The Trouble with Transylvania

Some thoughts on the epic Vampire chronicle.

(warning spoilers may follow for White Wolf’s Transylvania Chronicls)

I bought Transylvania chronicles as it came out. A book at a time. For those of you not familiar with it, Transylvania chronicles is one of White Wolf’s epic chronicles. Eight centuries worth of vampire scenario, published over four books. When it first came out I was bullish about the series, after all, the people who worked on it were responsible for Vampire: Darkages, my then favourite game. I waited until I had all the supplements to run the game, so I could work in as much of the overarching story as possible.

I ran the game for nigh on two years, most Thursday nights. I had players who I trusted, with character concepts which I liked, and which had lots of potential for development. Yet somehow the end of the game has left a somewhat stale taste in my mouth. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy running it, most of the time I did. It’s more the level of effort I had to put in to make it enjoyable. These are published scenarios, I paid good money for them (some forty quid in all). Yet a good portion of my time was spent rewriting the material, often to take into account basic player psychology and weird plot elements that the authors seemed to believe were insurmountable, but which could be solved with the simple appliance of a basic discipline.

I think the most annoying thing about TVC is the shear mix of quality. The plot arc is good, it has that ancients manipulating events shtick that is a Vampire staple. This part of the story works well, and the characters slowly get to discover some of the biggest secrets in the World of Darkness. The introductory sections too, are remarkably well thought out, giving nice précis of the historic changes over the time period involved and a strong idea of the themes for each piece.

The problem is with the individual chapters. Each book has three of these, and they seem to follow a standard format of okay story, good story, appalling story. Part of the problem with the appalling stories is the vast amount of railroading and deprotagonisation (i.e. the players are not the main cast). A good many of the stories are linear, leaving no room for clever thinking. Now that I can forgive if the story has an interesting moral problem or a good twist, or if the illusion of control is maintained. But once again we get the standard white wolf plot device of “If your players fail to go left, there is a large group of elders with sticks who beat them around the head until they do.” Not only this, but the linear nature of the stories is often solely there so that some signature character (White Wolf’s favourite NPCs) can turn up and do all the interesting bits, whoopy doo, why are my players here again? I’ve played in dungeon bashes with more character control of plot.

That’s not to say there aren’t good scenarios. The second book, Son of the Dragon, has the elegant Convention of Thorns section, where players are given free reign to influence major events in Cainite history. It’s very freeform and can be tailored to your individual PCs desires to change history in their favour. It’s the grand scale politicking that make vampire such a Machiavellian setting. It’s a shame then that the other stories in the book are both, characters turn up, Dracula does something cool, PCs watch. The third book, Ill Omens, contains a wonderful moral dilemma piece. The PCs have given shelter to the last Capadocian during the Giovanni purge, and must choose whether to aid her or sell her to the highest bidder. They must choose political favours in the world of the damned, or their own humanity. This is a story that shows the themes that Vampire should make central, but which are all too often marginalised.

In the end, the biggest success of Transylvania chronicles has been in convincing me that books of scenarios just aren’t for me, and for cementing my ideas on what a good roleplaying scenario should contain: A good hook, a moral dilemma, a conflict players and characters care about, and player characters firmly in the limelight. So maybe it was worth the 40 quid after all.

Review : Blood Magic : Secrets of Thaumaturgy

A guide to the more mystical vampire disciplines, for Vampire: The Masquerade.

By White Wolf, £12.99/$19.95, $9.98 PDF

Oh look, the magic users manual…

It could so easily have been just that, the White-Wolf guide to spellcasters, a book of spells for munchkins to trot out everytime they want to play a maxed out Tremere character. Fortunately, though this book falls into a few traps, it is still a worthwhile read. It’s going to be of most use to the Storyteller, as a lot of the information and disciplines in here are better used sparingly. Fortunately most of the new powers here aren’t so much grotesquely powerful, as different and interesting.

The book starts with a good deal of information about the history of Thaumaturgy, who used it first, who made key discoveries, and why the Tremere dominate the art. Lots of nice background reading that helps fill out the World of Darkness. There’s also a chapter detailing how the Tremere look at magic, and how they use this information to their advantage when creating new paths and rituals. This is nicely detailed, and helps visualise the Tremere’s attitude to magic a bit better than before. The concepts of Identity, sympathy, contagation and inherency, help to flesh out thaumaturgy from the ” point and go bang!” discipline to something a bit more cerebral. They also allow you to flesh out any in character training a Tremere character might do, and help guide you with regards to dealing with thaumaturgical research. The sections of Tremere apprenticeships is nice enough, but should have been left for Clanbook Tremere, I felt.

The book has a huge amount of new powers, as well as revised versions of older paths from Vampire 2nd Ed and Darkages. Most are well thought out, and aren’t actually any more powerful than existing paths, they just do different things. Biothaumaturgy is an arcane blend of science and genetics. Alchemy allows the creation of platonic ideals of elements, the hearth path is for defending a haven, Oneiromancy deals with dreams, and is significantly different from the old path of morpheus, having a more prophetic outlook. Some of the more obscure paths like path of the Bloods Curse (which plays on vampires inherent weaknesses), offer real possibilities for NPC villains, but could be game breaking in the hands of a munchkin. Most revolve around a consistent theme and have nicely thought out powers.

There’s a huge lot of rituals here as well, ranging form the sublime to the pointless and every point in between. Many have previously appeared in other books, some are new, most have nice concepts. Some, like the level 8, Blade of the Forbidden Flower (which creates a magic sword using the soul of a vampire), seem slightly out of place. Some are superfluous, being already covered by other powers (notably many psychic ones, which already have comparable powers in Auspex). They also include optional rules for learning rituals, which anybody involved in a long term chronicle will be thankful of. There are also suggestions for how to characters can create their own rituals, and how to balance this.

The most interesting part of the book looks at other forms of kindred magic. This section deals with Giovanni Necromancy, Voodoo, Assamite viziers, Setite sorcery and, my favourite, Tzimisce Koldumic Sorcery. These had been hinted at in previous books, but now get a complete run down. The Giovanni get a brief section with some new rituals, all of which seem particularly pointless. The samedi and Voodoo get a nice piece of background. The Setite and Assamite sorceries stand out from the crowd as being, well thought out noticeably different variants on Thaumaturgy, which work well with the respective clans themes. Koldunic sorcery finally gets explained properly, the paths are mostly well thought out, being far more elemental than Tremere magic. The spirit ways suffer from being too dull and the fire ways suffer from being cool, but a tad ridiculous (summoning magma is a nice twist, I’m just not sure it’s a good idea…….). It also suffers from a lack of rituals.

Overall: All in all, if you are a fan of Thaumaturgy as a discipline, then you’ll enjoy this book. It gives you a good background overview and many new powers to play with. If you dislike the inherent power of Thaumaturgy, when compared to other disciplines, you may find it slightly annoying.

Review : Exalted

by White Wolf, $14.98 PDF
White Wolf made their name with Vampire and its various offshoots. They are best known for their angst ridden World of Darkness and its protagonists. Last year they tried something new, a fantasy game. Now, there are a great deal of fantasy games out there, most of which are D&D with the serial numbers filed off. A new fantasy game has to find a different angle, and fortunately White Wolf were well aware of this, and have made Exalted’s focus a bit different to the normal Elves and Goblins template.

Exalted is a rather nice looking hard bound book, 350 pages in all. The first thing you’ll notice about it is the Manga style illustrations. These are obviously not going to be to everybody’s tastes, but they do give the game a distinct look and feel. Above all they give a feeling of consistency, something I’ve often found missing in White Wolf’s mix of illustrators. The layout is clear overall, there are a few typo’s and glitches (a number of miswritten passages for example), but there is an errata available for all of these. There’s a nice map of the setting on the inside cover, though this lacks a scale.

Exalted’s setting is could be described as a fusion of a manga animation, Michael Morecock’s young Kingdoms, a wuxia action movie and the World of Darkness. This is a game where mystic martial arts make for epic fights where characters can jump buildings, and wield improbably sized weapons to defeat hundreds of foes. An age of decadent empires and mysterious sorcerers, where a heroes can stride the world like gods. I like it quite a bit, as you can probably tell.

The book starts with a potted introduction to the setting, along with how to use the book and a Lexicon (A useful thing in any setting heavy game). It also gives a list of suggested reading and watching for inspiration. The introduction is great, as it sets the book up really well, and is ideal for giving to any prospective player.

The first proper chapter deals with the setting in more detail. It tells us what the Exalted are (humans gifted with powers greater than the norm, created at the dawn of time by the gods), and of the various different kinds. Solars used to rule the world, until their pride got the better of them and their servants, the Terrestrial Exalted, rose up and defeated them. The Sidereal were the advisors to the Solars, and were largely responsible for setting in motion that revolt, but have since hid themselves from view. Lunar exalted are shapechangers who left in disgust when the Solars were defeated, and now live on the edge of creation. Terrestrial Exalted are also known as the Dragon blooded, they took control when the Solars were defeated, and now rule the worlds largest empire. There are extensive details on this Empire, and the area around it detailed here too, as well as substantial information on the city of Nexus. Nexus is a good starting point for scenarios, as it is a free city with an “ask no questions” policy. Player characters are expected to be Solar Exalted, now hated and shunned by the world at large, and subject to an age old Pogrom by the Dragon blooded.

Chapter two details the game system. Exalted uses a streamlined version of White Wolf’s Storyteller System (similar to the one from the Trinity series of games). You have some attributes (three each for physical, Social and Mental) and abilities (divided up by Caste, five for each) rated from 1 to 5. To attempt an action, the player rolls a number of dice equal to his character’s attribute+ability, anything which is a seven or more is a success. The more successes, the better your result. If you roll a ten it’s counted as two successes. If you roll no successes and any ones, you botch. More difficult actions require more successes. This gets rid of the old Storyteller problem of duplication by having both difficulty and level of success modelled separately. Other useful additions are stunts, which give you extra dice for describing particularly cinematic actions, and automatic success for any action where your dicepool exceeds 7. As normal willpower can be spent for automatic successes. Overall the changes make for a much faster and more cinematic system in play (especially in combat, but more on that later).

After our rules rundown, we’re given an overview of character creation. The chapter steps nicely through the process, with boxouts giving useful advice and other options. Only Solar Exalted are given rules in the basic game (though supplements will expand this). Only basic descriptions of each step are given, and explanation of most of the traits/skills/etc is left ’til the next chapter. The chapter rounds up with an example of character creation. As character creation sections go, it covers all bases from concept to execution. You can pretty much play any fantasy style concept, though you have to choose a Caste. Your character’s Caste defines the five core skills which are easier to learn, but you can also choose 5 skills freely as favoured skills that work in a similar way.

The traits used in character creation are described in chapter four (new players will find themselves flipping forward to it while reading the previous chapter, which I can see as being a problem). First off is a list of “Natures”, the core of a characters attitude, and central to regaining willpower. These are nice broad Archetypes which can help focus the mind on the type of character you are playing, and how he operates. Next the five castes of Solar Exalted are detailed, giving general background and inclination of each group, as well as a nice “view from outside”. We have Dawn Caste (warriors), Zenith Caste (priests), Twilight Caste (scholars), Night Caste (Rogues) and Eclipse Caste (Diplomats). The castes are less prescriptive than character classes, but still give that nagging feeling of niche separation.

This chapter also gives a description of virtues, a nice way of modeling what your character cares about and believes in. Each character must also choose a flaw related to his highest virtue, and samples of these are also given. Virtue flaws are ticking timebombs of emotional energy. If these build to breaking point, the character snaps and will have to suffer the effects of his flaw for a scene. For example, a compassionate character might gain limit break for seeing people suffer through no fault of their own, when his flaw is activated he’ll throw himself into intervening. There are a variety of flaws for each of the major virtues (Compassion, Temperance, Valor and Conviction), and these add a solid emotional core to the characters.

The chapter also discusses Attributes, Abilities and Backgrounds (things your character has access to, like allies, backing, resources, followers etc). One nice note about this section is that WW have finally avoided repeating how talented each level of an ability makes you, for every ability. We also get discussion of Willpower (mental strength) and Essence (mystical strength), both of which have a base value and a temporary value which can be spent to power mystical abilities. Essence is divided into personal, which you get a little of, and peripheral, which you get more of. Personal essence can be spent with impunity, spend too much peripheral essence and you light up like a solar flare. Not a good thing when your character is likely to be hunted if anybody finds out they’re a Solar Exalted.

Charms, which are an Exalted’s mystical abilities, are described in chapter five. There are loads here, each a mystical enhancement to a particular skill with an evocative sounding name. Each set of charms is divided into paths, from basic abilities to amazing powers. These are a lot like the martial arts paths in Feng Shui, and help give the game it’s very oriental theme. Most are wonderfully thought out, and provide a good dose of setting colour and game mechanic oomph for the PCs. What’s nice is that every skill has a selection of powers attached to it, not just the combat ones, as is the case with some games. Want your character to cause a bureaucracy to fail just by your will, you need “foul air of argument technique”, want to get rid of a mob, your need “unruly mob dispersing rebuke”. All of these powers can make Exalted pretty powerful, but the essence of the game is to run with it, and enjoy being truly epic characters in a cinematic setting. If you don’t enjoy PCs having an awesome amount of power, then this definitely isn’t a game for you. A slight problem with these is that in your first few games you’ll need to reference the charms section a lot, and this can put a strain on the pages.

Chapter six deals with drama, and is a more detailed look at the rules. Here we get given a rundown of combat, which has again been streamlined from the normal storyteller system, mainly by making rolling damage less involved. There are also rules for Extras, faceless goons whose soul role in the story is to turn up and get beaten easily by the characters. Exalted can take on multiple Extras without much difficulty, which again adds to the cinematic and epic feel of the game. The chapter also covers what you’re likely to need to roll for certain actions, common uses of skills and other miscellania like environmental damage.

Storytelling is the next topic up for discussion, and this chapter gives a nice broad overview of the responsibility of the Storyteller (Gamesmaster), such as preparation, tricks to make the game feel cinematic, how to arbitrate stunts, and other general advice. The only downside with this chapter is it’s length, at only eleven pages, there isn’t much in-depth coverage. For a game that claims to be a storytelling game, this is a real shame.

Chapter eight details all sort of antagonists for your characters to meet, with stats advice for each and general and specific example of each. We get details on each of the other kinds of Exalted, enough to stat them effectively in the existing system. There’s also information on a variety of beasts and monsters, spirits, fae, elementals and undead. Oh, and a variety of diseases likely to show up in the world.

The final chapter covers equipment, weapons, mystic items and other resources. Buying equipment is handled nicely thorough the resources background. Weapons are as excessive and epic as the rest of the system, and starting characters can get hold of some very powerful weaponry, each with some wonderful setting flavour attached.

Overall: Exalted is a lovely setting, with a nicely streamlined version of the White Wolf system. The mechanics really evoke the subject matter and help encourage a style of play which fits the genre. If you’re not keen on White Wolf’s normal fayre, you will probably be very surprised by it. If you’re looking for a different angle on fantasy roleplaying, then it has that too. The manga stylings and powerful characters may not be to everybody’s taste. If you want your games to be epic from the start (rather than eventually), then it’s well worth checking out.

Review : Sins of the Blood

A book of heresies for vampire: The Masquerade.

By Angel McCoy, Matthew McFarland, Joshua Mosqueira-Asheim, Aaron Rosenberg and Lucien Soulban, White Wolf

Sins of the Blood is a book about the heresies of the vampires. It’s about the outsiders who breach Sabbat and Camarillas taboos. It details ideas on Golconda, Wassail, diablerie, obscure paths of enlightenment, infernalism and cults of personality.

The first chapter is concerned with sins of morality. It’s narrated in character, with box outs detailing rules. I’m not a fan of putting too much information into in character monologues, but in this case it works quite well, though the text does jump in a few places. The chapter covers paths as they are followed in both Camarilla and Sabbat, as well as the more obscure paths of Harmony, Scorched Heart and Self Focus (all revised to be more serious than before). Perhaps the best part of this chapter is the details on Wights, vampires who have reached 0 humanity and succumbed to the beast. Putting a nice spin on this the author gives us vampires who act on a purely animal level and congregate in bestial packs, occasionally acting according to half remembered memories. This chapter also covers Golconda, territory which has been visited before, and in a more intriguing way. This book returns Golconda to a humanity only path, something which I’m not entirely happy with.

Chapter two is sins of society, and covers Autarkis, Anarchs, switching sects and Diablerie. The Autarkis section is good, defining them more clearly than previously, giving a good deal of insight into how they fit in to the grand scheme (or don’t as is more often the case). The anarch section is forgettable, and to be honest I wonder why they put it in when the Guide to the Anarchs is not far off. The section on switching sects covers the pitfalls and advantages of doing so in a readable way, though it does occasionally fall into the trap of describing things which are obvious. The Diablerie section does a good job of blurring the “Sabbat love diablerie, the Camarilla hates it” myth.

Chapter three covers sins of discretion, and is wonderful. It covers cults, who forms them, how they control their members and what they use them for. The best thing is it goes into specifics, rather than waffling on about generalities. Again there’s that annoying tendency to flip between a character monologue and factual information, but the amount of useful ideas make this a minor problem. There’s some good stuff in here, and the author seems to have actually bothered to do some research on cults, which helps a great deal.

The next chapter covers sins of power, which means it details dark and normal thuamaturgy. This is a more rules heavy chapter, but this is not a bad thing, as the rules help reinforce the setting quite well. The addition of prices for each of the dark thaumaturgy paths is a nice touch, and will make players think twice before acquiring them. There are also some taboo rituals (including nectar of the bitter rose), and finally some decent rituals for Koldunic sorcery (about time too). The chapter is rounded off with some Assamite sorcery and a few good supernatural merits and flaws.

Finally, we get an appendix of heretical groups. Each with their own background and plot hooks, and they vary greatly. Most can be easily transplanted into your chronicle should you need a quick plot idea.

Overall: Sins of the Blood is superior to many of the themed books White Wolf have released for Vampire of late, but still suffers from many of the same flaws. If you intend to make use of the setting elements presented in the book, then it is definitely worth a look.

Review : Clanbook Assamite, Revised

A wonderful reworking of a Vampire clan for the new edition.

By Clayton Oliver, White Wolf, £8.99

There was a problem with the Assamite clan, and the problem was cliche. From the very begining they were defined as the assasins of the vampire world. They were one dimensional killers, capable of nothing more than turning up to kill people, worse than that, they conformed to the worst of the wests stereotypical views of the Islamic world. The original clanbook did little to change this, promoting an “us against them” ideology and falling into the “our antediluvians bigger than yours” trap, some of the ideas were good, but they still made it impossible to play an Assamite as part of a normal coterie. Fortunately the excellent Libellus Sanguinius 3 came to our rescue, providing a much more interesting view on the clan, and managing to completely turn the clan around, while still enabling the clans stereotype to exist. The same author has now produced the revised clanbook, and I’d be tempted to say it’s the best release for vampire since 3rd Ed arrived.

So what do you get for your money? Well, it’s a nice sized book, with plenty of quality illustrations, which give a nice feel for the clans apearance and history. The book is written from the point of view of the Assamites who have feld to the Camarilla (see below), but manages to not be too cloyingly in-character. The book is well layed out, and the writing style is very readable, without the annoying changes of narrator that jarred other recent clanbooks (Lasombra springs to mind).

The first section describes the Assamites’ history from the first city ’til the modern nights. It’s a storming chapter, covering how the clans three castes (warrior, sorceror and visier) came into being, and how their interactions have shaped the clan. One of the best bits about this is it really gave a feeling of how the internal politics of the clan works, giving every current event a solid grounding in the past. The chapter also geals with how the warrior caste came to be seen as the only Assamites by outsiders. Nice touches include how the assamite “Judges”, as the warriors were originally known, became addicted to diablerie (it was a punishment in the second city). It also touches on the Assamites activities in Europe before the anarch revolt, as well as their founders various appearances down the centuries.

The next chapter deals with the way the clan works and functions. It describes the three castes in more detail, giving a splat for each, along with an expanded weakness and a section on ways to roleplay them. In addition we get a detailed rundown of the current political climate in the clan. To give a brief explanation, the methuselah Ur-Shulgi, woke up and started to reshape the clan as he feels Haqim would want it. Unfortunately he demands that every assamite worship Haqim, which immedietly set him at odds with the large number of Muslim Assamites. The clan then split into two factions, the schismatics who fled into the Camarilla under the guidance of Al Ashrad and Tegyrius, and the loyalists under Ur Shulgi. As well as details of these factions, we get various other groups within the clan, the Web of Knives, Leopards of Zion, the 1000 meter club, all of which have extensive roleplaying notes. We are also given details on the organisation of the castes before the schism, with some interesting characters mentioned in passing to inspire plot ideas.

The discipline powers detailed in the book mainly focus on extending Quietus, as well as a new assamite sorcery path and a few powers for other disciplines. The quietus powers are mainly well thought out extensions of the discipline. Selective silence is a wonderful little power for choosing who can speak and who can’t. Some of the powers deal with effecting the blood of mortals who the assamite has fed off, and these are also particularly original. Of course we also get more combat powers, including a blood poison so corrosive it melts weapons. The chapter is rounded off with some flaws, one of which is particularly nasty, in that you still suffer from the Tremere curse, but thirst for kindred blood too. All in all, a good solid chapter.

The next chapter details the famous Assamites, most of which are memorable and spark plot ideas, which is largely their point. Tegyrius, was particularly interesting, being an ancient scholar of law, especially the note that he may be vying to become the first Assamite justicar. Last of all we get templates, better than average, but still just templates.

Overall: This book is great, well thought out background, quality powers, a complete reworking of the clan into a usable and inspiring group. In fact, I think this book has put the Assamites in line for my favourite clan, and I can’t really give a better compliment than that.