Welcome to the second part of my thoughts on running Blades in the Dark as a one-shot game.
In Part One, I talked about using a structured Training Mission, similar to the introductory levels in video games, to introduce the game in the first half of a one-shot. Here, I’ll talk about the changes to Downtime and the transition to the second mission.
Payoff, Heat and Entanglements
Once the first mission is finished, give the PCs their payoff – be generous, and make sure that you describe what it looks like, since the Coin descriptor is arbitrary for new players to Blades – a couple of heaving chests of coins and a bracelet you can hawk to Mordis in the Night Market is much more rewarding than just “4 Coin”.
The next time I run Blades, I’m going to have a bowl in the middle of the table for Heat with counters for the expected amount of Heat for the mission, and add to it as complications and devil’s bargains occur – but I’ve found that for the first mission Heat can be quite tricky to engage with. Still, roll for Entanglements from the Heat generated, and be prepared to be brutal in interpreting it; it’s quite possible in the first mission that PCs still have plenty of Stress left, so giving them some heavy Entanglements gives them something obvious to do during Downtime.
Between the missions I run a simplified “Training Downtime” that just gives the players a taste of the mechanic. The reasons for this are twofold – firstly, in an ongoing campaign downtime can bloat to a very enjoyable, but time-consuming, player-led exploration of the factions and setting of Duskwall. Secondly, the players haven’t had chance to make much trouble yet, so they are unlikely to have many schemes of their own to accomplish. As with any one-shot, we want to avoid players wandering around aimlessly, so this shortened version allows the players to achieve their goals and have some agency while still keeping it moving; I aim for 30-40 minutes for Downtime, and then take a break and introduce the next mission. My modified one-shot Downtime rules are below.
In Downtime, you can pursue one action from the list below. This is a change from RAW Blades where each PC gets two actions, but don’t worry, you’ll be generous with some of the actions. A couple of them have changed as well – since starting a Long-Term Project in a one-shot is a bit dissatisfying.
- Indulge Vice: As the regular Blades rules. If anyone overindulges, either add an additional entanglement (if there are players left to take their action, since this gives them a chance to overcome their crewmate’s actions) or add Heat to the next score.
- Work on a Project: This replaces the Acquire Asset and Long Term Project actions from the regular Blades rules. Ask the player what they want to achieve, checking it fits with the fiction, and start a countdown clock (in almost all cases, I’d make it a 4-segment one, to give them a good chance of achieving it in this downtime). Progress is as the regular rules on the roll of a Trait (1-3: one, 4/5: two, 6: three, Crit: five). Other players can also work on already started projects, rolling an appropriate trait and adding sectors as above. This allows the players to work together to achieve projects during Downtime and have them take effect during the one-shot.
- Recover: If anyone needs Healing, they can choose this option as per the regular Blades rules
- Reduce Heat: It’s unlikely that players in a one-shot will be careful enough to want to keep their Heat down, but they can do using the regular Blades rules.
You’ll notice that there’s no Train option. This is because there are a few options for experience in one-shot Blades games that I have yet to explore and will explain below.
The Next Mission
After Downtime is done, take a comfort break and introduce the next mission – this is a regular mission, but be sure to reincorporate any established facts about the setting – use NPCs already established and factions already introduced.
In terms of prepping for this mission, I like to keep it as loose as possible – I write four lists:
- A list of descriptors of the main location of the mission. For Gaddoc Rail, this is the station itself, but it could be the base they are infiltrating, the party they have to explore, and so on.
- A list of options for what the score could actually be / any opponenets. For Gaddoc Rail, since what you are stealing is not defined, this was examples of what it could actually be.
- Obstacles – all the possible obstacles I can think of to oppose the PCs during the score
- Some possible Complications. In the past I’ve found this the hardest part to prep, but I’ve got a lot better by not dismissing obvious suggestions – sometimes the obvious thing is the best
With these four lists, I have plenty of options to draw from when the players look at me expectantly. It also makes it much easier to pace the game in a one-shot, since I can use as many or as few as I want to make the score enjoyable but keep to time. I’ve used a similar approach in lots of PBTA games, and talked about it in a post here, and it’s a really useful one-shot technique.
XP and Training
I’ve not had chance to explore/hack the XP system in Blades for one-shot play, usually because I always forget about it – and there’s quite a lot for players to get their heads around anyway, but if I do, these are the options I’d explore
- Just ignore it. There is no experience or advancement. This, the default, is what I’ve generally used
- Use it as in the Blades rules. It’s very unlikely that you’ll get any advancement in the session, but that keeps it simple, and prepares the players for the full system. It also makes it easy to transition to the regular Blades. If I used this, I’d give everyone a bonus “Train” action in Downtime, giving the 1 XP to an attribute of their choice
- Hack it for advancement. Start everyone with 2 XP marks on each XP track, and double all XP awards – 2 XP for each Desperate roll, and 2 XP for Training in downtime. It’s up to you if you give the bonus Train action, but if I’m going to the trouble of this, I might well. With this, a few of the players will advance during the one-shot
In summary, while Blades is a fantastic campaign game, it’s also a lot of fun in a one-shot setting; as I stated in the first post, I’ve managed 3 scores in a 5 hour session using these guidelines and it certainly felt like the players engaged with both the rules and the setting – they achieved quite a lot in-game in those three scores. For further reading, check out the Forged in the Dark games which are emerging using the same rules set. There’s far too many of them to try them all, but I can certainly recommend Scum & Villainy for Star Wars-style “ashtrays in space” space opera.