What Makes Blades in the Dark So Sharp



Social Media Manager

Blades in the Dark now has its own Compendium on Roll20, which is as good an excuse as any to gush about the game. And I really don’t need much of an excuse. Blades in the Dark is a fantastic experience, and it got me back into roleplaying games after an extended hiatus. I’ll basically take any opportunity to talk about why I love it, and why I think you’ll love it, too.

For those unfamiliar with the title, Blades in the Dark is a 2017 roleplaying game by John Harper. Set in the Victorian-era inspired city of Doskvol, Blades in the Dark casts its players as a crew of criminals, connected by a network of underworld enterprises. Players choose from a selection of playbooks, which function more or less as character archetypes, each with their own unique conditions for progression. This system encourages players to really get into their characters and play true to their roles.

In Blades, players resolve conflicts by rolling six-sided dice. Players get to decide what stats they roll to resolve a conflict, but the GM gets to decide the player’s position for that roll—how strongly they’re tackling an issue. This creates a nice tension between players and obstacles, and it turns the game into an exciting narrative conversation. Players can also choose to take on extra Stress to improve their chances on a roll, but that stress comes with consequences in the form of Vices, obligations that the player character is then required to fulfill.

That’s the game in a nutshell. Here’s what makes it so great.

Many games claim to be player-driven, but Blades truly puts its players in the driver’s seat. In Blades, the basic unit of play is the Score, the proper noun used to describe the heists players embark on each session. In real life (not that I’d know, mind you)—and indeed in many other RPGs—executing a dastardly and clever heist requires meticulous planning, backed with careful and thoughtful execution. In Blades, this kind of planning and execution is abstracted. Instead of putting the pressure to plan on its players, Blades places that pressure on its characters. Players are able to narrate flashbacks during the course of their heist, and these flashbacks call back to planning already executed by the characters. (Think Ocean’s Eleven.)

This is a smart system that keeps Blades in the Dark from ever feeling bogged down, and it empowers players to take risks and still feel like they’re cool and in control of the situation. There’s still a cost, of course. Those Stress points mentioned above add up. But it blows open doors for new and interesting roleplaying scenarios, creating unique narratives that aren’t even bound by time.

All of this gameplay is set against a fascinating backdrop: The Victorian-inspired city of Doskvol, a haunted place filled with plenty of opposing factions like rival gangs, noble families, and ruthless city guards. Doskvol is a world of endless night, stalked by vengeful ghosts and powered by the blood of leviathans. It’s a unique setting, but most importantly, it’s a setting that is totally intertwined with Blades’ ruleset. Doskvol provides ample opportunity for players to get entangled with shady characters and unreliable factions.

And the city’s reputation for crime is perfect for Blades’ Vices, the obligations that its characters must indulge in to reduce their Stress during the game’s important downtime phase. BITD’s setting never feels like a coat of paint splattered on top of a set of mechanics. Rather, the rules feel like the foundation, and the setting is the framework.

Blades in the Dark came out several years ago, and since then its influence has spread to many other titles. The Forged in the Dark umbrella encompasses all the Blades-inspired titles, including Scum & Villainy and Band of Blades.

Still, Blades in the Dark stands on its own as a truly unique experience. With the Compendium now on Roll20—available both in-app and on the web—there’s never been a better time to experience Doskvol for the first time, or to return to the city for one last big heist.

Ready to play? Pick up Blades in the Dark in the Marketplace.

Luke Social Media Manager

Luke W is a writer and social media manager living in the Midwest. His writing has appeared in Vice, Paste, Game Informer, and The Hard Drive. He tweets at @urzashottub, mostly about his lunch.