I really like Blades in the Dark, with one tiny exception: its setting, the fantasy-industrial city of Duskwall/Doskvol. For all of its metal album trappings (I mean, the tagline on the end of page 1 of the rulebook is "You’re in a haunted Victorian-era city trapped inside a wall of lightning powered by demon blood" - that's a Powerwolf song if ever I heard one), I find it strangely bland and uncompelling. This is doubly puzzling to me because Duskwall is clearly heavily influenced by the Dunwall of Dishonored, and I love those games to pieces.
I think it has to do with the thorny nature of default settings in rulebooks. They have to provide enough evocative detail to ignite the reader's imagination and make them want to play the game, and they have to be complete enough for a new-to-the-game GM to feel confident that they can present a consistent world to the players. But at the same time they can't be so detailed that they overwhelm the GM or players with all the stuff they have to master before they can play, or that they foreclose any room for freedom of choice amidst all of the fleshed-out people and institutions and events. It's a tall order, one that most default settings struggle to fulfill (the poor Forgotten Realms might fail to meet every single criterion above), and I don't want to pick on Blades - like I said, I really like the game. And I think its approach does a great job of empowering a new GM to make up details about the city on the fly.
But the fact remains - Duskwall doesn't do it for me. It doesn't excite me, as a player or as a GM. So for an upcoming game, I'm going to try to slot in something different. I don't think this qualifies as a hack - I'm not mucking around with any of the rules or playbooks. This is just gonna be Blades, but in a different place.
And that place is Paris, on the eve of the Revolution.
To my eye, these are the things I need to create or modify:
- City maps
- City gazetteer (keeping it brief, though)
- Factions (this is a big one)
- Some structure to help me keep track of events beyond the crew's influence (this'll be some work, too)
- Bits and pieces of setting detail, including the suggested NPC names (flavor is important!)
(No, don't worry, I'm not going to translate random words like the playbook names into French.)
At the start, I do think I need to address something in the Blades rulebook, though. It comments several times on how the setting has been crafted to support the playstyle. I can't say that I quite see how - the gonzo bits aside, it's a large, crowded city with a significant industrial base, major problems with corruption, poverty and crime, and a serious lack of trust in public institutions. That describes a whole lot of cities, past and present. Eighteenth-century Paris meets those criteria handily, as does eighteenth- or nineteenth-century London, and even republican or imperial Rome.
But what about those more fantastical setting details? Are they necessary to support the intended playstyle? Do any of them preclude changing the city or setting things in (alt-history, slightly mythologized) 1780s France?
- The sun has gone out.
This is just flavor. It gets ditched.
- People come back as ghosts when they die unless properly laid to rest somehow.
I'll keep this - it's a common folk belief even today (hell, I've got relatives who believe something like this).
- Demons exist, as do old gods.
This conceit underpins any historical Call of Cthulhu game. No problem.
- People hunt oceanic leviathans for their valuable fluids.
I liked this in Dishonored. Whaling was a thing, so whaling for magic whales can be, too.
- Some people can do some kind of magic, partially related to ghosts.
Again, a common folk belief. People were still regularly tried for witchcraft in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries (the last execution for witchcraft in Britain was in 1727). Easy enough, and I don't want to remove the Whisper.
- Some technology is possible or practical which wouldn't be in the real world.
This doesn't particularly bother me, either. I like clockpunk just fine.
Nothing there stands out as a problem, does it? I'm keeping most of the fantastical stuff because it's fun (isn't that weird? I like many of the individual fantastical details, but the setting as a whole seems to be less than the sum of its parts), but you could easily run a straight-historical Blades campaign and not find a hair out of place.
Now, one major detail singled out for comment in the rulebook is the lightning wall and the danger of the deathlands, which prevent players from even contemplating spending much time outside of the city. But this really isn't necessary - in the games I've played in, there was so much to do inside the city that the idea of leaving was never seriously entertained.
Even in the absence of a hard restriction on movement, handling players who do want to spend some time outside the city shouldn't be complicated. First, you clearly signal the consequences: they're gang leaders with valuable territory, and if they're away too long their rivals will start to horn in on their turf. And if one PC wants to try and lie low in the countryside for a few months to escape arrest, so what? They're unavailable for play for that period. Maybe I'll throw together something to mirror the incarceration and prison claim rules. Second, if the players want to try and run scores in the suburbs (like Versailles!) or even farther afield, why would I object? I might do something like penalizing the engagement roll pool or making it more difficult to gather information the farther they go from the city, but I don't anticipate it being a big issue.
So I think this is feasible, and shouldn't require any real changes to the rules. And I'm hoping I can get away with keeping setting prep limited - I'm not an historian, I don't want to bore my players, and I don't intend to write a thesis on revolutionary Paris. But I think there's real value to playing in a real city, particularly during an unbelievably tumultuous period of its history.