Thursday, April 12, 2018

Review: For Coin and Blood

I remember hearing vaguely about For Coin & Blood some time ago, but it seemed to pass me by before I got a chance to investigate. Then Diogo Nogueira, author of Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells and Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells, made mention of it on social media. And when Diogo endorses a game, there's a really good shot that I'm going to like it.

So, I googled For Coin & Blood and started investigating. Well, what I found was an awesome little game made by a passionate creator. Like my own The Hero's Journey (and obviously White Star), FCB is built on the Swords & Wizardry White Box chassis. It draws heavy inspiration from a more grim and gritty side of fantasy, clearly influenced by works such as The Black Company and The First Law series' of novels. By combining and tweaking White Box, material from several third party supplements, throwing in a heaping helping of evocative art, and excellent production values Gallant Knight Games has managed to produce a gem of a game.

While I'm not familiar with the fiction mention above, huge credit to the creators of FCB for creating a game that oozes dark fantasy. In fact, I was a bit jealous as I read through the book because I immediately thought "This would be great to run a White Box: Game of Thrones style game," which is something I had always hoped to write myself. Well, Gallant Knight Games beat me to it and good on them! The material is so evocative that it inspired me to pick up the first book in The Black Company series of novels.

So, what separates For Coin & Blood from traditional fantasy roleplaying games? Well, for starters it runs on the presumption that the player characters are not heroes. There are no holy protectors or knights in shining armor here, folks. But, what elevates this above the tired trope of "you play the villains," is that For Blood & Coin presents players and narrators with the opportunity to play characters who are complex and nuanced. No alignments, no archetypes. These are characters who are certainly self-serving, but are still capable of heroism if they so choose. The complexities of characters like Arya Stark or Jaime Lannister are right at home in this game -- and that's awesome!

Beyond fantastic, heavily shadowed black and white line art, the most evocative feature of the game are its classes. No paladins, fighters, or bards here folks. Sellswords, Blackguards, and Assassins rule the day These characters are tarnished by their own sins and willingness to do horrible things, but aren't mustache twirling villains. They're just willing to do what needs to be done when others aren't willing to get their hands dirty. That's something that's refreshing and pretty damned unique in the OSR, separating it from the more heroic games like The Hero's Journey or pulp stylings of White Box Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game.

Author Alan Bahr grabs hold of plenty of open source third party material then tweaks it until he's given it a new, but dingy and tainted coat of paint and created something all his own. There is plenty of familiar material here, but its all modified to the grimdark mood. A few areas of note include his adversaries section, the small tweaks to the player character classes, and rules for player characters running a criminal organization.

For Blood & Coin runs under the assumption that all player characters and most adversaries are human. There are no rules included for playing non-human characters and the bulk of adversaries included in this book are mundane. This creates the implication that magical creatures (and by extension magic itself) is rare and dangerous. This helps add to the atmosphere of the material as well as keeping the page count down. A handful of fantastic creatures are included, but that only helps to accentuate their rarity in my opinion.

This is a deadly game. Characters begin play with more hit points than other White Box-style games, but gain very, very as they increase in level. In fact, it's likely that a critical hit will kill even a 10th level character outright. Again, this adds to the grimdark feel of the material and in addition will force player characters to think beyond the "beat it till XP comes out" mentality that too often plagues fantasy roleplaying games. Each class also features abilities that are familiar tropes from the traditional fighter/cleric/wizard (called sellsword, priest, and magus in this game) dynamic, but takes the time to spice up these core three into something that feels genuine to the setting material. Four additional classes (assassin, blackguard, cutpurse, and knight) round out player character options. Each is just different enough to have its own unique feel, but isn't bloated with extra, unnecessary rules.

In the final pages of the rules, Bahr includes rules for player characters running and joining criminal organizations. Based on Swords & Wizardry Chivalry, the author has taken the concepts found in that book and given them a new and wonderful spin that (yet again) reinforces the themes and tone of the grimdark fantasy genre. Even as someone who originally wrote Chivalry, I found Bahr's tweaking of my original concept to be absolutely wonderful and refreshing.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the inclusion of a 7th Ability Score: Infamy. A character's deeds and misdeeds have a huge impact on the game and this form of measuring a character's reputation provide a more complex and dynamic roleplaying experience that the more traditional alignments used in most games. In fact, alignments have been completely jettisoned in For Coin & Blood, and that's a good thing in this context.

Pound for point, point for point, For Coin & Blood is my go-to grimdark fantasy roleplaying game. In fact, grabbing it has actually saved me money because I've purchased a copy in lieu of Warhammer or Shadow of the Demon Lord. My affection for White Box-based games is well known and this is takes that original edition style of game into a new and wonderful direction by presenting a game that offers opportunities for complex, morally ambigious storytelling not often actively encouraged in the OSR. I can't wait to see where Bahr takes the game line next.

For Coin & Blood can be found  on RPGNow & DriveThruRPG in PDF and print-on-demand versions. PoD is in digest form, with a black and white interior, though it can be ordered on color quality paper for a higher quality product -- which I'd recommend.