Review: Blades in the Dark

Powered by the Apocalypse, written by John Harper of One Seven Design, and produced by Evil Hat Productions (the people who brought us FATE and its variants), Blades in the Dark is a grim, semi-historical, fantasy RPG. The sentence that caught my eye while reading the setting blurb was: ‘You are in a haunted Victorian-era city trapped inside a wall of lightning powered by demon blood.’ This sentence gave me an idea of not only the setting, but just how bad things could be in this setting.

Technical details

Being produced by Evil Hat, it’s in the standard 6 x 9 inch format they use, which means it’s short enough to fit on that shelf at the top of your bookcase. You know the one, it’s too short for regular books so ends up being an extra space. (In this case, it means that my dice boxes actually have company from books). The pages are single column and are neatly organized. The book itself is neatly written and one of my favorite things in it is the ‘For more, see Name, page (Number) inline text cross references. For example, there is a paragraph that talks about how players need to work with Game Masters. Then at the bottom, “For More, see Players Best Practices, page 182,”. I find this to be a really nice touch, and extremely helpful for those new to the book and the system.

Content

The first thing you will notice in Blades in the Dark is that you’re not a hero. You’re a criminal. You might do some heroic actions, but in the end, you’re a criminal. Your character is called a ‘scoundrel’. There are seven types of scoundrels in the core rulebook. They are not unique, but are meant to simply give you a starting point. After character creation, you and the other players at the table make a crew. This crew is your criminal enterprise, what you do to make a living in this setting.

The second thing you’ll notice, is the sessions of Blades in the Dark are meant to be episodic, like a TV show. One or two main events, a couple of side-story elements, and then a climax that finishes out that score, or job, followed by downtime. Pacing will define the bulk of the session and you can play anywhere from two to six hours. 

Blades in the Dark also offers a Player’s Kit and an System Reference Document (SRD) on their website. However, like many of the games we at Angel’s Citadel espouse, it’s more than just rules and numbers, it’s the idea of the game that’s important. Blades in the Dark encourages that the players and the GM focus on the setting, the danger, the pressure cooker of being criminals that can’t just ‘skip town’ when the heat is one because outside the walls is more dangerous than inside. You can even find a number of actual play videos to give you an idea of what the game might feel like on their website here

Gameplay is closer to the design of Shadowrun over something like Cypher System or any of the other d20 games. In the game you have Action Ratings, with 12 different actions for the player characters to overcome obstacles with. They are listed under Actions & Attributes of the SRD. Each action has a rating from 0 to 4 that tell you how many dice you roll, in this case it’s all d6 dice. The number you roll on the dice is what determines the success or failure, or in some cases a success with a twist. If your highest dice is a 6, you succeed (if you roll more than one, it’s a critical success). If your highest roll is a 4 or a 5, you succeed with consequences in a partial success. If the highest die is a 1 – 3, it’s a bad outcome. So even with one dice, 50% of the time, you do what you were trying to do.

Outside of dice rolling based on action rating, there is a mechanic called stress, which is a special reserve you can use for greater performance (used as a resource pool much like the Cypher System’s ability pools). The PC marks their stress box, similar to the mechanics of FATE. After their last stress box is filled, they take a trauma from the Trauma Conditions list. Once you’ve taken four trauma, the character is out of the game and must either retire, or go to prison to take the fall for the crew’s wanted level. Or how much they’re being hunted by the police for their criminal activities.

There is also another facet to gameplay that is added, the Faction Game. This mechanic has less to do with your characters singly and more to do with characters as a whole. The Faction Game has to do with your Crew and their standing with other groups in the city. This is similar to the gangs of today, or for those of you familiar with Shadowrun, the gangs of Seattle.

Blades in the Dark, like all RPGs, is meant to be a collaborative enterprise. At first glance it might seem adversarial because of the content of this particular game, but it’s really about telling a good story. The GM sets the scene and the players step into the game to join the story with their own twists and turns. As the book itself says:

No one is in charge of the story. The story is what happens as a result of the situation presented by the GM, the actions the characters take, the outcomes of the mechanics, and the consequences that result. The story emerges from the unpredictable collision of all of these elements. You play to find out what the story will be.

Blades in the Dark, page 6, emphasis in book

Summary

Now, for what tempted me to Blades in the Dark. First there was Navi and Shawn Drake from Twitter with their discussion and the Court of Blades. A very political intrigue oriented game based on Blades in the Dark. The second thing that tempted me is that anyone who knows me knows that I am a massive Shadowrun Fan, or, well, I was. Now I like a little less mechanics and a little more story and Blades in the Dark gives me that. Enough mechanics to let me roll my shiny math rocks, but enough story to keep me entertained.

To summarize, this game joined my limited non-Cypher new purchases (admittedly more lately, but still in a minority on our shelves if you exclude Dungeons & Dragons and Shadowrun) and I have been extremely pleased with it. My husband and I have plans to play it but will likely be using Alone in the Dark (a solo Oracle ruleset by Parts Per Million) since it’s typically just the two of us. Unless of course we can convince Navi and Shawn to carve time out of their busy schedule to play with us. We know that being a game designer is hard work, however, and they’re doing a great job. You should really check them out. I will be purchasing a copy and doing a review of it as soon as they release it. I’m very excited. Happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

Now on DriveThruRPG, from Angel’s Citadel… A brand new, original setting for the Cypher System! The Hope’s Horizon Starter Kit requires the Revised Cypher System Rulebook from Monte Cook Games.

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