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Petri Wessman's weblog

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: Rites of Renown, edited by Bill Bridges

One of the stretch goals of the Werewolf: the Apocalypse 20th Anniversary Edition Kickstarter was a fiction anthology, and Rites of Renown (subtitled “When Will You Rage II”) is the result. Somewhat surprisingly, taking into account that it’s gaming fiction and originally “just” an add-on, it’s good. Very good, in fact. I should perhaps stop being surprised at the quality of these new World of Darkness anthologies, since recent other books from other related game lines have also been of high quality. Onyx Path is clearly attracting a better breed of writers than old White Wolf did (though some of the writers here are also old White Wolf writers, now with more writing skill).

The book contains 19 stories, focusing on the Garou. While many are action-filled tales of the fight against the Wyrm in all its forms, some are more subtle, dealing with alienation from humanity and from their own “kinfolk”, and with other subjects not easily solved with giant teeth and claws. Not all of the stories are total winners, but most are quite enjoyable and a few are memorably good.

Very much worth picking up if you like the W:tA game (or at least know something about it). Not sure how well this collection would work for someone with no previous background info; I suspect some confusion would result since not everything is explained here, it’s assumed the reader can fill in some of the gaps.

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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: Blasphemies (Werewolf: the Forsaken)

While it still didn’t totally woo me on the new Werewolf, the Blasphemies book does a good job in providing some GM tools for both non-standard “origin myths” for werewolves and better fleshed-out antagonists of several different shades.

The book begins with the alternate creation myths. Nothing earth-shattering there, but I did appreciate the hints on how certain types of changes would change the game tone (not a bad thing necessarily), and what you can and can’t do without rewriting bigger parts of the game. It’s a decent overview of some alternate takes on werewolf world background, and may be useful to GMs dissatisfied with the stock version. It also provides background beliefs to some alternate Lodges (detailed later).

The next section detail various sort of spirit cults, and it’s perhaps the best part of the book. These cults are not necessarily antagonistic, though they often end up that way due to both spirits’ limited understanding of what makes humans tick and to the general “spirit police” role typically taken on by werewolves in this setting. Lots of example cults are provided, along with sample NPCs and plot ideas. Good stuff, this.

Next up is a section on alternate lodges, many of them following an “alternate” creation myth and view of the universe. Some are a bit ho-hum, but some are quite interesting. Not much else I can say here except that it’s a mixed bag and mostly good; the majority of the new Lodges (and “Mots”) are interesting, if quite specialized.

The book finishes off with a treatment on the Bale Hounds, the sort-of replacements for the Black Spiral Dancers of the old Werewolf game. Very useful if you intend to use them in your game, this section provides some tools for making them a bit less black & white villains… though in the end, that’s very much what they are. Some Bale Hound -specific game crunch is provided, which is always nice. I get the feeling that this section ran a bit long compared to the available page count – the font used here is smaller than in the previous sections, which already were in quite compact font. It’s still legible, but the pages are quite crammed with text in places.

In the end, this is a book pretty much purely for GMs who want some new antagonist options and/or some variants on the base mythology.

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Minireview: Chicago (World of Darkness)

World of Darkness: Chicago is a huge setting/crossover book for the (new) World of Darkness. And I do mean huge… at 400+ pages, you could use this as a melee weapon. Fortunately, it’s both a good book and a (surprisingly) good read, so that page count isn’t a bad thing. Even though it’s titled as a general “World of Darkness” book, it’s really not. It’s a crossover book for Vampire, Werewolf and Mage; while a “normals” WoD campaign can get some mileage out of this, the bulk of the book is for the three main game lines.

After some initial chapters detailing the general history of Chicago, the book splits into three parts: unsurprisingly, Vampire, Werewolf & Mage. The Vampire section is easily the best, it’s a showcase of how to create an interesting (vampiric) political situation for a city without leaning much on stereotypes. The NPCs are interesting and the given political situation is full of options and dangers, without being too much of an instant powder keg. Too many vampire games start off with the good old “the old Price has just been deposed” trope. Well, here that has happened…. but it was some time ago, and the new Price is already entrenched, but not too entrenched. There are tons of PC options both for supporting the current regime and opposing it (and also lots of “don’t care” groups). This book is worth the cover price on the strength of the NPCs in the Vampire section alone, they are quite excellent.

The Werewolf section isn’t quite as strong, but does contain some very cool touches. I especially liked some of the Pure packs lurking in the suburbs, some quite creepy stuff going on there. Also, many of the totem spirits used here are interesting and not at all “nice” (I say that as a good thing). The fact that Chicago has a long and bloody history, both in human terms and in terms of the meat packing and slaughter industry, makes for lots of very nice spirit-world options.

Last and unfortunately also least is the Mage section. While not strictly bad, it’s nowhere are tight and interesting as the previous two chapters. There are some interesting NPCs here, but a lot of the main elements seemed quite off to me. Real names are supposed to be a big deal in this game… but here we have a major faction leader openly using his real name and also being the head of a big corporation. The bad guys, supposed to be shadowy puppeteers who may not even exist, suddenly have a headquarters in some highrise building, and the Pentacle mages actually seem to know who and where they are. It’s quite inconsistent with the game, as originally written. At times it shows quite badly that this book was written quite a while ago, back when Mage was still trying to figure itself out. I’ve been told Mage has improved over time, but here it’s a bit of a mess. Still, there are quite a few nice NPCs here who could be used in pretty much any game.

There is some interconnect between the three main parts of the book, but it’s a bit rough – the Mage section has a nightclub/pub which is portrayed as a major meeting point for supernaturals, but this isn’t mentioned in the Vampire or Werewolf parts. Still, the book does try to provide for crossover use, and succeeds to a point. Overall, it’s a very solid city sourcebook with coverage for the three main supernatural splats. Even if your campaign isn’t set in Chicago, there is lot here you could steal for many other WoD games.

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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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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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