Monday, November 15, 2021

Engine Overview: Forged in the Dark

Blades in the Dark cover
Art by John Harper 
©2017 One Seven Design
The Basics 

The Forged the Dark system is one of two engines to come from the mind of John Harper.  Harper made his initially name by developing the very popular Lasers and Feelings engine. He has a Knack for elegant mechanics and sophisticated, compact settings. 

Forged in the Dark was originally engineered for Blades in the Dark which I have reviewed here. It is an engine very strongly rooted in Forge philosophy, and most definitely sits on the story game end of the design spectrum. 

The Engine

The game operates on multiple levels of play with different loops and subsystems. At its most granular level, engine works has an excellent heist simulator. And about three-quarters of the games using the engine simulate some kind of criminal enterprise for shady dealings. 


Characters in Forged in the Dark are built by selecting a playbook, which is a class analog, and a heritage. Thesr determine some of the ratings of the character's 12 actions, which are skills broken down into three categories of insight, prowess, and finesse. Characters also begin with additional points to be assigned. The playbook also determines a PC's starting equipment, and grants them some special powers or knowledge. As the character progresses this may choose additional powers listed in their playbook.

Forged in the Dark characters are not created in a vacuum. The player characters as a group choose a type of crew. This will determine what kind of criminal activity they excel at, which will determine some of the ways in which the character progresses. The crew is its own entity, and comes with a selection of NPC henchman for the player characters.

Each Playbook comes with a set of conditions under which the player character can earn XP during free play or score phases of the game described below.

Scum and Villainy cover
©2018 Off Guard Games 

Score Phase

During the "Score" phase of the game both player goals and possible negative outcomes are represented by clocks with tween 4 and 8 segments. For example, if the PCs are attempting to steal a file from a safe, every action that gets them closer to emptying that safe  clear one or more segments off the clock. At the same time, the GM might set a clock for how many partially failed or failed actions it takes for player characters to be noticed by the authorities. Once noticed, a new clock indicating when they're surrounded and must surrender might be established.

This makes every heist very finite. The number of events and obstacles to correspond with the number of spaces left on the clock. Once there's only one space left in the clock, for example, it is clear that the players must be reaching the point where they have to enter the safe, and no other obstacles are between them and their goal.

All actions are rolled as a pool of 1-4 six-sided dice. The GM determines a Position (Controlled, Risky, or Dangerous) which determines the potential cost of failure, and a Level of Effect, which determines the effectiveness of the outcome in terms of the number of ticks it can move a clock. Effect has a specific rubric to assess that you can read in the SRD here. Players can choose to move to a riskier Position to have greater Effect.

Players determine how many dice to roll on the basis of the character's Actions (skills determined at character generation l. They take the highest die result with 1-3 being failure, 4-5 being a partial success, or 6 being a total success. Partial successes can result in stress, negative clocks ticking up, or new complications arising. 

All scores start in media res to avoid the problems of lengthy legwork and planning that bogs down play in games like Shadowrun. Before beginning a score, the party rolls an Engagement Roll to determine how well-planned ot the mission is setting default "position" which will affect the overall difficulty of the score. When the players come across a situation that a well-organized criminal might have prepared for, the players may opt to run a flashback sequence to represent the work done before the heist.  However, Flashbacks can cause Stress

Band of Blades cover
©2019 Off Guard Games
Stress is a catch-all for fear, fatigue, and exhaustion. Players can accrue stress by using Flashbacks, pushing the character to gain a bonus to rolls or greater effect, or to escape a negative consequence of a failed roll. If a character accrues enough stress they gain a trauma that comes with role-playing recommendations. Once a character accrues four traumas, they must be retired. 

Characters also have three teirs of injuries that they can sustain. A character may have two light, two moderate injuries and one severe one. They get a penalty the first time one slot is filled up for each tier. So, you gai  the penalty for a light injury the first time your character takes one, and then the severe injury penalty the so long as you have severe injury. If all the injuries lots of the appropriate type are filled in  and the character is injured again, the new injuries  upgraded. If the character suffers an injury when there is already a severe injury in place, the player may choose to have the character die, or accept stress and Trauma to save them.

Downtime phase

Forged in the Dark has a formalized downtime phase, which offers player characters and opportunity to make solid decisions not just about their character but about the crew.

Among other things, a heat rating is assessed that determines how close the player characters are to having the law come down on their crew. Different player character actions to be taken to reduce heat, including allowing one PC to be a scapegoat for the whole party.

Copperhead County cover
At by Dylan Choonhachat
©2018 Guitar Town
Money gained during a score can be converted from coin carried by the character into a stash, which is a rating that will determine the characters outcome when they are retired. A character can theoretically with a good score or to retire in the lap of luxury.

Acquiring gear, looking for leads, doing time in prison, recovering from serious injuries, or recruiting new NPCs to the crew are some other examples of formalized down time activities that take place in this phase.

To a degree, the downtime phase of a Forged in the Dark game feesl something like a Dominion-level game in a more traditional RPG. Each type of crew has a flowchart like game board of scores they can conduct and downtime activity they can perform to expand the power and influence of their organization.

A group of thieves, for example, and establish hideouts, high-class informants, fences, and smuggler contacts for the crew, and in doing so improve their overall resources. A crew with a completed Ford enterprises is a major force in the setting.

Most of the conditions to be met on the crew development bored our best executed as parts of the score phase.

Free Play Phase 

The Free Play phase occurs in between downtime phases and scores. Is an opportunity for player characters to interact with contacts, each other, and generally handle business that can't be abbreviated with downtime. Action roles are rarely made during this phase, unless there is significant danger.

Many games operating on the Forged in the Dark engine have random tables for consequences of the crews actions which may be played out at this phase of the game. Generally speaking, it uses the same mechanics as the score phase, but has much longer-term clocks, and much lower chances of incrementing negative outcome clocks.

Game Culture 

Because it is a highly sophisticated engine with a lot of moving Parts, relatively few games have been made with it as compared to into the odd or the powered by the apocalypse engine. The official games released for the product by One Seven and evil hat tend to be focussed on criminal activity and Shady organizations. Blades in the Dark's focus is on thieves in a manapunk City setting, Bands of Blades follows a group of medieval like mercenaries, and Scum and Villainy focuses on an outlaw Starship crew.

Other games I have skimmed include games like Copperhead County, which folks is on organized crime in the modern Tennessee, Beam Sabre, a game about operating as a mercenary battlemech crew, Cyberpunk operatives in Hack the Planet, or space barbarian survivors on an alien planet in Mothlight, or as the monsters in a fantasy dungeon in Wicked Ones.

Girl by Moonlight working cover
©2019 Evil Hat
Girl By Moonlight is not liar, as it is a game focussed on a team of magical girls in the style of anime such as Cardcaptor Sakura, Sailor Moon, or Cutie Honey.

Whatever the specific genre, forged in the dark games tend to be very focussed on world building. Rich, ornamented settings with unique twists are the rule. The city of Dos ball from blades in the dark is soon to become a television series thanks for the uniqueness otf its character, 

Like almost any game that is built on a Forge philosophy, Forged in the Dark games tend to be heavy on jargon. And whole they are light on mechanics, are heavy on rules in the form of guidelines and constraints on the GM to limit their ability to control or steer The Narrative generated by the players. Much like in a Powered by the Apocalypse game, the GM sits in a subservient role to the player. 

Moreso than most Storygames, Forged in Dark games have no compunctions about being "gamey," that is to say, that the jargon and structure of the game tend to be omnipresent, pulling a player out of immersion and handing the player significant Fiat over the narrative far beyond the bounds of the agency of their PC. You will often find yourself having to discuss you our position, and debating whether or not to aim for higher effect, and checking the progress clocks.

In general, Forged in the Dark games are more interested in having a satisfying heist or espionage story at the end of the game, then having a deeply immersive experience during.

The License 

Just like his Lasers and Feelings project, John Harper chose to release Forged in the Dark as a truly open culture creation. The entirety of the contents of the Forged in the Dark SRD are under a Creative Commons by Attribution (CC-BY) 

The only additional requirements are that if you wish to use the Forged in the Dark logo to advertise your work as being based on this engine, to include a single line of text about its trademark, as well as not making any claims about the endorsement of One Seven Design of your creation.

This is a significantly more open and generous license than you would find on almost any other role-playing game engine. No demands on style or content are made. And, it is a very sophisticated engine to have such a license.

Strengths of the Engine

Blood Red Blossoms cover
Art by Emanuele Galletto
©2018 Emanuele Galletto
What I like the most about the Forged in the Dark engine is that it is very good at creating player-driven games. The GM can operate for the most part on autopilot, because the crew advancement system continues to push the players forward. A sufficient random consequence table based on the outcomes of their scores should do the rest. That actually would be highly conducive to an old-school style sandbox campaign with minimal adjustment.

The bulk of the work is making a new FitD game is to create a consequence table for downtime, crew advancement boards, and play books to give flavour to the game.

I enjoy the minimalistic engine of the system. It is simple and straightforward, although it has the number of fiddly subsystems like heat and crew reputation that I would consider simplifying, if I were to write a game based on it. I, personally, would also shave down on the constraints placed on the GM to leave the game more open to interpretation.

With the protection of the Creative Commons license, you own the product you have created, give or take the Forged in the Dark logo. This is not a claim one can make of the Open Game License.

I also consider the highly enthusiastic and creative community that supports the Forged in the Dark engine to be a net plus.

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