Blades in the Dark
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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
Recently I came across Polygon’s Board game geeks’ review of 2015, which you can read HERE (Charlie Hall you rock!). It really is a great list and some of the Kickstarters I’ve backed are on it and deservingly so!
The team at BoardGameGeek.com did do a great job in digging into and playing a ton of games last year, and a great year it was thanks to numerous kick starters and gaming companies for all over the world cross marketing and bring new ideas and systems to the USA!
I’ll be making a poll at @CreativePPNet to see which of these your make your top one pick today and check it out HERE.
So on to the list! I know for some groups its hard to break out of your usual gaming system weither it’s Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Scion or Edge of Empire like our groups. But going outside your comfort zone and learning new games can be hugely rewarding in different ideas and points of view (I know I absolutely fell in love with the Dresden files/Fate world building idea and the Edge of Empire narrative dice!!!).
“Sherlock Holmes is Missing and Presumed Dead! Intrepid investigators are asked by the stoic Dr. Watson to take cases out of Baker Street in Holmes’s absence. Victorian streets, foggy nights, and crime most foul await. Will the nefarious plans of crafty villains come to fruition or can the champions of justice from Baker Street save the day?
“Baker Street is a Role Playing Game in which the players attempt to solve some of the most baffling crimes in history. Featuring over 30 careers, 25 unique criminal extras, and rules for making your own nefarious villains, Baker Street features a robust investigation mechanic, easy character generation, and rules for making your own mystery.”
I’ve had friends who backed the Kickstarter and play this and they let me know it is really fun, currently it’s available as a print-and-play download through DriveThruRPG.
This Next game I backed on Kickstarter and am super excited to get my hands on the final edition in hardbound:
Stealing our attention with this awesome RPG from tabletop designer John Harper, Blades in the Dark raised $180,000+ in funding last year and was selected as a Kickstarter Staff Pick! Not only that but Blades in the Dark was also the winner of this year’s Golden Geek Award for RPG of the year, and is in early access right now.
“The streets of Duskwall are haunted. By vengeful ghosts and cruel demons. By the masked spirit wardens and their lightning-hooks. By sharp-eyed inspectors and their gossiping crows. By the alluring hawkers of vice and pleasure. By thieves and killers and scoundrels like you — the Blades in the Dark.
The noble elite grow ever richer from the profits of their leviathan-hunting fleets and electroplasm refineries. The Bluecoats of the constabulary crack skulls and line their pockets with graft. The powerful crime syndicates leech coin from every business, brothel, drug den, and gambling house. And then there’s your crew of scoundrels: all the way down at the bottom rung. Can you make it to the top? What are you willing to do to get there? There’s only one way to find out…”
I love this games defining teamwork system as well as using flashback scenes to replace long drawn out planning sessions to ‘cut’ right to the action!
The Next Pick needs no decoding and is of no surprise to see:
Monte Cook’s Cypher system is a true GM’s dream system it takes the GM to being the story teller and pulls so much stress of conflict off the story that this system makes running a game super easy for a new or time stressed GM in my opinion!
“A Cypher System campaign of Victorian Horror? High Fantasy? Espionage? Galaxy-spanning Space Opera? The Cypher System Rulebook gives players loads of new rules content for their Numenera campaign, as well as everything they need to use Numenera’s Cypher System to run campaigns in virtually any setting and genre they like.”
“New and improved, Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls. T&T is the second ever fantasy role playing game, and the easiest to use. This book contains everything you need to play the game solo (with the many solo adventures) or with a group of friends. Includes a lot of extra material and descriptions of the worlds played in by the designer and his friends back in the late 1970’s. The first 166 pages are the core rules, followed by the Elaborations section which has optional rules and systems you can pick and choose from to add to your T&T games. “
It is a super flexible system with a ton of content in the rulebook weighing in at 360 pages of this definitive edition of a game that’s been growing and evolving over 40+ years! Available on Amazon and DrivethruRPG.com
The next few I have little experience with but asked around and after looking into them I am very interested indeed and slipping these onto my Christmas wish list!
Caroline Hobbs’ creation is an RPG has a group of up to 3 players working over 2-4 hours creating an Apocalyptic story world together, a well as the main character who will have a tragic odyssey that personally reflects the world created, in a word Epic!
“Downfall is a tabletop role-playing game that explores the collapse of a society, a cataclysm brought about by a fatal Flaw at work within it. First you sit down and build your world, then you destroy it. You tell the story of a hero who tries to save their home. But in Downfall, the hero fails.
The game works in any kind of setting, from mythical fantasy to the real world to high-flying science fiction.”
This sounds like it would be a blast to podcast with some friends!
Faith is a beautiful amalgam of tabletop RPGs, board games and living card games. The core set includes everything you need to play in its unique science fiction universe. This is a BEAUTIFUL game! Unfortunately it is currently a victim of its success as it is out of print and super rare to find! Also the game system is also available in Spanish.
The system seems pretty clever in that it plays like a standard pen-and-paper RPG, but without the pen and paper.
Another collaborative storytelling game and this one sounds so epic I ordered it right off the bat! The heart and soul centerpiece of this game is a handmade, silk-screened, five-foot-long scroll. It’s also one of the few games on the list that’s suitable for kids, and plays well with ages eight and up and the optional languages aside form English are French, Italian and Japanese!
“Magic is dying, and the Magus is dying with it. We travel together to the realm of Umbra where magic was born.
Fall of Magic is a collaborative story game in the tradition of the fantasy journey where the landscape, hospitality, and exploration of our character’s relationships take center stage.
We begin by choosing a name and title for our characters. Each turn we chose an area on the map and use the prompt there to inspire the next part of our story. The character of the Magus is shared between us and on your turn you may choose to play as the Magus, advancing us along the road to a new place on the map.
The map itself is a hand silk-screened scroll, over 5’ (1.5m) in length that unrolls as we travel revealing perilous roads, strange hosts, and fantastic locals, masterfully illustrated by award-winning artists, Doug Keith and Taylor Dow.”
And if you’re interested the rules are free online and can be found HERE.
The Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook is your entry point to tabletop roleplaying. Now you can be the hero in your own sword and sorcery adventures! This is the game played on Wil Wheaton’s new tabletop RPG show, Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana. The Adventure Game Engine (AGE) rules are easy to learn, and feature an innovative stunt system that keeps the action tense and exciting. This Basic Rulebook includes full 20 level advancement for all three classes, a new magic system, advice for players and GMs, and an introductory adventure so you can get started right away. You can useFantasy AGE to run adventures in the campaign setting of your choice or a world of your own creation. A new AGE is upon us!
Wil Wheaton has an amazing intro to the game here:
This is where will end Part one, but fear not Part Two will be out next week! And some much more awesome games to cover! I’d just like to say thank you to the Board Game Geek for coming up with such an awesome list of top games of 2015!