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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

BLOOD AND BONE: AN RPG REVIEW

In playing dice, the stronger player tries
to defeat the weaker--that is the game.
If you are afraid, refuse the challenge...


MAHABHARATA: A Modern Retelling, Carole Satyamurti



TRADITIONALLY, "HIGH" AND "LOW" FANTASY are distinguished by their settings.  High fantasy stories occur in a "secondary" or fictional realm, like Middle-earth, Westeros, or the Hyborian Age.  Low fantasy stories are set in the "primary" world--our own mundane Earth--where magical or supernatural elements are either secret or alien intrusions from outside.  The Green Mile, The Dark is Rising, and American Gods are all low fantasy.  Elric of Melnibone, The Silmarillion, and A Feast for Crows are not.


Over the last few decades, however, these literary terms have been shifting.  "High Fantasy" has increasingly been seen as a setting in which magic is commonplace, Good and Evil are clearly defined, heroes are epic and indestructible, and multiple races co-exist (many of which seem to be around just so the good guys can kill them without any messy moral complications).  "Low Fantasy" has come to designate the opposite. Magic is rare or weak, humans kill each other rather than cannon fodder species, and conflict arises from opposing ambitions rather than moral absolutes.  In such tales, there is no guarantee a protagonist will not meet a sudden, messy death...even by something as random as disease or accident.  Low fantasy typifies the Hobbesian view of life as nasty, brutish, and short.





Arcana Games Blood & Bone is--in the more modern sense of the term--probably the best example of a low fantasy game you are likely to ever see.  By billing itself as "D&D meets Game of Thrones," B&B does itself a disservice; there is more than enough innovation and originality in the mechanics and setting to distinguish itself from either of those inspirations.  At the same time that elevator pitch gives you a rough idea what B&B is about.  It is a d20-derived system in which characters are driven by desires and ambitions, and a world in which these passions can easily get you killed.



THE BASICS



This review covers the PDF version of the game, which comes in five distinct parts.  The first is the 89-page Core Rulebook, which covers both the system and the setting.  This is accompanied by an 8-page adventure, "The Red Road," a map of the setting, and two styles of character sheet (parchment and black and white for printing).  Pages are two column and printed on faux parchment (see the Table of Contents below).  The books are handsomely illustrated, as you can see from looking at the samples in the review.





THE SETTING



Though the game starts with the mechanics, I decided to start with Blood & Bone's extraordinary setting.  The history and peoples of Ossura are a mix of familiar fantasy themes and surprising new twists.  A world without gods, it nevertheless boasts vivid and colorful religions.  A world without inhuman races, the peoples of Ossura are diverse enough and often "weird" enough to appear inhuman to each other.  A world without magic, it still turns around a chilling new power possessed only by the few.  Though painted in broad strokes, what we are told about the peoples of Ossura is more than enough to make them instantly playable and compelling.


  


Let me start with the familiar.  Like many fantasy settings, Ossura is a dark ages/early medieval world, quasi-European, with Asiatic and African type cultures existing in the south.  The humans of Ossura exist in the shadow of an ancient, pre-human race who, because of the monolithic ruins they left behind, are referred to as the Masons.  Something cataclysmic destroyed their millennia-old civilization long before humans arrived.  Though their ruined cities, roads, aqueducts, and monuments dot the land, the greatest relics the Masons left behind are the Waystones, lone monoliths that always feel warm and alive to the touch.  The Waystones radiate life; fields and forests grow more lush around them, people sleep better, heal faster, and have a greater chance of surviving illness in their presence.  Often farms and villages huddle around them.  They are, perhaps, connected to the Blood.



The Blood is at the heart of the setting.  It is not magic, per se.  It is a human talent like painting or fighting or singing.  Not everyone possesses it, however, and most who do are quite weak at it.  The Blood allows control over life and death.  It can heal, harm, or sicken.  It can raise the dead as the corpse-like Risen or the empty, hollowed-out Thralls.  It manipulates human and animal life, but only the flesh, not the "souls." Those born Blooded have significant places in their cultures, though each culture sees the power differently.  Some civilizations, like decadent imperial Tarn, are ruled by the Blooded.  Others, like the Kingdom of Caros, draft the Blooded into the fanatical Order of Ash, the Church of the Light.  In the far north and south they are seen as shamans or druids.  The Blooded position and place differs from society to society and religion to religion, but they are central to each.



Perhaps because they possess so many Blooded, and that the Blooded of their lands tend to be stronger than those of other nations, the pale-skinned and haired Tarnish (who clip the ears of their Blooded like elves) rose over their neighbors as an empire.  Imagine the Romans, with a slave caste of zombie-like Risen, Melnibonean tastes, and Transylvanian fashions, and you have a rough idea.  Ruled by Emperors who are seen as incarnations of the Black King and Empresses believed to be avatars of the White Queen, their power has waned enough in recent centuries for their neighbors to struggle free.





Besides Tarn, five other major cultures are detailed.  In the far North are the towering Inor and Eskarn, legendary mariners and warriors who--already a head taller than most Ossurans--on occasion give birth to even larger eight or nine foot tall "giants" (these are seen as the Children of Wunark, one of the northerners' Wild Gods).  The Blooded of these peoples are animistic Druids who use the Blood to replace their own teeth with the fangs of wolves, or merge antlers to their skulls.  The Druids tend the forests of the Wild Gods and often have animal companions.  





Neighboring Tarn are the lands of Caros and Mercos.  Both are the most recognizably "European," in a general sense, but with stark cultural differences.  The Kingdom of Caros consists of a dozen or so ancient kingdoms that arose from the decline of Tarn and recently were united under a single monarch.  One of its provinces, containing a wealth of Mason ruins and relics, is home to the Order of Ash.  A fanatical church dedicated to a creator god known as the Light, its clerics are made up of Blooded who, as part of their initiation, undergo the Searing...blinding themselves by staring into the sun.  After a year of blindness Blood is used to restore their vision, but ever after they can see the white-violet fires of the Light bathing the world.  The Order hunts all Risen, and burns those who raise them at the stake.  They preach against the sins of the flesh, and grown rich on donations used to expiate them.





While technically following the same religion as Caros, in actuality Mercos worships a very different god...wealth.  A land of city-states and trade guilds, where the ring-like coinage is actually worn as body piercings to display one's wealth, Mercos is a realm of business, gambling, and flesh for sale.  In childhood, the Mercish have their tongues literally forked as a sign of eloquence and beauty, and men of property shave their heads and let themselves grow fat as a sign of it.  Mercos is also home to the Black Wheel, a deadly guild of assassins and thieves.



South of these lands are the wide plains and burning deserts of the Abkhazi horsemen.  Bound by rigid codes of honor, these nomads are famed throughout the lands as the most dependable mercenary warriors.  Their Blooded, the Ka'na, revere the Three-Who-Remain, all that is left of an ancient pantheon of Nine.  These are "He-Who-Has-A-Thousand-Faces," "She-Who-Grins," and "He-Who-Has-No-Name."  The first is the Lord of Death.  The second governs the Risen--as it is common practice for all Abkhazi warriors to be raised as Risen to fight again.  The third governs the final death.  



Finally in the distant south we find Numir, dark-skinned sailors, warriors, and the finest metalworkers in the world.  The people of Numir revere metal, worshiping a pantheon of six Masked Gods, each of which wears a mask of a different metal.  Numiran armor and weapons are without equal, seen by other nations of men as almost supernatural.





With each of these cultures we are given examples of language, naming conventions, and descriptions of their major settlements and cities.  While the details are all vivid, a great deal is left blank for gaming groups to fill in for themselves.  The "feel" of the setting is more Howard than Martin, and the scope is sweeping enough that you could run any number of campaigns...from the political intrigues of  Caroan or Tarnish nobles houses to the adventures of mercenary bands, northern raiders, Mercish gladiators, etc.



THE SYSTEM



Blood & Bone is powered by a variation of the popular d20 system:



1. For any action the Arbiter (GM) assigns a Challenging Rating from 5 (very easy) to 35 (almost impossible).



2.  The player tries to beat this number by rolling a d20.  The appropriate Attribute (Strength, Dexterity, Mind, or Presence) is added to the roll.  These are rated on a scale of 0 to 5.  Finally, the appropriate Skill is also added.  Skills--a bit like Savage Worlds--are rated in dice.  If you are untrained, no die is added.  If your skill is Novice rank, you add a 1d4.  Apprentice rank is 1d6, Adept is 1d8, Expert is 1d10, and Master is 1d12.


d20 + Attribute + Skill die


3.  Additionally, a character may possess Advantage, or be at a Disadvantage.  Advantage allows the player to roll 2d20 and take the highest.  Disadvantage means rolling 2d20 and taking the lowest.  Advantage and Disadvantage can be granted by situation or Traits (see below), or by spending Tenacity, a resource gained by roleplaying the character's Beliefs and Complications.



4.  Finally, in some rolls (especially Combat) a natural "20" on the d20 confers some special extra or bonus on a successful roll.  The range of this bonus is actually increased by the Attribute being used, using the formula of 20 - Attribute.  For example, a melee attack by a character with Strength 2 would gain a bonus on a roll of 18, 19, or 20.  A Strength 4 would gain a bonus on a roll of 16, 17, 18, 19, or 20.  



CHARACTERS



Blood & Bone characters are defined by Attributes, Beliefs, Complications, Skills, and Traits.



ATTRIBUTES



The Attributes are Strength, Dexterity, Mind, and Presence, and as mentioned above they are rated on a scale of 0 to 5 for human characters.  Also mentioned above, Attributes are subtracted from 20 to determine the range of special or "critical" rolls.  A high Dexterity, then, helps you both to hit your target with an arrow and to deliver a major wound by hitting a critical spot.



These core Attributes also help you determine certain derived "Combat Attributes."  Mind and Dexterity help determine your Alacrity (think "initiative").  Strength helps determine your Vitality (think "hit points").  Dexterity helps you determine your Evasion (think "armor class").  



BELIEFS AND COMPLICATIONS



If Attributes determine your physical and mental capabilities, Beliefs and Complications determine who you "are."  Reminiscent of games like The Burning Wheel, Beliefs come in three varieties; things you believe about the "World," things you believe about a member of your party ("Other"), and things you believe about your own "Self."



A Belief tends to look like; I think A, so I'll do B, or maybe Because of A, I want B, so I will do C.  When a Belief comes into play, either complicating your life or driving your roleplaying and decisions, the Arbiter can reward you with Tenacity, as sort of game currency that can be used to buy Advantage.  A Complication is a physical, social, or mental flaw--such as Arrogant, Drunk, Bastard, or Mute--that works the same way.  When it limits you, you gain Tenacity.



Beliefs replace concepts like Alignment to define your character and drive his or her actions.  They also help the Arbiter tailor events and situations to satisfy the PCs.  Like a novel, you can expect situations and events that will challenge your Beliefs, or highlight them.  


SKILLS

Skills come in five Ranks, from Novice to Master, each associated with a die.  There are surprisingly few, just 13, and each is associated with one of the four Attributes.  The lack of a more comprehensive skill list is explained by the presence of Traits...

TRAITS

There are over 100 Traits in Blood & Bone, resembling a cross between D&D Feats and Savage Worlds Edges.  Because the game has so few Attributes and Skills, Traits are really where players will customize and distinguish their characters.  For example, almost every player character is likely to have the Skill "Fighting," but Traits like "Butcher," "Duelist," "Dirty Fighter," and "Dual Wielder" will define your individual fighting style.  

There are no classes in B&B and no levels, so Traits both define what sort of character you are player and measure its advancement.  They are not all combat related; Traits like "Agile," "Athletic," "Burglar," and "Subtle" all have non-combat applications.  More than 20 of them are Blooded abilities, which we will deal with separately.  By selecting the Traits you want, each character is a "class of one," mixing combat, social, skill, and Blood abilities as the player sees fit. The number of Traits you possess helps determine your "level."  Beginning characters start with 3 and no character can have more than 12.  When a character reaches 12, he or she can start to replace lower ranking Traits with more powerful ones, even if the lower Traits were a prerequisite for a stronger Trait the character possesses.

As just mentioned, many Traits have prerequisites, so you will need to work your way up towards them.  Traits otherwise have one or more "Benefits," permanent bonuses and perks the Trait confers, as well as "Reactions" and "Desperate Actions."  Reactions are responses triggered by something else, while Desperate Actions are the big guns, potent abilities that can be used once and then must be recharged by taking a full Rest (see "Combat" below).  As an example; 


ATHLETIC
Prerequisites: Dexterity 3 or Strength 3, Light-Footed 
Benefit: Gain Advantage to all Dexterity-based Checks to jump, climb, and tumble.
Benefit: Reduce falling damage by half as if it were mitigated by armor.
Desperate Action: Prevent up to two Wounds that would be received from falling.

Blooded abilities are all Traits.  If you wish to play a Blooded character, at character creation you must take the Trait "Blooded" as a prerequisite for all other such abilities.  This will give you a pool of 10 Power points used to activate and fuel these talents (the pool can be expanded through later Traits), and gives you access to the Blood Skill, which has ranks like any other.  Whenever you are eligible to take additional Traits, you may select a Blooded ability instead.  Let's take a look at one example;

WITHER
Cost: 1 Power
Action: Use your Blood Skill yo make an attack against a Near character.  The attack's chance of Major Wounds is equal to your Mind + Presence.  Characters killed by this attack become uncontrolled Risen after an hour.
Benefit: If your Blood Skill is at least Adept rank, Wither's Major Wounds inflict an additional Wound.
Special: On a roll of 1 on the d20, you take a Wound as well.



COMBAT

Combat should be familiar, in its broad strokes at least, to and d20 system player.  Battle is broken into Rounds, representing the amount of time it takes for all characters to act, and individual actions are measured in Turns.  When every character has taken a Turn, a new Round begins.

The order of action depends on the character's Alacrity (Dexterity + Mind + Modifiers), acting from highest to lowest.

Combat distance is abstract...there are no battle mats here.  It is broken into Adjacent, Near, Far, and Distant.

To make an attack, a character will roll d20 + Strength (for hand-to-hand combat) or Dexterity (for ranged combat) + Fighting Skill + any additional modifiers from Traits.  Advantage and Disadvantage might also come into play.  

The result is compared to the defending character's Evasion (10 + Dexterity + a shield if the character has one + any modifiers from Traits).  Shields add to invasion, but with Strength and Dexterity limitations.  

Armor does not add to Evasion...not exactly.  While the armor bonus is added to the Evasion score, it doesn't actual help avoid the hit.  Instead, if a blow lands above the Evasion score, and below the armor bonus, the damage is halved.

For example: A character with an Evasion of 12 is wearing Splint Armor, with an Armor bonus of 6.  Together this is, obviously, 18.  If an attacker rolls below 12, no damage is dealt.  If it is above 12, but below 18, half damage is taken.  If it is above 18, full damage is taken.

"Damage" is measured in Wounds.  The number of Wounds a character can take is measured by his or her Vitality (3 + Strength + bonuses from Traits).  Small weapons and unarmed attacks inflict Minor Wounds, which count as "one half."  Two Minor Wounds equal a Wound, or 1 point of Vitality.  Major Wounds double the damage you inflict (a Minor Wound becomes a Wound, a Wound becomes 2 Wounds).  Again, Major Wounds are usually inflicted by rolling in a range of 20 - Strength or Dexterity on the d20.  

What this means is that Combat is very, very deadly.  Unless Blooded healing is available, characters could be laid up for days, weeks, or months depending on the injuries they endure, and death is a very real possibility.  There are rules in Blood & Bones to dial up or down the gritty realism and lethality, but the baseline combat system is a very different animal from what a D&D player might expect.  Taking Rests in B&B does not restore Wounds...it simply recharges Traits.  

FINAL THOUGHTS

There is great deal more packed into this slender rule book, including setting specific wilderness hazards, sample NPCs, creatures one might encounter in the wilds, etc.  There is a variant style of play, not unlike Ars Magica, in which each player creates three characters of very different power levels and uses a different one in different sessions.  There is advice on narrating combats, balancing encounters, and setting up campaigns.  It is a surprisingly comprehensive 90 pages.

If I have any quibbles they are all in organization.  On occasion I did find myself hunting back through the pages to reference something.  While the table of contents is extensive, rule books could all benefit from an index.

Having said this, Blood & Bones blew me away.  Having game mastered hundreds of systems over nearly forty years, having worked in the industry, it is a rare treat when something like this comes along, a labor of love so passionate you feel swept up in it.  B&B isn't the fantasy heartbreaker, nor does it try to reinvent the wheel.  It has a narrow, focused objective...to deliver a low fantasy, gritty, character-driven style of play.  It scores a bull's eye in this.


     

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