The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.

With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK either consisting of patchy US imports or a few local magazines published on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.

Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.

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Kickstopper: Retconned Schemes

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.

This is going to be a bit of an odd article. I initially thought it’d just be yet another supplement for the rather hit-and-miss Werewolf 20th Anniversary line. However, new wrinkles have arisen over the course of this Kickstarter, wrinkles which have a bearing on a story already partly told in previous Kickstopper articles, with the result that although there’s still a supplement to review here, there’s also a broader story to tell

Specifically, this is a story about the twists and turns of the Onyx Path, and that company’s relationship with White Wolf Publishing.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

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Awoo of Darkness: the Supplements of 20th Anniversary Werewolf

Onyx Path originated as a “by the creatives, for the creatives” sort of outfit. They cannot give their writers total creative freedom on all projects, because some of the IP they work with isn’t actually owned by them and has been subject to approvals processes from CCP in Onyx Path’s early years, the new Paradox-owned White Wolf more recently, but within the bounds of those constraints they do prefer to let the project leads on game lines have their own heads.

This has had the upshot that the level of consistent quality one can expect from their game lines varies a lot. I get the impression, for instance, that there’s a fairly solid team behind their Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary line, because the supplements for that have really been quite good – to the point of setting an intimidatingly high bar for the upcoming 5th edition of the game to clear. On the other hand, controversies surrounding game lines like Beast: the Primordial or the long gestation process of Exalted 3rd Edition have seemed in part to arise from poor judgement on the part of the managers of those lines.

Then, somewhere in between the major controversies and the major successes, you have something like the Werewolf: the Apocalypse 20th anniversary line. Though I thought the core 20th anniversary book was a pretty decent release, I find its supporting supplements to be a decidedly mixed bag – and so far as I can tell, I’m not alone in this.

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Freak, C’est Sick

As well as existing within the setting of Werewolf: the Apocalypse as a gleeful self-parody of White Wolf, the Black Dog Game Factory actually existed as an imprint of White Wolf, through which they published material which they wanted to flag as being No Seriously This Is For Mature Audiences Only. Ironically, though, Black Dog didn’t produce that much for Werewolf itself. The sole book they put out for it was Freak Legion, a players’ guide to creating and playing fomori.

Fomori in Werewolf are seriously messed up. They’re people who have been infected, corrupted, and eventually entirely possessed by Banes – Wyrm-spirits born out of human suffering – and have become physically mutated as a result. Many of them end up working for Pentex, the evil corporation that acts like a Captain Planet villain that’s the main face of the Wyrm in the mortal world; sometimes that’s because they got corrupted through involvement with some Pentex plot, sometimes that’s because Pentex tracked them down, sometimes that’s because their Bane nudged them into joining Pentex. Either way, most of them end up working on Pentex First Teams – the special forces squads Pentex uses for fighting werewoofles.

There are three components that nudge Freak Legion into Black Dog territory. The first is the body horror intrinsic in the fomori concept. The second is the human misery involved in their creation. The third, and by far the greatest, is the gleefully flippant attitude with which the book handles the other two factors. This might be billed as being for Mature Readers Only, but you only have to read the description of the Savage Genitalia mutation (it’s exactly like it sounds, only even worse if you combine it with other mutations as they suggest) to realise you are dealing with Immature Writers Only.

Now, of course it could be that the authors were playing up to the gruesome, purilely sexist, and gleefully violent tendencies they’d ascribed to Black Dog in the setting material – but then again, wasn’t Black Dog a parody of White Wolf themselves? There’s an extent to which it feels like this is a slippage of the mask of cultured sophistication that White Wolf like to adopt. In the cartoon nonsense of Freak Legion we see a dissolution of 1990s White Wolf’s pretences to high art and clever handling of serious issues to reveal the violence-happy edgelord dorks underneath. At its worst it yields insufferable nonsense like Savage Genitalia; at its best there’s a fresh, exciting edge to it which might not be especially intellectual, but certainly seems to offer more of a clue to White Wolf’s original popularity than any stab at high art.

Wuffle-Woofs Then and Now

In my Monday evening group we’ve started up our occasional Werewolf: the Apocalypse game again, so I thought the time had come for me to properly digest the tattered second-hand 1st Edition rulebook I picked up at the start of the game, as well as looking into the 20th Anniversary Edition of the game.

Following on from Vampire: the Masquerade, this was actually the last major World of Darkness game which Mark Rein*Hagen was the sole lead designer on. (He wasn’t a main designer on Mage at all, whilst on Wraith and Changeling he shared top credit with a team.) As such, on the one hand you have his various idiosyncracies as a writer coming here at full blast, but on the other hand it’s kind of impressive just how different a tone Werewolf hits compared to Vampire.

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