Advice for running Blades in the Dark

My 13yo son started a Blades in the Dark campaign, and he’s loving the system, but is running into a couple issues. He says:

  • My players don’t want to take stress to push themselves or do a Devil’s bargain. I offer, but no one ever takes it.
  • One of my players demands jobs that are way out of their league. (Like assassinating the emperor.)
  • They keep using the same action (e.g. Hunt) for every roll. I can play with the positioning or effect, but they just want to use the actions they have the highest rating in. (I encouraged him to put them in situations where Hunt wouldn’t make sense.)

I haven’t run the system myself, so I gave him some advice, but perhaps someone with more experience running Blades has some suggestions for him.


Your son sounds awesome and these are really great questions. Here are my thoughts on it:

  • If they’re not pushing themselves or taking DBs, then they are reducing their probabilities of success. Nothing the GM needs to do on this, as they are complicating their lives all on their own that way!
  • So this is where Tier is an issue: they’ll constantly be desperate with zero effect (hey they’ll have to push themselves). Elsewise they’ll need to do a lot of resource gathering and power base building to get to a position to make an attempt on the Immortal Emperor, and that sounds like a fantastic campaign premise to me.
  • Right, if they’re using action ratings for things that don’t make sense (e.g. using Hunt trying to convince somebody to give them information), then it’s zero effect. But this may be a question of the players not understanding what “fiction-first” means. This is the sort of issue you can’t fix with game mechanics, like the others, because unlike those the problem exists entirely with their approach to the game - a social problem, if you will.

I hope these help and please feel free to post any follow-up questions he might give you!


For the issue with Stress and Devil’s Bargains, it sounds like he isn’t hard enough with his Consequences and/or is too giving with Position and Effect. If the players don’t want to expend their Stress or take Devil’s Bargains, then there must be very little danger. He might make Clocks shorter so their effects are felt sooner, increase Consequences or just reassess Position and Effect to make the world a bit more dire. It’s also important to communicate that Stress is not HP — there’s a Harm track for that. Stress is a tool for the players to help game the system, actually, and mess with the mechanics that the GM is bound by. Devil’s Bargains are a way to keep the narrative dynamic and shifting and helps the GM move the levers on the world in the background (sometimes bringing those effects to the foreground, esp. when there are Clocks involved).

For Engagements outside of the Crew’s league, let them do it. Firstly, the Crew should decide on Engagements together and then, if they all agree to assassinate the emperor, let them. They may need to do some missions first to get the fictional positioning for that to make sense in the narrative and to be mechanically able to assassinate an emperor, but there’s no reason they can’t. It sounds like he and his players need a refresher on Tier and how that affects the mechanics of the game. And I really would suggest taking that request and breaking it down into smaller missions that add up to an assassination (which may, correctly, take many sessions).

For the Hunt Action, I agree with clarifying situations where that Action doesn’t make sense, but, in the end, players get to decide which Action they’re rolling. The only recourse, really, he has is to make the Position/Effect Desperate/Limited; that’s the clearest way to communicate the inappropriateness of the Action — even on a critical, they hardly accomplish anything with Limited Effect (and that would probably encourage them to take Stress or a Devil’s Bargain in order to increase Effect…)

ETA: extra emphasis on zero effect! I forgot about it during my response!


I feel like all the advice here pretty much has it covered, but I want to double-emphasize that “Zero Effect” is a thing, and you can absolutely use it to remind people of Tier and/or drive home that an action isn’t appropriate, but really, the problem in the last part is a lack of understanding.

Consider suggesting that if they say “I want to roll hunt!” that the GM could reply, “Tell us what you are doing, and how that is Hunting.”


This is really the main thing I’m taking away from this thread. :laughing:


Some great points raised already, my responses are a bit more focused on player experience, because I’ve not actually run Blades, though have now played quite a few FitD games including Blades. And hats off to your lad, both for grappling with Blades in the first place (it’s an intimidating game!) and for considering it thoughtfully.

  • I can sometimes be a bit conservative when it comes to pushing rolls, so I can understand this. There’s always a temptation to save your reserves for when it “really counts”. Also, I like to play with a bit of risk :sweat_smile: Another way to get the stress flowing a bit more freely might be to remind and encourage people to use the Teamwork moves. I always find these appealing, because they are more efficient than pushing yourself, and feel a bit more fictionally rewarding as well. They let you show your character being cool without having to roll dice!
    Devil’s Bargains are a bit of a dark art. While they should complicate things, if they’re worse than a consequence would be, there’s little point to take them, especially as you also have the opportunity to resist a consequence. The real trick is to make them something that the player wants to see happen, even if it’s technically against the player’s interest. (Certainly when playing with people who are more into the narrative, anyway). Having nemeses turn up, or weird spooky stuff tend to be more appealing calls! I’m always a bit more averse about ones that are just like “tick a clock”.

  • This is where it might be worth checking in with your players about what parts of the game interest them. I’m a big fan of both little sub-systems in games, and I love old street-punk-to-mob-boss gangster films. So the core Tier 0 to Tier 5 slog in Blades really appeals to me. But if your players want to turn it all the way up to Ocean’s 11, and are more interested in just doing big over-the-top heists against the rich and powerful, then it might be worth ditching the Tier system entirely, or starting them off higher up the pecking order.

  • Perhaps my most controversial one, but I think in Blades you always should be trying to roll with your highest actions. It’s a game about expertise and skill, and you should always be looking for ways to work a situation to your advantage. For this to tell a good story, it requires the player to put some thought into their actions rather than just say “I roll Hunt”, but as a GM you shouldn’t really be looking for ways to block them from doing what they’re good at. Placing them in a situation where they have to do something they’re not good at is a great consequence or complication, but it should never be the opening position for something. And this goes for the players’ approach as well. Failure in Blades is punishing, and I don’t think it’s as interesting to set yourself up for failure as it is in, say, a PbtA game. Players should always be aiming to do what they do best - and being smart and creative to position themselves so they can.


While it’s important to play to your strengths in Blades, it’s more important that the action rating used correspond at least vaguely to the fictional action being taken, or you’re not playing the game anymore.

My read of the OP was that since the players had permission to “pick which action they were using” and they were kids, they were probably just picking their highest action all the time regardless of the fiction.

In fact, I kinda conflicted about your third point. Yes, it’s important to “try to roll your highest actions” but that should be in the sense of “Try to do things in the fiction that allow you to roll your highest actions” rather than “Try to use your highest actions whenever you can even vaguely think of a justification for doing so.” and I think saying “Try to use your highest actions” without specifying further can be confusing and give people the wrong idea.


One kid in particular (with whom we’ve been playing games for years) is the kind of player who likes hitting one note again and again.

One thing I encouraged my son to do is to lean into the crew’s strengths. So, they all have high Hunt ratings… maybe give them jobs where there’s more tracking and trailing. I also suggested that he loosen his interpretation of what “Hunt” means. Otherwise, that one player is going to keep wanting to snipe everyone from the rooftop.

My son is also wondering about letting the players redistribute their action scores, now that they’re all more familiar with the game. There are three players and they’re all heavily invested in Hunt and Prowl, so the crew isn’t well-balanced.


I’m a big fan of letting people change up their characters once they know what’s going on – that works well in just about any system, really, so if they want to diversify, let them. And definitely encourage your son to check out what the book has to say about Hunt – all of page 174 is devoted to different uses and stuff of the Action. But at the end of the day, it shouldn’t really be about “giving them jobs that feature trailing and tracking” – the players should be the ones picking the jobs and picking how they approach them. Of course there’s a feedback loop there – no one hires a group famous for sniping people off rooftops to plant forged documents for blackmail.

But maybe consider giving them situations in which say, they want to learn something that someone knows, so if they just shoot him, they don’t get that info?


One thing I do a lot of when a player uses their highest rating for a lot of stuff is to sit back and give it a chance: “Okay, walk me through it, what are you thinking?”

I’ve had a Whisper come up with some seriously cool stuff on account of that. Like the time she led a televangelism spiel for her cult’s god via the ghost field.


I wonder if John Harper or Sean Nittner saw this thread because: