Visions of Middle-Earth

People like to express doubts as to whether Tolkien’s legendarium is really suited for adapting to tabletop RPGs, but people keep doing it anyway. Over the years we’ve seen the licensing rights for such things pass from company to company, resulting in three different official RPGs over the years – MERP, the Decipher-published Lord of the Rings range that tied in with the Peter Jackson movies, and the latest official RPG incarnation of Middle Earth, The One Ring. Recently I had a chance to acquire two of the three second hand for a good rate – and the two with a better fan reputation, at that – so I thought I’d dip in to see whether they were what they were cracked up to be. The two games – MERP and The One Ring – both represent very distinct and different takes on the same setting, but only one of them captures the weird mixture of comfortable fairytale and doom-laden epic that is the hallmark of Lord of the Rings

Middle Earth Role-Playing

MERP was produced by ICE, producers of Rolemaster. Having landed the Middle-Earth licence, they had put out a world guide to the setting in 1982, but they went system neutral with it, providing guidelines for adapting a range of different popular fantasy systems of the time to the needs of a Middle-Earth campaign. This strikes me as a smart move -after all, when you’ve landed what is arguably the biggest IP licence in fantasy literature, why limit yourself to just selling it to customers of your house system? – and it was in keeping with the commercial trends of the time, Chaosium having given Thieves World the multi-system treatment the previous year.

However, as the 1980s went on such cross-industry collaboration and permissiveness would go out of style, particularly once TSR and Palladium Books started to flex their legal muscles as a matter of course. On top of that, ICE must have realised that the Middle Earth licence had the potential to reach an audience beyond the existing roleplaying fandom, so an entry-level rules set aimed squarely at them could be a big hit – and if they played their cards right, it could drive sales of both their MERP setting material and their existing RPG rules.

Debuting in 1984, MERP is famously based on a scaled-back version of Rolemaster, and it seems to have been designed with the assumption that people would graduate to using Rolemaster in place of the MERP system when they were good and ready; the text directly encourages this and goes out of its way to mention that you are only getting a fraction of the magic and rules for characters of 1st-10th level and so on and so forth if you stick with just the MERP rules.

The big problem with this drive to encourage people to take up the advanced game is that even the lower-powered characters of MERP don’t really seem to fit the Middle Earth setting. The glaring problem is magic. In Middle Earth magic is rare and always getting rarer, with explicit magic use basically being limited to the Valar and Maiar and mmmmmmaybe elves and dwarves if you count their exceptional craftsmanship as quasi-magical. Conversely, because all of its character classes are inherited from Rolemaster, everyone in MERP can learn magic, and magic a good deal flashier and easier than what Gandalf pulls out of his hat in the books. Relatedly, whilst Rolemaster-style critical hits might be awesome, I don’t remember Tolkien making a habit of using precisely described maimings and injuries to spice up combat scenes, though I guess I could see Peter Jackson drawing on the critical hit tables here.

See, the thing about games based on licences is that they really need to capture the atmosphere of the work they are based on, particularly when that work has a tone as unique as that of The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. MERP does have a particular atmosphere of its own, but that atmosphere doesn’t say Lord of the Rings to me – it says Diet Rolemaster.

And the thing is, even if I wanted to go through the exercise of running Rolemaster in a setting it doesn’t really fit to see how the rules end up warping the setting, I’d be inclined to just use full fat Rolemaster, particularly since the version here isn’t really significantly more simple than core Rolemaster, it just tends to provide you with less options, which isn’t the same thing. (And in some cases it actually offers you more options than you really want -there’s a baffling range of different types of human, and also it offers the opportunity to play several types of orc and troll, which I suspect 99% of people wanting to play a Middle Earth-based game will have no interest in doing.) If you can handle the combat in this, you can handle the wider range of critical hit charts in Arms Law; if you can handle the mechanics of learning and using spells in this, you can handle Spell Law; if you can handle character creation in this, you should be able to work out Character and Campaign Law for yourself.

In short, MERP could only be mistaken for being rules-light by folk who’ve been immersed in rules-heavy RPGs for so long that they’ve forgotten what a genuinely simple RPG system looks like; whilst this could pass muster in the 1980s, when the general fashion was towards increasing complexity, by the 1990s genuinely rules-light RPGs emerged and ICE ended up putting out a Lord of the Rings Adventure Game, which was a simplified version of MERP because they realised MERP wasn’t a simplified enough version of Rolemaster.

It feels like I’m being harsh here, and I don’t really want to be. MERP is a fun game, but that’s because it’s basically Rolemaster, which I’ve previously said is a fun game in its own right. From what I’ve heard it succeeded at introducing a receptive audience of Tolkien fans to RPGs, and it would be churlish to hold the fact that one of those newly-minted gamers grew up to become Varg Vikernes against it. It just doesn’t feel like a Middle Earth game, and that kills stone dead more or less the only reason to opt for MERP instead of just running core-rules-only Rolemaster.

The One Ring

Here is the real magic. Originally released in a handsome slipcase version with a player’s book, a book for the referee (called the Loremaster here), two nice big maps and a set of special dice, it’s also been rereleased recently in an updated and revised single-book version (presumably in part because of the high cost of reprinting the slipcase edition). I happen to own the slipcase version, and it’s absolutely gorgeously illustrated and presented; the company that actually has the tabletop games licence for the books (and who subcontracted the work out to Cubicle 7) is called Sophisticated Games, and this certainly fits the bill as far as that criterion is concerned.

The special dice are a mild concern, but they aren’t absolutely required to play. One of them is the Feat Die, which is rolled whenever a character attempts something worth a dice roll; it’s a D12 numbered 1-10, with the Eye of Sauron in the 11 spot and Gandalf’s personal rune in the 12 spot. If you roll the Eye of Sauron, it counts as a zero and something bad is likely to happen to you, whereas if you get Gandalf’s rune the task automatically succeeds, at least usually – otherwise the number you roll plus any numbers you get to add to it have to beat a target number to succeed at the task. The other dice – Success Dice – are six-siders, with 1-3 in outline and 4-6 filled in to aid quick counting (and to remind you that results of 1-3 are ignored when you are suffering from the Weary condition) and a little tengwar rune accompanying the “6” on each; for each point you have in an appropriate skill, you get to roll a six-sider along with the Feat Die and add the result to the total. The tengwar runes are helpful for assessing the magnitude of success – if you get one such rune then you may get a little bonus, if you get two you might get a substantial something – and are also used in the optional rules for Epic Feats, where the GM has the option to let you roll to accomplish something really, truly, amazingly unlikely but you only succeed if you roll the Gandalf rune on the Feat die and at least one tengwar rune on the Success Dice. (For flavour purposes, it is suggested that when rolling for characters who serve the Dark Lord – wittingly or unwittingly – the Eye of Sauron should be an auto-success for them and the Gandalf rune should be a setback for ’em.)

It is absolutely trivial to substitute in ordinary dice for these, but the special dice are quite cleverly designed – between the runes and the colouring, they are well-optimised to allow you to quickly eyeball a roll and see if you’ve got beyond the target number quickly. Moreover, the use of the runes helps capture the atmosphere of the books – and The One Ring really does go all-out to do precisely that.

Characters don’t so much level up as gain Wisdom and/or Valour; each increase in one of those simultaneously lets you pick some form of more concrete character advancement and also gains you additional respect from those who value the quality you decided to boost. Likewise, you have a “Hope” score to denote where your mental reserves are at and a “Shadow” trait to show how much your resolve has been shaken or undermined by the influence of the Dark Lord (whether this be due to ill acts on your part, or witnessing the works of evil, or simply being tainted by the Shadow’s influence in the world); if you end up in a situation where your Hope dips below your Shadow score, you end up with the wonderfully-named “Miserable” condition – which can also be the forerunner of a bout of madness if you end up rolling the Eye of Sauron whilst Miserable. Each bout of madness sends you further along the appropriate track (based on your Calling – your character class, in other words), so some characters will find themselves becoming greedier and greedier from the dragon-sickness, others will find their temper becoming shorter and shorter, and so on. Hope can also be used to give bonuses to rolls – spend a point of Hope on a roll, and you get to add the appropriate Attribute to it (thankfully, unlike in Numenera where spending points like this will almost always be wasted, you are allowed to wait to see what the roll result is before spending Hope) – and the party as a whole has a pool of Fellowship points you can dip into to replenish your Hope in a pinch. You can seek the approval of the majority of the party to take points from the Fellowship pool – or you can be all like We wants it, it’s our birthday! and grab the points anyway, getting yourself a dose of Shadow as a result of being a grabby piglet.

Similarly, when characters are exerting themselves a lot (for instance, in combat or on long journeys) and their Fatigue level exceeds their Endurance score, they become Weary, which has various effects – for instance, whilst travelling if party members become Weary it’s likely that the party will run into dangerous hazards. The journey mechanics in this are extremely well-explained and actually make this one of the few games which make me want to bother counting hexes on maps and tracking encumbrance levels (thankfully, the encumbrance system is quite simple), because of course the more of a burden you are carrying the faster you get Weary when travelling. (Frodo was unlucky enough to have a Loremaster who dicked him over on just how much encumbrance a single gold ring represented…) Between the rules for getting Weary and the hazards you can face, the game makes travelling through Middle Earth feel like a slow, desperate slog in particularly Shadow-blighted realms whilst allowing you to cut a fast pace in more gentle realms, and in general captures the feeling of the travelogue sections of the books remarkably well.

Moreover, when you take the Hope/Shadow/Miserable and Endurance/Fatigue/Weary mechanics together, they really get across the way Tolkien presented adventures in the books: process that are both physically and spiritually draining, which if you are lucky and wise you can emerge from with your spirit emboldened and enriched but which can equally leave a permanent taint on you that you can never quite get away from. (In particular, characters who have had bouts of madness will have gained a permanent point of Shadow; men, dwarves and hobbits who let their madness meters max out end up going off and dying alone at best, or become agents of the Shadow at worst, whilst elves who have the same happen to them despair of Middle Earth entirely and sail off to the West to get a Shadow-enema from the Valar.)

Another way in which the game captures the spirit of the books is in the structure of gameplay. In particular, you are encouraged to have significant talky encounters take place in an interestingly formalised manner that is reminiscent of the almost ritualistic way characters present themselves to strangers in the books; first the party decides whether to have a single spokesperson speak for them or whether they’ll all be talking, then a Tolerance level is set for the encounter in question, based on the Wisdom or Valour of the party in question and the Standing of its members amongst the people addressed. Run out of Tolerance with someone you’re negotiating with, and they’ll lose patience with the encounter and send you away at best. This encourages players to take care when negotiating, and in particular to avoid dragging conversations on interminably, and also is appropriate to the subtle emphasis Tolkien puts on manners and etiquette in the books.

Another aspect of how gameplay is structured is the division of the game into Adventuring and Fellowship phases. Borrowing an idea from Pendragon, the game assumes that most PCs at most go on one adventure per year and allows for a rest period (the Fellowship phase) in between adventures during which PCs can take various downtime actions.

This generational style of play is in keeping with the selection of time period for the game; the assumed start of campaign date is five years after the Battle of Five Armies at the end of The Hobbit, and Cubicle 7 intend to produce material to support play all the way to the end of the War of the Ring. This is more focused than MERP, which tried to support play from any time from the Second to Fourth Age, and also positions the player characters to usefully engage with major events of the saga. The setting covered in the core set consists of Mirkwood and the lands around Dale, Laketown, Beorn’s House and the Lonely Mountain; this is an area which is simultaneously familiar from The Hobbit but where we don’t know much about what went down in the locality during the War of the Ring, so whilst the PCs might not get to dump the One Ring into Mount Doom (unless the Loremaster decides to deviate from canon), their actions could still make the difference between this region standing strong against the depredations of Mordor or being reduced to wasteland.

Gorgeously packaged and illustrated, The One Ring is the BBC radio drama to MERP‘s Peter Jackson movie – it’s the only RPG adaptation I’ve seen that seems to have a remote hope of feeling like you are stepping into the books, and I can’t wait to give it a proper try.

V20 – The Supplements

As I’ve said on a different platform, I really dig what Onyx Path are doing with Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition – I consider it to be a marked improvement on the original run of the game, especially since it is deliberately set up to be metaplot-agnostic and I particularly like how the Anarchs Unbound supplement made the Anarch Movement feel like a viable Sect again rather than the doomed second-stringers that they increasingly seemed to be over the run of the original metaplot. That being the case, I figured I’d take a look over the rest of the product line to see whether they’d kept up the same level of consistency.

V20 Companion

This collects various bits and pieces which were a bit too peripheral to include in the core V20 rulebook. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the book is its cover – whereas previous iterations of Vampire (and other World of Darkness games) had companion volumes for players and Storytellers, there is no such division here. This presumably arises from the line’s emphasis on cramming in value for money and not going out of the way to hold anyone’s hand.

Trusting that people won’t need extensive chapters of character design and storytelling device, the book instead focuses on offering handy bits of setting information. There’s an interesting rundown on the various titles (well-known and obscure) used in the various Sects, essays on Prestation (the network of boons and favours that Kindred society works on) and Kindred uses of technology, and a collection of interesting locations around the world (effectively a bunch of evocative adventure seeds).

Of these, the tech chapter is perhaps the most interesting, since it demands that V20 offer a distinct take on the subject from the old line. It does so by taking the interesting but very logical stance that individual Masquerade breaches on the Internet are not the end-of-the-world scenario that many Elders (and previous editions of the game) assumed they would be. Put up a YouTube video of vampire shit happening and people won’t automatically flip out – they will just assume it’s a well-done fake. It’s really the critical mass of Masquerade breaches that the Camarilla and other vampiric authorities actually need to watch out for. At the end of the day it turns out that people don’t really want to believe in vampires, and it will take more than a badly-shot YouTube video to convince them otherwise.

At the end of the day, an odds and sods collection like this hardly qualifies as a must-have (since by definition if the material in here were that central, it would be in the core book), but it enhances my appreciation of the setting enough that I am glad I have it.

The Hunters Hunted II

Supported by its own Kickstarter, this is a second edition of the widely-praised The Hunters Hunted supplement from way back in the early days of Vampire.

This is one of those really useful supplements which simultaneously opens up a whole new way to play the game it is designed to support whilst at the same time remaining true to the parent game’s themes. In this case, it’s a supplement about mortal vampire hunters, with an emphasis on running games where the PCs are said hunters.

The original supplement rather opened up the floodgates for this sort of thing; inspired by The Hunters Hunted, most of the Classic World of Darkness lines sooner or later received a supplement focusing on individuals who hunt members of the splat the parent game revolves around or expanding on some of the secret organisations first detailed in Hunters Hunted.

The major exception, of course, was Hunter: the Reckoning, whose Imbued protagonists didn’t seem to have a group of mortals hunting them (though since the Imbued had a tendency to off people based on what the voices in their heads were telling them, a game where you play mental health and law enforcement professionals trying to enforce an involuntary hospitalisation order on the Imbued would be completely believable). Indeed, there’s a substantial bloc of World of Darkness fans who greatly prefer NWoD‘s Hunter: the Vigil to CWoD‘s Hunter: the Reckoning, at least partly because people wanted Reckoning to consolidate and expand on the idea of ordinary people hunting the supernatural rather than introducing a whole new category of supernatural character that nobody had asked for.

That said, if you want Classic World of Darkness monster-hunters, Hunters Hunted II has got you amply covered. Even though it’s nominally a Vampire supplement and builds on that system, in practice the Hunters you generate with it could just as viably go after other supernaturals, since it devotes a lot of consideration to the general problem of mortals having to hunt things which are much more supernaturally capable than them as well as the specific problems of hunting vampires. In addition, much like Hunter: the Vigil for the New World of Darkness (and more so than the original Hunters Hunted to my eye) it scales quite nicely – you can use it to run games with out-of-their-depth normal people with no prior supernatural contact hunting vampires, or you can use the various useful-but-l0w-key Numina to play Hunters with a slight supernatural edge (whether this is in the form of True Faith, psychic powers, or hedge magic), or you can delve into the larger Hunter conspiracies detailed towards the back of the book in order to play professionals with serious backing.

As well as scaling nicely, the supplement also has a couple of clever mechanical tricks. First off, there’s an elegant solution to the old problem where if you want to play a game where the player characters make careful, systematic plans before they carry out their raids on undead lairs, the time spent planning feels frustratingly wasted if the plan goes off the tracks early on. Here, the supplement suggests a system in which planning sessions generate a pool of “Plan Dice” which can be used to get an edge on important rolls when enacting the plan, with Plan Dice added to the pool when people propose bits of the plan, point out holes in it, and so on. I’d personally suggest measures to avoid gaming this system by having the GM start removing dice from the pool if the conversation goes for five or more minutes without coming up with any new points, but this still seems to be a good way to ensure that game mechanically it’s better to go in with a solid plan than to try and improvise.

Another interesting quirk is that Humanity is still tracked as usual in Vampire, although without the Beast within human beings aren’t subject to panic or frenzy or other downsides of low Humanity – beyond the fact, that is, that as your Humanity goes down you’re likely to become a crueler, more vicious hunter, less prone to worry about collateral damage, and less invested in the connections you have to other people. This creates a situation where in principle Hunters can afford to treat Humanity as a dump stat and ironically you can have a party of human beings behaving more amorally than many coteries of Camarilla vampires – but in practice, this would be a terrible idea for the Hunters in question, because part of the danger of the hunt is that if caught you can be turned. A Hunter with high Humanity who is turned vampire might feel enough loyalty to their old comrades to help them out in a variety of ways, or at least go vaporise themselves in the sunlight so as not to be a danger to everything they’ve fought for. A low-Humanity human who turns vampire, though, ends up thrall to the Beast almost immediately, and then becomes a terrible foe to their former party.

Applying the lessons of Hunter: the Vigil to the original Hunters Hunted is a genuine no-brainer: it’s such a good idea that a competent team should be able to create a great product just by following that concept, and White Wolf have done so here, creating a supplement even better than the original release.

Rites of the Blood

An in-depth survey of the occult interests, rituals and magical techniques the Kindred explore, Rites of the Blood is more than just a big book of extra spells – though there’s plenty of stuff to flesh out the spell lists in here – so much as it’s a faction-by-faction survey of all the different ways in which vampires end up dabbling in matters metaphysical. Each of the first six chapters looks at a different Sect or grouping – one for the Camarilla, one for the Sabbat, one for the Anarchs, one for the various independent Clans, one for the odd little sects like the Tal’Mahe’Ra and the Inconnu, and one for full-on infernalists; the final chapter provides a review of the underlying principles of blood magic and how these can be used to cook up new rituals, plus a grab-bag of extra spells to round off the lists.

What’s more, the chapters don’t just offer discussions of magical techniques but also illustrates how the various varieties of magician fit into the social world of their respective Sects and groups. So, for instance, the Camarilla chapter talks about how the Tremere fit into the wider Sect, and the Sabbat chapter talks about how their magical-religious rituals fit into the world of the Sect. Some chapters offer even more interesting material; the Inconnu part actually offers some details on the structures and internal procedures and rules of the Inconnu, whilst the infernalism chapter also looks at the Camarilla and the Sabbat’s own internal procedures for rooting out internalism as well as the infernalists themselves.

On top of that, whilst a note at the start of the chapter suggests that the demons of Vampire: the Masquerade don’t necessarily have to be one and the same with those of Demon: the Fallen if you don’t want them to be, at the same time the depiction of infernalism does a great job of reconciling how demons were depicted in Vampire and how they worked in Demon; based on the description, it seems like the vast majority of vampires who get into infernalism are working with Earthbound that they’ve summoned and bound to the land or a talisman, creating the genuinely interesting crossover possibility that the majority of the 666 Earthbound were made that way as a result of vampire infernalists and their mortal coreligionists.

This and the Tal’Mahe’Ra section suggest more in the way of crossover action than other V20 supplements, but frankly that makes sense – digging deep into magic and the spiritual world inevitably invites precisely this sort of crossover action, or at least a game where there’s plenty more supernatural creatures in play than just vampires, whereas a low-magic campaign could also very viably have no supernatural entities aside from vampires show up.

Dread Names, Red List

Another sequel to an old supplement, this is an update of the old Kindred Most Wanted – a supplement about the Camarilla Red List, the politics surrounding it, and the enemies of vampire-kind listed on it. Again, this expands on the concept of the old supplement somewhat, providing more guidance and support for running campaigns in which the player characters are Alastors – agents of the Camarilla Justicars tasked with tracking down and killing the folk on the Red List. As far as the entries here go, some are old favourites from Kindred Most Wanted updated and some are new to this book. Most of the Red List entries that have been outright removed seem to have been done so either because they were just plain tasteless and offensive (like the tiny child who is also a practitioner of a gruesomely inaccurate version of voodoo), or because they pandered a bit too much to the “vampiric superhero” style of play that early Vampire often drifted into (like the Gangrel Methuselah monstrosity), or because they hinged too much on crossover nonsense (for instance, one of them was a werewoofle, and given that woofles all have this raging genocidal hatred of vampires adding one woofle to the hate list seems kind of pointless). In the case of those which have been retained, crossover nonsense and other such stuff in their backgrounds has been toned down – for instance, one of them is no longer a secret agent of the Black Spiral Dancers, but instead has a secret agenda it actually makes sense for a vampire to have. The new entries, meanwhile, seem interesting and imaginative – including one mortal who could be a Mage-style mage if you wanted him to be but ultimately doesn’t need to be.

The real gem here, though, isn’t the NPC profiles so much as the guidance on how each NPC lends themselves to a different tone of Anathema-hunting adventure. Alastor action seems to be a decent concept for a short-term Vampire campaign, or a longer campaign if people are happy with such a thing being something of a mission-based villain-of-the-season sort of affair. As such, Dread Names manages to transcend being a mere NPC collection and becomes another supplement in the tradition of The Anarch Handbook or Hunters Hunted II in the sense that it opens the door to a brand new way to playing something which is still very recognisably Vampire.

Vintage Stuff

If I had to rank the V20 supplements reviewed here from least interesting to top quality, it’d go V20 Companion due to the fuzzy and indistinct nature of the supplement, Dread Names for the fact that it caters to a very particular campaign niche very well, Rites of the Blood for the thorough treatment it offers of its subject matter, and Hunters Hunted II for being not just an excellent support for playing mortals-based games in a Vampire context, but also the only book you really need to run player character hunters in any Classic World of Darkness game. That said, I’d highly recommend more or less all the books, though I might suggest waiting until it was on sale for the V20 Companion. If you already have the complete run of the earlier books, you might find these releases less useful, but by condensing down and concentrating all the awesome into these tight, dense packages, Onyx Path have made a product line that I consider to be much more useful for gaming purposes than the older, flabbier, more game fiction-packed material tended to be.

Demon: the Fallen – The Supplements

I’ve reviewed the core book of Demon: the Fallen elsewhere, and come to the conclusion that it’s a fun game weighed down by a horrendously rushed core book with a terrible signal-to-noise ratio and rules which clearly weren’t finished when the game went to press (to the extent that they actively contradict one another at times). I hear tell that the lead developer actually had a health crisis during the making of the game, making them unable to complete the manuscript by the deadline and forcing White Wolf to make someone else step in and fill out all the Lores in a hurry. Frankly, if this isn’t true, then it’s kind of embarrassing for everyone involved, because only an awful crisis like that could possibly excuse the state the core book is in.

Still, the game has its advocates, and part of me wondered whether the subsequent supplements released in 2002 and 2003 (prior to the Classic World of Darkness being shut down in 2004) did anything to resolve the muddle of the core book. Luckily, DriveThruRPG ended up doing a sale of Demon stuff a while back, so I was able to pick up the supplements I was interested in and see for myself.

Demon Player’s Guide

This reasonably substantial book is a mixture of stuff which should really have been in the core book and stuff which, whilst, less essential, still presents a range of useful expansions that most Demon campaigns would be enriched by.

After some game fiction, the supplement kicks off with an extended meditation on Demon character creation, of the sort usually included in the Player’s Guides to the various World of Darkness games. Typically, these sections aren’t particularly useful to most experienced roleplayers, particularly if they’ve played a bunch of World of Darkness games before, but in the case of Demon: the Fallen the way the game casts PCs as demons who to varying extents are coloured and changed by the personalities, memories and residual faith of the human beings they have possessed this sort of in-depth discussion of all the different ways you can play that is extremely useful, to the point where I’d say it is almost essential.

The next chapter also comes under the “useful but not essential” category, being a discussion of Backgrounds and suggestions as to how they can be increased or decreased through IC action rather than through the advancement mechanics. Other chapters that provide interesting tweaks include the discussion of demonic relics, which helps to give those with the Lore of Forges something to do, and the provision of a range of magical rituals that demons can get together to do.

The two largest chapters presenting material which I think really should have been in the core book are those on the apocalyptic form and on Merits and Flaws. Merits and Flaws are an optional subsystem in all the Classic World of Darkness games, but they were an optional subsystem so widely used that by the time Demon: the Fallen was published it had become standard operating procedure to at least include the Merits and Flaws in the core rules as an appendix. That didn’t happen with The Fallen, I suspect as a result of the product being rushed to print before it was ready.

Likewise, the system for customising your own apocalyptic form might add another stage to character generation, but a) having the standard forms available lets you pick one off-the-rack if you want to save time, and b) being able to craft your own is so fun that most people won’t mind spending the time doing it anyway. What’s really rich though is the sidebar which says that they’d have loved to include more emphasis on the apocalyptic form of demons in the core book, but they simply didn’t have space. This is blatantly untrue – ample space could have been produced by trimming back the setting fiction, and the fact is they probably didn’t have time to finish this stuff off before Demon got rushed into print.

And that brings me to what is perhaps the most essential part of the Player’s Guide – the errata included in the introduction, which finally makes Demon actually playable. In particular, the errata includes the final, actual, method of working out whether your Torment perverts your attempts to use the low-Torment versions of your powers and forces you to do the high-Torment version instead, and interestingly it’s different from the two mutually contradictory ways the core rulebook advocates. This time, when you make the roll to pull off an evocation, you look at the numbers on your success dice and see how many are equal to or less than your Torment score. If a majority are, then the high-Torment version of your power goes off; if a majority aren’t, the low-Torment version goes off, and low-Torment wins ties.

This has several consequences. The most obvious is that it suddenly becomes much, much more viable to get off the low-Torment version of your powers as a starting character. The second consequence, and I’m genuinely not sure whether they intended this or not, is that the more difficult a task is, the less likely it is that your Torment will pervert it, and if the difficulty number is higher than your Torment score then it’s impossible to do the high-Torment version of a power by accident. In fact, since player characters start out at Torment 3 or 4, then it’s actually going to be fairly rare for them to be at any risk of accidentally using their high-Torment powers at all.

The flipside of this is that easier tasks are more likely to be perverted, particularly once your Torment score starts getting up there. The upshot of this is that demons concerned about how high their Torment is getting may find themselves having to restrict their use of their power to emergencies, because they know that spurious uses of their powers are more likely to be corrupted by their Torment and have unforeseen consequences. (And arguably, if you knew that your power might unintentionally hurt someone but you use it anyway, that’s a sin against the person you hurt which should prompt a further increase in your Torment.)

Still, this does render the whole Torment-taints-your-powers thing almost completely toothless in the early stages of a campaign. On the one hand, this may be positive – not being able to use any of your powers when you start out for fear of the consequences would outright suck, particularly if the high-Torment versions of your powers tended towards “flashy and of dubious utility” rather than “dangerous but useful”. On the other hand, it does neuter a whole aspect of the game unless a player goes hard down the “succumbing to my own Torment” line.

Still, of the three means we’ve been presented with so far for working out whether you accidentally go high-Torment, this one is probably the best, and on the whole the Player’s Guide goes a long way towards taking the mess which is core book Demon and reclaiming something workable out of it.

Demon Storyteller’s Companion

This came out hot on the heels of the core book, and whilst a slim 72-page volume I’d say it’s even more essential to fixing core Demon than the Player’s Guide is. Aside from two items, I think just about everything in here really, genuinely needed to be in the core book and is essential to have to hand if you are going to make a Demon campaign work. One of the two less-essential items is a brief rundown of the intended course of the metaplot for Demon; this is handy if you are worried about your home campaign matching the brief, abortive metaplot of a game line cut short by the destruction of its setting (and as I mentioned in my review of the Tribe 8 Weaver’s Assistant, providing advance notice of what direction the metaplot is going to go in is a politeness which is genuinely useful if someone does want to use the metaplot, and one which White Wolf hadn’t previously engaged in to my knowledge). The summary is brief enough too, taking up just a page or two, that I can’t really begrudge it the space.

The next not-quite-essential portion of the book is also the largest chapter in the book – a 24 page rumination on the different Factions and how they can be used in campaigns. First off, there’s a consideration of the difficulties of running games in which the PC demons belong to different Factions and how you can make that work – not only is this useful in its own right, this also provides clarification that multiple-Faction parties aren’t the assumed default, and that as political groupings go they are more akin to Sects in Vampire (where direct, overt cross-Sect collaboration and co-operation basically isn’t a thing) as opposed to Clans. The rest of the chapter is an in-depth look at each Faction, fleshing it out from the one-dimensional presentation given in the core book, offering notes on a few key NPCs (both overt leaders of the Faction and more covert operatives) and resources, and a brace of suggestions on how to use the Faction in campaigns – not just campaigns where the protagonists belong to the Faction or where the Faction is a major opposition force, but also those where it’s a neutral factor that could help either side.

What’s particularly neat about the NPC descriptions here is that they underscore that the Factions are new, at least as far as organised activity on Earth is concerned. Yes, their philosophical underpinnings may have been thrashed out during the long years in Hell, and yes, a few demons have escaped Hell in previous years to become Earthbound, but it is only recently with the steady trickle of Fallen to Earth that significant numbers of demons have been arriving on Earth in sufficient numbers for different political tendencies to coalesce into organised Factions and set to their work. In general, the Faction descriptions here aren’t absolutely necessary, but at the same time they’re so successful at fleshing out the Factions and giving some idea of how they work as viable entities that most Demon Storytellers will find it worth their while giving these briefings the once-over.

The remaining 45ish pages of material is all stuff which really, truly, should have been in the core book. First off, you have details on the Earthbound – what they are, what they can do, and what they’ve been doing in the millennia they’ve been free on Earth – which makes it viable to use them as opponents to the PCs at last. (It also implies that more or less every pre-Christian Empire out there was a puppet state of some powerful Earthbound, and that Christianity was a religion tailor-made to wreck the Earthbound’s plans, but heck, if you’re going to go with a Judeo-Christian basis for your cosmology you’re already kind of writing off every other culture as being utterly theologically deluded.)

You also have details on how demons are summoned from Hell – useful to explain how Earthbound got that way in the first place, but also vitally useful considering that the PCs are at least supposed to be planning on summoning their superiors up from Hell, even if they’ve actually gone off-mission – and a section running down just what’s going on with the spirit world anyway. This latter part is important because the disruption of the Maelstrom and the weakening of the Veil is what allowed the Fallen to escape Hell anyway, and so is presumably going to be of some interest to them (particularly if they want to open up away for others to reach Earth without going through the rigmarole of a formal summoning process). On top of that, it also gives some neat pointers on what the land of the dead looks like in the wake of the Wraith setting being obliterated, with ghosts clustering for shelter from the Maelstrom in regions where the Veil is weak, prompting a plague of haunting activities worldwide – an interesting plot hook in and of itself.

Whilst the spirit world chapter provides stats allowing Storytellers to run ghosts using the Demon core rules, the final chapter provides details on the other important denizens of the World of Darkness and how they relate to demons. This I felt was missing from the core book because, as well as being on Earth in the first place because of a cross-game metaplot, the Fallen are meant to be the apocalyptic heralds of the end of the world, and therefore a certain amount of crossover potential is to be expected. Stats are provided for the “Imbued” characters of Hunter: the Reckoning, mages, werewoofles and vampires; changelings are left out of the picture, but then again to me they’d feel kind of redundant in a Demon campaign, what with the Fallen themselves being otherworldly creatures from a different spiritual realm with an ambiguous-at-best relationship with humanity and a certain level of spiritual peril associated with them.

Just as the Player’s Guide mechanically fixes Demon, this slim volume fixes the setting, finally making it clear what the assumed parameters of a Demon campaign are and providing valuable insights into directly campaign-relevant subjects that could and really should have taken up space in the core book instead of the interminable game fiction about stuff the Fallen don’t even remember properly anyway.

Houses of the Fallen

This is another player-facing supplement, concerning the various Houses of the Fallen. Each House used to be an order of angels before they fell, and what type of Demon you are – Devil, Lammasu, whatever – hinges on what House you used to be in. This is distinct from whichever demonic legion you fought in during the war against God, and also distinct from whatever Faction of Fallen you support here on Earth, but obviously has profound effects on your character’s background. (It also dictates what Lores you have access to.)

To a large extent, Houses then constitutes a massive reorganisation, revision, and expansion of the background material presented in the core rulebook. That said, I think it’s organised in a much more useful way as far as game relevance goes – it’s much better at guiding players through thinking about what their character did pre-Fall, what they did in the war, and what they feel about their past and the major figures of their House. (It also provides a number of significant House-specific artifacts and rituals and major NPCs from each House.) Each chapter is like a mini-background briefing for members of each House, and to be honest if put in charge of a 20th Anniversary Edition of core Demon I would be inclined to change the background section to focus more on the sort of character-relevant stuff this focuses on, rather than spending 100 pages waffling about not very much because White Wolf had much more solid ideas about the specifics of being a demon than they did about the big picture.

It’s still a bit too much background bumf for my taste and would prefer if it had been trimmed a bit, and I can’t see much use for the concluding chapter about making House more relevant in the game (because frankly I find Factional politics, the demands of demonic masters, the threat of the Earthbound and the conflict between the Fallen and their human memories and personality to be more than enough for players to be contending with), but between the more focused discussions of the background and the tips on character creation choices I’d say that this is a better introduction to the game’s background than the core rulebook is for players.

Earthbound

The inevitable antagonists supplement, including full rules for generating Earthbound (and even playing them if you want to go there), this is another supplement which devotes a lot of space to talking about history and backstory though. In this case, though I don’t mind that so much, because this isn’t history the players are expected to digest before playing your average Demon campaign – rather than being the personal backstory of the player characters, this material constitutes a set of mysteries for the PCs to explore and discover in play. In the process, the designers get Demon out of the ugly trap it had got into where it was sort of implying that Christianity is the correct religion and everyone else is worshipping demons by mistake: in this round of the gameworld’s history (the third rendition given in the Demon line by my reckoning), it turns out that Judaism and Christianity and Buddhism all that were inspired by Lucifer in order to sabotage the Earthbound, so at least in this history of the world absolutely everyone’s religious viewpoint gets put through the wringer.

Likewise, the extensive section on how the Earthbound and their cults operate is useful precisely because this is the sort of intelligence which player characters can find out in play as they try to work out what the Earthbound’s deal is and how to defeat them – and it’s all useful material for the referee in coming up with scenarios. Whilst at some points in the proceedings the supplement crosses the bounds of good taste – particularly when it comes to rape – it’s much more sensitive about doing so than some antagonist supplements White Wolf produced back in the day (Freak Legion, the Fomori guidebook for Werewolf, is regularly cited as one of the sickest things ever put out under the Black Dog imprint) and these tend to be minor slips rather than major, intrinsic features of the supplement which you can’t remove without undermining what it’s trying to accomplish.

Any game line benefits from expanding on the PCs’ major antagonists, but Demon at this point especially needed it – whilst the Storyteller’s Guide had clarified some basics about the Earthbound and made it clear that they were supposed to be the major adversaries of the Fallen, I think it’s only with Earthbound that you get a set of tools robust enough to really make them fill that role – for instance, we finally have a set of Lores unique to the Earthbound to actually give them the power to accomplish the things the fluff says they are supposed to be able to do – and I’d certainly say that most of this material needs to be in a 20th Anniversary version of Demon if Onyx Path decide to do one.

City of Angels

This was White Wolf’s attempt to throw together a setting book for Demon , and whilst I don’t expect to be holding onto it, it’s interesting for how the effort to produce a conventional single-city setting for the game ended up butting up against the basic premises of the game.

For starters, I would strenuously argue that the very axioms of the game mitigate against focusing a Demon campaign on a single city. Firstly, it should be remembered that the core game assumes that the PCs are amongst the first wave of Fallen; the Fallen are rare, and indeed City of Angels acknowledges that usually the Fallen population of a city is much, much smaller than that of the Los Angeles depicted here. A certain amount of road trippin’ to track down people and places of interest is to be expected, especially considering that remnants and relics of the war against God could conceivably be found anywhere.

To be fair, City of Angels does make an effort to explain why its LA has such a high Demon population: a trickle of Fallen were attracted to the city thanks to the potential of the entertainment industry as a source of Faith, and then a flood came rushing in as, during a night of Earthbound-inspired rioting following an Earthbound-engineered earthquake, the long-missing Lucifer briefly revealed himself, prompting every Fallen with a shred of interest in the Morningstar to come running.

I have several problems with this setup, quite apart from the fact that it revolves around a metaplot event from tie-in fiction. Firstly, I don’t like the way the supplement assumes that a bunch of Fallen rolled into LA and set up an Infernal Court before the PCs could possibly intervene, because that seems to contradict the core premise that the PCs are amongst the first wave of Fallen. Secondly, I think the Lucifer thing is overkill; not only does it toss out a canon answer to the “Where’s Lucifer?” question which won’t fit everyone’s campaign, but it also makes LA too important. Even though the Luciferians are the most Morningstar-centric of the Factions, just about all of them have compelling reasons to make tracking the big guy down a top priority, so there’s no good reason for anyone not to go to LA as fast as possible.

The biggest problem I have with it, though, is that it doesn’t really address the bigger problem I have with the idea of a single-city focused Demon campaign: namely, that Demon: the Fallen is supposed to be a full-on no-holds-barred apocalyptic game in every sense of the word, and any apocalypse truly worthy of the name really needs to play out on a global stage.

However, over a decade of precedent was weighing down on the Demon team at this point. The city-based sourcebook scheme made absolute sense for Vampire because Vampire made a very strong case for bloodsuckers having this very atomistic city-state model for their society. It then became a tradition which was applied to subsequent product lines because it was easy to do so. (Indeed, though I haven’t checked I’m sure there’s extensive copy-pasting of content from LA By Night into here, particularly with the section discussing local areas and landmarks and the maps.)

The thing is, though, Demon isn’t Vampire, and I think Demon particularly suffers if you try to treat it like it is. As such, I have almost no use for the discussion here of the Infernal Courts demons supposedly try to set up in cities when there’s enough of them. What particularly irks me is that these all have the same structure and ministries, regardless of whether the demons arranging them are loyalists out to summom their superiors from Hell, traitors who have sold out to the Earthbound, self-serving types who want to see themselves in charge, self-improving types who want to purge their Torment and return to angelhood, or are pursuing any of the other goals a Fallen might find themselves drawn to.

I particularly don’t like how these courts are parachuted into the setting as faits accompli when, say it together now, the PCs are meant to be among the first wave of Fallen, but what really kills the idea for me is the concept that a) any demon worthy of the name would footle around trying to rule a city when there’s a world to win out there, and b) anyone other than Fallen retaining their loyalty to their superiors in Hell would want to follow the old court structure (which supposedly dates back to the war era) in the first place – and given how many different demands there are on a Fallen’s loyalty, and how few Fallen there are likely to be in a particular area, I don’t see how you’d gather together enough loyalists in one place to make organising a court worthwhile.

Yes, blahblah, demons are creatures of hierarchy, but they’re also just as much creatures of rebellion, if not more so. Demons have no place organising governments when you can fit all the demons they’d want to govern in the local area around one largeish dining table. I can see the need in the game for some sort of social unit for Fallen to join, but it makes more sense for them to form intelligence agencies like in Demon: the Descent, or secret societies, or organised crime outfits, or cults, or small corporations, depending on what their agenda is.

Ultimately, I can’t endorse City of Angels because it relies on an unsupportable interpretation of Demon that promotes a campaign structure and an IC power structure that both fail to engage with what is best about the game.

The Puzzle Completed

Here, I think, I’ll draw my exploration of the game line to a close. The adventure supplements and fiction books are of little interest to me, and the only other two supplements I have been warned are heavy on the game fiction, light on actual useful material, and either way seem redundant to me. One is about hunters who go after demons, and The Hunters Hunted II for V20 is frankly the first and last word on playing monster hunters in the Classic World of Darkness as far as I am concerned; the other is about playing thralls of demons, and to be honest between core Demon and Hunters Hunted II I reckon I’ve got that covered to.

That said, I have to say that of the supplements I did check out I am very favourably impressed (except for City of Angels). The impression I had from core Demon is that there was an actually quite impressive game buried deep down in there – the problem was that the core book was so badly botched as to almost completely obscure it. The Demon team not only managed to put out a brace of supplements that teased out the game I wanted to believe was hiding in there, but made it purr like a finely-tuned engine. That they were able to do this in the mere 2 years available to them before the ceiling fell in on the Classic World of Darkness is actually very impressive.