Suddenly, You Get Choked

I’ve been hit by a roleplaying memory from a few years ago while discussing Blades in the Dark with an acquaintance.

I was playing Scum and Villainy, which is a space-opera/western themed game based on Blades in the Dark. The two games are, rule-by-rule, extremely similar, but that doesn’t make them the same game. Also, this is not a review of either of these games.

So, this is how it went: this was a small 3-player game and we were running a space-scoundrel crew running smuggling/retrieval jobs.

One of these jobs was set on a semi-desert planet in an underground facility, where some valuable macguffin was stored. Different factions showed up vying for the macguffin.

So, first of all: this is not a particularly pleasant gaming memory. The sesson was plagued by intuitive continuity as I struggled to make sense of the little prep that I had — the game suggests you prep nothing as a GM for your heists. “Well, I guess this is the time for them to get out.” and so it goes. Total bullcrap.

Fortune rolls in general work really well. You rank factions with a score that can be used to make Fortune rolls. These can be used at-will by the GM to provide information such as: how good is the equipment in that faction’s ship? Are these guys prepared for this? Did they set up sentries in advance? Et cetera. Removes the responsibility of having this info prepared or having to make it up on the spot.

I really struggled to use the action rolls effectively, especially when players piled on so many dice that it was essentially a done deal that the roll was going to succedd (with a cost, probably, but whatever). With a few dice it was fun, but with a lot of dice, we were essentially relying on the Resistance mechanic to actually provide resolution, since the Action mechanic was essentially pointless wankery at that point. It’s a lot harder to get loads of dice for Resistance,.

Now we get into one of the core ways in which Scum and Villainy is different than Blades. The difference in tone and themes means that Blades characters will tend to start out as nihilist traumatized edgelords already, while S&V characters tend to start out as more idealistic and naïve, although not idiots. This frames the stress&trauma mechanic completely different — in Blades, it’s just the natural progression of your character, it’s what they do. In S&V each trauma can potentially be a big character moment, usually changing them for the worse.

So, stress seems to have more meaning to me in S&V. Which is also why the game provides Gambits, a way to get roll bonuses without spending stress — but the one thing you can’t spend gambits on are Resistance rolls.

The two things (Resistence being effetively used for resolution & stress having a higher perceived value) tend to combine effectively, if and only if the GM doesn’t pull punches on the consequences.

I described the entire ship crashing and getting destroyed as the result of a “Success with consequence”. Resist that! That was fun — the player really pondered whether to spend the stress and trigger the Resistance roll, and potentially risk a Trauma, or let the ship crash.

This realization became more lucid while they were exploring the macguffin facility. At a certain point. I just stopped calling for action rolls, and directly described harsh consequences. PC walked in room with gorilla-sized enforcer, the enforcer just grabs him, yeets him to the floor, and starts choking him. No roll. Wanna resist that?

I’m pretty sure the game as written doesn’t allow this, and I wondered for a while if I had “overstepped” my GM boundaries. But fuck that shit. It was fun. It was more fun than rolling a watered down action roll and ending up with another “yes but” where I try to figure out something we were not rolling for to fuck over.

That series was the last time I played any Blades-inspired game out of my own accord, not consciously, but I guess I was done with it. Some months later some group asked me to demo S&V for them, and I did to be nice, and that session was really boring. I couldn’t get past how boring the action roll is as a mechanic. I couldn’t get past how arbitrary each result feels when you’re making up the heist as you go along.

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5 responses to “Suddenly, You Get Choked”

  1. Trading Consequences For Tick Marks

    I finally had a chance to play a Forged in the Dark based game recently. It was Court of Blades and based on what the other people in the game were saying its deviations from Baldes in the Dark were also pretty minimal.

    It's interesting that you say it's easy to pile on dice. Either there are differences in the rules or the GM running the game was less permisive because I frequently found myself only rolling one or two dice and getting up to three was a stretch.

    The thing I didn't like about Resistance rolls were that they felt like a retcon action. I was being told what the consquences of the Action roll was but then given an opportunity to "undo" them (technically "reduce" but the feeling is the same). On top of that I rarely had to say "how" I was resisting I just rolled.  It was like making a Saving Throw against the outcome of my own actions. Finally, the net result is diminished fictional consequences in exchange for abstract currency (stress).

    So, we're litterally exchaning actionable consequences for abstraction that presumambly has consequences down the line but only for me, personally, not the situation.  It feels like a mechanic entirely designed to keep the "scenario" (for lack of better term) moving along in exchange for bundling away "consequnces" into the box of my character sheet where they impact me, and me alone.  So, I get to daydream about being this messed up traumaized person without disrupting "the teams" goals.

    Just some additional thoughts on my (vastly limited) experience with Resistance rolls.

  2. As to the first point: I think with 4-5 being a success with consequence and 6 being a full success, 2 dice are already many in S&V, if you consider success vs. failure probabilities. If you’re rolling 3 you’re almost guaranteed some form of success.

    Compare with The Pool, which has almost the same distribution, but lacks the partial success, a success only coming when a “1” is present on at least one die. 1 die in S&V has a 50% probability of succeeding (partial or full), compared to 4 dice in The Pool.

    The second point I think we’re discussing already in Calling Rolls and “Unresolving” Statements
    https://adeptplay.com/2023/01/10/calling-rolls-and-unresolving-statements/

  3. Some of the terminology from the courses works well here: the concept of certainty/uncertainty (credit where it’s due: Rickard Elimää!). But I need to set up my point first.

    There’s a set of things which may be said by an appropriate person or persons which are non-negotiable. I don’t care whether the input is a single person or more than one person contributing different elements. The key is that anyone may ask regarding details if they need them, but no one can adjust or counter or otherwise alter the straightforward content of what’s being said.

    By contrast, there’s a set of things which by definition, when stated, call for new activity, distinct from the previous interchange, which will operate as constraints on what can be said next. You can think of this way of talking as effective questions into the shared activity, “what happens now,” basically, for which we have a designated way to proceed. (It is usually not composed of grammatical questions, but statements like “roll for initiative” or “I throw my axe at him.”)

    These are not contrasting styles or methods of play. In any role-playing experience, some things are in the first set and some things are in the second. Functional play means we understand which is which and are not conducting some stupid struggle to ‘port things back and forth.

    There’s a useful notion buried back in my solo play of Circle of Ice (a T&T adventure), in which the textual directions raise the question of “when do we roll dice,” because some of them are flat statements like “you fall down the crevasse! If you do X, go to page 00; if you do Y, go to …” etc, and others are effective questions by calling for a roll, then the result’s page direction tells you whether you fall down the crevasse or not. The logic of which is which probably isn’t particularly sound in this text – what matters is that the distinction is obvious and points to such a distinction as a necessary component of play.
    https://adeptplay.com/2018/12/19/ardor-icy-pits/

    OK, that’s the setup. Now to apply Rickard’s excellent term: because “Suddenly, he is choking you” is in the first set, in this account of play. We aren’t in the second set until the other person says something about it.

    I’ll take the liberty of telling you what I think I see. @Claudio, what you’re dealing with are players who want to be safe as long as they are in the first set – the notion that nothing bad can happen or cause any trouble unless they roll badly or otherwise at least get to throw in some kind of negotiatory input. And you’re saying, “No, that is not play. Play requires that some dangerous things are in that first set.” And you are absolutely correct in saying this as a principle.

    Whether they want such things to be in that set for this game, or understood that this game permits such things, is another question. Frankly, the titles you using here are pretty bad in this regard, to the extent that I think the instructions largely negate play. One doesn’t play Scum and Villainy, one cosplays someone who’s role-playing (GM, player, either one). I’ve played enough and considered enough thoughtful accounts to stop screwing around about this – when you take steps to make it into real play, which includes establishing which things are in set 1 and which are in set 2, you’re effectively designing a game at the table and are probably tacitly playing Trollbabe.

  4. “…players who want to be safe as long as they are in the first set – the notion that nothing bad can happen or cause any trouble unless they roll badly…”

    I had a sudden insight about this which is that the reverse exists: players who think nothing good can happen unless they roll well. (Partially, because I think I have been this person from time to time).

    I think sometimes players get into this mindset that the way you eliminate “fiat” (by anyone) is for everyone to abdicate all authorities. Nothing consequential can happen good or bad unless dice or some other mechanism grants permission. Play sort of spins its wheels until someone wants to try and move things forward somehow and we automatically go, “Okay roll for it…” even if it isn’t particularly uncertain, it’s just consequential.

    From my experience when people are exercising their authorities and those authorities happen to be productively building on each other in such a way that nothing particularly uncertain arises, it starts feeling like you’re getting away with something. The game is “too easy.”

    The converse thinking leads into the original statement. Something bad happened and I didn’t get to roll to stop it, so you’re making things arbitrarily hard at your whim.

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