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Thousand Hells Review
Posted By Flames On September 20, 2004 @ 5:36 pm In Reviews,RPGs | No Comments
Written by Kraig Blackwelder, Tim Clancy, Geoffrey C. Grabowski and Lindsay Woodcock, with Jack Norris and Richard E. Dansky, White Wolf Publishing (WW2902)
The Thousand Hells is a supplement for White Wolf’s World of Darkness Kindred of the East (KOTE) role playing game of horror set in modern East Asia. KOTE is a companion to the more familiar Vampire: the Masquerade (VtM) line of games and products. This supplement provides details of the many hells that exist within the mythology underpinning the KOTE setting and includes some details on what it is like to visit or be condemned to some of those hells, denizens that might be found there, methods of entrapping players in adventures in which their characters must visit hell and a variety of additional ideas, including new powers and abilities for vampires and their inevitable assailants. As the name suggests, the supplement is not sufficient to play the game in itself and players will need the KOTE book in order to play, as well as the usual variety of stationery and polyhedral dice.
The supplement is organized into seven chapters and one appendix. The first chapter is a piece of fiction, describing the apparent escape of a vampire from the clutches of the Kings of Hell. It is a short and slightly sketchy piece that would have benefited from a little further development – the presence of more than half a page of empty space at the end of the story reveals this shortcoming. The next chapter is a general introduction, which is again rather sketchy and also has considerable amounts of blank space – there is a theme emerging here which recurs throughout this book. The next chapter is entitled ‘The Tapestry of Yomi’ and it provides a background to the cosmography of the hells of this world, as well as a basic explanation of the different stages of the world which will be familiar (albeit in a different guise) to players using the VtM setting. Yomi is the name given to the infernal regions, although it is not really clear where this word comes from and what myths are being drawn together here. This chapter reveals some of the structural problems underlying this product and indeed the whole of the KOTE setting, enjoyable though it is. Firstly, White Wolf has considered it necessary for the glorious diversity of eastern myths and legends to be reduced to a single, hopefully coherent whole in which the vampires, the roles of which the players play, can interact together as a group, no matter whether their background is supposedly China, Korea, Japan or Southeast Asia. The second main problem is in trying to provide a fairly close parallel with the western world of VtM and its decline towards a new age in which vampires will act out the final war. This does not work so well in a Buddhist background which does not really share the eschatology of a Judeo-Christian universe.
The fourth chapter is ‘The Map of Damnation: Geography,’ which provides more specific details on locations within the damned dimensions. As one might expect from a White Wolf product, it is sections such as this that are most successful. There is enough detail in this chapter to provide background to characters’ actions – but not really so much as to provide believable motivations for them to be there in the first place or what they could realistically expect to achieve. Nevertheless, the prose is occasionally evocative and the illustrations here (and throughout the book) do their job in inspiring some ideas and scenarios. Next up is ‘The Face of Yomi: The Yama Kings,’ which provides details of the very potent rulers of hell – the Yama Kings – and their various motivations and intentions. This section is again quite nicely written but also suffers from nearly all game-specific descriptions of immortal gods and demons: that is, they must somehow be made sufficiently powerful that no individual character could hope to be able to challenge their authority (and especially not in their home infernos) while still being recognizable individuals with which personal interaction of some sort is possible.
The next two chapters are ‘Storytelling in Yomi’ and ‘Systems of Yomi.’ The chapter on systems is again competently done and covers at least some of the issues likely to emerge during play. However, since there is no attempt to cover all one thousand hells (as how could there be?), a significant portion of the chapter is devoted to how to create one’s own hell and what to do with it, which is something of an admission that the book as a whole has struggled to tackle the entirety of its subject adequately. The storytelling chapter intensifies this feeling in that it reveals itself to be an attempt to rescue the book from a meandering path that does not provide the answer to the question: “What do I do with this?” The fact that so many writers are credited for what is a 120 page book (and in which too many pages are effectively left blank) also suggests a lack of focus and an inability to resolve the structural problems discussed above.
The book is completed with an appendix entitled ‘Akuma: the Devil-Eaten’ and this reads as another attempt to rescue the edifice of the book by slapping on more information and more suggestions as to what to do. Again, the details themselves are quite nicely done and methods of summoning and dealing with demons are always useful and fun things to do – but why is this not integrated into the body of the book? Perhaps some better structured adventures would have been more helpful in explaining the nature of a campaign involving hell.
Overall, the book must probably be regarded as a failure but a failure with many good parts in it. For experienced players able to take inspiration from scattered sections and integrating them into a coherent whole, the book would be worthwhile. For the inexperienced, another purchase would probably be better. Still, how can one resist The Fat Striders of the Hell of Boiling Oil and the chance of designing a hell for one’s own personal enemies?
Reviewer: John Walsh
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