Unified Theory of Blades in the Dark

I’ve complained at length about the Blades in the Dark rules almost making sense in its review. To summarize, subtly different logic governs the two core mechanics of the game, action and fortune rolls, with plentiful exceptions to how they work in specific cases, making it impossible to comprehend the rules instead of memorizing them. I’ve also threatened to rewrite the rules to fix these issues as I see them. Well, here are the reworked, unified rules in all their deranged glory.

Plenty of nuance has been discarded by design, some things have been made explicit that previously hid under the cover, and pretty significant changes have been made here and there. If these rules seem unwieldy, that’s because they attempt to encompass most of the edge cases the original rules present. That said, it is my hope you’ll read these rules and won’t even notice half the places where they differ from the original – that was the point. As with other system hacks I wrote, the text assumes the reader knows the original system, and only describes the changes.

Finally, I should say this is in no way an attempt to make the original rules better, I mean no disrespect towards their designer, and if they work for you – fantastic. Rather, it is an attempt to make the rules better for me, and, hopefully, for some of you.

Overview

It all comes down to tiers. Effect levels and dice, potency and quality, roll results and progress clocks, it’s all tiers in the end. Embrace this fact and everything else will follow.

The main thing that matters when attempting to do anything is the difference in tiers between your effort and the difficulty. There’s some bargaining that happens before the roll, more so in this version of the rules, and the roll itself can nudge the result one way or another. If the roll is successful and effort matches difficulty, you get standard effect level, i.e. do the thing you set out to do. If your effort was of a lower tier, you get limited effect level, and it may be time to draw a progress clock.

Action roll

Whenever you’re about to do something, determine the difficulty. Whether it is a person or an object you’re trying to overcome, they have a tier. To establish it, use Magnitude as your guide; when running a score, the target’s tier defines most of opposition you’ll face. Increase it for every factor that works against the characters, like scale and quantity of opposition. If a factor dominates the situation, like an overwhelming number of enemies making it impossible to defeat them all, find a more fitting goal, e.g. executing a fighting retreat and determine the difficulty accordingly.

DIFFICULTY = opposition’s tier + circumstance (scale + quantity + …)

Next determine your capability. Start by adding your crew’s tier to the action rating you’ve settled on. Any abilities that give you an extra die or increase effect levels increase capability instead. Likewise, increase it for every factor that works in characters’ favor such as potency and quality. 

CAPABILITY = crew’s tier + action rating + abilities + circumstance (potency + quality + …)

If that number seems low, you have several options for bargaining. Add an extra 1 for teamwork (ally takes 1 stress), and another extra 1 if you push yourself (take 2 stress) OR accept a devil’s bargain. If it makes sense narratively, spend coin on a 1-to-1 basis. You can further modify the capability, also on a 1-to-1 basis, by improving or worsening your position, established as usual by the GM.

BARGAINING = teamwork + push OR devil’s bargain + coin spent +/- position

Finally, pick the effort tier you’re going for. Generally, you’ll want it to match the difficulty. Setting the effort one tier higher or lower than the difficulty gets you greater or lesser effect, respectively, and setting it two or three tiers lower than the difficulty only makes sense when dealing with progress clocks. Subtract the effort from your capability, and the result will tell you how many dice you get to roll.

DICE POOL =  capability + bargaining – effort

If the roll is successful, the result tier is equal to the effort tier, potentially modified by the consequences of the roll, i.e. a critical success resulting in greater effect (+1 result tier) or a mixed success resulting in lesser effect (-1 result tier).

This sure is a lot of addition, but in most circumstances only a few of these factors will actually apply. The default situation of risky position against equal-tier opposition means you get to roll your action rating, as usual.

Bob is attempting to break into the office above the butcher’s shop belonging to Billhooks while the rest of the crew distract them. Billhooks are a tier 2 organization, so that’s what the difficulty is going to be. Bob’s crew are only tier 0, his finesse is 3, so that’s 3 so far. He’s got fine lockpicks, which gets him a total capability of 4, not bad.

He would much rather not get caught hanging upside down outside the window, so he takes the devil’s bargain to further improve his chances – he feels something slip out of his pocket just as he’s about to open the lock, and lets it fall to the ground below rather than let go of the lockpick to catch it. Bob reduces his available loadout by one, but gains 1 capability from bargaining, 5 total. Too bad his allies just flubbed their part of the plan, putting him in a desperate position – there are billhooks on the streets, all it’ll take is for one of them to look up. Sacrificing precision for speed, he elects to go back to a risky position for the roll at the cost of 1 bonus capability he just got.

With a total of 4 capability, Bob sets his effort tier at 2, equal to the difficulty, to make sure he actually opens the damn lock. This leaves him with 2 dice. Not great, but it’ll have to do.

Progress clocks

If everything comes back to tiers, then progress clocks are how tiers are compared. Under the hood, each roll fills a progress clock. Unlike in the original rules where the GM sets the number of segments of a clock, in this variant the rate at which the clock is filled is determined by the relation between result and difficulty tiers.

When making a clock, write its tier (that is, the tier of the opposition or difficulty it summarizes) above it. A result of that tier will fill it entirely. Result one tier lower fills half of it. Two tiers lower – one quarter. Three tiers, you guessed it, 1/8th. Generally speaking, results four or more tiers lower don’t have an impact on the task.

Even if you don’t end up drawing a clock, this gives you an estimate on how far the action progresses after a PC achieves lesser effect.

Fortune roll

Fortune rolls are a zoomed-out version of the action roll, covering more time and less certain factors. They work much the same, except most of bargaining doesn’t apply as there is no position to consider, no teamwork, pushing oneself or accepting devil’s bargain. All PCs can do to influence the outcome once everything’s been calculated is spend coin, but at least they can do so after the roll to “bump up” the result.

The usual caveats of fortune rolls apply. As they are often made by NPCs or entities who don’t have action ratings, any other trait fits. Likewise, circumstances such as having a friendly NPC that can help or a paranoid mark who has seen your faces can adjust the difficulty or capability – a more general version of quality or potency. 

It may be tricky to decide on what the difficulty of a fortune roll should be, as there may not be a direct opposition, so here are a couple of examples: when trying to craft a new device, the difficulty is the device’s tier; when gathering information in preparation for a heist, the difficulty is the target’s tier; when trying to acquire an asset, the difficulty is zero – the result wholly determines the asset you get.

The way progress clocks are filled using fortune rolls, e.g. when working on long-term projects, is significantly different from the original rules in an effort to make everything follow the same logic, so it’s described in somewhat redundant detail below.

Figure out the clock’s tier and the effort you’re going for, as you would normally. Then interpret the roll results: a 6 means the result tier equals the effort; 4-5 means your result is one tier lower (effectively, that’s the complication the GM chose); while 1-3 means no progress has been made at all (or the result is two tiers lower than the effort, if the GM is merciful). Whatever the outcome, compare the result to the clock’s tier, and fill it as described previously.

Further work

While this high-concept rework modifies the core mechanics, I’m sure there are individual abilities and bits of rules that would require interpretation in order to fit. Likewise, actually playing with these rules will without a doubt reveal issues, so if you’re giving this variant a shot, please let me know. And then there are fancier things that could be done, like reworking harm and healing to also fit into this model.

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