I’ve been elbow-deep into Forged in the Dark games here for the past several months. I ran Court of Blades for the IGRC online convention in December, and now I’m several sessions into the excellent second edition of a|state from Handiwork Games. Right now I think it’s best in class on many fronts, the current pinnacle of FitD design, although it’s got some organizational problems. I’m doing a deep dive into a|state next week.
Meanwhile, there’s been a renewed interest in FitD games on the IGRC Slack. I’ve been playing FitD games on and off since before Blades in the Dark formally dropped in 2017. I like, don’t love, the system! But I understand it incredibly well. It’s gone over like gangbusters with about half my players, so FitD games come into circulation here often. But I forgot that, somehow, not every indie gamer in the world hasn’t already played the heck out of FitD already. I offered to run a scene for someone in the community who’s been banging his head against the original Blades in the Dark text trying to make sense of it.
Another user mentioned that Off Guard Games’ Band of Blades was the first time the system really “clicked” with them, because the text felt more rigorous. Given this was the same version of FitD that prompted me to create my Position-Effect Cheat Sheet, which has been beautifully implemented in a|state, I think there’s something to that. Hats off to Stras Acimovic and John LeBouef-Little for their work nailing this stuff down.
Morgan Davie, co-author of a|state’s new FitD edition, suggested I post our scene as an easy-breezy introduction to how the whole thing works. For experienced FitD-heads, nothing you’re about to read will blow your mind. This is all straight up the middle stuff. But if you’re thinking about trying out a FitD game, or find yourself struggling with the text or procedures of FitD games, give it a read.
The following is a transcript of our scene. I’ve only edited it for formatting. I also made a non-crucial mistake in the rules around flashbacks, but I’ve included the error to show the game is resilient to mistakes like that. A die here or there, a position or effect shift here or there, none of it breaks the whole game. I list my player only as “A,” in the interest of privacy.
Paul: Okay, this is for a completely fake FitD game. Let’s call it Hammers In The Night. You are Alex, a sneaky thief who’s also smooth with the ladies and handy with a hammer.
Here’s a tiny passel of numbers that will matter in a minute. You have three ACTIONS with die ranks. This is how many dice you will start with when we work out the roll:
Smooth Talking 2
(Resistance and Stress will also matter but I’ll get into that when we get there).
Alex needs to get inside the Palace of Hammers to visit his paramour. Needs to! But the paramour is guarded by loyal servants. And it’s daylight. But, well, the Palace of Hammers is notoriously ornate and the courtyard is not completely empty. The side door you normally use to get into the Palace currently has a loyal servant sitting near it, eating an apple. They don’t appear to be armed, but you never know with the Palace staff.
Talk to me about how you want to get inside and see your paramour. Ask questions if you need clarification.
A: Hammering presumably means fight.
Paul: Hammering, well…sure, it can mean fighting. What else might you use it for? In FITD actions =/= skills but this is maybe a distinction without a difference.
A: Got it
I’m interested in making some sort of noise to the left of the guard that will lead them to investigate it, allowing me to sneak in from the right.
(Also, it’s fair to assume that given your setup I know my way around the interior of the palace. Yes?)
Paul: Absolutely correct that you know your way around the palace. Not the first time you’ve come to visit your paramour!
I’m starting a clock: MEET YOUR PARAMOUR (4 slices)
Okay, cool. It’s well lit and the courtyard isn’t completely empty, so sneaking is the hardest thing you can do. I’m going to call that: DESPERATE. So right now you’re at DESPERATE position and NORMAL effect.
NORMAL effect in this case gets you 2 ticks on the PARAMOUR clock. You need 4 to close out the clock, right?
If you’re good with SNEAK as your action you’re at DESPERATE/NORMAL. If you want to try something else, I’m all ears.
(Note that if you stay DESPERATE you’ll get an XP on the stat that feeds SNEAK, which in BitD talk is probably uhhh Prowess.)
A: Got it. In that case, I act.
Paul: Are you sticking with SNEAK or do you want to try another approach?
A: (I’m assuming that my “need to” see my paramour is a desperate need, not just because I want to boink them.)
Paul: Yes! Your paramour has vital information you must get back to your gang before nightfall.
A: I do the sneak
Paul: Okay. You’ve got some options.
First option: you can either Push (2 stress for +1 die) or take a Devil’s Bargain (a guaranteed complication occurs for either +1 die or +1 effect level). Are you interested in either of these?
Let’s assume your Stress is currently 0 and is 8 boxes long. If you fill all your Stress boxes, you will be out of the scene and gain a Trauma. (which is like long-term hit points, get 4x Trauma and you’re out of the game. But you can also roleplay toward it).
A: Let’s do a bargain.
Paul: (When you have a character sheet in front of you this stuff is all right there).
Here’s the bargain, take it or leave it: I will start a 4-slice clock called “GUARDS ARE ALERTED”. No ticks yet! Just a clock.
A: Do it!
Paul: OKAY! There are now two clocks, each four slices big. One is “MEET YOUR PARAMOUR” and the other is “GUARDS ARE ALERTED.” Good?
Next choice, or option, and it’s very Blades-y. Did you do anything ahead of time to make the guard more easily distracted? BitD lets you do “flashbacks,” which are single action rolls that gain you benefits. Depending on how audacious your prep was, it might be 0-2 Stress to perform the flashback (plus whatever consequences come of it, often none other than the Stress.)
If you didn’t it’s fine! But it’s an option worth keeping in mind, most FitD emerges from the Ocean’s 11 school of cinematic competency porn.
A: First, the bargain is for greater effect, right?
Second, I poisoned the guards food supply, such that it makes them drowsy or dizzy. Like, nothing serious, but enough so that they’re off kilter. I did this via yesterdays delivery, knowing that the guards are interested in digging into the fresh fruit supplies when they come in.
Paul: Ooh, marvelous. Yes. Okay. You’re taking the Bargain for +effect, that puts you at GREATER and 3 ticks should you get a hit.
That flashback is gonna cost you 1 stress. Seems like the sort of thing a sneaky guy like Alex would have up his sleeve! Let’s say that gets you … +1 die. 4 dice total. (NB: This should have been -position or +effect, not a die, this was my rules error).
So now you’re at DESPERATE/GREATER, 4 dice on SNEAKY, 1 Stress.
Last decision if you’re good with all this so far — and be clear that you can go back at ANY POINT and explore a different avenue if you’re not feeling it — is deciding whether you’d like to reduce your POSITION for lesser EFFECT. Like, go a little more carefully but make less progress. Is that something you would want to do?
A: Wait, the flashback gives me an extra die, stress or bargain can give me an extra die, and help from a friend can get me an extra die? I thought I could only get a max of 2 extra dice… no?
Paul: Not that I can recall. The only either/or choice I can think of is Push vs Bargain.
Paul: You don’t have any friends helping you here so don’t worry about that. We can put a pin in that.
A: Yes! Let’s move forward with what we’ve got.
Paul: Go get 4 dice and roll ’em.
Or use an app or make some shit up. Don’t care.
I only have 1 in front of me and it’s apparently a good one.
Paul: Okie dokie! You succeed with that 6, which is the highest die in the pool. If you had rolled 2x 6es, it would be a critical success and that would increase your effect level by one to EXTREME.
Paul: So boom, sweet, no complications other than that empty guard clock. Your MEET YOUR PARAMOUR clock is at 3 of 4 ticks, and you’re inside the Palace of Hammers. Let’s proceed.
So the Palace of Hammers is not only your paramour’s residence, it’s also the center of government. The hallways are filled with functionaries running hither and yon. Guards with hammers at the ready. Deliveries being made, messages being sent and received. You’ve found a quiet spot to watch the action.
Normally your paramour would be waiting in their room, probably reading or contemplating their orb. BUT! Oh lord, your paramour is being dragged through the central hall by their father, a stern, red-faced man. Lots of medals on his uniform, loves the military thing.
He’s clearly angry with your paramour and is dragging them out of the palace.
How do you want to proceed? You still need that information!
A: (In real life, I’m low key. I wouldn’t be yelling at the table. Oy vey.)
Does their dad know me? How many people here know me?
If I am unknown, I will quickly dress as a page and attempt to deliver a fake message (based on my previous knowledge of the situation at hand) that will force him to return to his office to deal with the troubling news.
Paul: Dad definitely knows you.
Staff…hm! You have a friend on staff at the Palace of Hammers, old school chum from hammer school.
A: I have a pages outfit ready for my incursions. Anyway.
Paul: Righteous, that’d fit into the “quantum equipment” thing of the game. You have a list of stuff and decide your loadout (light, normal, heavy) which tells you how many things you can tick off your stuff list (2,4,6) as you need them.
A: I have my friend deliver the message.
Paul: What message is this? Are you telling your paramour something? Your paramour needs to tell YOU something.
Do you want your friend to be the go-between?
A: I’m having my friend tell the father the message that will force him to return to his office.
(I planted something there yesterday, after the poisoning) that when he reads it he’ll think he’s being blackmailed by my rival gang.
This should give me a moment with my paramour so that she can give me her information.
Paul: Phew, okay, interesting. So the idea here is to let your paramour go, right? That’s great. Love it.
Okay so … your friend is a friend but also fears the father. You’re gonna need to talk your friend into this nonsense. I assume this means you are taking a SMOOTH TALK action with 2 dice, right? They’re a friend so this starts as a CONTROLLED situation. But it’s also hectic and it’s hard to reach your friend without being noticed so I’m gonna bump it up to RISKY. NORMAL effect, which is “yes of course they’ll help you out.”
Want to Push or hear a Bargain?
Paul: Okay. I’ll put 1 tick on the GUARDS ARE ALERTED clock.
A: And, is talking to my friend 1 roll?
Paul: Yes, no clock! One-off action.
A: I accept your bargain, sir.
Paul: (1 more Stress for planting whatever you planted in dad’s office, Stress 2 total).
Clocks are at 3/4 for PARAMOUR and 1/4 for GUARDS.
I don’t see you getting much better than where you’re at. Just want to make the RISKY/NORMAL roll? Roll your SMOOTH TALK dice!
Oh +1 for the Bargain. 3 total I think
(You won’t get anything more out of a greater effect talking to your friend, the die’s the better deal, when I GM I elide a lot of moments like this.)
A: 6,1,6… that’s a lot of successes. That’s boring.
Paul: It is! Want to pretend you effed up your friend-talking roll instead?
A: Yeah. Let’s do that!
Paul: Okay so let’s say you rolled the hat trick, 1, 1, 1.
A: Shit. Man! What a terrible roll! What will I do! Ok. Go!
Paul: OH NO YOU FAILED TO TALK YOUR ALLEGED FRIEND INTO THIS.
So… “No, no way am I gonna risk talking to Lord Hammer! He scares me!”
There are a couple consequences that fall out of this. You can choose to Resist any of them.
First one is that I will put 2 ticks on the GUARDS clock. If you resist, it’ll still be 1 tick.
Second one is that your friendship is now frayed, and you’ll need to win them over before they do anything with/for you again. Resisting that means you’re still pals.
A: I resist losing my pal. He’s not new to my shenanigans.
Can I resist both? Any of them. Got it. I don’t resist the guards.
Paul: Okay, so as GM I get to tell you what you’re resisting with. Let’s say it’s Insight, and you have um 1 die.
Yes you can resist both! One roll after another. Resisting the GUARDS clock will be Resolve, which will be NO DICE because lordy, Alex is not a smart man.
A: But they’re drugged, right? Does that come back into play at all?
Paul: For resistance? Nah.
Resistance means you take 6 – your best roll in Stress but the thing happens. So roll.
Paul: Saving your friendship, right? So take 4 stress (6 stress total).
A: I have two stress left. Yes?
Paul: You have 2 Stress left yes.
And your friendship is saved. But your friend returns to work laughing off your ridiculous idea, she’s not worth it man, etc.
Lord Hammer and his daughter are headed toward the front doors, which swing open to reveal an ornate carriage waiting to take them … somewhere. You don’t know where.
Paul: And the GUARDS clock is now at 3/4, just like the PARAMOUR clock.
A: I don’t know anything about the city. So, I sneak onto the bottom of the carriage. How many guards are there?
Paul: Holy god, so the idea is to catch her on the carriage when dad’s not paying attention? They’re getting into the carriage together.
There’s, you know, a couple guards at the front door, one on the carriage along with the driver as well.
A: No wait! I run through the crowd, between father and daughter, breaking his grip, and we jump on horses and run off into the sunset!
Paul: Goodness. Okay. So of your actions, which one do you think you’d be using?
Or if it’s an action you don’t have you can make an untrained roll: 2d take the worst.
A: Well, at first it’s sneak, but then it’s hammer… no? I mean, I don’t know how to judge this.
Paul: You don’t have to judge it. You just have to justify it. Do you HAMMER his hand away from hers? Love it! Let’s make it happen.
A: Yes! That’s it!
Paul: Lord Hammer is well guarded and a competent military man in his own right. It would be DESPERATE to try such a thing! And honestly, a pretty LIMITED effect (but that’s all you need since you just have 1x left in the PARAMOUR clock)
A: He had fresh fruit for breakfast, no?
Paul: Did you do something to his breakfast?
A: I poisoned the fresh fruit that was delivered yesterday in my flashback.
Paul: Hm. Well. Poisoning food going to the head of state in his own palace? That’s the hardest thing I can think of. That would be 2 stress and that would take you out of the scene with a Trauma.
Got something smaller? What are you going for here, another die? (NB: Stop with the +die already! Bad Paul, bad!)
Unfortunately Pushing is also off the table for Stress reasons. That leaves a Bargain. Wanna hear it?
A: I’m just trying to see if my previous flashback comes into play or if it can. I’m not married to the idea, I’m just trying to understand the depth of the flashback mechanic.
I’m always happy to hear a bargain with the devil, just so I can laugh in their face!
Paul: Each flashback gets you a small benefit that immediately applies. But it can also be considered a “setup” action, but in actual play I usually insist on the flashback being an Action roll, not just a statement.
Here’s the offer: last tick on the GUARD clock.
A: I’ll take it. So, both clocks finish.
Paul: If you succeed.
I think that’s 2 dice: 1 for HAMMER and +1 for the Bargain.
But the guards are definitely alerted now.
Paul: SUCCESS WITH COMPLICATIONs, best of all worlds.
Okay. You hammer through the crowd, break her father’s grip, and run out of the palace. The palace guards realize you’re kidnapping the royal princess and give chase!
A couple complications, and they’ll be real hard to resist with what little stress you have left. I think you bruised yourself crashing through the crowd (level 1 harm), and I think your gang’s relationship with the palace just became personal (-2 “status”).
And that’s how Forged in the Dark works.