Who hasn’t watched Peaky Blinders, The Wire, or played a video game like Dishonored and thought to themselves: “I wanna play that in a tabletop RPG! I wanna be a ne’er-do-well leading a crew of criminals”. Well, Blades in the Dark is that game. Blades in the Dark lets you and your friends put on the skin of a daring and mischievous of a group of scoundrels. In the game, you explore and burgle the cold winding streets of Doskvol, an industrial fantasy city, as you and your crew build your criminal empire. The game presents mechanics and structure to help you put action first and planning second as you work your way to nab the score your crew is eyeing. So grab your trusty set of lock picks, a concealed handgun, and your best disguise, because it’s time for a heist!
About this Review
This review covers the contents of the Blades in the Dark Core Rulebook. The game is created by John Harper and was initially crowdfunded on Kickstarter in 2015. The game is currently in its first and only edition and is published by Evil Hat Productions. This review contains details on the usability & structure of the rulebook, how well the book conveys its setting, how the game’s systems work, and how the game comes together and plays to create a fun tabletop experience for both the players and the Game Masters. There will also be a rating of the game on a scale from one to ten, ten being a perfect score.
Structure of the Rulebook
The core rule book of the Blades in The Dark tabletop RPG is a 6’’ by 9’’ glossy hardcover book. It is 328 pages in length and is divided into well-marked sections that flow in a logical manner. These sections are:
- A 50-page introduction to the basic rules and core mechanics of the game;
- A section roughly 50 pages in length on character creation;
- Another 30 pages outlining the various crews your table can be associated to;
- Roughly 50 more pages detailing the phases of the game. These help guide play by loosely compartmentalizing the game into categories, but more on that latter;
- A few sections dedicated to Game Masters roughly 50 pages in length on how to run the game and how to make changes to it to suit your table; and
- A large 70-page section on the setting of Doskvol, including maps of the Victorian-inspired city, factions, and random tables for a GMs use.
The rulebook is peppered with full-page grayscale artwork used to supplement the rules or to give a visual example of a character class, location, or non-player character. The book also has a number of diagrams and tables that illustrate the more complex subsystems of the game. There are also tables that condense several pages of rules into a quick summary. The rulebook serves as the sole source material needed for players and Game Masters. The standalone book plus a PDF copy can be purchased from the publisher for a reasonable price of $30 USD. Additional free official resources are also available to you, including the very practical player’s kit that outlines the basics of the game and setting. Other cheat sheets can also be found on the official website.
While the content of the book is divided into clear sections, the first 50 pages or so of the rulebook are difficult to digest. The “basic rules” section tries to equip the reader with a surface-level understanding of the game but attempts to cover too much ground too quickly. At times, it refers to terms or mechanics without explaining them, simply referring to a later section of the book for more details. This left me bouncing back and forth between pages. While I understand that this was done to generate familiarity in the core gameplay loops first, it would have been more pleasant to read and easier to understand if rules were explained as they were presented.
Games of Blades in the Dark are set in a fictional city called Doskvol. Doskvol is an interesting mix between industrial and fantasy and is heavily inspired by the Victorian era. Parallels can be drawn between Doskvol and a dense metropolitan city from the 1870s. Venice with its waterways, bridges, and mazelike alleys, or London with its tight row houses, rainy cold weather, and a bit of pomp are good examples of such a city. Peppered into its steampunk adjacent aesthetic are fantasy and supernatural elements. The world Doskvol inhabits is a post-apocalyptic one, where the gates of death were broken hundreds of years ago allowing demonic horrors, spirits, and other such monstrosities to roam freely. To keep its inhabitants safe, Doskvol is encircled by electromagnetic gates that act to keep the horrors out and the players in. This, by design, makes Doskvol a pressure cooker for tension and drama. It forces the players to deal with the consequences of their actions and face them head-on.
The rulebook goes to great lengths to provide players and GMs with a lot of flavor and context for the city. The large section of the book dedicated to Doskvol provides many details about its climate, institutions, factions, and its layout. Doskvol is divided into 12 districts, of varying security and wealth levels. Each of these districts are outlined in a lovely two-page spread that contains a map, descriptions, points of interest, non-player characters of note, and images of the architecture typical for that neighborhood.
Doskvol feels like a fully realized place. The rulebook equips you with just enough details to fully immerse your table into its smoky, mysterious and winding streets. Also, there are enough gaps and flexibility to allow you to make the city your own. This a balance that is not easy to strike and Blades in the Dark does it impeccably.
The scoundrels you embody
Blades in the Dark replaces the heroes some players might be used to playing with thieves, smugglers, assassins, and other such scoundrels. You have 7 unique player classes to choose from, referred to by the game as playbooks. Each playbook offers unique starting perks and skills that serve as an area of focus for different playstyles. These playbooks range from fighters, to spies, to arcane adepts and tinkers. It really feels like each of the typical thief/scoundrel archetypes are present. In addition to a list of unique skills and items, playbooks specify how a character can earn experience points. The playbook’s distinct method of progressing your character directly influences the way you play the character and tackle challenges.
In addition to selecting a playbook for themselves, each scoundrel selects a crew to be a part of. This is a decision that everyone at the table chooses together, selecting a company from a list of 6 different crew types. Each crew has its own perks, motivations, and objectives that serve as a way to focus the game and the action of the scores the crew will take part in.
The combination of playbook and crew provides each character with a list of skills that they are adept at. These are referred to by the game as actions. There are a total of 12 possible actions that are subdivided into three overarching categories: Insight, Prowess, and Resolve. The beauty of these choices is that while they generate wonderful starting points for a table, they are not restrictive. As the scoundrels grow and the game progresses a satisfying amount of overlap between character types and crew types becomes apparent.
Overview of the Structure and Systems
Games of Blades in the Dark take place in phases. These phases follow a cycle that helps to emulate the planning and execution of a criminal operation (like a heist, jailbreak, etc.) and its aftermath. This cycle starts in what the game calls “Free Play”, a phase that involves information gathering and is when the party decides what score to go after. Upon choosing a general approach, the game takes you right into the action, skipping over the nitty-gritty of planning. As you confront challenges, take action, and suffer consequences players have the ability to call upon flashbacks. These flashbacks give players the flexibility to lay out previously planned elements of their score which will permit them to overcome unforeseeable obstacles. This permits the game to feel fast pace and energetic, as it allows players to plan relevant strategies instead of speculative ones. Once the score is resolved the game enters a downtime phase where different systems emulate the fallout of the party’s victory or failure during the score.
Another interesting component of the game is how it resolves action rolls. Instead of counting solely on a character’s skill level, action rolls throughout the game also rely on the position (or level of control) of the character performing the action. There are three positions in the game: controlled, risky, and desperate. These positions create interesting outcomes as they dictate the level of success (or severity of consequences) for a player’s role. Admittedly, setting this position for every action roll felt cumbersome at first and a little unintuitive. This learning curve caused the game to run a little slower as the table wrapped its head around setting this risk level. Another system that is core to the gameplay of Blades in the Dark is the progress clock. When the crew faces off against a challenge or obstacle in the game, it is often represented by a circle divided into segments. As players perform actions to overcome the challenges they encounter, the clock fills up based on their level of success. While the progress clock is relatively simple to understand at the surface, it also presents lots of depth. Game Masters can use progress clocks in a variety of ways to represent danger, time-sensitive missions, long-term projects, etc. Progress clocks can even be intertwined adding to their versatility. For instance, you can link one clock to “unlock” if another reaches completion or make two clocks race against the other. I really enjoyed this mechanic and have the intention of borrowing it for other systems!
Any table who has dreamed of becoming a group of daring scoundrels will find that Blades in the Dark was the tabletop RPG they were missing all along. While the rulebook was a bit difficult to digest and some of the systems within it weren’t as intuitive to run as some other RPGs, the game’s ability to facilitate a fast-paced criminal operation makes playing Blades in the Dark feel unique and entertaining. Despite the learning curve and its effect on the game’s pace, the structure proposed by the game and its creative flashback mechanic helps the table put action first. It does so in a beautifully detailed and fleshed-out setting. Doskvol truly oozes in the atmosphere, and the manual’s layout and design help to bring the cold mysterious city to life. All in all, Blades in the Dark is a must-play for folks looking to replicate heists, burglaries, and other such felonious activities; but if that doesn’t speak to you, you may find the style of play a bit restrictive.
I rate the Blade in the Dark rulebook a 7 out of 10 for good (but for want-to-be scoundrels, you should consider this game to be a 9 for excellent).