Telling Stories Through Cards – Part 3: Flesh and Blood

Yep, it’s time to finally wrap up this series! Part of my intention for this third and final entry was to look at current Flesh and Blood sets and talk about how FAB might tell stories with its cards in the future, and, with the first handful of Monarch spoilers landing, it feels like it’s now or never. So, we’ll kick things off by looking at the first three sets and then doing some light skimming of the Monarch cards that have been spoiled and the art that’s been previewed. The main thing I want to note when talking about FAB as compared to Magic and Netrunner is that it’s still a very new game with a shallow card pool, so it has fewer pieces to work with, and we don’t yet have enough information to know if LSS’ is moving towards a more character-driven story or even just sets that have a clear narrative to tell.

The Building Blocks

If you remember all the way back to the first article in this series where I talked about Magic, I mentioned how, out of the gate, the cards mainly focused on building a general mood for the world of Dominaria without really developing individual characters or telling stories.  I would say that that’s largely where Flesh and Blood started as well, just a basic intro to the world. Hell, the first set is called “Welcome to Rathe”. While we absolutely have characters, and those characters have stories, they aren’t really conveyed through the cards themselves; they mainly live in the lore book and the narrative posts on the LSS homepage. Let’s take a WTR character and look at their cards to see what I mean by that. We’re going to go with Dorinthea because she’s my second favorite warrior (sorry, Thea, I’ve got a weakness for girls with tattoos).

There are five or six cards (not including character cards) in WTR that feature Dorinthea. I say five or six because I think the woman on Sharpen Steel might be Valeria Sunstrike and not Dorinthea. It’s hard to tell because her hair is ambiguously colored. The style guide seems to be a little permissive on character appearance with different artists giving characters and their equipment slightly different looks across cards. I should pause to make it clear that this is absolutely not a knock on FAB; I really love more permissive art guidelines that let diverse styles exist next to each other – I’ve said it before, but Twinning Blade was my favorite piece of CRU art, in part, because it was so distinct and stylized. Magic’s shift towards homogenization in its art style is one of the things that most disappointed me about the game as it aged, so it’s not something I’m looking for in FAB.

Anyway, looking at the above cards, we only have two lines of flavor text – Ironsong Response references Dorinthea’s background as the daughter of blacksmiths, and Ironsong Determination shows her faith in Sol. Singing Steelblade depicts a story moment –it’s Dorinthea’s Awakening ceremony where she gets Dawnblade and begins her path to becoming a knight instead of a smith like she had assumed. But, if you haven’t read the lore book (and few people have), you’re not going to be able to glean this information from the cards themselves. There is a scan of the book floating around, which is of ambiguous legality. Allegedly the person who initially scanned it said LSS was OK with it as long as no one was making money, but I have absolutely zero idea if that’s true. In any case, it would be nice if they did a mass printing of it so that people can actually read it, as they presumably intended. I certainly can’t justify buying one at the rate they’re going for, especially since I’d open the thing instead of keeping it sealed to preserve value.

Returning to the main point here, we get very scant information on who Dorinthea is from the game itself. We can make some inference based on our knowledge of genre conventions (she’s a knight so presumably honorable, there is a religious element so either an Arthurian models of knighthood, or perhaps paladin, if we’re leaning into contemporary D&D-rooted ideas of knights) but this ultimately isn’t much to work with, at least not on the actual cards. Is that a problem? No, not really. As I said, this set was about building up the world of Rathe, so it’s more a matter of whether it accomplished that goal. So, did it? Sort of? I feel like WTR is really an amuse-bouche; you get a general sense of mood of the setting – the world is hard and brutal (I talked about this a bit in my piece on how FAB uses gore in its art), but if you’re only going off the cards in WTR, it’s fairly sparse. We’re in a fantasy setting, there is some sort of heavily Japanese-influenced ninja area, there are non-human races, there is some sort of magic, this Fyendal being seems important. Out of the gate, flavor text is actually somewhat less common than one might expect, and we only get a couple pieces with attributions to specific characters, and, significantly, none of the actual playable characters are quoted.

How Much Does It Matter?

Story and character played a bit of a role in my choice to pick the game up in that the characters were ultimately a sort of initial test of whether this was a thing I wanted to spend time on. This is probably not really relatable to most of my readership, but I’m just at a point in my life where I’m not interested in sci-fi and fantasy stuff that doesn’t have at least somewhat decent representation of women. WTR didn’t blow me away in that respect, but it didn’t fail miserably, which, for fantasy in particular, is kind of an achievement. Despite the initial core characters being three dudes and a woman, the woman in question was a knight (albeit with boobplate), and there were other women depicted as involved in combat, particularly on the ninja cards. This was enough to suggest that maybe setting wasn’t going to do that thing that bad fantasy written by mostly men does, wherein the writers can seemingly imagine all sorts of magic and strange creatures but not a society where women are active participants. This was always one of Magic’s draws for me; even in the 90’s, there were badass ladies on cards and in the story.

So, while mechanics and polished design aesthetics were the driving force in convincing me to pick up FAB, I’d probably have noped out after a glance if it had been all men or if the women had all just been there as eye candy. The characters mattered, even if all I had was the barest of ideas of who they were. From there, the narrative and setting kind of became more background than anything. After opening my first box of cards and looking them over in more detail, my feelings on the setting were sort of take it or leave it. It felt generically fantasy, and I’ve been consuming fantasy since my mom read The Hobbit to me at four or five. FAB didn’t feel like it was treading new ground, which is fine. It wasn’t pushing me away or anything, but it wasn’t really doing anything to make me more interested in the world. And then ARC came along.

Rising Action

Arcane Rising is my favorite set so far. Part of that is mechanical –I’m a sucker for weird fiddly classes, and that’s pretty much all the classes in ARC. ARC also added a bunch of strange stuff to the world, what with the steampunk Metrix elements, the monster in the Pit, and the horrors of the Demonastery and made many people wonder how all of these disparate areas fit together. ARC also felt a lot more like a set that wanted to develop characters. Assuming you didn’t interact with FAB’s fiction beyond the cards themselves, what do you know about Dorinthea? Well, she seems like a pious knight and maybe used to be a blacksmith. Compare that to what we know about Dash from three cards:

Dash has actual quotes on multiple cards! So we get characterization. It’s not super deep – she’s making Spiderman-tier jokes and has the girl-genius inventor trope going on, but it’s enough that I’ve got an idea of how she talks and what sort of character she is. If you gave me WTR’s Warrior cards and ARC’s Mechanologist cards and told me to write short stories about Dorinthea and Dash that accurately reflected who they were intended to be as characters, I feel like I could do that for Dash with a fair degree of confidence, but Dorinthea would be much more of a shot in the dark. Now, like I said, I read the scans of the lore book, so I do have an idea of who Dorinthea is, but it doesn’t really come through from the cards in isolation – Singing Steelblade is cool if you read the book because you can go, “Oh! That’s when she gets Dawnblade!” but, if you’re only going by the cards, I don’t think most people are going to piece that scene together.

Beyond doing more attributed flavor text, ARC also did a better job of telling stories through the juxtaposition of cards. In my previous two entries in this series, I looked at how Magic and Netrunner told little narrative arcs across a few cards without the need for external information. ARC does this in a way we didn’t really see with WTR. Let’s look to Viserai as an example:

We don’t get quotes like Dash, but the juxtaposition of Young Viserai, Adult, Viserai, and Become the Arknight, as the bridge, tells a story about the progression of this character. It’s fairly clear from the facial expressions on Young Viserai and Become the Arknight that this is something happening to him, and it’s not particularly pleasant. Without referencing external texts, you get the impression he was turned into a Runeblade against his will (note the manacles). It’s a very simple progression of start at point A, event B happens, arrive at point C. It doesn’t give us the fine details of the events, but it plants the seeds of something a bit more interesting than what we got with the WTR heroes.

Overall, the game still felt a bit like a pastiche in ARC, but the advancements in characterization were a definite step forward. If WTR ended up feeling a bit generic, ARC stepped things up and started making the world of Rathe feel a bit more distinct. I would say that, the cards themselves still didn’t really give a strong idea of a narrative throughline, but clear progress was made. In contrast, Crucible of War felt like a bit of a step backwards in terms of narrative. Part the struggle was in being a smaller set that was trying to build out eight classes and add a bunch of young heroes. As a result, it was more generic world building than real development for any particular character or an overarching narrative. There are definite cool teases in CRU. Shiyana’s mere existence posts a host of questions, and I’m sure the community is rabid to know more about their favorite shapeshifter. Righteous Cleansing asks important things like, “Wait, does that person have wings? What’s up with that?” Also, tell me more about this Mistress of Malady, please.

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely cool elements in play in CRU, but at the end of the first three sets, anyone working from the cards exclusively, really didn’t have a clear idea about what was actually going on in the world of Rathe. As I noted, the lore book does a lot of heavy lifting and it’s kind of tragic that it’s not available to the community. I’m going to risk being boring by repeating myself here, but I really hope LSS either sells an “unlimited edition” of the book, or, if they don’t want to do that, makes a high res version available digitally. I get that the original books have become collector’s items, but it really seems like an oversight that the majority of the available story of Rathe is realistically available only in the form of a bootleg.

Hail to the King, Baby

This brings us to Monarch. My hope for Monarch is that this is the set that really starts to build a cohesive narrative. Per, LSS, Monarch is the set where the mechanical elements of the game will be fully realized, and it would be awesome if the same were true for the story.  Fortunately, we’ve got the first few spoiled cards out alongside a nice batch of preview art to tantalize the fans, and it does indeed seem like this might be where cards begin to tell their tale. At the very least we see the introduction of Shadow vs. Light, which could be a central conflict for a narrative. At first glance, it’s a bit cliché, but other people have certainly built interesting stories out of familiar tropes before, so I’m not writing it off just because we’ve got a generalized battle of good vs. evil. Also, it’s quite possible that because Light and Shadow (see James White’s article) might actually be primarily a Solana vs. Demonastery thing, the other regions could be less involved. Perhaps other regions will have stories tied into their own traits (The Pits and their relationship to Metrix, seem like an obvious source of narrative tension).

We’ve also got some early hints (and they’re pretty strong hints) that there are powerful god-like forces involved in the conflicts directly. Enlightened Strike was always a card that was unclear to me – like, it’s an absolutely great piece of art, but I didn’t know if it was supposed to be an artistic interpretation or if we were supposed to take it as literally in setting. The former wasn’t out of the question since we had cards like Sloggism and Nibilism which are more impressionistic and suggestive of a mood than a literal depiction of action.

However, Celestial Cataclysm is now a thing.

And thus, it seems a whole lot more like there are actual gods or at least god-like forces getting their hands dirty in the world. This makes me look back at other pieces and realize that they may be literal and not artistic depictions of concepts; see Art of War. Is that just a god literally picking up soldiers after all? Also are these three all the same beardy old man god, and if so are there other gods?

A few hours ago we’ve also got our first character spoiled for the set, and her cards are doing a lot of what I liked about Viserai’s character cards – the juxtaposition of her Young and Adult versions tell a story in two parts. You could skip the text blurbs on the left of the spoiler images, and you’d still be able to make a reasonable guess at the sort of story that happened between these two cards. There’s some good subtle work going on here too – whereas Viserai’s art shows that he was bound down and turned into what he became, Young Levia’s posture and expression make it clear that this is a change she embraced in exchange for power.

With the vast majority of cards still to be revealed before we see everything Monarch is doing, we’re definitely too early to make any concrete statements on if the set is staking out a narrative that will be communicated through the cards themselves. However, like I said, Levia, is already continuing ARC’s positive steps in characterization, which is a great start. And we’ve got some other fun bits, like this:

Maybe it’s that I’m trying to wrap this article up at 4am so that I can go to sleep, but I’m not sure if “Convulsions from the Bellows of Hell,” as a card name, is incredibly silly and over the top or very metal and evocative. Maybe it’s both? I think maybe I love it a little? For some reason when I saw this one, I remembered the Magic card “Evil Eye of Orms-by-Gore” which is card that I never actually remember playing, but that name has apparently been rattling around in my skull for over twenty years, so it’s nothing if not memorable. I have no idea how playable this card is, and if it is played, I’m sure people are just going to default to calling it “convulsions”. But, if you do put it in a deck at some point, I urge you to say “I play Convulsions from the Bellows of Hell” in it’s entirety, at least once. Do it as a favor to me.

Alright, I’m going to end this piece for real now. I want to say that the focus on cards telling stories without external text doesn’t mean I expect the cards to do all the lifting. As with most CCG’s that attempt to have a story, the cards themselves can only convey so much information (it’s a limit of the medium). What I want is for the cards to tell enough of a story that someone who just opens up packs and never engages with FAB’s fiction beyond that has some sense of what’s happening in the story. But, for anyone who is interested in the narrative, getting a full grasp of what’s going on will obviously require resources outside of the game pieces themselves. And, to that end, there are already extended Monarch narratives on the main site (Levia’s is here – Iain Miki’s art is giving off some Mike Mignola Hellboy vibes that I’m totally here for).

Oh yeah, one last thing before I go (need sleep badly…), I’ll have a preview card of my own here for you here on Wednesday evening EST. No, I can’t tell you anything about it, but I’m very excited to share it with you before joining you in the speculation trenches for rest of the time between now and when I’ve got boxes to open.

*Header Image: Eclipse by Daria Khlebnikova

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