Roll Difficulty in Blades in the Dark

(Update 2018/12/11: Added details on “other consequences”: reduced effect, complication, lost opportunity, worse position)

As a GM, setting difficulties in Blades in the Dark is different from games like D&D, and it can take some getting used to.

When GMing D&D, when a player rolls for something, you the GM decide what the chances of success or failure are. You sometimes define what happens on success or failure, but for most rolls, the meanings of “success” and “failure” are defined in the rule book. The simplest way to represent a harder situation is to reduce the chance of success.

It’s the opposite in Blades.¬†As a GM, you decide the success outcome (Effect) and failure outcome (Position), but the chances of success are determined by the player. To represent a harder situation, you need to think about the whole situation and what makes it harder:

Does it have severe consequences for failure? Worse Position.

Are the PC’s actions unlikely to have an impact on the situation? Worse or no Effect.

Do they need to face danger to even try? Require a Resistance roll before they can take the action.

For a given Position, you can tune the difficulty by changing the consequences for 4-5 and 1-3 results. Roughly from hardest to softest:

  1. Harm
  2. Lost opportunity
  3. Other consequences: Complication, worse position, reduced effect
  4. Clock to Harm
  5. Clock to complication

I rate Harm the hardest because it mechanically affects the player’s future chances of success, and takes the longest to recover from. The harshness of other consequences depends heavily on the context. I rate losing the opportunity harsher than others because it closes off player options and can result in the game stalling. This is why in the rules reference, you only see it in the 1-3 results for Risky and Desperate position.

Like Harm, worse position and reduced effect have mechanical consequences, but unlike Harm they’re ephemeral. Worse position is a key way to escalate the action and get the PCs into trouble. Reduced effect is the easiest to think about as a GM, but can be frustrating for the other players and lead to a lot of “I try that again.” Complications are a wildcard that let you introduce any other potential dangers into the score.

Clocks to Harm or complications are the softest consequences because they’re delayed. Depending on how the Score goes, the threat may never materialize. Even if it does, the players have had ample time to watch it develop and prepare to deal with it.

Keep in mind this is a fuzzy ranking. It’s possible to come up with a consequence that the player rates as worse than Harm depending on the situation. Long-term complications, like increased Heat or dinging the crew’s status with a faction, can be worse than Harm as they force the crew to deal with the fallout using precious Downtime actions. If the crew is racing to complete a clock before their rivals complete theirs, reduced effect (tick once instead of twice) might be enough to make them lose the race.

Another way to tune difficulty is by changing how effective Resistance rolls are. This also affects the feel of the game. For an easier, more heroic feel, let a resistance roll completely negate Harm and other consequences. For a harsher, grittier feel, have resistance rolls only lessen the Harm or consequence.

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