Lessons from Running Band of Blades

James M Hewitt
10 min readMay 1, 2021

If you’re just here for the Band of Blades tips, and you don’t care about the broader context, skip down to the “Preamble Over” header. I won’t be offended!

A few years ago I ran Blades in the Dark for the first time, after reading about it on Shut Up & Sit Down and getting incredibly excited. It was great fun, and although the campaign was cut short when I got a bit too busy with other stuff, I always intended to run it again. About eighteen months ago I heard about Band of Blades, a published adaptation of the Blades in the Dark engine which cast the players as the scant remnants of a mighty army, fleeing across a foreign land from the vast undead horde that decimated their ranks. The setting grabbed me, but the idea of a self-contained campaign with built-in urgency and a very clear end point sold me on the idea.

So when lockdown kicked off about a year ago, I gathered a small group for a Band of Blades campaign. It was my first time running the game, my first time running (or even playing) an RPG online, and I hadn’t managed to run a game at all for over a year, so I was a bit nervous going on. Sure enough, the system proved to have a few stumbling blocks. We all had a good time with it, but when (thirteen sessions later) we wrapped things up, I spent a fair while chatting with the others about the lessons we’d learned and how we’d run it differently in future.

A few days later, a friend mentioned the game, having seen my tweets about running it, and asked if I had any advice for someone who wanted to run it for the first time. The rest of this piece is an adapted version of what I sent him. I originally posted it on the Blades in the Dark subreddit, which is a great place for all kinds of advice and inspiration for games from that family.

This is my guide for running Band of Blades. It’s entirely my own opinion, based on my own experiences. If you’ve run it and you’d like to add anything, please pop a comment below! If you know someone who’s considering running it, maybe drop them a link to this — it might help them avoid some of the issues we had.

Preamble over. Let’s go!

Couple of notes before I get started!

  • This was written for someone who had some experience running Blades in the Dark, so it probably makes a few assumptions in that regard.
  • I’m not going to cover mechanical differences, between the two games; there are plenty of resources out there already doing that. Also, I’m assuming that you — the person who might benefit from this advice — has read the rulebook. Some stuff might not make sense until you do.
  • This is really aimed at people who are looking to run games of BoB, not people who are looking to play in them. There are things that could probably be considered spoilers, so I wouldn’t recommend reading on unless you’re going to be the GM.
  • This is our experience of the game; I’m sure other people will have different opinions, and might think some of these points completely miss the mark. I’d love to hear from other people who’ve completed the campaign with their group!
  • The whole piece was originally a series of bullet points, so apologies if the segues seem a bit disjointed in places.

Okay, here we go. A load of things that I wish I’d known before I ran the first session…

Before you get started, you (as GM) really need to familiarise yourself with all of the locations. I took the same approach I did with Blades in the Dark factions and districts — I skimmed them, and read them in more detail as they came into the story. That doesn’t really work here. Specifically, you need to read the Special Missions for each location, because there are some rather important little nuggets of narrative information tucked away in them, which you can foreshadow once you know they’re coming up. You also need to read the whole of the Skydagger Keep location.

On that note, the Skydagger Keep location isn’t just a location — it’s the endgame rules. (It’s an odd place for them, but I’ll get onto this book’s approach to information design in a bit.) At the end of the game the group gets a score based on various achievements; I’d recommend letting the group know at the start of the campaign that this is what happens at the end. Then go through the things that score points — some of them are very specific and tied to locations — and make sure you give your players the opportunity to achieve them throughout the campaign. This might mean, for example, offering specific Special Missions at a location.

Top tip! If you’re playing online, Roll20 has premade Band of Blades character sheets which are FANTASTIC AND MAGICAL. I really enjoyed Roll20, after running BitD in person; these games tend to be very tablet-hungry, so it’s nice to have a) a virtual table and b) easily accessible note sections that every player can use. I made a “campaign table” and a “mission table” as two separate tabs and it really helped get into the swing of things. Also, we used the Journal section extensively, but more on that in a bit.

Here’s the campaign table…

I used Roll20 Marketplace assets for the background graphics (“Vile Tiles: Table Tops”) and clocks (“A Time For Treachery”). For the map, I took the one that was included with the digital download of the game and tattered the edges in Photoshop. The red flag pins are mission locations, and the blue gem is the base camp location. As you can see, I put a load of quick reference bits at the bottom — these were just grabbed from the pdf rulebook using the Windows snipping tool.

Here’s the mission table…

It’s a lot more straightforward, and I used the blank sheet of paper for doodling maps and whatnot during missions. I added the quick reference sheets as I wasn’t sure what else to include — we never really used them, but all three of my players were experienced FitD GMs, so that’s probably not a universal.

You need to be a rather vicious and dole out a lot of harm / corruption from the start, and you need to keep that pressure up. You need to be killing NPC Rookies on a regular basis — or, at least, introducing their death into the fiction, which the player characters can resist (taking stress in the process) or use Protect actions against (taking injuries in the process). The Specialists in BoB are seriously tough, even more so than in Blades, and have a lot of skills and equipment to help them mitigate damage — so you have to push them hard, otherwise they’ll coast through the campaign, maintain high morale and not have much of a struggle. I didn’t get the hang of this until the latter half of the campaign. Morale — which drops whenever characters (even NPC rookies) die — should ideally be floating around 4–6, I reckon, unless the players work hard to get it up to 8+.

If, like us, you have three players and a Medic on the roster, you’re unlikely to see many Rookies in play. Just something to bear in mind. Other than that, three players worked fine. We didn’t miss the Spymaster or Lorekeeper, although I’d love to see how the campaign changes when they’re present.

Think carefully about which Chosen and Broken you use, and how you’ll incorporate them into the campaign. We had Zora, Blighter and Breaker. I don’t think I’d choose Zora again; it seemed very odd to have her, the fiery war-god with a big flaming sword, hanging around back at camp, but I was also really cagey about through an all-powerful GM NPC into the mix, because I didn’t want to detract from the player characters. As such, she was a background figure except when she stepped up to do something specific.
Blighter is great mileage, and I get the feeling she was designed first — her forces are really well-rounded and interesting, with plenty of ways you can use them in a game. Breaker… not so much, in my opinion. The Hexed were a fantastic surprise the first time they appeared, but after that the players were very wary of villagers with blank expressions. Shadow Witches are cool, but the rest of her enemies are a very weird grab-bag that I just couldn’t quite get my head around using effectively. I’d be very interested to see how Blighter / Render would play out.

Side note — the names for the Broken forces are fairly naff (they don’t feel like they fit the naming conventions for anything else in the setting), and if I ran this again I’d just describe the enemies and let the players come up with names for them, then use those. This is something I really like about Best Left Buried, and I’m stealing it. So there.

There’s a heck of a lot going on in a campaign, so thorough notes are vital. I think at a minimum you need to keep records of all missions (location, mission type, reward/penalty, mission team, outcome, casualties) and all squads (notable events from missions / campaign phases, notes about the rookies / soldiers in the squads). Having notes on the squads meant that whenever we started a new Primary mission, we had a good idea of who our characters were and what they’d been through already. We divvied this note-keeping up, as with everything else — the Quartermaster took notes on the missions, and the Marshall kept notes on each squad. However, I also started using https://kumu.io to create relationship maps between the characters, which was really helpful in the later game when I wanted to start tying up story threads. Basically, whenever two characters interacted in a meaningful way, I’d add a connection between them. It was a nice visual way of representing the bonds across the Legion, and although it looked messy as anything it was easy enough to navigate by focusing on one character at a time.

Here’s what it looked like at the end of the campaign:

I’ve got the bad guys on there, too; it was good to track interactions between the forces as well as within the Legion. In the software you can isolate individuals, which makes all the other connections / unconnected characters drop away — which makes it a lot clearer. I’d do that before a mission for each of the characters who was involved, and check if there was anything to keep in mind.

Speaking of notes, I found it VERY useful to have a “to-do list” for each session. Basically, I had a master list which showed the Mission Sequence and Campaign Sequence in a step-by-step fashion, and before each session I’d prep a list which picked up from where we’d left off last time. This saved a LOT of time that would otherwise have been spent trying to remember exactly which thing happens next. Oh, and if possible — it’s not always easy to do this, of course — try to end each session at the “Choose Mission Focus” step, because I found the Missions in BoB a lot harder to come up with than the Scores in BitD. In my experience Scores are fairly player-led, but you’re doing a lot more of the lifting here (it’s balanced by the players doing a lot of lifting in the campaign phase) — especially if they choose the Special Missions, some of which are weird. [Side note — since writing this, I’ve run an awful lot more Blades in the Dark, and I don’t know if I still agree with this particular piece of advice. Putting too much prep into a Mission feels like wasted effort; you just need a few obstacles and a couple of details, and that should be enough. I’d love to put together a resource like the fantastic Blades in the Dark Heist Deck before I run another Band of Blades campaign, to make this process easier.]

Something we didn’t really twig until way later than we should have is that each Squad needs a named Captain (just one of the members of the squad). This is relevant in at least one of the Back at Camp scenes, which is “a squad talks about home, and asks their Captain about theirs”). The fact that it’s a Captain, and not a Sergeant, is a hint at something else we missed — the Legion has been utterly annihilated. The “squads” were probably Companies before Ettenmark Fields, and the “Captains” are Rookies because they’ve been hastily field-promoted. Once we realised this we brought it into the narrative a lot more, and it would have been nice to have used it earlier.

Okay, the big final point. The rulebook is, unfortunately, a hot mess from a usability / information design point of view. Even if you already know Blades, it takes a fair while to get your head around everything. The writing doesn’t help in places; some things (Effect, for instance) are a lot more codified and mechanical (as opposed to narrative-led) in this than in Blades, but this doesn’t feel like they’re always explained as clearly as they could be. Some terms (Heavy) have more than one meaning, which can lead to confusion. And the rules are spread out across the 300+ page book, without an index or any easy way of finding them. I ended up creating my own rules document in Google Drive, pulling together all of the rules from various places into a single easily navigable document, and it was a massive help.

There we go. I hope this is helpful to someone! I should add that, above all else, we had a great time playing Band of Blades. The game lets you tell a fantastic story, and the fact that it’s deliberately time-limited is a real bonus. I’m itching to run it again, and put all of the stuff I learned from this campaign into practice.

Best of luck with your own games!

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James M Hewitt

James likes writing. He writes too many words. He has a 160 character limit here, though, and that's kept him in check. This time, at least. Phew.