Cthulhu Dark Kickstopper On Ferretbrain

For those who haven’t added Ferretbrain to their RSS feeds, I’ve just posted a review of Cthulhu Dark – the hot new Mythos-themed RPG funded by a remarkably well-managed Kickstarter.

It’s… interesting, in that I approve of more or less everything that designer Graham Walmsley is trying to do with the game, but have severe issues with the execution, but at the same time think that if you just take the basic rules of the game in isolation it’s really good. Sound tangled? Read the article, it’ll hopefully make sense.

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Kickstopper: Righteously Bland

This isn’t going to be a fully developed Kickstopper article because in all honesty I don’t have that much to say about the Kickstarter fulfillment process for the new 5E version of Aaron Loeb’s Book of the Righteous – Green Ronin were reasonably communicative, shipment of the physical books came about half a year after estimate but PDF delivery was substantially before then and that’s really not much as far as Kickstarter delays go, and crucially delays were clearly signposted and explained. I have no real complaints there and would generally trust Green Ronin to do right by their backers in future Kickstarters. Great job, ronins, hope you find a master who can make proper samurai of you again one day.

As far as the product itself goes, it’s clearly a well-realised product with decent art and production values, but I suspect how much you’d want to make use of it hinges on your personal philosophy of worldbuilding and the place of religion in it. For some, the book will be an absolutely amazing tool. For others, and I include myself in this category, I think it would be a bit of a woolen teapot – the craft and artistry involved in making it is impressive, but I’d never want to actually use it for its declared purpose.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Righteously Bland”

Kickstopper: More of the Clans

Over on Ferretbrain we’ve had a long-running series called Kickstopper, with articles reviewing the outcome of Kickstarters from a backer’s-eye-view. That said, some of the Kickstarters I back cover topics which are a bit niche for a general audience, especially when it comes to tabletop RPGs. The general line I’ve taken is that if I can see my way to reviewing the core game in the article, then it’s appropriate for Ferretbrain, but if I can’t and the article doesn’t really shed much light on a topic of more general interest, like the long-term future of White Wolf (to give a recent example), it’d make more sense to put the review here.

For this first time putting a Kickstopper article over here, I’m going to cover what may be some of the last supplements for the 20th Anniversary edition of Vampire: the Masquerade; with White Wolf announcing that a 5th Edition will be coming out next year and precious little still to release for it on Onyx Path’s schedule, it looks like the game line – which is already remarkably complete – will likely be mothballed, at least to the extent of new products not coming out for it, so that the spotlight can go on the new edition.

For these supplements, the 20th Anniversary line offers its answer to the classic Clanbooks…

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.

The Campaign

The Lore of the Clans Kickstarter was the last World of Darkness Kickstarter that Onyx Path would successfully fund before the future of the World of Darkness line would change forever due to the purchase of White Wolf by Paradox, as I outlined in the Shattered Dreams Kickstopper article. (The subsequent Beast: the Primordial Kickstarter was for what is now known as the Chronicles of Darkness line to distinguish it from the World of Darkness setting, and the Shattered Dreams Kickstarter for Werewolf: the Apocalypse saw the Paradox takeover happen partway through the funding period.)

By this point, Onyx Path had the process of doing Kickstarters for World of Darkness supplements down to a fine art, setting sensible stretch goals and, as had become the norm, offering a mostly-complete text of the supplement during the funding period so that people could both see if it was the sort of thing they were interested in and satisfy themselves that a viable product actually existed. As such, the progress of the campaign was smooth and unremarkable and it ended up earning over $138,000, which by this point was pretty reasonable for a supplement and substantially better than more “niche” supplements have managed.

What Level I Backed At

Clan Lexicographer: You will receive a copy of the Deluxe V20 Lore of the Clan book, a copy of the V20 Lore of the Clan PDF, and the V20 Lore of the Clan PoD as close to cost as we can give you (see description in the text to the left). You’ll receive a PDF of the classic Encyclopaedia Vampirica so you can delve deeply into significant Clan representatives. You’ll get digital wallpaper featuring a collage of the evocative beautiful art from V20 Lore of the Clans. You or your character’s name will be listed on the credits page as a Clan Loyalist. There will be an extra shipping charge added automatically to nonUS pledges.

It’s worth noting that in addition to the above, some of the stretch goals involved producing writeups for the Bloodlines which, after sufficient goals were hit, were set to be compiled into a supplement called Lore of the Bloodlines, the PDF of which would be included in my funding level.

The Delivery Process

I got my hard copy of Lore of the Clans in April 2016, and its estimated delivery date was March 2016, so by the standards of RPG Kickstarters Onyx Path did pretty well. The PDF version went out to backers in mid-October 2016, a couple of weeks before the announcement of Paradox purchasing White Wolf – which may explain why that event didn’t disrupt this delivery process nearly as much as it otherwise might have, since it meant that the book was a fait accompli with its approvals process done and dusted before Paradox came in.

Reviewing the Swag

Lore of the Clans

One of the recurring commercial problems tabletop RPGs have is that once someone has obtained the core rules, they and their friends can pretty much play forever without ever buying another product. This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of traditional categories of RPG products, like prewritten scenarios and campaign settings, tended to be bought mainly by Game Masters/Storytellers/(insert absurd ego-puffing title for referee here) because they are stuffed with information it’d be actively game-ruining for players to read.

In the late 1980s, TSR made a bid to crack the problem by starting a line of player-facing supplements for the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons . Each book would take a different class (like fighters, priests or wizards) or race (like elves or dwarves) and offer the player a bunch of options for customising and detailing such characters, as well as providing game rules to help both players and Dungeon Masters cater to such classes. (For instance, the thief book included an extended discussion of thieves’ guilds.) By putting out a book that would be of interest both to referees running a game featuring such characters and players interested in such character types, TSR had created products which they could sell to a much broader proportion of the AD&D audience than more purely Dungeon Master-oriented products.

Although it was TSR who pioneered this product format, it was White Wolf who became synonymous with it, perhaps because the World of Darkness games were so adeptly suited to that model. In Vampire you had Clans, in Werewolf you had Tribes, in Mage you had Traditions and so on, but all of these “splats” ended up getting associated splatbooks. (The “splat” comes from the way they were referred to in early online discussion as “*books”, with “splat” being slang in some circles for “asterisk”.) Each game had its own line of player-focused Clanbooks, Tribebooks, Tradition Books, etc., and the market snapped them up.

What made the various splats such iconic and important features of the World of Darkness games is the way they very smoothly served two simultaneous functions. On the game mechanical side of things, they worked much like Dungeons & Dragons classes, offering a means of differentiating player characters and giving them distinctive areas of expertise. (In general, for example, a Brujah vampire will be better in a fight than a Ventrue, who will be better at political intrigue than the Brujah, unless the characters in question have been deliberately designed not to engage with their own Clan’s particular strengths.) At the same time, they also gave player characters an instantaneous social context in the game – not all thieves in D&D work in the same guild, for instance, but all Brujah in Vampire are connected to the extended vampiric family of Brujah, if only by the fact that it was a Brujah who turned them into a vampire in the first place.

By giving player characters a social context in the setting, you prompt players to take an interest in the setting and their character’s place in it, and it’s also a big help to the Storyteller – if a player player is keen to play a Clan loyalist, that provides one way to pitch content which will be of interest to them, and if a player wants to play someone who actively rebels against their Clan or tries to resist efforts to draw them into Clan politics that provides a different lever. There’s no position you can take on your Clan which doesn’t open the door to scenario possibilities – if “Do me this favour because it will help the Clan” isn’t going to motivate the player into action, “Do me this favour because it will hurt the Clan/change the Clan/free you from the Clan hierarchy/make the Clan leave you alone” is just as good.

Your typical Clanbook back in the day was a 64 page book detailing a specific Clan; you’d have sections on the Clan’s history, its current internal organisation and interests, perhaps some rumours about Clan secrets, and the package would be rounded off with some pointers and templates for making characters especially appropriate to the Clan and special powers that Clan members may be able to learn.

Now, 64 pages isn’t nothing, but if you are a player who wants to add depth to their character or understand their Clan better it’s entirely manageable. The problem, of course, comes from the fact that if the Clanbook is in play, the Storyteller will probably want to read it too so they can get a handle on the material in it and use it appropriately – at least to the extent of being able to either portray it in the way it is portrayed in the Clanbook or, if the Storyteller has a different plan, outline where the Clan differs for the purposes of this specific campaign.

Say you have five players in a tabletop game, each of whom is playing a character of a different Clan, each of whom wants to use their Clan’s Clanbook. Each individual player only has about 64 pages of reading to do. The Storyteller suddenly has 320 pages to look over and either approve or overrule. And if you want to give a similar level of depth to all 13 canonical Clans – perhaps because you don’t want a Clan to seem flat and lacking in depth simply because no PCs belong to it, or because you are running a LARP with sufficient numbers that there are PCs of all Clans, you’re looking at 832 pages of reading.

Lore of the Clans is a condensed one-book solution to that problem. Each of its chapters provides a summation, generally written from the point of view of a member of the Clan in question, of Clan history, structure, interests and so on, along with a few suggestions for archetypal character templates and cool Clan-specific powers for people to dabble in. In other words, it’s basically a bunch of mini-Clanbooks, mashing up the best of the old run with some fun new ideas and providing a much more manageable package than the full stack of Clanbooks, making using it in actual play a much more viable prospect. What’s more, because a lot of the information is presented as in-character rumours rather than out-of-character statements of fact, Storytellers need not feel bound by any of it.

I didn’t go in at a tier which would have given me downloads of the old Clanbooks, but in terms of information provided I suspect you actually get most of the good stuff here. Stripping out a lot of the mini-short stories that characterised White Wolf’s material back in the day, improving the layout, and going for a more information-dense writing style could help you drop the space required appreciably; jettisoning ideas which in retrospect seem silly, half-baked, or just plain bad must also be a big help. (They do still take the time to give a tip of the hat to some of the more infamous of the discarded plot points; the Tzimisce chapter mentions the old “the Tzimisce flesh-sculpting powers are the result of them being controlled by alien parasites” from the infamous Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand supplement (and semi-resurrected in the strictly apocryphal The Black Hand: Secrets of the Tal’Mahe’Ra supplement) as being a total absurdity… before dropping an alternate theory that manages to be similar in principle but more horrifying and much more in keeping with the general tone of Vampire, although very much also presented as a mere rumour.) On top of that, the core V20 book already compiled a great number of vampire powers from across a wide range of sources, so a lot of the cool Clan powers from old Clanbooks would already be compiled there, allowing the rules additions here to be mercifully brief.

The book is rounded off by a brace of useful appendices unlocked as stretch goals during the Kickstarter, including a section on Caitiff (vampires belonging to no Clan), some brief insights into antitribu of each Clan (antitribu being Clan members who have rebelled against the power structure and general consensus of their Clan and sided with its enemies), and a section on notable vampires. No rules details are provided on the VIPs, but that actually makes a lot of sense – remember, this is meant to be a player-facing book in part, so providing a full picture of these characters’ capabilities would give them a bunch of information they aren’t meant to have, and this also lets Storytellers set the power level and capabilities of these characters at a level they are happy with.

In short, Lore of the Clans provides the same sort of deeper depictions of the Clans and enrichment of the game experience that the Clanbooks offered, for the price of a single book and at a much more modest page count. It’s actually a better deal than what White Wolf presented gamers with back in the day, and is a product far more likely to be used in actual play than a teetering stack of Clanbooks.

Lore of the Bloodlines

This pretty much gives the Lore of the Clans treatment to a set of the more interesting Bloodlines – groups of vampires which aren’t as widespread or powerful as the thirteen major Clans, but are still forces to be reckoned with. Much of what I’ve said about Lore of the Clans applies to this, and it’s a handy resource if you want to develop any of the Bloodlines detailed future – especially if you’re veering away from canon and want options for replacing one of the Clans with something developed to a similar level of detail.

As a stretch goal, the extent of this book was largely dependent on how much funding was received in the project. As it stands, I think the backers inadvertently hit the sweet spot: the book is substantial enough to be useful and cover the most interesting Bloodlines, but stops before getting to any of the more silly or disposable ones. (The next stretch goal would have added the Blood Brothers to this book, which are to my tastes just a bit too much of a one-trick schtick to make for an interesting clan writeup – useful to throw in as creepy disposable goons, not interesting to unpack as fully fleshed-out characters.)

Encyclopaedia Vampirica

Not really a clanbook, but it’s a similarly information-dense summary of material covering the whole run of Vampire: the Masquerade. This came out in 2002, right towards the end of the original World of Darkness game line’s run, and is presented as an in-character encyclopedia written by vampires for vampires.

Since it’s designed as a document written by characters in the setting, it’s actually suggested that you could just hand it over to the players for them to read as and when they discover it in the game. That’s fine in theory, but there’s a few issues with it in practice. The first, lesser issue is that because it came out at the end of the game line’s run, the encyclopedia covers a bunch of metaplot events that may or may not be true for your particular campaign. That’s troubling, but you can at least patch this somewhat simply by pointing out that the compilers of the encyclopedia may simply be wrong.

The second and larger problem is that by putting the Vampirica into the hands of the players, you are rather implicitly stating that most of the stuff that is in there will exist in your campaign in some form or another. Whilst in principle if the players get interested in a particular entry but you don’t want to include it, you could just pull the old “the compilers fucked up” line again, there’s a limit to how often you can do that before the encyclopedia ends up looking like a massive waste of time. Generally, if you hand players a tome weighing in at over 200 pages to read, it’s considered a bit of a dick move if it turns out to be mostly useless. At the same time, reading the entire book to decide how much of it you want to actually be true would be an enormous chore, but on the flipside having to make a spot decision very suddenly on the truth or otherwise of some entry you didn’t notice and the players are now Very Interested in can be a royal pain.

Whilst I wouldn’t just toss the book out there to the players, I still think it’s useful for a referee, simply because it’s this big, dense collection of setting material you can keep to yourself and pick and choose from as you please. If you’re after an idea, just browse the book for a bit and something will jump out at you. (It’s nice that the book retains some self-awareness of how silly some Vampire topics and terminology is: for instance, in the setting Amaranth is the vampiric practice of drinking another vampire’s blood to consume their soul, but the designers goofed and didn’t realise originally that it’s the name of a cute little red bird from Africa, and sure enough the entry here for Amaranth gives “Small red finch from Africa” as its first definition and then the vampire-specific definitions after that.) There’s also a bunch of fun annotations in the margins, though the book often does a poor job of making sure they appear close to the references they actually relate to.

Encyclopaedia Vampirica is, therefore, a big fat 200-page reminder that Vampire: the Masquerade’s setting as both a blessing and a curse; a curse in the sense that if you got worried about canon (and if you wanted to actually follow the metaplot this was somewhat necessary) it’s a burden, a blessing in the sense that there’s always something you can draw on for inspiration when you need it.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

Yeah, sure, this is a decent product and there’s no embarrassment in being named in it.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I reckon I got this Just Right – going lower would have meant missing out on the rather fun Encyclopaedia Vampirica, going higher would have meant getting stuff I have little or no interest in, like the old Clanbooks and novels and the like.

Would Back Again?

The various Onyx Path Kickstarters are a bit of a crapshoot in terms of how smooth or shaky the delivery process is, largely as a result of head honcho Richard Thomas giving the various freelancers placed in charge of the projects their heads in terms of delivery. But the Vampire: the Masquerade contributors seem to have been pretty damn consistent in terms of getting product out.

Would I back another Vampire: the Masquerade Kickstarter from Onyx Path? The question seems academic – they’re almost certainly not going to do another one, at least not for a tabletop RPG product. But for the right product I might; I didn’t back Beckett’s Jyhad Diary, which followed this Kickstarter, because I have little-to-no interest in metaplot, and to be honest I am not sure what could be added to the V20 line at this point that would feel useful or necessary – it’s very complete. I guess if they did an official Underworld supplement or something I might.