White Wolf doesn’t have a very good track record with gaming fiction, in general. While there have been some rare spots of light here and there, in general their gaming fiction has been on the horrid side of things. That’s not to say that gaming fiction tends to be exactly quality material in general, but White Wolf’s output has usually been especially dire. There seem to be two reasons for this: the writers aren’t usually very good, and secondly the proofreading and editorial control tends to be shoddy at best. There are exceptions, of course.
Truth Until Paradox, a collection of short stories centered on Mage: the Ascension, is unfortunately a typical showcase of an old-school World of Darkness fiction book. While Mage is an awesome game, these stories are… simply not very good, as a whole. It’s not a total loss; some of them are interesting, and a few are in the “almost good” category, but most are mediocre or downright bad. To compound the problems, the proofreading is bad even by White Wolf standards, typos jump at you from all over the place. Some of the stories contain nice core ideas, but lack writer skill to pull off. All the stories are (as far as I can figure out) written for this collection: they all happen in or around the Bay Area, at a certain point in (game) time. As such, this is a nice idea, taking a snapshot of a certain flashpoint time and place in the game world, and having writers write stories around that. Here, the execution makes the whole thing fall a bit flat.
It’s not all bad. Some of the stories are quite interesting, and even some of the not-that-hot ones are interesting from a game viewpoint, as they contain information about some game metaplot events. There’s a certain amount of historical interest here, since the book operates around the 2nd edition of Mage and not the hugely controversial revised edition. Mage fans might want to give this book a read, but others are advised to steer clear.
In the interest of full disclosure: I count myself a Mage fan, and I’m still glad I only paid a few euros for this at a Ropecon used books stall (where I also bought a few other World of Darkness fiction books, more about those later).
Well, I finally finished Deus Ex (the original one), after deciding to play it start to finish for the first time some months ago. The game clock says it took me a bit over 23 hours of playing, so it’s a pretty hefty game. Not sure if it’s quite as huge as Half-Life 2, but it’s close.
They say this is one of the best PC games ever, and “they” were pretty much right. While I can’t claim it’s the best game I’ve ever played, it’s firmly somewhere in the Top 10 (along with such greats as System Shock 2, Half-Life 2, Baldur’s Gate 2, etc). Sure, the graphics are extremely dated by today’s standards (though the highres texture pack helps a small bit), but in the end what matters is the game itself… and that’s where Deus Ex shines. The plot is classic cyberpunkish conspiracy paranoia… you are “JC Denton”, a cybernetically augmented agent of the U.N., in a future where many governments have collapsed and the U.N. has taken over as a form of world government. Initially you are tasked with hunting terrorists, but it slowly becomes clear that things aren’t quite what they seem. The number of classic conspiracies this game throws at you verges on the ridiculous; it has Templars, the Illuminati, MAJESTIC-12, Men In Black, “greys”, black helicopters, Area 51, rogue AIs… it’s a long list. Of course, spotting the pop-culture conspiracy references is part of the fun here.
The best part of the game is its freeform nature. I don’t mean it’s a sandbox; it’s not, and the game itself is quite linear. However, you have tons of options on how to approach the specific scenarios. You can sneak around and minimize violence (with hard core players trying for zero kills, using shock prods and tranquilizer darts to incapacitate when needed), or you can go in guns blazing. Computers can be hacked, or you can search the environment for clues on how to access systems. You gain more cybernetic augmentations (and improve existing ones) as the game progresses, and here too you can choose ones that conform to your playing style. The maps are quite cleverly designed, with freeform areas connected by specific checkpoints and access routes. All this leads to an illusion of freedom and makes the game world feel interesting, despite the dated graphics and sparse environment (due to the game tech). It’s not quite a shooter, and it’s not quite a “sneaker”, it’s a smart mix of the two. At the time it was made, this game pioneered new trends in game development (at that point in time, straight-up shooters were the norm).
The difficulty level is pretty much spot on. At no point was it frustratingly difficult, but in most places if you just run in guns blazing you’ll end up dead fast. Even with beefed-up augmentations, military bots and gun turrets will make short work of you. There are usually quite a few solutions to the problems presented, so what happened quite a few times was that I did something with enormous effort… only to figure out a much easier shortcut soon after. The game rewards creative thinking and exploration, and punishes a “just run in and shoot” style. It’s not a game for casual players, being more than a bit complicated in places.
Of course, it’s not a perfect game. As noted, the graphics are very dated and the environments are sparse and angular, both due to the technology used at the time (which of course was cutting-edge in its time). I didn’t run into bugs, but on the other hand I was running a version with some community patches and fixes, so my experience was probably better than someone playing the vanilla version. Maybe the most annoying thing in this game is the random stupidity of the NPCs. While at times they notice you (as they should) and give chase in a somewhat reasonable fashion, at times I could shoot their squadmate down next to them and they’d just continue as if nothing had happened. Of course, “stupid enemy AI” is something that plagues more modern games, too, so I can’t be too hard on Deus Ex here (especially when compared to older games).
So yeah, I understand why people are still (re)playing this, 11 years after publication. It’s a classic.
Betrayer finishes off the fourth “trilogy” in the Foreigner sequence, (somewhat) wrapping up the events started in Conspirator and Deceiver. Since it’s part of an ongoing story, it’s hard to say anything specific about this book that isn’t mirrored by the earlier books. If you liked those you’ll like this too, it has the trademark Cherryh mixture of diplomatic paranoia and chaotic action. The last book saw Bren in the court of the enemy, visiting Lord Machigi uninvited and trying to wrangle peace with this dangerous enemy-of-my-enemy. Predictably, events rush towards a crisis point with the whole of the Marid teetering on the edge of civil war and the people behind recent hostilities being forced to move openly.
It’s a great story, though it’s so firmly grounded on the reader being familiar with Atevi culture and the principal characters (Bren, Ilsidi, Tabini, etc) that trying to read this trilogy in isolation would be… unproductive, to say the least. What I’ve always liked about this series is that it puts diplomacy and cultural anthropology center stage, with occasional flares of violence only marking the spots where diplomacy has failed. Combine that with a culture where assassination is a viable form of diplomacy, and the results are fascinating – in these books, you’ll find breakfast tea to be a more suspenseful affair than combat would be in many other books. The faux-japanese Atevi culture provides a nice alien-but-seemingly-human mirror for human motivations, with explosive results when humans fail to negotiate that minefield.
The Foreigner sequence remains one of Cherryh’s best, and these books show no sign of running out of steam. While this book wraps up most of the plot threads opened up earlier, many are still left hanging… and since this points to more books on the way, I’m not complaining.
Mirrors is a system tweaking toolkit for the new World of Darkness. Whole generally regarded in a positive light, there are lots of things about the new core rules set that people love to gripe about (the morality rules, the lack of a system for insanity, the Vice/Virtue breakdown, etc). This book attempts to fix that, and provide a huge pile of extra options to boot. We also get setting tweaks: how to use the system to run a historical, or scifi, or fantasy game (with example game world outlines provided). There are also lots of fun “end of the world” scenarios, with suggested rule set tweaks. Most of these setting tweaks have to do with modifying the skill set to more fit in with a given genre, but they also include some extra rules options.
While I still wouldn’t use nWoD as a “generic” rule set, this book gives some advice on how to do something in that direction. It also goes into the design assumptions and goals behind the system, and how to (and how not to) tweak the thing to do other things. Some ideas I liked, some I didn’t, but that’s quite normal for a tweaking toolkit like this. This isn’t one new variant of nWoD, it’s a big pile of extra options that should each be considered separately. Variant character creation also gets some love, with general point-buy outside the 5/4/3 system discussed. We also get “Extraordinary Mortals”, a new template to give nWoD something like Exalted’s “Heroic Mortals”, so you could design NPCs (or even PCs) to model a Sherlock Holmes (for example) – someone who is indisputably special, but has no specific supernatural abilities.
It’s a big book, with lots of stuff. Like the book’s title says, it’s an attempt to “mirror” the nWoD ruleset into different genres. I can’t say how well it succeeds, since many of the rules tweaks have to be tried out in practice to see if they work, but at least the book tries very hard. Anyone using nWoD to run pretty much any game should get some mileage out of this book. Unless, of course, they are 100% happy with how the system works as written, in which case: rock on.
Taint of Madness, subtitled “Insanity and Dread Within Asylum Walls”, is a sourcebook on asylums and the treatment of mental illness over the years. Since ending up in the loony bin is a fairly common occurrence in CoC, something like this is quite useful if you want to inject some realism into the proceedings. While it’s a Cthulhu book, it’s actually more a general sourcebook on asylums for general gaming use, there isn’t all that much Cthulhu-specific here. The book examines three time periods: 1890, 1920 and 1990 (“modern” at the time the book was written), and gives an example asylum / mental hospital from each era – real historical ones for the older eras, a fictional one for the modern setting. The sections also contain some story hooks and a short scenarios set in the given locales, but these are of minor import; the meat here are the historical notes on the treatment of the insane over the years, including a ton of information on various actual mental institutions: cure percentages, etc. With this book, a GM can place a PC in a real historical mental hospital, and have instant access to general statistics about the place.
Given all that, it’s a slightly dry read, but not overly so… the horrific and by modern standards inhumane treatment of mental patients in historical times makes for some quite shocking reading. The book presents the facts fairly objectively, but doesn’t sugar-coat the fact that mental patients were treated like animals during the earlier eras… and things weren’t always exactly sunshine and flowers during more modern times, either. Even though the situation is probably better now than it has even been, the heavy use of medication to “treat” patients (especially when staff resources and money is tight) makes for some horror stories even now. Sure, it’s a far cry from the old horrors of “Bedlam”, but in some ways it’s just exchanging chains for drugs.
Overall, it’s a great resource for anyone wanting a look at historical mental illness treatment. Not every game will need this amount of detail, of course, but if you do want it, here it is. As noted, it’s a great general resource, it’s not just for Cthulhu.
A town called “Illmarsh”, with strange, sullen villagers with strangely fish-like features? Rumors of forbidden cults? Miles and miles of rocky, forbidding shoreline? Yes, it’s “Paizo does Lovecraft” time again, with Greg A. Vaughan’s Wake of the Watcher (part 4 of 6 in the Carrion Crown adventure path). Not that Paizo is a stranger to Cthulhu, numerous old modules have had direct Cthulhu references, but this is perhaps the most direct Cthulhu scenario to come from them to date. On the other hand, it is Pathfinder and the end result is less the nameless dread Lovecraft was going for and more “Strange, squamous shadows advancing towards us? I fireball them!”.
The plot has the PCs chase the evil cultists to the aforementioned town of Illmarsh, where the tracks grow cold (and damp). The villagers are… strange, and getting clues may require the PCs to venture into places the townspeople would rather they not venture in. There are a few nice red herrings here to throw seasoned Cthulhu players a tiny bit off track, but generally players familiar with their Lovecraft will pretty much get what they expect. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; as noted, the combo of D&D and Lovecraft does bring a distinctly different tone to the proceedings, and not everyone is all that familiar with Lovecraft in the first place.
It’s a fairly nice continuation of the Carrion Crown storyline, though I have more and more trouble figuring out just why the PCs would track the cultists in this case. Why not just go home and find something easier and more productive to do? I suspect many GMs will need to add some carrots (or sticks) of their own here, to bring some urgency and sense of motivation to the proceedings. The story here is quite removed from the earlier plot, and this installment could easily be run as a standalone adventure without much extra work. For a GM looking for a slightly unusual tone for a D&D adventure, this might well fit the bill.