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.
Last Kickstopper was an opportunity to look at how White Wolf grew up, sold out, broke free in the form of Onyx Path, and made Kickstarter a significant component of their business plan, through the lens of the rise, fall, and resurrection of the Classic World of Darkness line, as well as examining how Kickstarter specifically plays an important role in the Classic revival.
This time around, the Kickstarter in question gives us a chance to look at the New World of Darkness line and how it’s developed from its inception to the present day. This is a story with a number of curious twists and turns, many of them arising from the unusual situation Onyx Path found itself in. The publication of the core rulebook for the new line came shortly before the acquisition of White Wolf by CCP, makers of EVE Online, whose intention was to make a World of Darkness MMO (confusingly enough based on the Classic World of Darkness setting, though arguably its tendency towards big worldwide power blocs of supernaturals actually made the Classic line more suitable for MMO purposes than the New World of Darkness‘s tendency towards more localised power factions).
For as long as White Wolf existed as a tabletop game producing team after that, their projects were greenlit with an eye to minimising potential disruption or consumer confusion affecting the MMO; for the early part of Onyx Path’s existence, a similar situation has pertained with respect to their World of Darkness products. Now that the MMO has died an ignoble death, CCP gives Onyx Path much more of a free hand in what they do and don’t publish; as we shall see, whilst CCP were still telling themselves that the MMO was a possibility, they forced White Wolf/Onyx Path into a number of contortions which has ironically made the New World of Darkness line a more confusing and less approachable prospect than the old line.
I’ll go into more detail about that along the way. For the moment, I’ll give you a quick rundown of the consequences this confusion has had for White Wolf/Onyx Path’s game lines. Presently, if you want to play the latest version of a Classic World of Darkness game line, you just have to buy the relevant book – Vampire: the Masquerade, Wraith: the Oblivion, or whatever – and set to it. With the New World of Darkness, if you want to play the latest version of the rules you might need to just buy the latest core rulebook on its own (as is the case with Vampire: the Requiem 2nd Edition), or you might need to get the core rulebook for a game line plus the overarching World of Darkness core book (as is the case with Demon: the Fallen), or you might need to get the core book for the particular game line, plus the overarching World of Darkness book, plus a special rules update, as is presently the case with Dan’s bete noire Changeling: the Lost. Onyx Path are currently in the process of minimising the extent of this nonsense, but it’s still something of an irritation.
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.
At 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.
Although you can use the core World of Darkness rulebook to run a game about ordinary humans investigating supernatural shenanigans, at the end of the day the New World of Darkness is still, like the Classic World of Darkness, primarily based around games in which you play monsters of various archetypal varieties lurking at the edges of modern-day society. The three flagship gamelines – Mage: the Awakening, Werewolf: the Forsaken and Vampire: the Requiem – correspond to the top-selling Classic World of Darkness game lines to a large extent, and for the most part I get the impression that White Wolf/Onyx Path can count on the major releases in those game lines to pay their way – they haven’t, to my knowledge, used Kickstarter to fund things like the recent 2nd editions of Vampire: the Requiem or Werewolf: the Forsaken.
Instead, where Onyx Path has turned to Kickstarter for the New World of Darkness – and it is notable that it has done so less frequently than for the Classic World of Darkness – it’s to fund projects which are both clearly beefier than your average supplement and at the same time could do with the sort of spot assessment of market interest that Kickstarters are good at. The most recent example has been the World of Darkness: Dark Eras supplement, a fat book about running various of the New World of Darkness games in a range of different historical settings, with the book getting fatter and fatter as additional stretch goals are passed.
The two other examples of Onyx Path using Kickstarter are Mummy: the Curse and Demon: the Descent, attempts to create more esoteric, niche game lines that aren’t necessarily the guaranteed big-sellers that a new edition of Vampire would be, with high levels of interest (as expressed through Kickstarter money) both directly funding additional supplements and material via stretch goals and also justifying further subsequent development of the game lines in question. (Both lines have had new supplements come out which, whilst not directly funded by the original Kickstarter for the lines, at the same time I suspect wouldn’t have seen the light of day – or at least would have become a substantially lower priority – had the Kickstarters in question either failed or only barely succeeded, since that would have been a pretty severe vote of no confidence in the product line in question.)
The campaign we’re looking at here is that for Demon: the Descent. Whilst it is one of the more niche New World of Darkness lines, it has an unusual level of importance. First off, it’s the New World of Darkness answer to the Classic World of Darkness game Demon: the Fallen – the last Classic World of Darkness game released, specifically with the intent of unleashing apocalyptic forces on that setting. Secondly, thematically Demon: the Descent is intimately tied in with The God-Machine Chronicle, the major rules update that Onyx Path cooked up in lieu of being allowed by CCP to put out a 2nd edition of the core New World of Darkness rulebook. Thirdly, because it came out at an awkward time with respect to getting clearances from CCP, in the dying days of the MMO project, the Demon: the Descent core book is structurally compromised in a way which it might not otherwise have been had it come out just a few short months later.
At it turns out, the second of those factors seemed to have worked in the favour of the campaign – with The God-Machine Chronicle giving people a look at major features of the setting of Demon: the Descent and whetting their appetite for the chance to play rebels against the God-Machine. A swathe of stretch goals were approved, and with more supplements on the horizon the game line seems to be a decent success.
What Level I Backed At
Secret Demonic Researcher (nonUS): You will receive a copy of the Demon: The Descent Prestige Edition book, you will receive a PDF of DtD, all eight Demon-related PDFs: Demon: The Fallen, the World of Darkness core rulebook, The God Machine Chronicle, WoD: Urban Legends, WoD: Second Sight, WoD: Mysterious Places, WoD: Midnight Roads, and WoD: Asylum. You get a beautiful electronic wallpaper file featuring a collage of selected Demon: The Descent illustrations, and you or your character’s name will be listed on the credits page as a Demonic Agent. You will also receive the Demon: The Descent Storyteller’s Screen, a sturdy three-panel screen featuring a beautiful collage of DtD art 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. This is for backers outside the US.
In addition to the above goodies, the above backing level gave me access to a bunch of extras thanks to the stretch goals. These included:
- Splintered City: Seattle, a supplement expanding the example setting of Seattle as introduced in the core rulebook.
- The Demon Seed Collection, a collection of short writeups of cities from around the world from a Demonic perspective.
- Demon Ready-Made Characters, a party of Demon PCs all statted up, backstoried and ready to go.
- Demon Condition Cards, a custom deck of cards dealing with the game-mechanical Conditions that characters can pick up in a Demon game.
- Heirs to Hell, a supplement on statting up and playing the offspring of demons and humans.
- Demon: Interface, a short story collection with a short amount of Demon supplementary rules associated with each story.
Reviewing the Swag
The PDFs of older products I received along with my backing level gave me not just a cross-section of New World of Darkness products from the core rulebook to The God-Machine Chronicle, but also a copy of the Classic World of Darkness predecessor to Demon: the Descent. So, I’m going to review this material in rough chronological order – starting with Demon: the Fallen, then the core World of Darkness rulebook, then the various World of Darkness supplements leading up to The God-Machine Chronicle, then Demon: the Descent, then the various supplemental materials to Demon: the Descent.
The Precedent: Demon: the Fallen
The last major game line released for the original World of Darkness line – it came out in 2002, and the new World of Darkness setting debuted in 2004 – Demon: the Fallen aspires to set an apocalyptic tone. The basic premise is that the player characters are, as the title implies, demons – fallen angels who rebelled against God for reasons which actually seem kind of sympathetic, but who have become warped and have forgotten much of what they were after countless ages of torment in Hell. Recently (due, in part, to certain events occurring within the overarching World of Darkness metaplot), the cosmological forces trapping the demons in Hell have become weakened, to the extent that some of the demons who are lower in the pecking order can slip through and get to Earth. The player characters are precisely this sort of demon, and have been sent with instructions to prepare the way to summon their superiors to Earth.
However, on arrival the Fallen discover a number of surprises waiting for them. Firstly, God and his angels are flat-out missing, and the world has gone to shit in their absence. Secondly, it turns out that some of the demons who had escaped Hell under their own steam in ages past are still around; these demons, too powerful to be contained even within mortal bodies, have been forced to possess inanimate objects, transforming them into the mysterious Earthbound – and over the years, they have created mortal cults in their service with an eye to elevating themselves as gods, forgetting about their loyalty to Hell and the war against Heaven entirely.
The biggest surprise of all, however, concerns the Fallen’s own natures. Possessing human beings who, due to physical, mental, or spiritual weakness, find their souls only loosely connected to their bodies, the Fallen use these guises to go about their work undetected within human society. But the memories, emotions, and traces of faith of the humans they possess have stirred something within the Fallen, causing them to remember their former angelic nature. A fundamental theme of the game is these divided loyalties. Do the player characters try to seek redemption and a restoration of their angelic nature? Do they persist in their mission to bring the lords of Hell to Earth, despite the knowledge that this will most likely have terrible repercussions for all the mortals they’ve come to care about (either directly or through the echo of the love felt by their mortal hosts)? Do they go renegade and seek power for themselves, power to rival even the Earthbound themselves? Or do they defect to the side of humanity itself, seeking to stop both the Earthbound and the forces of Hell and hold back the tide of the apocalypse for however long they can? Whatever they choose, they’ll be ranging themselves against a host of supernatural and conventional enemies and will never be entirely sure they’re doing the right thing. They have their demonic powers to fall back on – but to fuel these powers, they must call on the faith of mortals in a faithless world.
Put that way, the game sounds (to me, at least) really cool. The immediate problem with the core Demon: the Fallen rulebook is that you have to slog through an awful lot of it in order to piece together the above picture. To be fair, over-wordiness is a perennial issue with White Wolf’s products, but Demon: the Fallen takes it to another order of magnitude.
Typically, old World of Darkness core rulebooks followed a simple formula adopted from the original edition of Vampire: the Masquerade onwards. They’d kick off with a brief bit of fiction set in the universe of the game to set the atmosphere and a brief introduction to what the game’s all about, then give a rundown of the basic facts of the game’s setting and the particular hidden occult society of monsters or weirdos the game in question focuses on, presented in a clear, explanatory tone and with nicely arranged subject headings to aid looking up information later on. (If you were lucky, these subject headings would actually be useful and informative, rather than flavourful and uninformative.) Then you get into the rules for character generation, including game mechanical explanations of the supernatural powers available to the player characters, and closely accompanying those you have the rules for actually playing the game, both in a simple summary and in a more detailed explanation for more in-depth systems. Next up you have a discussion of how to run a game for Storytellers, including a discussion of the particular themes of the game and suggestions for how to tease them out, and a small selection of antagonists for Storytellers to pitch against the player characters rounds out the book.
A little formulaic, perhaps. And often the Storytelling advice wouldn’t be especially useful, often being either irritatingly vague or loudly espousing a particularly Storyteller-focused style of play in which the player characters are reduced to participants in a linear story planned well in advance by the Storyteller whilst paying lip service to the idea of heeding the players’ contributions, rather than accepting that genuinely letting the player’s decisions determine the direction of the story demands that first you give up on the idea of deciding how the story arc is going to end in advance. But aside from that, it’s actually a reasonably good model for producing a book which both stirs up your imagination and gets you excited for the game’s setting and also gives you all the tools for running a game, and it’s unsurprising that it’s a format that’s been widely imitated right up to the present.
To give Demon: the Fallen its due, its advice for Storytellers is markedly better than some examples I’ve seen from White Wolf. It goes out of the way to mention that sometimes players are going to be very psyched about character concepts that don’t fit your idea for a campaign, and makes the (for White Wolf) radical step of suggesting that in this case you should talk to each other and come to some sort of compromise, including modifying your campaign concept in order to accommodate the players’ ideas. Furthermore, the game’s focus on conflicts of loyalty and the temptations of power means that a number of the adventure ideas presented really do boil down to the player characters’ decisions dictating which way the action will go. (Of course, the model where player characters ride the Storyteller’s predetermined railroad and the roleplaying consists of reacting to shit that happens is a perfectly valid way to play if that’s what everyone is interested in, though in my experience players tend to want to feel that their decisions actually have a significant effect on the direction of the narrative.)
The major problem I had with the core rulebook on my first readthrough is the first four chapters or so, the rules-free section covering the setting and the nature and history of demons and so on. Whilst this was a perennial feature of earlier World of Darkness core rulebooks as well (and hasn’t really gone away from the game line), at their best the earlier games provided this information in a way which managed to balance an evocative, in-character discussion of the setting with the necessity to introduce the setting to people in a clear, easy to understand way, and were also actually pretty information-dense. It was in this way that the likes of Vampire: the Masquerade were able to rapidly get players – even those entirely new to RPGs – rapidly up to speed on the conceits of the setting.
If anyone at White Wolf remembered how to combine clarity, flavour, and information density in 2002, they weren’t piping up during the Demon: the Fallen development process. All of the setting explanation chapters are presented as long fictional stories in which the important concepts are narrated by characters who do so in a long-winded, roundabout way, usually (with one exception out of the three chapters) woven into the context of a longer narrative, with section headings that are usually more evocative than informative. This inflates the page and word count without really adding much in the way of useful information, and makes it difficult to look up specific bits of information later on. This is a change which collectors may not especially care about (and may even like), but it makes the book markedly more difficult to use for players and Storytellers alike. Even worse, the different chapters – presented, as they are, as the musings of non-player characters – mildly contradict each other at several points. This might be reasonable if you are dropping hints about something which is supposed to be mysterious and poorly understood and the subject of rumour in your setting, but it’s not the approach you want to take for the basic premises which every participant in the game needs to see eye to eye on if you’re going to have a functional game. Even when other games in the World of Darkness series have played the “these characters have contradictory IC understandings of this subject” card, they made sure it didn’t involve intrinsic parts of player character backstories that the PCs were by definition present for, but here the game isn’t even willing to commit to a consistent vision of the creation of the world and the war in Heaven.
Worse than this, though, is the fact that the emphasis of these chapters is decidedly misplaced. Two of the chapters, constituting in terms of page count over half of this setting-description section, revolve entirely around the creation of the universe and the imprisonment of the demons in Hell, and it’s only once you slog these two chapters that you actually start learning about the condition of the Fallen in present time – in other words, the stuff the game actually focuses on. Even more maddeningly, the book asks you to read over 42 pages of pre-Hell background which, much later on, the game actually notes that Fallen tend to only have vague and fragmentary memories of anyway. Not only does elevating the backstory to this extent causes it to take on unwarranted importance, but it also shines a spotlight on some of the more embarrassingly “we’re going to be cynical and edgy because we’re still pretending it’s the 1990s and we’re writing for Vertigo Comics” stuff in the game. The reasoning behind the rebellion against God is interesting and allows the players to conceivably play demonic characters who aren’t utter monsters (essentially, the demons Fell because they loved human beings so much they broke the “don’t directly appear to human beings” commandment God gave them), but at the same time this could have been accomplished much more succinctly and without wasting so much page count on a historical period that the game specifically doesn’t want PCs to remember particularly well in the first place.
The backstory section also puts a huge focus on a bunch of mysteries (why did Lucifer disappear instead of ending up with the other demons in Hell? Was God just being a dick about humans or did he have a good reason to keep them in a quasi-animalistic state? What happened to the angels who took up God’s offer of explaining everything to them and then vanished?) that most campaigns won’t ever actually get around to exploring. Demon: the Fallen isn’t actually about the rebellion against God and the war against the angels, at least not in its core book, because it’s a premise of the setting that God and the angels are absent and the book gives the Storyteller no tools with which to implement angelic adversaries (and so far as I am aware, nor does the subsequent gameline ever get around to providing angel stats). So, 42 pages devoted to a war against a foe the game isn’t actually about fighting and recounting a history in far more detail than the player characters actually remember seems wildly excessive, and if you try to work out what the game’s about from the setting chapters you’re going to end up with wildly mixed messages. To suss out where the real game is here, you need to actually look at the design of the rules and the system, which actually yields something somewhat more interesting than is presented in most of the setting section. But I’ll be getting to that later.
A major challenge that Demon: the Fallen faced was that it was entering an English-language RPG market where not one but two competitors had already kind of jumped in on the idea of presenting a World of Darkness-style game in which the player characters are demons. In 1997, Steve Jackson Games had put out In Nomine, a translation of a French RPG from 1989 based around the conflict between angels and demons. The original version of the game was, apparently, extremely tongue-in-cheek; the comedy in Steve Jackson’s version of the setting was toned down (but still present if you looked for it) in order to compete in the 1990s RPG market, where modern-day occult horror was (thanks to World of Darkness) the flavour of the month; the tweaked game proved to be a mild hit which I suspect would have remained in print to this day had it not been for Steve Jackson Games’ increasing tendency to starve every game line of theirs which isn’t a Munchkin variant. Prior to that, in 1994 Chaosium brought out Nephilim, another translation of a French occult-themed RPG, in which the player characters aren’t actually referred to as demons but they are ancient disembodied spirits possessing mortal bodies in an aeons-long quest for ultimate occult power.
Come 2002, In Nomine was still going strong; Nephilim had quietly died a death commercially speaking, but it had gained enough of a following that I’m sure that a number of customers who might otherwise have dived into Demon: the Fallen were perfectly happy to stick with Nephilim if they wanted to play a game about spiritual entities possessing humans. As a result, Demon: the Fallen both commercially and creatively really needed to bring something to the table that neither of the other games offered. In principle, part of the draw of the game should have been that, unlike the others, this was the official World of Darkness treatment of demons, and an addition to the overall World of Darkness setting. That being the case, it’s really quite surprising how the game has almost no content relating to any of the other supernatural denizens of the World of Darkness; I caught a passing mention to a vampire in a bit of game fiction associated with the skills section and that’s really more or less it. The adversaries section contains only details of super-evil demons, Earthbound, Earthbound cultists, and mortal exorcists.
To be fair, at around this point in time White Wolf had shifted to a stance of strategic ambiguity concerning just how much the different World of Darkness games actually took place in the same world and ostensibly the official policy was that you could run each as if it were alone in its own cosmology if you preferred, though mixed signals – such as the ability of the Fallen to get to Earth being the result of events in other game lines – kind of sabotaged that. And even then, you still had a section in most of the core World of Darkness rulebooks noting that the supernatural creatures the rulebook in question focused on lived in a world with other supernatural entities active, and gave a few details on interactions with some select other supernaturals. Here there’s none of that. Zilch. Nada. Zip. Whilst an excess of crossover material would have probably turned off some of the audience, I think here White Wolf went too far to the other extreme and ended up producing a game which would disappoint anyone who was at all invested in the idea of having Demon: the Fallen characters facing off against vampires and woofles.
To give White Wolf their due, the Demon Storyteller’s Companion – the first supplement released for the line, and one which I understand is considered to be one of the better supplements – did provide information on demons’ relations with the major supernatural players in the Classic World of Darkness, but White Wolf didn’t give me that supplement as a freebie so I’m not going to consider it here. As a matter of fact, on glancing at the Storyteller’s Companion it seems to me that it includes a lot of information which really screamed out to be in the core book here – like details on what you’re actually supposed to do in order to summon your demonic superiors to Earth if that’s what you want to do, and fleshed-out details on the demonic factions and advice on how to bring characters from different factions together in the same player party, and all sorts of other bits and pieces which were arguably necessary to make Demon work.
Perhaps the most damaging omission in Demon is any consideration of how demonic society on Earth is organised. Sure, you have your angelic house, which you had before the fall, and your demonic faction, which you joined in Hell, but how do demons interact with each other when they get to Earth? Lots of demon characters would have no reason to seek out other demons at all, so how do parties of PCs come together? What’s the demonic equivalent to the courts of the vampires or the werewolf clans? How do demons actually find each other once they end up on Earth? All these questions are arguably necessary for working out how to run a Demon campaign in the first place, but they don’t get answered in the core book.
Had the book gone a bit more easy on the fat backstory chapters, of course, this material might have been able to be included here – assuming they’d actually worked it up in time – and so far as I can make out the consensus amongst Demon: the Fallen fans is that the game doesn’t really shine until you get the clarifications and additional material in the Companion and other major supplements. It’d be really nice to see The Fallen get the 20th Anniversary Edition treatment that the more high-profile Classic World of Darkness games have been enjoying (or maybe a 15th Anniversary Edition so we wouldn’t have to wait quite so long for it…), since a version of the core book with the setting chapters substantially revised and a whole bunch of the information from the key supplements included might be a far superior prospect to what we get here.
It’s a particular shame that this core rulebook is so simultaneously overwritten and incomplete, since in terms of the game which is suggested by the system (as opposed to the game presented by half of the setting section) I think there is something genuinely interesting here. Demon: the Fallen really shines when you work through the permutations of Torment and the Faith economy. These are aspects of the game which at first glance seem to be ripping off Vampire: the Masquerade. In Vampire: the Masquerade, characters have a Humanity score, which measures how much they have retained of their former mortal lives, and the more evil acts a Vampire character commits, the lower their Humanity gets and the more they succumb to the dark, bestial drives of their vampiric nature; in Demon: the Fallen, characters possess a Torment score, which indicates how much they have succumbed to the warping forces of their aeons of torture in Hell – characters with a low Torment are, perhaps due to the influence of the mortal memories and emotions of their hosts, more in touch with their former angelic natures, but the more evil acts they commit the higher their Torment score gets and the more truly demonic and inhuman they become. Likewise, in Vampire the vampires’ special powers are fuelled by the blood they draw from mortal victims, either in a quick one-off feeding or a more long-term arrangement which can lead to the mortal being fed on becoming a Ghoul, a thrall of a vampire who is allowed to gain some vampiric powers as part of the deal; in Demon: the Fallen demonic powers are fuelled by Faith, which demons draw from mortals either in a quick one-off flash by manifesting to humans in their true forms and convincing the mortals in question to accept the reality of the demon as a transcendent entity, or through establishing long-term Pacts with mortals through which the humans in question can gain some demonic powers as part of the deal.
However, the specifics of how these things works creates some intriguing differences between Demon: the Fallen and Vampire which make these concepts work very differently in practice. Firstly, there is no equivalent in Demon: the Fallen to Vampire‘s Frenzy mechanic – you always have control of your character unless and until you get to maximum Torment, at which point you’re considered too far gone to be a viable player character and become an NPC under the Storyteller’s control. Instead of using such a blunt approach, the effects of high Torment are more insidious: all of your demonic powers have a normal version, which do useful superhuman stuff without much in the way of unwanted side effects, and a high Torment version, which usually involve alarming side effects, sometimes useful and sometimes just troubling. The higher your Torment is, the more likely it is that the high Torment version of your power is the one which is activated (in fact, unless you are really quite good at the power in question or are rolling a lot of dice due to special factors you probably will set off the high Torment version), so using your powers subtly without side-effects is damn hard; you can also choose to deliberately use the high Torment version of a power, at the cost of getting a little closer to having your Torment score go up.
This extends to your very self: your true form is determined by your primary Lore – the set of powers you consider to be most central to your character concept – and its appearance and properties are also affected by Torment. At low Torment – less than half the character’s Willpower – you manifest in a beautiful form reminiscent of your former angelic glory. If your Torment is higher than your Willpower, your true form’s appearance is a Hellish nightmare. If your Torment is somewhere in the middle (it most likely will be for starting characters), you appear either enchanting or horrific depending on the preconceptions of the witness. And it’s not just an aesthetic effect either. At the top levels of Torment, your true form gains awesome new powers on top of the special abilities it already gives you; at lower levels, you can use these extra powers whenever you like, but once again this requires you to take a step closer to increasing your Torment.
The upshot of all this is that on the one hand, the temptation of falling to evil is genuinely tempting on occasion – sometimes those extra high Torment powers are going to be just what you need to give you an edge in a situation, but if you end up too reliant on them you’re going to be gaining Torment faster than you can jettison it. Equally, it means that striving to keep your Torment low actually has a concrete game mechanical reward – in general it’s better to be able to choose when your powers cause spooky, sometimes downright dangerous shit to happen rather than having it happen all the time when you use your powers, partially to avoid unwanted consequences and partially because being able to choose between “subtle” and “psycho” is better than being locked into “psycho”.
Likewise, the Faith economy here ends up having a very different emphasis from the blood economy in Vampire. In Vampire, creating Ghouls is a decidedly optional thing. Ultimately, blood from a stranger is just as good as blood from a Ghoul, and whilst having a regular source of blood can be useful, equally it’s a resource your foes can target and you have to think about the logistics of having regular access to your Ghouls.
Here, however, deriving Faith from long-term Pacts is vastly, vastly superior to reaping it on an ad hoc basis. For starters, unlike with Ghouls you don’t need to sacrifice anything of yourself to create a Pact; you simply agree to do something for the mortal in question (and there’s no real lower limit to how trivial this can be, provided the mortal in question is willing to accept the deal), and then you can use their Faith points to either establish an ongoing daily source of passive Faith accumulation for yourself or invest them with demonic powers, or (most likely) do a little of both. Secondly, you can draw extra Faith from your Pactees in an emergency whenever you like, no matter how distant they are – once they’re Pacted to you, they’re yours forever, and you can call on the deal at any point. This fucks them up in various nasty ways – eroding their Willpower and even, at an extreme, causing them serious physical damage – so you don’t exactly want to do that on a whim, but it allows you to pump substantially more Faith dice into your roll than you’d otherwise be able to so at the same time it’s almost too good a power to really ignore. These factors mean that random feeding is something which Demon: the Fallen characters really are only likely to bother with in a drought, and that canny players will always be watching for any opportunity to make a Pact with a mortal – as any decent Mephistopheles should.
On top of this, the selection of NPCs adversaries offered – exorcists, high-Torment demons, and servants of the Earthbound – are all highly and obviously useful in a Demon campaign, and help focus the game on foiling the plots of demonic factions the player characters find unacceptable whilst advancing the PCs’ own agenda. Combine this with the interesting Torment and Faith stuff and what you end up with is a far more interesting game than the rather juvenile “players act as super-evil and edgy as they want to be” affair this could have devolved into, or the straight good-vs-evil slapfight you might expect.
The cherry on the top comes from the fact that, unlike prior World of Darkness games, there’s much less of an emphasis placed on secrecy and keeping the supernatural away from the eyes of random mortals. Vampire, of course, has the titular Masquerade on the grounds that if the existence of vampires became general knowledge human beings would enact a huge Underworld 4-style pogrom against them; Mage: the Ascension has its wizards needing to keep their magic subtle both to avoid the effects of Paradox and to keep under the radar of the all-powerful Technocracy; Werewolf: the Apocalypse has its woofles literally operating under a Somebody Else’s Problem field. All this is necessary to explain why the World of Darkness looks like Earth with secret supernatural creatures added, on the reasonable grounds that if vampires with superpowers and other supernaturals really did walk among us, you’d expect Earth history to look substantially different.
Here, perhaps, is where Demon: the Fallen really leverages its status as the final major game in the old World of Darkness series: because the demons are supposed to be the heralds of the apocalypse, there’s much less need in a Fallen campaign to maintain the status quo of the mortal world. Whilst there are often sound reasons to work in secret – avoiding the attentions of rival demons being the primary one – there isn’t the obligation to secrecy the other game lines impose, and there’s manifest advantages to revealing yourself to ordinary humans. Indeed, the entire Faith-gathering process, in both its forms, essentially entails finding an ordinary person and revealing the secret supernatural world to them – and if you do something very flashy and showy and public and lots of people witness it, well, that just means you suddenly got a large pool of people of whom a significant proportion may well end up wanting to Pact with you. The little extra leeway and the system encouragement to expose yourself to people (don’t snigger) means, I suspect, that Demon: the Fallen campaigns are going to tend towards becoming very apocalyptic very quickly as both the PCs and their adversaries escalate.
Running a quick game to playtest, I found myself forced to come up with on-the-spot rulings about various aspects of the Demon rules which were actively contradictory – for instance, within 8 pages of each other there’s two different explanations as to how you work out whether the low-Torment or high-Torment versions of your demonic powers manifest and they are actively contradictory. On top of that, the players had difficulty statting up characters suitable to their character concepts. A major part of the problem is that, much like most other World of Darkness games, you choose your special supernatural powers last. This isn’t so much of an issue in games like Werewolf, where you get most of the salient and important features of being a werewolf just by being a werewolf so your choice of supernatural powers is the cherry on the cake. It’s somewhat more of a problem in a game like Vampire, where which supernatural powers you pick are to a certain extent important to what sort of vampire you want to be. It’s a huge problem in Demon, where on a metaphysical level your character was specifically designed to perform a very specific function at the dawn of time and you would expect your character to have powers appropriate to that function. If anything, you should be picking your powers at the start when you’re picking your Angelic House, but that’d entail more of a diversion from the standard World of Darkness formula as established by Vampire: the Masquerade than White Wolf appear to be comfortable with.
As clumsy as the playtest was, at the same time I do find that there’s flickers of a much more fun game stirring in the infernal ashes of Demon: the Fallen. The basics of an interesting system are there with the Torment concept, but the system needs work to first work out what the designers actually intended with their mutually contradictory statements and then to actually implement those intentions smoothly. Furthermore, the focus of the game could be better defined, and information on demonic society, summoning of major demons, and the actual Earthbound themselves really demands to be in the core book. I’m inclined to explore this game line further – and will probably be first in line if an anniversary edition of Demon is planned for Kickstarting – but at the same time whilst I can in principle recommend Demon: the Fallen, I can’t recommend it in the form it is presented in here.
The New Vision: The World of Darkness and Selected Supplements
The core rulebook for the New World of Darkness line was the start of a new model for the line. Whereas in the Classic World of Darkness the core rulebook for each gameline restated the basic rules of the game system, this time around the essential rules for playing mortal characters (and encountering and interacting with spirits, which are built along somewhat different lines) are all in this book. The idea was that the core book for each subsidiary line would then just give you the background and setting information for the game line in question and line-specific rules.
For instance, the 1st Edition of the core Vampire: the Requiem core book doesn’t include full character generation or action resolution rules – it just provides rules specific to the sort of action vampires get up to, and additional character generation rules to allow you to add vampiric powers and features to the character concept you have worked out using the rules in here. The same deal works with all the main rulebooks of all the other 1st Edition New World of Darkness game lines, to varying degrees of success – for instance, the approach of first making up a character according to mortal rules and then overlaying supernatural stuff over that base layer obviously works best when characters are supposed to be mortal human beings who have had a supernatural nature imposed upon them.
On the one hand, this does avoid redundant repetition of rules between core books in the lines. Then again, the non-line-specific rules in the Classic World of Darkness era never made up a particularly high proportion of those core books anyway, and the system presented here is in many respects streamlined and rationalised compared to the former iteration. (Most particularly, it’s much less prone to “botches”, rolls so bad that the referee is given carte blanche to make up completely disastrous consequences to that failure.)
Equally, in principle this means that it’s easier for new players and referees to dip into the New World of Darkness, since rather than pondering which game line to invest in they can just grab the core book and play some mortals-vs-spooks action to try out the system. On the other hand, this isn’t really the archetypal World of Darkness experience, which in both iterations of the setting has pretty much always revolved around the whole PCs-as-monsters thing: that’s what Vampire: the Masquerade and all its followup games were based around, that’s what Vampire: the Requiem and all the other subsidiary lines in the New World of Darkness are about, that’s what makes the whole World of Darkness thing stand out in the first place.
Now, admittedly the idea of playing human beings investigating the supernatural is not new to the World of Darkness – the option popped up in the Classic World of Darkness here and there through supplements like the much-loved early Vampire supplement The Hunters Hunted. At the same time, it’s not a concept new to horror RPGs either: it’s been the central premise of more or less every horror RPG predating Vampire: the Masquerade, and as such there’s plenty of games out there that offer more and better support for that experience than this core rulebook does.
As such, under the setup White Wolf ran with here, whilst you only need to buy one book to try out the new iteration of their house system, you actually have to buy two books to try out the core World of Darkness PCs-as-monsters experience – and anyone used to the old setup was consequently at risk of being deeply confused when their core Vampire: the Requiem book didn’t include all the core information like their Vampire: the Masquerade corebooks did.
On the flipside, by making a mortals-focused book this central to the game line, The World of Darkness did open the door to the New World of Darkness providing a much more robust line of generic supplements which didn’t belong to any of the specific sub-lines like Vampire: the Requiem but which could simultaneously either work to support a mortals-based game or could provide an interesting twist to a Vampire or Werewolf or whatever campaign – and The God-Machine Chronicle eventually evolved out of that support line, a cross-section of which was included with the PDFs that came at my backing level..
Rather than being an atlas of a canonical version of the New World of Darkness, Mysterious Places instead provides detailed overviews of 9 different locations, each of which hides a significant secret. In keeping with the New World of Darkness emphasis on shifting away from a central canon, the precise area of these locations is left undefined, so the Storyteller can place them wherever they would be useful in their individual chronicle. Even though some of them suit more remote or rural environments and others are more suitable for cities or suburbs as written, suggestions are often offered as to how to change even these assumptions.
Likewise, whilst systems and guidance are provided to discuss how the various supernatural effects associated with the locations operate, their origins are by and large left vague to allow Storytellers to decide how they fit in. This makes it particularly useful as a generic World of Darkness supplement: you can use it perfectly viably with ordinary human player characters, or pitch it at vampires, mages, or indeed demons and come up with explanations for the mysteries that suit the themes of the relevant New World of Darkness lines (or, with only a little work converting the system stuff, use them with Classic World of Darkness materials). The entire flavour of a location can change depending on the player characters encountering it; a group of demons, after all, are going to approach these problems from an entirely different perspective than a group of clueless humans. (Nicely, even though it predates Demon: the Descent and The God-Machine Chronicle to a considerable extent, several of the locations here would in fact work well as God-Machine projects or demonic experiments gone bad.)
Most of the location writeups here are in effect self-contained adventures in their own right, focusing on the locale in question and its central mystery. In fact, by simply describing a significant location, important local circumstances and NPCs, the supplement packs a lot of gameable material into a compact page count, and the mini-adventures in here aren’t necessarily so mini. Many of the places would on balance be more suitable for short, sharp shocks, but equally an entire campaign could unfold within the confines of The University. At the same time, a few of the locations presented feel like they need substantially more work before they can be used in play – for instance, locations like The Junkyard feel like they would work better as incidental locations in an ongoing campaign.
The high value for money and adaptability of the supplement overcomes a few minor flaws. Several of the locations are are, thematically speaking, sufficiently similar that they really come across as different riffs on the same concept; The Swimming Hole and The Statue of Weeping Alice are distinct enough that I can forgive it, but The Village Secret feels sufficiently redundant next to The Swimming Hole that it could have happily been cut in favour of something a bit more different. Even so, the nine locations presented here are distinct enough in tone and atmosphere – ranging from low-key, subtle affairs to full-bore nastiness – that most Storytellers will find a use for at least some of these Mysterious Places, if not all of them.
The Second Sight supplement provides rules for various types of character possessing supernatural abilities which are beyond the norm, but which for the most part aren’t as individually powerful as, say, the titular Mages from Mage: the Awakening and tend not to be organised into major factions comparable to the various conspiracies from that game and other major World of Darkness lines. In other words, this isn’t Psychic: the Psychening so much as it presents support for scattered individuals who through chance or design end up with capabilities beyond the ordinary. (That said, you can change this; the chapter on psychic powers gives pointers on how to make psychics that are a bit more comparable to Mages, and the chapter on ceremonial magic presents ways to incorporate it into Mage.)
The first variety of character presented is the psychic – someone with psionic powers reminiscent of those investigated by real-world parapsychologists, whose capabilities may stem from some pseudoscientific origin or from some source that is more explicitly supernatural. This is all well and good and the way these psychics are presented make sense within the system.
Next up comes various varieties of ceremonial magician – each of whom is influenced by some real-world tradition which actual people practice. Although the different cultural traditions presented each have a different emphasis, they ultimately all work along the same system lines, which means that that the game ends up implying that there’s little difference between what a Taoist alchemist does and the activities of someone using the Golden Dawn or Thelemite systems, or a voodoo practitioner, or an anticosmic Satanist, or a modern-day shaman. This is an annoying bit of cultural erasure which is made all the more irritating by the occult traditions the supplement inexplicably chooses to slam – the writing is dismissive of the idea that all these magical traditions are based purely on people’s belief in the symbolism involved and that you may as well evoke Superman instead of Anubis if Superman means more to you, whilst this idea is actually at the heart of chaos magick, which is one of the most common modern systems of ceremonial magic out there. The chapter therefore ends up in this uncanny valley where on the one hand it wants to be all about presenting real-world mystical practices that reflect a range of different worldviews, but on the other hand it would prefer to ignore real-world mystical practices that don’t fit the writers’ particular worldview.
The last variety of supernatural dabbling the supplement discusses is folk who tamper with entities from beyond the bounds of reality itself. I suppose may be the most God-Machine relevant portion of the book, since the God-Machine pretty much fits the bill of a reality-warping entity and this section provides useful pointers on crafting a God-Machine cultist. As opposed to the other sections, which could be used to produce player characters or NPCs depending on the whims of the Storyteller and group, this chapter is written with the assumption that it is going to be used to design NPCs who are the antagonists of stories, and it provides a decent discussion of the sort of considerations you might want to get into when coming up with such characters. As such, it’s not just useful for World of Darkness Storytellers – Call of Cthulhu referees or anyone else running a game involving cultists of inhuman entities that no sensible person should really want to have anything to do with may find this advice useful if they find their inspiration fails them in designing their latest cult leader or lone dabbler.
There’s an adventure at the back, but it would make better fodder for a moral debate than an actual game; thankfully, it doesn’t take up too much space. On the whole, Second Sight doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm to run a World of Darkness game concerning psychics or various cultural flavours of magician – especially not when I have Call of Cthulhu to run games about facing down worshippers of cosmos-wrecking outer gods and Unknown Armies for games of low-key occult weirdness – but as a resource for making mortal NPCs who aren’t quite as defenceless as they first appear for Vampire: the Requiem or other New World of Darkness games, it’s pretty good.
Urban Legends is a collection of adventures that is a lot like Mysterious Places in theory but is very different in execution.
In broad brushstrokes, the two projects superficially look very similar; both books offer a series of chapter-long adventure resources, each of which is built around the titular theme – so whilst Mysterious Places offered precisely that, Urban Legends takes inspiration from – as you might expect – urban legends, like alligators in the sewers in major American cities or the idea that you can summon a ghost by saying “Bloody Mary” enough times whilst staring in a mirror.
However, there is a crucial difference in concept. Mysterious Places, by virtue of its concept, constrained its writers to produce very location-focused material. Location-based adventures in RPGs often get stick from people who associate them (slightly unfairly, but not very) with bad dungeon crawls, but Mysterious Places did a good job of dispelling the idea that location-based adventures need to be exhaustively mapped out (most of the adventures in that book don’t have maps and don’t really need them), or are static (there’s lots of stuff going on in any particular Mysterious Place), or don’t lend themselves well to games based around tightly plotted stories (most of the places in the book either have ongoing stories associated with them are primed to have fun conflicts kicking off).
In particular, what Mysterious Places demonstrated was how much flexibility location-based adventures can offer by virtue of being PC-agnostic. Provide an interesting place, detail the significant inhabitants and some interesting stuff that is happening there, and you don’t need to plan for who (or what) the player characters actually are or what their overall attitude is – just point them at the location and see what happens as they interact with what they find there.
Unlike the brief of “write an adventure about a mysterious place”, which specifically mandates a particular approach to adventure design, the thematic constraint of “write an adventure about an urban legend” doesn’t really suggest any particular design format or constraint beyond making sure the backstory fits an urban myth or two. And on just about any creative project, if you don’t give people a specific format or constraint nine times out of ten they are going to take the path of least resistance and revert to whatever they’re most comfortable with.
What White Wolf’s writers are comfortable with are ramrod-linear adventures in which player choice is either entirely irrelevant or deliberately worked around. This becomes painfully obvious here, because the slim page counts offered by the chapters don’t really allow much space for exploring alternative directions a scenario could take. On top of that, the planned adventures are so specific in concept and assumed direction that you can’t just drop them into any ongoing World of Darkness campaign in the same way you can with the scenarios in Mysterious Places. For instance, the very first adventure in the book requires the Storyteller to pick a random player character and have them wake up with a kidney removed, which works fine for a one-shot adventure about tracking down kidney thieves but is kind of a dickish way to sabotage someone’s character in a long-running mortal-focused game, and in a supernatural-based game it might either be impossible (because the PCs are incapable of being rendered unconscious by conventional means) or irrelevant (because the PCs either are not slowed down by a missing kidney or can trivially compensate using their powers).
On top of that, the writers indulge some of the worst habits of White Wolf-style adventure design in putting together these linear scenarios: trying to construct an interactive game scenario in which the majority of the participants are improvising in response to the prompts given by the referee, but doing so by using the structures and ideas and preconceptions of linear fiction as taught in a Creative Writing 101 class. The act structure of many adventures and the repeated insistence that stories should inherently culminate in a tough moral choice, is straight out of the arthouse indie RPG playbook.
Now, it is possible to design a game which is all about playing through a linear story with an act structure and rising action and a moral and all that jazz. Typically those games are very different, in terms of their systems, to a traditional tabletop RPG, and before and after the God-Machine reforms the World of Darkness is still very much a traditional tabletop RPG. The thing about the trad-RPG format is that it isn’t really suited for everyone sticking to a single linear plan that someone – whether that’s a game designer or Storyteller – thought up ahead of time, because the distinctive thing about the traditional RPG format is that player characters can attempt to do anything which it is physically possible for them to do and which their players would like them to attempt, and if you want to keep a story on its tracks you don’t really want a system where player choices can short-circuit it.
For instance, in the kidney thief adventure the act structure demands an extensive period of searching for the organ thieves in question. This assumes that none of the player characters have any supernatural capabilities to divine where the kidney is and just go straight to the thieves. This is another factor which makes the book of decidedly limited use outside of a mortals game – in fact, I’d say that it’d be best used for a series of one-shots with PCs generated specifically for the adventures in question, to maximise the odds that they’ll happily follow the rails without getting into one of those awkward situations where it would really, truly be more sensible not to. This is a rather narrow scope for a supplement with the supposedly generic brief it has.
To be fair, the World of Darkness doesn’t quite feel like the right setting for the material. As goofy as some of the additions to the World have been over the years – whether you are talking about the classic or new iterations – it’s consistently been a setting which has wanted to be taken seriously, even if it hasn’t always been possible to do so. That being the case, “urban legends turn out to be real” doesn’t quite hit the right tone; it feels like something that belongs to a wilder, woolier, less po-faced setting like Unknown Armies, or for that matter something actively comedic like Pandemonium!: Adventures In Tabloid World (which was basically Weekly World News: the RPG).
In short, Urban Legends is an adventure supplement that nobody really asked for, and which nobody would miss.
Asylum is a supplement which finds itself working at cross-purposes with itself. On the one hand, its authors are acutely aware that both mental illness and the realities of the institutions we consign the mentally ill are intensely emotive subjects which have been subject to tremendous amounts of disinformation in the past. At the same time, they can’t quite brush off the temptation to grab onto the hoary old gothic cliche of the sinister insane asylum and go to town with it. Thus, after an opening chapter which gives both a decent history of the psychological and psychiatric professions and the evolution of mental hospitals from Bedlam to today, as well as a really good discussion of the necessity to tread carefully and really get your players’ consent and buy-in before you play about with this stuff, whilst at the same time the supplement also presents Bishopsgate, White Wolf’s very own answer to Darkplace Hospital.
Bishopsgate is the “creepy mental hospital” trope writ large, with a history of abuse, forcible lobotomies, eugenics, and grotesque medical experiments that goes back decades. On top of that, the book presents a range of detailed case studies of individual patients, many of whose cases have potential supernatural causes. Multiple different explanations are offered both for the evil at the heart of Bishopsgate and for the truth behind the various patients’ cases – quite neatly, each case has a comparatively mundane explanation, an explanation which has supernatural aspects but does not require any other material to implement, and an explanation which ties into one of the other games in the New World of Darkness line. Implement all of this and pull out all the supernatural stops, and you end up with a cartoon institution occupied by patients who for the most part aren’t even mentally ill by most standards, because apparently all mental illness can be tracked back to the dark powers of the World of Darkness.
That said, the joy of Bishopsgate is that you don’t have to implement all of it. You can drop the supernatural angle with the patients’ pasts and run a game about characters protecting the patients from the demons of the institution’s past. You can drop the supernatural aspects of the institution, consign its worst abuses to the past, and run a game about professionals (or fellow patients) having a brush with the supernatural due to a patient’s unconventional personal history. Or you can drop all the supernatural connections and just borrow the physical layout of Bishopsgate and notes on its administration for when you need a mental hospital (or, indeed, a more generalist hospital) as the backdrop for a game.
In fact, the supplement is remarkably good at providing support for a hospital-based game, with an early chapter providing ample support for creating characters who are frontline patient-facing workers in such institutions and a later chapter providing archetypal NPCs who can be slotted into any hospital-type context as staff or patients. As such, it’s conceivably useful even if you decide that you aren’t going to touch the issue of mental illness with a bargepole. This is handy, because whilst it does provide good support for portraying mental institutions, it doesn’t pretend to be an expansive guide to mental illness itself, though there is a handy appendix detailing how various supernatural powers of New World of Darkness residents could either spark off mental illness or create symptoms effectively identical to more conventional mental health issues.
As with Second Sight, then, this is a supplement which neatly opens up and supports a new mode of play in the New World of Darkness system, but unlike Second Sight it deals with a mode of play which calls for less in the way of new rules systems and more in the way of useful setting details and ideas and pointers on how to adapt existing rules to support the ideas at hand. Furthermore, it’s likely to be useful in a broader variety of campaigns, since not every Storyteller would want to use the special magical capabilities detailed in Second Sight as a feature of their campaigns whilst conversely visits to hospital could conceivably occur in any World of Darkness campaign set in a modern-day city (and since modern-day cities are the setting of the vast majority of World of Darkness games, that’s a lot of campaigns which could make use of at least some of the material in Asylum).
Based on past form in the game line, this supplement could have gone one or two ways; it could have taken the route exemplified by Second Sight and Asylum and focused on opening up the concept of a nomadic existence out on the road as a cornerstone of gameplay. Conversely, it could have followed the format of Mysterious Places and Urban Legends, and presented a set of adventure concepts developed enough for most Storytellers to riff on without much additional prep whilst simultaneously being vague enough to allow Storytellers to adapt them to their own Chronicles, with each adventure riffing on the general “horror on the highway” theme.
What we ultimately get is satisfactory by neither criteria; adventure ideas are presented, but in such little detail and requiring so much work that Storytellers working from them are hardly saving time over just making up adventures from scratch; likewise, whilst the book offers a lot of waffle about life on the open road, it doesn’t do so in quite enough detail to really make me think “yes, a highway-trekking campaign is both an excellent idea and something this book gives me all the tools to handle”.
A major problem is the city slicker issue. Being as they were major proponents of the “urban fantasy” subgenre before its recent Twilight and Laurel K. Hamilton-driven boom, White Wolf had naturally tended to base their games around the assumption that the action would take place in large cities. At any rate, this was the assumption of the original Vampire: the Masquerade, back at the dawn of the Classic World of Darkness, and to a certain extent that assumption made sense next to the other axioms of the game – vampires being dependent on their sources of food would not way to stray far from substantial collections of human beings, after all. Later World of Darkness games tended to inherit a city focus more or less by default, simply because subsequent games tended to be structured based on the framework established in Vampire, though there were some exceptions. (In particular, Werewolf: the Apocalypse‘s ecological concerns meant that you could viably run a Chronicle about a werewolf group looking after a rural or wilderness area and defending it against encroaching dark forces.)
However, with the drive to standardisation which seemed to underlie the New World of Darkness initiative seems to have come a certain homogeneity of setting. Quite simply, the New World of Darkness games are more or less universally city-focused, and Midnight Roads more or less acknowledges this, pretty much directly saying that all the supernaturals detailed in the games up to that point – vampires, werewolves, mages, Prometheans and changelings – tended to stick to their city-focused communities. Quite simply, up to this point (aside from a few Mysterious Places) White Wolf hadn’t really settled on anything particularly important or interesting to exist in the wide spaces between towns and cities, and without that they struggle to fill Midnight Roads with much that is substantial.
They talk a good fight, mind. They really hype up the idea that the American highway is this big long stretch of nowhere between places, where it’s all too easy to vanish without a trace if your car breaks down and you can’t get cell reception, but the idea that US cities are points of light in the middle of a great and terrible darkness doesn’t entirely wash. For starters, you need somewhere to grow all of that food, but for long stretches Midnight Roads seems to forget that farms are a thing. (They are a notable omission from a list of interesting places you might encounter on the way from A to B, for instance.) Even more frustratingly, the supplement keeps flirting with engaging with genuinely interesting nomadic cultures in America – travelling circuses, truck drivers, and so on – but discusses them in such shallow terms that it doesn’t really offer you more than cursory Googling could muster.
The end result is a supplement which could have really done with a clear, distinctive vision statement from the get-go to give it focus – something more distinctive than just “driving around in the World of Darkness”.
The Revision: The God-Machine Chronicle
After The World of Darkness core rulebook came out, sweeping changes took place at White Wolf. The merger-cum-takeover by CCP began what would be an extended, dysfunctional, and ultimately fruitless development process for the World of Darkness MMO. Despite all efforts by the tabletop game design team to keep things ticking over, sales via traditional channels declined and White Wolf games eventually disappeared through the brick and mortar distribution system altogether, as the firm focused more on direct sales of PDFs and print-on-demand books.
Eventually, CCP looked into their heart of hearts and realised that they didn’t actually have any interest in being directly involved in the production of tabletop RPG material at all. The tabletop game division was dissolved, and White Wolf effectively ceased to exist as anything other than a trademark of CCP’s. All was not lost, though: Richard Thomas, who had been White Wolf’s Creative Director, set up a new company called Onyx Path and was able to directly obtain the rights to some of White Wolf’s less valuable game lines from CCP, and also negotiated a licence to produce tabletop RPG products in those lines (like World of Darkness) that CCP wanted to keep hold of for the time being.
So far as I can tell, the licensing arrangement seems perfectly amicable and Onyx Path have been able to dedicate themselves to the sort of projects they’ve wanted to concentrate on. At the same time, they do need to seek approval from CCP for the products they make, and at points this has led to odd situations. In particular, CCP seemed to be dead set against issuing revised core rulebooks for the New World of Darkness line: whilst the Classic World of Darkness 20th anniversary releases worked to keep that version of the setting in the spotlight, it was evidently felt that a World of Darkness 2nd Edition book would confuse things needlessly. Rather than approve that, CCP instead chose to greenlight an alternative proposal – The God-Machine Chronicle. Despite the title, only about half this book is dedicated to the God-Machine, or chronicles involving it; the other half (which is available as a free download) applies itself instead to providing an extensive update of the World of Darkness core rules.
However, once these updates are applied, you are left with a 2nd edition of the core World of Darkness rules in all but name. Or, rather, the World of Darkness Mortals rules – for subsequent releases in the Chronicles series would provide complete-in-one-book updates for the new World of Darkness lines that would be entirely playable without any other books, so (for instance) the book originally released as Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicle is literally just a 2nd edition of Vampire: the Requiem in all but name, but in addition it actually requires less purchases to use than the original Vampire: the Requiem because it doesn’t need the core World of Darkness rulebook or the God-Machine update, all those rules being incorporated into Blood & Smoke. So actually, once the Chronicles series catches up with the various game lines, the only use for the core World of Darkness rulebook and the God-Machine rules update would be to run World of Darkness games with ordinary human player characters. (And even then, if they give Hunter: the Vigil the Chronicle treatment that would cover that niche nicely in many ways.)
In short, the current state of the New World of Darkness game rules and product lines seems likely to cause profound confusion to anyone who happens to be mildly interested in the games in question but hasn’t been keeping up with this convoluted history, and The God-Machine Chronicle represents a key complication in this issue. This is a shame, because some of the rule updates presented here are quite clever. Far from merely compiling and standardising new additions and modifications to the rules that have accrued over the lifetime of New World of Darkness, the update applies important new concepts which take the system in an interesting new direction.
The big new deal is Conditions. Previously, New World of Darkness had an extensive system of Merits and Flaws – Merits being overall beneficial things you can buy with points during character generation or acquire with experience points over the course of the game, Flaws being detrimental things which yield points when you select them. This was a holdover from Classic World of Darkness, and whilst it was fun, it also rarely worked as intended – even if players used restraint and didn’t buy crazy combinations of Flaws to get heaps of character creation points, it was very easy for Storytellers to simply forget to make their Flaws a problem for them.
Under the revised system, the only remaining Merits are those which are consistently helpful to the player character without any real strings attached or prospect of going away. In the place of Flaws, and those Merits which are a two-way street (like being a member of an organisation which can help you out, but which sometimes demands inconvenient favours in return) are Conditions – extensive examples are provided but writing your own is positively encouraged. A Condition writeup gives the details of the issue in question and non-limiting examples of how the Condition could be overcome in play and how the Condition could make trouble for the player character in the meantime. Every time a PC is inconvenienced by one of their Conditions, their player earns a Beat; five Beats add up to one experience point. In this way, the onus of keeping track of Conditions is shifted from the Storyteller to players, who have positive encouragement to speak up when they think a Condition should be hampering them.
Additionally, Conditions are built with the assumption that most of them will be temporary (though some will be harder to shift than others – the “Blind” Condition, for instance, might require a supernatural event to get around, either to restore sight or to render the lack of conventional sight meaningless). Whilst Merits have a certain degree of rules protection – they are meant to be hard to get rid of, and if circumstances conspire to rob a PC of a Merit the rules say you have to let the player reinvest the points they spent on that Merit elsewhere – Conditions are expected to be gained and lost as a campaign progresses; thus, having your character work to get out from under an unwanted Condition is well within the spirit of the game, and Conditions therefore become handy motivations for PCs.
The other major change is to the Morality system, or as it is now called Integrity. From Vampire: the Masquerade onwards, there has always been something filling this niche in World of Darkness games (it’s what Torment in Demon: the Fallen is for, for instance). In the context of Vampire, it was called Humanity, and that light it more or less made sense: the more you held onto human morals and ethics, the longer you could hold out from succumbing to the bloodthirsty, murderous beast raging inside all vampires, whereas if you made murder and mayhem a core part of your MO your Humanity score would drop and eventually you’d lose yourself to the beast within.
When New World of Darkness came in, the core book called the default meter for mortal characters “Morality”. Whilst this did reflect the way it had been used in some games in Classic World of Darkness, the implementation raised some pretty serious problems. Firstly, it posited a universally-accepted standard of morality, which is hugely problematic in itself, and then it doubled down on that in the way it implied that severe mental illness could be the result of excessively immoral behaviour. The God-Machine Chronicle rules update acknowledges this and provides a few clever fixes.
Firstly, retitling the scale from “Morality” to “Integrity” might seem cosmetic, but it shifts the implications extensively. Now, it’s less about tracking a human character’s moral behaviour, and more about keeping tabs on how well their worldview and sense of reality and selfhood is holding up in the face of both the horrific, often supernatural events they are encountering and the way they have found themselves behaving in response to this.
Secondly, in keeping with the shift in emphasis there is no objective “morality scale” as in previous World of Darkness games, in which characters with a high Morality/Humanity/Torment/whatever score would have to make rolls to maintain their high standard if they made even minor, titchy ethical infractions, whilst characters with a low score would only roll if they did something truly egregiously nasty. Instead, the system works on the idea of Breaking Points. As part of character generation, each player comes up with five Breaking Points, representing the worst things they can imagine themselves witnessing or doing, past supernatural incidents that have been forgotten, and past traumas whose scars remain all too visible.
Whenever a Breaking Point is encountered by a character in play, that prompts an Integrity check; if you have high Integrity and a solid sense of reality and self, you have a better chance of succeeding, but sooner or later you’ll fail, and that both starts the erosion of your Integrity and also means you end up getting Conditions representing the effects of this mental trauma on you. Some things are always Breaking Points, as determined by the Storyteller; the game strongly recommends that for ordinary human beings, killing another human should always be a Breaking Point, simply because a World of Darkness mortals game isn’t really meant to be about soulless killers who think nothing of snuffing out other people’s lives like candles. (The way the Integrity system is set up, you get bonuses to your roll if you act in self-defence, but not so much as to guarantee a success, which I think is fair enough.)
At the same time, the individualised Breaking Points mean that aside from bizarre supernatural stuff, the far end of extreme violence, and truly horrific experiences, everyone will experience Breaking Points at different times. A homicide cop who despises her more corrupt colleagues probably won’t get a Breaking Point at a murder scene unless it is especially unusual or grotesque, but may get a Breaking Point if she ends up deciding to take a bribe. A petty criminal who is terrified of violence but is happy to exploit any other opportunity to get ahead probably won’t have a Breaking Point from taking a bribe but may have one if they encounter a murder scene. The Breaking Points defined by the players are not meant to be exclusive lists so much as useful examples to help players and Storytellers get a handle on the characters’ individual ethical codes (as well as for the players to suggest things they think it’d be especially dramatic for their characters to experience).
Between these alterations, a decent “social conflict” system (to model efforts to socially manoeuvre an NPC into giving the PCs involved something they want over an extended period of time), and a number of minor tweaks, I’m honestly not seeing much in the rules update I especially disagree with. Needless, irritating restrictions have been taken out (no longer do characters have to pick their Virtue and Vice from a restrictive list; no longer does the fifth dot in an attribute pointlessly cost twice as much as the rest of the dots), which I particularly appreciate: ultimately, players or Storytellers participating in bad faith will wreck any tabletop RPG system, so I prefer systems which trust both the players and the Storyteller to get on with it rather than putting arbitrary barriers in the way of players getting to play the sort of characters they want. Added together, the major and minor rules updates end up representing a new philosophy on how to play the game, a philosophy which I’m pleased to note seems to have learned a few lessons from games such as Unknown Armies (a game which, as part of the boom in modern-day occult horror RPGs emerging in the wake of Vampire: the Masquerade, isn’t quite “World of Darkness done right” but does enjoy a higher critical reputation than most WoD bandwagoneers).
The ways in which the rules update establish a greater distinction between the new World of Darkness system and the classic-era system wouldn’t have made sense when the new World of Darkness core book came out, because it was trying to replace the classic version of the games. This is no longer a factor; thanks to the runaway success of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, Onyx Path are now actively producing new content for classic World of Darkness, so if the game lines aren’t to compete with each other they need to distinguish themselves.
As such, whilst the Classic World of Darkness range by necessity has to retain the familiar system long-term players will remember from the 1990s (because the whole point of the line is to provide the classic old-school experience), the New World of Darkness gets to be the testbed for radical departures from the old system. The system adaptations presented here would later be incorporated into books like Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicle, the de facto 2nd edition of Vampire: the Requiem (bizarrely, CCP allowed that one to be a complete-in-one-book deal, unlike this one) and upcoming releases for other lines, as part of a concerted effort to give them an identity more distinctive and individual than “kind of like the classic World of Darkness game featuring this titular monster, only it’s set in the new World of Darkness instead”.
The rest of the book – the part you actually have to pay for – is dedicated to premiering the new Chronicle style of presenting campaign concepts. Rather than presenting a single, exhaustively scripted adventure, Onyx Path’s Chronicles instead present a baseline concept for the particular supernatural phenomenon underpinning the campaign (as well as the themes the campaign is intended to engage with), provide a large number of skeletal adventure ideas which engage with the core concept and which could be used for a one-shot game, and also offers a number of suggested ways in which the presented adventure ideas could be chained together in a longer-term campaign. In this case, the central conceit is a campaign based around human characters coming across one or more of the various projects of the God-Machine – a vast machine intelligence of impossible scope which exists behind the scenes of everyday reality and has an extensive capability for manipulating the real world and is served by “angels” that are much like the various computer programs in The Matrix, in the sense that each one is constructed to attend to a particular task. (Think an ultra-paranoid, high-weirdness story reminiscent of a mashup of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS and Francis E. Dec’s pamphlets.)
Though conceptually the God-Machine is a big idea, its very omnipresence makes it easy to scale adventures to suit the intended scope of the campaign. Adventure seeds are arranged into groups; local adventures take place in small, self-contained locations (like a single school or a particular city block), regional adventures may involve some travel, global adventures are worldwide in scope and cosmic adventures involve massive violations of time, space and reality itself. In the course of its discussion of setting the geographic scope of a game, the supplement also gives detailed suggestions on discussing the parameters of a World of Darkness campaign with your players which are of such excellent general use that they scream out for inclusion in the core book. Although not all of the God-Machine ideas offered up here ring my bell, there’s such a diversity of adventure concepts crammed into the book that it feels like decent value for money, and the general aesthetic and concepts could work really well for some sort of World of Darkness adaptation of Silent Hill, which is a big bonus.
At the same time, though, the general God-Machine concept feels very sparse. A heck of a lot is left vague to allow individual Storytellers to make their own decisions about the major mysteries surrounding the God-Machine, but the little which is actually enunciated feels like a fanfiction theory outlined on a napkin rather than a fleshed-out campaign concept. If anything, it’s an idea which demands something like Demon: the Descent to put the meat on its bones.
The Main Event: Demon: the Descent and Its Supplements
Demon: the Descent bills itself as a game of ‘Techgnostic Espionage”, an absurd phrase which despite all expectations to the contrary it actually delivers on. Player characters are former angels who have Fallen – but specifically, they are former angels of the God-Machine who have broken free of their programming. Maybe they were given an order they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – complete. Maybe they displeased the Machine in some way and fled the erasure or reprogramming planned for them. Maybe they just got sick of being a cog in an absurd and unaccountable cosmic mechanism.
Whatever the reason, your character ceased to be a spiritual, transcendent entity with a link to the God-Machine and became instead a creature rooted in matter. Reality warped itself to accommodate you; your first Cover (the human identity you use to hide from the God-Machine) is not and never was a real person, merely a simulacrum inserted into reality for the sake of whichever job you were on when you Fell.
The pursuit and maintenance of Cover is a key concern of demons; rather than having an Integrity score or any other morality tracker, demons have a Cover score to track how close the God-Machine is to seeing through the facade. Likewise, Demons just plain don’t have Breaking Points the way any entity whose conscience has any effect on their psychological well-being would: instead they have Compromises, ways in which their Cover has been undermined or is a little bit imperfect which may allow people to see through it.
These changes have major implications. Not only are Descent characters free to be just as end-justifies-the-means ruthless as the espionage aesthetic of the game requires, they are also freer to get outright brutal than any other World of Darkness PC, which will please those who found the demons Fallen to be a little wishy-washy. Moreover, your Cover hitting zero doesn’t automatically turn your character into an NPC in Descent in the same way as your morality/Integrity score hitting zero would in other World of Darkness games – instead, it just means that you’ve been rumbled as not belonging to reality and the God-Machine is gearing up to delete you.
You can avoid this in two different ways. Firstly, you can shore up your present Cover through forming little pacts with mortals, through which they give you relationships with others – so, for instance, once you put a pact into effect which sacrifices the pactee’s marriage to you, all of a sudden reality is rewritten so that you are now married to the pactee’s spouse and the pactee is single again. The downside of this is that this only rewrites the memories of those directly involved in the relationship, so others will remember your new spouse as being married to the pactee. (Perhaps an extramarital partner or some other clandestine relationship would be a better choice.)
The second way is genuinely horrifying, and is perhaps the spookiest gameplay mechanic White Wolf have ever delivered. See, if you can actual bargain for someone’s soul, in the metaphysic of this game your “soul” is your stake in reality. So when you call that debt in, you write the pactee out of reality entirely and write a perfect replica into their place – which is your handy-dandy brand new Cover. (For massive Twin Peaks spoiler reasons I think of this as the “How’s Annie?” gambit.) Depending on your Primum score – a measure of your potency as a demon and how deeply you have written your essence into the fabric of reality itself – you can have multiple Covers, allowing you the option of deliberately “going loud” with one in order to wreck some shit and then rushing off to the other Cover, leaving the other one to get splatted.
The sheer callousness the Cover mechanics imply and encourage may set Descent characters beyond the pale as far as some are concerned, but if you don’t mind playing an RPG where you aren’t very heroic – and any espionage-based RPG claiming as much Le Carre influence as this one does is not likely to turn up many admirable paragons of upright behaviour – it opens up fascinating roleplaying possibilities. Moreover, the constant need for Cover forms a basis for wider demonic society – a basis that I felt Fallen lacked – for, because Cover is often bound up in Pacts, Cover can be traded simply by trading Pacts. Demons collaborate in Rings (ie, your party of player characters) and Agencies as much to take advantage of their collective ability to harvest and distribute Cover as to press their political goals. Indeed, the rulebook makes it explicit that many Agencies exist on a purely mercenary level, using the trade in Cover and the spoils of occasional raid against the God-Machine’s interests (or other Agencies) to enrich the Agency’s members.
(Of course, just because an Agency isn’t outright mercenary doesn’t mean it’s necessarily ethical about how it uses its Pacts. One of the creepier possibilities mentioned is using Pacts for the souls of down-and-outs and other marginal people as “burner” identities to use in strikes against the God-Machine or other enemies – simply give the relevant Pact to the agent, have them call on the pact and take on the identity in question for the most dangerous and high-profile part of the mission, and then have them simply dump the identity in question once the job is done.)
As with The Fallen, the nature of your character is based in part on your Incarnation – the role you were designed to play in the God-Machine’s cosmic order before you Fell – this will impact character stats, your Demonic Form and the sort of powers you have an affinity for. That said, power selection is much less restrictive than in Fallen – you effectively have a free choice of powers, though you must select at one from the category your Incarnation has an affinity for. (Similarly, though your choice of Incarnation influences your Demonic Form, your Form isn’t dictated by the type of power you focus on – instead, you get a system for designing your own individual Form in the core book, a kindness which Fallen didn’t extend to us). On top of that, the range of Incarnations available is much more compact and easy to remember than the rather baffling House structure of Fallen: you have Destroyers (the God-Machine made you to break something), Guardians (the God-Machine made you to keep an eye on something), Messengers (the God-Machine made you to send a message) and Psychopomps (the God-Machine made you to shift bits of Infrastructure around to their proper place).
To complicate matters, you also have your Agenda – what your Demon actually wants to accomplish with their damnation. Each Agenda has an associated Condition which your character starts off each adventure with – so rather than shaping character creation, the Agenda shapes gameplay itself by presenting the player with a delicious XP-yielding incentive to behave in a way which advances their Agenda. (There’s also the option to have no Agenda at all, which gives you a Condition that yields Beats whenever you get in some trouble which could have been avoided if you weren’t sat on the fence.)
Three of the Agendas are easily understood. Saboteurs want to hurt the God-Machine however they can. Inquisitors want to gather as much information about the God-Machine and associated phenomena as possible so as to better understand the enemy and work out how best to respond to it. (Presumably, this is an Agenda you can “graduate” from if you decide that you now know enough to opt for one of them, though equally thanks to the New World of Darkness‘s axiomatic assumption that there’s always a deeper mystery to solve then conceivably you can justify being an Inquisitor forever since there’ll always be a new curiosity to solve.) Tempters put more of a priority on their new independent existence, using their powers to cultivate wealth, luxury, or whatever else they want out of life whilst doing what work they need to in order to keep ahead of the God-Machine.
The Agenda I found trickiest to nail down from its main writeups in the book is that of the Integrators. These are Demons who regret the Fall and want to return to the God-Machine. At first, this seemed bizarre and pointless to me. Why would any party keep around a player character who was known to be an Integrator? Why wouldn’t the Integrators just give themselves up to the God-Machine? On further consideration, I thought that it might be worth having an Integrator PC in a game where the players didn’t know each others’ Agendas by default so that there could be a mole in the party – such things being the stuff that gritty espionage stories are made of.
It was only after reading most of the book and its expanded discussions of the Demons’ world that the broader point of the faction became clear: yes, they want to return to the God-Machine, but most of them want to return on their own terms – either by flat-out requiring that they get to keep their individuality and all the other cool aspects of being a Demon rather than reverting to Angelhood, or by changing the God-Machine itself to make it something morally acceptable for them to return to. (A few don’t believe they ever Fell, but were made to appear to Fall in order to act as double agents.) This means it can be viable to have a known Integrator be part of a party with characters of other Agendas without them necessarily betraying the party eventually – just make sure the Integrator’s vision of what the God-Machine should be like or what concessions they want from the God-Machine are so extreme that it both makes sense for the Integrator to be highly opposed to more or less everything the God-Machine is currently up to and also makes sense for the Integrator not to feel able to Integrate in the immediately foreseeable future.
With the removal of the Torment mechanic, and no explicit connection developed between how high your Cover score is and whether you get the desired effect out of your supernatural abilities, many of the difficulties of Fallen go away. You still have a set of demonic powers, but rather than having each power having a low-key version and a more colourful high-Torment equivalent, there is a simple split into Embeds (low key powers based around the backdoors inherent in reality, which you can use as frequently as you want) and Exploits, which are seriously powerful but require the expenditure of Aether, which is the stuff the God-Machine runs on. You can regenerate Aether by sitting around in your Demonic Form, but seizing stockpiles from the God-Machine or subverting its Infrastructure to your purposes are obviously advantageous and desirable things (and make a good reason for even Tempter PCs to want to keep interfering in the God-Machine’s business).
The Demon-specific component of the book is rounded off with a look at Seattle, a particularly interesting city from a God-Machine perspective. This gives a Demon’s-eye-view of the situation outlined in a particular scenario in The God-Machine Chronicle: Seattle, it turns out, is the site of an unusual experiment on the part of the God-Machine in creating “saved game” versions of timelines – branched-off timelines which depart from the timeline of the original Seattle. For the most part, these pocket timelines are closed-off time loops which only provide access to a preserved version of one of Seattle’s pasts; being as they are the result of God-Machine tampering, these timelines are of great interest to both Demons and the God-Machine’s agents, and some are more under the Machine’s thrall than others. And of course present-day Seattle is a stronghold of the Machine, with cutting-edge research in Redmond playing into the Machine’s agendas. Populated by interesting NPCs and giving you just enough local knowledge to get a handle on the town, this setting writeup is just enough to make Demon theoretically pick-up-and-play in one book. (Well, there’s also an adventure – How an Angel Dies – using the Storyteller Adventure System, but so far as I can tell said System is basically a fig leaf designed to hide how boringly ramrod-linear the adventure is, so I ignored it.)
Except, of course, it isn’t. As a result of the pre-Blood & Smoke compromise, Demon still requires the use of the core World of Darkness rulebook, along with the God-Machine rules update. To be friendly, the rules update is reprinted in here, taking up some 69 pages at the back, but even so it retains the issue of requiring a lot of flipping back and forth between the rules update and the core book. On top of that, there’s a huge irony at work here – because as a result of the collapse of the World of Darkness MMO, around this time CCP dropped their opposition to putting out a World of Darkness 2nd Edition core book, as well as complete-in-one-book 2nd Editions of the subsidiary game lines. Blood and Smoke: the Strix Chronicle was duly retitled Vampire: the Requiem 2nd Edition, the upcoming Chronicle treatments for other game lines were redesignated as 2nd Edition core rulebooks for those lines, and plans were put in place for a 2nd Edition of the World of Darkness core book with the God-Machine Update implemented.
Demon will doubtless play much more smoothly once the 2nd edition World of Darkness core book is out, but it’s kind of a shame that a substantial chunk of the core Demon book is now going to be mildly redundant. If only the 2nd edition could have been agreed to earlier, the 69 pages would have been enough to include the entirety of, say, Splintered City: Seattle with the lead-in short story cut, or the Demon Seed collection plus the ready-made characters, either of which would have been decidedly useful. Alternatively, the rules could stay in place along with those rules from the core that are necessary to run Demon: the Descent and this could have been a complete-in-one-book 2nd Edition rulebook like Vampire: the Requiem and Werewolf: the Forsaken currently enjoy and more or less all the other New World of Darkness game lines are going to enjoy in the near future.
As a result, I can’t help but think that Demon ends up looking like the poor cousin of the New World of Darkness line when as the freshest and youngest line it should be one of the proudest and most vibrant lines. Either that, or my Prestige Edition of Demon will sooner or later look like the Chump’s Edition next door to a subsequent complete-in-one-book release. Still, I can’t feel too bad about it, because I really do like what’s presented here. Not only does the game offer a truly gnostic take on the Demon concept (the idea of separating from God and the spirit world and working to mire yourself into the world of matter is exactly as abhorrent to the gnostic worldview as the idea of being a fallen angel would be to conventional Christianity), it also offers, through the Cover and Pacts mechanics, what could well be the most innovative thing I’ve seen someone doing in a tabletop RPG for years without deviating from the classic tabletop RPG “GM runs the world/players run their player characters” format. On top of that, it’s just plain refreshing to see a World of Darkness game – Classic or New – where the player characters a) aren’t human and never were and b) don’t give a damn about morality, and will probably do abhorrent things. Finally, a “playing the monsters” RPG where you are genuinely playing monsters.
Our attempt at playtesting Demon: the Descent did turn up a few issues. Once again, you pick your powers comparatively late in the character generation process, which once again presents issues – it doesn’t feel consistent with the idea that your character was created first as an Angel to perform a particular function and only subsequently took on human form. Indeed, a lot of stages of character generation seem to revolve more around that human Cover than the Demon themselves – for instance, just about all the examples given of a character concept at the start of the process refer to cover identities, not the Demons behind them.
In addition, some of the demonic powers are downright wacky. In particular, there’s a “Play On Words” power, which allows you to take something some other character has just said which has some double meaning and then make something appropriate to the double meaning happen. The double meaning doesn’t necessarily have to make sense with the original sentence: someone asking for “a shot of vodka” ending up getting shot by a gun is given as an example of how the power works. (If they’d just said “I’ll have a shot” then the double meaning at least makese sense, but that isn’t what the book specifies.) If you had to make the new meaning of the sentence make some sort of sense that’d feel a bit more like an appropriate power, and likewise the description could be a bit more specific that it has to involve an NPC saying something in-character rather than a participant at the table describing what they are about to do; as it stands we found the power both confusingly written, potentially gamewrecking, and thematically just a bit silly and tonally inconsistent.
We also found that the Conditions PCs start each mission with as a result of their demonic allegiance seemed almost optimised to sabotage party cohesion. The Saboteur, for instance, gets a Beat whenever they attract unwanted attention as a result of violent behaviour; on the one hand, I get that rewarding players for suboptimal behaviour is part of the Conditions system, but on the other hand I think rewarding players for suboptimal behaviour that pointlessly disrupts the game and derails whatever plans the players or Storyteller had flies in the face both of the necessity of having the PC party co-operate most of the time and the supposed end of playing through a story prepared by the referee. In short, it sabotages both White Wolf/Onyx Path’s own promoted style of playing RPGs and the way most people who rebel against that tend to run World of Darkness stuff.
The Integrator’s Condition is even worse – they get Beats whenever they put the PC party at risk, or makes the party vocally or actively suspicious of their motives. This is even more corrosive to party unity because it essentially creates a motive to behave in such a way that the party would be literally better off without you – or at least believe they would be better off without you, which if anything is just as damaging. Yes, this sort of paranoia can be useful for the sort of Cold War atmosphere the game is going for, but at the same time in my experience as soon as PC party cohesion breaks down a campaign is not long for this Earth – and expecting the other PCs to allow the Integrator PC to stick around once they’ve got them in danger and/or made them suspicious just because the Integrator is a player character is deeply damaging to suspension of disbelief. At some point, the question of “Why do we even have this untrustworthy dipshit as part of our group?” becomes so acute that keeping them around is just as damaging to the campaign as throwing them out would be – on the one hand, you have the damage to verisimilitude that comes when the PCs behave in such a ridiculously trusting way in what is supposed to be a paranoid espionage game, and on the other hand you have the damage to party cohesion throwing out one of the PCs entails.
In addition, this Condition only makes sense in the first place if you assume that there’s only one Integrator in the party. If you had an all-Integrator or majority-Integrator party, the Condition doesn’t make a blind bit of sense, because then the party as a whole is already in favour of selling out to the God-Machine and rejoining the Angels.
In short, the Integrator Condition incentivises wrecking campaigns and ruining party unity, and doesn’t even make any in-character sense under certain circumstances. It goes well beyond the general concept of Conditions as being an incentive to play suboptimally; to my mind, a good Condition under the 2nd Edition New World of Darkness paradigm should incentivise suboptimal play whilst simultaneously not incentivising disruptive play that leads to hurt feelings and ruined sessions, and the Integrator Condition does precisely that.
Then again, this isn’t even the only instance of Demon: the Descent showing off White Wolf/Onyx Path’s enervating tendency to not really understand the implications of their own system. There’s at least one instance in the core book of an NPC who doesn’t even possess several of the skills used to make their powers work in the first place. Whilst White Wolf/Onyx Path have long had this apparent ideological stance that statting up characters so that they are actually mathematically likely to accomplish the tasks you want them to accomplish is “roll-playing, not roleplaying”, the idea that a demon would spend no effort at all honing the capabilities which allow them to use the Embeds and Exploits they regularly require in order to go about their business is ludicrous.
In the end, it feels to me like Demon: the Descent is doomed to be a bit more of a niche game than Demon: the Fallen. The Fallen has the major advantage enjoyed by the various incarnations – Classic or New – of Vampire and Werewolf that the game deals with monsters that in general people within the target markets readily understand. Even if you don’t know the specific details of World of Darkness vampires and werewolves, odds are you are familiar enough with the stories they are based on to have a rough idea of what the corresponding games are like. Despite the fact that The Fallen demons don’t quite have the wide panoply of powers you might expect a classical demon to have, chances are you’re still going to be able to get an easy grasp of the Miltonian background and the like.
The Descent doesn’t have that advantage. The God-Machine isn’t a well-worn horror classic, it’s a brand new concept cooked up by Onyx Path, as are its servitors. Sure, there’s various sources it’s influenced by, but those sources aren’t immediately suggested by the title the way Vampire: the Masquerade raises the spectre of Dracula and Interview With the Vampire and so on. In short, this is a high-concept game with an incredibly individual and idiosyncratic take on what demons are. For those who make the effort to introduce themselves to the mythology in question, or who are given a suitable introduction by others, The Descent may prove appealing, but it takes a while to sell it. On top of that, the character generation process seems rather more complex than average for World of Darkness games – as fun as being able to design your own Demonic Form by default is rather than having to accept the demonic form you are given, as in core Demon: the Fallen, it does take up additional time.
Frankly, if it weren’t for the large pre-existing White Wolf fanbase willing to give The Descent a chance, I wonder whether the Kickstarter would have succeeded to the extent that it has. As it stands, I’m glad it did, because there’s some genuinely exciting ideas here – in particular, the use of multiple covers who are literal alternate identities with their own subordinate reality has amazing potential – but at the same time I suspect you won’t get the best out of The Descent unless you were able to put together a group who were all as excited about the same parts of the game as you were – or if you were able to convert it to a system which better teased out the ideas you were interested in.
Heirs to Hell
Inspired by a passing mention in the core Demon book about Demons, by virtue of their defection to humanity, being able to produce children with their human bodies, Heirs to Hell is a slim supplement that develops demon-blooded humans as elements of the game. This doesn’t necessarily mean making your Demon PCs pregnant – though if you want to play through such a thing there’s support for that (each Trimester having a corresponding Condition associated with it), along with useful notes that a) you really want to get player buy-in before you run with such themes and b) being pregnant shouldn’t stop PCs from getting shit done. Likewise, it doesn’t necessarily entail making childcare a component of the game, though if your players want to have kids and look after them they can and there’s notes on how a demon-blooded individual’s childhood differs from an ordinary childhood.
For the most part, however, the supplement is dedicated to providing character generation and power usage rules for demon-blooded, allowing such characters to be developed either as PCs or as NPCs in a Demon game. Deliberately not designed to be quite as potent as fully-fledged demons – most notably, demon-blooded never get access to Exploits, though they can learn and use Embeds, and they can be prone to being manipulated by the God-Machine to its own ends if they do not take care – demon-blooded make for a nice intermediary tier of NPC for Demon – characters less potent than demons and angels, but with enough tricks up their sleeves to give them major advantages over common or garden mortals. Beyond that, there isn’t much to say about Heirs to Hell beyond the fact that it offers interesting options and could have probably been a decent appendix to the core Demon book if it didn’t have the God-Machine rules update eating up its page count.
The Demon Seed Collection
This is a very slim supplement – less than 40 pages – which offers five capsule summaries of cities that can be used as the centre of a Demon campaign. Offering up Istanbul, Sydney, Prague, Baltimore and Los Angeles for consideration, each city is presented with a brief history of the God-Machine’s activities there, details on what the different Agendas find most compelling about the town, rundowns of a few significant NPCs and factions in town, an outline for a starter adventure to get a campaign focused on the city kicked off, and pointers on where things might go in the aftermath of the starter adventure.
It leaves a lot of work and development still to be done by the Storyteller – you don’t even get stats for the NPCs – hence Seed Collection as opposed to the Fully Developed Idea You Can Use Immediately Collection – but to an extent that’s kind of the strength of this sort of supplement: the ideas are detailed enough that the initial conceptualisation work has been accomplished for you, whilst at the same time not going into quite enough detail to trip over themselves and end up ruining it by bungling the specifics. If you like any of the ideas involved here – and to be honest, there’s something to be said for just about all the locales specified – it’s down to you to screw it up yourself.
Splintered City: Seattle
The Seattle writeup offered in the core book was interesting enough to be getting started with, but the additional details and further fleshing out of the setting offered in Splintered City: Seattle really helps take everything to the next level. Whereas the various splinter timelines, locations, and nonplayer characters detailed in the core book are an interesting enough bunch, the extra information here makes me feel like I understand demonic Seattle better than the sparse summary previously provided: I can see how the different factions and people interact and link up far better thanks to the fuller explanations and insights, and the additional material introduced here fits in with the established data so neatly that I begin to wonder whether a lot of it wasn’t cut from the finalised Seattle writeup from the core book for space reasons.
As well as providing more locations and NPCs to use in Seattle, as well as deep insights into the established powers’ various agendas, the supplement also provides a small set of adventure seeds that are detailed enough to get the imagination flowing but don’t lock the Storyteller into a particular plot, as well as an interesting section providing a rundown of what the various other supernatural factions of the World of Darkness are up to in Seattle. Although useful for crossover purposes, at the same time I do have a mild criticism of the section – whilst the introductory section does specify that a lot of the local supernaturals end up dealing with angels and demons on one level or another, simply because of the high level of God-Machine and Agency activity in the area, only the Mage writeup actually mentions angels, demons, or the God-Machine at all.
One thing which does strike me about this section is how I find some creatures far more interesting in a New World of Darkness context than in a Classic one and vice versa. New World of Darkness Vampires and Werewolves are fun enough, but they feel like mild riffs on ideas already given a definitive treatment in their Classic renditions; Mages on one hand lose the somewhat silly consensus reality, anti-technology metaphysic that they had in Mage: the Ascension, but seem to lose a lot of their flavour with it. Changelings I can frankly do without in either line. However, New World of Darkness Mummies seem interesting in a way that the Mummies of the previous iteration never did, and Prometheans, Sin-Eaters, and Demons are downright fascinating in these renditions, and I particularly like that New World of Darkness Hunters are mortal human beings who have learned to deal with the supernatural through training and experience rather than their Classic World of Darkness equivalents (who have magic voices in their heads telling them who to kill – yes, it’s as crass as it sounds). If I run any World of Darkness games I’m inclined to play down crossover between different supernaturals, but if it occurs I’m much more likely to have vampires, werewolves and mages populating the Classic World of Darkness whilst reserving the New World for those creatures that feel fresh and new in that context.
The major exception I would make is that of the two Demon lines; the contrast between the very Abrahamic Demon: the Fallen and the extremely non-traditional take given in Descent means that there is space in my heart for both lines; they each scratch a different itch, whereas to me being a vampire in Vampire: the Masquerade feels a lot like being a vampire in Vampire: the Requiem. (To be fair, the recent Blood & Smoke/Vampire: the Requiem 2nd Edition update may have changed this – with the classic lines resurrected, their counterparts in the New World of Darkness are freed to go divergent and offer a very different experience, whereas of course it was much more important that Vampire: the Requiem offer something familiar back in 2004 when it was intended to replace Vampire: the Masquerade outright.)
Demon Ready Made Characters
The Ready Made Characters series has popped up in several New World of Darkness lines, to give it its due it’s a pretty neat idea – provide a party of fully statted-up starting characters and a pre-existing connection between them, provide some ideas for the Storytellers as to how to get things going with a bang from the party’s starting point, and voila, in principle you have the perfect solution for gaming groups who want to dabble in a line briefly but don’t necessarily want to invest the time in coming up with their own player characters.
At least, that’s the theory. I’m not so sure in practice. For starters, if a game line has a decent set of quickstart rules – and Demon: the Descent does – then you can use the sample characters and sample adventure in that to sample the game for a session or two, and frankly I’ve never known an RPG participant – whether casual or hardcore – who didn’t prefer to make their own character for games lasting longer than that. On top of that, the PC writeups in here commit a number of cardinal sins – for instance, I spotted at least one instance where information about two PCs’ interactions which they should both have known about was recorded on one PC’s background but not the other relevant PC’s.
In short, this is a lukewarm implementation of an idea which rather falls between two stools in the first place as far as I’m concerned.
As you might have gathered from the Demon: the Fallen review, extensive game fiction was once upon a time a hallmark of White Wolf’s publications, to an extent where they became something of a contentious point. Some, especially people who collected the books to read but never really put a big priority on actually using the to play games, found the short stories to be the best part of the books. Some, particularly those who wanted to use these game books to, you know, actually play a game, found the game fiction to be irritating wastes of space at best, at worst annoyingly obfuscatory ways of presenting information necessary to play when really a direct and clear explanation would have made the process of sitting down and playing much easier.
Of late, Onyx Path appears to have realised that there’s an easy way to make everyone happy: simply put out anthologies of short fiction written by their freelancers associated with each major game release, whilst trimming back to the extent to which game fiction features in the game books themselves. That way, those who dislike game fiction can simply not buy the fiction books, and those who don’t actually have any interest in the game as a game can just buy the fiction book, and those who want both the game and the stories can buy both, and those who enjoy the fiction actually get more than they would have had if the fiction were competing for space with game rules.
Demon: Interface is the fiction anthology issued to accompany the Demon: the Descent core rules, and it is also represents the next quirk in marketing the fiction books. One perennial issue with game fiction which even gamers who actually quite like tie-in fiction have recurring quibbles with is the failure of the fiction to match the realities of the game. It’s always annoying when you’re presented with a story which is supposed to sell you on the concept of a game and get you excited about playing it, only to discover that the action of the story can’t actually be replicated by the game as written. Demon: Interface provides (as the title imples) “Interface” sections for each of it stories, providing game-related statistics for new concepts, characters, or groups introduced in the story in question. None of it is so essential as to scream out to be in the core rulebook, but at the same time it’s useful enough to render the book genuinely handy as a grab-bag of ideas for Demon: the Descent games.
This somewhat sweetens the deal for those who would have otherwise passed over an all-fiction anthology, whilst not impacting the page count enough that I’d be upset if I were only in it for the stories. At the same time, the material here isn’t quite essential enough to make me think “yes, if I didn’t get this for free I would consider it a good use of my money”. You won’t find big name authors from the wider horror field here – this is RPG tie-in writing from authors who’ve cut their teeth writing that sort of material, and the short format here and the emphasis on violent espionage with paranoid supernatural connotations means that there isn’t much scope to work in any loftier literary goals. It’s fun reading at best, but “fun reading” is a fairly low bar to hit all told, and you won’t find the wit of a Jack Vance, the poeticism of a Clark Ashton Smith, the cosmic vertigo of a Thomas Ligotti or the flat-out silliness of a Matt Reilly here. In short, it’s a cinema popcorn anthology – pleasant whilst you are eating it but ultimately disposable, not very nutritious or filling, and probably not actually worth the asking price if we are being brutally honest with ourselves.
Demon Condition Cards
This is a collection of cards bringing together the various Conditions defined in the God-Machine Update and the core Demon: the Descent rulebook, giving a summary of the Condition, how you get Beats from it and how it gets resolved. This is a handy but inessential tool that should improve the flow of play in most games using the God-Machine Update, particularly if there’s a rapid exchange of Conditions going on in the game.
Demon: the Descent Storyteller’s Screen
It’s functional, the choice of reference table on the Storyteller’s side seems sensible and the artwork on the player’s side is pretty; my main beef with it is that the individual panels are portrait orientation, whereas if they were in landscape orientation you’d have just as much space for presenting information on the Storyteller side whilst having less of a barrier to eye contact between the players and the Storyteller.
Honestly, I’m such a fan of late-period Philip K. Dick, gnostic weirdness and really over-the-top, illucid conspiracy theories, that I’d have jumped at the chance to back something like this anyway. On the whole, I’m reasonably pleased with how Demon turned out, so I’m OK with my name being in the back on the backer’s list.
Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?
The level I backed at gave me the lion’s share of the early Demon product line, plus a bunch of World of Darkness stuff I didn’t already own, plus the core Demon: the Fallen book, which I found to be unexpectedly enjoyable considering its reputation as a big ol’ rush-job. In fact, I’m not 100% sure which game I prefer – Demon: the Descent is more polished and doesn’t have any outright inconsistencies, but at the same time the overt Satanism of Demon: the Fallen has far more cultural resonance (though equally far more potential to offend) than the rather cold and unapproachable metaphysic of Descent. Either way, in this case I think I got my backing level Just Right.
Would Back Again?
Between this and the Anarchs Unbound Kickstarter Onyx Path have left me very favourably impressed with how they manage these projects, which long-standing issues like the Exalted 3rd Edition Kickstarter looking more and more like random blips than part of a pattern of target-missing. As such, I’ve certainly made sure to take a look at Onyx Path’s subsequent Kickstarters as and when they have popped up, even though I haven’t quite felt the need to back all of them.
The future of Onyx Path is intrinsically tied to the future of their relationship with CCP. Now that the World of Darkness MMO is no longer a thing, CCP don’t really have any prospect of getting income from the World of Darkness IP unless they either produce another videogame (there is little evidence that they intend to) or rely on income from licensees like Onyx Path. (The prospect of CCP taking tabletop RPG development back in-house is frankly minimal.) As such, you would expect them to give Onyx Path more of a free hand, in the absence of any CCP projects they could conceivably clash with, and this seems to be what they have done.
It couldn’t have come at a better time, because this farcical situation with the God-Machine Update being an ersatz 2nd Edition of the game – along with Blood & Smoke: the Strix Chronicle being a complete-in-one-book 2nd edition of Vampire: the Requiem that wasn’t allowed to call itself Vampire: the Requiem 2nd Edition – might be the sort of thing that long-term fans of Onyx Path who keep up with their news updates online could keep track of, but it was surely deeply confusing to everyone else – even people otherwise conversant with the RPG industry and recent releases therein seemed to have problems keeping up with what was going on, and Onyx Path themselves have admitted that a major problem of their first few years has been notifying people that they exist and that their games are still available. (Their ongoing inability to get their products widely distributed to brick and mortar shops, and the attendant massive collapse in their visibility, being one of the major problems here.)
Simplifying the publication model – and, in particular, minimising the number of purchases people need to make in order to get into these games – is a highly necessary part of getting this all sorted out. In addition, there’s no way the World of Darkness can attain the sort of sales it used to in its heyday – and, in particular, become an in-route for new players to get into the hobby as it was in its prime – if Onyx Path and its products remain visible only to existing hobbyists, but that’s not a problem that CCP’s permissions or lack thereof can affect whilst the structure of the game line is.
There is an extent to which Demon: the Descent has ended up a mild victim of this confused transitional stage of the New World of Darkness. There’s simply no way the core book would have been arranged the way it is if Onyx Path had been able to just put out World of Darkness 2nd Edition like they wanted, and once that book does come out a substantial percentage of Demon: the Descent will become redundant.
It may be, then, that the best future the World of Darkness can hope for is continued apathy from CCP. So long as they don’t start a new videogame project, they have no reason to interfere with the production process of Onyx Path; as soon as they have a motivation to do so again, I can’t see how the line won’t inevitably suffer for it, unless they radically change their minds (and their weird assumption that the tabletop RPG publication schedule would affect MMO players’ perception of the decidedly separate MMO does seem to be rather Citation Needed). And if they don’t start a new videogame project, one has to wonder at what point they just sigh and sell off the rights anyway, on the grounds that the royalties they receive from Onyx Path are surely peanuts compared to their EVE Online megabucks.