Tabletop Game / Blades in the Dark

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"You're in a haunted Victorian-era city trapped inside a wall of lightning powered by demon blood."

Blades in the Dark is a Genre Blending narrative Tabletop RPG designed by John Harper (creator of Lady Blackbird) and published by one.seven design in early 2017, following a successful Kickstarter campaign back in 2015. In it, you play as a gang of scoundrels trying to eke out a living in the Wretched Hive of Duskwall and to rise to the top of the criminal food chain by any means necessary.

The game has won the 2015 Golden Geek RPG of the Year and the 2016 Indie RPG Awards' Game of the Year titles. The official website can be found here, which also contains an SRD for implementing original Blades hacks in other settings, similar to Powered by the Apocalypse (or, in this case, "Forged in the Dark").

The game and its setting contain examples of following tropes:

  • Alien Sea: Immediately following the cataclysm, all of the oceans have turned ink-black with occasional hints of star patterns somehow shining through from the depths (nobody yet understands how and what it means).
  • Alliance Meter: Your crew has ratings indicating their relationship with every other noteworthy faction in Duskwall, from fellow petty gangs to the Imperial Military stationed in the city. Doing scores almost inevitably sours your relationship with one or more of them, but if you're smart about it, it may also improve your standing with others.
  • Always Night: As a result of the cataclysm, the sun almost went out, appearing as a tiny ember in the sky only briefly at dawn and dusk and leaving the rest of the day mostly dark. Interestingly, the moon still shines as brightly as before the cataclysm.
  • Cap: At character creation, your Action ratings cannot go above 2. Afterwards, you can upgrade them to 3 with regular leveling, but the ultimate 4th level is only unlocked by a very costly Mastery upgrade for the entire crew.
  • Cataclysm Backstory: About 850 years ago, the old world was shattered by an unspecified cataclysm that made it impossible for spirits of the deceased to pass on to the afterlife, creating a staggering number of ghosts. It had also caused continent-shattering earthquakes across Akoros, turned the ocean water into black ink, released colossal leviathans into the seas, and, most importantly, almost extinguished the sun, plunging the the world into a permanent darkness.
  • Constructed World: The rulebook puts extreme focus on Duskwall, but technically, it is just one city of the Akoros nation, situated on the eponymous island, one of the few Shattered Isles left floating in the ink-black oceans after the cataclysm. "Shattered Isles" seems to be the overall (out-of-universe) name of the setting.
  • Combat, Diplomacy, Stealth: The game explicitly supports all three types of play, in both its crew types and its playbooks. The Bravos crew, the Cutter, and the Hound represent the combat-heavy play; the Hawkers and, to a lesser extent, the Cult crews, the Slide, and the Spider cover the diplomacy side; while the Assassins, the Shadows, the Smugglers, and the Lurk playbook are largely about stealth. It also avoids Useless Useful Non-Combat Abilities because, mechanically, all action checks work the same way, so which the usefulness of each rating depends mainly on the type of the campaign a group is playing, rather than on the system itself.
  • Corrupt Church: The Church of the Ecstasy of the Flesh is the closest the Akoros Empire has to a state religion, although it's pretty much an open secret that it's basically just an Ancient Conspiracy that is too big to jail.
  • Critical Existence Failure: Averted. Taking enough level 1 harm reduces the effects of your rolls, level 2 additionally reduces the size of your dice pools, and at level 3, you cannot act normally at all without help or taking Stress. Level 4 is fatal.
  • Critical Hit: If you roll two or more sixes on any roll, you usually get especially beneficial effects.
  • Deal with the Devil: The Devil's Bargain mechanic allows this trope to happen both literally and metaphorically: the players can get a free die on any roll if they accept an additional long-term complication that will result from their action regardless of its immediate outcome. This complication can range from a literal deal with a devil ("devil" being the setting's term for any powerful supernatural nasty) to something mundane, like owing a favor to a rival mobster.
  • Do Well, but Not Perfect: Generally speaking, you want to complete Scores generating as little Heat as possible... except that if you come out with exactly zero Heat, you don't get any Rep (needed to level up your gang), either—because you were so good, nobody even realized it was you.
  • Easy Exp: Player characters receive end-of-session XP for having activated one of three "XP triggers" listed in their respective playbooks. Two of them usually require memorable role-playing moments, but the very first one basically says "Have you done the one thing that is your playbook's main shtick, anyway, today? Good, then mark two XP."
  • Flashback: The Flashback mechanic is a cornerstone of the Score gameplay: at any time, but particularly when the party faces insurmountable odds, one of the players can take Stress to "reveal" how their character had prepared for just such an occasion, retroactively introducing a way to overcome the current obstacle.
  • Fictional Document: The rulebook includes a couple of in-universe documents, such as the erratic missive from a retired leviathan hunter on page 160 or the academic article "Energy of Duskwall", which provide stylized explanations of the game world's more magical aspects.
  • Genre Blending: The game facilitates The Crime Job thriller narratives in a setting blending Victorian Gothic Horror with Gaslamp Fantasy and post-apocalyptic cues. The mechanics, meanwhile, combine narrative role-playing in the vein of Apocalypse World with urban crime sandboxing of Grand Theft Auto.
  • Gigantic Moon: The moon in the skies had once appeared about the size of Earth's moon, before the Cataclysm, but has been steadily growing in size ever since. Nobody quite understands what it means, and most don't even want to think about it.
  • God-Emperor: The Akoros Empire is ruled by the Immortal Emperor, who, as far as anyone is concerned, is the same individual who used his sorceries after the great cataclysm to prevent humanity's extinction eight centuries ago. It's unclear whether any of his subjects actually worship him as divine, though.
  • Golem: The Hulls are artificial magic-powered bodies inhabited by a deceased spirit. Most of them are employed by the rich as bodyguards, but there is also a playbook for you to play as one.
  • Gothic Horror: The classic genre is one of the major inspirations for the game's setting: a haunted Victorian-era city where it's Always Night, ghosts, vampires, and demons roam free, and technological progress often causes more harm than good.
  • Great Offscreen War: The Unity War, which broke out about 40 years before present when Skovlan rebelled against the Immortal Emperor in a bid for independence and ended in its defeat 2 years ago. A lot of Skovlander refugees ended up in Duskwall, feeding the social tensions in the city.
  • The Great Wall: The lightning towers surrounding all major cities, including Duskwall, keep the ravenous ghosts of the Deathlands from running them over.
  • Green Rocks: The electroplasm (sublimated life energy that can somehow be used to produce electricity) powers both the technology and the magic in the setting.
  • Hellhole Prison: The Ironhook Prison can easily inflict much trauma upon the inmates, especially if they aren't protected by their gang's reputation, and the less well-off are additionally put to Prisoner's Work at the Dunvil Labor Camp. Higher-status inmates, however, do enjoy an almost Luxury Prison Suite and some are even rumored to run criminal operations out of Ironhook.
  • Impartial Purpose-Driven Faction: The Spirit Wardens exist solely to seek out and to destroy ghosts, as well as the bodies of the recently deceased before their respective spirits can materialize as new ghosts.
  • In Medias Res: The Cut To The Action technique is used to get the Player Party directly into the thick of The Caper or some other Score, bypassing most of the contingency planning that precedes such events in traditional RPGs.
  • Kraken and Leviathan: The otherworldly leviathans roam the oceans to the north of Duskwall and are being hunted by the Imperial fleets for their blood, rich in the electroplasm that powers the entire setting.
  • Limited Loadout: Played with. On character creation, you have access to all items listed on your playbook, and you don't even have to commit yourself to specific items when embarking on a score. Instead, you only have to choose the magnitude of your loadout at the start of the score, and can retroactively declare that your character carries any of their items at any point on a Score—up to the specified loadout limit.
  • Mob War: When your Alliance Meter with another faction drops to −3, you are considered at war with them, putting additional pressure on your crew until the conflict is resolved one way or another.
  • Murder Into Malevolence: "Specters" are a category of ghost that most commonly results from the dying person being wronged somehow, but especially if they are violently murdered. All specters are inherently evil, seeking to harm and drain the living, with especial hatred towards those they see responsible for their misfortune.
  • Neighbourhood-Friendly Gangsters: The Lampblacks position themselves as this in the Crow's Foot district, contrasting the elitist Red Sashes.
  • Non-Combat EXP: Almost all XP in the game: the rules for combat XP are essentially the same as for non-combat XP, and since combat is only one way of tackling the Scores, you can rake up a lot of advances without ever getting shot at. In particular, you gain attribute XP for any action from a Desperate position (regardless of what you do and whether you succeed: just risking severe consequences is enough), and at the end of the session for a) performing your playbook-specific activities, b) role-playing your background, and c) role-playing your vice and/or traumas.
  • Opium Den: The Vice/Drug Den is available as a claim for every crew type except the Bravos.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Because the deceased spirits in this setting haven't been able to pass on to the afterlife for over eight centuries, it is a pretty safe bet that the ghosts outnumber the living by now. Ghosts are basically the electroplasm of a living person that detaches itself from their corpse three days after their death to continue existing as undead (unless the body is destroyed by the Spirit Wardens before that). Some ghosts just mindlessly continue on their daily routines, some yearn for revenge, some begin possessing the living, and there are rumors of a few benevolent ghosts. There is even a playbook that allows you to play a ghost, in case your original character croaks.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Vampires in the setting are immortal undead, who are basically ghosts permanently possessing a dead body and constantly needing life force of others to sustain themselves. The upsides of being a vampire in the setting easily outweigh the downsides, and thousands of people chose to become vampires after the cataclysm, living in the open, until the Empire and the Spirit Wardens cracked down on them and hunted the vampires into near-extinction. There is a playbook that allows you to play a vampire, though.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: The hollows are magically reanimated bodies that lack a soul, and are therefore docile and not terribly intelligent. Their primary purpose is serving as mindless Undead Laborers or as vessels for spirits wishing to become vampires.
  • Phlebotinum-Induced Steampunk: The industrial revolution was kicked off by the discovery that the blood of the demonic leviathans roaming the Void Sea can be used to produce electric power. By the time the game takes place, its setting is roughly in the Victorian age, with most technology powered by electricity extracted from leviathan blood (although some older tech also uses steam power).
  • Police Brutality: If the Bluecoats catch you when your crew's Wanted Meter is at 0 (i.e. there is literally nothing they can pin on you), they'll just beat you to near death (inflict level 3 harm—level 4 being fatal), and you are not allowed a Resistance roll against it because they keep going until you are injured.
  • Procedural Generation: The book has tables for randomly generating entire city parts, missions, NPCs, and even simple word on the street from a couple dice rolls. The official usage instruction of these tables simply says "Roll some dice and use the results and these tables however you see fit."
  • Red Light District: Silkshore, specifically, the part of it known as "the Ease", is Duskwall's prime location known for its brothels, vice dens, and generally places catering to any fantasy and pleasure imaginable. The oldest and most respected brothel of the city is even rather unsubtly named The Red Lamp.
  • Resting Recovery: Healing harm can only occur during downtime between Scores and is treated as a long-term project, meaning that players have to roll for how well it goes and have to spend Coin if it's not going fast enough.
  • Single Phlebotinum Limit: Every single fantastic element of the setting, from trains, industrial machinery, and alchemy to vampires, demons, and ghosts, is powered by electroplasm in one form or another.
  • Skill Scores and Perks: Played with. The "perks" are the special abilities and crew upgrades, which are much more similar to the "moves" found in games Powered by the Apocalypse than to traditional perks, while the skill scores are replaced by Action Ratings. The key difference between traditional skills and Action Ratings is that in traditional RPGs, the Game Master decides which skill score to roll for in a given situation, while in Blades, it's players who choose the Action Rating they roll for, and the GM merely arbitrates the level of the chosen approach's risk ("position") and reward ("effect level").
  • Stat Grinding: Kind of. Each Attribute has its own XP track, which fills up by rolling for one of the Actions under that Attribute from a Desperate position. You can also get Attribute XP in other ways, but this is the main one.
  • The Syndicate: The Unseen are a secretive criminal enterprise with a finger in pretty much every pie in Duskwall, and one of only two Tier IV underworld factions in the city (the other being the Hive, a Mega Corp. with a lot of shady businesses on the side).
  • Taking the Bullet: The system explicitly supports this kind of action. As long as your character is in position to take the harm intended for another scoundrel, you don't even have to roll for it (although you may want to roll to mitigate it).
  • Taking the Heat: One way to deal with the final trauma level is to have your scoundrel surrender to the Bluecoats and take the heat for your crew's exploits, which is pretty much the only way to reduce the crew's Wanted level.
  • There Are No Therapists: Once you get a Trauma level, it's permanent: there is literally nothing you can do to get rid of it (short of dying and coming back as a vengeful ghost), and once you have four (five with certain upgrades) Trauma levels, the character must retire from active play, being too broken psychologically to carry out criminal activities. Justified by Duskwall being a Victoria-era city where even basic anatomy is treated as a mysterious and occult art, and the concept of psychotherapy simply doesn't exist yet. The book does off-handedly suggest a way to cure Trauma, via the inventing and long term projects rules to make a "soul surgery" device that rips the inner pain out of your mind. Not exactly therapy, sure...
  • Three-Stat System: The basic stats are Insight, Prowess, and Resolve, roughly corresponding to intellectual, physical, and social capacities of a Player Character. In an interesting twist, these basic stats are never used for active Actions (instead, their subordinate Action ratings are taken), but only for reaction rolls to resist negative effects.
  • Unholy Ground: Not so much the ground, as the world itself that keeps the ghosts trapped and slowly going mad after their physical bodies perish. If it weren't for the Spirit Wardens, the world would have long been overrun by ghosts.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Blades in the Dark is likely the first game on record to mechanize this trope. Although the player characters are assumed to plan their scores extensively, the players don't specify anything ahead of time, except the score's objective, the attack point, and their respective maximum loadouts. This way, the latter can retroactively introduce contingencies into the former's "plans" that had never been mentioned before, and thus have much better chances of success than if the players had planned their scores in detail.
  • Up to 11: The game's Tier System for Duskwall factions goes from Tier 0 (basically, three-to-four thugs in a hideout—which is how your crew starts out) to Tier V (hundreds of agents on all levels of society), with most factions falling neatly on the spectrum. And then there is the Imperial Military, whose official Tier is VI.
  • Useless Useful Stealth: Averted. Unlike almost every other RPG, where a single whiffed roll from the party's least stealthy character blows the entire group's cover, Blades frames group sneaking as a group action, where everyone rolls, but only the highest result is counted, and the group leader takes stress for every failed roll. Moreover, the Lurk's "Expertise" ability caps the stress they take from any such attempt to 1, making stealthy approaches feasible for any crew without completely negating the risk.
  • Vengeful Ghost: Spectres are a type of ghosts that have been twisted by their deaths and are driven by the desire to take vengeance upon the living by consuming their life energy. Many start off with a specific target, but once the target dies, transfer their hatred upon all of the living.
  • Vice City: Duskwall is a cramped city living off its leviathan blood exports, and the only people who seem to truly uphold the imperial law in it are the Inspectors, who are foreigners and thus don't have any local ties.
  • Wanted Meter: Your crew has a Heat score, which determines how much notoriety it garnered in the underworld—and, subsequently, how close an eye the Bluecoats keep on you. When the Heat maxes out, you go up a Wanted level, which has pretty serious consequences to any member who gets arrested.
  • A Wizard Did It: To quote the last page of the book: "This was once a storybook fantasy world of magic and wonders, which was destroyed and an industrial civilization was built on top of the ruins. Don't expect scientific realism here."
  • Wrong Side of the Tracks: Or rather, "of the canals", since most districts in Doskvol are separated by waterways. Specifically, the central canal that separates the obscenely wealthy and secure district of Brightstone and the relatively-wealthy Charterhall from the gang-controlled Crow's Foot, rough sailor town of the Docks, perpetually poverty-stricken Charhollow, and the proletarian Coalridge. All four of these districts (plus the penal colony of Dunslough) are definitely viewed as the wrong side of the tracks by the more fashionable citizens. Barrowcleft, on the other hand, manages to keep a very good reputation, despite being just as poor a neighborhood.

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