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.