I’ve had Blades & Blasters in my to-review pile for what feels like months. I’ve had the Kickstarter tab open, to write the review, for equally as long.
My tardiness isn’t a reflection on the quality of the D&D 5e supplement; it’s because I don’t often find myself thinking about changing up a fantasy campaign by having aliens, with ray guns, invade it. Blades & Blasters was a free time read me for, not an immediate game preparation need.
Aliens in D&D is a wild-card of an idea, but it’s an intriguing possibility, even though I suspect as many people will wrinkle their nose in displeasure as who’ll embrace the idea.
Science fantasy in fantasy is a “what-if” I have considered. I was even able to briefly test it in a play-by-post forum game where it worked surprisingly well. The carefully balanced politics of a fantasy realm were dramatically shaken up by the strange metallic monsters that fell from the sky the night the moons seemed to shine with fire.
In that play-by-post game, though, there was no mechanics, no rules, no headache trying to balance blasters and alien spaceships with the fantasy staple of Dungeons & Dragons. If I had had to; I don’t think I would have started the game. It’s too much of a challenge for me.
Aliens invading your D&D setting is precisely the premises of Blades & Blasters. Designer Seth Tomlinson has tackled the hard problems, has provided stats for alien weapons, alien vehicles and even the aliens themselves.
Is it any good? Well, Blades & Blasters was added to DriveThruRPG in September, and it is already a Copper Bestseller and reviewers there have given the supplement 5/5 stars.
The Xin Federation
There are three parts to the Blades & Blasters bestiary and rulebook, and the trick is not to judge the supplement by the first part.
We begin with a set of short stories and then move on to discussing The Xin Federation. Blades & Blasters doesn’t add an unordered collection of alien tech to your D&D. It has a backstory. It has a plot that binds the technology and alien races together. I imagine as a DM you could simply drop The Xin Federation into your game or you could ignore it entirely and just use Parts 2 and 3 for the technology and aliens.
The Xin became the dominant species on their planet and irradicated those races that once challenged them for supremacy. How did they manage it? They can influence the minds of others.
Once masters of their own planet, the Xin go on to start to conquer or destroy any race that they encounter as they begin to explore the stars. Some aliens are allowed into the Federation because they have a role. Threats are destroyed, technology assimulated and the inventor races wiped out.
However, dig a bit deeper into the lists of other aliens in the bestiary, and you will find the occasional sign of resistance. There are aliens out there who know about the Xin and who, thankfully, have managed to keep their home planets secret from this interstellar threat.
I suggested you don’t judge Blades & Blasters by Part 1 for two important reasons. You may totally hate the idea of the Xin, their Federation and the whole backstory. That’s okay, you don’t need to use any of it. The second reason is that there is hardly any art in this section of the supplement. That’s not indicative of the rest of the book. You will get to see what other aliens in the Federation look like later on.
Despite Blades & Blasters going into detail on the Xin, talking about their language and alphabet as well as their culture, I don’t think I’ll use them as is. Instead, I think I’ll re-write their story and take ownership of all the races and tech in the book for myself.
Alien technology in D&D
The second section of the book is about technology.
Both weapons and tech in Blades & Blasters are divided into “technology classes”. These classes don’t relate to how advanced the tech is but the power cell class needed to power them.
Power cells are the bright idea that Blades & Blasters uses to try and balance the alien technology. Sure, yeah, you might find a Class-4 set of mechanized armour, but then you’ll need a Class-4 power for it. You’ll also soon need a way to recharge that Class-4 that power cell.
There’s also item rarity to consider. That’s all factored in, wrapped up in a table (in appendix C) and made sense of by the default Xin Federation story.
It feels likely that player characters will try and repair the broken alien technology that they discover. There are generous rules for that. I say ‘generous’ rules because Blades & Blasters finds a way to let that happen. I can’t imagine a fantasy world in which a talent gnome could pick up a broken iPhone and fix it, but, hey, perhaps I’m a spoilsport.
Scavenging alien technology feels like the more likely route to me, and that’s covered in the book too. Weapons and armour both need proficiencies and Blades & Blasters has you covered.
Cyberpunk meets D&D is very popular right now. Carbon 2185 has been top of DriveThruRPG’s bestsellers for days in a row. I don’t think it’s right to say that Blades & Blasters is also a cyberpunk game, it doesn’t have that feel, it’s science-fantasy, but it does have augmentations.
Fancy giving your orc warrior a cybernetic eye enhancement? That’s the sort of bonus covered in just a few pages. Like all the rules in Blades & Blasters, you do have to watch out for game balance. It might be tempting, for example, to let all your human PCs get a Night Vision enhancement so then you won’t have to worry about designing encounters that work for your PCs with night vision aren’t lethal to those without it… but what would be the point of the racial night vision if you did that?
There’s a handful of pages on vehicles (which thankfully tend to have quite high technology classes), some on generic hi-tech equipment and then rules on downtime training and feats.
That’s right. If you do allow your characters to get their hands on blasters or a scooter then they’ll most likely want to become good with their new toys. The default rules in Blades & Blasters suggests that they’ll need to find a teacher and train for 250 days, at the cost of 1 gold piece per day. If they can’t find a teacher, then they have to practice themselves, doing nothing else for a year.
It’s also acknowledged that some gamemasters might not to modify these rules, especially if you’re not so bothered about downtime management.
The new feats add in things like “Robo Warrior”, which requires proficiency with Class-3 technologies first, and gives the PC proficiency with the alien toolkit, mechanized armour and a bonus action to inspire others.
Tech Trainee feats are available for each of the technology classes, each one requiring the previous as a prerequisite. It is possible to have a fantasy character to become an expert on technology, but it’ll take many levels.
Aliens in D&D
The third part of Blades & Blasters lists the aliens. It’s here that you’ll get to see what the aliens mentioned in part one look like.
As I read through the book, worried this wouldn’t happen, I knew just even simple sketches of the aliens will help. We get a bit more than simple drawings in part three, we get coloured illustrations.
They’re not overly sophisticated drawings, though, there’s no stunning set piece for each alien. There’s no Player’s Handbook equivalent of a hero illustration to build a character around. Credited to “Sketchy-Art”, we get relatively small, proficiently but simply coloured renderings of each alien. While lacking in wow factor; each one adds hugely to the game.
Alien Beasts are a thing too, monsters for want of a better word. For every two alien races (either part of the Federation or surviving outside it), there’s an alien beast.
I’m glad these are here, but I think it might be quite hard to make them feel foreign in a fantasy game. I suppose you can tell your Ranger character in no uncertain terms that they’ve no idea what this creature is, and that it doesn’t seem possible. Best of all, though, might be the look of surprise on a metagamer’s face when you add a monster they’ve never seen before.
Blades & Blasters finishes with a collection of appendices. These are useful; aliens and alien creatures by CR, items by rarity, a hierarchy for inside the Federation and even some story hooks.
I enjoyed Blades & Blasters. I had my Kindle read out the opening stories to me while I multi-tasked someone else and then dug in personally went we got to the stats.
At this start of the review I said had tried a fantasy game with aliens in it in an internet forum RPG, enjoyed it but wouldn’t have even made an attempt if I had also had to come up with rules to make it work. I think Blades & Blasters solves that problem for me. These are rules that work. This is a way to put aliens and their technology into your D&D game.
So, it’s thumbs up but with a caveat for Blades & Blasters. Tomlinson’s supplement is well written and balanced. At $13 for the PDF, $25 for the softcover and $38 for the hardback it feels like good value. The caveat; this book will change for fantasy game forever, and there is no rewind button. Think carefully before deploying any of it.
My copy of Blades & Blasters was provided for review.
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