I fell in love with John Harper’s Blades in the Dark, an RPG of thieves & misfits where the city itself is the greatest adversary. For a while, I have always wanted to run a game of Blades in the Dark but never found the opportunity to do so. But as luck would have it, my players decided to take a short break from our Adventures of Team BAJA D&D game. I realized there was an opportunity to incorporate some of beautiful mechanics of Blades into D&D. I did my best to marry them while adapting my twist on the mechanics to create a sort of Ocean’s Eleven narrative but with the chaos brought through Dungeons & Dragons with the structure provided by Blades in the Dark.
While it’s not required but heavily suggested, as reading material, make sure to grab a copy of Blades in the Dark as I will referencing many of this jargon and mechanics.
So my players and I decided to take a break from our main storyline Team BAJA, and ultimately we decided to run a D&D mini-campaign. I pitched several different campaigns and story ideas and finally, the players voted for a heist-style D&D game featuring an iconic city the party had visited at the tail end of Season 2 and half of Season 3 of our gameplay. The pitch was that the players’ characters were all hired thieves, con artists, cutthroats, and glamors trying to make a name for themselves in the city of Lastil-Taswell. I wanted to incorporate the light-hearted narrative of movies such as Ocean’s Eleven or the Italian Job but some of the complexity such as shows like Leverage. As a bonus, I threw in the complication that the characters in a previous heist job found a magic artifact, but it caused the characters’ souls to swap into different bodies. Mechanically, the players would create character sheets for characters they would not be playing and would swap at the start of play. The players were excited about this game and didn’ t know what to expect. At the time of gameday this past weekend, the players ended playing mostly healers, and the amount of hilarity ensued, but their first session was something different from what they used to playing and overall enjoyed the experience.
Where Darkness & Dungeons meet
Before my RPG concoction, someone else combined the classic fantasy tropes of iconic games (like D&D) and incorporated their spin to the Blades in the Dark ruleset (thanks to the OGL/SRD) called Blades Against the Darkness. I highly recommend it to devoted Blades in the Dark fans or those who want a different spin to their iconic game. For my game and my players, I went the route D&D 5th Edition with splices of Blades in the Dark mechanics, and the results were surprisingly well received. Blades in the Dark’s setting and premise reminded me heavily of video games such as Thief and Dishonored with its atmosphere of this grim-dark dog-eat-dog setting of an elegant city full of factions, masks, and intrigue. Other
One of the strengths of D&D 5e has to be its ability to be modular, meaning the system as a whole can be broken into various components and still function as a whole while even welcome new mechanics. It’s one of the reasons why many designers and creators have now started to expand the D&D 5e ruleset into other genres besides the traditional fantasy setting. For this primer, I will discuss the various components of Blades in the Dark that I chose to integrate into my adaptation, suggestions on running a similar game, and what are some great takeaways to adapt your take of Blades in the Dark into your games.
The Crew and Setup
One of the essential things DMs and players should do together at the start of a game such as this is to establish the Crew and some of the worldbuilding to personalize the experience. The Crew Sheet provided as a digital download on the Blades in the Dark SRD is a great resource, as it lets the DM have a clear layout of the characters names and the ability to leave notes for their backstory. Additionally, there is a section for contacts, and you can also add notes about enemy factions (rivals). I recommend that every character offer a contact (usually an NPC but also an organization) that the crew may know or meet. This will help the DM set up story and heist hooks. The location of the lair is a meaningful discussion between the players and the DM, as it will again provide plenty of story hooks and build player investment from the get-go. Blades in the Dark often seeks to establish a primary function or role of a crew to help players focus on their objectives or score types, while our game was strictly narrative, the idea of stealing and infiltration were essential aspects to help reinforce their character goals. You can add crew abilities if you want, though presently I have not included any traits or features at the time of this article. This is a very crucial and vital process, I believe, to run a heist game as it also reduces a lot of the strain of the DM for worldbuilding and gives the players some measure of investment into the story for themselves.
One of the big takeaways from Blades in the Dark that facilitates heist-style gameplay comes from its narrative structure for their game sessions and campaigns. The game goes through several key phases:
- Free Play – Characters interact with each other and the world, free to do whatever they want.
- Score Phase – This where the characters actively pursue their score (objective), and this usually involves some measure plan and a target usually.
- Downtime – In Blades in the Dark, this phase consists of four parts: payoff, heat, entanglements, and downtime activities.
- Free Play – Once downtime activities are either concluded or established, free play returns and the cycle continues again.
This narrative structure is an excellent benchmark for DMs to keep up with pacing especially since you hope to keep your sessions within the framework provided but anyone who’s played D&D long enough knows that sometimes players will spend exuberant amounts of time on details sometimes.
I expanded the Score phase to incorporate a mini skills challenge where each player takes a turn to offer their efforts into preparing for the heist. Often most of these involved a skills check, even if magic was involved. During the score phase, players will be met with obstacles and the players will have to use their wits and smarts to overcome them. You can treat these as skill, social, or combat encounters.
One of the other mechanics from Blades in the Dark that serves as an excellent fit for this type of game would a Flashback mechanic. While in D&D, characters can assume a myriad of stresses, Blades in the Dark is much more specific of the sort of stress characters can take. Try to make it fit with the character, including things like favors or debts, but one of my favorite stress is the inclusion of a side quest or side job. Something requested to the party in exchange for their services or aid. A flashback should be something helpful to the crew to overcome an obstacle, another method I introduced was that the flashback could cause additional heat to build later on in the gameplay (more on this below).
The last main highlight of Blades in the Dark would be their clocks tracking mechanic. It is one of my favorite ways to follow patrols, the goals of other factions, danger level, time-sensitive moments, and even downtime activities. I’ll go into more details in the next section but the concept is fantastic, and you will find yourself using it in your regular D&D games off in the margins for your more massive campaigns.
The Clock is Ticking
The prominent narrative aspect in movies and shows like Ocean’s Eleven and Leverage is the fact that there is a deadline or limited window of opportunity to accomplish their goal and reach the target. Even games such as Assassin’s Creed always seeks to establish the narrative importance of timing your missions where your objectives are the most vulnerable. This sort of planning is often discussed between the party during the planning phase of the Score portion of the gameplay.
The clock mechanic essentially has circles on a piece of paper to represent different forces at play; each circle can have a varying amount of segments to indicate an obstacle’s complexity. For example, the patrol’s alert level can be a 4-segment clock, meaning that the security level of an establishment can heighten very quickly but the route the patrols walk may be an 8-segment clock wherein they take longer to circumnavigate the perimeter. The clocks fill in based on the DM’s narrative needs, but there’s a general rubric that should be considered. For example, in the case of the patrol’s route, regardless whether the party succeeds or fails at a skill check or action to overcome an obstacle, the clock advances. BUT you can include the caveat that failed checks or actions can fill in two segments instead of one, indicating that the botched action cost the players valuable time. It’s heavily suggested that DMs consider the nature of their clocks and what they represent, it’s also easier to label your clocks too.
If a clock fills up, that’s not the end of it. Consider the example above, if the patrol’s clock fills up, then perhaps that automatically adds a segment to the security level of the complex as a representation of escalated security once the staff realizes that there possibly intruders nearby. Perhaps this progress signifies additional patrols, and maybe you include a new clock to represent another patrol group. You can also have a clock for the limited time window to perform this heist. The most segments a clock can possess is about 12 segments, mainly if you draw them yourself. If you want something to represent a 24-hour time window, just make two circles with 12 segments. Again, perhaps fill in one clock triggers new clocks to form. These added complications create a tense atmosphere for your players and help keep them objectified in their play.
The most flexible part of the Progress Clock mechanic comes into play outside of the heist and into other aspects of the narrative such as downtime activities and even clocks for different factions and influences. Filling in these clocks can trigger events in the narrative. Ultimately, this is a proof of concept of what many storytellers and gamemasters try to illustrate when having outside influences occur to affect the story. Once you start using this feature, you’ll find it entirely useful with any long-term roleplaying game you will ever play.
Finding some Downtime
Downtime activities always seem like an afterthought in the D&D 5e design, especially given the original vague descriptions present before the further extrapolation offered in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. I personally enjoy how Blades in the Dark handles downtime for the crew, besides providing suggestions but also serve as a vehicle to move the story forward into the next score.
In Blades in the Dark, four components consist of the Downtime phase after performing a heist (whether the heist was a success or not will impact elements here). Heat deals with the chance for exposure and the nature of the operation. Entanglements are complications that arise after a heist and can prove to be detrimental to the crew’s future activities, the payoff is generally how a team of misfits gets paid and any reputation that may accrue. Finally, each individual player character can select a downtime activity or vice to perform before the next score.
Payoff during this portion can be roleplay opportunities for the crew with the original job contractor. This is also a great place for additional scores to be procured. Have fun roleplaying this portion after the heist, you will quickly get a lot of interesting interactions here. This is the part of the game where Han Solo hands Jabba the Hutt their smuggled goods, so definitely enjoy it.
In regards to Heat and Entanglements, the Heat level will serve as a great numeric representation of the amount of trouble the crew has against the city as a whole. The Heat details provided in Blades in the Dark are a great benchmark tool, but honestly, you can also use a progress clock to represent the crew’s heat level and wanted levels. In the case of my recent game, the players infiltrated a prominent noble’s home and committed arson during a festival period which attracted a lot of attention. So using the Blades mechanics, they start with a Heat rating of 4, tack an additional +1 to Heat due to the target begin well-connected, that’s a Heat of 5. I added a few personal modifiers to this mechanic which included aspects such as the inclusion of other factions (whether to help with the heist or against) as a +1 and other caveats. There will be some judgment calls, but make sure to have legitimate cause for how the crew might be caught for their actions such as evidence or traces left behind. Once you determine the Heat from the heist, use the Blades provided tables to assess Entanglements. The best thing about the Entanglements is that they do not have to be played immediately but are great complications as tools for the DM to add to the narrative. In the case of my game, my players’ had the entanglements of a demonic force (which I turned into a growing cult) and a show of force (an investigative team sponsored by the target has been formed to root out the party). You are more than welcome to add your own entanglements and use the Blades provided tables as a basis. I sort of played them by ear and improvised most of mine.
As for actual character downtime activities, definitely let the players decide for themselves or offer suggestions. Using the suggested downtime activities provided in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is an optimal starting point, and there are some listed for Blades in the Dark which include satisfying a vice. But don’t forget about the progress clocks for NPCs and other factions, this will help keep your city vibrant, dynamic, and alive. The idea is to make the city feel active like in real life, so these are aspects to keep in mind, and thankfully you have a great way to track all of that through those progress clocks. Many of the D&D elements of crafting, procuring magic/nonmagical items, and find new contacts remain unchanged and merely add more layers into the players’ options for crafting their experience in this sort of game.
Using the modular nature of D&D 5e and incorporating the various narrative elements of Blades in the Dark provides a unique experience of a heist-style campaign that is both unique but familiar, especially for new roleplayers who are familiar with D&D but have little experience with other tabletop RPGs. This is also a great way to introduce other systems to potential new fans to a new RPG system. My players, in general, do not play D&D often or consistently enough compared to most playgroups and the investment of learning a new RPG system is quite taxing for them due to many having regular full-time jobs. This entire experience was an experiment that I have been interested in from both a fundamental design perspective but from a narrative angle as well. I will say that there will be a significant need for improvising but most importantly, familiarity with both D&D and Blades in the Dark. But be open to adjusting the mechanics when things conflict with your goals of telling the story, and always be ready to toss stuff you do not like, as it’s the nature of improvising the merger of two distinct systems. You can also easily ignore a lot of the Blades in the Dark mechanics, but ultimately I found that the progress clocks to be the most agnostic analog that can apply to almost any genre and system, so don’t discount it all outright.
Blades in the Dark SRD: https://bladesinthedark.com/
Grab a copy of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything here.
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