Blades in the Dark – Player’s Review
A good few years ago I wrote about the tabletop RPG Blades in the Dark. A beautiful book of thieves, smugglers, breakers, and assassins scrambling their way up the ladder in the dusk veiled city of Doskvol in the Shattered Isles. A unique setting which acts as a pressure cooker of political intrigue, daring heists, and catastrophic failures. It’s the best RPG of the last decade and my favourite of all time.
I’ve run a lot of Blades in the Dark with different groups but recently something magical happened. I got to be a player in a Blades of the Dark campaign (which is still ongoing). As I wrote back in my Agon review, the perspective of RPGs from a player is very different to that of a GM. I want to revisit Blades in the Dark as it looks from the other side of the table.
It’s in their character
First off the character sheets are a great piece of design. Clean, functional with all the info I need about my character accessible at a glance. I can see what I’m good at, and my health. There are loads of handy little mechanical reminders to jog the memory. You can tell that John Harper has graphic design in his blood.
The pitch for each campaign of Blades in the Dark is clean and to the point, and most importantly requires the players to buy into the concept of being the bad guys. In the case of the game I am playing in, we are Smugglers. I instantly know what this means and the sort of jobs we are likely to be doing. My class is Spider, the ideas person, a criminal Mastermind (maybe not so much the last bit in reality). My mechanical abilities within the group give me niche protection. I can take the Spider in different directions depending on the stats I choose at the start and the special ability I start with.
What I mean by that is that I may be the ideas guy but I’m no good at being in a brawl, and have less ability to sneak around than others in the group. Of course our fighters Vey and Tick can come up with ideas and I can try my hand at a fight (that didn’t go well recently). The system means that fundamentally I am better at the former and they are better at the latter. We are all specialists and will have our moments to shine.
Roll the Dice
When I came to playing the game I was reminded how robust Blades in the Dark is. RPG systems often frown upon ‘gaming’ the system. They discourage you from turning the story towards your mechanical advantage. For sure Blades in the Dark wants you to narrate then roll, but if you do push that narration towards what you are good at the system can take it. Encourages it even.
Sneaking into a place in a more traditional game, like Dungeons and Dragons, would likely involve everyone making a roll to make sure they didn’t get spotted, likely resulting in a failure or two. In Blades you can get your best sneakist to ‘lead an action’. Everyone still rolls, but the result is much more likely to be a success with some consequences for the leader.
Even if you don’t have a point in a skill it doesn’t matter. The magic stress bar comes to the rescue. As a player this is a limited resource you can spend to really change up the narrative. Instead of 0 in a skill, I can spend 2 stress to have 1 in a skill. I can take a blow in stress instead of an injury. I can even rewrite history with a Flashback.
Flashbacks are just a beautiful mechanic. They give players the confidence to get to the action knowing they have a safety harness to ameliorate the inevitable complications. The flashback can be used in so many ways, but fundamentally it allows the player to start a conversation with the GM about the action at hand. It gives a moment to pause and adjust the situation in favour of the players.
A Matter of Agency
Blades in the Dark, more than any other RPG I have ever players, understands player agency. This is a concept more common to boardgames, but I think it is something we should concern ourselves more with in RPGs. Fundamentally it means this: how much can I affect the situation as a player?
In the majority of RPGs the game is run by the GM and players are effectively reacting to the situations the GM presents. Sure the players can suggest, push, and invent. On the mechanical side there is often little players can do to affect the situation. I wrote about his model a little while ago, how it is the main way Dungeons and Dragons describes itself, and how we as players can help the GM out during a game.
Blades encourages the players to be proactive, to lean into danger, to embrace cutting to the action. It doesn’t just do that with it’s excellent player best practices section, it also give the players the tools to make it happen. In any situation you don’t just look for the skill the GM calls for, you have options. There is a bank of buttons to push and you decide which one to press.
Finally I love that I can hold the Blades system easily in my head. There are very few exceptions, special rules, or complicated formulas to remember. It is one of the things that frustrates me most in a lot of mainstream RPGs. Sure we as players and GMs can decide to ignore bits of a system we don’t like or we find too complicated, but why make them so prescriptive in the first place. That’s probably another article.
Blades in the Dark is one of those games that I find myself coming back to over and over again. It believes in the maturity of its playerbase. The game gives you a strong framework of rules but doesn’t prescribe how you might handle a given hypothetical. It brings the action to the table without the players even really having to push very hard because the narration and mechanics are intertwined precisely with the sort of story it wants to tell. I love it, and I hope you will one day get to give it a go yourself.
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