Blood and Honor–Game as Contradictions in Action   Leave a comment




John Wick isn’t (so much) a game designer!  He’s a gods-damned philosopher!

Now, there isn’t much call for philosophers in today’s world.  Game designer is a much better gig.  John, being a smart fellow, and a man with a keen sense of fun, has cunningly disguised himself as a game designer.  He sneaks his philosophy into his games.

John Wick has a philosophy of Contradiction.  He’s the kind of man who can believe Seven Impossible Things before breakfast (and Crom only knows how many more he could sneak in before the day was over!).  John Wick is Talented.  He is a stage magician, and a stage musician.  He is smart and funny and personable.  I like him a lot.  I can say these things about him because I know him.  I see him at Game and SF conventions three or four times a year.  He’s my Friend on Facebook, and I even have his phone number. 

And as a Philosophers disguised as a Game Designer, John has an impressive body of Work.  He is either author or a major contributor to all of these games:

Legend of Five Rings

7th Sea


Houses of the Blooded

Enemy Gods

Blood and Honor

and I know there are others. I seem to recall playing a Discordian game with him last year, and not playing his Cat game this year, and who knows how many other trifles there may be?  Hey, John, your article at is out of date!

It’s impossible for me to actually review Blood and Honor.  I’ve played it (once in a demo with John), and I’ve read the book (twice now), and I find it kind of impossible to adequately describe it.  It took John 170 pages to describe it in his rule book, and I’m supposed to do it in a few paragraphs–not possible.  It’s like trying to describe a lake by skipping a flat stone across the surface–bounce, bounce, bounce, sink–gone!

So, if you want to understand John’s game, buy his book Blood and Honor, read it, gather your zen friends, and try to play it.  Meanwhile, let me skip my stone across John’s lake of rules, and let me give you an impression of what the water is like.  As I said at the beginning, John expounds a philosophy of Contradiction, and you can see it pretty clearly if you look at Blood and Honor.

Blood and Honor is a game about the tragic life of a Samurai in a feudal fantasy Japan.  John knows a lot about feudal Japan–it shows in his choice of language, illustration, and examples.  He knows about Duty (giri) and he knows about Proper Behavior (makoto).  But to make a game of it–not a factual simulation of what Japan was like before the Europeans arrived, but a real game–everything is simplified.  There are four types of Sword (poor, Average, Good, Exquisite).  There are six Virtues (Beauty, Courage, Cunning, Prowess, Strength, and Wisdom). Any one of those Virtues can also be a player’s Weakness.  Remember what I said about contradictions.  Here’s another: Virtue is Weakness.

Contradiction number 1: Roleplaying is not about rolling dice and then making a story out of the numbers. In Blood and Honor roleplaying is about telling a story–the dice are only there to let you know who’s turn it is to be the storyteller.  The game uses Privelege and Wagers and Honor Points to determine who’s talking.  If you want to play this game, you had better have an Imagination and be willing to Talk.

Contradiction number 2: Tragedy is fun.  Now the truth is that Life in general is a Tragedy.  It ends badly for all of us.  We die.  The two faces of Janus–the God of Drama and Storytelling–are Comedy and Tragedy.  Comedy ends with a marriage; Tragedy ends with a funeral.  Conversely, Comedy starts with a funeral; Tragedy starts with a marriage.  Some people would be depressed and distressed by these truths–but not John.  The Purpose of Life is to enjoy it–have fun!  So, if Tragedy is inevitable, how can we make it enjoyable, and John’s answer is to make it a story–a story that entertains even as it points out how a person should live.  Make your Tragedy a story that builds Empathy. 

Contradiction number 3: It is forbidden to say NO.  The rule for life in Blood and Honor is to say YES, BUT . . .   For example one player might say, “The Daimyo is a drunkard.” and another would add, “Yes, but when he is sober he is cruel and tyrannical. When he is drunk he is kindly and caring for his clan.” 

Contradiction number 4: Simplify by complicating things.  The whole purpose of saying “Yes, but . . .” is to add complications to the game.  When players mention complications that have an element in common, then let that element be the same for both of them.  Example: Character A knows an Assassin who is a lovely woman.  Character B is in love with a lovely Woman.  Character C is afraid of a lovely Woman.  Guess what?  It’s the same Woman.  Character D is a lovely Woman.  Guess what, Character D, you’re the woman that is so important to Characters A, B, and C.  Suddenly you have a story, and it’s based on Character and characters.

There are more.  There are ten chapters in this book.  Each chapter is built around some basic contradiction in old Japanese society.  For example, the chapter about War shows how it is natural and inevitable in old Japan.  War is a source of wealth and prestige and honor.  War is the cause of misery and defeat and poverty.  Contradiction is story and story is fun.

Contradictions!  Blood and Honor is written completely in prose.  Because of its parallel structure it reads like an epic poem in blank verse.  Prose is Poetry.  In most roleplaying games, the controller is called the Game Master. In John’s games, that player is called the Narrator, and he functions as a servant, not a master.  I have seen John run games of Houses of the Blooded, and he delights in his role of the servant who makes everything possible.  Humility is Glory.

Blood and Honor is the best book of Philosophy I have ever read.  It shows a way of living one’s life to gain honor and to enjoy it.  It teaches one to revel in one’s defeats. It teaches Grace under Pressure, Imagination in everyday life, and the importance of the Virtues in our humdrum existences.  There’s a lesson on almost every page.  And yet, for such a didactic work, it’s a Fun Read.

When I was a reviewer for Library Journal, I would end every review with a recommendation–things like Recommended for large Libraries with strong Science Fiction collections.  I’m going to end this review the same way.  Blood and Honor is recommended for gamers with brains.




Posted November 8, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

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