Blades in the Dark – haunted by greatness

Blades in the Dark is the New Hot Roleplaying Thing. Written by John Harper and published by Evil Hat, it is a game about a crew of scoundrels in a haunted industrial city. While not directly Powered by the Apocalypse, it is a descendant of Apocalypse World. And just like its predecessor, it has spawned a plethora of adaptations to various settings, though only Scum & Villainy, a spacefaring game, is currently out. What sets it apart?

Much like its honored ancestor, BitD is a game focused on delivering a specific experience. The player characters are engaged in a criminal enterprise, with the ultimate goal to get rich and get out before the going gets too rough. And to get rich, they have to build an underworld empire. As far as hooks go, that’s a good one. It’s surprising how few games try to have players develop something other than their characters. But before we get to empire building, lets look at how the game itself is played. Get comfortable, this will be in-depth.

While the core mechanic offers the by now familiar gradation of success/success at a cost/failure, it uses a dice pool determined by the relevant action rating. The action ratings range from 0 (roll two dice, pick lowest) to 4, and there are 12 of them in total, split among 3 categories or attributes: Insight, Prowess, and Resolve. The definitions of what action ratings cover are somewhat vague on purpose, to allow players to try and argue their case for using a higher rating because of the way they approach the task. This works a bit too well – we end up arguing about which rating is appropriate more than I would have liked.

After you settle on a rating to use, you can get help from another PC as they take 1 stress for one bonus die, and push yourself and take 2 stress or accept a devil’s bargain – some complication that arises as a result of your actions for another bonus die. In many games, teamwork is an afterthought, offering a trivial bonus. In BitD, it often doubles the die pool and is cheaper in terms of stress than toughing it yourself. Even selfish characters (and they are all anti-heroes at best) jump at the chance to help out, as they know they’ll need help in turn. With a simple rule the game beautifully reinforces the group dynamic: it’s all of you together against the world.

Of all the dice you roll, only the highest matters with 6 being a success, 4-5 success at a cost and 1-3 a failure (well, unless you got two 6s, a critical success). Here’s where it gets unusual, however: the GM sets the position the character’s in and the effect the action is going to have. Position can be controlled, risky or desperate, with risky being the default. It affects just how badly things will go when the dice inevitably betray the characters. Worsening position is a common outcome of a bad roll. Whereas effect, which can be great, standard, or limited (technically also zero or extreme, but at that point common sense usually takes over), is the sum of potency – just how well suited your method is to the task at hand, scale – how large an area you’re trying to cover or how many opponents you’re trying to overcome, and quality – the difference in tiers between you and the target. More on that last one later. After everything is factored in, characters can push themselves and take 2 stress to increase the effect by one level or trade position for effect in either direction, meaning there’s always something they can do, even against insurmountable odds, so long as they have stress to burn or risks to take.

Quite a lot of dials, and a significant departure from the way PbtA games usually handle difficulty. In them, there are no situational modifiers to rolls, with difficulty typically reflected in the potential outcomes or narrative requirements to even be able to make the roll. See for instance these questions. That is, in PbtA games it’s largely left up to the GM to figure out how to frame the situation and reflect the difficulty through narrative means. BitD, however, offers a robust system that answer questions like “how do we handle trying to pick an expensive lock with custom-made tools while the room burns around us?”

Well, almost. In practice, I’ve struggled with what a “limited effect success” means a lot. Even the example offered by the book comes down to “you have to roll twice”, which isn’t very satisfying.

In addition to action rolls, there are fortune rolls which are meant to cover situations where PCs aren’t directly involved, or the outcome is uncertain and no other roll applies. It is a “zoomed out”, more abstract mechanic, as it doesn’t have positions or initial effect levels. Instead, the die pool is made up of whatever number seems appropriate, most often tier of the faction or phenomena acting, or action rating of a PC. At this level of abstraction, major advantages and disadvantages that would have contributed to setting position and effect level were it an action roll simply add or subtract dice. The end result is still determined by the highest die, and still broken up into similar ranges.

Did you catch the bit where a PC’s action rating is sometimes used for a mechanic which is explicitly meant to be about uncertain outcomes not directly linked to any action ratings? It’s a bit odd. In practice, fortune rolls are used by the PCs a whole lot, as they cover gathering information among other things, a major activity in a heist-ish game.

Progress clocks are another part of the core mechanics. They offer a simple way of tracking progress of long-term projects, complex obstacles or things like alarm level. The GM determines how many segments such a clock should have, and fills them in accordance with the rolls. Once the clock is filled, the project is completed or the event occurs. While not fundamentally different from, say, required number of successes in in D&D 4e skill challenges, progress clocks are much more visual. I’ve previously seen progress clocks in Apocalypse World 2e, and have no idea if they were present in the first edition or other games. In BitD, they are much more integrated into the rules, with many downtime activities relying on them. When trying to fill a clock, the effect level of a check determines the number of segments filled, 1 for limited, 2 for standard and 3 for great effect.

And finally, tiers. Everything and everyone has a tier in BitD, even if the fact isn’t particularly advertised. Factions have tiers and everything they own derives its tier from them. These range from 6 for Imperial Military to 0 for where PCs start – armed to the teeth with ambition and not much else. Tiers are mostly used when setting the effect level of an action or when making up a die pool for a fortune roll of a faction, including thugs PCs may hire.

I went into so much detail explaining the rules for a reason. While reading them, a neat picture starts to form. Tiers and effect levels, dice and clocks, it’s all about to come together, it’ll all click and make total sense once you comprehend the mechanics in their entirety and you’ll never need to look up rules again. Except it doesn’t. Action and fortune rolls are related and share terminology, yet they’re not quite equivalent. Further, the many fortune and fortune-like rolls scattered throughout the rulebook each have their own caveats.

Stress can buy you an extra die or greater effect. Your band’s tier helps determine the effect level, unless it determines how many dice you roll. Fictional situation determines the position, which can be traded for effect, unless it gives (or takes away) extra dice. Are dice equivalent to effect levels? Sort-of-not-quite-maybe. In action rolls, a 6 is a success at the negotiated effect level, by default standard i.e. equal to your tier; 4-5 can result in limited effect, while a critical success offers greater effect. In fortune rolls, 4-5 is the effect equal to your tier, 1-3 is tier-1, 6 is tier+1 and a critical success is tier+2 – everything’s shifted upwards. During downtime actions you can spend Coins after the roll to bump up the result to the maximum of “critical success” or tier+2. When you acquire assets, you can keep going, but have to pay 2 Coins per further tier. When you craft something, on the other hand, you only pay 1 Coin per increase in tier.

Confused yet? For a game with relatively light mechanics, there’s a lot of page flilpping each session. If I get sufficiently annoyed at this mess, I’ll try my hand at a Unified Theory of Blades in the Dark. And just to clarify, the individual rules are perfectly fine, create dramatic situations, and make sense. It’s only when one tries to synthesize comprehension does the system falter.

But let’s move on to the part of the game that’s not just “fine” but outright great. The game recognizes an issue most groups have struggled with when faced with a chance to make a plan. That’s where action grinds to a halt. Left to their own devices, players can endlessly go over all the what-ifs, unable to distinguish between the real obstacles they’d have to face that the GM invented and the hypothetical obstacles they invented themselves. Until, frustrated, they are pushed by the GM to settle on a solution which of course is nowhere near the solution that’s anywhere near what the GM thinks will work. We’ve lost a city this way, back in D&D 4e days.

It is basically the same world modeling problem that I wrote about way back when at the start of the blog. (7 years ago?? Wow). Every person playing the game has a slightly differing idea of how the game world works in their head. Trying to predict potential futures from slightly different perspectives using slightly different rules results in vastly different outcomes. But the worlds in players’ heads are similar enough that they don’t recognize the futility of this plotting.

“Forget all that,” says BitD, “Your characters are professionals. They have a plan. Jump in, and we’ll find out what it is.” Once players establish what they actually want to do, they work with the GM to figure out what type of engagement it’s going to be (assault/deception/stealth/etc), a missing detail like the point of attack, and make an engagement (fortune) roll which determines their position when they face the first obstacle.

When inevitably things start to go south, players can declare they have accounted for this eventuality in a flashback – maybe they bribed the local Bluecoats patrol beforehand, or stashed a weapon in this exact spot. The more extensive and unlikely the preparations, the more stress they have to pay. Likewise, they don’t need to decide what gear they have, just the overall amount of stuff hanging off them. As they need specific items, they simply declare they’ve had them all along, up to the stated limit.

This approach almost works, though this time it’s my group’s fault. They want to be really careful, which has at times resulted in them aborting a mission as they learn more about it. “There’s a chance we’ll make an enemy here? We’d never do this if we knew, so we didn’t.” The game fully expects you’ll make enemies, however, as you track your standing with various factions of Doskvol, and pretty much anything you gain you take from someone else. Getting my players (to be fair, not my regular group, so we’re not as used to each other’s style) to accept they can’t lead a cozy safe life as criminals has been a challenge. But, as mentioned, that’s our problem, not the game’s.

Once the PCs are done thievin’ and murderin’ and the score is wrapped up, the game goes into the most formalized part – downtime. Here, the group figures out the money, reputation, xp, and law’s attention the crew has earned, rolls to see what the world throws at them in the meantime, and finally each player performs two downtime actions such as working on a long-term project or removing stress. Yup, stress doesn’t clear on its own, so you end up paying for all the risks you took. This part of BitD has more in common with strategic games than roleplaying – think management elements of X-Com or Darkest Dungeon between missions.

By offering rules for the “in-between” stuff that would have been handwaved in most other games, BitD both limits it and makes it more important. Players are put firmly in charge of their own destiny. There’s probably no world-ending threat. No mysterious strangers ready to dispense quests. But there’s also no cops conveniently forgetting about the crew. No simply making a thing you’ve been meaning to make. There’s just ambition and survival. Want it? Earn it.

There’s a bit of a missed opportunity here, I think. Downtime has too much survival to it, and not enough ambition. It would have been relatively easy to offer a mechanical way for players to spend downtime actions preparing for a tougher score – create a pool of free “stress points” to spend on flashbacks, a bonus to the engagement roll, or temporarily raise the crew’s tier for specific purposes, for instance. There’s some discussion of having to do a research project or even a whole other score to undertake a score in the book, but it’s all left up to the GM.

In a tightly regulated game where every misfortune is a result of a choice or a roll, every obstacle’s magnitude is derived from the tier of opposition, and even actions of said opposition are determined by an entanglement roll, it doesn’t feel right to just heap more trouble on the PCs. It’s the subtle difference between “they’re powerful and secretive, let’s say you have to research them before you can even think of robbing them” and “they’re two tiers stronger than you, rules say you have to do a 6-segment research clock to find an approach.”

GM fiat is a tricky subject. There’s always going to be a need to interpret the rules, it’s not a board game after all. Yet at times I’ve felt like I had too much power in my hands when choosing the consequences of a failed roll – a strange position for a GM to find oneself in. In a desperate position I could say a character broke their leg, or that things got somehow even worse, or the party has simply lost this opportunity. Considering the impact of harm and how long it takes to heal it, these are rarely equivalent outcomes.

When players roll well, they get to do what they wanted. When they roll poorly, it turns into a game of double-or-nothing. Stakes for failure keep escalating, while success still offers the same reward of doing what they intended to do in the first place. And that’s cool! The problem, and there really isn’t an easy solution to it, is that it’s always the GM that decides when the betting is over and the bill is due to be paid. Would be interestig to see a similar system that places this decision in the hands of players.

But we got sidetracked. To balance out the mounting criticisms of the game, here’s another feature that I love: crews as characters. At the start of the campaign, the players collectively decide on the “class” of their crew – what kind of scores they typically engage in. Just like with a regular character, this determines the abilities and upgrades the crew will have access to. It gets its own character sheet, xp, upgrades, and assets.

Again, the thing that’s typically handwaved in other games is provided with solid mechanics, giving it the attention it deserves. Crew rules, I believe, are singlehandedly the reason for the game’s popularity and its upcoming adaptations. Well, that and a successful kickstarter. While I’m sure there are other examples, I can only think of Ars Magica and REIGN as games where you get to together build something in a meaningful way. One is very heavy, the other is very light, BitD may well have found a sweet spot. And this format is very expandable, whether it’s a spaceship or an adventuring organization that you’re building.

After all this time dedicated to the mechanics, what about the setting itself? Doskvol is interesting, if just a bit barren. It’s all about the ghosts. The larger world is epic and bleak, though that doesn’t quite translate to the game. The sun is gone, the ghosts roam the wastes and bodies have to be burnt in special electric fires to prevent even more ghosts from arising. Electricity? Comes from demon whales humans hunt in the pitch-black sea. Metal.

Living in this metal world are industrial age people, largely unaffected by the craziness around them. Sure, there’s an electric wall around their city holding the ghosts at bay, and its streets are perpetually lit by electric lights, but they still go about their business. While reassuring in a way, it seems like the author started painting the world with grand gestures, but never got around to the finishing touches that would have made the entire picture shine. With bleakness.

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see a horror-adjacent game that’s not Lovecraftian. On the other, ghosts just aren’t that varied as antagonists. There’re demons too, and those are quite scary, but there’s only so many a party can meet before they simply die. One, typically. There’re vampires, but those are just ghosts in bodies. Somehow, a steampunk world with criminals, magic, and ghosts feels empty after a while. Maybe I’m insufficiently familiar with the haunting tropes. There’s something creepy happening, must be a ghost. Booo.

I wish there was more. More (any!) examples of different ghosts, more craziness in the city itself, more character to its districts. These things are not entirely absent: there’s faction write ups and lots of random tables for ghost and demon attributes, plots and plot complications, streets and buildings and people. But most of these haven’t translated into actually useable material at our virtual table. Perhaps it’ll be different for you. To avoid sounding too negative, here’s a thing I greatly appreciated: the list of setting-appopriate names in one of the appendices. A small thing to be sure, but I’ve used it every session, and wish more games did it.

How does all of this fit together? The heists, the crew, the city itself? Say it with me: it almost works. Well, no. It works, and works really well, for a while. The greatest issue I have with Blades in the Dark, and if you got this far you know I have plenty, is that it outstays its welcome. There isn’t a natural ending point to a campaign in Doskvol. The book suggests a generic goal of accumulating wealth and retiring before you go mad, but that runs contrary to the much more interesting goal of advancing the crew. Here, the progression system plays a cruel trick.

Your crew can advance in tiers! It would take a whole lot of games, but you can end up running the entire city! There’s no grand overarching plot by design, as it’s all player-driven and improvisational. Unlike many other narrative games, BitD explicitly asks players to discover their characters through play, not start with a thought-out complex personality with goals and issues. Instead, they start with a few notes like the names of an ally and a rival. As PCs are dragged into the action we learn more about them, bit by bit. To the game’s credit, this part is really smart – when making certain rolls, players can get a bonus if there’s someone who can help them, *nudge-nudge*. At the same time, it means these allies mostly only show up for that one roll.

“Seasons”, as the book calls them, come to an end when most ongoing story threads are resolved. However, it inevitably feels like the time to get back to basics and make money now that the distractions are dealt with, rather than the time to wrap it all up. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if not for the other side of it: there’s only so many improvisational one-off heist stories about ghosts I can come up with before it gets stale; and given crew specializations, most of them have to be a specific kind of heist to boot – thieves gonna thieve, dealers gonna deal. Yet the reputation tracker keeps drawing us further in. There’s tiers to gain, upgrades to earn. Play one more score, go on. Ah, progression systems.

Paradoxically, the strongest feature of Blades in the Dark, crew rules, is also the root cause of its issues. That’s emblematic of the game as a whole – it holds many great ideas only slightly tarnished by the execution. And to be clear, I’ve had lots of fun with BitD. Here’s to a second edition.