Thursday, September 14, 2017

Pre-review: Blades in the Dark

It's time for another one of my half-cocked opinionspre-reviews, and the subject of this one is that fresh-faced new hepcat, Blades in the Dark.  It was written by a fine fellow named John Harper and published by...a company?  It's hard to tell, because DriveThruRPG swears this was published by One Seven, while you can find the damn thing on the Evil Hat website (and not the One Seven site). The PDF sez it's an "Evil Hat Publication" but it is "In association with One Seven."  Well, it should know who made it.  Guess that clears it up.

Not a very subtle assassin, gotta say

Anyway, I'm supposed to hate this sort of thing, because I've declared myself an OSR nerd and this game is wading far into the storygame side of the pool.  You have players narrating flashbacks!  But as I'm sure my longtime readers know, I cleave to no orthodoxy, so instead I find myself quietly intrigued.  Well, not that quietly...after all, I wrote this.

Oh, what is Blades in the Dark, anyway?  It's a role-playing game where the players are members of a gang of ne'er-do-wells in a Steampunk world with gritty low magic.  You know, Dunwall from Dishonored.  This is Dishonored: The RPG in all but name.  I mean, the name of this city is Duskwall.  That's the opposite of trying to hide your influences.

So how do I feel about Blades in the Dark?  I'm going to hold off on forming a firm opinion for now because I haven't even played it and its outside my usual experience.  But I want to play it, if only to see if it's my kind of thing.  Some people are quite rabid for this particular game, and the word "fun" keeps coming up, so I'm definitely going to give it a chance.

Let's start by talking about what makes Blades different from more traditional RPGs.  The premise itself is not so unusual; it's the mechanics that set it apart. Blades has more in common with Powered by the Apocalypse games like Monsterhearts and Apocalypse World (two other games I've never played).  In fact, some people seem to think that Blades in the Dark is a true PbtA system, which it is not.

Crap, am I supposed to be in Dishonored?

Basic mechanics

The mechanics of Blades are very abstract, not differentiating significantly between combat and non-combat.  Entire fights could be resolved with a single die roll, or they could be broken up into individual beats (as there is no concept of a "round").  Activity in the game is meant to be a constant dialog between the GM and the players, where rolls are 100% player-facing, and the difficulties and consequences are negotiated in the open.

PCs have a fixed list of "action ratings," which are sort of like a cross between abilities and skills, except they are more abstract than either of those.  For instance, PCs have a Wreck rating, which measures their ability to smash shit up.  Could you use that for forcing a door?  How about combat?  What about blowing up a bridge?  The answer is yes.  And they overlap, since you can just as easily use your Skirmish rating in a brawl.

Oh, the drama!

When PCs are injured, they receive Harm, which are detrimental conditions like "broken leg" or "bleeding cut."  These and many other bad consequences can be buffered by the expenditure of Stress points; Stress acts like a combination of Luck and Willpower.  If Stress gets too low, a character accumulates Traumatic conditions like Reckless or Cold.  These are mostly for role-playing, but if a PC accumulates all the Traumas, they become a burned-out shell and must be retired.

Rolls are made based on the difficulty of the task (called the "position" in Blades), and can result in either failure, partial success, total success or critical success.  These are interpreted relative to the PC's situation, with the GM and player negotiating an effect level based on what can reasonably be accomplished.

A lot of the time, these rolls will result in partial success.  What that means in Blades is generally that the action succeeds with consequences.  The thief picks the lock but breaks his pick or alerts a guard.  The boss fights free of the assassins, but takes a painful wound in the process.  Or maybe he loses his sword.

The GM is also encouraged to use a concept that Blades calls "clocks."  These are basically counters that can be used to express any situation that can build up over time.  This can represent a beneficial thing, like progress in researching a magical artifact, or it can be for something very unpleasant, like the guards of a house going on alert as their suspicions are raised.  It's not really a new idea, reminding me of the concept of Effort in the Index Card RPG.

This is one of those unpleasant clocks

Throughout this process, Blade clearly expects the GM to be placing these mechanics front and center.  When a player rolls a partial success on the attempt to pick the lock of the cellar door, the GM could say that the PCs barely duck inside the door before a guard patrol passes by, and that this adds a segment to the six-segment alert clock.

Finally, let's not forget about that flashback mechanic I talked about.  In the midst of a job, if a PC encounters an unexpected obstacle, the player can spend a couple of Stress and narrate how the PC already anticipated this moment. Similarly, the player doesn't have to decide exactly what gear the PC brings on a job until the moment it's needed.

Group and campaign mechanics

What we've talked about so far are the mechanics for resolving the actions of individual PCs in the midst of heists and related complications.  But in addition to these, Blades in the Dark introduces gamey concepts into two areas that traditional RPGs usually just talk out: activities of the gang as a whole, and managing the campaign flow.

The gang mechanics handle typical things like attention from authorities, reputation, wealth, etc.  They also deal with taking over territory in an extremely abstract manner that is much like a board game.  Different claims are nodes on a graph connected by edges, each providing a different mechanical benefit.  The gang can conquer these claims by following the connections, which is quite a bit safer than jumping into the middle of enemy territory.  In fact, prison assets are handled with a very similar mechanic, for those inevitable occasions when PCs are incarcerated.

This is not the claim graph, but it's cooler

The campaign flow mechanics deal with things like how players choose a score (they are encouraged to invent a lot of the content, here, or at least suggest it to the GM), and what they do in their downtime between jobs.  It's very structured for playing in some sort of criminal gang to the point where you'd be on your own if a player decided to have his PC go clean and bribe his way into politics.

I won't go into much detail with these systems because the concepts require more explanation than the action resolution stuff.  Suffice to say, it's very gamey and dicey.  Even money is abstracted into Coins, which don't represent any fixed concept of currency so much as generic wealth.

Things I like

What I really like about Blades in the Dark is that it looks like it can be played with very little campaign preparation.  If the GM knows the rules well and the players have an idea of what to do, it feels like you can sit down, make some characters, design a gang, and just go.  

In fact, it's explicitly meant to be played that way.  That's where some of those mechanics, like the flashbacks and the just-in-time inventory, really contribute. The players decide on a score and describe to the GM what they are going for. He makes a bunch of clocks for security to be bypassed, alerts to be raised, and things like that.  Challenges are thought up on the spot and easily translated into mechanics.

I haven't thought about what I'm doing but I'm sure it will work out

This is something very hard to achieve with an RPG.  Blades is trying to mechanically recreate a mash-up of Oceans 11 and Dishonored. Spontaneously. And it looks like it succeeds in this.  That could have something to do with all the rave reports I've heard.  I mean, how can that not be cool?

The mechanics are pretty good at handling a lot of abstract situations with little bother.  The basic die-roll is very straightforward (I haven't described it here, but let's not get into the weeds).  I very much like the fact that combat does not occur in its own little bullet time.  You just say what you're doing in a very natural organic way, just like you do with anything else.

This really shows you how fetishistic old-school RPGs are about violence.  I say this as someone who fully enjoys all the combat that comes with your typical band of murderhobos.  The main disadvantage of combat in most RPGs is that it slows everything to a crawl.  To an extent, it's very understandable; the stakes of combat are as high as they get, and "action" usually means "violence," which is good adolescent fun.  

But it can get really ridiculous in a lot of games, so something like this looks very refreshing.  In my good-old OSR campaign, we had three consecutive sessions without a single fight.  I didn't hear anyone complain.  And these guys are straight-up killers.  

In summary: Blades looks to be spontaneous, fast and cinematic.  Those are all good things.

Things I don't like

Like I said, some aspects of Blades are really gamey, to the point where I think it has the potential to take your head right out of the game.  I'm thinking particularly of the mechanics for claims.  

Likewise, I'm not sure about leaving all those mechanics hanging out there for the players to gawp at.  Telling them that their partial success at moving to the second floor has added three segments to the alert clock feels very dry, even if you fluff it up with some narrative.  I'd rather give the narrative about a creaky floorboard and a conversation in the next room that suddenly stops than say anything about a clock.

Of course, you could always play it like that, but I wonder if that would throw things off.  The game if fully made to be played with the gears out for players to see and poke at.  I'm not sure what you can safely change.

And speaking of players, I feel like there's a pretty high bar for players to jump in.  The preparation for the campaign and sessions may be extremely light, but I feel like the GM has to have a very strong understanding of the rules, and the players can't be entirely ignorant, either.  

A good GM could probably manage it, but then again, this is another concern of mine: for a game that puts the dice and (to a lesser extent) the fiction in the hands of players, the GM role here is pretty demanding.  You have to improvise a lot of stuff on the spot, and every time players roll a partial success, you've got to come up with something interesting.  There's no room for coasting, here.

So while the game may be spontaneous and fast, that's assuming you come prepared.  And preparation means fully understanding the rules and being ready to improvise a lot of shit, especially if you're the GM.

My downsides in a nutshell: very gamey, constrained play style, and demanding for players and GM alike.

Things I'm not sure about

I don't know how I feel yet about a game that nudges some of the narrative into the players' hands.  My main objection to this sort of thing, philosophically, is that it robs players of one of the great joys of playing an RPG: discovery.  You can't discover what you invented through consensus.

This is another thing I'm not sure about

Likewise, I feel like things risk feeling arbitrary when players are just coming up with their own stuff.  I worry that it starts to feel like it's all just colorful dressing on a few simple rolls.

What I like about OSR is that it can never be quite that.  The number of torches you carry might matter.  Some people are going to find that to be quite boring. The alternative is a game like this, where those decisions are abstracted.  Does this run the risk of turning world details into mere color for dice rolls?  That's my concern.

But like this section says, I haven't made up my mind on this.  My expectation is that games like this and old-school games just represent such different approaches that they may not be reconcilable in the same game.  They both have pros and cons relative to each other.  It's premature to decide that I know which I prefer when I haven't even tried the other approach.

I'll have to get back to you on this.


Unless you really dislike this approach to role-playing, I'd say that Blades in the Dark is worth picking up for any tabletop role-player.  The mechanics are very well-designed to generate a certain kind of experience.  That's based on my reading of the rules and the fabled word on the street. I can't supply a first-hand account as of yet.

Even if it's not your type of thing, Blades is probably of interest to any serious role-gamer who wants to understand what's out there, and how things can be different.  Perspective is always a good thing.

Why a pre-review?

I was reading this over, and I realized it's not clear why this is a pre-review and not a full review.  So to clarify, the reason for this is because not only am I yet to actually play Blades in the Dark, but I haven't even finished reading the entire rules.  I've absorbed the mechanics in full, but at least half the rest of the rulebook provide advice for players and the GM, as well as details about the setting of Duskwall.

Anyway, if I experience any changes of heart after I get through the rest of the text, I'll post an update.

No comments:

Post a Comment