Fun with Abilities (3 of n): "Push," "Assist," and "Group Actions"

I have had a lot of good times discussing “character optimization” in the context of D&D and similar games. I usually don’t go in for that with Forged in the Dark games. The implementation varies too much from table to table, the game is just too open-ended, and the character creation frameworks are also usually wide open to such an extent that just reviewing the options would be daunting. Plus in the original Blades there just aren’t that many abilities that really interact with each other to create “combos.”

EDIT: Also, a group of soldiers who train together, it makes more fictional sense to me that the legion would try to coordinate training around a doctrine, whereas I have a hard time imagining most Doskvol Scoundrels trying too hard to deploy a complex combo in-character.

Band of Blades feels a bit different from the others, though. The character building framework is more complex and more codified: two heritage traits, max two veteran abilities, maybe a rookie ability, and then whatever your playbook gets you. It also has a surprising number of abilities that directly add onto or feed into each other. This creates a bunch of cool “themes” you can build around, and then those turn out to plug into each other in some fun ways, too.

Let’s start with “pushing.” There are six abilities I found related to pushing in some way.

Weaponmaster (heavy): grants potency in melee combat when you push
War Machine (heavy): when you push, you may reduce enemy threat (or perform a feat of strength)
Backup (heavy): when you assist someone, they can push for only 1 stress (also grants +resist when protecting)
Sharpshooter (sniper): when you push, you can use suppression fire or shoot at extreme range
Eat Iron, Shit Nails (soldier): when you push, ignore all harm penalties and get +1d to resist consequences
Relentless (soldier): you may spend Grit to push.

The first thing that catches my eye is that it looks like you could combine Weaponmaster with War Machine for a super melee action, or War Machine and Sharpshooter for hyper-effective suppression fire, and optionally throw in Eat Iron, Shit Nails so you ignore wounds at the same time. This makes your pushes very effective, but there’s still a couple of problems. First, pushing is expensive. Soldiers starts with only 6 stress to spend, and only recover 3 per liberty, so you won’t always even get that. Add in the occasional assist or resist and it gets hard to push more than once or at most twice per mission. Talking some other Legionnaires into taking Backup could help, but let’s say we need to be self-sufficient.

One way around this is to take Hardened 1 or 2 times to extend the stress bar to 8 or 10. If you’re doing this you probably want to play a Noble Orite so that you can always boost liberty to get your whole bar back. This is a good build for a Heavy that begins play as a specialist. Weapon Master, War Machine, Hardened x2, and Eat Iron, Shit Nails is achievable in a long campaign and leaves you 1 shy of both the veteran and total ability caps. You could also skip Weaponmaster and take the Vengeful Orite trait instead, which grants potency when you have wound penalties.

Alternatively, a Rookie who starts with Just a Kid can grab both Relentless and Eat Iron, Shit Nails immediately on making Soldier. (You could take Hard Knocks as your rookie ability instead to accelerate your XP gain). Add at least one more dot of Grit for 2 free pushes per mission, then grab the Heavy advances as veteran abilities and/or promote up to Heavy depending on force structure needs and what gear you value. Staying Soldier gives you the option to pick up stuff like Cavalry and ride down the enemy’s key targets. Now you don’t necessarily need to be Orite for stress relief, though the option to boost healing is also very attractive. You could instead go Bartan for the free reliquary, Zemyati for group action bonuses or wound mitigation, or go panyar traveler and run down the baddies at high speed with a big weapon.

Now that we’ve solved the stress problems related to repeatedly pushing yourself to fight elites and the Infamous, the other problem is that this is a good way to take lots of wounds and corruption. EISN keeps you effective as long as you stay pushing, but it doesn’t help you walk away afterwards or get in shape for your next mission. There are a huge number of heritage traits, playbook abilities, and chosen abilities that interact with wound healing, wound penalties, rewards for getting wounded, and so on. These enable several interesting builds in their own right, but lots of them make good add on to a pushing build also. We’ll get there in a later installment, but not the immediate next one.

TLDR character spotlight:

Orite (Noble) Heavy: Weaponmaster, War Machine, Hardened. (Luxury: Hardened 2, Eat Iron Shit Nails, Vigorous, Hard Knocks, etc.)
Orite (Noble) Sniper: Sharpshooter, War Machine, Hardened.
Rookie (Just a Kid/Hard Knocks) -> Soldier (Relentless, Eat Iron Shit Nails), War Machine, Weapon Master. Optionally promote to Heavy or buy Anchor dots.


Part 2 of n: fun with “assist”

There are only two abilities in Band of Blades that directly interact with the “assist” action:

Backup (Heavy): When you assist someone, they may push for 1 stress. (Also, you get +1d to resist when you protect others)
Logistical Support (Officer): You may spend a Channels to assist someone with preparation or supplies. This grants +2d instead of +1 and doesn’t require your presence or participation.

Fortunately for us, they’re pretty good together, and someone with both makes a great partner for someone focused on pushing themselves, as discussed above. You can roll an officer with Logistical Support, take Backup as your first veteran ability and be basically “done” with the assist build and do whatever you like, or go Orite/hardened for the big stress pool again. But suppose we wanted to double down on these themes somehow.

Many Officers build around group actions, but suppose we want a “hands off” Officer who leads from behind while setting the squad up to succeed. Officer School isn’t normally one of my favorite Officer abilities, but it fits really well here. The bonus to research rolls helps point your squad in the right direction, the insight resist bonus stacks with backup when you protect your squad from getting caught or making mistakes, and the narrative permission to know obscure things helps justify the Logistics assists. A second veteran ability could be Chemist for supportive alchemicals, Loaded for Bear (using utility slots to save on Channels), or something weird like Infiltrator (combines with Officer School to enable some Indiana Jones shenanigans).

Of course, Backup’s resist bonus also encourages you to protect others a lot, rendering all the wound-related and resist-related abilities salient, too.

TLDR builds

Orite Officer (noble,?): Logistical Support, Backup. Max Channels, then take Hardened.
Bartan Officer (educated,?): Officer School, Logistical Support, Backup. Max Channels, then take Chemist.
Rookie (Hard Knocks/Jack of All Trades) -> Soldier (Loaded for Bear)->Backup->Promote to Officer (Logistical Support).


Fun with abilities (3 of n): group actions

Leading a group action is already a very powerful option under the default rules. It has substantial costs and limitations

–You must be able to coordinate with your team and all participants must be capable of the same action
–scale may hinder actions like scout and maneuver
–the leader risks taking a large amount of stress
–and all participants risk harm or other consequences

But it has substantial benefits

–Bringing the squad in for scale may improve effect or reduce harm
–You may roll lots of dice and thus have a good chance to skate by on a 6

There are just two Officer abilities and one Zemyati trait that explicitly interact with group actions, but they are wild, and it’s possible to get all three on a Zemyati Officer very early in the campaign.

Loyal (Zemyati): +1d when you participate in a group action
Tactician (Officer): max 1 stress for leading a group action
Lead from the Front (Officer): When you lead a group action, may increase or decrease scale one step, and may crit if two different players each roll a 6

With all three, every group action gives you an extra die for at most one stress, so it’s better than pushing in that sense, and you’ll usually get big improvements to effect and position too. The only remaining problems are the risk to each participant and the limits to actions all participants have the gear and narrative permission for. We can improve this, then, with abilities that protect the whole squad or empower the whole squad with new capabilities. The best part is, since the whole thing is based on teamwork, we can spread these abilities around the Legion instead of loading them all on our Officer. Notable support functions for the group action package include:

Heavy: Bulwark lets you spend anchor to defend a whole squad. Normally I’d rather save Anchor to have more impact in combat, but the scale bonus from Lead from the Front basically does the same thing. You could also take War Machine and push during a group action to reduce the threat to all players.

Medic: Most of your items and abilities support individual soldiers, sadly. Not Today may (?) allow you to save an NPC Rookie from death due to squad harm (unclear).

Officer: Obedience’s rules text says you can sacrifice an NPC squaddie to prevent harm to a Specialist, but the explanatory italic text suggests using it to sacrifice one NPC to defend the whole squad from an explosion. A group action against a Lieutenant or Infamous may threaten to kill 3+ squaddies at once, so sacrificing just one is a good deal.

Scout: The generic Scrounge action can equip the whole squad with tools for a group Rig or Wreck, shields for a group skirmish or maneuver, etc. Ready for Anything grants free flashbacks when ambushed, which you can use to prevent the squad from being scattered or cut off.

Sniper: Cover Fire can grant potency to the squad for a group action, while Sharpshooter suppression can grant them improved position. You may (subject to DM interpretation) be able to stack this with War Machine for double safety.

Soldier: Cavalry! Wow, what an ability. Put it on a Soldier, or to get all your squads horse access slap it on your Scout or on the Officer themselves. With Lead from the Front, you can ride your whole squad through any gap in the lines that a single horse could pass, then wheel around and charge in with the shock value of a dozen riders.

And of course, the more Loyal Zemyati you can field, the better. Just three turn into a kind of savant hive mind that can figure out any problem with time to think, rolling a minimum of 3 dice to research, rig, or other sort problems even with no action dots at all invested.


Shock Cavalry Strategy Group:

Zemyati Officer (Loyal): Lead From the Front, Tactician
Zemyati Heavy (Loyal): Bulwark, max Anchor
Orite Sniper (Noble): Sharpshooter, Cover Fire
Scout: Ready For Anything, Cavalry (Veteran)


Funny you should mention that. I’m usually the GM for Blades, but occasionally get to play. My main character, a slide, got sent to prison for life, so I had to come up with a new character near the end of season 2. The GM said I should just make a regular starting character. Given that everyone else in the crew had at least 8 special abilities and 3 dots in at least half a dozen abilities, I immediately thought about how to character optimize to fit in. Turns out nobody had taken more than 1 dot in Command, but we’d built up a bunch of cohorts. So I created a Blades character optimized for leading cohorts.

My character is an Iruvian cavalry officer of sorts. She was trained alongside her brother to keep her out of trouble, but he got the commission instead of her. Like all of the crew, she died and heard the Bells of Reconciliation (name of our Cult, which believes in reconciled ghosts—our deity has only manifested in sound so far), and was brought back to life with a compulsion to go to Duskvol and specifically the hidden lair in the park in Six Towers, where the crew has a hidden lair.

To optimize, she chose the Cutter playbook and Leader special ability to start (+1 effect for cohorts and +1 armor and they continue fighting with level 3 harm, which is super powerful). I then convinced the rest of the crew to take Blood Brothers as their next upgrade. The gives all the cohorts the Thug type (or another type if they’re already thugs) and +1d if I fight alongside them (which I’m also good at, being a cutter). Alas, they don’t stack for one player, but I use Leader and one of the other gang members is usually also involved in the skirmish for the +1d. We already have Elite Adepts, so all the crews are Thug/Adepts. Next up, we’re getting Elite Thugs to go with our Elite Adepts, which gives another +1D. Since our crew is Tier 2, I’m getting 4d for the Thug or Adept cohort rolls. This has worked really well for keeping my “first level” character in the game.

That got me thinking about a crew optimized for Thug cohorts, and I actually named the crew The Legion. I guess it’s the obvious thing to call it given the nature of the game.

What I realized from this exercise is that starting a character FATE-style with a few well defined “aspects” really helps both role playing decisions and XP. So all of my characters now start with drives and beliefs. For instance, Lena believes women, particularly Iruvian women, are the world’s best fighters. So she’s off recruiting Iruvian women thugs. She also believes she’s better than her brother, but that hasn’t come up yet. I set up her main goal to be acquiring a squad she can whip into military shape, which has led to lots of fun and lots of XP, since our cohorts are all unreliable, wild, or savage.

Yeah, one often hears that optimisation should not be a thing in Blades, but the truth is it’s very easy to get a lot power from some early, simple choices.

Your next-next step could be to get the Barracks claim, so all your cohorts would get +1 scale. In Thugs and fight action, it would often mean +1 effect again, to cumulate with the +1 from Leader…

Problem is that when you roll with 7/8 dice and almost automatic great effect on fighting group actions with Cohorts, things get a little bit too easy…