Kickstopper: Retconned Schemes

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

This is going to be a bit of an odd article. I initially thought it’d just be yet another supplement for the rather hit-and-miss Werewolf 20th Anniversary line. However, new wrinkles have arisen over the course of this Kickstarter, wrinkles which have a bearing on a story already partly told in previous Kickstopper articles, with the result that although there’s still a supplement to review here, there’s also a broader story to tell

Specifically, this is a story about the twists and turns of the Onyx Path, and that company’s relationship with White Wolf Publishing.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

This Kickstarter was mounted by Onyx Path to fund the production of Shattered Dreams, a supplement for Werewolf: the Apocalypse. I’ll introduce what that game is and what the supplement is about in the “Reviewing the Swag” section, but at this point I think it’s worth having a quick recap of who Onyx Path are and where they stood at the start of the Kickstarter – and what happened during it that threw everything up in the air.

Once upon a time there was a tabletop RPG publisher called White Wolf. They’d been a major success story of the 1990s market, thriving even in the face of the collectable card game bubble as a result of their overall focus on games with comparatively simple rules, imaginative settings, and above all lots and lots of attitude which ended up appealing both to dyed-in-the-wool gamers and new audiences who largely hadn’t interacted with tabletop RPGs previously.

In the mid-2000s, White Wolf were bought out by CCP, publishers of EVE Online, who wanted to do a MMO based on the flagship World of Darkness setting. For a while, something resembling business as usual continued, but eventually CCP decided that it no longer made sense for them to support an active tabletop RPG publishing subsidiary and largely shut White Wolf down. They kept the name alive as a subsidiary, but at that point White Wolf’s existence was more theoretical than actual.

At that point, White Wolf veteran Richard Thomas set up Onyx Path, a new company dedicated to keeping the old White Wolf RPGs alive and maybe bringing some new games out on top of that. Richard was able to buy out some game lines from CCP outright – presumably as a result of them having no interest in using them for videogame purposes – whilst he was also able to get a licence to do the rest of the White Wolf properties, subject to oversight from CCP. This is where matters stood as of the last two Onyx Path Kickstarters I covered on Kickstopper.

For the most part, CCP seem to have been reasonably happy to let Onyx Path do what they wanted in the tabletop RPG sphere. The only major issue was that they weren’t happy with Onyx Path doing a second edition of the “new” World of Darkness core book, or the various games based off it like Vampire: the Requiem and the like, since those game lines had replaced the “classic” World of Darkness setting which was the basis for the MMO, as part of a major pre-purchase business decision by White Wolf to nuke all the World of Darkness game lines and start all over again with massively reimagined versions of them.

Whilst CCP were happy for the “new” World of Darkness to keep going, they weren’t keen on something tagged as a revised edition being put out because they thought it would confuse people when the MMO came out. However, CCP were absolutely fine with Onyx Path revising the core World of Darkness rules in the form of The God-Machine Chronicle, and were even fine with them putting out a new, wholly self-contained edition of Vampire: the Requiem which didn’t require the core World of Darkness rulebook to play, just so long as it wasn’t called Vampire: the Requiem 2nd Edition. (They called it Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicle.) Eventually, once the MMO was cancelled, CCP dropped their objections, allowing Onyx Path to rename Blood and Smoke to the intended Vampire: the Requiem 2nd Edition presentation and letting them greenlight a 2nd edition version of the “new” World of Darkness core book which would integrate the various updates and additions made in The God-Machine Chronicle.

However, a mere week into the Shattered Dreams Kickstarter, major news hit: CCP had reached an agreement with Paradox Interactive, publishers of Crusader Kings, which allowed Paradox to buy out the White Wolf brand and associated intellectual property. Paradox soon announced that they had grand plans to turn the World of Darkness into a significant transmedia franchise – they’re very keen to get a TV series on Netflix, though hopefully it’ll be better than Kindred: the Embraced – and in order to see that through, they revived White Wolf Publishing. Whereas it had existed only on paper in the later years of CCP’s ownership, the Paradox-controlled White Wolf would be a publishing concern of its own, with its own dedicated staff and producing products in its own right as well as overseeing licensees.

This meant that Onyx Path were dealing with a whole new group of people, and a whole new level of scrutiny in some respects. However, the initial news doesn’t seem to have been enough to derail the Kickstarter: it raised a bit over $60,000, which seems to be in line with previous Onyx Path Kickstarters when it comes to supplements aimed at rather niche topics for “classic” World of Darkness games. Early on, at least, Onyx Path fans seem to have been confident that the new White Wolf would allow Onyx Path to meet their Kickstarter obligations.

What Level I Backed At

Shielded Warrior
You will receive:

  • A copy of the Deluxe W20 Shattered Dreams book
  • A copy of the W20 Shattered Dreams PDF
  • An option to purchase the W20 Shattered Dreams physical book PoD as close to cost as we can give you (see description in the text to the left)
  • A beautiful electronic wallpaper file featuring a collage of selected W20 Shattered Dreams illustrations
  • You or your character’s name will be listed on the credits page as Tested Warriors.
  • The W20 Shattered Dreams Storyteller’s Screen, a sturdy three-panel screen featuring a collage of the stunning art from W20 Shattered Dreams on the outer side, and on the inside there’s a selection of charts and other info to make the Storyteller’s job a little bit easier.

Delivering the Goods

Though Onyx Path’s track record on Kickstarter delivery times has been varied, due to the different circumstances and different development team methodologies used within each product line, their Kickstarters for supplements to the “classic” World of Darkness lines usually aren’t too slow. This time, delivery of the finished book was a little later than expected, but I think under the circumstances this was understandable since after the immediate shock of Paradox purchasing White Wolf, Onyx Path had to negotiate how to handle this and other licensed projects with the new hands at White Wolf.

With respect to some product lines, Paradox-White Wolf seem very willing to let Onyx Path have their heads. They did mandate a retitling of the “new” World of Darkness game as Chronicles of Darkness, under which title the book that would have been the 2nd edition of the “new” World of Darkness core emerged. This helped distinguish the two lines and means that you can just talk about the World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness lines, rather than “classic” World of Darkness and “new” World of Darkness, but is also indicative of where Paradox-White Wolf’s priorities are: it’s the original World of Darkness that they want to make into a transmedia franchise, and they don’t want the newer settings getting confused with it.

And precisely because of that, it’s natural that the new White Wolf want to exert more oversight over World of Darkness material from Onyx Path. Most of Onyx Path’s World of Darkness products are part of the various “20th Anniversary” editions of the various game lines – Shattered Dreams, for instance, is part of the Werewolf: the Apocalypse 20th Anniversary line – and Onyx Path are being allowed to finish off that material, but at the same time White Wolf intend to make new editions of the games in question themselves. That means that they will naturally want to pay great attention to what Onyx Path is putting out in the 20th Anniversary lines, and as such they have been subjecting such products to more extensive scrutiny at the approvals stage. Between this and the natural delays arising from ironing out the specifics of how the licensing deal will continue going forwards as a result of the purchase, it’s only natural that the product should be somewhat delayed.

Reviewing the Swag

Shattered Dreams is, as mentioned, a supplement for Werewolf: the Apocalypse, a game whose primary conflict involves spiritually enlightened werewolves trying to battle the plans of villains that, based on their wild enthusiasm for polluting the environment for the sake of it, could have come out of the Captain Planet rogue’s gallery. It’s a wilder and somewhat more comic book-like game than Vampire, and I’ve given the base game a full overview elsewhere.

An aspect of the game which lends it a little more depth than its rather garish premise would suggest is the way the Garou, the werewolves the game revolves around, may have to examine their own past choices and atrocities if they are to find a way to defeat the Wyrm, the dark force out to destroy Gaia itself and bring total destruction to the world. Although they are animalistic forces of nature, they are also decidedly human, and make very human mistakes.

One such tragedy in the backstory of the game was the War of Rage; the idea is that in prehistoric times, the Garou were only one of a wide variety of shapechangers that had been created by Gaia to preserve the balance of the world by, among other tasks, ensuring that humans did not expand and develop in an unsustainable manner. These were collectively known as the Changing Breeds; the War of Rage kicked off when the Garou unleashed the furious anger that drives them upon the rest of the Changing Breeds, driving some to extinction and leaving the rest so horrendously depleted that even today they are incredibly rare – not to mention extremely reluctant to make themselves known to the Garou, even if their aid against the Wyrm would be vitally necessary.

However, another major aspect of the Werewolf setting is the Umbra – a spiritual otherworld which the Garou can enter and explore on mystical vision quests. Deep in the Umbra it is possible to find realms which are reflections of the world the way it was back in the day, before or during the War of Rage, which Garou may wish to visit in order to learn the lessons of that time and gain insight into how they can try to make amends in the present. It may even be possible, if your gaming group decides to go in that direction, to use the Umbra to actually go back in time and change history, averting or changing the outcome of the War of Rage.

Shattered Dreams, then, primarily offers two things. The first is a couple of campaign frameworks suggesting how you could implement those ideas in a Werewolf game – including the delicious suggestion of starting out the game after the Apocalypse has already happened or hit the point of no return, so that only such a desperate mission into time can give any hope to the present. The second and substantially larger part concerns five different periods in prehistory during which the War of Rage could conceivably break out, and the circumstances surrounding its outbreak.

Unfortunately, I don’t find these sections especially inspiring. The campaign frameworks are clever in principle but in practice I’m not sure they’re so different from something I could come up with myself, whilst the detailing of the various time periods feels somehow underwhelming. I think part of the problem for me is that despite being given about five different flashpoints for the War of Rage, the supplement still didn’t leave me with much of an idea of what the War of Rage was actually like.

Each of the flashpoint really needs to be accompanied by both a set of notes on how the War of Rage plays out if it starts then, and how the future time periods detailed change if the War of Rage took place before them. (You’d get much more play out of a campaign based around averting the War that way, for one thing – rather than averting it at one flashpoint, you’d need to avert it in all of them, and if you fail at one it’d be nice to know how that affects the later flashpoints and the present day.) As it stands, it feels like we get a capsule setting and the first chapter or so of a bit of metaplot, but aren’t given any support in trying to assess how things pan out after that. And these gaps aren’t useful gaps, the sort of gaps which it’s fun to fill in with your gaming group, so much as they just seem like oversights.

Other sections of the book detail earlier and later shapechanger conflicts of similar importance. You have a bizarre war of dinosaur-themed shapechangers from back in dinosaur times, which feels so disconnected from the basic action of Werewolf as to effectively be its own thing, and you have the Second War of Rage. This latter happened when werewolves accompanied the Conquistadors to the New World and discovered that the Changing Breeds had maintained an outpost there among the Mesoamerican cultures that then got genocided along with their Changing Breed allies.

This last part naturally touches on all sorts of problematic stuff, and it’s a little startling to see Onyx Path – who are typically much better at handling this sort of subject matter than White Wolf ever were – fail so comprehensively to iron out the unpalatable aspects of it. Bizarrely, they even admit the treatment here is a bit off – there’s a sidebar at the start of the chapter acknowledging that the way it’s written seems to divide blame evenly among both the shapeshifters on both sides, the European invaders, and the indigenous populations, and that some people might find that problematic and want to change it.

Supposedly, this was done in the name of providing a “darker history” suitable to horror gaming, but I’m fairly sure a horrific situation can be depicted without trying to imply that the Aztecs or Maya were somehow personally responsible for the wholesale destruction of their culture and the oppression of their descendants. Why even write it that way if you can see it’s a problem? Why even offer the chapter if you can’t think of a way to make it not-awful?

It gets even worse when you look at some of the time travel suggestions offered here. One of the ideas presented is having Pentex – the evil corporation that pollutes the environment like a cackling Captain Planet villain that’s one of the main pawns of the Wyrm in the modern setting – passing modern weaponry to the Aztecs. This does lead to some badass art of Aztec priests blasting Conquistadors with combat shotguns and rocket launchers, but it also has the Aztecs allying themselves with utter villains in order to fight Cortez. In particular, the villains in question are a US-based corporation involved in mass deforestation, environmental destruction, and governmental corruption, as well as deliberately exacerbating all the social ills which afflict the descendants of the Aztecs and the successor states to their Empire alike today. It’s like having the Zealot rebellion against Roman rule in Israel allying itself with time-travelling Nazis.

Meanwhile, another chapter involves shapechanger conflicts in East Asia, involving Changing Breeds like the Kitsune. Needless to say, it’s impossible to read the chapter without feeling like you’re listening to the ramblings of some mystically-inclined weeaboo (a “ouijaboo”, perhaps).

Now, on balance I think my backing this Kickstarter was a daft mistake on my part. As they often do with their Kickstarters, Onyx Path made the current draft of the text (reflecting the state of the project before stretch goals were added) available for free without any obligation to back, partly so that people can decide whether the supplement in question is for them and partly to reassure everyone that there is a mostly-written text extant (which is obviously a big help when it comes to maintaining backer confidence). I could have read that before backing, noted a lot of the problems I’ve outlined above, and simply walked away. The fact is that I’d been enthusiastic enough about Onyx Path’s other recent work that I simply trusted this one sight unseen.

That said, I am not wholly regretful for this experience, because I think it’s helped me better suss out what I like about Werewolf and why this supplement doesn’t work for me. Part of it is that I prefer the edgy modern-day Captain Planet “boo, Pentex sucks!” stuff to the sort of conflict you have here: yes, it’s garish, cartoonish, and silly, but that’s exactly how Werewolf in general feels to me a lot of the time – it’s the boisterous, violent, over-the-top, Rob Liefeld-illustrated entry in the World of Darkness, and that’s where my fun is.

A bigger part of it, though, is that it feels to me like the tricky tightrope the Garou must walk in terms of balancing their duties to werewoofle kind with maintaining what foothold they have in human society seems, to me, to be an important part of Werewolf – and it’s more or less absent here. Because so much of the War of Rage stuff happens at a time before woofles were driven underground and before they had to find ways to get by in a human society that doesn’t have a space for their kind, it feels less like a werewolf game and more like a fantasy game where you happen to play werewolves, if you appreciate the distinction.

The thing is – and here we get to the reason I think this product is fascinating as far as plotting the history of Onyx Path goes – is that White Wolf themselves also seem to have had reservations about Shattered Dreams. Not the old CCP-controlled White Wolf which was basically just a trademark registration left at the bottom of a filing cabinet – had CCP any major objections to the planned product, the Kickstarter wouldn’t have happened in the first place – but the new, Paradox-controlled White Wolf, who as I’ve outlined above seem to want to exert substantially more input during the approvals process.

One of the things which is slightly off-putting about the product is that on one of the first pages there’s a sidebar entitled “A Note From White Wolf Publishing”, whose message essentially boils down to “OK guys, all this stuff is fun and all, but it’s all absolutely non-canon; you can use it for your home campaigns if you want to throw a curveball at your players, but you shouldn’t expect it to be reflected in any official products going forwards”

Now, on the one hand there’s a lot to like about the statement; it goes out of its way to emphasise that, to use its exact words, “every Chronicle is the sovereign domain of its Storyteller and her Players”, a statement which encapsulates the very same “your table, your call” attitude which I like so much about Onyx Path’s work and which stands in sharp contrast to lot of the attitudes expressed by the original White Wolf from time to time. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a case of White Wolf declaring a product to be non-canon within its own pages.

It’s one thing for contentious old supplements to get declared uncanonical in retrospect – for instance, the infamous Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand added honest to goodness alien parasites to Vampire: the Masquerade along with other wackiness, much of which was written out of the setting with extreme prejudice in subsequent releases (though Onyx Path have offered up a whole supplement bringing back all that Black Hand goodness for those who really want it) – but it’s quite another for it to be presented as noncanonical from day one.

And “canon” is clearly going to be important to the game line from now on as far as the new White Wolf are concerned. For one thing, it’s become clear from Paradox-White Wolf’s other statements elsewhere that they consider a consistent gameworld with a unified canon to be an important part of their transmedia strategy. For another, if they didn’t put a high priority on canon, they obviously would never have put in an entire sidebar in this product talking about it in the first place. It wasn’t enough to just let Onyx Path publish it and then, when Paradox-White Wolf get around doing their own version of Werewolf: the Apocalypse, putting out a document saying “These supplements from old Werewolf editions are considered canon as far as the new edition goes, these other products are non-canon” – they felt they had to address it right here and now.

Of course, as the box points out, what is and is not canon doesn’t have to limit your home campaign, and if I believed that Paradox-White Wolf would put out a healthy line of supplements which added options to the game outside of their delineated canon I’d be cool with that – but I’m reasonably sure they won’t. After all, for transmedia franchise purposes, it’s the canon stuff that can be adapted from the RPG into the context of novels, videogames, and the Holy Grail which is the Netflix series, and as such putting effort into non-canon stuff is, from the point of view of Paradox-White Wolf, an enormous waste of time. Why spend money making a product you will sell to gamers but make no other use of when you can spend the same time and resouces putting out a product which enriches your entire franchise?

I genuinely think, in fact, that had Paradox bought out White Wolf early enough, the Shattered Dreams Kickstarter would have never been a thing – Onyx Path would have proposed the project, Paradox-White Wolf would either have said “no” or required changes that made it entirely different from the product we actually got, and we’d have never heard about it.

As it stands, the fact that the Kickstarter had started by the time the purchase happened may have forced them to accept the product’s existence. Of course, CCP could have delayed the Kickstarter whilst the purchase negotiations were taking place – but doing so would have been difficult or impossible to justify without revealing more about the negotiations than CCP were prepared to. In fact, Richard Thomas of Onyx Path has made it clear that the negotiation process was entirely black-boxed until the deal was done: Onyx Path and the other White Wolf licensees were vaguely aware that something was happening, but had no idea of the details or even that Paradox were involved because, as he put it in his blog post on the situation, “The two corporate entities had to negotiate without outside voices confusing the process”.

That might seem harsh and secretive if you’re not used to such negotiations, but if you think about it the necessity becomes obvious. All of CCP/White Wolf’s licensees had a major interest in the outcome of that negotiation – which meant that if they became aware of the details, both CCP and Paradox (not to mention any other potential bidders who may or may not have been involved in the process) could have been subjected to intensive lobbying from the licensees trying to sway the deal one way or another, depending on where they thought their interests lie.

Thus, whilst Onyx Path and other licensees might have had a little bit of a heads-up before the public press release went out, they almost certainly didn’t have much of one – which meant that the Shattered Dreams project rolled on without any awareness of what was coming. With the first draft out in public, White Wolf couldn’t seek to cancel or radically rethink the product without either flat-out cancelling the Kickstarter or delivering a product which didn’t resemble what backers were originally shown. Either option would not just enrage backers of this specific project, but infuriate the entire Onyx Path fanbase, destroy the fans’ trust in Onyx Path’s Kickstarters (and, potentially, all World of Darkness-related Kickstarters), and poison White Wolf’s relationship with a major licensee almost immediately.

Thus, allowing the product to be released but declaring it non-canon within its own pages represents, to my mind, the best of a series of bad options available to Paradox-White Wolf. It means that those who were really excited by the idea of this product still get the book they chose to back and Onyx Path get to chalk up another successful Kickstarter on their portfolio, but at the same time Paradox-White Wolf don’t have to feel artistically constrained by the material here, and don’t have to account for it in pitching their transmedia franchise to potential partners like Netflix.

Lastly, a word about the cover art, which I find awkward, ugly, and uninspiring – it’s just two generically muscley furries fighting in the foreground with monochrome images of other furries fighting in the background, along with the Aztecs with rocket launchers that call to mind all that awkwardness in the South America chapter.

Note that this isn’t the same as the cover art depicted above which is the art for the PDF version – that art, with the werewoofle exterminating a wererat, I quite like. The art on the book, which I can’t seem to find anywhere else on the internet, has a werewoofle swiping at but failing to hit a werecheetah, with both combatants in a pose apparently optimised to show off rock hard furry buttocks.

As for the referee screen, the art on that is just the red background bit from the book’s cover art, which looks even worse in the absence of the foreground characters – it’s just an ugly red morass with nothing especially standing out and seems rather phoned-in. Also, the individual panels are portrait orientation, which is awful – for referee screens landscape orientation is the way to go to limit the extent that the screen cuts the referee off from the players.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

I don’t mind being named in the book as a backer because it’s non-canonical, so I’m not canonically a backer.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I think I will call this instance Just Wrong, but that’s completely on me – I should have done my due diligence on what sort of product this was by reading the draft text and I didn’t.

Would Back Again?

For the right Onyx Path project – especially for a product I’d actually done my pre-backing checks on – sure, I’d go for it again. Whilst some Onyx Path Kickstarters have had more troubled generations, at least this one shows that when it comes to putting out World of Darkness supplements they’re still not too shabby as far as the delivery process goes.

That said, there’s a question mark open over exactly how many opportunities I will have to back World of Darkness RPG products from Onyx Path – once White Wolf put out their new editions, it seems likely that the 20th Anniversary editions will no longer have further products put out for them, putting an end to this particular strand of Onyx Path’s portfolio.

One thought on “Kickstopper: Retconned Schemes

  1. Pingback: Kickstopper: More of the Clans – Refereeing and Reflection

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