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Thoughts about Blades in the Dark

This post is about our experience with Blades in the Dark. The cool things, the problems we run with and the dialectics with the player's psychology.

Prelude

So, I got a bunch of old roleplaying friends. One of them is working in a public game library, I don't know if it exists in other countries, but the name is self-explaining: a public library with toy for little children, board games and rpg games instead of traditionnal books. We talked about apocalypse world and how reading the The Forge archives during hours a few years later totally changed my way of mastering, even with the traditionnal rpg blockbusters. He loves post-apocalyptical setting and a few weeks later, he gathered 3 other roleplaying friends at the table to play a an apocalypse game. None of them was aware of the development of rpg games outside the traditionnal blockbusters, such as DnD, Call of Cthulhu, World of Darkness or the Dark Heresy series, or some of the well known older games of our generation born in the 80s (Ars Margica, Runequest, Rolemaster, Warhammer, etc). So I mastered 11 sessions of apocalypse world and everybody was totally excited. 

Something terribly interesting happened. At the beginning of the session, one of them, an old school vampire GM explained what he really liked in GMing -- and it was almost everything that was criticized by the Big Model, as I understood it. Huge metaplots that was staying 99% unknown to the PCs, manipulating them into an intuitive continuity model, campaign that requires huge amount of prep that was never used and that had no ending, because of the multiple ramifications induced by the "intuitive continuity" way of doing. I approach theses discourses by answering "this is not what we will do here", but did not try to argue that there was a right or better way to play to a rpg and that intuitive continuity is shit, I just said "Sure, there's multiple way to play, let's change the assumptions here and try something new". This conversation lasts from march to july, every sessions, with subtle modifications induced by our practice. I religiously GM Apocalypse World by the book, not explaining so much during the first sessions, but explaining more and more what technique are designed to GM the game. We had a conversation about Blades in the Dark later, and everybody was curious about it. It was our 8th session. That's when I talked about the "author stance". I said "ok guys, let's try a new game, but we have to conclude this one. Apocalypse world campaigns tends to organically build themselves to a climax. But let's play during 2 or 3 sessions and try to work all together to this climax. Be interested in each other scenes, think about what could happen in your scene or another scene that has a link the other's scenes, think cross-over, focus one some story you want to achieve". They did it, and it was a wonderful experience for everyone, to the point that the ex-vampire GM "manipulative antedeluvian metaplot lover" (which generally seem lost to me) phone me later to thank me for gming all this, and my "Warhammer 40k running the official campaign as written" GM ask me the Apocalypse World book to GM himself. 

As a side note: I notice that this is group-in-making process. I never played RPG with 3 of these peoples. I had one of my worst experience either with the friend who gathered the people at the table (a strong argument during a session who led me to stop a campaign.. I'm happy we could go through this and play again.) So I'll try to put details about this making of a group.

 Blades in the dark, the first session

I've worked a bit to find the right pedagogy to present the game. We did the starting situation in the rulebook. I have 4 players and I was excited to play Blades in the Dark for a few reasons:

  • I already played and love the experience of flashback during the scores, but we had problems with the rules and the mini-game sensation of changing the phase...
  • ... But I was thinking about a way to GM the phases more organically and I wanted to test it.
  • Maj, the ex-vampire GM, told me about games he had in mind in a steampunk setting, and way to handle mechanics that were designed in Blades, so I thought he would like the game.
  • My previous experience with him and the others was so good, I felt confident that there was an openness to try it and do something great.
  • I could handle easier the absence of some players, as Blades in the Dark focus on the crew .. We had trouble with this during the Apocalypse World Campaign.
  • Math, the Wark40 GM was totally in something gritty.
  • Nico (the Game Library Social Worker) and Bruno (the "other guy", wich is more a board game and LARP player) have heard about the game and absolutly wanted to test it.

The team

They choose an Assassin crew. Nico choose a Dagger's Isles Leech focused on Alchemy (the techie-bomber), Maj an Akorosian ex academic student who became a Spider and who created the crew (the mastermind with connections), Math an Iruvian noble Slide (the manipulative slide). Bruno was not there in the first sessions. We played 3 sessions at this time. They choose to play bastards with a "ballsy" reputation that will have a bias towards anarchist views supporting the working class.... when it fits their own particular interests.

The first session

The first session was about the creation and playing the first score. I explained the basic rules and the starting situation. There are in the lampblack HQ and Baszo Basz, the gang's leader, explain them the war is going to come against the Red Sashes, a classy iruvian gang owning a sword fencing academy, and that they have to choose sides. They chose "the people"'s side and accept Basz's job to cut the financial source of the Red Sashes. I totally improvised everything about the score. I decide that the source is the daughter of a wealthy iruvian merchant who have excellent connections with the Iruvian Consulate. They do their investigation rolls (so they play the basic system). The investigation was a good completion of distinctive scences: the Iruvian Slide investigated the Iruvian Consulate and found that the girl had a secret love for a underclass iruvian boy; the bomber leech find the best place to set an ambush and the Akorosian Spider forges a fake love letter signed with the lover's name. Their engagement roll puts them in a controled position. The trap is set.

The score. They play their first score. I had some bad experiences with Blades in the dark downtimes due to an excess of difficulty for the scores. Generally, I think I put to much conflicts (purely quantitatively), with long scores. So I decided to that a score should have a mean of 3 conflicts (or in Sorcerer's terms, 3 bangs). Also, it's the first score and I don't want to frustrate them but to show them the empowering system of the game. Finally, it's the first score, like the "pregeneric" introductive scene of the serie, and it should be really epic. So the girl arrives in a boat with some Red Sashes as protectors. First I describe somebody that recognize them and they deceives them. The Leech is hidden in a nearly building, the Iruvian Slide is disguised as the lover, hidden in the dim light of a room in a boat full of explosives, and the Spider is disguised as a domestic that welcomes the girl. They deceives, deal with some ghosts, finally kills 2 of the Red Sashes when the Merchant's Daughter enters the boat. The Slide reveals himself, put his dagger in her heart and kiss her. He rolls a 5, so success with a consequence and I explain that the ghost of this girl will remember him, then explain the rule about resisting a consquence. And of course, the Slide resists. 

We hand up with 2 Red Sashes prisonners, a blown boat, and a ghost that thinks that it's really her lover that killed her. This was a wonderful way to finish the first session.

Some thoughts. It's interesting here how some players are totally unable in the first time to feel ok with the system of flashbacks. Math, with his iruvian Slide, totally got it the first time like he always did that. When the girl hesitates to enter the darkened rooms he described a Flashback in which he steal the Lover's ring during an Iruvian Consulate Dinner, to convince her that it's really him. On the other side, the spider had trouble to initiate flashbacks. During previous game, I had some frustration expressed by a player who said in the first game "we can't do nothing" and who finally said "in fact, we can do everything" 4 games later. On the other side, the experience is amazing when a player totally get the system and the Iruvian Ring's moment was totally a choir saying "woow amazing " at the table.

The downtime. We started the second session of play with the downtime. A problem I had with Blades in the Dark was the experience of a board game: the phase structure with free action feels like you choose your action (a rule) then think about the fiction that justify the action. This seems to contradict the explicit fundamental assumption of the game "fiction first". My stance here is that there's a way of playing it more loosely, and if I was not successful to bring it, I had to test a few times and different ways of doing it. So here, I started the session by saying this: "this game has phases, you choose actions during the downtimes, we play scenes relatives to your characters during this downtime. This may feel like a board game, with an overstructured session, but let's just accept this plainly for the two or three firsts downtimes, and we'll try to have something more organic when everyone is more cool with the game". Instead of trying alone to smooth the structure, I accepted its nature for the first scores. So everybody choose an action and we played it. One of the player choose 2x "Training" and it was not very interesting as a scene. The system there kind of lack fictionnal power.

During Downtime, Math's iruvian slide wants to "climb the ladder of the social hierarchy of the iruvian expatriates". I decide it's a long terme project and he draws a 8-segment clock. I propose to set the scene at the funerals of the girl, which is an opportunity for me to ask Math to define the Iruvian culture. He brings elements about how people deals with emotions in the Iruvian nobility, what are the social custom, and we end up with a scene in the Merchant's cabinet (the dead girl's father), where the Merchant asks Math to organize its revenge against his daughter's killer: the Iruvian boy. This scene is great because it paints directly the complex immoralities and political deceptions of the iruvian nobility through Math's character, without me spending dozens of hours to imagine a political plot that I struggle to bring it. It just emerged from Math's play and Blades's system! 

So here we can see the inegalities in the quality of fiction produced by the downtime actions: very interesting play creating a vicious political game, and "training" actions repeated without so much to say. The most striking is the feel to play more a board game with induced fiction, with a round by round selection of action , a preset list of free actions. Of course, Blades is not the only game to produce these characteristics, but the feeling is really strong for some reasons.

Some other thoughts. My plan, and I think the game has been intented this way even if it fails to present it this way, is to achieve a more organic articulation between the phases of the game. Also, there's a tendancy to cut the game in two phases: The score and the Downtime. But I think the third phase, the "Freeplay" is the most important, and the "glue" that stick the others together. I'm trying to get to a session where we mix freeplay and downtime without stopping to say "stop, this is downtime now, everybody gives me your action", but more, "what do you do now?", with scenes where they meet their personnal rivals and friends, where they roll dices if the action is not on the "downtime" action list, and they do not when they can cross an action from this list. But I feel this is better achieved with players who got a feeling the games.

There's more to say but it's for a future post!

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

This goes back a long way. Over fifteen years ago, John was developing a spin-off of Trollbabe to be called Stranger Things. He had a great atmospheric surrealistic city concept in mind, and characters were slightly mystic, slightly demonic wanderers. The most obvious design component was a particularly great tile system for setting up a city neighborhood as the immediate location of play; as physical play-pieces they were incredibly useful and inspiring. However, the most pressing design concern as the game developed was the tracking and management of plots.

I have a number of long-held observations about Stranger Things as a project, especially concerning promoting to create an anticipatory audience well before the crucial turning-point of game design occurred. But that is only relevant here because I want to reflect on the game design prior to that turning point, which it never reached. And I stress, there's no reason why it should have, or had to, or to think this is a failing. Many if not most games in design do not.

Here's the point: at that time, when I played in a session, which as far as I can tell is just before the project was shelved for good, I saw that John was solving that pressing design concern by making sure that each protagonist would be tracked on a sequence of events so that each mini-adventure would build and resolve. There was a formal diagram upon which each of them moved. I tried hard to discern exactly what these tracks were for:

  • Whether they were devices to observe where the characters were in a strictly dramatic sense, leaving all doors, options, activities, and outcomes “open” from the current point forward, including abandoning or entirely shifting the approach to the immediation situations; OR
  • Whether they were effectively a way to control the effects of protagonists’ next stated actions, i.e., creating a fairly narrow range of “what happens next” so that the story-in creation would stay safely within a given dramatic arc based on the prep.

Our discussions about this didn’t go very far, and if I may judge in memory, not very well either. But today, without judgment, I can say that Blades in the Dark represents a dedicated attempt to synthesize “this is the prepared adventure and its possible consequences” and “this is the situation, fuck if I know how it turns out or what happens then.” Note my phrasing: not to choose between those alternatives, but to find its own synthetic solution.

My own path regarding that issue is clear, insofar as I arrived at my conclusion indeed to reject one alternative and to embrace the other via playtesting Sorcerer in the late 1990s, and I struggled for the next decade to arrive at a useful learning-text for it in a role-playing game. That arrival is found in the revised, 2009 publication of Trollbabe. In diagramming plot, you can see what look like “tracks,” but the text is dedicated to showing that they were not laid before play or even laid down as a path in an improvised fashion during play, but literally built during play through uncontrollable interactions and responses (play) among players and GM. And by “build,” I do not mean “created” necessarily in terms of improvisation; in fact, the game is rather strict about not inventing new content in the middle of a session. Instead, by “build,” I mean established as consequences via the mechanisms of dice and talking. So instead of setting a track before or during play, you discover that together you have made one.

So you’re looking at two authors’ very different interpretations of prep and play. One (me) says “screw it, we are talking about two and entirely incompatible options,” and one (John) says “there is a synthetic solution and I will find it.”

I’ve played some Blades in the Dark, certainly not enough to think I can say (propound, decree, profess, lecture) whether the solution is indeed a middle/synthesis or if it slides into the first alternative after all, with the flash of so much player-sourced detail covering up the lack of agency. Your post goes the furthest I’ve seen to reflect on the issue.

Let’s take a look at your most positive observation, regarding the Math character and the Iruvian nobility: what I see is that it’s limited to situation preparation, “what my problem is,” which necessarily includes a bit of setting-building. It doesn’t concern player options about actions or the consequences of resolutions. Do you see the similarity between the distinction you made in the Sorcerer Archipel discussion? That you’re talking about “story” as arriving at what the problem or even task facing the character is, rather than what they do about it and what comes out of those actions?

That really reminds me of that play-session of Stranger Things, which I described in story or plot-development terms as story-safety, overly comfortable in knowing that this will be a solid little arc for which the prep and procedures ably keep us focused. As you know, I had found that many people did not like my position that in order for play to create stories, it could not dictate what their dramatic content and range of outcomes could be; i.e., it could not make sure that we get the story of a particular theme and type.

Grégory, you alluded to some inconsistency between text and your perceived author’s intent of play, or perhaps among portions of text, which makes the discussion a little murky. It’d be easier if the package of text and play were utterly identifiable as a block so we could discuss what it is; it’s harder when the block doesn’t quite hold together. Unless I’m mistaken in reading your post about this, may I ask you to be more specific about the inconsistency?

Greg's picture

Hi Ron. I’ll try to clarify the production of fictional content by sketching some analytical tools. This is very exploratory and opens a lot of rooms for uncertainty, so just take this post as a Lego construction made to be deconstructed and reconstructed.

First, I feel that I need to clarify terms so we can know that we are speaking about the same things. Maybe you already have names for these concepts, or you already use them for another thing, and the one I’ll use are not very accurate – it is open for replacement and revision and I’m just trying to set foundations for this particular discussion. I really bring all my doubts and uncertainties here for the sake of exploratory discussion. My fear, reading your comment, is that I have to read Trollbabe and as I did not, I’m pretty I’ll say things you already said more accurately elsewhere.

  • Backstory: a set of potential narrative elements that has the purpose of being “attracted”, as a magnet, by the Player-Characters’s action, proactively or reactively brought by the GM. It’s a network of elements, in which the narrative element produced by the player to define the characters are “trapped”, or interlaced with. The PC’s actions move the whole network and the role of the GM is to simulate these movements. In Sorcerer, the backstory is interlaced with the kicker and elements from the diagram. In Blades in the Dark, the backstory is written on the faction descriptions and the character’s sheet (ie. There’s a “Nyx, a possessor spirit” on the Whisper‘s sheet and a “Nyx, a prostitute” on the Slide’s sheet, or links between NPC in the faction descriptions), that are interlaced it’s the Heritage and Background, or the “rivals/friends” or any of the “fictional material” (see below) discussed during character creation.
  • Scenario: a scenario is a set of preplanned scenes that has to be happen during the session. At this stage of thinking, let’s say that the scenario refers exclusively to the imagined elements that the GM has to bring at the table. I think that we can say that there is two states of the pre-imagined scenes: the imagined one (they are written or present in the GM’s mind), and the enunciated ones (when they have been “brought” in game). The purpose of these elements is to be enunciated, and intuitive continuity is the method used to do it. It doesn’t matter if the scenario elements are improvised during play or planned weeks before: a GM can imagine a scene he wants to bring as a consequence of the one currently play and “intuitively continues” the game to enunciate it. It doesn’t matter if the scenario is a sequence of events (such as the Pathfinder’s Adventure Path”) or a sandbox (such as the Temple of Elemental Evil): both are imagined scenes designed to be enunciated. The fiction here is fixed, where in the backstory, it is dynamic. Same thing about Vampire’s political diagram which fixes political goals, alliances and emotions toward each other. Also, a scenario can have a backstory, which creates a full range of problems because they are not intended to interact, and they will. Many of my vampire games has been about these problems.
  • Conflicts: Improvised or planned situations without prewritten outcomes, inspired by the backstory and proposed to the Players characters by the GM, with the purpose of creating fictional outcome (see below). This is, I think, what you call “Bangs”. These are not “conflict” in absolute, but only in the context of each player character fictional microcosm. Not every situation is a conflict for all the player characters, only in regards of his own agenda, motives and fictional elements. Conflict are not dilemma: they are intented to be solved with a game mechanic.
  • Dilemma is a presented situation with open consequences, that can be resolved only by the player’s choice, through discussion (it doesn’t need “the system”).
  • Fictional outcome: fictional outcome is fictional content that emerges from the consequences of a mechanic of the game (the “system”). This is only enunciated fiction, not imagined (or “potential”) ones.
  • Fictional discussion: the fictional content emerging from a discussion between player, independently of any mechanic. Settings-building (“emergent setting”?) and depicting “color” are specific cases or fictional material, because any kind of events could also be produced. This is, in fact, any fictional material that is not produced by the system. Also, I’m speaking about enunciated ones (“brought at the table”, “played”), not imagined/potential fiction. For instance, nothing has been said about the Tycheros during this Blades in the Dark game, so there is no fictional content about it for the moment, even if they “imaginably”, or “virtually”, or “potentially” exists (whatever term to say that we know their existence but they have not be enunciated in play).
  • Fictional content = fictional outcome + fictional discussion.  This is still about what has been enunciated. (I realize I lack a word for fictional content not enunciated, maybe “Potential” or “virtual” fiction).
  • Emergent Story: Meaning constructed to interpret fictional outcome through the production of fictional content. Here I bring my doubts again. I think what we are trying to identify is when a game only produced more “global” meaning of fictional outcomes through the multiplication of fictional outcomes. The point here is the meaning of the fictional content is produced after the addition of fictional outcomes. In my experience with apocalypse world and Blades in the dark (this is really inductive), the meaning of the fiction has 3 conditions: 1) the multiplication of fictional outcomes, 2) the discipline to not produce meaning before the fictional outcomes are played, 3) a discussion about how these fictional outcomes have meaningful link between them. The story here is not a whole perfect and assembled narrative such as a perfect machine, but more a set of meaningful links between fictional outcomes that is produced after their own apparition, “during play”.

I’m sure you will say “this is not what a bang is”, or “this is not what I mean by emergent story”. I’m eager to have corrections, but let’s also consider if the “thing” I’m defining (whatever the accuracy of the name I give) is still useful even if it’s not what the original concept is intended to be, and let’s give it another name if it is.

Two considerations:

  1. The difference between story and scenario is the direction of the causality. Scenario:  “imagined scenario”(= imagined scenes + imagined setting) => “enunciated scenario”, through intuitive continuity as a method. Story: “fictional outcomes” + “fictional outcomes” + … => meaningful interpretations of links between these fictional outcomes, through discussions “after” they are enunciated.
  2. I think these definitions fits to describe things you wrote in Sorcerer, for instance, “You may not have a story at all” (I tried to find the exact page but couldn’t find it), I think that you meant, by story “you may not have a whole perfectly well articulated enunciated scenario” (should we call this a “narrative” ?), or “You may have fictional outcomes, but that’s not the goal, what you are sure to get is fictional outcomes”.
    Greg's picture

    Now about the fiction.

    (For technical reasons, I had to divide this post in three comments, but this is really the same post in three parts. Sorry about this.)

    Your question about my inconsistancy is really good. I think you are reacting to me saying: “It just emerged from Math's play and Blades's system!”. I’m puzzled so here’s a little description of what my group really enjoyed as fictional content and however it is fictional outcome or fictional discussion. Here I propose to select the whole fictional material that we enjoyed, to separate it into fictional units and to see what its origin was. I have to say that I really did not plan any element of the session. This is all improvised during the game, because I had no time to prepare anything.

    Following the production of the fictional content about Math’s Iruvian Slide

    I’m focusing on the weird and complex game of betrayal and lies around Math’s character, and each “fictional unit” and its context of production as I remember it. Everything else is ignored.

    Character creation. Choose Heritage (Iruvian), choose Background (Nobility) > Discussion about what the character is (fleeing its original country, lying about its presence in Duskwall, hating is father but pretending he is here in its name).

    Starting situation. I present the starting situation of the book (three gangs are competing for turf, two of them being in open war). Dilemma: Basso Basz offers a choice: with him or against him. They choose to kill the Iruvian connection of the Red Sashes.

    Investigation roll. Math chooses an action for the roll. He chooses Consort. This investigation roll has two consequences: 1) it defines what the next scene is and 2) it says something about the results. Investigation rolls are chance rolls in Blades which means that they do not lead to a bad outcome, but the results only define the quality of the outcomes.  This pushes me to ask to Math what the next scene is, what is he doing in it (is it the “color” of the scene?), and I let him ask some back and forth questions about the Iruvian target. Through discussion and following the dices result, I give information but also describe how he gets the information, which creates fictional content (“Ok where are you”, “I’m looking for a Iruvian banquet” (discussion and setting details about this) “I’m looking for her vulnerabilities”, “You see her looking towards this guy, she’s hiding it but they are exchanging secret signs, you can see through their game” and some discussion about context “she’s the daughter of this respected Iruvian Merchant, Milos”, etc.

    (During the firstscore), Math asks for a flashback. At this time, most of the score has been played. It’s the end of the score and the Iruvian girl is on the boat, hesitating to enter the room as she only sees the silhouette of her expected lover. Math asks for a flashback (I’m assuming here that it is a game mechanic) : “While we were in the iruvian banquet…” he describes that he steals the ring of the lover. He chooses the action, Finesse while he talks with the guy, we set position and he rolls a complete success. Back to the boat scene, he shows the ring and the girls enter in the room, running in the arm of her lover.

    Math chooses an action, prowl, to kill the girl. He chooses Prowl, of course. He rolls. He makes a partial success, so I choose that the ghost will recognize him. I explain the rule about resistance here, for the first time.

    Math resists to the consequence. He takes stress for this. By doing so, the Iruvian girl’s ghost is fully convinced that her killer is really her lover.

    Greg's picture

    3rd post.

    The session stops after Math resists the consequences. It's the end of the first session. Between this session and the next one, I think about the factions moves after this score. I assume here it is part of the “system” as it is explicitly written the type of action the GM could for each active faction after each score (an inheritance, as I understood it, of Stars Without Number’s Faction turn). I choose that the Red Sashes find the Target’s body and interrogates her Ghost to know who killed her, and tell it to her father, Milos, the Merchant. (I decide other faction turns but it’s irrelevant in the context of this particular dimension of the story).

    At this time, we are playing following the “structured” way. Payoff, entanglements, downtime activities. It’s worth noting the players asked explicitly to play turn par turn, each character doing an action. I had trouble to focus the whole group on each action and had to ask that they do not roleplay in their corner while I was handling roleplay and action with the “current” player. During this downtime phase:

    Math asks to “climb the ladder of the social hierarchy”. I say he’s playing the “Working on a long-term project” downtime action. I let him choose the action and he chose “Sway”. Again, (1) the act of choosing an action defines the next scene  (I ask him how do he does this, he sets the scene in the iruvian society, less official, I propose the funerals of the girl, here we discuss together and produce fictional discussion and settings-building by defining cultural ways of the iruvian society – how a culture relates to her dead being a fundamental thing). I create a long-term clock (8-segment) named “The Iruvian Council invites publicly invites him as a honored guest”. Math rolls Sway as a downtime action roll, which is a chance roll and, as said before, does not have bad outcomes. He rolls a complete success and I deal with by setting the scene in the Merchant’s cabinet, where the Merchant proposes him a job (to avenge his daughter). So this is a consequence of of the sway roll, the “sway choice” of the downtime action at disposal, and of my choice about the Red Sash Faction Move.

    Nico then looks at the “turf map” of the Assassin’s Crew and sees that there is an “Envoy” case, which gives “+2 coin for high-class targets”. He asks, “could this score be the one linked to this mechanic?” And I say “sure, it totally fits.” Here, we have an interesting thing. To this point, players have chosen mechanics and we created fictional material from there. Here, we have fictional content and a player makes it “fit” with the mechanic. It’s worth noting but in terms of producing fictional outcomes, well, nothing really happened, so it feels it doesn’t really matter.

    Session ends after downtime. The score starts with the third session (I did not have planned anything in between the session this time). 

    During the score, Math plays his character and kills the Iruvian boy. He decapitates him and keeps the head. Nothing special here. The we have Payoff, and I assume here it’s part of “the system”, because I’m just following the written structure, and I’ve seen or read John saying “Don’t mess up with them with payoff, they earn it”. Session ends here. I've prepped the next session by reading all the faction and seen that "the hive" has a "backstory" connexion with the starting situation, but I just note it in my head.

    The 4th session, the payoff set the new scene, where Math enters in the Merchant’s cabinet. Milos pays him (it’s both a mechanical and a fictional act), they get a new Envoy (which they just taken from The Hive, here I assume it’s the system again, as I’m following the rules “when they gain an asset, they always steal it to somebody”, and I choose The Hive because the Hive Leader’s was Roric’s lover and is looking to investigate his death – Roric being the leader of the Crows, mentioned killed in the starting situation which includes three competing factions: The Crow, The Lampblacks and the Red Sashes). Here, my feeling is that the mechanic (earning an asset with a score, taking this asset to another faction) creates fictional outcome (a new player in the game). The scene finishes with some roleplay by Math about how he f*cked out the Merchant.

    Ron Edwards's picture

    I appreciate your attention to Trollbabe! As it happens, I introduced the game to some players last night, and one of the onlookers experienced multiple epiphanies about the GM role. He was amazed at how relaxed and fun it was to GM, never leaving the system, but never controlling what happened. Everyone present was intrigued by the concepts that no content was improvised except via a permission mechanic, and that the rules applied to speaking as well as how to roll dice.

    Part 1

    Here are my thoughts on your outlined definitions. I hope to avoid all debate about terms and will accept yours for purposes of conversation – when it looks as if I’m quibbling about them, please read it as “yes and” rather than opposition.

    Scenario is probably the hardest idea for me to process based on your description. I will set aside the term’s historical use in English, which does not distinguish between preparation and play, and is so generic as to be synonymous with “adventure” or “session or sessions of play.” As you’ve described it here, I think I need clarification that you are talking about more than initiating scenes and situations, because the concept includes planned outcomes. Do I have that right?

    If so, it reminds me of many published adventures which treat fights and clues as established events to be “played through,” i.e., there is no real doubt that the players will win or at least survive the fights, or that they will achieve the knowledge from the clue, or that regardless of the mechanical outcome, the important NPC will acknowledge them and make an offer.

    I am also a little bit confused about how Vampire’s political diagrams would qualify as (your term) scenario, as they look like Backstory to me. But perhaps you are envisioning or have experienced them in use in a way that is consistent with your description of Scenario.

    Conflicts strike me as meeting your criteria regardless of who proposes them (player or GM), regardless of when they were initially conceived (before or during play), and regardless of how many player-characters they directly impact. For the latter point, I even suggest that they are always “group,” as far as the real people are concerned, even if only one player-character receives the impact in the fiction.

    I think it may be useful to distinguish between initiating situations (scenes, conflicts, or both) and planning how they turn out, even if that plan acknowledges binary or multiple “paths.” With that distinction in mind, the issue of who thinks of it and when it is conceived become dials of no basic conceptual importance, although certainly with local technical importance for how the game is experienced.

    Dilemma and Fictional Outcomes seem to me unnecessarily separated to me. Systems of play may include many mechanics and techniques, some of which are “simply” spoken, and which may overlap in game-specific ways. It seems to me as though you are walling those techniques away from “system.” I’m not objecting to the basic concepts so much as conjoining them into a single one, which may take on numerous and very different shapes depending on the precise instruments (“rules”) being used.

    Emergent story – I completely agree with your concept, but “after” is such a tricky word, isn’t it! I suggest the Latin via is probably the best connecting or active word. “After” is too late by comparison. Therefore, your phrase would be “a set of meaningful links between fictional outcomes that is produced via their own apparation ‘during play.’”

    Part 2

    Reading your account of play, it seems to me that you are distracted by the issues that I tagged above as less important: who thinks of it (“it” being a bit of Backstory or a chosen course of action) and when, as opposed to considering the much more important distinction between initiating conflict rather than planning its outcome.

    Your overall points drive steadily toward the more important issue, but since we tend to focus on the experience of play rather than its relatively invisible “anatomy/physiology,” it’s easy to slip into the more superficial topic when talking about “how we did it” and “what happened.”

    To put it perhaps too simply, I think many long-time GMs are amazed at the fact that preparing Fact X before play is really no different from improvising Fact X during. They are stated and received in exactly the same way and with exactly the same effect on the situation.

    Again, I think I am agreeing with your overally presentation of play variables rather than disagreeing. But what interests me about the Blades in the Dark account is whether anything about Backstory or Conflicts mattered in terms of Emergent Story. The terms are capitalized here to indicate that I’m using your specific constructions for them. Was there a set of meaningful links from outcome to outcome – did meaning occur at all?

    You see, I see and accept that logistic linking from outcome to outcome was present. The structure of the game ensures that, as amplified by your own group’s attention to colorful and interesting content. But I am interested in more than logistic continuity. I am interested in what you are calling meaning in your description of Emergent Story.

    If it occurred, as I would say it, “via” the played content, resolutions, and outcomes, then what was it?

    I must apologize for continually referring you to previous conversations, but in this case, I think there will be a big positive gain. Manu (Dreamofpeace)’s posted two play accounts here which operate as a single conversation, Star Wars: Dark Times and A few sessions of D&D. The first one includes two video responses from me and extensive discussion.

     

     

    Ron Edwards's picture

    I want to address the points you raised at the very end of your post, about the free play as glue that the phases of play may both encourage (by providing content for the free play to happen in the first play) and benefit from (i.e., acquiring or establishing phase-relevant information during the free play).

    This reminds me a lot of two things. First, my consulting discussions here at Adept Play for Tor Erickson, as he was developing procedures for “town play” in an otherwise rather heavy-adventure, high-danger fantasy-dungeoneering game. I think we addressed it most in The Merchant’s Wife discussion. The notion was to make two things mutually supportive: the structured prep for dungeoneering, including the straightforward admission that “Look, I prepped it, that’s where you going,” and the rather open-ended, not too dangerous, but ultimately motivating social events in town.

    Second, regarding 3:16, a game which has profoundly frustrated me in the years since its publication, not due to its own qualities but the apparent disconnect or clean audience-miss in terms of how to play. The structure is pretty formal – I would have said very formal, except that it’s less so than many games published later, including Blades – because you have briefings and violent missions, and one or two other little named events like awards ceremonies. If that’s all of what you play, however, things become ... well, bloodless if that term can be applied to a game filled with exploding body parts, because I’m referring to the thematic build that can only exist insofar as players begin judging the situation they’re in. And I mean judging in the judgiest possible meaning of that term, including taking action in a much freer, potentially even subversive way.

    The tricky thing is that playing anything else, i.e., “out of structure,” is almost too easy, so possible that it’s invisible. The GM sets up play via the structure, but you can do anything regarding a briefing or reward ceremony, before, during, and after it, including tons of play up and down and around the spaceship. You can also do anything you want involving a mission, including utterly shirking it and doing other stuff entirely either on the ship or down on the planet.

    I stress that the game does provide mechanics for all such activity, so it’s not like you’re forced to go to “just talking” and consensus-based play to do these things. Our group saw quite a lot of this activity once the possibility became visible, and the entire experience came to resemble Catch-22 far more directly than lock-and-load mission success-and-survival.

    Online discussion about it, however, was incredibly tense and often angry – people interpreted what we did as basically avoiding the game, whereas I maintained, citing examples in the text, that the mission-based structure was there specifically to act upon, not just in, so that the structure was in no way a stage-setting task-based process in which you hit your mark, armored up, and went to kill bugs. One of the friendlier threads was [3:16] Way too easy or just got the rules wrong?

    Such discussions were not helped by my distaste for military fetishism among American gamers, or by my general position that many people who consider themselves liberals and moderates are tacit fascists regarding gaining manliness and womanliness through (as they see it and love to see it dramatized) the cleansing and honest experience of war. That goes over well, as you may imagine.

    Anyway, I’d like to know more about the gluing qualities of free play in Blades in the Dark, as you experienced them. I’m especially interested insofar as they are more than merely an open-sourced way for situations to get prepared, and whether they may provide defining and consequential individual positions for player-characters.

    I suppose a blunter way to put this is, can free play in Blades in the Dark result in characters’ outlooks or their circumstances leading to wanting to subvert or fail missions? By “can,” I mean, “consistent with the game design,” or even its best-supported purpose of play, as you see it.

    Greg's picture

    Ok, I've read the threads and discovered 3:16. This exactly the approach I'm gonna take. Freeplay as "gelatin" more than glue, finally. Imagine a pool of gelatin, this is the game (freeplay), then let's see what the players do and "invoke" the mechanics as tool only when needed (think of these mechanics such as tools sinking/floating in the gelatin), and with this material I'll try to answer to your last question. Not sure of the result, but we'll try.

    My plan for the next session is to say "ok, we have played two rounds of score/downtime, now everybody knows the mechanics, let's forget them and invoke them when they are useful. Now, Math, where are you and what do you do?", and we'll see where it leads.

    My first feedback with the players is that: there is a "forced" structured way to play just because of the experience arc of the character and crew sheets. Nico told me that as he starts as a "small gangs" that has to win tiers and gain experience to unlock abilities and win score points, there is a pushing factors to go this way (such as dnd). I'll post more after we played.

    Greg's picture

    So I’ve read these interesting conversations about intuitive continuity in the SW Dark Times and a few sessions of d&d. It’s really interesting.

     

    Online discussion about it, however, was incredibly tense and often angry – people interpreted what we did as basically avoiding the game, whereas I maintained, citing examples in the text, that the mission-based structure was there specifically to act upon, not just in, so that the structure was in no way a stage-setting task-based process in which you hit your mark, armored up, and went to kill bugs. 

     

    We stopped the game after a debate like this, more or less. At one point somebody wo’s read Discussions about the strategy of the band (in fact, mostly “and now what do we do?”) were disrupted by discussions about “we are planning as traditional play!”, even if I took time several times to clarify that “discovering during the action through planning flashbacks” would not forbid to have roleplaying discussions about “what’s our next move”. One of the player was trying to get helpful by reading the book and intervening with rules, when I explicitly asked the contrary: “just let me try to master the rules and play your character”. The last sessions was not good, with some gamist expectations introduced in the end (ie : “I gain no xp in this session, so it was useless”).  So I couldn’t try this “gluing” experience, which in fact would be just playing as this: character sheets > starting situations > let’s follow these characters and “invoke“ a specified mechanic instead of trying to follow the [score/downtime]Freeplay structure.

    I stopped gming after getting frustrated, and now to my surprise, Math  started to gm a game. Now I’m playing the game as player, and we have the same discussions about the same things.

    Maybe the best way is in fact to not say you’re playing blades in the dark, while actually using its rules with more freedom. But it’s going against the game, because even the Character and the Crew sheets creates expectations.

     

    Grégory, you alluded to some inconsistency between text and your perceived author’s intent of play, or perhaps among portions of text, which makes the discussion a little murky. It’d be easier if the package of text and play were utterly identifiable as a block so we could discuss what it is; it’s harder when the block doesn’t quite hold together. Unless I’m mistaken in reading your post about this, may I ask you to be more specific about the inconsistency?

     

    p.161 of the book, chp 6 “How to play”, “Fiction-first gaming” section.

    “In a standard board game, for example, when you take your turn, you choose a move from one of the mechanics of the game, and then use that game system to resolve what happens. You might say, “I’m going to pay two stone to build a second fort on my home tile.” We could call this process “mechanics-first.” What you do on your turn is pick a mechanic to engage, then resolve that mechanic. Your choices are constrained by the mechanics of the game. You might color it in with some fictional trappings, like, “The brave citizens of Baronia heed the call to war and build a stout fort!” but the fiction is secondary; it’s flavor added on. In other words, the fiction is brought in after the mechanics, to describe what happened. »

     

    But still, the player chooses himself the action that will be used for the dice rolls. Then he has two downtime action to play. Sure, all of this could be “naturally” immerged in “free play”, with fiction described then mechanic chosen, but it’s just not happening. Character sheets, knowledge of downtime actions, inventory lists, “choosing his action on the action list to”, looking to the crew map to choose the next score (and mechanical bonus associated) : all of them are incentives that creates a mechanic-first mindset, while the book is telling the contrary (“fiction-first”).

     

    So it happens that players are choosing

     

    Your definitions suits well what I’m thinking about. I totally agree that “emergent story” is made via meaningful link between fictional outcomes, rather than after.

     

    Dilemma and Fictional Outcomes seem to me unnecessarily separated to me. Systems of play may include many mechanics and techniques, some of which are “simply” spoken, and which may overlap in game-specific ways. It seems to me as though you are walling those techniques away from “system.” I’m not objecting to the basic concepts so much as conjoining them into a single one, which may take on numerous and very different shapes depending on the precise instruments (“rules”) being used.

    This got my attention: it’s important for me to distinguish fictional outcomes and dilemmas (dilemmas are “bangs” in fact, fictional outcomes are the consequences of the player’s choice facing this dilemma), which are totally different things to me, but it you see it as unnecessary. But reading your answer again I think you meant that my “Fictional discussion” and “fictional outcomes” are unnecessary separated, which I agree now. I was defining the “system” as the set of mechanics, but reading the Big Model Glossary got me on the page.

     

    Finally, does emergent plot happened?

     

    I think so, I mean, we have a story of a political savvy tricky dirty guy. I didn’t plot anything. Math looked at his character, disguised himself into a lover, killed the target, resisted the consequences of his roll (which would have been “the ghost know who you really are”), went to the funerals, negotiated a score to kill the scapegoat he himself and impersonate choose, kill this scapegoat and is being paid and appreciated for its good job. Nothing was planned before, but the back and forth mechanics between “partial successes”, “complications”, “resistance”, and “flashbacks”. Math did not have a clear idea of its character before the game either.

     

    But there are some problems that I realize now. First, most of the thing that have been created are more about the Color than the story. The game feels very railroad when you follow the mechanical structure, not railroading on a plot, but to do specific things. There is not much the feeling of agency. Everything has a mechanic. You feel that you need money, and you need to do score, then you have your downtime. There’s not so much place to just pause and roleplay between us : social interactions between players are more about finding a consensus about mechanical stuffs (I’m gonna consort to gather informations, you can work on your long term projet to find the next artefact, I’m gonna indulge my vice, etc.

    Ron Edwards's picture

    I really appreciate these thoughts! This discussion seemed like it was digging into some deep places for you and I know it wasn't easy for you to distinguish between conclusions and reactions.

    I don't have much to follow up with, except perhaps it's time to consolidate the many criticisms of fiction-first/mechanics-first that I've scattered through the discussions for over a year.

    I like your distinction between "railroading on a plot" and "railroading to do specific things," which is to say, they both work against (or prevent) emergent plot. I think that it applies nicely to my design for Champions Now, in which neither is favored, which is important for a game in which using one's super-powers A, B, or C can be misunderstood and mis-applied as modular mechanics. I might want to follow up on that point in a post of its own.

    Greg's picture

    Dilemma and Fictional Outcomes seem to me unnecessarily separated to me. Systems of play may include many mechanics and techniques, some of which are “simply” spoken, and which may overlap in game-specific ways. It seems to me as though you are walling those techniques away from “system.” I’m not objecting to the basic concepts so much as conjoining them into a single one, which may take on numerous and very different shapes depending on the precise instruments (“rules”) being used.

    I only understand now what you meant! I realize I need to reforge some of the concepts after thinking about it and the game, which I'm doing today. I developed this language to talk about the Blades game with the involved friends.

    Greg's picture

    So I discussed the game with another player, actually playing it, and I'm playing as a player. Here are some thoughts after a few more play sessions, maybe more specific mechanics.

    1. The Downtime mechanics feel really broken. It's the main set of mechanics that create a "mechanic-first" climate. The game would greatly benefit to just "freeplay" the downtime. I've seen two different ways of experiencing the game, with two different groups.

    The first group is really "immersionist" focused, non board game players (or very rarely), generaly playing for "impersonating" her character, as one of the players told me. There was only 2 PC in that first group. The downtime mechanic led to opportunities of specific scene framing: we would learn about those characters by following some bits of their personal stories, in a very specific way of framing. "Let's see how this character indulge his vice", and most of the moment was about setting-building or color elaboration. Scenes was short, focused on a specific "central action", determined before the scene, by the act of choosing a downtime action. This actin determined the specific framing because we know what was at stake, what was the "goal" of the scene, so we knew when to start it, and when to finish it, and why. No surprise. Interesting to create a character by looking at what he's doing in a pre-determined prism of what the game wants to generate. It created some space for color building, and even intersting things about the personal story of the characters, nothing that seems to produce anything constructive or interesting in story terms.

    The second group had 2 players particulary into board game (in the way that they generaly play more board games than RPG : at least one board game evening by week), and one of them working in a board game public library, that express strong interest into the mechanics of the game, particulary the flashback and the faction game. "Board game player" does not mean "non RP player", or "gamist player", or anything like this, as one of these board game player is actually very immersionnist too, and generaly like playing competitive characters in immersion, more than "playing RP as a board game". It is a 4 PC group. Here the Downtime did not create opportunities of framed scenes of colour/setting/character building, but more "let's win dices for the engagement roll", with sometimes absurd and very general fictional explanation, just to justify the expected mechanical advantage. Literaly "ok I talked to a member of my heritage so he can tell me something about the score, so what do I roll and what's the bonus we get from it". Or trying to maximize the mechanics. Also, as they are downtime actions, generaly everybody waits for its turn and there was not so much "downtime action scenes" with roleplayin or weaving between the character. Actually, this mechanic seems to create a climate that reduce the potential of weaving.

    These two experiences and groups fell in the same deep hole when "healing" appeared to be necessary. In the last version of the game, healing is a 4-tick clock, and if you don't have a physicker, you have to hire one. If one follows the rules as written, you have to acquire an asset (a physicker), and roll its tier level to recover. It costs 1 downtime action to acquire the physicker during all the downtime phase, and 1 to heal one time. At Tier 0, the default Tier for a starting gang, acquiring an asset leads to a (Tier Gang -1) on a 1-3, (Tier Level) on a 4-5, Tier +1 on a 6, etc. You can pay to level up the level of success. With 75% to have a physicker Tier 0, who will  is very very painful for a Tier 0 physicker to make any success of healing.

    Another bad experience is when someone understand that power gaming is endorsed. "I have two downtime I action, so I train myself" does not lead to two interesting scenes of .. training. When I gmed, I I just didn't play it, but said "ok.. well ok, take your xp". Nothing very contributive to the story here.

    It can be solved, by throwing or defining fiction that tweak this mechanic. These kind of mechanic lead to painful discussion, with potential for tension in the group. My intuition is that, by creating a very spefic and detailed set of rules for everything, the games feels very simulationnist in its design, and it leads to argue about "the fiction doesn't fit the mechanic" and rules lawying, in a game that allow place to the subjectivity of the GM. Potential for social tensions.

    The whole thing: giving color to the character's vice, going to see a family member to have information for the next score, would benefit more in a "freeplay" phase, than in a "pick your downtime action" phase.

    2. Partial success and resistance. I got interesting experiences with the game, as I described it in this post. I realized that what was working for us was two specific mechanics : roll dices => great probabilites for a success "with complications" => the possibility to "resist" the effects of a complication.

    This mechanic lead to interesting thing, with the player being able to resist effects, but thoses effects still being brought into the fiction as an event affecting the situation, and the resistance being a new event, provided by the player and not the gm, to affect the situation again. This set of mechanics really works for us to create emergent plots, as it works in apocalypse world (without the resistance mechanics) for us (we never created fronts, as we played the 2E where it has been ripped off, every threats were coming from direct situations in play).

    But in Blades, this set of mechanic is embbeded in a stress pool system to limit the possibility for resistance. I think it's interesting to cap resistance, making it a scarced resources, which let the players to define meaningful choice for them. I think that is what I was trying to express in my original post, but I only understand it now. I like the probabilities of the game, which are almost the same probabilites of Apocalypse World, with the "position/effect" adding a little more "situational difficulty" if needed.

    The difficulty of the game, to me, is that every mechanics are embbeded in another ones, leading to a complexe machinery, leading to the Hamster In a Wheel effect. What I liked in the Iruvian story of Math, was how we build an interesting character through partial/resistance, as totally emergent from the situation. But I reallize now that it was embbeded in a Downtime Mechanic of prescriptive scene framing that created this culture of "it's not my turn" that prevented the players to cross or weaves themselves. So, when something interesting emerge from the partial success/resistance set, it's generally in seperated "silo", X hamsters in X wheels.

     

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