Posted on April 27, 2009 by spikexan
There is a movie called The Man From Earth that could have inspired this book. In it, a man tells his closest friends that he is an immortal. In turn, the friends try to ferret out if he’s telling the truth or playing some strange game with them. The friends make one mistake countless times when they try to get specific information from him. He often responds with vague accounts that are little better than a history book’s recollection. His claim is that people who cannot remember were they were a year earlier shouldn’t demand centuries old answers. I constantly found myself thinking of this excellent film. White Wolf offers readers an obscure history lesson in their newest release, Ancient Mysteries (WW25311). After reading the blurb, I thought I would like the first half the book (the “Fog of Eternity” appealed to me) and would probably trudge through the latter half (I always wonder if anyone uses the NPCs from the various books).
Ancient Mysteries isn’t the standard Kindred history book. What Kindred consider high points in history does not always coincide with the mortal populace. On page 100, the authors cleverly compare the “Fog of Eternity” to actual fog filling a mountainous valley. In essence, much of the past is forgotten just as the valley is blanketed in mist; however, there will always be peaks immune to the fog. The text gives a detailed look to a few of those mountains.
The layout of Ancient Mysteries mostly makes sense. The graphic designers on this project most likely clocked in some overtime as nearly every page as a faux-taped note, receipt, or other piece of discarded paperwork breaking up the “true” text. One distraction that sometimes occurs in these heavily laden graphics is a decision to break the columns. The reader will sometimes read down the entire length of the pages, return to the top, and follow down the second column. Then there are times that the columns will break mid-page, forcing the reader to the top of the page. Underneath the graphic, the reader will then start a new column. This isn’t a consistent practice throughout the book. In the end, the constant breaks detract from the book. A page like 144, loaded with a snippet from an e-mail, two cool and morbid pieces of Thai demonology, and a squeezed pinch of actual text, is a prime example of the frustration that can occur when too much is crammed onto a page. To be fair, the first three chapters are mostly immune to this shortcoming. It’s the fourth chapter’s desire to have pseudo-historical props that creates this problem. Even in the fourth chapter, it is not always a problem; nevertheless, a few pages are just too cramped for me to ignore.
The artwork of the book consistently shines. While I wasn’t over impressed with the feral little bugger on the cover (I felt stronger, more cover-worthy pieces were inside the book), it is a far call from unattractive. The artwork is rather sporadic in the first two chapters as the “Fog of Eternity” and mechanics for creating elder vampires is revealed. Chapter Three sees artwork only from John Christopher. For those who read my New Age Requiem review, you’ll recall that I loved his artwork in that book even though I wasn’t one hundred percent sure I credited the correct author. Since I wasn’t corrected, I’ll assume I’ve got the right guy.
Christopher’s character images are varied and impressive. Each image shows at least two faces, one focused and one hazy. Christopher’s vampires come from several walks of life. All have the violent eyes of a predator. His style is a bit different than it was in the other book; however, he has more consistencies that really appeal to me. The fourth chapter doesn’t have a great deal of artwork, but it is loaded down with design. White Wolf is a company constantly in evolution. I, for one, love where this current artistic turn is taking them. My only concern for the artwork is to make sure you take the “mature reader discretion” warnings to heart. The ball-gagged girl preparing for her torture on page sixty-eight probably ain’t the best thing for a kid to see.
White Wolf books love to start off with some fiction. I believe it’s tattooed in the flesh of some forgotten contract or what-have you. In Ancient Mysteries, the fiction tells the story of a vampire in two distinct voices. It’s much to short to talk about without giving things away, but I’ll say that the writing is good.
The introduction begins artwork spanning two pages. I personally felt like this should have been the cover piece even though I personally didn’t like it the most. The female vampire in the piece shows her ability to roll with the times as she sports armor and a sword with her right arm while favoring lace and a handgun with her left. This seems to fit the concept of the book better than the beast on the cover. The content of the introduction spans only four pages. It offers the typical warning against getting too bogged down in the details of history (someone will always know the accurate fact to the one you just misquoted and feel the need to break character).
It then explains what is ahead in the book. I thought it did a good job of crunching down what readers would be getting. They also briefly explain which time periods will be detailed in the fourth chapter. It’s hard to make all readers happy (everyone has their “pet” time period), but I personally liked most of them.
Chapter One: Piercing the Fog of Eternity also begins with a two-page spread (all the chapters do). This opening artwork is more abstract than the other pieces. It works since the gist of this chapter deals with the legends of the Fog of Eternity. The book lays no specific claim to the validity of the concept. It suggests that it could be an urban legend, psychological disorder, or something supernaturally-imposed. What it actually is is cool. The essential idea behind this new mechanic is that no creature’s memory is unscathed by the passage of time. When vampires enter torpor, they are vulnerable to this effect. Memories may be forever lost or just remembered incorrectly. This mechanic helps players play centuries old creatures when they don’t have the time to make a full history. This mechanic works with the notable highlights of the vampire’s past because that is how the fog works. Those moments of awesome are what the vampire remembers all the players has to bother with as well.
Chapter Two: Unstuck from Time is the rules-heavy chapter of the book. It begins with snapshots of various Kindred and their particular age-related derangement. From there, it revisits the character creations process in intense detail. The chief focus here is making sure players don’t take skills that didn’t exist in their time and keeping their backgrounds and merits to believable levels. When White Wolf released Elysium for Vampire the Masquerade, it allowed for some super hero level gaming. Ancient Mysteries isn’t as interested in doing that.
Time cripples even the most dangerous of Kindred. Some players may not like that concept, but a vicious bloodsucker who also happens to be scared may make for some interesting gaming.
Chapter Three: Relics of the Past introduces a horde of vampires to either use outright or mine for details. The lead-in artwork was okay for this chapter. I really liked the Gangrel’s quoted belief that the world could not have changed much in the time period of 1901 and 2001. Funny. The old creatures depicted in the chapter show that older doesn’t mean world-beater. The old system had creatures averaging stats around six. These beings average around three or four. Low scores doesn’t equal low interest. Some of these monsters have excellent backstories.
Chapter Four: Flashpoints in History unveils several time periods, dating from World War One to Ancient Egypt. Since the first section dealt with the Great War, I worried that the entries would be overly-treaded ground. I was wrong. We see the Kindred’s version of Manifest Destiny alongside their version of the Haitian Rebellion. It is some seriously great stuff. My frustration with the layout was dwarfed by the tight writing. While I won’t be fact-checking their historical sources, it reads like the authors know their material. This chapter eats up half of the book because it has to. It’s worth the word count.
The PDF wraps up with three pages of ads. After reading this book, I found myself wanting to pick up each of the six books. Madison Avenue must be proud. Overall, I wasn’t fully prepared to like this book. After reading and immensely enjoying the last two White Wolf books, I felt like a look at Kindred history would be a let-down. Again, I was pleasantly wrong. The decision to pick oddities from the past pays huge dividends to the reader as purely new material is laid out. This is a solid addition to any Vampire: the Requiem collection, especially if it’s the campaign game for your group. It will make your elders just a tad creepier and more, for lack of a better word, human.
My scores for Ancient Mysteries are:
Artwork: Four out of Five Dice (I like 99% of the artwork, but feel some of it was in the
Layout: Three out of Five Dice (Chapter One through Three would get a higher score, but Chapter Four’s occasional moments of chaos were a turn-off. I hope to see the same kind of intensity in the future, but with a consistent structure.)
Writing: Five out of Five Dice (The mechanics in Chapter Two make sense and the
historical fiction engages the reader.)
Overall: Four out of Five Dice (Fits a collection nicely)
Review by Todd Cash