Monthly Archives: March 2018

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.

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

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.