Blades in the dark

IN SHORT… I have a complex relationship to BitD. It’s the game that made me “rediscover” RPGs after a long hiatus, in a long 20-session campaign that I ran as a GM without having ever played the game as a player… Along the way, I can say that I didn’t always run it as intended, and learned that it doesn’t work as well. I love the background, and I love the system. Every now and then, I run a one-shot of it. It always ends up being a fun game — but after playing 30+ games of Blades, I do get this feeling of “having seen this episode before”, and that’s a bit of a shame.

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THE MEDIUM

3.5-hour game, with 5 players. 2 regular, 3 new ones. Voice on Discord. VTT on Let’s Role.

One thing to note about Blades is that it is hands down the easiest way to find new, mature and interesting players — because it’s a “big enough” game that people have heard about it, but it’s different enough that it attracts folks who are a bit fed up with D&D.

THE BACKGROUND

I love Doskvol. For a long time, I thought that I enjoyed Blades only because of the system and the general structure, but then I found that I also really enjoyed the esthetics of this dark setting, with enough anchor points that you can’t just turn it into a sausage of your own, but with enough creative freedom that you can define what the world means to you. I tend to be low on the occult by default, but high on the faction politics.

In fact, I tried several “hacks” of Blades, and I have always been disappointed by either the lack of depth and esthetics in the background of these games, or by how convoluted of a system they managed to build on top of the core mechanics.

To me, Blades is a good example of a system <> background alignment that works — for me at least, although given how successful the game is, it seems to work for others too.

THE FICTION

For Blades, even as a one-shot, you need a minimum level of player engagement before the game if you don’t want to waste a ton of time at the beginning of the session. We prepare on Discord, and that shapes up the characters. This way, we have 30 minutes of going around the table, and defining the crew before we decide on a score.

We played “as intended” — meaning we didn’t prep, we decided together what the score would be, and I laid out twists and developments along the way. Pretty typical score by a crew of Shadows — intercepting an artifact being delivered from the train station to a private buyer. An ambush, a counter-ambush, the group splitting into a diversion group and the extraction group. Blades as usual in a way.

ONE SCENE

I feel like a pretty typical scene of Blades involves a bunch of super intricate details of a plan unfolding through flashbacks, and that definitely happened. An armored carriage holding the artifact was very quickly stopped by a bomb, a diversion negotiated with another gang, other bridges being blocked, and the crew hiding under the bridge — all actions being done “in the past”, but resolved in a pinch “in the present”. Very Blades-like.

THE SYSTEM

What I love the most about the system is how it flips the focus on the stakes of failing instead of the degree of success. It took me a while to really understand how to play with the trade-off between effect and positioning, but when I did, wow… This really makes the rolls count narratively. The trap in GMing Blades, which I fell into many times, is to just go to resolution without considering the stakes, and either spring something disproportional to the players, or just shrug and say “well, I guess you didn’t manage to do what you wanted”. But every few times in a game, the stakes are very high, the narrative consequences are clear to every before the roll, and there is a chill at the table as the dice get rolled. And that’s really cool.


7 responses to “Blades in the dark”

  1. I’d like to know about events, i.e., characters & actions & outcomes, for any of the capers that you really liked playing. No dissection or analysis, just good ol’ who-where-why-what.

    Since we’re still getting know one another, I’ll clarify. A worried or cautious reading would interpret my question as a challenge, “prove it,” probably preparing for a tedious showdown about author’s real vision and interpretation. This is not the case. You’ve enjoyed play. I want to share in its content at second-hand, and that’s all.

  2. Hey Ron. I see. I’m now worried I may be “off base” for the kind of content you want for Actual Play.

    Let me ask you something: is your comment about about events, characters, actions, outcomes, etc. the general “editorial line” you prefer for the Actual Play posts, and is my stuff a bit too much bent towards theory / system?

    I love playing, but I do enjoy writing more about theory rather than accounts of the games. And obviously a bit draw to Actual Play was your take on theory. (I also write my own fiction, but that’s totally off-topic here.) Just thought I’d ask you pointedly, because my intention was to write a similar note after other games – and if that doesn’t fit your vision of Actual Play content, I’d be bummed out, but I would totally respect that, and only post the ones where I’m more excited to write about “events”.

    Having said that, to this specific game. The character were perhaps a bit “déjà-vu”, but that’s expected for a one-shot. I think the really cool thing about the game was how the action was set. The players immediately decided to hijack the delivery from the train station to the mansion of Lord Dunvil, and they scrummed a bunch of ideas, mostly revolving around narrowing down the path of the delivery. They focused on the bridges. One bridge was in the industrial district and they thought of organizing a riot. For the other bridges, they went more aggressive with some clutter and some explosive. The engagement roll was a mitigated success, so the main consequence that the whole place started swarming with Bluecoats figuring out what was going on. (Since the ideas were really fun, I didn’t want to mitigate by taking a meaningful idea of theirs.) When the action started, they used a flurry of their remaining scrum ideas into flashbacks at the beginning of the engagement. Two crew members were posted North and South of the bridge to signal and provide cover, the rest under the bridge. They detonated a few more charges when the delivery passed, threw a few smoke grenades, and had an allied gang help provide diversion in a cross-fire. Then they went in.
    What was neat, and system-related, was that all of this was about 30 minutes of game time. 15 minutes of scrum. 15 minutes of engagement setting and flashback resolution.

  3. I don’t know if you’re going to believe this, but there is no sneaky nudge in my question, no direction you’re supposed to pick up, no lesson about what to write, and no reason to seek “the content I want” and an “editorial line.” Your post is fine, my comment is fine, your reply to it is fine.

    I asked you for the content for the reasons I already gave, and thanks for replying with it. It helps me understand your post, and that’s all. This is a straightforward dialogue.

    For example, to continue with it, I’d like to know what the parenthetical statement means: “I didn’t want to mitigate by taking a meaningful idea of theirs.” Why? Because I want to drill into it and interrogate you and catch you in something? No. Because I don’t understand it, possibly due to my limitations, or possibly due to a typo for all I know, and I’m interested.

    • Clear. And sounds good!

      My challenge with the “mitigated success” is that it pretty much has to come by either “adding” some problem or “removing” some success. And my experience is that in Blades players may have a strong feeling about what’s core to their action and what’s fair or not to add / remove, and get upset if it doesn’t match.

      In this case, their goal was to ambush the delivery in the street by cutting off three bridges. What is “core” to that?

      My initial reaction to “mitigate” the success was to tell them that seeing how much chaos there was in the streets of the city that night, the delivery guys had decided to use a boat through the canals. I was envisioning that this may turn everything into a cool boat chase in the city, having to board the boat, fight on it, possibly risk sinking it — all of this at the surface of ghost-infested waters. (And as I write this I regret not doing it…)

      But I got nervous that the players would view this as a little trick that defused all their good scrum work around a street ambush…

      Another alternative would have been to talk about it openly, offer this as a path forward, and ask their opinion. But I feel doing this “kills the jam” a bit, and lifts the suspension of disbelief. So I took the easy route and just added a bluecoat presence everywhere. Did it work? Sure. Was it cool? Meh.

    • [note to others] Denis and I went to a screen conversation, because my question concerned the grammatical meaning of the phrase – nothing motivational or procedural, nothing to analyze or explore. We figured it out immediately, as it was due to a vagary of English. The phrase should be “I didn’t want to mitigate by taking away a meaningful idea of theirs.”

      So that’s what was asked and now answered. I appreciate the in-depth reflection too, but it definitely wasn’t what I was asking for in this case.

  4. If you do not mind the question, what was it about Blades that called you to engage in playing again? And did it live up to that after you did play? Have you engaged with the game as a player or just run it as the GM?

    • I don’t mind at all. I’m sure a few folks here would know what I’m talking about. You know how sometimes a book, a movie, a play is such an intense experience the first time — and then you hope to recreate it by going through it again, but it doesn’t quite work?

      Blades is that for me. I had taken a hiatus from RPGs for a long time due to personal constraints. Then one day I hopped back with some D&D, and then started plyaing and GMing a few games of Blades (which turned into a full campaign) and it was so cool, new, exciting, and rich. And now every now and then I get a table together (as a GM or a player), hoping that I’ll find the same thrill I found in my first games. And I don’t…

      I have the same for some video games. Loves playing again out of nostalgia. But I can’t recreate the first experience.

      Books are different for some reason, there are (a few) books I have read 10 times, and every reading is more intense and deeper than the prior. A handful of movies as well.

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