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.)

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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.

Vigilantly Seeking a Point

Hunter: the Vigil had some tricky precedent to tackle when it was released for the new World of Darkness line (now retitled Chronicles of Darkness). The original World of Darkness hunter-themed game, Hunter: the Reckoning might have had its advocates, but that didn’t stop it from being a big turn-off to a large number of people who just wanted a game that played off the principles originally established in the classic supplement The Hunters Hunted, with basically ordinary human characters called on to fight supernatural menaces. Instead, what they got was this weird thing where the titular hunters were more properly called the Imbued – folk who suddenly got voices in their heads and enhanced senses and other supernatural powers to enable them to go toe to toe with supernatural entities, effectively making Hunter: the Reckoning yet another World of Darkness game about people who thought they were ordinary normal humans but then had some sort of cosmic puberty/near-death experience which made them something special and different.

The thing is, you can kind of see how that happened. White Wolf had, from even their early days, boiled down their style of presenting an RPG book – especially a core rulebook – into a formula, a pattern set by the original Vampire: the Masquerade and refined over time but rarely if ever departed from, right down to the little “Theme” and “Mood” sections at the start of the book. Whilst Ron Edwards’ waffle about how White Wolf fans were brain damaged to the point that they couldn’t understand how to put together a story was obviously offensive hyperbole, one can certainly see how if your only creative hobby or engagement with storytelling consisted of World of Darkness games you would end up with a rather blinkered approach – and, more to the point, how whilst White Wolf wasn’t actually causing physiological brain damage to anybody through its working practices, you could make an argument that it was causing institutional brain damage to itself through its extremely formulaic approach.

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Not Knowing When To Stop Digging

Mummy – also billed as A World of Darkness: Mummy, using the same branding as the original A World of Darkness supplement – was a 1992 release for Vampire: the Masquerade and was one of the last books for the Storyteller system released when Vampire had the stage all to itself. Indeed, as well as hyping the forthcoming release of Werewolf: the ApocalypseMummy makes a mild pretence of being a crossover supplement, claiming that you can use it just as well in a Werewolf game as in Vampire.

However, whilst you doubtless could use the rules explanation from Werewolf to run this, the fact remains that this was released with the distinctive green marbled trade dress that’s associated with Vampire, and precisely because Werewolf was still in development when this was being written it leans on Vampire much more than it does Werewolf; there’s a very, very few token references to the Garou, and the spirit world that the titular mummies enter between bouts of life is clearly based on a rough outline of Werewolf‘s Umbra, but the whole mummy thing calls on Vampire much more than it does Werewolf. (Indeed, the backstory of the mummies is intimately entwined with that of the Followers of Set, having been sparked off by a Kindred intervention in proto-Egyptian politics.)

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Inconnu Can Make This World Seem Right

Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Vampire: the Masquerade should be all about the Inconnu all the time. But it seems to me that the near-disappearance of the Inconnu from setting material after the earliest years of the game is indicative of broader changes in White Wolf’s approach to the game – a shift to a more sober, buttoned-down, serious-minded approach that I increasingly find antithetical to fun whilst still being too tied to the absurdities of the game’s axioms to be a profound exploration of serious subject matter. The Inconnu in this respect are like the bellweather, the canary – sure, they had a single supplement in the Revised era as a prelude to Gehenna, but I have a strong suspicion that this was because White Wolf needed to fill a hole in the schedule and if they could have got away with doing the whole Time of Judgement thing without touching the Inconnu they would have.

Take, for instance, the original A World of Darkness supplement from 1992. This is one of the first Vampire: the Masquerade supplements to get really significantly retconned; a second edition of it in 1996 made major cuts to the existing chapters to excise material that was no longer wanted, and added additional chapters to allow for a properly global overview.

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The Value of Tone

So a while back I looked at some of the earliest Vampire: the Masquerade material and was rude about the Player’s Guide and Storyteller’s Handbook, but I have to make a little confession: I’ve kept hold of them, rather than passing them on as I ordinarily would.

The thing is, whilst the substance of what is said in them I tend to disagree with a lot, I can’t help but feel a certain weird enjoyment of their style. “Style over substance” was a charge levelled at Vampire a lot by its critics back in the day, but I’ve come around to the opinion that this was a feature of the line, not a bug.

Try to reconcile the various World of Darkness game lines and you end up with a headache; try and reconcile the various contradictory materials issued in one specific game line under that umbrella and you end up with a similar headache. White Wolf and Onyx Path like to wheel out the “Oh, it’s all written in-character from the perspective of the various factions” excuse, but that doesn’t hold water much of the time (too often it’s contextually clear that this isn’t meant to be a specific NPC speaking in the rulebook, but the neutral, omniscient tone of the designers trying to convey information directly to the Storyteller).

This is inevitably going to become a big problem for the new Paradox-controlled White Wolf. They declare they want One World of Darkness, a single cohesive setting that can be used as the basis of a transmedia franchise. If they actually intend to deliver that, they’ll need to make a final, definitive call on how VampireWerewolfMageWraithChangeling and all the rest fit together.

This will inevitably cause great drama. Entire factions of fans will no doubt feel that their favourite splat has been dumped on, or some other splat has been made too powerful. (The consensus in places I have discussed this seems to be that Mage is either going to stomp all over the other lines or end up feeling utterly gutted compared to prior editions, with little scope for a middle way between those extremes.)

This is a basic problem with the World of Darkness: it was never really brilliantly fine-tuned for crossover purposes, and whilst people did it anyway, I think they were fools to attempt it. As far as I am concerned, Vampire is at its best when it is presenting a setting designed solely with an eye to being an interesting setting to play a vampire in, and the same is true of each of the other lines; Werewolf is not improved by having to consider how Pentex fits in with the Technocracy, Mage is not improved by trying to figure out how the cosmology of Demon: the Fallen fits into it.

So there’s no cohesive setting and attempting to reach a canonical one is a doomed exercise. What’s left? What’s left is the tone, the atmosphere. I have come to the conclusion that the last thing I want in a Vampire: the Masquerade game is a setting which worries about trying to look too much like the real world; what I’m after is dry ice everywhere, ludicrous gothic cityscapes like something out of The Crow or Tim Burton’s take on Batman, and a world where the This Corrosion music video is a reasonable approximation of an Anarch meeting.

This is quite far away from a serious exploration of serious themes in a realistic setting along the lines of what the new edition is offering; it does, however, feel like a game where three-eyed vampires with a distinctly anime aesthetic to their introductory artwork are a viable addition to the game.

It helps that on the whole I actually think I was slightly unfair to these two books. The Player’s Guide is actually quite handy for giving a snapshot of what a player’s-eye-view of the setting was supposed to look like back when Vampire first came out, the templates offered, whilst not necessarily brilliantly designed, at least give clear pointers as to what you’re supposed to be able to do with the game, and the essays about roleplaying in the first edition Player’s Guide are reasonable enough accounts of people’s personal gaming experiences, which is far more useful than the 2nd edition Player’s Guide which replaced those with waffling about roleplaying and the Hidden God and other risible notions. The Storyteller’s Guide actually has some decent suggestions when it comes to setting design and the like.

Mostly, though, I prize them for the snapshot they offer of the early 1990s White Wolf style – a little naive, much less profound than it pretended to be, and a bit more willing to pander to melodrama rather than offering grounded drama. Here in 2017, I reckon that if you are going to do Vampire: the Masquerade, you may as well turn it up to 11, put your best goth playlist on shuffle, and be the full-blown cartoon version of the setting that the publishers since the earliest days have constantly tried to distance themselves from, and yet can’t quite stay away from.