Welcome back to The Independents, your source for reviews of out-of-the-box tabletop roleplaying games. The small outfits, the crazy geniuses, the little projects, the ‘Indie’ creators who are simply out to make a name for themselves and a game people can enjoy. Here at The Independents we aim to highlight some of these games, for a change of pace and a new (and great) experience! This week: Blood: Path of the Shinobi.
The end of the world came and went, but humanity persisted. The Arks, great ships built to preserve those deserving, took the survivors into orbit to wait out the cataclysm below. While there, the survivors divided into two factions, one steeped in materialism and the other steeped in spiritualism. When they descended to the world they divided, the first built the city of Zaibatsu and the second founded Loha Prasat. However, the people of both cities discovered that they were not the only survivors of the cataclysm. The mountain people who had survived were driven from their lands, hunted, enslaved, turned into the peasant class that now strips the Verdant Expanse of resources to fuel the twin cities. But not all were cowed. Some resolved to live in the shadows, and do everything they could to resist the corporations of Zaibatsu and the demons of Loha Prasat. They were the first Shinobi, and they walk a path of blood.
Blood: Path of the Shinobi is an original game from Lettuce Inn Games, using a unique system and setting. The players take on the roles of Shinobi, the Shadow Folk who oppose all in the world of Riku who would strip away freedom and lives from the people. Whether in the metropolis of Zaibatsu where materialism has gone mad, the streets of Loha Prasat where demons masquearade as gods, or the diverse fiefs of the Verdant Expanse that lay in between them, the Shinobi do everything they can to spill the blood of the oppressors and liberate the people.
Zaibatsu is a multi-layered metropolis, the worst kind of Japenese-cyberpunk hellhole where the rich live on top and the poor never see the light of day. You always have a job in Zaibatsu, whether you like it or not. In Loha Prasat the Eight-Fold Path is the guiding principle of the people, granting its citizens guidance from the gods. This guidance manifests itself through a rigid caste system where mobility is a dream. Your caste is your caste, and that’s that. And the gods are no gods at all, but oni seeking to corrupt the world using godhood as a guise. Want to try somewhere else in Riku? Well, if you’re not in post-apocalyptic terrain you’re probably in the Verdant Expanse, which is divided up into fiefs, each ruled by a daimyo. These vary wildly. Examples include an academy for the Shinobi hunters known as the Shinsengumi, a desolate mining camp, a stretch of farmland described as an “Orwellian masterpiece”, an aquifer temple called the Mouth of All Rivers, and a fortress prison buried in the wilds.
The setting really is something unique, breaking a lot of molds while also leaving plenty of blank spaces for a GM and their players to fill in. When I was passing the review copy around the Society the setting was one of the first things many noticed. So when I got the chance to ask Brandon Radke of Lettuce Inn about the game, how Riku came to be was one of the first subjects I asked about.
Well, this might sound dumb, but we wanted to choose a “tribe” that hadn’t been over done in other games already. We figured ninjas fit the bill,” he wrote. “Everyone seems to love ninjas, but as in-depth characters they’re pretty neglected overall. Usually they’re just a swarm of masked swordsmen who get hacked down by the hero. But historically, they were originally farmers rebelling against the Shoguns of Japan’s early history. They sort of morphed into political and paramilitary tools over time. They had noble roots, and then changed and adapted with their world — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. We really liked that notion, so we applied it to a world of underdogs just trying to make their world a better place.
Good sci-fi and fantasy should be commentary on reality, so when writing the original manuscript I tried really hard to pull from not only history but modern concepts of social injustice and tyranny. It’s supposed to resonate with the reader and hopefully remind them of such similarities, and that in turn helps fuel the imaginative portion of visualizing the game and the world. At least, that was the idea.
Hopefully it’s working. My gaming roots are also heavily influenced by games like Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2020, and probably more than anything else, White Wolf’s World of Darkness. There’s probably a lot of that dystopian feel that comes through from those games, which pretty much shaped my early years.”
Blood also has a unique system that, while it uses a d20, doesn’t map to anything I’ve ever played before. So, in order to properly understand it for a proper review, I acquired the assistance of our own Nick Watanabe. Nick went through the character creation process, we talked about his character’s place in the world, and we played a session. So, let’s follow the path we had to take.
Characters in Blood have five Primary Stats: Physical, Mental, Social, Spirit, and Shadow. Most of those are pretty self-explanatory, but Spirit relates to a Shinobi’s skill with magic and Shadow represents that intangible quality that makes a Shinobi what they are, their connection to the shadows within and without. Each Primary Stat has two Secondary Stats associated it with it, which are vaguely analogous to skills in other systems with titles like Combat, Stealth, and Influence. When you’re making an action that requires a roll you add your Primary Stat and its applicable Secondary Stat together, adding a +5 that you get simply for being a Shinobi, and roll a d20. If your total meets or exceeds the target number set by the GM, you’ve succeeded. The GM can also decide if there are extra consequences or bonuses depending on your margin of failure or success.
Having read up on how the system works, you’re on to character creation, but it’s important to note that the character creation section starts by asking the following questions: Where is this character from? What is important to this character? How does your character treat others? Who is your character? Leading with questions like that, it’s easy to see that Blood is a game that is going to value the narrative and the story.
Once those questions are answered, you move on to choosing your Lineage. The Shinobi are not a unified people. Despite ostensibly championing the same cause, they often differ in method, preferred area of operations, and specific goals. They are thus divided up into something like clans or bloodlines, called Lineages. Which Lineage you choose determines which Primary Stat you favor, what kind of magic (Major Art) you practice, and what Lineage Perks you have available. The Hachi (Weasel Clan), for instance, favor Social and practice the Mantle Major Art, with perks that focus on living on the water and scrounging supplies. Nick’s character, named Tsukuru, was a member of the Tanuki (Raccoon Clan), who prefer Mental, practice the Ghost Major Art, and whose perks favor masking their identity and making a clean getaway.
Every Primary Stat starts with a single point, and your Lineage’s preferred Primary gets another 3, before you are given a spare 3 points to divvy up among your non-preferred Primaries. 9 Points are then given to your choice of Secondary Stats, with the Secondary never exceeding its Primary’s level. Characters then pick one of their Lineage Perks, and then any combination of three General Perks and/or points in Minor Arts (lesser magic available to any character who purchases them). Choose some gear, ranging from prayer beads to energy pistols, and then you’re ready for play.
Something that really makes this system stand out is how it proceeds from character creation: there are no experience points. Instead, characters are given Karma by the GM in certain situations where they are playing smart, acting righteously, or whenever else the GM feels they deserve it. In the moment this karma can manifest as positive (or negative) modifiers. The player keeps track of how much karma they’ve received and for what Stats, and when they have as much positive karma as the rank they want to upgrade to they can. Why go with such a system of character advancement?
“We wanted to get away from what everyone else was doing and try something else. To one extent, we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but we did want a growth system that was organic and made sense,” Radke explained. “In the games I used to run for years and years, I wouldn’t let players purchase anything they didn’t have a good explanation for. That way over time the characters evolved in a way that made sense, and when you looked at the character, it had a real history that came through. I pretty much wanted to keep that torch burning, as it were.”
Tsukuru discovered through his ghostly contacts that two high-ranking members of Zaibatsu’s primary security corporation had survived a corporate civil war and divided the pie. If either of them managed to kill the other they would gain a ridiculous amount of power and influence, something anathema to Tsukuru’s beliefs in balance. Our little Tanuki was able to insert himself into one executive’s plan to assassinate another, steal funds from the corporation’s servers, and then assassinate them both, leaving a power vacuum for his fellow Shinobi to take advantage of.
The only fight of the session was in that boardroom, and it was a messy one. That would seem to be intentional on the part of Lettuce Inn, through a series of methods. Health is limited, and each point of damage a character takes gives them a cumulative -1 on rolls going forward. Armor is helpful, but degrades every time it is hit. You thus have a system that is quite deadly, and can have a simple combat situation rapidly spiral into dangerous territory. The more combatants, the more hectic it gets. This is further enhanced by the Opportunity system.
Each character has one Opportunity, gaining more if they have managed to max out some of their Stats. When combat starts everyone rolls a d20 for initiative. Those who beat their opponents by 5 or more gain an extra Opportunity for the first round only. For each Opportunity a character has, they choose from the following options: Attack, Defend, Magic, and Declaration (which is more or less anything not defined by the first three). Here’s the real kicker: everyone involved uses their Opportunities simultaneously. They all perform their first, and then proceed down the list, acting out what they chose at the start of the round until everyone has run out. Attacks have to meet a target number set by the GM in order to hit, and if the target happens to have chosen Defense that Opportunity, they get to try and beat the successful Attack roll to avoid it.
“Blood is the antithesis of traditional. When we started, I knew right away I didn’t want to do a system or a game that was reminiscent of everything else on the market, especially the big games like D&D and Pathfinder,” Radke explained when I asked about the Opportunity system. “We wanted combat to be so crazy that players would only subject themselves to the risk if they were incredibly certain of themselves, or they had no other choice. That sounds a little anti-combat of us, but we wanted the game to be about the story and character development, so we wanted to deter pure hack’n’slash. It’s also a way to prod players to use the Shadow Kill system, using their skills and cunning to set up an ambush or assassination, rather than depend on stats and dice rolls.”
The Shadow Kill is the one hit, one kill technique of the Shinobi. Rather than engaging in honest combat, the Shadow Kill involves a series of actions in order to set up, whether that’s climbing into the rafters and taking aim or lying your way into a private meeting and getting close. Then, a single combat check is made. If the Shadow Kill is successful, the target is dead and the Shinobi’s path gets a little bloodier. Not everyone is vulnerable to a Shadow Kill; some opponents will be too skilled or protected to fall prey to a single shot or swing of a blade, and the GM decides who those opponents are. But the Shadow Kill remains the single best technique in the Shinobi’s arsenal. If Tsukuru hadn’t managed to convince both sides of the conference table that he was on their side, and managed a Shadow Kill on a bodyguard with his katana to then take the guard’s plasma rifle, there likely would have been one less Tanuki on the face of Riku.
“Shinobi are guerilla fighters, not tanks,” Radke espoused, a maxim that Nick and Tsukuru proved.
Both Nick and I agreed, after our session was over, that Blood seems to place a lot of weight on the shoulders of the GM. What target numbers have to be reached, what kind of karma is given out in what amount, what’s necessary for a Shadow Kill to work, whether or not a character has reached a new mastery of his chosen Major Art, and more are all left up to the GM’s judgment. Even further, while the setting is by no means bare-boned there is little in the way of ‘crunch’. We know there are Shinobi hunters called Shinsengumi, for instance, but the GM is left to decide what kind of abilities and weapons these hunters possess. I asked Brandon if he had any advice for someone running Blood for the first time.
“You know, when we first did Blood, we wanted it to be a game that could be played by veterans of RPG or total new comers. The system was designed to be robust and simple enough that complete novices could pick it up easily, and rely on world-immersion to carry them into the game. But it turned out that the world we built was complicated enough where rookies (while easily mastering the basics of the system) had a lot of trouble picking it up cold and running it themselves,” he admitted.
“We actually added a whole chapter on how to run Blood, just for this reason. The GM really is the fulcrum, but the emphasis is on the story, so a GM really just needs to put together a compelling plot – basically write their little vignette for Riku, and plug in our relatively simple system. Getting hung up on rulings becomes less of a problem in our world when our core book encourages players and GMs to put rules aside and just focus on the characters and the story, should the rules become a burden. Its all part of the elastic world – it takes a lot of the intimidation out of the equation for first-timers, and we’re happy to remind players of that. Rules are just guidelines – players make the game – so focus on people before arbitrary rules. After all, these are just some ideas I made up and wrote down – who’s to say someone else’s interpretations are better or worse?
But if I had to give some advice, it would be ‘Buy Blood, read the chapter on GMing, and if you’re still unsure, call me up, and I’ll totally cheerlead you to your first game’.”
Lettuce Inn Games actually recently went through some restructuring, so I asked Brandon about the future of the publisher and what Blood‘s players and GMs might have to look forward to.
“Right now, the future for Blood looks thusly: We’re working on a 1st Edition of our first expansion piece, “Tales by the Firelight: the Scrolls of Campaign”, which has three very well developed stories for our players,” he began.
After we put that on the shelves, we’re going to move into our Second Edition – the system is ready for an upgrade, and we don’t see a reason to delay and keep using our first edition when we know what exactly we want to do to improve the gaming experience for our players. So the Second Ed. roll out will consist of an update to the corebook and the first expansion book, and then we’ll have a few more titles to add to the list of expansions: Clan Mentality: the Scrolls of Lineage, Black Hats: the Scrolls of Antagonists, and Dark Reflections: the Scrolls of Magic.
Following that ambitious set list, we’ll be adding the next piece of the puzzle to our planet. After all, Riku is just one continent – so what else is going on in this world? I don’t want to give too much away, but each continent will be its own game, and all these lands will be tied together in one metagame. The initial idea is that the state of the world prevents much intercontinental travel, or even much awareness of other shores, but that will change. The games will all share our simple system and the basic pattern of stats and combat, but the next game will focus on horror and expansionism, and will add the first really big piece of the puzzle to the global story arc.
But over all, there are still some core values we’ll always focus on:
Games should be about friends getting together and having fun, not arguing over rules. And those games should be epic and dramatic.
Making games like that pretty much makes us happy, so as long as we’re able, we will keep at it. We’ve got plans for Kickstarter in the future to help fund our endeavor, but success or failure won’t prevent us from continuing on.”
A Pay-What-You-Want Quick Start Primer is available for those who want to look into Blood before purchasing, while the PDF for the rulebook is available for the bargain price of $7.00. Both can be found here. You can visit Lettuce Inn’s own site for a look at the rules, some background information on the setting and Lineages, and even some fiction that takes place in the setting.
Looking for a game with high-risk combat that leaves you dancing on the edge of stealth and subterfuge in an effort to get a kill from the shadows? Want to play in a diverse world of high technology, unexplored wilds, post-apocalyptic devastation, diverse fiefs, and ancient magic? Don’t want to be tied down by rules, but much prefer to get a world that your group can build upon? Than give Blood: Path of the Shinobi a try.
You’ve been given a world. Now fill it with shadows.
Originally posted 9/23/15 on the Mad Adventurers Society!