Let’s start with where Band of Blades came from. A prior system, Blades in the Dark, was released in 2016 or so to widespread acclaim in the indie RPG community. It spawned a line of games run on the “Forged in the Dark” core system, including Band of Blades.
Where Blades in the Dark is a game about a gang of scoundrels surviving in a dark fantasy city infested by ghosts and powered by the blood of enormous demon whales (don’t worry, we’ll play it soon enough!), Band of Blades is a gritty dark military fantasy, focused on a mercenary company called “The Legion.” Their world is beset by undead armies at the beck and call of a being of unprecedented power: The Cinder King. In previous centuries the gods empowered heroes, their Chosen, to battle such dark powers. Unfortunately, the Cinder King commands a power unheard of in the annals of history, the power to break the Chosen into subservience. These Broken lead the Cinder King’s armies against the remaining Chosen.
The players play as members of the Legion, a once great mercenary company broken in a recent battle with the undead. The remnants have rejoined for a desperate flight from the unstoppable undead hordes. It would seem utterly hopeless, except that one of the Chosen has survived, and travels with the Legion. With luck, the Legion will successfully escort the Chosen to Skydagger Keep, and successfully mount a last stand.
For those of you coming from LD&D, you’ll see that I lifted the Cinder King and his monster types pretty much wholesale from Band of Blades. With a few tweaks, Band of Blades can be adapted to continue the Interlopers’ story (almost as if I planned it all along 😉).
Band of Blades plays very differently from 5e, and I thought it may be useful to explain the rules through the lens of some of these differences.
In 5e, the PCs are larger than life personas. The players follow their characters through levels, growing from local heroes to world shaking powers in their own right. Short of a character death, in 5e a player will play the same character throughout the game.
Band of Blades focuses on the Legion as a whole, and is less focused on the individual members of the legion. Individual legionnaires are fragile, dying with shocking ease, and even if lucky will frequently take injuries that will take multiple sessions to heal. The Legion will replenish its ranks with fresh rookies throughout the campaign. As a result, you are creating a pool of characters that you’ll pull from each session, likely playing multiple different characters from night to night. It will help to embrace this mindset at the beginning. You may make a rookie this session, and that rookie may die in the next session while being played by a different player. In short, in 5e you may play as Worf. In Band of Blades, you play as a shifting cast of redshirts. War is hell.
5e sessions are not really structured by the rules. A DM can run a session in any number of ways.
Band of Blades has a very clear session structure. It is a mission based game. The GM provides the group with a set of three possible missions. The players decide which mission to play out, and which legionnaires to send on the mission. The mission plays out, and then we return to the camp, where we see the fallout of the mission, and take some camp actions (structured downtime). The players decide where to go next on the map. Then the process repeats in the next session.
The Resolution Mechanic
5e uses the beloved 1d20+Modifier roll against a target number. The modifier is based on the PCs stats and skills. The target number is based on the situation, usually coming from an enemy’s armor class, a difficulty number set by the DM, or an enemy’s saving throw.
Band of Blades has no stats or skills. Instead each character has a rating from 0-4 in each of twelve actions. The actions represent ways of overcoming obstacles, such as “Sway”, “Shoot”, and “Maneuver”.
When you do something that requires a roll (GM’s choice), you’ll be asked to decide which action you think makes sense. There will likely be several actions that could fit your goal, and you get to decide on your own which action will apply. For example, killing an undead could be “Shoot” if you are keeping your distance with a gun, or “Skirmish” if you are getting up close and personal.
You’ll build a dice pool based on your rating in that action. You get one d6 (six sided die) per rating. So if you have a rating of 1 you’ll get 1d6, whereas a rating of 4 will get 4d6.
Your result is based on the highest dice, and the target is always the same:
6: You get what you want
4-5: You get what you want, with a cost
1-3: You don’t get what you want, and there’s a cost.
5e sets a difficulty based on an enemy’s stats, or a DC target created by the DM.
Band of Blades is more intricate. There is a roll negotiation before the roll, where the GM sets two difficulty scales based on the fiction: Effect and Position.
Effect: Not all actions are created equal for every situation. Swaying a charging undead will probably be a lot less effective at eliminating it than Shooting it in the face. The GM will set the effect based on the action and the fiction (with player input), from “No Effect” to “Extreme Effect.” Think of the Effect as deciding, before the roll, how far towards your goal a good roll is going to get you. It isn’t a direct comparison, but it would sort of be like deciding how much damage you are going to do in 5e before you roll to see if you hit. You’ll be able to spend resources or help your allies to increase the Effect.
Position: Similarly, not all situations are created equally. Lining up a sniper shot against an unaware target is very different from a hip shot against an undead charging you from 10 feet away. The GM will set the position based on the fiction (with player input), from “Controlled” to “Desperate”. In this way the table negotiates how bad the consequences will be on a failure. There is not really an equivalent to Position in 5e.
Once position and effect is set, the player rolls their dice pool. Effect will decide what the player gets. Position will decide the cost.
5e mostly tracks combat progress in enemy hit points and sometimes tracks out of combat progress in skill challenges. If you hit in combat, you’ll get a variable amount of progress based on your damage roll.
Band of Blades tracks in combat and out of combat progress with clocks.
[Clocks, clocks everywhere meme]
The GM will put clocks on the table representing any number of obstacles, such as a group of zombies, a single horror, a locked door, a stealthy path past a watch tower. These will be set at anywhere from 4-tick clocks up to 12-ticks. While this isn’t exactly apt, in combat you can squint and imagine that a 6-clock zombie has 6 hit points.
I’m going to continue the misguided HP metaphor for a bit longer. Any action that could reasonably damage the HP of an obstacle can advance an obstacle clock. But how do you figure out how much damage you will you do if you succeed? Remember Effect? Before you rolled, you negotiated an effect level for your action from “No Effect” to “Extreme Effect.”
Carrying on this damage metaphor, your effect level will tell you how many HP of damage you will do if you succeed (rolling 4 or higher). This goes from No Effect (0-ticks on the clock) to Extreme Effect (4-ticks). You’ll usually see Limited Effect (1-tick), Standard Effect (2-ticks), and Great Effect (3-ticks). So based on the effect you negotiated, you might do anywhere from 0-4 damage. Cool?
Alright, now throw away the damage metaphor because it’s garbage. You can deal with any particular obstacle in lots of different ways. Let’s take a single zombie again, and some of our possible actions:
Sway: I could convince a bystander to attack the zombie.
Marshall: I could order the squad of rookies to attack the zombie.
Skirmish: I could stab the zombie with my sword.
Maneuver: I could try to run away from the zombie.
Wreck: I could knock over a tree into the path of the zombie, diverting it.
Not all of these actions might inflict damage, but they could all reasonably progress against the obstacle. Some may be more effective than others.
In 5e, we decide who gets to go next by rolling up a turn order at the beginning of each combat.
Band of Blades has no initiative order. The GM will shift the spotlight to the narratively and dramatically appropriate player. This puts some additional cognitive load on your poor GM, who will be trying to keep things entertaining while balancing the spotlight, and creating lots of little cliffhangers. I promise I’m trying to make it fair.
5e uses gridded top down maps for the tokens to move around on. Combat is tactical and precise movement and distance is critical. You have tokens moving around on the map showing precise relative locations.
Band of Blades has none of that. It is played entirely in what is called the Theatre of the Mind. The GM will describe the situation to establish a shared fiction. Then actions, position, effect; and consequences will flow from the shared fiction. 5e can certainly be played in the Theatre or the Mind, but Band of Blades cannot really be played on a battlemap. That said, we may use maps to show loose relative positioning, or for atmosphere.
This scratches the surface a bit on how Band of Blades works. To quickly summarize:
- This is a mission based game. Each session you’ll go on a specific mission with defined success/failure conditions
- You play a cast of redshirts, not the invincible bridge crew
- You overcome obstacles with a dice pool of d6s based on your action rating
- These obstacles are tracked by clocks, and your progress is based on the Effect of your action.
- The severity of bad consequences is determined by your position
- There’s no set initiative order
This is a lot of text, and can seem complicated, but I promise we’ll get it to make sense at the table.