Review - Blades in the Dark
Why I think Blades in the Dark is an important new design in tabletop RPG’s
There are hundreds of different kinds of tabletop RPG’s, all with different basic concepts and mechanics. Only some of these catch the zeitgeist though. Three big dogs in the past which I can point to are d20 for D&D etc which led to the OGL explosion. Fate which led to “Powered by Fate” and Apocalypse World which introduced “Powered by the Apocalypse”. Each of those married a new dice mechanic with a fundamentally different way of using the dice.
For my money the next big contender is Blades in the Dark by John Harper @john_harper.
“Forged in the Dark” has already brought us Scum and Villainy which is inspired by Star Wars in more ways than just the name, and Blades in the Dark which is reminiscent of Black Company. Both of these by Stras Acimovic @strasa and John LeBoeuf-Little @worldnamer. The Evil Hat website lists Girl by Moonlight as another Forged in the Dark game under development and there is an active community on their forums at https://community.bladesinthedark.com/c/forged-in-the-dark and I was able to be involved in an early playtest by Julian Butcher @julian_butcher of his game Immortal Coil (cyberpunk rogues with high tech reincarnation, reminiscent of Altered Carbon)
What is the basic idea?
The Blades in the Dark game is closely tied into its setting (Duskvol, a walled, haunted dark city with a steampunk vibe to it). This is a deliberate choice; rather than making a generic set of rules, so much of the character and crew choices are informed by the specifics of the setting.
There are a number of ‘playbooks’ which are character generation and character sheet in one, very similar to Apocalypse World games. Each of the playbooks represents an archetype common to the game.
You are not just interested in your character as an individual though. The group of players belong to a crew, and that community has a character sheet of its own - with people, drives, territory and such like. The shape of the community gives benefits to the individual player characters too. This community (your ‘crew’ in Blades) is a thread of continuity for a campaign. Player characters may come and go, be killed, retire or be lost to trauma, but the crew continues on and gives a natural place for new characters to be introduced into.
Blades in the Dark was designed to support a mission - downtime - mission - downtime structure, and to jump straight into the action.
We have all probably experienced games where players get bogged down in planning for a mission and then ten minutes into it something unexpected comes up and all that time was wasted! Blades gets around that by throwing you straight into the mission with an ‘engagement’ roll, and then when unexpected roadblocks come up, any players can use flashback scenes to show how they had planned for this and resolve that before coming back to the present.
Downtime is when characters receive payment, remove stress, experience entanglements, find out the impact their mission has had on interested groups (some of which like you and some of which hate you) and pursue long term projects. It is also an opportunity to consider possible future missions you may wish to undertake.
Things which are new (to me)
Position and Effect
The aim is that there is a dialog between the GM and the players in order to set out the parameters of the action that someone wants to complete.
This is making clear in mechanics the fiction of the situation at hand. Position is defined as controlled, risky, or dangerous. It doesn’t affect the good outcomes so much but has a large effect on the bad outcomes. Failure in a desperate position can result in a lot of harm or devastating failure.
Effect is a matter of judging how effective you can be taking a number of elements into control - scale, tier, quality and others. Scale is particularly significant. If you are armed with a knife and facing twenty foes their scale is much higher than yours and that is going to dramatically reduce your effect (possibly even reducing it to zero).
My understanding is that position and effect isn’t something which is just decreed by the GM. It is expected that there is some negotiation between the player and the GM about these things. You can mention things which can change the position or perhaps reduce the scale (maybe via a flashback or by mentioning something which has already been described earlier)
The character sheet has three attributes (insight, prowess, and resolve) and each of those contains four actions. Each of those actions has a number of dots coloured in next to it - either none, one, two, three or four. When you want to attempt an action, you state what action you are going to do and how you are doing it, and then roll a number of six sided dice (d6) equal to the number of dots you have in that action. Look at all the dice you roll and pick the best one:
- if your best dice is 1-3 you have failed
- If your best dice is 4-5 you have partially succeeded, or succeeded with a consequence
- If your best dice is a 6 you have completely succeeded.
- if you have two (or more) 6’s come up, then you have a critical success and do even better than expected.
- If you would normally roll no dice, then your roll two dice and pick the worst result
As part of the conversation about the action the player can choose and describe which action you they are going to use in order to complete the action. In a one to one fight they could choose to use skirmish, finesse or wreck and they describe your action appropriately. The Gm may change your position or effect depending upon the action you are using - some actions will be more likely to be successful then others. Attempting to seduce someone with “Command” (or with “wreck”!) may be considerably more risky for instance - the Consequences for failure may be much higher, and the Effect on success might be limited.
The referee or games master doesn’t roll any dice. They just state what is going to happen as the result of the current situation, threat or failure.
In many other games consequences come as a result of dice rolls by the GM (whether attacks rolls or something happening against which you might make a ‘saving throw’). Here consequences are announced by the GM, and the player decides whether or not they want to resist those consequences. If they don’t resist them, the consequence happens. If they do resist, then they don’t happen or have a reduced effect. Choosing to resist costs you Stress. You make a resistance roll and that tells you how many stress boxes which you tick off. The number of boxes ticked increases as you avoid consequences or push yourself in the game. Run out of stress and you are out of that session and gain a long term Trauma which will haunt you forevermore.
Equipment as you need it
Part of the paralysis of planning that sometimes happens in games is deciding exactly what equipment each character should carry. Indeed, combing through the equipment lists used to be a time honoured part of games! The process is dramatically simplified here. You could almost say that you have Schroedingers list… it shows a number of potential items, but the only become real when you select them because you chose to use them. At the start of a mission you choose whether you are carrying a light, medium or heavy load and that tells you how many slots you get to tick during an adventure.
A really neat idea. Simple and flexible without being open to abuse.
Flashbacks rather than planning
Flashbacks are how you resolve the “ah yes, I’ve planned for this” without having to have planned for every eventuality. You pay a stress cost for flashbacks (0, 1 or 2 stress depending upon how complicated it may have been, or the impact of it). Sometimes you can just narrate what was done in the flashback to set something up, at other times there might be an action roll called for to establish how well things went at that earlier stage.
Getting your weapons past the guards into the party? Flashback to the bribery or blackmail attempt last night. Quick escape after the burglary is complete? Flashback to the zip line which you had set up at the very start of the mission. Bluecoats burst in to arrest everyone? Flashback to you organising the guard rota so that your friend is in charge of the Bluecoat team tonight.
Creating a Forged in the Dark game?
I was lucky enough to be able to attend a panel run by Stras Acimovic and John LeBoeuf-Little at Metatopia 2019 on the subject of creating a Forged in the Dark game. These are my notes from that panel.
At the start Stras asked the audience to shout out things which they thought were significant for Forged in the Dark games. The list included
- Position and effect
- Fiction and mechanics
- Dice pools
- Special Armour
The core concepts are really those ones which I’ve put first on this list. Position and Effect - negotiating what is going on. Is it risky or dangerous? Do I have great effect or not?
Thinking about moves, there are really only three core moves. Controlled, Risky or Desperate. The things on the character sheet are not really ‘moves’ in the sense of Apocalypse World, they are things that you can do in a controlled, risky or desperate way.
Blades is bad at modelling the Gom Jabbar scene in Dune. It is great at action driven concrete physical scenes in the vein of Mission Impossible. Great at competent characters, not great at willpower and internal monologuing.
In order to have a feeling of the risk in play, we need to be grounded in a setting. The setting helps us to be clear on how things work in this fiction. A horror setting would have different expectations to a space opera setting or a military campaign setting.
An interesting point about the Blades dice pool mechanic in comparison to the Apocalypse World mechanic is that the GM always gets a say. In standard Apocalypse World on a 6- the GM talks, on 7-9 both talk and in 10+ the player talks. Once players get to +4 on a roll, the GM can end up with not many chances to speak! Forged in the dark gets you away from the bad result (1-3) more quickly but slows the increase in good results.
When designing for Scum and Villainy they wanted to figure out what the game is about, the story, the action beats, the drama and what they wanted to happen. If it fits, then look at how the components fit together. Start with position and effect as written, then look at stress, resistance and push as mechanics.
Add in actions. What can I see people doing in this story? They watched a lot of Star Wars and Dr Who and say a lot of running taking place, so they added running as an action to Scum and Villainy. The choice of word for actions contain a lot of world building choices - scrap in Scum and Villainy covers the same mechanic as skirmish in Blades in the Dark, but has a different feel to it. If you were to do a modern military game you might choose firefight and that would have yet another feel to it.
Watch many different movies and TV shows in the same genre - preparing for Scum & Villainy they watched both Star Wars and Cowboy Bebop. While watching, keep saying to yourself “What are they doing right now?” What is the overlap?
The Forged in the Dark SRD is a big and complicated document, and sometimes people get too bogged down and try to tackle too much in their first pass. Try to write the minimum to just get a game to the table. Stras has written a modified 2 page rules called “Into the Dark” to illustrate just how small you can go and still have a good game.
Creating a Forged in the Dark game!
As you can tell, I’m taken by a lot of the design decisions that exist in Blades in the Dark and related games. So much so that I’m thinking about working on something in this space myself.
I’m still in the earliest stages of deciding whether this is a practical option at the moment, but I’ve been wanting to do a game about science fiction high society for a while. Up to now I’ve been playing those games using my Starguild rules, but I think that there might be some interesting options in using Forged in the Dark.
The pitch is Diplomats In Space, inspired somewhat by Babylon 5. Your diplomatic mission wants to improve their own position, negotiate with the other regimes, respond to the changing political dictates and demands from homeworld and to the strange goings on at the edge of known space. Discoveries are to be made, and your regime should be the one to benefit! And if there is to be benefit then shouldn’t you, as the duly appointed representative, share in that benefit?
I’ll post more about this once I’ve got my first alpha playtest ready.
Banner includes photo by Casper Johansson on Unsplash