Regression mechanics in Blades in the Dark

Wed, 03/24/2021 - 10:37
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Blades in the Dark

Ah, Blades in the Dark… a real gem in the rough. A game that, despite its occasional overindulgence in complexity and procedurality still remains one of the most audacious and ambitious games I've ever played. And I love it for it. It tried so hard to do something original and different that, even when it doesn't deliver completely, you still want to give it a good pat on the back for trying. For trying to be new and brave, instead of just another half-assed attempt at a better D&D. Or another low-effort PbtA hack.

Index

Introduction

Despite its brilliance, I don't think it's a perfect game completely devoid of any issues, but the thing about Blades is that its issues are not immediately apparent. They're like a pebble in your shoe when you're out hiking, or those pieces of popcorn stuck between your teeth that don't hurt as much as mildly irritate you. You kind of get used to them after a while, and they're not as glaring or clear-cut like issues with some other games.

"In D&D 3.5, high-level casters are absurdly more powerful than martials."

"In Feng Shui 2, the drifter archetype is mechanically a total dumpster fire."

"Most monsters in D&D5E are as bland as a keg of Bud Light."

The above issues are easy to spot and articulate. Blades' issues are a bit more opaque and I feel they require a deeper analysis in order to determine if they even exist in the first place, and whether there is a way to fix them. In this article, we will analyze one such issue, specifically the issue of reversion mechanics and how they affect play.

I assume you are familiar with the concept of reversion mechanics, so I won't go into any definitions before jumping into our analysis.

...

You're not?

Oh, right, I forgot. Reversion mechanics are the term I made up for the purposes of this article. Ok, fine. Fine!

Let's set the groundwork first then.

Let's talk about game states!

 

The state of the game

Imagine your D&D character immediately after finishing a long rest. Fresh, healthy, peckish for some epic monster slaying. Now imagine him three hours later, at 3 hit points, out of spell slots and screaming as he tries to escape a lair of peckish giant spiders.

Same character, different states.

Any given object can have a plethora of states. A door can be locked or unlocked, open or closed. An NPC can be an ally or a foe. A kingdom can be serene, or in the middle of a brutal civil war. Your character can be at full health, or he can be as dead as a doornail. 

All of these attributes define the individual state of a given individual object. Put all of those attributes together, you get that object’s state. Put together all of the objects present or relevant in a game and all of their states and you get the overall game state.

In other words, a game state is the sum of all of the objects and their many states as seen at a certain point in time.

Clear enough? Great, but indulge me with an example… 

Let's say your party is trying to sneak into the thieves’ guild headquarters and they find themselves faced with a locked door. The game state is such that your party is standing in front of the door, the door is locked and the thieves are unaware of anything happening. The rogue successfully picks the lock on the door, and therefore changes the game state. The party is still in front of the door, the thieves are still unaware of them, but the door is now unlocked and the party may progress onwards. The game state has changed.

And there are three ways that we can affect the game state via character actions. 

Progression mechanics are used to push an object’s state forward into a new and original state. This is your rogue opening the locked door.

Reversion mechanics on the other hand are used to reset to an earlier state of a game object. These are your long rests that reset our character's health, or even short rests or healing spells that only achieve this reversion partially.

And the third type, the runt of the litter, are status quo mechanics that achieve neither. Instead, the game state remains the same before and after engaging with the mechanic. In D&D, these are (sadly) failed skill checks. Before we delve into reversion mechanics, let’s get a running start by examining status quo mechanics and why they suck.

 

Status quo mechanics

GM: You are standing in front of a locked door, what do you do?

Rogue: I attempt to pick the lock.

GM: Ok, make a thieves’ tools check.

Rogue: 8.

GM: You attempt to pick the lock but it proves too difficult for you.

Rogue: I attempt to pick it again.

GM: OK…  Make another thieves' tools check, I guess…

Status quo mechanics suck.

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Lockipicking
Just one more time before the barbarian axes the door...

Unfortunately, outside of combat, D&D does not have an inherent way to resolve these status quo mechanics. This can be a real hurdle, especially to new GMs. What is the point of a locked door with a high DC if all that it accomplishes is wasting 15 minutes of game time until the rogue gets a sufficiently high number on his skill check?

In order to avoid the aforementioned situations, many experienced GMs will tell you to force a change of game state if the skill check is failed. This is a good approach, but as I said, it is not formalized within D&D as a system. Which sucks.

However, even though D&D does not have an inherent and formalized way of dealing with this issue, there is a great system out there that does. You guessed it, Blades in the Dark. Within Blades in the Dark, every skill check is either a progression or reversion mechanic.

 

Progression in the Dark

Blades in the Dark are brilliant in the way that they make sure that every die roll meaningfully affects the game state, and the system has a formalized way of achieving this using its consequences system. Unlike the binary SUCCESS / FAILURE approach presented in D&D, Blades have a total of four different outcomes for every skill check:

FAILURE: You fail, and a Consequence occurs which changes the game state.

PARTIAL SUCCESS: You succeed, and a Consequence occurs which further changes the game state.

CLEAN SUCCESS: You succeed, and therefore change the game state.

CRITICAL SUCCESS: You succeed spectacularly, and therefore change the game state.

Note that there is no outcome that says “Nothing happens”, unlike the FAILURE outcome found in D&D skill checks.

By the by, I did not write Consequences with a capital C just to be pretentious. They are capitalised because they are a formal, tangible and defined mechanic in the game, while also remaining very flexible and contextual. They are a formalized way of running a game that good GMs of other systems intuitively incorporate into their games, regardless of their system of choice. They are generally awesome. 

Ok, so status quo mechanics suck. Progression mechanics are the thing. Blades are awesome for avoiding the former and insisting on the latter.

What about reversion mechanics? Yay or nay?

 

Reversion mechanics 

As previously stated, reversion mechanics are any mechanics that seek to restore a previous game state - the most common example being resting. A reversion mechanic is good as it provides the players with the opportunity to manage negative consequences at or without a certain cost.

However, while these mechanics are important in that they provide the players with a way to cope with the bad stuff coming their way, they are generally not as interesting as progression mechanics. They generally don't push the story or the gameplay forward. This is why many games make sure that reversion mechanics are generally less appealing than competing or equivalent progression mechanics.

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Combat
Stand still so I can use a progression mechanic on you!

A very simple example are healing spells in D&D. Your first level Cure wounds heals 1d8+mod hit points and expends a spell slot. An average enemy attack deals 1d8+mod damage. This means that you can heal the inflicted damage taken by an attack. However, you will run out of spell slots very quickly and you’ll be both spelless and dead. Therefore, it is a bad idea to counter the enemy’s progression mechanic using a reversion mechanic. Instead, you want to counter his progression mechanic with your own progression mechanic.

Or in less complicado terms… You want to bash his head in before he does the same to you.

If a reversion mechanic is equally valid or preferable to a progression mechanic, we will end up with gameplay that can feel stale and pointless. Which is why good game designers incentivize the use of progression mechanics. Progression mechanics are deliberately preferable to reversion mechanics. Which brings us to reversion mechanics in Blades...

 

Reversion in the Dark

In Blades in the Dark, the players must manage a number of unique and indispensable resources: Coin, Reputation, Status, Stress, Harm, Heat.

The first three are resources that increase in number as a reward for the players' successes. Or at the very least, in case of Reputation, they lead to new and interesting relationships between the various factions that feed into the game’s core gameplay loop.

As for the latter three, it is (generally) in the players’ interest to keep these resources low by using their unique associated reversion mechanics:

Use Indulge vice to reduce stress.

Use Recover to reduce harm.

Use Reduce heat to… erm… reduce heat.

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Typing
Indulge vice: blogging.
Writing overly long texts on abstract topics as a way of relaxing.

So far, so good. Our players have a limited number of downtime activities and must choose carefully which reversion mechanic to employ based on the current game state. All good stuff.

The issue arises if we note that these downtime reversion mechanics compete with downtime progression mechanics (long-term projects, training and acquiring an asset). This means that, due to the nature of the game, our players have to choose between a reversion mechanic and a progression mechanic, and based on my experience, they frequently choose reversion mechanics, and for very good reason.

You see, unlike D&D and its resting rules, the ONLY way to reliably recover stress/harm/heat in Blades is to use their individual reversion mechanics. In D&D, you can choose to enter a difficult combat encounter at half hit points and save your spell slots for dealing damage. You know that, if you survive this encounter, you will get a chance to rest and recover your hit points. In Blades, this is not an option. Stress, harm and heat don’t just go away after a while. There is no zero-cost mechanic such as resting to provide you with that reversion mechanic.

If we repeat our one main criterion for reversion mechanics, that a reversion mechanic must not be favourable compared to an equivalent progression mechanic, we will see that the reversion mechanics in Blades fail to meet this criterion.

This is why playing Blades can often feel like you’re running in place. You take on a mission, take some stress and harm, and then spend your downtime activities to get to where you were prior to the mission. Next mission comes around, you try to reduce heat and finish the recovery clock started after the previous mission. But now your stress is high, so after the next mission, you have to Indulge vice. And so on, and so on… And the issue here is that every time you engage in one of these reversion mechanics, you don’t engage in one of the progression mechanics. Due to the nature of the game mechanics, you find yourself strongly motivated to prefer reversion mechanics over progression mechanics. 

This is particularly egregious in the case of harm and recovery, and I believe the main reason why many tables avoid harm altogether, or make recovery much easier and quicker.

Players rarely want to be stuck in a rut. They generally want things to move forward towards some sort of resolution, and this necessitates that our reversion mechanics are less attractive than our progression mechanics. And for Blades in the Dark, a game whose core skill check resolution is so brilliantly geared towards progression mechanics, this preference for reversion mechanics in downtime activities can feel very out of place.

 

The solution

Ok, enough theoretical mumbo-jumbo, let’s discuss solutions for the issue as laid out above.

First of all, we don’t want to completely get rid of the reversion mechanics in Blades. They offer us strategic and tactical depth, and we generally want that. We just need to make them either

  1. Less attractive than the progression mechanics
  2. Not compete with the progression mechanics

Having considered a few options to resolve this issue, I would argue for the following change in the way downtime activities are structured. 

We will keep our limit of two downtime activities per downtime phase as is.

We will explicitly separate our reversion and progression mechanics. We will call the first group Recuperation (reversion) and the second group Attainment (progression).

Each downtime phase, a character may make one Recuperation activity and one Attainment activity.

In other words, our players must first choose between Indulge vice, Recover and Reduce heat.

Once that has been resolved, they then choose between Training, Acquire an Asset and Long-term project.

The different mechanics no longer compete. Ta da!

Miniscule change, great effect.

Of course, there would be other ways to achieve the same thing. This one is advised simply because it is the least invasive and least likely to mess up some other part of the game that we hadn’t considered in time.

 

Harm and Resistance checks

Before we wrap this up, I wanted to just briefly mention two other things on the topic of reversion mechanics in Blades. 

One, Harm and Recovery are really bad mechanics. Many tables homerule these mechanics, and for good reason. Harm is way too punishing and way too difficult and arduous to get rid of. 

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Harm
Using Harm can be harmful to your game. Badum ts!

To be honest, I wonder whether the game would even lose anything if we got rid of Harm completely, or if we just don’t use it. Like, at all. Your character can’t die unless it’s the only option due to the fictional situation, or unless he reaches four trauma. When your character would take harm, just make him gain Stress instead. 1d6 for tier 1 Harm. 2d6 (take higher) for tier 2, 3d6 for tier 3.

No accumulation of Harm. No stat penalties. Just a flat Stress gain. Makes sense narratively, does wonders mechanically. 

Second, and this is a controversial one…. Why are Resistance checks even a thing?

Look at Resistance checks using the reversion/progression prism laid out above. 

1 Something bad happens to your character (progression). 

2 You retcon this bad thing using Resistance (reversion). 

3 You gain Stress. 

4 In order to get rid of the acquired Stress, during downtime you sacrifice a progression mechanic to activate a reversion mechanic. 

Resistance checks are double-dipping into reversion mechanics at the expense of progression mechanics. Imagine instead the following scenario:

1 Something bad happens (progression) 

2 You activate a progression mechanic to handle this bad thing, either during the score or during downtime (progression) 

3 You succeed or fail at your attempt (progression) 

With this second approach, we've completely removed reversion mechanics from the equation. We've made sure that our rogue, sorry, skulk, can't resist his locks breaking, and then go for another attempt at that pesky lock. Additionally, he's less likely to spend his downtime drinking away the sorrow of having lost his favourite lock pick, and instead we've enabled him to research how to produce unbreakable lock picks, thus opening new mission avenues. New complications. New progression.

 

Conclusion

There are three fundamental types of mechanics in games: reversion mechanics that push the game state forward, reversion mechanics that pull the game state backwards, and status quo mechanics that do neither and generally suck.

Blades in the Dark is a wonderfully progression-oriented game, but despite this, it incentivizes the use of certain reversion mechanics to its own detriment. 

Fortunately, this issue is fairly easy to fix with a few minor homerules:

  1. Separate downtime actions into distinct and non-interchangeable reversion mechanics vs progression mechanics
  2. Get rid of Harm entirely and instead defer injuries to Stress
  3. Get rid of Resistance checks entirely

By applying these changes, Blades would become more cleanly and uniformly skewed towards progression mechanics, which I believe would result in a smoother and more focused gaming experience. 

In the next article, we will take a look at another issue that I have with Blades in the Dark, specifically its proclivity towards excessive over-design and how this approach conflicts with the general game experience. 

Till next time, keep progressing!

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