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it arises from the fact that, in diverging from real life in 1998, some of its predictions now seem kind of laughably out of date.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.


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.

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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.

Woke Up, Got Out of Bed, Dragged an Archetype Across My Head

Onyx Path’s second edition of Mage: the Awakening continues the general trend of second edition Chronicles of Darkness games of greatly refining and refocusing the concepts of their often-muddled first editions. Since both the World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness series are both active concerns, the various Chronicles games no longer need to be conflicted between the desire to do something new and the commercial incentive to provide a safe harbour for fans of the equivalent World of Darkness line, which means they can be more confident in their own, distinct identities.

In the case of Mage, the second edition is also an opportunity to restate that core identity in a way which wins over more people. The main thing which people who otherwise don’t know much about the first edition of Awakening seem to latch onto about it is “Isn’t that the one which is all about Atlantis?”; the Atlantis stuff isn’t exactly gone here, but it’s relegated to a brief appendix to illustrate just how inessential to the core concept it is.

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Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changeling! (Turn and Face the Dream…) Ch-Ch-Changeling!

Of the big five original World of Darkness lines, Changeling is the one it’s taken me the longest to warm to. I think it’s because I had the feeling that to some extent Changelings were a bit redundant. The basic faerie myth being played on is that there’s a race of creatures with magical powers who exist in a place that’s in the shadows of the everyday world where they conceal themselves from the rest of us, but who can have a profound effect on those who stray into their sphere of influence. Right there, I have described most of the other major World of Darkness splats – what is the clear thematic distinction between a vampire court and an Unseelie court with a particular focus on blood economics?

Having had an opportunity to pick up the 1st edition of Changeling: the Dreaming for cheap and flipping through it, I have ended up changing my mind. It helps that the 1st edition of any particular classic World of Darkness game tends to form the most clear and distinct statement of the game line’s intentions*, with0ut the accretion disc of clutter that comes out as a game line progresses – though at the same time, the recent 20th anniversary editions remain excellent collections both of somewhat tuned-up rules and nicely complied heaps of stuff for you to use directly for gaming purposes. 1st edition convinced me that there was merit to the concept – a dip into the 20th anniversary edition would later convince me that Changeling is actually something you could run a solid, viable game around.

(* Interestingly, I tend to think that the reverse is the case for the pre-God-Machine Chronicle entries in the Chronicles of Darkness series. There, the 2nd editions of the respective games have so far seemed to be less cluttered presentations of a particular vision than the 1st editions – because the 1st editions tended to have the baggage of needing to simultaneously offer something new whilst at the same time providing a bit of comfort to fans of their discontinued classic World of Darkness equivalents, like how Vampire: the Requiem had to fill the gap left by the cancellation of Vampire: the Masquerade. Now that the classic World of Darkness is a going concern again, the 2nd editions are doing a much better job of standing on their own two feet as their own particular things.)

Continue reading “Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changeling! (Turn and Face the Dream…) Ch-Ch-Changeling!”

Old Vampires, New Tricks

Thousand Years of Night is the shiny new supplement for Vampire: the Requiem focusing on playing elders. This is a smart love for the purposes of continuing the agenda of the 2nd edition core book (AKA Blood & Smoke: the Strix Chronicle) in terms of allowing Requiem to be its own thing rather than existing in the shadow of Vampire: the Masquerade. Masquerade had a very particular take on elders as being the uber-powerful vampire Illuminati, and this was largely reflected in the guidance offered for playing them in the Elysium supplement. On top of that, both the metaplot and various published adventures and setting books leaned heavily on the “elders pulling everyone’s strings” trope. If Requiem‘s elders could be distanced from this interpretation, that would establish some clear water between the two games.

Broadly speaking, Thousand Years of Night succeeds at this. Elders here are still quite powerful – they get a nice stack of Experiences depending on just how Elder they are at character gen, and of course you also have some nice new powers for them and guidance on what you can do with attributes and skills beyond the human maximum. At the same time, they aren’t the full-on vampire Illuminati they are in Masquerade – the much more fragmented nature of Kindred society in Requiem doesn’t lend itself to that, for one thing, and for another they aren’t so radically beyond other vampires in capabilities as to dominate the upper echelons of vampire politics.

What they are instead are people displaced far in time from their era of origin, and whilst they are more able than Masquerade‘s Elders to keep up with the times (in fact, odds are they’ve forgotten many of the archaic skills they used to have as they simply ceased using them and learned new skills in turn), they do need to face the problem of maintaining Touchstones when they’ve already seen entire generations of ’em fading into the dust. Out of the rules stuff here, perhaps the best stuff is the consideration of how Requiem‘s Touchstones system changes once you’re dealing with Elders of a particular vintage. You know that whole “Elder who becomes obsessed with someone because they remind them of someone from their tragic past” trope? You can do that way up to the hilt here.

You also get some consideration of how Elders interact with covenants, as well as covenants and conspiracies which primarily consist of Elders. (For instance, there’s a clique of Elders who specialise in a callous but effective method of Strix-hunting.) The book closes by rounding out the range of supernatural adversaries extant in the setting, following the lead of the main book of providing more examples of blood-drinkers and corpse-eaters from classical myth, as well as depicting some Elders and Methuselahs who’ve gone well off the deep end. For wilder character concepts, there’s also details on Clans which are supposed to have gone extinct, but which Elder characters could still viably be members of.

On the whole, I’d say that Thousand Years of Night does what Requiem supplements need to do at this point in time – expanding the range of play available in Requiem without obscuring or cluttering up the distinct vision and voice of the game line.