Very much enjoyed this episode. I related to the GM burn episode discussion as I’m constantly riding the wave of enthuasiam and frustration with the hobby.
Mike is looking for the fun in Blades in the Dark, hopefully I can point towards it after running several very enjoyable games with a number of different people. I accept that it does presuppose a moral relativism, there’s degrees of evil within Duskvol, it’s possible to consort with vampires and devils, but there’s also capacity to be a rebel with a cause.
The key to unlocking the game is to understand the interplay between the factions within the city. Roger is right to relate it to The Sopranos, as it has a similar narrative assumptions: if you make a move that impacts another faction, there are consequences that need to be resolved through negotiation or more desperate action. It’s not possible to escape from Duskvol, so a motivation for the player characters is to build up the influence and defences for their faction, so they can deal with fall-out from the choices they make and have a degree of protection. The playbooks do offer a mechanical means of dealing with the moral torpor of ‘being bad’ and the coping mechanisms required in ‘down time’ to reach solace.
The fun comes from growing the power base and players navigating a path through the ruthless factions.
I’ve written before that I believe that it passes your patented ‘IMPROVRAD” test: it’s easy to generate 6 or more heists/ story hooks off the top of the head; the players know their place in the world and how they can impact it.
Recently, I ran a 12 hour session and had nothing prepared other than the suggested opening sequence provided in the book and a good understanding of the factions operating in the sector of the city that I was using. It was a session of exciting twists and turns generated purely from player interactions and following the ‘turn’ mechanics provided.
It’s a game that has lots of cogs turning at once, but when it works, it’s the closest I’ve found to a perfect RPG experience for doing what it does.
While I think that unbridled power fantasy is no fun for very long, I think that bridled power fantasy is more often what RPGs offer, and can be quite enjoyable. While your average superhero, for instance, might be able to walk through hails of bullets and swat aside workaday gunmen with a flick of the wrist, the power fantasy of a superhero game is balanced by the moral issues usually at play. Even the “grim and gritty” supers games I’ve seen tend to put moral questions front and center and assume that at the very least there are worse things out there than the PCs.
I think the same can be applied even to Vampire: The Masquerade. You might be a murdering rapist, but there are murdering torturer rapists out there, as well as things that just want to burn the city or the nation or the world. The World of Darkness as written also comes at it somewhat from the attitude of letting you be as horrible as you want but making sure that there are consequences for being horrible by having a morality stat (e.g, Humanity in Vampire) for most or all of its splats. That said, I totally understand being uncomfortable with that play style - I’ve been in a few Vampire campaigns and always struggled to not hate my character at some point in the process.
However, this is how the games are written, but not necessarily how they’re played. Early editions of Shadowrun were written with the implication that player character shadowrunners were basically decent people, forced to work for the evil corporations but ultimately working to take them down or at least make them slightly less evil. I suspect that the fact that the game is currently being designed by former players is largely responsible for the current (as of a few years ago, anyway) ultra-cynical attitude where, as the rules remind us, “Everything has a price.” And of course, lots of people got a lot of mileage out of playing Vampire as “goth supers.” (You could argue that Twilight is likely a direct outgrowth of that attitude, in fact.)
Even the sorts of violence sanctioned by “Swords and Sorcery” fiction can become unthinkable if the player is made aware of all the ugly details. I once had a player who had chosen to be a priest of a particularly ferocious deity who demanded daily human sacrifices. So long as I kept the description of these rites brief and abstract there was no objection: “You and your fellow priests cut out the hearts of twenty victims today.” Okay, no problem. Then, once, as an experiment, I manoeuvred this player into a situation where he himself had to sacrifice just one person.
As you may imagine, this story does not go well for the player. (I highly recommend this essay.)