Monthly Archives: August 2017

Letter of the Law, Belated

I just posted about my Letter of the Law game of Blades and it was pointed out that I had not explained what that was, so, er, oops.

This is a game I’ve been running and playing online, which is a new experience for me.  We run over Google Hangouts paired with screensharing.  I looked into Roll20, but despite the presence of Blades-specific plugins, I haven’t yet seen the reason to add the extra layer of complication.  Instead, I’ve just been putting everything into Google slides.  If you’re curious, I’ve posted a snapshot here.

Short form, there’s a strange crew of Bravos operating out of night market, with a Cutter, a Hound, a Lurk and a Leech. The name come from their HQ, which is the rare books room of a bookstore called The Letter of the Law.

Three Times the Blades, Three Times the Dark

This is going to be a weird post – I started the writeup for Letter of the Law #1, but before I finished, we played the next Blackfinger game. And while this was still in progress, we did a pickup game last night. So I’m trying to catch up, so buckle up

Letter of the Law Ep 1.0

Plot-wise this was all pretty straightforward. The crew decided that they wanted some turf, but rather than just grab it, they decided they’d appeal to the next tier up in their neighborhood, the Schnaber Crew. The Schnaber Crew are mostly an extended family who load and unload the trains, and the PC crew has stayed on good terms with them, playing tithes and generally being good neighbors, so it was not an unreasonable play. And since the Schnaber crew had been having trouble with what seemed like a professional arsonist messing with them, they were willing to look kindly on someone who solved the problem for them.

Initial investigations didn’t turn up much, but one of the Cutter’s contacts was willing to offer information in return for a favor (busting up a restaurant which had snubbed her). The crew did, despite some complications, and actually turned a tidy profit on it, which in turn got them the location of the Arsonists hideout. THey flushed him out, took him down, and handed him over to the Schnabers, who in return “Made available” a protection opportunity, so the PCs now run protection for a noodle shop in Night Market.

Like I said, pretty straightforward. But the devil, as always, in the details.

  • We added a new character to the crew tonight, a Leech named Spider. She’s a former Railjack and keeper of her family’s box of ghosts, and she fit very tidily into the crew’s Strange rep. Chargen was interesting because we talked a lot about the line between Leeches and Whispers and what it means in play – originally the character was going to be a Whisper, but some back and forth eventually lead to Leech.
  • I gave all the characters a second playbook move for free. This was kind of a taste thing, but for me, the second playbook move is kind of what firms up a lot of the character ideas, especially in the case where the player has taken the default ability. It’s not a huge mechanical difference, but I was happy with the outcome.
  • There were two jobs in the evening – smashing the restaurant and grabbing the arsonist. The latter was very successful (the dice were on fire) but I think the former was better play. I allowed too much planning to happen the second time, in part because I think I set the situation up poorly. It went ok, but it was education in terms of striking the balance of how much detail is an is not helpful. Most critically, It underscored that I need to make sure the opportunities are implicit in information gathered, even if it’s not obvious in the questions the players ask.
  • Hunt picked up an extra layer of utility when we decided it was a totally valid skill for laying a false trail, which is a useful heat-reducing activity.
  • I am struggling a bit to try to figure out which handles I’m supposed to use to push. The game gives me a ton of tools for pushing back on the characters, but they all rely on player initiation. That’s not bad per se, but sometimes I want someone to come in through the door, guns blazing.
  • Bravos seem to tend towards short jobs, but I think my players are more inclined towards long ones, so I need to figure out how to strike that balance.

Blackfingers Ep 4

The job itself was pretty straightforward. The crew had just expanded (reached tier 1) but had emptied our coffers to do so. We also had a demon waiting for us to do the job for him (to destroy the unkillable industrialist, Slane). After reviewing options and a bit of research, we decided to go after Slane’s payroll and kill two birds with one stone. Having identified that his vault (and his quarters) were beneath his ironworks factory, we had a target and began the infiltration. The Spider & Slide remained outside (largely contributing via flashbacks) while the Lurk, Cutter & Leech snuck in, broke into Slane’s chambers (discovering the demon there, profoundly uninterested in their activities, and implicitly explaining both where Slane’s luck came from and the demon’s motive), discovered the vault, took what they could and wrecked the rest. The whole job went smoothly, and Slane just had to take out a substantial loan to make payroll, and we know that next session is going to jump right into sabotaging his next delivery of ship-plates to keep him from getting paid.

Again, details:

  • This was the longest job we’ve done yet, which was interesting, mores because it’s the second “long” job I’ve done, with the curious overlap that both were effectively infiltration dungeon crawls. This ended up being something to chew on as I considered job length for the Bravo crew.
  • It was observed that the Spider and the Slide are effectively a project manager and product manager for crime.
  • In the intervening time since the last job, I have internalized a lot more of the game and setting, which naturally makes everything more awesome.
  • We determined that the coffee-equivalent in Duskvol is a fungus base brew called “Shoe” because it’s brewed in big pots of dark liquid, and there’s no guarantee regarding what’s actually in the pot.

The Blackheels

This game was entirely unplanned. We had some friends over and had just finished playing Machi Koro, were deciding what to do next, and opted for a game of Blades. We had 5 players – two from Blackfingers, one from Letter of the Law, and two who had never even seen Blades before. So we did the whole nine yards – chargen, crew gen, setup, job and downtime. Whole thing took maybe 3 hours?

Was a crew of Shadows with a lot of ghosty stuff, but with a Daring reputation. They also took the “Boat” upgrade, which ended up being kind of awesome and a natural reason for one of their favorable connections to be with the Gondoliers. The crew was a Cutter, Hound, Spider, Slide and Lurk, all Duskvol natives of various types. On a night when the Spirit Wardens were swamped by an industrial accident, the Gondoliers needed one dead body swapped with another one in a Bluecoat stationhouse. The Slide provided a distraction while the rest of the crew snuck in, but unfortunately that also lead to a bit of a riot among the drunk tank, which escalated when the drunk’s friends showed up. The Slide made several (successful) desperate rolls amidst the impromptu riot while the rest of the group deal with a body mix up and an inaccurate map of the sewers to eventually find their way out as one of the bodies left behind decided it was time for some ghostly horror show action. But, hey, they got paid!

  • Despite the absence of a Whisper or a Leech, they crew kept pitching ideas that really would have suited those playbook better. Not sure what that says.
  • As with the Letter of the Law, I allowed 2 playbook moves at chargen, and I no longer have any concerns about doing so – it’s great.
  • I leaned a little bit more on group actions in this session than I have previously. Worked very well for keeping things moving, but they’re a little bland in action.
  • The dice favored the players. I was aggressively leaning on non-6s to speed up the timetable on the ghost showing up, but they just kept hitting 6s. I probably need to start planning for that, since this is not the first game that this has happened in.
  • I remain floored by how well Blades handles pickup play. I love pickup play in general, but Blades has some secret sauce that makes it really shine in this way. There are a ton of things that contribute to this – Setting design, Job-centric adventures, flashbacks and more – and I look forward to sussing them out and seeing if I can make other games comparably easy to play.

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 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.


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.


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.


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. ↩︎