Blade Bind: Sword-Powered Tragedy

I've been working on a storygame called Blade Bind since the start of the year, since just after the Shinobigami Kickstarter funded. It's no coincidence; I've always felt more comfortable writing quite rigid, almost board-gamey rules structures, and Shinobigami really showed me that it's possible to structure a fun, energetic game that generates great fiction around a simple structured rules-first approach.

I've been wanting to talk about Blade Bind on Storygames for a while now, because I think it may appeal to a lot of people here, but I've been holding back because I didn't really need any help with the rules and didn't want to seem like a scummy self-promoter. But now that I've got the game in its almost-final form, I'm bursting with enthusiasm and want to tell everyone about it! Its direct storygame ancestry can be traced back to Shinobigami (basic approach), Eternal Contenders (GMless, fighting, card-based) and Wield (the concept of weapons "wielding" their heroes).

Blade Bind is set in the modern world (although it's largely setting agnostic), but where people with strong convictions can attract the attention of powerful supernatural entities known as Blades. A Blade manifests as a six foot long sword with a giant eye. It will offer to give you the power to achieve your goals, and if you make a deal with it you become one of the Chosen — someone with the power to raze a skyscraper or an army, and who can shrug off the effects of lesser weaponry. Only another of the Chosen can stand in your way.

The game is GMless, designed for one-shots, character-vs-character, eschews "stats and skills" for "relationships and goals", has a power-vs-control gauge that inexorably steers you towards self-destruction, and uses a deck of regular playing cards to resolve Duels — which are the only form of mechanised conflict resolution.

The setup is a bit like Fiasco. You end up with a complex, conflicted situation, and the game explodes out of the blocks from the first scene. While there is a gradual build-up of Power as the game progresses, the stakes are high right from the beginning.

The duelling system is informed by my several years' experience learning historical European martial arts (specifically, the English backsword of George Silver, but the Blades are more like longswords). I've worked hard to make an abstracted system that really gives the feel of the back-and-forth of an actual swordfight without bogging down in fiddly details. Whoever wins the fight gets to either decide the fate of a focal plot device, or they can rewrite a goal for themselves or one of their defeated foes. This is a bit like rewriting Fates in Tenra Bansho Zero, in that it's a mechanical choice that creates new motivations and a revised picture of who your character is.

I've done quite a bit of internal playtesting, including white-room tests of the duelling system and the Special Techniques each Blade has, and also several full-length games. I'm at the point where I'm happy with the current form of the rules, and I've even done most of the layout. I still have several illustrations to do, as well as the final record sheet, and I'm playing about with setting up a custom deck of cards.

I'm strongly considering running a small Kickstarter for it in the next few months, using DriveThruRPG's at-cost coupons to keep things as simple as possible for my first Kickstarter, and to keep the final costs as low as possible for the backers. I partly want to run a Kickstarter so I can crowdsource a bunch of eyes on the rules and hopefully get some feedback from external playtesting so I can polish the book to a shine before I release the PDF and POD versions to the public. I'd love to raise enough money to pay for an editor, but apart from that, the KS would mostly be a pre-order system.

So... yeah! That's where I'm up to. I don't really have any questions for you guys, but if anyone likes the sound of it and would like to know more, I'd love to talk about it and answer your questions! I would also welcome any advice or feedback on my Kickstarter plans. I'm not too fussed if it doesn't fund though, as I can always finish the book off and release it myself like I did with my last game.


  • That sounds very cool, and I like your approach in pitching the game with such a detailed write-up.

    Do you have any materials for us to look at - handouts, summaries, excerpts?
  • edited July 2016
    Thanks! I was trying not to just do a drive-by promo thing, and instead give a bit more insight into the design.

    I don't have many small parts of the game I can show, but I'm not too worried about letting people look over the draft manuscript. That's the Final Beta; I've since moved the working draft over to InDesign, where I've done 95% of the layout work and reviewed/rewritten/edited the text a few more times. It's a pretty focussed and compact game, so I think it's hard to get a good idea what it's like without being able to see the whole thing.

    Don't put any effort into combing the draft for errors or unclear bits, as chances are I've already fixed them — but if you do see anything that jumps out or is obviously missing I wouldn't object to hearing about it! :)

    In particular, I've recently playtested and reviewed the special Techniques, so the draft versions are all out of date. But you should get the idea.
  • Thanks! Personally, good sample material (like a beta draft) and this kind of insightful, detailed explanation of the game gets me a lot more interested in the product than the more typical "look over here!" sales tactics. I'll be sure to look through when I get a minute!
  • I've been trying to think how I might put together a free sample document, like I did with my first RPG, to give people a look at what it's all about and also to help with getting the word out once I Kickstart or release it.

    I'm thinking I might build it around the complete but basic Duelling rules, and use the rest of the doc to provide an outline of what you get with the rest of the game — the expectations of play, setup, scene structure, and other additional content such as the Blade Techniques. That way, I won't be effectively "giving away" the whole game when I try to show people what it's like!
  • OK, I just uploaded a duelling primer of sorts to DriveThruRPG. It's just the duelling rules; nothing you don't see in the Beta draft I linked earlier (apart from a few illustrations and the general layout design).
  • That's an interesting primer! If it works well, it sounds like it would be an engaging card game to play.

    How does it interface with the rest of the game - in particular, the drama and tragedy of the game?
  • Characters have two primary stats: Will and Power.

    You get Will from the current state of your goals, which are known as Threads (because they connect you to characters, items, locations and such that are worth fighting for). Completed Threads give you a big Will boost, Threads in-progress give you a bit less, and Threads that are no longer possible to achieve give you no Will at all. You also start with a few free points.

    You get Power from your Blade. You start with a little, but the Blade tempts you to get more at the start of each Duel. Power determines how many cards you draw, and it's a lot harder to win if you start with a card deficit.

    The problem is, if your Power ever exceeds your Will, the Blade takes over and you become Bladebound. You'll go about destroying the things you once cared about, and then try to kill the character wielding your Blade's ancient enemy.

    Winning a duel lets you achieve one of your goals or rewrite a Thread belonging to yourself or one of those you defeated. While this often increases your own Will, there are ripple effects on other people's Will – for example, if it's your goal to destroy an artefact, but another character's goal to protect it, then destroying it will raise your Will while causing theirs to plummet.

    So you have a mess of conflicting goals, and you need to reach for more Power in order to secure your Threads, but at the same time your Will will be fluctuating as everyone else acts at cross-purposes, so you have to be careful how far you push it in case you go over the edge!

    That's the detailed answer; I hope it addresses your question! The TL:DR version is, I guess: the duelling system is an engaging and thematic way to decide who has final narrative rights in a given scene, and it only gets used if the characters can't agree on how things should go.
  • What are instructions to the players regarding what they should advocate for? If they are the character's advocate, that will produce a certain behavior around Will versus Power. If they are supposed to lead their character to where they think a good story lies, that will produce a very different behavior. Is it spelled out? Does it work both ways, mechanically? Does it work both ways if not everyone is known to be on board?
  • I've pointed out that the players and their characters aren't necessarily in it for the same reasons; the characters are trying to achieve their goals, but the characters are there to collaborate in creating an enjoyable melodrama. I also advise gaming the system as much as you want, because much like Fates in Tenra Bansho Zero, playing to the mechanics creates fictional output and leads to character development.

    I think you can approach it from either a character-centric or mechanics-centric point of view. Threads are rigidly structured, not freeform. They act as strong indicators of what you should be trying to achieve, and if you manage to get on top of them all then you have the luxury of being able to look around and figure out how you can manipulate everyone else's Threads in your favour.

    There are some emergent properties of the system that I don't want to spell out explicitly in the text. Some of that is in the Duelling rules, and some is in the way Threads, Will, and Power interact. I think if people approach the game at the surface level, following their Threads and just trying to do the best they can for their character, it still creates a good play experience. But once you've seen a game through, you get a better understanding of how you might manipulate the situation to your advantage.

    I spell out in the expectations of play that it's not about winning, but about creating and savouring the drama. So even if your character does really badly and dies, it's still an enjoyable – if bittersweet – experience if you approach it that way. But hey, I do bill it as a tragedy!
  • Thank you for the thorough answers! You sound like you are knowledgeable as a designer and have a good grasp on what your game does and why. That's a big selling point to me!
  • Yes, it's an interesting game and you seem to know what you're doing! It's too much of an "American-style" Story game to me (rigid scene types, scheduled conflicts, etc.), so I don't think I'd enjoy it, but for people who like games like Contenders and Remember Tomorrow, this seems like a solid purchase.
  • Thanks for the votes of confidence, everyone!

    @Simon_Pettersson It's interesting that you'd classify it as an "American-style" storygame. It's true that it shares some DNA with Contenders (via Eternal Contenders), but it was really Shinobigami that persuaded me it's OK to base an RPG around a pretty board-gamey and relatively rigid set of rules.

    While it's true that I do classify scenes into three different types, they're inherently flexible – they're more about describing the different ways things might play out, and aren't rigid or mechanically proscriptive like scene types in Contenders.

    I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "scheduled conflicts", though..? Do you mean the way it pushes toward end-game deathmatches between Bladebound, or that the only way to change things is to fight about it?
  • edited August 2016
    Thanks for the votes of confidence, everyone!

    @Simon_Pettersson It's interesting that you'd classify it as an "American-style" storygame. It's true that it shares some DNA with Contenders (via Eternal Contenders), but it was really Shinobigami that persuaded me it's OK to base an RPG around a pretty board-gamey and relatively rigid set of rules.
    I don't know much about Shinobigami, but the archetypical "american-style" story game is to me a series of scenes of specified types, where every scene should have a conflict, and exactly one conflict, and after the conflict the scene ends. I'd contrast it with "Nordic-style" story games, where the structure is more open and exploratory, and even though there might be conflict rules, it's up to you when to engage in them, and many scenes are set just to establish or explore the characters and their relationships.

    I'm not at all sure this is a reasonable set of labels; it's just my associations. Jason Morningstar's games are generally solidly in the "American-style" genre to me, for example.
    I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "scheduled conflicts", though..? Do you mean the way it pushes toward end-game deathmatches between Bladebound, or that the only way to change things is to fight about it?
    Reskimming the game, I may be projecting a bit, but I get the feeling that you generally set a scene with the conflict already in mind, as opposed to setting a scene and seeing what happens, escalating to a conflict only if the fiction happens to guide you in that direction.
  • edited August 2016
    Ah, I see. Yeah, most of the time I suppose a conflict is effectively inevitable. The Focus will choose a goal to shoot for, and the other players decide if it's worth standing in their way. If nobody has a connection to the goal, or if they don't think it's worth fighting over for whatever reason, then the Focus simply achieves it. That is, most of the time you're saying "I'm going to do this. Is anyone going to try and stop me?"

    You can try to talk out a scene rather than coming in swords blazing, though. It's possible to persuade another character to adopt a different course of action (including changing their Threads or surrendering control of a "Knot" plot-device) through roleplaying alone. But if the negotiations fail or reach an impasse, you have two options: drop it, or draw your Blade and try to impose your will on the situation.

    I've seen people try to negotiate in multiple playtests; sometimes it works, occasionally they back down, and often it comes to swords drawn.

    Incidentally, your American-style definition there fits Shinobigami to a tee.
  • To be clear, I'm not saying this is a bad thing. There are plenty of fine games in this tradition and they're popular for a reason. I've just found they're less my cup of tea than games which are … less direct? I'd probably still enjoy playing your game, and I'd love to try it, but since there is no shortage of games I want to try, I probably won't push for it. I'll keep it in mind when people are asking for recommendations of fighty anime-esque games, though! :)
  • Thank you for keeping it in mind! And I absolutely understand it's about preferences, not a judgment. For my part, I hope I didn't come across as too defensive; I was just interested in perceived classifications, and trying to provide some nuanced insights.

    And yes, it certainly is a very direct game! >:D
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