Sunday, 17 August 2014

Reading Demon: the Fallen

Editing the podcasts for our Demon game, which I had a lot of fun with despite being a bit lost, instilled in me an interest in a) playing more of that game, b) having a more educated shot at character creation, and c) doing one of my vague analytically posts about the skills system as it presents to new players. So I ended up blowing £10 on the PDF, which is a lot considering I probably won't be running it and expect to find it a bit cringeworthy in places. But let's see.

My first interest is in trying another quick bout of character creation, as I had a bit of an idea. I crack open the PDF and start skimming through it, flicking through the preamble and the few pages of inevitable game fiction for the chargen rules.

Still flicking.

Still going.


I stop and go back to the top of the PDF, concerned that some combination of overwork and tiredness pushed me into accidentally buying one of the Demon tie-in novels DTRPG was advertising when I searched for the rulebook. How stupid of me.

No, no, that's the cover from Demon. And it lists "rules" in the contents page, right there in - page Two Hundred and Six-freaking-teen are you having a laugh?

This is a joke, right? Nobody would seriously sell a 300 page rulebook and make two-thirds of it terrible game fiction. See, if I go to that page I'm already part-way through the rules! Let's scroll aaaaall the way back to the start on page... 98. Of 305.

I just paid £10 for a PDF where the first one-third is cringeworthy fiction about characters I am clearly supposed to think are really cool. Look, the five pages of "prologue" - which is to say, game fiction - is the precise amount I am prepared to tolerate. Other samples should be lightly scattered throughout the book to leaven the rules, carefully arranged to not be in the way and planned to illustrate some point or other. I suppose at least this way I can just ignore them, but... well, could be worse. I could be toting a hardback across town to game with in the full knowledge that one-third of the weight is irrelevant.

Layout and stuff

Fiction! A five-page story that should be more than ample for setting the scene, thanks. I know Call of Cthulhu includes the entire story "The Call of Cthulhu", but a) it is a game named after that story and based around doing the stuff in that story, rather than the other way around; and b) "The Call of Cthulhu" is a really good story. Yours? Um.

Next, a really unhelpful contents page that doesn't actually make it clear what anything is

We move onto a brief introduction to the game, including one-half of the game's terminology guide and a guide to the contents page, of all things. You'd think it would perhaps have been simpler to include that information with the contents page, rather than giving each chapter a portentous but utterly uninformative title.

Now, for no discernable reason, come four sodding chapters of fiction. Do not do this.

Here follow the types of Demon, and their stereotypes of others. This focuses on backstory, outlook, and then some stuff about Faith and chargen. There is no information on what their powers actually do, and the chargen stuff is inappropriate at this point when mechanics have not been discussed at all. Some are weirdly limited - for example, the game assumes that all Devourers fall into a specifically "mindless savage beast" archetype, when a quick glance at the natural world (and our stereotypes of animals) offers an array of other animal-themed personalities.

Character creation: a runthrough of how stuff works and the character sheet. How to approach character creation - new demons, optimisation, party play. Reasonable, no complaints here. However, the layout so far means that critical chargen information is weird split, with the Houses and factions (and some of their mechanics) listed before the instructions for chargen, followed by the rest.

Chargen process with a big useful list of concepts. Some rather wishful-thinking overviews of the Lores.

The chargen step-by-step guide is misleading. You are much better off choosing powers before Attributes if you want to actually be capable of using them.

Example of chargen. I think it's a bit misleading again, in that choosing a House based on the fluff will not necessarily get you what you wanted mechanically. There is no discussion of checking power requirements and ensuring you have the dots to pull them off. The sample character will struggle to pull off the non-Torment version of any powers, but has, ahem, coincidentally ended up with enough dots to use them reliably. I notice, though, that if she'd chosen either of the other House Lores, the character would really struggle to use them despite following the House recommendations.

There's some nice, detailed analysis of what all the attributes and stuff actually mean, which I do appreciate. A lot of games skimp on that stuff, so while it's a tad cheesy at times, the combination of brief fluff and some crunchier discussion helps to establish what something is for. The dot-by-dot breakdowns are also nice. This also makes it less of an issue that the core rules are so far into the book, since you can still make a character with some idea of what their abilities do.

We then move into a discussion of powers that feels a bit clunky, with more fluff here than seems really necessary. I think one of the issues I have with the book here is that the fluff and crunch are interwoven - I don't mean into a skilful whole, I mean, it's hard to pick them out as you go along. This makes it difficult to grab hold of the core essentials or double-check a rule, as often a key line is buried in some text.

The Lores follow, in no discernable order. I would personally have separated out the Visages into another section, since it just makes it a bit fiddlier to refer to the Lores. You never need both Visages and Lores at the same time, so it shouldn't present any problems.

We only then move into the rules in detail.

The book does reasonably well at cross-referencing, but suffers from a dismal contents page and an equally appalling index, with no entries for essential game concepts like Pacts or Reaping, but prominent pointers for Fire and Electrocution.

Game Terms are defined on page 225, while fluff terminology is listed on page 13, even though much of the game terminology was used throughout the preceding two hundred pages.

The core rules seem to do reasonably well at covering likely in-game situations, with things like the Feats of Strength table discussing specific things you might do. I'd have liked fewer pictures in the combat section, since this is an information-dense section that needs regular reference, and the pictures pad it out and cause more page-turning.

The heading font is a little bit hard to read, making it slightly harder to track down information with a glance.

The book falls into a common trap by having no sidebars and unhelpful topbars. The pages simply list "Chapter Nine" and "Demon the Fallen", with no indication of what that chapter contains. I think it's generally safe to assume that people know what rulebook they're reading, so go ahead and give a brief summary of the chapter contents instead.

The section on Faith discusses locations with Faith potential that can sometimes hold demons at bay, but then goes on to not discuss this valuable game potential in the slightest. It fobs us off with a brief mention of how the absolute holiest sites in the world, which are not particularly likely to come up in a game, can inflict damage on high-Torment demons. Interesting, but of limited use.

There is some good stuff on specifically demonic issues like true names, summmoning, binding, exorcism and so on, which I appreciate. This kind of thing makes it much easier to evoke the demon theme rather than a more general supernatural theme.

And there's an extensive section on running the game, complete with character-establishing prologues and plot hooks. This looks fine, but honestly it's hard to tell without really reading the whole thing in detail.

One piece of advice I noticed in passing, which is pretty common, is about fudging. There's quite a long passage, but here's a couple of key sentences:

The best rule of thumb is to fudge events directly only if it enhances the game as a whole. It is your privilege as the Storyteller, but if you abuse it, you will convince the players that their characters can’t really succeed at anything, which ruins the game.

While it's not particularly bad guidance, I think it misses the point a bit. The issue with fudging isn't that it convinces players they can't succeed - often fudging is well-intentioned and actually helps the players. The issue is that it convinces them that they don't have agency, and are playing at the ST's sufferance.

Pregen characters are always useful. While I don't have the energy to run the numbers, it looks like these follow the usual White Wolf pattern of being substantially more powerful than a character built with the normal rules. The character-building pyramid costs make it hard to guess, but I think you're looking at several hundred experience points. Most of them have Faith of around 7-8, which alone will cost over a hundred XP if you start as a normal character on 4 Faith (cost for Faith 7 is 4+5+6*7, or 105 XP) - this is, of course, the kind of Faith you need if you want your powers to be substantially effective. Other investments are less costly, but they also tend to have 8 lores, which is twice what any starting character can afford. Of course, the point is that these are antagonists, not starting characters, and I do appreciate this. What I don't know is whether a player character can ever plausibly approach that kind of power. This is a game where gaining five point of experience is considered extraordinarily generous, so buying a single additional lore is likely to require a full storyline.

The powers that be

The really interesting part of being a demon is, to be honest, the powers. The fluff for each demon type is indeed different, but it's also kind of incoherent and doesn't really follow that logically. Space angels become prophecy demons! Sea angels become bard-demons! Some are much better than others. But I suspect most people will find it much easier to choose stuff they would like to be distinctive about what their demon is and does, and select a house that will allow them to do those things. Also, in order to actually be able to use any power, you really need to have the appropriate skills that provide dice to power them, which means you really ought to pick skills partly to match your powers. No, this isn't doing roleplaying wrong: there is no point whatsoever trying to create a character who is a charming demon with gravity-controlling powers if your earlier mechanical choices mean your character will not actually be able to either charm people or control gravity. As such, I think they've presented this material in the wrong order.

I'm confused by some of the powers, in several terms. Sometimes the order in which things appear seems counterintuitive: it's easier to do antigravity tricks (literally flying) than it is to run up a wall, let alone walk upside-down. In other cases, I'm not at all clear why something requires a power: in a showy system like this, running up a steep slope shouldn't require a power, but the existence of Manipulate Adhesion seems to imply that you couldn't do it with skills alone. Similarly, I don't understand why a level three power and multiple successes are needed to snatch a throwing knife out of the air, since I'd expect a skilled individual in a setting like this to be able to do so anyway - and despite its cost and difficulty, it doesn't let you catch bullets, which you are far more likely to encounter in a modern setting than arrows or throwing knives.

Pick and Mix

Looking at the powers gives me reservations about the demon Houses in general, because none of them feels enormously coherent once you stop looking at White Wolf's enthusiastic fluff about what the Lores supposedly do, and pay attention to their actual mechanical effects.

Some of the Lores themselves are a bit hotchpotch and short on core concept (I'm looking at you, Lore of the Celestials). The Devil has powers of Fire, Being Really Impressive, and... whatever the hell Lore of the Celestials is supposed to be. Malefactors get Making Stuff, Earth and Unnecessarily Complex Fast Travel. Scourges get Life Energy, Possessing Thralls and Air. Fiends get Prediction, Teleportation and Light. The only House that I think is genuinely coherent in theme is the Slayer, and arguably the Devourer (Flesh is a bit weird).


The Lore of Paths seems pretty rubbish, because most of its powers are essentially meta-powers. They don't let you do stuff to the gameworld, but interact with other arbitrary mechanics. Maybe I should explain that.

The basic powers let you locate Paths with various properties. This initially seemed very cool, but now I can't tell whether it actually lets you do anything unless the ST decides that someone has already created the kind of Path you wanted. It's not at all clear to me what the difference is supposed to be between Find Path and Lay Path, unless it's the ST-decides thing, which seems increasingly likely as I read more powers. A power that relies on ST whim to this extent seems... problematic.

Lay Path is apparently required because Find Path doesn't let you create any. Find Path is required because Paths are invisible most of the time. Conceal Path is required to overcome Find Path, even though if your Path is any use it probably already calls for 3+ successes and you will only slightly increase the difficulty of the task. Close Path lets you seal off a Path so nobody can use it, except that it doesn't, because you can reopen them just using Willpower over time - its major use is actually to trap travellers, unless you have Torment which will actually destroy paths. Warp Paths lets you make Paths better, although it's not clear to me why this would be superior to just making a new Path that does what you want, so its major use is again in messing with travellers.

It seems to me that what this is doing is creating a little minigame around Paths by having a ton of powers with quite limited use. Essentially the whole lore is devoted to moving from one place to another - and I'm not really sure why this couldn't just be packed into a single power. Essentially, as far as I can tell, Lay Path is the only one that's really crucial, and the others are tacked on as ways for other demons to interact with your power, in a way that simply doesn't apply for other lores. There aren't powers in Beast to let you mess with summoned or possessed animals, or detect that an animal is a demon in disguise, or lock an animal so it can't be possessed. I'm just not sure what the point is of all this complexity, unless it's that they couldn't really think of anything else to put in this lore.

Lord of Light

The Lore of Light has a related issue to Paths, in that most of its powers are redundant. The 3rd, 4th and 5th-tier powers do the same thing, just getting slightly better at it each time; this seems frustrating to me, and makes it an unappealing choice. You could easily have offered this by demanding additional (or more difficult) successes for the more 4th and 5th-tier equivalents. I personally wouldn't want to spend valuable (and increasingly expensive) dots to get a fractionally refined version of the same power; it's far more interesting, and more useful, to get new powers that give you entirely new abilities, which is what most of the other Lores do.

Zombie Battle

As far as I can tell, Restore Life and Unlife are essentially the same power, with a few qualifiers. Firstly, Unlife is far better articulated, as it actually goes into detail about the stats of resurrected bodies and how mental control of zombies works. However, Restore Life is mechanically vastly superior most of the time. You use the same roll, expend the same Faith for the same number of bodies, and the duration is the same. Unlife gives 1 point in each physical attribute (with boosts available for extra successes) while by dint of not saying anything, my default interpretation of Restore Life would be that creatures retain their original stats. Restore Life can actually resurrect creatures if you can get hold of their soul, or the bodies can become host for demons - neither seems possible with Unlife, which only makes zombies, which Restore Life can also do.

There are detailed instructions for controlling bodies with Unlife, which is fairly hard; the description of Restore Life simply says "a mindless zombie that the demon can control" and does not specify that a roll is needed, nor any limit to the number of minions that can be controlled. In both cases Torment zombies may turn on their creator, but Unlife requires a difficulty 8 Willpower roll each turn; the Restore Life version calls for a Willpower roll with difficulty equal to Torment, which will almost always be less than 8 and usually a lot less.

There are two areas where Unlife has a slight edge. Firstly, you can raise bodies of any age (within the limits of decay, I assume) whereas Restore Life is limited to a week. This is potentially quite a good benefit, particularly for undead armies and so on. Secondly, you can pre-program your zombies and leave them to it so they act outside your range of command. However, this requires spending a point of temporary Willpower per zombie. I should also point out that neither power actually specifies any range of command, nor that commands are not mental, so this may actually be irrelevant.

On the whole, Restore Life just seems flat-out a lot better except specifically for raising very old zombies.


There are several powers I noticed that seem to have some obvious powerful uses probably not intended by the designers, but which aren't actually rules-lawyering or anything as far as I can see.

Lore of the Forge is good here, with both Activate and Shape offering strong potential. With Activate, the torment version is key, provided you ignore the "activate" part and concentrate on your ability to damage objects a few yards away even if you can't see them. How much you can get away with will depend on your ST, but off the top of my head: elevator cables, brake cables, airbags, pacemakers, fire escapes, ladders, and so on. You can use it for other things too, like accessing money, but killing outright is the most cheesy.

Shape, on the other hand, is pretty nice as it stands, but its really nice ability is not making, but demaking. You change the shape of matter. No wall need stand in your way, even a massive steel door is grist to your mill. Success depends on what you want to make, so providing you want to make a shapeless mass of steel, you're golden. Again, you have some very dangerous options here: make that floor much thinner, tactically warp that dangerous machine, or if you're feeling ambitious, transform an entire building's supporting walls into whatever and watch the whole thing collapse. Golden Gate Bridge annoying you? The power does not specify any volume of matter that can be affected, nor any range; even assuming touch, as I have, isn't a problem with large objects like... foundations.

Mark of the Celestials is another cheesetastic power if you word things right and are willing to make a few attempts until you get a nice bunch of successes. "Let everyone give him all they possess", for example, will get you money and food, negate most threats (thanks for your clothes and weapons! and this car!), and provide access cards and keys. For missiony games, that's amazingly powerful. "Let everyone tell him their most valuable secret" is another good one. "Let everyone let him tie them up and take all their stuff" works well. And of course, "Let everyone obey him absolutely" covers most bases. Again, for sheer brutality, you can't beat "Let everyone who sees him kill themselves". You need maybe five successes to overcome the vast majority of normal humanity with this stuff. That's not especially difficult.

Crunching powers

There were some trends I noticed in flicking through the book, and also during out Demon game, and wanted to analyse a bit. So inevitably, I ended up producing a bit spreadsheet where I analysed some stuff about the various lores. Not maths, but a mixture of subjective and (relatively) objective judgements about the powers. I considered utility and flexibility. I thought about how much the power replicates something I'd expect to do just with a good roll on a skill. In some cases, I drew harsh conclusions about the validity of an entire lore.

Most importantly though, I looked long and hard at the Torment versions of powers, because discussions during our Demon game had made it clear that the game is deeply inconsistent about what Torment does to your powers. Its possible effects include:

  • Making an attack power into an AoE centred on the demon
  • Harmful side-effects on bystanders
  • Harming the target of a non-attack power
  • Completely switching mechanical effect
  • Restricting the power to a subset of its normal flexibility
  • Making a power more effective
  • Randomly malfunctioning
  • Losing control of the power
  • Losing control of the PC
  • Causing a different effect to the one you intended
  • Posing a danger to the PC

As you can see, some of these are 100% bad news, some are 100% good news, and some are context-dependent. Adding a harmful side-effect to a power you're using in a hostile situation may well be to your advantage; on the other hand, you might end up poisoning and stampeding a crowd of friendly civilians when you just wanted to disarm one enemy.

In these terms, there are some clear winners and losers. I will point out that this Torment evaluation isn't hugely useful without also considering the value of a power in its own right, but I thought it was interesting. It might seem a bit petty, but I'm interested in detail. Also, new characters will struggle to use the non-Torment version of their powers, and so I think it's important to give serious consideration to what their experience of powers is likely to be. As always, Chance and Credence are significant. My Devourer never actually failed the roll and got taken over by Arthur when using animal possessing powers, but the fact that I might be always preyed on my mind.

Clear winners in the Torment stakes are the Devils. They boast only three powers whose Torment version is flat-out worse than the non-Torment version: Lamp of Faith (the power's scope is drastically limited), Holocaust (very likely to harm a Tormented caster) and Ride the Flames (lose the movement abilities and likely to take damage). Meanwhile, a full eight of their Torment powers are essentially a different power, which is valuable when demons become capable of choosing between them due to low Torment or big dicepools.

The clear losers, meanwhile, are the Devourers. Of their 15 house Lores, a full twelve have Torment versions that are categorically worse than the original. These range from Beast powers where the demon is liable to lose control (and potentially become an ST puppet) to Wild powers that cause collateral damage, to Flesh powers that tend to either inflict unwanted harm or completely misfire. Meanwhile, they have precisely zero powers that are more powerful in their Torment version or offer increased flexibility.

Slayers do very nearly as badly, also with twelve powers that are simply worse in Torment. Most of their powers create harmful side-effects with Torment, while the cool zombie-making one is liable to go out of control. On the flip side, three of their powers (all Death) are potentially more powerful, or at least flexible, in that the Torment version is AoE. Quite a lot of the time, if you're trying to destroy or terrorise someone, you're in trouble and won't mind affecting multiple enemies in a small area - although it's also possible that you have allies nearby.

On the whole, I would tend to say that Slayers probably have the worst of it. The Death lore is pretty cool, but there's a wide range of ways to kill and harm things out there. Meanwhile, Spirit seems to require that everyone is on board for a campaign with a lot of ghosts, and is of minimal use except when are ghosts to interact with.

Realms shares the same issues as Paths: it reads to me like one power carefully subdivided into five for lack of ideas. Yes, the power of the powers increases, but they don't fundamentally offer anything new, whereas most of the other lores have five powers that do five distinct things. The same is somewhat true of the first three Spirit powers.

There are also some things that look like genuine errors, like the fact that the level 3 Flesh power has no duration limit listed, making it better than the level 5 power by allowing unlimited, free changes to your physical attributes. Many powers also lack ranges, which makes them either awesome or a bit pants depending on your interpretation. I'm told there are official errata for many of these in the Player's Guide: I don't have this, and I'm not paying for it. At this stage let me say that putting errata for your core book in another product you're expected to buy, rather than just on the internet, is not okay.


Hows about them dots?

Remember that a rating of 1 is poor, 2 is average, 3 is good, and greater than 3 is outstanding. That means that a rating of 2 isn’t bad and a rating of 3 is above average. Don’t worry if your character doesn’t have dice pools of 5 or more for everything, that’s not unusual. Also remember that your character is just starting out, so you’ll be able to improve traits with experience as the chronicle progresses.

This is actually true in default Demon, where a rating of 2 gives you a 75% chance even if you have nothing in the other half of your dicepool, as the WoD Percentifier shows. It gets trickier quickly, though, because few dice rolls are that simple. Often you're facing a higher difficulty number, need a minimum number of successes, or are making an opposed roll against another character. There's also the ever-present danger of 1s, which will each cancel one success from your hand. In our game, we failed quite a few rolls despite having significant dicepools, in several cases due to rolling two or three 1s.

In using powers, for example, you can only use the nice version if your successes exceed your Torment, which is actually pretty damn difficult - a starting character often has Torment 4, so you're really looking for at least 4 successes when you use a power. This will generally call for a hand of ten dice assuming you succeed on a 6, since there's a good chance of rolling a 1 with that many dice, which means you need to roll 5 successes. In practice, many powers call for a higher difficulty level. Good luck with that.

The Devil In Me

When I was processing the audio from our Demon game, it enthused me enough that I was drawn to one of my common habits with a new game: pulling up the rulebook (which meant buying the rulebook) and rolling up a character. And the thing which quickly struck me about this was that, well... I couldn't.

The number of character concepts for Demon: The Fallen is virtually limitless, bound only by your imagination. Get an image or idea of the sort of character you want to play and try to describe it in just a few words — a stereotype or archetype such as “Slick Politician” or “Edgy Rebel.”

Mm. I might point out here that neither of those concepts is in any way related to possession, Abrahamic religion or supernatural powers, the three things that seem to define the Demon premise. But also I need to take issue with this in a broader sense. I feel like the character options are a lot more limited than the game thinks they are.

See, "mortal possessed by demon" is a very broad concept. "burned-out/dead mortal possessed by fallen-angel-demon needing to get by in the mortal world" is a much more specific concept. What we have in Demon is something like: "Mortal whose soul has withered up, now serving as host to a fallen angel escaped from millennia of imprisonment with only a handful of their old power, and an array of mystical abilities taken not from classic evil-spirit motifs or Judeo-Christianity but from an array of specific mildly-incoherent thematic collections drawn from the full range of fantasy magical stuff, who forms part of an existing possessed-mortal subculture with specific conflicting philosophical and political goals."

Because most of the demons in Demon aren't informed particularly by existing demonic tropes, you can't rely that heavily on those to build a character. However, the House structure means that you are also pretty heavily restricted in what kind of demons you can build outside that. Want an elementalist demon, maybe bringing in some stuff about Eastern or Greek elemental traditions? Nope, each element corresponds to a different House. Want a demon all about darkness and shadows? There aren't any powers for that. Summon up legions of lesser spirits? Nope.

You can build a lot of different characters, but most of these don't meaningfully correspond to anything very demonic, or even angelic. Storms and light and emotional stuff seems alright, but honestly the nature stuff seems much more pagan than angelic, and all the Paths and Realms and Celestials stuff is a bit weird, Light is all about illusions which isn't very relevant, and so on and so forth. That's not to say these are inherently bad, but offbeat.

Basically, I think the thing here is that Demon is a lot more like Changeling than it is like Vampire, and this is deceptive. Like Vampire, it starts with a superficial premise that most people can quickly grasp (mortal turned into undead monster, mortal possessed by spirit). However, my understanding of Vampire is that the various... clans?... basically correspond reasonably well to some kind of existing archetypes, which means you can grab an idea from an existing trope and use that.

In Demon, the Houses are basically made up from whole cloth. Devils alone have any real claim to represent a trope, though you could make a limited argument for Slayers with their Angel-of-Death thing. A few of the others you can sort of see as plot points in a story if you use the descriptions, though not really as characters: the Scourge as plague demon, the Malefactor as crafting objects of desire for a fantasy king, the Fiend as fate-twister. However, if you actually read what their abilities mechanically do, these all turn out to be a bit hollow. The Scourge can poison or purge one mortal with a touch, but can't walk in clouds of pestilence or spread miasmas, and most of their Awakening powers do other random stuff. The Malefactor can craft cool stuff once they reach 4 dots in Forge, but is massively restricted by the requirements, and most of the time a mortal owner can't get them to work anyway. The Fiend has extremely limited foresight and can't actually directly influence fate at all.

This is very much akin to Changeling. In both cases, the designers have taken an existing supernatural concept (escaped fallen angels in mortal hosts, humans stolen by the Fey) and then come up with a very specific background, invented kinship groups and political factions for the creatures, devised sets of supernatural powers that aren't really inspired by any existing canon, and dropped them into a modern-day urban setting that never featured in the stories.

This isn't to say you can't come up with character concepts - obviously it's possible. But it basically requires abandoning any previous ideas you might have had about the subject, reading through the book in detail, and then constructing a character around the artificial groupings in the book.

Doing it in accordance with the game's advice also requires that you buy into the setting far more heavily than I think any game I've previously seen, and care a lot more about it than I am generally interested in doing. You're supposed to consider your character's initial angelic identity, how they came to rebel, and what they did during the war (which implies having a detailed idea of the war to work from), as well as the much more accessible questions about your host, your outlook on mortals and your goals.

The problem is, without doing those things, it's more difficult to come up with an actual character for your demon. On the other hand, all that is backstory, and it's also shared backstory, which means a) you can't really just make it up individually due to incoherence, and b) it is no longer of direct relevance to the game, which makes it a bit of a poor investment right at the start of the game. It's all very well having detailed backstory out of enthusiasm, but having it as a requirement to make a character is problematic. There's a difference between this and "normal" backstory, because generally mortal-scale backstory is still recent enough to resurface within the game, and is part of the same reality. The Paradise and War of Wrath stuff is so far removed from the modern urban setting of the actual game that I just can't bring myself to care. And if I did in fact end up heavily invested in the Fall and the War of Wrath, the thing is that I'd then almost certainly be more interested in playing through that stuff than in knocking off a couple of paragraphs and moving on to play a neutered version of my character in a completely different setting and in a different genre.

On reflection, I think the issue for me is that I just find it very hard to care about the demons. They don't feel substantial or coherent enough to me to get excited by, which means I can't help but approach the game from the perspective of the mortal hosts, which is much more accessible. Obviously, this is a bit limiting. It means any characters I make are going to be essentially a human with some mysterious magical powers, which is not the point of the game. Only three of the demon concepts really feel solid to me (Devil, Devourer and Slayer), of which Devourer isn't actually meaningfully demonic and the Slayers have exactly one set of powers that's not largely pointless.

Oddly, Demon seems to have a lot in common with Numenera. It is superficially fairly approachable, but when you start to look into the game, you realise that it is built around a very specific and personal setting that requires quite a lot of effort to grasp, but without grasping, is going to feel a bit hollow. I think the difference is that Numenera is reasonably upfront about this, presenting itself as a deliberately weird setting and offering a very extensive factual walkthrough of the world. Demon doesn't really address the fact that it is a far more specific game than you might expect from the "demons walk the earth" premise, and its worldbuilding takes place mostly in the form of fiction. For me, fiction may be better at conveying genre and tone and other subjective stuff, but it is a sight worse than simple description at getting across the meat of a setting. It's also rather more personal, so if you can't get into the writing, it's going to put you off, like it did me.

Character generation

I was going to do some stuff about how the character generation shapes up if you work from the book, and indeed looking at the skills. Considering this is already hugely long, though, I'll save that for another time.

Suggested fixes

So yeah, there are some substantial changes I would make to this rulebook.

Firstly, you guessed it - kill the story. Gut it. Remove it in its entirety. Someone buying your rulebook to play your game does not need to read your 90-page novelette about what you did in your game. Lay out the necessary backstory in a few pages of fairly plain writing describing the past events. If you're going to insist that player characters have ideas of what they did in the war, leave obvious hooks for them to build on.

Put all game terminology into a clear section before you start with any kind of rules.

Normally, I'd move straight into character generation here, but I think this setting is specific enough that you need some overview of the archetypes. Do this in a two-page spread of Houses and Factions. Make sure that each description will lay out what each House's abilities actually are, rather than what you would like them to be.

Next, the character creation overview. Given the dual nature of characters, I'm surprised there aren't rules for making this a two-stage process of overlaying a Demon's traits onto the host; I for one would like some. Most players probably have a decent sense for what they want their starting character to be like, and a much less good sense of a previous demonic existence and a path along which they might ultimately develop: as such, prioritise the things that will establish their immediate capabilities. That means powers, the thing that defines the demon. Get Lores first, then choose attributes and abilities to ensure you can actually use them. Assume that demons gravitate towards hosts with compatible capabilties.

Now describe the Houses in detail and with mechanics. Add cross-references from each House to its Lores, and put the Lores into a coherent order. It's not hard. On the House pages, take a leaf from Dungeons and Dragons and emphasise which attributes are relevant for which Lores. Again, not a roleplaying problem: demons who focused on a given Lore would have the necesary characteristics, and/or demons who had particular characteristics would end up good at the related Lore. Help people to build characters that mechanically fulfil their roleplaying intentions.

The summary in chapter six is a good start, but could really do with someone extremely pragmatic and mechanically-minded taking a long, hard look at it. The House and Lore descriptions are somewhat optimistic and don't really give a good overview of the actual mechanical capabilities of each.

Separate out Visages and Lores, since the only time you look at both is during character creation. You'll refer to Lores a lot, so keep that uncluttered.

Having given out all the relevant information, here we want the chargen example, as people can now understand it. Give more thought to the mechanical arguments, not just the fluff. For one thing, some people will want to build mechanically efficient characters, just deal with it. For another, you should at least highlight what those relationships are, and then people can give them as much attention as they choose. Physical Devils and manipulative Devils are both good concepts, but they work well with completely different Lores.

Fix the design. Chapter tabs that actually tell you something. An index worthy of the name. A contents page designed by a grown adult with the intention that it be used in an RPG book, rather than by a teenager for an angsty urban fantasy novel about how misunderstood they are. Use a more readable font. Add more cross-references. Read Numenera and learn from it.


I'm a fair bit less impressed by Demon now that I've read it (well, skimmed it) than when we were playing it, because as usual, it's all about your friends really. It just feels a strange combination of unnecessarily specific and weirdly incoherent.

It does strike me that Demon might serve as an interesting template for variations on the same theme, of spirits in mortal bodies. You could semi-easily do something more generic by assuming a kind of animist setting, and allowing characters to host animal, plant, rock, river, sky and so on spirits. This would immediately tackle the issue that most of the demonic powers aren't very demonic. Some of the others could be discarded, or turned into generic Lores accessible to anyone - although personally I'd want to drop or pare-and-merge some of them for being either incoherent or rubbish. Again, that seems like it would fit well with the idea of Generic Supernatural Power that spirits might be able to bestow on top of their specific spheres of power.

The other advantage here is that, frankly, it would peel away the baggage of the War of Wrath from its current odd position of exerting enormous weight on character creation, while also being 99% irrelevant because it's essentially an old setting that you're no longer playing in.


  1. *applause*

    This is possibly the best thing I've read about a White Wolf game in a long time.

    While I have, as I have said many times, mellowed a lot on WW over the years, it's really interesting to see quite how *bullshit-ass-crazy* a lot of the elements I take completely for granted in a WW rulebook look to somebody who didn't get inoculated during their teen years. Like half the book being taken up with game fiction (which I *think* is supposed to be setting material) or the fact that the game completely lies to you about what it means to play a particular sort of character.

    The "pick powers first" line is one that particularly resonates with me, because it is, of course, completely absurd to advise players to leave power selection until last, at which point it is extremely probable that they will be unable to effectively use any of their House powers. But in the doctrine of late-90's RPGs it is indeed doing roleplaying wrong to design a character in such a way that they are mechanically able to achieve the things that you set out to have them achieve when you came up with the idea for the character in the first place.

    1. Yeah, Demon came out when White Wolf was at its White Wolfiest. There was a demographic in their fanbase (one which seems to have mostly atrophied after the release of NWoD) who bought their books primarily to read rather than play, so having heaps and heaps of material presented as game fiction made sense for that crowd. If you want to really soak in the ambience, game fiction is great. If you want to play a goddamn game, game fiction is just about the most inefficient way possible to present essential information. Guess which audience won out when the Demon book was planned.

      On top of that, I have this sneaking suspicion that DtF was a bit of a rush job, so they needed to turn the background chapters into bloated game fiction in order to make up the page count. There's major stuff missing that you'd expect to be in any other WoD RPG; there's no discussion of how the demons interact with other supernatural entities, for instance (a big oversight considering the demons' very presence in our world is due in part to said entities' activities), but even worse there's no real discussion of how demonic society on Earth is actually organised. Sure, you have your angelic house, which you had before the fall, and your demonic faction, which you joined in Hell, but how do demons interact with each other when they get to Earth? Lots of demon characters would have no reason to seek out other demons at all, so how do parties of PCs come together? What's the demonic equivalent to the courts of the vampires or the werewolf clans? How do demons actually find each other once they end up on Earth?

      If you ignore the game fiction, it's like the early development notes for the game accidentally went to the printer instead of a finished product.

    2. Glad you liked it! I was worried it got long and gripey and straggley.

      I feel like maybe White Wolf designers were so worried about powergaming, they had never thought about the interaction between mechanical powers and game reality. Unless you get to manifest some demonic powers, you don't have demonic powers. If you only manage to manifest the kind of Torment powers that screw you over, then game reality isn't that your mighty powers are corrupted by your fall and weakened state, it's that you have unreliable powers that screw you over. "Show, don't tell".

    3. I'm quite inclined to agree with Arthur's take, to be honest. For example: I can't help noticing that a number of the Torment powers only make sense at all if Torment/non is established before using the power, and in other cases it would make rather more sense that way, but the mechanics assume that Torment is established only when you try to use the power.

      Given their obsession with game fiction, I don't understand why they didn't think to release that stuff as actual fiction first, and then offer rulesets based on the stories. Although "it's not very good" may be the reason.

      I hadn't really thought about things in enough detail to pick up the omissions, but of course, having run WW stuff and actually run Demon, it's something that would leap out at you. It's not especially clear how Houses were organised earlier, or at what stage (mediaeval hierarchy? army structure? caste system?), or how the intra-House and inter-House hierarchies interacted, let alone what might happen over millennia of imprisonment followed by a transition to semi-mortal existence. It's quite likely that previously influential demons might end up with suboptimal hosts, while minor demons find good hosts they mesh well with and find it easier to recapture their lost abilities. And there's all the political stuff, and the philosophical shock of mortal life to shake up loyalties...

    4. They kept all the "interacting with other supernaturals" to the Storyteller's Companion, and to be honest, at the time the various supernaturals weren't *supposed* to deal with each other, or potentially even exist in the same universe. New World of Darkness changed that.

      Of course none of the fiction ever maintained that.

      The Houses of the Fallen gives a lot of needed exposition, but it still doesn't quite cover the caste system (organised by House first, then became more random by levels like Fell Knight, Lord, Overlord, Baron, Duke and Arch-Duke).

      They also mess up sometimes by having Fallen who are too powerful to exist in hosts, existing in hosts. And never satisfactorily answer why Fallen didn't exist earlier on. Like, why wouldn't a disembodied Fallen grab a host rather than a relic if they got the chance back in the day?

    5. Yeah, Arthur wrote up some intriguing notes on the supplements. It sounds like they address a lot of these issues, which is nice. Honestly though, I'd want to play a few games before agreeing to invest more hard-earned cash into something that made me write this article!

      The business with the Fallen is just kind of slapdash. In fairness, the company did aim for a more storylike approach to games, and I'm prepared for that to incorporate a certain amount of "just because". But yeah, the lack of early Fallen makes no sense at all.

      I could happily buy that there weren't many early Fallen, and none are left because they got too powerful for human hosts. Though that does raise questions for me. Like, why is a typewriter a better host for a powerful demon than a human? And, if powerful demons can't hope to possess any hosts, what exactly is the game plan for rescuing all those demon dukes? Are they really looking forward that much to being a stapler, even if it's a stapler leading a murderous stapler-cult?

  2. A question for you two, especially Arthur who owns the rulebook.

    There are two major sections in the rules about using evocations and Torment. I do not understand these rules.

    "When you attempt to perform an evocation, compare the successes on your Faith roll against your Torment. If the successful dice all show numbers greater than your Torment, you can use the positive aspects of the power normally. If one or more of the successful dice show numbers equal to or less than your Torment score, it perverts your efforts, and you use the high-Torment aspect of the power instead." - p. 161

    "Each evocation has a normal effect and a high-Torment effect. When a player makes a roll to perform an evocation, she compares her successes to her character’s permanent Torment score. If her successes exceed her character’s Torment score, the effect is carried off as intended. If she rolls a number of successes equal to or less than her Torment, the high-Torment effect of the evocation occurs, potentially inflicting harm when the character intends to accomplish good." - p. 169

    The first one makes no sense to me because it talks about a Faith roll. p. 171 does briefly mention Faith and evocations, but you roll Ab + Att like normal, you don't roll Faith in any sense. In any case, the first one suggests that you can't fail a roll with low Torment because you'll generally need at least a 6 to succeed, whereas the second explicitly says that rolls don't matter, only the number of successes. The latter is far more punishing to characters who aren't optimised in the specific Lore but who have non-minimal Torment.

    Any thoughts?

    1. There's an awful lot about Demon: the Fallen that makes it look like a horrible rush job and this is *clearly* just an error. Not even White Wolf can explain away having two completely contradictory rulesets for the same thing.

      Of course it occurs to me that neither rule is actually any good. The first makes it pretty much impossible to have High-Torment powers manifest until your Torment is enormous (and also makes them strangely more probable with Lores you are *better* at). The second makes it basically impossible to use the non-Torment versions until you've jacked up your Faith score.

      Neither do particularly well at making you feel like a being caught between its Angelic and Demonic natures.

    2. Wow, that's particularly goof troop.

      I went with the latter version because, embarrassingly, I think I completely missed the earlier one. But if choosing between the two I'd be inclined to go with the latter anyway, simply because it makes sense to me that demons would struggle early on to do much of anything without their Torment tainting their activities until they have made some progress on driving it down and jacking their Faith up, and because the earlier version clearly refers to a Faith roll which was pulled from the final version of the system.

      If I were houseruling to make a version of the system which doesn't make it nigh-impossible to go low-Torment early on in the game (and to be fair, it would probably be necessary to do so), I'd just go with this:

      - You can *always* choose to use the high-Torment version of a power. (So far as I can make out this is an actual axiom of the game, so that's fine.)

      - If you want to go low-Torment, roll Faith against a Difficulty equal to your Torment. If you get a number of successes equal to the level of the power you are trying to use, you can use the low-Torment version.

      - The ugly twist: you have to make that Faith roll after you declare intent to use the power and you can't go back on it. Using your power is intrinsically dangerous and always carries with it the risk of unintended consequences. (Hell is all about unintended consequences; it's, like, the Platonic form of unintended consequences.)

      - Willpower can be used on the roll as usual, which may be handy if you really, really need to get off the low-Torment version of a high-level power.

      - Botches are down to Storyteller fiat; personally, if I couldn't think up anything funnier, I'd have the demon accidentally slips into the high-Torment version of their apocalyptic form during the duration of the power usage.

      The above rule means that:
      - Low-Torment characters get to do low-Torment stuff more than high-Torment characters, as intended.
      - The greater the power you call on, the greater the risk of Torment, which seems fair.
      - Getting a high Faith score is reinforced as a good thing for both low-Torment *and* high-Torment sorts, but a high-Torment character would need to chase Faith even harder than a low-Torment person in order to get the same capability for subtlety because they'll be dealing with a higher difficulty number. This means that low-Torment characters can go after Faith with less urgency and more care, whilst high-Torment characters will chase after Faith like it's heroin and not be too fussy about the deals they make provided they get that delicious stuff.
      - A high-Torment character who does not have Faith will not be very subtle, which is fine by me because a demonic entity which doesn't give two shits about making civilised deals with human beings probably doesn't care too much about subtlety anyway.

    3. I wouldn't call it "embarrassing" - I only ran into the other version when I was doing a text search to find something else: specifically, whether buying up Faith at chargen is your optimum investment opportunity (teaser: no). One of the main reasons I was interested was that the two versions lead to different optimum strategies at chargen, which is the post I’m currently writing.

      With the latter successes-count version that we used, it’s good value to buy Faith at chargen because everything’s better value then; however, whether it’s worth it for you personally depends almost entirely on your powers. If you take powers whose range or number of targets is determined by Faith, and that don’t flub on Torment, it’s a very good idea to buy up Faith because it’s expensive later. On the other hand, if you take powers that just plain screw you over if Torment manifests, you should spend those same points buying more dice for those specific powers purely to avoid Torment. And if you have some of the powers that are better in Torment and sometimes with high Torment (Create Ward and so on) you have nothing to worry about.

      With the former die-value version that looks like a leftover, there’s no point worrying about your Torment, because it won’t kick in until you hit around Torment 6; just start saving XP whenever it hits 5, unless you plan to go high-Torment. Here you just want to look at how many successes a power calls for to be useful, and get enough dice to usually get that (five will do most of the time). It actually makes sense to avoid getting excessive successes because these will, as Torment increases, increase the risk.

      The house-rule looks pretty good to me. I should maybe say, I think things may be even more messed up than I initially thought, because reading through some individual powers, I get a pretty strong impression that they are written up for multiple contradictory sets of Torment rules. Some Torment versions seem intended to be stand-alone rules, rather than apply on top of a generic Torment rule: Translate, Teleport. In some cases it’s very hard to say whether they might have been intended to be standalone or sit on top of generic rules (Remote Viewing). Some seem to assume there is a state of “monstrous demon” that you do or don’t have, possibly a simply switch off your current Torment, rather than implying any kind of roll has been made (Lay Path). In short, the entire set of rules around Torment looks like a gigantic steaming heap of design notes from various stages of development that have just been crammed together without reading them to get the product out the door.

  3. Another one!

    "The number of successes determines how much information the Fiend receives. One shows the location where the event will occur, but not when or where."

    Glad that's clear then.

  4. I'm not a big believer in rules-first, honestly. I pick up a book front-loaded with rules and I tend to put it riiiiiight back down. Crunch doesn't win me over. I don't care about any of that. Maybe one of those brief "this is how it works" which gives some basic breakdown of Lores and stuff, that's 2-3 pages long and gives you a basic "how to construct guide" sure. Then get to "who I can play" and "What this is about".

    But I want to get excited by what I can play! What I can do? Less so. There's a hundred games out there that let me throw fire (differently, true) but some make me Steampunk automata and some make me demons and some make me fairies and some make me kineticists and some make me da demi-god. Tell me "who" and "what" I can play, first.

    While I'd typically agree on your point on the story, I'd give this one a pass as it actually gives you the rundown on Setting History. Noah's words are the only thing in the book which lets you know the way things worked out.

    On the other hand, it would've done better if it weren't bloated with other dialogue and gestures and the like, so perhaps the idea was sound in theory but they should have replaced it with sheer setting material as a summary of what you get in Houses of the Fallen.

    And it was rushed. It was the last one produced, literally in the year or two before they published New World of Darkness.

    The Lores are a mess. Lore of the Wilds is in no way even remotely equivalent to Lore of Flesh. So many problems there! And I noticed the High-Torment issues ages ago. Some are useful temptations, others? Useless. We're playing demons, tempt us with the dark side!

    There's a reason why I'm taking the same setting, tweaking it a bit, and using an entirely different rules system and way of getting things done.

    1. I do agree that powers should sit before the skills and attributes that run them, though personally I'm not a big fan of ones that use such systems. Okay, cool, so to use Flesh I need Medicine? Well that narrows down my options considerably.

      I much prefer powers that work like in Pathfinder, you have the thing or you don't, with it scaling according to either a power stat or a level.

    2. I can see where you're coming from. Honestly I think we're not so different on this point. My writing wasn't the clearest, though. I was probably so bent on scrapping the fiction I forgot about swapping it out for something more accessible.

      I agree entirely that a game with its own setting really needs to sell you on that setting right off the bat. It's different for generics or licensed properties. So yeah, I wouldn't want to kick off with pages of dense rules. Same as you, I want them to draw me in with a cool world and tantalising character possibilities.

      D&D can do that via the chargen pages because it's drawing so heavily on fantasy tropes. On reflection I think DtF would need to set out its stall before delving into mechanics. So where I said "two-page spread", actually we probably need that per House and per Faction, on top of the backstory and setting section.

      I'm getting the impression, between your comments and what Arthur's said, that about 80% of the issues with this book come down to that rush. It seems fair to assume that if they'd been given the time, the authors would have fixed most of the layout issues, made sure there was only one Torment mechanic, maybe revised the powers, and just generally improved things. Unfortunately that didn't happen.

      (they wouldn't have removed the gamefic of course, but they might have sharpened it up a bit)

      It's a shame, because I feel like this could have been really interesting, and that frustration is kind of why I wrote this article in the first place.

    3. Okay, so on the strength of it being you that said it, I decided to give in and read all that fiction.

      The prologue does a reasonable job of establishing the demon/human persona, the confusion of mortal existence, and a vague idea of how faith and pacts work. Not bad going.

      Unfortunately the rest of it really doesn't live it to that. Like you said, it's super bloated. It's this clumsy mixture of raw infodump and too-long dialogues that seem like they're trying to be gritty and realistic, when they needed to be aiming for punchy and concise.

      They do basically cover the key elements of the setting, but I'm just not convinced the format is the right way to go about it. Information filtered through various first-person accounts just isn't as clear as straight-up prose. Especially with all that dialogue and action getting in the way.

      The one-page slices aren't too bad, but the longer sections don't have the spark to be compelling. There's just not much you can do with exposition. The last section has a bit more life in the action sequences, but a lot of it's still infodump.

      And yeah, I agree entirely on the torment thing. It would make a lot of sense for the Torment versions to be things you might actually want to invoke, so that playing nobly meant turning down the easy option.

    4. I'd recommend reading Houses of the Fallen, really. It gives a really neat overview of the history of the world, though to be honest, there is no neat summary anywhere, not even in the Storyteller's Companion, and you need to read everything to figure out things like "Why did the nephilim happen? What is everyone's motivations?"

      Houses of the Fallen really is the best for drawing you in, though at 30 pages per House it does require some delving. And the Storyteller's Companion gives information on the Factions which ... ick. Really should have been in the Player's Guide. Or part in both. I mean, Faction should matter.

  5. Final random observation, as I just read through all the fiction: Demons should, in complete contrast to the premise of the game (and the entire punk-urban-gothic setting) mostly live in the countryside.

    Why? Because faith caps. You can only gain so much Faith per day, even assuming powerful NPC demons have access to way more than the PCs are allowed. There's not a whole lot of difference between a thousand mortals and a million if you can only harvest ten of them.

    There are plenty of small communities where a demon could rule unchallenged with exactly as much power as they could hope to achieve in a city. At the same time, they'd have a much better chance of establishing themselves as a focus for the whole community's belief, without competing influences like a city might provide. They would probably find it easier to protect their mortals - after all, if you can somehow turn the whole community, you can probably make them all play nicely.

    Plus, that way you probably wouldn't need to fight anyone, because everyone can stake out their own satisfactory turf. Since it's not really clear that being in a city offers any actual advantage in furthering your demonic goals, why risk it?

    1. "It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."

      There's that idea, more American than European, of a small town that's entirely in thrall to the Boss Man, which might be a useful model here.