Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Voice of the Blade

One of the intriguing things about Blade Bind is the way that the Blades influence play. They are sentient entities with their own personalities and goals, yet nobody actually plays a Blade. Their personas are not given voice, yet they are impossible to ignore.


At the surface-level, the Blades influence play with their appearance. They are strange, menacing, often partially organic, and kind of creepy. Some of the strongly-themed Blades provide hints as to their origins and personalities, such as the archangel feather Michael or the Japanese demon Oni — although the entities themselves are likely to be simply co-opting mythical symbology to influence their wielders. The Blade designs act as a visual cue that the players can riff off and use to expand their own backstory and personality. The players might also decide that their Blades communicate telepathically, or even that they can speak, but that's down to freeform roleplaying.

The Techniques unique to each Blade also influence the way the Chosen fight, opening up different approaches and playstyles.


Blades deeply influence the core of the system through the Power they provide to their wielders. The Blades want you to have more Power than you can control, because then they can take you over and pursue their true objective. To that end, they tempt you to increase your Power each time you fight. It's your choice... but it's so tempting, and if you don't take the opportunity you may find yourself quickly outmatched. And if you lose too many fights, you'll find your Will eroded, and the Blade will start to use your moments of weakness to involuntarily feed you more Power. Once you gain Power, you can't decrease it — so every point ramps up the pressure to keep your Will high.

It's when a Chosen finally overreaches and becomes Bladebound that the voice of the Blade is most clearly heard. The character loses their free will, and must follow a prioritised list of actions. The Blade ultimately wants its Enmity (one of the other Blades, against which it holds an age-old hatred) to become Bladebound so the two can duel in their true forms, and one will destroy the other permanently. To that end, it'll destroy everything its own Chosen and its Enmity's Chosen hold dear.

It's possible to thwart the Blades and avoid their tragic race towards death and destruction. Defeating a Bladebound causes its Power to drop, and you can give the Chosen new purpose that may allow them to snap out of it and regain control. And there are a couple of unlikely (though possible) situations that can end the game without anyone having to die.

Rather than being portrayed by a player at the table, the voice of the Blade is forged into the very structure of the game.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Blade Bind Kickstarter

The Blade Bind Kickstarter is on now, and runs until 27 October 2016! It's a bit of an unusual campaign, so I thought I'd talk a bit about how it's set up and what I hope to achieve. You can check the Blade Bind tag for other blog articles discussing the game's development.

At-Cost Fulfilment

I'm using DriveThruRPG to fulfil both digital and print rewards, and I've decided to go with at-cost physical Rewards. This does mean that Backers pay part up-front and will pay DTRPG separately for the printing and shipping after the campaign's finished. However, this approach has the advantage that I don't need to inflate prices to cover potential price-hikes, which means that each Backer will pay the best possible price. I'm also able to offer Rewards at less than the planned RRP, so you really will be getting a good deal. This also explains why the project has such a low funding goal.

If you aren't keen to pay before-and-after costs, you can always pick up the PDF-only option for less than the RRP.


Apart from a few illustrations (that I'm doing myself) and final details, the book is all but complete. It's written, playtested, and laid out; I just need to add the finishing touches and export the PDFs. Even if the Kickstarter doesn't fund, I'll still be releasing it on DTRPG in the next few months.

I have a couple of other items planned — a printer-friendly PDF rulebook, and a deck of custom cards. The cards will be available to everyone at the PDF level and higher as a print-and-play PDF, and I'm also offering them as a quality POD card product. The cards include a standard card deck with built-in setup prompts, and thirteen cards that provide Blade summaries for easy reference.

So since I don't need the Kickstarter to fund actual production costs, why am I running one?


Firstly, I think a Kickstarter is a good way to get people talking about the game, and to provide a focus for interest and discussion. It raises visibility in a way that releasing it directly on DTRPG doesn't.

Review and Feedback

Secondly, and more importantly, I want to use the Kickstarter to crowdsource feedback. While I'm pretty happy with the game, there may be unclear explanations or missing details that I simply can't see because I'm too close to the material. By getting more people reading and hopefully playing the game, I am hoping to catch any final rough spots and polish the game smooth before it's released publicly.

I'm going to be sending the current ashcan draft to backers at the end of the Kickstarter, and declaring a one-month review period. Once I've taken any feedback into account and made the game as good as it can be, I'll upload the final PDF and set up the print version.

If I just released the game off my own bat, there's a chance that I might then find a mistake or decide to revise a rule. Updating the digital version is easy, but updating a POD file means it's unavailable to the public while I wait for a new proof, which can take 3 to 7 weeks to arrive here in Australia. I'd rather avoid that inconvenience if I can.

In Conclusion...

Backers will get access to the game before the public release; they'll have the opportunity to help me improve the game and make it as good as it can be; and, by joining the Kickstarter, you'll be paying less than the final RRP.

So yes, it's a bit of an unconventional campaign, and even if you don't decide to back it I hope you'll give it a look once it's released to the public!

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Shifting Power

I've been reviewing and revising Blade Bind over the last couple of weeks, having settled on an approach that addresses as many of the problems discovered during playtesting as possible. Yet, recently I realised that with all the changes, I've kind of removed an important element that's been in the rules since the start.

This is going to get a bit game-mechanics technical, but hey, it's the name of the blog, right?

How Things Started

This is to do with Power, one of the two major defining stats. The more Power you have, the more cards you draw at the start of a Duel, and therefore the more likely you are to win. You start with a little, and it slowly increases as the game progresses. If Power ever becomes higher than your Will, you lose control and become Bladebound (which is a Bad Thing). You generally can't lose it once you get it. In the original rules, you gain Power:

  • Voluntarily, at the start of a Duel: This is important because it represents your Blade tempting you to accept more Power, and because it's your decision that will ultimately doom you.
  • Automatically, on a loss: This is important because it's a consolation prize. If you win a duel you get to change things to achieve your goals, so on a loss you gain more Power which both brings you closer to losing control and makes you more likely to win your next fight.

What Changed?

In some of the playtests, it became apparent that Power values were getting too high too quickly, resulting in duels with lots of cards that took longer to resolve without being more enjoyable. There was also a problem at the start of the game where the first character to lose a duel would end up two Power ahead of anyone who hadn't been in a duel yet, which is a huge difference early on.

To address those issues, I tried out a few alternatives. In the end, I settled on the following arrangement:

  • You gain Power voluntarily, at the start of a Duel (as above).
  • On a loss, you lose a point of Will from your starting pool: Everyone starts with three free points of Will. As far as becoming Bladebound goes, it doesn't make a difference whether you gain Power or lose Will, so this is a handy way to keep the pacing the same while preventing Power inflation.
    • If you've already lost your three starting Will, you gain a point of Power instead.

What's the Problem?

I ran a playtest with the revised rules, and it all seemed to go well. People started to risk going Bladebound at about the same time as they ran out of their starting Will and began gaining Power, so there was a sudden explosion of Power just as the game came to a climax. Brilliant, right? 

I thought so, but then I re-read a passage I wrote about how defeating your friends just makes them more powerful so they can come back and hit you harder next time, and realised it was no longer true. Winning or losing doesn't really affect how likely either side is to win or lose next time.

What's the Solution?

I have one possible solution, but it may require a little tweaking, playtesting, or feedback before I lock it in. It's the same as the revised version, but with one addition: On a loss, you also gain a point of Resonance.

Resonance is the power-source for your Blade's special Techniques, super-powered moves that allow you to break the rules in interesting ways. Normally you only gain Resonance when your Blade binds against another (like the game's name, right?), so it can be a hard-to-get resource. Gaining Resonance on a loss doesn't increase your card-count, but it does make you harder to beat. I think it's a cool idea because I'd like to see more Techniques used in play, and having more Resonance will certainly increase the opportunities to use them. 

I'm thinking of tweaking it so you gain 1 Resonance for each point of Will you've lost so far (so, 1 to 3), which would be huge since the 3-Resonance Techniques are very powerful. However, I'll need to playtest this idea in a full game to see if that amount of Resonance will unreasonably affect the flow of the game.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Blade Bind: Sword Practise

I just released Blade Bind: Sword Practise, a FREE introduction to the card-based duelling system that forms the mechanical heart of Blade Bind. With it, you can get a feel for the sword-fighting and test your skill against a friend or a random game-controlled NPC.

The full game includes much more of course, including —

  • A character creation system that sets the Chosen up in a web of conflicting goals.
  • Techniques that make each of the predefined Blade flavoursome and unique. You can also pick and match to create your own custom Blade.
  • A Will/Power system that tempts you to increase your power while walking the fine line of control over your Blade.
  • Winning a Duel gives you the power to achieve a goal, or rewrite a goal for yourself or one of the losers.
  • Quickstart setups for a three or four player game.
  • Advice for facilitating a session.

I still have some illustrations to do, but the bulk of the editing and layout is done already. I'm planning to run a small Kickstarter in the next couple of months, mostly so I can pay for an editor to give it a once-over, and also to crowd-source a bunch of external feedback and playtesters so I can get it into the best possible shape before releasing the PDF and print-on-demand books to the public.

I'll talk more about my Kickstarter plans in another post.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Blade Bind's Final Form!

Okay, that's not what the picture is actually of, but I recently locked down some of the major details in the way a game of Blade Bind progresses that crystallise it into a “final form”.

This is what happens to you if you lose control and let the Blade take over.
The one part I still have to finalise is the Blade Techniques – special powers unique to each Blade. They will need a bit of fine-tuning and testing before they're ready, but they are minor details compared to the overall chassis of the game engine. And in fact, I needed to know all the details of how the game was going to work before I could make sure some of the Techniques would be suitable!

I ran an in-person playtest a few weeks ago, and was hoping to run another to try out an alternative Will/Power progression structure, but game groups are proving hard to organise at the moment. After talking it through with Nette, who played in the aforementioned game, we realised that the alternative didn't look so appealing on paper for a few reasons. Having rejected it, that means I'm moving ahead using the rules from the previous playtest.

One of the main issues I've been trying to fix is card inflation. In early versions of the game, you could choose to gain Power at the start of a Duel, and also gained it automatically on a loss. Since the number of cards you draw is equal to Power, it was easy to end up with eight-card hands before the game was even close to ending, which meant the fights dragged out without much extra enjoyment or strategy.

In the new version of the rules, you start with three free Will. You can still choose to increase your Power at the start of a Duel. Each time you lose, you lose one of those initial points of Will. Once you run out of them, you gain a point of Power on a loss. The net result is the same, but you don't get the massive inflation of Power until you run out of your three starting Will – which also seems to be the point at which people are in danger of becoming Bladebound and triggering the end-game. It also helps address another early problem we had, where those who participated in the first scene gained a significant Power head-start.

What's the big deal with Will and Power anyway? Well, if your Power ever goes higher than your Will, you become Bladebound – the Blade fuses with you and takes control, using you as a tool for its own vengeance while also laying waste to everything in its path.

So, what's next? Apart from the Techniques, I need to go through and revise the manuscript a couple more times. I want to add a page about facilitating the game. The layout design is pretty much ready and waiting for the content, but I want to make sure I have the manuscript well polished before I start on that.

And, of course, I need to do a bunch more illustrations.

Friday, 10 June 2016

PowerFrame RPG – One Year Old!

It's been one year since the PowerFrame Core Rulebook went live for sale on DriveThruRPG! I thought I'd take the opportunity to look back on how it's done, and look forward to the year ahead.

I know a lot of companies don't release sales figures, so I thought someone might find it useful if I put some out there. Keep in mind, PowerFrame is a first-release title from an unknown author, with no Kickstarter fanfare and limited social media reach, so the figures are no doubt modest. But if you're looking at releasing your first game you might be in the same boat, and might like to have some idea what you could expect.

I did do a bit of promotional ground-work, posting art as I finished it off and discussing aspects of the system on the blog. I also released the free PowerFrame Primer about a month before the Core Rulebook, which not only let people see whether the system interested them but also gave me a way to contact a self-selected audience once the Core Rulebook came out.

Core Rulebook

The initial Core Rulebook release was PDF-only, $10 for a 240 page book. Initial sales were good; I would have been happy with 10 sales in the first week, but I ended with 16 in the first day. I sold 44 copies in June 2015 (21 days), and hit 50 not long after, reaching Copper Best Seller.

In August 2015, I released a print-on-demand version for $29.99. This helped boost sales figures a bit, as people who were waiting for a hardcopy started coming on board.

In October I released the Spell Companion supplement, which again helped buoy sales of the Core Rulebook a little. After reaching 100 units though, things began to plateau, with zero to two sales per month. There was a spike in December when Games on Board, a game store in my local area, bought several print copies.

In February 2016 I offered a $5 discount on both PDF and Print, and once more began to move copies – mostly PDFs, but the odd book as well. I finally reached 125 units sold, and the Core Rulebook became a Silver Best Seller!

In May I released the Fantasy Races supplement, which once again seems to have spiked sales in the Core Rulebook and other products.

Now, a year after the initial release, I have sold 151 copies of the Core Rulebook, 22 of which (15%) were print books. Of the profit earned (somewhere just under $800), around 60% has been from PDF sales and 40% from print sales. I can attribute most of the recent sales to the price drop, but at the same time many of those customers also picked up the supplements. I'm not sure if I should end the discount once I have another supplement or two out there, or if I should keep it low as an incentive to buy lots of associated product!

Accumulated sales for the past year. The Core Rulebook is the clear best-seller. You can see how the Spell Companion followed along with the Map Packs before swinging upward. The Primer isn't shown, as it dwarfs all the other figures. 


If there's one thing I can say for certain, it's that people love free stuff! The Primer saw over 200 downloads in the first month, and has over 600 downloads to date. That's a conversion rate of nearly 25% into sales of the Core Rulebook (although I'm sure some people don't bother downloading the Primer before making their purchase). I think the Primer really helps people to make an informed decision whether to buy the game or not.

Squexagons & Hexes Within Hexes

I released the Squexagons blank map pack in May 2014, while I was still working on PowerFrame, to test the waters at DTRPG and see what was involved with setting up a title. It has been a very slow seller, with 11 sales in the first month and an overall average around one sale per month (34 sales to date).

A year later, I released the Hexes Within Hexes blank map pack, which has shown almost identical sales figures to Squexagons. Both still get occasional sales, but they are never going to hit the big times.

I am considering making some hex map terrain packs, with tile-able and rotatable scenery designed to print on A4/Letter paper, to see whether they do any better than blank grids. I think it's worth an experiment; there's a lot of competition out there, but there's also bound to be a lot of demand for new and different scenery.

Spell Companion

I released the Spell Companion in October 2015. Initially it followed the same sales graph as the blank map packs, so I was discouraged and didn't think it was worth putting work into more supplements. However, the sales graph really picked up once I offered the discount on the Core Rulebook, and it overtook the long-selling Squexagons in April this year. It's currently my second-biggest seller and revenue earner, and with 46 sales it's very close to earning its own Copper Best Seller badge!

Fantasy Races

I'd been working on the Fantasy Races supplement when the Spell Companion came out, but shelved it until I noticed the improved sales. I finished off the art and released it in May 2016. It had an immediate sales surge, outperforming all of my other small releases to date. It's still accumulating first-month sales, but in its first three weeks it's already sold more copies than any other supplement has in the first month.

Sales per day, for the first 31 days of each product's release. Again, the Core Rulebook is the runaway best performer. You can see the Spell Companion mimicking the Map Packs, and the Fantasy Races tracing a similar graph but with an initial boost (most likely due to my now-established audience).

The Future

I can only speculate that either Fantasy Races is the sort of supplement people want to see, or else it's a natural and cumulative benefit of my expanding audience. Either way, it's encouraged me to start working on more supplements. I don't really want to get stuck on a "supplement treadmill", but it's worthwhile to work on them when I don't have any freelance jobs on, and in-between working on my new games.

Currently I'm putting the finishing touches (and art) on Pieces of Six, a massed battle supplement that lets you use regular PowerFrame character write-ups. I'm also outlining and chipping away at content for Modern Creatures, Gothic Races, and Mecha Files. I am also thinking of releasing a scenario, or small city setting/situation pack for people to drop into their games, or maybe even working on a full-fledged setting sourcebook. I have a wealth of material from the past twenty years of PowerFrame campaigns, although most of it will need to be dusted off and given a critical eye in the light of modern system revisions.

Thanks for your interest and support in the past year! I hope you'll stick around and keep an eye on what I'm up to in the years ahead.

Friday, 13 May 2016

What's So Great About Blade Bind?

It's my birthday today, and yet another attempt to run a face-to-face playtest of Blade Bind has fallen through (I think this makes five times, now)! But not to fret – I've run a couple of online playtests since my last development post, and I just had a brainwave yesterday that seems promising, so things are looking generally positive!

I was going to write up playtest reports, but after waiting a few days to let the outcomes percolate through my brain I kind of ran out of steam on that front. Today, rather than bore you with my mechanical musings (which I may save for a later post), I thought I'd talk a bit about why I think Blade Bind is so cool.

Tense Duelling!

I've used my several years' experience with historical fencing to develop a card-based duelling system that's abstracted and relatively simple, yet with all the tension, tactics, and risk-taking of an actual sword-fight.

Evocative Prompts!

During the setup, random prompts and evocative art help the group quickly give shape to their characters and the things they fight about. In one playtest, the Blades Michael (the archangel feather) and Templar (the plate-armour) led to a story about an esoteric Christian cult and the last guardian of the Holy Grail. Drawing for random archetypes and relationships has led to intriguing combinations, such as a selfish ascetic and a pair of volatile lovers.

Instant Action!

Once the setup's complete, the game explodes out of the blocks with instant conflict! While your power will increase as the game progresses, the stakes are high right from the start. As your very first scene you can attempt to seize control of an organisation, assassinate your target, or destroy the evil artefact. The stakes only get higher as you wrestle with your own Blade for control of your burgeoning power.

Relentless Pressure!

As the game progresses, there's a struggle between trying to get your Power high enough to win duels, while not having it exceed your Will (because you'll turn into a "Bladebound" puppet controlled by the Blade). The Blade constantly tempts you to raise your Power, but losing your grip on the things you care about causes your Will to slip. While Will constantly shifts up and down, Power can only increase – thus the balancing act becomes ever-more precarious.

Structured Gameplay

Inspired by Shinobigami, Blade Bind provides a rigid scene structure and conflict resolution. While you can try to persuade people to your cause, Duelling is the only mechanical resolution system. The winner gets to decide the fate of whatever's at stake, or they can rewrite one of their own goals or a goal belonging to one of the vanquished.

While it's possible to resolve the game purely mechanically with no roleplaying, the setup creates characters with a web of relationships and motivations, which tends to inform your decisions. It really is designed around melodrama and tragedy, and roleplaying your character to the hilt with scenery-chewing portrayals really brings the game to life. You may find your character's goals forcibly rewritten, but as with Fates in Tenra Bansho Zero, this also helps inform your roleplaying and describes your character's story arc. When people really get into character and describe cool, evocative lead-ups to duels, it's like story-mode on a console fighting-game!

In Conclusion

While Blade Bind certainly won't be everyone's cup of tea, I'm really excited to be developing it, and hope that I can connect with players who revel in the experience it creates!

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Blade Bind Designs, Part 4

I finally managed an online playtest on the weekend, which I need to write about soon... But first, here's the next three Blade designs!

Set is named after the Egyptian god. I always wanted to include a khopesh, but it took me a while to come up with one that didn't look like it was a goggle-eyed gaping face (I kept trying to have a floating eyeball inside the back curve, but the sharp blade looked like lips on my original attempts). By the way, although a few Blades are named after gods or legendary swords, they aren't necessarily the genuine artefact. It's possible that the Blade-entity has simply assumed that identity in order to bring itself closer to humanity.

Brass Dragon came to me one night as I was drifting off to sleep. I originally had a different Blade with that traditional buster-sword blade shape, but I wasn't all that happy with the design. I really enjoyed playing around to get the crystal effect, although I might go back and try to give the scales a little extra colour contrast compared to the blade.

Templar came from the concept of "a sword made out of a suit of plate armour". I think it came out pretty well, and I pushed my Illustrator-based gradient techniques to the limit on the rendering. As with a lot of the Blades it's a bit impractical and unwieldy, but that's less of a concern for magical swords.

In the playtests, the Blades have been providing some great inspiration for character approaches and setting up situations. The game's setup is primed with a few randomly-drawn cues, such as your archetype and important relationships, and random Blade selection also adds to that.

In the recent playtest we had Michael (angel-feather), Templar (plate armour) and Miko (Shinto shrine-maiden). My character's family was a Blade-worshipping cult, but they'd chosen her childhood friend to inherit Michael. My character had gone to the East to find Miko, and was back to prove herself worthy of leading the cult. The third character had Templar, and decided to be the guardian of the Holy Grail.

I'll discuss the playtest a bit more in a future post, but it's great to see the unique and evocative designs having an effect on play.

This marks the completion of the first twelve Blade designs. At the moment I only have twelve sets of Techniques, so I'm going to slow down on Blade design and concentrate on other illustrations for a while. I do still intend to create a thirteenth Blade to round out the set (probably Excalibur, but I have no idea what it looks like yet), and I may create some supplementary designs which might get promoted to the "basic set".

Oh, and I've also been fiddling around with the book layout. Here's the latest – I just created a shadowy tendril border effect, which is a bit more interesting than the old flat gradients. What do you think?

Friday, 15 April 2016

Blade Bind Designs, Part 3

Well I still haven't managed to play another session of Blade Bind, although there's an online game scheduled this Sunday. In the meantime it's becoming increasingly difficult for me to resist starting the layout, but I'm trying really hard to keep the manuscript in one place for updates and so I don't need to repeat layout work. At the moment there isn't a lot in the manuscript that's completely finalised, but I feel like I just need to run it through one or two more tests (preferably at least one face-to-face) before I can move forward with confidence.

In the meantime I'm doing more graphics work. I should probably make a start on an iconic action-oriented illustration to grab people's attention, but I'm currently making good progress on finishing up the initial thirteen Blade designs. Here's the next set of three:

Claíomh Solais is inspired by the legendary Celtic blade. I wanted to make the metal look old and battle-scarred, but the "fuller" in the blade is actually a sort of trans-dimensional space that glows with bright sunlight (the glow-effect is a little more obvious when it's not on a white background).

Devil Wing is the antithesis of Michael the angel feather Blade. It's currently the most organic Blade, perhaps even looking like it might fly off by itself if you don't keep a good hold on the twisted-sinew grip!

Buluc Chabtan is named after the Mayan god of war, violence, and sacrifices. It's in the form of a macuahuitl, a mesoamerican sword made by setting pieces of sharpened obsidian (which these days gets used to make surgical scalpels) into a wooden shaft. I used to think that the obsidian would get knocked out in combat, but apparently the resin they used was strong enough that it wasn't an issue.

Did I mention that all the Blades are massive "buster sword" things? It's easy to lose that sense of scale when they're presented without something to compare them against. They're roughly six or seven feet long. The mystical contract each Blade makes with its Chosen gives its wielder the ability to heft it as though it were a regular-sized sword. Anyone else who tries to pick one up is going to need a lot of strength, assuming it will even let them in the first place. Or perhaps, when someone tries to pick up a discarded Blade in anger, it will simply offer them the bargain of power...

Friday, 8 April 2016

Blade Bind Designs, Part 2

Well the face-to-face playtest didn't go ahead last night, but hopefully I can reschedule it in the next week or so. I should probably try to set up another online game as well, but they do take a bit of energy to coordinate and run.

In the meantime, here's the second set of three Blade designs.

I'm particularly pleased with this set!

Glass Edge was an attempt to think outside the box and come up with something unusual and outlandish. This Blade made an appearance in the first whole-game playtest — the player described the windows breaking and the glass falling and then hanging in mid-air as the hilt materialised. Very cool!

Miko is probably my favourite design so far. The blade-shape is certainly not Japanese, but the red cylindrical shaft reminded me of Japanese temples and shrine maidens for some reason. The use of flesh-tones on the blade also give it that "is it metal or is it organic?" vibe that the original Blade, Vargr, gives off.

Oni's blade has been carved out of the horn of a Japanese ogre. The lower jaw makes it a little impractical, but hey, it's a sword longer than a person, so practicality kind of doesn't get a look-in. I used Oni in the playtest, and described it growing and morphing out of my arm. The Blade-manifesting descriptions very much put me in mind of a fighting-game's character intro, which is no bad thing.

I'm planning on including thirteen Blades in the book, each with a unique design and set of Techniques. You can mix and match Techniques to create your own Blade, and going with thirteen lets me provide random card-draw tables for people to either pick a random pre-made Blade, or randomly select a set of Techniques for a custom Blade.

I currently have thirteen Blade concepts in mind, although if I come up with any others I may end up short-listing the best thirteen and maybe including the others as inspirational images. At the moment I only have twelve Techniques for each of the three ranks, so I need one more 1, 2, and 3 point Technique to round out my tables.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Blade Bind Playtest 1

Although I've been testing Blade Bind's duelling mechanics fairly thoroughly with a number of "white-room" tests, I recently ran a playtest of the whole game online via Roll20. It took a while to find enough testers, but Todd from FacebookLand put out the call and we ended up with five players (including me).

This is a pretty long post, but if you're interested in Blade Bind and/or playtesting, strap in!

First Session


Setup went fairly smoothly, although it did take a while. This was partly due to using a VTT and partly due to the Fiasco-like discussion about how all the characters relate to each-other and who they are, but I also identified some areas that could be sped up. I'm interested to see how long it takes in a face-to-face game.

A web of Threads
While the characters do have a web of relationships, this image is not a relationship map as such, but a map of goals. Each coloured line is a Thread, showing the Chosen's intent towards elements of the game world — characters, organisations, items, and locations, plus the other Chosen — collectively known as Knots.

You can also see some notes on "who hates who", which refers to the enmity the supernatural Blades have to each other. This enmity is independent of the characters' relationships, and is designed to cause problems. Originally it was completely random, meaning someone could end up with multiple enmities targeting them, or none.

I've since revised it so all Blades have an enmity to one Blade, and from one Blade.

Threads generate Will, which allows the characters to control their Blades. If a Thread becomes impossible to achieve (usually by its target being destroyed), then the character loses Will. If their Will becomes less than their Power, they become slaves to the will of their Blade, which then hunts down its Enmity.

This was the first time Threads saw play, and it showed me a couple of things. Firstly, it really doesn't matter what a Knot is. I had classified them into different types, but what they are makes no difference to their behaviour in the game. Secondly, some of the goals — although logically structured — were a bit convoluted and difficult to get a handle on. Some were also redundant or didn't make a lot of sense. I've now restructured the way Threads are written, and made sure to define how each one works.

Scenes & Duels

We finally got to the scenes, and had time to play through only one before we ran out of time. My character challenged her antagonistic twin brother to a duel to prove she could defeat him. The setup and descriptive play before the duel was excellent and evocative, and thanks to a good hand of cards the duel ended with my victory.

The winner gets to claim a prize, which I took to be the defeat of my brother, thus securing my Defeat Thread. Figuring out the aftermath was a little hazy since I hadn't actually seen it in play before, and wasn't sure if the "defeat" was just a thing that happens or if it should be a prize in its own right.

I've now revised things so the winner gets to either destroy or take control of a Knot, or rewrite a Thread belonging to either one of the losers or themselves. "Defeat" Threads work a bit differently now, but scoring victories against your rival is basically an "extra" in addition to the regular prize.

Second Session

We reconvened after a week or so and played through some more scenes. Things went pretty well, and I was able to identify the "shaky" parts of the Thread system and make some revisions.

In addition to better-defining prizes, I also removed the option to simply erase one of the loser's Threads. It proved too powerful. However, there's still the option to rewrite their Threads, meaning you can persuade them to stop attacking your interests and give them goals that align with yours. They don't have to follow the Threads you give them, but their decisions will affect their Will value.

The Wind Dilemma

A Wind (rhymes with "bind") is what happens after a Bind, where two Blades lock together. It's meant to represent the struggle for leverage on the razor's edge, where things can go either way. The original mechanic was for both players to play a blind card, with the high card becoming the attack and the low card having to scramble to defend. With a couple of card-counting mathematicians on the crew, though, this mechanic received the most negative feedback. They didn't like the way that it both came down to luck, and basically forced the loser to not only play their best card (in hopes of winning the Wind) but also an extra card (to make up their defence).

After some discussion and thought, I've come up with a new idea. Both play a blind card as before, but it's the suit that determines which card is the attack. Rather than the old guarantee that the attack would be high, now you can end up with low attacks or high defences. You can still end up with situations that force the defender to spend extra cards, but it's now also possible to Parry and gain the advantage.

This new idea is still untested, but I think it has promise. I have a couple of other ideas if it doesn't work out, but I think they might feel less satisfying.

Resonance Techniques

This game also saw the first use of the special Blade Techniques. We only used a couple, but even a brief look at them in play helped me get a better idea of their power level and usefulness in play. You gain Resonance whenever you Bind, and gain more when Binding against your Enmity, and then spend it to activate Techniques. In a duel where both of us were Enmities, we managed to Bind three times in a row off an Engagement; each time, he used Seal to cut off my access to another suit! By the end of the exchange I could only play one suit, but I managed to survive long enough to tag him with my (under-priced) Vampire move, steal a card, and then win in the next Exchange.

Techniques are the part of the game that needs the most testing. I've revised them given the latest version of the rules, and have a checklist set up to make sure they all get chosen and used in play at some point.


We once again ran out of time, but I could see how the game was going to play out — several characters had become Bladebound, meaning they would sever their connections to things and then attempt to destroy their Enmity.

In the first session I was worried that characters were going to become Bladebound very quickly, but we managed to go around the table a couple of times before it started to kick in. I've revised the Will values from Threads (mostly downward for Threads that aren't quite so high-stakes), and also boosted starting Will a little. It probably also helps that it's no longer possible to simply erase someone's Thread, although you can still cause the same effect by destroying important things. I might boost Will by another point, but we'll see how the next couple of tests go; I'm not too worried if the games are fairly short, so long as there's enough play to make up for the setup time and to let a decent narrative unfold.


I've spent the last couple of weeks revising and refining the manuscript. Lately I've been adding examples and a bit of flavour text, plus a couple of setting outlines.

I have a face-to-face playtest planned for tomorrow, so I'm keen to see how my changes work and if anything else needs looking at. Things seem to be coming together nicely, and playtesting is providing invaluable feedback.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Blade Bind Designs, Part 1

I'm still trying to get a couple of my Blade Bind playtesters together to go over the latest duelling draft, try out the character/drama-web setup, and maybe even attempt a quick game to see if anything falls off.

In the meantime, I've been working on some art assets. Behold, the first three completed Blade designs!

I sketched them out in pencil first, then scanned them and created vector art in Illustrator. That should give me a good amount of flexibility to rescale or repurpose the images.
Incidentally, I'm an experienced vector artist. I worked for fourteen years at an embroidery firm, turning people's bad logo scans into high-quality vector art. I've been doing freelance logos, icons, character sheets, and images in addition to layout and editing. If you have a need for quality handcrafted vectors, please get in contact! You can email craig (DOT) t (DOT) judd at the gmails.
Pretty much all of the swords in Blade Bind are massive two-handed "buster sword" type things – it's a not-so-subtle metaphor for the melodrama and angst! I'm taking some inspiration from Soul Calibur and the manga Shadow Star (the monsters in which had creepy eyeballs that looked like they were made of shiny ceramics).

  • Vargr is the blade from the original inspirational image I drew. It's something of a fierce, battle-hungry Blade. 
  • Michael is the feather of an Archangel, or possibly an embodiment of the Archangel himself, as a "blue flaming sword". 
  • Kunlun is one of my favourites so far; it's inspired by the style of the 3x3 Eyes manga and anime, and I named it after the lost homeland of the three-eyed folks.

I've also been spending some time setting up a draft layout for the book in InDesign. Since I haven't finished designing the game yet, let alone writing the mechanics, that should give you some idea how keen I am!

It still needs a little work – I intend to experiment with graphical flourishes or effects in the top and bottom graded strips, either adding some more red traceries or turning them into roiling tendrils of black fog. I might also see if I can incorporate some Blade silhouettes, blowing gusts of sparks, or blood-splatters, but I don't want to end up obscuring the text or putting graphics behind it because it reduces legibility. I can always add some of those embellishments to the chapter title pages.

I have some other Blade images in the works that I'll post next time. Until then, I... should probably catch up on freelance work! Hopefully we'll get a chance to do that playtest in the next week or so, and I'll be able to start refining the manuscript.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Blade Bind Playtesting

Following on from my previous Blade Bind post, I've spent the last week-and-a-bit testing and refining the duelling rules, as well as figuring out how to structure a drama web. It's all looking very promising, and hopefully with a bit of effort I can put together an alpha-draft in the next few weeks.

I'll save the drama side of things for later, because today I want to talk about the evolution of the card-based duelling system.

Each combatant has a hand of cards, sometimes playing blind against their opponent and sometimes reacting to a face-up card on the table. It's this use of hidden information that makes it difficult to test the system properly on my own – there's only so well a "blind-draw" player can do. Thankfully, I've managed to recruit a couple of keen playtesters and run a few experimental duels online.

I complained to (at the time potential) playtester Nat that I was having problems finding a way to play with a deck of cards online, and he pointed me to Roll20. I'd had an account for about two years, but never actually used it. Now I may have gone a bit overboard – not only have I designed a custom card back, but I've also set up a soundtrack and made some custom character portrait icons!

First Draft

The original duelling system was pretty simple: after playing a card face-down to Engage and decide who seizes the advantage (otherwise known as Initiative), the attacker plays a card and the defender plays one or more in response.

  • A higher defence card is a Parry; the defender gains the initiative and may perform their own attack. 
  • An equal card is a Bind; both combatants draw a card and must play to Engage again. 
  • If the card is lower, then the defender Dodges by playing multiple cards totalling the attack card's value or more, and the Attacker keeps initiative. 
  • If they can't match the attack card, they are hit and the duel ends. 

Also, whenever you have the initiative you have the option to Disengage, which clears the current exchange and lets both players draw two cards.

That system was quick and pretty fun. Playing to a single hit always keeps you on the edge of your seat. A bad hand could spell the end for you, but I was looking for a quick resolution anyway. However, it was also lacking in some areas. There wasn't much depth or strategy to it, and it also tended to break a little when the combatants started with different-sized hands. It basically came down to forcing the other person to run out of cards before you did, so you could land an unopposed hit. Effectively, your cards act somewhat like Hit Points, and the only way to change the relative values of two hands was to force your opponent to dodge using multiple cards. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to claw your way back once your opponent has a card advantage.

Dodging was a bit of a double-penalty, because you had to spend two cards (or more) and deal with another attack... when you probably only had rubbish cards left anyway. We experimented with "you only need to play a single low card to Dodge" and "Initiative switches automatically after each move", but neither was particularly satisfying.

Revised Options

I'd been looking for ways to incorporate suits into the system as well, and during a three-hour test, Playtester Todd suggested "the defender gains Initiative if they Dodge with two cards of the same suit." This sparked off a chain of ideas in my brain, and I revised the defence options. Now I've included a variety of ways for the defender or the attacker to lose cards.

I'm particularly proud of the new Counter, which is a Parry that uses the same suit as the attack. The attack gets reversed, with the Parry card forming a new attack, and the old attack card becoming the basis of the old attacker's defence. There are a couple of options for defending, but it basically forces the old attacker to play an extra card. It's also possible to Counter a Counter, which is really cool, not least because it mimics actual swordplay around counterattacks.

I revised Bind; rather than just playing a new Engage, you play face-down attack cards. The low card gets to play extra cards to defend themselves, and play continues as normal.

There's now a few different options for if you can't equal or beat the attack with a single defence card. I won't go into them all here, but they include situations where the attacker keeps the initiative; the defender gains initiative; or the exchange ends. I'm also mulling over some options for the Jokers; now that suits have a bigger effect, I'm thinking maybe they let you declare the suit of the next card you play.

What's Next?

I am hoping there aren't too many options now! The game feels a lot more in-depth and there are more meaningful choices to make and tactics to take advantage of, but that can mean spending more time making decisions. Still, it's starting to feel polished, and even if I end up dropping some of the defence options to streamline things I think it's well on its way to being a playable system.

We need to run a few more duel tests, and I hope to try out the tentative Melee rules for fights between more than two combatants soon. I'll try to make a post sometime soon about the drama-system setup I have in the works, but no promises if something else exciting comes along!

Monday, 29 February 2016

Forging "Blade Bind"

I'm currently working on the draft rules for a game called Blade Bind; I mentioned it in my previous post, but to recap it's a GMless one-shot game of brutal hyper-drama and massive supernatural swords, inspired by this picture I drew for PowerFrame:

The game-world is going to be fairly vague, although I'll probably outline a modern-day and fantasy setting. The game focusses pretty strongly on the Chosen wielders of the Blades and their personal struggles, so the shape of the world around them is only as important as the players want it to be.

Blade Bind kind of has two parts at the moment – the duelling system, and the drama system.


The sword-fighting system uses regular playing cards. It's going to be the only real resolution system in the game – if you can't fight over it, it's not worth "drawing" for.

I've used my several years of historical swordsmanship to come up with a quick, abstracted system that captures the feeling of actual sword-fights without getting bogged down in modifiers and fiddly split-second manoeuvres. I came up with the basic system pretty quickly, although there are a few variant rules I want to playtest before I settle on a final build. I'm also pretty confident that it'll be able to handle a free-for-all melee rather than simple one-on-one duels.

Unlike Thunder Hunters and Neon Burn, I'm actually finding it relatively easy to expand the duelling rules and tie other parts of the game into the system. Perhaps it helps that the game is even smaller in scope so it has fewer moving parts, or that I'm embracing abstract mechanics and not worrying too much if the mechanics are leading the fiction – or maybe it's because I've just had more practice!

Best of all, the duelling system leads to very quick fights, and combines luck with strategy. There are a number of approaches you can take when facing an opponent, and there are some nice emergent qualities that mean fights are never predictable. Differences in character power-levels do make a difference, but there's always a chance the less-skilled fighter will come out on top.


I had a few things in mind that I wanted to include: a web of interconnections that set the characters at cross-purposes right from the start; the struggle for control versus the temptation of greater power; and a rapidly-evolving situation that challenges the status quo from the very first scene. I've tied all of those things together, hopefully creating an engine that will spew forth melodrama and tragedy.

Besides coming up with a concept and choosing a Blade, character creation is mostly going to involve tying your character to others. A Thread is basically a goal and a target. Each character creates a Thread to another PC, an NPC or Item of importance to them, and an NPC/Item that belongs to someone else. Goals at the moment include Protect, Control, Kill/Destroy, and a few others relating to PCs specifically. I'm still figuring out how best to represent them, and I'd like to make a card-draw table of options that give some story prompts. In addition, each Blade randomly hates one of the other Blades, and longs to defeat it in combat. That could get awkward when it's the Blade wielded by your ally...

Each character has a Will and a Power score. Will is based on the number, type, and current status of your Threads – so it can fluctuate as you lose them, complete them, or gain new ones. Power starts at 2 or 3; you can put it up by 1 at the start of any duel, and it also goes up by 1 whenever you lose a fight. If Power ever exceeds Will, the Chosen succumbs to the will of the Blade and they become "Bladebound". While in that state, the character is a demon on the battlefield who will lay waste to anything that stands in their way.

The basic procedure will be to go around the table and have each player set a scene for their character. Apart from the other characters, there's nothing in the way of them just going and achieving their goals – the Blades give the Chosen powers beyond the ken of mortals, and no ordinary foe can stand before them. So things should get violent and messy in short order.

Spiritual Ancestors

Thematically and mechanically, the game is inspired by three other games – one I've played, one I've read, and one I've only backed on Kickstarter.

Eternal Contenders is a really cool GMless game of duelling fantasy warriors that I've played a few times. It also uses cards for resolution, although mostly just by colour (red=success, black=nothing). The duels tend to take a lot longer than Blade Bind's, probably because it's based on a boxing RPG where fights can really drag out. Each fighter also has Hope and Pain scores that track how dangerous a fighter they are, and how likely they are to achieve a happy or tragic ending. Ironically, putting everything into winning fights provides the greatest chance of a tragic ending, and to have any hope of happiness you really need to give up on victory... while at the same time, victory is your surest means of securing Hope. It's a fine balance, and one I've yet to master, but it's also the sort of painful choice I want to build into Blade Bind – succumbing to the lure of power will turn you into a tragedy engine.

Wield is also GMless, and is about playing as magical artefacts that vie for control over their wielders. While Blade Bind is about playing the Chosen rather than the Blades, it's also about that fine line of control. When someone does cross that line, they're effectively playing the Blade instead.

Shinobigami is a recently-Kickstarted translated version of a Japanese RPG. It's very PVP-oriented, and has a really abstract way of approaching things mechanically, which has given me a lot of confidence to go ahead with a game that doesn't pay much attention to the way things are traditionally done, and that merges elements of board/card games with RPGs.

What's Next?

I need to playtest the duelling rules a bit more to figure out which variants to go with. I'm also in the process of drafting the Threads, Will/Power, and Special Manoeuvres, so when I'm not playtesting I'll be trying to beat those into some sort of prototype shape.

I'm also working on a few RPG-related freelancing jobs lately, which I should talk about in a future blog post! Work has been going nicely, although I'm always on the lookout for new editing and layout jobs. Let me know if you need some help on your own project, or if you've seen something I could apply for!

Sunday, 21 February 2016

In Pursuit of Fiction-First

It's been a few months since I last posted here, but I'm hoping to revive the blog. Since releasing the PowerFrame Core Rulebook I've been working on-and-off on a couple of new RPGs, and I'd like to keep a record of my progress and thoughts.

The first new game is Thunder Hunters, which I've mentioned here a couple of times – a naturalistic game of primitive tribes living alongside dinosaurs. I've made some good progress, but I need to put some time into playtesting the basic mechanics before I develop the rest of the game.

The second new game is one I've just thought up recently, so my brain's currently buzzing with ideas – Blade Bind, a hyper-drama game of Chosen wielding giant supernatural swords, inspired by Shinobigami, Eternal Contenders, and Wield. I've got some idea of the overall shape and content of the game, and I'm just starting to develop a card-based duelling mechanic, which prompted today's post.

Pursuing Fiction-First

I find it really easy to come up with RPG rules that are Mechanics => Fiction (like a D&D tactical map battle, or a board game), but I find it harder to come up with systems that are Fiction => Mechanics => Fiction (like Apocalypse World or Cortex Plus).

This isn't necessarily a problem, but it's harder to get evocative descriptions out of players when you can play part of the game like a card or board game: the mechanics generate plenty of fictional output, but they don't respond at all to fictional input. You can describe your actions however you like, but the bottom line is they don't affect your mechanical options.

I hate to pick on Eternal Contenders, because it's a great (although sometimes frustrating) game, but it's one place where I really notice this phenomenon. The card-based duels tend to take a while to resolve, but although the game exhorts you to be descriptive there really is no link between your description and the outcome of the mechanics. After a few rounds, duels tend to turn into almost pure card-games, with the players reading the fictional outcomes but not offering a lot of description unless strongly prompted.

I also experienced this phenomenon when working on Neon Burn. I came up with a wonderful dice game for antigrav racing, where the way you played your dice expressed the way you were racing (conservatively, reckless, blocking others), and the mechanics provided fictional outcomes (progress, current positions, damage). But as above, the mechanics didn't really respond to fictional input – instead, your mechanical choices dictated fictional outcomes. You could play the whole race just by referring to the dice, and check at the end to see who won.

Designing for Fiction-First

I really like the effect you get when a character's approach or intent shapes the way the mechanics work. That way, there's no bypassing the description. I've experienced at least a couple of games that manage to achieve this.

The first is Apocalypse World (and its kin). The mechanical Moves only trigger when you do certain things, so you have to actually describe how you're going about it. If you don't, and just try to jump straight to a Move you assume is going to be the right one, you risk rolling for the wrong thing. I've seen this with players who assume that Seize by Force or Hack and Slash are the "Attack" Moves, and roll for them before I can point out that their opponent isn't in a position to fight back.

The second is Cortex Plus, of which I've played the Smallville and Firefly variants. In these games, the dice you roll are tied to your approach. It's more than just picking the appropriate skill to roll, though – depending on the variant, you may need to pick and justify appropriate Values, Attributes or Roles; Relationships or Skills; Distinctions, Assets, and possibly other stuff. In effect, building your dice pool tells a little story about how you're trying to overcome a particular challenge.

I've worked pretty hard to come up with a fiction-first system for Thunder Hunters, and I think I've done an OK job. You choose how to respond to the current situation each turn, which interacts somewhat with your opponent's actions to create a set of outcomes. Your intent determines which Stat applies, but you also get to choose where to assign your tool bonuses: Are you setting your spear to stab a charging foe, or using it to fend them off, or throwing it? Fictional positioning is also important to help minimise the natural "tools" that dinosaurs can bring to bear against you.

In a (Blade) Bind?

So the card-based sword-fighting system I've come up with for Blade Bind is currently pretty mechanics-first. Your choice of cards to play is representative of your approach to the fight (aggressive, cautious, desperate, cunning), but you can totally play out a duel without describing any fictional choices or positioning.

I'm not sure if it's a major issue though. I want the fights to be pretty fast, so the amount of time spent auguring cards to get fictional output should be fairly low. I also want the game to be pretty grim, where the only real way you have to alter the situation is through duelling, so cutting down on fictional options seems reasonable. Hopefully brief and thematic fights will encourage some enthusiastic description in any case.

I also have some ideas to tie extra mechanics to the cards; perhaps special powers can only trigger on a face or an ace, or I can tie particular manoeuvres to certain suits. I'll certainly be looking for ways to help tell a story and bring fictional positioning to the table as I continue development.