Fixed difficulty with Action rolls

I was recently reviewing the information in Blades in the Dark and I had something interesting came to mind.

The environment (Position) does not effect your potential for consequences or success.

Yes, the environment can effect the severity of those potential outcomes; for good or for I’ll, but not the likelihood. For me this is a bit of a disconnect and it doesn’t reflect what I would normally expect.

Am I missing something, if not how do others feel about it, and given the chance would you potentially hack this element in your own game?

I could see an important NPC or environmental feature as bestowing a consequence that is essentially a level 2 harm, but doesn’t count against your level 2 harm totals and disappears after the NPC or feature is dealt with. I would let it be resisted as I would any other consequence, for the rest of the scene, for just one roll, for some clock to filled, or whatever seems appropriate given the NPC’s/feature’s importance and power.

I’ve mulled the idea of Effects below “No Effect” or above “Extreme Effect” (i.e., levels less than 0 or greater than 4) as translating into penalty or bonus dice on the roll, respectively. So in that way the severity of the outcome can also impact the probability of an outcome. But that would only be for a certain kind of game where substantial disparities in power are supposed to be even worse than they already are (maybe for a Call of Cthulhu hack or something).

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In the realm of scoundrely action-adventure, the PCs have a certain level of competence, as displayed by the fixed outcome numbers for the rolls.

For situations outside of scoundrely action-adventure, there are three other “difficulty levels”

  • Impossible: you can’t do it.
  • Trivial: you do it, no roll.
  • Very unlikely: a fortune roll to see how it turns out, with 1 or 0 dice.

Since 99% of actions in the game fall within the realm of scoundrely action-adventure, the system uses the fixed ranges (1-3, 4/5, 6) as the basis for the game system and doesn’t fiddle with sliding difficulty numbers.


Potent NPCs, powerful supernatural entities, etc. can inflict consequences without waiting for the PCs to take an action roll (sort of like the GM making a situational ‘hard cut’ to jumpstart the scene or show off to the players a scary villain in many PbtAs). Other options are to set the players to a Desperate action with No Effect, then ask if they want to push themselves for Limited effect, prompt them to flashback to Set-Up Actions, make a Teamwork roll to combine their scale, etc.


I’d be interested in seeing a text citation for it if I’m wrong, but I think environment can impact Effect as well. Since reducing Effect means it will take more rolls to achieve your goal, I’ve found that nicely reduces the players chance of success and increases their chance of suffering consequences (as well as encouraging more setup actions!)
I’ve also had harmful environments (like a blizzard or building fire) inflict a consequence before every action that players take without proper protection. That can be very effective for simulating the ‘danger’ of an environment.

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Hi Ian,

I get what your saying kinda of but so far John has been been the closest to the mark.

What your referencing are slides in the severity of outcome.

Basically BitD has two sliders in an action.

  1. Likelihood - The chance of success/success with consequence/failure with consequence. Based on skill/aid/bargain/effort.
  2. Consequence - The outcome of the action (everything else)

This generally makes me think of your standard risk matrix and to be honest I’m amazed the book doesn’t contain a risk matrix. Since John is watching, was that a conscious design choice?

For one action roll, sure. But remember that “lost opportunity” is just a consequence that can be resisted. So the question is usually “how much in stress and consequences are the players willing to pay?”, rather than “can they do this?”
You can find a table for one action roll online, but it gets much more complicated (in a good way) when you are analyzing the total stress cost and risk of finishing, say, an 8-tick clock, and that analysis depends on both position and effect (as well as more advanced tools, like before action consequences.)

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I loved Blades In The Dark at first, and ran it for several groups of players, as often as I could. I managed to get a campaign going, and found out very quickly that the players were able to exploit the fact that they choose which Action to use every time, and so they used the same actions over and over, no matter the consquences.

Sure, they would fail, and something bad would happen.

I was about to give an example of how in my campaign one player literally used Prowl for EVERYTHING and two others of my players used Skirmish for EVERYTHING.

After three sessions of them literally always using the same exact actions, I asked them, “Why not use a action that’s more appropriate to the situation and have a better position?”

One of the players answered, “Because I can always fight my way out of anything.” and the other player said, “Yeah, my Skirmish has the highest chance of success, why would I bother to use anything else?”
I said, “So the consequences wouldn’t be so bad.”
They said, “But if I succeed there are no consequences, and if I fail, I just spend stress or fight my way out of it.”

I said, “Well, could you at least use different actions for variety? Things more appropriate to the story, so it’s not just skirmish over and over and over?”

They said no. And then the stealth player who used Prowl for everything said, “Yeah, I find this boring using Prowl all the time.”

I said, “Why not use something else then?”

He said, “Because I suck at everything else.”

And we never met again, and it’s sad, because I like Blades In The Dark’s world, and so much about it. But, it’s true, the players have to work against the system to make the story more interesting. Or the GM has to deal with the same Actions over and over, and try to make that interesting which can be a lot of work for the GM, and boring. I mean, you’re hoping your players sit down and have a conversation with a mob boss (faction officer) or something, and instead they’re just beating the hell out of that mob boss and taking his lunch money. Then when his gang comes after them, they just beat the hell out of them too. Next thing you know, you’re just waiting for them to fail so you can end it, but then, they come back as ghosts or hollows, etc. They don’t die, and they just keep Skirmishing for all eternity.

In summery it might sound a little interesting, like gods fighting for all eternity, but as a GM it gets really old, really fast. And, apparently for some players too, who use Prowl all the time, it gets old for them too, but they feel it’s not worth it when their Prowl is 2, 3, or 4, and everything else is 1 or Zero.

That’s an area were the BitD rulebook is unfortunately quite misleading, and people often misunderstand it.

Even though page 18 says “2. the player chooses the action rating”, in practice that’s not REALLY the case.
If you read the “How to choose an action” paragraph on page 166, it is clear that, in this regard, Blades in the Dark work like most other RPGs: the player decides what to do and what skill to use, but the GM will judge how effective that skill is.

So, when players try to use Prowl to do stuff that has nothing to do with Prowl, the GM is supposed to say: “ok, but Effect is zero” , or “ok, but Effect is limited”
Which, in the end, will make it FAR easier for players to just use a different Action (even if it’s lower than Prowl).

If the GM allows players to ALWAYS roll 3d or 4d (ie, use their highest Action), this will completely break the game.

Yeah, also some factors just dominant against certain approaches. So think about making obstacles that are easier and harder to overcome with different actions. A small clock can be a challenge to surmount if only certain approaches will have any effect.

Like maybe a single Study roll could find the secret way into the inner keep, whereas Prowling blind would be really hard. You can tell players that straight:

Getting into the inner keep is a 4-clock. There’s a secret way in, but your characters don’t know about it. A Study roll might find it and give you Controlled Great effect. You could Prowl in blind but that’s Desperate Limited effect, the scale and quality of their defences are just too dominating.

Of course, stacking the odds like this (one roll vs many for the same effect) won’t always work. Dice being dice.

So lean on NPC threat level. Like fighting or sneaking up on a Master NPC can mean the PC gets stabbed in the heart or hit by a deadly trap before they can even roll. Of course, they can resist that, but only to reduce the consequences. If the Tier difference is high enough, maybe that’s 5 or 6-Harm. So best case with resist and armour etc., they may still face 3-Harm before even getting to act. That should give them pause.

There’s definitely more to consider than maximising their dice odds (and by only small %). Better to maximise through the fiction, it’s more effective and engaging.

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