Sunday, 25 November 2012

Actual Play: Blood & Honor Session 1

Three of us spent the afternoon playing Blood & Honor today. Billed as a game of "samurai tragedy in Old Japan", this is a game based loosely on Houses of the Blooded which can be described as an attempt to create a rules-lite story game that stays reasonably close to what feudal Japan was actually like without becoming pedantic. It mostly succeeds (although, as an appallingly arrogant Japanese language snob, I can't resist pointing out that much of the Japanese writing which festoons the sidebars is quite obviously written by a non-native using a dictionary).

In any event, I think the game gets the most basic things absolutely right. At the core of it is the idea that the Clan is everything and the individuals are nothing; the characters pool their honour and, ultimately, should be prepared to sacrifice their characters' lives in the name of the greater whole. That seems pretty authentic, and the mechanics generally work towards that goal rather well - although we made something of a hash of parts of the rules given that it was a first run through.

One of the most important elements of this is that the players create their Clan at the start of the game, which gets them hooked into its success right from the beginning. As well as choosing the name, the character of the Daimyo, and what resources it has, this also involve deciding which of the bushido virtues it values most highly, and the character of its samurai.

For instance, my players create the Kurohou Clan (they came up with the endearingly cheesy name "Black Pheonix Clan"). They established it was headed by a mad Daimyo who kept a reclusium in a cave behind a waterfall; that the local peasants are said to consort with demons; that the clan owns an item of pottery owned by the sun goddess, and that they have a famous Noh theatre group. They decided the province the Kurohou own is famous for its okonomiyaki. They specified it had a famous blacksmith, a large Buddhist temple, a gambling den, and extensive rice farms. And they established that the samurai of the clan are renowned for their impulsiveness ("Waiting for Luck is Waiting for Death"), their vengefulness ("Dig Two Graves"), their deceitfulness ("Fog Cannot be Dispelled by a Fan") and their liking for alcohol ("First a Man Takes a Drink"). Patrick is its spy-master or oniwabanNate is its executioner, or kaishaku.

Blood & Honor is all about narrative control: success in dice rolls gives the privilege to narrate what happens in the situation at hand, while failure means the narrator decides. This means that you can effectively let the game run itself if you're willing to improvise - I came up with a very basic starting scenario (a messenger arriving at the castle at dawn) and the players basically made up the rest as events progressed through use of privilege. The narrative ended up involving a plot on the part of two of the Daimyo's courtiers to conspire with the neighbouring Daimyo to overthrow the Kurohou, and covered, inter alia, one player disguising himself as an old woman; the employment of the local yakuza gang as hired thugs; a mass sword fight in front of the altar in the temple in which the kaishaku killed four enemy ronin single-handed; bungled haiku writing offending cute geisha girls; flirtations with a mad seamstress; coded messages; and a final confrontation in which the kaishaku lost his arm and the conspirators escaped while, oh, 20 people were killed in a swathe of blood and spilled entrails.

It was a great deal of fun, above all, even if at various stages we had to wing it with the rules. My favourite rules by far are for combat: you don't roll for initiative; it's just whoever says "strike!" first. And a samurai can kill non-samurai at will - you don't even have to roll for it. This is absolutely in-keeping with the source material and, for rather bloodthirsty groups like mine, fun in itself. (The glee with which unfortunate plebs were disembowelled, eviscerated, hamstrung and mutilated was something to behold.)


  1. You seem to be more interested in mechanisms and modes of roleplaying games than what those things allow us to create.

    Foe example I would see no benefit to using a different rpg to experience most of what you did in your session rather than incorporating the setting and characters and the tone for a while into a long running campaign, but as I said in a recent comment I don't think you, or many DMs, know what a campaign is. [I don't consider DMs who don't create their own setting/adventures/characters to be running a campaign.]

    What can't be incorporated are the new tools for interaction among the participants, and Im suggesting this is what you appear to like most about rpgs. It is not a criticism but I don't see the appeal in hopping around different systems for short spells.

    1. Not in the slightest. I may talk more about mechanisms and modes of roleplaying games on the blog, because I doubt there are many people interested in reading me drone on about what happens in the games I play or run, but that doesn't mean I'm more interested in those mechanisms than what goes on in my games.

      As for "not knowing what a campaign is" - I've run plenty of campaigns made of my own materials that have gone on for years. Nowadays the campaigns tend to be shorter, but that's because variety is the spice of life and I want to fit different types of game in, and I also think it's interesting to shake things up and have a rotating GMship with different games (to be fair to everybody who wants to GM, apart from anything else).

      Finally, the idea that you can just use one game to run one long running campaign is restrictive for no good reason - different games are fun, and I'm interested in running games in different genres, which by definition requires using different systems.

    2. I love B&H, and J.Wick games in general.

      B&H change completely the campaign perspective, I used to be a GM, but with B&H and HOTB I start to play in cooperative-storytelling way...and...WOW many players found themselves good master...

      Now I change all my games in J.Wick mode, and... CONGRATULATION, It's not so easy approach B&H, but It's a new meaning of FUN in RP world.

      (sorry for my awful english, I'm Italian).