Just when I think there is nothing new under the Louisiana sun, premise-wise, in roleplaying games, some inventive souls come along to prove me quite happily wrong. "Hoodoo Blues" is an obvious labor of love; I know because I'm a folklorist and history teacher with over twenty years' interest in American folk religion and magic, and I love the game's subject matter too. Fortunately, you don't need to be a scholar to appreciate the depth and vitality of what Vajra Enterprises has accomplished with their newest game -- all you need is an interest in rich, complicated characters and their struggles across years of conflict and upheaval.
In "Hoodoo Blues" players take the roles of the ageless, Southern individuals granted (or cursed with) supernatural longevity. Character class selection further defines the reasons behind characters' ability to transcend the aging process, and also suggests internal conflicts and goals. As another reviewer has noted, players will need to create their characters carefully so as not to produce irresolvable interpersonal differences during play; on the other hand, one of the strengths of Southern history as a gaming backdrop is that characters of disparate races, social classes, and religions will come into conflict with each other, and it seems that the game designers welcome this tension to a large extent.
The game centers on the folkways and magico-religious traditions of three groups in the South: Blacks, Native Americans, and Whites, with the emphasis definitely favoring the first. Characters might be root doctors in the syncretic hoodoo tradition, laying hands and conducting a shadow war against other hoodoos; priests and priestesses of the American voodoo tradition most often associated with New Orleans; or traditional medicine workers from one of a number of Southern indigenous cultures.
All of these options are sensitively and accurately (within the confines of a gameable milieu, anyway) presented, and each is rich and entertaining in its scope and abilities. However, "Hoodoo Blues" also offers another sort of player character role: that of an individual desperately trying to outmaneuver the Devil, who gave her supernatural power and longevity in the first place. This broader category includes Robert Johnson-esque "Crossroaders" who sell their souls to Old Scratch in exchange for various sorts of power; Loups Garoux, the cursed werewolves of Cajun and Creole legend; and Hags, women (and a few men) who ride mortals during the night in order to drain their vitality. Again, all of these options feel right (to this folklorist, at least), and show the deep and attentive research the authors have clearly done.
Each character type has its own strengths and weaknesses, but in addition all character classes can take skill levels in Conjure, the game's catch-all term for Southern magical practices. Conjure includes the making of hoodoo hands, the petitioning of voodoo loa, and even the ability to summon the Devil at a lonely crossroads at midnight. The rules for Conjure are detailed and well-thought-out, and contribute greatly to the richness of the setting.
Speaking of which, it's hard to imagine a denser and more wonderful context for great storytelling than the past two hundred years or so of Southern history (and I'm saying that as a Yankee); impressively, "Hoodoo Blues" offers a truly massive amount of gamer-friendly historical and cultural detail covering everything from the daily wages of Confederate soldiers to the code phrases of the Underground Railroad to the etiquette rules that comprise Southern manners.
All of this information is potentially highly relevant, because "Hoodoo Blues" supports what it calls flashback play, a style of game in which gamers explore earlier periods in the ageless's long lives -- your 150-year-old Hoodoo Doctor might be powerful, prosperous, and respected today, but flashback play allows you to tell stories about his suffering under the lash of slavery during the Antebellum Period, and about his harrowing escape to freedom. Flashback play is practically a must in such a historically rich game setting, and while the game's mechanical guidelines for this style of roleplaying aren't tremendously extensive, there is certainly more than enough cultural and historical information to get GMs and players started.
The rules themselves derive from Vajra's house system, the Organic Rules Components, or ORC (heh). I find them a bit fiddly in places, but no more so than most tabletop rulesets I've encountered over the years. There's a rules-light version in the back of the PDF for anyone who wants less crunch, but really, the amount in the default mechanics isn't onerous. Creating characters will take a long time -- my first took me about two hours -- what with all the different aspects of characters' abilities and lengthy personal histories, but it's an investment of time that will certainly bear (strange) fruit during play.
To sum up, it's been a long, long time since I've been this excited about a new RPG, and I recommend "Hoodoo Blues" with enthusiasm (even if you're not as much of a folklore wonk as the authors or this reviewer, you really can't go wrong paying $4.95 for 312 pages of really nifty material). And heck, any game that asks me to define my character's personality by specifying his favorite musical styles is a game I wanna play.