Blades in the Dark
What it says on the tin…
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?
In Cleveland, Ohio where we see the sun two times a year and gargoyles watch over foundries instead of churches – my friends and I drink beer and talk roleplaying games. We talk about the classics, and the new stuff, and the weird stuff, and hypotheticals. And then an evergreen idea surfaces: playing bad guys, not evil sin worshipers but the cool, stylish bad guys.
The idea is innate to roleplaying. Like migration to birds, the heist – the score – sits like a spark at the back of the brain.
It’s the pocketed .22 when Call of Cthulhu investigators fast-talk police. It’s the unmarked crate hidden under spaceships. It’s the vial of acid D&D says can melt locks.
The spark is what whispers bad ideas. When the mysterious noble of D&D games promises a party gold for trekking across the world, its the spark that makes them remember the prize is behind just one foot of iron in the noble’s home.
Blades in the Dark, from its cowled head to its greasy boots is that spark. It’s a bad idea from the ink-dark void that whispers, “let’s be bad guys,” and it’s the best execution of that idea in years.
It’s not just a game, it’s a game that inspires new games. It’s going to do what Apocalypse World did in 2010 or Spirit of the Century when it popularized the fate engine in 2008. Maybe it already has.
Grab your lantern. We’re going into the dark.
Blades in the Dark. It steals, smuggles, and delivers on this promise with a hustler’s swagger. It achieves this with a bag of subsystems and rules like thieves tools. Don’t expect to read a four-page story and then play this game like you do other games – you have to synchronize your brain. The rules are where it happens.
And the rules are weird – like mechanical trinkets in a saboteur's bag. They’re unconventional, almost unintuitive, until the game’s logic synchronizes with your brain. It’s a deep well of design buried under less subtle elements . I haven’t played a game so fixated on the way we play in a long time, every rule is meant to reprogram how players interact, how they plan, and how they get to the action.
The storytelling engine of Blades reminds me of Burning Wheel with six-sided dice rolling as successes or failures. However, unlike dice pools which measure success by the number of successes, Blades only requires players to use the highest one.
So, as luck would have it (literally), your scoundrels will succeed most of the time. This means scoundrels are encouraged to play dangerously – the odds are in their favor. The question is the severity of their success, and what they have to lose – will they succeed resoundingly or by the skin of their teeth?
The game’s tension stems from these two conditions. Every action you take has the same odds but the positioning varies from controlled, to risky, to desperate. The worse the position, the more you have to lose. Then, before any dice are rolled, the GM suggests the effect it might have.
If everyone is agreed to the action, the positioning, and the outcome, the dice are rolled. And those dice will determine if the character fails, has partial success, or full success.
Some GMs do this without second thought, but it’s codified in Blades, and codified behavior can be rewarded, changed, and built upon.
If the dice and the positioning are an engine, the rest of this game is black leather interior and nickel-coated dials. Blades in the Dark packs a lot of earlier mentioned trinkets, but what’s smart is how they fit together.
Stress & Harm
Hit points and conventional health systems are gone. Instead, scoundrels build up stress like levees to mitigate “harm” or failure. When they receive too many points of stress, the levee breaks.
Stress isn’t health, it’s a bargaining chip. It’s what fate points or bennies are in other games, except it feels good to use them. Players can’t hoard stress, so they soak it up like a sponge, and use prescriptive rules to shake it off. It solves the resource economy problem by acting less precious and subjective.
Progress clocks are circles the GM draws on scrap paper with pie slices to represent abstract tension like the passage of time, crafting progress, and the simmering temper of guards.
It’s a wicked pleasure to draw them like gears. When one fills up, others pump and drain like pistons. It’s Blades’ version of rolling dice behind the screen, but you get to draw it out longer to make the players sweat.
Playbooks from the Apocalypse are back, but with John Harper’s graphic design to give them a handsome density.
For example, check boxes for tracking experience and coin blend thematically into borders and backgrounds. While other information rests neatly in grids sometimes informing two different statistics at once. A character sheet reminds players how to play their character, but the playbooks of Blades have the added benefit of streamlining overall play so everything you need is right there on paper.
Crew sheets are like playbooks except they define the scoundrels’ criminal enterprise as a group instead of as individuals.
It outlines the ambitions and methods of the group’s criminal activity, from archetypes like assassins, smugglers, vice-peddlers, or forgotten cults. In addition to giving them special strengths and powers, it packs other stranger diagrams to feed the spark of bad ideas like turf claims, asset lists, cohorts, and meters that wax and wane with coin, notoriety, and heat.
The game provides steps for how to start its sessions. If you’re an experienced GM, you might be thinking, “I don’t need steps. I know how to run scenes.”
Not like this. The designer really thought about how to remove common pitfalls in the heist and espionage genre. The setup rules are amazing for “off-screen” action, flashbacks, making plans without wasting precious game time, dramatic irony, and more.
Nearly a quarter of the game’s subsystems play out in downtime, the space between scores where scoundrels blow off steam.
It’s the gas other features use to take off. Stress is recovered, causes fallout, and gives scoundrels a spotlight in downtime. It’s where campaign-long progress clocks tick ahead, causing factions to butt heads, and gang wars to get worse. Hell, downtime manages to make bookkeeping really, really fun.
Blades isn’t as colorful as other products. The interior illustrations are black and white. It doesn’t have ornate flourishes like gold foil or baroque paper textures. Blades doesn’t try to feel like an artifact from a fantasy victorian England.
It takes a different angle.
It’s crisp and unified. It flexes its layout, whitespace, and graphical elements better than nearly any other rpg on the market right now. And the illustrations are still handsome and look exactly like each other. It comes from a singular vision and somehow stays executed that way.
Blades also has homebrew content as polished as the game itself. I don’t know what’s happening with Forged in the Dark but it feels like it’s drawing creators from communities more traditional games haven’t tapped into.
Head over to the official SRD to see just what I mean. The bar for Blades is exceedingly consistent for how high it is.
Character sheets perfectly laid out for the table, cheat sheets that cover everything, pragmatic GM aids, and maps done the way they’re supposed to. Ready for carving, claiming, and marking to the table’s delight.
Notice how unique features live inside the grey regions and blend into the generic options.
Blades in the Dark is an evil thing. It’s evil for how cunning it is. It never runs out of ideas. When you’ve seen them all, Blades reveals another, like a knife-collecting Mary Poppins.
Blades in the Dark is about scoundrels in a fictional city. An industrial shell where the sun has shattered, murder is rampant, and Death has died. Where leviathans stir beneath ink-dark waves in a dreamless sleep. Outside the city’s walls, all manner of horror and nightmare prowls in the ruins of the old world, kept out with demon blood, the electroplasmic fuel of the city’s lightning barrier. The scoundrels we play cannot change this world. The gates of death cannot be rebuilt and the sun will never return.
When my friends and I drank beer in Cleveland, we talked about home, miles from anything other than snow coated fields. Enough miles to keep you there.
We talked about the shells of factories that made guns, fire, and steel. The same factories that coated our churches black with soot and set fire to the lake.
Now, these factories sat like bones on shores caustic to the touch.
When we sat down to play, we knew the rules were unique. The setting felt like fluff. Very cool evocative fluff but fluff.
Any hobbyist would have set the game in Victorian London or turn of the century New York, but the setting is another one of Blades’ tricks.
The book describes it as a pressure cooker, a crucible, where scoundrels mix and muddle with the world and entities they affect. But the pressure cooker makes something else happen.
When the world is in darkness and puts up walls – invisible or electrical – to keep you there, it makes the world intimate. Doskvol is so unabashedly grim and bizarre, small details pop. Details like how the arc lamps sputter and drip, or jellied eels curl in ovens, or the way whiskey is warm in a scoundrel’s hand.
Blades in the Dark puts us in the boots of scoundrels who call ruins home. It makes us feel texture by accentuating the ridges, then it asks us to ruminate the way my friends ruminate – what if we played the bad guys? Not evil worshipers, but cool, stylish bad guys?
That, my friends, is a good idea.
Buy or not buy?
It’s a must buy.
Blades in the Dark is a landmark design. A next-generation storytelling rpg that satisfies players instinctually the way well-engineered board games do. A rare pairing for an rpg book.
For that reason, it meets my criteria for the perfect rpg. It advances our medium. It pushes the envelope of game design. It’s packed with industry best practices. And finally, it displays non-rpg craft, like writing, layout, typography, and information architecture.
Blades in the Dark isn’t a great indie rpg. It’s a great rpg.
In lieu of my usual pro and con list, I’ll say the game does have flaws, but I think they’re marginal like the flaws of other great games. Instead, let me provide a small list of “considerations” for why you wouldn’t want to own this game.
For your consideration:
- Setting and system are strongly conjoined
- Vices/death/etc. can be sensitive content
- Heavy dose of subsystems to digest
- Best for experienced players
Buy it at your friendly local game store, the Evil Hat website, or clicking here on DriveThruRPG…
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