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Evil Hat Hardback
I have perhaps become a little too emboldened by doing the teardown for Thousand Year Old Vampire. That was a nice, self-contained little creativity exercise that was more amenable to this kind of process than many other RPG systems. And now I’m doing Blades in the Dark which is a much more difficult prospect. For one thing it’s a more mechanically sophisticated system even if its focus is very much on the fiction aspect of collaborative storytelling. For another, it moves into territory where the rules as written (RAW) are only guidelines for the creativity of the GM.
It’s worth a go though! Let’s take a look at the accessibility of Blades in the Dark and see if we can get something useful out of the process.
Don’t be surprised if the answer is ‘no’.
As with Thousand Year Old Vampire I’ll look at both the PDF and the book, but also the excellent online resource that’s available.
Colour blindness is just not a problem at all. The book and the PDF are both greyscale and colour is never used as a channel of information. The game itself has no colour at all used in its systems, and as such this gets our strongest of strong recommendations. It’s doesn’t even merit a CV Simulator photograph because it just looks like the normal text.
There isn’t a lot of art in the book or the PDF, and the layout of both is almost optimal. It occasionally slips into column mode and there is the occasional chart or table that needs close inspection, but the vast majority of the game is presented in clear, sequential text. It’s sparsely ornamented, with bold being used to link to specific gameplay terms. Page numbers are clear, and contrasted against art where it’s present. There’s not a lot of that in any case.
The PDF is immaculately bookmarked, but not quite so immaculately marked up for accessibility. Tabbing through takes you only to the next clickable link, and clicking on individual parts of the book will usually only identify a line, rather than a block, of text to be read aloud. When it doesn’t identify a line, it’s because it’s only identifying part of a line. There’s no easy way I could see to simply identify that the text should be read out line by line, but that will obviously vary from tool to tool. Within Adobe’s own screen-reader software though it’s a hassle.
For rules themselves though it’s not really that much of an issue because they are much more accessibly presented on the Blades in the Dark website. There they are shorn of pretty much all the structural problems you’d find in the PDF. The only issue there is that the setting information is, as best I can tell, only available in the PDF. Essentially the website gives you the creative commons ‘Forged in the Dark’ ruleset. Fine if you want to, as I do, homebrew your own campaign. Less good if you want to adventure inside the excellently evocative world of Duskvol. As I say, some software will work better than others for navigating the PDF but I suspect it’s going to be something of a chore regardless. In any case, I couldn’t find any alt-text marked consistently throughout either and so even if you get that working you’ll still likely be missing important information.
We can only tentatively recommend Blades in the Dark in this category for those that require a screen-reader. It will be Software Dependant. For those that can get by with close inspection though, Blades is a generally positive experience thanks to the well structured PDF, the clear text in the book, and the supporting website.
We’ll recommend it overall, but only just.
Mechanically Blades in the Dark is not especially demanding. Arithmetically all someone needs is the ability to identify the biggest number rolled in a poll of dice. Everything else is largely a negotiation between players and the GM. You could feasibly play the game, and well, by doing nothing more than saying what you want to do and have the GM enact it in the game rules. ‘I want to help Pauline by kicking the dog’s ball away’. From that alone the GM can work out everything else from the roll you’d want to use, the effect, and the complications. If you want it, Blades in the Dark can go from Rules-Lite to Rules Negligible as long as you and the GM are okay with it.
But that doesn’t mean it’s plain sailing here.
For one thing, in any game of this nature you are going to have to have a good grasp of general knowledge, particularly with regards to ‘credible cause’ and ‘likely reaction’. Roleplaying games are fundamentally – even when they are fiction first – built upon a simulation of believability. Some games give greater leeway for that than others, but if you say ‘I want to jump off this ten storey building onto the streets below’ it takes an inventive GM to stop that being lethal. Even then it usually comes at the cost of verisimilitude. It’s not necessary for consequences to be lethal – just that players believe they could be.
As such, you need to be able to navigate a complex setting even if you don’t need to wrestle with complex rules. You need to know that kicking a Dimmer Sister is a bad idea, and that messing with ghosts may have terrifying side-effects. If you’re running a homebrew setting, the complexities will likely be equally sophisticated if there’s any nuance to it.
But you know – it’s a roleplaying game. There’s nothing to say that you can’t build resilience against this into the roles people play. Perhaps someone plays a naïve cutter (essentially a fighter) whose very naivety is a story hook. Perhaps someone is a university academic into the mysterious, and they have no street-smarts of which to speak. Crew dynamics can work together to keep people insulated from the consequences that would logically follow. You can build a bit of mercy, in other words, into the narrative provided you’re prepared for the natural consequence… that everyone else realises the stakes are not quite as high as the aesthetic might suggest.
More problematic perhaps is that all games of this type require a long-term appreciation of what’s happened before. Players need to encounter their enemies, work towards unmasking their nemeses, and piece together the evidence from multiple scores to understand the essential nature of the campaign. Even if you run Blades in the Dark as largely a ‘mission of the week’ structure it’s inevitable there will be longer-term consequences by virtue of the fact every mission will happen in the same city.
Copious note taking might help, but that depends on everyone knowing in advance what is notable in what they are doing. The players though only see through the camera the GM provides them and they don’t get the behind the scenes commentary. In a score my crew just completed they never investigated the back area of a location, and if they had they would have found a young witch was being held prisoner before ‘trial’ at the hands of Omnian fundamentalists. Instead all they saw was in the weekly newsletter I write. It had a story that the burned remains of a young woman had been found somewhere near where they had been investigating. That’ll have consequences. They just don’t realise what they’ll be yet. By the very nature of that scenario, they couldn’t have taken notes because they didn’t discover the witch and I wasn’t going to railroad them into it.
But I already hinted here at a solution to the long term memory problem. Every week I send everyone the first page of the Ankh-Morpork Times. It contains some summaries of their adventures, some story-hooks for future events, some red herrings, and occasionally just a little bit of background fluff. My intention is that over the time period of the campaign it becomes its own record of who they met and the impact they had on the world. It does commit the GM though to writing a whole extra thing after every mission. It’s fun to do though.
Lacking that, ‘crew memory’ is limited to whoever is around the table and it may not be the same people every time. Persistence of consequence may be hard to maintain in circumstances where one or more players have a memory impairment. It may even be difficult, depending on the severity of the condition, to maintain ‘score persistence’. Scores can be over quickly if you want them to be, but they can also be multi-hour affairs where the link between ‘what we’re doing now’ and ‘what we did before’ is only held in everyone’s head.
We’re going to recommend Blades in the Dark here though – for those with fluid intelligence impairments the GM can handle all of the mechanical complexity without a lot of overhead. For those with memory impairments, the GM can take on some extra responsibility to help ensure the consistency of the campaign. We’re going to add a little minus though to the grade because both of those things put an extra responsibility on the GM who almost certainly already has enough to worry about.
If you can roll a few dice and manipulate a printed character sheet or the electronic equivalent, Blades in the Dark has no accessibility concerns. If you can’t, someone else can very easily handle that on your behalf. There’s not a massive amount of documentation required to play Blades in the Dark, and mostly it involves ticking boxes on a sheet as progress is made.
The game is otherwise fully playable with verbalisation, because it’s a game that exists in conversation. Even when it comes to articulating specific rules, mostly what you do is describe what’s needed and then justify it. As such you don’t need to consult lookup tables or flow-charts or any other more mechanical systems. As long as you know the handful of action types, you’re fine. If not, a reference is easy to make because it’s available on the website.
We’ll give Blades in the Dark a recommendation here.
This is a tough category to talk about because really the answer is ‘that’s entirely up to the GM and crew’. The themes that you encounter in the course of a score are going to be unique to your group. All of the usual safety tools would apply here though if it’s going to be an issue. You can use whatever you want and the system can cleanly support it. X-Cards, lines and veils and more are all suitable if you need them. They are not though explicitly referenced in the rules. Group negotiation as to what is and is not appropriate will be needed. As it is in every game of this nature.
But even with that, it has to be said that the systems of Blades in the Dark lend themselves to a very particular style of campaign. My own Discworld in the Dark campaign for example has none of the comic whimsey of Pratchett. I’ve described it as ‘Ankh-Morpork if it were written by Raymond Chandler’. It’s a very Film Noir take on the franchise. It’s not that Blades in the Dark doesn’t let you be funny (it absolutely does). It’s just that the rules as written work well for games where humour by necessity is dark. Duskvol for example is a city of horrors and corruptions. There’s good in there, but you shouldn’t expect it. The game systems encourage risking things through stress, and for everything to be a moral compromise. Some RPG systems are better than others for specific purposes, and I don’t think BitD offers much room for light-heartedness. It’s not a game for swashbucklers or high-fantasy adventurers. It’s far grittier than that and that’ll play out in the campaign no matter your original intentions. To do otherwise is to play ‘against type’. That’s essentially what ‘success with a complication’ enables and ensures. Rarely in Blades in the Dark does a situation truly go your way.
That doesn’t mean the game has to be unremittingly bleak. Just that’s where the desire path of the game systems tends to lead you. If players aren’t interested in playing in an oppressive world where their every action is an offence against some powerful faction then it may not be the best system to put in front of them. Their playgrounds will be brothels, vice-dens, and the forgotten temples of dark cults. It’s not a framing that will appeal to everyone.
For everyone else though, it’s up to the dynamics of the table.
We’ll tentatively recommend Blades in the Dark in this category.
The cover shows a sinister cloaked figure – almost certainly male – swinging two knives at the reader. It certainly sets a tone. Although I’m not entirely sure the character on the front isn’t wearing a mask because there’s art later in the game of a woman removing one that could well match the cover. Anyway, within the book itself most of the art is representative of an aesthetic – locales are shown more than people. Men and women though are frequently referenced throughout the game and there’s no obvious imbalance in terms of ability. Everyone shown is clearly being empowered to be scoundrelly badass. Factions too have many women figure-heads and the major players in the underworld exhibit an admirable gender balance.
I mean, I haven’t crunched the stats or anything but that’s certainly how it feels to me on an analysis.
As to cost, it’s hard to complain. The core rules are free on the website if you want to homebrew your own campaign. If you want the PDF, it’s available for $20 on Drive Thru and Itch.Io. If you bought the racial bundle justice for the latter you already have it. The hardcover book has an RRP of $35. So realistically you have multiple choices from ‘free for the base product’ to ‘a reasonable price for the premium one’. Pretty flawless really.
We strongly recommend Blades in the Dark in this category.
Alas, here’s the problem category. Communication is a constant requirement here – you need to be able to explain what you want to do and ideally narrate it. That may create a bit of performance anxiety for some people. You need to be able to clearly understand what other people are doing and what the GM is describing in the adventure. You need to discuss and negotiate and occasionally argue with your fellow crew members. You need to convince people of reasonable strategies and talk them out of their own doomed schemes. There’s a lot of reading involved if you want to play the Rules as Written and if you want to simply understand how the game systems fit together. Learning about Duskvol too requires reading a small novella of details, or piecing it together from GM descriptions.
The thing about Fiction First gaming is that the fiction is very heavily built upon hopefully seamless communication. Everyone needs to speak the same language, and to the fluency needed to make some relatively sophisticated contributions in a non-standard vocabulary.
We really can’t recommend Blades in the Dark in this category.
Nope, there’s nothing significant here that I can think of. Once the game leaves the pages and flaps into the social dynamic of a table there will likely be someone that can compensate for any minor problems that may occur. I will perhaps say though that a lot of our commentary in this teardown focuses on what the GM can do to help people along and that may not always be appropriate. Still, there’s nothing to say that an backup GM, or trusted player, can’t delegate in some of these tasks.
But I will raise here something that isn’t really an accessibility issue but rather a note about differential responsibilities. Blades in the Dark doesn’t come with much in the way of ‘adventure modules’ like you’d find in D&D. It gives you story hooks and tables for constructing scores but it doesn’t give you anything more structured. When I write an adventure it’s usually maybe a couple of A4 pages of loosely linked bullet points. Essentially a menu of ‘things that might happen’. But I need to write that in advance of a session to make sure players actually have something interesting to do. Players just need to show up. The GM has to show up with a world of possibilities. As such, there is an inaccessibility aspect here – it takes a lot of time, and effort, to be the GM. On the plus side – it’s also a very creatively satisfying job. Just don’t think it’s always possible to wing it.
Sessions of Blades in the Dark can be lightning fast if people want. There’s so little cruft in the rules that it can be as efficient as you like. You could deal with a score in an hour if you like, and have multiple scores for a longer session. Or you can take your time with it, as we do, in which case a score might take two or three hours. There are rules of thumb though for helping you manage this with an adventure you write – every substantive encounter is probably about half an hour in play. Really though, the GM has a lot of control over the timing. They can flashforward, tell parts of the story in montage form, or simply miss out whole chunks of the adventure if people seem to be focused on other parts. It’s really flexible.
I love Blades in the Dark, as you undoubtedly could tell from it being one of our ultra-rare five star reviews. And I’m delighted to see that, by and large, it does well in the teardown. The categories where it struggles are inevitable. It’s a gritty system and so it doesn’t make a great fit for people that would prefer more levity in their entertainment. And it’s a game of collaborative story-telling so it puts a big pressure on communication skills. Everything else though? I’m surprised at how well it’s done.
That’s not to say that its score here is as good as it could be. A bit more attention spent on the accessibility of the PDF would have been welcome, but that’s compensated by the fact that the designer is extraordinarily generous in what’s provided with regards to the rules. A few other minor things could be tweaked, but otherwise Evil Hat and John Harper have done a great job.
For reasons that you’ll see in our next post for the site, this is the last teardown we’ll be doing for a while. And Blades in the Dark is the last review you’ll see for a bit. I’m absolutely delighted to see this season of the site’s regular output ending on a high like this. A five star game, and a strong accessibility performance. If only every game we’d ever looked at for Meeple Like Us could boast an equivalent result there’d be no need for us to exist at all.
Blades in the Dark is awesome, and you owe it to yourself to check it out.
A Disclaimer About Teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.