A High Standard of Deviation

Though Paradox’s management of the World of Darkness line has been somewhat haphazard – I’ve long since lost track of who is responsible for writing books, distributing books, and so on but there’s been at least three companies involved entirely distinct from White Wolf and Paradox themselves – things have gone somewhat more smoothly for the Chronicles of Darkness line, largely because (subject to the name change to avoid confusion with the old World of Darkness) Paradox just don’t seem to care about that side of things all that much, so they are happy to let Onyx Path just keep on trucking rather than trying anything fancy with them. That’s ultimately helpful, because Onyx Path have already hit a point which raises difficulties in further expanding the franchise and a particularly interventionist approach from Paradox is unlikely to help.

Chronicles has long since passed the point where it’s produced equivalents to the old World of Darkness game lines. Admittedly, some of the Chronicles equivalents are fairly distant from their World of Darkness forebears, particularly since the resurrection of the original World of Darkness has meant that the Chronicles no longer need to be a safe haven for players of the old games starved for new material. Geist isn’t all that much like Wraith and Demon: the Descent has only hazy thematic connections to Demon: the Fallen. But this varies: even in its second edition, Vampire: the Requiem hits a lot of the same notes as Vampire: the Masquerade, and arguably more artfully.

With the second edition of Chronicles creating some system space between it and the standard World of Darkness iterations of the Storyteller system, and the second editions of the earlier Chronicles games doing a good job of dialling up what worked well and scaling back on what fell flat, to the point where I can confidently say (for example) that Mage: the Awakening is a just plain better game and setting than Mage: the Ascension, which labours under a fatal burden of lingering 1990s nonsense which no amount of well-intentioned labour can quite fix.

However, now Onyx Path has hit this point, it must turn its attention to considering the possibilities of new lines. Some might question the creative necessity of such – I often do – but there is a compelling commercial argument, in the sense that as is often the case with RPG lines core books tend to sell way, way better than supplements do. Still, the tricky thing here is to come up with a splat which feels distinct enough from the existing ones that you can offer a compelling answer to the question “why is this not just a supplement for Earlier Game?”, and which has a cool, vivid elevator pitch which quickly and succinctly sums up the appeal of the line to get people hooked.

The most recent-but-one attempt at this, Beast: the Primordial, was something of a botch, for many and varied reasons, not all of which were to do with the actual design of the game (but which certainly left a bad taste in people’s mouths and made them disinclined to be generous to it). To my mind, one of those reasons is that any elevator pitch you offered for the game would either be a) way too long and complicated to be meaningfully described as an “elevator pitch” or b) extremely misleading due to all the detail it left out. I hear word that the original elevator pitch for the game was something like “greedy dragons”, and whilst you can sort of squint and see how you got to the end product from there, that’s a pitch which misses out almost everything which is actually important or distinctive about the game.

Beast, for all its other faults, is actually based around creatures which are a very, very specific type of entity, interpreted in a fairly specific way; in many ways, even the title of the game is a problem, because Beast suggests something way broader than the tight focus the game actually goes with. Sure, sure, there’s these connections to ancient mythology, but you wouldn’t start with any of those creatures and work from there to figure out that they must be something like Beasts, it’s very much a case of starting with the Beast concept and then finding tenuous reasons to connect them to old folklore enttiies.

The upshot of this, plus a plethora of other issues, means that Beast to all appearances is a critical and commercial flop, and it feels like Onyx Path have quietly cancelled the line. It’s still in theory on sale, but there is sweet fuck all in the way of future products in the pipeline for it that I can find on Onyx Path’s product schedule or in their latest weekly blog post. (I’m a little sad to see nothing planned for Vampire: the Requiem, come to think of it, but I imagine their work on 5th Edition Vampire: the Masquerade supplements takes a lot of the creative oxygen which might otherwise have gone to that.)

Step up Deviant, the Renegades, a game which takes a radically different approach to expanding the Chronicles of Darkness series and ends up being a much more appealing product as a result.

Deviant has a brilliant elevator pitch – “You’ve been turned into a monster by a sinister Conspiracy and is out for revenge against the people who did this to you” – and it absolutely nails that concept. It does so not by being overly specific about what Deviants actually are and what the sinister Conspiracies and Progenitors that produce them are (a “Progenitor” is the agent of a Conspiracy directly responsible for fucking you up and turning you into a Deviant), but instead by going broad.

Essentially, a Deviant can come about through a myriad of different ways, because there’s a plethora of different routes you can achieve to reach the same basic effect – that effect being to jam so much power into a human being that their soul shatters and they’re never the same again, gaining Variations (cool powers) with associated Scars (ways in which your Variations mess you up). Do you want to be the product of a dark ritual? A lab experiment gone wrong? A genetic engineering super-soldier program? A cyborg factory? A magical accident? It’s all cool.

There is one major assumption here, which is that the Conspiracies which did this to you are primarily arranged and directed by human beings. (This is fair enough: if you want a Chronicles of Darkness game about being warped into something bizarre by powerful inhuman entities, Changeling: the Lost is right there, as is Vampire: the Requiem if you want those inhuman aliens to be slightly more accessible.) This feeds into the assumed focus of play of the game – namely, the revenge part. Having the Conspiracy that made you operate on a decidedly human scale means that you can do a fairly short-term Deviant campaign: the challenge in such a game is in getting to the filth that used you as their personal lab monkey, and then once you get there you can go to town on them in a cathartic manner.

But what about long-term games? That’s where the idea of the Web of Pain comes in – the notion that Conspiracies which delve into the making of Deviants end up having all sorts of points of crossover with each other. Sometimes they’re rivals, sometimes they collaborate, sometimes they keep tripping over the side-effects of each others’ work. An entire Conspiracy might form based off the intensive study of the after-effects of another Conspiracy’s meltdown. This conveniently means that an avenger’s work need never be done – there can always be some trail leading to someone who you can regard as similarly responsible for your condition, or some other faction out there who start coming after you once you get onto their radar by taking out a peer of theirs.

That isn’t to say that you’ll need to resort to other Chronicles of Darkness to find more challenging foes for your party of Renegades if ripping through humans like hot butter becomes tiresome or distasteful. For one thing, Conspiracies are adept at acting in the shadows; an entire system is provided here for statting out your Conspiracy and having them take behind-the-scenes actions with significant consequences.

Chronicles of Darkness has provided somewhat similarly-conceived differently-executed systems like this before, apparently – Geist and Mummy have cult mechanics, apparently. I’ve not read them, so I don’t know how they compare in the fine details of their mechanics, but talking to folk who have read those the consensus seems to be that those systems are very much directed at those particular flavours of cult. Since Deviant‘s Conspiracy system needs to be able to handle the activities of more or less any flavour of Conspiracy the players cook up (devising which Conspiracy or Conspiracies are responsible for the party’s situation is part of character generation), that means it’s easily portable out of Deviant into other World of Darkness or Chronicles of Darkness games; you could use it to model Pentex, the local Technocracy franchise, or the True Black Hand pretty easily.

In addition to that, Conspiracies have tricks up their sleeve. If their experiments only produced Renegades, Deviants who slip the leash and rebel against their control, they’d be pretty silly to keep doing them. Sometimes the “successful” experiments at their beck and call are Manticores – Deviants created from animals, not humans. (Yes, you can have a Manticore pet. Yes, you can probably make your Manticore pet an electric mouse…) Sometimes the by-products of their work become not Renegades, but Ferals – Deviants consumed by their own power and without Touchstones, the lynchpins with keep them either bound to a community of people loyal to them or in pursuit of the targets of their hatred, and behave erratically enough that Conspiracies find them useful to use as fire-and-forget missiles.

And then there’s the Devoted – the flipside of the Renegades. You see, not all human-derived Deviants rebel against their creators. A chunk are unable or unwilling to – they may even feel like what they’ve received is worth the price. The Devoted make perfect foils to PCs, and are particularly interesting in the way they interact with the Loyalty and Conviction scales.

You see, all Deviants lack the Virtue and Vice attributes of baseline humans and instead have two numerical scales, Loyalty and Conviction, which take on their Willpower-regeneration functions and also take some of the functionality of Integrity in the sense of having Touchstones associated with them. Loyalty is how much you feel obliged to support and protect the people who are your allies and friends in the lonely, precarious, out-on-the-edges life of a Deviant. (Deviants very often live homeless or off-the-grid existences, what with any Conspiracy worth its salt usually being quite good at getting intel from said grid…) Conviction is the extent to which you are the world’s forgotten boy, the one who searches to destroy.

Renegades will generally begin play with Conviction higher than Loyalty, because they prioritise bloody, screaming revenge above a quiet life. Devoted will tend to begin with Loyalty higher than Conviction, because they prioritise hanging out with their Conspiracy friends above pursuing their personal beefs. Conviction and Loyalty work somewhat differently when it comes to restoring Willpower (much as Virtue and Vice work differently for mainline humans), and to underscore the different worldviews of the Renegades and the Devoted, Conviction works for Devoted the way Loyalty works for Renegades and vice-versa.

Conviction and Loyalty subsume the Touchstone functionality normally associated with Integrity, and you can have Touchstones in either track. Your Loyalty Touchstones are the people who make you feel like maybe you don’t have to be a lonely figure always on the move like Bruce Banner at the end of an episode of The Incredible Hulk. Your Conviction Touchstones are the people you blame for All Of This, and are putting a high priority on fucking the fuck up. Entertainingly, face/heel turns are possible – even likely – so Touchstones can flip from one flavour to the other in play.

Fun things happen if the priorities switch! If a Renegade hits the point where their Loyalty is higher than their Conviction, they achieve Catharsis – a momentary sense that maybe the blood they have shed is, if only for a minute, enough, and that they can try and actually build something with their life rather than walking a nightmare path of destruction. It rarely lasts long – but as long as that Conviction stat remains below Loyalty (ie, as long as nobody’s fucked the Renegade badly enough to put them back on the warpath), they become a Guardian, with certain system advantages as long as that status lasts. On the Devoted side of things, if their Conviction ends up going above their Loyalty – and in play it’s likely this will be due to PC actions – then a Devoted can become a Nemesis, a burning force of revenge as furious as any Renegade but, most likely, targeting one of the PCs, not a Conspiracy; Devoted in this state also get various bonuses.

All of this is really good at underscoring the key element to the game’s distinct flavour which sets it apart from all the other Chronicles of Darkness games: namely, the seething underbelly of pure rage which drives the Renegades to fight back against the Conspiracies which have done this to them. It would be very easy for Deviant, with its emphasis on Conspiracies as antagonists, to inadvertently become the QAnon RPG, but the distinction between a Q-inspired rioter invading the Capitol and a Deviant busting into their Progenitor’s lab is that QAnon people have been sicced on their targets on a false basis, by someone making spurious allegations. Deviants have been there. They saw the faces of their Progenitors as they were strapped to table. They saw how the technicians laughed and joked as the serums went in…

The lack of a real fuck-you-fight-the-power game in the Chronicles line has left a gap which Deviant is perfectly placed to fill. Sure, it has its thematic overlaps with some other games in the line – Changelings have been snatched away and transformed, Prometheans are the products of various little backroom experiments just as much as Deviants are – but the emphasis is different. Some Changelings are angry – especially the Summer Court ones – but going back to Arcadia to kick the True Fae’s ass is both something you’ll want to work very hard to get to the point where you can do it, and isn’t automatically the thing you want to do when you get there. Prometheans live a much more contemplative and melancholic existence than Deviants; both don’t fit into society, but Prometheans are working on themselves until they can resolve the lack inside them, whilst Deviants are carving bloody chunks out of society trying to excise the cancer that created them.

More broadly, much of the Chronicles of Darkness line has this rather subdued, melancholic tone; whereas the World of Darkness made “gothic-punk” a shorthand for its overall aesthetic, Chronicles has often tended to dial up the gothic at the expense of the punk. Deviant is a major correction in the other direction, in this sense.

Tonally, in fact, it feels like the closest a Chronicles game has come to matching the white-hot fury of certain parts of Werewolf: the Apocalypse. Sure, sure, there’s Werewolf: the Forsaken, but it borrows more from the “spirituality and wolf kin” stuff from Apocalypse than it does from the “fight the power, attack Pentex, and destroy their monster-spawning labs” side of the equation. This applied right down to the distinctive taglines of the games in question; whilst Apocalypse kept asking “When Will You Rage?”, Forsaken keeps reminding you “The Wolf Must Hunt”, and in Forsaken the hunt often takes on the tone of solemn ritual rather than berserk frenzy.

You can be angry in any World of Darkness or Chronicles of Darkness game, of course – but no game in the original World of Darkness put that anger front and centre quite the same way that Werewolf: the Apocalypse did, and no game in Chronicles has recaptured that – but now Deviant has come along to take up that baton.

As a matter of fact, if you want to draw a parallel between Deviant and a classic World of Darkness product, you’d look to the Werewolf line to do it, but it wouldn’t be core Werewolf or one of its supplement where the closest parallel lies. If you think it through, Deviant is essentially Freak Legion: A Player’s Guide to the Fomori done right. The body horror angle isn’t gone by any means, but it’s much less juvenile in execution, and the book offers decent guidance on its use. Fomori from Werewolf: the Apocalypse can absolutely and 100% be seen as a type of Deviant; they’re formerly normal people who were stuffed full of Wyrm spirits until it turned them into monsters.

Whereas Freak Legion assumed a Formori campaign would revolve around working for Pentex – being a good little Devoted, in Deviant terms – Deviant realises that the most interesting thing you can do at this point is to have the PCs be Renegades fighting the institutions that made them, since whilst such a concept can still degenerate into dull edgelordery, it’s much less prone to doing so than the sort of thing Freak Legion assumed you’d spend your time doing as a Fomori.

In fact, not only is Deviant a perfectly viable way to do a “Freak Legion except actually good” campaign, and not only are its Conspiracy rules potentially useful for any World of Darkness or Chronicles of Darkness game in which conspiratorial organisations feature as antagonists (so… all the World of Darkness games, and the majority of Chronicles games), but it’s also very viable to use it to run games which have absolutely nothing to do with the presented assumed setting.

Characters are largely defined by how they were transformed in the first place (they did it themselves/they volunteered to be guinea pigs/they were forced to be guinea pigs against their will/they were born that way/a horrible accident befell them) and the type of thing which they have transformed into (user of astonishing psychic abilities/conduit of overwhelming power/mashup of human and creature/cyborg/statistical outlier whose body rejected the attempted transformation and then warped itself in bizarre ways in response to that). You could very easily play a campaign with a different focus from the usual through judicious selection of which of these alternatives are in play.

Want to run Scanners: the Scanning? Fine! Just have all your players play psychics who were born unusual and you’re already there. Want to run an X-Men game? Just keep all the different character types on the table but expand the range of Conspiracies, so alongside those who want to manipulate and control mutants for their own end there’s a bunch who want to push back against mutant rights.

Indeed, you could very easily use this as a gritty, dark-edged superhero system – you could even have all the PCs start off in the Guardian state, with Loyalty higher than Conviction thanks to their respective Uncle Bens and Mama and Papa Waynes still being alive, and then send in a Nemesis or two so that the heroes suffer One Bad Day; in this configuration, Devoted, Feral, and Nemeses can all be supervillains, whilst Conspiracies can be used to model your Hydras and the resources available to human antagonists like Lex Luthor.

And, of course, Deviants make excellent monsters-of-the-week for a Chronicles of Darkness game based on human investigators of paranormal mysteries. There’s a whole bunch of standalone X-Files episodes which are pretty much “Mulder and Scully meet a Deviant”, after all.

Many Chronicles of Darkness games have a very tight focus, and this is sometimes to their detriment – Beast is just not particularly useful to play anything which isn’t Beast, and almost nobody wants to play that. Deviant, on the other hand, manages the trick of being similarly laser-focused on delivering a particular play experience – which it absolutely nails – whilst at the same time providing resources and tools which could very happily be used outside of the context of the assumed setting and overarching scenario Deviant builds into itself, which makes it an astonishingly useful book to get for anyone using the Chronicles of Darkness system – and perhaps the best Chronicles of Darkness game of the whole range as a result.

One thought on “A High Standard of Deviation

  1. Kai D.

    I actually would love to see a 2nd edition for Beast. The original had a lot of problems but Onyx Path have shown with Geist’s and Mummy’s 2nd edition that they’re willing to change fundamental things about the concepts/themes of a game. And in both those cases, I think, they changed the games for the better.

    I love Deviant’s conspiracy-creation-system! It’s the kind of cool system that on the one hand helps GMs in organizing their thoughts on who the antagonist is and what they might do and on the other hand is a good shorthand for giving players an understanding about what the scale of the threat is. Stuff like this makes a Session Zero so much easier.

    Honestly when I first heard of Deviant I just thought “Promethean: X-Men-Edition” and wondered why they didn’t just do a 3rd Edition of Promethean instead. But this turned out better than I expected.

    Tonally this definitely feels to me like something on the lighter side. Honestly, I still think Changeling the Lost is the darkest of the bunch tonally. Nothing can beat the dark implications of a Changeling-character seeing their Fetch for the first time…

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