Blades in the Dark

Posted 01 Mar 2023 to Fantasy

Heists in a shadowy fantasy city, with factions and steampunk flavours.

 
 

XP Card

Sessions GM'd: 9
Sessions as Player: 0

I Used

The core book only. And Foundry.

Overview

Blades in the Dark is a landmark game system that has spawned its own genre of rpgs. It is fast paced and very structured. It is easy to prep, but takes a bit of getting used to.

 
 

The Good

  • An incredible setting. An evocative city, loaded with factions and districts which are well described. Factions have goals and NPCs which helps get them into play well. I'd love to have other fantasy cities described in this format, for use in traditional rpg campaigns.
  • Loads of one-liner story hooks. The setting felt a bit overwhelming for me at the beginning. There are many factions and districts, and it was a lot. But the setting information is rich in ideas for scores or side-plots. By flipping through the factions, or using the random tables at the back of the book it is not long before I found something to trigger an idea.
  • No analysis paralysis. I have played many years of Shadowrun. This game suffers from players trying to overplan every aspect of their mission. We could spend 2 hours planning a mission, before we even did one dice roll. Blades is very effective at removing this completely. I followed the advice in the book and started the missions by describing how the PCs have already started their mission, and how their planning has been completed (even though nothing was actually planned by the players). The players can use flashbacks to bypass or downgrade the threats they face, and we can visualise those actions as being part of their effective planning. It really works well and keeps gameplay moving at a good pace.
  • Highly structured phases of play. There are 2 very distinct and different phases of play. Playing a Score is very different to playing Downtime. Downtime, particularly, is very structured. There are 4 specific stages to Downtime; Payoff, Heat, Entanglements and Downtime. Each phase consists of a few fictional questions to ask, and maybe a dice roll or two. The results will add or subtract points from the crew, such as Heat or Coin. I found these phases a bit jarring at first. It felt like a board game, where you mechanically work through a process. I can recognise that they are helpful, because we spent less time talking around an idea, and instead were able to quickly figure out what happens mechanically, then use a montage to flesh it out in our fiction.
  • Your story grows organically. At the start, we had a crew and some PCs. We figured out 1 faction that was friendly and one that was a rival. Slowly a story began to develop, about how we had stolen a boat from a smuggling ring and were using it as our base of operations. The next session we added 1 Friend and 1 Rival to each PC. Now we had NPCs who we could use to help us, or who might obstruct us. Our alchemist had overindulged on a drug binge and been banned from his favourite opium den. Now he had a goal. These small events, triggered by dice rolls on ordinary mechanics, are wonderful at gradually adding depth to your story. You are soon in a situation where there are many threads that can be pulled to generate stories. And those stories are personal.
  • I found it easy to prep. I do not consider myself good at improv. But after 3 sessions, I was pretty confident running a session with minimal prep. My prep was honestly about 10 minutes as I scribbled down some ideas for threats or interesting situations on the next Score. Coming up with an idea for a score was quite natural, becausse we would just look at projects the PCs were working on, or goals the group developed naturally. I also was able to use this online score generator if stuck. Optionally, I could spend a bit of extra time creating portraits for NPCs etc, but this was optional.
  • High quality physical book. The cover just feels luxurious, the pages are thick, and the A5 format is easy to hold and use. It feels deluxe.
  • The Not-So-Good

  • Took us longer than expected to create characters. 2 hours, to create characters and a crew. We were 4 new ex-5e players plus myself as GM. In hindsight, I cannot explain why it took us so long, because the process seems simple on paper and is mostly done by selecting options from a list. But it did.
  • Requires good improv skills. The ability to invent a score mostly on the fly, complete with challenging obstacles and interesting NPCs, would really help. The book offers little advice on how to do this. I got some advice from websites and Reddit, and was able to come up with a method for doing my own prep. I found it nerve-wracking to go into a session with very few ideas written down.
  • Action dice rolls took a while for me to understand. The PCs climb over the wall and find a guard nearby. The guard is unaware of them. "I slit his throat" says the Cutter. As GM, I must decide if this is "controlled" or "risky", and whether the effect will be "limited", "standard", or "great". Guidelines for how to decide this are described over 8 pages in the book, and I had to read them many times.
  • A lot of page flipping. At first. Later, I recorded and prominently displayed the page numbers of the book that we frequently needed to refer to in the different phases of the game. That made it easier. There are many mechanics that you cannot just make a ruling on, there is an actual table of results that you need to refer to. Having those pages marked out so they are easy to find is important. I had the Alexandrian's System Cheat Sheet, but it is missing some stuff (for example XP earning and spending), and so I needed to refer to the rule book.
  • Boardgamey feel. Play is structured around phases of doing a score and then the aftermath of that score. The downtime phase is pretty formulaic; "We are now in the Downtime phase, pick what you want to do from this list of options." This makes it feel like a boardgame. It makes the play flow quickly, once you are used to it, and it keeps the focus on the objective and the next activity. There is little organic time to roleplay heart-to-heart scenes with the other PCs or an NPC.
  • All Just Make Believe. As with all PBTA games, I cannot shake the sense that each scene and danger is just an invention of the moment. When the player fails their dice roll to sneak through the house, that means that suddenly a guard on patrol must have quantumed into existence and found them. Now we roll with the consequences of that happening, and in the moment it can feel exciting. But there is no real sense of discovery as players peel back the secrets of the location or plot. Rather, it is reactive improv play, guided loosely by dice rolls.
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    Verdict

    I found the game easy to prep for and required only a low investment from the GM and players. We could all get together, with a vague premise for a heist to run, and kick off quickly. Unfortunately I was left feeling that this level of improv play does feel ungrounded and wishy washy. I would be interested in trying one of the derivative games like Scum and Villainy where the core game is transplanted into another setting, like scifi or cyberpunk.

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