Folks who say they improv when they DM have a structure that they have often internalized. Here’s one type of structure that might help you out during those moments when you are brainstorming before a game or taking notes while DMing (PDF at the bottom of the post). NOTE: I’ve also included a PG version, Context, Cool Stuff and Consequences, in case you need to use this in a school or professional environment.
The worksheet below is meant to be a tool for jotting down bullet-points for pre-game daydreaming as well as in-game note-taking. Names, places, ideas, encounters, whatever inspirational bits you need when the game is on.
The questions on the sheet above are meant to inspire, not to overwhelm. Answer however many you need to feel comfortable walking into the game. You’ll find your rhythm and what you like to have when you walk up to the table.
They’re arriving at the place you’ve prepared. Tell them what they see, hear, smell. Tell them what the place looks like as they approach.
Under Hollow Hills by Meguey and Vincent Baker
What is happening in your game? What dynamic forces are in motion? What is at stake? In Burning Wheel this is known as The Situation – the imbalance, problem or injustice that will drive the campaign forward.
Maps, heraldry, pinterest boards, inspiration lists (music, books, movies, etc.) are other ways to get that context in place.
There is an instinct to have a hidden antagonist and spend extraordinary amounts of time and energy hiding their presence from the players and the characters. Fight that instinct. Yes, Vecna is the Lich-God of Secrets and Sorcery but their secret bid for world dominance is more interesting if the players are one of the few to know the secret. The more the players know the more dynamic their plans can become and the more invested they are in learning more.
Have an idea what is happening just beyond what they can see and then watch for opportunities for them to uncover that lore. Don’t waste time and energy hiding information. The players will always see more mysteries just beyond the horizon and even if they know EVERYTHING there is still the thrill of what they will do with the information and how the future conflicts will shake out.
Leave some questions that you aren’t sure about. Have some NPC’s who could go to the Dark Side or become Born-again Paladins. If you aren’t sure where some lost lore ended up or how the players will uncover it, find out in play. The answer might become more clear once the players have kicked the tires of the world and gotten some dents in the fender. Let answers come to you in play not prep. Prep is for interesting questions and of course – cool shit.
Consequences are what end up at the table because the players’ actions. Cool Shit is about putting toys on the table because they bring you joy. It could be your favorite monster, or your favorite type of NPC (good teachers and sly, reasonable villains for me). Hopefully, the Cool Shit relates to the context and reacts to the consequences but sometimes strange things have travelled in from far reaches of your imagination.
What do you like in a story? Put some of that in. You are the Story Guide, after all.
Was there a part of a character’s back-story that you want to delve into or an NPC family member who you think is interesting? Get them in the game.
You are playing too. Have fun. Put a treat in there for yourself.
Sometimes this is when the players make an enemy and that enemy strikes back, looking for vengeance. Diversify those consequences. Maybe the enemy they have antagonized also has an enemy who sees the players’ chaotic conflicts as an opportunity. Let the players’ actions cause ripples across the world and inspire folk. Have a bard write a song about their prowess or a theatre troupe write a play about their exploits.
NPC’s react according to their goals and methods. Events snowball. You don’t need to “manage” the game. Action, reaction and consequences will drive everything.
Blades in the Dark by John Harper
Make their actions a dynamic part of the world for good and/or for ill. I notice lots of rookie DM’s tend to look for negative consequences. Constant negative consequences might push players to avoid interacting with the world out of fear of causing any ripples in the pond. Find that balance based on the vibe of the table.
Think about what an NPC might’ve heard about the characters in a world of rumor and sorcery and how they might react. Make the characters’ actions meaningful.
Establish situations with several actors or factions pursuing their own ends. Let the players’ actions affect this environment, and let the consequences affect the players in turn.
Principia Apocrypha, Elementary Axioms & Aphorisms on Running & Playing Tabletop RPGs in the Old School Style by Ben Milton, Steven Lumpkin and David Perry
I hope this structure is useful. If it helps (or fails miserably) I’d love to hear about why it worked or how it could be better.
This post was inspired by spending time on the DM Academy Subreddit; these are things I have found myself saying or thinking as I read new GM’s posts. Good luck!
There are lots of people doing lots of amazing work to support independent role-playing games. If you aren’t sure what to do to support a role-playing game creator, here’s an option. Buy a game. Play that game. Talk earnestly and passionately about what playing that game was like in public.
I’ve got lists below if you need to narrow it down.
Solo Journaling. Buy a strange solo game. Write something that you otherwise wouldn’t have and share it with your friends because they need more strange shit in their social media feeds.
Forged in the Dark. Want to see some Position and Effect outside of Doskvol or some other points of view on the haunted city on the North Hook?
I’ve got a few Trophy lists. Even if you don’t like Trophy, the way it organizes its adventures makes it very easy to run an adventure, filled with bullet-points of cool shit to say during awkward lulls. I wish more published adventures were this useful.
Templeton and Slane are the high-end pistols marketed towards Brightstone home owners who want to, as the duo say when they are selling their wares door to door, “keep scoundrels out of their parlor.” Each pistol is made to order for their owner. Misters Templeton and Slane spend one week a month taking orders, often giving sale salons. After a week of taking orders, they spend the next three months or more making the pistols for those who have purchased their wares.
As Mr. Slane is fond of saying, “You won’t find a Templeton and Slane pistol in any Crow’s Foot canals.” Surely rumors that these gunsmiths pay off Bluecoats to keep their work out of the press are slanderous attempts to tarnish their reputations by their jealous rivals.
Ace Karderra was a scoundrel who died in Ironhook. His daughters took up his vocation and make the pistols and rifles scoundrels with extra coin depend on for their trade. As the eldest sister, Grace Karderra says of their best selling Quadshot, “This is for the scoundrel who brings a pistol to a knife fight.”
The Imperial Standard Issue Pistol, stamped with I.I. for Imperial Issue is often called the “Emperor’s Disappointment” from its initial design goal of empowering officers to shoot deserters in battle. No official Imperial statistics are available but it is commonly thought that pistol bullets have killed more Imperial grunts trying to retreat than Imperial enemies.
Since the Unity War ended, pieces of these pistols are all over Doskvol. It is rare to find one entirely made of its original Imperial Issue parts and there are back-alley gunsmiths who can turn any pieces into some kind of weapon – from a club or blackjack to an actual pistol. Inspector Ametha said, “If all Imperial Issue pistols were to be suddenly taken out of the canal, the water levels would go down so far the canal barges might need wheels.”
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Was talking about starting a Blades game with some friends on a discord and a buddy mentioned that he’d rather not play straight-up evil. Doskvol is a big corrupt mess, that shouldn’t be too hard.
Here are a couple of thoughts.
The 8th Family
You are one of the oldest families in Doskvol, born from a marriage between miners and fisherfolk that ended a bloody feud between the two original factions back when the North Hook wasn’t the Dark Gem of the Empire.
After a disagreement with the Lord Governor he destroyed your clan, killed the matriarch, sent the children into orphanages, and somehow he disappeared the 8th Tower. It is a decade later and few remember that your family ever existed, blotted out by an Imperial Arcane curse. You’ve gathered at an abandoned house the family once owned to form a crew and get your revenge.
Framed for a crime you didn’t commit…
Your commanding officer framed you all for a crime during the Unity War and you just got out (broke out?) of a floating military prison hulk. You know your CO returned to Doskvol but where are they now? What faction are they in charge of?
Time to secure your base, find the bastard who put you all away and get even…
The Weeping Lady is the one member of Doskvol’s original pantheon who the Imperial Church has been unable to destroy. You are the last of her True Cult, not a sanitized monastery or an Imperial nunnery. Uncover the Weeping Lady’s lost history, paved over by architects and Imperial Whispers.
You are a team of rogue scientists, traversing the Ghost Field and testing ghosts and arcane energies with one unifiied goal:
You are going to fix death.
When the sky broke and ghosts flooded the world it opened the door for the corruption you see all around you. Fix death and the rest of the world will figure itself out. It is going to take more resources than anyone could afford and so, you’ve all turned to crime, taking what you need to make the world a better place.
We just finished up our Blades in the Dark – Bluecoats campaign (playlist embedded at the bottom of the post). We rocked 5 cases in 18 sessions – The Ghoul Case, the Wizard’s Jar Case, the Unity Case, Roric’s War and The Last Case. The cases touched on all of my favorite bits and pieces of Doskvol factions and history (except for The Foundation and Tangletown – missed those). I’m putting my BitD book on the shelf very satisfied (but definitely interested in getting back to Doskvol).
I wasn’t sure how to prep for a case when I first started. I knew I wanted concrete facts in the cases but what I found is with crime cases, like with any bit of world-building it helps to have white spots on the map and make peace with the fact that players are going to find bits of the case that I had never planned for. I wanted a shape to the case with hard and fast facts but with space for everyone, including me, to discover new things about the crime.
I knew I wanted each case to revolve around some part of Doskvol history. The Undying Emperor’s immortality, the Unity War, the lightning fence, Roric’s murder as a domino effect for the factions going to war and finally back to the Emperor.
The Ghoul Case
Here’s the brainstorming e-mail I first sent to players who weren’t in the game:
Friends who have walked the streets of Doskvol, In a few weeks I’m going to start GMing a streaming Blades game with a few friends (Stras and Lauren) in which they will be playing a Severosi Investigator and a Doskovol local Bluecoat who will be investigating a new drug hitting the market.
I’m not so much about the whodunnit as about having this drug end up touching the rich and the powerful in Doskovol.
Our inspirations are The Wire and True Detective. We’re using the awesome Bluecoats crew book in which the turf map is more of an investigative map.
I’d make this a forum post but I don’t want Lauren or Stras to see it.
Here’s my idea:
The drug allows the user to exit their body as a ghost and come back after a while. The first doses might just be a party trick and a fun recreational trip for rich folk.
But when they start to run out they’ll start cutting the stuff with waterd down leviathan’s blood because a quick scan would reveal that it is an unknown distillation of demon’s blood and hey, leviathans are demons so who cares? Demons are demons, right?
Wrong. Those trips will go very poorly, creating a tentacled monstrosity of a ghost. The mix only works if the 3 demons are from different affinities. The leviathans’ blood will fuck that balance right up.
This drug is based on the delicate chemical mix the Immortal Emperor used to sever his soul from his body and become immortal while still keeping his will. The first batches of the drug were potent because it was made from different demons, of different elemental affinities the emperor caged out the the world. Someone bled 3 different ancient, caged demons, mixed the blood, did some ectoplasmic process to it that when injected into a living human severs their ghost from their body while leaving the body intact.
The Emperor isn’t going to say what the drug is but wants to know who the fuck is taking it. The Master Warden, Lord Governor or one of the older families might know what it is and will try to take it to become immortal and eventually replace the emperor.
There was a batch years ago that hit the city and then disappeared (maybe Scurlock or the Dimmer Sisters have it now). This batch is to tie the whole thing to the Bluecoat character with a scoundrel background, whose 0 tier crew tried to get involved with this original shipment and got in way over their heads, leading to the gang getting destroyed.
The more recent batch will be from a Severosi supplier who grabbed the blood from 3 bound demons out in the world where only Severosi could go but 3 different kinds of demons could be bled in the city if someone was smart and connected enough to figure out how to get that blood.
Maybe Tycherosi blood could be used with more modern ectoplasmic brewing?
I’m thinking that I’ll link the Red Sash/Lampblack war will be about this drug.
Here’s the timeline:
847 years ago, the Immortal Emperor and his Whispers imprison every demon they can lay their swords to and perfect a formula to sever one’s soul from their body, leaving only their will.
They hide the formula in a place deep and dark, far from any settlement or city.
12 years ago, some asshole finds the formula but can barely make sense of it – heads towards civilization and it is a long trip.
10 years ago, the formula hits the streets of Doskovol and scoundrels decide it is a drug and try to sell it. Powerful underworld figures descend and snatch it up and kill any rumors of its existence.
Now, the Emperor has received evidence that the formula has hit the streets, that it is his based on his formula and decrees an Imperial Mandate in order to find all evidence of his drug, anyone who sold it and anyone who took it.
Am I over-thinking this?
Thoughts and suggestions appreciated.
Some of this got tossed or changed or ignored. the timeline more or less remained intact, give or take.
What I learned is that an investigative case is like any world-building. Having a foundation of prep can helpful but don’t forget to leave white space on the map. The players will look into leads and corners of the case that I never considered. Sometimes I’d realize that an NPC was tied into this mess later on. The details of the case, the direct whodunnit remains the same but some details can shift around.
This case was directly inspired from re-watching the first season of True Detective after the third season came out. I wanted my cases on Doskvol to be relevant to the current going’s on but also linked to bits of history. This one was linked to the Undying Emperor becoming immortal. The next one would be linked to putting up the lightning fence.
The Wizard’s Jar Case
I didn’t write a brainstorm e-mail for this one, which surprises me. I wonder if I just knew that Sean or John (who were included in the other brainstorming e-mails) might be called in to play a visiting Spirit Warden.
It was a weird case with an antagonist I really enjoyed. I wanted someone whose job was destroyed by the lightning fence in the same way that lampblacks were turned to crime by the coming of eletryc lights. What was Doskvol like before the fences went up?
John came in as a Spirit Warden; it felt like when FBI agents stopped by Baltimore PD in The Wire.
The founding family’s towers were already established in the last case; it was cool to think of them as where warding stones were kept, that the city huddled under those towers to keep them safe from ghosts and monsters that might saunter out of the Deathlands. But now we have the much more reliable Lightning Fence and the Ward-Keepers were rendered useless.
Also in this case I pulled in the Archive of Echoes, an easily forgettable line that both setting gurus, Stras and John had forgotten about.
Next up, the next big sign-post in Doskvol’s history – the Unity War, especially how the war ended, with the Queen of Skovlan and her consort being killed by an assassin.
Who was that assassin? Were they still alive? Who trained them?
The Unity Case
Here’s the pitch:
The Game’s Intro
The Lord Governor calls the team in because a colleague of his, retired military, has called in a favor. This lady was counter-insurgency during the Unity War and she was responsible for putting the spy in place who eventually ended the war by killing the King and Queen. She thought the assassin was dead but a few men were killed in a shoot-out last night and he thinks it was her killer.
The Who and the Why It, in fact, is her assassin. She’s in Doskvol because this is where the best Skov resistance is currently being mounted. Ulf Ironborn and the Grinders are the best Skov resistance fighters that are left (yeah, there isn’t much left). The shoot-out happened when she tried to meet Ulf and an attempt was made on Ulf’s life by the Billhooks and the assassin had to shoot his way out.
Why is this assassin trying to contact the resistance?
Because she has a secret. She has the Queen of Skovlan, the 9 year old daughter of the king and queen who they kept secret from the world during the war. They agreed to be killed so they could end the war and save their daughter to fight another day.
She is looking to drop the kid off with Ulf because the Ironborn’s dedication to the Skov throne is legendary.
The Handler is riddled with guilt. She is the only agent of her’s who survived the war and yeah, she ended the war but still, everyone else she put in harm’s way is dead. She’s a hot mess and honestly just wants to find her only surviving agent and allow her to retire to safety.
The Handler’s also a smart operator and can help them maneuver around the Imperial government if they decide to go that route (and if the handler doesn’t vice herself to death).
They can go to the bar and talk to the people who saw the shooting. It is a Skov bar and they managed to keep Ulf’s name out of the whole thing when the Bluecoats came through and did a half-ass job interrogating them.
They could also talk to the Billhooks, who are far more dangerous than the Lampblacks. They could also talk to the Billhook’s leader who is in Ironhook.
The assassin was a Crow’s Foot orphan, so her records are sketchy at best. Her kid-brother was Roric, so if they figure that out before she finds out that Lyssa killed Roric (clock will be ticking) they can stake out Lyssa and try to catch her that way.
She is a super-bad-ass spy-assassin, definitely taking inspiration from Killing Eve.
More of this stayed relevant and I had clocks in my notes. I made the queen a bit younger, toying with the idea of making her much older but in the end I’m glad she was young. There weren’t many children in this campaign.
Stras and Lauren really gave the assassin a wide berth, giving her a real mystique. Maybe it was something I did in describing her and her ability to do violence. I thought about giving her some arcane edge, some kind of weird ghost field shit, storing ghosts with relevant skills and memories in her head but I liked the idea of a highly trained killer. It kept the case grounded and kept a handle on the Whisper Effect.
What is the Whisper Effect?
The Whisper Effect is how Blades in the Dark games turn from gritty crime games to epic fantasy as the Whispers push harder on the boundaries of magic and arcane science in the setting. On one hand, I love it and after running a few campaigns in this system and setting, I think I’ve got a better handle on this stuff than I had in the past but gritty is fun too.
The Roric War
The Hive and the Unseen divvy up the gangs and crews of Doskvol in order to make war on one another. Roric’s death is often seen as the spark that lit this fire.
I’ve got a jamboard with the gangs who have been divvied up on either side and some clocks. I’m not clear why the Silver Nails would be on the Hive’s side – thinking on that. Could be the Hive realized they needed more muscle and threw a ton of money at them. Or maybe I’ll find it more interesting to keep them neutral and see who can successfully woo them.
The Skov gangs are still up for grabs. Neither side took them in because they didn’t want to have to smooth over the racism within their factions in order to get gangs to work with them.
The Red Sashes and the Lampblacks are sitting this out because they just finished up a costly war but as things get grim, each side will put terrible pressure on these gangs to join, especially as they each try to profit from the chaos.
I’m thinking that this might be the next case after the Unity Case – An Imperial Mandate to chill this war out after a fight in Gaddoc station led to important Imperial shipments being damaged and/or delayed.
I’m thinking that the Bluecoats tend towards neutral on this but there might be precincts bought to one side or the other as the war drags on. I’ll also add a map to the jamboard, maybe figure out which districts will be controlled by which side and which are total battle zones where foot soldiers are vying for control.
The Hive Successfully Court Lord Scurlock 6 part
They know they need someone to lead their arcane efforts if they are going to succeed; this will likely mean Scurlock is brought into the Hive as a full partner. Once he’s on board they can begin a long clock to try and figure out who the Unseen actually are.
The Lost Decimated 4 part The Foghounds Decimated 4 Part
Both are Tier 1 gangs and seen as weak links, easy targets for the other side.
Hive’s prized Dagger Isle galleon burned to the water line 8 part clock This is a bigger, more ambitious operation for the Unseen.
Unseen Safe House Uncovered 8 part clock This is the Hive’s ambitious operation.
First, a prominent building 4 part Second, a city block, 6 part Third, a district burns, 8 part
First to purchase an Iruvian War Hull
Hive 8 part Unseen 12 part
I figure this is an easier clock for the Hive because of their smuggling background. The Iruvians are curious to see their new tech in action.
Spirit Wardens are overwhelmed by all this death 6 part Feral ghosts hunting in the streets, what a mess.
Dividing up the gangs into two sides under the Unseen and the Hive was so easy it almost seemed as if John Harper designed the death of Roric to escalate to this all along, a testament to how much I enjoy taking Doskvol’s setting info (factions and their clocks) and making it my own.
As a case, it was a bit odd. I was asking them to be more street diplomats than investigators. If I were to do this one again I would’ve had the top brass putting more pressure on them to make fruitless arrests, the Doskvol version of “drugs on the table” from The Wire. As it was, they had a pass to pursue the case however they wanted.
The Last Case
A Floater in the Canal A dead cultist is pulled from the canal and when the Bluecoats find papers on the body that look like plans to assassinate the Undying Emperor; an Imperial Mandate is issued immediately and Inspector Maia Tui and Sergeant Drav Aran are called in.
It is a few weeks before the Undying Emperor is going to arrive in Doskvol to drum up support for his upcoming war in Iruvia. He sends the Captain of his Quicksilver Guard to watch over the case and make sure the cult is crushed.
On one hand, I want a stone-cold whodunnit. Stras has mentioned that he wanted a murder case and this is kinda a murder case.
The murder is a set-up. The conspiracy to kill the Undying Emperor is all throughout his Quicksilver Guard, including the Captain(inspired entirely by Sean’s upcoming supplement, Broken Crown).
The conspiracy discovered this cult and supported it in order to have the perfect red herring. The cult was supported by a very well-to-do family in Doskvol who want to see the Undying Emperor fall so they could divert attention from the actual conspiracy at work as they put together pieces they have worked at for generations into place.
The cultist was killed by an Imperial Whisper-Assassin and part of the conspiracy who scrubbed the ghost (or maybe just futzed with it to cause it to go incomprehensibly feral faster).
Can they uncover that this is a ruse? Can they uncover the conspiracy and see how far up it goes? Will they warn the Undying Emperor and keep to the status quo or will they let him die or will they help him get killed and change the world?
Dreams of Kotar Maia Tui took damage when she Attuned to a hand depression created by the Hand of Kotar during the current gang war. She took level 2 harm, Spirit Burns. I have no idea what that means. I have a vague idea that Kotar was kind of a Spellcasting Rogue/Grey Mouser-like pal of the Undying Emperor’s back when he was a powerful sorcerer.
I’m very tempted to have the healing of that wound bring about a vivid dream sequence in which Lauren and Stras play out a rollicking fantasy adventure about the then-mortal Undying Emperor and Kotar being played by Stras and Lauren – showing how the breaking of the world happened.
I’m not exactly sure how I’d do that. Thinking on that a bit.
I wrote this before Roric’s War ended and changed things or even folded some of these ideas into things that happened in that arc. I had this odd idea of stopping the game and playing some World of Dungeons with Stras and Lauren with Lauren as Kotar and Stras as the Undying Emperor but that felt wrong. Kotar and the Emperor ended up being a fairly short dream sequence, rather than hijacking a whole session using an entirely different rules set (a gambit I’m glad I didn’t use because it makes me distinctly uncomfortable).
The way the Last Case shook out was satisfying. In a way it was an odd choice. We didn’t end on a decision, more of a decision to walk towards making a decision. It was understated and I dig it.
The Real XP are the Friends You Made Along the Way
I’ve seen this cycle before, where online acquaintances become friends through gaming. It continues to be delightful and surprising. Lauren and Stras have become friends, dear friends and that is really nice.
It isn’t clear to me how gaming does that. Meeting with them every other week (give or take) during these past months has been amazing. It was a crazy year for me, the biggest shift of my adult life – moving from NYC to upstate with a huge career change. Meeting up with Stras and Lauren online as a kind of consistent social touchstone was important.
Gandalf in the Midfield
Stras and I were chatting between games and for some reason we ended up talking about soccer and playing midfield and gaming. Midfield is about doing a little bit of everything, about stepping up and making the big stop or big shot when needed but mostly supporting your fellow players and making them look good.
Without Stras’ system mastery this game would not have happened. Having a player who knows the system and the setting cold was a huge boon. Having Stras play the Doskvol-born cop and Lauren play the Severosi immigrant trying to figure out this corrupt, alien landscape was the way to go.
This isn’t even mentioning Stras’ OBS expertise that allowed the game to be streamed and recorded.
Playing cops is complicated. I can easily see how a Bluecoats campaign could used to say really shitty things behind the facade of fantasy.
Sometimes I’d have NPC’s say so.
I want the players to be able to have a shot at accomplishing whatever they attempt but what happens when the game goes beyond what can be done with a badge. I didn’t think they could change any real corruption within the system. The only reason it worked is because I think Lauren and Stras and I agreed on the politics of it all.
Streaming changes the dynamics of the game. I don’t want the game to change but it just does. We had a lovely dozen or so people who would join us in chat and that was really nice. They were engaged and into it. The last bit of the game was entirely changed by an amazing person in chat who deftly reminded me that a key death at the end of the campaign would’ve caused the bells at Bellweather Crematorium to ring. That wasn’t the only bit of lore chat remembered and reminded us about.
Once I couldn’t think of an entanglement and someone in our chat came up with an amazing idea. I like being able to model that kind of thing and hopefully, take some of the anxiety and mystique out of not coming up with a cool idea on command. It happens and it isn’t the end of the world. I am thrilled that not only the amazing and dynamic choices we all made were recorded but also the messy stuff, the mistakes and the occasional blanks. Gaming isn’t perfect and that is okay.
Our Bluecoats Investigative game (playlist here) had two more cases left. Roric’s War and The Last Case.
I knew I wanted Roric’s War to be a gang war across all criminal factions of Doskvol, threatening to spill over across all factions if things get out of control. Roric’s death was the start of the Lampblack/Red Sashes war and I wanted to escalate that situation.
Looking over the criminal factions and putting them into two sides of a city-wide war was really easy. The Hive on one side and the Unseen on the other; the rest just fell into place. Yes, Roric was the fuse but the real situation was two powerful criminal enterprises that were ready to find out who ruled the Dusk.
This is what my little map looked like at the start.
The Hive was low on magic, so I had them courting Lord Scurlock.
The Foghounds and the Lost were clearly the weak at the edge of these criminal herds, so the wars started with each side trying to destroy them.
I kept the Lampblacks and Red Sashes as neutral because they had just finished a costly war and I reckoned that both sides would aggressively recruit them later. Ulf Ironborn and the Grinders were neutral because neither side wanted the political liability of the most marginalized people in the city (for now) but that would change was the war took its toll and boots on the ground became more of a priority.
The powers-that-be don’t care if the scoundrels murder one another in the streets but when a bomb goes off in Gaddoc Station, that is what got the Lord Governor to write up an Imperial Mandate and get them into the mix.
Looking back, a bomb site isn’t a great place for an investigator but it worked out alright. I might’ve started with a straight up murder getting the law involved but maybe not. It worked out fine. This could be me over-thinking it.
Other than the bomb, there were plenty of leads because everyone was involved. They went to the Silver Nails, the gang they had the closest relationship with. Their mandate was a bit vague; they were charged with ending the war. That means there is no real crime to solve.
Looking back, I might’ve had the Lord Governor be more aggressive with suggesting incarceration as a primary tool to end this mess. The Doskvol version of drugs on the table from The Wire. “I want criminal leaders in manacles,” he might say, putting pressure on the team to not only end the war but put crime lords in Ironhook. I don’t think that the Lord Governor’s suggestion is a good idea; I think it would’ve put inexperienced people in charge of gangs and led to more reckless acts of violence.
As it was, Stras and Lauren were smart and used diplomacy to eradicate the Unseen’s forces, causing them to have to sue for peace. They got the Dimmer Sisters to switch sides, finding out that they didn’t take the Hive up on their offer because they didn’t want to answer to Scurlock, whom they knew was being courted and so they got Scurlock to sit this out and seek out revenge against the Circle of Flame, who tried to light him on fire with the Hand of Kotar. They got the Wraiths off the board by getting them safe passage and a safe place to live in Imperial City.
One war-related fire broke out, burning one of the Six Towers, leaving it a burned out husk, like a burned bone shard on the Doskvol skyline. Is there any game of Blades in the Dark where one of the Six Towers isn’t decimated?
This is what the map looked like at the end.
The Foghounds and the Lost are upside down; that was how I noted that they had been destroyed.
During downtime, I picked factions for a clock and rolled those dice. If two factions were working together, I’d have the larger faction roll their dice and the smaller faction offer a helping die. This provided action and movement as both sides moved towards concrete goals. I did this privately, narrating only what the players would have heard about.
At one point a fire broke out as the Hive was courting Lord Scurlock, so I decided that it was the Circle of Flame using the Hand of Kotar to mess up that diplomatic meet-up in an abandoned tower. At another point they visited the Hive Galleon and saw a Dimmer Sister floating above a building in the Ghost Field, taking notes on the coming’s and going’s of the ship so they could burn it into the harbor later.
The cool thing about this mess is it gets everything into play and on the board. It dumps the toy chest on the floor, so to speak. The Hand of Kotar, the Hive, Lord Scurlock, the Crows all hit the table because of Roric’s War.
The next game we’ll go over the fallout after a cataclysmic clash with the demon hiding among the Circle and Flame’s leadership and we’ll see if the investigators can push to continue the case in order to gather evidence on The Hive.
In investigative games I want a few things set from the start:
The Crime Scene
I want to know what happened and why.
I might learn more later as details emerge. There might be people involved who I had never anticipated, not because the players are adding bits of narrative details but because I didn’t think of everything; there are white spaces on the map where new things can come to light.
That said, I want to know who dunnit, why and how.
This takes us to…
The players should have somewhere to go.
If the leads dry up, that is okay because…
The forces at work are in motion, either covering up the crime or going after their own goals.
That said, failure is okay. I don’t mind a case where the evidence dries up and the leads go cold. There are parts of earlier cases that were unsolved due to bad rolls; that is fine and I don’t mind a case being unsolved. Something might come up later and the cold case grows hot again.
Bits and pieces of the Scoundrelexicon are painted on brick alley’s walls, carved into benches of pubs and some have even heard its wisdom screeched by ravens. You can tell that they are different from other graffiti because they are lucid and are good advice for those who have disregarded all other good advice and started a scoundrel’s life of crime in Doskvol.
No one has all of the Scoundrelexicon’s wisdom, though some back-alley scholars have begun to gather them together. Are they the work of a ghost? Are they some kind of ghostly manifestations of crews that have fallen to the unrelenting pressure and grind the scoundrel’s life demands?
Here are a few of them, written down here before they were painted over, sanded away or otherwise cleaned from existence:
No use telling a crew not to punch above their weight because we all do but know this: make friends above yer weight too.
Is eeking out a life of poverty under a bridge better than bleeding to death on that same bridge? That is the question Doskvol forces you to ask once you float down the Scoundrel’s Canal.
A job going to chaos isn’t a sign of a poorly wrought plan. It is a sign that you are living the life of a scoundrel and that life’s tapestry is woven with chaos, death, vendetta and time lost to cruel Ironhook.
Whispers make good problem solvers but bad priests.
Sometimes a an Iruvian dueling knife is the only thing that can pry out a bullet and sometimes the finest Imperial pistol is the only club at hand. Look at yer load with fresh eyes every time you load out.
Ironhook is our schoolmaster and it is a vicious, miserable educator.
War is bad for business but so is love.
When the cutter wants war seek out diplomacy and peace; when the spider wants peace make fell war.
The Red Maids were a group of chambermaids who turned to crime. Like so many gangs, they gathered too much heat too quickly. Because their enemies were among Brightstone’s and even Whitecrown’s elite and not yet among their fellow criminals, scoundrels still speak fondly of them as both a cautionary tale and a kind of heroic tragedy.
When their crime spree was over Brightstone was said to be painted blood red. The gang’s leader, Scar, was hanged under charges of witchcraft and the rest were put in prison by an over-zealous magistrate under heavy pressure from the City Council.
Forty years later and the only surviving member of the gang is getting out, not because of any mercy but because everyone in power has forgotten. Scoundrels all over the city want to recruit her as she leaves Ironhook. None even remember her real name, only her street nickname.
What playbook was she?
Cutter: Bloody Mary
Hound: The Wolf Crone
Leech: Dr. Scarlet
Lurk: The Old Shadow
Slide: The Red Masque
Spider: Spinner Scarlet
Whisper: The Red Matron
There are barroom arguments, did she kill more people on the streets of Duskwall or while serving time in Ironhook?
This isn’t so much about one character getting out of Ironhook but as something new being added to the scoundrel’s underworld that acts as a spark. This is a fun way to have gangs compete over something that isn’t too high stakes. Of course, some gangs are going to claim their gang has some lineage leading straight to he Red Maidens, making their claim on this wise old-timer more than another or perhaps she has a link to a solid score that everyone wants, some money the Red Maids stowed before they made their valiant and foolish last stand.
Can your gang outbid and out-maneuver the other gangs and get this elder scoundrel to try life on the streets again?
In which we meet Clave who gets out of Ironhook in time to do his first job with the crew just in time to put on Ironhook overalls on and pretend to be convicts in order to break in to a Leviathan Ship with a secret science-cult in its depths.
Jason and Sean were back with us playing Maud and Charming, the gang’s Whisper and Cutter. Mad Jay joined us with Clave “The Wrench” Davaa, the crew’s new Leech. Clave was on the engineering team that did upkeep on the Imperial Army’s first War Hulls back in the war but was put into Ironhook after lashing out against his C.O.
The Unity War, specifically being involved in the battle at Barghast Bay is the magnetic force that brings the group together.
There was this nice player moment where Mad Jay had Clave say something cool and Jason’s Charming said, “I missed you, mate.”
It gave Clave context in the group and was a welcoming move and creative decision.
I was having trouble finding a grip on the game and getting things moving and had one vague idea for a job. I spent more effort describing the folder the job’s intel was in than the job itself because let’s face it, the job was vague.
The Hive offered info on a science-cult on a Leviathan ship, the Dunvil Rover, that was their largest client in human trafficking. Nothing to steal, no one to kill, just info to do with as you will on a former client who might lash out now that their line on fresh humans is dried up.
There was a moment when I realized this might be just too damned vague and let them know that if this job wasn’t juicy enough, they could always take some turf.
In the end, they took the job that ended with a Leviathan ship on fire in the harbor – The Usual Suspects-style. The Heat on this job was astronomical – the worst ecological disaster in Duskwall history.
An NPC named Cricket really came to life, so much so that Sean might play him for a while while Maude takes jail-time to deal with the crew’s Heat.
In which the gang burgles the library in the haunted manor of the Dimmer Sisters to steal a book about demons, written by the Emperor before the Cataclysm, for Lord Scurlock, the book’s original owner.
Charming was separated from the group as a kind of front door diversion and that made framing scenes and going back and forth tricky. This felt like it was right up Skannon’s alley and it made me squirrelly when Pete’s dice would bite him. I’ll write more about that below. Maud had infiltrated the sisters’ ectoplasm-powered psychic network, giving her a strong hand-hold.
The players got to Tier II and the Dimmer Sisters are also Tier II. For once, they weren’t punching up but squaring off with an equal. I’m glad that my Handlinger-inspired descriptions of the Dimmer Sisters and their pairs of floating upright psychic witch enforcers in black lace veils and matching funereal dresses had the desired effect; the players were freaked out by them.
I’m also glad I waited until after the session that came after this one to write this up. I had this feeling that the session was too easy but everyone was stressed to the gills. Rock on.
In the end, they stole the book and got out without losing anyone. The Dimmer Sisters know damn well who did it. The gang’s Faction Status with the Dimmer Sisters is now at a precarious -2.
Folks kept failing Risky Standard conflicts (we call them Whiskey Standard) and I kept exercising the option to escalate them to Desperate. I’m not sure if that was the best way to go. Maybe I should have started to dole out some Harm.
Something to think about. I might go back, watch the session and make another blog post about this with links to moments of play.
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