Hexhounds: Retrospective

[Reposted from my blog.]

“They were four total strangers, with nothing in common, meeting for the first time. An orphaned cultist, a disgraced sailor, a fallen noble, and a demon. Before the day was over, they broke the rules. Bared their souls and touched each other in a way they never dreamed possible.”

Thursday night we wrapped up a Blades in the Dark campaign that had started on July 3rd, 2018. Sixteen months is not forever by some standards, but it’s a solidly impressive run compared to my usual track record, and it goes into the books as one of the three best campaigns I’ve ever run. (Huey Long’s Men of Action and Orlando Trash.)

The PCs were as noted above, if I’m allowed some liberties. The demon started off as an NPC possessing a leviathan hunter, but part way through the campaign the player wanted to change focus, and we found the appropriate direction by asking what would happen if her demon was freed. Breaking the rules did happen pretty much immediately. You’d have to ask the players if the characters touched each other’s souls, but I’m sentimental. I think they did.

I relied heavily on index cards to track the campaign. I currently have five stacks of cards held together by binder clips: the PCs, the various factions, set-up material that I used, set-up material that I didn’t use, and session notes. I’m going to scan all of it and post it, because I think everyone who’s willing to share should post their campaign material. This post here is just a summary and a statement of intent.

The sandbox campaign structure worked perfectly for me. I’d never run a true sandbox. For whatever reason, Blades unlocked the concept for me and I “planned” the campaign one session at a time. If I could only take one tool from Blades, it’d be the faction goal progress clocks — as randomizing forcing functions for NPC activity, they are ideal.

The sandbox also satisfied my desire to reincorporate. I realized really early on that I could throw out potential plot hooks and meaningful elements as fast as I wanted, without bothering to figure out how they’d tie back in. Some of them would get used, and some of them would not. In the past I’ve felt that I needed to know why a MacGuffin was there before I used it. No more of that.

Thus, the very early heist where the Hexhounds stole the Widow’s Collar became the first step in Setarra’s plot to claim all five pieces of the Widow’s Regalia and finish destroying the world. The players reacted well to it, so I built on it later with the Widow’s Cuffs and the path was clear from there onward. Meanwhile, nobody seemed all that taken by a couple of romance plots I floated, so they turned out to be unimportant.

We used about a third of the late campaign time to make a trip up to Skovland. This felt psychologically perilous to me, in that I wasn’t sure if the players were invested in it, plus I was definitely opening up a lot of potential for running away from problems. “Oh, huh, we can just go somewhere else?” In the end I think Skovland made a strong contrast to Duskvol, and it allowed me to play a few more chords on the theme of racism. So that worked out.

The system was somewhat challenging. John Harper says, in the rule book, that you can just degrade to rolling dice and succeeding by a lot, a little, or not at all. That is kind of true but the health of player characters depends rather solidly on how much the players like engaging with the system. Blades is tuned to keep the crews desperate; part of that means players need to look for advantages at the margins. Some of those advantages are gained from smart mechanics choices. System mastery matters here, and that’s not an ideal state for some play groups.

(Which is absolutely fine. System itself always matters; part of that statement is the fact that it is totally reasonable to prefer a system that doesn’t require a lot of mechanics-level engagement.)

Also I kept forgetting things too, like getting +1d on healing checks because the physician was Etty’s friend.

So the simplicity of the basic action roll was great, but the fiddly interactions around the edges didn’t come into play much. All in all it worked out, obviously — this wasn’t one of those campaigns that succeeds in spite of the rules. In particular the fluid interaction between the fiction and the mechanics worked extremely well.

I mentioned progress clocks once already; they were just great in every context. It’s maybe not obvious, but they’re a good prop along with everything else. I can’t tell you how many times I lifted up an index card containing a dangerous clock, pointed at an empty segment, and said “the consequence is that I fill this in.” It heightened the urgency something fierce, every time.

I never got really great at asking questions but I improved by the end. The final roll of the final heist, I had Griggs of the Gondoliers pass out towards the end of the ritual he was leading. “So,” I said, “What are you going to do now?” The players dithered for a bit, and I realized they might be thinking I was looking for a specific answer, so I clarified.

“I don’t know how the Hexhounds are going to save the day, I just know they can. Your answer will be the right answer, and the dice will tell us if you can execute it well enough.”

They got it immediately: Crowl put their demonic immortality on the line to tempt Setarra out of Etty’s mother’s body, and Dock grabbed Setarra with both hands and stuffed her into a mammoth lightning bottle, and all was well. My players are awesome.

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And, in case you like looking at scribbled notes, I’ve uploaded all my index cards and character sheets and so on. Have an index!