Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

My Origins Haul

My Origins acquisitions, in the order I see them on the table (or they pop into my mind)

  • Hero Realms and all the class cards – I like Star Realms a lot, but I missed this kickstarter. This is about 85% Star Realms reskin with solid theme and nice tweaks. Have played a few games and enjoyed them.
  • Dresden Files Accelerated – Technically got my copy as we left for Origins, but whatever. I have read some of this in PDF, and it’s awesome, but I’ve really been waiting for a physical copy. –
  • All the Tokaido – Core box, the minis set and both expansions. This is a great game which I should already own, so I fixed that.
  • Jumpdrive – 15 minute Race for the Galaxy. Not an Origins release, but I only just found out about it, and found it at a bargain price.
  • Shahrazad and The Ravens of Thri Sahashri are both co-op games from Osprey because I wanted new co-op and those are the games twitter recommended. They are a total crapshoot.
  • Vast: the Crystal Caverns – This is a weird game of tile laying and dragon slaying and other stuff with a million components and somewhat confusing rules, but it looks utterly intriguing and came well recommended, so I took a swing.
  • From the Gamelyn Games booth I picked up Tiny Epic Western and the expansion for Tiny Epic Galaxy. They had the expansion for Heroes too, but that game never clicked for me, and everything else was just promos. I had good luck with these games last year, and they’re a pain in the ass to acquire, so I was happy to scoop them up.
  • Gravity Dice – I got a set of these last year and they were one of my favorite things from the Con. This year they had colors and 5 packs, so I picked some up for the family.
  • Norse Foundry Fate Dice – They had new colors which were AWESOME, and there are some benefits to being the licensor. 🙂 (Also got to see some of their aluminum dice and they are totally getting acquired at some point)
  • Fidget Spinners – So, two guys brought 4 duffle bags of high end fidget spinners and sold them out of a booth near the back. I am pretty sure that they made bank.
  • Pyramid Poker – It’s a stacking game with poker scoring that is two player fun, and there is a full 54 card deck of wooden bricks in the box, so it also begs for re-use and was super reasonably priced –
  • Shadowrun Sixth World Tarot – Last year there was art for this all over the convention, but the deck was not yet out. Seeing that it was available, I scooped it right the hell up. (No link because Catalyst’s website it like a stab in the eye)
  • A Gencon 2015 Tote So, this was a gift from Jason at IPR upon discovery of what a bag nerd I am. It’s a gorgeous promotional bag with an image of the history of gaming on the side. It’s a goddamned treasure.
  • S. Petersen’ Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors – Ok, so this was a gorgeous book, and I got it as a gift for a friend I do not see nearly often enough. But here’s a thing: I don’t buy Lovecraftian stuff normally. It’s not my bag. But holy crap if the Chaosium booth was not full of really awesome looking stuff. I am used to it feeling dated and like it’s just riding on the strength of the CoC brand, but not this year – it was well stocked with things that looked exciting enough to push me to maybe reconsider my stance on Lovecraftia.
  • Set of Easy Roller Dice – In the absence of chessex the floor was stuffed with companies selling beautiful dice of every variety. I picked up some of the Easy Roller gunmetal ones as a gift, and they’re lovely, but I admit I had a bit of buyer’s remorse when I got the the Norse Foundry ones.
  • A buffer Quarterstaff from Forged Foam.  The kid had been asking for this for months, and it was stupid expensive, but totally worth it to see his face.
  • Fabriano Notebook – These are wonderful notebooks and they are absolutely my weakness when I stop by the Columbus Dick Blick.

Things I didn’t get but merit mention

  • Blades in the Dark and The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game were both awesome things at the show, but I already had mine for obvious reasons.
  • I preordered a game called Unearth. Visually, it is very clearly derived from Monument Valley, which was initially off putting, but then I realized it was from the folks who made Boss Monster, so mimicking video game styles is already pretty much on brand for them. I got to play a little in the booth, and I liked it enough to actively talk it up to people. If they’d had it for sale, I’d have bought one. They did not, so preorder ($30, free shipping) was the way to go.
  • I will fully cop that I was skeptical about War of the Cross, the 7th Sea wargame that kickstarts on the 20th. My love of 7th Sea is well known, but I don’t really pick up war games these days, and war games based off RPG settings have a long history of mediocrity. However, I was entirely sold by the booth pitch. John described it as Cosmic Encounters meets Diplomacy, and while that immediately made me leery, Lenny supplemented the pitch with the explanation that it was “Divorce proof”, which intrigued me. Short form, the nations have some special tricks (that’s the Cosmic Encounters part) but the really interesting part are some tricks to streamline and standardize some diplomacy-style negotiation. I’ll be backing this.

7th Sea: The Closing of the Gates

I realized as I sat down to write that I never did a writeup for the previous session, so here’s the compressed version.

  • I started the game with a discussion of whether or not our assassin had actually killed the guild member, since it had happened offscreen. We discussed the corruption mechanic and ultimately included that yes she had and that it was tearing her up.
  • The heroes had successfully escaped the harbor before the Eisen had locked it down, and were sailing with Red to Costa (a port on the western short of Vesten)
  • In Costa, they met Red’s contact who she had described as a “The best smuggler on the Trade Sea”, who was revealed to be a Porte adept who could, somewhat critically, get them to the Thane very fast.
  • The captain and the Doctor accompanied Red and the smuggler through the bloody hellscape to reach the Thane, tell him what had transpired in Vendel and ask him to send men. Red stayed with the Thane, who asked the heroes to return and deliver warnings to his daughter, as the timeline for her wedding to the MacDuff had been accellerated. They returned with he smuggler.
  • Meanwhile, The Swordsman would have no truck with such dark arts, and so stayed behind. The acrobat (or perhaps I should start saying the Assassin) was not so devout, but was feeling guilty enough to stay as well. They chose to investigate some mysterious men they’d encountered in trying to find Red’s contact (some violence was involved. Tastefully.)
  • The Swordsman & Acrobat investigated the mystery men’s ship and observed (but could not stop) a delivery of a large supply of Vesten weapons, armor and clothing (extra Vesten-y in fact). They also discovered a badly injured Sir Mandrake in the hold along with evidence that the supplies were going to someone who was planning to attack the MacDuff’s wedding posing as Vesten.
  • Heroes regrouped, shared information, scuttled the bad guy’s ship and set sail for Kirkwall.

Ok, so that lead to the latest session, which we all went into knowing it was the finale. I handed out an extra hero point apiece, because finale. We had a minor logistical problem because the Captain’s sheet was missing. Thankfully we had an old one, and a willingness to fake it, but that was a sour note to start on.

As our heroes sailed to Kirkwall, they encountered a damaged ship sailing for Costa. Wary of an ambush, they took precautions, but this was mostly a chance for me to pass along a warning that ships had been attacked by Vesten wielding lightning.

In Kirkwall, the harbor was filled, with Elaine’s flagship clearly visible (as well as signs of other lightning-damaged ships). The Gates was docked in an out of the way place. They placed Mandrake at church hospital for anonymity, and went to check in with McBride, who was surprised to see them, but brought them up to speed, mostly on things they already knew, including the Vesten lightning raiders, with a sidebar to the Doctor that the current chaos has the fishermen wary, which means the cod futures endeavor is in great danger.

The heroes then proceed to the Palace to see the princess. Along the way they encounter Paolo (the Swordsman’s former pupil, now head of the Princess’s guard) and have some pleasant banter about how horrible the decorations are here and the general Marcher aversion to solid colors. In time Marcela (Princess’s handmaid, spy and friend) ushered them in. There was time before the princess would be free, so Marcela roped in the royal tailors to help the heroes look their best for the wedding. The scene that followed was a fashion montage that ended with each player getting to describe their ideal outfit (which they got because, as Marcela said, she has budget). I suspect this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was super fun.

Eventually that concluded, and they were joined by the princess.1

The heroes told their tale and delivered their warning, and there was a lot of (inconclusive) discussion of who could be behind it to what end. The biggest problem was that this disruption could benefit too many people to really narrow it down, but the three likeliest candidates were Avalon (who want to put the kibosh on the Marches getting friendly with the Vendel league) or the Atabean’s or Vodacce (who want to hurt the League). Avalon was mostly ruled out because the wedding was only happening at Elaine’s insistence, but one can never be entirely sure with Elaine.

The princess asked The Captain to share his concerns about an attack with he MacDuff, who promptly tried to use it as an excuse to postpone the wedding and was shot down hard by Sir Lugh, the queen’s….something. Lugh got a briefing from the Captain afterwards, and arranged to have Sir Mandrake transferred to the embassy.

With the clock ticking down to the Wedding, the heroes checked with Sir Mandrake (who was being guarded by Sir Math, the Brian Blessed knight) who mostly told them things they knew, but did inform them that the enemy had lightning weapons that used some sort of device. This was consistent with something that the Princess had said (that there weren’t enough Vesten stormcallers to actually account for the current problem) and lead to the Heroes wondering if the weapons were using Leviathan oil (which had voltaic properties).

To this end, The Doctor and The Acrobat sought out Doctor Benito, the Vodacce biologist whose theories on the Leviathan’s had been critical to their early adventures. Benito’s lab was a slaughterhouse, isolated from the university under a cloud of perpetual stench, which is why the decaying body of Doctor Benito had probably gone unnoticed. He’d been clearly stabbed in the back, and his things had been thoroughly rifled. The acrobat heard faint movement upstairs and headed up the outside of the building as a fwumph of someone starting a fire was heard. The acrobat pursued a fleeing figure across the rooftops and faced a choice of attacking him blind, or letting him get away but seeing who it was. She chose the latter and watches Giuseppe (A fellow “orphan” of Vodacce, last seen trying to assassinate the princess and ‘clearly’ died in the process)

It was also noted that when the fire fully engulfed the lab, the explosion was electric, and it appeared very much like a massive lightning strike. FORESHADOWING!

The Doctor escaped, and she later tracked down Benito’s students and terrified his notes out of them. This was handy since it gave a decent diagram of what leviathan oil explosives might look like. Meanwhile, the Marcella asks if The Swordsman would be willing to walk the Princess down the aisle, since he is on the short list of people she trusts. He agrees and, being a gentleman, also arranges to smuggle some small fighting axes in so that the princess is better able to take care of herself. He also had a conversation with Paolo about duty, with Paolo asking why he was putting himself at risk for these people he owed nothing to.

The wedding starts the next morning, and the search for explosives has been fruitless – the castle is just too big and they have too few searchers, and there is not enough time. The Doctor continues searching while the others return to attend the wedding. The Captain sits by Sir Math, the Acrobat lurks and the Swordsman walks the princess down the aisle. It’s all quite lovely. The chapel is on the edge of the cliff that looks out over the harbor and the ocean, and it’s all wonderfully picturesque, though perhaps slightly marred if you notice the pained, lovelorn looks that the MacDuff is throwing to Elaine. It is noon on the nose when the couple is pronounced and all hell breaks loose.

Cutting away for the moment, the Doctor has pulled of some economist-savant stuff and traced certain casks of wine to a vineyard financed by an Eisen holding company that was Reece toy bought out by an Avalonian trader who is a front for Macbride. OBVIOUSLY, that’s where the bombs will be, and as she goes to investigate, she finds rather a lot of toughs hanging around that room. She loosens her axe, and goes to “negotiate”.

At roughly the same time, there’s an explosion and the back wall blows in with a crash of thunder and lighting and horn-helmed Vesten rush in. Violence ensues.

So, practically this was one scene, but spent cutting across 4 threads. That was…interesting. It actually worked less well than I’d expected, but it turned out ok. But that split also will make it a little convoluted to explain, so bear with me.

The Swordsman assessed the threat, grabbed the princess (queen, now) and headed out the back. He expected Paolo to follow, but he did not. The swordsman did not stop until he got the new queen to safety, at which point she implored him to return and find Marcela, and he did so.

Meanwhile, The Captain saw that Sir Lugh had ushered Elaine out with great speed, so he and Sir Math turned to face the horde. It was glorious, but at the moment when The Captain called upon his luck, he had a momentary view down to the harbor where he saw MacBride’s ship setting sail, so he did the only thing he could: Had Math throw him.

The Acrobat immediately realized this attack was coming from a stupid direction, and so looked for the hidden thing. She spotted someone watching from the kitchen doors and made a dramatic leap, then slide, throwing her knife as she kicked the door open, and coming to a halt only to realize he knife was buried in Giuseppe’s chest, and with his dying breath he croaks “I was…trying…to…warn you” before hands made of shadow envelop him.

The Doctor’s scene was not described so much as presented as a montage of violence. The Doctor has every brute fighting advantage in the book, and the simple truth is that she walks through them like death incarnate. There is a certain amount of chasing and disarming, but the bomb threat is dealt with efficiently and brutally.

The Acrobat leapt into shadows after Giuseppe, and found herself in darkness. Using sorte threads like a spider, she took her bearings and realized there were two people here (besides Giuseppe), the one who had grabbed him and a not-really-human figure who had apparently noticed her, but said nothing. While on each previous encounter, her enemy in the shadows had an advantage of surprise and position, this time it was more of a fair fight, and it turned out he was not good at those. The Acrobat cut him to ribbons with blade and fate, and as he came to his end he cursed the other figure and demanded aid. It asked if he was requesting his seventh favor, and upon agreement the darkness vanishes. THe inhuman figure he stitched the mans wounds with shadows, smiled at the Acrobat, then walked off through a wall, declaring “Our business is concluded”. The Acrobat finished her job, this time out of pity, for it was clear the shadow stitching was having a fairly horror-movie effect on the man.

Meanwhile, the Captain was being thrown from the docks, which would be utterly preposterous under any other circumstance, but at this moment had the strongest knight of Avalon doing the Throwing and the toughest knight of Avalon being thrown. And even so, it depended on a liberal interpretation of some glamours, but that’s what finale’s are for. Having crashed into the docks, The Captain was a walking dead man, with bones poking out and things at odd angles as he walked onto the deck of The Gates and started barking orders. I could pretend it was a dramatic fight, but it was a hardy privateer vessel vs a fat, fleeing merchantman. The Gates got off a broadside before Macbride even ran out the guns, and the ensuing explosion(full of lightning as it was) badly damaged The Gates as it washed over it. When the smoke cleared, The Captain was nowhere to be seen.

When The Swordsman returned to the chapel, the fight was still in progress. The MacDuff had not fled, but was surrounded by his men – or mostly surrounded. The ones in front of him were engaged with the faux Vesten, but the ones behind him had been quietly cut down, and the assassin was advancing on the MacDuff’s exposed back. It was, of course, Paolo.

The Swordsman knocked the blade aside, and Paolo’s face is that of a crushed man, as they engaged. After a few exchanges, Paolo cursed and asked why the damn fool old man had not left. The fight grew more brutal, and when MacDuff and his men finally turned and noticed what had happened, Paolo was dead on the floor with a sword of the Hierophant’s Guard left in his body, and The Swordsman nowhere to be found.

So, the queen was saved. The assassins were not in position to silence any surviving Vesten, so the conspiracy was unwound. MacBride was scattered across the trade sea in pieces. So we cut to a few scenes of aftermath.

The first was a funeral. A statue of the Captain had gone up above his Cenotaph, with the remaining heroes and allies in attendance. There is much mourning, save from the Fate Witch who was The Captain’s first love of the game, who is beatific.

The second is a rooftop farewell between Marcella and The Acrobat, who is returning to Vodacce to finish the Orphanage once and for all. There is a fleeting kiss, then a whoosh.

The third is of the Guildhall in Vesten. The Doctor (who quite shamelessly took advantage of the disruption of MacBride’s death) is taking her seat on the council.

Roll Credits.

Of course, there’s a stinger. Halfway through the credits, we cut back to the Captain’s statue, then pull back to see a figure standing before it. We pull back a little bit further and realize the figure is urinating on the cenotaph. He finishes, turns and the Captain adjusts his hat and strides back towards the sea.

Continue Credits.

Final scene pans over a monastery on the mountains between Castille and Montaigne. A lone figure is walking up the long stairs up the mountains. He carries no sword, and his clothes are simple, but we recognize him as the Swordsman before he steps through the gates, and the screen fades to black.

And done2.

It was a fun campaign. We’ll be doing Blades in the Dark next (the Swordsman’s player will be GMing), so I’m now turning over my experience with the game in my head. I am, I fear, dwelling more on the rough edges than on the parts that worked well. That’s no reflection on the game, just the way my brain works.

All in all, the flavor was right. This absolutely supported a swashbuckling game where the heroes were not just second bananas to the real movers and shakers of the setting. It still allowed space for powerful and important NPCs, but did so without demanding that the players need to be shackled by it. That alone makes for 80% win.

So the difficulties in the remaining 20% are irksome, but not a real problem. I’ll be frank, even after running it, I feel like there’s still something I don’t get about the system. There’s a flow and cadence to the Raise system which is amazing when the situation lines up, but feels off when it does not (and it is usually off). This is more frustrating that it would be because it feels Iike the solution is just around the corner – that just a bit of tuning would nail it down.

I dunno. The problem may be me. Maybe I’ll watch some actual play and see.

Beyond that I will say that I was not satisfied with the Hero Point economy. The system is full of hooks where it’s theoretically possible for players to earn more Hero Points, but they all felt a little bit too fiddly for me. I am, obviously, a big proponent of point economies, so there was no hesitation on my part.

Ironically, I think the answer to all of this is to think of this as an anti-indie game. A lot of these problems go away (or diminish) if I decide to take a much looser view of the rules and apply much stronger fiat. And that would make for a pretty good game. But I’ve been trying to play more “by the book” to push myself out of my comfort zones, and maybe this was not the right game to do that with.

Which is, I note, not a criticism. If the game is better suited to a strong, entertaining GM (which, I should note, definitely aligns with Wick’s advice) with the rules as guidelines, then that’s great, and the only issue is communicating that.

Anyway, I’m glad I ran this. It was a fun campaign and a return to a game I love. But I’m also glad to be taking a break. It’ll give time for the line to mature (we have so many wonderful maps yet to come) and I’ll be curious to see what it looks like when the whole world is spread out before us.

  1. This was a fun scene because both NPCs are serious folks in a serious situation, but the heroes are people they can actually relax in front of, and that was obvious in their interactions. This is a small thing, but I really like it when NPC interactions can convey those notes of actual friendship – it goes a long way towards letting the NPCs be competent and important but not overshadow the heroes, because that’s your bud, and their success is in some way your success. ↩︎
  2. That is, I should not, entirely how we played it. As a table, we’re comfortable with switching to cinematic language to describe play, sometimes very literally. ↩︎

The Captain’s Wheel

First and foremost, I want to make something clear: this is an idea from John Harper’s Blades in the Dark, the clock mechanic, which I am adapting to 7th Sea. I take zero credit for any of this, and all blame for it’s awkwardness. I absolutely encourage looking to the source material for further insight.

With that in mind, here we go.

The Captain’s Wheel

When the GM encounters a situation which requires a little bit more range than a simple yes or no, then she can do the following:

  1. Grab a post it or index card

    Making it a wheel lets me draw it with stubs!

  2. Draw a circle on it (the eponymous wheel)
  3. Divide that circle into any number of wedges. 4 is the default, but really, 2, 4, 6 or 8 are all fine (or even odd numbers if that suits you).
  4. Write down a word or two describe what’s being tracked.
  5. Whenever something happens in play to move towards the outcome being tracked, fill in a wedge on the wheel. Sometimes, things will fill in more than one wedge.
  6. When the wheel is completely filled in, something happens!

Sounds simple, because it is. Consider this example:

We’ve done two suspicious things, but so far he hasn’t caught on

Players are guests in the court of Elaine, but are also secretly spying for Montaigne. Elaine’s spymaster is on the alert, but not yet suspicious.

The GM draws a 6 wedge wheel to represent the awareness of the spymaster. When the heroes do things that might raise suspicion (even if it does not point directly at them), the GM fills in a wedge. On individual rolls, the GM may offer the prospect of filling in wedges as potential consequences that need to be offset. If the wheel ever fills in, the Spymaster realizes that there are spies around and the whole palace goes into lockdown.)

This offers a few interesting tools to the table1:

  • As a GM, it gives me an extra handle for consequences on a given roll. That is super valuable to me.
  • This scales up and down easily. I can have a wheel in a scene for whether the room catches fire just as easily as I can have a wheel on my campaign for when Posen finishes preparing for war. Wedges can be filled by a raise, by an action, by a scene or by and entire session.
  • It lets me address those situations where my gut feels like allowing something for one raise is too much, but I don’t want to just say no.
  • Because there’s a physical reminder of the wheel on the table, it remains something easy to engage. A quick glance can reveal what’s in play, and serve as its own sort of bookkeeping.

Anyway, I offer this as a convenience for anyone looking to solve the same problems I intend to use it for.

  1. I admit, I may also use this notation for advancement, but that’s just a personal thing.) ↩︎

Blades in the Dark

Cover of the RPG: Blades in the Dark. Title over a hooded man holding a knifeFirst, the caveats:

  1. Evil Hat published Blades in the Dark so technically I have an interest in its success. I was, however, entirely uninvolved in its production and approach this purely as a fan.
  2. And a fan I am. I backed the kickstarter for the Deluxe Edition (well before Evil Hat became involved) more or less sight unseen purely because John Harper is one of the most exciting RPG designers out there. That Blades also hit all the right notes for me regarding genre and tone was a nice bonus.

Not looking to hide either of those things, and if you feel they matter, then absolutely take them into account as you read.

The Game

Blades In The Dark is a roleplaying game by John Harper, author of Lady Backbird, Agon, World of Dungeons and a ton of other great stuff. It is a game for playing “…a crew of daring scoundrels seeking their fortunes on the haunted streets of an industrial fantasy city”. Genre touchpoints include things like The Lies of Locke Lamora and the Dishonored series of video games, as well as a broader net of gritty crime drama and adventure. I’m a great fan of the crime end of things, and I’ve enjoyed the hell out of Dishonored, so this seemed pretty much in the pocket for me.

The physical product is noteworthy because it’s darkly lovely. A 6×9 book with a physical profile similar to Evil Hat’s Fate Core, it’s largely matte, in blacks and grays with a little accent. It looks great, but of particular note is the application of gloss. As noted, the cover is matte, excepting the title, and the edge of the blades held by the figure on the cover. It’s a wonderful effect – at the right angle, the blades glint dramatically, and it’s pretty cool.

It’s a cool, quirky detail, but it’s in keeping with the rest of the book, where attention to detail is evident in every page. The art is consistent and flavorful, yes, but that’s just the start. See, Harper did the writing, art, layout and cartography, and the result is something where every piece just works to reinforce the whole (this combination of talents is something he has brought to past projects, and one of the reasons I’m such a fan).

It also makes it a very functional layout, albeit with some tradeoffs. It is very clear what section you’re in, and information is frequently presented, then presented again in a more digestible format. Everything is organized according to its own internal logic, and once you get that, finding things isn’t too hard, but there’s a learning curve. The flip side is that it’s much easier to absorb on a read-through than to reference, and that was probably the right call for this particular book.

Specifically, it is the right call because the text is opinionated and precise. There is a lot of terminology in this, applied consistently an clearly. New terminology is par for course for RPGs, but Blades does not rely on existing traditions, even for seemingly ubiquitous ideas like difficulty or injury. A roll, for example, has position and effect (which is not the outcome) which may account for potency, tier and scale. It all makes sense when you lay it out, but until you internalize what those map to, there’s a lot of time spent reading rules that refer to one or another and stopping for mental alignment (and thanking goodness that the index is well put together).

I don’t think it’s onerous, but it’s sufficiently specific that choosing a layout focused on teaching was the right call. Learning the language of Blades seems critical to the process of actually playing it.

Anyway, we’re drifting towards content, so let’s shift gears. We’ve got a 327 page book, with about 80-odd pages of setting information about the city of Duskvol in the back. Normal math might suggest that it’s proceeded by about almost 250 pages of rules, but that’s not quite right. There definitely are a lot of rules in that 250 pages, but there’s also a ton of setting information (both implicit and explicit) which makes it hard to peel them apart casually.1

The Basics

The first section introduces the game, and is about 50 pages of introduction and explanation of core mechanical concepts. It is a delight. The introduction is an impressively clear and friendly expression if intent that does not come across as marketing copy. The rules themselves are…well, not to put too fine a point on it, the rules are great. I could not go two pages in this chapter without getting excited about how some particular thing was done.

So I’m going to really zoom in here, because that’s how I’m wired. Consider yourself warned.

The core die mechanic is simple but nuanced – roll some number of D6s, and (usually) check the result of the highest one. 1-3 means things went crappy. 4-5 means success with complications. 6 means a success, and if you got any other 6s, it’s a critical success.

Seems simple enough, but here’s why this is exciting:

  • Simple is good. I would not feel daunted explaining this to an 8 year old, much less a convention table.
  • It’s a die pool system, which has lots of design advantages (because it supports a lot of additions/inputs for mechanical hooks) but because it’s just the best die being read, it removes the math, counting or calculation that can slow down die pools
  • As a die pool system, you can aggressively swap out the means by which you determine the pools. Blades uses its skills (sorry, action ratings) to determine how many dice you roll but it could just as easily be Over the Edge descriptors or FAE approaches or nearly anything else that produces a number from ~0-4.
  • It privileges success with complications (an idea familiar to Talislanta and Apocalypse World fans) very interestingly. I need to do up some graphs to truly show this off, but the weight of results is such that you start being likely to get a success very quickly, and you never really leave the likelihood too far behind, no matter how big your pool gets.
  • Support of criticals is a small thing, but important for helping players feel awesome. Making crits a first class citizen of results communicates that the game is a fan of the players.
  • This has the benefits of the generalized Apocalypse World model without the structure that is its hallmark. If one thinks this is a bug, there are plenty of other games to use, but for GMs who have delighted in the framework, but wanted it a bit more generalized, this is delicious.

So, yeah, that works. The next section is a brief summary of the structure of play, which is broken into free play, the score and downtime. There’s a nice graphic, but it’s probably a little bit too short an explanation and it’s not really made clear until later on (and at this point I’m still not 100% clear where Free Play really fits, except in the edges). Reading this planted in me a concern that play would be over-structured, so that worry sat in my back pocket as I continued.

It then shifts back to mechanics, talking about how dice pools are built. Practically, it’s simple – pick a it’s-not-a-skill-it’s-an-action-rating2 like Command or Prowl and roll a number of dice equal to the dots you have.

And yes, dots. Technically, it’s a numeric rating from 0-4, but White Wolf taught us all that dots are just more fun, so I’m all for it. Plus, the use of dots allows for a really clever hack for attributes that is mostly visual. Bear with me for a second: there are 15 12 action ratings and 3 attributes (insight, prowess and resolve) and each attribute has 4 action ratings under it. However, the attributes don’t have independent values – instead their value is derived from the number of action ratings you have a score in. Which means that if I stack those 5 action ratings, then my attribute is equal to the dots filled in in the first column of dots.

Weird to explain, but easy to illustrate:

Illustration of the attrubutes idea I just described

Clipped right from the book


Next section is on stress and trauma. Stress is really interesting because it’s definitely not hit points, but also, it’s kind of hit points.

Confusing? A little, but it seems to boil down to this:

  • Stress is a pool of points
  • Those points can be spent for some effects, like pushing a roll (for more dice or better effect)
  • When something bad happens to the character, the player can say “No” and spend some stress.
  • The amount of stress spent to say no depends on the result of a “resistance roll” (which uses one of your attributes)

I make the comparison to hit points because in a simpler game (that is, once where consequences were all injury) that’s more or less what they would be. An ablative layer of points which you burn through rather than take consequences. But I do not say that as a criticism, rather as profound praise. Turning hit points into spendable currency is a fantastic twist, and paired with abstracting them out as general purpose consequence avoidance (rather than just faux-injury tracking) is an incredibly powerful one-two punch. This is an amazing idea.

Trauma is what kicks in when you burn through all your stress – you pick up a trauma (there’s a list of options) and it’s a permanent part of your character now. Pick up four traumas and it’s time to retire the character. This is interesting, but it gets a little more curious when we get around to discussing injury, later on.

The next section is on progress clocks. Structurally, they’re similar to Apocalypse World‘s Shot Clocks, but as with other AW rules in Blades, they’re made a bit more multi-purpose. In short, any time something that comes up that you might want to track progress against (the alert level of the duke’s mansion, your attempt to rebuild your dead spouse, how pissed off a rival gang is, etc.), you draw a circle and divide it into wedges. How you check them off depends on the situation, but generally when they fill in something happens. There’s some explanation of tricks you can do with different clock types, but it’s just a progress tracker, right?

Well, yes and no.

See, this is one of those ideas that is really easy to get, but whose expression has always been a mess. We tried something similar in Fate 2e, and I loved it, found it clever and useful, and discovered that it was stupidly complicated to actually explain to people. Harper has taken this idea and refined the language and presentation to the point where it is obvious, so obvious that it does not seem like it is even worth noting. And that right there, that is some goddamned craftstmanship.

So, yeah, this is good tech. And it fits tidily on an index card, so that absolutely suits my GMing sensibilities.

Next section is where we get into the guts of rolling the dice to do stuff. This is both familiar and curious, so let’s step through the process:

  1. Player states what they’re trying to do, and which action rating they’re using to do it. There can be some discussion and negotiation around this, but it’s generally skill picking as we know it.
  2. The GM chooses the position for the roll, which is kind of like difficulty, but also kind of not. By default, rolls are “Risky” but they may be “Controlled” (if the situation is well in hand) or “Desperate” (if they’re very much not)
  3. The GM also chooses the effect level of the roll, which is sort of a dial for how effective the course of action being taken is. Default to standard, but might be great (if you’re using the right tool for the job) or limited (if you are using the right tool for the wrong job). Narratively this might mean a number of things, but mechanically it translated to how many ticks a success will generate.
  4. A dance is done to see if the player has bonus dice. We’ll deal with that separately.
  5. Dice are rolled. This is where we do the “Pick the best one, check 1-3/4-5/6/6+.”

Now, there are 3 separate results tables (based on position) and while they all largely conform to “1-3 is failure, 6 is success, 4-5 is mixed success”, they differ in the details. Specifically, the consequences of failure or mixes success are lighter for a controlled roll than they are for a risky roll, which are lighter than they are for a desperate roll.

I like two things about this. First, it adds an element of nuance to the signaling behind a die roll. Going to the dice is a signifier to the player that things are going down, and PBTA games are really good are supporting that communication, but they do so in a very blunt fashion. Allowing a little more sophistication tunes the message. “We’re going to the dice, but things have not escalated yet” (or the inverse) for example can be a useful message. These tools gives a better handle for things like rising and falling tension.

Second: There’s an built-in escalation model that I really like. Among the possible consequences for a 1-3 result is “Try again from a worse position”. That is, if you fail a roll under controlled circumstance, you falter, and if you want to press on, it will be risky. If that risky roll fails, you’ll pay a price, but may still make a desperate attempt. This is a small thing, but it means that it transforms failure from an end state to a transition(possibly with consequences) and, specifically it does it in alignment with how I’ve seen players actually act at the table. How do I mean? In my experience, when players are invested in a situation an encounter a failure, the usual (and best) response is “Ok, what else?”. Supporting this warms my heart (and, in fact, one subtle advantage of controlled rolls is that re-trying is easier).

Now, note here that this is a player roll. The GM does not roll for NPCs, so NPC opposition is implicit in the roll, and figures heavily in the implicit consequences of a failure or mixed result. Not a huge detail, but worth noting.

So, once you have rolled, it generates an effect. Remember that the GM set the effect level before the roll, and while mechanically that may mean it’s “Great”, “Standard” or “Limited” what it hopefully means in practice is that the GM has set expectations for what success looks like. This may seem like a small thing, but it can be a critical point of disconnect, and it’s very reasonable to make it explicit.

It also is going to be a hard rule to follow. I fully cop to often deciding on the effectiveness of a roll after the roll has been made, and that is not going to fly here. Treating a 4-5 as less of a success than a 6 is an easy trap to fall into (especially if you’re still thinking in PBTA terms) but it’s explicitly at odds with the intent of the rules as presented.

I should add, I am willing to improve my own behavior because I like this a lot. Success + Consequence is a different genre of play than Partial Success, and specifically, partial success has a bad habit of forcing players to walk back from their expectations of the fiction in favor of sometimes arbitrary compromises. Not every player will prefer cost over compromise, and that’s fine, but I know my tastes go that way.

Anyway, I will say the language around effect is a little awkward. It standardizes the usual factors that might impact effect as potency, quality/tier(tier being like quality for an organization) and scale. Making those keywords and applying them in a simple fashion seems very practical, and there’s actually a heartwarming table of these factors towards the backfire anyone who wants to really dive into them. However, they’re not really called keywords, so I’m not 100% sure how to talk about them as a category. Small thing.

Lastly, we get some mention of consequences (injury, etc) but that’s in another section.

More critically, now that we’ve gotten to the end, I want to step back to a really interesting subsystem here, which is how to get extra dice. There are, modulo special abilities and whatnot, three ways to do it.

First, if an ally wants to help, they take one stress, describe how they help3, and you get a +1d.

Second, if you just want to burn resources, you can spend 2 stress to push yourself and gain a die.

Third, and most interesting, you can accept a Devil’s Bargain. You can’t do this and also push yourself, so there are some limits, but the mechanic is simple: Someone (GM or player) proposes some way in which things might get worse. It might be mechanical (spend a resource, get hurt, tick up a clock) or it might be part of the fiction (Collateral damage, anger an NPC) but whatever it is, it has an edge to it. The player is not obliged to accept the bargain, but if they do, it becomes true (however the roll goes) and they get an extra die on the roll.

I kind of love the devil’s bargain mechanic. It serves a very similar role to Fate’s compels, but in a rather more free form fashion, and that is right up my alley. And with the opportunity for player input and the decision in the acting player’s hands, this is is a well constructed rule for maximum fun opportunities and minimal headaches.

But there’s also an interesting nuance to this. Something I haven’t mentioned is that if you have zero dice to roll, then you roll 2 dice and use the lower one. Painful, but easily mitigated because even a small pool is powerful. Later on, the text notes that 2 dice (not-coincidentally the number you can get from help plus pushing yourself or taking a bargain) has a 75% chance of getting at least a complicated success. This is presented as a supporter of character competence, and that’s true as far as it goes, but I think it has a more subtle knock on effect – it reduces the social friction of having and using skills at zero, which creates more situations where Devil’s Bargains become appealing. It is, frankly, a little bit sinister, and I applaud it soundly.

Ok, let’s hop back out of the sidebar and into the land of consequences and harm.

Ok, so you blow a roll or something goes wrong, and you take a consequence (maybe more than one). Straightforward enough. Broadly, those consequences might be reflects as reduced effect, complication, lost opportunity, worse position or harm (these are actual in game categories).

This seems simple and intuitive, and it can be, but there’s actually a fully engineered solution that lies underneath them which merits unpacking.

I actually had an interesting time really digging into this section because at first blush it seemed obvious, then puzzling, then obvious, then contradictory, then maybe clear. I’ll spare you the steps of my puzzlement, and lay things bare.

The consequences rules have an unclear relationship to success and failure. This is because some consequences either expressly imply failure (lost opportunity, worse position) or allow the negation of success through the situation (reduced effect, complication4). This would make sense if the implied failures all came up on 1-3 and the potential negation were 4-5 (though that introduces a different problem), but it’s not quite that clean.

Lost Opportunity only ever comes up on a 1-3, so no problems there. Complication can always come up, so that’s fine too. Worse Position is more muddled, since that happens in 1-3 and 4-5. The Consequences rules talk worse position in terms of failure, but if I read the tea leaves on the outcome chart, I think that’s not the intent. It seems like 1-3 is “You failed, things are getting worse, you can try again from worse footing” and 4-5 is maybe “You succeed but are now in a worse situation”. But I’m genuinely not sure.

Reduced Effect makes me most nervous. I get the intent, but if I’m trying to play it strictly as written, it can retroactively undercut the idea that a 4-5 is a “real” success, and that would in turn undercut a lot of the foundation of character competency. I get why it’s there: there are plenty of times that reduced effect is the right result, and can be done without negation, but that takes a deft hand, or at least a little experience. Thankfully, it’s not hard experience to come by, but this is such a broad outcome, I wish it had gotten unpacked a little more.

Harm is always an option, but that is it’s own kettle of fish. It comes in 4 flavors, lesser, moderate, severe and fatal. The character has 5 text fields (2 lesser, 2 moderate, 1 severe) and as they’re hurt, they write down the injury in the appropriate slot for the harm. If no slots are available, it rolls up to the next category (and if you roll up from severe, then it’s death or permanent injury time). Characters suffer penalties based on the description of their injury and the level of the harm.

Notably, while I’m speaking exclusively in terms of injury, this is actually a fairly broad system, and harm could just as easily be fatigue or emotional trauma. It’s solid and utilitarian.

Where it gets interesting is in how you avoid it.

When the GM drops a consequence on your character, you can choose to resist it. You roll the appropriate attribute for the situation, then spend 6 stress, minus the highest die result. Importantly, this usually does not negate the consequence, but it reduces it in severity (so a fatal consequence might become severe). However, in some situations it might just negate it entirely. There’s a note at this point which calls out that this is a very important point for genre and tone  – the more things that resistance rolls can avoid entirely, the less gritty the game shall be.

Armor, because there is always armor, has checkboxes (one or two) and you can mark them to automatically resist without spending stress. In a weird twist, though you can only roll against a given consequence once, if you’re wearing heavy armor, you can mark it twice to do a double-reduction.

All of which leads us to death. Get hurt too bad and die, and you can either create a new character or pick up the Ghost playbook and continue. I admit, I can’t wait to see how that works.

From this point on, we’re largely dealing with outliers and one-offs, so apologies if this seems disjointed.

  • Fortune Roll – The fortune roll is a mechanic I welcome – it’s a mechanization of the time honored GM tactic of “I have no vested interest in how this goes, let’s see what the dice say”. It’s useful for resolving matters offscreen, handling weird situations and as an all purpose resolution to edge cases. If this rule didn’t exist, I’d be using some version of it anyway, so I’m all for it.
  • Information management – It’s not actually called that – the section is technically “Gathering Information”, and it’s a description of how skills can be used for data gathering (and most skills can be used that way, Feng Shui style).  It’s also important as it explicitly expresses the philosophy of information – in this case that it largely falls under the auspices of the dice. That may not seem strange, but if you’re coming to Blades from a wide background of games, it’s good to make sure that’s clear rather than leave people wondering if they’re supposed to Gumshoe it up.
  • Example of Play – This is weirdly placed. We’re not really done the basics yet, nor are we at any clear transition. It’s a good example, but I honestly had to come back to it later after I’d internalized more of the book and terminology.
  • PVP – Not a lot of mechanical differentiation for PVP, but a lot of social consideration. Big emphasis on clear communication and keeping the in character conflict from spilling out of character, and I kind of applaud that, even if the actual resolution is a bit ad hoc.
  • Money Abstracted wealth, represented as coin, with one coin being about a week’s wages. There are some rules about how much coin you can practically keep lying around, and they seem a little arbitrary, but their purpose is to (effectively) drive players to put money in their “Stash”, the rating that determines lifestyle quality and your fate upon retirement. However, coin also gets spent on a lot of other stuff, so I’m curious how this actually plays out.

Going to break out of bullets for  The Faction Game – this section is a little weird, and only really gels as you see some of the later rules and examples. Still, the basic idea is simple enough: A faction is a group (usually a gang) and it has stats including Tier (general size & quality), Hold (whether it’s position si strong or weak), Rep (Effectively XP/currency for development) and Turf (territory you own). It also may have Status (from -3 to +3) with other factions, indicating their relationship.

Factions also have claims, which are bits of “territory” they control (and are sometimes turf, but also sometimes not). This is a little wacky because there’s a map of potential claims that is reminiscent of the advancement tree from a JRPG. A group starts with a Lair and can try to seize an adjacent claim, then once that is seized, the number of adjacent claim’s has increased.

At first blush, it was confusing to read. The example map both clarifies the idea but also leaves me a little confused on how it’s supposed to apply on my table. Thankfully, a lot of this stuff gets unpacked later on, but I had to bookmark section as something to come back to later.

FInally, we end with Advancement. Short form – gain XP in play, during downtime by training, or at the end of session by checklign a checklist of things like your drives, issues etc.. XP is marked on tracks…of some kind, which gets advances…at some point. As might be made clear by my confusion, this is one of those areas where there rules are not actually in the book but require that you have the PDF of playbooks on hand. I admit – I kind of hate that.

Interestingly, there is also group XP – the crew has its own XP track and advances similarly.

Ok, you can stop and maybe get a beverage. We’ve gotten through the basic rules, and that’s going to be the densest part of this. Not that the rest isn’t interesting, but this section is where I really nerded out. From here on out, it should be clear sailing.


The chapter starts with a note about how skills at 0 is not that big a deal due to the ease in building a pool. It’s a good reminder. From there, we get into actual chargen – it’s a playbook system , and the 7 playbooks are Cutter (melee violence), Hound (range & tracking), Leech (achemist/gadgeteer), Lurk (sneaky), Slide(face/grifter), Spider (mastermind) and Whisper(magic and weirdness). The language is delightfully flavorful – these are all terms that can work well in conversation – and support the idea that all characters are scoundrels.

There is some explanation about how these are playbooks, and they’re totally not classes, and I’m a little skeptical of that since it’s predicated on some very specific definitions, but that’s all well and good.

Once you pick your playbook, you then pick a heritage (non-generic nationality, because these are all setting explicit) and background (what you did before). These are potential hooks for generating XP, and they’re supposed to influence your point spend, but they don’t carry much mechanical weight beyond that..

Next up, assign some points (4 points, in addition to the 3 that are pre-bought by your playbook), and pick your first ability from your playbook. In a nice touch, the first ability on each playbook is solid default choice for the uncertain.

After that, choose one close friend and one rival (from the list on your playbook), your vice and vice purveyor, then fill in details like name, alias and look (all framed in a fairly PBTA fashion, but pleasantly decoupled from the actual playbooks).

One nice touch about pulling from a fixed set of NPCs is that the names will see re-use from story to story. Marlene, the pugilist is going to show up in many games, and it will be very interesting to see what similarities and differences emerge from game to game and which NPCs groups start to feel are iconic in what ways. Similar benefits come from naming the vice purveyors.

The rules for equipment (“Loadout”) are kind of slipped in after the chargen summary, and they’re worth noting because starting gear (listed in your playbook) is not what you have, but rather what you have access to. The number of items that you carry around translates into a loose encumbrance system, but the critical piece here is that it is expected that characters will be swapping out their loads from situation to situation. I like the looseness of this, but I especially like that it keeps equipment important while still removing the shopping trip from chargen.

After this we get a deeper breakdown of the different actions (aka not-skills) before diving into the individual playbooks.

The Cutter

  • Get XP when you address a challenge with violence or coercion, which is to say I presume these guys are XP fountains
  • There is an option for ghost punching. I do not understand why it is not the default. Because ghost punching.
  • Lot of good abilities for leading a group in combat. There’s stuff for personal badass, yes, but it’s an interesting emphasis.
  • You have the option of carrying a heavier weapon, which is interesting in that it has no explicit mechanical impact so much as it grants implicit permission to have an advantage in the right circumstance. Seems fuzzy, and I’m not sure if that’s incredibly potent, or less than useful.
  • They can also dose from a rage essence vial, effectively going berserk. As with the heavy weapon, this has no explicit effect, only the expectation that the GM will modify position and effect. Genuinely unsure how I feel about that – it’s flexible and narrative, but also a little handwavey


  • XP when you address a challenge with tracking or violence, which seems like it should pay off decently.
  • This is a curious archetype because if I were to describe this in a non-gamer fashion, it would absolutely have a stealth component (since this is implicitly the sniper) but because that’s the domain of the Lurk, it seems to tiptoe around that a little. The Scout ability has some of it, but I suspect there’s a reason it’s not the default.
  • One ability gives +1 stress box, and I have no idea how that interacts with the still imaginary character sheet
  • Lots of abilities about being tough, which I admit I did not see as part of this concept, but I guess it matches if I think ranger-y thoughts
  • You get a pet!


  • Get XP when you address a challenge with technical skills or mayhem. I take back what I said about cutters – this has got to be a bottomless font of XP for a certain type of player.
  • I’m actually a little curious how this one works because a lot of different ideas are under one roof here since it’s medicine, alchemy, gadgets and demolitions all in one.
  • Unsurprisingly, lots of crafting abilities. Haven’t gotten to those rules yet, so hard to judge.
  • Physicker (the I’m a Doctor, dammit) ability also squeezes in some first aid rules in the fine print.
  • You get a bandolier of flasks that you can throw to do stuff, so that’s fun.


  • So a comment on twitter indicated to me that no one picks this playbook, so I’m now doubly curious.
  • Gain XP when you address a challenge with stealth or evasion – well, that might be part of it. Those are both situational enough that I don’t see them as quite the fountain of XP as some others.
  • I think part of the rub may also be that the default ability, Infiltrator, lets you ignore quality or tier when bypassing security measures. That ability makes total sense in a mechanical sort of way, but it feels kind of boring. The effect is in the GM’s hands, so it’s a bit of a black box, and there’s a lot less player-contact than even something as simple as a +1d. Worse, it also depends on the GM providing a specific sort of opposition, in which case the reward is that it’s no worse than normal.
  • Similarly the Reflexes ability (whenever there’s a question, you act first) is something that sounds cool, but I genuinely don’t know how often it comes up.
  • Also, it probably doesn’t help that the Hound gets the sniper stuff.
  • But you do get to turn into a living shadow at a cost of substantial stress, so that’s cool.


  • Ok, I tend towards the grifter or mastermind, so I’m definitely eyeing this one with an eye towards whether I’d play it.
  • Gain XP when you address a challenge with deception or influence – Hrm. Ok, less bountiful than violence and mayhem, but still doable.
  • Ok, some of these are awesome. Tell when someone is lying to you? Cloud minds like the shadow? Bonus money? Resist consequences from suspicion & persuasion? Yeah, I’d have a hard time choosing.
  • Plus your equipment includes a disguise kit, loaded gambling gear and a swanky outfit.
  • Yeah, this playbook is made of awesome.


  • The other playbook I eye for myself
  • Gain XP when you address a challenge with calculation or conspiracy – ok, that should payoff well.
  • Default ability is to assist without paying stress twice per session. That is concrete and valuable in a way that’s hard to pass up.
  • Damn, these abilities are awesome, with especial Nathan Ford props for “Functioning Vice” As with the Slide, these would be hard to choose between.
  • Awesome


  • Most curious about this one because it implicitly tells us a lot about what magic means in the setting.
  • Earn XP when you address a challenge with knowledge or arcane power – hard to judge this one until we know more about what arcane power looks like.
  • So, the first ability allows you to compel a ghost, but it does depend on there being a ghost to compel and you might need to roll to find one. Feels a bit thin.
  • Having read to the end of this, I feel no closer to being able to judge it than when I started. Some of this is because details depend on other sections of the book, some of it is because a lot of stuff seems to rely on things outside the player’s sphere. But I may also be reading it entirely wrong, and later sections will make it clear. Dunno.

We wrap up with general equipment (available to everyone) and a very nice point that the Devil’s Bargain mechanic is a great way to handle a lot of the fiddly belts about gear.

The Crew

Ok, this is some hot stuff. Building a common resource is always fun, and making your group’s crew looks super promising in that regard. Delightfully, the crews also follow a playbook model (with the playbooks being Assassins, Bravos, Cult5, Hawkers, Shadows & Smugglers).

To make a crew, the group picks a playbook and sets initial stats for the crew (tier 0, strong hold, 0 rep, 2 coin) and pick a reputation and a lair. Reputation is an XP engine, and the lair is pretty freeform, with the expectation that the players will tie it to the city map.

The group also establishes the crew’s “Hunting grounds”, the are they operate in, and establish a little bit of history regarding how they got it and who they got it from. The crew gets bonuses for operating within their hunting ground, and it can expand in time. Somewhat confusingly, the hunting ground is not a claim, though it is related to turf.

You then go to the playbook and pick a special ability and two crew upgrades. One kind of fun tweak to upgrades – every time you take an upgrade, you pick a faction that helped you and one that got screwed, and update your status with both. It’s a lovely little rule that keeps things dynamic.

Lastly, pick a favorite contact for the crew. As with the named NPCs on the character playbooks, this is going to make for fun continuity.

Worked in here are rules for cohorts, which is to say followers, notably gangs and experts. Not every crew starts with cohorts, but they’re an option. Cohorts have a type (an area of expertise) and a quality rank based on the crew’s tier. In addition, gangs have scale and Experts have edges and flaws. There are rules for using cohorts, rolling dice, harming and killing them, and it all seems pretty straightforward.

The specific choices of each playbook are in the book themselves, including the map that the group uses for claims. I admit, that’s both cool and weird – cool because it’s stylistic, weird because I would have expected the map to be based on the setting, but so long as I view it as an XP system, it works. Notably, each playbook also includes a list of job seeds as opportunities.


  • Earn XP with successful accidents, disappearances, murder or ransoms.
  • Upgrades include more tools and general deadliness


  • Earn XP with successful battle, extortions, sabotage or smash & grab
  • More gear, prison contacts, and general toughness


  • Earn XP for advancing the agenda of your deity or embody its precepts. I suspect that requires some serious unpacking at the table.
  • Upgrades are dull, but abilities include things like secret communication and making Worship a vice.


  • Gain XP when acquiring new product supply, executing clandestine or covert sales, or secure new sales territory
  • Curiously, I suspect this requires almost as much setup as a cult, since you are effectively declaring a subset of the economy.
  • Some interesting abilities, including an ability to turn good relationships into turf, or buy and sell with ghosts.
  • This is definitely an option that gets more interesting the closer you look at it.


  • This is probably the closest thing to a “default” choice, since it’s, well, thieves.
  • Gain XP when you execute a burglary, espionage, robbery or sabotage attempt. Yeah. Default.
  • I can’t really point to any one ability as signature, but they’re all really solid. This is definitely a good default.


  • Earn XP when you execute a smuggling operation or acquire new clients or contraband sources.
  • BTW, may I note how much I appreciate that the crew XP hooks are also adventure creation prompts?
  • Some of these abilities (I’m looking at you, Ghost Passage) are vibrant enough to be group-defining.
  • Curious, every other Crew’s default ability is the “+1 to 3 action ratings” one, but for smugglers, it defaults to making your vehicle more interesting. I totally dig that conceptually (Firefly, Star Wars, all that jazz) but I am less than sure what sort of vehicles make sense in this context. Hopefully, setting info will make it clearer (Note from later: Nope).
  • Very nice that the plot list is supplemented by a long list of potential contraband (and a parenthetical about why it’s contraband)

The Score

This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s the Job. Maybe to steal something valuable. Maybe to smuggle an aristocrat out of the city. Maybe it’s seizing new territory. Whatever the case, there’s a plan, engagement and flashbacks.

Tellingly, the rules actually consider planning and engagement to me one step because this is a no-plan system. Once you’ve picked a target (which happens before this process starts) you pick the type of plan (Assault, deception, transport etc.) and answer one broad question about it, providing the missing detail (like, “what is the point of infiltration?”). Players pick their loadout, then go.

Yes, there is a distinct lack of planning in that planning. This is intentional.

Play start with an engagement roll, which is really a framing device to answer the question “as we join our heroes at the start of their caper, how are things going?”. It’s a straightforward mechanic and it’s designed to go to action as quickly as possible.

From there, the action is supported by a profoundly robust flashback mechanic. It is expected that everything that would normally be handled by planning is instead handled in flashback. If there’s some question as to how likely the flashback is, the GM can opt to charge some stress for it, but by and large the players can backfill like mad.

This is pretty cool. Upgrading flashbacks from a cool option to the default behavior is pretty bold, but I think it works. And as a player who actually likes the planning part of planning, I’m willing to sacrifice it if this works as smoothly as it looks.

All in all, the setup is pretty lightweight, and it means with only a few elements, you can very quickly get the crew working a score. That’s an excellent thing.

This chapter also includes the teamwork rules, which are pleasantly elegant. Some of it is simple (Assisting means spending stress to give someone a +1, Protecting someone lets you take a consequence instead of someone, Set Up lets you give someone improved effect or position by setting them up for success) but the real magic is in group actions.

When the group does something,  pick a leader, then everyone rolls. Overall result is based on the best roll (whoever made it) but for everyone who rolled a 1-3, the leader takes one stress. This was a necessary rule to articulate if for no other reason than to express how to handle group stealth – a perpetual headache in criminal games. While this is a little meta (I’m not sure how I’d handle it if the stress ended up bonking a leader) I am willing to accept that for ease of handling.

Chapter ends with a very thorough example of a score, including varying interpretations based on how the dice fell. Thumbs up.


Ok, so we’ve outlined the Score as the central action of the game, and with that in mind, downtime is a way to abstract out what characters do between Scores. I mean, yes, they might do some roleplaying too, when the opportunity arises, but this covers broad stroke actions.

I was a little worried about this chapter. From a high level, it seemed like it would be very easy for this to be the “boardgame” element of play, between scores, and that model is more restrictive than I care for. And it’s not that the game can’t support other modes of play – it clearly can – but the question on my mind is whether those other modes are supported, rewarded or penalized. I’m not sure I have a satisfactory answer yet, but let’s dig in a bit.

There are 4 parts to downtime.

The payoff depends upon the score that just finished, and there’s a formula for how much rep and how many coins the crew gets based on the target, the job and other factors. Some of it might also need to go to paying off other criminals  and such. At first glance, the payoffs seem small, but I’m willing to trust that they’re not.

Second, you see how much heat (unwelcome attention) the job generated. Again, this is formula driven, and crew has a heat track that works like the character’s stress track, and if it gets to high, it adds “Wanted Levels” which only get cleared by somebody going to jail. There are rules for going to jail which kind of make it its own mini game, and jailtime can explicitly be an excuse to try swapping in another character.

Third, entanglements is a system to abstract the shifting complications that have unfolded around the job. These are play prompts/plot hooks generated by a random roll based on the crew’s heat level. Functionally, this is an “And then something happened” roll, but I admit it does not feel quite as elegant as the other downtime steps. I think I need to see it in action a few times to get what it’s supposed to feel like.

Lastly, the crew members can engage in Downtime Activities like making things, pursuing long term projects, training, indulging vices (the only way to regain stress) and so on. There are rules for all these mini activities, and each character gets to do two per downtime. It’s a mini game, plain and simple. There are also rules for modeling downtime for NPCs and other factions, and they are thankfully streamlined.

How to Play

It is probably not the best decision to go from the most abstract and mechanized section of the rules (downtime) to an explanation that Blades is not a mechanics first game.

That disconnect aside, we start with a solid explanation of Fiction-First gaming which I will not fault, but I also will not dwell upon.

The next section on what triggers a roll is much more practical, and I very much like that the third possible criteria is” when someone gets excited and grabs the dice”. It’s a good breakdown and it gets into some of the meta-thinking behind the scenes about risk and stress, and just as the game is opinionated, so is this section. Specifically, there’s a very interesting assertion that the purpose of threatening harm is not to inflict it, but to describe it, with some natural conclusions from that which feed into the resistance mechanic.

I admit, I usually just blah blah blah over this stuff, having been burned out on it long ago, but it’s really worth reading this section if only because it answers a lot of questions about why some of the things in this book are what they are.

We move past the general advice when we get to a breakdown of actions, with each action getting a gm-slanted perspective on how that action is used in the game, along with examples. If any of the actions seem unclear, this is a great tool for unpacking them.

Somewhat delightfully, we then switch gears to the player-facing version of this advice, and I mostly regret that it’s in a place where many players won’t look. It offers a list of best practices, which I love, and they include:

  • Embrace the scoundrel’s life
  • Go into danger, fall in love with trouble
  • Don’t be a weasel
  • Take responsibility
  • Use your stress
  • Don’t talk yourself out of fun
  • Build your character through play
  • Act now, plan later

Now, they’re best practices, not ironclad rules, so maybe there’s a quibble or two to be had, but it hardly matters. What does matter is that this is a clear explanation of the game as imagines, and it speaks to the player in the same way it does a GM, and that’s awesome.

After that is a one page….editorial, I guess?…about how the game played for someone. It’s fun and all, speaking to the play cycle of score to play to downtime etc, but it seems a little random.

Running the Game

I did a double take here and checked the previous chapter because the first half of that had seemed aimed at GMs already, so what’s in this chapter?

Well, a bunch of “how to be a good GM” stuff. Goals, actions, principals and best practices. All solid stuff, some of it Blades specific, much of it generally applicable. It’s good, certainly, and the “GM Actions” section is a clear attempt to give the same kind of focus offered by more restrictive GM Moves. It’s all good, but didn’t really jump out at me until I got to the GM Bad Habits section, which is a delight. The bad habits warned against include:

  • Don’t call for a specific action roll
  • Don’t make the PCs look incompetent
  • Don’t overcomplicate things
  • Don’t let planning get out of hand (:guilty look:)
  • Don’t hold back on what they earn
  • Don’t say no
  • Don’t roll twice for the same thing
  • Don’t get caught up in minutia

It’s a darn good list.

Then we get another editorial about improvising gothic storytelling with Electroplasm. Again, not bad, but weird.

Next section is on starting the game, and all the things to do in preparation and setting expectations. There are good guidelines here, and there’s a sample starting situation, which is a useful resource. I like the idea of this section a lot, and the inclusion of useful questions is welcome, but it feels like it’s a little light. Hard to pin down precisely why, but there are lots of other procedural parts of the game which have been refined down to near-checklists in their clarity, and this feels like it did not get quite the same treatment. It is a very mild complaint, though, since simply having a section like this is quite excellent.

We end with some guidelines about ending games, resolutions, seasonal models an rotating casts. Solid enough.

Strange Forces

Woo, rules for magical stuff! Comes in 4 flavors: Spectrology (ghost stuff), Rituals (Ancient demon stuff), Alchemy (Alchemy stuff) and Spark-Craft (Lightning/steampunk stuff). We get a little bit of an explanation of the ghost field and what it means to the world (short answer: there are lots of ghosts in it). We get some cool color about Spirit Wardens and body disposal, and a list of terminology to help distinguish a Hollow from a Hull, followed by longer explanations of key ideas like devils, vampires, demons and so on.

Perhaps more critically, this is where we also start talking about playing spirit characters. There are playbooks for ghosts, Hulls (ghost-possessed crafted frames) and Vampires (result of full possession). They have wacky powers, but also have more pronounced limitations and needs.

I’m kind of torn on this. These are all really awesome in their own right, and I can see how they reinforce a certain kind of flavor, but they also seem like an entirely different game than the rest of the book. It’s not a huge deal – this is maybe 10 pages of material in a 300+ page book, so I’m not complaining about wasted page count, but I’m just not sure why they’re part of the game.

For handling supernatural effects, the game introduces the concept of magnitude, which is a measure of quality level for ghosts, demons and such which serves as a generic stand in for determining the potency of effects. There’s a delightful table that gives 0-6 magnitude examples of area, scale, duration, range, quality, and force.

It’s a beautiful table, and it warms my old heart. See, this kind of table is also a Rosetta Stone for comparing values throughout the systems, whether that’s the intent or not. If I’ve got a gang with 5 people and you’ve got 20, how many steps of difference are there between them? It might be hard to intuit, but a quick glance at the chart indicates that those are scale 1 and 3 respectively. That matters a bit if the 5 are excellent but the 20 are merely adequate (quality of 1 and 3 respectively) and suddenly it’s a fair fight.

Rituals (Yes, that felt like an abrupt transition, but I was just following the book) are pretty open ended and flexible, since they can do pretty much anything, but also come with an arbitrary amount of cost. To perform a ritual, a character must find it, then learn it (a long term project) then actually perform it during downtime. Performing a ritual has a stress cost that was established via questioning, and ticks a progress clock for something bad, and ends with a fortune roll for general badness.

This is one of those systems that will work just fine if rituals enter into play with a specific intent, but it’s sufficiently open ended that it needs to be kept in hand. Thankfully, it has the built in escape clause that there is no guarantee that rituals behave consistently, so if something goes off the rails once, it need not repeat.

Crafting is the general umbrella of building stuff during downtime (gadgets, tools, concoctions, whatever). As with rituals, there are some defining questions (in the invention step) which determine costs in the crafting step. There’s a roll, supplemented by money and resources, some potential qualifiers, and voila. As with rituals, this runs the risk of being too fuzzy, but unlike rituals, there are two pages of example creations plus a full crafting example, so the guidelines are probably a bit more practically helpful.

Rituals and crafting are both fun little subsystems, but I admit I’m not sure if they’re load bearing. Both would clearly work in a game where they’re secondary elements, but I’d be a little worried to make them the core of a character. It’s not a definite problem, just something I’d want to watch.

Changing the game

Hard not to love a chapter on hacking the game. There’s some solid advice on how to go about hacking, but note that it’s still within the general space carved out by the game. There’s guidance for making new crew abilities, even for adding mechanics, but if you want to hack Blades to run your Persona game, that’s a bit beyond the pale.

I also have to applaud this as a way to introduce rules snippets and options without needing to frame them as such. Want a Vigilante crew, weapon styles or a trust mechanic? Well, what do you know, they’re in there as examples. Cunning and delightful.

Ok, second break. We’ve made it through the rules! And just as before, I’m going to speed up, largely because I’m more focused on how setting material is used than the actual setting itself. Not that the setting isn’t delightful – it is – but that is more for reading and less for reviewing.

City Guide to Duskvol

Initial setting stuff is always initial setting stuff. Some history, high level details and so on. The timeline is welcome, if only because it’s full of plot hooks and elements. We get some shorthand on cultures, language, calendars, stuff like that. There’s a lovely little insert on Plasm, the handwavium that powers most of the tech. It has just enough detail to be able to hang adventures off, which is the right amount.

I am delighted that there is a similar aside about food in Duskwall. Ghostlit cities surrounded by apocalyptic darkness are all well and good, but without basic infrastructure is all starts feeling like nonsense to me. As with plasm, it’s enough to be able to hang stuff off, and no more. Utterly welcome.

We get a little but of a breakdown of the political power in the city, the shape of the Underworld, the role of Academia and the presence of Ghosts. This is foundational stuff, and it’s good – excellent even – but it’s never going to excite too much. It’s the groundwork that lets us move into the next section, where we get maps!

And the maps are delightful. The city map is gorgeous, followed by two page spreads on each district. There are 12 in all, and each writeup includes landmarks, a general look and feel, notable NPCs, and a simple stat sheet and rules specifics for the district. The stats are Wealth, Security & Safety, Criminal Influence and Occult Influence, all with zero to five dots, and while I don’t think they have a direct mechanical effect, they are useful for comparing districts, and as a GM I would probably use them in some fortune rolls.

From there we get a wonderful page of things overheard in Duskwall, and then…the tables begin. Rumors on the street, remarkable occurrences, lists of factions (Who all have great little half page writeups), vice purveyors, street scenes, building details, random passersby, supernatural threats, Scores, and so much more. The tables and reference materials are sheer nerdy delight, and pack a lot of city into very little space.

FInish it up with a quick sketch of the world at large (one page of locations, one page map) then we’re on to credits and the (entirely passable) index.


Final Thoughts

So, if it’s not obvious, I’m pretty enthusiastic about this game. We’ll be playing it locally soon, so I’ve been reading it with an eye on that, so enthusiastic is where I want to be. I’ve a few small gripes (the material that’s not actually in the book definitely irks me) but by and large, this looks like it’s going to hit my sweet spot, and I’m very much looking forward to playing!

I should add, I still have not watched any actual play for this, though I intend to do so once I have posted this.  I think it will address my concerns (most specifically, my fear that it might play like a downtime boardgame with score scenes) but I wanted to really look at the book on its own.  I do no recommend this.  Instead, when you settle in to read it yourself, make sure to have a printout of the sheet on hand, and see about maybe watching on of the great actual play sessions posted on line.

  1. This is an explicitly good thing. If you’re a rules first player, then it ties the rules to the fiction. If you’re a world-first player, then it makes the setting that much richer. ↩︎
  2. Second time I’ve mentioned it, so I’ll confess that I think “Action Ratings” feels like an awkward and bloodless term. I get why they’re not called skills – the list is not intended to be prescriptive, and the fictional “skills” being used are less important than the intent of the action. Big thumbs up on the intention, I just wish it was called something else. ↩︎
  3. This is different from group actions, which are their own (fairly clever) thing, but we’ve got another hundred pages of book before we get there. ↩︎
  4. Though, curiously, complication is the only consequence that explicitly warns against negating a successful roll ↩︎
  5. Not certain why it’s not “Cultists” ↩︎

Catching up on 7th Sea

So, the next game is tonight, so I really need to get the last summary posted!

Apologies to any comments I’ve missed recently – something managed to get past the spam filters, so I’ve been cleaning the stables by hand, and that meant a lot of stuff got stuck in limbo until that got sorted out.

Anyway: the session

Summary of Session

It had been a while since the last session, so I admit I had to check my old posts. Ok, so we came back from a long hiatus with our heroes headed south to Vendel. The roads and posts were fine until they reached the barricade, but things got sketchy after that.
One night, Basillio noticed something odd about one of the posts they were going to stop at, and they stopped to send Zeta to investigate. It looked like it had been taken by bandits (Eisen mercenaries, by the look of them). Easily circumvented, but Zeta also heard the sound of prisoners, which demanded action.

Action followed. They rode in through the gate and ambushed the ambushers – roughly a dozen brutes – and made short work of them with the help of their coachman’s grenades. The Doctor chose to enter the building herself and deal with the brutes inside, and the results were messy and deadly, mostly for them. Prisoners were rescued, including an Eisen nun (and member of the shawl) who hit The Captain in the face with a chair before realizing this was a rescue.

A slow trip to Vendel followed, with the remaining Eisen following as prisoners. One of them, the leader, told his captors that Commander Heinrich of the Steel Hawks was his uncle and would willingly pay any ransom. These men were not Steel Hawks though, and Basillio surmised that they were some of the Eisen mercenaries who had come to Vendel expecting opportunity who were now making opportunity for themselves while politics remained at an impasse. No authorities along the way were willing to take them off the Heroes’ hands, but at the Vendel gates, the guard was more than happy to do so.

The next step was to deliver the silver and their report to Red, who was surprised by a series of things, including the money making it, the presence of slaves in the mines, and the possibility that the Thane was not a radical atavist. She arranged for the Captain’s help to have the actual chests delivered rather dramatically to the floor of the guild (with the difference made up out of her pocket, in a quiet sort of gamble). When we say “To the floor of the guild” it’s quite literal – upending two chests down onto the floor.

Chaos followed. The floor was shut down and a day of closed door meetings followed, once of which was watched very closely by The Swordsman. When the head of the Miner’s guild emerged, he was challenged to a duel (for his secret slaving), which was to follow the next morning.

At dawn, a crowd had gathered – not so much to see The Swordsman as to see The Hammer, the highest priced duelist in Vendel who was fighting on behalf of the guildmaster. The Hammer was a serious looking woman who wielded two hammers (think sledgehammers) and who played the crowd masterfully while remaining very professional with her opponent.

The duel that followed was fairly intense and closely matched. I talk more about it below in the mechanical part of things, but both parties were hurting when the Hammer knocked Basillio’s sword out of his hand and Basillio yielded. However, this was only the second most exciting thing to happen as a scream came from within the guildmaster’s pavilion – someone had taken advantage of the distraction of the fight to assassinate him.

Oh, and yes, The Acrobat was in the pavilion when this happened.

So chaos has increased, and our heroes manage to slip away in the chaos, partly because guard response was surprisingly non-present. A lucky break, until word reaches them that the Steel Hawks have surrounded the Guard HQ (and jail) and matters are about to get violent.

 EDIT: Crap, I totally forgot the endgame

Ok, so the city is totally going to hell. Fighting in the streets, whole nine yards.  Nearest force of men able to deal with this is the new High King, but the way there is problematic.  But if a ship can get out of harbor before it’s locked down, then head inland form one of the coastal cities, he might be reached in time.  But who could do such a thing?

Oh, you know who.

Getting out of the harbor was tight, but ended up being a dramatic use of the Doctor’s Time rune – she borrowed some future time (so the bad guys had a round to close in), but the shop then got double action for its escape.  Super fun. Probably an utter misuse of the power, but I am 100% ok with that!

GM-ish notes

I tried something new with the coachman in the fight, something I’m calling NPC triggers. The idea is that if you have NPCs in the fight, you can spend a raise to have them act, and that action will generally reap some manner of reward. In this case, when the coachman threw a grenade, the player got to roll some dice (6, which was too many in retrospect) and every hit on that roll took out a brute. Effectively it increased the effectiveness of the single raise in return for constraining what it could be used for. It was a good start, and it’s lead to me writing up a small system for handling named brutes which I’ll probably release to the Explorer’s Society when I have a minute.

The duel was interesting – this was the first time we’d really had a chance to throw two 5 dot duelists at each other, and I was very curious how it was going to go. The end result was mixed.

First off, the players had fun as audience. I was really worried about that, because this was really a focus on one character, but I suspect the novelty kept it engaging. Also, Sorte and Glamour sorcery ended up handing The Swordsman a giant bonus in the fight, which had an interesting effect., and also helped with investment.

The actual die rolling was a pair of huge piles. I spent a stack of Villain Points to bring The Hammer’s 10 die pool up to a 16 to be able to challenge Basillio. It revealed that counting 15s is definitely a bit more cumbersome than 10s. I like the mechanical effect, but it slows things down in play, so I need to bear that in mind.

Basillio started with a small advantage (something like 11 vs the Hammer’s 10) and things proceeded pretty well from there. The actual back-and-forth, move-countermove was great. Very fun, very dynamic, kept things going.


I screwed the pooch in terms of player expectations.

When the Hammer disarmed Basillio, my thinking was that it would cost him a little tempo (since he could just spend a raise to recover the blade) but the player felt strongly that he was skating on thin ice, and that losing tempo would turn things against him very strongly, so he conceded. I was surprised, because thought the impact wouldn’t be that pronounced, but I also knew that The Hammer’s die pool was depending on my villain point spend to stay competitive, a fact the player did not have.

Running the numbers later, I think we were both right. In subsequent rounds, Basillio’ die advantage would have made a substantial difference BUT the way NPC wounds are handled would have meant that it would take so long to drop her that he could have gotten nickel and dimed to death in the interim.

So, all in all, I’m kind of filing this away as one more reason I need to retune the way NPCs are handled. The villain rules are well tuned for one villain vs a group of heroes, but that is not always going to be the arrangement.

Getting Exploring

Ok, so John Wick has launched the 7th Sea Explorer’s Society today. This is rather like the DM’s guild in that it provides a walled garden of 7th Sea content where profits are split between the creator and JWP. My own piece – on ships – is part of the initial launch, but I expect a lot more to follow.

So with that in mind, let’s walk through how you would go about submitting something! I’ll use my old post on Dracheneisen and turn it into a product!

Now, the first thing I want to do in this situation is understand the rules, so I go to the Content Guidelines page to see what’s what.

The high level summary is:

Your work can use any rules and setting materials from the following 2nd Edition books published by John Wick Presents:

  • 7th Sea Core Rulebook
  • Heroes & Villains
  • Pirate Nations

With a few caveats. Must be 2nd edition. No touching 5 sails (wise of them to call that out). No objectionable content. You can use/update 1e content if it falls under the ”usable materials” qualifiers. And as with DM’s guild, you can use other people’s material and vice versa. And it must be 7th Sea – no cyberpunk system hacks.

All seems normal enough to me, but as with DM’s guild when it started, I am not clear about the rules regarding art. Not a real problem for me since I won’t be creating any new art, but art re-use is a thorny issue and I hope it gets clarified.

Ok, so looks like there’s no reason for me to start. The next thing I do is grab all the assets that JWP has provided, including Word and Indesign templates as well as some art. Normally I’d take some time to putter through the art and see if it inspired anything, but for the moment, I know what I’m making, so I’m going to jump to the word template (Fred is the indesign guy) and take a look at it.

Immediate problem – it uses a font I don’t have: Cabin. Thankfully, a trivial google search finds me the files, and a glance at the readme gets me to the source . I tip the guy a few bucks and move on. Open it up, it looks good, except…nope. Still need fonts. For ref, the fonts are:

Edit: you can also get all the fonts via google fonts, if that’s your bag, H/T to @PK_Sullivan 

I had PT Serif already, but having installed the others, I close Word again.

Pure taste thing: these are fine fonts, but I don’t love them. Were I being a little more commercially minded, then I would be creating my own template from this starting point to guarantee that my products have a consistent look and feel. That is, however, a task for another day – today we’re doing a vanilla install, so to speak.

So I go grab the blog post from here . Should be easy enough – just need to create some advantage and background entries. I hit a little bit of a snag there: the template doc has generic styles and stat blocks, but I’m not sure how to present these things. So I go to the book and find what looks like the best match.

That goes poorly. It’s a reminder that the book is 2 column and the table handling is quite different. Ok, so despite my desire to go pure vanilla, I hack at it a little, and the result is about a page and a half of content. That means I really need to find a column worth of art. Time to check the resources!

Aaaand, crap. Ok, now we have a problem. The heroes are all these nicely isolated images that I suspect I can easily drop onto the background images provided for a variety of effects. However, none of them are particularly Eisen-Punchy. So I check the villains. Nope. No dice. So I do what every desperate person in need of filler does: I put in a rectangular chunk of landscape.

Then back to the title – just tossing an Eisen shield there and *bam*, good to go!

I’ve done DM’s Guild work before, so I I expect to be mostly set up, so I just follow the instructions here to upload.   The magic link is :”Enter New Community Created Title”, which is not super intuitive, but it’s all pretty straightforward from there.

I do need to generate a cover image.  Once again, if I were doing tis commercially, I’d make a custom image for this purpose, but since I’m being vanilla, I just take a shot of the cover page.  I also have to set a price, which I set as Pay What You Want, because of course I do.

Once I finish entering the information (including allowing previewing of the whole thing) I go to the next section to upload the file itself.  At this point, I’m glad I’ve done this before, because the interface would be a little daunting otherwise.  Previous experience also reminds me to set the file public, lest this all be for naught, and I save changes, and VOILA!.

Well, semi-voila.  It takes a few minutes on the backend, but very shortly, we now have my book!  Time to sit back and let the pennies roll in!

Anyway, I share all this mostly to illustrate that making your own content for the Explorer’s Society is REALLY, REALLY easy. You can make something way better than my little product if you decide it’s what you want to do, and I really wish you would!

Warp Noodling

Real life events have meant we’re skipping 7th Sea for March, which is a bummer, but also means the blog has been quiet. So, sorry for that.  

I have been chewing a little bit on the greatly underused OGL WARP system, the mechanics behind Over the Edge.  It’s a a very light system – roughly akin to a fractionally more crunchy Risus – and it will forever have a place in my heart as the game the completely blew open the doors of my mind regarding how an RPG character could be expressed. At the time that I read it, I’d been playing Rolemaster, and delighting in my 17 page character sheets (including spell lists).  I’d seen other systems that just used a smaller set of numbers (As small as the Amber DRPGs 4 stats) but structurally things were still built on this stat-centric idea. 

OTE dispensed of that in favor of descriptors. A character could be a Burly(3d) Smuggler (4d) Art Snob (3d)  with a Terrible Sense of Humor and that would cover it (less details like name and color).  Not only did that tidily fit on an index card, it tidily and meaningfully fit in the mind. The mechanical expression was closer to the character description than I had ever seen.

So, yeah. Blew my mind. It’s influence is still pretty obvious.  There were a lot of other amazing things about Over the Edge too, but this is the one that left the deepest mark. 

I mention all this because a while back, the underlying system was released under OGL by Atlas (because they’re awesome). I did up an ok PDF version of it that I’m sure I still have somewhere and which I consistently think I should get back to. But I’ve never actually done anything with it. 

That might change.  I have some ideas niggling in my mind that might lead to some hacking in the near future.  So I figured I’d give at least a little heads up.

7s: Make Vesten Great Again

Stone city pressed up against a mountain (It's Markath form Skyrim, for the nerds)We started out the session by taking a moment to review everyone’s stories and talk about how well or poorly they’d worked out. The best assessment of their utility was which ones could be easily remembered vs. which ones had to be looked up. After some discussion, we desired to loosen up the Story structure a little bit. Rather than asking players to outline the whole story, they could fill in a little bit less – the ending and maybe the beginning – and we’d proceed from that.

It makes advancement a bit fuzzier1, but we immediately got grippier stories as the players focused on what they wanted to have happen rather than counting out the right number of steps to fulfill their mechanical obligations. They absolutely retain the right to introduce as many steps into the story as they like, but removing the obligation to do so is absolutely liberating.

I’m going to chew on his approach a little bit more and see if there’s a way to introduce it into the economy of the game. It’s easy to integrate play-wise. It’s effectively player generated milestones with a lot of explicit authority (which rocks) but I feel like it might also hold the key to addressing the spotlight issue, which could arguably be measured by who gets more story beats over time. However, that’s some future thought.

The session itself was almost entirely talky. A little bit of die rolling, but a lot of it was handled dicelessly with skills as permissions2. The trip from Kirkwall to Vendel was uneventful (a fact helped along by the warship that accompanied them most of the way) but Vendel itself was another matter. Things were tense. The docks were stuffed with Eisen ships and the taverns full of Eisen mercenaries. Everyone knew a Thane had declared himself in Kirk, but no one knew what it meant yet, but uncertainty was through the roof.

Doctor Valdis’s Patron, Red, was not at her usual coffee house, but was instead attending a meeting of the League, which the heroes got to observe some of, including some politics among the chairs, and the various voices urging caution versus immediate action. Two key points were revealed – this Thane had the support of an unknown number of Jarls (especially in the North and central parts of the nation) and that specifically he held the mint and most of the productive mines of Vesten3.

During a pause, they spoke with Red, who was surprised to hear about the princesses engagement to the MacDuff, but quickly looked to try to find a way to leverage that information. Discussion of the politics of the situation followed. Red was worried about the mint, but rather more worried about the potential destabilization the host of mercenaries represented4 and the overall lack of information about the situation.

She also asked the heroes to go speak to the new Thane, since they had an existing connection to him. She was worried things were already bad because a thousand mercenaries had been sent north as soon as the new came in, and the situation may have already gone pear shape. The heroes agreed and were provided papers and a fast carriage.

The trip north was fast at first, while the posts were in good shape, but slowed down as they discovered the passing mercenaries had depleted the horse supply. They did encounter a retreating group of mercenaries who Basilio and Zeta recognize as young men from the group of Montaignian expatriates whose church they attend. By their reports, they had joined up with the hastily assembled force, but quickly found it not ot their liking, especially with the Eisen toughs, and they had been walking back for a while. They also warned of Trolls, but no one took that very seriously.

A bit further on they found signs of a battle, but very few graves. Further still was a checkpoint on the road, manned by Vesten in traditional garb. Surprisingly, they did not hassle the heroes, save to ask a few fairly normal questions. Not far past the checkpoint, the heros saw a prison camp which (presumably) held the defeated mercenaries. From that point north, the Posts were in fine order, though the people manning them were a little confused. The new Thane had apparently declared it would be business as usual.

They found their way to Kirk, which we all agreed looked like something out of Skyrim. Of note, there was now a smoking ruin where the Objectionist Cathedral’s construction site had previously stood, but otherwise all was well. Once again, inspection at the gates was businesslike, but the invocation of the Thane’s daughter’s name was sufficient to hurry them along. Meeting the Thane (Karl, played in the movie by Karl Urban, better groomed than the average vested and armed like an Eisen), they delivered letter from hisdaughter and received an invitation to dinner.

Dinner lead to conversation, much of which was a roundabout (and polite) argument between Doctor Valdis (speaking for capitalism) and the Thane (Speaking for the necessity of government), and the Thane ended up getting some support, most concretely because he too was concerned about the mercenaries on Vesten soil, and from his perspective, Vesten had been able to indulge the league because all her neighbors had been paralyzed by internal problems, but that was not a long term strategy. Vesten had to have a leader (and a military), and it had to have it’s wealth spread out further than just Vendel.

A few things came of this and followed:

  • As part of the discussion, the Thane revealed that the mines had been using slave labor (since liberated). The heroes were, of course, taken aback, and when Basilio discovered the Mining Chair (who had all been a loud voice for attacking the Thane) was actually a Castillean, he decided that Steps Must Be Taken.
  • Captain Quinn had heard that Sir Mandrake had been to Kirk, and the Thane acknowledged that the man was a friend, but had not seen him in some time. His wife, covered up a reaction, but later on she came to Quinn and told him a bit more, including that last she knew, he had headed to Vendel, and she gave him a token that had been Important to Mandrake.
  • Valdis consulted with Shuri, the Thane’s sage, about her axe. Shuri was more intereted in her, and opted to take her out for a test of strength, wits and resolve on the icy slopes of the mountain overnight. When they found her the next morning, she had three mortal wounds worth of exposure but had also learned one of the Galdr Runes (Time)
  • Zeta identified and stymied a would-be assassin, accidentally killing him with his now poisoned knife. It also revealed the assassin’s partner, the same shadow-wielding figure they had faced in Kirkwall. He made it clear he intended to collect the price on Zeta’s head, and she made id clear how welcome he was to try such a suicidal thing.  In the Aftermath, the Thane seemed to recognize the magic in use and asked her if she intended to kill this man. As she said yes, he gave her a black gem which, which grasped, turned into a knife of shadows (hell yeah, 1e callback) . He also gave her a token that any Die Kreutzritter would recognize.

The heroes agreed to take the delivery from the mint (less a meticulously documented amount for back wages for the liberated slaves) down to Vendel as a show of good faith on the Thane’s part, and as the carriage was being loaded, we wrapped for the night.

  1. And I’m ok with that. If there is one thing there is no lack of in this game, it’s advancement. ↩︎
  2. That is, if you have a high skill, that is taken into account in how things are described and in what the GM simply says “Yes” too. It’s a technique that every game and GM use to differing extents, but where the knobs are set matter a lot. Specifically, it’s very useful for keeping information flowing smoothly. ↩︎
  3. A plot hook lifted from Nations of Theah vol. 1, but with 90% fewer slavery apologists. ↩︎
  4. Remember, Vesten has no standing army or navy to speak of, and Mercenaries – especially ones ho haven’t gotten paid – have a historical habit of calling dibs on whatever’s on hand. This point becomes relevant later in discussion with the Thane. ↩︎

7s: Story Considerations

Typed words on a page: Once upon a time .I have been using stories a little bit wrong in 7th Sea. Not, like, technically wrong, but I think I’ve been emphasizing them incorrectly. I’ve been treating them as an advancement mechanism that shapes story rather than a story shaping tool that provides advancement.

That may seem distinction without a difference, so let me step back a little bit. For the unfamiliar, the story mechanic works roughly as follows: The player comes up with a story idea for something they’d like to play – say, they’d love to rescue a handsome prince from kidnappers – then figures out how that should go in very rough strokes. For example, they might want a story where:

  • The hero dances and flirts with a prince at a high society party
  • The party is interrupted by kidnappers! Chaos ensues and the prince is kidnapped!
  • The Hero pursues the kidnappers and rescues the prince after a desperate chase!

The GM will handle the details, but it’s expected that this story will happen in game, and when it completes, the player gains advancement equal to the number of steps in the story (3, in this case).

Now, here’s the kicker – as part of coming up with the story, the player is also expected to have an idea for what they intend to advance – the reward. And because these are RPGs, that datapoint has assumed some amount of prominence, so that it is easiest to think of stories in terms of their reward. That is, I need 2 points to buy my sorcery, so I need to create a two point story to reflect that.

It is hard to fault that logic, but it also produces somewhat lopsided stories because it skews them very superficially towards an end. Sometimes’s that’s fine – our Doctor’s pursuit of the Wealth advantage has been a straightforward story of setting up foreign investments, no problem. But I feel like our Fate Witch and Captain have gotten short shrift, at least in part because Sorcery stories are always 2-steppers (which gets a bit repetitive, since it is expected to be bought multiple times).

This is the problem I want to address – I want players to be more free to aggressively frame stories that are interesting to them, without needing to stress about sizing them just right. And I don’t think that requires any specific change, just a little bit more mindfulness and flexibility on my part. I need to get the stories first, then work out how we want to handle rewards.

Curiously, this is the least problem for the character with the clearest advancement path. Our swordsman’s advancement priorities are pretty straightforward: 4th dot of Weaponry, 5th dot of weaponry, then other stuff. He’s hit those goals, so advancement is mostly filler for him now – he can get more badass, but the pressure is off. I suspect it will be a while before he’s completely out of things to buy, but it has planted a bug in my ear to maybe start thinking go other rewards for stories (specifically, setting-shaping ones).

I also am trying to figure out how to handle on other story-based complication: mobility. Because we have a ship-based game, players often find their stories paused because the next step is someplace else. For example, our Doctor is working on a 3 step story where she found investors and set up an office in Kirkwall, but has needed to get back to Vendel to set up another office to finish out the story. They’re finally going there, but she’s been (perhaps unfairly) jammed up for a couple sessions, solely because the events in play have kept the players elsewhere.

And, yes, this is partly on my head – juggling all my player’s stories is my responsibility, but at the same time I do not want to overly constrain their options – after all, part of the point of having a ship-based game is the freedom it allows.

One last thought: This maybe sounds a little complain-y, but this is all out of love. Stories is a FANTASTIC mechanic, and my interest in tuning it is a reflection go how much it excites and engages me.

7th Sea: Pirate Nations

So, the preview for 7th Sea’s Pirate Nations book dropped a little while back, and I’ve actually written a ton about it that I’m not going to use because I don’t actually know what’s going to change between preview and release. Probably not a huge amount, but I want to be careful.

So instead I’m going to zoom out and talk a little bit about what’s in the book, and about why I’m pretty excited about it.

First off, thematically, this is two books. There’s no clear bright line in the text, but it’s pretty clear upon reading. The first, shorter book is supplemental to the setting of Theah, adding two location that are fairly proximate to Theah, Numa and La Bucca.

Numa, an analog for Greece is a collection of islands to the south-southwestish of Vodacce, that have been conquered many times but are currently free and working out what that means. It’s got all the element you need for game of Greek heroes, and if you squint your eyes a little, you can see Byzantium and Alexandria, so that’s cool. Still, this entry feels out of place in the Pirates book, and it’s a little hard for me to really speak to because it doesn’t scratch any particular itch for me, but I’m not sure it should get dinged for that (though there is some slightly creepy philosophy that I’m ok dinging it for).

In contrast, La Bucca‘s role in a pirate book absolutely makes sense. A former prison island for political prisoners across Theah, the prisoners seized the island mumblemumble years ago and now it’s a free port and erstwhile democracy. I had been a little leery about this one because in 1e, this island had been loaded up beyond usability with secret kings and the roots of idealized democracy. That has been mostly shed, and instead you get a really nice city that is well designed to be the home port for a pirate game. In fact, the city is fun enough that with a little elbow grease, you could make it the center point of play, Babylon 5 style, and that’s never a bad thing.

La Bucca is also somewhat transitional to the rest of the book, which covers the nations of the Atabean Sea, an analog for the Caribbean, also known as the Sea of Monsters. It’s a fun write up, full of color, but also with some cleverness as related to the many, many sea monsters. They are, in fact, the heart of commerce in the Atabean, with the hunting of monsters and the selling of parts providing motive for trade (and also, critically, providing expertise which helps even their footing with the Theans). There is absolutely trade with Theah out of the islands, but it’s constrained in ways that have kept the Nations of Theah from throwing their weight around too much, which is mostly good, but it has allowed for the rise of the Atabean Trade Company, which we’ll get to in a bit.

We also get to zoom in on three parts of the Atabean sea, the first of which is Aragosta, a sort of analog of Tortuga. It is also the most explicitly Pirates of the Caribbean inspired chapter of the book, and you can practically see the movie posters in the background. This is not a criticism. 🙂

I’ve got mixed feelings about this section. Part of it is really good – where La Bucca is a free port with rough edges, Aragosta is a full bore wretched hive of scum and villainy. It’s the birthplace of the brotherhood of the coast, has fun piratical color, dark supernatural bargains and all the other notes that might appeal. That’s the good. The less good is that this is the section of the book that indulges most strongly in telling it’s story rather than enabling me tell my story. A full 2 pages are dedicated to the tale of the guy who founded the bar where the city grew. More pages are dedicated to the secret fate of the pirate who signed the original Brotherhood of the Coast charter mumblemumble years ago and the curse than haunts them. None of it is bad, but it’s all someone else’s story.

The other nation, Jaragua, is an analogue of Haiti, and it deftly avoids becoming the car crash that I fear every time Haiti and RPG appear in the same sentence. Rather than steeping the whole thing in voodoo mysticism, the emphasis is on the impact of slavery and the aftermath of the recent revolution against it. It’s heavier fare than standard swashbuckling material, but it’s handled well enough that it feels like a different emphasis more than a total mismatch.

Aragosta and Jaragua have also both provided layups for the crown jewel of the book, the Atabean Trading Company. The basic idea is that because treaties keep the nations of Theah from operating too strongly in the Atabean, a villainous trade company has stepped into the gap and has killed, coerced, bribed or otherwise villained their way to the top. Functionally, they like an evil East India company (which is bad enough) with a Randian philosophy and a multi-level marketing scheme, which is to say they are amazing villains.

As a villain organization, they have very clear goals (making money) and equally clear villainy (Slavery, piracy, murder) to support those goals. That is to say, they don’t consider themselves villains – it’s just business, after all – which is exactly why they hang together so well. The ways in which they can be used in a game are so numerous and compelling that the biggest problem is coming up with a reason not to make them the centerpiece of your game. This is a delightful and ambitious write up, and it alone is worth the price of entry.1

After the setting comes a character creation chapter, and it’s a little odd. It has all the information you need for new characters (new nationalities and backgrounds in particular) but also some information repeated from the corebook, which is odd. There are plenty of new advantages, with a few stand outs:

  • There’s now a Letter of Marque advantage, which is thankfully only a point.
  • Speed Load lets you reload a firearm in one raise rather than the usual 5. It costs a hero point, so that’s technically a check on it, but this makes me SUPER nervous (gun tricks are what killed 1e for me)
  • Atabean Traveler is more interesting for it’s mechanic than it’s specifics, since it’s “Spend a Hero point to be able to ask a question about your environment” and I’m not sure that should need an advantage.
  • The Ocean’s Favorite is basically “Would you like to be an awesome ship captain?” to which the answer is, of course, “yes”
  • The Devil’s Due gets you a weird artifact as a result of your deal with the devil (or at least, Devil Jonah, one of those Pirates of the Caribbean type figures).
  • Seeker of Soryana let’s Atabean natives visit the Isle of the Dead and recruit ghost allies. It’s interesting in that it’s like Skalds as a not-quite-sorcery
  • Whisper to Mother is interesting mechanically because it’s a specific Porte trick that does not require Porte but does have very specific setting ties.
  • My Word is My Bond is so fun that one of my players immediately started gunning for it. Make an oath, spend X hero points, and for the duration of the scene, gain X raises on every risk, so long as you’re working to fulfill your work.
  • La Palabra made me laugh, since it’s an idea I first encountered in science fiction. If you have this advantage, you can secretly communicate to others who have it by embedding your messages in normal-seeming conversation.

There are also some new Arcana, which is great, but it going to give me even more Sorte headaches. There are also a ton of sample stories, which is a pretty useful reference.

There is also some new Sorcery, which fascinates me, since this may be the biggest deviation from the 1e model.

Charter Magic is an oddball since you don’t really buy ranks in it – it’s a blood ritual that a group engages in, signing the charter and spending a hero points. For every signatory (hero or villain), put a die on the charter – players can pick those up and ad them to any roll, with the pool refreshing at the beginning of the session. But if you break the charter, you’re cursed, which sucks.

This is a fun option with a heavy dose of metagame (and shades of some other John Wick designs), and I only wish there had been a sample charter or two here, but there are some later in the book.

Kap Sevi Is the inevitable voodoo, whose practitioners channel the “Lwa”. It’s explicitly tied to Ifiri (Africa analogue) via the slaves brought to Jaragua, and is explicitly a variation on those traditions as they were pushed though the brutality and horror of slavery.

Structurally, each rank of sorcery you buy lets know choose one Lwa you can channel, as well as 1 big power and 2 little powers (with power availability tied to which Lwa you know). In an interesting bit of color, the Lwa is summoned into the Sorcery and powered by offering of the self. Mechanically that means big powers are tied to the character’s virtue and little powers are tied to a quirk. While the power is in use, the Virtue or quirk are unavailable for use. I admit I’m not sure what that would look and feel like in play, but I’m curious to find out.

The other big limiter is that when summonng a Lwa, it remains in the Sorcerer until sunrise, so those are the only powers the sorcerer has access to for the duration, and you can only maintain one big and 2 little powers at a time.

The Lwa are, of course, named. There are 5 in the book and no reason there couldn’t be more. One one hand, this is great, because it means the magic is personified, which is always more fun to play. On the other hand, I admit, I’m a little bit unsure how I’m supposed to run this sort of magic. There are trappings that the sorcerer is supposed to engage with to appease the Lwa, but I don’t know what that means. Should it be a conversation with me as the GM taking the part of the Lwa, or am I just supposed to stand back and let it be an role playing opportunity for the character?

The powers themselves are interesting, varied, and in some cases very potent. Curiously, there are a lot of information-related powers, which I’m good with. Those tend to be very gameable, since taking them tells the GM what rocks to hide things under. Curiously, there is no actual ability to animate the dead, though there are numerous references to it happening.

Mystirios is Numan magic, so while cool, it seems out of place in the book. There’s a curious detail that the powers come from the human spirit and are merely inspired/revealed by the gods. This struck me because it very much seems to resonate with the 1e ideas behind the Knights of the Rose and Cross, so I’m curious if that thread will come up again.

Mechanically, you buy a rank in Sorcery and learn a particular god’s secret which has a big power that costs a HP to trigger and a little power that’s free after you’ve used the big power in the scene. It’s a weird mechanic, and it makes more sense for some gods than others. It’s a kind of fun idea though, since it has a built-in cadence.

One nice sidebar – there’s one villain-only Mystirio and it’s OH LORD NASTY. It makes me want to write up more villainous sorcery options.

Mohwoo is a weird one, because it has zero ties to the setting. I don’t know if that’s because it’s a teaser for something else in the world or if it’s just a crazy one off.

Anyway, terminology aside, and as we’re probably familiar with now, there are big powers and little powers. When you get a tattoo, you get a lot big and little power associated with that symbol, plus the little power from a different tattoo. When you buy a new rank (and get a new tattoo), you pick up two more powers, either major or minor, constrained by the symbols you bear.

So, for example, the Fish symbol’s minor power is “no need to breathe for the rest of the scene” and the major power is “Use the activation instead of spending a raise when swimming or in water”2

One fun addition to this is that there’s a set of things that the GM can spend danger on when a Mohwoo is activated, and I love this. None of them are super nasty, but they’re colorful and fun and make the magic feel a little less predictable and rote. As with villainous sorcery, I kind of want to write up more of these for other types of sorcery.

A bunch of other mechanics are thrown in under Swords, Ships and Secrets. It explains how foreign duelists interact with the Duelist’s guild, and introduces 3 new styles – a machete style, a capoeira equivalent, and Spartan fighting3.

We have more ship origins and abilities. At first glance they all seem more potent than the core set, but I’ll probably need to really look at those side by side. New ship backgrounds are fine, but the new adventures (Cheevos!) are probably the most welcome addition.

There are 2 new secret societies. La Cosca are the Robin Hood Mafia, and La Riroco are abolitionist monster hunters. Obviously, both are awesome.

There’s also a bit of space committed to the Pirate’s code and charters, which is made more useful for its direct tie into Charter magic. There are also two pages on how to talk like a pirate (arr).

There’s a chapter dedicated to sea monsters, and while it’s mostly color (because monster statblocks are pleasantly small) there are also a few new Monstrous Qualities, which are absolutely delightful.

Finally, there’s a chapter on running a nautical campaign, with some important advance about avoiding busy-work rolls for handling travel, tools for fleshing out your ship’s roster, discussion of crews vs. navies and some general play hooks.

It’s all good stuff. Though there’s an interesting little aside about “And Then” vs. “Because” which is either some excellent advice on how to tie rolls to player choices or a subtle tutorial on how to execute a GM’s force, I’m not sure which – there are two examples and they offer somewhat different lessons.

In case it’s not obvious, I really like this book, but it’s not flawless. A few sour notes and oddities:

  • There is some noble savage stuff in the Atabean Sea section that totally set my teeth on edge. If there’s one thing I hope does not make it out to the preview, it’s that.
  • Time is a bit wibbly-wobbly throughout, because a lot of the setting seems to be defined by things that happened 2-5 decades ago, but which still involve the same people as they did back then. I could see that making for interesting generational play if it was intentional, but it just feels careless.
  • Have to reiterate how out of place Numa feels in the book.
  • If you go by the text, the natives of the Atabean sea haven’t given up too much to the Theans, but the map (which was not in the preview, but popped up later) seems to tell a very different story.
  • Inside the ATC, there exists a heroic group, the Seahorses, who deliver mail and are not themselves villainous. It’s a super-gameable hook, but it feels odd to have it within the villainous organization. I suspect the correct way to use it is as a way to start heroes out and allow them to discover the evil of the ATC from within – that would probably be fun.
  • I fully expect the maps to be awesome, and I understand why they’re not in the preview, but a few things don’t really seem to hang together in their absence

Bottom line? It’s a fun book and a welcome addition to the line. I can’t wait for its actual release

  1. There is an instinct here to compare them to the other major villain group in the game so far, the NWO. That’s not entirely fair because the ATC is, as written, vastly more compelling than the NWO and it’s generic evil. However, it’s important to remember that they serve very different purposes. The ATC has a full and detailed writeup because it is supposed to be a specific thing. The vagueness of the NWO specifically means that individual GMs can make it into the thing they need for their game. ↩︎
  2. This mechanic – using an activation in lieu of a raise to act – shows up enough throughout the book that it feels like a new bit of the standard kit. ↩︎
  3. Spartan fighting includes an archery option, and I strongly dislike it. Not only is it hard for me to align with the ides of the Duelist’s guild as presented (and I LIKE the DG very much), it also feels like opening a door that is going to lead to a knife throwing school, and then a gun school, and that is a door I do not want to walk through.That said, I absolutely love it as a spearfighting style. That makes it distinctive and archaic in a way that feels like a much better fit. ↩