Evil Hat Productions gives us this elevator pitch for the game:
“Blades in the Dark is a tabletop role-playing game about a crew of daring scoundrels seeking their fortunes on the haunted streets of an industrial-fantasy city. There are heists, chases, occult mysteries, dangerous bargains, bloody skirmishes, and, above all, riches to be had — if you’re bold enough to seize them.
You and your fledgling crew must thrive amidst the threats of rival gangs, powerful noble families, vengeful ghosts, the Bluecoats of the city watch, and the siren song of your scoundrel’s own vices. Will you rise to power in the criminal underworld? What are you willing to do to get to the top?”
Forged in the Dark
I’m not the biggest fan of any game that uses the Apocalypse Engine system. My first attempt to read a “Powered by the Apocalypse” game was Dungeon World and I kind of hated it. It just seemed like a game that was trying to be for people who want to play D&D but don’t want to fiddle with playing D&D. If your fantasy genre game can’t answer “Why don’t I just play D&D?” then it’s missing a pretty big mark in my opinion. I just could not bring myself to be interested in the system and I judged all games using it by that bias. This is one of the two games that changed that opinion for me. Blades in the Dark is not technically Powered by the Apocalypse. It was the flagship game for the Forged in the Dark system, which is derived from the Apocalypse Engine. They are similar systems, both having the same goals but taking different paths to get there.
Characters are created by choosing a playbook. The playbooks fit the various molds of the theme; the leg-breaky Cutter, the sliver-tongued Slide, and the well-connected Spider to name a few. Players also collaboratively choose a playbook for what type of crew they are, like deadly Assassins, or Shadows with sticky fingers. Because the setting is extremely weird and haunted there are even playbooks to switch to in the event that your character dies, but you aren’t ready to part ways with it just yet; your Ghost can come back to wrap up an unsettled score. It’s not uncommon or even frowned upon for players to have multiple PCs for occasions that they determine one of them to be unavailable for some reason.
Gameplay is divided into categories that try to codify the type of action that the crew is involved in. Free form play is loose and casual, moving into a Score when the crew starts scheming, and then into Downtime when the score is finished. To plan a score the players choose from a list of mission types that best describes their goals (Assault, Social, Transport, etc…). You may want to steal something valuable from an arrogant noble’s mansion, rough up a rival gang, or grease a few palms at a fancy dinner party. Each score requires the players to fill in a detail, like the point of assault, or the route and means of transportation. Planning is done in such a way that PCs should all be able to contribute something to the mission, even if they are not especially skilled in accomplishing the immediate goal (e.g. even a bull in a china shop can have a role in a stealth mission). Once the details are established the players make an engagement roll, heavily modified by circumstances and details, to determine their starting position (Desperate, Risky or Controlled). From there the game cuts to the action and we see how well the crew will do once their plan is in motion. After the score the crew moves into a downtime phase to shake off any heat they earned from their hijinks and count their coin or lick their wounds.
Blades in the Dark has an interesting system for advancing not only your character, but also your character’s crew. You’re not the only crew of miscreants in the city, of course. The strength of a faction or crew lies in its Claims; territory and influence that benefit the crew but must also be defended from other groups that may try to move in on your territory. Crews also have Reputations to think of. The more renown your crew has the more respect they can garner from rival crews (though respect does not necessarily equal admiration). Your scores will invariably generate Heat as the authorities look into the crimes you commit. Completing a score quietly and in the dark of night draws less Heat but also garners you less Reputation. Too much Heat turns into Wanted levels that only Incarceration can decrease, but even incarceration can lead to benefits for the crew in the form of reputation or staking claims inside the prison system.
One thing the game does that I think is worth porting into other games is the Clock. Clocks can represent anything from progress towards an extended project to when the alarm is raised. When players roll the GM ticks up the clock. When the clock is full the task is complete, or the other shoe drops, depending on what it represents. In this way they are used to create tension or momentum.
The dice system is straightforward. The game only uses d6s, so players who like having many and varied shapes and colors in front of them to fidget with while they play may need to find other means of visual stimulation. Actions are performed by rolling a number of dice equal to the value of a character trait, modified heavily by circumstances. The GM can offer the player a Devil’s Bargain in which they receive an additional die that comes with some strings attached. You’re only looking for a high roll. Six is a full success, and a 4 or a 5 is a success with consequence. It’s up to the GM to determine the outcome of a 1-3; usually it just means failure but sometimes it’s more interesting to say things go awry, or success came at an unforeseen cost. At first blush this is a static difficulty system; the character has as much chance of picking a basic lock as they have of cracking a bank safe. However, in this system, if there is no risk or no interesting outcome that hinges upon success or failure, then there should be no roll. The PCs are assumed to be of sufficient proficiency that basic tasks like picking a simple lock is a foregone conclusion.
I like the concept of cutting straight to the action. If we’re all being honest, a good portion of every session just isn’t going to be retold or remembered. We don’t tell stories about the session and include all the small talk we made with NPCs, or the probing of the castle’s defenses in preparation for a break in later that night. Blades in the Dark handwaves all those scenes and tries to skip to the good parts. You have your plan, and you know your point of entry into the castle because you are competent thieves. Let’s cut to the action and see how well you deal with the first challenge of the mission. At first it seems that this method of playing it loose will gloss over some of the important details that the players want to put into their planning, but the system for Flashbacks helps to inject some agency that the players might feel is missing from a casual, non-granular style of play like this one. It is within a player’s power to say that they greased a few palms a week before the heist and there are only half as many guards on duty as there should be. It is also within the player’s power to say that after the alarm is raised in the present.
It’s not easy to break out of the mindset, as a player or as a GM, of feeling a sense of advancement by watching numbers increase in value. Players are accustomed to feeling that these numbers are a measure of their character’s worth. “If there is no skill to represent safe cracking, how can I communicate that my character is a safe-cracker?” Likewise, GMs are accustomed to letting the dice decide not just the dramatic moments but also the tedium as well. We’re conditioned to think that the player needs to make a roll to complete a task. It almost doesn’t matter that the character is a lifelong con artist and the opponent is as gullible as they come, if there’s a roll for it GMs tend to turn to it first. Additionally, players have almost as much narrative authority as the GM does. It is expected that they will routinely be contributing to the narrative of a scene in as much as the GM is. Not every GM is willing to relinquish that much control over the sequence of events to their players, and not all players are this confident in taking the reins of the story into their own hands. Never mind finding a group of players who can all naturally “sync up” on what kind of tone they’re trying to strike. Some people would just rather participate passively. This (as they say in the book) “fiction first” style of play is a major paradigm shift away from how virtually all other mainstream popular games, like Dungeons & Dragons, work. For some players, learning to play this kind of game amounts to being deprogrammed. For others it’s just natural. If you like high “crunch” (which refers to a game with a lot of intricate rules, in case you’ve never heard this before), or if you prefer very a “simulationist” type of experience, then this may not be for you. If you love nothing more than a good narrative group project, then maybe it is.
You say Doskvol, I say Duskwall
Something cataclysmic happened to the world. The book is never clear on what because it’s not well understood. This mysterious great catastrophe broke the sun, relegating it to storybooks and resulted in the ghosts of the dead lingering in the world. The only protection against them is the lightning wall that surrounds the city; a barrier of electroplasm that disrupts the ghost field and repels most spirits. Inside the lightning wall is the city of Doskvol, or Duskwall, or “the Dusk”, depending on who you ask. It is here that the stories of Blades in the Dark are set.
From the book:
The city of Doskvol was established over 1000 years ago as a coal mining settlement on the cold north coast of Akoros. It has withstood the breaking of the world, an attack by a titanic leviathan, massive fires, a plague, a civil war, and legion of angry ghosts. It is a community of survivors.
The city is densely packed inside the ring of immense lightning towers that protect it from the murderous ghosts of the blighted deathlands beyond. Every square foot is covered in human construction of some kind—piled one atop another with looming towers, sprawling manors, and stacked row houses; dissected by canals and narrow twisting alleys; connected by a spiderweb of roads, bridges, and elevated walkways.
Doskvol is one of the most important cities in the Imperium, since it is from its port that the metal steamships of the leviathan hunters are launched. The hunters brave the far northern reaches of the Void Sea, far out of sight of land, to grapple with titanic demons of the depths and extract their precious immortal blood—the substance refined into electroplasm, the power source of civilization.
All powerful noble families operate hunter ships, each commanded by the scion of their line—and it is by their fortunes at the sea and the bounties of blood they capture that the fortunes of the empire wax and wane. The savvy and the ruthless of Doskvol do well to position themselves to profit from this crucial enterprise upon which so many depend—either as an ally or servant of the aristocracy, or by preying upon the corrupted rich and privileged elite.
This all sounds familiar. Where have I heard this before? Hang on…
Blades in the Dark has elements of things like Peaky Blinders and The Lies of Locke Lamora, but the parallels to Dishonored are unmistakable. Duskwall (Dunwall), the Lord Governor (the Lord Regent), leviathans (whales), electroplasm (whale oil), spiritbane charms (bone charms), the world broken by an occultic cataclysm (the world stricken by a deadly pandemic with weird occultic undertones), street gangs at war, a corrupt city watch, an early 19th-century industrial fantasy setting… the list goes on. I thought, at first, I was going to hate it in spite of really wanting not to. After all, Dishonored is a role-playing game you can also play. I make Dungeon World and other fantasy genre games tell me why I’m not playing D&D instead, and I expected to ask Blades in the Dark why I’m not playing Dishonored. The answer is “I could be, but it wouldn’t be like this”. It’s less a generic knock off of Dishonored and more a love letter to the series, and I can appreciate it for that.
About 99% of the fiction portion of the book is about the city of Doskvol. There is a single page that gives details about the other the islands, which includes a few sentences about the world beyond the Shattered Isles, but GMs aspiring to know about any of it must either wait for supplements to be released, look for unofficial fan-created material (there’s plenty out there), or get creative. What information about Doskvol they do provide is in the form of a toolbox, which is nice. Each district of the city has its own two-page spread, not unlike a playbook, that provides enough information to inspire me but not overload me with details I feel obligated to remember.
Where is Ash Way in relation to Hulliver Lane? Exactly what kind of occultic defenses do the Dimmer Sisters employ to keep their manor secure? The book never gives you these answers, but it’s not really important anyway. Above all, this game asks you to focus on what’s important to creating fun sessions that make great stories to retell later. It doesn’t matter where Ash Way is in relation to Hulliver Lane because the cool story is how we lost the City Watch somewhere between them after they busted us trying to break into the Leaky Bucket. This game won’t be for everyone; some people prefer the crunch (although many will feign offense at a label they didn’t choose themselves and insist it’s called being “tactical”), others simply want to be told the story and not exert themselves by actively contributing to the shape of it. If the narrative is your favorite part, and you crave crafting it with input from your friends and PC crewmates, you might like this game. If your fondest memories of past D&D sessions are of the things that happened to your character and not all the opportune times you rolled a 20 (or the inopportune times you rolled a 1), I posit perhaps you’ve been playing the wrong games.
I love the concept of this game, and I love how it required I reframe how I think about table-top RPGs in order to understand it. Would I enjoy running it, and would my current group of role-playing cohorts also enjoy it? I’m not entirely certain. I will say this though: of all the games I’ve read with no immediate intention of actually playing, Blades in the Dark is on the short list of the games I actually bought a physical copy of.
As a final thought, this is a game that expects dark alleyways, dirty deals, and characters with loose (if any) morals. That doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some folks like it a bit more lighthearted than that. Can you play scoundrels with hearts of gold? Absolutely you can, but the world around you is still dark and ready to put a knife in your back. If the concept of the game sounds interesting, but you’d rather have a different veneer of fiction to better align to your particular fandoms, I recommend Scum and Villainy, also by Black Hat Productions. It’s Blades in the Dark in every way, but replace a thinly veiled allusion to Dishonored with equally as thinly veiled allusions to Firefly or Cowboy Bebop. (This one is on my list to read at some point as well.)