Lore of the Bloodlines – Review

I was a backer of Lore of the Clans, a supplement for V20 and one of the stretch goals was Lore of the Bloodlines. I must admit I was not very excited for this book. Yes, there were various writers I liked that were going to write for it, but I found myself underwhelmed by a rehash of various bloodlines that had lots of information already in various books. How wrong I was.

First, the art done by Mark Kelly, Sam Araya, Felipe Gaona, Michael Gaydos, Key Meyer Jr. and Glen Osterberger, is freaking amazing. Seriously, I think this art compares to if not surpasses the iconic art of Tim Bradstreet. I know… that is a bold statement. See the image below.

By Mark Kelly Instagram @grimventures

Who’s here?

Lore of the Bloodlines looks at 9 bloodlines from Vampire: The Masquerade. Those 9, in the order they are presented: Baali, Daughters of Cacophony, Gargoyles, Harbingers of Skulls, Kiasyd, Nagaraja, Salubri, Samedi, and True Brujah. As noted, most of these bloodlines have had a lot written about them in the past. I wasn’t anticipating much that was new or exciting. From the Baali onward though, there were new plotlines, story hooks, and mechanics that changed my mind. The history of each bloodline is presented by new unreliable narrators. The Kiasyd are presented with a new history that ties them more powerfully to the Abyss (an element that has received significant investment in V20 materials, in particular V20 Dark Ages and Tomb of Secrets), as well as presenting a different story about their Fey connection.

You shouldn’t take these stories as definitive, nothing in the WoD is a definitive history. This is another view point that you can use to add to your stories. That is the fascinating thing about the V20 books, they look at material fans are familiar with, turn it on its head, and present a view that doesn’t discount anything previously written but it does adjust it in a way that makes you question The Truth.

Mechanics

Each bloodline has new merits and flaws that fit with their storylines. These bloodlines also have a new combination discipline or two, and potentially new versions of Elder powers. Each of these new mechanical elements is directly tied into the story hooks provided in the ‘fluff’ elements of each section. I particularly enjoyed the Salubri chapter because it tied in directly with some of the material from V20 Dark Ages. In fact, the way the Salubri are described in Lore of the Bloodlines is probably one of the best presentations of the modern iteration of the clan I’ve ever seen.

Part of me wants to give you a bloodline by bloodline breakdown, but I honestly feel like I would be taking something away from the book by laying out too many reasons you should purchase it. Lore of the Clans is a great book, and a fantastic complement to V20. Lore of the Bloodlines takes that model and does it one step better. It you’ve read everything on these bloodlines (as I have) you’ll still gain a lot here. Seriously, this is my favorite supplement for V20 so far.

From an author

I asked Matthew Dawkins, known by many as The Gentleman Gamer, for a quote. He is the author of the Harbinger and Kiasyd sections. If you had one element of what you wrote you’d tell readers to look for, what would it be?

I try to seed plot hooks into every paragraph of my RPG content. Whether I mention an interesting character you can add to a chronicle, an event you can reference or take part on, obscure knowledge to cite, fables to make your in-character observations more authentic, or myths and treasures for your characters to pursue. Both my chapters will have plentiful options for you to take up, ignore, or just enjoy the reading of, as you make your way through the book. More than anything, I want people to read about Harbingers of Skulls and Kiasyd and want their next characters to be from those bloodlines, or want to set their next chronicles with a heavy involvement from one, or both odd lineages.

At the moment the book is only available to  Kickstarter backers. It should be out for purchase in pdf and print on demand in the near future via Drivethrurpg.

Credits

Authors: Matthew Dawkins, Eloy Lasanta, Andy Peregrine, Neall Price, Eddy Webb, and Rob Weiland

Developer and V20 Line Developer: Eddy Webb

Editor: Jess Hartley

Art Director: Michael Chaney

Layout and Typesetting: Becky McGarity

Interior Art: Sam Araya, Felipe Gaona, Michael Gaydos, Mark Kelly, Ken Meyer Jr., Glen Osterberger

Cover Art: Mark Kelly

A Red Rose on Marble: Review of Vampire: The Masquerade 1st Edition

vampirethemasquerade1elogo

Introduction

My first experience with Vampire was a LARP at the local State University in my hometown. I was 15 or 16 and I’d been talked into making a character by a friend. By that point, the first edition of Laws of the Night was out, and for a long time I didn’t realize that was effectively the 3rd edition of LARP rules for Vampires in the World of Darkness. When the Revised table-top rules came out, I played with friends and dove head first into the various games. At the time, the only 2nd Edition game I can remember reading was Werewolf, and even that I quickly replaced with its Revised version. So, I ‘grew-up’ with the Revised rule-set for the World of Darkness as my standard and even though I occasionally picked up an older Clanbook, or supplement, the game for me was highly polished and well crafted. That was largely my vision of the WoD until recently.

Martin Ericsson has mentioned his desire to recapture the spirit or essence of the first and second editions of Vampire and I had to admit, I didn’t know what he meant. So, I decided I would do my due diligence as a fan and seek out a copy of the game, as written in those early nights. A friend was generous enough to send me a copy of 1st Edition Vampire: The Masquerade a few months ago and I’ve slowly worked through it while reading about a dozen other gaming books.

My first impression was that it reminded me of quite a few books I loved that were written in the late ‘80s and early 90’s. For example, I was a big Robotech fan, and Palladium’s style was distinctive. V:TM, as different, transgressive, and progressive as it was, still has the vibe of a role-playing game of its era. That is not a negative critique. In fact, some of that vibe is part of its charm. It feels like a bit of a relic, but a relic that is still potent and possibly dangerous. 1st Edition Vampire is like its namesake, a being willing to sap your time and energy. It is a lovely monster able to see into your inner darkness. In some ways, I think it does this much more effectively than the Revised or even 20th Anniversary edition does. Why?

There are a few reasons, but they weren’t really easy to put my finger on at first. There is a lot of similar basic content from edition to edition, and though the rules were tweaked a little here and there, the core Storyteller System is the same. What’s different then? I think answering that question is complex, but I’m going to try and lay out a few of the elements I’ve noticed between the two.

party-conflict_orig

The Center of Conflict

In Revised, we are presented with a centuries long conflict between various clans of vampires. These vampires are split into two larger sects and several smaller, and arguably, equally important groups. The 13 major clans are embroiled in conflict with the Antediluvians, Caine, other Clans, and occasionally other supernatural elements of the World of Darkness. What is missing in this equation? Humanity. The central conflict in Revised is intra-Vampiric. Brujah versus Ventrue, Camarilla vs Sabbat, Inconnu hiding from the Jyhad (the ancient fight between elder and younger Kindred), these conflicts are between other Vampires.

In 1st Edition Vampire, these conflicts are only hinted at. They exist in the background. In 1st edition the central conflicts are, The Beast vs Humanity, Humanity vs Vampires, and Anarchist vs Establishment. These themes are present in Revised, but they are less central to the writing. To be clear, I’m talking only about the core books here, the 1st and 2nd edition adventures frequently focus on Vampire vs Vampire conflict, often conflating Kindred conflicts with mortal ones in a very confusing way. Dark Colony is a great example of this. As a setting, New England is Gothic and during the late 80’s early 90’s had a ton of Punk elements. However, the story lines presented in Dark Colony focused on ‘Armies’ of vampires in conflict with one another. This, in an area of the US where there were at most 100 vampires across New England. I think I’m exaggerating that number too, I am pretty sure it was closer to 40.

Buy at Own Risk

Buy at Own Risk

That being said, the 1st edition Core Book lays out a human focused world. Yes, you are a vampire, but you need to remember your humanity because you have to live with humanity. Based on demographics, you interact with humans more than you do with vampires. Kindred society is written as a slightly intangible element of the unlife of the Kindred. Considering the population density of vampires to humans was suggested to be around 1 to 100,000, that makes sense. Humanity is incredibly important for feeding, for social life, for a sense of belonging. The fight against the Beast is a constant one, because you are constantly surrounded by those whom you feed upon. In Revised, humanity fades into the background. Are they important? Yes, but not in the visceral way in which they are presented in 1st edition.

Story Goals/Motivations

Players and characters have multiple goals and they are presented with several options in all versions of the game. However, keeping in mind the central conflicts we discussed above, the goals of vampires in 1st edition are different from those in Revised. In 1st edition we are presented with several goals that players may focus on. All of them are based on some element of how vampires deal with humanity.

Humanity

Staring on page 129, Vampire 1st edition examines Humanity, the importance of clinging to a version of human behavior that is, honestly, unrealistic. Why is humanity put on a pedestal by vampires? There are a few reasons that I can see for this. Vampires have to contend with frenzy and the closeness of their Beast. The Beast is a visceral manifestation of the inhuman desire for blood that lives just below the surface of the Kindred mind. That’s one explanation at least.

To me, the Beast is simply the reflection of humanities capacity for inhumanity. Humanity has a beast, all of us have the ability to let slip an anger that cannot be contained, to harm others, to demean others, to lose empathy and murder. The Beast is a mechanic that brings those elements of our character as a species to the forefront. Vampires are monsters because they inherently lose their empathy for other human beings. They have to lose that empathy, if they don’t, they struggle to feed. Feeding from animals will only sustain you for a short time.

the_players_guide_to_the_sabbat

Not Following Humanity

This is why Humanity is so important, it represents holding to a higher ideal than real people are capable or even cognizant of, so that the Vampire can attempt to retain their empathy. What if they don’t care about being empathetic to their cattle? In 1st edition the vampire’s choices are Wassail or Golconda, they either embrace their humanity or they descend into complete and utter depravity. This binary is less pressing in later books because of all the various Paths and Roads of Enlightenment that are offered. By removing the central question of humanity or oblivion, one of the central themes of the game is drastically shifted away.

Golconda

This search for enlightenment is presented directly after the section on Humanity. Golconda is presented as a common story line for players to seek. This changes in later versions of the game. This mystical state of being is relegated more and more to rumor, and even the Iconnu that have supposedly reached the state are represented as having probably fallen victim to falsehood by elder Cainites. In Revised, Golconda is played down significantly as a goal for the Kindred, its not impossible to reach, but it doesn’t feel like something you would have in most story lines.

In 1st Edition though, the search for Golconda, presented as difficult and rare, is still something that is achievable and there are specific, if seemingly limited benefits from this state. The vampire no longer experiences frenzy, as they have recognized the Beast is a part of who they are. If you ask me, they realize that the Beast is simply what makes them human, and by accepting that, they return to a state closer to normal people. The other two benefits of Golconda mentioned are a reduced need to feed and the ability for elder vampires to gain sustenance from humans and animals, even if they have the Methuselah’s thirst.

state-of-grace

Diablerie

Between the sections on Golconda and Diablerie is another section, which I’ll touch on last. It’s peculiar to 1st edition and I think that peculiarity makes it special. That being said, Diablerie is the clearest element of Vampire on Vampire conflict in 1st edition. Young vampires hunger for the power of their elders as it brings them closer to Caine and closer to great power. The Diablerist in Revised has a significant social stigma attached to them, and though this is mentioned in passing in 1st edition, it does not appear as strongly in 1st. Diablerie is a valid path for the players, though it might keep them from attaining the last goal we’ll look at.

amaranth_-_alejandro_colucci

The Rebirth

When I came across the Rebirth I actually sat slack jawed for a few minutes. For me, the condition of vampirism presented by White Wolf had always been one of eternal torment. I had no inkling that in the 1st edition of the book the idea of returning to humanity was presented as a central story idea for player characters. “It is possible for a Vampire to escape the curse and become mortal again. Though it is exceedingly difficult, it is a major theme of the game and something that will direct the ambitions and thoughts of many characters.”

Holy… a major theme??! Not even close for any game I’d ever played in. I had never heard of this being a theme of Vampire: The Masquerade. By the time Revised came around it is basically impossible to turn a Kindred into a mortal once more. Yet, at the start, Rein – Hagen and the other writers had intended for Vampire to have this strong kernel of hope as an element of the game. This again is an element that makes humanity important. Wanting to be human again is a theme in a lot of vampire literature, so it makes sense, but it was removed as an element of Vampire through the years. I can’t even imagine wasting time fighting over who was in charge of undead politics if my characters knew this was possible. I can see most of them spending their nights, at least for their first 50-100 years, trying to be Reborn. Of course, this Rebirth isn’t easy, it requires killing one’s sire, or an antediluvian perhaps, sacrificing oneself, performing an arcane ritual, or even reaching Golconda. As a major theme of the game though, it changes things drastically.

Goals in Revised

Revised provides different goals. Kindred in revised are focused more on Vampiric politics, fighting against or for the Elders, and though Golconda is mentioned as something that some Vampires strive toward, it isn’t as immediate of a goal as it seems in 1st edition. The Rebirth was removed as a plot motivation early in Vampire. Which makes sense if you are focusing on the theme of eternal horror that Revised Vampire seems to express better than its earliest incarnation.

convention-of-thorns

That is one area in which Revised provides something that 1st doesn’t capture well. In Revised, the idea that you have become forced into a society of monsters in which you will never escape is visceral. This is the battle of humanity in Revised. Camarilla society may espouse the values of Humanitas, but most Kindred lose their connection to those whom they feed upon. Killing becomes commonplace, normalized, and this disconnection, this lack of empathy is a central element the Beast can play upon. Manipulating younger vampires becomes natural to Elders, it’s how they survive, and being a childer to one of these elders is a curse. Imagine being forced to work for an abusive boss, now imagine you can never quit, never find another job, and never get promoted. That is one of the core horror elements that Revised develops excellently. It’s simply a different horror than 1st edition Vampire.

Other Elements

Introduction

Both editions start off with a story that explains the world of Vampire. Revised presents a narrative, a sire explaining the world of the Kindred to their childe to be. 1st is written as a note from a vampire to a human associate where they explain the hidden world of Vampires. The story in 1st has shades of Interview with the Vampire, and in some ways so does the story in Revised. Each is quite obvious in its exposition. Revised though, is accompanied by well crafted background images, art, and evocative pages. 1st is accompanied by a bit of Tim Bradstreet art, and pages that evoke a worn well crafted letter or journal. Both are awesome, but different. Revised speaks to a slightly sexy, exciting, powerfully impactful game were you play the Monster in the Dark. 1st speaks to a gritty, personal, slightly unfinished game that has a ton of hidden lore where you play the monster who wishes they were still human.

Font

Both editions use a different font at times, but the main font in Revised is small, maybe 11 point at the largest. Its readable, but at times almost too small. 1st edition is larger but overall the font styles seem similar between editions. This is a subtle thing though, the font for Revised is very late 90’s and the font in 1st is clearly early 90’s and they obviously fit into the era they are from. Maybe I’m the only font geek that would care, but this is something that set the tone for the book for me.

Art

The art in Revised is polished, beautiful, well drawn. I could go on and on about how awesome it is. Bradstreet is amazing, an artist that everyone should appreciate and admire. Bradstreet’s art in 1st edition, though? Iconic, but not the art I was really drawn to while I was reading through the book.

No, ironically the art that interested me the most was the single image story that was placed throughout the book. This story tells a tale of a woman who becomes embraced, proceeds through torpor, conflict, and power to the modern age. She then follows a similar predatory path to the one in which her existence began. She embraces a man that resembles her sire. Ultimately, she is killed, and the man she embraced is freed from the Curse of Caine and he returns to his mortal life. This story is compelling for the humanity lost by the woman in question as she proceeds through her unlife, and just as compelling for the way in which she steals the life of the man she embraces and the way he fights to regain that life. I’m not sure who the artist for that story is, it doesn’t look like Bradstreet’s art, but I’d love to give whomever they are credit.

My favorite Bradstreet Art - Check out his website

My favorite Bradstreet Art – Check out his website by clicking the Nosferatu

Character Options

1st edition Vampire assumes the 7 Camarilla clans are the only options for characters. This reduces the amount of conflicts possible with this rule set. Revised provides us with the 13 clans from the beginning, including the pillar Sabbat clans and the Independents, whom were only hinted at in 1st edition’s core book. This limited set of options focuses the story more on the nuances between Kindred and humans. Of course the conflict between Brujah anarchs and Ventrue bluebloods is present, as are other elements of conflict between the Camarilla clans. However, it doesn’t feel like powerful creatures fighting against one another is the central theme of the game. In Revised, the camera lens is firmly on the world of the Kindred, in 1st, the story is shot from the shoulder of the vampire, as they gaze upon the herds of humanity on which they prey.

When I read 1st edition I could see why people wanted to play this game so much. I wanted to play Revised when I read it as well. Vampire: The Masquerade has changed a lot over the years, and if you ask me, one is not better than the other. They are simply different. I can respect the desire of the new White Wolf to try and recapture some of the themes in 1st edition. Those themes are important. Humanity should be important to the Vampire. Humanity sustains them, humanity is the essential element which they must draw upon to survive. Finding ways to refocus the camera on humanity, will have an interesting impact upon the games that people craft together. I look forward to 5th edition Vampire, if it finds a way to capture the essence of 1st edition, and the skillful hand of Revised and the 20th anniversary edition, then it will be a wonderful game to add to my collection.

This article was written by Josh (he/him/his) the admin of this spectacular website. Consider donating to our Patreon if you would like to support other columnists.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

Source: Bethesda

How Console Mods Help New People Enjoy Gaming

 

 Note: This article contains a picture of a doodle drawn spider from an old internet meme.

 

2016 was a big year in gaming for Bethesda fans. At E3 2015, they announced mod support for PS4 and Xbox One users for Fallout 4. Additionally when Skyrim Special Edition was annouced it also would come with mod support.  Finally, console gamers could have a taste of the modding fun! Mods are responsible for things like this My Little Pony dragon replacement mod for Skyrim, or this one that turns the trolls in game to internet trolls. Finally, us console gamers can be one step closer to the glorious “PC master race” that has eluded us! But console mod support has another unintended benefit: those with phobias and disabilities can now join in on the fun.

 

Anti Phobia Mods  

Source: Bethesda and yrock1234

Doodle spider added for effect. He’s sad!

There are many, many, phobias and many degrees to which those phobias affect those who suffer from them. Some people just need to kill the spiders they see, while others may be so paralyzed that they can’t do anything. It’s never fun to have a phobia accidentally triggered, even more so when you spent up to 60 dollars on it and can’t get a refund. Your copy of Fallout 4 or Skyrim may sit on the shelf or in your hard drive gathering dust because you didn’t realize one of your phobias was in the game.

 

Luckily, with the added mod support, many users like Joescreamatorium and yrock1234 have created texture replacement mods to replace things like bugs, zombie-like ghouls, crabs, and spiders with non-triggering textures for other creatures in the game. User yrock1234 even went so far as to replace the items dropped by the insects with same-effect items that fit with their new textures. The bears they replaced the spiders with (shown below) now drop beehives instead of spider web sacs that have the same in-game effects. Clever!

 

Cirosan’s Full Dialouge Interface Mod

Source: Bethesda and Cirosan

The Zhongwen language mod hard at work, making The Vault-tec Salesman no less annoying.

User Cirosan made Fallout 4 specifically more inclusive by adding a mod to ‘fix’ the dialogue system. In the unmodded version of Fallout 4, you don’t actually get to see what your character is going to say. Instead you see a rather general prompt, like THREATEN or ASK FOR CAPS. Sometimes you can be more or less of a jerk than you intend. With this mod the text your character speaks is clearly shown on screen for all four dialogue options, eliminating the guesswork. No wondering what sarcastic or emotional thing your character would say. Their mod is available in TEN languages at the time of writing, and they seem to be working on more.

 

This mod is amazingly inclusive, because it helps people who have trouble picking up on social cues, such as those on the Autism spectrum. I am not on the spectrum but I sometimes have trouble sometimes picking up on the cues. You see exactly what your character is going to say displayed on the screen, with an [emotion] tag associated. For those who have trouble processing spoken language, this mod is awesome. 

 

Source: Bethesda and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTgu3Svbo3g

The modder did not upload any images, so this is a screenshot taken from The Gameplay TV.

LGBTQ* Family Mod

On the LGBTQ* side of things, Skyrim doesn’t really need any modding.

For romances in Skyrim, as in Fallout 4, any eligible NPCs that can participate in the relationship/marriage system will marry your character regardless of gender. Neither game makes any big deal of your character choosing to be with male or female NPCs. You are also not ‘locked in’ to whichever type you choose and can change throughout the game. However in Fallout 4’s opening few minutes, your character is defined by experiences with their opposite-sexed partner and their child in a heteronormative fashion.

 

User Overseer777 has modded a way around this by changing all references made in-game to the spouse and changing the beginning to have your spouse’s in-game model match the sex of yours. Heteronormativity is a problem in gaming, with most games only option for opposite sex relationships. It is amazing that Fallout 4 and Skyrim are not heteronormative, and this mod helps seal the deal.

 

 

Source: Bethesda

OOOH YEAH!

Game mods can be sources of absolute hilarity, cool new content, all the cheats you could want, and more. Mods are also a great resource for making games much more friendly and inclusive for everyone. In the future, I hope that other developers begin to support modding on consoles. Modding is making gaming more accessible for everyone, and that’s a good thing. Besides, who doesn’t want to be able to turn their in game enemies into Macho Man Randy Savage? I know I do!

 


Anna uses she/her pronouns and is an avid LARPer and console gamer. On weekends when she isn’t a vampire she treks to the woods to beat up her friends with plumbing supplies.  Anna is a feminist, part of the LGBTQ* community, and is the proud owner of two loving cats. Anna is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/squeenoodles

Beast the Primordial: Subverting the Monomyth

Beast the Primordial Logo

One of the most persistent tropes in modern speculative fiction is the Hero’s Journey, or the Monomyth.  The monomyth varies from telling to telling, and it can be found in a wide swath of modern media.  The basic manifestation of the Hero’s Journey takes a protagonist from “normal life” into a fantastic setting where they are faced with conflict, personal struggle, and ultimately, they achieve triumph/glory over a villainous foe.  In most tellings, a glorious return home completes the journey.

RPGs, from D&D to Exalted, use the Monomyth as their central narrative.  White Wolf didn’t start with a substantial investment in the monomyth, and arguably the World of Darkness, and even moreso the Chronicles of Darkness, often explicitly subvert or at least de-emphasize the monomyth.  It’s not hard to find player troupes that missed that memo and run heroic arcs with their Sabbat packs, Wraith circles, or throw themselves at the hero’s tale intrinsic to Changeling while ignoring the tragedy that’s clearly designed to subvert that narrative in the core text.

A Group of Japanese Yokai Feeding on a VictimFor all of the subversive ways the World and Chronicles of Darkness play with the Hero’s Journey, I’d never seen a game completely reject the validity of that story model until Beast the Primordial.

Beast devotes almost two and a half pages to the topic of how and why the game subverts/deconstructs the Monomyth. In Beast you play a monster of myth manifested within the soul of a human being.  Beasts are driven to feast on human terror in uniquely personal ways. The primary antagonists of the game are “Heroes” who are driven by the same supernatural cosmology that creates Beasts to seek and destroy them.

It’s easy at first glance to think that this game is just a dark twist on the narratives common to our modern media, but the game does something much more compelling as you work through it.  There is no monolithic enemy in Beast.  Hero’s arise as stand alone phenomenon, every bit the cosmological constant Beasts are, and the culture of the Children (Beasts’ name for themselves), is incredibly loose and comes with no great political force to oppose. There is no Sabbat, no Technocratic Union, no Hierarchy, or corrupt guilds to stand against. The game emphasizes family, and the connection Beasts have with other supernatural creatures in the Chronicles of Darkness.

The fundamental conflict of Beast centers on the complicated task of finding your place in a world when that world finds everything you represent abhorrent.  Heroes in Beast are clearly forged in the mold of the broken and corrupt heroes of Ancient Greece as opposed to the bright eyed perfection of classic Superman comics. They are deranged, driven, and while they may save a few humans from Beasts who have been pushed out of control by their hunger, it is a rare person who would say that is worth the collateral damage they cause.

Why is this  framing so powerful? It seems due to the fact that the game forces the player to truly grapple with the experience of being the “other”.  While that theme runs through many of White Wolf’s horror titles, Beast takes the metaphor further by casting the Beast’s greatest enemy as humanity itself.  Heroes are twisted, deranged, and supernaturally powerful, but they are fundamentally human.  It is the Beast who is not.

If you want to pick up Beast and give it a try one of the most important narrative considerations should be how comfortable you are with demonizing humanity.  There is a sidebar in the Heroes chapter that asks, “What about the Heroes that listen to reason?”.  The answer is that these heroes do exist, but they generally don’t hunt Beasts.  The book continually states that the Heroes that should appear in a Beast game are the narcissistic, driven, cruel ones.  I have seen a few people talk about having problems with this dynamic because it creates an unrelatable villain, and the book specifically states than Heroes should not be relatable enemies.  

Heroes, at their core, are quintessentially human. So shouldn’t they be relatable?  Modern storytelling has moved farther and farther in the direction of understandable antagonists, and messy flawed protagonists.  Beast seems like an obvious attempt to dive directly into that dynamic, but when you step back and look at the game as a model that inverts a classic storytelling trope the problems with this lens become apparent.

Beasts are not good guys.  You are not playing some gritty but relatable anti-hero.  Despite the few words in the opening about how Beasts were outcasts, and “different” before their Devouring, this game is not some glorified revenge fantasy.  The narrative that runs through the book emphasizes the constant struggle to keep existing while humanity continues to reject you, because you are fundamentally wrong.  If you view this game through a lens where humanity is intrinsically good then a lot of the intended themes quickly fall apart, and I’ve seen this specific logical crisis in a great deal of the negative responses to the game.  

A Beast's Horror Standing Behind ThemBefore playing this game you should really know your players, and you should spend some time making certain they are prepared to play true monsters in the night with none of the glorified romanticism that comes with games like Vampire or Changeling.  You’re not flipping the tables so you can play a Beast anti-hero. There is no good guy in this story.

Not every player will be able to get into this particular narrative headspace, and if even one or two players approaches this game with the wrong intent it could derail your whole chronicle.  That said, approaching the game with this tilted perspective opens up new story possibilities.  As a litmus test, if you dislike the writing of Thomas Ligotti due to the lack of a moral compass, even the inverted one present in more mainstream horror stories, this may not be the game for you. That particular form of nihilism is required to dive into the darker corners of Beast.

If the narrative darkness above sounds appealing there is still the question of game mechanics.  I have seen consistent complaints that Beast is overpowered compared to the other games in the Chronicles of Darkness.  After reading Beast I understand where that perception comes from.  While the “powers” that Beasts purchase aren’t necessarily overwhelming (though they are powerful and a lot of fun) Beasts come with a barrage of innate abilities you don’t have to pay for.  They have a special realm carved out of the Primordial Dream, they have the ability to transport there from a variety of places in the real world, they can buff other supernaturals they are allied with, and they automatically sense other supernaturals. There’s a system to create custom powers, which even though they must be purchased, is something you don’t often see, and these custom powers can become more unique when based off supernaturals a Beast is associated with.

Reading Beast, I felt like I was constantly stumbling over new powers, and it was a little overwhelming. However, I believe all of this power is important to further the fundamental themes of Beast.  Unlike Mages, Werewolves, or Vampires, who might have driving goals, or grand schemes which their powers help them fulfill, Beasts are just trying to survive. More importantly, their power is a trap.  

 

Hero Fighting a Dragon

Satiety, which is the Beast’s supernatural resource, is complicated and dangerous.  If you gorge yourself on the fear of your victims your inner Horror becomes fat and contented and you suffer penalties to your rolls.  If you are starving, then your powers are buffed by your deep hunger, but your Horror (your Beastly soul) can easily run out of control and you are left with no resource to buff your powers. You may think this is a simple matter of maintaining balance between these two states, but as a primordial being you reject such equilibrium and grow uniquely vulnerable if you maintain the stasis between these two extremes for long.

If we look back at this system, and think about the themes of the game, it becomes immediately apparent that a Beast’s power reinforces the anxiety of their existence.  Beasts have profound power, but every method of engaging with that power is toxic in a different way, and the more they leverage their supernatural strength, the more attention they draw from Heroes who want nothing more than to stand over their broken bodies.  Even Wraith, which plays with a similar dynamic by having very shallow experience costs, but pairing PCs with a dark shadow that will abuse their drive for power, still comes with a set of enemies players can secure satisfying victories against.

When a Beast defeats a Hero all they gain is a brief rest before the next Hero finds them.  As long as the Beast isn’t allowed to break out of that cycle, and Heroes are powerful enough to be a threat, no Beast can truly be overpowered, because their strength is a mockery more than an actual benefit.

Beast the Primordial is probably one of the most complex games in the of Darkness lines, both in terms of systems and due to its rejection of familiar narrative territory.  The lack of a unified enemy, and the fundamental rejection of the Hero’s Journey are daring moves that align Beast with experimental narrative ventures like Dread or Bluebeard’s Bride as opposed to other games using the storyteller system. Game mechanics are fairly complex (satiety is no blood pool), and to be honest, I have a hard time imagining keeping track of all the different things I would be capable of as a player without a substantial cheat sheet.  

Madness on the Outskirts

By Lydia Burris http://www.lydiaburris.com/

Several sections of Beast drive the inverted Monomyth narrative in less than nuanced ways.  This is most acute in areas that were re-written based on player critique during the kickstarter.  Several players felt the game was too dark, that Beasts had no reason to exist, and that the relationship Heroes had with the Integrity stat was messy in toxic ways.  To the dev’s credit they listened to the fans and made changes, but they did so very quickly and some of the text dealing with the themes introduced during the rewrite feel somewhat rushed.  This is especially obvious in the reminders that only Heroes with low integrity hunt Beasts, though the fact that the devs made certain to leave high integrity Heroes in the world is significant, and I hope we get to hear more about them in the upcoming Beast Conquering Heroes.

Ultimately, Beast takes some profound risks, and in doing so creates a dynamic new corner of horror role-playing than many of us never knew existed.  There are areas of the game that need some judicious application of the Golden Rule, such as the persistence of the “Beasts Teach Lessons” idea among the Children, without any coherent Beast society to perpetuate this culture.  That said, some of my favorite White Wolf games have tapped into incredibly messy, yet fascinating narratives because they were willing to take risks, and they also required fairly liberal use of the Golden Rule to manage their rough edges, so Beast is in good company.  Finding a large enough group of players ready to discard any heroic impulses and embrace the endlessly powerful anxiety of Beastly existence is a tall order (and may well resign Beast to my eternal bucket list alongside Promethean), but I do feel it’s a unique game that breaks new ground not just for the horror genre, but gaming more broadly and it’s well worth exploring.

Victor Kinzer has been roleplaying since he first picked up Vampire Dark Ages in high school.  He nabbed it as soon as it was released (he might have been lusting after other Vampire books for a while at that point) and hasn’t looked back since.  He role plays his way through the vast and treacherous waters of north Chicago, and is hacking away at the next great cyberpunk saga at http://redcircuitry.blogspot.com/.  He is an occasional guest on Tempus Tenebrarum (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvNp2le5EGWW5jY0lQ9G39Q/feed), and is working to get in on the con game master circuit.  During the rest of his life he works in Research Compliance IT, which might inform more of his World of Darkness storylines than he readily admits.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

Into the Vault: Torg: Roleplaying the Possibility Wars

From the Vault: Torg: Roleplaying the Possibility Wars

torg

This week we’ll be going off on a bit of a tangent. I will be highlighting one of my favorite RPG’s from “back in the day.” This idea struck me as I saw both Jack Benners  Savage Worlds article and Jim’s Deadlands articles.  With the multitude of RPG’s out there, it is easy to lose track of what has come before. During the 1990’s a multitude of games would hit the markets. Some would be huge (Vampire: The Masqurade) some would cause controversy (Kult) and others would find a niche following that blossomed into cult status.
One of these later titles was TORG. TORG was originally an acronym for The Other Roleplaying Game. It was originally a tile used by the in-house development team. TORG was published by West End Games and came in a box set with the rulebook (pictured above), an Adventure book, and a Worldbook. As of 2016, Torg is under license to Ulisses Spiele. Plans for this new version of Torg will be released under the name Torg: Eternity. I am excited to see this updated both in rules and setting of the game.

 

The Setting

 

TORG is a pan-dimensional setting where different realities have invaded various parts of the earth. Per the cosmology of TORG, there are different cosm’s and each cosm is separate from every other cosm. That was until The Nameless One created different darkness devices. The Nameless One gave these darkness devices to different High Lords. Each High Lord has their own Darkness Device, each one different in design but all are Made of an obsidian material. The function of the Darkness Devices was to allow the High Lords to access the different Cosm’s and capture the possibility energy of each world.

When used to invade other cosms the darkness devices would open up gates leading back to the invading cosms home and begin to influence the invaded world changing it into a mirror of the invaders world. Thus a low tech, high magic cosm that was invading a high-tech non-magic cosm would find that their guns didn’t work most of the time, while the invaders had access to spells that worked, giving them an advantage.

 

Of the High Lords to get a Darkness Device one of the most prolific was The Gaunt Man. He is the High Lord of Orrosh, a Gothic horror realm with a Victorian setting. The Gaunt Man had successfully overtaken dozens of other cosm’s. Then he came across  Earth. What he found was that that Earth contained more potential than any other cosm he had previously discovered. He knew that he would not be able to take Earth alone. He set out to make deals with other High Lords and together they invaded parts of the Earth draining it of its possibility energy. The following are the starting realms for the game:

 

Core Earth– This is “our” Earth. This is the basic reality. Core Earth had slightly better tech than what one could find in the real world which also included access to faith based miracles and magic. To start, Core Earth had no High Lord, however the United States government was ruled  by a shadow cabal known as the Delphi Council.

 

Living Land – This was a Lost World style realm. Jungles, dinosaurs and low to nonexistent magic ruled this area. Centered in the United States on both the East and West Coasts, and a bit of Canada, this realm was ruled by humanoid dinosaurs. At the start of the game it was ruled by the HIgh Lord  Baruk Kaah. His darkness device was Rec Pakken, a large copse of trees.

 

Aysle – This was the “D&D” fantasy realm with high magic and low tech. It was centered in the United Kingdom. At the beginning of the game it is ruled by Uthorion in the body of Pella Ardinary. His darkness device is Drakacanus, a large crown

 

The Cyberpapacy – This was a cyberpunk setting messed with religion. Centered in France, it is ruled over by the Cyberpope Jean Malreaux I. Originally, a realm of jazzed up churches and religious artifacts it melded with a virtual reality on it’s way to invading earth giving way to the VR know as the Godnet.. Jean Malrequx’s darkness device is Ebenuscrux, a glowing cross both in reality and as a VX presence in the GodNet

 

Nippon Tech – This was an ultra-capitalist realm centered in Japan. Ruled over by 3327. This realm blended in so well at first that core Earthers didn’t realize what was going on until it was too late. 3327’s Darkness Device is Daikoku, a laptop computer

 

The New Nile Empire – This was the pulp hero realm ala Indiana Jones. Centered in Egypt it was ruled over by Dr. Mobius. Known for high tech “gadgets”. Dr. Mobius’s Darkness device is Kefertiri, a crocodile-headed idol.

 

Orrosh – This was the Victorian horrors setting. The name itself is an anagram of horrors. This realm was centered in Indonesia and ruled over by the Gaunt Man. The Guant Man’s Darkness device is Heketon, a stone heart

 

What made it different

Torg had a lot of things that set it apart in the over saturated market of the early 90’s. Among these were a ambitious living campaign, the multi-genre setting, and an innovative rules system including a drama deck of cards used in combat.

living-campaign

Living campaign

Torg attempted to do a living campaign right from the outset. Included in the original box set was an infiniverse guide explaining the state of the world and a form that players could mail into West End Games to let the publisher know how the players did. This in turn would influence the ongoing plot of the game world.

This was very ambitious in scope. So much so that while the Infiniverse campaign updates, one of which is pictured above were done throughout the run of the game. The idea of mailing in your updates fell off after about the first year.

what-made-it-different

The multi-genre setting

As covered above Torg had a very interesting setting that allowed for “cinematic style” games .Being able to play a magic slinger next to Doc Savage and do battle in a vampire crypt was great. No other game at the time (to my knowledge) was doing this.

 

Innovative rules system

Torg’s combat system was very interesting. For most conflict resolution you would roll a skill and look to hit a particular difficulty number. You would compare the number you rolled to a chart printed at the bottom of all character sheets. This number would be your bonus to your role. In addition to this if you rolled a 10 or a 20 you rolled again adding the rolls together. This is a mechanic that many games are implementing these days from AEG’s Legend of the Five Rings roll and keep system to Chronicles of Darkness exploding 10’s.

For me though, the best part of Torg was the drama deck. This was a deck of cards that were used in combat. It dictated many different things. From initiative to actions you could take, and even special plot points for characters to pursue.cards

This is an example of the a card one would get from the drama deck. The Orange top boarder was used for the GM. It told him what actions were available. The Grey side was for the PC to use. At the start of a session each player would get five cards. These could be used both in and out of combat.

The box set came with a set of drama cards and subsequent sourcebooks had more cards released with them. The drama deck assisted in bringing in the cinematic style of gaming Torg was aiming for.

 

Drawbacks

Torg did a lot right. The setting was compelling, the system as originally released was solid and different. The living campaign was ambitious and something not  done in pen and paper RPG’s at the time. That all being said, the game was not without its faults.

 

Chief among these were the lack amount of quality control with regards to the system. As the game line progressed core systems introduced in earlier books (including the original boxset) were thrown out and replaced with new rules sets and those in turn would be glossed over or simply ignored in other supplements.

 

The other two big issues Torg had to deal with were cross over ability between cosm’s and overtly anti-Japanese and anti-Catholic sentiments. The crossover ability stemmed from lack of support in published adventures and sourcebooks allowing for overtly customizable characters. For example, a pulp hero from The New Nile Empire that also had cypertech and knew how to cast magic would be left having to  house rule almost every aspect of their character.

 

The concern over anti-Japanese sentiment was raised due to the portrayal of Nippon Tech and the perceived view of Japan dominating U.S industries during the late 80’s and early 90’s. With the Cyberpapacy, perceptions were that the game had a anti-Catholic slant as well. West End Games did state that was not the intention behind either of these settings, however they continued to release product that many found distasteful.

 

In Conclusion

 

Torg was and is very entertaining. The overarching storyline still gives me ideas and I find myself wanting to try and run the entirety of the gameline. With the use of a very fun combat system in regards to both dice mechanics and the Drama deck the game moved very smoothly and upheld it’s cinematic style.

 

Even it’s faults from system, to tone to anti undertones of certain races or creeds can be seen as a product of the time they were a part of. This is not to say they are okay. Part of inclusiveness is the bad as well as the good. Torg’s cannon characters included a Priest that fought against the High Lords for example. The evolving rules perhaps could have been better suited to a full new edition. A 1.5 edition was released in the late 90’s though it didn’t make much impact nor did it fix many of the storyline issues.

 

Scott is a true analog gamer doing everything from pen and paper RPG’s to board games and everything in-between. He started out with Advanced D&D 2nd edition at the age of 10. From there he likes all genres and types, from the well known big names to smaller indie print publishers. Scott is Vice-President of The Wrecking Crew

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

The Tradition of Magic in RPGs – Chainmail

strange
No, don’t worry, there are no spoilers in this article, however, with the release of Doctor Strange it got me thinking about the ways that magic is portrayed in our hobby and what I like and don’t like about different magic systems. What makes a good magic system vs a bad magic system? Even more so, what is the evolution of magic in the hobby? There has been a lot of growth from the early days of 1st ed AD&D to modern day games like Savage Worlds or FATE.

For myself, I have always gravitated to the magic user in RPG’s that offer them as a class option. For me, it was a mix of describing the awesome effects of the spells and also the system that was used for magic.  Some systems are very complex and involved with rigid lists and names and others, very loose allowing for endless customization with an easy open system that ended up being complex far beyond what I thought was possible.

Looking back on my years of games, there are a few standout games that really made me rethink what can be done with magic. For me, these games are in order: AD&D 1st and 2nd Edition, Shadowrun, Ars Magica, TORG, Mage: The Ascension 20th anniversary edition, and FATE Core. This is the order I was introduced to each of these systems, not the order they were released. Nonetheless, each of these systems showed a new and exciting way to implement magic. AD&D of course, was the granddaddy of RPGs, as it came out of miniature wargaming, specifically Chainmail, which itself included two Wizard spells in it’s second edition.

chainmailIn fact, Dungeons and Dragons started as a Chainmail variant. I found it very interesting that Chainmail, and D&D by extension, were heavily influenced by Tolkien with such a rigid rules set that didn’t leave much room for variation. In my youth, I read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, including The Hobbit, every year from 5th grade until I graduated high school. With such a love for Mr. Tolkien’s work AD&D was a big deal and I found myself wanting to devour any book I could get my hands on.

Of course, while I read these books hungrily in my early days, it was not much of a game when we did play.

GM: What do you want to do?

Me: I want to go to the bar!

GM: Okay you’re at the bar.

Me: I ask the bartender for a quest.

GM: Okay, he asks you to find a mystical magical sword.

Me: I accept

GM: Okay you are now at the cave that has the sword.

Me: I go in.

Etc, etc, etc.

All this talk of magic, and after looking back through my books, got me really looking at how magic is used in RPG’s. This in turn led to many hours spent reading through different editions of many books and really taking a hard non-biased look at their different magic systems. So, over the next few weeks, I will look at different game lines and look at how magic was used. Both good and bad points of the magic systems will be listed and an overall history will be given of the systems covered.

white-bookWe shall start AT THE BEGINING with Chainmail. Where there other RPG’s before this? Why, yes. However, most of these were Fantasy Wargames and not commercially available. From an “RPG” viewpoint, Chainmail is the first, and even then, most would point to White box D&D as the first true pen and paper RPG, as we know them today.

Without Chainmail there would be no D&D. Back in 1968, Gary Gygax saw a game of Siege of Bodenburg being played at the very first Lake Geneva Wargaming Convention (Gencon). Siege of Bodenburg didn’t include any magic, however, it revolved around two players using 40mm Elastolin miniatures played on a 6×6 board. Gygax inquired about purchasing these figures. This led to many different rules revisions over the next few years. The chief among them being the new ruleset that Gygax and his partner Jeff Perren created and published in their Castles and Crusades Society fanzine The Doomsday book.

All of the work that was done fine tuning that ruleset brought Gygax and Perren to the attention of Guidon Games. Guidon hired him to create a ruleset for a new gameline they wanted to release.

One of these three games would become Chainmail.

As noted above, Chainmail included two magic spells in its second edition, which was released in 1972. It also covered magic armor as well. The rules for the game were straight forward overall, just rolling and consulting charts to see what hit and what didn’t. Not complicated at all, really.

Humble beginnings indeed.

Pros and cons of Chainmail:

Pros

It helped to give us D&D

Simple system (if you can call it a magic system)

Cons

Non really. I mean it’s not a “magic system” per say.

It was in 1972 however, that TSR product designation 2002 was released and gaming was never truly the same ever again. D&D had arrived. D&D’s magic system draws heavily from The Dying Earth series of stories by author Jack Vance, in particular, the notion that magic users could only memorize so many spells per day and once they used them, they forgot them. In fact, the style of magic is referred to as Vancian magic. Looking at the Wiktionary definition of the word it fits perfectly with what the D&D magic system does:

Vancian magic:men-and-magic

Noun:

  1. A form of magic based on the existence of spells that must be prepared in advance, for specific purposes, and that can be used a finite number of times.

White box D&D (as it is called nowadays) was a collection of three books:

Men and Magic

The first of the three books included in the white box are where magic spells are listed. The classes, all three of them;  Cleric, Fighting-men, and Magic User.The races listed were Human, Dwarf, Elf, and Halflings. Only three alignments were given: law, chaos, and neutrality. While the magic user does have magic spells they were handled very differently. Magic users max out at 6th level while Cleric’s max at 5th.  Spells used a spell slot and the defender got to make a saving throw. Overall, the game took it on faith that the player owned a copy of Chainmail and used those rules. However, an “alternate system “was given in the appendix of the book for dealing with combat, roll a 20 sided die and compare to a list of AC values. If it hit, then roll 1d6 for damage. That’s it!

monsters-and-treasureMonsters and Treasure

The second book covers well…monsters and treasure. Of note for this blog, are the magic items. The Flaming sword and Brazier of Controlling Fire Elementals were introduced in this supplement. Dragons were here, as well with alignments as we know them today.

The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures

Lastly, this book was divided into two parts. The first one provided details on designing dungeons and even included the first published dungeon with multiple levels and wandering monsters. The other half of the book detailed running games outside of the dungeon and even suggested the use of Avalon Hills Outdoor Survival game from 1972.

Together these three books made up the white box and the first iteration of D&D. There were further supplements, notably Blackmoore and the original Greyhawk setting. These introduced further information. Like in Greyhawk, supplement spells for 8th and 9th level for Magic Users and  6th and 7th level spells for Clerics were introduced.

Pictured below are the spells for both Magic Users and Clerics.

spells-1

spells-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the table above, one can see that early lists included a lot of staple spells that have become  household names that everyone knows today. An interesting point to note, there are rules regarding “evil” clerics. I like that, even in these early days, there was this sense of good vs. evil built into the game world. Knowing that some of your spells would not work due to a “balance” of a “force” makes me happy.

underworld

Pros

A bit on the complex side however the system’s staples were here.

Tables? It has tables. Lots and lots of them!

Cons

Spell lists. Customizing was not something that was done during this edition.

Tables? It has tables. Lots and lots of them!

Next, we’ll look at First Edition AD&D

 

 

Scott is a true analog gamer doing everything from pen and paper RPG’s to board games and everything in-between. He started out with Advanced D&D 2nd edition at the age of 10. From there he likes all genres and types, from the well known big names to smaller indie print publishers. Scott is Vice-President of The Wrecking Crew

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

Trans Representation and the Changing Face of Werewolf

Trans Representation and the Changing Face of Werewolf

by Lang Schmitt

werewolf-banner

Click to buy a copy

Early on in the new Werewolf: the Apocalypse BNS book we meet Verity Argyris.  Verity is a young Black Fury historian who’s working to record the oral histories of the Garou, and her observations are scattered throughout the book.

verity

Page 62

After many pages of meeting Verity through her observations, we learn on page 62 that Verity’s mothers in the Tribe were one of the first to keep male-born children, and that at her Rite of Passage she was proclaimed “not just their daughter, but a sister of the tribe”.  In other words, the text is obliquely saying that Verity is what we’d identify as a trans(*) woman.

 

A Societal Shift

 

I haven’t seen a lot of online discussion of Verity.  (Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places.)  While I was searching, though, I found a lot of discussion from several years ago about if a character like Verity could exist among the Black Furies.

A lot of gamers came to the conclusion that she couldn’t.  The Black Furies, they argued, placed too much value on a person’s biology – and Garou would view sex-reassignment hormones or surgery as a tool of the Weaver.  (More on this in a minute.)

Let me be clear:  the first edition of the Black Furies book came out in the early ’90s, when including a radical second-wave feminist group in your fantasy world seemed progressive and forward-thinking.  The Black Furies were based on real-life trans-exclusive Wiccan groups, which emphasize the sacredness of female-bodied biology and experience and reject male-bodied people as equal members.

But the BNS book states:

black-furies-tribe-image

Black Fury Tribebook Revised Cover

“[The Black Furies’] viewpoints have evolved, due to their new leadership.

The Age of Apocalypse has shown them that the equality

they seek so viciously is a complex issue, involving more

than just women and children. They realized that their

exclusivity would damn them … Those who

identify as having the hearts women [sic] also received the

blessing of Artemis and have been welcomed to the tribe.

… Despite their newly opened mindset,

there are rumors of a rift between modern and traditional

Furies regarding how lenient and accepting present-day

Black Furies are perceived by other werewolves.” (p. 70-71)

 

Trans-exclusive radical feminist (TERF) groups still exist in real life.  They inspire harsh feelings from trans activists and their allies, who argue that excluding trans women from cis women’s spaces is pointless, and further marginalizes an already marginal population.  Some TERFs and their groups have not moved past their trans-excusionary worldviews – but many are evolving, like the Black Furies are.

Some gamers will cry foul, arguing that it’s a political act to write a world where the Black Furies are beginning to welcome trans women.  But this in-game change is tied to a real-world change, and it would be equally political to not include trans people in an era when we are becoming more visible and accepted.

 

How to Write a Trans Character

I am young and trans.  I am … blessed? … to have come of age at a time when trans people are newly visible in popular culture.

angel-rentSome people would tell you visibility is an unambiguous good.  I’m less certain.  There are a lot of lazily-written trans characters out there.  The Lazily-Written Trans Character is often a conventionally feminine trans woman.  She is non-threatening and non-sexual, although she may be a sex worker.

She is usually tragic in some way.  Often, she dies before the end of the story, to teach our cis protagonists some kind of lesson.  Think of Angel from RENT, or Rayon from Dallas Buyers Club.

To be completely fair, this type of character is far preferable to unsympathetic trans caricatures, who are grotesque, hypersexual, and dangerous.  (Think Buffalo Bill, or the attack ads that air about transphobic bathroom legislation.)  But lazily-written trans characters are toothless, and ancillary to cis characters’ stories.  They’re objects of pity (or vapid inspiration), rather than figures of genuine strength.  They are no one anyone would want to be, or could ever be.

There is tragedy in much of the trans experience – but we are still the heroes of our own stories.  But you wouldn’t know that from looking at these characters.

We are slowly seeing a broadening of the range of trans narratives that exists in mass media, but problematic characterizations remain.  And even as we see more progressive types appear, mass media portrayals of trans still have something pernicious to them:  the most interesting thing about us, in these stories, is that we are trans.  Our narrative arc is our transition.  Without our gender, we would be no one.

We don’t see a whole lot of Verity in the BNS book, past two vigniettes and her own observations.  But she shows herself to be strong, observant, curious, intelligent, and active.  She’s head and shoulders above the passive, pitiable trans “type” who furthers cis narratives.

Critically, she is more than her transition.  There’s plenty of hay to be made about Verity’s gender, in thinkpieces like this, but ultimately her trans-ness is a footnote.  It only comes up obliquely in the previously-mentioned quote, and in passing when she fears rejection from Black Fury elder in the second vignietteIt’s far more vital that she’s gathering information, and serves as our viewpoint character.

gaia

Gaia

I can think of very few trans viewpoint characters in mass media, and even fewer who aren’t shown through the light of their transition.  Verity feels like something genuinely novel.

 

The Real-World Politics of Werewolf

Why does this matter?  Why does W:tA need trans representation?

When I was looking for discussions about trans in W:tA, I found that many anti-trans fans of the game have (or had) a medicalized and pathological view of trans people.  We are out-of-balance, the argument goes.  We are a product of modern medicine, not nature.  No Garou would ever have us (except for maybe Glasswalkers).

I reject this argument out of hand.  The medicalization and pathologicalization of trans is comparatively modern.  Pre-modern cultures often made (and make) a place for trans people:  Romans had galli; Indian society still has hijra; many American Indian cultures have third or fourth genders.  Our position has varied from place to place, and we have often been the first to be marginalized and scapegoated in times of trouble, but we most definitely existed and we were often accepted.

It is we, in our Weaver-ridden society, who want all genders (and all bodies, in the case of intersex people) in two boxes.  In fact, the BNS book gives a clear route for a non-medical transition for trans characters:  the first level Ajaba gift in this system, Mask of Night, which lets characters transform their body to that of the “opposite sex”.  Shun the Weaver’s medicalized works, and embrace the transformation nature offers you!

We are in fact very in-balance.  Thematically, we mesh perfectly with a game about shapeshifting and balance – even as societies, real and fictional, find dynamic points of balance around us as we re-take our place at the table.

This brings me to the biggest reason why I think W:tA needs trans representation.

Many of the gamers I’ve spoken with are a little leery of this game – and to be completely fair, that’s a feeling I share.  W:tA has a troubled legacy, in a lot of ways.  I found that a lot of female and trans gamers perceive W:tA as a “game for bros”.  Despite the game’s best intentions, they argue, W:tA players often create toxically masculine characters, who enact stereotypically masculine power fantasies without consequence.  (This is completely separate from the in-universe transphobia, or “noble savage” stereotyping of Indigenous peoples.)

werewolf-ban

Werewolf 20th Anniversary Edition

Obviously, this is a generalization.  For any W:tA group I could point to that’s ridden with hyper-masculine power fantasies, I’m sure my readers could find several more that are thoughtful and well-balanced, that draw plenty of female and queer players.

But that’s not really my point:  fairly or not, this is the baggage the game carries with it.  A signature character like Verity isn’t a surefire medicine against W:tA‘s machismo, and I imagine a lot of gaming groups will choose to ignore the changes made to the Black Furies.  But I imagine Verity might take the air out of the sails of a few of the hardcore bros out there, and make Storytellers rethink the feel of the setting.

It takes all kinds to save the world – ranging from the classically masculine fearless and strong, to the classically feminine sensitive and nurturing.  It takes all kinds to build a healthy gaming community, too.

It remains to be seen what Storytellers and players do with BNS’ WerewolfBut I think BNS has taken a potentially polarizing, but critical step toward broadening the game’s world – and making it one female-bodied people and queers are more likely to find friendly to play in.

(*)  For the purposes of this article, I’m using “trans” as an umbrella term that includes anyone who is not cisgender.  “Cisgender” or “cis” means having a gender identity that corresponds with one’s biological sex.  Trans, here, includes people who have taken medical steps to bring their body closer in line with their identity, those who want to take medical steps but have not done so yet, and those who feel no need to do so.  I also mean it to include people who fall outside the gender binary.

 

Lang Schmitt is a transmasculine genderqueer person.  He lives in Madison, WI and makes his living writing.  He currently plays in Underground Theater.  Find him on Facebook, or email him at langschmitt@gmail.com.

GUEST REVIEW MET WEREWOLF 2016


So a quick history: White Wolf published a LARP (Live Action Role Play) variant of their Old World of Darkness (oWoD) series in the early and mid-90s dubbed Mind’s Eye Theater (MET). By Night Studios (BNS) recently acquired the right to make new LARP materials from oWoD and have set out to create newly revamped systems that are based today  incorporate more recent societal themes. This is a review  of their newest book in this reimagining, Werewolf:The Apocalypse.

                                                                   The Story

werewolf-cover

All Images Used are the Property of By Night Studios, White Wolf, and their Respective Owners, they are used here under fair use, any concerns please alert us ASAP

In the original setting, the world ended around 2000. To allow for the game to be more modern, BNS had to work from the point where the world would have ended, forward, and continue to build the world. This was a monumental job that could have fallen flat if they had gone in the wrong direction. Instead, they hit it out of the ballpark.

The story moving in to the current era is plausible, interesting, and makes for a large amount of story hooks for any storyteller. The feeling of something akin to an Apocalypse happening was preserved. At the same time, the authors moved both the game and the setting forward. I feel the most impressive thing they did was characterizing the cyber generation, especially in a game historically defined by hatred of technology (and sometimes progress). The inclusion of two political factions (The Concordat of Stars and the Sanctum of Gaia) working both together and against one another while fighting the same war also adds a new angle that storytellers can use if heavy meta-politics are their players’ jam.

Most importantly to me, some of the tribes have moved forward to become fully fleshed out, living groups of people. Black Furies accept all women and cubs of both genders born to the tribe, the Wendigo aren’t solely just angry native people, and in general, the setting incorporates globalization of our culture in a very appropriate and respectful way. I’m not saying that if you hadn’t dug deeper in to those tribes I mentioned before you wouldn’t have found life and spark, but this is an area where I feel the previous LARP books did a disservice. I feel like BNS went above and beyond to truly give new players a glance in to a living, breathing cultural organization of people, especially ones with more sensitive themes.

Mechanics

If you are familiar with rock-paper-scissors, you can play this game. Mechanically not much is changed from BNS’s MET: Vampire: the Masquerade (VtM). You have test pools determined by your sheet, you throw rock-paper-scissors, you compare your results and then things happen. Some elements are new, but if you are familiar with the other book, this book is an almost seamless transition. It’s also obvious that this is BNS’s second book, because concerns with MET: VtM have either been corrected or elaborated upon (backgrounds, etc.).

The only mechanic that is truly new, and I feel makes the game stand out from its companion, is the Quest System. Players develop a Quest, work together to determine requirements, and then, regardless of success or failure, collectively create a shared narrative. This emphasizes player cooperation and agency, while reducing storyteller stress. It’s a great example of a system promoting positive play and I am very impressed with it. I have heard a lot of Vampire storytellers that want to incorporate it in to their game and I look forward to that.

Relevance to New and Old Playersrokea

I would like to preface this section with the fact that BNS talked with the community at large about what they liked and disliked about Werewolf, and it’s pretty obvious that they took those suggestions to heart in their development of the new book. They made a lot of changes to make the game more palatable, easier to run, and easier to play.

My old group of players has an adage. “Forget what you knew before, read through the book and that’s what you have.” There is a lot of difference between the original Werewolf and this one. But these changes aren’t bad, especially considering the backstory of the book. If you like Werewolf, you’ll definitely find the old Werewolf you love deep inside the heart of this book, as well as a whole new world to explore

For newer players, this book is a great introduction to the genre. With the inclusion of definite mechanics and story hooks that allow for inexperienced players to play as Kinfolk (the human relatives of werewolves), and Cubs (newly changed werewolves), and also to become actively involved in the story, even as low powered creatures (I’m looking at you Den Mother), even the greenest oWoD player can truly become involved and captured by the system and story. Don’t try and read the whole thing in one sitting though.

Storytellers are given a lot of information and a lot of meat to sink their fangs in to. The Umbra section alone could be an entire 5 year chronicles. This makes the book great for someone trying to run a game, especially if paired with its sister book, Vampire the Masquerade. There are 750+ pages of pure information to sink your teeth into and you have all the time in the world to get to know it.

Art:

This needed its own section. The art is amazing, representative, evocative, and while the style may be slightly strange at first, it meshes well. There are depictions of strength and serenity in both genders. It’s some great stuff.

skin-dancerBut… it’s not perfect.

My major gripe is that there are firmly more depictions of men than women (by a factor of maybe ¼ from a quick count through the book) and there are a few ‘sexy poses’ that women are in that you don’t see the men paralleling (I’m looking at you page 735). There’s nothing wrong with sexy, but similar poses could have been employed in some of the male images. Also the bewildered and bored look that the two women in the Pentex scene respectively have (page 610) hurt my soul a little bit compared to the businesslike and serious look the men have.

These seem like petty gripes, but I hold BNS to high standards in regards to being open and accommodating to the community, and art is one of the major ways that the gaming community has majorly failed to do this in the past.

Overall, the art is stunning, and despite these issues the full color renderings of them make me want an art book with more.

Portability:

So there is one Were-Elephant in the room I’d like to address. The original LARP books were small and portable. This book is not. While the 750+ pages are absolutely glorious and give you all the information you could ever need, it’s also a monster of a book. There are ways around this (printing and creating subsection binders, e-readers, etc.), but those are hoops that the consumer has to jump through themselves. Also, the size does seem to mess with certain e-readers and PDF readers, so a B&W option of the pdf at some point in the future would be appreciated.mourning

Final Verdict

This is an amazing book. It’s a great re-imagining of Werewolf that addresses and deals with a large amount of the issues that the community was vocal about. It’s obvious that the two years of work that both BNS and the community put in to it have paid off and I feel like this is definitely going to revitalize a once dying subset of the LARP community. They have taken a part of oWoD that I loved but was always hesitant to suggest due to problematic issues in the original source material and morphed it in to something I would suggest to most, if not all, of my LARPing friends to try out at least once.

 

 

Will Martin has been LARPing since college and has found no reason to stop yet and is quite fond of being able to watch the age where the art of gaming has become more self-aware and critical of itself. This is accented by his job working in Public Health with a focus on underprivileged communities. Currently he is the head Storyteller for a yet to be named Werewolf LARP out of Washington DC, run through Underground Theater.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

THE STORYPATH SYSTEM IS AWESOME: BACK SCION’S KICKSTARTER!

scionorigins

Image by Onyx Path Publishing

KICKSTARTER LIVE NOW

Scion is a game that puts the players in the role of descendants of Gods. This is a game of cinematic story, fast moving and epic.  From ‘lowly’ heroes, to demi-gods, and eventually reaching godhood, characters in Scion strive for apotheosis while battling the reawakened Titans. In the original game, there were 6 Pantheons, and in the 2nd edition there will be 10. There is potential for further options as well in later books.

thor

Thor

Aesir – The Norse Gods

Deva – The Hindu Gods, Kami – The Japanese Gods

Manitouk – The Algonquian Gods

Netjer – The Egyptian Gods

Orisha – The Yoruban Gods

Shen – The Chinese Gods

Teotl – The Aztec Gods

Theoi – The Greek and Roman Gods

Tuatha de Dannan – The Irish Gods

 

Each of these Pantheons is connected through the power of a shared Story, a Fate that connects them with one another. Their offspring, the Scions, are not all direct descendants in the 2nd Edition, but they will be connected through this supernatural Fate that binds them. Some of you who are familiar with the Proto Indo-European diasporic root nature of some of these pantheons may wonder why they aren’t the same beings? (PIE or GTFO). The game defines them as Incarnations that exist separately from one another, they have a different existence, perhaps your characters might rise to become a different Incarnation of a similar god? So how does is this going to work?

punch-and-pie

About a month ago, the Storypath System Preview was released by Onyx Path Publishing and I’ve been perusing the PDF for a few weeks. I then got a copy of the preview in beautiful printed form while I was at Grand Masquerade. This new system is going to be used for both Trinity Aeon and Scion, and though I am way more excited for the return of the Trinity Universe… Scion looks amazing as well.  For anyone that was previously familiar with Scion, the Storypath system makes some adjustments that seem like they seriously enhance and evoke the style and themes of Scion. The first thing to notice in the System Preview is the Core Mechanic.

core-mechanic

Borrowed from the Storypath System Preview

The Core Mechanic should be familiar to anyone that has played a White Wolf game, but it has changed a bit. That bit of change makes for a very cinematic dice mechanic. You roll a dice pool of d10’s, Attribute + Skill (familiar so far), 8’s and higher are successes (7’s for Novas and Demigods). Now, here is the adjustment: you have a target amount of successes for your action. The preview shows 3, if you fail, but don’t botch you receive a consolation which is an action that drives the story even if it wasn’t what you intended. If you succeed by getting the exact amount of successes, then you do what you wanted to, and if you get more you get to add Stunts to what you were trying to do. Very cinematic, very story driven, very modern game design that encourages failing forward and cinematic success.

200px-docsavageThis Core Mechanic has waves throughout the rest of the basic system. If you fail, but don’t botch, you collect Momentum, which you can save up to use Skill Tricks. These are cool cinematic effects that a character can add to their action. The diving two-footed kick while shooting down a row of bad guys? That’s probably a Skill Trick that cost some Momentum to pull off. The Storypath system is designed to be flexible for scale though, if you want to play Superman 4-color style Super’s you can do that, or you can play gritty detective tales that evoke The Shadow, or Doc Savage.

Here is something about the Storypath System that actually I might be more excited about than I should be. Initiative. Initiative is something I’ve struggled with in most games. It feels clunky no matter how you do it, but I think the Storypath System has something fun that will make it stand out. First, your Initiative is based on the Attribute + Skill pool you plan to use in that first round. This stops the dumping of stats into Wits and Dexterity that we’ve seen in earlier systems based on similar rules. Then it gets fun, the player that goes first, chooses the next player in initiative order, that player chooses the next person, and so on down the line. This encourages some collaboration, and talking about what each person will be doing. The last person to go, is the first person to go in the next round, and so on until the combat is over. Pretty cool, I’d have to play this a few times to see if it is better than what I’m used to, but it sounds better on the surface.

There are a few other neat mechanics presented in the Storypath System Preview, and I recommend checking it out, it’s free. Now, what isn’t free, but you should be excited about anyway, is that Scion 2nd Edition is having a Kickstarter that is LIVE NOW. So, you might be asking why that is exciting? You read to this point, so I’m assuming you at least have some interest in role-playing games… if you don’t… welcome to the site?

It is exciting because Scion is a great game, and the Storypath System is going to breathe new life into great games that I don’t think have got their due from the gaming community at large. Scion is well designed and interesting, and Trinity Aeon is one of the greatest worlds I’ve ever had the opportunity to tell stories within. Are you ready to begin an epic journey? Will you make your story last? Will you become a Legend, a new great Myth?

Josh runs this site and would love to talk to you about games. Email him at admin@keepontheheathlands.com

Invisible Sun, a Study in the Tension Between Accessibility in Price and Design

invisible-sun-kickstarter-graphic
Life is a pure flame, and we live by an Invisible Sun within us. – Sir Thomas Browne

The quote above is credited by Monte Cook games as an inspirational source for their new game Invisible Sun.  Invisible Sun is a highly experimental RPG that includes elements of board gaming, formalized rules for downtime sessions, and rules for engaging players with different playstyles in a variety of ways.  The board game elements bring a tactile experience that has been less prevalent in RPGs since the industry moved away from the miniature figure and occasional terrain inclusion of yesteryear.  The board game elements also allow more complex role playing systems like multiple percentage roles for determining randomized effects to be handled though simple dynamics like drawing cards from a deck.  The game includes a beautiful resin statue meant to display cards that impact game play so everyone can see them, and the first stretch goal was a spell and artifact grimoire that includes spell cards for every spell in the book.

When I first saw the kickstarter for Invisible Sun I was at first excited, then disappointed, then excited all over again.  It took me a while to figure out exactly how I felt about this whole RP experiment. The problem is the lowest pledge reward is $197.  Yes, you read that right.  One hundred and ninety seven dollars, and that pledge level doesn’t include the majority of the stretch goal material.  For the past several years I have been increasingly concerned about the trends in game development that make it difficult to bring new players into the hobby.  Some of these issues are related to how difficult it can be to dive into modern role playing games with any kind of mental processing challenges.  I started thinking about these issues in earnest largely because of the first post on this blog, which focuses on the challenges of role playing with memory issues.  Other barriers to role playing are purely financial, which is an increasing problem in the 20teens.  The books just seem to be getting larger and larger, with each edition being more expensive than the last. With a few exceptions we have not really seen any tools to break these games down into more systematically manageable, and affordable pieces.

Comparison of the most recent Vampire the Masquerade LARP and Tabletop books to the most most recent editions released from the original White Wolf era

Comparison of the most recent Vampire the Masquerade LARP and Tabletop books to the most most recent editions released from the original White Wolf era.  The modern books here are the thinner basic print quality.

The one fairly high profile aid designed to streamline the process of juggling rules mid session are the spell cards Wizards of the Coast published as part of the D&D 5th Edition line.  In the last year I’ve seen a few companies follow WotC’s lead on spell card inspired products, and at this year’s GenCon I saw a few companies experimenting with tools and game design that break away from the tables, charts, and expansive RP tomes that currently dominate the gaming market. Those experiments were not the norm though.  The majority of what I saw at GenCon still leaned towards heavy, ornate, leatherette bound special editions with little in the way of gaming aids.  Even a few small indie publishers were still defaulting to this format, despite not having an established brand to back up their price point.  When gaming aids were available they were generally being produced by third party companies for extravagant prices.

So when I saw Invisible Sun announced I was phenomenally excited, and when I saw the price the day the kickstarter went live my heart fell.  Several people expressed concerns about the price in the kickstarter comments.  The game devs responded, saying that this was a premium product, and that part of why they are aiming for such a luxury experience is that their last few game products were specifically targeted at affordability, so they felt like this was a good time to aim for a different segment of the role playing market.

I decided to check and see what “affordable” really meant.  I was incredibly surprised to find the Numenera Player’s Guide pdf was only $7.99 and a hard copy was only $19.99.  This book is advertised as including all the rules necessary for a player to make a character, and generally get up to speed on the setting and core rules.  I haven’t seen a price point like that on a major game line since the 90’s, and being primarily a World of Darkness player I’m used to the go whole game or go home design philosphy.  It was very refreshing to see a product priced and designed for players who know they will never need GM materials.  After seeing this I decided to go back to the Invisible Sun kickstarter and take a second look at what was being sold for that $197. As it turns out that price tag covers a lot of game material, and it left me wondering how that actually stacked up to what it takes to get started with a traditional role playing game.

As a baseline I decided to compare the Invisible Sun box to the price point for running a decent Dungeons and Dragons 5th Ed. campaign.  I’m not counting the D&D startup boxes, because they really only give you enough to decide if you want to purchase the rest of the game.  Assuming you need at least 1 Player’s Guide, 1 Dungeon Master’s Guide, and either 1 campaign book, or the Monster Manual if you’re going to create your own campaign, your initial book investment would be $150 MSRP (I know Amazon is less, but let’s assume you want to support your local game store).  A basic Chessex Dice set is $4.  So we’re right around $154 with no game aids.  If we add in a wet erase mat, a few miniatures, the Arcane spell cards and 1 set of healer class spell cards we overshoot that $197 initial purchase cost handily.  Given what is included in the Invisible Sun Black Box this seems like a reasonable comparison.

Just to make sure D&D wasn’t a one off example, I looked at some of Onyx Path/White Wolf’s products.  The World of Darkness 20th Anniversary core books cost between $50 for a relatively moderate quality print on demand text to $115 for a premium print on demand copy of Mage the Ascension 20th Anniversary, and are not available with free shipping or any kind of Amazon discount.  Chronicles of Darkness has a similar price point since you need the core rule book as well as one of the specific game texts such as Vampire the Requiem or Beast the Primordial to really run a full chronicle.  While that may seem to provide a slightly more affordable point of entry than D&D to run a reasonable World of Darkness game, you generally need more than one copy of the book as during combat players often spend a lot of time hunting down exact rules for their actions so they are prepared on their turn.  There are spell cards available for some of the games in the Chronicles of Darkness lines, but not all of them.  A comment on a recent Onyx Path blog indicates they are going to begin to release similar products for the World of Darkness 20th Anniversary line, but these cards are not yet available.  So at many tables multiple 500+ page tomes are a necessity, as are far more dice than are ever needed for Dungeons and Dragons.  Again, we have very rapidly overshot the $197 price point of Invisible Sun, and we have far fewer game aids available to help make the play experience more accessible.

The primary problem with the Invisible Sun model is that with other properties players will likely pick up the extra dice, copies of the player’s guides, spell cards etc. for themselves.  With Invisible Sun everything is wrapped up in a single product, and while Monte Cook Games has encouraged players to split the price, generally people are going to be less likely to do that if they don’t own the fruits of their expenditure, and no collector is going to be comfortable breaking up an Invisible Sun Black Box.  There is now a player kit priced at $36 thanks as an Invisible Sun stretch goal, but that is an additional expense.  It doesn’t help mitigate the initial $197 hit.  Ultimately the game is incredibly well priced for what is included, and breaks much needed ground on accessible game design, but is less financially accessible than most games on the market because all of the expense is front loaded in a single purchase.

When all was said and done I did end up funding Invisible Sun.  I am still frustrated that the 15 year old me that bought his first copy of Vampire the Dark Ages after much scrimping and saving would have a difficult time investing in my favorite properties today, and would certainly not be able to make the dive into Invisible Sun. However, I am also aware that by the time I was done with high school I had spent well over $197 on my World of Darkness collection, and it was in many ways a less comprehensive assortment of role playing resources than what is included in the Invisible Sun Black Box.  I also remember far too many games with players who ended up leaving the hobby behind because navigating arcane texts, and tables filled with endless numbers kept them from truly enjoying the process of role playing.

Invisible Sun may not open role playing to a new generation of 15 year old geeks waiting in the wings of their local gaming stores, but it unquestionably breaks ground on making role playing games a more accessible experience. As long as Monte Cook is focusing on creating products at all price points, the innovations that work in Invisible Sun have a very real chance of making their way into more affordable game lines.  Hopefully over time these innovations will spread well beyond the scope of Monte Cook’s games and find their way into a variety of role playing products across the industry.  We can do more to make games that everyone can easily enjoy, and despite the sticker shock I honestly believe Invisible Sun is only the beginning of a trend in thinking about game design in radically new and elegantly accessible ways.