Houses of the Blooded (John Wick Presents / Cubicle Seven, 2008)
Houses of the Blooded is very much a game designer's game, on so very many levels. Right from the start, John Wick (of L5R and 7th Sea fame) explains why
he designed this game, and throughout the book is written in a conversational style that continues to explain why certain design paths were taken. The system is designed to
make the players define the world around them rather than the storyteller, making it a shared design process. Finally there is a design conceit that covers the whole book, which you may or may not spot immediately.The Setting
are a race on Shanri, an area of ancient Earth, before the rise of Atlantis and humans, a relic slave race of the previous masters of the Earth. They are stronger and fitter than humans will be and have bountiful lands. To be honest, there isn't much more to the what and who. Rather, the ven
are defined by their passion. Their lives are ruled by ritual, passion, revenge and contradiction. Most are doomed to a tragic fate caused by their own actions. Wick emphasises style over substance to such a level that it seeps into your blood.
Characters are young nobles, with only the smallest of holdings and influence. It's up to the players how ambitious they are to grow it, or whether they are interested in other aspects of ven
society. The book does include details about clothing, opera and the senate, enought to give an opening into things.
Everything needs to be done the proper way, even romance and violence. Especially romance and violence. But there are exceptions to everything.The System
This is what I find truly inovative in Houses of the Blooded. There are a number of games which have light systems to emphasise the roleplaying aspect of the game but this is my favourite so far and the reason for that is the 'difficulty' mechanic. Build your dice pool of d6, roll them, add them up and hope to get 10 or more. The exciting bit is that you define your own difficulty, by setting dice aside as a wager. Your wager defines your degree of success if you win. I find it beautifully elegant.
The system for duels is even more elegant: damage doesn't add up, but you can 'tag' your opponent's wounds to get more dice... which gives you an opportunity to do more damage the next beat. Then, just to discourage lots of pitch battles, any combat greater than duels becomes Mass Murder in which the only possible outcome is death, often to lots of people.
This plays into defining the world around you. Typically, success and each wager gives you one say in what happens, you can define one small element (and if you win the dice roll you decide success or failure; you don't have to succeed just because you win). Similarly, an opponent gets the same option in contested risks you trade outcomes ("I move silently across the room." "The curtain sways as you pass it." "You are distracted by a flock of birds."....). This is most resonant in spot and knowledge risks, where success gives you the bearest skeleton of what you see/know, you (and your friends) define the rest with your wagers. It is possible, technically, for a whole game to be run without the storyteller ("Narrator") doing anything.
So that's the basic system, let's talk a bit about the character sheet. The Virtues are awesomely appropriate: Strength (meaning all non-combat physical abilities; no confusion over 'dexterity'), Cunning, Courage, Beauty, Wisdom (knowledge) and Prowess (combat skill). Courage is an odd ability, since it doesn't seem to have much of a purpose to accomplish anything and it rather is up to the Narrator how often she calls it; yet failing at Courage can be terrible as you fail to stand up to physical and social threats. While I often rail against social abilities, Beauty works here for a similar reason to why Persuasion works in The Dying Earth
: you roll first then roleplay the outcome based on wagers. Moreover, protocol and romance are key to the book.
None of these skills is useless, but all characters have a weakness, a zero Virtue. This emphasises the flawed nature of the ven
. It works. Also, you cannot raise your virtues so they shape your character for the game.
So what can you improve? You start off with two 'Aspects', statements about your character that you can Invoke for more dice. For instance, "I go where I shouldn't" would probably give me bonus dice at breaking and sneaking into places, while "What is yours is mine" would help me pinch stuff - or to start a Romance. Again, these phrases are used in a number of games, but here you have to actually define how they help. There are Invoke (your benefit), Tag (when an antagonist can benefit) and Compel (forcing you to do something silly). It's a solid system, defining your abilities and your character at the same time.
They are also not free to use - you need to spend Style points (again, Style over substance). Which is another thing you can improve. Gaining Style points is ... unclear. But possible. But get a fancy hat and a nice sword and you can increase your maximum. There are mechanics for that.
Houses isn't about character growth. You can get a couple of extra Aspects, maybe, and increase your style potential. You can know more, like the weaknesses of others, or rituals. And you can increase your holdings and so your status. It only serves to increase your fall at the end.
I really like everything so far, even if there is some lack of clarity on gaining Style points. But then we start getting extra systems.
- Rituals (magic). These are quite simple to understand, arduous for the characters and so nicely balanced. Also illegal.
- Artifacts (relics from the dead masters). Again, simple to understand, balanced by DOOM.
- Holding actions. For a rule system that is all about elegance, we have very cumberson rules for season actions. It's good that it emphasises time moving, but it becomes an exercise in mathematics. I wish Wick had found a more elegant way to do this because I wouldn't want every player to need a copy of that section. Annoyingly, the results of these actions are important to other aspects of the game - learning rituals, secrets, protecting your domain, making beautiful things, hosting parties. Annoying.
- Suaven. The departed, but not dead, ven. The famous ones have shrines in their name and give blessings to those who revere them. Odd blessings that don't work within the same rules, but are often powerful. More things to think about.
- Duels. In case working out what your risks do in combat is too tricky, there are additional skills you can learn. Apart from more head-scratching, it's hard to know how to balance them.
There's a lot more to the mechanics than this, especially Style points, but that should be enough for a review.Heroes
What heroes? You are flawed. And I've discussed them above.Villains
Essentially, the main villains of the piece are other Ven
. If playing 'cut-throat' (aka Vampire-style), it may even be the other PCs. You are almost compelled to take what is theirs, while they interfere with your plans and use you. Wrong moment, wrong time and a story is made. With a good group, each conflict kicks up dust that leads to another conflict. Alternatively, you can go into the unclaimed lands and there find all manner of Orks who might send you running. That's one reason why it's easier to claim the lands of another than claim new land. I like that the beasties are kept to a minimum.The Look
Apart from the sketches in the 'archaeology reports' that begin each chapter, there is no art. The layout - font, decoration, sidebars, symbols, paragraphing - however is beautiful. Elegant.The Good
The core system is fantastic. Also, the structure and style of the book makes me want to recommend that any game designer read it. There's a lot that can be learned, even if you don't like various elements.The Bad
I think I've made it fairly clear that I find the extra systems annoying and, worse, hard to house rule away unless you wish to skip the long game entirely. Really, it is the Season actions and duelling abilities that seem most out of place.The Ugly
There's quite a lot of Ugly. This is not a game for those who like absolutes. If you want to know the difficulty of shooting someone at 40 paces, then this isn't the game for you (incidentally, it's 10). This is a game for creatives. Which also means that if you find it hard to define a game world, if you want your plot and world fed to you, then you will find this game difficult (or impossible without good friends). If you don't like playing flawed characters, then you won't like Houses of the Blooded.
I tick all the right boxes for liking it though and I still wouldn't run a game for the ven
. Why? Because I don't find the structure for the characters very condusive for a game. You are independent nobles from different houses, all with your own goals, why would you get together? It is the same problem I have with White Wolf's Vampire but at least in that game you have elders who can force you together into a coterie. It feels almost like young courtiers in renaissance Britain, where you hang around with others of the same age because that's the only thing to do - except Houses is more cut-throat than that (even in the 'friendly game'). For me, it seems to restrict the stories you can tell. I would happily port the rules across to my Assassins game though.
I have one final gripe, which affects the Ideas score. Just as the setting restricts the stories, so the Seasons section imposes a mental block on stories as they place undue emphasis on actions which are not important in the grand scheme of things. The flip side of this is that the right troupe will create their own plots without the need for the Narrator to interfere greatly.Execution: 8Ideas: 7
Summary: lots of original rules, a refreshing setting and fantastically written.