Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Actual Play: Blades in the Dark

In retrospect, Wolfram Keel probably looks a bit like Captain Flint on Black Sails
I had the good fortune to play in a Blades in the Dark game run by Andrew Shields of the Fictive Fantasy blog. Andrew has his play report up here.

Before I get into my experience with the game itself, I just want to take a minute to say that Andrew runs a great game. I have the quick start of Blades in the Dark, but I wasn't really able to put together how it all worked in my brief read-through of the text; Andrew, however, made the game sing in practice. He presented the mechanical bits in a really easy-to-grasp way and offered enough introductory guidance to help us along without ever feeling like he was nudging us in one direction or another. Andrew also added a ton of on-the-fly detail to the game's setting and NPCs that made the game have a very particular feel. People talk about immersion; Andrew's ability to add details that popped was all about getting the feel of the setting (weird, gritty, ominous).

My fellow player in the game was Bryan, and he pushed things forward into ever more dangerous territory at every turn (which was much appreciated by me). Bryan's character, Aldo Nyman, had all the social skills mine lacked; yet, despite our different skill sets we both chose "Daring" as our special abilities. This emphasis on "daring" came to define our new crew of thieves: we were looking to make a name for ourselves by taking on jobs (and approaching the way we completed job) in audacious ways that more careful crews would never even consider. My character, Wolfram Keel, was a weathered, perpetually furious ex-whaler whose skills leaned toward violence and skulking about. He may have killed an experienced duelist with a gaff hook in a water closet; Aldo may then have taken the dead man's identity so we could pull off an abduction. These are our unrecommendable methods, but they work.

I was impressed by how brisk the pacing is in Blades in the Dark. In a three hour session we generated our characters, generated our gang of thieves, went on two "heists," and did two episodes of downtime. The heists were short, but fulfilling. Our first adventure was kidnapping the leader of a powerful faction; through Aldo's guile, Wolfram's willingness to step into the fray, and a little help from our weirdo occult adept minions we were able to pull off a pretty amazing score. The second heist involved sneaking onto a whaling ship in plain sight so that we could steal away with some rather unusual gunpowder stored in a literal hog's head. 

Oddly, or maybe not, our most nail-biting encounter in the entire session was with a sexed-up harpoonist who probably isn't even human; let's just say she has scrimshaw teeth, has a penchant for looking into the depths of murderous souls, and has an arm made of bone that was animated by plunging it into a leviathan's eye. Not the kind you take home to mother.

Even though each heist didn't take long to resolve, they felt meaty and compelling. There wasn't really any lull in the game where we planned out our strategy and prepared for contingencies. The way the game works lets you largely accomplish all of that on the fly, adding detail and depth through action and flashbacks. It felt like we got an amazing amount of fun gaming in within just three hours. In other games I've played there are interminable stretches were you're waiting for the fun parts; this was all good parts all the way through. Part of that was undoubtedly the people involved (thanks again, Andrew and Bryan), but part of it was the tight design of the game. Blades in the Dark seems like a clear winner; can't wait to play again.

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