How to deal with Heist game lack of continuity? (Sprawl, Monster of the Week, Blades in the Dark)


#1

There are some games designed for a very episodic gameplay.
Examples are like Sprawl, Monster of the Week:
You are in place A, doing a job, after job is done characters enter the void and we see them in place B doing another job.

As storygamers me and my friends love character stories, personal plots of something happening to character friends and rivals and organisations. Unless those people appear on the job, characters have no opportunity to interact with them.
Yes we could start playing in those moments but that would make the game design invalid because said games are about doing the job, but … the character background sometimes demands and really needs more attention.
Short example: Initiate learns that there is a spy in his Sect and unless the Monster hunt takes place around his Sect HQ he cannot do anything about it.

With Forged in the Dark games the problem is also present but slightly different. This games give us the ‘free play’ but are notorious bad about telling us what should happen there and with action rolls designed to start a snowball effect as soon as you start rolling the dice you start a snowball of problem in free-play, you burn stress to avoid that then you are with nothing left for the heist, but the game is about doing the heist yes?
Short example: We went to make a contact and get a job, we had to deal with difficulties about getting to the contact, one of us had to take level3 harm before the job started (he knowingly pushed the difficulty of the roll to desperate for a great effect).

So here is my question.
How do you deal with lack of continuity in heist games?

Love letters, custom moves, narrating the scenes with no dice?


#2

The key part to these games is that they are fiction first. If you can’t fictionally explain why the harm is there, you need to reinterpret what’s going on in the flashback.

Generally I will just ask my players to help us realign the fiction, retcon or keeping vague as needed, but if you prefer and bigger things are afoot or you’re unsure of outcomes, use the mechanics written: Love letters and fortune rolls are your tools for this!


#3

For Blades in the Dark and similar games, I used a couple of solutions.

One is about which heists the PCs take on. I always give the PCs a choice of at least three jobs they could do at any time. I describe the job and the factions involved with it (and the factions that would be impacted by it). Then the players can make character-driven choices about which job to do.

For things that you want to be addressed in downtime, you can call it a long-term project (with a clock), treat the complication as a single roll (imposing consequences as appropriate, which can be resisted), or just throw Coin at the problem. You don’t have to impose the “you’re in a worse situation” result.

Finally, if the thing is getting to be large and interesting to the players, make dealing with it the next job!


#4

It’s not the most insightful advice, but in my game of The Sprawl, we just sort of naturally ended up playing with a loosely defined “downtime” section, where we played out people’s personal lives and dramas between the scores. Some rule specifics required some on the fly reinterpretation, like you don’t have the Legwork or Action clocks active to start ticking on, but it was never a big problem.

We also mostly got our jobs from recurring clients and they ended up playing into a larger overarching narrative, which helped some too.

So, I guess my not so helpful advice is, if your group wants to play out parts of the fiction that don’t happen during the jobs, just go ahead and make that a thing. The job structure is still there when it comes time for that, and nothing’s really ruined in the process.


#5

For Blades in the Dark, I suggest minimizing high-stakes Free Play. I think you can cover everything that has meaningful stakes in:

  • Downtime (for spent coin)
  • Flashbacks (for spent stress)
  • Scores (with all the pressure and risk that comes with being on the job).

Splitting things up this way keeps the stakes and cost of actions clear from moment to moment.

The other thing I would suggest is really using the Claims sheet. It can provide a strong sense of continuity and player control to the game: like a map of your gang’s past and future.


#6

I guess the question really is how do we keep the overall story in those mission focused games personal, character driven. I’ll assume for the sake of this response that it would require character subplots.
Some of these games make it difficult by their premise (Monster of the Week) which doesn’t leave place for developing personal subplots. That can be worked around (like, we know there is a traitor in the Sect, so the next hunt WILL be the Initiate’s “featured episode” taking place around or inside HQ; or next episode the hunt is more than we can handle, so we work with the Sect’s forces and the Initiate’s friend suspects the spy is here with them) but the problem is with the fact the game generates such issues but doesn’t help solving them.
Then there are games where mechanically enforced structure stops us from developing subplots. Of the ones mentioned I’ve only played Blades, so I’ll focus on it. BitD is built around a system of resources, like Stress, Harm, Coin and number of Downtime actions. As @Michael already pointed out, all possible (personal) actions that have proper stakes (and therefore can bring tangible benefits) can be covered by downtime.
My own analysis of the game concludes that letting players achieve things for free (with fortune rolls, as suggested by @EricVulgaris) would break it. So, we are left with expending resources and that’s where things get bad. We are using the same resources (Downtime actions and Coin) for “maintanance” (Vices, Healing, reducing Heat) and Long-term Projects (only legitimate way to have a subplot where you achieve things, as you could maybe build one from interactions in Healing and Vices alone?). When faced with possibility of losing the character through Stress or Harm players will generally expend resources on maintanance rather then subplots. And if they roll poorly they are likely to be left with no other choice time and again. Forgoing subplots for survival doesn’t seem very conducive of a “story first” play.
How to fix it? In my eyes, impossible without hacking. And if we get to it we might as well pick a different game (e.g. Impulse Drive, which is deeply endebted to FitD games but has looser structure and lets players work on their long-term projects/subplots in regular play).


#7

Supernatural, as a road trip show, still managed to get recurring characters that didn’t have Winchester as their last name. Other hunters are mobile, Bobby’s important enough to make the drive, Bela was as nomadic as the brothers, Castiel could teleport, third-string recurring characters have access to phones, etc. And if your MotW game is less roaming, you can build up a bunch of NPCs for your hunters to interact with, like what happens with the Dresden Files. You’re still doing the moves, but the faces are faces you’ve met before and I think when used alongside new characters it brings a nice lived-in feel to a campaign.

With Blades in the Dark, everyone is trapped inside Duskwall and each PC and the crew itself has a list of contacts, friends, and rivals. That’s like 15-25 NPCs at your beck and call that can work for rival factions, have background with the crew, get into trouble, know about potential scores, be running cons of their own, etc. You could probably run a great Blades game if you only ever used names from those contact lists.


#8

For starters, as others have pointed out, there’s a part of the game that’s free play to do these story games things you want without being in the downtime cycle. I’m trying to be sympathetic here but it feels like I just don’t know how your sessions go. I hear your suspicion and it’s valid. Something somewhere makes you sense this constricting style of play. It’s frustrating that I can’t help as much as I’d like. I can only speak from my vantage point running games and watching them and this has never happened before in those games. But I’m listening.

Also I just wanna say Players getting things for free isn’t exactly right. The games are fiction first. If they did something that gave them a friend in the right time or the right position before I call for a roll and they don’t have to roll… That’s not being easy. That’s good preparedness and fictional positioning by the player.