Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Review: Blood and Honor

Review: Houses of the Blooded
Blood and Honor by John Wick
John Wick Presents
Rating: ★★★★

John Wick opens the book with a very honest and direct message:  This is a game about warring Clans.  This is not a game about fantastic Samurai with super uber moves and cool ninja.  This is not a game that attempts to sound like reference material for the historical samurai of Japan.  And if you wanted those instead, then put this book down.  (He actually even says it in ALL CAPS just in case you didn't grasp it.)

But man, in representing samurai tragedy, this game is absolutely wicked in accomplishing that.  The main system is an off-shoot of Houses of the Blooded's Virtues, Aspects, Blessings and Season Actions which from what I understand has some roots in the Fate system (correct me if I am wrong, okay?).  And these systems are nicely flexible enough to help create an environment that allows players to portray their Samurai with all their strengths and frailties.

John Wick has been a very strong supporter of giving characters more narrative control and responsibility, which I honestly feel is a very refreshing approach to gaming and does create fantastic opportunities for players to become just as creatively engaged as the game masters have been in traditional game approaches.

How Different Is This?
While most role-playing games have you focus on your character, Blood and Honor opens with you (and your group) being tasked to create your Clan.  Yes, you read that right.  Your Clan.  Which starts with you creating the Daimyo himself who rules it.  The Daimyo has a few attitudes to choose from, which become Aspects that the Samurai carry as well.  After all, if your Daimyo is known to be Cruel, it follows his  Samurai tend to be known to be cruel as well. You determine other factors such as the Clan's Virtue (which determines which Virtue your Samurai gain a bonus in), Province Holdings (from Dojos, to Temples, to Geisha Houses, etc) as well as its Meibutsu (or its most popular offering/product).    So in many ways, the first part of Character Creation already has the players helping develop the setting.  Given most of the stories would be based on the Samurai handling affairs in the Province of the Clan, this first act already gives the players ideas of locations to set scenes in, what the Province's economy runs on, and even more so since the last step has each player declaring a "truth" about the Clan.

Declaring Truths?
Yes.  Which is like free wagers, given the system. Wait, you probably aren't familiar with that either so let me focus first on Character Creation and we'll get to the wagers thing soon enough.

Okay fine, back to Character Creation Then...
Like Houses of the Blooded, characters have Virtues and Aspects, with Virtues (such as Beauty, Courage, Prowess, Strength..) being the primary source of dice in the game.  Each Virtue is the most important Virtue in the game (that is not a typo) and you will be tasked to allocate ratings of 4, 3, 3, 2, 2 with the last one being your Weakness.  The rating is the number of dice you get to roll, so if Cunning was your Weakness, for example, you have no dice in Cunning Risks.   The term Risk gets better explain below when we get to systems.
From the movie, Yojimbo

Characters all have Giri, or Duty, which is closest describes as "character classes" in the game.  These range from being the Daimyo's bodyguards (Yojimbo) to his Spiritual Advisor (Omnyoji) or even his Courtier (Takumi).  Each Giri has an Ability (such as the Spymaster having a network of spies, so once per game equal to your Giri Rank, you can declare facts about an NPC you meet) and a Benefit (the Spymaster can "overhear" any other conversation in the game session, by claiming his spy was present at the time), which really adds so much color to the game.  Both give the player a real sense of ability to accomplish their duties very well.

They have two Aspects, with these being selected from the Clan list of Aspects as well.  This I felt was a tad odd, since it meant having more Samuari under a single Clan had most of them having Aspects that overlapped too much.

All players get to choose an Advantage, a single bonus that they alone benefit from (such as having the skill to use a bow as deadly as a katana, or having the Way of the Land and thus never getting lost), and finally, his Honor and Glory.

So Honor is a pool right? Like Savage Land's Bennies?  Or White Wolf's Will Power?
No.  And that's where the game gets even cooler.  In this game, Honor is a pool all Samurai contribute into, which they all can draw from, which grants them FOUR additional dice to roll, and are in no obligation to maintain save for how important the players feel about keeping the pool of Honor for everyone.  At any time you need to spend Honor, but the pool is empty, you have to find a way to regain Honor for the Clan!  (*psst Seppuku works! psst*)

Glory is tied to Reputation, which is like a mini-Aspect, which you gain through certain deeds, and grants extra dice so long as you maintain it and reinforce it.  So portraying your characters strengths, and quirks is rewarded well by the system.

So the System... Wagers you said?

With dice gathered from many sources (including your name, if your name happens to resonate to the Risk), the game uses six-sided dice and so long as you roll above 10, you gain what is called Privilege in the game.  The basic effect of Privilege is having the narrative control to state what happens in the Risk.   For example, you are sneaking around an opponent's Province hoping to steal a certain scroll.  Your Cunning Risk might gain dice since your name is Kage (which means Shadow).  If you roll a 10 or higher, you get to say, "I successfully sneak into the Palace unnoticed."  You can also choose to say, "I was sneaking in but the guards saw me, so I willingly surrendered."  Having narrative control allows you to set such results because this game isn't about succeeding in your actions.  It is about telling a dramatic story.  Wagers are when you opt not to roll certain dice in your pool.  If you still gain Privilege, the set aside dice become Facts you can declare about the action.  (So in the above example, Kage might have had three wagers and could thus add, "The guards forget to confiscate my Katana" as one fact, and "The Daimyo unwisely has me dragged before him immediately after my surrender" as the second, and the last being, "The Daimyo left his own Katana in his chambers."
Admittedly, one of my favorite Blessings in the game.

Yes, this can be abused by players who want to.  But that's the point.  If you opt to be dishonorable and abuse the system, then you're clearly opting for a game that approaches the Samurai differently, which again brings us to the opening message that this game is not for you.    To be more frank, if you abuse game systems to ruin the fun for everyone else, gaming isn't for you.

But if you and your fellow gamers are interested in sharing the creative reins of narrative, and want to explore a game where even choosing when to die is a nice dramatic moment that builds the story, then Blood and Honor grants that with much gusto.

What Else Is In There?
Well, there's a section for War, to represent all-out battles between Provinces.  There's discussion on Shinto Magic and how to approach it in this game.  There's lots of Blessings which are nice game effects to add in a session.  There's a healthy chapter on gaming methods and ideas, which while rewritten from the original Houses of the Blooded book, very effectively give the reader a grasp of how to approach this game.

Combat Must Be Awesome then?
Being Samurai, combat is very slanted in your favor.  And yes, that's a good thing, because it nicely captures the feel of how Samurai were deadly masters of the blade and non-Samurai would die by the dozens against their skill.  System-wise, any successful strikes with a katana result instantly with the target getting killed, so farmers and armed soldiers scatter like cherry blossoms before a samurai that has opted to use the blade (this is called the Yowamushi rule). Given how laws also prohibited anyone save a Samurai from using a katana even further pushes their deadly nature.   However, realize these rules STILL do apply if a player character faces any other named Samurai.  Given the deadly nature of combat among samurai, duels between them become more a matter of Honor than skill.  And to declare the battle "a draw" is an acceptable way to retain Honor and not have unnecessary deaths.   With the advance of time, though, firearms arrive and guess what: they follow the Katana rules.  And since even a peasant can own a firearm...

So Over All, you love this game?
Yes I do.  While it was a child of the Houses of the Blooded system, the game has enough twists of its own to give it a nice unique feel, which I do believe captures the tragic samurai drama you see in movies like Rashomon, or even anime such as Rurouni Kenshin (with most of the super moves in the anime just very nicely described wagers of Beauty, Cunning, Wisdom, and Strength before the combat ends with the actual Prowess Duel.)

I wasn't a fan of the idea of narrative control at first, thinking part of the fun of being the Storyteller was coming up with plots to surprise your players with.  But having played both Houses of the Blooded and Blood and Honor, I've learned how new avenues of fun do exist by allowing players to share the narrative controls.  And yes, the presence of Season Actions, to reflect the growing developments of the Province and the Daimyo's actions, nicely functions to keep the game setting having a breathing changing landscape.

I whole-heartedly recommend this game.

Rating Breakdown:
Concept: Very daring.  And frankly, which I was worried about Katanas = Kill being too much, in the actual game it really works very well.  The approach of the Clan and Daimyo as character created really works well too.
Crunch: Meaty enough to give nice frameworks that players can balance themselves against, since having narrative control can be overwhelming for some.  But very lite enough that a new player can grasp the system within the first hour of creating a character.
Layout:  Vibrant and yet minimalist.  Red and Black tastefully touches the white, with occasional artwork that resembles traditional Japanese paintings decorating the pages.  Admittedly, I don't know why it seems to be an industry standard to have the cover a separate image from the pdf, but I am starting to understand it is to make the pdf "print ready" I guess.
My favorite part: The Giri Abilities and Benefits.  Just a wonderful idea.  I am already inspired by these to come up with a similar thing for Houses of the Blooded itself!
What I wish was better: Aspects.  I guess I just feel really weird that in a Clan, the Samurai tend to be roughly of the same overlapping Aspects.  I kinda missed the freedom to really come up with your own Samurai concepts, but I guess that limitation was to capture the feel of how in old Japan, the Samurai didn't really have that distinct personalities much.  Or something.

Do the honorable thing today.
Available at Drivethru RPG.

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