Kickstopper: Blades In the Dark

The idea of a “thieves’ guild” or other such structure has long been a hallmark of the sort of fantasy that D&D drew on – ever since Fritz Leiber first treated the world to the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, organised criminal gangs have been part of fantasyland. Since then the larcenous life has enjoyed a range of depictions in a fantasy context, with Scott Lynch’s stories of Locke Lamora perhaps being the most successful recent riff on the idea.

That being the case, it’s rather interesting how RPG systems specifically designed to support heist-style gameplay have been surprisingly thin on the ground. The overall direction of evolution of the D&D thief – from exploration-focused obstacle-bypasser to something more combat-oriented as the editions have gone by – feels in part like a consequence of this; in the absence of game mechanics for specifically thief-like activities, and with only the thief character having access to those mechanics which do cater to them, heists in D&D are not so widely featured.

Blades In the Dark is a game system which promised to reverse that trend, being an engine focused specifically on the execution of daring burglaries and other such escapades. It also provides one of the more interesting subjects for a Kickstopper article, for reasons I will get into later…

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

John Harper ran the funding campaign for Blades In the Dark on Kickstarter in March to April 2015, earning some $179,280 in pledges – not bad for a first-timer on Kickstarter, though Harper has some strong indie credits to his name like Agon so that maybe isn’t so surprising.

As well as funding the completion and publication of the base game, the crowdfunding process also funded a bunch of stretch goals, including a ton of adaptations of the Blades system to various other concepts. (Scum and Villainy sets it up for adventures in a rather familiar-seeming galaxy from far, far away, for instance.) Bear this in mind, it will be important later.

What Level I Backed At

THE HARDCASE: You get all the PDFs and Kickstarter add-ons, and credit in the game. You also get a copy of the Special Edition hardcover book, which contains an additional complete city guide and maps detailing U’Duasha, the city of fire and bronze.

I also qualified for a number of the stretch goals, but I wasn’t all that interested in them and they didn’t figure into my decision-making – it was the core system which jumped out at me.

Delivering the Goods

The estimated delivery date was November 2015; I got my book in June 2017. That’s a pretty significant delay and a factor of Blades being a victim of its own success, becoming as it did a far bigger project than Harper was expecting even when it came to the simple printing of the thing, let alone meeting all the stretch goals. On a more positive side, he was able to land a deal with Evil Hat to get the book printed and distributed.

Whether or not this was a crafty behind the scenes move by Evil Hat to save the Kickstarter in return for a stake in the product or something, I don’t know – but it not only ensured that the game was produced with the sort of production values Evil Hat are good at, but it also doubtless helped it get broader distribution than Harper may have been able to secure for it all on his ownsome.

There has, however, been a further controversy surrounding the delivery of the Kickstarter, and that surrounds the stretch goals. Some backers felt that the progress on delivering these was somewhat lackadaisical – to the point where there didn’t seem to be a solid timeline for their delivery at all. Little news about the progress done had come out, and after the excitement of the campaign itself died down, backers increasingly realised that some dozen alternate settings had been funded for the game, written by various hands – a wide-reaching project with a whole army of potential failure points.

So, naturally, people asked questions, and Harper answered them honestly – but with an answer which kicked off a massive controversy: namely, that there was no set deadline for delivery on the stretch goals, the authors in question were essentially on the “honor system” when it came to delivering, and nobody need worry about any of the stretch goal authors being paid for work not done because none of them had received any money.

Now, naturally that kicked off a bit of a shitstorm and a lot of cross-talk, so I think it’s important to highlight the clarification offered by parties like Sage LaTorra of Dungeon World fame, John LeBoeuf-Little of Off Guard Games, and Sean Nittner, all of whom are Blades stretch goal authors. A chunk of the outrage that broke out over the stretch goals seems to stem from the idea that the authors in question were being exploited somehow, grifted into contributing their time and labour for a product which Harper would then own and which they would see no financial benefit for.

What came out in the statements I’ve linked and elsewhere is less of a “work for exposure” story, instead being somewhat more nuanced than that. The writers spun it more as a decision on their part to donate time to supporting the Blades In the Dark project, just as the Kickstarter backers were donating money. They also gave the crucial detail that they, not Harper, would own the product of their work – in effect, Harper was giving them free rights to use the material in return for them committing to producing something for the Kickstarter.

In addition, Sage LaTorra’s account establishes that this was common practice among RPG Kickstarters. Many such projects, particularly at that time and earlier, had involved stretch goals contributed by other authors, many of whom would call in the favour later with their own Kickstarters. In effect, it’s not so much a work-for-exposure deal as an agreed exchange of labour-for-labour, which is really fair enough.

That settles the “they didn’t get paid!” outrage, but it doesn’t really settle the other issue which this whole kerfuffle highlights for me – namely, the rather nebulous question of “what is a stretch goal, and how much can backers expect of it?” It comes down to the question of whether a stretch goal represents a nice-to-have intention, or a promise of delivery of the stretch goal itself – in legal terms, whether stretch goals constitute an addition to the implicit contract established between Kickstarter backers and project owners; in particular, it comes down to whether there is any onus on a Kickstarter to deliver its stretch goals in a reasonable time frame, and whether it’s really sensible for a project owner to offer a stretch goal which it isn’t actually in their power to influence the delivery of.

It seems to me that in the absence of any sort of clarifying statement on a Kickstarter page that the project owner only guarantees to deliver the core goals, and that stretch goals may be dropped or indefinitely delayed if doing so is necessary to guarantee the delivery of the central purpose of the Kickstarter, then it would be difficult not to interpret a stretch goal as part of that implicit contract. That isn’t to say that I haven’t participated in Kickstarters which left me entirely happy despite having to cancel some stretch goals – the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition one being an example of such – but this has largely been a turn of events the project owners did not expect to have to do, and did reluctantly for the sake of the overall stability of the project, and did their best to make it up to disappointed backers at that. They did not give the impression at all of commencing the Kickstarter treating the stretch goals as effectively optional to be tasks to be done as and when those who had promised their time would deliver.

Perhaps more importantly, where I can recall stretch goals falling by the wayside, it’s consistently been the minor things and tie-ins which were nice to have, but you couldn’t really say was the central purpose of the project in question. I can’t imagine anyone actually backed the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter because, say, they really, really, really wanted the mug that was on offer, and that was the crucial bit which tipped them over into backing the thing,

However, with Blades In the Dark the stretch goals seem substantially meatier than just a mug or a t-shirt. Stuff like Scum and Villainy, which reskins the Blades In the Dark rules with an alternate setting, is the sort of thing I can completely imagine someone backing the Kickstarter on the strength of. Let’s say the specific setting pitch for Blades In the Dark doesn’t tickle you, but the overall idea of the system does and three or four of the stretch goal settings are 100% your jam – it seems plausible that you would back the project caring more about the stretch goal settings you were excited about than the main event.

Under those circumstances, I think it’s not unreasonable to be annoyed if you are then told that actually, there’s no particular roadmap to producing those stretch goals, the authors in question will get around to it when they get around to it, unless they don’t, and the project owner is by and large taking no responsibility for ensuring that those goals are completed.

It all comes down to a clash of expectations and perceptions. The work-exchange setup between Kickstarter project owners and other game industry figures seemed entirely natural and reasonable to the participants, because it had been going on for a while, but the audience generally wasn’t aware it was going on and was surprised to learn about it when they heard about it. Meanwhile, backers had generally developed a totally different impression of how things worked, though one which was understandable given the information available to them.

X is going to make Y stretch goal if the Kickstarter total hits Z amount of money – that presumably means that hitting that target would allow for the production of Y to be part of the budget and X will be paid for it, right? After all, if X wasn’t going to take any money and was just going to make the product anyway, why not just have them make the product? Likewise, if a stretch goal has been enabled by the monetary contributions of backers, shouldn’t backers have a right to expect to receive the stretch goal within a reasonable time frame?

So far as I can tell the controversy has mostly blown over, helped in part by delivery of the stretch goals bit by bit – but it is, safe to say, at the very least a case of colossally poor communication with backers, and I would go further than that and say that it’s an incident which exposed a dangerous mismatch of perceptions and shared assumptions between backers and project creators in the RPG field.

I have noticed that more recently, Kickstarters involving extensive content offerings from outside authors as stretch goals have become more sparse. There’s good reasons to do that anyway which have nothing to do with this controversy, of course. For one thing, each additional hand you add to your eventual rewards package complicates the process of getting the whole thing done significantly, and there’s been too many horror stories of project creators stuck chipping away Sisyphus-style at a project which just.won’t.end. because of all the additional commitments they made. Between this and the general dangers of overpromising on stretch goals, people have come around to the idea that maybe it’s better to just be judicious about what stretch goals you offer and restrict them to a limited set, with their delivery as much under your own control as possible, so you can get the project done and dusted and move on.

However, I suspect that the confusion and backlash arising from Harper’s comments about the “honor system” here may well have played some role in prompting project owners to reconsider how they view stretch goals – and at the very least made people realise that backers consider stretch goals to be part and parcel of the deal made between them and project owners, which project owners should take responsibility for delivering.

Reviewing the Swag

Blades In the Dark

Indie RPG design often focuses on narrow games engineered to deliver a fairly specific game experience. This makes a lot of sense, mostly because if you want a fairly broad RPG catering to a particular genre (or a generic RPG that can be applied to any genre) there are already plenty of competitors, many of which made by publishers who can apply much more effort and resources to their game lines than you. Trying to make the next Dungeons & Dragons means you are trying to persuade people to step back from the most popular fantasy RPG in the market, as well as several well-placed competitors, in favour of playing your game – and given that they can most likely find lots and lots of other people willing to play one of the major RPGs but less people keen to play your game, that’s a hard sell.

On the other hand, offer a particular, focused experience that caters to a specific type of play better than any of the “big tent” RPGs do, and then you’ve got a hook that makes your game stand out. Explaining why your homebrewed vanilla fantasy RPG is worth playing instead of just breaking out D&D again is a tough sell: explaining why it might be worth playing a game tailored to an experience which D&D would need a lot of massaging and tweaking to convey is much easier.

Blades In the Dark is a fantasy RPG tailored towards the player characters leading a crew of brazen criminals on the mean streets of a grimy fantasy city. The sample setting provided in the core book, Doskvol, is a significant centre of an industrial empire that arose on the ashes of what had been a typical fantasy world before a terrible cataclysm happened. The cataclysm shattered the sun, and though its broken shards do still rise and fall to give some semblance of night and day the world is still dim enough to ensure there’s always plenty of darkness for those blades to do their thing in. The cities of the Immortal Emperor’s realm are protected by lightning fences that keep out the marauding ghosts that exist out in the wilderness, but even in the city an omnipresent “ghost field” exists which characters can attune themselves to if they want to dabble with horrible occult forces. The city’s industry is based on electroplasm, a sort of goop which is extracted in part from slain leviathans, which are whale-like demons that invaded the seas during the cataclysm and are hunted by large leviathan-hunting ships, for which Doskvol is the primary port.

In short, whilst this is not Dishonoured the Tabletop RPG, and in many ways it is strikingly different to Dishonoured, it sneaks close enough to Dishonoured (and its inspirations in the Thief series) that you could run it in that setting remarkably easily.

Blades In the Dark borrows a lot of concepts from the Powered By the Apocalypse system, so-called because it was first used in Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World before being propagated through a wide variety of different games (such as Dungeon World). However, Harper introduces sufficient differences that to my eyes Blades represents, if not an entirely new system, then at least a system different enough that it represents a distinct approach in its own right. You can recognise the Powered By the Apocalypse DNA in it, but you can also spot ample Dungeons & Dragons influences on early versions of the RuneQuest system, and nobody claims that those games use the same system.

The greatest similarities between the Blades system and Powered By the Apocalypse are in their underlying philosophy. Rather than heavy-handedly trying to mash particular narrative formats or structures or particular ways of addressing themes into the game, Blades follows the example of the Powered By the Apocalypse games that inspired it by taking the “We play to find out what happens” philosophy, a school of thought which, though enunciated in this way fairly recently, has existed in some form since the earliest days of the hobby. In this mode of play coming up with an “intended” outcome or set of outcomes for the scenario is wasted effort and unnecessary – you simply present the players with a situation, they decide how they intend to exploit or react to it, and then you play to see how that pans out and what the consequences of that are. This allows the game to handle a much broader range of “criminals working in a grimy fantasy city” stories than more narratively focused games, which would tend through their mechanics to work in more assumptions about the sort of way that sort of story ought to go.

Similarly, Blades emphasises a “fiction-first” philosophy of running tabletop RPGs, as do the Powered By the Apocalypse games in general. Fiction-first means that you give primacy to the “fiction” of the game – defined as being the situation as currently described in the setting and the actions the characters are deciding to take in response to it – and then you use that as a basis for deciding which game mechanics you want to use to resolve that. This is defined in contrast to a “mechanics-first” approach, where you look at the game mechanics and decide which one you want to use and then everyone has to rationalise how that works in the context of the fiction.

In his discussion of this idea in Blades, Harper argues that this fiction-first approach is intrinsic to RPGs. I disagree with the argument but not the sentiment behind it, in that I think you definitely get the best out of tabletop RPGs when you apply it but I don’t think it is inescapably part of the format. A “mechanics-first” approach to RPGs can be seen whenever players abandon in-character story logic in the pursuit of producing the most optimal character build they can, or when they slip into the mode of staring at their character sheets or the rulebooks trying to select the best combat move, spell, skill or special ability for a situation before they declare what their character tries to do, rather than declaring their action and then looking to the sheet to call up the relevant information to resolve it. You can also see it in some approaches to game design – much of the backlash against the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons seemed to be driven by the impression (accurate or otherwise) that it was designed with a mechanics-first philosophy.

As far as the differences in Blades goes, the first notable thing is its system for resolving actions. Whilst, like Powered By the Apocalypse games, any particular roll of the dice can result in total failure, unmitigated success, or a success with consequences, in standard Apocalypse games you roll two standard six-sided dice and total them, getting total success on a 10+ and success with consequences on 7-9. Here, you have a dice pool system, in which you roll a number of dice based on character ability and current circumstances and the outcome is based on the highest number that appears on any of the dice (and whether you got multiple 6’s, if you got at least one 6). If your best number on the dice is 1-3, you fail outright, whilst 4-5 yields success with consequences and at least one 6 gives total success, with bonuses possible if you get multiple 6s.

This is quite elegant as far as dice pool systems go, because you can quickly work out the odds of getting at least a partial success or better (it’s the same as tossing the same number of coins and getting at least one head – or 1 minus the odds of tossing all those coins and having them all come up tails), and it’s quick to read the results – there’s no slowdown arising from adding up the numbers on the dice or counting how many hit a particular bar (unless you get multiple 6’s). This allows for much greater use of situational modifiers than the Apocalypse system tends to prefer.

Added to this is the capability of the referee to further add nuance to the roll by deciding the stance and potential effect. Stance is a measure of whether the player character is acting from a position of control and power at one extreme or in sheer desperation at the other, with the particular stance an action comes under modifying exactly what you get out of a success or critical success. The effect is a measure of how much the action is likely to actually contribute towards accomplishing its stated goals. Even the most forlorn action, however – say, one with a desperate stance and zero baseline effect – can potentially have more effect than expected with good rolling and/or an expenditure of effort. This breaks from standard Powered By the Apocalypse games in providing substantially more capability to apply bonuses or penalties to actions and to make them more or less effective depending on the demands of the fiction.

Another way in which Blades deviates from its Apocalypse forebears is in its handling of playbooks. A “playbook” is like a cross between a character sheet and a rules summary, and is designed to provide you with a quick, easy, all-in-one resource both for looking up your character’s stats and reminding yourself of their capabilities and how those translate into game mechanics. In Powered By the Apocalypse games these abilities tend to be expressed in terms of “moves” – bespoke dice rolls applying the basic game mechanics to the specific process of deploying those abilities – which complement the range of basic moves that anyone can do.

Blades, however, firmly eschews the “moves” terminology, a decision I can get behind because to me the whole “moves” thing seems to nudge people into exactly the sort of “mechanics-first” thinking that this family of games makes a big thing of discouraging. Rather than having a split between basic moves and special moves, Blades provides a set of actions which more or less any game activity can be described as relating to, and special abilities relate either to special bonuses you get in some circumstances or special things you can do that other people normally can’t do. The important thing is that anyone can attempt any basic action, even if their playbook doesn’t give them any dice in it – even if you have 0 dice in Attune, the action which relates to attuning to and manipulating the ghost field, if you have assistance from another character and if you take on stress to represent an unusual effort then you can end up rolling 2 dice. This means that even though each playbook for the different character types has their own specialisations, if you (for example) don’t play a ghost field-manipulating Whisper you aren’t locked out of interacting with ghost stuff.

As well as playbooks for player characters, you also get to have a playbook for your gang, which is nice because it instantly makes playing a band of smugglers feel different from playing a sect of cultists. The game offers a range of neat, simple systems to handle things like gang expansion, conflict with other groups, tracking how badly the authorities want to take you down and how much sway your reputation has on the street and so on.

Just as the basic structure of old school Dungeons & Dragons campaigns would tend to alternate between expeditions into dungeons or wildernesses and downtime for training, healing, spending the wealth won and preparing for the next adventure, Blades In the Dark bases its structure around daring heists and downtime actions between heists, and offers sound support for handling both without involving overwhelming amounts of prep for the referee. The best resource to back this up consists of the extensive writeup of Doskvol, which manages to hit just the right level of detail; you get lots of descriptions of districts of the city and significant locations there, as well as factions in the city, and it’s all given in just enough detail to spark ideas without providing so much detail as to swamp the reader. The background given follows the same principle – quickly giving you enough cool details to help you get a grasp on what’s exciting about this world without building such a mass of canon to make it tricky to present or answering a bunch of questions that referees can happily come up with their own headcanons for.

One major selling point of the game is its flashback mechanic – when the PCs cook up a plan for a heist, that gives players a certain capacity to trigger flashbacks partway through the heist, so that they can reveal that a particular contingency was planned for or an apparent mistake on their part was in fact all part of the masterplan, and detail how this was set up and how it affects the present situation. It’s a cinematically-inspired technique which draws on the sort of flashbacks you get in heist movies; in fact, when you look at it harder, it’s basically a “player is allowed to take narrative control and define some things about the narrative so long as they don’t contradict what is already established in the fiction” rule of the sort which indie storygames use a lot, but with constraints and adaptations that make it particularly useful for a heist context.

This is the sort of thing which I suspect some players will love but will bug the shit out of other players. It contracts and abstracts out a lot of the nuts and bolts of heist planning in much the same way as GUMSHOE abstracts out a lot of the nuts and bolts of the investigative process. As John Tynes has pointed out, this makes GUMSHOE feel less like conducting an investigation yourself and more like enjoying a story about investigative characters – which is great if the latter is what you want, but may be frustrating if you want the former.

Likewise, the flashback mechanic in Blades is meant to allow groups to get to the action quickly whilst avoiding extended planning sessions where the players try to use the intel they have gathered to come up with the full plan beforehand, along with any contingencies they want. This will likely be great for groups who don’t want to spend the time doing that, whilst simultaneously infuriating for players or groups for whom that sort of planning is fun and part of the point of doing a heist game, and who would greatly prefer if their characters succeeded or failed based on what they genuinely managed to anticipate, rather than allowing a game mechanic to declare they’d thought of something which they actually hadn’t.

It’s the really Marmitey bit of the game, in other words: if the flashback mechanic sounds good to you, then you’re good to go so long as you get buy-in from your group, just as GUMSHOE is perfectly serviceable just so long as everyone’s clear about what sort of “investigative” game it actually facilitates (namely, a story themed around investigation, rather than a game in which the players must actually exercise investigative faculties as part of play), but if it sounds like bullshitty cheating to you (or sounds good in principle but is a horrible fit for the sort of game you want to run) then maybe pass on Blades.

Still, with a nice, clear layout, excellently evocative art, and ample setting material to riff on, Blades In the Dark is both a gorgeous physical product and a nicely complete-in-one-book RPG, which more or less exactly nails what it claims to be going for. The clarity of the rules explanations and the discussions of best practice in implementing them means that it not only sells you on the idea that a Blades campaign can be awesome, but also makes you believe that you can run or play the game and make a success of it. Simultaneously nailing a very particular type of campaign premise and offering an excellent level of versatility within those bounds, it’s perhaps one of the best indie RPGs I have ever read, particularly since it’s clearly built with long-term campaign play in mind and with rigorous support for that (a rarity in the indie RPG field). Anyone in the field of RPG design should take a look at the game to see how it accomplishes what it does, and how it communicates its ideas to the reader without patronising them or talking down to them.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I’d say that this time I got it Just Right in terms of my backing level; the hardback book is a really lovely little artifact, and on balance I quite dig Blades In the Dark for the purposes of specifically playing a game where the PCs are utter smartasses doing smartass heists like Locke Lamora.

Would Back Again?

If Harper had a new project where I was interested in the concept? Yes, probably… but I’d be looking for clarity on how stretch goals were being handled.

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