A woman born into squalor whose determination and aptitude for violence moved her from the most obvious career paths as she forges a crew of her own. A grifter with a knack for playing roles above his station perhaps a bit to well, and who might just be living a con of his own. A street child with a knack for getting where she is not supposed to, who is finding that she must choose between the old ways of her people and the new life they are building for themselves in Duskwall. A mad arsonist, who’s inventions, as terrifying as they are, can prove to be incredibly useful…if you don’t find yourself experimented on first. Meet the Party strives to create ready-to-play characters for a variety of systems and settings, both for your use and to inspire you in making characters of your own. This week, we will be taking a look at the award winning indie tabletop game Blades in the Dark from our friends over at Evil Hat Productions.
“You’re in a haunted Victorian-era city trapped inside a wall of lightning powered by demon blood.” It’s a somewhat condensed description of the setting, but an accurate one. Due to a past cataclysm, the sun only makes the briefest of appearances at dawn at dusk and the dead have become unable to pass onto the afterlife. This has led to a further complication of vengeful ghosts, the seas turning ink black and being infested by demons and other twisted abominations, for which the only defense is lighting towers powered by the ectoplasmic blood of the demonic horrors themselves. A world such as this causes the truly desperate to look for any way to eke out a living, and a daring few scoundrels are willing to break the rules to improve their sorry lot in the capital city of Duskvol (commonly known as Duskwall by its inhabitants). That’s where PCs come in.
Blades is an interesting case, in that it clearly owes a great deal to games Powered by The Apocalypse, while absolutely being its own game by taking unique approaches to dice mechanics work, item inventory and how Player Characters (and their gangs) advance and interact with the city around them. Character creation is relatively straightforward mechanically, with eight character classes, all of which can be fit onto one sheet of paper and have relatively few customization options to start with. Players are asked to flesh out their gang: what part of the city they set up in, who they owe and are warring and competing against, and what kind of gang they want to be. However,the dice mechanics are significantly different. Rather than the standard “Roll 2d6 + Attribute”, Blades takes a radical departure. Rolls are made depending on the number of skill dots or attribute points your character possesses, at which your character uses the highest die rolled. A 1-3 is a failure, a 4-5 is success with a complication, and a 6 is a full success. Rolling two or more sixes is a critical success. There is a bit more grit into the severity of how rolls are assigned, but that deserves a longer write-up.
Overall, the best thing mechanics-wise to convey is that the game is supposed to feel like a heist movie. The protagonists are supposed to pull things out of their asses at the last minute. Players have the chance (and are encouraged) to spend from their stress track (similar another of Evil Hat’s systems, FATE) to get better dice pools on rolls, to increase the effect of a good roll, or to add a retroactive detail that solves the situation (you bribed the guard in advance, you had a backup rope, you hired a broke actor to pretend to be a Bluejacket to take you in) Players are also always allowed to make a Devil’s Bargain with the GM, in which they are able to roll an extra die for a future complication. (If you hear something, that is the sound of GMs reading that and bursting out laughing). Inventory also takes an interesting twist, as players are given access to everything on their character sheet throughout the course of a session. However, they must choose a Loadout level, which marks how conspicuous you look throughout your job. Lighter loads give you fewer available item slots, but you blend it far easier, while heavier loads give you more at the cost of standing out. Players have a general list of useful items, but every character type has their own unique choices. Players can retroactively declare that you have had that item the entire time, but then check the appropriate boxes on your sheet up until you reach your Loadout, meaning that you can’t pull forever.
Overall, if you feel like you are interested in playing a mashup of heist movie meets Victorian gothic novel, you are probably somewhere in the right place. That said, the core rule book does offer a number of different parts of the city to set up in, and part of the process of starting a full game is to go through your group and decide where your team of miscreants wants to set up their base of operation. Some districts are better set up for intrigue and politicking as the secret shadow hand of nobles as they play their games. A brute squad set to carve out their own territory as enforcers would be better off in a district where the workers are getting malcontent. You might instead go to one of the districts where the supernatural has been bleeding through for a setting reminiscent of Call of Cthulhu. Today, we will be focusing on Silkshore, a district of perfectly legitimate ill repute, and often the default setting for many games.
As a default, characters are given a set 3 dots in actions (Effective skills) automatically, depending on the character type they have chosen to play. Players are asked to assign two dots based on their heritage and background, using their backstory to explain them. Players are given 2 more to do with as they wish, but they are not allowed to exceed 2 during character creation. In another diversion from PBtA games, groups may have more than one character type per game, so long as the GM feels that they are not too close in concept, and the core rule book has a few suggestions for archetypes that players may want for their character. The book recommends 2-4 players, mostly for issues of keeping gameplay tight, but confident GMs may be willing to expand it. If not, each session is designed to be self contained, which makes it an excellent choice for days when a normal group doesn’t have all of the people required for a full session, or if the main GM needs a day off. So, let’s see who is skulking in the streets of Dusvol today…
THE DIRT MERCHANTS
THE CUTTER – Millicent “Misty” Silk
Vice: Oblivion – Losing herself in the fighting pits
Look: Woman, Wiry, Rough Tunic
Close Friend: Sawtooth, a physicer who would patch her up in the old days
Rival: Grace, an extortionist who used to run with Misty
Special Ability: Leader (Cohort NPC’s won’t break when they take 3-harm, like they normally would. They gain +1 effect and +1 armor)
Attributes and Skills
Special Items: Fine hand weapon, Fine heavy weapon (2 slots), Scary weapon or tool, Manacles & chain, Rage essence vial, Spiritbane charm
Backstory: The daughter of a Silkshore “worker” who had been a refugee from the recent Unity War, she was expected to be brought into the “family business”. In Silkshore, that tended to the in one of the many brothels, and not getting roped in required keeping a keen eye out. Eventually hitting the age where serious attempts might be taken to force her into the industry, Misty ran away and formed her own group of street urchins to gang together and beat away some of the lone predators in the district. She found quite quickly that she had more of a talent for it than others The name “Misty” came from the mist that tended to splatter her clothes when she was working, and from the haze that seemed to mist at the edges of her vision. (1 dot in Command) Her pure force of personality seems to stiffen the spine of people under her charge, and her Leader ability pushes them past the point where they should break. In spite (or because of) her intent on keeping the group together, her little bands tended to not last too long, especially as they grew up. Most scattered to other gangs before she started to put together this one with her new second in command, Johnny Prague.
THE SLIDE – Johnny “The Gentleman” Prague
Vice: Pleasure – High quality food and drink
Look: Male, Affable, and Waistcoat and Sharp Trousers
Close Friend: Nyryx the prostitute, who hears many interesting things between the sheets.
Rival: Bazco Baz, the gang leader who didn’t like the way a “stuck up fancy man” spoke to him
Special Ability: A Little Something On The Side (At the end of each downtime phase, gain 2 stash)
Attributes and Skills
Special Items: Fine clothes & jewelry, Fine disguise kit, Fine loaded dice, trick cards, Trance powder, A cane-sword, Spiritbane charm
Backstory: “Johnny” was born as Jonathan Meyer, the eldest son of a noble house, and was expected to take over the family of business of refining ectoplasm. Already in dire straights after generations of family mismanagement, the business was on the verge of collapse when he took over. He attempted to throw himself into the family business, only to crack under the pressure (+1 Study) Desperate, he faked his own death and took to the streets. After a few rough months of begging for drinks, he found that he had a knack for getting people to open up for him. While he hasn’t managed to lose all of his old habits (and taste for fine food and drink), it turned out to be considerably easier for members of the Duskvol underworld to assume that he is a con man pretending to act like an impoverished noble rather than a real one. He began a second career as a Slide, a con man with a knack for fooling and charming marks, along with a surprising natural talent for picking pockets. As a native Akorosi in good standing, he is the member of the gang who finds it easiest to mingle through all social strata in Duskvol and what he’s learned of business hasn’t entirely gone to waste. With his ability A Little Something on the Side he keeps getting a flow of extra stash during downtime to help finance his nights out. Of course, he’s not the most street smart, and after one job things took a dark turn when he found himself squeezed for a bigger cut by a greedy hireling. Fortunately, his little problem happened to run afoul of a very pissed off Misty, and he’s been under her protection since.
THE LURK – Isra “ Skitter”” Kharyat
Heritage: Iruvian – Nomad
Vice: Obligation – Surviving as a street rat amongst street rats from a young age, Isra cannot forget those who still scrounge to survive. Isra keeps close contacts with other Iruvian street rats and keeps an eye out for their well being.
Look: Female, fierce and athletic, hood and veil
Close Friend: Telda, a beggar who hears and sees everything
Rival: Darmot, a bluecoat who’d rather ship the street rats out to work houses
Special Ability: Ghost Veil (may shift partially into the ghost field, becoming shadowy and insubstantial for a few moments. Take 2 stress when you shift, plus 1 stress for each extra feature: It lasts for a few minutes rather than moments—you are invisible rather than shadowy—you may float through the air like a ghost)
Attributes and Skills
Special Items: Fine lockpicks, Fine shadow cloak, Light climbing gear, Silence potion vial, Dark-sight goggles, Spiritbane charm
Backstory: Many years ago, a Prince from the exotic kingdom of Iruvia began a desperate trek to Akoros, bringing a number of his subjects with him and his wealth with him, looking for protection from the supernatural forces which had begun to ravage his home. Isra was one of the many children born on the trek to Akoros. Her mother died in childbirth, her father somewhere along the way, and found herself among a growing back of orphans or abandoned children. Upon arrival in Akoros, the nomads looked to their the Prince to provide leadership, based on his promises to create a new home for them. The Prince, found himself a curiosity and point of delight to the nobles and found that they were willing to oblige him at court. Him…and him alone. Duskvol had desperate people aplenty, and there was no need to cede anything to them. Content with his new lot, the Prince saw no need to continue ruling the people he brought with him. Instead, he instructed them to integrate as best they could into their new home and obey the new kingdom’s rulers. While those who made the journey from the start still hold staunch faith that there Prince is leading them to a better life here, those born since the convoy left Iruvia have only known living in absolute squalor in Duskvol, and as a result clash with their elders over their “proper place” here in Akoros. Prioritizing survival over any idealistic hope of building a new Iruvia, Isra quickly fell in with other street children, becoming a cutpurse and “greaseman”, with the speciality of getting into tight places with her thin and malnourished frame. It was during one job when she discovered her Ghost Veil, the ability to temporarily wrap herself in darkness and phase through matter.
Things might have continued as normal, had she not picked the pocket of one fancily-dressed man, only to find the pocket picked right back. The fancy man, some ponce who was known as “The Gentleman”, turned out to be a thief of another sort. Misty immediately seemed to take a liking to her, and she has found a new place in the Dirt Merchants.
THE LEECH – Archibald “Fuse” Lethbridge Rutger
Vice: Weird- Obsesses over mixing new chemical compounds
Look: Male, Bony, Twitchy, Scavenged Uniform
Close Friend: Stazia, the apothecary who helps him get his materials and the cost of taking his medicine
Rival: Jul, a blood dealer who is after some of Fuse’s own for payment
Special Ability: Saboteur (When you Wreck, the work is much quieter than it should be and the damage is hidden from casual inspection)
Attributes and Skills
Special Items: Fine tinkering tools, Fine wrecking tools, Blowgun & darts, syringes, Bandolier (3 uses, choose from alchemical compound list on sheet), Bandolier (3 uses, choose from alchemical compound list on sheet), Gadgets
Backstory: “They said I was mad! Mad I say! All those years in the academy, ignoring my work, keeping me as an adjunct professor…who wouldn’t rig the Dean’s Office with Fire Oil? Threw me out onto the street they did. Of course, that wouldn’t make me stop my work.”
“Oh sure, it was hard at first. I was mocked by my new colleagues, but they don’t look all that much smarter now with their houses burnt to the ground, isn’t that right Rolf!? Oh, of course the Blue Men didn’t like that all that much, which is why I found myself on the move once again. This time, I have managed to find some like-minded souls. Yes, I could see it in her eyes…such beautiful eyes, with the mist of blood around them. Finally, a patron who would back my studies! Oh, of course they can be a hassle at times, and they seem to always steer my research to whatever is the hot fad this week…shaped explosives, trance powder…but how often does a patron make a point of seeing live demonstrations of experiments? Field testing has never been as exciting!”
“Ahem. It’s a good story to tell. The only story I’m telling now. Shut up.”
How They Interact
All in all, the Dirt Merchants have found some solace in their underdog status among the Silkshore gangs. In fact, the title was originally given as an insult for how poor they seemed. However, the name seemed to stick, and each has found their own ways to embrace the title. Misty, when she slammed a man’s face into the ground with a “How do you like what I’m selling?” Johnny Prague as he sold out some choice information about a key rival, gleaned from a night of carousing. Isra, for buying a patch of land for some of her old urchin friends to operate, and Fuse for peddling some…well, some dirt looking powders that tend to ignite.
After some consideration, I have not designated a type of Gang for the Dirt Merchants to be. They certainly could be Bravos (a band of thugs) if Misty were to get her way, Shadows (spies and thieves) if Skitter and the Gentleman are left to work, or Hawkers (drug dealers) if they decide to begin manufacturing or peddling some of Fuse’s more…interesting compounds (for a Breaking Bad feel). In the end, it really would depend on how players would want to play the fame.
There are, however, some notes about how characters would likely interact with each other.
Misty: “Gentleman”, however ridiculous a name he keeps trying to sell, is nevertheless more of a stable right hand man than she can remember. That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t find him a ridiculous ponce more often than not, but she can’t deny that he’s useful. There have been plenty of times when she was ready to kick down the door, and a casual word from him made restraint more profitable than she had dreamt. She’ll kill anyone who repeats that last part though, it wouldn’t do to let it get into the man’s already swollen head.
With Skitter, Misty feels a kindred spirit. The way the shy girl’s eyes seem to dart around the room, the way she is never still and how she always seems to be looking for an exit speak to a past that must have been similar to her own. Misty might have been just like that, if she had hadn’t discovered her talent for cracking skulls. Skitter’s devotion to her old friends tugs at her heartstrings too, and there is a dark part of her who sees them as potential recruits as well. She wasn’t much older when she began to scrap in the streets, and the kids are desperate enough that a regular meal might get them onboard. Skitter has been dead against it though, and Misty has held off on recruiting for now, though she won’t turn down any of Skitter’s friends if they ask to join point blank.
Fuse…well, he’s a weird one, there is no doubting that. Misty thought he was mad when he came into the tavern, talking about red eyes or something…it was pretty garbled. Him pulling out a flask of fire oil and throwing it onto a table of drunks who were taunting him only confirmed that, but also impressed her as well. This is a level of destruction that makes for one hell of a wild card, and she wants it. If some crazy has to come along the way, well, who is she to judge?
Johnny Prague: Misty seems to suffer from this strange idea that she is the leader of this little gang. However, as the last time this came up resulted in a knife at his throat, he’s allowed the matter to lie and let her think that she is. It has some definite benefits. People are more likely to come after you when you are in charge, and Misty takes a great deal off of that. Misty might be the one with the “grand vision”, but she is more than happy to leave the nuts and bolts part of the operation to him. For now, he is content to begin carving out his own invisible empire, but this might become a sticking point later.
Skitter makes for one hell of a partner. His pickpocketing and cutpursing were tricks he learned at a time of desperation, and usually depend on his charming demeanor to put a mark off their game. Skitter has been doing it most of her life, and has a natural talent for sneaking that he knows in his heart he will never match. With him as the distraction, and her sneaking, there isn’t a purse safe in the city. It would be better if it didn’t feel like she was waiting for him to stab her in the back every time he looked at her. Her ragamuffin friends are a complication that might be a problem in the future too, and maybe her unwillingness to abandon them stirs a bit of guilt that he didn’t think he had left.
Fuse is, in the technical term, “bug fuck crazy”. End of discussion. Johnny has no idea where Misty found this maniac, never mind understand why she thought it was a good idea to bring him into the operation. That said, Johnny can’t deny the man’s usefulness. The things he makes, well, it’s hard to put a price on them and even harder to put a price on the things they might be able to earn using them.
Skitter: Misty coming along seems like a godsend. For the first time that she can remember, there is a bit of stability in her short life. She can be a bit overbearing, but what she asks is no different than so many other jobs. The worry is the interest that Misty seems to have in her friends. What is she planning?
She wishes that she could like Johnny, but she’s seen eyes like his for most of her life. They are the eyes of the Prince as he abandoned her and her people and left them destitute. She doesn’t know what sent the “Gentleman” to the street like her, but there are some attitudes that don’t change. He always seems to want to be with her on jobs too, and his ability to lie the way he does would always have made her mistrust him, even without an idea of his background. Misty seems to like him though, and she doesn’t want to rock the boat without good reason.
Skitter wonders why the others don’t see Fuse’s sadness. It’s as plain as day to her, which is why he hides behind the shell of being crazier than he really is. Not that he isn’t a bit mad, but who isn’t? She tries to be as nice to him as she can, and at moments she thinks she can see cracks in the armor.
Fuse: Misty is a beauty, whether she lets herself see it or not. It feels a bit bad, putting on this much of a facade to other people, but sometimes pretending to be mad lets people see what they want. He doesn’t see much of a chance for them romantically, being the old man of 30 that he is, but it doesn’t hurt to dream. She is wild and wonderful, and has given him a place to stay, and if her price is to let him keep doing his work, well, that is a small one to pay.
“The Gentleman”…well, that is a laugh, whatever his birth. Maybe he had been at one point, but the man is a sideways crook through and through. Of course, being a sideways crook doesn’t mean that he isn’t useful. It is quite impressive how the man can seem to so completely disregard the past, and spin a new one for himself at a seeming whim. It is something that Fuse envies. Johnny is vain as the day is long, and that’s a weakness that will be his undoing.
With all the clever crooks, Fuse is a bit surprised that it is Skitter of all people who seems to have grasped his ruse. It’s partially why he has been standoffish with her, but she has only been kind. It’s a kindness that honestly surprises him. For a man with limited chances of family, she is a bit of a surrogate daughter, and that is never to be taken for granted.
There are a number of possibilities for the Dirt Merchants. As we leave them, they are still struggling to find their niche as a gang. There will be rivals, of course. Plenty of other gangs will look to expand their turf by taking theirs and vice versa. There’s always the risk that they draw too much attention to themselves from the Bluecoats, which would bring the closest thing to law in Duskvol crashing down on them.
Of course, there are a number of problems that their own backgrounds bring. There is plenty of friction between Misty and Prague about how the gang should be run, and who really runs it. Skitter may find herself caught between the people of her homeland and her new life here and need to choose one. And of course, there are the complications of bringing Fuse into any long term plans. Who knows when Fuse must burn out, or go off? The only thing for certain on the streets of Duskvol is that every gang’s time comes to an end, and that you better have your stash ready when you have to go legit…or wind up with a blade between your ribs. You’ll have to play to find out which you’ll be.
Aki is an abnormally pale, short creature who is currently South of the Wall…I mean, in South Jersey. A very large thank you to Aaron and Seamus for letting me be a part of Cannibal Halfling, and for helping me edit my first article (as well as forgiving me for the Ewok thing). A very special thank you is owed to the other fellow members of Patchwork Silk, who were my fellow gang members in a short lived campaign, and who permitted me to use them as inspiration.