RPG Reviews – Band of Blades

Band of Blades was announced just as I started to conceive my current ongoing home game. I had just read a fictional account of Xenophon’s Anabasis and, as I do with basically every storyline I come across, mused about how I would execute that storyline in a roleplaying game.

While I went in a different direction due to gameplay wants and product availability, I remained intrigued by the focus and structure I read about in BoB. Having thoroughly enjoyed The Black Company and Deadhouse Gates (from the epic doorstopper Malazan series), it’s like it was a game made for me. The two stories I mentioned are gritty dark fantasies where common soldiers rub shoulders with beings of titanic power and survive through grit and pluck. The second book of the Malazan series even shares a similar structure to the Anabasis and Band of Blades.

So what is Band of Blades? Like its predecessor, Blades in the Dark, it uses a narrative, fiction-first approach to roleplaying, but is much more focused on one particular structure for gameplay than BitD. Where BitD is focused on the trials and tribulations of a gang of scoundrels in a pseudo-Victorian dark fantasy gaslamp city, BoB is a self-contained story arc about a group of soldiers in a fighting retreat from an undead legion. One might think that limits the potential stories that can be told, but it’s a) cleverly designed so it plays out differently each time, and b) so what? It tells you exactly what it wants to be and either you think that’s awesome or you don’t – I think it’s awesome. Not every game has to have a grand open sandbox concept – sometimes you want laser focus.

The basic rules of the system are very simple and match the mechanics of Blades in the Dark, if you’re familiar with those. They’re nice and elegant – if the fiction (so the player/GM narration) determines your character is taking a particular action, you roll dice to determine success, based on the action you’re taking. These are determined from a list that includes things like Scout, Skirmish, Consort, and others. The GM then decides a “position” that represents the relative risk you’re taking with the action, the scope of its “effect”, then offers bonus dice based on assistance or “The Devil’s Bargain” – which will have significant collateral effects whether you succeed or fail. You then roll dice equal to your Action rating plus bonuses. 6 is a full success, 4-5 is success with consequences, and 1-3 is a failure. Since you typically take the result of the highest die it can be worth increasing your pool if possible. What I like about this method of resolution is how clear the stakes are ahead of the roll and what sort of outcome you can expect. Because it’s narrative I almost feel more comfortable knowing what may happen than with a traditional game – or rather it’s no less arbitrary. The action is Desperate, so a failed outcome will reflect that.

I As a Fiction-First game, the description of your action informs how you roll for it. “Discipline” and “Marshal” could be equally suitable to order a unit to charge the enemy, but what you say your character does determines which one you use, not your highest rating. You may still attempt to “spam” your highest action rating , but the results or implications may not be as favorable as another.

Because the player makes all the rolls, a failure isn’t a “miss” but rather an opportunity to move the narrative forward without achieving the desired goals. Thankfully there are some good and detailed examples for the different possible results for each Action Roll.

There are other fun elements of the game. An integral part of the Forged in the Dark games are how they handle gear and preparation. Not every player is ready to thoroughly research and scrutinize equipment lists to prepare for a mission and those that do slow things down for everyone else if they haven’t done it ahead of time. Blades avoids that with Loadout and Flashbacks. Loadout is designated Light, Medium, and Heavy, and represents the quantity of gear you’re taking with you. There’s a narrative impact – don’t take a light load on a slugfest and a heavy load on a stealth mission, but a characters Loadout is decided pre-mission. Flashbacks allow you to retroactively take actions that would assist in your current circumstances. They cost an amount of Stress (the abstract “hit points” score) to execute, ranging from 0 for simple actions that had easy opportunity (setting traps around your base) to 2+ for situations that required special circumstances (“I know the people of this village, I used to be stationed here”). They don’t reverse time, so must still follow the narrative, but allow players to not have to worry about planning for every contingency or to ask “would it make sense for my character to have done xyz?”

Characters are created in two tiers. Players will choose a Legionnaire – one of those who get down and dirty with the enemy. They are organized as Playbooks, which are all-encompassing character sheets, listing options and rules for your specific type of character (Officer, Medic, Rookie, etc). I’m a big fan of this method because it reduces the amount of information a player has to absorb at once and helps walk someone new through character creation without it being overwhelming. The playbook also helps determine the options you have for your Loadout.

Because Legionnaires are going to be in the thick of it, they might/will die. However they aren’t the only character in this story – the Legion itself is the central focus. It’s the Battlestar Galactica, the Ten Thousand, the Chain of Dogs. Each player will also choose a Legion Role – one of the leaders in the command staff. They all have a purpose, whether gathering intelligence, quartermastering, recording the history and establishing the beliefs of the Legion – everyone has something to do. They act between missions during the Campaign Phase and their roles are critical to the Legion’s progress and continued survival. It’s a great concept that I absolutely love. Including the second tier of characters really helps pull the concept together and increase the scope of the fiction.

Band of Blades is set in a gritty, dark-fantasy setting that includes magic and fantastical elements on a more mythic level. Part of how this manifests is in The Chosen – humans imbued with divine power, one of whom accompanies your Legion throughout the game. While they will operate in the background in most missions, handling more powerful enemies off-screen, they can be unleashed (and risked) to aid in the mission. The group chooses which Chosen will accompany the Legion, which will also affect the starting Mission of the game. In turn, the group also decides which of two “Broken” accompanies the enemy. The Broken are fallen Chosen – lieutenants of the great enemy, The Cinder King. This decision helps determine the horror flavor that will be part of your game and the types of enemies your Legion will face. Will you select Blighter, an alchemist who introduces body horror and science gone wrong; Breaker, a dark sorcery powerhouse; or Render, a personification of force and brutality? What’s nice about having these options for Chosen and Broken is that they add to replayability of Band of Blades as your story of the Legion will inherently vary each time.

The GM gets robust support including a Mission Generator to create the framework for your sessions, advice on managing the game (how to tackle the concept of “fairness” in a story where the odds are stacked against the players), and how to focus on the interesting parts of the game and keep everything moving. It’s really well-written and I think would be worthwhile reading for experienced GMs as well as novices – it really walks you through how to run the game and the voice of experience is clear without declaring “one true way”.

Band of Blades is a highly-focused game where every rule element is in place to support it. There’s nothing extraneous and the narrative elements are presented clearly, with plenty of examples to illustrate how the rules are designed to play out. One shouldn’t feel limited by the campaign concept – there is a lot of variety possible and arguably it’s no different than a premise of “roving band of dungeon-dwellers”. As a narrative game, I find the Forged in the Dark games one of the more clearly illustrated and executed concepts of “fiction-first”, which is much appreciated when trying to explain it and get people excited about it.

If you are prepared to march with the Legion and fight for your survival, you can pick up Band of Blades from the Evil Hat Productions website or this DriveThruRPG affiliate link to help support this site!

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