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.
- 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.
Adventure the Fourth: Saint Atsun’s Day
Boulder the Templar’s order needed him to escort the remains of Saint Atsun from the city docks to the small chapter house the order maintained elsewhere in the city, a task not only complicated by the threat of evil apostate knight, Sir Osric, but by the fact that getting a wagon across town can be a chore on the best of days.
Characters included Oscar Gordon, Wilson, Ahthera, Micah, Boulder, Geth (one of the Rogue/Mage playbooks – the Dilettante?), and Haragrin (a Young Warlord).
I always wanted to run the old Slayers of Lankhmar module (actually more its sequel Avengers in Lankhmar) and this was my riff on that. Also I really like the Road Warrior. I handed the players the city map, showed them where the docks were and where they had to go, and sat back. For each district in between I had a series of timed encounters. There was a whole bunch of possible events: a cult parade, a naval press gang looking to abduct crew, a belligerent band of barbarians searching for a lost companion (he’d been press ganged), a cursed pilgrim, and a belligerent drunk of a wizard named the Dread Mancuzo. Depending on time of day and which streets the players went down determined what they encountered.
The party avoided most of the above save for one trap by Sir Osric’s goons (Micah hopped on the horses when they bolted, removing his shirt in case any ladies might be watching), a pie eating contest (Wilson’s wendigo side manifested here when he won the contest, swallowed the contents of a garbage pail, and tried to eat one of the other pie-eating contestants), and the Dread Mancuzo who they found in a partially ruined tavern harassing a serving girl. He started to drunkenly lob fireballs about. Oscar knocked him out and Ahtera managed a well-placed kick to his nuts. Oscar then hired the harassed serving girl to help out around their headquarters.
Of course Osric was waiting for them at the chapter house where there was a big showdown. No one died although Oscar took an arrow that put him out of the fight, and Mancuzo would return in the next adventure.
Oscar and crew fought a ghost, bought a house, and set up shop as monster-therapists.
Adventure the Second: Tooth Soup
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
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.
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.)
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.
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
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…