Reviews: Blades In The Dark

The Arrested Development of Tabletop

Picture a grimy, gang ridden, victorian/streampunk city that runs on whale fluids. No, not that one. Blades in the Dark is a tabletop RPG in which the players form their own criminal enterprise to go on heists. Besides blatantly ripping off a lot of its aesthetic and setting, Blades in the Dark brings a lot of novel and new ideas to the tabletop format.

Whilst I've been playing tabletop RPGs for a while, Blades in the Dark marks my first foray into DMing. We play it in a crowded club room, surrounded by hairy Games Workshop guys who constantly shriek about Tau. Such things make it impossible to set up games that demand a lot of atmosphere, like any of the Worldof Darkness titles or Call of Cthulhu, but Blades in the Dark is light and easy enough that you can still play it in a more casual environment. It's also fairly generous to new players and game masters, with a paired down approach to stats, character building and items.

In fact, everything about Blades is encouraged to streamline things down into a breezy action movie, where players are rapidly guided into dangerous obstacles. A GM can cause a smash cut so that the player's gang immediately appears at the mansion they want to rob, right at the moment they are picking a window lock, moments before setting off a burglar alarm. Meanwhile, players can respond to this abruptness by carrying out impromptu flashbacks - such as one where they had successfully convinced a servant to leave that burglar alarm off that particular night. On top of that, players aren't even required to record their items, so going in to heists, they can pull whatever they want from their ass. Want to open your coat and surprise everyone in the room with all the weapons you've stashed on yourself, Matrix style? No problem, you can do that!

The format places a lot of trust on players, expecting them to quickly adapt to whatever the GM throws at them. Players used to a more rigid, crunchy game might struggle at being asked to think on their feet; feeling cheated by the lack of initiative roles and other tactical crutches. But it also rewards players a lot of if they can think fast, making them feel like a genius if they manage it.

In my case, my players opted to start up a scam cult. Their first mission was to infiltrate a posh party and proselytise the city's betters. They utterly failed at this and only managed to harm a lot of hapless kitchen staff. It's only by one of the players thought fast and impersonated an undercover policeman, that they could create an opening and escape with their lives. This entire scenario was entirely ad libbed. No time have I ever played a game that has provided so many opportunities for long term consequences, call backs, and utter farce.
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