Referee’s Bookshelf: Tribe 8 core rulebook and Vimary sourcebook

Late last year I crewed at the first event of Falling Down, a LARP event of what I’d describe as a low-medium scale (more than a dozen players, less than a hundred) based on Tribe 8 (with the blessing of Dream Pod 9, Tribe 8‘s publishers). I enjoyed it enough that not only have I already booked to crew the next event, but I also went out of my way to pick up the 1st edition core book and Vimary, which between them constitute Falling Down‘s “canon”. The full Tribe 8 range includes a bunch more material (some of which the Falling Down referees have cherry-picked ideas from), but a lot of it is rendered moot because Falling Down specifically isn’t following the game’s metaplot. (In fact, literally the first plot point the crew had to convey to the players at the very start of event 1 involved a major deviation from the metaplot, and we’ve been off the rails from there on in.)

Having enjoyed the first Falling Down event a lot and having become really excited by the setting, I thought I’d take a look at these books not only so that I could know the setting better and thereby improve my crewing, but also because I wanted to see if the books in question would sell me on Tribe 8 as a setting for tabletop gaming, or whether it was just the Falling Down referee’s particular take on the setting that I’d bought into.

Core Rulebook

Tribe 8 is transparently a product of the 1990s as far as its core design is concerned – specifically, it’s part of that swathe of games that came out in the 1990s which to a greater or lesser extent tried to follow the model White Wolf established with Vampire. Not only is over half the book’s 216 pages dedicated to an in-character description of the setting, but you have this enormous info-dump coming in before there’s any explanation of the system – or, for that matter, what a roleplaying game even is. Likewise, DP9 were big on providing a strong, centrally-prescribed metaplot for the game – in fact, in terms of the extremely narrow focus the game assumed (with all player characters hailing from a small group of exiles living on an island in what used to be Montreal), you could make an argument that the Tribe 8 metaplot was even more restrictive than White Wolf’s metaplots for the classic-era World of Darkness games.

On the other hand, it’s the narrow focus of Tribe 8 which in my view makes it work in the first place. Like Tales of Gargentihr, it is an attempt to produce a breed of fantasy that doesn’t buy into the usual Tolkein-plus-imitators influences (REAL FANTASY as opposed to FAKE FANTASY, if you are as snobbish as the Gargentihr authors on this subject), and to do that I would argue a narrow focus is needed; like Gargentihr has the Clondis as the hardwired-in source of player characters and Skyrealms of Jorune and Empire of the Petal Throne both have quests for citizenship as the assumed focus of early play, introducing players to a very unfamiliar setting is much easier if you give them a common assumed origin. Then you can say “This is what everyone who comes from your community knows; this is what people whisper about but not too loudly because the authorities don’t like it; these are total mysteries that nobody you’ve ever met knows the answer to”.

On top of that, the differing setting and genre assumptions makes front-loading the book with over a hundred pages of setting fluff vastly more palatable. Demon: the Fallen does exactly the same thing and it’s maddening that a game about playing a demon infiltrating modern-day society expects you to read all that guff before you begin to make characters and start playing the game; the underlying concepts are so familiar (particularly if you have played any other World of Darkness RPG at all) that the sheer mass of preliminary explanation is simply overkill, particularly considering that a vast amount of it isn’t of immediate relevance. Conversely, if the whole point of a setting is “everything you know is destroyed and the world is far stranger than you can possibly imagine”, extensive explanation is not only expected but appreciated, and Dream Pod 9 are quite good at making sure that most of the material presented here has some game-relevant significance, whether it sheds light on the PCs’ background, their current life, or how the world got in this state.

The setting premise can be summed up quite neatly: at some undetermined point in the vicinity of our present day, bizarre entities known as the Z’bri invaded our world. Sculptors of flesh and gourmets of pain – if you’re thinking Hellraiser-style Cenobites you’re kind of on the right track – the Z’bri tore down the World Before and rounded up most of the surviving human population into camps where for generations humanity endured all the bizarre tortures and hideous games their captors could dream up. (Not everyone ended up in the camps, though; some lurked in fallout shelters and retained some technological understanding of the old days, becoming known as the Keepers, whilst the so-called Squats eked out a threadbare existence in inaccessible areas of wilderness and reverted to a pretechnological way of life.)

One day, mysterious entities called Nomads came to the prisoners in the camps, and taught them how to summon (or maybe create) the Fatimas – said to be incarnate shards of the Goddess in giant structures of garbage and scavenged parts. The Fatimas rose up, liberated the camps, and took their human followers away from the Z’bri (who went off to lick their wounds – oh, and to and lord it over the uncounted number of human serfs still under their control). In the realm of Vimary (think Ville-Marie, Montreal) the Fatimas established their followers in Tribes, each Tribe led by a Fatima. Originally there were eight Fatimas; Mary the Forgiver died at some point after the liberation and her place and tribe were inherited by Agnes the Child, a new Fatima, whilst Joshua the Ravager died in the fight against the Z’bri before he could found a tribe of his own. But the prophecy uttered by Joshua as he died suggested that an Eighth Tribe would one day rise and fulfill his own particular vision for the world.

All is not well in the Tribes. The Fatimas and their priesthoods exert potent theological control over everyday life. Tera Sheba, the Lawgiver, is becoming increasingly fascistic; even in those tribes where her laws are not enforced so strictly, it is still possible to end up in desperate trouble if the wrong faction takes a dislike to you, or if the Fatima herself decides she doesn’t like your face. (Take the example of Agnes, the Child – in principle she’s the most innocent and undemanding of the Fatimas, but precisely because of her childlike nature she’s been known to cast out Agnites from her tribe simply because she got bored of them.) When the Tribes kick you out, you Fall – the Fatima ritually disowns you, leaving you disconnected from the spiritual powers certain blessed members of the Tribes command and doomed to spiritual destruction after death.

Or at least, that’s the theory. An increasing population of Fallen, mostly exiled to the ruins of a fairground on a man-made island off the shore of Vimary, end up retaining not only a portion of the power they possessed as a member of their former Tribe, but have been developing strange new powers of their own. Aside from the obvious consequences for the Fatima’s supposed monopoly over spiritual matters, this has drawn attention once again to Joshua’s prophecy. Could the Fallen be the Eighth Tribe? If so, what does it mean for the other seven? If they are all fragments of the same Goddess, why do the Fatimas seem to be working at cross-purposes? And what are the Z’bri going to make of all this?

The Falling Down refs won’t agree if you call Tribe 8 post-apocalyptic, and though there are some superficial similarities to post-apocalyptic fiction here (not least the whole “living in still very recognisable ruins of the past rather than building your own shit” deal – a hallmark of the Tribal way of life which could well be one of the things which changes once the Tribal system goes into meltdown), on balance I’m inclined to agree that it’s not an appropriate term for what they are going for here. For starters, there’s more mysticism and magic than is usual even for quite out-there post-apocalyptic stuff like Fist of the North star, but mainly I disagree with the “post-” part of the formulation for the simple reason that the Z’bri are still out there and the status quo surrounding the Fatimas clearly can’t persist for long; to be “post-apocalyptic” your apocalypse needs to have stopped at some point, and the situation presented in the core book represents at most an intermission in the midst of an ongoing apocalypse.

Moreover, given that the apocalypse in question revolves around the eruption of magic and the supernatural into the setting, then a return to the previous status quo is not just deeply unlikely (in the sense that most post-apocalyptic stories present a situation where it will be generations before pre-apocalypse standards of living and levels of technological development and territorial control are arrived at, if it ever happens), but philosophically impossible; a world in which magical powers and metaphysical cosmology are objectively real and can be directly empirically experienced will inevitably give rise to a very different sort of society than one where the existence of the supernatural is an open question and religious claims about deities or spirits are untestable. The Keepers believe they can put the old world back together, but their mystical powers of Technosmithing display a fundamentally different relationship with technology than the one we enjoy. It is like the world has undergone the mystical equivalent of a vacuum metastability event; whilst the new stable state is still amenable to life, a return to the old stable state is simply impossible. (If you substituted all the Z’bri body horror and quasi-shamanism for Tolkien plagiarism and gave the old cities a few decades to get reclaimed by the forests, you’d arrive at something a bit like the world as depicted in The Sword of Shannara.) Post-apocalyptic fiction is basically the most pessimistic brand of hard SF, and magical powers generally shift you out of that mode and into fantasy.

The joy of reading the Tribe 8 setting material is how much scope for speculation it leaves open, at least in this presentation. The 2nd Edition players’ book would eventually present a complete writeup of the metaplot and answer a whole bunch of questions, but I find that an unproductive way to present an RPG since it’s an open invitation to the referee and players to abandon their own imagination and follow the company line wrapped up in a pack of spoilers. I know barely any players or referees who’d take up that invitation, and plenty who’d resent the spoilers.

Conversely, the advice here to the referee (or the “Weaver”, a term for GM almost as pretentious as Nobilis‘ “Hollyhock God”) stresses being willing to improvise and go off-script in response to player actions, and the nice thing about the situation presented in the 1st edition core is there’s plenty of mysteries for Weavers to come up with their own answers to and innumerable directions for the game to take. On top of that, although the book is sceptical about the potential for PCs to do anything without the Weaver dangling plot hooks before them, I actually think the setting as presented has a lot of scope for proactive PC action – at any rate, if I had a group of players look at this material and point-blank fail to come up with an idea for something they’d want to accomplish in the setting provided I’d question whether I wanted to referee for them in the first place.

What’s especially fun is how the book not only encourages reading between the lines, but slips some really nice easter eggs in between those lines. As written in the main rulebook, the camps are still within living memory, with numerous NPCs here and in Vimary cited as being involved in the Liberation – and fatal cracks are already appearing in Tribal society that the Fatimas can’t possibly paste over. The Tribes and Fallen are almost entirely unaware of what’s going on outside Vimary, which raises the enormous question of “What’s going on in the rest of the world?” – and more specifically and interestingly, “How widespread are the Z’bri?” This is a great question to leave open because it literally doesn’t have a boring answer. If the Z’bri dominate most of the world aside from holdouts here and there like Vimary, then the supposed liberation of the camps was a farce – not only is most of humanity still probably stuck in camps, but the escape only worked because the Z’bri decided not to concentrate sufficient forces to crush it, making Vimary just a prison camp on a whole different scale. (Beautifully, it’s entirely possible to read the accounts of the liberation as though the Fatimas were allowed to succeed and the Z’bri were just faking their defeat – like they had this cruel idea for a brand new game which required going beyond the bounds of the camps.) Conversely, if the Z’bri are a comparatively local problem, then the liberation of the camps might have been a genuine victory won over them, but that just raises the question of what’s been going on in the rest of the world all this time, and why haven’t any outsiders acted against the Z’bri. (Trip to New York to ask the UN, anyone?)

As far as the system goes, Tribe 8 uses Silhouette, Dream Pod 9’s in-house system as pioneered by Heavy Gear. It’s the sort of just-about-functional system people churned out in the mid-1990s if they didn’t really put too high a priority on system; I do wonder, in fact, whether Dream Pod 9 would have just licensed some appropriately rules-light existing system to publish their games under if the whole OGL thing had been around back in the mid-1990s. (You could probably do a decent FATE adaptation of the game, for that matter.) It’s not a thing of any great beauty, but the dice-rolling mechanic looks fun without being gimmicky and with a competent referee and co-operative players, you should be able to muddle through with it to the extent that it fades into the background somewhat – the classic hallmarks of an RPG system which, whilst not brilliant, is at least getting the job done.

What originally sold me on Tribe 8 isn’t any particular engagement with the system as presented here so much as it’s playing in the setting in the context of crewing Falling Down. Whilst I find any game is enjoyable if you get to hang out with good company and be privy to everyone’s secrets, I haven’t felt inclined to geek out about a setting nearly to the extent to which I find I am with Falling Down/Tribe 8, and whilst a lot of what has generated my enthusiasm has been my buddies’ personal takes on the game rather than the game as published, I’m pleased to recognise a lot of what I enjoy in Falling Down in the game’s foundational document.

At the same time, it’s kind of a shame that the presentation of the core rulebook isn’t what it could be; there isn’t proper headings at the start of the chapters, which makes navigating about the book more difficult than it should be, and a fair amount of the art appears to have been prepared in colour and then doesn’t come out so well in black and white. Moreover, whilst I find the in-character setting description reasonably useful, at the same time I’m coming to it having already had a thorough grounding in the basics thanks to the excellent Falling Down wiki, and I do wonder whether I’d have had patience for it otherwise. It’s a shame, particularly since – as I would discover – Vimary actually offers a far better overview of the setting than the core book presents.

Vimary

The radically transformed Montreal we were introduced to in the core rulebook gets a fuller exposition here. Although the bulk of the text is once again made up of in-character documents, at the same time Dream Pod 9 do a lot better at here at making sure the documents in question are clear, self-explanatory, and more importantly information-rich. The significant factions and locations in and around Vimary are given full profiles, filling them out to an extent which the core rulebook occasionally skimped on.

The additional insights into the Keepers and the Squats are particularly helpful, but for me the really standout section of the book is the discussion of the Z’bri lands, as narrated by one of the Z’bri. Here, Dream Pod 9 hit the high bar set by David Cronenberg to once again remind the world that Canada is the international capital of body horror. This is the sort of material which demands serious care if you actually want to use it in a game; for a tabletop campaign, I would want to be reasonably sure I knew where my players’ limits lay when it came to body horror and other traumatic subjects.

(In fact, for Falling Down the referees have made a specific decision to dial back, keep offstage, or outright ignore great swathes of what the Z’bri get up to, as part of a general policy of setting clear content boundaries at the outset and so people can a) be reassured that certain common sources of OOC distress are not going to be supported or welcomed by the game and b) make a reasoned choice about whether they are happy to play a game in which various other unpleasant things are specified as being likely to show up. This seems to be a generally good idea for games of horror and/or “dark fantasy” in general; obviously you need to have some grim aspects to such games if the darkness and horror is going to actually be at all dark or horrific, but the benefit of making explicit what is and is not within the bounds of the game is that you free people up to play that much harder with what is still on the table, should they elect to.)

As well as the factional and regional descriptions, there is an extensive range of NPCs on offer, including most of the major figures within the various tribes, as well as a bunch of sidebars throwing in interesting minor subjects here and there, and a GM section towards the back which gives additional short and to-the-point explanations of a range of concepts and secrets not otherwise covered. On the whole, Dream Pod 9 seem to have learned some lessons in presentation and layout here which makes Vimary more readable and navigable than the core book – there’s proper chapter headings, for a start, and they seem to have a better grasp of how to make the artwork look good when it’s printed out in black and white. All this means that the sourcebook is even better fertiliser for the imagination than the core book was, to an extent where I can easily envision some Weavers ceasing to refer to the core book for non-system matters altogether and using Vimary as their primary setting reference.

In later phases of the originally-published metaplot the focus of Tribe 8 would drift off into different regions, which is a sneaky way of getting people to buy new sourcebooks but ultimately, I think, a bit of a blunder. For one thing, it would tend to exacerbate the effect where the more an RPG’s metaplot advances and the more the published supplements assume that everyone is following along, the less use the later supplements are in games which opt not to follow the metaplot; if the PCs in your home game don’t follow the metaplot into the new region, then that whole sourcebook is kind of useless. At the same time, those games which do follow the metaplot will find themselves in the awkward position of asking the players to abandon all the locations they have invested in so far for a new set of locations they are inevitably going to care about less.

Certainly, whenever I’ve conversed about Tribe 8 with people the whole “ruins of Montreal” deal seems to be a crucial part of the game’s flavour in the minds of many (judging by how often it comes up). As far as bringing those ruins to life goes, Vimary does a masterful job and I’m not surprised that the Falling Down referees have chosen to make it part of their canon. The start of the GM section in the book talks about how, now that you’ve read the core book and this supplement, you’re finally ready to start cooking up your own Tribe 8 adventures. On one level this is arrogant tosh; any GM worth their salt should in principle be able to cook up and run a Tribe 8 game just with the tools given in the core rulebook without needing to be spoonfed by the publisher. At the same time, there’s also a kernel of truth to the statement: although you could run Tribe 8 just with the main book, Vimary gives you enough setting detail that you could if you wanted to run a full-blown sandbox campaign with absolutely minimal prep just by setting the PCs loose to explore the locations described and interact with the NPCs presented there.

Although I expect to have little use for most other Tribe 8 releases – publisher-mandated metaplot prompts the rebel in me to ignore it on principle – I would say that Vimary should be at the cornerstone of any Tribe 8 collection. Indeed, if I were tasked with putting out a new edition of the game, I would be sorely tempted to just reprint the original core book with the information from Vimary incorporated into it, improved printing (full colour if I had my druthers) and proper chapter headings.

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One thought on “Referee’s Bookshelf: Tribe 8 core rulebook and Vimary sourcebook

  1. Pingback: Wuffle-Woofs Then and Now « Refereeing and Reflection

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