Blades in the Dark has been my role-playing obsession for close to two years now – so long, in fact, that I am beginning to wonder whether it is time to move on. And what better thing is there to move on to than the same game, but IN SPACE?! More seriously, though, Scum and Villainy is the first commercial Forged in the Dark product, published in late 2018 by Evil Hat. It transplants the mechanics of Blades (which I consider the pinnacle of role-playing game design to date) from the Gothic steampunk of Duskwall to the Standard Sci-Fi Setting™ of the Procyon Sector, inspired by everything "space" – from the Westerns like Firefly and Cowboy Bebop to the operas like Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars. Because I am a conservative weirdo, I have no interest in explaining the game to you, so I will assume familiarity with Blades on your part and cover mainly what SaV does differently and how it affects actual play.
Scum and Villainy implements a number of large and small changes to facilitate a narrative experience that is very distinct from the original Blades in the Dark. Perhapts the biggest change of all is the tone and mood of the game: while Blades was extremely dark and oppressive, with a huge thematic focus on death, trauma, and building a criminal empire on the foundation of human misery, SaV is much more interested in mystery and adventure, while still remaining as violent and cynical as its predecessor. Combined with much more instantly recognizable sci-fi playbook archetypes (see below), it makes for a much more accessible game, in my opinion.
No More Faction Game
The "Faction Game" (pp. 44-47) is one of the key elements in the original Blades, inevitably forcing the players (a.k.a. "the crew") into a political and/or territorial conflict with other in-game factions over the limited resources of Duskwall. Set in the vastness of space, SaV avoids this claustrophobic setup – consequently, its crews would much rather freelance for established factions than be politically active themselves. This is expressed in a number of mechanical modifications, the combined effect of which shifts the core fantasy away from powers struggles and towards freewheeling adventures:
- COIN and REP are rolled into a single resource, CRED, streamlining the downtime actions and crew upgrades. Since REP in Blades represents the crew's influence in the criminal underworld of Duskwall, it follows that the most scores in SaV are more about immediate material gains than about political clout, with little (mechanical) incentive to punch above the crew's own league.
- Crew types have been reduced in number to just three, all of which are mainly geared toward freelance work (see New Crew Types). In particular, politics-oriented crews like Hawkers and Cults have been eliminated without replacement.
- Crew tier only effectively goes up to III, whereas other factions in the setting fall within the standard range of 0 to V. This additionally implies that the crew is not intended to directly compete with the established factions in SaV, like they do in Blades (where IV is the highest tier normally reachable by criminal organizations).
- Heat and wanted levels are now tracked per star system, allowing the crew to leave a system and to lay low in another until the heat dies down. In the original Blades, the cramped setting of Duskwall was specifically designed to prevent this kind of "laying low", creating a "pressure-cooker environment" that forces the scoundrels into conflict with other factions.
- No claims are available for the crew to secure, effectively unmooring them from a particular place in the game's universe. Instead, the main indicator of crew progression in SaV are the spaceship upgrades, roughly equivalent to lair upgrades in Blades.
- No permanent cohorts means that the crew never gets a permanent power base, which in Blades consists of experts on their payroll and subservient gangs. Experts and gangs are only available as temporary assets acquired at downtime or as the crew's contacts.
- Campaign endgame rules are introduced on p. 264 ("Final Campaign Missions"), suggesting to retire the crew once they reach a +3 status with any faction, by offering them a key mission with a major and permanent impact on the setting and having them create a new novice crew after completing it: "Playing a single character or ship with all their advancements through multiple campaigns is beyond the scope of this game". This effectively combats the power creep inherent to Blades, which had no real campaign goals beyond reaching Tier IV.
SaV also introduces a number of original mechanics not present in the original game at all:
- Gambits are a shared pool of bonus dice that can be expended by any player on action rolls. Only one Gambit can be spent per roll, but it stacks with the extra dice from Pushing Yourself, Devil's Bargains, and teamwork Assists.
- Spaceship mechanics are an entirely new set of rules that govern upgrading and maintaining (upkeep) of the crew's mobile base of operations. The spaceship replaces the original game's crew typology, claims, tithe, and upgrade mechanics.
- Starting Abilities are special abilities exclusive to particular playbooks that have access to them from the start (in addition to the first regular special ability). Combined with the rule that starting abilities cannot be taken as veteran advancements, this results in a stronger sense of specialization among playbooks.
- Debt mechanic replaces the Vault lair upgrades from Blades, allowing the crew to carry more than four CRED on their shared account (in addition to the four carried by each member) with narrative and mechanical strings attached.
New Action Ratings
SaV features a different set of basic action ratings, even though the three attributes they are grouped into are the same as in Blades. Another difference is that action ratings only go up to 3 (this is effectively true in the original, however, given how its level 4 is locked behind a costly crew upgrade).
- Doctor is a new rating, reflecting the superior understanding of human physiology and psyche in a sci-fi setting over that in the Victorian world of Blades. It combines aspects of the original Tinker (with the Leech's Physicker ability) and Consort (for psychological aid) and replaces the deprecated Hunt within the Insight attribute block.
- Hack is also an entirely new rating, reflecting the importance of digital systems in sci-fi. It has some similarities with the original Finesse rating, in that it can substitute Rig for the purpose of opening locks, but occupies Survey's place within the Insight attribute.
- Rig replaces Tinker as the catch-all action for all kinds of mechanical work and repairs. It also inherits the explosives-planting aspect of the deprecated Wreck.
- Study is more-or-less unchanged from Blades, except that with the removal of Survey, it remains as the main perception-related rating in the game, effectively (if not explicitly) inheriting its functions.
- Helm replaces Finesse within the Prowess attribute, carrying over its vehicle-steering aspect but replacing its sleight-of-hand aspect (which is transferred to Skulk) with the usage of mounted vehicle weaponry. This appears to go against the original game's contention that "there's no ‘shooting' action in Blades, by design."
- Scramble replaces Prowl for most types of movement and similar physical actions, except for moving undetected, which is now covered by Skulk.
- Scrap replaces Skirmish for most combat related activities (except for the mounted weaponry, which is covered by Helm).
- Skulk is a combination of the original's Prowl and Finesse, covering the stealthy movement and backstabbing aspects of the former (as well as the stealthy tracking aspect of the deprecated Hunt) and the sleight-of-hand aspects of the latter, making it somewhat similar to the Skullduggery skill from Edge of the Empire. It occupies the deprecated Wreck's place within the Prowess attribute.
- Attune rating is pretty much unchanged from Blades, except for replacing Duskwall's ghost field with the Way (strongly inspired by the Force from Star Wars, minus the Light and Dark Sides of it). Accordingly, more creative uses of Blades' Attune, like manipulating electric currents inside wires, are no longer within its purview in SaV. All-in-all, this version of Attune is much closer to Apocalypse World's basic move Open Your Brain.
- Command, Consort, and Sway are functionally unchanged from the original.
- The Mechanic replaces the Leech, keeping the latter's focus on mechanical engineering, but replacing alchemy with hacking.
- The Muscle replaces the Cutter, plain and simple.
- The Mystic replaces the Whisper, albeit with the same caveats about the Way being functionally and narratively different from the ghost field, making them closer to the Jedi Knights than to mediums.
- The Pilot has no corresponding Blades playbook because it is all about spaceships.
- The Scoundrel replaces the Slide and the Lurk, with a bit of Hound mixed in, but its focus on gambits also makes it rather unique to SaV.
- The Speaker replaces the Spider, with some Slide in the mix.
- The Stitch is another wholly original playbook (the closest counterpart in Blades would be a Leech with the Physicker ability), likely inspired by the Angel from Apocalypse World.
Each of the seven playbooks corresponds to a character from Firefly: the Mechanic is Kaylee, the Muscle is Jayne, the Mystic is River, the Pilot is Wash, the Scoundrel is Mal, the Speaker is Inara, and the Stitch is Simon (Zoe and Book are conspicuously absent from the roster).
New Crew Types
- The Stardancer crew are essentially the Smugglers, with a bit of the Shadows thrown in.
- The Cerberus crew are a mix of the Bravos and the Assassins.
- The Firedrake crew does not have a direct counterpart in the base Blades game, but they are most related to the Vigilantes and the Radicals crews, available as free supplements from the official website.
As mentioned earlier, the more power struggle-oriented crews like the Hawkers and the Cults have been deprecated in SaV.
- Healing of physical injuries has been overhauled to reflect the sci-fi setting. Firstly, finding a medical doctor no longer requires an additional Acquire Asset downtime action, but the treatment roll is now Crew Tier–1 (or a Doctor roll by another crew member) instead of Tier+1 (expert roll) in Blades. Secondly, the healing clock consists of six ticks instead of four, but receiving any downtime treatment instantly clears all level 1 harm in addition to ticking the healing clock, while filling it clears all harm, instead of just shifting it down by one level.
- Heavy Armor is no longer a common item, but instead an upgrade of the basic full-body armor that has to be unlocked via special abilities. The only special ability granting heavy armor upgrade in the base SaV game is the Cerberus' Loaded For Bear.
- Heavy Loadout is 6 to 8, instead of just 6, which was a weirdly small range in Blades (where it was probably chosen to comply with the "1-3, 4/5, 6" range pattern for its action roll results).
- Veteran playbook advancements can be taken at character creation, whereas Blades requires you to pick the first ability from your own playbook's list. This is probably due to the fact that each playbook gets its exclusive starting ability automatically.
- Ship upgrades can be purchased with CRED in addition to being unlocked with crew XP. In the original Blades, XP was the only sanctioned way to obtain lair upgrades.
- Easier heat reduction by allowing the crew to reduce not just heat in other systems, but also their wanted level with downtime actions. Together with both being tracked per system, this slows down the overall heat generation. Furthermore, the Arrest entanglement (if allowed to play out without resistance) now clears all wanted levels in the system instead of just one.
- No incarceration rolls or, indeed, prison mechanics of any kind, i.e. there are no longer any hard rules for how and when an arrested character can return to play (if at all).
- Entanglements in SaV offer more options than the original Blades. Entanglement rolls can also "explode" into the next higher wanted level category, resulting in a more dynamic entanglement generation. Of note is the wanted level 4 entanglement (the only one), which summons a massive dreadnought to hunt down the crew, but if they manage to evade it, the wanted level drops back to 3.
Clarifications and Supplements
Some changes SaV makes are small but extremely useful, so they can and should be re-applied to the original Blades in the Dark to make its gameplay smoother without changing much of its core experience.
- Temporary and non-physical harm. While it has been suggested by the original rules, SaV makes it explicit that not all harm descriptors are lasting injuries that necessitate filling out the healing clock with the downtime Recover action. Instead, specific instances of harm can instead come with conditions for clearing them in-game, ranging from specific (downtime) actions to separate long-term project clocks.
- Veteran advancements for characters can only be taken up to three times (this was implied by the Blades character sheets, but never explicitly stated in the book). Crew veteran advancements are limited to just two per ship. These limitations is probably there to cap the progression at reasonable power levels.
Other Things I've Realized About the Original Rules Upon Reading SaV
One of the reasons why I consider Blades the best-designed RPG in the history of the medium is that every time I have re-read the core rule book, I've discovered some new trick or mindset that helped me to streamline and to improve my games. This, to me, shows just how much experience and fine-tuning went into the creation of this game. Scum and Villainy is, in many ways, a fresh look at the established formula that has helped me, once again, to understand many things about the original rules that I have been reading wrong before (and my games suffered for it).
- "Seizing a risky opportunity" upon failing an action from a controlled position is not a free re-roll. Rather, it is an entirely new action roll in different circumstances representing the new, risky opportunity – consequently, any bonus dice and effect levels from the first, failed roll do not automatically carry over to the new one, just as they wouldn't carry over if the player "tried a different approach", e.g. by selecting a different action rating.
- Effect level factors (potency, quality/tier, and scale) each reduce or increase the effect level by one, i.e. a two-level difference in tier or scale does not reduce the effect level by two. However, a difference of more than two can well become a dominant factor, preventing any chance of success altogether unless the situation is modified somehow. On the same note, the Lurk's Infiltrator ability only negates disadvantage in quality/tier, not in potency or scale!
- Using action rolls to gather information works like regular action rolls in regards to position and effect. As fortune rolls don't have position or effect, their result must be mapped to the gather information outcome table: 1-3 = no new information gained (analogous to a failed action roll), 4-5 = limited effect (vague information), 6 = standard effect (good information), and critical = great effect (exceptional information).
- Contacts listed on playbooks are NPCs whom the respective player character knows and, in fact, they know all of them well, not just the two marked as a particularly close friend or a rival.
- The engagement roll does not set the "baseline position" for the rest of the score, only that of the initial situation the crew finds themselves in at the start. After that, the position is determined by the usual rules for position and effect. If anything, the "baseline position" on scores is always risky, with in-game factors swinging it towards desperate or controlled.
- Flashbacks of trivial actions should cost 0 stress, even if they involve action rolls. Flashbacks involving any type of downtime activity should cost 0 stress and 1 REP/COIN/CRED, unless the player still has unused downtime actions from the previous score. The free downtime action for scores of preferred type on own hunting grounds can also be used as a flashback.
- Entanglements don't have to come into play immediately after the score, but can be delayed until later in the downtime (or even until the next score) at the GM's discretion and with the players' consent. The players may be aware of the nature of the impending entanglement, but not of where and when it strikes; this is what allows the Shadows' Slippery ability to function in Blades – the players select (roughly) what happens, but the GM decides what exactly it is (especially with the either-or entanglement roll results) and when it occurs.