Disclaimer: In this article, I’ll be presenting some advice on how I think more planning-focused GMs can plan out a score in John Harper’s Blades in the Dark. Please note that I don’t think that this is the ONLY way someone could plan a score, or that planning is even necessary for more improvisational GMs.
Still with me? Cool. In Blades in the Dark, the structure of the book and it’s advice indicates that improvisation with the foundation of an expansive, detailed world is the go-to default for running the adventures that make up the game’s session-to-session experience, termed by Blades as “scores.” However, not all GM’s (myself included) do particularly well with on-the-spot improvisation, and while improvisation-from-source-material is one of the best ways to do improvised adventures, it isn’t strictly speaking the best or only way to run adventures for every GM.
Therefore, in this article, I’ll be presenting a methodology I’ve used to pre-plan scores that mimic the “sample” score provided in Blades in the Dark in style, so that they can be run from a written plan by less improvisational GMs.
Timing and Set-Up
In order to plan a score, three things need to be known to the GM before they begin planning:
Ideally, you should ask your players for all three of these at the end of a session, so that you as the GM have time to prep the next session’s score. If you find yourself in a situation where it’s impossible for you to gather these details from the players before-hand (such as in an opening session or a one-shot), you can fudge it a bit and decide the player’s Objective for them. For the Plan and Detail, you can plan out a starting Approach for each possible Plan the players might choose.
Planning Session Zero
Blades in the Dark, while not explicitly calling for a Session Zero in the text, usually benefits from a “set-up” session when starting a larger campaign or “Season” of Blades. In this session, players can create their characters in a group setting and decide on features of their crew.
I recommend once players have created their characters and crew, allocate some time for a ‘set-up’ adventure. Consider have the players meet with their initial crew contact who might provide them a few score opportunities. In this “mini-session” you can introduce some of the rules of Blades, as well as giving players the opportunity to see how their characters interact with one another in a relatively “safe” setting.
At the end of this mini-session, your players should have decided upon their first score, it’s objective, and the approach they’ll take to get it. This way, when it comes time to start “Session 1”, you can jump into the action with a pre-planned score that the players have collectively decided they want to pursue.
Objective, Plan and Detail
Scores in Blades in the Dark are usually built around very specific, actionable objectives: steal a thing, take over a territory, etc. However, in the case that your running a game that requires more investigation or information-gathering, you could potentially run a score built around unearthing some clue or mystery. In these cases, your player’s objective might get a bit muddled before the score even starts. Therefore, it’s wise to poll your players about their goals before the score gets going. Aim for specific, actionable goals. Learn what we can is very broad, and it’s hard to drive play towards that objective. Steal the shipment records for the weapon shipments is more specific, and allows you, as the GM to structure the obstacles in the score as barriers between the players and their goal.
Keep in mind that the objective can always change during the score, and you as the GM should feel free to dangle side-objectives or secondary goals off the “main path” of the score.
Once the objective is established, you can ask the player’s for their Plan and Detail as normal. As mentioned before, these aspects of the score are best decided at the end of a session, as it will give you as the GM time to plan the score while knowing what route the players are planning on using to confront your Score.
Planning Your Score
A step that is often missed, the “Prelude” to a score is an important aspect in setting the tone of the score and setting up the “Engagement” roll. As the GM, you should take the plan the players made and the accompanying detail for the route they will take to the score, and use these details to describe in fiction the environment and the “set up” for the adventure. Keep in mind that players can ask questions of this description or fill in other details. This prelude should be short-and-sweet, usually only a single sentence before you jump forward to the engagement roll.
When your players decide to do a score, consider introducing an external element or occurrence that runs parallel to what they’re planning. The world isn’t static, factions are constantly scheming and working on their goals. A score can become more interesting if you weave in a “what else is going on” perspective. After all, factions don’t just wait around to get robbed, beaten, and defeated. If your players are trying to sneak in to a secure compound, maybe include a rival faction attacking at the same time. If the crew is after a valuable artifact, consider throwing in a rival crew that is out to get the same target.
Planning for the Engagement Roll doesn’t need to be in-depth. Have a rough idea for what a desperate, risky, and controlled position will look like for your first obstacle.
Now comes the fun part. Planning out the obstacles that stand between the players and their goal. Ideally, you should have ~4 obstacles planned out that are keeping the player’s from the goal. This planning should include a brief, one sentence description of each obstacle.
Planning to their strengths. Consider structuring your obstacles with your PC’s in mind. PC’s use their character sheets to signal what kind of obstacles they plan to encounter in your game, so it’s worthwhile to throw in some obstacles that maybe play to your character’s strengths.
Plan obstacles, not solutions. This is classic advice, but it’s still solid. Your job isn’t to decide how the players should overcome an obstacle. Simply put the obstacle in their path and let them figure out how to get around, through, or over it.
Avoid redundancy. A series of three doors, each one requiring the same exact key to bypass is not three obstacles. It’s one, at best. Try to mix up the style of your obstacle, so that a single solution can’t overthrow all of them. If the elevator is locked up with chains, then the next obstacle might be a set of patrolling guards.
Work in-to-out. It can be helpful to start with the last obstacle before the players reach their objective. Make this obstacle the toughest, most rigid or expansive obstacle. Then, layer out your obstacles, reducing their relative difficulty as you get further from the objective. Players expect a difficulty curve, and having the final obstacle be the easiest to overcome can feel anticlimactic.
Alarm and response. Oftentimes, the crew might be at risk of running afoul of some alarm. Plan out how reactive this alarm is, ie how long it takes to fill up it’s clock. A site that is on high-alert with a sophisticated alarm system will likely respond quickly to trouble. A location with a run-down security system (or barely one at all) might take longer to bring to “full alert”. However, just as importantly, if the alarm goes off, have a reaction planned. Have a new obstacle to introduce and confront the players with it immediately. It’s up to your judgement of the situation whether it’s a highly-trained response team of elite Bluecoats or the night watchman with a flashlight.
Running a Score
Encourage flashbacks. If your players are having trouble with an obstacle, encourage them to try a flashback. Is there something you could have done earlier that would make this easier? You can use a flashback. Even the most tricky challenge can be overcome with the sort of unlimited foresight that flashbacks allow. If you run into a guard, flashback to paying him off. If you need a security badge, flashback to forging it. Flashbacks are particularly useful when the “Plan A” for dealing with an obstacle fails or if you feel like the situation is spiraling out of control.
Lead, but don’t drag. As your players run into the obstacles, consider leading them from one to the other. Present each obstacle in turn. Once they get past the guard, get them in front of the magical wards. Once they’re through the wards, describe the cultists standing around the artifact. In this way, you can give your score forward momentum. Keep in mind that if your players want to do something different or consider a different approach, they can always stop you and say “Wait, wait, instead, let’s do this…” Your goal is to prevent the situation where your players are stumped on what to do next and to keep the game moving. If your players want to linger over something, they’ll let you know.
Copywright Notice: Blades in the Dark is written by John Harper and published by Evil Hat. The Marquee image on this page is property of Evil Hat.