Stalker – Le Jeu de Rôle Crowdfunding!

The French translation of Stalker — The SciFi Roleplaying Game has entered crowdfunding stage on the Ulule platform. It’s being published by La Loutre Rôliste and translated by Charlotte and Christophe Dénouveaux. At the time of writing it’s been up for some six hours and is 29% into its 10,000€ funding goal with 31 days to go, so I’m optimistic about it. The translation is, by my understanding, based on the English translation by yours truly. They’re aiming to have the goods delivered in December 2020, which feels a bit optimistic in the current situation, but I’ll believe them on the PDFs. It’s been in the works since 2017, so at this point I expect the work is done and all that remains is the part that really needs money to move around.

The project looks gorgeous, with all new art in full colour by Tania Sanchez-Fortun. While the stark monochrome of the original and the English version serve the game’s tone and atmosphere, there’s something to be said for going all in on the production values. The preview pictures look like it’s a hardcover, too.

And they have a trailer as well.

Knights of the Dinner Table and Self-Loathing

Early this year, before the world went all the way to hell, back when we still met people, a friend dropped off his entire collection of Knights of the Dinner Table at my place. This amounted to about 40 Bundle of Trouble trade paperbacks, all five Tales from the Vault collections, a few other collection books, and where the paperbacks tapered off, single issues up to around 240’s.

So I did what any self-respecting geek does and began reading, while taking notes.

The strip itself started in 1990, intended as filler for the Shadis magazine, and kicked off in 1994 as a monthly comic book which is still ongoing. The first Bundle of Trouble collects the first three issues of the magazine. The first eight Bundles of Trouble are stapled, but from the ninth book onward they are perfect-bound. Starting from Vol. 12, they compile four issues of the magazine each.

Here are my observations after reading the first book.

So.

Um.

The comic tells of a gaming group in Muncie, Indiana. The Game Master is B.A. Felton, who’d like there to be role-playing in his game. Brian, Dave, and Bob are hack & slashers to the core, and will kill everything they meet. In the second issue, they are joined by Sara, who’s also capable of diplomatic solutions. Nobody ever talks in character. I understand Bob, Dave, and Brian are based on certain people Blackburn knows, while Sara is a composite of many female gamers of his acquaintance.

It’s been drawn once. There’s a wide shot of the table and the players, a couple of close-ups, and some variation on these themes that’s then copied and pasted into comic strips. These are short tales, a couple of pages long at the most, about how something goes wrong. Half the time the players threaten each other or B.A. with violence and in several instances they actually come to blows. It’s like looking at some secluded tribe that never came up with the idea of non-violent problem solving. What I don’t get out of this is why these people would spend time with one another or play role-playing games. They don’t seem to be having any fun, ever. The strip is missing the love of the game that’s intrinsic to the success of, say, The Order of the Stick.

The jokes are so worn that the stories would be disturbingly familiar even if I’d never read KotDT. The first story in the book is a retelling of “Eric and the Gazebo”. There’s a larp story, where Dave and Bob go to a vampire larp and start dressing up goth and wearing makeup and piercings, because larping is weird. There’s the story where Sara joins the group, Brian doesn’t dare talk to a girl, and Dave is a tedious sexist. Sara solves the situation by threatening Dave with violence. There’s a story where the players go play with the infamous Nitro Ferguson (or Furguson, or Fergueson – Blackburn never settles on a spelling) while B.A. is away. Nitro runs an adventure based on Deliverance and Bob gets traumatised by what his elf experiences. He no longer wants to play the character. This is played for laughs.

In the editorials and the collection’s introduction, there’s a running theme of fans finding their own experiences and their gaming buddies in the situations and characters of the comic. In a way, I kinda also do, but in these characters I see all those people I’ve had to ban from gaming clubs and online spaces. The image of gamers in KotDT is suffused with the self-loathing that characterizes American nerd media, which makes most of this stuff entirely unbearable (see also The Big Bang Theory).

It will be interesting to see how the book’s portrayal of gamers changes with the times. Three down, 237 to go.

As the Clock Strikes Midnight: The Finnish T2Kv2.2 Timeline in English

After my previous post, people asked me if I might translate this strange and exotic version of the timeline to English (and also if I might translate the sourcebooks, to which the answer is that if someone handles the rights and pays me a fair wage, sure). And so, because fiddling with it took my mind off more pressing stuff that needed doing, I did.

The text is frankensteined together from paragraphs the original and my translations of the bits from the Finnish edition. It tapers off before the end because the last few years of the timelines are identical and in 1997 and 1998 there’s very little that was added and nothing removed. The year entries before that are reproduced in full to show where material was cut as well as replaced or expanded.

This is a translation produced purely for purposes of scholarship and no challenge of anyone’s copyright is intended.

Twilight: 2000 – A Study in Localization

So, Fria Ligan is coming out with what I would’ve thought the least likely RPG to make a comeback after Spawn of Fashan, and is running a Kickstarter for a new edition of Twilight: 2000. At the time of writing, it’s cleared a quarter of a million dollars with 18 days to go, presumably owing to the allure of its comforting escapism. This gives me an excuse to talk about something I’ve wanted to write for a while.

For some background, the original Twilight: 2000 came out in 1984 from Game Designers’ Workshop, designed by Frank Chadwick, Dave Nilsen, Loren K. Wiseman, and Lester W. Smith. It was a post-apocalyptic war role-playing game, set in the immediate aftermath of an extended nuclear exchange after the Cold War turned hot. There was a slightly edited second edition in 1990, and v. 2.2 in 1993 with an extensively rewritten alternate history, as history had caught up with the old one, what with the Soviet Union collapsing and everything. There’s also a 2008 Twilight: 2013 by an entirely different crew from a company called 93 Games Studio, which has since gone out of business. It is silly, and we will not be talking about it.

Instead, the interesting one here is v. 2.2. It was released in Finnish in the same year, translated by Janne Kemppi and Joona Vainio. It was published by TK-Kustannus Oy under its imprint Finnish Game House. In addition to the 1993 and 1990 versions of the core rules, FGH also released a translation of the Twilight Encounters supplement, as well as three original supplements, ErikoisjoukotPohjoismaat-lähdekirja, and Kööpenhaminaan (all released in 1990). They’re the special forces and Nordic Countries sourcebooks, and an adventure module “To Copenhagen”, respectively.

Personally, I have never played Twilight: 2000, and my contact with the game line is limited to reading the rulebook and the Finnish sourcebooks, and bouncing off the ruleset hard.

Now, Kemppi and Vainio did not just translate the book, but… adjusted some things, slightly. After all, this was a version to be marketed next door to what had been the Soviet Union, in 1993, and you couldn’t peddle just any Hollywood make-believe. So, for contrast, the alternate history’s point of departure in Twilight: 2000 v.2.2, American:

On August 19th [1991], elements of the Taman Guards and Kantemir Motor Rifle Divisions move into the center of Moscow and seize the most important public buildings and radio stations. An eight-member Emergency Committee deposes Gorbachev (for “reasons of health”) and bans strikes, protests, or public assemblies. Defiant protesters gather at the Soviet Parliament building, along with a few dissident military units and a cadre of Afghan War veterans, to defend Yeltsin and the Parliament. On August 20th, elements of the Kantemir Division, spearheaded by the elite KGB “Alpha Team,” storm the Parliament building and scatter the protesters. Russian President Yeltsin, along with an estimated 800 others, die in the assault.

With Yeltsin dead and Gorbachev imprisoned in the Crimea, acting Soviet President Yanayev declares the establishment of a “renewal government.” The governments of Byelorussia, Ukraine, and the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) denounce the new government as illegal and declare the Soviet Union to be dissolved.

And this is how you get Soviet Union. In 1992, USA elects the President John Tanner (D-CA), with VP Deanna Pemberton (D-OH), and then things roll downhill from there in an escalating shitshow that brings your party of grunts eight years later to a field in Poland with HQ telling you on the radio: “You’re on your own. Good luck.”

The turning point described here was a real event, the attempted coup d’état of 1991. In real life, as in the Finnish edition, it failed, and the American presidential election is won by Bill Clinton. The Finnish edition, pulling a staggeringly cutting-edge move, even manages to incorporate the Russian 1993 constitutional crisis into its timeline. “Constitutional crisis” is a really clinical way to refer to something that saw armoured columns on the streets of Moscow and had a death toll of 187, by the way. There’s a reference to the Soviet OMON (hey, why don’t Russian paramilitaries like mirrors?) activities in Latvia and Lithuania in 1991, which is a pretty deep cut.

It’s hard to pinpoint a specific point of divergence in the Finnish edition, which is interesting. It’s more of a cascade of little things. It names real world leaders very readily, killing Deng Xiaoping off in 1995, to be replaced by hardline militarists as the state begins to collapse, and raising Vladimir Zhirinovsky to the position of interior minister in Russia. He eventually stages a coup in 1996 and immediately manages to steer the country into war with China and basically all of the CIS states (except Armenia), but things have been rolling downhill for years at that point. Things are further muddled by incorporating material such as the war in Abkhazia. A small divergence in 1993 is that President Leonid Kravchuk sells the Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet to Russia, for fear that if he doesn’t, they’ll take the entire Crimea. According to Janne Kemppi, the writer of most of this, the history also incorporates some material specific to Finland from the first-edition adventure Boomer. He also told me that the license from GDW allowed them to take this kind of liberal approach with the material, with the caveat that this stuff happened around 30 years ago and human memory is fallible.

There are also tonal differences. 1990 in American:

Iraq stuns the west by invading Kuwait in August. With the Soviet Union in disarray, the world rallies behind US leadership in resisting Iraqi aggression, and troops from a dozen countries, a few of them still formally members of the Warsaw Pact, pour into Saudi Arabia.

And Finnish (English translation my own):

Iraq stuns the west by invading Kuwait in August. With the Soviet Union in disarray, the world rallies behind US leadership to secure the industrial nations’ access to oil. Troops from a dozen countries, a few of them still formally members of the Warsaw Pact, pour into Saudi Arabia.

From 1997 onward, the divergence of the versions ends and the rest of the timelines are the same, with NATO and the Warsaw Pact both making liberal use of tactical nuclear weapons, and everything going to hell. Neither version, incidentally, covers Africa, South America, South or South East Asia, or Japan in much detail — though this being Twilight: 2000, the basic assumption is that if it could’ve been nuked, it got nuked.

The Finnish version of the alternate history is, in my mind, the better one of the two. It presents the near past as a muddle, eschewing the clarity of hindsight or an orderly narrative. It creates a mosaic of fact and fiction and raises minor conflicts to the same level as the struggles of great powers. The use of real names of world leaders makes it feel more real. The American version is Hollywood, a war movie set in some exotic elsewhere with weird names, whereas the Finnish one acknowledges that Russia is, like, right there and it’s less than a thousand kilometres to Poland. It’s a starker, bleaker presentation.

I am looking forward to Fria Ligan’s interpretation of the game. Twilight: 2000 has walked a strange path. The first edition came out when the Cold War was still on and played into the very real fears of nuclear war that people had at the time. The second edition came out on the cusp of the USSR’s collapse — which by all accounts came as a surprise to basically everyone — and received version 2.2 soon after to patch over how its future history had become an alternate history in a year. Now, a third edition is on the way, set in that bleak future that’s twenty years in our past. “Whew, glad we dodged that apocalypse scenario!”

But hey, at least it’ll finally have playable rules.

Bad Sex: The Roleplaying Game Out Now!

Indeed, Bad Sex has been available for a couple of weeks now. Designed by Juhana Pettersson, Bad Sex: The Roleplaying Game is a freeform game about, well, what it says on the tin. I think it is the first role-playing game I have seen embrace cringe comedy. Also, there’s more vegetables in the art than in The Veggie Patch, which is an achievement in itself.

The game is ideal for one-shots with people you know very well. Before play, you are to ask two questions: 1. Do you want to play Bad Sex? and 2. Do you want to play Bad Sex with these people? If the answer to either is “no”, don’t play. If the answer is “maybe”, don’t play. The core rule of the game is that every scene must contain bad sex.

I was the proofreader on the project, and one of the few people involved who wanted to be credited on it.

Get it, and the Bad Sex Deck on DriveThruRPG or Itch.io. Or both! They have different covers! Collector value!

The Esoterrorists, 2nd Edition

I do admit that I am an easy sell on certain tropes. One of these is the conspiracy for good fighting against supernatural threats. In role-playing games, Delta Green is the classic, existing to date in at least four different rule systems. The Laundry Files, based on Charles Stross’s novels is another. ENOC: Operation Eisenberg is a pulpier take. And then there’s The Esoterrorists, the inaugural game of the GUMSHOE system, written by Robin D. Laws and published by Pelgrane Press. The first edition came out in 2007, and the second followed in 2013, which is about on par for how current I am with this stuff. I happened to read it just now, so here are thoughts. I cannot honestly call this a review.

GUMSHOE, of course, is the ruleset created for investigative games that abandoned the surprisingly long-lived paradigm in traditional games – most notably Call of Cthulhu – that to find clues, you had to roll Spot Hidden. When you have to roll for something, there’s always the chance of failure, and if the investigators had bad luck, they’d miss out on clues and if this eventuality hadn’t been planned for (and it usually wasn’t), there was the real danger of getting stuck in the investigation, and then the Keeper would get to come up with something convoluted and weird. GUMSHOE’s solution is that if your character has the appropriate investigation skill, you need only ask to receive whatever clues there are to get. In some cases, there is the question of perhaps spending skill pool points for more information, but in GUMSHOE, the investigation never gets stuck because your characters didn’t find a clue at the crime scene. After all, the book notes, in detective stories and TV shows, the interesting bit is never how the protagonists don’t find a clue. It’s what they do with the stuff they find.

I have previous experience with GUMSHOE from Trail of Cthulhu, and I prefer it over traditional CoC. The system is very simple, and since apart from multiple flavours of horror investigation (The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents) it also does time-traveling hijinks (TimeWatch), superheroes (Mutant City Blues), and space opera (Ashen Stars), it’s evidently easy to teach it new tricks.

The Esoterrorists, then, is a very tightly focused game. The characters are agents of the Ordo Veritatis, a secret society fighting against the Esoterrorists. The Esoterrorists are a conspiracy of loose cells that seek to break the Membrane between our world and the Outer Dark. This is accomplished by fomenting fear and panic in the public and undermining the consensus reality. The OV’s job is to figure out something is wrong, follow the clues, put down any gribblies, either apprehend or take out the bad guys, and then feed the public a line of bullshit to cover it all up as something mundane.

It’s a really strange read in the media landscape of 2020.

Unlike OV’s cousins the Delta Green and the Laundry, it’s not a conspiracy within the government nor a state-sanctioned top secret outfit, but a very loosely defined group with a cell structure and some sway here and there (ok, there is also a sourcebook on the Ordo, but I haven’t read it yet). Information on the Ordo Veritatis is distributed on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know, because that’s outside the mission parameters.

The mission, then, is where the tight focus comes in. The Esoterrorists sells a very specific session structure, where the characters are called into the location of some supernatural hinky stuff, given a briefing by Mr./Ms. (or Mx., I suppose, but this is from 2013) Verity, and then it’s off to find leads, follow them, probably get into a fight with the other guys, follow some more leads, have a final confrontation, and then sweep everything under the rug so that people can sleep at night.

A really, really strange read.

The book also has another campaign frame, “Station Duty”, written by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, where the OV agents set up a watch station in a small town, and set about unravelling its larger mysteries together with some locals. It’s suggested that the local characters be built using the rules of Fear Itself, a game that I understand is a lot more about running away than shooting back. It’s a very evocatively written chapter, and I like the format of its presentation. The town is very much fleshed out yet given to the GM and the players to develop, and the gallery of NPCs is each written up as a potential victim, someone influenced by the Outer Dark, and as a full-on Esoterrorist.

The Esoterrorists is very light on mythology, though it clearly has Call of Cthulhu in its DNA (but then, which horror RPG doesn’t?). In addition to Health, agents also have Stability, and when Stability runs out, madness follows. The rules for mental disorders are funky. For instance, if the agent gets afflicted by selective amnesia, the group together comes up with a new fact from the agent’s life, such as a marriage, that the PC has now forgotten.

That kind of thing is possible because of the tight mission focus, moderate to high lethality, and fast character generation. Characters are liable to be whipped up quick and enter play without an extensive backstory, and get to work fighting crime. There is a system for dependants and pillars of stability, but it is not very fleshed out. The focus also makes the game look ideal for convention games.

Though the Lovecraftian influences are clearly there, The Esoterrorists is also very different in its aesthetics. Where Call of Cthulhu is all about the nameless horror, indescribable creatures, and the slow erosion of sanity as you discover that everything you thought you knew about the world is not just wrong but also that you being wrong is meaningless, The Esoterrorists is more about highly-trained individuals with a hard, scientific world-view engaging with definable and classifiable horrors that will eviscerate you and then wear your skin for a suit. It’s a graphic, gory horror that does not suggest things. It shines a cold, bright light on the chunky salsa so the forensic pathologist can get to work.

No game is for everyone, which goes double for horror games, but The Esoterrorists looks like an accessible and elegant piece of work, once you wipe off all the blood.

The Quick, a Game of Nordic Noir Ghost Stories Released

This is a post I’ve been waiting to write for a while now. I playtested an earlier version of The Quick, backed the Kickstarter, and am now happy to announce that the pretty damn nifty horror role-playing game The Quick is finally out and available on DriveThruRPG. It’s published by Myrrysmiehet and made by friends, though apart from that single session I’ve had no hand in it.

From the description:

A Role-playing game of death and ghosts in the world of urban fantasy with the distinct atmosphere of Nordic Noir.

The welfare state and decent society are just masks that hide corruption and decay underneath. Under and intertwined with these mundane horrors lies unknown forces that tear into the everyday reality.

The Quick are death cultists, ghost hunters, exorcists and unspace explorers protecting the fragile everyday reality. Trying to keep the gates of Hell closed.

It’s supernatural investigation as written by Stieg Larsson, broken people banishing ghosts with chilled fingers. The system is lightweight and more concerned with what motivates the characters and what they are willing to do to get the job done rather than calculating attack or defence modifiers.

Well worth your time, and highly recommended.

Get it at: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/277604

Let’s Read Planescape: Monstrous Compendium Appendix I (and the Outer Planes Appendix)

There were ultimately three monster books released for the Planescape setting, the Planescape Monstrous Compendiums I-III. They eschew the product numbering of the rest of the Monstrous Compendium line, which was a mess anyway. The first printing of the AD&D 2E Monstrous Manual was a big binder with loose-leaf monster entries, running off the idea that additional monster supplements could just be slipped in and you’d have all your monsters in the same place. While I like the idea, they’d have needed something in place to address the issue of new monsters that fall alphabetically between two creatures that are on different sides of the same sheet. Anyway, by the time this book rolled around, that concept was dead and buried, and thus in 1994 we got this lavishly illustrated 128-page book and its sequels. Well, by the time this book rolled around the second time.

A lot of Planescape Monstrous Compendium Volume 1 — or PSMC1 — is actually recycled content from 1991’s MC8 Monstrous Compendium Outer Planes Appendix. And when I say “a lot”, I mean “nearly all”. There’s a convenient Wikipedia page that lists the critters and where they’re originally from (while it’s generally bad form to use Wikipedia as a source, but I did check, and at least now in late March of 2020 it was valid). MC8 has 91 monsters, while PSMC1 has 105. By a quick count, 71 of these were carried over. Of the remaining 20, most resurfaced in Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix II and Planes of Law (notably the archons). Only the air sentinel, the celestial lammasu, and the adamantite dragon didn’t make further appearances. The air sentinel is basically an off-brand djinn native to Bytopia (or the Twin Paradises as it’s still known at the time), and the other two are what it says on the tin. The adamantite dragon is also native to the Twin Paradises. Its breath weapons are the traditional cone of flame, and a time stop effect. Planescape didn’t really do dragons, which is probably why it made no further appearances.

All this makes PSMC1 a dissonant book. While the art was all redone by Tony DiTerlizzi and the layout is the Planescape we know and love, complete with in-character blow-up quotations, a lot of the text was not given the proper attention. While it’s by no means just copypaste, and some entries are lavishly expanded from the original, the fact remains that MC8’s writer J. Paul LaFountain was not a particularly good prosaist. The text is janky, which is thrown into sharper relief when it sits alongside material written specifically for this book.

However, PSMC1 is a vital book. It gathers together most of the major critters of the setting with the exception of modrons and some of the good-aligned outsiders. It’s got the main lineups of baatezu, tanar’ri, and yugoloths. There’s the marut, which D&D 3E later ran with and used as a springing board for the inevitables. There’s the random monster generator that is the hordling, there’s tieflings, shadow fiends, night hags, and the animal lords of Beastlands. We’re introduced to the combatants of the Blood War and the whole larva ecosystem/economy that the Lower Planes have got going on.

Most of the art is good, though a couple of the fiends only have very closely framed mugshots that don’t really tell much about how they look besides ugly, and it took me until the 3E-era Wayne Reynolds illustration of the ultroloth to figure out what it looks like.

Possibly my favourite thing about this book are the mephits. They’re basically elemental imps; small, winged humanoids with breath weapons and bad attitudes. The core of the entry is boosted off MC14 Fiend Folio Appendix, but that one has six mephits whereas this book has sixteen, one for each elemental, paraelemental, and quasielemental plane. They’re characterised by weakness as combatants and being an amusing collection of unwanted personality traits, but what makes them really shine is the concept of mephit messages. They are used as messengers by more powerful creatures, but the mephit itself is the message, and the type of mephit sent. A radiant mephit offers truce, a salt mephit declares open warfare, and so on. It’s like the language of flowers, if the flower was also an asshole to your pets, smelled bad, and tried to cadge cigarettes off you.

Next up is Planes of Chaos, and I’ll see if I can’t draw something more interesting out of that.

Vampire: Year One, Part II

And now for the second part of my dive into 1991, when the Soviet Union fell, the Japanese economic bubble burst, Gene Roddenberry passed away, and most pertinently, Vampire: The Masquerade was first released.

Here there be SPOILERS for Blood BondBlood Nativity, and Alien Hunger.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve been unable to source “Blood at Dawn”, the 16-page adventure that came with the Storyteller’s screen. However, there is a synopsis on the White Wolf Wiki. I think the interesting bit is that it’s probably the first appearance of a mage character in World of Darkness. Mage: The Ascension would not come out until 1993. Set in Gary, it’s definitely a part of the Chicago Chronicle.

So, picking up from where we left off, Blood Bond. It is a 32-page adventure module with the charming tendency to save space by referencing the stats of major characters in Ashes to Ashes. They were reprinted together in Chicago Chronicles, Volume III, which somewhat mitigates the issue. It’s a variation on The Killing Joke, told in Vampire. There’s a vampire, Neally Edwards, whose old associate-cum-enemy, to avenge an old wrong, decides to drive him into joining the Sabbat. Along the railroad tracks. I very much get the sense that the PCs are an audience to someone’s novel outline. There’s good stuff in this, but it’s more material I would rip off than use as is. For instance, early on there’s a scene in a theatre that’s attacked by a Sabbat pack, and during combat a staked elder is revealed from the shattering concrete of the walls. There’s also a Sabbat initiation at the end, which is nifty. I’m pretty sure Blood Bond is the earliest good look at the Sabbat in the game, and that later material contradicts this pretty heavily. The text expects the PCs to play nice with them, which is not really a thing I would see happening were I to run this to an even superficially WoD-literate players in the year 2020. Blood Bond is the last of the Chicago books from 1991.

There’s also a couple of early adventures that do not take place in Chicago. The major one of these is Alien Hunger, which is set in Denver and looks a lot like the game line was still looking for its identity. It’s a starter module type thing, which starts as the characters wake up after their Embrace, in a dark cellar. The house upstairs is on fire. An effective start, at least. The twist is that they’re not organically grown vampires, but alchemically created, Embraced through the power of SCIENCE, but the undead Louis Pasteur. Unfortunately, poor Louis dies before the coterie ever gets to meet him, which feels to me like a bit of a cop-out. I mean, if you’re gonna go gonzo with historical characters as vampires, at least write in some interaction.

The adventure itself is mostly the PCs finding out what happened, who did it, meeting the Prince, and probably joining the Camarilla. Despite its outré premise, the execution is pretty standard.

There’s also Blood Nativity, a 16-page intro adventure published by Atlas Games that’s also about the characters being Embraced and then discovering what they are and feeding for the first time. This one’s set in Cleveland. If you can find it – unfortunately it’s been taken down from DriveThruRPG – it’s worth it for the NPCs. The sires of different clans for your neonates are a cool and usable bunch, except for the Gangrel whose only thing is liking Cleveland Cavaliers. The silly thing is that the sires Embrace the characters for a purpose, but the module as written is only Embrace, Vampires 101, and first feeding. There is enough background on the political situation to build on, at least. It’s an odd duck.

And finally, we come to the fresh breeze of authentic 1990s role-playing game design, The Players Guide. Just what your Vampire chronicle needs, more crap. There’s more character options, like new archetypes and a merits & flaws system that later became a core feature. This is some cool stuff.

And then there’s pages upon pages of hyperspecific new skills like Carpentry or Forensics, some of which are sub-skills or even the sub-skills of sub-skills. To take a dot of Toxicology, you have to have a dot in Chemistry or Biology, but both of those require you to first have a dot in Science. And there’s also more powerful Disciplines! These go up to ten! And the Clan Prestige advantage, which is clan-specific and takes up many pages. And new clans.

The Followers of Set, Assamites, Giovanni, Salubri, and Ravnos all make their first appearance here. Ravnos is also, as studied in 2020, really pretty awfully racist. I am very interested in seeing how the clan will be reinterpreted for V5.

Because 1991, there’s also an equipment chapter, with loads of details on different firearms and melee weapons. Unfortunately, the noble katana does not get a separate entry. Several different armoured vehicles do. This chapter feels like it ran off Twilight: 2000. There’s also a really specific set of rules for throwing weapons, with a note that you really don’t have to use these if you don’t want to. The tone is generally very chatty like that.

There’s a chapter on the daily unlife of a vampire with notes on an etiquette for favour trading, equipping your haven, treating your ghouls right, and so on. Finally, there’s a chapter of short essays on role-playing from the designers of the game. Some of them have aged poorly, others feel like self-obvious. I would imagine that these texts have cast a long shadow in certain gaming scenes.

I also read Milwaukee by Night, which came out in 1992 but was packaged into Chicago Chronicles, Volume III with Blood Bond and Ashes to Ashes, so I went through it as well.

So, Milwaukee. Not the first place that comes to mind when I’m thinking of a place where it’d be interesting to set a game book. However, it is close enough to work as a satellite of Chicago, and the early-1990s gaming scene would have been amused. Back in those days, Gen Con’s home town was Milwaukee. The book even discusses the halls of power that are the MECCA Center.

In the World of Darkness, Milwaukee is a violent place where death is cheap and licks are Embraced pretty freely since they keep getting killed by werewolves. Also the Prince is freshly dead. This came out in the same year as Werewolf: The Apocalypse, but feels like probably before it. This features a lot of werewolves, but it lists them as belonging to clans, not tribes, and names Mouse, Coyote, and Eagle. Later in 1992, Vampire’s second edition would also come out, but at least the White Wolf Wiki lists this as a first-edition book.

The first half of the book is NPCs and city guide. Incidentally, Milwaukee by Night is where Carna of Tremere makes her first appearance. In V5, she causes a major schism in the clan and goes her own way.

The second half is the adventure “Psychomachia”. I mentioned the Prince is dead? This where the coterie kills him. Prince Merik has gone insane and become a serial killer, who creates elaborate Hannibal-style death tableaux and also tells the coterie to figure out who’s doing masquerade-breaching murder. He then sends them off out of town into a werewolf ambush, where they get their asses kicked and staked. There’s rules telling what kind of Courage rolls the vampires need to make to remove the stakes. This pretty bluntly contradicts the rules stating that staking paralyses vampires and renders them completely helpless. The Players Guide has a sixth-level Potence power that allows you to move Zootopia DMV speed while staked, but that’s about it. And this is the first of two encounters in the adventure that are scripted to end with the PCs captured. Bad writing, this. I kinda like the structure of the adventure and the idea of the serial killer Prince, but these encounters just don’t work.

Next I think I’ll read some Werewolf…

 

Vampire: Year One, Part I

A bit over a year ago, I backed Chicago by Night for Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition. In time, I received a backer PDF, and at the time of this writing, the hardcopy is in the mail. But I read the backer PDF, and it felt to me that it was too beholden to the old editions of the game, too hung up on the previous two Chicagos by Night. But this was but a hunch, as I had not read them. And of course, to read the first Chicago by Night, I would need to understand Vampire: The Masquerade 1st Edition, which I was unfamiliar with – I only came on board with Revised.

Years ago, someone told me that one cannot authoritatively talk about anything without understanding its history at least back to the 18th century. With this guideline in mind, I went on DTRPG and got myself some PDFs, and proceeded to read through the entire first year of Vampire: The Masquerade (except for the adventure that came with the Storyteller screen, because that’s not on DTRPG). Obviously, the immediate precursors are Mark Rein•Hagen’s and Jonathan Tweet’s Ars Magica as well as Shadowrun, where Tom Dowd came up with the dice pools, but today I’m starting here. This post is, incidentally, gonna have a lot of SPOILERS for “Baptism by Fire”, Ashes to AshesBlood BondAlien Hunger, the stories in The Succubus Club, and Blood Nativity.

This isn’t so much a review as a let’s read type thing, but more than that it’s just the rewriting and restructuring of a Facebook thread where I jotted down my observations into a blog post.

1991, and the book that started it all. An unsubstantiated (and likely unsubstantiable) rumour claims that for a single quarter around its release, it outsold Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It is said it is the first game that significantly evened out the gender balance of the hobby, bringing women to role-playing games. Some say that it ruined RPGs forever.

And yeah, reading this was an experience. The writer’s voice comes through strong and it depends on the reader whether it comes through as artsy and pretentious, or something that finally dares to take role-playing games seriously as an expressive medium or – dare I say it? – an art form.

Of course, while it’s easy to see why it became a classic, it’s also very obvious where it bears its age with less dignity. The Storyteller’s guidelines tell of advanced techniques that shouldn’t be used except with the most experienced and dedicated of role-players, such as flashbacks, dream sequences, and symbolism. The book is dedicated to Václav Havel. The recommended reading list contains, among others, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Hermann Hesse, Milan Kundera, and Ayn Rand. In the afterword, Rein•Hagen tells how Vampire is an attempt to delve into the nature of evil.

It’s also said that the combat system was deliberately written to be crap so people would not use it, and instead solve problems through social interaction and role-playing. Somehow, reading this book from 29 years ago, I finally felt like I understood how that could’ve made a weird kind of sense at an age when this kind of game did not yet exist and the hobby was weaned on AD&D. The rules are a bone dry read, and the meat of the game is in the setting, drama, and storytelling chapters. By today’s standards, the 263-page rulebook isn’t even big, but I felt it could’ve lost 30, 40 pages easily, and most of that from the crunchy bits. It’s hard to put myself in the position of a gamer in the year that I turned six, and try to see if they really needed this many examples of Ability+Attribute combinations to cover different situations. They feel so intuitive to me.

Going back to the first rulebook also shows me what was there at the beginning. It’s just seven clans here, all Camarilla – Brujah, Tremere, Ventrue, Malkavian, Nosferatu, Toreador, and Gangrel, plus the Caitiff. The Anarchs are a larger presence than they ended up being for most of the game. Sabbat are coyly mentioned, but we don’t really know who they are yet. A bunch of the independent clans are named but not detailed.

Finally, there’s the start of the metaplot. I’d played Vampire and read Vampire before, but before barrelling through these first eight titles, I hadn’t quite appreciated how tightly the metaplot wound through it all. The core rulebook has the short adventure – or story, in the World of Darkness parlance – “Baptism by Fire”, which is pitched as the start of the “Forged in Steel” chronicle. “Forged in Steel” is about the struggle of Gary, Indiana against the attempts of Chicago vampires to control the town. Only three of the nine Vampire titles that came out in 1991 don’t have a connection to this. (“Blood at Dawn”, the adventure that came with the Storytellers Screen is set in Gary.)

The metaplot is also visible in how the books refer to one another, which also establishes a kind of reading order. Ashes to Ashes comes before Chicago by Night, which comes before The Succubus Club and Blood Bond. I read these a bit out of order but this post is, in part, a way for me to structure my thoughts, so they’re presented as they’re “supposed” to be.

In “Baptism by Fire”, the coterie is at the New Year’s ball thrown by Prince Modius of Gary in a dilapidated mansion, with a bunch of other vampires present who could all be Malkavians for how well-adjusted they are (there’s a delightful paradox for you – Malkavians are insane but how else would a vampire be?). There’s some brouhaha and a bit of a kerfuffle and you get to meet all the movers and shakers, such as they are, and maybe run in with a vampire hunter. Then Modius is summoned to Chicago and he sends the coterie in his stead.

The story picks up in Ashes to Ashes, an 83-page adventure module, as the coterie gets to Chicago and tries to meet with Prince Lodin. Who has just up and disappeared. The crème de la Camarilla of Chicago considers the coterie if not likely guilty, then at least very convenient scapegoats and also expendable hicks from the sticks. They must solve this mystery! Hijinks ensue.

The whole complex picture also features Anarchs, vampire hunters, a methuselah in torpor who’s also kinda but not quite but really King Menelaos from The Iliad (but we’re not told this until Chicago by Night, because Vampire is coy like that), mortal Satanists, and a ghoul ram. Oh, and Harry Houdini, because if we’re going to have an expansive supernatural secret history setting, of course we need a few famous historical people as vampires. In some perverse way I find myself liking this, even though it’s a fairly hideous railroad and there’s at least one positively idiotic scene (“Hey come at the crack of dawn to this football field and we’ll airlift you out to the meeting this is not a trap honest.”). The railroad is kinda self-justified by the theme of everyone pulling someone else’s strings and the coterie being mere pawns in the game of unlife. There are some actual choices, such as the option to just let Lodin die. Which makes the follow-up interesting because in the metaplot he’s not supposed to cark before Under a Blood Red Moon.

Amusingly, since it’s 2020 and it’s trivially easy to check these things, I will note that the sunrise is listed about an hour too early. It caught my eye because the whole thing is explicitly set in the first few nights of January.

Ashes to Ashes also features an interesting structural experiment, a B-plot played in a series of flashback episodes from the villain’s perspective, intended to feed the players some of the backstory the coterie will likely stay in the dark about. I have no idea if this is remotely workable, but it’s exactly the kind of bold experimentation I am here for. The book also contains a lot of STing advice that at least looks useful, including random crap meant to be thrown at the player whose character had the least to do in a previous scene, usually with no plot significance. The intention is more to get them to participate in the role-playing rather than give some sort of experience of success.

Ashes to Ashes leads to Chicago by Night, the first of its name. Fun book. The city description feels a bit Lonely Planet, but it works, and there’s a map, and before reading this book I hadn’t actually understood that Gary, despite being in a different state from Chicago, is actually right there, like, 50 kilometres away. That’s a half-hour drive. So that was useful. There’s a cool overarching concept with the two ancient vampires vying for control of the city and nudging everyone else to do their bidding, one of them from torpor. The other one is Helena, who’s never said to be of Troy but come on now. She has a ghoul named Paris. I mean Prias. They mix the story up a bit which rather annoys me, since if you’re gonna have a bunch of characters from The Iliad in your 90s gothic vampire Chicago, you should own that shit. There’s also Al Capone, because of course there is.

There’s a lot of NPCs. For the most part they work, their story functions are clear and there’s relationship maps for who hates whom and who’s pulling whose strings. The Ventrue Horatio Ballard is a mind-boggling amalgam of John Spica from Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote. I wondered for some time why the Sabbat vampires’ clans are listed as just “Sabbat” until I realized that Tzimisce and Lasombra weren’t introduced yet, and wouldn’t probably show up until The Player’s Guide to the Sabbat. There’s also a demon here, a succubus. I’m not sure where she fits in with Demon: The Fallen, but she probably doesn’t.

Then there’s The Succubus Club, which is an introduction to a vampire nightclub where the masquerade isn’t quite as tight as most places, and a series of short adventures tying in to the club, and basically also the “Forged in Steel” chronicle. This book, incidentally, has the really filthy habit of referring the reader to Chicago by Night for NPC stats, which must’ve been a pain in the ass before they were released together as Chicago Chronicles, Volume I.

It’s an… interesting book. One of the first things we are introduced is the Blood Dolls, a youth subculture that’s about playing vampire and drinking each other’s blood, which is on one level laughably over-the-top extreme but also pretty horrifying on multiple levels. For an interesting historical footnote, in the year of this book’s release 28 569 people died of AIDS in the United States. The Succubus Club makes no reference to HIV. Somehow, when it’s vampires playing around with blood it’s distanced enough, but when it’s normal people doing it, that distance for me vanishes and it immediately contextualises with everything I’ve read about the HIV epidemic, with Angels in America, with Just a Little Lovin’ and Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves. There’s a moment of whiplash.

And then we’re on to discuss the layout of the club and the hidden haven of Helen of Troy, guarded by her three-thousand-year-old ghoul Paris also a giant ghoul scorpion.

The scenarios themselves are a bit uneven. The first one is “Annabelle’s Party”, which is about the Toreador primogen of Chicago, who has no artistic ability herself, throwing a party which is sabotaged to embarrass her. The party itself and the ways in which she’s embarrassed are pure gold – an unveiled sculpture is just a piece of a steam locomotive as a snide jab at a prior disagreement, and the bold new piece of music is just Beethoven’s Ninth (or some other unspecified but worn classic) upside down. The trail eventually leads to the rail yard and their Ventrue overseer who’s severely in denial about the importance of the railways in 1991 and plays with a model train set. There’s something about the portrayal of Edgar Drummond as a train-obsessed manchild that in 2020, when “carbon footprint” has entered our everyday vocabulary, feels subtly off. “Annabelle’s Party” also just sort of ends at act two without actually concluding.

Then there’s “Player of Pawns”, where two Elders play chess against each other, using subordinates as pawns. The Chicago player, Critias, of course fields the coterie. This one features a Finnish vampire named Killikillarven, which is not a Finnish name, whose role-playing instructions include: “Between sentences make a lot of grunts and “hmms.” When investigating things, scrunch up your right eye and stare with your bugged-out other eye (this is also what he does for the Evil Eye; see Spirit Thaumaturgy). You are not a happy immortal, so do not laugh often, but smile occasionally.”

“Player of Pawns” looks like it might be fun for a group that likes to fight a lot. Straightforward, clear structure.

There’s “Fundamental Differences”, in which a priest who has true faith comes to protest The Succubus Club with his flock. The elder vampires present want him dead, which is a problem because touching him is physically painful for low-Humanity Kindred. An additional problem is introduced by the man being actually a very nice and kind person. This one looks fun. The fourth one is “Death’s Sweet Sting”, where there’s an engineered strain of mononucleosis that kills vampires. It’s a bit too scifi for my liking, plus as written if the coterie fucks up it’s basically Gehenna right now, right here.

The Succubus Club is wrapped up by “Child’s Play”, a longer adventure where the coterie meets Nicolai, Chicago’s Tremere primogen who’s been around for centuries in the body of a nine-year-old. Think Damien Thorn and you’re close. First Nicolai tests whether they’re good enough by putting them on the trail of some vampire hunters and then tasks them with killing the vampire Ehrich Weiss, better known as… Harry Houdini! They are basically being set up to fail, both by the text and by Nicolai, which is an interesting decision.

As this text is starting to get long, the adventures Blood BondBlood Nativity and Alien Hunger, as well as The Players Guide, will be covered in a later post.