Publisher: 12 to Midnight
Review Dated: 6th, November 2004
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 7
Average Score: 7.00
Gosh, I suppose you might see this review of Bloodlines as being a touch late. It’s just missed Halloween. But no; this review is later than that, Bloodlines has been out for longer than that and in both d20 and for Savage Worlds.
Bloodlines is an adventure. So if you’re worried about spoilers then turn away in a bit – but not yet. Bloodlines is a d20 adventure with homage, perhaps with homage to Call of Cthulhu, but this isn’t Call of Cthulhu and you don’t need the book to play. You need d20 Modern.
Bloodlines is a 12 to Midnight game. That’s why I don’t consider a discussion about horror RPGs as a spoiler. If you know 12 to Midnight then you’d expect a spooky themed game but you’ll know there will be a twist. That said, there’s no reason why you should know 12 to Midnight, they’re still putting their first products forward. However, it’s clear from the outset that 12 to Midnight are a professional outfit (rather than the clearly “hobbyist” style of some PDF publishers) and they’re one to watch.
Okay, now, if you’re worried about spoilers – shoo.
Having said that I don’t mind noting that Bloodlines is a horror I can see why some GMs might like to hide that fact. The advantage of a PDF is that you don’t have to wave the book around. You’ll have the print out which you can keep behind your GM screen. There’s no need and even an ink saving reason not to print the cover off. The game starts, rather nicely, as a treasure hunt. This is a hi-tech treasure hunt too; one using GPS and so it’s a rather nice touch when later on, in a key scene, technology like cell phones fail.
I’m not a fan of pre-written adventures. They tend to be linear and predictable. They tend to do things I’d never want to see in a game – such as the GM telling the player what their character feels or does (not counting magic, etc). At the start of the adventure author Preston DuBose tackles these points. There are no “read aloud” text boxes. At least, that would have been the case if the first draft had been published. There is actually boxed text which can be read allowed, thanks to company decisions, but we’re encouraged not to switch voices unless you know you can do it. I don’t think most GMs can. The very fact that the GM is a ready bit gives the game away and can so easily spoil the suspension of disbelief. In general the “read aloud” text which has made it into the published version of the game is good, better than most adventures, and covers only what NPCs say. There are times when, although in just a minor way, the GM takes control of the characters.
“Upon leaving the library, you find that the left front tire of your vehicle has been slashed. Scanning the area, you see a steady stream of people coming and going from the grocery store across the street. ”
What if a paranoid character’s first reaction to discover the tire had been slashed was to dive for cover? Has he still just stood there and scanned the area? But yeah; I’m nit-picking. Even in Bloodlines, which is very good for not doing this sort of thing, I can still find this particular bugbear.
DuBose comes clean. This is a linear adventure and there will be no apologies for it. Events happen in order and characters have to chain the adventure together by sequentially visiting places and doing things. There’s an element of “tough” and “deal with it” here – and I can see why. Bloodlines is large (121 pages) and fairly complex. It does work best when the players fall for it hook, line and sinker. But hold on here. Is Bloodlines really that linear? No. I don’t think it is! Is that a shock announcement or what? The truth is that you’ve the key requirements for a non-linear game. You’ve a general situation with a strong back story. You’ve NPCs who are – and who will – doing their things. You’ve situations which the NPCs will create by themselves, react to in certain ways and draw to a conclusion by themselves. The game is written well, despite some meta mysteries, the GM knows what’s going on and why. Then you have the players; the wild card, who can go in and do their own thing. Anything and everything the players do will cause events to ripple. It just takes a GM with a bit of experience to work out how the NPCs will react and, in deference to this being an RPG, the NPCs can react in a way most likely to effect the characters. This gives the players the freedom to bimble around as and when they want. It just means that much of the cleverness of the adventure’s pace will be lost and quite possibly a very bad ending. Bad in the sense that there’s no happy, safe and sound, conclusion – and even if you play through the events as designed by DuBose it’s a dubiously successful ending.
Just to sum that up – read through the adventure, know it, be able to adapt and flow with it and then won’t be linear. It’s just that the players might only scratch the surface.
Before diving into the traditional scene by scene game rules, ready bits and mechanics, Bloodlines offers us a walkthrough. The game comes in three sections and each section has a very short summary. It’s worth glancing at these. It’s worth embracing the lengthier walkthroughs though. There’s almost a novella here. More to point, being able to read, without interruption, how the designer images the plot flowing is extremely useful. It’s the walkthrough the gives you the knowledge of the game and then when you come to read through the scene by scene, traditional, roleplaying breakdown of the adventure you already know the big picture and are free to soak up the minutia. Now I want all pre-written adventures to begin with such a device. 12 to Midnight has shown the way.
Here’s a super quick walk through. John Blackwell helped defeat an evil cult, helping to stop their sacrificial ritual from working. He found he couldn’t destroy some of the icons from the ritual, found that they plagued him and so tried to use a little of their power to hide them. He was nearly successful. Blackwell’s seduced, tricked and then later marries a daughter of one of the cultists. She keeps in her power and has him scour his lands for the hidden icons. This goes on for years. When she realises that the man will die before finding what’s hidden she embarks on another evil plan – a child, an heir for Blackwell and the search or perhaps a sacrifice worthy of magic able to locate the items. On the day of the child’s birth Blackwell found some will to resist. A battle ensured, the parents died but child survived. So began the bloodline of Blackwell. Through a series of twists and turns the bloodline’s legacy. It’s the hidden cult icons which give birth to the legend of Blackwell’s gold.
In the present the characters are one team taking part in a hi-tech hunt for the “treasure”. People have looked and failed to find it in the past. The first part of the adventure is almost entirely treasure hunt and the players may not realise this is a horror game. The first part is also the most loose. The GM really does have to work to encourage players, without telling them, to work out where to check. DuBose helps out somewhat here, the dead ends are anticipated and routes back into the game core are provided. It’s not quite enough but it’s also more than you often get.
The first section ends with a supernatural twist. The players are hot on the treasure trail and one of them is scaling down the insides of a well. The GM can be really evil here, if he gets the atmosphere and pacing right. Suddenly there’s a problem with a scorpion – and I think a scorpion on the rope holding you in the well is far scarier than the wave of scorpions which eventually swarm the players. Everyone’s stung. It’s a touch of railroading but supernatural events have some liberty there. And in fact, it’s just a freaky scene; it doesn’t boil with consequences that the players will complain about. Their trouble lies elsewhere – when the police arrest them for murder.
In the jail the characters are bothered with weird dreams. There’s also a scene were one of the deputies teases them with an occult mantra. Oh dear. There is a ray of hope in the presence of a Texan Ranger; James Rodriguez. It really piles on for the group when they discover they’re all blamed for the disappearance of three more people – all with the surname Blackwell. Help comes in the form of a barely savoury lawyer. The group manages to get temporary reprieve of the jail and now has new motivation to get to the bottom of the mystery. After a trail around town they’ll find themselves in the local Masonic Lodge where they’ll encounter more occult mantras and more supernatural seeming events. Its all go for the characters as they realise they must race ahead to save the missing three Blackwells from the resurgent cult.
The rescue from the cult is interesting. The police are in the way to begin with but the cult members within the force take their chance to react – and do. The surviving police, fortunately for the players, are the good guys. There’s also the Texan Ranger and a ghost on the scene! To begin with the two cancel each other out, the ghost knocking out the Texan Ranger. It’s the ghost, however, who seems to reveal the cult in mid-ritual and gives the players the chance to rescue the Blackwells.
Only one of three Blackwells survives this encounter. Molly latches on, as you might expect, to whichever character seemed to be her rescuer. There’s weirdness with Texan Rangers. Amazingly the players are given brusque treatment and James Rodriguez, the Ranger the players known already, seems to be criticised. Rather than helping in any real way the group of Texan Rangers push the characters on their way, stating quite clearly that this is their problem and they have to deal with it. The group’s problem seems to include the surviving Molly Blackwell who they now have to look after. Looking after Molly isn’t easy. She doesn’t even remember where she lives. It gets worse, Molly’s being haunted.
How common are shower scenes in horror movies? Yup; fairly common, so lets not be too surprised to discover that Molly’s especially screamy when she sees a man with a pick-axe through the window while she’s showering.
How common are sex scenes in horror movies? Oh yeah. Sure enough, especially if you’re a cynical reader, but perhaps surprisingly if you’re a player, that night Molly has a go at seducing her favourite character. This scene, as far as it may ultimately go, is interrupted by the man with the pick-axe. The ghostly man.
There’s a problem taking Molly back to her parents. They don’t recognise her. They don’t want her! The newspapers say that all three of the kidnapped victims were killed. Molly’s ghostly troubles continue, she’s even knocked out at one point. While she’s out Molly is told by the spirit of Nicole Blackwell (the daughter of the original cultists and villainess) that she’s in danger, the Nicole is the one trying to heal the damage done and only a certain magic spell will solve the current problems. A seance is a good idea and the only way forward. Seances and spells bring the end of the drama within reach. Nicole is trying to take control of Molly’s body – and succeeds for a while. There will be an awkward moment when Robert Blackwell has possession of one of the characters and tries to attack Molly. The players should manage to force Nicole’s spirit out of Molly and in which case Robert’s spirit (the ghost with the pick-axe) will finish her off.
The sinister group of Texas Rangers arrive on the scene and clean up. They take Molly off to an uncertain fate. The group finds out what happens later through newspapers. A cultist confesses to the murders and kidnapping. The Texas Ranger James Rodriguez commits suicide. There’s no mention of the other Texas Rangers. The group is secretly given photographic evidence that Molly’s alright.
It’s an ending which a GM might need to tinker with depending on their group. It’s a case of know your players again. Even in this walk through (long, isn’t it?) towards a happy-ish ending there’s little in the way of decisive actions the players can claim credit for. It’s a common problem with horror; the characters struggle to be heroes. The attack on the cult and the rescue of Molly could be the end of the adventure, if you run on to the end then the dealing with the cult is something of a false summit.
Know You Group. We’ve had occult mantras in Bloodlines but perhaps the most important mantra from the adventure is know your group. This is not a combat heavy adventure. I think there’s enough action to keep the tempo up though. You shouldn’t let anyone with mind-reading powers in the game either. D&D’s tendency to ruin mystery and suspense through powers and abilities is something that will have to be closely watched here. There’s sex too. Bloodlines is suited for mature groups. In game terms the adventure is suited for about four 5th level characters though given the style of the game it’s easily scalable. That said if there are too many more characters then the group can’t ferry itself around town in cars (and there are car chases and crashes) and, worse, might split up. Bloodlines is scalable almost indefinitely in terms of character level but is best suited to a group of two, three or four characters.
There’s a lot more in Bloodlines than just the lengthy adventure though. The appendices are thorough. There’s a load of magic and rituals, almost enough for a mini supplement, and lots of handy reminders of d20 modern rules (DC values for doors, locks, chains and stats for cars, etc).
I like the handouts which come with the game. I think one of the strong advantages PDF adventures have is the ability to print off as many handouts as you need. There are a lot of notes and newspapers in this adventure and they make great handouts; they’re all here in the back of the PDF. Key visual elements (such as the strange sign in side the well) have pictures which can be shown to the players if your group. The cartography is good enough, though not at the level of the cartography specialists, and also much improved by being easily printed off and used as battlemaps.
I quite liked Bloodlines. I don’t like pre-written adventures but I found Bloodlines to be more like a story written around a roleplaying adventure. The PDF gives me something I could work with. I am impressed by the walk through at the start.