As you’ve probably noticed, the Intwischa crew has a fairly new infatuation with Houses of the Blooded (HotB). HotB is what you’d get if you fired up the pop culture melting pot, and tossed in generous portions of Game of Thrones, FATE, Dangerous Liaisons, and most of Europe’s history prior to World War I.
Chase has already meditated a bit on how he’s adjusted to running a game in this specialized system, and I’m here to tell you that playing in that system has taken some adjusting as well. More importantly, today I’m here to give you some advice on how to arm yourself as a player when entering the Houses of the Blooded.
All of the following tips stem from one twisted root: the fight for narrative control. HotB is less about mechanics and monsters, and more about who gets to tell the story next. Traditionally, this isn’t an issue: most role playing experiences flow from the game master to the players in large part, and the GM has the final word both in and out of the game.
As Chase observed in his article, however, the GM in a game of Houses of the Blooded doesn’t so much steer the action as he does herd it. Once he opens the gate on the story and the players, the GM has far less control, at least over the narrative, than in most traditional RPG settings. This control isn’t lost, but rather transferred to the HotB players.
Now imagine getting on a roller coaster where each individual car has its own steering wheel and hand brake. As you sit down, you can see some of the track in front of you, but after the first few twists and turns the path you’ll take is obscured from view. In addition, rather than one dedicated route, the coaster has multiple spurs it could diverge onto– depending on who’s steering at he time, or how hard your fellow passengers are riding their brakes.
If all you’ve ever done is sit down, buckle up, and roll to see if you stay in the coaster, being able to direct its path or even lay some new tracks of your own is a totally foreign concept. Here’s a few things that I’ve learned on my first few rides.
Tip #1: Treat Every Character as an NPC
HotB isn’t about telling the story, it’s about telling your story. The other players are there to tell theirs as well. The moment you forget this fact is the moment you become an antagonist in someone else’s tale, instead of the protagonist of your own. This isn’t to say that others can’t assist your character in their efforts, or that players can’t coordinate their plots. Just as history is written by the victors, however, HotB is written by the player who can exert the most control.
For that reason, a player in HotB could negotiate certain treaties and contracts with other players. So long as they benefit both parties, they’re likely to remain intact. However, the mechanics of HotB are such that it is possible for a player to affect another character within the scope of the campaign. By gaining ‘privilege’ (the ability to state the outcome of a particular challenge or action as decided by dice rolls), a savvy player can shape the reality of everyone’s characters so that they are forced to conform in some way to the plot chosen by that player.
This practice of controlling the reality of the game versus controlling the characters directly is a subtle art, and the consequences of failure may be that you become the antagonist in everyone’s story line. In order to master this art, you really have to master Tip #2.
Tip #2: State the Destination, Not the Vehicle
This advice actually combines two philosophies, one personal and one more public.
First, as a player: When your character takes an action or makes a statement, confidently declare what the end result will be. Remember, success in general and ‘privilege’ in particular grants you control over the game’s reality. Exercise that control to its fullest extent, not just half way to where you want it to take you. Here’s an example.
After a brief scuffle with my character in the balcony of a theater, a masked assailant attempts to flee through a side exit. When my turn comes up, I declare that I will signal my personal guard to stop him outside. In more traditional games, this is a necessary step; it would be followed by a test or check to see if my signal is heard, if my guards can reach the exit in time, or if the assailant’s reflexes allow him to react faster than my loyal troops.
In HotB, however, when your turn comes for control of the story, you’ve already succeeded. There is no Reflex save, Initiative roll, or other traditional test. All I needed to state was the end result: “My vigilant guards are waiting outside the exit for the cowardly fiend.” I haven’t affected my opponent so much as I’ve affected his reality. And just like that, I steer the roller coaster onto a different track; if it runs him down in the process, so be it!
This dictum also ties in to Tip #1, especially as it relates to maintaining a careful balance with other players. When stating truths that affect the game in a way that you expect (or intend) will prove troublesome to the other players, one must find a way to alter the physical reality instead of the personal one. That is to say, rather than claiming that “Haroon has been disarmed” (personal reality) one might explain that “all weapons were confiscated at the gates” (physical reality). The destination is still achieved; Haroon has no weapon with which to fight the duel. The vehicle, however, is far more universal, throwing everyone the same unexpected curve.
Tip #3: Take Notes
Have you ever read a book where names or locations were so confusing that it was nearly impossible to follow the plot? Story lines can often prove difficult to follow with just one author; imagine the challenge of following a story with narrative control being shared by several of them.
For this reason, more so than in any other game I’ve played, HotB demands that players take notes. Every time the GM or another player introduces a past event, a current condition, or the name of a future contact you will want to record this information somewhere. The more details you retain, the greater the tools at your disposal when your time comes to shape the game’s reality. Knowing the name of a character’s sister or the location of a suitable meeting place can be more valuable than stacks of gold in this game. It may just allow you to lay down some new track for this wild ride you’re on, taking the story in a direction of your choosing!
Tip #4: Run With the Ball
The plot line of your HotB game is a very fluid situation; because narrative control shifts from scene to scene, you as a player must be adaptable to what’s gone before. When it comes to the changes that other players have introduced, don’t ignore them– incorporate them! Connect what you want to what’s already happened, and try to bridge the gap if one exists.
Let’s tie this in to Tip #2 above. While they were steering the story, someone else established that all weapons have been confiscated at the entrance to this gathering. This puts a big kink in your plan to win the duel you’ve just declared against a rival. Since you’ve made a very public challenge to this rogue, you can’t simply call a “time out” and go look for a sword. You could, however, use your turn to remind everyone of your years of training in unarmed combat. (You may have to burn a Style point- roughly equivalent to a FATE point- but that’s a small price to pay.) You could even go so far as to claim an advantage in this fight, since your opponent is unaccustomed to battling an unarmed foe. Your desired destination, of fighting a duel you can ultimately win, is still reached. You just had to take a different route to reach it.
Chase mentioned the danger of a one-track mind in his “GM view” article as well. If you can only commit to one course of action, and someone changes the direction of the game while they have control, you will swiftly find yourself at the mercy of the plot. In other words, your character’s section of the roller coaster is going to plunge off a cliff, and you’ll become a tragic footnote in someone else’s tale. The faster you can accept the situation that has been created, the faster you can adapt it to serve your own purpose.
Tip #5: Aspects, Aspects, Aspects
Nothing is worse than finding an empty stat block on your character sheet when the GM calls for an opposed roll using a particular Virtue. (Virtues in HotB are much like a character’s traditional attributes of strength, charisma, or constitution.) In fact, this seems to happen to my character a lot. Rather than accept automatic defeat, however, I’m quickly getting adept at milking a different mechanic: Aspects.
An Aspect is a short pre-defined statement that says something about your character. They can be Invoked to help you, Tagged to be used against you, or Compelled to force you to do something you might not want to do. The core rule book for HotB contains many Aspects that are game-ready, and apply in a number of specialized situations. They also list detailed effects that occur whenever said Aspect is Invoked, Tagged, or Compelled.
Everyone in the game is capable of possessing Aspects. Your character selects a certain number for themselves prior to starting the campaign. Your fellow players have some of their own, which could serve you if you find yourself running short on dice. The game’s NPCs can also be assigned Aspects, either through game mechanics or narrative control, that can aid you at a later time. Finally, the scene itself has certain Aspects that can be a valuable resource when your character takes action.
Some scene Aspects are free to create; that is, they come from public knowledge or established fact. (“I’m going to create the scene Aspect ‘Darkness’ for this midnight meeting.”) Others require an investment from the player creating them, as that player defines a condition that did not formerly exist. (“I’m going to spend a Style point to create the Aspect ‘Public Support for Haroon’ since the whole room is impressed that I’ll be fighting a duel unarmed.”)
The most effective use of Aspects is accomplished by combining Tips #1 through 4 above, gaining a player untold opportunities to manipulate their surroundings in a way that creates their character’s desired reality. I say ‘untold opportunities’ mostly because our recent scene Aspects have started with “Everyone is Generally Turned On” and have rapidly digressed from there… Let’s just say that some Aspects will fit more situations than others. Unless every HotB campaign you’ll play features a costumed midget in a duel of insults with a cross-dressing ballet dancer.
So far, we’re batting a thousand in that department…
Has your group made the leap into a Houses of the Blooded campaign? Do you have some words of wisdom for new players of this unique system? Are you trying to figure out how to create the “Everyone is Generally Turned On” scene Aspect in your game? Let us know about it in the comments!