Saturday, December 29, 2018

Advanced D&D Players Handbook - Introduction

From The Back

No more searching through stacks of books and magazines to find out what you need to know. The Players Handbook puts it all your fingertips, including:

All recommended character classes. Fighters, Paladins, Rangers, Magic-Users, etc.

Character Races. Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Half-Orcs, Humans, etc.

Character level statistics.

Equipment lists with costs.

Spell listings by level and descriptions of effects (including many new spells).

As a dungeon adventurer or a dungeon master, you will find the contents of this book to be what you have been waiting for. All useful material is now compiled under one cover, especially for the players!


First, I have to say that I'm impressed with how weird and alienating that back cover is. It really sells the "if you don't know what this is, it's not for you" feel. I suppose that's all part of labeling your game "advanced," though. Doesn't make sense to be "advanced" Dungeons and Dragons, unless there's also a regular Dungeons and Dragons out there for you to be advanced from.

I'm not too worried about it going over my head, though. I'm a pretty old hand at this stuff, and I got my start with AD&D 2nd edition. In fact, the only real reason I have this book is because I wanted to fill the gaps in my collection. One day, I looked at my shelf and I said, "you know, you've got Basic D&D, AD&D 2nd edition, D&D 3rd edition, and D&D 4th edition (which, at the time, was the most recent), so why don't you have AD&D 1st edition?" And while that's not literally how it happened, it was the basic thought process behind why I wound up buying more than a half dozen books for a game I never intended to play.

The weird thing about AD&D 1st edition is that it is the oldest game in my collection. The copyright on my Players Handbook is 1978, a full four years before D&D Basic. Not going to lie. That surprised me. What were the newbies buying between 1978 and 1982? It can't be those books and magazines alluded to on the back cover, because they were the problem AD&D was created to solve. Maybe it was just AD&D. Maybe they saw it on the bookstore shelves and said, "you know, I'd feel more comfortable with just regular Dungeons and Dragons, but there isn't any here, so I'll just have to get advanced and jump in feet first. Gotta run before you can walk, right?"

Anyway, I'm expecting this to be pretty rough, as befitting its age. I'm also expecting, after reading the later BECMI D&D to have it be thoroughly inspired in the oddest of places. That's something to look forward to, at least.


Friday, December 28, 2018

Mage: The Awakening, 2nd Edition - Reaction

Going into this, I expected that the hardest part was going to be having to read the same basic Storyteller rules for the nth time in my life. But actually, it wasn't that bad. The new version is more streamlined and does some interesting things with player agency and narrative mechanics. I'll probably have to read it a couple more times before it really clicks, but I'm certain that's inevitable. Changeling: The Lost, 2nd Edition is coming in a few days and I probably won't be able to resist getting Vampire and Werewolf indefinitely.

I think the best way to approach Mage is to pretend the rest of the World (sorry, Chronicles) of Darkness does not exist. This has always been an issue with White Wolf crossovers to some degree. Vampire is set in the World of Darkness, and then each subsequent game introduces its own unique cosmology that is pretty interesting in its own right, but doesn't really play nice with anything that has come before. The pieces sort of fit, but sooner or later, you have to make one game subordinate to the other, or at wind up mangling the metaphysics of one or more of your settings.

If I'd read the WoD games in anything resembling the semblance of the right order, this would be a trite observation by now, but because I wanted to read a new book first, I wasted it on Mage: The Awakening, 2nd Edition. It does indeed fit the pattern that goes all the way back to Werewolf: The Apocalypse. It is a very interesting modern fantasy game, but it is most definitely not a Mage supplement for the setting established in Vampire.

It's hard to tell, though, whether that is as big a deal as it should be. In the first edition of the nWoD, all the supernatural types shared the same core book. They didn't work together any better than they had in the oWoD, but there was a clear editorial intent there. It wasn't that weird if you wanted to play a vampire in the Werewolf game. In fact, the rules made it pretty easy.

With second edition going back to an all-in-one core book for each supernatural type, it's unclear whether crossover optimization is any longer a priority. There is some mention of crossover rules, but nothing as prominent as Requiem 1st Edition's "Supernatural Conflict" sidebar.

I guess that means I should proceed as if Mage: The Awakening is its own distinct thing, and not worry about it as a World of Darkness game.

I think it's pretty good, but it suffers from being a World of Darkness game.

Oh, it's nothing in particular. It's more of a general feel. Mages get their magic because they have a vision of the Supernal realm, where the true forms of all the exists casts a shadow on the Fallen world, creating the reality we know as an imperfect copy of the sublime. Once the mage has seen the truth of this other realm, they can call the Supernal laws into the real world and reshape it according to their desires. But there is a problem. The mages have enemies. A powerful group of godlike beings, known as the Exarchs, who reign in the Supernal realm and want to keep its power for themselves. Through their agents, the Seers of the Throne, they strengthen the Abyss, the vast gulf of negative spiritual power that keeps the Fallen world in darkness.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. Its a powerful conflict, with stakes that are simultaneously political, spiritual, and metaphysical. Magic isn't just a superpower, it's filled with mystery and peril. So far, so good.

Where it goes wrong is in the game's pessimism. Nonmagical people don't just lack abilities, they succumbed to The Lie. If they witness undeniable magic, they go insane and unravel it with their disbelief. The very laws of the universe conspire to keep humanity ignorant and afraid, and even if mages were interested in helping them, they have to be extremely circumspect. Again, it's not necessarily a bad setup, but something about it feels vestigial. Like, the mages are fighting a long-term war against near-impossible odds, so obviously things are going to be shitty for awhile, perhaps even the foreseeable future, but the way the game frames the conflict, victory is a foolishly idealistic dream.

And there's no real need for that. The world as it is is enough of a vale of tears, what with the inevitability of sickness and heartbreak and all. And the mage setting is demon-haunted besides. So why shut down hope?

It's not as bleak as it could be. And it's not as if the tone is written in stone. You can play the game hopefully easily enough. I just think it sometimes goes a little too far in trying to make its dark world a World of Darkness. Take its focus on mysteries and exploration and make it a bit more pulp and a bit less horror and Mage: The Awakening comes to be a great contemporary fantasy game on its own right.

Nitpick aside, I really like this book. It dramatically improves the spellcasting system from previous versions of Mage, its organizations and fantastic locations make for compelling plot hooks, and overall, it just works well as a stand-alone game. It's been so long since I read first edition that I cannot compare them accurately, but if I remember correctly, M:tAw 1st had more of the stuff I didn't like in it, so I'm pretty sure this is going to be the definitive version of Awakening for me . . .

At least until 3rd edition comes out.

UKSS Contribution - In Salamanca, Spain there is a library where books that were never written magically appear, last just long enough to inspire their readers with a bit of otherwise unattainable knowledge (from new magical spells to advances in cutting-edge science) and then disappear. I think something like that might be at home in one of UKSS's centers of learning.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Mage: The Awakening, Second Edition - Introduction

From the Back

Humanity is cursed to a prison of sleep, ignorant of the wonder and danger all around them. Ground down into slavery, by masters they will never see, beset by a plague of cares to distract them from the Truth.

You were like them once, but now you are Awakened. You see the world beneath the Lie's skin, and the Mysteries beckoning you into the shadows. Every day of your life, you hear the call of the supernatural, from the leas ghost to the deepest cosmic enigmas.

You are a mage, one of the Wise. You see, know, and explore what others can't imagine, from the depths of the human soul to he hidden corners of reality. Armed with your spells, driven by an addiction to the Mysteries, you delve into the secrets of the world. Knowledge has a price, and the dangers are many.


This is actually the first of the Onyx Path second edition corebooks I've come to own. I ordered it about six months ago and I haven't read it yet. So I feel like I'm in uncharted territory here. What is the design philosophy that animates the second edition? How is it different than the first? Why was it necessary? I know none of these things.

That's basically why I decided to read these books out of order. So I could come into Mage: The Awakening with my mind as empty as it's going to get. I want to understand the game on its own terms, without constantly comparing it to its predecessors.

And yet . . .

Mage: The Ascension was my favorite of the old World of Darkness games. Mage: the Awakening . . . I also enjoyed (though my favorite nwod game was Changeling). I do have some prior knowledge here, and I will be bringing some prejudices to this reading.

However, I am optimistic. Awakening 1e was like this Gnostic thriller, a game of suspense and uncertainty set in a world ruled by evil, where your highest aspirations are the very crimes the powers that be will use to condemn you. It was probably the most different from its owod counterpart, but nonetheless very satisfying in its own right.

If we're talking about my wishlist for 2e, the only things I really want are a bigger scale and more magic. I like it when wizards get to wiz, and the White Wolf mage games were always a little diffident about their own premise for me to be 100% on board.


Vampire: The Requiem - Reaction

I know what you want. You're all desperately eager for me to continue my fascinating discussion of racial politics in Vampire games. Well, there is no need to keep you in suspense. I officially declare Vampire: The Requiem to be Not Racist.

Obviously, it's not perfect. It had at least one example of "no one knows what's going on in the mysterious East," which is less than ideal. Someone knows, White Wolf. The vampires that live there know. You, the authors of the whole damned universe, know. It doesn't have to be a thing. So why do you keep making it a thing?

That being said, one of the bloodlines was a Japanese offshoot of the Nosferatu. There are actual, named, black vampires. None of the clans is based off an offensive racial stereotype. A solid B+ all around.

Now that we have that unpleasantness out of the way, what about the book as a whole?

It's weird. Nearly every particular element is a notable step forward from its predecessor, but the book, taken as a whole, seems less than Masquerade. And I think I've identified the culprit - something I didn't talk about in my reaction to Vampire: The Masquerade. Something that I really should classify as an artistic and technical flaw, but which nonetheless gave the book a certain charm:

Masquerade would, occasionally, use metaplot to introduce errata.

I only noticed it a couple of times - with the Assamite clan weakness and the Malkavians having Dementation instead of Dominate - but I'm sure it happened a few more times under my radar. And the reason this matters is not (necessarily) that a few artful flaws can make a good thing better, but rather because of what this particular flaw says about how the game was made.

Namely, Vampire: The Masquerade, Revised was the product of White Wolf distilling a decade's worth of constantly-evolving game material, with an active fan-base who had a particular lived experience, and making it into a new introductory core book. Vampire: The Requiem was a product of White Wolf taking fifteen years of experience developing a vampire game and using it to create a new game from scratch.

Masquerade felt . . . weightier, like you were walking into the middle of a conversation. Requiem is probably the superior artistic achievement. It's certainly more confident in its moods and themes, and it has much less of that random weirdness that comes from your main inspiration being your own previous work. But it definitely loses something.

My recommendation is that if you're going core only, go with Requiem. If you're buying into the line as a whole, Masquerade is the way to go.

Although, now that I think about it, Requiem has a second edition. Maybe it too is late-stage vampire, drawing from an entire edition's worth of supplements to mutate into its own unique thing. Without knowing for sure, my recommendation has to be at least somewhat tentative.

Looks like I've got another candidate for my drivethrurpg wishlist. Maybe I'll order it about a month before I'm ready to read V:tM 20th anniversary edition, to repeat the comparison a decade later.

UKSS Contribution: Oh, this is a tough one. Everything good about this game is really specific, and everything stealable is really generic. I guess I'll go with the Morbus bloodline, vampires that can only feed on the sick, and who spread disease wherever they go.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Vampire: The Requiem - Introduction

From the Back

This is not
the abandoment of death,
Nor is it
the breath of life.
This is the funeral song  . . .

No, you know what, this is White Wolf putting poetry on the back of their books, because why should things be simple and helpful. Let's just skip it and go straight into what it is.

Vampire: The Requiem is the follow-up game to Vampire: The Masquerade. In the early 2000s, White Wolf decided to blow up their massively successful rpg franchise and rebuild it from first principles. Requiem should be Masquerade, shorn of its accumulated excesses and refocused on delivering a pure vampire-themed horror experience.


You know, I honestly thought there was more of a time gap between Requiem and Masquerade, Revised. Now I'm wondering if Requiem will be nearly as socially aware as I'm hoping. I don't recall anything particularly offensive about it, but then again, I didn't remember anything specifically problematic about Masquerade either.

Which isn't to say I'm going into this looking for a political hit job. I'm okay with a little political incorrectness in my vampire games. Actually, what I'm most looking forward to are the clearer genre expectations and more refined mechanics.

What I'm least looking forward to are the fonts. White Wolf loved fonts that kind of look like handwriting. It's not something I mentioned in my reaction to Masquerade, because I actually kind of like that game and didn't want to keep piling on negativity, but I happened to glance at the introductory fiction and I saw something like four different fonts in the space of two pages.

So, clearly, it would be naive of me to expect Requiem to correct everything that was wrong with Masquerade.


Vampire: The Masquerade, Revised Edition - Reaction

Vampire: The Masquerade is turning out to be a tough one to grapple with. I don't really want to talk about politics, because that's a black hole that swallows everything that gets near it, but the politics of this book are . . . not good.

It's nothing particularly hateful. On the balance, I'd say the book is on the right side of history. It's just closer to the center of the bell curve than I'm entirely comfortable with. Put in the starkest possible terms, the problem is this:

Vampires are really white.

And, look, it's a thing. It was the 90s. White people were whiter back then. If you stack 1999-era John Frazer up against the Vampire Revised core book, I guarantee you that I was at least 10-20% whiter, by volume. The difference is that I've since had nearly 20 years of personal growth, and this book hasn't.

It's not that the book is racist. I mean, it is, but in that mostly benign 90s way, where it's rigorously colorblind and sometimes overly pious in its tokenism, but clearly committed to the notion that the races are "equal."  And I'm pretty sure, that given its subject matter, any depictions that might have wandered uncomfortably close to real world bigotry were dismissed as "we're equal opportunity offenders."

There is some justice to that. It's not like the Ventrue, a clan whose whole shtick can basically be summed up as "we may have lost our lives, but they'll never take our white privilege," is any better, morally, than the designated PoC clans, and in fact, in true White Wolf punk fashion, is often the punching bag when characters criticize "vampire society." It's just that you have one clan whose deal is that they have traditionally recruited the scions of nobility and have adapted to modern nights by moving into the board room. And then you have another clan of Arabian religious fanatics who are waging an implacable holy war against the underpinnings of civilization (in this case, it's vampires, so it's kind of justified, but in context, it's not a good look).

Vampire: The Masquerade resolves this tension by pointing out that Clan Assamite has recently started recruiting "westerners" (their word).

That's a pattern for the book. Non-white spaces are either closed off completely (basically all of east Asia is a no-go zone, thanks to the  "mysterious" Asian vampires) or it takes pains to note that white people are included (as per the writeups for the Followers of Set or Assamites). The reverse is not true for the Clans that read as white. No mention of black Ventrue, or Native American Toreadors or anything like that. I'm 99% sure that the intent was that the Camarilla and Sabbat clans were all default inclusionary and none explicitly broke down along racial lines (in fact, the portrait on the Brujah clan page is probably meant to be a black man, but it's hard to say for certain with the art style - his skin is page-colored). However, that's the problem. White culture is invisible, and thus the white-coded clans represent broad generic archetypes, despite the fact that a nobleman from Edwardian England is even more alien to a modern American than a contemporary Japanese person from "the mysterious East."

I don't necessarily think the cure for this is more explicitly diverse Ventrue. If we're taking the clan's history at face value, then it makes perfect sense that it is lily-white. European nobility was overwhelmingly white, and modern finance hasn't exactly closed the racial gap. And it's not as if the Ventrue are going to benefit from good publicity by being inclusive. Plus, you know, given the age of the vampires and the social circles they came from, they're almost certainly hugely racist.

But if you're going to go with an all-white clan Ventrue (and the more I think about it, the more I agree that you should), you kind of have a duty to point it out. To acknowledge whiteness as a political force, and, indeed, to draw parallels between vampirism and the exploitative power of white supremacist capitalism. Indeed, if you're doing it right vampires =  white people is a metaphor that is too on the nose.

I mean, not to belabor a point (too late), but there's a whole chapter devoted to the history of the kindred, and an important theme is how vampires crossed the ocean to escape the stifling order of the European elders, and you don't even mention the transatlantic slave trade? Nothing about characters having to be shipped as cargo rang a bell? The American revolution is discussed in the paranoid context of warring vampire factions, and not one peep about the ready availability of blood in a society where it was possible to literally buy and sell human beings?

That's how white vampires are. They can afford to forget about race as a force.

And so, despite my best intentions, this post wound up being heavily political after all. But that's not all of what Vampire the Masquerade is. It's not even the bulk of it. At its heart lies the dream of bringing your Anne Rice fanfiction to life. And how does it fare at that task?

Passably. It has flaws. The system makes a hash out of probability. Having both a variable target number and a variable dice pool makes it very hard to have an intuitive sense of how likely something is, and some actions requiring multiple successes doesn't make it any easier. The end result is a system that feels like it is held together by the players' optimism.

But it also leads to a system that is at its most robust and functional in combat situations. A factor, I'm sure, that led to many games becoming extended brawls.

That ties into the system's biggest weakness - it's being pulled in too many directions. It wants to be a game of sexy vampires doing sexy things in a moodily-lit shadow world of decadence and deceit, but it also wants to be a game of personal horror, where characters have a tenuous hold on their morality and slowly become corrupted by the temptations of undeath, and also an occult conspiracy game, where long-buried secrets hold the key to an imminent apocalypse and also a game about the conflict between rival ideological factions, with different visions of how the vampiric condition should relate to society at large. All these factors can work together to tell some remarkable stories, but it's more likely that they don't.

That's probably the game's greatest strength, too. Roleplaying games are a chaotic storytelling medium at the best of times, and the players are likely to have different agendas about the direction they want the game to go (a fact that Vampire, Revised sometimes seem to be in denial about) and it's good to have something for them to do.

UKSS Contribution: Probably Clan Tremere. The hubris of wizards attempting to wrest the secret of eternal life from the undead, only to fail and become vampires is pretty compelling. I also like the image of a sinister cabal of vampires, gathering in secret to perform mystical rituals. Plus, they're arrogant jerks, which is always something you want to see in your vampire conspiracies.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Vampire the Masquerade, Revised Edition - Introduction

From the Back

There will come a time, when the curse of the One above will not be tolerated further, when the Lineage of Caine will end when the Blood of Caine will be weak and there will be no Embracing for these Childer for their blood will run like water and the potence in it will wither. Then, you know in this time that Gehenna will soon be upon you.

-- The Book of Nod

What is This

Well, the back wasn't very informative. It's a game about vampires. Or, more accurately, the game about Vampires. The third edition of the original, gothic-punk, superheroes-with-fangs, angsty, tortured storytelling game of personal horror.


As a classic White Wolf game, I'm looking forward to one part compelling fiction, one part unbearable pretentiousness, and one part mechanical carelessness. As an artifact from the late 90s, particularly one that marketed itself as "adult," it's likely to blindside me with some bit of political backwardness that I didn't notice at the time. So that'll be interesting to write about, at least.

Overall, I think I'll be pretty energized by this one. White Wolf always had a knack for creating readable rpgs.


Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia - Reaction

I have a vision of the future. I'm sitting in my nice leather chair. I've just read two editions of GURPS back to back. And my brains are leaking out through my ears.

Reading the D&D Rules Cyclopedia so soon after the individual boxed sets wasn't quite that bad, but it gives me a horrifying glimpse at what awaits me.

But putting that aside, I have to say, this book is . . . good? Bad? Goodbad?

It's one-volume D&D. Everything you need for a game - player abilities, DM advice, monster stats - in a single book that you could sit down and read over the course of a couple of afternoons. I may be missing some obscure product, but it is quite possibly the only version of the game ever released that lets you do that. So the very fact that it exists is incredible.

It's just, this version of D&D, it's . . . I don't want to say "bad," but I'm at a loss for a similarly simple word that means "inconsistent, filled with ad hoc rules, and a poor fit for emulating the heroic fiction that inspired it."

Of course, that was my key observation on the first go round of BECM D&D. So, the worst thing you could say about the Rules Cyclopedia is that it doesn't dramatically improve the material it compiled. It does streamline things a bit. It's easy to underestimate how much of a benefit it is to just have all the rules for a particular character class in one place, but it does help both comprehension and flow. And some of the more obvious missteps have been corrected. For example, it now advises thief characters to not steal from their party. And it is no longer canon that apes can become wereseals.

The parts I was most interested in are those from the Companion DM's book, which I inexplicably do not own. There were some monsters, some magic items (including the demihuman relics, which all seemed to produce some obscure method of transportation, for some reason), but the biggest contributions were the mass combat and dominion management rules.

Which, I'm glad they're included, but I'm even more glad that I won't have to use them. Mass combat basically involves sitting down with your friends and doing algebra for 20 minutes (if you're lucky) and dominion management is not dynamic or interactive enough to be worth your time (it actually suggests that staying in your dominion, ruling in person, is likely to increase your chances of a coup, so that's a pretty sick burn).

In theory, I really like taking these high level things out of the realm of DM fiat and making them objectively influenced by character stats and actions, but ultimately, what I want is something that will model the interstitial narration of a historical epic (". . . and in the year of the lion, the Ochre Horde advanced on the capital, but Lord Horence was too far away to rally his forces, or was he . . .") without getting bogged down in too many corner cases or exceptions.

Maybe it's not an attainable goal, and I certainly don't fault the Rules Cyclopedia for not pulling it off, but it does kind of exemplify both the strengths and weakness of this edition - everything is included, allowing you to tell fantasy stories of any scope or scale, all with one book . . . but the price is that it's all just a little bit crummy.

Overall, though, I think I'd take it over AD&D, which - hell, I'll let the Rules Cyclopedia's conversion section finish this thought for me - ". . . often has a more detailed rule that includes more variables, allowing it to cover situations in much greater depth."

I mean, good gods, at least we dodged that bullet.

UKSS Contribution - This pretty much had to come from the monster's section, and there were some pretty good choices, but none that quite had the charm of Sasquatches. I'm pretty sure they were in either Basic or Expert, but the Rules Cyclopedia introduces a new rule here - they can sometimes be spellcasters. Specifically, they can reach up to level 4 as druids.

Now I'm picturing a whole community of gentle, hippy Sasquatches, living in harmony with nature and hiding from the rapacious industry of the hu-man with the aid of the forest spirits.