The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze is a highly social roleplaying game for creating stories of passions and desire; a little like Conan and a little like The Illiad; a little like Dying Earth and a little like Torah or the Epic of Gilgamesh from the Enuma Elish. You can play it with two, three, or four players. It takes about a half hour per player, so a four person game will be about two hours. You can keep playing, of course! Take your companions on further adventures and see what destiny their lives hold for them!
In a two-player game, one of you will take describe the character’s actions and appearance, words, and outward expressions, while the other describes those of the world around them. When three or four people play, you’ll take turns expressing your own characters and the world around you.
You can get the rules here. It’s also available, like all my games, to my Patreon subscribers, as a PDF.
The World of Names
This is a game in which everything in the world is the way it is because it wants to be that way; because it’s following the desires that come from its nature and experience, not because there are natural laws.
Each thing, if it has a name, has a will of its own; the name is the essence of that thing. The world is made of those names, from the Waters of Heaven in the sky to the Waters of the Underworld beneath the clay.
It’s a world that resembles the Bronze Age of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean: Babylonia, Egypt, Assyria, Hatti, Greece, the Maghreb, and Israel, but it is not a history of our world. It contains many, many mortal peoples, known as “earthen-beings”. In the center of the world, where your adventures begin, they look like you and me: skin that’s some shade of brown or tan, some with markings upon it, some with beards and heads of hair, decorated, arranged, cut, plucked, or shaved according to the tastes of their culture. But elsewhere, the people might be giants, or have shells like a tortoise, or have skin like a dolphin and live on a sunken island. Northern riders, their skin striped like tigers, ride on the backs of giant birds call akum that we’d recognize as dinosaurs. In the mountains, there are tribes who herd flying lizards, riding the largest into battle.
In the world, the earthen-beings are as unique as they are rare. They huddle together in villages and towns on the banks of rivers, lakes, and the sea; or they form into tribes that traverse the deserts and mountains, surviving by trading goods or by raiding towns or travelers. While fish live in the sea and birds in the air and camels in the desert, earthen-beings can live anywhere and do as they please.
Earthen-beings are burdened with mortality and their little, human languages, but they are free in ways that few other beings are. They are unpredictable, and each one is unique. They are as kind as they are vicious; they make moral decisions for themselves to do good or evil according to their experience, even when they have no hope of success. Many Great Names find earthen-beings to be a constant source of irritation and question their decision to bring them into the world in the first place.
No Great Name spans the space of the Waters of Heaven to the Waters of the Underworld, nor across the clay in between. The sky of each named place is different, though most skies have a strong right eye — the sun — and a weak left eye — the moon. Any Great Name that wishes to be known past the limits of the sky under which it lives will send a hero (or perhaps a rhetorically talented namedealer) to carry its name afield to lands it does not know. You may find that others in those lands have heard tell of such a name, though they know it pronounced differently. The name of a river might be known to all on its surface, underneath it, and along its banks; maybe even as far as those who trade with the cities, towns, and villages on its shores, but it will be known to none in the desert, or across the Great Ocean to the south.
As you play The Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze, you’ll switch between two roles: the role of your companion — a fated hero or a namedealer — and the role of You, Who Know the Will of the Names of the World.
Namedealers are the rare people who have learned to speak to the names of the work, making treaties with natural phenomena, with ancient and storied artifacts, and with the mortal beings of the earth around them. They speak The Language of Names that predates all human language, the language of which all human languages are just a pale shadow. Namedealers are also the only people who know not to give their real name out — when you do, you must deal in good faith, and you might not want to be stuck with those bounds. They can achieve their objectives by making an offer, by coercing, by thieving, or by escaping. Of those, the one that will give them the fewest negative consequences is to escape. It sure is hard to make friends, that way, though — and a namedealer will find that there’s nothing as valuable as someone who believes they’re your friend. The object of the game for players of namedealers is to escape the consequences of the promises they’ve made. Whether the player achieves this will be a matter to be decided between the namedealer and the names with whom they have treated.
Sometimes, a Great Name charges the namedealer to produce a hero who can do its will. Those fated heroes, born with a destiny that enters their lungs with their first breath, can become the great rulers of the earth, can parent entire peoples, can make the earth itself shake with their passions. Fated heroes are goaded to such greatness by the Great Name that is their patron, but that patron is prone to jealousy. Should the hero outshine them while pursuing their own agenda — not that of the Great Name — the Great Name will do them grievous harm, even killing them, to remind them of their place. Their options are forthright: they will coerce, lead, follow their passions for others, and test themselves in order to achieve the destiny they have been promised. Of those, the one that will lead to the fewest harmful consequences for themselves is to coerce. One might find it hard to make allies, The object of the game for players of fated heroes is to die so gloriously that the Great Names fear their entry into the Waters of the Underworld.
Most of the time, you’ll play the role of your companion, describing what they do by describing what a witness could see, hear, taste, feel, and smell. But sometimes you’ll change roles to You, who Know the Will of the Names of the World. You will switch often, but only when your companion is the least important person there and you need to know what a god-queen, a river, or any other sentient entity wants. If you’ve been doing it for a little while, someone else should ask you what your companion is up to, asking “Where are you? What do you? Who joins you?”
How to Play the Role of Companion
When your role is that of your companion, remember that your will is yours alone, and your objective is to escape the consequences of the promises you’ve made. You can change your mind, of course, like any real person or fictional character can, and you are not obligated to explain your character’s will to anyone. If you want to, lie about what your character wants and feels. You can even lie about your feelings and thoughts when another companion has coerced you into thinking or feeling something. Assume that, when your fellow players tell you the feelings or intentions of their companion that they’re lying, unless those feelings or intentions match their actions.
Have your companion do what you feel like they would do in the circumstances that arise, and do what you can to put them in a position to take action and roll dice appropriate to their destiny — whether they are a fated hero or namedealer.
Hannah is playing Shemut, a boy taken as a slave by Northern raiders, clad in leather and bronze, on their fleet-footed flock of akum. He has slipped his bonds, as he only has three fingers on one his right hand, and was able to free himself from his manacle because of his tiny stature and missing digits. He was taught the Language of Names by his mother, the namedealer who spoke with the sky of the river U that flows from the The Forehead of Abshu, the cliffs to the north. Shemut is trying to warn the next village downriver of the raider, and instead of running to his razed village, has run ahead of the raiders and their conscripts.
Hannah says, “I’ve gotta get back to my mother’s altar to retrieve the Wheel of Sun and Moon, named Bushud! I take off into the marsh beside the river.”
Evan, playing another companion, says, “Oh! You’re escaping! Roll!”
Hannah rolls and gets two accomplishments.
“I escape, and I think I’m gonna need this one destiny, so I’ll leave ‘You are unseen’ unchosen.”
Meg, who knows the will of the Names of the World, says, “As soon as they realize that you, a child, have escaped, they know you’re headed for your home. They send two riders back up the road after you!”
Hannah says, “OK, awesome. I hold a log and float downriver, ahead of the raiders so I can warn the next town. Now the raiders are down two riders! Ha!”
Challenging Each Other
Sometimes another companion will challenge yours by taking action against you, perhaps making an offer of sweet, herbed honey wine at a caravansarai, pursuing their passion for you as their fingers reach for your body, or testing their strength against yours as you contend against each other, racing to get to the king who rides against you in her iron-wheeled chariot, leading an army of a thousand warriors to best you. When this happens, they will roll dice (including any they get from you) and you will roll your dice, subtracting your hits from theirs. Then you may take advantage of any misses they didn’t choose, or even to coerce them if they have no hits at all. Remember that, if they choose to alter you thoughts or feelings, you may decide whether it has the effect they desire, no effect at all, or any other effect you want, at all, instead.
Meg’s companion, a hero named Gumash Forgiven-by-the-Moon, has been growing closer with Evan’s companion, a namedealer named Ebeg. As the three companions sit around their fire in the valley of Damash, Hannah’s companion, Shemut, falls asleep. As the moon rises, Hannah says, “Ebeg’s features shine in the light of the weak right eye of the sky of the valley of Damash.”
Meg says, “I move toward you and take you in my arms.”
Hannah says, “You’re following your passion for another! Roll”
Meg rolls and gets three accomplishments, with one of them a die of gold, which means this could be a heroic seduction, worthy of legend. Evan rolls two hits, though, reducing Meg’s accomplishments to one. She says, “You return your passion for me, else, you may shame me.”
Evan says, “I’m really conflicted about this, so I back away, but not far. You can read it on my face: you can see that I want to, but you can also see an expression of sadness and shame.”
Meg says, “Crap! Do you shame me?”
Evan says, “Oh, no! I think I’m into you, but there’s something else going on for me.”
Meg does not lose a die, because, though, Gumash was at Ebeg’s mercy, Ebeg had their own reasons to care for Gumash, and does not wish to shame Gumash.
Because Meg did not choose, “No others become jealous,” Hannah says, “You can feel the glare of the moon on you because you were to dedicate your love, now rejected, to her. You must leave this fire to consort with the night sky of this desert to console her.”
Gumash rises from the fire and walks into the night.
Keeping an Eye Out for Each Other
There are only four things your companion can do that will produce real consequences: the four actions that they have listed appropriate to their destiny. Anything else they do might give vital context, but they can’t gain destiny without rolling dice, and they certainly can’t make anyone else in the world do what they want against their will.
To make sure everyone has the opportunity to try to make things happen the way they want, keep your copy open to the page of actions and be familiar with what the companions can do. Did a namedealer just suggest that they’ll help a maimed beggar-king cross the Sea of Mutuak? Point out that they made an offer so they remember to roll their dice! If they didn’t intend to make an offer, but instead wanted to coerce the beggar-king, they can change what they did freely. For instance, they might say, “No, I’m saying that for the benefit of the witnesses. I make surethe beggar-king can see that I’ve got this dagger hidden in my sleeve.” Or they might say, “Wait, never mind. I’m actually going to jump out the window.” Then you’d say, “Oh! Then roll and we’ll check the consequences of ‘Escape’ instead of ‘Make an Offer’.” Be honest and make your decisions lightly. Let the action keep flowing.
How to Know the Will of the Names of the World
You’ll have your turn to know the will of the Names of the World when your companion isn’t particularly relevant at the moment. It might be the very beginning of the game and you’re simply the last to introduce their companion. Or your companion might have run off to climb over the wall while other companions make a frontal assault, and we’ll catch up with them as soon as it’s important to us. Or maybe your companion is asleep at the campfire while the others vie to impress the moon with their offerings of poetry. Or perhaps you’re playing with only one friend, and you have agreed together that it is you, who knows the will of the Names of the World for the duration of this adventure.
The first thing you’ll do when it’s your turn to know the will of the Names of the World is to ask a player, “Where are you? What do you? Who is with you?” Your job is to introduce the names you think will be most fun for you.
Namedealers come with one such name prepared: the one from whom they flee. Do you want to see what happens if that name shows up now? Or do you want someone to bring word of their approach, instead? Perhaps an associate of one of their promised names will be present, or perhaps someone they could help makes a plea.
Fated heroes receive the words of oracles, so perhaps the oracle has sent word? Or perhaps you want to see how the hero reacts to the presence of another hero? Or one who trusts them? Or perhaps one who would deceive them? Seduce them? Ask of them for aid?
In these cases, remember that every person — every hero, every monster, every ghost, every passerby asked for aid, every object a namedealer decides to speak with — has desires and acts in accordance with them. Know the root of their desire before they speak or take action.
Concern yourself with the desires of only those names, and not with the desires of the companions. They might find their interests aligned with those of the companions, of course, but the names pursue their own interests.
The three companions — Hannah’s namedealing little boy, Shumat; Evan’s attractive namedealer, Ebeg; and Meg’s mighty (if heartbruised), hero Gumash, have found themselves in the catacombs beneath the lost city of Muhfush. They have fled here together from the raiders pursuing Shumat, as Gumash needs to be able to heal before facing them, and she has heard that her quarry, the duplicitous Labum who stole the heart of the moon, has retreated here.
Evan says, “When we enter the catacombs, we find our way barred by skeletons, some partially dismembered, rising from their crypts, armed in the fashion they were when buried. They have bronze swords and wicker shields decayed with time, and some, behind the leaders, are armed with long, leaf-bladed spears. ”
Meg asks, “Which is their leader?”
Evan says, “Uh, yeah! There’s one with a plumed helmet made from the head of an akum, and he looks out through its teeth. It’s inlaid with silver and bronze to give it strength. He has a bone, also inlaid with gold and precious stones, in his right hand, and he’s wielding it like a mace.”
Hannah says, “Hero of old, what is your name that I might pronounce it when I tell this tale?”
Evan responds for the dead hero, “I am Atumat, Feller of the giant, Dubun! I have slept many centuries in the waters of the underworld and will return there with you!”
Hannah replies, “What is it you were promised, that you would tempt the sea demons to torture you there by returning here to the land of clay?”
Evan thinks for a moment to figure out the answer before saying, “I fight for Labum, who promised to tell my descendants of the greatness of my deeds; to make them fear and adore my name!”
“Labum,” Hannah says, “I would inscribe your chronicle for all to read, for all time, on the walls of a city, if you would join us in a battle far greater than that you would taste against us, alone. I will put your bones into a great eidolon that all might see you for a thousand years, that you need not return to the waters of the Underworld.”
Meg notes, “You’re making an offer.”
Hannah has already picked up the dice. “You bet I am!”
Deciding When You Know Too Much
Feel free to ask another player to know the Will of the Names of the World when you want your companion to come back to the spotlight. If you don’t know who to ask, ask the person whose companion was last to act to know the will of the Names of the World. They will then ask you where you are, what you’re doing, and who else is there so you can put yourself in position to take action.
Describing new Peoples
When you know the will of the Names of the World, you’ll often need to know how a people’s culture works so you know what they care about. Most people in the center of the world, where your adventure starts, want the things anyone does: they want social status, they want the respect of their parents, they want wealth, love, sex, safety, or dominance. Whatever way their culture expresses those things, that is the thing they will demand of the world. Describe what they do and how, but not why! When a companion asks a question about what they can perceive, answer it, but don’t explain why until the companions can perceive the causes.
Describe their physical presence in whatever way the companions can perceive, from the way they wear their hair, to the colors and patterns of their skin and clothes. How do they act to express their social status, from socioeconomic status to gender to individual taste? Their outward appearance comes from a set of assumptions and pressures that they’re responding to at every moment. As the moment develops, keep looking backward to how the character got to this point to find out what they want.
When You Have the Opportunity to Cause Harm
When a companion takes action and rolls dice, they risk some harm. Either they are facing a name represented by the one who knows the Will of the Names of the World (a person, a monster, a natural phenomenon, or simply a heroically difficult task worthy of legend), or they’re facing one of their fellow companions. Remember that even if a namedealer so much as makes an offer of a piece of bread in exchange for a stay in a tent, the player must roll the their dice. Similarly, if a hero casually insults a passing character by calling them weak, that’s an implicit threat, and so they are coercing them.
The outcome of those rolls can be an opportunity to do harm. Remember that, when you have the opportunity to do harm, it does not obligate you to do it. A servant boy, offered a seduction by a hero who rolls zero accomplishments is at the mercy of the servant boy — but the servant boy may respond in any way he wishes, according to his will. When the target of action is another companion, their might will tend to give them greater command over the situation — but their reaction is up to them, alone.
There are several circumstances in which you can do harm.
- A hero whose dice of jet showed more accomplishments than the dice of gold, making the Great Name jealous and demanding immediate obeisance under threat.
- A namedealer whose dice of gold showed more accomplishments than the dice of jet, making one of the names impatient, modifying the arrangement between them under threat.
- The companion who rolled got zero achievements when they rolled.
- They rolled accomplishments, but didn’t choose one of the consequences that prevented them from coming to harm
- They didn’t answer a threat.
When a hero’s dice of jet score more accomplishments than the dice of gold, You, Who Know the Will of the Names of the World determine if the Great Name has any reason to make demands. If they choose to make a demand, send them a prophecy, either through a namedealer or through the explicit presence of the Great Name. If the hero refuses, they suffer immediate harm at the hands of the Great Name — or perhaps circumstances that the Great Name controls.
When a namedealers’ dice of gold score more accomplishments than their dice of jet, You, Who Know the Will of the Names of the World, determine if one of the names aiding the namedealer has reason to feel that the namedealer has not been working in their interests — or even not working hard or fast enough. What immediate demand do they make? If the namedealer refuses, they will receive immediate harm at the hands of the name.
When they get zero achievements, you have the opportunity to give them a choice: concede to the demands made by the name who bested them, or take one harm. It’s up to you how realistic the demand is, but you will probably find it most fun if it’s something they could do, but they don’t want to.
When they don’t choose consequences that prevent them from coming to harm, first ask yourself if there is truly a risk of harm. If not, you may not harm the character. The interpretation of the circumstances are up to you, though of course you can ask other players for their thoughts.
When they don’t answer a threat, such as the arrow coming toward them that will embed itself in their chest, harm them without mercy. However, especially if they are inexperienced in the game, make sure that they have not foregone their options. A hero might test herself against the arrow, snapping it off and casting it away (if the roll goes as the player hopes), or a namedealer might have thrown their cloak into the air to confuse the archer, thereby giving themselves the opportunity to escape from its point.
How to Deal Harm
Harm is an opportunity to do something of lasting harm to a character. The stakes are high for namedealers and fated heroes alike. When you deal harm, you may:
- Take away a mortal die of jet. If it’s the character’s last one, they must depart for the Waters of the Underworld.
- Destroy, damage, or otherwise remove a name that has pledged itself to them, if they’re a namedealer.
- Harm a person the character likes, unless the player has chosen “no harm comes to others”. If they are not a companion, they might die immediately of their wounds, but if they are a companion, they will take one harm, with its attendant consequences.
- Damage, destroy, or lose a trophy held by a hero.
- Summon immediately the enemies of the companion.
- Even, if the circumstances warrant it, take away the patronage of the Great Name that gives a hero their destiny.
You may only deal harm to people and things that are threatened by the events that are going on right now and that can be affected by the names in the conflict.
What Happens When You’re Harmed
Whoever has done the harm, describes what it looks like to all witnesses. Harm is serious, and the scars from it, in whatever form, will be apparent forever after. Companions with experience might find themselves missing eyes or extremities, with deep and gnarled scars, even with wounds that smolder forever or a hole where once their stolen heart beat.
When trophies or names are harmed, but not destroyed, they might, for instance, lose the die they had for being Beautiful or Inscribed by being defaced with a stylus.
Ending an Adventure
An adventure ends at any moment the players agree. If your companion’s adventure closes before that of the others, you will know the will of the Names of the World, passing the role only if it happens with someone else.
During that time, your companion might be present, and might give aid through their dice and words, but will no longer take impactful action.
Starting a New Adventure
Still having fun? Start a new adventure! If your companions have gained destiny dice, keep them, even if the subsequent adventure takes place before the previous one! After all, one is born with one’s destiny; one’s actions simply reveal it.
Keep or discard your own attendant names and trophies as you see fit.
If a new player joins you, before anyone else goes, ask them where they are, what they’re doing, and who joins them.
Come visit the Patreon page for this post! I’ll answer questions over there, eventually incorporating the answers into the text of the game!
A Final Note on Postmodernism and Hacking the Bloody-Handed Name of Bronze
You might be tempted to populate your world with abstract names like, “The name of all names” or “The name of knowledge” or “The name of weather.” I recommed you play the game with names as concrete as you can imagine. All gods are local. Sometimes very local.
That’s not to say there’s not plenty to hack with this system, but all the parts lock together. I’ll show you how to make a new set of cogs in a later article.
—Joshua A.C. Newman