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Petri Wessman's weblog

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: Rites of the Dragon (Vampire: the Requiem)

Rites of the Dragon is both a piece of fiction set in the Vampire: the Requiem game world, and a possible in-game artifact. In the first role it’s only so-so, someone reading thing with no background information about the game won’t get much out of it – it’s basically a quick-read variant of the old Dracula myth, as narrated by Dracula himself. As an in-game artifact it works better: this book also outlines the source of the philosophy of the Ordo Dracul (which claims Dracula as its founder) and something like this might well be something that is given out to new recruits as background. To help reinforce this notion, the book has a fancy felt cover and is in a smaller format, looking more like a “normal” book than a “game book”.

It’s not the first time White Wolf has done this, of course. The new Vampire also has The Testament of Longinus which is the counterpart for the Lancea Sanctum, and the old Vampire had lots of similar books, starting with the old Book of Nod. It’s a fun concept.

The tale itself is nothing spectacular. We’re given a bit more background on how the Ordo came to be (well, supposedly anyway) and on some of the other leaders of the Order. There are some fun historical bits, but in the end, this is very lightweight stuff and it’s a quick read; the word count is quite low and there are plenty of pictures. Still, it’s a moderately entertaining expansion on the game background.

In the end, this book really isn’t worth the high(ish) asking price, unless you really want this for an in-game prop in a LARP or some such (in which role it’s great). That’s not to say that it’s a bad book; it’s worth a read if you’re interested in the game and can get hold of a copy for a lower price.

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MInireview: The Marriage of Virtue and Viciousness, by Greg Stolze

The Marriage of Virtue and Viciousness continues (in a way) the story begun in Hunger Like Fire, skipping much of the side events in Blood In, Blood Out. Persephone Moore and Solomon Birch are front and center, with much of the book focusing on the politics surrounding Birch – his Blood Bond to Prince Maxwell is largely seen by his “own people” (some elements in the Lancea Sanctum) as too big a liability, and the demands for him to step down escalate. At the same time, there is apparently a vampire hunter in town, a mortal who somehow manages to be dangerous to local Kindred.

There are two main threads running through the book. One is the vampire internal politics one, which is interesting enough since the status quo is threatened and various parties scramble to hold on to their positions (or grab someone else’s). The other thread concerns the vampire hunter, and it’s the best part here: it’s both exactly what it seems (an angry mortal out for blood) and not quite what it seems (I’ll avoid spoilers on that part). The whole book underlines many of the subtle schemes that underlie much of Kindred existence, and as such highlights much of what Requiem is supposed to be about as a game.

It’s probably the best book in this sort-of-trilogy. It’s not awesome by any means, but it’s competently written and serves as a nice intro to the game world. While it probably works as a standalone, reading Hunger Like Fire first is recommended.

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Minireview: Blood In, Blood Out, by Lucien Soulban

Blood In, Blood Out is the second part of the Vampire: the Requiem trilogy of books – but it’s only (very) loosely connected with the first book. It’s also set in Chicago and features some of the same characters (most in the background), but the front-and-center characters here are quite new. The book focuses on an ex-gangbanger named Duce Carter, now a frontman for the local Carthian faction, trying to negotiate a fragile peace while elements both within the Carthians and within the more powerful faction maneuver to upset the cart. There’s intrigue, quite a bit of “slum gang politics”, and plenty of violence.

It’s not as good as Stolze’s “A Hunger Like Fire”, but neither is it a bad book. The black gangbanger viewpoint, while a bit cliched, is still quite interesting. Duce is somewhat dry as a main character and initially a bit too much of a hero, but some of that flakes off later on.

If you just want a continuation of the initial story and characters in the first book, this book offers little – plotwise, it’s a complete detour. On the other hand, it drops some new characters into the mix and is worth a read, as light entertainment.

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Minireview: A Hunger Like Fire, by Greg Stolze

Compared to the older World of Darkness, the new one doesn’t have all too many novels attributed to it. Some may say this is a good thing; the general quality of the old WoD novels was atrociously bad. A Hunger Like Fire is the first in a trilogy of novels for Vampire: the Requiem, and there is reason to be cautiously optimistic here: Greg Stolze actually knows how to write. After having read it… yeah. It’s actually not bad at all. It focuses quite a bit on vampiric politics, but like the game itself it’s a lot more local-scale and, well, gritty than the old Masquerade was.

The book starts off with one of the best depictions of a just-Embraced (and left to fend for himself) vampire I’ve read to date. All too many times this is depicted as a normal guy with a great life suddenly having his old life snatched away (in multiple ways). Sure, that works, but here the protagonist is a loser. He drinks, he’s not all that smart, and he doesn’t treat his wife or daughter all that well. He’s not a “bad guy” either, just a… loser. Then he gets turned into a vampire, and the depiction of how he deals with things (and fails to understand much of anything) is a lot of fun.

From there the story segues into the larger scale of vampire politics in Chicago. We get Persephone Moore, a character who starts off a bit stereotyped but develops character fast. She’s trying to stay human, to keep in touch… and it’s not quite working. Then there’s Prince Maxwell, who is left as a bit of an enigma. At least he’s not quite the stereotype of an elder. Last but not least, there’s Solomon Birch, who is a religious fanatic and leader of the local Lancea Sanctum. While being in a way the “bad guy” of this piece, he’s not totally that. He has convictions and he tries to live his “life” by them, and he is at least somewhat loyal to old friends. Still, he is closer to the monster side of things than most others in this book.

It’s an entertaining read, and it breathes life into how the game is supposed to work: local-scale politics, without the endless metaplot weirdness and mysterious Elders pulling all the strings that plagued so much of the old Vampire. Don’t get me wrong, that stuff was entertaining too – but here the fiction showcases what makes this game somewhat different. In the end it comes down to Stolze being a competent writer, compared to all too many others who have written WoD fiction in the past.

Incidentally, this is the first book I’ve ever read completely via an e-book reader. The PDF format was a bit crummy for that, but either my Sony managed to display that semi-legibly or I did a Calibre conversion to ePub – I honestly don’t remember. I suppose DriveThru will offer these books as ePubs too, sometime in the future, but at the moment White Wolf doesn’t have staff to handle that sort of conversion.

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Minireview: Requiem for Rome (Vampire: the Requiem)

Requiem for Rome presents a look at the Vampire: the Requiem world during the times of the Roman Empire, with a focus on Rome itself. While it tries to stay true to known history, it specifically notes that gaming takes precedence over strict historical accuracy. Fair enough. Since my knowledge of ancient Rome comes from decidedly lightweight sources like the tv-show “Rome” and assorted movies, everything sounded suitably “ancient Roman”… but people with actual knowledge of that period will no doubt find “creative interpretations” here and there.

It’s dark stuff, and focuses on the fact that the Roman times were in many ways quite barbaric by our modern sensibilities. Life was cheap, slave labor was a major factor of civilization, and the leaders tried to quell unrest by endless foreign wars of conquest coupled with cheap entertainment for the masses. On second thought, that last part mirrors our own times a bit too accurately…. Anyway, it’s in many ways an alien civilization, and that’s without vampires. Here, the vampires move behind the scenes, residing in the vast crypt networks underneath the city. In this age, their predations go largely unnoticed and if someone does see them – well, the people believe in the supernatural (in various forms) anyway, there is not much need for a “Masquerade”. Of course, the vampires do try to stay secret, but it’s not an obsession.

The vampires also have an organization, “The Camarilla” (name copied from Vampire: the Masquerade). It’s very different here, being a Roman-style forum of vampires, split into several “wings”. One of the big drivers of tension here is the rise of Christianity; the new “Lancea et Sanctum” (later bastardized to “Lancea Sanctum”) sect promotes a variant of Christianity among vampires, while other mortal preachers promote it (and fight the “pagan” gods) during daytime. Historically, that rise of Christianity has strong ties to the eventual fall of Rome, and here too it’s presented as an element of strife and violence (as religious conflict tends to be, especially when coupled with political interests).

There is also a supernatural threat, in the form of the Stirges. Nobody knows what they actually are, but they hunt vampires (especially of the Julii bloodline) and they are seriously nasty. I don’t want to spoil details here, but they are among the coolest elements in the book. They are also detailed in some of the other Vampire: the Requiem books, and are an antagonist type which is quite usable in modern tales too (with tweaks, since the Julii are now gone forever, at least by canon).

Overall, it’s an excellent take on “historical vampire”, in a somewhat unusual setting. It does a good job in presenting ancient Rome as an alien environment (to modern people), before introducing any supernatural elements at all. Of course, actually using this book in a game needs a player group interested in this sort of stuff, which might be tricky. At the least, it should be easy to run some one-shots and mini-campaigns based on this.

The only real criticism I have of this book is font-related. There is a fiction piece, split into multiple short parts, which runs throughout the book. It’s a nice story and brings some good extra color to certain parts of the book. All fine and good, but White Wolf has done one of their typical artistic layout brain farts here again and presented the whole thing in a “handwritten” script which is ridiculously hard to read. I understand wanting to have the thing look like an actual character diary… but come on, at least make it legible.

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Minireview: Ordo Dracul (Vampire: the Requiem)

The new Vampire (Vampire: the Requiem) gets rid of the old clan-based approach; there still are clans, but they no longer dictate your behavior to the old extent. More important are the groups the vampire belongs to… and here the Covenants step in. The Ordo Dracul book describes one of them, the insular and secretive Ordo Dracul.

When I read the Vampire core book I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Ordo. They seemed a weird mix of the old Tremere and a random secret society (and/or the Freemasons), which claims to be founded by Dracula himself. This book describes what they really are and what they want to do – and it’s good stuff. The Ordo is actually a quite fascinating group.

At the core, it’s a vampiric transcendentalist group, with heavy influences from Freemasonism and suchlike. It has a strict hierarchy and chain of command (like the old Tremere), and the lowest-level applicants are actually called “Slaves”. However, it actually does strive for great things: the Ordo concentrates on rising above the vampiric condition, instead of trying to deny it they try to control it and reduce the negative effects. Most shockingly… they seem to be succeeding, at least to a point. A mental/body-control regimen called “The Coils” lets some of them bypass some very fundamental vampiric flaws. They can ignore (very limited amounts of) sunlight. They can control their frenzy reflex. They can stay awake during the day. Naturally enough, many other groups want to know how the hell they do it, but the Dragons (as they call themselves) aren’t talking.

The influences from Freemasonism are all over the place, though the scientific method largely replaces the reliance on mysticism. The Ordo consists of scholars and scientists, first and foremost. They have an elaborate system of coded names, with a certain scholar perhaps having the title “Invisible Philosopher of the Subtle Terror”. To another Dragon, this title tells a lot of important information. To an outsider, it’s nonsense. To add to the deliberate confusion, some titles are only used to mark spies and spread misinformation; using some certain code words in your title tells elder Dragons that “I’m a spy, and cannot be trusted”.

At the core, the Ordo is a group of transcendentalist (or “transhumanist”) amoral vampiric scientists, searching for a (semi) scientific solution to vampirism. Not to cure it, but to use it as the stepping stone in the next step of evolution. They use any and all means available. They do mass murder just because they want to see how the survivors react. They save random people from death, and then observe the cause-and-effect ripples that causes. They observe everything (especially themselves), endlessly. They are far from being “good guys” – but like the Tremere of old, they are quite fascinating.

The book is extremely well written and readable, and really brings a very weird group to life. This is an especially noteworthy feat since the Ordo and its goals are so very… strange. They have a method to their madness, and their layers upon layers of secrecy are mostly there for functional purposes. Yes, they are hard on the applicants who want to join, but they also offer (in their own mind) power that nobody else can offer. Once (and if) you’re accepted into the Ordo proper, you’re on the path to becoming a superbeing.

Or so they claim.

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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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