Saturday, January 4, 2014

Review of Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicles

As I've stated elsewhere, my true love among the role-playing games is Vampire: The Requiem. The game was originally published back in 2004 and hasn't gotten a new edition since then. Compare this to Vampire: The Masquerade, the original vampire rpg that started the successful World of Darkness line back in 1991. Within 7 years the game went from its original edition through a 2nd Edition and on to a revised Edition in 1998. Of course, Vampire: The Requiem seems to have a much more solid game design as opposed to the original Masquerade game, but during its 9 years of existence, sourcebooks added a lot of ideas to the basic game, while subtley shifting the tone of the game in the past years. Also, fans always felt that Vampire: The Requiem suffered a bit from being the first new game published after the rules shift and thus was sticking rather closely to concepts from Masquerade. In later games and supplements the designers figured out a lot of things that could be done with the new rules mechanics that is absent from Requiem.

As of December 2013, Vampire: The Requiem has gotten a new edition called Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicles. Compared to the differences between the editions of Masquerade, the rules shift between Vampire: The Requiem and Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicles is remarkably deep. The game was in open development for over a year. As opposed to Vampire: The Requiem, Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicles is completely stand-alone and you don't really need another rulebook to play.

The review is based on the electronic edition of the book, as there is currently (as of beginning of January 2014) no print edition available. The PDF contains 311 pages that load mostly quickly with GoodReader on an iPad mini. Only the pages of the story which are graphics-heavy take a little longer to load.

I am going to do a chapter by chapter review of the content and will give an overall summary at the end. So fasten your seat-belts this is going to be a long ride.

Table of Content & Introduction

Compared to the sparse table of content I am used to from vampire rpg books, this one rather talkative and three pages long. It contains chapter headers down to the third level which is really very detailed. But apparently this also serves as the substitute for an index that is not contained in the PDF currently. The headers are hyperlinked, making navigation from the TOC easy.

The introductory chapter is concise and to the point. It gives a run down of various myths about vampires and how they relate to the vampires in this game, gives a kick-ass intro what means to be Kindred (the word vampires use to designate themselves), explains the chapter breakdown of the book and gives you the shortest ever (at least in a storytelling game corebook) run down of the duties of the gamesmaster and the players. The chapter is rounded out by some inspirational sources from books to movies and White Wolf books.

My Impression: I would have prefered an index to a lengthier table of contents. The short chapter "An Introduction to Storytelling Games" is very deceptive. Because, as you'll see later, this is the only chapter directly adressing what a storyteller and the players actually do to play the game. Seems to be a bit inspired by the principles from Apocalypse World/Dungeon World, but here I could be wrong. By putting this into the introduction, the designers make it easy to miss this vital stuff.

Chapter 1: Who We Are Tonight

Continuing with the concise writing, this chapter introduces us to the clans and covenants of Requiem. There are five clans: Daeva (seductive vampires), Gangrel (feral vampires), Mekhet (secretive vampires), Nosferatu (hideous vampires) and Ventrue (lordly vampires). Each vampire belongs to one of the five clans depending on the blood of his or her maker. Each clan entry describes the members of the clan, tells the reader why he wants to play them, why others fear them and what they should fear about themselves. Then each clan is given a section of various possible clan origins, advice on building a character from that clan and how members of that clan relate to the covenant. The clan spreads run three pages each, which is a nice change from the two-page spread used to very often in the storytelling games.

The five covenants get a similar three-page spread that tells the reader about the covenants, the secret societes the vampires belong to. The five covenants are: Circle of Crone (pagan vampires), Carthian Movement (revolutionary vampires), Invictus (noble vampires), Lancea et Sanctum (Roman-catholic vampires turned-up to 11) and the Ordo Dracul (vampiric researchers). Each covenants gets a short first-person intro, tells the reader why to join a particular covenant, their place in the big picture of vampire society, some character concepts, how the covenant behaves when it is in power and how if it is not.

Additionally, the chapter shortly describes lost clans and broken covenants, thus hinting at an evolution of the vampiric species. Also, the mysterious covenant VII is described, a covenant that seems to target other vampires for execution and might be allied with or a tool of the Strix.

My Impression: Very neat. Since Vampire: The Requiem the interpretation of the clans and covenants has shifted a bit, especially with the clanbook series. The new descriptions are based in that material. The text paints a vivid picture of the different clans and covenants, and actually makes you want to play them all. The writing really shines. The chapter contains no rules systems. For old Requiem fans, the chapter finally gives the correct Latin name Lancea et Sanctum to that covenant. This easily the best chapter of the book.

Chapter 2: The All Night Society

This chapter explains the wants and needs of being a vampire, why cities are important for them and what a vampire can do in a city. Also, the structure of vampiric society is explained and how they rank themselves within that society. Some in-game documents serve to further illustrate the points made in this chapter. A short glossary of in-game terms rounds out the chapter and hints at some things not explained in the first chapters.

My Impression: Again excellent writing, no rules. The chapter isn't as brief as my summary makes it appear. It is very informative and can be a source of inspiration for the players.

Chapter 3: Laws of the Dead

This is a big chapter and contains a lot of rules. Basically, it explains how vampires operate in the terms of the rules. If you've read Vampire: The Requiem, then you'll find lots of small and large differences in the rules here.

The chapter starts out with character creation. Basically a system where you distribute a set number of points in different categories like attributes, skills, merits and disciplines. Then you calculate some derived values, and you are ready to go. Your first character will probably take a bit longer to construct, but with growing familiarity the time will shrink to about half an hour, if you have a clear concept of who you want to be.

The rest of the chapter then goes on to explain what the vampire-related traits mean and how to use them in game play. The things a vampire can do are broken down into rules terms and the curses (fire & sunlight) and their effect is explained. You learn how a vampire slowly loses his humanity and how to prevent that from happening. 

Then merits are explained and their game effects given. A merit is something extra that character has, like a stunt in Fate or a feat in OGL games. Some merits can be taken by anyone, some only by vampires belonging to certain clans and covenants. Invictus oaths of fealty and Carthian Law, a sort of "will of the people" are codified as merits for members of those covenants.

Then the special powers called disciplines that each clan of vampires possesses are described. There are ten disciplines: Animalism (influencing beasts and sometimes men), Auspex (extra-sensory perception), Celerity (supernatural speed), Dominate (commanding men with your voice), Majesty (seductive powers), Nightmare (creating terror), Obfuscate (incredible stealth), Protean (shape-shifting), Resilience (supernatural toughness) and Vigor (supernatural strength). Each discipline contains five powers that have to be learned in the correct order from one to five.

After the disciplines, devotions are described. Devotions require knowledge about certain discipline levels before they can be studied and used.

The chapter is rounded out by the description blood sorcery, strange powers wielded by the Circle of the Crone and the Lancea et Sanctum. Where CrĂșac of the Circle of the Crone concerns itself with bloody sacrifice and bestial powers, the Theban Sorcery of the Lancea et Sanctum takes the form of dark miracles inspired by the Old Testament. Finally, the Ordo Dracul gains so called Coils & Scales that allow its members to transcend parts of the vampiric curse.

My Impression: This chapter is the most important for actual game play and I feel it's a mixed bag, especially when compared with the original corebook. The vampire-only merits is an area where the book shines. Some we have seen before in other books like the Invictus and Carthian Movement covenant books. They have been updated to the current rules and in some cases lost their covenant-specific tie. All in all, it really upgrades Requiem. Including Invictus oaths and Carthian Law (originally from the respective covenant books) in the corebook significantly serves to make those two covenants equal to the other three. All in all, the merit section is a good one, because it gives some long existing merits like Mentor, Allies and Retainers defined rules benefits that they were often lacking. That's a good thing.

Also, the disciplines are changed from the original corebook. Back then they often were a direct translation of the old Masquerade disciplines of the same name to Requiem. Now, they still carry the same names, but their powers have been upgraded and changed. Some rarely used levels of the disciplines were turned into devotions and replaced with more immediately useful stuff. Though I feel that Nightmare has become a weaker discipline with less mechanical bite than the previous version. Most of the other disciplines now have more mechanical weight. Protean has changed nicely and will allow me to finally accurately portray my favorite Gangrel character.

The selection of devotions is also larger than in the original book. Also a good thing. Some might be of questionable usefulness, but you don't have to buy them, if you don't want to.

On to Blood Sorcery: The casting mechanism has improved. Each roll now takes 30 minutes instead of a combat turn. Using sorcery on a target at range induced or enhances a connection between the caster and the victim. Good changes. 

The rituals given for blood sorcery are the same ones from the original book, but they were build with the blood sorcery system introduced in supplement Blood Sorcery. Thus, the levels of the rituals have changed and leave CrĂșac without a level 5 ritual in the corebook. Bad changes.

Up until now, the Requiem line has followed the principle that each book is stand-alone and doesn't require any other books to use a particular supplement. So, except for the corebook, the Storyteller can pick and choose which supplements to add to his or her game. Now, Blood & Smoke replaces the original corebook, but seems to require Blood Sorcery to make full use of blood sorcery. But that supplement already failed to adress the rituals from the old Lancea Sanctum and Circle of the Crone covenant books. All in all not played nicely by the designers.

I am also not sure about the new Coils of the Dragon. The system was changed substantially and I am not sure that this will pay off. It basically invalidates the stuff in the Ordo Dracul covenant book (not only the additional coils published but also the cypher names). Some of the original powers are gone completely, others are extended over five instead of three levels. Not sure, if this is really an improvement or was simply done for the sake of changing it. I didn't follow the playtest on them too closely.

Chapter 4: Rules of the Night

Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicles is an updated version of Vampire: The Requiem. There is also an update version of the basic World of Darkness rulebook called God Machine Chronicles. The God Machine Chronicles aren't stand-alone. You still need the original book, because some basic stuff isn't explained in it. Late into the design process it was decided that Blood & Smoke should stand on its own. Otherwise, it'd have ended up requiring three books to play: Blood & Smoke, World of Darkness and God Machine Chronicles. Chapter 4 is the reason why Blood & Smoke can stand on its own. It contains a condensed version of all the necessary rules from the other two books.

The chapter explains each attribute, each skill, how to roll dice, how to resolve social and physical conflicts, and how conditions work. Combat has had some minor changes how defense is calculated and damage is applied. Social maneuvering is a completely new mechanic first introduced in GMC and works by slowly opening "doors" over time to reflect how to bring around a person to your point of view or having him do favors for you. Conditions are a way to express lasting consequences of an action that go beyond damage. Also, equipment and services are expressed in game terms.

My Impression: Whew. This is a tough one. None of the changes would have really been necessary. The social maneuvering mechanic takes a lot of in-game time play out and probably requires some book-keeping. For my own group this mechanic will probably even fail, since we mostly play 2-3 nights per game session and then fast forward about a month. Also, I think that the toolbox Danse Macabre offered a way to resolve social conflicts much more suited to the Kindred condition.

Chapter 5: Parliament of Owls

This chapter explains the primary antagonists for the Strix Chronicles: the birds of Dis. The shadowy owls that serve to make Kindred even more paranoid. They get an introduction, very cool rules and almost 20 ready-to-run Strix to insert into your chronicle. I won't go into much depth here, because I don't want to spoil anything. Let's just say: the owls are a mysterious force from beyond this world and increase in power analogous to vampires... oh, and they possess bodies. They especially like dead bodies preserved unto eternity - like a vampire's.

My impression: A good update of the Strix. Now you can choose between the ones in Requiem for Rome, Night Horrors: The Wicked Dead and Blood & Smoke. I think Blood & Smoke offers the best implementation of the Strix. Including pregenerated Strix with their agendas is also a good move. All in all a solid chapter.

Chapter 6: The World We Die In

The chapter presents eight mini-settings around the world. Short write-ups of cities that serve as vampire domains. The settings are Athens, Berlin, Swansea, Montreal, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, San Francisco, Beijing and Tokyo. All are given around three to five pages and tell the reader what the vampire society in those cities look like. Not all follow the traditional model of five clans and five covenants. Some have an additional clan or a different covenant structure. Some have princes, some don't. 

My impression: It is very much a show don't tell chapter that can serve as inspiration for building your own cities. This is a chapter I feel earlier corebooks for vampire rpgs should have included. The cities are very interesting. I am going to call out eerie Montreal, the working-class Swansea and the religious fervor of San Francisco. But all the mini settings are good.

Chapter 7: Storytelling

This is a completely new way to do a Storytelling chapter. This chapter doesn't tell you how to tell stories. That's what the short paragraph in the introductory chapter does. It tells you instead how to take the various aspects of the game and use them to shape the gaming experience. Not the story, but the experience of the game. Also, it offers alternate systems and twists much like Danse Macabre did. The real gem of the chapter is tucked away at the end. It is called "Climbing the Ladder" and at first glance seems to be a system for gaining pre-game experiences for a character. But in reality it is about collaborative city building. Take any of the mini-settings from chapter 6 as a basis and go through the steps of climbing the ladder. You'll end up with interconnected player characters and non-player character, both mortal and vampire.

My Impression: A strangely different storytelling chapter, but it really enhances the game. And honestly, for those of us who've read other storytelling chapters: they always re-hashed the same stuff. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but essentially nothing new. Chapter 7 is different. In a good way. It is also one of the chapters I consider to be excellent. And again the designers to manage to hide the awesome instead of calling it out. Somebody on that design team is too modest.

The Appendices

We finally made it. Only two appendices left. One is about mortal characters and more specifically ghouls, the other lists more than 40 conditions. The ghoul chapter gives in-game accounts of ghouls, the blood-addicted servants of the Kindred. The get their own merits and are examined in good detail.

My Impression: The appendix on ghouls is great and does a lot to shine the spotlight on an important part of the Kindred existence: their daywalking servants, and hands you the tools of turning them into fully fleshed-out characters instead of just dots on the character sheet.

My biggest beef with the rules update are the conditions. Conditions suffer from their implementation. The intent to express lasting consequences of the story is a good idea, but the execution is terrible. The book lists over 40 conditions! Some cannot be easily resolved and stay with the character, some go away on their own, others need a specific action to resolve them. Some give beats (part of the new experience system: five beats equal one experience), some don't. Some give a +2 or -2 modifier to your dice pool, some cause an exceptional success to happen with three instead of five successes on your roll. Some of the mental disciplines like Majesty and Dominate grant conditions, while Nightmare doesn't. There is no rhyme nor reason to them. In short, it's a big poorly thought-out mess. Currently, you are left with over 40 different conditions that you constantly need to look up or have a reference handy for. In GMC there are over 20 conditions. Blood & Smoke added another 20. If the trend continues, we will be left with close to 200 conditions when all the new chronicle books are finished, unless someone goes back and tightens the design on the conditions. It feels as if the designers have tried to tack on mechanisms from narrative games either without fully understanding what they are doing or how to do a consistent game design. Conditions are good idea that could have used lot more unification in the mechanism.

Overall Impression

You're still with me? This review has gotten a lot longer than I thought. The book really shines brilliantly in some places (Who We Are Tonight, The All Night Society, The World We Die In and Storytelling). It is of above average quality in others (Parliament of Owls, The Living Appendix), is sometimes solidly written (Laws of the Dead, Rules of the Night) and utterly sucks in one place (Conditions). 

Also, for a vampire corebook I am missing Tim Bradstreet. They brought him on V20 and Vampire: The Requiem, but not here. Huge disappointment. Also, the original illustrations for the clan splats in Vampire: The Requiem by Brom looked way cooler than the colored ones you are getting with Blood & Smoke. All in all, the artwork is solid but not spectacular.

Edit: Another important issue with a book called Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicles. The book gives you Strix, settings, a way to populate the settings, but it doesn't give you a chronicle. You have to do that yourself. "Play to find out", to quote Dungeon World. Maybe some chronicle ideas like in Danse Macabre would have been  a nice addition.

My final verdict is three out of five blood bags. Usually I'd give the book four blood bags, but I am deducting one for Conditions. Major goof-up in my opinion.