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!

RPG Tax Review: Emily Care Boss’ Romance Trilogy Part 2: Shooting the Moon

What is it?

Emily Care Boss’ Romance Trilogy is a collection of updated and revised editions of three of her games, Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon, and Under My Skin. It also includes three “Companion Games,” which are based on those three but have significant changes. For the purposes of paying my RPG Tax, I’m treating this as a bundle product and reviewing the games separately.

Shooting the Moon is the second game in the trilogy. It’s a game for three players who take the roles of two suitors competing for the hand of a beloved.

How did it get my attention?

Breaking the Ice and Shooting the Moon were on my radar from Forge discussions way back. I was intrigued by games that departed so far from typical RPG fare, and could be played with only two people.

Why did I actually buy it?

I missed the original release announcement for the Romance Trilogy, but saw a later announcement when it was on some kind of special sale, I think for Valentine’s. I had Breaking the Ice from way back and not really gotten to play it, but the inclusion of Shooting the Moon and the less-romantic Companion Games made me decide to get it.

What are my first impressions?

Character creation starts with sketching out the Beloved by naming Attributes, defines the Suitors in relation and opposition to those Attributes, and ends by fleshing out all three characters. Play alternates turns between the Suitors and the Beloved. In each Suitor’s turn, the active Suitor approaches the Beloved, while the other Suitor’s player provides opposition. This plays into the rivalry of the suitors. During the Beloved’s turn, they create a challenge for both Suitors.

During the various turns, you can get more dice for later rolls and for your goal by allowing other players to make trouble for or change your character. This incentivizes having characters that actually change over the course of the game, and that get into trouble, rather than having static characters who don’t face hardship.

The rules overall seem fiddlier than Breaking the Ice. I think this is because of the asymmetry in roles, with the Suitors and Beloved having different functions and responsibilities.

Like in Breaking the Ice, the Strategy & Tips section is a goldmine of useful advice, and helpful for designers trying to understand the game.  The Alone Against the World variant adapts Shooting the Moon for use as a solo game about two Seekers with conflicting Goals traveling a dangerous land. It includes evocative tables of prompts and questions, and has you map out the Seekers’ movements across the land. The Versus Nature variant is the longest. It also involves two Seeker players pitted against a third playing Nature, but has rules for up to seven players. There are six possible roles players may take, and it’s a fascinating example of how to divide player responsibilities in a GMless game.

Overall, it’s a worthy sequel or follow-up to Breaking the Ice, especially for anyone with an interest in asymmetric GMless games.


RPG Tax: Mars Hates Homework!

This is an RPG tax entry, where I read and comment on RPG products I purchase.

What is it?

Mars Hates Homework is a brochure-sized “quick role-playing game for 2 to 6 players.” It’s by David Kizzia of Monkeyfun Studios.

How did it get my attention?

I was at a con and saw it in a fellow player’s bag during an unrelated game, and I found their booth when exploring the dealer stalls.

Why did I actually buy it?

It sounded like a fun one-shot with a strong hook, and more likely to get to the table than some of the other games I saw there. Also I felt bad about chatting with the booth runner for so long and it fit my budget.

What are my first impressions?

The player-facing parts are written in a suitably hyperbolic style with plenty of exclamation marks. It evoked Invader Zim, one of the major inspirations. I laughed at the Martian name generation method: remove the vowels from your human name, then add punctuation randomly. They even used it for the credits!

The system is inspired by Lasers and Feelings, with the axis being School! (superior alien intellect) vs Cool! (social ranking). There’s a third resource, Fool!, which represents your ability to conceal your alien nature. Each session takes place over the course of one school day, ending with the players giving an Invasion Progress Report to their commanders. Failure at the day’s mission is not an option, so players are encouraged to lie creatively to make the events seem like a success, especially since Invasion Command knows humans even less than the PCs do!

The GM section includes details on structuring the day’s class schedule, tables for generating scenarios, how to play various adults, and other advice. The scenario tables amusingly contrast the mundane with the alien. Since each table has 6 entries, I could see getting repeats if you play a lot, but for a one-shot there should be enough material.

Overall, it looks like a fun game, especially with players who like to ham it up and are fans of Invader Zim or Third Rock From the Sun. If your GM improvisation skills need some help, the structure of Mars Hates Homework! should make it easier to GM than Lasers and Feelings. And that structure fits perfectly with the source material!

RPG Tax: Emily Care Boss’ Romance Trilogy part 1: Breaking the Ice

What is it?

Emily Care Boss’ Romance Trilogy is a collection of updated and revised editions of three of her games, Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon, and Under My Skin. It also includes three “Companion Games,” which are based on those three but have significant changes. For the purposes of paying my RPG Tax, I’m treating this as a bundle product and reviewing the games separately.

Breaking the Ice is the first game in the trilogy. It’s a game for two players to play through a couple’s first three dates, determining whether or not they stay together.

How did it get my attention?

Breaking the Ice and Shooting the Moon were on my radar from Forge discussions way back. I was intrigued by games that departed so far from typical RPG fare, and could be played with only two people.

Why did I actually buy it?

I missed the original release announcement for the Romance Trilogy, but saw a later announcement when it was on some kind of special sale, I think for Valentine’s. I had Breaking the Ice from way back and not really gotten to play it, but the inclusion of Shooting the Moon and the less-romantic Companion Games made me decide to get it.

What are my first impressions?

The book takes full advantage of being a second edition. It includes common ground rules for playing all three of the games, since relationships can be or bring up touchy subjects. In addition to the main rules, each game has a Strategy and Tips section that explains nuances of the rules and roles, and a Hacks and Mods section with variants.

Character creation starts with the players discussing ways they are different from each other, and choosing one axis of difference for their characters to switch. For example, if the two players are from different countries, each could play a character from the other player’s country. The switch pushes both players out of their comfort zones, while encouraging them to look to each other for guidance and approval. Which is a little bit like going on a date!

The game takes place over three Dates, each consisting of four to six Turns, alternating between players. During each turn, the active player narrates first things that go well and then things that go poorly to build up various dice pools. There’s a menu of possible narration types for each pool that help set the tone of the game, e.g. take positive action or use words that call on either character’s Traits to earn Bonus Dice. The menus provide clear guidance for what kinds of things to narrate. The book calls them out as an entry point for modding the game.

The Other Worlds section of the Hacks and Mods contains alternate settings and setups for Breaking the Ice. Some are minor variants, like Adventures Long Ago and Far Away, which describes how to set the dates against an action/adventure story in a setting other than the modern day. The variant I found most fascinating was With the Woods, about a human who leaves civilization and takes refuge in the wilderness. One player plays the human, the other plays the natural feature (like a mountain) the human takes refuge in. The Other Worlds showcase how small changes can greatly affect the kinds of stories the game produces, and how the game’s structure can be adapted to tell stories that look very different than the default setting of modern romantic comedy.

As a designer, the Strategy and Mods sections are gold. They contain good advice from many plays of the game, and break down how and why the game works the way it does. I’m looking forward to reading more of the games in this collection.

RPG Tax: HexKit v2.0 and The Black Spot tileset

What is it?

HexKit is a tile-based hex mapping application designed to work with the Hex Kit Fantasyland tileset. It comes with one set of black-and-white tiles, with more (including Fantasyland) available for purchase. The Black Spot (itch.io, DTRPG) is a treasure-map-themed tileset for HexKit.

How did it get my attention?

I saw the original Hex Kit Fantasyland tileset posted on G+ and reddit, and thought the tiles were beautiful. Later, the artist launched a Kickstarter to create an app for working with the tiles, and develop more tilesets.

Why did I actually buy it?

I was GMing Ryuutama and potentially going to GM a hexcrawl of some kind, so the tiles and hex software looked useful. The Kickstarter also coincided with a sale on the Fantasyland tileset, which bumped me over the fence.

What are my first impressions?

The tiles are gorgeous. One of the selling features is how easy it is to lay down tiles with subtle variations. The software groups tiles into categories such as “forest tiles.” Each category holds variants with the same background but slightly different features, e.g. the forest tiles have a mottled green background and different numbers and placements of trees. You can select a category to paint with, which fills hexes with random tiles from that category. It’s effortless to make forests or grasslands that have more visual interest than the same tile repeated.

It makes me wish I did get to run that hexcrawl campaign.

What are my second and/or post-play impressions?

The Black Spot tileset is fiddlier to use because it has more tiles where the orientation matters. This was true of the river and coast tiles from the Fantasyland kit, but the Black Spot has both coast and beach tiles, two path types, rivers, and map travel lines. For the water bordering tiles, it also matters how many of the borders are land and how many water, but they’re all in the same category. Even a simple map looks pretty cool though:

Prepping Scores for Blades in the Dark

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:

  1. 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.
  2. The secured areas between the public areas and the Box. The private areas of the church where only priests are allowed.
  3. 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 Rivals
  • 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?



I’ve decided to copy Ray Otus‘s resolution to pay an “RPG tax” on any new games bought: immediately read them and post commentary. The posts have this structure:

  1. What is it?
  2. How did it get my attention?
  3. Why did I actually buy it?
  4. What are my first impressions?
  5. What are my second and/or post-play impressions? (Optional)

When I have time, I’ll also go through my backlog of games to read and post about those.

Edit: More clarifications on the resolution:

  1. If it was a Kickstarter, I must post when I receive the final version from Kickstarter. Writing posts for drafts is optional.
  2. If it was a bundle, I need to write posts for at least half the products in the bundle. If there are multiple versions of a product, like an adventure module with versions for 13th Age and Pathfinder, all versions count as one product.

RPG Tax: Of the Woods: Lonely Games of Imagination

Edit: Link to post describing the RPG Tax: https://games.nightstaff.net/2018/04/01/rpg-tax/ . In short, it’s a resolution to immediately read and comment on new RPG products that I buy or otherwise acquire.

What is it?

Of the Woods: Lonely Games of Imagination is a collection of lonely games curated by Brie Sheldon. “Lonely games” consist of some scene-setting text, then a series of questions to develop the situation. By answering the questions, you create a story.

How did it get my attention?

I follow Brie Sheldon on G+, so I saw the initial announcement when it was released. More recently, there was a thread about small games where someone brought it up.

Why did I actually buy it?

The recent thread reminded me that I meant to check it out, it was only $5 with proceeds going to The Trevor Project, and I’m trying to support more niche creators. I also keep thinking about doing more solo roleplaying, and this looked like a nice bite-sized way to get started.

What are my first impressions?

Haunting. Evocative. The prose snippets and questions sketch a setting and situation with only a handful of words. Some games resonated with me more than others. Hollow by Kimberly Lam is my current favorite. The games are ordered so they flow together. The last two, I Believe by Chris Bennett and Home Again by Adam McConnaughey, each add an extra mechanic.

What are my second and/or post-play impressions?

The questions about relationships and the first-person viewpoint made the game feel unexpectedly personal. I’m not sure about sharing the story that mentions a mother with my real mother, for example. I think if I paused after reading the initial text and before answering the questions to form an idea of my character, I would have a stronger alibi in place and less emotional bleed-through. But the power of the games comes from that personal place.

Also, I want to write one now.

Ryuutama Travel Encounters

Diversions (d12):

    1. A wishing well with a dragon statue on top
    2. A viewing point with a breathtaking vista of the scenery
    3. Some hot springs
    4. An abandoned, overgrown cottage
    5. A well-maintained shrine to a local deity or spirit
    6. An abandoned shrine to a forgotten deity
    7. A slow, shallow part of the nearby river or stream where you can bathe or wash things
    8. A good fishing spot
    9. A local farm or ranch with food to sell
    10. A dragon statue with a walking stick and bowls holding a few other travel items. You can take some or leave items for other travelers.
    11. Broken pillars that belonged to an ancient building
    12. An abandoned orchard. If you search it, you can find some ripe fruit (food) and some overripe fruit (alcohol).

Travelers En Route (d12):

    1. A merchant who specializes in fine foods. You can buy delicious food from them to eat today, as if you were in town.
    2. A weather forecaster. You can get a forecast from them.
    3. A courier who can take messages
    4. An itinerant priest(ess). You can ask for a blessing or advice. They appreciate donations.
    5. A storyteller who will trade a tale for a tale.
    6. A mapper. They’ll share part of their map with you and will be happy to see yours.
    7. They tell you about a business opportunity (e.g. shortage or surplus) in a nearby town
    8. Someone else on Journey. They offer to trade souvenirs with you (trade Specialty Goods of the same size for each other)
    9. A rancher driving a herd of pack or riding animals to sell. You can buy one from them for 10% cheaper than normal.
    10. An artisan. If they have the same type of item, they will trade you a new one for a broken one plus the repair cost. They also sell repair kits.
    11. They’re carrying a grandfather clock to the next town. They’re worried about rain and will buy an umbrella if you have one.
    12. They’re transporting a lot of stuffed animals in a variety of sizes. They can sell you one now, or you can commission one to pick up the next time you meet.

Stopped Travelers:

    1. They’re taking a break (see Travelers En Route)
    2. The straps on their sandals or backpack broke and they’re trying to fix them. Maybe you can help?
    3. They twisted an ankle and need help getting to the next town
    4. They’re lost and trying to figure out how to get to [different town]
    5. Their pack animal got stuck in some mud
    6. A performer or troupe of performers, rehearsing
    7. An artist painting the scenery
    8. A farmer whose wagon wheel broke or came off
    9. A hunter checking their traps
    10. A healer tending to another traveller
    11. A noble in a carriage taking a break. If you can entertain them, they’ll let you ride with them to the next town.
    12. A dowser looking for water to build a well

Blades in the Dark Clock and Faction Sheets

When I run Blades in the Dark, I like to have clocks for everything. So I made a sheet with a lot of blank clocks, with markings to help you make 6-, 8-, and 12-clocks.

Clocks sheet v1

Then a few weeks ago, someone on G+ requested a faction worksheet with clocks, so I figured I’d make one of those too.

Faction sheet v1