Posted on December 9, 2007 by Flames
Created by Clash Bowley and Wesley Fornero
Published by Flying Mice LLC
Borrowing snippets from the back cover of the book, Blood Games II is an occult-horror role-playing game about courage, self-sacrifice and desperate heroism with no hope of reward. I think of it along the lines of “John Constantine meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. There are a lot of great ideas in the book and there is an underlying sinister tone that helps separate this game of occult horror from lighter traditional urban fantasy.
Setting and Theme
This is where the game really shines for me. I found Blood Games II to be an excellent blend of traditional genre staples as well as fresh ideas and new variations on older themes.
There are thematic similarities to other games and supplements like the White Wolf’s Hunter: the Reckoning, Second Sight and Hunter’s Hunted as well as Eden Studio’s Witchcraft and Armageddon. Gamers who enjoy those types of games and genres should definitely find BG2 right up their alley.
The starting premise for the setting is that the creatures of darkness have always been here, praying on humanity’s fears. There has always been a struggle going on between the forces of good and evil, with the advantage see-sawing back and forth from side to side. Another very important theme is the concept of Nullility, or the absence of magic. The power of magic in the world is directly related to society’s belief in magic. The more the world believes in magic, the stronger its power; the less belief, the less power. Since the forces of darkness are creatures of magic in our world, there is a paradox created by Nullility, in that the more you believe in magic, the more it can harm you. Nullility therefore offers a degree of protection to those who don’t believe in the supernatural. This provides a nice way to justify why those who are “in the know” try to keep their knowledge and activities secret; knowing that for most people ignorance is not only bliss, but safety.
There is a strong religious theme in the game and many real life religions are discussed throughout the book. This is possibly the best handling of religion in any game I’ve seen. The game remains very non-judgmental throughout and there are no implications that one religion is correct and others are wrong, all are equally viable in game. What is impressive is that the game isn’t afraid to really delve into the details and effects of religion rather than skirting the issue as so many other products do.
Lastly, as a bit of a warning, this game has honest-to-goodness spell-casting witches, religious inspired heroes who invoke the names of Archangels to perform acts of magic, zombie raising Vodoun priests, demons, exorcisms, spirits and a host of nasty creatures who like to hurt people. If you’re looking for a Harry Potter theme, this isn’t it.
I enjoyed the darker tones of the game, the implied grim sense of duty, the struggles of light against darkness, and the definite sense of evilness from the opposition. It does a good job of letting you know this isn’t a game about lighthearted modern wizardry, but rather a grim struggle of good versus evil, trying to keep the darkness at bay.
The principles behind character generation in Blood Games II work well for the most part. The character generation system is similar to that in other Flying Mice products like Starcluster, and utilizes a year by year lifepath style system a bit reminiscent of Traveller.
Basic statistics are created with a point buy system which has a few twists. Some characteristics are purchased straight up on a one-for-one basis while others are done on a different scale using a table to look up costs.
One odd bit is the IQ/intelligence score where IQ is first purchased off a table which results in a value that approximates a real-life IQ score (however only with a maximum of 140). This is then plugged into a formula to get the INT (intelligence) score which can only start off with a maximum of 9 whereas all other abilities have a starting maximum of 15. It can be raised later on in the character generation process. This is a good example of one of the fiddly bits in the game that pop up on occasion and can be a detractor.
Skills are gained by going through the yearly lifepath process. There are schools and careers each with various entrance requirements and different skill choices to be taken. Each year in a character’s life one or two skills are gained, with the choices varying depending on what school or occupation the character is in at the time. Since skills are acquired on a yearly basis, the GM is encouraged to have all characters be of roughly the same age at the start to prevent having large discrepancies in the skill base.
I really like the year-by-year method for two reasons. First, it does away with experience points and levels. Each major story line is assumed to take place during the course of a year, even if it was only a few days out of that year. At the end of an adventure, there is no tallying up XP, everyone can simply assume another year will have passed before the next big adventure and make the necessary character advancement steps. Secondly and most importantly, if you keep a worksheet of the character creation process, you can very easily step back in time to run flashbacks and know exactly what your character stats were at that time. This can be a fun way to add variety to your stories and the lifepath system in Blood Games II facilitates this well.
There are two basic types of characters, Path and Non-Path, as well as a third type that is somewhere in between.
Non-Path characters are normal humans, without any special abilities. They can be highly skilled and competent, but they lack any supernatural capabilities. Path characters are those with special powers and talents, such as the ability to cast magic. A brief rundown of the various paths is provided below
Hunters are humans who are uplifted through magical means to enhance their physical capabilities. They gain boosts to many of their characteristics and are unique in being the only character type with luck points, which can be spent to alter circumstances in the player’s favor.
Cambions are supernatural creatures with similarities to vampires but were created with a dark and twisted version of the magic that is used to create hunters. PC cambions are assumed to be those few who have turned away from the darkness and chosen the path of the light. Cambions gain bonuses to several characteristics and gain several vampire-like powers.
Witches are priests or priestesses of Wicca who have been granted supernatural powers including the ability to cast spells (chants), perform divinations, and to create various charms, links, and protective circles.
An esotericist is a mage in a traditional western sense. They study magic, keep grimoires, cast spells, create relics and can summon supernatural beings.
The magus is a character who can call forth the power of an Archangel to achieve spell-like effects. The areas of influence a magus has power over are determined by their choice of Archangel. For example, the Archangel Raphael, the Healer, grants the magus power over communication, healing, and understanding. There aren’t any real guidelines regarding exactly how these powers can be used, and it is largely left up for the player and GM to determine the actual in-game effect of such power.
Templars are non-sectarian religious warriors who are imbued with holy power which grants them bonuses to several characteristics and also gives them the ability to perform certain miracles, such as healing and shielding.
A Vodoun character is a follower of the path of light who can communicate with Loa spirits and use their power, create and command zombies and create and control elementals. Also, Vodoun priests can perform rituals including the use of voodoo dolls, curses and divinations
There are two other types of characters who have supernatural abilities but aren’t considered Path characters. These are half-angels and immortals. Half angels have several different powers depending on whether they follow the path of light or darkness. Immortals are blessed (or cursed) characters that have died and come back to life, and can’t be killed. Immortals are somewhat limited by the fact that once they have died initially, they can no longer gain additional skills, which can make them less powerful than other characters, but hey, there’s always a price for immortality.
There are over one hundred skills available in the game ranging from specific topics like “computers” to more abstract skills like “analyze”. This may seem a bit overwhelming at first, and many of the skills seem largely unnecessary, merely provided for the sake of completeness. I don’t think most player’s characters out hunting demons and vampires are going to want too many levels in mineralogy, but the option is there if they do. The mix of abstract skills and more concrete ones provides a nice degree of flexibility, giving players and GMs more than one way to approach problems and providing more options.
This is one area where I was very disappointed with the game. In my opinion, this should be one of the more detailed sections of a game focused on occult horror and the supernatural, however the information we are provided is extremely sparse.
For several of the Paths above, specific abilities and powers and their use are fairly well detailed and explained. Two areas that fall short are general spells for witches and esotericists and the powers of the magus. What are explained well are how these magic effects and spells are invoked or cast, and the mechanics for how long they last. What aren’t detailed enough are the actual game effects.
There are four types of spells, very common, common, uncommon and rare. Very common spells are those with simple or minor effects such as “trip” or “fumble object”. The rules state that “the titles of these spells define what they do.” No more explanation is given and there is no mention of a mechanic for resisting spells or counter-spelling or anything more complex. Common spells are explained in the rules as increasing or decreasing something by 10% per success. Examples of common spells include “Fire charm, Hole charm, and Rat charm”. Exactly how rat charm is supposed to increase something by 10% is left up to players and GMs to decide. Uncommon spells are powerful spells that alter the nature of something and the rules encourage the GM “to interpret the spell liberally”. Examples include “Make stone, Irresistible, and Walk between the raindrops”. That’s all the explanation we are given for the effects of these powerful spells. Lastly we have rare spells, which are spells used to summon specific creatures.
This is really a dicey gambit on the part of the author in my opinion. Some people may really enjoy detailed rules for topics like magic, and Blood Games II doesn’t deliver. However, if you like a more freeform magic system that is much more open to interpretation, then you have just enough information to provide a basic structure but are given free reign to use your imagination. I’m used to games with well defined spell lists and clearly stated effects but with those types of games, you generally don’t have much latitude for creating and interpreting your own spells. Blood Games II takes the opposite approach, leaving you to determine the effects of various types of magic and not placing limitations on what you can do.
At first glance, I’m not excited about this approach, but I can see where it has merit. I’d really need to give it a long term playtest to see how it pans out in actual play over time.
There is a significant section on religion that details various beliefs and rituals/rites/sacraments of each. It is very well written and does an excellent job of maintaining neutrality. The major religions discussed are Christian, Zoroastrians, Judaism and Wiccan, although others such as Islamic are touched on in other various parts of the book. There are very neat tie-ins between real life aspects and in-game effects. The overall consequences and in-game effects of much of the religion are fairly minor, but they can serve as a great source of inspiration and flavor.
The section on mechanics is fairly brief and concise. The game uses the Starpool mechanic, a d20 dice pool with a few neat twists. (The name likely comes from its origins with Flying Mice’s Starcluster game). The simplified version of the mechanic is that you roll a number of dice (d20) based on your skill level, and use your attribute scores as a target number, attempting to roll under. It works fairly well, providing a non-linear distribution of results, but not requiring handfuls of dice. One aspect that is a bit awkward is the modifiers – small modifiers are +/-1 to the target number while large modifiers are +/-2 dice. This may make sense mathematically, but can come across as being less “unified”.
Combat is fairly straightforward without a great deal of options. There are no detailed maneuver lists or rule subsets dedicated to particular aspects like wrestling or tripping. Characters do have options to shift dice around from initiative to resolution or from attack to defense.
All in all the mechanics are simple and straightforward with some new spins on traditional methods. It’s relatively light to medium, providing some variety and options without getting overly bogged down in tactical detail.
There are rules for armor and a few examples provided. Extensive statistics for weapons both ancient and modern are given in the back of the book for those times when you need to supplement your faith with a trusty sidearm.
NPCS and Creatures
This is another area where Blood Games II hits a home run. The few pages on non-player characters really pack in a ton of useful information. There are basic guidelines and a few charts for quickly generating NPC stats, skills, personalities, motivations and missions. In addition there is a nice selection of pre-made mooks and gunmen, ready to go at the drop of a hat.
I was particularly impressed with the description of the various creatures available in the game. There are a wide variety of spirits, shapeshifters, demons, devils and other supernatural beings mostly borrowed from religion, mythology and folklore. The details of many of these creatures aren’t those of watered down, vanilla foes, but entities that really give you the feel of being evil. Most of the entries are given a flavorful paragraph or two while vampires are given several pages of attention (which is fine by me, as vampire hunting is a favorite source of adventure in my games).
It strikes me that this area could be very useful as a source of inspiration for people running games with other systems as well, as there are plenty of great ideas lurking about.
This short section is a simple collection of a few suggestions for running Blood Games II. There are several handy tips on how to bring characters together in this type of monster-hunting game, which can be a challenge when introducing a new story. The more interesting parts are the entries regarding different styles of play including flashbacks, episodic play and generational play. It may not be groundbreaking advice, but I found it to be a solid collection of a few techniques that I definitely underutilize in my games. The year-based character creation system lends itself particularly well to running flashbacks in the game and is a nice feature of Blood Games II.
There are short sections with optional rules for character creation including family skills, traits and organizational skills, plot points, sniping rules, and a section with guidelines for creating characters for a historical or modern setting (or ageless characters whose upbringing was far in the past).
There are weapon and armor tables, a character sheet, a character generation worksheet and an index in the back.
Presentation, Artwork, and Layout
This is a definitely a mixed bag. I enjoyed the artwork but would have liked to have seen more of it. The illustrations were all done by Clash Bowley and if you’re familiar with his other products, you’ll quickly recognize the style. The pictures are black and white illustrations of various sizes, with most being about half to three-quarters of a page. I really like Clash’s artwork and I thought the pieces included in the game did a good job of capturing the mood of the Blood Games II.
The cover is full color, mostly black with a somewhat spartan layout on the front and a full color illustration on the back. My copy is a print version from lulu.com which is a perfect-bound soft cover. I was very pleased with the quality of materials used and the binding. I have received products from lulu before and have been satisfied with the results both in terms of product quality as well as shipping and packaging.
On the downside, the interior layout could definitely use a lot of work and certainly isn’t a selling point. There are a several instances of bad columnation and pagination, poorly labeled section headings, and occasionally substantial areas of awkward white space. There are the typical numbers of editing and grammatical errors, and the organization is haphazard at times with terms and rules being referenced in several areas long before they are ever defined or explained.
I particularly enjoyed the tone, mood and thematic elements of Blood Games II. There are a lot of great ideas and sources of inspiration for running a game. So much so that I feel this game could be a valuable addition to those running games with other systems. When reading through the book I had several “Ooh, that would be cool!” moments. The game isn’t afraid to delve right into religion and tackle it head on rather than giving it the brief treatment that so many other games do. The character creation system has quite a bit of flexibility and makes it easy to re-create characters from any number of sources. All the while I was reading the game I was thinking exactly how I could stat up Michael from the Dresden Files novels, Willow from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series or John Constantine from the movie and comics. The dark and sinister feel also stood out for me and I really got the impression that the various creatures and monsters weren’t just faceless adversaries but truly wicked beings that made me want to grab a wooden stake and cringe.
The writing and layout can be a bit challenging. This isn’t a game for beginners. You won’t find detailed explanations about what a role-playing game is, the basics of how to play, or exactly what an agility score is. The game comes across as being written for those with a reasonable amount familiarity with RPGs in general. There are a few fiddly bits where things seem unnecessarily complicated, and I came across an occasional section where despite reading a paragraph multiple times I wasn’t exactly sure how a certain thing worked. Thankfully for the most part these things are usually associated with minor parts of the game, and not directly related to a central, core mechanic or aspect. Still, GMs and players should be prepared to come up with a “best guess” interpretation from time to time.
Another important factor that can be good or bad depending on your point of view is the extremely open-ended nature of magic, including spells and magus powers. I get the impression this is a deliberate design choice, and it may or may not appeal to different individuals. If you like strictly defined spell lists and effects, you’re not going to find it. If you like free-form spell casting this game will give you all the latitude you need.
If you’re a fan of occult horror, vampire hunting, demon exorcising and fighting the good fight against the forces of darkness there is a lot to like about Blood Games II. If you have exacting tastes and like full color, glossy paged, hardcover books put out with the editorial and layout resources of a large company, this one might not be up to your expectations. This game definitely has a lot of potential, and goes places that many others in the genre aren’t willing to explore too deeply.
Despite some clumsy execution, Blood Games II has plenty of heart and would make a solid addition to any horror RPG library.