Fiction-first is a bit of jargon to describe the process of playing a roleplaying game, as opposed to other sorts of games you might be used to.
In a standard board game, for example, when you take your turn, you choose a move from one of the mechanics of the game, and then use that game system to resolve what happens. You might say, “I’m going to pay two stone to build a second fort on my home tile.” We could call this process “mechanics-first.” What you do on your turn is pick a mechanic to engage, then resolve that mechanic. Your choices are constrained by the mechanics of the game. You might color it in with some fictional trappings, like, “The brave citizens of Baronia heed the call to war and build a stout fort!” but the fiction is secondary; it’s flavor added on. In other words, the fiction is brought in after the mechanics, to describe what happened.
In a roleplaying game, it’s different. When it’s your turn, you say what your character does within the ongoing fictional narrative. You don’t pick a mechanic first, you say something about the fiction first. Your choices in a roleplaying game aren’t immediately constrained by the mechanics, they’re constrained by the established fictional situation. In other words, the mechanics are brought in after the fictional action has determined which mechanics we need to use.
For example, in Blades in the Dark, there are several different mechanics that might be used if a character tries to pick the lock on a safe. It’s essentially meaningless to play mechanics-first. “I pick a lock” isn’t a mechanical choice in the game. To understand which mechanic to use, we have to first establish the fiction.
And so on and so forth. There are an infinite number of approaches you might take, constrained by the fictional circumstances.
The important concept here is that you first choose what your character does in the fiction, then the group picks a mechanic that suits the situation to resolve what happens. Once you establish the fictional action, selecting a mechanic from the options at hand is pretty easy. If you try to do it the other way around—picking the mechanic and then trying to “color-in” the fiction after—you’ll find that the game can become confusing and muddled.
When something seems weird, or a situation resolves in a bizarre way, back out to the level of the fictional narrative. What’s going on? What are you trying to do? Which mechanic is suited for this? Don’t try to force a particular mechanic onto the fiction. Take the fiction first (ah, see that? “fiction-first”) and then use the mechanics to support it.
Think of the mechanics of the game as tools in a toolbox. There’s no point saying, “I hammer it” until you know what you’re building. Also, there’s no constraint that says you must always use a hammer and nail every time you need to attach two pieces of wood. You use the tools that suit what you’re trying to do. The same goes for mechanics in a roleplaying game. First establish the fiction, then select a mechanical tool from the toolbox that suits the situation you need to resolve. Which tools you pick will often be pragmatic, but can also be a stylistic choice. There’s no one right way to choose a tool, after all. The tools are there for you to use as you see fit; developing a style of use and set of precedents as you go along.
The text of the game gives you both the set of tools and a guide to their usage, which is essentially the best practices the playtesters and I developed. These best practices will start you on your way toward successful game play—but ultimately they are just a guide. It’s up to you and your group to put them into practice and learn the use and feel of the tools in play.
This is one of the most fun aspects of roleplaying games. Because there’s no single right way to use the tools, the act of play is constantly creative—at the level of the fictional narrative, of course, but also at the level of the application of the game systems. I’ll explain the tools and teach you some good ways to apply them, but when it’s all said and done, your experience with Blades in the Dark will be one that you and your group make for yourselves.