Sunday, October 7, 2012

Tommy's Take on Blood Games II

Another review from my pre-blogging days...back when I ever thought I'd get to have a Buffy game...clash bowley's Blood Games II, a modern horror game with its own setting, using a similar system and set-up to his alternate history RPG On Her Majesty's Arcane Service. Enjoy!

One thing I’ve discovered from the reviews I have submitted to for Horror Week is that I don’t like the “capsule review” approach, at least, not for me. Unfortunately, with outside responsibilities, I haven’t had the time to play or run anything in some time.

I mention this, because I think that Blood Games II is a game that probably needs to be played and not just read, and I just haven’t had the time to do that. BGII falls firmly in the “modern horror” genre, which has been tackled by a great many games, including the World of Darkness, Witchcraft, Chill, Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel, Nightlife and I’m sure there’s more that I’m missing.

This review is based on the PDF version of the game, available from RPG Now, but BGII is also available in print through Lulu. The PDF is functional and searchable, with bookmarks and comment features available. Now, I don’t have a lot of experience with commercial PDFs these days, but I do hear that people quite like things like that.

The Setting
Waaaaay back in the day, humankind was prey for all manner of supernatural creatures including, but not limited to, vampires. Enoch, a being known by many names, including Thoth, Quetzalecouatl and Prometheus, brought humans knowledge, religion and magic. Humans took what he gave them, beat back the darkness, and became the dominant force on Earth.
As humans moved further along the path of progress, and became less reliant on magic, a nearly palpable force called The Nullity developed. The Nullity, essentially an absence of magic (good or evil), spread across the world. Shortly before World War I, a pack of demons still smarting over the drubbing humans had given the supernatural emerged, manipulating events and bringing about the first World War. The atrocities of World War began to open the gates for more and more supernatural beings to emerge, and the horrors of World War II only continued that. The world was on a slippery slope, and the Creatures of the Night slipped back into their playground. As the Nullity weakened, interest and study in fringe religions grew as well, and humanity began to rediscover the ways that were originally used to counter the darkness millennia ago. The religious forces of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Pagan belief are now charged with making war on the darkness, but making it quietly: If they draw it out into the open, belief in the supernatural will grow, and the Nullity will further weaken, thus eliminating the greatest defense mankind has against the Darkness.

Not a bad hook. Similar enough to other similar settings, but it does provide a nice rationale for keeping things on the down low. If the PCs bring too much attention to things, it escalates them dramatically.

Party Structure
A handy section on party structure follows, detailing the various character types available in the game in the context of a PC party. The game assumes you will largely be using supernaturally empowered characters, but does allow for “monsters” like vampires (who are never good, just sometimes “not evil”), cambions (magically cursed half-vampires who are in danger of falling), half-angels and immortals, as well as just normal humans who have seen things they can’t explain away. Options even allow for a party full of vampires intent on following their own agenda that may include conflict with hunters on the Path of Light.

Character Creation
BGII takes a stance on character creation/advancement that I’m not a fan of, in theory: As you age, skills and wealth improve, while attributes decrease. And aging is unavoidable, as the game assumes that each adventure is a year in the life, even if said adventure doesn’t take up a whole year in game time. For this reason, everyone is strongly encouraged to make their characters approximately the same age, so that they’ll age together, wealth increasing together, skills increasing together, attributes decreasing together, etc. Since I’ve yet to see it in play, I have no idea where its too unbalancing to have, say, a 40 year old and a 17 year old in the same group (ala Buffy and Giles, for instance), but if it does turn into a huge balance issue, that is kinda disappointing. The weirdest quirk of this is the whole idea of, say, running an adventure, aging everyone a few years and skipping ahead, then running the next. That may actually work in practice, it just seems like it would probably be one of the harder sells for the people I usually game with.

Character creation has two methods: Directed and template. With directed, you’re given a pool of points (44) that you divide up between strength, coordination, agility, endurance, and charisma, maxing out at 15, then divide 180 points between IQ, Magic and Lifestyle. A chart is used to show what your actual Magic attribute, IQ score and Lifestyle are, based off of your allocation. From there, its largely a lifepath, starting from age 10 and moving to whatever age your GM told you to make your character. You start with middle school, move to high school, on to college (if you choose) and so forth, gaining skills (and possibly attribute bonuses) as you go. Once schooling is concluded, you move on to BGII’s career system until you reach your start date. At age 34, physical deterioration begins.

The Template method supplies a series of templates that show the schooling progression and skill selection, up to age 21 and geared for specific roles or professions, such as Actor, Priest, Cop, Drifter, etc. The list of professions is pretty extensive, but guidelines are included for making your own, in case you decide that its not inclusive enough for your needs.
I generally like Lifepaths, so I have no hate there…but I’m not sure about the “everyone’s the same age, and there’s one adventure a year”, but I’m willing to be convinced. However, ripping it out also requires implanting a whole new advancement system, as that’s how advancement is handled.

Player Options
Here we learn about Half-Angels and Immortals. Half-Angels are descendants of Angels and not immediate offspring, and have a variety of special skills and powers, such as wings, the ability to create flaming weapons from thin air, telepathy, invisibility and more. Half-Angels also have a unique trait: they are always born twins, one with light wings and one with dark. They are also meant to be so rare that if two players want to be half-angels, the rulebook says that they are to be twins, as a half-angel rarely ever meets another that isn’t their twin.

Immortals are people who have been killed, and then lived again. They cannot be killed, but they don’t have any other special abilities, save one: they can never gain any more skill points, but they can exchange ranks in skills at a one for one basis.

Characters who are half-angels or immortal cannot have a Path, which are discussed below. There doesn’t seem to be any inherent balance here, as half-angels are chock full of powers, and no real drawback other than they can’t have a Path. Immortals, well, they just can’t die…a bonus that’s actually kind of negated by the game system, as its touted within the book as being a system that’s rarely lethal. However, immortals are presumably immune to the effects of aging, at least, so one person could, theoretically, play the same character alongside generations of another player’s characters.

Hunters are holy warriors imbued with strength enough to combat a vampire by either a Coven or a Magus. They get stat boosts plus a pool of Luck points that they can use to tip fate their way in hairy situations. All chosen hunters most be of a strong physical AND moral fiber.
Cambions are people who have agreed to be turned into half-vampires by a Coven, usually for the purpose of revenge on a supernatural creature. They are almost a parody of Hunters, abominations originally created by Dark Circles, but the forces of Light learned how to create Cambions while still living their humanity (on some level, at least) intact. Cambions have several of the powers of vampires, but are also filled with a vampiric bloodlust that can quickly lead them on the path to damnation if they slip.

Witches are Wiccan practitioners of Witchcraft, and are also responsible for the creation of Hunters. They can also make charms, cast spells and divine the future.

Esotericists are the bookworm mages, using ancient texts to cast their spells.

The Magus calls on one of the Archangels for their magic. In-game, the Archangel and the Magus choose one another, and a Magus can only follow one Archangel. The areas of influence granted the Magus are defined by their Archangel. For instance, Michael grants power over life, while Uriel governs fire and Aneal grants power over love. A Magus can also raise a Hunter, much like a witches coven.

Templars are holy warriors granted the ability to use certain miracles in their pursuit of evil. However, every time a Templar is made, a demon escapes from Hell, and the Templar shares a link with that demon. The core doesn’t mention what happens should a Templar destroy his demon, but one would assume it should, at least, be the culmination of a long campaign.

Voudon priests can invoke the Loa for abilities, and can create and control zombies. These are zombies in the true, undead sense…though the Voudon priest does restore their soul to the body first. The other trappings of the Voudon priest are present, such as voodoo dolls and their usage.

Turned vampires are vampires who hate what they’ve become enough to hunt other vampires. Blood Games II insists there is no such thing as a “good” vampire, and stresses that a vampire in a player group should only be an alliance of convenience for both sides.

Normal humans get a section as well. BGII says that normal humans should always try to explain away the supernatural, until they are confronted with something they cannot. At this point, they are to make a roll to disbelieve and, if that fails, they have to make a Test of Faith to come to terms with it…should THAT fail, their hold on sanity slips away and reality unravels for the norm. Should they accept it, and the GM so desire, the book suggests giving them minor psychic “quirks” that are seemingly random and uncontrolled by the player…such as hearing voices from God, speaking to animals, faith healing, etc.

The game does do a nice job of making each “class” feel different. Esotericists don’t feel like Witches who don’t feel like Voudon priests who don’t feel like Magus…and none of them feel like Hunters. Probably the closest is Cambions and vampires, and even then that’s not true. Some good, distinct ideas are presented here for player choices.

Skills are bonuses to your attributes, presented as extra dice. For example, if you have a Coordination of 12 and you’re shooting a gun, you would roll a single d20 and try to get equal to or less than 12. If you have three ranks of Firearms, that gives you three additional dice, so you roll four d20s, and every 12 or less is a success. A large skill list is present, from the aforementioned Firearms to Stash (which allows you to hide items) to Leadership to Goad.

However, skills can be used unskilled, that just guarantees that you won’t hit more than a single success. The other perk to buying up skills is that every five levels grants you a Level of Mastery. What does Mastery do? Why, each level grants you a free reroll on an action. The skill list is a tad larger than I, personally, care for…but I didn’t immediately see anything completely superfluous on the list, like Witchcraft’s Beautician skill.

Magic is covered (kinda) here, with the Laws of Correspondence: The closer the caster is to an object being targeted, the more effective the spell. Laying a curse on someone who’s not around? Zap a hair sample!

The various religions relevant to the game are discussed here, with major beliefs, holidays and the like broken down for Christianity, Judaism, Wicca and Zoroastrians. This section also tackles Tests of Faith, where a religious character can try to use their faith to force a supernatural creature back. The downside is then these rolls fail: having your faith shaken like that is never a good thing in this game.

Tests of Will are included instead, in case you want to play that atheist badass who doesn’t want to be completely nerfed when facing a demon for the first time.

Rules for possession are also covered here as well, for whatever reason, and include rules for both resisting and breaking possession.

This chapter is the system itself. A purely mechanical chapter, it is thus the driest read in the book, but that’s to be expected. As indicated above, the game mechanic is a d20 roll-under system, and one of the first games I’ve seen that even uses multiple d20s. Combat is also enclosed in this chapter, and the system has some interesting bits for combat. Levels of Mastery, as mentioned in the skills section above, apply to combat as multiple attacks. For instance, if you have Martial Arts of +10, that’s two Levels of Mastery for three attacks per round! Initiative is simple: roll a d20, low roll goes first. However, a player can trade speed for effect. If you roll, say, a five, then you can sacrifice a die from your pool to lower your initiative to two, or you can raise it to eight and add a die to your pool. The game isn’t completely clear on how many times this can be done per turn, though.

An option is present here for splitting the pools on actions, such as when a character only has, say, one attack but two opponents. I think it’s a good approach that especially allows a lesser skilled character (without Levels of Mastery) the opportunity to multitask if need be, but doesn’t let them trample upon the more skilled characters by doing what they can do. The usual suspects are present here as well: armor rules, cover, etc. Hit Points are largely covered by Constitution, which is determined by adding all your physical attributes together and multiplying them by five. Similarly, for complex tasks, the game tells you to assign a number of Solution Points, which you whittle away at like you do Constitution in combat.

All in all, I like the mechanic. Allowing for faster or slower actions in exchange for shifting you effectiveness up and down is kinda cool, and once you get used to rolling low instead of high, it seems like it would be a perfectly viable game mechanic. I’m just not convinced that it is a good enough mechanic that I would choose it over something I already have down pat, such as Cinematic Unisystem.

NPCs get a whole chapter, complete with pre-made stock NPCs, to quick-roll charts for mildly developed NPCs to discussion of “permanent NPCs”…the guys that are actually going to matter for more than a scene or two.

I’m always a fan of a good random-roll chart, so I welcome the charts for NPCs…a few rolls, followed by making sense of the results. More importantly, I’m just happy this is in here. If nothing else, it can provide some good benchmarks for various levels of background characters, but I’ve rarely seen a game that didn’t benefit from such a list. I don’t wanna have to stop and suss out a cop or a mugger most of the time, ya know?

A healthy selection of monsters is included in this book, running a wide gamut from spirits to werewolves to demons to wizards. Nosferatu are present and explained as vampires who couldn’t escape from their graves and driven into an animalistic state, while even skeptics are listed, as they can impact the use of magic around them, diminishing its effectiveness.
This section does an admirable job covering the expected monsters for such a game, tossing in a nice surprise or two (skeptics come to mind), leading me to actually believe they wanted BGII to be self-contained. There are enough baddies to work with, as well as provide inspiration for your own creations.

Vampire get their own chapter and honestly, at first, that was a huge turn-off for me. I’m kinda tired of vampires, and I’m certainly not interested in seeing them get the main event treatment. With this game, however, that’s almost like complaining that Deadlands has cowboys in it, as the game gets its very name for the feeding habits of vampires…each has their own “blood game”, where they Heroes who only feed on those that threaten the innocent, Ravers that stalk clubs, Bottom Feeders that feast on the homeless and so on. Vampires are the primary threat to humanity, and the ultimate antithesis of the Paths: A vampire is someone who was either a very bad person in life, or who wallowed in despair, and refused to move on upon death. They are selfish, anti-social creatures in the afterlife, and they only become moreso as they age. After 700 years, they shed their flesh altogether and become beings called Ancestrals, becoming even more powerful, but also more withdrawn from the world.

This chapter also includes rules for making older vampire characters, as well as providing a list of careers and apprenticeships for playing anytime before 1850, just in case you need some pirates or highwaymen in your Blood Games!

I like their take on vampires, though I’m sure its not wholly unique, it is more in line with the Dracula style vampire, instead of the clan groupings of the World of Darkness games or the cannon-fodder vampires of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Guns ‘n’ Ammo
For the gunmonkeys, a large selection of weapons are present, from flintlocks to machine guns and katanas to broadswords. BGII is designed for modern play, but has several nods to play in other eras, and they did see fit to provide the armory for that. I’m not a huge stats nut for my weapons, but I do like a game that covers its bases, and this one does a fine job.

GMing Blood Games
The last full chapter of the game encompasses actually running it, with a few tips and ideas for doing so. The author makes the suggestion of playing in your home town like a great many modern games do, a suggestion that has always gone over like a lead balloon with my players, though. My favorite suggestion is generational play, which the game is almost designed to run, what with the “one adventure equals a year” set-up. Not the most indepth GMing chapter I’ve read, but not the worst, either. Even still, there’s probably not much there that’s going to be new to most GMs that read this book.

Optional Rules
The last chapter is actually just a selection of optional rules, covering sniping, traits (like advantages & disadvantages) and Plot Points.

Final Thoughts
I like horror, and I like horror games. Blood Games II does an impressive job of trying to be a fully functional, self-contained RPG. There’s one supplement available covering Dark Paths as well as an adventure, but the game is truly useable with just this book. For that, Clash Bowley and crew should be commended. I like the layout, as the pages are generally single column with a little sideboard heading to the left of the paragraph that sometimes serves as a description of the paragraph and sometimes a sidebar. Each chapter is headed up with a piece of fiction that I have to admit I didn’t read. I tried, but it didn’t grip me. The art is generally spotty, but pretty sparse, so it doesn’t really detract from the book. The game covers enough common ground that it feels familiar, but has enough hooks that it differentiates itself from other games in the genre.

However, there are some issues. From a reader’s standpoint, there’s nothing balancing the various character types…a half-angel looks to be a truly formidable character, and the cambion, statistically, just appears to be a watered down vampire. From my reading, it looks as though group cooperation is expected to provide the balance, which will work for some groups, but not others. My other major complaint, is that while the StarPool system certainly seems solid and has its charm, I can’t honestly say that it gives me any reason to move away from a system I already know and try to convince my (hypothetical) Buffy players that they need to learn a whole new game system to hunt monsters in. However, if you’re not married to a system, there’s not a reason to give the system a go. Even if you are locked into another game system, much of the individual pieces present in this book could be lifted and dropped into another setting…a Hunter would make for a nice option for a guy that wanted to be a Slayer, but didn’t want to play a girl, you know.

The game has a few odd organizational issues, I would have placed weapons in the chapter following combat, and would have placed the possession rules alongside the discussion of spirits, for instance, but the book does include a fully functional table of contents and index, so I can forgive that. There were a few points in the rules where I had to reread things because it didn’t quite make sense, but I won’t completely fault the writing, as I’ve been prone to distraction at times during my prep for this review (a 3 month old will do that to you).

Blood Games II is worth checking out if you’re a fan of the Occult Horror genre. Either you’ll find a new game, or you’ll find an idea or two to rip out. Be warned, the covers are black, and are going to kill your printer if you do a straight print off the PDF, but the interior is probably the most printer-friendly commercial PDF I’ve encountered thus far (no black borders! Yay!).