Mike Cule and Roger Bell West over at Improvised Radio Theatre with Dice podcast apply two criteria to any new game before it is introduced to a table of gamers. I like to call this the IMPROVRAD test, and it goes like this (I’m paraphrasing):
- The players MUST be able to understand their place in the setting with a very simple pitch. Why are they here? What are they supposed to do?
- A GM should only take on a new game if they are able to write at least six story hooks, ideas, NPCs quickly on a side of paper.
The first test measures the game’s ability to frame the context for the players so they can work with the material and the second is the GM’s test, to ensure that they can invent ideas on the fly, if needed, and can create sustainable game ideas to support the game in play.
Blades in Dark passes the IMPROVRAD test with the aplomb of a cold assassin.
If you need a pitch for your players, it provides it: Peaky Blinders meets Fafyrd and The Grey Mouser.
Not enough to get you hooked? Try this:
“You are daring scoundrels on the haunted streets of Duskwall, seeking your fortunes in the criminal underworld. Your legacy will be the gang you form in this dark city – the turf you acquire, the specialists you recruit, the scores you strike …”
That’s enough isn’t it? That’s enough to get your players intrigued and wanting to know more. I love the romance of The Godfather and The Lies of Locke Lamora, so it seemed the perfect setting for our group, with its promise of mechanics for pulling off daring heists and managing the escalation of a gang in a cut-throat world.
I’ve been reading the rules for the last few weeks and it is built on the shoulders of some of the Indy classics that emerged in the period of our deep freeze (1988 – 2010): Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Burning Wheel and Fate, amongst others. The mechanics seemed perfectly intuitive on reading as they were completely congruent with the setting.
Ideas have been flowing, image on image, stealing NPCs and plots from the Sopranos and Fritz Lieber. Thanks to the handy tables at the back it’s possible to generate a thousand stories without really trying.
It makes the IMPROVRAD grade, but what is it like to play?
The format of one-d-six means that there are 5 highlights and a fumble:
What’s your playbook?
Characters are developed using ‘playbooks’ which are more like foundational templates rather than ‘classes’ as they provide a jumping off point for the players, so they can understand their current reputation in the city of Duskwall.
As emerging street-thugs trying to make a name for themselves, the player characters could be good in a fight (a CUTTER), a tracker who picks his fights (HOUND), a dabbler in alchemy (a LEECH) or they may play confidence trickster (SLIDE).
Predictably, my Magic-Loving-player (Blythy) went for the WHISPER playbook that reaches out to arcane powers and wrangles the ghosts in the city of DuskWall and my tactician (Eddy) went for SPIDER, a mastermind of criminal manoeuvring, “never get into situation that you can’t walk away from within 30 seconds”.
There’s a step-by-step guide that gives the opportunity to add narrative colour to the character back-story, but it’s not heavy handed. Going through this process allowed the setting to come alive for the players. They were intrigued by the strange lightening wall that blocks out the light and the strange forces beyond. They wanted to know more about the demonic levevithan beasts that are hunted for their electroplasm which fuels the city’s industry.
The structure …
I’ve played this twice and on both occasions, I’ve developed the story at the table, with no preparation before the session other than the suggested starting situation provided by the rules. This is the most improvisational mode I’ve managed to achieve since the 1980s when all of our games were constructed in the playing. I’ve never been a belts and braces GM, but this time, I wasn’t even wearing pants.
Thankfully, the mechanics help to support this free-wheelin’, so as a GamesMaster, you’re never completely off-road. The stories have a sequence of play that provide a loose, but important foundational structure
‘Free Play’ is the point in the session where the characters explore the world and encounter the colourful non-player characters. Out of these interactions, a potential ‘score’ will emerge, which will trigger the action scenes. Once completed, there is downtime when players can indulge in vices to reduce their stress, or spend coin to reduce heat or develop the assets of the gang.
Despite my best efforts and the desires of John Harper, in these early sessions, it has been the mechanics that have driven the action rather than the fiction. Inevitably, for us old-time GROGNARDS, we were captivated by the novelty of the mechanics. Blades uses the idea of conflict resolution rather than task resolution. It was possible to hear the gears crunching as we navigated through situations. Instead of blow by blow we needed to understand what was at stake in a situation. The resolution rolls use pools of D6s where the likely result is “you succeed, but …”
Blythy did his usual flourish of the index finger, before settling on something on his character sheet, “I think I’m going to SEARCH.”
When I asked him to describe where he was going to search, how he was going to do it and to set up the scene, so we could agree on potential outcomes, he glared at me as if to say, “just let me, bloody roll for it.”
The opening situation (provided by the rules) places the characters in the centre of a turf war in the area of the city known as Crows Foot. The salt-of-the-Earth Lamp Blacks are in a face-off with the more elegant and organized Red Sashes.
The Whisper and the Spider had an audience with Bazso Baz, the leader of the Lamp Blacks, he had a mission for them, a chance to make their mark with a powerful ally by striking at the very heart of his rivals the Red Sashes. He wanted them to place a mysterious, rune-covered rattle-like device in the lair of the Sashes.
At this stage, the players opted for a ‘flash-back’ to a meeting with Mylera, the leader of the Red Sashes. The flashback is a clever device that prevents endless planning ahead of a ‘score’. The players crack on with the action, when they get to a point where they want to affect the result with some pre-planning, they can flashback to a scene where they set it up. For example, escaping through the window, they can flashback to the scene where they concealed ladders the night before.
In this case, they used the flashback to switch allegiances. In exchange for promise of hunting-ground turf within Crowsfoot and some protection from the Red Sashes, they laced a fine whiskey with poison.
Bazso could not resist the dram. Eddy’s character caroused him into drinking a salute to the deal. Thanks to a ‘devil’s bargain’ (an extra dice added to the dice pool) he scored a critical (two 6s) and Baz hit the deck.
In exchange for the bargain, the Spider is wanted. The Lamp Blacks have a long term project to seek out the mysterious assassin who killed their leader.
Faction Game – “Are you with me, or against me?”
The element that drew me to the game in the first place, was the ability to develop character AND your gang during the campaign. The crew becomes as important as the characters in the game, as you build up the alliances, rivalries, specialists, contacts in high places, scores, and turf.
Following the assassination, the escape from Baz’s ghost, and the general chaos generated, the downtime is a time when the book-keeping for the crew takes place. The Rattle Snakes were born.
Blythy and Eddy had an ambition to open a high-class house-of-ill-repute for reasons best known to themselves. The Red Sashes set them up with a Lair on the edge of Crows Foot. They’ve been planning and scheming their progression through the ‘Claims’ which acts like a track on a board that they need to move through and will determine the nature of the next heist.
They’ve also got this mysterious rattle to cause mischief.
Stop the clocks
One of its borrowed mechanics is the idea of ‘clocks’ or ‘pies’ as we like to call them. They are a way of measuring increasing jeopardy as the stress of failure builds up steadily. Situations can create clocks with segments determined by the GM. For example, Eddy’s Spider took a Devil’s Bargain (an extra dice) when he murdered Baz, so the Lamp Blacks have a long term project clocks that they are working on, to find the assassin.
The pies haven’t really got the player’s hearts racing yet.
Mechanically, there’s a lot of plates to keep spinning, as there are lots of different elements. A crude summary would be to see these factors as ‘narrative crunch’, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that: the structures and ‘gamey’ bits are the engine that allow the creativity to have a bit of a structure and provide the important motivation for the characters within the world. I suspect when we get used to the different aspects, the prominence of the pies will be more apparent.
Back in the day, we used to play long campaigns in cities. Since we began playing RPGs again in 2010, this is the most excited I’ve been as GM, and closest to reaching that special sweet spot that I thought we’d lost. It’s perfect for those time-strapped GMs who are willing to improvise. Once it’s mastered, it can generate great gaming experiences very easily.
When we were playing, it felt that we were discovering the places and characters together in a living world. It passes the IMPROVRAD test and the Armchair Adventurer’s test too: cracking fun.
Over on The Smart Party, they’ve just released a podcast about their experiences of playing the game. Give the original Bazso Baz a listen to find out more detail about this great game.