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Forged in the Dark is an open-source Game System originally designed by John Harper of one.seven design for his groundbreaking 2017 Tabletop RPG Blades in the Dark. Its System Reference Document, containing the core rules and mechanics of the game, is available under the CC-BY 3.0 license, meaning that anyone can adapt it to their own game systems for free, as long as they link back to the original. The "Forged in the Dark" brand belongs to one.seven, but again, anyone can use it for their Blades-based products as long as they acknowledge said ownership.

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Compare and contrast its close relative, Powered by the Apocalypse, based on Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World.


Games under the Forged in the Dark license


System Overview

Unlike the aforementioned Apocalypse World and its descendants, which put a lot of focus on characterization of and on relationships between Player Characters, Blades and its progeny are mainly about action — not just in the Action Genre sense, but in that the players must proactively challenge the status quo of their imagined world and change things within it. This focus is evident in everything from the core mechanic (the action rolls) to various cut-to-the-action techniques (see Scores below) and makes the system less suited for more contemplative, character-driven games.note 

The Core Mechanic: Action Rolls

Whenever you want to get something done that is fraught with danger or risk of failure in a FitD game, announce what you want your character to accomplish, build a pool of six-sided dice, and roll them. If the highest roll in your pool is a 6, you get what you wanted; if it's a 4 or a 5, you get what you wanted but there is a catch — a negative consequence or two, chosen by the Game Master; on a 1 through 3, you only get consequences instead. If you roll two or more 6s, it's a Critical Hit: you get what you wanted with a cherry on top; but if your pool, for any reason, ends up with no dice in it, you instead roll 2d and take the lower result (you also cannot crit in this case: two 6s are just a regular full success).

How many dice are in your pool depends mainly on the action rating you are using. An action rating is simply a verb describing your interaction with the game world, such as Prowl, Study, or Command, with a numeric rating from 0 to 4 attached to itnote : so if you are trying to Prowl past the patrolling guards and your Prowl action rating is 3, your base pool size is 3d. These verbs are system- and setting-specificnote , but typically general enough to cover a broad variety of actionsnote . A typical FitD game has twelve action ratings grouped into three attributes (usually Insight, Prowess, and Resolve), and a new character gets seven points (dots) to distribute among them.note 

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An action roll consists of a very specific sequence of interactions:

  1. The player announces what their character wants to accomplish.
  2. The player chooses an action rating to do so.note 
  3. The Game Master sets the position of the chosen action in the given situation: controlled, risky, or desperate.note 
  4. The GM sets the effect of the chosen action in the given situation: limited, standard, or great.note 
  5. Optionally, the player adds bonus dice to their pool.note 
  6. The player rolls the dice and adjudicates the outcome together with the GM.note 

For a mathematically inclined reader, the exact probabilities of each outcome for every legal dice pool size are listed below:

Roll 1-3 4/5 6 CRIT
0d 75.0% 22.2% 2.8% 0.0%
1d 50.0% 33.3% 16.7% 0.0%
2d 25.0% 44.4% 27.8% 2.8%
3d 12.5% 45.4% 34.7% 7.4%
4d 6.3% 42.0% 38.6% 13.2%
5d 3.1% 37.1% 40.2% 19.6%
6d 1.6% 31.9% 40.2% 26.3%

Consequences, Harm, Resistance Rolls, and Stress

Any time the player rolls less-than-perfectly (i.e. anything other than a full or critical success), the GM is free to assign one or more consequences to their character's actionnote . A consequence can range from reduced effect or a lost opportunity to general complications and lasting harm, and its severity depends on the position established before the roll. Because there are no Hit Points in this system, harm is simply a consequence whose effects persist beyond the current scene and until treated. In other words, the system averts Critical Existence Failure by stacking penalties for each injury, whether it's bodily, mental, or social, long before it kills you:

  1. Level 1 injuriesnote  are sustained in controlled situations and automatically reduce the effect of any action roll that they hamper by one level.
  2. Level 2 injuriesnote  come from risky situations and reduce the dice pools for action rolls that they hamper by −1d.
  3. A level 3 injurynote  results from a desperate situation and renders the character unable to make action rolls except by pushing themselves.

A PC can have two level 1, two level 2, and one level 3 injury: if there are no more "slots" for another injury at its level, it rolls over into the next higher one. An injury beyond level 3 (level 4note ) is instantly fatal, but if it results from a level 3 "rolling over", the GM can decide to replace it with a permanent, catastrophic consequence, such as a limb loss.

Here is the biggest kicker, though: a player can dodge or reduce any consequence the GM assigns to themnote  by simply announcing that they make a resistance roll against it. A resistance roll is automatically successfulnote  and its result only determines how much stress it costs you: the GM decides which attribute you must resist with, and you roll as many dice as you have action ratings above 0 in that attribute. The final cost is 6 minus your highest roll — this is how much stress you takenote . This simple mechanic puts a lot of power in the players' hands, while also freeing the GM to go as hard as they want on them — after all, if they're unhappy with anything bad the GM does to them, they can always resist it.

Stress is an abstract resource representing a Player Character's fortitude. Resistance rolls are the most unpredictable source of stress, but you can also take stress to push yourselfnote , to assist another, to activate special abilities, or to invoke flashbacks (see bellow). Stress is reduced during downtime by indulging your vices (see below), while accumulating a total of 9 stress leads to a permanent trauma condition (such as Paranoid, Unstable, or Vicious) and puts you out of the action for a time. If you accrue four traumas, you must immediately retire your character from play, as they are too psychologically broken to continue.

Advancement

A player character in FitD typically has four Experience Meters: a longer one for the playbook (see below) and three shorter ones for the attributes. Completely filling in an attribute XP track lets you put another dot into one of its action ratings, while filling in the playbook track allows you to pick an additional special abilitynote . As mentioned above, any action roll from a desperate position nets you an XP in the corresponding attribute track. At the end of each session, you can also gain up to six XP to distribute freely among the tracks if you have done any of the following during that session:

  • Addressed one or more challenges in a way that is appropriate for your chosen playbook — i.e. you've played your part for the team;
  • Expressed your beliefs, drives, heritage, or background — i.e. you've actually role-played your character; and/or
  • Struggled with issues from your vice or trauma (if any) — i.e. you've played out your character's long-term afflictions.

These are known as your XP triggers. Note that almost all XP in this system are Non-Combat EXPnote , so even though its focus is on action, you shouldn't forget to role-play your character in said action if you want to advance.

GM's Tools: Fortune Rolls and Progress Clocks

Two of the main types of dice rolls in FitD (action and resistance) are an exclusive domain of the players: the Game Master participates in their adjudication, but never rolls for themselves. However, there is the third type, the fortune rolls, which are used by the GM whenever a) a situation must be resolved without the PCs' direct interventionnote  or b) an outcome is uncertain, but no other roll applies. Note that in both cases, the GM is well within their rights to just make a judgement call, but if they'd rather defer to the Random Number God, fortune rolls are their tool of choice.

To make a fortune roll, the GM articulates a question, builds a dice pool based on any relevant numeric trait ratingnote , and rolls it. Like with action rolls, a result of 1-3 is usually a failure, 4/5 is mixed or partial success, 6 is a full success, and two or more 6s is an exceptional success. A particularly common fortune roll is gathering information, where a player looks for clues without an immediate danger or time pressure to warrant an action roll: instead, the GM makes a fortune roll with the PC's relevant action rating and gives the player the information their character uncovers accordingly.

Another important tool in the GM's kit are the progress clocks: abstract representations of complex obstacles the players have to overcomenote  or of processes occurring in the backgroundnote . A clock can have four, six, or eight segments, which are usually filled in ("ticked") one by one, and once it's full, something happens in the fiction: the players clear the obstacle, the alarm is sounded, a rival faction reaches its goal, etc.

How many clock segments are ticked at once depends on its purpose. An obstacle clock, such as security measures or tough enemies, is ticked when an action roll succeeds: once for a limited effect, twice for standard, and triply for greatnote . A danger clock, such as discovery or time pressure, is instead ticked as a consequence of an action roll: once in a controlled position, twice when risky, or triply when desperate — though, of course, the players can choose to resist that consequence, reducing the number of ticks accordingly. Finally, clocks can be advanced with fortune rolls: one tick for 1-3, two for 4/5, three for a 6, and five for a crit, — hopefully, this illustrates how beautifully all parts of this game system feed into one another when utilized to their full potential.

Playbooks and Crews

Just like in systems Powered by the Apocalypse, each Player Character has a particular playbook that serves as a rough template for their characterization. The playbooks are system- and setting-specific, there are typically at least seven of them, and unlike in PbtA, a group is not restricted by rules to a single instance of each at any given time. A FitD playbook commonly fits on a single page and has following information on it:

  • A snappy archetype name and a one-line description of it
  • Name, alias, looks, and crew affiliation
  • Heritagenote  and backgroundnote 
  • Vicenote  and its purveyornote 
  • Current levels of stress, trauma, and harm
  • Action and attribute ratings
  • A list of special abilitiesnote 
  • A list of playbook-specific contactsnote 
  • A list of playbook-specific and generic gear
  • A playbook-specific XP trigger
  • XP tracks for the playbook (special abilities) and individual attributes
  • Coin and Stashnote 

In addition to the PCs' individual playbooks, which are templates for their respective Character Arcs, the group as a whole (a.k.a. the crew) has a shared crew playbook, which serves as a template for the campaign's Myth Arc. By choosing a particular crew playbook, the players agree upon and signal to the GM that this is the kind of campaign they would like to playnote . The original Blades came with six crew playbooks, but most FitD games have around three. A crew playbook is even more dependent on the genre and setting than character ones, but typically contains the following:

  • The name of the crew archetype and a one-line description
  • The crew's own name and reputationnote 
  • Crew tiernote  and its liquid capital
  • A crew-, genre-, and setting-specific map of long-term crew improvementsnote 
  • A list of special abilitiesnote 
  • A single crew XP tracknote 
  • A list of crew XP triggersnote 
  • A list of crew-specific contactsnote 

In addition to giving a direction to the campaign, the crew playbook also facilitates a strong group identity among the players by giving them a common purpose. Thanks to this, new PC introductionsnote  are much smoother, while any nascent PvP conflict is effectively curbed by reminding the players engaging in it of their commitment to the campaign goals.

Scores, Flashbacks, and Downtime

Whenever a crew wants to enact a major change in the game world, a score is called for. A score is essentially any planned group endeavor with a clearly defined goal, and the flow of play and narration in FitD games is structured around a core loop of executing a score, enjoying the downtime, then entering free play again to plan the next score. Unlike other score-based RPGsnote , which are plagued by boring and often superfluous contingency planning, FitD assumes that while the characters prepare their scores in minute detail, the players don't have to. Consequently, it employs a number of so-called cut to the action techniquesnote  to skip over most of said planning and to put the players In Medias Res of an operation already underway, effectively gamifying the Unspoken Plan Guarantee trope. This is how it works:

  1. The players articulate their next score's goalnote .
  2. The players choose the type of plan their characters have put togethernote .
  3. The players come up a plan type-specific detail to make it work.note 
  4. The players choose the load their characters go into the score with.note 
  5. The GM makes a special fortune roll called the engagement roll to determine how the score starts and jump-cuts to its first obstacle.note 
  6. The players play out the score, making action and resistance rolls and using teamwork and flashbacks (see below).
  7. Once the players either achieve or give up on their goal, the score ends and the game enters the downtime phase.

Teamwork lets player characters help each other out on scores: by assisting another, a player takes 1 stress and gives them +1d on their action roll; to set up an action, a player makes an action roll, which, if successful, improves either the position, or the effect of any action roll that follows through on it; by protecting a teammate, another player character automatically takes a consequence for them (and can resist it normally); and finally, in a group action, all PCs make the same action roll, and the overall highest result counts for everyone — but one PC must volunteer to lead the effort and takes 1 stress for every participant who rolls a 1-3.note 

Flashbacks are a mechanic that allows players to fully weaponize the Unspoken Plan Guarantee by retroactively preparing for challenges after they happen, instead of guessing which ones might happen. Because FitD rules do not distinguish between actions in the present and in the past, a player can, at any point during a score, invoke a flashback and perform an action roll or two in the past to retroactively improve the current situation. The only difference is that flashbacks typically have a stress cost attached to them by the GMnote . Note, however, that flashbacks cannot Retcon things that have already happened in-game: if you are busted by a police patrol, you cannot retroactively change its route... but you can have already paid off the officer leading them to let you go once he recognizes you.

The downtime is a special game phase that follows immediately after each score. First, the GM adjudicates the score's payoffnote  and falloutnote . Then, the players can engage in downtime activities, e.g. to treat injuries, to relieve stress by indulging their vices, or to work on personal long-term projects — the first two activities (per character) after a score are free, additional ones must be purchased with cash or prestige. After this downtime, the game returns to free play, where the players can deal with any entanglements, explore, and plan their next score.

Faction Game

In the original Blades, the faction game was a hugely important subsystem simulating the political situation on the streets of Duskwall and the crew's place within it. While this aspect tends to be deemphasized in less politically-oriented FitD games, some aspects of it often carry over, in particular:

  • Tier is a measure of wealth, influence, and scale assigned to each faction in the setting. The players' crew normally starts out at Tier 0 and can rise up to Tier III or IV, depending on the game, with the ultimate Tiers V and VI reserved for The Government and Mega-Corp-equivalents. The Tier determines the quality of a faction's equipment and experts and the scale of its subordinate gangs. Tier is logarithmic in scale, so a faction is roughly two times bigger, richer, and better equipped than any one on the next lower Tier.note 
  • Status is an indication of how much a given faction likes or dislikes the player crew, ranging from −3 to +3note . The lower the rating, the further the faction would go to interfere with the crew and with its scores, and conversely, the higher it is, the more assistance it will offer. If a crew is at a −3 status with any other faction, they're considered to be at war with itnote  until they either eliminate the hostile faction, or negotiate a mutual agreement with it, raising their status back up.

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