Band of Blades and What Even is Forged in the Dark?

Today I offer you three short posts for the price of one.

Had an interesting conversation with a prominent indie game publisher/designer recently. It came on the heels of our second “full” session of Band of Blades, which has been on my mind a lot lately. The core of the discussion was, basically, what is essential to the Forged in the Dark experience and can you really stretch the Blades model very far?

Band of Blades is, to my mind, currently the biggest stretch from the baseline established in Blades in the Dark and largely replicated in Scum and Villainy. There are lots of small tweaks between all three games but in all those cases, as well as in Hack the Planet and other FitD games I’ve seen, there are some common through-lines:

  • The position/effect grid and the attendant negotiation around it: devil’s bargains, group actions, flashbacks
  • Stress as a risk-abatement economy that’s replenished mostly via downtime, and touches advancement across three categories of actions (your character’s breadth across insight, resolve, and prowess)
  • Downtime play as a separate mode from characterization play
  • Multiple advancement schemes, both tied into usage and tied into an end of session checklist
  • Clocks both as in-mission abstract countdowns and as campaign-wide developments, a la Front clocks as they are used in Apocalypse World.
  • Punitive failure/punitive success/success generated by player-facing action rolls.
  • Abstracted qualitative evaluation of opposition (tiers, scale/threat)
  • (EDIT, added 9/9/19) Thus far, a focus on shared enterprises, whether through the game’s holding environment, premise, downtime rules, gang/ship/Legion advancements, group help rules, or some combination.

And that’s it, as far as I can tell. In some ways all three games feel the same, or very similar. There’s a very similar tempo to missions followed by downtime. There’s a very similar tempo to clocks being introduced and engaged with within a mission. The FitD transaction is identical across all games.

This very prominent designer/publisher (no I’m not going to name names) has argued that Blades can’t really be adapted or redesigned in such a way that meaningfully challenges this basic identity. Like, if you take away downtime is it still Forged in the Dark? If you take away position/effect? What if there was no stress?

I feel like, yeah, the early FitD games haven’t challenged the orthodoxy that much. Band of Blades feels the most different, largely because of the game’s holding environment, low character monogamy, and the programmatic rewards for success and penalties for failure attached to missions. The semi-roleplaying element of your (nameless, faceless) Legion commanders breaks up downtime responsibilities but it’s still fundamentally downtime. But like…it’s just as hard to carve out actual roleplaying time and focus in Band as I’ve found in Blades and Scum. But I also know it’s coming, so I’ve developed best practices to adapt to this property of the game. You still bounce between mission tempo and downtime tempo. And so on.

This isn’t a critique, and I think there’s something to be said for the commonality between systems helping my experienced players. It’s a big reason why OSR games built on the common OGL core work the way they do. PbtA players can usually re-compile their understanding of PbtA when they look at a new take. I guess my takeaway from this discussion — it’s come up more than once — is that nobody’s really taken the FitD core very far.

Can you? Maybe! I’m not persuaded it’s “unhackable,” but I do think the pieces as we currently understand them fit together so tightly that it’s hard to upset that balance. Burning Wheel is similarly difficult to adapt, although Mouse Guard/Torchbearer still share identifiable DNA with it.

FitD inevitably exists in the same universe as PbtA, though. And I think a lot of this discussion comes down to PbtA being more of an aesthetic statement than FitD is. Like, fiction-triggered moves isn’t exactly a “system,” it’s more like a description of how to build your own system. It’s an assertion that the fiction should be what sets a mechanism in motion, maybe (but not always) not the way the players intended. There are lots of hot takes on what goes into PbtA orthodoxy, though, and that way lies madness. Don’t be that nerd. My personal list is: playbooks that enforce genre tropes, 6/7-9/10+ or equivalent (see: Zombie World), GM makes moves on misses, play to find out what happens.

It’s still early days, I think, for folks exploring the core elements of the FitD overarching aesthetic. I can imagine several ways, for example, to design mission/downtime tempo — again, Mouse Guard and Torchbearer do that, as does Night Witches, and King Arthur Pendragon’s winter phase before all that, but I wouldn’t characterize any of those as “FitD” games. But if you take away that tempo is the rest of a game still recognizable as FitD? I can totally imagine some equivalent to stress and resistance, or not even offering it. What about an advancement system that only happens during downtime, not during the mission/job bit? A version where the GM rolls as well? A GM-less FitD game?

There’s a whole other discussion to be had about the space between “serious design” and “marketability” as well. If you design a radical reimagining of Blades and it doesn’t click with enough folks to justify the effort and expense, was it worth it?

Still early days. Hopefully there will be lots of experiments are on the horizon.

What Does A Platform Have To Say? Let’s ask FitD!

I feel like you can look at any game and identify its underlying values. The thing it has to say about, well, whatever. As I said above, the overarching aesthetic. That underlying message is the thing, I think, that folks hook into when they are drawn to hack and adapt and challenge a design. They can feel the game saying things they like, and they want to use that platform to say more of that.

I’m not claiming any kind of authority, and it’s only a theory anyway, but when I looked at the Forged in the Dark family, these are the values I take away:

  1. The players have a right to understand how the facilitator is evaluating their fiction and the characters’ efforts. This is most strongly expressed, I think, through the position/effect grid and the various ways one might move around inside that evaluation space. By “one” of course I mean the facilitator, mostly, through explicitly stating their opinions (this threat is this scary, that action is a bigger stretch than this other one). Meanwhile, the players wager various things to improve that state: they illustrate their characters pushing harder via stress, or accepting further setbacks.
  2. The important things about the fiction are external, not internal. Position/effect, again, but also through tagging genre tropes (to earn XP), expressing setting conceits (XP again), and generally doing the thing you’re expected to do. We need to see the Heavy kicking ass, so here’s an XP for kicking ass. We need to see the Orites be chatty and smooth, so here’s an XP when you use that cultural trait’s mechanical effect. And so on. But there’s no mandate or expectation of characters to really evolve. They get better at their shtick, of course. Shticks aren’t personality.
  3. Intermittent punishments are more dramatic than intermittent rewards. You always earn a kind of XP for making desperate rolls, and it’s been pretty trivial to hit everything on the end-of-session checklist because it’s not meant to be challenging. Meanwhile, every single roll carries with it the chance not just of complication, but straight-up cost. The game says heroes endure costs — harm, lost equipment, escalating danger — but says very little about how they might be changed by that endurance. This, to me, also emphasizes the role of the players as audience, and demands they play their characters at arm’s length.
  4. The game needs to work as a game of overcoming external challenges whether or not you choose to explore interpersonal drama. Band of Blades, Blades in the Dark, and I assume all the rest work perfectly well as a series of challenges broken up by a series of procedures to set up future challenges. It literally does not matter if you embody your character: the game doesn’t fail or succeed if you try. It’s roleplaying-agnostic. Now, when I run a Blades-y game I most definitely prefer to see more character drama. That means I need to dig into the fiction for the stuff that might be contentious or interesting: how a Bartan soldier feels about a commanding officer insulting his cultural god’s living avatar, or how the last survivor of a catastrophic mission might feel about the poor leadership that led to that catastrophe. The game never says not to do it, but it doesn’t really invite you to explore those things either.

Other games say other things and folks are attracted to them for those reasons as well. I can talk about that sometime.

Story Time!

Okay, enough of that nonsense. Our second session of Band of Blades was a whole lot better than our first session, mostly because I made everyone slow way down and start asking again, “what does that look like?” Amazing how much roleplaying happens the moment you say just that.

I generated three excellent missions for the legion’s stay in Plainsworth, each one definitely fun for an evening of play. The decision was, I think, more excruciating for me than the players: go recruit a fallen knight into the Legion, or run recon on the zombie army hordes, or take up a righteous cause for the people of Plainsworth suffering under the boot of Aldermani deserters? These decisions are, for me, some of my favorite semi-roleplaying bits of Band. Our commander’s player isn’t forceful, and he quietly listens to everyone’s thoughts on the missions before making the hard call. They decided the folks of Plainsworth would have to handle their own problems. Recruiting the knight was their primary objective, and running recon was their secondary.

The recruit mission had a lot of room to breathe, mostly I think because I took the time to look for those opportunities. We talked at the top of the mission about the attitudes of the Ember Wolves, who had nearly been destroyed during their first mission. We talked about how the Plainsworth folks were resentful or desperate or decided to attach themselves to the Legion. During the journey into the mountains to find this knight’s holy shrine, I just ran two clocks — “found the shrine” and “out of supplies” — and counted on the system to generate interesting problems along the way. They got jumped by a small detachment of rotters, and they weren’t really set up for a head-to-head assault, so that was exciting. They had to talk with the knight and convince him to come home, which produced two more clocks: “the knight agrees” and “the knight rejects the Legion.”

Man I love racing clocks. They’re one of my favorite ways to use clocks in these games.

My other favorite clock trick, all the way back to Blades, is the introduction of a campaign-scale clock, usually as a devil’s bargain. I’ll just offer to start a clock! No ticks, just…introducing a looming possibility. The best ones last night were “the Ember Wolves mutiny” and “the Chosen doesn’t trust the captain.” Those are just hanging out there. Percolating. Threatening. Marvelous. I think I did tick them each once as either future devil’s bargains or as failure consequences.

The missions weren’t in-your-face brutal this time, and no rookies died, so I think the players came out of Plainsworth feeling energized. Now they’re headed up the Long Road toward the northern pass to Skydagger Keep, which seems like a fool’s errand. I wouldn’t want to be them!

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