Review – Trails of Ash and Bone

Trails of Ash and Bone is the second PDF supplement to spin out of the Cults of the Blood Gods Kickstarter project (Children of the Blood was the first). As of the time of writing, Trails of Ash and Bone was made available to backers a couple weeks ago (which is how I got it), but the final version is now available for purchase at DriveThruRPG.

Clocking in at almost 200 pages, Trail of Ash and Bone is almost entirely a chronicle supplement, providing four stories that could be run as stand-alone events or integrated into an existing chronicle. Pay heed to that page count. the stories average around 40 pages each. That’s a lot more than the stories that get crammed into the back of the traditionally-published hardcovers.

In addition to the stories (which I will discuss below), there’s a handful of mechanical content and some ready-made PCs. I don’t personally have much use for ready-made characters as a player, so to me that leaves the ready-made characters as possible fodder for ST inspiration (sorry anyone who came up with one of these as a Kickstarter backer reward). Although six of the ten are Hecata, so I hope you wanted more necromancers. There are three new Loresheets – a casino, Descendant of Roger de Camden, and a collection of wraith-related magic items. There are also three new Oblivion Ceremonies – a level 3 ward against wraiths, a level 3 ritual to strengthen the Shroud, and a level 4 ritual to make another experience the sensory experience of death. Some of us, as completists, may want to have every single Discipline power and Loresheet, but I can’t say there’s something here that would make Trails of Ash and Bone an exciting option for someone who isn’t a ST.

As for the stories, I give a thumps up to two of them (The Family and Open Your Eyes), while the other two (The Wellspring and Old Wounds) have some weaknesses. Notwithstanding the fact that this is, by nature, almost a ST-only supplement, I’m going to keep this review higher-level and spoiler-free. But I’m still going to go over the gist of the stories, so if you don’t want to know anything, you’ll still want to drop out now.

The Wellspring – The Wellspring is an exploration of another vampire’s cult in the deep woods (it is set around Copenhagen, but could be readily adjusted). There are some promising elements, with well-developed cultists and NPC backstories and actions that give significant ability to predict character sympathies and, thus, produce a coherent story. Unfortunately, the story is very reminiscent of old White Wolf Vampire stories, in that it assumes a ton about how the characters are going to act, and a lot of those assumptions are pretty unreasonable (in one instance suicidally so). The climax of the story moves away from the ‘cult in the woods’ premise. Ultimately a disappointment after the interesting premise.

The Family – This story sees a Hecata coterie parachute (not literally – ed.) into the Hecata-led Atlantic City to investigate an information spill. The explanation for how the AC political structure got the way it is rather strains credulity, but once you set that aside the story and the politics work. There’s a relative lot of background on AC so the ST can keep the characters occupied if they don’t go straight from plot point to plot point, and there’s a lot of information on contingencies depending on how the characters react to various situations. There are still some elements for Storytellers to pay extra attention to. The clues probably aren’t quite as forthcoming as the story seems to suppose, so Storytellers will need to keep an eye on information flow. Storytellers should also be careful with some encounters, which may be overwhelming and lethal.

Open Your Eyes – Open Your Eyes is a mission-focused story where the PCs (preferably Camarilla) will look into supposedly miraculous works performed by a vampire who claims to have achieved Golconda. Some of the powers that be are enamored of this possibility. Some think the vampire is a fraud. The characters are tasked with getting to the bottom of things. Set in Birmingham (the original one), Open Your Eyes is fairly easily located elsewhere, and probably works best if the characters are from the city – knowing the vampires involved, and organically learning about the ‘miracles’ of Golconda probably feels better than just doing a straight lead-to-lead-to-lead progression, interacting with a series of strangers (although you’ll never get done in the the stated run time that way). Even run standalone, Open Your Eyes benefits from hooking the characters into the existing structures of the city and more broadly exploring the politics presented. Aside from that extra prep work, Open Your Eyes shouldn’t cause the ST any undue headaches, and should provide a good outlet for both political and mystical exploration.

Old Wounds – Now that the Family Reunion’s happened, everyone in the Hecata just sits around singing kumbaya as one big happy family, right? Cults of the Blood Gods already made it clear that isn’t the case, and Old Wounds drives the point home, putting the characters in the stew of Hecata-dominated Florence (the characters do not have to be Hecata). The characters will be tapped as ‘impartial’ investigators to solve a murder – although, much like with the miracles in Open Your Eyes, the characters actions may be driven by much more than something so simple as whodunit. If The Family has some mobster-related elements of the Hecata/Giovanni on display, Old Wounds throws the doors wide open on the incestuous, necrophiliac, cannibalistic, and generally vile side of the necromancers. Indeed, the parade of horrors in Old Wounds tends to overwhelm the investigative and political aspects of the story. How much players will enjoy Old Wounds will, I think, ultimately depend on how much they enjoy that showcase. Personally, it’s not a style I’m particularly interested in. And Old Wounds is probably the hardest to use as part of a broader chronicle.

So, by my count, that’s two out of four solid entries, with Wellspring done in by making too many unreasonable assumptions about PC choices and Old Wounds mostly being a vehicle to indulge in displays of Hecata over-the-top-ness. Across all four stories, I appreciate that Trail of Ash and Bone uses reasonable difficulties, rather than throwing out a bunch of Difficulty 5 rolls that have too high a chance of bringing an adventure to a screeching halt. I also continue to appreciate the highly functional PDFs produced by Onyx Path Publishing, with nice linking from the table of contents to the applicable portions of the book.

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