Actual Play – We’re the Specialists (6/26/2015)

ghost_titleGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Johnstone Metzger, Nate Marcel, Wilhelm Fitzpatrick, and Kurt Ellison
System: Blades in the Dark, Quickstart 3 Rules
Score: Gaddoc Rail Station

Yay, Go Play NW! A wonderful place to see good friends, make new ones, and find out what dastardly deeds they will do.

Inspiration for this game came from recently reading Perdido Street Station and thinking New Crobuzon would be an awesome setting for Blades. Then thinking “Hell no”, I’m not going to try off a full re-skin a couple weeks before Go Play while I’m also flooded with Kickstarter work.

Thankfully the Shattered Isles is a rich and evocative place, already containing Gaddoc Rail Station. With a big of New Crobuzon vibe (though not many specifics) tinkling around in the back of my head, and some info from John about Gaddoc, I put together a one page scenario, a love letter for the whole group:

The Score: Gaddoc Rail

The Score - Gaddoc Rail


Thanks to John Harper for giving me the In Design files and setting background to make this, and thanks to Karen Twelves for editing and proofing it.

The adventure premise is made with a one shot adventure in mind. It’s set contemporary with the the War in Crows Foot (part of the Quick Start) with the premise that one (or all) of the gangs in Crow’s Foot want some package that is arriving in Gaddoc Station, and one of the gang bosses have hired the PCs to get it. The adventure starts in media res when everything had gone to shit, because nobody left the station after the Argonaut came in.

What are the scoundrels after? Who else wants it? Why has nobody come out of the station since last night? All of that is determined by making a few choices about the patron, the score, and the complications. I learned in my first game that allowing the selection of multiple choices (in the Score category) is a bad idea because it prompts too many questions, so I made some revisions (see below) to streamline that. Also, there is a hidden question to the GM “What’s going on in the station?” that I didn’t initially put on the sheet, but I’ve added it now.

Our Score

Spirit essence, distilled from many rogue spirits and compressed into some kind of spirit well. The scoundrels really didn’t want to know more and were content to know that Lyssa would pay good coin for it.



What Rocked

Nate Marcel drawing a picture of Enx Onomon and his “Finger” shaped war staff on his character tent. Damn, it’s awesome to play with artists.

Orlan the Axe just being all about business. The solution didn’t haven’t to be “run up, stab someone, and take the loot”, but that was his default, and it more than three steps were involved he got wary.

Flint, the ghost monkey, raking out some poor fool’s eyes. Damn, that critter was violent!

Finding out that Lewitt, a Bluecoat were doing something really shady and off book. Realizing everyone on guard was getting nervous because something was taking too long, and then driving their carriage right up to the front door, hopping out and saying “Lewitt sent us, we’re the specialists!” It was perfect. Best use of command skill I’ve seen in a while. Though some might argue that was deceive, if you had heard Johnstone, you would have snapped to attention as well!

Finger’s arm being sucked into the gravity well of the soul box, and then it getting wrenched out…. different. In the moment I said it was their but had been contaminated by the spirit essence within, an evil hand gimmick. Not terrible, but I think the arm just being gone would have been better. Or possibly gone in the physical world, but still present in the spirit realm.

Flashbacks, resistance rolls, and effect ratings really working well to propel the story. Risky situations becoming desperate are fantastic.

What could have improved

Early on the scoundrels had a disagreement over what to do. I opted to handle it like John did in our Six Towers game where I first asked the players “Is this something your character could be convinced of?” and then when they said it was a possibility, going to dice, and making the players make resistance rolls to resist the effect. Not a bad plan, but the execution was, erm, intelligent. Wilhelm’s character Chakka suggested leaving the station to go get some information she deemed vital. Finger and Orlan (played by Nate and Johnstone) objected, so I asked them if we should go to dice or if their character wouldn’t budge.

We went to dice and called the argument risky. Time was a factor (a clock) and spending too much of it arguing could sour the deal with Lyssa. Wilhelm rolled and succeeded, so I told all the players if they wanted to stay put, they would have to make a Resolve resistance roll. Chakka picked Frog to go with her… and all the mechanics kind of ground to a halt. Kurt, who was playing Frog, hadn’t been part of the conversation, or of the decision to go to dice with it, so he was suffering the consequences or terms he hadn’t agreed to in advance. He rolled resistance, took the stress (a lot of it) and Frog sent Chakka off alone. We made it work, but I really should have gotten everyone’s buy in before hitting the dice.

There was some confusion about what has to be a group action that everyone takes part in (sneaking the whole crew into a place) and what can optionally be a group action if more that one person wants to try some thing (in this case carrying a very heavy box down to the end of the train before the Bluecoats arrive).

The players selected all three options (valuable, dangerous, and illicit) and while it’s predictable and fun that they would do so, it meant answering too many questions. I changed the option after that game to say that the score was already valuable, dangerous, and illicit. The choice they had to make was what was it especially so. The other question left off was to the GM, asking what was happening in Gaddoc Rail. I added that as well.

Here’s the updated adventure PDF: Gaddoc Rail Station

Actual Play – Not quite dead, I call it an opportunity (5/12/2015)

blades_overlay_bloodletters_titleGM: John Harper
Players: Stras Acimovic, Adam Koebel, and Sean Nittner
System: Blades in the Dark, Quickset Rules v.3

Yay, back in Duskwall. This AP report will be less detailed than the prior both because it isn’t intended to teach the new rules (they were still in development at the time and not released) and because your faithful actual play poster has waited almost a month and the details aren’t quite a fresh in his mind.


Six Towers Gang (revised)

Blades on Air

That said, if you want to see the entire session in all it’s glory, Jonh has it posted on his youtube channel:

Recap of last session

What does it mean to claim turf? How has our crew grown?

  1. We have hold (2), which puts us close to raising one tier
  2. We have a base of operations (the tattoo parlor) to pedal our drugs
  3. We have Cyclops an the Fine Thugs who will work as our muscle until they decide it’s better to be working for themselves.
  4. We also advanced some and acquired:
    1. Oskarr’s friend Quellin, the Witch. She specializes in converting leviathan blood into ectoplasm and compounds. So we can start refining the blood ourselves. She is doing the refining in her own place.

Impromptu recap of our long term goals

  • Arcy – Get back her ship and go Leviathan Hunting
  • Oskarr – Get all the magic trinkets he can muster
  • Canter – Fuck that shit, my only just will be to spend that money….

Effects of Leviathan Blood

What happens when you just serve raw leviathan blood to every junkie that shows up for it? It’s unknown and nobody was particularly worried about finding out before the sales begin.

Fortune Roll: 2 – Poor outcome.

Supply Chain

  • Harrington (the quartermaster of the Nightbreaker) delivers large batches via boat to Skurlock manner.
  • We store most of it there.
  • Every day, Arcy carries a pony key (a day’s worth) down to the shop.

A week later

The count has been right so far. No reprisals yet, or attention from the blue coats. But we also haven’t set up a front yet, so it’s just Canter’s ugly prison tats.

Arcy arrives with the key and catches Cyclops and one of his people carrying a body down stairs. Arcy stares him down and Cyclops, though he’s the kind of guy to hold a grudge, decides today isn’t the time.

Cyclops looks down sheepishly “It’s not our fault.”

Arcy asks “How many are down there?”

When he leads her down there are a pile of people down there, less than a dozen. Their skin has begun sloughing off and reveals black scales beneath. From the pile there is a tiny bit of moaning and movement. The old has been there almost as week… so they aren’t dead.

“Tonight we’re hauling these bodies out of here.”

A whisper problem

“We’ve got some not quite corpses that our product has been not quite killing.”

Oskarr has someone, a friend, who can help us refine the product so this doesn’t happen any more. We don’t want to lose customers when this gets out.

In the mean time Oskarr, has plans for the bodies.

Lets turn this setback into an opportunity

Canter suggests we make use of this, find someone who wants the bodies and sell them. We have some serious “what the fuck” conversations, but decide the damage is done and it’s better to sell the bodies then pay someone to dump them.

Oskrar goes and finds us a buyer. Has to make a decision about whether to sell to Satara (that will benefit him personally) or Scurlock (who actually has money)… and chooses the later.

His communication is in the form of a psychic dead drop to his ancestor.

Checking out the “product”

Oskarr Inspects the bodies, but on his way, notices the spirit memory of Arcy going to sea and leaving her husband behind… and then not coming back… and his loneliness.

And then suddenly he’s there, around the corner. Oskarr pulled down his spirit mask and looked around to the corner to see what he found. Julian Keel (Arcy’s husband) and several bodyguards dressed as though nobles, are in the streets looking for Arcy. They catch a glimpse of Oskarr watching them [John advanced the Keel alert clock]. Something is strange enough that they will come back here looking again. The don’t give him chance, but they talk among themselves and are suspicious.

How are these bodies?

Oskarr walked in and suddenly everyone else had something to do, like trimming their nails, or cleaning that corner over there. Anything to not draw the attention of the Whisper. Which worked fine as Oskarr didn’t care about them at all. He went downstairs, let his spirit mask climb on spider legs out of its pack and over his face, and looked at the bodies, and in doing so left his mark on them [Devil’s Bargain]

As he reaches out there is a something else there. Looking out into a yawning chasm and staring into the eye of the Leviathan. He pushed forward and made contact with the demon presence and gave it/them the command to follow. Oskcarr threw a coat on one of them, and it shambled forward. “It’ll do.”

Arcy trying to dissuade Canter

“I’ve seen what happens to people who come in contact with the Leviathans. They eyes rotted out, their arms turned to tentacles, their fingernails grew in both directions and burst out of their knuckles, bloody and black. We don’t want to mess with this. I know you want to get rich, but if we fuck with Leviathans, you won’t be worried about money, you’ll be worried about having teeth.”

“If I don’t have money, I can’t get a dentist. Besides, people gotta be responsible for their own choices. I’m not going to get high on this garbage…you leave your wallet in my house, it’s my wallet now.”

That was pretty much the gist of that conversation. [Mechanically Adam had the choice of deciding if canter could be swayed or if Arcy would have to escalate further. We all agreed that right now we were just bullshitting and something was going to have to actually happen before Canter would take Arcy seriously].

The work that is done in the meanwhile

As they talked, the were also working, getting their operation looking presentable and adding some actual security protocols to the mix.

  • Let’s deliver the drugs topically through the needles. You can get the tatt’s or the special tatts. We need need a space and talent [supply]
  • Let’s train our guys to cover our tracks, and prevent it from being so obvious [secure]

[Either of these options required spending a coin from our downtime]

Arcy and Canter call in Cyclops to go over the new protocols. “Cyclops, we need your help to make this run better.” [Giving him more responsibility and authority was our Devil’s Bargain].

At first Cyclops just didn’t get it. He listened but wasn’t comprehending. “Let’s tell it to you one more time…” [Poor roll, escalating from Controlled to Risky]

Arcy doesn’t have patience for this bullshit, but Canter convinces Arcy to take a softer touch and present this as an opportunity. “I know it’s complicated, but you can get it, you’re a smart man…” Canter re-establishes the hierarchy. [We have security now. Improved by quality].

Meeting Lord Skurlock…

…to sell him half demon duded in our basement.

When Oskarr returned, please as punch with himself for controlling this shambling thing (that wreaks of the dead sea), Canter refused to indulge him and acted as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

Arcy on the other has lots to say. “Don’t bring that thing in here. Don’t let it touch anything we’re touching.” Oskarr refutes that he needs to show off the merchandise, and as they start to argue, the floor starts rumbling a portcullis from downstairs opens slowly and shakes the entire building… Lord Scurlock is arriving.


Scurlock arrived in old school creeping fashion. Gas lanterns went out, wind swept through, doors creaked open, and then he was there, backlit by the fire.

Without breaking stride, he walked behind Canter (who was sitting in his chair) and stood behind him and looked to Oskarr to see what he had to offer. We showed him the “merchandise” and began to deal.

Acry told him what it was, where it came from, but Scurlock interrupted with the captain’s name “Strangford” and asks Arcy what she thinks he should do with them.

“Burn them.”

Canter jumped up, realized that Arcy was souring the deal, and cut her off “That sounds like a woman with no money in the bank.” He assures Scurlock that Arcy won’t be a problem…and that Canter will be responsible for Arcy [That was our Devil’s Bargain].

Canter pulls it off, and impresses himself upon Scurlock as a man in charge. Though he’s a daunting figure, Canter is unfazed when Scurlock shakes his hand. Word will spread that we’re doing work with him [The “Great Effect”, +2 Rep].

Arcy swallows her pride and shakes his hand as well, then Oskarr’s and slips away with the leviathan tainted creature in tow.

Closing line

Oskarr turns to Arcy just as Sculock leaves and mentions casually “oh yeah, your husband is looking for you.”


Rolling Heat – 0 Heat generated (for selling not quite dead things from our basement)

Development – 2 Coin (would have been more but we had some operational costs, giving Cyclops a raise and losing on sales while we moved the bodies)

Entanglement – Usual suspects. Bluecoats pick up someone who can rat us out. They made the mistake of picking up Marlane who hates the Bluecoats and is loyal to Arcy. Not only does she not talk, she gets the names and badge numbers of the guys looking into it. Sinda and Raif. They need to go down.

Thoughts on this game

What a fantastic time we had. I love this crew.

The resistance rolls in QS3 is are much smoother/faster than they were in QS2 and a appreciate the reduced number of rolls and the reduced wiff factor.

Some of the most powerful abilities are the ones that trigger off dice. For instance “Desperate” improving your result and subjecting you to danger is just all kinds of awesome.  Similarly having a quality bonus really make a big deal.

I dig that murder now automatically bumps up heat. You don’t do murder without someone noticing.

When we were beefing up the security (putting Cyclops in charge) and making a “downtime” move during the score, I’m glad there was a mechanical provision for that (spend a coin). That needs to be codified in the rules for sure so that when groups go into “Kingdom Building Mode” they have a cost but aren’t shut down completely.




Actual Play – The Harpers (4/6/2015)

ghost_titleGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Karen Twelves, Dale Horstman, and Matt Klein
System: Blades in the Dark, Quick Start Kit edition

Last night we spun up the quick start kit of Blades and made some scoundrels.

The Harpers

Timoth “Quill” Kinclaith (Matt), an ex-military Skovlan man who realized he and his older brother were fighting on the wrong side. Previously part of a noble Skovlan family, he’s now been disowned by his dear mother for changing sides in the unity war. In Duskwall on account of Roslyn Kellis, an Akoros noble an friend of the Kinclaith family that had urged them to change sides years ago. Roslyn took Quill and his brother Edlun in and introduced them a few of her “business” associates. [Lurk]

Edlun Kinclaith (Karen), is Timoth’s older brother and the only one who can call him Timoth (he insists everyone else call him Quill). Where Quill is tall and unkempt, Edlun looks like he is still a professional soldier. Close cut hair, polished armor, and a fine pair of pistols at his side. He is every part the capable scoundrel.  When they arrived Roslyn introduced Edlun to Casta, a bounty hunter and the two of them did a job together. Casta was quite impressed with how well Edlun took to the streets of Duskwall, and truth be told if it weren’t for Edlun the whole thing would have fell through. [Hound]

Raheem Almar (Dale), is a dark skinned man from Iruvia who used to be a deathlands scavenger and now traffics in all things unusual in nature. He carries with him the fingerbone of Hoxan, his dead mentor, now a rogue spirit (vengeful, clever, and destructive). [Whisper]

Jorus Brogan (Sean), nephew of Roslyn Kellis is from the poorer mercantile Brogan family that Roslyn married out of. While Brogan textiles operates in the Crow’s Foot as a legitimate business, back taxes, tariffs and competitors has driven the family business into the ground. Jorus says the real money is in swindling investors, but his career as a scoundrel is relatively recent, so, it’s not like he would really know. One leg up he does have is that the Brogan family has long been a legitimate front for Bazso Baz’s illicit dealings, and the two of them have come to trust in one another. You know, as much as two soundrels can. [Slide]

Note: I made a character as part of our gang but as per the rules he never came into play. Should another player take over as GM, I’d get to play Brogan then.

The Harpers (Thieves) had hidden out right under the noses of The Crows in Crow’s Foot. They have a secret lair inside Brogan’s Textiles and from their plan their heists and the deliver the goods to Amancio, their fence. Though initially doing jobs fed to them by Roslyn, after putting out a fire that threatened one of The Crow’s stash houses, Lyssa (then only 2nd in command of The Crows) gave them a job, and so far has been very impressed with how professional they timeliness and work is. [Thieves]

IMG_4505In the House of Bazso Baz

With a name like that I have a hard time not imagining an Arabian Pirate dressed in flowing white linen clothes and his arms wrapped in gold bands accentuating his muscle. His chest still strong but his belly showing both the slowing of his metabolism and the easier life he now leads.

“You’ve come well recommended. I know my friend Jorus runs with you, and more important Lyssa says that even though you’re a small piss ant crew, you carry yourselves professional and do a clean job and don’t ask too many questions. It just so happens I’ve got a job. Are you with me?”

Bazso let that hang in the air for a bit before adding “…or are you against me?”

Naturally the Harpers wanted to know just what the job was. Knocking over an Opium den called The Red Lamp in the north shore (called the silkshore) of Crow’s Foot. Anyone that is anyone knows that is way outside of the Sashes’ normal turf, so it’s a baller move just that they have.

“I want you to get some crates out of that building, you’ll need a cart to carry them all. The contents are fragile. You bring them back to me in one piece and I split the profits with you 70/30. You break them all and you get nothing by my satisfaction in knowing you fucked over the the Red Sashes. This is my turf those fuckers are on.”

Everyone in that room knew damn well it was not the Lampblack’s turf at all, but nobody was going to argue that point with Bazso Baz. Bazso had been drawing a crude map of the Crow’s Foot in a small sand garden designed for that purpose. The scoundrels turned from him and without offering an answer they started drawing on the map and making a plan. After some time of this, while Bazso just watched them attentively, and  waited for an answer.

Quill and Edlan did a good cop bad cop routine, arguing with each other for a bit. Edland said “we always do even splits, 50/50 or it’s nothing”. Quill tried to calm him (or at least pretended to) and said “We we’ve gotta be reasonable. This is our first time working with the Lampblacks, we’re paying for a future profitable relationship.” He turned to Bazso and offered “We’ll do it for 40%”.

[Our first roll of the game. Dale grabbed his 1D from Sway. He took 1D as a helping die from Karen (who was playing the Eldan pressuring for more) and 1D for the Devils Bargain that Bazso was going to send someone to watch over them. We called this Risky, with the danger being that they’d offend Bazso and become his enemy. Result was a 5 –  The danger manifests, they might be on the Lampblack’s shit list. Quill slipped out of Bazso’s anger by playing this off as typical negotiations. He rolled resistance with Finesse and got a 6, opting to take 1 stress and stay in Bazso’s good favor. For effect he rolled a 5 and got a partial effect. I ruled this would make for 1 extra coin at the end of the score]

“40 is what I pay people I know. I have…extra expenses… when I work with new people. 35.”

Quill reach across to shake his hand and felt it nearly crushed by the bigger man’s vice grip.

As they walked out of Bazso’s office, the noticed the incense lighter that had been there the whole time and listening in stepped in stride alongside them. “I’m Birch, I’m here to make sure you all do the job as planned.” He did not say “And don’t try to doublecross my boss” as it was implicit!

Casing the Joint

[Here I think I jumped the gun a bit as a GM. So eager to use the planning mechanic of  “pick a plan, then fill in the detail” that I think I robbed the players of time to get a good grasp on what they wanted to do. More on this under what could be improved below.]

Raheem and Edlum noticed one prominent figure going in and out of the Red Lamp on a regular basis. He walked with a confident swagger hand had a very fine blade at his side. Hanging from the ornate pommel was a red sash. The followed the man (Cross) as he did his round and the sent the signal to Quill on the roof when he’d be clear to get a good look at the building. As the last moment when they were following him Cross spun and turn around, having forgotten something. Edlum just played it cool though and rolled a cigarette, which Cross bummed one off of him and walked on, none the wiser. [Raheem led a group action: Risky move. Faced the danger, absorbed it with stress, a setup move to Quill who took their effect dice on his roll]

On the rooftops quill danced around to get a good vantage point. Everything was in his favor, the coast was clear [Controller situation] but he just couldn’t spy the service entrance they wanted to use. [1-3 A flaw in the plan, Risky move to try it]. Quill shimmied down between two buildings and got closer, but just then he noticed that Birch was below spotting him. Birch, who everyone knew was a Lampblack…right next to a Red Sashes den…out in the open. Just as one of the guards was about to spot Birch, Quill grabbed a shingle from the room of the building he was on now and flung it into the ally, distracting the guard long enough for Birch to notice him and get scarce. Sadly, what Quill realized was the service entrance was actually the beach and that all good that came in and out were from the waterfront. They’d need to get a boat [Risky move. Danger faced. Absorbed with Stress. Effect was diminished].

IMG_4504Cut to the chase

[We were running out of time and I really wanted to get to the end of session stuff, so we compressed it all down to one action to get in and out with the goods]

We cut to Kinclaith brothers carrying the goods out and onto a boat. Just as they were about to set it down one of the crates cracked open and an alchemicaly sealed vial of spirit essence rolled out. From a distance, Raheem who was look out channeled the essence to lift up, and the bottled floated in mid air just long enough that Edlan could safely retrieve it and shove it back in the crate before the made off. Sadly it turned out their little boat was big enough for all the goods and they had to leave some of it behind. [Mechanically they got the good but danger manifested (bottle rolling out), resisted with Finesse to catch it, but aided by Rahaeem. Effect was partial, why they cold only hold most of the goods].

After the party there’s the after party

Good given to Bazso Baz, it was time to celebrate.

Edlum went on a shopping spree, buying himself the nice things that remind him of his life as a noble. Quill spent a night with the Prichard Twins.

Trouble was the inspectors came knocking, wanting a cut, and when they were refused, the heat increased!

Much palm greasting was done. Quill, now acquainted with Bazso Baz wine and dined him and improved the relationship between the two gangs. Edlum used our connection with Roslyn to get the heat off of us [Slipper] and Raheem started researching the Ghost Fumes the stole (of course he kept a bottle for himself). We he uncorked it he instantly remembered his first day in the steam ships going out to hunt a leviathan… only he had never been on a steam ship, and the memory was that of a dead man! [2 of 8 segments along the way of understanding the Spirit wine ghost fumes]

What rocked

The character creation was great fun. The Kinclaith brothers were great, and although I didn’t play Jorus, I was really happy how all our characters were connected via NPCs. The gang creation was a ton of fun as well. The options were cool and it made it easy for us to envision where they existed in the world.

The starting situation (fragile peace broken) and prompt (Bazso Baz offering a job) made it easy to kick off the game. I really liked our starting scene and the problems (and opportunities) it immediately presented.

The ability to take stress to resist bad outcomes goes a long way to our scoundrels being bad ass. I really like that you can decide to either stuff an ill effect or freak out about it a little as it just barely doesn’t happen.

Vices. Oh, vices make the scoundrel. So much good stuff there.

What could have improved

I got a little flustered when they actually went on for the score. I was trying to make it streamline but I think I just needed to relax a bit. It started with saying we want to case the joint. I asked how and they said they would look for access points, where guards were, etc. I figured that sounded like Secure. Dale was going to try it but realized he had nothing in secure, so wanted to know if there was something else he could do instead to help Matt try it (who did have a dot in Secure). We talked a bit and he decided to watch the guard and follow them around to see what was up. Cool, that’s Stalk, no problem. Initially it was going to be a guard, but then they mentioned a character they had made up when making some bluster in front of Bazso Baz. An fat guy who walked around giving people nips off his flask. And they would hold the guy who sold him rum at knife point and make them give the fat man poisoned rum. I thought, cool, that sounds like a flashback. But in all of that we got confused about what it was all for, since the Gather Information attempt was to find a point of entry for an infiltration.

We worked it out but I was flipping through the pages trying to find the flashback rules, which I couldn’t do quickly enough to stat in the conversation, and kept falling behind. All the ideas were good but they were coming to fast for me, and I was trying to keep it to a simple action or two, especially because…

The die mechanic was less smooth that I remembered when playing. We kept doing things that I thought should have effect rolls (how much do you haggle Bazso Baz down, how big of an opening to you provide Quill to case the joint, etc) and we kept getting 4/5 results on the risky table which mean danger was presenting itself every time. That meant three rolls, all woven between the fiction. We did it all, but at times it felt awkward and Matt was cursing the 5 result. Damn you 5, we need a 6!

I couldn’t find the Advancement & Coin page (Page 20 of the quick start in case you’re dumb like me) I think because it came before the Starting the game page (page 26) and I had mental block that it couldn’t be before it. So, when we were doing downtime I was having a really hard time remember what order things went it and what rewards folks got. It worked, it was just more clunky than I wanted it to be.

Most of this stuff I think will improve with system mastery. I want to play again!

Actual Play – Six Towers Gang (3/2/2015)

blades_overlay_bloodletters_titleGM: John Harper
Players: Stras Acimovic, Adam Koebel, and Sean Nittner
System: Blades in the Dark, playtest draft Beta 07

John Harper, in preparation for for the Blades in the Dark Kickstarter, has recruited a few scoundrels to play in demo games for some actual play footage for the game. Would I play in it? Fuck yeah I would!

The Six Towers gang

Here’s our motley crew of scoundrels! John has written them up beautifully here.

Oskar “Witch Boy” Scurlock (Stras), the inheritor of the Scurlock manor in Six Towers, as well as the Scurlock family haunts. Raised by ghosts, spirits, and Setarra, a demon. Oskar is weird, but no doubt he’s got more experience with the occult than anyone twice his age. Our lair is in his family manor. Spooky as fuck, but people leave it alone. Oskar supplies our lair and magical protections. [Playbook: Whisper]

Acry Keel (Sean) was XO of the steamship Nightbreaker. When she realized her captain was consorting with Leviathans she led a mutiny against him that failed. She was cut down and thrown off the ship at sea. Arcy is tough. She survived and now makes her way in the underworld by siphoning Leviathan Blood from her old contacts on the Nightbreaker that are still loyal to her. Arcy supplies the product and muscle. [Playbook: Cutter]

Canter Haig (Adam), the corner boy. Canter knows the business. He doesn’t give a shit about ghosts or steamships, he cares about sales. Bringing in the coin. Canter knows how to find a corner, set up shop, and start slinging goods. He moves with a confident swagger than some realize is bullshit, but respect just the same. Canter supplies our know how and connections. [Playbook: Lurk]

The Six Tower Gang is our presumptuous name for ourselves; a crew of peddlers moving product. In our case the product is unrefined Leviathan Blood, smuggled up to our lair in Scurlock manor and then pawned to whoever is interested. So far the Dimmer Sisters, but we know our client base has to be expanded if we want to stay in business. [Playbook: Hawkers]

Blades on Air

Here’s the Google Hangout of us playing (in two parts). Watch us make goofy voices and do violence!

 Fight for what you…want to take

None of this “beliefs” shit. Blades do jobs. We knew off the bat there were holes in our operation. Giant gaping ones. From the onset we knew we wanted to:

  • Equip a factory to refine the Leviathan Blood so it could be used in Electroplasmic Disintegration and other savory prospects.
  • Find new clients in need of our product
  • Set up a turf to hawk our wares.

The last was by far the most immediate concern, and we knew just the Lurk to find us a place to set up shop.

Gather Information

Blades_gatherWe kicked this off with Canter on point. His primary contact is Petra, a childhood friend who grep up on the streets like him but managed to get a clerk position in the city. She processes criminals so is often in the know.

Canter headed down to the city hall to catch her during lunch. It’s a place of odd juxtapositions. Plenty of Bluecoats working, civil servants doing their jobs, but also a constant influx of criminals being processed, visiting each other, coming for legal advice, or in their best case, being released. In this crowd Canter fit right in. Though most of the Bluecoats recognized him only one made a point of giving him a stiff shoulder in the chest as they passed each other going through a doorway.

Yeah, he could have started beef, but it wasn’t worth it.

Lunch with Petra was fruitful, but not without complications. We’re looking for new territory to move into so Canter pressed her to find out about people just brought in, thinking we could swoop in to claim their turf before anyone else did. Canter had a regular line with Petra; he’d make some vague allusions that if she just helped him out of some unspecified bind with certain information, it would be enough to help him get out of the life and set himself straight. It was never a promise, just a hope he let live in her.

Talking this close to a bunch of Bluecoats isn’t without risk however. Even though most of them couldn’t give a shit what he was saying there was always that odd chance that someone was paying attention, and by the end of the conversation someone in some office was tacking a red piece of yarn from one picture to another.

Blades_controlled[Mechanically, Adam rolled Canter’s sway to manipulate Petra. Since she was his favored contact, giving information that wasn’t any particular risk to her, to a friend she trusted, we considered this a Controlled situation. Adam rolled three dice, 1D for his Sway, 1D for his shared background with Petra, and 1D for the Devil’s Bargain that a Bluecoat would overhear the conversation and we’d get +1 Heat. His result was 6: You do it to full effect.

So we’d get what we want, but how good would the information be? Canter rolled for Effect. In this case we chose influence as he was pushing her for information. He rolled 1D for his influence and another 1D for their shared background. His result was 3. Weak: A single nugget of information, leaving much more to learn.]

She had info, but it wasn’t good. The Red Sashes and the Lampblacks are always fighting, but a day ago it got ugly and Bazso Baz, the leader of the Lampblacks had two of the Sashes killed in one of their safehouses at the bottom of a tattoo parlor by the docks. Petra warned Canter away from it though, it was going to be contested territory, he should just wait a week or so to find something easier to hit…

Cut to us breaking in

We’re all standing there at the street side end of a dead end ally. The ally so narrow you’ve got to walk sideways to get down it. At the opposite end was a dingy tattoo parlor which looked vacant. No lights on. Door closed.

We alluded to a conversation that Arcy and Canter would have had before the approach about how you take a place by just calling it yours and doing business there, or so said Canter. Arcy knew she was a bit out of her depth, but just didn’t get the concept of claiming a space (rightfully or not) without letting everyone effected know you took it. I mean, lines of control have gotta be clear.

Blades_planning_short[Mechanically speaking when the crew is planning for something, all you need to do is decide your method and then supply a detail. We selected “Deception” with the detail that we were carrying inventory in like we belonged there. ]

Who’s on point?

Arcy is! She hefted a barrel of Leviathan Blood on her shoulder and squeezed down the ally. At the end of it a one eyed sailor was guarding the door. She shoved the barrel into his chest and started barking orders like she owned the place. “Open that door. Carry this barrel. Get moving sailor or I’m going to put you in the sweatbox.” Not quite the kind of swagger Canter had in mind.

Meanwhile Oskar was trying to stay out of sight. Every time he’d go by a lamp it would start fizzling and sputtering. He did his best to stay in the shadows, and there he found someone, or something waiting for him. Setarra, his demon mentor manifested and told him there was something inside the parlor that she needed. Something that belonged to the Scurlock family. Would he get it for her? Of course he would.

[John had Stras start a clock with eight segments called Setarra’s favor. This represented a project starting that Oskar could work on]

Bluster and Bravado paid off, but there was a catch. Cyclops opened the door for Arcy and let her into the parlor, but then set down the barrel and tried to toss her down the steps to the dark basement below!

Blades_desperate[Arcy tried to push her weigh in using Command. She rolled 2D for her command, 1D for her shared background (Labor), and 1D for a Devil’s Bargain that by using a specific seaman language, this guy would recognize her, or at least her previous station, and she’d stand out to him in the future. My result is a 6, which is great, but this was a Desperate gamble (there were threats below that we didn’t know about).  Result of a 6: You do it but suffer the effect of the danger. Hence getting in, but not without trouble. I marked one advancement blade on the Desperate Rolls section on my sheet]

Cyclops didn’t know who he was messing with. He grabbed Arcy by the collar but instantly Canter was up in his face for fucking with his friend. The distraction was enough for Arcy to grab his hand, squeeze it into the sharp talismans she wore around her next and then when he flinched, pull it off her, twist his arm and send him crashing into the parlor, knocking over a tray of needles and bottles of ink.

[Suffering it’s effect meant Arcy had to resist him, in this case his effect was Force. I rolled 2D for her force, 1D for help from Canter (which cost him 1 stress to offer) and 1D for the shared background. Result was a 6, the effect was resisted, but she took 1 stress to overcome it. This didn’t go as smoothly as Arcy had hoped it would.]

Whispers down below

Three of them. Four when Oskar got in the mix. What we didn’t know, and why getting in was a Desperate move, was that three Lamprey Whispers were in the basement, interrogating the ghosts of the two dead Red Sashes.


To be better prepared for this Oskar (who was now on point) flashed back to the day before when he had show up knowing the Sashes would have left ghosts behind. He had a chance to commune with the ghosts in advance and insulated that if they helped him out, he’d do the same for them.

[This was text book impractical and obscure preparation. Stras marked 2 stress on Oskar’s sheet]

Flash forward

Like a shadow himself Oskar slipped down the stairs to the basement, past the Lamprey Whisper Cross who was guarding the stairs, but also translating the moans of the ghosts being interrogated ghosts.

Oskar donned his spirit mask so he could attune to the ghosts and learn from them what was going on here. Silver was asking them questions, but Emeline, who was just holding them in place sensed something was amis. She looked around but was distracted by shouts from above. Arcy yelling that she was coming down with a gun, and people didn’t want to get shot the should just come up peacefully.

Blades_risky[Stras rolled attune to communicate with the ghosts. We decided in play that this was a Risky move because Whispers could detect other Whispers performing magic in their vicinity. That was something new, but once decided, became president. He rolled 2D from attune plus 1D from Arcy offering help with her creating a distraction above. The result was a 4/5: You do it but suffer the effect of the danger. John started a countdown with four segments and filled the first two in. Once all four were complete they would detect Oskar, but for now they were just suspicious.

Arcy took 1 stress for helping Oskar out, she was putting herself on the line after all]

In a private ghost tongue that only Oskar could understand (it just sounded line moans to the other Whispers) they ghosts told Oskar that these Lamprey were asking them questions about who killed them and when it happened. Most importantly though, and the one thing the ghosts had been holding out on, was where the Red Sashes had been getting their supply of spirit essence from.

As Canter and Arcy came down the stairs, Oskar’s spirit mask conveyed that information to us as well, but discovery and investigation was over. It was time for…

Murder One

Canter didn’t bother with trying to scare the Lampreys he just gunned the fuckers down. Acry should have been there at his side but a combination of the icy chill from entering a basement with ghosts present and the surprise that he just opened up immediately meant she was to slow to be of much help. Oskar didn’t have a gun, but he did summon a small gust of wind that broke the line of salt which caged the spirits and having two angry ghosts harry them, distracted our enemies. “Should have used ghost dust” – Oskar, besmirching the Lamprey Whispers for going cheep and using salt to bind the ghosts and making call back to our earlier teasing him for his expensive tastes in occult paraphernalia.

Cross, prepared for intruders dashed across the room, skipping from one shadow to the next and almost had his blade to Canter’s throat, but the Lurk was faster on the draw and filled him with lead.

Blades_effect[Adam Led a group action, in this case a firefight, ah no, an execution! To do that he rolled 1D for Murder, 1D for having a shared background with the target, and 1D for help from Oskar (Which cost Oskar 1 stress). His result was a 6: You do it and avoid the danger. or you may choose to overreach and increase your level of effect but suffer an effect from the danger. Adam opted to overreach (why Cross got a chance to cut Canter) to improve his effect roll.

Since Canter was leading an action that meant that Oskar and Arcy both had to participate. Since neither one of them had murder, their rolls were crap, both getting 1-3 results, and so Canter took 2 stress (one from each of them) to make up for their slow reactions.

For effect, Adam rolled 2D from Force, 1D from having a shared background and 1D from help from Arcy (after an initial hesitation, she did start firing). His result was a 6, but because he had over exerted, that was bumped up to a Critical: Your effect is extreme—beyond what you would expect given the situation. Everyone was fucking dead.

However, since he overexerted, Canter also had to roll to resist the effect of our enemy (Cross, doing force by way of dagger in the face). He rolled and got another Critical. Effect resisted. No stress.]

Blades_afterlifeElectrical Afterlife

When the guns stopped firing is when the fireworks really began. One of the ghosts dove into Cross’s dead body, destroyed the spirit within, and possessed him.

Another dove into Silver’s body, but her spirit fought back and destroyed the ghost.

Both of these actions caused any remaining lights in the basement to shatter, electrical arcs to spark, hoarfrost to form on our skin, and terrible noises to channel up through the stairwell into the street.

All dead but us, Oskar went about electroplasmicly disintegrating the bodies of Silver and Emeline. Cross had a ghost in him, he was now a vampire. Free to go I guess. Arcy poured some of the Leviathan Blood on the bodies, which Canter chastised her for as wasting their “product” and Oskar channeled the blood, refined it using himself as a conduit and destroyed the bodies.

Business as usual

Above Cyclops had fled. In his place however, was a small line forming. They had witnessed all of the horrific sights and sounds from the basement above. At the front of them was a thin woman with a sallow face. Her arm shook some as she hunched over and scratched the back of her neck “Are you open?”

“Yes, yes we are.”

Fuck yeah, we’ve got corner!

End of Game

Operation complete and session at an end (successful one at that) we then turned to the end of game mechanics. Heat, Development, Entanglements, Vices, and Downtime.


We had one heat from a Devil’s Bargain Adam took earlier when getting information from Petra. Then we maid our Heat roll. We figured the mission was 2D (Under Control. Medium Exposure) because we had scouted a good opportunity and though there was violence it was quick and in basement where nobody would care if they did hear. We added +1D because killing was involved, but did not subtract -2D for being on our turf, since as of the time of the session it was our turf. Not yet at least. Our result was a 4/5: The crew takes 1 Heat.

Total Heat is 2.

When Heat goes to five, Entanglement rolls get more serious. When it goes to eight, it resets and both Wanted and Renown levels go up. It’s not worth nothing that intentionally taking jobs that grant you more heat is a good way for boosting your Renown!


Sweet, time for the money to roll in! How much did this little operation of ours profit us. We took 1D for our crew’s resources, and 1D four our level three faction status with the Dimmer Sisters (they’d be sending business our way for sure). Our result was 4/5: Your crew gains 1 Hold and 2 Coin and roll an entanglement, below.

A crew starts with 3 Coin and the Lair can only store 4 until you have taken the vault advancement, which we haven’t, so we’re one coin over what we can hold onto. Oh well, I guess we’ve gotta spend some of that!


Doing jobs tends to ruffle someones feathers. I rolled on the Entanglements charge (for Heat 1 to 4) and got 1: Unquiet Dead. The rogue spirit of a past victim finds its way to you. Pay 1 Coin to a Whisper or Rail Jack to exorcise it, or deal with it yourself.

A few days later, in Scurlock manor, Canter woke from his sleep to see his breath frosting in front of him. The ghost of Silver, thought destroyed, was coming for vengeance. Just as she was about to put her ethereal hands around Canter’s throat Oskar appeared and threw a spirit anchor threw her. The bauble passed through her but as it did, it latched onto her essence and dragged her with it to the wall.

Someone has a means of surviving disintegration? Hell yeah Oskar was going to find out what that was all about!


Sweet, sweet vice.

Oskar knew this ordeal with the tattooing equipment wasn’t at an end. When he followed Seratta’s instructions to place the supplies in a room he found strange things there. A dentist chair covered in a tarp, an old razor blade. If this was the site of some ritual, it simply would not due! He started placing the orders for the appropriate accouterments to meet his standards. Gold dust, candles, a tattoo artist, rare paintings. All necessary, and all expensive.

Stras rolled a 4/5: You clear 2 Stress. (chart below) but that wasn’t nearly enough (he had 7). He spent the two coin we made to bump that up to a Critical: You clear 6 Stress. Some expensive artwork later and Oskar felt at ease, well, more at ease.

Canter went to get himself some bling. The boots off of Cross were nice, but he needed something with a bit more flash. A velvet cape would be just right.

Adam rolled a 4/5: You clear 2 Stress. Canter only had 3 stress to start with so he was content with that.

Acry went out drinking, whoring, and fighting. Possibly in that order. She had been sleeping in the tattoo parlor to keep it safe, and being by the docks is just no good for her. Slumming it was Marlane was going to happen, and it happened big. Big enough for the Lampblacks to take notice and wonder if our crew was as professional and capable as they had previously thought.

I rolled a 4/5: You clear 2 Stress as well. I pushed that up to a 6: You clear 4 Stress by overindulging and getting a Bad Rep. You let word get around about your vice problem. Lose one status level with your least understanding faction connection until you assure them that you’re reliable. Mark the status box with a slash to show the temporary reduction.


Blades_assetsAll that time brawling down at the docs wasn’t for nothing either. Arcy used it to round up a crew of muscle to watch over the parlor. We know the Red Sashes are coming for it and we’ll need some heavies to help us hold it. Here first pick of the lot was Cyclops. She had already beaten him down once and those things then to stick around.  John offered up the Devils Bargain that she could find a capable crew, but they’d be likely to look out for themselves in the long run, and after a time wonder why they weren’t running the corner themselves. I gladly took that one, with both Sean and Arcy in full knowledge of the type of crew she was assembling.  Arcy has no dots in Supply, but I took 1D for our shared background, and 1D for the Devil’s Bargain. Result was 6: You acquire a Fine Asset. Not just a group of thugs. A fine group of thugs. And enterprising to boot!

Oskar was fascinated by Silver’s power to survive, and was going to make it his! He rolled his Attune and spirit-melded with Silver, half letting her possess him in order to understand her secrets. It had something to do with shells and layers of protection. He got part of the way there, but more work will need to be done with her. Hopefully before she goes batshit crazy.

Blades_workJohh said this was a pretty involved secret and had Stras create an 8 segment clock. Stras rolled 2D for Attune plus 1D for having a shared background with silver. His result was a 6: Advance the clock by 4 Segments. Nice, Oskar was half way there!

Canter, like Arcy didn’t want to do all the work himself. He looked for some other corner boys to act as scouts, lookouts, runners, and to be on the count. Not dice though, looks like Canter will be peddling our wares himself for a bit longer.

Canter has no dots in supply so Adam just rolled 1D for a shared background. His result was a 1-3: The asset isn’t available right now. Had he succeeded he would have acquired a gang of Shadows.

Since gangs acquired this way are temporary “one use” the implication is that they will stick around for a single job. In the case of Arcy’s thugs, probably long enough to fend off (or try to fend off) the Red Sashes once. Getting these gangs permanently requires taking them as a Crew advancement (more on that below).

NPC Downtime

Behind the scenes, the GM also advances the NPCs. Duskwall is a living breathing place, and more is going on than the crew necessarily knows about.


Normally advancement doesn’t happen until the stat of the next session, it’s a way to help everyone recap the game before. Since we were running a demo game however, we wanted to include that as well.

Both crew and characters advance!

Oskar: No doubt, we all thought he spent hims time taking actions from the Book category. Stras selected to have him study in the Book category as well. Two ticks for that.

Arcy: Definately Blades for her, though for her study I chose Mask, as she’s trying to learn to act more like Canter.

Canter: Blades all the way for him. Murder One (the joke there being that Canter had one dot in Murder and will never raise it).

We all took one advancement tick for Effects.

Playbook questions

Here were our playbook questions for Cutter, Lurk, and Whisper. The answers were mostly HELL YES!

Crew Advancement

Blades_advancment_hawkersThought our Rooks, supplier, and contacts didn’t see much screen time this game, the organization as a whole advanced. We did after all have new turf and new clientele.

The answers for us were yes (we now have a channel for our product), yes (we took new turf), yes (this was a special case where John asked Stras if Setarra was a client and by getting the tattoo equipment for her, Oskar was doing a side job that might hurt the crew later… so yeah to that as well), and yes (we managed to piss off the Red Sashes, a Tier 1 Crew compared to our measly Tier 0).

Additional each of our character got 1 Coin as our share of profits which we could either keep on hand or put away in our stash for retirement. Retire-what? Yeah, fuck that shit. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

And that was it for the game. Good times!

What Rocked

Blades_viceI love, love, love that indulging vice is the healing mechanic in the game. John is well known for having awesome healing mechanics. In Agon you recover by having a competition among each other, challenging one another to wrestling matches, poetry recitals, and foot races. Perfect for the Greek-heroes-of-yore in the setting. In Lady Blackbird you reflect with your crew members, tell them about yourself and learn something of them. You know that scene at the end of Serenity where Mal tells River about how you need to love your ship and if you do she’ll love you back.  That is how space cowboys recover. In Blades, you recover by doing vice. Indulging your whims for drugs or fancy things or whatever weakness you have. And it’s a constant in the game, even if your character is the leader of a tier four gang and ruling the criminal underworld in Duskwall, they still need their fix.

What’s particularly ingenious is that indulging your vice is essentially a cost-less reward. You can do it for free at no detriment to your character’s health, social standing, or wealth. But to make it really worthwhile (i.e. to recover more stress) you’re encouraged to either overspend (using up Coin from the crew’s hold or your own) or overindulge (let your vice get the better of you). I love it.

Blades_dbDevil’s Bargain is probably the best single mechanic in the game. I say this because it’s so universal both in it’s application in Blades, but also in it’s potential utility in any other game. What’s so brilliant about the DB is that it’s a deal you make, and it happens regardless of the roll results. So, if you accept an extra die in order to put yourself in a little more pressure, that pressure is real and there, regardless of how well you do.

Compare this to the “raises” mechanic of Roll and Keep games like 7th Sea and L5R. In those games you can increase your difficulty in something by trying to get something extra. In principle is the same idea as DB but in reverse. Where raises fail me however is that they are dependent on the die roll, and it’s all or nothing. So your inclined to throw every resource you’ve got at the die roll (Void points/Action dice, special abilities, help, etc) as you don’t want to miss out on not only the advanced benefit of the raise, but also the base level success of the roll.

By severing the connection between outcome and results, it means we’ve got all sorts of tasty fall out from the roll. You can succeed and get what you wanted with a hitch, or you can fail and have additional complications, or you can reject the Devil’s Bargain all together and try it on your own merit without the bonus die. It’s pretty fucking brilliant.

Blades_planningFuck Planning. Fuck it so hard! I absolutely loathe planning sessions, and yet, I find myself just as susceptible to doing them and any one else. You’re trying to figure out all the variables so that your plan succeeds and more importantly (I think) you don’t question your own character’s authenticity. If you’re supposed to be this bad ass rogue, and then you get caught by a dumb trap and have no backup plan, well you’re not a bad ass rogue then are you?

The planning and flashback mechanics let you preserve the veneer of a plan without having to spend often fruitless minutes or hours actually planning. You pick a general method and supply a specific detail. Then you go!

In our session it involved about 30 seconds of discussion “We’re going in like we own the place. That’s infiltration, wait, no, that’s Deception.” I don’t think we even expressly stated our method (in this case it was means of deception), but it was clear. We were acting like we owned the place and everyone there worked for us.

Flashbacks are also integral because regardless of how cool we are, there is that possibility of being caught off guard, and our characters are intended to be better scoundrels that we are. There is a cost so the mechanic isn’t abused, but that’s all part of the game!

Playing without a net

A little exert (incomplete) of the GM best practices.

Just a few of the Blades Best Practices.

There was so much we just made up as the game progressed.  Can Whispers detect other Whispers plying their trade in the area? Yes. Now that’s fact. Is Oskar working for Seratta as a client? It mean Stras got to mark another Playbook Advancement so fuck yeah! Can crafty or powerful ghosts survive electroplasmic disintegration? I guess they can. Which means our whisper can learn to do the same? Does Leviathan Blood double as a drug? Hell yes it does!

These weren’t things we new going into the game, but all of us, John included, were open to possibilities. We went with choices that made sense in the moment, and that we understood would shape play in the future. We were literally world building in play. Hell yeah!

Blades_clocksClocks, Clocks, Clocks. Progress clocks are a fantastic way of tracking progress in a concrete. way. Any time a goal or outcome doesn’t seem like it should be resolved with a single action, put a clock on it. Let folks work towards it!

In the case of our game we had:

  • An 8 segment clock called Seratta’s Favor that Oskar made one tick on for recovering the Scurlock tattoo gun and inks from the parlor.
  • A 4 segment clock to discover Oskar in the shadows, which the Lamprey Whispers got 2 ticks on when they senses Oskar’s presence.
  • An 8 segment clock to discover Silvers secret of eluding disintegration, that Oskar got 4 ticks on during his Downtime action.
  • An 8 segment clock to research mystic tatoo inks discovered in the parlor. No ticks on this one yet, but we’ll start on that soon enough I’m sure.

A clock I didn’t start this game, but really want to is:

  • Commandeer the Nightbreaker!

What could have improved

There were several conversations between Canter and Acry that we alluded to but never ended up happening. Specifically Canter critiquing Arcy on her lack of subtlety and jumping to violence too quickly. I also would have liked to have that conversation about “wasting the product”. Given that Silver came back as an unquiet dead, maybe Arcy didn’t use enough!

I think it is implicit that these are good downtime conversations because there is a character Playbook Advancement “Express your relationship to the crew. Why are you here?”. Arcy didn’t get that one this session and I think it was because she didn’t have a chance to have that talk afterward. This isn’t an issue with the game, more that I think we were just running short on time and wanted to get in all the of the mechanical effects in a single session for the demo video.

The assumption that all of the Lamprey (Cross, Silver, and Emeline) were from and Underground background because they were Blades seems like an over simplification to me. Since Blade PCs can be of any background it makes sense that NPCs should be as well. Also, when picking a background it should say something about the character. Like Petra (Canter’s friend), it made total sense that they were old friends who grew up on the street, so they’d both have a Underworld background. In the case of the Lampreys though, Silver had some pretty sophisticated magical knowledge, I could see her as an Academic. Was Cross a Bluecoat doing jobs on the side? I think varying up those background would make for more diverse NPCs and is any easy way to give them a sense of belonging in the setting, rather than being just another criminal.

Actual Play – Blades in the Dark of Nerdly (4/12/2014)

Blades in the DarkGM: Sean Nittner
Players: Colin Jessup, Matt Troedson, David Gallo, and Morgan Ellis
System: Blades in the Dark (Playtest Draft version 2.5)

John Harper is making a bad ass game about rogues in the city of Duskwall. It’s in play-test now (version 2.7 as of this post, but we were playing with a cobbling together of 1.5 and 2.5 during the game).

Thinking Nerdly Thoughts

The drive down to nerdly is a little over four hours, which gave me plenty of time to think. Unfortunately I had been reading the 2.5 draft text before going down and only really printed 1.5 at the last minute. 2.5 didn’t include much about Duskwall so I started making stuff up, based on the few thinks I knew from the player sheet. Akoros and Sevros are at war, and have been for six years. Marian, The Swordlord of Duskwall was once loved (or at least tolerated) by her people, but in the years of fighting they have turned against her. Farmers over taxed. Mothers sending their too young children off to fight. Citizens of Duskwall  tired of the same speeches and empty promises being delivered over and over again, with no respite in sight.

Many of the people have openly turned against their leader. Insubordination, mutiny, insurrection! Canter, a soldier who committed mutiny when he threw down his sword and would not lead his men to battle rots in the Irongate prison. His sentence indefinite. His sister Levyra waits for him, but she unsafe on her own. The spirits speak to her whether she wants to hear them or not. Even from behind bars though Canter tries to help. He got her work from a crooked quartermaster, Srg. Bint. A man who smuggles creature comforts into the soldiers garrisoned in Brightstone. To keep outside the watchful eye of his superiors he carries them by way of Charhollow, and always uses beggers and thieves dressed as merchants to deliver them hidden amid the munitions and stale rations.

Merrul Brime knows of the trade, some of it passes through her tavern the hooded fox. She keeps secrets for people, and hides them so they can never be stolen. Written in blue fire ink that dissolves in light or after prolonged exposure to air. Stored in jars of blue-tinted formaldehyde and only viewed in darkroom she locks he clients in while they read it. Overmuch? Probably but the idea was drifting through my head and started getting into it. Blue stained fingers and all.


Before game I set up some things to look appropriate to the genre.

Map art by Michael Tumey

I spoke a little about the game and then read the introduction text (from version 1.5) plus a small addendum based on my musings in the car.

It is the year 847 of the Imperium that united the shattered isles of the cataclysm under one rule—all glory to his majesty the Immortal Emperor.

The unquiet shades of the dead—free to roam the world since the gates of death were shattered in the cataclysm—prey on every living thing in the ink-dark deadlands between cities.

The port of Duskwall, like every city-stronghold of the Imperium, is encircled by crackling lightning-towers which create an electrical barrier that shadow-spirits cannot pass. By law, all corpses are incinerated with electroplasm (to destroy the shadow essence within). However, wealthy citizens, heretics of the spirit cults, and the criminal element often arrange for a shadow to escape destruction at the crematorium. Sale of rogue shadows and the illegal spirit essences derived from them are rich trade for the black market.

The docks of Duskwall, on the cold, windswept northern tip of Akoros, are home port for the titanic iron steamships of leviathan hunters. The blood of those massive, immortal demons is the catalyst which gives electroplasm (and a variety of other exotic substances) its potency. The noble elite of the city make their fortunes from the fleets of leviathan hunters they deploy on the night-black waters of the Never Sea.

Despite the Imperial rule, fighting still breaks out between nations. Usually the are quelled quickly but for these past six years, Akoros has warred with Severos to the south. The never ending costs of war have turned the people of Dukswall against their leader. Swordlord Marian, once loved by her people, is now reviled by them. Soldiers, hardly more than boys, head out for battle, most of them never to return.

I then played the opening music: “Furnace Room Lullabye” by Neko Case. iPhone speakers did the trick!

Creating Characters

This was probably the most fun we had. Hard choice to make (picking talents) and great stories (what you were incarcerated for). Here’s what we made:

Frost (Collin Jessup) – A soldier for Severos (usually hated in Duskwall) that defected. He was skilled in Blade-work, alchemy, physicker, and strategy, and hooked on the own alchemical concoctions he brewed. Frost knew that after the cataclysm there were still bodies that had not been incinerated were still burried north of the city. Dangerous work, grave robbing, but well worth it. At the last minute though he had been caught. Five bodies safely carried into the city, hidden in the Barrowcleft, and then caught on his way out! He served three years for his crime but knew the bodies would still be there waiting for him when he got out. A little worse for the wear maybe, but it wasn’t like they were doing that well to begin with!

Coil Haig (David Gallo) – A grifter, pick pocket and burgler who thrived on frivolous indulgences. Coil was skilled in guile, finesse, security, and appraisal, and like many of the people form Iruvia, he was a sly bastard. Coil had been in Irongate for a brief stint for trying to impersonate a merchant on the night market named Taffer. He was selling fake Night Lilies to someone with wealth when the real Taffer showed up. It went downhill from there.

Cross (Matt Troedson) – A blood mage from the Dagger Isles. His people traffic in blood magic and opium (often in combination) and he was a trafficker of both. Cross was a Whisper skilled with talents of channel, sight, tempest, and awareness. Cross was the kind of guy that looked like he was high all the time. Glassy eyed and unfocused, but that was just because he was using the sight to see into the other realms. Realms of horror and spirit.  Cross was the only one of the gang that was actually innocent. He didn’t want to work for the Dimmer Sisters so they framed him and let him take the fall for another job they did. Nice ladies.

Thena (Morgan Ellis) – A merciless scrapper and native to Duskwall, Thena was a sharp woman with talents in balde-work, reflexes, streetwise, and athletics. She had a weakness for beautiful ladies though, and got put in the Irongate for assaulting (really just fish-hooking) a ship captain that was putting the moves on her woman. When Thena got out she just wanted to have a night of drinking and debauchery, and the follow it up with finishing the job she had started on that smuggler.

Situation Setup

We mapped some districts and some distinct features of Duskwall. The poorest district Charhallow, where they made charcoal (we were playing next to a campfire, so the smoke helped evoke the choking cough most of the resident exhibited) that wrapped around Dunslough (better off only because they had a cistern that stored the city’s water). East of that was Barrowcleft, on the edge of the old barrows north of the city (previously a graveyard, but not all of the bodies, or at least most of the bodies, have been exhumed). East of that, invisible to the rest of the city behinds it’s tall stone walls was Brightstone, where the garrison was posted. The island tip to the south called Crows Foot was remarkable because it as both run by a powerful criminal organization The Unseen and because it hosted Irongate prison. Not ironic at all to the thieves.

The players were give three options for their starting selection and chose this one:

The criminal boss of this ward, Scurlock, was recently 3. killed and no one has stepped forward to lead his gang or seize control of the ward. There are a few likely candidates, including his murderer and former partner, Roric; the secretive Dimmer Sisters; and the Skovlander, Ulf Ironborn. Until a boss is named, most fences won’t operate in the ward, and the City Watch are off their bribes and looking to crack skulls and make their jail quota. But hey, no one is ordering you around, huh? Since you’re on your own without any higher-ups to pay a share to, each PC starts with 6d of wealth.

Here was what our map looked like after we were done with it.

Map art by Michael Tumey

The Play is the Thing

Set up, we jumped into play. And this is where I realized I didn’t know what I was doing. Do I ask them about their world and see where I can apply pressure Apocalypse World style? That probably would have been a good thing.  Or do I present them with some threat or situation to deal with and see how the react? That might also have worked pretty well. But instead , I gave them a “you’re all in the Hooded Fox” and watched to see which thread they would take interest in.

The trouble being that there were so many. Each character had some unfinished business related to the crime that got them put away in the first place, and there was also Canter and his system, and her connections with the crooked quartermaster, and there was a power struggle between three factions. There were just targets everywhere and I did’t really bring any of them in particular alive.

At least not a first. As they talked I found ways to ramp up some tension. Guests that overheard them getting up and walking out. Those same guests moving as those animated and when examined by Cross, clearly dead bodies inhabited by spirits.

After some time a plan unfolded. Turn Ulf Ironborn, the necromancer against the Dimmer Sisters blood mages in a bloody war and when they had both destroyed each other, step in and take over Charhallow. Ambitious little fuckers!

But even with that plan I didn’t think I gave them enough. I hadn’t provided enough moving pieces (or asked enough questions to figure out where those moving pieces were) so instead of seeking out ways to infiltrate the respective leader’s domains, they walked right in to make them an offer (one they had just made up).

As were were limited on time I granted each group (they split up) audiences with the leaders relatively easily and then let them ply their trade. Ulf wanted bodies to replace the ones Frost and Thena had destroyed (they cut them up and dropped them in the river), or as he said it, homes for his friends. The Dimmer Sisters though, they wanted servitude. Branding your chest, working with other thieves from their roster, and injection of their blood to control a man’s humors should they desire (this was a roll of 3 on a Desperate Gamble to convince them, all kinds of bad).

All in all though it looked like their plans were working (of a sort) but after a week of putting this all into motion, and without any small jobs to help pay the bills most of them couldn’t keep up. Thena was thrown back in Irongate for vagrancy but a guard looking to hit his quota. Coil was hankering for some of the good life and was distracted by the lack of all that which shiny and aged 18 years or more.  Paying bills is a bitch!

Thoughts on this game

It kind of killed me that it was only in the end (after the first week) that I felt like the gears were really moving. We hoped to get in another session but that’s tough to do at Nerdly. I think if we had, the would have realized their “long con” was going to take some smaller jobs to help fun, and in I could have used their new connections with (the Dimmer Sisters and Ulf) to both offer them opportunities and cause complications (what if they were seen together? what if their new patron was testing them and sending them into a trap?). Also, we could have seen some of the personal agenda’s roll out. I wanted to see Thena get her drinking and wenching on. I wanted to see Frost try to recover those same bodies he got put Irongate for three years for.

I was a bit torn on how to handle the corrupt quartermaster. I had intend to introduce him as someone to give them a small job (sneaking contraband to the soldiers) and take the job or not that would be a window into the war. Without knowing what he was moving though, the group decided it has to be weapons and armor, which it wasn’t at all. They never quite got to the “lets all jack Sgt. Bint’s carriage” stage but I was trying to figure out if I should a) encourage them to learn more about it before they did, b) allow them to knock it over and find things like letters from loved ones, smutty rags, and drugs instead, or c) ret-conned it in my head and have him be moving weapons all along.  Wasn’t sure what would be best for the story, but I knew that what I wanted was for the characters to get dirty, have to live in the muck for a bit in order to see how to climb out of it.

I didn’t use guilds because a) I wanted to see the characters start off with nothing and b) because I didn’t want to introduce a new rules set into the game when I was still learning the basics. I’m not sure if doing so might have helped give them some directions, or if it would have felt like another piece to try and figure out where it fits in the fiction and in the mechanics.

Torchbearer in particular has made me very aware that you need to realize where to set the bar when gaming. How heroic are these characters? What is possible in this world. I think the wealth mechanics (rolling at the end of every week) was my best teacher here. You’ve gotta work to stay alive and fed! I’d very much like to play again and depict those pressures as being very alive and present.

Trust in first principles! I think I could have gotten things moving much faster (and smoother) but asking more questions up front. How did you guys get together? Was it in the click? What job did you agree you were going to do when you got out? Which if you notices that Merrul’s fingers are blue when you know perfectly that formaldehyde you smell would dye them yellow? You know, those kinds of questions.

A note on dice pools. I was very liberal letting the players use their national traits (everything Thena did was sharp, etc) because the dice pools seemed very low. We tried a few 0 dice rolls (rolling 2d6 and taking the lowest number) which all went poorly. Net result: I was definately a fan of making tasks doable without rolls, having them roll a Display of Skill whenever it felt like something they should be doable, using Risky Maneuvers when my gut told me it would be tough, and only using Desperate Gambles on the one roll that I thought was insane. My barometer at least.

One cool rule we made up: The first time you draw your blade, you have to describe it. We had some wicked sounding knives!