What: Blades in the Dark
Who: John Harper
Why: The allure of playing a gang of daring scoundrels in a compelling industrial-fantasy city setting, with structured heist and downtime mechanics.
Blades in the Dark: A Game Deserving of the Spotlight
We’ve always been captivated by stories of criminals, from Outlaws of the Marsh and Robin Hood to The Thief of Bagdad and the legendary stealth computer game Thief: The Dark Project. Sometimes the appeal is the power fantasy of a glamourized gangster lifestyle. In other cases it’s just a certain fascination for sordid, brutal grit.
John Harper’s Blades in the Dark may involve elements of vice, addiction, stress and harsh outcomes. But it wouldn’t be great entertainment if it didn’t make a scoundrel’s life somewhat glamorous and fun.
The players take the roles of shady types in the ghost-infested fantasy city of Doskvol. It’s a sunless world of corrupt cops and vicious gangs. Burglars leap across rooftops and scale towers. Bravos cross swords and blast with pistols. Alchemists brew poisons, bombs and stealth potions. Sorcerers talk to the dead and bargain with devils.
Risk and Reward
The core mechanic takes Apocalypse World’s trinary conflict resolution outcomes a step further. One common complaint about the Apocalypse engine is that the GM rarely has an option to apply mechanical differentiation to easy, normal or hard tasks. For rolling actions in Blades in the Dark, the GM judges the circumstances of the situation and sets the position (how risky things are) and the effect (how much the action accomplishes). The player rolls dice based on their action rating (usually from 1 to 4), adding a die for assistance, or perhaps accepting a Devil’s Bargain. The Devil’s Bargain is the GM’s way of offering a better roll in exchange for adding a plot complication of some sort to the PC’s life – a fair trade that makes the game more interesting.
How the Score Goes Down
The heist rules are most impressive, because they include options for abstracting the equipment shopping, planning and initial entry point of an operation. Like in the Leverage RPG, players can establish facts about the story retroactively using flashbacks. In Blades in the Dark, you have to pay for flashbacks using Stress, an all-round endurance tracking statistic that can be replenished by indulging in vices during downtime, much like in Darkest Dungeon.
Blades in the Dark is also a love child of two of Harper’s previous game projects, and inherits some of the best traits of both.
A World of Ghost Lines
Blades in the Dark shares a setting with his free game Ghost Lines, one of the most evocative RPG handouts I’ve ever seen compressed into four pages. He originally wrote up this world of shattered isles, a dead sky, void-black sea and crackling lightning-trains for a game about the train guards who fight ghosts with electrified hooks and spirit traps, but later found that his players had more fun doing side missions in the walled cities between rail trips, and decided to focus on the crime aspect instead.
The scoundrels of Blades in the Dark are defined initially by their playbooks, which embody archetypes found in the gangs of Doskvol.
For instance, the Leech is a technician with talents in sabotage, alchemy and engineering. They get mad science abilities relating to invention, crafting and medicine. More importantly, they get access to special bombs, oils and powders to tilt the odds in their favour. You might also play a Cutter, adept at close combat and intimidation; or a Lurk, stealthy and dextrous; or a Slide who uses charm and deceit to manipulate their marks. Players have a lot of freedom in advancing their characters to gain points in any Action Rating, so that even a brutish Cutter could learn to Attune to the mystical Ghost Field like a spirit-summoning Whisper. Each playbook has its own special abilities relating to their niche, but veteran characters can learn abilities freely from other playbooks if desired.
In addition to the playbook, each character also inherits abilities from the crew they belong to.
Crews and Consequences
Like Harper’s Bootleggers: Smuggling Run, Blades in the Dark treats the entire party of player characters as a character itself, with its own crew sheet. Individual members might come and go (and miss out on adventures) but the crew levels up as the primary method of advancement in the game.
Blades in the Dark offers numerous crew types, including smugglers, shadowy thieves, assassins and even cultists serving dark gods. Each crew has access to different special abilities, contacts, upgrades and most importantly, claims.
Gangs of Doskvol
A claim is an asset held by one of the city’s criminal factions. Want your gang to gain turf, informants, lookouts, cover identities and other advantages? All the good stuff’s already taken. You’ll need to seize them or create them by acting against other gangs. This drives faction relationships, another big part of the game. Positive relationships can be leveraged for assistance. Negative relationships can lead to further entanglements and even gang wars. We also have strong structured rules for upgrading your crew, relationships with other factions, and downtime activities.
This creates a nice change of pace. After each mission or “score” the game zooms out to see the larger picture, the faction game. Leveling up your gang, getting benefits of turf and upgrades, recruiting cohorts, going to war with other gangs, and dealing with complications from police attention and faction conflicts…it adds a lot to the feel as the campaign rolls along. And many of these incidents and complications might be handled abstractly by paying a bribe or accepting a loss of an asset…or you might choose to launch into a new score to deal with it, which cycles us back into the action rolls and drama.
The city of Doskvol has 60 factions, including underground groups, government institutions, citizenry and weird cults. They reside across a dozen baroque city districts, each detailed in its own two-page spread. Blades in the Dark also has sections on the history, daily life, underworld, government and supernatural features of the city. Additional PDF supplements are forthcoming with additional city expansions, giving GMs more options to play with. But just to begin with, Doskvol itself will be worth an entire campaign on its own.
Worlds Enough and Time
Because of the open playtesting of the game, and John Harper’s receptiveness to fan hacks of the game, Blades in the Dark has spawned an entire generation of offspring, much like Apocalypse World. The flexible core action mechanic, the Stress rules, the Score system used for heists, the faction sub-game and the downtime activities are all strengths that carry over to any game based around a team of mission specialists that operates in a setting filled with factional strife.
The Kickstarter’s stretch goals funded official hacks for rail jacks on the Ghost Lines, whalers hunting demonic leviathans on the void sea, as well as heroic vigilantes, and revolutionaries fighting against the Immortal Emperor. Some official hacks even took the game into entirely different settings, such as the Star Wars/Firefly-inspired space adventure setting Scum & Villainy. Not surprisingly, there are also hacks in progress for the Shadowrun and Warhammer 40,000 settings, including Blades of the Inquisition, which I have been running.
Any weak points in the system? If you want rules to simulate the minute details in the qualities of equipment, weapons and assets, you won’t find them. This isn’t a crunchy, stat-filled game like Shadowrun – or even as much detail as GUMSHOE or the Basic Roleplaying (BRP) system. A ranged weapon or a lantern is just a tool that lets you perform actions in the fiction that are associated with them – if you have a fine quality item you’ll achieve a greater level of success in the action, and if you don’t have the tool the GM may rule that you can’t perform the action, or can do it with a poorer position or effect. And that’s it. The benefit is that you can easily reskin pistols and swords to blasters and lightsabers, which is what makes the game so ripe for reskinning and hacking.
Also, I find it a bit annoying that the printed rulebook does not include details that are found on the playbooks such as experience requirements and Stress maximums – you need to refer to the PDF reference sheets for these, and only then can you understand the rules fully.
Running Blades in the Dark
Some final words in recommendation of this game.
GMs, read the GM advice. It’s really good.
John Harper gets the essence of how to run an eventful, responsive and entertaining RPG. As with the Apocalypse system, Blades in the Dark is a game where the GM doesn’t plan too far; instead, the group will play to find out. And there are plenty of random tables and great bits of setting that just call out for players to explore, with a bit of improvisational assistance from the GM.
Another bit of good advice (which I’ve seen elsewhere, but is worth repeating) is to not use the game rules to resolve issues that players have outside of the game itself. Veteran GMs will know that if two players are at loggerheads (not their characters), you can’t roll dice to resolve the conflict.
Lastly, I’ve seen too many games (and run a few) where player characters just get failed rolls rubbed in their faces. No, a roll of 1 doesn’t have to mean that your trained fighter pratfalls and loses his broadsword again. Not every low roll calls for ritual humiliation of a character that the player has invested many hours in building up as a meaningful protagonist.
In the spirit of adventure and derring-do, Blades in the Dark tells the GM not to make the heroes look like fools. Your aimed sniper shot didn’t miss because you’re a bungling idiot; a strong breeze blew a dust cloud in the way at the last moment, obscuring your shot. Or your attempt to unleash magical lightning against the rogue sorcerer failed because he blocked your spell with immense mental effort, veins bulging on his forehead.
Maybe in other games, like low-powered gritty Call of Cthulhu or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, our hero might fumble a matchstick at a crucial moment, leading to doom. But in Blades in the Dark, you fail because the environment was just that challenging. Or your opposition was just good enough to beat you this time.
For a game about daring scoundrels, your players deserve to feel like they aren’t going to be punished for daring to dare.