Collaborative ideas for Blades in the Dark

I’ve been wanting to play Blades in the Dark for a while. Despite having had the system for several years, I still haven’t played it. I’ve played a game inspired by its sci-fi hack, Scum & Villainy, but my friend running that game paid very little attention to the system’s rules despite using the rules as reference material. The game was fun. It didn’t really let me see how any of the things that make BitD distinct actually work when run as designed.

Now it looks like I may finally have a chance to play! One of my friends is putting a group of players together, people I enjoy playing with. I’m looking forward to it.

And, even as I’m looking forward to game, I’m thinking through all the ways the system looks most likely to break, or where it looks like the GM will be carrying the heaviest workload. That’s reflex at this point. The spot most likely to be lost in the shuffle, as best as I can tell, is the storyteller’s implementation of the faction system—probably followed by tracking debt and its effects.

So I’m coming up with ways to share the load.

For context, Blades in the Dark comes with a whole host of background material. I don’t think any of it is necessary for a fun game. All the supplied narrative fluff can absolutely be ignored, as long as you have some forces in play that replicate the pressures those pieces of fluff offer: corrupt cops, competing gangs, and bigger and more powerful gangs (and individuals) scuffling for power far beyond the PCs immediate grasp. Groups should be able to come up with their own versions of Duskvol without any trouble, and fill them with the characters and groups they want to see.

But alongside that pre-supplied narrative fluff, the game also has a whole system set up for how to track the relationships and power of the different groups in the setting. I think tracking those is extremely important. That’s how the game tracks that pressure I mentioned above.

Now, there’s no reason the storyteller couldn’t bullshit their way through all of that tracking. That would be pretty normal, in my book. But much as the rules of Traveller are designed to simulate a crew’s constant struggle to pay off their ship’s mortgage, impelled into ever more risky and (hopefully) profitable exploits to stay a few credits ahead of their operating costs and debt payments, I think BitD is designed to push the PCs into bold action at the risk of utter catastrophe. 

I really want to see how that works. I really want the group I play with to try using those interlocking systems (with debt, faction favor & power, etc). I don’t want to lose that in the overwhelmed-GM shuffle.

This is where my ideas about sharing the load come in.

Apocalypse World had some very functional ways to play a two person game, where people would take turns running different Fronts and groups of NPCs for each other. I see no reason not to do something similar in BitD. Each player could handle the basic duties for tracking countdown clocks and behind-the-scenes action for a few of the different factions, and divvy up the responsibility for maintaining a living, vibrant, dangerous world instead of putting most of that on the storyteller.

The obvious sacrifice here is a lack of surprise around some NPC actions. And players would have to be willing to hand over the various factions’ agency to the GM, or else take a turn as the storyteller when their managed faction have center stage. But with a bit of conferring between players and the storyteller, I think it’s perfectly manageable (we’ll have a group of players that I trust to play well together).

I also think it’s worthwhile to encourage or require players to manage factions that their PC is not allied or friendly with. That reduces the temptation to use NPCs to treat their own PC favorably.

I’m curious about doing this in other systems too. I think it doesn’t work as well in games with more adversarial dynamics or hidden information. But there are always chances to offload work from the GM, and to give other players more time playing off each other and with the game’s world. Always a plus.

I really hope this game comes together and actually works out. If it does, I’m sure I’ll have more details to share here in some months. If this idea works, and if that plus having players track all our various debts and whatnot lets us dig into how the system-as-written forces more audacious play, I’ll be pretty happy. Honestly, I’ll be happy to just play some BitD.

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Contracts, Art, and making World Seeds

My World Seed creation process has slowed down. The hard part isn’t the words, though.

The hard part is finding artists. Locations keep coming to me, but without art I’m reluctant to publish the Seeds. I know I have good written content, but the art really helps. It convinces me that I’m offering something more than my own words (the value of which I’m far too ready to dismiss).

Sorry, I was wrong about the hard part. The hard part is having a contract I’m willing to use with artists. I’m sure I can find artists via several different channels, if I reached out through those. I have a short list of places to put calls for art, after all. But I don’t want to reach out without a written contract.

I might be letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Unfortunately, from the horror stories I’ve heard I’m also confident that having a bad contract can and will come back to bite me.

My first two World Seeds have art made by people with whom I have some kind of personal relationship; either I know the artist myself, or they’re within my immediate circle. There’s some basis for mutual trust. There’s some history of collaboration with myself or with someone else I know.

Without that, I don’t want to move forward on a wing and a prayer. Is that a mistake? Maybe. It certainly feels like one. It feels like I’m sitting on my hands and doing nothing, even though I keep adding to my collection of location descriptions to use in the future. I’ve posted forty nine of those so far to Patreon, and have thirty one more finished first drafts waiting in the wings (eighty in total). I average a little over a new one every week, more or less.

I have a few leads on contracts and contract advice, and expect to receive those reference materials in the near future… but there isn’t a clear timeline for that beyond “soon.”

Maybe, then, the right choice is to put together art-free versions and sell them for less. At least if I do that I’ll be moving finished products out the door, things that will require a minimum of additional work to fill with art once I have a contract ready. Doing that would allow me to publish an art-free Seed within a couple weeks, and another one within a couple months.

That isn’t what I’d dreamed of for this project—I’d thought about selling art-free Seeds while first developing this project, but incorporating visual art was always the goal. Sadly, that’s not where I am right now. If I want to make visible progress, it’s time to change course and ship something while I wait for the contracts and visual art to catch up.

Expect to see those art-free versions come out soon. In the meantime, if you want to see the currently available World Seeds, check out my stuff on DriveThruRPG.com.

Finding a way into D&D 5e

My partner is curious about RPGs but didn’t reliably click with D&D when we played online over the first year of the pandemic. Some of this is no doubt an artifact of that group and its dynamics, and my partner only knowing one other player in that group. Some of it came from their struggles to find the sweet spot for playing their character and engaging with the story. We spoke about that a good deal.

But I think it was also due to D&D simply being… not simple. It’s not straightforward, or intuitive, or streamlined, or… any of that. My impression of 5e as an “easy” system is grounded in decades of playing RPGs, starting with 2nd ed. AD&D before I could reliably read or write. And while a different system wouldn’t have removed any of the hurdles posed by story, character, or group dynamics, I can’t help but wonder whether it would have made the other issues feel more approachable or less insurmountable.

There are plenty of other RPGs to play. The very narrative-focused systems which have grown from the indie RPG scene would offer games more focused on the character and story. Any number of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) systems would have given my partner a more mechanically streamlined introduction to gaming. Hell, I love Monsterhearts and would happily play that all the time, and my partner enjoyed playing that for a little while too (though that group fell apart due to COVID).

We could have gone with Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies, for the straightforward percentile-rated skill-based gameplay with no (or very few) special abilities. I even could have used an extremely simplified GURPS—presumably with plenty of help during character creation, because that system feels like it’s intended to train future CPAs, and navigating all the possibilities of GURPS is a headache in its own right. What I’m trying to say is, I have a laundry list of RPGs that I’ve played and run before. At last count, most of a decade ago, I’d run more than a dozen systems and played close to thirty… and a lot of them were easier to engage with than D&D. That isn’t necessarily true for every step of playing them, but many have a lower mandatory cognitive load for “effective” play. Unlike with D&D, you don’t always have to keep track of an ever-growing collection of powers and abilities with hyper-specific uses.

But none of those other games are D&D. And that’s the problem. In so many other contexts, in pop culture, with other groups, or just playing with me and my sibs, my partner knows they’re going to run into D&D. And they’re abundantly aware that, for that to be accessible to them in the future, they need to pick up the basics at some point.

Which brings me back to the issue at hand. What other game might I run for them first, to give them a better feel for RPGs before they try D&D again? How might I run D&D differently to better engage them, and to help them feel their way into familiarity with the system?

I have some ideas.

We can talk through what genres my partner is excited to play, and choose a system with mechanics which fit. We can try some solo-play, to give my partner experience with a system without the distraction of larger group dynamics. And we can try a couple different one-shots or brief stories, to let us more-quickly sample the many different flavors available. Just jumping in and trying different systems and genres is probably our best bet.

D&D 5e doesn’t work equally well for everything, I’m very aware. But hopefully we can find ways to play that my partner enjoys, and give them the background to feel comfortable with D&D even if it’s not their game of choice. Wish us luck.

Whimsy’s Throne is live on DriveThruRPG!

You can find the first two World Seeds here. If you read and enjoy these World Seeds, please leave a positive review. That would mean a lot to me.

My goal, as I said a little while back, is to continue producing these Seeds for the foreseeable future. If you’d like to see the process in action, learn about how I’ve repeatedly edited out half—or even two-thirds—of the words in a piece, or see the art as it moves from concept to completion, you can do that at Whimsy’s Throne.

There’s still more to do, of course. I want to find another artist to work with next—if you make art, and would be willing to make something like what you can see in those Seeds for $400, let me know. I also want to have more legible covers for the DriveThruRPG store, which will require some tinkering.

And I’m trying to figure out where in the World Seeds (and how) to add a reference to Ginny Di’s video about advice she struggled with as a novice GM. I want these World Seeds to be as accessible as possible, to engage people in as many ways as possible (hence having both art and words). And while I can’t address the audio-preferred crowd very well in my pdfs, I can share videos that fill that gap. And I think her video has a usefully different approach to a lot of the advice my World Seeds give or imply.

It’s not advice that veteran storytellers are likely to need, but these World Seeds are supposed to be accessible to storytellers of all skill levels (ideally without feeling pedantic and overbearing). And while you could (and likely would) reach her conclusion by reading lots of material from The Alexandrian (like this, or this), I think she does a good job of saying it fairly concisely… and in a way that some GMs might understand more readily. I don’t know whether I want to expand World Seeds into a broader “RPG education” tool, or whether I want to do that in some other format, but I keep finding tidbits to add because I want these World Seeds to be a complete package for people at any level of comfort and confidence with storytelling.

Next week I might miss a post, as I’ll be traveling. I’ll be back before too long though. You should see me here again the week after.

World Seeds, Whimsy’s Throne, DriveThruRPG

I’ve made a DriveThruRPG storefront for my World Seeds project (see Whimsy’s Throne for details). I’ll link to that after I’ve uploaded my first Seeds. I knew this step was coming, once I had another finished Seed ready for publication. And now I’m dealing with the intricacies of posting content on DriveThruRPG while trying to figure out how to optimize the PDFs I’ve made for general distribution. I don’t want to publish content that immediately breaks when a stranger tries to open it, after all.

Unfortunately for me, I also don’t want to optimize my published content such that the art turns fuzzy and indistinct. This might be an issue.

My next steps are to upload the two World Seeds I have thus far. I’m making one available for free, and one for cash. Then I need to find another artist I like working with. Meanwhile, I’ll keep chugging along: writing more rough location descriptions and expanding existing descriptions into full-fledged Seeds.

My goal with this project has always been to produce a bunch of these things. And I want them to have notably distinct art styles for each Seed, for the most part. If I can have different artists bringing distinct styles (or experimenting with styles that are new to them), that’s perfect. I’m happy to do repeat work with artists, of course—I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with the artists I’ve worked with so far. I look forward to working with them again—I just don’t want the Seeds to be tied to only one style. The more variations, the merrier.

My hope is that I can have a varied body of artwork and styles reminiscent of the huge variety that was present in early 90’s Magic: the Gathering art. That’s what I grew up with. And while some of it was bad, I loved the way I could find so many totally novel art styles in the same game. During the 00’s MtG homogenized their style significantly, allowing some variation between sets but building a unified “house style.” While I can see how that makes sense for a company managing such a large quantity of content (and a company concerned with consistency in its artistic brand), I feel like MtG lost something when they stopped having such significant variation in artistic style from one card to the next. The individuality and experimentation faded away.

Given that I’m trying to build a product that engages people on as many levels as I can, and which appeals to as broad a group as possible, I feel like changing up art from one Seed to the next is my best option. If someone hates one art style, maybe they’ll love a different one and pick up that Seed. The dream would be for people to love and use every World Seed, but I’ll absolutely settle for catching people’s eye with a few different options.

RPGs as tools, quick thoughts

RPGs are magical. They’re incredibly powerful tools for personal exploration, when used intentionally. And they’re some of the best fun I’ve found.

I’ve played many different characters, seeking many different things. I spent a long time playing characters who wanted to control things or be prepared for all eventualities—something I associate with the style of game I played as a kid, and with my fear of failure or character death (heck, even character misfortune). Those traits, and the struggle to optimize or avoid failure, took a long time to unlearn. I still feel their pull.

I suspect that Monsterhearts, with its suggestion that you “drive your character like a stolen car” helped me break out of this mold the most. But it took me a long while to carry that same delight and freedom, and embracing of consequences as part of the game and story, into my games in other systems. Now, years later, the majority of the characters I’m playing these days are closer to that carefree mode. I feel considerably lighter playing those games, and I feel lighter when I am able to bring some of that same openness to the rest of my life.

I appreciate how my awareness of this has shifted, how I’m better able to recognize my preoccupation with not-failing and not-suffering in games and elsewhere. And I appreciate how RPGs give me an opportunity to explore failure and suffering without actually being stuck in those things. That exploration has been therapeutic for me. Giving in to my characters’ heedless pursuit of fulfilling their desires and achieving their (often simple) goals—and accepting the many ways they end up stubbing their toes or bloodying their noses on the way—offers a profound release from the constant clenching struggle of seeking perfection and avoiding failure. 

In many ways, this exploration has paralleled my personal struggles with perfectionism, control, and risk avoidance. My characters have served as a means of venturing outside my comfort zone, of exploring what other possibilities I have and what other modes are available for interacting with the world. My characters often take that exploration to the extreme, far beyond anything I’d want to engage with in real life, but they offer a safe place for experiencing what it’s like to live differently than I do. And they offer an avenue for both self-reflection and growth.

Of course, I play my characters for fun. Most of my characters aren’t designed with any of this in mind. And I don’t make my explorations at the expense of other players at the table, or without their engagement in the kinds of characters I play (my friends’ fun matters too). But with a bit of foresight, self-awareness, and reflection I’ve found RPGs to be right up there with meditation (perhaps like meditation’s active counterpart) as a means of uncovering and facing parts of myself, and growing myself in new directions.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers’ work, as I think I’ve written about before here, feels like a different kind of science fiction (and indeed genre fiction) than the stuff that I grew up reading as a kid. Her work is… emotionally textured, small in physical-plot scale, entirely about the characters in the story and their emotional journeys rather than about the big dramatic large-scale events which might be happening around them.

Her stories are about people before they’re about events. Sometimes big things happen, yes, but it’s the characters and their emotional lives that get our focus.

And this story, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (is it a novella? It’s certainly brief) feels even more character focused than the other books of hers I’ve read (the Wayfarer series).

That’s not a weakness.

I mean, none of this is a weakness, it’s what she does so well. It’s what sets her apart from so much other genre fiction (so much other fiction, period). I love this aspect of her work. What I mean to say is… the fact that this story feels even more character focused than her other books is a strength. It’s a delight.

The story is meditative, it’s charming, it’s sweet. It’s not without a hint of bitterness and sadness. But only enough to feel honest, only the amount that leaves me thinking “yes, this is precisely the way that would feel, this is just right as a representation of this very human emotional experience.” I often feel that way about things that Becky Chambers has written. Her skill at finding the emotional heart of an experience, and then expressing it in a way that resonates and sings, is one of the things I love about her work.

And that, no doubt, is why I love this story.

Well, it’s part of why I love the story.

There’s another large part, which is unique to me and a few of my friends; we’ve been playing a game of D&D for the past several years (yikes, we might be coming up on seven years at this point) and in many ways this entire book feels like the core of my (robot-plant) character. Reading a story that feels like it fully understands my character’s slightly-askew perspective on life—right down to the questions about purpose and… everything, really—is a joy. I feel like I’ve briefly shared brainspace with Becky Chambers herself. It’s fun, and it’s flattering: a writer I deeply respect reached similar thoughts when exploring this character’s emotional and psychological interior.

And all of this has left me wondering: where are the feeder-stories, the tributaries that lead new genre readers (or readers who love other parts of the genre) to this book? Is it happenstance? Does it rely on word of mouth?

I would not have found her work if I’d kept reading the adventure stories of my youth. I had read so many different high-plot high-action genre stories, with lots of exciting action going on and significantly less time given over to emotional depth. Had I continued reading “similar works” I suspect that I would never have picked up The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. In fact, I only read Chambers because a friend suggested that first Wayfarer book to me.

I hadn’t known that Becky Chambers’ stories were something I would love.

Anyways.

This is a good book. I recommend it, especially if you already know you like Chambers’ stories. If you haven’t tried her work before, this might be a little slow as an introduction (even if it is also quite short). But if you want good gentle science fiction all about very human emotions and philosophical struggles, this is a great piece for you.

Oh, yeah, this story also leaves me feeling better about the world, humanity, and myself. Other reviewers have called it optimistic, I’d call it heartening. It’s really very good in that way.

The Tower of Péng the Unprepared, and Whimsy’s Throne

I’ve started a Patreon for the Locations that keep coming to me! You can find it here, at Whimsy’s Throne. There’s a free version of my first finished World Seed there, The Tower of Péng the Unprepared. Here’s the cover art, from my friend Worsey.

The Ruins of Ghalburg

Nestled in foothills between the high peaks of the Sefghal Range, the lonely ruins of Ghalburg are only kept company by the wreckage of Ghalburg Keep on the slopes above. Though the burgeoning town was once known as a welcome stop on the way through the mountains, it has been shattered, pulled apart stone from stone, vast swathes of it put to the torch. Here and there, once-mighty timbers still stand as charred skeletons of formerly sturdy homes, memorials to their missing inhabitants.

The keep, perched in the hills above the town, is no less desolate. While it was spared from the same vast devastation, it still was broken open like a raw egg, its innards tumbling down the hill towards the town. The outer curtain wall was shattered in several places, and one whole corner of the central keep is gone, strewn across the grounds and out of the bailey. Like the town below, all the keep’s defenders are missing. No bodies remain to be found in any of the wreckage.

Now, this ruined settlement lies as a fearsome warning and an unanswered mystery. What force laid waste to the castle and its town? Was it some unknown group of raiders from the steep, storm-wracked peaks above? Or did Baroness Ghal set this horror in motion with untoward experiments in her obsessive effort to resurrect her family’s fortunes? Rumors abound, but no story yet bears the imprimatur of truth. The only certain thing is that none of the town’s residents have been seen or heard from since, and travelers through the region now avoid the once-popular town like the plague.

The Lonely House

Nestled in the shadows of the trees, a small hut sits neglected and lonely. Fieldstone walls open around a squat doorway, a lintel of old timber splintering across its top. The door itself sags on cracking leather hinges, drags across the dirt when opened, and its ancient boards creak back and forth in the wind. Like the rest of the house, the roof has seen better days; the thatch has mildewed, and tufts have been lifted up by breezes and small animals until they stick out like recalcitrant cowlicks. What was once a window is now simply a gaping wound, and the hut is dark and musty within. It is not an inviting place.

But more than a few have sheltered there, nestled amongst the tired and rotten furniture within while a storm rages without. Most who do seek shelter move on as soon as their storm passes, thinking nothing of the sad little house someone put so much effort into making many years before. But others, whether because the world outside has been buried in snow, or because a more metaphorical storm of villains still hunts them, make themselves at home. And it’s these people who begin to learn the truth of the place: settling in, fixing small things around the home, replacing what one has used or storing more than one has found… this invites offerings from the house. Sometimes that means dry firewood in a previously covered basket, or the woodworking tools needed to fix a broken stool. At other times, it may mean the clucking of a hen brooding over her eggs out back, or a stand of improbably ripe grain in a clearing amongst the trees nearby. Indeed, the house often offers food, though any food inside the house may disappear, clearly eaten without any trace of whoever ate it. Cautious guests are sure to always make leftovers for someone else, whoever they may be.

There are stories of those who’ve lived comfortably in the small house for a month, giving over their time to repairs and little improvements, making it a better place to live as they clean it and fix its broken pieces. Those who live there for so long often grow nervous, eventually. The house offers up pieces of itself, places which should not have been missed before, until no one can pretend that the house is anything but magic. Some tales of the house swear that doors appear behind fusty old blankets, leading into well-appointed rooms too large for the hut’s exterior, while others speak of finding an old well-stocked root cellar full of marvelously preserved supplies. These new spaces are never as decrepit, but still they exude a lingering age and neglect, as though they yearn for the care of a meticulous and indefatigable housekeeper. Most who live there for long enough to find those spaces lose their nerve, leaving the house as graciously as they can, swearing out loud to whatever spirits of the place may listen that they mean neither harm nor disrespect but simply must be on their way.

Perhaps this is because people who are offered more by the house than they return, or who do harm to what they find, discover things going missing. Belongings they brought with them may vanish—and where once the house replaced such things with objects of higher quality and greater craft, now their things are simply gone. Rooms and passages they’d grown used to using may disappear, along with all their contents, only perhaps found again through diligent work and careful repairs.

There are horror stories shared by some, of people trapped inside the house. These ungrateful guests find their doors no longer lead outside, nor to anywhere else that makes sense. There are whispers of those who’ve fled through the house as though it were a vast mansion, but each chamber behind them disappears as soon as they’ve left it without even leaving a door… until the ungrateful guests themselves vanish without a trace, a small meal for the hungry house.

Of course, those stories couldn’t be true; no teller with first hand knowledge could have escaped to share them. But the little hut remains, lonely or hungry or both, shelter for weary travelers and wary prey, offering hospitality of some strange kind to any who show they’ll be good guests.