I picked this puppy up last night. I figured I might as well give a review of my impressions.
The review will take the following form: The first part will be a factual account of the book’s layout and what it contains. I’ll go chapter by chapter and after each description provide commentary. I’ll finish up with some parting thoughts. Secondly I’ll review the real meat of the book – the new Storytelling system. I’ll conclude with my criticisms and what I think White Wolf might have done differently, and what they did right.
The book itself is nice, if a bit thin – 219 pages to be exact. Compared to the new Vampire book (or even on the shelf next to the few old WoD books I own) it looks a bit small. Very nearly the first 190 pages of the book are focused on the new Storytelling (not Storyteller) system, interspersed very liberally with various pieces of fiction.
I’m not a big art critic, so I can’t say much about the art. Generally I don’t pay much attention to it. There were a few evocative pieces, and lots of placeholder art that did nothing for me. I guess if I had a real philosophy for gaming book art it’d be “less is more” – dispense with 90% of the crap and keep the 10% that really get across what the game is all about.
The book starts off with the obligatory opening fiction. This takes the form of scraps of a letter written by a newspaper reporter describing the events of her recent life. Obviously things take a turn for the weird as her life gets more and more surreal. Key portions of the letter are missing, leaving the reader to guess what’s really happening – this pattern is repeated throughout the fiction of the book; the supernatural is hinted and intimated at but never revealed. You might suspect there’s a vampire around, or a werewolf – but you never see one. Frankly I like it – paranoia is the name of the game.
Chapter 1 is called “The Secret History” and consists mostly of more fiction – a conspiracy magazine excerpt, a report written by a priest from a small New England town, and a lecture from an eccentric professor, as well as passages from some sort of modern-day apocryphal text. Following is a rules summary that introduces the basic mechanics of dice pool and die rolling, as well as introducing the combat system’s currency (1 die = 1 bonus = 1 penalty = 1 success = 1 damage). Finally there’s the summary of character creation, and a glossary. Up to this point it’s pretty standard stuff, similar to the old WoD books (except for the prevalence of fiction – literally the first 17 pages are probably 85-90% fiction.) The chapter ends with what I think is a great addition – a two page “Roll and Trait Summary” that describes common actions and the rolls they’d require. This is a great touch, as it prevents having to search through the “Drama” section of the book to figure out what is appropriate to roll for a given task. A great addition.
Chapter 2 is all about attributes – what they are, how they’re used. Each attribute is described (along with a bit of fiction describing the attribute being used in an in-game situation; in actuality there are 3 separate pieces of fiction that each have 3 installments, of course lots of weirdness going on). The attributes are different than in the old World of Darkness, though I’ll get to that when I actually do the system review. One nice thing is that each attribute has 1-2 sample tasks involving it, where the actual system is described and the results of varying degrees of success are summarized. One interesting thing about the system emerges here – pure attribute rolls, where two attributes are rolled for an action (as opposed to the typical attribute+ability roll of the previous system).
Chapter 3 is skills. Each skill once again has the obligatory fictional blurb, followed by the description, the “Posessed by” line, and some sample specialties. One thing I miss is having a description of what each level of the skill represented – it’s summed up at the beginning (1 dot is novice, 2 is practitioner, etc) – but I miss the skill-specific rating descriptions. One interesting new addition to the skill entries are the “roll results” – which tell you what varying degrees of success and failure for that skill look like. Also some system stuff is stuck in here where appropriate – for instance, the “Drive” skill has the system for “Vehicle Pursuit” – unfortunately it’s not immediately obvious at a glance if Vehicle Pursuit is a skill, only closer look shows me that it’s actually a system using drive. Somewhat obnoxious – the system stuff should have all been stuck in one area, as here I think it just muddies the water.
Chapter 4 is Advantages – these are everything else on the character sheet really: Morality, and the various derived values like Health, Initiative, Speed, etc. It’s also got the full Morality system described here (more on that later).
Chapter 5 is Merits. Merits replace Backgrounds, as well as, errr, merits. If it was a merit or background in the old system, it’s a merit in the new system. They can be bought at chargen, or (in many cases) later on with XP. Not much to be said here – there’s some good ones, and some that aren’t so good.
Chapter 6 is Dramatic Systems. How to make dice pools and do stuff with them. It also describes more fully the currency system.
Chapter 7 is Combat. How to fight. Pretty self explanatory, with some examples and obligatory fiction. Guns and weapons and how they work are in here too. In addition the health system is explained, and for good measure things like poisons and drugs are given their systemic attention.
Chapter 8 is Storytelling. Frankly it’s a disappointment – just the typical boilerplate text about theme and mood and how a story is broken up into chapters. There’s also the usual list of NPCs and antagonists, as well as a few page writeup on Ghosts – the *only* supernatural system in the game. This is also where the XP system is explained. Frankly this chapter was a real disappointment – there’s very little meat in here. First time GMs will appreciate the advice on story structure, but I’d like to have seen some more insight into how to run a World of Darkness mortals game. Things I’d like to have seen:
Some mortal conspiracies and whatnot. Think of the Millenium Group from the show Millenium, or the X-Files FBI division.
Advice on using morality, virtues, and flaws in constructing stories tailored to characters. I think a World of Darkness GM would do very very well for himself by putting the morality system front and center and really stressing it – putting characters in situations where there are no good choices, where they have to choose between bad choices that threaten their morality. It’s a dark world full of conspiracies and things that go bump in the night, how do they affect people?
All in all, the Storytelling chapter is the worst part of the book – it feels utterly obligatory and just thrown in. I’d have happily paid 3 dollars less for a book that didn’t contain it, or 5 dollars more for a book that had some really meaty insight into how to run an RPG. As it is – waste of space.
We finish up with an index, and an ad for the Camarilla.
Overall impressions? It’s a good book. Mostly it’s dedicated to the system, but the fiction is excellent. It’s also the first pure-non supernatural powered mortal book White Wolf has put out, that I know of (even Hunters Hunted had a few psychic powers in it). It’s a bit lightweight for my taste – I think another 30-50 pages could have been dedicated to fleshing out the mortal World of Darkness in more detail. I do like that the big supernaturals are never explicitly mentioned – only hinted at (until the storytelling advice chapter, which has kind of lame story seeds like “A loved on is being fed on by a Vampire!” – for a game about paranoia that seems somewhat mundane.)
Frankly I think White Wolf threw this out purely to make another 20 dollars on the product, given that the core “fatsplat” books (Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage) are being put at the same price point as the previous rulebooks. This thing really is obviously intended to be just a companion piece to one or more of the other games, which I think is a shame. If you’re looking for a really good game about mortals existing in a world of supernatural conspiracies, look elsewhere (might I suggest Unknown Armies?). Overall, somewhat of a disappointment to me.
Now, on to the second part of the review – the storytelling system. It’s very much an evolution of the direction White Wolf went with the Exalted system. First, the similarities:
You still have attributes and abilities
You still build dice pools out of two stats
Now, the differences:
Difficulties are all now static of 8. They no longer vary.
One success on a roll always means success. No more multiple successes required.
Penalties and bonuses are assessed purely as bonus dice to a roll.
An emerging currency system
More of a focus on conflict resolution.
Overall, I think the system is changing for the better. It’s still not what I’d consider really high quality (ie, a system I’d play without modifying it somewhat). I also think that White Wolf is trying to really encourage narrativist play in their text while providing a system that doesn’t give that kind of opportunity.
So, some examples of what I’m talking about:
First, I mentioned the Currency. 1 trait = 1 die = 1 bonus = 1 penalty = 1 success. This works across the board, since modifiers are entirely bonuses and penalties to die pool. Roll a pool, get your successes – that either gives you immediate resolution, or provides bonuses (or penalties) equal to the number of successes. It’s simple, and I like it.
Combat is a single roll now – basically attribute+skill+weapon – target’s defense – target’s armor + situational modifiers – situational modifiers. Defense doesn’t apply to guns (you can’t dodge bullets). No more roll to hit, roll to dodge, roll damage, roll soak, apply damage BS. However many successes you get on that attack roll are applied immediately as damage.
Morality is interesting – it’s similar to Vampire’s humanity, but I’m guessing every supernatural is now going to have a scale like it. Virtues and Vices are also interesting, but really given short shrift – frankly I think the entire system should have been built around these three concepts to provide for some really meaty drama about people being stressed to the breaking point psychologically. This is where I’d make the greatest changes to the system – probably providing more systematic weight and value to these three stats. As is, following your Virtue (in the face of adversity, helping grannies across the road doesn’t count) lets you regain all your willpower, whereas following your vice lets you regain one willpower. Yeah that’s nice, but it’s not great. This is the area the system is most in need of modification.
So, in conclusion:
The book is disappointing, it feels like White Wolf basically figured out a way to get customers to spend another 20 dollars to play their favorite games. Another 50-100 pages could have made this a really interesting game about mortals, as it is it’s just a bunch of evocative fiction and some rules. Not that that’s a bad thing to some people…
The system is an improvement, though it’s still basically the same thing. A bit smoother and easier to understand, probably runs faster – but I think had they been a bit more radical they really could have knocked the ball out of the park. As it is, this is very much an evolutionary upgrade.