We Are The Night: Aspirations, Contusions, And Bullshit

These articles document the ongoing process of examining the things required to make a Blades in the Dark hack. The premise is using Blades in the Dark to emulate a heroic vigilante environment, akin to the settings of Gotham City from We Are Robin, or Ikebukuro from Durarara!!

This time, I want to talk about a mechanical change to the injury system. We’re going to talk about Harm and Trauma, and ways to change that system.

Problems With The Harm & Trauma

I don’t like the trauma system in Blades in the Dark as is. It’s a system that works alright for one specific model of heist narrative, where characters accumulate psychological problems and eventually fall out of the game, or are lost in some nonspecific way. Traumas, as they work, are meant to introduce haggard character affects and to give the game a feeling of approaching end-game. There are some things about them I like, but they do create a sort of downward pressure of the game – the only eventual end-game the game presents is ‘losing via Trauma, or deciding to stop.’ Not that stopping by choice is bad, but it still is one of those rare parts of Blades that pressures players in a single specific direction.

Also, just in general, ‘recovering from harm’ in the system is erratic and untrustworthy. That makes great sense if your medical technology still includes the word chirurgeon. Modern settings have a lot more tools for medical recovery, and a lot more tools for really heavy violence. Sure, knife wounds are worse in a period without antibiotics, but you’d be surprised the stopping power guns bring to bear.

There’s also the way the harm system works; as structured in the original game, Harm is kind of fundamentally only able to represent material injury because of how it’s recovered. Like let’s say that in the middle of a heist, you fall off a roof into a midden. You now stink like shit, and you’re disoriented and probably feeling a little nauseated. That’s a pretty reasonable thing to impose a lot of general penalties — you know, like a -1 dice kind of penalty — but you either are going to adhoc a explanation for why you don’t need to fill a clock to scrub yourself clean, or, you’re going to adhoc a reason that this stench isn’t harm. Plus, exactly how many similar problems are going to stack up to give you an appropriate form of trauma?

This is something that works generally for Blades as the base game works. If we’re going to change it, though, the Trauma and Harm system need to be reconsidered.

One of the things I love about Blades in the Dark is that the system is kind of gyroscopic. Players are going to unconsciously bias their behaviour towards the kinds of heists they want. The solutions to problems they find, between flashbacks and stress and harm and all the resources they have available to them, will be the kind of solutions they want. If you play conservatively, any given group is going to be able to accumulate a lot of resources and territory even with a storyteller who’s being kind of a dick. And that’s cool too — some players want to be the kind of patient, careful criminals that are doing a perfectly good job. Some players want to throw caution to the wind and try some wonderful idiot shit, and the dice promise that they will back you up doing that (and they are liars).

Fixing Harm is easy – just make sure that ‘medical recovery’ is easier, and be aware that some dice-penalising harms are temporary harms. The way to clear harm is now based on type of harm, rather than just level.

Ways Out Of The Game

Okay, I don’t like harm recovery because it feels very ramshackle and like it’s representing a medical society where you can’t go to a chemist and get some just-in-case headache pills. It’s also good at representing characters who are primarily hindered by medical conditions and not by other possible constraints. Trauma is a way of representing characters getting ‘out’ of the game, and it paints the idea of the project the characters are doing as fundamentally damaging and punitive. That all works for the very grim, victorian feeling of Blades in the Dark.

What I want instead in the context of a We Are The Night is for the end game to be aspirational and for failure to be less about personal emotional trauma and more about the loss of potential goals.

My idea at this point is to give characters hopes and dreads. The idea of a hope is, it’s something you want to have happen for your character; and a dread represents a negative outcome for them. This could be something like settling down with a partner, and the dread being that you can’t do that. So far, so good; but rather than Traumas, which accumulate until you’re done, this needs to represent a sort of back-and-forth tension.

I do like that Traumas work on a rule of three. If you have no traumas, taking a trauma feels like no real problem. But then you have a Trauma and it makes the rest of your play experience more difficult, because trauma does that, and now you realise you only have one more chance before you’re on your last Trauma, and need to start thinking about an escape route for the character.

What I think Hopes and Dreads need to be, at a first blush, is something similar; I think that say, you have five slots in where it goes; let’s call this thing your Aspiration, your way out after the end of the story. Five slots, and each time you would accumulate a Trauma or achieve some great end (we’ll need to devise something there), you increment on one track or the other.

Too much Dread, and you’ve ruined your chance at your Aspiration. Not necessarily won’t have it, but now it will be forever tainted by the trauma you accumulated during your time fighting for your territory in the movement that is The Night. Not everyone gets out of it okay, after all. But if you can hold onto Hope, then even a damaged life after is an improvement.

There, that’s another round of thinking and notes about what in this system changes for We Are The Night.

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