Reading Bloodheist

Bloodheist, recently published by Vaults of Vaarn creator Leo Hunt and illustrated by Lewis Garvey, does that thing I wrote about in my previous post — namely, leverage bespoke rules in the service of building a particular world and type of play. In some ways, it resembles Blades In the Dark: both games deal with fantasy-horror themes in a gothic-industrial setting, revolve around criminal heists, and are structured for episodic play. But where Blades is comparatively maximalist, Bloodheist deploys only a handful of rules and mechanics to foster a more free-wheeling style of play.

The underlying design is clever, though. Risky actions are resolved using a dice pool and a version of the familiar “d6 with complications” model. In part, that pool is assembled by counting character advantages (e.g. skills, the right tool, assistance), but its further expanded by the addition of “doom dice.” Doom dice can contribute to a successful roll, but they also represent the increasingly mortal risk player characters take in pursuit of each heist's prize. Collect enough doom dice, and succeeding on one will eventually kill you.

Doom dice are an elegant illustration of how a rule can hone the theme of the game while staying close to the core of play. As a replacement for hit points, they fold one RPG trope into another. Doing so, they link character death to success in a way that's narratively compensatory. Sure, your character was killed, but they went out in a blaze of glory. Death in Bloodheist ends up being a function not only of risk, but also of success, rather than failure.

Another rule — presented as optional, but why deprive yourself? — encourages tension among protagonists by issuing each player a secret motive. For example, a character may be under strict orders by a shadowy council to ensure that a given NPC, or even another player character, meets an untimely end during the course of the heist. Not every secret is so confrontational, but they're all designed to complicate the collaborate nature of typical role-play by putting the individual at cross purposes with the crew as a whole. That sort of player-vs.-player undercurrent can be risky in a RPG — nerve-wracking, even — but it also makes the theme of treachery more than just an narrative conceit. At the same time, the rule softens the antagonism by portioning out secrets by the draw of a card. Nothing personal, just playing the hand I was dealt.

Lastly, the game is deliberately thin on combat. Weapons have no damage stat, which would avail you little anyway, since characters have no HP — or, for that matter, any other numerical stats beyond a score to determine how many doom dice they roll. Combat is handled, like any other action, by preparing an action roll and narrating consequences based on its result. No initiative, no turns, no enemy skill checks. The result, per one of the design notes threaded throughout, is meant to be quick and decisive. That set up is, in other words, a decision about the sort of action the game affords. Bloodheist doesn't abjure interpersonal violence altogether, but by refusing to simulate it in fine-grained detail, it refuses to privilege it above other types of play.

#Bloodheist #BladesInTheDark