After hearing about Blades in the Dark for a long, long time, and have many, many people tell me that this would be my kind of game, I finally picked up the PDF a few weeks back. I read through it, took a ton of notes, and this review is the result of all of that.
It’s been a while since I threw this disclaimer up on the site, but I want to mention how hard it is to review a game versus a game supplement, to reiterate my review rating system, and what I think is important about reviews.
- Games really are art—I’m not doing a review of the game as art
- My ratings are essentially the degree to which I’m comfortable recommending a product to be purchased by the types of gamers I know for use at the table
- Regardless of any score given to a product, I think the most important thing in any review is to discuss enough about your thought process so that people think about their own preferences and desires when it comes to the kind of products being reviewed
Blades in the Dark has also been discussed and dissected by some of the most well-known and well regarded designers in the RPG industry. I’m a guy that lacks the discipline to do anything gaming related professionally and just wants to talk about games. Just off hand, if you want a much more relevant look at Blades in the Dark from people that know a lot more than me, I’d recommend Rob Donohue’s always excellent commentary on game design and some of the discussion done by the Misdirected Mark podcast, for starters.
The Shadowy Form
I’ve seen some lovely pictures of this book online, but for the purposes of this review, I only have the PDF to use for a reference. The book is 328 pages, with an Index, about 10 pages of Kickstarter backers, various maps, random charts, and chapter summaries.
The artwork is in bold black and white colors throughout. The artwork is very appropriate to the setting, and the formatting is attractive and easy to read. The game is about darkness and shades of grey, and that is totally what you are going to get in presentation as well as tone.
Chapter One: The Basics
The chapter starts with a quick overview of the kind of setting this is, i.e. a dark industrial fantasy setting where you are playing criminals trying to make a big score for your crew. It discusses the types of characters and crews, briefly, then goes into some inspirational media.
All of that like the ride up the incline at the beginning of a roller coaster. Then you hit the top, and all the core concepts of the game rush up at you as you plunge full speed into this chapter.
Every rule, on its own, is simple and easy to comprehend. The more concepts that are introduced, the more connections are mentioned between these individual rules. You very quickly get the feeling that while these rules are simple, none of them are really manipulated without touching multiple other systems in the game. The way some of the connections are mentioned are a bit daunting, because you aren’t sure if these are all things that the GM needs remember to track and assign as consequences, or if there is another structure to help keep them straight (spoilers—you can use some of those interactions as consequences, but there is a structure to reinforce them even if you aren’t doing that on your own, but you’ll see that in later chapters).
There are a lot of moving parts, but the very easy to understand basics that most of the other rules are predicated upon are the concept of rating (how many dice you roll for a thing), resolution (failure, partial success, success, critical success), stress (a resource you can burn to get more dice or mitigate short term harm, but with the risk of leaving a scene or taking long term trauma), clocks (creating an object with at least four pieces, which you fill in when events happen to simulate any number of things coming closer to completion in the game), position (how hard the roll is) and effect (how much work the action accomplishes if successful). In addition, you can accept a Devil’s Bargain, which is the ability to roll an extra dice for accepting that some additional complication that will happen once you take the action.
These are all simple ideas on their own, but there are times when the chapter starts to mention GMs setting position and determining effect and coming up with Devil’s Bargains and adding complications and clocks for a single given action. It makes sense if you slow down and break it into component parts, but the first few times you read a chain of multiple rules interacting with one another, it can feel a bit daunting. It’s like diagraming a sentence or writing a formula in Excel.
All the above can feel a little intimidating, but broken down, it’s not only manageable, but sounds like a lot of fun. Then, when you start to come up for air, the “crew game” rules start to get defined. The “crew game” (more on that later) refers to downtime, advancing the larger agenda of the gang, deciding if other factions like you or want to squash you, and figuring out if anybody you know or any of the PCs end up getting visited by the authorities.
This first chapter has a lot of information, and it’s not quite set up like a glossary. For all the information contained, it also doesn’t quite draw clearer connections between how some of these rules interact. I was mentally exhausted after reading this first chapter. I didn’t dislike it. There are a lot of exciting concepts and a lot of elegant solutions for resolving actions and representing the setting. The emphasis, however, is on “a lot.”
Chapter Two: Characters
Much like a Powered by the Apocalypse game (which may be related to this game, but which this game is not), the game has playbooks. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, essentially you have a sheet options, not unlike having a unique character sheet for each “character class” in another game, but with some focused decisions to make.
There are some example nationalities, names, and looks. Then there is a discussion on actions. In this game, you aren’t so much using skills, as applying a way to use your skills. The actions are attune, command, consort, finesse, hunt, prowl, skirmish, study, survey, sway, tinker, and wreck. The action you are attempting helps the GM determine your position and effect when making a roll. It might be hard to be successful with some actions, but impossible with others. For example, you might attack someone with hunt, skirmish, or even wreck, but it’s going to be hard to sway someone unconscious with your fist.
Character types are cutter, hound, leech, lurk, slide, spider, and whisper. These have some special abilities that make them better at some aspect of criminal work. Of special note—leeches can be doctors, but are also your “science” characters, while whispers are people that dabble with the supernatural.
Chapter Three: The Crew
The next section details the type of crew you have. You pick a playbook to describe the group’s usual work just like individual characters pick playbooks. The crew sheets provided are assassins, bravos, cults, hawkers, shadows, and smugglers. If you regularly move illegal material from one place to another for your scores, you are probably smugglers, but if you take jobs to sneak into guarded places to kill a target, you are probably assassins.
Each crew playbook can be advanced, just like characters, and they give bonuses and special abilities related to the theme. There is also a neighborhood diagram on the sheet, representing your claims. When you pick up more territory that you can call yours, you often pick up special perks, like lowering your heat after you pull a score when you claim a police station that is in your pocket, or getting extra coin during downtime when you claim a front business.
One thing that jumped out at me, and may just be a pet peeve of mine, is a hidden “negative rule” that comes up in reading through crew options. What I mean by a negative rule is a rule that you don’t know exists until you read an ability that negates that rule. In this case, it is mentioned that without quarters in your HQ, your characters stay away from their base of operations, and that leaves them exposed. Until you read what the quarters upgrade does, you have no idea that the PCs should be experiencing complications from sleeping away from HQ.
The crew playbooks also give you examples of how characters with that type of crew can earn XP, as well as how to advance the crew itself. Overall, I really like how the crew sheets focus play on a style of criminal activity, but it does start to introduce more complexity to the game than the initial chapters even hinted at.
Chapter Four: The Score
This chapter is all about how you do the criminal things you do, and how the rules interact with one another to see if you are successful in making money at your chosen profession. When you are about to start a score, the players pick from one of the approaches for how a job starts (assault, deception, stealth, occult, social, transport), and the GM asks a question based on the type of plan. Then the characters roll an engagement roll to see how tough the first opposition to the plan is, which can be modified by advantages and drawbacks, such as having knowledge of the place where the crime is taking place or the neighborhood having an aggressive patrol schedule from the authorities.
The structure of the score is there to minimize planning at the table. Your characters planned, but the players jump into the action. To help facilitate that the characters have been planning this score, however, they can call for flashbacks, where they can establish facts that were taken care of before the score started. The GM will then establishes a cost for that flashback.
If the PCs purchased something or called for a favor, the GM may just charge them coin or lower their cred to represent them calling in a marker. If they dropped something at the scene or scouted ahead of time, it may cost them stress, and they may have to resolve an action they did in the past. The key is that nothing that has already been established can be contradicted. If the GM has already mentioned a guard, that guard is there—but the PC may have met them in a bar the night before and paid them off, costing the PC some stress to track down the guard’s favorite pub and coin to make it worth the guard’s time to look the other way.
There are also different ways to utilize teamwork. You can just take stress to boost another character, roll to take harm for an ally, or perform an action that establishes that anyone else working on the action benefits from the groundwork you just laid. My favorite of these is the Lead a Group option, where one player coordinates all the others. Everyone rolls their dice pools, and the group takes the highest result, meaning you have a high likelihood of succeeding—however, the character coordinating the action takes stress for each failure that the group rolls.
There is an interesting example of play at the end that not only shows what a score looks like, but also analyses where judgement calls could be made by the GM and asks some questions that pertain to GM style.
Chapter Five: Downtime
Going in to this chapter, I assumed that I was to be assigning consequences and tracking things like heat using complications and clocks on my own, without much guidance other than knowing these things existed in the game. I also thought downtime was a much more open ended aspect of play. As it turns out, all that stuff in chapter one that I knew was related, but I wasn’t quite sure how, has a regimented structure to resolve. However, it has a very regimented structure to resolve.
At this phase the PCs are determining payoff for their score, heat, potential entanglements from that heat and other repercussions, and downtime activities. PCs can only pick two downtime activities, but they can work on downtime projects like building things, recovering stress, healing from injuries, training, or reducing heat.
One thing that I noticed is that some entanglements let you “spend” contacts by letting them get pinched by the law or rival factions, but you lose whatever benefit they provide (including a bonus die on downtime actions involving their area of expertise). This section also introduces prison sentences, prison claims, incarceration rolls, and more complexity you didn’t see coming even back in chapter one. Again, all neat ideas, and individually simple to resolve, but interconnected and requiring even more resource management.
I will admit, this section relieved some of the mental tension I had from reading chapter one. I started seeing the shape of interactions better as I saw more structures for more aspects of play. I just wasn’t expecting some of the extra rules that appeared when drilling down into another aspect of the game--It looks like there is a score game, a crew game, and kind of a prison game too, depending on how things work out for the PCs.
Chapter Six: Playing the Game
This section gives a primer on playing more narrative based games, as well as going into more detail on the different action types. There are examples of challenges and how they might be resolved with more than one action, and what actions might be completely inappropriate for an attempt. There is also some player advice, which largely boils down to being a proactive character that takes risks to fit into the setting (although that advice feels like it’s partially true, but some degree of care is also called for in this style of criminal environment).
The chapter ends with a discussion of how the game naturally splits into the “score game” and the “crew game,” with the score game being about action in the moment, and the crew game being about managing assets, climbing the ladder, and dealing with consequences. This gave me some ideas on how I wish the game were divided and presented, but I’ll go into that later in the review.
Chapter Seven: Running the Game
If you have seen Powered by the Apocalypse games (which, again, this may have evolved from, but which this game is not), you have seen some of what this chapter contains. GM advice is framed in terms of goals, actions, principles, and best practices.
One of my favorite bits of advice in this section is to not make the PCs look incompetent if they fail. I’ve always been a big fan of this advice. I’ve seen too many GMs that harp on someone that, by all rights, is an expert at something, but who has had bad die rolls. The GM explains away their failure as flat out incompetence. If that’s how the player wants to frame it, that’s up to them, but the GM needs to keep in mind that even if bad things happen, these are skilled people taking risks, not talentless hacks hoping that luck will save them.
It feels a little weird that an essay bisects this chapter, talking about gothic storytelling and presenting science versus magic in a dark fantasy industrial setting. I don’t have a problem with it being in the chapter, just not sure why it’s in the middle of the chapter.
This section suggests a few extra questions when playing the game for the first time, but those questions only appear here. It might be nice to see those summarized on a “first session” sheet along with some of the other play aids. There is also a discussion of splitting the game into seasons, and changing focus on what factions are in play and creating a time gap between seasons. I really like these ideas, but for everything else that is formalized in this book, I wish this concept had been given a bit more formal space.
Chapter Eight: Strange Forces
Well, I’m glad we already saw most of the rules now that we’re done with scores and downtime. What’s in this chapter? Some neat stuff with its own set of rules. Oh.
Don’t let my intro fool you—I really like this chapter. If your character dies, there are a few supernatural playbooks that you can use to keep playing that character. You can become a ghost, and eventually if someone gets you a dead body to inhabit or builds you a mechanical body, you can become a vampire or a hull as well. These have some rules tweaks compared to living characters, but help to emphasize the supernatural side of the setting.
This section also talks about rituals, which are a special downtime action that is measured by area/scale, duration/range, and quality/force, and cost an amount of stress determined by adding all those things up (plus, anything special you may need to gather, based on what you want do to and what the GM determines the ritual needs as components).
The rules for building weird devices is also part of this chapter, and some examples are given. On the simple end of things, you can start a clock and add successes to that clock to make a weapon that can harm demons or ghosts. Or you could make a flamethrower. The GM determines how tricky the item will be, and what drawbacks it will have, and then the PCs can work to complete the item.
Chapter Nine: Changing the Game
This section broadly discusses hacking and modifying the game, and then gives some specific examples, some of which are taken from hacks already in existence in some form or another.
There are rules for making the setting even more gritty and punitive by making equipment and harm rules more difficult. There are rules for rolling for travel through hostile territory, such as one might do when your “score” is a dungeon delve in a traditional fantasy RPG setting, and rules for gambits, derived from a special pool that accrues extra bonus dice when the PCs score criticals, beyond just the normal effects of the critical result.
There are also “advanced moves” that are somewhat like the compendium class abilities of Dungeon World, that are highly thematic and deal with increasingly important underworld figures that have been doing what they do for long enough to be movers and shakers.
It’s an interesting chapter, and may even have some rules to borrow for moving difficulty sliders up or down or keeping things interesting for long term play, but if I were to save page count for some of what I wish were in the game, I may have pulled that space from this chapter.
Oh my goodness, do I love this section. I’m going to try not to go into too much detail, but I love how they describe the setting, and the tools they give you for using it in play. Lots of random charts for jobs the characters can get, people they might meet, or events going on in the city. Sample people, places and things. Specific Devil’s Bargains that are like default options based on various neighborhoods. Modifiers to things like heat or fortune rolls when they come up in certain circumstances in different places in the city.
This is a very good amalgam of setting information and rules to support that setting—once you get your brain wrapped around how those rules work to begin with.
Do not expect a happy place. The dead are locked out of the afterlife, the sun is dying, tentacled demon whales fuel industry, and radiation infused bugs and birds are needed to grow plants. Just don’t eat the radiation infused animals directly. Honestly, even if you aren’t using the game system, the setting is strong, and the random tables would be completely functional for other games.
Wherein I Give My Unsolicited Opinion on What I Would Have Done (Which Is Probably Not Practical)
It takes a very long time to see the shape of this game when reading through this book. The individual rules references are easy to understand. Any one rules interaction between multiple moving parts is easy to understand. The structure that a chain of events might take once multiple aspects are in play is not as obvious.
The book mentions the natural evolution of the “score game” and the “crew game,” as well as arranging the game into seasons with changing focus. I honestly wish there was more of a split between a “basic game,” that focuses more on the “score game” with less of the wider crew concepts, and an “advanced game,” which layers in the more complex interactions between things like crew advancement and tier.
While the text mentions that its fine to miss some of the rules and that no one is expected to master the rules the first time playing the game, it’s hard to see what rules have more “weight” in the game. In other words, when you are playing D&D, encumbrance may be important long term, but playing a story arc without it isn’t going to change much about the core experience. It’s harder to identify what you can deemphasize in this game, which is where a “Season One Basic Game” approach might have been nice.
The Big Score
The setting, and the tools to use that setting in play, are great. The dice pool evolution of apocalypse world style resolution, melded with a dash of Fate Accelerated, is a very fresh feeling way to utilize familiar elements. The playbooks and the crew books are very evocative and a great tool for determining what kind of game you are going to be playing. Rules like the engagement roll or leading an action are a great new way to approach story elements that other games resolve in less satisfying or elegant ways. Devil’s Bargains just feel like they would be a lot of fun to present.
Even with the many summaries and play aids that accompany the game, sometimes it feels difficult to follow a rules procedure from beginning to end. I can’t think of any individual ideas that are bad or that I don’t like, but it feels like somewhere in the game, one or two steps could have been lopped off to streamline a process or two. Sometimes it’s easier to picture the relationship between an outcome, position, and effect, then it is at other times, and more examples might have been helpful. Creating an expectation in one secluded part of the rules by creating a rule that eliminates a problem you didn’t know the PCs should be dealing with just makes the “upgrade” feel like it’s going to get ignored.
I ended my read through excited about this game. I want to get it to the table. There are lots of good, exciting ideas that make me want to see how a game session would develop from these tools. That said, I know there are going to be people that like narrative games, even complex narrative games, that may not like the rigorous web of resolutions that trigger from some actions. I know some people that like to master rules that may still not like the open-ended interpretation of things like position, effect, and resolving a 4-5 result.
It feels as if, were this game to be a “near miss” for you, it’s going to be very frustrating. And by that, I mean that you may love the setting, but not all the rules. You may love the score, but not the crew game. And if one of those things is just a little bit off for you, how much you like the things you like might magnify the things you don’t like, because you want, desperately, this whole game to work for you.
I can’t say that everyone will love this game. Even for the innovative design, I can’t say that it will have the wide appeal that I would give something at the top end of my scale. Some people aren’t going to want 300+ pages of great ideas that don’t work for them. But for people that are really interested in innovative mechanics, evocative dark fantasy industrial settings, and get a rush from trying to wrap their brain around some new rules applications, the money is going to feel well spent.
**** (out of five)