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.
When the new World of Darkness core book came out years ago, one of the small bits that caught people’s fancy was the initial fiction bit, detailing a weird past history with clockwork angels and a “God-Machine”. Originally it was just intended as a throwaway “weird bit” to highlight the by-design unpredictability of the new WoD, but ever since White Wolf has been getting queries about expanding that bit of fiction. Well, now they have, and they are also working on building a new game campaign based around the “God-Machine” mythos. In addition, there are rumors that the upcoming new Demon game will somehow be connected, but that’s a big unknown. Of course, when I say “White Wolf” here I actually mean “Onyx Path”, which is the new home of the old White Wolf roleplaying stuff.
Anyway, the God-Machine Chronicle fiction anthology is the first step. It collects a bunch of new WoD fiction from the various game books (including the original story), and adds a big pile of brand-new fiction. The stories are all quite short, but mostly that works in their favor. Horror tales often are more effective the more compact they are, and these certainly are compact… and most work quite well, with the best tales being very imaginative and creepy. I found it to be an excellent read, and a nice collection of “weird horror” tales. There’s little to no specific “World of Darkness” bits here, no old tropes you can easily latch onto.
So… do we finally get some information about the God-Machine? No, we don’t. Not really. We get bits and pieces, many of them contradictory. It might not even exist, and if it does it might not have any interest in humanity. I like that just fine, too much specificity can be a death toll for the horror and vague sense of dread many of these tales project.
If you’ve tended to hate the fiction embedded in the (new) World of Darkness game books, this anthology is not for you (note that in my opinion the new WoD has much better embedded fiction than the old books did). For everyone else, this book is worth a read. The tales are quick reads, and there are a few nice gems in here.
One might be tempted to call Intruders: Encounters With the Abyss a “monster manual” for the new Mage game… but that would be doing it a severe injustice. This is no list of creatures, along with stat block, to throw at the PCs as “combat encounters”. Instead, we get a collection of… well, “intrusions” on our reality. Mostly hostile ones, but sometimes that is only due to their being very alien. Sometimes, on the other hand, they really do hate humanity.
Each of the entities described here can act as the basis of many game sessions, some could work as the main antagonists in a small campaign. They are very different from each other, and, by and large, very very strange. Which is as it should be, and this book does a wonderful job in illustrating how utterly alien some of the antagonists in this game can (or at least should) be. In addition to the basic descriptions, each entry also contains a number of story seeds based around the entity along with random GM tips and ideas. It’s a very interesting catalog to read through.
Some of the “creatures” here can be banished in fairly straightforward ways, while some others will require major effort and may be beyond the capabilities of your average PC groups – these types act more as hostile forces of nature (while being quite alien to our “nature” in the first place) and are there for plot purposes. The nice thing here is that few few of these entities can be banished just by violence; the classic D&D tactic of “hit it until it’s dead” will fail miserably. Another high note is the sheer weirdness of many of these entries. We get abyssal spiders that lodge in the brains of people who get exposed to the supernatural – and the spiders are contagious. We get an abyssal entity which manifests as a malevolent building (a twist on the old “haunted house” trope). We get intelligent hostile memes. We get… 24 well-rounded entities in total.
Now, not all of these will be to everyone’s taste, and some of these are more interesting than others (though that evaluation is probably quite subjective). Still, I would be very surprised if a Mage GM didn’t at least find a few entries here which captured his/her imagination and could be used to spice up their game.
In addition to the specific entities themselves, the book also contains some discussion about the Abyss itself, including a very nice section on the nature of evil and how Abyssal entities aren’t really “evil” as such even though their actions tend to manifest in that direction.
Overall, this is a great resource, both because it contains a ton of very weird and good ideas for Mage antagonists, and because it injects some much-needed alien horror into the game.
V20 Companion is an add-on book for the (fantastic) Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary edition (V20 for short), consisting of add-on material which didn’t fit in that already huge tome. While intentions were good here, the end result leaves something to be desired. The biggest problem is: there’s simply not much here. At 80 pages it’s a very thin book, and to add insult to injury only some of the material is new and interesting. Furthermore, there are way too many wasted pages here, reducing the actual content even further. Looking at price per content ratio, this book isn’t really a “recommended buy”.
That’s not to say it’s a total waste. The layout and are is very nice, and the content is competently written as such. The first half of the book is a re-examination of the title and boon system in the Vampire world – all fine and good, but much of this was already familiar to GMs and players, and while having it in one place is nice, it doesn’t really warrant taking up half of this book. Additionally, the new details (being able to buy titles with experience, for example) do not sound like awesome ideas considering how this game is usually played.
The second half of the book is better. First off there’s an examination of (high) technology and the Kindred, which is a subject that tends to come up in games quite a bit. A lot of interesting discussion here, including various reasons why older vampires do not use high tech to any great capacity (beyond just “they are stuck in their ways”, though that is a big part of it). This section is easily the best part of the book. After that we get a section on international (read: non-US) interesting locations in the game world. While a nice idea, the allowed page count only gives room for a couple of paragraphs per location, much too little to really do more than mention major details. This section is something that would work much better as a standalone book, with enough room to examine the various locales in detail.
Last off, there’s a short appendix consisting of things that were cut from the book (in general detail) and the reasons why. Now, this section simply makes no sense. In a book already starved for page count, we get multiple things dedicated to stuff that, while interesting, would be better served as a blog post? Meh.
In the end, while it’s a pretty book and is does have some interesting discussion in it, I cannot really recommend this. It’s very, very light on actual content, and is a bit of a rip-off when you consider the price and the page count. Pity.
White Wolf’s record with pre-generated adventures and campaigns is… spotty, if we’re being generous. While there are gems in there, many of them are overly-railroaded things where the PCs just get to watch various NPCs do their thing. Since I was still a bit lukewarm towards the new Mage, I wasn’t expecting much from the only campaign published for it. Well, chalk up one more in the “new Mage book ends up being much better than expected” department.
I’ll go one further: Reign of the Exarchs actually made me want to run the new Mage. No mean feat. It really is that good.
It’s a (very) loosely connected set of five scenarios, each concerning an ancient artifact, of reputed Exarch origin (having belonged to a mythical “Dethroned Queen”, who once may have been one of the Exarchs). Of course, that sort of setup is somewhat cliched, but it’s not really a “find five mystical McGuffins!” plot – it’s more clever than that. Now, as adversaries, the Exarchs are deliberately vague in the new Mage game line (a fact I find detracts from the game a bit, leaving it with a poorly defined main “bad guy” set). This book follows that premise, and I must admit here it works nicely; while the PCs encounter numerous followers of the Exarchs (or at least, people who believe they are serving the Exarchs), there is never any direct proof that the Exarchs even exist. It adds a very nice layer of paranoia to these scenarios, which is of course the intention for the whole game line.
Each of the scenarios is written by a different author and has a very different theme and plot structure. I find this to be a good thing, but readers hoping for a unified tone for the whole campaign may see it as a minus. All are competently written, and while I ran into some uncaught grammar mistakes, it wasn’t anything above the White Wolf norm of bugs. It’s quite a readable book.
The five scenarios can be run in any order (except for the last one). There is a default order (the one in the book), but it’s only a suggestion. None of the scenarios absolutely depend on the others, so some can be skipped if the PCs refuse to do things that the writers intend. This is nice design.
The first scenario is a setup for the PCs. A stranger, on the run from bad guys (or so he claims) invokes the Right of Hospitality on the PCs. It’s assumed that the PCs don’t buck tradition, and give shelter. Political shenanigans follow. Some assumptions about how the PCs work and live is made here, along with some assumptions about the local political setup, but those are easy enough to work around if they don’t match the assumptions. The scenario assumes some competence (i.e. experience) from the PCs, so it’s probably a good idea to either beef up default new characters a bit (if creating PCs just for use in this campaign) or to run some other scenarios before thumping this on the PCs. It’s a fun scenario overall, and lets politically and socially savvy PCs do their thing. Of course, the PCs can short-circuit the whole thing by refusing to follow the Right of Hospitality – in which case the GM can dump other sorts of fallout on them.
The second scenario involves a friendly NPC (ideally foreshadowed before this), who starts behaving in a strange way. Lots of investigation is involved, and it may lead the PCs into very strange places. The nice thing here is that what the PCs do will have a huge effect in what happens to the NPC, and followup results (some of which are potentially very very nasty). Also, the scenario gets points for introducing a group of Seers who aren’t (strictly) bad guys. Should be good for lots of potential moral conflicts, along with some creepy scenes.
The third scenario is easily me favorite here, but unfortunately I cannot say much about it here without spoilers. Written by the esteemed Robin D. Laws, it’s a total con job on the players (not the PCs), allowing player preconceptions to lead them into ruin. It requires quite a bit of setup and is probably a bitch to run successfully – but damn, if it works the results should be awesome. The player expressions when they realize what’s really going on should be priceless. This is a really fantastic scenario, and very very imaginative.
Fourth is a “layers upon layers” scenario, where an investigation about weird scrawled symbols leads to the PCs getting attacked by something extremely nasty, and further investigation reveals more and more players in the game. Where does it end? Does it end? That’s one for the PCs to figure out. The nice thing here is that it’s quite possible that the PCs never get to the bottom of things, and that’s fine. This one works nicely even if the PCs fall for the first level(s) of misdirection. They just lose out on some extra complications.
The last scenario offers a potential way to actually ascend to the Supernal, to join the Exarchs. Maybe. First, the PCs have to claim the artifact, which probably involves a commando-style raid on a Seer stronghold. Next, the PCs need to decide what to do. Do they really want to activate an artifact that reputedly makes you into an Exarch? Do the Exarchs even exist? If not, what does the artifact really do? It’s a nice combo of stealth + action and paranoia to end the campaign.
Like I said, I really liked this book. While there are nits to pick (“why do the Exarchs, if they exist, allow these weapons against them to exist in the first place?”, for example), there’s nothing that I could not either ignore or explain away. The scenarios do a great job of throwing all sorts of unexpected stuff at the PCs, ideally keeping them in a somewhat paranoid state. Many of the scenarios do require some prepwork, though, and many contain elements which should ideally be introduced in earlier parts in order to keep the story flowing along. In other words, this isn’t something that a GM can just quickly read and then start running, it’s more like a detailed framework for a campaign that still needs a bit of customization and detail-work before showtime. Most GMs will probably want to inject their own scenarios between the ones here, and tweak some of these to better suit their style.
It’s a well-established fact that the Mage: the Awakening core book is a lousy introduction to the game. Besides being boring as hell to read, it does a poor job is explaining many things in a way that makes any lasting impression on the reader. Among there less than ideally detailed things were the Paths. The basic idea behind the paths was quite straightforward, but what the five Paths actually were and represented was much less so. The obscure faux-Greek names did not help, either.
Tome of the Watchtowers attempts to fix that. The structure here is very simple: the book has five chapters, one per each Path. We get general descriptions, historical notes, some example NPCs, a new Legacy for each, and such.
It’s starting to become a pattern that I read a Mage: the Awakening book not expecting much (good) from it, and end up very positively surprised. It happened here, once again. I was expecting a very dry discourse on the metaphysical Paths, but the actual writing was mostly high-quality and quite entertaining. Also, a lot of the ideas here are quite cool and often quite non-stereotypical (not always, though). Best of all, it actually gave me a nice mental image of what the Paths are, which I was mostly lacking up to now. I’m still a bit confused about the Martigos, but less than before.
That’s not to say it’s all good. Some of the details were a bit weird, and overall the flipside of the “gave a good mental image of the Paths” is “resorts to gross stereotypes”. We’re told that virtually all Obrimos are and stay religious. Say what? So no atheists Awaken as Obrimos, and nobody gives up their religion on Awakening (even though that events is supposedly a world- and illusion-shattering event)? Also, we’re supposed to believe all Thyrsus mages are busy reverting to a primitive and bestial state. That really does not sync with their supposedly common “shaman” role.
So… some good, some bad. I found the “good” to be much more prevalent here, mainly because this book gave me a handle on what the Paths are and how they can be used in a game. However, the reader needs to be wary of some at times irritating levels of stereotyping, especially in the Thyrsus chapter.
Sanctum and Sigil is a book about Mage society and politics, and if we’re honest, I was expecting this one to be a bit of a tedious read: a book in a game line not best known for being a great read, and one that focuses on internal organization and politics. Well, I’m happy to be proven wrong; while there are some slightly tedious bits here, it’s mostly very interesting and well-written.
The first part of the book focuses on the internal organization of a typical “pentacle mage” society, with various titles and areas of responsibility. Maybe more emphasis could have been placed on this being just a template, not a uniculture (a big problem in the whole game line, in my opinion), but ignoring that it’s an interesting enough discussion. Next up there’s discussion on how mages choose their sanctums, with various options and some rules crunch. Lots of good stuff here for PC groups wanting to flesh out their “home base”. The book finishes off with some example sanctums, and also includes some antagonist groups along with their own home bases. We also get an example nutshell of an initial political setup to throw your players into, with some NPC groups and their motivations detailed. Very nice for kickstarting a new campaign, and quite easily portable to whatever location you want.
I found this to be a surprisingly interesting book, with lots of information directly usable in a game. It does a good job in filling in lots of useful information about the day-to-day life of mages and the practical side of things.
Rites of the Dragon is both a piece of fiction set in the Vampire: the Requiem game world, and a possible in-game artifact. In the first role it’s only so-so, someone reading thing with no background information about the game won’t get much out of it – it’s basically a quick-read variant of the old Dracula myth, as narrated by Dracula himself. As an in-game artifact it works better: this book also outlines the source of the philosophy of the Ordo Dracul (which claims Dracula as its founder) and something like this might well be something that is given out to new recruits as background. To help reinforce this notion, the book has a fancy felt cover and is in a smaller format, looking more like a “normal” book than a “game book”.
It’s not the first time White Wolf has done this, of course. The new Vampire also has The Testament of Longinus which is the counterpart for the Lancea Sanctum, and the old Vampire had lots of similar books, starting with the old Book of Nod. It’s a fun concept.
The tale itself is nothing spectacular. We’re given a bit more background on how the Ordo came to be (well, supposedly anyway) and on some of the other leaders of the Order. There are some fun historical bits, but in the end, this is very lightweight stuff and it’s a quick read; the word count is quite low and there are plenty of pictures. Still, it’s a moderately entertaining expansion on the game background.
In the end, this book really isn’t worth the high(ish) asking price, unless you really want this for an in-game prop in a LARP or some such (in which role it’s great). That’s not to say that it’s a bad book; it’s worth a read if you’re interested in the game and can get hold of a copy for a lower price.
The biggest complaints about the new Mage game tend to deal with two things. First off, the original presentation is boring and lacks any clearly defined antagonists (the main “big bads” are so vague as to be non-issues, at least initially) and second is the fact that it ties the origin of all mages into a monomyth about Atlantis. A not all that interesting monomyth, to boot. Secrets of the Ruined Temple attempts to fix some of those issues, and while it doesn’t totally succeed it’s still a welcome addition to the game line.
First off, there’s Atlantis. I’m one of the people bothered by it: both by the fact that it’s Atlantis (Enoch, Babel or whatever would work much better for me), and the fact that it reduces a game that should be about secrets into one with a (boring) “known history”. Well, the first part of this book confuses the issue. Maybe Atlantis never existed, maybe it was something totally different than commonly pictured, maybe it only ever existed as an Astral realm, maybe it actually doesn’t exist yet but will sometime in the future. Lots of fun discussion, and suggestions on how to handle the Atlantis thing in your game. Of course, most of the other sourcebooks still talk about Atlantis like a concrete fact, but… this is better than nothing. I still hate Atlantis, though.
Then we have content that the book title and cover art implies: tomb raiding. Well, sort of. Since the core game has the problem of being directionless and boring, this book provides one possible game focus: searching for lost (Atlantean, yech) ruins and going all Tomb Raider / Indiana Jones on them. So far so good, and we get some nice ideas of what said ruins might contain in the way of content, traps, guardians etc. There’s even a short mini-adventure, as an example implementation. I liked that.
However, there is a lack of “show, don’t tell” here. We’re told about a lot of possibilities, but all too many of the ideas presented seem… well, lackluster and somewhat boring. For ancient ruins built by an equally ancient (and magical) civilization, many of these somehow lack “oomph”. The writers do try, and sometimes succeed, but I get the feeling that the dead weight of Atlantis is hurting things, even here when the writers are trying to shake things up a bit.
So… don’t expect to pick up this book and transform your game into Indiana Jones and the Tomb of Magical Horror. There are nice ideas here, and the discussion about alternate Atlantis myths and realities is welcome, but the GM needs to do quite a bit of work to turn this into something actually exciting.
The Mage: the Awakening core book is horrible. It’s dry, confusingly written, and devotes all too much page count to rotes (i.e. “hardcoded” spells, as opposed to freeform ones). I’ve been told that Mage has potential as a game, but you really need to read some other sourcebooks to see that – and Tome of the Mysteries is the most often quoted “must-have” book. I can see why.
The book is a lengthy examination of how magic works in this game, with emphasis on freeform magic use. We’re given a system for categorizing various effects, giving the GM and the players guidelines at how many dots are needed for different things. There’s also a lot of discussion on how magic works in general (in the game, that is), including how it feels to cast it and other “fluff” but very important things. Given how dry the core book is, you might think that a book on the mechanics of magic to be a tedious read – but it’s actually not, most of the book is very well written and illustrates at time obscure points and effects in an engaging fashion.
The book ends with some more esoteric stuff, like use of Abyssal magic and the possible powers of Archmages. The Abyssal stuff is fun, a classic “get power fast, but at cost” trap with lots of story potential. The Archmage stuff is more abstract and not really all that useful, but at least it’s something.
Overall, this is a fantastic book for anyone actually thinking of running or playing in this game. It lets the players use freeform magical effects without too much GM headache, and provides a very nice conceptual framework for talking about them… and one that is also usable as an in-game subject of discussion.
Still not really sold on this incarnation of Mage, but this book does improve on the core book a lot.
This book used to be out of print and very hard to find at a reasonable price (annoying for such a “must have” book), but it has recently been entered in White Wolf’s “print-on-demand” program and is now available directly.