18 May 2024

Review: Royal Blood - A Game of Cards

tl:dr; a fun tarot-based heist game, great for whipping up vibrant characters and an intricate challenge for a punchy one-shot.

I got to play this as part of the forever-DMs support group - and it turned out it was on my drives so great chance for a review. Royal Blood is from Rowan Rook and Decard of Spire and Heart fame. I think I got this as part of a bundle and had given the blurb a read but it did not click with me - but now after playing it I have a lot more time for it, I could see this being useful for folk as a world-builder even for other games.

The high concept is that you are a 'Royal' - one of the court cards from the tarot deck - with magic flowing in your veins. Above the world are the Arcane - those who managed to claw or trick their way up to quasi-god-hood, recognised as one of the major arcana of the tarot. The game is about pulling off the heist that tears our the heart of power of one of the Arcane - to ascend yourselves potentially.

Art by Banana Chan

Mechanically it resembles Blades or Spire - not dice thrown but the minor arcana drawn and success depends on the value of the card - yes but, yes and, etc. The design is riotous - great evocative writing set over some bright pages - zine-sized, not a huge amount on each page but punchy and does what it needs to.

So what is all this stuff you get in the book?
Who You Are - 3 pages - players, GM
What this is - 2 pages of concept
Who You Are Detailed - 4 pages on how characters are built
The Silver and the Blood - 6 pages - on the powers you have, your 'facets'
THe Royal Blood - 19 pages - on the nature of the court cards, your potential PCs
Who They Are - 16 pages major arcana - the foe
The Prize - 1 page - what you are targeting
The Box - 9 pages of Arcana as challenges around the Prize
Scouting the Box - 12 pages of mechanics; the card draw mechanic, inverting
The Evening Unfolds - 8 pages of running the heist

So what is in here chunk by chunk?

There is a touch of intro ahead of the big blocks - the world concept of dethroning an Arcane. I really liked the implied world - that there were once other Major Arcana - the Angel, the Mother, the Great Beast - and that we are going to shove one of them aside and seize their place. The session I played, we intended to overthrow The Tower and replace them with The Inferno.

There are basically three blocks - the first big block of character creation incl. party creation. Here the players can choose or draw randomly of the court cards where the suit (Rods, Cups, Pentacles and Swords) tie to the four elements and the court 'rank' of Page, Knight, Queen and King are a long a scale of impetuousness to imperiousness. Party ties are created by asking questions to the players to either side and a secret motivation is noted. Each player has two facets, chosen from a list of magical or real-world assets - from real-world webs of connections to the ability to magically over-awe folk. Each of the court cards has its own list of six potential facets to choose from. A Royal also gets a court, some small following of folk around them.

Next there is a big block of collaboratively setting up the challenge. The foe is chosen or drawn, whichever of the Arcana is to be dethroned in the sessions heist. There are descriptions of all of the Arcana that informs what the challenges of approaching them are likely to be. One they are known, other icons are laid out as the 'Box' that must be overcome in the course of the adventure. The major arcana have further descriptors for when they appear as part of the box - potential insiders or infiltrators, technological edges or secret pathways - all that could aid or hinder the party in their attempt to break the Box.

Lastly there is the short block of running the heist - first Scouting the Box then having The Evening Unfold. In scouting the Royals all distribute a set of coins each has to establish details about the Box elements - that there are automated security measures as part of a technological edge. That there is a whistleblower within the target organisation but their identity is obscured, etc.

Then in The Evening Unfolds there is the heist itself - where the Royals tell how they attempt to overcome the elements of the Box, wagering their 'facets' and drawing cards of the minor arcana to see how they do. Cards run 2-10 plus court cards plus the ace. Drawing 2-5 is a 'No, and' failure where the Royal loses their facet and the situation worsens. 6-9 is 'Yes, but', 10 or a Court Card is 'Yes, and' and an Ace is 'Yes and then some' - significant successes transfer some of the coins on the Box icons to the Royal who won, granting them the ability to bribe Fate and buy a second draw on some future wager. Should you lose your facets, your card inverts and your secret motivation is revealed.

The game we ran, we randomly drew ourselves - Knight of Pentacles, Page of Rods, Knight of Rods, King of Rods - and the party link of 'clan fire and their banker' pretty much sprang into place. The questions to-and-fro established some telenovella worthy family links and a grand venture we had been muscled out of by The Opposition. We had a flash of inspiration, since we were 'clan fire' that our target was to replace the 'lightning' ruination of the Tower with the blazing ruin of the Inferno and we rolled with that - forgoing randomly drawing the target. We decided that the Towers current scheme was a global roll-out of a social credit school to bring the most ruin to the most people - and we were going to smash that up and ruin them. Around the box we drew the Hermit (disgruntled insiders), the High Priestess (an active mole), Temperance (technological edges) and the Hanged Man (secret ways) which gave a great Mission Impossible sneaky thematic to the heist. We fleshed out those icons around the box then started our run, mostly drawing well to bypass or subvert many of the icons before finally subverting the fire supression systems and running their systems to melting point. Big burn ensued while we watched from our own tower across the city.

All in all I liked this a lot more than I thought I would - the character and party building prompts were just enough, not too much, not too little. The laying out the Box and collaboratively describing it was fun to build a scenario to then try to weasel into. It does require players happy to collaboratively world build and get narratively involved but for a table that does this is a lot of fun.

Even for a GM running a more classic TTRPG, the faction building and challenge creation mechanisms in there are very interesting and could easily be used to set up a challenge for a one-shot even if you are playing some other system.

Other reviews - see the bottom of this page by The Thoughty.

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