Category Archives: BladesInTheDark

Stress is Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because this engine is covered in knobs.

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

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

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

Those are the things your game is about.

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

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

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

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

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


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

Clockery

I love clocks in Blades in the Dark, and have written about that before. What’s curious is that Apocalypse World has clocks, as do other PBTA games, so I’d encountered the idea previously, but it had never really grabbed me. I hadn’t thought about this much, figuring it was just part of the general Blades awesomeness, but it jumped out at me as I started prepping for an Urban Shadows game I’m running.

So, Urban Shadows has a pretty neat campaign planning trick called Threats and Storms. There are some guidelines for types of threats and what they do, but structurally, the threats have a 6 step plan that starts with a promise of trouble and culminates in trouble, and the threat attempts to advance the plan, moving through the steps. Tie a couple of these threats together and you’ve got a Storm, and you’re ready to go.

This is a pretty good model. Good enough that I want to fiddle with it, but that’s another post. But there is one element of it I did not like at all, and that is the physical presentation of it, and it illuminated something about clocks to me.

See, Urban Shadows uses Clocks to illustrate this idea, and specifically it uses the Apocalypse World style clocks of 3 quarters followed by 3 twelfths1.

It then maps each step of the plan to a wedge of the clock, which is simply more information than the clock can hold, so it required secondary notation, in a style like this from the Threats sheet.

Urban Shadows countdown clock sheet excerpt

Now, this is not broken. It can work. But to me, it’s like watching someone drive a nail with a wrench. It’s a mismatch of tools – I would expect the construct that I’m using to track these things to be able to contain them.

As an example, Monster of the Week has a similar model of threats called “Arcs” – six step plans leading to badness – but it lays it out in a tabular format, with falling darkness as its framing metaphor. This does not look as cool as the clock, but it is rather mor functional. And, in fact, when I ended up writing my threats (by hand), I used a worksheet rather more like MOTW, because it gave me enough room to think as I wrote, rather than focus on squeezing things in.

An arc example from Monster of the Week

Doing that, gave me an insight into what I like about BitD clocks, which I can illustrate with these two images

I am not holding this up to say the Urban Shadows clock is bad, rather to highlight how they’re used. The US clock is information-dense, with triggers and information at every step along the way. The Blades clock is single purpose – it has one consequence, and shows progress towards it (there are tools to make them more complex, but this is the default).

For what I use clocks for (which is a BIG qualifier), I really enjoy the clarity and focus that a unitasker provides. It makes it useful for communicating to the rest of the tables (something that’s trickier with a keyed clock) and it allows me to go immediately from need to implementation without needing to stop and fill in the interstitial spaces.

There is also a practical element of ease and flexibility – blades clocks are easier for me to draw, especially with different values2. This is far from insurmountable – we’re talking the difference in drawing a few extra lines – but when I whip out a sharpie at the table, it matters to me.

So that’s why I like BitD clocks so much: they’re flexible unitaskers, and that aligns with my needs.

But, importantly, this is not the fault of the tool. The 3-and-3 clock is a great model if you want to have an explicit upshift or escalation. When I use a clock like that, I would not want to add a note or progression for every wedge – rather I would just want to explicitly note what happens when the escalation happens, since that’s the explosion, the limit break, the point when things go from bad to worse. That’s a great moment, and while that’s a little more work on my part, coming up with a second data point is a lot easier than coming up with 6 of them.

Curiously, this also calls out why I like using tracks3  and trigger tables rather than clocks in certain situations. When I do want to have more context for the clock’s wedges or I want to do something weird with the progression through the clock, a track has the explicit advantage of giving more room to write. Small thing, but kind of important to me.

  1. Some people don’t like that style of clock, but I actually dig it for its purposes. It’s ultimately just a 6 wedge clock, but it’s got an implicit flip over from yellow zone to red zone when you get to the last quarter. That transition is a neat piece of information implicit in the layout. ↩︎
  2. Though, aesthetically, the AW/US clocks tend to look cooler in printed form, and so they work better on worksheets and prepared material. That’s a non-trivial benefit, especially for handout-heavy games, like many PBTA games. The value of cool should not be underestimated. ↩︎
  3. That is, a series of boxes rather than a circle. ↩︎

Running Jobs in Blades in the Dark

Bigass diagram of nodes. Sorry, it's really ahed to describe. :(

When I first started running Blades in the Dark, I was enamored by the ease of preparation. Very little player planning, dice driven action snowballs, just lots of great stuff.

But by the time I ran my third session, I was starting to notice something. As a GM, there was starting to be a bit of same-ness to the jobs, specifically the jobs of the same type.

That is, it was very easy to spontaneously improvise the first few stealthy infiltrations, but after a while it started to feel a little bit forced. There was a temptation to skip to the end, and a risk of “ok, now for ANOTHER sneak roll”, and I wanted to steer clear of that. Specifically, when I caught myself narrating a series of rooms, I felt like I had slipped a gear.

I’m sure there are other solutions, but for me it meant a bit more planning. Not a LOT more planning – I have no desire to slow down the game, nor to thrust canned encounters on my crew – but enough to force myself out of comfortable patterns and make me think about what makes this job different than other jobs.

For this, I turn to my old friend, the node map.1 I start from the two points I have: The point of entry and the score. The players provide me the essentials of both of these, so I just need to layer on top of it. For the point of entry, I need to provide a little bit of context: What kind of place is being entered and what’s the outside like? I don’t need a lot of detail, but I need enough that I am ready for any result on the engagement roll. Practically, this means I need to think of something that can go poorly and something that can go well, as well as the middle of the road result2.

I also think about the payoff. If I were to just skip past all the infiltration and get to the point where they’re cracking the safe or getting the idol off the mantle, what does that scene look like. This is usually the easiest creative exercise, and it’s mostly a matter of coming up with a threat or challenge to drive the scene. I apply similar thinking to the engagement roll, only reversed – how does the framing differ if things are going poorly or very well? Will there be extra guards? Will the princess be in another castle? Will the macguffin be left lying in plain site since no one even suspects trouble?

So, now I’ve got two nodes, but I explicitly don’t connect them yet. Also, there’s an instinct to think that I am now looking at the beginning and end of a sequence, but resist that. It might be true, but I also might be looking at the beginning and middle of a sequence, or even just the first two steps.

So, rather than build a map, now is the time to think of a few more nodes. My target number is three, but you do you.

I don’t particularly restrict what nodes are. They might be rooms, they might be NPCs, they might be events or they might be something else. Practically, they just need to be something that could drive a scene, and the details flow from that need.

Coming up with nodes is a creative exercise, which runs the risk of bogging things down, so my process is to run through a quick checklist and see what it shakes loose. My personal checklist is:

  • Is there a visual for a scene that I can see in my head that I want to capture?3
  • Which crewmember is least well suited to this job? Can I engage them? What can I do to balance spotlight?
  • Does anyone have outstanding trouble (NPCs in particular) that I could use bring in?
  • Did the final payoff node suggest to me any logical barriers, gates or thresholds?
  • What would play to the crew’s strength to reinforce their awesome?
  • What would reveal the crew’s weakness and force them to scramble?
  • What is going to happen if the shit hits the fan?

Running through that is usually enough for me to shake loose a trio or more ideas (though if I’m being honest, I often shoot for four ideas, since the “when the shit hits the fan” one is necessary in design but optional in play). I don’t want to throw too much detail at these things, but I like to note the risks and opportunities in each node, and that tends to give me enough to roll with (though it does run the risk of not having much “middle”).

So, I quickly add those three nodes to my notes. I still haven’t drawn any connections between them, but that is the next step. Ideally, I don’t need to connect any of them (more on that in a second), but if it seems like two of them should be connected by story logic (if, for example, the core needs to pass through the guardhouse to get to the treasure room) then this is when I connect them. Beyond those, I keep want to keep the connections loose, so that these elements can be brought to bear in alignment with the events of play4.

At this point I’m ready to go. I have a set of tableaux to be played through, and it’s just a matter of connecting them according to player actions. However, if I have a little more time, I like to add one more layer in the form of transitions.

So, if I actually drew this out as a map, I would be treating each connecting line as a transition, and I’d attach something to it (generally either some sort of choice or a bit of mechanical engagement, like a roll). Story wise, this translates into simple things that don’t merit a whole scene, like a locked door, a branching path, or a guard to be snuck past with no particular fanfare. Since I’m not mapping out connections, I don’t worry too much about choices (since they’ll shake out organically) but I do want to add a little bit of mechanical teeth to the transition between nodes – so how do I do that without explicit connections?5

The trick is that I add attachment points to the nodes, so that if I have an idea what entry (or sometimes exit) from a node should entail, and when it comes time to connect to that node, I connect to the attachment point and use that to inform the transition. It’s not perfect – sometimes circumstances will make the attachment points moot, but they’re lightweight enough (like, a bullet of fiction and a suggestion for outcomes) that it’s no great loss.

Finally, as I’m ready to go, I treat this diagram as a starting point, not a source of truth. As things come up in play or ideas come to me, I may add new nodes, change or update things, and generally keep it coherent and dynamic.6 But it means that with a single sheet of paper7 I have all the details needed to keep a job feeling fresh, with extra space for any clocks that may come up.


  1. While I am not strictly reframing jobs as 5 room dungeons, that’s not too far off from what I do. ↩︎
  2. This is not a super nuanced Way to run engagement rolls, but I am ok with it. ↩︎
  3. Confession: That usually means “Was there a cool bit in Dishonored or some other game that I want to copy?” ↩︎
  4. This is, I should cop, illusionist as hell. If you find that objectionable, then you should do all the connections now, and then run your crew through it. It’ll work fine. ↩︎
  5. Technique tip: Transitions that have rolls do one of two things. Either they force a choice (if you can get past this door, you go through to the nest node. If not, then you need to go to a different node to go around) or they function like mini-engagement rolls to frame the next node. They can do other things too, but the important thing is that the results of the roll are expressed in the subsequent node because it’s more interesting than the transition. If the transition is interesting enough to merit more than that, it should probably be a node.

    Bonus Tip: This also 100% works for D&D. ↩︎
  6. Again, illusionist as hell. Feel free to plan this stuff out if you want. ↩︎
  7. Or, more often, an iPad. The ability to reposition things electronically is kind of awesome. ↩︎

Favors in the Dark

As I work on the Grifters writeup, I occasionally get sidetracked into a pair of other gang playbooks that mostly exist in my head, one for artists, the other for revolutionaries. Both of those other playbacks really appeal to me as things to play, but they suffer from one key disconnect with Blades – the question of how to get paid.

This is not an insurmountable challenge. Revolutionaries can steal from The Man. Artists can make sales. But for me, that ends up feeling a little bit wrong. For most crews, making money is the underlying focus of activity, but for crews with a different motive (which may also include cults) the centrality of money to the system can end up hurting the feel of things.

Most specifically, it discourages crews from making a ruckus. That is, if you have a crew of rabble rousers and you want to do something dramatic and awesome but not-necessarily profitable, the system will steer you away from that. I don’t fault the design for that – it’s a harsh setting, and it supports an idea that idealists still need to eat. I genuinely get that, but sometimes the rejection of the idea that everything comes down to cash is the point.

So, to that end I have a very simple fix that has room to be a slightly more complicated fix for those who are so inclined, and that solution is favors.

Favors are another form of currency which can be earned as part of a job (or by other means) and are largely interchangeable with coin. When coin could be spent, favors can be spent instead (with caveats). Effectively, favors are a parallel currency, with only a few special rules:

  • Favors may not be used to increase the tier of your crew. That takes real money.
  • When a favor is used, an NPC must be named as the person providing the favor. No further detail is required, and the NPC may be an existing one or a new one, so long as it makes sense. There is no explicit mechanical hook to this, but it’s potentially useful information.
  • Favors can be gained by the crew or by individual members, and can be given by members to the crew, but once they go to the crew, that’s where they stay. (They’re still usable, so no biggee, this is just to prevent weird favor laundering.)
  • The Crew may only hold a maximum number of favors equal to the number of crew members. Any extras must be used immediately (by the end of the current/next downtime) or go to waste.
  • An individual crewmember may hold a number of favors equal to their Consort.
  • A favor may be spend by a player to justify a scene with an NPC. It gives no real authority beyond framing who the scene is with – where it happens and how well it’s received is on the NPC – but it gets the door open.[1]

Optional Rules

Crew Upgrade: Ironclad Reputation – Double the crew’s capacity to hold favors.

Crew Upgrade: Sterling Reputation – Triple the crew’s capacity to hold favors. Requires and replaces Ironclad reputation.

Slide Special Ability: Everybody’s Friend – Once per downtime, you can spend a downtime action working your network, doing favors and earning favors. Make a Consort roll. 1-3 Nothing happens, 4-5 Earn 1 favor, 6 Earn 2 Favors, Crit Earn 3.

Spider Special Ability: Favor Broker – Once per downtime, you may spend a favor to give another crewmember an additional downtime action. Doing so does not expend the favor.

Whisper Special Ability: Everything Bargains – Your favors extend to and from ghosts, demons and almost anything else. When you name an NPC or justify a scene, you are not bound to mere humanity.

Advance Rules: Named Favors

If one REALLY wants to, it is entirely possible to associate favors with NPCs when they’re handed out. This means that rather than just use generic favors, each favor is tied to a named NPC, and get handed out like “Black Andrea:2” or “The Ink Rakes:1” meaning Black Andrea owes me two favors and the Ink Rakes owe me 1.

This is a pretty compelling thought. It constrains the spending of favors somewhat (because the logic of who “owns” the favor influences how it’s used) but it makes the named NPCs that much more important and engageable. It also makes the favors a bot more concrete – there is no guarantee you’ll get a favor again after you spend it, so you need to think a little bit about whether it’s worth it to burn a valuable favor (because one other upshot of this is that some favors definitely ARE more valuable than others). And if an NPC owes you a lot of favors, you might be a little more invested in their well being.

However, this also calls for a level of bookkeeping that is kind of at odds with Blades in general. This is inventory management, and we don’t go for that kind of stuff here. So while I’ll share a few more bullets on how you handle this, I’m going to say that all in all I recommend against it, but if you really like the idea, then go for it.

So, that said, the tweaks you’ll make:

  • Maximum amounts are unchanged. The reduced flexibility of named favors is offset by their increased applicability and potential potency.
  • In addition to other uses, named favors can be spent for actual favors within the wheelhouse of the favor target. Usually in the form of “do this” or “don’t do this”. This is a favor, not authority, so how far someone will go depends a lot on how close to their comfort zone they are. When in doubt, if the character asks for this use of the favor and are declined (GM’s call), that does not expend the favor.

Advance Rule: Taking on Debt

Suppose your character really needs a favor but has none. You have the option of owing someone a favor in order to gain the benefit of a favor. This will usually happen during downtime, but it could come up in play or as a result of a devil’s bargain.

When taking on a debt, the character immediately gains and spends the favor (including naming the NPC) for whatever they needed to accomplish. Then then mark a “-“ wherever they track favors to note the debt.

  • Debt may be accrued by the character or the Crew. Any member of the crew may accrue debt on the Crew’s behalf.
  • Each “-“ occupies a slot of favor capacity, so the character or crew can hold one less favor for each debt they carry.
  • At any point, an NPC may attempt to call in the marker and ask the character or crew to do something. The NPC may be the one named, or it may be someone else. If the characters or crew do it, then the debt is cleared.
  • If they choose NOT to do it, the debt increases (becoming two minuses and so on). This means it occupies more favor capacity, and if this pushes over capacity, favors are lost.
  • The NPC will eventually return and ask another favor, and saying yes will clear the books (and saying no will deepen the debt) but they will probably ask for something more severe each time.
  • If turning down a favor would push a character past their favor capacity, the debt (all of it) rolls over to the crew instead (pushing out any favors they may be holding as appropriate). If turning down a favor would push the crew past their favor capacity, each point of overage is taken from crew rep. If the crew has no rep, it’s added to heat.
  • If you’re using Named Favors, then debt is also named, with all that that entails. One warning – the death of the person you owe might clear your debt, but there are no guarantees.

Anyway. This might get sidebarred into Grifters, but it’s not really a match there, so I figured I’d just share it here.

1 – (Very annoyed that my editor of choice has decided to stop auto-formatting my footnotes). So, technically this means that your crew could spend one favor for an audience with the Immortal Emperor. If this bugs you, then increase the cost of this action by the tier difference between the crew and the target. But if, like me, you hear this and think “Oh, yes, you should *definitely* do that” with an evil smile, then absolutely leave the rule as is.

Bites in the Dark

Wolf’s Head in front of the moonScott Parker shared a great post on his experience using Blades of Fate to run a Dungeon World game, and that got me thinking about probability1 which lead to all this.

I ended up talking a bit about my love of the Blades in the Dark dice pools on twitter, and specifically how well it combines with Don’t Rest Your Head. For the unfamiliar, DRYH uses different color dice to represent different ideas (like exhaustion, discipline or Madness), and when you roll a set of dice, the color of the die you use influences the outcome, both narratively and mechanically.

As with most die pool systems, it meshes very easily with BITD’s model of success and partial success, and I have been kicking around a few different things that could use this model. In the process, I came up with a quick add-on hack for Blades that at up several tweets, and I figured I’d gather it in one place.

And with that preamble out of the way, I present…

Bites In The Dark

(Title courtesy of @krenshar_posts)

This is a hack for playing werewolves (or something similar) in Blades In The Dark. In the absence of a lunar cycle, this idea is designed to model the kind fo fiction where the narrator talks about “the beast” in the third person while describing what it smells or does or wants. It’s an unwelcome presence that offers power but also threatens to overwhelm.

I’m agnostic regarding how someone becomes a werewolf, but once they do, there are two mechanical effects.

  1. Create a clock for that character labeled “THE BEAST” and set it to four wedges.
  2. The character receives one “moon die”. This should be of a visibly different color from their other dice. Assuming your Blades dice are black, white or silver is appropriate.

The moon die (or dice) should be rolled alongside the player’s other dice. When the player chooses which die is used for the result of the roll, and they choose a moon die, that has the following effects.

  1. Narratively, The Beast has helped drive the outcome, and that should be accounted for descriptively.
  2. Gain another moon die.
  3. Mark off a wedge of The Beast’s Clock

If the player uses multiple moon dice (such as for a critical success), then do these steps for every die used. This may exceed the size of the clock (in which case, don’t worry about marking any further) but it will increase the number of moon dice held by the character.

When the Beast’s clock fills, that means the character transforms and loses control. This effect can be resisted, but Moon Dice aren’t used on that resistance roll, and at best it will merely defer the effect until the end of the scene.

Upon transformation, the following happens:

  1. The GM takes control of the character and describes what happens. This is going to be gruesome and bad, and probably make for consequences for everyone. I strongly discourage the GM from outright attacking the rest of the crew, rather, let the Beast rampage, and let the consequences flow from that. The GM also controls when, where and in what condition the character returns, but she should be mindful of pacing this.
  2. If this happens while the crew is on a job, tally up the number of moon dice held by the character. After heat is calculated, add that much heat to the total.
  3. If this happens between jobs, treat it as if the character had run amok (See below).
  4. Clear the clock and reset the character’s moon pool to 1 die.

New Downtime Action: Run Amok

When the Beast threatens to run wild, sometimes the best solution is to let it. You take yourself someplace isolated and let the beast run wild, but the consequences of this can be dire.

Roll the character’s moon pool taking the best result (this roll won’t accrue wedge or moon dice), then consult this chart:

1-3 – Nobody important died. A few greased palms and charitable contributions should be able to smooth things over. Someone needs to spend 1 coin to cover this, and if they cannot, then take the 4-5 result.

4-5 – The Beast’s rampage is a subject of gossip, rumor and no small amount of fear. Start a clock labeled “Fear of the Beast Passes” with 4 wedges. Until it is cleared, jobs generate 1 extra heat, and indulging Vice clears one less stress. If this effect is triggered again while the clock is active, increase its wedge count by another 4.

6 – Hunters arrive to pursue the beast with steely glares and weapons of silver. The first time this happens, they are a tier II gang with a -1 relationship with the crew. The second time, the relationship drops by 1. The third time their tier increases as more hunters arrive. After that, it’s War.

6+ – One of the following happens:

One of your crew’s allies was attacked and has been infected.
One of your crew’s enemies was attacked, and has been infected.
Your worst enemy knows you are The Beast
Your closest friend/love knows you are The Beast.

After this roll and effect, clear The Beast’s clock, and return the Moon Die pool to 1.

Notes For Clarity

  • The player explicitly has the option of not using the Moon dice in a result. That choice it kind of the point.

And that is pretty much it.

Options and Variations:

There are a LOT of options for how to tweak this, mostly because there are a lot of different things being a werewolf might mean at the table, so these allow some tweaking.

Some of these options are also possible for ideas which are similar to werewolves, but thematically different. Deals with dark powers, sinister magical weapons, a personal Hyde or ripper – all of these things and more can be modeled with these rules with some changes in color, and possibly by picking slightly different options.

Magical Effects
If the player wants to do something that should be impossible, but makes sense under the auspices of the Beast (like, make an impossible jump, or track someone through a crowd by smell) they they can do so, rolling only moon dice and resolving normally. Since this guarantees that moon dice will be used, it also guarantees triggering a moon die gain.

It’s worth noting that this is potentially very powerful – allowing the “impossible” in Blades removes the one check against runaway player action (the GM not calling for a roll). It can get around tier issues and generally allows for very big results. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s something to be very aware of and in alignment on. It also should be reflected in the scope of potential consequences when the Beast gets loose.

Gentler Lycanthropy
The player is not obliged to roll moon dice, though if they do, they must roll them all. Rolling moon dice is treated as accepting a Devil’s Bargain, so they cannot be further supplements.

This slightly constrains the bonus on the rolls, and makes it much less likely that the character will lose control. That removes a fair amount of the risk from the system, but sometimes that’s appropriate. This is suitable for games where the beast is more controllable by its nature, or for ones where something else is keeping The Beast in check (for example, this rule might only be in play so long as the character is regularly taking Wolfsbane infusions, or at certain times & places). An advantage of tying this to something in the fiction is that its loss is now a viable (and toothy, ha ha) consequence.

Less Predictable Clock
Set The Beast’s clock to 8 wedges, but change the process so that when a moon die or dice are used, do the following.

  1. Incorporate the Narrative
  2. Increase the character’s moon die pool by the number of moon dice used.
  3. Roll all moon dice and take the best result. Increase The Beasts clock 1 space on a 1-3, 2 spaces on a 4-5, 3 spaces on a 6, and one additional space for each additional 6. The good news is that this roll does not trigger any additional moon die gain.

I went with 8 wedges here, assuming 2 wedges per roll, but that’s going to be unevenly distributed, and it can go much faster if the dice are unkind. The upshot of this is that the number of moon dice the character is holding will be much less predictable when they transform (so the mechanical effects are less predictable). This is also, frankly, a little bit meaner, especially since it feels more generous (8 wedges!).

Werewolf Healing
Transformation (either in play or RUnning Amok), clears any wounds the character has.

This is super kind – healing is a pain in Blades – but it’s kind of thematically appropriate.

Temporary Power
The assumption is that this state does not go away, but it’s entirely possible that after transformation occurs, that’s it. The possessing spirit flees, or the drug wears off or whatever.

In this case, transformation should have a very specific meaning or cost, something that makes it a Damoclean sword hanging over the character.

Fatal Power
The flipside of Temporary Power – once the clock fills, that’s it, you’re done. In this case, I strongly suggest that the transformation remain in the player’s control, since this is their moment of going down in a blaze of glory.

This works well with Gentler Lychanthropy, but without it you can get a great Strikeforce Morituri vibe.

Ratcheting Doom
Start the Beast’s Clock at 2 wedges higher than normal. Then, every time it’s cleared and reset, it has 1 fewer wedge. When the clock has zero wedges, that is the final transformation. There is only the Beast now.

This one will take a while to go through, but it has a certain charm for games long enough to sustain its arc. The one thing I don’t like so much is that the moon pool gets smaller with each iteration, so while it represents burnout pretty well, it’s less well suited to the idea of the beast growing stronger.

Edit: Got a great suggestion from @thedicemechanic for this that solves the problem.  Each time the clock resets, the reset moon die pool is one larger, and a wedge of the clock is filled in (rather than getting smaller). So, first time it resets to 2 moon dice, and the first wedge is filled in.  Second time it resets to 3 moon dice and the first two wedges are filled in and so on. This gets the ratcheting, but ALSO keeps the mayhem going. 

Heroic Alternatives
It’s worth noting that this also works for more heroic games. The “transformation” could just as easily be the equivalent of a Limit Break. This scratches the surface of a much bigger alternative, but if anyone is looking to do an Exalted2 or Final Fantasy hack, this option might be helpful.


  1. Specifically, the fact that a critical point about Blades of Fate is that it absolutely privileges success as a consequence of an even distribution of outcomes. This is neither a bug nor a feature so much as something to be explicitly mindful of when choosing it. If you want people to mostly be awesome but occasionally surprised by twists, it’s a good approach, but if you expect the dice to provide more complication, it’s going to seem too easy. To my mind it relies on compels to make up that gap, but the exact balance will absolutely have a component of taste to it. ↩︎
  2. In thinking about this, I realized that BLADES IN THE SUN is a fantastic ideas that I don’t have the time or energy to pursue right now. ↩︎

Narrating from Knowledge

This was an unplanned tweetstorm this morning, but it’s practical enough that it’s worth turning into a proper post.

TL;DR – when you narrate in blades, include all the information that the characters would have gotten if they’d asked all the smart questions and done all the smart research. We are playing to see what they do with that information, not to watch them flail around finding it.


When you’re running (or playing) Blades in the Dark, narration should come from a place of knowledge.

That is simple, but maybe not obvious, so let me unpack what that means.  In most games you will use descriptive narration, telling players what they see and sense. If they want further information, they can take action as characters (investigate, poking around) or ask questions as players.  This back and forth is part of how players engage a situation, and for many games this is fine.

Blades is a bit different in two ways.  First, it is very rare that the question is whether the crew will succeed, and is instead about how they will succeed (and what may happen as a result).  Second, the flashback mechanism offers entirely different ways to engage these scenes.  These differences call for a difference in approach – specifically, they reward giving more information when narrating.

So, rather than provide a purely descriptive narration, consider an informed narration – one that expands upon the description with context and information, as if the listener were well informed on the topic.  See, in Blades – on a job in particular – the assumption is that characters have done their due diligence and legwork, so when an element is introduced, the narrator can reflect that with an “as you know, Bob…”, albeit cooler.

So, for example, if my crew were to come upon a door in a classic game, I might say:

The door is imposing and conveys a clear message of “no”.  Heavy black wood, thick bronze bands and an ornate, sophisticated lock all make it cleat that this door is not interested in letting you past.

And that’s fine, so far as it goes.  They can start digging in.  But for blades, I would start with that and add something like:

The wood is treated ironwood: fireproof and hard enough to dull anything but specialized tools, imported from the south at significant expense. The lock’s a Wilson and Finch 9 tumbler job with an etheric snap back mechanism which has three keys, one held by the mark, one by his chief of security and one in the W&F offices.

Now, I’m giving two kinds of information here.  Some of this is information that could be sussed out by asking questions (or, depending on the game, maybe making knowledge rolls), and providing that without the players asking serves a couple purposes, but most critically it shows the players and their characters  a degree of respect and circumvents the possibility that they might ask the “wrong” questions.  That kind of generosity is useful in many games.

The other kind of information is contextual.  Where the wood comes from, what the status of the keys are and details about the lock are things that could not be determined within the scene, so providing them seems counterintuitive to the usual RPG model – it might even feel overly narrative or storytelling-ish.  However, it’s much less grandiose than that – it is a way to reflect the legwork that the characters did offscreen without forcing them to keep extensive notes.  Just assuming the know this stuff is both practical and respectful.

But that’s not all – this also very explicitly provides hooks for flashbacks.  As narrator, I am communicating several possible elements that might inspire players to hang a flashback off.  Now, players are creative, and they may not need these hooks, or they may ignore the hooks I offer entirely in favor of their own, and that’s fine, but by offering them I prime the pump.

Not only does this make life easier for my players, it makes life easier for me.  When I don’t have time to think up a really interesting job, or when the circumstances surrounding a job dictate that it’s probably short and simple, a few richly narrated details can unspool into a lot of very satisfying play by moving play into the flashbacks.  The job itself could be quite short, but the play experience very satisfying if enough engagement happens in the flashbacks.

If you’re looking for tips on how to do this, look to the source fiction.  Capers and espionage stories, especially movies and TV, are awash with well-informed narrators.  This might take the form of a mission briefing voiceover while the action is taking place, or it might take the form of editorial observations from the protagonist.  I’m a huge fan of Burn Notice which is a great example of the latter  type.   Find a voice and style you like, and think about how a scene would be described in that context.

Now, none of this is obligatory.  Blades runs just fine if you do it straight, so this is not something to stress about.  But it’s a powerful tool in your toolbox, and I definitely encourage trying it out.

Sidebar: All this is for players too.  If your GM doesn’t give you hooks to hang flashbacks on, then that is an invitation to create them.  This doesn’t require a full narration or story, just your own little bit of Burn Notice voiceover and you’re off to the races!

Bonds in the Dark

I have one minor philosophical disconnect with Blades in the Dark – I think it does not do enough to encourage character’s connections to named NPCs. When a character starts, you have some great connections (ally, enemy, vice dealer) but those are all you’re ever going to have. That’s something I want more of.

Now, there’s a good reason for this disconnect. Blades is not about the characters as much as it is about the crew. Connections to individual characters detract from that model – it is the crew who should be establishing connections – and I completely get this. For example, much of why I want personal connections is to provide hooks for play. This is a time honored tradition, but it works just as well to create hooks for the crew.

And yet…

I really want to support more personal connections. I’m not saying it’s better, it’s just what I want. And not just for Blades – this is going to be even more important for other things I’m thinking about with Blades tech. So, here’s my idea.

Bonds

(Yes, I know, in PBTA this has a specific meaning, but it’s also a normal world, so I super don’t care.)

The first thing to do is talk a little bit the various types of relationships that a character might have with NPCs. This is a potentially strongly varied list, but we’ll keep it focused so we don’t wander too far away from the essential nature of Blades.

For simplicity, we’re going to boil all meaningful relationships in Blades into 7 categories: Stranger, Acquaintance, Associate, Ally, Friend, Rival and Enemy.

A Stranger is someone you don’t know, simple as that. You might see them or know their name secondhand, but they’re not someone who you would expect to have a conversation with or to have any idea who you are. You might have a passing conversation with them for transient reasons, but nothing that sets up a relationship. In the city, most people are strangers.

An acquaintance is someone you know well enough to know their name and say “hi” to. You could probably have a conversation with them in a pinch, but that’s about as far as it goes. It’s not much of a relationship in and of itself, but a relationship could potentially be developed. Most NPCs in Blades that the characters have interacted with would be considered acquaintances.

An associate is someone with whom you have a mutually beneficial relationship, such as someone you do regular business with, a fellow member of a club or something similar. While you cannot expect them to go to any great lengths for you, you can expect the kind of support that comes of being a good customer. That is, they won’t help for free, but might offer the occasional discount (and expect the same). A character’s vice purveyor is an example of an associate. Unmarked “Friends” on the playbook are also probably associates.

An ally is someone who can largely be counted on to watch your back, or at least give you advanced warning if shit is going down. The relationship may not necessarily be warm or emotional, but it’s largely a positive dynamic. Playbook “Friends” marked with an up arrow are usually allies.

A friend is someone who actually cares about the character, and may be willing to take non-trivial risks on their behalf. Real friends are a rare commodity in the city – they’re valuable as heck, but they also represent potential weaknesses.

A rival is someone whose priorities are at odds with yours. They may not be at direct loggerheads, but they’re perfectly willing to make your life worse and benefit from the problems that follow. They might literally be a business rival, or they might be someone who dislikes you but doesn’t necessarily care a lot about you. Playbook “Friends” marked with a down arrow are often rivals.

An enemy would actively like bad things to happen to you, and is willing to take steps to make them happen. How direct they’re willing to be about this depends a lot on their means, but even the most humble of enemies can make a lot of trouble in their particular wheelhouse.

EDIT TO ADD: Over at Google+, Allen Varney gave a WONDERFUL summary of these that I had to re-share:

Stranger: Wouldn’t recognize you on the street
Acquaintance: Can pick you out of a police lineup
Associate: Knows how to find you
Ally: Knows your other associates
Friend: Knows your address
Rival: Knows your address and will tell it to anyone
Enemy: You hope they don’t know your address

 

Establishing Bonds

Sometimes bonds (especially enemies) can be created as a result of play, but players also have the option of developing bonds through downtime actions.

To establish a bond, the player much choose an acquaintance with whom to develop a relationship. Most characters already have numerous acquaintances who have come up in play, and they can choose freely among them.

The first step is to turn an acquaintance into an associate. This is a simple project, usually requiring 6 ticks on a clock,(but see “social climbing”, below). Taking a downtime action to advance this clock will most often be a consort roll, but almost any skill could be appropriate if it’s a shared activity that gives you a chance to bond.

It’s a similar effort to turn an associate into a rival or ally. Then again, to turn an ally into a friend, or a rival into an enemy. It is also possible to reverse direction, and turn and enemy into a rival and a rival into an associate.

While players will mostly want to establish positive connections, the option for other relationships is there for the players who enjoy a more complicated web, or who want a little narrative control of who their enemies are. Plus, enemies tend to be a more reliable source of complications (and thus XP, see Bonds and XP, below)

And, of course, relationships – especially negative ones – can be the result of play or other clocks too. Even if characters are not seeking enemies, enemies may find them.

Fiddly Bits

New Bonds

Sometimes there are no existing NPCs of the type a character is looking to connect with. In this case, the character may need to turn a stranger into an associate. Mechanically, this is the same as any other bond creation (6 tick wheel, modified by class) but the GM is willing to require some pre-amble if the type of person being sought is not so easily found.

Social Climbing

It is harder to establish bonds with people who operate at higher tiers of society. If the target of a potential bond is associated with a faction that is larger than the crew, then the number of ticks required to cement the bond is increased by 2 for every step of difference.

Bonds and RP

While bonds can be an entirely mechanical exercise during downtime, it is entirely reasonable for the GM or player to ask for a brief scene to play out some of the interactions with the NPC. Don’t spend too much time on it, but have fun.

Bonds and XP

If you are playing with bonds, then update the XP question “You expressed your beliefs, drives, heritage, or background” to “You expressed your beliefs, drives, heritage, background or bonds”.1

Crew Bonds

It’s also possible for the crew as a whole to form a relationship with someone. This follows the same rules as individual bonds, but requires twice as many ticks. However, any member of the crew may contribute to the project.

  1. Honestly, even if you don’t use the rest of the bond rules, consider using this tweak if you have fleshed out your player’s connections enough that they are driving play to any extent. Enemies are much more welcome when they contribute to XP. ↩︎

Letter of the Law: The One Where Everything Blows Up

line and node diagram of all the characters and groups in flight in the current game. A giant mess.

The Current State of NIghtmarket

In the last session of our Blades in the Dark online game, Shadow had come out of Ironhook with an interest in the oddly tattooed “octopus gang” that had hassled him there. Jacob of the Ink Rakes had agreed to provide some information in return for helping with a “little problem”, which they did (also helping out the booksellers of Nightmarket and securing their “informants” holding) and as a result tonight kicked off with the payoff from Jacob.

Jacob didn’t know a lot. They had picked up the nickname “The Eights”, though whether that was a play on words or a reference to their octopus tattoos was not entirely clear. They were a lot like other cults in the city – a little dangerous, a little crazy, mostly kept to themselves, recruited among the truly desperate and so on. They were unwelcome around the Docks, but not excessively so. But a few weeks back, they’d all vanished. Word was they had set up shop in Bonfire (the Iruvian neighborhood in Nightmarket).

Jacob also tried to get them to carry some of his magazines in their bookstore, but the Bonfire news was of most interest to the crew.

A bit about Bonfire: The Iruvian neighborhood in Nightmarket is one of the largest foreign districts in Duskvol (rivaled but it’s Severosi neighbor, Horsehoe). It’s name derives from two sources – the first is that it is probably the most warmly lit neighborhood in Duskvol, as there are constantly fires of every type burning, kept ablaze by a combination of nostalgia and tradition by those who no longer feel the warmth of the sacred flame. The second is that this fondness for fire means that there have been more large scale fires in this neighborhood than anywhere else in the city, and as a result it’s even more of a built-and-rebuilt warren than normal. The Red Sashes have a presence there (though they have not yet really conflicted with the crew) and one of the crew members – Thorn – is a member of the community of…peculiar standing.

The crew members hit the street to find out more about what was going on. Shadow’s bluecoat contacts had little to offer, and while the Archimandrite gave Thorn some interesting information about the Cult’s symbol (it had been used by a cult squelched by the Spirit Wardens a century before) he had little to offer in terms of current events. He did, however, make a passing remark about a lack of ghost problems in Bonfire of late.

Ellis skipped the middleman and simply started beating the streets and found the cult’s hideout without too much hassle. It was a fire ravaged building that was too damaged for use but too intact to be easily demolished, surrounded by buildings in similar or worse shape. There were signs they’d put in some defenses on the lower floors, and that there had been a fight recently, but she couldn’t get much close to check.

Spider ended up finding out the most, partly through my bad memory. Her positive contact is Jul, a blood dealer. We had kind of wondered what that meant, and at some point in the past I’d decided that it means leviathan blood, but I entirely forgot about that, and just as well. Spider was mostly reaching out because Jul was Iruvian, but it worked out well. See, Jul runs an opium den where the drugs are cheap and the snacks are plentiful because the real price is the pint of blood that users leave behind, which is in turn mixed and provided for the customers in the back room, who are never acknowledged as being there, and who are largely Iruvian Vampires.

Another sidebar: Iruvian Vampires is, on its surface, a paradox. The sacred flame in U’Duasha consumes all ghosts created within the city, so you don’t get certain problems down there that you get in Duskvol. However, there is a small but robust ghost-smuggling business for the very rich and powerful of Iruvia who are near the ends of their life and would rather continue as a ghost rather than risk whatever fate awaits them I’m the flame. At no small cost, their ghosts may get bound, transported elsewhere (most often Duskvol) and released. At greater cost, further arrangements may be made. The Iruvian vampires of Duskvol are an association of those who have paid this greater cost, and in many ways they are very much the iconic image of elite, powerful vampires hiding in the shadows. This is all fairly secret (for good reason) but the crew is tied into this sort of action.

Jul knows a bit about the cult, enough to dislike them, and it comes out that the reason for this is that they make his clients (with a glance towards the back room) nervous. Spider tries a consort roll to get an introduction to a Vampire, and succeeds, but he owes Jul a favor as a result. Jul agrees to speak to his clients, but sends Spider home while he makes arrangements.

The vampire who arrives at The Letter of the Law is a surprisingly young looking Iruvian man who seems utterly delighted at the theatricality of the secret back room. He introduces himself as Lor Ankhuset1, and is delighted to meet them. Negotiations follow, and the Vampire is willing to share what he knows in return for three favors to be named later.

Surely no problems will emerge from that.

The vampire revealed three things:

  1. The eights and the red sashes had clashed earlier. Smart money would have been on the Red Sashes, but something happened inside the Eight’s HQ which lead to a drastic reversal.
  2. The eights were spending clean money – that is, they had fresh-pressed silver. The subtext is that they had some manner of sponsor, someone rich enough to have access to the money, and highly enough placed to not even realize why that would be a problem.
  3. Most critically, there were now no ghosts in Bonfire. Lor could not explain why or how, but they had started vanishing shortly after the Eights set up residence, and the Vampires were starting to get very nervous because things felt wrong to them. The Spirit Wardens would probably be very interested in this if they found out, but since this had actually meant less work for them, they hadn’t noticed that in the way they would have an uptick.

So, this was pretty clearly bad, but it was hard to say how. Spider confirmed the absence of ghosts personally, and even went to far as to find another ghost and bring them there, only to watch it get sucked away towards the Eights’ headquarters. Spider was intrigued enough to try attuning to the ghost field to see what was going on, which proved a not great idea as something tried to pull her soul right out of her body2. She kept it together, and got a sense of a beacon or vortex pulling things from the direction of the Eights, but she couldn’t get much closer and still keep control.

The crew did not fully understand what was going on, but agreed that it was almost certainly bad enough to merit drastic response. Discussion of bodies hitting the floor was had, and agreed upon. They would seed the building with incendiaries and the foundations with explosives. Ideally hey could flush out the cult before falling back on mass destruction, but it pays to be sure3.

Which is, of course, where things started going very, very wrong.

The crew split up, with Thorn and Spider heading for the sewers and Ellis and Shadow coming from the roof. The engagement roll came up a 3, so I decided that they were going to end up out of sync – a dangerous proposition when dealing with the kind of ordinance they were toting. The path through the sewers was not what they expected it to be, with numerous collapsed or blocked sections forcing a roundabout route. Meanwhile, Shadow entered through the roof, with Ellis in overwatch, and promptly went deeper into the building than was wise (because Reckless). A mixed prowl result let him place his last charge before he was set upon by a cleaver-wielding hull, and avoided getting split open by virtue of an excellent resistance roll and convenient armor4.

Cut back to the sewers, where Thorn & Spider are setting charges. Now, Spider has the Saboteur move, as well as three dots of wreck, so I extend a lot of narrative leeway here, and I’m expecting no real trouble here, esp since Thorn is helping. On a mixed result, I’d be leaning on the time disconnect to create inconveneice, but I’m ready for whatever. At which point Spider’s dice betray her, and we get nothing but 3s and 2s.

So, GM hat time. They’re working with explosives, and that is an obvious oh shit roll, and it would be entirely inappropriate for me to ignore that. However, it had only been a risky roll, so it would be a bit of a jerk move to go straight to the kind of consequences this would require, so I gave them an opportunity. As the bombs started flashing, they had the opportunity to make a desperate prowl roll to try to get the hell clear.

Thorn got a mixed result and Spider’s dice failed again.

Thorn was easy to adjudicate – he was looking at 3 harm as the explosion threw him into something hard, but he managed to buy that down through a combination of armor and resistance. Spider was a bit more of a challenge.

See, confession, I like to push hard on certain issues as a GM, but I have never been a “killer GM”. In my philosophy of play, character death is frequently and indicator of GM failure. So my first instinct was to offer some kind of sop – have Spider get trapped or something similar – but that was not a good instinct. It did not respect the situation. So I took a deep breath and ignored my internal protest and declared “Level 4 Harm”, which is to say, a lethal result.

This was not the end of it. Spider had the opportunity to resist, and like the rest of her crew, had armor, and she actually had a decent reserve of Stress, so the odds were actually not that bad. It is, in fact, one of the nice things about Blades – as a GM I can push the hard, and it’s the start of the conversation, not the end.

Spider’s luck reversed, and she crushed the resistance roll with a crit5, but she and Thorn were separated. Meanwhile, Shadow was making a desperate prowl roll to dive out the window and escape the Hull. He critted that roll sufficiently hard that it absolutely demanded that he be diving out as the explosion rolled up through the building.

As Ellis watched this all, appalled, I turned to her and remarked “There is no way anyone in that building survived, but the bell is not ringing.” This brought a wave of consternation to the table, that only grew as I described that the fire was not diminishing, but rather slowly changing color towards blue, and resolving into a towering column of flame which was now drawing attention from…well, everywhere.

This was the get out of dodge moment, and the crew fell back to Sha’s Noodles, their rendezvous point. The fire was still burning, and the Spirit Wardens and Bluecoats were cordoning it off, but it was showing no signs of diminishing. What’s more, Thorn was finding that it caused his ghost-killing tattoos to flare up (though this fire felt cold and hungry, unlike the warmth of the true sacred flame), and Shadow determined that it was now drawing in ghosts from an even wider radius, perhaps even the entire city.

And that’s where we left off.

We resolved the job. No coin, 2 Rep, 6 heat. I could arguably have gone with 8 heat, because bodies dropped, but I consider that +2 to come from the bells and crows and extra attention over and above what’s happened in the job, and in this case, that seemed well folded into the 6. For the entanglement, we got Show of Force/Demonic Notice and both are so magnificently appropriate that I’m not sure which I’ll be kicking the next session off with.

Curiously, while things have utterly gone to hell, the crew is in decent shape. They’d been keeping their heat squeaky clean, so they could take this hit, and there had been decent margin for stress at the beginning of the night. However, the circumstances are dire enough that I am not sure there’s actually going to be any opportunity for downtime before we pick up again. If so, that 6 heat is going to be a Damoclean sword hanging over the group, and I’m kind of curious to see how that goes.

Good session all in all. Slow start, but the Vampire is going to absolutely drive some future fun even after the current problems die down, and I am 100% OK with that ending, though it was definitely not something I saw coming.

  1. This is one of the 4 Iruvian great houses, and specifically the house that Thorn is from a cadet branch of. If he’s not full of it, this and other indicators suggest this is someone of significant importance. ↩︎
  2. Shadow helped with this roll, with some Tycherosi blood magic, which also created an opportunity for the devil’s bargain that Shadow’s Shadow was going to mess with Spider at some point in the future, which was accepted. ↩︎
  3. There has actually been some internal debate about how extreme this solution was, with Ellis (as usual) being a voice of reason. Shadow had not weighed in yet, so I took an opportunity. See, Shadow picked up the “Reckless” trauma (which is super apt, and also plays into the fact that half the crew have the Daredevil move), and his player fully embraces it, to the point where I (virtually) turned to him and said “More bombs sound awesome” and he was all in. ↩︎
  4. Shadow has the Mule move (which drastically ups his load) and the crew has Bravos Rigging, which gives 2 more load for use with armor & weapons. Combined with the fact that he’s a reckless daredevil, we often end up with the most heavily armored Lurk in Duskvol. ↩︎
  5. The actual rules for how much resistance can reduce harm are intentionally fuzzy so as to account for a variety of situations. However, because my crew are a bunch of twins, I use a fairly mechanical approach to Harm – successful resistance can drop it a step, with each critical dropping it another step. Thus, with a critical and armor, Spider managed to drop the harm by 3 levels, and walk out merely “scorched”. ↩︎

Harm in Blades in the Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harm Duration Guidelines

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

Blackheels and Blackfingers

Another double dose!

As is traditional with the Blackheels, I had no idea what was going on, but since it’s a weekday night, I like to push a little – if the players want to go in another direction, then awesome, but I wan to make sure there’s at least one clear path of opportunity. Looking for this, I did a quick reading with my Everway deck and spun up a quick plot thread.

The Blackheels were approached for a job outside of town – a man of military bearing approached Noose (the spider) with an offer. His patron needed information from a ghost, and the Blackheels had a reputation in that space. Intrigued, the crew agreed to meet with his patron, a portly young man who – judging by how free he was with the food – had more money than sense. He was also kind of an asshole, but he was willing to pay a substantial amount (8 Coin) for the crew’s assistance. Plus, everyone was pretty sure he had not poisoned them.

The trip to the Lost District was by boat and uneventful until docking. Interestingly, I realized as we were discussing that this was technically a transport score, so I quickly sketched out a map, added a few details that made it clear each route that risks, and let the players go nuts.

They avoided the smugglers and looters, but came dangerous close to the cultists – fleeing those lead them into the bloodbugs, and then into the haunted storefronts, which ended a bit explosively as a body-hopping storekeeper ended up on the receiving end of the Cutter’s ghost-punching.

But they got to the old bank, and proceeded to look for the ghost, which is when things went wrong. A voice offered double the money they had been promised if the Lurk would remove a necklace from their employer. At first, it just whispered to the Spider and Slide, but eventually approached the Lurk directly, who decided this sounded like a great idea. The dice, however, were not with her. She succeeded, but their employer’s armsman saw it, and the violence began. The Lurk’s life was mostly saved by some retroactive sabotage on the Spider’s part, and the Cutter got hurt before the Slide & Spider bought a moment of distraction that let the hound get off a clean shot.

Meanwhile, the client had been flopping around, floating off the ground and generally having a low budget mystical FX moment. He pulled himself together, and in a rather different manner, thanked the crew, lead them down to the safe deposit room, pointed out three vaults, and encouraged them to take as much gold from them as they could. The crew had concluded that he had been possessed, and had been freed by removing the necklace, and their employer did not contradict this conclusion, and was in fact an absolutely sterling client all the way back to nearly his place, where he apologetically parted ways because, he noted, the former resident had orders that the crew be killed if they were with him (at this point the crew realized that this was young Lord Reilly, heir to the Reilly canning fortune and the breadbasket of Duskvol).

So the crew took their money and happily went home. They had been well paid (and were grateful they already had the vault upgrade), had accrued minimal heat and had picked up significant rep for “Robbing a bank in the Lost District”. And the entanglement roll was, as it had been last time, “Unquiet Dead”, so I put that in my pocket, because things are very clearly going in a direction.


Now on to the Blackfingers!

Having stolen Slane’s payroll last episode, he’d taken a loan from Lord Coleburn to fund his next shipment of plating to the fleet, so the crew’s plan was to sabotage it. We had exactly the chemical’s we needed thanks to the Jack’s downtime efforts last session, so we launched immediately into the plan.

There was some discussion of different approaches, but the crew settled on deception – Jack, Luca and Rudy would take over one of the regular deliveries to the factory, slip in that way and put the chemicals into the iron. The engagement roll came up risky, so play began with a more-intelligent-than-average person manning the gate, looking at Jack, squinting, and remarking “I don’t know you.”

Flashback to Achilles getting the gate rotation and giving Jack a full briefing on who to expect, what to say and so on (also providing an assist), revealing that this is Grace, and she’s got union sympathies. Jack spins some lies, rolls well, and the cart gets inside.

Faced with the question of how to deliver the chemicals without being noticed, we cut over to Izzy, who has blended in with the workers and takes this opportunity to begin a rousing speech about the terrible labor conditions1. She succeeds wildly, and provides a distraction (a setup) for Jack to do the sabotage. Rudy also seizes the opportunity of the distracted Slane to rob his office and pick his pocket because Rudy has 1) very little sense of self preservation and 2) The devil’s own luck with the dice (He got Slane’s paperwork and his keys). The sabotage succeeds and now comes the question of how people will get out.

The real danger at this point is to Izzy, who has drawn the attention of Slane’s legbreakers. Luca got a good read on the potential violence and made a beeline towards Izzy, attempting to shout her down. She succeeds in giving Izzy an opportunity to be ushered out, but also ends up in the midst of a violent riot that she needs to fight her way out of. Jack provides distraction by releasing the exploding goat (flashback to Achilles lecturing on the subtleties of goat detonation) as a distraction, and Luca manages to fight her way out, resisting injury, but with a devil’s bargain that resulted in a fatality.

Outside the factory, Grace confronted Izzy because she had not seen Izzy at any of the meetings, but Izzy bullshitted well, and made her escape.

In the aftermath, the crew got a little rep, some coin (they sold papers about the riot) and SO MUCH HEAT. 7 Heat. Thankfully we had started at zero due to some excellent lawyering on Izzy’s part last session, so it could have been worse. Entanglement roll resulted in Luca getting beat to crap by the Bluecoats, and that’s where our luck ran out – She resisted the harm with 4 dice, but only one stress left, and she failed to roll a 5 or 6. Luca picked up the first trauma (Reckless). Downtime was mostly training and clearing heat.

Next job was an attempt to improve situation while waiting for the iron sabotage to pay off. After some discussion, we decided to pursue the Cover Operation improvement to upgrade the Night Market Dispatch to the Duskvol Dispatch, and after some discussion of how to approach that, the score ends up being a social score to get on good terms with the Railjacks – it gives us good material for the big issue and another avenue for distribution. Achilles has connections via Lynch & Sons, and the engagement roll was a crit, so we jump past the first challenge and we’re swapping stories with the Railjacks. This leads to an unexpected realization that if we can send one of Jack’s Camera’s with with Railjacks to get photos of the Deathlands, and that smells like OPPORTUNITY! So the crew took a picture (of a railjack throwing a bottle, with the intent of showing the result to the railjack’s tomorrow.

However, while leaving the railjack bar, Jack, Izzy and Achilles we greeted by gentlemen in Imperial regalia. Izzy lied brilliantly and got Jack of the hook, but Izzy & Achilles were invited into a carriage with the a lady from the ministry of preservation, A Lady Slane (elder sister of THAT Slane) who is concerned about unionization among the Railjacks. Achilles made the case that the Dispatch’s business interests with the Railjacks would diminish union pressures. He also agreed to report on any interesting news from the Railjacks.

The photo was well received, and the crew also worked overnight to make a little penny dreadful pamphlet of one of the Railjack’s stories (and a copy sent to the ministry making a note that the coda of the actual story reflects poorly on the railroads, but that made for a boring story. The camera was sent off with a Railjack and all was good. (3 rep, 1 heat, 6 Coin)

Kristoff Edwrap, rep for the Ink Rakes, showed up as a result of the engagement roll, and the shakedown began. The Crew has agreed to roll with that for now.

Downtime was quiet. Jack built his camera, everyone else trained, and we called it a night.

  1. As a table we kind of wanted this to be a musical number, but no such luck. ↩︎