Blades In the Dark: Charhollow Manor

Saturday around 5pm Andy and I decided to play a game of something at 8pm. I couldn’t have prepped if I’d wanted to, which turned out to be ideal!

We convened on a google hangout and decided to kick the tires on Blades in the Dark. I’d run one game in it a few months back and really enjoyed it. Andy had recently picked up the rules and was interested in trying it out too. We decided to play a scenario in which the crew breaks into a building to steal something. This is the sort of encounter that would be difficult (or even boring) to run in D&D.

With that in mind we took 5-10 minutes to prep initial ideas and character concepts. I picked a location in the city and wrote out a couple of characters including the sort of person who might have a building big enough to hold something valuable in. These were just sketches at this point.

Then we reconvened and went through the character creation process. In Blades the character creation process also serves as worldbuilding. As Andy built his character’s background it directly informed the sorts of locations and NPCs that should exist in the game. That then allowed me to adjust the NPC’s I’d sketched out to fit with his background.

If you just want some closing thoughts on what I think of Blades in the Dark you can find those at the bottom of this post. What follows is a play report that is way too exhaustive:

Orlan “Twelves” Savoy

Andy decided to play a Lurk named Orlan “Twelves” Savoy. We don’t yet know how he got the alias “Twelves”. Orlan used to be a hatchetman for councilman Hix Brogan until he was forced to take the fall for a situation that went south.

Orlan’s vice is fine wine, often pilfered from fancy houses during parties. He’s always drinking whatever was fashionable last year.

He looks fierce and wears suits. To the attentive eye he wears these suits very poorly (“mismatched cufflinks?!”), but he passes as fancy to the proletariat.

Named NPCs

  • Lady Vestra - owner of the Emperor’s Cask a small wine bar in the basement of a building in Charhallow. Has two metallic prosthetic arms, both about a foot longer than they should be, which is helpful for running a bar.
  • Hix Brogan - Charhollow’s councilman. Gregarious, large, and a big bushy beard. Controversy seems to slide off of him and onto the nearest underling. Orlan took the fall for one such controversy about 6 months ago.
  • Booker Morriston - landlord in Charhollow. He made his fortune by slowly buying up the bars in Charhollow, then the buildings around them. Shrewd, curt, and flush with new money. He dresses to the nines all the time: top hat, cane, coat tails and all impeccably cared for.
  • Telda - a jolly beggar and a drunk. Orlan’s friend and informant on the street. Telda is always up for shenanigans if wine is offered. Orlan thinks Telda has no taste.

Locations

  • Emperor’s Cask - Vestra’s bar. Frequented by the upper class—and also Orlan. One of the few bars in Charhollow not owned by Booker; although Booker has tried to buy it numerous times.
  • Charhollow Manor - a two-story Palladian monstrosity nestled in the middle of the tenements of Charhallow. Booker had this built about a year or two ago. He slowly bought up a handful of tenements on the southern bank of Charhollow on the Dosk river. Then bulldozed them to make way for this eyesore.
  • Kellen’s - a bar in South Charhollow nearby the Manor. One of the bars known as the Six Towers where Booker started to make most of his money.

The Game Itself

What follows are some notes from the game itself. In a few spots I kept tally of the rolls Orlan was making. When rolls appear below they’re marked with the position and effect followed by the action he used and the result. Example: Risky Standard, Sway: 3. Where I only noted what action he used those are just bolded. Example: prowl.

I’m including this because I think this is both the coolest part of Blades and the hardest thing to grasp about the system. Every time a character tries to do something that might not work you roll to find out what happens. The GM sets the position (are you in control? is this risky? is this desperate?) and the effect (if it happens would the effect be great? just standard? or somehow reduced?). Then the player rolls. If they’re successful they do it, but the majority of the time they’re going to do it, but incur some sort of consequence, or outright fail. Most of the fun in Blades is when things go poorly and the PCs have to scramble.

Intro - Emperor’s Cask

We start on a Thursday night at Lady Vestra’s Emperor’s Cask. Vestra is behind the bar reaching to the top and bottom shelves with her metallic arms when Orlan saunters in. She turns to him and greets him warmly, “Orlan you’re back! Again!”

Orlan’s routine is constantly trying too hard. He tries to casually ask if Vestra knows what Councilman Hix has been in recently by asking what sorts of things he’s drinking these days. He rolls Controlled Great, Sway: 3. He just ends up spilling his wine all over himself while he blubbers his question. Vestra doesn’t hear him and instead helps clean him up.

He then decides to take a direct approach. Risky Standard, Command: 1. “I don’t think you should be asking openly about Hix like that, Orlan.” Orlan replies, ”It’s been six months since it all went down…“

Just then, movement from the front door, it’s Hix coming in. Orlan successfully vaults over the bar, neatly grabbing his drink and Vestra pushes him underneath it.

After Hix comes in, another man follows—Booker—they sit at the bar. Hix orders wine, and Orlan notes that the wine has an ornate Dragon on the label. He makes a mental note to track some of this down later. Booker brusquely orders a “beer.” Vestra eyes him suspiciously and reaches below the bar to pull out a bottle.

Hix and Booker then have a conversation. Hix wants “the thing” that Booker is “holding” for him. Booker assures him that “it is safe”. Hix presses that he’d like to see it. Booker finally acquieces to let him come by tomorrow night to check on it. Orlan decides he wants to steal it or ruin it.

Vestra grabs him before he leaves and tells him to not get into trouble. Orlan says he’d never think of it. As he’s leaving she asks, “Oh, and Orlan. I’ve always wondered…why do they call you Twelves?” Orlan turns, gives a cinematic wink and leaves.

Outside

Hix has left already, Booker is about to get in his carriage. Orlan is going to try to find out where he’s going.

Orlan walks up, pretends to find a coin on the ground, and offers it to Booker “Excuse me sir, did you drop this?!” Controlled Standard, Sway: 4. Booker turns to face him with a sneer, “1. do I look like the sort of man who drops money and 2. Do I look like the sort of man who would bother to pick up a coin of that denomination?”

He then loudly tells the driver to take him to Charhollow Manor.

Orlan now has a motive and an opportunity. Now he just needs the means to pull it off.

Engagement Roll

With this background established now Orlan needs to come up with a plan. He decides to strike tonight. I flubbed this part a bit. We should have immediately jumped to going to the manor and then done the following as flashbacks. Oh well!

Instead we decide that Orlan has two hours of prep before he should try to make his move. He decides to try to:

  • Find someone who worked on the mansion’s construction who might know the layout and any weaknesses of it.
  • Try to talk to a manager of one of the bars to see if they know anything about shipments.

Handily both of these people are likely to be at Kellan’s, a bar owned by Booker on the South end of Charhollow quite close to Charhallow Manor.

Kellen’s is a dim, but clean, bar full of a cross-section of Charhallow’s inhabitants. Booker is good at holding down supply lines. Most of the drink here is stuff only he is able to secure. It’s good too, so the place is hopping. There is liquor here that only he has. Near the front are some construction workers who look like the sort that could have worked on Booker’s mansion.

Orlan tries to talk up the workers. He brings over four drinks for them and asks them if they know anything about the manor. Risky Standard, Consort: 3. It goes poorly. One of them attempts to pour a drink on him and push him over. He decides to use a game mechanic to resist the consequence and is successful. He instead grabs the drink back from the guy and pirouettes away. They then fight over the remaining 3 drinks while he goes elsewhere and observe the crowd:

Observing the crowd and overhearing conversations he marks the manager, a guy named Carro. Avoiding him he prowls his way to the back room. He mistimes this and a bartender sees him go back there.

  • He decides to quickly survey the office to find materials. He spends some stress to make the effect greater so it’s raised from Reduced to Standard. Desperate Standard, Survey: 4. He manages to find the documents, but Carro, the manager, enters and sees his face.
  • Orlan tries to talk his way out of it with Risky Standard, Sway: 2. Carro draws a knife on him.
  • He attempts to talk him down. I offer him a Devil’s Bargain. If, regardless of what happens next, Orlan agrees to give him a “10% cut” he can roll an extra die. Desperate Great, Sway: 6. He convinces Carro to back down. Carro says, “If you give me 10% from whatever it is you’re up to…“What are you up to exactly?” Orlan repies,“I’m not sure yet, but I’ll have your cut tomorrow.”
  • Orlan then looks through the documents for anything untoward. Controlled Great, Survey: 3. He learns nothing specific other than that Booker runs a tight ship. Everything is accounted for and on the up and up. However, certain shipments are immediately sent on to the manor.

With nothing really learned other than gaining a confidant in Carro, Orlan leaves to go to the Manor.

The Score: Charhollow Manor

Orlan’s decides to approach this score with a Stealth style engagement. He rolls to set his initial position and gets a 6. That means he walks into the situation in Control.

The manor is two stories, surrounded by a massive lawn and ringed by a gate. In front of the building is a fountain and parked near the front door is the same carriage that Booker left the Emperor’s Cask in.

There’s no one guarding the gate and the gate is unlocked. Orlan scopes out the grounds and sees there’s a guard who pokes his head outside the building now and then to do a quick loop around the property. Other than that the yard is quiet.

Orlan then walks around the building and finds a side entrance where it’s clear that deliveries to the house are made. The rear of the building has large French doors that open to a path down to the riverside where a dock with a pontoon boat is tied up.

  • Orlan decides to try to pick the lock on the side door. Controlled Standard, Finesse: 1, lock is something he hasn’t seen and he has no luck picking it.
  • He tries it again with reduced position: Risky Standard, Finesse: 1 The lock pick breaks off inside the lock.
  • He then decides to try to climb the window to the second story to enter into one of the windows. Risky Standard, Prowl: 3, he falls and takes level 1 harm of winded.

While laying on the ground staring up at the sky Orlan wonders what brought him to this point. He decides to take a stress and do a flashback back to talking to Telda right before he came to the Manor:

“Come by around 30 minutes after I arrive and as drunk as can be and distract the guards. You can go to my wine cellar and take any bottle you want.” As he’s thinking about this Orlan remembers that the Dragon wine he’d seen earlier at the Emperor’s Cask actually did look familiar: he had a bottle of it in his collection he hadn’t gotten to yet.

Right on queue, Telda comes up the walk way singing and swinging a bottle. In the moonlight Orlan can make out the Dragon on the label. A guard runs out to chase Telda.

  • Risky Standard, Prowl: 4 to slip in the front door while the guard was distracted. He manages to get in past the guard chasing Telda, but as soon as he gets inside he sees there’s another guard who hasn’t seen him yet.
  • Risky Great, Prowl: 4 Orlan quickly turns away from the guard and runs into a room to the left. He gets into the room and closes the door a little too loudly and the guard is alerted.
  • Risky Standard, Prowl: 5. He dives under the desk at the far end of the room. Goon comes in and says “who is in there? I have a gun.”
  • Risky Standard Skirmish: 5 to jump out, and disarm him. Orlan rolls out and chops the gun out of the goon’s hand, but the guy stands his ground.
  • Risky Standard, Skirmish: 4 to dive and grab the gun. He dives and manages to get a hand on the gun, but is left on his back. The Goon is lumbering toward him.
  • Controlled Standard, Sway: 4 to call him off. Orlan says, “I’ll be in and out in a minute, you don’t want to die over this.” Goon says, “Well, yeah. I don’t want to die, but you still gotta leave right now. Right now!”

Orlan then gets up, clocks the goon hard and knocks him out. He takes his clothes and then hides his limp body beneath the desk.

Orlan looks around the desk and surveys the stacks of papers. He rolls high and has plenty of time to digest the papers. Lots of deliveries from various places for top hats, canes, and suits, furniture and other flashy things for the manor. Most interestingly though is one paper at the bottom that simply says “The Unseen. Mask.” and dated from a few days before today. This is it. This is his target.

Orlan then slips out of the office, runs over to the front door and closes it. He overhears that outside Telda is still leading the guard on a wild goose chase. I have a clock going for Telda’s distraction and Orlan has one more tick left on that clock.

He slips up to second story has a large room on the left and 3 rooms on the right. Orlan surmises that the large room’s one door might indicate a master bedroom. He goes and taps on the door to see if anyone is in there. He hears footsteps coming towards the door. He dashes downstairs to hide behind the stairs managing to just make it before the front door opens again.

The guard comes in just as whoever is upstairs yells loudly through the door, “What? Who is it?” The guard looks around for the other goon and then runs upstairs to see what the person in the large room needs.

Orlan then books it across the foyer into the room opposite of the office. He rolls poorly and as soon as he enters he’s met with a cook looking at him. It’s the kitchen.

The cook is unconvinced when Orlan tells him there’s someone out there trying to rob the place. “I haven’t seen you around here before? Where did you get that suit?” Then Orlan tries to hit him with his blackjack and misses. The cook pushes him into a pot of boiling soup and Orlan takes the level 1 harm “Scalded”. The cook uses his opportunity to run away to get the guards.

Orlan decides his time is up. He’s about to leave when he notices a rack of wine in the kitchen. Feeling defeated, he looks at the rack and sees that it includes a bottle of that Dragon wine. There’s also a plate of sandwiches on the counter. He takes a bottle of wine, a bite of the sandwich, and exits the side door he unsuccessfully tried to pick earlier.

He then spends a stress to have a flashback where he paid a cabbie to be waiting for him for his getaway. As he’s vaulting the fence he looks back and sees in the second story a figure slowly bringing something to their face. As they get close a brilliant blue light starts to emanate from the object. Then as it reaches the perso’s face, a flash of blue bursts from the window and fills the night sky. Then it the light in the room goes dark.

Thoughts

What I appreciate most about Blades is the flow of rolling and consequences. As a GM you are fan of the player’s characters and want them to succeed. That can tend to let you take it easy on them, which results in a lot less drama in a scene. It’s only when you start to give the players difficult consequences that they can come back with more outlandish attempts.

Andy played Orlan wonderfully. Orlan comes across as a bumbling incompetent thief in this which is FAR more interesting than if he’d, say, easily defeated the lock, skillfully located the mask, and left the mansion unscathed in a few minutes. Because every inch of progress is so fraught it makes the successes feel great.

That said, the system is very much designed around the concept of a crew. We were playing with one PC and that worked for a fun one-shot, but the scenario would have played out a LOT differently with even one additional player.

BitD also, in my opinion, manages to fully support players who want to metagame. If you do metagame all that happens is that you’re playing to your character’s strength, which is rewarding to the fiction. Orlan is a Lurk, so he’s going to rely on those skills more than things like punching and that then makes him act more Lurk-like. Since there’s such flexibility in your approach to everything Blades let’s you do it in your own way. If you can come up with a plausbile enough reason why it might work the GM can reward that by letting you do it. If you fail, well, the story then gets nudged in a new and unique direction.

I’d also add that Doskvol is a fantastic setting. Coupled with a superbly written sourcebook (with a great index!) it made a no-prep game entirely doable. As NPC’s were needed I could quickly grab a name, some ideas for them, locations they could be working at, etc. If you’re okay sticking with what’s in the book you have so much to work with.

I’m bullish on this system. It’s not a 1 to 1 replacement for D&D, but rather a complimentary style of play that I hope to get a chance to play a lot more.