Welcome back to Card Catalog! For this installment, over the next month or so, I will take a look under the hood and around one of the watershed games of the past 5 years – Blades in the Dark! Blades in the Dark, or just Blades for simplicity sake, struck the gaming world like lightning, with a wildly successful Kickstarter and a meteoric rise in popularity from an evocative setting and several innovative gameplay aspects which encapsulate several major trends in tabletop gaming. Blades has been successful enough, that the System Reference Document has been opened up under Creative Commons to allow people to publish works based on the system used with the moniker “Forged in the Dark.” Blades was run through Kickstarter by One Seven Designs which is the John Harper’s company. Current print versions of Blades are available through Evil Hat and the runaway success of the Kickstrter gave rise to all the alternate settings that may well have inspired the Forged in the Dark SRD released with a Creative Commons Unported license for others to make games using the core concepts of Blades.
What does Blades have that makes it a quintessential modern game? A dystopia, with huge swaths of inequality, an evocative setting in this case the steampunk urban fantasy cities of a shattered post apocalyptic world, streamlined crunch – rules that are fast to pick up and even faster to resolve challenges, and luscious art. As we get into the game, it’s something to note that the game is much more centered around the Crew, the Party and their associates, more than individual players or characters. The system itself encourages characters that move in and out of use between games or seasons as we’ll talk about and so it may well be that there needs to be additional characters to use – but we will talk about that later.
The chapters addressing the GM and the players are particularly well done. They shed light on the themes and the ways in which the game meets those, like reminding the GM not to make the PCs look incompetent and that by default a partial success is likely for all players.
Welcome to Blades in the Dark, let’s see what sort of trouble our Scoundrels can get up to.
Blades centers around a Crew of Scoundrels who exist as criminals in the city of Doskvol, or Duskwall. The world has survived a catastrophe, well survived may be a bit strong of a word. The continents of this planet were shattered and demons and leviathans roam the planet and seas where the extracted electroplasmic blood of the Leviatians provides dirty power to fuel the world while ghosts flit about and the fog and cold sees no sun ever come out. As the book itself puts it, “You’re in a haunted Victorian-era city trapped inside a wall of lightning powered by demon blood.”
A thousand years ago, the Gates of Death were broken and the northern mining town of Doskvol became part of the Imperium where the Immortal Emperor offered protection from the spirits and horrors stalking the world. The Emperor was true to his word, and the humans began to find a way to hold a line in the sand against the cataclysm. Technology was lost, though, until Leviathan hunters managed to harvest and refine Leviathan blood that became known as Electroplasm. The Imperium created the lightning fences which provide greater protection from the spirits, and the cities flourish in this time. They grow upon themselves and with the rapid use of the Electroplasm, provide wealth and power in greater and greater concentrations.
While stars still twinkle lightly in the sky, the Sun was shattered and the moon seems to grow closer every year perhaps in anticipation of another catastrophe. The land of Akaros, where Duskvol sits, is surrounded by the Dagger Isles which seem shattered from some other land in the far past, the Skovlan island was conquered after a thirty year war and the Skovlanders now in Duskvol are a new minority underfoot, and even the far off lands of Iruvia and Tycheros offer character hints and broad strokes to play. Within Doskvol, there are major powers that will be familiar enough to a reader – the Magistrates who run the city infrastructure, the powerful Families that earn their wealth at the expense of the lower classes, the Bluecoats that enforce the law, and the host of criminal crews amongst whom your players will hail.
Blades in the Dark now calls for you and your crew to begin to navigate the cramped streets and winding canals of Doskvol and to try to establish yourself under the fog and smoke of the electroplasm lit facade.
Blades is a static target number game using d6s. A straightforward system where you roll a pool of d6s equal to your Action Dots. Actions are the “skills” of Blades and may encompass a variety of not only actions but methods. Broad and intended to cover a great deal of options – they overlap by design. The result is based on the highest roll from the pool with a 1-3 being a “bad outcome” where you may not succeed and also may suffer consequences, a 4-5 provides a “partial success” where you are likely to succeed but with consequences, while a 6 is “full success” and if you have additional 6s in your pool , you get a Critical Success. These Action Rolls are modified by the Position of the Action and Effect Level, both set by the GM, and possibly modified by a Devil’s Bargain where the GM may offer some additional dice for the pool in exchange for …. Something, or teamwork. Position is the amount of danger or disadvantage the Scoundrel is under while Effect is how much they can influence the outcome which allows the GM to not only give a benefit to a creative player but also warn the Players of when they have stepped into a poorly thought out situation.
Resistance is handled through three Attributes – Insight, Prowess, and Resolve – that are rated 0-4 and that relate to 4 of the 12 Actions as shown on the character sheet. Resistance rewards a breadth of skills so for each Action that you have at least one Dot garners you an Attribute Dot. The better your resistance roll, the less Stress it takes to avoid the samge you may be taking. Harms from actions are ranked from Level 1 to 3 and they are descriptive and flavorful ways to be hurt, like having a punctured lung, To avoid this and “buy down” the level, after the resistance roll, Stress may be spent to mitigate the Harm from the rolls. Stress may also be incurred to push yourself and do a greater job … but with Stress comes a potential price. Too much Stress and you will suffer a Trauma. Stress cannot be mitigated during a score or session, and must be done in downtime. A Trauma is permanent. Once it is on your sheet, you cannot remove it and when you have Four Trauma Conditions the character is no longer playable – Vicious, Paranoid, Haunted, and Soft are examples of what can happen when a Scoundrel suffers a Trauma.
Because the Crew is so important, and I think more important than any specific character, I want to look at that first. Each Crew is categorized by a Tier, which aside from a general indication of quality, also provides the scale of the gang – the number of other people who answer to the players or specialists who may be in their employ. You design your Crew in a way that will become familiar in Blades –
- Type – Start with a broad Type to be chosen – these include Assassins, Shadows, Cults, and Hawkers among the options. This provides a baseline status for your crew and tells the GM what sort of Scores, or criminal activities, the game will likely focus around. A handful of Coin, the abstracted wealth system of the game, in the coffers,
- Reputation – The reputation is a simple one word descriptor to be known as that adds depth to the type of Crew you are
- Lair – Every Crew needs a lair to hide out in and this is where you make you choice! Check the map and description of Doskvol to see if there any aesthetic leads you can take.
- The Hunting Grounds selection involves the first trade off to be made – if you spend your coin, you may improve your status with the faction who lost territory, or you may be stingy and keep your money so that you are not so well liked. As you expand your territory, this question repeats often as you grow and lose status with your rivals.
- Special Abilities – Each type of Crew gets a list of Special Abilities from which you choose one and then apply a handful (2 predetermined and 2 from the list provided) of Crew Upgrades to further customize your crew. Another tradeoff can occur here in gaining your special ability.
- Contacts – Finally, there are pregenerated contacts and a favorite contact is particularly loved and hated by some other factions for your final trade off in creating a definite feel for the city as a whole your Crew is in.
The type of Crew you have chosen guides some XP gain as well, as it is tied to what crew you are as Assassins gain XP when they pull off a successful accident, disappearance, murder, or ransom while a Cult gains XP when they advance the purposes of the god or demon they worship or otherwise embody those precepts. Seems pretty easy, and it is. Seems pretty open and loose, and it is. There is just enough structure to be guided through the process, but not so much that only an old grognard like me can love it. Since we are doing starting characters this time around, I won’t spend too much energy on XP and advancement, but suffice it to say that it is fluid and rewards good play.
Character creation follows a similar design where you start with choosing a Playbook. A great deal of character work comes after the initial generation, and so the starting designs are done quickly and with a very intuitive process.
- Playbooks – These Playbooks are broad types of Scoundrels and what they specialize in, more like archetypes than classes, providing some guidance for the rest of the process.
- Heritage – We touched briefly on the Heritages available from different regions and that helps define the character.
- Background – A background choice from before being a Scoundrel such as Academic, Trades, or the Underworld- this doesn’t immediately provide any mechanical change but is another point of guiding your character.
- Action Dots – Each Playbook has Three Action Dots already placed within the 12 Actions. Starting Scoundrels cannot have more than 2 in any Action, but the recommendation is to use one Dot to represent your Heritage, one for your Background, and the remaining 2. Breadth of Actions is rewarded by the Attributes described below.
- Special Ability – Each Playbook has a swath of Special Abilities to reflect the talents and traits of that archetype. Choose one, but helpfully the book puts them in an appropriate order so you can just choose the first one listed without any problems.
- Contacts – each playbook has a list of sample NPCs the character knows – Choose one as a Close Friend and one as a Rival.
- Vice – Every Scoundrel is prey to some Vice that range from Obligations to Family to Faith in the unseen to Gambling, Stupor, and Gratification. Choose a Vice and a Vice purveyor so that your Scoundrel can get their fix. This helps a Scoundrel heal Stress in Downtime between Scores but is a dangerous thing as it cancut as much as it heals
- Finishing Touches – Think of a Name, Alias, and Appearance if you have not before and look over the fine details on the sheet. Check your XP triggers for the Playbook and any Special Items the Playbook has. Choose your Load for the first Score and meet the rest of your crew at your Hideout.
Because Trauma can take a character out for good, or to reduce Heat from the Bluecoats, a character may get pinched for jail time, the Crew can always use some more members and this streamlined process for character generation is perfect to have more Scoundrels waiting in the wings. It is one of the items that I am not always entirely sold on with Blades – the focus on the crew and the jumping over planning phases for me can undercut good character development and long term play but YMMV and for single campaigns, there is nothing wrong with this at all.
The other main mechanic for Blades is the use of Clocks. Blades very much encourages a wide use of the Clock mechanic to track advancement and long and medium term goals that take more than a single roll of the dice. As certain successes or failures occur, a segment of the clock is ticked off until it is full and the result occurs. This can be as simple as picking a lock on a 4 Clock, or as grandiose as the Factions goals to take over the entire Block on a 12 Count. By triggering events and results to actions, rather than some unspecified time or behind the scenes triggers, there is a greater buy in and greater ability for the GM to just leave things unsaid as the clock ticks off.
Finally, Blades jumps right into the thick of things. One of the “modern” design parts of the game is the attempt to provide a continual push towards action and avoid spending too much time in analysis paralysis. The game is built around Scoundrels who move from score to score as they attempt to enhance their Crew’s criminal standing and so the set ups are simple, and somewhat rote. Once a basic idea has been formulated, instead of going through the detailed planning of other heist games, Blades moves you into the action of it! To allow for things to go well or poorly, Blades has a flashback mechanic that provides for actions taken in the past to set up the current Score. Depending on how difficult this would have been, the GM sets the Stress it takes to establish it. As Blades works to be a highly collaborative game, there is discouragement for the GM to flat out say no to ideas, and so the game can proceed with this variant of “Yes, but…” answers.
When you put all of these things together, you see the overall shape of the game, and a session, like on Page 9 of the Blades book where you see the specific layout of:
- Free Play – Character scenes and actions and consequences from previous downtime, as well as finalizing the Target and Plan for the next Score
- Score – After the target and general vector of the Score is planned, the Scoundrels will choose their load of gear. Then the Engagement roll sets the overall Position of the Crew and the Score goes off with the Actions and meat of the adventure including the Flashbacks to see whether the Crew can expand their territory, Rep, and Stash.
- Downtime – Finally, you evaluate the results of the Score – Payoff in Coin, Heat in public awareness and unwanted attention, and the Downtime activities to grow your character or the Crew as well as indulging in Vices to clear some Stress.
Overall, Blades is a now iconic part of tabletop gaming that does a lot of things quite well and embodies a number of the modern table top design trends to create a stylized and memorable game of Scoundrels in an Evocative Steampunk Urban Fantasy with an emphasis on fast and rewarding gameplay.
In the corners of Doskvol, a new Crew has begin to make a name for themselves. There is never a shortage of hungry and desperate crews all seeking to establish themselves as the new criminal overlords. Scoundrels are, after all, still just Scoundrels. Something is special though about the Green Flyers. Most crews don’t come from a background of Smuggling, and the paperwork and meticulous planning it can take. Daring and challenging at times for sure, but these are a crew that specializes in the quiet and the understated. A savvy group that has aroused the attention of the Fog Hats as they begin to quietly and efficiently undercut that group of Smugglers in the Silkshore.
The name at once is an act of misdirection, as people look upwards rather than in the canals and shores of Doskvol and a play on their goal. The green of money and the power of Electroplasm combined and Flyers …well, they can be many things all equally high flying as they mark their rise. The brilliant Spider called Cricket may be the mastermind behind this crew. He recruited the Skovlavian Hound they call Thistle and the Slide from the Dagger Isles who looks just like you or I. How they convinced the Iruvian Whisper known only as Sphinx to join them in this fool’s errand isn’t yet known but rest assured, they will form the core of a dangerous crew. Can commerce and the drive for the illicit propel the Green Flyers to the top of Doskvol or will they run afoul of something far worse than just high taxes and forged manifests?
A.k.a Aldric Skora
Ambitious Akorosi Spider
A child of privilege, Aldric thought he knew it all until he went to Charterhall University. Studying philosophy gave rise to a less respectful of authority outlook on life and he began to realize what he could do for himself. Selling papers and grades was one thing, but the thrill of stealing the answers was even better. Aldric became the Cricket nor suddenly or through tragedy, but in a slow slide to put his natural talents to use as a smuggler amongst the artists and philosophers of the SilkShore
Aka Vey Welker
Driven Skovlavian Hound
Vey knew what it was like to grow up under stress as her family lost their home to the Imperium’s advances. The War of Unity didn’t create Unity so much as refugees and resentment. Travelling from Skovlan to Doskvol meant Vey was able to hone her skills … to track and to hunt. They took them the long way around by train and by foot through Severos and Iruvia and finally the entire length of Akoros before coming to rest in Doskvol. She would quickly fall into the roll of a Hound in the streets of Doskvol, but Cricket and Sinker saw something in her and now she helps run the contraband across the streets of Doskvol and through the canals all the while looking for ways to help her people and hurt the Imperium.
Aka Thena Basran
Prideful Iruvian Whisper
Far from home, Thena Basran plys the secrets of the ghost field as a criminal Whisper. Her family has no knowledge that her time spent in Doskvol is as a criminal – she has found this life to her liking. Iruvia held no secrets for her anymore, and now she can stretch her knowledge in powers in new ways. Time was short here, not like the unbroken line of history the black deserts concealed. Here in the wet and foggy North, Thena became the mysterious Sphinx. These Imperials don’t know how to Attune properly and that will be their downfall.
Aka Lenia Daava
Crafty Itinerant Slide
The Dagger Isles were home for a few years, but even the Daava family knew it wasn’t the best place for a long term family. Piracy wasn’t what it used to be. The Unity War was too well fought and the Leviathans growing stronger – it was time to settle down. A new place for the Daava meant Doskvol where few would know of their past. Sadly, it wasn’t but one week in the Northern home, that the Daavas were killed to a person save Lenia. Lenia spent time in the Bluecoat’s orphanage, being groomed to be one of them but it wasn’t to last. The skills that would be the mark of a Slide came early for Lenia. Sneaking out, the bars and vice dens were much more interesting and in those Aldric and Lenia saw kindred spirits. The Green Flyers came from their friendship and some say more than that … but the reputation of Sinker, the unknown Slide who gets the Hunters to bite, may be secretly the most important Flyer for the future.
Because the Crew is such an integral part, and I would say the most important part of a Blades game, I want to take a quick moment this week to look more directly at how the Crew was made.
- Playbook – As with the Scoundrel generation, you start by choosing a Playbook for the Crew. This not only provides some mechanical bonuses and changes, but sets a social compact with the GM. The Playbook tells the Players and the GM what kind of Scoundrels are in the game! A table playing a Crew of Bravos probably isn’t going to be well suited or interested in an Industrial Espionage Opportunity against an Electroplasmic Manufacturer, while Smugglers are not likely to be the first on the list to undertake an extortion or sabotage Opportunity. I chose the Smuggler Playbook because I enjoy the idea and think that focusing on a group of Import-Export ne’er-do-wells is not given its due in enough games.
- Upgrades – The Smuggler Playbook provides two starting upgrades – a Boat or Carriage, where I will choose a Boat for now, and a Training Upgrade for Prowess. Training Upgrades are used in advancement so won’t come up this time we go through Blades, but are very helpful since XP is sometimes a bit scarce to spend in downtime.
With two more Upgrades available from the list, I first choose Barge because I like the idea that the Green Flyers will move their Lair around a bit and this allows them to literally move their location around. If they survive long enough, and rise in the ranks, this could let them move the Lair to a whole other neighborhood. I’ll take the Smugglers Rigging for the other Upgrade which lets each member of the Crew perfectly conceal two carried items. This will also help explain their favored cargo to start.
- Cargo Type – Most Playbooks start with a favored Turf action, but Smugglers start with a Cargo Type. The Green Flyers will begin with Contraband – the sort of high tax luxuries of whiskey, wine, spices, and drugs that can be easy to move and hard to trace.
- Special Ability – It is hard not to pick Like Part of the Family. This turns the vehicle into a Cohort, or fully fledged character. Because I like the idea of the Barge as the central facet of the crew, it will be a fleshed out Cohort vehicle for sure. This lets the vehicle be part of teamwork tests and is of a Tier equal to the Crew Tier +1. As an Edge, I will make the Barge Sturdy so that even if broken or damaged, it still functions as befitting a barge but it is Finicky so when Cricket isn’t there to operate it, it is at a penalty.
- Standing – At each of these stages, the Crew made friends and enemies among the Factions of Doskvol. I mentioned the Fog Hounds before who are ne of the listed Crews who happen to be Smugglers, so I thought that would be a good way to start off by having them as rivals, but this is balanced by having a bonus from the Silkshore citizenry as they are full of the exact kind of people who appreciate this contraband they bring in. The Gray Cloaks, former Bluecloak watchmen now a criminal crew, are unhappy with the Green Flyers who are now expanding on the ground and the Blue Cloaks themselves don’t like the increased contraband so the Flyers are under their watch, but only at a -1, Interfering. The Ink Rakes, though, are Helpful and Friendly at +2 to the Green Flyers – these muckraking reporters get the occasional tip for a good story and a bit of a discount when they need to stock up on their own vices. Not a bad balance for a fledgling Smuggling Crew.