New Blood For the Old Ceremony

One of the things which I think White Wolf and their successors in Onyx Path were actually quite good at, when they put their minds to it, was in providing interesting alternate modes of play in their various games through supplements. When they were at their best, a core World of Darkness rulebook would offer a strongly-defined default mode of play (or a selection of such modes in the case of the 20th Anniversary bricks) and then use supplements to open up interesting alternate possibilities, offering Storytellers a brace of new ideas and players suitable character generation guidance and support to make PCs who would engage with those ideas.

This was not just commercially sensible – though it does mean many of their books could appeal to player and Storyteller alike, which can’t have hurt. By approaching the product line in this way, at their best White Wolf made sure to give a clear answer to the old “but what do we actually do with this?” question, and I would go so far as to say that the weakest game lines were consistently those which did the worst job of handling that question.

The iconic example of this sort of thing is, of course, The Hunters Hunted and its V20 sequel, flipping Vampire on its head to let you play human vampire hunters going after bloodsuckers. Arguably the various guides to the Sabbat or the Anarchs also qualified, since they provided alternatives to the assumed Camarilla focus of the pre-V20 core books. For this article, I am going to look at a brace of other examples of this sort of thing in the Vampire: the Masquerade line, the first one from its early run and the latter two from the V20 line.

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Back to Vampiric Basics

There’s often something to be said for going back to the first edition of an RPG to see the original presentation of its central ideas. This is especially worth it in game lines which have seen an extensive amount of metaplot afflicting them – including pretty much any World of Darkness RPG. As subsequent editions came out such games often gain an accretion disc of canon, continuity, drift from the original concept resulting from different creative visions being glued onto the original over the years, and occasionally fun parts of the game getting excised by game designers getting mad at those pesky customers “playing it wrong”.

The various 20th anniversary editions of the World of Darkness RPGs are excellent resources, but in my view if you want to use them you’re going to want to have one of the earlier core rulebooks on the side just to help give things some focus. The 20th anniversary releases are so densely packed with information that it can lead to a certain amount of choice paralysis, so it’s good to have an earlier, simpler summation of the game in question to help get some focus and see what the baseline assumptions for campaigns were when the games first came out so you can then decide what later tangents and deviations to bolt on. On that level, the 1st editions tend to work best precisely because they lay out the original vision for a game without later addition and second-guessing.

The earliest version of Vampire: the Masquerade is of particular interest, because it pretty much set the format that the subsequent World of Darkness games would follow. Like OD&D, it represents one of those “catching lightning in a bottle” moments that changed the face of the hobby. So when I got an opportunity to snag it and some early Vampire supplements on the cheap, I jumped at it – let’s see if I’m going to come down with a case of buyer’s remorse.

Vampire: the Masquerade 1st Edition

One thing that really hits you about reading the original Vampire rulebook is how intensely rich in atmosphere it is. Yes, the writing can go off on pretentious little tangents here and there – there’s an especially risible bit at the beginning where it claims that tabletop RPGs are the revival of an ancient tradition of oral storytelling that has been dying out in the modern age, a theory that trips over itself when it tries to claim that chatting about the day’s events is an example of that oral tradition and, whilst I admit I was 9 at the time, I’m pretty sure idle gossip wasn’t a dying art back in 1991.

But these diversions are just that – momentary diversions quickly gotten over. Vampire has to introduce the game concept, setting and system in about 260 pages of fairly basically laid-out text. (The production values are eye-opening simple; later printings even of 1E would add some flair here and there, but my early-printing hard copy has a look which both Tales of Gargentihr and SLA Industries would in the same time both end up edging ahead of, despite being small press releases from companies even smaller than White Wolf was at the time.) It simply doesn’t have time to fuss around, but succeeds very well in conveying a distinctive tone in few words.

This brevity extends to the in-game fiction, which more or less confines itself to a no-bullshit introduction to the setting, a section of more speculative stuff at the end, section dividers which depict a new vampire overcoming his reluctance to hunt and a series of simple but effective illustrations depicting a doomed love story between an ancient Babylonian vampire and a man she Embraces because she thinks he is the reincarnation of her long-dead king. (Risibly, he grows a douchey little soul patch when vamped.) These are simple, effective, and get the point across without clumsiness.

Much is made of how the conflict of Elders vs. Anarchs and other young upstarts is given more prominence in the first edition of the game than the Camarilla vs. Sabbat conflict; in actual fact, it seems to me that both conflicts are alluded to just as often and to a comparable level of depth. The real difference is that this edition very much emphasises the tight city focus of Vampire, to the point where it makes a rather Requiem-like point about how different sets of Clans may have prominence in different cities. Only one of the proposed campaign models presented in the GMing chapters explicitly involves getting involved in Camarilla politics, whilst more revolve around city politics in a way which would tend to put the PCs on one side or the other of the Elder-Anarch conflict. This is to be expected, because inter-city turf wars between Sects are going to be intrinsically more difficult to interact with than intra-city conflicts under the assumed modes of play here.

One thing I am rather glad that later editions of the game dropped is the possibility of returning to mortal status – killing one’s Sire being given as a possible way to do it. The game notes that if the Storyteller makes this a possibility, it is likely to dominate the campaign – but also seems to assume that this is what most campaigns will do. Personally, I can think of nothing more fatal to the brand of personal horror the book is trying to push than making such an exit available, and a game about playing vampires where the PCs are putting most of their energies towards violently rejecting the premise of the game seems to me to defeat the purpose. Even the artist of the ongoing story in the illustrations seems to think this is bullshit; the caption of the final illustration in the story suggests that the protagonist has become human again but is still haunted by recollections of his brief time as a vampire, but his actual facial expression suggests that he’s very much “dead and loving it”.

Of course, this isn’t the only way that the game thwarts itself. The Storytelling chapter emphatically warns the Storyteller not to override the free will of the players – a premise which is good, but renders questionable the inclusion of Dominate as an in-game power. Likewise, it explicitly encourages the Storyteller to trick the players into letting enemies into their Haven so that it can be destroyed for the sake of the plot, which seems to prod people towards the douchier incarnations of “illusionism”-style railroading.

Yes, the White Wolf tendency to throw in really bad refereeing device may not cause brain damage, but it’s deeply irritating and is in force here. Perhaps the worst example is the sample adventure, in which the PCs are summoned to a party by the Prince of Gary, Indiana, get to talk to some NPCs, and are asked to deliver a letter to the Prince of Chicago – and, erm, that’s it. Deeply exciting exploration of personal horror it ain’t. This is a particular shame because the previous chapter includes Gary, Indiana as an excellent example of how to construct a setting for Vampire, taking the reader through how Mark Rein*Hagen cooked up the setting for the original playtest campaign and providing a brace of NPCs and locations that can be used as-is or reskinned accordingly.

Later printings of the book – including the one that the DriveThruRPG PDF is based on – included an afterword by Mark Rein*Hagen. For the most part he uses it to waffle about how he penned this vampires-with-superpowers game as an exploration of evil and gives a sophomoric lecture about how evil is totes a necessary part of the world, man. (He also ends it with that silly little PAX! he used to sign this sort of thing off with back in the day.) But he does, at least, provide a useful list of influences – a sort of equivalent to the AD&D 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide‘s much-celebrated Appendix N. Let’s take a look at what is in there, shall we?

Novels

The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, Dracula by Bram Stoker. Um, duh.

Those Who Haunt the Night by Barbra Hambly. I think Mork Rain-Hogan means Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly, but that’s how it’s spelled here. Not read it, can’t comment, Hambly usually turns in good work though so I should probably track it down.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman. Why yes, Mark does refer to it as a graphic novel, as all overdefensive comic book guys would. Probably more insightful for the purposes of reading what all the goths were reading at the time and staying close to the zeitgeist than any actual relevance to Vampire; in World of Darkness terms, I would say that Sandman is if anything more of a foundational text for Changeling: the Dreaming.

Time Enough For Love by Robert Heinlein. Lazarus Long is not a vampire, though I guess on some level the book is relevant as a novel-length rumination on what it would practically mean to be immortal. The Heinlein connection would be more pertinent in the light of later entries in the list, so I’ll revisit it in a bit.

Movies

Near DarkVampThe Hunger, the original silent version of Nosferatu, the Bela Lugosi DraculaLost Boys. Again, duh. In particular, the occasional references to groups of vampires cruising around the backroads in blacked-out RVs seems to be a direct nod to Near Dark.

Blue Velvet. Shows excellent taste, and although at first glance I thought its relevance was questionable actually, now that I think about it, there is something to the way the movie starts out dominated by daytime scenes before becoming increasingly nocturnal, until the return of daylight at the end, which puts me in mind of the sort of journey into literal and figurative darkness that Vampire entails.

Rear Window. The relevance of this I cannot grasp.

AlienAliens. Given that body horror wouldn’t emerge in a major way in Vampire until the Tzimisce were introduced, I submit that at this point in the movie list Rein*Hagen is actively taking the piss.

Games

Ars Magica. Claiming to be profoundly influenced by something you co-authored is kind of amazingly egotistical and self-serving. Fair play to Mark, though – the Tremere were taken directly from Ars Magica, and the relationship of Clans to the Camarilla is a nicely realised reskin of the relationship of the various Houses to the Order of Hermes.

RuneQuest. I suspect the main thing taken from here is the way characters derive special powers and abilities from social groupings; in RuneQuest skill training and spells are offered via cults, in Vampire your Disciplines are based on your Clan. Both are good mechanisms to encourage players to buy into the setting and see their character as part of it rather than a visitor to it.

Shadowrun. The system is basically ripped bleeding from here, converted to D10s, and radically simplified.

Call of Cthulhu. Derangements in Vampire riff on the sanity system; the Humanity stat in some respects works like Cthulhu Mythos/Sanity in Call of Cthulhu in terms of providing a game mechanic which over time may blow up a character.

Pendragon. Probably the personality mechanics are an influence.

GURPS Horror. Not read it, but the GURPS system probably provided an influence on the way Backgrounds are purchased.

CORPS. This is a generic RPG that I’m not very familiar with and doesn’t quite seem interesting enough for me to bother to research. Perhaps someone who knows it better can help point out what Vampire borrows from it.

Illuminati. Presumably Mark refers to the card game. GURPS Illuminati would have been very relevant, since it’s the pre-eminent setting-agnostic text on conspiracy-themed RPG campaigns. However, it didn’t come out until 1992. Literally the only ways the Illuminati card game seems to have influenced Vampire is in the existence of shadowy conspiracies in the setting, and in the occasional nod to the Robert Anton Wilson corner of the counterculture. (The opening bit of fiction straightfacedly states that the increased use of recreational drugs in the 1960s opened people’s minds to mystical realities that the vampires had been trying to suppress, and thus began the process of undermining the Masquerade.)

Dungeons & Dragons. Let’s face it – Clans are basically character classes. And D&D did establish the traditional RPG format that Vampire follows to the letter, save for the odd nod to LARPing.

“Everything written by…”

Carl Jung. The use of Archetypes in character generation would be the main one here.

Joseph Campbell. Everyone who talks utter unsupported tosh about stories likes to cite Campbell.

Herman Hesse, Albert Camus, P.B. Shelly. All hallmarks of the misunderstood adolescent reading list, check.

Milan Kundera, Mercea Eliade, Vaclav Havel, fucking Ayn Rand. Ok, this is a pretty diverse and interesting crew. Milan Kundera did The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I haven’t read, and Life is Elsewhere, which I quite like. (Ironically, it’s about an egotist who is convinced he is a great poet based on nothing more than acclaim from parental and governmental authority figures.) Relevance to Vampire: nonexistent. Vaclav Havel was a prominent dissident in Communist-era Czechoslovakia who ended up being the country’s first post-Communist president (and president of the Czech Republic after the divorce), known in the US mainly for being a big environmentalist and Frank Zappa fan. Relevance to Vampire: nil. Ayn Rand was Ayn Rand and therefore awful; if she were the only one of these people cited, I’d suggest she was probably down there as a “this is what self-serving Elders actually believe” sort of thing, but there’s a connection here I’m going to go into in a bit. Mercea Eliade is the only writer out of these four who actually wrote a vampire novel; he was also a hardcore fascist who supported the Iron Guard in Romania in his writing, campaigned for their political wing, and ended up accepting a diplomatic post under the Iron Guard regime and the subsequent (still murderously fascist) regime of Ion Antonescu.

Now, what do these people have in common? They are all known for tangling with Communism. Kundera jousted with the censors often; Havel led a revolution that ousted the Communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia. Ayn Rand’s entire schtick is based around a furious opposition to Communism that went so far as to condemn anything hinting of collectivism or considering that human beings have even the slightest responsibility towards other members of society. Eliade was an actual, no-kidding, full-bore fascist whose political campaigning helped create ideological support for genocide and whose weaselly post-war attempts to deny being all that involved with them doesn’t survive exposure to the facts; his views on Communism were, shall we say, fairly easy to guess.

Let’s be clear about this: Rein*Hagen recomments “everything written by” these people. That includes Rand’s turgid, overwhelmingly selfish, and monumentally dull Objectivist texts; the long John Galt rant in Atlas Shrugged, apparently, is just as informative to a Vampire: the Masquerade game as Interview With the Vampire is. It also includes Eliade’s less mystical and vampire-y and more problematic political works.

To my knowledge, nobody has ever really commented on this. This is odd, because a passionate opposition to Communism seems to be a recurring thing in Rein*Hagen’s work here. The book is actually dedicated to Vaclav Havel, and in the opening fiction the narrating vampire gives the usual spiel about how not all atrocities in human history can be laid at the feet of vampires, the example he goes for isn’t Hitler and the Holocaust – the usual go-to example when people cook up this sort of thing – but Karl Marx and the atrocities committed by Communist regimes.

Now, this is a very particular flavour of anti-Communism we are looking at here. Lots of people have very legitimately criticised the terrible things that Communist regimes all over the world have done, but it’s entirely possible to take on a position that criticises that, and even connects those to weaknesses in Communism as an economic and philosophical system, without so directly connecting Marx to them as to imply that he bore a personal responsibility to, say, the Ukrainian famines or the Gulags or the Cultural Revolution.

This puts the narrator at a bit of an extreme. There’s lots of people who think Communism is a good idea but that it was botched in its implementation by the likes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and so on in various different ways. On top of that, plenty of people on the left and right have taken the position that Marx was at best an economic doctor who was good at diagnosing what was going on but bad at prescribing a course of treatment, at worst an idealistic dope who didn’t account for the inevitability of people acting in bad faith undermining attempts to achieve Communism. You can agree or disagree with those positions all you like, but they’re all consistent, defensible positions which allow you to express a disagreement with Communism without demonising Karl Marx.

The narration, however, jumps straight from Marx to the Killing Fields, as though the atrocities brought about by dictatorial Communist regimes were the direct and inevitable result of Marx’s writing just as the Holocaust was clearly pointed to by Mein Kampf. In other words, the narrator seems to take the position that Marxism was not a good idea corrupted by bad people, and was not merely a flawed or incoherent philosophy, but an actively evil philosophy.

Does Mark Rein*Hagen believe this? In the absence of this reading list, I would have tended to assume that this just reflects the biases of the narrator in question. However, when you combine hero-worship of Vaclav Havel, glowing endorsement of a bevy of anti-Communist writers ranging from entirely uncontentious sorts (Havel and Kundera) to extremists (Rand) to actual fascists (Eliade), and throw in a dose of Robert Heinlein (another famed anti-Communist and hardline libertarian), and it becomes difficult not to conclude that this is Rein*Hagen’s stance.

This is not to say that Rein*Hagen is an actual Nazi, so much as he seems to be a product of the post-1960s counterculture with a right-libertarian/right-anarchist spin; the sort of guy who is against the War On Drugs and for personal freedom, but gets a bee in his bonnet about taxation, collective responsibility to other human beings, and government getting involved in stuff. (In other words, a useful idiot for anyone wanting to promote a cyberpunk future where corporations exert more powerful than governments.) You can sort of see this in the structure of vampire society – there’s no form of government presented other than medieval despotism, and the underdogs who we are probably supposed to sympathise with are the Anarchs.

Still, this sort of libertarianism leads you to sleep with strange bedfellows – some of them, like Eliade, wear Iron Guard pyjamas. There’s a lot of people on the euphemistically-named online “Alt-Right” (rebranded neofascism) and “Dark Enlightenment” (rebranded neomonarchism/neofeudalism) movements who seem to have drifted into there after spending a while toking on the right-libertarian/anarchocapitalist pipe. Moreover, the gothic subculture actually has a bit of a nasty problem with genuine neofascists trying to promote their ideas there – there’s a bunch of musicians in the industrial/neofolk scene, for instance, who range between sailing close to the wind and explicitly exploring obscure fascist philosophical strands like Strasserism to just being outright Nazis. I have seen several people who started out digging the sort of ideas prominent on Rein*Hagen’s reading list but ended up slipping into pushers for fascist mystics like Julius Evola and Death In June.

Thankfully, Rein*Hagen’s personal evolution doesn’t seem to have taken him in that direction; at most, he seems to have been a geekbertarian (of a variety that would later congregate on Reddit tipping their fedoras to each other) with a slightly concerning tendency to gloss over the unappealing parts of people’s ideology if they scream loudly enough about how bad Communism is. (To take a Robert Heinlein example, more Stranger In a Strange Land or mmmmaybe The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress than Starship Troopers or Farnham’s Freehold.) It’s somewhat unfortunate that such an important text to gaming history ends by recommending the work of an unrepentant fascist, somewhat odd that a game that hinges on creating a sense of community and collective purpose amongst the PCs should recommend Ayn Rand, and somewhat ironic that, given the more progressive politics that seem to have persisted at White Wolf in subsequent years, that Vampire has this streak of radical individualism at the heart of it.

Then again, if anyone in the World of Darkness is going to be libertarian, it’s going to be the vampires.

Player’s Guide and Storyteller’s Handbook

When you have a boom on your hands, sometimes you end up shovelling shit out of the door just for the sake of feeding it. Such is the case with the original Player’s Guide and Storyteller’s Handbook, which are chock-full of evidence of that brain-damaging incoherence Ron Edwards was so upset about from the vampire obviously walking about in sunlight on the cover of the Player’s Guide onwards. The books aren’t altogether worthless – the better bits, like the merits and flaws system from the Player’s Guide, would eventually make it into later iterations of the core book – but there’s a fair amount of filler in both, which sometimes flies in the face of what the books offer.

For instance, each book contains a selection of essays about what individual White Wolf team members think about being a player or Storyteller, but these tend more towards empty waffling about their personal experiences without offering much beyond platitudes and obvious hints when it comes to providing advice on evoking a similar experience. On top of that, in the Player’s Guide this section comes next to a chapter stuffed with weapons stats and other goodies, rather undermining any attempt to convince players that this Totes Isn’t Like One of Those Hack-and-Slash Roll-Playing Games.

One point of interest in the Storyteller’s Handbook is Mark Rein*Hagen’s anecdote about how he got upset as a novice referee when his players outsmarted him and managed to complete a James Bond-style espionage mission in 10 minutes, which I guess is an insight into the style of Storytelling that White Wolf promoted; between that and Ron Edwards’ stuff, it seems an awful lot of people lauded in some circles as visionaries and slammed in others as The Cancer That Is Killing RPGs are actually just strongly responding to a gaming experience they had in the past that wasn’t to their liking and made them want to craft a game experience where others would be spared that. Here, it seems to amount to providing a lot of advice on railroading – including openly encouraging Storytellers to try and trick their players into thinking they aren’t being railroaded – whilst providing the occasional reference to the idea that you could just run a campaign genuinely led and shaped by the players’ decisions, but without offering much advice on how to do so beyond noting that it is difficult (to which I say “practice yer damn improvisation chops, sillies”). To use some Forgey terminology which in this instance is actually useful, the Handbook seems to endorse illusionism (trying to disguise the fact that the campaign is on a railroad) as opposed to participationism (being upfront about the railroad and convincing players to buy into it), and who knows how many awful gaming experiences resulted from this.

One last note: whilst the Player’s Guide introduces the Ravnos in their unreconstructed “here’s some stereotypes about Romany people” form, their inclusion seems not just offensive but actively pointless in a 1E context. In the original rulebook, the Gangrel were explicitly and directly presented as being the vampire clan closely related to Romany, so it absolutely baffles me why White Wolf decided that another such clan that doubled down on the classic stereotypes was needed. They seem to have had a recurring fascination with the subject, to the point where between this and the infamous World of Darkness: Gypsies supplement it almost feels like a substantial number of people in the company didn’t even realise that they were talking about a real race of people and thought that Romany folk only existed in stories. (It also makes the original book’s energetic endorsement of an Iron Guard propagandist even more uncomfortable.)

Another interesting thing is the list of musical suggestions provided by Rob Hatch in the Storyteller’s Handbook, which I guess provides the missing dimension of the “Vampire Appendix N” otherwise offered by Mark’s Last Words in the core book. Let’s see what bands are playing in the World of Darkness:

Bauhaus: “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, naturally, and “She’s In Parties” is also a sound choice. Rob also cites part 2 of “The Three Shadows” from The Sky’s Gone Out, though that’s the sort of song you’d cite only to demonstrate the depth of your knowledge of their discography and his attempt to provide a Vampire-appropriate context to it is a stretch.

Big Black: “Kerosene”. Not gonna lie, I kind of feel like Unknown Armies is a better fit for the desperate, fractured style of these guys.

Black Sabbath: “Paranoid” may be a good song but I think the slower, doomier numbers that were more representative of Sabbath’s work fit Vampire better.

The Cure: “A Forest”, “Three Imaginary Boys”, “The Drowning Man”, though any three random picks from the Cure’s back catalogue would probably work.

Dead Kennedys: “Police Truck” sort of works as an anarch song, but let’s face it – it works better for werewoofles. (In general I find vampires tend towards the gothic end of White Wolf’s much-promoted “gothic-punk” whilst the woofles held up the punk end.)

Front 242: “Headhunter”. Rob says this is “almost cyberpunkish” and I’d drop the “almost” – as far as your 1990s RPG fare goes this is better suited to Shadowrun.

Holst: “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age”. I guess it fits, but “shockingly gloomy”? That’s a stretch, and makes it look like it’s on here for the pretentiousness points.

Ice-T: “Body Count”. A good song, but of course the only hip-hop artist on the list is represented by a thrash metal crossover track.

Jane’s Addiction: “Three Days” is kind of a terrible pick, Rob says that it’s good for coming down off tense scenes and “evokes the peace of resignation” which makes me think he only listened to the first couple of minutes of this ten-minute track that visits so many different moods it’s a bad one to pick if you want to convey any single emotion because it doesn’t stay on it long enough.

Jesus & Mary Chain: “Cracked”. Yeah, OK, I’ll give you that one.

Joy Division: “She’s Lost Control”, “I Remember Nothing”, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, “Shadowplay” and “Day of the Lords” are recommended; when you go back to the Ian Curtis well that often you may as well, as with The Cure, recommend their whole discography and have done with it.

Killing Joke: “Inside the Termite Mound”. Yeah, I can see that.

Liers In Wait: “Blood & Family”. Ahahaha, OK, this one needs some explanation. Rob does the hipster thing of hyping up this band by talking about how they are an obscure local group that most of the readers probably haven’t heard of/can’t access, which is both a very dated attitude in these days of the Internet where more or less anything can be found on Youtube (including this song) and also kind of snobbishly pretentious when you’re penning a book which is supposed to be of use to an audience with a wide geographic spread. Plus he hypes up how the song is a totes extreme mashup of metal, grunge and techno when it isn’t at all, it’s bog standard industrial rock of the Ministry/Nine Inch Nails variety.

Metallica: “Fight Fire With Fire” and “Trapped Under Ice” are good songs, but thrash metal makes me think Werewolf again, not Vampire.

Saint-Saens: “Danse Macabre”, for more classical music points.

Scratch Acid: “Vacancy”. As is regularly the case with this article, Rob’s descriptions start to feel like the fakey cribbed-from-music-journalism enthusiasm that Patrick Bateman shows when he’s doing his patter about Huey Lewis & the News in American Psycho.

Siouxsie & the Banshees: “The Last Beat of My Heart” is good, but again, pretty much anything by Siouxsie would work in a Vampire context.

Sisters of Mercy: “Lucretia My Reflection” and “Marian” are good calls but this is another “just recommend their entire discography and be done with it” band.

Skinny Puppy: “Tin Omen”. No quibbles here, this is a good call.

Sonic Youth: “I Don’t Want To Push It”. Entirely tonally inappropriate, blatantly cited only for cool points.

Swans: “Will We Survive?” Not if whatever’s going on in-game merits a Swans track, you won’t.

Chicago By Night

This is the first of the By Night series of sourcebooks, a line whose standards tended to be a bit variable (LA By Night, whilst it offers an interesting look at what an Anarch-run city might look like, is apparently very obviously written by someone who’s never lived in the city) but at least offered some nice canned sandbox settings for Vampire. The first edition of Chicago is often held up as the archetypal example of the line, and benefits from an extra layer of richness, since it was the setting of the original Vampire playtest campaign.

Of course, enjoying this early prominence was ultimately to the detriment of the Chicago setting – White Wolf couldn’t resist going back to it again and again, blasting it with metaplot repeatedly until anyone who started running a Chicago campaign with the original sourcebook would sooner or later find that the canon setting had deviated from theirs markedly (if they weren’t fool enough to actually inflict the metaplot events on their players regardless of whether they made sense in the campaign). White Wolf would even end up publishing a series of Chicago Chronicles books compiling the earlier releases in the line, providing a handy way to navigate the series if you really wanted all the baggage that accumulated over the years.

Brush all that aside, however, and what you get with the 1st edition of Chicago By Night is a really nice sandbox setting. The history of the place seeds a bunch of mysteries in the setting and also sets up an interesting pre-existing web of relationships between the major players, and the book provides detailed NPC writeups of every single significant vampire in Chicago. You even have some honest to goodness random encounter tables, divided by theme, for when you fancy throwing a curveball at the players.

What makes it really, incredibly useful is a move which I sincerely wish that the subsequent By Night books had followed more closely – as well as providing individual NPC writeups and clan “family trees” showing who sired who, the book also provides extensive notes on almost every substantial social grouping, cabal, conspiracy, and network of obligation in local Kindred society, with associated diagrams showing how each member relates to all the others. This is astonishingly useful for working out the political ramifications of player character activities – if they please, displease, or kill a particular NPC, you can go back to the social diagrams and work out exactly what the wider ramifications of that are.

That leads into the other really nice thing about this first edition of the sourcebook, which is the way it sets up this complex status quo which is perfectly tailored for PCs to perturb. Provided that they don’t act like utterly spineless wimps and turtle up constantly, PCs will more or less inevitably throw all these careful equilibria out of what by their actions. That’s why the 1st edition of the sourcebook is so prized; the 2nd edition book assumes that a bunch of metaplot stuff has happened, so a bunch of the dominos line up in the original sourcebook have already fallen thanks to the work of canonical NPCs. This is inevitably going to be less interesting than dropping them in your own game in your own way.

Indeed, at the time they wrote this sourcebook White Wolf seemed to be willing to cater to varying plot outcomes much more than they did at the height of their metaplot addiction. The adventure Ashes to Ashes preceded this release, but rather than assuming one particular canonical outcome of this adventure 1st edition Chicago By Night actually goes out of its way to explain how different outcomes would have different ramifications. This would obviously become unwieldy if they tried to do it with every metaplot-advancing adventure, but it’s nice that they bothered here.

This is a particularly good companion to the 1st edition Vampire core book, since the city of Gary there essentially owes feudal fealty to Chicago, and is also substantially less under the thumb of the Prince, so you can use Gary as a venue where the vamps can let their hair down a bit and use Chicago as a place for Serious Business.

One thing which is interesting when reading the history of Chicago here is the way it presents such things as the Primogen, Elysium, the Rack, Blood Dolls, and all sorts of other bits which we’ve become used to thinking of as charactetistic features of the setting as actually being local innovations. (It’s particularly interesting when you compare this to the treatment of some of these subjects in the 1st edition rulebook – evidently, this book and that were developed in parallel as part of the playtesting process, so some ideas like the Primogen sound even more universal in the 1st edition core book than they are presented as here.) This implies a situation much more like Vampire: the Requiem than Masquerade where the social structure of cities is far more shaped by local history and politics than any broader orthodoxy within a particular Sect/Covenant.

In fact, you could use this book as the basis for including a little enclave in Vampire: the Requiem where the social conventions of Masquerade apply: say that the Lancea and Invictus merged in the Great Lakes area to form a revivalist Camarilla, have the Ordo Dracul and Crones join forces in a Sabbat-like cult, have enough time pass that they forgot that they were separate, and you’re basically there. Obviously the Generation thing would be a huge lie and the Cain thing would probably not be true, but the way Blood Potency works in Requiem means that there’d still be a viable rationale behind the Sabbat (putting down high-potency vamps who have started preying on other Kindred and won’t do the done thing and go into torpor).

In short, Chicago By Night not only provides an iconic example of a political sandbox setting which subsequent Vampire supplements struggled to match, but it also provides a context where the conventions of Masquerade make absolute sense and are grounded in well-explained aspects of local history. Were I to run Vampire: thr Masquerade in the future, I would be tempted to either set it in Chicago or transplant its history and reskin its NPCs for whichever city I chose to set it in.

As far as the Chicago Chronicles compilations go, the first one – containing this and The Succubus Club – is actually pretty good. As I’ve gone into elsewhere, this supplement provides twenty or so pages of an in-depth description of a signature site from the playtest campaign which makes a great recurring location for a Chicago-based game, and then a bunch of really bad adventures. As a standalone supplement, it isn’t so hot, but as a bonus package along with the original Chicago By Night it works much better.

Chronicles of Convenience

So, I picked up the new Chronicles of Darkness core rulebook. This is the new core book for what was once the new World of Darkness line, until the new Paradox-helmed White Wolf decided that having two active game lines with the same name was irritating and confusing and hurt their chances of getting a sweet transmedia franchise going so mandated that the classic World of Darkness would forever after be just the World of Darkness and the new World of Darkness line would be now called the Chronicles of Darkness. This is an eminently sensible decision because whilst the likes of Vampire: the Masquerade and so on were more about presenting a centrally designed game world with a strong central metaplot, Vampire: the Requiem and that whole other strand presented a much more adaptable game relying less on central canon and more or less demanding to be reshaped for the needs of individual tables. One World of Darkness mandated by White Wolf, many Chronicles of Darkness cooked up by home groups – works well, right?

The core book presents the core rules reorganised, expanded (in particular, a better range of supernatural antagonists for mortal characters to tackle is provided), and with the rules update first provided in The God-Machine Chronicle baked in. That in itself is a godsend, because it saves interminable flipping between the two books if you want to use the new system, and the new system itself nicely makes some creative space between the old-school World of Darkness and the more modern Chronicles style. Plus you get the prebaked campaign concept and adventure ideas provided in the chronicle portion of The God-Machine Chronicle. In short, unless you are absolutely adamantly opposed to the system changes, it’s a no-brainer.

White Wolf Elitism: Still Alive and Well

Back in the day, White Wolf and its fanbase sometimes had a bit of a reputation for elitism and looking down their nose at people with different gaming preferences. This perception was sometimes overstated, but wasn’t entirely without basis; they did genuinely wheel out a bunch of “roleplaying versus rollplaying” rhetoric which came across as suggesting that those they deemed rollplayers had immature tastes and that true sophisticates roleplayed.

For the most part, the new Onyx Path era has seen a refreshing absence of this attitude, and to be honest White Wolf did get better from the mid-2000s onwards. It’s hard to be entirely sniffy about Dungeons & Dragons when one of your imprints has made you a fat stack of cash off the back of the Open Gaming Licence, after all.

However, it seems that, as affable and open to a range of different gaming styles as Rich Thomas and most of his freelancers are, there’s some in the Onyx Path/White Wolf cloud who are still capable of being amazingly and needlessly rude about other people’s tastes.

A case in point.

Exalted, or so it has always seemed to me, has always had a solid percentage of content that’s in there because fuck you. Even back in 1e, one got the feeling that a big motivator for writing it was that your Tolkien-derivative industry-dominating D&D is bad and you should feel bad.

It honestly, genuinely would not feel like Exalted to me if it weren’t being sort of aggressively confrontational and defiant in a way that feels at least a tiny smidge insulting. I know whenever I include that tone in material I produce, I do it more as an affectation necessary to keep the game true to itself than out of any desire to insult the audience.

(And lest you assert that this is objectively bad artistic form in all contexts, I point you to punk rock performers who give their audience the finger and are cheered for it. It’s a valid approach to art.)

Sheppard seems to miss three important things here:
  1. Making an ideological objection to the very existence of someone else’s product makes you look like a resentful ass. Punk rock is often (but not necessarily accurately) credited with the downfall of dinosaur prog rock bands, and Johnny Rotten might have worn an “I hate Pink Floyd” shirt, but if the Sex Pistols didn’t have something interesting to bring to the table themselves he wouldn’t have been any sort of punk hero, he’d have just been a dick wearing a shirt ragging on other people’s tastes.
  2. The punk middle finger, to my mind, is all about saying “Fuck you, you’re not better than me,” not “Fuck you, I’m better than you”. And a punk musician flipping off their audience isn’t really expressing major-league dislike of them, most of the time; a great deal of the time the supposed antipathy between a punk band and its audience is basically an act of camaraderie and is understood as such by both parties. Gigs where  open hostilities have genuinely broken out between band and audience generally don’t end well – look up the Stooges’ Metallic KO for the quintessential example of this.
  3. There is a huge difference between striking a confrontational pose with your own audience and trying to get confrontational with someone else’s audience.

But hey, it’s nice to have further confirmation that Exalted and I aren’t ever likely to see eye to eye.

The Owls Are Not What They Seem: Redeeming the Requiem

I’ve previously talked on here about how I think many of the innovations of Vampire: the Requiem represent improvements over Vampire: the Masquerade – and yet, I’ve tended to find myself more interested in the older game’s 20th Anniversary Edition and its supplements than in the Requiem line. The problem is that Requiem, in its original presentation, manages to be just different enough from Masquerade to excite you with the possibilities of a different vision of vampires and vampiric society whilst not quite being different enough to avoid reminding you of Masquerade and feeling like a slightly fanfic-y remix of the more archetypal presentation of the concepts there.

This is probably an artifact of the way Requiem was originally published as an outright replacement for Vampire: the Masquerade, rather than as an interesting and novel alternative for it. This really put the original designers in an impossible bind; on the one hand, they had to make Requiem recognisably different from Masquerade to stop it feeling like a cynical cash grab, whilst at the same time they had to make it similar enough to the original so that those who liked Masquerade didn’t end up completely out in the cold.

Of course, these issues have been exacerbated of late by the publication of the V20 line, bringing the Classic World of Darkness back into the picture. Now that those who dig Masquerade have ongoing support for the line from Onyx Path, there’s no need for them to look to Requiem unless it’s for its unique selling points – which were not as strongly played up as they could have been in the original version. A second edition of Requiem, liberated from any need to pander to the Masquerade crowd to soothe their hurt at the old line’s termination, has been necessary for a while now, particularly in the light of the God-Machine Chronicle rules update which established some interesting and distinctive mechanical differences between the Classic and New World of Darkness systems.

However, matters were complicated by Onyx Path’s relationship with CCP, who were of the opinion that putting out official second editions of the New World of Darkness stuff would confuse consumers in the lead-up to the launch of their World of Darkness MMO. Frankly, I think CCP were kidding themselves there – most videogamers would not and would never be aware of Requiem in the first place, and those who were would understand the distinction between the MMO’s Classic World of Darkness-derived background and the New World of Darkness. Either way, they refused permission to put out new editions until after the MMO project was cancelled, which is why the God-Machine Chronicle exists in the form it does in the first place, and why Vampire: the Requiem 2nd Edition first hit the market as Blood & Smoke: the Strix Chronicle.

Continue reading

V20 – The Supplements

As I’ve said on a different platform, I really dig what Onyx Path are doing with Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition – I consider it to be a marked improvement on the original run of the game, especially since it is deliberately set up to be metaplot-agnostic and I particularly like how the Anarchs Unbound supplement made the Anarch Movement feel like a viable Sect again rather than the doomed second-stringers that they increasingly seemed to be over the run of the original metaplot. That being the case, I figured I’d take a look over the rest of the product line to see whether they’d kept up the same level of consistency.

V20 Companion

This collects various bits and pieces which were a bit too peripheral to include in the core V20 rulebook. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the book is its cover – whereas previous iterations of Vampire (and other World of Darkness games) had companion volumes for players and Storytellers, there is no such division here. This presumably arises from the line’s emphasis on cramming in value for money and not going out of the way to hold anyone’s hand.

Trusting that people won’t need extensive chapters of character design and storytelling device, the book instead focuses on offering handy bits of setting information. There’s an interesting rundown on the various titles (well-known and obscure) used in the various Sects, essays on Prestation (the network of boons and favours that Kindred society works on) and Kindred uses of technology, and a collection of interesting locations around the world (effectively a bunch of evocative adventure seeds).

Of these, the tech chapter is perhaps the most interesting, since it demands that V20 offer a distinct take on the subject from the old line. It does so by taking the interesting but very logical stance that individual Masquerade breaches on the Internet are not the end-of-the-world scenario that many Elders (and previous editions of the game) assumed they would be. Put up a YouTube video of vampire shit happening and people won’t automatically flip out – they will just assume it’s a well-done fake. It’s really the critical mass of Masquerade breaches that the Camarilla and other vampiric authorities actually need to watch out for. At the end of the day it turns out that people don’t really want to believe in vampires, and it will take more than a badly-shot YouTube video to convince them otherwise.

At the end of the day, an odds and sods collection like this hardly qualifies as a must-have (since by definition if the material in here were that central, it would be in the core book), but it enhances my appreciation of the setting enough that I am glad I have it.

The Hunters Hunted II

Supported by its own Kickstarter, this is a second edition of the widely-praised The Hunters Hunted supplement from way back in the early days of Vampire.

This is one of those really useful supplements which simultaneously opens up a whole new way to play the game it is designed to support whilst at the same time remaining true to the parent game’s themes. In this case, it’s a supplement about mortal vampire hunters, with an emphasis on running games where the PCs are said hunters.

The original supplement rather opened up the floodgates for this sort of thing; inspired by The Hunters Hunted, most of the Classic World of Darkness lines sooner or later received a supplement focusing on individuals who hunt members of the splat the parent game revolves around or expanding on some of the secret organisations first detailed in Hunters Hunted.

The major exception, of course, was Hunter: the Reckoning, whose Imbued protagonists didn’t seem to have a group of mortals hunting them (though since the Imbued had a tendency to off people based on what the voices in their heads were telling them, a game where you play mental health and law enforcement professionals trying to enforce an involuntary hospitalisation order on the Imbued would be completely believable). Indeed, there’s a substantial bloc of World of Darkness fans who greatly prefer NWoD‘s Hunter: the Vigil to CWoD‘s Hunter: the Reckoning, at least partly because people wanted Reckoning to consolidate and expand on the idea of ordinary people hunting the supernatural rather than introducing a whole new category of supernatural character that nobody had asked for.

That said, if you want Classic World of Darkness monster-hunters, Hunters Hunted II has got you amply covered. Even though it’s nominally a Vampire supplement and builds on that system, in practice the Hunters you generate with it could just as viably go after other supernaturals, since it devotes a lot of consideration to the general problem of mortals having to hunt things which are much more supernaturally capable than them as well as the specific problems of hunting vampires. In addition, much like Hunter: the Vigil for the New World of Darkness (and more so than the original Hunters Hunted to my eye) it scales quite nicely – you can use it to run games with out-of-their-depth normal people with no prior supernatural contact hunting vampires, or you can use the various useful-but-l0w-key Numina to play Hunters with a slight supernatural edge (whether this is in the form of True Faith, psychic powers, or hedge magic), or you can delve into the larger Hunter conspiracies detailed towards the back of the book in order to play professionals with serious backing.

As well as scaling nicely, the supplement also has a couple of clever mechanical tricks. First off, there’s an elegant solution to the old problem where if you want to play a game where the player characters make careful, systematic plans before they carry out their raids on undead lairs, the time spent planning feels frustratingly wasted if the plan goes off the tracks early on. Here, the supplement suggests a system in which planning sessions generate a pool of “Plan Dice” which can be used to get an edge on important rolls when enacting the plan, with Plan Dice added to the pool when people propose bits of the plan, point out holes in it, and so on. I’d personally suggest measures to avoid gaming this system by having the GM start removing dice from the pool if the conversation goes for five or more minutes without coming up with any new points, but this still seems to be a good way to ensure that game mechanically it’s better to go in with a solid plan than to try and improvise.

Another interesting quirk is that Humanity is still tracked as usual in Vampire, although without the Beast within human beings aren’t subject to panic or frenzy or other downsides of low Humanity – beyond the fact, that is, that as your Humanity goes down you’re likely to become a crueler, more vicious hunter, less prone to worry about collateral damage, and less invested in the connections you have to other people. This creates a situation where in principle Hunters can afford to treat Humanity as a dump stat and ironically you can have a party of human beings behaving more amorally than many coteries of Camarilla vampires – but in practice, this would be a terrible idea for the Hunters in question, because part of the danger of the hunt is that if caught you can be turned. A Hunter with high Humanity who is turned vampire might feel enough loyalty to their old comrades to help them out in a variety of ways, or at least go vaporise themselves in the sunlight so as not to be a danger to everything they’ve fought for. A low-Humanity human who turns vampire, though, ends up thrall to the Beast almost immediately, and then becomes a terrible foe to their former party.

Applying the lessons of Hunter: the Vigil to the original Hunters Hunted is a genuine no-brainer: it’s such a good idea that a competent team should be able to create a great product just by following that concept, and White Wolf have done so here, creating a supplement even better than the original release.

Rites of the Blood

An in-depth survey of the occult interests, rituals and magical techniques the Kindred explore, Rites of the Blood is more than just a big book of extra spells – though there’s plenty of stuff to flesh out the spell lists in here – so much as it’s a faction-by-faction survey of all the different ways in which vampires end up dabbling in matters metaphysical. Each of the first six chapters looks at a different Sect or grouping – one for the Camarilla, one for the Sabbat, one for the Anarchs, one for the various independent Clans, one for the odd little sects like the Tal’Mahe’Ra and the Inconnu, and one for full-on infernalists; the final chapter provides a review of the underlying principles of blood magic and how these can be used to cook up new rituals, plus a grab-bag of extra spells to round off the lists.

What’s more, the chapters don’t just offer discussions of magical techniques but also illustrates how the various varieties of magician fit into the social world of their respective Sects and groups. So, for instance, the Camarilla chapter talks about how the Tremere fit into the wider Sect, and the Sabbat chapter talks about how their magical-religious rituals fit into the world of the Sect. Some chapters offer even more interesting material; the Inconnu part actually offers some details on the structures and internal procedures and rules of the Inconnu, whilst the infernalism chapter also looks at the Camarilla and the Sabbat’s own internal procedures for rooting out internalism as well as the infernalists themselves.

On top of that, whilst a note at the start of the chapter suggests that the demons of Vampire: the Masquerade don’t necessarily have to be one and the same with those of Demon: the Fallen if you don’t want them to be, at the same time the depiction of infernalism does a great job of reconciling how demons were depicted in Vampire and how they worked in Demon; based on the description, it seems like the vast majority of vampires who get into infernalism are working with Earthbound that they’ve summoned and bound to the land or a talisman, creating the genuinely interesting crossover possibility that the majority of the 666 Earthbound were made that way as a result of vampire infernalists and their mortal coreligionists.

This and the Tal’Mahe’Ra section suggest more in the way of crossover action than other V20 supplements, but frankly that makes sense – digging deep into magic and the spiritual world inevitably invites precisely this sort of crossover action, or at least a game where there’s plenty more supernatural creatures in play than just vampires, whereas a low-magic campaign could also very viably have no supernatural entities aside from vampires show up.

Dread Names, Red List

Another sequel to an old supplement, this is an update of the old Kindred Most Wanted – a supplement about the Camarilla Red List, the politics surrounding it, and the enemies of vampire-kind listed on it. Again, this expands on the concept of the old supplement somewhat, providing more guidance and support for running campaigns in which the player characters are Alastors – agents of the Camarilla Justicars tasked with tracking down and killing the folk on the Red List. As far as the entries here go, some are old favourites from Kindred Most Wanted updated and some are new to this book. Most of the Red List entries that have been outright removed seem to have been done so either because they were just plain tasteless and offensive (like the tiny child who is also a practitioner of a gruesomely inaccurate version of voodoo), or because they pandered a bit too much to the “vampiric superhero” style of play that early Vampire often drifted into (like the Gangrel Methuselah monstrosity), or because they hinged too much on crossover nonsense (for instance, one of them was a werewoofle, and given that woofles all have this raging genocidal hatred of vampires adding one woofle to the hate list seems kind of pointless). In the case of those which have been retained, crossover nonsense and other such stuff in their backgrounds has been toned down – for instance, one of them is no longer a secret agent of the Black Spiral Dancers, but instead has a secret agenda it actually makes sense for a vampire to have. The new entries, meanwhile, seem interesting and imaginative – including one mortal who could be a Mage-style mage if you wanted him to be but ultimately doesn’t need to be.

The real gem here, though, isn’t the NPC profiles so much as the guidance on how each NPC lends themselves to a different tone of Anathema-hunting adventure. Alastor action seems to be a decent concept for a short-term Vampire campaign, or a longer campaign if people are happy with such a thing being something of a mission-based villain-of-the-season sort of affair. As such, Dread Names manages to transcend being a mere NPC collection and becomes another supplement in the tradition of The Anarch Handbook or Hunters Hunted II in the sense that it opens the door to a brand new way to playing something which is still very recognisably Vampire.

Vintage Stuff

If I had to rank the V20 supplements reviewed here from least interesting to top quality, it’d go V20 Companion due to the fuzzy and indistinct nature of the supplement, Dread Names for the fact that it caters to a very particular campaign niche very well, Rites of the Blood for the thorough treatment it offers of its subject matter, and Hunters Hunted II for being not just an excellent support for playing mortals-based games in a Vampire context, but also the only book you really need to run player character hunters in any Classic World of Darkness game. That said, I’d highly recommend more or less all the books, though I might suggest waiting until it was on sale for the V20 Companion. If you already have the complete run of the earlier books, you might find these releases less useful, but by condensing down and concentrating all the awesome into these tight, dense packages, Onyx Path have made a product line that I consider to be much more useful for gaming purposes than the older, flabbier, more game fiction-packed material tended to be.

Demon: the Fallen – The Supplements

I’ve reviewed the core book of Demon: the Fallen elsewhere, and come to the conclusion that it’s a fun game weighed down by a horrendously rushed core book with a terrible signal-to-noise ratio and rules which clearly weren’t finished when the game went to press (to the extent that they actively contradict one another at times). I hear tell that the lead developer actually had a health crisis during the making of the game, making them unable to complete the manuscript by the deadline and forcing White Wolf to make someone else step in and fill out all the Lores in a hurry. Frankly, if this isn’t true, then it’s kind of embarrassing for everyone involved, because only an awful crisis like that could possibly excuse the state the core book is in.

Still, the game has its advocates, and part of me wondered whether the subsequent supplements released in 2002 and 2003 (prior to the Classic World of Darkness being shut down in 2004) did anything to resolve the muddle of the core book. Luckily, DriveThruRPG ended up doing a sale of Demon stuff a while back, so I was able to pick up the supplements I was interested in and see for myself.

Demon Player’s Guide

This reasonably substantial book is a mixture of stuff which should really have been in the core book and stuff which, whilst, less essential, still presents a range of useful expansions that most Demon campaigns would be enriched by.

After some game fiction, the supplement kicks off with an extended meditation on Demon character creation, of the sort usually included in the Player’s Guides to the various World of Darkness games. Typically, these sections aren’t particularly useful to most experienced roleplayers, particularly if they’ve played a bunch of World of Darkness games before, but in the case of Demon: the Fallen the way the game casts PCs as demons who to varying extents are coloured and changed by the personalities, memories and residual faith of the human beings they have possessed this sort of in-depth discussion of all the different ways you can play that is extremely useful, to the point where I’d say it is almost essential.

The next chapter also comes under the “useful but not essential” category, being a discussion of Backgrounds and suggestions as to how they can be increased or decreased through IC action rather than through the advancement mechanics. Other chapters that provide interesting tweaks include the discussion of demonic relics, which helps to give those with the Lore of Forges something to do, and the provision of a range of magical rituals that demons can get together to do.

The two largest chapters presenting material which I think really should have been in the core book are those on the apocalyptic form and on Merits and Flaws. Merits and Flaws are an optional subsystem in all the Classic World of Darkness games, but they were an optional subsystem so widely used that by the time Demon: the Fallen was published it had become standard operating procedure to at least include the Merits and Flaws in the core rules as an appendix. That didn’t happen with The Fallen, I suspect as a result of the product being rushed to print before it was ready.

Likewise, the system for customising your own apocalyptic form might add another stage to character generation, but a) having the standard forms available lets you pick one off-the-rack if you want to save time, and b) being able to craft your own is so fun that most people won’t mind spending the time doing it anyway. What’s really rich though is the sidebar which says that they’d have loved to include more emphasis on the apocalyptic form of demons in the core book, but they simply didn’t have space. This is blatantly untrue – ample space could have been produced by trimming back the setting fiction, and the fact is they probably didn’t have time to finish this stuff off before Demon got rushed into print.

And that brings me to what is perhaps the most essential part of the Player’s Guide – the errata included in the introduction, which finally makes Demon actually playable. In particular, the errata includes the final, actual, method of working out whether your Torment perverts your attempts to use the low-Torment versions of your powers and forces you to do the high-Torment version instead, and interestingly it’s different from the two mutually contradictory ways the core rulebook advocates. This time, when you make the roll to pull off an evocation, you look at the numbers on your success dice and see how many are equal to or less than your Torment score. If a majority are, then the high-Torment version of your power goes off; if a majority aren’t, the low-Torment version goes off, and low-Torment wins ties.

This has several consequences. The most obvious is that it suddenly becomes much, much more viable to get off the low-Torment version of your powers as a starting character. The second consequence, and I’m genuinely not sure whether they intended this or not, is that the more difficult a task is, the less likely it is that your Torment will pervert it, and if the difficulty number is higher than your Torment score then it’s impossible to do the high-Torment version of a power by accident. In fact, since player characters start out at Torment 3 or 4, then it’s actually going to be fairly rare for them to be at any risk of accidentally using their high-Torment powers at all.

The flipside of this is that easier tasks are more likely to be perverted, particularly once your Torment score starts getting up there. The upshot of this is that demons concerned about how high their Torment is getting may find themselves having to restrict their use of their power to emergencies, because they know that spurious uses of their powers are more likely to be corrupted by their Torment and have unforeseen consequences. (And arguably, if you knew that your power might unintentionally hurt someone but you use it anyway, that’s a sin against the person you hurt which should prompt a further increase in your Torment.)

Still, this does render the whole Torment-taints-your-powers thing almost completely toothless in the early stages of a campaign. On the one hand, this may be positive – not being able to use any of your powers when you start out for fear of the consequences would outright suck, particularly if the high-Torment versions of your powers tended towards “flashy and of dubious utility” rather than “dangerous but useful”. On the other hand, it does neuter a whole aspect of the game unless a player goes hard down the “succumbing to my own Torment” line.

Still, of the three means we’ve been presented with so far for working out whether you accidentally go high-Torment, this one is probably the best, and on the whole the Player’s Guide goes a long way towards taking the mess which is core book Demon and reclaiming something workable out of it.

Demon Storyteller’s Companion

This came out hot on the heels of the core book, and whilst a slim 72-page volume I’d say it’s even more essential to fixing core Demon than the Player’s Guide is. Aside from two items, I think just about everything in here really, genuinely needed to be in the core book and is essential to have to hand if you are going to make a Demon campaign work. One of the two less-essential items is a brief rundown of the intended course of the metaplot for Demon; this is handy if you are worried about your home campaign matching the brief, abortive metaplot of a game line cut short by the destruction of its setting (and as I mentioned in my review of the Tribe 8 Weaver’s Assistant, providing advance notice of what direction the metaplot is going to go in is a politeness which is genuinely useful if someone does want to use the metaplot, and one which White Wolf hadn’t previously engaged in to my knowledge). The summary is brief enough too, taking up just a page or two, that I can’t really begrudge it the space.

The next not-quite-essential portion of the book is also the largest chapter in the book – a 24 page rumination on the different Factions and how they can be used in campaigns. First off, there’s a consideration of the difficulties of running games in which the PC demons belong to different Factions and how you can make that work – not only is this useful in its own right, this also provides clarification that multiple-Faction parties aren’t the assumed default, and that as political groupings go they are more akin to Sects in Vampire (where direct, overt cross-Sect collaboration and co-operation basically isn’t a thing) as opposed to Clans. The rest of the chapter is an in-depth look at each Faction, fleshing it out from the one-dimensional presentation given in the core book, offering notes on a few key NPCs (both overt leaders of the Faction and more covert operatives) and resources, and a brace of suggestions on how to use the Faction in campaigns – not just campaigns where the protagonists belong to the Faction or where the Faction is a major opposition force, but also those where it’s a neutral factor that could help either side.

What’s particularly neat about the NPC descriptions here is that they underscore that the Factions are new, at least as far as organised activity on Earth is concerned. Yes, their philosophical underpinnings may have been thrashed out during the long years in Hell, and yes, a few demons have escaped Hell in previous years to become Earthbound, but it is only recently with the steady trickle of Fallen to Earth that significant numbers of demons have been arriving on Earth in sufficient numbers for different political tendencies to coalesce into organised Factions and set to their work. In general, the Faction descriptions here aren’t absolutely necessary, but at the same time they’re so successful at fleshing out the Factions and giving some idea of how they work as viable entities that most Demon Storytellers will find it worth their while giving these briefings the once-over.

The remaining 45ish pages of material is all stuff which really, truly, should have been in the core book. First off, you have details on the Earthbound – what they are, what they can do, and what they’ve been doing in the millennia they’ve been free on Earth – which makes it viable to use them as opponents to the PCs at last. (It also implies that more or less every pre-Christian Empire out there was a puppet state of some powerful Earthbound, and that Christianity was a religion tailor-made to wreck the Earthbound’s plans, but heck, if you’re going to go with a Judeo-Christian basis for your cosmology you’re already kind of writing off every other culture as being utterly theologically deluded.)

You also have details on how demons are summoned from Hell – useful to explain how Earthbound got that way in the first place, but also vitally useful considering that the PCs are at least supposed to be planning on summoning their superiors up from Hell, even if they’ve actually gone off-mission – and a section running down just what’s going on with the spirit world anyway. This latter part is important because the disruption of the Maelstrom and the weakening of the Veil is what allowed the Fallen to escape Hell anyway, and so is presumably going to be of some interest to them (particularly if they want to open up away for others to reach Earth without going through the rigmarole of a formal summoning process). On top of that, it also gives some neat pointers on what the land of the dead looks like in the wake of the Wraith setting being obliterated, with ghosts clustering for shelter from the Maelstrom in regions where the Veil is weak, prompting a plague of haunting activities worldwide – an interesting plot hook in and of itself.

Whilst the spirit world chapter provides stats allowing Storytellers to run ghosts using the Demon core rules, the final chapter provides details on the other important denizens of the World of Darkness and how they relate to demons. This I felt was missing from the core book because, as well as being on Earth in the first place because of a cross-game metaplot, the Fallen are meant to be the apocalyptic heralds of the end of the world, and therefore a certain amount of crossover potential is to be expected. Stats are provided for the “Imbued” characters of Hunter: the Reckoning, mages, werewoofles and vampires; changelings are left out of the picture, but then again to me they’d feel kind of redundant in a Demon campaign, what with the Fallen themselves being otherworldly creatures from a different spiritual realm with an ambiguous-at-best relationship with humanity and a certain level of spiritual peril associated with them.

Just as the Player’s Guide mechanically fixes Demon, this slim volume fixes the setting, finally making it clear what the assumed parameters of a Demon campaign are and providing valuable insights into directly campaign-relevant subjects that could and really should have taken up space in the core book instead of the interminable game fiction about stuff the Fallen don’t even remember properly anyway.

Houses of the Fallen

This is another player-facing supplement, concerning the various Houses of the Fallen. Each House used to be an order of angels before they fell, and what type of Demon you are – Devil, Lammasu, whatever – hinges on what House you used to be in. This is distinct from whichever demonic legion you fought in during the war against God, and also distinct from whatever Faction of Fallen you support here on Earth, but obviously has profound effects on your character’s background. (It also dictates what Lores you have access to.)

To a large extent, Houses then constitutes a massive reorganisation, revision, and expansion of the background material presented in the core rulebook. That said, I think it’s organised in a much more useful way as far as game relevance goes – it’s much better at guiding players through thinking about what their character did pre-Fall, what they did in the war, and what they feel about their past and the major figures of their House. (It also provides a number of significant House-specific artifacts and rituals and major NPCs from each House.) Each chapter is like a mini-background briefing for members of each House, and to be honest if put in charge of a 20th Anniversary Edition of core Demon I would be inclined to change the background section to focus more on the sort of character-relevant stuff this focuses on, rather than spending 100 pages waffling about not very much because White Wolf had much more solid ideas about the specifics of being a demon than they did about the big picture.

It’s still a bit too much background bumf for my taste and would prefer if it had been trimmed a bit, and I can’t see much use for the concluding chapter about making House more relevant in the game (because frankly I find Factional politics, the demands of demonic masters, the threat of the Earthbound and the conflict between the Fallen and their human memories and personality to be more than enough for players to be contending with), but between the more focused discussions of the background and the tips on character creation choices I’d say that this is a better introduction to the game’s background than the core rulebook is for players.

Earthbound

The inevitable antagonists supplement, including full rules for generating Earthbound (and even playing them if you want to go there), this is another supplement which devotes a lot of space to talking about history and backstory though. In this case, though I don’t mind that so much, because this isn’t history the players are expected to digest before playing your average Demon campaign – rather than being the personal backstory of the player characters, this material constitutes a set of mysteries for the PCs to explore and discover in play. In the process, the designers get Demon out of the ugly trap it had got into where it was sort of implying that Christianity is the correct religion and everyone else is worshipping demons by mistake: in this round of the gameworld’s history (the third rendition given in the Demon line by my reckoning), it turns out that Judaism and Christianity and Buddhism all that were inspired by Lucifer in order to sabotage the Earthbound, so at least in this history of the world absolutely everyone’s religious viewpoint gets put through the wringer.

Likewise, the extensive section on how the Earthbound and their cults operate is useful precisely because this is the sort of intelligence which player characters can find out in play as they try to work out what the Earthbound’s deal is and how to defeat them – and it’s all useful material for the referee in coming up with scenarios. Whilst at some points in the proceedings the supplement crosses the bounds of good taste – particularly when it comes to rape – it’s much more sensitive about doing so than some antagonist supplements White Wolf produced back in the day (Freak Legion, the Fomori guidebook for Werewolf, is regularly cited as one of the sickest things ever put out under the Black Dog imprint) and these tend to be minor slips rather than major, intrinsic features of the supplement which you can’t remove without undermining what it’s trying to accomplish.

Any game line benefits from expanding on the PCs’ major antagonists, but Demon at this point especially needed it – whilst the Storyteller’s Guide had clarified some basics about the Earthbound and made it clear that they were supposed to be the major adversaries of the Fallen, I think it’s only with Earthbound that you get a set of tools robust enough to really make them fill that role – for instance, we finally have a set of Lores unique to the Earthbound to actually give them the power to accomplish the things the fluff says they are supposed to be able to do – and I’d certainly say that most of this material needs to be in a 20th Anniversary version of Demon if Onyx Path decide to do one.

City of Angels

This was White Wolf’s attempt to throw together a setting book for Demon , and whilst I don’t expect to be holding onto it, it’s interesting for how the effort to produce a conventional single-city setting for the game ended up butting up against the basic premises of the game.

For starters, I would strenuously argue that the very axioms of the game mitigate against focusing a Demon campaign on a single city. Firstly, it should be remembered that the core game assumes that the PCs are amongst the first wave of Fallen; the Fallen are rare, and indeed City of Angels acknowledges that usually the Fallen population of a city is much, much smaller than that of the Los Angeles depicted here. A certain amount of road trippin’ to track down people and places of interest is to be expected, especially considering that remnants and relics of the war against God could conceivably be found anywhere.

To be fair, City of Angels does make an effort to explain why its LA has such a high Demon population: a trickle of Fallen were attracted to the city thanks to the potential of the entertainment industry as a source of Faith, and then a flood came rushing in as, during a night of Earthbound-inspired rioting following an Earthbound-engineered earthquake, the long-missing Lucifer briefly revealed himself, prompting every Fallen with a shred of interest in the Morningstar to come running.

I have several problems with this setup, quite apart from the fact that it revolves around a metaplot event from tie-in fiction. Firstly, I don’t like the way the supplement assumes that a bunch of Fallen rolled into LA and set up an Infernal Court before the PCs could possibly intervene, because that seems to contradict the core premise that the PCs are amongst the first wave of Fallen. Secondly, I think the Lucifer thing is overkill; not only does it toss out a canon answer to the “Where’s Lucifer?” question which won’t fit everyone’s campaign, but it also makes LA too important. Even though the Luciferians are the most Morningstar-centric of the Factions, just about all of them have compelling reasons to make tracking the big guy down a top priority, so there’s no good reason for anyone not to go to LA as fast as possible.

The biggest problem I have with it, though, is that it doesn’t really address the bigger problem I have with the idea of a single-city focused Demon campaign: namely, that Demon: the Fallen is supposed to be a full-on no-holds-barred apocalyptic game in every sense of the word, and any apocalypse truly worthy of the name really needs to play out on a global stage.

However, over a decade of precedent was weighing down on the Demon team at this point. The city-based sourcebook scheme made absolute sense for Vampire because Vampire made a very strong case for bloodsuckers having this very atomistic city-state model for their society. It then became a tradition which was applied to subsequent product lines because it was easy to do so. (Indeed, though I haven’t checked I’m sure there’s extensive copy-pasting of content from LA By Night into here, particularly with the section discussing local areas and landmarks and the maps.)

The thing is, though, Demon isn’t Vampire, and I think Demon particularly suffers if you try to treat it like it is. As such, I have almost no use for the discussion here of the Infernal Courts demons supposedly try to set up in cities when there’s enough of them. What particularly irks me is that these all have the same structure and ministries, regardless of whether the demons arranging them are loyalists out to summom their superiors from Hell, traitors who have sold out to the Earthbound, self-serving types who want to see themselves in charge, self-improving types who want to purge their Torment and return to angelhood, or are pursuing any of the other goals a Fallen might find themselves drawn to.

I particularly don’t like how these courts are parachuted into the setting as faits accompli when, say it together now, the PCs are meant to be among the first wave of Fallen, but what really kills the idea for me is the concept that a) any demon worthy of the name would footle around trying to rule a city when there’s a world to win out there, and b) anyone other than Fallen retaining their loyalty to their superiors in Hell would want to follow the old court structure (which supposedly dates back to the war era) in the first place – and given how many different demands there are on a Fallen’s loyalty, and how few Fallen there are likely to be in a particular area, I don’t see how you’d gather together enough loyalists in one place to make organising a court worthwhile.

Yes, blahblah, demons are creatures of hierarchy, but they’re also just as much creatures of rebellion, if not more so. Demons have no place organising governments when you can fit all the demons they’d want to govern in the local area around one largeish dining table. I can see the need in the game for some sort of social unit for Fallen to join, but it makes more sense for them to form intelligence agencies like in Demon: the Descent, or secret societies, or organised crime outfits, or cults, or small corporations, depending on what their agenda is.

Ultimately, I can’t endorse City of Angels because it relies on an unsupportable interpretation of Demon that promotes a campaign structure and an IC power structure that both fail to engage with what is best about the game.

The Puzzle Completed

Here, I think, I’ll draw my exploration of the game line to a close. The adventure supplements and fiction books are of little interest to me, and the only other two supplements I have been warned are heavy on the game fiction, light on actual useful material, and either way seem redundant to me. One is about hunters who go after demons, and The Hunters Hunted II for V20 is frankly the first and last word on playing monster hunters in the Classic World of Darkness as far as I am concerned; the other is about playing thralls of demons, and to be honest between core Demon and Hunters Hunted II I reckon I’ve got that covered to.

That said, I have to say that of the supplements I did check out I am very favourably impressed (except for City of Angels). The impression I had from core Demon is that there was an actually quite impressive game buried deep down in there – the problem was that the core book was so badly botched as to almost completely obscure it. The Demon team not only managed to put out a brace of supplements that teased out the game I wanted to believe was hiding in there, but made it purr like a finely-tuned engine. That they were able to do this in the mere 2 years available to them before the ceiling fell in on the Classic World of Darkness is actually very impressive.