Mini-Review: Blades in the Dark

Blades in the Dark is hard. The system ensures that getting everything you want is impossible. It wants you to make difficult choices about character priorities, but sometimes your choices are non-existent – you just do what is necessary to survive. I like it, but some players don’t enjoy being kicked in the teeth over and over again in their free time. Caveat emptor.

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To be fair, the system has dials for GMs to adjust difficulty level (and other factors) to suit the preferences of your group. It’s one of many flirtations with story gaming flexibility in what is otherwise a pretty traditional RPG. What’s weird about Blades is that it loosely abstracts fictional situations that traditional games pack loads of mechanics into (e.g. combat, equipment), but then heavily legislates other situations that traditional games usually “get out of the way” of (e.g. heist planning, factional politics). Some of Blades’ innovations in the latter category are fantastic – they will inspire the next decade of RPG design – but I’m not surprised to hear story gamers complain about the system’s complexity. Tracking a stat for how big and bad your gang is seems fair enough; tracking Tier, Hold, Heat, Turf, Rep and Coin (ALL of which relate to how big and bad the gang is, NONE of which determine how your gang gains special abilities) seems a bit much.

Blades deliberately sacrifices intuitiveness so that players will get better at the system over time, mirroring the classic rags-to-riches narrative (or rags-to-cleaner-rags) of the crime fiction it emulates. The setting – a wonderfully evocative industrial fantasy dystopia of vice, hauntings and literal darkness – applies pressure from every possible angle, producing volatile characters unsustainable for long-term play. For this reason, I’d prefer a slightly steeper advancement curve, for characters and for gangs. It’s generally more brutal to take from someone if they actually have something to lose.

I said I wanted something meatier from Harper, and Blades is certainly that. It is unrelenting in pursuit of its intended atmosphere, and whilst that won’t be to everyone’s taste, it will not struggle to find its niche with those whose appetites have been underfed by a hobby that privileges power-fantasy. A cynical game for a cynical world, Blades is a warts-and-all thief game that rejects outright the glamour of the D&D Rogue class. Even if crime doesn’t pay, it may offer your players catharsis.

(I never review a game I haven’t played or run.  Check out https://michaelduxbury.com/category/reviews/ for more RPG reviews.)

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