design essay: hacking recovery in blades in the dark


I’m working on an upcoming ttrpg that hacks Blades in the Dark and have been thinking a lot about the recovery and harm rules in that game. One of the first frustrations for my players when running BitD was those rules. The problem was that most of the free downtime actions went toward recovering instead of more narratively substantial things like a long-term project. Such is rpg life, right? A lot of rpgs are games about resource management after all. But the frustration wasn’t just about not being able to do things during downtime, because when they started making bank and paying for extra downtime actions the frustration still lingered. I’ve heard my player’s frustration repeated online in places like reddit as well as on the BitD discord. The harm and recovery system seems to catch some real flak by a lot of people.

An explanation to this that I’ve heard is that BitD does a poor job of teaching GMs how to run the game. That is, it explains how to roll, how to push yourself, how to create your scoundrel. But it doesn’t explain how you pace consequences or measure the player’s resources for example. This leads to more Harm consequences than ideal. The stuff that is GM facing is mostly a series of thoughtful advice rather than hands-on stuff. I do agree with this. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to decide on consequences and I’m not done yet either. But I might write about BitD’s failure to on-board GMs later. For now I’ll say that I think it’s part of the problem with harm and recovery, but not the whole problem.

I think that the main issue the harm and recovery rules has is that even on a succesful roll, it feels like you haven’t accomplished anything. I think this is where most of the frustration comes from. Two things create this: the size of the clock, and because you reset the clock when you get new Harm. Below, I’ll get more in-depth as to why I think this happens but that is my thesis statement in essence.

A PDF of the rules I design below can be found for free on my page.

harm & recovery in BitD

For those not in the know, I’ll briefly outline the rules I’m discussing here. In Blades in the Dark you get consequences as part of rolls, either when you suceed with a cost or fail. Harm is one type of consequence that represents a lasting wound, like getting shot in the shoulder. Harm stays with you until you deal with it which you do during the game’s Downtime phase. During that phase you can do fun stuff like crafting, investigation, regaining resources and managing the crew you’re a part of. To remove Harm you take a Recovery action, meaning you go to a doctor and then roll a number of dice based on how good that doctor is. The result of the roll determines how far you get on a healing clock, and when that healing clock is filled you get to move harm down a level (with higher levels being worse Harm). You get two free downtime actions, the rest is paid for by resources the crew or your character possesses. I hope this is clear enough, otherwise the rules are available online at the BitD website.

probability of rolls in bitd

So, I claim that the size of the healing clock is a big part of the problem. But that’s not entirely true. I think the problem is actually with the size of the clock in conjuction with the probability of a succesfull result on the roll. Before I get deeper into that, I want to discuss probability in BitD.

Nr of Dice% chance of rolling 4 or greater
probability of success depending on nr of dice

The chance of success in BitD is pretty high. You have a fifty-fifty shot at antyhing by just rolling one die. That should generally be higher than, for example, Apocalypse World and D&D. In AW, you roll 2d6, add a modifier and want a result above 7. In that game, the modifier decides you chance but usually it’s pretty close to 50%. In D&D, you are usually doing an ability check which means 1d20+ability mod and want to roll above 15. The ability mods range from -3 to +4 on a low-level character. Meaning it’s a little more swingy, but around that 50% or above. But, just adding one more die in BitD means you move up to a 75% chance to roll above 4. These are good odds for success.

Nr of Dice% chance of rolling a 6
probability of a 6 depending on nr of dice

The chance of rolling a six is pretty damn high as well. But neither of these results will actually fill your healing clock. On a six, you are still one away from having done anything about the harm. Unless you’re rolling at least 3 dice the chance to crit is negligable. Meaning that for a long time, the experience you will have when dealing with the healing clock is filling is halfway or almost all the way up. There are Special Abilities like Vigorous and Physicker that mitigate some of this, of course. Without going into it at length, my opinion is that things like Special Abilities shouldn’t mitigate problems but permit or modify the rules. So, to me, these abilities aren’t that fun (at least the parts dealing with the Recovery action).

Nr of Dice% chance of double 6s
probability of a crit depending on nr of dice

So the size of the healing clock only becomes a problem because without a crit, you can’t fill it up with just one downtime action. Now, there isn’t any inherent problem with incremental actions. Long-Term Projects work by you taking an action, playing it out in fiction and then recording an incremental progress of usually two or three ticks. But in the case of recovery, there is no incremental progress. Nothing has happened other than you filling in the healing clock so that soon something happens.

Why do I think that? Because you loose all ticks on a healing clock when you get new Harm. The risk of losing all those ticks tells you that it’s not real progress, it’s something you can loose with just a lesser harm. So you’re forced to play defensively, to leave enough stress to resist, to not find yourself in desperate situations – or, pay 1 resource and try again. I have no statistics here, nothing but a gut-feeling. But I think that the number of players who choose to go into a score with a half-filled healing clock and harm still left is very few. I also think that this rule reinforces a sense that unless the healing clock is filled, you haven’t really accomplished what you set out to do.

That is the crux of my problem with Harm & Recovery. When you take the Recover action, you will usually feel like you haven’t done anything even on a success. That’s where the frustration comes, in the feeling that your wasting your time.

Variations on Harm & Recovery

Other folks have made changes to these rules before. Looking online, it’s pretty common to see people ask for homebrew rules for harm and recovery. I’ll begin by highlighting some variations I’ve come across, some more radical than others. Two of the biggest FitD-hacks out there, Scum & Villainy and Beam Saber, do a slight modifcation by having the player just clear level 1 harm when taking the Recovery action. A small fix but one that fixes the problem I’ve outlined above. It does something at least, and makes the action valuable even when you only have level 1 harm. I’ve also seen a suggestion to roll for Harm removed, i.e. you make a roll and the higher the result the more Harm you clear or move down a row. That doesn’t scale as well and late-game characters can clear Harm quickly. Finally, there is temporary harm.

Temporary Harm is a pretty interesting thing in itself. It’s a temporary application of one of the effects of harm (less effect, -1d, need help) that is cleared when the score ends. I think it specifically came about to deal with things like getting drunk during a score, something that should produce a harm effect but not actually require a physicians help to clear. Most of us who drink don’t go to the doctor after the bar, we just go to bed. I really like temporary harm, it has a lot of good uses that complicate the lives of scoundrels without slowing the game down with tedious downtime actions. It does not solve the recovery problem however, only lets you interact with it less.

Designing Something Else

With all this in mind, I’m going to try to design something else. I’ll begin by outlining the goals with this design. I want something that gives a tangible effect when taking the action, something that doesn’t risk being “wasted” by going into a score and something that provides an interesting choice of whether to spend resources. To reitirate, these are my three main issues with the recovery system: that it feels like a wasted action, that you lose clock progress when harmed anew, that spending coin on better result is worse than just taking another recovery action.

So, problem 1 is the risk of a wasted action. As discussed above, my issue here is with the size of the clock and the number of ticks needed. I could just decrease the clock, which some Special Abilities does, but that feels like a somewhat weak fix. Decresing the clock once for example still has a 4-5 feel like a waste. Furthermore, it does nothing for encouraging you to spend a coin on the result. What I’d rather do is remove the clock entirely and just have the Recovery action do the thing. That is, you take the Recover action and lower all harm by one row – clearing level 1 harm and moving everything else down one. This means you never “waste” the Recovery action, it will always do something and just doing it once even when completely full up on harm gets you to a much better position. This also removes the problem with loss of clock progress on new harm, since the clock is gone.

This variant is missing something however, it doesn’t give you any interesting way to spend resources and it doesn’t take into account the expertise of the doctor (i.e. quality of an NPC or Tinker dots of a PC). There is a great precedent for this however. When ticking clocks, for example when working on a long-term project, the result of you roll is read like this: 1-3 lets you tick the clock once. 4-5 lets you tick it twice. 6 lets you tick it three times. An easy conversion gives us this: 1-3 lets you clear level 1 harm. 4-5 lets you clear level 1 harm and move level 2 harm down one. 6 lets you do the all of the previous, and move level 3 harm down one. This makes it much more valuable to spend resources, and makes it a more interesting choice. If I roll 2 when I have both level two and three harm, do I spend one or two coin? Furthermore, it completely removes the “I’ll just take the action again” fallback which I think is preferable. So, what if you roll a crit then? Well, a crit does everything a 6 does and something more so letting you move a single instance of harm (that is, one box) down an additional row seems like a good bonus in that case.

The New Rules

A PDF of these rules can be found for free on my page.


When you recover, you rest or seek treatment for you harm. You might visit a physicker who can suture your wounds and treat your mind with scientific methods, or you might visit a witch that specializes in healing poultices and occult mending. If you don’t have access to a contact or another PC that can heal you, you can use Aquire Asset to find someone who can treat you and your whole crew.

When you recover, your healer rolls (Tinker for a PC and Quality for an NPC) and check the table below. You recover harm according to what your die result indicates. You may pay 1 Coin to get +1 result level on your roll.

1-3Clear Lesser Harm.
4-5Clear Lesser Harm. Move Moderate Harm down one.
6Clear all Lesser Harm. Move Moderate and Severe Harm down one.
Crit (double 6s)As if you rolled a 6. Also, move one instance of Harm down one additional row.

Croak has two injuries, a severe “Gut-shot” and a lesser “Twisted Ankle”. During downtime, he recovers with the help of Katterly, the crews black clinic friend. Katterly is an experienced doctor used to working on scoundrels so the GM decides she has a Quality 2. The players rolls 2d and gets a 6. The player decides to spend 1 Coin to increase the result level. Croak’s lesser harm is cleared so the player removes the level 1 “Twisted Ankle”. Then Croak’s severe harm moves down to a moderate harm. Because there is no other harm recorded, the player moves that harm down an additional level. Croak’s severe “Gut-shot” becomes a lesser “Bruised”.

If you have the Physicker ability, you may heal yourself for 2 Stress. If you don’t want to get a healer, you can tough it out and attempt to heal without treatment – if you do, take 1 stress and roll 0d.

The recovering character is the one who uses their downtime action, not the healer. Treating someone doesn’t cost you a downtime activity.

Wrapping up

I think this is an improvement to the original recovery rules. It provides a system that gives tangible progress and provides you with meaningful choices that affect your character and uses their resources. However, a friend highlighted a potential issue with healing severe and I can spotted another issue.

First, healing severe harm is pretty hard. If you’re only rolling a single die, the probability of that is 16.7%, meaning that you’re pretty much gauranteed to need at least 1 coin. Not a huge problem for a campaign that has been running for a while, but early on even single coins have a lot of weight. However, I think my instinct on this might be wrong – in that this might not be a problem. I kind of like the idea of a player having to save up or borrow some coin just to deal with their severe harm, it tells us something about the harsh reality of healthcare in Doskvol. This is an aspect that needs to be playtested to see if it lands correctly and lends more weight to severe harm, or if it just makes a player frustrated.

Second, this system doesn’t really deal with the power creep problem that Blades has. As the crew advances and pulls off bigger scores, downtime activities (where most of their money goes) becomes almost trivial. Recovery is the perfect example of this. I recently had a player tangle with a demon and end up getting real hurt (multiple harm on all levels). He cleared most of that harm in one downtime by just throwing coin at the problem. Sure, it cost him but he had money to spend. A GM might say you can’t treat your injuries over and over but this is itself a house rule. This is far from unique to Blades, almost every RPG system I’ve ever played (and most other games for that matter) has a problem of late-game accumulation trivializing resource sinks. This is a difficult design problem that I’m not gonna solve in a single mechanic hack. I’ll trust that GMs find ways to encourage the players to spend their coin rather than walk around with 4 coin in pocket all the time.

All in all, I’m still pretty confident that this will be fun to play with despite these two potentials. Playtesting will reveal what changes need to be made. Of course, this hack affects a lot of special abilities and I think a future blog post will be about my hacking of them to fit these new rules.

That’s it, I hope you enjoyed this deep dive and got some insight into design by reading my process and my thoughts. If you enjoyed this, please sign up for my newsletter where I will update you on new blogposts and stuff I’m working on (it’s like a mail every other week but most likely less)!

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