I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this game for a while, which I’ll touch on a bit farther on. I’ve been wanting to toss this onto the heap for a while to see how it goes. Plus, I’m wanting to use an abbreviated version of these rules for my half of Grindhouse at ACNW this year, but didn’t want to fly in blind.
As I mentioned above, I have a love/hate relationship with this game. I’ve been a huge gushing fan of a lot of Wick’s work for years. 7th Sea, Legend of the Five Rings, Play Dirty, some of his more obscure stuff. Hell, I even bought Orkworld once upon a time. When I learned that Wick had an LJ account and was working on another “big game” on par with 7th Sea. Well, I had to sign on to have a front row seat to this. And starting out I was jazzed as all hell. I’m a huge fan of weird and baroque settings like Nobilis, so this just had me frothingly excited.
A few things converged to sour the magic for me, in no particular order. The first is that I got to play some of the indy games that my friends gushed about. I liked some of them, but I came to quickly find that there was a very different feel in the narrative-control/story-games than I really looked for in a roleplaying experience. I felt a little duped by friends who gushed about how awesome these “roleplaying” games were, when the focus of the games wasn’t really about roleplaying. It left me pretty sour for a while. Tossed into this was a growing dislike of Wick’s blog. I don’t know how one person could piss me off so much when I still effectively agreed with him, but he did. Mostly I think it was his political commentary that bothered me, even when I agreed with him. And it kinda soured everything else for me. I began to care little for his proclamations about the true path of game design. I found his examples unhelpful, even more so when I said, “This example is unhelpful,” and he suggested I read Play Dirty for some extra hints. (“I already own it, Mr. Wick. I read it on Pyramid back in the day, I read the PDF copy I bought directly from you, I’m a huge fan and your example is still not helpful.” He used the example unchanged in the book.) His decision to make the game into a narrative-control set-up pushed me farther away, as did his extensive Settlers-of-Cataan-style land management rules.
I finally dropped him from my friends list, with the decision to buy his book out of respect for the enthusiasm I once had and give the game a fair shot. But I was just kinda done. It was a horrible lesson in, “Never meet your heroes.”
It took me a while to convince the OHW crowd to give Houses of the Blooded a shot. Finally a few people were curious enough about it and I had extra incentive to give it a spin before I had to run it “for real” at ACNW. So I talked them into it.
My original plan was to just ignore the land management rules, but the more I read through the book in preparation for the game the more I felt like I needed to try and give it a shot. Especially since the first “adventure” I ran might run short and we might have time to try it out. So my revised instructions to players was to focus on making their characters up to, but not including, the region development. They could finish that part during play and then we’d try and do a season action or two.
One thing I’ve found doing these One Hit Wonders is that it’s a very different experience reading the rules with an aim to just see what they are like and reading them with the intention of being able to explain the rules to someone else provide very different insight. Just reading through the book for this game was a fun experience, very evocative and gave you a strong sense of the world. But often things felt under-explained or details were put in strange places. The example that pissed me off repeatedly was the rule for converting wagers into Style. I remembered reading it once, and then had trouble finding it later. Is it in the section on “How do you earn style?” Nope. Is it under, “How to use Risks and Wagers?” Not directly, no. It’s in the last paragraph in a sidebar next to the section on wagers. The sidebar was titled, “The Golden Rule of Wagers” and mostly covered what you can and cannot state regarding a wager. A fundamental mechanic to the flow of play, randomly hidden at the bottom of a sidebar that did not at first glance have anything to do with what you wanted. The entire session felt like that.
Were I a ven, I’d include that last sentence a few times for emphasis. And, in fact, that was the joke that got made infrequently when we encountered typos, poor editing or any other problem making sense of the rules. “John Wick did not forget an apostrophe. He did that intentionally, in emulating the ven writing style. The ven didn’t use apostrophes.”
For me, part of the One Hit Wonders experience I push for is making characters. Some people in the hot seat prefer to do pre-gens so that more time can be spent having fun. Me, I’m all about seeing what it’s like to beat your head against a rule system just so you can get the feel. Character creation took about an hour and a half. We only had one book starting out, plus someone had printed out a copy of the character creation rules from their PDF. I also printed out several copies of the cheat sheets from the Web site. (One person had thought about buying the $5 PDF, but after looking at the preview document he decided it wasn’t worth spending the $5 for convenience. He really didn’t like Wick’s tone.)
I had thought things would bog down once we hit Aspect selection, but people seemed to do fine with that. What really slowed things down was selecting Blessings, which were abilities granted by Suaven (basically ascended ancestors of the ven) you were devoted to. They seemed most analogous to feats in D&D or Stunts in Spirit of the Century. They weren’t summarized in the cheat sheet, so we needed copies of the book for that. I ended up using Dropbox to transfer my PDF copy of the rules to my laptop and had one person on my PC and another person on the laptop.
Complaints about the book started at about this point. Not being able to find rules for relics or wading through descriptions of spells, Blessings and rules for artifacts just sapped people’s will to live. Some people just outright gave up on finishing their character so that they could be done with dealing with the book.
Overall we had six players, two of whom had not played a game like Houses. The other four had varying levels of experience with similar games and were genuinely excited to give the game a shot.
There was a quote made early on in the game that players asked that I include in my after action report. Sadly, I didn’t save the Notepad document I jotted it into in order to remember it. My best recollection of it boiled down to, “This game should be held up as a symbol to show that it’s okay to make mistakes.” That was said by one of the players who was pretty excited about playing this before showing up that day.
People were pretty frustrated during play. Trying to understand how things were supposed to work drove some people nuts. A couple people got frustrated with us trying to make sense of it rather than just house rule it and move on. In my defense, I did often house rule and move on, but for the benefit of trying to see how the rules work I figured it deserved the old college try.
The core mechanic for the game revolves around having a pool of d6s that you try to roll against a target number of 10. If you beat 10, you get to decide whether you succeed or fail. If you don’t pass 10, the GM gets to decide whether you succeed or fail. You can sacrifice (or “wager”) some of the dice and roll a smaller dice pool, in exchange for getting more benefit after the roll. Each wager allows you to embelish your success or failure.
In a contested roll, the person who rolled the highest number (and beat a target number of 10) gets to narrate success or failure. The high roller gets all his wagers, the low roller gets half his wagers if he beat 10 and none of the wagers if he doesn’t beat 10.
For this one-shot, I figured I’d start it off with an example straight from the book: The murder mystery. The PCs come across the body and they “search for clues.” The idea is that all the players roll a contested Cunning risk, they get to spend their wagers to determine the clues they find and the mystery is built from there. This seemed like the real strength of the system, to have games where the the players build the plot as they go.
So they find the body, everyone starts asking me questions. I establish three things about the body they find, but require anything else to be determined by the Cunning roll. This is where we started running into problems.
I couldn’t find an example of a contested risk that used more than two people. All the examples I could find were one-on-one conflicts. So after some struggling, I decided to just wing it as best I could. Then we ran into someone who hadn’t made any wagers but made his roll. Well, crap. What do you do then? What do you get if you roll over 10 and don’t make any wagers? Our best solution was that we needed to have established the stake for “Do you find clues?” If you rolled over 10 but didn’t wager, then you still found clues. (In retrospect, I’m glad the person who rolled highest didn’t narrate, “No, we don’t find clues.” That would have kinda sucked.)
There was some discussion over whether or not the discovery of clues should be roleplayed out. We ultimately went against it because it was too hard to provide narration for finding it and still keep it down to “just one fact.”
Further complicating it was someone pointing out the fact that the scenario in the book describes one player using two of his wagers to establish, “I killed him” and “But it looks like this other character did it.” So then we had this disagreement about whether or not these were all things that the characters knew from the clues or whether it was framing the “script” for the scene that we then roleplayed in. We ended up opting for the latter since it gave us a vestige of roleplaying, but we don’t know if that was what the rules intended.
Things smoothed out a bit when people went off to pursue different chunks of the mystery that was established. Simple and one-on-one contested risks really made things work a lot better.
And then we had a duel. One player made a duelist, we wanted to see how combat worked, so we had a throwdown in the ball. We didn’t go through the proper channels for “Revenge” because this was just to stir shit up and we didn’t want to have to drag the conflict out over several days of game play to have a proper declaration of Revenge.
To jazz it up I had the NPC unarmed so he used Strength instead of Prowess. Combat should have been simple. No one had any advanced maneuvers. It was just attack and parry. Really basic. One-on-one combat revolved around “beats,” since that sounded more like fencing than “rounds” or “turns.” The two opponents secretly made a “strike bid,” where they sacrificed dice to have the chance to decide who goes first. Simple. Then they made their wagers like any other risk. No problem. Then they roll. Groovy. The defender had the high roll, so he negates all the attacks. And he had some wagers to spend.
It wasn’t clear if he got to spend those wagers establishing facts, but we let him do that. The attacker was thrown off balance and fell down. Seemed to not fit the way combat was described, but okay.
Then the rules don’t tell you how to handle subsequent attacks. It mentions early on that the attacks go back and forth unless someone has an advanced maneuver to change that. No one did, so presumably it was just the next person’s attack. Since the strike bid didn’t seem to apply anymore, we gueeeessed that you just skipped the strike bid. Then, as we’re resolving the second attack, someone figures out that some of what we were doing with wagers in combat seemed to fall under advanced maneuvers, even something so simple as moving. So we couldn’t figure out what you did with wagers if you defended successfully and didn’t have advanced maneuvers. If you didn’t defend successfully, they negated the other person’s wagers. Nothing for successful defense. We ended up just rolling them back into Style points, so that the Aspects used in combat could continue being refreshed. We felt a little frustrated with the duelling rules.
Later we did a Mass Murder roll. A bunch of the PCs cornered the villain and decided to gaffle him. It went really fast, which was good. And it seemed a bit better explained than the duelling rules. The PCs had privilege, they went first, they assigned a Rank 5 injury to the villain. And then… Well, is Rank 5 automatically out of the fight? I didn’t want to look it up, so I let the guy spend his one wager to take a PC down with him. Which was startling for people who hadn’t read the Mass Murder rules, but I figured they wouldn’t have teeth if the PCs got out unscathed.
Looking back at the rules, I found he should have been knocked to the ground and helpless. He should have lost his wager I guess. Which looks pretty ugly. Like the PCs are encouraged to gang up on solitary NPCs to quickly and immediately remove the opponent from combat. Well… that’s obnoxious.
Searching the scene of a crime, talking to a few suspects, a few exchanged blows in a duel and an ambush. Four hours of play. Which is fast for a D&D, stupid long for an Amber game. With familiarity I imagine it could flow a lot faster. Especially if we aren’t tearing our hair out and cursing John Wick’s name in a colorful fashion. By the time we finished, it was 6 PM, people were burnt out from wrestling with the rules and low on blood sugar. (Krispy Kreme, strangely, is not a suitable replacement for real food.) If I had suggested we do a season action or two at that point I may have been lynched.
Stripped of confusing rules explanations, I thought the basic mechanic was fine for what it was. And there was a certain clockwork elegance in how Style points flowed around through play. It’s when we moved beyond the most basic rolls that things got frustrating and weird and we stumbled over the rules the most. It wasn’t Gear Krieg frustrating, but it was still frustrating. It felt like the Virtues (this game’s version of “attributes”) seemed pretty unbalanced. It was very reminiscent of Amber in that regard. Cunning seemed to be the most important virtue. So much of social interaction, skullduggery and ability to define the world revolved around Cunning. Wisdom also was potent, but Wisdom risks didn’t come up very often in comparison. Cunning rolls were referred to all over the frickin’ place. Prowess was valuable if you were going to be in any sort of fight, though there’s pressure in the rules and setting to minimize conflict. Still, Cunning and Prowess seemed like a deadly combination. Wisdom, like Amber‘s Psyche, seemed like something you didn’t want to suck at but otherwise didn’t care about. Strength, much like its counterpart in Amber seemed valuable to have if you were the only one with it, but it was less interesting beyond novelty. Beauty seemed underused, its use in social situations undermined by Cunning. (Beauty is about truth, Cunning is about deceit. Which one really seems appropriate here?) I let a PC use Beauty in trying to woo information out of an NPC, but I don’t think that was right. With no Season actions, no arts were made. No one started a courtship. I could technically have asked for Courage rolls any time there was a risk of violence, but really no one in the group gave a crap about Courage. Unlike the whipping boy attribute in Amber, Endurance, it seemed quite easy to have Courage get marginalized.
The biggest complaint, aside from the confusion with the rulebook, was the lack of roleplay. (Or, if you’re one of those snooty leotard wearing types, “actor stance” play versus “director stance” play.) Most of the game consisted of dice roll after dice roll to establish facts in the game through risks. It often felt like playing the game discouraged roleplay by getting in the way. Very little of our play involved actually speaking in character. Our grand compromise was to try and roleplay out the discovery of the information we established in our risks, and with more experience we could have leveraged that into more interaction. But that isn’t particularly satisfying roleplay. (“Hi, I’m going to justify in character how I know something out of character.” Really?)
We did build a pretty intriguing story and lots of interesting plot threads were established. But you can also do that with strong roleplayers and social contract, which will also give you the emphasis on actor stance instead of director stance. As our plot grew more robust, there was less need for risks and roleplay started to emerge, but that was after a whole lot of dice hucking to build the framework of the story. With experience we could probably find more room for roleplay, but I don’t know that I have the patience to wade through a bunch of dice hucking to get there. And maybe it’s all my fault for using the murder mystery setup, since that pushed all the focus on the PCs. But I figured entirely player-driven plots were something the game boasted, so that’s what I should try.
If we had gotten into the season actions at all, I think we would have dropped right off the edge of roleplaying. The story sessions encourage you to have season actions, because that’s how you get cool items and increased power. But I saw nothing pushing it back to story except, maybe, a chance to use your cool stuff. But that’s speculation. We didn’t actually get a chance to try that out.
The award and use of Style points also represented a facet of the game that seemed very integral but we didn’t get much use about. It was sort of a telling element of Wick’s design biases. On the one hand, Houses puts nearly all the storytelling into the hands of the players. But it has several spots that the players don’t get a say in. One of those is the actions of the Suaven. Another is Style. Awarding and taking away Style points are the GM’s stick in the game. Yes, the players can be creative and redefine the universe, but the GM always has a chance to just penalize the players if he doesn’t like how they play the game. “Bad form,” the GM can declare while taking away all your Style points. I much prefer Fan Mail, where it’s everyone weighing in on how awesome something is.
Compared to the Leading Brand
Unlike some of the other games we’ve field tested, there’s actually a lot of games that rub up against Houses of the Blooded, each with its own virtues. Overall, the recurring theme I find when comparing Houses of the Blooded to other games is that Houses of the Blooded has many great ideas that can be imported to other games, while other games benefit from, “It doesn’t get in the way of roleplay.”
- 7th Sea: Houses is, in some ways, very evocative of the duelling and swashbuckling of 7th Sea. There are things that I didn’t enjoy from 7th Sea during the brief campaign I co-ran many moons ago, but overall it felt like a much better balanced system than Houses. When looking at the attributes for 7th Sea and how they interact with rules, you find that you don’t really want to dump stat any of the stats. It is quite clear that all of the attributes are important. With the Virtues of Houses, dump stats seem more obvious. It would be absurdly easy to replace a big chunk of the 7th Sea mechanics with Aspects of some sort, but otherwise I think that’s the only thing 7th Sea lacks in comparison.
- D&D: Houses was created as a response to D&D, specifically 3.X. In fact, much of the rules presentation in Houses is a direct nod to mechanics in D&D 3.X. Wick illustrates how to use Virtues to simulate skill rolls in 3.X, and there’s a set of Aspects that correspond to D&D character classes. When talking just 3.X, it’s kind of a toss up. Houses is a less number heavy system. I don’t feel like I’m better off using a spreadsheet to make my character in Houses. On the other hand, the rules are better explained and (I feel ill even saying this) it is easier to roleplay in D&D. I’ve gotten into multiple arguments with people about the loss of fluff skills in D&D, with opponents insisting that the rules get out of your way to make more options for roleplay. But, holy crap, Houses has made me eat my words to a degree.
Yes, Houses has an explicit mechanic for resource management and growing old. If you want to nitpick, D&D 3.X had rules for building keeps, attracting vassals and growing old. Heck, I think they even had political games emphasized in the 2e setting Birthright (which a quick google turns up fan updates for 3.5 and 4e). It’s just that few people really cared or used any of this. And, to be quite honest, it would be absurdly easy to adapt the Seasons rules from Houses into D&D (or any other game for that matter). And you could have more roleplay.
Now, if we drag 4e into the mix, which was also a response of sorts to 3.X, then Houses starts to tank. The fact that I’m taking 4e’s side in any comparison of games really says a lot. As a game, I think D&D 4e is just more fun, better designed, better written and provides a better opportunity for roleplay. (Sorry, just threw up in my mouth saying that.) And, as with 3.X, you can import rules over to D&D if you want rules for aging and land management. Or you can just use the heroic arc for D&D. Since it’s no longer open ended, levels 21-30 now represent your last hoorah in the world. After that you place your mark on the world and fade from the adventuring life, leaving room for the next generation of heroes. You get to do cool shit for 30 levels, and then go off and play Settlers of Cataan off camera.
- Amber: Some people like to draw comparisons between the two games, even going so far as to call Houses, “More Amber than Amber” and replace the Virtues with stuff like “Pattern” and “Sorcery.” And yet, I feel utterly uncompelled to try and mix the two. Amber, right down to it’s bones, is about immersive roleplaying. It’s why some people who looooove Amber get really pissed off when put in a game like Dogs in the Vineyard. The rules are broken, but it’s easily overlooked. The rules aren’t that important. They help, but you can go an entire session without a single stat being brought into use. When I was reading through the book, I half considered doing a “Houses of the Serpent” game to represent the scheming houses of Chaos. But I think I’ll shelve that one for now for a lot of reasons. Really, Amber is good at what it does and I recommend you accept no substitutes.
When I was first grousing about Wick’s declaration that he’d be using a narrative control mechanic, a friend of mine counseled, “There’s many different levels of narrative control mechanics. Don’t judge it till you’ve tried it.” And now I can say that my friend was absolutely correct, and I will probably never run Houses of the Blooded again. The narrative control mechanic felt smothering. I’ll still use it at ACNW in lighter form, and we may very well ignore it pretty quickly like we often do in Grindhouse. I may even feel more forgiving after running a game that doesn’t involve having to figure out the rules from the book. But I do not see myself running Houses out of the box in the foreseeable future.
I love the setting. Re-reading the book emphasized that again for me. I loooove the setting. It is what I feel Wick did a mindblowingly awesome job on.
And I would damn near prefer to use any other system out there to play in it.
I’m just not interested in out-of-the-box rules for Houses. At least a couple players in our one-shot talked about doing a D&D game set in Shanri and I think it would work excellently. You just need to reskin the classes with the names Wick assigned them in the book.
I’d also happily run a game using tweaked versions of 7th Sea or Amber or Savage Worlds or Spirit of the Century… the list goes on. I wouldn’t do anything crazy, mind you. I mean, I’m not going to use GURPS or Hero System. But I’d be even willing to use some other story game like In a Wicked Age, Primetime Adventures, InSpectres, Wilderness of Mirrors…
This game managed to take people who like story games and were genuinely excited to play, and utterly turned them off to the rules in the game. And maybe someone who is better at running this game than me could do it in a way that I and others would find enjoyable. Such a tack has turned me around on games in the past. I rolled my eyes at Exalted for years until someone showed me the cool parts of it. I’d certainly try playing it as a player some time to get a different perspective. (Seriously: If you come to Seattle, I’ll buy a case of beer, get some friends together and we’ll play Houses. I might not extend this offer to John Wick, though. I know I’m exactly the sort of class clown player that he would take all the Style points away from.)
But after this one-shot I’m feeling pretty underwhelmed. The core mechanic was fun, but not what I want in my games in general. And once we tried pushing outside of very simple die rolls, it was maddening.
Our next game may prove to be a bit of a divergence from the usual format as we may be playtesting a one-shot for AmberCon Northwest. This particular one-shot is billed as an Amber/Paranoia mashup. I guess you’ll find out what we’re doing when we get there.