To provide some context here:
I’ve GMed a 4-session arc of Houses of the Blooded.
I’ve played in a 1-session Cthulhu setting-hack of Houses of the Blooded.
This isn’t a review, but rather a debrief. I’m going to recall and dump my thoughts regarding my experience with Houses here. I’ll make my best effort to organize those thoughts into a coherent piece, but I won’t be detailing how the mechanics that I mention work. I’m assuming familiarity with how Houses works on the part of the reader. With that, let’s go.
Before I started reading Houses, I’d bandied about the idea of getting a Sorcerer game together. That went out the window as soon as I started reading Houses and digging around online. The mechanics excited me, specifically the Risk & Wager mechanics and how that ties into the 3 parts of Aspects (and I’d never played FATE). I’d also bought into the setting, and to what the purported character role was in the game. I was raring to go, and I got a group together that was pretty excited to play it.
I’ll say right now that the most fun I had with the game was in that first session. There was me as GM and two players. In later games, we had four players and myself, and I preferred the tighter focus of two players, mostly because of everything that flies around in this game. About which, more later.
So I dove in with bare hands and feet. Here’s what I think now, after giving the game the fairest shot I could.
Setting, and how it’s delivered.
First, the setting. I still enjoy it in theory. The only real problem with the fiction of it is that there’s no baked-in situation. That is, there’s not much I don’t like about it as a setting. However, the place it holds as a part of the game and the text is problematic for me. You get it in a big info-dump at the beginning of the book. Now, I had great fun reading this and imagining how it would work in play. Problem is, if you want it to be present in play, everyone’s got to read it. And remember it all. And adhere to it. And the game mechanics don’t help you. It’s just gotta be brought in. The theme of the game is reinforced by the mechanics, but the setting is divorced from it. They sleep in different rooms. This is the traditional model for setting, and it just doesn’t work for me, apparently.
It’s work, not play, and leads to those of us who know the book and want to play by the “rules” of the setting correcting those of us who haven’t read the one-hundred-page dump four times, which isn’t fun for anyone. I didn’t want to believe it while I was reading, but play has borne out the truth of Judd’s statement that there is just too much setting in this book.
The free-spinning cogs of play.
Second, the mechanics. Specifically, the core mechanic of making Risks & Wagers. This is task-resolution that allows players to establish facts about the world and the here-and-now situation if their roll succeeds. Very cool, on the face. Wick totally had me sold on this one. So simple, so familiar, and yet all of a sudden the players have agency! All of a sudden the game is about them and what they want! Immediate buy-in. And you know, there was some of that in play. Players (and myself) really enjoyed making Wagers and establishing facts.
The problem is, facts seldom get reincorporated. I come up with something I think is really cool—“The killer was my father!”—and other people may or may not riff on that fact, and it may or may not become important, because everyone else has Wagers that they want to spend on their cool stuff. They don’t have to reincorporate what I just said. Some things do get reincorporated, but not nearly enough to make your facts feel meaningful. It’s not simply a matter of selfish players, either. It’s that there are too many facts getting tossed out there. Players are making Risks and gaining Wagers all the time, and in a finite story only a certain number of things can be important. This leads to a very hit-or-miss feel with wagers, and over time that’s made me less excited with how they work.
There is a nice feedback loop when players get Style for defining cool facts, thus getting to shine a little and have their fact stick out to the group. In the end, though, this isn’t enough to keep me enthusiastic about the mechanics, which I discuss more below.
Bits and bobs.
This game has a lot of them. All of which look real shiny, and most of which are fun to mess about with. But the many moving parts in Houses of the Blooded don’t feel cohesive or like they’re driving toward anything. They are fiddly knobs that have fun elements, but seem more like distractions than anything else.
Basically, players end up having a bunch of things on their sheets that just don’t come up in play. I’m a fan of rather tight, focused play, and I didn’t feel supported in that regard by Houses, though I feel I had reason to believe that I would be supported in that way (more later).
What’s the point of having Suaven & Blessings & Artifacts & Rituals & Contacts & Season Actions & Vassals when on a tiny fraction of these things actually impact play? Only so many can be a part of actual play because (obviously, perhaps) we have limited time at the table and the players are constantly throwing facts that I as GM have to riff off of (which can be incredibly fun) and I simply can’t bring in all this stuff. Nor can the players.
Furthermore, what am I supposed to bring in? What’s my job as GM, here? There’s no Burning Wheel-like advice to “push against those beliefs!” It’s all “in my prep and in the limited amount of time we have, do I threaten Player A’s Vassal? Or frame a situation involving Player B’s Suaven, since he put so many Devotion points into it? Well, Player C has 5 Beauty and an Aspect about art, so I should push the game in that direction, too," etc. It just feels bloated, and I feel lost.
Season Actions and long-term play.
Season Actions, too, while a fun mini-game, proved less-than-useful in guiding play at the macro level. I got the impression from the text that Season Actions are supposed to be grist for the mill of long-term play, but there’s no advice on how to make that happen beyond offhand comments like, “You can have the group go attempt to quell trouble in a Region that became Troubled in the last Season Action, if you want.” I would have liked to have know how Season Actions drive play. Or if in fact they do. And if they don’t drive play or impact it much, what are they doing there?
Go here, tell this story versus go anywhere, tell any story.
The text read as less-than-polished, but the game seemed on a higher level than that. After my play experiences, I’ve revised that opinion: Myself and some fellow players came to the conclusion that it feels like a beta playtest. There are many cool things in the game, but there’s a lack of unity and coherence. I know it’s not the game for me, but perhaps that’s because it’s simply not made for me, right? Well, I feel like I was promised something that the game didn’t deliver. In the text, Wick pays lip service to the “aboutness” of many indie game designs, and discusses how he designed his game around Jared Sorensen’s Big Three Questions (“what is my game about? how is it about that? what behaviors are rewarded and punished?”). However, in practice it’s much more a broad toolbox of a game than the focused experience it’s marketed as. I think in his “return to big game design,” Wick just added things to make the game big and broad, but not better.
And that's that.
Though the tone of this is less than enthusiastic, I don’t hate Houses of the Blooded. I had some great moments and even some good hours with it over the course of my play. This is the most I’ve played any single roleplaying game, and, well, I’m disappointed. I’m not even frustrated, just disappointed. I was incredibly enthusiastic about the game, but on the other side of five sessions my excitement is gone. I don’t really want to play it ever again.