Review – Infernalism: The Path of Screams (Mage: The Sorcerer’s Crusade)

With a title like Infernalism: The Path of Screams, you know that a book isn’t going to present a tale of puppy-dogs and rainbows. But The Path of Screams isn’t as dark or visceral as I expected (to be clear: it’s dark and it describe some pretty gruesome activities – think lots of medieval torture – not as much as I expected, but not for everyone). Yes, it’s a book about infernalism, and characters who generally do horrible, horrible things while condemning themselves to even greater horrors. But The Path of Screams also makes it clear – repeatedly – that these are, indeed, horrible people (beyond the usual level inherent in a lot of World of Darkness material), that you’re probably a horrible person if you want to play such a character, and that the information in the book is presented as way for Storytellers to flesh out antagonists.

Infernalism: The Path of Screams was released in 1998 under White Wolf’s Arthaus label. It’s a 128-page, black and white softcover, although one imagines that it’s more likely purchased as a PDF these days. It’s branded for Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade, but because isn’t heavily tied to that game line, and much of the material could readily be used in a Vampire: the Dark Ages chronicle, or a modern Mage or Vampire chronicle. I found that the cover material for The Path of Screams did the book some disservice. The front cover, for example, labels the book a “Tome of Black Magic” – but there’s little in the way of rotes to be found.

After the obligatory introduction, with extensive warnings about not being an evil jerk in real life, The Path of Screams leads with Better to Reign in Hell, a chapter of philosophical content. It begins with a creation myth from the dark side’s view of things – one that I have to admit I found fairly confusing and without a lot of in-game usability. There is also, however, some differing religious perspectives, which are more useful for purposes of fleshing out an NPC or cult that the PCs will encounter.

The second chapter, The Devil’s Own, moves on to more handy content on why someone would choose to become an infernalist in a world where God, the Devil, and Hell are all considered fact (especially if you’re a mage who has the right spheres to literally travel to hell and back). Not that they’re great reasons – they aren’t supposed to be. Infernalism is, after all, ultimately a fool’s game. After providing some reasons for a character to head down the primrose path, the ‘path of screams’ itself is laid out – basically the steps towards damnation. Awareness of the infernal (introduction), the Tapestry of Lies (instruction), the Howl of Freedom (conflict), Communion with the Absolute (resolution). At each step are presented several sub-steps and options. For example, during the instruction step, the budding infernalist might begin to indulge in their darker desires, learn dark magic, identify a patron demon, and finally enter into a pact. These more abstracted concepts are followed by over twenty templates of more concrete archetypes (half-page flavor write-ups, not multi-page spreads with character sheets) – an academic, bloody and satanic pagans, nobles who just want to have fun, corrupted priests, torturers, cthonic madfolk, and tempters of several sorts. There are also several specific infernalists, although the term might be taken loosely here, as Heylel Teomim has not been (and was not here) really pegged as an infernalist.

With that flavor out of the way, The Path of Screams moves on to more mechanistic content. Note that, despite the continued emphasis on NPC infernalists, the mechanical content here is (knowingly) cast is a form that could be used by a player character. But I go along with the author’s emphatic suggestion that this is generally a Bad Idea. Of course, an infernalist wants to get something out of their literal deal with the devil, and so there are benefits of pacts that they might enter into, along with a mechanical level for each. These range from just adding up background dots to physical transformation (armor, claws, wings, goat feet, etc.) to more esoteric abilities (unnatural charm, supernatural sight, the breaking of bonds). Accompanying these are infernally-tinged merits and flaws (only here is an eternal swarm of flies a merit). There is also a collection of rotes, although they don’t necessarily involve anything infernal (just having the right spheres). Indeed, while they are generally cruel in application, some aren’t even that – ‘Balefire’ (a Forces/Spirit/Prime combo) isn’t much different from any other way of flambeing an enemy, and the ability to split yourself into a flock of small animals could be used by the most moral of mages without any compunction. Most of the demonic toys, on the other hand, are just bad news. In addition to these mechanics, there’s a listing of sects and cults, although even more so than the specific infernalists from the prior chapter, some of these don’t smell terribly of brimstone. For example, I wouldn’t really lump the Lilith-following Bahari in with infernalists. And some of the cults aren’t presented so much as specific cults as they are exemplars of broader archetypes – demented cannibals, nephandus, and the like.

The final chapter, The Devil Sends the Beast, is a bestiary. Demonic hounds, skeletons, servant demons, incubi, malebranche, named war-demons and demons of temptation – they and more are all here.

On the art front, I liked getting Christopher Shy material for all of the chapter lead-ins, although I’m not used to seeing his work in black and white. The rest of the interior art is by John Cobb, Jeff Holt, and Mark Jackson. Although Cobb’s dark and twisty style didn’t always fit where it was deployed, I think it works well for the subject matter here, and is almost all of the traditional half-page illustrations. The remainder of the art is most often character sketches or creature illustrations, which has the effect of making the art in The Path of Screams more tied to the text than was often the case in White Wolf books of this era.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that we needed enough material on infernalism to fill a whole book, but the themes in the Path of Screams can be used across a variety of product lines (and it’s not like I don’t happily own a whole White Wolf book specifically about demonic vampires). Religion can be an omnipresent (or at least common) force in Dark Ages or Sorcerers Crusade chronicles, and infernalism is the flip side of that (or not as far from the religious as they would like to think, depending on how cynical one chooses to play it). It’s an expansion on a subject already lodged in the Sorcerer’s Crusade core book, and I think that the Path of Screams did a good job of both presenting horrific aspects of the subject matter that are needed to convey it, while not wallowing in them for shock value.

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