It was time to take the training wheels off. My previous attempts at GMing have, up to this point, been drawn from modules and published campaigns, or had been drawn up using notes provided to me when I stepped in to guest GM. Now, there is nothing wrong with running from a module, and it is required for something like D&D’s Adventurers League. However, with an upcoming gaming marathon on the horizon (As Aaron, Seamus and were running the planned scenarios, it was dubbed CHGCon) I found myself preparing to run a session of Blades in the Dark, something I had been looking to do for a while. The problem, however, was that the first time everyone would be able to sit at the same table would be gametime. There wouldn’t be time to weave together the backstories of characters without making them myself. I would have zero idea of team dynamic, or what kind of gang they would be, and that would prevent them from having access to team benefits. While I could have made characters in advance, I didn’t want to take away from the character creation process for them, especially with a system with fairly streamlined and boilerplate mechanics for character creation.
And so, I found myself preparing for a session knowing none of the characters, no clue of how the group cohesion was going to be, and no idea of what sort of jobs they might want to take, and with a group that tends to be unconventional (a quote from one of these marathon sessions is “Calling for a seduction check in Tomb of Horrors is the highlight of my DMing career.”) How on Earth was I going to write a plot for this?
After doing a bit of asking around, I got a fantastic piece of advice: Don’t.
I was sent to an article about GMing that I found very helpful, and I heartily encourage prospective GM’s to head it here. The basic premise is fairly simple: writing a plot incorporates a lot of potential failure points. As the author puts it, when you try to write an overly long and detailed plot, you are putting requirements of things that the PCs need to accomplish for the plot to go forward. Players need to chose to follow the ship the villain is escaping on, make the piloting checks, see the clues, ask the right person for information. At any of these points, the PCs might choose to walk by, or might fail, and suddenly the GM is in the unenviable position of trying to weld a new set of tracks somewhere near where you expected them to go. As Aaron once opined, “Even if I plan for A, B, C, D, and E, the players still choose H”.
This had smacked me in the face once before, in the previously mentioned Ewok adventure. I had set out and planned for the party to make a long trek, to explore a mysterious facility where mad engineers were trifling with interfaces that skirted between the biological and mechanical, and they would face a horrific cyberized land mantis shrimp/scorpion that would tower over them. I had NOT calculated my plans around players succeeding a (what I thought nigh impossible) check to get the ship up and somewhat running. My players, instead of exploring the clues I had left for them, rammed the ship into the junkyard I had built, and effectively brought a tank to a swordfight against the boss I had set up. While the players found the encounter enjoyable and memorable, I had put in a lot of work into something that was promptly blown up.
The article instead recommended building opponents, and giving them goals to accomplish. This, I could do! Rather than building out a full plot, I could build up characters to give them things that they would be trying to accomplish. City guards would be looking to keep peace on the streets. Bodyguards would be looking to protect their boss. A shadowy figure in the background will have goals it will chase and as long as I kept them all moving, I only had to worry when players would bump against them.
With this approach, I could turn my problems into assets. I didn’t need all of the players to be in a gang together, I could set a problem at them and have the events of this session be why some members would stick together. If I set a goal with open ended means of accomplishing it and populated people and places around that for players to interact with, it was fine if my players were unconventional. In fact, I could set up the goal so that the more unconventional they were, the more effective they would be in achieving their goal. So, I had a job, obvious threats, and a few complications for the party to deal with. But that still left things a little dry on connection.
In this case, I looked to Apocalypse World and Masks, where there are questions on each playbook that related to connections with the other members of the party. I typed up a slew of prompts to direct at each type of playbook, where they were free to add a detail about a party member with whom they had a past run in, hoping that it would flesh each other out a bit and help players get a feel for their characters. So, with that prepped, I took a deep breath and prepared to do the oneshot.
Overall, I was very happy with the result. Yes, there were sticky points, but overall the majority of players seemed to have a good time and a few expressed interest in making a longer term campaign. The decision to forego setting up a gang for the oneshot really was for the best, because it kept character creation really quick on essentials: pick a special ability, assign two more dots of skills. Those who had extra time fleshed out a bit of backstory, and I think those who did enjoyed the game a lot more. The questions I had prepared worked as expected, and I stumbled on a perfect way to work out a player’s criminal Alias: whoever answered a question about about another player had first stab at assigning that Alias, which led to much hilarity.
With the players ready, I began the job: Each of the criminals had been snatched from their lodgings and woke up in what appeared to be a basement. They were soon joined by an ornately dressed nobleman with a pair of hull bodyguards who when pressed for a name gave “Mr. Hull.” The man had a relatively simple sounding job: He wanted to have the players cause a scandal at an upcoming party of someone he didn’t like very much, one Magistrate Wott. We wanted chaos, scandal and a besmirchment of the man’s reputation, but not bodies, and he wanted a group of people who would be untraceable, so he had used his influence to snatch the group from all sorts of districts and start them off in Brightstone, an area of the city’s upper crust.
My biggest mistake was to give the players a round of downtime to work on their approach. It might have been necessary, because they seemed to flounder going in blind but it was easily the part of the adventure which dragged the longest. But other than that, the decision to not lay groundwork, or an elaborate mechanism they were expected to follow really paid off. The party decided that, rather than try violence against a guest, they would rig events to make it look like Wott was attempting to use the party to kill a political rival. While I needed to make up a few quick NPCs on the fly, i had already populated the field with people to interact with: a bodyguard who made going after Wott directly unlikely, and a fellow scoundrel named Chell who was working her own con on one of the guests. In the end, they succeeded at making a major scene which led to the poisoning and disfigurement of both Wott and a rival who could cause problems for it. However, as they prepared to go, someone in the crowd shouted “Yee gods, it’s spreading!”…something party knew to be a demonstrable lie. A panic broke out, resulting in a great deal of chaos, and a small hint that they may be part of a bigger plot.
In general, I think I did a good job of letting players dictate what they were trying to do, and balance how many resources they were expending. A few players interest began to wane, so I tried to make an effort to bring back in. It didn’t run perfectly, and there were a number of repeated rules explanations (and some I had forgotten to explain!) but overall players seemed to have a lot of fun, and that’s what counted!
I may run Blades in the Dark again in the future, and I have a number of things to do better. In the end, I learned a lot about how to write up my own adventures for the game, and to make the most of a party who loves to improvise!