This is a review of the RPG Bloodshadows (3rd Edition), published by Precis Intermedia. It's the 20th anniversary edition of the game, originally created by Greg Farshtey and Ed Stark. The current version was designed by Brett Bernstein, and uses the Genrediversion rules, which he designed.
The book comes in softcover format (as always, I'm reviewing the print edition), which is about 255 pages long. The front cover is full-color, featuring a trio of pulp-style characters (a femme fatale and a couple of gumshoes, one male the other female). One of the characters is clearly using some kind of magic, and there's shadowy figures in the background. The interior is in black and white, and features a number of pulp-comic style art pieces, as well as some floorplans and the like.
I should note before proceeding that Precis publishes two of my RPGs (Lords of Olympus, and Gnomemurdered). I don't think that will cause any bias in my review, but for the sake of transparency I'm mentioning it.
So, in brief, Bloodshadows is a slightly odd genre-mix. It's a pulp fantasy/film-noir type of game but with dark fantasy/magic built into the mix. As a game, Bloodshadows has gone through three incarnations with three totally different systems: first it was published by West End games using its "Masterbook" system. Then they republished it using their D6 system (the same they used for Star Wars). Finally, there's this edition, which uses Precis' "genrediversion" system; the same they've used in a wide variety of games.
In spite of using a visual style that totally looks like 1930s America, Bloodshadows isn't actually even set on earth. It's set on the world of "Marl". It was a world of high magic, which went through devastating wars between the forces of Order and Chaos. Now, civilization in Marl is only found in its cities, each of which is very different in culture or even levels of technology. Magic and monsters are extremely common, and many types of monsters co-exist with humans in the cities; you can see vampires standing in bread-lines (well, blood-lines), changelings turning tricks on street corners, or ogre-type creatures working as mob enforcers. In between the cities is raw wilderness, filled with much more terrible and dangerous monsters.
In other words, it's a setting that makes no fucking sense, moreso than most worlds. How do the cities get enough to eat? How do they have a capitalist-style system and levels of production that allow them to mimic a 1930s north american industrial civilization without secure and massive transport infrastructure? I mean, magic can explain some of it (the book explains that magic is so endemic that almost everyone knows a few cantrips to use in everyday life), but it doesn't rationalize all of it. If this is the sort of thing that drives you nuts, well, consider yourself warned.
There's just a ton of stuff that's really weird about the setting of this game. If they'd made Bloodshadows in an alternate-history Earth, the suspension of disbelief to imagine a 1930s New York City where people knew magic and vampires were hobos would seem a lot less weird to me than being asked to imagine a post-apocalyptic fantasy continent where somehow a culture and look identical to 1930s NYC emerged.
That's not all the stuff that grates me about what I see as bad world design in Bloodshadows. Take this line from the book, for example: "Some people like to imagine that the unnatural, the cursed, and the damned don't really exist. They are exaggerations of history or products of hysteria."
Dudes, you're in a world devastated by a magical 'God-war' to the point that humans can't leave the cities without being eaten, and vampires and four-armed ogres walk your streets. How the FUCK could there be anyone not in an insane asylum who would imagine the unnatural doesn't exist?!
Anyways, now the dark forces are rising again, and a second 'god-war' is beginning to be fought on the dark streets of the city's underworld. This new god-war is not really meant to be the point of the game, but rather a kind of backdrop to the main action of noir-style detective/gangster stories on the streets.
The system is based on a set of ability scores: Fitness, Awareness, Creativity, Reasoning, Influence. Each of these are placed on a scale of 0-5. Some supernatural creatures may have more than 5 in an ability.
You'll note that unlike most RPGs, there isn't a physical/mental balance here. While D&D (for example) has 3 physical stats (str, dex, con) and 3 mental stats (int, wis, cha), the Genrediversion system has only ONE physical stat (fitness) which covers all of physical strength, prowess, and resistance.
In my past experience with this system, the result has been something of a mixed bag. Campaigns that depend a lot on physical action are not served well by the system. Characters who end up with a high Fitness utterly dominate. On the other hand, if a game is more based on investigation, roleplaying, intrigue, etc, the system works quite well.
In addition to abilities, characters also have Pursuits. These are basically skills, and are rated from -1 (incompetency; that is, no knowledge of the skill at all) to +4 (grand mastery).
Pursuits are tied into specific abilities. Fitness-based skills include things like archery, athletics, brawling, driving, firearms, etc.
Awareness includes things like gambling, interrogation, investigation (and also Divination magic theory).
Creativity-based Pursuits include carpentry, design, disguise, forgery, etc (plus Alteration and Conjuration magic theory).
Reason includes skills like boating, first aid, lore, streetwise, etc (and also Apportation magic theory, and Cantrips).
Influence includes intimidation, negotiation, oratory, etc (plus Hypnotism, and Invocation magic theory).
Actual magic casting pursuits (other than Cantrips, which are 'ordinary household spells') are their own particular category. The various Magic Casting pursuits are: chronomancy, elementalism, necromancy, photomancy, somniomancy, sorcery, technomancy, vitomancy, and wizardry.
Finally, there's one other pursuit not directly linked to any ability: composure. This is used to make rolls to resist panic, pain, or temptation.
Beyond this there's also "Gimmicks", which are special character features. Some abilities can be detrimental, working as disadvantages. Ability gimmicks change the effective level of one's ability for a specific purpose; so for example, having a "Strength +1" gimmick means the character has a +1 to fitness for any tests related to physical strength; a person who is very weak could have a "Strength -2" gimmick, which means they'd have a -2 to fitness for strength-related feats.
Cultural gimmicks reflect special advantages and disadvantages not related to ability scores directly. Things like "allegiances", "amnesia", "debts", "fame", "lip-reading", "wealthy", etc.
Special gimmicks reflect specific powers or afflictions, things like "allergy", "change form" (the character can alter their appearance), "extra sense", "fast healer", "incorporeal", "magic resistance", "natural immunity", "rot", "stench", etc.
There's a significant variety of 'species' for play in the game. Aside from humans (the predominant species), there's also catrarms (four-armed humanoids), Elkists (half-demon/half-ghouls, who eat intestines and can make one part of their body intangible at a time), Face-Shifters (humans who can change their faces), Ghouls, Granis (stonemen shape-shifters), Gris (garbage-eating dwarves), Hugors (half-human/half-ogre), Humbi (half-human/half-succubi), Orris (shapechanging humanoids), Skethspawns (half-human/half-demons who smell terrible and fear water), Skitter-rats (ratmen), Succubi/Incubi, Taxims (demons who possess dead humans), Vampires and Werewolves.
Each species is described, and includes suggested alignment and gimmicks.
Roles are the equivalent of classes; each come with a description of prerequisites (in terms of which Pursuits must be taken), and recommended other pursuits, plus gimmicks and equipment. Roles include Crooks, Merchants, Newscribes (journalists), Private Detectives, Sentinels (cops), Socialites, Spellslingers (professional magicians), streetsingers (musicians), Thugs, and Average Joes.
Character creation is done by point-distribution, in the case of the Abilities (12 point spread among them), and pursuits (14 points to buy various pursuits, with rising costs per rank). Magic Casting pursuits are included among these, with a limit that a character can't start with more casting pursuits than their level in Reasoning. Each type of magic has a list of spells; characters begin with a number of spells in each casting pursuit equal to their bonus in the pursuit.
Gimmicks are obtained based on species and Role. Some gimmicks are automatically assigned to each, while others are randomly rolled from a table for that species or role. Characters can take additional gimmicks, but have to balance them out by taking detrimental gimmicks.
Health is divided into four types: Fatigue, Injury, Tension and Mania.
These worsen according to different thresholds, based on ability scores.
Characters have protection (damage resistance, you could say) in the form of padding, armor, immunity, will and ego.
Characters start with a certain amount of cash for purchasing equipment.
Tasks are resolved by rolling 2d6, adding the Pursuit value relevant to the check, and the Ability rating. A "routine" task has a Difficulty of 10; difficulties range from 8 for "trivial" to 18 for "impossible".
Margins of success and failure don't always matter but will sometimes have an affect. If a character succeeds a check by more than 5, in some cases they can use this to perform an 'exploit', some kind of additional effect; for example, accomplishing things faster, recognizing hidden details, increasing the effect of force, gaining a bonus to a subsequent check, etc.
A double-6 is always a success, and an extra d6 is added to the total value. Double-1 can cause a "calamity" but only if you had no relevant skill bonus to use, or if the difficulty was 14 or higher.
Tasks can be 'contested' (opposed), in which case whoever succeeded by the wider margin wins.
Passive tests (reactions) use no skills but are based on the relevant ability times two.
There are various other rules regarding tasks, including working together, handling investigation, using contacts, handling intoxication, and using cantrips or spellcasting.
Characters surpassing damage thresholds will get penalties to the difficulty of checks based on certain abilities. If a character gets to five full levels of damage in any of the damage tracks, they are incapacitated in some way. If it is on the "injury" damage track and they take any more injury, after being incapacitated, they die.
Experience in the game is measured through points that can be expended to augment task checks or to reduce damage levels. It can also be used to increase protection levels, lessening spell feedback, or use certain gimmicks.
Combat is resolved by the same task resolution. With ranged attacks, the distance determines the difficulty to hit. In melee attacks, the difficulty is 8 plus the target's Fitness plus their Pursuit.
There are (unfortunately) also rules for social combat, which work similarly but using Influence rather than fitness, and skills like charm, empathy, intimidation, negotiation, or performance.
If you read me regularly, you know my policy toward "social combat": just fucking roleplay it.
Rules are also provided for chases (on foot or by automobile).
The equipment section is only 6 pages long but covers most of the very basics, including some magic items.
The magic chapter is of course more detailed. There are various schools of magic. Chronomancy is magic that manipulates time (it is a lost-school, and thus not recommended for starting PCs). Elementalism deals with manipulating the four elements. Neocromancy with talking with or raising the dead. Photomancy affects light and darkness. Somniomancy affects sleep, dreaming and the dream world. Sorcery has to do with portals and otherworldly realms. Technomancy integrates magic with machinery. Vitomancy is magic related to life. Wizardry has to do with demons and other supernatural creatures.
Magic checks are done by combining the casting pursuit level one has in the school with an ability score. The ability in question depends on which 'theory' the magic is based on. So for example, the Elementalism spell "acid bath" uses one's Elementalism skill, plus their Creativity Score because "acid bath" is based on alteration-theory.
Different spells have different difficulty levels. Some have special spell requirements: material components, gestures, incantations, inscriptions, or they can be cast into objects (like wands or potions).
If a casting check fails, a caster suffers "Feedback". The level of feedback is determined by dividing the margin of error by two, and adding it to the 'feedback rating' of the spell in question (plus some other modifiers if the character has certain gimmicks). When the level is determined, a random table is rolled for that level. Effects can vary from taking some damage, to losing memory of a skill, to random teleportation, physical mutation, to opening a hole in space and time, bursting into flames, or summoning some monster to the area.
The spells take up about 30 pages of the text. Each school has between 6 (in the case of Chronomancy) to 32 individual spells, with the average being about 15.
Additionally, characters can try to design spells of their own (as a GM, my first reaction was "oh christ, this is always total shit!"). Designing spells requires that the PC have both a relevant casting pursuit AND a relevant spell-theory pursuit. The mechanics of spell design involve a semi-complicated system of assigning point values to all kinds of details of the spell (effects, range, duration, casting time, if it requires components, etc etc), and then from this figuring out the difficulty and feedback ratings of the spell.
Obviously, min-maxers will have a field day with that. I know that if I was running this game, the first thing I'd do is ban new-spell design.
One important detail in the setting is alignment. Aside from having no alignment (neutral), characters can be aligned to Order, Chaos, or be Oathbreakers of either order or chaos. Those who follow order or chaos serve one of those two primary powers that struggle over the world. Oathbreakers have turned against their alignment and wish to free the world of the destructive influences of those powers.
The GM section elaborates on this, as well as a lot of other details on playing a noir game. It provides some further options for character development. Characters can advance to learn new spells or cantrips through research, and gain some new pursuits or gimmicks by training. They can also invest in materials or property.
The section also has some options regarding a grittier health system, and long-term injuries. There's also material on NPCs, and guidelines to running stories. There's even some simple tables for randomly rolling basic plots.
The section on adventuring provides material on the different cities of the setting, each is quite isolated and so has different cultures. The main default city is called "Selastos" and its a gritty sort of place with tall buildings, rampant poverty, and all the stylings of the typical noir campaign. There's also Galitia, a city with harsh industrial oppressiveness; Guildsport, a smaller and somewhat wealthier city that makes use of undead labour; Padarr, a corrupt hellhole where non-humans have no rights; Dela, an overcrowded city where the ruling families oppose any form of organized labour; Gimm, a city run by elementalist wizards with some racial strife, and various others. Blah blah blah.
To be honest, I find the setting utterly pointless. It doesn't appeal to me in the least. I think that game-wise, Bloodshadows would be vastly better if it was set on an alternate-universe Earth, doing the same to 1930s North America as I did with 15th Century Europe in Dark Albion. In other words, just play in New York or Chicago or Detroit but with magic and non-humans. This would get rid of a lot of the ridiculousness, and keep all the pulp-noir flavor. I see nothing in the use of a fantasy settings with 1930s trappings that adds anything, it only really adds a pointless level of complexity.
Fortunately, it would be ridiculously easy to accomplish this with Bloodshadows. You wouldn't really have to change any of the rules. All you'd need is to familiarize yourself a little with the era in real-world history; or use some source RPG-material like Precis' own Mean Streets.
Speaking of which, at the tail end of this chapter, you have conversions. This includes conversion rules for Genrediversion I, Ghostories, and the aforementioned Mean Streets; as well as the Pacesetter system and Active Exploits.
The next chapter is the bestiary, and provides descriptions, details and statblocks for a variety of demons, monsters and the undead.
After that, we get back to the setting. There's a chapter that covers the default city of Selastos in detail. It gives the details on its history, its power players, the wealthy people, and money and economics. Then there's a breakdown of Selastos' districts, which include the exclusive neighborhood of the ultra-rich and powerful, the banking sector, the middle-class residential area, the seedy entertainment area, the area for heavy industry and the residential zone for the lower classes, and the taxim quarter. Finally, a brief description of some of the cults of the city. The whole chapter is 8 pages long.
After that, we get to a chapter with two adventures. It includes "The Lady is a Vamp" which involves investigation into a mysterious series of killings; and "Trail of Riches", which involves an investigation into some missing gold. The chapter as a whole is about 25 pages long. The adventures are laid out in detail, and include some floorplans and the like. I suppose either could make a decent enough starting point for a Bloodshadows game set in the default world.
Finally, the book ends with an appendix listing various premade characters, a character sheet, a spell-designing sheet, and various pages of reference sheets of the most important tables and rules.
I can't question the construction and layout of the book, that's all pretty decent. The rules are for the most part fairly decent, with a few areas that on a purely personal note I find a bit too burdensome, but the game avoids the worst potential sins or excesses of its point-distribution and advantages/disadvantages mechanics.
The fundamental conceit behind Bloodshadows is very interesting. But to me, the choice of using a fantasy setting is just awful. I suppose there might be some group of people out there who might prefer to play in a mediocre (and fairly illogical) fantasy setting designed by "some guy", and be freed of having to worry about real-world elements except for the facade of '30s pulp.
But I'm betting there's far more people out there who would be WAY more interested in playing the same set of rules (more or less) in and 1930s magical New York, with Mayor La Guardia, Nicola Tesla still tinkering around in his old age, Mobsters like Lucky Luciano to face off with, hunting monsters in the NYC subway tunnels, weird goings-on in Chinatown, or maybe even fighting some Nazi magicians up to no good; rather than playing in the weirdo setting in this book (with its HUGE required dose of Suspension of Disbelief, humanities and economics edition).
I have no idea what kind of deal Bernstein has with the original owners of Bloodshadows, but if it was at all possible for him, I'd strongly recommend his first sourcebook for this game be an alternative 'magical earth: 1936' setting or something like that. Until then, people who want the Bloodshadows game but a Earth-based pulp setting can probably pick up Mean Streets for some assistance.
Currently Smoking: Dunhill Classic Collection Rhodesian + C&D's Bayou Evening