Blades of Fate

Blades in the Dark clarified a lot of things that Fate 2 and Spirit of the Century tried to do, so I decided to steal its tech to go back over some old territory, mashing it up with new technology where appropriate. So, hang on tight.

Adjective Ladder

Step 1, we’re compressing the adjective ladder as follows:

X: Poor
0: Mediocre
1 : Fair
2: Good
3: Great
4: Superb

And done. You can extrapolate from there if you want, but that is the functional core, and to take it a step further, Poor and Superb only show up in very rare circumstances, so the heart of things is 4 steps. Compressing the ladder also means the honorable retirement of “Average” and years of discussions regarding the difference between mediocre and average. It also, I think, improves its conversational usability.

Dice Rolling

When you roll dice, you roll a number of Fate dice determined by the ladder, and pick the best one.

If it’s a (success) +, then you succeed, free and clear, based on the terms of the roll (more on that in a bit). This maps to a 6 result in BITD. Multiple Plusses map to a critical success.

If it’s a blank (Mixed), then you succeed, but the GM gets to complicate it in some way. This maps to a 4-5 result in Blades.

If it’s a – (Failure), then you fail, and what that means also depends on the terms of the roll. 1

Poor and Mediocre rolls

If you’re mediocre, then roll 2df and keep the lower. If you’re poor, you just fail.

Skills, Approaches and Whatnot

In fine Fate tradition, this supports any kind of descriptors. Skills? Approaches? Professions? Descriptors? Whatever. They all work. But you need to pick one and run with it.

For illustration purposes, we’ll use approaches, but please consider it the tip of the iceberg. This will be largely familiar to anyone who has played FAE, but the main difference is that in addition to each approach having an implicit meaning, it has implicit failure states and these matter a lot on mixed rolls and failures.

For example, the failure states on Flashy are 1) Insufficiently flashy and 2) only flashy. That matters because by default, a mixed means that you were flashy enough, but the problem emerges because you were insufficiently Quick or Forceful or some other approach that might have mattered. In contrast, a full on failure is a failure to be sufficiently flashy.

These failure states are not cast in stone – situations can freely generate exception – but they exist to give a more clear default for how to handle what approaches mean.

Terms of the Roll

When a roll is made, it has 5 components:

  • Action – The action and situation being described which has called for a roll
  • Effort – The skill/approach chosen and the dice rolled
  • Position – how risky of controlled the action being taken is.
  • Effectiveness – How well or poorly this is likely to work, under best/worst circumstances.
  • Effect – The result of all this. IN the case of a success, this is synonymous with effectiveness.

Action is either a whole thesis topic on its own, or perfectly obvious. The player has described an action which is sufficiently interesting, uncertain or both as to call for the dice. For simplicity, I’m going to treat this as a solved problem

Effort comes from the player: They choose which approach they’ll use, roll the dice (and make any decisions related to that die rolling).

Action and effort combine to determine position (which will be Free, Controlled, Risky or Dangerous2) and effectiveness (which will be potent, normal or weak). These are determined and communicated by the GM as a logical extension of the action and effort.

This is, explicitly, where the “That approach is bullshit” filter gets applied, especially with effectiveness. The GM is free too (encouraged even) to diminish effect for approach selections that seem more made for the bonus than the in applicability of the situation, and by the same token to reward clever approach selection with greater effect. This should not turn into a game of “Read the GMs mind for best bonus” but it should be resolvable within the bounds of common sense.

Position

Position impacts the effects of failure. Failure or mixed success from a controlled position tends to be have minor consequences. From a risky position, they can have more teeth, and from a dangerous position they can be very costly indeed.

I’m not going just restate the table from Blades, but in my head, that’s what we’re talking about.

Effectiveness

Just as position shapes failure, effectiveness shapes success. The best roll in the world can only make so much of a difference with the wrong tools solving the wrong problem. But on the flip side, the right tool for the job can make heavy work light. In practice, a success with potent effectiveness will have more punch (a free crit, perhaps) while weak effectiveness means diminished effect. Again, mentally I’m just stealing the Blades table for this at the moment.

Do we need both?

In theory, you could collapse position and effectiveness. You wouldn’t want to have a 3×3 grid because that would be fiddly, but a fair number of games tie effectiveness back to effort (by modifying the roll, with bonuses and penalties) and trust the diminished roll to reflect the diminished effectiveness. Of course a lot of games do the same with position as well, so we could arguably ditch both in favor of a more robust effort model. That kind of works, but it’s very game-logical rather than human logical.

But even beyond that, I like having the explicit GM tool to express an opinion. Explicitly calling out position and effectiveness forces a fruitful moment of clear communication between player and GM while providing protection against the rules getting too disconnected from reality.

The Free Roll

This equates to the Fortune roll in blades. A free roll has neither position more effectiveness (and is probably sketchy on action and effort) because it has no particular consequences, and is simply a roll the GM may call for to answer a question.

Crits

Success is more common in this system, but that’s fine – this is for somewhat friendlier games than those about cutthroat thieves. Trickier is the fact that it means criticals are more common, so we’ll need to make sure their meaning is very clear. Not fully unpacking that yet, but planting a flag as something to come back to.

Scale3

As with Blades, Scale affects position and effect because it encompasses both, and carries them to a greater magnitude. The most obvious example of scale is size – a mouse has a hard time fighting a horse, or a soldier an army – but it can encompass much more than that, including available time, appropriate tools, correct understanding an so on. Sometimes scale exists on a ladder (such as with tiers of size) but sometimes it’s a simple gateway (like a language barrier). It is a many faceted thing, but when something is impossible, the barrier is usually scale.

Functionally, scale’s impact on position and effectiveness are independent and situational. Sneaking past a giant robot might be no harder than usual, but punching it is unlikely to have much effect.
Now, the nuances of scale are very much a genre driver, because it speaks to the kind of situations that can come up and what things like a “fair fight” look like, so with that in mind, treat this generalization as very suspect.

Scale has only two meaningful steps (beyond parity): “Oh Crap” and “Oh, hell no”.

If it’s Oh Crap, then the scale difference is enough to make your life harder. One guy fighting a gang. One chef cooking for a wedding. It’s doable, but harder. This can imperil position, reduce effectiveness or both. If it’s Oh Crap for the other guy, that’s effectively reversed.

If it’s Oh, Hell No then you just don’t bother. You cannot fistfight an army, nor can you pick lock a bank vault. These are sufficiently out of scope that failure is presupposed and you go to the dice for things adjacent to it (like running away from that army you tried to fistfight).

Where this gets interesting (and genre raises its head) is where scale can be ignored or altered. A legendary bar fighter might be able to ignore Oh Crap in a bar fight. The god of bar fights might be able to punch an army (ignoring the Oh, Hell No).

Skills are flash, but scale matters

More critically, with planning and effort, a brawler might manage to get in front of an army at a point where they’re forced to come at him one at a time, overcoming scale with skill and cunning. It still probably won’t end well, but it’ll be a hell of a fight.

And that’s the rub. When we talk about “skill” outside of the RPG context, there is this idea of legendary skill, and legendary acts of skill, and when we map that to RPGs we tend to map that as very high values overcoming very high difficulties. The problem is that this only represents a very small subset of significant actions. Hitting a target can be dramatic an exciting, but it is a different order of action than, say, winning a war or curing a disease. There are entire categories of actions which are not resolved with a single act, but rather by steadily changing the situation so that something that started out as impossible becomes possible.

Scale is how you handle things like that and, critically, scale rules are how you communicate how important actions like that are to your game. Not every game needs a path to cure cancer or gather enough votes to become mayor.

All of which is to say that scale is a bigger deal than we tend to acknowledge, and how we handle it is a critical descriptor for genre.

Aspects, Fate Points and Stress

There is no mechanical reason not to port Stress into Fate. It’s not hard, and requires only a few decisions. The simplest model is this:

  • Fate Points and the stress track are now Stress Pool
  • Players may spend Stress to invoke an aspect to add a die to a roll
  • Compels replenish the stress pool.
  • Damage is taken to the stress pool
  • Consequences can ablate damage as normal
  • Devils Bargains effectively combine a simultaneous invoke and compel

This totally works as placeholder, but I’m going to put a pin in it because this is the the point where we need to stop and think.

Ok, So What’s The Point?

This text file had sat idle on disk for a while because I was not sure it was worth pursuing. It’s a fun technical exercise, but does it serve any real purpose? I couldn’t answer that until the other night, when we had a session of Blades where the dice were very strongly in our favor, and it pretty radically changed the tone of play for the session into something a little bit more cinematic and wahoo. Maybe not the tone we want in Blades all the time, but there are definitely games where that is exactly the tone I would want to hit. So that example persuaded me that there’s definitely room for this, but explicitly not as any kind of direct port, so I’ll be well served to re-examine any assumptions as I review them.

To that end, I suspect a focusing tool will be in order, so the next step will be, I think, coming up with an It’s Not My Fault variant version of this. It’s core system is FAE, but it may well benefit from a bit more structured play, and some concepts from Blades might help to that end.

All of which is to say, this is the rough starting point of an idea, and I’ll be refining it over time.

  1. Multiple minuses are not a critical failure because, if so, then almost every failure would be a critical failure. ↩︎
  2. I’m explicitly stealing Blades terminology here, but I’m also doing it by memory, so if you see a divergence from Blades, that is me making things up, not me pretending I’m not stealing from Blades. ↩︎
  3. I’m 80% convinced to rename this “scope” just to reflect how it’s used here. ↩︎

 

Blackfingers Ep 2: Blades in the Bark

Not to put too fine a point on it, this was a weird session of Blades in the Dark.

First, our Spider had been temporarily shipped out of town, and in his place was a Whisper (Marek, an Iruvian ghost smuggler), so there was a high likelihood that the plans would go a little askew. We also were lacking our Lurk, so subtlety was going to be a challenge.

So, we started with a conversation that had begun at the close of last session, with a demon offering the crew a job (to destroy the reputation of a man who could not die) and very little choice in the matter. We have an 8 tick clock representing his patience which ticks down with every other job we do. So we’ve got that going for us.

For our actual score, we went for a turf grab, or as we liked to call it, “Brand Building”. We identified another small press (The Night Dispatch) that was not doing fantastically well, but had an established masthead, and started looking into how to take it over. After an exceptionally successful gather information roll, our slide befriended the editor and got all the information we needed for us to visit them with enough bad luck that they’d welcome a buyout.

The Whisper & Leech were sent to scare a paper shipment and set it on fire, while the Cutter was sent to break their printer’s hand. The scare-and-fire part went ok, except that it meant that panicked goatees were dragging an inferno through the night market, but that was less our problem than everyone’s problem.

The hand breaking went less smoothly, as this was our moment to discover that our Cutter had no dots in Wreck. Oops. Thankfully, it was a controlled situation, and when it turned into an actual fight, that was well within the Cutter’s wheelhouse.

Still, it all went mostly as intended, the Editor was delighted with our Slide’s offer of help, and we now have a “legit” business with future opportunities for financial shenanigans.

That wrapped up pretty quickly, so we felt like we had time for another score. Now, as the flaming goats were running though Night Market, our greatest regret was that the Leech had not yet completed his portable camera (the long term project he’s been working on since day one) because that would have made for a GREAT photo. So, while the rest of us pursued mundane matters, he finished it up so we’d be ready next time.

For the next score, the simple truth was we needed cash. We had lost money on the last score, and we were going to be eligible for a tier bump soon, so we really needed some dollars, so the discussion turned to ways that we could make fast cash. There were standard crime options, of course, but we now had this camera, and it seemed that should introduce options. Blackmail was considered, but that had some risks. But what if we opted for spectacle? A picture of a momentous event? That could work, but that would require an event.

So, we reasoned, perhaps a picture of an exceptionally cute puppy?

While offered as a bit of a joke, we quickly realized that most dogs in Duskvol are mangy, ratty beasts, so any very cute dog would belong to a rich person. Clearly, we needed to steal the cutest dog in Duskvol. As fun as this might have been, we then realized it might be easier to have the dogs brought to us.

And so the first annual Charterhall Dog Show was born.

What followed was….a little weird. We had just enough social pull to get people to come, though we had to skimp a bit on the location (the university is just so déclassé), and leveraged contacts for the one honest judge (to be outvoted by the other two crooked judges). Oh, and of course our Leech’s bookie showed up and from that point on the fix was in. The ultimate winner was Lady Roz’s Shitzu, but at least one noble left the affair righteously pissed off, so that’s going to come back and bite us.

But, critically, The Night Dispatch had a photo of an INCREDIBLY cute dog, as well as some buzz.

Between entry fees and the gambling, it was a VERY successful score, and between that and everyone going into their pockets (and the Slide diminishing her stash), the crew now has a weak hold on Tier 2. We’ve got some newsies now, and a clear business plan, but we also have some crows coming home to roost, so we’re all expecting a tough tonal change soon.


Random Notes

  • The dice were super on our side last night. Excepting some mishaps on our Cutter’s part, we were swimming in sixes, and that definitely contributed to the lighthearted, caper-y tone of the session. I suspect that if the dice had been pushing harder, things would have gone very differently.
  • I have a half-finished re-tooling of the core blades mechanic that uses Fate dice, and it’s skewed more strongly towards success than default blades. I have let it linger, but last nights play convinced me that it would actually be a very fun mode of play for a certain tone. So, that’s getting bumped back up the queue.
  • Playing a Whisper is weird (yes, that was me). At first I thought it was because the ghost/mystical/weird element of play was strange. That’s certainly part of it – I feel like I need a few more playbook advances if I really want to lean into that part of things. But I think part of it was also that Attune is a weird skill to lean on. A lot of the other skills you can apply flexibly enough that there’s a broad set of competence surrounding it, but attune is really very specific and was not much of a match to the play we were doing. I liked the character a lot, but he was a mismatch to the game we’re playing, so he’s probably dropping into the background and I’ll pick The Spider back up next session.
  • Having chosen to go primarily social has had such an impact on the shape of the game. Not in a bad way, but in a way that makes for an interesting tonal difference from more street-y games. A big difference is a lack of medium consequences – we’re a gadfly punching very high above our weight class, which is very profitable until we annoy someone enough that they have had enough. It’s very all of nothing, and we’re skating the edge of “all” as fast and hard as we can in hopes of having enough resources when the inevitable “nothing” hits. (It also helps that we have invested in all the lair defense upgrades, so it is very difficult to casually threaten that).

The Long Con

Note: This is very much a first draft. feedback is welcome!

So, after writing all that about Cons yesterday and some discussion on twitter and G+, I found myself really chewing on a very simple, Blades specific question: Where’s the point of entry?

It’s an interesting question because it’s entirely possible to answer, but doing so reveals a bit of a mismatch with the Blades cadence. The best answer is probably The Score – the moment that the con pays off, leading immediately into the blowoff. That is super playable, and can lean heavily on the flashback mechanic to fill in all the steps that lead to this point. That works, and it’s certainly in the style of classic cons.

But…

That is a hack, in the most classic of senses. The flashback mechanic is designed to handle planning and prep, not the score itself. Using flashbacks to build the score itself suits certain sort of cinematic sensibility (which is to say, mine) but it’s arguably warranty voiding behavior. Now, personally, I’m fine with that. I’m super comfortable stretching the flashback mechanic as far as it will go. But that’s not necessarily useful for every table, so it left me with the question of how I’d handle this using the Blades tools as intended.

From that perspective, a con is better handled as a long term project. It’s got a long timeline, multiple parts to act upon, and ultimately has a payoff. And it would be entirely possible to just leave that as is: as a player you describe the con you’re running in downtime, the GM creates a clock for it, and you proceed as normal. That would 100% work, especially if that level of detail lines up with the level of player interest.

However, assuming that one wants a little more depth to it, then there is room to make is a more sophisticated effort. Specifically, making a con a series of clocks creates opportunities for free play and scores that evolve naturally from play.

The simplest model is two race clocks: One for the progress of the con, one for the mark’s level of suspicion. This still leaves the nature of the Con pretty free form, but it introduces a tension dynamic as other factors may drive up the Mark’s suspicion and, of course, lowering the Mark’s suspicion is a potential score (You might even want to consider running the blow off as a score with that goal).

While this is a little bloodless, @mattjohns offered a perspective on this that is very much in tune with the spirit of Blades – the con progress clock is the clock of the Mark’s vice – the grifters offer escalating opportunities for the mark of indulge until it trumps his good judgement and he acts. This is flavorful and character driven, so I expect it would be a lot of fun.

For folks who want a little more depth, then I offer a worksheet model with 6 wheels: Suspicion, attention, interest, confidence, trust and Score. Now, these are very loose categories, and the specific things the wheels will represent depend on the specific job, the details of which are also in the worksheet.

Before we get to the wheels, we need to talk about the mark, the score, the hook and the plan.

The mark is the person being conned, and the score is what they’re being conned for. Hopefully that is pretty easy to establish. The hook is the point of leverage that the grifter intends to use to pull off the con. Most frequently, this is a vice that the mark partakes in, but it could also be a secret, a habit, a weakness or almost anything else. The hook is something that provides leverage – it’s not enough to be used by itself for blackmail or the like, but it enables action.

If starting from nothing, players may not have a hook, which may drive some information gathering or other activity. Alternately, a hook to a particular NPC might be found on a score, or enter play through some other vector.

But once the hook is identified, then the question becomes how to take advantage of it. This can be the hard part, and if it’s sufficiently hard for players, then I definitely encourage going with a two race wheel model. But for those who enjoy a clever plan, then it’s important to remember that all of these plans can be made on the assumption that the mark will act in accordance with the hook. This gives the planner an almost supernatural ability to predict the future, so long as she can say “The mark will act in this way, because it’s in accordance with their hook”.

The first question is “How will we get the mark’s attention?” Don’t overthink it. Because we know the mark’s hook,we know what kind of people he is going to meet, so it’s just a matter of fitting that mould.

The next question is “How will we capture the mark’s interest?” Again, don’t think too much. We’ll provide him a means to address his hook. Simple as that. Ideally when he notices us, he’ll see that we have the means to address his hook in some way, and that will fuel interest.

Next, “How will we capture the mark’s confidence?” This is marginally tricky, but still fairly simple, because the answer is usually some variant on “We’ll give him what he wants”. The goal is to convince the mark that the grifter represents an actual opportunity.

This is all prequel to the main event – the mark is now on the hook, so it’s time to reel him in, so we get to the next question: “What’s the Score?” This might be the most complicated question to answer, but it’s still possible to boil it down to fairly simple question of what you’re convincing the mark of to get him to do the thing you need. Importantly, this can be predicated on an assumption of success up to this point. If they haven’t, you won’t get to this point anyway, so don’t waste a lot of energy on qualifications and contingencies1.

Lastly, what’s the plan for the blow off? You’ve got the good, they’re in your hand, how are you going to get out with the mark thanking you for the trouble2? As with all the answers, feel free to keep it short.

SIDEBAR: Why Don’t I Just Kill This Dude?

Blades is a pretty brutal game, and one more reason that cons are a hard thing to justify is that they depend upon a concern about consequences. Also, frankly, cons usually come from genres where being a thief doesn’t make you a murderer, and crews tend to have rather more moral flexibility.

All of which is to say that killing the mark is a valid blow off (assuming you do it in a way that doesn’t point the finger at you), but if that’s so, there’s a good chance that there was no real need to run a con on the mark. A simple interrogation via lead pipe followed by a swim in the canals would probably have done the job. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But it’s something to bear in mind when you start a con: ask if this really needs to be a con, or if this should really be some other sort of score

Ok, so we have a couple answers to our questions and a number of empty clocks – how do we tie this all together?

  • First, establish the tier of the mark. It is probably pretty high, because if it wasn’t, then a con would not be necessary. In purely mechanical terms, because a con is personal, it skips over a lot of the positional problems of going after a higher tier, so the tier difference should mostly only matter if things go wrong (and should be a reason to fear things going wrong).
  • The Suspicion clock can gain ticks any time after the con has started. It’s like any other clock, and I encourage GMs to allow complications from other events to tick it up. If this clock ever fills, the con is a bust and the mark’s faction goes to war with the crew.
  • The Attention, Interest and Confidence clocks are sequential – fill one to start on the next. They can be filled by downtime actions normally. Overflow success does not spill over.
  • Once the confidence clock is filled, the player can start filling in the Score clock. Again, this can be filled like a normal long term project.
  • The Trust clock also opens when the confidence clock completes. It can be filled by any actions taken to mitigate suspicion, but it’s hard to fill (rolls are made with limited effect before the blow off).
  • Once the score clock is filled, then one of two things happen:
  • First: the whole thing can be resolved as a project. The crew member gets the thing they set out to do, and the gang gets heat equal to the Mark’s suspicion minus any progress on the Trust clock. The blow off appears to work, and the GM simply adds this to her notes for the future.
  • Second: The conclusion initiates as score to collect the payoff an deliver the blow off. The details should already be pretty well established, and the entry point is just as the final con is about to go down, with the blowoff about to follow. Run and reward this score as normal, but use the information from the con to frame it and answer questions.

So, there you have it. If you want to run a long con indoor Blades game, but are looking for

  1. Genre Secret: There Are No Contingencies. If you have a contingency plan, then you have guaranteed that at some point that will become the plan. That may sound bad, but once you realize it, then you can embrace the fact that the difference between a misdirect into a surprise well and a well designed contingency plan is merely a function of presentation. ↩︎
  2. One more reminder of classic wisdom from @mattjohns – never leave the mark with nothing more to lose. This is not a matter of kindness, but practicality – you want the mark to put this behind them. If you take everything, then they’re going to dwell on this loss, and sooner or later they’re going to pull a thread. ↩︎

Running a Con

An interesting thing about Blades in the Dark score planning is that it’s so loose that it relies heavily on shared understanding at the table to build a framework. This works fantastically well for clearly defined tasks like stealing an object, killing a target or even smuggling goods past a blockade.

Where it gets a little bit trickier is for that most classic of scores: The Con.

It can feel a lot more complicated to try to run a con, because the action of a con is often indirect, and while groups who are comfortable tying together a meta-narrative can kind of fake it but tying together unrelated events at the end, that’s a bit of a kludge. It’s a way to work around the fact that we can clearly imagine the flow of action and consequence in a heist in ways that we have a hard time doing with a con.

My sense is that this is largely a result of imagining the con to be more complicated than it really is (structurally). It is my hope that if we can demystify the structure of a con, we can make it a little bit easier to run a score.

Two caveats on this advice. First, I’m approaching this through the lens of Blades in the Dark, so while this may be applicable in other games, I’m not setting out to solve those problems. Second, this is a simplification, and just as with any other score, the differences are in the details, and they matter a lot.

So with that out of the way, let’s look at the con. But perhaps in a roundabout way.

Every score has a keystone action and supporting actions. The keystone actions is the purpose of the score. In a theft, it’s stealing the item. In an assassination, it’s the murder. In a smuggling run, it’s the delivery of the goods. Supporting actions are all the actions required to get to the keystone, and possibly to get back out. We get this pretty intuitively for things like left: guards must be evaded, locks picked, alarms disarmed, escape routes secured and so on.

Where we run into problems applying the model to cons is, I think, I misunderstanding of what the keystone action of a con is. Most commonly, we think the keystone action of a con is tricking someone, but that doesn’t work.

Instead, the keystone action of a con is this: You make someone do something.

It’s possible that sounds too simple, so let me unpack a little bit. “Do something” can be incredibly varied, though it’s usually “give me something valuable” (like money or a secret journal or the like) or something one step removed from that (like entering a password in a compromised system). Other good somethings include “do something incriminating”, “attack the wrong person” or “insult someone powerful” but it can be really anything.

Just as with theft, this keystone action is tied to the crew’s goal, and just as with theft, you can build the whole score around it. But there’s a twist (it’s a con – there’s always a twist) in that the purpose of the con usually serves another purpose. That is, if our crew knows we want to steal from Karl Snaggletooth, that is not enough information – we need to decide what action we want someone to take. And it might be as simple as “Karl hands us 100 Coin” but it’s usually a little bit more complicated or specific. This is why, in fiction, one part of the score is figuring out what the con is going to be.

That process is fun for some1, not for others, so for purposes of Blades, we’ll want to skip over the process of figuring it out, and assume that the crew know what the goal of the con is. From there, is it a matter of working backwards by cycling through two questions:

  • Under what circumstances would that happen?
  • How do we emulate those circumstances?

Now, the simplest possible con is the sob story. I want you to give me money, you would do that if you think I deserve it, so I tell you a convincing sad story and voila, I walk away with your money in my pocket. This is to a con what shoplifting is to a theft – the simplest example of the form.

But as with a theft, simplest doesn’t cut it off fun play. A more entertaining con is built upon a sequence of deceptions to create a specific effect. At the end, I’ll run through an example of how just a pass or two through that filter should be enough to get you what you need. But before that, let’s go to the bullet points.

Things to consider when you plan a con:

  • Cons are better done in teams, partly because it is easy to be suspicious of one person, but harder to be suspicious of multiple people, especially when they are “strangers”.
  • One of the tension points/things that can go wrong during a con is a shortage in the roster. If a member of the crew gets made, then they can’t also play a role in the con, which can be a problem if the role is necessary for the plan. Forcing characters into unfamiliar roles, or relying on NPCs to fill gaps are great consequences and complications.
  • While it is not strictly true that you can’t con an honest man, it is definitely a lot harder to do so for substantial amounts of cash. A con depends on the mark’s motivations, and self-interest and greed ad much more controllable motivations than charity or goodwill towards man.
  • Specifically, almost every good con hinges on convincing the mark that they are getting away with something and profiting from it. Exactly how that convincing is done depends on the mark, but if they’ve got something worth stealing, then odds are good they probably think they deserve more, and are confident they’re smarter than those who have less. That’s the hook.
  • It is easy to focus on all the film flam that leads up to the con, but don’t be distracted – the thing that separates the amateurs from the pros is the blow off. The blow off is how the con ends and it needs to serve multiple purposes.
    • It needs to make sure that the prize is in the crew’s hands without appearing to be
    • It needs to leave the mark with no reason to follow up, come back to or re-examine what happened. Ideally, the mark feels indebted to the crew.
  • That second point is critical – at the end of a good con, the mark might be upset about things that went wrong, but he should bear no ill will towards the crew. Either he should think warmly of them, or he should never think of them again (because he thinks they’re all dead).
    • In game terms, a really good blow off should be able to drastically reduce the potential heat from a job.
    • In Duskvol specifically, you want a friendly blowoff. The city is not so big that you can be guaranteed to avoid the mark forever, and you don’t have a lot of other places to go to avoid them.
  • Greed will kill you. At some point the mark will test to see if he’s being conned, and he’ll probably do this by creating an opportunity for fast profit, on the idea that criminals would take it. And dumb ones will. If a golden opportunity presents itself, consider the possibility that it’s you who are getting played.
  • Roles are a critical part of the con. They may be fully fleshed out, well documented aliases, or it might just be a particular kind of stage character you excel at (the Severosi with a limp) depending on what the con needs (because, if nothing else, using your real name on a con is a bad mistake).
    • A role is an asset and can be created in downtime. For a PC, the role includes a name and enough details to comfortably pass as the role under most circumstances. For a group, roles are nameless, but fulfill a type. Creating a role allows a lot of fiddly bits of planning to be folded into a single action. The main advantage of a role is that so long as you play to it, it requires no additional effort to deceive or fool someone. However, roles are fragile, and won’t fool anyone who knows you or sees countervailing evidence. A compromised role is destroyed immediately.

An Incomplete List of jobs in a Con :

  • The mark – the person being conned
  • The grifter, aka the con man, sometimes aka the face is the person running the con. If they’re running the con on their own, they pick up all necessary roles. Ideally, they should not be the first point of contact with the Mark – that’s the job of the roper.
  • The roper is the person who pulls the mark into the con in the first place, usually by making the mark the “winner” of a smaller scam. A rookie mistake is to expect the roper to be the one who runs the con, but in a good con, the roper is the one who introduces the mark to the real con (often over their apparent objection) and at some point the mark will throw the roper under the bus (metaphorically, we hope) in order to get closer to the true con.
  • The shill exists to validate the con. They are the person who is ready to pounce on the opportunity that the mark is being offered, and may actually object to the Mark’s presence. The Shill reinforced the value of the scam while also giving someone for the mark to beat.
  • The false mark doesn’t show up in every con, but is a useful role for snagging a certain kind of Mark, particularly the kind who think themselves very smart (which is most of them). The false mark is the target of the fake con which the real mark is getting drawn into.
  • Extras fill out a scene. In a good con, there are no random strangers or opportunities for contact that are outside of the control of the crew, and there’s an entirely category of criminals/actors who fill out these scenes.
  • The fixer has no role in the con itself, but is instead something more of a stage manager for it. They keep track of what’s going on, oversee communication and – critically – step in when things go wrong.
  • The outside player has no role in the con until the very end, where they enter as part of the blowoff. The royal agents whose investigations scuttle the whole thing? Hopefully that’s the outside player.
  • There are a lot more terms, but that should be enough for you to figure out things for your players to do.

In Blades, every crew member is assumed to have competence in thinly skills, including the con, and one useful thing about the various roles of the con is that they provide different jobs for characters with differing skills. Yes, someone (usually the grifter, sometimes the roper) will need strong active deception skills, but a good crew makes roles that line up with who is available. If your cutter is a terrifying veteran, then the role he plays should be a terrifying veteran. Not only does that make the deception more persuasive (because it’s mostly made of truth) it helps give a role to every player

To tie it all together, Let’s use the classic example, familiar to fans of The Sting – the wire scam. The con is to convince the mark to hand over a giant pile of money by convincing him to bet on a game that he thinks is secretly rigged. Note that we now have an answer to wonder what circumstances the mark would give up money, so now we come to the question of how to emulate that. Well, we need to get him into our fixed betting parlor of course, and we need him to believe that the fix is legit.

Now we have action. We need to set up the fake parlor, we need to rope him into it, and we need him to believe it’s a sure thing. Some of that we can do right away, but how do we get him into our gambling parlor?

Well, that’s another con. A smaller one. We find someone who owes him money (or maybe borrow some money then wait till the threats come) and then suddenly pay back all debts and interest. Our mark’s a clever man – the payback is fine, but he’s going to be really interested in how this guy (our roper) suddenly has money. He’s going to find out about this betting parlor, and he won’t take no for an answer.

Notice something here: The mark is operating under a sense of false proactivity. If we sent in the roper to tell him about the gambling parlor, he’d be suspicious as hell. But since we sent the roper in to not tell him about it, he is going to trust any data he extracts because it comes from him.

Once we’ve got the hook in, the roper introduces him to grifter, who doesn’t want another partner, so the mark is going to have to force the grifter to accept him (further reinforcing the mark’s belief that he is in control). Once that happens, the mark sees some wins, but they’re small – frustratingly so. The opportunity for a huge score is obvious, but small timer’s like the roper don’t see it.

But the big score requires a big bet, so the mark needs to put up some money to match the (bogus) amount the grifter is putting forward. Everything is going great until the bluecoats raid the place and take everything. The mark is nearly arrested, but escapes thanks to the help of the grifter. In the end, both have lost it all, but the mark is grateful, and they go their separate ways.

But, of course, that was the blowoff. The bluecoats were fake, lead by the outside player, and the mark’s money is safely in the hands of the crew, while the mark is going on his way convinced that the grifter is a stand up citizen.

  1. For me, it is SUPER fun, but supporting it in play is another blog post entirely. ↩︎

The Blackfingers: Episode 1

Stylized Black and white images of the player characters around the Blades in the Dark logo

Clockwise from the upper left: Luca, Jack, Izzy, Achilles & Rudy

This was our first full session, and we pick up a guest: our lurk, Rudy, was the shady son of nobility and college dropout. As a refresher, the other characters are:

Jack – the Leech gadgeteer

Izzy – the Slide ace reporter and clothes horse

Luca – our Severi cutter

Achilles – The spider

We decided what we needed was some juicy gossip, which is slightly odd thing to run a heist for, so we opted to break into a high class party being held by one of the magistrates and spike the punch so as to insure that there be matters worth gossiping about.

Spiking the punch was more of an option because it turns out we’re lacing our ink with a narcotic. This is something that came from the GM to forcibly introduce a more clearly illegal act into our crew because many of the games assumptions rely on that. More on that in the post-mortem, but in the short term half the crew (Luca and Jack) know about this, so they already had drugs well on hand.

Achilles, Izzya and Rudy were able to finagle invites to the party, and arrangements were made to get Jack and Luca got jobs in the kitchen. While the party goers mingled, Luca spilled the punch to arrange for a refill and Jack spiked it from a hidden bladder-and-hose device. Or that was the theory – the dice did not favor us. Luca was confronted by one of the actual maids and had to lean on the staff’s racism (flash back to Achilles and Luca doing a session on how to play on stereotypes) and Jack’s device sprung a leak, insuring that he was also profoundly dosed.

Meanwhile, the partygoers were orbiting around Lady Drake, the magistrate. It was well know that she was dirty, accepting bribes in return for skewed sentences, and the attendees were largely of middling importance, with enough noteworthies that the possibility of scandal was entirely in play. Additionally, this was exactly the sort of event to provide cover for a bribe, so this night had the potential of a twofer.

Rudy took point on social mingling, taking advantage of his aunt speaking with Lady Drake to insert himself flirtatiously into the conversation, though in doing so he snubbed an older gentleman who had been clearly courting the lady.

Rudy remained in orbit around Lady Drake while Luca approached the gentleman, hoping to take advantage of his agitated case and…the dice were not kind. He took grave offense, and called the house staff (the maid who had chewed her out earlier) and demanded that Luca be sacked, thrashed and forcibly ejected.

Luca made a scene as she was dragged into the kitchen, including pleas that the gentleman be kind for the sake of their child which she was carrying, which served only to enrage him further (this got us some news, but also started a clock on this guy’s rage).

In the kitchen, when a maid was sent for the switch, Jack drugged the handle so the head maid was paralyzed once she took it up, whereupon Luca delivered a very scientific beating indeed before exiting out the back in order to scale the building and await upstairs.

Meanwhile, Izzy had done some legal research and had a good sense of who was likely to be visiting the party in order to pay a bribe, and had identified a manure importer as the likely candidate. Sure enough, after the party had reached a certain pitch, Lady Drake and the importer headed upstairs, and the crew moved to follow – unsuccessfully. Our first attempt to use the group actions did not go so well, and further raised suspicions against the crew. Thankfully, Luca was already upstairs and saw the exchange, though regrettably she did not get to see where Lady Drake kept her records.

There was a temptation to push on and try to get those records, but the pick pocketing attempt to get the bribe from Lady Drake was so close to disastrous (though ultimately successful) that the crew felt that their luck could only be pushed so much further, so they split, armed with two headlines.

In the aftermath of the job, the crew sold a great many penny sheets, but Jack’s lips were a little too loose while celebrating, so the heat was all the worse. Achilles assisted in mitigating the heat, but was himself swept away by family obligations and ended the session on the train to Severos. Most troublingly, at the very end of the session, the remaining crew members were joined by a smiling “man” who creaked like rust when he walked and was likely the point of the demonic notice the crew had just picked up.

Good session, all in all, and a great deal of fun was had, but it did illustrate that our chosen path of crime is slightly tricky to map to the mode of the game. Playing it even a little, it is clear how smoothly things would work if we had more concrete objectives, so we may need to figure out how to make the essence of our stories concrete.

We also have the problem that at the moment we’re pretty shady, but not profoundly criminal. We all bought into the idea of the crew evolving into a newspaper from somewhat more pamphleteer-y roots, and that’s consistent with the mechanics – we’ll have a little more tier and a few more resources before we get political – but that means these early tiers are at a bit of a mismatch with general thrust of the game. I’m not sure it’s insurmountable – even with our moderately good intentions we seem to get in plenty of trouble – but the transition is going to be interesting.

One curious takeaway I’m getting from this is that I wonder if we over-prepared. That is, I wonder if it was to our detriment to have a motivation beyond greed at the outset. Not because Blades does not support a wider range of motives, but because I think it maybe treat greed as the on ramp. If you start with a crew that is nothing but quick sketches and empty pockets, the first few jobs will start fleshing out friends and enemies (mostly enemies) and provide the kind of infrastructure to them build upon. Pretty slick if so, but it leaves some gaps. I’ll have to think about it a little bit.

Oh, and one way or another we’re going to have a new crewmemebr next session – with Achilles out of town due to a bad vice roll, there will need to be someone new to step into the gap!

The Blackfingers: Episode 0

Photo of a gaming table with a large map of Duskvol and several copies of Blades in the Dark.

Map is from https://www.patreon.com/ryandunleavy


With the conclusion of the 7th Sea game, we’ve started a Blades in the Dark game with the same crew, but I’m a player this time.

We are already in over our heads.

The Blackfingers don’t really view themselves as a GANG, per se. They’re just a group of former university students who got their hands on a press and have found there’s money to be made in pamphleteering and penny sheets. Their little gossip and fashion rag has become tremendously popular in Charterhall, and with that success has come opportunity and attention.

The prominent members of the Blackfingers are:

Jack Fingers – A Skovlan Leech responsible for keeping the press working. He is explicitly neither the source of the gang’s name, nor the leader, but every assumes he is both.

Isadora “Izumi” Stanbury, of those Stanbury’s, the family of Lawyers. With the natural talents of a Slide, she was on the track for success when an indiscretion put her on the fast track for Ironhook. The family stepped in and put all of the blame on her partner, but then washed their hands of her.

Luca Skleros is a cutter from Severos who found her way to Duskvol after some…problems…back home. She was roped in to help the gang when their first pamphlet angered a haberdasher enough to send some folks to rough them up.

Achilles Lynch – Spider and youngest son of a prominent merchant family, he has a deep intellectual interest in the flow of information but must balance this against family obligations.

Their as-yet-unnamed pamphlet is mostly focused on gossip and fashion, but even so has angered the Ink Rakes (and mildly annoyed the University) but they have great support from the citizens of Charterhall who enjoy the colorful rag.

Play began with the gang broke and lacking anything valuable to print. After some discussion, it was brought up that Vinzini had just finished his latest season of hat designs, and was going to be presenting them at the mill to begin production ASAP. If the gang could get a scoop on that, it would sell like mad.

So, the group managed to sneak in, posing as foremen. A distraction by a bomb-throwing associate gave the Slide plenty of time to take notes (and, it turned out, to pinch one of the hats1 and for the Leech to make off with some interesting looking chemicals. In fact, the hard part ended up being the fact that if their distraction caused too much damage, the hats would not go to market, and the scoop would be worthless. Thankfully the Cutter stepped up and ran the fire brigades with military discipline, and everything cleared out well.

In the aftermath, the crew made a few bucks, but generated a little bit more heat than the job might normally cause (what with the stolen hat and OH YES, THE FIRE). Downtime was mostly clearing heat and training.

Ok, so since this was episode zero, we went through chargen, a first job and a first round of downtime in one go, so it was all a little condensed. For all that, our GM (not me) did a wonderful job of making sure we hit all the critical mechanical notes to get everyone up to speed on it. The table was largely unfamiliar with Blades so it was all in all a really interesting experience. Some impressions.

  • There are two ways to do playbook-style chargen: Pick a playbook and build from there, or build an idea then try to find a playbook that matches. I think the second method is better, but it is unquestionably harder (or perhaps more precisely, less well supported).
  • This really drove home to me how much a crew needs a purpose or a gimmick. The game is so open ended and potentially player driven that it feels like a waste to just be generically criminal. That may be my problem – I suspect the game excels at generically criminal (and drives it to evolve) but it was a bit of a speed bump as we discussed potential crews.
  • I ended up playing the Spider. I would complain about typecasting, but it was my choice because – in the absence of a strong idea to the contrary – whatever book I play is going to get played like a spider, so I went with it.
  • But tellingly, now that we’ve played even a little, I have my head around some solid non-masterminds character ideas, so I am totally ready for jail time.
  • In deciding our relationships we discovered the University was not on the faction list. So we fixed that.
  • Yet another hands on realization of something I’d previously only gotten intellectually – A job could be driven almost entirely by Devil’s Bargains, and that would be awesome.
  • The players really, really like the load rules.
  • They also very much liked devil’s bargains and flashbacks, though they’re a bit skeptical of the XP model as abusable by someone opting to play towards it (and I can’t fault them – that’s 100% true)
  • I had not realized how effectively the downtime move to reduce heat was. Since my Spider has 3 dots of Consort (yay Hawkers), I cleared out all of our trouble from the night’s job without hassle.
  • I have a knee jerk sense that if you’re helping on a desperate roll, you should also get XP, since you’re also on the hook for consequences, but I haven’t really thought that through yet.
  • We spent a lot of time waffling between whether we were Hawkers or Smugglers, since “The News” is a weird sort of product, and not a 100% match with the assumptions of the setting (which skew chemically).
  • A thing I’ve noticed: The very big fans of BitD conversationally drop the names of gangs and NPCs like they’re common parlance, and it’s clear that buy in is tied very closely to that level of buy in to the setting. It is, in some ways, reminiscent of the Amber DRPG, where the roster of NPCs was a known, shared list but it was built right into the game that these NPCs were different in everyone’s game. That was really powerful in Amber, and it’s good to see that idea (faces – who knew?) built into the setting from the getgo, and I will certainly build on this for some stuff I’m working on.

Anyway, first real session is in 2 weeks. I’m pretty jazzed.

  1. Her vice is fashion, so who can blame her for grabbing a one of a kind design?. ↩︎

My Origins Haul


My Origins acquisitions, in the order I see them on the table (or they pop into my mind)

  • Hero Realms and all the class cards – I like Star Realms a lot, but I missed this kickstarter. This is about 85% Star Realms reskin with solid theme and nice tweaks. Have played a few games and enjoyed them. http://www.whitewizardgames.com/herorealms/
  • Dresden Files Accelerated – Technically got my copy as we left for Origins, but whatever. I have read some of this in PDF, and it’s awesome, but I’ve really been waiting for a physical copy. – http://www.evilhat.com/home/dresden-files-accelerated/
  • All the Tokaido – Core box, the minis set and both expansions. This is a great game which I should already own, so I fixed that. http://passportgamestudios.com/game/tokaido/
  • Jumpdrive – 15 minute Race for the Galaxy. Not an Origins release, but I only just found out about it, and found it at a bargain price. http://riograndegames.com/Game/1308-Race-for-the-Galaxy-Jump-Drive
  • Shahrazad and The Ravens of Thri Sahashri are both co-op games from Osprey because I wanted new co-op and those are the games twitter recommended. They are a total crapshoot. https://ospreypublishing.com/store/osprey-games
  • Vast: the Crystal Caverns – This is a weird game of tile laying and dragon slaying and other stuff with a million components and somewhat confusing rules, but it looks utterly intriguing and came well recommended, so I took a swing. http://ledergames.com
  • From the Gamelyn Games booth I picked up Tiny Epic Western and the expansion for Tiny Epic Galaxy. They had the expansion for Heroes too, but that game never clicked for me, and everything else was just promos. I had good luck with these games last year, and they’re a pain in the ass to acquire, so I was happy to scoop them up. http://www.gamelyngames.com/games/tiny-epic-quest/
  • Gravity Dice – I got a set of these last year and they were one of my favorite things from the Con. This year they had colors and 5 packs, so I picked some up for the family. http://gravitydice.com
  • Norse Foundry Fate Dice – They had new colors which were AWESOME, and there are some benefits to being the licensor. 🙂 https://metaldice.myshopify.com/collections/metal-fate-dice (Also got to see some of their aluminum dice and they are totally getting acquired at some point)
  • Fidget Spinners – So, two guys brought 4 duffle bags of high end fidget spinners and sold them out of a booth near the back. I am pretty sure that they made bank.
  • Pyramid Poker – It’s a stacking game with poker scoring that is two player fun, and there is a full 54 card deck of wooden bricks in the box, so it also begs for re-use and was super reasonably priced – http://rnrgames.com/pyramid-poker
  • Shadowrun Sixth World Tarot – Last year there was art for this all over the convention, but the deck was not yet out. Seeing that it was available, I scooped it right the hell up. (No link because Catalyst’s website it like a stab in the eye)
  • A Gencon 2015 Tote So, this was a gift from Jason at IPR upon discovery of what a bag nerd I am. It’s a gorgeous promotional bag with an image of the history of gaming on the side. It’s a goddamned treasure.
  • S. Petersen’ Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors – Ok, so this was a gorgeous book, and I got it as a gift for a friend I do not see nearly often enough. But here’s a thing: I don’t buy Lovecraftian stuff normally. It’s not my bag. But holy crap if the Chaosium booth was not full of really awesome looking stuff. I am used to it feeling dated and like it’s just riding on the strength of the CoC brand, but not this year – it was well stocked with things that looked exciting enough to push me to maybe reconsider my stance on Lovecraftia. http://www.chaosium.com/s-petersens-field-guide-to-lovecraftian-horrors-hardcover/
  • Set of Easy Roller Dice – In the absence of chessex the floor was stuffed with companies selling beautiful dice of every variety. I picked up some of the Easy Roller gunmetal ones as a gift, and they’re lovely, but I admit I had a bit of buyer’s remorse when I got the the Norse Foundry ones.
  • A buffer Quarterstaff from Forged Foam.  The kid had been asking for this for months, and it was stupid expensive, but totally worth it to see his face. https://www.forgedfoam.com/
  • Fabriano Notebook – These are wonderful notebooks and they are absolutely my weakness when I stop by the Columbus Dick Blick. http://fabriano.com/en/267/ecoqua

Things I didn’t get but merit mention

  • Blades in the Dark and The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game were both awesome things at the show, but I already had mine for obvious reasons. http://www.evilhat.com/home/dresden-files-cooperative-card-game/
  • I preordered a game called Unearth. Visually, it is very clearly derived from Monument Valley, which was initially off putting, but then I realized it was from the folks who made Boss Monster, so mimicking video game styles is already pretty much on brand for them. I got to play a little in the booth, and I liked it enough to actively talk it up to people. If they’d had it for sale, I’d have bought one. They did not, so preorder ($30, free shipping) was the way to go. http://www.brotherwisegames.com/product/unearth-preorder/
  • I will fully cop that I was skeptical about War of the Cross, the 7th Sea wargame that kickstarts on the 20th. My love of 7th Sea is well known, but I don’t really pick up war games these days, and war games based off RPG settings have a long history of mediocrity. However, I was entirely sold by the booth pitch. John described it as Cosmic Encounters meets Diplomacy, and while that immediately made me leery, Lenny supplemented the pitch with the explanation that it was “Divorce proof”, which intrigued me. Short form, the nations have some special tricks (that’s the Cosmic Encounters part) but the really interesting part are some tricks to streamline and standardize some diplomacy-style negotiation. I’ll be backing this. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/johnwickpresents/12387016?token=1d0034c6

7th Sea: The Closing of the Gates

I realized as I sat down to write that I never did a writeup for the previous session, so here’s the compressed version.

  • I started the game with a discussion of whether or not our assassin had actually killed the guild member, since it had happened offscreen. We discussed the corruption mechanic and ultimately included that yes she had and that it was tearing her up.
  • The heroes had successfully escaped the harbor before the Eisen had locked it down, and were sailing with Red to Costa (a port on the western short of Vesten)
  • In Costa, they met Red’s contact who she had described as a “The best smuggler on the Trade Sea”, who was revealed to be a Porte adept who could, somewhat critically, get them to the Thane very fast.
  • The captain and the Doctor accompanied Red and the smuggler through the bloody hellscape to reach the Thane, tell him what had transpired in Vendel and ask him to send men. Red stayed with the Thane, who asked the heroes to return and deliver warnings to his daughter, as the timeline for her wedding to the MacDuff had been accellerated. They returned with he smuggler.
  • Meanwhile, The Swordsman would have no truck with such dark arts, and so stayed behind. The acrobat (or perhaps I should start saying the Assassin) was not so devout, but was feeling guilty enough to stay as well. They chose to investigate some mysterious men they’d encountered in trying to find Red’s contact (some violence was involved. Tastefully.)
  • The Swordsman & Acrobat investigated the mystery men’s ship and observed (but could not stop) a delivery of a large supply of Vesten weapons, armor and clothing (extra Vesten-y in fact). They also discovered a badly injured Sir Mandrake in the hold along with evidence that the supplies were going to someone who was planning to attack the MacDuff’s wedding posing as Vesten.
  • Heroes regrouped, shared information, scuttled the bad guy’s ship and set sail for Kirkwall.


Ok, so that lead to the latest session, which we all went into knowing it was the finale. I handed out an extra hero point apiece, because finale. We had a minor logistical problem because the Captain’s sheet was missing. Thankfully we had an old one, and a willingness to fake it, but that was a sour note to start on.

As our heroes sailed to Kirkwall, they encountered a damaged ship sailing for Costa. Wary of an ambush, they took precautions, but this was mostly a chance for me to pass along a warning that ships had been attacked by Vesten wielding lightning.

In Kirkwall, the harbor was filled, with Elaine’s flagship clearly visible (as well as signs of other lightning-damaged ships). The Gates was docked in an out of the way place. They placed Mandrake at church hospital for anonymity, and went to check in with McBride, who was surprised to see them, but brought them up to speed, mostly on things they already knew, including the Vesten lightning raiders, with a sidebar to the Doctor that the current chaos has the fishermen wary, which means the cod futures endeavor is in great danger.

The heroes then proceed to the Palace to see the princess. Along the way they encounter Paolo (the Swordsman’s former pupil, now head of the Princess’s guard) and have some pleasant banter about how horrible the decorations are here and the general Marcher aversion to solid colors. In time Marcela (Princess’s handmaid, spy and friend) ushered them in. There was time before the princess would be free, so Marcela roped in the royal tailors to help the heroes look their best for the wedding. The scene that followed was a fashion montage that ended with each player getting to describe their ideal outfit (which they got because, as Marcela said, she has budget). I suspect this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was super fun.

Eventually that concluded, and they were joined by the princess.1

The heroes told their tale and delivered their warning, and there was a lot of (inconclusive) discussion of who could be behind it to what end. The biggest problem was that this disruption could benefit too many people to really narrow it down, but the three likeliest candidates were Avalon (who want to put the kibosh on the Marches getting friendly with the Vendel league) or the Atabean’s or Vodacce (who want to hurt the League). Avalon was mostly ruled out because the wedding was only happening at Elaine’s insistence, but one can never be entirely sure with Elaine.

The princess asked The Captain to share his concerns about an attack with he MacDuff, who promptly tried to use it as an excuse to postpone the wedding and was shot down hard by Sir Lugh, the queen’s….something. Lugh got a briefing from the Captain afterwards, and arranged to have Sir Mandrake transferred to the embassy.

With the clock ticking down to the Wedding, the heroes checked with Sir Mandrake (who was being guarded by Sir Math, the Brian Blessed knight) who mostly told them things they knew, but did inform them that the enemy had lightning weapons that used some sort of device. This was consistent with something that the Princess had said (that there weren’t enough Vesten stormcallers to actually account for the current problem) and lead to the Heroes wondering if the weapons were using Leviathan oil (which had voltaic properties).

To this end, The Doctor and The Acrobat sought out Doctor Benito, the Vodacce biologist whose theories on the Leviathan’s had been critical to their early adventures. Benito’s lab was a slaughterhouse, isolated from the university under a cloud of perpetual stench, which is why the decaying body of Doctor Benito had probably gone unnoticed. He’d been clearly stabbed in the back, and his things had been thoroughly rifled. The acrobat heard faint movement upstairs and headed up the outside of the building as a fwumph of someone starting a fire was heard. The acrobat pursued a fleeing figure across the rooftops and faced a choice of attacking him blind, or letting him get away but seeing who it was. She chose the latter and watches Giuseppe (A fellow “orphan” of Vodacce, last seen trying to assassinate the princess and ‘clearly’ died in the process)

It was also noted that when the fire fully engulfed the lab, the explosion was electric, and it appeared very much like a massive lightning strike. FORESHADOWING!

The Doctor escaped, and she later tracked down Benito’s students and terrified his notes out of them. This was handy since it gave a decent diagram of what leviathan oil explosives might look like. Meanwhile, the Marcella asks if The Swordsman would be willing to walk the Princess down the aisle, since he is on the short list of people she trusts. He agrees and, being a gentleman, also arranges to smuggle some small fighting axes in so that the princess is better able to take care of herself. He also had a conversation with Paolo about duty, with Paolo asking why he was putting himself at risk for these people he owed nothing to.

The wedding starts the next morning, and the search for explosives has been fruitless – the castle is just too big and they have too few searchers, and there is not enough time. The Doctor continues searching while the others return to attend the wedding. The Captain sits by Sir Math, the Acrobat lurks and the Swordsman walks the princess down the aisle. It’s all quite lovely. The chapel is on the edge of the cliff that looks out over the harbor and the ocean, and it’s all wonderfully picturesque, though perhaps slightly marred if you notice the pained, lovelorn looks that the MacDuff is throwing to Elaine. It is noon on the nose when the couple is pronounced and all hell breaks loose.

Cutting away for the moment, the Doctor has pulled of some economist-savant stuff and traced certain casks of wine to a vineyard financed by an Eisen holding company that was Reece toy bought out by an Avalonian trader who is a front for Macbride. OBVIOUSLY, that’s where the bombs will be, and as she goes to investigate, she finds rather a lot of toughs hanging around that room. She loosens her axe, and goes to “negotiate”.

At roughly the same time, there’s an explosion and the back wall blows in with a crash of thunder and lighting and horn-helmed Vesten rush in. Violence ensues.

So, practically this was one scene, but spent cutting across 4 threads. That was…interesting. It actually worked less well than I’d expected, but it turned out ok. But that split also will make it a little convoluted to explain, so bear with me.

The Swordsman assessed the threat, grabbed the princess (queen, now) and headed out the back. He expected Paolo to follow, but he did not. The swordsman did not stop until he got the new queen to safety, at which point she implored him to return and find Marcela, and he did so.

Meanwhile, The Captain saw that Sir Lugh had ushered Elaine out with great speed, so he and Sir Math turned to face the horde. It was glorious, but at the moment when The Captain called upon his luck, he had a momentary view down to the harbor where he saw MacBride’s ship setting sail, so he did the only thing he could: Had Math throw him.

The Acrobat immediately realized this attack was coming from a stupid direction, and so looked for the hidden thing. She spotted someone watching from the kitchen doors and made a dramatic leap, then slide, throwing her knife as she kicked the door open, and coming to a halt only to realize he knife was buried in Giuseppe’s chest, and with his dying breath he croaks “I was…trying…to…warn you” before hands made of shadow envelop him.

The Doctor’s scene was not described so much as presented as a montage of violence. The Doctor has every brute fighting advantage in the book, and the simple truth is that she walks through them like death incarnate. There is a certain amount of chasing and disarming, but the bomb threat is dealt with efficiently and brutally.

The Acrobat leapt into shadows after Giuseppe, and found herself in darkness. Using sorte threads like a spider, she took her bearings and realized there were two people here (besides Giuseppe), the one who had grabbed him and a not-really-human figure who had apparently noticed her, but said nothing. While on each previous encounter, her enemy in the shadows had an advantage of surprise and position, this time it was more of a fair fight, and it turned out he was not good at those. The Acrobat cut him to ribbons with blade and fate, and as he came to his end he cursed the other figure and demanded aid. It asked if he was requesting his seventh favor, and upon agreement the darkness vanishes. THe inhuman figure he stitched the mans wounds with shadows, smiled at the Acrobat, then walked off through a wall, declaring “Our business is concluded”. The Acrobat finished her job, this time out of pity, for it was clear the shadow stitching was having a fairly horror-movie effect on the man.

Meanwhile, the Captain was being thrown from the docks, which would be utterly preposterous under any other circumstance, but at this moment had the strongest knight of Avalon doing the Throwing and the toughest knight of Avalon being thrown. And even so, it depended on a liberal interpretation of some glamours, but that’s what finale’s are for. Having crashed into the docks, The Captain was a walking dead man, with bones poking out and things at odd angles as he walked onto the deck of The Gates and started barking orders. I could pretend it was a dramatic fight, but it was a hardy privateer vessel vs a fat, fleeing merchantman. The Gates got off a broadside before Macbride even ran out the guns, and the ensuing explosion(full of lightning as it was) badly damaged The Gates as it washed over it. When the smoke cleared, The Captain was nowhere to be seen.

When The Swordsman returned to the chapel, the fight was still in progress. The MacDuff had not fled, but was surrounded by his men – or mostly surrounded. The ones in front of him were engaged with the faux Vesten, but the ones behind him had been quietly cut down, and the assassin was advancing on the MacDuff’s exposed back. It was, of course, Paolo.

The Swordsman knocked the blade aside, and Paolo’s face is that of a crushed man, as they engaged. After a few exchanges, Paolo cursed and asked why the damn fool old man had not left. The fight grew more brutal, and when MacDuff and his men finally turned and noticed what had happened, Paolo was dead on the floor with a sword of the Hierophant’s Guard left in his body, and The Swordsman nowhere to be found.

So, the queen was saved. The assassins were not in position to silence any surviving Vesten, so the conspiracy was unwound. MacBride was scattered across the trade sea in pieces. So we cut to a few scenes of aftermath.

The first was a funeral. A statue of the Captain had gone up above his Cenotaph, with the remaining heroes and allies in attendance. There is much mourning, save from the Fate Witch who was The Captain’s first love of the game, who is beatific.

The second is a rooftop farewell between Marcella and The Acrobat, who is returning to Vodacce to finish the Orphanage once and for all. There is a fleeting kiss, then a whoosh.

The third is of the Guildhall in Vesten. The Doctor (who quite shamelessly took advantage of the disruption of MacBride’s death) is taking her seat on the council.

Roll Credits.

Of course, there’s a stinger. Halfway through the credits, we cut back to the Captain’s statue, then pull back to see a figure standing before it. We pull back a little bit further and realize the figure is urinating on the cenotaph. He finishes, turns and the Captain adjusts his hat and strides back towards the sea.

Continue Credits.

Final scene pans over a monastery on the mountains between Castille and Montaigne. A lone figure is walking up the long stairs up the mountains. He carries no sword, and his clothes are simple, but we recognize him as the Swordsman before he steps through the gates, and the screen fades to black.

And done2.

It was a fun campaign. We’ll be doing Blades in the Dark next (the Swordsman’s player will be GMing), so I’m now turning over my experience with the game in my head. I am, I fear, dwelling more on the rough edges than on the parts that worked well. That’s no reflection on the game, just the way my brain works.

All in all, the flavor was right. This absolutely supported a swashbuckling game where the heroes were not just second bananas to the real movers and shakers of the setting. It still allowed space for powerful and important NPCs, but did so without demanding that the players need to be shackled by it. That alone makes for 80% win.

So the difficulties in the remaining 20% are irksome, but not a real problem. I’ll be frank, even after running it, I feel like there’s still something I don’t get about the system. There’s a flow and cadence to the Raise system which is amazing when the situation lines up, but feels off when it does not (and it is usually off). This is more frustrating that it would be because it feels Iike the solution is just around the corner – that just a bit of tuning would nail it down.

I dunno. The problem may be me. Maybe I’ll watch some actual play and see.

Beyond that I will say that I was not satisfied with the Hero Point economy. The system is full of hooks where it’s theoretically possible for players to earn more Hero Points, but they all felt a little bit too fiddly for me. I am, obviously, a big proponent of point economies, so there was no hesitation on my part.

Ironically, I think the answer to all of this is to think of this as an anti-indie game. A lot of these problems go away (or diminish) if I decide to take a much looser view of the rules and apply much stronger fiat. And that would make for a pretty good game. But I’ve been trying to play more “by the book” to push myself out of my comfort zones, and maybe this was not the right game to do that with.


Which is, I note, not a criticism. If the game is better suited to a strong, entertaining GM (which, I should note, definitely aligns with Wick’s advice) with the rules as guidelines, then that’s great, and the only issue is communicating that.

Anyway, I’m glad I ran this. It was a fun campaign and a return to a game I love. But I’m also glad to be taking a break. It’ll give time for the line to mature (we have so many wonderful maps yet to come) and I’ll be curious to see what it looks like when the whole world is spread out before us.

  1. This was a fun scene because both NPCs are serious folks in a serious situation, but the heroes are people they can actually relax in front of, and that was obvious in their interactions. This is a small thing, but I really like it when NPC interactions can convey those notes of actual friendship – it goes a long way towards letting the NPCs be competent and important but not overshadow the heroes, because that’s your bud, and their success is in some way your success. ↩︎
  2. That is, I should not, entirely how we played it. As a table, we’re comfortable with switching to cinematic language to describe play, sometimes very literally. ↩︎

The Captain’s Wheel

First and foremost, I want to make something clear: this is an idea from John Harper’s Blades in the Dark, the clock mechanic, which I am adapting to 7th Sea. I take zero credit for any of this, and all blame for it’s awkwardness. I absolutely encourage looking to the source material for further insight.

With that in mind, here we go.


The Captain’s Wheel

When the GM encounters a situation which requires a little bit more range than a simple yes or no, then she can do the following:

  1. Grab a post it or index card

    Making it a wheel lets me draw it with stubs!

  2. Draw a circle on it (the eponymous wheel)
  3. Divide that circle into any number of wedges. 4 is the default, but really, 2, 4, 6 or 8 are all fine (or even odd numbers if that suits you).
  4. Write down a word or two describe what’s being tracked.
  5. Whenever something happens in play to move towards the outcome being tracked, fill in a wedge on the wheel. Sometimes, things will fill in more than one wedge.
  6. When the wheel is completely filled in, something happens!

Sounds simple, because it is. Consider this example:

We’ve done two suspicious things, but so far he hasn’t caught on

Players are guests in the court of Elaine, but are also secretly spying for Montaigne. Elaine’s spymaster is on the alert, but not yet suspicious.

The GM draws a 6 wedge wheel to represent the awareness of the spymaster. When the heroes do things that might raise suspicion (even if it does not point directly at them), the GM fills in a wedge. On individual rolls, the GM may offer the prospect of filling in wedges as potential consequences that need to be offset. If the wheel ever fills in, the Spymaster realizes that there are spies around and the whole palace goes into lockdown.)

This offers a few interesting tools to the table1:

  • As a GM, it gives me an extra handle for consequences on a given roll. That is super valuable to me.
  • This scales up and down easily. I can have a wheel in a scene for whether the room catches fire just as easily as I can have a wheel on my campaign for when Posen finishes preparing for war. Wedges can be filled by a raise, by an action, by a scene or by and entire session.
  • It lets me address those situations where my gut feels like allowing something for one raise is too much, but I don’t want to just say no.
  • Because there’s a physical reminder of the wheel on the table, it remains something easy to engage. A quick glance can reveal what’s in play, and serve as its own sort of bookkeeping.

Anyway, I offer this as a convenience for anyone looking to solve the same problems I intend to use it for.

  1. I admit, I may also use this notation for advancement, but that’s just a personal thing.) ↩︎

Blades in the Dark

Cover of the RPG: Blades in the Dark. Title over a hooded man holding a knifeFirst, the caveats:

  1. Evil Hat published Blades in the Dark so technically I have an interest in its success. I was, however, entirely uninvolved in its production and approach this purely as a fan.
  2. And a fan I am. I backed the kickstarter for the Deluxe Edition (well before Evil Hat became involved) more or less sight unseen purely because John Harper is one of the most exciting RPG designers out there. That Blades also hit all the right notes for me regarding genre and tone was a nice bonus.

Not looking to hide either of those things, and if you feel they matter, then absolutely take them into account as you read.

The Game

Blades In The Dark is a roleplaying game by John Harper, author of Lady Backbird, Agon, World of Dungeons and a ton of other great stuff. It is a game for playing “…a crew of daring scoundrels seeking their fortunes on the haunted streets of an industrial fantasy city”. Genre touchpoints include things like The Lies of Locke Lamora and the Dishonored series of video games, as well as a broader net of gritty crime drama and adventure. I’m a great fan of the crime end of things, and I’ve enjoyed the hell out of Dishonored, so this seemed pretty much in the pocket for me.

The physical product is noteworthy because it’s darkly lovely. A 6×9 book with a physical profile similar to Evil Hat’s Fate Core, it’s largely matte, in blacks and grays with a little accent. It looks great, but of particular note is the application of gloss. As noted, the cover is matte, excepting the title, and the edge of the blades held by the figure on the cover. It’s a wonderful effect – at the right angle, the blades glint dramatically, and it’s pretty cool.

It’s a cool, quirky detail, but it’s in keeping with the rest of the book, where attention to detail is evident in every page. The art is consistent and flavorful, yes, but that’s just the start. See, Harper did the writing, art, layout and cartography, and the result is something where every piece just works to reinforce the whole (this combination of talents is something he has brought to past projects, and one of the reasons I’m such a fan).

It also makes it a very functional layout, albeit with some tradeoffs. It is very clear what section you’re in, and information is frequently presented, then presented again in a more digestible format. Everything is organized according to its own internal logic, and once you get that, finding things isn’t too hard, but there’s a learning curve. The flip side is that it’s much easier to absorb on a read-through than to reference, and that was probably the right call for this particular book.

Specifically, it is the right call because the text is opinionated and precise. There is a lot of terminology in this, applied consistently an clearly. New terminology is par for course for RPGs, but Blades does not rely on existing traditions, even for seemingly ubiquitous ideas like difficulty or injury. A roll, for example, has position and effect (which is not the outcome) which may account for potency, tier and scale. It all makes sense when you lay it out, but until you internalize what those map to, there’s a lot of time spent reading rules that refer to one or another and stopping for mental alignment (and thanking goodness that the index is well put together).

I don’t think it’s onerous, but it’s sufficiently specific that choosing a layout focused on teaching was the right call. Learning the language of Blades seems critical to the process of actually playing it.

Anyway, we’re drifting towards content, so let’s shift gears. We’ve got a 327 page book, with about 80-odd pages of setting information about the city of Duskvol in the back. Normal math might suggest that it’s proceeded by about almost 250 pages of rules, but that’s not quite right. There definitely are a lot of rules in that 250 pages, but there’s also a ton of setting information (both implicit and explicit) which makes it hard to peel them apart casually.1

The Basics

The first section introduces the game, and is about 50 pages of introduction and explanation of core mechanical concepts. It is a delight. The introduction is an impressively clear and friendly expression if intent that does not come across as marketing copy. The rules themselves are…well, not to put too fine a point on it, the rules are great. I could not go two pages in this chapter without getting excited about how some particular thing was done.

So I’m going to really zoom in here, because that’s how I’m wired. Consider yourself warned.

The core die mechanic is simple but nuanced – roll some number of D6s, and (usually) check the result of the highest one. 1-3 means things went crappy. 4-5 means success with complications. 6 means a success, and if you got any other 6s, it’s a critical success.

Seems simple enough, but here’s why this is exciting:

  • Simple is good. I would not feel daunted explaining this to an 8 year old, much less a convention table.
  • It’s a die pool system, which has lots of design advantages (because it supports a lot of additions/inputs for mechanical hooks) but because it’s just the best die being read, it removes the math, counting or calculation that can slow down die pools
  • As a die pool system, you can aggressively swap out the means by which you determine the pools. Blades uses its skills (sorry, action ratings) to determine how many dice you roll but it could just as easily be Over the Edge descriptors or FAE approaches or nearly anything else that produces a number from ~0-4.
  • It privileges success with complications (an idea familiar to Talislanta and Apocalypse World fans) very interestingly. I need to do up some graphs to truly show this off, but the weight of results is such that you start being likely to get a success very quickly, and you never really leave the likelihood too far behind, no matter how big your pool gets.
  • Support of criticals is a small thing, but important for helping players feel awesome. Making crits a first class citizen of results communicates that the game is a fan of the players.
  • This has the benefits of the generalized Apocalypse World model without the structure that is its hallmark. If one thinks this is a bug, there are plenty of other games to use, but for GMs who have delighted in the framework, but wanted it a bit more generalized, this is delicious.

So, yeah, that works. The next section is a brief summary of the structure of play, which is broken into free play, the score and downtime. There’s a nice graphic, but it’s probably a little bit too short an explanation and it’s not really made clear until later on (and at this point I’m still not 100% clear where Free Play really fits, except in the edges). Reading this planted in me a concern that play would be over-structured, so that worry sat in my back pocket as I continued.

It then shifts back to mechanics, talking about how dice pools are built. Practically, it’s simple – pick a it’s-not-a-skill-it’s-an-action-rating2 like Command or Prowl and roll a number of dice equal to the dots you have.

And yes, dots. Technically, it’s a numeric rating from 0-4, but White Wolf taught us all that dots are just more fun, so I’m all for it. Plus, the use of dots allows for a really clever hack for attributes that is mostly visual. Bear with me for a second: there are 15 12 action ratings and 3 attributes (insight, prowess and resolve) and each attribute has 4 action ratings under it. However, the attributes don’t have independent values – instead their value is derived from the number of action ratings you have a score in. Which means that if I stack those 5 action ratings, then my attribute is equal to the dots filled in in the first column of dots.

Weird to explain, but easy to illustrate:

Illustration of the attrubutes idea I just described

Clipped right from the book

 

Next section is on stress and trauma. Stress is really interesting because it’s definitely not hit points, but also, it’s kind of hit points.

Confusing? A little, but it seems to boil down to this:

  • Stress is a pool of points
  • Those points can be spent for some effects, like pushing a roll (for more dice or better effect)
  • When something bad happens to the character, the player can say “No” and spend some stress.
  • The amount of stress spent to say no depends on the result of a “resistance roll” (which uses one of your attributes)

I make the comparison to hit points because in a simpler game (that is, once where consequences were all injury) that’s more or less what they would be. An ablative layer of points which you burn through rather than take consequences. But I do not say that as a criticism, rather as profound praise. Turning hit points into spendable currency is a fantastic twist, and paired with abstracting them out as general purpose consequence avoidance (rather than just faux-injury tracking) is an incredibly powerful one-two punch. This is an amazing idea.

Trauma is what kicks in when you burn through all your stress – you pick up a trauma (there’s a list of options) and it’s a permanent part of your character now. Pick up four traumas and it’s time to retire the character. This is interesting, but it gets a little more curious when we get around to discussing injury, later on.

The next section is on progress clocks. Structurally, they’re similar to Apocalypse World‘s Shot Clocks, but as with other AW rules in Blades, they’re made a bit more multi-purpose. In short, any time something that comes up that you might want to track progress against (the alert level of the duke’s mansion, your attempt to rebuild your dead spouse, how pissed off a rival gang is, etc.), you draw a circle and divide it into wedges. How you check them off depends on the situation, but generally when they fill in something happens. There’s some explanation of tricks you can do with different clock types, but it’s just a progress tracker, right?

Well, yes and no.

See, this is one of those ideas that is really easy to get, but whose expression has always been a mess. We tried something similar in Fate 2e, and I loved it, found it clever and useful, and discovered that it was stupidly complicated to actually explain to people. Harper has taken this idea and refined the language and presentation to the point where it is obvious, so obvious that it does not seem like it is even worth noting. And that right there, that is some goddamned craftstmanship.

So, yeah, this is good tech. And it fits tidily on an index card, so that absolutely suits my GMing sensibilities.

Next section is where we get into the guts of rolling the dice to do stuff. This is both familiar and curious, so let’s step through the process:

  1. Player states what they’re trying to do, and which action rating they’re using to do it. There can be some discussion and negotiation around this, but it’s generally skill picking as we know it.
  2. The GM chooses the position for the roll, which is kind of like difficulty, but also kind of not. By default, rolls are “Risky” but they may be “Controlled” (if the situation is well in hand) or “Desperate” (if they’re very much not)
  3. The GM also chooses the effect level of the roll, which is sort of a dial for how effective the course of action being taken is. Default to standard, but might be great (if you’re using the right tool for the job) or limited (if you are using the right tool for the wrong job). Narratively this might mean a number of things, but mechanically it translated to how many ticks a success will generate.
  4. A dance is done to see if the player has bonus dice. We’ll deal with that separately.
  5. Dice are rolled. This is where we do the “Pick the best one, check 1-3/4-5/6/6+.”

Now, there are 3 separate results tables (based on position) and while they all largely conform to “1-3 is failure, 6 is success, 4-5 is mixed success”, they differ in the details. Specifically, the consequences of failure or mixes success are lighter for a controlled roll than they are for a risky roll, which are lighter than they are for a desperate roll.

I like two things about this. First, it adds an element of nuance to the signaling behind a die roll. Going to the dice is a signifier to the player that things are going down, and PBTA games are really good are supporting that communication, but they do so in a very blunt fashion. Allowing a little more sophistication tunes the message. “We’re going to the dice, but things have not escalated yet” (or the inverse) for example can be a useful message. These tools gives a better handle for things like rising and falling tension.

Second: There’s an built-in escalation model that I really like. Among the possible consequences for a 1-3 result is “Try again from a worse position”. That is, if you fail a roll under controlled circumstance, you falter, and if you want to press on, it will be risky. If that risky roll fails, you’ll pay a price, but may still make a desperate attempt. This is a small thing, but it means that it transforms failure from an end state to a transition(possibly with consequences) and, specifically it does it in alignment with how I’ve seen players actually act at the table. How do I mean? In my experience, when players are invested in a situation an encounter a failure, the usual (and best) response is “Ok, what else?”. Supporting this warms my heart (and, in fact, one subtle advantage of controlled rolls is that re-trying is easier).

Now, note here that this is a player roll. The GM does not roll for NPCs, so NPC opposition is implicit in the roll, and figures heavily in the implicit consequences of a failure or mixed result. Not a huge detail, but worth noting.

So, once you have rolled, it generates an effect. Remember that the GM set the effect level before the roll, and while mechanically that may mean it’s “Great”, “Standard” or “Limited” what it hopefully means in practice is that the GM has set expectations for what success looks like. This may seem like a small thing, but it can be a critical point of disconnect, and it’s very reasonable to make it explicit.

It also is going to be a hard rule to follow. I fully cop to often deciding on the effectiveness of a roll after the roll has been made, and that is not going to fly here. Treating a 4-5 as less of a success than a 6 is an easy trap to fall into (especially if you’re still thinking in PBTA terms) but it’s explicitly at odds with the intent of the rules as presented.

I should add, I am willing to improve my own behavior because I like this a lot. Success + Consequence is a different genre of play than Partial Success, and specifically, partial success has a bad habit of forcing players to walk back from their expectations of the fiction in favor of sometimes arbitrary compromises. Not every player will prefer cost over compromise, and that’s fine, but I know my tastes go that way.

Anyway, I will say the language around effect is a little awkward. It standardizes the usual factors that might impact effect as potency, quality/tier(tier being like quality for an organization) and scale. Making those keywords and applying them in a simple fashion seems very practical, and there’s actually a heartwarming table of these factors towards the backfire anyone who wants to really dive into them. However, they’re not really called keywords, so I’m not 100% sure how to talk about them as a category. Small thing.

Lastly, we get some mention of consequences (injury, etc) but that’s in another section.

More critically, now that we’ve gotten to the end, I want to step back to a really interesting subsystem here, which is how to get extra dice. There are, modulo special abilities and whatnot, three ways to do it.

First, if an ally wants to help, they take one stress, describe how they help3, and you get a +1d.

Second, if you just want to burn resources, you can spend 2 stress to push yourself and gain a die.

Third, and most interesting, you can accept a Devil’s Bargain. You can’t do this and also push yourself, so there are some limits, but the mechanic is simple: Someone (GM or player) proposes some way in which things might get worse. It might be mechanical (spend a resource, get hurt, tick up a clock) or it might be part of the fiction (Collateral damage, anger an NPC) but whatever it is, it has an edge to it. The player is not obliged to accept the bargain, but if they do, it becomes true (however the roll goes) and they get an extra die on the roll.

I kind of love the devil’s bargain mechanic. It serves a very similar role to Fate’s compels, but in a rather more free form fashion, and that is right up my alley. And with the opportunity for player input and the decision in the acting player’s hands, this is is a well constructed rule for maximum fun opportunities and minimal headaches.

But there’s also an interesting nuance to this. Something I haven’t mentioned is that if you have zero dice to roll, then you roll 2 dice and use the lower one. Painful, but easily mitigated because even a small pool is powerful. Later on, the text notes that 2 dice (not-coincidentally the number you can get from help plus pushing yourself or taking a bargain) has a 75% chance of getting at least a complicated success. This is presented as a supporter of character competence, and that’s true as far as it goes, but I think it has a more subtle knock on effect – it reduces the social friction of having and using skills at zero, which creates more situations where Devil’s Bargains become appealing. It is, frankly, a little bit sinister, and I applaud it soundly.

Ok, let’s hop back out of the sidebar and into the land of consequences and harm.

Ok, so you blow a roll or something goes wrong, and you take a consequence (maybe more than one). Straightforward enough. Broadly, those consequences might be reflects as reduced effect, complication, lost opportunity, worse position or harm (these are actual in game categories).

This seems simple and intuitive, and it can be, but there’s actually a fully engineered solution that lies underneath them which merits unpacking.

I actually had an interesting time really digging into this section because at first blush it seemed obvious, then puzzling, then obvious, then contradictory, then maybe clear. I’ll spare you the steps of my puzzlement, and lay things bare.

The consequences rules have an unclear relationship to success and failure. This is because some consequences either expressly imply failure (lost opportunity, worse position) or allow the negation of success through the situation (reduced effect, complication4). This would make sense if the implied failures all came up on 1-3 and the potential negation were 4-5 (though that introduces a different problem), but it’s not quite that clean.

Lost Opportunity only ever comes up on a 1-3, so no problems there. Complication can always come up, so that’s fine too. Worse Position is more muddled, since that happens in 1-3 and 4-5. The Consequences rules talk worse position in terms of failure, but if I read the tea leaves on the outcome chart, I think that’s not the intent. It seems like 1-3 is “You failed, things are getting worse, you can try again from worse footing” and 4-5 is maybe “You succeed but are now in a worse situation”. But I’m genuinely not sure.

Reduced Effect makes me most nervous. I get the intent, but if I’m trying to play it strictly as written, it can retroactively undercut the idea that a 4-5 is a “real” success, and that would in turn undercut a lot of the foundation of character competency. I get why it’s there: there are plenty of times that reduced effect is the right result, and can be done without negation, but that takes a deft hand, or at least a little experience. Thankfully, it’s not hard experience to come by, but this is such a broad outcome, I wish it had gotten unpacked a little more.

Harm is always an option, but that is it’s own kettle of fish. It comes in 4 flavors, lesser, moderate, severe and fatal. The character has 5 text fields (2 lesser, 2 moderate, 1 severe) and as they’re hurt, they write down the injury in the appropriate slot for the harm. If no slots are available, it rolls up to the next category (and if you roll up from severe, then it’s death or permanent injury time). Characters suffer penalties based on the description of their injury and the level of the harm.

Notably, while I’m speaking exclusively in terms of injury, this is actually a fairly broad system, and harm could just as easily be fatigue or emotional trauma. It’s solid and utilitarian.

Where it gets interesting is in how you avoid it.

When the GM drops a consequence on your character, you can choose to resist it. You roll the appropriate attribute for the situation, then spend 6 stress, minus the highest die result. Importantly, this usually does not negate the consequence, but it reduces it in severity (so a fatal consequence might become severe). However, in some situations it might just negate it entirely. There’s a note at this point which calls out that this is a very important point for genre and tone  – the more things that resistance rolls can avoid entirely, the less gritty the game shall be.

Armor, because there is always armor, has checkboxes (one or two) and you can mark them to automatically resist without spending stress. In a weird twist, though you can only roll against a given consequence once, if you’re wearing heavy armor, you can mark it twice to do a double-reduction.

All of which leads us to death. Get hurt too bad and die, and you can either create a new character or pick up the Ghost playbook and continue. I admit, I can’t wait to see how that works.

From this point on, we’re largely dealing with outliers and one-offs, so apologies if this seems disjointed.

  • Fortune Roll – The fortune roll is a mechanic I welcome – it’s a mechanization of the time honored GM tactic of “I have no vested interest in how this goes, let’s see what the dice say”. It’s useful for resolving matters offscreen, handling weird situations and as an all purpose resolution to edge cases. If this rule didn’t exist, I’d be using some version of it anyway, so I’m all for it.
  • Information management – It’s not actually called that – the section is technically “Gathering Information”, and it’s a description of how skills can be used for data gathering (and most skills can be used that way, Feng Shui style).  It’s also important as it explicitly expresses the philosophy of information – in this case that it largely falls under the auspices of the dice. That may not seem strange, but if you’re coming to Blades from a wide background of games, it’s good to make sure that’s clear rather than leave people wondering if they’re supposed to Gumshoe it up.
  • Example of Play – This is weirdly placed. We’re not really done the basics yet, nor are we at any clear transition. It’s a good example, but I honestly had to come back to it later after I’d internalized more of the book and terminology.
  • PVP – Not a lot of mechanical differentiation for PVP, but a lot of social consideration. Big emphasis on clear communication and keeping the in character conflict from spilling out of character, and I kind of applaud that, even if the actual resolution is a bit ad hoc.
  • Money Abstracted wealth, represented as coin, with one coin being about a week’s wages. There are some rules about how much coin you can practically keep lying around, and they seem a little arbitrary, but their purpose is to (effectively) drive players to put money in their “Stash”, the rating that determines lifestyle quality and your fate upon retirement. However, coin also gets spent on a lot of other stuff, so I’m curious how this actually plays out.

Going to break out of bullets for  The Faction Game – this section is a little weird, and only really gels as you see some of the later rules and examples. Still, the basic idea is simple enough: A faction is a group (usually a gang) and it has stats including Tier (general size & quality), Hold (whether it’s position si strong or weak), Rep (Effectively XP/currency for development) and Turf (territory you own). It also may have Status (from -3 to +3) with other factions, indicating their relationship.

Factions also have claims, which are bits of “territory” they control (and are sometimes turf, but also sometimes not). This is a little wacky because there’s a map of potential claims that is reminiscent of the advancement tree from a JRPG. A group starts with a Lair and can try to seize an adjacent claim, then once that is seized, the number of adjacent claim’s has increased.

At first blush, it was confusing to read. The example map both clarifies the idea but also leaves me a little confused on how it’s supposed to apply on my table. Thankfully, a lot of this stuff gets unpacked later on, but I had to bookmark section as something to come back to later.

FInally, we end with Advancement. Short form – gain XP in play, during downtime by training, or at the end of session by checklign a checklist of things like your drives, issues etc.. XP is marked on tracks…of some kind, which gets advances…at some point. As might be made clear by my confusion, this is one of those areas where there rules are not actually in the book but require that you have the PDF of playbooks on hand. I admit – I kind of hate that.

Interestingly, there is also group XP – the crew has its own XP track and advances similarly.

Ok, you can stop and maybe get a beverage. We’ve gotten through the basic rules, and that’s going to be the densest part of this. Not that the rest isn’t interesting, but this section is where I really nerded out. From here on out, it should be clear sailing.

Characters

The chapter starts with a note about how skills at 0 is not that big a deal due to the ease in building a pool. It’s a good reminder. From there, we get into actual chargen – it’s a playbook system , and the 7 playbooks are Cutter (melee violence), Hound (range & tracking), Leech (achemist/gadgeteer), Lurk (sneaky), Slide(face/grifter), Spider (mastermind) and Whisper(magic and weirdness). The language is delightfully flavorful – these are all terms that can work well in conversation – and support the idea that all characters are scoundrels.

There is some explanation about how these are playbooks, and they’re totally not classes, and I’m a little skeptical of that since it’s predicated on some very specific definitions, but that’s all well and good.

Once you pick your playbook, you then pick a heritage (non-generic nationality, because these are all setting explicit) and background (what you did before). These are potential hooks for generating XP, and they’re supposed to influence your point spend, but they don’t carry much mechanical weight beyond that..

Next up, assign some points (4 points, in addition to the 3 that are pre-bought by your playbook), and pick your first ability from your playbook. In a nice touch, the first ability on each playbook is solid default choice for the uncertain.

After that, choose one close friend and one rival (from the list on your playbook), your vice and vice purveyor, then fill in details like name, alias and look (all framed in a fairly PBTA fashion, but pleasantly decoupled from the actual playbooks).

One nice touch about pulling from a fixed set of NPCs is that the names will see re-use from story to story. Marlene, the pugilist is going to show up in many games, and it will be very interesting to see what similarities and differences emerge from game to game and which NPCs groups start to feel are iconic in what ways. Similar benefits come from naming the vice purveyors.

The rules for equipment (“Loadout”) are kind of slipped in after the chargen summary, and they’re worth noting because starting gear (listed in your playbook) is not what you have, but rather what you have access to. The number of items that you carry around translates into a loose encumbrance system, but the critical piece here is that it is expected that characters will be swapping out their loads from situation to situation. I like the looseness of this, but I especially like that it keeps equipment important while still removing the shopping trip from chargen.

After this we get a deeper breakdown of the different actions (aka not-skills) before diving into the individual playbooks.

The Cutter

  • Get XP when you address a challenge with violence or coercion, which is to say I presume these guys are XP fountains
  • There is an option for ghost punching. I do not understand why it is not the default. Because ghost punching.
  • Lot of good abilities for leading a group in combat. There’s stuff for personal badass, yes, but it’s an interesting emphasis.
  • You have the option of carrying a heavier weapon, which is interesting in that it has no explicit mechanical impact so much as it grants implicit permission to have an advantage in the right circumstance. Seems fuzzy, and I’m not sure if that’s incredibly potent, or less than useful.
  • They can also dose from a rage essence vial, effectively going berserk. As with the heavy weapon, this has no explicit effect, only the expectation that the GM will modify position and effect. Genuinely unsure how I feel about that – it’s flexible and narrative, but also a little handwavey

Hound

  • XP when you address a challenge with tracking or violence, which seems like it should pay off decently.
  • This is a curious archetype because if I were to describe this in a non-gamer fashion, it would absolutely have a stealth component (since this is implicitly the sniper) but because that’s the domain of the Lurk, it seems to tiptoe around that a little. The Scout ability has some of it, but I suspect there’s a reason it’s not the default.
  • One ability gives +1 stress box, and I have no idea how that interacts with the still imaginary character sheet
  • Lots of abilities about being tough, which I admit I did not see as part of this concept, but I guess it matches if I think ranger-y thoughts
  • You get a pet!

Leech

  • Get XP when you address a challenge with technical skills or mayhem. I take back what I said about cutters – this has got to be a bottomless font of XP for a certain type of player.
  • I’m actually a little curious how this one works because a lot of different ideas are under one roof here since it’s medicine, alchemy, gadgets and demolitions all in one.
  • Unsurprisingly, lots of crafting abilities. Haven’t gotten to those rules yet, so hard to judge.
  • Physicker (the I’m a Doctor, dammit) ability also squeezes in some first aid rules in the fine print.
  • You get a bandolier of flasks that you can throw to do stuff, so that’s fun.

Lurk

  • So a comment on twitter indicated to me that no one picks this playbook, so I’m now doubly curious.
  • Gain XP when you address a challenge with stealth or evasion – well, that might be part of it. Those are both situational enough that I don’t see them as quite the fountain of XP as some others.
  • I think part of the rub may also be that the default ability, Infiltrator, lets you ignore quality or tier when bypassing security measures. That ability makes total sense in a mechanical sort of way, but it feels kind of boring. The effect is in the GM’s hands, so it’s a bit of a black box, and there’s a lot less player-contact than even something as simple as a +1d. Worse, it also depends on the GM providing a specific sort of opposition, in which case the reward is that it’s no worse than normal.
  • Similarly the Reflexes ability (whenever there’s a question, you act first) is something that sounds cool, but I genuinely don’t know how often it comes up.
  • Also, it probably doesn’t help that the Hound gets the sniper stuff.
  • But you do get to turn into a living shadow at a cost of substantial stress, so that’s cool.

Slide

  • Ok, I tend towards the grifter or mastermind, so I’m definitely eyeing this one with an eye towards whether I’d play it.
  • Gain XP when you address a challenge with deception or influence – Hrm. Ok, less bountiful than violence and mayhem, but still doable.
  • Ok, some of these are awesome. Tell when someone is lying to you? Cloud minds like the shadow? Bonus money? Resist consequences from suspicion & persuasion? Yeah, I’d have a hard time choosing.
  • Plus your equipment includes a disguise kit, loaded gambling gear and a swanky outfit.
  • Yeah, this playbook is made of awesome.

Spider

  • The other playbook I eye for myself
  • Gain XP when you address a challenge with calculation or conspiracy – ok, that should payoff well.
  • Default ability is to assist without paying stress twice per session. That is concrete and valuable in a way that’s hard to pass up.
  • Damn, these abilities are awesome, with especial Nathan Ford props for “Functioning Vice” As with the Slide, these would be hard to choose between.
  • Awesome

Whisper

  • Most curious about this one because it implicitly tells us a lot about what magic means in the setting.
  • Earn XP when you address a challenge with knowledge or arcane power – hard to judge this one until we know more about what arcane power looks like.
  • So, the first ability allows you to compel a ghost, but it does depend on there being a ghost to compel and you might need to roll to find one. Feels a bit thin.
  • Having read to the end of this, I feel no closer to being able to judge it than when I started. Some of this is because details depend on other sections of the book, some of it is because a lot of stuff seems to rely on things outside the player’s sphere. But I may also be reading it entirely wrong, and later sections will make it clear. Dunno.

We wrap up with general equipment (available to everyone) and a very nice point that the Devil’s Bargain mechanic is a great way to handle a lot of the fiddly belts about gear.

The Crew

Ok, this is some hot stuff. Building a common resource is always fun, and making your group’s crew looks super promising in that regard. Delightfully, the crews also follow a playbook model (with the playbooks being Assassins, Bravos, Cult5, Hawkers, Shadows & Smugglers).

To make a crew, the group picks a playbook and sets initial stats for the crew (tier 0, strong hold, 0 rep, 2 coin) and pick a reputation and a lair. Reputation is an XP engine, and the lair is pretty freeform, with the expectation that the players will tie it to the city map.

The group also establishes the crew’s “Hunting grounds”, the are they operate in, and establish a little bit of history regarding how they got it and who they got it from. The crew gets bonuses for operating within their hunting ground, and it can expand in time. Somewhat confusingly, the hunting ground is not a claim, though it is related to turf.

You then go to the playbook and pick a special ability and two crew upgrades. One kind of fun tweak to upgrades – every time you take an upgrade, you pick a faction that helped you and one that got screwed, and update your status with both. It’s a lovely little rule that keeps things dynamic.

Lastly, pick a favorite contact for the crew. As with the named NPCs on the character playbooks, this is going to make for fun continuity.

Worked in here are rules for cohorts, which is to say followers, notably gangs and experts. Not every crew starts with cohorts, but they’re an option. Cohorts have a type (an area of expertise) and a quality rank based on the crew’s tier. In addition, gangs have scale and Experts have edges and flaws. There are rules for using cohorts, rolling dice, harming and killing them, and it all seems pretty straightforward.

The specific choices of each playbook are in the book themselves, including the map that the group uses for claims. I admit, that’s both cool and weird – cool because it’s stylistic, weird because I would have expected the map to be based on the setting, but so long as I view it as an XP system, it works. Notably, each playbook also includes a list of job seeds as opportunities.

Assassins

  • Earn XP with successful accidents, disappearances, murder or ransoms.
  • Upgrades include more tools and general deadliness

Bravos

  • Earn XP with successful battle, extortions, sabotage or smash & grab
  • More gear, prison contacts, and general toughness

Cult

  • Earn XP for advancing the agenda of your deity or embody its precepts. I suspect that requires some serious unpacking at the table.
  • Upgrades are dull, but abilities include things like secret communication and making Worship a vice.

Hawkers

  • Gain XP when acquiring new product supply, executing clandestine or covert sales, or secure new sales territory
  • Curiously, I suspect this requires almost as much setup as a cult, since you are effectively declaring a subset of the economy.
  • Some interesting abilities, including an ability to turn good relationships into turf, or buy and sell with ghosts.
  • This is definitely an option that gets more interesting the closer you look at it.

Shadows

  • This is probably the closest thing to a “default” choice, since it’s, well, thieves.
  • Gain XP when you execute a burglary, espionage, robbery or sabotage attempt. Yeah. Default.
  • I can’t really point to any one ability as signature, but they’re all really solid. This is definitely a good default.

Smugglers

  • Earn XP when you execute a smuggling operation or acquire new clients or contraband sources.
  • BTW, may I note how much I appreciate that the crew XP hooks are also adventure creation prompts?
  • Some of these abilities (I’m looking at you, Ghost Passage) are vibrant enough to be group-defining.
  • Curious, every other Crew’s default ability is the “+1 to 3 action ratings” one, but for smugglers, it defaults to making your vehicle more interesting. I totally dig that conceptually (Firefly, Star Wars, all that jazz) but I am less than sure what sort of vehicles make sense in this context. Hopefully, setting info will make it clearer (Note from later: Nope).
  • Very nice that the plot list is supplemented by a long list of potential contraband (and a parenthetical about why it’s contraband)

The Score

This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s the Job. Maybe to steal something valuable. Maybe to smuggle an aristocrat out of the city. Maybe it’s seizing new territory. Whatever the case, there’s a plan, engagement and flashbacks.

Tellingly, the rules actually consider planning and engagement to me one step because this is a no-plan system. Once you’ve picked a target (which happens before this process starts) you pick the type of plan (Assault, deception, transport etc.) and answer one broad question about it, providing the missing detail (like, “what is the point of infiltration?”). Players pick their loadout, then go.

Yes, there is a distinct lack of planning in that planning. This is intentional.

Play start with an engagement roll, which is really a framing device to answer the question “as we join our heroes at the start of their caper, how are things going?”. It’s a straightforward mechanic and it’s designed to go to action as quickly as possible.

From there, the action is supported by a profoundly robust flashback mechanic. It is expected that everything that would normally be handled by planning is instead handled in flashback. If there’s some question as to how likely the flashback is, the GM can opt to charge some stress for it, but by and large the players can backfill like mad.

This is pretty cool. Upgrading flashbacks from a cool option to the default behavior is pretty bold, but I think it works. And as a player who actually likes the planning part of planning, I’m willing to sacrifice it if this works as smoothly as it looks.

All in all, the setup is pretty lightweight, and it means with only a few elements, you can very quickly get the crew working a score. That’s an excellent thing.

This chapter also includes the teamwork rules, which are pleasantly elegant. Some of it is simple (Assisting means spending stress to give someone a +1, Protecting someone lets you take a consequence instead of someone, Set Up lets you give someone improved effect or position by setting them up for success) but the real magic is in group actions.

When the group does something,  pick a leader, then everyone rolls. Overall result is based on the best roll (whoever made it) but for everyone who rolled a 1-3, the leader takes one stress. This was a necessary rule to articulate if for no other reason than to express how to handle group stealth – a perpetual headache in criminal games. While this is a little meta (I’m not sure how I’d handle it if the stress ended up bonking a leader) I am willing to accept that for ease of handling.

Chapter ends with a very thorough example of a score, including varying interpretations based on how the dice fell. Thumbs up.

Downtime

Ok, so we’ve outlined the Score as the central action of the game, and with that in mind, downtime is a way to abstract out what characters do between Scores. I mean, yes, they might do some roleplaying too, when the opportunity arises, but this covers broad stroke actions.

I was a little worried about this chapter. From a high level, it seemed like it would be very easy for this to be the “boardgame” element of play, between scores, and that model is more restrictive than I care for. And it’s not that the game can’t support other modes of play – it clearly can – but the question on my mind is whether those other modes are supported, rewarded or penalized. I’m not sure I have a satisfactory answer yet, but let’s dig in a bit.

There are 4 parts to downtime.

The payoff depends upon the score that just finished, and there’s a formula for how much rep and how many coins the crew gets based on the target, the job and other factors. Some of it might also need to go to paying off other criminals  and such. At first glance, the payoffs seem small, but I’m willing to trust that they’re not.

Second, you see how much heat (unwelcome attention) the job generated. Again, this is formula driven, and crew has a heat track that works like the character’s stress track, and if it gets to high, it adds “Wanted Levels” which only get cleared by somebody going to jail. There are rules for going to jail which kind of make it its own mini game, and jailtime can explicitly be an excuse to try swapping in another character.

Third, entanglements is a system to abstract the shifting complications that have unfolded around the job. These are play prompts/plot hooks generated by a random roll based on the crew’s heat level. Functionally, this is an “And then something happened” roll, but I admit it does not feel quite as elegant as the other downtime steps. I think I need to see it in action a few times to get what it’s supposed to feel like.

Lastly, the crew members can engage in Downtime Activities like making things, pursuing long term projects, training, indulging vices (the only way to regain stress) and so on. There are rules for all these mini activities, and each character gets to do two per downtime. It’s a mini game, plain and simple. There are also rules for modeling downtime for NPCs and other factions, and they are thankfully streamlined.

How to Play

It is probably not the best decision to go from the most abstract and mechanized section of the rules (downtime) to an explanation that Blades is not a mechanics first game.

That disconnect aside, we start with a solid explanation of Fiction-First gaming which I will not fault, but I also will not dwell upon.

The next section on what triggers a roll is much more practical, and I very much like that the third possible criteria is” when someone gets excited and grabs the dice”. It’s a good breakdown and it gets into some of the meta-thinking behind the scenes about risk and stress, and just as the game is opinionated, so is this section. Specifically, there’s a very interesting assertion that the purpose of threatening harm is not to inflict it, but to describe it, with some natural conclusions from that which feed into the resistance mechanic.

I admit, I usually just blah blah blah over this stuff, having been burned out on it long ago, but it’s really worth reading this section if only because it answers a lot of questions about why some of the things in this book are what they are.

We move past the general advice when we get to a breakdown of actions, with each action getting a gm-slanted perspective on how that action is used in the game, along with examples. If any of the actions seem unclear, this is a great tool for unpacking them.

Somewhat delightfully, we then switch gears to the player-facing version of this advice, and I mostly regret that it’s in a place where many players won’t look. It offers a list of best practices, which I love, and they include:

  • Embrace the scoundrel’s life
  • Go into danger, fall in love with trouble
  • Don’t be a weasel
  • Take responsibility
  • Use your stress
  • Don’t talk yourself out of fun
  • Build your character through play
  • Act now, plan later

Now, they’re best practices, not ironclad rules, so maybe there’s a quibble or two to be had, but it hardly matters. What does matter is that this is a clear explanation of the game as imagines, and it speaks to the player in the same way it does a GM, and that’s awesome.

After that is a one page….editorial, I guess?…about how the game played for someone. It’s fun and all, speaking to the play cycle of score to play to downtime etc, but it seems a little random.

Running the Game

I did a double take here and checked the previous chapter because the first half of that had seemed aimed at GMs already, so what’s in this chapter?

Well, a bunch of “how to be a good GM” stuff. Goals, actions, principals and best practices. All solid stuff, some of it Blades specific, much of it generally applicable. It’s good, certainly, and the “GM Actions” section is a clear attempt to give the same kind of focus offered by more restrictive GM Moves. It’s all good, but didn’t really jump out at me until I got to the GM Bad Habits section, which is a delight. The bad habits warned against include:

  • Don’t call for a specific action roll
  • Don’t make the PCs look incompetent
  • Don’t overcomplicate things
  • Don’t let planning get out of hand (:guilty look:)
  • Don’t hold back on what they earn
  • Don’t say no
  • Don’t roll twice for the same thing
  • Don’t get caught up in minutia

It’s a darn good list.

Then we get another editorial about improvising gothic storytelling with Electroplasm. Again, not bad, but weird.

Next section is on starting the game, and all the things to do in preparation and setting expectations. There are good guidelines here, and there’s a sample starting situation, which is a useful resource. I like the idea of this section a lot, and the inclusion of useful questions is welcome, but it feels like it’s a little light. Hard to pin down precisely why, but there are lots of other procedural parts of the game which have been refined down to near-checklists in their clarity, and this feels like it did not get quite the same treatment. It is a very mild complaint, though, since simply having a section like this is quite excellent.

We end with some guidelines about ending games, resolutions, seasonal models an rotating casts. Solid enough.

Strange Forces

Woo, rules for magical stuff! Comes in 4 flavors: Spectrology (ghost stuff), Rituals (Ancient demon stuff), Alchemy (Alchemy stuff) and Spark-Craft (Lightning/steampunk stuff). We get a little bit of an explanation of the ghost field and what it means to the world (short answer: there are lots of ghosts in it). We get some cool color about Spirit Wardens and body disposal, and a list of terminology to help distinguish a Hollow from a Hull, followed by longer explanations of key ideas like devils, vampires, demons and so on.

Perhaps more critically, this is where we also start talking about playing spirit characters. There are playbooks for ghosts, Hulls (ghost-possessed crafted frames) and Vampires (result of full possession). They have wacky powers, but also have more pronounced limitations and needs.

I’m kind of torn on this. These are all really awesome in their own right, and I can see how they reinforce a certain kind of flavor, but they also seem like an entirely different game than the rest of the book. It’s not a huge deal – this is maybe 10 pages of material in a 300+ page book, so I’m not complaining about wasted page count, but I’m just not sure why they’re part of the game.

For handling supernatural effects, the game introduces the concept of magnitude, which is a measure of quality level for ghosts, demons and such which serves as a generic stand in for determining the potency of effects. There’s a delightful table that gives 0-6 magnitude examples of area, scale, duration, range, quality, and force.

It’s a beautiful table, and it warms my old heart. See, this kind of table is also a Rosetta Stone for comparing values throughout the systems, whether that’s the intent or not. If I’ve got a gang with 5 people and you’ve got 20, how many steps of difference are there between them? It might be hard to intuit, but a quick glance at the chart indicates that those are scale 1 and 3 respectively. That matters a bit if the 5 are excellent but the 20 are merely adequate (quality of 1 and 3 respectively) and suddenly it’s a fair fight.

Rituals (Yes, that felt like an abrupt transition, but I was just following the book) are pretty open ended and flexible, since they can do pretty much anything, but also come with an arbitrary amount of cost. To perform a ritual, a character must find it, then learn it (a long term project) then actually perform it during downtime. Performing a ritual has a stress cost that was established via questioning, and ticks a progress clock for something bad, and ends with a fortune roll for general badness.

This is one of those systems that will work just fine if rituals enter into play with a specific intent, but it’s sufficiently open ended that it needs to be kept in hand. Thankfully, it has the built in escape clause that there is no guarantee that rituals behave consistently, so if something goes off the rails once, it need not repeat.

Crafting is the general umbrella of building stuff during downtime (gadgets, tools, concoctions, whatever). As with rituals, there are some defining questions (in the invention step) which determine costs in the crafting step. There’s a roll, supplemented by money and resources, some potential qualifiers, and voila. As with rituals, this runs the risk of being too fuzzy, but unlike rituals, there are two pages of example creations plus a full crafting example, so the guidelines are probably a bit more practically helpful.

Rituals and crafting are both fun little subsystems, but I admit I’m not sure if they’re load bearing. Both would clearly work in a game where they’re secondary elements, but I’d be a little worried to make them the core of a character. It’s not a definite problem, just something I’d want to watch.

Changing the game

Hard not to love a chapter on hacking the game. There’s some solid advice on how to go about hacking, but note that it’s still within the general space carved out by the game. There’s guidance for making new crew abilities, even for adding mechanics, but if you want to hack Blades to run your Persona game, that’s a bit beyond the pale.

I also have to applaud this as a way to introduce rules snippets and options without needing to frame them as such. Want a Vigilante crew, weapon styles or a trust mechanic? Well, what do you know, they’re in there as examples. Cunning and delightful.

Ok, second break. We’ve made it through the rules! And just as before, I’m going to speed up, largely because I’m more focused on how setting material is used than the actual setting itself. Not that the setting isn’t delightful – it is – but that is more for reading and less for reviewing.

City Guide to Duskvol

Initial setting stuff is always initial setting stuff. Some history, high level details and so on. The timeline is welcome, if only because it’s full of plot hooks and elements. We get some shorthand on cultures, language, calendars, stuff like that. There’s a lovely little insert on Plasm, the handwavium that powers most of the tech. It has just enough detail to be able to hang adventures off, which is the right amount.

I am delighted that there is a similar aside about food in Duskwall. Ghostlit cities surrounded by apocalyptic darkness are all well and good, but without basic infrastructure is all starts feeling like nonsense to me. As with plasm, it’s enough to be able to hang stuff off, and no more. Utterly welcome.

We get a little but of a breakdown of the political power in the city, the shape of the Underworld, the role of Academia and the presence of Ghosts. This is foundational stuff, and it’s good – excellent even – but it’s never going to excite too much. It’s the groundwork that lets us move into the next section, where we get maps!

And the maps are delightful. The city map is gorgeous, followed by two page spreads on each district. There are 12 in all, and each writeup includes landmarks, a general look and feel, notable NPCs, and a simple stat sheet and rules specifics for the district. The stats are Wealth, Security & Safety, Criminal Influence and Occult Influence, all with zero to five dots, and while I don’t think they have a direct mechanical effect, they are useful for comparing districts, and as a GM I would probably use them in some fortune rolls.

From there we get a wonderful page of things overheard in Duskwall, and then…the tables begin. Rumors on the street, remarkable occurrences, lists of factions (Who all have great little half page writeups), vice purveyors, street scenes, building details, random passersby, supernatural threats, Scores, and so much more. The tables and reference materials are sheer nerdy delight, and pack a lot of city into very little space.

FInish it up with a quick sketch of the world at large (one page of locations, one page map) then we’re on to credits and the (entirely passable) index.

Whew.

Final Thoughts

So, if it’s not obvious, I’m pretty enthusiastic about this game. We’ll be playing it locally soon, so I’ve been reading it with an eye on that, so enthusiastic is where I want to be. I’ve a few small gripes (the material that’s not actually in the book definitely irks me) but by and large, this looks like it’s going to hit my sweet spot, and I’m very much looking forward to playing!

I should add, I still have not watched any actual play for this, though I intend to do so once I have posted this.  I think it will address my concerns (most specifically, my fear that it might play like a downtime boardgame with score scenes) but I wanted to really look at the book on its own.  I do no recommend this.  Instead, when you settle in to read it yourself, make sure to have a printout of the sheet on hand, and see about maybe watching on of the great actual play sessions posted on line.


  1. This is an explicitly good thing. If you’re a rules first player, then it ties the rules to the fiction. If you’re a world-first player, then it makes the setting that much richer. ↩︎
  2. Second time I’ve mentioned it, so I’ll confess that I think “Action Ratings” feels like an awkward and bloodless term. I get why they’re not called skills – the list is not intended to be prescriptive, and the fictional “skills” being used are less important than the intent of the action. Big thumbs up on the intention, I just wish it was called something else. ↩︎
  3. This is different from group actions, which are their own (fairly clever) thing, but we’ve got another hundred pages of book before we get there. ↩︎
  4. Though, curiously, complication is the only consequence that explicitly warns against negating a successful roll ↩︎
  5. Not certain why it’s not “Cultists” ↩︎