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there's a really cool thing Blades in the Dark does where it hits you with the punchy setting description of "You’re in a haunted Victorian-era city trapped inside a wall of lightning powered by demon blood." but then immediately follows it up with an explanation of why that is:

The point of all this is to create a pressure-cooker environment for our criminal escapades. Traveling outside the lightning barrier is a very bad idea, so it’s impractical to “leave town and wait for the heat to die down” after you pull off a score. Everything the players choose to do has consequences for their characters and shifts the balance of power around in the city—driving the action for a sandbox style of roleplaying game.

i think this is really sharp, and it's a good example of what Blades is trying to do, which in some ways is to present the most elegant tabletop version of an open-world video game. the city's big and stuff goes down without you, but you're playing in a limited space and can't leave. it's why factions happen for the most part without player input, and it feels right for the kinds of story Blades is willing to tell.

more generally, i think one of the things that makes this difficult is that it's such a tough thing to implement story beats because it feels like it'll end up constraining creativity. i'm fine laying down gear because i'm confident if people want start calling my sparkshot guns like, boltspitters or something, they'll just do it and won't feel like they're playing the game wrong, but if i tell them "your story should integrate these tropes and these themes," they'll feel constrained by those beats? and i think the emergent narrative structure of play can be more interesting than the structure of a conventionally-told story, and i worry that sending people in aiming to capture those story beats might stifle creativity or limit people.

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I think that's absolutely a big concern - and one I think anyone who's had experience in a structured lit class has probably felt at some point. It's a pitfall to be avoided when writing this sort of thing, and something to actively educate against the use of. In my mind, and hopefully in my writing, the goal is to enable people to better embrace their ability to express themselves or creatively explore their ideas and unique stories through making people actively aware of how the sausage is made, rather than enforce specific and strict cookie-cutter plots. Blades is a really great game that does a lot of great narrative and media aware design/tools while encouraging GMs and players to have fun with and mess with those rules rather than stifling them.

I definitely have had bad art teachers who didn't know how to weave these two concepts (That of personal self expression/freedom and the education of the 'rules' of the artform), but I feel like I'm a better storyteller and writer for having learned the rules and media conventions in the first place, after all, its hard to break, bend or make new rules if you're not super aware of how they work in the first place.


oh, yeah, i definitely get that impulse as well. even so, it's always clashed with the second impulse which like...a practical example of this is that i was raised Hindu (atheist Hindu but like, culturally Hindu) and i really don't know anything about Christianity? and i've to some degree actively resisted learning because i think my work will be stronger for operating completely without reference to Christian symbolism and symbology! and sure, i don't recognize that symbology as easily in the media i consume, but it's nice to have a personal and thematic aesthetic that exists entirely orthogonally to that throughline in most Western media. part of what's often frustrated me about PbtA games is that because the moves themselves are codified tropes, it makes it really tough to push the limits of the genre that a given game captures in a satisfying way, so i'm interesting in not laying that out in my work and seeing where it takes people. i think playtesting will probably have a lot to teach me about whether that's effective, but i'm very interested to try it out and see how far i can get on a minimum of that kind of information.


That's a really interesting viewpoint and - regardless of where your playtesting leads you - I'm really excited to see how that is reflected in your work. Thank you for sharing!


I absolutely love Blades in the Dark for that bit of setting-building and reasoning. Partly because the most recent D&D setting I created was set up in a similar way: a walled city surrounded by deadly mists, so play would be contained to the city and players would build on fraught relationships with NPCs and factions over the course of multiple campaigns. Then I discovered Blades and saw all the similarities.