Scum & Villainy
We took a week off while I was off to Oregon for vacation and hit S&V hard again last night. It was our first session of play with proper jobs and the rest of the cycle of play in place.
I’m settling into running a Blades style game feeling pretty confident about working out the position/effect matrix, offering good Devil’s Bargains, and inflicting fair-but-tough complications. Any one of those things is kind of a load after how tightly proscribed PbtA type games are typically written, and all three felt like a lot to carry at first. Like, somehow, more than even straight trad systems. Probably because pass/fail is easy and mostly all the interesting system stuff happens during combat. Interestingly, nobody has fired or been fired upon even once yet. I’m not sure they’ve even noticed.
One thought that keeps coming to me about the BitD-type position/effect matrix is, why? Like, why even bother? I’m pretty sure you could run Scum or Blades where every roll is risky position and standard effect, and it would work just fine. It’d be like playing just the Hub in Burning Wheel, where everything is a versus test. What it feels like, when we slow down and actually work out the position/effect each time in S&V, is that all those choices are a way to structure negotiations between the GM and players so that each roll and outcome feels fair. It also feels fun to dangle the choices the players do have, like trading position for effect, which they kind of frequently choose because XPs for desperate rolls are yummy, and because I’ve got clocks running literally everywhere all the time that need to get chewed through.
I think the big shift for me in feeling like I’ve “mastered” Blades-style play is how easily I deploy a clock if I feel like any given situation needs more than a one-off roll. I felt uncertain when we played Blades last year because the all-clocks-all-the-time thing felt different than how they’re deployed in Apocalypse World. I have to assume that’s because we don’t have moves available to handle bigger-than-a-moment resolutions in Blades/Scum. AW clocks are, in my mind, for big narrative arcs (although they certainly don’t have to be; that’s just how I use them), while BitD clocks are for discrete dramatic pressures.
Having lots of clocks in play at all times also makes Devil’s Bargains and consequences way easier to dream up for every roll. Mostly I go to a tick on a clock, or harm, or heat every time and it works out just fine. Occasionally, and I want to do this more, I offer up “soft move” future badness announcements. For example, in one scene last night they were trying to set up a distraction, but it meant sending a guy in a spacesuit out onto the surface of a moon to wreck some delicate equipment. The Bargain was “well, so the suit got damaged as you made your way across the surface.” No specific consequences now but an announcement that, should he roll anything less than a 6, that character’s gonna get decompressed.
Last night’s session was two jobs and two downtimes. That felt good for getting the players out of the head space that a job = a session. Jobs are jobs, and they take as long as they take. That is a little fuzzy for gambit-management purposes, but also useful so players can’t game their gambits too tightly.
The first job’s engagement roll put them in a desperate position when they cut to the job: as the ship pops out of a dark hyperlane (they’re scooting around the Iota system to smuggle a disembodied scientist to the icy Precursor ruins on Lithios) they come face-to-face with an enormous space squid! Yikes! This was also a chance to feel out how the system ratings get used in the game. I felt some uncertainty about when systems get rolled versus when the player uses their own skills, but it worked out fine. As Stras Acimovic pointed out to me in sidebar, you can resolve nearly everything in the game in several different ways. That’s fine, nobody complained.
The second job rolled immediately out of the first one’s entanglements roll during downtime. The organization they had delivered the scientist to wanted to move a frozen Xeno out of the ruins and into their lab one system away, to a secret headquarters on a moon of Nightfall in the Brekk system. The twist is that the faction that wants to resurrect the ancient Precursor alien is a despised minority, where the rest of the organization just wants to exploit the artifacts themselves. So rather than a straight transport job, they needed to hustle their way deep into the base of their own employer.
This session, everyone pushed all their economies right to the brink: used every gambit, nearly received their first Trauma levels (the Mystic did, and is now paranoid, which is terrific and sort of scary), scraped together every cred to buy enough downtime activity to go into their next job without lingering injuries. It all feels pretty desperate, which I hope is fun for them! I think my next Scum skill will be metering out the desperation a bit more carefully.
Another area I’m going to focus on is managing what has become a somewhat intricate relationship map across three of the four systems and five different factions. It felt a little hard to keep things feeling tight and dramatically relevant. I think some of that is the episodic nature of doing jobs, which is an interesting creative challenge for me. There’s going to be more prep during downtime than I thought!