Review : World of Darkness Rulebook

By White Wolf, $19.99 / £11.99  Print

So here we are. Ten years after the begining of The World of Darkness it ends with Gehenna (or your personal choice of ending). With the old one dead, we get an entirely new one. Or do we? I'll assume that in reading this you're fairly conversant with the old World of Darkness (from here on in WOD) games, and try and focus on differences between the two.

Lets start with the bad. There's lots of intro fiction. It's hard to do right (I've tried myself) and the new WOD intro stuff just doesn't grab me. Now this might be a taste thing - I'm willing to admit that - or it might be a sign that short stories aren't a good way to introduce RPGs as a concept. It just makes the differences between fiction and group participation storytelling more obvious.

Moving on swiftly to the layout and illustrations. They're good. Evocative black and white artwork throughout, with easy to read pages and nicely placed quotes. WOD 2.0 is designed. Everything I would expect from White Wolf. As an artifact the book is nice.

So, it's page 22 and we finally get some description of what the book/game is about. It's about horror, apparently, and mood and setting. And by the way, rules don't matter...

Dive back into some florid prose.

Resurface again at page 32 for a solid 2 page rundown of the rules (which don't matter, remember) followed by a brief 2-page explanation of character creation. Despite the inconsistencies of attitude to rules there's good solid stuff here, lots of quick ins for existing players, who are bound to be the primary audience.

Next we have a spread of glossary and a spread of common rolls. Those 8 pages contain the core of the book distilled down: Make your character with points, Attributes, skills, Merits and Flaws. Roll a pool of 10-sided dice based on attribute+skill 8s or higher are successes.

The rest of the book is details; Minuitae that expand on those pages. I'm quite sold on these games which treat you like you've played an RPG before like this, but give new players options too.

The sections that follow expand our understanding from these basics. Attributes are described in detail, they're now broken down by usage (power, finesse, resistance) and type (mental, social, physical) for a total of nine. It's a scheme that makes sense, and adds clarity. Want physical finesse? That's dexterity. Want mental resisitance? That's resolve.

In the game Skills are used to achieve tasks (isn't that a bit early 90s, isn't conflict resolution where it's at in storytelling games? I thought White Wolf were cutting edge?) Each skill is listed with examples, who might possess it and possible specialties. Skills are split into mental, physical and social categories and they're all quite broad. Specialties can be used to make your character better at a particular niche within a skill, and you get three of these to start with.

Each character has Advantages. These are ways your character gets an edge in the world. Or derived attributes that are used for finiky things like initiative, willpower and health levels. Morality is here, interesting as it may put the focus on moral choice in all WOD games, not just Vampire as previously. A good thing in my opinion. Commit a sin on the morality table and lose morality rating. Losing morality costs too, you're character is likely to gain derangements at each drop. They might get morality back at the end of a story if they redeem themselve too.

Each character must pick a virtue (based of seven virtues) and vice (based on seven deadly sins). Driving character traits that nicely map out a characters core thematic conflicts. They rock on toast, and are a great tool for player and Storyteller alike. A character with the virtue of Fortitude and the Vice of Wrath is about being tested by the world and sometimes giving in to anger. Cool, as an ST I got my handle on that character really quickly. The virtue and vice also feed into the willpower mechanic of points to increase chances of success, and indulging vices gets you back spent willpower.

You also have more chance of surviving with humanity intact if you commit a sin whilst following a virtue. These things are tiny tweaks but with a big impact on play. Sadly I suspect many groups will ignore the sheer story potential of using and abusing the virtue/vice pairing, since there's relatively little about it in the actual storyteller advice.

Merits are things that make your character stand out, system bits that don't fit into already defined areas. Every character gets some to define their niche. Are you knowledgable or a Kung-fu fighter, have allies or a mentor? The list goes on, and all are nicely defined.

The Dramatic systems chapter covers the rules in detail. Time and how it is measured (Scene, chapter, round and so on) is here, as are different forms of action. what do you roll and when. One key difference from old WOD is that while willpower cans till be spent to boost success, it now gives you 3 extra dice, rather than 1 automatic success. Fans of the old system will also notice smaller pools, due to less points to spend at character creation. Dramatic failures seem to be fixed nicely though, you now only have a chance of dramtic failure is your pool of dice is reduced to 1 and you roll badly.

Combat is detailed. More so than a storytelling game need be in my opinion. Many of these rules could be condensed into "has advantage gain dice" and "is disadvantaged lose dice". There are three types of damange (bashing, lethal, aggravated) and details on a variety of different ways to take these, from fire to toxin. Finally there's an example of play (mainly combat). On the plus side Combat is much faster than the old WOD, reducing to hit, to damage and soak to one roll is a good thing.

Oddly though for the "Storytelling System", there's a whole lot of the book dedicated to tasks and combat and not much to story. Storytelling is chapter 8. The poorly thought out argument of "roll versus role" is wheeled out again, and sounds just as unconvincing as it did 10 years ago. In a game with so many rules that actively encourage drama (like virtue, vice and morality) it's sad to see this kind of "rules prevent good story" rubbish. Although there's some useful material, the chapter can't seem to nail down practicalities. There's lots of advice on what you should be doing, but not quite enough on how to achieve those results. Maybe it's just so they can sell a storytellers book later.

So how does this all work in play? Well, for old players the higher difficulty on dice (8s not 6s as default) and lower pool is a big change. Until your ST gets the hang of giving you bonuses for situations, I forsee a lot of failure, it certainly seemed that way in my group. You could argue that this meshes with the "grim world" of the WOD, but it does mean your guy who's supposed to be talented at something ends up looking like a dufus quite often. With this in mind it would be worth a section in the book on how often to roll for tasks and abstracting to conflict resolution. However, I suspect that once players get the hang of following virtues and vices to replenish WP, and Storytellers grasp creating stories with these in mind, the game engine will hum along nicely.

Overall: Generally the game system works and the setting is really easy to grasp since it's a darker version of our own world. Old players will find it familiar enough, new players will find this a better intro than the old games (if they are willing to wade through tawdry prose). The same old inconsistencies are here, but putting everything in one book means less duplication across game lines. The new additions like virtue and vice pep up the system nicely. It's not revolutionary, but it's a step up in the elegence stakes and it does the job that most existing WOD players will expect.

Review : Conspiracy of Shadows

By Keith Senkowski, Bob Goat, $21.99 Print

If the X-files had been set in the 12th century, then it might have been something like Conspiracy of Shadows. It's a game of dark secrets that might kill your character, and secret dealings that go straight to the heart of the setting.

With one fairly major twist. What the conspiracy actually is remains the decision of each GM (and to some extent the players, since the GM can work in bits of their character backgrounds to it). So no campaign is ever the same as another. Sure, you get advice on what the conspiracy might be, but every game of Conspiracy of Shadows is going to be a unique run through a paranoid medieval world. I like this as a concept.

Setting wise, Conspiracy of Shadows gives a human-centric fantasy world called Polian, with a variety of cultures drawing on real-world history (Norderin as a Norse amalgum, for example). Chapters one and two give us details of the people and places of the setting, and give enough to hit the setting running. Each with a history, social structure and sub-cultural breakdown. We even get pronunciation guides, maps and sample names.

Character creation is a nice quick affair, and really brings home what a character's motivations are. You start with a drive, passion and ethnicity. Passion summarizes your characters core beliefs, if you play your character true to it, you get to refresh your destiny pool between sessions (more on destiny later). Drive is the event that thrust your character into fighting the conspiracy, a sitatuon you are trying to resolve, whilst persuing your drive you get bonuses to rolls. Ethnicity gives you certain advantages based on heritage, and also helps decide how much resources and relationships(the games abstract systems for equipment and useful contacts). This is really a game where a character's personality and heritage can make a huge diference.

There are four basic attributes, Fortitude (physical strength and Toughness), Reflex (co-ordination, swiftness and grace), Knowledge, Temperament (strength of personality), between which you divide 11 points. Each character has a profession, which is defined by dividing 17 points amongst 6 skills (there are 17 skills described, so broad abilities are the norm here). You get to write a descriptor for each of the attributes and skills, that make them unique to your character. Descriptors help the GM decide if your character should get a bonus or penalty when attempting things, and so help to nicely define a character's niche.

Next write down endurance points (how long your character can keep going) and vitality (hit points), along with some gear. Finally you can choose to have a witchblood power, or not, depending on if you want to risk being burned as a witch...

After all the players have created characters, it's time to join them together in a cell. Characters pool their resources and relationships to buy Allies, Realestate, Contacts, A Library, Mentors and Retainers. This mutual creation allows the PCs to come up wiht some solid shared background. Finally, the players join together to write a Kicker (as seen in Sorcerer), an event that kickstarts play. Yup, the players get to choose where the story begins, and it's got to be in the middle of things.

Magic in Conspiracy of Shadows is divided into two types: Witchblood powers and Ritual Magic. Witchblood powers are minor abilities to spice up play, and are available to PCs. Rituals are powerful, rarer and may well be the focus of a scenario.

The system is a nice and simple 2D6 skill+Attribute mechanic. You get an extra dice if a positive descriptor comes into play, and one less if a negative one comes into play. Destiny plays an important part in COS. You get a pool of destiny points at the start of play, equal to however many negative descriptors you took for low skills/attributes. You get more during play for evoking the setting, or inventing cool details during gameplay. Destiny can be spent after rolls to boost them to successes from failures.

Conspiracy of Shadows has a nicely elegant combat system. Roll initiative for the first round based off of reflexes. For each subsequent round you move up and down initiative based on success of your actions. Endurance can also be spent to move up the initiative tree. Characters act in order of initiative, and can have as many actions as they are willing to spend endurance, until they fail in one. Combos of actions and maneavers add to your chance of success. A system that keeps combats moving, and gives them a feel of blow after blow raining down. Damage comes off your vitality, but there's a set of wound penalties associated with how much you have left. It's quick and flexible. Conspiracy of Shadows has a reasonably large GM section that covers everything from fleshing out your conspiracy, through poison and disease to goons and supernatural antagonists. I'd have liked to see more versions of fleshed out conspiracies, but this is a minor quibble.

Overall: Conspiracy of Shadows has some great features, evocative art and a solid game system. It has occasional glitches (mainly typos and editing problems), but in general it provides an interesting twist on RPG fantasy.

Review : Cloak of Steel

By James Desborough, Post Mortem Studios, $10 PDF

Cloak of Steel is a game of Anime-inspired giant mecha combat in a fantasy world. It's a PDF from RPGNOW.COM and an OGL product, so it uses lots of familiar D20-style notation. However, there's a fair few tweaks to make for a "more cinematic" experience, more on this later.

First thing you notice is that it's got some great manga illustrations, of a quality much akin to Exalted. For a PDF is's got some very nice design quality and lovingly prepared maps. It's pretty obvious that lots of effort went into the production design.  A few illustations are re-used, but for a small-press game we can forgive them that. It has PDF bookmarks, which make navigating it onscreen very easy.

Cloak of Steel is set on the world of Teirplana, and we get 70-odd page rundown of its various continents, seas, nations, gods and races. All with illustrations of characters, iconography and Cloak (mecha) types. That's quite a lot compared to some PDFs I've seen, and it almost suffers from being too dense to pick up anything at first reading (there's everything from calender and language details to ocean writeups and approprate names).

This is a background heavy setting, so it would probably need a summary for the casual player. There's lots of setting colour to pick up and run with here as a GM: We have a flat earth, a variety of nation states vying for supremacy, some religious factions, civil wars, all ripe for possible conflicts to use in game.

Character creation is described in a solidly organised way. You can play humans or a varity of half-animal breeds. All the typical hybrids are here, but it's good to see a game with Badgerfolk and Toadmen in too. Character creation is basically a modified D20 one, with abilities, skills and feats, but no classes. Instead of classes, you choose 15 skills that your character can learn more easily. Starting stats and their maximums are determined by age category. There's a section of Bonuses and Detriments, background traits to tweak your character at creation. It's nice to see this in an OGL context. Another addition to OGL is dividing hit points up by location. I'm not sure how appropriate this is to the setting, but that's a taste thing.

Combat gets a big section, as you might expect from a game that owes something to D20 (roll, add numbers, compare with target). Characters get 3 normal actions and 3 reactive actions (dodging, parrying, reflecive attacks) a turn. The three actions make combat fast against weaker opponants, especially when combined with hero points. In addition, you can use an extra action to perform a stunt, narating a cool maneauver, rolling the two actions and gaining bonuses to the results and extra hero points. Again, reminiscent of Exalted, but that's not a bad thing.

Rules wise vehicles, and Cloaks in particular, get a good deal of explanation. Cloaks (and their smaller cousins, Squires) get their own feats to buy, which make each suit nicely unique. There's lots of equipment for you to arm your characters and their not-quite-mecha with. There are also rules for airships, and I'm a sucker for airships, so was pleased by their inclusion.

The Magick (yes, with a K) section has some cool spells and trinkets to play with; From golem-arm bionics to clockwork guns. Spells are briefly described with lightning and curses and all the effects you'd expect. The different styles of magic add flavour, from magic based on sacrifice to sword magic, the varieties tie in to information given in the background chapter. Spells use Mana points (a new derived attibute) to be enacted, not revolutionary, but very workable.

There are plenty of suggestions for adversaries and monster design, along with special powers for them. There's also advice on converting from standard D20 stat blocks to the CLoak of Steel variant.

Cloak of Steel sells itself as cinematic, and whilst more cinematic than normal OGL/D20 it's a long way off something like octaNe, since it retains a good whack of tactical-style play. It does have things like Hero points to soften some of the sharper system edges, but your 6 second rounds, hit points and modifiers are still here. Now obviously, depending on your tastes, this could be a good thing, but it clashes with my personal definition of cinematic.

There are a few places where the text slightly irked me, typical things like telling you not to do things that the rules seemingly encourage. But generally the text flowed well and leaves you with a good feel for the game and world.

Overall: Cloak of Steel is a solid RPG product. It's pretty heavy on rules, and its tweaks on the OGL/D20 system seem solidly thought out. It's not going to be to everyone's tastes, but if you like anime-inspired fantasy, mecha, or D20 tweaks it's definitely worth a look.

Breaking Down the Wall

Article by Chris Michaud

If you flip through the manuals of the more popular role-playing games, almost every single one of them has a paragraph that reads something like this:

"Sometimes as a (Dungeon Master, Storyteller, Referee, et al), things might not go your way. An important character might have bad luck with the dice, and it may throw your game for a loop. In this case, it’s okay to cheat sometimes. You can do this by making all your rolls secretly behind our special cardstock screen, available for $9.95 at your local hobby shop..."

Most of the people I play with are game masters - and most game masters I know are very much guilty of fudging their dice. I’ve run entire campaigns where I paid little or no attention to what my rolls looked like. Dammit, I had a story to tell!

Certainly, the logic behind fudging makes sense. If you’ve invested a lot of effort into designing a campaign, or if you’re running a canned adventure without a lot of room to breathe, then wacky die rolls can easily derail your game. Cheating allows you to maintain a certain level of control, so you don’t have to worry about the adventure turning into a train wreck.

The problem with fudging, however, is that savvy players know you’re doing it - and they will react accordingly.

The Trouble With Fudging I was running a game of Deadlands once off of an adventure I had spent a lot of time designing. One of the crucial parts of the adventure required the player characters to be thrown in jail for the night. The guys, of course, resisted arrest -violently so. I needed to make sure they failed the encounter, though, so I fudged away. This came back to bite me when one of my players rolled a 56 to hit (In Deadlands, this is an excellent roll). I bounced some dice for my character’s Dodge, pretended to look at them, and said, "Ah, man! You guys are getting robbed!"

One of the players stood up, threw his chair on the floor, and declared, "What the hell is the point of playing this game if you’re not gonna let us do anything?"

I was tempted to dismiss this behavior as immature. After thinking about it, however, I realized that this was a reaction to poor judgment as a game master. What, exactly, is the point of using a system of rules to govern a game of make-believe fairly, if the person in charge has every intention of discarding them when it doesn’t suit them? If you're going to make it impossible for players to succeed, then what do they have to gain? Further, if you choose to protect players from the dangers of your world by fudging, what is going to stop them from getting lazy with their role-playing or, even worse, taking advantage of your gracious attitude?

Some would argue that role-playing games are primarily exercises in storytelling - and manipulating die rolls helps to protect important characters (including player characters) who will be important later on. If your table is perfectly cool with this, and you use this tool in a judicious manner, then that argument is fine. In fact, there are many systems out there which can provide you with mechanics that emphasize drama over death (I recommend Scarlet Wake by Ben O'Neal, which is currently in the final stages of production).

The problem is, even if your group is primarily concerned with spinning a good tale, your players still want to flex their characters' muscles once in awhile. If your players know that you're the cheating kind, then the burden of determining victory or defeat is perceived to be on your shoulders at all times. If this perception becomes too strong, it can potentially devalue everything about your game--the rules, the characters' stats, even the actual role-playing itself. When the illusion of a "Fair Game" disappears, a number of things can happen:

Players can feel "Boxed in," like their actions will have no real effect on the game world or the story your group is trying to tell.

People who are primarily in it for the "Game" aspect of role-playing (completing challenges, vanquishing villains, etc.) may become frustrated by someone exercising veto-power over their efforts.

Some players who think their characters are "Protected" will stop putting real thought into their role-playing...or, even worse, they may make stupid decisions on purpose because they think they can get away with it. These players may be especially upset when you put your foot down, because they might feel like they're being treated differently.

Of course, if you can manage to cheat while still maintaining the facade of a "Fair Game," then these issues won't really affect you. Good luck trying, though - because I've never once met a player who could keep their nose out of the Game Master's Section of your favorite RPG. You show me a seasoned player who is oblivious to the art of fudging, and I'll show you someone who thinks professional wrestling isn't fixed.

A Radical Concept The thing about being a Game Master is, your players are investing a lot of trust in you. They trust you not only to entertain them, but to run the game in a fair way. They trust you to not only to adjudicate the rules, but to take the talents and actions of the characters into account before narrating the scene. Fudging can potentially erode that trust--because it is, in essence, playing favorites (no matter whose side you're on). If your players are starting to lose their trust, let me lay some advice on you...

...you can strengthen your gaming experience by trying a game where GM rolls are completely out in the open.

Upon reading that statement, many GMs are already typing another address into their browser as we speak. After all, fudging is a time-honored tradition, dating back to the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons. Regardless, there are advantages to playing it fair.

1. Games Become More Challenging: If players know they can no longer count on you to save their characters from the doom of the dice, they will be more inclined to work harder to protect themselves in-game. This means they'll have to role-play harder, and really use their heads.

2. The Burden of Failure Shifts: Yeah, it stinks when the dice just don't cooperate with the players' interests - but at least the problem is with the dice. If your rolls are out in the open, players are less likely to blame you for the three consecutive critical hits from a peasant guard or a neonate Caitiff.

3. Games Become More Unpredictable: Let's face it--without surprises, role-playing games can fall pretty flat. However, things can get a lot more interesting when, all of a sudden, a relatively weak NPC starts annihilating the adventuring party, or a 13th Generation Vampire scores a lucky blow to take out the elder Prince. This plays well into the story aspect of games - because it creates twists which much be accounted for in the story.

4. The Game Master is Challenged as Much as the Player: First of all, you will need to more carefully design encounters to suit your players. Second, when the players throw you a curveball (Like successfully outwitting an "Invincible" character), you'll get a chance to use those storytelling muscles in a way you weren't expecting. When this happens, you'll find yourself playing the game just as hard as the players are.

And finally, the most important one...

5. Player Characters are Elevated to their Rightful Place

Let’s face it - when a GM cheats frequently to "Protect the story," said GM is often just making sure the story goes their way. This is counterproductive to the essence of role-playing games. The object, at least as I understand it, is to allow player characters to have a real impact on their game world, through their actions and ideas and talents. Take this away, and the players are left with nothing. Unless you’re telling the best damned story ever told, your players are going to lose patience while they impotently bang on the walls of the impenetrable "Story Fortress" you’ve built around your game.

in 99 games out of 100, Player Characters are supposed to be the most important part of the story. They are the main characters. Numero Uno. This means that their characters are the ones who drive the story. So if they try something you don’t want them to do because it will affect your carefully planned storyline, it’s up to you to accommodate their efforts rather than feign a disappointed look at the dice and say, "You got robbed!"

Of course, running a fudge-less game can be a difficult challenge for people who are used to using such a tool. I know it was for me - but you’ll find after awhile that it’s more fun to roll with your players’ punches than it is to cheat your way out of a narrative bind. This is especially true if you’re into role-playing games for the story aspect. Any storyteller can write a story in advance and read it aloud. It takes a master, however, to be able to flex in and out of the influence of a group of player characters. After all, they're just doing what player characters are supposed to do!

Now, I’m not suggesting that you stop fudging forever and ever. We all know better than that. Even I’ll probably fudge again someday - fudging has just been around too long.

What I am suggesting is that you try running a couple of games without the protection of your cardstock screen. Make yourself vulnerable. Push yourself as a game master. Then ask your players if they had fun afterwards. I know mine did.

Chris Michaud can be found online at sledgeman.diaryland.com.

Proactive gaming

For a hobby that prides itself on interactivity, RPGs can sometimes throw up some odd habits. One I've noticed is that all too often the players don't really take ownership of the game.

It's a weird kind of mindset amongst players that the GM has to control everthing, that their word must be final and that the players job is to sit there and take it. No matter how poor the plot, no matter how uninterested the players are in the events that are thrown arbitarily at them, the GM is god. This attitude kills games.

It seems to stem from many RPG books, where the advice given to players is to shut up and listen to the GM. I really hate those pieces of advice. They seem to be written by people who've never actually played an RPG. See - to me at least - part of the fun of playing an RPG is knowing that your choices and contributions matter (otherwise, why not just read a book?). If the GM is overruling everything then play gets dull very quickly.

Often GMs just have to be this way though, because the players haven't given them anything to work with. They haven't contributed anything to the game beyond their presence. They expect to be fed everything and just take it. Both sides are as guilty as each other.

So the cycle continues.

There is a very simple solution. Both sides of the GM/Player split need to be more proactive. The key is for both sides to actively take ownership of the game. Not the rulebooks that you're using, not the characters your playing, but the game as a whole. The event of the real people getting together and playing.

Both sides need a solid stake in what's going on, otherwise they're going to start wondering why they're present. Talk about the game and where it is going. It's a simple thing, but it amazes me how often people don't do it. What do you want out of it? Where do you want your character to head? What's actually fun for you, as a player or GM?

Being proactive starts before the game. It starts right at the moment when a GM says "Hey guys, I want to run game X". What often seems to happen is that the GM comes up with some background and a plot and just forces the players into it. This is the first mistake. Roleplaying is a group exercise, so bring your players in at the earliest opportunity. What would be cool for them? What works with their characters? How could that work with your ideas? If the players have this input, then they are more likely to enjoy themselves, they have a stake in the game.

Now at this point it's often the case that the GM will go "But it's my game, I want to run it this way!" We're back at that Group Activity thing again, by coming to the table with a group of people you're saying "I want you guys involved too". You have to admit that, or you'll end up with unhappy players. Or no game at all. That said, each player should equally not expect everything to focus solely on their ideas. Everybody's contributions are useful. It's a group thing.

During a game a bit of self analysis, and changing based on it, can help boost the amount of fun you have. What worked for you? Did your character get too little (or too much) &quo;screentime". Did you feel like you were being led by the nose? Did you feel like every idea you contributed got shot down by other players or the GM? Knowing that these things are going on is the first step to improving your situation. The second step is to raise the issue with the other people at the table. Talking about how you can improve the game, and whether what you think will work will work for everybody else. You might even find that the reason you're not having fun is that what you want out of the game is completely different to the other players, but at least you know.

In the end, roleplaying is a social activity. If you don't talk about game dynamic outside of play, the actual play will be less fun.