I respect John Harper a lot as a designer. It's not that I love everything he makes, but I do find that he is among the rare people who knows what he wants to achieve in a game, dares to go beyond certain assumed borders and build therein, and, the best of all, puts great skill and effort to actually make it work. I just read Blades in the Dark because I believed it could help me finishing the other half of this rules. Turned out it was a great idea.
This is going to be a long post.
You might remember that previously in this blog I divided game rules into two: Core Rules (those that deal with guiding the game pace correcly, creating game loops and generating content) and Resolution Rules (those that arbiter how well the PCs perform); from which the former are the ones that really carry the game and the latter, while they can be good or bad, are lesser in importance.
Well, BITD resolution is nothing new: Some sort of the classic "roll Xd6, highest result determines outcome, partial successes abound", with a freaking amount of Attributes and Skills (called "actions") and Moves. Too much for my taste.
On the other hand, and this is one of Harper's strengths, the game's Core Rules look very very fine. That alone makes this game very valuable: apart from OSR games, its very hard to find games that have Core Rules at all. And if in D&D those rules are:
You must level up > XP is taken from treasure mostly > there is this dungeon stocking procedures that generate both monsters and treasure, get in the dungeon > level up so you can get into deeper dungeons;
in Blades in the Dark we find another consistent game-driven loop:
make heist/achieve turf > get (or lose) REPutation > increase band's tier, alongside a lot of debris and side-effects which generate more possible heists, or alternativelly expand your gang into more districts to get rep, resources and powerups.
I had attempted to do the "Gang Character Sheet" before in my games, as in making a sheet for the gang itself with its own stats and stuff, but never really found a way to use it that made sense. I think that this is also the second big success for this game. Your gang sheet decides which cohorts (NPC armies) you can use and how powerful are they; how likely you are to get hold or produce certain resources, influence or fight other gangs, how many Vice Dens you have and how much Coin they apport, which communal skills does the gang bestow on its members (for example, I liked that a gang of assassins can develop a feat so their members increase their Insight or Prowess beyond human scope, so it explains how to do ninja related stuff, etc)
I think that the game would benefit a lot from cutting off the character creation options (which tend a little towards the "snowflake" PC) in favor of making them faceless pawns with one or two distinctive traits and putting them under the mantle of their gang's benefits (which, starting at Tier 0 would be very small). The bulk of the advancement should go to the gang, while giving the characters little advancement its OK: This is first and foremost good for the game: You are more disposed to put your character in risk if your investments are really more on the gang itself than in the PC. It is also good for the fiction, as the gang life is dangerous and PCs getting plot armor works better on epic types of fiction, but not so much in the noir.
More things I love: On my homebrews I always like to implement quantum elements: That is: when you leave things undecided in a quantum state, and you decide during the game what has happened in the past. For example, I like that new PC Wizards can decide the spells they learn during the game, so they dont pick void options, and until then its a "nameless level 1 spell". When they choose magic missile, the fiction decides it was always a magic missile, and they keep that spell from now on. Or the (now classic for me) quantum pocket: You have an ability to produce an object that you were always carrying, but you decide it at that very moment. Normally that object must pertain to a family of objects (a doctor can produce a specific medicine, or a commoner can produce anything that can be bought in a small shop). BITD takes this towards the extreme edge, and i LOVE IT:
PCs are thrown into the score, with no preparation beyond their initial approach to the mission. They have a given load number: up from there, they can produce as much items as they want during the heist, but each time they do it, the item is now tracked. But there is more: the flashback mechanism allows you to do your heist preparation completelly in retrospective: Basically when you find some obstacle (let's say you find a guarding dog while sneaking through the garden) you spend some strain (one of the game's economy points) to say how did you prepare against it (maybe you spend a fucking month befriending that dog so it wouldn't attack you?) and if the outcome is uncertain you roll to see how well you did your preparation (on a bad roll, the dog was just pretending to be your friend so he could fuck you up tonight, dude. Who cons the conman?)
Those are, of course, mere simplifications of a more complex ruleset. Too complex for my tastes, actually. The game is an authentic leviathan of 300+ pages in small letter, and to my rules light mind, it could be surely be purged from half of it. Its not about the page count, but I think that it has a lot of layers of metacurrencies running around (reputation, coin, trauma, clocks, strain, tiers, skills, actions, moves, approaches, etc). Really, this might seem like heresy, but as I was reading I was like: "nah, I will ignore strain altogether. Spending strain to flashback? nahh just allow 1 flashback per character and maybe some more if they get a critical or have a relevant skill". But I don't want to say the game is bad for that. It's just part of my personality to modify and simplify according to my taste. I am a practical man. And I love that the game is as it is, because that means I can use it to work out my own version.
To finish up, I'd like to talk a little about the setting. Doskvol is a victorian mix of Venice, London and Prague, where the sun is dim and there are evil ghosts all around. The city is protected from the horrors that lurk outside by a electrical barrier that runs on leviathan oil (leviathans themselves are horrors that must be fished like whales by crazy ppl) and everybody accepts the existance of ghosts around in their everyday life. I'm not sure if I could use a setting like that, I am so fucking bad at victorian stuff. I just don't get the mood. But an obsession is again growing on me: Could this setting be ported into some more familiar to me, like the A-HISTORICAL ROMAN EMPIRE?
Check further entries.