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Tales of Blades and Heroes» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Semi-Review of Tales of Blades and Heroes rss

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Steffan O'Sullivan
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This is a semi-review, meaning I've read the product thoroughly but not yet played it. In this case, I've played the game it's descended from numerous times, so I have a little more grounding than most of my semi-reviews, but still: take this with a grain of salt, as I haven't actually played the RPG itself yet.

I'm writing this semi-review for two different audiences:

1. Roleplayers who know nothing about Song of Blades and Heroes (SoBH), and
2. SoBH players who want to know how this family of games works as an RPG.

The latter may skip the next section, which explains breifly what SoBH is.

Song of Blades and Heroes

SoBH is a skirmish miniature game, meaning one figure = one combatant. It has a unique flavor and is easily my favorite miniatures game, and I've tried many of them. My only complaint about the game is that a "higher quality" stat is represented by a lower number. While I still find it annoying, it's not a deal breaker: I'll happily play SoBH any time.

The specific joys of SoBH are:

* Simplicity. This is a very simple system that returns big fun. Each figure has only two stats: Quality and Combat. Everything else is handled by Special Rules: see below.

* Movement. Movement in most miniatures games is a bit of a pain, either using rulers or tape measures (in inches or cm), or involving a grid. SoBH has solved the movement hassle brilliantly: range sticks. Your movement - or firing range - is described as either short, medium or long, and you make separate sticks for each length. Lay it on the table in the direction you wish to move, one end touching your figure's base, and move your figure so its base touches the stick anywhere - voila! That's awesome!

* Push your luck. Activation of a figure requires a die roll on d6s. You choose to roll 1-3 dice. For every result equal to or greater than your figure's quality, you get one action. So if you roll 3d6 and get two successes, you get two actions. Why not roll 3d6 every turn? Because if you get two or more failures, your turn ends after taking any successes. If you have a warband of seven figures and roll two failures on the first figure's action, your other six figures don't get to take actions at all. So you can play it safe, rolling 1d6 for each figure but not doing much, or take a chance to do more each turn. A delightful system!

* Combat. Very simple system. Everyone has a Combat rating from 0-6. This can be modified by a few simple conditions. Each side rolls 1d6 and adds the result to their combat rating. If you get more than the other, but just a little, you either knock them back or down. If you get double their total, you kill them. Triple is a Gruesome Kill: every allied figure close to the gruesomely killed figure has to pass a morale check or flee.

* Special Rules. This is where the game really shines! A "special rule" in this game means either in innate ability you can purchase at character creation for a figure, or a learned skill. Dozens of special rules are given, making for a wide variety of fun characters to play. One figure might have the Special Rules of Fast and Flying while another might have Hero and Combat Master, and a third inspires Terror in enemies that it charges, requiring any who don't have the Fearless special rule to make a morale check.

* Use any figures. Any manufacturer's, any scale.

* Fantasy genre that covers all the bases. SoBH and its various supplements include sample warbands from all the fantasy races you'll find in most literature and other games. There are also supplements for other periods of warfare, from Renaissance to Napoleonic to modern, horror and SF. But SoBH itself does pseudo-Medieval fantasy very well - and that's what Tales of Blades and Heroes is aimed at.

Which brings us to:

Tales of Blades and Heroes - the Basics

Okay, so now you know the basics of SoBH - which is very inexpensive, BTW, and if it sounds like fun to you, I highly recommend it. So what kind of game is Tales of Blades and Heroes (ToBH)?

It's 56 pages and comes so far in two formats, both electronic. (A print edition is planned but not yet available.) You get both PDF formats when you buy the very inexpensive book: a full color edition with very nice artwork and an Ink-Saving edition for e-readers and printing.

Well first of all, it should come as no surprise that the game recommends you use miniatures when you play. Right off the bat, he recommends you find a figure to be your character and use that as a model of what special rules to take! Since this is exactly how I play SoBH, I like this approach.

I've done a thought experiment and decided it *could* be played without miniatures, but you'd really be dropping half the rules. Which would still work, mind you, and I'm tempted to try. That's because I don't really use miniatures any more in my RPG games, except as very general "situation clarifiers". No movement rules or ranges, etc. Just, "you're here, and this one's here and this other one's over there - what do you do?"

But if you, unlike me, prefer to play RPGs with miniatures, then right off the bat I can recommend this game. The miniatures system is expanded from SoBH but still largely simple and very fun to play, and that's high praise from me. I used to enjoy playing full GURPS advanced combat rules (which make an excellent "arena combat" miniatures game, BTW, if you like hex-based skirmish gaming), and I'd much rather use these rules now if I had to use miniatures rules in my RPGs.

But back to the basics of ToBH: it's a rules-light system which still manages to include a very satisfactory miniatures system.

Character creation is point-based, with 50 points recommended for starting characters, but 75 or even more allowed if the GM has a more epic campaign in mind. The points are spent largely on Special Rules, which cover what GURPS would call Attributes, Skills and Advantages. You can buy levels of some skills, such as Sword or Singing, and some innate characteristics, such as Strength and Acute Senses. Other special rules have no levels: you're a Natural Leader or you're not.

As in SoBH, there are only two stats: Quality and Combat. Every PC starts Q4+ (meaning a success on a result of 4-5-6 on a d6) and C2. However, in ToBH your Quality has three meanings: Physical, Mental and Social. For zero points you can adjust one up and one down so you might be Q3+ in Physical, Q4+ in Mental, and Q5+ in Social, for example. Or you can pay points to improve one without changing the others: Q3+, Q4+, Q4+.

Taking levels of a Weapon Special Rule means you would substitute that weapon's level for the basic C2 you start with. So a player character with four levels of Sword would have C4 when using a sword, but C2 for unarmed combat.

As you'd expect, ToBH has many more non-combat Special Rules than SoBH. These include mental and social, as well as some other physical ones not covered in the pure miniatures game. And magic is hugely expanded in ToBH - it's very basic in SoBH. More about Magic below.

There are also many zero-point Special Rules to allow for character personalities and fantasy races.

Quality Checks

Quality checks are expanded in ToBH. These are used largely for morale checks in SoBH, but handle most of the non-combat dice rolling in ToBH. These are separate from Activation rolls - you'll need both in some instances, but only one or the other in others.

Quality checks are basically a dice pool system with exploding dice. But exploding dice in ToBH are handled differently than in most RPGs which have them. If you roll a 6 in a quality check, you have the option not to count the one success it would represent, but instead to roll 2d6, thus getting a chance of rolling two successes. Or two failures ... so there are times this is a bad idea! In most exploding dice mechanics, you count the six and add another roll. Here you substitute two rolls for one six.

You're not trying for sums in a quality check, but number of successes. In an opposed action, such as Fast-talking someone, it's number of successes versus number of successes for them not to be hoodwinked. Other times it's just, "you need two success to lift that chest without help."

Boosts: while some Special Rules levels, such as the various weapons, give you a straightforward bonus, others give you "boosts" to your Quality checks. A boost is a +1 per level, but there are some restrictions: you can't boost a natural roll of "1", and you can't apply more than one boost to any one die. In fact, there's only a one third chance per die that a boost will help you: if you have Q4+, for example, you can boost a roll of 3 to 4, turning a failure to a success, and if you roll a "5", you can boost it to a "6", allowing an exploding die. If you have boosts left over after pushing a "5" to a "6", you can use the leftovers on the exploded re-roll. Quite a nice system, actually.

Magic

So, you want to be a magic user? You buy the ability to cast spells, but then you need to buy individual nouns and verbs, preferably at multiple levels, in order to cast spells. There are more words available than in, for example, Ars Magica, but not so many as were used in Melanda: Land of Mystery. It's a fairly simple system that requires a lot of creativity, both on the part of the player and the GM. Many examples are given how to accomplish a simple task, such as sneaking past a guard, ranging from destroying the sound to enhancing yourself with the Stealth special rule to creating sound as a diversion, etc. Words have different point costs depending on how powerful and useful they are. Some words are restricted to NPC mages, or the players can make a quest to attempt to learn one of these.

You can't use the same words twice in a row without some time in between. The author recommends writing each Word you learn on a separate index card so you can easily tell which ones you've last used. I like this idea - there's nothing more boring than magic users using the same spells over and over again.

There's a respectable discussion of what magic can and cannot accomplish, mentioning such things as mind reading, divination, controlling others, resurrection, time and dimension gate control, knowledge spells, etc. Good - those can be game breakers.

The number of successes you roll determine the spell results. You can assign them to various aspects of the spell, which is very cool. For example, if you're casting Scare Humanoid on an approaching band of goblins and get four successes, you can use one success to cast the spell at a bit of a range so they're not yet swinging their swords at you as the spell hits, another to get a decent radius so you hit multiple goblins, and the last two as the power of spell, meaning they need two successes on a Quality roll each to avoid being frightened enough to run away. A very nice system, I like it - but it absolutely requires creative players and GMs. There are no hard and fast rules, just lots of suggestions.

Combat

So how has combat changed from SoBH? The biggest changes are: individual weapon skills and damage results.

Weapons are learned individually and do different amounts of damage, and some have special effects such as a Battle Axe destroying a shield on a roll of a "6". There's a respectable list of both melee and missile weapons, including optional black powder pistols and muskets.

In SoBH, you weren't that concerned with damage. It's a miniatures game: a figure either recoiled, was knocked down, was killed, or fled the battlefield. And that's good enough for a miniatures game.

But it's not good enough for an RPG. Players are much more concerned about levels of damage, both to themselves and sometimes to enemies - sometimes you need a live one to question. ToBH expands the various combat results of SoBH into rolls on the various damage tables. There are four tables which all fit on one page, so it's not a serious handicap to have to look them up. They are the Recoil table, the Minor Wound table, the Serious Wound table and the Critical Wound table. There are no hit points, just a wounding system, with rules for both mundane and magical healing.

There are also rules for "goons and hirelings" which are quite useable.

Otherwise combat is very close to the most enjoyable combat of SoBH. I think I could play ToBH without miniatures, but I admit you'd be losing half the value of the game by doing so.

What's Missing?

Well ... a whole book is missing, that's what! As of this date, ToBH is the first book of at least two planned. The missing book is the GM's Book, and it's mentioned many times in the rules. For example, Dwarves are listed as the only spelled-out example of a fantasy non-human race. You are referred to the not-yet-published GM's Book for other races. Or you can check SoBH and it's sequels, which already list a *lot* of fantasy races, certainly enough to use as NPCs for a year of dungeon delving and wilderness exploring without repeating yourself!

So ... ToBH itself doesn't contain much in the way of NPCs, beasts, monsters, adventure seeds, encounters or all those other things one finds in GM's books. It's all planned, but not yet published. For me this is no problem - I own SoBH and the three fantasy supplements so have a ton of material. If you don't, at this point you're on your own having to import such material from other games, or buying SoBH - which I actually recommend, anyway.

Summing Up

There are lots of little things I haven't covered - I've got to leave you something to be curious about.

Do I like it? Yes, I've enjoyed reading it - there are some new and unique features that are good food for thought.

Would I run it as is? Well ... probably not. But that's just because I wrote Fudge and that really satisfies 99% of my RPG itch. But I am tempted to import some of the ideas into Fudge, which isn't always true.

I am tempted to see how it would look ripping out the miniatures rules. This is because when I play miniatures games, I really am just playing miniatures. When I play an RPG, I prefer not to get into miniatures.

But I will say this: if you prefer to use miniatures in your RPGs, I can't think of a better game than this. The miniatures rules are just so much FUN!

At any rate, I give the game a high value per dollar rating, given all the interesting ideas and low price. I'm glad I bought it. Recommended.

[Note: this is one of my series of RPG Semi-Reviews by SOS of Indie game products.]
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Ian M
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This is the first time I've come up against the Power Word method of magic using. Very intriguing to me and makes me want to roll up a wizard post haste.
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andrea sfiligoi
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Just a quick update for the above info, the first GM's book is available. Both books are available as 8,5x11 color books or PDFs or as trade size 6x9'' black and white books on www.ganeshagames.net in the rpg section. Thanks!
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Michael Taylor
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Deltron Zed wrote:
This is the first time I've come up against the Power Word method of magic using.


AM2: For Faerie, Queen, & Country has a similar magic system.
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sos1 wrote:
* Push your luck. Activation of a figure requires a die roll on d6s. You choose to roll 1-3 dice. For every result equal to or greater than your figure's quality, you get one action. So if you roll 3d6 and get two successes, you get two actions. Why not roll 3d6 every turn? Because if you get two or more failures, your turn ends after taking any successes. If you have a warband of seven figures and roll two failures on the first figure's action, your other six figures don't get to take actions at all. So you can play it safe, rolling 1d6 for each figure but not doing much, or take a chance to do more each turn. A delightful system!


I read this differently. I agree that it is a push your luck mechanism but the only risk is rolling on the Activation Critical Failure table. For each character that a player controls, you roll activation once, then pass initiative to the next character (which may or may not be under your control). You can roll 1, 2 or 3 dice during activation.

Each success is one action (with a maximum of 3 actions). You have two special cases:
- two 1s and no success: you roll on the Activation Critical Failure table.
- two 6s and no failure: you gain a Hero point.

The activation table is confusing I found. It seems unnecessarily convoluted.

But as you pointed out, if you roll only one die, you cannot get two 1s. If you roll 2 dice, you only have 1/36 = 0.028 chance of rolling two 1s. If you roll 3 dice, you have 0.0046 chance of rolling 3 1s, and 0.069 chance of rolling 2 1s. If you always roll 3 dice, it takes on average 9 rolls to reach 50% chance of rolling on the Activation Critical Failure table. It takes 30 rolls to reach 90% confidence.
 
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Steffan O'Sullivan
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someuser59349 wrote:
sos1 wrote:
* Push your luck. Activation of a figure requires a die roll on d6s. You choose to roll 1-3 dice. For every result equal to or greater than your figure's quality, you get one action. So if you roll 3d6 and get two successes, you get two actions. Why not roll 3d6 every turn? Because if you get two or more failures, your turn ends after taking any successes. If you have a warband of seven figures and roll two failures on the first figure's action, your other six figures don't get to take actions at all. So you can play it safe, rolling 1d6 for each figure but not doing much, or take a chance to do more each turn. A delightful system!


I read this differently. I agree that it is a push your luck mechanism but the only risk is rolling on the Activation Critical Failure table.

The part you're quoting refers to Song of Blades and Heroes. It's true I didn't elaborate on how the push-your-luck aspect works in Tales of Blades and Heroes.
 
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My bad. I misunderstood.

I feel the odds are quite small. If you have a warband, in Song, of 7 characters then there is a definite risk involved in rolling 3 dice. With only one character (as I assume most players will have in Tales) per player, the odds of seeing a critical failure are too low to justify not rolling 3 dice. If you increase the odds of rolling a critical failure, thereby increasing the incentive to roll only 1 or 2 dice, you probably need to lower the number of actions required for certain tasks (e.g., reload a musket). It feels like most of the time characters should have 1 action only, sometimes pushing to 2, and rarely to 3 if you are in a tight spot.
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