Tag Archive | actual play

Blades in the Dark, but badly

I’ve run a few sessions of Blades in the Dark (BitD) now and am going to outline some of the problems I’ve encountered trying to teach D&D players a new game.  Your mileage may vary, but seeing the potholes I’m hitting might clue you in to what pitfalls to expect when leaving behind “the world’s most popular roleplaying game”.

One big problem is that my players don’t have a common language for RPGs like they do for board games.

Now I don’t think Blades is any more difficult to learn than D&D. But when I sit down to play a board game I’ve never played, my pal can employ a language I can quickly understand. She can say, “this uses a dice mechanic or an auction mechanic or a bidding mechanic” and I’ll know a good bit about how to approach the game. RPGs have less of that. And while you can suss out a board game’s mechanics over the course of a game, roleplaying games require more time and personal investment to learn, especially for inexperienced players. Yes, there’s talk about system mechanics (you use a d20, 2d6, prehensile dice), along with the more esoteric talk about Theory you need to be clued into, but when I sit down to play/learn a new RPG the ways those Theory and mechanics operate and mesh together aren’t often readily apparent. And D&D does you no favors here because its system mechanics (getting good at killing stuff) are at odds with what it claims to be about (creating stories).

One thing a friend suggested as a good way to show D&D players the wider range of game mechanics is to use either The Quiet Year or Fiasco to teach other play styles and things like narrative driven mechanics. All so’s to get away from the sword and sorcery style play. That makes sense. Next time around I’ll do that.

On to the problems. . .

Solid Crunch vs. Memory Foam

  • An example: ghost punching versus Attunement: It takes a bit to wrap your head around the agency you as a player are given in BitD. In D&D you’re a ghost hunter and get a +5 whenever you punch a ghost. In Blades you’re a Whisper and get a bonus to attunement and have a special link to the ghost field and when you’re like “Cool! What does that mean?” your GM will look at you and say, “Well, you tell me?” Some folks will have their eyes light up here. Other folks will stare blankly at the GM and gulp audibly.

Organic development vs. Mechanic development.

  • In Blades advancement triggers arise from play and not from killing monsters.
  • No builds. If you’re used to a game having the level of crunch where you can go online and find an optimized build, Blades is not that game. Even outside whether or not it’s easy, being a Cutter that rolls 5D6 take-the-highest skirmish is a lot less satisfying then optimizing a guy to do 10D8+10 damage every time he hits someone with a sword.
  • On a side note, I hate builds. Sure if the game’s super crunchy and I don’t want to deal with learning rules I’ll hop online and follow a build if that means I get to play the game comfortably. But simultaneously if I’m in a game where a player builds the best killing machine possible, I will intentionally Nerf my character. “What you’re optimizing your thief to be an elite killing machine using some tactical progression you read on an online forum? Fuck you, my barbarian’s now multiclassing as a wizard.” (This raises the question of whether I’m the problem. I can be a shit person at times.) But I hold by the notion that RPG characters should grow organically through play and not be optimized like the Terminator. I also recognize that this very optimization might be someone else’s jam, so I don’t know. Hopefully we get along, because otherwise maybe the best thing would be that we never play games together.

Adventure Design

  • Players looking around for the boss monster.
  • This is likely more about my own bad habits when it comes to adventure design and trying to get out of the habit of encounter-based adventures and more towards heists, but there needs to be a comparable change in player mind-set. If D&D fosters one kind of play style and gives you the tools to play that way, you might see all games as having the same style.
  • The heist mindset as opposed to the party exploring mindset. An example: The score is to break into the soul vault beneath the temple of the Empty Vessel and destroy the soul of a cruel factory boss. You hear the high priest has a fondness for blood sports. So PC 1 sets up as a fight promoter causing a distraction, while PC2, a sniper, finds a spot on a nearby rooftop, while PC3, the whisper, breaks into the vault. Except the Whisper PC played D&D and knows you never split the party and go off alone, so he sticks to PC1 and sits at the table checking his phone while the decoy fight goes on instead of being a daring scoundrel.

Hit points and Healing

  • Hitpoints vs. Harm-Armor-Resistance-Stress asset management. Hit points are straightforward. You have 30 hit points. It’s right there on your character sheet. The orc hit you with an arrow. It did 5 points of damage. You now have 25 hit points. When you reach 0 hit points you are dead/unconscious. This is simple. BitD does this instead: Harm-Resistance-Armor-Stress-Asset Management. You’re stabbed through the lung and take 3 Harm. Your armor can reduce that to 2 harm, cracked ribs, but you can reduce that to 1 harm, bloodied, by rolling your prowess and taking stress, which from the looks of it might mean you end up traumatized. GM says “What do you want to do?” Player says, “ Can’t I just take 5 hit points damage?”
  • I like Blades’s healing mechanics. The rolls and the de-stress mechanics, they add to the gritty, grinding feeling the setting is designed to create, but also it feels gritty and grinding, and if your players aren’t ready for that they’re not going to be happy. Especially if they’re used to short-rest/long-rest, have a healing spell/potion, start the next adventure at max HP. This means their initial reaction to Blades’s healing mechanic is not going to be a favorable one.

The Crew Game in a reactive setting

  • My players are having a hard time wrapping their head around the crew game and how that puts them in the setting. No one’s really excited about it. Partially my fault, I suggested they play as vigilantes and everyone agreed to that without having much knowledge of what that meant. But overall the crew game is viewed as an accounting chore and not as a way to generate story momentum.
  • With 5e the setting dial is very loose. How much the Forgotten Realms reacts to the characters can be dialed way down or way up without too much change to at table play. If players are used to a game style where they can stomp around a make believe land without too much push back or even organic impact, then the whole faction game is going to be alien.
  • So when the setting reacts to players in ways that should be obvious to them, and the players aren’t aware of or picking up on how they could shore against those setting reactions, it can start to look like the setting is out to get the players. If your players aren’t picking up on how reactive Duskwall is to their actions, and how they can be impacting other factions, Blades gives the impression of being out to get the PCs. This is part of its design and why I like it, but my players aren’t used to such a reactive setting and I think this leads to paralysis on their part. “We can’t do anything without pissing off somebody and I’m uncomfortable taking risks.”
  • Solution: have the players make characters but hold off crew creation until after a few sessions. For players unfamiliar with how the game operates the crew level game might be the advanced game or the goal of the entire first season. At least give the inexperienced player time to get their feet under themselves. I definitely think the Crew game is 3rd level, expert blue book kind of stuff. Once the players get a feel for the setting, they’ll be in a better space to start an enterprise.

A last point about buy-ins and touchstones

  • Your friends will lie to you. You’ll say, “It’s like Penny Dreadful meets Watchmen.” And they’ll say, “Cool.” But when you get to the table and two adventures in it’s not that they’ve never watched Penny Dreadful or read Watchmen. It’s that their default game style is Teen Titans Go! And they’re not going to change that. This is fine, I guess. My player pool is not deep. The other option is that we don’t play a game.
  • But what do you do? The players said they’re into what the game’s about, but two three sessions in you can see they’re not really onboard. Part of that is my fault. I could’ve done a better job in the early adventures showcasing the series from the start. I tried, but feel like I failed.
  • Also a bit about theme songs… no matter what ambient acoustic ethereal blues crunk you say your game’s theme song is, when you sit down you have to work hard to prevent your theme song from becoming Yakety Sax.
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Those Oscar Gordon Days: Who’s That Knocking Under My Floor?

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The End of Boulder

Adventure the Last: Who’s that Knocking Under My Floor?

The summer was nearly over. Folks had to go back to work or their home countries.

The adventure opened with Oscar, Boulder, Micah, and Jenny the serving girl from Adventure Four at home in the former haunted house from Adventure the First, when the floor cracked open and a bunch of zombies stumbled out.

These were quickly defeated, but the hole remained and it turned out the party’s headquarters had a whole unexplored level beneath it holding who knew what horrors. The crew (except for Jenny who stayed upstairs) headed down to investigate and found various undead menaces, sacrificial altars, and tombs all controlled by the reconstituted ghost of the necromancer they had defeated all the way back in the first adventure. Only now it was stronger and meaner. In the end the ghost was defeated, but not before cursing Boulder and making him age 70 years.

And that’s how Boulder stayed, since this turned out to be the last adventure. It was kind of nice coming full circle that way, but if we had gone on I would’ve had the party try and find some way to heal Boulder.

And so, it ended…

Like I said the campaign felt very episodic and didn’t have any big storyline pushing it forward. I didn’t mind this, especially since a neat setting was starting to emerge as the players interacted with the world around them. Mancuzo, the Maddling, and the Volod Brothers all would have made great recurring antagonists. If the game had gone on I would have added more politics to it by having the authorities and various factions take note of Oscar Gordon start interfering.

And despite my complaints in regards to running an open table, I did like the variance of different personalities showing up from week to week. Of course now I’d only be able to get one of the core players back since almost everyone else has left town, and we’re already playing other games so I’m resigned to let this lie and smile when I think of where the Madling is now.

Those Oscar Gordon Days: Every Ghoul Has Her Day

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Adventure the Sixth: Every Ghoul Has Her Day

Fun fact: I’m lousy at doing voices and basically every one of my NPCs sounds like Tom Waits. And so this adventure…

The party was hired by a woman who sounded a lot like Tom Waits and planned on running off to the swamps to live with her ghoul boyfriend. Her family of course had other ideas, as did another family of ghouls that wanted to disrupt the marriage.

This was the only adventure without the core players of Oscar or Boulder. Instead it was Ahtera, Micah, Wilson (who at this point was almost full Wendigo), and new characters Fellborn and Ekniv. Fellborn’s player was the same guy who ran Nibless and Geth, and Ekniv’s player was the one that made me refer to an open table as one susceptible to pests as he was just there to heckle and annoy the Fellborn player. Without Oscar and Boulder the rest of the group didn’t really cohere (they were also the ones with the least game experience.).

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The swamp roads were full of all sorts of odd things, plus potential sites for dungeon-crawling if the party wanted to come back and do so. There was a mad hermit (who sounded like Tom Waits) and some weird slime tentacles all around. The party managed to avoid the girl’s family, but ran afoul of the hermit and the rival ghouls. There was a showdown on a bridge, and Wilson failed a saving throw against eating one the ghouls. His player was a sport about this, although never really followed up on what was going on.

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I did enjoy how Wilson’s arc was like some after school special about the small town boy who moves to the big city to fulfill dreams only to get transformed into a horrible flesh-eating monster.

But they reached the ghouls they wanted and the woman paid them and there was a wedding, but I don’t think anyone, except Wilson, stuck around for the reception once they saw what was on the menu.

Those Oscar Gordon Days: Our Dinner With Mancuzo

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Toddlerpede by Jon Beinart

Last adventure Oscar Gordon and crew escorted a box of bones across town and while doing so bumped into a drunk wizard named the Dread Mancuzo.

In this adventure, the Dread Mancuzo invited them over for dinner…

Adventure the fifth: Enter the Maddling!

So the Dread Mancuzo invited the party over to his tower for dinner, vaguely remembering meeting them but unsure of the circumstances. Oscar, Haragrin, Micah, Boulder, and Geth accepted.

Of course Mancuzo had another motive. He’d betrayed another wizard, Rendak the Absconder, and now feared Rendak’s revenge. Mancuzo hoped by having the party around they would give him some protection.

But before Rendak showed up the party hung out with Mancuzo and his aged mother, and they gave vague answers as to how they met each other. Finally after his mom went to bed Mancuzo took the party on a tour of his workroom. And it was there that Rendak showed up with his four-armed ape sidekick, the two of them riding giant bats. Not only was this bad, but Rendak had led the inter-dimensional monstrosity, the Maddling, straight to Mancuzo’s door.

The Maddllllllllllllllig!

I loved this adventure. Although it was less an adventure and simply a horrible situation with the party stuck between two feuding higher-leveled NPCs (Rendak and crew were there to steal a McGuffin from Mancuzo) while an horrendous beast rained destruction down upon everything. And while the Maddling was simply a reskinned white dragon very much in the PCs power range, I showed them that picture at the head of this post and they were terrified.

In the end the Maddling survived, Mancuzo fled in a metal orb, and Rendak and crew got whatever they came for, while Geth and Haragrin died and everyone else fled with Mancuzo’s valuables stuffed in their pockets. Fun times!

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Regarding reskinning, I’ve played with both GMs and players that won’t do it, because they think it’s unfair. In their minds: the players should know what they’re up against and all that. A white dragon should be a white dragon, and recognizable as such. Needless to say I don’t buy into that at all, but I can see the point of the counter-argument.

I don’t know, but if you have thoughts either way, I’d be interested in hearing them.

(But I mean, c’mon, when you see a picture like that at the top you have to stat it up!)

Those Oscar Gordon Days: Part the 2

Oscar and crew fought a ghost, bought a house, and set up shop as monster-therapists.

Adventure the Second: Tooth Soup

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Oscar Gordon, Boulder, Ahtera, and Micah (now Micah) investigate the horrible deaths at a local bathhouse. They discover a secret passageway into the city sewers and learn the bad way that the tunnels serve as the lair for some magic-warped monstrosity. This adventure was a way to point towards the undercity as a potential area for dungeon-delving. The party encountered hints to other things such as a Midian-like community in the sewers, but never followed up on it. There was lots of running around, slipping into dank water, and jokes about poo gas. The monster was basically the creature from The Host. No one died.

Adventure the Third: The Mold Dwarf’s Due

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Arkady Volod

An Elfin prince exiled to the city hired Oscar Gordon to rescue his mortal child from the evil Volod Brothers, a trio of mold dwarfs. The Volod’s have plans on selling the child once they return to the Twilight Realm, and some ancient truce prevented the prince from openly stopping the dwarfs. The party consisted of Oscar Gordon, Boulder, Micah, Ahtera, Wilson, and Nibless (Nibbler?).

First the party had to enter the fairy realm via a portal in the city park (Micah got charmed by a dryad and had sex with a tree, when he wouldn’t leave the tree Boulder punched him out), then they had to traverse a corner of the Twilight Realm (Wilson the Village Hero ate some cursed food and unbeknownst to him slowly began to transform into a wendigo over the next few adventures). Finally they caught up with the Volod Brothers and their thrall-borne carriage. The kid was rescued but the Volod Brothers survived, and Nibless, got killed in the fight. I only remember this because the guy that played Nibless was two for three with his character fatalities.

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Also this was the adventure where the Beyond the Wall playbooks became tragic like an After School Special. Not that this was a bad thing.

Nibless and Wilson had the backstory of being childhood friends that had a small village adventure and now have come to the big city together. And what happens on their first adventure: Wilson gets cursed, and Nibbless killed (although I think his fate was even worse than that. He was incapacitated in the fight with the Volods, but had stabilized at 0 HP. Unfortunately he was too far away to be rescued when the rest of the party ran, so… it’s best not to think of his fate, left for dead and abandoned by his best friend in the Twilight World.)

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Those Oscar Gordon Days

I found my old notes from the game I ran back in the summer of 2014.

That’s like a century ago in RPG campaign years.

This game went on after the end of the Vaults of Ur game (Dennis Laffey at What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse did a great job documenting that game) and was a real live face-to-face game. Most of these players have left Korea since then, one of the problems with running a game for migrant workers expats. Trying to remember who played who from the initiative rosters scrawled in the margins has been fun.

THE SET-UP

We met once a week at a local coffee shop and used Beyond the Wall as our system. It was a city campaign and I riffed heavily on the 1st edition AD&D Lankhmar supplement, the map from the Mongoose supplement, and Trey Causey’s Weird Adventures. One of the regular players ran a cleric (Oscar Gordon) that wanted to be a therapist to monsters, and that provided the tone for the adventures: very episodic, monster-a-week flavored, using small self-contained dungeons. Sunday night, I’d post five potential clients offering Oscar Gordon and his crew various jobs, and they’d decide which one to take. Often a client or two stuck around for a week or two.

It was an open table game and I run hot and cold on that format since an open table isn’t really tenable as a format for a long term campaign. It’s more a stage the campaign goes through as it finds its legs. Ultimately, the game will coalesce around a core of regular players and the openness as a trait will fade away. Also, you’ll have situations where players who have invested time in the game over weeks will resent when one of the non-regular players shows up with a buddy, and the buddy spends the whole game being a pest for their own amusement. In the end we had two or three core players who showed up week-to-week and a roster of maybe five or six other potential players who would stop by if their schedules permitted.

The roster was something like this:

Oscar Gordon (a Devout Acolyte), Boulder (a Templar), Ahtera (The Nobleman’s Wild Daughter), Micah (the Young Woodsman), and Wilson (the Village Hero) were all fairly regular. Nibless, Geth, and Fellborn were all some variety of magic-user run by the same player who had awful luck, and Haragrin and Ekniv were fighter-types and random drop-ins for a session or two who were friends of other players.

As with everything else in life I’d do it differently now, but that said I’d resume this campaign next week if I could.

Anyway, over the next week or so I’ll post write-ups of the adventures we ran. They were a lot of fun.

Adventure the First: Every Haunted House, a Home

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Oscar Gordon, Boulder, Ahtera, and Micah (although he was named something else early on) arrive in the big city and decide to look into reports of a missing noble last seen exploring a haunted house. They spend half the adventure doing a careful room-by-room search of the house, find the noble (dead), and then accidentally activate the haunt when not-Micah tries to rob something. Neat gimmick with this adventure was to have the players explore the whole dungeon, encounter nothing at first, then have the monsters appear once they were deep into it (zombies, skeletons, a living statue, and the ghost of the necromancer who originally owned the place). Everyone survived, and Oscar Gordon used his reward money from the dead noble’s family to buy the house and set up shop as a monster-therapist in the city.

And so it began…

Star Without Number ???: Where They Stopped

The last SWN post I did was adventure 004. We got in another month or so of sessions before stopping. Here’s how it ended:

The crew’s managed to befriend a group of mutant space gypsies that wander the local systems walking a tightrope between the two rival powers: a mad cult that appears to worship one of Rana Bai’s ancestors and a cyborg army that worships an unbraked AI.

Here’s how they got there:

The crew opened the box, got the coordinates to get them across the nebula, jumped, and found themselves in an unknown star system with most of their onboard systems fried and requiring immediate emergency repairs. Meanwhile they watched and snooped on the few ships in the system. One was a military patrol boat, but it failed to notice the party. After a few days they managed to enter the orbit of the gas giant where the derelict Wild Card waited.

They made a number of forays onto the ship looting pretech treasures, fighting an “insane” crystalline repair nano and some decidedly toxic flesh monsters, and contracting a disease or two. They knew they weren’t the only ones on board, but didn’t really want to make contact with whomever else was around. Instead they stuck to exploring the massive ship’s engineering and navigation decks, where on their last run they came upon a group of mutant human fugitives.

These folks wanted off ship and managed to explain some of the political situation in the system. At least their version of it… the crew agreed to help and let the prisoners board the Far Drifter (although there might have been some fracas regarding whether or not they could stay armed) before high-tailing it out of the system ahead of another military patrol boat.

And that’s when boardgames took over game nights…