Thursday, March 15, 2018

Lessons from Doskvol: Learning Blades in the Dark

This last Friday marked the 16th session of our f2f Blades in the Dark campaign. I checked in and everyone seemed on board to continue. I’ll check in again in another six sessions. We have a big table for this: six players, and over all the sessions we’ve only had a single player missing twice. Blades doesn’t feel designed for a table of six, but it works and we’ve seen characters (and the gang) evolve over arcs. In April, I begin an online Blades campaign using the Iruvia setting (and Johnstone Metzger’s new playbooks). I set that up for a dozen sessions through The Gauntlet Hangouts.

I dig Blades in the Dark but even sixteen sessions in I learn new things about the play. At its core Blades has a simple and flexible resolution mechanic. The rules offer extensive advice and examples. Notably the rules embrace that different GMs run differently, even with the same core system. BitD talks about rulings and how they affect play. A GM tunes and shades their Doskvol through choices and interpretations. I’ll repeat this phrase throughout: that can take some getting used to.

Blades has deep structures built on those simple rules. Designer John Harper has keenly crafted and developed those. Each playbook suggests new things about the setting. Mechanics like downtime and post-score resolution enrich choices. I’ve found Blades easy to learn, but challenging to master. This post covers some lessons I’ve learned and things I’ve noted. YRMV but I want to point GMs (and players) to some considerations.

If you’re interested in Blades, I recommend checking out Kyle Thompson’s extensive and unconfusing video series walking through the rules. If you already dig Blades, consider checking out Hack the Planet, a Kickstarter by Fraser Simons which takes BitD into solarpunk territory. 

Each character has “possible” equipment in their playbook. On a job each player selects their loadout LEVEL, trading number of items for raising suspicion. On the actual job they can use that many items, selected on the fly. Blades bakes that in by making each playbook’s choices unique. What they can have speaks volumes about their archetype and the setting. 

However in play we often forget equipment. When I GM I don’t have those lists in front of me. The players forget because I move things fast and they focus on stress and special abilities. I need to get better about that. On the other hand, the book doesn’t spend much time on how exactly you can use items. In the past I defaulted to an extra die if applicable. But a recent discussion pointed out to me that it could also encompass fictional justifications for actions, changes in scale of success, negation of some stress cost, or pre-requisites for massively challenging tasks.

I’ve thought recently about where and how systems define results/ success/ consequences. For example, in standard PbtA games your roll lets you or the GM define those. Costs include GM Moves or the player picking from stuff. PbtA also has a “tell them the consequences and ask” principle, but that’s a situational thing. Mutant: Year Zero follows PbtA’s pattern. Players say their intent and roll. If they roll one success they do it; they can spend extra successes to do more or better. If they fail, then something bad always happens. In combat missing serves as a cost; outside of combat the GM picks.

Systems with modifiers figure out challenges and apply them to the roll. Sometimes straight failure means nothing happens, sometimes it triggers an obvious consequence. Cypher has a twist on this—additional costs can come from particularly bad rolls. The GM can also perform an “Intrusion” at any time to complicate things. While the rules discuss what bad stuff and intrusions look like in relation to different tasks and roles, the system doesn’t require that failure generate anything other than failure.

On the other hand 7th Sea takes a different approach. When a player needs to do something, they make a Risk. When they take an action, they 1) say what they want to accomplish, 2) define their skills & trait, and 3) get bonus dice and roll. The GM says how many raises they need to do what they want. But the GM must also establish what Consequences are on the table: getting hurt, losing something, an NPC’s safety, taking too long, looking bad, expendable resources, a bad future position. Essentially the GM has to state their move. EVERY RISK has a Consequence (sometimes more). If it doesn’t have a consequence, then the player shouldn’t roll. This frontloads thinking about fallout and circumstances.

Blades in the Dark, as I read it, mixes these approaches. A standard control has two axes: position and effect. Position defines the severity of consequences or problems. The situation may make that obvious or it may remain abstract. Sometimes I describe the moment in more detail to put everyone on same page. The player rolls and from the result level we determine any consequences (mixed or failure).

But we also have situations players walk or fall into—intrusions of a kind. They’re attacked by a master duelist, the demon pops up, the building collapses—and there’s a consequence on the table. It’s not necessarily the fallout from an action, it’s events in the fiction. Now players act to avoid the consequence and rolls to see how much stress they take in the evasion. Here we have sometime close to 7th Sea with frontloading and choice. In play we flip back and forth between those two, with one potentially rolling into the other. Eventually it flows, but at the start it requires a new approach to seeing what’s happening on the table. (See also this post).

I love how Blades in the Dark teaches the rules. It slowly and carefully layers information, backing up to repeat and emphasize as it introduces new systems. I have a strong memory of it slowly clicking into place. That organization and structure has a cost. I have a hard time finding things when I have to look things up at the table. Years of baked-in assumptions of where you find bits in a rulebook made that worse. But even with tabs attached to pages, when I have to reference something it will invariably elude me. Every freaking game it takes me two minutes to find the session end experience mechanics.

If you run BitD, I highly recommend Andrew Shields’ Blades in the Dark Heist Deck. It’s generates excellent characters, challenges, and targets. You’ve got some of that in the random tables at the back of the rules, but this has greater depth and detail. I’ve used them as is and as a springboard for other concepts.

I’m soft on ghosts. I’ve tried to make them seem scary and super dangerous—the book suggests encountering one ought to damage a person’s sanity. I’ve done that when they’ve faced spectral guards and similar challenges. But the setting makes ghosts ubiquitous and hitting the same note doesn’t feel quite right. I need to figure out how to make them more nuanced.

But I’ve also been soft on some of the consequences and costs for our Whisper. Our player likes to dig herself deeper into situations, so I don’t want to double the cost. I suspect the way I handle Whispers looks more like a classical mage. Overall the lesson becomes think about how you want ghosts presented at the table. If you have a Whisper player, you need to give them fair warning and a sense of how you’re going to play this.

Doskvol challenges the GM. On the one hand, it offers an awesome, well-realized city. I support Ryan Dunleavy’s Patreon for new maps. I bought a poster-sized map and set it in the middle of the table, covered with plexiglass. Doskvol’s strange layout and gothic look provides the players a touchstone. But the GM still has to do some heavy lifting.

Doskvol has a multitude of moving parts and events—and I’m not just talking the factions. The many groups have complicated relationships and unique agendas. If the GM keeps clocks for the many gangs and groups, have to analyze and advance those consistently. They need to think about what the factions look like—especially what territories they hold and how that impinges on the PC gang. The GM juggles a lot there, but the game supports that with reference lists.

Understanding and conveying the actual feel and culture of the city poses more difficulties. In order to pull off scams and plot actions, players need a sense of the world. As with other story games, Blades builds much of that through collaboration and questions. But quickly the GM has to manage consistency, especially as new details smack up against key setting concepts. Blades in the Dark has several, but I’ll point to just one: it’s dark all the time.

There’s no sun. All the light in Doskvol comes from firelight or ghost-powered lamps. That changes the setting massively. How do people get food? The book mentions mushrooms and some other sources, but ghost growlights eventually screw things up and limits scale. What other sources exist, what kinds of plants can people eat—and then what kinds of wildlife survive? Is this constrained food supply a pure free market or does the Empire control and dole out some subsistence rations? That’s a classic historical formula—if so what does that distribution look like, how much corruption exists?

Darkness is just one detail, but it has a host of implications. What about the death of the gods and the existence of cities, what about the massive risk in travelling between cities, what about the ubiquity of ghosts, what about the massive Deathlands keeping everyone trapped in urban centers? Doskvol creeps up on you. You might have grokked the feel of the place, but not have a grip on the actual city.

Many game settings don’t have the same level of interconnected depth. I run a ton of rpgs for The Gauntlet Hangouts; I’ve learned how to condense and present settings. I find the key elements and put those in front of the players: Kuro, Unmasked, 7th Sea, Mutant City Blues. I file off corners and heavy details to deliver verisimilitude. But Blades in the Dark has a complicated architecture. As with the rules there’s a simple key premise: rough urban center in perpetual darkness. But the game enriches that deeply. If you run, you’ll find yourself returning to the book repeatedly to help your framing.

Players will discover the potent character abilities. In my game multiple PCs have chosen three of these. Functioning Vice (Spider) allows the players to modify the results of their roll when indulging their vice. In practical terms, this means they’ll never overindulge except in rare, rare circumstances. Plus if someone shares their vice, they can bring them along for the same effect. Calculating (Spider) allows for an additional downtime action. If you have six players, as I do, and everyone takes this, as they did, that’s 18 downtime actions. Training, Asset Creation, and Heat Reduction will skyrocket. A Little Something on the Side (Slide) gives the character +2 stash at the end of every downtime. That will rack up and changes the resource dynamic at the table.

None of these break the game, but GMs should know how they can shift play.

Each Gang Type has a set of preferred jobs aka Hunting Grounds. They pick one of four as favored, but the others point to the kinds of missions the gang will typically want to handle. These don’t map directly to the six job types mentioned in BitD’s Approach section. For example Assassins have accident, disappearance, murder, and ransom as choices. I can easily imagine these operations and what they’d look like in the system. On the other hand, our crew type, Hawkers, have sale, supply, show of force, and socialize. That presents greater challenge to structure as a cool job-- one where everyone gets to show off their talents.

That means as a GM you need to look really hard at and brainstorm those. The gangs can do jobs outside of these, but those choices points to what the players might expect. I wish the book had further discussion and examples for the different hunting grounds. I think that’s a rich vein to tap for someone doing Forged in the Dark supplements. Rob Donoghue has pointed to Leverage and cons as a rich source of job types and that helps. But I probably need to spend some prep time thinking more about variations on these hunting grounds.

Hope that proved useful. If you’ve run or played Blades, what have you seen?