Wherin I Heap Love Upon Blades in the Dark

After reading Austin Walker‘s comments over the weekend (read the whole thread), I dipped back into the tabletop RPG Blades in the Dark. Reading the game, I was struck again at what a fabulous accomplishment it is. Every page and section makes me want to play the game.

As Walker indicates, each chapter has Questions to Consider, and the entire text of the game does a great job of drawing back the curtain regarding how the game fits together. The creator John Harper invites the reader to step up to become a co-designer of Blades in the Dark as they’ll play it. Everyone’s version of a given game is different, and Harper doesn’t shy away from that reality.

You might have heard me talk about Blades before, as I got in on the game early in the Kickstarter and have been a vocal fan ever since even though I haven’t gotten to play the game yet.

Blades in the Dark is set in an industrial fantasy city called Duskvol, a trade city in a world that suffered a magical apocalypse a thousand years ago. That event shattered the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead and now the known world is ruled by an immortal emperor and cities are protected from hungry spirits roaming free across the world by giant magitek electrical fences. The tone and flavor of the setting are conveyed throughout the core book, with hooks abounding and a clear manifestation of the default grim tone of the setting in the writing. The game is designed not just for telling the tales of daring scoundrels, it’s designed for telling tales of daring scoundrels *in this particular world*. It’s very much gothic dark fantasy ala the Dishonored and Thief video games (both specifically invoked as inspirations for Blades).

I prefer more optimistic worlds and games, especially these days (*waves to 2017*), so I’m also excited for the Broken Crown, a playset about trying to take down the Immortal Emperor, and other alternate setting playsets. Especially Null Vector, the cyberpunk playset. Blades is an amazing game for Cyberpunk because Blades is designed to drastically reduce the amount of planning a group has to do for heists. I have a sad memory of spending over two hours arguing with a game group about how to pull off a kidnapping in Shadowrun, and in Blades that conversation would have been five minutes deciding which general approach to take and then we’d have gotten right into the action.

Thinking back to the way tone informs the design, I’m hoping to see these playsets to adjust the mechanics in order to convey the setting’s tone. If they don’t, I’ll need to do it myself, but I’m hoping that the transparency of how the tone is built into the design means that a change in setting comes with an adjustment in the design tone.

I have spent more than a little time thinking about how I’d hack Blades in the Dark to make a Shield and Crocus RPG. I even have a working title: War in the Bones.

Fun Side Notes

  • The game’s publisher, Evil Hat Productions, has given an open invitation to designers who intend to make hacks of Blades in the Dark (new games using the system/design) to submit to them. This is likely to help foster a new family of RPGs the way that Apocalypse World became a games lineage with games like Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, Monster of the Week, etc. Blades is heavily informed by Apocalypse World but is, IMO, a full iteration forward compared to the above hacks.
  • I love that hacks of Blades in the Dark are called “Forged in the Dark” like Apocalypse World hacks are “Powered by the Apocalypse.”

I don’t get to play nearly as many RPGs as I want or even as much as I did before I started working at Angry Robot, but I still love delving into new games to see where the discipline of RPG design is headed. Anyone similarly interested needs to be following Blades in the Dark.

Cool Stuff You Might Like

Here’s some stuff I’ve enjoyed recently that I’d like to share:

Kimmy Schmidt

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – A Netflix original series from the team that created 30 Rock. The show follows Kimmy Schmidt, tricked into joining an apocalypse cult living underground for fifteen years before she and the three other women with her were rescued. But rather than living in victim-hood and work the talk show circuit, Kimmy decides to stay in NYC and start over.

The lead, Ellie Kemper, is the #1 reason to watch the show, IMO. The show takes a tragic character backstory and turns it into the reason for a comedy show. Kimmy is aggressively optimistic, even though the trauma of what was done to her is far from just washed away once the show starts. The show has some questionable representation that isn’t sitting well with me, but if you liked 30 Rock, this show is definitely worth a try.

Silver Surfer: New Dawn

Silver Surfer: New Dawn (Dan Slott, Michael Allred, Laura Allred, VC’s Clayton Cowles)

I have a soft spot for Silver Surfer ever since I read one of the old hardcover collections with his first solo issue appearances from 1968). The character is often shown as kind of flat, the brooding Herald of Galactus. But when well-done, the character is thoughtful and kind. The Slott/Allred Silver Surfer was, for me, a major return to form, clearly influenced by the original Kirby/Lee run. I wouldn’t have thought to tap Michael Allred to echo Jack Kirby’s cosmic baroque art, but it is a great fit. The story is solid, largely for that invocation of the late-60s run.

Blades in the Dark (John Harper)

Blades in the Dark is a Tabletop RPG being Kickstarted right now. It’s funded to the tune of over $50,000, and has a month left to go. Expect major stretch goal action.

The core game does the focused indie RPG thing of presenting a single core premise and game mode – in this case, playing a group of thieves who work together from nothing to build their criminal empire in a setting reminiscent of Video Game RPG Dishonored. The game invokes Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and The Lies of Locke Lamora as comparisons, and it looks like it’d also play well for fans of Among Thieves.

I think this looks really cool, so I’ve backed it, and I figured that I’d share it in case other folks were interested. I haven’t gotten to play any tabletop RPGs in a while, but I like to keep an eye on what’s going on in the form and support interesting projects. Of particular note to me are the ‘build your missions’ idea that looks like it may solve the Shadowrun problem of ‘plan the job for 3 hours, then another 3 hours of combat.’

The completed stretch goals have added extra character archetypes and several all-new game modes (play the City Watch, play fantasy-whale hunters, play a group trying to overthrow the Immortal Emperor, etc.)

In Praise of Tabletop

I’ve been enjoying the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel, especially the Sword & Laser video show, but today, I want to talk about the awesome that is Tabletop.

I’ve been a gamer nearly all of my life, but I became a Gamer at the tender age of nine, when classmates at school invited me to play D&D with them. My first character was a Barbarian with a Dune Buggy, and it was all downhill from there.

Like many geeks of my generation, large portions of my teen years were spent in front of dining room tables, consoles, and PCs, playing games of all types: video, board, collectible card, strategy, miniatures, and so on.

Wil Wheaton had a distinctively different upbringing than I did, having been a child star and all, but this thing we have in common: a great love for tabletop games. Wheaton brings this love to Tabletop, a web series where he invites friends and colleagues to hang out and play board games, card games, and strategy games. Wheaton has taken up a role of advocacy for these games, touting their ability to train critical thinking, strategy, teamwork, and to strengthen social connections. But rather than doing it in a Suzanne Somers “Please adopt this hungry d12. Just a quarter a day can help it get the crayons it needs to have clearly defined numbers…” kind of way, more a “this is really fun, let me give you the jist and then we will show you!”

The gameplay shown in Tabletop is intentionally heightened, as the players are clearly ‘ON’ in terms of giving a performance to maximize watchability, but it is usually not a huge stretch from an animated game between good friends.

One of the benefits of the show for me (and I hope many others) is the chance to introduce loved ones to the joy of tabletop games. I’ve bought several of the games featured (at my friendly local game store, of course), and shared them with my girlfriend, who is very gracious about sharing my passions, and whom I hope to turn to the Dork side of the Force (at least a little, if she wants).

I’ve embedded the first episode here to give a sense of the show.

What are some of your favorite tabletop games? Anything you think would be especially good for the show?