Recently, I’ve been digging into Blades in the Dark, a fantastic TTRPG set in the grim city of Doskvol, powered by demon blood. It is one of the best systems I’ve played so far: creative, improv-based, and story-driven. Armed with a couple of solo play rules and six-sided dice, I dove into the Mask of a Thousand Faces.
Allow me to convey the magic and possibilities of this game and hook you into the dangerous lifestyle of a scoundrel.
The carriage, the documents, and the shot
Mardian “Gunner” Booth, my character and a veteran headhunter, is perched atop a building, surveying a mile-long strip of cobblestone. Shade Street is an important boulevard, busy with vendors and intersected with nooks and shadowed alleyways. It is a lynchpin between the docks and the upper-class district, a scoundrel’s heaven and a rich man’s bane. Every imported good has to pass over its wet stone.
Gunner pulls out a scheme depicting an armored carriage, model Esmeraldus. Thick and girthy, the vehicle will be a nightmare to break into. The bottom note reads two Bluecoat officers, one shooter, and a driver. And soon enough, Gunner’s red demonic eye catches a metallic shimmer—two horses huffing, their harnesses taut against a three-ton cargo. He tosses his cigar, straightens his coat, and slides down onto the street.
The first thing I had to decide on was my approach style. Perusing through the options, I picked stealth and rolled an Engagement die. This determines how well my plan holds up against the complications and takes care of the plan itself, tossing me right into the action. Gunner has probably spent sleepless nights trying to foresee trouble and the best spots and corners, so I don’t have to.
For the roll, I added bonus dice because the job was daring and above my pay grade, oiled with an excellent brief. Dice clack, and a 6 smiles at me. My approach will be smooth and unnoticed, the situation under my control with Gunner’s knowledge of the streets and their people. In fact, the night before, he paid a couple of urchins to flip a cart when the carriage was near. The shouts reveal the blockade started. The children are teasing the officers, who are arguing with the vendors, demanding they clean up.
Using the commotion, I roll a Prowl, and Gunner darts beneath the vehicle. He likes doing things in nimble ways, but even with two points in this action, I rolled a 4. This means success with a complication: Gunner slips beneath the Girthy Esme but has little room to hide. The plan of strapping to the bottom, and riding unnoticed to the warehouse started dissolving like rust in vinegar. With a few precious moments to decide, Gunner takes out his tools to disable the carriage shaft—if he can’t go with it, it won’t either. With zero points in Tinkering, I had to stack the dice in our favor:
I Push Gunner to muster all the focus he has, which gives him two Stress but an additional die.
I take a Devil’s Bargain that provides an extra die, but, in return, no matter the outcome, he will be discovered.
Two dice, one roll, and two 6s. I can barely contain myself—a critical success!
The gears jam and the tools disappear in the inner pocket just as the Bluecoat officer yells, “Hey, you!”
His sweaty face is beaming red underneath the helmet. His muscles are bulging, ready to unleash the anger that Doskvol shrouds you in. I must avoid fighting at close range—it’s Gunner’s least favorite way of dealing with nuisance.
As the plump, underpaid Bluecoat charges, I take a deep breath. Unlike Gunner, I am safe and have a moment to myself. A quick scan of the character sheet spots a solution—in my item loadout, there are documents. But to use them properly, I have to start a Flashback, a wonderful game mechanic that solves all uncertainty and planning indecisiveness. With this, you plan during the mission.
Two days before the sweatface threatened to soak us in his bodily fluids, Gunner went to Brass Mechanics, a guild in charge of the city’s vehicles. He bullied a clerk into forging false identification papers, and the poor man couldn’t refuse Gunner’s demonic stare.
“If you speak of this, the eye will return”, Gunner muttered before leaving.
With fake documents in his pocket, we return to the present. This cost us one Stress.
“What the hell are you doing?” the officer spits out.
“I am a chief repairman for city vehicles, sir,” says Gunner, presenting the papers. He tries hard to iron his thick accent. “You have stopped in the middle of a busy street, and I was wondering if everything is all right. Are you having trouble with the carriage?”
The officer grabs the papers and reads out loud, eyes bulging. Because of the flashback and forgery, I have the upper hand. I Push Gunner for two more Stress and take a Devil’s Bargain: no matter the outcome, the officer will become suspicious. This provides two more dice for the Sway action, hoping to appease the big guy. Luckily, one rolled a 6; however, the “Guards are onto me” clock started ticking. Every time I fail to deceive them, it will fill up until Gunner tastes the manacles.
With some breathing room, Gunner starts “inspecting” the carriage under the notion of a “prophylactic check-up.”
After all, Gunner explained to the officer, this could easily be a trick—someone using the blockade to tinker with the vehicle. The backside rifleman went to disperse the crowd, so I approached the doors. The situation is risky, but it will provide good insight into what we’re up against. I roll Study and get a 3. There’s not much to learn aside from the fact that the carriage is arcane-warded, as the electricity shocks Gunner to his very core, marking him with level 2 harm Shocked. As Gunner rubs his charred fingers, I rub my forehead. If we could modify the carriage doors to discharge when shot at…
Gunner carefully takes his tools and loosens the door pressure mechanism, lowering its threshold. However, this came with a consequence: the officer’s clock is now three-quarters full.
“Well?”, the sweatface eyes me, returning his gaze from the crowd.
“Erghm, it seems all is well”, Gunner says. “Rest assured, you can continue your travels.”
The officer prods Gunner’s chest.
“Listen, you! I don’t believe…” but at that point, the crowd’s cheer stole his attention as a kid nipped the rifleman’s pipe. Gunner bows and leaves the scene before the sweatface has a chance to wipe in suspicion.
• • •
We look for a vantage point. The adrenaline is messing with my rolls and Gunner’s ability to survey a good spot on the weathered buildings. His body is still distracted from the electric jolt. The fallen cart and debris are gone, the children are scolded, and the officers are ready to leave. The moment they see an immovable carriage, the surprise is shattered. Two times, the Survey rolls betray us and throw us into a Desperate Position.
Under the throbbing pressure, buildings merge into a giant mush of gray. To give us an edge, I Push Gunner and take a Devil’s Bargain: no matter the result, my location will be reachable and easily spotted. Three dice, one roll, and a 2, a 4, and a 6. I kiss the highest and climb onto the roof of a single-floor barber shop.
Spotting, I catch the rifleman returning to his post, blocking the carriage doors.
“Oh, for lord’s sake”, Gunner grumbles. The two Bluecoat officers climb onto their chestnuts. The driver takes the reins and, with a piercing whistle, clears the last of the crowd. Gunner’s demonic eye squints, aligning the gunsight against the rifleman’s head. His rifle Mercy has enough power to pierce the rifleman’s leg and hit the door behind him, but there is a chance the bullet will ricochet strangely. Should I go for the big payoff or a sure kill?
“Hyah!”, the driver hollers, and the horses start pulling, but the carriage resists. I am hesitant, rubbing dice between my palms, and giving myself three seconds to decide. Ten go by, and I am frozen as the officers’ expressions change.
“Show some grit, lad”, Gunner says, pulling the trigger. The dice and the bullet split the air with an ominous zip.
For a moment, everything went silent until a 6 landed on my desk, and the rifleman’s helmet shattered. The bang catches up with screams and horses’ neighs, and the blood paints the cobblestone.
“One head down,” Gunner says with a smirk. And then all hell broke loose.
Hey, thanks for reading!
I can tell you that this is an emotional tale I didn’t know could happen in a solo playthrough, and it’s definitely the one I didn’t want to end. Five more parts coming in the following weeks.
In the meantime, if you want to make your own tale in the grim city of Doskvol, I’m running a brand-new Blades campaign over at StartPlaying.
Stay sharp and may dice roll in your favor.