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Blades in the Dark is a devastatingly great game. It takes 21st-century mechanics and uses them to make new again one of the oldest tropes in role-playing: the thief. And even though the game is only about a year old, its system and ethos are already inspiring other RPGs. Your nerdmates here at Geek & Sundry believe that Blades in the Dark is a game you have to know about.
Blades creator John Harper wanted a game that catered to the style of play he liked, namely, “sandbox style games, with player-initiated missions.” (A sandbox gives player characters an environment to explore, but doesn’t try to write out plot and scenes before the game begins.) After a fantastic Stars Without Number campaign, Harper was inspired to start putting his ideas for “a city-based sandbox RPG with warring factions and a PC gang caught in the midst of it.”
Trapped in a Haunted City by a Wall of Lightning Powered by Demon Blood
Eight hundred years ago, the sun was crushed. At dawn, its scattered remains can be seen glowing weakly at the horizon. But the world is now one of darkness.
Eight hundred years ago, the dead, instead of shuffling off to some eternal beyond, all became ghosts, lingering in this dusky new world to torment the living.
The solution to both these problems was the blood of the leviathans, the gargantuan, hulking demons that cruise the ocean deeps, but whose blood is the most potent energy source known.
Hunters kill the leviathans and harvest their blood. The blood is used to fuel gigantic lightning towers that keep the ghosts outside of the city, and the blood fuels lights which allow humanity to continue its existence. Society is industrial in the 19th-century sense of the word, but magic, ghosts, demons, and vampires all exist, crammed within the lightning walls of the city of Duskwall.
Blades creator John Harper said the setting was inspired by events in a fantasy campaign he was running several years ago. A wizard destroyed the Gates of Death, unleashing all the dead upon the living. Harper asked his players “if they wanted to continue playing during the spirit apocalypse, or jump ahead 1000 years into the post-apocalyptic world that survived the cataclysm. They said they wanted to jump ahead.”
The notes he wrote for that campaign were the seeds that would grow Blades in the Dark.
Harper said of the setting:
“The primary factor is pressure. The design of the setting forces the PCs into a pressure-cooker situation. The lightning barriers around Doskvol mean they can’t merely “leave town” if the heat gets too high. Killing isn’t the easy solution to problems that it is in other games (because of ghosts). Every valuable claim is already held by other factions, so making moves means making enemies, which is good for drama. The specific qualities of the setting are there to drive exciting play.”
The Game in Full: Theft, Murder, Vice, and Scum
In Blades, you play thieves, assassins, street toughs, grifters, homicides, and cutpurses. No matter how good you are at the skulduggery of your chosen school of crime, you are broken, a person ridden with vice and traumas. Perhaps you are a secret gambler in debt up to your hairline to a gang called the Crows. Perhaps the streets have treated you roughly, so roughly that the only time you ever feel anything anymore is if you are treating others as roughly as the streets treated you.
There have been games wherein players portrayed thieves before. The Rogue/Theif/Assassin branch of character classes in Dungeons & Dragons and its associated games comes immediately to mind. But the difference between Blades and the D&D thief is that in D&D, being a thief is all about what you can do. (Pickpockets, notice and defuse traps, sneak around, etc.) But in Blades, being a thief is about who you are.
The rules are designed to reflect this. Yes, you get cool and awesome special abilities allowing you to sneak around, slit throats, and even speak with the dead (Even the person you just snuck up and cut the throat of!) but the true engine of play revolves around role-playing out the broken personalities that would choose to make a living this way, and in Blades, those mechanics are Stress, Vice, Trauma, and Experience. You gain Stress (which is bad) performing daring maneuvers while thieving. You blow it off indulging in your Vices (which is good). But eventually, you’ll get too much Stress and acquire a Trauma (which sounds bad, but you get experience for role-playing it, which is good).
Trauma represents permanent psychological damage done to your character that takes them out of action for the moment, and when they return, they are different. Their personality has a new quirk. Example Traumas include Reckless, Paranoid, Cold, and Vicious which sounds terrible, until you look at your character sheet and realize that you get experience points for role-playing your Trauma in every session.
This is the engine of play that makes Blades an addicting, captivating, and deeply engaging game for players. Players are encouraged to take risks and get criminally crazy with their character while committing serious felonies, and spending Stress to have a better chance of succeeding in, say, straight-up lying in the face of a vampire. That Stress has to be blown off by engaging in your Vice. That said, it’s almost inevitable that characters are doing to get nine stress and a Trauma, but Traumas, instead of putting your character at a disadvantage and making them less fun to play, actually represent a chance to get more experience by properly role-playing a crook who might be the best cutpurse in Duskwall, but is thoroughly broken inside.
Why It’s Good for the GM
Blades in the Dark tackles a number of things that make running game, especially running a heist game, difficult for the GM and simplifies them.
First, Blades is about the GM asking questions. Yes, she should know what factions might be involved in a score, and what the target of the heist is, but beyond that, just ask questions at the table of the players. “What security features does your character see?” “Who might have been here before you?” “What weapons are the police carrying?” The GM then builds on the ideas of the players, and game happens. The GM doesn’t need to write an entire warren of sewer tunnels and stat out every NPC guarding them because by distributing the responsibility for the narrative to everyone at the table, it becomes unnecessary.
Secondly, heist games often bog down in planning. Planning the heist is not as fun as the heist, so Blades cuts it out. Instead of planning, during a robbery, players can flashback (for a cost in Stress) to what their character did before the heist actually started to get around whatever problem they are facing. In doing so, Blades makes sure that every minute spent at the gaming table is spent engaging in maximum fun.
Thirdly, Blades strikes an excellent balance between providing a level of setting detail which inspires exciting play, but stopping before the setting becomes a burden. For example, there are over 30 factions within Duskwall’s lightning walls, such as the Leviathan Hunters and the Gray Cloaks. Most of these factions get a mere one sentence of description. Twenty-six get a half-page describing their turf, allies, and a current plot, such as “Terrorize magistrates to pardon members in prison.” The information provided in these descriptions is fun, fascinating, and short enough to be used easily by the GM at the table without making her think she needs to read infinite setting material to run the game.
Harper’s intention with this material was to make the game easier to play. He said:
“Since I provide factions with NPCs, motivations, assets, and goals, the GM can focus on running the game at the table rather than doing a lot of world-building to get things off the ground. I leave the elements somewhat sketchy, though, so each GM can interpret the material how they prefer, giving it their own unique spin.”
GM Ryan Smith, who’s been running Blades for the past six months, said, “What I love about running Blades in the Dark is having the freedom to jump right into the fun action bits of a daring heist, devil-may-care, and dealing with the fallout organically, right in that moment. I don’t have to plan anything ahead of time but the initial nudge towards the job, and I can let the players take it from there.”
Forged in the Dark
Blades in the Dark was picked up by Evil Hat Productions. According to President Fred Hicks, Harper was “an amazing designer” whose prior efforts, such as the heroic Greek RPG, Agon impressed Hicks. The publishing of Blades by Evil Hat allowed Harper to, “focus on the parts of designing the game (from system on through to layout, that’s all him) and leave the business, manufacture, and distribution particulars to us. We’re a year in now since the release and it’s been an undeniable win for everyone involved.”
Harper also made a Blades SRD (Systems Reference Document) covered by the Creative Commons (CC-BY) license. What that means is you can use the Blades system to make your own RPG (for free!) you just need to let everyone know you’re using the Blades system, which is called “Forged in the Dark.”
Already, a number of games have stepped up and started using the Forged in the Dark system to make new games.
The Blades Influence
The game has already inspired a number of supplements and RPGs, many of which have been produced outside of Evil Hat thanks to the Creative Commons license of the game.
For example, Andrew Shields has created a Duskwall Heist Deck to inspire GMs with fresh ideas at the table.
Ryan Dunleavy is running a Patreon page wherein he creates maps of buildings in Duskwall.
And Evil Hat’s Sean Nittner hacked the game to create Vigilantes, a version of Blades wherein you play people who stand up to fight for right in a city that’s rotten to the core. (For example, Duskwall is Gotham and you are the Dark Knight!) Nittner said characters in Vigilantes “are perpetually putting their own safety, and the safety of the people they care about in peril in order to affect some kind of change within [Duskwall’s] institutions. Whether they succeed or fail, what I care about seeing is what they go through in the process.”
At least two completely new RPGs using the Forged in the Dark system are already on their way. Hack the Planet is a cyberpunk RPG set in Shelter 1, a haven for the rich in a future of extreme weather events. Creator Fraser Simons chose to use the Forged in the Dark system to make the game because “at a system level it already does cyberpunk stories fairly well.” Blades is about, “Becoming and doing horrible things in order to become successful in this society. This message is similar to cyberpunk, where a sub-culture resists the system and similarly have to be careful that they do not become as monstrous as the thing they resist. The classic ‘to know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy’.”
Scum and Villainy is an upcoming sci-fi game using Forged in the Dark, wherein players become “the crew of a spaceship trying to keep flying and make ends meet while bending the iron-fisted rule of the Galactic Hegemony. There are heists, chases, escapes, unwise deals, blaster fights, deceptions, betrayals, victories and high adventure among the stars.” (“Oota goota Solo?”)
These games, supplements, and products are the echoes from the gunshot that is Blades in the Dark. For a game published just last year, Blades has had a stunning amount of influence on the RPG hobby as a whole. To see one game spawn so many others in such a short period of time, one might have to go back to the bell-bottomed days of 1974 to look at the way the very first edition of Dungeons & Dragons birthed games like Tunnels & Trolls or Empire of the Petal Throne. And given that influence, Blades may be more than just a great game. It may be a glimpse into the future of our hobby.
You can pick up Blades in the Dark directly from Evil Hat or from any reputable game retailer.
Tell us the story of your thief on Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments below!
Would you like to know more?
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Feature image courtesy: Evil Hat Productions
Other images courtesy Evil Hat Productions & Samjoko Publishing
Ben Riggs speaks five languages and has lived in four countries on three continents, but still manages to lose his keys in the bathroom. A friend to man, animal, and werewolf alike, you can discover more of Ben’s thoughts on game, the universe, and everything on Twitter, or on the Plot Points podcast.