Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Review: WOD The God-Machine Chronicle

The God-Machine Chronicle
by Dave Brookshaw, David A Hill Jr., Danielle Lauzon, Matthew McFarland, John Newman, John Snead, Stew Wilson, Filamena Young, Eric Zawadzki.
World of Darkness
Rating: ★★★★

What has risen may fall.
What has fallen may rise again.

When the World of Darkness was reborn (an event preceded by the Gehenna and Time of Judgment books that lead to the close of the time we refer to now as Classic World of Darkness), there were some pieces of fiction that stirred the imagination in what felt to be a totally fresh and new direction.  Voice of an Angel was the name of that piece, written by Matthew McFarland and Rick Chillot, and in that tale the concept of a strange divine presence which manifested in a much more mechanical material state was introduced:  The God-Machine.  What was it?  Why did it exist?  How did it function?  What purpose did it serve?  These were questions that the reader was left to speculate on.  To explore on their own.

But deep down, many of us wanted more.  Much much more. And back then, we were teased with a few more glimpses to the truth.  Stories such as Residents (World of Darkness: Mysterious Places), Road Gospel (World of Darkness: Midnight Roads) and Diamonds (World of Darkness: Aslyum) were then released, and each hinted at a larger untold story.  The Righteous and the Wicked (World of Darkness: Antagonists) was one of my favorites, with its tattooed cultist and the apocalyptic message given in bold 14 point font on the End of Days.  First they came out with an Anthology book, which really added more ideas to the pot.

Then they hit us with a whole new book.  And that is what this review will focus on.  (For those curious about the other half of the book, which was released as a free Rules Update download, check out my review on that here.)

So what does the book contain?
The book opens with a new story which connects the concept of the God-Machine to something we all dearly love - the internet.  What starts out as a cautionary tale on the dangers of clicking links transforms to a frightening narrative that tells us there are worse things than receiving spam.   Then the book has chapters dedicated to explaining the concepts behind the God-Machine, a generous helping of tales you can use to jumpstart, add to, or wrap a chronicle around, which involve the God-Machine and its many Infrastructures (oooh, new shiny term, eh?) and finally a chapter dedicated to the many servants of the God-Machine itself.  An appendix then wraps the book up with the host of new Rules Updates and as I mentioned above, you can check out my other review for my thoughts on those.

So We Finally Know What the God-Machine Is?
Well, yes and no.  And that's not a cop-out answer.  Yes, because Chapter One: Storytelling the God-Machine very nicely explains how the concept of the God-Machine can be introduced into a game.  It introduces the ideas behind having a God-Machine as an antagonist (or any other role) in your stories, and the many "parts" the comprise its presence and influence in the world.    Those familiar with Hunter the Vigil (as well as the expansions added to Vampire the Requiem in The Danse Macabre), the book brings back the idea that the threat may be rated in Tiers; Local, Regional, Global and Cosmic.

Yes, smart readers now realize that this means the writers did NOT just outright say what the God-Machine is (Hence the "no" in the first statement above).  This is because even this book is embracing the new design philosophy present in White Wolf Gaming Studio games, which is "Everything we release form now on is intended to be tool kit in nature.  You can choose, mix and match the portions you like.  And I personally feel that's a great thing.  It allows you to keep things unpredictable.  And it doesn't tie players to stick to a meta-plot the way the classic World of Darkness did.  While the meta-plot in the past did have its merits, I am happy that the World of Darkness now is sticking to its guns and keeping things tool-kit friendly.

Chapter One: Building the God-Machine Chronicle
Boy does this book expound on options in Chapter One: Building the God-Machine Chronicle and throw even more in the second chapter called Tales of the God-Machine.  (Oddly, the table of contents shows Chapter One to be Storytelling the God-Machine.  I wonder why the sudden change?)  The first parts  explore why the God-Machine book was made, and lead to how the God-Machine most likely has its arms in the world.  It offers many ideas, many concepts, but leaves it for the individual Storyteller to decide on which one stands as the truth.  This was done before, in the Time of Judgement, Gehenna, Apocalypse and Ascension books, which offered multiple ways for the final arcs to be approached.  Some hated the idea since it gave no "true ending" while others (like myself) applauded the move since it allowed storytellers to use what they wanted, and allowed even the same kind of story to be explored without feeling like the same earlier game since you can approach it now using an angle offered in the book which you haven't tried.

What is impressive is the huge list of idea generating concepts they list out in this chapter.  Page 24 to 38 is filled with all these interesting snippets for encounters, people who are against the God-Machine, those who worship it, and so forth that I cannot help but wish MORE of these were explored in the next chapter.

They also introduce The Network, which is a simple system to ensure that the player characters have related connections or shared backgrounds to allow more interaction and reasons to reach out to one another, which I feel is something I am happy to see finally written down as a technique to use.  Many games slow down to a halt due to players not... interacting with each other.  The section also talks about Chronicle Tracks, which explores the various themes you can embrace for your God-Machine chronicle, and even suggests what Tales you can use (and in what order) from the next Chapter to build your game.  They're cool sections that give new game masters loads of ideas to form their own game summaries.

Chapter Two: Tales of the God-Machine  
Tales of the God-Machine throws in a total of 20 possible story ideas that you can incorporate, mix-and-match or explore in your games.  Some (like the 300 Block, Urban Wanderings, Do-Over, Sister City) are tremendously cool, throwing a Fringe-meets-The Lost Room vibe without forcing players down a narrow path.  Others (like Operation: Bell Jar, the Key) are less flexible but no less compelling and interesting to explore.  With the twenty laid out among the four tiers, the Storyteller can nicely scale events from local to global (or wider) nicely at a glance.

Each Tale is broken down to its component parts, with mentions of what Infrastructure of the God-Machine are vital in the tale, what parts are Interchangeable, what Skills or Merits might be useful to lead into or be used in the story, and Escalation ideas on how things get "worse" if the players don't intervene.

These are remarkable doses of information that can prove to be extremely useful to Storytellers who aren't certain yet on what direction to have their game take.  Each one nicely throws in ideas and suggestions which makes it very enticing to find ways to incorporate each Tale to one's game.  Blackhattmatt kindly throws in a teaser of one of the Tales, The Key, in his blog.  I highly recommend you read it to get a gist of one of the Tales.

Then Comes Chapter Three.
Admittedly, I felt let down by this chapter.  Chapter Three is called The Cogs in the Machine, and it explores the many characters and antagonists you will face in a God Machine Chronicle.  This is where I felt the game goes a tad flat (hence my lower than happy rating above).  I really wanted to find cool monsters or unique ideas, but sadly I felt the ones presented here were just not interesting enough.    Some, like the Polis Men, offered great visual concepts but system-wise seemed lacking.  Given this chapter explores 27 characters, I admittedly felt disappointed because the Angels presented didn't catch me as inspiring or unique.  (Maybe I'm just too spoiled by Dr. Who admittedly, but I really wanted to see Angels that felt more God-Machineque than just spirits who were doing the God-Machine's bidding.  Each one was tied to a certain tale, and yet many of them felt like the could be thrown into any other non-God-Machine Chronicle, which in my opinion worked against this Chapter.   And while some were moving in the direction, the final result seemed bland and uninspired.

The book does offer two more Angel ideas, both of which were not tied to any of the Tales.  Ironically, these two seemed to show much more promise and I wish they wrote more in this vein instead.

So, Overall Assessment?
The book is lovely.   It definitely is a font of ideas on how to approach the World of Darkness without having Vampires, Werewolves, Prometheans and the like.   The book, especially with the new Rules, can give you the options to run games that are inspired by shows like Fringe or Alcatraz.  But I really wanted a bit more... machine in this book.  For example, how about ideas on whether hacking and computers can play a larger role in such a setting.  Or given the idea of a God-Machine, I wish they introduced analogies to viruses, malfunctions, fuel, replacement parts and the like to a spooky context.  Admittedly, part of me even feels slighted that the God-Machine concepts never really explain why they would be or refer to themselves as Angels.

I also kind of hoped for some kind of iconic villain or threat to be added to the game.  Many of the antagonists in the third chapter just seem to be too.. lackluster.  I would have wanted even some hint of an actual cult of the God-Machine.  Or an example of how they approach their worship and the like.

Rating Breakdown:
Concept:  Still incredible and mesmerizing.  The ideas presented on the many possible backstories are fun to consider.  But given this is a main book for the God-Machine I kind of wished they went up to eleven.  On a scale of 1 to 10 on awesomeness, they sort of settled at five.
Crunch:   Again, the Rules Update part has its own review.  That said, the rest of the Crunch was unfortunately not as exciting.  And while the Banes of some of the Angels were interesting, the fact those things were typical of spirits kinda made the concepts given even cheaper since they were just using rules for Spirits.
Layout:  Not bad.  And admittedly, the table of contents was helpful.  Polished lay out.  Great artwork.  And nice touch on the fiction inside.  The way they laid out the fiction was pretty cool.
My favorite part:  The list of ideas in Chapter one.  And the Chapter two Tales.  They really explored the concepts of the God Machine in many directions and I like that.  Honestly, I was surprised they didn't come up with more.   Need space for that?  See below.
What I wish was better:  I would have been willing to remove the third Chapter entirely, and just have any characters or angel write-ups in the respective Tales.  After all, save for two, that's what they did anyway.  I would have doubles the Tales.  And maybe wrote up three major God-Machine monstrosities as well for players to be afraid of.

Will you be the malfunction to the God-Machine's machinations?
Decide at Drivethru rpg.
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