In mere three hours, we created our group of scoundrels and planned and executed an assassination. John Harper’s roleplaying game Blades in the Dark, dear readers, is awesome. This is my experience of our first session. Note that this is not a review nor an analysis of the design, just a description of a subjective experience.
Blades is game about a group of scoundrels in an industrial-fantasy world. It’s designed to create crime drama and everything in the game is built around that: you get a sketch of a world (so you can fill in the details yourself) and simple rules for different kinds of gangs, characters, planning, psychological stress and trauma, indulging in vices, expanding your turf, and so on.
For inspiration, the game lists — and I’m just listing my personal favorites — Thief, Spartacus (the tv series), Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie, the Lankhmar stories by Fritz Leiber, and The Wire. The rules as such are simple, but as I read through the game a couple of months ago, I did think: are there too many of them? Can I teach this game? What’s it like to play?
Luckily Aki wanted to run it, so I could just come to the table, make a character, and start playing. Turns out it felt light rich and complex and easy at the same time. I always felt like I could focus on the fiction and that the rules were there to give me options and enrich the experience. The experience is very much like that of playing Apocalypse World and its descendants: the game sets fiction and conversation first, rules interrupt that from time to time, the GM never rolls dice, character creation uses playbooks. Do note, however, that Blades is not Powered by the Apocalypse.
The way the game handles planning illustrates the ease of playing Blades. At first, you only pick the general plan — assault, stealth, and so on — and how much stuff your character is carrying. You don’t need to know the mechanics of the game or make complex risk calculations at the planning stage: knowing the fiction is enough. For example, we were tasked to assassinate the sheriff at a masquerade in his own mansion and we opted for stealth and light load, because light load meant that our gear doesn’t stick out. That sounded plausible and fun, and possibly risky as it meant that we wouldn’t have as much stuff with us. Light load means three “boxes” of gear: fine hand weapon takes one box, burglary tool takes one, climbing gear takes two, and so on.
We didn’t have to pick our specific gear beforehand. Instead, there’s a list of possible stuff on the character sheet (and yeah, you can invent your own as well), and if you want to or need to, you’ll pick the stuff on the fly. For instance, my character came to the attention of a security guard. I wanted to talk myself out of the situation, but failed miserably, so the guard asked for my invitation. I didn’t know I had one on me, but I picked out subterfuge supplies (which includes forgeries) from the gear list and it saved my sorry arse. That piece of gear saved me in the time of trouble, but it didn’t feel like a cop-out: I knew I only had two such backdoors left.
The game felt like it was based on these different backdoors or dwindling resources. The game is very player-driven, and you’re encouraged to take risks, make daring plans, do colorful stuff. You can focus on making the fiction exciting, instead of calculating the endless pros and cons of a fictional plan in a fictional situation. Everything and anything can go haywire, but it’s the job of the dice to screw you over.
It’s actually a fine example of saying yes and how it does not mean lack of conflict or excitement. In Blades, It’s not the GM’s job to say “no, you can’t try that” or to judge how good the plans are — on the contrary. We were free to suggest all kinds of things. You set things up, say what you want to do, discuss it with the GM, who says what it means mechanically; and it’s the job of the dice to judge how well it all went. It all felt very creative and exciting and dynamic.
It’s very unlike the style of OSR gaming I’ve dabbled with somewhat, the style which measures player skill and where you need to pick stuff beforehand, plan carefully, ask the right questions, describe your actions carefully (if you don’t say you’re looking at the ceiling, you won’t see the giant spider there). I personally like that sort of OSR, but I really liked Blades‘ approach as well.
Blades never punishes you for not thinking about something early enough. You hadn’t discussed the plan yet? That means the players hadn’t, but it’s assumed that the characters did. You didn’t say before that you did something? Take some stress to your character and well, you actually did say that. But as I said, it never felt like cheating nor did it make the game any less exciting. On the contrary, it kept the game moving, the players talking and acting, and surprising and exciting twists coming. And all the time you see your character taking more stress and having less options.
Not once did I feel exhausted by the options. Maybe it’s because the game is really low on math and calculations, and I like my RPGs that way. The rules options all feel like they contribute to the game and give you interesting things to do and try out.
I really admire the way the game works. We only played for three hours, including character creation, and still it felt like I was immersed in a rich world, things kept moving forwards, and we as players were calling all the shots. Yet it felt like we were in a dangerous situation that tested our creativity and daring. It was crazily fun and exciting.