Bites in the Dark

Wolf’s Head in front of the moonScott Parker shared a great post on his experience using Blades of Fate to run a Dungeon World game, and that got me thinking about probability1 which lead to all this.

I ended up talking a bit about my love of the Blades in the Dark dice pools on twitter, and specifically how well it combines with Don’t Rest Your Head. For the unfamiliar, DRYH uses different color dice to represent different ideas (like exhaustion, discipline or Madness), and when you roll a set of dice, the color of the die you use influences the outcome, both narratively and mechanically.

As with most die pool systems, it meshes very easily with BITD’s model of success and partial success, and I have been kicking around a few different things that could use this model. In the process, I came up with a quick add-on hack for Blades that at up several tweets, and I figured I’d gather it in one place.

And with that preamble out of the way, I present…

Bites In The Dark

(Title courtesy of @krenshar_posts)

This is a hack for playing werewolves (or something similar) in Blades In The Dark. In the absence of a lunar cycle, this idea is designed to model the kind fo fiction where the narrator talks about “the beast” in the third person while describing what it smells or does or wants. It’s an unwelcome presence that offers power but also threatens to overwhelm.

I’m agnostic regarding how someone becomes a werewolf, but once they do, there are two mechanical effects.

  1. Create a clock for that character labeled “THE BEAST” and set it to four wedges.
  2. The character receives one “moon die”. This should be of a visibly different color from their other dice. Assuming your Blades dice are black, white or silver is appropriate.

The moon die (or dice) should be rolled alongside the player’s other dice. When the player chooses which die is used for the result of the roll, and they choose a moon die, that has the following effects.

  1. Narratively, The Beast has helped drive the outcome, and that should be accounted for descriptively.
  2. Gain another moon die.
  3. Mark off a wedge of The Beast’s Clock

If the player uses multiple moon dice (such as for a critical success), then do these steps for every die used. This may exceed the size of the clock (in which case, don’t worry about marking any further) but it will increase the number of moon dice held by the character.

When the Beast’s clock fills, that means the character transforms and loses control. This effect can be resisted, but Moon Dice aren’t used on that resistance roll, and at best it will merely defer the effect until the end of the scene.

Upon transformation, the following happens:

  1. The GM takes control of the character and describes what happens. This is going to be gruesome and bad, and probably make for consequences for everyone. I strongly discourage the GM from outright attacking the rest of the crew, rather, let the Beast rampage, and let the consequences flow from that. The GM also controls when, where and in what condition the character returns, but she should be mindful of pacing this.
  2. If this happens while the crew is on a job, tally up the number of moon dice held by the character. After heat is calculated, add that much heat to the total.
  3. If this happens between jobs, treat it as if the character had run amok (See below).
  4. Clear the clock and reset the character’s moon pool to 1 die.

New Downtime Action: Run Amok

When the Beast threatens to run wild, sometimes the best solution is to let it. You take yourself someplace isolated and let the beast run wild, but the consequences of this can be dire.

Roll the character’s moon pool taking the best result (this roll won’t accrue wedge or moon dice), then consult this chart:

1-3 – Nobody important died. A few greased palms and charitable contributions should be able to smooth things over. Someone needs to spend 1 coin to cover this, and if they cannot, then take the 4-5 result.

4-5 – The Beast’s rampage is a subject of gossip, rumor and no small amount of fear. Start a clock labeled “Fear of the Beast Passes” with 4 wedges. Until it is cleared, jobs generate 1 extra heat, and indulging Vice clears one less stress. If this effect is triggered again while the clock is active, increase its wedge count by another 4.

6 – Hunters arrive to pursue the beast with steely glares and weapons of silver. The first time this happens, they are a tier II gang with a -1 relationship with the crew. The second time, the relationship drops by 1. The third time their tier increases as more hunters arrive. After that, it’s War.

6+ – One of the following happens:

One of your crew’s allies was attacked and has been infected.
One of your crew’s enemies was attacked, and has been infected.
Your worst enemy knows you are The Beast
Your closest friend/love knows you are The Beast.

After this roll and effect, clear The Beast’s clock, and return the Moon Die pool to 1.

Notes For Clarity

  • The player explicitly has the option of not using the Moon dice in a result. That choice it kind of the point.

And that is pretty much it.

Options and Variations:

There are a LOT of options for how to tweak this, mostly because there are a lot of different things being a werewolf might mean at the table, so these allow some tweaking.

Some of these options are also possible for ideas which are similar to werewolves, but thematically different. Deals with dark powers, sinister magical weapons, a personal Hyde or ripper – all of these things and more can be modeled with these rules with some changes in color, and possibly by picking slightly different options.

Magical Effects
If the player wants to do something that should be impossible, but makes sense under the auspices of the Beast (like, make an impossible jump, or track someone through a crowd by smell) they they can do so, rolling only moon dice and resolving normally. Since this guarantees that moon dice will be used, it also guarantees triggering a moon die gain.

It’s worth noting that this is potentially very powerful – allowing the “impossible” in Blades removes the one check against runaway player action (the GM not calling for a roll). It can get around tier issues and generally allows for very big results. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s something to be very aware of and in alignment on. It also should be reflected in the scope of potential consequences when the Beast gets loose.

Gentler Lycanthropy
The player is not obliged to roll moon dice, though if they do, they must roll them all. Rolling moon dice is treated as accepting a Devil’s Bargain, so they cannot be further supplements.

This slightly constrains the bonus on the rolls, and makes it much less likely that the character will lose control. That removes a fair amount of the risk from the system, but sometimes that’s appropriate. This is suitable for games where the beast is more controllable by its nature, or for ones where something else is keeping The Beast in check (for example, this rule might only be in play so long as the character is regularly taking Wolfsbane infusions, or at certain times & places). An advantage of tying this to something in the fiction is that its loss is now a viable (and toothy, ha ha) consequence.

Less Predictable Clock
Set The Beast’s clock to 8 wedges, but change the process so that when a moon die or dice are used, do the following.

  1. Incorporate the Narrative
  2. Increase the character’s moon die pool by the number of moon dice used.
  3. Roll all moon dice and take the best result. Increase The Beasts clock 1 space on a 1-3, 2 spaces on a 4-5, 3 spaces on a 6, and one additional space for each additional 6. The good news is that this roll does not trigger any additional moon die gain.

I went with 8 wedges here, assuming 2 wedges per roll, but that’s going to be unevenly distributed, and it can go much faster if the dice are unkind. The upshot of this is that the number of moon dice the character is holding will be much less predictable when they transform (so the mechanical effects are less predictable). This is also, frankly, a little bit meaner, especially since it feels more generous (8 wedges!).

Werewolf Healing
Transformation (either in play or RUnning Amok), clears any wounds the character has.

This is super kind – healing is a pain in Blades – but it’s kind of thematically appropriate.

Temporary Power
The assumption is that this state does not go away, but it’s entirely possible that after transformation occurs, that’s it. The possessing spirit flees, or the drug wears off or whatever.

In this case, transformation should have a very specific meaning or cost, something that makes it a Damoclean sword hanging over the character.

Fatal Power
The flipside of Temporary Power – once the clock fills, that’s it, you’re done. In this case, I strongly suggest that the transformation remain in the player’s control, since this is their moment of going down in a blaze of glory.

This works well with Gentler Lychanthropy, but without it you can get a great Strikeforce Morituri vibe.

Ratcheting Doom
Start the Beast’s Clock at 2 wedges higher than normal. Then, every time it’s cleared and reset, it has 1 fewer wedge. When the clock has zero wedges, that is the final transformation. There is only the Beast now.

This one will take a while to go through, but it has a certain charm for games long enough to sustain its arc. The one thing I don’t like so much is that the moon pool gets smaller with each iteration, so while it represents burnout pretty well, it’s less well suited to the idea of the beast growing stronger.

Edit: Got a great suggestion from @thedicemechanic for this that solves the problem.  Each time the clock resets, the reset moon die pool is one larger, and a wedge of the clock is filled in (rather than getting smaller). So, first time it resets to 2 moon dice, and the first wedge is filled in.  Second time it resets to 3 moon dice and the first two wedges are filled in and so on. This gets the ratcheting, but ALSO keeps the mayhem going. 

Heroic Alternatives
It’s worth noting that this also works for more heroic games. The “transformation” could just as easily be the equivalent of a Limit Break. This scratches the surface of a much bigger alternative, but if anyone is looking to do an Exalted2 or Final Fantasy hack, this option might be helpful.

  1. Specifically, the fact that a critical point about Blades of Fate is that it absolutely privileges success as a consequence of an even distribution of outcomes. This is neither a bug nor a feature so much as something to be explicitly mindful of when choosing it. If you want people to mostly be awesome but occasionally surprised by twists, it’s a good approach, but if you expect the dice to provide more complication, it’s going to seem too easy. To my mind it relies on compels to make up that gap, but the exact balance will absolutely have a component of taste to it. ↩︎
  2. In thinking about this, I realized that BLADES IN THE SUN is a fantastic ideas that I don’t have the time or energy to pursue right now. ↩︎

Dice Adjacent Fate

I have thought about diceless Fate on numerous occasions, but it’s a hard sell for fairly personal reasons. See, one of the reasons Fate exists is that Fred & I loved the Amber DRPG, but wanted to bring some randomness back into it, for our own sensibilities. Still despite that resistance, the reality has always been that Fate is trivial to convert to diceless play by simple virtue of the 0-centered dice results. If you just assume that all dice rolls come up 0, you’re about 90% of the way to supporting diceless play.

This works ok. Play becomes much more about the exchange of fate points and the impact of aspects, which is kind of fun, but also demands a little bit more precision in the language about where fate points come from and when (thus, the previous post). All solvable problems. But what’s the fun in that?

So I got to thinking about a thing you see in PBTA derived games, where the dice produce flavorful results, but don’t actually take difficulty into account in the rolling. I admit, that sits poorly with me, but it struck me that the idea could be twisted to work by separating the die roll entirely from the question of success or failure.

That is, consider a Fate game where success or failure is determined entirely by whether or not your skill (or approach, or whatever) is equal to or greater than the difficulty of the the task you’re trying. Rules remain the same – treat it like you rolled a zero and keep moving.(fn)
But then add an extra step: Roll the dice for the outcomes.

Now, this is going to be a little counterintuitive for gamers, since we have been trained to consider success/failure to be the outcome, but in this case the question of success has already been resolved dicelessly, so the roll is entirely to determine the other things that the roll would normally handle. The results would be something like (EDIT: NOW WITH THE RIGHT TABLE):

+4 - Miraculous +3 - Amazing +2 - Pretty good +1 - OK 0 - Good Enough -1 - Enh -2 - Ew -3 - Crap! -4 #$%!*&

In this system, aspect invocations can be used in two ways:

  1.  to add +1 to the skill or approach (to buy success)
  2. As die flippers on the roll

Now, it’s worth noting that this is part of what the previous setup was for – in this model, the GM can also use compels to flip dice because that can’t bring failure in the traditional sense, but it can complicate a situation.


Now given that, here’s the really interesting trick. The Press Your Luck mechanic.

If you are facing a situation where you know you’re going to fail, but want to try anyway, you absolutely can.  Go ahead and roll the dice.  Then remove any plusses you rolled – each plus so removed increases your effective skill/approach by 1.

If that’s enough for you to succeed, then great! Just use the remaining dice to determine your outcome as normal.

If it’s not enough? Well, you still use the result, but replace “Succeed” with “Fail”.

This has been rattling around in my head for a bit now, and I really need to try it out.

Achievements and Levelling Up

Screenshot from Alto’s OddyseyI’ll be back to weird aspect tricks in a bit, but I had an oddball thought.

My son is a big fan of Alto’s Adventure, a tablet game, and I just got him the sequel, Alto’s Oddysey.  He’s happy as a clam, and I’m watching him play, and I was struck by something.

In the game, you level up.  I admit, I don’t 100% know what that means in play – my sense is that it unlocks things in the environment and possibly your access to extras – but that’s not what caught my eye.  Rather, the means of levelling up is, effectively, by getting achievements.

That is, to his level 3, my son needs to collect 50 counts, bounce off a balloon and score 500 points in one run.  These are all things that are likely to happen in play, but the balloon one caught my eye – while the other two will pretty much just happen if he plays enough, the balloon bounce would seem to require some intentionality and luck.

I suspect the way the game is set up is that situations where he needs to bounce off a baloon to progress are now either being introduced or will be more common.  Or at least I would hope so – if the game requires that I do a thing, it seems good design to then tilt things so I’m able to do the thing.

So, of course, that lead to tabletop.  We’ve got lots of different ways to handle advancement, and many of them are well designed for their particular needs, but I admit that I now find myself thinking what achievement based advancement would look like in an RPG.

The first question is where the acheivements come from.  I think “The GM” is a bad answer, but I could see them as part of the system. I could especially see it for a lifepath style system (like WHFRP or Burning Wheel) where the chain of acheivements kind of organically build into a story, but the model could work for almost any game where you’re expecting the character to have an arc.

The other possibility is for them to be authored by the player.  The upside of this is that the player is very *clearly* communicating to the GM the things they want to see in play.  If a player has an achievement “Defeat one of the Red Swordsnakes in single combat”, then that is a *gift* to the GM. And if everyone has 3 of these, the GM can quickly scan to see where spotlight needs to go.

This would require some checks.  It’s abusable, of course (if the player picks trivial acheivements) but even with good intentions, it may require some discussion to line up the acheivements with the game.  I think the best compromise would be pre-written achievements (from the GM, the game, the adventures, player input, everywhere really) which are then chosen among.

These could even be meta goals.  The first three acheivements might all be system mastery things.  Heck, in 5e, advancement from first to second comes so fast that it might as well be:

[] Have a fight
[] Make a stat check
[] Take a long rest

I don’t think this is a good match for every game, but I can definitely see some situational uses as well – this could be a super easy and fun way to do a live mid-session level up at a con game, or provide clear direction in a short arc.

Not sure what I’m going to do with this thought, but it’s in the stew now.

Thoughts on Aspects

I was writing something else, and ended up needing to think a bit about GM compels, scene aspects and a bunch of other things that can sometimes be a bit fluid in Fate.   Specifically, I’m working on a toolset where it’s entirely appropriate for the GM to spend compels for mechanical effects (like flipping dice to minuses) which is a bit of a bugbear in Fate.  So I ended up coming up with some terminology to make it a bit easier to talk about, and that took on a life of its own.

I am genuinely not sure if this is the final form of these ideas, but I’m pretty happy with them as they stand. I think they clarify some ideas that are useful to me, and give me some hooks for other things I have in flight.  However, I have blind spots, so I’m sharing my thinking here because I’m curious what people think.

Anyway, the core here is 4 terms: Dramatic Compels, Mechanical Compels, GM Fate Points and Scene Fate Points.  The ideas behind them will be very familiar to Fate players, most of the newness is in terminology, and most of that is to set up a way to talk about compelling scene aspects.  Take a look and see if it makes sense.

A Dramatic Compel is a compel without an immediate mechanical effect, such as the GM offering a hard choice or appropriate complication. While it may lead to mechanical issues, the compel itself is entirely a function of the fiction. Dramatic compels cost the GM a fate point, and if the aspect compelled is on a character, then the fate point is given to the player unless they pay a fate point to resist the compel.

A Mechanical Compel is a compel with an explicit mechanical effect, and it costs the GM a fate point. While there may be other uses (from stunts or other rules) the default use for a mechanical compel is to either reduce a character’s skill by 1 (before the roll) or flip a die to a – (after the roll). The GM spends a fate point for this, which is given to the player who is acting or rolling. These compels cannot be directly resisted – rather it is expected that if the player wants to counter it, he will spend points for a countering bonus. Mechanical compels are almost always paid for with Scene Fate Points.

GM Fate Points are the GM’s bottomless supply of points used for most dramatic compels. If when the GM spends a GM fate point, it is given to the player upon resolution (so it cannot be used to resist the compel, but it’s available for use to deal with the consequences of the compel).

Scene Fate Points are the GM’s limited budget of scene-specific aspects. The differ from GM Fate points in the following ways:

  • They may be spent for mechanical compels
  • They are awarded to the player affected at the end of the scene.
  • The GM has a limited reserve of them at any given time.

Scene Fate Points can also be used for specific sorts of dramatic compels – dramatic compels on scene aspects.

One use of this is familiar – if a character is tightly tied to a scene aspect, then the aspect might be compelled against them as if it were an aspect on their sheet. In this case, it’s just like invoking a personal aspect, with the point going to the player at the end of the scene,

The other use may be less familiar, and that is to compel the scene. That is, the GM may spend a Scene Fate Point to compel an aspect on the scene in a way that changes the scene. This is a very powerful tool in the GM’s arsenal, and it’s important that the GM follow the narrative logic of the scene when using this, but within those bounds, this provides a simple tool for reflecting the consequences of action in play without it being entirely arbitrary.

To illustrate, consider the example of the building being On Fire. It’s a classic, and offers plenty of opportunities for use, but sooner or later that fire is going to have consequences. The fire department may show up. The sprinklers may come on. The building may collapse. These are all reasonable consequences of the existing aspects, and the GM could very reasonably use a scene compel to make them happen. In this case, the Fate Point is spent but goes to nobody. If the GM does something like this but targets a specific character (such as by bringing in their nemesis), then that should be a dramatic compel of that character, and pay out appropriately.

Mechanically, these compels will usually be reflected with either the addition of a new aspect on the scene, or by rewriting an existing aspect.

There are a couple practical things this does:

  • It allows the GM to keep the scene dynamic without requiring NPCs to do strange Create Advantage rolls or similar.
  • At the same time, it keeps the amount of changes bounded by the GM budget.
  • It gives a little more potential life to the various aspects that players tend to create on a scene in order to get free invokes, then forget about. Players will be careful to make sure they’re not things the GM can easily use, but if the GM is able to spend to create consequences and results of those aspects, then there’s a lot more room for organic action.

Sidebar: Consequence Countdowns

This is not actually relevant to this discussion, but here’s a tool that has some situational use (with credit to Blades in the Dark which this is derived from) – the GM may opt to add a track (like a stress track) to an aspect she creates (either in framing the scene or that he creates later) as a signifier that this aspect is going somewhere. What leads to checking off boxes is situational, but might include:

  • When the aspect is invoked/compelled
  • When a particular NPC takes an action
  • As a consequence of “Success, but…” or similar rolls.

There might be ways for players to uncheck boxes too. Again totally situational. Whatever the case, when the last box is checked, the aspect “flips”, and becomes its consequence. Effectively it’s a scene compel that the GM doesn’t need to pay for because she provided advance warning and an opportunity to react.

Examples might include an alarm which flips into reinforcements arriving, or a fire that flips into the building collapsing.

As presented, this is an open ended tool for the GM to use whenever she likes, which is all a high trust table needs. There are absolutely ways to mechanize this to make it more constrained, but I’m not going to dive into those now, because this is already a total tangent from the topic at hand.

How Many Scene Fate Points?

There are a ton of ways you could figure out the right answer to this question, and I encourage experimentation. However, I’m very lazy, so I use a simple rule of thumb. Start with X scene fate points where X is the number of players (not including myself). The scene budget is X for most scenes, 2x for scenes that seem more interesting and 3x for big scenes (finales and such). If I’m not sure how interesting a scene is, I check how many aspects I’ve written up in framing it. That tends to roughly correspond with the multiplier.

Named NPCs may also have their own reserve of Scene Fate Points. Ideally it would be something like X, tied explicitly to that NPC and used over the course of a session when necessary. In practice, that is more bookkeeping than I’m likely to do, so if I am doing this, I tend to just add half an X to the scene if there’s a named NPC.

Narrating from Knowledge

This was an unplanned tweetstorm this morning, but it’s practical enough that it’s worth turning into a proper post.

TL;DR – when you narrate in blades, include all the information that the characters would have gotten if they’d asked all the smart questions and done all the smart research. We are playing to see what they do with that information, not to watch them flail around finding it.

When you’re running (or playing) Blades in the Dark, narration should come from a place of knowledge.

That is simple, but maybe not obvious, so let me unpack what that means.  In most games you will use descriptive narration, telling players what they see and sense. If they want further information, they can take action as characters (investigate, poking around) or ask questions as players.  This back and forth is part of how players engage a situation, and for many games this is fine.

Blades is a bit different in two ways.  First, it is very rare that the question is whether the crew will succeed, and is instead about how they will succeed (and what may happen as a result).  Second, the flashback mechanism offers entirely different ways to engage these scenes.  These differences call for a difference in approach – specifically, they reward giving more information when narrating.

So, rather than provide a purely descriptive narration, consider an informed narration – one that expands upon the description with context and information, as if the listener were well informed on the topic.  See, in Blades – on a job in particular – the assumption is that characters have done their due diligence and legwork, so when an element is introduced, the narrator can reflect that with an “as you know, Bob…”, albeit cooler.

So, for example, if my crew were to come upon a door in a classic game, I might say:

The door is imposing and conveys a clear message of “no”.  Heavy black wood, thick bronze bands and an ornate, sophisticated lock all make it cleat that this door is not interested in letting you past.

And that’s fine, so far as it goes.  They can start digging in.  But for blades, I would start with that and add something like:

The wood is treated ironwood: fireproof and hard enough to dull anything but specialized tools, imported from the south at significant expense. The lock’s a Wilson and Finch 9 tumbler job with an etheric snap back mechanism which has three keys, one held by the mark, one by his chief of security and one in the W&F offices.

Now, I’m giving two kinds of information here.  Some of this is information that could be sussed out by asking questions (or, depending on the game, maybe making knowledge rolls), and providing that without the players asking serves a couple purposes, but most critically it shows the players and their characters  a degree of respect and circumvents the possibility that they might ask the “wrong” questions.  That kind of generosity is useful in many games.

The other kind of information is contextual.  Where the wood comes from, what the status of the keys are and details about the lock are things that could not be determined within the scene, so providing them seems counterintuitive to the usual RPG model – it might even feel overly narrative or storytelling-ish.  However, it’s much less grandiose than that – it is a way to reflect the legwork that the characters did offscreen without forcing them to keep extensive notes.  Just assuming the know this stuff is both practical and respectful.

But that’s not all – this also very explicitly provides hooks for flashbacks.  As narrator, I am communicating several possible elements that might inspire players to hang a flashback off.  Now, players are creative, and they may not need these hooks, or they may ignore the hooks I offer entirely in favor of their own, and that’s fine, but by offering them I prime the pump.

Not only does this make life easier for my players, it makes life easier for me.  When I don’t have time to think up a really interesting job, or when the circumstances surrounding a job dictate that it’s probably short and simple, a few richly narrated details can unspool into a lot of very satisfying play by moving play into the flashbacks.  The job itself could be quite short, but the play experience very satisfying if enough engagement happens in the flashbacks.

If you’re looking for tips on how to do this, look to the source fiction.  Capers and espionage stories, especially movies and TV, are awash with well-informed narrators.  This might take the form of a mission briefing voiceover while the action is taking place, or it might take the form of editorial observations from the protagonist.  I’m a huge fan of Burn Notice which is a great example of the latter  type.   Find a voice and style you like, and think about how a scene would be described in that context.

Now, none of this is obligatory.  Blades runs just fine if you do it straight, so this is not something to stress about.  But it’s a powerful tool in your toolbox, and I definitely encourage trying it out.

Sidebar: All this is for players too.  If your GM doesn’t give you hooks to hang flashbacks on, then that is an invitation to create them.  This doesn’t require a full narration or story, just your own little bit of Burn Notice voiceover and you’re off to the races!

Trigger Tables

Quick post, because I used the term “Trigger Tables” to describe something and while I knew exactly what I meant, I realized there wasn’t actually anything to point to for it.

The idea is not new – you’ve seen it in lots of adventures. It’s a simple table where there is some value that is tracked (alertness, threat, whatever) and a description of what happens as a result. So, for example, let’s say we’re doing a game around uncovering a ruined city, with dungeon-crawling interspersed with logistics and town building.  As part of this, we keep track of an “Uncovered” Score that is sort of a general metric for the state of how much of the ancient city has been uncovered.  How exactly the uncovered score ticks up is not super important – could be clocks, could be tracks, could be in-game events, could be it’s own minigame of Dig-Dug for all that it matters.

Then, as the GM, I have a table among my notes that looks like this:

table with escalating outcomes from 1-10

To reiterate – this is not a new or complicated idea.  You’ve seen it before, I promise.  I’m mostly writing about it here so I have something to call it because much like clocks/tracks and encounter tables, this is an insanely robust (and often underused) technology.  It can work just as well when the thing being tracked can go up and down as it can when it’s ratcheting up (as in the example).  It can be used for things as small as the state of a dungeon or business, or for things as big as the events of a campaign.   Hell, take a page from Shadow of the Demon Lord and make one of these tables for your character’s level progression, and you have the skeleton of a campaign right there.

So, like clocks, these are flexible.  Like encounter tables, they imply a lot about the game in an easily communicated/transmitted fashion.  Trigger tables are fun tech, and well worth taking advantage of.

Bonds in the Dark

I have one minor philosophical disconnect with Blades in the Dark – I think it does not do enough to encourage character’s connections to named NPCs. When a character starts, you have some great connections (ally, enemy, vice dealer) but those are all you’re ever going to have. That’s something I want more of.

Now, there’s a good reason for this disconnect. Blades is not about the characters as much as it is about the crew. Connections to individual characters detract from that model – it is the crew who should be establishing connections – and I completely get this. For example, much of why I want personal connections is to provide hooks for play. This is a time honored tradition, but it works just as well to create hooks for the crew.

And yet…

I really want to support more personal connections. I’m not saying it’s better, it’s just what I want. And not just for Blades – this is going to be even more important for other things I’m thinking about with Blades tech. So, here’s my idea.


(Yes, I know, in PBTA this has a specific meaning, but it’s also a normal world, so I super don’t care.)

The first thing to do is talk a little bit the various types of relationships that a character might have with NPCs. This is a potentially strongly varied list, but we’ll keep it focused so we don’t wander too far away from the essential nature of Blades.

For simplicity, we’re going to boil all meaningful relationships in Blades into 7 categories: Stranger, Acquaintance, Associate, Ally, Friend, Rival and Enemy.

A Stranger is someone you don’t know, simple as that. You might see them or know their name secondhand, but they’re not someone who you would expect to have a conversation with or to have any idea who you are. You might have a passing conversation with them for transient reasons, but nothing that sets up a relationship. In the city, most people are strangers.

An acquaintance is someone you know well enough to know their name and say “hi” to. You could probably have a conversation with them in a pinch, but that’s about as far as it goes. It’s not much of a relationship in and of itself, but a relationship could potentially be developed. Most NPCs in Blades that the characters have interacted with would be considered acquaintances.

An associate is someone with whom you have a mutually beneficial relationship, such as someone you do regular business with, a fellow member of a club or something similar. While you cannot expect them to go to any great lengths for you, you can expect the kind of support that comes of being a good customer. That is, they won’t help for free, but might offer the occasional discount (and expect the same). A character’s vice purveyor is an example of an associate. Unmarked “Friends” on the playbook are also probably associates.

An ally is someone who can largely be counted on to watch your back, or at least give you advanced warning if shit is going down. The relationship may not necessarily be warm or emotional, but it’s largely a positive dynamic. Playbook “Friends” marked with an up arrow are usually allies.

A friend is someone who actually cares about the character, and may be willing to take non-trivial risks on their behalf. Real friends are a rare commodity in the city – they’re valuable as heck, but they also represent potential weaknesses.

A rival is someone whose priorities are at odds with yours. They may not be at direct loggerheads, but they’re perfectly willing to make your life worse and benefit from the problems that follow. They might literally be a business rival, or they might be someone who dislikes you but doesn’t necessarily care a lot about you. Playbook “Friends” marked with a down arrow are often rivals.

An enemy would actively like bad things to happen to you, and is willing to take steps to make them happen. How direct they’re willing to be about this depends a lot on their means, but even the most humble of enemies can make a lot of trouble in their particular wheelhouse.

EDIT TO ADD: Over at Google+, Allen Varney gave a WONDERFUL summary of these that I had to re-share:

Stranger: Wouldn’t recognize you on the street
Acquaintance: Can pick you out of a police lineup
Associate: Knows how to find you
Ally: Knows your other associates
Friend: Knows your address
Rival: Knows your address and will tell it to anyone
Enemy: You hope they don’t know your address


Establishing Bonds

Sometimes bonds (especially enemies) can be created as a result of play, but players also have the option of developing bonds through downtime actions.

To establish a bond, the player much choose an acquaintance with whom to develop a relationship. Most characters already have numerous acquaintances who have come up in play, and they can choose freely among them.

The first step is to turn an acquaintance into an associate. This is a simple project, usually requiring 6 ticks on a clock,(but see “social climbing”, below). Taking a downtime action to advance this clock will most often be a consort roll, but almost any skill could be appropriate if it’s a shared activity that gives you a chance to bond.

It’s a similar effort to turn an associate into a rival or ally. Then again, to turn an ally into a friend, or a rival into an enemy. It is also possible to reverse direction, and turn and enemy into a rival and a rival into an associate.

While players will mostly want to establish positive connections, the option for other relationships is there for the players who enjoy a more complicated web, or who want a little narrative control of who their enemies are. Plus, enemies tend to be a more reliable source of complications (and thus XP, see Bonds and XP, below)

And, of course, relationships – especially negative ones – can be the result of play or other clocks too. Even if characters are not seeking enemies, enemies may find them.

Fiddly Bits

New Bonds

Sometimes there are no existing NPCs of the type a character is looking to connect with. In this case, the character may need to turn a stranger into an associate. Mechanically, this is the same as any other bond creation (6 tick wheel, modified by class) but the GM is willing to require some pre-amble if the type of person being sought is not so easily found.

Social Climbing

It is harder to establish bonds with people who operate at higher tiers of society. If the target of a potential bond is associated with a faction that is larger than the crew, then the number of ticks required to cement the bond is increased by 2 for every step of difference.

Bonds and RP

While bonds can be an entirely mechanical exercise during downtime, it is entirely reasonable for the GM or player to ask for a brief scene to play out some of the interactions with the NPC. Don’t spend too much time on it, but have fun.

Bonds and XP

If you are playing with bonds, then update the XP question “You expressed your beliefs, drives, heritage, or background” to “You expressed your beliefs, drives, heritage, background or bonds”.1

Crew Bonds

It’s also possible for the crew as a whole to form a relationship with someone. This follows the same rules as individual bonds, but requires twice as many ticks. However, any member of the crew may contribute to the project.

  1. Honestly, even if you don’t use the rest of the bond rules, consider using this tweak if you have fleshed out your player’s connections enough that they are driving play to any extent. Enemies are much more welcome when they contribute to XP. ↩︎

Aspects in Broad Strokes

We like to encourage the use of colorful aspects that have a lot of meaning in them, but those are not always a good match for players who aren’t starting play with a strong sense of who their characters are and want to find out through play.

One option for dealing with that is aspects-on-the-fly. Leave your aspect slots blank and fill them in during play as inspiration (or need) strike. This is a lot of fun, but it’s a bit too extreme for some folks, and with that in mind, there’s a middle path.

At character creation, feel free to pick broad aspects – ones that may not have much detail, but convey the broad strokes of the character in your head. If you want to play a big, strong, heavily armored soldier type, then the aspects: Big, Strong Armored and Soldier will completely do the job, and will be entirely playable.

That’s all you need to do. However, at the end of any session, you may decide to elaborate on one of your aspects. This is not a complete re-write, but rather a restatement that maybe gives a bit more context. The idea is that the aspect is still perfectly usable as it was before, but now there’s a bit more to it. We know more about the character now.

Sometimes the path to this is obvious – it’s not hard to discover some background in play and change Soldier to Veteran of the Pijelo Campaign. Something like Armored, which seems external on the face of it, can be unpacked into talking about what the armor means (whose armor is it? What does it signify?).

Sometimes it might not be so clear – how do you elaborate on Big, after all? In those cases you might ask why the character is big, and end up turning that into Scion of Clan Bennek (since everyone knows the Bennek’s are huge!).

Or, honestly, maybe you never elaborate it at all. You are never obliged to do this.

So, this is a pretty simple trick, but I wanted to lay it out there for people who are maybe not syncing with aspects at the moment of character creation, but still want to take a swing at it. Feel free to start with broad strokes – you have every right to refine them as you play.

Letter of the Law: The One Where Everything Blows Up

line and node diagram of all the characters and groups in flight in the current game. A giant mess.

The Current State of NIghtmarket

In the last session of our Blades in the Dark online game, Shadow had come out of Ironhook with an interest in the oddly tattooed “octopus gang” that had hassled him there. Jacob of the Ink Rakes had agreed to provide some information in return for helping with a “little problem”, which they did (also helping out the booksellers of Nightmarket and securing their “informants” holding) and as a result tonight kicked off with the payoff from Jacob.

Jacob didn’t know a lot. They had picked up the nickname “The Eights”, though whether that was a play on words or a reference to their octopus tattoos was not entirely clear. They were a lot like other cults in the city – a little dangerous, a little crazy, mostly kept to themselves, recruited among the truly desperate and so on. They were unwelcome around the Docks, but not excessively so. But a few weeks back, they’d all vanished. Word was they had set up shop in Bonfire (the Iruvian neighborhood in Nightmarket).

Jacob also tried to get them to carry some of his magazines in their bookstore, but the Bonfire news was of most interest to the crew.

A bit about Bonfire: The Iruvian neighborhood in Nightmarket is one of the largest foreign districts in Duskvol (rivaled but it’s Severosi neighbor, Horsehoe). It’s name derives from two sources – the first is that it is probably the most warmly lit neighborhood in Duskvol, as there are constantly fires of every type burning, kept ablaze by a combination of nostalgia and tradition by those who no longer feel the warmth of the sacred flame. The second is that this fondness for fire means that there have been more large scale fires in this neighborhood than anywhere else in the city, and as a result it’s even more of a built-and-rebuilt warren than normal. The Red Sashes have a presence there (though they have not yet really conflicted with the crew) and one of the crew members – Thorn – is a member of the community of…peculiar standing.

The crew members hit the street to find out more about what was going on. Shadow’s bluecoat contacts had little to offer, and while the Archimandrite gave Thorn some interesting information about the Cult’s symbol (it had been used by a cult squelched by the Spirit Wardens a century before) he had little to offer in terms of current events. He did, however, make a passing remark about a lack of ghost problems in Bonfire of late.

Ellis skipped the middleman and simply started beating the streets and found the cult’s hideout without too much hassle. It was a fire ravaged building that was too damaged for use but too intact to be easily demolished, surrounded by buildings in similar or worse shape. There were signs they’d put in some defenses on the lower floors, and that there had been a fight recently, but she couldn’t get much close to check.

Spider ended up finding out the most, partly through my bad memory. Her positive contact is Jul, a blood dealer. We had kind of wondered what that meant, and at some point in the past I’d decided that it means leviathan blood, but I entirely forgot about that, and just as well. Spider was mostly reaching out because Jul was Iruvian, but it worked out well. See, Jul runs an opium den where the drugs are cheap and the snacks are plentiful because the real price is the pint of blood that users leave behind, which is in turn mixed and provided for the customers in the back room, who are never acknowledged as being there, and who are largely Iruvian Vampires.

Another sidebar: Iruvian Vampires is, on its surface, a paradox. The sacred flame in U’Duasha consumes all ghosts created within the city, so you don’t get certain problems down there that you get in Duskvol. However, there is a small but robust ghost-smuggling business for the very rich and powerful of Iruvia who are near the ends of their life and would rather continue as a ghost rather than risk whatever fate awaits them I’m the flame. At no small cost, their ghosts may get bound, transported elsewhere (most often Duskvol) and released. At greater cost, further arrangements may be made. The Iruvian vampires of Duskvol are an association of those who have paid this greater cost, and in many ways they are very much the iconic image of elite, powerful vampires hiding in the shadows. This is all fairly secret (for good reason) but the crew is tied into this sort of action.

Jul knows a bit about the cult, enough to dislike them, and it comes out that the reason for this is that they make his clients (with a glance towards the back room) nervous. Spider tries a consort roll to get an introduction to a Vampire, and succeeds, but he owes Jul a favor as a result. Jul agrees to speak to his clients, but sends Spider home while he makes arrangements.

The vampire who arrives at The Letter of the Law is a surprisingly young looking Iruvian man who seems utterly delighted at the theatricality of the secret back room. He introduces himself as Lor Ankhuset1, and is delighted to meet them. Negotiations follow, and the Vampire is willing to share what he knows in return for three favors to be named later.

Surely no problems will emerge from that.

The vampire revealed three things:

  1. The eights and the red sashes had clashed earlier. Smart money would have been on the Red Sashes, but something happened inside the Eight’s HQ which lead to a drastic reversal.
  2. The eights were spending clean money – that is, they had fresh-pressed silver. The subtext is that they had some manner of sponsor, someone rich enough to have access to the money, and highly enough placed to not even realize why that would be a problem.
  3. Most critically, there were now no ghosts in Bonfire. Lor could not explain why or how, but they had started vanishing shortly after the Eights set up residence, and the Vampires were starting to get very nervous because things felt wrong to them. The Spirit Wardens would probably be very interested in this if they found out, but since this had actually meant less work for them, they hadn’t noticed that in the way they would have an uptick.

So, this was pretty clearly bad, but it was hard to say how. Spider confirmed the absence of ghosts personally, and even went to far as to find another ghost and bring them there, only to watch it get sucked away towards the Eights’ headquarters. Spider was intrigued enough to try attuning to the ghost field to see what was going on, which proved a not great idea as something tried to pull her soul right out of her body2. She kept it together, and got a sense of a beacon or vortex pulling things from the direction of the Eights, but she couldn’t get much closer and still keep control.

The crew did not fully understand what was going on, but agreed that it was almost certainly bad enough to merit drastic response. Discussion of bodies hitting the floor was had, and agreed upon. They would seed the building with incendiaries and the foundations with explosives. Ideally hey could flush out the cult before falling back on mass destruction, but it pays to be sure3.

Which is, of course, where things started going very, very wrong.

The crew split up, with Thorn and Spider heading for the sewers and Ellis and Shadow coming from the roof. The engagement roll came up a 3, so I decided that they were going to end up out of sync – a dangerous proposition when dealing with the kind of ordinance they were toting. The path through the sewers was not what they expected it to be, with numerous collapsed or blocked sections forcing a roundabout route. Meanwhile, Shadow entered through the roof, with Ellis in overwatch, and promptly went deeper into the building than was wise (because Reckless). A mixed prowl result let him place his last charge before he was set upon by a cleaver-wielding hull, and avoided getting split open by virtue of an excellent resistance roll and convenient armor4.

Cut back to the sewers, where Thorn & Spider are setting charges. Now, Spider has the Saboteur move, as well as three dots of wreck, so I extend a lot of narrative leeway here, and I’m expecting no real trouble here, esp since Thorn is helping. On a mixed result, I’d be leaning on the time disconnect to create inconveneice, but I’m ready for whatever. At which point Spider’s dice betray her, and we get nothing but 3s and 2s.

So, GM hat time. They’re working with explosives, and that is an obvious oh shit roll, and it would be entirely inappropriate for me to ignore that. However, it had only been a risky roll, so it would be a bit of a jerk move to go straight to the kind of consequences this would require, so I gave them an opportunity. As the bombs started flashing, they had the opportunity to make a desperate prowl roll to try to get the hell clear.

Thorn got a mixed result and Spider’s dice failed again.

Thorn was easy to adjudicate – he was looking at 3 harm as the explosion threw him into something hard, but he managed to buy that down through a combination of armor and resistance. Spider was a bit more of a challenge.

See, confession, I like to push hard on certain issues as a GM, but I have never been a “killer GM”. In my philosophy of play, character death is frequently and indicator of GM failure. So my first instinct was to offer some kind of sop – have Spider get trapped or something similar – but that was not a good instinct. It did not respect the situation. So I took a deep breath and ignored my internal protest and declared “Level 4 Harm”, which is to say, a lethal result.

This was not the end of it. Spider had the opportunity to resist, and like the rest of her crew, had armor, and she actually had a decent reserve of Stress, so the odds were actually not that bad. It is, in fact, one of the nice things about Blades – as a GM I can push the hard, and it’s the start of the conversation, not the end.

Spider’s luck reversed, and she crushed the resistance roll with a crit5, but she and Thorn were separated. Meanwhile, Shadow was making a desperate prowl roll to dive out the window and escape the Hull. He critted that roll sufficiently hard that it absolutely demanded that he be diving out as the explosion rolled up through the building.

As Ellis watched this all, appalled, I turned to her and remarked “There is no way anyone in that building survived, but the bell is not ringing.” This brought a wave of consternation to the table, that only grew as I described that the fire was not diminishing, but rather slowly changing color towards blue, and resolving into a towering column of flame which was now drawing attention from…well, everywhere.

This was the get out of dodge moment, and the crew fell back to Sha’s Noodles, their rendezvous point. The fire was still burning, and the Spirit Wardens and Bluecoats were cordoning it off, but it was showing no signs of diminishing. What’s more, Thorn was finding that it caused his ghost-killing tattoos to flare up (though this fire felt cold and hungry, unlike the warmth of the true sacred flame), and Shadow determined that it was now drawing in ghosts from an even wider radius, perhaps even the entire city.

And that’s where we left off.

We resolved the job. No coin, 2 Rep, 6 heat. I could arguably have gone with 8 heat, because bodies dropped, but I consider that +2 to come from the bells and crows and extra attention over and above what’s happened in the job, and in this case, that seemed well folded into the 6. For the entanglement, we got Show of Force/Demonic Notice and both are so magnificently appropriate that I’m not sure which I’ll be kicking the next session off with.

Curiously, while things have utterly gone to hell, the crew is in decent shape. They’d been keeping their heat squeaky clean, so they could take this hit, and there had been decent margin for stress at the beginning of the night. However, the circumstances are dire enough that I am not sure there’s actually going to be any opportunity for downtime before we pick up again. If so, that 6 heat is going to be a Damoclean sword hanging over the group, and I’m kind of curious to see how that goes.

Good session all in all. Slow start, but the Vampire is going to absolutely drive some future fun even after the current problems die down, and I am 100% OK with that ending, though it was definitely not something I saw coming.

  1. This is one of the 4 Iruvian great houses, and specifically the house that Thorn is from a cadet branch of. If he’s not full of it, this and other indicators suggest this is someone of significant importance. ↩︎
  2. Shadow helped with this roll, with some Tycherosi blood magic, which also created an opportunity for the devil’s bargain that Shadow’s Shadow was going to mess with Spider at some point in the future, which was accepted. ↩︎
  3. There has actually been some internal debate about how extreme this solution was, with Ellis (as usual) being a voice of reason. Shadow had not weighed in yet, so I took an opportunity. See, Shadow picked up the “Reckless” trauma (which is super apt, and also plays into the fact that half the crew have the Daredevil move), and his player fully embraces it, to the point where I (virtually) turned to him and said “More bombs sound awesome” and he was all in. ↩︎
  4. Shadow has the Mule move (which drastically ups his load) and the crew has Bravos Rigging, which gives 2 more load for use with armor & weapons. Combined with the fact that he’s a reckless daredevil, we often end up with the most heavily armored Lurk in Duskvol. ↩︎
  5. The actual rules for how much resistance can reduce harm are intentionally fuzzy so as to account for a variety of situations. However, because my crew are a bunch of twins, I use a fairly mechanical approach to Harm – successful resistance can drop it a step, with each critical dropping it another step. Thus, with a critical and armor, Spider managed to drop the harm by 3 levels, and walk out merely “scorched”. ↩︎

How I Choose Aspects

Fred ran a one shot Star Wars game the other night night, using a Fate hack he’s been working on.  We had a ton of fun as a gang scoundrels and rogues one a mission for Maz around the time of the current films.  I’m not a Fate player that often, and I don’t get to play with Fred nearly enough, so it was a win across the board.  And, of course, it has me thinking about a couple of things, some of which may bubble up here, but one kind of struck me.

I’d given Fred a rough sketch for my character, and I’d thought about him some, but at the start of play I only had provided my high concept and trouble aspects.   This is not much of a problem – coming up with aspects on the fly is something I’m comfortable with – but it made me think a bit about how I do it, and I figured I’d share here in case it’s of any use to anyone.

Photograph of tented index cards showing the character aspects discussed in the body of the article.

My first aspect is my go to. It’s omething that so clearly reflects what my character is that I’ll be able to use it almost any time. This is usually the high concept, and frequently is some manner of broad role. In last night’s game it was Grumpy Old Soldier (Sol was his name) and it served the purpose well. It’s easy to express, and it was a fallback aspect on almost any soldiery situation, which was most of them for me.

#2 is my hook for the GM. It is something that I feel like if the GM knows she’ll have an easier time planning scenes or putting hooks in scenes for me. This is *probably* my trouble, but it might not be because I also have #3. Ideally I want the “if this, then that” to be implicit in the aspect, so the GM knows full well that if they lay down *this* then I will *that*. In this case it was Doesn’t want to care, but ends up caring.  Sharp eyes will notice that is different than the card (which says Does Not Care About You) because that was the public facing side – the reverse simply said “This is a lie”.

#3 is my Fate Point generator. This aspect is more or less carte Blanche for the GM to complicate a scene, and the specifics of the aspect communicate the *flavor* of the complications. It can be generalized (last night I had Worst. Fucking. Timing) if you have a flavor in mind, but another great way to set this up is as a consequence for past actions. One of the other players last night had an aspect that was effectively (“I stole a lot of money and a lot of people are mad”) which proved a font of complications.

#4 is what I consider the contextualizer. At this point I have enough of a sense of the character to be able to think “if I described the character to someone, what part of their story am I not telling here?” Then add an aspect to reflect that. Put another way, this is the “backstory” aspect, and it usually complements and expands on (or otherwise relates to) the high concept.  For me it was Imperial Elite, Republic Trash – he’d come from an imperial (formerly republic) military family and was fresh to the service when the Empire fell.  There’s a longer story, of course, but I don’t need to tell it all at once now that I have an anchor point for it.

#5 s the wild card. No guidance here, this is the slot to keep flexible (and maybe even fill in on the fly if your GM goes for it). I often look at this as my slot to see what the *table* needs, and if I can use it to connect to other players, that’s perfect. If the game is a one shot, then it might just duplicate another category. If it’s a campaign, then it might be something that reflects a long term goal.  In this case it was a bit of history based on a prompt Fred gave (“What’s a battle that sticks with you”), so I went with The Bloody Streets of Corsucant, since he’d been there and on the imperial side when the empire fall, and it wasn’t all singing ewoks.

That’s my fast and loose approach.  I should note, I rarely sit down and run through the list when I make aspects.  Rather, the first couple aspects often suggest themselves naturally, but then I end up thinking about #4 and #5 or so. At that point I do a quick mental inventory to see if I’ve hit all these notes.  Do I have a generator?  Have I anchored my backstory?   That is when these become useful prompts.

Final Caveat – this is just an approach to this. I’m not suggesting it’s optimal, it’s just a tool that might see some use.  Use it, abuse it or discard it, but hopefully, it’s handy for at least some folks.