As a Game Master, I handle things one way: I perpetually over-prepare. I try to plan for every possible outcome and do everything in my power to keep the story relatively on track. I write up some key beats that need to happen and some sample dialogue for NPCs to use. In a numbers-heavy system, I have stats written up for just about everything (I have created stats for a door once, just so you understand where I’m coming from with this).
Being super prepared falls squarely in my wheelhouse; it’s how I handle a lot of things in my life to help mitigate my anxiety. It’s just my go-to method for dealing with the world.
Then Blades in the Dark by John Harper came along. My friend Mark was kind enough to gift me several game books that they thought I’d find interesting. Blades is the one that really stuck out to me. Set in a fallen fantasy setting in which the gates between the worlds of the living and dead have been shattered, Blades takes place in the eternal nighttime of Doskvol, a Venice-like, canal-laced city with Industrial-era London technology. Oh, and it’s also haunted. Extremely haunted. Beyond the demon-blood-powered lightning barrier lies the Void Sea, inky and dark, which is teeming with malicious spirits and massive demons called Leviathans.
Now if that setting didn’t win you over (and I don’t know how it could fail to), know that the basics of the game are that you’re a baby street gang, trying to work your way up to fortune and power in the ever-dark city of Doskvol, pulling all sorts of daring jobs or fighting rival gangs for turf. I saw this and immediately offered to run a one-shot in this system for some friends. It was a heist job in a trap-filled mansion and, in my usual style, I over-prepared. I scripted some of the dialogue, provided maps, and had written out the traps and puzzles that I was presenting to my crew. Everyone had such a great time with this system that they asked to turn it into a campaign.
So here I am. And now that I’m running a longer campaign, I’ve abandoned my over-preparing ways. Why? Because that’s not in the spirit of how Blades is supposed to run. This game is more about a running conversation between myself and the players and it’s not up to me to decide what jobs they pull – they get to choose. So while I can come with some ideas for heists or goals, it’s ultimately their choice what they pursue in a game session and it’s my job to be flexible and willing to just improv like I’ve never done before.
And it’s terrifying, you guys. I’m not the person who gets stage fright, but before my first session, I was a nervous wreck. See, this is a fail forward system, meaning that a bad roll of the dice doesn’t stop the action, but rather moves the story forward with some degree of consequences. And it is the consequences that make this game interesting. There’s an improv game called Yes And, in which actors must go along with everything that their fellow actors pretend to be true on stage and never negate that truth. I think of Blades as a Yes But game – yes, you can do the thing you tried to do, but there could be a cost that goes along with your success.
There are also very few numbers and not a ton of dice rolls in this system. There’s almost never an opposed roll; rather, the player rolls and the results they get determine how well they do, how bad any consequences are, and how all of the NPCs around them fair in relation to the player characters. The game can be a little clunky at first – there are a LOT of rules. But they all make a kind of intuitive sense with a little practice. John Harper created a truly beautiful game here and I’m so excited that I get to play in this world.