Joseph Erwin – Freelance Dungeon Master

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First Impressions of Band of Blades

Band of Blades, Copyright Evil Hat Productions

When I first picked up Evil Hat Productions’ seminal work, Fate Core (2003), it was one of the most exciting RPG book reads I ever had. Only a few other times have I been pouring over a book, drinking up every detail to get a feel for the unique game world the designers and writers envisioned. It was a system which claimed to run anything, and I, with my long-standing love of universal RPG systems, latched right onto it.

And then I played it.

It was the hardest contradiction between how a book reads and how it plays. Suddenly, all those unique rules were just getting in the way of doing anything smoothly. Whenever anything was attempted by my group, there was almost an audible grinding of gears as we tried to make sense of it mechanically.

“And I only had to come up with 50 minor consequences to get this far! You don’t even KNOW how many sprained ankles I’ve got!”

It’s easy to say “well, you can just change or ignore rules that don’t work, and still play the game!” Sadly, this was not so easy with Fate. It would have required a total revamping of the core mechanics before it could run the way which worked for us.

And so years later, I was hesitant to pick up Band of Blades (2019). When I cracked open the book and started to read, my heart froze upon seeing words like “such-and-such action” in bold (indicating complex rules behind every single possible action which could be taken, hidden away ~elsewhere~ in the book).

I felt even more dread when I began to see how the book was organized, with terms and steps defined at various points, with no singular place to find all the information all at once.

And that was when it hit me like a Rotter’s fist: “I don’t like this RPG very much,” I said. Not a fun realization.

“Oh dear… Can you believe this? Would you look at that? Just call me ‘Mrs. Butterfingers.’ I think it’s on the floor somewhere. Is my face red?””

And I really wish that I did like it! On the surface, it looks like a very entertaining game: evocative art, a world with clearly delineated lore boundaries (no prominent gods, no dragons, magic isn’t real in the usual sense), and clever mechanics for how to progress a campaign through logistical decisions.

But… the book is what really lets it down for me.

It has a very badly organized rule book. Even leaving aside the problems I have with the mechanics (which strive, through unique move-sets to streamline gameplay, but which only end up complicating matters), my main problem is that I had no clear idea how much the organisation of a rule book mattered… until I read this one.

Experimentation is all well and good (after all, its how we find out which ideas work and which ones don’t), but experimentation can also fail. And in a system which has a clear repetitive structure (mission, back to camp, logistics, mission again, repeat), you need to structure your rules accordingly.

Instead, we get a book which lumps some parts together (actions, the roles, etc.) and spreads out other important rules all over the place (how to provision a mission, what items to use, and where in the campaign order you actually do the provisioning).

“Ok, so to resolve this fight, we need to determine your Effect Level, then I set Threat, then we make the roll… wait, when do we decide to adjust to increase effectiveness for higher risk again?”

In the end, the book is clunky, laid out more like a source book for an Epic Dark Fantasy Novelâ„¢, and I would love to read that book.

Sadly, this is an RPG, where players need a little more agency when determining what to do and when to do it. Having to pause gameplay, losing vital game-flow while everyone tries to figure out all the factors at play for a roll, all while feeling restrained by the scope of the skills…

Well, it isn’t fun.

HOWEVER, not all is dark. The bones of a very entertaining logistical campaign are buried here. I love the idea of playing both the commanders of the army and also getting to play the soldiers who go on missions. I love the idea of getting into the shoes of the people who have to make the hard decisions, with the weight of the campaign on their shoulders… great stuff!

I would recommend pilfering the ideas, perhaps even a few of the logistics rules (using limited special equipment to boost success in missions for example). But as a whole, I can’t say I recommend it. I think I realized long ago that this style of “high-impact, high-drama, no-you-can’t-do-that-because-its-not-a-specific-rule, character-drama based” gameplay just isn’t for me or my groups. I need to come up with a shorter name for that.

Impact and drama are great in games, but they need to arise organically, not be dictated by beats that the game book sets out.

Otherwise, I just feel like I am playing a technical manual. But you know, one with zombies and epic fights drawn all over it. And I have to pretend like the numbers are a good substitute for emotions.


I’m going to try posting about once a week on Fridays to build the habit. Best to keep up to date on the goings-on! Got lots of games to play, after all.

Published by Joe Erwin

I am an independent creator and GM with a deep love of storytelling and adventure! I desire most to share these things with others, and I hope to do that through my work and my writing.

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