Blades in the Dark

Blades in the Dark is a fiction-first RPG designed by John Harper and published Evil Hat Productions in 2017. Influenced, among other games, by AW, it casts the players as a crew of petty criminals trying to make it big in a haunted steampunk city of Duskwall. The underlying game system of Blades has been released for free to the public, with a number of games in other settings and genres published since under the "Forged in the Dark" label.

Free resources: System Reference Document.

Core Mechanic

The core mechanic in Blades (referred as an "action roll", p. 7) uses dice pools with fixed success thresholds and only the highest dice counting towards action resolution. The essential procedure is as follows:

  1. The player declares their character's objective and describes how their character tries to accomplish it.
  2. The player chooses the primary stat ("action rating", ranging from 0 to 4) that best matches what their character does in-fiction.
  3. The GM adjudicates the "position" ("controlled", "risky", or "desperate") and "effect" level ("limited", "standard", or "great") of the attempted action.
  4. The player builds a pool of as many d6s as their character has points ("dots") in the chosen primary stat plus up to 2 bonus dice (the specifics of which fall outside the scope of this survey).
  5. The player rolls the dice and keeps only the highest result (if their pool is empty, they roll 2d6 and take the lowest result instead), which determines the gradient of success:
    1. If the result is 1, 2 or 3 (a "miss", a.k.a. No-And), the PC fails to reach their objective and suffers negative "consequences", whose severity depends on the position established in step 3;
    2. If it's 4 or 5 (a "weak hit" or Yes-But), they reach their objective, within the effect level established in step 3 (representing an additional "sub-gradient" of success), but still suffer consequences;
    3. If it's a 6 (a "strong hit" or Yes), they succeed with no strings attached;
    4. Finally, if the player has rolled two or more 6s (a "crit" or Yes-And), the PC succeeds and their effect level counts as 1 higher.
  6. The GM and the player collaborate in describing the outcome of the PC's action.

For actions that involve no risk of dramatic failure, a "fortune roll" (pp. 34-35) may be rolled instead, wherein step 3 (setting position and effect) is skipped entirely, and the gradient of success in step 5 is modified as follows: 1-3 = no effect (No), 4/5 = mixed success (Yes-But), 6 = full success (Yes), and crit = exceptional success (Yes-And), with no chance of additional negative consequences. Fortune rolls are particularly common for the purpose of "gathering information" (pp. 36-37), wherein the player asks a question about the game world or the NPCs, and the GM replies in more or less detail, depending on the result of their subsequent fortune roll.

For any objective that requires more than one action to reach, the GM may start a "progress clock" (p. 15) – a circle divided into 4, 6, or 8 segments, which are filled in ("ticked") whenever a relevant action roll succeeds, with its effect level determining how much progress is made (limited = 1 tick, standard = 2 ticks, great = 3 ticks); once a progress clock is filled, the PC reaches their objective. Similarly, "danger clocks" (p. 16) represent delayed threats and are ticked as consequences of misses and weak hits, depending on position (controlled = 1 tick, standard = 2 ticks, desperate = 3 ticks); once a danger clock is filled, the corresponding threat catches up with the PCs.

Action Ratings

There are twelve primary stats ("action ratings") in Blades, with three of them in particular geared towards in-fiction persuasive interactions. All three are grouped under the secondary stat ("attribute") "Resolve" and are mechanically identical, albeit framed very differently in-fiction. Interestingly, while the specific action ratings tend to vary a lot between different "Forged in the Dark" games, these three tend to carry over across them virtually unchanged:

  • Command (p. 171): The agent demands immediate compliance from the patient by leveraging authority (real or perceived) or direct threats. This roughly corresponds to Intimidation from D&D.
  • Consort (p. 172): The agent spends time with the patient in a non-hostile environment, in order to establish a rapport, to improve an existing relationship, or to gain access to goods and services. This action rating is also commonly used in fortune rolls to "gather information" by canvassing popular gathering places.
  • Sway (p. 179): The agent influences the patient to comply with their interests, using situational leverage like personal guile or charm, convincing arguments or lies, promises, offers, etc. Like the "Seduce or Manipulate" move in AW, this action essentially rolls D&D's Persuasion and Deception skills into one.

In all three cases, the GM can factor an existing agent-patient relationship into the action roll in step 3, by adjusting its effect level based on how trusting or suspicious the patient is of the agent (specifically, by conferring the "potency" factor to the agent or to the patient), and its position, on how friendly or hostile they are towards them.

Another action rating relevant in social situations is "Study" (p. 177), whose description explicitly suggests its use as a reconnoitering option "to detect lies or true feelings" of the PC's vis-à-vis, similar to D&D's Insight (Study is, in fact, part of the "Insight" attribute in Blades). Unlike the three actions above, an agent Studying a patient before trying to influence them would typically invoke a fortune roll to gather information about them, rather than an action roll. Furthermore, because all action ratings are deliberately flexible, same information may be obtained instead by engaging them in small talk – i.e. by Consorting – before making an appeal.

If the GM decides that the patient cannot be persuaded with a single action, they may use clocks, as described above. In an example cited on p. 16, the PC attempting to seduce (Sway) a noble has to fill out a corresponding progress clock before a danger clock representing the noble's suspicion (or boredom) is filled, with successful rolls ticking the former and consequences, the latter.

While these procedures have been clearly designed with a "PC agent, NPC patient" configuration in mind, descriptions of the Command and Sway actions suggest a potential "PC agent, PC patient" usage (with additional procedures described on p. 41): to preserve the patient player's agency, they must explicitly consent to resolving the interaction with an action roll by the agent player, and both must commit beforehand to how its results will be implemented in-fiction. For instance, the patient player may consent that their character will comply with the agent if the roll is a success, or declare that the agent's leverage is insufficient and that they can only disrupt them somehow, e.g. by dealing (non-physical) harm to the patient or by temporarily distracting them.

Because Blades puts a large emphasis on player and PC agency, NPCs don't have action ratings and rarely take initiative in interactions with them (including in social ones). Accordingly, "NPC agent, PC patient" is a rare configuration, but NPCs who are considered "masters" in their respective fields may inflict preemptive "consequences" upon PCs, as outlined on p. 167 (see also the example on p. 192). In this case, the PC have to "resist" this consequence before they can target that NPC with an action roll. While the specifics of the "resistance rolls" mechanic fall outside the scope of this survey, it lets players mitigate any consequence, regardless how it is inflicted upon their characters; specifically, consequences from being deceived or, conversely, exposed are resisted with the Insight attribute, and those from being pressured or terrified, with Resolve.