I’ve written up some thoughts about having a successful Blades in the Dark game in a single convention slot. I’ve been fortunate enough to run great games of Blades at some really excellent cons, but some folks I’ve played with have said that is far from the norm. So! What follows is an attempt to distill some of what I’ve learned by doing this a few times.
What Players Need to Know
Blades is a mechanically dense game and that’s really awesome! It’s totally fun to engage with those things over a campaign — long term projects, developing one’s crew, making connections with a lot of NPCs — but none of those fit into a four-hour slot. In the next few sections, I’ve put together the minimum information I think is useful for new players to have a good time at a convention slot of Blades in the Dark.
Just about the only thing someone new needs to know, above all else, is how a dice pool is constructed. Take a number of D6s equal to the number of dots you have in a skill and roll them. More dots is better. The GM should be able to guide the player through what exactly those results mean, explaining the various positions and effects as they come up.
Another useful reference is to point players towards the “bonus die” section below the action dots when the first roll happens. Don’t bother introducing teamwork until someone asks about it, or a group action suggests itself based on the situation. Similarly, there is no need to explain resistance rolls until they come up. People really don’t need to worry about that too much when creating a one-shot character because taking a little more stress has very little consequence over four hours, barring some extremely bad luck.
In general, besides telling people that more dots is better (and of course the basic pitch for each playbook), there’s almost nothing you need to tell someone at the beginning of the game. Allow the mechanics to unfold as the game progresses to make as little front-loading as possible.
“Doskvol is an industrial fantasy city haunted by ghosts made of lightning”
That’s basically all they need to know. If someone asks “Is there an official Iruvian religion I can be a part of?”, just ask them “Well, is there?”. Depending on the job you’ve created, maybe you want to add one more sentence about the district or area it takes place in, but that will come up when the job starts, maybe with a gather information roll if someone wants a detail that is more difficult to get.
I think important things for a new player are as follows:
- How to make a dice pool (more dots is better)
- How to get bonus dice (pushing yourself, taking a devil’s bargain, or being assisted)
- Doskvol is an industrial fantasy city with lightning ghosts
- Brief summaries of the various heritages, so that the character sheet has as little to explain as possible
Everything else on a reference sheet should, in my experience, serve those four items. You may additionally wish to provide a short sentence about each teamwork action, but I find that usually comes up in play, and they’re straightforward enough that teamwork doesn’t tend to be a stumbling block.
What GMs Need to Do
I strongly recommend running the entire character creation process. Character creation in games like Blades is play, and always gets people fired up to play with these characters. I provide the brief summaries of the various places you can be from found on page 53 of the book, and let them deduce the heritages which are mostly self-explanatory.
I advise as well checking in with people about what moves they’re taking. Don’t let people take moves that won’t matter! In a three-hour slot at Go Play Northwest 2019, I only got through one job, so anything to do with downtime was irrelevant. If you didn’t know, it’s worth noting that the top item Be wary of the Leech in particular — I would say that “Saboteur” or “Ghost Ward” are the main moves that work well for a one-shot. Almost everything else in that playbook shines brightest over several sessions.
First and foremost, don’t let the players pick a crew. Choose for them, usually either Shadows or Assassins. Even if you have a really cool idea for some Bravos or some Cultists, I am personally of the opinion that Shadows and Assassins are the most immediately accessible. You either steal things or kill people, easy.
Like character creation, you need to steer the group away from longer-term moves. Additionally, the top move is one I suggest you recommend to them. It’s especially good because it just makes them instantly more competent. For Shadows as an example, I read out “Everyone Steals”, “Ghost Echoes”, “Second Story”, and “Synchronized”. “Synchronized” is even a little iffy, since it’s a little less clear how it’s beneficial to new players, despite being a great move.
I highly recommend letting your group choose a location for a lair after reading the 6 examples for a Tier 0 crew on page 93. These can often be really evocative in fun — at the aforementioned Go Play NW game, they were headquartered in the back of an eel shop abutting a canal. If you have time, you can also let them choose two upgrades. People are often excited about boats or carriages, so read those first. Skip the Training upgrades entirely — again, that’s only really useful long-term. Quality is a little nebulous, but might be worth presenting as an option. In my experience, I haven’t had anyone pick any of those.
I’d recommend preparing one job with a few details and ideas to make it interesting. You don’t need a huge amount of detail, but a couple of key inspirations can be very useful. As an example, here are my notes for a pretty successful Shadow job I’ve run a few times:
— A failing noble family, the Templetons, has an arcane item that the Dimmer Sisters want them to steal.
— They are hosting a party tonight where other, more well-to-do nobles will come and sneer at them because their townhouse-manor is about to be sold (visual inspiration: bright white stone, shimmering metalwork, well-maintained front, run-down behind)
— The item is a scroll with something written on it in leviathan blood — this has changed each time I’ve run it, but most recently was the true name of the dead patriarch of the Templetons whose ghost was the final protection of this safe.
— The item in a safe in the attic with both arcane and mundane protections.
— The party has two halves — the nobles in the front part of the house, and the servants in the back. Both can be entered, either by a social plan or by sneaking in the back.
— There are a couple of Red Sashes guarding it on the public side of the party. The private side is ‘guarded’ by the presence of the remaining Templeton servants running around trying to run a soiree.
This is more than I would usually prepare for a standard group of Blades in the Dark, wherein the long-term plans of the players for their crew will lead in to what kind of jobs they want to do.
Running the Game
Above all, keep it snappy. In the job I just outlined, a great way to do this is to snap between people in the front of the house and the back, which is almost always the division that ends up happening.
Part of keeping it snappy is getting them to trust you. What I mean by that is that you, as the GM, are not out to screw them over. The main place this will matter will be the start of the job. When you move from crew creation to the engagement roll for the job, people will probably want to ask a couple of questions about the job so that they can plan. I allow maybe one or two gather information rolls before we start, but I remind them when they ask about that sort of thing about flashbacks, and encourage them to use them generally.
In your home game, it could be fine to let people chew the scenery a bit before a job actually starts so you can get some information, but that doesn’t work for a one-shot. Be generous with letting flashbacks cost less stress so that people aren’t afraid to use them, and suggest them often.
Additionally, don’t be afraid to let them win. Allow them to finish the job, and if they roll well, allow them to finish the job without a hitch. I find that because of the design and how you describe consequences before asking for resistance rolls, people will feel tense and excited even if they don’t in fact run into a lot of problems. The system itself provides plenty of obstacles to success and costs to get what they want — your job as a convention GM is to encourage fun heist hijinks, not to destroy the characters people just spent 90 minutes creating. Don’t be afraid to punch hard, but if they make good choices and do good rolls, let them get the thing they want. Think of it this way — if you finish the first job early, you have time to an abridged downtime and a second job!
In a three-hour slot, don’t even worry about doing more than a single job. If you hustle people along, character generation should be done in 80–90 minutes, which leaves time for one complex job. If you have a 4+ hour slot, you may be able to run job-downtime-job, with the second one usually being quite short. You can either improvise that one or plan it in advance, but I’ve found that people have usually given me enough ideas at that point that figuring out something else they want to steal or kill is pretty easy.
Downtime should run as fast as possible, with maybe one or two scenes if the players are particularly enthused. Stras Acimovic has also written a great article about Blades in the Dark at conventions which I recommend as a counterpoint to this article, because I know for a fact he and I disagree about some things. He recommends allowing the following slightly edited actions:
— Recovery: if they pick this one, allow them to just fill the clock instantly without rolling, maybe asking them how they get help.
— Training: instead of XP, just let them have another dot.
— Acquire Asset: Just roll for quality, don’t worry about the spending part unless someone brings it up or really wants something better.
— Vice: can be run as is. Complications from this may inspire your second job.
These keep it short and simple and I’ve found great success with this abridged list. Skip long-term projects entirely. Stras also recommends letting people mark XP for desperate rolls, then taking another dot in those categories during downtime.
You may also find it useful to roll entanglements as inspiration for the next job, but it’s also totally fine to skip them entirely. That requires just reading your table to see if that would be fun in the moment.
I hope some of this advice is helpful to someone! To recap:
- Full character creation with limited crew creation and limited options
- Tell players only what they need to know until it comes up
- Short downtime with abridged actions
- Let your players trust you and let your players win
If you have any questions or other tips, I can be found on Twitter @360noelscope and would be happy to chat more about this!