Game Review : Blades in the Dark
|"Blades in the Dark" cover|
by John Harper ©2017 Evil Hat
Publisher: Evil Hat Productions & One-Seven Design
Engine: Forged in the Dark
Blades in the Dark is a game about playing a gang of criminals in a gothic manapunk city called Doskvol. The city is stuck in a state of eternal night, haunted by ghosts, and surrounded by monster-infested wastes. The humans within the city use magical lightning weapons to defend the walls, which is generated by refining the magical blood of sea monsters (that also happens to be a highly addictive drug.) The city is oppressively stratified; for many, a life of crime is the only way to get ahead that doesn't involve surrendering your freedom to the military or a ship's captain.
This is the first game to use the now stunningly popular Forged in the Dark engine. Other game using it include the scifi crime game Scum and Villainy and the Dark fantasy mercenary RPG Band of Blades.
The system uses pools of d6s based on a character's skills. The highest die rolled determines the degree of success with 1-3 being a failure, 4-5 a success with complications, and a 6 a complete success. A pool with zero dice requires the player character to either accept a point of stress and roll one die, or roll two dice and accept the lower number.
All rolls occur after the GM has established a "position", a measure of the possible risk for failure or the consequences of a partial success. PCs may get additional dice from teamwork, accepting stress, or by accepting a negative side effect, like collateral damage or lost equipment.
The GM also sets an effect based on a number of recommended factors that measures how much progress they will make towards a goal. A player may increase the risk level to increase the possible reward.
All major tasks are handled using progress clocks: counters between 4-8 that measure progress towards either a character goal or an undesirable event. When players succeed at actions on the appropriate clock, they fill 1-3 ticks on the clock based on effect. A consequence of a conditional success or a failure might tick up a un undesirable clock 1-3 based on position.
As a character progresses through the adventure, the can accumulate stress and harm. Harm can be injuries, temporary insanity, fatigue, or even overpowering emotions that go on a limited monitor based on severity. If a character takes a severe harm when the box is already full they are likely incapacitated or dying. If a character suffers enough stress they suffer a trauma. Traumatized characters are temporarily out of action and gain a permanent condition representing a behavioral change caused by the mental strain.
Blades in the Dark operates on multiple levels. Beyond the individual scores that feel like a more traditional TTRPG or Storygame experience, it also includes a lightweight free play mode that is like self-directed "in town" play, and finally a formalized downtime play mode.
In free play, the PCs spend time managing the affairs of their crew, which feels a lot like Dominion-Level play in BECMI Dungeons & Dragons. The crew includes NPC henchmen to direct and interact with, a pool of resources, stats that represent how influential it is... And how hard the Law is looking to bust it up. The Type of crew comes with claim map, a grid listing ways it can be upgraded and become more influential.
|Smuggler Crew play Grid from the Blades in the Dark Smuggler Crew Sheet|
CC-BY One-Seven Design
This allows players to decide on thematically-appropriate capers on their own with little guidance from the GM.
The Downtime cycle in Blades in the Dark is very reminiscent of how things were handled in the early editions of Shadowrun: rolls are made to determine the fallout of the last score, including how the Law responds, how your crew grows, etc.
Blades in the Dark is designed with making a game of crime and conspiracy work very simply and smoothly. There are a lot of clever flourishes that are well worth putting into play. I have run numerous games that borrow both mechanics and setting concepts from BitD. It is one of those books I am glad to have in my collection, even if I have played very little of the vanilla game.
What I Loved
One of the most aggravating parts of playing games about crime is the planning sessions. Making sure to offer PCs sufficient information, some false clues, having them work their contacts, etc., can be fun at times, but it can also drag on, or bring the game to a grinding halt.
Blades in the Dark avoids this pitfall by borrowing from classic crime thriller films like Reservoir Dogs, Fracture, or The Usual Suspects by letting players solve problems with Flashbacks and start jobs Engagement Rolls. By taking stress, a player may freeze the action and role-play out a short scene in which they did something that changes the way the current circumstances go. For example, if a character gets caught, he might go back in time to describe bribing the guards who have just caught him earlier that day.
This let's PCs come off like Criminal masterminds without slowing the game to a crawl.
A Score starts in media res: the PCs choose the kind of heist they are going to try, and fill in a single appropriate detail. Then they make a roll to determine how well the Score is going to plan just as they are entering the target location. If they roll poorly, they might have had bad or insufficient info, as they find themselves in a dangerous spot immediately. If they rolled well, they might start with the job going a little too smoothly.
Doskvol is a setting that has a lot of Magic in the background: demons, processed sea-monster blood, ghosts, vampires, undead husks, golems, alchemy, and Cthulhu Cultists. Not to mention a setting trapped in eternal night. But for all that magic creates a backdrop, it does not overwhelm the actual play of the game. The magic that the PCs will use on a daily basis mostly stands in for Industrial-Age and modern technology. Bombs, medicine, and electrical devices are created by magicians rather than engineers or scientists. Magician characters are primarily investigators with access to special clues and the ability to bypass magical security measures.
Alchemical creations, bound spirits and Faustian bargains make it possible to expand magic at the GM's discretion, magic feels cool, different, and important, but it doesn't create the problems that the high magic settings of games like Dungeons & Dragons often do, such as making most Mysteries solvable by a single spell.
It is not stylish just for the sake of it, however; the setting serves to create constraints on play. With a Demon-infested post-apocalyptic wasteland outside, PCs can't simply run off and hide on another city when the heat is on. With ghosts everywhere, a body just can't be dumped in the river: the body must be specially dissolved to ensure that dead men tell no tales. The need to prevent haunting means that the city has magic bells, crows, and special priests that respond instantly to murder, making violence a very complicated way to solve problems.
This is quite similar to a thing I loved about Index Card RPG 2e: Almost any complex task, or potential hazard is set up as a progress clock. Player's actions can fill in a clock they want to fill, while their failures filll clocks they don't want to see full. It means that almost any task, from creating a new invention to picking a lock, to persuading an NPC can be handled using a single method. This is a tool I believe should be in every GM's toolkit, and Blades in the Dark does one of the best jobs of parsing out how to use it effectively.
Between a system for randomly generating entanglements that come after a score, a system for measuring the heat on from the law and authorities, and a grid system for expanding the influence of your crew, Blades in the Dark is a very easy system to plan for. The campaigns effectively write themselves. Player characters who want to see their crew become powerful and influential always have a map of what to do next right in front of them. It creates a situation where the players become-self starters. They don't wait for adventure to drop into their laps. However, with the entanglement system, it often does. The GM does not have to work very hard to write much other than the details of a score. Even the way the characters are generated creates a large cast of NPCs to work with.
The stress mechanic in Blades in the Dark is quite clever. It allows player characters to use flashbacks to play clever criminals with well-thought-out schemes, without spending hours of playtime making plans. It lets them avoid or reduce harm do the characters at a cost, and make sure that any character can attempt any task even if they have no dice available to them. But, it comes at the cost of trauma. Over time, characters who put themselves through the wringer during scores develop traits such as obsessions, or lose their empathy. In this way, Blades in the Dark causes the player characters to actually become hardened criminals over time, especially if they make decisions that put them up against the supernatural, get into combat, or have rough encounters with the police, or spend time in prison.
I am always a fan of open source engines. The Forged in the Dark engine is completely open source and in the creative commons with a CC-BY, and offers a comprehensive SRD for free online. There is an incredible variety of FitD games and fan material for BitD online.
The Physical Book
I received Blades in the Dark as a Birthday Gift in 2020, and physically, it is one of my favorite books next to the Lamentations of the Flame Princess core book. It is digest sized with glossy pages, stitched binding, and has a rubberized cover using the easy-gripping material I usually associate with premium Drone radios.
The internal layout includes intelligently laid out text that makes excellent use of boldface and italics to enhance scanning, and includes a solid index.
In many ways, the crew has primacy over the individual PCs. Characters can end up out of commission from over indulging in vices to shed stress, wind up in prison, or be severely injured, but the crew continues to have business to attend to. With a cohort of other gang members, it is easy to bring in a replacement character on short notice. The game advises the players to cultivate backups while primary PCs are out of commission.
One thing I thought particularly noteworthy was the two means by which PCs might retire from their life of crime other than by death. If a PC receives too many traumas (4, or 5 if an Assassin) they can no longer function well enough to thrive in a life of crime and retire on the stash they have accumulated. A character who has acquired sufficient wealth to escape to a life of peace and luxury also becomes retired.
The Playbooks system that standing for classes in BitD is a set of oddly named character choices that offer a slight mechanical boost to dice pools, and let the PC buy a few special abilities and equipment. They include templates for different styles of character that fit within the archetype. For what they are, they are not a bad design.
But as they offer so little other than access to special abilities to be bought with experience, and as PCs may freely swap between them during downtime, they are essentially vestigial. You could toss them and let players choose whatever gear and special abilities they want and have the same game.
After all, any BitD character can try anything, and playbooks just offer a mild advantage ior a little specialized knowledge. Why not go completely classless?
Low Trust Structure
Blades in the Dark is a game with a lot of moving parts, and that gives players a lot of Agency and veto power in the game, well beyond the Bounded agency of their characters. Including the ability to refuse to let a PC die, or to bring dead PCs back as the Undead if they choose. A huge portion of the game seems to be built on minimizing the power of the GM. Even some of the examples of play include players saying "Nuh-uh" to the GM as they exercise veto.
The game simply does not seem to trust the GM to have fair play at heart. Some of the GM advice on the book is more about playing how the creator envisioned BitD playing. And some of it flat-out poor advice, like "Never Say No."
This is a trend I have seen in many modern TTRPGs and Storygames, rather than a unique problem with Blades in the Dark.
Blades' was written with a few specific stories and structures in mind, rather than being built as an all-purpose game of thievery, and it shows in how hard it works to constrain GM Fiat.
As you might have noticed, there are a hell of a lot of italicized words above. Blades is prone to creating fresh terminology for every factor or idea. It often makes the game seem slower and more complicated than it actually is. Often terms like Hold and Claim are only vaguely related to the concept they point to. The result is a system that is in practice quite agile being sluggish and cumbersome to learn. Mostly in service to further constraining GM fiat by formalizing how and when rulings are presented.
This dovetails with the jargon criticism: the language of the Blades in the Dark manual is dense, dry, and doesn't flow organically. It feels more like a software manual than a set of game rules. Where the setting is presented, or playtester's notes are presented the book flows beautifully, which really highlights the legalistic way the rules are presented elsewhere in the book.
Blades in the Dark is a innovative game with a brilliant setting and a lot of clever mechanics geared to speeding up legwork and planning so that they can get straight into the action. I have used many of its tools, from claim maps to spark craft to flashbacks in my games. I have even used my own version of Doskvol (minus ghosts and eternal darkness). It is an incredible resource for rules hackers and heist fans. I would not run a crime campaign without it.