Epic Battle: Mass Combat in Role Playing Games

Dungeons and Dragons was originally designed as a departure from traditional wargames, to allow the control of individuals instead of large military units. This created a whole different type of gaming, but generally the two modes of play aren’t terribly compatible with each other. So what can you do if your players get involved in a war, commanding other soldiers into battle?

There are generally two ways to do this. You can either use the rules a game system has provided for you, or make modifications to that ruleset in order to make bookkeeping easier. Considering most role playing combat systems are designed to easily accommodate tens of units as opposed to hundreds, the second route seems easier, but the first route is still doable in certain scenarios.

Among games I’ve played, there is one system with easy rules for large combats and for command of others, and that is Savage Worlds. The Savage Worlds ruleset has very easy and accessible rules for very large combats, as well as for having player characters issue orders to their followers. The mass combat system is as fast and loose as the rest of the system, which also makes sketching up 50-75 NPCs or more relatively easy. Additionally, rules-light systems such as Risus tend to take to these sorts of encounters well, as the command of others is abstracted just as much as any other skill challenge in the game. However, some may want a more detail oriented system, and subsequently a more involved combat.

If you want to make things very involved, I say go for it. There will be a lot of prep work necessary, but most heavyweight systems like Dungeons and Dragons, GURPS, or Exalted have all the necessary rules to work out a situation with many, many combatants. If you can abstract it to, say, a few hundred NPCs, and can either resolve their actions quickly or with a computer, it’s feasible. However, this would certainly be an entire session worth of material, and not something to be done regularly. If you wish to run massive battles with any frequency, it may be a better investment of your time to play a game designed for it, like Warhammer.

The second way to run a combat like this is by modifying rules. The key here is trying to balance two things: the impact the players have over the outcome of the battle, and the amount of actual combat you want to model. If you were to run a 100 person battle as I described above, you’d need to make some assumptions as to given character’s actions in a given space, which is actually fairly straightforward in combat: attack, or retreat. Even if you have more actions than that you’ll generally have fewer actions than the player characters, making it easy to simplify. Instead of running the NPCs, track a few key things: where there is combat taking place, how many combatants are there, modifiers that give either side an edge, and who is winning. Most game systems will already have environmental modifiers in place, so you can use those wholesale. In addition to that, some basic modifiers for how well-rested an army is, how well equipped they are, and any sort of bonuses for morale will probably provide as much detail as you’d need while still using an abstracted system. Each turn, sides will take casualties based on who is “winning” (this can be a player’s leadership roll, it can be an abstracted version of a combat turn, or even two opposed rolls with some of the modifiers listed above), and the “commander” can decide whether to press forward, retreat, or some other action if that’s available to him. The ultimate level of detail is up to you, but the most important thing is that whoever plays the “commander” sees some effect of his actions: if you’re just going to look for an outcome, it doesn’t really matter how many dice you roll.

Role Playing Games are not typically designed to run large combats, in fact their design was intentionally turning away from just that sort of game. However, there’s still enough wargaming pedigree in most games to keep the occasional climactic mass battle reasonable. Though some systems are simple enough to handle it, most games can have their rules adapted to maintain the drama of a huge battle without the headache of bookkeeping for a huge army.

[tags]role playing games, game mastering, dungeons and dragons[/tags]

Zombies Underground – On being a Dwarf in the Zombie Apocalypse

“Lord, the gates are barred and the venting tubes are well guarded.  We have food enough for a season at the least and water aplenty from our source.  I believe we are well situated to weather this storm – you need not worry for Ashcamere nor for the safety of your kingdom.”
–Prince Camere, heir to the Dwarven Kingdom – the last written communication from Ashcamere, AA 1.

Note: If you want to follow the development of the Aruneus world, just click this. Bookmarking that will bring you back to the latest news.

The Dwaven race of Aruneus, on arriving to this world congregated mostly on the west, near the great mountain range known as The Fieldheid.  By their nature, Dwarves tend to be an inward facing society.  For nearly a thousand years, the Dwarves of Aruneus crafted a society based on strong kinship ties and loyalty to their ruling family.  The Camere’s were the first Dwarven family of note and ruled their people for close to 3,500 years, until the dynasty was eradicated in the great undead plague.

Ashcamere was their greatest and oldest city.  With a population close to 100,000 dwarves by 100 BA the city existed on two levels. The first, above ground played host to the embassies of other races, all trade and acted as the capital of the Dwarven Kingdom.  Well over 80,000 Dwarves called Ashcamere’s above ground (or sun-sighted) city home.  In addition to the Dwarven population some 10,000 Humans and Elves also called Ashcamere home, or held legal status there as merchants, traders and speculators.

The second city (or night-blessed) existed below Ashcamere’s above ground face, and extended several miles into the Fieldheid range.  Night blessed Ashcamere was accessible only to Dwarves on penalty of expulsion or death.  It was the political and spiritual center of the Dwarven Kingdom and had been home to the Camere family since it’s inception before the formation of the League of the Ring.  20,000 Dwarves also called the night-blessed Ashcamere home, residing out of sight of the sun for large portions of their lives.

Ashcamere was the source of most of the Dwarven Kingdom’s initial wealth.  Founded not as a city but as a mining camp over a particularly rich vein of gold in the murky past, it did not take long for the Dwarves to capitalize on their wealth and found their kingdom.  Through the ages subsequent precious metals and other useful materials such as copper and Iron had been found in mining operations near Ashcamere.  It was the work of generations but eventually the mines were connected and the night-blessed city was formed.

The Dwarven Kingdom began to expand through the Great War and at the time the League of the Ring was formed consisted of over 2 million souls and the greater portion of the west of Aruneus.  With several major cities and numerous settlements throughout their territory the Dwarven Kingdom was positioned to be the strongest politically and militarily at the time of the Conclave.

Even through the time of their Great Shame, the Dwarven Kingdom remained a political identity.  When they emerged and became members of the League of the Earth they found it hard to shake off their long years of isolation.  Active in politics to an extend, the Dwarves continued to be mostly concerned with their own, emerging to deal with the other races of Aruneus only in times of great crisis.  Even through the rise of the Necromancer, the Dwarves offered only token forces to assist the Humans and Elves.

It was this isolation that may have contributed more than anything else to the destruction of their ruling family and the massive casualties the Dwarven race took in the first years of the zombie apocalypse.

Unwilling or unable to deal with urgent requests from their Human allies, the majority of the Dwarves (those not concerned with outside trade) were taken completely buy surprise when wave after wave of undead humans found their way into Dwarven territories.  The King, who at the age of 170 was growing feeble had taken to living well away from the mountains and leaving most administrative tasks to his son and heir, Prince Terriace Camere.  Prince Camere was living in the night-blessed palatial residences at the time of the undead outbreak and failed to adequately prepare the underground city to repulse the zombie hordes.  According to second hand reports compiled some years later, Ashcamere held out in one form or another for almost a full year after the initial wave of zombies overran the sun-sighted city.

For most of the last hundred years, the Dwarves existed in a quasi-feudal state, although their lords had no King which to go to for final judgements.  Only in the last decade have they organized themselves into a cohesive political body based on a Council of Nobles, with one noble from each of the 9 houses being present to represent the remaining 9 Dwarven city-states.

The great Dwarven empire is now a fraction of it’s former self, just beginning to organize their centralized government.  Recently the Order of the White Cloth has offered great assistance with the gift of 9 lighter than air craft, allowing the delegates the freedom of travel and the ability to meet yearly and manage their new government.

Ashcamere remains a ruin.  Above ground a few Dwarven settlements have sprung up, taking advantage of the ruins for building materials.  A few Dwarven scout parties have reached roughly 10% of the night-blessed city but have found nothing but destruction and rotting bones.  Rumors do persists of the last Prince of the Camere’s and his loyal subjects living still in their underground world but if this is true, the Dwarves have not provided any proof and the Council of Nobles remains mute on the subject.

[tags]rpg, role playing games, aruneus, dwarves, zombies[/tags]

Exquisite Corpses is a monster sourcebook – 91 pages, over 17,000 monsters

Goddammit!  Have you ever come across one of those ideas that’s so glaringly obvious you slap yourself in the forehead for not thinking of it first?  My kids each have about 12 flip books in which you can combine different parts to make a new whole.  But credit where credit is due, Stefan trumped us all on this one.

Exquisite Corpses is available for purchase through LuLu. You can and should also visit it’s creator’s blog.  Stefan has lots of neat things to say about gaming and just got added to my RSS feed.

The book has a total of 91 pages in black and white and is spiral bound. The book is intended to serve as a bestiary / monster book for role playing gamers and weirdos of every stripe. Twenty six monsters (including humans, a robot, a minotaur, a cyclops, etc.) are presented. By cutting the pages into thirds (dotted lines and full instructions provided), each of the 26 ‘basic’ monsters is made into 3 tabs (head, torso and feet/tail/psuedopod). The user can then flip the tabs to swap heads, torsos, etc., and come up with all sorts of crazt combinations. By my calculation, there are over 17,000 possible combinations availible!

A note though – the book does contain nudity and may not be for everyone -specifically people who don’t like nudity.

[tags]rpg, roll playing games, monsters[/tags]

The Dresden Files: Now With 100% More RPG

I’ve been twitching with anticipation since Evil Hat announced that they were working on a Dresden Files RPG. Last week they started taking pre-orders and I immediately forked over about 100 of my hard earned dollars to get it (I later learned we were getting a review copy. You win this one Evil Hat). I’d like to note that since the pre-order PDFs aren’t the final product and that I won’t actually be playing the game until I get a physical book, I consider this only to be the first half of my review.

On Price

There have been a lot of opinions flying around over the price tag on this game.$90+ is a lot to ask, especially in the independent game market. That said, the core rules are actually only $50 which puts things closer to GURPS, D&D, and Pathfinder.  I still consider $50 to be a little on the pricey side and would have preferred to see a price more in line with Spirit of the Century. The only reason I’m willing to put down $50 per book is because of Evil Hat’s sterling reputation and my love of the Dresdenverse.

With that out of the way let’s get to the good stuff. After placing my pre-order I got download links for both PDFs. I was pleasantly surprised that I got the links right away rather than having to wait for an email.

The Dresden Files RPG consists of two volumes: Your Story and Our World.

Your Story

Your Story is the main book. It contains all of the Fate rules that you know and love, but with a distinctive Dresden twist. The book is presented as a draft copy of an RPG game that Harry’s werewolf sidekick Billy is writing. Stat blocks, examples, and even art are “taped” onto the draft. Sometimes the tape obscured the art a little bit, but otherwise everything looks nice. For the most part the art is high quality but some readers might be turned off by reused prices from the comic book.

Throughout the book are notes made by various characters from Jim Butcher’s novels. The notes often feature witty banter, chuckle-worthy one-liners, and general commentary. Most of the time I found the notes to be pretty entertaining, but I did find some of the larger ones to be distracting. The other thing that rubbed me a little bit the wrong way is that I was left wondering why Harry, Billy, et all would want to play a role playing game based on their lives? I know I sure as hell wouldn’t want to play one about me.

The rules in the book are presented conversationally,  are explained clearly, and with just the right amount of flair. Rules are based on the free Fate system, so anybody familiar with that or anything that uses it (like SotC) should be in familiar territory with this game. Players new to the system might have some trouble at first wrapping their head around the game. Luckily the book does a great job of easing you into the system.

The character creation section is especially well done and takes you through every step of creating Harry Dresden as a character. Players choose a template which can be most easily explained as a very loose fitting class and then customize it to get the character they want. All your favorite Dresden File staples are represented here, everything from red court vampires and wizards to Summer Knights and Mobsters. You then move on to selecting your High Concept (A few words that describe the character) and Aspects. Just like in Spirit of the Century, Aspects are key points in a character’s background that act as motivators during the course of game play. You’ll also need to come up with a Trouble. A trouble is just that, something that makes the characters life difficult and can drive the story forward. There is also the fairly standard fair of skills, stunts, and powers which will become the meat of your character.

Unlike most RPGs, advancement sits in the back seat of DFRPG. You’ll earn refresh through as you play, which can be used to power your character or it can be saved up to learn a new spell or stunt. You get to do this at each “Milestone”. As the name would suggest, a milestone is a key point in the game. This will be at the end of each adventure or at the climax of a story arc. Milestones are divided into Minor, Significant, and Major. Depending on what kind of milestone your characters hit you’ll have the chance to resolve consequences, swap skills in and out, change your Aspects, or learn new stunts and powers. This type of advancement really stresses story over “leveling”, and in my books that’s a good thing.

Dresden Files RPG uses special dice called “Fudge Dice” for resolution. These are just d6’s with + and – symbols on them instead of numbers. You can make your own without much trouble. To resolve conflicts players will need to roll four of these dice and count how many + and – they get and add the result to the relevant skill. This will translate into a result ranging from poor to legendary and will need to meet the difficulty set by the GM. The game also features degrees of success which are dubbed “Shifts”. By exceeding the difficulty of a challenge a character can receive unforeseen benefits. This could be things such as gaining insight to the task at hand or by just being more successful than they could have imagined. Aspects also come into play here and can be used to improve or reduce your odds of success. It’s a good system that has worked well for Spirit of the Century. In my experience, labeling the results from poor to legendary helps keep players thinking in terms of the story rather than falling into number crunching habits. My only complaint about the system is that it is simultaneously very simple and very complicated. It requires everybody to have that eureka moment before everything comes together. Once it does it can be a very rewarding way to play.

Your Story weighs in at 416 pages and while about 10 pages of that is all you need to actually play the game, a good two thirds of it is filled with examples, character options, and the intricacies of using stunts, powers, and aspects. The remaining 100 or so pages are filled with great advice for GMs on how to put together and run a game and a Dresdenified version of Baltimore for the players to romp around in.

This is a great book. It has everything you need and just a little bit extra. The system definitely isn’t for everyone and requires a certain amount of adjustment for players used to games like D&D and GURPS, but after a game or two it should click for them. I think the books suffers a bit from leaving out an included adventure, but not enough for me to get over the feeling of glee I get from reading the margin notes.

Our World

Next up we have Our World. Again, this is a nicely laid out book in the same draft style as before. There really isn’t much to say about it. It’s essentially a collection of every major character from The Dresden Files with statistics and gone over in loving detail. As a Dresden fan I really enjoyed reading the collected notes on the various characters. Everyone is here, even The Gatekeeper. Unfortunately there isn’t as much art as I would have liked to see. I would have loved to see some art on every page, but that just isn’t in the budget for anybody but the big guys. Evil Hat makes up for it with lots of good information and a short story written by Jim Butcher himself. That short story isn’t in the early bird copies so we’ll all just have to wait until summer to find out what it’s about.

Other than the great character list, Our World also covers all the nitty gritty inner details of the supernatural world. Everything from the Unseelie Accords to the Vampire War is covered, as well as the major supernatural factions.  Harry’s stomping grounds are also gone over in detail, which is great if you plan on running a game in Chicago. Even if you aren’t it serves as a good example for GM’s that wish to “dresdenify” they’re own hometown.

While I think Our World is a good book, gamers uninterested in playing in Chicago and don’t require pre-made opponents should consider skipping it. If, on the other hand, you just can’t get enough of The Dresden Files or like the idea of having an encyclopedia for the Dresdenverse, you will love this book.


Are the Dresden Files RPG books worth $90? I can’t say because I haven’t got the books yet. The game definitely looks solid, despite a few rough edges as far as layout and art are concerned. Fate’s strange learning curve might also turn off a few players, so if you haven’t played before I recommend at least looking over the free rules before taking the plunge. I will say that the PDFs are definitely worth between $30 and $40, but since Evil Hat isn’t selling them separately at this time, there’s no way to get them without buying the physical books.

These books have definitely wet my appetite and I can’t wait to try the game out. Unfortunately I hate to run games from a PDF and it’s just too darn big to print. I’ll be running the game in a few months when the books arrive and I’ll follow up with my thoughts on how the game plays and my groups reactions at that time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to reading my copy of Changes.

[Tags] The Dresden Files, Role Playing, RPGs, Jim Butcher, Evil Hat, Fate RPG [/Tags]

Win yourself a copy of the Agone Role Playing Game

It’s time to do a little bit of giving out to the RPG community!  I’ve been doing a little house cleaning and setting up the new office and I came across an extra copy of a fantastic (yet sadly out of print) RPG system called Agone.  I have both the core rulebook which is a nice, 300+ page hardcover book and the softcover Grimoire supplement.  It’s a great system and it’s not to terribly expensive if you’d like to purchase your own copy.  Or you could enter to win your very own copy right here.  Both books are brand new, never read or used.  In fact, I’ve only ever looked at them out of the corner of my eye.

At the dawn of time, the Muses breathed life and magic into Harmundia.  Then the Masque came, a renegade set on putting all mortals under his yoke.  The Eclipse darkened the sky and Twilight descended upon the world.  Since then, the humans and the nine seasonling races have built the Twilight Realms. Now the enemies are more deceitful and more powerful than ever.  The Masque has returned, and the evil Darken is creeping in to the Realms.  Once again, as the Eminences Grise foretold it, war is setting Harmundia ablaze!

Here’s what you have to do.

1. Go to our contact form and send us an email with the subject line Agone and at least one line in the body of the email about why you’d like this.  Be sure to use a real email address so you can be contacted if you win.

Well, that’s it really.

If you’d like to include any thoughts about our site, suggestions for what you’d like to see here or your favorite RPG session snack feel free to do so.

The Rules:

This contest officially kicks off at 9am (EST) Tuesday, April 13th and will run for one week and a bit, ending at 11:59 pm on Tuesday, April 20th.

It’s only open to those in the USA.  Sorry folks, shipping gets expensive.

Each entry will receive a number (i.e. 1, 2, 3, etc.) The winner will be picked at random by a rhesus monkey with a bag of dice.  Or a random number generator at random.org – whichever is easier for me to obtain at the time.  The monkey or random.org through the proxy of myself will be the final authority on who wins.

If you write for us, own this site or are actually a troll, you cannot enter.

That’s it!  Good luck!

[tags]rpg, agone, contest[/tags]

KantCon – for those who can’t con (Kansas City Gaming Convention)

KantCon is one of those rare and magical things – a brand new gaming convention born out of need and desperation.  The need of a local (to Kansas City, KS that is) convention and the desperation of having only one bathroom available to an entire gaming convention.

What happens when one Kansas resident finds out he won’t be making it to GenCon for the first time in 13 years?  He creates his own damned gaming convention to occur at the same time.  Little does he realize that in a years time it will grow from thirty-some-odd attendees to a convention space with numerous bathrooms and no one stuck rolling dice on the bed.  Welcome to KantCon.

In my book, that qualifies for the Pure Awesome Award in Gaming Dedication.  I don’t give out PAAGDs lightly – but starting your own gaming convention takes gumption.

If you’re anywhere near Overland Park, Kansas and have some free time between July 9th through the 11th you will certainly want to check out KantCon.   You can attend and enjoy several days of gaming, or register to run an event as well.  Can’t make it but want to help out?  Here’s a quick way to do so.

I recently spoke with Ethan, the founder of KantCon on what it took to get a gaming convention like this off the ground.

Well, to be honest, KantCon came about because last year was the first year I couldn’t go to Gen Con in 13 years.  I’m a creature of habit, and Gen Con is/was my annual vacation from the world – no family, no drama, no worries for four days.  It was a time I would get away and relax, leave the world behind, and enjoy the hobby I love so much.

Back in 2008, I worked three different jobs, and got laid off three times.

So, after getting knocked off my horse three times in one year, and basically watching my bank account dwindle to nothing.  And I mean nothing.   I was laid off the last time the week before Gen Con, and I went anyway, as it was my damn vacation, and I had money saved for it.

I came back to Kansas after Gen Con 2008, and looked at jobs briefly.  As you know, the job market at that point was pretty much nonexistent.  So, I hunkered down and started doing school full time.  I didn’t have a job, and I completely subsisted off the kindness of my family.  And they weren’t going to foot the bill to Gen Con 2009 – I had no illusions about that.

So, the months passed, and I got more and more bummed that I was going to miss Gen Con for the first time in 13 years.  Then, an idea hit me … I could have my own convention with all my friends.  And I could do it on Gen Con weekend to distract me from being horribly depressed about not being in Indianapolis.  I thought, “What should I call this thing?”

Then it came to me … KantCon! The name served several purposes in my mind.  Obviously, KantCon is for those of us who can’t con, therefore it is called KantCon.  KantCon is in Kansas City, so “KC” was worked in as well.  And it was catchy.

I set out to organize and get friends and friends of friends to come who were interested in three days of gaming goodness.  I used some of my excess student loan money (I know, not the best use) to get some canvas bags, iron-on transfers, and dice made up, and treated KantCon like any other big convention.  I made swag bags, took up a collection to get Chessex to make some KantCon dice, and made KantCon t-shirts for those who wanted them.  My sister-in-law is a graphic designer, and she did a KantCon logo for us.  My mother is a seamstress master, and she made some dice bags to give to people running RPG games.

And I started telling some companies about my story, and asked if they would send stuff to give away as prizes.  The response from the gaming community was marvelous.  We had over $2000 worth of product come in to give away, and we gave away everything!  We got stuff from Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Quarterly, Green Ronin Publishing, and countless others.  Their support was fantastic!  I can only assume I struck a chord with them over some aspect of KantCon’s intentions.

KantCon 2009 ran last August.  It was held in the residence of my co-host and friend, Jeremy.  The most people we had at one time was 30 people crammed into that tiny house.  We ran board and card games on Friday night, then RPGs all day on Saturday, and miniatures games on Sunday.  We met new and interesting people, and new and interesting people met us.  It was good to see old friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and it was nice to see people just have fun with this great hobby for three days.

At the end of it all, everyone said the same thing, “When are we doing this again?”

I thought about that, and figured I’d do it again.  Word started spreading, and my friends were telling me they knew people who would come to KantCon, if they could.  I ran ideas past the attendees, and quickly figured out that with the amount of people we were talking about, having it at Jeremy’s house wasn’t going to be an option.  More than 30 people and only one bathroom … I shudder to think about that.

So, I started delegating some duties (as I pretty much was the one-man-show-runner last year) and we started looking for a venue.  Interestingly enough, we ran into some places that, once they found out what we were organizing, refused to talk with us further.  It came to Johnson County Community College, who were very open to the idea, and worked with us in the planning and scheduling phase.  I incorporated Gamer’s Haven as a nonprofit social club to book the venue, and secured event insurance shortly thereafter.

That’s something that I want people to know — I am not making money off of this.  I have no illusions about paying my bills, or becoming rich with KantCon.  I just want KantCon to be an event that gamers can go to and enjoy this hobby.  I am charging people to attend only to cover my costs, which is why I’m posting the budget on the website.  If any money is made in this venture, it will be minimal at best.  The figures on the site do not include webhosting, marketing, or any of those figures.  I fully expect to lose money on this, but I’d rather be closer to breaking even than being in the hole.

So, that being said, KantCon’s happening, one way or another on July 9th, 10th, and 11th at the Johnson County Community College.

If you want to give your own input or find out more about the convention, stop by the forums, or head over to the KantCon site.  If you happen to be in game design or publishing, I’m sure the folks running KantCon would love to talk to you as well!

[tags]conventions, rpg, role playing games, kantcon[/tags]

Houses of the Blooded – Review

Image from http://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 Book

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]

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