Blades in the Dark Recap

I ran a Blades in the Dark one shot for the first time recently. My prior experience with the system was listening to podcast actual plays (Bloodletters and RollPlay) and playing as a PC during a con game this spring. I was very excited to play!

Overall the game went well and I think everyone had fun. However, I did find it harder to run than I anticipated. Here is a recap and some reflections.

The Setup

I had 5 players and used the War in Crow’s Foot starting scenario. I started with what was in the book to get inspired. I turned each faction and faction leader into an index card and put those on the table for the players. I printed out all of the Blades Quick Start PDF. I ran a compressed Session 0 where everyone chose a playbook and created characters. We quickly did the whole character creation process, with my only input being I highlighted suitable Special Abilities to make it easier to pick ones that fit well in a one-shot. Thanks to Johnstone Metzger for the tip. It worked well; I think everyone activated an ability at least once during the score.

To save time I brought a Shadows crew already filled out. They named themselves “The Grey” after the line in the Seal song, “Kissed by a rose on the grey,”…? We ended up with Helles the Cutter, a Lurk known as “The Comb, “ Vestine the Slide, Rex the Hound, and Archibald the Whisper.

I created two scores and wrote those on index cards as well. I also took some notes on potential complication clocks, obstacles, and details/areas to brainstorm and have something to draw on during play.

Index cards for factions and leaders
Index cards for factions and leaders
The Forgotten Gods score
The Forgotten Gods score
The War Treasury score
The War Treasury score

One score came directly from the book: Bazso Baz of the Lampblacks hires the player gang to go rob the war treasury of the Red Sashes. I thought about putting it in a bank or the Iruvian Consulate, but thought I’d keep it simple and put it in their HQ: the Red Sash Swordfighting Temple on the east side of Crow’s Foot. Then I introduced the flashback mechanic to the players by playing out the starting scene with Bazso and saying, “Ok, so you’ve been brought in to talk to Bazso. He offered you a job to help him. But, we can use a flashback to say you actually are here because you took a job from Mylera Klev of the Red Sashes to find evidence that Bazso worships a Forgotten God.”

The players initially wanted to help the Red Sashes (because they were already inside the Lampblack HQ), but eventually Vestine the Slide convinced them otherwise, because he was friends with Bazso and an exiled Iruvian noble. He wanted to hit the Red Sashes. The rest of the players eventually agreed, so it was time for the score. It took us about 45 minutes to get to this point.

The table
The table

The Score

Engagement

I described the Red Sashes’ Temple as having tall walls (but with a short gap to neighboring roofs as it is Crow’s Foot), a large front gate guarded by Sashes, basements potentially accessible through old catacombs, and a canal entrance. They chose a Stealth plan and the detail was that Helles, an ex-miner from Skovlan, would tunnel his way from the catacombs into the basement, letting the rest of the gang in that way. We did the engagement roll:

+1d for luck +1d for being daring +1d for exposing a weakness (coming in through the basement) -1d for the Sashes’ higher tier (2w versus 0s) -1d for attacking them where they are strong +1d because they are at war and distracted

We rolled 2d6 for engagement and they got a partial success, starting them off in a risky position. Here I kind of messed up and didn’t cut straight to the action. My D&D habits kicked in and instead I described the empty cistern they broke into and the ladder that lead up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. I was too busy coming up with where they ended up to think of an immediate conflict. My rationale was that I could just make the next roll risky, but I could have instead have them bust open the wall into a demon ritual or a game of cards in the basement or something.

Sneaking In

Anyway, Rex the Hound climbed the ladder and listened at the trapdoor to see if he could hear anyone above. He took a risky standard Survey action to do so and got another partial success. I took this opportunity to introduce a complication by saying he heard some voices with Iruvian accents above saying they thought they heard something. I started a Red Sash alert clock and filled it 2/8.

Here I made another error by forgetting to introduce resistance rolls! I guess because I didn’t do serious harm or anything it didn’t occur to me to remind the players that they could resist consequences. But I remembered soon enough…

Instead of resisting, Rex’s player made his first of many strong flashback suggestions and said, “Well, we would have created a distraction! Maybe we got some Lampblack thugs to go to the front door to draw away the guards?” That was a popular suggestion, but I pointed out they could have split the party as well. So far we had only really established that Rex and Helles were in the cistern.

The Comb took this opportunity to Lurk and said he scaled the wall on the opposite side of the compound, tossing a lantern to cause a distraction. The players liked this idea and so The Comb took 1 stress and rolled a risky standard Prowl to pull off the sneaky distraction. He failed! I had a Sash adept coming around a blind corner and smash him on the head with the butt of his Iruvian sword: level 2 harm “concussed.” Here I really should have let the player resist, but I forgot again. Whoops!

Over the next few scenes the players sneaked across the Red Sashes’ compound, successfully blending in after a flashback from Vestine and a 6 on a Lampblack tier fortune roll gave them all Red Sash disguises from his friend Bazso. I remembered to introduce resistance rolls when the Comb failed a Sway roll to convince the adept that he wasn’t an intruder. The Comb resisted the consequence (taking enough stress to put them at risk of trauma) and was able to waltz right up to the Temple doors. Archibald the Whisper also had a great flashback that saw him interrogate the ghost of a Red Sash murdered in a ritual dual to get the layout of the temple and learn that the war treasury was in a safe protected by a ghost lock in Mylera Klev’s office. He also took the first Devil’s Bargain: his communing with spirits alerted an aspect of the Iruvian Demon of Smoke, Anixis. That started the first character clock, Ire of Anixis.

The Iruvian Nobles

Eventually the gang reunited and all ended up on the top floor of the main temple building, passing statues of the demon Anixis. They saw a group of Iruvian nobles going into Mylera’s office. Although he hated the sight of his abandoned class, Vestine jumped into action and, still posing as a Red Sash, Consorted with the nobles and got them to leave due to the infiltration. However, the roll introduced a complication: they were arriving to meet Mylera in her office. She hadn’t seen Vestine, but she must have seen the nobles leaving and would come to see what was happening.

Vestine decided to face the challenge directly and approached Mylera to explain the temple was under attack. She actually bought it, but told the adept to get down to the training grounds and see what was going on. Then she started to close the door to shut herself in the office.

Chaos Breaks Loose

After debating a way around it, the gang decided it was time to get messy. Helles pushed open the door before it closed and went to smash Mylera with his giant club. The players started to get the hang of the system a bit here, which is good because Helles was looking at a tier 2 enemy with a fine blade. They managed to work something out with help and gear etc. to put him to controlled (because of surprise, though in hindsight I think risky was way better) limited.

He tried to beat her down and failed! But a failed controlled roll let him try again. He did (burning lots of stress to do so) and this time got a partial success. He smacked her out the window (Not To Be Trifled With), but she pierced him with a throwing knife disguised by her sash. He resisted and she caught on to the ledge with her sash. Vestine casually walked over and cut the sash, causing her to fall to the ground of the training ground with a scream. That filled the rest of the alert clock. It wasn’t a consequence of a roll, but it fit the fiction.

Breaking the Spirit Lock

Archibald popped on his Spirit Mask and grabbed his Lightning Hook and got to work extracting then ghost from the spirit lock. He got it out, but the disturbance in the ghost field once again drew the ire of Anixis, ticking his clock. Once the ghost was out he threw it with his hook and compelled it to attack Mylera. This was a great fictional moment because we had established ghost locks are created by torturing ghosts to make them super hostile. So the ghost turned on his former captor with a vengeance.

With the ghost removed, Rex quickly popped open the safe. Helles grabbed a rope and leaped the gap between the temple window and the wall, setting up a zipline for their escape. Rex lay down covering fire, peppering the Red Sashes with pistol fire as they charged up the stairs. The party used his suppressive fire to grab the loot and zip over the wall to safety. We ended with a freeze frame pan shot through the compound showing the carnage and seeing Mylera fighting off the ghost that enveloped her on the ground, leaving her fate unclear. Score over, with the elapsed session time being about 3 hours.

Aftermath

I finished the session by quickly doing post-score business. The party got their share of the treasury from the Lampblacks. Their rep went up. They took a ton of heat due to the high profile target and noisy ending (6). The entanglement was one of their contacts turned. I thought a vice purveyor would be good, but we didn’t decide since it wouldn’t really matter. Then I quickly explained how downtime would work if we were to play a campaign, and we ended the session. I forgot to do XP, which was silly. It should have been the main thing to make time for, since it reinforces what the game rewards.

Reflections

Again, overall, a fun session. I think it went well considering we were all new to they system and most TTRPGs outside of D&D.

If I were to do a Blades one-shot again I would use pre-generated characters. Character creation was fun, but I’d rather have more time to do the score and maybe downtime. I would also cap it at 4 players. Even at tier 0 with no cohorts, this 5 PC gang wrecked the Red Sash HQ. That said, they did take significant stress and some harm, and due to the way Blades prep works, I was the one who set the difficulty based on the severity of the consequences of rolls. Another option might be to lower the Trauma threshold by one or two stress to encourage managing it a bit more, but that could also create a more boring game. They got 6 heat and a ton of stress overall though - so they would feel repercussions during downtime that were not felt during the score.

Spotlighting with 5 players was a bit hard. Some players felt a bit useless, especially after taking significant stress or harm. In the end they all got a good spotlight moment, often using their special ability.

The players, who mostly only have experience with D&D, had a bit of trouble with the rolls at first, but they got the hang of it as we played. I found the players really just wanted to roll, instead of building a pool and having a conversation about position and effect. In the future I might call for fewer rolls to make them more meaningful and make the debate over position and effect more worth it.

On my side, I immediately didn’t know how to handle the engagement result being risky. I should have cut to the action a bit more. I also fully forgot resistance rolls for the first few consequences! I think I would write a big summary cheat sheet that said, “ACTION POSITION EFFECT BONUS ROLL CONSEQUENCES RESISTANCE” or something to remind us to do all those steps when rolling. Stopping to establish position and effect was definitely slow at the start.

Managing tier, scale, and quality was also slow. They went up against Tier 2 enemies and that made it a bit of a debate at times and the players didn’t feel fully equipped since they didn’t really know about scale, quality, tier, etc. In the future I’d take the books advice more to heart and make all the rolls risky standard until something really different came up.

I did find it a bit hard to really paint a picture sometimes due to the lack of prep. I am used to leaning pretty heavily on prep from D&D. Relatedly, I found it hard to come up with valid obstacles and consequences. I almost want a guide to the number and severity of consequences or something. The ability to pick and choose left me a but unsure how severe to be. If I ran a campaign I’d probably expand the results table with an explicit number of consequences as a guide. I’d probably also write a list of complications similar to Apocalypse World moves as guides to setting-appropriate complications, e.g. a ghost interferes, something mechanical malfunctions, etc. Less as rules and more to restrict my options a bit.

We did have fun though. I’d definitely be interested to run a proper Session 0 and play out a few sessions of a campaign in the future. Before that we are going to give Apocalypse World a try!