Design Diary - Freeport (Previously "Unnamed Sci-fi Project")

I need a new project, and I have too many ideas for larps in my head and if I don’t do something about them I might just run something and then I’ll die.

So this is a way of me getting them out of my head and out somewhere they might be useful.

Many thanks to Idiot for the motivation and worked example.

Step 1: Design Specs

I have set myself the design spec of

  • Space
  • 3-6 hour episodes
  • Minimising barriers to entry
  • Something in the FitD/PbtA sort of phase-space
  • Focus on inter-personal dynamics, and significant choice-points,
  • Medium-density character-vs-character conflict

In the next few sections I go over these design elements


Good arguments for Space

  • It’s awesome
  • It’s not been used much in campaign larping in NZ
  • It supports low barrier for entry via
    • Nerf Guns are cheap, fun and easily accessed
    • Costuming for space is often seen as less intimidating than fantasy costume
      • See: Han Solo
  • It’s got a lot of room for “fun weird shit”
    • Time - relativity, experience of time vis a vis suspended animation travel, and shenanigans
    • Wormholes - endless possibilities
    • Aliens
    • Many other fun sci-fi tropes
  • It’s got lots of room for social discourse
  • Tropes are easy and fun
  • I am super interested in seeing what IRL tech I can apply to game problems

Arguments against Space

  • Boffer combat is weirdly out of place in space media
    • This cuts out a way of playing that many people enjoy
    • Not everyone digs a nailbat as much as I do
    • It cuts out a genre of conflict
    • Or maybe this space has swords. I dunno
  • Community venues are often wood (very out of place in space) or excessively… community.
    • This argument applies to nearly all larps though
    • Set dressing should focus on most bang for buck anyway
  • Space is big, is it ridiculous the player characters keep encountering each other?
  • Spaceship fights
    • Yuck. Shelving this problem for now
  • Bounce the graviton particle beam off the main deflector dish
    • The phase-space of problems gets weird.
    • Because it’s science FICTION then whatever we say goes, but because it’s SCIENCE fiction, there should be a logic based in reality and player cleverness starts to interact with “this is how i wrote the problem so you being clever doesn’t solve it” in ways that need careful attention (unlike magic).

3-6 hour episodes

There are plenty of people who want to play games but that find a weekend away at a scout camp to be

  • Just entirely unworkable given the rest of their lives
  • Too expensive
  • Just too unpleasant to make the game worth it

3-6 hour games can normally run in the $15-$40 bracket which makes them more accessible, easier to find venues for, lower barrier for entry.

It does leave the effort-per-episode quite high - my experience is that unless managed carefully the overhead of logistics can expand to be a significant fraction of that for a full weekend game.

6 hours is about the outer limit of what people can handle without a significant break, assuming that near-constant snacking is accessible.

Depending on the density of plot, 3 hours can leave too little time for “free roleplay”, which is something I definitely want to prioritise. (Adding to the spec list).

To be continued…


I am enthused by this project.

Some SF has swords. Dune has knife-fights, because weird anti-gun technology. WH40K has the ludicrous chainswords and power axes. Star Wars has its fancy laser-swords. And the Traveller rpg - presumably drawing off some fictional sources, but I’m not outdated enough to know what - is full of space marines with cutlasses (!) and nobles with foils. So basicly you can make swords a part of your setting if you feel like it. Or not if you don’t.

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There’s a great sentence: “Well, it does work like that in this game.”

If I decide this game needs swords, there will be swords.


Next two design specs:

Minimising barriers to entry

Things that create barriers to entry, or perception of barriers to entry, and how I intend to address them

  • Shorter time period of the game allows more people to make time for the game
  • Perception of being difficult to costume for
    • Publish ways to achieve suitable costume
    • Make (potential) non-human player categories easy to costume for
  • Cost to acquire game items required to play
    • Nerf are cheap, easily found second hand, or borrowed
  • Welfare
    • Explicit permission to take breaks
    • Snacks (to meet all dietary requirements) and drinks, and make them available very nearly all the time
    • Make room for players to come late and leave early
    • Mechanisms that encourage eating and drinking during the game (incorporate into poor life choices?)
  • Timing and transport
    • Yep
  • Technical difficulty and high power characters can be off-putting
    • Lots of ways to play

Something in the FitD/PbtA sort of phase-space

Specific things I want to bring in from Forged in the Dark or Powered by the Apocalypse style games

  • Focus on the Crew (from FitD generally)
    • A spaceship crew, written so that the relationships between the characters in each crew are important and not just interchangeable
    • Competition between each crew
  • Highly abstracted resource management (from FitD generally)
    • When resources have an explicit purpose and that purpose is something that both players and characters can choose to aim for and to value, then resources become a mechanism for choice-points, conflict and meaningful stakes that are not live/die
    • When resource management becomes a chore, players disengage.
    • Find a middle ground
  • A framework within which to make poor decisions (Vices from FitD)
    • That are fun to engage in
    • That have a point
      • Beyond “i have taken a disadvantage in order to achieve a corresponding advantage” or “drama for dramas sake”
      • Real people don’t make poor decisions because they want to make poor decisions, they make them because they seem like the best option at the time
    • That give people a framework to create meaningful conflict between and within Crews
    • That are not “there to be fixed”
  • De-emphasising stats (from PbtA generally)
    • Replace with context-dependent powers
    • Stress? (from FitD)
      • Interacting with Vices as in the original?
  • Valid ways to play in all 9 squares of the alignment grid
  • Space for characters to be gone for an episode and it be part of the plot, not just hand-waved away due to player logistics

Focus on inter-personal dynamics, and significant choice-points

This point is hard to articulate partly because prioritising those things is as much about what I want to leave out as what I want to leave in

  • I want the most important relationships that players have to be peer-to-peer, not self-determined-character-to-GM-written-character
    • Requires enough self-determined-characters to achieve them mostly talking to each other
    • Requires GM-written-characters to have minimal agency
      • Which immediately creates the problem of GM-written characters being dull to play, but we’re still in philosophy here, not practical applications
      • Alternative is to take a Reloaded/S&S approach where GM-written characters have a story at the same level as self-determined characters stories
    • Requires guidance at point of character creation to de-emphasise relationships with characters who aren’t other self-determined characters
  • The wants/needs of the characters should drive them into conflicts
    • Sometimes with other self-determined-characters, sometimes with GM-written-characters, sometimes with themselves
    • These wants should flow naturally from the fiction, not be focused on a live/die dichotomy
    • These wants should be achievable and meaningful to the players (not “I guess I want three blue buttons because it’s how this character was designed”)
    • Can interact smoothly with abstracted resource management and provide the resources with substance (“I want 3 blue buttons because I owe a debt and the guy I owe it to is RIGHT THERE glowering at me”)
  • Choice-points
    • Should occur often, of different scales
    • Should rarely be zero-sum, but should often have strong arguments from multiple character groups on the best option
    • Should not always occur out in the open
    • Should often be about relationships, meaningful resources, or poor life choices
    • Should often be about the future of the environment the characters find themselves in

Several of these points suggest that meaningful authority above the station of the self-determined characters should be elsewhere, absent, incompetent or nasty

  • Many of the points I have mentioned before start converging here that the obvious setting is a meaningfully isolated and/or frontier environment, where the encroachment of “civilisation” is inevitable but could be delayed by a generation with concerted effort

In terms of gameplay

  • A high proportion of “downtime” where there isn’t pressure to be doing something in particular
    • Allows plenty of time for interpersonal dynamics and to discuss choice points
    • No rushed decisions
    • Minimal need to resolve things outside the game
    • Time for characters to make their poor life choices without feeling like it’s disrupting “more important things”
  • Room for characters to dispute and for crews to break up and reform
    • Space for characters to have a meaningful “break up” which impacts their crew, without it meaning a character has to leave the game

Medium-density character-vs-character conflict

I specifically want to express this as character-vs-character conflict, rather than player-vs-player conflict. Players should be playing through a conflict together, not playing versus each other.

Resources provide a non life/death venue for conflict

The setting-focused significant choice points provide venue for conflict that have long-lasting impacts on the game

Poor life choices leave room for characters to have conflict about each other and those patterns

When the characters are making the most important decisions, then the conflict is with each other, not vs a faction

But only medium density

So crews must often have reasons to work together, and should have strong links between each other. Perhaps requiring self-defined-characters to have a positive link into a different crew.

Heists which work across multiple crews.

Means there needs to be substantial character-vs-environment plot - so not a wind-em-up-and-let-them-go Theatre-form design, more GM intervention than Reloaded/S&S, but less than World That Is/Dry Spell

Next steps I guess?

Step 2: Tone and themes
Step 3: Core gameplay loop
Step 4: Setting
Step 5: Skills
Step 6: Crews
Step 7: Plot structures
Step 8: Rules

I’m gonna do logistics last, if I ever decide to, because logistics is the bit I’m struggling with this year


:eyes: I’m watching this with iterest. Oh yes. If there are aliens in this when it’s done, I’ll probably like to crew one.

I love this…!

Not having downtime for interactions is one of my bigger gripes with short parlour larps. I thought Contagion was a really good exception to that rule.

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3 hours can be plenty. Sometimes it isn’t. I’ve played games where the time pressure is on purpose and loved them. I’ve played games where the meat just wasn’t enough to fill the time and it was farcical.
Long time periods with unclear aims are intimidating to some (especially the inexperienced, I find), boring to others, are just what the doctor ordered for me :smiley: Though more mental work - when I’m tired I find aimless time to be harder work than time with clear aims.
So I articulate what I want and remind myself of how I plan to achieve it, and try to make sure the mechanics back it up.

I’m definitely leaning towards aliens, but I have to develop things more. I don’t want to use speciesism as a tool for character conflict, but it can be a really cool tool for RPing different states of being.

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So, a Sci Fi version of Golden Age Nassau (as seen in “Black Sails”), or of Kororareka (“hell-hole of the Pacific!”), where people are reluctant for the Sci Fi British to turn up? (I ripped this off for a setting in Colonies, and it worked great).

Skipping back to the FitD/PbtA phase-space: there’s plenty to draw inspiration from there. Scum & Villany, obviously. Legacy has an OK resource / faction downtime system. Lots of games have Bonds, which could be used to inspire those messy personal relationships. Or Uncharted Worlds has the Cramped Quarters Move, which is perfect for spawning more or creating new friendships. and on the larp front, an obvious one is World That Is, with its background system and leading questions…

When I’ve thought about space larps set in big in spaceships/stations/moonbases etc, the venues that looked more appealing were not old wooden halls. Some venues are more modern office-like, like this “oval room” at the Grey Lynn Community Centre, and I think it could be a shorter distance from there to a futuristic feeling with some low/flickering/neon lighting, tech atmosphere sounds, set dressing, etc. Though for a medium-size game it would be good to have multiple rooms with corridors.


My thinking was a consistent location, like a space station where crews from different ships mingle with the crew of the station and officials, between flights. Then you only need to find one good venue for it, and keep using it.


So the terrible thing about IRL frontiers is that they’re normally associated with people being gigantic dick-bags to the people who were there already, and it really takes the fun out of them as a plot device! Star Trek didn’t really have a frontier - it just had the edge of the Federation. The locals didn’t think the area was unexplored, they lived there.

I am thinking of a true frontier, spreading out through a mostly TRUELY unpopulated area of space (probably there will be sarlacs and antlions, but nothing intelligent).

The British in this scenario would be the Federation.

I don’t know Legacy, sounds like a fun weekend discovery!

The messy-ing up the personal relationships, I’m very keen to have them happen during the game, so leaning more towards Vicing than Cramping Quarters. Something in the realm of “I know there’s important things we need to do, but also, look: my Vice!” or “you can restore protagonist points if you indulge in a behaviour that pisses off your Crew”. But it needs work to make it focus on agency and make it fun, and make it “a fun way of playing the game” not “a dick move”. Still work to be done there.

You can’t heist when everyone is in the same room, it’s just impossible :stuck_out_tongue:

But yes, I am 100% certain that as soon as space-ships are casual enough to have carpet, it will be easy-care-hard-wearing-easy-lay-down squares, lit by cheapest-available lighting. Some community spaces are very close to that already.


But also: I often had people during 33AR asking (rhetorically) “Why does so much bad stuff keep happening HERE, are we cursed or what?”. Would you have docked at DS9 if you had literally any other option?
But also: recurring non-Crew characters!
But also: new places reduce the barrier for entry for new players because it lowers the amount of lore than can accumulate
But also: consistency is nice
But also: Sometimes, I’m gonna want a sarlac pit.

So many thoughts and options


Oh yes. Anything around contact is unpleasant ground, and I chose not to go there. But government catching up to the frontier of settlement, or corporate scumbaggery, lets you play with some of the same themes while still having fun.

Durance is another good example of a tabletop rpg which deals with such themes (is pretty explicitly prison-colony Australia, in spaaaacccceeee! Which is great inspiration).

For Legacy, there’s an explicit in-space SF setting (Colony Ship), and a space colony sequel (Planefall, which is inspired by the Alpha Centauri computer game).

Step 2: Tone and themes

Tone can be tricky to set as an outside force. I’ve played games that were intended to be silly that got crazy grim-dark, and vice versa.

Tone interacts with the game at multiple points

  • Stories - some stories are always grimdark, some depend a lot on how they’re framed/interpreted. Trying to hard to set the done grimdark sometimes loops around and becomes ridiculous
  • Encounter design - a space western has shoot-outs and heists, and generally shenanigans are seen as a positive. Long term damage is rare. A hopeless war or lethal environment means encounters should often have a high rate of lethality
  • Skills/mechanics - grounded vs gonzo. Can you walk off a bullet-wound or are you dealing with it 3 episodes later? How many real words do you need to use in your technobabble to explain how you’re fixing the problem?

Themes are easier to set from the GM perspective

  • Stories is the primary medium for theme
  • Reinforced by mechanics
    • Hard to implement of “rising above problems” when most characters are working their asses off to avoid a death-spiral/failure-spiral
  • Reinforced by encounter design
    • When encounters tend to be zero-sum, players will fight harder for the outcome they want - may increase character-vs-character conflict from “medium-density” to “harsh”. Pushes towards grimmer tone and harsher themes “you gotta take care of yourself”
    • When encounters have The Third Option, then themes like co-operation and lighter tone are enabled

Themes and tone are a core part of genre, which leads to tropes. Fighting against tropes is a waste of effort, in my experience.

Extracting desirable theme and tone from my design specs

  • Space
    • Themes
      • Discovery, contact
      • Frontier, the unknown
      • People getting shit done (definition of people still left ambiguous)
      • Definition of “people” (good theme, difficult for Mel to work with. Hmmmm)
      • Technology
    • Tone
      • ??
  • 3-6 hour episodes
    • Themes
      • ?
    • Tone
      • No long dark nights of reflection
      • Hard to enforce physical distance between characters (play-space is cramped relative to Brookfeilds)
        • Makes it hard to create mental/emotional distance
          • But that’s hard anyway
        • Character co-op/interaction
  • Minimising barrier to entry
    • Themes
      • Tropey, easy to grasp
        • Clear aims make sense
        • Low lore
      • New arrivals are expected to the story
      • Power and authority cannot be effectively claimed and rarely bestowed
      • Power and authority not coming from secrets or duration of play
      • A lot of parallel play
        • Lots of smaller themes rather than a grand-unified one
    • Tone
      • Lowest common denominator/middle-of-the-ground
        • But with room to explore the edge-cases
      • Low lethality

I think I agree with that, 100%. Subverting them, on the other hand… :smiling_imp:

Tropes discussions tick a lot of boxes for me at this precise moment, incidentally. One of our concept artists has shared some slides that include a discussion of a sort of ratio between familiarity (i.e. tropes) and novelty (i.e. subversion) when designing a setting or character. It makes for extremely interesting reading.

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Ooh, interesting write up…

Perception of being difficult to costume for
Publish ways to achieve suitable costume
Make (potential) non-human player categories easy to costume for
I really liked the way a larp ran this a couple of years ago (I can’t believe I can’t remember its name: a bunch of religious prisoners on a prison ship). The different factions were given a colour code, and we could discuss costuming amongst ourselves - it was really effective. The religious aliens were red and kind of earthy, the human guards were in black and utilitarian, the money grubbing aliens were in blue. We could all pick each other out very easily, and if we wanted to dress out of our closets, we could do that and it was fine.

I love the recurring theme in your notes about people making poor life choices because it seemed the sensible thing to do at the time - and therefore… plot happens.

  • New arrivals are expected to the story
    One of the things I found by starting to play the Kestrel Run series of campaign larps partway through is - I’d be playing the game and following my character goals, and that was fine - and then I’d get to the end of the session and suddenly this big huge universe changing event would happen that was consistent to the back story, but I just hadn’t known anything about until then. So, I guess I want to say that new arrivals partway through are always going to have an information deficit, and there are things you can do to make it easier or harder for them to pick it up - I def agree with what you’re saying about “low lore to pick up.”

I do believe that was a @lesbiancobra game? I remember that too, it was loads of fun. I can’t remember how things ended.

I saw a lot of people expressing a lot of anxiety about their costumes for Empty Vessels, despite reassurance from the community and GM. But that’s merely the latest iteration of people visibly worrying about costuming. And it really bothers me, because we’re playing extremely silly games together for fun, lets work a bit harder to help people have one less thing to worry about. So if I’m gonna make a thing, making it easy for people to get adequate costuming is going to be a priority.

I find myself saying a lot “that decision is clearly an absolute disaster of a decision IC, but OOC I totally see why you 100% had to do it”, but I also often watch myself Trying To Win or experiencing I Have Made What I Thought Was A “Fun” Mistake and Now I Am Watching it Turn Into A Catastrophe And I Hate Feeling Like I Have Let People Down (IC) And Spoiled Their Fun (OOC). And I can manage the first, but the second feels really shitty.

And one of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about engaging with Forged In The Dark as a system as it really empowers you to make these poor life choices while people enthusiastically shout suggestions to make this situation worse from the sidelines.

I love Kestrel, but those character sheets are too long. And by game 4, the recurring characters were in a position to change the balance of power in the entirety of inhabited space in like 3 different ways, and for newcomers that must have been extremely disconcerting. Because you’ve only JUST got a handle on how the world works, and then someone says “And then we shall change it THIS way” and you’re not quite sure if that’s good or bad because you only just grasp what is normal.

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Can has?

###Extracting MOAR desirable theme and tone from my design specs

  • FitD/PbtA sort of space
    • Themes
      • The Crew
      • Failing forward
      • Choices are the most important thing
      • FitD tends to push into “death for your character is inevitable but not a disaster”, and I’m gonna push back against this one hard. More into the PbtA where the themes are more varied and much more focused on growth
    • Tone
      • Basically anything except a classical heroes journey where progress → power and you kill thousands of mooks and then moralise over the BBEG
      • FitD tends to push grimdark and failure-spirals, so gotta have a good handle on pushing back against that.
      • Characters are competent experts, and failure should be the environment overwhelming them, not them dropping the ball
  • Strong Inter-personal dynamics
    • Themes
      • I think this is where participants get to define themselves a bit more, rather than me setting them from on high
    • Tone
      • Needs to be in the Firefly/heisty/Star Trek end of things, in order to achieve the medium-density conflict
  • Strong Choice points
    • Themes
      • Ability of individuals/small groups to impact the world around them
      • Personal decisions impact those around you
    • Tone
      • In order for choices to make a difference, the tone has got to be a few steps lighter than grim-dark
        • If doom is inevitable, then choices don’t matter
      • In order for the tone to stay light and the c-v-c to be medium-at-worst, the choice points need to not be strongly based in morals and right/wrong dichotomies
        • World-views need to be non-overlapping, or safe to agree-to-disagee, or failing that, fun IRL to argue about
  • Medium-density character-v-character conflict
    • Themes

    • Tone

      • In order for the choices to not cause extremely intense conflict, the tone needs to stay light
      • But combat has got to be fun, and there needs to be times where you just get to have a shoot-out and it’s fun
        • Some unambiguously bad things have to exist, and sometimes act in a way that requires that they are shot
          • Eg Reapers
        • Overall attitude to shooting people needs to be fairly light-hearted, moving us further into Firefly territory

Thoughts and processes

I was surprised by how intellectually tough I found this section. I definitely went back and edited as I went on this a tonne more than I did in Step 1.

The good news is that a lot of these decision specs suggest the same things from different perspectives, for example several points indicated that the tone needed to be more chipper than 40K. If the design specs had started pushing in opposite directions, then that would have been a sign I was in trouble. FitD being the obvious exception here, so I’m going to have to watch how I incorporate those mechanics so that I don’t bring the grim-dark with them.

And while I feel like I’ve marked out the edges of where I want to go in terms of theme and tone, I need to do a lot more work on plot structures to see if I’ve actually got a campaign worth of story in the space I’ve put myself.

I hate game/story disconnects, so it was a real struggle to not start connecting these things into mechanisms immediately.

Design Decisions

  1. There will be no way to accidentally get into a death-spiral/failure-spiral. The mechanisms will always support the characters resolving those sorts of issues. Of course, if characters WANT to get into a death-spiral, then that just sounds fun and should be enabled.

Re: concept art slides - I’m not sure… They were shared at work internally and contained artwork for unreleased things. So I’d rather not.

But basically: start with 80:20 for the familiarity:novelty ratio when coming up with central characters and themes, then skew the ratio more towards novelty for peripheral ones if you wish. The main rationale for this is that a familiar baseline draws people in more easily, and you also need to have one to subvert anything. A bit of novelty adds the extra spark that makes it unusual and interesting, too much on the other hand might just confuse people.

The document came with examples and extra musings but that’s the short summary.

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Step 3: Core gameplay loop

A “traditional” rube goldberg machine theateform barely has a loop at all. Maybe “find someone who you haven’t spoken to in a while, exchange information, emote, repeat.”

A boffer campaign has

  • GM sends out crew
  • Crew exposits
  • Players and crew play out encounter
  • Players retreat to player space
  • Players consume resources/time to restore HP
  • Players share gains from the encounter with each other
    • Resources
    • Information
    • New toys
  • Players share emotions
  • Crew retreat to crew space
  • Everyone snacks
  • Repeat

I think the gameplay loop for this project looks something like

  • Characters identify opportunities/threats in the environment
  • Characters identify required skills to approach the opportunity/threat
    • And then characters required to fulfill those requirements
      • Phase-space of player skills needs to exceed average crew side by at least 1.5:1
    • It is entirely possible for a character to identify a lead they cannot act on
  • The job!
    • Concept of job is broad like FitD - social/combat/tech
    • The extent to which mook crew will be required for the game is determined by
      • How much of the job takes place in a space away from the rest of the players (is it like Thunderrealm or is it like S&S?)
      • How much of the job is “versus mooks”
        • It can be “versus gm-written characters” and not be “versus mooks”
      • This decision is really important and defines a lot of how skills and plots work!
        • I’m gonna iterate through Setting-Skills-Crews-PlotStructures a few times, tweaking and expanding, so I’m not worried that I don’t have it nailed down yet.
  • Characters share resources gained in the job
  • Characters may choose to make poor life choices
    • In standard blades this is to reload “protagonist points” - is that the dynamic I want?
    • Or is it a consequence of running out of “mental health points” - so it’s not a choice, it’s a reaction to the situation
    • I think somewhere in the middle
      • Big and small versions?
      • “If you lose X amount of “mental health points” then you’re unable to resist an opportunity to make your poor life choice”?
      • “If you spend X amount of “protagonist points” then you’re unable to resist an opportunity to make your poor life choice”?
    • How to make it player agency?
    • IMPORTANTLY: this poor life choice may have substantial negative outcomes such as
      • Being unavailable for an upcoming threat/opportunity
      • Disrupting a relationship
        • Perhaps to the point of leaving a Crew
      • Creating more threats (FAIL FORWARD)
        • But a threat is just an opportunity you haven’t managed to make money out of yet
  • Repeat

Design Decisions

  1. The number of skill trees/classes/specialities needs to exceed the size of an average Crew by at least 50%
  2. A character can identify a lead they’re not able to act on
  3. Poor life choices result in failing forward (aka they look like disasters but they open up new plotlines or new solutions to existing plotlines)

To combine both protagonist points and mental health points, to say “Stress”, then why not have both abilities cost this, and enemies deal this as damage? Bringing in a concept from Darkest Dungeon, where enemies stress out Heroes, and various in town activities ‘heal’ this.

Then you can play into both “Look, I just can’t handle going out there when X could be out there, I need this Vice.” but also “I’m not feeling great, but if I Vice, then i’ll be able to do Y thing”.

And people can play with the fun of "do I want to vice to regain stress, or do i think I can get away with it a bit longer. Because obviously, running out of stress should induce something terrible, but running around low can have some light tradeoff as well.