WE PLAYED BLOOD RED SANDS. Session one.
Blood Red Sands purports to be a crunchy GM-less competitive role-playing game, which is quite a claim. Most of the people I’ve ever described it to say that’s an impossible goal, but if it works they’d really like to play it. The game is daunting in several other respects too: it’s mechanically deep, calls (ideally) for exactly five players, and requires an intimidating number of dice. The set up requires you to exile one person from the room for the majority of prep (a rule that you can, thankfully, dispense with your first time out.) The rules state that it’s cut-throat and if you’re going to play, you’d better come ready to go balls out. The first procedure described is the procedure for resolving disputes at the table.
I’ve been fascinated with Blood Red Sands (by +Ralph Mazza
since it was first released as an ashcan several years ago, and I’ve longed to see if I can get it to work at the table. Fortunately, I’ve got a dream team of hard-core gamers, game designers, professional editors, interaction designers and rules geeks who are as jazzed to play the game as I am.
Twyla, +Brandon Amancio
, +Dylan Green
, +Philip LaRose
and I sat down to play BRS. For our first session, we’ll just be creating the situation. The action will come in session two. BRS is a gritty swords & sorcery game set in a world where all the gods are dead and the inhumanly cruel witch kings rule over what’s left. In each ordeal (about two sessions), we’ll tell the story of one conan-esque hero and his journey towards a confrontation with one of the witch kings. One player plays that hero, the rest of us play factions in the world—power centers locked in an incessant struggle for domination; some aligned with the witch king, some opposing, most neither.
Setup in this game is simply brilliant. While the hero player (Dylan) makes their hero, the rest of roll up a random list of random elements. Some of these are tied to the witch king our hero is aiming at (Shandazzar the Destroyer, a sort of eternal huntsman. who slew the god and his dragon mount so he could hang their heads on his wall.) Most are not.
Collectively we’ll assemble this soup of factions, goals, cool elements, plot twists, and mechanical bennies into four factions. Then we’ll choose which factions to play.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff on the table at this point. We’ve got some tribesman and clans with sorcerous power, a monster and someone who wants to hunt a monster, a magical artifact (with mechanical bonus), a wizard, some hostages, slaves, a band of Shandazzar’s hand-picked hunters and a band of warriors sworn to destroy them.
BRS is competitive, and the first point of competition is faction choice. The order of choice is pre-determined (I’m first, then Phil, Twyla, and Brandon). This means that whenever anyone makes a choice about how the situation is put together, they’re thinking about when they’ll get to choose their faction and which faction they’re likely to end up with. That’s a lot to front-load the game with, but as we start making our choices it plays out exactly the way I think Ralph meant it to.
** disclaimer: it’s altogether possible I’m remembering some of the details of this bit wrong, so apologies to the other players if I am. I remember my resonating, but not the exact order that things were done.
During set up we take turns assigning elements to factions until we have a fully-formed situation. When it’s my turn to choose, I want to make sure one faction is powerful, because then I can choose it since I go first. I see on the table a band of Shandazzar’s hunters. When they take damage, the set a die to its maximum—a powerful battle ability. In my judgement, they’re the best thing on the table. The hunters are an “extra”. That means they aren’t a faction on their own. They have to be tied to a faction, and that’s what I want to do—tie them to a strong faction.
My worry is that if I do that, Twyla or Brandon, who come late in the order, will weaken that faction by aligning it with the witch king. Only one faction will be aligned. Whichever faction it is will probably be at odds with the hero, who is a powerful enemy to have. So I do something else.
We also rolled a giant as an extra. This extra gets two bonus force dice, which will make it a very dangerous component. I assign it to a good faction—a prince in his tower—which already has a bonus sorcery die. Now if my opponents nerf the prince and his giant, I can assign the hunters somewhere else. If they nerf the hunters, I can choose the giant.
At the other end of the table, something totally different is going on.
Brandon and Twyla have figured out they’re likely to get the short end of the faction stick. Their best bet is to create two pretty good factions who can align against me. They want the factions to be as even as possible, and they figure out how to do it. After Phil, Twyla, and Brandon all assign extras to factions there’s one extra left over. It’s the hunters. They’ll be discarded un-used. As fate would have it, the remaining factions are pretty well balanced. There will be no powerhouse faction for me.
There’s a great moment when Twyla assigns the “artifact” extra to a faction that is a travelling judge and their band of riders. Twyla declares the artifact is a magical gem, murky in nature, but very powerful, that embodies the concept of justice in this world—a Darwinian struggle where it is the predator’s nature to hung and the prey’s nature to be consumed.
But setup isn’t over, and I have one nasty trick up my sleeve. Brandon and Twyla have been talking alliance all this time, and I realize now that I can shoot that down in flames. One of the things we do during setup is assign goals to factions. Goals are very important to scoring points, and points are how you win. For example, “oppose a faction” is one of the goals on the list. I can assign that to a faction that doesn’t have one yet. This creates opposition between two of the factions. I describe the reasons for the opposition when I assign it. This lets me use goals to set up conflicts and make it harder to form alliances. That’s exactly what I do. I create an opposition between the judge (with his artifact) and the prince (with his giant). As it falls out, this leaves no factions well-placed for alliance. This doesn’t mean Brandon and Twyla can’t align, but it does make it harder.
Here's where setup leaves us.
The story takes place in the fetid marshlands along the great river.
I choose the judge and riders with their magical artifact. The judge is Zyrama, a socerous witch who has the blood of Shandazzare in her veins. She rides the roads with her seven hand-picked warriors carrying a potent artifact, a terrible gem named “justice is woe” which knows all men’s secrets and reveals them to Zyrama so she can destroy them. The men, not the weaknesses. She seeks a monster—an angel of light left over from before the gods died. It is an abomination and must be banished.
Philip choose a sorcerer as his faction with the angel as his extra. He is Malloch, the sorcerer of the swamps, who has somehow bound an angel of death as his servant. From his tower of bone he ranges over the swamps seeking souls to bind to himself. His goal is to liberate slaves held by the prince—so that he can consume their souls for his own gains.
Twyla chooses the prince in his tower with his giant as extra. Of course Twyla declares the giant is also the tower. The prince hides his face in his tower which is affixed to the back of a stone giant. His goal is to gather slaves. He may also be forming a cult of some sort. I’m a little unclear on this. (Twyla is playing by Skype, and I don’t have her faction sheet as I’m writing this).
Brandon has the Night Hunters. They are riders of the clans who punish the minions of Shandazzar when those minions prey upon the clans. Dahlia Darkh with her cloak of smoke (!) and her riders seek to oppose the prince and the tower for gathering slaves in their lands. They also, in a clever bit of fictional positioning, ride giant swamp lizards of some sort. This will serve Brandon will in a swampy milieu.
Dylan, finally, is the hero. The idea of BRS is that the hero player makes their character in private and doesn’t get to see faction setup, arriving on the scene with no preconceptions. But for the first session when we’re all learning the rules, this seemed really hard and Ralph gave us the OK to ignore that for now.
Dylan’s hero Ab Murati is armed with his desire to atone, a thirst for blood, and a testament of the law written by god. I think I can give a better description and back story for the hero after we play our first session.
The first session of the game is scheduled for tomorrow, so hopefully I’ll have more to report on how the gameplay flows!
BRS is a bit daunting as a game, and we were all somewhat leery as to whether it would actually work. But prep left everyone jazzed to play. The rules are not always the clearest, so I would advise having multiple players who have read them and are ready to teach. This isn’t a game where you can muddle through. That said, the reference sheets work pretty well for the prep process and turn what could be a ball of confusion into an easily manageable process. We did make a couple of small mistakes and found some places where the rules were quite unclear, but we managed to figure it all out in the end.http://brennan-taylor.squarespace.com/blood-red-sands/