I ran a game of Blades in the Dark last weekend, and have been thinking since about how we build narrative in tabletop games. I'm currently playing in a campaign running a modified version of The Black Hack, which has an elaborate and enrapturing plot, but I have had less luck in the past in building that level of complexity, so I'm going to work my way from that to Blades. Hang in there.
In The Black Hack and similar DnD-type games I have been in, the locus of play is all about combat, with the escalating forces being bigger battles. Of course one can weave a larger, more complex story out of it, but as these games arose out of wargaming, it can be felt that the mechanics sing most when fighting and not as much at any other times. When I first started running games as a teen, I only saw those mechanics, and it frustrated me to not have any textual narrative building blocks on hand. The absence of mechanical tools for storybuilding allow for a very uniform, unvarying game which can be fun for relaxing with friends, but puts all of the onus on the GM's writing ability for building the arc for the game and interest in the story.
One of the most powerful things about Apocalypse World and its children for me was the additional mechanical support for forces of narrative. In the smaller scale, this comes out through partial success, introducing complications until things naturally boil over one way or another. In contrast to DnD, a roll is not done simply when an action takes skill, but when an action has a narrative purpose: characters are allowed to simply be badass for aesthetic or establishing moments. In a campaign of Monsterhearts I ran, these partial successes often climaxed in players facing off against one another in the woods at night, one side coming out permanently changed. In the larger scale, Apoc. World has a Threat Map which helps show the players what narrative threats loom. It gives visual cues to what is happening narratively.
Finally we reach Blades in the Dark, which has heavily mechanized narrative for both session and campaign play. Sessions include not just partial successes, but phases of play, from a free play, to an engagement roll which sets off the session's big score, to some very regimented downtime, in one session of play of which characters relocated their secret base, consorted with ghosts, and were arrested. As for the campaign play, I was daunted at first by the size of the faction sheet, but as soon as we started playing I realized I could very easily ignore almost everything except for the people in the fictional vicinity until the direction the party was headed was clear. The whole session had rising action, a climax, falling action, and hooks for the next one with minimal effort on my part. It’s fantastically refreshing to have the weight of plot taken partially out of my hands and carried by systems.