This Tabletop Horror RPG Will Have You Putting Away D&D

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A woman holds a submachine gun as she stares at the ground.

Screenshot: Paradox

Following 2018’s substantial and mostly excellent revision to the legendary tabletop roleplaying game Vampire: The Masquerade, and before the expected release of the upcoming 5th edition of Werewolf: The Apocalypse’s core rulebook, Hunter: The Reckoning gets its turn with a 5th edition book, celebrating the latest World of Darkness revision. And it’s fantastic. If your experience with TTRPGs has started and ended with Dungeons & Dragons, then this is a game to pay attention to.

If you’re new to Hunter or World of Darkness TTRPGs in general, the premise is quickly understood yet challenging to become fluent in; it’s our world, but vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and magic are all real, existing in secret behind a well-protected veil of money, power, and history. And in Hunter, you enter that setting as a human who has recently learned this truth to some degree, emerging from a frightening encounter with the unknown and left with an undeniable, life-altering compulsion to do something about it. I’d argue this 2022 revision of the Hunter: The Reckoning rulebook is a reflexive recommendation for anyone interested in this setting, and it’s the perfect opportunity for those who only play Dungeons & Dragons and want to try something new.

World of Darkness games might best be described as the roleplayers’ roleplaying game, but don’t let that dissuade you. These horror games are filled with overlapping tomes of lore that catalog the many struggles of secret vampire conspiracies, environmentalist tribes of werewolves fighting against the end of the world, humans struggling against the horrors of the night, and more. It’s a TTRPG, so you should expect some dice and some mechanics, but you won’t be optimizing a “build” in this game. Nor will you be (nor should you be) dealing with miniatures on a map. World of Darkness demands we stay in the theater of the mind, telling a collective story focused on deep, intimate moments of dread, horror, and reflections upon what it means to be human.

But as I said, the challenge with World of Darkness is keeping up with its deep fictional history. On top of that are all the nuances of how this world envisions vampires and other monsters “work.” Some standard folklore tropes about monsters still hold, while others are tweaked, and in some cases the games manufacture entirely new ways these creatures work.

Garlic, for example, won’t get you very far with a vampire in this game, yet the undead stalkers of the night will definitely fry in direct sunlight. And there’s debate over whether or not synthetic UV would do anything. Werewolves are bestial, supernatural creatures of rage, but lycanthropy is not an actual spreadable condition; people are instead born as werewolves (wolves can also be born as shapeshifters, but we’ll get into that when Werewolf gets its revision).

 

Three humans battle a mysterious entity while on motorcyles.

Encounters with the monsters of the night should be filled with emotion and narrative, on top of some thrilling action.
Screenshot: Paradox / Renegade Game Studios / Kotaku

But here’s what’s so awesome about Hunter: The Reckoning: You don’t need to know any of that shit to jump in. Sure, if you’re the Storyteller (the system’s analog to Dungeon/Game Master in other TTRPGs) you should know a little bit more than the players. But since most Hunter: The Reckoning games will likely start with characters just beginning to understand the secret, monstrous truth of the world, all of the lore can be unraveled to both players and characters in a similar, story-based and digestible way. You can discover this setting with your group very naturally.


The cover of 2022's Hunter: The Reckoning shows a woman holding a submachine gun.

Screenshot: Paradox / Renegade Game Studios

The opening narrative section on pages 4 and 5 of 2022’s Hunter: The Reckoning rulebook is probably the first thing you should read. It’s a great narrative introduction, a nice sampling of the flavor of the game. But after that, or even before, folks new to this game and this setting should crack the book open about halfway to page 147, and read the “Monsters Are Mirrors” section to really understand how to play this game “properly.”

Saying there’s a “proper” way to play a TTRPG is about as silly as it sounds, but I’d argue that there is a particular angle in World of Darkness that’s easy to miss—especially with Dungeons & Dragons holding its monolithic influence over TTRPGs, and frankly, even video games.

Most roleplaying games, especially medieval fantasy ones, treat nature and the environment around the players like infinite monster machines. Video games do this too (Hi, Skyrim). I take umbrage with this. It’s not terribly imaginative and, honestly, there’s a fair environmentalist critique to be had here—especially in “natural” settings. But more than anything, it’s lifeless, repetitive, and centers combat way too often.

I’ll pull an example from Dungeons & Dragons half-sister, Pathfinder, to illustrate what I’m talking about. The second edition of TTRPG publisher Paizo’s take on the sword-swinging, spell-casting formula D&D kick-started arrived with a new book and adventure in 2019 titled The Fall of Plaguestone. It’s pretty good! But it opens with, of course, the player characters taking a trip through the woods to be, yup, attacked by wolves! Oh no! What else is the forest for but to spit angry animals at you?

World of Darkness, I’d argue, should not deal in infinite monster machines. Page 147’s “Monsters Are Mirrors” section explains in half-a-dozen paragraphs exactly why. To quote the book directly:

“Every interaction with a monster is a chance to shine a light into a dark place in a Hunter’s personal life they might prefer not to acknowledge. […] This is a fine line to walk, but at some point you want the Hunters to be able to understand the monsters, and maybe even sympathize with them a bit. They’re not just “born of the stuff of evil,” targets lined up to be mowed down”

Monsters in this game are characters, not just minions, and bosses, and lesser bosses, and other categories of, as the game so simply puts it, “targets.” Encounters with them can be opportunities for wild, deep, engaging, memorable, tragic or hopeful stories. Remember, World of Darkness is about the story, not just chucking dice at target numbers and moving figurines around a grid. Sure, sometimes it will feel like a fun romp of monster hunting and slaying, but these monsters should have their own individual and collective stories. And so do your characters. There’s a rich history and a reason why the world is the way that it is, and Hunter comes up against that directly.

Humans brawl with werewolves on the rooftops of an unnamed city.

Hunter can be filled with as much action as you want, but there’s an opportunity for incredibly deep character stories here.
Screenshot: Paradox / Renegade Game Studios / Kotaku

A great video game analogy is nearly any monster hunt in The Witcher 3. Geralt’s asked to slay a ghost at the bottom of the well? Turns out there’s a tragic story about how that ghost got there. You empathize; a story emerges. A troll is causing problems in a cave? Well, humans were mining there and it was the troll’s habitat to begin with. You empathize; a story emerges. World of Darkness and Hunter: The Reckoning is quite similar. We’re not just lifting the veil to fight the monsters who hide under the cloak of darkness and mystery, but instead we’re here to see and tell stories that unfold from diving into the dark corners of the world. It ain’t just about slaying beasts for experience points, and thankfully the new edition of Hunter: The Reckoning is a rich resource for roleplaying in a dark, modern fantasy mirror-image of our world.

2022’s Hunter: The Reckoning is, perhaps, one of the best introductions to the flavor of this setting and world. It clearly captures that notion of monsters and how they reflect human flaws and fears, while earning the right to refer to itself as “Gothic-Punk.” It makes it clear that, aesthetically, the setting is remarkably close to our world, but there should be a fine strand of anachronistic, gothic elements woven throughout the setting: small details that are out of time and place, perfect for a story involving old, haunted buildings and vampires that are hundreds of years old.

The characters you’ll play as are basically punks. The book sort of spells out that, much like The Matrix, once you wake up to the reality of a world where nothing you knew makes sense anymore, you are firmly on the outside of society. Characters become defined by their relationships to–and struggles with–other Hunters (punks) dedicated to a cause, finding what elements of their humanity they can hold on to while they try to sabotage and overthrow the beasts that stalk the night.

I’m suggesting that this game is a great alternative to D&D because it does so much differently, and gives you a new kind of roleplaying experience that’ll drastically improve your skill at this hobby.

Hunter maintains a very close premise to D&D—Hunters taking on monsters is thematically similar to what many D&D adventurers set out to do—and the emphasis on a more narrative experience can be a nice change of pace from the more usual rounds of rigid combat we see in D&D.

A landscape shows a dramatic composite of a sprawling city.

Screenshot: Paradox / Renegade Game Studios / Kotaku

Also, getting out of a medieval fantasy allows you to roleplay with closer parity to a reality we know and live in. It gets rid of the compulsion to speak in funny accents, use antiquated language, or get into useless bickering over what technology or concepts existed in nebulous, pseudo-historical representations of medieval Europe. If a werewolf rips a guy in half right in front of you, exclaiming “Jesus fucking Christ!” isn’t as weird a statement as it would be in some random Elf fantasy with an entirely ficitonal cosmology. The internet exists; people have smartphones; modern medicine is as readily available as it isn’t in our world. Outside of learning terms like “Hunter Cells” and the “Camarilla,” slipping into this world is rather easy, and the book is very helpful in providing what’s needed for that.

Chapter Five, in particular, is an exemplary collection of informative resources and deep dives into how to structure out stories in a game like this: how to pace character story beats, how to get in the mind of a character, or develop a character concept. Alongside this is pretty excellent documentation of safety tools in the Appendix that gives you some perspectives for handling difficult and sensitive situations. These topics are part of an ongoing conversation about consent and compassion in gaming, and while we may struggle to get these things right every time, it’s always worth an attempt to do so; there’s no such thing as wasted space in a TTRPG book, or in a game, when it comes to addressing safety tools, consent, and subject matter.

A person holding a gun in one hand and a melee weapon in the other stands atop stylized blood splatter.

World of Darkness games can get intense, so safety tools and open conversations about consent are essential.
Screenshot: Paradox / Renegade Game Studios / Kotaku

My joy with this book, however, took a turn with the difficulty resolution system…and I shouldn’t be surprised. I play in a regular game of Werewolf: The Apocalypse 20th Anniversary, which is essentially set in the same universe, just with some slightly older takes on some of the mechanics. So, to be clear, part of my struggle is that my brain is a little too used to those old rules. This may only be a problem for those who are used to the old games…or those (read: me) who didn’t fully read the changes in 2018’s Vampire revision.

In the current World of Darkness system, players have “dots” in specific Attributes and Skills. For every dot you have, you gain a ten-sided die (d10) to roll when the Storyteller determines there’s a chance of failure, or leaving something up to the roll of the dice will be interesting. The Storyteller sets a difficulty, say “Difficulty 4,” and will ask a player to combine, usually, an Attribute with a Skill. You pool all your dice together and roll. Every die that turns up a 6 or above is a success. You need as many successes as matches the difficulty number. So in the case of a Difficulty 4, four dice turning up as 6 will guarantee success.

I don’t like this. The old system had the same Attributes and Skills and enormous pools of d10s to litter across a table, but it counted a number of successes to indicate degrees of success. You needed three successes for a task to happen exactly as you want, with lower amounts resulting in a marginal success. Confused? That’s normal, but stick with me.

Old System: Say your character is hotwiring a car in the old system. You’re fleeing a vampire lair underneath a nightclub and are racing to a random car in the parking lot to secure your way out. You bash the window open, get in and start hotwiring the vehicle. The Storyteller decides this is a Difficulty 6 task and falls under a combination of your Intelligence plus your skills with Technology (sometimes you have to judge what areas are most appropriate—debates usually ensue).

Let’s assume you have three dots in Intelligence and two dots in Technology. This means you’ll roll five d10s, each one that turns up a 6 or higher (the Difficulty number in this old-rules scenario) would be considered one success in the old system. And let’s say you only get one die to turn up a 6. This means you succeed, but the success is marginal at best. Yeah, you’ll get the car running, but maybe the Storyteller will say that it’s taking too long and the vampires are hot on your tail, and they shoot out the back window of the vehicle, causing the other party members in the rear seat to duck, or even roll for a defense task. Maybe you get the car running, but you trip a wire and now the alarm won’t shut off and the lights keep flashing, leading you to peel out of the lot with a car that’s just blaring its alarm at full blast. Surely that won’t attract any attention from the cops.

All of this adds drama, it’s exciting and, frankly, realistic. It bucks the D&D trope of just needing to hit a target number with a die (don’t email me about your homebrew marginal success chart for your D&D campaign). But the challenge, aside from wrapping your head around the d10s and number of successes, is on the Storyteller to come up with interesting outcomes for degrees of success. It’s tough, requires you to think on your feet a bit, but that’s what’s so beautiful about TTRPGs.

A stylized image shows a city beyond the windshield of a car.

Screenshot: Paradox / Renegade Game Studios / Kotaku

New System: In the newer system, every d10 that turns up a 6 or higher is considered a success, regardless of what the Difficulty number is. And you need to match that Difficulty number with as many successes. So a Difficulty 4 would require you to roll four 6s (instead of needing at least one die to turn up a 4 in the old system). In some ways this is a little bit more streamlined and most “successes” will allow you to perform exactly what you wanted to perform without nuance. You can just understand that a 6 is a success and you need to get as many of those as matches the Difficulty number. But it sort of cleaves off the lesser marginal successes that in our original scenario saw the character successfully hotwire a car, but with a few bumps along the way.

Let’s take the same hypothetical scenario. In this new system, the Storyteller is going to decide roughly how hard the task is is based on the chart found on page 113. Requiring four successes, a Difficulty 4, feels appropriate as this is considered “Challenging” in the book. Let’s assume you have the same pool of dice (three dots in Intelligence, two in Technology), so five dice in total. Four out of your five dice need to land a 6 or above to hotwire the car. I sincerely hope I’m misunderstanding what’s written in the book, because that feels unnecessarily hard for someone with even pretty good stats in this area.

As you can see, the problem gets worse when we scale the Difficulty up. Let’s say the car is manufactured by a maniacal, evil billionaire who’s undoubtedly in cahoots with (or is one of) the vampires and sells overly complicated electric vehicles that are at risk of bursting into flames. The Storyteller decides a Difficulty 5 or 6 is necessary to reflect that challenge. The former Difficulty requires you to land a 6 on all of your d10s, while the latter, as far as I understand the book right now, is impossible. There are a few other mechanics like “Desperation” that would let you take on a Difficulty you don’t have the dice for, but that requires memorizing more rules.

I expect that this game as written (and, importantly, how I’m understanding the rules at this time) is going to result in characters failing more often than they would in the old system, and that’s just not fun—especially when the old rules had a system in place for minimal success. That’s the other problem: In this new system, once you hit the required number of successes, it seems that you just “succeed” without the narrative thrill of marginal success at the cost of some slight twists and complications.

Hunter, in this new edition, does have a concept of a “Margin,” where successes over what’s required are narratively taken into account, but there’s no direct way to succeed by the skin of your teeth. Hotwiring a car, to use our example again, might be a Difficulty 4 in the new system, and in theory you could turn up 5 successes. That’s one above a Difficulty 4. Does that mean you hotwire the car better?

My issue with this new system is that it seems to only consider marginal improvement above the challenge of accomplishing a task as intended. It only scales up, whereas the old system could scale down. And in a gritty, dark setting where you only barely cheat death sometimes, I think having those lower success conditions really amps up the thrills. And when it’s baked directly into the task resolution system as opposed to requiring other rules modules to be bolted on, the core of the game is just a bit more dynamic.

I also don’t like that they continued to use the same language. It sort of sucks that getting “one success” actually doesn’t mean anything if it’s against a Difficulty 2 or above.

 

A person stands before a corkboard with maps and images laid out to indicate an intricate set of plans.

Don’t head out into the dark evening streets without a good plan and tons of copious research.
Screenshot: Paradox / Renegade Game Studios / Kotaku

It’s a TTRPG, so we can bend the rules and describe this stuff in any way we want, and the book does leave the door open for the Storyteller to modify Difficulties and dice pools based on interpretation of a scenario or as a reward for clever thinking or role play. But I found the older task-resolution system to just be a bit more narrative, even if it was hard for a Storyteller to decide what comes with one success as opposed to three successes. I may come around to this new system in time, and there may be nuances I haven’t considered yet. But for now, I think it’s worth it to keep the older method for some groups. Just keep in mind that the old system might not work as well with some of the other new mechanics in this book.

This tweak aside, Hunter: The Reckoning is another awesome addition to the modern reinterpretation of this lush setting of monsters and mystery. But this game is more than just a revision for existing fans of World of Darkness. The premise and layout of the book makes it a perfect way to get into TTRPGs, or try a new one if you’re playing the standard ones out there. It chooses narrative and character stories over rounds of combats and mechanical builds and shows why TTRPGs can be such a flexible, wonderful resource for collective storytelling and interactive fiction.

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