A Great Staging Example from Blades In The Dark

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1030

Table of Contents:

I had a great time again at the spring edition of Intrigue Con. I was hoping to GM but did not get time to pull a game together. However, I enjoyed playing in D&D 5E, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and Blades in the Dark games.

The Blades game had a wonderful example of two GMing techniques we’ve chatted about in past Musings.

The first technique is Staging. Know the perfect time to reveal important campaign elements for emotional impact. (I also just published a Patron exclusive article about this regarding how to stage your Villains, Allies, and Character Secrets.)

The second technique is the Story Crucible. Define boundaries for your adventures to spur story puzzles and player creativity. Every great story does this.

The Toll

Blades in the Dark takes place in the city of Duskvol, a mystical city where ghosts and spirits are real and affect daily life of its citizens.

When the convention one-shot began, Mack the GM told us it was the moon was high and we were running back to home base after another successful score, and the Duskvol Tower Bell was tolling three times.

We then began play by figuring out our next score. It’s a collaborative game, and the group decided to help an ally acquire special medical equipment from a strange new doctor operating out of the Brightstone District.

Turns out that the medical equipment was special saws, small hammers, and other instruments a skilled practitioner could use to change one’s face. A handy service in a city of thieves.

It wasn’t until mid-heist I thought to ask Mack, “Why was the bell ringing? What’s the significance?”

“The bell tolls every time someone dies.”

Yeah. And it turns out the tolling summons the city guard, the corrupt Bluecoats.

The Crucible

If we were to kill a thug, an innocent, or a villain, the Duskvol Bell would give our crew away.

The toll would also summo Bluecoats to the scene of the murder.

From a storytelling perspective, that is a fantastic story constraint!

We would need to be careful when attacking foes and defending ourselves. One mistake and we’d have significant Heat (a game mechanic for Bluecoat awareness and aggressiveness towards our Crew).

In addition, the whole city would know a crime has just been committed. Our allies and designated enemies would be aware and might investigate.

This made us cautious in how we approached our heist and actions, which made for great gameplay.

The Stage

By telling us the Duskvol Bell had tolled three times at game start, we got fair warning.

This was the perfect time to reveal this information.

First, it helped frame the crucible right away so we could plan. (Or not, if we had not thought to ask about what the tolls meant.)

Second, it added stakes to the game and our plans and actions.

Third, it gave us notice the game was deadly. Three tolls at the beginning. Duskvol’s a rough town.

If the tolling had not been described until after we had whacked our first foe, the game would have received none of these benefits.

It would actually have been reframed as a penalty.

We whack a foe. The bell tolls. Now we’re in deep trouble.

But providing this detail early on, we got stakes, crucible, and a warning.

Great job, Mack.