Session Zero


Bloodheist, recently published by Vaults of Vaarn creator Leo Hunt and illustrated by Lewis Garvey, does that thing I wrote about in my previous post — namely, leverage bespoke rules in the service of building a particular world and type of play. In some ways, it resembles Blades In the Dark: both games deal with fantasy-horror themes in a gothic-industrial setting, revolve around criminal heists, and are structured for episodic play. But where Blades is comparatively maximalist, Bloodheist deploys only a handful of rules and mechanics to foster a more free-wheeling style of play.

The underlying design is clever, though. Risky actions are resolved using a dice pool and a version of the familiar “d6 with complications” model. In part, that pool is assembled by counting character advantages (e.g. skills, the right tool, assistance), but its further expanded by the addition of “doom dice.” Doom dice can contribute to a successful roll, but they also represent the increasingly mortal risk player characters take in pursuit of each heist's prize. Collect enough doom dice, and succeeding on one will eventually kill you.

Doom dice are an elegant illustration of how a rule can hone the theme of the game while staying close to the core of play. As a replacement for hit points, they fold one RPG trope into another. Doing so, they link character death to success in a way that's narratively compensatory. Sure, your character was killed, but they went out in a blaze of glory. Death in Bloodheist ends up being a function not only of risk, but also of success, rather than failure.

Another rule — presented as optional, but why deprive yourself? — encourages tension among protagonists by issuing each player a secret motive. For example, a character may be under strict orders by a shadowy council to ensure that a given NPC, or even another player character, meets an untimely end during the course of the heist. Not every secret is so confrontational, but they're all designed to complicate the collaborate nature of typical role-play by putting the individual at cross purposes with the crew as a whole. That sort of player-vs.-player undercurrent can be risky in a RPG — nerve-wracking, even — but it also makes the theme of treachery more than just an narrative conceit. At the same time, the rule softens the antagonism by portioning out secrets by the draw of a card. Nothing personal, just playing the hand I was dealt.

Lastly, the game is deliberately thin on combat. Weapons have no damage stat, which would avail you little anyway, since characters have no HP — or, for that matter, any other numerical stats beyond a score to determine how many doom dice they roll. Combat is handled, like any other action, by preparing an action roll and narrating consequences based on its result. No initiative, no turns, no enemy skill checks. The result, per one of the design notes threaded throughout, is meant to be quick and decisive. That set up is, in other words, a decision about the sort of action the game affords. Bloodheist doesn't abjure interpersonal violence altogether, but by refusing to simulate it in fine-grained detail, it refuses to privilege it above other types of play.

#Bloodheist #BladesInTheDark

I've been reading through Blades in the Dark with the idea of making that my group's next big campaign. Unsurprisingly, given its reputation, I'm dazzled by the mix of ideas that have gone into its design. The setting and scenario are distinct — “daring scoundrels in a haunted industrial-fantasy city” is the table pitch author John Harper provides — a definite plus in my book, as I've mentioned before. But what really stands out is the way in which the game orders play.

The basic routine is uncommonly tight. Campaign play centers on the construction of a criminal empire. To get there, the players must pull off a long, uncharted series of criminal scores. The narrative beats that make up these scores are divided into distinct phases defined by what the players can and (depending on the circumstances) should do in each. And at the level of moment-to-moment play, those phases are fleshed out with procedures that, whenever possible, cut to the action.

Take, for example, flashbacks, which let the table skip the potentially endless deliberation over what ought to be done in preparation for a heist. They do so by letting players prepare for a challenge after they've encountered it. At the players' request, the GM simply pauses the current dilemma, lets the group narrative how they might have already prepared for the obstacle they now face, and any difficulties that might entail are sorted out using the usual procedures, typically an action roll. That post hoc maneuver sorted, play returns to the more current problem, and the party deals with it accordingly — or fails to, as the case may be. Blades' use of flashbacks is only meant to simplify play. It's meant to make complex scenarios manageable, not easy.

Procedures like flashback and progress clocks serve as levers and dials for dynamically adjusting the tension level of play. Draw a circle, divide it into slices, and scribble in each wedge as an ongoing circumstance unfolds, until you've filled in the whole clock. That's a progress clock. When matters get out of hand, a flashback lets players pause the action and root around in the recent past for potential solutions. By attaching a progress clock to a given consequence, the GM can ratchet the tension in the opposite direction, making a threat steadily more immanent.

Progress clocks also help maintain a balance between the freedom and grounding afforded to play. The rules place very few restrictions on the sort of actions players can claim for their characters. By assigning a progress clock to an action, a GM can give it narrative heft, without cramping the player's creativity. The clearest examples involve the long-term projects characters can work on during the downtime phase of play. Thus, if a player wants to fabricate a hyper-specific super weapon, the GM can allow it — on the condition that the character makes building it into a long term project, divided into specified phases, each measured by a progress clock. Breaking the action down into parts gives the player something to do in order to pull of their plan, and the progress clocks freight those steps with a sense of effort expended.

Engagement rolls and flashbacks keep play from bogging down in endless haggling over the details of plans. The engagement roll sidesteps the tendency toward over-caution that comes of throwing players into a situation that is still pretty abstract for everyone involved. It assumes that the characters are competent criminals who've already assessed the best possible approach to their goal, then resolves the uncertainty of that approach with a Luck roll. That jump starts the action and prompts the players to adjust to an immanent threat, rather than a undefined range of merely possible threats.

All of which promises to cut down on long spans of unfruitful narrative uncertainty, which can be especially frustrating when you're already struggling to carve out a few hours of session time per week. The question is whether the tightness those procedures afford comes at the expense of flexibility.