Devil’s Bargain

BitD Title_01 by James Dudli

“Blades in the Dark” has a mechanic called a “devil’s bargain.” Anyone at the table can propose a consequence that will happen, 100% sure, if a player takes an extra die to roll. Only one of these can apply to each roll. A player can accept a bargain before rolling, or after rolling; however, bargains offered after rolling can be much more demanding.

The default devil’s bargains suggested in the quickstart are these:

  • Reveal a valuable secret.
  • Sacrifice coin or an item.
  • Betray a friend or loved one.
  • Anger a powerful enemy.
  • Make a dangerous promise.
  • Add heat to the crew from evidence or witnesses.
  • Suffer harm.

Bryan, a player in many of my Blades in the Dark games, asked me to reflect on how I’ve used the devil’s bargains in my games.

The key to a successful devil’s bargain is to calibrate the offer so it is a real decision; not so punishing that it is dismissed out of hand, or so toothless that accepting it is a gift. Ideally the player has to stop and think, and for the best ones, they make a decision about how they see the future as a result of these deals.

My general standard for success is when players take about 1/2 to 2/3 of the bargains offered. Too many, and the bargains are not painful enough. Too few, and they are not tempting enough. You can calibrate your own standards for how you want your game to feel.

DISCLOSURE. I feel that devil’s bargains are tricky things to balance. I have not forbidden players from offering them–the game is quite clear that anyone can offer bargains. I have had the good fortune to not once in all my games with regulars and strangers to encounter someone who abuses the table’s good faith by offering stupid-easy choices to game more dice out of the system. Still, the way I run the game, I have an informal and tacit rule that anybody can offer devil’s bargains but they aren’t binding unless the GM agrees that’s a workable deal. I reserve veto or modification rights, but I do it quietly and only as needed. This is important to me when playing with strangers, especially strangers with no experience in the system. That reservation would also surface if I was faced with consistent abuse of the bargain or if a table couldn’t calibrate to what bargains should entail. I’m not going to hoist any straw man arguments, I’m just going to quietly note that if they became a problem I would be prepared to regulate them. I am fine with leaving suggested bargains open to all players, but if need be, I’d exert some GM muscle to protect the system, characters, and setting.


The devil’s bargain is a measure of both player and character recklessness. Generally there is overlap, but the focus can be trained on the character (decisions the character makes and can be held accountable for) or the player (a step back, participating in shaping the world and its consequences in ways the character is not accountable for.)

Character focused decisions.

What is the character willing to do to push towards success? Is the character okay with someone dying? The building being set on fire? What collateral damage will the character accept to improve the chances of success? The GM can think about the situation and imagine what could go wrong as a character gets reckless in pursuit of victory.

For me, the first casualty I tend to think of is anonymity–you are spotted, remembered, they’ll know it was you asking. Another casualty is property damage; you’ll smash a window, you’ll break the cart, a fire starts, the goats stampede. Or, you’ll get stabbed for a level 2 harm regardless, but you get an extra die to succeed! (Sure, the character can assign the harm to armor–but now that armor is gone.)

I also like thinking of simplicity as a casualty when on a heist; it will take longer (only works under time pressure, when filling or racing clocks) or the position changes (down towards desperate.) It can also be fun to offer to start a clock for something bad to happen; then they may evade the consequence of the devil’s bargain coming to pass, but they’ll have to hurry.

Sometimes we skip straight to big stakes; as a result of the bargain, someone dies whether you succeed or not. (Maybe you kill him, maybe a hostage dies, maybe they later find out the snitch who filled them in has vanished.) Or, you can get an extra die, but you offend an ally faction and you’re not sure how they’ll take it.

Make a note of these decisions (at least the ones you think are interesting.) If the consequences never catch up, then the cost was meaningless. If the consequences always catch up, then the choice is more expensive than it may have looked.

Ideally the consequences catch up sometimes, in predictable or unexpected ways–enough to remind players that these decisions matter. Also, accepted devil’s bargains are a built in way for the players to say “I accept that this may become a plot hook or complication.” If you want complications, or to tie engagement or entanglement rolls into the bigger story, keep an eye on devil’s bargains that were memorable enough to resonate into the future of the crew’s story.

So two heists later this guy is skulking down the street, blending in, and suddenly a vendor yells, “Hey! That’s the guy that set my cart on fire!” Or, they visit a brothel, and awkwardly meet the widow of a man they killed, plunging her into abject poverty–but now she could either help them or turn them in.

Player focused decisions.

Then there’s the matter of the player, since the devil’s bargain is also an abstract measure of fate.

For the player, I tend to think in terms of opening and closing story lines and adventure venues. If you are on a heist and the devil’s bargain is that the canal that is your exit point will close, then the player chooses whether or not to ditch the previous plan altogether in exchange for a momentary boost. Or, you could suggest a contact will no longer deal with the crew, for a desperate devil’s bargain, and arrange for that contact’s death or unfriending. That’s also where more heat comes in for me; the streets become more hostile in general.

One of my favorites is to have an NPC develop a crush on a PC as a devil’s bargain, or develop an intense dislike. Make a note for future entanglements, or complications on a heist or during down time.

I will also offer a poison pill, like “You can have another die if someone in this room was in the platoon you deserted from.” Or, “One of these men is your ex-lover.” I can let that hang there, the player opened the door for it, and the next time a complication arises I get to jam that consequence home. “You almost make it to the door when you see someone you had hoped to never see again.” And the player was my accomplice in bringing it in. Or, maybe the player gets lucky and it doesn’t come up–yet.

There’s meta room in here too for the player to decide to sacrifice things the character would not lose–like the death of a hound’s pet, or losing access to an NPC through no fault of the character, or losing prized equipment. This is a way for the player to accept losses that will not weigh on the character’s conscience, unlike the character pushing hard and accepting collateral damage.

Remember that I’m just talking about ways to think of bargains to offer. The player is the one who decides whether or not to take them. Some players inhabit their characters and are best tempted by offering choices for their characters to make. Other players can be tempted by offering more abstract bargains, and that tickles their fancy as they feel themselves worked into the game world as players.


I try to be aware and thinking of three different levels as I think about devil’s bargains. One, the overall generic deals I can offer at a moment’s notice that are pretty balanced. Second, deals that are focused specifically on the action at the moment, the context (usually a heist) and what moving parts are in their environment. Third, on the characters and their own specific desires, fears, ambitions, possessions, strengths, backgrounds, associates, and vulnerabilities.


Okay, they need some extra dice and you want to get the drama engine running smooth.

  • Heat. You can have an extra die, but your name is getting passed around the wrong places. This may or may not be related to what you’re doing.
  • Coin. Dress it up! Maybe you meet someone you owe money, and you better pay now or everything gets derailed. Or you got pickpocketed, or your place broken into. Maybe you had a rare opportunity to partake in premium vice. Anyway, you’re poorer now.
  • Equipment. Your fine equipment is fake or broken. You lost your goggles on the climb. Your papers got moldy.
  • Visibility. You are noticed, you’ll be remembered, people know you were asking about that.
  • Injury. You stretch towards the ledge as you jump, and you’ll get hurt whether you make it or not. You fight the bigger man, and you’ll take a hit if it might give you an edge.
  • Slow Wheels. You can have an extra die, but one of the background clocks in the neighborhood gains (or loses) a segment.


Players deal with plot twists and unexpected challenges more gracefully when they get an advantage from them, or when someone agreed to allow the complication in.

  • Clocks. Fill an extra segment, or remove a segment from progress. This can be clocks that have nothing to do with the action at hand. (Clocks are abstract measures of risk, ideal for bargains.)
  • Close Paths. You were going to escape through the tunnel, but with a rumble it collapses. The guard that was sleeping by the door gets fired and a new alert guard is posted. A traffic jam has clogged your entry route, and your carefully planned heist is at risk. (Keep the story going, complicate it, throw in a twist with player consent.)
  • Clues. You leave traces; maybe a shred of cloak, maybe a dusting of powder from the ritual, maybe a ghost sees you and might remember, maybe an x-ray plate captured a picture of your skull. (Weave this into heat at the end, and future consequences.)
  • Magnify Danger. You get that extra die, but now the hounds are cranky and restless. You can pick the lock, but now there is a poison needle inside. (Especially good for increasing the situation from controlled to risky, or risky to desperate.)
  • Make it Personal. You can probably sweet talk the guard, but you notice your uncle is at the party making smalltalk. You can steal the diamond necklace, but the handmaiden is your landlady’s niece and she’ll be fired for sure. (Pepper in people from the NPC friends list or character backstory.)


When dealing with an improvisation-heavy game, it is very useful to have lots of prompts and themes and ideas to riff off of in generating the game out of thin air. The characters are your mother lode.

  • Favors. You can get an extra die, but you’ll owe someone a favor.
  • Betrayal. You can get an extra die, but you have to betray someone you know. Or a faction.
  • Oathbreaking. You can get an extra die by doing what you said you wouldn’t. Especially fun for treaties or buried vendettas.
  • Dreams. You can get an extra die, but you’ll have nightmares. (Sure that seems toothless, but a creative GM can come up with a way to make it matter–possibly inflicting a level 1 harm from insomnia later on, or using dreams for creepy foreshadowing, or whatever!)
  • Long Term Projects. You can get an extra die, but suffer a setback and lose one segment from a long term project.

Like a balanced diet, devil’s bargains benefit from being a mix of these kinds of deals.


One of the very finest things about Blades in the Dark is that it is a perpetual motion machine. Characters act, and the game is set to react. A combination of NPC allies and enemies, factions in the setting, entanglements, and heist consequences is designed so that as the game unfolds the characters generate plot hooks constantly, and the hungry system has blanks where hooks can be inserted.

The engagement roll indicates there’s a problem right at the start of the heist; ideally the GM can quickly review what people might complicate their lives, or what they’ve had trouble with in the past, or some detail from their history or goals that slots right into that complication. Not every time… but sometimes.

Blades in the Dark lives and breathes most gloriously when the game is built out of pieces the players choose. Character action resonates through their environment. Themes and motifs emerge. Players take interest in things and they become important to plots that surround the characters. Challenges emerge, and are overcome, but the consequences of those actions resonate into the future.

The way devil’s bargains unfold during a heist or downtime can be pretty temporary. Ideally they are functioning as a tool for both the player and the GM–for the player, they grant a momentary advantage, a welcome extra die. For the GM, they are part of a conversation with the game table about how far the characters will go, and what complications may persist into the future.

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Down the Deep Tower


Two brave veterans had traveled to Grenada, Mississippi, to check out Farmer Jenkins’ field. Standing stones appeared overnight some months ago, a door to a fey pocket realm that moved to his field. No idea why, but the assayer’s office issued permits to treasure hunters to collect any alien materials for good pay.

  • Jack Reed. (a.k.a. Jack Felix) A former corporal in the cavalry, he went AWOL after Topeka, and he owes a lot of money to the government. The only weapon he still had was a bomb.
  • Elizabeth Tolwynn. A former corporal medic, she was at both the battles of New Orleans and Topeka. She got the Golden Athame for getting weirded; she suffers from partial touch-based telepathy. Her family hails from the UK.

(Their previous adventure is here.)

First Delve

They headed down the 30 foot shaft and followed the hallway around to a room where they saw a weird statue in the corner. They went to look at it suspiciously, and Reed poked it to no avail. Then Tolwynn touched it, using her telepathy, and it came alive and pounced at them. They gunned it down, and in the broken statuary of its corpse they found four nuggets of warpstone.

They continued on down the stairs, and a human-sized crawling centipede thing investigated them; they blasted it with their rifles and it retreated. However, as they proceeded they found it had friends, and four or five of the monstrous things attacked. They withdrew back to a hallway to concentrate fire, and badly injured all but one of the crawlers; the injured crawlers pulled back.

The crawlers started attacking each other, and the veterans came out rifles blazing. Tolwynn was bitten a couple times, knocked out with the venom. Reed was also bitten a number of times, but he toughed out the poison and stayed on his feet. When the crawlers were dead, he woozily dragged Tolwynn back out, managing to haul her up the shaft with great difficulty (as he was fighting off the venom’s effects also.) They rested in the shade of the standing stones until the venom subsided.

Second Delve

They headed back down, moving cautiously. As they reached the rooms they had fought in previously, they saw an ethereal-looking column of squirming light and texture, a floating jellyfish-like scavenger, with tendrils all around. It was pulling the corpses into its feeding tendrils and dissolving their bodies.

They fired on it a couple times, but the bullets didn’t seem to do much except draw its attention. As it flooded their space with its agonizing tendrils, Tolwynn pulled back, and Reed toughed it out long enough to prime his bomb, named Henrietta, and push it into the room with the scavenger. He barely managed to stagger out of the caressing swarm of tendrils.

The bomb went off. While the tendrils seemed to be slowly drifting to the ground, they pulled back to wait, refreshing their hit points. Later they cautiously went back, seeing that the floater had been reduced to a fine powder as its own starvation turned on it.

On a more unsettling note, they saw some huge footprints in the dust, of something massive and strong that could move three dimensionally in this space (there were gripping cracks in the ceiling and on the walls.)

They continued down further, finding a weird carving of a hand diagram covering a wall. They also found eye plates as big as a person with orichalcum iridescent sheets. More disturbing, they found a sacrificial altar where ground warpstone had been burned before a massive stone effigy that was maybe supposed to represent a human. It was over 16 feet tall, with a rifle etching carved on a sword blade, and the E Pluribus Unum eye and pyramid carved into a shield. The back of the statue had niches, half were full and covered. Reed pried one open and found a desiccated human head inside.

Was this the remains of a temple of some weird fey cult that worshiped humanity? They shivered and didn’t put more thought into it.

However, they also found some shattered, clawed remains of statues like the one they shot before, with the warpstone gnawed out. Their apprehension grew as they heard something big moving in the shadows beyond their light.

Looping back around and up the stairs, they found a skull-like shell for something like a crab or tortoise maybe, as well as an altar to worship or placate fire maybe? That’s when they were attacked by the massive stone monster!

Their bullets deflected from its hide, and one blow sent Reed sailing across the room. Realizing they were facing something that outclassed them, they dumped out the warpstone they’d managed to gather so far, and made a run for it. The big stone monster paused to suck up all the warpstone, then was right on their tail; they managed to climb out, Reed first and hauling up Tolwynn as the huge thing approached in the darkness!

Once in the sunlight, they caught their breath, then returned to the farmstead for lunch. They headed into town and sold sketches of shrine materials, and intelligence about what they found underground, over the next few days. They made about $70 or $80 each just with their reports.

Third Delve

This time they hired five vets and four somewhat feckless locals (for carrying lights and loads.) They returned, taking the time to scrape the orichalcum from the three eyes on the walls. Also, one of their henchmen recognized the hand diagram as a weird map of Michigan, complete with ley lines and important fey sites and misunderstood human landmarks. Tolwynn copied it as best she could.

However, no one noticed the stone gargoyle things that crawled on the ceiling; five dropped on them! Guns boomed and people screamed as the monsters squealed murderous delight. Tolwynn was knocked down early, but first she managed a rallying call that kept the henchmen from breaking and running as soon as they were attacked. Reed managed to pull together with the group, and the fight was bloody and got down to him and the last of the gargoyle monsters; he won, just.

He managed to get Tolwynn back on her feet (fortunately she was a medic) and they found that two of the soldiers and one of the bearers were dead, the others just injured. They dug at the broken statues to get as much warpstone out of them as they could, then they retreated back to the surface, significantly enriched by their efforts.

They sold the warpstone, orichalcum, and intelligence for about $300. They offered half of that to their assistants as a massive bonus of $20 each, and split the rest.

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Game Days at Tabletop Game and Hobby

greater kc rpg day

I have now been to four of the seven Greater Kansas City RPG Day events at Tabletop Game and Hobby. I plan to revisit this post as time goes on to update it with more adventure report links.

Last time I asked the store to stock Into the Odd, I’ll run Guns of Telluria and point people towards something they can buy in the store for the December game day.

  • 9.10.16. Blades in the Dark, am and pm. Gangs. Report.
  • 6.25.16. Blades in the Dark, pm. Crew. Report.
  • 3.19.16. Blades in the Dark, am gang (report) pm crew (report).
  • 12.12.15. Guns of Telluria (Into the Odd) am ice (report) pm Barrowmaze (report).
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Blades in the Dark: Two Sessions

We had a great morning and afternoon session of Blades in the Dark for the game day at the Tabletop Game and Hobby store. We had four players for the morning.

  • Void. Sebastian Voss, a Tycherosian Hound with a taste for gambling. (Andy)
    • Mortimer was his pet songbird from his homeland that ate carrion, but when upset let out a horrifying screech and vibrated feathers to make a terrifying hologram.
  • Magpie. Margaret Drummond, a Skovlander Slide, mudflap breed collector. (Laura)
  • Flint. Valeris Vode. An Akorosian Cutter who likes the finer things. (Kelly)
  • Knick Knack. Podesto Boulevar, Akorosian Lurk, collector of inner workings. (Will)

They showed up to work a job as a gang for the Crows, choosing to operate as Shadows with the assistance of a gang of rooks, the Aristocrats, led by Rusty. They reported in to Virgil.


Kodarius was an assassin captured by the military, kept in a safe house guarded by some elite troops. Initial reports indicated some war goats were stabled there, and there might be other complications. Kodarius worked for the Crows previously, and knows too much; either get him out alive, or make sure he doesn’t talk to anyone.

The gang checked around, getting plans that showed where the thick dungeon walls were closest to the sewer. They also procured some “goat amp” smelling salts that drive the massive Doskvallian goats temporarily murderously insane. They scouted out about a dozen troops on site for the squat former watch tower behind a wall, maybe half in the tower itself at any given point.

As they labored to break through the wall between the sewer and the dungeon foundation, the heavy rains above were feeding into the storm drains and raising the water level uncomfortably fast. After spending some time with experts sussing out weak points to help the big soldier, Flint, in her effort to break through, they were low on time and high on water. After incessant nagging, Magpie pulled out a small explosive she had procured in case of such difficulty. After Knick Knack helped place it, they blew a hole big enough to crawl through, and got into the foundation of the watch tower basement.

The Dungeon

A quick scouting pass revealed that the dungeon was empty, but there was a guard at the bottom of the stairs. Magpie headed out to distract him, and she baffled him long enough for him to turn his back to lead her upstairs; she struck him, but didn’t knock him out. The others popped out to intimidate him, but he was a tough veteran, and he grabbed Magpie as a hostage. Void shot him through the head all the same.

One of the guards yelled down to see what was going on, and Magpie did a startlingly good job of mimicking the guard’s voice and saying he shot a rat or something, and the guards figured all was well.

Propping the corpse up, they crept up the stairs and saw a lone guard standing guard at the door on the tower ground floor. Void and Flint pounced across the room and snagged the guard, knocking him out and taking him downstairs to interrogate in a cell, all tied up. He revealed that the assassin was in the top of the tower, but he wasn’t very cooperative; they knocked him out, and headed back upstairs in time to see someone coming down. They promptly pounced and knocked that guard out, and as they held a whispered conference about next moves, another headed down and they got him too.

Tower Assault

Flint and Void dressed in the downed soldier uniforms while Magpie barred the door (there was a guard on the other side) and Knick Knack waited in reserve. Flint and Void mounted the stairs, their disguises getting them just close enough to act.

Void shot the military commander before he could react, killing him at once. Flint pounced on the assassin, who was casually playing cards with his “captors.” He managed to avoid her killing blow and shiv her, and they had a moment of sudden death grappling where she broke him where he stood. Knick Knack and Void finished off the other guards.

The shooting in the tower was the cue for the Aristocrats, the rook gang lurking outside. They snuck over the wall and into position, and exposed the war goats to goat amp, so they went berserk and drew the attention of the guards while the Aristocrats escaped, and the gang headed for their secret basement escape.

Magpie insisted everyone who saw them must die, and Flint rolled her eyes and eventually did the killings just so they could get out and stop talking about it. The gang sloshed their way to safety through the strong currents in the storm drains.


Another scoundrel joined the gang. The other four returned for more!

  • Silvertongue. Daxos Vale, an Akorosian Spider accustomed to the finer things.


In order to get the goat amp for the previous outing, Void had to promise his dealer friend that the guy stalking the dealer’s daughter would be dissuaded. Void escalated the importance of the task to try and provoke Crow sanction on the action, to get himself some reinforcements.

Because the stalker was Barton Swiftly, a champion of the Red Sash temple, the Crows signed off on it. The gang decided to operate as thugs, keeping Rusty and the Aristocrats, and answering to Utrecht for managing territorial issues.

They found out Barton Swiftly was an amazing swordsman, but a bit off kilter as a worshiper of the Forgotten Gods, especially the Key. This mythical figure controlled access between dimensions, and Barton would go pray to one of the hidden shrines after having difficult dreams. Barton was interested in Dyama, the daughter, because she had a blotchy birth mark on her neck that looked to Barton like the fingerprint of his god. Barton wanted to make a baby in her–Barton as the lock, Dyama as the key, and the baby as the opening gate that could reshape all of reality.

Barton could be eccentric because he was protected. Not just by the Red Sashes; after their losses to the Lampblacks they were reduced to a shell of their former presence, just the temple and some high-end drug dens. The real protection was his uncle, Martin Swiftly, bodyguard to the Chancellor of the City Council.

They did some looking into the constellation of lovers maintained as an open secret by Martin and his wife. They also discovered he had a brace of blades as his prized possessions, for Domastay style fighting. Also, his relationship with Tyvor, the leader of the Red Sashes (now reduced to under 100 in membership total, with maybe 30 good fighters and 3-4 champions) was troubled.

Flint looked into the locations of shrines to the Key, and when she found out, she wrecked one. That granted her plenty of enmity with followers of the Forgotten Gods; a threat to the worship of one was a serious threat to the worship of all.

Some Red Sashes and cultists ambushed her in an alley, but she downed them all with her combat ability and took their equipment, selling some and keeping the rest for a disguise.

They discovered the Feast of Paper Lanterns, an annual event, was coming up. The Red Sashes hired out a nearby stone temple that was normally a street market, sweeping out the vendors and holding duels and dancing and such for a special night.

Both Martin and Barton would be there. If they could shame Barton publicly, they could rob him of Martin’s support and make him vulnerable.

Magpie worked with her tavern owner friend, who bad-mouthed her to the one coordinating entertainment (wh0 didn’t like the tavern owner) so Magpie got hired on as a vendor. She sub-contracted to Knick Knack to help sell her wares. She dropped the coin to custom make some hair pins that dangled a glowing shape that made a reflection on a lady’s neck something like the birthmark on Dyama’s neck, just to throw Barton off. (They ended up being so popular men stuck them through their sashes or belts to draw the eye to the cod piece area.)

Rusty and his Aristocrats couldn’t get hired for security, but they did get hired for catering, so they were at hand. Void set himself up in a shooting position to monitor the situation from the next block over. Silvertongue arranged himself in position to cause mischief outside if events warranted a distraction or something. Flint disguised herself as a Red Sash.

They also procured some rancid trance powder beforehand; the stuff that went wrong in the making that couldn’t be sold to customers, because it would trigger a bad trip.

That Wild Party

As the hairpins sold, and Magpie mingled with Knick Knack and the crowd, one of the Red Sashes observed to Flint that her sash meant in the duels later she wanted to fight to the death; a small but telling detail. She smiled mysteriously and told them it was on purpose. Eventually Barton was out in public, as was his uncle.

In the process of blowing confetti around, Knick Knack blew rancid trance powder, catching Barton and the two people flanking him. The bad trip hit immediately; Magpie had also arranged for some henna tattoos matching the birthmark on some of the prostitutes, so the already off-balance champion was incensed.

Upset by the blasphemy, Barton drew his sword and struck the head off a prostitute, provoking a shocked and violent response from the people around him as he waved his bloody blade around. That should do it; the gang went into escape mode.

As Magpie and Knick Knack flowed out with the crowd, a cultist/Red Sash member recognized Flint as a shrine desecrator and tried to stop her. Void fired a shot to hit something nearby and distract him, and she fought free before others could try and stop her.

The shot did draw the attention of bluecoats on the street, so Void’s escape was no longer straightforward.

Silvertongue felt the situation needed more chaos, so he ignited his coat, used it to set a wagon on fire, and sent it careening down the hill; it crushed a bluecoat before smashing the Red Sash leader’s coach, setting the hindquarters of the two rear goats aflame. All four goats broke loose and began taking out their anxious feelings on anyone nearby.

Magpie, Knick Knack, and Flint made it to the getaway gondola. Silvertongue showed up as they were at the edge of escaping, but Void was having a hard time shaking pursuit and catching up. Using his hunting skill for some cat and mouse, he got some breathing space and managed to rush towards them. An organ grinder had been secured ahead of time to help cover escape for those lagging behind, and as the grinder played, it fired some fireworks that started one of the goats that was liberated from the wagon, who ran out of an alley and almost crushed Void. He escaped by dodging, and the goat fell into the canal and was swarmed by something under the surface. They managed to get away.


Barton never recovered from the bad trance trip. He was imprisoned in an asylum. Also, the surviving Red Sash organization was banished from the Crow’s Foot neighborhood; they were always trouble, but this was too much public endangerment. They limped to Charhallow and tried to rebuild.


The session was low on time, but the gang wanted to do one more heist. This grew into a conspiracy with three big moving parts. Giving up down time and heist actions, we instead zoomed in and out for scale with dizzying speed, managing the various parts of their complex plan.

The overall idea was to make sure Martin Swiftly never connected the fate of his nephew to the Crows, and to do some kingmaking in the process. In their first heist, they discovered the captain who had the assassin was rivals with Captain Lassitax, a brash young officer with his eye on becoming a general. Here is their plan.

The Red Sash Threat

If Captain Lassitax became a general because the Crows helped him, he would have a powerful ally and so would they. So, they researched generals, finding one who was ailing and in his later years, General Borlaine. That’s the one Lassitax could replace. They could make Lassitax a hero if they discovered a threat to national security and let him get the credit for solving it.

To this end, they dug around and found out General Borlaine’s bastard son was in the military, secretly and silently protected by his father’s influence without his knowledge. They attacked the boy and killed him, stringing him up with a Red Sash.

Switching uniforms, they killed Red Sashes and soldiers, fomenting tension. They also spread the rumor that Martin blamed the military for what happened to his nephew.

They then had Magpie be their contact with Captain Lassitax, giving him inside information on Martin’s treason. Lassitax was the one who led the inspectors into action, taking Martin into custody and putting him on trial for his crimes. (Maybe planted evidence?)

General Problems

That went well enough, but Lassitax contacted them because he was having trouble getting actionable scandal material on General Borlaine. Could they help with that? Or… something?

They slyly agreed, going for the “or something.” They dug around and found that the only gap in his security was he had an escort in a blue dress every Thursday from Lysander’s operation. They waylaid the escort, stealing her dress, and Flint went in as the escort with Void at her side, and the others arranged to have procured a statue of the style the general liked, and had it delivered to the loading bay, with material inside vital to the mission.

They got in, got to the poison and weapons, and Flint got in to see the general. She subdued and suffocated him, and after a suitable interval, they left, barely slipping out as the alarm was raised and the General was found.

For political reasons it was ruled natural causes, and Lassitax ascended to head of an expeditionary force. The Crows had shifted power in the military structure–something their new ally would not quickly forget!

As for this gang of the Crow’s outfit, they looked long and hard at the former high end drug dens abandoned by the Red Sashes in the Crow’s Foot neighborhood. Seems like there could be an opportunity there…

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A class designed for a B/X or old school game.

Same progression and stats as a thief. Instead of thief abilities, some different talents.

Using the special abilities, success depends on the status of the target.

  • Easy Mark. The target will respond enthusiastically to appropriate goading, but if the target makes the saving throw, the target will become suspicious or confused.
  • Normal Mark. The target will be confused or agreeable, but if the target makes the saving throw, the target is actively suspicious or disbelieving.
  • Hardened Mark. The target will be swayed into ambiguity (introducing a little doubt into certainty), but if the target makes the saving throw, the target sees through the effort.

There are three special abilities.

TRUE FACTS. Targets must make a saving throw to disbelieve what the Fabulist tells them. For a plausible statement (true or false) the target may save v. Spells. For a questionable statement, the target may save v. Paralysis. For an outrageous statement, the target may save v. Poison.

REFRAMED. Describe the situation from another point of view, or leading to an alternate conclusion. If the target fails a morale save or a save v. Spells, the target is at least swayed to consider the alternate frame. Targets who fail a save tend to move one level easier as a mark.

SLEAZY BULLSHIT. If the fabulist is free to blather, trash talk, harangue, name call, tattle, and generally mouth off, gain a pool to use once a round after any roll. The pool is equal to (1 per 2 fabulist levels.) The bonus can improve the fabulist’s armor class against one attack, add a bonus or penalty to the foe’s morale test, or penalize one target’s to-hit roll, damage roll, or saving throw.


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Role playing games make heavy use of the word “punk” in talking about settings and styles. I feel like there should be a checklist. What part of “punk” are we really talking about here? Or, the checklist should be provided to players and GMs to get a sense of what to pull to the front. (I pulled this stuff off a wikipedia article, so I’m sort of pool skimming here. No in-depth research or anything, but I feel like I’m still putting in more effort than a labeling system that puts “punk” after any era identification to indicate genre.)

  • Focus on personal freedom.
  • Anti-establishment.
  • Non-conformity.
  • Direct action, do it yourself.
  • Explicitly outward sexual identity.
  • Reject secrecy for the sake of politeness, be forthright and obvious.
  • Gender equalist ideology.

My favorite example of “punk” in an RPG would have to be White Wolf’s Sabbat vampires. That felt pretty pure. You have total freedom to do whatever you want–and so do the people around you. So if you feel like punching the boss, do it if you want. You are free to take that action. And if the boss feels like punching you back, he can do that too. So maybe think a little bit before exercising the freedom that is certainly yours.

The ancient vampires found human blood too thin, and so fed on vampires. But as they got older and stronger, they needed stronger food. So these byzantine games grew up around the most ancient to manage their offspring as a food source, until they’d eventually emerge and the world would go down in flames. To rebel, the Sabbat did their best to dig their way through the layers of intrigue and establishment control to devour their progenitors before being food themselves.

To me, THAT is punk in an RPG.

Even then, even with being as individual as you want, you still need allies and peers or you just evaporate in the face of the opposition. The ambition is intense enough to reject an individual approach to surmount it.

I would want to keep that in any other “punk” game setting too. The establishment has to be destructive and powerful, culture has to have a heavy focus on silence on taboo subjects, and peer pressure has to be intense before punk becomes a coherent and inspired response.

Punk is not just a suffix to a technology level. It’s about the culture. There is certainly room to have adventures in a setting or technology that are NOT punk. Those are good too.

For example, you could have a game of Into the Odd that had some punk characters in it, working down the checklist, and also some conservatives in it. And the GM could run the game as a surreal eldritch kind of game, or double down on the Establishment confines and make every PC a punk because if they conformed they would have a place “at home” and not have to go out adventuring.

So to call a setting or a genre punk, I think the classification benefits from enough thoughtfulness to explicitly outline how even making characters, and looking at the sort of thing those characters will do, underscores a punk aesthetic. If the GM and players are on board with that up front then that can be a foundation for a richer game than if those underpinnings go unexamined.

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The Gallows Tower Heist

I decided to write a Blades in the Dark story, taking place in the fictional setting of Doskvol. I started my backbrain machinery going the night before, which affected my sleep, but in the morning I banged the outline together and started the story. I finished it the same day.

There’s an arboreal devilfish, which is a land octopus. That’s pretty cool right there!

The Gallows Tower Heist pdf and epub.


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