Types of Fun and Blades in the Dark GM/Play styles

I’m one of the rotating GMs in an ongoing Blades in the Dark campaign. We started with two GMs, me and E., and last session a third GM, W., started. It’s been interesting to see the differences in GMing styles, how those map to Types of Fun, and how they’re supported by the system.

When I GM Blades, I focus on providing my players with the Fantasy of being competent thieves, and to a lesser extent, to give them a compelling Narrative that wraps up nicely within the session. The focus on Fantasy is a tricky balancing act: to showcase their competence, and to make the victory feel earned, there must be some amount of challenge. But if there’s too much challenge, the crew might fail the Score, which would violate the fantasy of being competent. I’ve realized that my Scores are often easy because I’m leaning too hard on the “they must succeed” side. My score prep method also grows out of this focus: the list of potential challenges allows me to throw them in as a pacing mechanic, and dial them back down when it feels like the Score should wind down and the players have faced enough adversity.

Blades as a system has mixed support for this mode of play. On the plus side, the flashback and resist consequence mechanics are all about showing the characters’ competence. The playbook special abilities all give unique opportunities for characters to shine. The Score as a main unit of play gives clear goals with a reset in between, so messing up one Score doesn’t necessarily mess up the overarching quest. It’s also handy as a pacing mechanism for making sure each session has a satisfying conclusion. The XP triggers encourage players to bring up backgrounds and relationships in a way that makes an interesting narrative.

On the minus side, every Blades action roll comes with the possibility of things going horribly wrong. Some of the players in our group come at the game with a focus on Fantasy or Challenge, and they try their best to avoid triggering action rolls for that reason. This can bog the game down with long discussions about which course of action has the lowest risk, and lead to some weaseling.

My impression of E.’s GMing style is that he focuses on providing Discovery and Challenge types of fun. He recently finished GMing an arc that hammered home the differences to me. The crew was supposed to steal some blackmail evidence from a relative of Lord Scurlock. We successfully broke into her house and didn’t find it, but found the portal to her magical bunker. We got a key to the portal and broke into the bunker, but still didn’t find it, but found other valuable possessions. So we bargained those back to her, and she revealed that her blackmail material was hidden in a house taken over by an eldritch horror. We’d picked up some random clues about it earlier but had been so focused on robbing her directly that we ignored them. For a game focused on Fantasy and Narrative, this would be a failure on the GM’s part. For a game focused on Discovery and Challenge, this was a failure on the players’ part. We didn’t investigate enough to discover the secret of the horror house, and instead jumped to conclusions: we failed the Challenge. Meanwhile, the GM stayed true to the facts established in his prep and the Challenge he laid out for us.

Blades has pretty good support for this style of play. For Challenge, the core Action roll mechanic ensures that there’s a constant incoming stream of obstacles, while the action ratings and playbook abilities give the players many tools to address them. All the mechanics that involve Stress make an interesting resource management challenge. On the downside, Challenge-focused players may feel Action rolls are too risky and avoid engaging the system. For Discovery, there are two pages on Gathering Information, a specific roll type for it, and various perks and abilities that give bonuses to it. On the downside, it leans on the players to remember to Gather Information in situations that may not immediately scream “you need more info.” And by necessity, it also relies on the GM to give good answers.

I think W.’s GMing style is closer to mine than E.’s, but it’s too early to tell. There’s enough overlap in the way these types of fun show up in a game that it can take several sessions to realize there’s a difference. If the obstacles are well-tuned, you can’t tell whether the session was focused on Fantasy of competence or Challenge. A Narrative-oriented game with secrets will give players a strong sense of Discovery as they find them.

I think the designer of Blades focused on Narrative and Expression. Scores, complications, stress, and vices all provide avenues to explore and reveal character. Most of the system is about getting characters into trouble so they have to answer the question of what they will give up to succeed. I think our Slide player’s preference falls closest to this, but they’re outnumbered!