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Tricks learned from Blades in the Dark

JohnnFour

Game Master
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Adamantium WoA
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RPT GM Martin V sent me this excellent email on his key takeways from this fantastic game, and how they might be used for other systems.

[Here are some] interesting insights from Blades in the Dark, a game I've been reading recently.

Blades in the Dark is a game about playing daring scoundrels from an upstart criminal crew, in a haunted steampunk metropolis à la Dishonored (the video game series) with permanent night, restless ghosts and Victorian-era technology. It shares some intellectual kinship with the broader PbtA family, but has diverged in many ways, with more complex procedures to run the city sandbox. BitD has apparently won over a sizeable niche following.

The handbook is somewhat daunting, so here are some bits that got me thinking "how clever!", with potential for portability to other systems.

I'll start with the one that impressed me the most.

BitD sessions center around "scores", aka criminal operations such as burglaries, heists, smuggling jobs, assassinations... Nothing new so far.

Since it's a sandbox, players choose their target, come up with one detail of their plan (yes, one, no more needed) and... that's it. The GM next frames a scene right in the action, skipping all the preliminary work, such as surveillance or information gathering. An engagement roll determines how favorably the operation has begun. Then, when PCs encounter some unexpected opposition, they're allowed to spend Stress Points (a limited resource normally used to avert negative outcomes) to declare a flashback. Like, "I had, in fact, arranged for those guards to ingest 'improved' beer so as not to be perfectly fresh tonight". The GM then frames the flashback scene to find out how it went.

I find this very smart because I'm accustomed to players wasting absurd amounts of time before committing to some course of action, comparing every possible course of action and contingency plan, no matter how irrelevant the stakes actually are. And that's in classic dungeoneering games, when the choice boils down to "left or right?". They can go on until I hard-press them to make a call, or until someone does something goofy to break the dithering. Now, imagine planning a goddamn heist like that *shivers*

With BitD's flashback system, players don't plan for what might possibly happen, and instead retroactively try to counter what actually happens.

It reminds of the Money Heist series, where flashbacks are a frequent plot device to show how the supremely clever Professor had apparently planned for everything.

So that's one take-away tip from BitD. I've got two more.

The next is on a similar vein. Each player has an inventory of available items, depending on playbook (class, if you will). So far, so good.
Before going on a score, you choose your load, which determines how many items you carry with you and how encumbered you are.
Then, when you need a particular item, you declare that you've actually brought it with you and that's about it. If your remaining load is sufficient you can declare any item from your playbook.

Again, this cuts down on prep work: you don't need to ponder beforehand whether you should carry more rope or an additional shotgun. You have planned for what happens, not what might happen.

Last thing I'm thinking of: in BitD, before having players roll, the GM has to precisely clarify what the game terms "position" and "effect", though "risk" and "reward" are probably more transparent terms. Indeed, depending on position ("risk") and effect ("reward"), the interpretation of a given range of roll outcomes (such as partial success) will not be the same. Doing so ensures that GM and players are on the same page before rolling. As a result, the stakes are clear when players have to choose, say, between a complication (risk-dependent) and reduced effect (reward-dependent). This also lets players bargain and trade, say, improved effect for worsened position before actually doing the action.

Overall, BitD looks like a high-quality game - no wonder it has inspired its own genre (Forged in the Dark). I'm eager to test it.

Best,
Martin
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
For me, it would take away all the fun... I think, it is my job as a GM to ensure that incentives and risks are clear during decision making. All three aspects are not to my liking so far, but I have never tried the game, so I don't know how it would actually feel.
 

JohnnFour

Game Master
Staff member
Adamantium WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Gamer Lifestyle
Demonplague Author
Borderland Explorer
It's definitely along the spectrum of player agency vs. GM control in game design.
 
I'm starting two new Blades in the Dark campaigns this week, and I'm really looking forward to it. I love the flashback mechanic (a little planning is fun; but half a session's worth is game time wasted). And the loadout system is so elegant. My D&D players each have The Witcher-magnitude inventories full of items they never remember to use.

The dice system seemed complicated to me at first, but then I tried standing back for an objective look at the D&D I normally play, and I realized how simple BitD really is by comparison.

I'm currently logging the NPC, faction, and landmark info from the BitD lore to make it easy to retrieve and annotate while I'm running the game. I think it's going to be a great help.
 
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