Critical Review, BONUS: Lifestory

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Critical Review, BONUS: Lifestory

Postby tru3anath3ma » Sat Mar 26, 2011 9:11 am

The Absurdly Long Set Up To the Review

Before I begin, let me preface my critic with a few statements. First, I have never played Houses of the Blooded, have only skimmed it for about an hour, and I have only read the first half of Blood and Honor and skimmed the second half. Second, I think I will really enjoy Blood and Honor, and I found the Clan/Character creation process very inspiring. When I give this review, I do it because I care. I apologize for the long lead up, I feel it is necessary, although I am probably wrong in that regard.

I've known about of Houses of the Blooded for some time. I was interested in it because, as a former L5R die-hard, I was curious as to what Mr. Wick has been up to. However, I didn't (until yesterday) pick it up because I had too much on my plate, wasn't interested enough at the time, wasn't my style of gaming at the time, etc. Strangely enough, three random and separate events occurred yesterday and two events occurred last October that moved me to buy the game.

Last October, as every October, I run a virtual haunted one-shot for my dad and brother who are all scattered across the country. Its a tradition. I was getting really into The Walking Dead AMC Series at the time (October event #1) and knew I wanted to run a zombie theme one-shot. I searched for zombie games at DTRPG, and seeing Mr. Wicks name, and a good price, picked up Shotgun Diaries (October event #2). Event #2 lead me to the johnwickpresents website, where again, I looked into Houses of the Blooded but never gave it more than a thought.

So fast forwarding to yesterday, three events happened. First, I had a memory/flashback of watching my dad play En Garde! and suddenly found myself wanting to play a game of that sort. I am now 24, but when my dad was playing En Garde! I was just a little guy and really couldn't comprehend the game (although we were kicking samurai style with the Bushido RPG).

Before I move on, another detour. Samurai games are my thing. After Bushido it was L5R, where I played the card game at the highest level, even designing it for a short period of time, and loyally played the RPG. Somewhere in the middle, there was Sengoku RPG. Give me a samurai game, card game, board game, RPG, strategy game, you name it, I'll play it. Right now I am writing my own samurai RPG. I eventually quit the L5R (card and RPG) shortly after 4th Edition came out. While I must say L5R will always be a part of my identity(a huge social outlet for most of my life, I've been playing since the very beginning), I was increasingly frustrated with the products, which ultimately led me to write my own game.

Back to yesterday. First there was the En Garde! memory. The second event was while scrolling through RPG.net, I came across a Houses of the Blooded thread and checked out the johnwickpresents website again, mostly because I remember it sounding similar to En Garde! Even still, I probably wouldn't have bought it, if it wasn't for Blood and Honor (a samurai game), which along with me writing a samurai RPG, is the third event.

I wanted to look at many of the samurai RPGs to see who was doing what, to give my game perspective. So I read it (half, anyways), skimmed the other half, and then, for comparison, skimmed Houses of the Blooded. So the long build up...after comparing the two games, I was absolutely compelled to write this.

The Review

This is not a review of the good things. You are probably here reading this because you know what the good things of the game are, and this game has many, but I'm not going to write about them. It is probably going to sound mean, but just know I have nothing but respect for Mr. Wick.

Blood and Honor reads like a rough draft. Like a quick after thought. Poor grammar and misspellings hint that more time could have been spent reviewing the product, but as I read Blood and Honor, I wonder if it was even reviewed at all. It reads like someone is talking to me, telling me the rules in whatever order comes to his mind. I'm probably doing a terrible job at explaining the point I am trying to make...when I read the book, it doesn't sound official.

Comparing this to the Houses of the Blooded, which doesn't read "casually". To me, this is a good thing. These two societies should not be "casual". Houses of the Blooded looks professional, Blood and Honor does not. To clarify, Blood and Honor, the layout/art looks beautiful. But the feel of the language detracts for the beauty of book. I suppose I have made my point already, and to repeat:

It reads like someone is talking to me, telling me the rules in whatever order comes to his mind. This is the kind of thing that, while I am happy about buying the PDF, strongly dissuades me from buying the print version.

My next gripe, is the flavor of the Aspects. I didn't get a feel that the names of the Aspects gave off an Old Japan feel. I suppose some did, but taken as a whole, in my opinion, they didn't feel/sound Japan-y enough for me. This is probably a stupid gripe to have.

In as far as I got, there was one mechanic that really bugged me: The Duel. It does not live up to its "It is dramatic..." boast. In fact, in many cases, it is completely the opposite of dramatic. The standard Contested Roll is more dramatic. The duel isn't dramatic, in my opinion, because a character with more dice has nearly COMPLETE control of the duel.

Here's what I would have done:

Characters determine Wagers as normal, and roll:

*If one reaches 10 and the other does not, he gets Privilege and can use all of his Wagers. The character that did not get 10 gets nothing.

*If neither players reach 10, it is a tie, and characters do not get Wagers. If using lethal weapons, they both die. If non-lethal weapons, they are Injured.

*If both players reach 10, the character who made the most Wagers gets Privilege. The character with the higher roll can use all of his Wagers (even if he does not have Privilege) and the character with the lower roll can use his half of his Wagers, rounded up. If characters Wagered the same amount, it is a tie (again they both die or are Injured according to the weapons) but they get the appropriate amount of Wagers (the higher roll getting all of them, the lower roll getting half of them, rounded up). If the characters have rolled the same score on the dice, they both get half of their Wagers, rounded up, regardless of who has Privilege.

This is more dramatic than, "I have more dice than you, I win." Sure a character who wipes his opponent's dice pool clean doesn't get Glory, but let's face it, even in a world where Glory and Honor are king, staying alive and honorable is god. In my version, you are truly wagering. Do you Wager more to win the duel, and risk not rolling 10? How much do you Wager to ensure you get to use them all, win or lose?

In the current dueling rules, what happens when neither player gets 10? Who says what happens?

Thank you for reading. I look forward to responses. To leave on a positive note, I am very excited about this game and Houses of the Blooded. Thanks!
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Re: Critical Review, BONUS: Lifestory

Postby jeffszusz » Sat Mar 26, 2011 5:07 pm

It reads like someone is talking to me, telling me the rules in whatever order comes to his mind.


That's how John Wick often writes - in the order the rules come to his mind. He later goes through and adds revisions, but leaves his voice in there. Most of his fans enjoy that style.

My next gripe, is the flavor of the Aspects. I didn't get a feel that the names of the Aspects gave off an Old Japan feel. I suppose some did, but taken as a whole, in my opinion, they didn't feel/sound Japan-y enough for me.


While they may not be "japan-y" enough for someone who is extremely well familiar with samurai fiction and rpg's, to make them too "japan-y" would make the game too alien for a western audience.

In as far as I got, there was one mechanic that really bugged me: The Duel.


The Duel in HotB has always been the most often house-ruled mechanic. Everyone's so used to their traditional games that Wick's idea of how combat should work doesn't quite strike them as appropriate yet.

The longer you play narratively, the closer you'll get to using the duelling rules as written.

In the current dueling rules, what happens when neither player gets 10? Who says what happens?


In any Risk between two characters, if neither gets privilege the GM determines what happens.
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Re: Critical Review, BONUS: Lifestory

Postby tru3anath3ma » Sat Mar 26, 2011 9:36 pm

The Duel in HotB has always been the most often house-ruled mechanic. Everyone's so used to their traditional games that Wick's idea of how combat should work doesn't quite strike them as appropriate yet.

The longer you play narratively, the closer you'll get to using the duelling rules as written.


Can you explain this? For example, how is the original version more narrative than the version I proposed? I can't see a benefit in having one player have such a significant advantage. In fact, the way I see it, it removes a lot of the narrative.
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Re: Critical Review, BONUS: Lifestory

Postby jeffszusz » Sun Mar 27, 2011 12:00 am

The biggest difference is that you'll stop caring about who has the advantage. ;)
Last edited by jeffszusz on Sun Mar 27, 2011 2:49 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Critical Review, BONUS: Lifestory

Postby jeffszusz » Sun Mar 27, 2011 2:30 am

tru3anath3ma wrote:*If one reaches 10 and the other does not, he gets Privilege and can use all of his Wagers. The character that did not get 10 gets nothing.


Yep.

*If neither players reach 10, it is a tie, and characters do not get Wagers. If using lethal weapons, they both die. If non-lethal weapons, they are Injured.


Dice don't decide what happens, they only determine WHO decides. If neither player gets privilege, the Narrator gets it and decides what happens.

*If both players reach 10, the character who made the most Wagers gets Privilege. The character with the higher roll can use all of his Wagers (even if he does not have Privilege) and the character with the lower roll can use his half of his Wagers, rounded up.


A Wager is like a bet. "I bet I can successfully roll a 10, and even roll higher than you, without these extra dice!" If you can make GOOD on your boast, by rolling higher, you get privilege PLUS extra effect from your wagers.

In your revised version, the player with the boldest wager gets privilege even if their boast proves false. I'm not sure why this is better but if you have an explanation I'd love to hear it.

If characters Wagered the same amount, it is a tie (again they both die or are Injured according to the weapons) but they get the appropriate amount of Wagers (the higher roll getting all of them, the lower roll getting half of them, rounded up). If the characters have rolled the same score on the dice, they both get half of their Wagers, rounded up, regardless of who has Privilege.


In the event of a tie, whoever had more dice for the risk in the first place (including wagers) wins privilege. (p. 119, HotB) That would mean the 'winner' gets his wagers and the loser gets half his wagers, as normal.

Whether this has changed since the original HotB book was printed I'm not sure; anyone who plays with John, please feel free to bring me up to speed on that ;)

This is more dramatic than, "I have more dice than you, I win." Sure a character who wipes his opponent's dice pool clean doesn't get Glory, but let's face it, even in a world where Glory and Honor are king, staying alive and honorable is god. In my version, you are truly wagering. Do you Wager more to win the duel, and risk not rolling 10? How much do you Wager to ensure you get to use them all, win or lose?


The rules say that IF you wipe your opponent's dice pool clean, and therefore mop the floor with him, you won't get any Glory. They don't say you *have* to do things that way. It's actually recommending that you make less wagers and allow your opponent a chance to beat you fairly, even if that chance is slim.

Here's a narrative example of what might be going on when someone DOES spend enough wagers to squash his opponent's dice pool to nothing:

I am a fantastic swordsman (10 dice), and I believe you're no match for me (6 dice). I boast that I could beat you blindfolded, with one arm tied behind my back, using a stranger's sword - unfamiliar to my hand. So my servant steps up, ties my arm behind my back, blindfolds me, and a stranger lends me his sword. (I make six Wagers)

If you fight me this way, you'll be shamed even if you win: so you have to have YOUR servant tie your arm behind your back, blindfold you, and find you a stranger's sword. (You have to meet my six wagers with your own six - your entire dice pool.) Now, not being as good a swordsman as I, you don't stand a chance against me even though we're both blind and one-armed.

Because beating you in THIS case would shame ME, I probably will NOT make all those wagers, and simply throw more dice on the roll. I'm still likely to win (though not guaranteed), and if I do, I can either kill you or let you live as I please, and gain some Glory on the side. If you DO win privilege and either kill me or let ME live, then at least I lost honourably.

Keep in mind, if someone has 10 dice for a risk, that means he's got a Prowess of 5, an Aspect that's helping him out in combat for 3 more dice, a Name that's giving him a bonus die, and some other advantage giving him his final die (either an Ability or a really cool sword or something). He's probably unequalled anywhere in Japan. He's going to wipe the floor with you if you're not on par with him.

It's far more likely that you'll be seeing much smaller dice pools and people won't be Wagering your dice pool down to zero that often.
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Re: Critical Review, BONUS: Lifestory

Postby jeffszusz » Sun Mar 27, 2011 2:57 am

@ tru3anath3ma: I've thought a bit more about your questions and I think I see why you're so concerned.

I can't see a benefit in having one player have such a significant advantage. In fact, the way I see it, it removes a lot of the narrative.


Yes, the guy with a dice pool of 10 during a duel is probably going to win because his advantage is massive. He gets to narrate the combat.

On the other hand, the Rake with the dice pool of 10 on a beauty risk to seduce the beautiful princess is going to have a massive advantage. He gets to narrate large parts of the seduction.

The street urchin rolling 10 dice on a cunning risk to pick an NPC's pocket is going to have a massive advantage. Those wagers she made? Yeah. She gets to determine what she found in that NPC's pocket.

The wizened old sage rolling 10 dice on a wisdom risk to research everything there is to know about the undead come back to life is going to hit the ball out of the park and find LOTS of information. That doesn't mean the Narrator gets out his rulebook and reads a bunch of info about the undead to the players: that means the Sage's player gets to make up the facts about the undead on the spot.

What you need to internalize is that when you're playing Houses of the Blooded or Blood & Honour, having the overwhelming advantage in combat does not mean you're more important to the story, because ALL of these kinds of risks are made equal.
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Re: Critical Review, BONUS: Lifestory

Postby tru3anath3ma » Sun Mar 27, 2011 8:34 am

That's how John Wick often writes - in the order the rules come to his mind. He later goes through and adds revisions, but leaves his voice in there. Most of his fans enjoy that style.


I like how John Wick writes. This is different. B&H, as I read it, seemed sloppy. I think there is a difference, which you noted, between leaving his voice and a product that comes off as unprofessional. The difference, which you noted, is that if you are going to charge money for a product, the process of going through and adding revisions should come before it becomes available.

While they may not be "japan-y" enough for someone who is extremely well familiar with samurai fiction and rpg's, to make them too "japan-y" would make the game too alien for a western audience.


Point taken, I can understand this.

In any Risk between two characters, if neither gets privilege the GM determines what happens.


I know the fate of the characters is supposed to be tiny compared to the fate of the Clan. Even still, they are still people, and more yet, they are people played by the players. Leaving a life and death situation in the hands of a GM fiat seems foreign to me, although I am willing to admit, this game does put the quality of the story in front of the fate of the characters. Assuming you have players that understand this, should be okay.
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Re: Critical Review, BONUS: Lifestory

Postby tru3anath3ma » Sun Mar 27, 2011 8:51 am

Dice don't decide what happens, they only determine WHO decides. If neither player gets privilege, the Narrator gets it and decides what happens.


I understand your point. Giving the Narrator the Privilege is fine with me.

A Wager is like a bet. "I bet I can successfully roll a 10, and even roll higher than you, without these extra dice!" If you can make GOOD on your boast, by rolling higher, you get privilege PLUS extra effect from your wagers.

In your revised version, the player with the boldest wager gets privilege even if their boast proves false. I'm not sure why this is better but if you have an explanation I'd love to hear it.


I suppose that's not how I see it. If you roll a 10 or higher, you HAVE succeeded at your boast. I think my version is better because players, no matter if they are very skilled or not very skilled, have a very interesting decision to make in regards to how many dice they Wager. There is nothing interesting about the system as written. The better dueler dictates how the duel will go and there is no suspense whatsoever, and no tactical decision.

The rules say that IF you wipe your opponent's dice pool clean, and therefore mop the floor with him, you won't get any Glory. They don't say you *have* to do things that way. It's actually recommending that you make less wagers and allow your opponent a chance to beat you fairly, even if that chance is slim.

Here's a narrative example of what might be going on when someone DOES spend enough wagers to squash his opponent's dice pool to nothing:

I am a fantastic swordsman (10 dice), and I believe you're no match for me (6 dice). I boast that I could beat you blindfolded, with one arm tied behind my back, using a stranger's sword - unfamiliar to my hand. So my servant steps up, ties my arm behind my back, blindfolds me, and a stranger lends me his sword. (I make six Wagers)

If you fight me this way, you'll be shamed even if you win: so you have to have YOUR servant tie your arm behind your back, blindfold you, and find you a stranger's sword. (You have to meet my six wagers with your own six - your entire dice pool.) Now, not being as good a swordsman as I, you don't stand a chance against me even though we're both blind and one-armed.

Because beating you in THIS case would shame ME, I probably will NOT make all those wagers, and simply throw more dice on the roll. I'm still likely to win (though not guaranteed), and if I do, I can either kill you or let you live as I please, and gain some Glory on the side. If you DO win privilege and either kill me or let ME live, then at least I lost honourably.

Keep in mind, if someone has 10 dice for a risk, that means he's got a Prowess of 5, an Aspect that's helping him out in combat for 3 more dice, a Name that's giving him a bonus die, and some other advantage giving him his final die (either an Ability or a really cool sword or something). He's probably unequalled anywhere in Japan. He's going to wipe the floor with you if you're not on par with him.


While I like your example, I don't think the incentive to not manipulate your opponent's pool down is good enough to avoid it from happening.
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Re: Critical Review, BONUS: Lifestory

Postby jeffszusz » Sun Mar 27, 2011 9:18 am

tru3anath3ma wrote:
I know the fate of the characters is supposed to be tiny compared to the fate of the Clan. Even still, they are still people, and more yet, they are people played by the players. Leaving a life and death situation in the hands of a GM fiat seems foreign to me, although I am willing to admit, this game does put the quality of the story in front of the fate of the characters. Assuming you have players that understand this, should be okay.


Their lives are in the hands of the Narrator, yes, but your Narrator isn't there to oppose you. In fact, he benefits more from both of you remaining alive and suffering consequences than he does from either of you dying, unless one of you dying is more interesting for everyone. Your Narrator should never be like, "Hah! I get privilege, you both die!" If he is, take HotB / B&H away from him and beat him soundly.

Letting the GM choose your fate isn't as nice as choosing your own, but isn't it WAY better than letting the dice alone choose whether you die?

The dice would try to take your life. The Narrator might just take a hand, or an eye, or your lover's life, or your family's holdings and pride - and leave you to live with it.
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Re: Critical Review, BONUS: Lifestory

Postby jeffszusz » Sun Mar 27, 2011 9:51 am

tru3anath3ma wrote:
A Wager is like a bet. "I bet I can successfully roll a 10, and even roll higher than you, without these extra dice!" If you can make GOOD on your boast, by rolling higher, you get privilege PLUS extra effect from your wagers.

In your revised version, the player with the boldest wager gets privilege even if their boast proves false. I'm not sure why this is better but if you have an explanation I'd love to hear it.


I suppose that's not how I see it. If you roll a 10 or higher, you HAVE succeeded at your boast. I think my version is better because players, no matter if they are very skilled or not very skilled, have a very interesting decision to make in regards to how many dice they Wager. There is nothing interesting about the system as written. The better dueler dictates how the duel will go and there is no suspense whatsoever, and no tactical decision.

The better duelist does get to determine what happens, if he rolls as expected. The game is designed so that the person who is better at something will most often succeed - there isn't as much randomness as D&D or Call of Cthulhu. He might roll all 1's and fail, and this would be very dramatic, but because he's the best darn Samurai swordsman in the land, he's not going to fail very often.

Houses of the Blooded and B&H were written specifically to avoid tactical combat simulation. The game is about "Why do I want to fight this man? Am I really willing to risk my own life?" rather than "Who wins?"

If you want to add tactical combat back into the game, you're very welcome to do so! I just want to make sure you know that it's not broken - it's just not supposed to be the type of game you're used to. The guy with the best combat stats is going to win almost all the time. Once in a while, Fate will throw the little guy a bone, but not as often as other games.

If you can't beat him at the sword though, what CAN you do? Perhaps his wife is unhappy in their marriage... perhaps his Daimyo is suspicious of his loyalty. Perhaps his friends are jealous of his position. Perhaps you could do something to exploit one or several of these facts.

While I like your example, I don't think the incentive to not manipulate your opponent's pool down is good enough to avoid it from happening.


If I'm in character, I'm not going to manipulate your dice pool down very far unless my Character really, really hates your Character and doesn't care about Glory and Honour - he just wants you dead. If that's the case, it's probably because you already stole his wife, made his Daimyo mistrust him and strip him of his rank and duties, made his friends hate him, and stole all his wealth. You die with honour and knowing you destroyed me, and I live on as a bitter, lonely old swordsman - or I decide to fall on my own sword.

Usually, the story itself will keep characters from manipulating the dice pools down that way. If it does not, and people abuse it, there's one rule I haven't seen in B&H yet that is certainly in HotB and should be inherited from it.

p. 355 of HotB: "Don't be a wanker." This is a real rule that's broken when people use fun mechanics to make things not fun. It's really that simple, too. Don't be a wanker, or the Narrator will punish you. In HotB he'd take Style from you, and in B&H he can choose to take Glory to punish JUST you, Honour to punish your entire Clan and make them mad at you too, or even give you a Tag that represents some social stigma your Character gains because of his wankery.

When I run a game, in a duel where one player wagers someone's dice pool down to zero, they still can't roll any dice and therefore cannot win. But the other player still has to beat 10 or else the Narrator gets privilege. And if he fails that roll and loses privilege after being such a dick to another character, you KNOW the Narrator is going to make him suffer for it.
Last edited by jeffszusz on Sun Mar 27, 2011 10:11 am, edited 1 time in total.
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