How I'm surviving a 2.5 years old campaign of Blades in the Dark

Yeah, 2.5 years is a crazy time for a campaign, at least for me. We are playing it every week (well, with some pauses during summer breaks or Christmas break, of course), mostly sessions between 2 and 3 hours.

And - despite the obvious complications of such a long campaign (for example, I have absolutely no idea what happened in the first few sessions - I no longer have clear memories, and I lost my notes somewhere), we are having a really good time.
Since in other threads, it seems that some players have a different approach than mine, playing Blades (eg @Froggy has explained in this post (What's on your gaming table? - #22 by Froggy ), I want to share how we play Blades.

Game Structure

First of all: we almost never have a rigid structure between scores, free play, and downtime.
Yes, downtime has a very clear beginning (the score payout), but it’s never nearly clear when it will end, and it often mixes with free play (in a back-and-forth between free play scenes and downtime action), and very often, we play it in a flashback, when it seems interesting to us.

Furthermore, when solving a downtime action, we usually ask ourselves, “ok, are we interested in playing this scene? Are we interested in framing the action and telling the circumstances?”. If the answer is no, we roll the dice and apply the mechanical effects, without spending too much time on it.

The scores

As for the scores, apart from TWO scores (the first at the beginning of the campaign, and the second at the beginning of the second narrative arc, after a skip time of a few months from the conclusion of the previous one), I have never offered them to the players. Still, they arrived fluidly from the consequences and outcomes of the previous one. They have always been player initiatives, such as goals they wanted to achieve or the aftermath of the hit.

For example, after the 3rd session, I rolled on the “Reprisal” entanglements table. So I decided that one of the “friends” one of the players had on the sheet and that we had already brought into the scene, had been kidnapped. I told the players, “ok, you can pay 4 Coin or 4 Rep, because the gang is Tier 4… or you can try to face them”. They didn’t let themselves be intimidated, and the next score was to try to free their friend.

One thing that often happened is that the scores were then self-assigned, and the payout phase was null. The coins that entered the gang were due to free play deals, resold information, or from assets acquired during the heists.
Indeed, the patron of the gang was ignored almost immediately, and they never listened to the scores he suggested (later, in the campaign, he decided to take revenge for it, and still, even if he is in jail, he is a potential threat).

My preparation for the score, therefore, is usually very basic. I ask the players what they want to do, we play free play as long as we are interested, and when it is clear what the score will be, we think about the engagement roll. While they try to define the detail, I prepare my notes: a few ideas about the place and possible obstacles.

Then we make the engagement roll and play following the events of the fiction - very often, my preparation comes into play, because it’s unnecessary.

During one preparation, for example, I wrote down, “The paintings of Villa Scurlock are special” because I thought it would be interesting to find out why a Vampire has been collecting paintings for centuries. But the players never interacted with the paintings, and the heist scenes went in another direction. I still have no idea what’s special about those paintings! (On the other hand, I know very well that Scurlock has been collecting wines since before the Cataclysm, that he is the brother of the Emperor and the first Vampire in the world, and considers Setarra a daughter - all things that emerged in the game and discovered together with the rest of the group - let’s say I can settle).

The Action Roll and the Consequences

As for the action roll, at first, I had a little trouble explaining exactly how it works. We were coming from a 1.5-year campaign in Dungeon World, and the system was quite different. In Blades, we always need to clarify a couple of points very explicitly:

  • what players want to achieve
  • what’s stopping them from getting it
  • what are the possible consequences of a fail

We discuss these things BEFORE the action roll, even before establishing Position and Effect.
Once these things have been established, the Action that the character is using has been chosen (unfortunately, in Italian, the concept of using actions as “real verbs” of the description of the undertaken task is less strong), as GM I set P/E. Usually, I go straight to Risky / Standard, unless really obvious circumstances change this choice.

Then I ask the player, “ok, do you have something to change your situation? Do you push yourself? Do you want a devil bargain?”. I listen to their answer, and I “valid” it (I mean that I help them understand if the excellent dagger really can improve their effect or not), and then we fire.

This phase lasts very little now because the players know their equipment, skills, and characters well. But in the beginning, of course, it took a moment to look at all the options.
I emphasize that it was never a bargaining - what we do is look “better” at the position in the fiction. Let’s use the character sheet as a magnifying glass to see the details better and frame the scene more accurately.

Then we roll the dice and look at the outcome.
Finally, the players decide whether to resist or not. From the first session, we agreed that resisting means limiting the consequences unless it is impossible to do so as a logic of the game world. In that case, we cancel them.

Therefore, if the risk taken was mortal, resisting the wound will become “only” a severe wound.

Another thing established early in the campaign was the number of consequences, dependent on position. In a desperate position, the consequences are many - usually three. And the players must decide whether to resist one, two, or three. In risky position 1 or 2, according to the situation in the fiction.

In the case of the controlled position, however, we follow the rules to the letter (the controlled position, in Blades, is a special position compared to the others).

Finally, early on, I had to help the group remember that resistance doesn’t undo failure! It decreases the consequences, but the action has failed, and the obstacle has not been overcome. This way, we never felt that the resistance roll would nullify a piece of play.

If the player’s goal was to jump from roof to roof, failure results in falling off the top. Resisting means that the character survives (breaking “only” one leg), but not that he miraculously manages to cling on and reach the other roof.

More or less, these are the macro principles and techniques that we use. I’m sure I’m forgetting some, so I’ll give myself the benefit of the doubt and the ability to add more details if they come to mind.

Of course, if you have any questions, just shoot them.

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Thank you @Matteo_Sciutteri for this detailed account. I have GMed a couple of Blades campaigns and it’s really interesting to contrast experiences.

When do you find you are collectively interested in playing out downtime actions? When that happens, what is at stake? What are you guys playing to find out? Is it mainly for the benefit of characterization? Genuinely curious about your group’s experience!

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If you played (or read) Primetime Adventures, we use the same questions when framing a scene. We think a scene is interesting to play if:

  • it’s a scene that moves the plot (generally, that are the free play scenes or the score scenes)
  • or it’s a scene that helps us explore the characters more - and here is where the downtime scenes enter into play.

Indulging in vices, advancing long-term projects, and training the body or the mind… are all plot devices that we can use to learn something new about a character.
Especially if the character is new in the campaign.
Yeah, the 1000 times a character we already know hit the put, it’s not interesting at all. But the first time? Or the first time after losing their soulmate? Or the first time after reaching a new Tier? Well… that seems like interesting scenes to play.

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Thank you @Matteo_Sciutteri. The account is useful and answers some of those questions I had.

I’m noticing a focus on procedure and a little less on content. Do you remember a score that was very memorable for you? Maybe one where it completely went in an unexpected direction. We can maybe contextualise that score, and the related free and downtime play.

Also, what do you think is keeping the campaign going for so long? What’s keeping your interest up?

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I will remember a couple of scores forever - especially because my players are crazy.

One in the first arc, at the beginning of the campaign.

Lyssa of the Crow is trying to hold her new power after the coup (she killed the previous Crow’s boss), but the Red Sashes are trying to rebel. So, the player’s crew (the Weavers) step in, proposing to kidnap Mylera, the Red Sashes boss.
She is hiding in one of the richest districts in Doskvol, helped by the Church of the Flesh.

So, we gathered info and discovered she is a believer, and she goes to the church every morning, to pray.

Type of Score: stealth.
Detail: They will act as workers repairing the manhole covers, standing in the street beside the church.
Engagement Roll: 6. Super cool.

I asked the players to describe their position: they are in control, no obstacles so far.

Two described how they work on a manhole, keeping their eye on the church. The third one was in the nearby station, to create a diversion: their idea was to create chaos in the station above the church, forcing Mylera to leave the church and go south, meeting the other crew member.

My preparation was very short: I knew Mylera would try to stay hidden because she had a secret plan to defeat Lyssa (there was a Clock on the table “Mylera is seeking Lyssa’s weak point”). The church was one of the biggest in Doskvol, so I thought many people would unite. And that’s it.

So, we played a bunch of scenes, describing the players’ actions - then I introduced the first obstacle: a couple of Bluecoats patrolling the area have noted the two “workers” but no sign on the road with the usual worksite information, and they decided to ask directly to the players.
The players called a flashback, to collect some papers, but the flashback went wrong, and in the present, the Bluecoats were not really convinced.
So, one of them said, “ok, I talk with the one who seems in charge, explaining to him some bla bla bla, while walking near the parapet overlooking the river… and when we’ll be there, I will push him in the water”.
The roll was bad, but he resisted the consequences, so the punch of the Bluecoats did just a bruise. Meanwhile, the bells started to sing: the ceremony was over, and people started to come out from the church.

The player in the station took the spotlight and started the diversion: he jumped on a train directed to the warehouse, then called a flashback to explain how he manipulated the lighting towers in this area, planting explosives. The explosion created a chaotic situation: the train could no longer go towards the warehouse, but had to detour along the longer route, passing close to the church - and cutting off that escape route for Mylera.
However, the roll was a 4, and… the train overturned, ending up AGAINST the church, knocking down part of it and crushing a dozen poor citizens.
The character jumped off in time (he resisted the consequences), bruised, and with the rifle he was holding broken - but alive and able to act.

We returned to framing the other two players who, taking advantage of the chaos and momentary distraction of the Bluecoats, killed them easily.
I asked them: “How will you recognize Mylera in this chaos? She’s probably hiding under a hood or something, and now, hundreds of people are coming towards you because of the overturned train and the explosions.”

The response was “well, let’s call it a flashback - last night, we paid an old woman to hand out commemorative pins at the start of the ceremony. Everyone blue, Mylera red.”
It seemed like a difficult plan, so I put the crowds and chaos as obstacles to finding Mylera. A player said he was Hunting, and I believed he was in a Desperate position with Limited effect.
He pushed himself to the limit to have the Standard effect and accepted a devil bargain (“one of the Bluecoats wasn’t dead, but dying and while you’re focused on something else, he crawls away”) for an extra die. The other player helped him. We rolled: critical.

He found Mylera. The other player took the dead Bluecoat suit, changed on the fly, and approached Mylera, saying he would “take her to a safe place.” She tried to protest, but the third one (the one from the train) arrived behind her and knocked her out.

We closed the score with them fleeing on a gloat borrowed from the Gondoliers (another flashback).

With this heist finished, we did some Downtime. We played some scenes - especially the Vices ones. One of the players had as a vice “torturing”, and took the opportunity to get information from Mylera as well.

We also played a nice scene from Entanglements (Gang Trobles)
One of the crew’s cohorts (thugs called Legion) went with a player to the pub… but things got out of hand, and a fight broke out.

Finally, I created a clock related to the escaped Bluecoat, which returned to the game interestingly.

I guess we’re in love with the story we’re playing. We like the characters (PCs and NPCs), and the situation evolved a lot from the beginning - and we are invested in the plots going on. Whenever we try to close some part of the story, we feel we’re forcing the situation and don’t want to.
For example, now the war between the players and the Unseen is over, and we said (before one of the last sessions), “well, it’s a good point to close the campaign, after this long and cruel war”. And we started to play just a few scenes to narrate the fallout and how the city changed after the war (it was THE war in Doskvol’s history). And we discovered something interesting in this fallout - the Governor is dead (killed during one of the scores during the war), and the nobles are trying to keep the momentary power because they don’t want another external Governor, imposed by the Emperor. At the same time, new and younger crews are rising. And Scurlock is now trying to establish the family position inside the city council.
For sure, we could say, “ok, but… we want to close the campaign and play something different”, forgetting this new part of the story, without exploring them.
But… It’s like we’re somehow betraying everything we’ve played. On the one hand, these situations seem interesting, and we are honestly intrigued to find out how they can evolve and how they can once again create difficulties for our crew.
On the other hand, it is as if we “should” pay respect to what is in all respects an important part of our lives (as players, but not only). Ultimately, we’re talking about 300 hours of campaigning in which we’ve invested time, emotions, and creativity.

Honestly, if it weren’t for the Blades game system starting to struggle (the characters now have way too many skills and too many dots in actions for action rolls to be interesting), we probably wouldn’t even be asking the question.

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Thanks Matteo, that definitely helps contextualise everything. I’m especially fond of the unexpected directions it seems to be taking without anyone planning it out, and how you naturally discover new questions that you want answered and decide to continue playing.

Big question about the score: How do you know it’s time to introduce an obstacle? How do you know it’s enough and the score is over? Feel free to use that score as an example, since you remember it so vividly.

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Sometimes, I open a scene directly in the face of an obstacle (i.e., if the engagement roll went bad). Sometimes, we like to build up the scene slowly. When everyone in the scene has given their contribute (me as the GM and the players with their characters), it’s time to introduce an obstacle.

The first obstacle I introduced in that score was the second type: after some back-and-forth between the other players and me, the feeling was the game was stalling - the idea of the players was “we’ll wait.” So, like in DW, if they wait and they are looking at me… It’s my clue to introduce an obstacle (in this case, the two Bluecoats).

Another situation is when the players do something “triggering” an obstacle (keeping the analogy with DW when they give me a golden opportunity).
These obstacles can be based on my prep - the “tripwires” Ron explains in Circle of Hands (I put below the paragraph), or they come directly from the situation in the fiction in an obvious and logical way.

A tripwire is something that I never force, of course. If they stumble in it, great. Otherwise… I put it again in my notebook; maybe I can change it and reuse it.

For example, in that score, there was a tripwire they didn’t trigger - inside the church, there was a powerful investigator - another believer of the Church. He would have noticed if they had decided to enter the church and approach Mylera during the ceremony.

We are done with a score when they reach the goal and have a clear way out, or if they gave up (never happened so far). In that score, they had kidnapped Mylera, and - calling the flashback - they created their way out. There were obstacles going on, so the score was over.

The Tripwires (from Circle of Hands)

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Thank you so much for sharing Matteo! You have given me a reason to finally check out Primetime Adventures.

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