This is the one hundred fifty-fourth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
Our one hundred fifty-fourth random selection from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is busy conversing with a river. It’s The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze, by Joshua A.C. Newman, and its tagline in the bundle reads:
The TTRPG of Bronze Age SWORD & SORCERY driven by PASSION!
Passion, and talking to rivers.
That “TTRPG” stands for tabletop role-playing game, in this case requiring two to four humans to play. I was too lazy to organize such a group, so I simply read through the book and offer my thoughts here. Except it wasn’t so simple, because the book is a full-color PDF weighing in at a hefty 222 pages. I feared a complex set of rules, but actually the mechanics of The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze are fairly simple. Instead, the book spends a lot of time establishing the desired tone and theme, including five short stories that act as examples of the kinds of tales that might unfold during play, complete with notes in the margins explaining how events would translate into dice rolls (Joshua A.C. Newman tells us the text in the margins is inspired by the Talmud). The book cites art and writing contributions from Mimi Mondal, Shel Kahn, Simon Roy, Jabari Weathers, and Joshua Yearsley (who now works full time at Leder Games, creators of popular board game Root), in addition to Joshua A.C. Newman himself. The five short stories are credited to these different authors, and their artwork adorns the book throughout. There’s even a section at the end detailing the food and culture of the people in The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze, and descriptions of the mythological creatures they might encounter.
As the tagline suggests, the world is based on Earth’s own bronze age, but as Newman puts it, it is “the world of our past, but we are not its future.” The tone reflects mythology from this era — think Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, etc. — with tales of Fated Heroes who serve one of the Great Names, or of Namedealers who make pacts with the people and spirits of the world. At least one player will create a Companion, the character within the world whom they will guide through the story, but all players may take turns as the one who Knows the Will of Names the World, a role similar to a GM in other tabletop role-playing games (except for the two-player version, in which one player has a Companion and the other Knows the Will of the Names of the World). Whoever has the least stake in the events unfolding at the moment, perhaps because their Companion isn’t present or is simply not that invested, can step into this role, deciding how non-player characters and the world in general responds to what is happening. And I do mean the whole world.
You see, in the World of Names, anything with a name has desires, and will try to satisfy them. People, objects, rivers and fields, even the sky itself all seek their own agendas, and Namedealers, who speak the ancient Language of Names, can treat with them and form pacts. Namedealers are one of the two types of Companions for players, and they tend to make a lot of deals, enlisting aid from whatever named person or thing is nearby in exchange for helping the Named achieve what it wants. A Namedealer has a mere two black six-sided dice (“dice of jet”) to represent their mortal form, but aid from a Named entity will add golden dice to this pool. Often far more than two dice, if the entity possesses characteristics like Old, Mighty, or Known To All. Whenever a Companion takes an action according to their nature — for Namedealers, these actions are Offer Them What They Desire, Thieve, Coerce, or Escape — the other players must take note as ask for a dice roll. The player then rolls all their dice, both black and gold, and scores strikes for any results of 5 or 6. Strikes let them choose specific outcomes of the action, like “they agree to do as you ask” or “you are not harmed in the exchange”. But Namedealers must be careful not to make too many deals, because whenever they roll more strikes on their gold dice than their black dice, the Named-Ones they’ve treated with might make more demands. Especially if the Namedealer hasn’t been working towards their end of the bargain.
The other type of Companion is a Fated Hero. They cannot speak the Language of Names, but they do serve a specific Great Name, which can be a mighty creature, spirit, or even a dead ancestor who now swims in the Waters of the Underworld. This patron grants the Fated Hero their immortal dice of gold, added to the Hero’s two mortal dice of jet. Fated Heroes can also acquire trophies, typically legendary weapons or other famous objects, but also followers who are awed by the Hero’s prowess. These grant extra black dice to add to the pool. Other players must call for Fated Heroes to roll when they perform actions according to their nature: Coerce, Test Yourself, Lead Your Followers, and Follow Your Passion For Another. Similarly to Namedealers, strikes are earned upon dice results of 5 or 6, and allow the Hero to pick specific outcomes of the action. And, again, rolling more strikes on gold dice than black dice means their Great Name may make a demand of them.
In a section at the end of the book listing inspirations for The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze, Newman lists Apocalypse World, the game that spurred countless Powered By the Apocalypse games in its wake. A few of those have come up in Scratching That Itch so far, and I can see the resemblance in the specific actions for Companions that require dice rolls, similar to the “moves” from the Powered By the Apocalypse system. What I did not know, until reading through Newman’s inspirations, is that Apocalypse World grew out of an earlier bronze age inspired game called In A Wicked Age, so even the setting of the Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze owes some debts there. Naturally, Newman also cites other sources for the setting as well, including the Enuma Elish and Epic of Gilgamesh, two of the oldest written stories. From these, he borrows many of the powerful Named spirits and creatures which players might choose to include in their stories, including Tiamat and Bahamut (who would both also appear in the Final Fantasy series, of all things).
For the mechanics of the dice rolls, however, Newman cites Sorcerer as inspiration. While I’ve never come across Sorcerer itself, a supplement for Sorcerer called Electric Ghosts has surfaced in Scratching That Itch before. Reading through that gave me an idea of how Sorcerer works, and it makes sense as an inspiration here. The themes of trapping or coercing demons or other powerful spirits to do your bidding is not unlike entering into bargains with Named-Ones in The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze. The idea that their power can incur additional costs is an interesting twist that can guide the tales told during play.
At first, it was hard to tell exactly how playing The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze would work. Especially given a few confusing rules, like the fact that if players say anything about their Companion’s desires to the other players, it must be a lie. To communicate what their Companion wants, they must show it through the Companion’s own words and actions. What does that actually mean during play? Fortunately, the short stories act as great examples for how games might go. Namedealers are always fleeing something, perhaps a responsibility or promise, or perhaps a literal pursuing army. Fated Heroes are instead charging towards danger, hoping to achieve as much glory and renown as possible before they pass into the Waters of the Underworld. That helps set up the premise of a story. Then, Companions will meet and find their fates intertwined. Perhaps two Namedealers fall in love with each other, and help each other get out of their tangled obligations by treating with different Named-Ones during their journey. Another game might feature a single Companion, a Namedealer desperately trying to escape the warlord who pursues her. Each story has notes in the margins explaining how certain events required dice rolls, how many dice were used and why, and how the outcome of the roll determines what happens next.
Most of the examples feature Namedealers, rather than Fated Heroes. They do seem the more interesting of the two, with tales that are often far less violent than many tabletop role-playing games. There are stories of prophets and blessings, working to aid the land, and finding one’s desires in unexpected places. The only example story to feature Fated Heroes comes from Newman himself, and deals with the Minotaur of Greek Myth, pursued by his father’s army. This one has a lot more fighting, and paradoxically fewer margin texts explaining the rolls involved, but it does show the kind of superhuman heroics that Fated Heroes with powerful trophies can achieve. Players who like charging into battles will surely enjoy a Fated Hero as a Companion.
Still, The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze strikes me as more of a storytelling game than anything else. I’ve seen many such games in Scratching That Itch so far, but this one seems like it might be easier to get into for players who are not used to the format. Its bronze age myth inspirations will be familiar to many, and its clever dice rolling mechanics serve to drive stories forward, dictating twists at critical junctions. It seems best played in single sessions, although individual Companions could feature again in future tales. But each of the examples comes to a satisfying conclusion, even if that is the death of a Companion. Glory in the afterlife is what Fated Heroes crave, after all.
I should also stress just how excellent the flavor and tone is throughout. True to the premise, the text is full of names, like the Fated Hero Tamesh Ushar, who serves Balaabur, Who Writhes Beneath The Soil. Or the Iguk, who guards the bones of Yog Shul from thieves, and is blessed to never die the same way twice. Or the Strong Right Eye and Weak Left Eye of the sky (the sun and moon). Or, indeed, the many rivers that cross the land. Namedealers speak with rivers in no less than four of the five example stories, enlisting their help in exchange for helping them achieve their desires. Rivers might resent the cities on their shores, which pollute their waters. Or perhaps they want to claim the soul of a fallen king, before it reaches the Underworld. Given the importance of rivers in early civlizations, it makes sense that they are so central to these stories.
If you are intrigued by the idea of roleplaying in a fantastical age of bronze, a world where mighty creatures, famous weapons, and even the land and water itself have their own Will and can be bargained with, definitely give The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze a look. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s offered for any price you are willing to pay, including free. That’s quite generous, even if you just want to read the stories and gaze at the artwork.
That’s 154 down, and only 1587 to go!