Blackout is “A Game about Women & The Blitz.” I first approached this with knives drawn. I’m interested in The Blitz and I’ve read a good deal about it. The old TV series Danger: UXB remains a childhood terror. For several years one of my “grail” projects has been Danger: Unexploded Spell, a game set in a fantasy world under siege. I figured I could ransack Blackout for ideas. I was wrong.
I was wrong because Blackout takes and delivers on its unique premise and setting. My favorite PbtA games have focus and coherency. The mechanics and structure continually reinforce the genre and theme. At the same time, those elements are lean. Take Night Witches and The Warren as examples. Blackout falls into that category. It’s tight, smartly designed, and it uses the Death Loop of PbtA.
DEATH LOOP 3000
The Death Loop’s not entirely a real thing. It’s the term Sherri uses to describe the feeling of PbtA games—often snowballing from bad result to bad result. Characters burn through options and resources, digging themselves in deeper before they finally succumb. Not all games do this, but in many you can see the ground sliding slow out from under you. Monster of the Week’s limited Luck offers a constant clock for your mortality. Designer Erika Chappell has forged that feeling into a central element of a game which is almost literally powered by the apocalypse.
In Blackout, you play women members of the Civil Defence during the London Blitz. The game’s structured as a one-shot. After character creation, you head out into the streets and deal with crisis situations: unexploded ordinance, people in shock, fires. You patrol a Community you build during CC. As the session goes on, the incidents will likely become more severe. Blackout’s Raid Clock provides a tense, visual representation of that. When a Raid Check occurs and nothing happens, you breathe a sigh of relief. But then the clock ticks upwards. When it does go off, the results will be worse.
You build your character’s playbook from two elements. The first covers your identity, who you are in the everyday world (Young Housewife, Noble Heiress, Educated Woman, Working Lass, Old Bird). This sets your base stats and offers several moves. It also gives a unique set of “Breaks” for the character, a distinct wound track. Each identity also has distinct “Victories” which come into play at the end of a game.
You then choose your character’s role which sets what job they carry out for the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) or the Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS). Each role (Air Warden, Rescue Services, First Aid, Fire Guard, and Welfare) has tasks it must carry out at a site. Your pick gives one or two set moves and a larger list of moves to choose in the future. Your role also has a unique list of gear, names to work into the play later.
NIGHT PATROL MOVES
Most character moves sharply reflect and reinforce play. Blackout has a few less interesting moves (stat bonuses), but most home in on what your character’s going to do. The moves show you the expectations and offer the tools to play those out. Welfare services’ “Would You Kindly,” the Airwarden’s Shotcaller, and First Aid’s Ease Passing all make figuring out what you’ll be doing easier.
That’s a good thing because characters start with several moves and a substantial pool of moves for in-play advancement. If there’s a weakness here, it’s that the character creation process has some unclear elements. Which moves you actually start with is a little opaque. Can you take the move picks mentioned in the Identities from the Role choices? Which Role moves do players begin with? It’s a small thing but the GM will have to guide players through that process.
Blackout has a relatively small list of Basic Moves—five, really--something I love. There’s just one move for each stat. The fifth move triggers from a group decision, activating when you're moving on from a disaster site. Many moves, including many character moves and the four stat-based basic moves, cost one exhaustion to use. When players hit five exhaustion, they Break Down and must select an ongoing effect. This creates a tight clock for your character—you have to carefully consider options and find ways to mitigate stress. But you have to temper that against the dangers around you.
As I mentioned, the Raid Clock’s the Sword of Damocles hanging over the game. When you roll a 6- on a basic move, it triggers the clock. The GM then rolls 1d6. If the result is higher than the current clock #, nothing happens and the clock ticks up one. If the roll is equal or less, then it triggers a site. This can be a minor incident (someone’s allotment catches fire) or a major hit (one of the PCs apartment buildings explodes). The intensity of the site’s devastation and danger equals the number on the clock when activated. Multiple sites can be going at the same time and untended ones get worse.
At any point, you can choose as a group to Stand Down, which recovers everyone’s exhaustion. But each segment spent resting triggers another roll on the raid clock. That forces tough choices. Interestingly, there’s a safety valve that I overlooked until the second half of my session. You can help other characters by describing what you’re doing and then adding a die to their roll. You can also spend Bonds to add even more dice. The player rolls all the dice and takes the two highest results. However, if a 1 is rolled in the full pool, it triggers a GM move. So you can significantly increase your chance of success, but there’s a major cost.
Blackout’s gameplay loop works. You go to a site and deal with events there. This taxes your exhaustion and likely triggers a raid check at least once. Then you have to choose when you’ve done enough and if you need to rest. Meanwhile, the raid clock continues ticking until another bomb drops. Eventually, you run out of literal time and the night’s over. Then one of my favorite bits closes out the session... During play, you can accumulate Victories. They aren’t cheap. At the end of the session you use those to clear your Breaks. If you have any victories left, you can spend them on choices from a unique list for each identity. I like the built-in epilogues for characters.
The core book has a solid GM section with advice on how to run. I ran two sessions, effectively a one shot split across two nights. Even having read the GM moves and principles I didn’t get a feel for what play was supposed to look like until the second half. It takes a bit to figure out exactly what players can be doing when they get to sites and how to make the GM moves evoke the setting.
Of Blackout’s 80 pages, one third’s background and history. It’s solid stuff, but not as actionable as it could be. I’d love some dedicated GM prompts for sites: ideas for incidents and what characters could do there. The rules cover this generally, but I’d love something more distilled. There’s a lot of text about London and the Blitz, but it isn’t pulled together in a way to help the GM at the table. I like lists, and I could see putting together example NPCs, different kinds of shops, unusual incidents requiring intervention, and so on. That could support the GM without directing them.
Blackout’s a tremendous game. I really enjoyed running it. It has a couple of minor faults: character creation has some gaps and the setting material values density over GM utility. It also uses white font on a dark background which I find tougher to read and makes printing sections difficult. It’s a design choice to reflect the aesthetic but I’m not sold on it. Those concerns aside, Blackout is a dynamite game and if you like the period, PbtA rpgs, or games about women’s experience you should pick this up.
You can see my Blackout sessions here: Session One, Session Two. Designer Erika Chappell also appeared on +1 Forward, which you can hear here. You can find out about Chappell’s current project, Flying Circus, here.
For the full backlog of Age of Ravens posts on Blogger see here.