I’ve co-GMing a campaign of Blades in the Dark, and one thing I struggle with is prep. I know it gives you tools to improvise scores, but my improvised scores tend to be cakewalks as I struggle to come up with suitable obstacles on the fly. I’ve also had several sessions where events meant most of my prep went unused. But for the last session, I tried something new with prep, and it went swimmingly.
First off, it helped that the crew decided before the session what score to pursue. That meant I could focus on a single score instead of preparing two or three scores in the hopes the crew picked one of them. We ran the score selection between sessions as part of an email chain with a short interlude by voice chat, but it could also be done Ryuutama-style as a session closer. The score was to steal an artifact called the Tangle of Bones from the Church of Ecstasy, with a warning that a rival crew was after the same artifact.
The prep method I settled on is inspired by John Rogers’ Crime World supplement for Fate, and The Covetous Poet’s Location Crafter. The high-level summary is to divide the score into zones, then prepare possible obstacles for each zone.
For heists, Crime World describes three key concepts. The Score is your target, whatever valuable you’re trying to steal. The Box is what directly protects the target, and the House is the building or area surrounding the Box.
Start by detailing the target. Why does the crew want it? Who is the current owner and why do they want it? If anyone else wants it, why? Decide on the target, at least at a high level, before going to the next step. For the Tangle of Bones, I generated a random prompt for its power, which was “Create Illness.” Since the crew’s client was a demon, the rival crew was a cult worshiping a demon, and the Church of Ecstasy researches demons and immortality, I decided that a demon could use the artifact to spread a plague that caused infected people to fall under its influence.
Next, think about the Box. What protects the target? What prevents people from accessing the target? How are intruders detected? What prevents people from just walking off with the target? What are some troubles or weaknesses of the Box? Decide the high level concept for the Box, and write down several ideas for the other questions. My high concept for the Box was a secret lab under a Church of Ecstasy.
Then detail the House. Divide it into three zones:
- The public areas. For my Score, the public parts of the Church where regular services are held. I decided on Whitecrown so they weren’t breaking into the Church’s main stronghold, and because it’s next to Doskvol Academy, where some of the crew has history.
- The secured areas between the public areas and the Box. The private areas of the church where only priests are allowed.
- The threshold to the Box. The secret labs under the church.
Make a table with four columns, one for each of the zones and one for the Box. In each column, write out possible obstacles and complications for the zone. Since I was prepping a score with rivals, I merged zones 2 and 3 into one column and added a fourth one for the rivals. Optional: sort the obstacles from easiest or most likely to least likely.
If your group likes playing with maps–mine does–sketch some rough maps for each zone. I picked an unlabeled building from the Whitecrown map. Then I looked up a few real church plans for ideas, and roughed out the zones.*
In play, whenever it seems like the crew should face an obstacle or someone rolls a complication, look up the list for the zone they’re in, pick one, and cross it off. If you sorted the lists, you can roll a d6 and use that obstacle, skipping any that are crossed off. If time is running short or the session is winding down, stop pulling obstacles from the list and deal with what’s already established.
For this score, part of the background situation prep was finding a reason for the rivals and crew to break in at the same time. Since services at the main cathedral involve dissolving spirits, I decided there would be an exclusive spirit destruction service/party at the Whitecrown location, held in the private areas of the Church. That would shake up regular security patrols and mean strangers wandering in the private areas, making it a golden opportunity for both crews.
This is the final table I came up with, marked with the obstacles I wound up using. The crew came in by a different route than the spirit destruction party, so most of those went unused. They were also most interested in the labs area, so I used more obstacles from that area than others. Overall, the score flowed smoothly without the awkward pauses where I rack my brain for a suitable obstacle. The players were engaged, and felt they could visualize what was going on better than any previous score I’d run.
|Whitecrown Church Public Areas
||Church Private and Secured Areas
||Secret Lab / Vault
- Need invitations for exclusive spirit destruction event
- Guard checking guest list
- (Spider) personal rival is there, will recognize him
- (Whisper) Rival Whisper is there, recognizes him
- Spirit destruction event requires interaction from group and professions of faith
- Rival Spider notices the crew and starts calling attention to them at the spirit destruction party, e.g. volunteer them for participation
- *Door to labs area is hidden in secret passage, need to know sequence of brick/book presses to get in
- Need to find which lab has artifact
- Need to find location of vault with more immediately sellable stuff
- Researcher going to nearby lab who’s familiar with everyone that’s supposed to be working here
- Artifact container is bulky and obvious, if any guards see it they’ll want to know what’s up
- *Lab is guarded by a hull that wants proof that you’re an authorized user of the lab to open the door (Pick 2+: smell, sound, sight, knowledge)
- Hull remembers everyone who comes through (+Heat unless addressed)
- *Two keys needed to open
valuables safe ether clean chamber
- *Keys are on opposite sides and need to turn at same time
- Research notes are ciphered
- *Artifact is contagious in the ghost field and needs special container for carrying
- *Artifact is in an ether clean chamber, need to remove it into container without letting ghost field in (Like those biohazard / chemical chambers with the glove sleeves)
- Entire lab is an ether clean room, airlock style so you need to suit up (and suits are bulky / hard to move in)
- Vault has combination lock
- *Vault is set up like safety deposit boxes, need to crack individually to get contents
- Rival Whisper alerts the rest of cult that the crew is here
- Rivals find crew Whisper due to pendant
- *A guard knocked out by rival Cutter or rival Lurk wakes up as PC passes
- Rivals found the artifact first and are making their escape
- Rivals corner whoever has the artifact and try to get it:
- Cutter – by force
- Spider – by fast-talking / distracting
- Lurk – by distracting / stealth
- Whisper – summon ghost?