Thursday, 19 December 2019

Band of Blades

I'm currently a player in a Band of Blades campaign, an interesting system with some noteworthy bits of game design—particularly the way that it's so focused around its campaign.



To say it comes with a campaign isn't strong enough, the fibres of the campaign are woven all through the characters. More on that later!

Band plays out the story of a company of Legionnaires in a war against an undead army, on a long retreat through lands that are about to fall. Gameplay revolves around missions such as rear-guard assault actions against the advancing horde, recon forays to gain intel advantages, and negotiations (or heists!) to secure precious assets like magical relics before they're lost forever.

The system is based on Blades in the Dark, and so task resolution uses a d6 "take the highest" dice pool approach. 1-3 is a failure, 4-5 is partial success, and a 6 is a clean success. A GM-set difficulty level provides guidance on the stakes: against a Controlled roll, it's never that bad, but on Desperate rolls, even a clean success is going to feel like you barely got away with your life.

The mission characters are reminiscent of PbtA playbooks: everything, including advancement options, is on one double-sided sheet folded into a little booklet. Characters are strongly drawn archetypes, and pretty easy to roll up in the case of death. And there's lots and lots of death!


There's too much to say to summarize the whole system, but there are a few details I want to call out, first of all equipment:


Each archetype comes with a different list of items they might be carrying. There's a more complete equipment list in the rulebook, but if you're making a replacement character because your Lieutenant just got dissolved by acid spray, it's really quick. Choose your load-out level: light, normal, or heavy (which affects your movement speed), and then tick a few boxes and you're done.

This is doubly handy not only because of the high lethality of the game, but because it also uses troupe play: the specific legionnaire you play can change from mission to mission, depending on the personnel required.

Strategic Characters

The most interesting thing about Band, however, is the strategic level of play. In addition to whoever they're playing for a given mission, each player is permanently assigned a high-ranking officer of the legion: a commander, marshal, spymaster, or quartermaster.

Each of these roles comes with a playbook 'character sheet' of its own, which cleverly divides up the running of the military campaign between the players. Three that figure prominently:
  • The commander is responsible for choosing where the company goes on the campaign map, and which missions it undertakes.
  • The marshal is responsible for the company roster, monitors company morale, and chooses which of the many legionnaires are in play for each mission.
  • The quartermaster is responsible for tracking the supplies of food, wagons, horses, undead-killing black shot, and other consumables, and makes the choice of when to dole these scare supplies out to the mission squads, and when to conserve them for later.
Commander and Marshal sheets
This is a really neat bit of design for a few reasons. One, it's a firm set of recipes that help the table cook up the specific campaign the designers had planned. The game isn't going to drift into leadership rivalries, interpersonal drama or personal quests for power, this is a game about running a military campaign.

Secondly, by dividing up the responsibilities of the company among separate players, it keeps down the cognitive load any one player has to deal with, and at the same time keeps so-called quarterbacking to a minimum.

The strategic level alone makes the game worth playing this game just to see how the pieces fit together. In my opinion, this kind of design has a lot of potential for games of all sorts.

Wrinkles

Like any game, there are a few aspects that aren't a perfect fit for me.

First of all, it's surprisingly crunchy. It's a thick book! This isn't quite a pick-up-and-play game, despite the pick-up-and-play design of the characters.

The core design is very elegant, but there's a layer of richness/complexity, lots of special rules and powers that give the party a palette of mechanical bonuses and doodads to consider using when they're resolving actions. This takes time that works somewhat against the immediacy of the fiction.

My second issue is how this complexity relates to "clocks." Clocks are GM-defined countdowns to specific events, such as an angry crowd rioting, a shaken company of allies routing, or the dwindling strength of a fortification under siege. It's a useful way of pegging a number onto a narrative outcome so that you can tackle it with the rest of the mechanics - teamwork, devil's bargains, relative threat level, etc.

At the same time, there's something slightly odd for me about the juxtaposition of such a simple mechanical signpost at the edge of the 'fiction' and all the player-side crunch. Imagine a D&D 3e party spending five minutes on how they ought to stack their buffs, feats, magic and actions to do maximum damage to Tiamat, but the GM is hand-waving Tiamat's AC and hit points.  (This is not a fair comparison.) Maybe a better image is riding a stationary bike on the holodeck. It raises the question, why do all that work?

Final complaint: with so many characters, the table quickly gets buried under character and reference sheets, and with the aggressive edge design, they all look absolutely identical at distance. It would be really handy if strategic playbooks looked more different from mission playbooks, and any distinctive iconography to help the archetypes all stand apart better.

Troupe Play

Band has given me a lot to think about for troupe play, and its mirror image, open table play. Band accommodates drop-in players extremely well. Our friend and former regular Sean has been away in Europe for ages now, but he recently swung through the city and was able to take on the role of a special character we'd recruited the session before. That was great!

On the other hand, I don't think completely open table play would work well with Band of Blades; the strategic characters really do need to hold the continuity of the mission, and a drop-in quartermaster or marshal doesn't seem like it would work.

What might be fun, though, is playing the strategic game online with a steady cast of players, but then having an open table resolve the actual missions!

Conclusion

In any case, it's a very enjoyable game, and there's a lot to learn from it. I think the built-in campaign length was chosen well, too. Normally we're rotating games in every 4-5 sessions, but this will go at least twice that long if we're going to have any shot of actually reaching Skydagger keep. This is good, as it's giving us time to see the characters as they evolve.

Next stop, Fort Calisco!

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