Few video game settings have grabbed my attention quite like the world of Dunwall in Dishonored. I can remember discussing this title in advance of its release, intrigued by the cool assassin on the cover and the promise of a variety of supernatural powers. When I played the game for myself for the first time, I couldn’t decide if I was more intrigued by the whalepunk technology or the occult practices of the worshipers of the Outsider. I decided that the combination of the two is what made Dishonored so fascinating to me, and I made a point of playing though the game both in low chaos and high chaos in order to see everything the world had to offer. I still rank it as one of my favorite stand-alone titles. So when I heard tell of a tabletop RPG that many players compared to Dishonored, I knew I had to look into it more.
The pitch for Blades in the Dark makes it immediately apparent how this game appeals to the same sensibilities as Dishonored. “You’re in a haunted Victorian-era city trapped inside a wall of lightning powered by demon blood.” Okay, sign me up! However, there’s plenty beyond the setting that makes this RPG by John Harper something special, and after reading the full text of the game it has jumped to the top of my list of titles I want to play. So today, I thought I would share the reasons I’m excited for Blades in the Dark, and some ideas I have for future campaigns.
Let’s start with the main premise of the game. Blades in the Dark is a game about scoundrels – a crew of criminals working together to claw their way up from the underworld into wealth and success. The characters are desperate with nothing left to lose, but also capable at their roles. While they fight against overwhelming odds, they have a tenacity that allows them to push through those odds and find success. Their lives are busy and complicated, full of rival factions pitted against one another, multiple jobs tugging at their limited resources, the constant threat of attention from the law, and the stress and trauma of all of their experiences weighing them down. Each game asks the question: can the crew push through all of this to pull off the ultimate score and retire wealthy? And each session asks the question: what will it cost them?
Each player in the game has a character who falls into one of seven character classes. These classes indicate specializations in the scoundrel world, but just because you don’t have a specialty doesn’t mean you can’t attempt an action. For example, every character can get into melee conflicts and hold their own in a Skirmish – the cutter playbook just happens to do so with particular skill. Anyone can open their mind to Attune to the strange power of the ghost field, but whispers can push that power a step further to compel ghosts to do their bidding. This means that the absence of a skill doesn’t mean your character is terrible at it – they simply have to push themselves and rely on help from their allies to succeed at those skills.
The various playbooks all work together as a crew, and in Blades in the Dark the crew has their own character sheet and special abilities that the whole party develops together. There are six crew types in the game, and each one specializes in particular types of criminal activity. The straightforward assassins, for example, specialize in all types of killings: “accidental,” brutal and public, or totally obscured from public view. The crew could also be smugglers, sellers of illegal goods, or even a cult. While characters with a variety of skills and backgrounds might be within a crew, the crew identity gives them a group specialization as well as a singular direction for their criminal enterprise.
Mechanically, Blades in the Dark runs on a dice pool system. When your character takes an action, you roll a number of six-sided dice based on the action rating of the skill you’re using. You take the highest number you roll and base the result of your action on the position and effect level established by the game master. So for example, say I’m playing as a cutter named Lancer with a Command rating of 2. I’m ordering some lower-rank thugs in my crew to go rough up members of a rival gang, the Silver Nails. The Nails have already roughed up our crew a couple of times, so the GM says it’s risky for me to try to bark orders at my already-agitated thugs, but if I succeed it’ll have the standard level of effect. So I roll 2 six-sided dice and get a 1 and a 5. I take the 5 as my result, which means I succeed at my action but there are going to be consequences. The GM says that my thugs will do as they are told – but it’ll result in yet another beating which will serve as the finishing blow to their trust in me as a leader. That’ll most certainly lead to some problems down the line!
There are three different position levels – controlled, risky, and desperate – as well as three different effect levels – limited, standard, and great. A controlled action with great effect is an action taken from a position of power that will have a great impact on the target. A limited effect from a desperate position is dangerous to attempt, and even if it works it won’t accomplish much. You can mix and match position and effect levels to represent all kinds of situations. For example, bombing the Bluecoat headquarters might be a desperate attack against them, but it could have great effect against them. Conversely, shooting an armored carriage from a hidden sniper nest may be an easy, controlled action, but the effect of a single bullet against a reinforced carriage is likely to be limited.
In addition to position and effect, there are three levels of success. A roll of 1, 2, or 3 is a failure – your action does not succeed and you suffer a consequence. A roll of 4 or 5 grants a partial success – you do what you set out to accomplish, but it costs something or comes with a consequence. A roll of 6 means you are successful at the action and manage it with little trouble. You can also roll a critical by getting two or more sixes, meaning you overcome the obstacle in a significant way that gives you an edge or additional benefit. If you’ve played Apocalypse World or another game based upon it, this system where success at a cost is the most common outcome should be familiar to you.
You can’t talk about Blades in the Dark without also talking about stress. Stress is the resource which gives BitD characters their true power – the ability to take consequences in stride and keep going. Whenever your character is about to suffer a consequence, they can roll to resist it and suffer stress instead. Stress is also accumulated to take advantage of useful bonuses such as pushing oneself, getting assistance from a friend, or activating a flashback to show how an action taken in the past is beneficial to you now. Stress can prevent a lot of negative outcomes for your character, but being too stressed can cause you problems too. Accumulate so much stress that your character can no longer bear it and she suffers a trauma, a permanent mental scar that will characterize her for the rest of her days. One trauma is manageable, even two or three won’t end your career, but at four trauma your character must retire, their will finally broken by the struggle against overwhelming forces.
It’s possible to reduce stress, but the characters in Blades in the Dark aren’t privileged enough to have access to healthy coping mechanisms. Instead, they rely on vices which can lead them into trouble if overindulged. Additionally, indulging in one’s vice takes precious time, and time is a resource that scoundrels don’t have in abundance. Time indulging a vice is time not spent training, not spent removing some heat from the crew, not spent working on beneficial long-term projects; characters in Blades in the Dark have too many things to do and not enough time to get it all done.
Time is important in Blades in the Dark not only because of the limited downtime available to the characters, but also because clocks are used as a simple tracking mechanism for many of the game’s features. Need to figure out how long the crew has before the guards trigger an alarm? Make a clock for it. Need to know how long Lancer needs to spend gathering radiant ore before he can make his spirit-killing dagger? Make a clock for it. Clocks track everything in BitD and they serve as an easy point of reference for the players and GM alike when consequences or progress towards a goal need to be observed.
The final feature of Blades in the Dark that made me particularly excited to get it on my gaming table is the faction system. The crew portrayed by the players is not the only criminal group in the setting – and they are certainly not the biggest or the most capable. There are a number of different factions operating in Doskvol and they have a fragile web of alliances and rivalries which connect them all. As they undertake scores, the crew will inevitably interact with these different factions, befriending some and harming others, helping some to achieve their goals while preventing others from accomplishing theirs. As these relationships become more complex and the crew builds up a reputation, they draw heat towards themselves and get caught up in complex entanglements.
The various factions are fascinating to me as a game master, and I love the idea of the crew getting involved in these turf wars and forming their own relationships as well. One of the factions I find particularly interesting are the Gondoliers. These individuals pilot the gondolas that transport people along the canals of the city, but they also have a history of protecting the common folk from the spiritual forces that rise from the waters. After all, what better place to dispose of a murdered body than the canals? Because the Gondoliers have always watched out for the common folk, they are more well-liked than the city’s official spirit hunters, the Wardens, and this leads to a rivalry between those groups. I also think the Lampblacks sound cool – they used to light the city’s flame lamps, but when electricity became more prevalent they lost their jobs and turned to crime instead.
All of these interwoven mechanisms working together – stress, heat, factions, scores – create fascinating tools for a game master to build a sandbox environment for the players to explore. I enjoy it when a game gives me lots of interesting tools and resources to do with them as I will. It allows me to create a Doskvol that is all my own, where my players can tell stories unique to them, while having lots of great resources to help us develop our ideas. Blades in the Dark also helps with this by having lots of useful tables to reference, where random dice rolls can generate scores, NPCs, and even demons if needed.
When I get excited about a new game, I tend to think of how I’d want to approach it as a GM and as a player. From the player perspective, the playbook I’m most interested in is the leech. Leeches are masters of the Tinker action, and depending on their specialization this can apply to mechanical, spiritual, alchemical, or even biological targets. I like the idea of having the physicker ability in order to provide medical services via the leech’s advanced Tinkering. I feel like a corrupt doctor could play a useful role in many different crew types, whether it’s arranging “accidental” deaths as an assassin or using their medical knowledge to enhance the high provided by a hawker crew’s drugs. Plus, I’m a sucker for creepy doctor types in fiction, and any character called a leech has to be horrifying to behold.
As a game master, I’m not particularly attached to running a game for any single crew type. I think assassins would be somewhat easy to handle, and probably lurkers as well – a less traditional party type like hawkers or smugglers would create a different kind of story than what I’m used to and could push me to develop new skills as a GM. The factions I’m most interested in exploring include the previously-mentioned Gondoliers and Lampblacks, but I also like the Grey Cloaks and the Leviathan Hunters. The Grey Cloaks are criminals who once worked for the police force, the Bluecoats, but were made to take the fall for a crime against the Leviathan Hunters that they didn’t commit. They know want to take down the hunters, but that’s a difficult task as these rough sailors are experienced on the Void Sea and have faced down demons and lived to tell the tale.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Blades in the Dark, adventurers. Have you had the opportunity to play the game? What are your favorite playbooks or crew types to play? Any factions you really like or dislike? I’d be glad to hear your stories to slake my thirst while I wait for the opportunity to play myself!