Tabletop RPG Review: Blades in the Dark

I’ve been hearing a lot about this game for several years.  Anytime anyone mentions running a heist-style session for a tabletop RPG, the responses are filled with people recommending Blades in the Dark.  I’ve also heard a lot of GMs talk about pieces of the game they’ve lifted for their own games.  I knew at some point, I’d have to actually read it.  And now I have.

Though talked about mostly for its interesting mechanics, especially around running criminal and clandestine operations, Blades in the Dark isn’t just a plug and play set of game rules.  It’s a complete roleplaying game with its own, unique setting.  It takes place in a fantastical Steampunk-esque world that reminds me of the great French film City of Lost Children and the Australian animated film The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello.  Not to mention the more recent NetFlix series Arcane.  The action takes place in a giant, heavily industrial city, surrounded by a supernaturally dark and scary world.  The sun has been extinguished.  People power their tech on ghosts.  It’s pretty wild.

In the game, players take on the role of criminals in a gang.  The gang itself becomes a sort of shared character that can outlive individual player characters.  There are lots of options, not only in what sort of character you play and what sort of jobs you do, but in what type of game you form.  You might be a band of assassins, a weird cult, or more traditionally burglars or smugglers.  Individually, you might play a spy or a bruiser or a magic user or one of various other character types.

Similar to some other recent games, like Tales from the Loop, this game encourages you to cut to the action.  Essentially, you give players a bit of time to discuss what job they want to do and within certain confines, how they might do it.  Then you make a roll and determine how the “score” goes off.  Players then get a chance to use their characters’ wits and skills, and the ability to call for a flashback, to pursue the end goal of the score.  Perhaps you don’t roll super well, and find that a guard is waiting for you in the attic where you’ve slipped in through a skylight.  Call for a flashback where perhaps you can reveal that this guard has been paid off and is only waiting to make sure things are going off without a hitch.  Anyway, there are rules for changing the situation.

Blades in the Dark is an evolution of Powered by the Apocalypse, the system at the root of several popular games, including Dungeon World and Thirsty Sword Lesbians, and even the extremely rules-lite Matrons of Mystery.  I’m not totally sold on the system generally, but I think it has a lot to offer and some of the tweaked versions (particularly Matrons of Mystery) have a lot of appeal.  My general concern, which holds for this game, is that it’s a bit of a Trojan Horse.  It seems like a fairly simple, rules-lite game, but sneaks in a bit too much “crunch.”  Though it’s not as bad as Dungeon World in this (and nowhere near as bad as all the various FATE games I’ve read through), I’m just not comfortable.  I found myself unable throughout much of the book to imagine just how gameplay would actually look at the table, and that in spite of several “example of play” sections.  

One thing that bothered me right out of the gate was the range of success.  Essentially, when you roll your dice (after figuring out how many to roll), you look at what your highest roll on a six sided die is.  If it’s a 6, you’ve succeeded (more than one 6 is a critical success).  If the highest number is 4 or 5, you have a partial success, likely with negative consequences.  If the highest roll is a 1, 2, or 3, there’s a bad outcome.  I may be way off base here, but this sounds like it would be frustrating as a player.  Like, you’d be failing or barely succeeding with complications most of the time.  I’d lean more toward 4 or 5 being a partial success (no major negative effects) and 2 or 3 being success with negative consequences.  Then a 1 as a total failure.  If you’re playing a game like this, which is definitely more narrative-focused, failing all the time is going to suck.  It’s not like Dungeon Crawl Classics where spectacular and arbitrary failure is part of the fun.

Enough about that.  The thing I heard so much about was the “clock” mechanic.  Apparently this isn’t originally from Blades in the Dark, but this game seems to have popularized it.  I like clocks, and plan to implement them in my games in the future, as appropriate.  Flashbacks are also a cool feature.  I don’t know that they’d work in every game, but they’re an interesting tool to have in your back pocket.  Just off the top of my head, I could imagine doing something in Pulp Cthulhu, for example, where if the PC spends 20 luck, they can instigate a flashback, where they could then roll on something (a stat or skill or something) to see if they’re able to do something in the flashback to improve their position in the present. 

The setting is cool and has a lot of potential.  It’s fleshed out enough to give you something to work with, but also vague enough to let you and your group make it your own.  There are various districts given a general tone, a few interesting locations and characters, and some adventure hooks.  There’s also a pretty solid batch of random charts that will help inspire new stuff to add into your game (and will be useful in other urban, Fantasy games).

Blades in the Dark will likely function more as a toolbox for me when running other games in the future.  I didn’t come away from it desperate to try my hand at running it (though I’d certainly be interested in playing it sometime).  In fact, where some RPG books are compulsively readable, I found this book to be something of a slog.  I can’t put my finger on just why.  It’s competently written and I didn’t notice any editing issues.  I simply never found reading it as much fun as many other such books.

Whatever the case, if you’re looking for a game about lowlifes, struggling in the shadows of an industrial, steampunk hellscape, trying to carve out their territory in a world of cutthroats and thieves, well then, this is one to seek out.  

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