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Petri Wessman's weblog

In which we talk a bit about White Wolf

SAS

SAS

White Wolf. Despite their making some truly boneheaded blunders now and then, and despite some pretty crappy stuff mixed in with the more brilliant, they remain easily my favorite large rpg company. Sure, there are lots of smaller game design studios/people which I have perhaps higher esteem for, but White Wolf has managed quite a track record over the years. I guess the most important factoid is that they make games that spark my interest and imagination – while I find myself utterly bored with the “standard” D&D / Tolkienesque fantasy, when White Wolf does fantasy (Exalted) it’s suddenly something new and interesting.

Of course, having been part of the group running the 10-year Helsinki Vampire Chronicle has given me a lot of background on the old Vampire. Despite all the silliness and occasional fuckups, it was still quite a project and a very cool thing to be involved with.

Since not that many seem to be aware of it, I’ll mention here that the WW design guys have a weblog which generally gets filled in every Monday with stuff from their weekly meeting – which may sound boring, but due to the entertaining writing style and subjects covered, manages to be anything but.

Ok, the WoD reboot happened, and the new World of Darkness has now had time to build up a bit. I have a lot more books on my “to read” pile than I have time to read, I’ve only read the core books of the (so far) 4 WoD game lines along with some supplement books. Impressions so far:

  • Vampire: the closest one to the original game, things are very much the same… except where they are very, very different. There are still clans, and disciplines, and all that – but the politics are very different, the focus is much more small-scale, and there’s a marked reduction in the amount of “superheroes with fangs” stuff going on. I think it’s a superior game to the old one, there’s a lot of depth here and it’s only getting deeper as the setting gains more detail. I could see myself running this game, where I wasn’t at all interested in the old one (tabletop, that is).

  • Werewolf: here things start to diverge. No more black-and-white Gaia vs Wyrm stuff, less “cosmic level” stuff. The Umbra still exists, but is renamed and much more hostile. The game focus is territory and protecting it, and again it’s much more “local” than the first game. Looks like a very good game, and has a lot of quite creepy elements (where the first game was more into splatter-type action).

  • Mage: the problem child. I’m still not sure what to think, here. The core book was just flat-out boring and uninspiring, and where the old Mage just screamed “cool” at times, this one was more in the “meh” category. However, I read Boston Unveiled and that managed to actually be very good (in parts excellent) and gave me some hope for the game. Apparently some of the later supplements also add stuff that makes the game better and reduces the general “Atlantis” silliness. Lots of people seem to like this game, but personally I’m not quite convinced. I think there’s a good game somewhere in there trying to get out from under all the crap, but I think this one needs a rewrite or a revised edition. The game does have some cool covers, though, for example see the preview of the upcoming Free Council book above.

  • Promethean: I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting much here. A game about playing Frankenstein’s monster? Hmmm. Somewhere about halfway through the core book, however, I discovered I was pretty much sold on the game and actually started thinking “maybe I should run a oneshot of this”. I haven’t read the expansion books yet, but they are on the list – I hear they keep up the high quality. This game is apparently a labor of love for the writers, it shows. There are some very clever twists on the old “created being” trope here. Promethean is, by the way, a limited-run series, I think the “line” will only contain 5 books. White Wolf is apparently going to be doing a lot of these “mini game lines”, to the tune of one per year or so.

Besides those four, we have the “mortals” books for the WoW, which is a new twist; the old WoD didn’t really support playing as mortals to any meaningful degree. With the new separate WoD rulebook (which contains only the base rules for mortals), things have changed… and changed for the better. The fact is that the “mortals” WoD books are very, very good. Surprisingly so. The book Mysterious Places, for example, is among the best rpg source books I’ve ever read. It’s just that good. Likewise, the Armory book manages to be the best book about equipment, weapons and “stuff” that I’ve ever encountered. The new WoD is shaping up to be a pretty good setting to run general, low-key supernatural/horror stories in.

I do have some gripes with the WoD ruleset, though. While it’s generally nice and lightweight, I think the combat mechanics are abstracted a bit too much. I haven’t used the system much, though. Could be that with some tweaks it could work well enough. Dunno. Somewhat lukewarm on the actual WoD system, personally. It works well enough, but I don’t actively like it yet. I tolerate it.

If we leave the WoD, we have White Wolf’s other major game line, Exalted. I’m currently starting up a game with it, and overall I love it. It’s a wonderful combination of cleverly crunchy mechanics and a world (“Creation”) that contains everything and the kitchen sink. A big, scary kitchen sink that wants to eat your brain and build an intricate coat rack out of your bones. It’s crazy, but it’s also pretty consistent internally and has some (strange) physics of its own which kinda-sorta make sense. I like the insane intricacy of the game world, I like the tone which manages to be both over-the-top-tongue-in-cheek and gritty+serious at the same time. Dunno how it does that, but there it is. Of course, the bad side of the game is that very same complexity. The mechanics are ultra-crunchy, and the game world makes your head spin – I’ve read probably over 2000 pages of background material by now and I’m still confused on many levels. I mostly like the Exalted ruleset, but I fully understand people who run away screaming in horror.

I get the impression that Exalted is very popular and sells very well. I also get the impression that this huge popularity has come as a bit of a surprise for White Wolf. A pleasant suprise, of course, but still.

So, that’s the old/current stuff. In the new/upcoming stuff, there’s various interesting stuff:

  • The Storytelling Adventure System. Under the grandidose title, what this actually means is “PDF-only pregenerated adventure modules for White Wolf games”. There are three of these available now (generic WoD, Vampire, Werewolf), and I’ve quickly glanced through them. Summary: very nice. While they are “just” pregenerated adventures, they are formatted as a series of scenes with fairly loose coupling, with emphasis on avoiding railroads and too much GM expectations. They are built to be either run standalone or dropped into existing games, and as an additional bonus they are in landscape format; it’s a minor thing, but makes reading on a computer monitor much nicer. The price is on the high side, I think maybe a dollar less would be more “correct”. On the other hand, there’s a bundle available which offers about that dollar-per-module discount, so I can’t really complain too much. Overall, I love this format… having high-quality ready-to-run stuff is always good – no matter how creative you are (and I’m not, generally), there are always times when you either run out of good ideas or just don’t have time to prepare. These should help, if you happen to be running one of the relevant games. Will from WW has said that SAS modules for the other games are also in the pipeline. We’ll see. It’s nice to see WW experimenting with pure-PDF publishing like this, I think PDF is the perfect format for something like this and developments like this may help a lot of things see the light of day that might not otherwise make sense to publish.

  • Scion is the next “mini game line”. Apparently, it’s something along the lines of American Gods, using a somewhat streamlined Exalted game system. Modern-day urban fantasy with Exalted-style combat – could be utterly cool, could be horrible. We’ll see in April, I guess, when Scion: Hero sees the light of day.

  • A new version of Changeling is the next upcoming WoD game. I didn’t much care for the original version, got too much of a “warm fuzzy elves” feel from it. The new one, written by Ethan (of new Werewolf fame) and the gang, reputedly focuses a lot more on the darker aspects of the “fae” mythology. Apparently it’s a lot more “Pan’s Labyrinth” than “Labyrinth”. If so, good.

  • Apparently there’s a “sixth WoD game” in the works. No idea of what that is, could be pretty much anything.

We’ll see. Now that CCP and White Wolf have merged, anything could happen. I was pretty apprehensive at first, with visions of WW being gutted to run EVE-related stuff running through my mind… but I’m not that worried any more. If things go well, we’ll have the CCP guys help WW with expanding into computer stuff (hey, anything to fix up WW’s horrible web site!), and WW helping CCP do “proper” roleplaying expansion around EVE themes.

I guess it’s a good thing that my main complaint with roleplaying nowadays is “there’s way more good stuff coming out than I have time to even read, let alone play!”. While there’s a lot of doom and gloom now and then with “the roleplaying industry is dying” and other related concerns, I’m not sure I see that happening. Sure, computer gaming will have an effect and will to some extent probably merge with pen&paper games – but overall, it’s all good, at least as far as the customers/players are concerned. And hey… it’ll be a long, long time before computer games can offer the flexibility of “traditional” rpg games. Both have their strengths, and I don’t see that going away anytime soon.

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