Houses of the Bungled

Houses of the Blooded is John Wick’s self-proclaimed attempt at an “anti-D&D” – a fantasy RPG which turns the assumptions of Dungeons & Dragons on its head, so rather than playing a group of rootless mercenaries watching each others’ backs as you seek fame and fortune, you play a clique of well-established inhuman nobles who will gladly shank each other in the name of revenge and romance. (In other words, it’s an attempt to implement on tabletop the sort of action you get in some types of highly political, player-vs.-player-happy LARPs.)

So far, so good. However, there’s two major issues with the core book which make it impossible for me to engage with and invest in the game, despite having given it an honest try in my old Monday evening group. The first is the manner of presentation of the book; the second is the slipshod game mechanics and the way they don’t actually support what Wick wants them to support.

Let’s discuss the presentation first. Wick offers this book very much in a conversational tone of voice, and an unfiltered one at that. For some that might be enough to turn them off already; Wick has a very contentious style in his writing which some people simply find grating. Certainly, I find that occasionally he can get extremely patronising, veering between the assumption that the reader he is addressing is a reasonable person who can play with others happily and concentrate on the game appropriately on the one hand, and the assumption that he’s addressing utter children who don’t deserve the glory of his game on the other. (For instance, the bit about how you don’t get style points for reading other game books or fiddling with your phone at the table is a classic example of Wick talking down to the reader.)

Even if you are able to stomach that, however, another hurdle is the fact that Wick absolutely loads the book with these conversational asides and essays on why the rules are the way they are, or what he considers to be best practice, or whatever to an absolutely Gygaxian extent. This admittedly can be useful for the purpose of learning the rules for the first time, but it’s less useful in actual play, when you want to cut through the cruft and get to the actual rule.

A particularly irksome stylistic feature is the way that setting information is smeared thinly throughout the book rather than concentrated nearly in one place. This is part of a wider conceit that the ven, the magical people you play as, were an actual culture in prehistory whose records have been archaeologically discovered, and which Wick has drawn on for the sake of writing the game. As fun a conceit as that is, that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of ven-specific information is spread out throughout the book here and there in such a way that a) it gets in the way of rules explanations and b) it’s tricky finding some half-remembered bit of ven lore you want to draw on unless you can remember what entirely irrelevant thingamummy it had been tied to.

On the subject of the game mechanics, they are fatally hampered by a massive disconnect between what Wick actually wants them to be used for and the way they are actually set up. A minor example of this is the way Wick swipes the Aspects mechanics from Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment, AKA FUDGE Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment, AKA FATE. The problem he has is that Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment really isn’t set up for player-vs.-player action to the extent that Wick wants to include in Blooded, so Wick becomes extremely fussy about Aspects – the things you can invoke and compel them over have to be really specific, and part of the game is supposed to be the frustrating process of figuring out other people’s compel triggers when they are trying to keep them secret and they can be so specific that you’d likely never guess without strong hints being dropped. Indeed, it feels like more ink is spilled on what makes a good or bad Aspect criterion than on how Aspects are used.

Except at the same time Wick, in explaining why he has to go narrow with the Aspects – namely, to stop players spamming them constantly – also suggests that you could just go broad with them, and even suggests that this is his preferred method of playing the game, except he doesn’t offer any textual support for that so unless you are familiar with Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment you’re left high and dry when it comes to implementing that.

What’s even more infuriating though is that late in the book Wick witters on about how he’s designed the game with the assumption that participants are generally going to act in good faith and can be trusted to do so, rather than attempting to use the game mechanics to restrain the min-maxing and system-breaking of people not acting according to the spirit of the thing. This is demonstrably untrue, because he restricted and went narrow with Aspects by default precisely because he didn’t think players could be trusted with broad Aspects.

An even greater howler lies in the basic action resolution system. Wick claims that this is not about success or failure, but about who gets to narrate the results of a risky action, so if you succeed at a roll you get to narrate and if you fail the GM (or whoever beat you in a contested roll) gets to narrate. Crucially, you could absolutely choose to narrate that your character fails, or the GM could say that your character succeeds if they wanted.

However, all of the factors which would tend to nudge you towards success in a roll are based on your in-character advantages and disadvantages – attributes, relevant Aspects, stuff like that. The result of this is that hitting the target number on the roll has nothing to do with, say, how long it’s been since you had any narrative spotlight time, or who the other participants would prefer to see narrating the outcome of this risk, but it’s based on all the in-world factors that suggest in-character success or failure.

There is therefore immediately a dissonance between the declared purpose of the resolution mechanic and how it actually works – if it worked the way Wick wanted it to, you wouldn’t consider a character’s attributes or Aspects until you’d already made the roll, when you’d need to look at them to decide how to narrate what happens. Even if you were able to set this aside in considering your narration, the fact is that as a result of how rolls work narrating a failure on a roll that hits the target number, or narrating a success on a roll that doesn’t make it, is going to feel deeply unnatural.

As a result of all this, it would be very easily to – on purpose or by accident – just slide into using the action resolution system here not as a narrative sharing mechanism but as a much more traditional “GM narrates results, you succeed if you hit the target number and fail if you don’t” approach. In fact, not only would it be easy to do this, but it would actually fit the parameters of the system much better if you played it that way. For Wick to simply fail to notice this is a major game design oversight, and results in a game which makes various grand promises but doesn’t actually deliver on them, and works better if you don’t try to deliver them.

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