Originally written December 2003
Fear to Tread is a “chronicle sourcebook” for White Wolf’s Demon: The Fallen. It provides three adventures in a connected story arc set in Los Angeles, the geographic center of the game. It is intended as a companion piece to the LA sourcebook City of Angels (which I reviewed here), though it does provide enough background information to stand on its own.
This is a decent product, with two and a half good adventures. I say two and a half, because the climax of the last adventure railroads the player characters into a very difficult position and leaves them hanging. All the gamemaster is given are a few words about the choices available to the PCs at that point. It was frustrating for me to get to this point and find that White Wolf believed their job was done, leaving the GM with a major climax/cliffhanger and virtually no guidance.
Another disappointment came in the product itself. While on the surface it seems to meet White Wolf’s high production values, there are a number of editing problems, including the almost ubiquitous “Page XX” references. The artwork is okay, but the one map included looks like it was ported over from a mediocre computer paint program — has cartography gone completely out the window in this digital age?
Another annoyance, at least for me, is the patchwork nature of the NPC information. Each chapter provides a brief paragraph on each of the major NPCs involved in that particular story, and the last chapter provides a more comprehensive write-up for all of them. Unfortunately, while personalities and motivations are the primary focus (and rightly so), only a few of them are given full game stats. If the GM is supposed to develop their own stats for NPCs, why are there a few given? If the NPCs are supposed to be at certain power levels, why are so few given stats? It’s a patchwork approach at best. It seems like only the “combat” enemies are given stats, but players can do strange things, and not having that information available for the GM to use could be problematic.
To be fair, there are a number of good things about this sourcebook. The stories focus largely on investigation, provide sufficient background on NPCs for a gamemaster to run encounters, and offer advice and suggestions on how to keep the story from going too far off track. Not only that, it doesn’t assume that the PCs are aligned with a specific faction; each story provides different guidelines for three major Fallen factions in Los Angeles (the Infernal Court, the Blood Court, and the Cryptics under Al-Lat). This increases the utility of the product for GMs, which isn’t a bad thing.
The book also provides a number of ready-to-play characters, so (in theory at least) players can jump in.
The first story, Suffer the Children is the strongest, focusing on an investigation into the obviously supernatural death of a counselor at the Marshall Institute for Troubled Teens, a privately run juvenile care facility. It brings the PCs into the story regardless of their factional affiliation, and reveals an Earthbound cult operating out of the school. The story is almost pure investigation, with a climactic action scene between the PCs and the leaders of the Earthbound cult.
It’s a solid story, and stands on its own very nicely — even if you don’t intend to play the whole Fear to Tread chronicle, this adventure is worth running or scavenging for material. The school is described in almost exhaustive detail, even if the map of it is a little on the weak side.
The second story, Into the Fire, deals with some of the consequences from the first story. The PCs are asked to make sure the Earthbound taint has been cleansed from the school, and learn that not only has it been cleansed, but the site has been supernaturally sealed to them. This puts them on the trail of a trio of demon hunters, and after the PCs hand them over to their superiors, an ominous conclusion reveals the influence of another Earthbound.
It’s another solid story, but it’s actually weakened by its connection to the first. As a follow-up to Suffer the Children, it works nicely, but I don’t think it stand as well on its own. The demon hunters are a nice piece to borrow, and tracking them down is an interesting plot, but without a direct connection to the first story the hook is weakened.
The last story, The Judas Kiss, leads the PCs into a trap. There’s no nice way to put it. An NPC ally met during Into the Fire asks them for help, and reveals that she has been investigating more deeply into the Earthbound conspiracy. Bringing this to the attention of their superiors, they are sent to confront another agent of the Earthbound. It is revealed that the conspiracy runs deeper than anybody thought, and the PCs are left (by the story) in this trap, with a difficult choice facing them.
I was really annoyed by the end of the story (and by extension, the presented chronicle). The PCs are essentially trapped by four powerful fallen, and given the choice of swearing fealty to the Earthbound, or being destroyed.
To a certain extent, the choice is left up to the PCs. They can do whatever they want, but (if you’ll pardon the pun) it’s a devil’s choice. According to the text in the story, the direction of the chronicle is now up to the GM and players. While this is true, the story drops that in your lap at a major story climax, and never really gives the PCs an option to bail out beforehand. It bothers me, and I’m sure it would bother players caught in the situation.
I’m hesitant to really call this product a “chronicle”. It’s more of a collection of linked stories that reveal a conspiracy of Earthbound thralls. Overall, it feels like the first two acts of a three act play — all set-up, no real payoff. There are a number of useful gems here, but overall I find it disappointing.
Also, while it can be used on its own, the final scene almost requires the companion book, City of Angels. That’s a great book (and I highly recommend it), but in some respects the value it adds to Fear to Tread reduces the overall value — particularly when it comes to subplots or sidetracks PCs may follow.
Style gets a 3 out of 5. For a White Wolf product, it really should have made another round of the editing desks. It’s pretty good, but not great.
Substance is a tougher call. I’ll give it a 3 out of 5 as well. In terms of volume, the good stuff outweighs the bad, but in my opinion the bad stuff is almost insulting. It’s worth looking at for ideas, but as a story to run on its own merits… I can’t recommend it in good conscience.