Monthly Archives: December 2017

Harm in Blades in the Dark

One of the things I’ve stumbled with a little in Blades in the Dark is that injuries are not a lot of fun. I get that it’s necessary for them to feel like they hurt for the game to feel gritty, but the fact that recovery is so slow is a real hindrance on play, specifically because it burns so many downtime actions. Now, I’m not sure how this is at other tables, but my players (and I) love our downtime actions. They are sweet, sweet candy. So the penalty to them seems onerous.

This has also made me – as a GM – more hesitant to inflict harm as a consequence because I knew it was not a fun option. That’s not a great place to be.

Thankfully, a conversation on Google Plus got me thinking about becoming more flexible in removing harm, and in a subsequent session, our Cutter got gassed and took a severe consequence, but it cleared up once he had time to walk it off. This felt SO much more natural and comfortable that I realized I needed to really rethink how I used harm in blades.

One thing that clearly jumped out is that by becoming more liberal in how harm gets cleared, I can also be more flexible in my definition of harm. Harm has always been a fuzzy thing, but I have never gone fully narrative with it. That is, because the way to clear harm was medical treatment, I was only comfortable using harm for things that could be cleared with medical treatment.

But if you adopt a flexible stance on harm removal, that also allows for a flexible stance on what constitutes harm. Emotional trauma? Reputation? Getting covered from head to toe in goat crap? If I treat all these things as Harm then I have a whole slew of new tools in my toolbox, and since the mechanical impacts of harm generalize well, they slot in seamlessly.

As a bonus, this underscores the fact that being taken out by harm does not kill a character. Now, when they are taken out by harm, it does not need to be an act of death defiance. It could just as easily be that it all became too much, or that they needed to go underground. I like this a lot.

And the funny thing is that while I got into this because I wanted the option to have more easily-clearable harm, this flexibility does not oblige me to that. Non-physical harm may require just as much (or more) effort to clear than regular harm. The difference is that for social and emotional harm, those means will often be more interesting than visiting the doctor. Social harm in particular can obviously be mapped to clocks, but it can also be addressed with a score. I kind of love that.

Now, I’m am totally good simply knowing this, but if you need some guidelines to mechanize this a bit, then let’s lean into the BitD ethos and say it’s more than one thing. 🙂

Harm Duration Guidelines

  • Harm has Severity and Duration, both from 1-4
  • Severity is the current level of harm. exactly as described in the rules.
  • Duration reflects how hard it is to clear/reduce
    • 1 (Momentary): Can be cleared with an easy action that requires no dice, like cleaning up, grabbing a meal or otherwise taking the time to clear it.
    • 2 (Temporary): Can be cleared with a single appropriate downtime action, or as a result of a more difficult roll or time intensive activity (like getting a full night’s sleep).
    • 3 (Persistent): Can be reduced with a single appropriate downtime action. This is the current default model, with the “appropriate action” being the medical roll. Other actions may require smaller or larger clocks, or no clock at all.
    • 4 (Lingering): Cannot be easily reduced or cleared. Will usually require some sort of action to determine how to clear it, or to remove the thing that’s keeping it from being cleared.
  • While the default Duration in Blades is 3, it can obviously be slid up and down as a result of the fiction. The GM should communicate duration along with severity when informing players of consequence.
  • The expectation is that duration should flow very logically form the fiction. For example, getting drunk would be temporary harm, of a severity that rather depends on how drunk.
  • The expectation is that duration also gives the GM a freer hand with severity, since there are now two ways to show how serious something is. Low severity but high duration tells a different story than high severity and low duration.
  • What harm may be used to reflect is entirely up to the GM


Saw a super jerkish comment about Magic: the Gathering today (that “legit” players buy singles, not boosters) and it was a reminder that while I love playing Magic with friends and family, I really kind of hate dealing with it at large.

I mentioned this, and someone referred to it as “Gatekeeping” and I was left chewing on that.  On one hands, it’s kind of not, because this guy’s opinion does not keep me from buying boosters and playing like I want.   But on the other hand, he really *does* keep me out of this greater playspace (if only by showing it to be a place I don’t want to be).


(The behavior *was* absolutely gatekeeping in that he had appointed himself an arbiter of what “real” players are, but that’s more of a garden variety asshole thing, so I’m not really accounting for it.)

Anyway, I’m just wondering at the language of gatekeeping – One of the things that muddles conversation about the term is the implicit idea that that  gatekeeper has power to enforce the gate closure.  A lot of people don’t consider themselves gatekeepers because they don’t have power, or because there are other ways around their objections.  And maybe that’s true, but they’re still doing what this guy does: broadcasting a signal that indicates that this is not the place for you.  It has no *force* behind it, but the message itself conveys that this is the kind of place that’s *ok* with that message.

I dunno. Maybe we need another term for it, just so assholes can’t weasel out.  Can anyone suggest anything punchy?

Pacing Mechanisms

Black and White Stopwatch IconLet’s talk about pacing.

If you’re only vaguely familiar with the term, it means controlling how fast things go. While we’re talking about it in terms of games here, it’s also critically important in fiction, and the ways it’s important in fiction are often useful in games, so we’ll be talking a bit about both.

The purpose of pacing is to make sure that things take the right amount of time. This is a bit ephemeral, but in broadest strokes this means that things which are more important take more time, but they don’t take so much time that they become boring. There’s a lot of nuance in application – sometimes you can tweak pacing for specific effects – but that’s the heart of it.

All good so far, but we’ve now got two things to unpack: How long things take, and what’s important. Both of those are simple enough that they seem like things we can intuit, and often we can, but there’s utility to be had in drilling into them a bit.

Importance is an interesting one. In other media, importance is often tied directly to the story and how important a given scene is. A travel scene might take a few sentences of moments onscreen, but a tearful confrontation between ex-lovers turned rivals is going to eat up a lot of bandwidth because it’s important to the author (and hopefully the audience).

RPGs do not have quite that kind of clarity – the GM’s judgement (or opinion) may weight some scenes as more or less important than others, but that is an unreliable metric. In fact, a lot of bad GM stories are a result of the GM’s ideas of what’s important being out of whack with the players’ sense.

Instead, RPGs offer a different sort of clarity – attention. The things which the players (GM included) are most interested in are the most important. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Player attention is mercurial and unpredictable, and while the GM may use the tools at her disposal to try to tilt and channel it, she can neither predict nor control it.

RPGs also offer more levels of engagement than those offered to a passive audience. This means that while time is one factor in pacing, so is action.

And this is where we hit upon two overlapping but slightly separate ideas.

Stories have the idea of a beat as a general term for a moment when something happens. A fight might happen on an action beat. Something funny might happen on a comedy beat. A conversation might happen on a dialog beat and so on.

A beat does take a fixed amount of time – it could literally be a moment, or it might be an entire scene. That flexibility makes them a good way to sort of look over a story and spot the beats, and see if they’re skewing a certain way (and if you maybe want to break that pattern).

Games have beats too, and the idea is useful in that context, but games also have rolls. Exactly what a roll means varies from game to game, but there is a common idea that a player describes a particular type of action, dice are rolled, and mechanics are engaged that determine what direction the description goes in. That is to say, the roll equates to action.

The relationship between rolls and beats is interesting. One thing that happens a lot once a designer learns about beats, they have a moment of “what if every beat was a roll?” because that seems very tidy.

It does not work for crap, but it’s a neat thought.

But it’s an interesting failure, because if you try it, you discover that there are plenty of beats where the dice shouldn’t be rolled, and that reveals something important and relevant – calling for a dice roll is a pacing decision. It explicitly says that more attention (and often more time) is going to be paid to this thing.

This is pretty simple for systems that have big rolls, ones where a LOT gets resolves in a single pass. But for other systems, where rolls may be pretty granular, importance is reflected by the number of rolls. If you look to D&D, it’s not hard to see how the things that call for the most rolls are also the default play actions.

But as with time, action is not open ended. Spending too much time on a scene starts to drain its importance, and similarly, spending too many actions on a scene can turn it into a grind (at least in part because that will kill a lot of time too).

Which is where we come to gaming’s first great pacing mechanic1 – the hit point. We like to imagine hit points as a proxy for health, luck or robustness, but in purely practical terms, hit points are a control on how long a fight should last. Yes, there are variables that play into this like hit chances, crits and so on, but it’s still a rough metric for fight duration as measured in the number of rolls in a fight.2

And that brings us back to tracks. Tracks, like any mechanic that controls the number of rolls (or other points of engagement) something is going to take, is a pacing mechanism.

This seems like a lot of trouble to slap a label on the mechanic, so how does that actually help anything?

Well, here’s the thing. I mentioned that RPG’s have rolls available as a measure of attention, but what I did not mention is that they’re often a fairly clunky tool. Even if the fiction changes, in most (not all3) systems, the act of rolling is very repetitive, and as a result, the scope of the roll becomes constrained with habit.

That is not always a bad thing. Just as you would not want a movie resolved in 30 seconds, you probably don’t want an adventure resolved in one roll. Tracks (and similar) let you take an idea of something that should exist in your game but which is out-of-sync with your dice pacing, and integrate it smoothly into play. That sounds very abstract, but if you think a little bit about things you don’t want resolved in one roll (particularly things that stop play, like abrupt success/failure or character death) you should be able to find concrete examples with ease.

Now, pacing is not the only reason you’d want to use tracks/wheels/clocks/whatever. But if you are using them, it’s important to realize that you are making a pacing decision – several pacing decisions usually – and being mindful of that will help improve the flow of play.

  1. Possibly second after the idea of taking turns. ↩︎
  2. 4e D&D illustrated this fantastically with it’s creature roles. ↩︎
  3. One thing almost no systems let you do is have different sizes of roll. The only good example I have is the brilliant game, The Shadow of Yesterday, which resolves combat with a single roll, unless you want to go into blow-by-blow combat. That allows the pacing to change up within the scope of play (and addresses the fact that most games have different pacing requirements for rolls in and out of combat). It’s brilliant, and it makes me sad that more games haven’t used it. ↩︎


Fate Tracks

Anyone familiar with the Second Edition of Fate knows that we made heavy use of challenge tracks. They were useful for all kinds of things, from running debates to casting spells to playing chess (the chess example is one of my favorites to date). A challenge track was a set of boxes, often with difficulties at different levels, and triggers at various points along the way. They provided a tool for tracking the results of actions that could not reasonably be accomplished in a single roll.

The stress tracks that exist in Fate Core are the only remnant of this once-ubiquitous tech. The reason is simple – it was a little bit too fiddly for what it was trying to accomplish, so it got dropped in favor of smoother resolution. There’s some regret to that, sure, but it was the right direction at the time.

That was my general take on this until a few months ago when I read Blades in the Dark and was delighted by John’s approach to clocks because it specifically solved a lot of the complexity problems that we had with challenge tracks, and did so with style and grace. And as is my wont with such things, I am now going to mug BitD in a dark alley and go through its pockets for change.

Before I begin, a couple caveats.

  1. Blades is brilliant. Go read it. I am offering only a pale shadow of the delight it offers.
  2. I am going to talk about tracks rather than clocked for my own use, but honestly, if you want to just use clocks because circles and pie wedges are awesome (they are) then you should absolutely do that.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about Tracks.

A track is a set of boxes (usually – more on that in a bit) used to measure progress towards a goal. It’s pretty basic – some things cause boxes to be checked off, and when the final box is filled in, the thing happens. Simple as that!

So, for example, if you have a crew of adventurer’s sneaking into a guarded manor, you might create a track for the alertness level of the guards. As play proceeds, loud actions (like fights) or other misadventures might check off boxes, and when the last box is checked, the alarm is sounded, and the situation goes from bad to worse.

Easy enough, but the example reveals a few key question about tracks, and point us to the things that we, as GMs, want to know about any track we create1.

To come up with a track, you need to know:

  • What completion will trigger
  • What sort of things will cause the track to progress
  • How many boxes the track will have

Now, broken down into a list, that may seem a little fiddly, but the actual flow is quite organic.


This is largely simple, but with a little bit of nuance – it’s what’s going to happen when the track fills up. But, critically, it’s not necessary everything that’s going to happen. That is, the consequences can be part of the track, but often the track is about a triggering event, with the consequences to be inferred. Sometimes they’re very obvious, in the case of “Manor House Alertness”, but sometimes they’re an open ended statement like, like “Alfonzo Discovers the Truth”.


It’s easy to get spun up on this if you think about it too strictly and start laying down what sort of skills and actions drive these things. That sort of structure makes sense when the purpose of the track is to represent a specific task or challenge – for example, if you’ve got a track going for finding the location of a hidden artifact, then each successful research scene (or roll, or session, depending2) might tick off a box.

For tracks that are less direct – especially ones that represent risks – there are a lot more ways for things to progress. Partly this is a function of GM taste and style, but also it’s a function of offscreen narrative. This could probably be a topic entirely of its own, but generally speaking, player failures, success at cost and concessions are all opportunities to advance a track.


A short track communicates imminence, a longer track gives some breathing room. Both are appropriate and there’s no hard or fast rule around length, but there are a few tips.

Assume that 4-6 steps is the “default” number, and shape from there. That means that if you drop a 2 step track on your players, you are declaring that it’s more or less a bomb with a lit fuse3. If, on the other hand, there are 8 or more, then players are unlikely to respond immediately, but it’s going to loom over them over time.

The instinct is that nastier consequences and greater difficulties have longer tracks, and that is true to an extent, but it’s not the whole of the picture. Short tracks with high consequences make great threats and they’re easy to manage. Long tracks for their own sake are more of a problem – making a track long for its own sake runs the risk of turning it into a grind. Since the length of the track is (roughly) the number of times the issue needs to be engaged, feel free to shorten tracks to speed up pacing.

That is, for example, if something is very hard to research there’s a temptation to make the track for resolving it very long. If the research is something happening alongside other play, then awesome. But if it just means “Ugh, another research scene?”, that track is too long.

So, this is just a starter with the idea.  There’s still a lot to unpack, but I wanted to start with the basics of what a track is, so we can start delving into all the things you can do with them


  1. We’ll get into when and how we create them later. For the moment, let’s just focus on how they work. ↩︎
  2. This point probably needs its own post at some point, but here’s a general rule of thumb – if a track is immediate (that is, it can be resolved in a scene or two) then make sure it needs to be a track, and if so, then tick up once per roll. If it’s ambient – something that might matter for the duration of a session (like alert level) or a problem that’s going to come to head in a short arc, then it’s appropriate to tick it up at the end of a scene. For BIG issues, the kind that shape the campaign and the setting, a tick at the end of a session is more appropriate.You can absolutely note scale on the tracks if you feel like it’s necessary, but I wouldn’t worry about it too much. The level of granularity will probably be reasonably intuitive, and sometimes the rules will need to be broken (such as a fight killing a prominent NPC immediately ticking up the “political instability” track). These tiers of granularity are guidelines, albeit fairly robust ones.

    One other potential input is downtime – actions taken between sessions of play. It’s something to bear in mind, but that will definitely need to be its own post at some point.

  3. On some level, I am tempted to just upend the nomenclature and call these fuses instead of tracks. It’s nicely visceral. Certainly not ruling it out. ↩︎