Play Reports from the Blackwell Home for Foundlings

Session 0

15 July 2020

The players

We went to elementary school together and have been playing RPGs since the late 1970s. We take turns GM-ing on Roll20, and I chose Blades in the Dark. It’s a big leap for all of us.

Our sessions generally last 2.5 hours including general hanging out time.

The prep

Besides setting up on Roll20 (which I detailed in another post), the main prep I did was finding nice photos to illustrate the NPCs and setting. I read the rules and watched about 5 or 6 hours of live play from five or six different groups. The only prep I did for session zero beyond reading the rules was thinking a bit about the starting situation, War in Crow’s Foot. It couldn’t be simpler. Just two pages in the rule book. Had I not played some one-offs like Golden Seas and Honey Heist recently with my local game group, I might not have believed that was enough. As generic as it all sounds, the result is a real hook with choices that really matter for everyone right out of the gate.

Character 1: Harmattan

A slight Severosi youth and recently-escaped slave. As a small boy on Severos, he was taken from the saddle and sold into a childhood of servitude in Akeros. To connect with his homeland and maintain his stillness in the face of all that he’s suffered, he’s taken to ritual scarification with cutting and ashes, performed with an old shaman at the Cult of the Unwritten Book (Severos). Darmot, a bluecoat from Crow’s Nest, has been harassing Harmattan ever since he escaped his slavery and began hanging out on the streets; maybe he thinks he can capture the youth and sell him back to his former owner. Harmattan’s on friendly terms with old man Frake, a locksmith who’s instructed him in tinkering using locks from simple deadbolts to elaborate multi-stage safes. Harmattan’s been called “Hat Rack” because he is so quiet, still, and wiry that his tricorn hat looks like it’s perched on a stand.

  • Playbook: Lurk
  • Heritage: Severos -> Akeros as child
  • Background: Underworld; runaway child slave
  • Action dots: Hunt 2, Tinker 1, Finesse 1, Prowl 2, Skirmish 1, Sway 1
  • Attributes: Insight 1, Prowess 3, Resolve 1
  • Special Ability: Infiltrator
  • Vice: Faith (cutting and ashes for ritual scarification, Cult of the Unwritten Book [Severos])
  • Look: slight, wiry, quiet, still, dark
  • Alias: Hat Rack

Character 2: Elijah Primm

A severe and austere Akerosi man of 30-odd years. Primm grew up in the Blackwell Home for Foundlings, which was naturally a front for a criminal gang of urchin hawkers. As he grew, he began helping with the books and eventually rose to become the home’s shady bookkeeper, learning how to handle off-the-books income and expenses. Expecting to be made the headmaster when the former headmaster abruptly retired, he was passed over and still holds Legia Blackwell, the director of the Home, responsible. While at the home, he made the acquaintaince of Sawtooth, an ancient and decrepid physicker who’d sometimes attend to a sick foundling child. To blow off steam, Elijah takes what little pleasure he can find in his dalliances with Lame Maggie, a middle aged prostitute with a dungeon.

  • Playbook: Cutter
  • Heritage: Akerosi
  • Background: Underworld; shady bookkeeper of a foundling home
  • Action dots: Study 1, Survey 1, Prowl 1, Skirmish 2, Command 2, Consort 1
  • Attributes: Insight 2, Prowess 2, Resolve 2
  • Special Ability: Battleborn
  • Vice: Pleasure: S & M with Lame Maggie
  • Look: severe, austere

The crew

Harmattan, while lurking on the streets of Crow’s Nest after running away, noticed that gangs of urchins regularly filed in and out of the Blackwell Home for Foundlings. The next day he passed himself off as a foundling, no disguise needed. Soon, he began taking all his meals there. Elijah, ever canny with the accounts, noticed the discrepancy in the books and rather than playing Harmattan, became a fast friend. They soon began scheming how they could combine their considerable talents to achieve something bigger than they could accomplish on their own.

Harmattan and Elijah left the foundling home to make their own fortune as Crow’s Nest latest crew of scoundrels. They started making street deals for Heaven Scent, a euphoric that’s delivered in the form of grains in straws, like Pixy Stix. In the short time they’ve been operating, they’ve come to be known as a vengeful pair of bastards with scores to settle. Enough so that they’ve drawn the attention of more powerful gangs.

  • Type: Hawkers
  • Initial Reputation: Vengeful
  • Lair: the old Red Sash Dojo
  • Hunting Grounds: Crow’s Foot
    • paid 1 coin to Lyssa, boss of the Crows for 0 status
  • Special Ability: Silver Tongues
  • Crew Upgrades:
    • Lair: Quarters
    • Quality: Weapons
    • Training: Prowess
    • Lair: Secure
    • +1 status with Red Sashes for helping with upgrade
    • -2 status with Lampblacks
  • Favorite Contact: TBD
    • +1 (or +2) status with friendly
    • -1 (or -2) status with unfriendly
  • Current Status:
    • Tier 0, strong hold
    • 0 rep, 0 heat, 1 coin

Free play 0.1: It starts in a tavern…

It’s early autumn and a storm’s brewing on the horizon and the air is electric. The dusk hour has passed, and our boys emerge from the lessening fog into the Jolly Judge public house. The place is jammed with ruffians and ne’er do wells of all stripes, but they immediately notice the buzz. Roric’s been knocked off! He was the big boss, the leader of the Crows, who run this ward. A fight’s nearly breaking out at the end of the bar as a pack of customers dispute whether Lyssa, Roric’s former second in command, was behind the killing. No way, one side has it, if Lyssa did it, she would’ve been sure the body was taken care of so there wouldn’t be a ghost. I hear Roric was too tough for her, even dead; my money’s on him to have the last laugh. Then the bartender leans in during a quiet moment and says, have any of you lot thought what ho about the ‘blacks the sashes, eh? Them’s gonna’ be at each other’s throats as soon as nothing. Everyone knows it was Roric keepin’ ‘em in line. You can’t just split the trade top to bottom, even I know that. Just askin’ for trouble. Don’t know what Roric was thinking. My money’s on Baszo. He’s gonna’ be the new boss, sure as night. He’s got the organization and the firepower. N’ah. Mylera and her sword goons are way too tough for that. Ha ha. Bringing blades to a knife fight. How cute. You musta’ never seen those blades, mister…

Free play 0.2: Room to maneuver

It’s the following morning and the stormy weather has arrived. The characters make their way to the eastern edge of Crows’ Nest and the Red Sash’s dojo, passing packs of dockworkers on their way to the job and citizens from all over Duskwall who are still suffering various effects of last night’s carousing.

Inside the dojo, a dozen initiates with safety masks and wicked-looking polearms slash overhead and side to side in graceful, coordinated moves. Mylera parleys distractedly with Harmattan and Primm as she corrects the stance and rhythm of the students. So boys, are you willing to do me a solid? I can scratch your backs if you’ll scratch mine, so to speak, a statement punctuated by blades whirling around her. Yes, m’am they say, what can we do? Well, I hear that Baszo and his 'blacks opened a new den on the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks. Not the nicest clientele. Or the safest location. What I want you to do for me is go over there and make sure there’s no take. And no product for tomorrow, either. Just make sure to do it late enough that you get it all, but before Baszo’s lieutenant gets there to collect. Uh, m’am. What do we do with the money and the product? Your score, your take. I’d recommend destroying the product before it hurts somebody. I’ll be happy with the usual referral fee, say half the take? M’am, we respect your generosity and all, but we’re trying to get on our feet, and need to stock ourselves out with weapons. As they say that, they’re greedily eyeying the racks of fine weapons lining the place. Tell you what, says Mylera. How about I let you use our old dojo just up the road? It’s still got the old weapons we left there before we fitted this place out. It’s also got quarters for the little brothers and sisters, and we left the alarms, though you’ll have to put those to rights.

Next session

Next week, we’ll start with some quick information gathering, then hopefully cut straight to the engagement roll for their first score. I can’t wait to see how they approach it. I’m sure it’ll surprise me as much as their taking Silver Tongued Hawkers did. From 40+ years of watching my players survey and plan stealthy approaches to every obstacle, I had convinced myself they’d want to take Shadows and run stealthy heists. We’re all out of our comfort zone now!

I had no idea who they would side with and what the first score would look like. The players had no hesitation at all. Primm and Harmattan didn’t like the idea of messing with renowned swordfighters or the ward bosses, especially with ghosts involved; better the pistol balls they knew. I did not try to break this down into game terms yet so the players don’t actually know all three factions are all technically Tier II. They figured the Crows would be a lot tougher and so they are.

Bottom line

The rumors are true. GM-ing Blades in the Dark feels nearly effortless and the flow at the table is exhilarating. The story seems to write itself, though I know I have the initial situation and my players to thank. The beautiful part of the system is that the mechanics encourage player decisions that truly matter.

Session 1: The Back Door Score

Maybe my estimation of my players’ predilections wasn’t too far
off.

Gathering information

The first thing they wanted to do was Gather Information.
Harmattan, the lurk, cased the joint where the Jays, another Tier 0
gang working under the auspices of the Lampblacks, had set up a trance
powder den. Mylera, leader of the Red Sashes, had warned them it was going to be downmarket.

Rolling a clean success, Harmattan managed to sneak around the whole
building and follow some residents through the adjacent tenement to
what looked like a newly installed iron-reinforced door.

The plan and load

The crew decided to run an assault, with the back door as a point of entrance. Harmattan packs a light load, whereas Elijah Primm, the cutter, goes in normal. They already knew it had to go down before closing when the coffers were full but the Lampblacks hadn’t come to collect the score. So the wee hours of the morning.

Engagement roll

For the engagement roll, I gave them 1d for hitting them at the back entrance and they got a 6 on the 2d on their very first engagement roll. Good on. A controlled start.

Harmattan leads Primm to the back door. Harmattan then pushes himself to get an extra die. Being an Infiltrator with fine lockpicks, the Tier 2 quality of the lock placed there by the Lampblacks is no obstacle in terms of difficulty or effect. He rolls a 4/5 tinkering the door open. It makes a very loud noise, alerting anyone who might be in the room.

Flashback!

We flash back to where Harmattan noticed the Thompson dead bolt lock when he was casing the joint. Knowing how sticky they can be, he comes prepared with a stuffed pillow to muffle the sound. 1 more stress. That’s 3 stress already, but they maintain their controlled position.

Breaking the house

They ease the door open to take a peek, using a group survey action. Another 6. They see a Crank and Wheeler 12-pin, two-stage safe, and it’s cemented into the ground. Whew. That’s some classy safe for a two-bit gang. Must’ve been put there by the Lampblacks or the reason they chose this place, the characters conclude. They also see two mooks sitting on a table looking toward the regular entrance door from the rest of their hideout.

Harmattan and Elijah decide to stick with the assault plan and they rush the mooks, and using some brass knuckles (an exotic Iruvian hand weapon) they brought along from their knew hideout, proceed to knock them out. The situation is risky because the mooks have guns, but they’re not out and aimed at them, so it’s not desperate. They get a 4/5, so they manage to knock the Jays out, but not before one of them gets their gun out and discharges it wildly. Now there’s a clock for the Bluecoats. The main club was far enough away (I’d decided the safe was in the basement in the back) that it only started a clock for them, too. Had I had that to do over, the consequence would’ve been the rest of the Jays heading their way fromthe main club.

Cracking the box

Instead, Harmattan had a rather leisurly job at the safe. He pushed himself for effect and nailed the first stage, leaving the second stage open for his tinkering. He makes short work of that, again pushing himself for effect to make short work of the job.

Inside, they find a couple of beakers full of dull blue powder with some kind of shiny grit in it. Knowing where they’re at and Elijah having grown up on these streets, they immediately recognized it as some seriously stepped on Trance Powder. They also find bags of coin. As a matter of style, Harmattan shuts the safe back up the way he found it, nailing the roll (had that gone badly, it’d have ticked the clock on the rest of the Jays showing up). He considered changing the lock, but didn’t have the right tools or enough time.

Dodging the heat

They make their getaway still in a controlled position, alerting a young mother from the tenement who’s trying to still a restless child. Elijah gives her a piece of silver and tells her she didn’t see anything. She nods along. Not sure if I should’ve rolled Sway at that point. It’s not like she’d have yelled out an alarm or anything. This should’ve at least changed their position back to risky.

In the end, they just saunter right by the outside security gang posted in front of the drug den and head back to their own lair.

Downtime

So now we do downtime. The take worked out to 2 coin, one of which they gave to Mylera as a payoff to the Red Sashes. (Ack—I did this wrong compared to the original scenario, which said 4 coin and no tithe—I retconned them the coin and told them they had more than they originally thought so that they might be able to recruit a cohort for the next plan; nope, they just banked it.) Mylera was most impressed when they told her they used the knuckles to do the job without hurting anyone too badly. She told them to keep the low-grade Trance Powder and try not to hurt anyone with that, either. She asked whether they’d trashed the den so it couldn’t re-open, and they mumbled something about taking their product so it wouldn’t be operating any time soon. This isn’t over for Mylera or the crew.

Neither of them wound up with any trauma, so they didn’t have to indulge their stress. But they both wanted to indulge their vices from the stress they’d built up using assist others and pushing themselves. Elijah goes and sees Lame Maggie and overindulges. I ask him what that is, and he says he’s actually hurt hurt hur and is kicked out of her dungeon by her guards and told never to come back.

Harmattan goes in for more ritual scarification and winds up being so het up about it that he shows the entire Jolly Judge his new marks. This is going to get back to the wrong ears, because one of the mooks they knocked out noticed that one of their attackers was a Severosi with ritual scars. +2 heat for the gang.

It was smooth and quiet so 0 heat from that, but it was done on hostile turf, so +1 heat for that.

The entanglement roll is about as good as one might hope—the Usual Suspects are rounded up. The Bluecoats are lazy as hell, so they round up one of the older foundlings from Blackwell, Bucknell Jamison, age 13, and former ward of Elijah Primm. The ‘coats figure that if anyone knows what went down in that part of town, it’ll be the foundlings. At that point, we flash back to a scene where Elijah is enforcing his iron will on the foundlings and telling them that nobody likes a squealer. Basically Command. Full success, so I give the kid an extra die on his action roll to resist questioning and give Elijah one more stress. The complication would have been some of the foundlings really hating Elijah. We figure the kid has a die in resisting this kind of thing, being an older foundling. Bucky rolls a 2 and a 4, so manages to stay tough and not spill the beans about Elijah’s new crew, but as the Bluecoats rough him, up they leave him with a level 3 harm, broken arm, and a level 1 harm, black and blue. Elijah hears about this and spirits the boy off to see Sawtooth, the old physicker that takes care of the foundling boys’ and girls’ problems on the down low.

Next time

As a close, I asked them what they wanted to do for the next score. They want to put the Jays out of business for Mylera once and for all, as step one in downing the Lampblacks and establishing their own turf.

Session 2: The Front Door Score

Free play and planning

This time, the players had a long think about what to do next. They considered starting a front business out of the dojo and trying to sell their stolen trance powder from there. But they realized they didn’t have a big enough gang to run a retail operation.

Next, they considered trying to stake out the trance den and intercept the delivery of new products when the Jays had to re-up from the Lampblacks. They didn’t like the idea of splitting up to cover each entrance. From a distance, he’s in a controlled position, because this is a busy street. He stays at the end of the alley and watches the door. The survey is a partial success, so the ratty looking bowler-hatted thugs with crude planks as clubs notice him and he goes on down the street and now has a risky position for further exploits. He decides to try to sneak up to the front door like he’s a customer getting up his nerve; pushes himself for an extra die, and rolls a crit! He’s now standing right at the door eye to eye with two dudes in fedoras and expensive suits who are obviously packing on the door. They’re frisking customers before letting them in, so Harmattan decides to just size up the place and move on. But not before noticing with his last survey at the door that they’ve added iron bars as reinforcements, so a simple lock picking won’t be enough. Given that they’re frisking people, he decides not to try to go in, despite the critical skulking. So much for the plan of breaking in easily after hours. After the survey at the door in controlled position, it went back to risky as the guys on the door size him up again and he takes his leave. He still doesn’t know how big the place is inside, if there are other exits, or how many of the Jays live or hang out there at any given time.

So they repackage the trance powder they stole from the safe in the Back Door Score (Session 0) into their favored delivery form of straws like Pixy Stix. They fill up exactly one gross (144) straws.

The plan

The plan is to hit the street corners and hawk their product in view of the thugs outside the door in an effort to lure the low-class rabble to chase them away, at which point they can jump them. We decide the approach is going to be Social! They’re going to try to Sway customers headed to the Jays’ trance den to buy from them instead. As usual, Harmattan, the Lurk, is going light to blend in as a civilian, whereas Elijah, the Cutter, is going in with a standard load.

The engagement roll

I decide the approach is particularly daring for 1 extra die, and roll a 6 on 2d6 for the engagement roll. So they start the night in a controlled position. I’m wondering if they’re going to start trying to do the other things they can do to improve their engagements. Not much incentive if I keep rolling 6s!

Hawking on the street corner

Yup. They decided this is the level their crew is at. Street level.

The first possible customers they see is a high class couple literally slumming it down in row’s Nest. Smooth operator that he is (the crew are Silver Tongued Devils, after all), Harmattan compliments the lady and manages to seel the gent a couple doses. Laughing, they head into the club anyway, now having the thrill of making a street deal with an obvious hoodlum. Not what the gang intended, and the roll of 5 reduces their position from controlled to risky as the bowler-hatted thugs are now looking them over. They then target some dockworkers, trying to tell them the stuff the Jays are selling is crap and overpriced. Indeed, they’re underselling the stuff just to get people to avoid the Jays’ den. These guys buy some of the trance powder and then head back into Crows’ Nest. Now there’s a 4-clock for the thugs reacting with 2 segments clicked. Next deal, exact same outcome and now the thugs are coming for them, clubs swinging.

Baiting the Jays’ muscle

Still, it’s a desperate situation for Harmattan as he’s outnumbered two to one and is acting as bait. He waits for the Jays’ bowler-hatted ruffians to get close, then ducks around the corner where Elijah is skulking in wait. They decide it’s going to come down to a Skirmish rather than a Hunt—they’re just attacking, not laying an elaborate ambush or anything. We’re all getting used to the players setting the action. They don their exotic knuckle dusters from the Iruvian dojo they’re using as a lair, and lay into the thugs with a group action led by Elijah, the Cutter. It’s desperate given the approach, and before the boys succeed in knocking the Jays’ muscle unconscious, they are both clubbed in return. Elijah suffers a Level 2 harm, broken leg; no, he says, my Special Armor is going to reduce that to sprained leg, then I’m going to resist. He rolls a 6 on the Prowess resistance, and manages to sidestep the blow entirely. Harmattan’s clocked in the head for a level 2 harm of Concussed. No you don’t he says, my tricorn hat has armor plates, so now my Bell is Rung. He checks off his last two load. Then I’m going to resist that. Stress goes up, and it turns into a glancing blow off the armored headpiece. The thugs are in a heap on the ground and the boys toss them into the alley and go after the door.

Aside on Crimeworld

I can’t stress enough how much John Rogers’s Crimeworld for Fate Core helped me out in this planning. The basic structure for a heist is Breaking the House (getting in past security, etc.), Cracking the Box (e.g., getting into a safe), and Dodging the Heat. Breaking the House is broken down into three stages: first base, second base, and third base. In this case, it’s getting past the guards on the door, getting to the back room which leads to the safe, then getting into the safe room itself. Then, Cracking the Box is broken down into Accessing the Box (getting into the secure room where it’s stored; hacking into the computer system controlling the data to steal, etc.), Fooling the Eyes (surveillance, alarms, etc.), and Breaking the Bolts (physical security). Great for ad-libbing this kind of stuff with some structure.

Breaking the house

So now they’ve picked off the Jays’ hired thugs, but the Lampblacks aren’t so easily swayed from the door. As a reaction to the dumb muscle running down the street, they’ve pulled their fine Tier 2 pistols, closed the door to the den, and are on high alert. The situation’s desperate at this point for an assault. I can’t recall today exactly they lured away one of the Lampblacks. This was another desperate situation, and Elijah winds up taking a Level 3 harm, Serious Gut Shot;
that’s too much, he says, and throws one of his armored greaves in front of the bullet just in time, deflecting it to Level 2 harm, Bullet Lodged in the Gut. Resisting that then brought the harm down to Level 1, Bellyache, which he kept. Because they’re two on one against the Lampblack enforcer and have quality weapons, I figure it’s standard effect, despite being desperate. So they cosh him unsconscious and add him to the pile of unconscious bodies.

Next, Harmattan decides to Command the remaining Lampblack to run away home. If they hadn’t just taken out his partner and dropped the two thugs, it would have been zero effect. As is, it’s limited effect and also desperate as the Lampblack has his pistol leveled at the boys. Elijah helps for a full success, then they push for effect to actually make him run away. Given what the boys learn later, it seems likely that Lampblack won’t be going back to report to Baszo if he values his life and body parts.

First base: getting in the door. So now they open the door to the club again and enter the main den. The body funk smell is strong as there are about 30 bodies packed into couches and daybeds arranged in bunks; all in varying degrees of trance. The clientele runs the gamut from highborn ladies in lingerie to lowborn dockworkers forgetting their lives. There’s a bartender behind the bar, who looks terrified for his life. The boys tell him to make himself scarce for now, but to come back tomorrow and he’ll be able to keep his job. I’m not sure how to run this implicit growth of a cohort that comes from the fiction.

Second base: getting through the guards. They’re still on their toes because they know the stash is downstairs and probably protected by thugs with pistols like last time. And they still haven’t seen the two guys they knocked out in the Back Door Score (Session 1). They first check out the back room, which is storage. Elijah pulls a pistol and hands it to Harmattan, who’s out of load. Elijah picks up the Lampblacks’ fine pistol, then head down the stairs carefully, armed with their brass knuckles with pistols tucked into their belts. They emerge into a bunkroom where the two Jays are lying in bed, each with a knee wrapped in bandages and crutches next to their bed. It looks like they’ve been dosing lightly and are slightly out of it. So, controlled situation and full effect. They do another group Skirmish and fail, rolling a 3 between them. Ouch. The guys on the bed slowly dive for their pistols on the tables next to their beds. Now it’s a risky situation as the Jays’ are loopy and off guard, not in a good situation to fire. They try it again. Only a limited success, so the Jays get off their shots and they find flesh. Harmattan gets a Harm Level 2, broken leg from a bullet, but reduces it to Bullet Lodged in Calf. Now he’s suffering two Level 1 harms from Gunshots.

Third base: getting to the goods. They know the safe’s behind the next room and immediately just rush the door and bash through, this time shooting first and asking questions later. They manage to kill one of the guards and knock another one out. More stress, more damage, more reduced harm. They drag the dead bodies into the tenement basement hall and leave them there. They left the knocked out guys in the alley. And now they hold a piece of new turf. At least for now.

Downtime postponed

I haven’t upped the danger too much, but they were getting within striking distance of Trauma. One of my players actually said he thought it’d be interesting to see how Trauma worked. So stay tuned…

We had to wrap the session up before Downtime. I have to work on getting to the engagement roll faster. We play for about 2.5 hours and the players spent an hour of this one in planning, scouting, and considering alternative plans.

This Downtime should be fun. They’re suffering a lot of stress. They’ll get lots of ticks because of desperate actions this time for characters, and this time they were in over their head on tier, at least with the Lampblacks. Lots of using their crew’s properties, too, so crew experience is going to be good.

Also, there’ll be increasing heat, which will be coming from all sides with a dead body and this blow to the Lampblacks. I think it’s war with the Lampblacks. Mylera should be very pleased, though.

Thoughts on Blades in the Dark

I like this system a lot. It delivers on being easy to run and providing cinematic action.

Harm is awesome. I’m finding the combats are much faster, grittier, and more cinematic. And they don’t feel gritty because they’re swingy. They freel gritty because of the concreteness of the harm. Someone shoots you in Blades and you have a Bullet in the Torso if you’re lucky. I really like how the harm system plays. With loose descriptions of setting details and effects tied to the fiction, it’s impossible to just say a bad guy hits you for 5 points of damage and is AC 13 and thus so and so hard to hit back. The GM has to describe the effect. It’s a Lamblack fine pistol ball to the gut that’s going to reduce your ability to run and skirmish, not just set your hit points from 27 to 21. That might get reduced, but it might also be a lingering pistol ball that needs to be dealt with during the next Downtime. Just like in the movies (just watched Lawless and Public Enemies in my attempt to swot up on the genre). That’s a real consequence, too, in that characters have a lot they want to do during Downtime instead of bandaging themselves up. It’s not just sleep the night and back to full. My player’s very happy that his Cutter Elijah took Sawtooth the physicker as a friend so he doesn’t have to pay an expert so much to patch him up. It just feels so much more immersive the way it plays.

Don’t miss the maps. My conclusion is that gridded maps are too reductive and that hit points are way too abstract. I don’t mean that it’s not a fun game to play Squad Leader style combats in something like D&D, just that I wind up equating my character with the pawn representing him on a chessboard rather than taking a more narrative approach. I know the board doesn’t rule that out, but it encourages that if you’re a gamer like me.

“Monster” creation. It’s a double benefit. First, I find it much faster and easier to create the bad guys and their actions in the position/effect setting with modifiers now that’s all tied to the narrative than with the more abstract system of D&D. It’s easier than looking up a monster in a manual and then continually referencing it. Second, despite all being human, the bad guys are much more nuanced when you’re forced to think beyond HP and AC and ranged vs. melee attacks. I’m curious whether this is a system that’s easy for new GMs, not just converts from more traditional d20 and similar games.

Playing in the sandbox. I started hexcrawling with original D&D back in the 1970s. But I’ve never understood before how this sandbox style of play could work to create a proper narrative until now. Finally, I feel much less pressure as a GM to make a story and much more flexibility in setting up situations. Despite guessing they’d run another assault, I hadn’t planned anything other than the daily routine of the place and staffing, so I was totally OK if they wanted to run an intercept maneuver. At one point they even considered going to Baszo and asking him to put them in charge of the Jays’ hideout because the Jays were clearly incompetent. They were thinking they could play him off against Mylera. So I imagine that’s still a possibility.

The players really do hint at the kind of game they want, the kind of approaches they want, and where they want their characters to go. It was much harder to adapt to their wishes and have the result be a coherent story in other games I’ve run over the years. Now I know they’re thinking some kind of retail operation, so I can start thinking of counterattacks and complications. It’s nice that I don’t have to think about that much at all in terms of game mechanics. Or throwing the next plot point at the character. This player-driven narrative stuff really is working beautifully so far.

If I may stagger away from my usual prosaic style, I’d say the initial scenario’s just the little bit of grit around which a pearl will form. It didn’t need anything more than half a page of description and we’re off like dominoes.

Next time

Session 3: Dodging the Heat and Securing the Den

We only play for 2.5 hours and we’re learning the system and fleshing out the crew and hcaracter backgrounds, so we never got to a proper score. Lots of social interactions, though, some of which could’ve probably have been converted to a longer score format.

Remembering desperate XP

Having never played a game where XP accrues during play, we keep forgetting to track XP from desperate actions. Luckily for us, Roll20 keeps track of the position for each roll, so we were able to go back and see that there was a desperate command and some desperate skirmish actions. How Blades reinforces your character’s doing desperate things is starting to sink in. Spoiler alert: Harmattan gets his first trauma during free play this session.

Filling out some crew relations

I mentioned that they are considered to know everyone on their crew and character sheets, but should take one crew relation as their designated good contact. They haven’t done that yet and I’ve let them put it off.

The payoff for the Front Door Score

Our crew took over the Jays’ downmarket trance den last session, running off their Lamplblack protection.

REP: This was certainly no quiet score—they went in through the front door and left a dead body and a couple of disabled thugs with shot out knees in the hallway. They get 3 Rep because they were facing off mano a mano with the Lampblacks, a tier 2 operation that left them making desperate rolls with limited effect (hence all of the stress accumulation last session).

COIN: This was a small job so it’s a total of 4 coin.

The heat

[Edit: Forgot this first time.] This Front Door’s worse than the back. It’s 2 heat for standard exposure, +1 heat for hostile turf (think I forgot that last time), and +2 heat because killing is involved, for a total of 5 heat, bringing their heat status up to nearly full. This is why they worried about it later—they didn’t like the idea of having a wanted level and getting thrown in jail.

Entanglements

[Edit: also forgot this the first time.] This time, their heat was 6+, but they are still wanted level 0, so it’s the final column of the entanglements table. We do this one out in the open so the players can see how it works and we can decide what the right level is for the game. I roll two dice and the lowest is a 2, for “Flipped or Interrogation”. We talk about having the kid flip, but that goes against his loyalty to Primm in standing up to the interrogation. Sawtooth lives so hot he doesn’t even notice the extra heat on Primm. I suppose we could’ve tried to flip the old locksmith, but at this point he’s more friend than co-conspirator. So we decide it should be an Interrogation. They talk to Mylera about this while talking about everything else (see below) and ask her if there’s someone to bribe to dodge the interrogation—she tells them whoever the Bluecoats send is likely to take a bribe. We haven’t played this entanglement yet.

Faction status

Uh, oh. The Lampblacks were already at -2; This is going to take that relationship to -3 and start a war. The crew’s now at tier 0, weak hold while the war is on.

A tithe to Milera

At this point, it’s the next morning, and the first order of business is to report back to Mylera. They head over to the Dojo. It’s barely the crack of dawn, but they arrive to see the floor covered in battered Red Sashes among a sea of discarded staves. Mylera’s walking among them, cool as ever, carrying a thin staff.

She ushers them into her office, which stands in stark contrast to the spare setting of the dojo exercise floor. Rather than racks of weapons and a bare wood (!) floor, there are ornate rugs covering the floor, bookcases of ancient tomes in Iruvian, and scupture and wall hangings giving the whole place the air of a museum more than a swordmaster’s office. In her cool and measured tone, she asks them if the job is done. They tell her yes, but it was harder than they thought it’d be because they brought in Lampblacks for protection and they don’t think Bazso is going to be take this sitting down. She lets them know that was the plan—get Baz riled up.

They open by plonking down a sack of silver slugs (1 coin). Seeing propriety is met, she nods ever so slightly. Then they segue into letting her know they plan to operate the trance den. She raises an eyebrow inquisitively and asks them to go on. How are they going to operate it? They mention they have a bartender already and are going to roust a crew of rooks to operate the place while they provide protection.

Next, she asks what they plan to do for product. Clearly, they can’t use her high-end product in a low-end drug den. No problem, says Harmattan; I can cut it back in our lair so it doesn’t even look like it came from you. She asks them if they want anything specific, and they suggest Heaven Scent, a mild euphoric that’s a little less debilating than Trance Powder, but still has users on the quiet side. They’re in luck, because Heaven Scent’s a powdered form of cactus that only grows in the deserts of Iruvia and she has a line on a supply (no details given to the crew here).

She says she’ll have it delivered to their dojo later; she’s not foolish enough to store product in the dojo.

They tell her that there are a bunch of toffee-nosed nobs coming down from the nice parts of town to slum it in Crow’s Foot. They say they can refer them to her more upscale dens if she’d like. She reaches into her desk and pulls out a small stack of engraved cards. Apparently her dens are run in an Iruvian Nights theme, with multiple forms of entertainment including high-end drugs. They’re impressed just with the cards and carefully tuck them away.

Finally, she asks what they’re going to do about Bazso Baz and the 'blacks. They say that if the first two guys were any indication, they wouldn’t survive a full onslaught. She nods and asks them to go on. Then they lean in and tell her they want to go to Bazso, pay him off and tell him they’ll take over the den for the Jays. Meanwhile, their real game is going to be spying for Mylera. She asks them why she should trust them. They say that they’re doing this for pragmatic reasons, not out of a sense of duty—they’ve sized up the situation in Crow’s Foot and believe Mylera’s going to come out on top. So they are going in with a Consort roll—they’re actually telling the truth here. This is a desperate action any way you look at it, but the effect is going to be standard; if they manage to convince her, she’ll play along for a while. Harmattan decides to help Elijah make his case in the usual back-and-forth of completing each other thoughts and reinforcing the message that they are doing this in good faith. They get a 6 with two dice, and she agrees to let them give it a go. Just one condition—she wants a report on the disposition of Bazso’s forces after the meeting.

No time for a tipple

They head over to the Jolly Judge, which is in the Lampblacks’ back yard. They want to find a Lampblack to lead them to Bazso. The place is packed again as usual late after dusk. It’s cold and rainy outside, so the Judge is a welcome respite. There’s a fire going in the fireplace in back with a group huddled around it. The bar is thronged as usual, only this time the discussion is the recent dissolution of Crows’s Nest’s latest gang to go down, the lowly Jays. There’s speculation on who did it and what their gang name is. It sounds like they know who it is roughly (that Severosi kid and the guy from Blackwell’s) but there’s speculation on what their gang is called. One patron’s convinced it’s the Owls and someone else said he heard them called the Jokers. Our crew just chuckles and heads to the end of the bar, where they’ve spotted a guy in a well-tailored suit with a fedora next to him. He has his back to the corner and the seats next to him are empty other than his hat. Our crew tries to sit down and he looks up from his strange-looking drink to say, “these seats are for my hat.” Despite the crowd, everyone’s giving this guy a wide berth, so the crew doesn’t want to push it. Instead they ask the bartender to get him another drink. He brings out a crystal bottle and pours one out, charging them as much as a round for the whole house should’ve cost.

At that point, I figure it’s time to discuss food and drink and the pivotal role of mushrooms and eel. They know the upper crust can get real food, and they’ve even seen it from time to time. The Lampblack is drinking proper grain alcohol. They’re floored that the Jolly Judge even has such a thing, but then they are on the ‘blacks’ back porch.

Then they clear their throats and start to tell him that they are the ones behind the takedown and before they can get halfway into that sentence, the Lampblack holds up a hand, downs the whisky in front of him, and says, “Follow me.” He’s out of the bar in a flash and our boys try to keep up as he turns left away from the Lampblacks’ lair down the canal running along the west side of the district. When they’re out of any street light cover and near a dark alley he continues walk and says, “Talk.” They catch him up on the details and say they need to talk to Bazso. He tells them he can take them now, but they’re going to get searched and won’t be able to take anything into the meeting. They agree and follow him back to the lair.

Cutting the Heaven Scent

Harmattan gets to work cutting the Heaven Scent with Tinker. He rolls a success with consequences, and winds up inhaling enough of the dust that he has a temporary Level 1 harm, Euphoric, so he’s going to have limited effect on any thinking-related activity for a while. But he gets the job and they have a bunch of their favored Pixy Stix filled with their cut Heaven Scent. That’s one of Harmattan’s downtime activities.

Training with the Sashes

Harmattan decides to do a little Prowess training so that he can raise his Skirmish rating from 1 to 2 dots. They’ve been getting into a lot of scrapes. Mylera sends over a Red Sash trainee who instructs him in the proper use for a beginner of some of the exotic weapons in the place; the trainee’s young and attractive but all business. Clearly a fight with her wouldn’t likely turn out in Harmattan’s favor. The crew has Training:Prowess (I let them swap out their starting crew and starting character pips—I don’t know if that’s legal or not, but they wanted a kind of hard-hitting crew of Hawkers and I didn’t see why not.)

Meeting Bazso

They make their way through the rusty gates into a defunct colliery which still has an overwhelming whiff of coal dust. Disused machines and storage bins line the floor. There are gantries and skywalks everywhere with chains and hooks and buckets hanging down. They’re summarily searched and go in without weapons of any kind. The Lampblacks lead them up a narrow set of stairs and along a catwalk to a bare bones elevated factory office with fake wood paneling. Bazso stands up from a battered office chair and like the rest of the Lampblacks, his immaculae and perfectly tailored suit stands in sharp contrast to the surroundings. Before even saying hello, he leads with, “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you where you stand.”

They start by dumping two bags of silver on his table, thunk, thunk (2 coin). “Hmph, he says, that’s what the Jays owed me. But I still don’t see why I shouldn’t just bury you and call the whole thing even.” The muscle is clearly packing and moves in closer.

They decide to double down and lay it on the line. “Those Jays were useless and your security wasn’t enough.” Bazso grimaces and stares them down, finally calmly saying, “Fuck yeah, I shoulda’ put a bullet in their heads, not their knees. At least you saved me that trouble.” Then they go in for the score, “We’d like to run it for you. The right way. We’ve already shown you we’ve got what it takes.”

We agree it’s a desperate Sway roll with limited effect. Baz basically wants them dead for humiliating his new gang and protection. They help and push and wind up barely convincing him not to cap them, but they haven’t convinced him to let them run the joint.

“What collateral can you give me? Loved ones. Infirm but beloved parents maybe? A large gem? That kind of thing.” They look at each other and can’t think of anything. “Don’t make me find the collateral myself,” he adds. They decide that they’ll try to sweeten the deal with money. This time they’re sincere and decide to Consort, offering him pretty much the full take until he believes in them. They manage to push their way through this, too and the next thing you know, Bazso’s negotiating details.

"So, he says, you’re going to need some product. He snaps his fingers and before the gang knows it, they have another pile of low-grade Trance Powder in front of them. They don’t need it, but can’t blow their cover. He tells them same deal as the Jays—this is a loan, but you repay me in a week. With the usual interest. He doesn’t even have to specify an “or else”. They don’t even ask about interest rates. They’re happy to be getting out of this alive.

They think he’ll probably have guys following them. I love how players come up with all the great ideas in this game! So far, I haven’t made a damn thing up ahead of time for this session other than the intents and dispositions of the gangs.

After this, their relation with Bazso and the Lampblacks goes back to -2. At least until they screw up.

Rustling up a cohort

Harmattan spends one of his downtime activities Consorting with Marlo, a local gang boss who’s been known to be able to raise a gang of mercenaries for short term work. For a good cut, of course. This is very controlled—Marlo knows Harmattan and Harmattan’s there to do business. No problem and they agree to a price and after a 1-3 result with one die (tier 0 plus help), resulting in a tier -1 cohort (one kid?), Marlo tells them the finding’s tough with the war between the Lampblacks and Red Slashes in full swing, so it’s going to cost more. They increase the result with coin (Harmattan’s player just figured that out by reading the nice “Rulse Reference 2” handout that has a summary of downtime), and wind up with a Tier 1 cohort of rooks that can run the social and operational side of the den. They rooks are fairly high class and well turned out for the neighborhood and our crew’s happy. They’ve already got Harlan the bartender if he shows up again. Plus Bucky, who’s healing as well.

Treating with Sgt. Laroze

They also remembered to ask Mylera what they should do about the crazy amount of heat they’ve just brought down on themselves. They tweaked the Lampblacks’ noses on hostile turf, they left a dead body—it’s pretty bad. Mylera tells them she’ll get word to Sgt. Laroze that you’ll be showing up at his chop house at lunch time with a donation to the Bluecoat Retirement Fund.

The Eel and Beast Chop House turns out to be a greasy dive near the precinct house. Its tablecloths have seen better days as have its fixtures. They can’t miss the Sgt, a well-fed man of middling years with a rum nose and large whisky and pile of greasy ribs in front of him. It’s not clear the boys have ever seen anyone eating ribs before. The smell is a bit overwhelming.

As is becoming their signature move, they begin the meeting by plonking down two sacks of coin on the table. Sgt. Laroze tells them this should keep the boys busy who might otherwise be sniffing around their new den. He then signals the waiter and orders a round of the “good stuff” for him and his new friends. Not quite what the Lampblack was drinking, but better than any booze Elijah’s had before. Elijah also tells the sergeant that Harmattan’s still trying to shake off the effects of the fights the previous night.

Harmattan’s trying to follow the conversation, but all he can do is fixate on the lights and the shape of the ribs, so he decides to keep quiet. No problem, because this isn’t the first drink the sergeant has had, nor will it be the last.

That counts as one of Elijah’s downtime activities—heat reduction.

Healing with Sawtooth

Elijah’s still got two fresh bullet wounds which aren’t getting better on their own. He can’t walk full speed and twisting his body hurts where he was shot in the gut. So he figures he needs to heal. We figure out how the healing clocks work and get to it.

He visits Sawtooth, the Physicker who used to help out with the kids at Blackwell’s Home for Foundings. Sawtooth, it turns out, is an old field medic who was drummed out of the army for buggery. When Elijah found him, he was working as a cut man in an illicit fighting pit. Elijah was more than happy to keep his sexual cravings satified if he’d consent to cutting the Foundlings rather than the pit fighters. After getting each other out of numerous scrapes, they’ve developed an odd sort of friendship, or maybe mutual dependence.

Upping the effect with yet more coin (for some drugs and clean sutures), Elijah’s back up to scratch.

Who’s Ebenezer?

I’ve been doing a better job than ever before of keeping notes. It helps that the actions form a part of a coherent narrative. I’m the kind of guy who can remember math I read 20 years ago, but can’t remember the plot from the movie I saw last night.

Transcribing my notes this morning, I found the name “Ebenezer Pr…” and then I can’t even read the rest of it. I’m going to have to ask the players who that is!

Next time on…

Harmattan’s player’s out for two weeks, so we’re going to be doing some Elijah-specific scores. Maybe we’ll roll up a sidekick or just play along with the cohorts. I’ve been playing 3-person games with the same two people since the 1970s, so we’re used to that scale. I’ve also done a lot of one-on-one RPG-ing with Elijah’s player, most recently completing the first book of Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

And there’s that lingering Interrogation from entanglements still to play out. Not sure they have enough coin to cover it!

Session 4: Introducing Beatrix Jolly

Only one of my two players could make it for two sessions, so we devoted the first to expanding the crew with a new scoundrel. The player had a character pretty well fleshed out in backstory, but had no idea which playbook to choose to make that happen. So a lot of the 2 hour session we had was just looking through the playbooks, looking up the special abilities and the things a leech can keep in their bandolier, where it would make sense to have a sweet shop and an upscale sweet shop, etc. My player also decided to put some dots in some actions that neither of the other two scoundrels took, Finesse, Wreck, and Attune. We need some more background on how she came to acquire those skills as a shopkeeper. But then hey, it’s Duskwall and she’s a scoundrel!

Beatrix’s backstory

Beatrix was born some 30+ years ago in Akaros to parents Pettigrew and Esther Jolly. She was born ahead of her brother Bertram, and likes to think she’s stayed ahead of him in every way.

Beatrix has grown into her role as a happy shopkeeper, quite enjoying the day-to-day bustle of happy customers. Over her underlying natural cheer, Beatrix layers a dithering facade to divert attention from herself. Her fair sex, deferential demeanor, and plump figure lead everyone other than children to underestimate her sharp wit.

The family business is the Jolly Sweet Shoppe, a purveyor of candy. The shop is located in the oldest part of town, the Charterwall neighborhood of Charterhall, within the original lightning barrier of the city. The kitchen is housed just off Alembic Street in the Alchemists’ Parish. Between the shop and the kitchen lies the Bellweather neighborhood, home of Bellweather Crematorium and the Death Wardens.

After Beatrix perfected several chocolate confections, the shop picked up an exclusive clientele from Brightstone. Pettigrew opened a second, flagship shop in Brightstone.

Pettigrew had always told the children that they’d inherit the shop when he died. Sadly, that day came sooner than expected. Yather Monk, Esq., gathered the family to read the will, which stipulated that Esther would inherit everything. “Dears,” she told the children, “Your father only intended you to be proprietor and proprietess, and that you shall be. Bertie, you’ll manage the flagship where you can put your business acumen to use; Bea, you can still run the original store and the kitchen, just like you’ve been doing so well all these years.”

Still seething from the will and thinking something is up between the barrister and her mother, Beatrix gets a visit from her brother. He tells her, “The books are a mess and it turns out father was in great debt; there are no earnings to pay out. We’ll be lucky to stay afloat.” Beatrix is not buying this for a minute. Nevertheless, Bertram continues, “But mum and I have a plan. We’re going to be expanding our business with a new partner. As long as you can keep cooking, we won’t have any problem.”

Beatrix soon realizes that chocolate and other sweets are not what Bertram has in mind. As he lays out the formula for a new concoction called “Heaven Scent” for her, the specifics come into focus. They want her to cook drugs. In quantity.

Esther and Bertram keep mentioning their “close friend” Legia Blackwell, of whom Beatrix knows nothing. When she finally asks, Esther replies, “I’m going to devote myself to good deeds. The lovely Ms. Legia Blackwell has appointmed me to the board of her little home for foundlings.” Knowing her mother and brother’s capacities, Beatrix deduces that Ms. Blackwell is the mastermind of this operation and the foundlings are her pawns.

When she finally meets Ms. Blackwell, she and Ester are chortling over the thought that the lowly Elijah Primm, himself a foundling, could have designs on the directorship of the Blackwell Home for Foundlings. Still chuckling, she says, "We’ve placed the Honorable Mr. Monk in that position.

Beatrix has a close friend, Stasia, who runs an apothecary shop right next to the Jolly Kitchen in the Alchemists’ Parish. Yather Monk, Esq., is now her nemesis. His offices are just to the east in the Legal Quarter neighborhood of Charterhall.

Character build

  • Name: Beatrix Jolly
  • Nickname: Trix
  • Playbook: Leech
  • Heritage: Akarosi
  • Background: Trade: shopkeeper/cook for Jolly Sweets
  • Vice/purveyor: Pleasure: gourmand / anywhere with good food
  • Action dots: Study 1, Tinker 2; Finesse 1, Skirmish 1, Wreck 1; Attune 1, Consort 1
  • Attributes: Insight 2, Prowess 3, Resolve 2
  • Special Ability: Venomous
  • Look: plump, cheerful

What’s next?

For this vice to play out, she’s going to have to develop a personal connection, like a devotion to a grandmotherly figure who sells homemade dumplings from a shabby cart or become a regular at a restaurant in Brightstone that she really can’t afford. How have others played out this kind of pleasure vice?

The character’s a good fit for the existing crew, who still haven’t established a source for drugs independent of Mylera or Bazso. She has direct ties now to the foundling home as do the other two characters. Of course, their problem is too much product now. Inventory control is hard when you’re a vice dealer. As is paying off the loans that come with the product. But of course, nothing operates in a vacuum and if you want to make wholesale quantities of Heaven Scent, you need a lab and you need to get the ingredients for Heaven Scent wholesale. It’ll invite a different kind of trouble than just buying the drugs wholesale from another gang of scoundrels. We’re veering from the Wire into later Weeds and Breaking Bad territory.

I had though Elijah would want to go straight for Legia when we were playing on our own, but no, the player said Legia’s way too powerful and wily to be taken out easily. He thinks we’ll need a longer story arc that builds up to a sweet comeuppance (pun intended, naturally).

Let’s talk about Blades

We also spent a long time talking about GM-ing a game like Blades in the Dark. It lives up to its billing as being unlike anything we’ve ever encountered before. We’ve both GM-ed a range of games over 40+ years including multiple homebrew systems and hacks of existing systems, but had never played anything derived from Apocalypse World before. So far, we’re liking it and plan to continue.

The player supposed that it must be extraordinarily hard to come up with complications, harms, setbacks, etc. on the fly. That was pretty much the conclusion of Oren Ashkenazi on the wonderful Mythcreants blog. My player said the first thing he’d do is create a table (his own homebrew game, which is a Georgian/Napoleonic fantasy setting, has an elaborate set of critical hit and miss tables). But that hasn’t been my experience running it all! I told my player that I was actually finding this much easier and infinitely more satisfying to run than looking up how many damage dice to throw or what saving throw to force. I love how every bad guy with a gun or a club feels threatening and that they had to find a physicker to cure the two festering bullet wounds from the Front Door Job in their downtime.

We also talked about how prep is so different for this because you don’t need elaborate stat blocks for monsters, just a sense of everyone’s role in the fiction. That’s so much more fun to think about between games than how to wrestle a monster concept into a Procrustean d20 system. As empowered as Blades characters are (which I like!), the world still feels threatening.