Welcome to Tabletop Terrors! In this monthly series, we’ll help you recreate some of the terror, tension, and fun of scary stories by examining what the world of tabletop gaming has to offer horror fans. We’ll look at board games, card games, pen and paper RPGs, and miniature war games. We’ll offer reviews, insights, and tips on how to create an immersive and awesome game night.
It’s Greedy Guts month at Nightmare on Film Street, which means me and my fellow writers have been unleashed to pen horror-related articles that don’t necessarily fit into one specific theme. So, for this month’s Tabletop Terrors I’ve decided to maximize that idea with a look at game that combines horror with a few other genres I love, including crime fiction, steampunk style fantasy, and, post-apocalyptic, supernatural dystopias. All of those complimentary genres blend together into the heady story cocktail that is Blades In the Dark, a pen and paper role-playing game by John Harper and published by Evil Hat Productions. We’re going to take a deep dive into the setting of the game and some of its fun mechanics, as well as offering up our usual thematic drink, snack, and music suggestions.
“….crime fiction, steampunk style fantasy, and, post-apocalyptic, supernatural dystopias […] blend together into the heady story cocktail that is Blades In the Dark“
Blades In the Dark is set in a world much like our own from the late 1800s. That’s because at some point in the distant past a supernatural apocalypse blotted out the sun and shattered the gateway between the lands of the living and the dead. Now when someone dies their ghosts arise and are soon driven mad by supernatural energies. So people are forced to take shelter in19th century style industrial cities like the smog shrouded Duskwall, which uses strange devices powered by electroplasm (ghost and demon blood) to control and keep otherworldly entities at bay. So innocent people are trapped inside and often ensnared in the machinations of the powerful and corrupt factions vying for control of the city. In other games, players would take the role of would be heroes looking to clean up the streets of Duskwall, but in a refreshing twist players in Blades In the Dark become members of a fledgling criminal gang looking to make a dishonest buck.
Their first step towards doing that is creating an individual scoundrel and selecting a criminal forte from a wide variety sure to please fans of horror, crime, and fantasy stories. “Cutters” are thugs who take what they want via blades and fists. “Hounds” are scoundrels who specialize in finding what doesn’t want to be found and eliminating any opposition from a distance. “Leeches” are criminal engineers who use the mystical power of alchemy to build their allies up and tear their enemies down. “Lurks” are spies and thieves who use Duskwall’s many shadows to their advantage. “Slides” are con artists who earn their wealth through stories and lies. “Spiders” are master manipulators who clandestinely plot and scheme their way to ill-gotten gains. And lastly, “Whispers” are individuals who manipulate the arcane and horrific forces that haunt Duskwall.
Once the players have created their individual scoundrels they collectively decide on their gang’s criminal expertise. There are the specialties you’d expect in a crime game like Shadows (thieves and spies), Bravos (mercenaries and thugs), Assassins, Smugglers, and Hawkers (vice dealers). There’s also a crew specialization tailor made for horror fans, Cultists; where you and your fellow scoundrels are acolytes of a forgotten god that specialize in things like acquiring artifacts, performing rituals, and conducing sacrifices.
Your crew will have a home turf in one of Duskwall’s 12 districts. Each of these areas of the city have their own flavor and criminal and legitimate factions battling for control of them. As your crew succeeds or fails at various jobs they’ll gain the attentions of these factions. That can lead to positive things like new territory and operatives for your crew, and detrimental ones like assassins or law enforcement targeting your gang.
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Like all pen and paper role-playing games, engaging in actual criminal activity is an exercise in collaborative storytelling between players and a game master. Blades In the Dark though has some innovative storytelling mechanics that takes some of the story building pressure of the game master and further immerses the players in the adventure. That’s because a typical gameplay session is broken down into three phases. The first stage, Free Play, is sort of the prologue. Think of it as the opening part of a heist movie where there are montages about the crew coming together and picking a target. That can be done by the players actively going after a score or the game master bringing a job to them. The players don’t have to do much planning though. They tell the game master what they want to target, the type of operation, and an important detail. For example, on a stealth operation they say the point of infiltration.
“….at some point in the distant past a supernatural apocalypse blotted out the sun and shattered the gateway between the lands of the living and the dead.”
Then the real fun begins because Blades in the Dark cuts straight to the action in the next phase, The Score. The game master kicks that off by letting luck have a say in how things are going to down with an “engagement roll.” This determines what kind of footing the crew starts their job on. From there on out, they make choices and test their abilities and luck with dice rolls. The best part of this phase of the game though is, you know those scenes in heist films where it looks like the thieves are caught dead to rights and then suddenly there’s a flashback to show how they planned for such an eventuality? Blades In the Dark has a mechanic that allows players to do just that!
Once the players succeed or fail at their mission the game moves to the Downtime phase where they reap the rewards of a successful operation and face the ghosts of their actions; sometimes literally. That’s because spirits manifest in a number of different ways in Blades In the Dark. There are traditional phantasmal ghosts but also “Hulls”, which are steampunk style automatons animated by captured ghosts. Spirits can also possess both the living and the dead, and the possession of a dead body can lead to the creation of a “Vampire.”
Duskwall has machines that keep the bulk of hungry and malevolent ghosts outside its walls, but spirits born from deaths within the city are a different matter entirely. Some bodies aren’t found and contained before ghosts arise, and oftentimes powerful forces conspire to ensure ghosts are born. So, the unquiet dead could lurk around any corner in Duskwall. On top of that, players will have contend with infernal horrors as well. Because demons and devils are a reoccurring force in the city. Secret societies will often try to win their favor or perform blasphemous rituals that rend the veil between worlds and summon monstrous abominations into existence.
That combination of horror, criminal intrigue, and steampunk style magic makes Blades in the Dark an incredibly fun way to while away a couple of hours. So players and game masters will work up both a hunger and thirst while playing. Liquor.com suggests that you can quench a thirst and capture the feel of a heist film with a 50/50 Martini. And since Blades In the Dark takes place in a Victorian-style city, why not quell any hunger pangs with Vegan Sweet and Simple’s take on the classic Victorian street food, the meat pie?
The final immersive ingredient for a perfect Blades In the Dark game night is background music that can help players feel the tension and terrors of Duskwall. David Julyan’s score for the 2005 horror film The Descent is a perfect soundtrack for stealthy traversing the dark and confronting horrors. John and Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies expanded score for 2018’s Halloween is all about a blade-wielding Shape who lurks in the dark. So, it’s also a great fit. Midnight Syndicate is a band that specializes in creating original horror-themed scores that have become a staple of haunted attractions at places like Cedar Point and Universal Studios Orlando. Naturally, they have a number of albums that would be a perfect fit for Blades in the Dark.
Let us know all about your own immersive game night setups, and your favorite horror-based board games. Who knows, your recommendation might become our focus for next month’s installment of Table Top Terrors. Roll the dice and spill your guts over Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!