Image from www.housesoftheblooded.net
For the last month or so, I’ve been doing some thinking. You see, it was about that time that I received my review copy of Houses of the Blooded, by John Wick. My first reaction was “Sweet! A new system to review. This should be awesome.” I was partially right. There was a lot of awesome, but there were some things that gave me pause. Let me explain.
Houses of the Blooded is described by the author as “The Anti-D&D RPG,” right near the beginning of the text. That’s a pretty strong stance to take. I wanted to come into this review as an impartial observer, but it’s not necessarily an easy thing to do when the creator of the system starts out by positioning his game at the antithesis of another game. It made me constantly look at the system in terms of comparison. John keeps this up throughout the book, so it’s not like it’s a subtle theme. That having been said, I still did my best to evaluate the book and its contents on their own merits. With all of that in mind, let’s get going.
Houses of the Blooded (or HotB, henceforth), is a game about tragedy. No matter the story told, it will always end in blood and tears. That’s how the system is designed. The players take on the roles of ven nobles. The ven are an ancient race of beings that, the book says, scholars know precious little about. All they have to go on are a few documents detailing their laws, and some of what they call Pillow Books; stories that seem to be the ven cultural equivalent of harlequin romance novels.
As a noble, your character is in charge of their lands, their vassals and are subject to their liege lord(s). You manage your holdings, engage in combat with the vicious orks that occupy some of your lands, and of course, engage in both courtly intrigue and Romance with your fellow ven. Your main goals involve pursuing an agenda that will gain you power, wealth, land, lovers, whatever you decide that your character desires.
The thing that separates HotB from other rpgs is that the telling of these stories is largely collaborative. The players have just as much influence over the world that they inhabit as the Narrator, and at times, they might have more. The mechanics of the system are designed to give control over to the players to not only help get their characters what they want, but also to put their characters in positions of peril for dramatic/tragic effect.
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
The fluff in this book is amazing. The level of detail that HotB strives for in explaining the various aspects of ven culture is something that most rpgs don’t have. Ven culture is extremely complex, with layers upon layers of intrigue. The book gives you this information very in great detail, and more than a few times while I was reading, I felt the strong desire to search online for additional information about the ven, as if they were a real, historical people. The book is written to give it that level of verisimilitude. As well, the atmosphere that is described is one that I definitely find lacking in many rpgs. As you read, the world the ven inhabit seems real and seems to really embody the romantically tragic feel that the author is striving for.
Unfortunately, for this reviewer, the good of the system ends there.
To Playtest, or not to Playtest?
From the jump, it was my intention to run a session of this game to make sure that my review was as through as possible. As well, I was going to even include the audio of that session you all of you readers would have an ear into how my players went about the game, as well as what they thought of it. As I continued to read the book (which I will gripe about in a bit), my plans began to change.
I took a good look at the atmosphere the game was trying to create, took an honest look at my regular group of players, and decided that the game wouldn’t be right for them. They’re new to the whole gaming thing, and they do a really good job. However, given that most of us are family and are prone to having little spats during a game, playing something like HotB, where intrigue and betrayal are the name of the game, it seemed better to find a different way to test out this game.
So, I asked my wife. Now, my wife doesn’t game, as a rule, but she was willing to help me out, and she has both the brains and the creative mind to take on something like this. HotB can be played with only a Narrator and a single player, so we set out to create her character. Character creation in HotB is something that is best done with a whole group of players, that way you can establish connections between them and figure out how they know each other to begin telling their stories together. I figured that I would be able to make a few NPCs while she was making her character, but we ended up spending the entire time making her character alone, due largely to the organization of the book. By the time we got halfway through her character, I was so fed up with both the book and the system, that I called it. The upshot is that the same type of player control that the game is designed to use is also found throughout the character creation, so I got a really good idea of how the game would play.
So, now that we’ve covered the basics as to why I didn’t play a test session, let’s look at some of the deeper reasons.
The PDF copy of the book that I reviewed clocked in at a hefty 436 pages. 436 pages, and 0 bookmarks with which to navigate it. This may sound like a small gripe, but when you’ve got information necessary to the creation of the character nestled within 10 of your 14 chapters, it would be nice to be able to jump to a given section of the book as needed. Of course, if the information were better organized in general, it might obviate the need for bookmarks.
As I said above, the information about the feel of the world is great. As well, the stuff about the game world is cool. The problem is that there are mechanical items liberally sprinkled throughout these fluffy portions, not to mention the numerous sidebars that may or may not contain relevant information that may or may not even relate to the content of the chapter itself. The only saving grace is that the PDF is searchable, so you might be able to find what you need.
Finally, the book is really poorly edited. There are typos here and there, and the murky, unclear sentence structure is justified by the author stating that he wanted to write the book “they way the ven wrote.” Okay. I’m doing my level best to put my English degree on the shelf here, but that’s a cop-out if I’ve ever heard one. Write well. Done.
Mechanically, at first glance, the game seems pretty straightforward. If you want to do anything risky, be it a mental or physical task, you will roll d6s, trying to beat a 10. You gather your dice pool from a number of places: your Virtues (Strength, Beauty, Cunning, Wisdom, Courage, and Prowess), your Aspects, your Devotions, possibly your Holdings, your Vassals. Once you get your dice together, you can set aside a number of them as a wager. If you make your roll, then you can use each wagered die to define an aspect of the successful result. So, if you walk into a room and the Narrator tells you that there’s a body on the floor, you can roll a Wisdom Risk, and if you wager 4 dice, if successful, you can then define 4 facts about the scene.
The mechanic seems fine. I generally have no problem with the idea of it, but do you remember how I said that ven culture is incredibly complex? Well, take that complexity and turn it into a series of mechanics that employ those dice rolls. Want to insult someone? You’re going to need to gather your dice. Want to duel someone? Same thing. If there is a component of ven culture that is ritualized, then you can bet that you’re going to have to undertake a multi-step process every time you want your character to undertake it. It reminds me of trying to make a Grapple check in almost any game system: it’s far too complex because you’re trying to render down each step of the process until you almost forget you’re trying to grapple.
Tack onto all of this a system for managing the lands that you possess, a system for determining your devotion to your gods, a system for how to throw a party, for crying out loud, and you find that the mechanics quickly become unwieldy.
I mentioned Aspects before, and they deserve some further discussion. You can think of an Aspect as a Feat, or an Edge (depending on your system of reference), except that it has components that are also detrimental for your character. By and large, though the book has sample Aspects, the player is encouraged to create their own. They have to craft all three sections of it: The Invoke, the Tag, and the Compel. If you Invoke your Aspect, you get bonus dice towards whatever you’re trying to do, if someone Tags your Aspect, they get bonus dice against you, and if someone Compels your Aspect, they limit your behavior in some way.
Again, this is a cool idea. The problem is that you have to trust that no one is going to abuse the system. Guidelines for crafting Aspects are given, but there are loopholes big enough to drive a Mack truck through. The author even addresses these holes in the rules by giving the idea that ven laws are full of loopholes as well, so it fits. As well, he does his best throughout the book to cover those holes with this advice: “Don’t be a wanker.”
Don’t Be a Wanker
This phrase, and many like it are found sprinkled through the text. The author states this over and over to, as he says, improve the game experience. That’s completely fine. After all, no one wants to play a game with a guy that constantly works the rules to try and gain advantage for his character. The problem comes when you ask people not to exploit rules in your game system to cover up the shoddiness of the game design.
I really like the idea that the players can add as much to a session or campaign as the GM can. As well, I like the idea of mirroring a complex society within the rules of the game. But when you marry those concepts and knowingly leave massive holes in your rules, only to justify it by exhorting the players to not exploit the holes, that is just bad game design.
There are a lot of good ideas here, and from what I’ve seen and read of John Wick, he is really full of good ideas. However, I think that the final product suffers from a number of flaws that keep it from being something great. The type of group that could play this game without issue is a rare one, I think. Also, given how difficult I found character creation alone, I think that it might be the type of game that almost requires you have a Narrator who knows the rules and the style of play inside and out. This is true for a lot of games, but I think it might be vital for HotB.
To close up this review (if you stayed with me this long), if you want a book to read that might inspire you to add more collaboration to your game, that could help you craft a tragic, romantic game for your players, then HotB has some really, really good ideas to offer. However, I don’t think that the game itself is the venue in which to explore these things. Take the ideas, apply them to your favorite system, and leave HotB on the shelf.
[tags]game review, review, rpg, systems[/tags]