Skulking in the Shadows With Blades In The Dark

I’m a sucker for indie projects and small-scale games, which is probably why I love companies like Evil Hat so much. Part of that love is knowing that when I have a question or concern with their product, they’ve got my back and are ready to help.

I also love how they work with other content creators to get books published and into the grubby hands of gamemasters such as myself.

This time around, I’m ecstatic that they’ve released Blades in the Dark by John Harper. I’ve mentioned John’s work and free RPGs before, so it should not be a surprise that, when the book was available for pre-order, I jumped at that. (I missed the Kickstarter due to financial issues and sadly won’t be getting all of the bonuses, but I made the pre-order happen).

Even though it’s taken me months (seriously, I got the book in June), I have FINALLY gotten around to reading the book in it’s entirety to bring a serious review to you.

==The Pitch==

Blades in the Dark is the newest game from John Harper of One/Seven Design and is published by Evil Hat. In it, you play a Scoundrel in a heavily industrialized city similar to Victorian-era London, in a world filled with ghosts, demons, and other things that would drive you crazy on a good day.

The game plays as a criminal enterprise, as your Scoundrel improves themselves and their Crew, taking territory, finishing scores, and generally being up to no good.

The game is, technically, an expansion of Harper’s previous one-shot game of Ghost Lines. In the game, you will find nods to Apocalypse World, Fate, Dishonored, Thief, and many other popular works and games.

The work as a whole, including the artwork, makes plenty of nods if you know where to look.

==What You Get==

A standard copy of Blades in the Dark is 328 pages, while the Special Edition (which I possess) is 359. The rulebook includes everything you need, rules-wise, to play the game, hack the game, and more within the first 236 pages, with everything else in the book being dedicated to the setting, specifically the city of Doskvol/Duskwall (and in the Special Edition, an additional city called U’Duasha).

U’Duasha is the Eastern version of Doskval’s London-esque design.

The game mechanic is a simple dice pool of d6s and keeping the highest. 6 is a success, 4/5 is a partial success (succeed at cost), and 1-3 is a failure, making this relatively easy to grasp and extraordinarily easy to acquire the materials for. The game is also highly reminiscent of Apocalypse World with playbooks for characters instead of “traditional” character sheets.

The book gives just about everything you need to run the game outside of dice, from the core mechanic (above), explaining the difference between the Score and Downtime, and of course, ideas of jobs, places to rob, and people to kill.

The “map” of a session. Technically you can technically get this done multiple times per session if your group moves fast.

Themes include a dark, gothic, industrial setting, with Doskvol being similar to London, while other locations make nods to other parts of the world (such as U’Duasha being similar to various Middle Eastern cities).

==The Good==

One of the best takeaways I have from Blades in the Dark is the number of individual mechanics that make this game turn that I can easily pull for something else. Progress Clocks are one of them, as they are an easily created visual to show just how close something, whether good or bad, is to happening. Other games have similar things (like Star Trek Adventures with extended tasks/challenges), but the visual idea is great, and how it is explained shows that it can be used for anything. It can be a health tracker, an awareness tracker, progress for a project, or anything else needed at the time.

Other fun mechanics include how “load” is handled (gear carried; you don’t announce what you carry until you need it, but you know your weight limit at the start of the score), flashbacks (you make a roll to represent something you’ve done before the event), and how “success at a cost” is handled.

I also love the detail put into the concept of making this a Long Game. I don’t mean long sessions, but rather how there are multiple “plays” to make and how it influences the world. The mechanics and notes for turf acquisition, incarceration, and how it influences the rest of the setting (how others react to you, primarily) are great elements to borrow for other works. Honestly, I would have loved to have these notes when I used to run an old Vampire: The Masquerade game of mine.

Really, there’s a LOT to learn from and tinker with in this game, and other things to borrow (like the multi-page random NPC/location generator), which is probably one of the greatest appeals for someone like me.

One other takeaway is the focus on “fiction-first” elements. Basically, if it fits into the fiction, it should happen, and the fiction/narration puts the players in a good (or even poor) light, then it should influence the roll and the results in some way.

This note is an important takeaway, honestly, and shapes many elements of this game.

In fact, there’s even a part of the book regarding “Judgement calls,” which states that a player’s actions, including what to roll, are set by the players, while the GM simply determines how dangerous it is. It is very much like Fate Accelerated with regards to choosing an approach from the player side and calling for a roll only when it’s important from the GM side, so if you are familiar with that, then you should be right at home.

The game gives a lot of strength to the players and even requires they do most of the heavy lifting with regards to various NPCs (vice purveyors, allies, gang members, etc), the Scores/Jobs (players decide what they want to do overall; including targets!), and even the dice rolling (as the GM only rolls for NPCs off-screen when needed). It’s a rather intriguing idea that may or may not work with all groups, but there are elements to keep in mind and I am glad to see a game promoting it.

Part of the player’s strength is actually in how they pull things off and the tools given to help them. Game sessions tend to revolve around “Free Play” (talking things out, planning, and choosing a score), an Encounter Roll (determines how well everyone gets into position and how things fall apart), the Score itself (the meat of gameplay), and finally Downtime (to resolve everything after the score, like healing, projects, and more).

After a fight like this, you’ll want downtime.

Finally, the information on the cities presenter here is well thought out and rather well fleshed out. We have maps of both cities (Doskvol only in the basic edition), broken down by borough with notes about the significance of the location and information about inhabitants (and mechanical notes about doing jobs in the area), with vague notes of the “Death Lands,” a world outside of these lightning walls just waiting (and daring) to be explored and plundered…if one is stupid enough to leave, that is.

Forcing players to remain in one city is always a gamble, but the themes and elements of Blades in the Dark pulls it off, in my opinion. I can see many a campaign being here and having plenty to do without going far from the city. (Let’s face it: who ISN’T interested in exploring The Lost District” that falls just outside of town?)

And there’s quite a bit of city to work with, as you can tell.

==The Bad==

Before I get into the individual bits that impact my scoring, I just want to point out that I am mildly annoyed that the printed book has listed as the website for resources, yet said website doesn’t exist. Just feels like something someone should have caught before the book printed (unless there WILL be a site by that name; if so, I retract my statement).

I also want to state that, as always, I am being critical in my review (as always) and that this review is my opinion. Like most game tables, not everything I find bad will match what others find bad, so take it with a grain of salt.

One of the first misses in this book is in the artwork. The art is all black and white, and I don’t mean grey; I mean heavy black ink with lighter tones of black tossed in. The art is fitting due to the dark gothic and grisly nature of the game, but I don’t think the quality is really there in some of the pieces. Some are wonderful, others just feels too…bland.

One of the better pieces that both captures the tone of the game while being an interesting bit of art. The portraits, in comparison, are a bit sloppy.

Another concern that comes up is the amount of buy-in required by the players. The game as a whole, mechanics and all, require a certain degree of buy-in to work properly. Players need to know a bit of the setting to work with things and make the game their own (as well as be able to utilize elements like Flashbacks), and as many players don’t even look at a rulebook, it gets difficult to promote this. Players who don’t understand the setting in question, even if you hack the game, won’t be able to offer proper input for just about anything involving progression, scores, or…well…most of the game, honestly. You can use more GM fiat and make a game set in stone and railroad things a bit (an idea for conventions), but I feel it goes against the nature of this game.

With that amount of buy-in, I would have expected to keep characters longer; not so, here. Once your character runs out of Harm spaces to fill (of which, there’s a total of four freebies), you are dead (or wishing you were); this means each “hit” you take can lead to your death. Keep in mind that, in some circumstances, that harm can be due to a poor roll.

Additionally, if you run out of Stress (of which you have nine; you spend two every time you want a bonus die, one when giving an ally a bonus die, up to three for a Flashback, up to five to resist an attack against you based on a die roll, and any other costs that come up for abilities), you take a Trauma, of which you can only acquire four of before your character “retires,” and are basically taken out of the job (“left for dead” type situations). While this isn’t as bad as Unhallowed Metropolis (a game set in a similar setting but with more zombies and a brutally deadly combat system), it is bad enough that some players may not want to get overly attached to their Scoundrel.

Perhaps, after they retire, they just get lost in their Vice…or they live well. How well you do beforehand and how much you save determines that, but explaining that whole mechanic is not in the purview of this review.

Speaking of stress, I have a bit of a gripe regarding recovery. When players are not on a Score, they get two actions for “Downtime.” This includes things like reducing heat, finding a physicker to heal them, and working on long term projects to name a few. Thing is, the only way to recover Stress is to indulge in your Vice, and it’s a roll to see how much you heal. If you roll higher than your Stress, you “Overindulge” which creates problems for you and your crew. The added kicker: if you don’t partake of your Vice during downtime, you TAKE Stress equal to your Trauma (0-4), which means a character that has two Traumas but SOMEHOW doesn’t have Stress after a Score will be taking 2 Stress unless they decide to Overindulge. It’s a bit of a dick move that is sort of fitting in the setting, but isn’t my style.

As a note of personal preference, I would have loved to know more about the world all of this is taking place in. We get a brief history of Doskvol in one page, various hints about a calamity that turned the seas an inky black with odd constellations visible under the water and a sun that is broken into fragments, are told of leviathans and ghosts and secret orders, and a single sentence stating that this was a fantasy world that was nearly destroyed. Even with that, we don’t know WHY it happened, we don’t know what’s causing the leviathans to move, we don’t know what really rests beyond the city walls…nothing. It’s rather sad, and while it may have been a space concern, I am hoping it is revolved at a later time.

One of my major gripes with the game is, oddly enough, all the moving parts. While these are great on their own, they require the GM to have a large swath of notes on hand. You need to know the triggers for XP advancement, the “map” of the territories from the gang (one of the progression mechanics for said gang is gaining turf), and the tables for results.

And trust me: there’s plenty.

Reading this is more complex than putting everything together, but it’s not THAT far off the mark when dealing with a migraine.

The moving parts of the game requires you to have a chart (or at least memorize) the results for every type of roll: there’s a basic Action roll, a Fortune roll, a Resistance roll, the Vice roll, Incarceration roll, Crafting rolls, and a Gather Information table for that type of roll…and that’s if I remember it all.

This also doesn’t include the notes of Effect levels (damage or ticks on the Progress Clock), and the three difficulties for the Action roll. These go up and down based on the narrative elements; if you are a sniper shooting at a group of targets in an unseen area, you have a Controlled action with Great Effect, but if the group knows you are there and are shooting for cover fire, you are dealing with a Limited Effect. There are a number of elements that factor into each of these points, and you are basically adding up to see who has the edge in the end. I’m not a huge fan of this and find it a bit more convoluted than needed (and in a way, a bit abusive with a jerk for a GM).

Kind of like trying to find the right address in this area without getting stabbed.

And this doesn’t even include the quirky elements of Coin (and what you are paying for anything needed vs the need to bank it), spending XP (for yourself AND your crew), the odd shifts that occur if you change your character type (lose your previous abilities and basically rebuild with the new ones), and other odd moving parts.

In short, the game goes from being a Complex game and skirts too much into the Complicated range. This is a fine line at times, but in short: the more you add and the more variables you are working with, you can turn a game that’s Complex (lots of parts that mesh well together) into Complicated (lots of parts that either don’t work together, are too different from each other, or just overload players/GMs). With the sheer number of elements, charts, and variable dice results, Blades in the Dark drops into the Complicated side of things. I hate to say it, but I do feel as though that parts of Blades in the Dark are greater than the whole; for me, this game is element-swiping worthy.

Let me just put on my mask and I’ll get right to skulking and taking what I need…

==The Verdict==

In the end, I’d have to give Blades in the Dark 3.5 buns (with potentially arguing down to 3 or debating up to 4).

I can honestly say I REALLY wanted to love this game: it’s got a fun setting and attention to detail with the cities, an intriguing premise, lots of fun fiddly bits to tinker with and hack, and just a slew of potential (which is why it’s in the 3.5-4 bun range based on arguments).

Sadly, I can’t say I love this game (which is why I’m arguing down to 3 buns). The initial buy-in from players is a concern for me (frequent convention GM and runner of one-shots), the number of tables and maps you need is more than I’d like to memorize/print out (and dry/erase only goes so far), and there’s just too many fiddly bits that potentially get in my way of telling a story due to having to justify it on a narrow sliding scale. I’m also not entirely sold on the art, which does knock is down a few pegs.

Yes, I know I’m being critical, but I’d rather be critical and offer insight than sing false praises.

All said and done (and critical views aside), Blades in the Dark by John Harper is a good addition to a GM’s repertoire. Even if you don’t run it yourself for whatever reasons, there are plenty of elements to hack into other games and tools to generally make the game better or more interesting. Personally, I don’t think I’ll be running it out of the box unless I get a SOLID group, but like many of other projects from Harper, it has changed my view of GMing a bit and hopefully for the better.

If you are looking for a good crime-themed RPG, or criminal-based tools for your games, you would be doing yourself a disservice by not looking into getting this book.

Blades in the Dark is available to purchase from Evil Hat for $30 (for the book and PDF) or as a PDF from DriveThruRPG for $17 (as of this writing). There are a number of downloads to assist you with running the game from the Evil Hat/Blades in the Dark website (and believe me, they are useful).

Go on, hop to it!

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