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It occurred to me after drawing this that's it's basically a summary of The End of History.

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I choose to go to the Moon, with artists.

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I choose to go to the Moon, with artists.

Posted by dearmoonproject on Tuesday, September 18th, 2018 1:45am

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‘As safe as houses’: How a small corner of the US mortgage market nearly brought down the global financial system

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Johnny Elliot and Benjamin King

In August 2007 problems were emerging in the US sub-prime mortgage market. Rising numbers of borrowers were getting behind on their repayments, and some investors exposed to the mortgages were warning that they were difficult to value. But projected write-downs were small: less than half a percent of GDP. Just over a year later, Lehman Brothers had failed, the global financial system was on the brink of collapse and the world was plunged into recession. So how did a seemingly small corner of the US mortgage market unleash a global crisis?  And what lessons did the turmoil of autumn 2008 reveal about the financial system?

When the first signs of trouble emerged, many economists considered them too small to be of macroeconomic significance. For example, one commentator urged a sense of perspective:

“The rate of loss in subprime mortgages keeps climbing. Perhaps it will double, maybe back to $67 billion. This is a large sum by absolute standards … but by the metrics of a large economy, it is nothing. Some smart, brave people will make a fortune buying in these days, and then we’ll all wonder what the scare was about.”

With hindsight, things played out very differently. So what did the crisis reveal?

Lesson 1: complex securitisation can be dangerous

Most analysis of the crisis points to the US sub-prime securitisation market. Securitisation allows a bank to turn some individual assets (e.g. mortgage loans) which they can’t trade, into securities which they can. So a bank bundles some loans up into a securitisation. Others can then buy a stake, and those stakes can be traded as securities. Some individual mortgages might default, but that risk is spread across all investors in the bundle. Often loans were packaged up into a legal structure called a ‘collateralised debt obligation’ (CDO).

CDOs were normally structured so that losses were not shared equally amongst all investors. Instead, they were split into ‘tranches’. The senior tranches were relatively safe because they got first dibs on the money that came back, while the more junior ones were riskier. The CDO took a book of moderately risky loans and created some very safe securities, some very risky ones, and some in between.

Then things got more complicated. Banks started to combine separate CDO securities into ‘CDO-squareds’. And as the supply of mortgages began to run out, ‘synthetic CDOs’ were created, using derivatives to link their value to existing issuances rather than buying them outright. Now many new securities could be created without any additional mortgages. For example, a $15m tranche of the Glacier Funding CDO 2006-4A was referenced by $85m of synthetic CDOs.

This all made it difficult to understand the underlying risk. And the valuation of tranches, especially the middle ones, hinges crucially on the correlations between those underlying assets – and these can be hard to estimate.

Complex products are not inherently dangerous. But two things went wrong.

First, too few investors understood the risks they had taken on, and in 2007-2008 there was a collective realisation that this was the case. The reaction of the chairman of one small bank in California may have been typical:

“I asked the CFO what the mechanical steps were in mortgage-backed securities, if a borrower defaulted, as part of a package security, what happens? And he couldn’t answer the question. And I told him to sell them, sell all of them, then, because we didn’t understand it.”

Second, it turned out the correlation assumptions were wrong. Pooling risks only works if those risks are independent. Investors thought middle tranches were reasonably safe, because models – used by banks and credit rating agencies – estimated that widespread correlated defaults were very unlikely. After all the US had never seen a synchronised, nationwide, housing downturn.

Until 2008.

Lesson 2: it matters who holds risky assets

So who bought these securities? And how would they react if their prices fell?

In general, unleveraged investors – those investing their own, rather than borrowed money – are more resilient to price falls. A fall in price may be painful, but they can look through to the long term value and are unlikely to be forced to sell below a fair price.

But large sections of US securitisations were held by the opposite type of investors – those that were excessively leveraged and dependent on short-term funding.

Most of the leverage was supplied by collateralised lending, which allowed investors to borrow against the value of the securities. But as the market realised how risky the securities were, the ‘haircuts’ on the collateral increased, meaning that investors had to supply more and more collateral to maintain their positions. This meant many became forced sellers as they ran out of collateral.

Lesson 3: not only banks can run

A run on a bank is a familiar risk. By late 2007, there was a fresh example in the case of Northern Rock, now infamous for queues on British high streets. The intuition makes sense – banks have a limited supply of ready cash, so can’t pay if everyone withdraws at once. This can trigger a spiral of panic as confidence evaporates.

In 2008, the same structural vulnerabilities were present across the financial system, with ‘shadow banking’ entities investing in long-term assets while offering short-term deposits. Banks established off balance sheet funding vehicles that bought longer term assets (often securitised mortgage loans) while issuing short-term debt to fund their purchases. The debt was bought by money market mutual funds (MMMFs), who in turn offered immediate redemption to investors.

Over the course of 2008, as concerns mounted over the quality of the mortgage-backed securities, these markets began to break down. Off balance sheet vehicles were downgraded, and became unable to issue short-term debt. The pressures culminated in a run on MMMFs in October 2008.

Lesson 4: financial institutions are connected in multiple ways

In 2005-06, the correlation between bank credit default swap (CDS) premia looked like this:

                                                  Large bank CDS premia correlation

The big patches of green indicate that the CDS market thought that the riskiness of one bank wasn’t related to the riskiness of any of the other banks. Risk was thought to be a bank-specific issue.

After the crisis, the picture looked like this:

                                              Large bank CDS premia correlation

The reddish patches show strong correlation – the market had realised that if something hurt one bank, it was probably bad news for the others.

During the crisis financial markets realised that banks had become riskier, as some had material exposures to sub-prime securitisations. But no one knew exactly who was exposed, and by how much. As a consequence, the interbank lending market – which underpins the liquidity of key financial markets – seized up. One measure of this is the rate banks paid to borrow from each other. Before 2007, banks were freely lending at tiny spreads over risk free rates. By late 2008, these spreads had jumped up to about 3%, more than 35 times the pre-crisis average.

A bank that could no longer cheaply borrow from other banks faced incentives to also stop lending, and to quickly sell assets to meet its own cash needs. A cycle began to take hold:

Ultimately, many banks exhausted this cycle before finally turning to governments for support – collectively requiring more than $400bn of liquidity and capital support from governments and central banks.

 Lesson 5: liquidity, and prices, can drop – fast

Two charts illustrate the cumulative effect of some of these developments in financial markets over the course of 2008.

First, financial market liquidity. This measure is a composite of nine liquidity metrics, and captures a general collapse in liquidity across key markets – repo, FX, corporate bonds, equities – as uncertainty over the scale of sub-prime losses, and solvency of key financial intermediaries, took hold.

Second, prices. The price of mortgage securitisations fell sharply through 2007-2008, below that justified by fundamentals. But the wider collapse in liquidity also drove down the price of other unrelated assets, as investors sold assets at ‘fire sale’ prices to realise scarce liquidity. This points to the feedback loop – falling prices driving low liquidity, which forces investors to make further sales.

Lesson 6: the financial system can amplify stress

A core function of the financial system is to manage risk. When it works well, it can help the economy absorb shocks, by distributing risk to those that want to hold it. Before the crisis, many believed that the growing complexity and sophistication of the financial system – particularly securitisation markets – demonstrated that it was doing its job better than ever before.

By the time Lehman Brothers failed this belief had been shattered. Its collapse was a symptom of the problems in the financial system, not the cause – it was one of many banks over-exposed to CDOs and reliant on short-term funding. But it became part of the downward spiral – its failure dramatically hit confidence in other banks, further reducing market liquidity and prompting more forced sales. What started as trouble in one corner of the US housing market ended up as global crisis. Lehman Brothers is gone, but definitely not forgotten.

Johnny Elliott works in the Bank’s Capital Markets Division and Benjamin King works in the Bank’s Resilience Division

If you want to get in touch, please email us at or leave a comment below.

Comments will only appear once approved by a moderator, and are only published where a full name is supplied. Bank Underground is a blog for Bank of England staff to share views that challenge – or support – prevailing policy orthodoxies. The views expressed here are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Bank of England, or its policy committees.

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09/14/18 PHD comic: 'Based on a true story'

Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham
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title: "Based on a true story" - originally published 9/14/2018

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How to avoid getting into unnecessary online fights

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Credit: jdxyw

The main point of reading old books written by philosophers is not to find instantly applicable solutions to immediate problems. After putting down such a book, the general sentiment is rarely renewed confidence in a particular course of action. Rather, the opposite tends to be the case: a profound confusion spreads through the body like so much bad coffee on a particularly grumpy morning. When looking for clear directions and immediate results with speedy expedience, philosophers are the least useful sources to turn to.

Sometimes, however, things are rather more straightforward. Nietzsche, for instance, writes about the eternal recurrence (or eternal return). This is the thought that whatever you do, you will do again in some distant future, and again, and again, for time eternal. This goes for the big actions in life, the defining acts that shape who you are in the broadest of senses. It also goes for the smallest of small gestures, down to the point of insignificance. Everything is included in the eternal rerun, and thus you will have to deal with it all over again and again. All of it. Forever.

As you might imagine, this is not a structural claim about the universe. Nietzsche is not stating this as an empirical fact that can be proven or disproven, but rather states it as a thought experiment. It recontextualizes whatever you are doing in the presence of eternity. Putting up with something annoying or burdensome once is an easy sell — it will only be this one time, so just power through it. If it is fated to happen over and over and over again, however, it takes on a distinctly different character. An eternity of annoyance is probably not worth it, in the grand scheme of things.

Thinking big is not opposed to thinking about small things. Sometimes, they are the same.

Attentive readers will have noted that the title is about online fights. What I am asking you to do is to recontextualize your online behavior in the face of eternity. Particularly, the picking of fights with perfect strangers about the nuances of words, the newest news item or some trivial matter that will be forgotten mere weeks from now. Petty bickering about forgettable things with an insignificant return on energy invested? Is this really what you want to do forever?

An easy way to immediately solidify the eternal recurrence is to think back on what you have created over the last few months. The blog posts written, the objects made, the acts of friendship performed. The things that matter and will continue to matter. Then contrast this to the results achieved by being in online fights. I will hazard a guess that the former is more memorable than the latter. The crux is that you actually have to do the work in order to achieve something worth remembering, and you are not performing it while you are in the midst of several heated online arguments about — what even was it again?

At this point, someone might object that randos find them and initiate fights naturally. Which is a true and solid objection, all round. Thing is. You have a choice as to whether you fight back or not. When someone writes fighting words at you, you always have a choice between dodging or counterpunching. Counterpunching will inevitably lead to things escalating — lashing out at people has a tendency to do that, even if they started it. Dodging, on the other hand, will avoid confrontation without necessarily conceding defeat. A great dodge will allow the conversation to continue without it turning into a fight (at least on your part).

There are several ways to dodge. The easiest way is to simply not reply to people who obviously enter your mentions with the intent of picking a fight. Don’t fight the trolls. This is a legitimate option, albeit sometimes forgotten in the drive to engage and be responsive. Just go about your day and do the things you want to do instead of being in an online fight. The conversation will continue with those less prone to conflict.

Another way is to reply with low-effort sentences. Ask for clarification, “how so?”. Say “That’s interesting”. Interject with statements that do not actually say anything, but which throws the ball over to the other person. If they really want to continue fighting, they will have to do so on their own. Make sure that it is brutally clear to everyone involved that the choice to pick a fight is squarely made by the other person, and that you are not really invested in either arguing or “winning”. Who knows — they might actually phrase the crux of the issue in a constructive manner, given the time and opportunity.

(An interesting variant of this is to respond by alternating “I agree” and “I disagree”. It is somewhat rude, albeit useful if someone really wants to pick a fight and does not respond well to non-replies.)

A more difficult way of dodging is to genuinely try to understand the other’s point of view, particularly when it involves persons you know from previous interactions. They might be trying to tell you something important, and being able to take in this information in a graceful way will improve your day immensely. If possible, separate the useful information from the confrontative potential of the situation.

Telling which kind of dodge to perform in which situation is a skill, and like most skills it only improves with use. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions that will enable you to sail through life without getting into online arguments. But by being aware that you have a choice as to whether to join the fray or try to remain out of it, you can reduce the chances of getting into the more easily avoidable fights, be it with randos, relatives on facebook, or twitter trolls who search for specific keywords to yell at people about. Sometimes, you can just choose to not fight. At other times, tact and careful exploration of the situation will be called for.

This applies to who you talk to and how you do it, as well. If you write at someone, make sure you are not accidentally throwing a punch. Avoid phrases such as “so what you are saying is that you want [bad thing]?” and other accusatory introductions. Find ways to initiate conversation that are invitations to co-think the issue, rather than argue over it. Dodge the fight preemptively.

This is not to say that you should not get into any arguments ever. Rather, the point is that you should choose your battles, and do it in such a way that when you do get into an online argument, you know why you’re doing and what you want out of it, rather than just aimlessly flailing at everyone for the sake of argument. To wax philosophical: spending eternity screaming at faceless strangers online is probably not the best possible use of your limited lifetime. In the grand scheme of things.

[Shameless self-promotion: I have a patreon. And a Ko-Fi. Fight me.]

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Blades in the Dark – haunted by greatness

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Blades in the Dark is the New Hot Roleplaying Thing. Written by John Harper and published by Evil Hat, it is a game about a crew of scoundrels in a haunted industrial city. While not directly Powered by the Apocalypse, it is a descendant of Apocalypse World. And just like its predecessor, it has spawned a plethora of adaptations to various settings, though only Scum & Villainy, a spacefaring game, is currently out. What sets it apart?

Much like its honored ancestor, BitD is a game focused on delivering a specific experience. The player characters are engaged in a criminal enterprise, with the ultimate goal to get rich and get out before the going gets too rough. And to get rich, they have to build an underworld empire. As far as hooks go, that’s a good one. It’s surprising how few games try to have players develop something other than their characters. But before we get to empire building, lets look at how the game itself is played. Get comfortable, this will be in-depths.

While the core mechanic offers the by now familiar gradation of success/success at a cost/failure, it uses a dice pool determined by the relevant action rating. The action ratings range from 0 (roll two dice, pick lowest) to 4, and there are 12 of them in total, split among 3 categories or attributes: Insight, Prowess, and Resolve. The definitions of what action ratings cover are somewhat vague on purpose, to allow players to try and argue their case for using a higher rating because of the way they approach the task. This works a bit too well – we end up arguing about which rating is appropriate more than I would have liked.

After you settle on a rating to use, you can get help from another PC as they take 1 stress for one bonus die, and push yourself and take 2 stress or accept a devil’s bargain – some complication that arises as a result of your actions for another bonus die. In many games, teamwork is an afterthought, offering a trivial bonus. In BitD, it often doubles the die pool and is cheaper in terms of stress than toughing it yourself. Even selfish characters (and they are all anti-heroes at best) jump at the chance to help out, as they know they’ll need help in turn. With a simple rule the game beautifully reinforces the group dynamic: it’s all of you together against the world.

Of all the dice you roll, only the highest matters with 6 being a success, 4-5 success at a cost and 1-3 a failure (well, unless you got two 6s, a critical success). Here’s where it gets unusual, however: the GM sets the position the character’s in and the effect the action is going to have. Position can be controlled, risky or desperate, with risky being the default. It affects just how badly things will go when the dice inevitably betray the characters. Worsening position is a common outcome of a bad roll. Whereas effect, which can be great, standard, or limited (technically also zero or extreme, but at that point common sense usually takes over), is the sum of potency – just how well suited your method is to the task at hand, scale – how large an area you’re trying to cover or how many opponents you’re trying to overcome, and quality – the difference in tiers between you and the target. More on that last one later. After everything is factored in, characters can push themselves and take 2 stress to increase the effect by one level or trade position for effect in either direction, meaning there’s always something they can do, even against insurmountable odds, so long as they have stress to burn or risks to take.

Quite a lot of dials, and a significant departure from the way PbtA games usually handle difficulty. In them, there are no situational modifiers to rolls, with difficulty typically reflected in the potential outcomes or narrative requirements to even be able to make the roll. See for instance these questions. That is, in PbtA games it’s largely left up to the GM to figure out how to frame the situation and reflect the difficulty through narrative means. BitD, however, offers a robust system that answer questions like “how do we handle trying to pick an expensive lock with custom-made tools while the room burns around us?”

Well, almost. In practice, I’ve struggled with what a “limited effect success” means a lot. Even the example offered by the book comes down to “you have to roll twice”, which isn’t very satisfying.

In addition to action rolls, there are fortune rolls which are meant to cover situations where PCs aren’t directly involved, or the outcome is uncertain and no other roll applies. It is a “zoomed out”, more abstract mechanic, as it doesn’t have positions or initial effect levels. Instead, the die pool is made up of whatever number seems appropriate, most often tier of the faction or phenomena acting, or action rating of a PC. At this level of abstraction, major advantages and disadvantages that would have contributed to setting position and effect level were it an action roll simply add or subtract dice. The end result is still determined by the highest die, and still broken up into similar ranges.

Did you catch the bit where a PC’s action rating is sometimes used for a mechanic which is explicitly meant to be about uncertain outcomes not directly linked to any action ratings? It’s a bit odd. In practice, fortune rolls are used by the PCs a whole lot, as they cover gathering information among other things, a major activity in a heist-ish game.

Progress clocks are another part of the core mechanics. They offer a simple way of tracking progress of long-term projects, complex obstacles or things like alarm level. The GM determines how many segments such a clock should have, and fills them in accordance with the rolls. Once the clock is filled, the project is completed or the event occurs. While not fundamentally different from, say, required number of successes in in D&D 4e skill challenges, progress clocks are much more visual. I’ve previously seen progress clocks in Apocalypse World 2e, and have no idea if they were present in the first edition or other games. In BitD, they are much more integrated into the rules, with many downtime activities relying on them. When trying to fill a clock, the effect level of a check determines the number of segments filled, 1 for limited, 2 for standard and 3 for great effect.

And finally, tiers. Everything and everyone has a tier in BitD, even if the fact isn’t particularly advertised. Factions have tiers and everything they own derives its tier from them. These range from 6 for Imperial Military to 0 for where PCs start – armed to the teeth with ambition and not much else. Tiers are mostly used when setting the effect level of an action or when making up a die pool for a fortune roll of a faction, including thugs PCs may hire.

I went into so much detail explaining the rules for a reason. While reading them, a neat picture starts to form. Tiers and effect levels, dice and clocks, it’s all about to come together, it’ll all click and make total sense once you comprehend the mechanics in their entirety and you’ll never need to look up rules again. Except it doesn’t. Action and fortune rolls are related and share terminology, yet they’re not quite equivalent. Further, the many fortune and fortune-like rolls scattered throughout the rulebook each have their own caveats.

Stress can buy you an extra die or greater effect. Your band’s tier helps determine the effect level, unless it determines how many dice you roll. Fictional situation determines the position, which can be traded for effect, unless it gives (or takes away) extra dice. Are dice equivalent to effect levels? Sort-of-not-quite-maybe. In action rolls, a 6 is a success at the negotiated effect level, by default standard i.e. equal to your tier; 4-5 can result in limited effect, while a critical success offers greater effect. In fortune rolls, 4-5 is the effect equal to your tier, 1-3 is tier-1, 6 is tier+1 and a critical success is tier+2 – everything’s shifted upwards. During downtime actions you can spend Coins after the roll to bump up the result to the maximum of “critical success” or tier+2. When you acquire assets, you can keep going, but have to pay 2 Coins per further tier. When you craft something, on the other hand, you only pay 1 Coin per increase in tier.

Confused yet? For a game with relatively light mechanics, there’s a lot of page flilpping each session. If I get sufficiently annoyed at this mess, I’ll try my hand at a Unified Theory of Blades in the Dark. And just to clarify, the individual rules are perfectly fine, create dramatic situations, and make sense. It’s only when one tries to synthesize comprehension does the system falter.

But let’s move on to the part of the game that’s not just “fine” but outright great. The game recognizes an issue most groups have struggled with when faced with a chance to make a plan. That’s where action grinds to a halt. Left to their own devices, players can endlessly go over all the what-ifs, unable to distinguish between the real obstacles they’d have to face that the GM invented and the hypothetical obstacles they invented themselves. Until, frustrated, they are pushed by the GM to settle on a solution which of course is nowhere near the solution that’s anywhere near what the GM thinks will work. We’ve lost a city this way, back in D&D 4e days.

It is basically the same world modeling problem that I wrote about way back when at the start of the blog. (7 years ago?? Wow). Every person playing the game has a slightly differing idea of how the game world works in their head. Trying to predict potential futures from slightly different perspectives using slightly different rules results in vastly different outcomes. But the worlds in players’ heads are similar enough that they don’t recognize the futility of this plotting.

“Forget all that,” says BitD, “Your characters are professionals. They have a plan. Jump in, and we’ll find out what it is.” Once players establish what they actually want to do, they work with the GM to figure out what type of engagement it’s going to be (assault/deception/stealth/etc), a missing detail like the point of attack, and make an engagement (fortune) roll which determines their position when they face the first obstacle.

When inevitably things start to go south, players can declare they have accounted for this eventuality in a flashback – maybe they bribed the local Bluecoats patrol beforehand, or stashed a weapon in this exact spot. The more extensive and unlikely the preparations, the more stress they have to pay. Likewise, they don’t need to decide what gear they have, just the overall amount of stuff hanging off them. As they need specific items, they simply declare they’ve had them all along, up to the stated limit.

This approach almost works, though this time it’s my group’s fault. They want to be really careful, which has at times resulted in them aborting a mission as they learn more about it. “There’s a chance we’ll make an enemy here? We’d never do this if we knew, so we didn’t.” The game fully expects you’ll make enemies, however, as you track your standing with various factions of Doskvol, and pretty much anything you gain you take from someone else. Getting my players (to be fair, not my regular group, so we’re not as used to each other’s style) to accept they can’t lead a cozy safe life as criminals has been a challenge. But, as mentioned, that’s our problem, not the game’s.

Once the PCs are done thievin’ and murderin’ and the score is wrapped up, the game goes into the most formalized part – downtime. Here, the group figures out the money, reputation, xp, and law’s attention the crew has earned, rolls to see what the world throws at them in the meantime, and finally each player performs two downtime actions such as working on a long-term project or removing stress. Yup, stress doesn’t clear on its own, so you end up paying for all the risks you took. This part of BitD has more in common with strategic games than roleplaying – think management elements of X-Com or Darkest Dungeon between missions.

By offering rules for the “in-between” stuff that would have been handwaved in most other games, BitD both limits it and makes it more important. Players are put firmly in charge of their own destiny. There’s probably no world-ending threat. No mysterious strangers ready to dispense quests. But there’s also no cops conveniently forgetting about the crew. No simply making a thing you’ve been meaning to make. There’s just ambition and survival. Want it? Earn it.

There’s a bit of a missed opportunity here, I think. Downtime has too much survival to it, and not enough ambition. It would have been relatively easy to offer a mechanical way for players to spend downtime actions preparing for a tougher score – create a pool of free “stress points” to spend on flashbacks, a bonus to the engagement roll, or temporarily raise the crew’s tier for specific purposes, for instance. There’s some discussion of having to do a research project or even a whole other score to undertake a score in the book, but it’s all left up to the GM.

In a tightly regulated game where every misfortune is a result of a choice or a roll, every obstacle’s magnitude is derived from the tier of opposition, and even actions of said opposition are determined by an entanglement roll, it doesn’t feel right to just heap more trouble on the PCs. It’s the subtle difference between “they’re powerful and secretive, let’s say you have to research them before you can even think of robbing them” and “they’re two tiers stronger than you, rules say you have to do a 6-segment research clock to find an approach.”

GM fiat is a tricky subject. There’s always going to be a need to interpret the rules, it’s not a board game after all. Yet at times I’ve felt like I had too much power in my hands when choosing the consequences of a failed roll – a strange position for a GM to find oneself in. In a desperate position I could say a character broke their leg, or that things got somehow even worse, or the party has simply lost this opportunity. Considering the impact of harm and how long it takes to heal it, these are rarely equivalent outcomes.

When players roll well, they get to do what they wanted. When they roll poorly, it turns into a game of double-or-nothing. Stakes for failure keep escalating, while success still offers the same reward of doing what they intended to do in the first place. And that’s cool! The problem, and there really isn’t an easy solution to it, is that it’s always the GM that decides when the betting is over and the bill is due to be paid. Would be interestig to see a similar system that places this decision in the hands of players.

But we got sidetracked. To balance out the mounting criticisms of the game, here’s another feature that I love: crews as characters. At the start of the campaign, the players collectively decide on the “class” of their crew – what kind of scores they typically engage in. Just like with a regular character, this determines the abilities and upgrades the crew will have access to. It gets its own character sheet, xp, upgrades, and assets.

Again, the thing that’s typically handwaved in other games is provided with solid mechanics, giving it the attention it deserves. Crew rules, I believe, are singlehandedly the reason for the game’s popularity and its upcoming adaptations. Well, that and a successful kickstarter. While I’m sure there are other examples, I can only think of Ars Magica and REIGN as games where you get to together build something in a meaningful way. One is very heavy, the other is very light, BitD may well have found a sweet spot. And this format is very expandable, whether it’s a spaceship or an adventuring organization that you’re building.

After all this time dedicated to the mechanics, what about the setting itself? Doskvol is interesting, if just a bit barren. It’s all about the ghosts. The larger world is epic and bleak, though that doesn’t quite translate to the game. The sun is gone, the ghosts roam the wastes and bodies have to be burnt in special electric fires to prevent even more ghosts from arising. Electricity? Comes from demon whales humans hunt in the pitch-black sea. Metal.

Living in this metal world are industrial age people, largely unaffected by the craziness around them. Sure, there’s an electric wall around their city holding the ghosts at bay, and its streets are perpetually lit by electric lights, but they still go about their business. While reassuring in a way, it seems like the author started painting the world with grand gestures, but never got around to the finishing touches that would have made the entire picture shine. With bleakness.

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see a horror-adjacent game that’s not Lovecraftian. On the other, ghosts just aren’t that varied as antagonists. There’re demons too, and those are quite scary, but there’s only so many a party can meet before they simply die. One, typically. There’re vampires, but those are just ghosts in bodies. Somehow, a steampunk world with criminals, magic, and ghosts feels empty after a while. Maybe I’m insufficiently familiar with the haunting tropes. There’s something creepy happening, must be a ghost. Booo.

I wish there was more. More (any!) examples of different ghosts, more craziness in the city itself, more character to its districts. These things are not entirely absent: there’s faction write ups and lots of random tables for ghost and demon attributes, plots and plot complications, streets and buildings and people. But most of these haven’t translated into actually useable material at our virtual table. Perhaps it’ll be different for you. To avoid sounding too negative, here’s a thing I greatly appreciated: the list of setting-appopriate names in one of the appendices. A small thing to be sure, but I’ve used it every session, and wish more games did it.

How does all of this fit together? The heists, the crew, the city itself? Say it with me: it almost works. Well, no. It works, and works really well, for a while. The greatest issue I have with Blades in the Dark, and if you got this far you know I have plenty, is that it outstays its welcome. There isn’t a natural ending point to a campaign in Doskvol. The book suggests a generic goal of accumulating wealth and retiring before you go mad, but that runs contrary to the much more interesting goal of advancing the crew. Here, the progression system plays a cruel trick.

Your crew can advance in tiers! It would take a whole lot of games, but you can end up running the entire city! There’s no grand overarching plot by design, as it’s all player-driven and improvisational. Unlike many other narrative games, BitD explicitly asks players to discover their characters through play, not start with a thought-out complex personality with goals and issues. Instead, they start with a few notes like the names of an ally and a rival. As PCs are dragged into the action we learn more about them, bit by bit. To the game’s credit, this part is really smart – when making certain rolls, players can get a bonus if there’s someone who can help them, *nudge-nudge*. At the same time, it means these allies mostly only show up for that one roll.

“Seasons”, as the book calls them, come to an end when most ongoing story threads are resolved. However, it inevitably feels like the time to get back to basics and make money now that the distractions are dealt with, rather than the time to wrap it all up. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if not for the other side of it: there’s only so many improvisational one-off heist stories about ghosts I can come up with before it gets stale; and given crew specializations, most of them have to be a specific kind of heist to boot – thieves gonna thieve, dealers gonna deal. Yet the reputation tracker keeps drawing us further in. There’s tiers to gain, upgrades to earn. Play one more score, go on. Ah, progression systems.

Paradoxically, the strongest feature of Blades in the Dark, crew rules, is also the root cause of its issues. That’s emblematic of the game as a whole – it holds many great ideas only slightly tarnished by the execution. And to be clear, I’ve had lots of fun with BitD. Here’s to a second edition.

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5 days ago
Sydney, Australia
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