Monday, October 10, 2016

Five or So Questions with Craig Judd on Blade Bind

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Craig Judd on Blade Bind, which is currently on Kickstarter! It sounds pretty interesting. Check it out!


Tell me a little about Blade Bind. What excites you about it?

Blade Bind is a GMless game with a focus on PvP and melodrama, inspired by Shinobigami, Eternal Contenders, and the "emo shonen fighting anime" genre in general. It's designed for one-shots (you can play out a whole game in 3 to 6 hours), and uses regular playing cards to resolve epic swordfights! Players each take on the role of a Chosen, someone with strong motivations who has made a pact with an ancient supernatural Blade. The Blade gives you immense power, and only another Chosen can stand in your way, but if you falter on your path the Blade will not hesitate to take control and use you as the instrument of its own vengeance!

I'm interested in games where the player-characters work at cross-purposes, and I've played several games in this vein. I feel that you can get a richer and more challenging experience when everybody is creating opposition for each other — and since I'm usually the GM, it's nice to get a bit of a break by distributing the workload. I also really enjoyed designing Blade Bind, as I had a really strong vision for it and all the pieces came together fairly easily.

I really like that the system isn't that complex, but it has some really cool emergent properties. The card-based duelling is informed by my HEMA experience, and once you get past the surface mechanics there are some interesting strategies you can employ. When Chosen oppose one another, they duel to decide who gets their way. The Chosen are defined minimally, and a lot of the game comes down to managing your goals — known as Threads — and learning how to manipulate those of the other Chosen to your benefit. There's also a cool Will/Power mechanism, where you need to increase your Power to win fights, but if your Will (generated by Threads) ever drops below Power, you lose control and become a self-destructive berserker known as a Bladebound! You can engage the mechanics and "meta-game" as much as you like, and it'll create interesting drama when you look back on what happened.

Most of all, I'm excited that it seems to consistently create a good experience at the table. Once you're through the setup, there's no meandering and feeling out the situation, it's just BAM! Threads provide a great sense of direction and purpose that lets the game kick off at full speed.

What motivated you to create a GMless PvP game? It sounds like a challenge! Did you encounter major problems with the concepts in general?

I've enjoyed a few games of Eternal Contenders, which is GMless and PvP (and also uses cards, but in a very different way). But it was the Shinobigami Kickstarter last year that really helped fire my imagination on Blade Bind. Shinobigami still has a GM, but it's very focussed on PvP-style action, and the GM mainly facilitates and sets up the initial situation.Blade Bind was heavily inspired by the idea of Shinobigami, but I wrote it before actually reading that game's rules!

I wouldn't say I encountered major problems, but there were some things I needed to work around. I sort of started from a blank slate and only built in stuff that the game needed. I considered including a GM, but the game didn't really need one – all the GM duties of setting up a situation and framing scenes are delegated to the players, much like Fiasco. Once the setup's in place the characters simply follow their motivations, guided by the rules, until the game reaches a conclusion.

I first developed the duelling system. Once I had an engaging conflict resolution engine, the hardest part was building the rest of the game around it! I tried out a lot of iterations of the various pieces, but after testing alternatives and thinking about things for a while, I found I could analyse the pros and cons and decide on the best approach.

The game pushes you into situations where you must fight to either get what you want or prevent something awful happening. This basically forces PvP, because if you don't take up arms then the things you care about will be destroyed or taken from you.

How do you have a PvP game without risking interplayer conflict? Was that something you had to consider while designing mechanics?

As Cam Banks says about Smallville, it's more about character vs character than player vs player. I have had even CvC games fall apart in the past though, so it's definitely something I thought about during the design process. I think it's mostly a matter of setting clear expectations before play, and in the introduction I emphasize that while the characters are at odds, the players are actually collaborating to create a rich drama. You need to go into it with a mindset where you can enjoy your character's arc regardless of whether they come out on top or go down in flames.

Something else that helps avoid player conflict is a clear-cut and rigidly-defined rule set. In games that rely on GM judgment calls, plotting against other player-characters in secret can create uncertainty and concerns of bias or unfairness. By using a set of strict procedures, the players have certainty at least as far as knowing what is permitted and what is not. The game system itself acts as an impartial arbiter. You do lose a little of that "you can do anything!" aesthetic, and the rules are more like that of a board game. Even so, within the framework of the rules you can still play a cool character, come up with interesting situations, and unleash evocative descriptions. It's an approach that Blade Bind shares with Shinobigami.

A while ago, I thought: if people can play against opposition fielded by a GM without getting upset, why is it any different when the opposition is created by one of the other players? So long as everyone is clear up-front about what's permissible, you should be able to avoid out-of-game animosity.

Can you talk a little more about Threads, and how they influence play?

To talk about Threads, I'll first need to explain Knots. A Knot is a MacGuffin that acts as a source of motivation for the Chosen — something they think is worth fighting for. Knots are often NPCs (someone you want to protect, control, or destroy), but they can also be objects, locations, or even organisations. Each player defines one Knot during the setup.

Threads connect the Chosen to various Knots, and sometimes to other Chosen. A Thread expresses a goal or desire, and they're rigidly defined. You pick one of the available Thread-types and fill in the details. For example, common Threads include "I will Control [KNOT]" or "Nobody will Destroy [KNOT]", but there are also ones like "[CHOSEN] will not Control [KNOT]" or "I will Defeat [CHOSEN]". Each Chosen can only have three Threads at a time. You start with one connected to your own Knot, and two connected to other Knots or Chosen. This creates a web of motivations that inevitably leads to conflict.

Each Thread has three states: Secure (achieved, even if temporarily), Loose (striving to be achieved), or Cut (impossible to achieve). The more complete a Thread is, the more Will it's worth. Cut Threads are worth 0 Will, so they bring you closer to becoming Bladebound. You're therefore strongly motivated to pursue and complete your own Threads, but at the same time you can try to manipulate other people's Threads to your advantage.

When someone wins a duel, they get to pick a prize. They can either take control of or destroy a Knot that was at stake, or they can rewrite one of their own Threads, or a Thread belonging to one of the vanquished Chosen. While deciding a Knot's fate is a powerful way to change the state of the game (and cause big changes in Will values), rewriting Threads is a more subtle tool that may let you stop an enemy from even wanting to attack your Knot, or turn them into an ally.

While Threads are powerful motivators, they aren't mind control; even if your enemy gives you a Thread to protect a Knot that you've been trying to destroy, you can still choose to destroy it if you really want to. Threads also act a bit like Fates in Tenra Bansho Zero — as they shift, they create an ever-changing picture of what your character finds important.

Can you talk a little about dueling, and how it is essential to the game?

I wanted the dueling system to provide a similar back-and-forth to actual swordplay, and while this often leads to a back-and-forth exchange like regular turn-based combat, there are also opportunities to seize the initiative… or to find yourself fighting defensively on the back foot. At the start of a duel you draw cards equal to your Power. Whoever has initiative puts forward one card as an attack, and the defender must equal or exceed the attack's value with one or more cards. There are several defense options (depending on whether the value is higher, equal, lower, if you play a matching suit, or if you play multiple cards), and each affects the flow of play differently. If the defense isn't good enough, the Chosen is hit and knocked out of the fight. It's possible to turn a fight around if you start with fewer cards, but it requires luck and skill. I like that dueling relies on player skill to some extent, even if luck and Power are still major factors.

Each Blade also has three special Techniques that allow their wielder to bend the rules, and since the Chosen don't have much mechanical definition this is the main way to individualize your fighter's style. To use a Technique you must spend points of Resonance, which you gain whenever your Blade locks with another in a "Bind" – hence the game's name. A Bind happens when two cards of equal value are played against each other.

The Blades give their wielder immense supernatural power, so they can steamroll any mundane opposition. If it's your scene, you can describe how your Chosen is going to go and demolish a skyscraper, or wipe out a private army, or capture an NPC — and if none of the other Chosen step up to oppose you, then you just do it. When two or more Chosen are at odds though, they can try to talk it out — but if the aggressor refuses to back down, then their opponents only have two choices: stand aside and let them do what they want, or draw Blades and duel.

Duels are the game's only mechanical resolution system. They're an impartial and concrete way to determine which player gets to decide how things turn out. They are a bit more involved than simple "skill checks", but don't often take more than a few minutes to resolve, and they are pretty cool to play. There's a real sense of tension as you try to pick your best available move without knowing exactly what your opponent is holding.

If people would like to take a look, I've released a free Sword Practise PDF that introduces the basic dueling rules. It's missing Resonance and Techniques (and the rest of the game), but it's a handy way to get used to the mechanical heart of the system.


Thanks so much to Craig for the interview! I hope that everyone enjoyed reading, and I also hope you'll take a minute to check out Blade Bound on Kickstarter, or at least look at the free Sword Practise PDF

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