This is going to be a weird post – I started the writeup for Letter of the Law #1, but before I finished, we played the next Blackfinger game. And while this was still in progress, we did a pickup game last night. So I’m trying to catch up, so buckle up
Letter of the Law Ep 1.0
Plot-wise this was all pretty straightforward. The crew decided that they wanted some turf, but rather than just grab it, they decided they’d appeal to the next tier up in their neighborhood, the Schnaber Crew. The Schnaber Crew are mostly an extended family who load and unload the trains, and the PC crew has stayed on good terms with them, playing tithes and generally being good neighbors, so it was not an unreasonable play. And since the Schnaber crew had been having trouble with what seemed like a professional arsonist messing with them, they were willing to look kindly on someone who solved the problem for them.
Initial investigations didn’t turn up much, but one of the Cutter’s contacts was willing to offer information in return for a favor (busting up a restaurant which had snubbed her). The crew did, despite some complications, and actually turned a tidy profit on it, which in turn got them the location of the Arsonists hideout. THey flushed him out, took him down, and handed him over to the Schnabers, who in return “Made available” a protection opportunity, so the PCs now run protection for a noodle shop in Night Market.
Like I said, pretty straightforward. But the devil, as always, in the details.
We added a new character to the crew tonight, a Leech named Spider. She’s a former Railjack and keeper of her family’s box of ghosts, and she fit very tidily into the crew’s Strange rep. Chargen was interesting because we talked a lot about the line between Leeches and Whispers and what it means in play – originally the character was going to be a Whisper, but some back and forth eventually lead to Leech.
I gave all the characters a second playbook move for free. This was kind of a taste thing, but for me, the second playbook move is kind of what firms up a lot of the character ideas, especially in the case where the player has taken the default ability. It’s not a huge mechanical difference, but I was happy with the outcome.
There were two jobs in the evening – smashing the restaurant and grabbing the arsonist. The latter was very successful (the dice were on fire) but I think the former was better play. I allowed too much planning to happen the second time, in part because I think I set the situation up poorly. It went ok, but it was education in terms of striking the balance of how much detail is an is not helpful. Most critically, It underscored that I need to make sure the opportunities are implicit in information gathered, even if it’s not obvious in the questions the players ask.
Hunt picked up an extra layer of utility when we decided it was a totally valid skill for laying a false trail, which is a useful heat-reducing activity.
I am struggling a bit to try to figure out which handles I’m supposed to use to push. The game gives me a ton of tools for pushing back on the characters, but they all rely on player initiation. That’s not bad per se, but sometimes I want someone to come in through the door, guns blazing.
Bravos seem to tend towards short jobs, but I think my players are more inclined towards long ones, so I need to figure out how to strike that balance.
Blackfingers Ep 4
The job itself was pretty straightforward. The crew had just expanded (reached tier 1) but had emptied our coffers to do so. We also had a demon waiting for us to do the job for him (to destroy the unkillable industrialist, Slane). After reviewing options and a bit of research, we decided to go after Slane’s payroll and kill two birds with one stone. Having identified that his vault (and his quarters) were beneath his ironworks factory, we had a target and began the infiltration. The Spider & Slide remained outside (largely contributing via flashbacks) while the Lurk, Cutter & Leech snuck in, broke into Slane’s chambers (discovering the demon there, profoundly uninterested in their activities, and implicitly explaining both where Slane’s luck came from and the demon’s motive), discovered the vault, took what they could and wrecked the rest. The whole job went smoothly, and Slane just had to take out a substantial loan to make payroll, and we know that next session is going to jump right into sabotaging his next delivery of ship-plates to keep him from getting paid.
This was the longest job we’ve done yet, which was interesting, mores because it’s the second “long” job I’ve done, with the curious overlap that both were effectively infiltration dungeon crawls. This ended up being something to chew on as I considered job length for the Bravo crew.
It was observed that the Spider and the Slide are effectively a project manager and product manager for crime.
In the intervening time since the last job, I have internalized a lot more of the game and setting, which naturally makes everything more awesome.
We determined that the coffee-equivalent in Duskvol is a fungus base brew called “Shoe” because it’s brewed in big pots of dark liquid, and there’s no guarantee regarding what’s actually in the pot.
This game was entirely unplanned. We had some friends over and had just finished playing Machi Koro, were deciding what to do next, and opted for a game of Blades. We had 5 players – two from Blackfingers, one from Letter of the Law, and two who had never even seen Blades before. So we did the whole nine yards – chargen, crew gen, setup, job and downtime. Whole thing took maybe 3 hours?
Was a crew of Shadows with a lot of ghosty stuff, but with a Daring reputation. They also took the “Boat” upgrade, which ended up being kind of awesome and a natural reason for one of their favorable connections to be with the Gondoliers. The crew was a Cutter, Hound, Spider, Slide and Lurk, all Duskvol natives of various types. On a night when the Spirit Wardens were swamped by an industrial accident, the Gondoliers needed one dead body swapped with another one in a Bluecoat stationhouse. The Slide provided a distraction while the rest of the crew snuck in, but unfortunately that also lead to a bit of a riot among the drunk tank, which escalated when the drunk’s friends showed up. The Slide made several (successful) desperate rolls amidst the impromptu riot while the rest of the group deal with a body mix up and an inaccurate map of the sewers to eventually find their way out as one of the bodies left behind decided it was time for some ghostly horror show action. But, hey, they got paid!
Despite the absence of a Whisper or a Leech, they crew kept pitching ideas that really would have suited those playbook better. Not sure what that says.
As with the Letter of the Law, I allowed 2 playbook moves at chargen, and I no longer have any concerns about doing so – it’s great.
I leaned a little bit more on group actions in this session than I have previously. Worked very well for keeping things moving, but they’re a little bland in action.
The dice favored the players. I was aggressively leaning on non-6s to speed up the timetable on the ghost showing up, but they just kept hitting 6s. I probably need to start planning for that, since this is not the first game that this has happened in.
I remain floored by how well Blades handles pickup play. I love pickup play in general, but Blades has some secret sauce that makes it really shine in this way. There are a ton of things that contribute to this – Setting design, Job-centric adventures, flashbacks and more – and I look forward to sussing them out and seeing if I can make other games comparably easy to play.
Blades in the Dark clarified a lot of things that Fate 2 and Spirit of the Century tried to do, so I decided to steal its tech to go back over some old territory, mashing it up with new technology where appropriate. So, hang on tight.
Step 1, we’re compressing the adjective ladder as follows:
1 : Fair
And done. You can extrapolate from there if you want, but that is the functional core, and to take it a step further, Poor and Superb only show up in very rare circumstances, so the heart of things is 4 steps. Compressing the ladder also means the honorable retirement of “Average” and years of discussions regarding the difference between mediocre and average. It also, I think, improves its conversational usability.
When you roll dice, you roll a number of Fate dice determined by the ladder, and pick the best one.
If it’s a (success) +, then you succeed, free and clear, based on the terms of the roll (more on that in a bit). This maps to a 6 result in BITD. Multiple Plusses map to a critical success.
If it’s a blank (Mixed), then you succeed, but the GM gets to complicate it in some way. This maps to a 4-5 result in Blades.
If it’s a – (Failure), then you fail, and what that means also depends on the terms of the roll. 1
Poor and Mediocre rolls
If you’re mediocre, then roll 2df and keep the lower. If you’re poor, you just fail.
Skills, Approaches and Whatnot
In fine Fate tradition, this supports any kind of descriptors. Skills? Approaches? Professions? Descriptors? Whatever. They all work. But you need to pick one and run with it.
For illustration purposes, we’ll use approaches, but please consider it the tip of the iceberg. This will be largely familiar to anyone who has played FAE, but the main difference is that in addition to each approach having an implicit meaning, it has implicit failure states and these matter a lot on mixed rolls and failures.
For example, the failure states on Flashy are 1) Insufficiently flashy and 2) only flashy. That matters because by default, a mixed means that you were flashy enough, but the problem emerges because you were insufficiently Quick or Forceful or some other approach that might have mattered. In contrast, a full on failure is a failure to be sufficiently flashy.
These failure states are not cast in stone – situations can freely generate exception – but they exist to give a more clear default for how to handle what approaches mean.
Terms of the Roll
When a roll is made, it has 5 components:
Action – The action and situation being described which has called for a roll
Effort – The skill/approach chosen and the dice rolled
Position – how risky of controlled the action being taken is.
Effectiveness – How well or poorly this is likely to work, under best/worst circumstances.
Effect – The result of all this. IN the case of a success, this is synonymous with effectiveness.
Action is either a whole thesis topic on its own, or perfectly obvious. The player has described an action which is sufficiently interesting, uncertain or both as to call for the dice. For simplicity, I’m going to treat this as a solved problem
Effort comes from the player: They choose which approach they’ll use, roll the dice (and make any decisions related to that die rolling).
Action and effort combine to determine position (which will be Free, Controlled, Risky or Dangerous2) and effectiveness (which will be potent, normal or weak). These are determined and communicated by the GM as a logical extension of the action and effort.
This is, explicitly, where the “That approach is bullshit” filter gets applied, especially with effectiveness. The GM is free too (encouraged even) to diminish effect for approach selections that seem more made for the bonus than the in applicability of the situation, and by the same token to reward clever approach selection with greater effect. This should not turn into a game of “Read the GMs mind for best bonus” but it should be resolvable within the bounds of common sense.
Position impacts the effects of failure. Failure or mixed success from a controlled position tends to be have minor consequences. From a risky position, they can have more teeth, and from a dangerous position they can be very costly indeed.
I’m not going just restate the table from Blades, but in my head, that’s what we’re talking about.
Just as position shapes failure, effectiveness shapes success. The best roll in the world can only make so much of a difference with the wrong tools solving the wrong problem. But on the flip side, the right tool for the job can make heavy work light. In practice, a success with potent effectiveness will have more punch (a free crit, perhaps) while weak effectiveness means diminished effect. Again, mentally I’m just stealing the Blades table for this at the moment.
Do we need both?
In theory, you could collapse position and effectiveness. You wouldn’t want to have a 3×3 grid because that would be fiddly, but a fair number of games tie effectiveness back to effort (by modifying the roll, with bonuses and penalties) and trust the diminished roll to reflect the diminished effectiveness. Of course a lot of games do the same with position as well, so we could arguably ditch both in favor of a more robust effort model. That kind of works, but it’s very game-logical rather than human logical.
But even beyond that, I like having the explicit GM tool to express an opinion. Explicitly calling out position and effectiveness forces a fruitful moment of clear communication between player and GM while providing protection against the rules getting too disconnected from reality.
The Free Roll
This equates to the Fortune roll in blades. A free roll has neither position more effectiveness (and is probably sketchy on action and effort) because it has no particular consequences, and is simply a roll the GM may call for to answer a question.
Success is more common in this system, but that’s fine – this is for somewhat friendlier games than those about cutthroat thieves. Trickier is the fact that it means criticals are more common, so we’ll need to make sure their meaning is very clear. Not fully unpacking that yet, but planting a flag as something to come back to.
As with Blades, Scale affects position and effect because it encompasses both, and carries them to a greater magnitude. The most obvious example of scale is size – a mouse has a hard time fighting a horse, or a soldier an army – but it can encompass much more than that, including available time, appropriate tools, correct understanding an so on. Sometimes scale exists on a ladder (such as with tiers of size) but sometimes it’s a simple gateway (like a language barrier). It is a many faceted thing, but when something is impossible, the barrier is usually scale.
Functionally, scale’s impact on position and effectiveness are independent and situational. Sneaking past a giant robot might be no harder than usual, but punching it is unlikely to have much effect.
Now, the nuances of scale are very much a genre driver, because it speaks to the kind of situations that can come up and what things like a “fair fight” look like, so with that in mind, treat this generalization as very suspect.
Scale has only two meaningful steps (beyond parity): “Oh Crap” and “Oh, hell no”.
If it’s Oh Crap, then the scale difference is enough to make your life harder. One guy fighting a gang. One chef cooking for a wedding. It’s doable, but harder. This can imperil position, reduce effectiveness or both. If it’s Oh Crap for the other guy, that’s effectively reversed.
If it’s Oh, Hell No then you just don’t bother. You cannot fistfight an army, nor can you pick lock a bank vault. These are sufficiently out of scope that failure is presupposed and you go to the dice for things adjacent to it (like running away from that army you tried to fistfight).
Where this gets interesting (and genre raises its head) is where scale can be ignored or altered. A legendary bar fighter might be able to ignore Oh Crap in a bar fight. The god of bar fights might be able to punch an army (ignoring the Oh, Hell No).
Skills are flash, but scale matters
More critically, with planning and effort, a brawler might manage to get in front of an army at a point where they’re forced to come at him one at a time, overcoming scale with skill and cunning. It still probably won’t end well, but it’ll be a hell of a fight.
And that’s the rub. When we talk about “skill” outside of the RPG context, there is this idea of legendary skill, and legendary acts of skill, and when we map that to RPGs we tend to map that as very high values overcoming very high difficulties. The problem is that this only represents a very small subset of significant actions. Hitting a target can be dramatic an exciting, but it is a different order of action than, say, winning a war or curing a disease. There are entire categories of actions which are not resolved with a single act, but rather by steadily changing the situation so that something that started out as impossible becomes possible.
Scale is how you handle things like that and, critically, scale rules are how you communicate how important actions like that are to your game. Not every game needs a path to cure cancer or gather enough votes to become mayor.
All of which is to say that scale is a bigger deal than we tend to acknowledge, and how we handle it is a critical descriptor for genre.
Aspects, Fate Points and Stress
There is no mechanical reason not to port Stress into Fate. It’s not hard, and requires only a few decisions. The simplest model is this:
Fate Points and the stress track are now Stress Pool
Players may spend Stress to invoke an aspect to add a die to a roll
Compels replenish the stress pool.
Damage is taken to the stress pool
Consequences can ablate damage as normal
Devils Bargains effectively combine a simultaneous invoke and compel
This totally works as placeholder, but I’m going to put a pin in it because this is the the point where we need to stop and think.
Ok, So What’s The Point?
This text file had sat idle on disk for a while because I was not sure it was worth pursuing. It’s a fun technical exercise, but does it serve any real purpose? I couldn’t answer that until the other night, when we had a session of Blades where the dice were very strongly in our favor, and it pretty radically changed the tone of play for the session into something a little bit more cinematic and wahoo. Maybe not the tone we want in Blades all the time, but there are definitely games where that is exactly the tone I would want to hit. So that example persuaded me that there’s definitely room for this, but explicitly not as any kind of direct port, so I’ll be well served to re-examine any assumptions as I review them.
To that end, I suspect a focusing tool will be in order, so the next step will be, I think, coming up with an It’s Not My Fault variant version of this. It’s core system is FAE, but it may well benefit from a bit more structured play, and some concepts from Blades might help to that end.
All of which is to say, this is the rough starting point of an idea, and I’ll be refining it over time.
Multiple minuses are not a critical failure because, if so, then almost every failure would be a critical failure. ↩︎
I’m explicitly stealing Blades terminology here, but I’m also doing it by memory, so if you see a divergence from Blades, that is me making things up, not me pretending I’m not stealing from Blades. ↩︎
I’m 80% convinced to rename this “scope” just to reflect how it’s used here. ↩︎
Not to put too fine a point on it, this was a weird session of Blades in the Dark.
First, our Spider had been temporarily shipped out of town, and in his place was a Whisper (Marek, an Iruvian ghost smuggler), so there was a high likelihood that the plans would go a little askew. We also were lacking our Lurk, so subtlety was going to be a challenge.
So, we started with a conversation that had begun at the close of last session, with a demon offering the crew a job (to destroy the reputation of a man who could not die) and very little choice in the matter. We have an 8 tick clock representing his patience which ticks down with every other job we do. So we’ve got that going for us.
For our actual score, we went for a turf grab, or as we liked to call it, “Brand Building”. We identified another small press (The Night Dispatch) that was not doing fantastically well, but had an established masthead, and started looking into how to take it over. After an exceptionally successful gather information roll, our slide befriended the editor and got all the information we needed for us to visit them with enough bad luck that they’d welcome a buyout.
The Whisper & Leech were sent to scare a paper shipment and set it on fire, while the Cutter was sent to break their printer’s hand. The scare-and-fire part went ok, except that it meant that panicked goatees were dragging an inferno through the night market, but that was less our problem than everyone’s problem.
The hand breaking went less smoothly, as this was our moment to discover that our Cutter had no dots in Wreck. Oops. Thankfully, it was a controlled situation, and when it turned into an actual fight, that was well within the Cutter’s wheelhouse.
Still, it all went mostly as intended, the Editor was delighted with our Slide’s offer of help, and we now have a “legit” business with future opportunities for financial shenanigans.
That wrapped up pretty quickly, so we felt like we had time for another score. Now, as the flaming goats were running though Night Market, our greatest regret was that the Leech had not yet completed his portable camera (the long term project he’s been working on since day one) because that would have made for a GREAT photo. So, while the rest of us pursued mundane matters, he finished it up so we’d be ready next time.
For the next score, the simple truth was we needed cash. We had lost money on the last score, and we were going to be eligible for a tier bump soon, so we really needed some dollars, so the discussion turned to ways that we could make fast cash. There were standard crime options, of course, but we now had this camera, and it seemed that should introduce options. Blackmail was considered, but that had some risks. But what if we opted for spectacle? A picture of a momentous event? That could work, but that would require an event.
So, we reasoned, perhaps a picture of an exceptionally cute puppy?
While offered as a bit of a joke, we quickly realized that most dogs in Duskvol are mangy, ratty beasts, so any very cute dog would belong to a rich person. Clearly, we needed to steal the cutest dog in Duskvol. As fun as this might have been, we then realized it might be easier to have the dogs brought to us.
And so the first annual Charterhall Dog Show was born.
What followed was….a little weird. We had just enough social pull to get people to come, though we had to skimp a bit on the location (the university is just so déclassé), and leveraged contacts for the one honest judge (to be outvoted by the other two crooked judges). Oh, and of course our Leech’s bookie showed up and from that point on the fix was in. The ultimate winner was Lady Roz’s Shitzu, but at least one noble left the affair righteously pissed off, so that’s going to come back and bite us.
But, critically, The Night Dispatch had a photo of an INCREDIBLY cute dog, as well as some buzz.
Between entry fees and the gambling, it was a VERY successful score, and between that and everyone going into their pockets (and the Slide diminishing her stash), the crew now has a weak hold on Tier 2. We’ve got some newsies now, and a clear business plan, but we also have some crows coming home to roost, so we’re all expecting a tough tonal change soon.
The dice were super on our side last night. Excepting some mishaps on our Cutter’s part, we were swimming in sixes, and that definitely contributed to the lighthearted, caper-y tone of the session. I suspect that if the dice had been pushing harder, things would have gone very differently.
I have a half-finished re-tooling of the core blades mechanic that uses Fate dice, and it’s skewed more strongly towards success than default blades. I have let it linger, but last nights play convinced me that it would actually be a very fun mode of play for a certain tone. So, that’s getting bumped back up the queue.
Playing a Whisper is weird (yes, that was me). At first I thought it was because the ghost/mystical/weird element of play was strange. That’s certainly part of it – I feel like I need a few more playbook advances if I really want to lean into that part of things. But I think part of it was also that Attune is a weird skill to lean on. A lot of the other skills you can apply flexibly enough that there’s a broad set of competence surrounding it, but attune is really very specific and was not much of a match to the play we were doing. I liked the character a lot, but he was a mismatch to the game we’re playing, so he’s probably dropping into the background and I’ll pick The Spider back up next session.
Having chosen to go primarily social has had such an impact on the shape of the game. Not in a bad way, but in a way that makes for an interesting tonal difference from more street-y games. A big difference is a lack of medium consequences – we’re a gadfly punching very high above our weight class, which is very profitable until we annoy someone enough that they have had enough. It’s very all of nothing, and we’re skating the edge of “all” as fast and hard as we can in hopes of having enough resources when the inevitable “nothing” hits. (It also helps that we have invested in all the lair defense upgrades, so it is very difficult to casually threaten that).
Note: This is very much a first draft. feedback is welcome!
So, after writing all that about Cons yesterday and some discussion on twitter and G+, I found myself really chewing on a very simple, Blades specific question: Where’s the point of entry?
It’s an interesting question because it’s entirely possible to answer, but doing so reveals a bit of a mismatch with the Blades cadence. The best answer is probably The Score – the moment that the con pays off, leading immediately into the blowoff. That is super playable, and can lean heavily on the flashback mechanic to fill in all the steps that lead to this point. That works, and it’s certainly in the style of classic cons.
That is a hack, in the most classic of senses. The flashback mechanic is designed to handle planning and prep, not the score itself. Using flashbacks to build the score itself suits certain sort of cinematic sensibility (which is to say, mine) but it’s arguably warranty voiding behavior. Now, personally, I’m fine with that. I’m super comfortable stretching the flashback mechanic as far as it will go. But that’s not necessarily useful for every table, so it left me with the question of how I’d handle this using the Blades tools as intended.
From that perspective, a con is better handled as a long term project. It’s got a long timeline, multiple parts to act upon, and ultimately has a payoff. And it would be entirely possible to just leave that as is: as a player you describe the con you’re running in downtime, the GM creates a clock for it, and you proceed as normal. That would 100% work, especially if that level of detail lines up with the level of player interest.
However, assuming that one wants a little more depth to it, then there is room to make is a more sophisticated effort. Specifically, making a con a series of clocks creates opportunities for free play and scores that evolve naturally from play.
The simplest model is two race clocks: One for the progress of the con, one for the mark’s level of suspicion. This still leaves the nature of the Con pretty free form, but it introduces a tension dynamic as other factors may drive up the Mark’s suspicion and, of course, lowering the Mark’s suspicion is a potential score (You might even want to consider running the blow off as a score with that goal).
While this is a little bloodless, @mattjohns offered a perspective on this that is very much in tune with the spirit of Blades – the con progress clock is the clock of the Mark’s vice – the grifters offer escalating opportunities for the mark of indulge until it trumps his good judgement and he acts. This is flavorful and character driven, so I expect it would be a lot of fun.
For folks who want a little more depth, then I offer a worksheet model with 6 wheels: Suspicion, attention, interest, confidence, trust and Score. Now, these are very loose categories, and the specific things the wheels will represent depend on the specific job, the details of which are also in the worksheet.
Before we get to the wheels, we need to talk about the mark, the score, the hook and the plan.
The mark is the person being conned, and the score is what they’re being conned for. Hopefully that is pretty easy to establish. The hook is the point of leverage that the grifter intends to use to pull off the con. Most frequently, this is a vice that the mark partakes in, but it could also be a secret, a habit, a weakness or almost anything else. The hook is something that provides leverage – it’s not enough to be used by itself for blackmail or the like, but it enables action.
If starting from nothing, players may not have a hook, which may drive some information gathering or other activity. Alternately, a hook to a particular NPC might be found on a score, or enter play through some other vector.
But once the hook is identified, then the question becomes how to take advantage of it. This can be the hard part, and if it’s sufficiently hard for players, then I definitely encourage going with a two race wheel model. But for those who enjoy a clever plan, then it’s important to remember that all of these plans can be made on the assumption that the mark will act in accordance with the hook. This gives the planner an almost supernatural ability to predict the future, so long as she can say “The mark will act in this way, because it’s in accordance with their hook”.
The first question is “How will we get the mark’s attention?” Don’t overthink it. Because we know the mark’s hook,we know what kind of people he is going to meet, so it’s just a matter of fitting that mould.
The next question is “How will we capture the mark’s interest?” Again, don’t think too much. We’ll provide him a means to address his hook. Simple as that. Ideally when he notices us, he’ll see that we have the means to address his hook in some way, and that will fuel interest.
Next, “How will we capture the mark’s confidence?” This is marginally tricky, but still fairly simple, because the answer is usually some variant on “We’ll give him what he wants”. The goal is to convince the mark that the grifter represents an actual opportunity.
This is all prequel to the main event – the mark is now on the hook, so it’s time to reel him in, so we get to the next question: “What’s the Score?” This might be the most complicated question to answer, but it’s still possible to boil it down to fairly simple question of what you’re convincing the mark of to get him to do the thing you need. Importantly, this can be predicated on an assumption of success up to this point. If they haven’t, you won’t get to this point anyway, so don’t waste a lot of energy on qualifications and contingencies1.
Lastly, what’s the plan for the blow off? You’ve got the good, they’re in your hand, how are you going to get out with the mark thanking you for the trouble2? As with all the answers, feel free to keep it short.
SIDEBAR: Why Don’t I Just Kill This Dude?
Blades is a pretty brutal game, and one more reason that cons are a hard thing to justify is that they depend upon a concern about consequences. Also, frankly, cons usually come from genres where being a thief doesn’t make you a murderer, and crews tend to have rather more moral flexibility.
All of which is to say that killing the mark is a valid blow off (assuming you do it in a way that doesn’t point the finger at you), but if that’s so, there’s a good chance that there was no real need to run a con on the mark. A simple interrogation via lead pipe followed by a swim in the canals would probably have done the job. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But it’s something to bear in mind when you start a con: ask if this really needs to be a con, or if this should really be some other sort of score
Ok, so we have a couple answers to our questions and a number of empty clocks – how do we tie this all together?
First, establish the tier of the mark. It is probably pretty high, because if it wasn’t, then a con would not be necessary. In purely mechanical terms, because a con is personal, it skips over a lot of the positional problems of going after a higher tier, so the tier difference should mostly only matter if things go wrong (and should be a reason to fear things going wrong).
The Suspicion clock can gain ticks any time after the con has started. It’s like any other clock, and I encourage GMs to allow complications from other events to tick it up. If this clock ever fills, the con is a bust and the mark’s faction goes to war with the crew.
The Attention, Interest and Confidence clocks are sequential – fill one to start on the next. They can be filled by downtime actions normally. Overflow success does not spill over.
Once the confidence clock is filled, the player can start filling in the Score clock. Again, this can be filled like a normal long term project.
The Trust clock also opens when the confidence clock completes. It can be filled by any actions taken to mitigate suspicion, but it’s hard to fill (rolls are made with limited effect before the blow off).
Once the score clock is filled, then one of two things happen:
First: the whole thing can be resolved as a project. The crew member gets the thing they set out to do, and the gang gets heat equal to the Mark’s suspicion minus any progress on the Trust clock. The blow off appears to work, and the GM simply adds this to her notes for the future.
Second: The conclusion initiates as score to collect the payoff an deliver the blow off. The details should already be pretty well established, and the entry point is just as the final con is about to go down, with the blowoff about to follow. Run and reward this score as normal, but use the information from the con to frame it and answer questions.
So, there you have it. If you want to run a long con indoor Blades game, but are looking for
Genre Secret: There Are No Contingencies. If you have a contingency plan, then you have guaranteed that at some point that will become the plan. That may sound bad, but once you realize it, then you can embrace the fact that the difference between a misdirect into a surprise well and a well designed contingency plan is merely a function of presentation. ↩︎
One more reminder of classic wisdom from @mattjohns – never leave the mark with nothing more to lose. This is not a matter of kindness, but practicality – you want the mark to put this behind them. If you take everything, then they’re going to dwell on this loss, and sooner or later they’re going to pull a thread. ↩︎
An interesting thing about Blades in the Dark score planning is that it’s so loose that it relies heavily on shared understanding at the table to build a framework. This works fantastically well for clearly defined tasks like stealing an object, killing a target or even smuggling goods past a blockade.
Where it gets a little bit trickier is for that most classic of scores: The Con.
It can feel a lot more complicated to try to run a con, because the action of a con is often indirect, and while groups who are comfortable tying together a meta-narrative can kind of fake it but tying together unrelated events at the end, that’s a bit of a kludge. It’s a way to work around the fact that we can clearly imagine the flow of action and consequence in a heist in ways that we have a hard time doing with a con.
My sense is that this is largely a result of imagining the con to be more complicated than it really is (structurally). It is my hope that if we can demystify the structure of a con, we can make it a little bit easier to run a score.
Two caveats on this advice. First, I’m approaching this through the lens of Blades in the Dark, so while this may be applicable in other games, I’m not setting out to solve those problems. Second, this is a simplification, and just as with any other score, the differences are in the details, and they matter a lot.
So with that out of the way, let’s look at the con. But perhaps in a roundabout way.
Every score has a keystone action and supporting actions. The keystone actions is the purpose of the score. In a theft, it’s stealing the item. In an assassination, it’s the murder. In a smuggling run, it’s the delivery of the goods. Supporting actions are all the actions required to get to the keystone, and possibly to get back out. We get this pretty intuitively for things like left: guards must be evaded, locks picked, alarms disarmed, escape routes secured and so on.
Where we run into problems applying the model to cons is, I think, I misunderstanding of what the keystone action of a con is. Most commonly, we think the keystone action of a con is tricking someone, but that doesn’t work.
Instead, the keystone action of a con is this: You make someone do something.
It’s possible that sounds too simple, so let me unpack a little bit. “Do something” can be incredibly varied, though it’s usually “give me something valuable” (like money or a secret journal or the like) or something one step removed from that (like entering a password in a compromised system). Other good somethings include “do something incriminating”, “attack the wrong person” or “insult someone powerful” but it can be really anything.
Just as with theft, this keystone action is tied to the crew’s goal, and just as with theft, you can build the whole score around it. But there’s a twist (it’s a con – there’s always a twist) in that the purpose of the con usually serves another purpose. That is, if our crew knows we want to steal from Karl Snaggletooth, that is not enough information – we need to decide what action we want someone to take. And it might be as simple as “Karl hands us 100 Coin” but it’s usually a little bit more complicated or specific. This is why, in fiction, one part of the score is figuring out what the con is going to be.
That process is fun for some1, not for others, so for purposes of Blades, we’ll want to skip over the process of figuring it out, and assume that the crew know what the goal of the con is. From there, is it a matter of working backwards by cycling through two questions:
Under what circumstances would that happen?
How do we emulate those circumstances?
Now, the simplest possible con is the sob story. I want you to give me money, you would do that if you think I deserve it, so I tell you a convincing sad story and voila, I walk away with your money in my pocket. This is to a con what shoplifting is to a theft – the simplest example of the form.
But as with a theft, simplest doesn’t cut it off fun play. A more entertaining con is built upon a sequence of deceptions to create a specific effect. At the end, I’ll run through an example of how just a pass or two through that filter should be enough to get you what you need. But before that, let’s go to the bullet points.
Things to consider when you plan a con:
Cons are better done in teams, partly because it is easy to be suspicious of one person, but harder to be suspicious of multiple people, especially when they are “strangers”.
One of the tension points/things that can go wrong during a con is a shortage in the roster. If a member of the crew gets made, then they can’t also play a role in the con, which can be a problem if the role is necessary for the plan. Forcing characters into unfamiliar roles, or relying on NPCs to fill gaps are great consequences and complications.
While it is not strictly true that you can’t con an honest man, it is definitely a lot harder to do so for substantial amounts of cash. A con depends on the mark’s motivations, and self-interest and greed ad much more controllable motivations than charity or goodwill towards man.
Specifically, almost every good con hinges on convincing the mark that they are getting away with something and profiting from it. Exactly how that convincing is done depends on the mark, but if they’ve got something worth stealing, then odds are good they probably think they deserve more, and are confident they’re smarter than those who have less. That’s the hook.
It is easy to focus on all the film flam that leads up to the con, but don’t be distracted – the thing that separates the amateurs from the pros is the blow off. The blow off is how the con ends and it needs to serve multiple purposes.
It needs to make sure that the prize is in the crew’s hands without appearing to be
It needs to leave the mark with no reason to follow up, come back to or re-examine what happened. Ideally, the mark feels indebted to the crew.
That second point is critical – at the end of a good con, the mark might be upset about things that went wrong, but he should bear no ill will towards the crew. Either he should think warmly of them, or he should never think of them again (because he thinks they’re all dead).
In game terms, a really good blow off should be able to drastically reduce the potential heat from a job.
In Duskvol specifically, you want a friendly blowoff. The city is not so big that you can be guaranteed to avoid the mark forever, and you don’t have a lot of other places to go to avoid them.
Greed will kill you. At some point the mark will test to see if he’s being conned, and he’ll probably do this by creating an opportunity for fast profit, on the idea that criminals would take it. And dumb ones will. If a golden opportunity presents itself, consider the possibility that it’s you who are getting played.
Roles are a critical part of the con. They may be fully fleshed out, well documented aliases, or it might just be a particular kind of stage character you excel at (the Severosi with a limp) depending on what the con needs (because, if nothing else, using your real name on a con is a bad mistake).
A role is an asset and can be created in downtime. For a PC, the role includes a name and enough details to comfortably pass as the role under most circumstances. For a group, roles are nameless, but fulfill a type. Creating a role allows a lot of fiddly bits of planning to be folded into a single action. The main advantage of a role is that so long as you play to it, it requires no additional effort to deceive or fool someone. However, roles are fragile, and won’t fool anyone who knows you or sees countervailing evidence. A compromised role is destroyed immediately.
An Incomplete List of jobs in a Con :
The mark – the person being conned
The grifter, aka the con man, sometimes aka the face is the person running the con. If they’re running the con on their own, they pick up all necessary roles. Ideally, they should not be the first point of contact with the Mark – that’s the job of the roper.
The roper is the person who pulls the mark into the con in the first place, usually by making the mark the “winner” of a smaller scam. A rookie mistake is to expect the roper to be the one who runs the con, but in a good con, the roper is the one who introduces the mark to the real con (often over their apparent objection) and at some point the mark will throw the roper under the bus (metaphorically, we hope) in order to get closer to the true con.
The shill exists to validate the con. They are the person who is ready to pounce on the opportunity that the mark is being offered, and may actually object to the Mark’s presence. The Shill reinforced the value of the scam while also giving someone for the mark to beat.
The false mark doesn’t show up in every con, but is a useful role for snagging a certain kind of Mark, particularly the kind who think themselves very smart (which is most of them). The false mark is the target of the fake con which the real mark is getting drawn into.
Extras fill out a scene. In a good con, there are no random strangers or opportunities for contact that are outside of the control of the crew, and there’s an entirely category of criminals/actors who fill out these scenes.
The fixer has no role in the con itself, but is instead something more of a stage manager for it. They keep track of what’s going on, oversee communication and – critically – step in when things go wrong.
The outside player has no role in the con until the very end, where they enter as part of the blowoff. The royal agents whose investigations scuttle the whole thing? Hopefully that’s the outside player.
There are a lot more terms, but that should be enough for you to figure out things for your players to do.
In Blades, every crew member is assumed to have competence in thinly skills, including the con, and one useful thing about the various roles of the con is that they provide different jobs for characters with differing skills. Yes, someone (usually the grifter, sometimes the roper) will need strong active deception skills, but a good crew makes roles that line up with who is available. If your cutter is a terrifying veteran, then the role he plays should be a terrifying veteran. Not only does that make the deception more persuasive (because it’s mostly made of truth) it helps give a role to every player
To tie it all together, Let’s use the classic example, familiar to fans of The Sting – the wire scam. The con is to convince the mark to hand over a giant pile of money by convincing him to bet on a game that he thinks is secretly rigged. Note that we now have an answer to wonder what circumstances the mark would give up money, so now we come to the question of how to emulate that. Well, we need to get him into our fixed betting parlor of course, and we need him to believe that the fix is legit.
Now we have action. We need to set up the fake parlor, we need to rope him into it, and we need him to believe it’s a sure thing. Some of that we can do right away, but how do we get him into our gambling parlor?
Well, that’s another con. A smaller one. We find someone who owes him money (or maybe borrow some money then wait till the threats come) and then suddenly pay back all debts and interest. Our mark’s a clever man – the payback is fine, but he’s going to be really interested in how this guy (our roper) suddenly has money. He’s going to find out about this betting parlor, and he won’t take no for an answer.
Notice something here: The mark is operating under a sense of false proactivity. If we sent in the roper to tell him about the gambling parlor, he’d be suspicious as hell. But since we sent the roper in to not tell him about it, he is going to trust any data he extracts because it comes from him.
Once we’ve got the hook in, the roper introduces him to grifter, who doesn’t want another partner, so the mark is going to have to force the grifter to accept him (further reinforcing the mark’s belief that he is in control). Once that happens, the mark sees some wins, but they’re small – frustratingly so. The opportunity for a huge score is obvious, but small timer’s like the roper don’t see it.
But the big score requires a big bet, so the mark needs to put up some money to match the (bogus) amount the grifter is putting forward. Everything is going great until the bluecoats raid the place and take everything. The mark is nearly arrested, but escapes thanks to the help of the grifter. In the end, both have lost it all, but the mark is grateful, and they go their separate ways.
But, of course, that was the blowoff. The bluecoats were fake, lead by the outside player, and the mark’s money is safely in the hands of the crew, while the mark is going on his way convinced that the grifter is a stand up citizen.
For me, it is SUPER fun, but supporting it in play is another blog post entirely. ↩︎
Clockwise from the upper left: Luca, Jack, Izzy, Achilles & Rudy
This was our first full session, and we pick up a guest: our lurk, Rudy, was the shady son of nobility and college dropout. As a refresher, the other characters are:
Jack – the Leech gadgeteer
Izzy – the Slide ace reporter and clothes horse
Luca – our Severi cutter
Achilles – The spider
We decided what we needed was some juicy gossip, which is slightly odd thing to run a heist for, so we opted to break into a high class party being held by one of the magistrates and spike the punch so as to insure that there be matters worth gossiping about.
Spiking the punch was more of an option because it turns out we’re lacing our ink with a narcotic. This is something that came from the GM to forcibly introduce a more clearly illegal act into our crew because many of the games assumptions rely on that. More on that in the post-mortem, but in the short term half the crew (Luca and Jack) know about this, so they already had drugs well on hand.
Achilles, Izzya and Rudy were able to finagle invites to the party, and arrangements were made to get Jack and Luca got jobs in the kitchen. While the party goers mingled, Luca spilled the punch to arrange for a refill and Jack spiked it from a hidden bladder-and-hose device. Or that was the theory – the dice did not favor us. Luca was confronted by one of the actual maids and had to lean on the staff’s racism (flash back to Achilles and Luca doing a session on how to play on stereotypes) and Jack’s device sprung a leak, insuring that he was also profoundly dosed.
Meanwhile, the partygoers were orbiting around Lady Drake, the magistrate. It was well know that she was dirty, accepting bribes in return for skewed sentences, and the attendees were largely of middling importance, with enough noteworthies that the possibility of scandal was entirely in play. Additionally, this was exactly the sort of event to provide cover for a bribe, so this night had the potential of a twofer.
Rudy took point on social mingling, taking advantage of his aunt speaking with Lady Drake to insert himself flirtatiously into the conversation, though in doing so he snubbed an older gentleman who had been clearly courting the lady.
Rudy remained in orbit around Lady Drake while Luca approached the gentleman, hoping to take advantage of his agitated case and…the dice were not kind. He took grave offense, and called the house staff (the maid who had chewed her out earlier) and demanded that Luca be sacked, thrashed and forcibly ejected.
Luca made a scene as she was dragged into the kitchen, including pleas that the gentleman be kind for the sake of their child which she was carrying, which served only to enrage him further (this got us some news, but also started a clock on this guy’s rage).
In the kitchen, when a maid was sent for the switch, Jack drugged the handle so the head maid was paralyzed once she took it up, whereupon Luca delivered a very scientific beating indeed before exiting out the back in order to scale the building and await upstairs.
Meanwhile, Izzy had done some legal research and had a good sense of who was likely to be visiting the party in order to pay a bribe, and had identified a manure importer as the likely candidate. Sure enough, after the party had reached a certain pitch, Lady Drake and the importer headed upstairs, and the crew moved to follow – unsuccessfully. Our first attempt to use the group actions did not go so well, and further raised suspicions against the crew. Thankfully, Luca was already upstairs and saw the exchange, though regrettably she did not get to see where Lady Drake kept her records.
There was a temptation to push on and try to get those records, but the pick pocketing attempt to get the bribe from Lady Drake was so close to disastrous (though ultimately successful) that the crew felt that their luck could only be pushed so much further, so they split, armed with two headlines.
In the aftermath of the job, the crew sold a great many penny sheets, but Jack’s lips were a little too loose while celebrating, so the heat was all the worse. Achilles assisted in mitigating the heat, but was himself swept away by family obligations and ended the session on the train to Severos. Most troublingly, at the very end of the session, the remaining crew members were joined by a smiling “man” who creaked like rust when he walked and was likely the point of the demonic notice the crew had just picked up.
Good session, all in all, and a great deal of fun was had, but it did illustrate that our chosen path of crime is slightly tricky to map to the mode of the game. Playing it even a little, it is clear how smoothly things would work if we had more concrete objectives, so we may need to figure out how to make the essence of our stories concrete.
We also have the problem that at the moment we’re pretty shady, but not profoundly criminal. We all bought into the idea of the crew evolving into a newspaper from somewhat more pamphleteer-y roots, and that’s consistent with the mechanics – we’ll have a little more tier and a few more resources before we get political – but that means these early tiers are at a bit of a mismatch with general thrust of the game. I’m not sure it’s insurmountable – even with our moderately good intentions we seem to get in plenty of trouble – but the transition is going to be interesting.
One curious takeaway I’m getting from this is that I wonder if we over-prepared. That is, I wonder if it was to our detriment to have a motivation beyond greed at the outset. Not because Blades does not support a wider range of motives, but because I think it maybe treat greed as the on ramp. If you start with a crew that is nothing but quick sketches and empty pockets, the first few jobs will start fleshing out friends and enemies (mostly enemies) and provide the kind of infrastructure to them build upon. Pretty slick if so, but it leaves some gaps. I’ll have to think about it a little bit.
Oh, and one way or another we’re going to have a new crewmemebr next session – with Achilles out of town due to a bad vice roll, there will need to be someone new to step into the gap!
With the conclusion of the 7th Sea game, we’ve started a Blades in the Dark game with the same crew, but I’m a player this time.
We are already in over our heads.
The Blackfingers don’t really view themselves as a GANG, per se. They’re just a group of former university students who got their hands on a press and have found there’s money to be made in pamphleteering and penny sheets. Their little gossip and fashion rag has become tremendously popular in Charterhall, and with that success has come opportunity and attention.
The prominent members of the Blackfingers are:
Jack Fingers – A Skovlan Leech responsible for keeping the press working. He is explicitly neither the source of the gang’s name, nor the leader, but every assumes he is both.
Isadora “Izumi” Stanbury, of those Stanbury’s, the family of Lawyers. With the natural talents of a Slide, she was on the track for success when an indiscretion put her on the fast track for Ironhook. The family stepped in and put all of the blame on her partner, but then washed their hands of her.
Luca Skleros is a cutter from Severos who found her way to Duskvol after some…problems…back home. She was roped in to help the gang when their first pamphlet angered a haberdasher enough to send some folks to rough them up.
Achilles Lynch – Spider and youngest son of a prominent merchant family, he has a deep intellectual interest in the flow of information but must balance this against family obligations.
Their as-yet-unnamed pamphlet is mostly focused on gossip and fashion, but even so has angered the Ink Rakes (and mildly annoyed the University) but they have great support from the citizens of Charterhall who enjoy the colorful rag.
Play began with the gang broke and lacking anything valuable to print. After some discussion, it was brought up that Vinzini had just finished his latest season of hat designs, and was going to be presenting them at the mill to begin production ASAP. If the gang could get a scoop on that, it would sell like mad.
So, the group managed to sneak in, posing as foremen. A distraction by a bomb-throwing associate gave the Slide plenty of time to take notes (and, it turned out, to pinch one of the hats1 and for the Leech to make off with some interesting looking chemicals. In fact, the hard part ended up being the fact that if their distraction caused too much damage, the hats would not go to market, and the scoop would be worthless. Thankfully the Cutter stepped up and ran the fire brigades with military discipline, and everything cleared out well.
In the aftermath, the crew made a few bucks, but generated a little bit more heat than the job might normally cause (what with the stolen hat and OH YES, THE FIRE). Downtime was mostly clearing heat and training.
Ok, so since this was episode zero, we went through chargen, a first job and a first round of downtime in one go, so it was all a little condensed. For all that, our GM (not me) did a wonderful job of making sure we hit all the critical mechanical notes to get everyone up to speed on it. The table was largely unfamiliar with Blades so it was all in all a really interesting experience. Some impressions.
There are two ways to do playbook-style chargen: Pick a playbook and build from there, or build an idea then try to find a playbook that matches. I think the second method is better, but it is unquestionably harder (or perhaps more precisely, less well supported).
This really drove home to me how much a crew needs a purpose or a gimmick. The game is so open ended and potentially player driven that it feels like a waste to just be generically criminal. That may be my problem – I suspect the game excels at generically criminal (and drives it to evolve) but it was a bit of a speed bump as we discussed potential crews.
I ended up playing the Spider. I would complain about typecasting, but it was my choice because – in the absence of a strong idea to the contrary – whatever book I play is going to get played like a spider, so I went with it.
But tellingly, now that we’ve played even a little, I have my head around some solid non-masterminds character ideas, so I am totally ready for jail time.
In deciding our relationships we discovered the University was not on the faction list. So we fixed that.
Yet another hands on realization of something I’d previously only gotten intellectually – A job could be driven almost entirely by Devil’s Bargains, and that would be awesome.
The players really, really like the load rules.
They also very much liked devil’s bargains and flashbacks, though they’re a bit skeptical of the XP model as abusable by someone opting to play towards it (and I can’t fault them – that’s 100% true)
I had not realized how effectively the downtime move to reduce heat was. Since my Spider has 3 dots of Consort (yay Hawkers), I cleared out all of our trouble from the night’s job without hassle.
I have a knee jerk sense that if you’re helping on a desperate roll, you should also get XP, since you’re also on the hook for consequences, but I haven’t really thought that through yet.
We spent a lot of time waffling between whether we were Hawkers or Smugglers, since “The News” is a weird sort of product, and not a 100% match with the assumptions of the setting (which skew chemically).
A thing I’ve noticed: The very big fans of BitD conversationally drop the names of gangs and NPCs like they’re common parlance, and it’s clear that buy in is tied very closely to that level of buy in to the setting. It is, in some ways, reminiscent of the Amber DRPG, where the roster of NPCs was a known, shared list but it was built right into the game that these NPCs were different in everyone’s game. That was really powerful in Amber, and it’s good to see that idea (faces – who knew?) built into the setting from the getgo, and I will certainly build on this for some stuff I’m working on.
Anyway, first real session is in 2 weeks. I’m pretty jazzed.
Her vice is fashion, so who can blame her for grabbing a one of a kind design?. ↩︎
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. http://www.whitewizardgames.com/herorealms/
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. http://ledergames.com
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. http://www.gamelyngames.com/games/tiny-epic-quest/
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. http://gravitydice.com
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 – http://rnrgames.com/pyramid-poker
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. http://www.chaosium.com/s-petersens-field-guide-to-lovecraftian-horrors-hardcover/
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. https://www.forgedfoam.com/
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. http://www.brotherwisegames.com/product/unearth-preorder/
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. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/johnwickpresents/12387016?token=1d0034c6
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ↩︎
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. ↩︎
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:
Grab a post it or index card
Making it a wheel lets me draw it with stubs!
Draw a circle on it (the eponymous wheel)
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).
Write down a word or two describe what’s being tracked.
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.
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.
I admit, I may also use this notation for advancement, but that’s just a personal thing.) ↩︎