Fantasy is a huge, almost too wide term when applying the word to genres. Many times the word invokes the idea of heroic fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, or Sword and Sorcery stories, like Howard’s Conan. Over the years, fantasy has picked up a lot of sub-genres with their own specific tropes. One of those specific sub-genres is the gritty mercenary genre. In this case, characters aren’t the chosen one, and they may not have even chosen the life they live. They have a job to do, and don’t expect to survive the execution of their tasks.
Glen Cook’s The Black Company series, some of Joe Abercrombie’s World of the First Law books, and various installments of the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erickson help to define gritty mercenary fantasy. Characters aren’t a band of adventurers, but members of a military company, usually with ranks and responsibilities that go beyond their battlefield roles. Magic is rare and powerful, is usually devastating to the field troops, and the magic on the side of the protagonists’ forces is often dangerous and unpredictable.
There have been a lot of games built on the Forged in the Dark chassis first seen in Blades in the Dark. Off Guard Games and Evil Hat, the team that produced Scum and Villainy, have now teamed together to present a Forged in the Dark game of gritty fantasy mercenaries called Band of Blades.
Defining the Chronicle
This review is based both on the PDF version of the game, and the physical copy. The game is 450 pages, with full-color endpapers depicting the map of the setting. There is a seven-page index at the back of the book. As with most Powered by the Apocalypse or Forged in the Dark Games, while the playbooks and reference sheet material exists in the book, it will be useful to download and print out the PDF versions of these items for reference during the game.
The interior art is black and white line art. Headers are bold, and there are numerous bullet-pointed lists throughout the book. The artwork depicts daily occurrences in the lives of the mercenary company, including days at camp and days in battle. There are illustrations of the various locations in the setting, as well as pictures of named characters in the setting, such as the various antagonists that the player characters may eventually encounter in the course of their missions.
The book has the same general form factor as Blades in the Dark and Scum and Villainy, but it is thicker and feels very substantial.
The opening section of the book describes the setting, the tone of the game, and what elements are present. It also introduces the Legion Roles that the players will be assuming, as well as the Specialists and Squad Members that they will be playing between missions. In this case, the players have multiple roles—they play their Legion roles when planning the missions, and they play their Specialist or Squad Member characters when executing those plans.
This section also introduces the special characters of the setting. The Cinder King is a master of a huge undead army that threatens the world. The Legion is trying to survive and dig into a better position to resist his forces. On the Legion’s side are Chosen, people picked by the gods to manifest special powers. On the Cinder King’s side are the Broken, former Chosen corrupted by the Cinder King.
The game has similar phases to other Forged in the Dark games. In this case we have the Campaign Phase, where the players in their Legion roles choose what missions to undertake, and they spend resources and advance on the map. Then we have the Mission Phase, where the players play out their actual mission, modified by the decisions of the players in their Legion roles. There may also be free play, seeing how characters interact in camp or deal with fallout that isn’t directly related to the success or failure of missions.
Unlike many introductory sections, this one is very extensive. Not only is it discussing things like the dark military tone of the game, horror elements, and getting player buy-in, it also introduces the core Forged in the Dark mechanic, explaining the resolution of actions, resistance rolls, stress, trauma, corruption, blight, and progress clocks. It is a lot to absorb upfront, and while there are explanations of the broad shape of missions, I felt like there was just enough still undefined that this section does have the potential to get overwhelming.
Like Blades in the Dark, individual rules packets are very simple and intuitive, but even more so than Blades in the Dark, there are a lot of moving parts. Some of the campaign level tracking has been offloaded from the GM to the players in their Legion rolls, but in some cases, there are similar systems in place that increase what gets tracked. For example, trauma is still a measure of how many physical or mentally taxing moments you can take before your character isn’t an active protagonist any longer, but corruption now tracks the influence of the downside of supernatural elements, and blight is a physical, supernatural manifestation of what is effectively magical “trauma.”
This section begins to give more specific examples of the broader terms introduced in the previous section. In this case, we’re looking at the playbooks to play individual troops in the Legion that will be carrying out missions. The playbooks include:
Later on in the book, we’ll learn more about this when discussing missions, but because you only play out the primary mission your company is undertaking, you may need to send one of your specialists on the “offscreen” mission, meaning that a player may end up playing a rookie or a soldier instead of a specialist. Additionally, if a specialist gets taken out of the fight, the player can slide into playing one of the other characters in the unit with these playbooks.
While a player can play the same character repeatedly, the book also mentions that it is possible to leave all of the characters as options for troop play as well, meaning one person may make up the heavy and play them on the first mission and then let another player take that character on the next mission. Not everyone will want to do this, but it is mentioned as an option.
The playbooks have the traditional Forged in the Dark structure, where different playbooks have different gear available, and have different starting points for the ranks of different actions. Characters can take a heavy, medium, or light load, which have different implications for military missions versus the criminal activities seen in Blades in the Dark or Scum and Villainy. For example, characters with a heavy load may have issues if they need to quickly retreat from a battlefield after an objective has been met.
In addition to their gear and starting abilities, the specialist playbooks also have specialist actions. While these are measured in dots as well, these are not actions that are rolled. The dots represent the number of times a character can use their ability during a mission.
The Heavy’s anchor ability increases their scale in combat, meaning they act like a small unit instead of an individual. The Medic can cause a character to function without any penalties they have suffered from wounds. The Officer can produce resources for the mission that weren’t allocated by the Legion positions during the mission planning phase. The Scout can also provide additional resources, but in the form of discovered loads of equipment, safe resting places, or rations. The Sniper gets the ability to aim, which doesn’t change the dice they roll, but increases the effect their shot has, meaning they can take out higher threat opponents than they could normally harm. The Rookie can advance in multiple directions, but doesn’t start with a specialist action, while the soldier has a specialist action that gives them bonus dice to resistance rolls, reflecting their ability to keep themselves alive in a fight.
This section details the Legion Roles that the players will take on, which they will play in the campaign phase. These roles represent the highest level of the Legion, and the decisions they make in this role can make their own missions more or less difficult, but how resources are spent also affects the long term ability of the Legion to progress to their objective at the end of the game.
The roles include the following:
This means that you need at least three players to fill all of the required roles for a campaign. The text does mention that you can assign “deputy” roles so that when a player isn’t present, another player makes the decisions for that role.
The Commander determines if the Legion advances on the map, where they advance, and what missions they undertake. The Commander can also spend the Intel resource to put the teams in a better position at the beginning of a mission or find out advantageous information about a location.
The Marshal determines who goes on what mission, and what character assigned to the mission is in charge in the field. Some missions will have a requirement that certain specialists be present, so assigning the wrong characters to a mission can doom it from the start. The Marshal is also tracking the number of troops in the individual squads. Some missions will cause a squad to lose rookies, and some areas may allow you to recruit new troops.
The Quartermaster can spend resources that the Legion has gained, such as horses, to make travel less dangerous, or to better supply the group for their starting efforts. The Quartermaster can also determine if the group has special personnel at camp, such as a Mercy or an Alchemist.
The Lorekeeper role comes into play when characters get back to camp, as the Lorekeeper reciting specific previous mission details can provide benefits for the characters.
The Spymaster gets to pick from a stable of spies that gives them different ways to manipulate the objectives in different types of missions, and may allow the Commander to spend Intel to unlock special missions available in some locations.
There is a limited amount of time that the Legion has to make it to Skydagger Keep for the finale of the campaign, so each phase costs time, meaning that the Legion may want to spend an extra unit of time in an area recovering, but they may feel compelled to push forward to avoid a time crunch.
Pressure is the amount of undead and corruption collecting in the nearby area, which can make missions more difficult. Spending resources like horses when advancing can lower Pressure.
One mission will be the primary mission. This is the mission that gets played out, with players portraying the members of the squad doing their jobs and meeting their objectives. The secondary mission is determined “off-screen,” using only the initial engagement roll to see how well or how badly things went.
This section details the Chosen and the Broken in the setting. The Legion will have a Chosen traveling with them, and depending on what Chosen is selected, this will modify how the Legion starts the game, and what benefits they have by having this Chosen travel with them.
- Shreya—Chosen of the healer goddess, focused on military strategy
- Horned One—Chosen of the forest god, focused on mysterious powers and trickery
- Zora—Ancient Chosen focusing on big and direct actions
Each of the Chosen has a subset of special abilities that trigger under special circumstances. For example, Shreya may cause the Legion to receive 1 less corruption when they take corruption, or regain one additional tick on a healing clock when they recuperate.
After choosing the Chosen that travels with the Legion, the group then chooses two Broken that are working for the Cinder King. The Broken include:
- Blighter—Toxic scientist
- Breaker—The storm witch
- Render—The armorer
Each of the Broken has a list of abilities they have that make the lives of the Legion more difficult, and they gain new abilities whenever time ticks forward too far in the campaign. For example, Blighter might have an ability that causes supply missions to remove one die on their initial engagement rolls.
The Broken chosen also affect what kind of special undead might show up in a mission as well. Blighter’s special troops might be stitched together masses of body parts, while Breaker might have mutated animals, and Render might have giant undead encased in armor.
The Mission Phase
This section goes into more details about how to execute the mission phases of the game, as well as listing the common mission types, and what the rewards and penalties are for these missions. Depending on the mission, they will need a specific type of specialist, or their engagement rolls will suffer a penalty (meaning the mission is more likely to start badly for the primary mission, and more likely to outright fail for the secondary mission).
Mission types include:
- Assault—Requires Heavy, Medic, or Sniper
- Recon—Requires Scout or Sniper
- Religious—Requires Medic or Officer
- Supply—Requires Heavy, Officer, or Scout
Different missions will have rewards for completion, and penalties for failure. Mission rewards might include time, morale, supplies, assets, or troops. Penalties may include pressure, time, supply, and morale.
This section also goes into more detail about rules like teamwork, scale, and flashbacks. For anyone that hasn’t played or read previous Forged in the Dark games, players pick the skill they want to use, and based on that skill, the GM determines the position and effect. Position is how bad things can backfire, and effect is how much you get done with the roll you are making.
When a character has scale on you, it’s even harder to affect them. A character that might take a controlled action for limited effect on someone with scale is now taking a controlled action with no effect (meaning at best, they may be able to spend stress to affect them at all).
Teamwork has always been one of my favorite aspects of Forged in the Dark games, and it’s even more relevant in military campaigns. There are multiple ways to work as a team, but my favorite involves one player leading the action, and everyone rolling. If you get any successes, you do the thing, but for every failure, the leader takes stress.
Flashbacks are essentially retroactive planning that you may be able to declare. When you see opposition you weren’t planning for at the gate you wanted to enter, you might be able to declare a flashback that your scout looked for alternate entry points when you first arrived, and depending on how significant the flashback is, it might cost more stress to introduce.
What this also means is that there are a lot of tools available to the PCs in an active mission that can’t be used to affect the single roll that will be made for the secondary mission. While it may seem like the right thing to do is to spend resources to make the primary mission easier, it may be smarter to spend intel and supplies on the secondary mission so it succeeds, because the PCs playing the primary mission have more opportunities to batter and bruise themselves to success.
The Campaign Phase
This section is shorter than the mission phase chapter, but it details the specific steps that are taken in the campaign phase of play, presents options for the campaign phase, introduces questions to consider in this phase of the game, and includes a summary of what happens in this phase.
How to Play
Almost all of the rules in this section have been touched on elsewhere in the book, but this section revisits the briefer summaries and gives more detailed examples, including descriptions for the actions and what they are best suited to accomplish, examples of what controlled, risky, and desperate actions look like and examples of what reduced or full effect might look like.
This section also goes into more detail on the Specialist actions that those playbooks receive, setting up a series of questions to get players thinking about what they do in the fiction of the games to make those actions true.
There is also an action that does not appear on the playbooks that is introduced in this section. Weave, the ability to spend an action to perform an act of magic, is detailed. This is a special action that the GM doesn’t need to allow, but one that may be learned as an alternate advancement.
Behind the Scenes
This is the GM section of the book, and includes a general list of GM duties, GM principals, GM actions, and GM best practices. One of my favorite pieces of GM advice given here is to avoid making the PCs look incompetent. If they fail, its because they are doing difficult things under difficult circumstances, not because they aren’t trained professionals doing what they are good at doing.
There is a section on setting expectations, especially given the game’s horror adjacent themes. Not only does this section touch on making sure everyone is on the same page over the level of horror and comfort levels, this section also talks about tone and theme and how everyone should be aware and agree on them before starting the game.
The final part of this chapter explores how to set up the starting mission, including the first scene, and how to handle the first time the group cuts back to camp, to properly set the feeling for the rest of the campaign going forward.
The Larger World
This section summarizes some of the setting elements that have been touched on in other sections of the book. It’s a fantasy setting, but with no dwarves, elves, or dragons. Alchemy is the world’s science, and magic is filled with peril. The gods only really care about humanity in the abstract.
There is a two-page timeline that summarizes the progression of the setting relevant to the modern events that frame the game. The different cultures that the PCs are likely to hail from or encounter are detailed on their own individual pages.
There is a section explaining what alchemy can and can’t commonly accomplish, and how Mercies, special healers in the setting, work.
None of the cultures detailed are direct real-world analogs. The Panyar are the most “magical” of any of the cultures, being humans that have some animal-like trait about them, due to the influence of the forest they call home. While they give some traits commonly associated with each culture, it is specifically noted that no individuals have all of those traits, the traits aren’t universal, and many people don’t conform to the broad elements outlined for them in this section.
The map that appears in the endpapers of the book is presented in this section of the book as well. Various locations are presented on the map, with lines between them. At one end is the starting point of the campaign. On the other end of the map is Skydagger Keep, the location the PCs need to reach to weather the winter and have any chance of standing against the Cinder King.
There isn’t one path that goes directly to Skydagger Keep. Each time the Commander decides to advance, they may have to make choices between which locations to move the company to as they advance on the keep.
There are descriptions of each of these locations, as well as example scenes and challenges native to each place on the map. There may be special rules for different locations, so, for example, some locations may always add a die to pressure rolls because they are under siege. Each location also has special missions available, which can be learned by spending Intel.
The special missions generally provide bigger rewards than the standard mission types provide, so they may be worth spending Intel to uncover. The standard rewards may be bigger (+2 instead of +1, for example), but there may also be items like special relics, or even extra XP awards for completing these.
The special missions play into the “flavor” of the location presented. The lore surrounding the special missions is more specific than the broader missions, and helps to tell the story of the region’s past and/or what is going on currently in the war.
Skydagger Keep has a special section on all of the missions that need to be undertaken to dig in for the winter and fortify the place for assault. Depending on how the campaign has turned out, there is a scorecard to see how the Legion has done in the war, which determines whether the Legion is on its last legs after the winter, or ready to take the fight to the Cinder King.
I love how the locations are detailed in this section. There are essentially two pages of information, including special rules that reinforce the theme of a region. There is another page of special missions that help to tell the story of the region. The first page is a full page of general information, but the second page focuses on what kind of scenes characters will see and experience in the location. It’s a living means of presenting setting information that I love and wish might be adopted by more people presenting RPG settings.
Changing the Game
This is a section about optional rules and how you might drift the game for other stories and genres. There is advice for introducing new heritages, creating new special missions, new relics, and dealing with more players than the core rules assume.
There are optional rules for medals and how they mechanically could affect the game, rules for how the different existing squads in the game might have traits that affect members that belong to that squad, and rules on weapon master forms that can be learned by PCs.
The final section of this chapter briefly discusses wider hacks, such as changing the game to a grim sci-fi military campaign, with the PCs choosing what systems to jump to next, and how to drift concepts like the Broken and the Chosen, such as making the Chosen and the bonuses they provide actually belong to a starship in the Legion’s fleet.
The drifting rules provide some fun brainstorming, but the most fleshed-out ideas in this section are those that assume the baseline of the setting presented, and add more details to that baseline.
I love how the game details locations and ties the relevant aspects of the locations to game rules to give the lore mechanical weight.
The setting is very evocative. You can very easily feel like your characters are the underdogs in a fight against an intimidating foe, but yet you still have a lot of tools to accomplish missions moving you closer to your goal. Part of what helps reinforce this feeling of the underdog fighting to survive is that you have to navigate the map to be successful, so there isn’t a “quick win” option. In addition to the evocative feeling of an underdog mercenary company scrabbling to survive, the setting itself is well-drawn. I love how the game details locations and ties the relevant aspects of the locations to game rules to give the lore mechanical weight.
The Long Winter
It’s always tricky to determine how much information to put upfront in a book. Too little, and a reader is going to get frustrated by not understanding all of the terms you are introducing. Too much, and they have a lot to process as soon as they engage with the book. Band of Blades feels a little front-loaded to me, in that a lot gets introduced, and some of it is harder to parse before you see the framework in which that information is used. There is an “end” to the campaign, but there isn’t a specific resolution for the game’s main conflict. I actually would have less of a problem with this, if it weren’t implied that the ”ending” of the game determines starting position for a new campaign, since there isn’t much in the way of guidelines for what that new campaign would look like. The current rules are more about scrabbling to survive until you can reach cover, so several elements would need to change to reflect being on the offensive.
Recommended—If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
The book may feel a little intimidating at the outset, but I feel like it pays off the further into the book you get, and if you are a fan of Forged in the Dark games, you will likely be very interested to see how the mission structure works and the extra gaming tech added into this iteration of the game.
Even for non-Forged in the Dark fans, I think there is some value to seeing the way that individual locations are quickly summarized, given iconic scenes, and a mechanical modification. It’s a great model for other games to use for detailing a setting and keeping details relevant to the action of the story. The overall plot of the game, and the decision points getting from one section to another, advancing on Skydagger Keep, could be drifted to other game systems or used for a model of other campaigns.
What are your favorite grim and dangerous fantasy mercenary stories? Did they ever get an official game treatment? If they did, what did or didn’t work to evoke the feeling of the setting? We want to hear from you below, so please, drop us a response!
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