Magic and Mystery In a World Gone Mild!

I’ve not previously had much cause to look into C.J. Carella’s Witchcraft, despite the fact that it’s sat in my DriveThruRPG library for some reason. (I think they give you a free copy when you join DriveThru, or at least they did when I signed up.) Admittedly, it isn’t a game which has exactly set the gaming world on fire, but at the same time it isn’t entirely without significance – in particular, it was the first game to use the Unisystem, which would subsequently be used in games which attained substantially more commercial and critical success (All Flesh Must Be EatenBuffy and Angel, among others).

I think part of what has previously put me off exploring Witchcraft is the whole C.J. Carella’s thing. If you’re trying to sell a game as being Game Designer’s Gametitle, it’s presumably because you consider the name in question to be a big selling point, but here I’ve got to say that Carella and his business partners may be drastically overestimating Carella’s name recognition factor. Prior to the release of Witchcraft and its sister game Armageddon, Carella’s gaming CV seems to have consisted mostly of a couple of GURPS supplements and an extensive amount of writing for RIFTS. Worthy stuff, maybe, but playing second banana to Steve Jackson or Kevin Siembieda doesn’t really set you apart from the crowd. Shortly before he struck out on his own to produce Witchcraft he did take lead on the Nightbane RPG for Palladium Books, mind, but that game wasn’t a success to project his name across the gaming scene either. I can believe that there may be some people who were so won over by Carella’s RIFTS contributions or whatever to an extent that they’d be interested in following up his other work, but at the same time I can’t see them being so numerous that it’d be really worth making his name a cornerstone of the marketing for Witchcraft, unless expectations for the game’s sales were low to begin with.

In addition, the positioning of Carella as an auteur is a slice of White Wolf-style pretentiousness which doesn’t exactly help the impression that Witchcraft is a World of Darkness wannabe. In fact, I’d say Witchcraft might qualify as a World of Darkness “heartbreaker”, since Carella has said his intention with the game wasn’t so much to slavishly copy the World of Darkness so much as it was to attempt to present a game that corrected what he saw as significant errors with the WoD.

The example he cites is the way the different World of Darkness games all had mutually contradictory cosmologies, whereas Witchcraft presents a consistent cosmology which can account for the existence of all manner of supernatural entities. Then again, that isn’t especially new in and of itself – prior to WitchcraftCall of CthulhuKult, and Carella’s own Nightbane could all boast the same. What really connects Witchcraft to the World of Darkness games isn’t the cosmology so much as the overall structure of the setting, game design, and core rulebook. You have your world which is like modern-day Earth only with supernatural conspiracies hidden away from the public eye, you have your core supernatural creature or phenomenon around which PC concepts are built (in this case, magic and occultism), you have a set of factions based around that central concept for PCs to be members of, you have a core book which puts game fiction front and centre and puffs up its page count with additional game fiction at regular intervals.

As with many heartbreakers, Witchcraft works in a few interesting ideas which depart interestingly from its influences. For instance, player characters can be full-blown Gifted (with full supernatural abilities), Lesser Gifted (with less supernatural abilities but more points to spend on other things), and Mundane allies of the Gifted (with no supernatural abilities at all but substantially more capability in other matters), rather than assuming that all PCs are full-blooded members of the supernatural breed du jour as World of Darkness core rulebooks tend to do. (A similar approach would be used in the more cinematic take on the Unisystem offered in the Buffy RPG, in which the assumption is that only one PC will be a Slayer and the others will be Watchers or Scoobies.) In addition, you have the completely random option of playing a Bast, a member of a race of shapeshifters who can go between humanoid and cat form; this is the sort of thing which you wouldn’t put high on your list of must-haves when designing a witches-and-magic-with-a-k based RPG, but it’s also kind of cool.

At the same time, Witchcraft‘s demonstrates that Carella had not mastered what White Wolf really were quite good at in their prime – namely, evoking atmosphere and making you want to play the game. The presentation of the world and factions is rather dry and matter-of-fact, which is good for delivering information efficiently but doesn’t give you much of a sense of how that information is meant to be used. There’s game fiction which might be able to act as an atmosphere guide, of course, but then again if I have to read game fiction in order to work out sort of tone you are aiming for with your game that’s a failure in its own right (and what I skimmed of it didn’t exactly inspire me). Moreover, the various factions all seem extremely generic and, for want of a better word, obvious. You have your mediums talking to the dead, you have your pseudoscientific psychics, you have your Wiccans (with Gardnerian mythology about Wicca’s pre-20th Century origins presented as cold fact), you have your Rosicrucian/Freemason types, you have your religious fundamentalist witch hunters.

There aren’t any surprises or curveballs, there’s no attempt to frame magic and the supernatural in anything other than a Western/Anglosphere cultural context, and most fatally, there’s no dynamism. In principle, all these groups are sometimes-collaborating sometimes-fighting and looking out for signs of the impending apocalypse, but it all feels rather generic compared to the rich themes that White Wolf was able to offer up at its best. Yes, White Wolf’s games could be absolutely infuriating if you didn’t feel much sympathy for their central conceits, but if you are able to embrace their themes they are intoxicating. By prioritising having a rigorously consistent metaphysical basis for supernatural stuff above providing flavour and atmosphere, Carella doomed Witchcraft to be an also-ran in the mid-1990s modern day occult boom – and with superior Unisystem-powered games out there, Witchcraft is only really useful if you want a free introduction to the Unisystem.

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2 thoughts on “Magic and Mystery In a World Gone Mild!

  1. Dan H

    I glanced very briefly at Witchcraft (sorry “CJ Carella’s Wichcraft”) and it just seemed so … blah.

    Much as I hate the heartbreaker label (mostly because it come from the Forge and … seriously screw that patronising bullshit) it does sort of seem to fit, because it feels soooo much like somebody’s attempt to “fix” White Wolf by taking out all of the things that made White Wolf games interesting to play.

    Yes, having conflicting metaphysics spoiled crossovers, but since crossovers sucked I don’t think that was much of an issue. And the big advantage of them was that when you played Vampire the game was *all about being a vampire* (who carried a gun and did missions for more powerful vampires) and when you played werewolf the game was *all about being a werewolf* (who carried a gun and did missions for more powerful werewolves). And so on.

  2. Pingback: The EverLOLing « Refereeing and Reflection

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