John Harper on Blades In The Dark

blades_prelim_coverAs we announced last September, we’re bringing John Harper’s Blades In The Dark to market this year. A tabletop role-playing game about a gang of criminals seeking their fortunes on the haunted streets of Duskwall, Blades offers heists, chases, occult mysteries, dangerous bargains, bloody skirmishes, and, above all, riches to be had if you’re bold enough.

We checked in with John recently to get a behind-the-scenes look at his development process.

EH: Where did you get the idea for Blades?
JH: I’ve been working on the core concept for a long, long time. Since most RPGs are about a team of PCs, I’ve tried to create systems for teamwork and tracking the growth of a crew or faction in several of my discarded designs over the years. Eventually, two things came together at to spark Blades in the Dark:

  1. I ran a Prohibition-era game at my old workplace, building a game system as we played. I created a “crew sheet” to track the progress of the bootleggers in that game, and we iterated it over several sessions into something interesting — the crew “leveled up” as the primary method of advancement in the game. Everyone enjoyed that, so I kept that idea in my back pocket.
  2. The new “Thief” video game was in development, and the early concept art re-ignited my passion for the original games (Thief and Thief 2, especially). I started thinking about misty streets and scoundrels and weird occult undertones. Also, the video game Dishonored came out (by some of the original developers of the Thief games). So “thiefy” stuff was on my mind.

I ran a game series to playtest ideas about a crew of criminals, which incorporated some ideas from the Bootleggers game, as well as the setting from an older game of mine, Ghost Lines. We playtested and iterated that game for about a year and a half, refining the setting and the systems into a solid core that became Blades in the Dark.

You can check out Ghost Lines here: http://www. onesevendesign.com/ghostlines/
and Bootleggers here: http://www.drivethrurpg. com/product/132208/Bootleggers

EH: You really opened up this game to players early on in the process, between the early access PDF, your incredibly active G+ community, your actual play livestreams, and so on. What gave you the idea, and would you recommend the same to other developers?
JH: As a designer, I prefer to do most of the development work by playing regularly and iterating between sessions, so all of the focus of design is on what’s happening at the game table. To do this, I need an initial group that is excited to try stuff out and give feedback, and then, once the design is more stable, I need external groups to continue the play and feedback process so I can iterate even more. The whole process is a conversation for me, between myself and the playtesters. It’s natural for me to put my work out there so the conversation can attract more perspectives and opinions to help me refine the work.

I got the idea from other designer friends of mine who I admire and the communities of amazing gamers that have sprung up in the online RPG spaces. I would definitely recommend this process to other designers, especially now that the prevalence of play on Twitch and YouTube makes it easy to watch external groups playing your game, so you actually see and hear how people are using the tools you make when you’re not there to explain them.

EH: Do you have any awesome playtest moments you can share?
JH: About halfway through the initial playtest cycle, one of the players, my friend Ryan, was doing his usual thing of getting his character in over his head and then trying to pull some crazy move to get out of trouble. He was making a desperate roll, and I said, “How about, if you use up all your ammo for this attack, you can take a bonus die to your roll. But then you can’t use your gun anymore.” and of course Ryan accepted because that’s the kind of player he is. Dylan, one of the other players, asked to pause the game and asked, “Have you noticed that you usually give us this option for a bonus die, with strings attached?” I hadn’t noticed! “Maybe this should be a formal mechanic in the game,” Dylan said. And the Devil’s Bargain mechanic was born. It’s proven to be one of the most popular parts of the system.

EH: Finally, if you were a Blades character type, what would you be?
JH: It’s a hard choice — as the creator, I kind of love them all — but I think I would have to pick Lurk. Their almost-supernatural athletic ability, “The Devil’s Footsteps” would be so much fun! I’d probably become one of those crazy stunt parkour YouTubers.