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.

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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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Old Vampires, New Tricks

Thousand Years of Night is the shiny new supplement for Vampire: the Requiem focusing on playing elders. This is a smart love for the purposes of continuing the agenda of the 2nd edition core book (AKA Blood & Smoke: the Strix Chronicle) in terms of allowing Requiem to be its own thing rather than existing in the shadow of Vampire: the Masquerade. Masquerade had a very particular take on elders as being the uber-powerful vampire Illuminati, and this was largely reflected in the guidance offered for playing them in the Elysium supplement. On top of that, both the metaplot and various published adventures and setting books leaned heavily on the “elders pulling everyone’s strings” trope. If Requiem‘s elders could be distanced from this interpretation, that would establish some clear water between the two games.

Broadly speaking, Thousand Years of Night succeeds at this. Elders here are still quite powerful – they get a nice stack of Experiences depending on just how Elder they are at character gen, and of course you also have some nice new powers for them and guidance on what you can do with attributes and skills beyond the human maximum. At the same time, they aren’t the full-on vampire Illuminati they are in Masquerade – the much more fragmented nature of Kindred society in Requiem doesn’t lend itself to that, for one thing, and for another they aren’t so radically beyond other vampires in capabilities as to dominate the upper echelons of vampire politics.

What they are instead are people displaced far in time from their era of origin, and whilst they are more able than Masquerade‘s Elders to keep up with the times (in fact, odds are they’ve forgotten many of the archaic skills they used to have as they simply ceased using them and learned new skills in turn), they do need to face the problem of maintaining Touchstones when they’ve already seen entire generations of ’em fading into the dust. Out of the rules stuff here, perhaps the best stuff is the consideration of how Requiem‘s Touchstones system changes once you’re dealing with Elders of a particular vintage. You know that whole “Elder who becomes obsessed with someone because they remind them of someone from their tragic past” trope? You can do that way up to the hilt here.

You also get some consideration of how Elders interact with covenants, as well as covenants and conspiracies which primarily consist of Elders. (For instance, there’s a clique of Elders who specialise in a callous but effective method of Strix-hunting.) The book closes by rounding out the range of supernatural adversaries extant in the setting, following the lead of the main book of providing more examples of blood-drinkers and corpse-eaters from classical myth, as well as depicting some Elders and Methuselahs who’ve gone well off the deep end. For wilder character concepts, there’s also details on Clans which are supposed to have gone extinct, but which Elder characters could still viably be members of.

On the whole, I’d say that Thousand Years of Night does what Requiem supplements need to do at this point in time – expanding the range of play available in Requiem without obscuring or cluttering up the distinct vision and voice of the game line.

Vigilantly Seeking a Point

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

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

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Not Knowing When To Stop Digging

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

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

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Easily the Most Useful Demon Supplement Ever

Onyx Path and White Wolf before them have produced Translation Guides to allow people to convert characters and concepts between their various World of Darkness games and their Chronicles of Darkness equivalents – for example, if you want to use Vampire: the Masquerade setting ideas with the (generally superior) Vampire: the Requiem system, or blend ideas between the two, there’s a Vampire Translation Guide for you. Generally, I haven’t found them especially attractive; I feel like if I wanted to play or run some classic Masquerade, I’d be inclined to do it system warts and all, the effort required to convert everything not quite being worth the mild improvements made across the board.

The Demon Translation Guide, though… that’s a different matter. Allowing for conversion between Demon: the Fallen and Demon: the Descent, it’s an absolute godsend, because the original Fallen system was horribly broken – and whilst its supplement line did a hero’s job of trying to fix it, it’s still worth the effort to convert to the Chronicles system. In particular, there’s finally a system for determining whether your powers go off in their high-Torment versions by accident instead of the low-Torment versions: that happens if you end up getting less successes than your Torment score on the roll, but if you spend Faith in triggering the power, so long as you get at least one success on the dice you get to add the number of Faith points you spent to the successes total for the purpose of working out whether your Torment kicks off. This gives players a decent shot of having some semblance of self-control, at the cost of rationing their Faith a bit more (but then again Demon is a game which cries out for a brisk and active Faith economy to begin with).

Author Eric Zawadzki seems to have a decent handle on the virtues of both games, as well as how they’re played in the wild; for instance, in the discussion of converting Fallen‘s Apocalyptic Forms to the Descent system, he specifically assumes that the system for personalising one’s Apocalyptic Form provided in the Demon Player’s Guide are in use, and that system was so fun and such an improvement over the sometimes uninspiring off-the-shelf Forms in the core book that I suspect anyone with access to that book would be using that system.

The two Demon games have extremely different aesthetic takes on the topic. Whilst there are themes of espionage in common (which the book has some quite interesting ideas on teasing out), Fallen went very much for “Judeo-Christian demons emerge from Hell only to discover that God and the Angels have gone and aren’t coming back, and must deal with that”, whereas Descent went for “It’s The Matrix at its most Gnostic.” That filtered through all the powers. Providing a way to utilise the more classically demonic powers of Fallen in Descent‘s system means that Chronicles of Darkness users get to have their own equivalent of Demon: the Fallen on an aesthetic level, which is something I think Descent didn’t deliver.

Sure, the two Vampires and Werewolfs and Mages have different takes on the same stuff, but the vampires are still vampire-y in both, the werewoofles are still woofly, and the mages are still wizardy (if anything, they’re even more wizardy in the Chronicles version). Demons in The Descent just don’t feel very demonic, and whilst that game offers an interesting cosmological concept it doesn’t quite scratch the itch for playing “yeah, we’re Satanic fallen angels out to corrupt people’s souls”.

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.