The procedural beats of Blades In the Dark
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.