Lessons Learned in the Dark

As my first full season of Blades in the Dark comes to a close, I took some time to write down my thoughts on John Harper’s fantastic game. For clarity, this represents only my personal opinion, and on balance this remains one of my very favorite role-playing games in both mechanics & setting. I will run through stuff I like about the game and suggestions I have for other GMs before noting a few weaknesses in it (as well as in my own role as a GM).

Two scoundrels skirmish with rapier and dagger.
Art by John Harper from “Blades in the Dark” page 59

Good Stuff

Blades provides so much gameplay straight out of the box that it can seem a little overwhelming. I have a few things to highlight and suggest:

Understanding Position & Effect might be THE most important mechanical bit to grok. “Position” represents how badly things could go (from the player perspective), and “Effect” represents how well they can go. Importantly, look at the Action roll results for Controlled / Risky / Desperate (on page 23 in the text).

You have several “dials” to turn when thinking about the tone of your game. Most importantly, discuss with the group, as everyone at the table shares this responsibility! Once you do that, it will guide you when figuring out how much effect Resistance of a consequence will have, how often to throw Harm at the characters, the influence of Tier when assessing Effect, etc.

The Players Kit in the Downloads section has something for everyone. Specifically, as a GM, I found the two Rules Reference pages and the GM Reference absolutely indispensable.

If you play on Roll20, the BitD sheets there probably have more going for them than any other system. As a bonus, the Faction sheet provides more utility than the one in the PDF because you can change the Tier of each faction.

Provide some free play prompts to keep the game somewhat focused. Maybe start with some rumors and news about how the world has changed, or insert some characters (vice purveyors, friends & rivals, etc.)

Let your players decide on scores rather than pre-plan options. GMs feel tempted to design a score and present options, but opportunities should emerge naturally during free play and from the players’ interests. It might seem tempting, but I find it unworkable past the first few scores of the campaign.

Don’t be afraid to tweak Effect based on the chosen Action, but make sure everyone agrees on what a specific Action actually entails. How you define, say, Consort vs Sway or Study vs Survey will influence how they develop their characters mechanically, so consistency really matters.

Your players’ choices of playbooks (Character and Crew) tells you what kind of game they want. Of course, your fun matters too, but think about how to find the fun from their choices. When I started this campaign, I pitched the idea of Cultists. They went with Shadows instead, and in fact some of the Lines & Veils we established would have made Cultists impossible. However, after thinking about what I wanted from Cultists, it turned out the sort of “spooky Shadows” they wanted to play covered the majority of it, and we’ve had fun!

Gather Information can be overused – you only need it to get the detail for the plan (and remember it’s a Fortune roll, no Position/Effect). Don’t get into overplanning and reconnaissance: that’s what Flashbacks are for.

Allocate plenty of time for the Downtime phase as this can really drive the story and direction of the campaign. We need at least 30 minutes for this, sometimes more if they have entanglements or complete a long-term project. I default to 6-clocks for Long Term Projects unless it’s super complicated or easy.

As GM, you will eventually need to understand the difference between Usual Suspects (player volunteers contact), Questioning (GM chooses contact), Interrogation (GM chooses PC), and Arrest (players volunteer someone). Don’t memorize them, of course; just remember that differences exist and that you should consult the text every time you get an entanglement.

Make sure players think about overindulgence and entanglement possibilities when choosing their vices and purveyors. They might try to game the system here a bit and shy away from what’s suggested in the book. Obviously, they should create the characters the way they want, but they need to leave room for these kinds of complications. As a group, make sure to discuss this from the outset.

Read Chapter 6. Read it again (especially the first sections). This answered so many of my frustrations and questions during play.

Internalize Chapter 7. If you have experience with other “Powered by the Apocalypse” games, you will immediately see how Goals / Actions / Principles / Best Practices / Bad Habits relate to your Agenda, Principles, and Moves in those games.

Rituals & Crafting are some of my favorite things in the game. They provide wonderuful opportunities to co-create with your players outside of the session and indulge in a bit of game design, even if not super heavy lifting.

Bad Stuff

The game, or sometimes just the book (to the extent these are separable), could improve in a few areas. As a first example, the NPC Faction game needs more meat, especially in Downtime. Sometimes I feel a bit adrift in what to do during my solo prep time, although this mechanic actually drew me to Blades originally.

Free Play gets short shrift. Harper writes the entirety of the direction for this phase in three sentences on page 8:

By default, the game is in free play: characters talk to each other, they go places, they do things, they make rolls as needed… When all the downtime activities are complete, the game returns to free play and the cycle starts over again… During free play, the game is very fluid: you can easily skim past several events in a quick montage; characters can disperse in time and space, doing various things as they please.

A diagram on the facing page indicates a few things that are included in this phase:

  • Character scenes
  • Actions & Consequences
  • Gather Information
  • Choose a Target
  • Choose a Plan

The latter three of those probably fit better into the Score phase, as that’s when players really lean forward and focus on those tasks.

Load is not particularly relevant and could be dropped with very little effect. I often forget to ask, and when the players remind me, it doesn’t seem to matter later unless they end up encumbered (which has never happened for me).

The book contains Action rating descriptions in several different places throughout. While it has no shortage of good info, I often feel like I need to stitch it together from several different chapters plus the rules reference.

Ugly Stuff

Focusing on where I need to improve: I struggle with Progress Clocks during a score and usually stick clocks on Dangers and Long-Term Projects (including faction). These would add more depth and tension if used more extensively during the score.

The “City Guide to Doskvol” section overwhelms me a bit. In fact, it might actually have too many factions for me. (Please note that I consider this an area for me to improve, rather than suggesting the text should have less material.) Consider using the abilities and mechanics as “implied setting” and don’t fret about the “canonical” version of the city, much as we do with other games like D&D. I feel like this fits squarely with Harper’s intent, and he states nearly as much on page 5:

Some elements of the game setting are meant to emerge in play, as an act of discovery and creative interpretation. I don’t come right out and tell you everything about the nature of ghosts, for example. There are several possible concepts, from which you are free to pick and choose as you go along: making the game your own as you do. Once this game is in play, it’s yours and yours alone. You’re not beholden to anyone.

Finally, my players have mentioned that I should probably use more NPCs to embody the factions they deal with. For some (the Gondoliers and Rail Jacks), I did this, but for others (the Ministry of Preservation), not as much. They really like how I personify these characters, and it helps make those factions and threats feel more concrete.

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