Overlooked Hardbacks of AD&D 2E

Among grognards of a certain generation the hardbacks of 1E AD&D are looked on especially fondly. At first they just consisted of the three generally-embraced core books plus Deities & Demigods (pushed as a core book by Gary Gygax himself when it first came out) and Fiend Folio, consisting largely of monsters submitted to White Dwarf by British gamers with all the wild and wacky variation in quality which comes from that. After Gary came back from his stint in Hollywood pushing for the production of a D&D movie in order to take the reins again and turn around TSR’s flagging sales, he made the periodic publication of new hardbacks a top priority. This process began with Monster Manual II, a decent monster supplement largely dedicated to providing a whole mess of lawful neutral, neutral good, chaotic neutral and neutral evil monsters, since those categories hadn’t been formally included in the alignment system when the first Monster Manual was being composed, plus further embellishing the ranks of devils and demons and other such monster categories; it then led to products with rather mixed receptions like Unearthed Arcana, Oriental Adventures, and the Manual of the Planes and by the end of the line the hardback series varied between putting out highly setting-specific stuff like Dragonlance Adventures and corresponding books for Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms on the one hand and on the other hand churning out poorly-received content-light books like the Wilderness Survival Guide and Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, which aside from restating the proficiency rules introduced in Oriental Adventures really didn’t merit being presented as a major supplement.

Less celebrated or acknowledged is the way that the approach of putting out a series of hardback books with trade dress to match the core rulebooks providing major, central expansions to the system continued during 2E. Some of these books have been widely commented on; Legends & Lore gets attention as the direct 2E sequel to Deities & Demigods, whilst the Player’s Option books provided a range of extremely controversial alternate systems which many have characterised as the rise of a “2.5E” comparable to 3.5E, but the comparison there doesn’t quite work – not only am I not aware of anyone implementing all the Player’s Option rules (indeed, I think some of the options presented were mutually exclusive), but on top of that almost no subsequent products assumed that you were using Player’s Option, more or less guaranteeing that the proposed tweaks to the system would gain no traction.

For this article, I’m going to take a look at three hardbacks which to my knowledge haven’t been commented on that much – despite being interesting insights into the development and approach of early 2E and the system’s drift in the mid-1990s.

Tome of Magic

Compiled by “Zeb” Cook following on from his work producing the core 2E books, Zeb’s introduction talks about how he didn’t just want to produce a book which was a big list of extra spells, but for the most part that (along with a grab-bag of whimsical new magic items) is what the Tome is. That said, some of the new ideas that Cook throws in for good measure do help to flesh out the 2E magic system.

Although the infamous wild mage stands out here, additional options for wizards are also given. In particular, there’s guidelines on playing an elementalist, providing a nice showcase of how you don’t have to be limited by the standard division of spells into schools when coming up with specialist mages for 2E purposes. The book also introduces the idea of “metamagic” – subject of so much unfortunate power gaming and character build optimisation in its 3E implementation – but it’s moderated somewhat by the fact that metamagic effects arise not from some sort of Feats equivalent but by casting spells, so if you want to do a bunch of metamagic stuff you will need to devote some spell slots to the metamagic spells which allow you to modify other spells.

There’s also a range of nice new options for priests – new spheres are proposed and filled out with spells which will help anyone trying to round out a pantheon (the spheres of Law, War, and Wards are particularly appropriate and welcome in this respect), and guidelines are offered on Quest spells – off-the-scale priest spells of incredible power that are given out not on request like other priest spells but are bestowed under particular circumstances at the discretion of a priest’s deity. On top of that, the book introduces the possibility of clerics with a shared faith (or at least allied gods) coming together to perform group ceremonies of greater collective power than they could have accomplished individually, and provides appropriate spells to enable and support that, explicitly underlining that this is a special thing that priests can do but wizards can’t.

The really nice thing about these various additions is that they really help underscore the demarcation between wizardly and clerical magic, emphasising how one involves personal manipulation of occult forces (exemplified by the wild mage, who isn’t entirely in control of their own power, and users of metamagic who use their knowledge to modify their capabilities on the fly), whilst the other involves personal service to a higher power with its own priorities and agenda (Quest spells) and a faith shared with a wider community (collective spellcasting). I wouldn’t necessarily want to make all the options in Tome of Magic available at once – like any game supplement, I’d want to exercise a lot of discretion as to what features actually make the cut in my campaigns – but equally I think it’s a useful resource to have to hand.

Book of Artifacts

Another Zeb Cook contribution, this consists largely of a book-length treatment of the subject of magical artifacts. Taking in all the old favourites from the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide and throwing in a bunch of new artifacts, in keeping with the general “context is king” approach of this period of 2E the individual entries not only concentrate a lot on the histories of the items in question but also throw in suggestions for thematically-appropriate ways to destroy the items in question. There’s also a good essay on how D&D artifacts are designed and what pitfalls to avoid and what to remember to include, as well as a detailed bit at the end describing how PCs can construct and recharge their own magic items – covering a bit of a disappointing gap in the 2E Dungeon Master’s Guide. Since the supplement spends a lot of time talking about general system-independent considerations in artifact design and in presenting the artifacts in question, this is a supplement which can find use in pretty much any edition of D&D, or any game in which powerful-but-perilous artifacts like those in D&D are thematically appropriate.

Dungeon Master Option: High-Level Campaigns

This came out in 1995, alongside the much more controversial Player’s Option books, and was written by Skip Williams who would go on to be one of the co-designers of 3E (and the one who had served at TSR/Wizards the longest out of the team of Williams, Tweet and Cook). The Player’s Option books were controversial mainly for offering a bunch of highly divergent options for radically changing major D&D systems, and are sometimes seen as being testbeds for experimental game systems – a way for TSR to test the ground for a prospective third edition of D&D. Many of their innovations didn’t make the cut, like the spell point system. Conversely, there’s a bunch of ideas in here which would eventually creep into 3E; for instance, Williams provides guidelines for assigning full PC-style ability scores to monsters, a shift which would become standard in 3E, and provides a replacement system for magic item creation which seems easier to handle, is less reliant on the DM feeling generous, and generally seems to make it a bit easier for PCs to craft magic items on a regular basis.

In principle, Williams is trying to address the issues of high-level play that make it difficult to handle. In practice, however, the results seemed a bit mixed. A lot of the advice offered consists of broadly good ideas which you should be applying at lower levels anyway, like crediting opponents with the level of intelligent they are supposed to have rather than playing monsters as utter idiots who don’t know their own strengths and weaknesses and don’t come up with sensible tactics and don’t have any sense of self-preservation. Other contributions seem to be counter-productive; if you want to convince DMs that high-level play is viable and won’t degenerate into the PCs utterly steamrolling everything, tacking on rules to take PCs up to 30th level and adding amazing new powers they get on the way there kind of isn’t the way to do it.

Skip Williams was, for a long time, in charge of the Sage Advice column in Dragon which would answer people’s rules queries. This, perhaps, ended up shaping his approach to design; for instance one section in the book consists of a bunch of what are effectively patch notes for existing spells from the core books and Tome of Magic, adding new constraints and details on them to deal with edge cases and potential exploits. This feels to me like the start of the “system as software” approach which would result in 3.5E emerging to patch perceived problems in 3E and, eventually, the endless rolling releases of errata for 4E – in other words, features of Wizards-era D&D which turned me off their versions and which 5E has thankfully dialled back on. Then again, this also seems to be an artifact of TSR apparently trying to have their cake and eat it when it came to the rollout of these Player’s/DM Option books, in that they seem to have not wanted to do a third edition but at the same time clearly want to make sweeping changes and tweaks to the game of the sort which you’d really want to roll out a new edition to implement.

Perhaps the most damning feature of the book is that, despite of all its talk about the necessary thinking behind running high-level adventures, it doesn’t really come up with a model for them that isn’t just a more garish and high-stakes version of the “adventuring party wanders around righting wrongs” model for lower-level play – which I suppose explains why so much of the advice is actually equally applicable to earlier phases in a campaign. The assumption that adventuring looks the same no matter what level you are seems to be axiomatic to Wizards-era D&D, but there’s fairly clear evidence here that the attitude was spreading in TSR even before Wizards bought them out.

What I find absolutely maddening about this is that up until around this point D&D actually had offered a range of propositions and models for how high-level play could work as a distinctive style from low-level play, both in the AD&D line and in BECMI, which this book almost completely ignores. There’s some redundant discussion of ascending to godhood which doesn’t really add much to what’s offered in Legends & Lore, but there is, so far as I can tell, absolutely no reference to domain management. Making your own temple, castle, or thieves’ guild and gathering a bunch of lower-level followers had been a feature of D&D since its original publication, but which ironically had enjoyed far better support in BECMI than in the Advanced line, so this was a golden opportunity to address that that Skip completely blows.

To be fair, it might not be entirely his fault. The same year this came out saw the debut of Birthright, a campaign setting specifically designed around and focused on domain management. However, the domain management rules there were extremely closely tied to the campaign setting (to the point where if I remember right players were expected to have the ruler’s supplement for their domain handy in order to play the game), and as such wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate for a straight port to, say, Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk. Given that this book is already extremely happy to revisit mechanics published elsewhere, you’d think that providing a more generic take on the Birthright domain management system for use with other settings would be a good idea, but perhaps management decided to keep that exclusive to Birthright.

At the end of the day, I rather think that if you end up playing 2E to the extent that you’d need to do to get characters up to these stratospheric heights, over time you would become versed enough with the system that you wouldn’t need a guidebook to tell you how to handle your PCs anyway; nor does Skip really convince me that the best thing to do isn’t to just retire PCs when they hit the level where they break the game and start over. This DM opts not to use this book.

Washbourne’s Brands of Sword and Sorcery

Simon Washbourne ranks alongside Kevin Crawford as one of the best one-man-band acts in traditional RPG design these days, turning out fun little RPGs based around strong concepts with interesting mechanics tending towards the rules-light end of the spectrum. I’ve previously looked at his Woodland Warriors line and other games he has written derived from Swords & Wizardry/OD&D; this time I am going to look at two games at different ends of his CV, each of which provides a distinctive look at a particular flavour of the sword & sorcery fantasy subgenre. The first, Barbarians of Lemuria, is arguably the game that put Washbourne on the map, a free version having come out in 2004 before being expanded into various later editions, whilst Crimson Blades is a more recent effort which builds on the tweaks he made to OD&D when producing Woodland Warriors.

Continue reading “Washbourne’s Brands of Sword and Sorcery”

Microscope Under the Microscope

One of the things that enraged me about Ron Edwards’ awful brain damage thing is that Ron wheeled out his horrible opinions on how White Wolf games warp developing minds in the process of making a point which was actually fairly reasonable, but which got derailed by the impossibly crass way he expressed it and the terrible ideas he wheeled out in the process of being crass.

That point is one I’ve also wheeled out a lot in discussion of artsy narrative-y indie RPGs: that many such games would benefit from walking away from the conventions of tabletop RPGs altogether. For instance, some games seem to retain ideas like players having a particular identification and control over a particular character, or particular bits of the scenario being under particular people’s authority, when that just doesn’t serve them well.

Such is not the case with Microscope, which marches into novel territory so firmly that I’d almost hesitate to call it a role-playing game. It sort of is, since it’s a game in which role-playing can take place and is explicitly supported as part of the process, but at the same time it’s a game where that is just one aspect of play and an awful lot can happen without any role-identification occurring whatsoever.

Continue reading “Microscope Under the Microscope”

Back to Vampiric Basics

There’s often something to be said for going back to the first edition of an RPG to see the original presentation of its central ideas. This is especially worth it in game lines which have seen an extensive amount of metaplot afflicting them – including pretty much any World of Darkness RPG. As subsequent editions came out such games often gain an accretion disc of canon, continuity, drift from the original concept resulting from different creative visions being glued onto the original over the years, and occasionally fun parts of the game getting excised by game designers getting mad at those pesky customers “playing it wrong”.

The various 20th anniversary editions of the World of Darkness RPGs are excellent resources, but in my view if you want to use them you’re going to want to have one of the earlier core rulebooks on the side just to help give things some focus. The 20th anniversary releases are so densely packed with information that it can lead to a certain amount of choice paralysis, so it’s good to have an earlier, simpler summation of the game in question to help get some focus and see what the baseline assumptions for campaigns were when the games first came out so you can then decide what later tangents and deviations to bolt on. On that level, the 1st editions tend to work best precisely because they lay out the original vision for a game without later addition and second-guessing.

The earliest version of Vampire: the Masquerade is of particular interest, because it pretty much set the format that the subsequent World of Darkness games would follow. Like OD&D, it represents one of those “catching lightning in a bottle” moments that changed the face of the hobby. So when I got an opportunity to snag it and some early Vampire supplements on the cheap, I jumped at it – let’s see if I’m going to come down with a case of buyer’s remorse.

Vampire: the Masquerade 1st Edition

One thing that really hits you about reading the original Vampire rulebook is how intensely rich in atmosphere it is. Yes, the writing can go off on pretentious little tangents here and there – there’s an especially risible bit at the beginning where it claims that tabletop RPGs are the revival of an ancient tradition of oral storytelling that has been dying out in the modern age, a theory that trips over itself when it tries to claim that chatting about the day’s events is an example of that oral tradition and, whilst I admit I was 9 at the time, I’m pretty sure idle gossip wasn’t a dying art back in 1991.

But these diversions are just that – momentary diversions quickly gotten over. Vampire has to introduce the game concept, setting and system in about 260 pages of fairly basically laid-out text. (The production values are eye-opening simple; later printings even of 1E would add some flair here and there, but my early-printing hard copy has a look which both Tales of Gargentihr and SLA Industries would in the same time both end up edging ahead of, despite being small press releases from companies even smaller than White Wolf was at the time.) It simply doesn’t have time to fuss around, but succeeds very well in conveying a distinctive tone in few words.

This brevity extends to the in-game fiction, which more or less confines itself to a no-bullshit introduction to the setting, a section of more speculative stuff at the end, section dividers which depict a new vampire overcoming his reluctance to hunt and a series of simple but effective illustrations depicting a doomed love story between an ancient Babylonian vampire and a man she Embraces because she thinks he is the reincarnation of her long-dead king. (Risibly, he grows a douchey little soul patch when vamped.) These are simple, effective, and get the point across without clumsiness.

Much is made of how the conflict of Elders vs. Anarchs and other young upstarts is given more prominence in the first edition of the game than the Camarilla vs. Sabbat conflict; in actual fact, it seems to me that both conflicts are alluded to just as often and to a comparable level of depth. The real difference is that this edition very much emphasises the tight city focus of Vampire, to the point where it makes a rather Requiem-like point about how different sets of Clans may have prominence in different cities. Only one of the proposed campaign models presented in the GMing chapters explicitly involves getting involved in Camarilla politics, whilst more revolve around city politics in a way which would tend to put the PCs on one side or the other of the Elder-Anarch conflict. This is to be expected, because inter-city turf wars between Sects are going to be intrinsically more difficult to interact with than intra-city conflicts under the assumed modes of play here.

One thing I am rather glad that later editions of the game dropped is the possibility of returning to mortal status – killing one’s Sire being given as a possible way to do it. The game notes that if the Storyteller makes this a possibility, it is likely to dominate the campaign – but also seems to assume that this is what most campaigns will do. Personally, I can think of nothing more fatal to the brand of personal horror the book is trying to push than making such an exit available, and a game about playing vampires where the PCs are putting most of their energies towards violently rejecting the premise of the game seems to me to defeat the purpose. Even the artist of the ongoing story in the illustrations seems to think this is bullshit; the caption of the final illustration in the story suggests that the protagonist has become human again but is still haunted by recollections of his brief time as a vampire, but his actual facial expression suggests that he’s very much “dead and loving it”.

Of course, this isn’t the only way that the game thwarts itself. The Storytelling chapter emphatically warns the Storyteller not to override the free will of the players – a premise which is good, but renders questionable the inclusion of Dominate as an in-game power. Likewise, it explicitly encourages the Storyteller to trick the players into letting enemies into their Haven so that it can be destroyed for the sake of the plot, which seems to prod people towards the douchier incarnations of “illusionism”-style railroading.

Yes, the White Wolf tendency to throw in really bad refereeing device may not cause brain damage, but it’s deeply irritating and is in force here. Perhaps the worst example is the sample adventure, in which the PCs are summoned to a party by the Prince of Gary, Indiana, get to talk to some NPCs, and are asked to deliver a letter to the Prince of Chicago – and, erm, that’s it. Deeply exciting exploration of personal horror it ain’t. This is a particular shame because the previous chapter includes Gary, Indiana as an excellent example of how to construct a setting for Vampire, taking the reader through how Mark Rein*Hagen cooked up the setting for the original playtest campaign and providing a brace of NPCs and locations that can be used as-is or reskinned accordingly.

Later printings of the book – including the one that the DriveThruRPG PDF is based on – included an afterword by Mark Rein*Hagen. For the most part he uses it to waffle about how he penned this vampires-with-superpowers game as an exploration of evil and gives a sophomoric lecture about how evil is totes a necessary part of the world, man. (He also ends it with that silly little PAX! he used to sign this sort of thing off with back in the day.) But he does, at least, provide a useful list of influences – a sort of equivalent to the AD&D 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide‘s much-celebrated Appendix N. Let’s take a look at what is in there, shall we?

Novels

The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, Dracula by Bram Stoker. Um, duh.

Those Who Haunt the Night by Barbra Hambly. I think Mork Rain-Hogan means Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly, but that’s how it’s spelled here. Not read it, can’t comment, Hambly usually turns in good work though so I should probably track it down.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman. Why yes, Mark does refer to it as a graphic novel, as all overdefensive comic book guys would. Probably more insightful for the purposes of reading what all the goths were reading at the time and staying close to the zeitgeist than any actual relevance to Vampire; in World of Darkness terms, I would say that Sandman is if anything more of a foundational text for Changeling: the Dreaming.

Time Enough For Love by Robert Heinlein. Lazarus Long is not a vampire, though I guess on some level the book is relevant as a novel-length rumination on what it would practically mean to be immortal. The Heinlein connection would be more pertinent in the light of later entries in the list, so I’ll revisit it in a bit.

Movies

Near DarkVampThe Hunger, the original silent version of Nosferatu, the Bela Lugosi DraculaLost Boys. Again, duh. In particular, the occasional references to groups of vampires cruising around the backroads in blacked-out RVs seems to be a direct nod to Near Dark.

Blue Velvet. Shows excellent taste, and although at first glance I thought its relevance was questionable actually, now that I think about it, there is something to the way the movie starts out dominated by daytime scenes before becoming increasingly nocturnal, until the return of daylight at the end, which puts me in mind of the sort of journey into literal and figurative darkness that Vampire entails.

Rear Window. The relevance of this I cannot grasp.

AlienAliens. Given that body horror wouldn’t emerge in a major way in Vampire until the Tzimisce were introduced, I submit that at this point in the movie list Rein*Hagen is actively taking the piss.

Games

Ars Magica. Claiming to be profoundly influenced by something you co-authored is kind of amazingly egotistical and self-serving. Fair play to Mark, though – the Tremere were taken directly from Ars Magica, and the relationship of Clans to the Camarilla is a nicely realised reskin of the relationship of the various Houses to the Order of Hermes.

RuneQuest. I suspect the main thing taken from here is the way characters derive special powers and abilities from social groupings; in RuneQuest skill training and spells are offered via cults, in Vampire your Disciplines are based on your Clan. Both are good mechanisms to encourage players to buy into the setting and see their character as part of it rather than a visitor to it.

Shadowrun. The system is basically ripped bleeding from here, converted to D10s, and radically simplified.

Call of Cthulhu. Derangements in Vampire riff on the sanity system; the Humanity stat in some respects works like Cthulhu Mythos/Sanity in Call of Cthulhu in terms of providing a game mechanic which over time may blow up a character.

Pendragon. Probably the personality mechanics are an influence.

GURPS Horror. Not read it, but the GURPS system probably provided an influence on the way Backgrounds are purchased.

CORPS. This is a generic RPG that I’m not very familiar with and doesn’t quite seem interesting enough for me to bother to research. Perhaps someone who knows it better can help point out what Vampire borrows from it.

Illuminati. Presumably Mark refers to the card game. GURPS Illuminati would have been very relevant, since it’s the pre-eminent setting-agnostic text on conspiracy-themed RPG campaigns. However, it didn’t come out until 1992. Literally the only ways the Illuminati card game seems to have influenced Vampire is in the existence of shadowy conspiracies in the setting, and in the occasional nod to the Robert Anton Wilson corner of the counterculture. (The opening bit of fiction straightfacedly states that the increased use of recreational drugs in the 1960s opened people’s minds to mystical realities that the vampires had been trying to suppress, and thus began the process of undermining the Masquerade.)

Dungeons & Dragons. Let’s face it – Clans are basically character classes. And D&D did establish the traditional RPG format that Vampire follows to the letter, save for the odd nod to LARPing.

“Everything written by…”

Carl Jung. The use of Archetypes in character generation would be the main one here.

Joseph Campbell. Everyone who talks utter unsupported tosh about stories likes to cite Campbell.

Herman Hesse, Albert Camus, P.B. Shelly. All hallmarks of the misunderstood adolescent reading list, check.

Milan Kundera, Mercea Eliade, Vaclav Havel, fucking Ayn Rand. Ok, this is a pretty diverse and interesting crew. Milan Kundera did The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I haven’t read, and Life is Elsewhere, which I quite like. (Ironically, it’s about an egotist who is convinced he is a great poet based on nothing more than acclaim from parental and governmental authority figures.) Relevance to Vampire: nonexistent. Vaclav Havel was a prominent dissident in Communist-era Czechoslovakia who ended up being the country’s first post-Communist president (and president of the Czech Republic after the divorce), known in the US mainly for being a big environmentalist and Frank Zappa fan. Relevance to Vampire: nil. Ayn Rand was Ayn Rand and therefore awful; if she were the only one of these people cited, I’d suggest she was probably down there as a “this is what self-serving Elders actually believe” sort of thing, but there’s a connection here I’m going to go into in a bit. Mercea Eliade is the only writer out of these four who actually wrote a vampire novel; he was also a hardcore fascist who supported the Iron Guard in Romania in his writing, campaigned for their political wing, and ended up accepting a diplomatic post under the Iron Guard regime and the subsequent (still murderously fascist) regime of Ion Antonescu.

Now, what do these people have in common? They are all known for tangling with Communism. Kundera jousted with the censors often; Havel led a revolution that ousted the Communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia. Ayn Rand’s entire schtick is based around a furious opposition to Communism that went so far as to condemn anything hinting of collectivism or considering that human beings have even the slightest responsibility towards other members of society. Eliade was an actual, no-kidding, full-bore fascist whose political campaigning helped create ideological support for genocide and whose weaselly post-war attempts to deny being all that involved with them doesn’t survive exposure to the facts; his views on Communism were, shall we say, fairly easy to guess.

Let’s be clear about this: Rein*Hagen recomments “everything written by” these people. That includes Rand’s turgid, overwhelmingly selfish, and monumentally dull Objectivist texts; the long John Galt rant in Atlas Shrugged, apparently, is just as informative to a Vampire: the Masquerade game as Interview With the Vampire is. It also includes Eliade’s less mystical and vampire-y and more problematic political works.

To my knowledge, nobody has ever really commented on this. This is odd, because a passionate opposition to Communism seems to be a recurring thing in Rein*Hagen’s work here. The book is actually dedicated to Vaclav Havel, and in the opening fiction the narrating vampire gives the usual spiel about how not all atrocities in human history can be laid at the feet of vampires, the example he goes for isn’t Hitler and the Holocaust – the usual go-to example when people cook up this sort of thing – but Karl Marx and the atrocities committed by Communist regimes.

Now, this is a very particular flavour of anti-Communism we are looking at here. Lots of people have very legitimately criticised the terrible things that Communist regimes all over the world have done, but it’s entirely possible to take on a position that criticises that, and even connects those to weaknesses in Communism as an economic and philosophical system, without so directly connecting Marx to them as to imply that he bore a personal responsibility to, say, the Ukrainian famines or the Gulags or the Cultural Revolution.

This puts the narrator at a bit of an extreme. There’s lots of people who think Communism is a good idea but that it was botched in its implementation by the likes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and so on in various different ways. On top of that, plenty of people on the left and right have taken the position that Marx was at best an economic doctor who was good at diagnosing what was going on but bad at prescribing a course of treatment, at worst an idealistic dope who didn’t account for the inevitability of people acting in bad faith undermining attempts to achieve Communism. You can agree or disagree with those positions all you like, but they’re all consistent, defensible positions which allow you to express a disagreement with Communism without demonising Karl Marx.

The narration, however, jumps straight from Marx to the Killing Fields, as though the atrocities brought about by dictatorial Communist regimes were the direct and inevitable result of Marx’s writing just as the Holocaust was clearly pointed to by Mein Kampf. In other words, the narrator seems to take the position that Marxism was not a good idea corrupted by bad people, and was not merely a flawed or incoherent philosophy, but an actively evil philosophy.

Does Mark Rein*Hagen believe this? In the absence of this reading list, I would have tended to assume that this just reflects the biases of the narrator in question. However, when you combine hero-worship of Vaclav Havel, glowing endorsement of a bevy of anti-Communist writers ranging from entirely uncontentious sorts (Havel and Kundera) to extremists (Rand) to actual fascists (Eliade), and throw in a dose of Robert Heinlein (another famed anti-Communist and hardline libertarian), and it becomes difficult not to conclude that this is Rein*Hagen’s stance.

This is not to say that Rein*Hagen is an actual Nazi, so much as he seems to be a product of the post-1960s counterculture with a right-libertarian/right-anarchist spin; the sort of guy who is against the War On Drugs and for personal freedom, but gets a bee in his bonnet about taxation, collective responsibility to other human beings, and government getting involved in stuff. (In other words, a useful idiot for anyone wanting to promote a cyberpunk future where corporations exert more powerful than governments.) You can sort of see this in the structure of vampire society – there’s no form of government presented other than medieval despotism, and the underdogs who we are probably supposed to sympathise with are the Anarchs.

Still, this sort of libertarianism leads you to sleep with strange bedfellows – some of them, like Eliade, wear Iron Guard pyjamas. There’s a lot of people on the euphemistically-named online “Alt-Right” (rebranded neofascism) and “Dark Enlightenment” (rebranded neomonarchism/neofeudalism) movements who seem to have drifted into there after spending a while toking on the right-libertarian/anarchocapitalist pipe. Moreover, the gothic subculture actually has a bit of a nasty problem with genuine neofascists trying to promote their ideas there – there’s a bunch of musicians in the industrial/neofolk scene, for instance, who range between sailing close to the wind and explicitly exploring obscure fascist philosophical strands like Strasserism to just being outright Nazis. I have seen several people who started out digging the sort of ideas prominent on Rein*Hagen’s reading list but ended up slipping into pushers for fascist mystics like Julius Evola and Death In June.

Thankfully, Rein*Hagen’s personal evolution doesn’t seem to have taken him in that direction; at most, he seems to have been a geekbertarian (of a variety that would later congregate on Reddit tipping their fedoras to each other) with a slightly concerning tendency to gloss over the unappealing parts of people’s ideology if they scream loudly enough about how bad Communism is. (To take a Robert Heinlein example, more Stranger In a Strange Land or mmmmaybe The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress than Starship Troopers or Farnham’s Freehold.) It’s somewhat unfortunate that such an important text to gaming history ends by recommending the work of an unrepentant fascist, somewhat odd that a game that hinges on creating a sense of community and collective purpose amongst the PCs should recommend Ayn Rand, and somewhat ironic that, given the more progressive politics that seem to have persisted at White Wolf in subsequent years, that Vampire has this streak of radical individualism at the heart of it.

Then again, if anyone in the World of Darkness is going to be libertarian, it’s going to be the vampires.

Player’s Guide and Storyteller’s Handbook

When you have a boom on your hands, sometimes you end up shovelling shit out of the door just for the sake of feeding it. Such is the case with the original Player’s Guide and Storyteller’s Handbook, which are chock-full of evidence of that brain-damaging incoherence Ron Edwards was so upset about from the vampire obviously walking about in sunlight on the cover of the Player’s Guide onwards. The books aren’t altogether worthless – the better bits, like the merits and flaws system from the Player’s Guide, would eventually make it into later iterations of the core book – but there’s a fair amount of filler in both, which sometimes flies in the face of what the books offer.

For instance, each book contains a selection of essays about what individual White Wolf team members think about being a player or Storyteller, but these tend more towards empty waffling about their personal experiences without offering much beyond platitudes and obvious hints when it comes to providing advice on evoking a similar experience. On top of that, in the Player’s Guide this section comes next to a chapter stuffed with weapons stats and other goodies, rather undermining any attempt to convince players that this Totes Isn’t Like One of Those Hack-and-Slash Roll-Playing Games.

One point of interest in the Storyteller’s Handbook is Mark Rein*Hagen’s anecdote about how he got upset as a novice referee when his players outsmarted him and managed to complete a James Bond-style espionage mission in 10 minutes, which I guess is an insight into the style of Storytelling that White Wolf promoted; between that and Ron Edwards’ stuff, it seems an awful lot of people lauded in some circles as visionaries and slammed in others as The Cancer That Is Killing RPGs are actually just strongly responding to a gaming experience they had in the past that wasn’t to their liking and made them want to craft a game experience where others would be spared that. Here, it seems to amount to providing a lot of advice on railroading – including openly encouraging Storytellers to try and trick their players into thinking they aren’t being railroaded – whilst providing the occasional reference to the idea that you could just run a campaign genuinely led and shaped by the players’ decisions, but without offering much advice on how to do so beyond noting that it is difficult (to which I say “practice yer damn improvisation chops, sillies”). To use some Forgey terminology which in this instance is actually useful, the Handbook seems to endorse illusionism (trying to disguise the fact that the campaign is on a railroad) as opposed to participationism (being upfront about the railroad and convincing players to buy into it), and who knows how many awful gaming experiences resulted from this.

One last note: whilst the Player’s Guide introduces the Ravnos in their unreconstructed “here’s some stereotypes about Romany people” form, their inclusion seems not just offensive but actively pointless in a 1E context. In the original rulebook, the Gangrel were explicitly and directly presented as being the vampire clan closely related to Romany, so it absolutely baffles me why White Wolf decided that another such clan that doubled down on the classic stereotypes was needed. They seem to have had a recurring fascination with the subject, to the point where between this and the infamous World of Darkness: Gypsies supplement it almost feels like a substantial number of people in the company didn’t even realise that they were talking about a real race of people and thought that Romany folk only existed in stories. (It also makes the original book’s energetic endorsement of an Iron Guard propagandist even more uncomfortable.)

Another interesting thing is the list of musical suggestions provided by Rob Hatch in the Storyteller’s Handbook, which I guess provides the missing dimension of the “Vampire Appendix N” otherwise offered by Mark’s Last Words in the core book. Let’s see what bands are playing in the World of Darkness:

Bauhaus: “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, naturally, and “She’s In Parties” is also a sound choice. Rob also cites part 2 of “The Three Shadows” from The Sky’s Gone Out, though that’s the sort of song you’d cite only to demonstrate the depth of your knowledge of their discography and his attempt to provide a Vampire-appropriate context to it is a stretch.

Big Black: “Kerosene”. Not gonna lie, I kind of feel like Unknown Armies is a better fit for the desperate, fractured style of these guys.

Black Sabbath: “Paranoid” may be a good song but I think the slower, doomier numbers that were more representative of Sabbath’s work fit Vampire better.

The Cure: “A Forest”, “Three Imaginary Boys”, “The Drowning Man”, though any three random picks from the Cure’s back catalogue would probably work.

Dead Kennedys: “Police Truck” sort of works as an anarch song, but let’s face it – it works better for werewoofles. (In general I find vampires tend towards the gothic end of White Wolf’s much-promoted “gothic-punk” whilst the woofles held up the punk end.)

Front 242: “Headhunter”. Rob says this is “almost cyberpunkish” and I’d drop the “almost” – as far as your 1990s RPG fare goes this is better suited to Shadowrun.

Holst: “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age”. I guess it fits, but “shockingly gloomy”? That’s a stretch, and makes it look like it’s on here for the pretentiousness points.

Ice-T: “Body Count”. A good song, but of course the only hip-hop artist on the list is represented by a thrash metal crossover track.

Jane’s Addiction: “Three Days” is kind of a terrible pick, Rob says that it’s good for coming down off tense scenes and “evokes the peace of resignation” which makes me think he only listened to the first couple of minutes of this ten-minute track that visits so many different moods it’s a bad one to pick if you want to convey any single emotion because it doesn’t stay on it long enough.

Jesus & Mary Chain: “Cracked”. Yeah, OK, I’ll give you that one.

Joy Division: “She’s Lost Control”, “I Remember Nothing”, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, “Shadowplay” and “Day of the Lords” are recommended; when you go back to the Ian Curtis well that often you may as well, as with The Cure, recommend their whole discography and have done with it.

Killing Joke: “Inside the Termite Mound”. Yeah, I can see that.

Liers In Wait: “Blood & Family”. Ahahaha, OK, this one needs some explanation. Rob does the hipster thing of hyping up this band by talking about how they are an obscure local group that most of the readers probably haven’t heard of/can’t access, which is both a very dated attitude in these days of the Internet where more or less anything can be found on Youtube (including this song) and also kind of snobbishly pretentious when you’re penning a book which is supposed to be of use to an audience with a wide geographic spread. Plus he hypes up how the song is a totes extreme mashup of metal, grunge and techno when it isn’t at all, it’s bog standard industrial rock of the Ministry/Nine Inch Nails variety.

Metallica: “Fight Fire With Fire” and “Trapped Under Ice” are good songs, but thrash metal makes me think Werewolf again, not Vampire.

Saint-Saens: “Danse Macabre”, for more classical music points.

Scratch Acid: “Vacancy”. As is regularly the case with this article, Rob’s descriptions start to feel like the fakey cribbed-from-music-journalism enthusiasm that Patrick Bateman shows when he’s doing his patter about Huey Lewis & the News in American Psycho.

Siouxsie & the Banshees: “The Last Beat of My Heart” is good, but again, pretty much anything by Siouxsie would work in a Vampire context.

Sisters of Mercy: “Lucretia My Reflection” and “Marian” are good calls but this is another “just recommend their entire discography and be done with it” band.

Skinny Puppy: “Tin Omen”. No quibbles here, this is a good call.

Sonic Youth: “I Don’t Want To Push It”. Entirely tonally inappropriate, blatantly cited only for cool points.

Swans: “Will We Survive?” Not if whatever’s going on in-game merits a Swans track, you won’t.

Chicago By Night

This is the first of the By Night series of sourcebooks, a line whose standards tended to be a bit variable (LA By Night, whilst it offers an interesting look at what an Anarch-run city might look like, is apparently very obviously written by someone who’s never lived in the city) but at least offered some nice canned sandbox settings for Vampire. The first edition of Chicago is often held up as the archetypal example of the line, and benefits from an extra layer of richness, since it was the setting of the original Vampire playtest campaign.

Of course, enjoying this early prominence was ultimately to the detriment of the Chicago setting – White Wolf couldn’t resist going back to it again and again, blasting it with metaplot repeatedly until anyone who started running a Chicago campaign with the original sourcebook would sooner or later find that the canon setting had deviated from theirs markedly (if they weren’t fool enough to actually inflict the metaplot events on their players regardless of whether they made sense in the campaign). White Wolf would even end up publishing a series of Chicago Chronicles books compiling the earlier releases in the line, providing a handy way to navigate the series if you really wanted all the baggage that accumulated over the years.

Brush all that aside, however, and what you get with the 1st edition of Chicago By Night is a really nice sandbox setting. The history of the place seeds a bunch of mysteries in the setting and also sets up an interesting pre-existing web of relationships between the major players, and the book provides detailed NPC writeups of every single significant vampire in Chicago. You even have some honest to goodness random encounter tables, divided by theme, for when you fancy throwing a curveball at the players.

What makes it really, incredibly useful is a move which I sincerely wish that the subsequent By Night books had followed more closely – as well as providing individual NPC writeups and clan “family trees” showing who sired who, the book also provides extensive notes on almost every substantial social grouping, cabal, conspiracy, and network of obligation in local Kindred society, with associated diagrams showing how each member relates to all the others. This is astonishingly useful for working out the political ramifications of player character activities – if they please, displease, or kill a particular NPC, you can go back to the social diagrams and work out exactly what the wider ramifications of that are.

That leads into the other really nice thing about this first edition of the sourcebook, which is the way it sets up this complex status quo which is perfectly tailored for PCs to perturb. Provided that they don’t act like utterly spineless wimps and turtle up constantly, PCs will more or less inevitably throw all these careful equilibria out of what by their actions. That’s why the 1st edition of the sourcebook is so prized; the 2nd edition book assumes that a bunch of metaplot stuff has happened, so a bunch of the dominos line up in the original sourcebook have already fallen thanks to the work of canonical NPCs. This is inevitably going to be less interesting than dropping them in your own game in your own way.

Indeed, at the time they wrote this sourcebook White Wolf seemed to be willing to cater to varying plot outcomes much more than they did at the height of their metaplot addiction. The adventure Ashes to Ashes preceded this release, but rather than assuming one particular canonical outcome of this adventure 1st edition Chicago By Night actually goes out of its way to explain how different outcomes would have different ramifications. This would obviously become unwieldy if they tried to do it with every metaplot-advancing adventure, but it’s nice that they bothered here.

This is a particularly good companion to the 1st edition Vampire core book, since the city of Gary there essentially owes feudal fealty to Chicago, and is also substantially less under the thumb of the Prince, so you can use Gary as a venue where the vamps can let their hair down a bit and use Chicago as a place for Serious Business.

One thing which is interesting when reading the history of Chicago here is the way it presents such things as the Primogen, Elysium, the Rack, Blood Dolls, and all sorts of other bits which we’ve become used to thinking of as charactetistic features of the setting as actually being local innovations. (It’s particularly interesting when you compare this to the treatment of some of these subjects in the 1st edition rulebook – evidently, this book and that were developed in parallel as part of the playtesting process, so some ideas like the Primogen sound even more universal in the 1st edition core book than they are presented as here.) This implies a situation much more like Vampire: the Requiem than Masquerade where the social structure of cities is far more shaped by local history and politics than any broader orthodoxy within a particular Sect/Covenant.

In fact, you could use this book as the basis for including a little enclave in Vampire: the Requiem where the social conventions of Masquerade apply: say that the Lancea and Invictus merged in the Great Lakes area to form a revivalist Camarilla, have the Ordo Dracul and Crones join forces in a Sabbat-like cult, have enough time pass that they forgot that they were separate, and you’re basically there. Obviously the Generation thing would be a huge lie and the Cain thing would probably not be true, but the way Blood Potency works in Requiem means that there’d still be a viable rationale behind the Sabbat (putting down high-potency vamps who have started preying on other Kindred and won’t do the done thing and go into torpor).

In short, Chicago By Night not only provides an iconic example of a political sandbox setting which subsequent Vampire supplements struggled to match, but it also provides a context where the conventions of Masquerade make absolute sense and are grounded in well-explained aspects of local history. Were I to run Vampire: thr Masquerade in the future, I would be tempted to either set it in Chicago or transplant its history and reskin its NPCs for whichever city I chose to set it in.

As far as the Chicago Chronicles compilations go, the first one – containing this and The Succubus Club – is actually pretty good. As I’ve gone into elsewhere, this supplement provides twenty or so pages of an in-depth description of a signature site from the playtest campaign which makes a great recurring location for a Chicago-based game, and then a bunch of really bad adventures. As a standalone supplement, it isn’t so hot, but as a bonus package along with the original Chicago By Night it works much better.

RPGPundit takes the low road, justifies every criticism ever made of him.

So, this post just started making the rounds. I am not in with the Malifaux community so I really can’t comment on what was going on to prompt it, but the general call to not tolerate shitty behaviour in geek hobbies is a good one and worth a read.

I wouldn’t have commented here except the RPGPundit, a loud voice in RPG blogging who is on the map mostly for putting out some well-received OSR products and for screaming invective about storygaming back when Ron Edwards was the darling of the RPG community, has made a kind of terrible post on the subject which I wanted to respond to. I would have posted a comment there, but blogger was acting up and wouldn’t let me. (This is a bug I have encountered before on blogspot blogs so I don’t blame Pundit for that – just for the words he wrote.) So I’ll post my thoughts here instead. Don’t bother reading the full thing if you are not interested in me slamming some dude on the Internet for being wrong on the Internet.

tl;dr version: even if Pundit had cast-iron proof that every single line of Latining’s post was a lie (and he doesn’t), the specific criticisms and arguments he makes in response are beyond the pale. And it’s especially ironic because Latining is saying that the community should police itself and freeze out socially unacceptable behaviour, and back in the day Pundit went to bat strenuously arguing that the community should police itself and freeze out socially unacceptable behaviour.

Continue reading “RPGPundit takes the low road, justifies every criticism ever made of him.”