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.
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”.
I’ve reviewed the core book of Demon: the Fallenelsewhere, 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.
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.