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.
Astral Realms is a very interesting sourcebook for the new Mage game. It expands the “astral realms” lightly described in the main game into… much larger and more detailed entities, and it also expands the default options mages have for accessing those realms (largely making access easier). The realms themselves are somewhat confusing; some are private “headspaces” detailing the internal landscape of a single mind (though this stuff is not traditional telepathy in any sense, these are true realms). while others are much larger shared realms detailing things like mass shared consensus and “pop culture”. So it’s the movie Inception, old Australian “dreamtime” and Dr. Strange all rolled into one.
There’s a lot of story fodder here. Starting from scenarios like Inception where you engineer changes on a target’s mental landscape (which may or may not reflect on later actions or mindsets), to expeditions into lost realms which may at one time have existed in the “real” world but now only exist as shared dreams. While dying in these realms usually just means that you are dumped out and wake up, that’s not necessarily the case – it’s possible to get trapped, sometimes for good, and losing or risking your sanity is a very real danger.
If there is a fault here it’s that the concepts involved are somewhat complicated, and the reader can become confused at times at what is actually being discussed. Fortunately, the abstract stuff does not form a huge part of the book, with most emphasis given to more practical in-game applications and descriptions of example astral realms (some of these are extremely interesting and could be used as-is in most Mage games).
Good book, and a surprisingly nice read too; this game line isn’t exactly light reading at all times, but here the writers have (mostly) managed to take an abstract and somewhat difficult subject and write a very readable and interesting book about it. One of the better Mage sourcebooks I’ve read, though to be fair I haven’t read all that many yet.
I’ve written before about the genesis of Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition, so I won’t reiterate much of that here. Long pre-order period, original one-volume luxury edition only available for people who pre-ordered (or attended the Grand Masquerade in person), etc etc. Now that I actually have the book and have read it, I’ll start with this: the book is absolutely gorgeous, it’s probably the fanciest and more impressive rpg book I own currently. It’s also huge.
The book is now also available via DriveThruRPG’s print-on-demand (“Now In Print”) scheme, though the cover there is a normal book cover and not the embossed faux-leather used here. The black & white edition is available as one volume , while the color version is split into two tomes because of print-technical reasons. If you want a one-volume full-color edition… too bad. You can’t have my copy, so eBay is your best bet. Be prepared to pay mucho cash. I do suggest you get the color version, even if it is two separate volumes, since there’s a lot of beautiful new full-color art here.
Enough about the physical presentation, what about the content? Well, I’m happy to report that it’s also fantastic. They’ve taken the whole Masquerade core, updated and totally revised it, and then added similarly updated and revised versions of Sabbat and most independent clans there. All Disciplines (including very weird and rare bloodline disciplines) are described up to 9 dots, and are heavily revised. I’ve never actually played or run tabletop Vampire so I did not catch all the changes, but a lot has been tweaked in this book (most due to fan input). In general, Discipline power level has been slightly reduced (at least at certain gonzo levels), and many old loopholes have been closed. Lots of things have been streamlined, for example Mortis is now a Necromancy path, and in general the layout of the various disciplines is more logical than much of the old rambling mess. Skills have been streamlined a bit, and in general things have been tweaked all over the place.
In short, this book contains a distillation of the major Vampire books over the last 20 years, with fixes to issues that have cropped up and general streamlining. To me, this is very much the “ultimate” version of Vampire: the Masquerade, and the version I would use if I were to run that game at some point. While I’m sure some people will gripe at the various nerfs to this and that uber-power, I see the general balancing of the power levels as purely a good thing.
The book leans heavily on the Revised edition of Vampire, but most of the metaplot events incorporated in that edition (or published after) have been relegated to the sidelines and sidebars here. Some others are mentioned as “rumors” and options, so that the GM can decide to either use them or now. They did keep some of the really stupid shit, though, there is still mention of the Week of Nightmares (though that, too, is thankfully left quite vague, so the GM can do the smart thing and ignore it). There is mention of the Tremere Antitribu maybe suffering a mass die-off… but it also is left somewhat vague. Overall, I think this is a good approach – there were some cool bits in the WoD metaplot, but also some astoundingly stupid bits. Mentioning them but leaving them open to interpretation is probably the wisest path to take, here.
I cannot really find much to gripe about this book. It’s a massive single-tome compendium of the whole expanded Vampire core, including Camarilla, Sabbat, the Independents and lots of bizarre bloodlines to boot. It contains revised and tweaked rules for everything, based on 20 years of “playtest” (i.e. fan input). Sure, the biggest value of this book is probably to collectors and people who remember the game with nostalgia – but honestly, purely as a game core book, this thing rocks. The layout is clear, the art is a combination of the old classic stuff and very pretty new pieces, and the game itself… well, it’s a classic.
The lazy approach would have been for White Wolf to cut+paste pieces from the old books, slap some fancy covers on, and call it an “Anniversary Edition” (I’m looking at you here, Chaosium). They didn’t do anything remotely like that, a huge amount of work went into writing and polishing this thing, and it shows. It’s clearly a labor of love for the writers, too.
The Marriage of Virtue and Viciousness continues (in a way) the story begun in Hunger Like Fire, skipping much of the side events in Blood In, Blood Out. Persephone Moore and Solomon Birch are front and center, with much of the book focusing on the politics surrounding Birch – his Blood Bond to Prince Maxwell is largely seen by his “own people” (some elements in the Lancea Sanctum) as too big a liability, and the demands for him to step down escalate. At the same time, there is apparently a vampire hunter in town, a mortal who somehow manages to be dangerous to local Kindred.
There are two main threads running through the book. One is the vampire internal politics one, which is interesting enough since the status quo is threatened and various parties scramble to hold on to their positions (or grab someone else’s). The other thread concerns the vampire hunter, and it’s the best part here: it’s both exactly what it seems (an angry mortal out for blood) and not quite what it seems (I’ll avoid spoilers on that part). The whole book underlines many of the subtle schemes that underlie much of Kindred existence, and as such highlights much of what Requiem is supposed to be about as a game.
It’s probably the best book in this sort-of-trilogy. It’s not awesome by any means, but it’s competently written and serves as a nice intro to the game world. While it probably works as a standalone, reading Hunger Like Fire first is recommended.
Blood In, Blood Out is the second part of the Vampire: the Requiem trilogy of books – but it’s only (very) loosely connected with the first book. It’s also set in Chicago and features some of the same characters (most in the background), but the front-and-center characters here are quite new. The book focuses on an ex-gangbanger named Duce Carter, now a frontman for the local Carthian faction, trying to negotiate a fragile peace while elements both within the Carthians and within the more powerful faction maneuver to upset the cart. There’s intrigue, quite a bit of “slum gang politics”, and plenty of violence.
It’s not as good as Stolze’s “A Hunger Like Fire”, but neither is it a bad book. The black gangbanger viewpoint, while a bit cliched, is still quite interesting. Duce is somewhat dry as a main character and initially a bit too much of a hero, but some of that flakes off later on.
If you just want a continuation of the initial story and characters in the first book, this book offers little – plotwise, it’s a complete detour. On the other hand, it drops some new characters into the mix and is worth a read, as light entertainment.
Compared to the older World of Darkness, the new one doesn’t have all too many novels attributed to it. Some may say this is a good thing; the general quality of the old WoD novels was atrociously bad. A Hunger Like Fire is the first in a trilogy of novels for Vampire: the Requiem, and there is reason to be cautiously optimistic here: Greg Stolze actually knows how to write. After having read it… yeah. It’s actually not bad at all. It focuses quite a bit on vampiric politics, but like the game itself it’s a lot more local-scale and, well, gritty than the old Masquerade was.
The book starts off with one of the best depictions of a just-Embraced (and left to fend for himself) vampire I’ve read to date. All too many times this is depicted as a normal guy with a great life suddenly having his old life snatched away (in multiple ways). Sure, that works, but here the protagonist is a loser. He drinks, he’s not all that smart, and he doesn’t treat his wife or daughter all that well. He’s not a “bad guy” either, just a… loser. Then he gets turned into a vampire, and the depiction of how he deals with things (and fails to understand much of anything) is a lot of fun.
From there the story segues into the larger scale of vampire politics in Chicago. We get Persephone Moore, a character who starts off a bit stereotyped but develops character fast. She’s trying to stay human, to keep in touch… and it’s not quite working. Then there’s Prince Maxwell, who is left as a bit of an enigma. At least he’s not quite the stereotype of an elder. Last but not least, there’s Solomon Birch, who is a religious fanatic and leader of the local Lancea Sanctum. While being in a way the “bad guy” of this piece, he’s not totally that. He has convictions and he tries to live his “life” by them, and he is at least somewhat loyal to old friends. Still, he is closer to the monster side of things than most others in this book.
It’s an entertaining read, and it breathes life into how the game is supposed to work: local-scale politics, without the endless metaplot weirdness and mysterious Elders pulling all the strings that plagued so much of the old Vampire. Don’t get me wrong, that stuff was entertaining too – but here the fiction showcases what makes this game somewhat different. In the end it comes down to Stolze being a competent writer, compared to all too many others who have written WoD fiction in the past.
Incidentally, this is the first book I’ve ever read completely via an e-book reader. The PDF format was a bit crummy for that, but either my Sony managed to display that semi-legibly or I did a Calibre conversion to ePub – I honestly don’t remember. I suppose DriveThru will offer these books as ePubs too, sometime in the future, but at the moment White Wolf doesn’t have staff to handle that sort of conversion.
Requiem for Rome presents a look at the Vampire: the Requiem world during the times of the Roman Empire, with a focus on Rome itself. While it tries to stay true to known history, it specifically notes that gaming takes precedence over strict historical accuracy. Fair enough. Since my knowledge of ancient Rome comes from decidedly lightweight sources like the tv-show “Rome” and assorted movies, everything sounded suitably “ancient Roman”… but people with actual knowledge of that period will no doubt find “creative interpretations” here and there.
It’s dark stuff, and focuses on the fact that the Roman times were in many ways quite barbaric by our modern sensibilities. Life was cheap, slave labor was a major factor of civilization, and the leaders tried to quell unrest by endless foreign wars of conquest coupled with cheap entertainment for the masses. On second thought, that last part mirrors our own times a bit too accurately…. Anyway, it’s in many ways an alien civilization, and that’s without vampires. Here, the vampires move behind the scenes, residing in the vast crypt networks underneath the city. In this age, their predations go largely unnoticed and if someone does see them – well, the people believe in the supernatural (in various forms) anyway, there is not much need for a “Masquerade”. Of course, the vampires do try to stay secret, but it’s not an obsession.
The vampires also have an organization, “The Camarilla” (name copied from Vampire: the Masquerade). It’s very different here, being a Roman-style forum of vampires, split into several “wings”. One of the big drivers of tension here is the rise of Christianity; the new “Lancea et Sanctum” (later bastardized to “Lancea Sanctum”) sect promotes a variant of Christianity among vampires, while other mortal preachers promote it (and fight the “pagan” gods) during daytime. Historically, that rise of Christianity has strong ties to the eventual fall of Rome, and here too it’s presented as an element of strife and violence (as religious conflict tends to be, especially when coupled with political interests).
There is also a supernatural threat, in the form of the Stirges. Nobody knows what they actually are, but they hunt vampires (especially of the Julii bloodline) and they are seriously nasty. I don’t want to spoil details here, but they are among the coolest elements in the book. They are also detailed in some of the other Vampire: the Requiem books, and are an antagonist type which is quite usable in modern tales too (with tweaks, since the Julii are now gone forever, at least by canon).
Overall, it’s an excellent take on “historical vampire”, in a somewhat unusual setting. It does a good job in presenting ancient Rome as an alien environment (to modern people), before introducing any supernatural elements at all. Of course, actually using this book in a game needs a player group interested in this sort of stuff, which might be tricky. At the least, it should be easy to run some one-shots and mini-campaigns based on this.
The only real criticism I have of this book is font-related. There is a fiction piece, split into multiple short parts, which runs throughout the book. It’s a nice story and brings some good extra color to certain parts of the book. All fine and good, but White Wolf has done one of their typical artistic layout brain farts here again and presented the whole thing in a “handwritten” script which is ridiculously hard to read. I understand wanting to have the thing look like an actual character diary… but come on, at least make it legible.
Up to the point this book was published, the new World of Darkness didn’t have a coherently described “Underworld” (land of the dead). While Geist deals heavily with ghosts and the underworld, the page count in that book did not allow for much description or detail. Book of the Dead attempts to fix that – and succeeds very well. It’s a bit like Shadows of the UK in that while it’s labeled as a general WoD book, it’s skewed towards one game line (Geist here, Werewolf in the UK book). However, this is more honestly a general WoD book; while it does have some Geist-specific content, a lot of page count is devoted to general “Underworld” descriptions and also to mechanical details on how other supernatural creatures (and/or mortals) would fare in that realm. It’s very good stuff.
Turns out the Underworld is both a dreary and a fascinating place in the new WoD. It lacks color (literally!) and for many of the inhabitants it’s an endless prison existence. On the other hand, it holds echoes of ancient civilizations long gone from elsewhere (or never having existed at all in the real world). There is (mis)information, wisdom and madness too to be found, so potential “graverobbers” have lots of motivations. It’s not an easy place to enter though, and neither is is an easy place to leave.
The Underworld is split into multiple levels, separated by mystical gates and rivers, which often need some sort of sacrifice to pass. The “top” levels are still fairly normal, as far as vast underground-ish networks go. The lower “down” you go, the stranger things get… and there is no real “bottom”. Just a depth from which few, if any, ever return. While I liked the book a lot in general, some of the deeper “kingdoms” were especially strange and brilliant. There’s a realm where two ancient Kerberoi wage an endless war, there’s a vast and potentially bottomless “sea” which strips away everything, including your name and what you are. So in theory, it would be possible for a vampire to shed the notion of being a vampire, and become human (or something else entirely) by visiting that place. Doing so, however, would be an epic undertaking, since it is difficult to find and even more difficult to leave without leaving much more than you wanted behind. Changing what you are loses its appeal if it means the potential effective death of everything that makes you “you”.
There’s a lot of very cool stuff here, and best of all this version of the “land of the dead” is very different from other White Wolf iterations on this theme. This is no Stygia or Labyrinth (though some Labyrinth-worthy ideas can be found here), and neither is it Exalted’s Underworld. It takes a lot of cues from real-world mythology (the tale of Orpheus, and other older ones). The book is also quite useful outside the Geist context and provides helper mechanics for any sort of WoD game that involves the Underworld.
The original print run of this book was tiny, and quickly sold out. This resulted in ridiculous prices (in the $100+ region) for the few copies floating around, and made the book into one of the hardest-to-find books in the new WoD lineup. The good news is that it’s now available via the Drivethru print-on-demand program, so people who want a copy no longer need to pay ridiculous prices for one.
Shadows of the UK is a sourcebook about the United Kingdom for the new World of Darkness… or at least that’s what the book blurb says. In fact, while it is about the UK, it’s not really a general WoD book, it’s almost completely dedicated to Werewolf. In fact, I get the impression that the book was intended for the Werewolf line during development, and was changed into a general WoD book near the end (probably for marketing reasons). There is some general WoD material here (and stuff for Vampire and Mage), so it’s not completely false advertising – but it’s somewhat misleading none the less.
That said, it’s a pretty good book. It skips most of the obvious UK mythology and introduces a lot of atmospheric and weird stuff. Not that I’m all that familiar with UK myths (aside from the obvious ones), but the feel I get from this is quite British (actual natives may disagree, of course). as noted, a lot of pagecount is devoted to Werewolf. Turns out the war between the Pure and the Forsaken is somewhat skewed in the UK. The Forsaken control the cities (more or less) and the Pure control the countryside… but in fact, the Forsaken have a vast numerical superiority but are mostly unaware of that fact. The Pure control vast areas of land through cleverness, terror tactics and the control of critical high-power sites. As a result, the Forsaken think the Pure are much more powerful than they actually are, with the Pure quite happy to keep up the illusion. This makes the UK cities crowded with Forsaken werewolves, and the locals actually a bit hostile to foreigners (shades of real-life multiculture xenophobia here).
Outside the Werewolf realm, the book describes some local Mage and Vampire cliques – quite interesting, though nothing spectacular. The best parts of the book, in my view, are the general “WoD” parts, where actual and modified UK mythology is fused with WoD weirdness to create some extremely strange and creepy results. Some of these do involve Werewolves… one is a very creepy little “mining town” which only exists now and then. Perhaps the best part of the book involves a shadow part of a major city, highly reminiscent of some of China Mieville’s work. It’s inventive, strange and very dangerous… just the thing to throw at your players and foil their expectations. This sort of thing is what the new WoD does best: general weirdness that isn’t easily tied to any specific “splat”. It’s much more “horror” than the old WoD, in that sense.
So, apart from the misleading labeling, it’s a good book if you’re interested in modern-day weird/occult UK. Also quite useful in other modern-day occult games, there isn’t all that much WoD-specific crunch here.
The “Victorian Age Vampire” trilogy consists of three books: A Morbid Initiation, The Madness of Priests and The Wounded King. It’s a bit unusual for a World of Darkness / Vampire series of books. First off, as the metatitle says, it’s set in Victorian times (in England), mirroring the “Victorian Age Vampire” roleplaying core book from White Wolf. Secondly… it’s actually pretty good. Easily among the best World of Darkness fiction I’ve read, perhaps the best. Now, I know that’s damning with faint praise, but there it is anyway: this series manages to be a World of Darkness work of fiction which does not suck.
It’s the “coming of age” story (in a dark way) of one Regina Blake, young daughter of the Viscount Lord James Blake. Returned back to England from Egypt, the family has been beset by tragedy in the form of the death of Regina’s mother (Lady Emma Blake) in mysterious circumstances. Lord Blake tries to cover everything up, but Regina manages to see some things which leave her doubting her father’s story about events. In the wake of the death, Emma’s strange foreign relatives make their appearance, insisting that the funeral be done in a very specific and unusual fashion. Then there is the matter of Victoria Ash, a beautiful friend of Emma’s (who nobody has apparently seen before), showing up for the funeral and turning heads. Regina recruits her fiance and his army friends to help dig into matters, and things quickly take a dark turn. After this the story twists and turns, and eventually visits Paris, Vienna and other far-off places. Some WoD signature characters make their appearance here; apart from Victoria Ash who holds a spotlight role, Beckett, Anatole and Hesha all have side roles. To the story’s credit, these characters are kept firmly in side roles and the spotlight is on young Regina and her eventual mentor, Victoria.
There’s a lot to like here. The story uses Gothic story elements well, increasing mood without wandering into mindless cliché territory. We get the lonely mansion on the English moors, the strange and sinister foreign relatives, masonic secret societies, and such. As the protagonist, Regina is perhaps a bit anachronistically proactive – but then again, Mina in the original Dracula is no wilting wallflower either, so I don’t see any harm in her being very assertive and independent. It would be a boring story if she wasn’t.
What I liked best here is how the author keeps the various vampiric antagonists mysterious and scary. In many books, ghouls are treated as low-power cannon fodder, while here they are frightening unnatural engines of destruction – and their masters are almost unstoppable. Vampiric mind control is effective and scary, and in general mortals are shown to have little chance when faced with the supernatural. This is what the game posits, of course, but in too much of the literature the supernatural has been turned into something quite banal. Not so here. There are lots of cool and disturbing scenes here; I especially liked the interlude spent with Anatole in a Paris prison, his madness is shown in quite an unusual and very scary light. In general, the author does an excellent job in keeping the supernatural scary – you can figure out what game effects are going on in the background it you focus (and are familiar with the game), but only in a few rare instances does it scream “power X is being used by a game character here” (which is maybe the most common sin of roleplaying game fiction). The Tremere are nasty in this book.
In the end, it’s a very competent and entertaining Victorian vampire story, with a fairly classic feel. It is quite violent at times, and also features plenty of sex (vampiric and other), so it’s not for the overly prudish. I was very pleasantly surprised by these books. I expected to find barely-readable dreck, instead I got a good “classic” vampire tale, and one that requires absolutely no knowledge of the World of Darkness game world to enjoy. In fact, it might be even better with zero knowledge.