Lessons Learned Hitherto: Blades in the Dark

In spite of Dungeons and Dragon 5E being the second system that I was a game master (GM) for it required a surprisingly amount of effort to try being a GM for a different system after DnD 5E. I chalk this up to DnD 5E requiring a deceptively great deal of energy to plan and run, a lack of experience likely also affected this, when compared to something like Dread which I had started with. In all likelihood I was under the impression that a new system would take more effort than just maintaining my tumultuous relationship with DnD 5E, however I wanted change and in a moment of clarity I purchased a copy of Blades in the Dark.

Blades in the Dark was the catalyst for my newfound and rampant love for roleplaying games. After running the game my perception of RPGs widened which led me to collect more to the point that people are worried for me. Below are my musings and reflections on Blades in the Dark.

Blades in the Dark and Mutant: Year Zero presented beautifully on an old and worn table. Gaze upon those mighty mug stains.

Blades in the Dark

Blades in the Dark has the GM and players tell the story of a crew of criminals in a supernatural industrial city that powers everything with demon blood and ghosts. The crew has its own character sheet and over the course of the game will hopefully grow in power all the while making ‘friends’ and enemies. This goes for the player characters, scoundrels, too who will likely succumb to their vices. This is achieved through a game loop as follows: Free Play, Score, Downtime.

Blades in the Dark game loop as seen on page 9 of the rule book

This defined structure helps to maintain a cohesive story between all of the players because at any point everyone knows the pacing, tone, and objective. With the exception of Free Play, which is horribly defined and does not fit neatly, the Score is a fast-paced and tense criminal activity such as a heist, assassination, or something else of that ilk whereas the Downtime is more slow-paced with moments of tension in which the immediate consequences play out. Both of these modes of play included a solid structure for planning and running them with each feeding into the next. This allowed me to prep more quickly, improvise more easily, and enjoy the story more all because I knew what to prep, my prep was more useful, and everyone knew what each part of the game was for and approximately where we were heading in the story.

What is the price of success?

The most impressionable lesson from Blades in the Dark for me was the different approach to the RPG conversation between GMs and players. The players are on a downward spiral and the process of conflict resolution leans towards adding complications through failure or success at a cost, however with the addition of flashbacks and the like players can pull through. Coupled with the fact that players have an end goal, retire, or succumb to their vice, everyone has a destination in mind. This changes the question when dice are rolled from ‘Do I succeed or fail?’ to ‘What is the price of success?’ and in my opinion this is a more effective question to encourage players to make decision about what they are willing to give up succeeding which is the overall story being told in Blades in the Dark.

Example clocks from Blades in the Dark

Lastly the idea of clocks changed the way that I thought about problems in the narrative. I believe the mechanics of clocks were first introduced in Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker; however, Blades in the Dark was my first introduction to them. A clock is essentially a timer that rolls can interact with and are a way a seeing when something could trigger, how long something will last, etc. It seems like a simple concept that people have been doing with just a D6 and counting down each round in combat, however the clocks are more integrated than that. Great rolls or terrible rolls may tick the clock up or down at different rates or the clocks may work against each other such as in a chase sequence. This allowed me to take an otherwise complicated consequence that I would need to think about and abstract it to a clock requiring X number of ticks giving me time but still adding tension and consequence to actions for my players.

Overall Blades in the Dark opened my eyes to what a roleplaying game could be by fundamentally changing the conversation between GMs and players. Though it has some issues, such as the misbegotten ‘Free Play’, the defined structure facilitates a cohesive storytelling experience which allows for flexibility through the use of clocks and choosing how much of a price to pay for success.

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Random Table: What’s in Their Pocket?

Figure 1: A random table

The use of random tables in my games are still predominantly focused on the before aspect of the game – the preparation. However, in my most recent campaign of Mutant: Year Zero I did return to utilising random tables during a session and I found that I very much liked the random aspects they can introduce while also allowing a modicum of control.

Though random tables are in the early stages of ruminating deep in the basting juices of my mind, they have provoked me to consider where different GM tools might lie on a spectrum of chaos and control. My preparations for a game session involve a couple of possible situations tied to each PC and the plots which is derived from the drives and goals of the NPCs – it is quite minimal, but it rests on the more control side of the spectrum. Then the players bring in their moxie to add a touch of chaos to drag my prep towards the centre and this is where I feel that random tables rest – I create them and the dice bring in that delightful chaos.

In the spirit of random tables and my endeavour to use them more here is a table to be used when you need to know what is inside a person’s pocket. I have tried to keep it thematically neutral but interesting so that it can fit in any setting while providing questions with each roll.

What’s in Their Pocket?

2D4Pocket Contents
2Tracked Orb: A small glass orb that rolls after the last person who touched it. When viewed by the wielder, it shows their reflection and then fades to black with a red ‘X’ that can be viewed from any angle.
3Rotting Finger: A shriveling lump of flesh with exposed bone depicts a decaying finger moist with infection. Near the base, where it has been severed, is half of a ring mark.
4Blue Stain: The pocket is empty but the sides feel powdery. The thief’s hand is now stained blue for all to see!
5Pocket Change: A small amount of currency either in a container such as a pouch or loose inside the pocket. It can be in pristine, polished condition (1/6); worn and used (4/6); mucky and smelly (1/6).
6Scratch Pad: A tiny notebook or pad for taking short notes with. In the most common language a series of three numbers are hastily scrawled on it, e.g. 32 1 15.
7Clockwork Device: A small device that begins to chatter when in the presence of heat. In the cold if the device is squeezed it prints out a sheet of paper with a series of dots and lines on it that translate to the noise around the device during its most recent chattering.
8Formal Invitation: A letter written on heavy card stock invites the beneficiary of this letter to a private soiree. The incredibly fine print towards the bottom reads “BYO sacrifice but food and drink is provided”. It’s signed “- The Dimaryp Opportunity”.

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