Saturday, April 24, 2010

Houses of the Blooded

I'm here in Albany, NY, visiting George Vasilakos and his family for a week or so. Which means I'm hanging out in George's game store, Zombie Planet. Basically, I'm sitting in what amounts to being a giant game library. The store is truely impressive, stocking as much as a store can possibly hold within its physical space. Sometimes, I think it's the TARDIS of game stores, with an interior volume larger than its external space (and if you have to ask what a TARDIS is, then why are you here?)

One of the games I've been intensely interested in seeing is Houses of the Blooded. John Wick has been a friend of mine since my early days in the hobby game business. I always looked forward to seeing John at conventions, because he's got a great energy and enthusiasm, and because we'd always have great conversations. What's really remarkable with John is that we pretty much fell into a rhythm whenever we got together. He was Rowan to my Martin. Sammy Davis to my Dean Martin. When I got to work with him at AEG, going to work every morning was something to look forward to.

When I heard about his newest game, I eagerly ran down to the Complete Strategist in Manhattan to find it. Those of you in the know know that the Complete Strategist is sort of like fabled Camelot, a magical place reputed to carry every game ever published. It was that, once. I remember finding a 20-year old copy of Empire of the Petal Throne in a pile of books on the floor. Sadly, those days are long gone, because when I asked for Houses, they didn't have it in stock. Which is odd, because Complete Strategist is also a distributor, which means they should have it in stock. No, I had to go to Zombie Planet, in bumblefuck Colonie (a suburb of Albany) to see it. (And no, John didn't send me a swag copy either. *hint*hint*)

What makes John's newest game so great is that John is an artist. John could have been a Jackson Pollock, if he painted. He could have been a Michael Moorcock, if he wrote novels. But John has chosen to be an artist in the field of game design. Houses shows this.

The game tells the story of the ven, a passionate people who ruled the world before the Atlanteans and Hyperboreans. It is his ruthless devotion to promoting his vision of their decadent culture, their power struggles and their devotion to romance and revenge. He treats his subject matter as though the ven were real, that he'd discovered their existence through research, as though he were writing a game about the Scythians or Eskimos. He even provides a bibliography of academic scholarship into the ven. He creates an evocative world in which Lady MacBeth would not only feel at home, she'd seem ordinary.

What really impresses me about John's design is that he writes in a breezy, conversational style. He addresses the reader. He writes the way he speaks. So his enthusiasm for his creation reaches out from the page and grabs you. The second thing that impresses me is that John explains his rationale for things. He lifts the curtain on his game and lets you peek inside. He says, in effect, I did this because of that. It's unpretentious and makes the reading enjoyable.

But the reason I like this game appears on page 8. John sat down and asked himself some questions. Or rather, he set out some objectives. He wanted players to play characters who were the antithesis of Dungeons & Dragons (and consequently many other games out there). In most games, you play wandering nomads -- people who are far from the center of power. These characters go out to dangerous places and fight monsters and steal their stuff, all in an effort to climb the social ladder. The ven, however, are the movers and shakers; they wouldn't be caught dead in a dungeon. They're the nobility; they have kingdoms to run. They hire others, vassals, to do the dirty work.

The rest of the game is designed with this purpose in mind. There are rules for romance, betrayal, revenge... and rewards characters for acting the right way -- Passionate but short-sighted, loyal but treacherous, the iron fist in a velvet glove. I don't want to go too deeply into the rules, partially because I haven't gotten too deep into them myself, partially because it's not the mechanics of the game that impress me. It's John's ruthless devotion to his vision.

This is not to say that the game is perfect. I found his referenced to orcs (sorry, orks) took me right out of the fictional narrative. And his reference to a scholarly publication from Miskatonic University in the bibliography, while cute, seemed one wink to the reader too many. The one rules quibble I have, so far, are the attributes. I find them a little too granular and a little too vague (or imprecise).

Also, when I first saw the Houses of the Blooded website, I assumed the game was set in the modern age. The ven, I thought, were a secret race hidden amongst us; sort of like Vampire: the Masquerade without the vampires. But it's not. It's a quasi-medieval setting, more akin to Ars Magica. Frankly, I like my vision better. I want to play this game, and am wiling to do the work to modify it to my conception. That's not damning to John's work, but rather a compliment.

In the end, as a game designer, I'm impressed with John Wick's work. It's a joy to read, and I appreciate his ambition. He set out to do something, and he swings for the fences. It's as though Michael Moorcock (one of my favorite authors) set out to design the Anti-D&D in the same way Elric was the Anti-Conan. It's good that he got back to designing Big Games.

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