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The Edgy Designer - A Dungeon World Playbook
Publisher: Ettin Productions
by Darren H M. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 05/23/2014 15:23:01

It makes my half of the FATAL review look like a wet bag of marbles.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Edgy Designer - A Dungeon World Playbook
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Dark Heresy: Core Rulebook
Publisher: Ulisses Spiele
by Darren M. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 01/12/2010 23:33:39

I'm coming in a touch late for a hard-hitting review of Dark Heresy, mostly because I couldn't really justify the purchase of a $50 corebook for a group of players - well, for a group of players that I didn't have at the time; my current crop likes Werewolf: The Forsaken and infighting for the sheer joy of infighting. (I could get 'em onto Paranoia, but why spoil the fun?) I also have to apologize for its brevity, because for the life of me, I couldn't seem to wrap my mind around some of the things that I wanted to say about the game.

A quick overview, then: The characters play acolytes of an Inquisitor, plucked from their lives by fate or design to fight against the enemies of the Imperium - mutants, alien, daemons and heretics, as well as the Inquisition's own internal squabbles. Of course, since this is the 40k universe, they're likely to slide into becoming what they're fighting. Think of Call of Cthulhu with a hefty dose of bolter fire, 2000AD and Heavy Metal. The amusing thing is that it's actually a spinoff of a novel series - Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn - which in turn were licensed fiction for an unsuccessful skirmish/role-playing game called Inquisitor. Dark Heresy is like the son of the son that you never knew that you had, to GW.

The first draft of this review echoed a common complaint about Dark Heresy: The characters start off on the very bottom rung of the ladder, working for an Inquisitor, and make their way up over time until they - assumedly - become Inquisitors in their own right, although the rules for playing as Inquisitors proper haven't been released yet. To some degree, that complaint is accurate. You aren't going to replicate Abnett's excellent Eisenhorn novels when you first start playing, and as those novels are a gigantic influence on Dark Heresy, it's going to be a disappointment for those who were thinking of stepping into Eisenhorn's shoes - or Ravenor's hoverthrone.

I was intially going to ding the game for this; in fact, an early draft of this review did just that. But I was browsing through some comics collections at Half Price Books - in particular, Mam Tor's Event Horizon - and realized that most of the comic stories that I was reading, some of which were just excuses for the pretty art, could easily take place in the 40K universe. If you were to limit Dark Heresy to just playing Inquisitors, you would lose out on the underclass of the 40K universe - the smaller stories, where underarmed or underskilled characters face challenges that are more appropriate to their skill level than the enormous threats that Inquisitors deal with. By starting from the bottom, they're making it unnecessary to go back and fill in the lower levels of the 40K universe.

(In my original draft, I also suggested that Dark Heresy might have been served better by going with a slightly more indie approach - something along the lines of thrashing out the major decisions that Inquisitors have to make - but I think that going with a more familiar model was the right choice. Maybe another day.)

The system is - to the best of my knowledge - essentially a variant of the Warhammer Fantasy 2nd edition rules. Character generation begins with where you're born, ranging from the feral worlds that the Imperium cherry-picks for the best to those born in the voids of space. I'm especially pleased with the inclusion of characters from feral worlds. Usually, playing a primitive character means that you have to do some tedious role-playing in the Unfrozen Cave-Man Lawyer mode - "I don't understand how your magic sky-bird takes me from the ground to the stars" - but in the 40K universe, that's perfectly okay. Everybody else, with the possible exception of the Adeptus Mechanicus priest, doesn't understand either. Everybody's essentially a savage in the 40K universe. They just have fancier clothing and more toys to show for it.

The career system is present here as well, but it's much more limited than in Warhammer Fantasy. The Warhammer Fantasy system focuses primarily on giving you a cross-section of medieval society, ranging from dung-collector to Elven envoy. There's just no way to do the same thing for the 40K universe, as it comprises literally trillions of people and most likely billions of jobs. Instead, it pares it down to the occupations most likely to work with an Inquisitor - roughly splittable into knowledge workers (Tech-Priest, Cleric, Adepts, Imperial Psyker), muscle (Arbitrators, Scum, Guardsman, Assassin, and Imperial Psyker again.) It may seem limiting at first glance, but again, the size of the 40K universe - and some useful tables for generating unique characteristics for your character - make sure that each character is different from one another, if the sheer scope of the 40K universe doesn't give you enough of a hand. (I mean, imagine the differences between, say, an assassin born on a Feral World and one born as a noble on a Hive World. Same job, but much different backgrounds.) Particularly amusing are the tables of side effects of Sanctioning for Imperial Psykers - well, amusing horrifying, ranging from whispering the Imperial Litany underneath your breath to having no teeth left. There's even an amusing reference to Dune's gom jabbar, leaving psykers with hand scars and a fear of bald women.

Your career indicates which upgrades you can buy with experience, and once you've bought enough upgrades, you gain a rank - and new upgrades to buy. After about six ranks, you can select one of two paths to finish out your character's advancement - for instance, sages can either specialize in arcane learning, or become psykers, while assassins finish out working within the nobility or leading their own assassin's guilds. I may have missed details as to whether or not you can switch from career to career - for instance, a Scum getting trained as a Guardsman - but I can imagine that it's a simple lateral move. Characters also can buy a variety of talents, filling roughly the same role as feats in the d20 system. Rather than staying relatively dry and practical, they convey some of the crazy feel of the Warhammer universe. Characters don't have a resistance to Chaos; they have the Armor of Contempt. The guy who's good with a flamer doesn't have Flamer Mastery, but Cleanse And Burn. Adeptus Mechanicus characters can pick Binary Chatter if they want to talk to servitors in their own language, or take Rite of Pure Thought if they want to get rid of those pesky emotions. The only talents that really threw me were the Maglev powers, which allows Adeptus Mechanicus characters to hover purely through the grace of the Machine God; somehow, floating just doesn't seem something that the ironbound Adeptus Mechanicus would do.

The fundamental engine for the game is a percentile roll, adjusted for difficulty; for every ten points that you beat the target number by, you get a degree of success, which translates accordingly. Cleverly, the tens digit of the attribute governing a particular skill roll is added to your rolls as a bonus. Your skills are determined entirely by your attribute - in fact, the maximum you can add to a skill is +20, so attributes are going to be the governing factor for most skills.

About combat and its intricacies: I would love to tell you about them. I really would. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to to do so, and so cannot tell you about its intricacies, its whiff factor - which I have heard is a problem - or its lethality. I will note that, thanks to a conversation on, you cannot fire a pistol or firearm at point-blank rnage; if you can close to within melee distance, and your opponent only has a firearm, you can carve him up like a Christmas goose until he can limber a weapon. This makes a lot of 40K's signature weapons - chainswords, choppas, power swords, and what-not - actually useful, rather than decorative. Regrettably, you may have to seek another review for further details on how the combat system works.

The sheer scale of the Warhammer 40,000 universe forces Dark Heresy to focus on a particular sector of Imperial space - the Calixian sector - and they do a really excellent job of giving you an idea of some of the sheer, 70's-metal/prog-rock album-cover craziness that populates the Warhammer universe. If you're looking for surrealism, there's Ambulon, a city built around an ancient machine that strides through the wasteland mining and drilling for oil, slowing down only when it needs to offload its spoils. If you want dark, medieval brutality, you've got Sepheris Secundus, where a brutalized serf class slaves under the local barons. The Misericord is another medieval society in space, portraying a Gormenghast-esque society - full of ancient ritual and paegantry, its original meaning forgotten - floating through the Warp.

The metaplot deals with Komus, the mysterious Tyrant Star, an enormous black sun that appears and disappears through Imperial Space, althought it's more a tease than anything substantial; as I'm to understand it, it'll be fleshed out further in Dark Heresy's campaigns. (I had a friend of mine with the last name of Komus, making me imagine a red-haired nerd in the sky every time I read the thing's name.) Even better are some of the smaller planets, reminders that you can take just about any story published in Heavy Metal or any heavy metal album cover and translate it into the 40K universe. I particularly like the world where everybody over the age of forty mysteriously dies; it's just Star Trek enough a concept to want to drag it through the demolition derby of the 40K universe.

The book closes out with an adventure for new acolytes, and let me pause here for a digression: If you're writing your own game, putting an adventure in your core book is amazingly useful. It's essentially an extended example for how the game should be played, a way to translate the cold grammar of the system and the setting into the language of actual game play. When I was talking with Jason Sartin recently, he paraphrased something that somebody else wrote: a game's sample adventure may or may not accurately reflect the game that you just read, but it almost always reflects the game the designer wanted to make. In this particular case, I don't know if the game's primary designers were responsible for the adventure, but it at least gives you an idea of what can be done.

The adventure itself is decent, but not fantastic. One problem is that the author has no real ear for how people talk. It's hard to write character dialogue without getting a lot of practice, but that's why you have to practice it - and practice it hard - so that you don't wind up writing stuff that sounds like it was hacked out during the 3rd edition goldrush. For instance - and I should warn about spoilers:

“A dark spirit has returned. The Ashleen name it the Dancer at the Threshold. Others call it the Crow Father… and we have seen why. It has many names and to say some of them is perilous. It is ancient and wicked, and delights in slaughter and leading men to their deaths with lies of their heart’s desire. My people record their past through spoken tales, but some things are too dangerous to say aloud. Take this book for it may help you.”

Stiff as all hell. Or try this:

“Enough!” Raine cries. “There has been enough bloodshed this day. We will go and shall not return. I see now that I was wrong. I see now that you are damned and the crow sits whispering on your shoulder. You have led these people to ruin. My people will have no part of it!”

Not really so much a human being talking, but a series of clues enswaddled in dialogue. Or take this description of Ghostflowers:

Drusus later remarked in his memoirs that the only memorable aspect of the planet was the vast felds of wild fowers

which resembled “Shimmering felds of rippling explosions, caught at that fleeting moment between beauty and destruction”

The problem is that the author is making is to not create a unique voice for each of his characters. Would an Imperial general describes rippling explosions as being "caught at that fleeting moment between beauty and destruction"? Would a female shaman list a daemon's attributes in such a straightforward, listlike manner? Nobody is the RPG equivalent of David Mamet, but the World of Darkness books did pretty well at creating relatively unique characters, distinguishable from each other by voice alone. Abnett's characters are fairly similar, but he knows enough to give them a particular quirk or character trait that he can come back to when he wants to distinguish one from another. (Voke's cold authoritarianism versus, say, Aemos' "most peturbatory" and perpetual attention to detail.) It seems like a small thing, but investigative games require memorable characters - and good role-playing - to set them apart from each other. It would have been useful to see that in the opening adventure.

The adventure itself is pretty straightforward, almost like a Western. The characters are sent off to a backwater town in order to investigate psychic phenomena, have a few fights, then confront the Big Bad at the end. There's a lot of neat bits that work well. For instance, there's a massive fight at one point during the adventure. Rather than simulating the battle proper, the adventure cleverly lets PCs interact with events that occur during the battle, with success bringing victory that much sooner. It's similar to Legend of the Five Ring's battle system, except on a smaller scale and without the chart. I think that one of its primary problems is that it's mostly about moving the characters from setpiece to setpiece - here's a big battle, here's the climactic showdown with the villain - rather than giving them a framework to investigate in. Maybe you want something railroady to begin with, especially if you're a brand-new GM, so take that criticism with a grain of salt.

There are a few things that the game could handle better. While there's some space devoted to the investigative model of a Dark Heresy campaign, it would be nice to see some of the advice given in Call of Cthulhu repeated here - a flowchart, or a system to create a clue matrix, would be immensely useful. To be sure, Dark Heresy can do a lot - not just detective work - but I only know how to create investigative adventures because I've read just about every Call of Cthulhu adventure there is. (Even Death in Norway and Alone on Halloween. I rule!) There is, however, a handy fix to this: Call of Cthulhu adventures translate very well into Dark Heresy terms, with some legwork and extra combat.

My other complaint is something that I ultimately decided that the book answered neatly: To wit, the vast amount of power that an Inquisitor - and the Inquisition - wields over Imperial society. In order to avoid allowing the characters getting a tongue bath from every official in the Imperium, as well as avoiding turning the game into a rump Paranoia, Inquisitorial agents have a set of rules to follow. One of them is that you shouldn't use your master's name as your own, which is essentially an injunction against using the Inquisition's power for your own. In other words, if you wander around using the Inquisition's name for every little thing, the Inquisition will be justified in getting you acquainted with the business end of an excruciator. The acolytes do, unfortunately for them, occupy the same niche as the Imperial Guardsman; he'll survive and struggle on behalf of a larger force which may or may not care if he's killed outright. As they get more powerful, though, they may be able to get to pull some of the Is-Vader-Going-To-Have-To-Choke-a-Bitch exercises of power that Inquisitors wield. (I had to work that line in there somewhere.)

(And again, I have to correct myself. I believe that the various rules that Inquisitorial Acolytes are to follow is actually contained in the Inquisitor's Handbook, not the core book. So the whole issue of how much power Acolytes wield is up in the air if you go by the corebook and the corebook alone.)

On the other hand, there's a segment in the adventure contained within the book where the characters are detained by Imperial authority - and the characters are going to be eager to drop the mention that they work for the Inquisition when they're staring at the inside of a prison cell. It happens again when the characters are sent to retrieve somebody, and that person refuses a direct request from an Inquisitorial acolyte. An actual system to measure Inquisitorial status would be nice, so the characters know, or can guess at, where the limits are. Perhaps the Inquisitor's Handbook goes into more detail? I hope so.

Artwise - well, Games Workshop pretty much built itself on the success of its artists and sculptors, so the art in here is fantastic. Again, I have to say that a lot of the illustrations feel weirdly too...clean. If you look at John Blanche's artwork, he's got stray brushlines everywhere, almost to the point where you're not sure if you're looking at an Imperial Guardsman or a Rorscach blot wearing a flak helmet, but the essential energy of his design comes through. Here, most of the new art depicts stuff that's already been drawn before, so it's difficult to be truly creative without stepping on the toes of GW's design staff.

Is it worth buying? I've been eyeing it for months, but $60 was a pretty steep price, so I eschewed it in favor of slightly more affordable games. But having read it through, I want to actually run a Dark Heresy game, which is something that doesn't often happen with the games I read. So while it does have a lot of unpolished areas, while it has to bite off much more than it can chew, it's definitely the game that a lot of people have been waiting for a long time to play.

-Darren MacLennan

[5 of 5 Stars!]
Dark Heresy: Core Rulebook
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Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition: Career Compendium
Publisher: Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd.
by Darren M. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 11/11/2009 12:22:11

Large Man with Dead Body: Who's that then?

The Dead Collector: I dunno, must be a king.

Large Man with Dead Body: Why?

The Dead Collector: He hasn't got shit all over him.

-"Monty Python and the Holy Grail"

And while the joke had been made before, that's Warhammer Fantasy in a nutshell; a world in which shit not only exists, but in which player characters can actually take up a career in its collection. (No lie. You can now, as of Forges of Nuln, start your adventuring career off as a Dung Collector.)

The Career Compendium is a compilation of every career created for the second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play - it's a player resource, so that you can browse through and pick up whichever career strikes your fancy - everything from the low trades that you would never see in Dungeons & Dragons (Dung Collector, Lamplighter, Mate, Sheperd, Man Covered In Shit) to realistic professions of the Middle Ages (Barber-Surgeon, Noble, Minstrel, Noble With Shit On Him) to careers that are closer to the prestige classes of D&D's 3rd edition (Daemon Slayer, Estalian Diestro, High Priest, Knight of the Blazing Sun, Knight of the Blazing Sun With Shit On Him).

What makes Warhammer Fantasy so brilliant is that it doesn't paper over all of the little people most fantasy games ignore. It's just as easy for the chimney sweep or the embalmer or the friar to get involved with an adventure against the forces of Chaos as it is for the fighter or the mage. The brilliant thing about the career system is that it allows you to get an instant snapshot of a particular place in the social makeup of the Warhammer world - that's not just some anonymous peasant snivelling to you about Skaven, it's a bonepicker who's worried that his children aren't safe in their shack near the dump. It's not just an anonymous whore rolled up on a chart; it's a camp follower who used to be a cult initiate until she fell in love with a Elven ranger who strung her along until he ran off and dumped her in the baggage train of Sir Oswald, who cares very deeply about his own glory and little else. By reducing people to their careers, it allows the emphasis of how every human being contributes to being part of a society, rather than how adventurers stand apart from the common breed. Everybody is the common breed.

So, then, you can look at the Career Compendium less as a list of material grabbed from various sources and more as a diagram of the Warhammer world's social structure. Every single career, no matter how minor, contributes an extra piece to the puzzle.

The other thing that I like about a book like this is that it encourages you to find out more about the actual history that they're drawing from. One of the best thing about role-playing, to my mind, is its ability to encourage you to find out the historical precedent for stuff - the flagellants derive their origins from 14th-century religious hysteria, peaking during the Black Death. I keep wishing for a rough bibliography of the sources that they used to generate the Warhammer world - probably equal measures Michael Moorcock and the benefits of the British public schooling system.

Of course, one of the drawbacks of the Career Comependium is that it's borrowing material from books that describe specific areas. For instance, the Dung Collector is a job that you can pretty much imagine being done anywhere in the Empire - and if you'd like to see the kind of power than a dung-collecting enterprise might wield, go check out Samurai Executioner, where the proto-Yakuza use their shit-collecting duties as a weapon, or read The Big Necessity, about the history of sewage treatment or lack of same. Some of them, like the Estalian Diestro - a Princess-Bride style fencer, complete with witty barbs and named strategies for fencing - are described with enough detail that you can pick up on the general idea of it.

On the other hand, there's a lot of careers that feel like they're missing a lot of information that would otherwise be present. For instance, a lot of the careers from Realm of the Ice Queen rely on material presented in that book to be usable, unless you want to be a Winged Lancer who's got really drunk and wandered all the way over to Middenheim somehow. The same holds true for some of the Hedge careers, who seem violently at odds with the tone of the Warhammer universe - but they're described in Shadows of the Empire.

There's adventure hooks and additional information including with each career, which ranges from the relatively banal to the genuinely interesting - famous people within that career, career slang, that sort of thing, coupled with a pair of adventure hooks. Most of them are pretty useful for a short session if you get caught up, and the additional information provided is some nice fluff; not worth buying the book for, but a nice benefit to have.

The art, I should note, is by and large fantastic. I first encountered Pat Loboyko's artwork in Changeling: The Lost, but he apparently has been doing a lot of work for the Warhammer universe, and he's becoming the new Ron Spencer in the sense of a guy whose artwork can do no wrong. That being said, though, I keep thinking that his artwork feels just a hair off-model from the Warhammer universe - it's evocative, the characters are blinged out with gothic/medieval jewelry like twelve-year-olds after they raided the jewelry store, there's plenty of dirt and missing teeth - but somehow they just feel too clean, too precise to fit the traditional Warhammer tone. They're excellent depictions, but they lack the pungency and observed detail of some of Warhammer's better illustrations. It's fantastic art, it just doesn't feel quite right, for some reason. That being said, the other artists of the book do an excellent job, and it's entirely possible that the illustrations that I'm attributing to Loboyko actually belong to other artists with a similarly detailed style.

It would also be nice - although probably quite complicated - to come up with a chart that indcates your potential progress through the career system, so that you could figure out what career path you'd have to follow in order to become a Witch Hunter, say. I am doing this without the benefits of owning the core book, though, so perhaps that's not an issue when actually being played. That being said, the level of quality in this book is enough to convince me that I need to go own the corebook anyways.

Long story short: It's a utilitarian product, probably too expensive, but still evocative and useful for the GM and/or player who has money to spare. My only regret is that there's no miniature line available to represent some of these interesting character types.

-Darren MacLennan

[5 of 5 Stars!]
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition: Career Compendium
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Night Horrors: Wicked Dead
Publisher: White Wolf
by Darren M. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 10/13/2009 00:17:17

Role-playing has been raiding historical mythology for as long as it's been around; the Monster Manual cheerfully grabs monsters from dozens of different mythologies and slaps them into a single setting. You want German and Egyptian mythologies in the same dungeon, throw in some kobolds on the top level and a sphinx on the sixth. Wicked Dead does the same thing, and that's kind of the tragedy. Allow me to explain.

If you look at the various iterations of Vampire, they essentially synthesize about four hundred years worth of vampire mythology into something that allows you to simulate dozens of different kinds of vampires into a single whole. Instead of having a unique kind of vampire whose entire schtick is turning into a wolf, you have the Animalism discipline, and you can turn it into a Bloodline if you make it particularly specialized. That way, you don't have dozens of different kinds of vampires who share disparate origins and powers.

Wicked Dead kind of turns back the clock on this particular innovation. I believe that it's meant to act as much as an antagonist guide for Hunter: The Vigil and/or standard World of Darkness play, but it simply replicates the abilities of various vampires from around the world without doing much with them. Instead of having a Bloodline inspired by the penaggallan myths of Malaysia, we have the stats for an actual penaggallan; instead of a bloodline inspired by Asian hopping vampires, we've got stats for actual hopping vampires.

I have to say it: I think that White Wolf gets away from its fundamental strengths when it starts trying to do monsters from other cultures. It's done a splendid job of assimilating a whole bunch of vampire myths from the Western tradition into something that works as a whole, but we're familiar with those creatures - vampires, werewolves, the Frankenstein monsters, fairies and wizards - pretty much from birth. We know exactly who they are and what they mean, so when White Wolf does something odd with them - turning werewolves into spirit cops, or ecological defenders - we're able to appreciate the synthesis. But when you import a foreign vampire into a culture that doesn't have any record of them, they just look silly to us. (Kindred of the East attempted to create the same sort of synthesis, but that's an essay for another day.)

Consider the aswang. It's a Filipino vampire who's a normal person by day, and then some kind of weird monster by night. Some of them are kind of scary, but have goofy names, like the Tik-Tik; normal human by day, enormous bat-bird predator by night that sucks blood and whose wings make a tik-tik noise when it flaps, or the halimaw, a vampire that can shift into the form of the last person it killed. The sigbin, by contrast, shifts into a creature like a hornless goat whose ears are long enough to be able to be clapped, like hands; and the clapping lulls its victims into a stupor, so that the sigbin can feed.

I'm sure that the sigbin is creepy in its original context. If you're Filipino, then I'm sure that the sigbin fits into a particular story and is appropriately creepy within that context - a man who can crawl on walls like a bat is comic in broad daylight, terrifying if he's Count Dracula and skittering down a wall towards you at midnight. A man-swallowing whale kinda makes sense in the Bible, or Pinocchio, but doesn't make so much sense when it's lurking in the back alley behind the bar wearing a cape and dark sunglasses. But it's hard to find the sigbin scary, and I imagine that anybody whose character is paralyzed by the clapping of a monster's ears is going to be in giggling fits for a long time.

(In fact, Sylvania did a hilarious commercial - in Thailand - that shows off various kinds of Thai ghosts and how they look in broad daylight, culminating with the revelation that they're a lot scarier with the lights off. But most of them look goofy to a Western audience because we're not familiar with their cultural backgrounding. I would link to it, but links to Youtube tend to have mayfly lifespans. Make sure you see the long version, which mentions the banana ghost.)

And the other thing is that the halimaw's central schtick, being able to turn into its victims, could easily be replicated by an Obfuscate devotion. Their thunder has already been stolen by the inclusive nature of vampiric discipliness, so that a lot of vampires with a single schtick, like turning into mist, or blending into shadow, can be replicated without having to be that exact kind of vampire. I suppose that you could use them as a switchup in a Hunter campaign, but the introduction of unusual vampires just for the sake of having some novel is usually a sign that the campaign is going stale.

Also - and I realize that this makes me the world's first vampire racist - as I'm reading about these Filipino vampires, my first thought is that they should go back home to the Phillipines and let American vampires drink from regular Americans. Non-blood-drinking Filipinos, we need all we can get, but Filipino vampires, one is too many.

The Baykosh is another example of a transplant from a foreign culture - well, a variety of Native American cultures - that doesn't quite make it. It's an undead ghost that tracks down the survivors of battles and kills them with their own weaons; it's not subtle, the book going so far as to describe it as "the supernatural equivalent of a sledgehammer." It's got Essence 10, rolls nine dice in most of its Numina - it's hardly unkillable, but I'm not sure where the need for an undead Terminator that tries to kill you with your own weapons - but only if you've been in battle - comes from. If you did, it would be fairly simple to build one with whatever rules you happen to be using, instead of using The Ghost What Shoots You With Your Own Gun For A Stupid Reason.

I guess if you're looking for stats for ghuls - not ghouls, ghuls - hopping vampires, penaggallan and points related, you're going to be in hog heaven. Maybe if you're looking to do some sort of Kolchak The Night Stalker / X-Files thing, this'll be of use to you, but the X-Files is stone dead, culturally speaking, and - well, insofar as I can tell, Kolchak: The Night Stalker is a major influence on the new World of Darkness, which is fun for me, because when it was on TV, I was a sperm. I have a rant stored up for that whole emphasis, but that's for later.

Anyways, if you're looking for classic odd vampires to throw at your players, you've got them - presuming that your players don't go do a minimal amount of research and come up with the exact weakness of the vampire that you're throwing at them. ("Penaggallan? Oh, throw some broken glass on the windowsill, it'll get caught, we throw it out with the trash in the morning. We have more trouble with the mice. Those little bastards are canny.") I think that it would have worked much better if White Wolf had decided to flesh these vampires out - describe the context in which they appear, update some of their abilities and central themes so that they're more in line with regular Kindred - rather than just portraying them as straightforwardly as they do.

There are nonstandard vampires that I was really impressed with. It gets brilliant with the formosae, who are vampires who feed on - well, if they were just vampires who fed on fat, I could make the obvious joke and note that a single gaming convention would provide feeding material for years. Instead, we get a cunning commentary on exactly that kind of body hatred/self-loathing; the formosae don't eat fat, they eat self-loathing. You get prettier and prettier as you die, while the formosae get fatter and fatter - but they can use their own childer to keep them thin, creating a sort of undead pyramid scheme, where you exploit other people's self-hatred to enrich yourself. (Especially cutting is that the formosae get extra Vitae if their vessels have a mental illness - they're literally feeding on your instability.) It weakens itself by picking off low-hanging fruit, invoking pro-anorexia websites, but really, there's no need to do that given America's complicated relationship with self-image and obesity. I could say more, but really, you're better off reading it for yourself; you could run an entire campaign around these things, each adventure touching on some commentary about the relationship between the body and the mind. I also like the body-hopping Bhuta, and the Cihuateteo are pretty evocative (except for their habit of using brooms for ritual magic, which will probably come off as silly), but they don't quite live up to their billing. I really like the Mnenmovores; besides having a decent short story attached to their profile - with a kiler last line - they have some really neat abilities based around memory, which they eat in place of Vitae. If it can stay out of sight long enough, you have to fight just to remember that you saw it.

Let take a moment for a parenthetical aside. I've noticed a consistent trend for White Wolf authors to take stuff from various News of the Weird sites and recontextualize them for the World of Darkness. For instance, a fungus that covered approximately three states became the Tzimisce Antediluvan in Vampire: The Masquerade. The drawback of this is twofold: In an era where information sprints like the wind, as opposed to appearing only on In Search Of with Leonard Nimoy, it's entirely probably that people have already seen the thing that you're referring to - in which case you're going to have to really put on the dog in order to make it work. The other problem is that what initially looks also spooky as shit often turns out to be something entirely mundane, which invalidates any supernatural framework you might have built up around it. For instance, the Montauk Monster almost got its own game line, complete with a backstory involving the lost Virginia colony of Roanoke and the ceaseless struggle to keep the moon from crashing into the Earth until naturalists pointed out that it was just a dead raccoon missing its fur and a part of its upper jaw, at which point White Wolf vowed to write an even angrier rant about scientists for the back of the next edition of Exalted.

(Cracked has an excellent article about debunked monsters on its website; poke about.)

That being said, you've probably already seen the parasite that nips out the tongue of a particular kind of fish and replaces it, literally becoming the tongue. Wicked Dead has something that does the same thing to humans, but it actually does a pretty good job of creating something that feels very much like a new World of Darkness version of The Fly - you feel better and better while the parasite takes you over, and then you're watching your own body hunt and kill people while you're locked into your own skull. There's some advice given about the idea of a one-shot campaign where you play the victim of one of these parasites, but they make far better - and really creepy - antagonists. We even get the comments for a Youtube video featuring somebody showing off the parasite poking out of somebody's mouth. I will say two things: First, you never read the comments on a Youtube video, because to do so is to come into contact with a stupidity so huge that it will suck your IQ right out through your mouth. The other is that I'm not entirely sure I like the whole "let's imitate an Internet trope" thing for books; when Hunter: The Reckoning did it with its Hunter-themed message board, I found myself mentally rolling my eyes at yet another group of people who needed moderation. ("Drinker34, you are not a blood-drinking monster. Knock it off. Cupcake001, you are a blood-drinking monster, but personal attacks aren't allowed; take a week off. Violin01, stop being a dick.") I spend enough time on the Internet as it is; I don't want it chasing me around in my books.

Other nonstandard vampires, I'm not so sure about. The Ragged Men are an interesting idea; they're a form of insect that basically uses Kindred bodies for reproduction, eventually hitting their apex as a humanoid maggot-thing, hungry for any kind of blood they can get. They're meant, insofar as I can tell, to take the form of sexually transmitted disease for vampires, because only vampires who feed in unsanitary or dirty conditions pick up the disease, and vampires who get the disease are said to feel shame, fear and guilt - becoming social pariahs - for having the disease, which makes its transmission easier. As a metaphor for an after-school special about gonorrhea, it's not bad, but when it comes to vampires, fear and guilt should be caused by stuff that you did - hence the Humanity mechanic - not because you have something wrong with you and you haven't yet found the kindly guidance counsellor who gives you a pamphlet that explains the new changes that your body is going through.

The book's latter half covers some familiar ground, both from the old World of Darkness and the new. The Draugr - known as wights in Vampire: The Masquerade - are vampires whose humanity has finally hit zero, rendering them entirely in the thrall of their Beast. White Wolf takes a slightly different tack than before, though; they're still much more animal than man, but we get a choice as to how they behave after they've bottomed out their humanity. Mindless predators are pretty much that, but they base their behavior on a former vice; a draugr whose central vice was greed keeps everything that it can lay it hands on - the bodies of its victims, their clothes, kill trophies from the corpses, all stacked in its lair. The careful predator variant of the draugr is like a serial killer amongst Kindred; it looks like a low-humanity vampire, but there's nothing left of a mind, just a ceaseless hunting instinct with a couple of remembered social niceties covering the ragged spots where the human being used to be.

I found it to be a very evocative idea; I don't know if I quite agree with the idea of limiting it to just the seven deadly sins, but it wouldn't be that difficult to come up with different themes for draugr. (I also like the book's note that regular vampires enjoy killing lust-driven draugr - who tends to be rapists as well as murderers - because "(v)ampires don't get to be righteous often.")

Also - and I'm not entirely familiar with the playstyles of Masquerade versus Requiem - but I was under the impression that Masquerade vampires could slip into zero Humanity simply because they didn't try enough to stay human; thus why the Sabbat offered the Path system instead of hovering permanently at one or two Humanity. It's pointed out in Wicked Dead, however, that the draugr in Requiem have to consciously choose to do stuff much worse than serial murder in order to become draugr; they don't drift into damnation, they have to actively choose it. I think that in a perverse way, it actually lessens some of the horror of the draugr. Rather than acting as the cautionary Gollum to the PC's Frodo, the draugr are more along the lines of Saruman, somebody who was actively working for the devil rather than somebody who drifted into it. I'm not sure that I entirely like that change, but it's a purely personal feeling, rather than a criticism.

One of the things that Vampire has always been missing is the swarm vampire - mindless, predatory pack-undead vampires who used to be human but are now essentially fast zombies with fangs. In keeping with its trend of giving GMs as much flexibility as they can to simulate what they want, the book offers Larvae, which are essentially what's described above. I'm delighted that I can now replicate the thrill of the only good scene in John Carpenter's Vampires without having to declare that the lesser vampires are low-humanity Sabbat shovelheads, or something. (Or you can take a page from Matt Wagner's Grendel, and have a single Larvae start an embracing frenzy in a fancy Las Vegas hotel/casino.) They even have a specialized fighting style designed to mimic the dogpile-and-tear attacks of movie zombies.

I have to say that I my love of the Larvae is disproportionate with my ability to explain exactly why. Part of is that the World of Darkness has been missing low vampires for a long time. Another is that I've seen them crop up in pop culture over and over again, and they make for excellent antagonists; they don't just charge, they creep around, make sudden blitzkrieg attacks and fade away. They're perfect for Hunter: The Vigil campaigns because they allow the hunters to kill a vampire without having to worry about its ability to communicate its distress to fellow vampires, or to wield the power and influence that can really fuck hunters up - plus, you can start hunters against the Larvae, then have them move up to their boss.

Speaking of which, that's another thing that I like. Both regular Kindred and the draugr can wield influence over a Larvae pack, so it's easy for that zero-Humanity vampire to whomp himself up some cheap help to aid him in his fight against the coterie sent to bring him down, or for the Prince of the city to create a hunting pack of feral vampires as cheap muscle. (Vampires have to know how to Embrace somebody as a Larvae, so it's not possible for just any vampire to whomp up six or seven feral vampires the day after they get embraced.) I also like the plot implications of the fact that Larvae can be re-embraced under certain conditons - you could get a lot of mileage from trying to bring a Larvae back to a sentient state. (A family member? An important ex-ghoul?)

One problem that I had is one of the sample Larvae characters is somebody who was a Larvae, but who recovered from it with the aid of a mysterious vampire who left shortly thereafter. The problem is one that's bothered me throughout the new World of Darkness - we're given some vague clues about a massive conspiracy that involves, apparently, wanting to wipe out every vampire in the world, and it having something to do with the . But that's not a useful story seed; it's the basis for a campaign, and one that needs a lot more fleshing out before it can be used. It's possible that I'm just not the target audience for this kind of thing, but I really dislike how hints have replaced what used to be solid information.

The Strix - the banes of the vampires of ancient Rome - make a reappearance, which is useful - they seem to be intimately tied to the origin of the Beast in the vampire, as well as having something to do with the birth of the Ventrue as a clan. (I believe that the new Ventrue clanbook goes into more detail on this.) Unlike before, when they were dedicated to persecuting and destroying the Julii clan, the body-possessing Strix are present in the physical world without any particular purpose except to experience the joys of having flesh - particularly undead flesh, which offers sensations that simple humans can't. They're sort of like the Z'bri, minus the fleshcrafting. They make really decent antagonists; you can kick the crap out of the body that they've possessed, but they just come back unless you find some way to rid yourself of them permanently, and they're canny enough to avoid a direct physical confrontation. The book has nemeses as one of their nicknames, and - yeah. They're exactly that. They're the perfect vampiric antagonist, using the weaknesses of a vampire against them without feeling like they're overpowered.

We've seen dampyr before in the World of Darkness - as children of the Kindred of the East - but they're much different here; in fact, there's some amusing comedy in the opening fiction about how dampyrs relate to vampires. (Upon feeding on one, a vampire remarks that it's like "a golden unicorn fucked my skull and ejaculated rainbows into my brain." Somebody's been watching Sealab...) In fact, I have to wonder if they're a subtle parody of the Twilight series - there's even a scene where a vampire gets glitter on him. Or consider the description of how they're made:

“Well, son, when a mommy and a daddy who are deeply in love decide they want a little baby, mommy murders a homeless man and drinks up all his yummy blood until her belly is big and full of it, and then daddy lays on top of her, and puts his wing-wang in her hoo-haa and moves up and down, and then his seed and her egg meet, and mommy uses some of the blood to make the little baby growing in her big and healthy, but because she’s eating for two now, mommy gets very very hungry, and has to murder lots and lots of homeless men so in nine months a perfect little bouncing baby is born, with daddy’s nose, and mommy’s sickening occult affliction."

Essentially, dampyr are irresistible ot vampires - but as soon as the vampires take a drink, they pick up the dampyr's supernatural curse, and suffer as a result. For instance, when a Daeva feeds from a Daeva-spawned vampire, they wind up obsessed with the dampyr until they lose all will to live and eventually consider suicide. (It's kind of a parody of Edward's crush on Bella, about which I have taken pains to learn as little as humanly possible, and yet still know far too much.) Gangrel become social and lose their Beast, Mekhet become obsessed with the smallest detail of the dampyr's blood, and Nosferatu eventually wind up wanting to flaunt their hideousness to everybody around them, becoming walking Masquerade violations. (There's a highly amusing picture of a Nosferatu walking around a nightclub while everybody around him recoils in horror.) They make great antagonists, thanks to the story arc built into a vampire's obssession with them; as player characters...possibly. As every vampire's obsession with a dampyr follows the same arc, the GM's going to have to work to make sure that the players have something other to do than endure the attentions of a lovesick vampire.

Is it a worthwhile buy? For the Larvae, for the Strix, for the draugr, for some of the odder vampires - yes, I would say so. It's not a perfect product, but it makes up for a weak beginning with an astonishingly strong finish.

-Darren MacLennan

[4 of 5 Stars!]
Night Horrors: Wicked Dead
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