Thursday, December 6, 2012

WoD: Reliquary: The Siren Song of Cool Stuff

THE OLDE CURIOSITY SHOPPE KILLED THE CAT
In my move over the years to simpler games and mechanics, I’ve cut away many elements. Some of this has been for the better- eliminating slow-downs that didn't make the game more fun. Some cuts felt more mixed. For example, I used to have books of weapons and equipment for modern games- with the arming process for games like Top Secret, Danger International, and James Bond 007 a key part of each session. However reduced mechanics means fewer degrees of differentiation and hence collapsed equipment lists. But I like stuff- I just don’t like stuff slowing down the game. What I love is cool stuff, unique stuff, the oddball over the samey weapons lists. So I buy into the zaniness of the old ICE Creatures & Treasures books. It’s why Reliquary, White Wolf’s book of strange items and the GMs who love them, ought to appeal to me.


Reliquary on RPGNow

PRESENTATION
Reliquary is a 144-page hardcover in its original printing. You can also buy it in a pdf or POD hard or softcover version. The main book pages use the standard WW two-column layout. The balance of font size and white space is especially well done in this book- making it easier to read than others in the line. At the same time it doesn’t feel like the text has been moved to fill out extra space. The page borders don’t distract or make the text look busy. I love that the bottom right border identifies ideas on the page. A few of the ‘color’ pages and the game fiction bits are done on very dark graphics or watermarks with white text. The background effects are stable and consistent and these pages are also easy to read.

The artwork’s generally good throughout. Some of it is a little too pulpy for my taste, but it reflects the themes presented. Only a few pieces had me slowing down to take a second look. The only major problem lies in the cover image. I’m not a fan of retouched photos as illustrations. But beyond that the composition and design seems very weak. Especially compared to some of the really striking covers on other books, it feels like an afterthought.

Reliquary has strong writing throughout. The initial game fiction kept me reading- with a good hook and complex presentation. I will note that, more than other WW book, you can see the diverse hands at work. Especially in the section listing off items, the tone and design varies from one to another. I’m used to that being smoother in these books- or individual contributors identified in the text when it feels like a collection of essays (as in the first part of the book).

ON THE RELIC GAME
The first of four chapters, “In Dark Corners” offers a general toolkit of Storyteller ideas for bring ‘relics’ in. Running pages 13-37 it manages to bring quite a bit to the table. The collected essays approach has different contributors offering their own take on the concept. One details which may affect GM’s decision to pick this up is that the book approaches these items in the general. Some game lines (Mage, Changeling) already have a system and set of conventions for magical items. Reliquary stands outside of that. The concepts given here could easily be adapted to those, but they will require a small step to do so. The essays given here are:
  • Value & Symbolism: This offers some general words on adding symbolic value to items in a campaign. The most interesting section wrestles with how Storytellers handle it when players just plain get it wrong. If you’ve invested story weight in those symbols but the characters don’t get it. 
  • Once in a Million or Dime a Dozen: I like the twin poles presented here- of campaigns with a host of relics versus those with only a few (and likely more potent ones). The question of hoaxes raises its head as well. 
  • 50 Details Implying a Relic’s History: Why can’t we have more things like this? I love this list of brief details which ST’s can attach to an item. The book could have benefited from doubling or tripling this section. More please. 
  • Location, Location, Location: This offers a few ideas about where relics might be found and protected. 
  • Adding Life to Dry Subjects: Given that research can be bland in game, the book suggests a couple of ways to spice that up. Some of the ideas are common-sense, but some reinforce the idea of a supportive Storyteller. 
  • Finders, Keepers: Treasure-Hunting and the Law: Considers the legality of taking treasures from different places. It hints at one of the campaign-themes suggested by the book: globe-trotting treasure hunters. That may not fit with everyone’s consideration of the World of Darkness.
  • Relic-Focused Chronicles: The longest section of this chapter- it specifically addresses the idea of Lara Croft/Indiana Jones-style campaigns using woD. But it also offers a couple of other frameworks- including Art Thieves and Protecting Relics. I like that each mentions how the supernatural might be introduced in the chronicle. A WoD could fruitfully put together these ideas with those from Bookhounds of London
PHAT LOOT
The second chapter, about 40 pages long, presents a number of different Relics. Most have a description, background, storytelling hints and then the actual play mechanics details. The tone and style varies between the items. I like a number of them quite a bit, while others seem a little bland or strangely specific. A couple of them just don’t offer interesting powers. The best of the items offer a brief history or even multiple histories. The less interesting ones focus on the backstory making them feel more than a little info-dumpy. I really enjoyed some of the “grimoire” and book-style relics ("The Book of Dead Names" which has a Death Note vibe to it; "Shakespeare’s Lost Play"). I would have liked more that really grabbed me and made me immediately think of stories to use them in.

ITEM CRAFTING
Chapter Three “Powers and Prices” brings the crunch. Pages 84-117 cover rules additions and some new sub-systems. The new merits focus on these kinds of campaigns and typical actions (knowledge, relic ownership). The bulk of the section offers a shopping list of powers, along with their relative point value. That’s a nice, but not exhaustive set of ideas. Some of the powers are fairly generic (Confer Equipment Bonus) while others suggest a more specific story (Buoyancy). Myself, I’d probably just flip through these powers looking for inspirations. For Changeling they could serve as a useful benchmark for players who wish to undertake Token construction. That’s especially true given that the last few pages offer different curses for items as well. To my relief there isn’t a full and detailed system presented her for building Relics. The rules presented remain mercifully abstract.

STORIES
The book concludes with a chapter of fifteen “scenes” a Storyteller can add use in play. These have a theme, color text, and then a set of options and details fleshing them out. Most of these are archetypal moments for stories like this: Meeting the Contact, Accessing the Submerged Vault, Spotting the Fake. Each gets about a page worth of discussion. There’s some decent material on how to handle the mechanics- what the core roll required would be and what complications apply to that. Unfortunately, as written, these look more like skill challenges than actual scenes. Each has a discussion of the results for the roll described. It might have been more useful to present the set up and then offer options and ideas on how to twist, rework, and change up the key idea. I generally like the breakdown of possible scenes for a stereotypical “relic hunter” campaign. But what I took away usefully from that could have been present in a simple paragraph for each item. It feels like material for a very beginning Storyteller, which may be the problem. It aims at a different target audience.

OVERALL
I borrowed Reliquary from a friend to read, and I’m glad I did that rather than buying the whole thing. It is a campaign development book, so it is the kind of book that works better for me as a pdf. I like a number of bits in the supplement- but I also don’t care for some other others. I think the beginning section and the list of powers are the two most consistently useful parts of the book. The items themselves are enough of a mixed bag that they push that chapter down on the list of best parts. New GMs or those really wanting to run a Tomb raider-style game with WoD will find this the most useful. Experienced Storytellers or those focused on a specific sub-line may have to work to pull out the good bits from this.