My current favorite metaphor for learning game rules: it’s compiling code in my brain.
We started a Band of Blades campaign this week, right? It’s a Forged in the Dark game, so it’s based on the same set of ideas as Blades in the Dark and Scum and Villainy. Since it’s my third FitD game to hit the table (I’m still in the reading/thinking phase with Hack the Planet), I went through my first read pretty fast. Mostly I looked at each system and said to myself, “Yup, looks like Blades. Scum. Blades. Blades. Scum.”
But then I’d hit something new or novel or, in a worst case scenario, something subtly different from the others. I don’t have a good way to track that so I’d just kind of put a mental bookmark in there and promise myself I’d swing back around later.
I think anyone who’s ever taught themselves a new game (RPG or otherwise) from a rulebook has experienced that thing where you don’t really understand what you’re reading until you have actually played, yeah? That’s what happened to me. Trying to run the intro mission of Band of Blades felt like running badly compiled code.
Happily, it mostly worked anyway. It’s not completely different. The premise is pretty straightforward: everyone plays a specialist badass in The Legion, a fantasy-era military force that’s been defeated by an implacable foe off-screen and is now falling back to the last standing stronghold of humanity. That’s it, that’s the whole campaign. It’s designed to run in a dozen or so sessions, which is my long-form sweet spot. The Legion can lose, too! There’s constant time pressure and the players have to weigh how long they linger at each stop on the way home.
The differences from “straight” Blades/Scum are both big and small. The big ones are: everyone also plays unnamed top-level Legion officers like The Commander and The Quartermaster; the typical “downtime” phase one sees between jobs in Blades/Scum has been deconstructed and distributed among those top-level offices; and the GM is tasked with generating available missions based on where on the map the Legion currently resides. Those are the big ones. These new systems are so big, in fact, that my impulse is to just read up on ‘em when they become “relevant.” Where my impulse went wrong is in appreciating how tightly integrated the campaign game and the mission game really are.
One level down, the differences are more subtle. During campaign setup, the GM decides on a Chosen (a divine superhero who follows the Legion around doing big-picture damage to the enemy, but only rarely is seen in “scenes”) and two Broken (fallen superheroes who are now the endgame bosses). Well, the Chosen and Broken decisions have pretty far-ranging effects on both the campaign and mission games. And you can (need to?) use them right away, on the very first intro mission that’s attached to your Chosen decision. Skipping over them on my first read-through was not optimal.
Another level down, there are quite a few very small tweaks and adjustments to the basic engines of play. To its credit, FitD games can survive being played “wrong,” at least for a while. As long as you’re engaging with the core resource and reward cycles – XPs and advancement, and the campaign-scale resources the commanding officers control – you can get by pretty well on the basic resolution system. That is, roll 1-4 d6es, look for the highest die, hand out ass-beatings, attaboys, or both depending. Then let the players decide whether they want to resist the ass-beatings by burning down stress. I prefer to play the game “right” and to get it “right” as early as possible.
Oh man, so many little tweaks. They’re all good tweaks, and I can see why every one of them was made. But they’re little, and this meta game I call Blades/Scum was already firmly compiled in my brain.
Tedious and Probably Incorrect Nerd Metaphors
A few years ago, I was feverishly working on my own PbtA hack. After a long fallow period, I’d figured out how to manage a bunch of things. I work in Scrivener, which is a terrific tool for writing complex technical documents. This game I had been working on took up every bit of bandwidth my brain had, and I was constantly tweaking and fiddling and changing things across twenty interlinked chapters, each its own document. I had hyped several friends on what I was doing, and they very graciously offered to read and playtest. So I’d render a complete PDF and send it off. A couple hours later, or maybe after a little online chat, a couple new ideas would pop into my head and I’d re-render and send a new PDF out. The changes were obvious to me! Because of course they were mine. But after about four PDF assaults, my readers/players checked out. I took it personally because they were ignoring my baby. But of course what had happened was that they couldn’t recompile the game in their own head. Lesson learned.
In my real-world job of web development, I barely understand git. But sometimes I have to mess with it. One thing I like about git is that you can generate a diff file – that is, a list of things being removed and new things being added in. Called out that way, I can eyeball what will happen when I apply those changes. I know how the old thing worked, I can see the changes, and the changes will be folded seamlessly into the old thing.
Man I wish games built on formal engines (like Forged in the Dark, but unlike Powered by the Apocalypse, which is more an aesthetic and political statement than a system qua system) came with diff files. But since they don’t, there’s always that time where you run a new game under an old compilation of the code, and then recompile the code (rules) having been shown the diff file through actual play.
Compiling rulesets is pretty taxing! Storygames and the current generation of trindie games (like Band) often come with complex rulesets. And these rules so frequently are reimaginings or small evolutions of old rules that, jeez, I’m not even sure how many of them I can keep in my head at once. I have in my head at any given time:
- A model of conventional PbtA-style games (fiction-triggered moves, 6/7-9/10+ outcomes, playbooks)
- The basic FitD framework (the position/effect grid, building the dice pool, resistance rolls, sress/trauma, engagement roll, foreground/background play split, flashbacks)
- Burning Wheel (building the dice pool, rewarding and spending artha, roll or say yes, scripted minigames)
- Mutant Engine (rich dice, pushing rolls…that might be it!)
- Fate (aspects, the fate point cycle, compels)
- Montsegur-style freeform (scenarios with premade characters, try to answer questions by the end, structured chapters)
- D&D (six stats, hit points, armor class, saving throws)
The upside to having those in my brain is that I can confidently muddle through any of them with almost no prep. The downside is that playing any variation means carefully recompiling the rules so they’re fresh in my head. Prepping my brain to run Mutant: Year Zero is downright bad for trying to run Forbidden Lands or Coriolis in quick succession. Putting Legacy in my brain directly interferes with Dungeon World. And so on. It’s the small-but-important differences that, I think, add up to make the most difference.
Some games don’t really belong to “families” (or “genres” or whatever taxonomy you prefer) so when I’m not actively playing them, I delete them:
- The One Ring
- Any of the deep d20/OSR style hacks, where the d20ness of the game is the least important part. So like: Godbound, The Nightmares Underneath, Stars Without Number, and so on.
- And approximately one million freestanding games published between 1980 and today.
I’ve run all those and run them well. I can refresh myself on them pretty fast. But lordy I cannot be expected to plop down at a table and bring my A game with them. But what’s true is that reloading a completely novel game is easier on me than trying to keep track of small differences between related games.
Anyway, Back to Band of Blades
The first mission in Band of Blades depends on which Chosen the GM picks. The choice colors the tone of the rest of the game. I went with Shreya, who reads to me like the most straightforward “we are in the army doing army things” character. The mission that comes with choosing Shreya is a simple system demo: blow up a bridge. It’s a single clock of 10 segments, so you get to learn or remember how to tick through a clock (they’re different than Apocalypse World clocks, which is probably worth its own post at some point) and make some rolls that will probably result in consequences, which will probably result in resistance rolls.
I believe, but I may be wrong, that I’m supposed to take my Broken choices into account as well during that first mission. I went with one that has body-horror themes, and another that’s all war-is-dehumanizing themed. The themes come through by way of the Broken’s abilities, and the monsters/threats attached to them. So in our game, we’re going to have alchemically animated smart-ish zombies as well as weird, silent plague-mask wearing goons. The other Broken gives me undead plated up with armor bits, and psycho cannibals. The aesthetic sits somewhere between Grim Dawn and Black Company.
They did the job without a lot of complications. Since three of the four players had played through my run of Scum and Villainy, they knew the basics of how to do teamwork, how to aid, how to do a flashback, and so on. It turns out the biggest small change from Scum was that I went too easy on them when it came to resisting consequences! Resistance rolls, where you gamble some stress and in return you address consequences, are a primary tone dial in the FitD games I’ve seen so far. In Scum you can reduce or eliminate nearly any consequence as long as you’ve got stress to spare – the game wants you doing big crimes and taking big chances but still enjoy a fair bit of script immunity along the way. Band of Blades, by comparison, says resistance rolls will usually only reduce a consequence a little. A level 4 lethal injury might be reduced to level 3, which still thoroughly fucks you over but at least you’re not dead. It also loads the characters up with armor and invites them to wear even more, or to seek out armor-like playbook abilities, so you can stack up effects and bring down consequences even further. It’s a good adjustment! And very easy to miss when your eyes come across the chapter called “Resistance” and you say “oh, I know this from Scum, I’m good to go.”
We’re pretty excited about the campaign! Then again so is most of the internet. You’ll find no shortage of AP streams out there, just do a search on Twitter. My buddy Jahmal (go support his Patreon!) has been playing Band of Blades with folks from Evil Hat, including co-designer Stras Acimovic, and you can watch their games here: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/412047009?filter=highlights&sort=time