Hacking Blades in the Dark

Wow… it has been a really long time since I’ve posted anything on here. Last one was… *checks notes*, a post about making OSS PRs (which helped me get a new job, so that’s alright I guess).

For the last… I dunno, 10 months, I’ve been working on a couple of hacks of Blades in the Dark. One is about kids doing cool kid stuff, like in Hook or The Goonies and ET. The other… is kind of a game where you make Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam. So basically giant robots and political space opera and bad actors all around. (It’s called Against the Titans of War and is on this site)

It’s gone through a couple of revisions, and just the other day I did a slightly more sane version of $ rm -rf . in the repo, and threw a ton of it away. I’d been working on a lot of the subsystems in the game in the back of my head, and after a couple of months of feeling stuck and frustrated with it, things had started to move.

So far, the biggest things I’ve been working on are the character action verbs, and the faction game.


If you haven’t played Blades before, each character has 3 attributes, each of which has 4 actions. Whenever you want to do something, you say what you want, and what action you’re using to get it, then roll as many dice as you have ‘dots’ (marks on your sheet) in that action, and take the highest result.

If something bad happens to you, you can resist it, and you would roll an appropriate attribute. For attributes, you roll as many dice as you have actions with any number of dots in them. As an example, skirmish and finesse are both actions in the prowess attribute. If you were trying to resist being pushed over, you would roll a prowess of 2, since you have 2 actions in that attribute (it doesn’t matter how many marks an action has–it only counts for that attribute roll once).

This part is pretty straightforward–there’s a lot of ‘poetry’ in choosing the actions you have, since they color the kind of story people tell, and indicate what is possible to do in the game.

In Blades, the attributes each have 4 actions. In my game, they have 3, and one veteran adjective. I wanted characters to feel less powerful in this game, and reducing the number of actions available means resisting has a lower ceiling–it’s harder with fewer dice available.

The veteran adjectives are more than just that though–they indicate that your character has been around. You get them when you mark certain trauma. It’s a razor edge that you have to walk. The adjectives are helpful, but having them is dangerous since characters have to retire (or worse) when they mark a 4th trauma. Once you have it though… you get an extra die in that attribute to resist, and you can also add a die to any roll where the adjective is applicable. Trying to evade a pursuer? If you’re canny, take an extra die.

Faction game

This has been a lot harder. One of the coolest thing about Blades is that in addition to creating a character, all the players as a group create a gang–a shared character in the story, that they all care about. It is so much fun to grow your criminal organization in Blades, and it’s a very good solution to the problem of a character group where they’re all the heroes in their own story but have no reason to talk to another.

For Titans, I wanted to dive into the ugly politics and wrangling you seen in Zeta Gundam and Gundam ZZ–having to ally with arms manufacturers, and heavily militarized invaders to fight fascists, and wondering when you might be betrayed… and never noticing exactly at which point you ended up selling your own soul just to win.

It all sounds great, but it’s hard to make a game out of this.

I ended up solving this (I hope at least) by involving the players again in the faction phase, which in Blades is mostly GM only. In addition to playing a Soldier on the ground, each player also is in charge of one of the sponsor factions of your Resistance group, and each faction has its own motives for fighting back. They might have altruistic intentions to some extent, but that arms manufacturer that’s sponsoring you and providing you with state of the art mechs absolutely has ulterior motives too.

The trick (again, I hope), was to put the characters at the faction level against the characters at the squad level–any time one of the Soldiers thinks that something happening in tactical is bad news, they can take Contempt (a mechanic lovingly stolen from The Quiet Year by Avery Alder).

A Soldier can use Contempt to help out in a lot of situations–avoid taking harm, turn a failed action into a success, even interfere with another Soldier’s action if the divide is growing deeper and more profound… or just mark XP and learn more about the world.

Thing is… as useful as Contempt is, spend it enough and it throws your Resistance into crisis as tensions mount. The Enemy attacks immediately, one of your sponsors betrays you… things get bad. And each time you go into crisis, the worse it’s likely to be the next time.

I really like the idea that the bad command decisions flow down through the soldiers, and eventually disrupt the entire organization. I’m hoping that this mechanic ends up being an interesting and fun representation of how communities work, and how easy it is to destroy one (again… we’ll see once it gets to playtest).

More general thoughts…

It’d be really easy and cheap-pithy to say game design is just about identifying the narratives and stories you’re interested in, and making those into systems that players can push and pull against. It’s true, but… well… shit’s a lot harder than that.

It’s also a lot of staring at blank paper, or distracting yourself with anime, or seeing someone else’s excellent design and despairing of envy (to be fair, I’m really excited to be playing Beam Saber and running it for my friends at Mobile Suit Breakdown as part of their Patreon – it’s a very cool game, and playing it has helped me identify what I want to focus in Titans, which is different than the focus of Beam Saber)1.

So yea… basically, game design is really hard, but really cool. I’ve been really enjoying this.

  1. Bad long parenthetical!