Friday, July 10, 2020

Game Review: Pacts and Blades

Game Review: Pacts and Blades

: Lucas Rolim
Publisher: Self-published
Engine: Custom 2d6 roll-over

Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy is a simple, straightforward game system created by Lucas Rolim to offer fast, cinematic combat and magic systems.

Pacts & Blades makes no bones about what it is: it overtly states that it leaves skills, initiative, economics, tactical movement, etc. to the GM to handle. It is only interested in handling action. The resolution mechanic is robust enough to use for most dangerous situations, especially with a few hacks, but it offers little guidance.

I tested Pacts & Blades as a solo play system using an automatically generated dungeon through Donjon. I found that it moved pretty quickly, and was up to handling a dungeon crawl adventure with minimal conversion work or improvisation.

In play, the GM sets a difficulty rating between 1 (almost a guaranteed success) and 5 (impossible). A resolutuon table sets a range of numbers for failure, qualified success, and total success. There are eleven collumns on the table: one for each difficulty, and a number of intermediate collumns in between. Character training and narrative advantages can shift your roll to easier collumns on the table, giving a higher chance of success. On a roll of Total Success, if the character has specialized advancements for the roll, they roll on an additional "feat" table for special effects and advantages, like higher damage, extra attacks, or an extra use of a spell.

I would suggest that Pacts & Blades works best as a hack to plug into other OSR games. It can easily take over combat and magic while the GM handles movement, travel, encounter design, etc. using a Dungeons and Dragons retroclone. It might be best thought as an alternative rules system, rather than a standalone role-playing game.

If we treat it as a set of alternate game systems, the question becomes does Pacts & Blades offer something new and interesting to play?

What I Loved

Art and Layout

The first thing I noticed is the incredible art, design, and layout. Pacts & Blades is a beautiful,  art-rich book. It is laid out as a 40-page pamphlet with artwork meant to evoke the bizarre and grotesque monsters and surreal spirits that inhabit Moorcockian fiction. Almost every page has artwork in a range of styles. 

The artwork is so fascinating, I would have a hard time resisting buying it if I ran across it at a con, good system or not. What can I say? I'm an art geek.

Purpose-Driven Design

Pacts & Blades is built with one goal: creating lightweight systems for gritty, evocative combat and mysterious, unpredictable magic. It doesn't try to do much else. That lets the game focus on those specific systems. It's core mechanic is robust enough to use for other situations with a little improvising, if you want to use it as a standalone, however.

Character Development

Rather than use a level/class system, Pacts & Blades has an advancement system where characters build up ratings in two paths: the pact path, which improves your magical ability, and the blade path, which improves combat ability.

Characters advance by finding teachers, tomes of forbidden lore, techniques, etc. that woukd actually improve their mastery. Each time a path improves, either an apropos weapon of the character's choice or their relationship with a particular spirit patron improves.

The improvement from character advancement shifts which column you use when rolling to use that specific weapon or magical pact. After acquiring enough advancements, a character's Difficulty to hit increases, as does the number of wounds they can take.

This is a solid, organic system. A character who learns some tips from a master assassin improves their blade path, and specifically has an easier time killing with daggers. It makes sense.

Pact Magic System

Just like in the Elric novels that inspired the game design, magic comes from pacts with otherworldly spirits. Each spirit has power over some abstract force of nature or part of the human mind. A character can think up an effect, and if one of the spirits with whom he has a pact has appropriate powers, then the player may roll to make it happen. But, unless the character gets an exceptionally lucky roll, they may only do the same spell once per day.

For example, in my test session, the magician, Mirdon, began with a pact with Mephistopheles, demon of ill winds (decided before I generated the dungeon). As long as I could think of a reason why a magical effect was an "ill wind,"  Mirdon could roll to cast ot. Variously throughout the adventure Mirdon:
  • Purged a toxic stench from a dungeon room.
  • Suffocated a drow by stealing his breath (his "wind").
  • Blasted a homunculus out of the air.
  • Sliced a Duergar's flesh with a cutting wind.
  • Blew open a door with a hurricaine gust.
  • Disoriented a goblin with a terrible odour.
This system is flexible and free-form. Eventually, Mirdon and his ally Doraleous discovered an idol to the God of Light, and made offerings, which let them both advance in the Path of the Pact and have a pact themed on "Light."

This design definitely rewards player creativity, while giving the GM powerful veto and control which pacts are available, and which effects are within the power of the patron spirit.


Because Pacts & Blades  is built on these two Paths with mirrored structure, it occurred to me that it would be easy to add a couple of other Paths and not unbalance the game. A "Path of the Cloak" that allowed characters to make thievery skills easier, one dirty trick at a time. Likewise a "Path of the Troubadour" could cover deception and charm. A "Path of the Olympian" could handle athletics.

Lucas Rolim

When I began this review, I had questions about the game's mechanics, so I contacted Lucas Rolim directly and asked. Not only was he exceedingly helpful, he chose to take my questions as feedback, and made several edits for clarity. Lucas is interested in ensuring that Pacts & Blades is the highest quality he can make it, which takes humility.

Growth Points

Implied Rules

When I began writing this review, there were significantly more implied rules to cover. However, as I asked Lucas Rolim about some of the mechanics that I was unsure of, he made edits to the game's text to reflect his clarified meaning, for which I cannot heap enough praise on him.

If there is an implied rule left, it is about creatures using magic or special powers. The example monsters on page 35 are selected in order to create a number of implied rules. The Orc Shaman is depicted as having a pact with Motus the Decrepit: Spirit of Death, implying magic related to Decay, Deformity, and Curses. But, little about adjudicating the use of Magic by NPCs is covered. Likewise, the dragon is listed as having a fire breath weapon that is rolled 4 columns to the left of its standard Target number. However, the limitations of the use of the breath weapon are not describe in any detail.

I would have liked to have seen a paragraph or two on creature special powers and how they are used. Perhaps an additional feat table for creatures when they use their powers.

Lost Opportunities

Pacts and Blades positions itself as Moorcockian: a game about challenging grotesque and evil monsters. Insofar as the magic feels like something out of The Eternal Hero, and combat can be fast, furious, and over the top, I can say Pacts and Blades accomplishes what it sets out to do. But there was some lost opportunity for world building that could have let it really stand out here.

First, the choice of monsters is pretty bland. They are chosen because they are iconic of modern fantasy role-playing games, rather than iconic of Moorcockian fantasy. Creating some bizarre and grotesque monsters unique to Pacts & Blades  would have been far more interesting than goblins and orc shamans.

Secondly, aside from a few names mentioned in the section on Pacts, we don't have a very big list of potential spirits with which to make pacts. Adding in a section on spirits to help flesh out both the world and the magic system.

It also would have been helpful to have more guidance on how to convert OSR monsters to Pacts and Blades.


Like many old school role playing games, In general, the mechanics of Pacts and Blades is pretty easy to understand. You set a difficulty class ranging from one for extremely easy to 4 for extremely difficult, or set it to 5 for an impossible task. Your threshold for a total success is three times that number. So, if you are trying to beat an easy task of the difficulty of one, you need to roll a three or better for a total success. If you're trying to overcome a task with a difficulty of 3, you must roll a 9 on 2D6 to have a total success. Below that threshold, there is a range of possible rolls that give you a partial success. This varies a bit, creating a curve where is relatively Easy tasks are likely to be a partial success even on a very low, roll and very hard tasks are likely to be, at best, a partial success. It is simple to learn, and the table is reproduced on the character sheet.

The problem comes from the language used. Pacts and Blades tries hard not to recycle common role-playing terms. While a term like difficulty class or target number, or even success threshold would be familiar, Pacts and Blades instead uses the non-descriptive "Reference Value." 

I appreciate why this choice is made: Role playing games often feel derivative because they share terminology. However, that same terminology creates a Lingua Franca; it makes it easier for a newcomer to digest the rules of a role-playing game. Calling it something like a "success threshold" would make it easier for a player to look at that table and understand exactly what is going on.

This is at best a minor complaint. It doesn't affect the play of the game, just how easy it is to learn.


I'd like to see more minimalist material created like Pacts and Blades. Not an entire role playing game, (although P&B is usable as one,) but a modular sub-system that can be plugged into a role playing game. I've often seen people buy entire games just for one or two mechanics. In fact, I do this myself; I own several systems because I bought them for the sole purpose of studying them and hacking a version of one or two rules into my preferred systems.

Because of its narrow focus and purpose-driven design, Pacts and Blades can easily be plugged into a new game system or its ideas stolen and converted with relative ease. And because it isn't trying to be a complete and comprehensive role playing game, the book can be small, lightweight, and inexpensive.

Certainly, if I were building a role playing game piecemeal out of multiple systems (which I am), affordable and specialized games like Pacts and Blades, that do one thing really well would be exactly what I wanted to pick up and look at. And Pacts and Blades' mechanics are definitely worth considering.

And I will happily restate that Pacts and Blades achieves what it sets out to do: the combat is light and fast, while still having grit and enough granularity that it doesn't boil down to "I hit it with my axe," over and over again. The magic feels wild, dangerous, and unpredictable. It rewards player creativity both narratively and mechanically, and most actions are resolved with one or two rolls.

I will also note that it was one of most enjoyable games for solo play I have tried so far. Now that I am on vacation, I expect Doraleous and Mirdon will delve deeper in some casual solo play.

It was fun to look at, fun to try, and generally smartly designed. 

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