Lately, I have been playing Free League’s Forbidden Lands. It is a game that I adore. We are 17 sessions in and having a great time. One of the things that I have noticed, is that there are some distinctive phases of the game. There are different in-game activities that the characters undertake, and each of them has a different way they are GMed. That got me thinking about phases of play, games which have them, and understanding the differences in how the different phases are GMed.

What are Phases of Play?

Phases of play are distinct mechanisms and mechanics for different ways that the game is played. They are usually based around an activity that the players can undertake. Inside of the phase, some common rules can be used, but each phase often has its own rules as well. For example, a game may have an information-gathering phase or a travel phase.  

In contrast, some games do not have any specific phases, rather they just have what we can call Open Play, where there is no specific activity dictated and the characters just take action and the world reacts around them. 

For instance, in Forbidden Lands there are a few phases of play:

  • Travel – Travel has its own chapter and its own set of mechanics. It is used any time the players move from one Adventure Site (i.e. Town, Ruin, Castle) to another. 
  • Stronghold – This is a set of mechanics that determine how the players can build, improve, and defend their base of operations. 
  • Combat – This is a set of rules governing how combat is run. 
  • Open Play – This is when the characters are in a town, exploring a ruin, or having an encounter while traveling. 

These phases have good boundaries. As a GM or player, you know when you have crossed from one phase to another. In the case of Forbidden Lands, not all the phases are mandatory (you don’t have to have a Stronghold, for instance), nor is there an order of the phases. Play moves from one phase to another based on the characters’ decisions. 

Contrast that to a Blades in the Dark game, where there is an expected order of phases. BitD games have good boundaries as well. In the game, you go from Open Play to The Score, to Downtime, and then back to Open Play. 

What Are Phases Doing?

Not all games need many phases of play. In fact, most just have combat and don’t have other phases at all. They are a design tool that is often employed by designers to emulate a type of play. Forbidden Lands is a game that has a large focus on travel and exploration. In the setting of the game, wide-spread travel has only been possible for the past five years, meaning that most people have not ventured out into the greater world, but rather have stayed close to home. In addition, the game is about growing your power base.  These are supported by two phases that have distinct mechanics, in order to focus that kind of play.

In Forbidden Lands, travel is not hand-waved, nor is it open play, nor is it condensed in a single roll or move. Rather, the game has rules for navigation, hunting, making camp, etc. The Stronghold rules have rules for creating resources, building advancements, and what happens when you are away and adventuring. 

In Blades in the Dark, your crew is moving through the underworld of Duskvol trying to establish itself and get wealthy. The crew undertakes jobs to gain coin and influence, and use their downtime to play out the consequences of those actions as well as work on improvements. 

How to GM Different Phases

Since phases of play have distinct mechanics, it goes to say that they have their own needs for GMing. This is important, because a game that has phases needs to be GMed differently in each phase, while overall GMing the game in the way that fits the tone and rules of the game. 

Since phases of play have distinct mechanics, it goes to say that they have their own needs for GMing. This is important, because a game that has phases needs to be GMed differently in each phase, while overall GMing the game in the way that fits the tone and rules of the game.

This comes in two forms. The first is to understand the GMing needs for each phase and to develop your style to accommodate them. 

For instance, in Travel, time tracking is important, as there is an action economy per quarter day and things like whether or not it is light or dark are determined by the time of day, which in turn influences how easy or hard actions are to take. There is also a procedure for how travel is undertaken, in terms of what rolls are made and when.

So for GMing this phase, I actually made my own time tracker to help myself and the table keep track of what time of day it was. In addition, my main role as a GM in this phase is more mechanical, making sure each player declares their action for the Quarter Day and then resolving those actions mechanically. To that, I make sure that I proceed around the table and get everyone’s actions first, then resolve them, often in the same order.

Contrast that to Open Play, where I am far more flexible about actions and order, asking questions of the players and reacting to their actions. 

The second thing you need to do is to respect the phases and to use them fully. (You are free to play the game the way you want, but if you want to play it as designed you would use each phase as intended.) What I mean by that is if a game has a phase of play, you don’t shortcut it with a hand wave or fiat.

For example, in my Forbidden Lands game, my players had just wrapped up an encounter and were planning to travel back to their Stronghold. We were close to the end of the session and were setting up for what we were going to do in the next session. My instinct, from playing other games, was to just say that next session we would start at the Stronghold. I stopped myself, and rather I said that next session we would start the travel to get home. The game has rules about travel, and travel is important. 

Switching Phases

Another thing to be cognizant of when GMing a game with phases, is to realize when the game phases are switching and how to facilitate that switch with the group. In games that have distinct boundaries between phases, the change will be obvious. Make yourself familiar with what triggers a change in phase.

In Forbidden Lands, going from one place to another on the map triggers the Travel phase of the game. But in Blades in the Dark the Downtime phase cannot start until The Job is complete. In many cases, the GM needs to decide when the Job is complete, often when some objective has been successful (or not) and the characters have left the job site or job activity. In those cases, the GM can simply say to the group when the threshold has been reached to change phases. 

Then knowing that your style needs to change, mentally prepare yourself for how you need to change between phases. For me, when I move into the Travel phase in Forbidden Lands, the first thing I do is get my time clock and set what part of the day we are in. That puts me in the headspace for how travel works. 

Getting The Most Out Of Your Phases

Designers use phases of play to focus types of play and to emulate different activities or genres. By understanding the purpose of a phase and learning how to adapt your GMing to facilitate that phase, you will make the gameplay smoother and more enjoyable for you and your players. 

Often phases require small modifications of your GMing style but those changes will make your running of the game smoother. Be aware of what triggers a change in phase, and how to cognitively switch from one phase to another.

What games are you running that have phases? Are they distinct or fuzzy? What ways have you adapted your GMing for those phases?