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The GM Turn

The GM Turn

From the very first moment that we started putting pen to paper on this game, we agreed that this game had to both look incredibly complex and remain simple to run. Ilrien had to be a seething pit of lies and intrigue and hidden agendas, such that the players were always wondering what their rivals were up to. But Court of Blades had to include all of the tools for the GM to make the goals of the non-PC Houses feel consistent and plausible while not requiring hours of prep time or the general tearing of hair. It was not an easy balance to strike.

This game’s largest departure from other Forged in the Dark games is the Social Season. Every three sessions –errands, actually, but I’ve found that these are practically synonymous when a group hits its stride– the city, and all of the myriad agendas therein, advances. Plans unfurl. Some go well, and some hit a snag. To adjudicate this fairly without also feeling like the GM has too much on their plate between Social Seasons we’ve reached out toward a strange combination of methods that we’ve cribbed, adapted, modified, and grafted from some other groovy games.

First of all, there’s the Faction Turn that we’ve snagged from Stars Without Number. The rules for this one are sprawling and exceedingly granular. There are units, special actions, more than a couple of options for each of those, and plenty of die rolling. Each faction gets to declare an objective and then take coordinated actions with its units to achieve its various goals. It might be the bloodying of an enemy, creation of a zone of influence, or the acquisition of an asset. Altogether, it might actually be best played with a spreadsheet, but it undeniably creates a fantastic subtext for an unraveling story. It’s great for the weekday night planning session, but it needed to be abstracted if we were going to be able to use it and make using it not a whole new set of rules that the GM had to internalize and then spend a night playing by themselves.

Abstraction came to us through Legacy: Life Among the Ruins. This gem abstracts the various assets and strengths of a family into three primary stats. It gave organizations stats just like any other character. With this in mind, we can start uniformly comparing organizations and their ability to get various things done. Just like Action Ratings for characters, Houses get House Ratings. Only instead of Mind, Body, and Spirit (or Insight, Body, Resolve), Houses have Reach, Grasp, and Sleight.

  • Reach: Influence in Ilrien and abroad. Families roll Reach when they undertake an action that expands their sphere of control.
  • Grasp: A family’s ability to project force and control. Families roll Grasp when they undertake an action that wrests control of a resource or territory from another or defends their own.
  • Sleight: A family’s ability to hide its intentions or act subtly. Families roll Sleight when they undertake an action that hinges upon secrecy or misdirection.

So, objectives will be achieved by rolling these action ratings just like on any other long-term project, and then ticking the clocks as necessary. Genius! Only, how do we know what the House is trying to accomplish?

Enter that old standby, the random chart. Each House will roll four dice and that generates one of 1296 possible objectives. They’ll be a little bare-bones, needing a little extra detail provided by the GM, but overall, it’s a quick process that can be accomplished at the table during a five-minute bathroom break. For instance, I’ll roll something up right now.

Another tumultuous season in Ilrien. Corvetto will be hard at work rushing an important magical thesis with their contacts in the Scholam Naturalis before competitors can publish first. Battaglia will be trying to subtly manipulate the internal destruction of an important caravan without allowing their efforts to be traced back to them. Bastien will be gaining the loyalty of a merchant ship without anyone else growing suspicious of the new trade route it will be following. Lovell will be trying to overtly negotiate a contract with that same merchant ship, putting the captain in something of a pickle. Maurisii in familiar Maurisii fashion, will be punishing the transgressions of a radical street alchemist who has been dabbling with a rare strain of dreamlily, exposing all who have bought from him to not insignificant risk. Irlanda will be shoring up its weaknesses, ensuring that none of its members are susceptible to bribery or blackmail.

These objectives become clocks that they will attempt to advance during the progression of the Social Season. The retainers can engage with them as they will, foiling or assisting as they learn of their rivals movements. The city will change as the game develops, and every season, regardless of whether the objective was achieved or stymied into the next season–they don’t go away until they are achieved or three seasons pass and they are counted as a failure–, a new objective will loom. In this way, city is not only a pressure cooker for the coterie, but the other Houses as well.

In essence, today we dedicated a lot of brain-bytes to making the GM’s job as far as the complexity of the machinations of the Great Game of the Esultare as easy as possible. If you’ve got four d6’s, you’ve got all you need to create the tangled web of intrigue, deceit, murder, and politics that makes Ilrien such a dangerous place to play. Take a moment and see what your rivals are up to today!



One of the things that really sets Forged in the Dark games apart from the competition is the way that the mechanics push narrative forward, sometimes whether you like it or not. Entanglements are one of the things that I had trouble wrapping my head around when I first started playing Blades in the Dark, simply because it felt as though the mechanics were hijacking the story that my friends and I had been creating together. Suddenly there was this unexpected fallout that came out of left field. Now someone wanted us to do something apart from what we’d been planning after our last score! What gives?

I get it now. It ratchets up the tension and means that you’ve got more plates spinning. You are under increasing pressure and the walls are closing in. That’s good for storytelling, especially when the game is pushing you to drive your character like a stolen car.

For Court of Blades, we are trying to encourage a slower burn and a longer overall game without sacrificing that delicious pressure. We’re looking for a crockpot rather than a pressure cooker. You’ll come out just as fall-apart tenderized, but it’ll take a while longer to stew in your own juices. Now I’m hungry…

We got our first draft of Entanglements up today, and looking over them I think that our ethos comes through pretty well. Unlike Blades in the Dark or Scum & Villainy, we’re going to be doling out entanglements based on how much Exposure a coterie acquires per errand. That is, if you only garner 0-3 Exposure while about the House’s business, you are getting the lightest of Entanglements appropriate for your level of Shame. This keeps the death-spiral from ratcheting up too fast, and gives our politic retainers all due opportunity to correct between errands. That is not to say that the levels of Shame do not get more punishing as you go on. Remember, in Ilrien it’s only three strikes until you’re out, and it won’t just be a leisurely languish in Ironhook here. The Grand City does not believe in prisons. Justice is quick, efficient, and brutal. Get three levels of Shame and the entire coterie is dismissed from House service.

Another difference between Court of Blades and its predecessors is the relative lack of emergent errands that derive from the Entanglements. Blades in the Dark had 12 Entanglements and most of them gave the option of spinning the Entanglement into another score. Standing up to rivals, evading arrest, or dealing with the Unquiet Dead, they all required your attention or else an outpouring of Rep or Coin. We’ve got 36 Entanglements in Court of Blades, but only 3 demand an Engagement roll to deal with. The Social Season mechanic of the game makes for a nail-biting game of “what can we get done before time makes fools of us all” as it is. If we piled on another errand, demanded by our Entanglement roll, it’d spin out of control fast. Especially if we got another Entanglement demanding another errand demanding another entanglement…you see where I’m going with this?

That is not to say that we’re taking it easy on our retainers.

Looking over the list, I think our Entanglements are tending toward punishing, but the reason for that is twofold. Reason the first: retainers are no less hardscrabble than scoundrels, though their coin of the realm is reputation rather than currency. We wanted to put the same pressure that Doskvol puts on the pocketbook on our retainers’ good names. Reason the second: the fallout from errands well-run should be stumbling blocks to keep runaway success from snowballing into a short game. A labyrinth with a straight path is not a well-designed one, and a parabolic ascent is not the most satisfying story in a world of byzantine politics and careful maneuvering.

Entanglements will cost you Favor. They will cost you friends. They might cost your Tier, if you are not circumspect. They might cost your fine equipment or your good name. If you are clever and you remember your obligation to the will of the House, you will suffer this with grace and continue to prove yourself a worthy weapon in the arsenal of the Esultare. Because those are the stories that last.