Last night, I fired this tweet into the void:
If you’ve read my stuff on here before, you might have seen the post I made after the previous campaign wrapped up, which goes into a *lot* of detail about that jankiness, and contains a lot of advice to anyone who’s kicking off a campaign of their own. Sure enough, with all of the hindsight of that first attempt, this second campaign is off to a great start.
(Last night we only had one character death, and that felt merciful. In other words, Band of Blades is running as intended!)
Anyway, the tweet had the following reply:
I gave a quick response, saying that it takes a lot of getting used to but that it’s really worth it… but the remark stayed with me. I’ve seen a lot of people saying it. And it’s something that could easily put people off Blades in the Dark and its successors, because it’s such a change from more “traditional” ttrpg resolution mechanics.
Blades (I’m going to use this as my example, but this applies to the various Forged in the Dark offshoots) is a game that I’ve seen people incorrectly describe as “rules-light”. It really isn’t. It’s a massive hardback book with loads of fairly complex rules. I think what they mean is that the game is very open-ended. There’s a lot of complexity in the rules, but they provide a framework within which players can do almost anything. What you don’t have is a system with countless detailed step-by-step actions with prescribed outcomes for how they should be resolved. As such, once you get your head around how the core engine of Blades works, you’ll rarely need to check the rulebook.
But, for the love of Harper, it’s not a rules-light game, or an easy one for new players to learn. Which is a shame, because once you get over that initial hump it’s one of the most engaging, exciting and narratively satisfying games I’ve ever played.
So. With that in mind, here’s James’ quick & dirty guide to running one of the most intimidating systems for a newcomer Blades in the Dark: Action Rolls.
The Golden Rule
This is the most important thing to keep in mind, especially if you’re coming in from D&D or something similar. Action Rolls should always have weight and impact. They shouldn’t be squandered. You should only call for them when you reach an interesting branching point in the narrative that hinges on a player character’s actions.
In other words, a player wants their character to do a thing. The outcome of that thing isn’t certain or obvious, and — crucially — there are multiple potential outcomes that will be interesting.
Let’s say a thief character wants to pick a lock to get into an abandoned warehouse. There are no guards, no time constraints. You might want to make them roll for it, but what are the potential outcomes? Success means they do it, failure means… they try again? Boring. Don’t call for an Action Roll. Just let them do it.
Or maybe a player asks if their character knows a piece of information about the setting. If a “yes” will drive the plot forwards and a “no” will lead to a dead end… just say yes. Only one of those is interesting.
This is so utterly vital to how Blades runs, and it’s one of the places I see people falling down. Action rolls should only happen when things are tense and failure would be as interesting as success.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of things that are utterly vital to how Blades runs, you should bear in mind that time is fluid in these games. You don’t have six-second turns in a round, or anything. An Action Roll can zoom out, or zoom in. You could use one for “I want to bump into that guy as he comes around the corner, and steal his wallet.” You could also use one for “I want to spend a few days tailing that politician and gathering information about her movements.” Or “I want to fight my way out of this warehouse.” It helps to think of it as a TV show or film; where do you want to focus? What’s interesting? If you and the other players (yes, the GM is a player) are excited about seeing the detail of how the big brawler character slugs her way out of a rival crew’s headquarters, play it out in detail across multiple Action Rolls. If you don’t care so much about the detail, and you just wanna find out how it goes so you can get to the interesting part, a single roll can do the job. Time is fluid. (And I haven’t even started on Flashbacks…)
Setting the Stakes
Okay. So you’ve decided that a roll needs to happen. Next up, you need to ask the player which of their Actions (the “stat ratings” that they have dots in) they want to use. They have free choice here, but their chosen Action will influence the Position and Effect (more on them in a bit). Also, they need to be able to justify it narratively.
Next, they need to tell you their intended outcome. Don’t skip this, and get them to be specific! Again, if you’re coming from a D&D background, you might think that “I use Skirmish to attack the guard” is enough, but in Blades you need to find out what they’re trying to achieve. Do they want to subdue the guard without raising the alarm? That’s very different from just wanting the guard dead.
By now, you know what they want to do, and how they plan to do it. Next you have to use that information, and any other narrative context, to set their Position and Effect. This is one of the big hurdles, in my experience. It took me a fair while to get my head around it. The easiest way to think of it is as follows: Position is “how bad can things go as a result of this action?” and Effect is “can this action achieve what the player wants?”
Let’s look at Position first. It has three levels: Desperate is “if this doesn’t go perfectly, they’ll be utterly screwed.” Controlled is “if this doesn’t go perfectly, they’ll have a chance to reassess.” Risky stands between those two.
The game has a lot of guidance for assessing Position, but I find it really helps to ask players “what could go wrong here?” For starters, offloading stuff like this onto players is a *huge* win, because it saves you from having to come up with everything! It also lets them shape the narrative, and once they get into it they’ll start introducing ideas you’d never have considered. Once you’ve got a few answers, it should be pretty obvious what the Position should be. If you’re still in doubt, Risky is always a good default.
Top tip: if there isn’t an obvious answer to “what could go wrong here”, that’s a clue that this probably doesn’t need to be an Action Roll. Never be afraid to reassess during play. “Oh, you know what? Actually, now we’re talking about it, there’s no need for a roll here. You can just do it.”
I find that Effect is a lot more straightforward. It’s generally obvious from the narrative, especially once you factor in the Action roll they’ve chosen and any equipment they’re using. Again, it has three levels: Limited is “you’ll fall short of what you want”, Great is “you’ll exceed what you want”, and Standard is “you’ll do what you want.” I don’t tend to ask players for much input here, as they’ve already told me what they’re hoping to achieve; I just decide whether that’s realistic within the narrative.
Once you’ve set Position and Effect… the player decides whether it’s worth the roll. Nothing is final until they agree to push on. They are always free to say “hmm, okay, that’s not what I was hoping for…” and change the Action they’re using, or use a piece of equipment, or step back and try something else entirely!
They can tweak Position and Effect in a couple of mechanical ways, too. They can “Push” (at the cost of some Stress, which is a valuable resource) to increase their Effect. They can also trade Position for effect — make one of them one step worse to make the other one step better. Characters can put themselves at more risk to increase their Effect, or they can reduce their Effect to keep themselves out of harm’s way.
Making the Roll
With Position and Effect set, the player builds their dice pool. This starts out as one die for each dot in the chosen Action rating, but they have a few options for getting bonus dice. The easiest way is to get another character to assist them — it costs the other character a point of Stress, but the pool gets a bonus die. Then, for another bonus die, the player can either Push themselves (as above) or take a “Devil’s Bargain”, which adds a complicating detail to the narrative. This happens regardless of the roll, and it can be almost anything; anyone can suggest it, but the GM has final say on what it is. Crucially, though, the player has final say on whether they accept it. Maybe they lose a piece of equipment or expend all their ammo. Maybe they damage a relationship. Maybe they leave evidence that will come back to haunt them.
Once the bonus dice are finalised, the player is ready to roll. At this point I like to restate things — “okay, you’re using [Action] in an attempt to [intended outcome]. The Position is [Desperate/Risky/Controlled], so if things go wrong, [potential consequences]. The Effect is [Limited/Standard/Great], so if this goes well, you can expect [potential outcome]. You’re getting bonus dice from [whatever]. If you’re okay with that, go ahead and roll!
And yes, this is a lot of detail for a single roll. That’s why it’s important to only use Action Rolls when they’re necessary! When I call for an action roll in a game, it often leads to about five minutes of discussion… but let me tell you, it’s worth it.
Tension is a fantastic narrative device, and a well-planned Action Roll is a masterclass in tension. The players know the stakes. They’ve decided that the risk is worth the reward. You’ve taken the time to tell them what the various outcomes of the dice roll will be. The moment the player rolls, everyone around the table will hold their breath… and the moment they land, everyone will know exactly what that means.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd edition had an interesting dice pool mechanic where you built a pool of various custom dice based on a variety of different things. You’re innately good at this thing, so add two of this type of positive die. You’re trained, so add this other one. And you’re blessed, so add this one. The enemy you’re facing is a skilled opponent, so add one negative dice. Oh, and there’s an environmental effect, so add this one. By rolling the pool and interpreting the results, you had a granular outcome; if it went well, was it because of your training, or your natural skill, or the blessing? If it went badly, was that because of the enemy’s skill, or the environmental effect? This was all great in theory, but in practice it utterly killed any tension. The dice would land, then everyone would pause for a moment, interpret a dozen different symbols, then look to the GM for their final say.
None of that happens here. The pre-roll discussion sets expectations. Gathering the dice pool builds tension. Rolling the dice releases the tension all at once, and the catharsis is palpable. If you do Action Rolls well, every one of them will result in a truly emotional response from the players, and will add an interesting development to the narrative.
Resolving the Roll
Lemme quickly explain how to read the dice pool.
No matter how many dice are rolled, you’re only looking at the single highest-scoring die. (Well, if there’s more than one 6, that’s a Critical, but that’s a technicality!)
A 1–3 is failure. There are consequences, as you established when you set the Position.
A 4–5 is a mixed success. There are consequences as above, but also the character achieves what they were trying to achieve, based on what you established with the Effect.
A 6 is a success. The character achieves whatever you established when you set the Effect. (If there are two or more 6s this is a critical success, and they get more than you’d established.)
And yeah, as I said, because you took the time to set the stakes, everyone will know what’s going to happen the moment those dice land.
I generally invite the player making the action to narrate the outcome, based on what we’ve established. I might throw in a couple of extra details or prompts, but I like to let them take the spotlight and exert some narrative control. In short, I keep them invested in the Action Roll from start to finish.
And there we have it! Action rolls, demystified. If you do these right, they will make your games incredibly satisfying. You’ll be excited for them whenever they come up, and so will your players… although they might also be nervous on their characters’ behalf! Most importantly, the more practice you get at running Action Rolls, the easier you’ll find them. It helps to slow down at first and do things step by step; don’t run before you can walk.
I hope this has been helpful! Is there another aspect of Blades in the Dark you’d like me to demystify? If so, drop a comment below and let me know.
Thanks for reading!