Review: Band of Blades
Every new game takes a certain amount of time to click into place within my brain – for there to be a sudden moment of focus that has me muttering “so that’s how it works.” With Band of Blades this process was agonisingly slow, and it wasn’t until we were actually sat at the table rolling dice that clarity hit with a blackpowder crack that left me poleaxed by the possibilities just coming into view.
The reason for this is that despite its trappings of warriors, monsters and war, Band of Blades feels truly distinct from traditional fantasy RPGs. Part of this is the tone, which is dark, gritty and militaristic, but more important than this is its focus and structure.
Rather than taking the typical approach of following small crew of heroes through every aspect of their lives, it weaves a story with a shifting ensemble cast, hopping perspectives, characters and locations as the drama demands.
In Band of Blades the ‘cast’ in question are always the surviving members of The Legion, a rag-tag company of once-famous mercenaries, and the drama always revolves around their long, painful retreat to Skydagger Keep in the face of an undead horde. Rather than delving dungeons or hunting dragons, their days are spent holding back an army of foul monsters, grabbing provisions and doing everything they can to keep an orderly withdrawal from turning into a full-on rout.
The Campaign Game
If that sounds like a description of a campaign rather than a stand-alone game, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark. The system is intimately tied into a single story and a core set of ideas, with every rule and mechanic focused on fitting into the grim military adventures it’s built around.
This ranges from the rules for combat, which are swift, bloody and hellishly dangerous, through to the structure of the campaign itself. Every gaming session is designed to cover one entire mission in the field from start to finish, followed up by a brief ‘Campaign Phase’ where the players take up the roles of Legion officers, plan future missions and act out domestic scenes back at camp.
These snappy, highly focused sessions feel like they could be episodes of a modern TV series – simultaneously self-contained and adding to the larger story. The corebook even takes pains to help you build a well-edited experience, encouraging GMs to strip out every moment that doesn’t add drama build the story.
Sneaking through a sewer to plant a bomb beneath a foul alchemical lab? Don’t play out every dead-end, mouldy old door and wandering zombie; just make a single roll to see how it went and pick the action back up when the party is approaching their destination.
Rules of War
Band of Blades isn’t the kind of game where players are going to be grabbing their dice and rolling for every little thing. With a bit of bad luck even a simple check can have pretty nasty consequences and there should always be an air of drama and danger when someone reaches for their pile of D6s.
It makes sense, then, that while the rules for making checks and tests aren’t incredibly complicated, there are rather a lot of factors to consider when using them.
As with the other games in the Forged in the Dark line, including the wonderfully sneaky Blades in the Dark, every check involves players tossing dice equal to their score in the relevant skill and looking for their highest result. It it’s a three or below, they fail. If it’s a four to five things usually fall somewhere in the middle – they get things done, but at a cost. If they get a six everything’s peachy.
This succeed-at-a-cost kind of system should be familiar to anyone who’s played around with narrative-driven games, especially Powered by the Apocalypse titles, but where they tend to leave the rules as light as possible, Blades in the Dark likes to add another layer of detail. Several layers of detail, actually.
For example, is the check risky, controlled or desperate? How about the magnitude of its effect – which of three categories does that fit into? Does the squad have a potent ability or weapon? What level of threat do both sides of the check have?
In many story-first games, these kinds of questions would still be considered, but their impact on the actual rules and mechanical consequences would be kicked into the hand-waving realm of the GM. In Band of Blades, however, they’re vital, tangible parts of the game that the group is expected to discuss and negotiate. Players can trade a more dangerous roll for a greater impact, for example, spend resources to boost their effects and acquire vital experience points when they take desperate moves.
This makes it a wonderful system when everyone’s on the same page, but it also means there’s a hell of a lot for folks to keep on top of.
The Best of the Blades?
This is the biggest issue I had with Band of Blades – just trying to piece together the rules from the book. It’s certainly not an incredibly crunchy game that’ll require players to spend hours poring over their rulebooks, but there’s a hell of a lot going on and many of the vital little rules reminders are spread across several hundred pages.
Fortunately things become a hell of a lot clearer once you get your hands of the playbooks for the various classes and campaign roles, which you’re going to need to print off before you get a campaign going. Or, perhaps that should be the campaign, as the nature of Band of Blades makes it tricky to run twice with the same group.
This fact, combined with the game’s fairly limited timescale – you’re probably looking at about six months worth of weekly sessions – can be off putting to some folks, especially if you try to make a direct comparison with D&D, Call of Cthulhu or any of the hundreds of games that sell themselves on boundless possibilities and limitless adventure.
However, the very deliberate choice to make Band of Blades as neatly constrained as it is has also created something truly special. Every rule and idea is built around an incredibly tight focus, ensuring that every rule, snippet of setting and playbooks helps to build slick, snappy adventures.
And by god does it succeed.
Dark military fantasy that embraces a wide cast and shifting perspectives to tell some seriously good stories. The scope is limited, but that just allows for some incredible focus.