You Should Try “Court of Blades”: Renaissance Magic and Gunpowder Skulduggery, Forged in the Dark

Okay, so this is rather more personal than my last pitch, seeing as building this game is what’s keeping me busy while the world outside gets progressively more bleak. My wife and I have been systematically building this game out of the bones of another game that I’ve mentioned pretty often on the site, Blades in the Dark. If you’re familiar with that system, you’ll be right at home on this one.

Court of Blades is a game of power politics, Renaissance magic, gunpowder diplomacy, and romantic skulduggery. It hinges upon characters designing a team of specialized problem-solvers for one of the noble Houses in a fantastic Venetian-style city-state where the game of politics does not penalize underhanded tactics. Their twin imperatives are to do the House’s bidding, engaging in perilous errands to accomplish the seasonally shifting goals of the House, while also proving themselves worthy of inclusion in the House as a titled member rather than the shifting cast of retainers and courtiers.

You’ve already risen so high, but to secure your place and ensure that your House ascends to the highest seat of power in the world, you will have to learn about your rival houses, advance your House’s agenda, and risk your lives in a world of duplicity and magic. The errands upon which you will be dispatched are perilous. The forces arrayed against you are pitiless. The bonds of family in the city of Ilrien are Forged in the Dark.

Why This One? What’s Different?

Good questions! I gush about Forged in the Dark games pretty often because they strike the sweet spot between mechanical complexity and narrative-focus. If you haven’t played Blades in the Dark, I highly encourage picking up a copy, pitching it to your friends, and running it. It’s phenomenal.

That being said, Court of Blades differs in the mechanical complexity of its factions. In Blades in the Dark, the factions each had a sample clock that the GM could tick as time went along, and the reputation of the Crew of PCs changed over time, but that was about it. Unless the GM was willing to draw narrative throughlines and their own conclusions, factions felt fairly static over repeated play-throughs. Court of Blades fixes that in typical Drake and Dice fashion by standing on the shoulders of giants and going through the pockets of other games for shiny-looking mechanics.

Yoink!

This game’s largest departure from other Forged in the Dark games is the Social Season. Every three sessions –errands, actually, but I’ve found that these are practically synonymous when a group hits its stride– the city, and all of the myriad agendas therein, advances. Plans unfurl. Some go well, and some hit a snag. To adjudicate this fairly without also feeling like the GM has too much on their plate between Social Seasons we’ve reached out toward a strange combination of methods that we’ve cribbed, adapted, modified, and grafted from some other groovy games.

First of all, there’s the Faction Turn that we’ve snagged from Stars Without Number. The rules for this one are sprawling and exceedingly granular. There are units, special actions, more than a couple of options for each of those, and plenty of die rolling. Each faction gets to declare an objective and then take coordinated actions with its units to achieve its various goals. It might be the bloodying of an enemy, creation of a zone of influence, or the acquisition of an asset. Altogether, it might actually be best played with a spreadsheet, but it undeniably creates a fantastic subtext for an unraveling story. It’s great for the weekday night planning session, but it needed to be abstracted if we were going to be able to use it and make using it not a whole new set of rules that the GM had to internalize and then spend a night playing by themselves.

Abstraction came to us through Legacy: Life Among the Ruins. This gem abstracts the various assets and strengths of a family into three primary stats. It gave organizations stats just like any other character. With this in mind, we can start uniformly comparing organizations and their ability to get various things done. Just like Action Ratings for characters, Houses get House Ratings. Only instead of Mind, Body, and Spirit (or Insight, Body, Resolve), Houses have Reach, Grasp, and Sleight.

  • Reach: Influence in Ilrien and abroad. Families roll Reach when they undertake an action that expands their sphere of control.
  • Grasp: A family’s ability to project force and control. Families roll Grasp when they undertake an action that wrests control of a resource or territory from another or defends their own.
  • Sleight: A family’s ability to hide its intentions or act subtly. Families roll Sleight when they undertake an action that hinges upon secrecy or misdirection.

So, objectives will be achieved by rolling these action ratings just like on any other long-term project, and then ticking the clocks as necessary. Genius! Only, how do we know what the House is trying to accomplish?

Yep.

Enter that old standby, the random chart. Each House will roll four dice and that generates one of 1296 possible objectives. They’ll be a little bare-bones, needing a little extra detail provided by the GM, but overall, it’s a quick process that can be accomplished at the table during a five-minute bathroom break. For instance, I’ll roll something up right now.

Another tumultuous season in Ilrien. Corvetto will be hard at work rushing an important magical thesis with their contacts in the Scholam Naturalis before competitors can publish first. Battaglia will be trying to subtly manipulate the internal destruction of an important caravan without allowing their efforts to be traced back to them. Bastien will be gaining the loyalty of a merchant ship without anyone else growing suspicious of the new trade route it will be following. Lovell will be trying to overtly negotiate a contract with that same merchant ship, putting the captain in something of a pickle. Maurisii in familiar Maurisii fashion, will be punishing the transgressions of a radical street alchemist who has been dabbling with a rare strain of dreamlily, exposing all who have bought from him to not insignificant risk. Irlanda will be shoring up its weaknesses, ensuring that none of its members are susceptible to bribery or blackmail.

These objectives become clocks that they will attempt to advance during the progression of the Social Season. The retainers can engage with them as they will, foiling or assisting as they learn of their rivals movements. The city will change as the game develops, and every season, regardless of whether the objective was achieved or stymied into the next season–they don’t go away until they are achieved or three seasons pass and they are counted as a failure–, a new objective will loom. In this way, city is not only a pressure cooker for the coterie, but the other Houses as well.

In essence, today we dedicated a lot of brain-bytes to making the GM’s job as far as the complexity of the machinations of the Great Game of the Esultare as easy as possible. If you’ve got four d6’s, you’ve got all you need to create the tangled web of intrigue, deceit, murder, and politics that makes Ilrien such a dangerous place to play.

Is This Just a Pitch Article?

Not entirely. The game’s setting material isn’t entirely finished and actually is in need of playtesting. It is, however, playable and entirely free. You can go check out the Court of Blades website for all of the details.

What Can We Learn?

Court of Blades was built on the foundation that factions are what lends richness and detail to a setting. In that regard, the maneuvering of factions and the mechanics therein are emphasized. This isn’t a game where you can kick in the door, grab the mcguffin and then scarper off to the next quest. Ilrien, the city where the game is set, is a world apart. The outside world is there, but it’s all backdrop for the maneuvering of powerful groups of people all trying to attain their goals.

The downfall of having factions in your personal game is that you have to commit some brain-bytes to figuring out what their objectives are and how they’re going to go about accomplishing them. Without that, they aren’t a faction so much as they are just a piece of set-dressing. It might be flavorful set-dressing, but unless the characters are impacted by the maneuvering of the faction–unless there’s some drama to mine to lend the world and the narrative some momentum–it’s not something that they’re going to see as a piece of the setting that they can interact with.

The factions in Court of Blades all have goals that might help or harm the needs of the PCs House, and the mechanics keep the momentum moving forward. Their clocks advance every season based on a roll for the action-ratings of the faction. In addition, another goal is added. Complexity ramps up, and the wheels keep turning.

This may well be too much political machination for your game, but the tables are highly portable. If your factions need a goal and you’re having trouble coming up with one in a vacuum, it’s easy enough to roll one up and massage it until it fits your world. Similarly, thinking about your factions in terms of their Reach, Grasp and Sleight might be a helpful way to adjudicate how far along in their goal they make it during every bout of heroic downtime. Roll to see how the world changes while the PCs dicker around.

What’s the Catch?

Court of Blades is not a wargame. While combat is definitely included in the list of things that retainers of the House are expected to be competent at, it’s much less about swords and tactical engagement than something like Dungeons and Dragons. Combat is abstracted and narrative in play, much like Dungeon World. Tough enemies might be represented by a clock to fill rather than a sack of hitpoints that slowly dwindles as a fight goes on.

Also like Dungeon World, this game shows its Powered by the Apocalypse roots by being much more conversational in practice. The GM is a facilitator rather than an authority. The narrative will move along as the players decide it does. GMs have to approach the games with a “hold on loosely” kind of mindset. They also roll very few dice. None at all if the mood takes them and they pawn Fortune rolls off on a player.

I know. It’s a distressing through-line.

I think it probably goes without saying that the political aspect is heavily focused. There are very few clear wins in the system. You’ll acquire exposure and shame even when you do your job well, and you’ll probably find yourself spending downtime actions making amends to the powers that be more often than you’d strictly like. However, if you’ve ever wanted to play a dashing bravo challenging the stuff-shirt Count to a duel at the fancy masquerade ball or the canny spymaster ferreting out the secrets of a breathing city while a mad-scientist necromancer tries to exhume a sorcerer general from the charm-laden barrow just outside town? Have I got a game for you.

In Summary

I made a game. It’s a love-letter to all of those deadly decadent courts found in fantasy fiction with a gloss of gunpowder and glamor, magic and murder. It’s in playtest right now, it’s free, and I wanted to share it with you. If it’s not your cup of tea, it’s got some highly portable faction mechanics that might be fun to retrofit into whatever game you like playing.

Updates will resume, and that adventure is on its way. There are five in the works, each one freer than the last. They just need a little more formatting and mapping before they’re ready for primetime. I release no content before its done, because I like you guys too much to drop half-baked nonsense on you in the guise of my best work.

Sorry. Not sorry.

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