After hearing about it from many people over the last two years or so, I finally decided to read Blades in the Dark. Here are my impressions. (not a review; just personal takeaways)
First, the game is another of the interminable line of games that builds on the framework of Apocalypse World but with the twist that this time it’s also about 50/50 with Fate Accelerated Edition.
Second, the game uses a series of what are – effectively – Extended Tests, Pyramid Tests, 4e-style Skill Challenges, whatever you want to call them; to substitute for larger sets of individual actions in some instances.
Third, the game embraces the concept that has become increasingly popular of abstracting resources into amorphous pools under a single name. It’s not for me. But it’s part of an overall design ethic that really turns me off.
Because the main thing that I took away from reading Blades in the Dark is that the game designers are pretty sure they know what the boring parts of gaming are and they’ve created a system to save you from the tedium of actually playing the game (at least, the boring parts, as they see them).
Something that is a real turn off (for me) in games that are written like this is that the game designer has decided for me what they think are the fun parts and the boring parts and given me a set of rules that function one way. I know that I make that sound like a real negative but it’s down to taste. If you agree with the designer, this game is going to be a breath of fresh air for you. If you don’t, then you’ll be frustrated with it.
And the game designers are happy to tell you this, filling in the book with a lot of “why we do this” sections that explain their decision-making as they crafted the experience of the game. I’m not a fan of this sort of in-line editorializing either but it is what it is. To me, it appears that the writer feels the need to make sure you understand their precious design choices. Again, that’s not a generous interpretation, I get it; it’s just the reaction I have to those sorts of things.
The game has some typical story game* divisions of narrative authority that are designed to legislate GM/player interactions and it has fairly robust downtime system that doesn’t spend much time really thinking about what the downtime actions actually look like in the game world (which I found odd since they kept rambling on about The Fiction**).
Ultimately, it feels to me that most of the PbtA (and honestly, a lot of Fate-inspired) games want to reduce gaming to a formula – a clear scope of work that puts the game parts in a nice fenced off area – which is just not something I understand. Blades in the Dark is no different. Maybe it appeals to people who like the kind of philosophy where everything gets solved with logic proofs? It all feels very heavy-handed to me.
Something I do like about these games – and Blades in the Dark does it as well – is that they usually have a clear section writing up Player Responsibilities. I like a lot of things about this. I like the setting of expectations. I like the understanding of what the game is going to do and how you – the players*** – are going to have to behave to make it work. It’s nice that it sets up a clear vista of, “If you aren’t here to commit to this game, why are you here?” I think every game should make this point as clearly as possible.
But ultimately, for me, Blades in the Dark falls into that category of “cool; not interested.” It feels like a very good set up for a video game or a board game that just happened to be written by a pen-and-paper RPG company. If it’s your thing, good for you. I’m glad you are enjoying yourself. It’s just not for me.
* Story Game is not a clearly defined category but it’s where I lump these heavy-handed, transactional style games. The kind of games that call what is going on when you play “The Fiction.”
** The Fiction is a term-of-art that I see used in these games a lot. I hate it. I understand what you are driving at, comprehension isn’t the problem. But it’s playing the game. It’s roleplaying. You don’t have to make it sound any fancier than that.
*** I include the GM role in with “the players” here.