A few weeks ago, I got my copy of John Harper’s Blades in the Dark, but I set it aside because I was reading the copy of the Numenera rulebook that my friend Justin Howe loaned me an embarrassingly long time ago. However, by happenstance it turned out that Justin and I realized a Blades in the Dark game would be possible when someone I know on Twitter, M.R. (@ageekinkorea) expressed an interest in playing. So last week, I grabbed the rulebook off the shelf and, slowly, started reading it.
I don’t have a great handle on the system yet, but I think it’s pretty cool. I’ll say more about that below. First, though, I’ll summarize our first session, which we played last night.
Blades on a Train
First, here’s M.R.’s summary:
If M.R.’s character was a Hunter with a lie-detecting big cat, then mine was a Leech named Hartz (not Holtz or Horza: it was early, what can I say?)—an aging ex-military engineer with a penchant for tossing around grenades and smoke bombs and sabotaging things, and a real hatred for the Admiralty.
Here’s the score writeup we got:
An Admiralty courier is arriving from the Imperial City at Gaddoc Station today, carrying an intelligence report on Skovlan rebel units fighting against the Imperium. Intercept the courier and steal the papers before the courier reaches the Whitecrown District.
- Gaddoc Station is a huge sprawling complex where electro-rails arrives from all across Akoros.
- The courier will probably have an armed guard.
- It is likely the courier will travel by canal boat from the station to Whitecrown Island.
- You can start on the train and attempt the heist en route (if you want).
- You may not be the only ones with the idea of stealing the documents.
Concerned that someone else might grab the documents if we didn’t beat them to the punch, we decided to hit the courier on the train.
Our plan was… kind of a mess, since we were setting it up on a time limit (double the original one we’d been given), but also, I suppose, because it was our first session. The broad outline was:
- prior to the train’s departure (i.e. in flashback), some kind of arcane wards would be set up to make a given train car more or less attractive to ghosts
- Hartz would sabotage the engine to (temporarily) incapacitate it
- Orlan would bluff or fight his way to the courier, get the documents
- And then…??????
As we learned, “And then… ??????” is not a great conclusion to a plan, though of course if you can think of something in play, it doesn’t matter.
In Blades in the Dark, casing the joint and carrying out the first steps of one’s plan are all covered in a single “Engagement” roll, which basically determines how lucky the characters are in terms of the length of time it takes before something goes wrong or unexpected complications arise that mess with their plans. Similarly, concrete preparations prior to the heist are played out in Flashback scenes, at the cost of stress, so they get played out as they become relevant to the heist-in-progress.
In our case, the first complication came pretty soon after the train was sabotaged: Hartz found himself being pursued by engineers and train operators who saw him messing around in the engine room, and he had to drop a smoke bomb to incapacitate them. Guards hurried up the train to investigate, led by a big, mean-looking guy in a golden mask, leaving the way a little clearer for Orlan to get into the room where the courier waited with the documents.
Since our characters were separated, Justin jumped back and forth between them, letting us deal with one threat or complication and then throwing a new one at as a cliffhanger before switching focus to the other character. This worked really well, and frankly was also helpful since we’re all getting to know the system.
As Justin has commented in the past, whatever soundtrack someone suggests for a game, in the end when characters get in over their heads and things start going seriously wrong, the soundtrack of every RPG becomes this one:
We were no exception: Hartz drew attention to himself trying to superglue the guards into the car ahead of his after they passed, and despite temporarily escaping them thanks to a grenade (and successfully warding the following car against ghosts in a flashback) his hopeless attempt to bomb the electroarcane barriers guarding the train failed, leaving him on fire and with guards still pursuing him. By this point, he was in bad shape, having been grazed by a bullet, shaken, and badly burned, and hurried further down the train.
On the other end of the train, Orlan was doing much better: he managed to disable a train worker and steal his uniform and electroprod. Between him and his cat, he was able to pass himself off as a train worker, rough up a guard, get the documents, and make good his escape, albeit at the cost of great stress, and some exposure to ghosts, which were getting through because of the guard he’d incapacitated.
Once Orlan was ready to flee, Hartz found himself crouched at doorway to a railcar, waiting for the guards to enter it so he could unleash one more alchemical concoction he’d set up in flashback—a packet bomb of sleeping powder. If it had gone off, he and Orlan could have simply tossed the guards off the train as it made the rest of the journey to Doksvol, and then walked off into the city with nobody the wiser. (Well, in theory.)
Except he had no more stress to spend, was badly burned, and would have needed help to pull it off, and Orlan—also having burned off all his stress—had other ideas. The latter, still dressed like a train worker, slipped out a window; so Hartz flipped the makeshift switch he’d set up, only to discover that in the chaos, the flimsy wire connecting the switch to the packet bomb had come loose, and nothing happened… well, except Hartz getting captured by the guards as Orlan scurried up onto the roof overhead.
At least, that’s how I remember it. (My memories of Orlan’s actions are fuzzier, since I was sometimes looking up stuff while he was taking his turns.)
I’m still new to the Blades in the Dark ruleset, so don’t expect deep insight or anything—I’m sure all of these observations have been made before—but there are some things I really like about it, and which shone for me a little more clearly after play:
- It cuts to the chase. The action starts when complications come, not before, so things like setup and detailed planning don’t need to get roleplayed. Which is good because PCs are usually planning heists right in front of the GM anyway, and so the GM is inevitably listening and having to think up “not so fast” complications… but also, because planning heists and other actions is almost always a waste of time: the players plan something intricate based on assumptions that fall apart a few minutes into the heist anyway. Better that the planning happens in flashbacks as the heist progresses.
- It has a point spend economy that is a serious tension/suspense generator. Any action you take—even just sitting still in a chair and hoping not to be noticed—is generally a risk. Risk is at the center of this game. This means that while you can do stuff by just rolling dice and hoping, they fact that you’re often in a risky situation creates an incentive to try hedge your bets and get bonus dice when you can… except those all come at a cost—either stress or complications. You’re constantly weighing the cost of a higher chance of success (or, eventually, your ability to do anything at all) against being forced to pay the piper and have fewer resources for hedging your bets later on. Those complications can really bite you in the ass, and while I think a few bad die rolls didn’t help, the main reason Orlan escaped while Hartz met such a bad fate was because I burned more stress earlier on and had too few resources to pull of the latter half of his “plan.” This also has a longer-term implication: burn too much stress during any one score, and you can end up with more Darkest Dungeons-styled trauma, which both puts you out of the heist and messes with the character long-term (if you’re playing an extended, multi-session game).
- The gear/load system likewise has great, built-in tension point-spend system of the same kind. You mark your load prior to the heist, and then mark of pips as you use pieces of equipment. If you use up all your pips, guess what? That’s all your equipment. This (like the Flashback subsystem) reminded me of the “Preparation” skill in some Gumshoe systems. This is probably best considered part of the overall point spend economy, by the way: I only separated it because I wanted to point to the parallel in Gumshoe. I think some people might think this makes things easier—that it’s “harder” for players to pick the “right” equipment ahead of time—but, well… I find this makes the story flow, and doesn’t feel easier because of the gear limit. It feels much, much more tense and desperate than the typical D&D player character with a backpack of untracked (or loosely tracked) gear.
- The setting is loosey-goosey but with clear elements defined. Well, I don’t mean the long Duskwall setting writeup in the last third of the book, which I haven’t read, so much as the fact that gear, ghost lore, and the rest of it doesn’t seem to be explicitly or particularly well-defined. There is no Monster Manual to memorize, and a GM can just as easily turn the question, “So how does this thing work?” back on the player if she or he wants to do so. And yet there are some explicitly-present elements: ghosts, Victorian-ish tech plus electricity, arcane weirdness, an oppressive state, and stuff like that. Where the statted-up monsters of D&D ultimately feel more like carefully-programmed, balanced opponents in a combat-focused computer game, this stuff feels more like the kind of setting weirdness you might get in a story, weirdly deviating from your expectations just enough to take on a feel of its own. It’s funny, because while people compare PbtA games to board games, I find the outcome feels more narrative, and that D&D combat feels more boardgamey to me.
- The system is elegantly designed. I was surprised to see twelve stats, and though the three categories they’re grouped into (in lots of four) make logical sense, before we played I found myself wondering why that many stats were necessary. But in play, I realized that they’re only sort of stats. They’re more like stats plus proficiencies plus Aspects (as in, the mechanic in Fate). And the number of Stats in any one grouping that you have anything in determines your Resistance rolls (like saving throws) for that category of harm. There are “stunts” (or what D&D people know as feats) but they’re both more fiction-forward than D&D feats and they’re laid out in the playbook, so you have a limited choice of flavorful stunts that feel more like character-defining specialties.
- The roll economy is clever. There’s an emphasis in boiling down multi-faceted actions into a single roll whenever possible: if you’re trying to surreptitiously drop a grenade, is the emphasis on it going unnoticed, or on it blowing stuff up? This will determine what gets rolled. If you have a complex, multi-step action that can’t be rolled this way, I assume you get a clock that you need to fill up to pull off the action, so there’s a pressure to be concise and limit your plans in the face of mounting complications, which makes sense both in-game and in the fiction.
Anyway, those are my thoughts. I’m looking forward to playing the system more, and, obviously, trying out a character from a different playbook, since Hartz is going to be in prison for the foreseeable future.
That said, I’ll add one more interesting observation: I feel much less of a push, internally, to log actions in-game compared to a trad game. I’m not sure if this is because o the change in the system or just that I have less free time now, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the real reason is because with a trad tabletop RPG, I feel a stronger urge to “narrativize” it—to make an interesting, deeper story out of in-game events—whereas with BitD it already feels like it has enough of narrative logic that I’d just be ornamenting it or something.
Or maybe it’s knowing that characters come and go? (I can’t see myself writing long play logs of highly-lethal OSR game, at least not one where my player character could be dead the following week, so who knows?)
In any case, I’m looking forward to future sessions, and learning the system better.