Thoughts on Blades in the Dark

I just concluded another Blades in the Dark campaign that ran from February 2021 to now, covering 18 sessions, and I think I’m done with Forged in the Dark for a while.

Photo by Dima Valkov on Pexels.com

Caveats

Now, let me add, this is not a hit piece. I’ve run 2 Blades in the Dark campaigns, 1 Scum & Villainy, and played in several campaigns of the same games. Clearly I have enjoyed it! But that experience also gives me a bit of perspective that many others might not have.

This post focuses on the stuff that’s bothering me, but there’s plenty of stuff that I love. In fact, the list of things I love about Forged in the Dark is long, including the core mechanic (Position / Effect rolls) and the use of clocks. Doskvol is also one of my favorite settings ever. I’ve written before about good stuff in the game, so read that post first then come back here. Hell, I could probably add to that list at this point just based on how many more games I’ve run or played since that time – for example, the crafting system directly inspired the invention mechanic in my own hack of Into the Odd, Those Who Came Before.

Problems

So with that in mind, let me restate my current feelings with a bit more precision: I’m outgrowing it similarly to how I outgrew D&D 5e (and for similar reasons).

The core game loop is fantastic (Position and Effect) but a lot of the stuff around it is not. Even with dozens (hundreds?) of hours of play, I still end up needing to refer to the book for all the fiddly rule bits. Blades in the Dark just has too many little knobs and dials and exceptions and modifiers. What does “tier” actually represent? What is “weak” vs “strong” hold?

The bigger game loop (“free play” / job / downtime) wears us down after a while. Even if players want to do other stuff, so much of the game pushes you towards doing another job that it feels like that’s the thing you have to do. This isn’t necessarily bad, just repetitive.

Further, the mechanics don’t always support “fiction first” play. It’s easy to fall into the habit of filling up a bar with relatively arbitrary values and making things happen. Players tell me they find it easy to min-max, which doesn’t always lend itself to fiction first-gaming. I’ll defend them against knee-jerk reactions: these are definitely players who get it. They have lots of experience with these general sorts of games, resist the temptation, and try to focus on the ways that Blades wants you to play. But that dissonance is still there, scratching the back of their brains.

FitD games want to tell very particular types of stories (heists, in the case of Blades in the Dark and, to an extent, Scum & Villainy). Sometimes the book suggests you can do something else (Hawkers) but that’s tougher than it sounds and don’t really gel together. We found ways to make it work (e.g. focusing on the claim map), but the system often pushed back against us.

The faction system initially attracted me as a GM. In my experience, though, it quickly becomes an afterthought rather than the GM’s solo fun like I’d hoped. This is kind of okay because what happens instead is that the crew becomes the main thing and I’m just trying to keep up with their shenanigans. So worrying about the offscreen war between two other groups, no matter how important they are to the crew, ends up being a burden. Multiply this by a factor of two or three to include the other factions the crew starts out entangled with or runs into as they chase claims and it’s too much.

Solutions

I don’t like focusing on problems without looking at how to fix them, and in fact we can fix most of these things if we want to. My friend Eskur wrote about running factions in a way that seems more manageable and potentially in line with the intent of the game if not the actual text.

Other folks have hacked on the game to simplify things somewhat and allow everyone to focus on the actual fiction without letting the mechanics take over. I haven’t played them yet, but versions like In the Dark have my attention.

I’d also simplify the crew choices. Blades wants you to play people who steal things or beat people up, basically. If you want to play Hawkers or Cultists (which are incredibly interesting), be prepared to think very differently about what a “job” is, how to carry it out, and what the concrete benefits are.

Future

I have a copy of Brinkwood (which I backed on Kickstarter) and it looks really interesting. Like Doskvol, the setting alone grabs my brain and won’t let go. Messerspiel takes some of the best ideas of Blades in the Dark and pares them down to the absolute essentials; it might be easier to start with that and add little bits if and when we actually need them.

Anyway, for now, I’m coming back to games that get out of my way. More on that soon.

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