I GM’d a Band of Blades one-shot for the recent Con in the Dark convention on Discord, but I spent a good while first mulling over how to do so, given BoB’s reliance on the campaign structure. My first instinct was to use one of the opening missions from the book…but I wanted parts of the game that aren’t covered by the first missions in the book to also be present. So I designed a very specific mission disconnected from, but related to, the typical campaign structure, and crafted a quick pitch touching on the most prominent aspects of the setting, and mixed things up a bit to get other elements involved.
For the convention, I chose the aftermath of the Battle of Ettenmark as our starting point and pitched this:
Band of Blades is about a shattered mercenary company engaged in a fighting retreat from an army of undead–and more disturbing monsters–led by the corrupted avatars of the gods. It is about war, sacrifice, and inevitable loss. We will focus on the survivors’ retreat from Ettenmark, and their attempt to protect the Legion Commander from capture. This game involves violence, body horror, and zombies.
I did the usual things for running a convention game: before jumping into anything else, I checked with everyone’s experience and knowledge regarding Band of Blades and general BitD systems. If someone had never played BitD before, I would have explained a few of the main mechanics – dice outcomes, actions, fiction-first – and introduced others in play. I didn’t need to in this case, as everyone had played a BitD game before at least once. Then I reiterated the pitch, and gave a very brief setting overview as we had one player who had no knowledge of it. (I would have skipped this part only if everyone at the table had played BoB before or read the book.)
The setting is comparable to an early-Renaissance age with some fantastical elements. Gunpowder, muskets, and crude explosives exist on the battlefield alongside swords, armor, and archery; there are also clockwork contraptions and weird alchemical science. While there are no elves, dragons, wizards, or similar trappings of high fantasy, there are often unique strange beasts, as well as places of divine power or weird effect. Much of this is due to the actions of the Chosen of the gods. These are powerful individuals who have been given the ability to create miracles at the cost of their humanity and lifespan.
Former champions of the gods, now known as the Broken, were corrupted by a being known only as the Cinder King. They are leading vast armies of the undead and other monstrosities in a campaign to destroy all life. Against them stand the armies of the Eastern Kingdoms, who have recently discovered an alchemical substance capable of killing the dead, known as ‘blackshot’. With it, and the surviving Chosen of the gods, the Eastern armies have managed to drive the undead back…but none of them were prepared for the horrors the Broken have been developing and unleashed at the Battle of Ettenmark Fields, where the Eastern armies were slaughtered and its few survivors are now in full rout.
I checked to see if there were any questions about any of this background. I also noted the safety tools we would be using (x-card, lines and veils) before proceeding onwards.
You will be playing members of the Legion, a centuries old mercenary company that once served as the right-hand of the Emperor of a now long-dead empire. It was thousands strong, but in the aftermath of the battle here at Ettenmark, you fear that you handful are the last. The Legion has been broken in the past, even destroyed, but the Legion’s Annals – their written records, that any legionnaire would die to protect – have always been carried forward by a survivor, and the company reformed. Perhaps, if you can reach the Western Front, there may be others to regroup with. Hopefully, one of them has carried the Annals to safety. But your more immediate concern is the undead closing in on you, seeking to kill you and to capture the Legion’s Commander.
Similarly to the typical first mission in the book, I had everyone do character creation and we ignored the Legion roles. I went over the Specialists quick (tank, healer, tactician, sniper, sneak, rookie), but unlike the first book missions, I limited Specialists to the usual two, three if someone picked a Medic, with other players meant to take on the role of Rookies. We only had three players for the convention game, and they did all take Specialists. (I lost one player, who had gotten the time wrong; and another just never showed up.) Afterwards, I checked if any of the playbooks had immediately appealed to anyone/who would like to play what?
I also gave a brief blurb about the nature of each Legion squad and had them pick the surviving squad they and the Commander were leading.
Character creation for BoB is always fast: it took us a total of fifteen-to-twenty minutes, including the pitch and setting overview. Streamlined for a convention, I just went right down the list below, answered questions, had them choose, moved to the next question. I had a handout with a couple sentences on each heritage and a name list to make this process faster; I also quickly explained the different kind of actions, and particularly how the Specialist action worked, plus “the first Special Ability is always a good choice.”
Note: For convention games, given the time constraints, I like to try and encourage people not spend too long putting a character together, or investing a lot of thought in who the character is – this is especially easy with BoB as we don’t really need to know anything about the character before we start playing.
I suggest against providing pre-gen characters as having players come up with their own, and the squad, creates a lot of interesting narrative hooks and draws them in as co-narrators, exactly as it would be in a normal campaign. This also helps give a good fiction-first feel, since convention games are intros to a game and what that game offers.
- Pick your playbook.
- Choose a heritage.
- Give your character a name.
- Choose two heritage traits.
- Pick a Special Ability.
- Put four dots in your actions.
I checked in on some of the fiction at the end (“What kind of mask does your Orite wear?” and “What is your Panyar’s animal feature?”) that wasn’t immediately apparent, and had the player tell everyone else and mark it down.
A helpful tip here is, when a player is stuck during convention character creation, just say “This is a one-shot. What’s the first thing that comes to mind/your first reaction? You can change it later if you want.” I also use this in normal campaigns when a player freezes (I’ve found it’s not usually because they don’t have any ideas, but too many, or are worried something sounds “stupid” or won’t “work”).
Next, I had the group name the NPC squaddies. At a phyiscal table, I would have put a notecard out with the NPC names and heritages, then add to those as fictional details came up (“had a privileged upbringing, so she thinks she’s the best at everything”, “the Sniper’s third cousin on his mother’s side”, etc).
Given this particular mission, as he was with, I also had the group detail the Commander. Just as would normally be done before the first campaign phase: name and look, and other details as they liked. He counted as an oath-sworn NPC, and I gave him a small clock in case it was needed for any reason.
While the Chosen played no part in this particular mission, I did provide a one-to-two sentence overview of each of them, then had the group decide whose army their portion of the Legion had been fighting with. This choice established the starting location for the survivors in the fiction, and the various narrative paths they might take based on a map I threw together for the game.
You can see where the three flanks of the Eastern Army are located, each led by a particular Chosen as indicated by a red icon. Shreya in the north, defending the village and farmland. The Horned One on the plains, using guerilla tactics to stymie the undead forces. And Zora in the south, making a push towards the border of Dar. (Those were my set-ups for each, at any rate.) I also gave a little information on Dar and the Gap.
But the real trick with the map was to go into it without “knowing” anything about it. I let the players tell me what all those things on it really mean, as they come up. (“What is happening in the village right now? How big is it?” “Is the rear camp still free?” “Is the fort defensible?” “What are the barrows?” “How much distance does the map represent?” etc.)
Afterwards, the group chose two Broken (same treatment as the Chosen, just a couple descriptive sentences) whose forces they had faced, and picked one of the basic enemy types to deal with for each of the two, then which of those enemy types was the imminent threat at mission start.
The group chooses Blighter and Breaker. They pick Hexed and Crows, with the latter as the imminent threat to the squad. Since the group has also chosen Shreya’s position, we decide the problem with the northern flank was the villagers the armies were protecting turned on them (Hexed!). The survivors fled into the fields and were being hunted by groups of Crows, slowly closing in.
I had written up a Mission Sheet for this game which gave a generic starting position, the problems/obstacles faced by the squad, and established some clocks (you need supplies, you need to escape, the trap is closing). We also talked about what the characters had been doing when disaster struck, how they found each other or if they had been together already, and where they had gathered, and how they knew the undead were hunting for the Commander (or did they know?).
At this point, we engaged in some free play interactions centered on the Commander crouched in the mud with the Specialists, going over the pressing details of their situation and asking for input on how to proceed (and making his own arguments), while the Rookies maintained a watch. I deliberately kept this short, everyone got at least one piece of input, and then the Rookies call over/come running: “THE UNDEAD ARE HERE!” Time to do things.
I had them pick Load, which I explained in brief (you have all this plus two utility items. You’re fast and quiet; you’re slow; you’re loud and slow), had them choose; then pick utility (I have another handout listing what all the gear actually is to make this go faster). Finally, I asked what kind of supplies the survivors had managed to salvage/take with/had on hand. They were able to have just one of the following: blackshot, horses, food, or reliquaries. (I thought about giving the option of a Mercy or Alchemist here, but didn’t offer it this time. Might be a fun option for a future one-shot.)
Based on all this, they then decided what kind of mission type it would be (or felt it would be), based on what kind of escape plan they narrated wanting to follow (ie: I asked “What does your escape look like?”).
- Assault: you’re going to charge through and cut down your enemies, ending the threat to you to make your escape safer.
- Recon: you’re going to carefully avoid engaging the enemy, and out-maneuver the threats to hide your escape and prevent pursuit.
- Supply: you’re going to gather supplies and information on your enemy, maybe even find allies, to survive after your escape.
- Religious: you’re going to seek out or call up an ancient power to protect you, to guarantee your escape.
Then we made the Engagement roll!
Note that I didn’t talk about the bonuses or penalties to the engagement roll for things like having non-Legion personnel, Legion trust, the wrong Specialists, or necessary supplies before going into this. I think it was more fun to reveal these during the engagement roll, and it added some tension/uncertainty that the players seemed to enjoy.
One of our players decided their character didn’t trust the Commander because his suggestions were veto’d during the planning, so there was a penalty by choice! (This would play into a number of future interactions.)
And so we were off to the races! Literally. They chose horses. Off they galloped, away from the Crows. In a Desperate position. They also had no supplies, except for what a couple characters had picked as a utility item. Which meant the squad was completely out of food within a couple days, and moving slowly as they dodged patrols of the disturbingly silent Crows. (Though not as slowly as they would have without horses!) They themselves decided the road to the fort was fairly long (about four-five days of travel at the pace they were able to move, spending a lot of time on their horses at night so the undead behind them didn’t catch up).
The game was a blast. We cut out a bit earlier than planned as one of the players was in Europe and it was stupid late for them. Like extra-stupid late. But everyone had a good time, there were a couple battles, some great drama (particularly around the Commander and fears about the Annals), NPC development, heroics, a few close calls, a Trauma, and in the end, the Chosen charging in to rescue them as the forces of the undead gathered to assault the fort they holed up in over night.
I might write this up as a shorter “How To” at some point and put it up on my site for download (with all the tokens, map, etc.).