Actual Play – The Strangers (6/17/2016)

ghost_titleGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Brock Ecevit, Scott Slater, and Timothy Sayre
System: Blades in the Dark, Quickset Rules v.6

The Line Ride

I was scheduled to host at Games on Demand during the afternoon slot, and I wanted to pay it forward for getting to play in the upgrade the night before. So after doing my line duties, when we saw there were still some folks not in a game, I offered to run Blades. I’m so glad I did!

One Shot Blades – Ye olden way

In the past I’ve handled running Blades at cons by writing up my sample scores (Gaddoc Rail and Scurlock Manor) and having the players first make characters, then optionally make a crew, and finally detail the score. By the time that is done we usually have just enough time to quickly play out the score, and occasionally do downtime.

It’s not a bad method, but it does take some time to get started, and while the questions the players answer for each score do get them invested in it, sometimes a player makes a Blade that we really wouldn’t imagine creeping through Scurlock Manor or picking up a package at the train station. Also, there are two areas that tend to really slow player down: 1) Picking a Heritage (because it requires knowing about the world) and 2) Choosing faction statuses (because it requires knowing about the factions).

So, this time, taking advice from John’s After Office Hours No. 3, I tried a new approach!

One Shot Blades – Sir’s New Fangled Method

First off, toss out the pre-generated scores. That’s another sheet to fill out. We’ll figure out the score in a second. Just start with the character sheets and go from there.

Character creation

You’ve already told people about Blades and about Doskvol by now. They know it’s the Wire meets Lankhmar but in a haunted city. They are eager to make some scoundrels. And if they aren’t tell them how the electroplasmic lightning generators are fueled. Still no? Tell them that Roric, the gang leader of the Crows just died and now all of Crows Foot is scrambling to figure out who will be on top. Still no? I don’t believe you. Nobody hates fun that much.

Here’s the steps that are very similar to character creation in the Quickstart v.6 page 32.

  1. Pass out the character playbooks and if people don’t start getting grabby for them, start reading off the descriptions and tell people what you really think about them. “Leech, a saboteur and tinkerer. I love the leech, she can put a hole in the wall of Ironhook and not make a sound. She’s also good at putting body parts back in you when they come out!”.
  2. Ask them to choose a special ability. Actually make it two. At this point you haven’t talked about the mechanics at all but you don’t need to. The special abilities are all really cool and they are pretty self explanatory. The only ones that might need some coaching are those that talk about effect (like Cloak and Dagger) or engagement rolls (if you happen to do crew selection. The reason for two is you really want new players to get a chance to use the abilities in game. If someone is waffling I’ll also tell them that if they change their mind mid game, it’s fine to pick another one.
  3. Two choice here. Either I tell them “You’re all locals, write down that your from Akoros in your Heritage” or if we’ve been moving along quickly so far I say “The Unity war which brought Skovlan into the empire just ended a few years ago. There are still lots of hard feelings between Skovlanders and Akorosi, pick one of those two and then us what you’re doing in Doskvol.” If they tell you anything that smacks of interacting with a faction (Imperial Guard, Skovlan Consolate, Lampblacks, etc.) ask them follow up questions about how they either gained favor or made enemies in that faction and then mark a tick on the faction sheet accordingly.
  4. Have them choose Heritage as normal. Give them some examples of each category. Academics from Ivy League Whitecrown Academy or the guild driven Charterhall University. Labor unions like the Rail Jacks, Sparkrights, dock workers, or the like. Trade foreign or domestic as part of the semi-legitimate merchants guild or the totally not legitimate Hive. An example of each including a factor or two where you can is great. And once they’ve told you where they come from, ask how they fell so low to be teamed up with these other scoundrels. Again, this is an opportunity to start making faction ticks and let them know as you do it. Oh yeah, you used to work for the Crows but now you’ve set off on your own? Damn, I bet that happened after Roric died and the gang crumbled a bit, I bet Lyssa hates you for leaving, doesn’t she?
  5. Have them assign 4 action dots now, still capping at three dots. Yeah, for campaign games having one tied to heritage and one to background is great, but we’re going for speed here. Four all at once is faster than one, then one more, then two.
  6. Tell them to look at the items carried, but that they don’t need to worry about them until they start a score. You’ll go over load outs then. Just know if they need anything on that list they can probably get it, or setup a flashback to make sure they can get it easily.
  7. Choose a friend and rival. In my experience this is the most rewarding part of the process, and it’s almost always going to generate their score. They’ve already told you about their background and possibly about their heritage. So it’s very natural that when you ask “who are you really close with, and who wants to see your body heaped inside Bellweather” that they start making connections between the names on the list and the fiction they’ve been building. Especially ask them how their rival is causing them trouble! And again, if they even give a wiff of association with factions keep making ticks. It really doesn’t matter if you exceed the normal allotment, you’re looking to have their narrative reflected in the faction status sheet.
  8. Have them choose a vice. If the character is already really well fleshed out, it’s probably fine just to pick what it is. But if a player has been turtling thus far here’s your final chance (in character creation at least) to get something good out of them. Ask about their vice purveyor. Ask what problems their vice has caused for them. Ask why it’s so good! Jot down notes as the tell you bits that come alive in your mind. Someone has an obligation to the ghost of their dead sister? Yes, we can work with this!

Crew Creation, Optional

After character creation is done, I check the time and ask the players if they want to know more about the game system itself or want to jump into the action. Sometimes that takes a bit of parcelling out, but generally it’s fair to say that the “crew” is why all the character are together and what they are about. If the players have already been forming bonds with each other or talking about the kind of jobs they want to do, I suggest we start playing. If they are still isolated from each other, or if character creation was really fast, or if they are clearing just loving checking boxes, pull out the crew sheets.

As far as the crew creation process goes, I’d just follow the instructions on page 42, but again keep an eye out for potential problems and opportunities. Remind them of the woes that Darmot has caused them as he keeps bring more of his cronies in blue around, or that the Lampblack are still expecting to get paid for that deal that went sour.

Keep taking notes and making faction ticks!

Introductory Montage

Ask each player to depict their character in a day of normal behavior. Watch carefully for the cues they give you. Is there character a competent grifter who swindles three people out of their coin in as many minutes? Are they a desperate fugitive trying to get by? Up till this point you’ll have talked a lot about the game, but this is where you see if your expectation for tone and content matches theirs. And of course, you learn what they have most of on their mind! Ask some questions. Play out some normal activities. Look for some points of tension, but don’t push too hard on any of them. Try not to pick up dice unless they really want to engage the mechanics.

Break

Once they’ve each done a little intro to their characters give everyone a five to ten minute break. During that time, drink some water, get up and and stretch, and then look at all your notes. From them you should have at least half a dozen potential scores in mind. Do they have friends or favorable factions that they have done work with before who could offer them a score. Do they have enemies they need to ameliorate or eliminate. Is there a rival or faction they have negative status with that could threaten their nascent enterprise. Which of these relationships excites you, which ones fill your head with ideas?

Pitch a Score

When everyone sits back down remind them of the gnarly predicament they are in. Yes, they are a lowly tier 0 gang, but by now they have given you plenty of fodder to remind them of their desperation or challenges. Maybe they already know this, but I like to make sure the players don’t think of their characters as crime bosses or untouchables bad asses…that’s something to aspire to!

Then start asking them about the score’s you were thinking about over the break. What about that Marlane? She’s been talking all over town about how she’s going to take you down if you show yourself in the ring. Are you going to let that slide? The Red Sashes like your crew don’t they? One of you has done some favorable trade with them, and another trains in their dueling school. They are at war with the Lampblacks right now. Would you be looking to help them out? Maybe if there is was some coin in it for you? Or a chance to meet Mylera Klev in person?

Keep at it until they bite, or start suggesting a score of their own. Once they start talking about what the want or what they need to take care of, you’re set. From there, follow that fiction!

The Strangers

Mel Aves was a Doskvol Inspector, until she got framed by Petra in the city records office for embezzling. Of course she was guilty, they all were, but she had dirt on the clerk and out of fear Petra struck first, getting her fired and nearly locked up. Mel’s sister Lucella recently died but she hid the body so the Wardens couldn’t find it. Cobbling together a lightning barrier in her own bedroom she’s currently keeping Lucella’s ghost there while she tries to find a way to communicate. Mel’s ex-husband Darmot is still on reasonably good terms with her and he’s tried to protect her from a full blown investigation while continuing to move on with his own life.

Armand is a whisper who first trained as an apprentice under the witch Quellin but has recently accepted patronage to attend Charterhall University and is scrambling hard to show the professors in Morland Hall of Unnatural Philosophy that he had what it takes and is worth investing in. Though Quellin loves him dearly, there was a bittersweet twinge when he moved out and into college. She can’t help but fear he’s getting out of his depths. And she has good reason to! In order to get noticed and find a patron to support his education, Armand made a deal with the demon Setarra, one which he still owes a substantial debt on. Armand normally plays courier for the demon, picking up packages and dropping them off in different parts of the city, never asking what the contain. He’s also got a drinking problem. Armand is hooked on a strong Iruvian liquor called Cobalt. Very expensive and usually restricted to only the noble houses. How Armand got hooked on the stuff is anyone’s guess!

Angus was an assassin in the Akoros military. They prized him because he was very good at killing people at a distance and apparently had no compulsions about doing it. In his service, however, Agus witnessed an atrocity that he knew was above his pay grade. Not the kind of thing they put in your annual performance review, the kind of thing they slit your throat and put your body in the crematorium first thing to make sure you’re silenced. Moving before they could, Angus left and was labeled a deserter. Though the Imperial Military doesn’t want him out on the street, they also don’t want to look like they are going after him, so they have hired Casta, a bounty hunter to track him down. He keeps abreast of their actions because Veleris, a spy who is still in the service and good friends with Angus, tips him off when they start getting to close. Angus normally shows little or no expression or emotion, however, when he does cut loose, he does so completely, often to the determinant of himself and all those around him. He frequents the Silver Stag on such occasions and we saw him staggering out, still half drunk, and more than half naked, in his opening montage.

The Score

The Strangers, who operated out of a section of a steel factory workshop had come into possession of a large quantity of Cobalt (oh, there’s where Armand has been getting it) but before they felt safe to start selling it (the stuff is only supposed to be owned by the nobles) they had to get a patron to help clear the way. Knowing that both Petra and Casta would likely cause them grief the moment they put their heads out, the wanted someone with enough clout in the city, that they could silence or suppress these detractors.

Digging around some they learned the name Lady Drake, a magistrate known for taking the right bribes and for being aggressive about her upward social mobility. Walking into a magistrate’s office and offering them a bribe when you’re on the lamb though, it’s really good criming.

So, paying a very awkward visit to her ex-husband Darmot (he was with his new girlfriend Hix, who was not at all pleased that he was still doing favors for his ex-wife), Mel and crew asked if he could set up a meeting between them and the Magistrate by lying to him and telling him that she wanted to come clean and see if the magistrate would hear her side of the story. Angus and Armand posed as her legal advisors. Darmot bought it, or at least pretended like he did, and said he’d set up a meeting somewhere discreet.

Engagement gone wrong

[After doing this leg work they made their engagement roll. I was fully expecting a 6 and that they would just have meeting, or maybe a 4-5 result and I’d have Darmot come to the meeting as well, and see how they would dance around that when he thought they were coming clean, and they were really just trying to dig in deeper. But no, we didn’t have either, the rolled a 1-3 result. What does that even mean? I had to look it up:

Bad Outcome (1-3): The opposition turns the tables! They seize the initiative and launch their own counter-action.

Woah, that is hardcore. Okay, what do I know about Lady Drake. First off she gives no shits about Mel, and would rather her be someone else’s problems. Second, the crew had some connections with the Lampblacks and wanted to meet in the Leaky Bucket. She had a beef with Bazso Baz as well and some connections with the Red Sashes that owed her a favor. Finally, I knew I wanted to oppose their social plan with another kind of plan… and frankly Angus was itching for a fight.. so let’s give one to them!]

As they arrived at the Leaky Bucket and told Cross, a Lampblack who was standing outside and controlling entry to the tavern, that they were here to see Lady Drake and that she should be waiting for them inside. Crossed raised an eyebrow and said he thought she was coming with them. Bazso was waiting inside to greet them both. They all thought it was a bit strange that she wouldn’t be there, and that’s when the sound of drizzling rain was brown but the whirring of fabric unfolding rapidly and catching Armand wrist and then jerking it up toward the rooftops above.

The Red Sashes attacked and for a moment, had a horrible advantage. Armand was pinned by one and nearly skewered by another. Mel suddenly felt a shiver as a spirit rose up to possess her, and Angus quickly reached for his gun while sword were already drawn! The Lampblacks at the door were alert but not prepared for this bold of an attack, and it took them a moment to catch up as well!

Quickly, however, our scoundrels seized the initiative. Armand channelled the ambient storm to crackle with lightning and startle the Red Sashes. Angus too the dangerous shot and and fired into the chaotic melee grievously injuring, but not killing, one of the swordsmen. Mel, deftly dodged the vaporous form and watched as it seized control of a Lampblack instead. Moments later as Lampblacks poured out of the Bucket and Armand drove the ghost off, the Sashes realized they had lost their opportunity to strike and fell back.

A deal down by the docks

The next day, however, Lady Drake and a few of her loyal Bluecoats, showed up at the steel factory, ready to make a deal. These new people had shown themselves resourceful, and though she didn’t apologize for putting a hit on them, she seemed to indicate that it wouldn’t happen again if they became business partners. On that note, what proposition did they have for her?

The rolled out a barrel of Cobalt and offered her, a woman who had her own social aspirations, not only a cut of the profits, but also access to the product, which would help her appear sophisticated among the nobles of the city. Though she gave some initial resistance, they had tapped into her real desires, and she quickly agreed to clear them a path to do business, including keeping Petra and Casta away, so long as she got her cut and they didn’t cause her any troubles.

At the end she asked “who are you anyway?” Armand responded in full whisper weirdness “we’re just some strange people with product you want.”  “Ah, The Strangers.”

The start of a beautiful friendship to be sure!

What Rocked

I really loved our characters and their foibles. As mentioned in the methodology above, I was much happier to base a score of their needs and fears than off of something else arbitrary.

We didn’t get to see all of their issues, but I would have loved to see Darmot’s reaction once he found out what happened between the Strangers and Lady Drake. And Mel’s sister. She came up a little bit in the fight with the Red Sashes. He wanted to cage the ghost and bring it home to teach his sister how do go “ghosting right”. It didn’t pan out, but it would have been so cool.

Armand dropping off packages for Setarra throughout the city while doing his own crime, getting hammered on Cobalt, and trying to keep up his coursework at Charterhall would have been beautiful to behold!

I ended up really enjoying being on host duty just before the slot and then jumping into GMing. It was super satisfying and I felt like a I got to pay it forward to the organizers for all their hard work!

What could have improved

I need to work on my opening montage prompts. I asked the players to describe their characters look and normal activity, but I think that still felt like a leap. What was a name of a street they could walk on, who might they swindle, what are spirit essences even actually? I think this would be improved if I built a good containment field for the montages. “Crows Foot is your home, but there is a war going on between the Lampblacks and the Red Sashes and nobody is safe from their collateral damage. Are you part of the fighting or do you keep your distance? Tell me what that looks like…” I’ll have to tinker with some of these.

I think the Sashes attacking the Strangers and the Lampblacks out in the open didn’t actually make much sense in retrospect. I was trying to think fast and work with what we already had established. It was  fun (if quick) fight, but from the Sashes’ perspective, it was a fools errand unless Bazso had been present and they had an opportunity to take him out. I’m sure I could have worked that detail out a little better.