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.

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Technocracy Reloaded, Ascension Declined

As the title implies, Technocracy Reloaded is the Technocracy-themed supplement for Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition, a sort of fresh take on the much-respected Guide to the Technocracy from previous editions. From this perspective it’s… it’s fine. It’s a competently designed bit of work which makes the best of a challenging task – that task being to update the Technocracy concept for an era when anti-vaxx sentiments and QAnon conspiracism suggest that scientific rationalism is neither a villain nor an unchallenged, dominant worldview these days. On a quick read, I found nothing especially wrong with it as a concept.

At the same time, I think with this book I am kind of done with Mage: the Ascension – not just this edition, but the game in general.

The problem is that to present a nuanced view of the Technocracy that’s worth devoting a 240 page supplement to, and to update it for the 2020s, the writing team have found they needed to grasp the nettle and really address some of the major issues with the standard Mage: the Ascension setting as it has been previously presented. A big reason that so many Mage fans like the idea of being able to play as the Technocracy is that it’s hard to deny that they do have some admirable aspects. As well as frequently being more egalitarian than the Traditions, there’s the simple fact that what the Technocracy mainly want is a world where the general public has some sense of cosmological security and stability, which can provide them with the basis of actually having a halfway decent life. Vaccines and modern medicine may have their issues, but doing without them (or relying on the goodwill of a healing mage who might decide you aren’t worth it if their ideology suggests it) would be much, much worse.

More than that, though, the book acknowledges absurdities like how the idea of Paradox as it exists in Mage and the usual explanations for it simply don’t work. It is 100% predicated on the assumption that the Sleepers, in general, do not believe in supernatural stuff, and magic and the paranormal go against their worldview that it unleashes the force of Paradox in order for consensus reality to reassert itself.

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Supplement Supplemental! (Changeling Cliques and Gloranthan Glamours)

Sometimes I read a supplement and I want to say a few things about it on here, but don’t want to give it a full article; for this purpose I’m going to start reviewing such things in this new ongoing feature, Supplement Supplemental. This time around, I’ve got some slim additions to Changeling: the Lost and RuneQuest to look at.

Oak, Ash, & Thorn (Changeling: the Lost)

Oak, Ash, & Thorn is billed as “The Changeling: the Lost Second Edition Companion”, this feels like something of a misnomer. Usually, when RPG supplements are billed as “companions” – and that’s been true for Onyx Path’s Chronicles of Darkness output as any game line – that’s usually a signal that they have a fairly broad scope, offering a diverse range of material which may be a bit of a grab-bag, but precisely because of this can be potentially useful for a wide variety of campaigns within the envisioned scope of the game. Onyx Path have used the “companion” designation for some of their own material – think the V20 Companion or the Dark Ages Companion – which very much fits the status of stuff which, whilst useful, didn’t fit in the core book for their respective lines.

That is not quite the case with Oak, Ash, & Thorn, which actually is more specific in intention and unified in theme than that. As the introduction notes, it’s pitched to “Tier 2” Changeling games. Tier 1 is street-level, low-status stuff, where the PCs are probably not the movers and shakers in their Courts and events focus tightly on the motley’s immediate needs and foes. (Think the classic mode of play of early Vampire: the Masquerade, when the overriding assumption was that the PCs were all new-ish vampires towards the lower end of an extensive hierarchy as of the start of the campaign.) At the other end of the scale is Tier 3, which are intended to be more global in scope; this is the sort of cosmic-scape campaign which culminates with you bursting into the True Fae’s homes in Arcadia to go full Long Lankin on them.

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An Arcane Followup

So, a while back I did an article looking back at Arcane‘s Top 50 RPGs list from back in 1996, as polled among their (primarily UK-based) readership. At the time, I said that no truly comparable list had been produced since, but I’ve recently become aware of Tabletop Gaming magazine’s June 2018 piece on the Top 150 games. This includes board games and card games, but RPGs are healthily represented there – in fact, the top game on the list is an RPG. It’s also a UK magazine which feels in some respect like a present-day update of Arcane with a wider remit and some somewhat deeper insights, and the list was also based on a reader vote.

So, I thought it would be interesting to extract just the RPGs from that list to get a “Top RPGs” sub-list, and compare it to the Arcane list. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it – the readership may well not be that similar – but it’s interesting to think about, right?

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Kickstopper: New Life For a Dead Game

Given that it is a game about playing a dead person, in some ways it is appropriate that Wraith: the Oblivion was the first of the World of Darkness games to die – not even making it past 1999. Having received even less support than Changeling, in some respects it’s the member of the initial “big five” World of Darkness RPGs which both needs the most love from a 20th Anniversary edition and, you would think, would be one of the easier game lines to sum up in a big fat 20th Anniversary rulebook – after all, since less was published for it, less needs to be compiled, right?

On the other hand, in some respects Wraith is the most genuinely clever and cutting-edge of the original World of Darkness games. Whilst White Wolf spent most of the 1990s trying their hardest to adopt a pose of being sophisticated artists bringing a new level of sophistication to tabletop RPGs, it was rare that their games actually reflected this in terms of system and the supported gameplay and the overall concepts being played with. Wraith was a major exception in this respect.

With Rich Dansky, respected in the fanbase for the work he’d done on the original game line, in place to write this updated edition, would it provide this unique game with the treatment it’s always deserved but never quite received, or would it be another victim of the reputed Wraith Curse?

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The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.

With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK either consisting of patchy US imports or a few local magazines published on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.

Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.

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Kickstopper: Consensus Reality Means These Books Will Exist If Backers Believe Hard Enough

Mage: the Ascension has, from its beginning, been a bit of a weird old game. The central “consensus reality” conceit – without which the stack of cards largely collapses – is a particularly Marmite-y aspect of the game; out of all the people I have encountered in person or online who’ve said that they just weren’t able to get along with Ascension, I’d say that the consensus reality aspect is the first reason the majority give for why they don’t get along with it.

Beyond that, the setting is very much hardwired around a conflict between establishment science and various flavours of cultural belief steeped in the supernatural, a conflict couched with all the sensitivity and nuance that you’d expect of White Wolf in the early 1990s (absolutely none).

This and other aspects of the game make it highly controversial – even among fans, interpretations of the setting vary widely. In every platform I’ve ever discussed White Wolf games on, two things have been true: when it comes to the Chronicles of Darkness, anyone who isn’t outright wrongheaded understands that Beast is absolutely fucking terrible and is very eager to explain why they despise the game, and when it comes to the old-school World of Darkness discussions about Mage: the Ascension have a tendency to spiral into wide-ranging philosophical debates.

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Mini-Review: Clarifications of Conjuring

Signs of Sorcery is the latest supplement for 2nd Edition Mage: the Awakening. It bills itself as a deeper look at Supernal magic, but since more or less all the magic in Mage is Supernal in nature it’s essentially a big set of both advanced theory and further clarification on all sorts of aspects of the cosmology of the game. This includes discussions of Mage Sight, the Supernal Realms, various types of magic item, the sort of traces left behind by the Archmages, the Exarchs and other major powers of the Supernal World, Yantras, Grimoires, and many other topics besides.

This is a great help in many respects, not least because Mage: the Awakening is a classic example of how brevity is not always clarity. Sometimes a brief explanation of a subject will actually be more confusing than a longer, more in-depth discussion of it. This is particularly the case if the in-depth discussion reveals more of the rationale of why a particular thing is the way it is; if you have an appreciation of the underlying logic of a subject, then its surface facts will be that much easier to recall than if you’re just presented them as a set of disconnected facts with no underlying information typing them together.

Of course, if your Mage campaign is ongoing you might have already reached rulings on a lot of these subjects that are incompatible with Signs of Sorcery‘s take on them – but even then, it’s still a handy resource to have for any campaign where poking the metaphysic is a major part of the agenda, and given Mage‘s themes that will likely account for a high proportion of Awakening campaigns.

Mini-Review: All the Dream’s a Stage, and the Changelings Merely Players…

The Player’s Guide for the 20th Anniversary Edition of Changeling: the Dreaming kicks off by talking about how the 20th Anniversary Edition is very much designed to be adaptable for your own tastes and needs, and certainly the Player’s Guide delivers on that general approach as far as I’m concerned. Take, for instance, the matter of Banality – truly the Marmite of Changeling: the Dreaming, the part of the system which people tend to either angrily reject (as you’d know I do if you’ve seen my review of the 20th Anniversary Edition and 1st Edition) or consider to be a core part of the experience; I was impressed by the extent to which, to my eyes at least, the Player’s Guide almost never mentions Banality except in contexts where it’s absolutely necessary to, making much of the material here useful to deploy in campaigns where you’re not buying into the Banality idea very much (and equally viable in campaigns where Banality is of supreme importance).

In fact, they throw a brand new PC type in here – Lycians, a particularly persistent type of chimera which are inanimate objects or abstract concepts that are special enough to someone or have enough resonance in the Dreaming to end up with some sort of life. (An example given is a child’s teddy bear who protects them from dark forces when they sleep, for instance.) The sheer range of things which can conceivably become Lycians – a badass car, for instance – this further puts Banality into the background, since if the Dreaming can be expressed through literally anything, then you can no longer say an entire category of thing is necessarily Banal by its nature; it’s only Banal if it doesn’t bring light and joy and wonder into anyone’s life.

Beyond that, you get a grab-bag of useful bits here – stacks of details on Changeling politics (including a deep dive on the Shadow Court), an overview of the Changelings of other cultures around the world, and various other interesting bits and pieces and details. There’s even details of those Changelings who have managed to overcome the tug-of-war between Banality and Bedlam to become effectively immortal, and how you can become one of them.

What it’s most intensely stuffed with, however, is atmosphere and inspiration, which is what you want most for a Changeling: the Dreaming supplement really.

Kickstopper: Dark Ages, Delightful Anniversary

Although the various World of Darkness games unfold by default in the modern day, back in their prime White Wolf eagerly put out various guides – whether as fully standalone games or as supplements to their parent game – to exploring different historical eras of the games’ settings, and perhaps the most successful of these was Vampire: the Dark Ages.

Vampire: the Dark Ages represents a particularly apt marriage of game line and time period. Vampire politics in Masquerade already draws on the feudal, and its main conflicts stem back to fault lines from the original establishment of the Camarilla and Sabbat in the wake of the Anarch Revolt. Set during the medieval period prior to the Revolt, Dark Ages offers players the opportunity to play its ringleaders, or to experience the life of the clans from back before vampires had to tiptoe around and be quite so careful of the human masses, or to generally dial up the feudalism and rule the land as a dark overlord. This sort of action fits perfectly with the way that, say, Dracula is supposed to have ruled over his little region of Transylvania in Bram Stoker’s original novel. Vampire fiction regularly looks to the medieval period for its imagery and its roots – even stuff that’s blatantly copying White Wolf – and Vampire: the Dark Ages offers an opportunity to crank that dial up to 11 in a gaming context.

Naturally, since the 20th Anniversary Edition of Masquerade had done so well out of crowdfunding, it was only to be expected that 20th Anniversary Dark Ages material would get the same treatment.

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