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 only available 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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Mini-Review: Demon: the Descent Gains a Rogue’s Gallery

The long-running Night Horrors series of supplements for the Chronicles of Darkness games is a series of fully statted-up NPCs for the different game lines, along with suitable supporting suggestions on their deployment and associated story ideas. Though each is linked to a particular game line and represents characters arising in that particular scene (so your True Fae needs are going to be served by the Changeling one and so on), obviously it’s entirely viable to take characters from one game line’s Night Horrors tome and have them show up in a different game line – say, if your werewoofles find themselves needing to get a favour off a mage, or if your hunters need a fresh nemesis after murdering their latest quarry.

Whilst most game lines got the Night Horrors treatment back in 1st edition, the line got revived for the Chronicles of Darkness era for game lines which either weren’t around back then or didn’t get any Night Horrors love. Enemy Action, then, is the Night Horrors book for Demon: the Descent, offering Demons, Angels, Cryptids, Exiles, and some cheeky mortal cultists to round everything out.

Neatly, for most entries the book doesn’t make assumptions about how you are going to use the characters in question in a game – as allies, adversaries, annoyances, or whatever. This makes for much better-rounded NPCs than if they were all intended to be allies or adversaries, since it forces the writer to think about questions like “What can this person offer their friends?” or “Why might PCs object to what this person’s up to?” It’s a solid concept for a supplement and a great addition to the Demon line – especially if you’re in urgent need of more examples of what Demons and Angels are actually like – and hopefully it won’t be the last one; it was the only Demon-specific product we saw in 2018, and 2019 doesn’t have any on the horizon based on the current Onyx Path Monday Meeting Notes.

Spreading the Virus

Demon: the Descent doesn’t seem to be one of the Chronicles of Darkness games which is getting that much love from Onyx Path. Whilst it’s had some material published for it in crossover books like the Dark Eras series, that’s pretty much true of all the Chronicles lines; the real measure of how much support a line’s going to get stems from the line-specific products it receives, and those have been thin on the ground. Since 2016 there has only been one Demon-specific product – the adversaries supplement Night Horrors: Enemy Action – and that came out in early 2018. Onyx Path’s Monday Meeting Notes on their blog includes a full breakdown of their upcoming product schedule, and there’s no Demon products on there at all.

That being the case, what supplements there are for Demon: the Descent become particularly important. Demon has, at least, received a Player’s Guide and a Storyteller’s Guide, in common with many Chronicles of Darkness lines. Personally, I recommend them both, because as you’ll see from my quick survey of their contents the Storyteller’s Guide takes the opportunity to plug a number of significant holes in the core book, whilst the Player’s Guide adds a bit of extra mayhem to the mix.

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Kickstopper: If There’s Onyx Path In Your Hedgerow, Don’t Be Alarmed Now: It’s Just a Spring Clean For Changeling

While it’s not true that Kickstarter is the sole route by which Onyx Path brings games to market, it’s certainly true that it’s a major foundation stone of their business strategy, and that by this point seeing them pivot away from using Kickstarter at all would arguably be more newsworthy than them launching yet another one.

With repeated Kickstarters comes mistakes and accidents, and from those comes lessons. Backing an Onyx Path Kickstarter these days is a bit more of a certain prospect than it was in earlier years. Previously, Rich Thomas had followed his creators-first instincts by allowing project managers to largely structure their Kickstarters as they chose, which led to some wild variations in results. Some books came to Kickstarter with at least the first pass of the text already prepared and ready for backer inspection, thus substantiating that the time-consuming part of the writing process was more or less done and what remained consisted of writing stretch goal content, editing and tightening up the text, and getting that layout and artwork action going prior to producing the PDFs and hard copies. Such projects were rarely very late.

Other projects took a different tack, launching prior to the text being completed with the expectation that they would be resolved in good time. In some cases this led to major delays and no little controversy. Wraith: the Oblivion‘s 20th Anniversary Edition only recently managed to ship its deluxe copies to backers, with the project massively delayed due to project lead Rich Dansky having taken on a new full-time job unexpectedly; Exalted 3rd Edition was both extremely late and had a controversy-laden design process, with the two original lead designers eventually leaving the project under a cloud of mutual recriminations.

These days, Onyx Path runs a tighter ship, at least when it comes to Kickstarters – realising that whilst the company might afford to be indulgent of creators’ bouts of writers’ block and other such issues when it comes to products developed entirely out of the public eye, Kickstarted products inevitably give customers a bit more insight into where things are – and customers can’t be expected to extend the same patience to creators indefinitely, especially when the question of “Why doesn’t Onyx Path step in and help the creators get on with it?” is outstanding. Now, Kickstarters don’t get greenlit by Onyx Path until there’s a manuscript to share with backers during the crowdfunding campaign, and in general the process is much smoother.

From the perspective of, say, a Changeling: the Dreaming character, this may represent a loss of innocence, a banal imposition upon the creativity of project heads. From the perspective of a character in Changeling: the Lost, this is a welcome addition of stability in opposition to the chaos of Arcadia…

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Fairfolk’s Freeholds

Some games need a little extra something before they really click with you. Changeling: the Dreaming largely didn’t click with me until its 20th Anniversary Edition, but its recent supplement, the Book of Freeholds, finally helps give me a picture of how I’d actually envisage a Changeling campaign functioning.

The supplement, as the title implies, is an in-depth look at the subject of freeholds, including a detailed system for designing your own for your PCs to manage. It’s not a thick thing – it’s less than 60 pages, in fact – but it’s really helped me get a handle on what I want out of Changeling.

Specifically, once you make sure to add in a freehold focus to your Changeling campaign, what you end up with is a sort of whimsical modern-day Ars Magica. Freeholds are basically Changelings’ sanctuary from the banal world where they can let their fantastical side all hang out, just as in Ars Magica your covenant is a sanctuary from the chilly reception wizards otherwise get in Mythic Europe. Likewise, adventuring to defend the freehold against threats, stave back Banality and harvest Glamour is much like the way Ars Magica characters seek to defend their covenant against threats, ward off antithetical sources of power, and gather magical power for their own purposes.

Other World of Darkness games had played on this idea to a certain extent, of course – particularly Werewolf and its cairns – but it feels to me like Changeling freeholds seem closer than anything to Ars Magica covenants in terms of how the inhabitants are supposed to buy into them and the sort of interactions that they set up with the outside world.