Blood Red Sands Mega-session AP from Go Play NW
Four brave gamers (+Nate Marcel
, +David Fooden +Dan Behlings
, +Wilhelm Fitzpatrick
) joined me for a double-slot of Blood Red Sands at Go Play NW this weekend.
Blood Red Sands is a rigorously competitive GM-less RPG that features deep group prep and crunchy, tactical dice mechanics to resolve the action. In each session or “Ordeal”, the players collaboratively create a group of rival factions balanced on the verge of war. One player takes the role of a Conan-like hero poised to disrupt the balance. Faction creation has a competitive element. The choices players make during setup partially determine if they will start with a competitive advantage or an advantageous position in the fiction.
When the dust settled, Wilhelm was the hero: a roc-riding Valkyrie straight out of Heavy Metal magazine. Nate played the lord of the cursed shard desert, surveying his lands from his glass tower, plotting revenge on the evil Witch King. Dan played a coven of deceitful witches who advised Dave’s character. Nate’s faction was an expedition from the Witch King, led by a sorcerer, scouting the land for allies. I played a monster from the wastes and a carrier of the dreaded Vitreous Plague. To win, Nate’s character needed to defeat the monster in single combat and Dan’s witches needed to stop him. The monster sought cleansing at a holy site, and Dave just had to find a good ally.
In BRS, the players take turns as the “Chronicler”, telling the story, GM-style, narrating great victories for their faction and pain for the others. The other players can contest this narration using a combination of bribery and negotiation backed by dice. This is by far my favorite part of the game. It’s what makes GM-less competitive play possible. For example, in one scene I narrated a tense standoff between the monster and Dave’s sorcerer, describing how the Sorcerer swore and oath to lead the monster to the sacred lake. Dave successfully contested my narration to take control of the story and narrate it in a way that left the monster sworn into the Sorcerer’s service!
You can also challenge any narration on the grounds that it’s not supported by the fiction, which sets off a voting mechanic designed to bring the narration back into line.
A player who is targeted by narration also has the option of initiating a “Clash”. This is a protracted dice contest in which both players can call on greater reserves of dice and cause significant damage to one another, gaining victory points. Characters in BRS have traits, each of which has a die and an “aspect” associated with it. For example, my monster had “Inhuman strength-1d10-force.” In our first three-hour slot, we finished prep and had time for a brief clash to see how the mechanics worked. We didn’t use aspects for our first clash, as we just wanted to learn the rules first before introducing more complexity. This is an approach I would suggest for anyone playing the game.
After lunch we came back and played another four-hour session to complete the ordeal. We had quite a bit of jockeying for position with oaths and counter-oaths, witches impersonating other characters, and a few pitched battles.
In BRS, your dice and traits also double as hit points. For example, a character might have the trait “Unnaturally strong 1d10”. This gives the character a d10 that can be rolled in the Clash. That die can also be damaged and removed from the game, meaning the character can no longer call on that trait. In addition, factions and characters can have components, which hold multiple dice. For example, Wilhelm’s hero rode on a Roc, which had several traits and dice associated with it. But when Wilhelm faced off against the sorcerer’s army, the Roc was killed, robbing Wilhelm of those dice.
Each faction has a goal. Achieving this goal grants a big bonus in victory points. Working the achievement of your goal into your narration (or bidding it as the stakes in a clash) is a good way to win points. For example, I tried multiple times to narrate the monster reaching the sacred lake (my goal), but was stymied when other players successfully contested my narration. Later, when Nate’s warlord cornered the monster, we both ended up bidding our goals as stakes in the clash, meaning one of us would get our goal and one would not. Dan, on the other hand, managed to achieve his goal (stop the Warlord), simply by virtue of me achieving mine.
I have some observations about BRS that I think are important to successfully enjoying the game:
BRS is not “fair”. You may be ganged up on and you may be unlucky. The other factions will kick you when you’re down. You do, however, get a lot of dice to play with, so even a defeated faction is rarely toothless. The most beat-up player also gets a reward at the start of the next session. Being cool with this at the outset is essential.
The game is competitive, but it’s a still a role-playing game. Do the things you do when you play an RPG—pay attention to the fiction, tell the story, add details, and honor your instincts regarding what’s both possible and cool in the fiction.
One place where the fiction is very important is when you’re entering a clash. Often the opening stakes of the clash will be clearly established by the story leading up to that point. Pay attention to what the fiction is telling you, and your clash will go much more smoothly.
Make sure that when a component is constrained, the constraint has a time limit. At one point my monster was imprisoned, and we forgot to set a time limit, which caused some problems moving the game ahead until we fixed it.
There are a lot of different skills that play into the competitive portion of this game, and you will make mistakes, and pay for them. You can still have fun (and even win) anyway. I managed to get myself sworn into service to the sorcerer, traded off into the dungeons of Nate’s warlord (who wanted to kill me) and I still ended up winning (with some luck at the end). The skills cut across the “competitive” and the “role-playing” buckets, which is, I think, one of the most interesting things about this game.