In many ways, Blood and Honor is more of an extension and revision of the rules presented in Houses of the Blooded than a separate game. In fact, at one point John Wick, in typical John Wick fashion, states that a great deal of Blood and Honor is lifted directly from Houses of the Blooded.
There are a few changes between Houses of the Blooded and Blood and Honor and the first and most significant is evident almost immediately. Although Blood and Honor retains Virtues and Aspects from its predecessor, character creation does not start with the character. Instead the group begins by creating one or more clans. The clan(s) created do a great deal to help define the nature of the characters that are then created as well as where the story goes once character creation is done.
During clan creation, the players select four aspects for the clan, though one of these is always an aspect called “None of Us is as Great as All of Us,” an aspect that gives characters bonus dice for assisting a fellow member of their clan. Unlike Houses of the Blooded, where an aspect could be anything that the player can come up with and the Narrator approved, the aspects in Blood and Honor are limited and defined. It should also be noted that Aspects in Blood and Honor do not have Tags. While the Invoke and Compel facets remain, Aspects no longer have a Tag that opponents can use against characters.
The beginning Daimyo is always an NPC but one that the players define by selecting from one of 6 personality types for him. Tags come from the Daimyo chosen. Each Daimyo has a Quality that provides benefits as well as disadvantages that might be Tags that opponents can use against the Samurai of the Daimyo’s Clan. All of this combines to make Blood and Honor seem like much more of a cooperative game than Houses of the Blooded. While it is still certainly possible for betrayal and Machiavellian machinations within a Blood and Honor clan, these would only weaken the clan and thus the people within it.
It should also be noted that characters do not have Holdings that can be used in Season actions. Instead, the Clan possesses the Holdings and the characters add actions to what the Daimyo can do each season.
Once the clan is completed, it is time for the players to create their characters. Anyone who has played Houses of the Blooded will find themselves in familiar territory here. Players rank their character’s virtues, leaving one empty as a weakness and pick two aspects in addition to the free aspect of “None of Us…” as described above. However, players are not free to pick any aspects. The two aspects must be two of the aspects the Clan holds. Thus, all samurai in a clan will end up sharing aspects with other members of the Clan. Another situation where the clan defines the character.
In addition to the statistics a person would normally choose in Houses of the Blooded, each character in Blood and Honor also chooses a Giri or Duty. This is their role within the clan and can be anything from General to Spymaster to Courtier. A character’s Giri can be used to give him more dice when he is performing actions that are a part of his duty to his clan.
All members of the clan share is Honor. Each clan begins the game with a certain amount of honor determined by the Giri ranks of the members of the clan. More honor can be gained by acting like a samurai. The more risks that your samurai takes that fall in line with the code of bushido, the more honor the Narrator gives the clan. Any actions that your samurai takes that go against bushido, causes honor to be removed from the pool.
Honor can also be used to increase a character’s dice pool when taking a risk. Each honor point spent adds 4 dice to a risk that a samurai takes. Honor can also be spent to add details to the world. A point of honor may also be spent to establish any one fact, so long as it does not contradict an already established fact of the world.
The final statistics of a character are his Reputations and Glory. These act much like additional aspects but without the compel portion. Reputations are much more like aspects from Houses of the Blooded in that they can be phrased in any way a player can determine, though they must be earned instead of arbitrarily selected. For instance, a player may spend some of his wagers after a successful duel in a reputation like “Deadly Swordsman” or “Nerves of Steel.” Glory points are the ranks of reputations. Each reputation has an associated glory level and this level is how many dice are added when the reputation is called upon.
Risks in Blood and Honor work exactly the same way they do in Houses of the Blooded. The only thing that has changed about these mechanics is the places a player can gather dice from. When a character takes a risk, the player gains a die for the character’s name, clan name, a number of dice equal to his giri rank, a number of dice equal to his virtue rank, two dice for an aspect, two dice for a tag and four dice if he chooses to spend honor. Of course, this all depends on whether or not the ability is pertinent to the risk. For example, if an action is not part of the character’s Giri then he does not gain dice from it. Nor can he gain dice based on his name if it is not applicable to the situation.
Once a player has gathered all the dice possible, he has the option of setting some aside as wagers. Whatever dice he keeps behind are rolled with hopes of hitting a target number of 10. Assuming 10 is hit, the character succeeds. Success allows the player to define one fact and each wager allows the player to define another fact about the action. It should be noted that “success” for the player does not mean success for the character. A player may decide that a success means that the character actually fails, but in an interesting way.
Blood and Honor includes some magic but it is kept very simple, and generally is more of a story element than a mechanic, even though there are three different magic systems incorporated into the game. Magic in Blood and Honor essentially comes down to Wisdom risks made for divinations and blessings which act as one time rules breakers that prevent another character’s wagers from working or otherwise manipulating a dice pool in the game. There are no massive attack or defense spells or flashy incantations, just the simple, yet often devastating small changes that can shift the balance of power from one person to another in a contest.
This is, essentially, the extent of the rules in Blood and Honor. But somehow, even with such a simple concept, the rules somehow end up being muddy. Even with this small amount of math, there are places where I’m not certain what I should be adding together or subtracting. And there are several places where something seems very important but is only mentioned once or in passing and is never revisited or explained.
Season actions in Blood and Honor as well as the holdings seem a bit more elegant than those from Houses of the Blooded. Once more, this game seems as much like a revision of Houses of the Blooded as it does a separate entity.
However, one significant new mechanic in Blood and Honor is the War Rank. The basic assumption behind this mechanic is that, unless clans are making effort to avoid war with each other, natural animosity and lust for each other’s resources will force them into conflict eventually. Simply put he players’ clan has a war rank with each other clan that it interacts with and this rank goes up every season unless the daimyo or players do something to stop it. If the party is not working toward peace, war in inevitable. Once the rank reaches 10 war is declared.
Unfortunately, once this mechanic drives the game to war is declared, the results of the war are determined with a depressingly small series of rolls. Officers (the players) use their skills to gather dice which eventually are combined to make a single roll that determines which side is victorious and the damage they inflict on their opponent.
Of course, this is something of a theme with John Wick’s games. He has stated more than once that he finds complex rules for combat boring. He has no desire to explore the changes in fate and dramatic shifts that can occur in a massive battle. It seems as though he is more interested in all the action that leads up to an epic defining moment and all the repercussions that follow the moment, but has little interest in the moment itself. Perhaps, though, he is simply bored by mechanics.
With the mechanics out of the way, more than a third of the book is dedicated to advice to the players and narrators of the game. Much of this (as he very openly admits) is retreaded information from Houses of the Blooded. In fact, much of it is the exact same text with “Ancient Japanese” or “Samurai” inserted in the place of “Ven.”
That being said, it is truly phenomenal advice. Even games and gamers who are not as focused on storytelling and shared narration can benefit from much of Wick’s advice and his advice to GM’s is especially effective. For a game like Blood and Honor, it is invaluable. Wick is able to get to the real core of this kind of game and show the people reading how to use it to its fullest.
Of course, his advice and his writing are undeniably John Wick’s strong suits. Unlike many game writers, Wick has a talent for linguistic flow and a flair that would be compelling no matter what he wrote. His prose often verges on the point of being poetry. And though he sometimes breaks the rules of grammar or spelling, he does it purposefully rather than out of ignorance. It is always done to make a point or evoke a certain idea or emotion.
In addition to his more general gaming advice, Wick also discusses some issues that are specific to Blood and Honor. For example, he provides both a filmography of classic samurai films and a discussion of numerous historical daimyos and how they would fit into the game to inspire the players and narrators of a Blood and Honor. He also combines both historic and gaming advice when he discusses etiquette within the game world. While he gives only the barest hint of what forms of etiquette existed in historical Japan, he also gives excellent advice about how to easily deal with the issue in the game without getting bogged down in pointless trivialities.
There is also a fairly extensive discussion about the differences and expectations between an Eastern hero and a Western hero to help both narrators and especially players get into the correct mindset for the game. And this discussion is the cornerstone of why Blood and Honor is not a game for me. I like Western heroes. I want to be a Western hero. The idea of fighting for honor and duty instead of honor and chivalry is alien to me. Though I understand the appeal of rabid loyalty, I also admire the idea of being an individual who fights for what he believes in no matter the opinions of those around him rather than fighting for what is his duty.
And, much like Houses of the Blooded, Blood and Honor is very specifically a game of tragedy. I like the idea that though my character will have to persevere through adversity and strive against danger, he has a good chance of killing the dragon and riding off with the princess in the end. In the end of a Blood and Honor game I can’t expect to kill the dragon and ride off into the sunset with the princess. Instead, I can expect to kill the dragon and return the princess to my daimyo so that he can take her as his bride but she’ll end up killing herself on their wedding night when she discovers that he killed her father and I’ll be expected to commit seppuku because I didn’t stop her.
Of course, if you enjoy playing a tragic character, Blood and Honor is a perfect game, and if you liked Houses of the Blooded, you’ll love Blood and Honor. Blood and Honor is a game that has proven that John Wick rightly deserves the almost cultish loyalty that he’s gained from his fans and the respect that he’s earned from the gaming community in general.