Band of Blades: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

We wrapped up our tenth and final session of Band of Blades this week, bringing our campaign to a close. The Legion arrived at Skydagger Keep for their final showdown with the endless hordes of the Cinder King. We were, perhaps, more excited for the campaign to be over than we were to see how it all turned out.

It was long, it was difficult, and it left us with a lot of feelings. Here’s my recap.

To Review!

Band of Blades is the third Forged in the Dark game out of Evil Hat and the second from Off Guard Games, following their first FitD game Scum and Villainy. I’ve run lots of Scum and a bit of Blades, and those two games are fairly similar to each other in terms of system and table-feel. Band changes the formula.

When we started the campaign, I thought the biggest change would be in how the distinctive FitD style job/downtime play modes were split up. In Blades and Scum, downtime is a phase the gang/crew goes through to manage the fallout from the job they just performed: how much money did you make, how much heat did you generate with the authorities, and so on. And then each character gets to perform a downtime activity. Ideally and practically, downtime is a big part of where the embodiment and fiction-making part of the game takes place. And the job is where the system engagement, the real down-in-the-weeds bit of play, happens.

Band of Blades is different. Each player creates not only “their” character – a specialist, which is a conventional FitD style playbook – but also takes on a “Legion role,” an abstract meta-character responsible for a piece of the Legion’s downtime. The characters have little descriptive tags but they don’t even have names. Rather, when the Legion is between missions, the Commander decides what their next mission will be and where they’ll go next, the Marshal manages squads of NPCs and assembles the Engagement roll for the mission, and the Quartermaster manages the Legion’s various economies and downtime actions. If you have a fourth player, they can either be a Loremaster (tracking deaths and managing the “camp phase” of the session) or a Spymaster (sending NPC spies around to scrape together small advantages for the Legion). In our game, we went with a Loremaster.

I confess that when we started, I was intrigued and skeptical about this arrangement. The game also requires that, for any given mission, only two (or sometimes three) specialists will attend a mission, and everyone else will play rookies. My players have not loved weak character monogamy in prior games like Legacy, but for whatever reason this approach was fine. I think it’s because eventually everyone did get a chance to play their main again. On the other hand, there was practically never embodiment type roleplay coming out of those nameless Legion roles.

By the end of the campaign, though, what turned out to be the most different from baseline Blades was the system itself.

Under the Hood

Band of Blades introduces a twist on “Tier,” which is basically “levels” in Blades/Scum. Rather than Tiers, enemies are measured in terms of Scale (literally, how physically big the opposition is) and Threat (how dangerous it is). Doesn’t seem like a big deal, right?

It ended up being so consequential to gameplay that I created a laminated cheat sheet to help manage it. And the FitD platform transformed from “quick and easy” to an interminable grind every roll. When you’re just comparing Tier, it’s very quick and easy for the GM to settle on a position and an effect. But scale and threat quadrupled the handling time of every roll.

Some of this, I’m sure, is on me. My motivation for creating the P/E cheatsheet started after reading the example of play in Band. Because the example is written, right? It can be extremely thorough. But for me, the only way to achieve that platonic play ideal was to hook into the level of detail laid out in the rules itself.

For fun, I’d always try to eyeball where I thought position and effect would end up if I just made the call. It certainly would have been faster! But I was wrong every time. I mean I never got the damned thing right. My takeaway from writing and using the cheat sheet is that the great strength of Forged in the Dark, as a design and play platform, is that it provides a vocabulary to negotiate play details that traditional roleplayers care about. It turns out that when you’re reminded to think about all the details of the fiction, though, the roleplaying conversation ends up being very long.

In actual play, the only player who consistently grasped all their options was me. As a result, I felt compelled to remind the players of all their options on each and every roll. Did I create an environment of learned helplessness in the players by holding their hand so much? Maybe! But the stakes of every roll in Band of Blades is so high, so consequential, that I felt like they really needed every option at their fingertips.

One player remembered how to use flashbacks. One regularly swapped position for effect. One was good about managing their Stress economy so they could push. Everyone was mostly good about seeking out Devil’s Bargains – which, good grief, is exhausting 20 times a session.

By the end of our ten sessions, I feel like I’ve mastered Band and, by extension, the FitD platform’s killer apps (the position/effect conversation, clocks, downtime). I also feel completely exhausted by the whole thing.

I’m not sure what the reward was, in the end.

Shared Pain As Bonding

My players are no strangers to the phenomenon of bonding around shared experience, particularly when there’s pain and discomfort involved. I mean, god, not actual pain folks. But I do mean the hard work and discomfort and disagreements that come along with some play experiences. Sometimes we need to work for our fun, and sometimes that work is hard.

When we debriefed at the end of our campaign, everyone agreed that the main thing they felt about Band of Blades was exhaustion. Some of that is thematic: war is hell, you’re always on the edge of disaster. Some of that is mechanical: each roll we make is gonna take a lot of steps to resolve, and then I’m likely gonna hit you with some consequences, and then you’re likely gonna have to weight which consequences you can live with. That all sounds fine on paper, right?

The other main thing they felt about playing Band was there was very little room, or call, for embodying their roles. That’s a whole combination of things: the faceless Legion roles, the lack of session-to-session character monogamy, the episodic mission + campaign structure, the “STFU and do the job now” vibe of being on mission, and missions frequently facing zombies, monsters and other obstacles that aren’t engage-able.

You can always shoehorn roleplaying into anything, even board games. But if your game doesn’t mandate that roleplaying happen? It might just be too much work. I know folks are going to disagree with me about this, and that’s fine. In our case, the game itself was so much work that there just wasn’t much bandwidth left over.

On our Slack I mentioned that Band is high on engagement and low on embodiment. Naturally that kind of statement is catnip for the rhetoric warriors out there, and I don’t feel like getting tied around that particular axle. But let’s just say that there are many opportunities to be engaged with the procedures of the game – managing economies, working out rolls, negotiating fictional position – and very few opportunities to embody the characters in a way that’s visible at the table.

When we had missions with fully formed NPCs involved, though, the players were more than eager to embody their characters. We had one mission where the Legion recruited a retired warrior-poet who was hiding out from the war. Lots of good roleplaying, a great combination of heartfelt speeches and angry threats, the works. We had another mission where the Legion had to beg for supplies from military leaders hiding out in the last fortress. Also plenty of good embodiment. In retrospect, I think I could have created more opportunities for characters to bounce against NPCs. I offered one mission every session that involved talking to NPCs, but frequently those missions just weren’t as necessary as the ones where they needed to sneak around, or ambush, or whatever other bits of competency porn they needed to convey.

That Endgame, Though

Phewww.

Band of Blades has a tight map-driven campaign structure and a clear endgame. After the Legion has survived its fallback from the front lines to Skydagger Keep, scrounging whatever it can along the way, the final battle plays out. The endgame is a little different than a regular session, with five obstacles to overcome simultaneously while the Cinder King closes on the Keep.

Because we’d all played the game longer than I think anyone really wanted to, we were good and ready to blow through the endgame after wrapping up our last location. I ran them through a shortened version of High Pass (the last stop on the map before the Keep) and then a shortened version of the Endgame.

The Endgame’s instructions are that we play each of the five vignettes as a “single obstacle.” I wasn’t sure if that meant one roll for each, or if the obstacles were just like missions (making Skydagger Keep in fact longer than a regular mission, which is supposed to have three-ish obstacles). The vignettes are colorful and interesting. For our Legion, they simply could not do them all. They didn’t have enough specialists nor enough squads to spread around.

Thankfully, the basic system of the game lets you resolve situations of basically any size with a single roll. Good reminder that Forged in the Dark games are mostly smoke and mirrors, less a toolbox game and more a box of paints and brushes. Wow that’s a lot of metaphors. What I mean is: there are no hard and fast rules about how to use any of the rules. Clocks exist to create extended tension, which is fun but also completely up to the GM to decide just how much tension they want. Regular Action rolls exist to resolve actions, which are never really defined anywhere. Any given sub-6 result in any position can come with as few or as many consequences as the GM wants. Resistance rolls can resist some or all or none of a consequence, all up to the GM.

I get the appeal of this. In every session I think we had a combination of rolls, obstacles and resistances that were reasonable to everyone playing. It was nice while facilitating to have those tools at hand to paint every scene. You know that thing I said above about how FitD providing a vocabulary for the roleplaying discussion? I think the point of the FitD discussion is that it makes your table establish its norms. It’s almost the exact opposite of PbtA games, which tell you what to care about via moves that are triggered in the fiction whether you want them to or not (there is no “roll the dice or say yes” in PbtA). And it’s related to, but separate from, the Burning Wheel transaction as well, which requires everyone know what’s at stake before versus tests but ratchets up the uncertainty by offering separate sub-games for when you want to zoom in.

The Endgame of Band of Blades brought this into focus for me. The instructions are one page long! And each obstacle is written with about as much detail as any of the “special missions” available at the map locations. Two of the obstacles came with specific clock sizes, one came with some strongly implied scale and threat values, but mostly? Up to me to figure out how to model. And since I wanted to wrap the game up in one night, I wanted to model the obstacles at the intersection of fair and expedient.

The GAME OVER screen for Band of Blades looks like this: you build a die pool for a final Fortune roll, and then you roll, and then you tally your final score. Our Legion rolled across the Skydagger Keep finish line on its rims, so the lengthy list of die-giving achievements? Pointless. They ended up rolling two dice and taking the lower roll. I let the Commander make that roll, which gave them a middling outcome for the Legion. When we added up their score, they ended up with 55, which is on the low end.

I still don’t know how I feel about the end. I know we’re happy to have gotten through it, and I know everyone’s ready for a good long break from FitD games.

The Bottom Line

If you’ve been following my write-ups about our campaign, you probably are already playing or plan on playing Band of Blades. Cool cool. If you came across this wall of text for the first time, let me share my final thoughts in a convenient bullet list:

  • Band of Blades is a worthy addition to the very young FitD platform. It does interesting things with the model without challenging the model too much.
  • It is the slowest and most difficult of the Blades-derived/-hacked games I’ve read.
  • Like all the Blades in the Dark descendants, the GM needs to do a lot of lifting to ensure there’s still roleplaying happening. Enough other players I’ve spoken with feel the same way so I categorically reject the inevitable “play better” messages the Blades fans out there are going to hit me with.
  • Make sure to take real time with the “back at camp” element of the game. If that’s on the Lorekeeper, make sure they’re taking time to tell stories of the Legion, and actually framing camp scenes like they’re supposed to. We got wrapped up with playing efficiently within our 3-ish hours each session that we skipped these elements, to the game’s detriment.
  • Consider letting missions take longer than one evening. If you can tolerate 20 sessions of play, do that. Spend time in camp. Ask provocative questions en route to a mission. The game is so mechanically dense that we found it very easy to forget to talk to each other.
  • Include more human beings. It’s very easy to fall back on mindless zombie hordes. This game did not motivate my players to embody their characters in the face of the hordes.
  • When picking the Broken bosses chasing the Legion, if you pick Render, do not pick Render’s ability that starts the Commander’s clock with three ticks. I mean it works! It’s smart design. The Legion absolutely feels more time pressure right away. This also meant our Legion never stayed in a location long enough to build relationships, or engage in long-term projects (which I think is where a lot of the Quartermaster’s fun is). And if you keep it in your back pocket to spring on the Legion as a Broken advance? I can’t imagine how shitty it would feel to drop that on them mid-campaign.
  • Always, always ask about rookies when they first show up, or they will end up faceless stat stacks.
  • The urge to complete patterns is very powerful! If you like the feeling of actually finishing a campaign, Band of Blades will pull you through the rough parts where, in an otherwise open-ended game, you might just call it quits. We didn’t, and maybe we should have, but knowing it’s coming to an end is compelling.

(Apologies to the ghost of David Foster Wallace for the title.)

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5 thoughts on “Band of Blades: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

  1. Wow! This has not been my experience at all. I’ve had many people ask when the expansions are coming out so we can play more, in fact. Having run two full campaigns I’m pretty stoked to be going back for my third soon, with a different group. With a smidge of time since you wrote this I have to wonder if it’s a case of the wrong game at the wrong time.

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