Band of Blades: Room to Breathe

We had our first full session of Band of Blades last night. It turns out war really is hell.

First up was our Commander deciding which mission to take on. I had generated three missions in response to the Commander player’s request for recon missions (recon generates a currency called Intel, super useful). The result of the process was pretty great: two recon missions and one assault mission. And they all had badass names like “Operation: Emerald Thorn” and “Operation: Chosen Fire.” The twist on the mission game is that if you don’t go on a mission, if you leave it unaddressed, you automatically fail it.

One of the recon missions, the one with the best Intel payoff, had no consequences for failure. The other gave them a chance to grab both intel and unrevealed “additional materiel,” but would cost them time if they failed it. The Commander chose their primary mission because it had the steepest failure consequences – both time and pressure (which increases the chances they’ll experience more time losses later) – and it turned out to be an assault mission.

In retrospect, after that mission came off the rails, the Commander’s player said “I’m gonna stop listening to those guys.” Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown, Commander. Mood.

My big take-away from our first full all-in session is that Band of Blades both demands a high level of system mastery and punishes you terribly for not having it. Bad plays can cost so very much! To my mind, that also accurately captures the beat-down, godawful war vibe the game is trying to portray. I’m totally speculating, but I feel like the players who had played other FitD games were expecting more of the fun-loving criminals vibe of, say, Scum and Villainy.

Story Time!

The squad started out with a great Engagement roll and the mission looked like it would be a cake walk: go take out a couple squads of forward scouts sent by Render, one of the two Broken who are pursuing the Legion. They brought their Heavy and a Medic, and the other two players busted out a pair of Rookies, Zemyati (not-Slavic) brothers.

They weren’t really sure how they wanted to engage with these monsters, so I suggested, perhaps, an ambush. I narrated the enemy squads slowly meandering down a narrow pass, with our heroes in great sniper positions high above on both sides. One of my Blades-experienced players narrated a flashback of prepping the pass with explosives, a high-stress flashback since they hadn’t been assigned explosives (just “black shot,” anti-undead ammo that also makes nice shrapnel for an IED). Cool, great, the bomb is set and it goes off, wiping out half the Gaunt squad and splashing corrupted alchemical ichor everywhere. The snipers made quick work of the other half of that squad. Easy peasy, no worries.

Not the Knights of the Black Oak

The second squad is a bunch of “Knights of the Black Oak,” basically living humans who have thrown in hard with the Cinder King. Think Reavers from Firefly, right? Total freaks and badasses who have carved themselves up into horrors. But whatever, the Heavy is ready to jump their shit. He uses Anchor, the Heavy’s special power to act like a squad unto himself, so he is tied both for Scale and Threat with the worst thing the bad guys can send (so far). We talk through Position and Effect and he ends up at Risky/Greater. He looks at their clock, eight slices of pie and none of them ticked off yet. Hooboy. He trades position for effect, going Desperate/Extreme. (I’m not 100% sure shifting to Extreme – four ticks – is actually legit, but Extreme/None are two new Effect levels in Band of Blades.)

He rolls a 1, 1, 2, 3. Oh yes. Oh. Oh … oh no! Faaaaaaail.

Straight up misses, particularly when you’ve gone Desperate (his Heavy strode right in amongst their horses, completely surrounding himself with Render’s terrifying badasses), are so very bad. I hit him with Harm 3, broke his sword, and knocked him to the ground – his next action would start Desperate.

What I hadn’t realized, and probably good I didn’t because I’m a marshmallow, is that he’d already been sitting on Stress 4 from the intro mission. Fun fact! Yet another small tweak in BoB is that everyone’s Stress track is shorter than in the other games! Characters only get 6 stress, after which they get a Trauma, but suffering a Trauma takes you smooth out of the scene. So the Heavy blows all his armor – two ticks on his heavy plate, one more tick with his shield – but cannot resist losing his sword or ending up on his ass.

I’m pretty sure the whole assault hinged on this moment, combined with the fact the Heavy just didn’t have enough Stress left to continue resisting. Up to that moment, things were looking good! The odds of straight failing with four dice are vanishingly small. Still happens, though.

Since “winning” and “losing” a mission are both subjective judgements, I describe a few losing scenarios to the players. Like, if they all die? You lost the mission, friendos. But also if the horsemen can get away, well, that’s also a loss. And that’s what the Black Oak Knights start setting up to do.

One of the PC rookies, the older brother, snipes a Knight. It’s limited effect since they’re armed with black shot but these are living targets. I think he rolls a 4/5 and I slap him with a level 2 harm, “scared out of your wits.” They’re rookies! Feeling sassy, the player’s all “oh I’m resisting that bullshit.” Rolls a bunch of 1s, takes 5 stress (atop 2 he picked up earlier), traumas out on the spot. Rookies are fragile! A valuable lesson.

The remaining PC rookie decides to cut off the Knights’ escape by Maneuvering the squad behind them. They roll a 4/5 but it’s Desperate, mostly due to the Threat differential. Desperate is so bad! They take 4 wounds as the Knights trample them which, if you’re using your squad, gets applied to that many legionnaires as well. If you’re not Heavy there’s no way to Resist on behalf of a squad (as far as I know!). Everyone dies and after armor and resistance, the last PC rookie is left with a level 1 harm but, somehow, no Stress.

Somehow, amazingly, the mission is a “success” in the end. They run the clock as fast as possible, the Heavy rolls a crit on his attack from the ground, everyone ends up stressed to the gills, all but one rookie in that squad is dead. It’s bad. Bad. Casualties are also instant losses to the Legion’s morale; the morale “reward” for “succeeding” is cold comfort.

Reading that in retrospect? That sounds like a pretty great, grim war story, right? I think my players were left feeling skeptical, frustrated, and yeah, beaten down. The Loremaster player is responsible for setting up the “back and camp” scene as well as giving the Legion small benefits for every four casualties. They remembered their dead, told a tale of the stricken squad’s earliest history, and recovered a bit of morale.

Oh and that secondary mission? The recon they decided to resolve off-screen? It didn’t go so great either. The Marshal decided they could live without the Intel better than they could live with losing two more rookies. Whatever is going on behind the Legion continues to be shrouded in mystery.

Room to Breathe

The main point of player skepticism after this session is that there was precious little room in this scenario for characterization and personal drama. There was most certainly a lot of drama! But it was all in the action itself, and its awful consequences.

I deployed my fancy cheat sheet for the first time, with mixed success. My biggest observation is that players really do feel drawn to central visuals on the table. In D&D it might be a big dungeon map or terrain pieces. In storygames it might be a situation map. In our BoB session, it was the P/E grid.

On the one hand, the players felt like it was useful to have all their options in front of them at each step. What struck me, reading the detailed example of play in Band, is that there are a lot of elements involved when you set Position and Effect. I thought I was already pretty good about that, so as an experiment I would try to eyeball where I thought P/E would end up, and then talk through the process with a dry-erase marker on the sheet in front of everyone. Not once did I guess right.

Because of the options, the centrality of the cheat sheet, and the extremely high consequences of failure, everyone felt pretty bogged down by the process each time dice hit the table. I feel like this is going to speed up with practice. I also feel like the end result was worth it.

Probably because this mission was, you know, an assault, there hadn’t been a lot of room for characterization. I feel like this is also related to the fundamentals of dropping into the action with the Engagement roll, a FitD staple. There’s not a lot of opportunity or need to roleplay during an assault mission, unless it’s a more drawn-out type of mission. With some thought I could probably frame an assault mission in more expansive terms, but I also feel like the system wants you engaging with it fast, fast, fast. And then you’re down in the weeds setting P/E.

Some of that is my facilitation style. I’ve always been a fan of goosing the players into reacting rather than responding, so I bring an urgent GO GO GO style that doesn’t mesh well with high-risk decision making. This isn’t a great match for a game with such high failure consequences and no fail-forward sense within it. You don’t fail forward. You just fail. And it costs so very much.

I think this session did a good job of (re)setting expectations for the players, that war really is hell and they’d better be on board with managing their beat-downs. It also highlighted for me that I need to take breathing room where I can get it – not only within the mission, but to really lean into the “Back at Camp” phase and whatever free roleplaying time they need or want. I also need to encourage them to roleplay their Legion roles as much as they personify their Legionnaires. In this way I think it’s very much like Blades in the Dark or Scum and Villainy, where the meaty narrative happens outside the job/mission.

Onward to Plainsworth

It was probably more fun for me on the outside watching this awfulness than it was for the players caught in the middle of it. The Commander has already run out the first of the three campaign clocks and they’ve just left the first of about 10 stops. No idea how they’ll make it to Skydagger Keep in time. I’m excited to play and see if they can.

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