The Cost of Vigilance

Watching an episode of The Walking Dead made me realize just how anxious it feels to be vigilant all the time. And, even in less charged situations, it takes real effort to stay on guard. It’s easy to get hypnotized by the trail and just stare at the ground.

I’m looking for inspired ways to make this feel like a meaningful trade-off on the part of the players. What does it cost you to be on guard? I’m looking for something meaningful enough that players might seriously think about who is going to be on watch duty.

The_Tim had a good suggestion, which was being on watch was a Forte test (whether or not you actually see anything), failing leading to Ob penalties to subsequent tests.

(This should really be in Rim of Fire: Commentary - not Sparks.)

Forte test to resist fatigue is genius. It makes perfect sense, too - you give up sleep to be vigilant, so you’re sacrificing your health and well-being for the rest of the group.

Maybe a Health test at some point to resist getting sick?

Or Will tests if they’re on their own in the dark, to resist going stir-crazy. If the same guy is always on watch, maybe he starts becoming paranoid or freaking out.

This thread is inspiring me toward playing a character with a PTSD trait. I could see that as a natural evolution of this type of situation. Though, it may be hard to roleplay well.

First, start with scale: how often is danger actually looming? Make a roll and Let It Ride for the appropriate time period.

A roll might cover a week, or a day. Only if there’s completely imminent danger (“They’ll attack before dawn. The question is when…”) then I might consider more than that.

Second, I’d probably ask, “Are you doing this Carefully?” Carefully means staying on edge, and probably a +1 Ob to the Forte roll.

Failures might lead to things like increased Ob, or temporary Traits (Irritable, Clumsy, Sleepasaurus).

If you want to be extra brutal, make these Forte failures invisible to the person who has them UNTIL they kick off. (“Oh, you must have been more tired than you thought. You drop the lantern. Damn!”) Then players will be needing to make Perception checks on each other to check in with each other’s states (“No watch for you tonight. You’re barely standing straight. Go sleep.”)

That said, you should probably check in with your group to see if they actually find the issues of people management interesting. It’s kind of a specialized thing that doesn’t show up in most games.


I imagine this for games where the paranoid vibe is part of it—truth be told I’m tempted to start introducing it as part of the Burning Airships game, especially in the current setup.

Generally speaking, I think that it is only interesting in cases where you can expect there to be something going on at all times that is bad to miss BUT if you spot it early, it isn’t a big deal to avoid/deal with. Basically, early detection has a huge benefit compared to the cost of missing out. The counterbalance to that needs to be a way to make the weight of making sure you can detect things early a part of the game—I mean, this factor (zombies in the Walking Dead, crazy fallen elf cultists in Burning Airships, spiders in Burning Ahimsa, whatever) is a major part of the game that everyone signed on for. People should be on the look out for it, and it should have weight in the game.

In terms of when I’d actually call for the tests, I’d say that it seems reasonable to say something like 'OK, so you were up all night last night and now you’re the only one not injured, so you’re on watch again. Roll Forte Obs 2 to stay awake." A basic link test to the actual being on watch roll—you fail and you get the test to notice at the increased Obs for having dozed off, plus you’re not in a great position to actually act on it. Exceeding the Obs means that you are still pumped up, in fight or flight, and really keen to notice the threat.

Likewise you could have it be that the guy who has been on watch for days is forced to make a Will test right before a social interaction to see if they’re holding it together—or reduce them to a Will roll to set the Obs for someone’s social test against them, sleep deprived minds you know.

Again, it requires buy in to the idea of a constant threat that you can be on the look out for and do something about. If people aren’t interested in that edge, pushing it or trying to introduce penalties for neat color about who is on watch and a watch rotation and all that isn’t going to do anyone any good.

This I like very much!

I once played in a d20 Apocalypse game that had a zombie Dawn of the Dead motif. The way the GM got that sense of panic and vigilance was by ditching the rules for initiative. He would just bombard us with descriptions of what his zombies were doing, rolling dice and attacking us, and the only way we could take actions was by shouting out our Intent before he described his. Outside of combat, the same sort of thing. He never asked us, “What do you want to do?” Instead, he just described what was happening, described our experience, and left it up to us to be on the ball and declare our actions. If we paused too long, he’d make Something Bad happen.

He wasn’t a very great GM, honestly. But I did find that technique intriguing, although controversial. It really created a sense of “Must act NOW”, really made us pay attention to the GM’s descriptions and forced us to make split second decisions about things we barely glimpsed in the dark. I think a lot of this could be easily applied to a BW game.