Kickstopper: Retconned Schemes

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

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

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

Usual Note On Methodology

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

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

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

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Retconned Schemes”

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Kickstopper: The God-Machine is Coming Down and We’re Gonna Have a Party

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.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: The God-Machine is Coming Down and We’re Gonna Have a Party”

Kickstopper: From Each According To His Arteries, To Each According To His Needs

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

This Kickstopper is going to delve quite deeply into what might otherwise be a slightly niche topic for Ferretbrain – I’ve included tabletop RPG products on Kickstopper articles before, of course, but not to the extent I’m going to do here. At the same time, I think it’s justifiable because not only does it involve a company that has turned the Kickstarting of product into a smooth and routine process, but it also involves a product line whose present existence has been shaped by Kickstarter. Moreover, the products provided give a fascinating cross-section of the history of the line in question. What we have is the story of how Kickstarter reinvigorated a game line which in its prime was unquestionably one of the most important force in tabletop RPGs, how the game line in question came to need reinvigoration in the first place, and how Kickstarter allowed a new publisher to rise from the ashes of White Wolf.

In short, we’re going to be looking at how Vampire: the Masquerade rose from its crypt to feed on the wallets of crowdfunders.

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.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: From Each According To His Arteries, To Each According To His Needs”

Who Aberrates the Aberrant?

Aberrant is a big colourful mess. Part of a continuity of games including Adventure and Trinity (AKA Aeon), which Onyx Path are now reviving with a comprehensively rejigged system as the Trinity Continuum game line (with Aeon as the first major setting book), part of its awkwardness comes from the fact that it was trying to act as the superhero-themed midpoint of a setting which ranged from the pulp adventure of, uh, Adventure to the starfaring psi-wielding antics of Aeon. Though you can see conceptual links between the genres, that’s still a sequence of jarring, clunky gear changes, and a big pile of baggage that each individual game would have never had to deal with (and have been stronger for it) had they not been set in the same continuity.

Aberrant is also often derided for its system, which attempts to extend the Storyteller system into superheroics and somehow manages to make a clunky mess of it, despite the fact that Vampire‘s early editions managed it perfectly well, but the thing which personally turns me off it is the setting. Part of it arises from the fact that, in diverging from real life in 1998, some of its predictions now seem kind of laughably out of date. Part of it arises from simple research failures (like the UK deciding to stay out of the European Union in the 1990s – a body it had already been a member of since the 1970s).

But most of the reason the setting doesn’t click with me is that it’s tryhard 1990s edgelord nonsense, with each faction carefully crafted to be maybe heroic but probably secretly evil. (The major exception are the Teragen, who seem to be pretty clearly monstrous on the face of it.) Maybe part of this comes down to the necessity to have the superhumans one and all become the villains of Aeon/Trinity later on down the timeline, but probably a larger part of it comes from the fact that in the 1990s everyone was trying to be darker than everyone else in the superhero field. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had been out for a decade and had become enshrined at the peak of the comic book pantheon, and everyone wanted to recapture that. Dark Champions steered Champions into the grim and gritty mode of the era, and all was darkness and drabness.

What’s weird for me about the Aberrant setting is that it isn’t, in many respects, all that grim and gritty – in fact, in an awful lot of respects it’s a much cleaner, brighter timeline than the one we got. (The fact that it doesn’t include 9/11 or anything like the War On Terror is a big factor; even the clashes of superhumans feel like they pale in comparison to the Iraq War or the slow, gruelling death of Syria.) This is presumably to allow a space for gamers to run a more four-colour take on the whole concept if they really want to. The problem with that is that the basic presentation of the factions has enough sneering 1990s cynicism to it that it doesn’t quite work – what you end up with is a bunch of shitty, self-serving factions suitable for a post-Watchmen grimfest in a world that’s just a few notches too bright and colourful for them.

The incongruity doesn’t quite work for me – as with the various settings that have been put out for GODLIKE or Wild Talents, or even for that matter Champions, I think you get much better results if you make a firm call on what sort of superhero setting you are going for and then design it from the ground up to support that decision, rather than trying to build a setting which can waver all the way from four-colour black-and-white-morals Comics Code Authority vapidity to edgelord Frank Miller/Alan Moore ripoffs.

Then again, the entire story of the Trinity game line seems to have arisen out of a series of messy compromises and hastily cobbled-together settings; the original Aeon setting had to be knocked out in a space of 10 months after Mark Rein-Hagen walked away from White Wolf in 1996 and took Exile, the sci-fi game series he’d been developing, with him. The games do have their advocates – Adventure seems to have a certain charm to it, perhaps because as the first game in the line it carries the least baggage, but both the Aberrant and Aeon settings have their advocates too. Part of the point of the new Trinity Continuum game line is to apply a new system to the setting (the Storypath system, which has also been used for the new edition of Scion), one better suited to it than the rather overheated Storyteller engine under the hood of 1st edition Aberrant; if this also includes giving the setting a comprehensive tune-up, perhaps even offering specific sliders to better adapt it to different takes on the superhero genre (“If your morality dial is set to ‘Frank Miller’, use the ‘evil’ version of Project Utopia”, etc.), then that might be just the tune-up the old beast needs.

Requiem In Different Veins

I’ve largely come to agree with the apparent critical consensus on Vampire: the Requiem‘s two editions: namely, that the first edition was an interesting first pass that was a little hampered by the commercial necessity of attempting to appeal to fans of Vampire: the Masquerade, which meant that it couldn’t quite diverge as markedly from Vampire precedent as it might have wanted to, whereas the second edition – designed in an era when Masquerade is continuing to be published – has done a much better job of carving out a distinctive new identity for itself and tightening up and modernising the design of the game.

Still, that isn’t to say the entire line was a wash – indeed, the core 2nd edition book recommends some first edition books as being worth a look. For this article I’m going to look at two books which seem to offer diametrically opposite approaches to supporting 1st edition – one big fat chunk of excellent advice and setting-design tools, and one thin tome of uninspiring fluff.

Damnation City

A sourcebook on the design of city environments as physical landscapes, thematic backdrops, and as political chessboards for the purposes of Vampire: the Requiem, Damnation City is such a useful toolkit that it could be used in any other modern-day occult game. Its major weakness is the designers’ insistence that there’s a Right Way and a Wrong Way to use the book, and you have to do it the Right Way; for instance, they talk a lot about how the book’s meant to be used as a dramaturgical aid, rather than as a toolkit for a more simulation-styled approach to gameplay, but in fact if you want to run a Chronicles of Darkness sandbox game there’s few better tools.

Likewise, whilst they offer “Barony” and “Primacy” play styles, in which you play increasingly powerful individuals within the power structure of the city, they work on the inflexible axiom that the Prince of the city must always, invariably be an NPC, and that a player character can never take that position. This strikes me as outright cowardice to me: if you’re willing to have the PCs become the powers behind the throne, be willing to let one of them sit on the ding-dong diddly throne already.

There’s other aspects where the book’s design suggestions just fall flat. For instance, altogether too much space is given to various ways of plotting out the power structure of a city, some of which are more or less useful whilst others are nigh-incomprehensible or utterly uninformative. Some of the power structures there make absolute sense; others look like the sort of thing you’d create if you liked the idea of making a diagram of this sort of thing but had never seen a diagram in your life.

Still, when the book’s on form, it’s great. Stuffed with ideas for NPCs, districts, locations, and so on, it’s a grand sandbox toolbox designed by people who absolutely insist that it’s not for that style of play. Well, deny it all you like, mid-2000s White Wolf: you’re the stopped clock that pulls off something useful twice a day and this time you hit the jackpot.

Mythologies

This provides a grab-bag of different urban myths that vampires tell each other, along with rules systems and tweaks to use if you decide they are true in your campaign. Fun in principle, but somehow I find the actual myths presented to be somewhat drab and uninspiring. Perhaps the issue is that the book tries to stuff too many into its limited page count, leaving the mysteries here shallow and underdeveloped.

Awoo of Darkness: the Supplements of 20th Anniversary Werewolf

Onyx Path originated as a “by the creatives, for the creatives” sort of outfit. They cannot give their writers total creative freedom on all projects, because some of the IP they work with isn’t actually owned by them and has been subject to approvals processes from CCP in Onyx Path’s early years, the new Paradox-owned White Wolf more recently, but within the bounds of those constraints they do prefer to let the project leads on game lines have their own heads.

This has had the upshot that the level of consistent quality one can expect from their game lines varies a lot. I get the impression, for instance, that there’s a fairly solid team behind their Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary line, because the supplements for that have really been quite good – to the point of setting an intimidatingly high bar for the upcoming 5th edition of the game to clear. On the other hand, controversies surrounding game lines like Beast: the Primordial or the long gestation process of Exalted 3rd Edition have seemed in part to arise from poor judgement on the part of the managers of those lines.

Then, somewhere in between the major controversies and the major successes, you have something like the Werewolf: the Apocalypse 20th anniversary line. Though I thought the core 20th anniversary book was a pretty decent release, I find its supporting supplements to be a decidedly mixed bag – and so far as I can tell, I’m not alone in this.

Continue reading “Awoo of Darkness: the Supplements of 20th Anniversary Werewolf”

Freak, C’est Sick

As well as existing within the setting of Werewolf: the Apocalypse as a gleeful self-parody of White Wolf, the Black Dog Game Factory actually existed as an imprint of White Wolf, through which they published material which they wanted to flag as being No Seriously This Is For Mature Audiences Only. Ironically, though, Black Dog didn’t produce that much for Werewolf itself. The sole book they put out for it was Freak Legion, a players’ guide to creating and playing fomori.

Fomori in Werewolf are seriously messed up. They’re people who have been infected, corrupted, and eventually entirely possessed by Banes – Wyrm-spirits born out of human suffering – and have become physically mutated as a result. Many of them end up working for Pentex, the evil corporation that acts like a Captain Planet villain that’s the main face of the Wyrm in the mortal world; sometimes that’s because they got corrupted through involvement with some Pentex plot, sometimes that’s because Pentex tracked them down, sometimes that’s because their Bane nudged them into joining Pentex. Either way, most of them end up working on Pentex First Teams – the special forces squads Pentex uses for fighting werewoofles.

There are three components that nudge Freak Legion into Black Dog territory. The first is the body horror intrinsic in the fomori concept. The second is the human misery involved in their creation. The third, and by far the greatest, is the gleefully flippant attitude with which the book handles the other two factors. This might be billed as being for Mature Readers Only, but you only have to read the description of the Savage Genitalia mutation (it’s exactly like it sounds, only even worse if you combine it with other mutations as they suggest) to realise you are dealing with Immature Writers Only.

Now, of course it could be that the authors were playing up to the gruesome, purilely sexist, and gleefully violent tendencies they’d ascribed to Black Dog in the setting material – but then again, wasn’t Black Dog a parody of White Wolf themselves? There’s an extent to which it feels like this is a slippage of the mask of cultured sophistication that White Wolf like to adopt. In the cartoon nonsense of Freak Legion we see a dissolution of 1990s White Wolf’s pretences to high art and clever handling of serious issues to reveal the violence-happy edgelord dorks underneath. At its worst it yields insufferable nonsense like Savage Genitalia; at its best there’s a fresh, exciting edge to it which might not be especially intellectual, but certainly seems to offer more of a clue to White Wolf’s original popularity than any stab at high art.