Originally written May 2003
Demon: The Fallen is White Wolf’s latest addition to the World of Darkness. After covering just about all possible supernatural creatures in one form or another, this most recent tome allows you to play the role of an evicted denizen of hell.
Before I crack into my review, however, I’ll say a brief word about my relationship with White Wolf products, so you know where I’m coming from. I have played Vampire on and off for the past several years (tabletop and live-action versions). I own copies of the first five World of Darkness games (Hunter never really grabbed my attention), and consider Wraith and Changeling my favorites (depending on what sort of mood I’m in). I’m not crazy about the Storyteller system, but I think it works reasonably well if you have the right players and GM.
That said, I really like Demon. It has a pleasing mix of light and dark, provides ample inspiration for different styles of campaign development, and even has intriguing metaplot potential (something I am admittedly not a big fan of). It remains to be seen how successfully these qualities will be supported in the future, but the core book stands very nicely on its own.
One last thing, this review assumes a basic familiarity with the World of Darkness and the Storyteller system. If you want a more in depth treatment, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere. I am more concerned here with what makes Demon different from the other World of Darkness games.
Demon is a 303-page hardcover with an MSRP of $29.95 (competitive for the industry). The cover is, like the other games in the Storyteller system, somewhat understated. The background appears to be a scaly blue surface fading to black, decorated with a spiky pentagram that looks embossed into the material (the image isn’t actually embossed, it just gives that impression). The name of the game is in black, Gothic-looking letters wreathed in flame.
The interior is good looking as well; the glossy paper should stand up to regular use, and the two-column format makes for easy reading. Section headings stand out from the surrounding text, making it relatively easy to scan for the appropriate section during rule reference. The index, however, feels light (a complaint I would level at any World of Darkness rulebook I’ve encountered) — but considering that a good percentage of the book is setting material, this may not be the problem I perceive.
The artwork is generally good — though this sort of thing is highly subjective — and seems to capture the tone the game is looking for. The style is consistent with other World of Darkness products, so your opinion of that artwork will probably be reflected here.
My only complaint from a layout and design perspective is the style chosen for the one-page short fiction pieces that precede each chapter. Printed in a fancy, Gothic font in black on a gray background, they can be difficult to read at times. As “cool” as it looks, when it comes to stuff you want people to read, high contrast is desirable.
Aside from this one complaint, however, the book is a solid product and well worth the $30 price tag.
Demon is set in the World of Darkness. For those of you unfamiliar with the line, it is referred to as a “Gothic-punk” setting. It is a dark reflection of our modern world, where many different stripes of supernatural entities exist alongside the generally unknowing masses of humanity.
The player characters are, as the title implies, demons, escaped or evicted from their eternal torment in Hell as a result of a major tempest in the land of the dead, which borders the demonic prison and weakened the barriers preventing the demons from escaping. Not all of the demons are able to escape — the biggest and most powerful demons are unable to slip through the cracks in Hell’s walls — but the lower ranking members of Hell’s legions can slip through to Earth.
The pull of the Abyss is strong, however, and in order to remain on Earth a demon must anchor itself in a human — the chosen host has generally had their own soul essentially destroyed in some way for the demon to take over. This union creates an interesting hybrid being. The demon has access to all of the host’s memories and knowledge, along with their own understanding of the nature of the universe (though the amount of demonic lore actually available depends on background attributes chosen at character creation).
There is another, more interesting side effect of this union. For many demons it is a life-altering experience. The humanity, emotion and pathos they sometimes feel break the cycle of anguish and torment they have suffered for untold millennia, reawakening in them the seeds of the angels they once were.
Each World of Darkness game has at its core some kind of internal character conflict — Vampire has the struggle of humanity versus the beast, for example. The struggle set up in Demon, in my mind, is one of the more interesting ones I’ve encountered. The characters have the evil past of their demon lives, but are in the process of rediscovering some degree of their divinity — whereas many of the other games had at their core an ultimately futile struggle against dissolution and loss, Demon seems to focus on regaining that which has been lost, repairing the damage at the heart of creation, and the potential of spiritual redemption. It is, perhaps, the most hopeful of the World of Darkness games.
This redemptive theme is not the only one you can explore in the game — there are other possibilities as well. There are different factions within the demonic legions, each of which has different ideas about their role in the world. This diversity allows for an interesting array of campaign styles and ideas — an array that I personally feel is lacking in the more established World of Darkness lines.
To get back to the setting in more detail, the opening chapters of the book present you with the history of creation, the war in Heaven, the escape from Hell, and the current state of affairs on Earth (as far as the demons are concerned). This information is presented from the point of view of demons, so it does suffer from “unreliable narrator” syndrome to some extent — the truth of what actually happened all those millennia ago is still somewhat cloudy. From their point of view, most demons seem to view the rebellion as something that was done out of love for humanity, but also something that went awry at some point.
The history will be largely familiar to those with any kind of background in the Judeo-Christian stories of Creation and so forth, with some intriguing references made to other World of Darkness games that students of the setting will spend hours picking apart.
The most important aspects of the setting for the sake of this review relate to the current state of affairs on Earth. There is no evidence of angels on Earth — the Heavenly Host is absent from creation. Also missing is Lucifer himself. The leader of the rebellion was not locked in Hell with his followers, and his current whereabouts and activities are unknown.
In addition, prior to the Maelstrom that weakened the chains of Hell several demons were summoned to Earth by magi and managed to stay anchored, rather than returning to Hell. Called the “Earthbound”, they never had the insight that union with a human host gives new demons, and continue to torment humanity whenever they get the chance. The Earthbound are the “big bads” of the setting, clearly intended to be the masterminds behind elaborate plots, and seldom making appearances in the flesh.
These circumstances provide for some potentially interesting metaplot developments. Why is the Heavenly Host absent from Earth, and what does that mean for the World of Darkness in general? Why was Lucifer not imprisoned with the other rebels, where is he now, and what (if anything) is he up to? Are the Earthbound responsible in some way for the long-term damage and corruption that exists in the World of Darkness, or are they merely taking advantage of some other, more fundamental, design flaw?
Added into this mix is the usual array of more generic opposition — demon slayers, sorcerers seeking to harness demonic power for themselves, rival factions of demons, and other supernaturals (though this last group lacks representation from the more prominent members of the World of Darkness — Vampires and Werewolves). All in all, there seems to be a good mix of material here to run a variety of stories.
The core mechanic of Demon is the Storyteller system, which uses a pool of 10-sided dice to determine the result of various tests. Each die is individually compared to a target number (usually 6, but it can fluctuate based on circumstances), and the number of successes determines the overall degree of success. The core mechanic of the system has been explored in depth in many places, and I don’t care to go into it too deeply here. I will, instead, focus on the more specific applications of that mechanic in Demon, adding that it uses the revision to the original Storyteller system (used in all Storyteller games now, as far as I know) where a botch only occurs if you roll a 1 and generated no successes at all
The player characters are divided up into seven different groups (called Houses), based on the choir of angels they belonged to before the rebellion. Each of them was given charge over a different aspect of creation, and this authority carried through to their demonic existence. The houses are, in order from highest to lowest:
- Devils: The former “nobility” of Heaven, charged with seeing that the divine plan was carried out. Now they are master manipulators and deceivers.
- Scourges: Originally charged with bringing the breath of life to creation itself, they are now bearers of plague and pestilence, though their old abilities to heal as well as harm remain.
- Malefactors: Former powers of the mundane, material world, this house are the artisans and craftsman of the fallen legions.
- Fiends: Former angels of the heavens, time, and fate, their influence over these realms remains, though it is colored by their demonic torment.
- Defilers: Given domain over the waters and other mutable aspects of creation, these demons have shape-shifting powers, and control over the realms of emotion and desire.
- Devourers: The warriors of the fallen, these demons have domain over the wild lands and the plants and animals that dwell in them.
- Slayers: The former angels of death, charged with escorting spirits to the other side, their control governs ghosts, and the shadow realms of the afterlife.
In addition to the various houses, there are five factions:
- Faustians who believe that harnessing the power of human faith is the best way to go about changing the world (and making it their own, in many cases). As their name implies, they often do this through demonic pacts with mortals.
- Cryptics seek to understand the mysteries of creation, and ultimately the motivations of the Creator in allowing the angelic rebellion to take place. What is the role of the fallen in the modern world, and why has the creator allowed some to escape their torment?
- The Luciferans are trying to discover the fate of the absent leader of the angelic rebellion, and hold true to the reasons for the rebellion. For them, the war against Heaven is still going on, despite the absence of a visible adversary.
- Raveners see what has become of the world today, and believe the only way to cure the disease is to burn it out. Only through the cleansing fires of destruction can any kind of “redemption” be achieved.
- Finally, the Reconcilers question the reasons for the rebellion in the first place, and seek to atone for the rebellion. If their sins are responsible for the present state of the world, perhaps the world can be saved through their redemption.
These choices allow for a nice diversity of character concept. While some factions attract more members from one house than others, the factions can provide some basic, background character motivations. Of course, the character can also choose to not be aligned with any factions at all, but those characters are likely to find themselves drawn into intra-faction rivalries without allies.
While the combination of demonic house and faction can provide a wide array of character types, the powers allow for even greater variety between characters. The powers are called Lores, and there are a total of 23 different lores to choose from. Each of the houses has three lores unique to their house, and there are two more “common” lores that any demon can learn. The lores are arranged in the standard five-point scale of the Storyteller system, so there are a total of 115 individual evocations (as the individual powers are called) that can be generated.
Actually, it’s even more than that, because each power has a “standard” and a “tormented” version (I’ll get into Torment in a moment). The tormented version is basically the same power with a dark, sinister, wicked bent to it — they are usually more damaging, and perhaps a little bit more powerful, but there is a cost to using them (which I’ll cover in my discussion of torment). In a sense, you have 230 different evocations that can be called upon by demons — though any individual demon will have nowhere near that amount.
All lores are invoked by various dice-pool rolls, pulling attribute and skill combinations from across the character sheet. While certain lores do rely on particular combinations more than others, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of heavy weight towards individual attributes or skills. This is a good thing, for reasons I will get into in a moment when I discuss Faith, the primary source of demonic power.
Lores also continue to provide variety in player characters. At character creation, you choose one of your house’s lores as the primary. This determines your character’s visage, which is basically what their celestial (or apocalyptic) form looks like. Since each house has three different lores that can be chosen as primary, the combination of house, faction, and visage can provide up to 105 different character “concept builds” (as I’ve come to call them).
Your apocalyptic form grants you some additional powers beyond those given by lores, and all demon PCs have a selection of standard powers as well — they are immune to possession and mind control, they can see through illusions easily, can heal non-aggravated damage much more rapidly than mundane humans, and have a fair degree of supernatural awareness.
All in all, the lores and powers of demon player-characters seem to be reasonably well balanced at first look. Of course, only extensive play experience can tell for sure. White Wolf has enough design experience, however, that I trust few powers presented in the core rules are heavily imbalanced.
Torment is, basically, the demonic equivalent of Vampire‘s humanity trait. Rated on a scale of 1 through 10, it measures how close the demon is to their true angelic heritage.
Torment has two aspects — permanent and temporary. The temporary points tend to fluctuate during the course of the game. If a demon performs selfish acts, or goes against his code of ethics, or otherwise “sins”, there is a chance his torment will increase. If he fails the appropriate virtue check (similar to the checks required in other World of Darkness games, like Vampire), he gains a point of temporary Torment. If his temporary Torment reaches 10, he gains a point of permanent Torment. If this score reaches 10 the demon is lost to the pain and madness of the abyss, and is removed from play. (Permanent Torment starts around 3 or 4, depending on the demonic house of the character in question.)
If, on the other hand, the demon performs selfless acts, seeks the greater good, and other “heroic” actions, he can reduce his temporary Torment. He can also spend experience points to reduce his permanent Torment rating — in theory, if his Torment were to reach 0, he would be redeemed. The rules, however, categorically state this is impossible. How can innocence, once lost, be regained?
Torment does more than measure how far gone your demon is, however. It also affects your use of lores. If you recall, each invocation has a normal and tormented version. When rolling for an invocation, the value of each success on the roll is compared to the PC’s permanent Torment. If the values are all higher, the power goes into effect as normal. If any of the values are equal to or lower than the PC’s Torment, the tormented version of the power goes into effect automatically, with all the negative side-effects that may entail. You can choose to invoke the tormented version of the ability at will, but doing so automatically gives you a point of temporary Torment.
Your character’s permanent Torment score also affects the appearance of your character’s visage — the higher your Torment, the more monstrous your apocalyptic form is.
Faith is what powers demonic powers, and it behaves in many ways like Glamour from Changeling. Like Torment, Faith is rated on a scale of 1 through 10, with both a permanent and temporary rating.
Faith is gained from mortals in one of two ways. The demon can either make a pact with a mortal — the mortal provides a regular supply of faith to the demon in exchange from some task or favor. Alternately, the demon can reap the faith — forcing a mortal to face the reality of the demon’s existence, and taking the faith that generates.
Faith is used in different ways, depending on the circumstances. Some powers merely require the character to have a point of Faith available; nothing else is required. Some powers require a Faith roll in order to be activated; shifting into a character’s apocalyptic form is one example. The pool of dice for this test is usually based on the character’s current temporary Faith score. In these cases, the character can often spend a Faith point to automatically succeed at the test (sometimes giving the PC a point of Torment as well).
Permanent Faith is a measure of how powerful the character’s invocations and other celestial powers are. It typically restricts the number of successes an invocation can generate, or limits the range of powers. It also serves as a target number for some tests. For example, mortals who see the character’s apocalyptic form roll a Willpower test against the demon’s permanent Faith to determine how they react.
Faith can also be used to grant celestial powers to mortal servants, called thralls. Often, this investment is the result of a pact between the demon and the mortal; for example the mortal gives the demon 2 Faith a day, and one of those points actually goes to an ability the mortal gains from the demon.
The rules regarding Faith are not terribly complex, but they are scattered throughout the book, making an easy-to-find reference for the trait difficult to manage. Fortunately, the rules for Faith in a given circumstance are generally found in the appropriate rules section for the power or interaction being referenced. Still, one question persists in my mind — is a character’s temporary Faith pool limited by their permanent score? Most of the examples given indicate this is the case, but there is no clearly defined answer that I could find.
While Faith is the source and measure of a character’s power, it doesn’t suffer from the problems that Arete (from Mage) does. Faith fuels the PC’s powers (much like blood in Vampire), and generally determines how powerful the demon can be. It does not, however, determine the actual success or failure of power use the way Arete does. My biggest problem with the Mage system was that single dice pool governed all of the character’s supernatural powers. Demon does not suffer from this problem.
Impressions and Conclusions
I like Demon. I feel that it strikes a good balance between the light and dark aspects of the World of Darkness. The PCs are in the world, rather than escaping from it into dreams and fantasy (like in Changeling). Like Werewolf they are working to save the world, but without the pervading sense that the cause is ultimately doomed — the PCs were the original architects of creation, they just might be able to make a real difference. Like Vampire there is an internal struggle between the character’s demonic torment and former angelic nature, but again, there isn’t the impending sense of ultimate failure. Overall, the game has a much more “heroic” feel (in my opinion) than any other World of Darkness game I’ve encountered.
I also think that the designers have learned quite a bit from the merits and flaws of earlier games in the Storyteller system. While the core mechanic still has its quirks (ultimately unavoidable), I think there is a nice effort to keep the phenomenal cosmic power demons can posses in some kind of check. There are limiting mechanics built into the interactions of Faith and Torment, ultimately leading a PC that abuses his powers to lose some degree of control over them, and potentially becoming lost forever to the madness and pain of the Abyss.
Demon is also the first World of Darkness game I’ve read since Changeling that has inspired me to run a chronicle (rather than just play in one). But while I felt Changeling was ultimately lacking (because I feel it avoids the true World of Darkness in favor of it’s faerie-inspired escapism), Demon has the potential to confront the setting head-on, and make a difference.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether this tone and approach will carry through into the future developments of the line. I must admit, though, I am interested in going along for the ride.
For Style, I give Demon a 4 out of 5. The book is slickly produced, and is clearly the work of an experienced, professional company. The book is a good read (especially the first four chapters of setting material), and is easy on the eyes. I have some complaint with the index and general organization of the book, but these are complaints I would level at any World of Darkness game.
For Substance, the game also gets a 4 out of 5. I like the injection of optimism, the wide variety of character builds that are supported, and the general premise behind the game. As a core rulebook that needs to get a lot of information across, it does come up somewhat short in terms of practical setting information. There is a somewhat disappointing lack of reference to the other supernatural denizens of the World of Darkness. However, because you are dealing with the core rules, the stars of the show need the most “face time.” I expect that future supplements will detail these relationships more fully.
Demon is a good addition to the World of Darkness line, and I recommend that any fan of the setting pick it up. Even if you aren’t a big fan of the setting (like I am), you may find the different tone of Demon intriguing enough to give it a shot.