Blades in the Dark

First Session

First session was some rough sledding. It looks a leeetle bit like Apocalypse World but boy does it play different. I kept tripping over myself trying to make it work like AW and it’s uh…fussier than that. Much, much fussier.

Character creation was super easy and very evocative. Same with the crew setup, and I loooove that kind of design. I love that the Crew is itself a kind of character with its own advances. 

Situation setup feels really loose and undefined, mostly because relationships right at the beginning don’t have much context beyond love/hate, and there are the factions all over the damned place. So it feels slightly impersonal, like the characters are very small cogs in very large operations. By design I suppose. 

I ran with the quickstart kit, which throws the characters in the middle of a turf war between two gangs and being asked who they’re siding with. Well, so they sided with nobody but they did have a good relationship with the overboss to whom everyone else reports. They got a job off her, and given the mix and the gang — it’s a Leech (tinker/gadgeteer) and a Lurk (cat burglar), and the gang’s reputation is for subtlety — they did their level best to set up a super-quiet break-in to steal a rival gang’s treasury.

I’m not sure what happened — it might very well be my instinct to snowball events into total fucking chaos — but what started as a pretty good distraction/break-in plan turned into burning down half of the district and pissing everyone off. And failing to actually pull off the gig. Mostly the problem was mechanical: the players didn’t really understand (because I didn’t explain it very well) the absolutely vital role of stress and and absolutely crushing effecting of suffering a trauma while on the job. Stress is there to provide handy get-out-of-jail effects: it powers resistances and provides bonus dice. So they cranked their Stress almost to the top before the heist had even begun, and then had nowhere to go when things went sideways.

The actual procedure for figuring out what to roll and why isn’t terrible but it feels like, I swear to god, like what you go through to buy a new car. Have you done this? They have what’s called the “three legged stool,” where you can negotiate the trade-in value of your old car, the purchase value of the new car, and the interest rate of the financing. When all three legs are unstable, you have the least amount of leverage and you get fucked by the car dealer. Blades in the Dark has a very similar vibe! You can negotiate the position of the action (dominant, risky or desperate, and that tells you how bad complications and failures will be), the effect of the action (limited, standard or great), and the likely consequences of failure. It’s a lot to think about every time you touch the dice.

There’s also this clever, but exhausting, thing called the Devil’s Bargain. The GM can offer that something bad will happen and you get to roll an extra die. So, yeah, once they’re out of stress to buy more dice the players want the fucking Bargains for every roll. Eventually I just stopped offering them because my brain was tuckered out. It didn’t last long, and I started offering really nasty choices: oh yes you can escape the burning warehouse, if you’re willing to climb over the body of your crewmember. Oh yes you can try and throw that incendiary device again, but you’ll burn yourself doing it. And so on. It feels exhausting the same way Act Under Fire tires me out.

The AW fingerprints are still all over the game. The GM never rolls, and evaluates outcomes based on established fiction. There are moves-ish things the characters can do. But there are, lordy, so many interlocking economies. Characters gain stress and then trauma, they track XPs in two different ways, the crew gains Heat and then becomes Wanted and tracks XPs in two different ways. The crew gains Rep and Turf and Coin, can buy useful NPCs or grow their numbers or expand their resources (“claims”). I do love me some good widgets, so I think they’re fun! But complicated.

I’m not totally sold on the way rolls are evaluated, especially since it feels like AW does much the same thing but with way less handling time: roll, add, what’s the total? I don’t like having to decide if a roll is risky or desperate. I don’t love deciding that what they’re trying to do will provide only limited effect, although that may be a really useful tool down the road.

So our crew failed in their first mission, with the first two PCs beat to shit and wounded like crazy — healing takes a long damned time and since many wounds cost dice, they’re useless in the field because dice are worth too much. They may attempt some troupe-style play and send out two different gang members next week while this week’s beat-up folks heal another round.

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0 thoughts on “Blades in the Dark”

  1. I read it taking notes, drinking coffee and eating a tart and felt the same adjudication pressure. The position/effect/consequence are hard to adjudicate and there’s not much guidance.

    Said that, if streamlined some it could become a brilliant co-op card-driven boardgame.

  2. My sense of it, without having played a version of it in a while, is that John’s taken concepts from AW and tried to make a game as robust as Burning Wheel, complete with the subsystems and various state-tracking and resource types and so on. And that likely means there’s going to be a fair amount of learning curve. I mean, there was learning curve with AW too, but that was so long ago now that I tend to forget about it.

  3. After reading this, I have a question: is it worth the cognitive load and tracking? I realize that might be hard to say after one session. Some of the tracking doesn’t seem too bad as it is between game/out-of-game stats (Coin/Heat/Wanted–I say this having no experience with the system). However, I can see where the three-legged stool exercise could become a slow-down for everyone involved.

  4. Nate Parker worth it? I’m not sure how to answer. Tracking the various economies is probably worth it, because a lot of them have to do with your crew status and that has major fictional implications.

    One interesting thing I noticed is that the actual scores might not be as interesting as your downtime play. I totally guessed wrong about that! Blades Downtime feels like a more robust version of Mouse Guard’s Player Turn, probably because he provides a handy menu of stuff to do. And the system generates Entanglements, which are new crises to address on your own time.

  5. Devil’s bargains exhausted me, too. Over in the BitD community, Harper helpfully (and others) suggested a couple things:

    1) anyone can offer a Devil’s Bargain, including another player;
    2) only offer one if it’s going to be interesting. Usually what that means is “only offer one if one springs immediately to mind.”

  6. Adam D​ yeah that first one is just part of the whole “ask the table for ideas” thing, which I do all the time, because I’m lazy collaborative.

    I can always fall back on handing out more Heat, too. This particular fiasco got them 7!

  7. My games tended to a lot of heat, too, in part because of the Tragedy of the Commons. One flamboyant, heat-attracting player punishes the whole gang, so I found players worried less about mitigating overall heat in the face of a Whisper who had no interest in subtlety.

    There’s also some internal adjustment: once death has been the answer once, you might as well keep using it. More bodies won’t necessarily draw more heat.

  8. This is a totally useless contribution, but I like seeing the design evolution from Agon and John’s other games, not just in the mechanics but in the color. Traces of Stranger Things, for example.

  9. Here’s a real question: how do those “hit point” wheels work out in play? Like where you say you need 8 effect, and then someone only gets 5 and you have to keep going…

  10. Matt Wilson​ they worked well when I remembered to use them. It’s a major departure from AW and, really, most modern rpgs.

    I feel like the game would have been less brutal if I had been able to bleed off partial hits into making fewer ticks, or adding new clocks.

    Further, I’m not really sure what they accomplish other than to give me a way to delay consequences. I’m not sold but I want to use them better next session.

  11. I stand by my claim that clocks are best used for outcomes where the relationship between actions and the final outcome is difficult to agree on (or otherwise out of the scope of what people want to talk about).

  12. It’s so abstract I have to give examples. I’m really not interested in a debate about whether a spleen injury is fatal, and how quickly, so a classic game has a clock, called hit points. The messy business of exactly what it takes to kill a person (or a ‘tough’ person), which we would never all agree on (and/or don’t care to model) is replaced with a countdown. I may have been stabbed through the bicep, fictionally, but how dead does that make me? Well, 7 hit points closer to dead.

    On the other hand, take a fight to the death between two squads. The fight is done when everyone’s dead, so if we’re resolving the action at a level that tells us when combatants are dead or not, then a clock to represent how my side is doing is unnecessary. It can either clash with the fiction (the other team is dead, but they win on points?), or it requires us to leave parts of the fiction vague (e.g. death MG Conflict) until the clocks finish.

    Most games use clocks in predefined areas (hit points, DoW dispo); but since newer games encourage us to use them for ad hoc things, some care is in order.

    I would totally use a clock to represent the morale of a unit, say, which is ephemeral (until the unit suddenly runs away), but clearly taking a 3-point hit to morale is bad if you only had 5.

  13. Oh yeah man,I can see that as a really good application. But so…how would you settle on a clock for a fight? I get that either it’s a one-off or a clock (Versus or Fight!) but what about the segments for a bigger deal? The text is worryingly vague on that.

  14. For positioning, if my initial reaction is ‘seriously?’ I tend to set it to desperate, otherwise risky and give the players a chance to argue up to controlled. Way less cognitive load.

  15. I’ve got some thoughts on using multiple clocks in bigger deal conflicts that we tried out in our BW game last week. Using phone right now but will elaborate later.

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