Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Blood & Water: Mixing the Miraculous, the Morbid and the Mundane

There’s this werewolf, a vampire and a ghost who share a house... but this is no joke. As it turns out, death is not the end for everybody, though it usually puts an end to your social life. Somewhere between being human and being a monster you’ll find the characters in this game: people who cannot return to the family they knew but aren't ready to embrace the thing they have become.

They say that blood is thicker than water, but when your own blood turns against you, you have to find a new kind of family, one who will accept you for what you are.

Blood & Water is a new game I've been working on for the last two and a half years, which has its roots in the BBC TV series Being Human and the AW game Monsterhearts. By October 2012, I'd played the latter game in a few different sessions, including one short season, and one thing that had struck me was that it would be almost perfect for a game based on Being Human: I say almost because there was one key difference between that drama and the dramas that Monsterhearts is inspired by and that was friendships. The starting Strings given for each playbook in MH encourage some mistrust and suspicion between the PCs, each having ownership of a bit of plot connected to someone else, but I felt that would be trying too hard for a Being Human game. You don't need to give players the tools to mistrust each others' characters, they'll do that anyway: what you need to start with is a reason for them to trust each other, or to quote Sir Humphrey Appleby, "it is necessary to get behind someone before you can stab them in the back."

I started to think about what I did and didn't want from the game: first of all, I rejected the notion of hacking AW or even using playbooks to represent the characters, to avoid the danger of putting in all the effort only to end up with a slightly reskinned Monsterhearts. No playbooks suggested players would create their own unique monsters before play, making up traits that reflected the character they wanted to play instead of choosing an archetype to base their character on. With that in mind, a simple main mechanic would be best: it's a big ask of new players to create an entire character from scratch and learn a complex system to support their choices.

I really wanted to embed the trust between PCs into the mechanics, a method that's been implemented in many different games, most notably The Mountain Witch, Cold City and Hot War. My dislike of book-keeping informed my decisions here, since I like to avoid totting up modifiers and keeping track of long-term scores as much as possible; I had in mind a simple 'roll the dice and succeed or fail' system and I was looking fr a way to modify your odds of success when you had the support of your friends. It struck me that if every player had a die assigned to them, that was their own to roll, then by asking to use someone else's die, you were both a) testing the friendship between you and b) increasing your odds of success.

By the time of the first playtest of b&w in November 2012 at that years Indiecon, I had the basic outline of the rules and character sheet in place: each PC got 2-4 supernatural strengths of their own devising, but also had to take an equal number of supernatural weaknesses. When you rolled the die, you had a straight 50/50 chance, but there was also a strong chance of paying a price for your action, whether it succeeded or failed. This mechanic was the first thing to be changed after playtesting however, as the modifiers from a weakness applied to the roll meant that you couldn't avoid paying a price. I saw that it was important to separate the two sorts of outcome, they couldn't be dependent on each other or the results became to static and predictable; the change was that success still depended on how high you rolled, but you paid a price if the modified result was an odd number, with the caps still being 1 and 6.

The other major change was to the Character Questionnaire, which got greatly expanded over the course of the first two playtest games: at first, this was largely focused on the supernatural side of the character and only asked them about themselves, not their history. The two key questions, why can't you be with your own kind? and why can't you be with mortals?, each gained a supplementary question which asked the players to name something that constantly drew them back into that side of their existence, however much they tried to turn away from it.

The biggest eye-opener for me occurred during the session played at Concrete Cow '13.5 where one of the most entertaining and engaging pieces of character interaction was over a tin of baked beans in tomato sauce with chipolata sausages, which one housemate had bought for another, vegan one. It reminded me that, though the game may be about supernatural creatures, they still have mortal problems, which then became one of the key phrases informing game play. As the GM in b&w, you do have to think about the big picture and the unfolding metaplot, but the game itself is made up of mundane, parochial scenes: the key is in letting these happen and then seeing how the PCs deal with trying to
remain human and not abuse their supernatural gifts.

I'm really happy that a number of players in the sessions I've run have taken the game and run it for their own friends; it's even made it across the English Channel to the Continent! It's been bubbling under on the con scene for a couple of years, so I think this year is the time to finally release it to the public at large. The book will include all the latest updates to the rules and character creation process, with guidance at every step, as well as advice on how to run one-shots and campaigns, two mini-hacks of the game and a quick-start playset for use at conventions or in other restricted time-slots.