The Final Score

We’ve been playing Blades in the Dark for about six months now, which has involved a bit of a love-hate relationship with the game on my part. When it works, it can work very well, and I think there’s definitely some mechanics in there which could be worth stealing. It’s the rest of the times that I have a problem with it. More on that at the end.

This session was the second half of last week’s score. The crew had got into the brothel where the vampire Gerard Ustok was hiding out, and we had ended just after the engagement roll. Spid was on the roof trying to lower the crew’s weapons down to where they waited in the room they had hired out (to get around the ‘no weapons in the brothel’ rule), and because of the poor roll (⚂⚁⚁⚀) they started in a desperate situation.

One of the brothel’s girls had opened an attic window next to Spid and spotted him, and was about to raise the alarm. He made an intimidate check and threw her some coin to shut up and ignore him. Since he got a ⚄, he succeeded with consequences. She didn’t yell out, but she did go back inside to tell her friends about her sudden good fortune – Spid only had a few moments before others would come looking for a payoff.

Rue had a flash back to have created a net contraption for catching their gear, and him, and he leapt down, with another ⚄ which caused the balcony to give way, crashing into the ground below and alerting the guards.

At this point the crew had the option to flee or go ahead quickly – they chose the latter, bursting out of their room and down the corridor to where the vampire’s guards were now alerted and readying for action. Rue opened with a gas grenade, and Spid got into the middle of the fight, taking some harm but laying them out. It was then that Tamasis drew on her new powers, and blasted several of them with bolts of lightning, making a devil’s bargain in the process and getting a ⚅. Since they were in Crow’s Foot, the devil’s bargain awoke a spirit which first took out another guard, but then decided it wanted to possess Rue. Dominus stepped in the way to distract it however, then ran off with it chasing him.

Getting through the door into the vampire’s quarters, there were two women – who bared their fangs and faced down Spid. At that point the sword started humming, and asked to take over – which Spid allowed. The combined force of Spid and the sword took the two vampire women down, allowing him to rush through after the main vampire who was now waiting for him in the bedroom.

One of the vampire women picked herself up and leapt at Tamasis, who burned her down in mid-air with her lightning, though she was now pretty much spent. Spid, with a lot of luck from multiple ⚅’s, and some help from Rue, managed to slay the Vampire and its soul was sucked into the sword. There was much quoting from Elric of Melnibonẽ.

Be wary of this devil-blade, Moonglum. It kills the foe – but savours the blood of friends and kinfolk most.

Elric: The Stealer of Souls

The crew tidied up, grabbed what they could that looked valuable and fled, after setting fire to at least some of the brothel to mask their escape. They generated a lot of Heat from this session, but also gained enough coin and Reputation to reach Tier II.

I wasn’t planning on making this the final session, but it seemed a good place to end things, and I really struggled with the system in this session which put me in the mood of wanting to take a break.

The problem I have with Blades in the Dark, is that the rules aren’t concrete enough to make it easy. This is especially a problem in a session like this when things are really dangerous. In a system like Pathfinder (or GURPS, Runequest, or whatever), there’s strict rules which dictate what the results of things will be. If you succeed then X happens, otherwise Y happens.

In Blades, there are ‘consequences’ and ‘limited effects’ or ‘great effects’, and determining what they mean is difficult. When a consequence could easily result in something really bad happening to a PC, and the player obviously doesn’t want something really bad to happen, it puts me as GM in an difficult situation since the result is down to my whim, rather than through a well defined set of rules that have been agreed before hand.

It also doesn’t help that the initial engagement roll can be so random, and PCs can start up in a bad situation through no fault of their own, and indeed no clear reason why they’re in that position. The dice say things start badly, so they do. Stress gain when resisting things can be equally random as well.

When it works, the system can work well, and we definitely had a lot of fun with it, but there were also lots of times when I was struggling with the system to try and make it workable.

The other problem I have with Blades is the concept scores and downtime. It’s strange for a game that is very wishy washy about the rules when they need to be well defined, that it’s very restrictive for the parts of the game that should be flexible.

A score starts at a certain point, in the middle of the action, with no chance to sidle up to a scenario. Investigation is done separately – you can’t start with doing some investigation and then work your way into the score naturally as you would in other games. This insistence on mechanising the process feels very artificial, and removes a lot of the roleplaying that can happen at this part of a session. For groups who hate planning and investigation, it probably works really well. For groups who want to do this though, it gets in the way and makes things difficult.

There are other games which do downtime much better. Ars Magica for example is heavily downtime focused, but it’s something that happens naturally. You define what you’re doing for the season, and you can take 10 days out of the season for ‘other stuff’. If you spend more than that then you start getting penalties to downtime checks. PCs can mix research, with talking to people, with investigating some ruins, and it all flows together naturally without enforced hard breaks between these bits.

Interestingly, Ars Magica has other similarities to Blades – the concept of a Covenant (rather than a Crew) which can be improved and developed, and a team of Grogs (rather than a Gang) which provide NPC support to the players. It also recommends multiple characters per player, though for different reasons. I think Blades possible does the Crew as a character a little better than Ars does, but I prefer Ars over all (but then, it is one of my favourite RPGs).

When it works, the score and flashback system can work very well (and I may steal the flashback idea for other games). But a lot of the time I just want stuff to happen naturally.

However, the lightweight preparation was a definite bonus. I also liked the setting – both the city of Duskvol and the general flavour and background. I felt I could have handled the different factions better, since I didn’t really do much with them at all. Part of the reason is that it felt hard to slot background events in due to the mechanistic nature of the sessions. Maybe I could have done something like I did for my last Ars Magica game, and provided player hand outs for the latest news and rumours in the city. But then again, you’re either in a score or in downtime – the lack of free flowing role play makes it difficult to investigate things like this.

For example, a PC wants to investigate some strange events at a warehouse that they’ve heard about. They might make a Survey roll to gather information and notice there’s some ghostly lights in the window. So they go up and look in the window, then they want to climb in and look around. At what point does investigating for information stop, and the score begin? In most games it doesn’t matter – it all flows smoothly. In Blades, there has to be a hard cut off, which feels very unnatural.

So in all, Blades in the Dark was an interesting experiment. I don’t regret running it, and I think I see why a lot of people love the game, but it doesn’t fit with our gaming style. I would have liked someone else to run a score or two, so I could experience it as a player, but at this stage I’d rather call a halt to things before I get more stressed rather than wait for that to happen.

For our next game it currently looks like we may be going back to Delta Green – we’ve got a week to decide what people want to do though.

Samuel Penn