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Sunday, 10 April 2016

Blood & Bronze & Charm

Of all the Scandinavian countries, Sweden is the most prolific in terms of the number of RPGs it has produced and had published in English. Most notable of these are Mutant Chronicles, recently published as a Third Edition by Modiphius Entertainment and Kult, itself about to receive a Third Edition following a successful Kickstarter campaign. The newest and latest Swedish RPG to be released in English is a much smaller affair, though no less interesting for that. What sets Blood & Bronze: A Fantasy Game of High Adventure and Role-Playing apart is its genre and setting—the latter more so than the former.  RPG apart is its genre and setting—the latter more so than the former. For Blood & Bronze that genre is in the ‘Peplum’ or Swords & Sandals genre, best typified by the popular films of early Italian cinema. Although the Swords & Sandal genre has been visited several times by various RPGs, such as Green Ronin Publishing’s Egyptian Adventures: Hamunaptra, The Trojan War, and Testament, and to some extent, Mongoose Publishing’s Conan The Roleplaying Game and Jaws of the Six Serpents from Silverbranch Games, though the latter two are more Swords & Sorcery than Swords & Sandals. The setting for Blood & Bronze is Ancient Mesopotamia, further to the East in the Cradle of Civilisation. 

Published by Cyclopean Games, Blood & Bronze is a Class and Level RPG set in the Bronze Age in a land between two rivers marked by vast cities and uncharted wilderness. Recovering from a severe, cataclysmic flood barely one hundred years before, this Mystical Mesopotamia is rich in faith, in foodstuffs, and in knowledge, but scarce in resources. Opportunities for adventure are thus rife—the long trade routes need to be protected and there are secrets that remain hidden from before the flood. It is a Humanocentric setting—there are no non-Human races given—in which the players take the roles of Mercenaries, Rogues, Mystics, Desert Farers, Courtesans, and Seers as they adventure across the land, have strange experiences, gain loot, and pay tribute to gain favour and standing. This is an RPG that has the look and feel of the Old School Renaissance, but in some ways has moved on from those roots.

Characters in Blood & Bronze are defined by six Abilities—Guile, Lore, Senses, Craft, Vigor, and Might. Each Ability has a Score and a Rating. The Score ranges between three and eighteen, but that for beginning characters is only rolled on two six-sided dice. The Score is also used in play to make Saving Throws against on a roll of a twenty-sided die. Its primary use is to derive a Rating—roughly a third of the associated Score—which indicates the number of six-sided dice to roll in skill checks and attack rolls. Each Class also offers a number of specific skills and specialisations. So a Mercenary has the Hardened and the Tackle Skills, but can select Specialisations such as Weapon Training, Skilled Negotiator, Field Medic, Cleave, and so on. The Rogue is a Scoundrel who can have Thievery, Mimic, Reptilian Reflexes, and Sly. The Mystic takes doses of Lotus Powder to cast spells like Dancing Shadows, Illusion, and Unbearable Presence, but the burden of doing so wearies the caster, reducing his Encumbrance limits. The Desert Farer is a tough traveller, able to become a desert Mirage, can be a Pathfinder, and may have an ear for languages with Tongues. The Courtesan is owed Favours, but can also have Allure, be a Dream Speaker, or use Theatrics to avoid harm. The Seer is a sorcerer who can mix bone salt and blood to cast sorceries like Spirit Ward, Far Sight, and Witch Flame, but there is a danger that if he carries too much, the bone salt will burn away or perhaps enable the spirits to possess the Seer’s body. 

Of the Classes, the Seer and the Mystic feel the most restricted, focusing as they do on their magics. The others all feel more flexible in terms of how they can develop over time. For example, one Mercenary might focus on mastering one type of weapon and wearing armour whereas another might become a commander who can give out orders with his Stratagems and as a Skilled Negotiator get better rates of pay. Many of these Classes would also work in other Swords & Sorcery settings.

To create a character, a player rolls two six-sided dice for each Ability, (optionally) rolls a Background—the character’s previous occupation or that of his family, selects a Class and any Skills as it allows. Suggested names and appearances are given for each Class.

Zilpund the Hyena
Guise: Graceful & Calculating Eyes

Rank 1 Rogue

Guile 11/+3
Lore 5/+1
Senses 11/+3
Craft 8/+2
Vigor 11/+3
Might 8/+2

Endurance: 8

Background: Musician 

Skills: Preternatural Fortune, Vocational Proficiency, 

Weapons: Short bow: dmg 1d6; missile: reach 2 + 12 arrows (wt 2); a small club: dmg 1d6; an obsidian awl: damage 1d4 (backstab +d8).
Leather cap: armor 2, wt 2.

Equipment: undersized garments, a wicker beggar’s bowl, a length of rope made from sinews, a stolen copper bracelet, cedar wood harts, basic trade tools (as
per background), a vagrant’s purse.

Blood & Bronze uses two sets of mechanics. The first is for Skill Tests. In this a character rolls a number of six-sided dice equal to the appropriate Ability. Rolls of five and six are counted as successes. There are two Basic Skills associated with each of the six Abilities, for example, Manipulate and Disguise/Conceal for Guile, Make and Treat Wounds for Craft, and Expert Knowledge and Advise for Lore. 

Each Success rolled grants an extra result. For example, for each success rolled for the Advise skill lets a character grant another person—a player character or an NPC—a reroll of the dice as long as that other person heeds the character’s advice. In some cases, the outcome of these rolls can be altered. For example, Advise allows rerolls whilst Hurl allows a character to use each additional success to modify the first. It is important to note that all characters whatever their Class can use Basic Skills, this in addition to their own Class Skills. All twelve of the basic skills are listed on the character sheet as well as the effects of successes for each.

The second mechanic is the Saving Throw, which is made against the Score of the appropriate Ability. Now although the Score for an Ability can go over twelve, this is relatively rare and it does mean that the characters are relatively fragile. The real issue with the Saving Throw rules in Blood & Bronze is that it is not immediately clear which Ability is used for each type of Saving Throw. The rulebook does list these, but they are not obvious in the rulebook.

Combat in Blood & Bronze uses the skill mechanic. Melee attacks use the Use Force skill with extra successes allowing more damage dice to be rolled or other effects to take place, whereas successes with the Defend/Guard skill force rerolls of those damage dice or allows a character to place himself in the way of an incoming attack intended for another. The Hurl and Shoot skills are used for ranged attacks, but these can be evaded by rolls of the Senses Ability. Armour can negate damage, which calls for a Saving Throw against the armour’s Armour Score—Stiffened Leather’s score is six and Full Bronze’s score is ten, for example. Unless a twenty is rolled on the Saving Throw, Armour always negates damage and what the Saving throw is for is whether or not the armour is destroyed in the process. In comparison, shields reduce the damage rolled on the dice.

The damage of all of the dice is added together and suffered by the target. Worse, any maximum rolls on the dice allow the dice to be rolled again and added to the total. Damage is deducted from a character’s Encumbrance, which reduces his capacity to carry his gear and the likelihood that he will suffer fatigue—and fatigue reduces his Ability Scores (and thus his ability to make Saving Throws). A character is Incapacitated at an Encumbrance of zero and at an Encumbrance of -3, the character is Injured. At this point, a character must suffer a consequence—scarred, maimed, or dead—but over the course of his career, a character can only take each consequence once. Which means that combat in Blood & Bronze can thus be fairly deadly. It is actually advised to keep the combat deadlier for NPCs lest prolonged fights result in regular player character death. Now this likely simply applies to the equivalent of ‘mooks’, with henchmen and bosses being treated more like player characters.

In the long term though, characters in Blood & Bronze do not earn Experience Points; rather they buy them… Actually what a character does is go on adventures and finds loot; and with that loot, he pays tribute to gain a Rank. A character’s Rank is a measure of his standing in his class, his culture, and his community, and every man of good pays tribute to the gods. In Blood & Bronze, this Ninlil, the Queen of No Court, the patron deity of adventurers and caravan-folk, of shipwrecks, graverobbers, and runaways. Make sufficient tribute and a character can gain a Rank. Similarly, a character can enter into a Covenant with a god, a monster, a ruler, or an organisation, and in paying tribute gain Covenant Ranks. These are separate to Class Rank, but both must be accorded tribute, lest the character suffers the wrath of his master or mistress and possible effective loss of a Rank.

Now what might be the benefits of Covenant Rank is not discussed in Blood & Bone. Which is a shame as they are a good idea as is that of paying in tribute to gain Ranks. It is succinct and elegant means of getting around the old Dungeons & Dragons idea of gaining Experience Points for gaining treasure by literally making it the point. Plus it gets rid of having to track Experience Points and it feels in keeping with the setting. Just some six Levels are provided for in these core rules.

For the Referee there is a couple of pages of good advice on running the game and creating NPCs as well as the detailed outlines of Reaver Fort and two wilderness locations that he can develop and run. None of the locations are exactly adventures that can be run direct from the page and each will need some development. The other advice is solid and useful, though how NPCs are written and handled in the RPG is not clear and this is perhaps the biggest fault in Blood & Bronze.

Physically, Blood & Bronze is cleanly presented. It needs an edit or two in places, but in general the writing is clear. It does need an index though as there is lot of odd terms and rules to have to find. Where it shines in terms of its presentation is its art and cartography. The latter, by Sam Perkins-Harbin, is of Mystical Mesopotamia and really nicely done. The former though, is much, much better—superb even. All of the illustrations in Blood & Bronze are line art pieces by Rich Longmore and consist of two-page spreads between chapters that impart much of the setting’s exotic, almost Cecil B. DeMille-like sense of grandeur.

As much charm and sense of place that Blood & Bronze, the RPG is not without its problems. The first issue is a lack of explanation of what each Class is and does—despite there being room for a simple summary in each case. The second is  more problematic—the lack of examples. There are no examples of character generation; of the game’s mechanics—the skills or saving throws or the combat system; or of an example of play. This lack impedes the learning of the game and it fails to showcase how the designers intend the RPG to be played. The third issue is a lack of monsters and non-human threats. Now Blood & Bronze provides a way around this that should allow the Referee to draw from the very many bestiaries available, but herein lies the fourth issue—the guidelines for this do feel underwritten and there are no suggestions as to what monsters might suit the setting of Mystical Mesopotamia.

Blood & Bronze: A Fantasy Game of High Adventure and Role-Playing is not perfect. It is underdeveloped in places and leaves the Referee needing more in others—the lack of examples and of monsters, in particular. More background would also have been nice too. None of these issues are insurmountable, although an introductory adventure would have been a decent addition to the core rules. To say that Blood & Bronze could do with a second edition to fix its issues feels unfair, because there is lot to like about the RPG—the effort to make the game more than just a Retroclone, the interesting Classes, the use of a single mechanic for skills and actions throughout, and of course, the exoticism of the setting that is explored just enough to leave you wanting more detail, but ultimately realised in the terrific illustrations. Instead, what Blood & Bronze really wants is its own ‘White Box’.

The roots of Blood & Bronze may lie in Dungeons & Dragons and the Old School Renaissance—and it should be made clear that those roots do show, especially in the Classes—but its use of a single skills mechanic and its shift away from the Tolkienesque Medievalism of its forebears, make it more of a post-Old School Renaissance RPG. Above all, Blood & Bronze: A Fantasy Game of High Adventure and Role-Playing is an enticing treatment of alternate and exotic heroic age.