Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Second Look at Blade Raiders

Art by Grant Gould
My paper copy of Blade Raiders, a new fantasy RPG by Grant Gould arrived yesterday, and I tore into it with gusto.  I've read the .pdf copy when it came several months ago, but I'm not a huge fan of reading e-books, and being able to thumb through the pages is always a more pleasurable and effective way for me to read.
You can read my first look of the game here, but I wanted to do a more detailed one now that the book is out.
First, let me say that there are a lot of "fantasy heartbreakers" out there that constitute a game designer's attempt to polish and tweak Dungeons & Dragons to their liking.  They are called "heartbreakers" by some because in the end, it's still largely the same game experience as the original, and if you didn't like that, you won't like its derivatives.  
Blade Raiders is not a fantasy heartbreaker.  It's a fantasy RPG, but there's little in similarity to the Tolkein/Dying Earth gumbo that is D&D.  There's no elves, dwarfs, and orcs.  The "fire and forget" list of largely unconnected spells is absent.  Armor doesn't make you harder to hit.  There are no classes or levels, and in the case of latest two iterations, no grids or miniatures.  So set all that aside and let's talk about this game.

Character creation
As I mentioned in the first glance, character creation boils down to the selection of three talents from a list of magical and non-magical options.  Magical talents allow you to access a range of related magical powers.  Think of them as like a "school" like firebending, shapeshifting, or creating magical portals.  There's a "mending" school in there for the healing arts, by the way.  Non-magical talents cover largely combat-related options such as "fighting" (melee fighting), "hunting" (ranged combat), and "slaying" (increased damage).  There's a few non-combat related options like stealth and being unusually intelligent.  There are two odd options, in my mind, however: blacksmithing, which seems to be much more of a skill than a talent, and two-weapon fighting, which you can take even if you don't take "fighting" as a talent.  Blacksmithing is likely included because armor repair is a major component of the game, and two-weapon fighting really should have a pre-requisite, as a sort of advanced talent option (not that those exist in the game).
In any case, the talents are irrevocable and should be considered very carefully, especially in light of the fact that there are vast regions of the Blade Raiders world where magic does not work at all (more on that later).
Skills do exist, but are part of later character development in which a person basically spends experience points (called Character Advancement Points, or CAP's) to increase the bonuses to rolls.  Speaking which...

Game Mechanics
Roll a d10, add the situational bonus or negative modifier, add either your skill level (rated 1 to 3, if any) and your talent bonus (again 1 to 3, if any).  If you get over 10, you succeed.  That means, math-wise, that if you have a primary talent and a maxed-out skill in a particular area of expertise, you're  going to succeed at a task 70% of the time (by rolling a 4 or higher).  There are no magic-related skills, instead you get either a skill bonus of 0 or 1, depending on the area you're in, so magic is innately risky to use.  The one small side benefit is that if you attempt a spell and you fail, including missing a target with an attack, you don't lose the spell.  Speaking of which...

As I said earlier, you have schools of magic focused around a particular element, effect, or theme.  Each school has six or seven powers, one or two of which are "advanced" spells that must be purchased with CAP's later.  The spells usually involve what would be considered "utility" powers with some low-level attack powers thrown in, depending on the school.  Some schools, such as the Portalist, have no attack powers but their utility powers are particularly useful.
Now here's the weird part.  No spell is inherently more more less difficult to cast than any other.  In most cases you just have to make a successful 10+ roll or no roll at all.  This seems a little counter-intuitive, because you might think that more powerful spells would be more difficult to cast.  Rather, after a spell is cast, a period of time must be spent before you can cast that particular spell again.  This gap can be anywhere from 8 to 72 hours, usually 24 or eight hours sleep.  The recovery time is the effect of the power of the spell.  You can, however, cast any other spell in the school in the meantime, and again it doesn't lapse until you cast it correctly.

Beat a 10, same as everything else.  No sense of your opponent's skill having anything to do with preventing you from hitting them.  In this way Blade Raiders most closely emulates D&D: hit points (or Resistance Points) become not only a notion of how physically tough you are, but they also are supposed to reflect some skill in combat in avoiding damage as well.  I have to say that this is the most annoying rule of the game in my mind.  The game could have gone with a contested "who rolls higher" or had the target's skill become a negative modifier, but all that was set aside in favor of just having a flat attack roll.  Like I said--bleh.

The World
Nothing too spectacular: a race of Ancients (*cough*elves*cough*) is driven forth from the land by a tribe of marauding barbarians (the eponymous Blade Raiders).  The local human tribes band together against the Blade Raiders, loads of violence ensures, and in the end humanity rises victorious just in time to hold off the new Trollug (orc) invasion. Fast forward one hundred years to the present.  Ruins of an ancient, or Ancient civilization, wandering hordes of barbarians, and roving monsters looking to move in.  Not the most innovative backdrop, but it works for what you need in a fantasy RPG.  What is really good is the number of human factions and organizations that the book details.  There are actually more of those than there are monsters listed, although I suspect part of that is in anticipation of a monster sourcebook.  But the factions come in all flavors, some beneficial, some antagonistic.  There is some great story material there.
One thing about the world I alluded to earlier.  There's a map that just outlines the region (intended for the players) and a second map for the GM that indicates where runestones are located and in what concentration.  There are basically three levels: non-existent, normal, and high.  In the non-existent areas, you don't get to access magic, making me wonder why anyone would go there.  In the high regions, which are often the locus of cities, you get a bonus to your roll when casting a spell.  I don't think of magic as being particularly powerful in this game to begin with, but having whole regions where spellcasting talents are worthless does its part to lend weight to non-magical PC's.

Character advancement
Getting CAP's can let your character do anything from increasing skills, raising your BP level, raising the damage you do from a weapon, and creating new powers.  There's a very open-ended rule about allowing the players to come up with new spells within their school, with GM approval.  I could see this becoming another source of additional supplemental material, but letting the GM and players have that much leeway is old-school ballsy.  CAP's can also be used to increase a person's die roll on a one-shot basis, and heal damage, so spending CAP's (or is it busting CAP's?) is really the mechanism to reflect a PC getting substantially better after they've maxed-out their skills in their chosen area.  How CAP's work long term throughout a campaign in terms of getting PC's to a more competent level is one of things that I can't quite get a handle on.  Is it too fast?  Too slow?  Do PC's not change enough to suit players used to the dramatic change between a 1st level and 10th level D&D character?  I don't know.

Final Thought
I've been mulling about a ton of D&D clones these days thinking about a fantasy campaign I might do in the future.  Blade Raiders is such a clean break away from the common conventions of most fantasy RPG's that it has an undeniable appeal to me as a result.  I've often wondered how one might get away from the "cookie cutter" quality of D&D campaigns, and this has real possibility.

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