Prep for Blades in the Dark

I would like to try a game with less prep than what I am running right now (D&D). Blades in the Dark seems really exciting to me, but I am a little worried because as I understand there is virtually no prep - the players can decide to run any hit they imagine. I am fine with improvisation, as long as I have some information to base the game off. If the party makes a run and I don’t even have a plan of the target, I would be pretty worried. Can you share how your prep looks for the game? Should I have a bunch of of maps prepared, so I can just pull out one and then fill the details with random results from the tables? Or are there some better practices for that?

3 Likes

There are so many tables — you could generate every single street and inhabitant in Duskwall with the tables in the book. Don’t do that, though!

Your idea that the players could run any hit they imagine is really not true: they begin as a tier 0 group and it is a slow climb to each successive tier. Remember your factions and magnitude! If your foolhardy group wants to tackle a higher tier score, you don’t need prep because you could say something like “you can’t get even get in the front door with your secondhand lockpicks.” Or, if somehow they finagle the narrative to really get themselves in trouble, consequences also scale exponentially: they just might not be able to resist death, if not severe-almost-deadly harm from someone/thing three or more tiers above them. Their careers could be over before they even got started.

Now if you’re looking to pace your sessions so you can improv simpler scores and also feel out what your players want re: bigger scores (i.e. something you’d want to prep for), you can do that with their downtime actions and free play rolls (gather information, etc.).
Find out what they want to do and just put obstacles in their way. The first one is their tier — that‘s baked in. The second is information: the players don’t need to plan out each detail of a score, but they do need to plan out wtf they’re doing in Duskwall! Don’t throw planning out of the window because there are flashbacks: those are just to avoid the minutiae of executing scores and to prevent the story from absolutely grinding to a halt.

Finally, don’t forget clocks. Clocks tie everything together in BitD. Players have an idea for a big score? They’ll need to spend downtime actions on a long term project or two, probably. In the meantime, easier scores and offscreen prep time for you. A big score could also be the result of some linked clocks, maybe each of which culminates in a smaller score (that’s easier to improvise or something you’ve had a week or two to cook up), all of which culminates in the blockbuster score.

Sorry there’s no prep advice here, really, but I would just do another slow read of that book and then just jump into it. Take it slow: don’t worry about position/effect and teach the rules to the players reactively. Use the campaign starter idea from the book (it’s trite but good — it works well to integrate the factions [you cannot forget about the factions] and appropriately place the players’ crew in the setting). Use the die of fate a lot.

ETA: also the crew type will guide what the players are doing a lot of the time! If they pick assassins, they’re gonna want to assassinate, you know?

7 Likes

A lot of what @darren is saying.

Here is what prep looks like for me.

Session 0 / Everyone write the CATS together. The whole crew creation aspect is the start to identify what we as a group want the game to be about. That is our base that we continually touch back on.

Stars & Wishes at the end of every session. This rolls perfectly into the end of session xp rewards. After looking over the session we just played, what do we all want to see next? “We really want to get involved with the war in Crow’s Foot” / “Have a social score with a lot of veiled threats at a ball” / “Get more involved with supernatural elements”, etc.

It’s also not an either-or, it’s cool to have a score in mind and at the beginning of a session do the “hey, do we have a an idea of how/what your crew is going to be up to for today’s session? let’s talk about what that might look like and figure out a score together” and, at the same time, have a score in mind that you are interested in having “I got something, if you are interested, you know your contact Moriya, the spirit trafficker? yeah, she is approaching you with an offer of…”

Ideally, all your players have some ambition what kind of stories they want to see with their character and ideally, you also have things you are interested in. You can use Devil’s Bargains and consequences to set up the kinds of scores and stories you want to tell but outside of that be hands-off and let the players’ ambitions drive where things go… this creates a back and forth between everyone at the table and you get a dynamic where no one single person is steering the arc of your overall story.

It’s a fascinating and invigorating way to play!

6 Likes

The way Blades was run for me, and the way I ran Scum and Villainy, was that the GM would throw out some hooks for possible jobs - “You’ve heard about this score”, “A contact has something in mind that’s like this”, “You’ve noticed there’s an opportunity over here” - with some idea of what that job would look like, then see what the players go for and prep that in more detail. At the end of the sessions I would ask if there’s anything in particular they wanted to look for and I’d prepare something that would fit with that if I came up with an idea for it.

Also keep in mind that, at least the way I ran it, prepping a job mostly consisted of a short one-sentence description of the job in general, names and a couple of details on the people most likely to be involved, the tier of the resistance, and a couple of surprises that would be bigger if they hadn’t spent much time investigating the job beforehand. If you’re used to running improv-heavy games you can probably do this on the fly, but I like to at least do the names in advance.

6 Likes

I agree with Anders and with part of Mathias; Important things to remember:

  • The players are almost never going to go for a “random” score – sure, it might happen occasionally, but these are the exceptions. The players are going to want to go after things that they are “incentivized” to go after – whether that’s attacking someone they really hate, helping out someone who they want to get onto the good side of (or someone who is paying well) or going after a specific target/object because it has some particular significance to them. As a result, the list of “potential scores” isn’t as large as it seems, and you can “lead” them by offering tempting/interesting targets.
  • You can definitely use the random tables to help with the “random score” stuff if it does come up, but I didn’t find them to be that valuable overall.
  • Consider structuring your sessions as Downtime --> Score --> Planning --> End of session instead of Planning --> Score --> Downtime --> End of session, because this will allow you some time to figure out some more details about the potential target. (Note: “planning” here isn’t “planning the score” it’s “figuring out what the score IS and maybe ‘how’.”)
  • Do some research/prep around different types of buildings and locations. What does a wealthy person’s townhouse in Brightstone look like? What about a tenement in Crow’s foot? A counting house in Nightmarket? Having an idea of the sorts of PLACES scores might take place in was the hardest part for me, so anything you can do to figure out in advance what sorts of locations are being presented will probably be helpful.
7 Likes

Thanks a lot for all the responses, these are very useful!

I ran a short campaign of BitD over the summer and had a blast. As GM you have a lot of scope to shape the direction of the game just by how you describe things.

I won’t repeat the excellent advice above, but here are two key tips I found incredibly helpful.

  1. Due to the dice pool mechanic a roll of 4/5 success with complications is the most frequent result. Especially early on, I found being lenient was really important. If you hit them with too harsh a complication, harm, etc they feel like they are failing all the time especially with new characters. 4/5 is a success and it should feel like a success, it’s just other stuff happens too. Cut them a bit of slack when you can, the same goes with down time and recoveries. They won’t start with a doctor ally, so healing can be agonisingly slow and costly. Maybe arrange for them to ally a physician early on. You’re there to exercise your discretion, it’s not a computer game.

  2. The game doesn’t give much in the way of advice about harm. Basically you set the harm arbitrarily based on the capability, preparedness and danger of the threat. He’s stabbing at your face for level 2 harm, what are you going to do about it? Minor harm accumulates to worse effects quickly, and level 2 hard imposes a -1D on all actions. However don’t pull all your punches. They can take a solid hit or two on their armour.

5 Likes

I do very little prep for my Blades in the Dark campaign.

  • Before the game, I take a look at any existing faction project clocks and tick them forward as appropriate, plus make a note about how that information might reach the players (1 or 2 sentences for each). Based on this, I might tweak the factions’ tier and hold a bit.
  • I also re-read the group’s danger clocks, each of which has a short summary (e.g. “A spirit well surges into reality”) and, if needed, the notes I wrote about it when I created it. These notes are at most a paragraph long. This step just refreshes my memory and doesn’t result in any immediate action. But it helps me make sure that these things are in my mind as we get going.
  • When the game starts, I ask one of the players to summarize last week’s heist. Since I have a semi-open table (6 players in the group, but only 3-5 in each session), this also helps any players who might not have been present.
  • My group likes about an hour or so of free play, and during that time they are figuring out which story threads they want to pursue that night and what sorts of scores that could lead to. This is when I start musing on what these scores could entail. But they tell me what score they want to run.
  • Once they’ve decided, we take a short break for 5-10 minutes while we get drinks, take care of any other necessary matters, and I envision the locale and what sorts of challenges they might encounter. This is part of the game play, not prep outside of the game!
  • During the heist, I improvise based on what makes sense for what they’re doing and whatever dangers they create. These mostly come from the complications or Devil’s Bargains when they don’t get a 6 on their rolls. Heists last 30-90 minutes, usually.
  • Afterward, we do the wrap-up stuff as a group. Payoff/Entanglement portions could result in progressing certain story elements, for example. Then they each go through their downtime phases, sort of “out loud” so people can collaborate and solicit ideas. I walk everyone through the Crew XP, where I have final say but that’s usually academic anyway. Everyone does their XP questions out loud, where they individually have final say but often want to ask for input. This section takes 30-45 minutes.
  • Larger decisions (e.g. which crew advancements to take) are food for discussion during the week in a text (Discord) chat room, where I put any pending questions to the group and help them reach consensus. These decisions are completely theirs, though I might give advice based on mechanics or reminders of what they’d previously said they might like.

The total game is generally 3-4 hours, typically to the shorter end of that. My time outside of the game is well under an hour, and at least half of that is tech setup because we stream our game on Twitch.

Hope this helps give you some ideas on one way to do it. By no means am I suggesting this is “THE way”, but after several months of play, it is what we have found works for us at the moment.

5 Likes

Once they’ve decided, we take a short break for 5-10 minutes while we get drinks, take care of any other necessary matters, and I envision the locale and what sorts of challenges they might encounter. This is part of the game play, not prep outside of the game!

Wow, I would be very nervous to envision the whole location on the spot. Are you able to have sufficient amount of details and logic tied to the location you envision? Or is the game more forgiving to having only most important parts of a location and the group can coast over less important parts?

It would actually be great if I could skip less important parts. I am in the middle of Curse of Strahd and both I and my group are somewhat tired of bathrooms and iron tubs with little consequence :frowning:

BitD is a heist movie: you only need onscreen what the PCs and NPCs are gonna use. Everything is Chekhov’s Gun.

5 Likes

You don’t need a detailed room-by-room map, just a sense of what kind of place it is. At least the way I play it.

2 Likes

Yes and no.

You definitely don’t need a map, but at the same time, if you have players who want to do some sort of “room by room” sweep of a property looking for valuables, you’ll need a combination of sense of space and sense of defenses.

I’m sure someone will now say “Just use a clock”; That’s one answer, but not one I like. Clocks are very nice as a way of tracking abstract progress, but using them for this sort of thing tends to make everything too abstract – instead of feeling like they are exploring a well guarded warehouse, the players feel like they’re just trying to fill the clock. I like clocks better for stuff like time and alert levels. I think they’re a little too simplistic for exploring a location.

3 Likes

To me, Blades just isn’t a room-by-room type of game.

If the players want to spend time (which they may or may not be able to do without compromising the core mission) looking for extra loot, have them make a roll for it. If they roll well, they find whatever extras you have set up in advance as optional finds or what you in the moment think is reasonable.

Personally, I don’t see the value in describing individual rooms and cupboards and lockboxes under beds or whatever when the focus of the game isn’t on that kind of detail. I’m not telling you how to play your game, but to me Blades and S&V are games about tense and action-filled heists, not plotting out movement down corridors and opening individual doors. But to each their own!

2 Likes

I just can’t make that work; What do you describe? How do you stop them from asking “what’s on the other side of the door?”

The PCs are presumably looking for something specific, which is in a specific place. No, you don’t want them to “dungeon crawl” to find it, but these buildings only have like 3-4 rooms in most cases anyway. Yes, if they are exploring a whole mansion or something, there’s probably some rolling involved, but most of the areas scores take place in, when you’re talking about a cramped, highly urban area, are not sprawling easily abstracted complexes.

And yes, sometimes a roll for “incidental loot” is a good idea, but I feel that’s neither here nor there with regard to describing specific places with specific defenses.

2 Likes

The short version is “yeah, we make it up as we go based on what’s interesting”.

The longer version is that I’ve found moving away from my traditional “dungeon crawling” methods has been really good for me. After years of trad D&D, I have a good sense for what kinds of “dangers” (traps, monsters, environmental hazards, etc.) to throw at them, and it depends on what they are asking or doing.

Saturday night, they decided to steal something from the Ministry of Preservation. This represented a significant moment in a long-running story thread, so for a long time I’d already envisioned a squat government building with a vault underneath it. That’s all I had to go on when I asked them their entry point. They asked a few questions and I answered about how the guard numbers and alertness were increased (partly due to a district-wide riot they’d just helped incite for other reasons). They settled on trying to rappel from a building across the street, and the Engagement roll was in their favor.

So when they got in, I described the office in which they’d landed, assuming they’d go out the door and down a stairway. Nope, they asked if there was a dumbwaiter. That sounds fun, sure, but instead of leading to a kitchen area like they thought, I had it go to a file room. When they asked about exits, I gave them the choice of a door where they could hear footsteps or another door that had an electroplasmic barrier in front of a secure lift. I had an 8-clock called “Full Alert” that I’d tick as a complication or Devil’s Bargain as well.

So really, I followed the PbtA principles of “ask questions and use the answers”. We kept going from there, of course, based on the list of “possible complications” I’d written up during our drink break: guards, vault doors, arcane wards, etc.

3 Likes

I think this is largely a question of playstyle and player and GM habits. Note that everything below is my own tentative understanding, it’s somewhat abbreviated, and mostly, like, just my opinion, man. :slight_smile:

One of the big differences between PbtA-style gaming (using the term very broadly and not about PbtA specifically) and more trad gaming (ditto) is that the former places the emphasis on what the player characters are trying to achieve where the latter emphasizes what they are doing.

In the latter framework, the focus is on the (for lack of a better word) physical actions of the characters in the game world. As a very rough analogy, the game functions as a physics simulator where the players push individual marbles around and the way those marbles bounce against each other determines the outcome. If you open the door, whatever happens when you open the door happens - a guard notices someone opening the door, the players spot the guard, and so on.

In the former framework, the focus is on the intent, the goal, rather than the individual activity. When the player asks what’s behind the door and describe how they’re sneaking down the corridor, a reasonable response from the GM is “what are you trying to do?”, as in “what goal are you trying to achieve?” rather than to describe what pieces of furniture there are to hide behind and how many doors are on either side of the hallway.

With the goal oriented playstyle, you don’t need to describe every room and doorway because on a fundamental level that’s not what’s important. It may be important that the rooms are dark and cramped (in case the characters need to hide or a fight breaks out) but the exact layout typically doesn’t matter.

In both playstyles the players describe what they do and the GM calls for rolls and describes how the world responds, but there’s a pretty big difference between how the world responds to individual physical actions (as in the trad gamestyle) and a character making a roll to achieve a goal.

1 Like

I hear what you are saying, and I feel like I am doing most of that, but when in a very confined space (“counting house” as opposed to the aforementioned “ministry of preservation offices”) I, or maybe my players, have a great deal of trouble with this degree of abstraction.

It seriously worked perfectly well when they wanted to steal something from a MUSEUM, and there was an understanding that there was going to be a lot of stuff that wasn’t explicitly plotted out, but when you’re breaking into a small business or an apartment, it somehow forces a change of gears. Maybe this is my players rather than me, but it doesn’t feel right to say “It doesn’t matter what’s on the other side of the door, what are you trying to achieve?”

2 Likes

Sure, I get it. I guess in that kind of situation I’d just go “there’s a couple of small rooms back there, one that looks like an office and one that seems like a storage/junk room” and be done with it. For me, if I have a sense of what kind of place it is I feel like I have a feel for what’s in there, I guess? But people are different.

I don’t think these approaches are really out of step with each other…I think the nature of a score should be taken into account. If the PCs are ransacking a location, then I can’t imagine the fine details of the location matter, still. That could be a linked clock to weigh quantity and risk and the table can spend as much time in the narrative, setting-building space as they want in between and amongst ticks. That could in fact be the trigger for ticking the quantity clock: establishing facts about the location. But the goal, ransacking/burglary/whatever, still has nothing to do with exploration — it’s just a cleverly integrated means to abstract the looting.

If the score is something more defined with a clear goal, I think starting from abstraction should be fine despite the size of the location. There shouldn’t be a clock for exploration because that’s not the goal — but there should absolutely be a clock for alarm or suspicion that could certainly be checked the more exploratory the PCs get. If they’re stealing something from a noble, then the PCs shouldn’t be ransacking the townhouse — at the very least that’s an increase in heat at the end of the score (“who broke into my house?”).

If the table just generally likes in-depth detail of locations and setting, then that’s totally separate from mechanics, right? Then maybe you do want maps and sketches of locations, but that’s at the metanarrative level with the GM and players.
How to mechanically account for PC actions, excessive exploration, careless looting, taking too much time, many of these can (arguably should) be tracked with clocks, often in concert with one another. And those mechanics should have an effect on the narrative: if there’s an alarm clock that ticks anytime PCs go into rooms to snoop around (or on a previous score they accrued a lot of heat), then the PC probably won’t go exploring. Which is good and fine!

If the PCs want a detailed exploration of a location, the score really isn’t the time for it, which you can impress upon the players with the mechanics — the score should be tight and focused, that’s what the detail, method, engagement roll and flashbacks are for. But if they want the exploration regardless, there is free play and downtime; maybe they get invited to a party at the noble’s house and they take the chance to snoop around and really flesh out the layout as detailed as the table wants and then…jump cut to the engagement roll.

4 Likes

You can include your players in this process.
Ask them leading questions, try painting the szene with them. All the improvisation is not only up to you. Its fun and rewarding if the players can contribute.

1 Like