Blades in the Dark: A One-Shot Framework

Posted at — Apr 13, 2022


This is an opinionated framework for running self-contained one-shots of Blades. It’s one method among many.

I mostly play online (even in the before times), so I assume you have some form of asynchronous communication with your group. I also assume a three to four-hour session, but I’ve included tips for two-hour sessions.

Before The Session

Check In

Can everyone still make it? I aim for three or four players. Two is doable if they are comfortable with each other, and you reduce the scope of the score. Five is too many. Six or more is an absolute mess.

Pitch the Game

I use CATS by Patrick O’Leary as a method for distilling what the game is about into a pitch.

Before playing a game, or even introducing the rules, there needs to be a conversation at the table to set expectations. A game runs smoothly when all players understand what the group is striving for. But how do you do it? You use the CATS method! Everyone loves CATS.

This codified presentation will allow the facilitator to hit four essential topics quickly and easily. Just start from the top.

Concept: Pitch this game. At a high-level, what’s it about?

Aim: Explain what the players are trying to accomplish. Can someone win? Can everyone lose? Are we trying to tell a specific type of story?

Tone: Have a quick conversation about the tone of the game. What is the default? Are there different options for gameplay? (Serious vs. Gonzo, Action vs. Drama, etc.). Come to a consensus on what the group wants.

Subject Matter: Explain what ideas might be explored during gameplay. Do they make anyone uncomfortable? Discuss what boundaries need to be set, if any.

Afterwards, everyone should have the same expectations for the upcoming game. This discussion shouldn’t be long, but it is essential. To significantly improve your gaming experience, spend five minutes with CATS before you play!

Tailor those topics to the version of Blades you want to present to the players, then pitch the summary to them. Reference the game’s touchstones. State any relevant content warnings.

Choose A Crew and Score Type

Pick three crew types, and write a one sentence score hook for each of them. A few days before the session ask the players which they like best.

As a default I offer scores for shadows, bravos, and smugglers, because they are usually simpler. If the players are particularly interested in a different crew, do that instead.

Develop The Score

Once they’ve chosen a score hook, it’s time to flesh it out. You’ll need:

You might also want:

If you need inspiration, check out:

My personal prep style is inspired by the 7-3-1 technique. Remember, prep is to make you feel comfortable running the game. Prepping too much can make you feel like you need to use the stuff you prepped, even if it isn’t a good idea.

Running The Session

Pitch The Game (Again)

Repeat your summary of CATS. A refresher is good, and helps set the tone for the session. Consider reading the first page of the book out loud. Show off some art from the book or online.

Explain Safety Tools / Session Procedures


Also see: TTRPG Safety Toolkit

Outline The Session

Go over the timeline:

You’ll almost always vary from this, but it is good to have goals.

Pitch the Score

So you prepared this cool score hook, thematic locations, and a few antagonists. Don’t keep it a secret. If the hook is to steal an ancient artifact from the university, tell them. Help them make characters suited to the session.

Create Characters

Have players create characters as normal. Briefly explain what each action rating is used for. Suggest special abilities that will be useful during the session. If they get stuck on a step, leave it and let them choose during play.

Skip crew creation. We’re only using it to focus the session/fiction from “scoundrels” to a specific crew type. It is enough that they know what type of crew they are, and what they usually get up to.

Make character creation a discussion. Ask loaded questions about their background, vices, friends/rivals, special abilities, and so on. If someone needs time to think, let them ponder. Move to a different player and come back to them. Listen carefully, and write down the answers. They are great material to reincorporate later.

By the end you should at least know their: name, playbook, special abilities, and highest action rating(s). But don’t introduce them yet!

Optional: have players add 7 dots to their action ratings (for 9 total), and let them choose an extra special ability (2 total).

The Score

Cut Directly To The Action

Assume normal load. Cut in at a risky or desperate position, whichever is more interesting.

1. Set the scene. Make it punchy.

2. Set up the characters. For each character:

3. Drop the bang.

Cut all the way to a point where the characters have a difficult decision to make. It’s better if you don’t know the solution.

Play The Score

Optional: Use flashbacks during the score to show character backgrounds. Leverage is a great example of this. (cw: brief domestic violence, death played for laughs, intentionally bad acting).

Explain Mechanics Gradually

Introduce mechanics as they come up, but when a complex topic (action rolls) arises don’t lay everything on them at once.

End the Score

When you have about 30 minutes left before downtime, start to wrap up. Stop introducing new stuff, focus on reincorporating established stuff, and push towards a finale.

Media Examples

Let’s look at the opening scores from two films. Neither translate perfectly to gaming, but we can still learn a lot from them.

In both cases the films…

  1. Set the scene by showing where the score is happening and what’s going on there.
    • Heat is set in Los Angeles: sunny skies, shorter buildings, wide roads, and sparse traffic.
    • The Dark Knight is in downtown Gotham. Skyscrapers, narrow streets, fine weather, and an ostentatious bank.
    • The looming danger in both scenes is the arrival of the police or other factions.
  2. Set up the characters by showing what role in the team each of them is playing, and how they accomplish their tasks.
    • Heat: Three teams. The semi truck is the key, the ambulance is the interference, and the old truck is the eyes on the target. The dialogue shows us some group dynamics, with Waingro being the reckless upstart, and Michael being the no-nonsense old hand.
    • The Dark Knight: Two teams. The hacker and safe cracker on the roof, cutting security and opening the vault. The muscle and (secret) mastermind going in through the front as a show of force to control the area. Though, I wouldn’t recommend killing your crew members.
  3. Drop the bang that demands players make a choice.
    • Heat: Waingro is keyed up, and perceives the staring guard as a challenge to his authority. He has to decide whether to let that stand. When he shoots him, the rest of the team have to decide what to do with the rest of the guards.
    • The Dark Knight: Ignoring the team killing, the first difficult decision is how to handle the bank manager with the shotgun.



Set Expectations

Tell the players how you prefer to run downtime scenes. If you often have players play NPC’s in other PCs’ downtime scenes, let the players know they can do that (but don’t have to). The focus here is on showing how downtime works, and putting characters in scenes together to see how they react to each other.

Play out the interesting scenes

For a one shot prioritize playing out: indulging vice, recovering from harm, and dealing with entanglements. Also include any other scenes you think would be interesting, or a player is excited about.

When one character goes to do a downtime activity, ask who goes with them. When they get there, ask probing questions about the location and NPC’s. Bring the world to life through their friends, rivals, contacts, vice purveyors, etc.

Elide the boring bits

Turn repeated mechanical activities into montages. Recovery is a prime target for this. Let them spend activities/coin until they decide to stop. Then have them describe it has a montage.

Go through the XP ritual

When everyone has had at least one downtime scene, consider wrapping up. Ask them if they think they met their XP triggers. If they have enough XP to get an ability/action dot, let them. The important part here is reviewing the session, but a lot of players also enjoy mechanical advancement even if they won’t play the character again.


Go around and have each player describe an epilogue for their character. What do we see as their final note?


Close with Stars & Wishes. Ask how everyone is doing. What did they enjoy? What could go better next time? You also get to answer those questions.

Two Hour Sessions

Let’s say you’re planning a two-hour game. Do the following:

A timeline usually looks like:


Why In Media Res?

I’ve introduced Blades to around 50 players. When I started out I’d do a slow start: introduce characters, run some introduction scenes, and present a few opportunities. That took too much time, and a large portion of players got choice paralysis.

By cutting directly to the score you can present them with much fewer options, and their choices for are smaller in scope. As an added bonus they’ll have much more context when they get into downtime. Hopefully you’ll have introduced a few factions, and shown them a part of the city.

If you have players experienced with story games, improv, and/or PbtA, you’ll probably be fine with a slow start. It takes more time, but such players are usually directed enough to handle it. I’d still skip over the “forming the crew” scenes. They have a tendency to suck up valuable time if two characters don’t have a good reason to work together. Save those for flashbacks after the crew has been established.