This is a made-for-television movie (also known as ‘The Rise and Fall of a Real Life Mafia Don’) was produced by HBO and feels very much like a forerunner of their hit series The Sopranos. There are many actors who appear in this film who would go on to take roles in the programme. Vincent Pastore, Dominic Chianese, Frank Vincent and Tony Sirico (there’s a couple of others too, if you look carefully). Thanks to his extravagance and courting of publicity, Gotti is a notorious gangster figure from the late 20th Century. Armand Assante gives a striking, if shallow, performance with his distinctive appearance. You may remember him from Judge Dredd (1995) as Rico. There are at least two other films offering a biography of Gotti, the latest starring John Travolta as the title role. A charismatic figure who even impressed the characters in The Sopranos. Tony claimed to have met him during an auction when Bungalow Bar declared bankruptcy and was auctioning off their trucks. Badda-bing. Thanks to Finn Cullen for recommending this film.
New York, 1973, John Gotti is a rising soldier within the Gambino crime family, operating a street crew in Queens. He is mentored by underboss Aniello “Mr Neil” Dellacroce. He’s offered a revenge assassination personally sanctioned by Don Carlo Gambino. His plan for a discreet killing is foiled by a coked-up member of Paul Castellano’s crew, Ralph Galione, who is accompanying him. Enraged by the lack of professionalism, and the risk of being identified, Gotti orders the soldier to be killed.
In broad daylight, using a silencer, one of Gotti’s crew despatches Galione. He has protection. He’s a ‘made guy’. At a tense meeting with a council made up of the Gambino underbosses, Castellano pleads for permission to avenge his death and to kill Gotti. Dellacroce puts up a strong defence for his apprentice and the bosses reluctantly agree to give him a pass, “we need all the John Gottis we can get, but we survive by our rules”.
Dellacroce delivers the news to Gotti, who is unrepentant. He serves time in jail, during which time his crew starts to deal in drugs which is not approved of by the elders of the family. Gotti’s chain-smoking brother Angelo wants to protect a street kid connected to Sammy ‘The Bull’ Gravano, who is being threatened by a black gang in the prison. Gotti negotiates and strikes a deal to make sure nothing happens to him.
Eighteen months later, Gotti is released, as the boss Carlo Gambino dies and ‘Big Paul’ Castellano is promoted, passing over Dellacroce. Gotti is enraged, believing that his crew will never be able to support Castellano, “he don’t understand the street, he wants to be some butter-assed businessman”. The FBI speculate that the rivalry between Gotti and Castellano is related to their heritage. Gotti is from a Neapolitan background while Castellano is Sicilian.
Sammy commends Gotti to ‘Big Paul’ for helping out his connection while in prison, diffusing the anger the new Don feels towards the scheming “street Neapolitan”. Meanwhile, Gotti is getting frustrated by his crew as earnings are reduced. They indicate that they’re doing some light drug dealing. He explodes in anger for deceiving him. The risks are too high for drug dealing. The sentences are too long. The rest of the captains mock Gotti for not having any legitimate business interests. He justifies his principles by saying that he doesn’t want to pay tax on his earnings, he’s old school. Meanwhile, Sammy kills his own brother-in-law after instruction from a capo.
1980, Gotti’s young son is knocked off his bicycle in a car accident. The driver is a neighbour who is later hunted down and killed in the street by Sammy.
1984, an impatient truck driver confronts Gotti who has parked his Lincoln in the middle of the street. Gotti reacts by beating him aggressively. He’s arrested and as he leaves court he hands out a hundred dollar bill to a homeless person, the press remark “is this why the neighbourhood loves you Mr Gotti?” Big Paul doesn’t like the attention that Gotti is getting as a local folk hero, also Angelo’s drug operation is increasing the heat on the Gambinos, the rule handed down by Carlo is “deal and die,” so Castellano gives orders to kill John and his crew. Dellacroce’s health is deteriorating, but he gives a warning to Gotti, not to retaliate as he does not want a war. Gotti builds up support for his coup, getting other captains on his side. Dellacroce dies, Gotti feels Castellano was disrespectful by not visiting him before his death.
1985, Spark’s Steak House, Gotti stages an audacious hit, killing Castellano in the street. He’s appointed as the new boss of the Gambinos and installs a new regime, ruling with an iron discipline, with Sammy by his side. In court, the truck driver who was assaulted in the street, fails to identify Gotti under oath; ‘I Fogotti’ according to the newspapers. The case is dismissed.
Gotti’s celebrity status is increasing as he learns that FBI is developing a RICO case against him and his crew. He endures a seven month trial of government testimony. One of the jurors is in the pocket of the gang. Gotti and his associates are acquitted on all counts.
The public support him for his acts of benevolence towards the neighbourhood and they disagree with unconstitutional reach of the RICO law. At this point he is the ultimate ‘king of the volcano’ appearing on the cover of Time magazine.
Sammy and Robert DiBernardo (DB) are running the construction operations as underbosses. Gotti is increasingly paranoid about their power and influence. He also is suspicious of his brother Angelo’s drug dealing (and worried about his failing health).
Gotti’s increasing public profile is unnerving the elders of the family. There are rumours of Gotti being taken out by DB, so he acts quickly to reassert his authority, appointing those who are closest to him into senior roles within the family. The FBI are staking out the places where he hangs out. Sammy kills DB.
The patient feds plant a wire on the room where he meets his consigliere, they capture a conversation where Gotti details the extent of his criminal operation and how Sammy’s earnings are cutting out the street guys that he was raised amongst. He suggests that he whacked DB to take the share of his construction earnings out of greed. He is arrested and the information is used to turn Sammy into a state witness, testifying against the Gambinos, ensuring that Gotti finally gets indicted and put in prison.
John Gotti, publicity hungry, rule-breaking, ruthless head of a crime family
Raconteur who can hold the attention of the room with his well practiced stories, tall tales and bad jokes. He’s not embarrassed about his role as mob boss and enjoys building his profile with the wider community. Has an astonishing self-belief as he has grounded himself in the culture of the American Cosa Nostra, a culture that he believes will die out if he’s incarcerated.
Appearance: Impeccably attired in 3000 dollar suits and well groomed, the ‘Dapper Don’.
Role-playing Hooks: Gotti is volatile. Any attempt to intimidate, undermine or break his personal code, is likely to be met with his intense fury. He has respect for the old ways and believes that there is honesty in ‘the street’ as he distrusts any form of power (other than his own). He needs people who can infiltrate the system, so that it works for him and his crew. The route to his rise from “a cockroach tenement to the cover of Time Magazine” is through his ability to earn and to organise his crew.
Neil Dellacroce, stoic underboss and mentor to Gotti
A stand-out performance by Anthony Quinn gives Dellacroce a lot of heart as he insists that the rules need to be followed. ‘This thing of ours’ is based on long established codes and hierarchies, he believes that if they are challenged or broken, then the whole of the operation will fall apart. He’s passed over for promotion to the head of the crime family, but accepts the decision, “just go with it”. He has earned enough respect and gravitas within the family to vouch for Gotti and save him from being whacked when many of the crew want him killed for his rule-breaking.
Appearance: Hunched, grim-faced, wearing a hat like the old-school gangsters. Coughs from excessive smoking.
Role-Playing Hooks: He’s aware that he has unleashed a demon in Gotti. He’s frantically trying to find ways to control him, to curb his excesses. How can he tame him? How can he ensure he doesn’t break the rules? How can he protect him from being whacked?
SCENES OF NOTE
There are repeated scenes of Gotti being ambushed by the press as he leaves the court room. He uses these moments to cultivate his reputation. These are moments that can potentially increase the heat for players, after-all, “Our Thing is secret, that’s how it works”.
The assassination scene of Castellano is a close-range rain of bullets as the boss leaves his car for the steak house. A very public execution, which once again, will increase the heat for the players. What if the PCs were his escort? Would the sight of a group of guys dressed as cossacks alerted attention?
The Ravenite Social Bar serves as a meeting point for the gang, where alliances are made and where celebrity extravagance can be asserted. More private meetings take place in grave yards or walking across landfill sites.
There’s a touching, yet humiliating scene, where Gotti feeds his brother cream from his finger. Angelo is dying of cancer. He was always foolish, the others referred to him as quack-quack, but he was Gotti’s brother, so he was there for him.
Gangster RPGs need some form of mechanic to reflect the increasing heat on individuals and crews, based on their actions. Gotti was managing heat from within his crew (unsanctioned drug dealing), from his own actions (acting outside of his authority) and the intensity of the federal investigations and the application of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act (RICO).
It’s the legal dimension that’s the most compelling aspect of the drama in Gotti. One of his nicknames was the ‘Teflon Don’ as he managed to evade conviction despite a number of high profile court cases. Nobbling the jury, intimidating the witnesses, bribing the officials, and tampering with the evidence were techniques deployed to give his counsel the edge.
Each cycle becomes increasingly more difficult as they tighten up the process to close down the opportunities to manipulate the outcome. His roll of the dice failed when they got to Gravano and he agreed to testify.
Blades in the Dark uses a Heat mechanic that increases depending on how risky ‘the score’ and how many witnesses were involved, or if it was on enemy turf, or if someone got whacked. The HEAT can be reduced during downtime. You have the potential to CONSORT with officials to make interventions on your behalf, or you can COMMAND the locals to intimidate them into omertà. In addition, you have a WANTED LEVEL which increases depending on the level of HEAT you are accumulating. This WANTED LEVEL will determine the outcome of a successful prosecution, so it pays to manage your HEAT.
The mechanics for handling this are neat, but abstracted as the focus of the game is ‘the score’. It would be good to use elements of these mechanics to role-play the cut and thrust of a court-room drama. Where are you going to spend your resources to affect the outcome of the trial? Intimidation? Improving the quality of your defence? Getting to the evidence?
It seems that some sort of extended task with resources to spend to influence the result would get the effect of a court room drama.
In the meantime, every time you’re making plans, make sure you ‘spot for taps’.
There was something about Blades in the Dark that captured my imagination when I read it last year. Apart from a couple of games, it has not become part of our regular repertoire, so when the opportunity to take part in the 24 Hour RPG came up, Blades was my first choice to run at the event.
It’s an annual event; I did RuneQuest Borderlands for 24 hours last year. It takes place the week after GROGMEET which affects the number of people available to participate. Neil and Will were great players and between them they gradually brought their characters to life in the world of Duskvol: starting as lucky chancers in the thrall of Bazo Baz, to finally becoming the Kings of Crowsfoot, seizing the turf from under the noses of The Lamp Blacks.
Donations to Mind are still being accepted at the Just Giving site. Thanks to the generous support of the GROGSQUAD we have helped the event burst through its target of £1500.
Five highlights and a fumble …
The Dark Needles
The players created a created a ‘Shadows’ crew as it was the best fit for their characters’ Playbooks (a Lurk and Slide). The most satisfying element of the day was seeing the crew grow its resources during the long session. Their lair was beneath a shop that sold fine Iruvian cloth, needles and thimbles had a number of upgrades. Once the crew began building up their capacity by upgrading and investing in long term projects (such as mapping the underground network of tunnels beneath Crowsfoot) it spurned them on to become more ambitious and take on more audacious scores.
Blades … allows mechanics and imagination work really well together in the crew creation rules.
To keep things simple, I limited the hunting grounds to a single district: Crowsfoot, where the three factions of The Crows, Lamp Blacks and Red Sashes, are on the brink of a gang war. One of the highlights of the 12 hour session was seeing the loyalties and allegiances shift from score to score. The players were smart in how they played the factions off each other and developed relationships when it was expedient.
I was more confident this time with some of the core mechanics of the game. There’s a structure to the game that imposes some discipline to provide focus for the action. On the previous occasions I’ve played, I found it stifling and the moments of Freeplay and Downtime seemed to merge into each other. I was more strict with it this time as the nature of the session allowed more space to impose a rhythm to Freeplay, Score and Downtime.
In previous games I’d ignored the ‘Fortune Rolls’ that are made at the start of each score.
This sets the level of the situation. Depending on the outcome of the roll, the score can be Controlled, Risky or Desperate, with each stage representing increasing danger.
This time the Fortune Rolls added an exciting dimension to the scores mechanically and contributed to the narrative in the game world. Thanks to meticulous planning they were able to stage an audience with the leader of The Crows and pull off an audacious trick on her, while their attempt to shake-down a barber and steal some action from his gambling outfit was Desperate as there was an unexpected encounter waiting for them.
Once a rhythm is established Fortune Rolls work really well.
The use of the ‘Flash Back’ device was stunning in all of the scores completed by The Dark Needles. They were used sparingly, just they allowed the game to keep moving without the need for endless planning. For example, they forged a pardon to boost an assassin from prison, as the Blue Coat constable was about to study the paperwork, they flashed back to a moment the night before when one of the Skulks from the crew, swapped his eye-glasses. Neil rolled a triple critical.
The extra dice added to the scene meant that there was another critical. The constable, embarrassed that he was unable to read the document fully, released the prisoner.
It was so easy. That was only the beginning of their problems.
A cast of Thousands
Before and during the event, I was receiving numbers from members of the GROGSQUAD who were making donations. At the back of Blades in the Dark there are a number of tables that allow you to create NPCs and situations at random during the game.
Roethe Hellyers was an emaciated, annoying, ruthless assassin who bargained with The Needles, they reunited him with his daughter, so he became an asset of the crew, until he met a tragic end (Andrew Cowie).
“Twelves” was Baz Bazo’s beautiful capo and handler of The Needles who met them in the dark corners of The Leaky Bucket to give them scores. (Lee Carnell)
‘Wicker’ was an assassin preparing an ambush for Roethe in league with Twelves. The Dark Needles stole him away before he could make an attack. (Matt the Clownfist!)
Vond ‘Rooster’ Coleburn was an accomplished fence who was offered to The Needles as a contact in return for favours.(Andrew Clark)
The Birch and Thorn were leaders of the sword academy of the Red sashes (Ty Callaghan-Jones and Per Boden)
Vey Hellyer or ‘Thistle’ was Roethe’s daughter. (Rick Knott)
Hix Haron or ‘Ogre’ was a Cutter, employed by Baz Bazo as an assassin to kill Lyssa (the leader of The Crows) when Roethe ‘disappeared’. (Glen Robinson)
Crowl Sevoy a Crow who flipped to the Lamp Blacks following the death of Roric: a valuable source of information (Andrew Jones)
Rustol was Lyssa’s personal bodyguard. In a flashback, The Needles commanded Roethe to abduct his only son. (Mike Watson)
Skannon Harvon was the barber who ran a cock-fighting operation between the hours of Smoke and Ash. (Mike Hobbs)
Wester Dalmore appeared as an assistant alchemist for the Red Sashes producing spark-bombs for the explosive finale (Chris Miles)
Skinner was the faithful Skulk who aided in the final raid of The Crow’s lair (Daily Dwarf)
All of you who pledged appeared in the game, if you haven’t seen your character on Twitter or elsewhere, let me know and I’ll tell you who you were. Thanks for taking part and donating, it’s really appreciated.
The organisers also were very accommodating and willing to allow me run to adjust the format and run the game for 12 hours. The time zipped by and my only regret was not playing for longer. This was one of my most satisfying moments as a GamesMaster this year: collaborating with the players to construct adventure on the fly and producing unforgettable dramatic scenes. Fantastic.
Mike Cule and Roger Bell West over at Improvised Radio Theatre with Dice podcast apply two criteria to any new game before it is introduced to a table of gamers. I like to call this the IMPROVRAD test, and it goes like this (I’m paraphrasing):
The players MUST be able to understand their place in the setting with a very simple pitch. Why are they here? What are they supposed to do?
A GM should only take on a new game if they are able to write at least six story hooks, ideas, NPCs quickly on a side of paper.
The first test measures the game’s ability to frame the context for the players so they can work with the material and the second is the GM’s test, to ensure that they can invent ideas on the fly, if needed, and can create sustainable game ideas to support the game in play.
Blades in Dark passes the IMPROVRAD test with the aplomb of a cold assassin.
If you need a pitch for your players, it provides it: Peaky Blinders meets Fafyrd and The Grey Mouser.
Not enough to get you hooked? Try this:
“You are daring scoundrels on the haunted streets of Duskwall, seeking your fortunes in the criminal underworld. Your legacy will be the gang you form in this dark city – the turf you acquire, the specialists you recruit, the scores you strike …”
That’s enough isn’t it? That’s enough to get your players intrigued and wanting to know more. I love the romance of The Godfather and The Lies of Locke Lamora, so it seemed the perfect setting for our group, with its promise of mechanics for pulling off daring heists and managing the escalation of a gang in a cut-throat world.
I’ve been reading the rules for the last few weeks and it is built on the shoulders of some of the Indy classics that emerged in the period of our deep freeze (1988 – 2010): Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Burning Wheel and Fate, amongst others. The mechanics seemed perfectly intuitive on reading as they were completely congruent with the setting.
Ideas have been flowing, image on image, stealing NPCs and plots from the Sopranos and Fritz Lieber. Thanks to the handy tables at the back it’s possible to generate a thousand stories without really trying.
It makes the IMPROVRAD grade, but what is it like to play?
The format of one-d-six means that there are 5 highlights and a fumble:
What’s your playbook?
Characters are developed using ‘playbooks’ which are more like foundational templates rather than ‘classes’ as they provide a jumping off point for the players, so they can understand their current reputation in the city of Duskwall.
As emerging street-thugs trying to make a name for themselves, the player characters could be good in a fight (a CUTTER), a tracker who picks his fights (HOUND), a dabbler in alchemy (a LEECH) or they may play confidence trickster (SLIDE).
Predictably, my Magic-Loving-player (Blythy) went for the WHISPER playbook that reaches out to arcane powers and wrangles the ghosts in the city of DuskWall and my tactician (Eddy) went for SPIDER, a mastermind of criminal manoeuvring, “never get into situation that you can’t walk away from within 30 seconds”.
There’s a step-by-step guide that gives the opportunity to add narrative colour to the character back-story, but it’s not heavy handed. Going through this process allowed the setting to come alive for the players. They were intrigued by the strange lightening wall that blocks out the light and the strange forces beyond. They wanted to know more about the demonic levevithan beasts that are hunted for their electroplasm which fuels the city’s industry.
The structure …
I’ve played this twice and on both occasions, I’ve developed the story at the table, with no preparation before the session other than the suggested starting situation provided by the rules. This is the most improvisational mode I’ve managed to achieve since the 1980s when all of our games were constructed in the playing. I’ve never been a belts and braces GM, but this time, I wasn’t even wearing pants.
Thankfully, the mechanics help to support this free-wheelin’, so as a GamesMaster, you’re never completely off-road. The stories have a sequence of play that provide a loose, but important foundational structure
‘Free Play’ is the point in the session where the characters explore the world and encounter the colourful non-player characters. Out of these interactions, a potential ‘score’ will emerge, which will trigger the action scenes. Once completed, there is downtime when players can indulge in vices to reduce their stress, or spend coin to reduce heat or develop the assets of the gang.
Despite my best efforts and the desires of John Harper, in these early sessions, it has been the mechanics that have driven the action rather than the fiction. Inevitably, for us old-time GROGNARDS, we were captivated by the novelty of the mechanics. Blades uses the idea of conflict resolution rather than task resolution. It was possible to hear the gears crunching as we navigated through situations. Instead of blow by blow we needed to understand what was at stake in a situation. The resolution rolls use pools of D6s where the likely result is “you succeed, but …”
Blythy did his usual flourish of the index finger, before settling on something on his character sheet, “I think I’m going to SEARCH.”
When I asked him to describe where he was going to search, how he was going to do it and to set up the scene, so we could agree on potential outcomes, he glared at me as if to say, “just let me, bloody roll for it.”
The opening situation (provided by the rules) places the characters in the centre of a turf war in the area of the city known as Crows Foot. The salt-of-the-Earth Lamp Blacks are in a face-off with the more elegant and organized Red Sashes.
The Whisper and the Spider had an audience with Bazso Baz, the leader of the Lamp Blacks, he had a mission for them, a chance to make their mark with a powerful ally by striking at the very heart of his rivals the Red Sashes. He wanted them to place a mysterious, rune-covered rattle-like device in the lair of the Sashes.
At this stage, the players opted for a ‘flash-back’ to a meeting with Mylera, the leader of the Red Sashes. The flashback is a clever device that prevents endless planning ahead of a ‘score’. The players crack on with the action, when they get to a point where they want to affect the result with some pre-planning, they can flashback to a scene where they set it up. For example, escaping through the window, they can flashback to the scene where they concealed ladders the night before.
In this case, they used the flashback to switch allegiances. In exchange for promise of hunting-ground turf within Crowsfoot and some protection from the Red Sashes, they laced a fine whiskey with poison.
Bazso could not resist the dram. Eddy’s character caroused him into drinking a salute to the deal. Thanks to a ‘devil’s bargain’ (an extra dice added to the dice pool) he scored a critical (two 6s) and Baz hit the deck.
In exchange for the bargain, the Spider is wanted. The Lamp Blacks have a long term project to seek out the mysterious assassin who killed their leader.
Faction Game – “Are you with me, or against me?”
The element that drew me to the game in the first place, was the ability to develop character AND your gang during the campaign. The crew becomes as important as the characters in the game, as you build up the alliances, rivalries, specialists, contacts in high places, scores, and turf.
Following the assassination, the escape from Baz’s ghost, and the general chaos generated, the downtime is a time when the book-keeping for the crew takes place. The Rattle Snakes were born.
Blythy and Eddy had an ambition to open a high-class house-of-ill-repute for reasons best known to themselves. The Red Sashes set them up with a Lair on the edge of Crows Foot. They’ve been planning and scheming their progression through the ‘Claims’ which acts like a track on a board that they need to move through and will determine the nature of the next heist.
They’ve also got this mysterious rattle to cause mischief.
Stop the clocks
One of its borrowed mechanics is the idea of ‘clocks’ or ‘pies’ as we like to call them. They are a way of measuring increasing jeopardy as the stress of failure builds up steadily. Situations can create clocks with segments determined by the GM. For example, Eddy’s Spider took a Devil’s Bargain (an extra dice) when he murdered Baz, so the Lamp Blacks have a long term project clocks that they are working on, to find the assassin.
The pies haven’t really got the player’s hearts racing yet.
Mechanically, there’s a lot of plates to keep spinning, as there are lots of different elements. A crude summary would be to see these factors as ‘narrative crunch’, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that: the structures and ‘gamey’ bits are the engine that allow the creativity to have a bit of a structure and provide the important motivation for the characters within the world. I suspect when we get used to the different aspects, the prominence of the pies will be more apparent.
Back in the day, we used to play long campaigns in cities. Since we began playing RPGs again in 2010, this is the most excited I’ve been as GM, and closest to reaching that special sweet spot that I thought we’d lost. It’s perfect for those time-strapped GMs who are willing to improvise. Once it’s mastered, it can generate great gaming experiences very easily.
When we were playing, it felt that we were discovering the places and characters together in a living world. It passes the IMPROVRAD test and the Armchair Adventurer’s test too: cracking fun.
Over on The Smart Party, they’ve just released a podcast about their experiences of playing the game. Give the original Bazso Baz a listen to find out more detail about this great game.