Houses of the Blooded is just not my kind of game. It’s about playing the kind of stories that I’m not really interested in. It revels in the sort of short sighted, self-destructive lack of self-awareness that makes both soap operas and reality TV successful as genres. Likewise, the stars of Houses of the Blooded, the Ven are not my kind of people. Headstrong, overly emotional, and pretentious, they are obsessed with Revenge (which I support) and Romance (which I also generally support.) But this is not the mature, love of your life, finding your perfect mate Romance. Instead, it is the kind of Romance from Romeo and Juliet and most of the modern vampire stories. It is the kind of Romance most people outgrow by the time they’re 25 and are ashamed of getting lured into later. The kind of Romance that’s really just obsession and lust wrapped up together making the body think that it’s in love. The Ven love opera. They only drink wine or other alcohols. They use drugs recreationally. They’re obsessed with fashion. These are all things that I either don’t care about or find prententious. The bottom line is, Ven are the kind of people who make my eyes roll.
And yet, much like soap operas and reality TV, both the game and the characters in it are strangely fascinating. And, like soap operas and reality TV, it only takes a moment to get sucked in and find yourself completely wrapped up in the world and game. Logically, I know that I shouldn’t enjoy either one and, in fact, I’m often annoyed by them both, but most of the time, I find both compelling. In fact, I couldn’t make it all the way through the chapter on character creation before I felt the need to create a Ven. And despite the annoyances that popped up later, I never regretted that.
Early on, John Wick proudly proclaims that his game was created to be a sort of Anti-D&D. This seems like a rather dangerous and ambitious thing to say. It’s not unlike a band saying they are going to be the Anti-Beatles or a director saying he’s going to be the Anti-Hitchcock. While it’s not as pretentious as saying that you’re going to be bigger than the biggest, it is rather cocky to throw out what has come before in the belief that you can reinvent the wheel. In many ways, he’s accomplished his goal, however. Houses of the Blooded focuses on all the things that D&D doesn’t do well while all but ignoring all the things that D&D does extremely well and still remains entertaining. Houses of the Blooded and D&D are almost not even the same genre.
Wick breaths life into his Ven by taking a very Tolkienesque approach. Much like Tolkien, he approaches his fictional world as though it were real, in fact, he approaches his world as though it were our world before the beginning of history. Although this is often interesting and provides a nice feeling of verisimilitude, it eventually grows a bit tiresome. It would be quite interesting as background or in a character information section, but the entire rulebook is written in character. Because of how prevalent this idea that the game is written around an ancient culture that it just so happens no ones ever heard about, it breaks down. Lik the Blair Witch Project the immersion gets so deep that it is impossible to miss the little details. For example, it is established very early on that the Ven do not have money. They barter goods or favors for everything. In fact, they find most of the things we generally accept to be valuable in classic RPGs to be worthless. They don’t go around piling up stacks of coins or mounds of magic items. They are more interested in power, land and secrets. But Wick describes a scene that involves a Ven noble jingling a bag of coins. Clearly, this could not happen. Ven didn’t have coins.
A more glaring, and consistent example of the internal inconsistency is the character that Wick returns to again and again as an example. Shara Yvarai is beautiful, cunning and quite skilled with a sword. She’s the kind of woman other women want to be and men want to be with. Unfortunately, Wick mentions early on that the Ven did not consider women to be the equals of men. In fact, they were generally considered little more than possessions. Like most games dealing with eras where gender and/or racial inequality reigned, Houses of the Blooded handwaves this particular fact of the culture it is dealing with since it would be rather boring for half the population to have no power in the game. While this would normally solve the problem, Wick presents Shara as a character from Ven literature rather than as an example of a Ven created for the purposes of the game. She is not a character that he made up for the game, she is a representation within the game of an actual character from Ven fiction, not unlike the stats provided for Luke Skywalker in any iteration of a Star Wars RPG. Assuming that it were possible for literature to last for 10,000 years, the idea that a recurring female character in a culture that holds women as lesser would be able to carry a sword, fight in duels and even hold land is highly suspect. It is as unbelievable as Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice joining the army or a black man becoming President of the United States in a book set in America before the Civil War. While neither of these are unbelievable propositions from our modern viewpoints, any person reading such a book at the time would have found it ridiculous and impossible. Again, this would not be an issue if Wick did not establish that Shara was a character from actual Ven literature rather than a character from the Houses of the Blooded game.
Despite how deep Wick dips into Ven culture and life (almost the first fifth of the book is dedicated to nothing else and it pops up throughout the rest of the book) he still leaves the players and narrator with a lot of room to breathe. There is plenty of detail to grab the reader’s attention and give a gaming group direction about the kind of games that can be played and the plots that can be created but not so much detail that each group can’t create their own unique story, world and even Ven. In fact, Wick specifically states that the players and narrator in a group should create their own details about Shanri (the world the Ven live in) and the Ven themselves. The narrator is allowed to define essentially anything about the world that he wants while the players must take Wisdom risks to establish facts. Depending on how successful these checks are, the players can define facts about NPC’s, the current location, monsters or even the world in general. The only limitation is that no new fact can contradict a previously determined fact. Thus, the Narrator cannot contradict something from the book or something the players have established and players cannot contradict the book, the Narrator or each other. This is hardly a limitation at all, since so few facts have been defined. For example, I could not use a Wisdom check to establish that Ven do not like wine but I could use a Wisdom check to establish that the wine they enjoy is not made of grapes. For that matter, I could use a Wisdom check to establish that the wine is made of a fruit that no longer exists.
Wisdom checks, like all other checks in the game, use a simple dice mechanic. Players declare the sort of check they want to make, based on one of the six Virtues of the system and then gather dice for that check. These dice can come from the characters name, his Virtue, and aspects, his own, aspects in the environment or aspects he can tag from others. These dice are always d6’s and the target number is always 10. It is not uncommon to be able to gather six or eight dice, all but guaranteeing success. These extra dice do not go to waste, however, they instead go into wagers. A success gives the player one wager but, before rolling the dice, the player can set aside any number of dice as additional wagers. These dice are not rolled and if the player still succeeds with the dice he rolled, he gets to define something with each wager he gets. This can be anything from a family connection about an NPC with a Wisdom risk to a clue on a dead body with a Cunning risk to an injury with a Prowess risk.
The six Virtues given; Wisdom, Prowess, Cunning, Strength, Beauty and Courage are the only stats a character has. There are no skills, no defense stats, every risk is based on one of these six Virtues. It is simply a matter of deciding which Virtue is the correct one to check against. There are no skills, though Wick provides a list of common skills and which Virtue(s) are appropriate for a skill. Usually, this comes down being able to argue the Virtue you think is most accurate or useful.
With only six Virtues, it would seem to be difficult to create a unique character, but the correct Aspects make every character unique. Aspects are words or short phrases that define a character and come from the original Fate system that Houses of the Blooded is based on. While in many games, these descriptions would end there and be usable in any way the player could argue, in Houses of the Blooded and other Fate systems, they actually have very specific mechanical functions. Each Aspect has three interrelated parts, the Invoke, the Tag and the Compel. The Invoke portion of an Aspect is the part that a player uses to give himself bonus dice in a specific situation. The Tag portion is a weakness caused by the Aspect that someone else uses to gain dice against the character. Finally, the Compel portion is the compulsion behind the Aspect that forces a character to behave true to his nature unless the player is willing to pay a Style to avoid it. Aspects sound simple, but they hurt my head. Keeping the Invokes, Tags and Compels separate and knowing when to use them makes me go cross eyed, though this is a portion of the game that I suspect I would grow accustomed to with practice.
Style is an important currency in the game, as well. It can be used without making a Wisdom risk to define some aspect of the game and also must be spent to Tag an Aspect after it has been tagged once. It is also required to Compel an Aspect and to deny a Compel. Larger amounts can also be used to apply more permanent affects such as scarring and death in combat. The Narrator gives out Style points when a player does something cool or in character but players can also give style to other players and even NPC’s if they do something cool.
Through the entire rule book, Wick takes on a very conversational tone. Reading the rule book is very much like sitting with the author and listening to him explain the game as he goes along making it up. It is a very engaging method and he does an impressive job of organizing his thoughts in such a way that the reader understands even the most complex issues and rules that have to be presented. More impressively, Wick maintains a grasp of spelling and grammar that can only be called professional, throughout. Though reading Houses of the Blooded is like having a conversation with the author, it is not like receiving a text message from an overexcited teenager. The usual formatting, grammar and spelling hitches that occur in most independent game books are not evident in Houses of the Blooded. While Wick does take a few liberties with grammar, he acknowledges that he’s going to do so from the beginning and does so for the purposes of style and emphasis. He’s not making mistakes, he knows the rules and breaks them very deliberately and for good reasons.
Unfortunately, there are a few downsides to this unstructured style. For one thing, Wick clearly favors some of the houses more than others, especially the house of Shara, his favorite example character, the Fox. The Fox receive the lion’s share of attention in the book. Though they don’t receive any mechanical advantages because of this focus, mechanics in the game are so loose that it hardly matters. Houses of the Blooded is all about setting and feel and the Fox get this in spades while other houses are relegated to the back burner. In a game that focuses on flavor so much it seems that all this attention is an advantage. One of the earliest examples of this is in the discussion of the sacred animals that each of the Houses associates itself with. The Ven names for a few of these animals are provided while others are not. A small issue, admittedly, but for a game so steeped in bits of Ven lore, it seems strange and somehow unfair for such an important thing to be missing for some of the houses but available for the others.
Another part of John Wick’s style is that he has designed his game so that what is important to the characters is important in the game. Revenge and Romance are, arguably, the two most important things to a Ven. Instead of just mentioning this as portions of the combat section of the game and social interaction portion of the game, Revenge and Romance each get their own, extensive sections of rules and flavor text. Likewise, things like mass combat and dungeon crawling which are so prevalent in many other games, are tedious and distasteful to the Ven. As such, they hardly get a mention and very little space is wasted on discussing these topics.
Seasons. The game within the game. If I was John Wick, that would have some elegant double meaning (and more words would be capitalized,) but I’m just talking about the domain management system of Houses of the Blooded. Although “just” is a bit unfair when describing Seasons. Because every character in Houses of the Blooded is a noble and thus has lands to deal with and manage, a domain management system is required. This one is, undoubtedly, the best domain management system that I’ve seen in a role playing game. It could, in fact, be a game in and of itself. Although it wouldn’t involve much role-playing, I could easily spend a few hours just watching and managing a domain as it grows and expands (or withers and dies either possibility seems likely.) It strikes a perfect balance between being just generic enough that it doesn’t get bogged down in its own details and being complex enough to hold the players’ attention enough to make them think and plan and connive to get everything done that they want to get done. It’s also the only way for a character to get better. Unlike essentially any game I’ve ever played, character advancement in Houses of the Blooded has nothing to do with how many enemies you kill, how many times you use a skill or how many damsels you save from distress. Instead, as part of your actions during the Seasons portion of the game, you may invest some of your time and effort in increasing one of your Virtues, gaining a new Aspect or learning a new Maneuver for combat. Thus, a character that does nothing remarkable at all during the adventure portions of the game could become better than the character that does everything remarkable if he spends his Season actions properly. Of course, while a character is dedicating time to bettering himself, he is not paying attention to his holdings and they suffer for it while another player may not dedicate any time to himself and make his domain better. In Seasons like every other portion of this game everything you get comes at the price of letting something else slip.
Several other aspects of Ven culture and rules necessary to play the game are discussed throughout the book as well. For instance, there are a very limited number of Poisons that can affect the superhuman staminas of the Ven. These poisons are, of course, all illegal to use, but the Ven do illegal things all the time. Unfortunately, Wick goes to a great deal of trouble to specify ways that a Ven cannot use a poison, but he never says how a Ven can use a poison. Perhaps my mind is simply not subtle enough to read the subtext, but I’m still not sure how it works within the game. I understand the effects if you can manage to poison someone, but I don’t understand how you get there.
In keeping with their decadent natures, Ven also partake in a number of different narcotic substances. Wick deals with this in a very mature way without glamorizing or demonizing these substances. He does not particularly promote or castigate drug use but simply presents it as another aspect of Ven culture. Mechanically, each narcotic acts like an Aspect, complete with invokes, tags and compels. As usual, invokes give the person using the narcotic a bonus, tags can be used against them and compels can be used to force them to do something. The difference is that once the dose wears off, the invoke disappears but the tag and compel remain and Ven can get addicted to the drugs. If they are addicted, the tag and compel remain until the Ven is clean and sober for one or more seasons, making addiction a weakness that a Ven’s enemies (and all Ven have many enemies) can take advantage of and giving Ven every reason to avoid them. But, Ven being Ven, they partake anyway.
There is little talk of religion in the book, the Ven do not believe in souls and are far too proud to worship invisible beings who may or may not exist but they do revere their ancestors who have gone into Solace. Ven do not die of old age, rather, if they are fortunate to live long enough, they excrete a cocoon and fall into a sort of endless sleep. These sleeping Ven gain the ability to communicate telepathically (though not necessarily coherently) with the Ven around them. They are also able to bestow blessings upon those who show them the proper devotion. These blessings aren’t exactly spells or aspects, but effects that can be used to counter other people’s advantages or gain various advantages for the Ven utilizing them.
Blessings are not the only magic Ven have access to, however. They are also inheritors to the powerful magics of their creators, the Sorcerer Kings, though their understanding of these rituals is imperfect at best. A number of these rituals are fairly well known amongst the Ven, however and used fairly often (though they are, like poisons, technically, illegal. Again, Ven do illegal things all the time.) These rituals generally provide more permanent effects than blessings, creating long term pacts and magical objects.
Finally, what would a race of superior beings be without beings to be superior to? Though Ven consider themselves the favored creations of the Sorcerer Kings and the natural inheritors of their domains, they were not the only creations of these mighty beings. These other creatures wear a myriad of forms and have a myriad of powers and most are dangerous and hostile toward the Ven. The Ven call these creatures Orks. All of them. From the smallest and least offensive to the largest and most dangerous, they are all Orks, which translates, essentially to “Not Ven.” Unlike Ven, Orks have only one virtue, Ork. Any risk they take is based on this virtue, their essential Orkness if you will. In addition to this virtue, Orks have aspects of a sort. These take the form of various abilities and traits the Orks possess. These usually provide a special bonus in certain situations, though some of them are hindrances or can be used as both. Essentially, there are no defined Orks, but there is a suitable toolkit to make any sort of Ork the Narrator and players might like to face. In fact, it is often the duty of the players to define the Orks they face. It is entirely acceptable for the Narrator to define the Ork value and then have the players make Wisdom or Cunning risks to define the traits of the Ork.
Houses of the Blooded is jam packed full of feel and setting and has a solid mechanic backing it all up. It’s perfect for telling stories of tragedy and an otherwise impressive person falling under the weight of their own hubris and flaws. It’s not my kind of game. But I really want to play it.