Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: The God-Machine Chronicle (and others)

Back in the dim and distant days of 2004, White Wolf Publishing rebooted its famous World of Darkness line to wipe away thirteen years of metaplot and create something more accessible for fans.  To set the mood, the opening chapters feature fiction in the form of "found documents," the sorts of papers PCs might find while investigating a nWoD mystery.  One of the stories is a piece called "Voice of the Angel."  (For those without access to the books, that link gives the DriveThruRPG sample of the God-Machine Chronicle anthology.)

"Voice of the Angel" details the testament of the fictitious Marco Singe, "the Pain Prophet of New Delhi," who received a revelation from an angel about the truth of the world.  The angel indicated that the world was the creation and engine of some "god-machine" and that the greatest of its angels were exiled and cursed humanity with their various flaws.  (The angel who granted humanity its mortality was entombed on the Moon, but the body was eventually found and recovered by Apollo astronauts.)

This story was not meant to reveal the truth about the World of Darkness — it was merely the rantings of a diseased brain, or an allegorical tale of true things, or possibly nothing at all.  During the print run, various references to this "god-machine" appeared (the Promethean adventure "These Mortal Engines" features a piece of the God-Machine, and the Vampire: the Requiem book The Danse Macabre features a covenant of Kindred called Holy Engineers who serve the God-Machine — specifically the dead-but-dreaming Angel of Death on the Moon), but none of them were definitive; they were merely creepy things that might be true.

However, White Wolf (or Onyx Path Publishing, as it's now known) just released The God-Machine Chronicle, a setting and rules update as well as a companion fiction anthology designed to reveal the God-Machine and allow its use as a World of Darkness setting.  Given the materials released, this review will be in three parts:

  • God-Machine Chronicle will focus on the rules and setting update.
  • God-Machine Anthology will focus on the fiction anthology released to coincide with the new setting.
  • Demon: the Descent will focus on the new World of Darkness game line that appears to take place within the setting of the God-Machine Chronicle.
Interested parties might also want to check out Mordicai Knode's blurb on God-Machine over at tor.com.

God-Machine Chronicle

The God-Machine Chronicle takes the implied setting of "Voice of the Angel" and turns it into a campaign.  In keeping with the dark mystery and do-it-yourself nature of the new World of Darkness, this is more a chronicle toolkit designed to allow Storytellers to make a campaign with the God-Machine and its agents as an adversary (usually).  The God-Machine is not fully defined; it is apparent that it is powerful, and that it can be seen as a deity both because of its massive power and because it is the engine that keeps the world running smoothly.  (Several notes indicate that disrupting God-Machine operations can cause huge problems, possibly even ending the world if enough are undone.  Mankind's freedom would come at a terrible cost.)  The reason why the God-Machine is antagonistic is because it is inherently Lovecraftian — the God-Machine cannot be fully understood by mortal minds, and it does what is necessary.  If an entire city has to die to fuel the God-Machine's designs, then so be it.

As the God-Machine is not fully defined, the stories including the God-Machine are also loosely-defined.  Things are made to be modular so that STs can piece a campaign together using the various ideas presented in the book.  The first chapter gives a number of chronicles that can be run by stringing together the stories presented in Chapter 2; each chronicle will present a different spin on the God-Machine based how the stories progress.  Chapter 3 provides a host of NPCs, both mortal and not, to be used in God-Machine chronicles; some of them are referenced in the stories in Chapter 2, while others are not tied to any particular stories, instead being presented for general use.

The presented toolkits all take the weird mystery of the World of Darkness and reduce the fantasy, instead invoking many of the tropes of science-fiction.  Time travel, parallel universes, and robotic entities all have their place.  It should also be noted that these elements can be used in the "core" World of Darkness with minimal tweaking, simply by removing the God-Machine (or leaving it as a unique entity that only appears in that story) — I seriously want to place the diner from "Do-Over" in one of my games as an eldritch set piece, and the strange geographies of the urban landscape (no doubt influenced by the same headspace that brought us Unknown Armies' Otherspaces) make "Sister City," with its Other Seattle, another logical choice (no PC has discovered it, but my home game's Las Vegas has a weird Otherside to it called "Sin City").  Although the book is obviously meant as a chronicle toolkit, one could easily take the things and use them for a single adventure — maybe the God-Machine is all-pervasive, but only intersects with one campaign briefly, or maybe the God-Machine is making inroads into another universe (the latter is implied as a possibility multiple times in The God-Machine Chronicle).

After the introduction and the first three chapters comes the Appendix, the rules update.  This pushes the World of Darkness ruleset into story game territory, taking a lot of assorted bits from Mirrors and other sources to make a unified front.  The Merit system is retooled to reflect changes in the rule system over time.  Morality is replaced with Integrity — the resident karma meter becomes more subjective, and doesn't cause crippling derangements for transgressions.  Flaws and various fiddly rules give way to Conditions, character "tags" that provide temporary benefits and drawbacks.  Resolving a Condition is one of the major components of the experience system — instead of the old five-fold experience method per session (Did your character learn anything? Was your role-playing exceptional?), characters gain experience for completing their character goals and overcoming these Conditions.  (Kick your heroin addiction?  Get some XP.  Get blackmailed and acquiesce to the demands?  Get some XP.)  The Experience system has also been overhauled — experience points are fewer, but are worth more and tend to be directly correlated with character points for easier number-crunching.  There are also bits for social combat, new rules for combat, and similar alterations to try to present a more unified system culled from the various books in the game line.

Also worth noting is the fiction: the whole thing oozes atmosphere.  The short pieces between chapters are enigmatic, creepy, and betray the strange science-fiction-ness of the God-Machine, while the prologue ("Dissemination") shows what is likely a parallel universe where the God-Machine's designs trigger some manner of horrific global event.  Scattered throughout are also found documents detailing correspondence among several characters — these documents show the machinations of the God-Machine throughout the twentieth century, affecting the lives of several (at first, seemingly) disparate people.

Overall, I'm pleased with the book.  It inspired a bunch of chronicle ideas, which is easily the most complementary thing someone can say about such a work.  However, I'm actually not as impressed by the rules update.  It ends up being more crunchy in a lot of ways (keeping track of Conditions will likely be something of a chore), and the storygaming aspect feels a little forced.  That having been said, I'll likely use the new rules, just not for every game.

Also, the Onyx Path has reverted to White Wolf's old standard of large numbers of typos, so that's a thing for noting.

If you downloaded the free rules update and want to get more toolkit-type stuff to run the implied chronicle from "Voice of the Angel," you should absolutely get this book.  If you weren't as impressed by the rules and want a premade setting, you might want to pass on this book.  If you're a die-hard World of Darkness fan, you should absolutely get this book.  Which brings us to...

God-Machine Anthology

The God-Machine Chronicle also refers to an anthology of short horror fiction.  Several of the pieces appeared in previous books ("Voice of the Angel" is reprinted from the World of Darkness Rulebook, "Eggs" is reprinted from World of Darkness: Urban Legends, "Road Gospel" is reprinted from World of Darkness: Midnight Roads, and so forth), but thirteen of the twenty tales are new for this volume.

As with the rulebook, the fiction anthology gives a lot of mood and a lot of ideas but offers very few concrete ideas.  It confuses the issue; the God-Machine is not defined, although there is an obvious logic to its operations.

Most of the original fiction takes on a definite conspiracy tone.  "The King Is Dead" details the horrific secret of a small town; "Quality of Life" does the same, albeit with a more Stepford Wives vibe to the Twin Peaks feel of "The King Is Dead."  "Delivery Boy in Blue" and "Concession" both reveal something horribly wrong in the local police department (the same police department, in fact), while "Grind" follows two rednecks who stumble across the secret burden of a lone Task Force: VALKYRIE operative.  (It's also a strong story on which to end the anthology.)

Despite Onyx Path's obsession with typos, you should just read the damn thing; $5 gets you the thing in pdf, mobi, and epub.  This is also coming from someone who usually can't stand game fiction — it was tolerable when I was, maybe, ten years old, but the quality is usually unfortunate (a friend loaned me Predator & Prey #3: Werewolf for Hunter: the Reckoning once, saying that it was awesome; do yourself a favor and never read it).  This however, is good, creepy stuff.

Which brings us to...

Demon: the Descent

White Wolf should be releasing a new game line within the next month or two.  Called Demon: the Descent, it deviates heavily from White Wolf's old Demon: the Fallen game.  Rather than fallen angels of a Judeo-Christian god, the titular demons are the fallen angels of the God-Machine.  Such angels are created when they gain any whit of self-awareness, frequently either by absorbing conflicting programming or embedding themselves so deeply into human society that they become the mask.  As such, the demons of the God-Machine are less Lucifer and more Agent Smith.

Of course, with the God-Machine being the God-Machine, a key question is whether demons are part of the plan or not.

So far, there is not a core book for this one (release schedule indicates it will see release sometime in October), but White Wolf did release the Demon: the Descent Quickstart.  This offers a little overview of Demon: the Descent, revealing the titular demons as rogue agents of the God-Machine.  To avoid being discovered, each demon adopts a Cover, a human identity and the game's karma meter stat.  The better one's Cover, the harder it is for the God-Machine to discover the rogue agent.  (As this suggests, demon culture draws heavily from espionage culture; also, even though the God-Machine is most powerful in cities, they stick to cities because these form effective camouflage.  A demon in the woods sticks out like a sore thumb.)

In addition to a rules overview, the Quickstart also offers four sample characters as well as the writeups of their powers.  Demons still retain some facility for manipulating the God-Machine's programming (these minor powers are called Embeds, and represent the natural laws put in place by the God-Machine), but as free agents, they can also bend it to their will.  Such powers are called Exploits; they are more potent than Embeds, but draw significant attention from the God-Machine and its agents.  (One of the sample characters bears an Embed allowing him to change clothes at will; the same character's Exploit allows him to become a living shadow and meld with others' shadows.)

After the rules comes a short adventure, "Honey & Vinegar," designed to introduce players to the occult espionage lifestyle of the demons.

Despite being a short, free document, this helps complete the current picture of the God-Machine, and is a must-read for anybody who took the time to look at The God-Machine Chronicle and its accompanying fiction anthology.

Conclusion

As with most of their limited-run and one-off lines, the new stuff coming out of White Wolf is top-notch weird horror gaming.  If you like the weirdness of Promethean or Changeling (or even just the core World of Darkness books), you owe it to yourself to look at the new God-Machine stuff.  If you prefer the political, mystical gameplay for which the World of Darkness is famous, you may want to pass — God-Machine is less about power politics and more about dark mystery and simple survival.

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