“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.
FOCUSING THE BARGAIN
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.