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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Interface (Demon: the Descent)

Interface is a short (six stories) collection of short stories based around the new Demon: the Descent game. It was produced as a result of a Kickstarter stretch goal for that game, and like many other similar recent anthologies from Onyx Path, it’s quite good, if a bit uneven. The good stories more than make up for the mediocre ones.

Demon is a complicated game. It posits a world (universe?) invisibly ruled by a “God-Machine”, a vast inhuman power which, while not directly hostile to humanity, is not a benevolent god by any means. This god creates “angels” from time to time, powerful mechanical/supernatural beings which enact the will of their god. While their programming leaves them no room for individual thought, there are rare times when an angel doubts its mission – and “falls”. Those which aren’t recaptured and “reprocessed” immediately become “demons”, fallen angels on the run from the forces of a now hostile god. They retain a small sliver of their old capabilities, but they are also partly human. In the game, the players are demons, and the general theme is “cold war paranoia and spy stories”. It’s a great game, but a complex one – the above merely scratches the surface. Unlike most other White Wolf / Onyx Path games, the PCs here were never human in the first place, they are alien beings.

The stories here look at various facets of “demonic” life. Some focus on evading hunter-killer angels, some focus just on “getting along” quietly, while others still dream of going back to “Heaven”… ideally with their sense of self intact. Adding to the mix is the fact that demons can switch their identities (their “covers”) at will, and can build them form bits and pieces of other people’s lives (via various pacts and deals).

As an interesting tidbit, each story here also contains some game “crunch” as an add-on to the story, giving stats to some of the characters or describing some of what happened in game terms. It’s a nice addition, and since it’s only a page or two it doesn’t detract from anything.

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Minireview: Songs of the Sun and Moon (Werewolf: the Apocalypse)

Songs of the Sun and Moon is a byproduct of the “W20 Changing Breeds” Kickstarter, and like the other similar anthologies from other Onyx Path Kickstarters, it’s quite good. Perhaps surprisingly so, considering the “classic” quality of White Wolf fiction, which is… not that hot. Here, we get seven short stories about the “Fera”, the other (non-wolf) shapechangers in the (Classic) World of Darkness.

All of the stories are at least decent, with some being quite good. They focus on different types of Fera, and cover most of them (though not all, especially the ancient vanished tribes). Some are somewhat lighthearted (like Eddy Webb’s Nuwisha story), while others are much more grim (Matthew McFarland’s “The Sin of Sharks”, for instance).

A good, entertaining read, if a quick one. Works even if you aren’t familiar with the Fera (I read it before reading the actual “Changing Breeds” sourcebook), but probably works better with more background info.

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Minireview: Of Predators and Prey

Of Predators and Prey is an anthology of stories (edited by Justin Achilli) based on the new “The Hunters Hunted II” book for Vampire: the Masquerade; in fact, it was one of the Kickstarter stretch goals. Despite being a “secondary” artifact of a roleplaying source book, this is a pretty good collection of stories and I enjoyed it quite a lot. Not every story is a gem, but there’s a lot more good than there is bad or mediocre here, some of the stories offer quite clever twists on the basic “vampires versus vampire hunters” theme.

While this is connected to the V:tM roleplaying game, I think this would work quite well for readers not familiar with the game, also. No game terminology is used, and the internal world of the vampires is kept quite mysterious since this book focuses on the “mortals” (who, more often than not, have no idea they are in over their heads).

Good lightweight entertainment, especially for readers who know and like the game. Of course, “lightweight” does not mean “bright and happy” here, some of the tales told here are very bleak.

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Minireview: Mummy the Curse

White Wolf (and now Onyx Path) have a long history of games called “Mummy”; what started out as just a weird little add-on for the first edition of the World of Darkness later spawned a second edition and even later grew into a separate (though small) game line called Mummy: the Resurrection. All of these games featured immortal beings, “mummies”, who are immortal in an interesting way. They can die, but they always come back. Spawned in ancient Egypt, they pursue their own agendas and (very rarely) interact with other WoD supernatural beings.

Mummy: the Curse is a new version of that base idea, for the “new” World of Darkness. Like many of the other new versions of old game titles, it takes the same basic idea but then goes into very different directions with it. Here, the results are quite excellent, though I cannot really compare with Mummy: the Resurrection since I don’t own that book.

Here, mummies are still ancient, immortal beings, originating in ancient Egypt. The origin story is different, but in basic terms the main idea is the same. The details, however, are very different, in an interesting way. The main innovation is the balanced forces of Memory and Sekhem. Memory is the “morality” stat here, while Sekhem measures raw magical power. Now, in more normal rpgs a new character would start off with a fairly high “morality” (i.e. Memory) and a low power level (Sekhem). Not so here, quite the opposite. A “new” character is assumed to be a Mummy who just woke up from potentially very lengthy slumber, and they start off with zero Memory and maximum (ten) Sekhem. As a result, new Mummy characters have no memory of who they are and what they should be doing, and very poor self-control… but they have vast amounts of power. In other words, they actually mirror the rampaging semi-mindless horrors from movies. A bit later, Memory starts to rise, giving the Mummy (and the player) some glimpses of the being’s past life and providing more stability – but on the flip-side, Sekhem starts to go down, slowly. When, usually much later, Sekhem hits zero, the Mummy needs to enter slumber again, to await the next trigger event.

What is that trigger event that wakes a Mummy up? It could be some looter stealing one of his/her artifacts (ancient artifacts play a big role in this game). If could be his/her cult, if one exists, enacting rituals means to wake the “master”; usually this means that the cult is in big trouble, which does not always combo well with a just-woken, potentially rampaging monster with no memories.

In game terms, all this is an awesome setup, and turns the old “zero-to-hero” trope on its head. The PCs start of at the height of their powers, and must do whatever it is that they were woken up to do before that power runs out. In other words, it also provides a “game clock” to keep the PCs moving. Memory and Sekhem aren’t tightly bound together, a drop of one point in one does no automatically mean a raise in the other. They just are hooked to mechanics which will, eventually, raise Memory and lower Sekhem. How fast? That depends on a lot of factors, some of them withing player control.

It’s a big book, and not exactly a light read (though it is quite well-written). There’s simply a lot fo stuff here to digest, and the fact that the writers chose to use Egyptian terminology and names doesn’t help. Don’t get me wrong, I very much like the use of Egyptian terminology here, it’s a nice touch, it’s just that since those words aren’t familiar to me I found myself constantly trying to remember what was what. Most of the page count goes towards describing the background story, character creation, and the rules mechanics, but there’s also a short intro scenario provided. It’s decent.

This is a very cool game. It’s also not for everyone, putting it in the same “very cool but difficult” category where Promethean sits. Some of the difficulty comes from the unusual basic setup, and some from the fact that the GM has a lot of control here and needs to provide a large part of who the PCs are. Remember, the PCs initially remember nothing of their origins, and it’s the GM’s job to figure that out and make sure that origin has lots of interesting stuff in it. Some players, and some GMs, may not be comfortable with this much GM control in the character design. The game is very much about memory, and about figuring out who you are, and what you want to do; ancient rituals bind each Mummy somewhat, but they all have a choice of what they want to be. A rebel, or a willing servant of ancient forces, cast in a world which bears no resemblance to their origins.

It should be noted that while there is an antagonist faction (of sorts) provided, these mummies are more than capable of being true monsters themselves. They initially have no memory and little control, leading to scenes possibly like Vampiric frenzy. Later, they regain some of what they were… but what they were usually has nothing to do with modern concepts of human rights or morals. Some may sacrifice children to ancient gods as a matter of course, as something all civilized beings do. Some may do worse. These are not modern people who just happen to be immortal, they are supernatural products of an ancient, long-vanished culture…. which brings us back to: “this game is not for everyone”. It’s probably somewhat challenging to run and play. That said, I was very impressed with this new resurrection of the ancient “Mummy” game line, it’s a very innovative game.

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Minireview: The Strix Chronicle Anthology (Vampire: the Requiem)

“The owls are not what they seem:”

Yes, that’s Twin Peaks, not Vampire, but it applies here too.

The Strix are one of the creepier elements in the new Vampire game line. While the game originally featured VII in the “sinister threat” category, that group (or whatever it is) was left so vague that it became a bit toothless. Enter the Strix, first described in the Requiem for Rome book. Probably responsible for the destruction of the Julii clan, these creatures are scary as hell, much because they are both a concrete threat and a big unknown. Maybe spirits, maybe not, and apparently linked to owls, they are smart, vicious, sadistic and they hate vampires. Why? Nobody knows. They can posses vampires and act as uber-predators – and in the game world, having something hunt them, the self-styled hunters of humans, is deeply unnerving to vampires. Additionally, it seems to be personal; vampires hunt humans for food, but the Strix hunt vampires because they hate their guts and want to cause misery and destruction.

I gather the Strix have been described somewhat more in other sourcebooks, but I haven’t read those yet. Most notably, the new Strix Chronicle sourcebook features a campaign framework based around them (haven’t read that yet, either). This book, The Strix Chronicle Anthology, is an anthology of stories based on the Strix – or, more exactly, on vampires encountering the Strix.

It’s a good collection. Most of the stories are remarkably good, and many are quite suitably creepy. Some of the standouts are Greg Stolze’s “Four Years, Old John”, which features some characters familiar from the Chicago books, and Joshua Alan Doetsch’s “Lullay, Lullay”, which only has the Strix in the sidelines, with the spotlight on the relationship between a (surrogate) father and his “little girl” (who only has bare shreds of humanity left). Oh, and Eddy Webb’s “Second Chance”, which features a vampire forced to solve a mystery… and lots of twists. Not all that many happy stories here, which suits the main theme. The Strix are not happy campers. The owls want blood.

As far as “gaming fiction” goes, this is a top-notch collection.

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Minireview: Dust To Dust (Vampire: the Masquerade)

What a difference 20 years makes. While the original Ashes To Ashes scenario wasn’t too horrible, it did partly suffer from the railroading that plagued most White Wolf modules and had the PCs being manipulated by forced they had no control over. Dust To Dust is a (very loose) sequel, written for the 20th Anniversary edition of Vampire, and using White Wolf/Onyx Path’s “SAS” format. It’s both a very good module in its own right, and it also showcases how far White Wolf (well, Onyx Path nowadays) have come over the years as far as scenario design goes.

The story is set in Gary, Indiana, which completes the circle in a way; Gary was the original home of the Neonate PCs in Ashes To Ashes even though the city itself did not feature there (it was briefly detailed in the original first edition Vampire and its intro adventure, which transitions into Ashes). It’s set more or less in the modern day, which doesn’t stop it from being a sequel, even a direct one, to Ashes – 20 years is nothing to vampires. That said, the assumption here is that the PCs will not be the same ones you may have used in the earlier adventures.

The theme here is urban decay and obsolescence, and its mirrored effects on vampires. While never being an important Kindred city, in older times Gary was semi-popular because it game some Kindred, especially the Anarchs, a safe-ish haven from Prince Lodin’s rule. In particular, it gave them a place where they could sire new vampires without fear of deadly retaliation. Now, with Lodin long dead, that reason has vanished and with it the lure of Gary itself. The city is slowly dying in the mortal world and also in the world of the Kindred; most have moved on, and only the die-hards are left, bickering over scraps left over. Prince Modius still “rules”, but there is precious little left for him to rule. Juggler still opposes him, but there also it’s more out of old antagonistic habit than anything else, his own schemes of turning Gary into an Anarch stronghold having failed over and over again.

Into this graveyard of past ambitions stumble the PCs, along with a few other NPCs with agendas. Before long, life and unlife in Gary will become a lot more interesting, if only for a passing instant.

This is one of the better pre-generated adventures for Vampire that I’ve read to date. Granted, that’s not a high bar, but still: this is good stuff. The PCs have full freedom of choosing alliances, there are multiple scheming parties with (partially) conflicting agendas, there’s an interesting but reasonably low-power main antagonist, and the main end scene has the potential for devolving into awesome chaos. The NPCs are interesting, especially since some of them are still intent on seizing their former glory, and the GM has the option of running this after Ashes To Ashes for a really nice “before and after” look at Chicago and Gary.

My only real complaint is the cover art: a badly pixelated image of the town seal (I presume), which really doesn’t do this one justice, especially since a lot of the interior (full-color) art is very good. There’s also one visiting NPC who is a bit superfluous to the main plot, and may just be a jarring distraction. On the other hand, he’s very easy to trim from the story, if required.

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Minireview: Children of the Revolution (Vampire: the Masquerade)

Children of the Revolution is the third Kickstarter-backed new book for Vampire: the Masquerade from Onyx Path. While not without its faults, it’s vastly superior to the V20 Companion book, in that it actually has interesting content. It’s modeled after the classic Kindred Most Wanted and Children of the Inquisition books – “coffee table” books which detail a number of Kindred (with a certain theme), with full-page artwork for each one, a reasonably detailed history, and game stats. Like the earlier books, this is mostly for background color in the game world, though some GMs may want to use some of these characters as-is.

So, since it’s a big catalog of NPCs (18 in all), it lives or dies based on the strength of the characters. On that basis, this book partly succeeds and partly fails; some of the characters are quite interesting and avoid easy stereotypes, while a few are particularly poor (including one fairly silly “Dread Pirate Roberts” wannabe). The characters are quite varied, which is a bonus. Some are young Neonates, while others are truly ancient creatures. The theme of “revolution” is used here as a basis for selecting the characters, and while it’s easy to see in some cases (a young ex-Occupy Wall Street protester), it’s vague to the point of invisibility in others.

The art is mostly high quality, and the layout is quite pleasant. While the characters themselves are of mixed quality, the writing itself is perfectly competent and usually engaging. In the end, this is a decent book; an interesting read if you’re into old WoD metaplot and back story or if you’re a GM looking for ready-to-use NPCs.

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Rage like it's 1992!

Just got my Kickstarter backer (preliminary) copy of the Werewolf the Apocalypse 20th Anniversary Edition PDF. I think I’ll wait until I get the physical book (which will be a monster) to actually read the thing, but based on a quick browse: looks fantastic. Like the V20 book, this contains an updated version of the core game plus lots and lots of extras (in this case, the extras include Umbra, the Wyrm, the Lost Tribes, and lots besides). It’s an all-in-one updated version of the original game, with rules updated to fix the flaws people have identified over the years.

There’s also a pile of support books incoming, including Tribebook: White Howlers and other fun stuff. Looks like good times for fans of the original Werewolf.

Points to Onyx Path for a very well-optimized PDF, by the way. It’s only 85 megabytes (which isn’t bad for a 555-page full-color book) and it renders fast – should be easily readable on a tablet despite being a huge book. Good job, guys.

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Minireview: The God-Machine Chronicle Anthology (World of Darkness)

When the new World of Darkness core book came out years ago, one of the small bits that caught people’s fancy was the initial fiction bit, detailing a weird past history with clockwork angels and a “God-Machine”. Originally it was just intended as a throwaway “weird bit” to highlight the by-design unpredictability of the new WoD, but ever since White Wolf has been getting queries about expanding that bit of fiction. Well, now they have, and they are also working on building a new game campaign based around the “God-Machine” mythos. In addition, there are rumors that the upcoming new Demon game will somehow be connected, but that’s a big unknown. Of course, when I say “White Wolf” here I actually mean “Onyx Path”, which is the new home of the old White Wolf roleplaying stuff.

Anyway, the God-Machine Chronicle fiction anthology is the first step. It collects a bunch of new WoD fiction from the various game books (including the original story), and adds a big pile of brand-new fiction. The stories are all quite short, but mostly that works in their favor. Horror tales often are more effective the more compact they are, and these certainly are compact… and most work quite well, with the best tales being very imaginative and creepy. I found it to be an excellent read, and a nice collection of “weird horror” tales. There’s little to no specific “World of Darkness” bits here, no old tropes you can easily latch onto.

So… do we finally get some information about the God-Machine? No, we don’t. Not really. We get bits and pieces, many of them contradictory. It might not even exist, and if it does it might not have any interest in humanity. I like that just fine, too much specificity can be a death toll for the horror and vague sense of dread many of these tales project.

If you’ve tended to hate the fiction embedded in the (new) World of Darkness game books, this anthology is not for you (note that in my opinion the new WoD has much better embedded fiction than the old books did). For everyone else, this book is worth a read. The tales are quick reads, and there are a few nice gems in here.

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Minireview: V20 Companion (Vampire: the Masquerade)

V20 Companion is an add-on book for the (fantastic) Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary edition (V20 for short), consisting of add-on material which didn’t fit in that already huge tome. While intentions were good here, the end result leaves something to be desired. The biggest problem is: there’s simply not much here. At 80 pages it’s a very thin book, and to add insult to injury only some of the material is new and interesting. Furthermore, there are way too many wasted pages here, reducing the actual content even further. Looking at price per content ratio, this book isn’t really a “recommended buy”.

That’s not to say it’s a total waste. The layout and are is very nice, and the content is competently written as such. The first half of the book is a re-examination of the title and boon system in the Vampire world – all fine and good, but much of this was already familiar to GMs and players, and while having it in one place is nice, it doesn’t really warrant taking up half of this book. Additionally, the new details (being able to buy titles with experience, for example) do not sound like awesome ideas considering how this game is usually played.

The second half of the book is better. First off there’s an examination of (high) technology and the Kindred, which is a subject that tends to come up in games quite a bit. A lot of interesting discussion here, including various reasons why older vampires do not use high tech to any great capacity (beyond just “they are stuck in their ways”, though that is a big part of it). This section is easily the best part of the book. After that we get a section on international (read: non-US) interesting locations in the game world. While a nice idea, the allowed page count only gives room for a couple of paragraphs per location, much too little to really do more than mention major details. This section is something that would work much better as a standalone book, with enough room to examine the various locales in detail.

Last off, there’s a short appendix consisting of things that were cut from the book (in general detail) and the reasons why. Now, this section simply makes no sense. In a book already starved for page count, we get multiple things dedicated to stuff that, while interesting, would be better served as a blog post? Meh.

In the end, while it’s a pretty book and is does have some interesting discussion in it, I cannot really recommend this. It’s very, very light on actual content, and is a bit of a rip-off when you consider the price and the page count. Pity.

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