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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Block By Bloody Block (Hunter: the Vigil)

Block By Bloody Block is a supplement for Hunter: the Vigil, and has previously only been available as a PDF-only product. Later it became one of the few titles available (so far) in White Wolf’s DriveThruRPG PoD (print-on-demand) system, so I decided to give it a try. The book is now also available as a “normal” retail store copy, my edition is the PoD one. To cut a medium-length story short: I was quite happy with the process and the end result. I ordered the book via DriveThru as normal, except that I specified that I wanted a print copy, gave them my address, and paid some extra for shipping to Finland (not something you need for PDFs, naturally). The store notified me that it’ll take a while to print the book, after which it would be sent to me. About 2.5 weeks after the order it arrived in my mailbox in fine condition, and the total price including postage was a bit under 13 euros. Not bad. The book was printed by Lightning Source UK, and it’s hard to tell it’s a PoD book unless you take a close look at some details. The printing is crisp and the binding seems sturdy. There’s a small white border at the top and bottom which is a bit uneven and something you’d probably not get in a “normal” print run, but honestly, this is good enough quality and close enough to a normally printed book that it’s fine with me. Especially since the total price ended up being reasonable and below what it would cost in a store.

So there’s that about the new “print on demand” system, what about the book itself? I’m happy to report that it’s good stuff. It’s a “neighborhood building kit” for Hunter, and contains a pile of sample neighborhoods to drop into your game, all suitably generic so that they can be easily modified – though of course they are based on U.S. locations and need a bit more work to move to some other places. Each place contains a general description, a group which controls it (many but not all antagonistic), some mechanical details on what it would take to grab control of the area, and some NPC writeups. The neighborhoods all mesh together and the groups contain references to each other, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts; you could just use this as your game world city, adding some actual place names here and there and doing modifications as needed. Or, of course, you could just grab a few nice ideas and locations from here and insert them into your game. Both work.

In a way, this is a “light” version of the huge Damnation City city-building book for Vampire, which (as far as I know) contains more elaborate mechanics for generating game world cities. This book has simpler mechanics, but does contain a few side bars on how to integrate with Damnation City if needed.

The neighborhoods are generally very interesting, especially so for the NPC motivations, and the writing is excellent – it was a good and entertaining read. I suspect any Hunter game could benefit from some of the ideas here, and many of the places and NPCs here could just as easily be inserted into a generic urban fantasy/horror game. Also, I liked the structure of the book, it was clearly organized and the way the neighborhood information was presented made sense – the graphic diagrams of NPC interactions and opinions were an especially nice touch. Well worth a look, in my opinion.

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Minireview: Spirit Slayers (Hunter: the Vigil)

Spirit Slayers is the last of the support books for Hunter: the Vigil. Despite the somewhat confusing name, this is (mostly) a book about werewolves, and mostly as antagonists. The title comes form the fact that in the new Werewolf game, werewolves and spirits have a very symbiotic and also somewhat antagonistic relationship. This book attempts to present both werewolves and spirits, and the role of hunters as “spirit slayers”. This duality, while an understandable design decision, somewhat dilutes the book.

It’s not a bad book by any means; the material on werewolves is quite solid and presents them as primal beasts who also have a very human side, and therefore have the potential to also be allies… or at least neutrals. The book follows the same format as the others; we’re given some historical explanations for what werewolves are, so the GM can tailor his/her werewolves as “something a bit different”. Then there are some new Compacts and a new Conspiracy. None of those are really brilliant, but all are quite ok. The Conspiracy, “Les Mysteres”, is perhaps the most interesting, as it presents a disparate group of people who have a tight bond with spirits (much in the Voodoo/Loa direction but not limited to that).

The rest of the book contains simplified rules for werewolves and spirits… and here the fact that the book tries to cover two aspects becomes a small problem. The werewolf rules seem ok, though they are very compact… but that leaves precious little room for rules on spirits. Since spirits in the new WoD can be quite complex entities, this makes the ultra-simplified rules here not worth much. In practice, a GM will probably need at least The Book of Spirits to make sense of things.

The end has the usual GM advice on how to these critters in a game.

While perhaps the weakest of the Hunter support books, that’s purely because it tries to cover a bit too much ground. The writing here is excellent and the ideas presented mostly interesting.

As a whole, the new Hunter game like is very good. It does what most people expected the first Hunter to do, and it does it well and with style. If you’re looking for a monster-hunting game, you’ll want to take a good long look at this one. I can’t find much to criticize in it as a game line (other than it’s a bit short, a book or two extra would not have hurt).

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Minireview: Night Stalkers (Hunter: the Vigil)

Night Stalkers is the second expansion book to White Wolf’s “Hunter: the Vigil”, and it deals with vampires – or more exactly, vampires as antagonists for vampire hunters. If you want to play vampires, you’ll want the full Vampire: the Requiem game. Just judging by this book it’s a bit unclear whether “Night Stalkers” refers to vampires or the the people who hunt them, but judging by the other books in the line (Witch Finders, Spirit Slayers) it’s clear that the reference is to the hunters themselves.

What I’ve read of Hunter so far has been very good, and this book does not disappoint either. While here the “targets” are much more clearly “hostiles” than in the mage book (Witch Finders), there is still some room given to scenarios where the hunters might cooperate with a blood-sucker (at least for a while) before they go all Buffy on them. This is presented as a very risky option, of course, and so it should be – these are not Twilight-style glow-in-the-dark angsty animal-eating teenagers. These are monsters, usually in the classic sense of the word. It’s not that they’ll just kill you if you threaten them; they’ll also often have the capability (and lack of human morals) to also kill your family and other loved ones, while (potentially) leaving you alive with a ruined life. With ages-old power networks at their disposal, they can make sure that you’re suddenly out of a job, branded a pedophile, homeless, and/or lots of other fun stuff. It’s like fighting entrenched organized crime (and often, in the WoD, there is heavy overlap anyway)… the leaders won’t fight you directly. They’ll just send endless disposable minions after you and everyone you care about, while using their contacts to make your life hell. That’s the real danger of hunting vampires, and the book goes to great lengths to make sure that you use a vampire antagonist in a smart way. Only very young or foolish vampires will look for a head-on fight with a gang of hunters.

The book organization mimics Witch Finders. First we have a ton of historical vampire myths, with different sorts of vampires. While you can use the Vampire: the Requiem model for what a vampire is like, you don’t have to. Having your vampires be something quite unexpected will be a fun and nasty curveball for your players. Lots of suggestions and ideas are presented here; some of them creepy, some a bit silly, and some just weird.

Next up is a overview of how the various Compacts and Conspiracies regard and hunt vampires. Nothing too surprising here, though some of the detail is fun. Then we get some new Compacts and a new Conspiracy; the Compacts aren’t anything all that special, really (one is clandestine political group, one is a college sorority of sorts, and one a street gang)… but the Conspiracy is very cool. It’s the “Cainite Heresy”, and it consists of fanatical vampire hunters who hunt vampires using supernatural methods which they learn from… someone. Or something. It’s quite creepy, and has lots of story possibilities.

The last sections of the book contain some new Tactics, a bunch of “Dread Powers” for Vampires to use if you don’t want to use or don’t have Vampire: the Requiem, and a storyteller section with tips and ideas for running vampires as antagonists in a chronicle.

It’s a very solid book. Sure, the Compacts are a bit mundane, but they’re not bad by any means. The Cainite Heresy rocks, and the rest of the book is crammed full of useful ideas. Like with the other Hunter books I’ve read, the writing style here is relaxed and fun to read.

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Minireview: Witch Finders (Hunter: the Vigil)

Witch Finders is the first expansion to the new “Hunter” game (Hunter: the Vigil)… and it’s pretty damn good. I’m honestly a bit surprised they started with a sourcebook on “witches” (mages), since the relationship between “hunters” and “witches” is the one most drenched in ambiguity – or maybe that’s precisely the reason they did it.

In any case, as noted this expansion deals with “witches”: otherwise normal people who do “magic”, one way or the other. Now, dealing with these is problematic for Hunters at the best of times. Unlike that ravenous bloodsucking monster, most “witches” aren’t easily labeled as monsters. While some may dabble in the Dark Arts (for some definition or the other), many others seem to actually do good, help people around them… or at least do generally harmless things. So why hunt them? Good question, and one that this book uses a lot of pages to examine. In sum: the answer depends very much on who you ask. Some “hunters” see no reason to go after witches and mages unless they do something blatantly evil, while others see all of them as monsters in human guise, as things wielding powers too dangerous to be allowed – like children with tac nukes. Many others fall between these two viewpoints. Some may even ally (at times) with witches against a common enemy – though doing so is always extremely risky.

So, lots of good discussion about the vast grey areas involved here. In addition, the book gives us three new Compacts and one new Conspiracy, all of them fun and interesting in my view. Special mention goes to both “Division 6” (the backstory is just dripping in story potential) and the Order of St. George, which is just wonderfully strange and twisted. We’re also given a bunch of rules crunch for witches and mages, so you can run them as antagonists or NPCs without needing access to the actual Mage game. In fact, there is no hard and fast connection between the “witches” discussed here and the Mage core line; they may be the same people and organizations as described in Mage: the Awakening, or they may be something totally different. Up to the GM. The old Hunter game had a similiar setup, in only having a loose connection between the Hunter antagonists and the other core game lines. I think it’s a smart move, and gives the GM a lot of easy leeway in running the sort of game world he/she wants. People familiar with Mage may be in for a rude surprise if they assume things are the same here.

All in all, I can’t find much anything to criticize here. The writing is really good, the ideas excellent, and the crunch seems reasonable (on quick read-through). Solid expansion book for an already very solid game line.

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Minireview: Hunter: the Vigil

I’m actually glad that Hunter: the Vigil wasn’t the first “monster hunter” game White Wolf came up with. Even though this game is actually what most people wanted the first time round, Hunter: the Reckoning did end up as an underappreciated gem and a very neat game of monster hunting with some unconventional features. It was also extremely dark and nihilistic, making the new Hunter: the Vigil almost shiny & happy by comparison. But only by comparison… this is a fairly grim game also, starring people who hunt monsters and usually pay a high price for doing so.

As far as I can figure, this is the first White Wolf roleplaying game which has “normal people” as PCs . Sure, you could argue that the new WoD core rules plus the “generic” supplements are actually the first “mortals” game – and you would have a point. In any case, this is a first where a named group (“Hunters”, here) is not endowed with supernatural powers… except that some of them are. Let me explain.

Hunter: the Vigil is a toolbox game about monster hunting. As part of that “toolbox”, you’re given three different “levels” of running a game. At the lowest level, you just have a group of people who have encountered something supernatural and have decided (or been forced to) deal with it. The second involves more organized groups of hunters, here called “compacts”, which provide for local-scale groups of organized monster hunters. Last, we have some global-scale monster hunter groups, here called “conspiracies”. At street level, the PCs will be free to do pretty much what they want, but will have very limited resources. At “conspiracy” level, they’ll have lots of resources (some supernatural) but will have at times extreme limits on what they are and aren’t allowed to do. You can also mix and match… start small, and slowly introduce larger “metaplot” if you want. I like this model, though it’s not the first time I’ve seen it (Unknown Armies had a very similar setup going).

The compacts and conspiracies presented here are a varied and interesting lot, especially if you take them as they are meant to be taken: as examples and ideas. If some of them don’t work for you, don’t use them. I personally loved the Ashwood Abbey, the Lucifuge and many others, while Strike Force: VALKYRIE came off more than a bit campy… but I can easily see using it in a slightly more tongue-in-cheek Buffy-style game. I guess that with work you could get it to work in a “deadly serious” context too, Delta Green style, but my first reaction was more in the “amused” category. Ashwood Abbey is great for being just so… weird. I mean, a bunch of aristocratic decadents hunting monsters “just for kicks”, while high on drugs or whatever? Priceless. Also, the Lucifuge is awesome for presenting a bunch of offspring of Lucifer ferchristsake (according to them)… who aren’t bad guys, quite the opposite. Oh, and there’s The Cheiron Group, for some Pentex-style action. It’s a very nice collection of extremely different groups, and showcases the game nicely. It’s also nice that not all of the groups presented here are “good guys”. Some of them operate in extremely grey moral areas, and some cross over at times into “bad guy” territory… but that depends on your viewpoint. There’s a lot of moral relativism going on here. For example… if you hunt witches using tools which are (objectively) supernatural, are you yourself any better?

As noted, Hunters are normal people who don’t have supernatural powers. Mostly. At the Conspiracy level, they can get access to some weird shit that is firmly in or close to the supernatural category. Biotech implants, weird military superscience, magic potions, ancient artifacts, prayers that work… all kinds of stuff. Of course, these toys come with lots of strings attached. Lots.

We get some new rules along with this book. Hunters have Tactics, which are codified group tactics which can be practiced and then performed out on the field, with nice results. These can be developed with “Practical Experience” points, which are gained alongside with normal Exp in the game. There are some tweaks to how Willpower is used and gained, encouraging Hunters to use a lot of Willpower (good choice, given that not using Willpower can sometimes mean a bloody death).

I really liked this game (and I also liked the original Hunter, which is a very different beast). This seems like an excellent basis for running “normal(ish) people fighting the supernatural” games, and those can be a ton of fun. Hell, watch a few episodes of Supernatural and you’re ready to rock. You could ask “why do I need this game, I already have the base WoD mortals rules?”. And you’d be right… you could run a monster hunting game with those rules and using many of the WoD sourcebooks. You get a lot of tools with this separate game book and a ton of fun ideas specific to a monster hunt game – but there is no reason you absolutely need this book. That said, I’d much rather use this that the code WoD for a game like that, simply because this game does a lot of groundwork for you and is full of really cool ideas.

The theme of this game is “light versus the darkness”, with the Hunters as the candles that shed some small limited light into the dark, hungry unknown. The subtitle “Vigil” refers to being guardians of humanity, standing guard and being awake while most sleep. It’s a nice symbolism.

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Minireview: Hunter: the Infernal

Hunter: the Reckoning was a conflicted game. People were expecting something like what the new Hunter is: a game about people kicking supernatural ass, in Buffy style. The artwork for the game (especially the covers) supported this view. Problem? The game was nothing like that, and featured normal people given strange supernatural powers by unknown entities, and struggling to survive in a world they suddenly see is filled with monsters. It’s easily the most “horror” game White Wolf has ever done, and also totally dark and nihilistic. It got a very mixed reaction, probably due to the above mismatch between advertising and reality. I was very sceptical in the beginning, but then bought a huge pile of the books from a sale. After reading them I was quite impressed with the game, and now consider it one of the better “old WoD” games. The books are all written in an intentionally confusing multi-viewpoint subjective style, which I loved (but which also split opinions), and are the best reads of all the White Wolf books I’ve read to date. And I’ve read quite a pile. Special mention goes to the book Fall From Grace, which is a fantastic and disturbing look at what happens when the “Imbued” (Hunters in this game) get to high power levels. It’s not superhero territory.

So, nowadays I’ve been tracking down the few books I’m still missing from the full set. I recently managed to get The Infernal, a sourcebook about demons for the game. Like most of the H:tR sourcebooks, it’s very good. It also features the trademark shades-of-grey style of the game… demons are shown to be evil, but not mindlessly so and not necessarily so; the “evil” they do is often a function of them being alien, not malevolent as such. There is even some viewpoint given to demons trying to do “good” (in a fashion). Told in typical fashion for this game, it features four separate storylines, all telling the story of one encounter between the Imbued and demons. All are very different, though none of them exactly have happy endings.

I remain impressed with this game… and the game’s split personality remains with this book: the cover shows some sort of demon summoner in what seems to be some sort of occult (summoning?) circle. All fine and good, but “summoning demons” is almost non-existent in this book – the things are quite capable of entering our world on our own. So once again, the cover has very little to do with the actual content.

By the way, this book is a link between Hunter and White Wolf’s short-lived Demon game (which I haven’t read, but have actually heard quite good things about). Might have to pick it up sometime.

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