Game Day: Blades in the Dark

Blades in the Dark is a fantasy role-playing game in which characters take on the roles of thieves in the night, planning capers and trying to survive in a ghost-haunted, ever-dark industrial city.

Descended from Powered by the Apocalypse, authored by John Harper and published by Evil Hat, the game’s generated a fair amount of buzz among the podcasts I listen to. When my old online gaming crew, whom I have sadly neglected for far too long, started talking about playing Blades in the Dark, I got interested.

I received the rulebook for Christmas 2017, and — in what may be my fastest RPG turnaround ever — started playing it in January 2018. My broken ankle helped with this; I was supposed to go skiing with my family this winter, but that became impossible after the break. Instead I was left with a free evening … and the chance to play a new game.

The game’s familial relationship with Powered by the Apocalypse (Apocalypse World, Dungeon World) comes through in its playbooks, hands-off game master style, and task resolution system. However, it’s very much its own game. The canonical moves of a PbtA-style game aren’t there, replaced by a more traditional skills system. It also introduces the ideas of “clocks”, which are a mechanic used to track progress character progress toward goals (e.g. Sneak into the Tower, Escape the Lair) or to mark adversary’s progress (Complete the Dark Ritual, Find the Trespassers). Successes advance the players’ clocks, while failures advance the game master’s.

The big change is the narrative. In Blades, your crew gets a job. They then figure out — broadly speaking — how they’re going to tackle that job (e.g. diplomacy, sneaking, brute force). They load out their gear and then they immediately jump to the job, in media res. There’s no planning; you begin when the job’s first challenge presents itself. You then work around that challenge and — if planning is needed — run a flashback.

It’s not how people in the real world plan a heist but it is how we see people plan a heist in movies. The flashbacks are how movies like Ocean’s Eleven or TV shows like Leverage come up with the clever bits. As players, this takes some getting used to — Informed by Dungeons & Dragons (heck, informed by pretty much any other RPG), we’re used to plotting, planning, scheming and then executing.

Blades in the Dark turns that on its head. The key decision points driving the story forward often come from flashbacks. In Blades, we get to a critical decision point — say an massive safe that contains the jewels we came to steal — and we flash back to before the heist and figure out how we’d defeat the safe. How we’ll do we in the past then informs how the actual job goes in the present.

In our first session, we accepted a job to infiltrate a house recently purchased by another organization and insure that a particular arcane ritual could not be cast. To do so, we decided to infiltrate the house by posing as housing inspectors. After picking a medium load for gear — but not what stuff we were taking — we went to the house and started bluffing our way in. We made a lot of noise about needing to make sure the recently-purchased building’s papers were in order … and then someone demanded to see our own papers.

Cue the flashback, where two members of our crew sought out one of their city government contacts to arrange for some semi-legitimate, mostly-fake housing inspector documents to be forged. Having secured them, the flashback ended.

Back in the current time, the flustered mark accepted the papers and left, presumably to get his own papers … or reinforcements.

It’s a cool mechanic and one the Blackrazor Guild has tried once or twice in our D&D games, but never worked out as well. I think that’s because we were too detailed. In previous attempts, we’d start in the middle of the action — say a big fight in a warehouse — and then flashback to how we got to the warehouse in the first place. The problem was we put too much weight on the flashback. It suddenly had to support the entire story, not just a particular aspect of it (e.g. how we ended up at the warehouse is a lot bigger than how we got the keyto get into the warehouse). The flashback ended up feeling contrived as we — players and dungeon master — forced the story to go where we knew it needed to go.

Blades in the Dark’s smaller scale flashbacks don’t have that problem. They’re also supported by the fiction that inspired the game, so what might feel forced in a D&D game makes much more sense in a Blades caper.

Getting our heads around the flashback mechanic is going to take some time, but I’m looking forward to the practice. It’s a cool idea, and one that’s definitely worth experimenting with.

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Cover art from the Blades in the Dark role-playing game. Credit: Evil Hat Games

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