You know all those caveats and warnings I put on my review of Thousand Year Old Vampire? Imagine they’re replicated here. The TLDR summary is ‘I don’t really know enough about playing RPGs to be a truly credible commentator and even if I did they’re not really within the scope of Meeple Like Us’.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to tell you how much I have fallen in love with Blades in the Dark.
It’s really an incredible pitch for a game. Set in a dark, gothic city where the dead have forgotten how to die. A city where rampaging hordes of murderous ghosts are kept at bay by enormous lightning barriers at the periphery of civilization. A lightning barrier that is fuelled by the blood of eldritch abominations that lurk in the depths of the Void Sea. The city acts as the gateway between the hunters that harvest these monstrosities and the wider Empire in which it sits. It’s incredibly Extra in a wonderful way – the perfect pitch for a city steeped in wealth, corruption, and cosmic horror.
And yet, it’s not the reason why I love Blades in the Dark. Indeed, it’s not even the setting that my own Blades in the Dark campaign uses. The city of Duskvol is amazingly cool – a reason by itself to play the game. But I was planning to play with mostly novices and I didn’t want them to have to learn dozens of pages of ‘lore’ to understand the geography and context of their adventures. I felt like introducing them to a brand new world as well as a game with a ruleset I had never used before was a little bit much. But all my players are fans of Discworld…
I loved the game so much from the first time I saw it in action that I instantly leapt to ‘homebrew’ campaign – not because I thought I could do better, but rather than I felt in my bones a deep desire to create within this marvellous framework. That has led to my running bespoke campaign – Blades in the Dark as applied to Terry Pratchett’s city of Ankh-Morpork. Those getting our $3 Patreon updates will be seeing regular updates on how that goes, but it’s not really the focus of the review here. I bring it up primarily to illustrate BitD’s most compelling feature – it’s an inspirational game system.
The game runs on the ‘Forged in the Dark’ ruleset. Or rather, it’s more accurate to say it’s the progenitor of that ruleset. This is a fiction-first system that emphasizes the narrative much more than it does the rules. You don’t need to memorize lookup tables or do a lot of arithmetic here. You don’t manipulate skills and spells so much as you use skills and spells to shape a collaborative story. And yeah, that’s true of any RPG system but Blades in the Dark doubles down on the concept by putting pretty much every significant tool of control directly into the hands of the players. And, like handing a loaded gun to an excitable child, that approach is what gives the game its nervous, compelling energy.
GM: Okay. You arrive at the Cockbill Street repair yard to find that what is supposed to be your ‘headquarters’ has in fact been taken over by the Guild of Beggars. The place is teeming with them – and some of them look like they might be the kind that follow you down dark alleys and demand money with menaces. Urchins run in and out of the building, which seems to be acting as a kind of doss-house for those that have made it a home. Your first order of business, it seems, is taking ownership of a building that is far less abandoned than you have been led to believe.
The GM, as is traditional, sets the tone and context of what’s happening. In a traditional RPG you’d often find this is the point where things start to get bogged down in details and planning. Blades though dispenses with all of that – its style of story-telling is far more Oceans Eleven than it is Lord of the Rings. You don’t set detailed plans or source customised inventories. Instead, you define a rough style of approach (assault, deception, stealth and so on) and then a ‘detail’ that contextualises that approach for the specific scenario (or ‘score’) you’re facing. Players chat for a bit and then give the overview of the strategy.
Player 1: We’re going to make a social approach – we’ll grab one of the scuttling urchins and convince them that the Thieves Guild have just bought the property and won’t be happy if they have to evict the rest.
That’s it. That’s your plan. Next, players define their ‘loadout’, which is the number of items they have available for the rest of the score. And here, they just choose ‘light’, ‘normal’, or ‘heavy’. Everyone has a list of things they have generally available as equipment, but they don’t commit to having brought any of it until they decide to use it. It’s like everyone dragged a Mary Poppins bag with them into a heist. Nobody is left in the circumstance where the thing that stands between them and their goal is the lack of a critical item they didn’t know they’d need. It’s assumed, within Blades in the Dark, that your characters are competent. They did all the scoping out of the joint ‘off screen’. The specific intersection of requirement and situation is a quantum wave of possibilities that you can collapse at will. You needed a fancy set of lockpicks, which of course you packed in advance because you knew you’d probably need them.
Once all this is decided, the GM makes the ‘engagement roll’, which is ‘how well did this go’. Blades uses six-sided dice exclusively, and the more you roll the more chance you have of meaningful success. You pick the highest die from your roll. One to three is ‘fail’, four to five is ‘success with a complication’, and six is ‘success without a complication’. Two sixes in the dice pool mean ‘a critical success’. For engagement the GM gives a die for luck, and then adds dice based on whether the plan is especially audacious, attacks weak points, makes use of connections and contacts and so on. Mechanically there’s no reward to over-stressing it. There’s no point spending your time in the prologue when there’s a main story to tackle.
It doesn’t matter what the GM rolls though. Essentially all this roll does is decide exactly what kind of ‘media res’ you are ‘in’. A one could mean a smash cut to you all standing on the gallows with nooses around your necks. A six could mean that you bypass all the external security and get right into the interior of whatever building you’re invading. In other words, all it does is flavour the story. It’s a tone setting exercise. ‘Do we begin happy, or do we begin anxious’.
GM: Your highest roll here is a two. You grab an urchin and try to convince him that you’re representatives of the Thieves Guild, scoping out the repair yard ahead of taking it over for the Smugglers. He’s having none of it though. And, in the usual childish exuberance of youth, he decides to make everything worse through exaggeration. He wriggles out of your grasp and yells ‘Lads! Lads! We’re under attack by the Thieves Guild!
From this point on, you’re running through the adventure. Each character has a ‘playbook’ that defines the skills and abilities they have. And here again we see the inversion of how Blades in the Dark handles player autonomy. The GM never says ‘Give me a sway check’, or ‘Give me a finesse check’. Instead the GM asks a question of the player. ‘What do you want to do and how do you want to do it?’. The player tells the GM what skill they’re going to roll – as long as it’s justifiable in context, that’s how it goes. You can’t climb a lamp-post with your charm, but maybe you could seduce a passer-by into giving you a leg-up. The genius of this approach is that it makes skill-checks narrative as opposed to mechanical. It’s not ‘pass or fail’ but rather ‘How did your action move the story along’. Sure, the passer-by helped you up the lamppost but you’ve just introduced a witness into the story. Rut-roh. Every action has a reaction, and it sets up the GM with a veritable cornucopia of options for when things get rough.
Player 1: Oh no! As the beggars are spilling out of the repair yard, I slip into the shadows and apply my disguise kit, marking it off my sheet. I want to disguise myself as one of the Canting Crew. Actually, I want to be Foul Ole Ron. I want to be the kind of beggar that other beggars try to avoid.
GM: Great – so, what kind of roll do you think that might be?
Player 1: ‘Uh, it’s probably a finesse roll really. Damn, I only have one die in that.
Now though, this is where things get really cool.
One die is plenty. It’s a fifty-fifty chance that things go, at least, ‘somewhat okay’. But the other thing that every character is carrying with them is stress, and that’s what they can spend to influence the odds in their favour when their stats don’t play ball. Gather too much stress and the character accumulates trauma, and trauma eventually is what retires them from the campaign. Stress is essentially the health-pool of each character – it represents directly all of those little abstractions that you’d normally see as a ‘hit point’. Instead here it’s narrative lubricant. It keeps the story going in the direction that your players hope it will follow.
Players can, and should, use stress liberally. At any point they can ‘push themselves’ – taking two stress to add a die to their roll. Other players can ‘assist’, adding a die to the player in exchange for a point of stress of their own. Stress can also be spent to ‘intensify’ a result if the GM doesn’t give you quite as much impact as you were hoping. Stress then is like an override for fate. It’s the perfect currency for a game that focuses you on skulduggery and high-risk endeavours.
Player 2: Oh, let me assist you! I have a belt of alchemical preparations and surely I could mix up something that smelled absolutely foul to really sell the disguise!
Player 1: Great! Then I have two dice. And I rolled… a four!
GM: Super. That’s a success with a complication. The beggars are pouring out of the yard, but when they see the famed Foul Ole Ron shambling up to the door they stop in horror and start pouring back in. Except that is, for one absolutely massive beggar with wild hair and an ill-fitting filthy overcoat. He cocks his head, as if there’s something about this Foul Ole Ron that doesn’t square with his memory. Two of his mates, equally massive, look over at him as if waiting for instructions.
That ‘success with a complication’ is the backbeat of Blades in the Dark and it drives everything forward in a wonderful way. The binary of ‘you succeed’ or ‘you fail’ is often a soulless little obligation in strictly mechanical systems, and it’s why most good GMs will try to make them a little more interesting. But what makes it especially neat here is that – at any time in the game – players can choose to flashback. Again, exactly like in a great heist movie – your characters are good at what they do and they maybe made preparations for anything that happens.
Player 1: I want to flashback to a couple of days ago. I was casing the joint, and I saw the beggars there. I clocked this guy and his buddies – they seemed to be the muscle, and I thought they’d be the ones that would cause us the most trouble. So I made an arrangement ahead of time that when they saw me again they’d play along.
GM: Okay, what kind of roll do you want to make for that?’
Player 1: That’s probably a sway check, I think. I’m going to try and charm them into taking the easy path out. But I’m also going to hint that we’re dangerous people and so it’s also in his best interest not to risk being on the end of my knife.
GM: Great, what do you get for your roll?
Player 1: Five.
GM: Yeah, you’ve swayed him pretty well, but not quite enough. You get the impression that he’s probably leaning towards taking you at your word but some money would definitely seal the deal. Otherwise, you’ll need to hope that he’ll honour the deal in the heat of the moment.
Player 1: Urgh, okay. I’ll give him a few dollars.
GM: I think this would have been a reasonable thing to do given the circumstances, so this whole thing will only cost you one point of stress. Let’s flash-forward.
There’s no distinction here in Blades between ‘then’ and ‘now’. What happens in the game happens, but you can at any time change what happens next based on what happened before.
GM: The beggar looks at you, winks, and yells ‘Oh no, it’s Foul Ole Ron and he’s even stinkier than ever! Leg it, lads!’. At that point he, and his two buddies, start running up the road. The rest of the beggars, terrified to get anywhere near The Smell, continue to huddle in the yard. Some of them have started smashing up crates and barrels from the dock itself in the hope they can barricade up the doors and windows.
Player 2: Right, what do we do now?
GM: I don’t know, that’s up to you. But I’m starting a clock – it has six segments and by the time the last one is filled they will have successfully barricaded themselves inside. And I’m starting another clock – one with eight segments. All this commotion is drawing a lot of attention to the area and it’s only a matter of time before the Watch shows up in some capacity.
Clocks are one of the other tools a GM has to create a sense of urgency. They’re just circles with segments that get filled out whenever it seems appropriate. It could be real-time, it could be based on failed rolls, or particular investigative strategies. It could be anything at all, which makes it a flexible way of introducing a time limit or a progress bar any time it’s needed. And, as in the little example above, it’s a great way to add additional fire into a situation.
In case you’re wondering by the way, this isn’t a transcript of the score I ran with my players. They instantly escalated from ‘There are some beggars in your new headquarters’ to ‘I could use my alchemical preparations to create a air-borne sedative’. That became, through a couple of unfortunate rolls, ‘let’s hurl this cannister of rage gas into the building and just bury the corpses when they’re done with each other’. That led to a scenario that was a lot more ‘beggar murdery’ than I expected, and with a much greater amount of ‘discreet corpse disposal’ than I had planned.
The ‘complication’ that underlines so many successful roles is a perpetual motion device for misadventure. As the GM, the interaction of clocks, complication and stress make it a singularly effortless system to referee. I had only DMed one forum RPG before – fourth edition D&D. I was very nervous about starting up a Blades campaign. While I don’t think I’m good at it – not yet – I do think that it creates enough tools around creative chaos that I’m rarely at a loss for something to happen.
I can see why Blades wouldn’t really land with players that enjoy systems. The rules in Blades in the Dark are elegant, but they’re also ambiguous. There’s a lot here that just feels a little bit rudderless unless you engage fully with the idea that this is a system of collaborative story-telling rather than a rules-based adventure game. The manual is occasionally infuriatingly imprecise about how things interact mechanically. Inventory load, for example, has no real consequence in the game except for what the GM gives it. Core, critical systems often seem unmoored – their outputs don’t necessarily become inputs elsewhere, and vice versa.
The book, as high quality a printing as it is, also pales in comparison to some other systems where the evocative art is as much a part of the design as the text. The Blades in the Dark book, by comparison, is positively minimalist. Duskvol is such an evocative setting that it should be dripping with art. The Steampunk Cosmic-Horror Noir aesthetic deserves to be a bigger part of the book than it is. I get that this is an indie RPG that doesn’t come from a company with the art budget of Wizards of the Coast. D&D though is still the frame of comparison for production quality. It’s not fair – it’s not an even fight – but the free market doesn’t care about fairness.
I know D&D well, even if I haven’t played it much on the table. I have often observed it from afar – and I’ve been following it diligently since the tail end of the first edition AD&D source books. The Gold Box CRPGs from SSI are still something I think about maybe two or three times a week. Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Planescape: Torment – I’ve played all of them and completed most.
And yet, never have I had an experience of seeing something so inspiring in Dungeons and Dragons as to convince me to leap straight into running a campaign. If someone had come along and offered to DM for me, sure – I’m in. But here I’ve gone a lot deeper. I’ve made the effort to write a home-brew campaign – Discworld in the Dark. I’ve written half a dozen adventures. I’ve done all the logistical work of bringing people together at the same time to spend hours working through it. And I’ve had a blast with it. Never has a game system done a better job at making me instantly say ‘I want to be part of this’.
Blades in the Dark is an extraordinary system – a work of proper genius – and a worthy recipient of the third five star rating we’ve ever given out for the site. And even if you don’t fancy Duskvol or Discworld you’ll find it’s a pretty wonderful system for finding the noir in any setting you may have in mind.