rock and roll vibe to it that I didn’t originally intend. I sometimes wonder if this is actually a design mistake. “Ex-bandmates” sets the bar for what I want every detail in the game to be, but the bar is too high. Not everything else can meet it. So instead of being one option on a pick list, it becomes an immutable fact about the world. I dunno.
The Hooligan was tough. I had a couple of nice simple abilities that did not fill that mechanics column on the sheet, and I could not figure out what else to add. It felt like I was only giving people dive and no kick, too simple even for me. Eventually enough playtesters told me that they felt sufficiently mechanized, and that they liked the option of playing something totally dead-brained, so I gave in, stopped trying to fill in an extra blank, and filled the space with example consequences. Some people just want to dive, not even kick, and that’s beautiful.
The Egghead came from a place of “can I make a playbook whose power is having narrative control over the object of the heist?” The answer is a resounding “maybe!” The Egghead never really changed, but I’m not convinced the playbook is a success, either. But regardless of the mechanics, people know what to do with a playbook named “the Egghead.” They act like an arrogant prick and get their comeuppance. That probably means I succeeded.
Gearhead never changed, but it was fun to write the equipment list. “They’re friends” is always a hit.
Other Mechanical Odds & Ends
The one mechanic that was added after a few playtests and survived all the way until a post-release rules patch was Wallops. This was my answer to harm: if you take a consequence, someone else grabs your sheet and changes it somehow. A mechanic shamelessly stolen from Oh Fuck, It’s Dracula! The idea was after a whole heist you’d walk away with a character sheet covered in scribbles from other people. I thought that’d be real neat.
A few problems: in a con one shot, there’s a big safety issue with a stranger writing something on your sheet that’s now canon. Didn’t like that. Second, as I predicted, people just didn’t make a lot of rolls, and they succeeded on half of them! So you’d walk away with like two wallops. Meh.
I tried making them mechanically relevant by saying “the first time a wallop comes up later to your character’s detriment, the group gets a luck die.” This helped, but not enough. They felt superfluous, so out they went. I bet they’d fit a different game pretty well, though.
Other stuff: there are random tables for heist objects and NPCs in case you need them, but most people just pick something to heist and never look back. I have a bunch of text in there about how I facilitate the game. It may or may not be necessary, but I’d like to think this could be a “new to RPGs” game, so I wanted to include it. Sounds like it was useful to some friends of mine, new to RPGs, who called me up one day to tell me they’d played and had a blast.
I added some safety tools: I like Watch The Trailer a lot. I came up with it myself as a genre thing, but I’ve now seen a lot of other games with similar tech, even calling it something similar. It feels more on brand than lines & veils while accomplishing about the same thing. I think it’s a good tool not just for safety, but generally for foreshadowing and setting expectations. I also like how it fits into the flow of that initial mood board / group warmup routine.
I never got all the way happy with the flavor background setup procedure. People just regularly get to that first car and are like “there’s a wedding in here, but no conflict I guess? Do we just walk to the other side?” I think that’s actually a pretty common pbta experience: the first session is slow. There’s not an obvious kick in the pants from the jump. I wish I’d cracked that.
Writing this now, I just came up with the idea of introducing characters by picking a leader and then doing a quick “leader comes to recruit you for one last job” scene with each other PC. That’d be neat.
I also considered doing a “second edition” that scrapped the FITD roots entirely and went for a simpler 2d6 PBTA model. Streamline streamline streamline, my brain shouted at me after every playtest. This would be another way to streamline! But I eventually decided it would be too much, even if I think the joke of putting out a second edition of a game like this is almost worth it. I mean the longer that subtitle gets, the funnier it is. Maybe I should put this out just to update the flavor background setup procedure with that one last job framework.
I almost forgot about the graphic design! This was my first foray into design for non-moving images. I think it shows? I am self conscious about it, at any rate.
I picked the pure CYMK color scheme immediately; it was practically part of the setting. Then I tried to minimize the number of pages and increase the font size as far as I could on each page to make things as easy to read as possible. I don’t like all these one-pager games with 6pt font. If you can’t fit your game on one page with a legible font, I refuse to admit that it’s really a one page game! (It totally is, and you should be proud of it, I’m just gonna grumble about it not being my taste.)
It went okay. There’s too much text on every page. Hard not to be when your art budget is “hey Travis, can you make one piece of art for me for free?” Maybe I should’ve just put in larger margins. The rules need more white space. The character sheets are too busy, even after stealing DA’s very clean feeling sheets. Visual design, turns out, is really hard.
I like the fonts though, and a lot of the color coding I did, and the rollable tables. Pretty proud of the google sheets, where your tools are limited enough that the visual design is only ever going to be so good in the first place, so functionality can take a lot more of the center stage. I’m more experienced at spreadsheet functionality than layout.
I dunno, maybe some day I’ll take a crack and re-laying out the game. That would more or less amount to a full redesign because of how much I wrote and designed to the layout. I tried once and didn’t get very far, but maybe I’ll try again. Putting on a podcast or twitch stream and just pushing pixels is very relaxing for me. I have since found this great article about RPG layout and design, so maybe I put some of this into practice and come up with a less-busy text.
Even if I remain self-conscious about it, I really enjoyed doing the layout, and I hope to do more in the future. I think my subsequent releases have done a better job (though in those I more blatantly stole from the games I was writing supplements for). I’m sure this isn’t my last release, and presumably the next one will look a bit better. That’s how these things go!
Overall, I’m really proud of Space Train Space Heist. I once heard Jason Morningstar say that a well designed game should create a pretty similar experience regardless of who’s running it. I think I… 70–80% agree with that? Maybe more? But I 100% agree with it when it comes to what I was going for with STSH, and by all accounts, by which I mean the literal accounts of people in my itch comments and reviews, I very much succeeded. By the same metric I also succeeded at my goals of making a game that keeps roughly the same action roll technology of FITD while feeling quick and breezy and fun. It is, indeed, a gas.
A player in one of my weekly games always jumps at the bit to suggest STSH whenever we have someone missing and need a one shot. That in itself is perhaps the highest praise I will ever receive on anything I ever make, and someone once said of one of my short films “it’s like somewhere between Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a Murakami novel.”
And yet, I never once talked about this thing on the internet. Because I’m bad at marketing.
Not bad for a first game!
I wrote everything above this in 2021 after calling STSH totally done. Since then I’ve included it in a few bundles, and it’s got about 5,000 downloads on itch. At least two actual plays have been done of it without me being involved. It’s arguably my most successful work as a game designer. I remain proud of it even as I see the edges more and more clearly with time.
I still love designer commentaries on games. You should do one for your game and send it to me.
And if you want to hear more from me, you know what to do: Dice Exploder season three Kickstarter.
Thanks for reading, and thanks again to Alex for having me!
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