How to Play, and Run, Blades in the Dark
Blades in the Dark is my favourite tabletop roleplaying game (RPG). Released in 2017, the game impressed me with how tightly focused it was, how well the book described play, and its breadth and boldness of advice for both players and GMs. It effortlessly gives you moments of high drama as you take on the role of criminals in the vast city of Doskvol, scratching and snarling your way to the top of the underworld food chain through daring heists, political manoeuvrings, and bold action.
I’ve written about Blades In The Dark (Blades) twice before: Once when I first reviewed it from a GMs perspective, and later when I had more of a chance to play it and could think about how it felt from the player’s side of the table. If you are looking for an overview of the game and my critical opinion on it, those are the places to go. They should also provide you with a good idea of whether or not Blades in the Dark is a game for you.
Now I want to turn my hand to something different. While I think the book is excellent at explaining what the game is and how to play it, I have come across many instances where it seems folk approach it with a more traditional mindset and the game fails to accommodate them. It fails to do that because it isn’t meant to be played that way. I have come across issues on the GM’s side and players’ side of the table and I aim to address both in this guide.
Who is this guide for?
This guide assumes that you are coming from a more traditional RPG background. What do I mean by that? Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, Runequest, Traveller all these games and more from the history of RPGs have the same structure: one person, usually referred to as the Games Master (GM) or similar, facilitates all the play. That person designs and reads adventures, then presents them to the players who react to the situations while not really being encouraged to contribute to the story beyond the portrayal of their characters.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with liking, playing, and running those games and I am not here to tell you that. Especially in the modern era of RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons, a very traditionally constructed game, stands head and shoulders above all the others. I’ve run Dungeons and Dragons. I like it for what it is.
Blades in the Dark wants you to play your games differently. It’s a game that encourages collaboration between players and GM. I think it’s a great entry into the more story focused games with mechanisms that support the play the designer wants to see.
This guide is going to assume you have made the leap into buying Blades, but are now maybe feeling a bit overwhelmed as to how to play and run the game. If you don’t have a copy you can get a copy here (this is an affiliate link).
Throughout this guide I will summarise each part in sections like this
How to play Blades in the Dark
As much as I love Blades in the Dark and think the book is awesome, it has always felt odd to me that the parts I consider most important to understanding Blades and playing it correctly are buried way back in the book over two chapters. It starts on page 182 with “Player Best Practices” at the end of “Chapter 6: How to Play”, and then is continued in “Chapter 7: Running the Game” through to about page 200.
Over the course of these 18 pages John Harper lays out the guiding principles for both sides of the table. I’m going to expand upon these in this guide, but the fundamental building blocks are there. I understand I may be making the rest of this guide a moot point for you, but I encourage you to read those sections first before you dive into the rest of the book.
The GM is a player as well
First thing I want you to realise about Blades in the Dark, but frankly you should keep this in mind whenever you play a RPG, is that the GM is a player as well. They want to have fun and enjoy the game as much as you do. I will still use GM, the person who is running the game, and player, the person who is playing a character, to differentiate between the two roles.
Everyone is around the table to have fun together. You all have equal responsibility for that. Blades does not want you to sit back as a player and just absorb what is going on and occasionally say something witty. It wants you to push your own agenda, bash up against the world, and the other characters, while giving you the tools to make all that happen. Participation from everyone around the table is required to make this game really sing.
Everything is the game
Blades is very specifically split up into different types of play. You go on a job, the job completes and then you have some Downtime to pursue your own agendas, help the crew get rid of some heat etc.
Both those parts are THE GAME. Creating your characters together and making up The Crew is THE GAME. Don’t ignore or dismiss any part of it as just a part of the procedure, each part contributes to the whole feel of the game.
We’ve already touched on how the Crew sheet can be a jumping off point for inspiration. Downtime can become a whole session, or it might just take 30 mins at the end of a heist. However it is handled, the outcome of Downtime informs the next session and can provide inspiration for the next job.
Everyone should have fun, including the GM. Don’t dismiss any part of the game, engage with it fully.
Paint broadly, then add detail
Blades in the Dark fits into a mould of game where you start out with very broad strokes and fill in the details during play. This starts at character and crew creation. It starts with you as a player. Blades is not a game where you should come with a massive character background worked out, or the perfect idea of how your crew came together. Those details will emerge in play, and during the all important session zero which the game encourages and we will dive into in more detail later.
Hold Ideas lightly
If we are painting in broad strokes and filling in the details during play, it follows that we have to hold onto any of the ideas we have lightly. Like other RPGs, moreso in fact, Blades relies on the players and GM collaborating on the fiction they are creating.
If you refuse to let go of an idea you had, no matter how cool it may have been, this can lead to that concept either dominating or being discarded. No one will feel good about that either way. Character concepts, plot ideas, themes, and motifs should be woven together as smoothly as possible by the players whilst still allowing for friction between the characters.
Another way to put both of these, and it is a core philosophy for a lot of the indie gaming scene is this: Play to find out. What that means is don’t come with a load of preconceived ideas that you absolutely must get to the table or your game is ruined. Come with those ideas, hold onto them lightly, and see what emerges from the actual play of the game. I promise you’ll be rewarded.
Be an active participant in the game. Don’t come to the game burdened by preparation.
Let character and plot details emerge naturally in play. Play to Find Out.
Player and character are two different things
I touched on it just a moment ago, but this is incredibly important and something a lot of players seem to forget across all RPGS. You, the player, are different from the character you portray. You, the player, knows things the character doesn’t. You can calculate the probability of the things the character is about to do. They are performing the action without such mathematical insight.
What does this mean in play? It means you have to tell everyone what you want. The game encourages the GM and players to be open with secrets that the NPCs and characters may not want to give up. If every player around the table understands every character’s motivations and goals, you can avoid stepping on toes less and help to bring those cool ideas to fruition at the table.
It also means that you as a player need to collaborate with everyone else. If you decide your character is going off and do something else while everyone else goes on the job, then you, the player, aren’t going to have a very good time. As we’ve just covered, we Play to Find Out. Don’t derail play just because your ‘character’ would do it. Find a different way to express the part of your character you think is important, within the confines of the play that is happening at the table.
The crew is a character as well
During character creation in Blades you will also create a Crew. The Crew has a separate sheet and is for all intents and purposes another character that all the players create together and have equal control of.
Not only does the crew sheet give you some cool abilities and act as a record of how your gang is doing, it can be referred to in order to figure out what you want to do next. Look at all those pieces of territory in your little map. What do you want to go for? Maybe you want something that you can’t have straight away? What are you willing to do to get that?
The Crew sheet can also be a wonderful source of colour for the main characters. Many of the crew types come with some thugs or similar. There is nothing to stop you naming some of the NPC gang members, giving them a trait or two, and having them recur on various jobs. I’ve even run a session where the players took on the roles of some of the minor characters in the crew and created trouble for the main characters to deal with in the next session.
You are not your character. Collaborate with other players to make all the characters shine.
The Crew is a character you all contribute to and can use for inspiration.
Trust the tools you are given
In a more traditional game, like Dungeons and Dragons, you have very few mechanisms to fall back on as a player. In fact most of the time the GM asks for a roll, you roll it and that is it. Maybe the system has luck or some other mechanism to allow you another chance, but generally you don’t have many levers to pull.
Blades in the Dark is a game that presents both players and GMs with many levers to pull. It’s a machine that can produce only a few outcomes but you can get to those results by pulling the various levers in different combinations. I’ll be diving into the tools the game gives you a bit later. For now I want you to realise that those levers are incredibly robust and want to be used. Everytime you pull one, the outcome will produce a great story and move the fiction forwards. Never doubt that it will.
Revel in the spotlight, but don’t hog it
The nature of a game like Blades is that each character has a specialisation. Maybe they are the Cutter, using only violence to solve problems, or a Lurk, sneaking into places others can’t get into. This strong specialisation and the way the rules encourage you to have a spread of characters is often referred to as niche protection. This means I am the main punchist, you do something else but may punch as a backup.
The upshot of this is that some sessions are going to focus on one or two characters more than others. That’s fine. Think about your favourite TV series and you’ll find that certain scenes or entire episodes can focus on a particular character or group of characters. Celebrate when your friends get to show off how cool their characters are. Don’t be jealous as your time will come. The teamwork mechanisms at our disposal will mean you can involve yourself one way or another anyway!
When your turn comes to be standing in the spotlight, let it shine on you but use it to get other players involved. Sure this scene, or maybe an entire session, rests on your shoulders but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring others along for the ride. The favour will no doubt be returned when it comes time for their moment to be front and centre.
Don’t be afraid of failure
How many TV shows and films have you watched where the protagonists succeed all the time? Is it none? It’s none. I guarantee it. Despite that, there is an attitude amongst many players that out-and-out success is the only desired outcome when it comes to determining what happens next in the fiction.
Think of your favourite heist film. Imagine if every problem in that film didn’t exist. Imagine if in Ocean’s 11 there were no problems, no issues to overcome, no adversary to defeat. That would be a boring film, and a very short one. With the setbacks Danny and his cohorts face, we get drama, hi-jinks, laughs, and moments of seeming defeat redeemed by high-fiving success. That’s what we want in our games, don’t we?
When you make your roll in Blades, the most likely outcome is a success with consequences. That’s good. We want there to be consequences. Consequences mean drama and story. When it comes to the mechanisms of gaining experience, trouble is good. We get more xp for being in a Desperate situation than we do in a perfectly Controlled one. One of the consequences the GM can inflict, and one of the easiest in my opinion, is to raise the threat of the situation, leading to more Desperate rolls. Yay!
Trust the tools you are given. Use them when you are in the Spotlight and help others when it is their moment to shine.
Don’t shirk from making a roll because you fear failure. Failure leads to fun!
Sometimes you’ll reach a dead end as a player and be unsure what to do next. The book has a section just for this eventuality. Below are the player’s principles from p.182. Keep them in mind and when feeling stuck see which one of these can provide you a way out.
- Embrace the Scoundrel’s life
- Go into Danger, Fall in love with trouble
- Don’t be a Weasel – Make the relevant action roll
- Take Responsibility
- Use your Stress
- Don’t Talk Yourself out of fun
- Build your character through play
- Act Now, plan Later
How to run Blades in the Dark
Forget everything you have learnt about GMing more traditional games. Keep your general skills, but the procedural elements of running Blades are very different to running something like Dungeons and Dragons. Again I urge you to read the chapter on running the game, p.187, as there is not only loads of great Blades specific advice in there, but also just lots of good GMing advice as well.
Throw the GM screen away
I haven’t used a GM screen for a long time. Blades very specifically tells you not to keep secrets from the players, but that doesn’t mean the characters know everything. Remember the players are not their characters. Similarly you, the GM, are not your NPCs.
This gives you carte blanche to get rid of the GM screen. You don’t need to hide things. Use some sheets to help you recall rules etc. and some ideas jotted down, but a GM screen is just pointless. You can still have revelation and surprise without peering over the top of a cardboard wall.
Don’t Fudge Rolls
If you are going to roll dice, roll dice. Let them lay where they may. This goes for any roleplaying game really. If you are going to use a system with a deterministic resolution system, then let that system shine and don’t be afraid of the outcomes.
Now I know that the GM doesn’t really roll in Blades, but you do make some. Engagement rolls should be out in the open as should any rolls you make at the table for determining what certain factions are up to, or what is happening to the crew during downtime.
You should always make clear why you are rolling, considering you do it so infrequently. Without reason behind the roll it will not matter to the players. Everytime you pick up the dice it should carry weight for the narrative, and the players.
Cut to the Action
Shadowrun is probably the game that has the closest relationship to Blades in the Dark in terms of setup. The characters are a crew doing jobs for shadowy organisations. In Shadowrun the planning of jobs is part of the appeal of that game. Meticulously going through all the details, making sure you have every angle down.
Blades doesn’t want you to do that. Once you’ve decided to raid the warehouse you cut to raiding the warehouse. You ask relevant questions about where the crew is infiltrating, roll your Engagement, and then you are there, ready to get to the heist.
This seems to be a part that a lot of new Blades GMs find hard to do. Trust that the system lets you do this and wants you to do this. Flashbacks, p.132, exist as the primary way you can skip the planning stage. Each time a player reaches for that mechanism, it is shortcutting a good amount of time spent planning in a more traditionally setup game.
Threats not Rolls
The GM does not call for rolls in Blades in the Dark. They create threats and then ask the players how their characters are going to handle it. That may result in a roll, or starting a clock. It could equally be that you just say yes and move on.
Let’s engage with the mechanisms for a moment and see how this might play out. In our warehouse example above the GM makes an engagement roll to see how that initial contact with the target goes. If it goes well, we don’t need to ask how the crew get through the locked door at the back of the warehouse, they just do! If it goes badly then the security has been beefed up and they can’t get in that way anymore. Bad news, but also an opportunity for story. Why has the security been beefed up? Is the score now worth more than it was? See, failure gives us fun.
Don’t hide behind a screen. Roll in the open and revel in the results.
You create threats, the players make rolls
Yes, but with obstacles
I am not one to tell you that you should acquiesce to every whim or notion of a player. Sometimes they will just push their luck a bit too much and you do have to say no. However, most of the time what you want to say is ‘Yes, but…’. You want to take over the Docks? Yes, but you are going to have to kick out the gangs in the area first. You want to take down the leader of the Red Sashes? Yes, but how are you going to create that opportunity?
Blades is going to throw a lot of opportunities at your players and they are going to get excited about taking advantage of those. This is great! They will be engaged! Let them pursue those opportunities, just throw problems in their way. You want them to work for the rewards after all.
Don’t pull your punches
With a lot of roleplaying games it can be hard as a GM to figure out the level of challenge to throw at your players. You want them to feel like they have come to the edge of defeat before triumphing and striking that balance can be really difficult.
In Blades you don’t need to worry about this. Two of the core principles for the GM are:
- Telegraph trouble before it strikes
- Follow through
What do these mean? Cumulatively they mean Don’t pull your punches. If you surround the gang with well armed and trained thugs from another gang and they try to fight their way out you should inflict harm and rough them up. The players have tools at their disposal like Stress, Resistance Rolls, and Teamwork to get them out of the situation. Even if they lose a particular encounter, that’s just more grist for the story mill.
There should always be an obstacle in the way of whatever the players want.
Don’t be afraid to make that obstacle hit back if the players don’t handle it. They have lots of tools to fightback.
Our story, not your story
Blades is not a game where you come to the table with a story to tell to the players. Yes you should come with some ideas. Yes you should have a good starting situation setup to make things go off with a bang. Don’t come with an idea of exactly when the bomb goes off.
Players are encouraged to engage with creating narrative in Blades in a way you might be unfamiliar with. During character and crew creation you’ll get all sorts of lovely prompts to help you steer the action in the direction the players are telling you they want. If you are really unsure where the players want to go and what they want to do, don’t be afraid to ask. This is a collaborative effort and there is no shame in sometimes saying you aren’t sure where to go next.
Portray the world, but fill it with your own ideas
The world of Blades in the Dark is one of broad strokes. Yes there is detail about which faction hates which, but the colour of the world is very much in your hands. Don’t go into the book expecting the answer to every setting question you might have. That’s not the sort of book Blades is.
If you need to come up with something and get stuck, get the players involved. The group will be more invested in the world if they get to create some of it.
Don’t tell a story, create one together. The world is portrayed in broad strokes. Interpret it how you want and fill it with the details you and the players want to see.
The improvisational nature of Blades means that sometimes you are going to get stuck knowing how to proceed. This happens to all of us, even seasoned Blades GMs like myself. When this happens remember that the book suggests a number of actions you can take as a GM. We have touched on many of these already but I think they are worth repeating here. An explanation of them can be found on p. 188 through p. 192.
- Ask Questions
- Provide Opportunities & Follow the player’s lead
- Cut to the action
- Telegraph trouble before it strikes
- Follow through
- Initiate action with an NPC
- Tell them the consequences and ask
- Tick a clock
- Offer a devil’s bargain
- Think off-screen
Blades in the Dark is a game with a robust set of tools. Using them correctly is partly a matter of personal preference, but also of experience. When you first set out to play Blades it may seem overwhelming to figure out what the best tool to use in a given situation is. In this section I’ll look at the core mechanisms of the game, how and when to use them, and expand on their use as I’ve experienced them.
Blades encourage you to have your first session be character, crew creation, and then straight into your first score, p.201. This sort of session where everyone sits down together and makes characters is frequently referred to as Session Zero. This is becoming more common across the RPG hobby and I thoroughly recommend it as a great tool in all games.
Think of Session Zero as the prequel to your TV series. The teaser trailer put out before the film that introduces the world, its ideas, and most importantly our protagonists. It is an opportunity to tell each other about the sort of game that you want to play, and come to an agreement on what the game will look like. Blades in the Dark has a focus on heists for sure, but that can take many forms from Smuggling goods through the canals of the city, to assassinating politicians who are getting too big for their boots.
Session zero allows you to start to tangle the characters together, even if only doing so with broad strokes, and agree amongst you which factions are going to feature in the early part of the series. Who did you annoy? Who is helping you? Do you have friends in common? In this way the players, remember the GM is a player as well, buy into the story from the off making everyone’s game better.
Session Zero gives you buy in from the players before you even think of your first heist
Here is the real crux of any system with a randomiser like dice or cards. How, and when, do we pull this particular lever in Blades in the Dark?
When to Roll
In a traditional RPG the GM is asking for rolls all the time. The orc tries to hit you, he rolls to hit, you roll to dodge, we roll for damage etc. Lots of rolls, all the time. In Blades in the Dark we roll once for the outcome of an event that might have traditionally been a whole series of rolls. Your fight with a guard isn’t a back and forth with lots of rolls, it’s one roll made by a player that has consequences for the fiction. The book puts it like this on p.10
“You make an Action Roll when your character does something potentially dangerous or troublesome”
There are two things to note here. The GM is not calling for a roll. You, the player, make the roll. The other is that what you are doing must be dangerous or have the potential to get your character into trouble. We don’t care about you flirting with the person behind the bar, unless they happen to be the paramour of a particularly nasty gang leader whose turf you are trying to edge in on.
It has been my experience in a lot of roleplaying games that players try and avoid rolls wherever possible as they fear that failure in that roll will hurt their enjoyment of the game and their character’s chances for advancement. In Blades failure is to be embraced. When things don’t go your way you can get into a Desperate situation, giving you more chances for experience. The plot is moved forward anyway, usually with an interesting complication.
This is the core ebb and flow of Blades. The GM presents a threat, the player(s) decide how to tackle it, you roll, the plot moves forward, the GM presents a threat etc. That sounds very pedestrian, but it is the core of the procedure in Blades. If you avoid rolls, if you try to weasel out of dangerous situations, Blades will not reward you for it. The whole experience will end up feeling very unsatisfying.
Goal, Position and Effect
One of the reasons a single roll works so well in Blades in the Dark is that before we even roll we establish 3 different elements of that roll: Goal, Position, and Effect.
When a threat is presented to you the GM is likely to ask ‘what do you do?’ or words to that effect. Here we establish the Goal of what you want to happen next in the fiction. Are you going to fight the guard, run away, try and talk your way out of it, or summon a ghost to help you out? Say your goal out loud. Don’t be coy about what you want to happen from the fiction, state up front what you want to get out of what happens next.
Once the GM knows what you want they can establish the Position you are in and what the likely Effect is going to be of the roll, no matter the outcome. The standard roll in Blades in the Dark has a Risky position and a Standard Effect. This means it might go well, it might go wrong. It won’t be a disaster. If things go ok or well then you will get what you wanted. You will achieve your goal.
Only roll when it matters. State your Goal out loud. This allows the GM to clearly establish Position and Effect before the roll happens. Embrace failure.
The other core mechanism that we have at our disposal are Clocks. Clocks can be a tricky thing to use when you first start playing Blades in the Dark, as they have numerous uses. I think most uses of clocks come under one of the following:
- We want to establish a countdown or a building threat
- We want to track a long term project
- An action roll could cut it, but we want a bit more back and forth for instance in a chase or duel
There are loads of ways to use clocks in the book, starting on page 15. Some experimentation is required to find the way you will best use them. I only really want to talk about them in terms of making multiple rolls for a given situation. Remember the GM does not call for rolls, they present threats and ask the players what they want to do. Players initiate rolls and the consequences inform the fiction.
Extended tests, or tests requiring multiple rolls to achieve the goal, are a common feature of many RPGs. We can use clocks to replicate that effect should we so wish, but keep in mind that the majority of the time in Blades we want one roll, one goal.
When then should we use a clock and multiple rolls to achieve the effect we are looking for? The easiest one to look at is Downtime tasks. Clocks are the core of the Long Term Project action, giving us a timescale for how long it will take us to achieve the goal we have our sights set on.
In actual play, it is rare that we want to make an extended test but they can be used for moments of great drama. For instance if we are breaking into a vault we might want to start a clock for how long it takes our safecrackers to get in there. Alongside that we could start another clock for how long the guards will take to get here on their patrol. This way we have two clocks. One the GM can tick to build the tension and the other a timer on when the group will achieve their goal.
The safe clock will advance by rolls and progressing the clock based on the ticks that result gives. The other on the whim of the GM/ outcome of rolls. This gives the GM a route for any consequences that come out of the rolls made to crack the safe. He can just tick the patrol clock up when the players get a less than perfect result.
Even when we have extended tests, we shouldn’t be rolling more than once for the same thing. Each roll can represent a different part of the challenge. Think of Die Hard’s safe cracking for a moment. They want the code from Joe Takagi. He refuses, their negotiation roll has limited effect and they kill him. Now they need to drill the safe. That’s one roll. Then they need to get the FBI to shut the power down. That’s our second. The progress to ‘vault open’ could be a clock with those rolls contributing to it one by one.
Clocks can be tricky at first, don’t be afraid to experiment.
Extended tests can be achieved but should only be used when building a particularly dramatic moment.
The third mechanism that is at our disposal is the use of stress. Players trigger this mechanism, and the pool refreshes between heists. Players use it to do the following:
- Get more dice on rolls
- Help out on another player’s roll
- Deflect harm
Resources like stress exist in lots of games and it is one of those things that players are sometimes reluctant to spend. Stress is certainly limited, but you can refresh it in between sessions and the group has a huge pool between them. You’ll recall that one of our player principles is Use your stress.
The simplest way to use stress is to just get more dice on a roll. That’s great and all, and good when you want something to be more likely to go your way. The real meat of stress though comes down to points 2 and 3 above though. We can stress to help other folk out and we can stress to flashback in the story. These are essentially both create fiction. In helping out we put our character into the story as a secondary character in the scene, allowing us to contribute when the spotlight is on someone else.
Flashbacks allow us to spend stress to justify the fiction of that moment in the job we are doing. Did we bribe the guard? Did I leave a weapon in the toilets? Is there a cart below the window I can jump into? Use stress to create cool moments and ideas that everyone can bounce off, not just to get your own character out of trouble.
The best use of stress is to create fiction that everyone can use for inspiration
There is always a rule, you’ll forgot some of them
I really enjoyed reading Blades the first time I did. It took me a while though to realise that the game is much crunchier than I originally thought. No matter what you need to do in the game I guarantee that there is something in the book dealing with that particular issue. There is a rule, or at the very least guidance, that governs everything you might do in Blades in the Dark.
The other side of their being a rule for everything is that you are bound to forget some from time to time. Move on when you do then look it up later.
My one House Rule
I think Blades is a pretty great system. I don’t really house rule anything very much but there is one I do use. It’s not even mine though I do not recall where I saw it recommended.
One of the inevitabilities in Blades is that the players are going to take harm. As stated in the book all harm has to be healed, p.155. I have personally changed the way I do this. Level 1 harm disappears in between jobs, assuming there is long enough between them. Level 2 harm I sometimes let fade a level for free. I do this because I found the players were spending a lot of time healing in between sessions, when downtime should be for creating new juicy story opportunities.
Resources to help you
There are loads of great resources out there to help you get a handle on Blades in the Dark. The official site is full of reference guides and all sorts of neat things to help you.
The Core Playsheets are particularly good
The designer of the game, John Harper, has made some videos on how the game should be run, offering advice and tips. You can find those here.
My friend Guy Milner runs a great site called Burn after Running which is focused on how to run one shot con games. He has looked at Blades in the Dark in this context.
My work here is done
There you have it then. I hope that this has been useful to you, answered some questions that you may have had about Blades in the Dark. Many thanks to those who have fedback to me as I’ve worked on this guide including Gaz from The Smart Party, members of the Giant Brain Discord, Alex Marr, and my own games group.