The Free Council is the thinnest of the five main “splat books” for the new Mage. Now, a small page count might be caused by the focus group being so simple to describe that it doesn’t take all that much space, or it might be caused by the focus being so vague that the writers didn’t really know what to do with it. Guess which one this is?
The problem with these sorts of “anarchist” groups is that, by definition, they don’t conform to just one modus operandi or stereotype, which makes describing them tricky – they tend to become grab-bags for everyone who didn’t fit into the other more well-defined groups, the “Other” category. Whether it’s this group of “young idealists”, the Anarchs / Carthians or Vampire, or some other such group, the main problem is “what is the unifying theme with these guys?”. Here, the easy answer would have been “techno-mages”, since most members are modern in their outlook and comfortable with technology. The book doesn’t quite go there, though there are lots of nods in that direction, with various ways of combining magic and technology.
The main problem here, to me, was that it just wasn’t all that inspiring a read. I’d expect a book like this to include lots of off-the-wall ideas and have lots of energy, but it’s much the opposite – the style is dry, and while there ware fun ideas here and there, it didn’t really inspire me to play these guys (even though that should have been an easy sell). Some of the Legacies were interesting, but all too much of the information given was just shallow hand-waving instead of concrete hooks to help me run (or play) Free Council members. Part of the problem is, of course, the somewhat vague nature of the group’s ideology (with the meta-problem of White Wolf trying to cram everything into just five Orders, instead of the original Mage’s much more organic structure). That said, I’m sure that a better book could be written around the subject. This one is resoundingly “meh”.
The book follows the typical structure of these things: we get a history of the group (some of which was credible, some of which was not), we get some idea of how their day-to-day life is structured and how their politics work, and we get a pile of crunch (rotes, equipment, Legacies, etc).
What a difference 20 years makes. While the original Ashes To Ashes scenario wasn’t too horrible, it did partly suffer from the railroading that plagued most White Wolf modules and had the PCs being manipulated by forced they had no control over. Dust To Dust is a (very loose) sequel, written for the 20th Anniversary edition of Vampire, and using White Wolf/Onyx Path’s “SAS” format. It’s both a very good module in its own right, and it also showcases how far White Wolf (well, Onyx Path nowadays) have come over the years as far as scenario design goes.
The story is set in Gary, Indiana, which completes the circle in a way; Gary was the original home of the Neonate PCs in Ashes To Ashes even though the city itself did not feature there (it was briefly detailed in the original first edition Vampire and its intro adventure, which transitions into Ashes). It’s set more or less in the modern day, which doesn’t stop it from being a sequel, even a direct one, to Ashes – 20 years is nothing to vampires. That said, the assumption here is that the PCs will not be the same ones you may have used in the earlier adventures.
The theme here is urban decay and obsolescence, and its mirrored effects on vampires. While never being an important Kindred city, in older times Gary was semi-popular because it game some Kindred, especially the Anarchs, a safe-ish haven from Prince Lodin’s rule. In particular, it gave them a place where they could sire new vampires without fear of deadly retaliation. Now, with Lodin long dead, that reason has vanished and with it the lure of Gary itself. The city is slowly dying in the mortal world and also in the world of the Kindred; most have moved on, and only the die-hards are left, bickering over scraps left over. Prince Modius still “rules”, but there is precious little left for him to rule. Juggler still opposes him, but there also it’s more out of old antagonistic habit than anything else, his own schemes of turning Gary into an Anarch stronghold having failed over and over again.
Into this graveyard of past ambitions stumble the PCs, along with a few other NPCs with agendas. Before long, life and unlife in Gary will become a lot more interesting, if only for a passing instant.
This is one of the better pre-generated adventures for Vampire that I’ve read to date. Granted, that’s not a high bar, but still: this is good stuff. The PCs have full freedom of choosing alliances, there are multiple scheming parties with (partially) conflicting agendas, there’s an interesting but reasonably low-power main antagonist, and the main end scene has the potential for devolving into awesome chaos. The NPCs are interesting, especially since some of them are still intent on seizing their former glory, and the GM has the option of running this after Ashes To Ashes for a really nice “before and after” look at Chicago and Gary.
My only real complaint is the cover art: a badly pixelated image of the town seal (I presume), which really doesn’t do this one justice, especially since a lot of the interior (full-color) art is very good. There’s also one visiting NPC who is a bit superfluous to the main plot, and may just be a jarring distraction. On the other hand, he’s very easy to trim from the story, if required.
Ashes To Ashes is one of the first books in the original Vampire: the Masquerade game line, predating even the old venerable Chicago By Night tome (even though it takes place in Chicago). It’s an adventure module, continuing the starter adventure in the 1st edition Vampire core book. I haven’t read that one, but apparently it sets up the PCs as Neonates in Gary, Indiana, under the rule of Prince Modius. The PCs happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and are sent off to Chicago to present themselves to Prince Lodin… at which point we transition to this story.
Turns out that Prince Lodin has vanished (it takes the PCs a while to get this information, because they will get a run-around from various personages in the city), and the PCs are prime candidates for being set up as patsies for the disappearance. So, naturally enough, they get an offer of finding the Prince… or else.
While there are some railroaded bits, it’s surprisingly free-form for an early White Wolf adventure. The PCs have quite a bit of leeway in how they’ll approach things and who they’ll ally with, and in addition they get more than a few red herrings thrown at them – not everything and everyone here is what or who they seem. There’s a bit of combat, but the emphasis is on social stuff and investigation. The general theme here is “someone else is pulling the strings”, and the adventure mostly manages to pull that off without too much railroad (something many other adventures in the game line fail miserably at). Sure, having the PCs tangle in the vanishing/death of a Prince is a bit of a cliché here, but on the other hand this is the first time they did it so I can’t blame this book.
My main complaint would be that the back story runs the danger of staying quite opaque to the PCs/players, unless the GM injects some awkward exposition at some point. There are lots of plot points that the PCs will probably never figure out, as written. To the module’s credit, it does have the (somewhat unusual) mechanism of providing a secondary story, where the PCs can play the part of the antagonist(s), set in an earlier time – this is intended as a way of explaining the why and the what of things. As such it’s a fun idea, but I’m not sure how many GMs/groups will feel like actually doing that.
Overall, not bad at all. Better that had reason to expect, given WW’s abysmal record with things like this. If run successfully, it sets the PCs up as residents of Chicago, with some new allies (and, probably, enemies) and a small amount of local fame. There is one caveat here: the adventure doesn’t railroad the PCs rescuing the Prince, it’s quite possible they’ll fail. This will immediately segue into the later version of Chicago as presented in the 2nd edition of Chicago By Night, because canonically Lodin is supposed to die later (in Under a Blood Red Moon).
There’s a bit of overlap between this book and Chicago By Night, because the Chicago setting book was published after this, but it’s not too bad.
Milwaukee by Night sounds almost like a comedy title, compared to the iconic old Chicago by Night… but it’s not, it’s a companion product of sorts to the Chicago book (which also references Gary, another city located on the shores of Lake Michigan). Here, Milwaukee is an isolated city; geographically not that far from Chicago, but surrounded by hostile country (to vampires) patrolled by werewolves. This makes is a great setting in combination with the old Chicago/Gary pair: close enough to make it plausible that the PCs move to/from the place, but difficult enough to access that the move is never trivial.
The book is divided into two main sections. The first one mirrors the Chicago book, though with a smaller page count. It describes the city in very general terms, and the local inhabitants and politics in much more detail. The basic setup is quite interesting; though there is again a grudge match between two ancient vampires going on in the background, unlike Chicago these aren’t godlike Methuselahs but “just” old vampires. In general, the power level is much toned down, and PCs have a lot more wriggle room – there is less of the “ancients control everything” vibe going on here. As written, the city is overcrowded (vampirically) due to the (ex)Prince’s lax laws, and is also now without a Prince – how that happens is detailed in the second half of the book. Overcrowded, surrounded by werewolves, no Prince and chaotic political situation… sounds great, in terms of story potential. And it is, to a large extent.
The second half of the book is an adventure module / minicampaign, titled “Psychomachia”. It starts with the PCs getting “recruited” to help out Prince Terence Merik as a special task force: the Prince’s wife is missing, possibly kidnapped, and the Prince desperately wants her back. Enter a bunch of expendable dupes, “willing” to help out. Well, perhaps genuinely willing, since the Prince does offer them some nice perks, especially nice if they are just neonates. In any case, the PCs go off to investigate and stuff happens. Lots of bad, confusing, violent stuff. And werewolves too.
I’m hesitant to say too much about the adventure, since it contains a few twists which are actually very cool, and there is still a non-zero chance that someone may want to run this. I’ll just say that the adventure is a mixed bag. It has some very nice scenes and ideas, which read like they could be a lot of fun. It also puts the PCs at least somewhat in the center of action. On the minus side, it’s at times quite railroaded (as White Wolf modules tend to be), and has lots of critical points where something is just expected to happen, with no ideas of what to do if it doesn’t. In other words, this one needs a careful GM touch and some extra work. It also features multiple fights which the PCs are expected to lose, this may not sit well with players. All that said, I do think this one may be worth running, the plot twists are (possibly) worth the effort and some of the scenes are very creative (in a good way).
Overall, I liked this. I think Milwaukee as presented here is actually a better starting point that the “classic” Chicago; there’s less elder-driven stasis and much more opportunity for Neonates, and the chaotic politics together with the werewolf threat makes for lots of plot potential. In addition, the included adventure is actually not bad at all. Well, for a White Wolf adventure anyway. It does need some work.
White Wolf’s adventure modules have a poor reputation, and it’s mostly deserved. For every one that is interesting and at least somewhat well-written, you get five that are horrendous railroaded abominations. Blood Bond, one of the earliest ones, belongs firmly in the “abomination” category. It manages to showcase almost all of the bad things about a White Wolf module.
The story is set in Chicago, the signature city of the original Vampire, and concerns one of Prince Lodin’s trusted lieutenants, Neally Edwards (first encountered in Chicago By Night). The PCs get caught up in the story of his slow degeneration and fall from grace… and cannot do much anything except act as spectators. As an added bonus, the backstory is mostly opaque to the PCs, needing lots of bad exposition from key NPCs. This whole “watch NPCs do stuff without any say in events” is a signature feature of most bad WW modules.
There is some good here. The backstory is decent – though, as noted, is not really made clear to the PCs in any interesting way. Also, the plot is stretched out over time; the intention is that other game events happen between scenes here. That’s a decent design, and lets the GM place this in a story more organically.
…assuming any GM wants to run this, which I soundly recommend against. It’s a mess. The way a Blood Bond functions in this module is totally bizarre and contradicts much other information in the game. For example. at one point a key NPC Blood Bonds another NPCs, and then proceeds to remote-control him to do horrible things… because Blood Bond! Huh? To be fair, it’s a Sabbat Blood Bond, and the Sabbat here are very very different from what they later become, and maybe the writer thought this was some weird Sabbat mystic shit. If so, it’s never clarified, the text just says this happens because of the Blood Bond. Oh, and the whole thing assumes the PCs are Anarchs and/or hostile to the “administration”, and are quite willing to do things like go joyriding with the Sabbat just for fun. It’s also assumed that at least one of the PCs falls madly in lust with a certain ghoul. Because.. plot! The list of “huh?” things goes on and on, and some of the bits just make no sense at all – at times because of shoddy proofreading.
This is worth reading for humor value if you’re a WoD fan. Otherwise, avoid.
Under a Blood Red Moon is a strange bird, a Vampire/Werewolf crossover campaign from the early days of both games. It details the “War of Chicago”, in which (by canon) Prince Lodin gets killed. It’s a bit gonzo and silly in places, but overall it’s surprisingly decent, especially if you’re going more for “action movie” than “Gothic-Punk horror”. Which, arguably, much of both games are/were in practice.
The book is mostly meant as a Werewolf book, for Garou PCs, but each section of the adventure contains two extra parts: one for Camarilla (vampire) PCs, and one for Sabbat PCs. While it does increase the page count (or decrease the content, seen another way), it’s not a bad structure; it gives GMs insight into what the different factions are doing at different points in the sequence. There’s also a fourth faction involved, the Black Spiral Dancers, but they are kept strictly as NPCs here. Probably wise. The book also introduces Abominations for the first time, with Pariah (familiar to VTES players).
The plot concerns a Garou attack on a certain building in Chicago, which draws a counter-attack from Prince Lodin, which quickly escalates both sides into all-out war. Of course, all of this is carefully goaded by outside parties, and neither the Camarilla or the Garou have any real understanding of why the other side is doing what they do. It’s a pretty good setup, in that it gives understandable motivations for the different factions, without giving a simple way to quickly solve things. The PCs are (mostly) given important tasks, though they are expected to be part of an army (on whichever side) and take orders from their superiors. This may not go down well with all PCs (or their players), but that grumbling can also make for good plot material. The PCs won’t be singlehandedly solving everything here, but they are given opportunities to be in on most key events and make a real difference. It’s not ideal in the “PC empowerment” department, but it’s not too bad, at least not on the general White Wolf scale.
As for silly… well, there’s a bit too much overt supernatural warfare on the streets of Chicago to really be believable. We get a huge bunch of werewolves rampaging around, vampires firing back with full-auto weapons and Disciplines, and all sorts of additional mayhem. All this not breaking the Masquerade (or the Werewolf equivalent) isn’t really believable. Also, there’s everything from Abominations to Nexus Crawlers running around, making it a gonzo (if quite fun) ride.
The book begins with a good backstory description of what is really going on, and has a proper timeline for events split between the different factions. Overall, the whole thing was frankly better than I was expecting, it reads like it would be a fun game (via either Werewolf or Vampire), given some GM tweaking of the more over-the-top bits. Unless the players love that stuff, in which case just add more Nexus Crawlers.
Chicago By Night 2nd edition is an update on the original Chicago By Night, so most of what I said about that book still applies here. The focus is (still) on the NPCs and their plots, which remain quite interesting, by and large. Some sections are slightly expanded, and the layout and art are of more professional quality. The biggest change is, of course, in who is now “living” in the city and who is (permanently) dead – this book marked the beginning of White Wolf’s game metaplot, which, love it or hate it, was a big factor in all of their World of Darkness books. I have mixed feelings about the metaplot myself; on one hand, it did make the world feel alive and interesting, and it made for lots of interesting reading (and heated discussions over beers). One the other, it started to suck as soon as your own game started to deviate significantly from White Wolf’s metaplot, with large parts of later setting books becoming useless and players being confused about what was true and what wasn’t. So it was a mixed bag, and it began around the time this book was written.
The main change here is that Prince Lodin is dead, as detailed in the book “Under a Blood Red Moon”, due to a huge werewolf incursion (and other factors). If the PCs have played through that, it’s even possible that they have had a hand in Lodin’s demise. Along with Lodin died or vanished a number of other prominent Chicago Kindred, leaving a power vacuum with no clear taker. Many parties are interested, of course, but the strong Primogen in the city hold the reins of power and get to play kingmaker. In short, it’s a much more unstable environment for PCs to be in, which can be a good thing as far as stories are concerned.
In the end, though, this is very much the same book as the first one, which makes it very good. Which one you want to use depends totally on which version of Chicago you prefer: the traditional Prince-run Camarilla city, or the more anarchistic and unstable one after the Prince has died. Both have their strengths. As with the first book, the game at this point in time is still quite different in many respects from what it became later; the Sabbat are very different, being more like Anarchs with some mystic shit thrown in, and in general vampires just “hang out” with each other a lot – the paranoia of the later editions is not as strong here. Whether this is good or bad depends, once again, on personal tastes.
The Compass of Celestial Directions, Vol. VI - Autochthonia rounds off Exalted 2e’s “Celestial” world book line, which focuses on various non-Creation realms. This time the subject is Autochthonia, the vast body-world of a dying Primordial, cast off into some sort of Void ages ago and almost (but not totally and permanently) cut off from Creation. It’s a dystopian world which was lightly described in the Alchemicals book, but the page count there went more towards describing the Alchemical Exalted. This book focuses on the world they live in.
It’s a fantastic book, possibly the best of the “Celestial” line. Autochthonia is clearly laid out as a dark and dystopian place, where endless toil is poor conditions is better than the alternative: utter annihilation, either via some Voidbringer cult, or by the final death of their world/god. The inhabitants of Autochthonia are somewhat aware of the plight they are in, though the clerical castes try to put a “pray and sin less, and things will be fine again” shine on things. Most know their world is dying, bit by bit, simply because they see districts vanishing into the gloom, never to return again – or at least return in any form that anyone wants to see again. I liked how this book emphasizes the fact that the mindset of most Autochthonians is very different from the Creation-born. Here, tradition and conformity is everything, since that keeps you alive (“except it doesn’t, anymore!” scream the few dissidents).
Autochthonia is Exalted’s answer to steampunk, in a way. The world is very different from Creation, and even their Exalts are… strange. Vast machines, the sound of distant engines, and dark, steamy corridors are constant facts of life, and “nature”, such as it is, is tainted both by the Void and the very nature of the world. Autochthon is/was a builder, and that is mirrored in every little detail. There’s machinery, there’s steam-powered weirdness, and there are goggles. Oh, and even zeppelins, in some areas.
So, what makes the book so good? Simply put, the writing and the ideas. Most of the page count goes into describing the eight major “nations” of Autochthonia, and it’s a fascinating read. They are all very different (though some have similarities and overlaps), and many of them are fantastic creations. I also liked the sections on the “Reaches”, the wild areas. We get a vast ocean of… oil and other lubricants, in which submersibles hunt for the best patches of oil while dodging things that can actually live in that environment. At the other end of things, there is the elemental pole of smoke, which is (if possible) even more nasty. There are so many cool locations and ideas crammed into here that any GM will find something here to love. In all probability, lots of somethings.
The only negative? Autochthonia is a very different realm, and a game that dives into Autochthonian life doesn’t really mix very well with stock Exalted. Sure, you could have Solars do a road trip around the place, but it would not be the same as with native-born characters.
Chicago By Night was one of the earliest sourcebooks for the first edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, and it shows – not necessarily in a bad way, though. While the art is hit-and-miss and the layout is somewhat primitive, the content itself is pretty damn good. Some of it’s cliché, but in a strange way: this is actually the book that gave birth to many of Vampire’s clichés. Ancient Methuselahs slumbering beneath a city and controlling what happens while waging an ancient war against each other, a Prince whose rule is constrained by a strong Primogen group, the Nosferatu who knows much of what is going on (but won’t tell)… the list goes on. Many games (both tabletop and LARP) have copied the elements presented here, because they are quite interesting. Until they get overused, of course.
I’ve only read this now, and not when it was first published in 1991, so I can’t totally gauge the impact that this book (and the game itself) had when it first came out. While it’s a “classic” game now, at the time it was quite different to what was on the market. It emphasized social interaction instead of combat, it spent page count on description and atmosphere instead of raw mechanics or stat blocks, and in general it was just…. different. It also attracted some new audience to roleplaying games, some of them even (gasp!) female.
Onward to the book itself. As one might imagine, it’s a city setting for the game, using a World of Darkness version of modern Chicago as the base for a large population of vampires. The structure of the book is interesting, and quite different to what was the norm back then (and the norms even now, to a large extent). It spends quite little page count in describing the city itself; that’s one of the benefits of using a modern, existing city as your base model. The bulk of the page count goes towards describing the inhabitants, with pictures and descriptions of a huge menagerie of Kindred. Again, this highlights the game’s focus on social interaction and politics. I was quite surprised as how little stereotyping I found here. While there are some “Clan stereotypes” here and there, most of the NPCs are anything but, and most are quite interesting. Also included are lots of diagrams showing the interactions between the different social groups, and also their internal politics. The book wraps up with some story hooks, but it’s almost an afterthought, this book is clearly meant to be used as a “social sandbox” to dump the PCs into, sink or swim.
I was quite impressed by this book, all in all. Considering its age, I wasn’t expecting anything all that great, in fact I expected to find a ton of silly stereotypes. I (mostly) didn’t get that. Sure, there are the occasional slightly silly bits, but a lot less than I expected.
As an aside, many of the small details here are interesting from a game history point of view. I haven’t read the first edition of Vampire so I’m not sure how that book presents things, but from reading this you get the impression that many things that later became Camarilla staples are here presented as Chicago-specific oddities. The concept of Elysium is presented as something weird that that was imported here by the whim of the Prince, the setup where a strong Primogen constrains the Prince’s actions is presented as something strange and unusual… in fact, the whole concept of the Primogen is presented as somewhat of an oddity. I have no idea if these were things that later evolved into the game’s basic features or if some of the material here is just confusingly presented (and/or the writers were still figuring out the game). It doesn’t really matter which, but I have to admit I found this model to be somewhat more interesting than the “standard Camarilla” which became a bit too much of a uniculture for my tastes later on. Here, you get the impression that each city is very different, completely depending on the whims of its vamipiric ruler, and the Camarilla itself doesn’t exert much direct control.
Of course, the book does contain some of the more annoying traits of the game line, leading with the idea that whatever happened at whatever point in history, “vampires did it”. The concept of ancient immortals controlling modern society is interesting, and was new(ish) when the game was first published, but at times they want way overboard with it, especially in the early days. Oh, and the book also contains a vampiric Al Capone. For some reason, it’s a lot less silly that it might seem, maybe because he’s decently written into the game and makes some sort of sense. Still a bit silly, though.
The Adamantine Arrow is a splatbook for the militant “Adamantine Arrow” order, one of the so-called “Pentacle Orders”. It’s pretty standard stuff; it describes the history of the order and the current reality, and then goes on to detail everyday life as member of the order, along with a pile of specialized spells and artifacts that the Arrows like to use. As a sourcebook of character enhancements and ideas for a player of an Arrow it’s probably quite useful, and it does contain quite a few plot hooks and story ideas centered around the faction.
However, I didn’t like it all that much. Part of that is the writing style (it’s a bit dry), but the larger part has to do with the content itself. This book is from the early days of the game line, when they really pushed the Atlantis creation myth, and here it shows. Instead of having Atlantis be a vague and mysterious thing which may or may not have even existed at any point (and may have been something very strange), here it’s presented as a matter-of-fact history. While some nods are given to the “mages are different around the world” thing, most things are still presented in the light of a strictly defined and static Atlantean history and uniculture. This annoys me, on many levels. The whole Atlantean uniculture -thing is, in my mind, the single biggest flaw in the new Mage. Happily they tried to distance themselves from it in later books in the game line, but here it’s very much in your face.
The other thing here is somewhat more subtle: the Arrows are, well, somewhat boring. They’re warriors, and like warriors in most games, there’s a certain lack of depth to the concepts available. To their credit the writers do try to spice things up, but in the end it’s a book about the “fighters” of the Mage game line. Compared to an Order like the Guardians of the Veil, for example, these guys are plain vanilla.