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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: 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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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: Mummy (World of Darkness)

Mummy is a (very) old World of Darkness book, actually published before the first Werewolf game. It gives us the first glimpse at mummies, later expanded into more substantial books and small game lines. While it’s old and quite thin, it’s not bad. Many details have changed since this book came out, but the core concepts behind classic World of Darkness mummies are here: mystic immortals, with their origins in ancient Egypt. While vampires are also immortal, this is immortality of a different and more substantial sort: these guys may die now and then, but they always come back. Often, angry.

The book details their origin story, or at least one version of it, as narrated by a possibly-unreliable narrator. The same ritual which created mummies also created their “evil” versions, the so-called “Bane Mummies”, giving the “true” mummies a natural antagonist group. There aren’t all that many mummies wandering around, which limits their use in rpg terms, especially as PCs. Yes, the book actually contains character creation rules for these, which surprised me a bit. In reality, the main use case for this book is providing a new set of weird NPCs (allies or antagonists) for a PC group consisting of vampires or werewolves. And as such, it’s quite decent. If you actually want to play as mummies, the later incarnations of this book are probably better bets (or the new Mummy: the Curse game which has a somewhat different take on things).

The only really weird bit here is the fiction surrounding the chapters, in which a vampire meets a mummy (with no prior knowledge of these beings), and said mummy proceeds to tell the narrator all about himself and his origins. “Yes, you are a vampire, how nice, sit down and let me tell you all about out ancient and secretive group!”. It’s all very artificial. I usually like the old-WoD style of doing in-character narrations on various subjects, I find it often works better than a dry “objective” text… but here, it all gets a bit silly.

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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: The Free Council (Mage: the Awakening)

The Free Council is the thinnest of the five main “splat books” for the new Mage. Now, a small page count might be caused by the focus group being so simple to describe that it doesn’t take all that much space, or it might be caused by the focus being so vague that the writers didn’t really know what to do with it. Guess which one this is?

The problem with these sorts of “anarchist” groups is that, by definition, they don’t conform to just one modus operandi or stereotype, which makes describing them tricky – they tend to become grab-bags for everyone who didn’t fit into the other more well-defined groups, the “Other” category. Whether it’s this group of “young idealists”, the Anarchs / Carthians or Vampire, or some other such group, the main problem is “what is the unifying theme with these guys?”. Here, the easy answer would have been “techno-mages”, since most members are modern in their outlook and comfortable with technology. The book doesn’t quite go there, though there are lots of nods in that direction, with various ways of combining magic and technology.

The main problem here, to me, was that it just wasn’t all that inspiring a read. I’d expect a book like this to include lots of off-the-wall ideas and have lots of energy, but it’s much the opposite – the style is dry, and while there ware fun ideas here and there, it didn’t really inspire me to play these guys (even though that should have been an easy sell). Some of the Legacies were interesting, but all too much of the information given was just shallow hand-waving instead of concrete hooks to help me run (or play) Free Council members. Part of the problem is, of course, the somewhat vague nature of the group’s ideology (with the meta-problem of White Wolf trying to cram everything into just five Orders, instead of the original Mage’s much more organic structure). That said, I’m sure that a better book could be written around the subject. This one is resoundingly “meh”.

The book follows the typical structure of these things: we get a history of the group (some of which was credible, some of which was not), we get some idea of how their day-to-day life is structured and how their politics work, and we get a pile of crunch (rotes, equipment, Legacies, etc).

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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: Ashes To Ashes (Vampire: the Masquerade)

Ashes To Ashes is one of the first books in the original Vampire: the Masquerade game line, predating even the old venerable Chicago By Night tome (even though it takes place in Chicago). It’s an adventure module, continuing the starter adventure in the 1st edition Vampire core book. I haven’t read that one, but apparently it sets up the PCs as Neonates in Gary, Indiana, under the rule of Prince Modius. The PCs happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and are sent off to Chicago to present themselves to Prince Lodin… at which point we transition to this story.

Turns out that Prince Lodin has vanished (it takes the PCs a while to get this information, because they will get a run-around from various personages in the city), and the PCs are prime candidates for being set up as patsies for the disappearance. So, naturally enough, they get an offer of finding the Prince… or else.

While there are some railroaded bits, it’s surprisingly free-form for an early White Wolf adventure. The PCs have quite a bit of leeway in how they’ll approach things and who they’ll ally with, and in addition they get more than a few red herrings thrown at them – not everything and everyone here is what or who they seem. There’s a bit of combat, but the emphasis is on social stuff and investigation. The general theme here is “someone else is pulling the strings”, and the adventure mostly manages to pull that off without too much railroad (something many other adventures in the game line fail miserably at). Sure, having the PCs tangle in the vanishing/death of a Prince is a bit of a cliché here, but on the other hand this is the first time they did it so I can’t blame this book.

My main complaint would be that the back story runs the danger of staying quite opaque to the PCs/players, unless the GM injects some awkward exposition at some point. There are lots of plot points that the PCs will probably never figure out, as written. To the module’s credit, it does have the (somewhat unusual) mechanism of providing a secondary story, where the PCs can play the part of the antagonist(s), set in an earlier time – this is intended as a way of explaining the why and the what of things. As such it’s a fun idea, but I’m not sure how many GMs/groups will feel like actually doing that.

Overall, not bad at all. Better that had reason to expect, given WW’s abysmal record with things like this. If run successfully, it sets the PCs up as residents of Chicago, with some new allies (and, probably, enemies) and a small amount of local fame. There is one caveat here: the adventure doesn’t railroad the PCs rescuing the Prince, it’s quite possible they’ll fail. This will immediately segue into the later version of Chicago as presented in the 2nd edition of Chicago By Night, because canonically Lodin is supposed to die later (in Under a Blood Red Moon).

There’s a bit of overlap between this book and Chicago By Night, because the Chicago setting book was published after this, but it’s not too bad.

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