Changeling: The Lost

Changeling was the 2007 game for White Wolf’s World of Darkness. It was, I gather, a rather larger hit than the publishers expected, which is always nice when it happens. This is a contrast to their last attempt at Changelings. Changeling: The Dreaming could be (slightly unfairly) described as “hippies fight librarians”. Changeling: The Lost is, rather, “abuse survivors try to rebuild some kind of life”. Rather darker, and much more effective as a game.

The player characters are people who were abducted by the fairies, and then managed to escape. Fairies are not nice, so their experiences in Arcadia were dreadful, and transformed them into something no longer entirely human. What’s worse, in most cases their abductors left fetches behind in their places, so that their family and friends do not even realise that they were gone. They normally find themselves near the place from which they were abducted, as it is their desire for home, family, or a particular person that allows them to get out of Arcadia. However, home is no longer their home, so they have to create a new life.

The background is good, and there are a lot of nice mechanical touches. For example, the supernatural powers of the Changelings are based on contracts made with the world, and each contract has a catch, which allows the Changeling to use it at no cost if she performs some appropriate action. This is a good way to get players to have their characters do suitable things, as well as reinforcing the mood. In all, this is a very good game, with flashes of inspiration setting off the solid work around them.

It seems to be best suited to fairly long, open-ended campaigns, unlike Promethean, which would work best in a chronicle with a fixed goal (becoming human). This is why I’ll probably never play it; I don’t have time for multiple long-term campaigns, and I’d rather play Mage, or Ars Magica. However, if I was playing a WoD chronicle, I’d definitely want to work the Changelings in. The ideas are too good to waste.

The Pure

This is a book for White Wolf’s Werewolf: the Forsaken line, detailing the “bad werewolves” of the setting. Naturally, with it being a horror game, the “good werewolves” are not exactly models of virtue and restraint, but they are supposed to be much more sympathetic than the Pure. The Pure are driven by an unwavering belief in their own virtue, and a genocidal hatred of the Forsaken, the “good werewolves”. They are the religious fanatics, the “master race”, and the merciless hunters of the setting.

The book struck me as a solid, workmanlike performance that covered all the necessary bases. But it didn’t inspire me. This could be just me, of course. There’s a lot of material in it, and plenty of things that could be used in a game to showcase the ways in which the Pure differ from default werewolves, so anyone who found the Pure inspiring, whether as villains or as flawed protagonists, in the core rules would probably find a lot of good stuff here. I never did, and that may well be the problem.

On the up side, there is plenty of material here that I could use if I decided to include the Pure in a game, and it would certainly save me a lot of work; there are sample characters, Rites, Gifts, and fetishes, and discussions of the sorts of things that the Pure get up to. But that extra spark is missing. In the terms I used when marking essays, it’s a solid II:i, but it’s missing that something special needed to make it a first.

Shadows of the UK

This is the World of Darkness sourcebook for the UK. That may, indeed, be fairly obvious from the title, not to mention the cover image, but it still seems like a sensible place to start talking about it. Most of the authors are British, as far as I know, and quite possibly all of them. Certainly, I didn’t spot any gross errors as I was reading through, and quite a few points picked up on things that are of contemporary concern in the UK. (As far as I know from reading the Guardian website from Japan, so I suppose that Americans prepared to do research could have managed it equally well.) The proof that at least some of the authors are genuine Britons is the reference to the Wombles. Mind you, I’m not sure that I could work the Wombles into any variety of horror game.

The book was published as part of the general World of Darkness line, rather than as part of one of the subsidiary game lines. However, it reads as though it was originally written as a Werewolf supplement, and then moved after a policy decision that there would be no more regional sourcebooks for the individual games. There is a lot of emphasis on the werewolves of Britain, with details of packs and fully-statted sample members, and much less on the vampires and mages, although not nothing. There is also some material on other horrific things to be found around the UK, both from old legends and from more recent events.

On the whole, I thought it was well done. However, once again I felt that there was too much emphasis on the created characters, who could fit in, with few changes, anywhere in the world, and not enough emphasis on the background of the UK. More UK legends and haunted places, with suggestions on how to use them in stories, or tie them to different kinds of supernatural creatures, would be more to my taste. As a halfway house, maybe have some supernatural groups tied strongly to local legends, and then sketch how they might also interact with other, slightly more generic groups. This isn’t really a criticism of the authors, because they have done a good job of what they were, doubtless, told to do. It’s not even really a criticism of the editor, because I’m not absolutely sure that my idea would be an improvement. It’s more a general expression of something I think should be tried for a regional book. Until it is tried, we won’t know whether it’s actually better.

Shadowrun, Fourth Edition

Shadowrun is a cyberpunk roleplaying game with elves and magic. It’s set in, in this edition, 2070, after magic returned to the world in 2012, awakening dragons, elves, dwarfs, orks, trolls, and magic. The player characters are freelance criminals who do dubious work for corporations. Although, since large corporations are effectively countries, they might better be described as freelance secret agents. The ethical background of the player characters is, to say the least, rather dubious. Despite this, it’s a game that I’ve liked since the first edition, and I have the rule books for all four editions, along with some supplements. I’ve even managed to play it, once, which is more than can be said for a lot of the games I have on my shelves.

Compared to the previous editions, I think that the fourth is an improvement. The rules have been simplified and streamlined, making it look a lot easier to run. At a glance, the general balance of the systems also looks good. By far the largest apparent improvement, however, is the better integration of deckers into the game. Deckers are the characters who deal with computer matrix, and in previous editions they would always have little solo adventures without the other player characters, and then have nothing to do while the others did their thing. That’s bad game design.

The new edition makes use of wireless networking to bring the deckers along, although, as they no longer have cyberdecks, they are now called hackers. Most of the time, a hacker is only partially in the matrix (Shadowrun has called its virtual world the matrix since long before the film came out, but it never seemed to run into a trademark clash), and thus can participate in actions in the real world as well. He can become fully immersed, but this is set up as being something that he does briefly, before rejoining the real world and moving on.

That’s the biggest difference. Shadowrun has a metaplot, which means that the background has moved on since I last looked, but it’s still recognisably the same world. It still feels like Shadowrun, and I still like it. I’m really not at all sure why, though. Some sort of atavism, perhaps, and the same reason that pirates are popular. Shadowrunners are a lot like pirates, after all, in that they kill and steal for a living, but still manage to be somehow heroic. When I played, I think my character was rather less violent than the setting assumed…

Still, it’s well put together, and I like it. Another recommended game.

Ghouls

Ghouls is a book for the World of Darkness, specifically for Vampire: the Requiem. It concerns humans who are given vampire blood to drink. They become addicted to the blood and, fairly quickly, come to regard the vampire supplying it as the most important being in their world. The blood also gives them access to some of the powers of vampires, making them stronger than normal humans, but they do not suffer the limitations; most significantly, they can go out during the day. Thus, they are the perfect servants for vampires, and that is their main role in the game.

This book thus serves two purposes. First, it develops ghouls in more detail as supporting characters, serving the player characters or their opponents. Some ghouls manage to maintain a precarious independence, and they can be allies or antagonists in their own right.

Second, it considers the possibilities of ghouls as player characters. Bound by their addiction and forced adoration for a master who is normally abusive, they are not in a particularly pleasant situation. However, for a series of roleplaying games that are about personal horror, this is not at all inappropriate. Indeed, I think they would make a very good viewpoint for examining the horror of the World of Darkness.

There is, however, a problem. Ghouls are almost all bound to vampires. This deprives them of the freedom to take the initiative in setting up stories and adventures, and this is a significant limit on a roleplaying game. What’s more, it would be unusual for a vampire to have enough ghoul servants to make a viable group, and even if he did, he would be unlikely to use them as a group. Mixed groups pose their own problems. Mixed ghouls and vampires face the problem that ghouls are active in daylight. Mixed ghouls and non-ghouls raise the problem of why the vampire allows the ghoul to associate with the others.

In short, the problem is that, although I can see how to build good stories around a single ghoul, I cannot really see how to work them into a group. The book does do some work towards dealing with this, and, of course, this is not the primary intended use of the material, so this is certainly not a major problem.

On the other side, however, a lot of the detail in the book is unlikely to see much use unless there are ghoul player characters. The information on how different clans and covenants of vampires tend to treat their ghouls is interesting, but player character vampires get to choose their own approaches. Similarly, the detailed rules on character creation are redundant if the ghouls are NPCs, and will thus be created to reach an appropriate power level. The information on ghoul families may be an exception to this; it can be used to create a new and interesting antagonist for a chronicle, or a background for a character who takes on a role other than ghoul.

In sum, this is a good book, with good ideas that make me want to use it. However, I’m not sure just how easy it would be to really use most of the information given here. If it had that extra bit of information, it might be a great book.

Boston Unveiled

Boston Unveiled is the default setting book for Mage: The Awakening. These books serve a couple of functions. The most obvious is to provide a developed setting for chronicles, to save storytellers a bit of time. The other is to provide examples of the ways that the rules can be used, and the sorts of characters you might create. On the whole, I think they are more successful in the second role.

This book is no exception. As a collection of example mages and cabals, it does a very good job. It fills in the details of what the Awakened might do with their time, or want from their power, and, naturally, makes them all slightly tainted, because the series is essentially a set of horror games. The non-mage ideas are also good; I particularly like The Prince of 100,000 Leaves, an imaginative and terrible horror. That’s an idea that I immediately want to steal.

However, I’m not sure that they work so well in the first role. The problem is, I think, inherent to the form. They fix the broad outlines of the chronicle, but leave most of the details to be filled in. However, designing the broad outlines is the fun and easy part; it’s filling in the details that takes time and effort, at least for most people. On the other hand, it’s very difficult to do the details without the broad outlines.

I think the Tribunal books we do for Ars Magica are a bit more useful, because they provide a lot of information on the history and medieval myths of the area, and that saves storyguides a lot of research. But, fundamentally, they suffer from the same problem; they run the risk of cramping the storyguide’s style without saving him a lot of time.

This is not, therefore, a criticism of this book. I think it’s a good book for Mage, and very useful for people playing the game. I’m just not sure that it actually achieves, or can achieve, the ostensible aim.

Skinchangers

This book is a supplement for the World of Darkness, and covers shapechangers of various kinds, as you might guess from the title. The WoD contains a whole game about werewolves, so this book is about other shapechangers. The first chapter is about humans who steal the shapes of animals, generally by killing animals and wearing their skins, or something similar. The second is about people possessed by spirits who make the change shape. The third is a grab-bag, ideas that do not really fit into the categories of the WoD setting. The last category is quite important, because in a horror game, it matters that you have the unknown.

The second chapter has a pet peeve. It takes up the Kitsune, shapeshifting foxes from Japanese mythology, and makes the head fox Inari. Inari is not a fox. Foxes are the messengers of Inari, in Shinto. Grrr. (This is standard RPG fan annoyance when the authors get something wrong in a field I happen to know better than they do. It’s something that, wearing my author’s hat, I have to learn to live with.)

Apart from that, it’s a good book. Several bits inspired me with ideas for stories and characters, which is the main point. The Kitsune, in fact, were good apart from that Inari thing. The Serpent Guardians, snake-spirits who hoard knowledge, also had a lot of story potential. The whole first chapter suggested lots of ideas, for various sorts of skinthieves. I’m not sure that I’ll ever get to use these ideas, but they’ll probably help if and when I have to write other books for the line.

It also confirmed my strongest impression of the new World of Darkness; I want to run a mortals campaign in it. I might segue it into a Mage chronicle at some point, but this version of the WoD is set up to work really well as a horror game for ordinary human characters. There are the layers and layers of secrets needed to make such a game work, as well as powers that humans cannot hope to confront head on. This is something that I never felt that the old World of Darkness really managed, so I think this is a significant improvement in the overall setting. It’s more flexible than the old one.

Overall, then, this is a good, solid book for the World of Darkness, with interesting twists to add to any chronicle.

Promethean: the Created

This is the latest in White Wolf’s new World of Darkness series. Each game covers a monster type, and this time, it’s the turn of Frankenstein’s monster. I have to confess that I wasn’t particularly enthused by the concept, and basically bought the book because, as I’m writing for the new WoD, I feel that I ought to be at least generally familiar with all the major elements of it.

However, the game looks a lot better than I thought. Characters have a fixed goal: become human. The chronicle is of finite length, and is built around achieving that goal. This isn’t like Vampire: the Requiem, where it may be possible to become human again, or may not. It is definitely possible for the created to become human again, and some of those who have done so are around, and may help or hinder those who still seek it. This is, generally, brought off very well, both in the flavour text and in the rule systems.

One of the things that helps is Disquiet, which means that Prometheans draw the hostility of humans, and corrupt the land if they stay in one place for too long. This gives them a good reason to seek humanity, even though that means they will lose their kewl powaz. This is, however, one of the few problems in the book. The description of Disquiet given in much of the text is a lot like The Gift in Ars Magica, creating suspicion and hostility in those who deal with the Promethean in person. However, in the section on Disquiet itself, the description is completely different. Personally, I’d just combine the two, but it was a little disturbing.

A lot of the structure of the book will be familiar to anyone who’s read World of Darkness games. There are five types of Promethean, and five philosophical factions, for a basic total of twenty five possible character types. There are kewl powaz unique to Prometheans (called Transmutations). And there are enemies for Prometheans, in this case Pandorans: the creatures that result when an attempt to create a Promethean goes wrong.

It looks like it would be a fun chronicle to play, and the publishing model is similarly different. After the main rules, the supplements will be published over a single year, and may, in fact, already all be out. This is something that White Wolf have done before, but it does seem particularly well-suited to this game’s concept.

In short, this game appealed to me a lot more than I initially expected. Recommended.

Fury of Shadow

Fury of Shadow is a sourcebook for Midnight, by Fantasy Flight Games. It covers the forest of Erethor, the home of the elves and the last large area free from the control of the Shadow, and against which Izrador has turned all of his fury, hence the product’s title.

It is not a bad product. There are useful descriptions of the whole region, with story ideas, and of the forces massed against elves, along with the defenders of the forest. It would certainly be a major help to anyone running a Midnight campaign set in and around the forest, and should give them a lot of ideas.

However (and you could see that coming, couldn’t you?), it wasn’t absolutely inspiring. I think that may be partly due to a lack of the right sort of detail. What would be inspiring would be if there were well-detailed things that player characters could do, at various levels of power and with various backgrounds, to blunt the assault of the forces of Shadow, along with some consideration of how that would affect the outcome of the war. The default course of the war is detailed, and it isn’t good for the elves, although they are not completely defeated. There is even a bit of background on how player characters could intervene at various points. I feel, however, that developing these in a bit more detail, and making them a bit more specific, might have improved the product.

Ego Boost

This post on the White Wolf forums has made me feel all warm, fuzzy and competent.

So, obviously, I have to tell everyone about it. Look! Look! I have a fan who isn’t my mother!

OK, more seriously, this is one of the things that makes writing worthwhile. The Guardian had an interview with Keira Knightley, in which she said that, if she believed the good stuff, she’d have to believe the bad stuff as well, so it’s better not to believe anything. While we’re in very different situations (like, she’s actually famous), I can’t agree with that position.

I think one of the things that’s hardest to learn, really learn, when going into a creative industry, or just being creative, is that you can’t please everyone. I mean, everyone knows that. It’s a cliché. On the other hand, it’s remarkably difficult to really understand and accept it on a gut level. You can’t please everyone. That means, in concrete terms, that there will be actual people who do not like your work. In this age of blogs, mailing lists, and internet fora, there is a reasonable chance that they will tell you so. Possibly at length, and almost certainly in terms of objective failure.

All this tells you, though, is that you really can’t please everyone.

On the other hand, I’m not creative purely for myself. Some people are, but I want to give pleasure to, and maybe inspire thought in, at least some other people. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with creating purely for yourself, and I do it sometimes; there are files on my hard drive that are not intended for other people to see (and not exclusively because they’re about sex, either). But it’s not what I’m doing in the material that I have published.

Thus, the appearance of people, like the poster in the thread I referenced, who like my work to the point of describing themselves as a “big fan” of it, means that I have succeeded. Obviously, the more people who think that way, the better, all else being equal, but if there’s even one such person, I haven’t failed. I’ve merely chosen a minority form of expression. (If there were only one, I’d have failed commercially, but that’s a different issue.)

So, I think you can believe both the good and the bad. The bad tells you nothing new, just that you can’t please everyone. The good, on the other hand, does tell you something new. It tells you that, in at least some cases, you have succeeded. It tells you that your work was artistically successful.

And that, I think, is well worth knowing.