Ready, fire, aim: a post-production playtest report
After seven short sessions, I got some feedback from my players I’d like to share along with some brainstorming on how we might reshape the game going forward. Suggestions are most welcome. For reference, here’s the actual play thread.
Before running the game, I watched about half a dozen different groups play online, including a couple episodes of the the Bloodletters game. I also spent hours on these forums and Reddit looking for examples and clarification on everything from position and effect to how people have run ghosts and spirit wardens.
Who are my players?
I have two players, who now have two scoundrels each. We’ve been RPG-ing together for 40+ years (since before the first Monster Manual)! We’ve been on Roll20 pretty much every week for seven years.
He laid out that his favorite part of gaming is the exploration, treasure finding, and leveling. This same player likes episodic games with clear direction and goals. He likes Marvel comics and movies, but not DC. He reads a lot of fantasy and sci-fi and his tastes are similar there—he likes clean wins for the good guys in the end. The games he runs are very session oriented, rules light and comic-book/pulp action in style. He’s run comic book action, time-travel save the world games, and most recently a kung-fu coming of age for two young monks saving their dojo from permanent destruction and the kingdom as a side consequence. He didn’t like seeing so much shit rain down on Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander and he gave up on Peaky Blinders after Tommy gets badly roughed up at the beginning of Season 2.
Rather than rules light, he runs a homebrew system that’s nearly as crunchy as Squad Leader (we played a lot of SPI and Avalon Hill wargames in the 1970s). It’s phase based, with a host of conditions, disabilities, and positional modifiers. The critical hit and failure system is both brutal and involved. He found The Silmarillion interesting. For the last five years, we’ve had one party on the French side and one on the British side of a fantasy alt-history Napoleonic wars. With the number of subplots spinning off, we joke he should just write “RR” instead of a middle name. Leveling is pretty slow, but skill growth is relatively fast. Like in Master and Commander, things rarely work out easily for characters in his campaign over any period of time. His games focus on the minutiae of costume, manners, setting, etc.
Comments on Blades in the Dark
Neither players are big fans of gangster, heist, or con films. I perhaps should’ve tried Band of Blades or Scum and Villainy instead.
They both truly dislike the partial success mechanic and the relative infrequency of clean successes. Player 2 suggested we change the result ranges to allow 5 and 6 to both be full successes, but that won’t work with the exponential decay of failure and partial success probabilty with increasing dice in the pool. This hack would be milder with a 7/8 on a d8 and even less extreme with a 9/10 on a d10.
Player 2 clarified that he didn’t mind failure as much as partial success. He went on to say that one reason is that he felt it was taking too long to figure out consequences. I’ve actually been enjoying this part. And it’s a huge part of the games I’ve seen run online. Player 2 runs combats that take a very long time to resolve, but that’s mostly dice rolling and initiative/condition tracking, not open-ended discussion and improvisation.
They also both dislike the way harm lingers. They say it’s making them very conservative in play. I really like the way the harm system works, but I admit it is brutal compared to D&D, where six hours in a tent clears (almost) all ills. That’s part of what attracted me to the game.
Minis and grids
Although we’ve always played with grids and wargame like action, they both seem to be totally OK with the theatre of the mind style gaming of Blades in the Dark. One thing they’ve both said they liked is the wall of titled mug shots I’ve created on Roll20 (an approach borrowed from examples on these forums). There’s so much great late 19th and early 20th century photography that’s usable.
They’re finding Coin to be a bit too abstract for their tastes.
Entanglements just happening
They are not fans of the entanglements just dropping out of the sky without their being able to plan/prep for them. They know that they depend on heat and wanted level, but so far we’ve only had a couple examples, so it’s hard to get that feel in play.
I like the entanglements It’s very much how fiction happens in books and on screen (like at the start of Season 2 of Peaky Blinders), and it enables scenes that I’ve found very hard to play out in a traditional RPG. But I can see how it feels like a screw job to the players that removes some of their agency in planning. I also sort of like that there are in-game ways to mitigate this through minimizing or reducing heat. But it’s certainly a lot to take in and juggle the first time through the game.
Not knowing what they need to do to succeed
This is really another aspect of position/effect not being defined with a table of hit points, weapon damages, etc. It feels more squishy going into a situation. Part of this is also my fault in not laying out effect and consequences clearly. I think I’m getting better at it in the last couple sessions.
The longer-term social aspect of the game means that things are developing like trying to scare someone away that they’re not sure when are going to land. That’s something I’m not making clear enough.
Addressing player concerns
Loot and magical treasure
There’s nothing to say our Duskwall can’t be jam packed with mundane heirlooms and spark-craft artifacts. Not how I was viewing it, but certainly well within the general framework of the rules. I am curious how I can put part of that development on the players without turning it into a craft project, which hasn’t interested them so far. I’ve really liked how little prep I have to do for games. Has anyone published a set of spark-craft devices from which I might borrow ideas?
Player 2 on the other hand, likes treasure with a backstory. I could probably keep him entertained describing the provenance and burnish on a new weapon they acquired.
So far, in eight sessions, they’ve found an armored goat-drawn carriage (which they had to take to a chop shop to avoid the heat from the Lampblacks), a coaching blunderbuss (easy to load musket on a moving coach), and a fine pistol from the Lampblacks. How much loot do others dole out beside Coin? I haven’t seen people picking up lots goodies in online play and there’s nothing like a traditional list of magical items other than the list of crafting examples, which are all pretty straightforward. In fact, I’ve had some misgivings about doling out things like crew upgrade level rewards (like the armoed carriage) without the crew upgrades. I finally just decided to follow the fiction and not be concerned with them getting too much stuff. Holding onto loot like a hot armored carriage is a different issue.
We’ve been going very slowly as we feel our way through the rules. I hope play speeds up and the XP ticks get a bit faster. I may also be overreacting to feeling superhero level of power growth in games like D&D 5e.
I also hope that new special abilities and leveling up more than 1 action dot will make them feel more powerful. Crew tier going up and crew upgrades or special abilities should help, which is happening soon.
Neither I nor any other live play I’ve seen seems to penalize Tier 0 crews as much as the rules seem to suggest (even fine tools having only limited effect against Tier 2 opposition), so the effect of going to Tier 1 won’t be as dramatic as it might be if I’d stressed them to the bone at Tier 0 (can’t imagine that would have went well). I’m reluctant to give them more desperate rolls with softball consequences to improve XP, because I don’t want to cut down on the feel of the desperate rolls. I’ve been using them pretty sparingly, but maybe I need to amp it up a bit. I’m afraid that’ll introduce more serious consequences, which my players really aren’t liking.
We could also shorten scores to kick up number of downtime sessions. But they haven’t been big fans of the complications brought by downtime or too keen to engage the crafting or other long-term projects.
None of us are used to narrative-based XP. I need to set up more situations that play into vice and trauma and encourage them to think about it more; the first player who likes leveling has figured this out and is leaning in hard to his obsessive tendencies (setup scene in Session 8).
We’ve just played so many play-to-win RPGs that thinking about doing things that go against you is something unusual in our games, not the status quo. I was trying to push use of vice during another scene (club scene in Session 8), but we were having trouble seeing how it’d play.
This is the most worrying to me because it’s so central to the game. Hopefully I’ll get faster at figuring out or improvising consequences on the fly. Consequences and harm were my motivation for playing this game and I’ve enjoyed that part of the game so far.
The rule book suggests the group set a dial as to how much resistance reduces harm and other consequences vs. removing them. By reducing consequences more with resistance, the game will have a more pulpy feel.
Speeding up doling out consequences, harm, etc. should get faster. I found a super useful Google doc along those lines initiated by S. Tan:
- Google doc: BitD Complciations
I don’t need prepared scenarios, but more details of consequences to sprinkle in would be great.
I think I need to get the crew to spend more stress and try to consider a partial success with resistance is really like a success. So far, I haven’t sold that. Probably because I’ve been having resistances only reduce harm, not eliminate it. Their resistances, especially in Prowess, are really good (3 and 4 dots). But they’ve been very worried about harm and taking permanent trauma, so have also been conservative with piling on stress. Perceptions of danger and risk can differ wildly between players and the GM in an RPG.
I can also encourage the players to use more assist actions rather than pushing themselves, because they (a) cost less stress, and (b) are more fun. I think this may be practice on all of our parts because we’re so deep into alternating turn games where help actions are almost always wasted compared to acting oneself.
I’m trying to tread lightly and avoid pushing them into my idea of what they could do, but I do try to remind them they have other resources like contacts, their cohort of rooks, etc.
Also, a more liberal use of flashbacks will help. It turns out they were under the impression that flashbacks would always cost stress. When I told them simple things a crew could be expected to do if they had their act together would be free, I think that cleared the way for future games.
They now have four scoundrels between them, so spreading the action around Leverage-style should help a lot in reducing stress, too, if I can get them to do that.
Making consequences clearer
This one’s obvious. I need to get better with clocks! Where this got frustrating last session is when they were trying an involved social plot. This is the kind of place where I should have a clock on the table, not some vague notion of what’s required in my head. That way, their successes would feel like measurable success in ticking the clock rather than something abstract.
I’m hoping the episodic organization of the game itself will be more apparent if we can get all of free play, a score and downtime into a single session rather than only making partial progress. I like the longer term plot entanglements, so I don’t want to get rid of those and make it purely episodic. But we can make it more about the score and less about the faction game. Only playing for 2.5 hours/week during which time we also want to socialize is constraining. We usually get in more like 2 hours of playing, though this week it was only 1 hour and 45 minutes of game time, which included my quizzing them on how the game’s going.
Entanglements just happening
Hopefully I won’t need to homebrew a fix to this! We’ll see if we can make it work as written. I can always play with making the scores more lucrative so that they can buy their way out of most of these entanglements. (They asked for a ghost entanglement last time, then didn’t like the results!)