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Dark Ages Companion Review

Posted on September 20, 2004 by Flames


Available at RPGNow.com


Written by Guy Davis, Andrew Bates, Jackie Cassada, Ken Cliffe, Richard Dansky, Robert Hatch,
Michael Lee, Nicky Rea, Sion Rodriguez y Gibson, Ethan Skemp, Cynthia Summers and Fred Yelk, Additional Material by Phil Brucato, White Wolf Publishing (WW2804), April 1997, 189 pgs, US$20.00

It seemed inevitable that White Wolf would eventually release a Dark Ages setting for its Vampire World of Darkness series of games – or at least some kind of historical setting that could take advantage of the powerful association many people have for vampires and dark, moonlit central European villages. That the company would create products with its customary panache and attention to the needs of its potential customers may have been taken for granted – more interesting questions might be, could it avoid cliché? Could it manage to be both accurate and interesting?

The Dark Age is commonly regarded as a terrible period for humanity, with the collapse of the Roman empire assumed to mean the end of civilization and its fruits and the deliverance of humanity to the depredations of various barbarian hordes. Indeed, much of the Anglo-Saxon poetry of the period that remains is infused with the sense of loss and longing for the past that has slipped away: “Hwaer cwom mearg? Hwaer cwom mago? Hwaer cwom maththumgyfa? Hwaer cwom symbla gesetu? Hwaer sindon seledreamas? Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga! Eala theodnes thrym! Hu seo thrag gewat, Genap under nihthelm, swa heo no waere!” (“What has become of the horse? What has become of the warrior? What has become of the giver of treasure? What has become of the seats at the feasts? Where are the joys in the hall? Ah, bright cup! Ah, mailed warrior! Ah, glory of the king! How that time passed, and vanished under cover of darkness, as if it had never been.”) (The Wanderer, anon.)

More, the abandoned Roman ruins in Britain, made from stone with technology beyond the remaining people, were considered to be the works of giants.

Yet on the mainland of Europe – not to mention the golden glory of the Arabic world of the era and the majesty and sophistication of the Tang court of China – these centuries were in fact not terribly bad – instead, most people continued with the painfully slow improvement in living standards that has been the norm throughout most of history. White Wolf authors have slightly fudged the issue by setting The Dark Ages in what is more frequently referred to as the Medieval Ages of the C12th. This sets the action squarely in the Crusades era – a decision that was somewhat less controversial in the 1990s than it would be today.

The Medieval Age is more frequently associated with chivalry, tourneys, courtly love and pitched battles than with the claustrophobic, torch-lit gloom of the Dark Ages. Is it justifiable to bend history in this way? Well, while purists are likely to complain, purists are not likely to be White Wolf’s main audience, which is mostly young people who enjoy the costumery and slight campness of European history and neither know nor care about the differences between Wallachians and Walloons.

Taking this overview, therefore, we would expect to find something of a hodgepodge and here of course we are not disappointed. Those elements of history that are deemed suitable for the game are included and the tedious parts ignored. Hollywood does it too, of course.

Since this was the basis of the main Dark Ages book, it would be reasonable to assume that this companion would contain more of the same and White Wolf does not disappoint. We are treated to some new clan types, new rules, powers and background information, all served up with a liberal dollop of artwork and cartoons. There is a great deal of black ink here and the artwork varies considerably in style and tone which, while appropriate for the nature of the book, will not appeal to those who value consistency. Some – but not all – of the artwork appeals to me but artwork is not an important factor in my opinion in the value of the book, which lives and dies on the writing and the information contained within.

After a lengthy cartoon opening and a too-brief introduction, we have seven chapters and an appendix (there must always be an appendix!). The first chapter deals with combat and, specifically, how to deal with large-scale combat in which the vampire prince leads a host of troops. This is necessary for Dark Ages vampires are much more likely to be able to establish themselves fairly openly and seek to dominate whole communities openly. The individual aspects of the combat here are quite good but the basic premise that pitched battles would ever have taken place in the dark is faintly ludicrous and perhaps should not be dwelt upon too much. Chapter two consists of Cainite roads and will be of particular use to players who are unsure how to structure their role-playing experiences – as well as, to be cynical for a moment, opening the way for future supplements.

The same is true of the Bloodlines in Chapter 3, which include the Laibon (non-interventionist North African wanderers), Lhiannan (pre-Christian pagan types of the type that has becoming increasingly fashionable), Lamia (Levantine matriarchists) and Salubri (slightly tedious Judaeo-Christian types who have thankfully been all but destroyed by the Tremere). These offer some new character classes …. er bloodlines to play for people who want something slightly but not radically new.

Chapter 4 brings new disciplines and, as is the way with White Wolf, these are mostly higher level versions of already existing powers and extrapolate from them in a fairly predictable way. There are some nice touches here but nothing terribly innovative. New disciplines are provided for the new bloodlines and there are some infernal disciplines which are perhaps the most fun – Unleash the Dark Soul allows the vile infernalist to rip the shadow from a living mortal and imbue it with dark, if temporary, power, thereby destroying the unfortunate mortal – a great use for other otherwise-worthless children, virgins and other lowlifes.

Chapter 5 is entitled ‘Matters of Faith’ and represents another attempt to try to get players to take religion seriously. It is rather depressing that we have to assume that supposedly intelligent and imaginative people have to be told the basic history of the Christian church but at least it provides an additional market for the writers amongst us. The history of the Moors and the Crusades, among others, are dealt with at breakneck pace which is nonetheless probably suitable for those who will encounter them as tourists. Pagan magic and beliefs are also touched upon but the main point about religion in the past is lost – that death was such a constant companion (from disease, childbirth, common illness or accident) that without the consolation it provides that there is a meaning to life and a reason to obey social rules; anarchy and social disorder were ever just a step away. Well, this is unlikely to affect vampires anyway.

Chapter 6 deals with Dark Medieval Europe – which skips from some fairly superficial comments about city and country living to dealing with kabbalists, faerie folk and werepeople of various species. This is perhaps the most disappointing chapter because it is the most important and could have been the most useful in creating a truly memorable game. Do the new bloodlines and disciplines really add more value to the book than a thorough treatment of life in the past would have done? Perhaps yes, if the players are primarily interested in acting as vampires rather than in a meaningful historical experience – it is reasonable to assume that White Wolf knows its customers well enough to give them what they want.

Chapter 7 concerns itself with infernalism and is again a lot of fun. Demons, the devil and the Baali are the most likely adversaries for a vampire prince and there is sufficient information here to make such confrontations prolonged and interesting. Playing a mortal in such a campaign seems less interesting – perhaps a troupe style of play in which players get to role play a variety of different individuals might balance the playing style?

The brief appendix contains statistics for a variety of basic animals – cats, bats, swans and sheep – is this really necessary? The brief notes on how people viewed these animals has some value but cannot it just be assumed that any vampire that wants to kill or otherwise do mischief to a sheep can automatically do so?

In all, this is a well-stuffed book and it does a good job as a companion. It is not constructed in the way I would have done it but then who cares what I think? If you are running a Dark Ages campaign, then this book can be recommended – it will certainly assist in the creation and in the fun of playing.

Reviewer: John Walsh

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