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.
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.
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!