Blades in the Dark made a tremendous splash in the RPG hobby upon its arrival. While its Apocalypse World DNA could still be seen, between the process of narrative negotiation and procedural triggers, it was truly a unique child of an auspicious parent.
We’ve seen many different genres expressed through the Forged in the Dark ruleset, from dark fantasy mercenary stories, space opera crime stories, uprisings against vampires, mech warfare, and the retaking of a stolen kingdom. What many of these games haven’t done is share the same city structure that Blades in the Dark employed with its setting of Doskvol.
Court of Blades introduces a game of intrigue and maneuvering in the city of Ilrien. But the twist is that while Blades in the Dark starts you out as a small gang with little standing and few friends, Court of Blades is almost the opposite paradigm, where your player characters are operatives of one of the Houses Great of the city.
I was not provided a review copy for Court of Blades. I backed this game when it was crowdfunding. I have not had the opportunity to play this game, but I am familiar with other Forged in the Dark games both as a player and as a game facilitator.
Court of Blades
Game Design & Writing Shawn Drake
Game Design, Writing, Layout, & Project Management Navi Drake
Copy Editing & Indexing Brent Jans
Title Design John Harper
Art Direction Colmena de Papel
Cover Art Natalia Klimczak
Interior Art Al Lukehart
Interior Art Rafael R. Sinnott
Map Art Tim Wilkinson Lewis
The Measure of the Court
This review is based both on the physical book and the PDF version of the product. This is a 328-page book, including a title page, a legal page, a credits page, an acknowledgment, a two-page table of contents, ten pages of Kickstarter backers (hey, look, there I am!), and a three-page index. The book is the same digest size that many other Forged in the Dark games, including Blades in the Dark, have. The book feels solid and is very pleasant to the eye.
The interior of the book has a single-column layout. The cover is multi-colored, with multiple golds, tans, browns, and grays. The interior artwork is in black and white. Each of the chapters has a three-quarter-page piece of artwork. The book looks great, and it feels great.
On the Inside
The book is broken up into the following sections:
- Chapter 1: Introduction
- Chapter 2: Characters
- Chapter 3: Downtime
- Chapter 4: A Guide to Ilrien
- Chapter 5: Playing the Game
- Chapter 6: Game Masters
- Chapter 7: Roll Charts
- Chapter 8: Change the Game
The PDF version also has separate GM sheets, House sheets, and Playbooks. These resources are also available at www.acoupleofdrakes.com.
For anyone familiar with a Forged in the Dark game, the basics will be very familiar. The core mechanic involves the player stating what action they wish to use to accomplish a task, with the GM telling the player what position and effect that action will have.
Position tells you the magnitude of the consequences of your action, while effect tells you how much you can accomplish with that action. A controlled position means you can probably try that action again with little consequence. A desperate position means that there are going to be major repercussions. Limited effect means you make a little bit of progress toward what you want to accomplish, while great effect means if you are successful, you’re going to get a lot done.
You roll a number of dice equal to your Action rating, taking the highest d6. This gives you results that are either a bad outcome, a partial success, a success, or a critical success (if you have multiple 6s on the action roll). Like other Forged in the Dark games, you can get an additional die to roll if you accept an unavoidable twist. In this case, that bargain is called The Lady’s Favor, referring to the setting’s Goddess of Fortune, who might grant you a greater chance to succeed in exchange for a complication.
Characters have stress and harm. Stress can be used to resist harm, but a character that reaches the end of their stress track gains a scandal, and too many scandals, and the character is no longer fit to work as an operative to the House.
Characters determine how much of a load they will take with them on an errand, which tells you how many boxes you can tick for equipment that you have with you, but you do not have to specify what you take on an errand until you check it off. This includes armor, which can be checked off to ignore harm. Additionally, each of the playbooks has a special kind of armor that allows them to ignore other types of harm. For example, The Eye can use their special armor to resist the consequences of being detected. Unlike some other Forged in the Dark games, there are only two options for load, discrete or loaded. A character with a discrete load isn’t going to draw much attention.
Progress for most goals that cannot be quickly accomplished is tracked using clocks, which have four, six, eight, ten, or twelve segments that might need to be filled in, based on how complex the task is. Court of Blades adds a new clock, the Romance Clock. A character starting a romance with an NPC can start a Romance Clock to court a love interest, and if the clock is completed, the PC has access to the heat resource, which can be spent for various effects.
Who Are You Playing?
Blades in the Dark has the players select the kind of crew their gang is, and provides playbooks to show what kind of tasks different PCs excel at. In Court of Blades, you pick one of the Houses Major, which has its own strengths, and one of the following playbooks:
- The Bravo (a professional duelist and muscle for the House)
- The Couth (a streetwise agent that has risen to work for the House)
- The Eye (an infiltrator and spy)
- The Hawk (an urban bounty hunter)
- The Key (a social mastermind)
- The Knack (a character gifted with magical ability)
- The Kiss (an optional playbook for a character with partial fey ancestry)
- The Curse (an optional playbook for a revenant with divided loyalties)
The Houses Major includes the following:
- House Al-Mari (whose strength is supply)
- House Bastien (whose strength is transport)
- House Battalia (whose strength is force)
- House Corvetto (whose strength is magic)
- House Elanda (whose strength is wealth)
- House Lovell (whose strength is intelligence)
- House Bjorn (a special house that only comes into play if one of the other Houses Major drops from that status)
The players can customize their house when they start play, assigning a secondary strength for the House, as well as picking an ability from the House playbook that grants a special ability to the retainers.
The Cycle of Play
The PCs are retainers trying to advance the goals of their House. At the end of each social season, the factions of the city advance their goals. The end of the social season coincides with the progress of the year. While the year consists of Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter, characters can only manage to undertake a major task three times during the year.
Like other Forged in the Dark games, the cycle of play involves the PCs undertaking one of the three errands they can accomplish in the year, and after each one of these errands, players get two downtime actions that they can take, choosing from a list of items that can reduce their exposure, heal their harms, progress side projects, etc. Whenever it makes sense, characters can gather information or engage in free play (roleplaying and dealing with minor consequences of actions that don’t rise to the level of an official errand).
What an errand looks like is going to vary based on the House and its strengths, as well as the kind of retainers at hand. Characters might need to eliminate a rival or steal an item, but they may also need to arrange a marriage or help transport a volatile magic item.
At the end of the social season, the GM checks on all the progress that the various houses. The various dice rolls on the charts provided provide what is effectively an oracle that tells the GM what goals the individual Houses are pursuing and how many ticks they manage to fill in on their clocks.
This is one of those places where Court of Blades deviates from the formula of Blades in the Dark which I think becomes a little more complicated than the original game. Blades in the Dark instructs the GM to advance the clocks for factions that the PCs have interacted with, and the factions all have an initial goal or goals they are working towards. While the more randomized goals and the advancement of those goals in Court of Blades can help to make the world even more unique to the game being played, there is a lot going on with those dice rolls, especially when tracking all of the Houses Major.
There is an interesting balancing act between presenting setting details and allowing for customization. For example, the Houses all have variable secondary strengths. There are different nationalities, but they are only quickly sketched out so that the PCs can provide details.
Despite leaving lots of blank spaces, there is still a lot of texture provided for Ilrien. While the games of influence are dangerous for the House agents, the city itself isn’t dark or oppressive. We get a list of foods and holidays, as well as commonly held superstitions. Ilrien is a city of canals, and there are gondola races among other sports.
The city districts each have a paragraph describing the district, and include a public figure that is the “face” of that district, as well as ratings for Luxury, Safety, Corruption, Criminal Influence, and Arcane Influence. There are also various factions outside of the Houses Major, including mythical lost nobles, banks, secret societies, vigilantes, and an order of watchers that keeps an eye on the Necropolitan Hill, which might contain a slumbering undead threat.
Other setting details can be found in the chapter with random charts. These include nearby villages, sprites and spirits, random NPCs, threats to the city, and minor holidays.
The Lady’s Laughter It’s evocative, and paints a picture, but leaves a lot of room for customization.
Much of the setting material in this book hits that balance between too much to handle, and not enough to work with. It’s evocative, and paints a picture, but leaves a lot of room for customization. It’s really a revelation to see how subtle tweaks to the concepts introduced in Blades in the Dark can swing wildly from a gritty, hard-scrabble crime story, to a swashbuckling intrigue game. While it’s going to vary from group to group, and the game spells this out as well, I really like the idea that there are some rules to reinforce romance as an element of the game, if the PCs want to engage with that aspect of the genre.
The Lady’s Back
While I can see the benefit to the randomness and customization, I’m not as enthusiastic with the dice rolling involved with tracking the other Houses Major. Just for replay purposes, I wish there were about two more playbooks that weren’t the special supernatural playbooks, although I’m not sure what I would put in those slots.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If intrigue and swashbuckling are storytelling elements you enjoy, this book does a fine job of delivering them. Additionally, without doing anything radical to the Forged in the Dark formula, it’s worth looking at this to see how much you can affect the feel of a game with subtle changes in the right places.
Do you like games where intrigue and political maneuvering come into play? Do you want this style of gameplay to have mechanical means of measurement? What are some of your favorites? We want to hear from you in the comments below.