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John Harper’s Blades in the Dark

Reading Time: 9 minutes
Let’s get into the right mood. Art by Jonny Gray

If you ever wanted to do a heist in an RPG, Blades in the Dark is the way to go. This is the Lessons from Last Summer series, in which I go about how the RPGs I played last year (when I had more than enough free time, failing as a graduate student) affected my GMing any game, and especially D&D 5e (which I GM the most).

Blades in the Dark, from Evil Hat Productions, is one of my favorites. It has a wonderful world built for you, it offers very interesting mechanics (taking into account both the character’s ability and the position into which the characters put themselves while conducting their business), and you get to play a band of criminals and generally darker character profiles than in your generic fantasy RPG. Most of all, Blades in the Dark gives you some cool DM tips and tricks that are easily applicable elsewhere. Let’s go into that and see what we have.

A Rich Setting

Enter Doskvol: an industrial port city on the shores of the Akoros Empire. A cataclysm took the world 850 years ago: the Sun went out, the ocean turned ink-black and overrun by demons, attacking the shores all the time. The spirits of deceased people stopped passing into the afterlife (personal head-cannon? An aether blister, just like in Ravnica, but a bit larger), creating problems all around. Since then, humans moved on and fixed the world as best they could: they found that ghosts passing through the material plane can generate a field called electroplasm that could be used to power machinery. This is quite a cool way to advance the technology using arcane methods! The blood of leviathans and demons, living in the ink-black waters off the shore, are a great source for electroplasm as well. Barriers have been raised around the city of Doskvol, and basically every attack from the outside adds to the powergrid of the city. Praised be the Immortal Emperor, the keeper of arcane knowledge, about whom no one knows much! Being free to fill in someone like that is just exhilarating.

The official map of Doskvol.

Many fine features of the setting itself lend itself to the fiction-first view the game wants to have. It is complete and easily understood, interesting in all aspects, and doesn’t require a lot of improvisation. It does require a lot of reading and thinking ahead of time: you have to know Doskvol well to run this. This was my first time meeting a game that made this requirement in such a strong way, and I felt as if I’ve been lazy preparing any other game before this. Just reaching out for Blades in the Dark made me realize that I can give more as a DM!

Protip: this amazing Hitman Interactive Maps website is very useful when running Blades in the Dark, as it has more than enough carefully done prep that needs to be fine-tuned only slightly to be useful in Doskvol.

A Ticking World

Blades in the Dark, however, isn’t a game about Doskvol. Doskvol is important as a backdrop for the player’s activities, as Blades in the Dark is all about heists. Heck, the game could have been called Geists & Heists, for what it’s worth. You have to have a clear picture of what the city is like and how it ticks, to be able to go full-in on stealing from it, and knowing what the consequences of stealing are. Where you go, how you get there, what to do once there, who would be waiting for you, and how you react: the GM has to have a grasp on all of these things. This seemed overwhelming to me when we were playing (I wasn’t GMing it back then), but it made me more ready heading forward, as I saw how much fuller it made my experience. Building and showing a connected world is what Blades in the Dark excels at. There are moving parts all around, defined in the game by factions, projects and progress clocks. Progress clocks are an idea found in many Powered by the Apocalypse games: basically, a counter with a trigger attached that makes something happen. Clocks can be affected by the player’s actions directly or indirectly, but they give you (as a DM) a picture of what moving parts are where, and which projects (think: Death Star) are now complete and ready to disrupt the flow of the story the players know about. Furthermore, you can have a gradient of escalation built on top of clocks, presenting deteriorating conditions, growing threats or just moving plot points. Clocks were an instant addition to every game I’ve GM’d since: they’re easy to manage, and make managing other systems easier!

Clocks aren’t only a tool for the GM, however: players use clocks for their own projects and ideas. In fact, for example, healing in Blades in the Dark is presented as a clock: it takes time and is hard. Speaking as a player, progress clocks made me appreciate my character as a person who constantly has goals and projects, desires and fears that depend on time and other people. With other RPGs, I could have the freedom to forget this when convenient. Convenience in this regard lead me to poorer judgement from the character’s perspective, so I now have a concept to lean onto when thinking about my character’s development. Speaking of…

Beautiful Characters and Sheets

Blades in the Dark’s playbooks are a joy. First off, the dynamic and the static parts are clearly separated by shading: most of the things that are your character are on the left, and they’re tabula rasa. The part on the right is static, it’s your job, your abilities, and future progression.

Well-organized, but tightly packed bliss.

Let’s do this part by part, just so that I can highlight the things I adore. Let’s start with attributes and actions (top right):

Actions and Attributes are the basis of how characters test their skill in Blades in the Dark. Actions are what the character can do, and how well they can do it. You put points into actions (Hunt has 3 above) by accumulating experience (more on that later!). The ingenious thing is that attributes, the wide categories that pack several actions inside them (in this case, Insight packs Hunt, Study, Survey and Tinker), grow whenever you add the first point of an action: the attribute value is read vertically as the first column of all corresponding actions. Attributes are like saving throws, and define how well your character can resist harm.

What do the points mean? It’s how many d6’s you roll when doing a check: for hunting, for example, you would roll 3d6 and then check the highest value. There’s a system in place for what happens if it’s a 6 (full success), 4-5 (partial success) or lower. At long last, I found something that I liked more than 5th edition D&D saving throws compared to earlier attempts to do the same: I really liked the idea of will, fortitude and reflex saves, but I found the calculations in both 3rd and 5th edition lacking. This system and its presentation in Blades in the Dark are the closest to perfection in this regard I’ve ever found. In 5e wording:

Saving Throw: To make a saving throw of a certain attribute, roll a d20 and add the number of skills you're proficient in that are based on that attribute. 

You can see now how good visualization can help: just imagine this method used with a regular 5e character sheet, where the skills aren’t sorted by attribute.

Another aspect that I really loved about this game, found in other Powered by the Apocalypse games as well, is how gaining experience works: your character playbooks define specific things that give you experience, and if you do them — you progress!

Successful desperate rolls bring you closer to a richer character! Also, this is the Cutter’s playbook: defined by violence and coercion, so that plays a role too! Most important, though, are the depths of the character’s beliefs, drives, heritage, struggles and background.

This very tight setup gives roleplay a front-row seat, as experience is never guaranteed just for doing stuff anyone can do. You have to do it your way. The difference between doing so or not is huge: getting 1-2 xp in a session vs going for a theoretical maximum of 9 xp is huge, and the only difference is roleplaying! I understood, after seeing this, how I was taking experience for granted, as a bonus that I’d award/be awarded with just for engaging with the game. I perceived it as a meta thing, almost, that I (the player) was given, versus what Blades in the Dark does, making sure that it’s I (the character) that does the heavylifting.

As can be seen above, you can add experience to your playbook or an attribute, meaning that your leveling is free-form: if you put experience into an attribute, once you fill it, you can assign one more point to that attribute’s actions; if you choose the playbook, you can get a special action. These are listed on your playbook define a character’s possible progressions. For example, you can assign a point to this action:

Pushing yourself: gain stress to do an action better. Accumulating stress leads to trauma, which is defined as changes in the way the character reacts to stimuli (e.g. “Reckless: You have little regard for your own safety or best interests”). Characters with enough trauma leave play to recover.

By now, you have an inkling of an idea of how characters progress in this game: they do so slowly, and with care. As character progression requires roleplay, there are many more chances for learning about one’s past and present, wishes and aspirations, all while basically living a post-apocalyptic, grimdark Ocean’s Eleven.

The crew goes on heists, has downtime, hangs out, upgrades their lair, does projects, and slowly becomes more of a family than a party, building memory upon memory together. The characters built this way are less just themselves and more the product of their most desperate moments, where they survived only because they had each other. Some have gained an edge, some have gone soft, but they get the job done and advance. Blades in the Dark is a game about professionals; the ups and downs of their business.

We’ve Got it Covered

Using a mechanic that I’d die to have invented, characters in Blades in the Dark can show off their ingeniousness in the face of danger and surprise: they can have flashback moments in which they prepare for whatever situation caught up with them just now. Instead of having this prep work happen in advance, extending the tedium of waiting for players to act, we can go in media res and be prepared when we need to be. This mechanic has its limitations in stress or reputation, building wonderfully on top of the already established advancement system. Another limitation is any established fact:

A flashback isn’t time travel. It can’t “undo” something that just occurred in the present moment. For instance, if an Inspector confronts you about recent thefts of occult artifacts when you’re at the Lady’s party, you can’t call for a flashback to assassinate the Inspector the night before. She’s here now, questioning you—that’s established in the fiction. You can call for a flashback to show that you intentionally tipped off the inspector so she would confront you at the party—so you could use that opportunity to impress the Lady with your aplomb and daring.

— Blades in the Dark SRD, Planning and Engagement

It can’t be understated how important it is to have the whole action economy set up the way it has been up until now for this to work: it’s not enough just to have a stress meter that foils your plans when it runs out; we’re not playing a heist board game that one can lose or win (although heists can very well be lost), the stress affects our future engagements, and creates roleplay possibilities all throughout. Flashbacks trade cool moments and plot advancements for future character development. This is a meta-system that D&D leaves open-ended and almost completely in the realm of conversation between the players and the GM, as the party will gain experience and level up either way. Even without this, though, the feeling can survive the gap: when GMing D&D, I’ll allow flashbacks of this kind when dire situations arise and the character makes a saving throw of whatever attribute they can likely use to do it (e.g. wisdom if they remembered doing something, etc.), but never codify it via mechanics. It still leaves much to the imagination, but it always creates a great scene and hype around the table.

“CHIAROSCURO CORVO” by AJ Hateley

I hope it’s obvious how much I love Blades in the Dark. It’s a game I’d love to play until I discover all its secrets, and invent new ones to discover. This might have been the game that influenced me the most when thinking about RPG design, as it has concepts that I want distilled everywhere. It’s a beautiful book and a great game, so give it a chance when you get some time to do a quick heist or two, and stay for the crew.

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