It’s not often that I come across a game that breaks the mold. Sure, some systems will improve or change up the formula significantly enough to make a splash. Blades in the Dark, a game of heists in a broken world, delivers a wholly different tabletop experience. This alone makes it worthy of note, but the smooth execution of this new system makes it worthy of praise. As I am a grognard whose style doesn’t shift much from game to game, system to system, I struggled somewhat with adapting to Blades’ unique style. I hope to elucidate these key differences for those who may be in a similar situation, as the game is too good to pass up.
1) Setting Expectations
In Blades, players roll a number of d6s equal to their skill, plus some additional dice depending on circumstance. Like most games, the GM describes the difficulty of the task. Unlike most games, this difficulty does not dictate a number of successes or target number to achieve. Instead, the GM sets the consequences and the effect of the action should it succeed, and players roll and take the highest die result. For instance, a player may describe how they want their character to bull rush a thug who has a gun trained on them. In most situations, the GM would judge this action Desperate (the most dangerous rating) since it is unlikely they will emerge unscathed. Additionally, the GM would rule this as a low level of effect. The player character isn’t likely to incapacitate the thug with a single charge. However, should the thug be standing on a ledge or near a wrought iron grate, their capacity for injury increases, and so does the effect level. The narrative circumstances directly affect the mechanics of the game in this way. The player then rolls, and should the highest die result be a 1-3, they fail with consequences (they are shot and unable to connect with the thug). If it’s 4 or 5, they succeed with consequences (they slam into the thug, but also take a bullet for their trouble), and if it’s a 6, they succeed without negative consequences (the PC hits the thug before they can get a shot off).
It’s up to the GM to keep their players informed about the aspects of a scene so that everyone’s expectations are the same. What if the PC had a gun too? What if that PC decided to talk down the thug instead? The GM applies a rating entirely dependant on these shifting circumstances, which makes the next point all the more important.
2) Gathering Input
This game, more so than most others, relies on a give and take by the GM and players. For instance, the players choose which skill they want to use to complete any given task. The GM is encouraged not to deny the player’s selection, rather to ask the player to describe how they want to use that skill to accomplish that objective. In the previous example, the PC could use their Skirmish skill (most often used for scuffles), and the GM would most likely rule as described. Should they instead ask to use Prowl, they would have to describe how that skill applies to the situation. Do they try to duck behind cover, skulk through the shadows, then clobber the thug once their unaware? It’s up to the player, but the goal remains always to serve the narrative.
The GM is also intended to take input from players on how they want the consequences to apply to them. Physical harm and negative outcomes can be resisted by the player, but doing so causes Stress to accumulate and puts the player closer to a permanent Trauma. Sure, you didn’t get shot, but it means you had to throw yourself behind cover at the last second, and the near miss left you rattled. The GM is the final arbiter on how the consequence is avoided, or if it’s merely reduced in strength, so the power does lie ultimately with the GM. This keeps the gaming table in check while also making players feel more involved in the storytelling process.
3) Narrating Time
Time is a funny construct in Blades. Things are not always done entirely chronologically, and there can be significant gaps without any actual gameplay problems. Showcased here is the flashbacks system. Before a job, your gang of (mostly) competent criminals meets under the lantern’s glow to plan out the fine details. The players, however, do not. Instead, they take preparatory actions, such as scouting the base or researching the target, decide on a style of heist, then determine the point of entry. The game then cuts immediately to the action. Any and all remaining details are filled in by the gang declaring flashbacks in the middle of the heist. “I planted a gun under the seat during prep,” is a tried and true one. “I brought flowers for the girl we have on the inside to convince her to help us.” These are all actions that players can take during a heist that affect the past yet aid the PCs in the moment. Depending on how wild and unlikely a flashback is, it might require some Stress on the part of the character. Still, this mechanic provides a dynamic way to skip the endless debate about each minute detail of a job beforehand and get right to the fun. It’s also the hardest thing for GMs and players to get used to. Once you get the hang of it, though, you may want to import the system into every other similar game you play.
Blades in the Dark is a fantastic game with a really detailed setting, but it’s so much more than that. It truly innovates in a major way and provides a new, and in some ways better, way to run TTRPGs. It’s just we grogs who need the occasional kick in the pants to keep our minds open so we don’t miss these gems when they come around.
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer/editor with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact.
Picture Reference: https://www.evilhat.com/home/blades-in-the-dark/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.