Stress is Best

Ok, let’s talk about Stress in Blades in the Dark.

This is an amazing mechanic – metamechanic even – that is easy to overlook. For all that it seems faily simple, it’s one of those things that really jumps out at you when you start looking at making hacks for Blades, and you find yourself wondering “Can I use stress to model THING?” and discover that the answer is “Yes. Yes you can.”

For the unfamiliar, BitD characters have a certain amount of stress, represented by a (mostly) fixed length track reminiscent of a Fate stress track, or the wound tracks from any number of games.1 Players can mark off stress for some effects like flashbacks or die bonuses (2 to push oneself for effect, 1 to assist an ally – very simple and nicely teamwork encouraging) but the real meat of the system comes up when it’s used for resistance rolls and how it’s recovered.

This is not going to come as a surprise to anyone who has played much Blades in the Dark, but it is not necessarily obvious when you read the rules or even if you just play it ones. Resistance rolls are one of the most powerful levers in the system – maybe the most powerful. They work as follows:

  1. Something bad happens to your character as a consequence of your actions.
  2. You do not want that thing to happen as presented, so you choose to resist.
  3. The thing does not happen. It may be cancelled, changed or mitigated.2
  4. Dice are rolled and a cost of 0-5 stress is extracted. There are dire consequences if you don’t have enough stress.

Which is to say, guaranteed success, but unknown cost, though the cost is roughly predictable. It starts at 6, then you subtract the highest of 1-4+ dice from that. The player doesn’t know for sure what they’ll be rolling until the GM calls for it, but in a lot of circumstances you can guess, since the categories are largely Physical, Deception or Social, with weirdness only when it’s not in that space.

This is a wonderful mechanic on a few levels, so lets pull it apart.

First, this is possibly the purest expression of “Hit Points as Pacing Mechanism” that you could practically implement. The stress track defers consequences, so it extends the amount of time a character can stay on their feet and in play. But since it does not couch it as “damage” you don’t get the (now familiar) complaints that pop up if it were to actually frame social conflicts as “combat”.3

Second, it has a degree of uncertainty, but also has the possibility of a “good” outcome. There is always the possibility of rolling a 6 on your resistance roll and paying no cost at all. If that was not there, then there would be a ratcheting inevitability that would suck away that potential thrill of victory.

Third, the level of risk is very knowable. When you look at your stress track and you know how many boxes you have left, you can make an educated guess at your odds. If you have 4 boxes left and are going to roll 3 dice? You’re probably going to be fine. But if you’re not? That feels fair. You are not getting blindsided by something being secretly harder than you expected.

Fourth, it introduces a mechanical point for the player to say “no”. This is kind of tangential enough to maybe merit it’s own post someday, but that invitation is a WONDERFUL addition to GM/Player interaction.

Fifth, it let’s the GM push HARD, because the players have the ability to pull it back. How well this works in practice has a lot to do with how much the GM respects resistance rolls, but it’s potentially very powerful4.

Sixth and most relevant to this discussion, the use of stress for this purpose is a wonderful bit of sleight of hand because it frames stress in an agnostic manner. The terminology and presentation5 of stress is like it’s a real-in-the-gameworld thing even though it’s absolutely a meta-currency. The game would function just as well if the currency was “Darkness Points” or “Drama” or whatever, but not calling it that allows people to handle it like they do things like hit points – by just accepting it and moving on. Never underestimate the power of not picking a fight you don’t need to.

Seventh, it’s like saving throws that don’t suck.

So, resistance rolls alone would be a very robust use of currency, but there’s actually a whole engine here, which also includes how you regain the currency. Rather than resetting based on time or triggers, it is restored with explicit action6 (pursuing your vice) and even that has a little bit of risk (it is possible to overindulge). That risk is not huge, but it loads the choice to recover with some necessary thought when you have 5 stress to clear, and you’re worried about rolling a 6. (In case it’s not obvious, this is a wonderful solution to the 5 minute dungeon problem, which is a shame because Blades doesn’t have that problem.)

So, this is all great for Blades, but why am i so excited about this in a general sense?

Because this engine is covered in knobs.

Consider that this cycle of stress use and recovery includes the following things:

  • Spending stress to do ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS.
  • Spending stress to Resist an ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS with SOME RISKS
  • Recovering stress by doing an ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS with SOME RISKS

Almost every game with some sort of currency does the first bullet, but tend to be a bit light on the others. And that’s fine, because the real trick is that every place where I wrote ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS or SOME RISKS?

Those are the things your game is about.

Like, not in some deep metaphorical way, but in the very straightforward “these are the actions you will pursue and the consequences you will face”. And those things, in turn, determine what the currency is.

That may seem circular, but let me illustrate. Stress works well for Blades because it’s a kind of unpleasant setting. Things are under high stress, and the consequences of things going bad are bad for mind and body, but are largely internal to the characters. After all, the main consequence of stressing out is taking on some amount of trauma, a change to the internal landscape.

Consider the very small change where we called stress “luck” and changed almost nothing else. The game would still play about the same way – you could press your luck, and your luck might run out. In that game, I suspect the consequences of your luck running out would be external – loss of resources, harm to the setting and so on. What appears to just be a change in terminology and tone becomes as change in rules because there is an explicit place to do it.

This is why it is so easy to think of other things stress might be (Reputation! Resources! Divine Favor! Popularity! Mana!) and then very naturally fill in what that means by changing the variables (the “ARBITRARY SET OF THINGS”) rather than the formula.

Combine that with the track-style presentation (which makes the whole thing friendlier to a category of players AND makes the use of currency feel more explicit and constrained) and you have a really powerful tool that is not hard to point in new directions. And, hell, while the specific details are tied to the BITD dice system? The model could be extracted further into any system you like. Hell, I could do it with D&D. I couldn’t sell it, but I could totally do it.


  1. Though really, it’s a clock. I mean, clocks and tracks? Same thing. Just different psychology of presentation. ↩︎
  2. This is probably the single most powerful knob in the game (and the game knows this) and it has very little guidance around it. Exactly how much resistance helps in a given situation is a decision that the GM has very broad leeway over, and whether resistance means “This, but not as bad” or “No, that’s not an interesting outcome” is entirely the GM’s decision. ↩︎
  3. Some folks are fine with that abstraction, but the people who hate it HATE IT A LOT. ↩︎
  4. Ironically, if the GM pushes hard before and after the resistance roll (that is, only minimally reduces consequences) then that discourages hard pushes. Player will be more careful and risk averse. If, on the other hand, the GM pushes hard, but then takes a resistance roll as a player statement to step back from the line, then you can get some pretty high octane, high trust play going. And just for completeness, if the GM doesn’t push too hard, but is also conservative with resistance rolls, there’s no harm save wasted opportunity. Weak push/strong resistances is a weird combination but could work well for a game where moment to moment success is a given, but the real attention is on the big issues that underly things (that is, the consequences of blowing out stress). ↩︎
  5. Also, by making it a track rather than some other counter (like tokens) it feels like “loss” rather than “spend”. This may seem like a trivial difference, but the psychology is pretty big. For an easy illustration, try playing Blades with tokens for stress sometime. The entire feel changes, and specifically tilts towards the non-resistance uses because those are more “spendy”. ↩︎
  6. Hat tip to The Shadow of Yesterday which laid the groundwork for this (and many other amazing mechanics). ↩︎

9 thoughts on “Stress is Best

  1. John Taber

    Fantastic review Rob! I started my first Blades campaign recently. We are on the third session now and having a ton of fun. Most of my players have also never tried a system with a PBTA sort of mechanic. Everyone is learning a lot. 😉

    I discovered one thing about Stress that I am having a tough time handling. I have 6 players. When I have run Blades with less players…like 2 or 3…the amount of Stress the characters are using seems pretty fair. Each player might use 2 to 4 per session. With 6 players this is not the case. Maybe 1 or 2 characters will take 2 Stress. It feels like it is throwing the balance with downtime. The players feel adverse to using Stress so they can use their downtime for their own greedy actions.

    Any advice?

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      This is going to sound simple, but “be meaner”. 🙂

      That maybe sounds like a blunt instrument but there’s a bit of nuance to it. Because the resistance rules are written so that resistance ALWAYS succeeds, there’s no risk of accidentally killing a character, so you can throw pretty nasty risks at them without fear of them blowing the roll.

      Now, some players will still be conservative about risk, and that’s fine, but since rewards align with risk, that is a self-correcting problem.

      Reply
  2. Parker

    Various thoughts…

    I would be really interested to hear your impression of the Spire, which uses its mechanic in a reverse fashion, but I think has a lot of potential. I think my ideal core mechanic is somewhere in between Spire and Blades.

    Blades spends so much time talking about “lowering” harm, and I think doesn’t make it clear that mitigating harm is also a totally valid way to go about it. It’s there in the rules, but both as a GM and a player I feel like I’ve seen clever resistances be met with Harm 3 being downgraded to Harm 2, instead of completely negated.

    I wish i could click on the number in your footnotes and go back to your article.

    People get so focused on Blades’ other interesting mechanisms (crew sheets, factions, heat), that I think not enough attention is given to the underlying core mechanic.

    Thanks for the write up!

    Reply
    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      The little arrows at the end of the footnotes *should* jump back to the initial link!

      I am literally still reading Spire, and totally jamming on it, but holding off until I finish!

      Reply
    2. Erik

      You can use the browser’s back button (or keyboard shortcut) to go back from the notes to the point you were.

      Reply
  3. Gregory Sanders

    Thanks for elaborating on a neat mechanic I didn’t really grok the implications of when first looking over the game.

    So if I understand the rules right, the number of dice the player rolls to resist is based on the appropriate skill and unrelated to the magnitude of the consequence. I’d guess that incentives not sweating the small stuff and focusing on resisting things that the character/player cares about or is at least likely has the appropriate skills to resist.

    Reply
  4. Robert W Calfee

    Perhaps this is unfair, but you said ‘Hell, I could do it with D&D. I couldn’t sell it, but I could totally do it.’
    Okay, I would do it with Inspiration and Hero Points; how would _you_ do it?

    Reply
  5. Random_Phobosis

    While experimenting with Stress rules, I’ve turned them on their head and basically switched the spots where players roll and where they make choices. Resulting mechanic is different, but pretty amusing, you might want to check it out.

    – Whenever you get “potential” stress, you add a number of stress dice to your character’s stress dice pool. “Potential” stress means players never roll for passively “evading” shots, slashes and explosions – they receive “potential” stress when they are shot at, not when they are hit.
    – Whenever you add stress dice, you roll your whole stress pool. Then you count “fails”.
    – There’s a table which sets consequences for corresponding number of “fails”. Consequences are somewhat similar to Fate’s concessions on various terms. For example:
    1 Fail – flesh wound. It hurts, but you keep going on (no mechanical effect)
    2 Fails – you either retreat to safety (safe concession on your terms) OR are helpless until your a teammate lends you a hand, but then you can go on
    3 Fails – you either crawl to safety (concession on harsh terms) OR clench your teeth and keep on fighting, but this will permanent scar you.
    4 Fails – you either are unconscious, and will survive only if you get help OR gather all your force for your last spectacular action, but then you die.
    5 Fails – YOU DIED.
    – Narratively you only get wounded if you get enough fails, otherwise you dodged/resisted/whatever.
    – Pool of stress dice stays until its cleared by whichever way you prefer (long rest, vice, using stimpacks etc)

    This mechanic is kind of interesing because, just like BitD Stress, it merges HP, luck and to hit roll into single variable, which somehow feels less abstract. The decision point here is shifted from wheter you get consequence or not (“- Your head gets blown off! -No it isn’t, I resist!”) to the way how it actually will influence the narrative.
    Also, when crossing off the track, the tension only actually mounts when you’re near the end of the track, while in the middle you feel completely safe. Dice pool is more satisfying in this regard, because you’re rolling dice right from your first stress hits, and while you usually get pretty soft consequences, the possibility of getting something much harshers than you _should_ get is always there. Rolling no fails after yet another potential wound, but understanding that the next hit will surely kill you, is really exciting. Also, a curious side effect of this system is that only the last wound actually counts in narrative. This is somewhat similar to movies and other media, where heroes immediately forget all the bruises they collect, but there’s this One Serious Wound that eventually makes difference.

    Reply

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