Not Knowing When To Stop Digging

Mummy – also billed as A World of Darkness: Mummy, using the same branding as the original A World of Darkness supplement – was a 1992 release for Vampire: the Masquerade and was one of the last books for the Storyteller system released when Vampire had the stage all to itself. Indeed, as well as hyping the forthcoming release of Werewolf: the ApocalypseMummy makes a mild pretence of being a crossover supplement, claiming that you can use it just as well in a Werewolf game as in Vampire.

However, whilst you doubtless could use the rules explanation from Werewolf to run this, the fact remains that this was released with the distinctive green marbled trade dress that’s associated with Vampire, and precisely because Werewolf was still in development when this was being written it leans on Vampire much more than it does Werewolf; there’s a very, very few token references to the Garou, and the spirit world that the titular mummies enter between bouts of life is clearly based on a rough outline of Werewolf‘s Umbra, but the whole mummy thing calls on Vampire much more than it does Werewolf. (Indeed, the backstory of the mummies is intimately entwined with that of the Followers of Set, having been sparked off by a Kindred intervention in proto-Egyptian politics.)

What’s more, Mummy flat-out makes sense as an esoteric little sideshow in the Vampire setting, since it explores a rather different brand of immortal undeath from that which the Kindred experience. The titular mummies have cycles of waking and sleeping analogous to what the Antediluvians are supposed to experience, with their Ba weakening during their times of wakefulness and needing to spend time in the spirit world growing its strength through interactions with entities there before it can return to its body, guarded by its Ka, and return to life.

Mummy presents rules for playing these powerful, ancient entities, who have access to some limited but extremely potent magics and who have their own hidden war happening in the shadows to contend with, and who can either be intriguing and unusual NPCs for Vampire characters to cross paths with or offbeat PCs in their own right. Either way, in the limited presentation here, they’re quite nice as a “More things in Heaven and Earth…” sort of setting feature – a reminder that the world is big and there’s all sorts of stuff that even well clued-in vampires don’t know about – or as the basis for a short but memorable campaign exploring their backstory.

This whole “interesting niche feature of the setting” aspect is amplified by the fact that mummies are genuinely rare – rarer even than any other White Wolf splat you may care to mention, at least in this iteration. There’s only 43 in the entire world, and of course not all of them are active at any particular time. One thing which I think is particularly interesting about it is its local, limited nature; these mummies all hail from Egypt, all had their origins as the result of a particular conflict, and thus all arise from a particular set of myths and folklore. This is different from the standard White Wolf formulaic approach of attempting to provide a cross-cultural definition of the monster in question, and providing distinct bloodlines/tribes/Traditions/whatever to represent different cultural takes on the central concept.

The splat ends up, as a result, being extremely unique and flavourful in this presentation, with Stephan Wieck doing a great job of crafting the supplement. So, naturally, White Wolf over the years ended up messing this up wildly.

It began with the second edition of the supplement from 1997, penned by Graeme Davis and James Estes. A radical retooling of the concept, this brought in a whole swathe of mummy types from other cultures, and whilst on the one hand I can see the desire to not be culturally blinkered or erasing, at the same time I think trying to assert that mummies from a broad cross-sections of different cultures are essentially manifestations of a broadly comparable phenomenon in and of itself is a sort of cultural erasure – it leans too heavily on the parallels between cultures and blinds itself to the distinctions between them, and it’s those distinctions that define them as differing cultures in the first place.

On top of that, the 2nd edition of the Mummy supplement went out of its way to try and integrate the mummies smoothly into all the major World of Darkness likes at the time, rather than mostly integrating it with Vampire. In some respects this worked – for instance, I don’t see much of an issue with making it clearer that “Apophis” from the first book is what mummies call Werewolf‘s Wyrm – but in other respects this muddled matters. After all, Mage and Wraith barely took the cosmologies of baseline Vampire or Werewolf into account when they came about, let alone Mummy. In particular, I suspect that the injection of a lot of ideas about how the mummies fit into Wraith would tend to make 2nd edition Mummy feel unfocused.

Yes, the crossover focus is interesting, but a) crossover is risky business at best, utter nonsense otherwise, and b) it seems to have taken mummies from being a thing you didn’t really need much grounding in the major WoD games to get a handle on (you don’t even need to know much deep background from Vampire to grasp 1st edition Mummy) into something which you need to really be conversant with at least four out of the five main World of Darkness games to really get the most out of. (You don’t seem to need much grounding in Changeling, but I suspect that even by 1997 it had become clear that Changeling wasn’t the hit White Wolf were hoping for – nor was Wraith, mind, but given the whole death and rebirth thing they really couldn’t avoid addressing Wraith here – all the more reason why making it a genuine crossover supplement rather than an adjunct to Vampire may have been a mistake.)

Then in 2001 came Mummy: the Resurrection, written (like so much of the latter-day products of the original Whiter Wolf) by a large committee, which had an even more radical retooling of the mummy concept to take into account the destruction of the Wraith setting. Here, Osiris has taken the tattered fragments of the spirits of the original mummies and cast them out into the world, where they lodge inside those who have a sufficient hole in their soul to accept them. As a result, you really aren’t even playing a mummy here – you’re playing someone who’s got a bit of a mummy’s soul lodged inside them and giving them superpowers.

Weirdly, the book also ended up requiring the use of another World of Darkness core rulebook to use. Whilst in this respect it was following in the footsteps of the previous Mummy books, at the same time in all other respects it seemed like an attempt to kick off a new game line – as well as having a Creature: the Whatever-type name, the damn thing was 312 pages long and had a separate Player’s Guide published for it. What’s more, it came out during what was loudly and proudly promoted as the “Year of the Scarab”. I can’t help but think that in the light of all that, there was probably quite a few people who bought this thing thinking it was a standalone game only to be put out when they found out it wasn’t. It feels, in fact, like White Wolf ended up starting on the project of making a full standalone game out of Mummy only to discover, to their horror, that it simply didn’t quite work – but they didn’t have the guts to cancel it, having committed to the Year of the Scarab marketing angle.

These repeated false starts have continued into the Chronicles of Darkness era. Mummy: the Curse riffs on the same basic concept as the original Mummy supplement, but has the rites that cause mummies to return over and over again happen not in Egypt but a “Nameless Empire” which broadly corresponds to the furthest extent of Ancient Egyptian power and uses a bunch of Egyptian-sounding concepts in its cosmology, which seems rather pointless. On top of that, there’s mummy-like Osirians in Promethean: the Created, and the Purified in the World of Darkness: Immortals supplement are also quite mummy-like. The Chronicles of Darkness line has this serious lack of parsimony going on, trying on different variants of what is essentially the same concept a little too often, but even then this takes the cake.

What I think Onyx Path and late-period White Wolf may have forgotten which early-days White Wolf seemed to grasp much better is that, quite simply, not everything needs to be its own game line. Sometimes, a splat can be added which is just a nice little accessory to an existing line, rather than something that tries to either a) be its own thing standing on its own two feet or b) trying to piggyback on multiple different lines at once. Sometimes, it can happily stay that way and doesn’t really need or merit further development. The World of Darkness conception of mummies fits that perfectly.

One thought on “Not Knowing When To Stop Digging

  1. Pingback: I Ain’t Afraid of No Wraiths – Refereeing and Reflection

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