Top Shelf – World of Darkness

I have accumulated a lot of roleplaying game books over the years. Just enough to fit into my 5×5 IKEA shelf. But you may also notice an unorthodox arrangement to the books. You see, I’m tall. I used to sort all of the books alphabetically – first by publisher, then by game, then by book title. Unfortunately, while this worked out well for the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game (published until this year by Alderac Entertainment Group), it meant that anything “White Wolf” or “Wizards of the Coast” was down near the floor (and, in particular, D&D 5E was a pain to get at). So, because I want my favorite books to be more readily visible and accessible to me, I sorted things into columns, and then within each column I put my favorite stuff on top, where it’s easier for my tall self to see and reach it (note: I reserve the right to change my preferences at any time without warning; this is just how the shelf is arranged right now). Dungeons & Dragons has a column, Legend of the Five Rings has a column, White Wolf/Onyx Path has two columns, and everything else gets put into the final column (at this point, the plurality of that fifth column is Pathfinder). The White Wolf columns are divided into two sections – modern age Vampire (Masquerade and Requiem) and everything else (the historical Vampire books like Dark Ages and Victorian Age, the similar-to-but-not-the-same Kindred of the East, other World of Darkness or new World of Darkness books, and Exalted).

This is the fourth of five Top Shelf articles, each one taking a brief look at quite literally the top shelf of each of those columns – what are the books that I chose to put there, and why? Some of those reasons will be personal. Some will be more ‘objective’ (to the extent that any opinion on the better book can be objective). Part 1 covered Vampire: The Masquerade. Part 2 covered Dungeons & Dragons. Part 3 covered Legend of the Five Rings. Here’s what we’re looking at today:

A couple of notes before I look at the particular books. First, because this is a shelf of actual physical books of mine, I can’t put a book on here if I don’t own a physical copy. I have PDFs of the 20th Anniversary Editions of Mage: the Ascension and Vampire: Dark Ages but, to my regret, I did not back the Kickstarters for the deluxe physical books. So they can’t be with us today. Second, as noted above, this column is everything White Wolf/Onyx Path that isn’t Vampire: the Masquerade or Vampire: the Requiem. So although this article is titled “World of Darkness,” it’s not the entire World of Darkness – you’ll have to go back to Part 1 to read about Vampire: the Masquerade. Also, I do own a good chunk of White Wolf books that aren’t classic World of Darkness (new World of Darkness, Exalted, etc.) – but they didn’t get to make it up here.

Changeling: the Dreaming – There are 6 core books on this shelf, and that means we’re talking about 6 games that were my favorites. That makes this shelf different from the ones I’ve written about before, where each shelf was just a single game. But this isn’t a ‘write a review of why I like a particular RPG,’ so I don’t want to bog this article down with odes to each of the games. Instead I’ll focus on what’s noteworthy to be about Changeling: the Dreaming on this shelf – the absence of any other books from that game line. That might be even more noteworthy given that I’ve played Changeling more than any of the other games on this shelf. I used to have more Changeling books, but I don’t anymore – they aren’t just lower on the shelf, they’re gone. You see, I find Changeling to be a great, self-contained book. Unlike Vampire or Mage, I didn’t find the supplements exciting just as reading material, and I didn’t find much there to enhance our game. So, at some point when I needed cash and realized I could get actual money for my Changeling books, out the door they went (except for Inanimae: the Secret Way, which is one shelf below this). So don’t take the absence of Changeling supplements as a shot at the game itself – Changeling is great. I just didn’t find the supplements as useful.

Mage: the Ascension+Art of Mage/Guide to the Technocracy/Guide to the Traditions – These are mostly just the core of the Mage experience. The Guide to the Technocracy was released before Mage Revised, but it really starts the shift to the idea of the Technocracy as playable. I never much got behind that idea (like I never much got behind the idea of the Sabbat being that playable), but it still provides a fantastic reference to how the Technocracy thinks and operates even if they’re staying in an antagonist role. With one exception, the Tradition Books don’t make it up here, but the Guide to the Traditions does (contrast that with the Vampire: the Masquerade shelf, where the Clanbooks make it, but the guides to the factions don’t). That’s for two reasons. First, I really found the Guide to the Traditions helpful in exploring how the Traditions work, because they do have a global ‘organization’ that, in my experience, is more likely to intrude on an individual game (I contrast that with the Camarilla, where an individual came often doesn’t see much presence or influence from outside the city). Second, Mage has to fight with other books for this premium shelf space, and the Tradition Books would take up a lot of real estate.

The Fragile Path (that’s the small red book you probably can’t read the title of) and The Erciyes Fragments  – The best parts of World of Darkness supplements are character and world-building – the flavor. I mostly just skip right past things like elder disciplines and master rotes. And the most concentrated bursts of that were in the various smaller ‘historical’ supplements. For Vampire: the Masquerade that was the Book of Nod (and Revelations of the Dark Mother). For Mage: the Ascension that was the Fragile Path, and for Vampire: the Dark Ages that was The Erciyes Fragments. The latter is essentially a different take on the Book of Nod. The former is the Testament of the First Cabal – the first super-cabal forged from the nine Traditions (note the same nine as the modern Traditions, of course). It tells a fully in-character story (complied by Porthos Fitz-Empress) of their actions, including their ultimate betrayal by the Solificati Heylel Teomim. Because the Fragile Path is fully in-character, it has the extra bonus of being usable as a prop in the game, a tome of lore for the players to find.

Tradition Book: Hollow Ones – This is basically Tradition Book: Goths – a Tradition Book for something that wasn’t a Tradition. I’m sure you can make some educated guesses here about some of my tastes in music, fashion, and philosophy (or, at least, the tastes I had 15 years ago). I can see the point that the Hollow Ones were basically just fan service, but if it was, then it worked on me. With the sidebar in the new Vampire (Fifth Edition) about how goth is not a thing like it used to be (and they’re not wrong), I can’t imagine it bodes well for the Hollow Ones being featured in a prospective M5. But they will always have a place in my cold little heart.

Vampire: the Dark Ages – As with Changeling, the presence of this book says little except that I liked Vampire: Dark Ages. There is, however, a notable absence of anything from Dark Ages: Vampire. I could not really articulate why, but the Dark Ages: [insert supernatural thing here] line just did not capture me the way its predecessor did.

Clanbooks Baali, Cappadocian, and Salubri – As with their Masquerade companions, the three Dark Ages Clanbooks get there place on the top shelf. The Salubri are one of my favorite bloodlines, and the mysteries swirling around Saulot always keep my interest, so the inclusion of their Clanbook was a no brainer. I think that the Baali book is the best presentation of that bloodline as well – they get revisited and tweaked from time to time, but I still like this best. And, of course, that book also involves … Saulot. Because that guy is all over the place. And, given that the Cappadocians are a full-fledged clan in Dark Ages, and this is there only book, it’s pretty much a must-have.

Constantinople by Night – Everybody has their favorite “by night” book, and for Dark Ages this one is mine (note: Transylvania doesn’t count; see below). Constantinople is such a frequently forgotten city, despite playing such a massive historical role in European history for hundreds of years. So Constantinople by Night has a leg up on the competition right there. Layered the unique vampiric trinity ruling the city. And add to that is the fact that Constantinople (even if the reduced state as it existed near the end of the 12th century) is massive for its time and place – one European city that could legitimately support a ton of vampires, and all the intrigue that goes with them.

Giovanni Saga – This is a reprint containing Giovanni Chronicles I: The Last Supper and Giovanni Chronicles II: Blood & Fire (subsequent books in the chronicles appear on the Vampire: the Masquerade shelf as the chronicle moves through time). This chronicle entangles the characters in the origin of the Giovanni as a clan, and occult machinations that reverberate through the centuries. These two books, and the third, are excellent. Unfortunately, the fourth book takes a bit of a left turn and, for me, ends the chronicle on a sour note. Which is why, while these are really good, the great century-spanning chronicle is …

Transylvania Chronicles I (Dark Tides Rising) and Transylvania Chronicles II (Son of the Dragon) – You’ve heard this already if you read Part 1, but my default preference for Vampire games is ‘street level’ machinations. And the Transylvania Chronicles are pretty much the opposite of that. But they’re very, very well done, and so if you have any interest in a chronicle romping through some of the highlights of Kindred history in the last eight centuries, the Transylvania Chronicles are definitely something to check out, letting the characters play through a lot of notable metaplot events with the Tremere and Tzimisce, and some other ones too – the – the demon Kupala, the “diablerie” of Tzimisce, the Convention of Thorns, the embrace of Dracula, the extermination of the Cappadocians, and the big reveal of what’s going on with Goratrix, Etrius, Tremere, and Saulot.

Transylvania by Night/House of Tremere – As I mentioned above, I don’t really think of Transylvania by Night as a “by night” book. I mean, it is, but to me it’s mostly an extension of the Transylvania Chronicles. If you’re running the Transylvania Chronicles, you definitely want to be familiar with Transylvania by Night. Also, it’s got some of the best cover art for Vampire: Dark Ages, so I’ve just included that raw image for your viewing pleasure instead of the full cover. House of Tremere isn’t really tied up with the Transylvania Chronicles in the same way, but it’s still very focused on the chantry at Ceoris … which is in Transylvania.

Victorian Age Vampire/Victorian Age Companion/London by Night – Victorian Age Vampire is one of those books that when it first came out, you read it and then wondered how this book hadn’t been released years before, because once you read it the premise just seems so obvious. So much about Vampire, and the world of darkness in general, derives from concepts originating in the Victorian Age (including, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Because Victorian Age Vampire core book is notably slimmer than the Masquerade or Dark Ages core books, the Victorian Age Companion is necessary for more backgrounds, merits/flaws, and any bloodlines. London by Night is the iconic locale of the Victorian Age, and beyond well-deserving of its own supplement. Victorian Age Vampire came to an end because the World of Darkness was ending, and I do wish they had made more of it. I have to say, however, that there is a certain elegance to just having these central books that are really focused on the heart of the setting.

Kindred of the East/World of Darkness/San Francisco by Night – Things are supposed to come in threes, right? So then this is my third core book where what’s absent might say as much as what’s present. Kindred of the East was a modern-era Vampire game set in east Asia, with the characters an entirely different kind of vampire. There were equivalents for the other supernatural types (e.g., shapeshifters), but only the Kuei-jin saw additional supplements. But the only ones of those supplements that made it on the shelf aren’t really expansions of that modern line. World of Darkness: Blood & Silk is effectively a Dark Ages/Kindred of the East crossover, presenting the supernatural world of east Asia as it existed in the late 12th Century. And San Francisco by Night, which relates to the Cathayan ‘invasion’ of the U.S. west coast, is as much about the politics of the Camarilla and the Anarch Free States as it is about the Kuei-jin.

Wraith: the Oblivion/Dark Kingdom of Jade/Ends of Empire – A fitting place to end this article, Wraith is to my mind one of the most difficult roleplaying games out there (although wrapping your head around how magic works in Mage is no cakewalk). It’s a world that’s a lot harder to relate to than the more ‘normal’ world that vampires and mages operate in. And doing the Shadow well is really hard. But it’s quality, so it’s here. Along with the Wraith core book I have Dark Kingdom of Jade, which is a setting book for the Yellow Springs, the China-has-taken-over-everything Shadowlands of east Asia. Ends of Empire is a meta-plot book that wrapped up the world of Wraith: the Oblivion when the game line ended (unlike games like Vampire, Mage, and Werewolf, Wraith did not stick around until the new World of Darkness reboot). There is an adventure in here, but it wraps up with the in-world destruction of Stygia at the hands of the Yellow Emperor and the Sixth Great Maelstrom, so don’t let you players expect to much change things for the better (but, then, the word “Oblivion” is right there in the title, so what were you expecting?).

That’s my tour of the World of Darkness (minus Vampire: the Masquerade). Feel free to talk about your favorites down in the comments. And stay tuned in one week for the final Top Shelf article, covering everything that isn’t White Wolf, Dungeons & Dragons, or Legend of the Five Rings.

And if you were curious, here’s what is currently living on the shelf immediately below that one:

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