Blades in the Dark — Review

You are currently viewing Blades in the Dark — Review

At the tail end of 2021, I finished up a second campaign of John Harper’s Blades in the Dark. Like the first game I ran the year before, it lasted for about three months. In between, I’ve also run a handful of disparate one-shots for a variety of players. I think it’s fair to say then I’ve got a pretty decent understanding of the game and what it’s trying to do. Unfortunately, when I ran the last few sessions of my campaign and reflected on my experiences with the game, I could come to but one conclusion. I despise this game.

Now, in fairness, I don’t despise all of the game. I think the game has a lot of interesting ideas and Harper is a talented designer. However, I’m probably going to stay away from the game for a long while. In short, Blades in the Dark is trying to encourage a style of play that just doesn’t work for me. That’s fine. If you love this style of play — which I’ll cover in more detail later — you’ll love this game. I wanted to love this game. In fact, for a time, I did. I liked it enough to run a second campaign of it a year after the first. So again — despite the criticisms I have against the game — it isn’t a bad game, it’s just not for me.

Duskwall. Or was it Doskvol?

The basic premise of Blades in the Dark is that the players are a group of scoundrels. Ne’er-do-wells, thieves, crooks, etc. Due to an event known only as the cataclysm, what remains of humanity has had to huddle up in densely-populated steampunk-ish industrial cities. These cities are protected by massive domes of lightning, which keep the inhabitants safe from the uninhabitable wasteland that lies beyond it. Duskwall (or Doskvol, or rarely North Hook) is one such city, and traditionally the game is entirely restricted to this city. In Duskwall, your group of underdogs tries to climb the ranks of the vicious underworld. Oh, and there are also ghosts, spirits, demons, and eldritch beings from unimaginable realms.

If you’re anything like me, that sounds awesome. I love movies like Ocean’s Eleven, or Heat. Payday 2 is still the most played game in my Steam Library. The book provides you with a bunch of factions, criminal or otherwise, so you can live out criminal fantasies to your heart’s content. You can pick from a variety of playbooks — classes but don’t call them that or the game gets mad — and crews, which detail the kind of activities you’re interested in such as smuggling, assassination, or good old burglary. Each playbook and crew gets some unique special abilities to really make them feel like the thing they’re supposed to be.

I love the design of the playbooks and crews, and they genuinely do feel like the fantasy they’re supposed to embody. Playing a Spider genuinely feels like being the puppet master of the entire show, and crafting a bunch of wacky bullshit is right up the Leech’s alley. All this to say that the design of the setting and the player-facing options is genuinely very well done. I just have a problem with the rest of the game.

The Rest of the Game

I’ve never had a chance to be a player in a Blades in the Dark game. I can well imagine that my issues with the game are purely GM-facing, but I’m not qualified to make that judgement. However, from what I’ve discussed with some of my GM friends who’ve run Blades in the Dark, I’m not the only one for whom the game doesn’t sit right. My primary issues are the action resolution mechanic and the gameplay loop. If you know the first thing about TTRPG design, those are some pretty big aspects of the game. In a way, those two things are the game.

First, however, I want to highlight something that Harper explains well in the book, and was consequently absolutely mutilated by anyone who has ever held an opinion about Blades in the Dark. I’m talking of course about “Fiction First Gaming”. Harper writes:

 “Fiction-first” is a bit of jargon to describe the process of playing a roleplaying game, as opposed to other sorts of games you might be used to.

Fiction-first is in contrast to mechanics-first, which is how other games are played. In a game of chess, you analyse your options and valid moves, and then make the move you think is optimal. You can describe it however you like, “My brave knight Bumblefuck strikes valiantly at the peasant legions” but this description is secondary and rather irrelevant. In a role-playing game, you’re expected to consider the fictional world first, and then make a decision based on that. In most games, the GM then decides how the action resolves — success, failure, consequences, etc.

Blades in the Dark is no different than any other role-playing game in this regard. You might argue that in some (parts of) games mechanics-first gaming takes precedence, like in a traditional D&D-style combat, and you’d be correct. However, the fiction is always present, and good gamers still engage with the fiction even in such circumstances. You know you shouldn’t cast Fire Bolt to damage a Fire Elemental, even if you haven’t been told that Fire Elementals have immunity to fire damage. You can reason this from an understanding of the world, which you couldn’t do in a game like chess. The only way you know how the Knight can move in a game of chess is to be explained it. In D&D, even in combat, you can reason that you can use your sword to attack and you can run around. Nevertheless, there certainly is an aspect of “I pick this action from this list of actions” in such circumstances, which isn’t always present in other parts of the game or other games in general.

However, I’ve seen discussions about Blades in the Dark and the larger FitD/PbtA-sphere that argue that Fiction-First Gaming is a unique aspect of those games, or at the very least is more prominent in those types of games. I don’t agree. I strongly believe that many of those games are less Fiction-First than more traditional RPGs. That stems from the action resolution mechanism of Blades in the Dark.

The Dice Pool

Most modern games nowadays have a single, unified, action resolution mechanic. In D&D, it’s the classic d20 + ability modifier + proficiency. Blades in the Dark uses a dice pool instead. You collect a handful of d6s, roll them, and the highest number on any of them is the final result of the roll. If you roll a 6, you score a success. If you roll a 4 or 5, you can get a success with a consequence, and anything lower fails outright. Several factors determine how many dice you get to roll. First, you have the 12 actions which are rated from 0 to 4 and determine your aptitude in particular areas. Each rank in an action grants you a single d6. Then, you can spend limited resources to get an additional die, or call for a Devil’s Bargain — accept an additional consequence and get an extra die. The details aren’t important for now, but you can see there are a lot of decision points. Then, the GM is supposed to set Position — how prepared are you, how bad is it when you screw up and Effect — if you succeed, how good is that success. The book encourages the table to come to a consensus over Position and Effect and makes the GM explain why a certain action gets a particular Position or Effect.

I think Position and Effect are a decent way of codifying the fiction. The GM is supposed to interpret the situation of the game and adjust the effects of the die roll based on that. However, I also think a lot of GMs already do this — again, literally every single TTRPG forces you to think this way. When you’re setting a DC in D&D, you’re doing the exact same thing. Instead, by calling attention to this so explicitly, it gets in the way of the GMs job. I’ve even heard of GMs who get rid of Position and Effect almost entirely and simply adjudicate consequence based on what seems reasonable. While I do think it’s important that there is a general consensus over the state of the fiction, I don’t think Position and Effect are the way to do it. A general reminder of “Okay, but if you fail, the guards will see you” is quicker, and Blades already forces you to do this anyway because you’re also supposed to explain why the Position was set a certain way.

My bigger gripe then is with the dice pool. The nature of Dice Pool systems is that players will start to look for ways to optimise the dice pool. Get as many dice without accepting too much risk. While there’s something to be said for meaningful choice, none of those choices are made from the perspective of the fiction. Mechanics like getting extra dice through Pushing or Devil’s Bargains are never engaged from the fiction. The logic always flows from a mechanical-first perspective: “I want extra dice, so I guess I’ll take some stress damage or accept this bargain”, and the GM and players are then left to come up with a way to make it make sense within the fiction. That’s exactly the sort of mechanics-first gaming that Blades in the Dark claims to avoid. Similarly, teamwork actions are taken because the players need the extra dice or the improved position. What happens within the context of the narrative is often easily explained afterwards, but that’s still mechanics-first gaming.

Sure, the decision to take extra dice is taken from the fiction. “We really need to get this safe open, best make sure we get a good shot at it” is technically reasoning from the fiction in the same sense that taking the Attack option in D&D is reasoning from the fiction that there’s a monster in front of you. In truth, a lot of Blades in the Dark’s gaming is actually more mechanics-first than a lot of other role-playing games.

Similarly, after each score (job, heist, mission, quest, etc.) the players enter a round of downtime. Here they can take time to recuperate, unwind, and prepare for their next job. Again, a lot of decisions during this downtime phase are entirely mechanical. At no point during this downtime phase do the players need to engage with the fiction. If your stress bar is full, you roll the dice to reduce stress. If you have a lot of heat because you murdered seven men, roll to reduce heat. Want to make progress on a project? Roll the Long-Term Project dice. It got to a point later in my campaign where I could walk off for 20 minutes while my players did downtime themselves. Remember, me or my players inventing what they’re doing after they’ve taken the action is not fiction-first gaming, just like describing a valiant cavalry charge after getting Mate with your Knight isn’t fiction-first gaming. If your players can play the game entirely on their own without needing a GM, you’ve fundamentally misunderstood what my job as a game designer is.

The game admits this outright. See, another part of mechanics-first gaming is the grating “I roll for Insight” thing that every new D&D player attempts once before getting it beaten out of them by a competent GM. Or, if you’re Critical Role, you broadcast that shit every week for thousands to see as some sacred example of play. As a player, you’re supposed to recognize the fiction of the game, and formulate an approach and desired result based on that — like “I want to see if the thief is lying. I’ll ask lots of rapid questions to make him trip up.” — and then the GM can go “That seems reasonable. Make a Wisdom Check and add your Insight Proficiency.” That is fiction-first gaming. Even more aneurysm-inducing is when the player has already thrown the dice across the table and smugly announces “Twenty-two! What do I know?” before the GM has even had time to reach for a copy of the DMG to beat them silly with.

Meanwhile, Blades in the Dark — remember, supposedly truly fiction-first unlike that yucky D&D game — assumes that all GMs have the authority of a wet noodle. It admits in the opening pages that “someone starts rolling dice because they want to” is a perfectly valid reason for making an action roll. That’s right — the cardinal sin of D&D is totally okay here. In fairness to the game, this is where Position and Effect come in again. As a GM, you’re allowed to say “No. That can’t work. Zero Effect, regardless of what you try”. On the other hand, the game doesn’t like it when you try that. So long as it isn’t totally ridiculous — such as leaping to the moon — you’re supposed to give the players at least a minimal chance. I say, give me the dice and the rules, and let me decide what can and can’t be done. That’s what the GM is here for.

The Gameplay Loop

Blades in the Dark has a very particular gameplay loop. First, you do the score. Afterwards, you take downtime to recuperate, work on projects and prepare your next score. You can optionally head into Free Play afterwards, which is mostly a disparate collection of scenes to set up the next score. Maybe the players want to meet with an NPC, or scout the location ahead of time. That’s all Free Play. Then, when you’re ready for your next job, you head back into the score.

On the surface, this isn’t too dissimilar to the gameplay loop of traditional fantasy RPGs. Just replace “score” with “adventure” or “dungeon” and you’ve got 40 years of Fantasy Gaming. Even so, the actual loop has a distinct feel to it. Each score is preceded by an Engagement Roll. Each Downtime is preceded by a “finishing up the job” segment where players get their reward, score reputation, and suffer complications. The game is thus always very clear about which part of the game you’re in.

The “combat swoosh” in D&D is often lamented as an immersion-breaking aspect. When you roll Initiative after encountering a monster, you get a Final-Fantasylike “combat swoosh” and suddenly you’re in a tactical battle, players are picking from a list of actions, and it doesn’t quite feel like an RPG anymore. Blades in the Dark does this for every aspect of the game. The Engagement Roll is the “combat swoosh” but for burglaries, and I’ve already explained how Downtime is so incredibly devoid of fiction that the table doesn’t even need me there to run it. I could never feel like I was actually running a game in this industrial world, and neither could my players.

Through everything in its design, it makes it obvious that the game does not want the players to engage with it, but rather with some sort of abstraction of it. Money is abstracted to coin. Relations are abstracted to a Reputation bar and faction status trackers. If the players want to overcome an obstacle, they can call for a flashback and come up with a way in which the obstacle actually isn’t an obstacle at all. Downtime is arbitrary and has no regard for the fiction at all.

In both my games, I’ve had players get frustrated with the gameplay loop. In one instance, a player lamented that they felt that trouble was coming from every side and that there was nothing they could do to stop them. Between the consequences of actions, pissing off factions with scores, and downtime entanglements, it’s not hard to see where they came from. Either you’re constantly on the back foot and having to play a game of gangster whack-a-mole, or when you do finally get to seize the initiative, there is very little to be proactive about. The players, inherently, have no needs. They do not need money to survive, or to upgrade their gear. Blades in the Dark doesn’t even encourage you that much to come up with motivations for your character or crew.

In my other game, my players desperately needed downtime actions. They had projects to finish, and scores to recover from. The obvious solution? Take on teeny tiny easy jobs so you can “farm” downtime actions without much trouble. I hope I don’t need to explain that when you’ve players getting frustrated with the core gameplay loop, or trying to exploit it for their own benefit, there’s something wrong with the game.

Blades in the Dark is a very particular game. I wholeheartedly believe that Harper moves in the sort of circles where this type of play does not occur. The ninth circle of gaming hell where storygamers sing Kumbaya and wank each other off about how great and clever their characters are. Unfortunately, for those of us merely stuck in gaming limbo, this is the reality of the situation. Players want to win. Players will optimize the fun out of your game. If you want the game to be played a certain way, design it that way. Don’t write a lousy chapter called “Players’ Best Practices” and just hope they stick to it. In truth, Blades in the Dark isn’t a game about playing criminals. It’s a game about writing a story about playing criminals.

I Guess I Hate Blades Now

If you’ve read Blades, that might be blitheringly obvious. The game encourages this “writer’s room” style of play. I’ll admit, I didn’t run Blades in the Dark the way the book wants me to run the game. I rarely ask players for input about the world, the characters in it, or the consequences of their actions in the fiction. Again, I prefer a strict GM-Player segregation. The player plays their character, the GM plays the rest of the world. I’d hoped, perhaps naively, that I could still run the game in a more traditional manner and just be left with a cool framework for running heists. Unfortunately, the game genuinely does not work that way. I’m here stuck in gaming limbo with normal players.

Look, if you think that everything I’ve mentioned so far about writing an episode for a TV show then you’ll probably love Blades in the Dark. It just is absolutely not the game for me. Again, I wanted to like Blades. I love the setting, and I think a lot of the player facing aspects are well-designed. Currently, however, Blades in the Dark feels like a lot of bone with little meat. If Blades and other Powered by the Apocalypse-style games aren’t for me, that’s fine. At least I know that now. If you disagree, I hope Blades in the Dark works for you. I wish it did for me. At least I got a cathartic review out of it.

Leave a Reply