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.

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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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The Recent Requiem

Over the last year or two, the 5th Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade has been embroiled in controversy – to the point where it literally caused an international incident and caused Paradox to step in and shut down their new version of White Wolf, reducing its functions to merely overseeing the IP and rubber-stamping the work of licensees, rather than being allowed to develop anything in-house. (Much like it was under CCP, in other words, except with the recent announcement of Bloodlines 2 it’ll hopefully be more productive on the videogame front.)

Meanwhile, quietly and humbly, Vampire: the Requiem 2nd Edition has been chugging along doing its own little thing. For those who, like me, can’t be bothered to dip into V5 at this point – oh, some of its system ideas sound fun, but ultimately I feel like its release has been so shaky that I’d rather wait for the inevitable V6 or V5.5 that’ll correct the ship, and I’m much more interested in the metaplot-agnostic version of the setting which V20 offered than the highly metaplot-focused presentation V5 has enjoyed so far. Let’s take a look at a couple of recent offerings in that vein.

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Kickstopper: The God-Machine is Coming Down and We’re Gonna Have a Party

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

Last Kickstopper was an opportunity to look at how White Wolf grew up, sold out, broke free in the form of Onyx Path, and made Kickstarter a significant component of their business plan, through the lens of the rise, fall, and resurrection of the Classic World of Darkness line, as well as examining how Kickstarter specifically plays an important role in the Classic revival.

This time around, the Kickstarter in question gives us a chance to look at the New World of Darkness line and how it’s developed from its inception to the present day. This is a story with a number of curious twists and turns, many of them arising from the unusual situation Onyx Path found itself in. The publication of the core rulebook for the new line came shortly before the acquisition of White Wolf by CCP, makers of EVE Online, whose intention was to make a World of Darkness MMO (confusingly enough based on the Classic World of Darkness setting, though arguably its tendency towards big worldwide power blocs of supernaturals actually made the Classic line more suitable for MMO purposes than the New World of Darkness‘s tendency towards more localised power factions).

For as long as White Wolf existed as a tabletop game producing team after that, their projects were greenlit with an eye to minimising potential disruption or consumer confusion affecting the MMO; for the early part of Onyx Path’s existence, a similar situation has pertained with respect to their World of Darkness products. Now that the MMO has died an ignoble death, CCP gives Onyx Path much more of a free hand in what they do and don’t publish; as we shall see, whilst CCP were still telling themselves that the MMO was a possibility, they forced White Wolf/Onyx Path into a number of contortions which has ironically made the New World of Darkness line a more confusing and less approachable prospect than the old line.

I’ll go into more detail about that along the way. For the moment, I’ll give you a quick rundown of the consequences this confusion has had for White Wolf/Onyx Path’s game lines. Presently, if you want to play the latest version of a Classic World of Darkness game line, you just have to buy the relevant book – Vampire: the Masquerade, Wraith: the Oblivion, or whatever – and set to it. With the New World of Darkness, if you want to play the latest version of the rules you might need to just buy the latest core rulebook on its own (as is the case with Vampire: the Requiem 2nd Edition), or you might need to get the core rulebook for a game line plus the overarching World of Darkness core book (as is the case with Demon: the Fallen), or you might need to get the core book for the particular game line, plus the overarching World of Darkness book, plus a special rules update, as is presently the case with Dan’s bete noire Changeling: the Lost. Onyx Path are currently in the process of minimising the extent of this nonsense, but it’s still something of an irritation.

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Requiem In Different Veins

I’ve largely come to agree with the apparent critical consensus on Vampire: the Requiem‘s two editions: namely, that the first edition was an interesting first pass that was a little hampered by the commercial necessity of attempting to appeal to fans of Vampire: the Masquerade, which meant that it couldn’t quite diverge as markedly from Vampire precedent as it might have wanted to, whereas the second edition – designed in an era when Masquerade is continuing to be published – has done a much better job of carving out a distinctive new identity for itself and tightening up and modernising the design of the game.

Still, that isn’t to say the entire line was a wash – indeed, the core 2nd edition book recommends some first edition books as being worth a look. For this article I’m going to look at two books which seem to offer diametrically opposite approaches to supporting 1st edition – one big fat chunk of excellent advice and setting-design tools, and one thin tome of uninspiring fluff.

Damnation City

A sourcebook on the design of city environments as physical landscapes, thematic backdrops, and as political chessboards for the purposes of Vampire: the Requiem, Damnation City is such a useful toolkit that it could be used in any other modern-day occult game. Its major weakness is the designers’ insistence that there’s a Right Way and a Wrong Way to use the book, and you have to do it the Right Way; for instance, they talk a lot about how the book’s meant to be used as a dramaturgical aid, rather than as a toolkit for a more simulation-styled approach to gameplay, but in fact if you want to run a Chronicles of Darkness sandbox game there’s few better tools.

Likewise, whilst they offer “Barony” and “Primacy” play styles, in which you play increasingly powerful individuals within the power structure of the city, they work on the inflexible axiom that the Prince of the city must always, invariably be an NPC, and that a player character can never take that position. This strikes me as outright cowardice to me: if you’re willing to have the PCs become the powers behind the throne, be willing to let one of them sit on the ding-dong diddly throne already.

There’s other aspects where the book’s design suggestions just fall flat. For instance, altogether too much space is given to various ways of plotting out the power structure of a city, some of which are more or less useful whilst others are nigh-incomprehensible or utterly uninformative. Some of the power structures there make absolute sense; others look like the sort of thing you’d create if you liked the idea of making a diagram of this sort of thing but had never seen a diagram in your life.

Still, when the book’s on form, it’s great. Stuffed with ideas for NPCs, districts, locations, and so on, it’s a grand sandbox toolbox designed by people who absolutely insist that it’s not for that style of play. Well, deny it all you like, mid-2000s White Wolf: you’re the stopped clock that pulls off something useful twice a day and this time you hit the jackpot.

Mythologies

This provides a grab-bag of different urban myths that vampires tell each other, along with rules systems and tweaks to use if you decide they are true in your campaign. Fun in principle, but somehow I find the actual myths presented to be somewhat drab and uninspiring. Perhaps the issue is that the book tries to stuff too many into its limited page count, leaving the mysteries here shallow and underdeveloped.

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

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

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

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