Cutting through the shadows (Blades in the Dark RPG review)
Blades in the Dark is a new Genre Blending narrative Tabletop RPG designed by John Harper (also creator of Lady Blackbird) and published by one.Seven design in early this 2017, following his very successful Kickstarter campaign back in 2015. Currently materials and game aides are being published by Evil Hat Productions. Blades is a game of desperate criminals meeking by in an industrial almost steampunk dystopia, taking heavy inspiration from TV shows like Peaky Blinders, video games like Dishonored, movies like Gangs of New York and novels like The Gentlemen Bastards. Players take on the roles of a criminal crew trying to survive on the streets of Duskwall as they are squeezed between the law and rival criminals on all sides as they attempt to build a place for their ‘Crew’.
The main setting in a fictional post-apocalypse, gaslight fantasy London-Venice-Prague mashup called Doskvol. The world essentially ended long ago with the destruction of the gates of death, with the land masses breaking apart to form the massive island nations of the Shattered Isles. No one has seen the sun clearly in ages. The dead never seem to find rest. The seas are a black ink full of horrors but the blood of those horrors is needed to power massive lightning barriers around cities that try to keep out the dead.
The game’s mechanics are deeply rooted in Apocalypse World, but in a completely unique and original system. It puts a heavy emphasis on fiction-first gameplay which I enjoy but also makes sure to sport a high level of crunch. How well does that combination work? I can tell you it makes for one smooth Criminal!
Blades in the Dark pulls a high class heist in regards to character creation! They use a style that as a Game Master I like more and more as more games are now utilizing Player Character Playbooks. Once a player picks their class, nearly everything they need to know is right there on the Class Playbook sheets. Every skill in the game is on the sheet, as well as all their special abilities. This speeds up the Character creation process considerably and makes everyone’s life easier.
The Class Playbooks much like in Mutant Year Zero provides a good balance between structured career and free-form character creation. Each class defines what special abilities a character has and what they have access to. Players are then given skill points to customize and flush out their characters. One player’s ‘Cutter’ might be a smooth talker as well as the classes default fighting skills, while another player’s ‘Cutter’ has the special ability to fight ghost with his bare hands! The game gives players just enough points to make very playable characters, and rules on how those points can be spent prevent the risk of super-specialized Min-Maxed PCs who can only do one thing, which is a good thing when your a prowling the streets up to no good!
There’s no HP’s on this street!
Blades in the Dark doesn’t use traditional Hit Points. Instead it uses Stress and Harm. Stress is both the game’s meta currency and a major consequence of any failed or partial success rolls. Player Characters give themselves stress to get extra dice or to help out their friends, and they gain stress when they choose resisting taking harm. Players must play a dangerous balancing act, deciding if they should just accept the broken leg or risk the stress needed to avoid it. The broken leg comes with some serious penalties, but getting too much stress can take the character out of the action completely.
This resource-management angle adds a great tactical element to play, making sure the more mechanically oriented players always have something to do. It also shows that a character is deeply affected by their experiences. Plus there’s a FLASH BACK Mechanic that uses stress but more on that later.
Now Stress is a pain to clear but, Between heists, Characters have an opportunity to reduce their stress by indulging in vices. These vices are your characters favorite indulgences and run the gamut from traditional favorites like Alcohol or drugs to truly bizarre options like locking oneself in a room and staring at a creepy alter for a few days straight. Whatever your vice, just like in real life, indulging in it carries a few dangers. A Character might overindulge or get pinched by the Bluecoats. There’s even a chance that the character could go on a multi-week-long bender, and their player will need a backup character for the next game session. But this is a great opportunity to add another proper villain to the crew! Characters that ignore their vices accumulate more and more stress until they are in real trouble and can suffer truly traumatic consequences. It’s both great to roleplay and offers a meta level of play.
And Now its time for a Flashback…
Actually this is the coolest rule in the game and one that should be used in so many other RPGS! The Flashback Rules Are Fun! Blades in the Dark really discourages players from planning, or over planning their scores ahead of time. Instead, the GM is supposed to start things off when the Player Characters run into their first obstacle in the heist: a locked window, a Bluecoat walking the beat, an angry ghost, etc. The group then deal with each obstacle as it arises, and they can add planning via flashback typical of heist shows like Leverage and oceans eleven.
For example: If the group encounters a locked cellar door, one of them can say “Ahhhh, but I got the key for this door before we went on the mission.” Then they’d narrate how they stole the key, made a wax impression and filed a copy… but they need get the GM’s approval, and roll to see if they were successful.
The flashbacks are a blast to use, no question about it. They make the score feel like a classic heist like Ocean’s movies and since each flashback can cost stress depending on complexity, they add to the stress management system as well. Players must decide if an obstacle is difficult enough to justify a flashback or if they’ll deal with it in the here and now.
The rules say that flashbacks can’t override anything that’s already been established in the group narrative especially if they fail their roll in a flashback. If they take an injury as a result, the GM and Player should reflect it that they were hiding that they had the injury or consequence the whole time. GM’s this is a time to be really creative!
In practice I’ve seen flashbacks can be frustrating to players who enjoy planning out every detail of a score and I know those players! Those players can end up feeling like they’re being charged stress for something they would have taken care of ahead of time if the rules had let them. But honestly after a few game sessions they will love the idea of planning for flash backs, or even suggesting them to there fellow villains! Flashbacks are a ton of fun, especially the get out of cliff hanger situations!
Now lets talk the Dice!
Now is the part of the system I’m not a huge fan of but success and failure and degrees of success have to be rolled some how…
It has all the problems of the system used for Masks and Dungeon World, Players roll a number of d6 equal to the skill they’re using, with a few opportunities for extra dice. The only die that matters is the single highest one. If it’s a six, that’s a complete success. If it’s a 4-5, that’s a partial success. A 1-3 is a failure.
Once players get a hefty 4 to 5 dice pool. Which for the most part they can not do in character creation, unless they try really hard and set their minds to it. Their chances of total success exceed 50%. Blades adds two mechanics to effect every roll. The first is position, the worse a character’s situation is, the bigger their penalties for failure, and the second is effect, a general measure of how much impact their roll has on the narrative.
I like this as these two mechanics mean every roll has a bunch of possible outcomes, now there are no solid guidelines for deciding which outcome to choose but this is something I like as it leaves the options in the GM’s hands so it can mean a partial success and the PC suffers a wound, or it can mean a complication occurs, their effect is reduced, and their position is worsened. It’s entirely at the GM’s discretion which is great! This allows more difficult tasks to carry greater risks, but only in what happens if the character fails. A six is still always a success and two sixes is a critical success!
Like other loose game mechanics I feel many a new GM may feel Effect will be difficult to manage as it’s not always clear what extra or reduced effect can do. As advice to fellow GM’s just relax and flow with the narrative and just roll with it as there are multiple factors to consider when deciding if a character’s abilities will grant them extra effect. Until you dive in and just play with it and I’m sure you and the Players will find your stride and have fun. The whole system is a bit complex an not what I call a starter level RPG.
Finally a proper bunch of villains…
To be honest the game takes the stance and flavor that the group will pick their ‘Crews’ theme and almost all will be villains or Anti heroes with options like Assassins, Cult, Smugglers and Bravos to name a few that will lead you into wielding blades in the dark, see where I went there 😉
Now in normal RPGs it can be a struggle to keep the party from dipping into dark and heinous behavior, Blades in the Dark is the exact opposite in theme, feel and gameplay. It encourages the PCs to be proper villains. This has a good chance to end up with a group that’s less like the characters of Assassin creed syndicate, Taboo or Gentlemen Bastards and more like a group of serial killers but then they will pay for it in generating to much ‘Heat’, a metric sort of like Grand thief auto and hitting 5 stars.
Not all groups will succumb to the dark side (or they cover their tracks well), and not all GMs will have issue with dancing in the dark streets and allies, but be warned if you’re considering this game and don’t want to run the Evil League of Evil, spend some time thinking of a premise that will give your group more noble ambitions and goals. The PCs could be part of a revolutionary movement, good lost religion or a bunch of Robin Hoods, so long as it provides some pushback against the worst of the streets.
Blades in the Dark has so much going for it and so much a ton of game testing put into it and I adore it, meaning I recommend it a lot. The faction rules are amazing and worth reading even if you never plan to run the game but can be used in other games to breath new life into them. GMs who can tap dance around the dice mechanic can have a lot of fun with the game and rolls. Players will enjoy their abundance of success, but eventually it can get boring if your GM doesn’t use all his tools. The game makes it difficult to provide effective opposition as it’s normally just players rolling to act, attack or defend. Please as a GM insure that your players meet effective opposition or the game might not be very interesting. It puts a heavy emphasis on fiction-first gameplay but also has a high level of crunch. How well does that combination work? Let’s find out!
Check out the maps here: https://www.evilhat.com/home/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/blades_sheets_v8_1_Doksvol_Maps.pdf