Saturday, 1 August 2015

More fun with Demon: the Descent

You might want to read my Impressions of Demon: the Descent first, particularly the bits about powers, and also this one.

I was quietly doing random character generation, as I am wont to do, and I noticed this. These two powers sit side by side in the rulebook. You'd think someone might have noticed the discrepancy.

Name of power Raw Materials Shatter
Description Nature abhors a vacuum. With this Embed, the demon can break an object to “summon” an object of similar Size. The object that she breaks is destroyed, never to be repaired or made functional again. The object she summons isn’t created out of nothing, but is brought to her location by a seemingly coincidental series of events. Everything breaks. It’s just a matter of applying force in the right location. A demon who understands this principle can apply the force of entropy to an object and shatter it with a swift kick.
Dicepool Manipulation + Crafts Wits + Crafts
Limitation No size limit specified. Durability is immaterial. Success doesn't risk Cover. Object can be no larger than the demon. Used on an object with Durability 3+, she risks blowing Cover.
Mechanical Intention Obtain an object by destroying another object of similar size. Destroy an object.
Narrative Intention I'm not sure. As mentioned in the power, breaking down doors and smashing weapons.
Drawbacks A failed roll risks Cover. The new object takes some time to arrive. Failure causes injury. A success risks Cover if the object is Durable.

Here once again, we see the importance of checking powers carefully. What is the power intended to do? What does it actually do? How does it compare to other powers that do similar things, even if their intent is different?

Raw Materials is a power intended to (as far as I can work out) let you swap one object for another, more useful one. Shatter is a power intended to let you do action film stunts like smashing open doors and breaking machine guns.

If you wish to break objects, Raw Materials is a far better power in all respects. There is no size limit whatsoever on the power, rather than a limit of Size 5. You can destroy objects of any Durability without risking Cover. There is no risk of suffering injury. You also obtain a free bonus object of your choice. There is no reason whatsoever to choose Shatter when Raw Materials is available. Shatter states "this Embed is good for kicking down doors and breaking weapons, but not useful for smashing cars (but see Exploits)", probably thinking of the Disintegrate Exploit but there's no reason to mess about with Exploits at all. Why spend Aether to destroy a car, when you can demolish it with an Embed and get a free object of similar size?

Now, I'd make the argument that the reason is that Raw Materials is sick broken, or completely dependent on DM fiat, depending how you play. By the rules as written, Raw Materials allows you to more-or-less instantly destroy an object of any size or toughness whatsoever, and get any new object of similar size to replace it.

Fine. I use Raw Materials to destroy the tower block where my enemies are hiding out, replacing it with a truly enormous gold ingot.

No? You're relying on the "the object arrives in the demon's vicinity" bit? Okay, skyscraper-sized gold ingots don't usually "arrive" as such. Okay. I destroy this delivery lorry parked outside the tower block, replacing it with an asteroid the size of the lorry. Those are really good at arriving. Then I leave town immediately, because I don't want to be around in the next hour when that lorry-sized asteroid lands.

Okay, asteroids are out? Fine, Fiater. I observe Air Force One passing through the sky overhead. I destroy it with a thought, and ask for another plane to arrive within my immediate vicinity. Happy now? I'm not even going to insist that everything inside it is vaporised. After all, any damage sufficient to destroy the plane irrevocably is going to be fairly fatal to its inhabitants anyway, to say nothing of being high in the air travelling at hundreds of miles an hour. An aeroplane is definitely an object and one can be replaced with another similar one. The power has no range.

The rules don't specify that you can't demand unique objects. Is your quest to track down a particular important object? Say, the Madeup Codex? Destroy this telephone directory and replace it with the Madeup Codex. By RAW, the Madeup Codex will arrive in your proximity within the next hour. For ease, I recommend locating yourself somewhere like a bit of empty wasteland beforehand, so the Codex can't conveniently arrive secretly at a building nearby without you noticing, or be driven down a nearby street where you couldn't possibly know. Nope, a big old field or stretch of desert is best. If you're not in a hurry, go somewhere really isolated and featureless, and wait up to a week.

Are you in handcuffs? Replace them with some more handcuffs. Locked behind a door? Replace it with another door. Strapped to a missile? Break it irrevocably and replace it with a model missile. Being threatened with a machine gun? Destroy it with a thought.

This is nearly as good as Deep Pockets. In some ways, it's better. How specific can you get, anyway? Never mind the unique objects. Can I break a loyalty card and replace it with an ID badge for an employee who looks exactly like me? Does the thing you want to summon have to actually exist, either in the game (like your doppelganger employee) or in the game reality? Can I break the Statue of Liberty and replace it with a huge brass statue of an otter? Can I replace a telephone box with a TARDIS?

The point here is not to powergame (although it's fun to play with the theory). I'm pretty sure the average GM wouldn't allow that, and I certainly wouldn't want to. The problem is that the power itself doesn't make any gesture towards saying you can't, which means whatever limits are set on it are down to the GM. A player has no idea what may or may not be possible in-game without holding an exhaustive discussion with the GM.

For the GM, it's hard to anticipate possible consequences, so unless you're happy for things to end up quite inconsistent, it's hard to make any calls. Do you lock this power down, even though the rules don't do so? If you mistrust their judgement here, do you need to go over every single other power? Even if you don't decide that, how do your players predict what you might do, if the only information they get is that Raw Materials will be nerfed? Does every power need to be discussed in detail before anyone takes it? Where do you draw the line so that this power is about as useful as other powers, but not worthless?

The other problem is that pesky "the demon's proximity" bit. This rolls too far the other way, because it doesn't state whether or not the demon needs to have any realistic chance of either obtaining it or knowing it's arrived. A contrary GM could easily, by RAW, define "proximity" as some significant distance, and have the objects pass by unnoticed. That new car you wanted? Someone drove it past a couple of blocks away about twenty minutes ago. That video camera you asked for? There was one in a box in a locked cupboard on the third floor of a building you passed.


Any action, no matter how small or how cerebral, sets matter in motion, creating energy. A demon can use this energy to fuel her own endeavors, regardless of whether or not the preceding action actually helps the demon on a literal level.

This power lets you reflexively add the result of a previous roll to your next roll.

Whoever wrote Momentum needed to do more proof-reading. The intention of this power is clearly that you take a chance: if the roll you target works out well, you get a lovely bonus. If it flubs, you're carrying a penalty. They carefully wrote up how you take penalties if the previous roll fails.

The demon must see the target action take place and be in physical proximity and line of sight to the person taking the action. It doesn’t matter if the action isn’t something that can physically observed (Social actions count), but the demon needs to be able to see the character.

Here's the problem: it's a reflexive action, and nothing specifies that you use this ability before a roll is actually made. Using a reflexive action, and the text of the power, supports the opposite reading: you see an action, and carry its momentum forward. The text also specifies The demon’s player adds the successes of the preceding action to her next roll which looks like it's talking about a roll that's already happened.

A reasonable group won't have problems here, but this sort of carelessness seems ripe for rules-lawyering, and for tripping up inexperienced players or GMs.


At least one of the things that bothered me about Demon: the Fallen continues to bother me about Demon: the Descent. That is, it's relatively hard for demons to demonstrate their supernatural capabilities in any tangible way.

In Fallen, demons could use their powers to show off, although it depended what those powers were. It also didn't necessarily give the right impression. Being able to summon a small number of rats, providing you're somewhere near some rats, is actually not a great way to convince people that you are a powerful supernatural being with whom they should make a pact. Death-themed demons had very few options: two of their power trees involved ghosts and entering the spirit world, which aren't necessarily either usable or visible to mortals, while the third is great providing there's someone around for you to kill. Various powers produce feelings, or grant insight, and other woobly things. It's actually quite hard to convince someone you are an actual demon just by telling them things about themselves, even if those things are true: there's always a more logical explanation available.

What it seemed to lack, to me, was a Generic Supernatural Demonic Stuff power. You know, making your eyes glow, or lighting fires, or producing sinister cackling voices, or telepathy.

Descent basically has the same problem. There are lots of reality-warping powers, but many of them are explicitly very subtle. A lot are designed to avoid humans noticing you, and entirely wrong for proving you're a demon. Quite a few do things like erase you from their memory, or warp time so you were never here. The few that are pretty obviously supernatural are very specific, which means you can very easily end up as a one-trick pony. Setting bricks on fire is fun, but if you can only make inflammable things flammable, are you a convincing demon? Ditto sending rats to pass on messages. Or predicing coin tosses most of the time (because it's dependent on a die roll, and even with a 10 dice pool that means you'll get it wrong about one time in 50. That's actually not that great for a supernatural being! And possibly not that impressive either, I mean, you could just be a magician.

Descent does mention that demons aim to escape notice, and that thus most Embeds are quite subtle. That's fine, but it does make it more difficult to convincingly offer anyone supernatural favours. Being able to magically distract somebody or perform slightly better than expected without the appropriate tools are in fact not going to persuade anyone that you can give them mighty arcane power.

In both cases, you can just assume demonic form, of course. In Descent in particular, this is a bad idea, because it risks your Cover. It's also incredibly heavy-handed. And if you're trying to lure someone into a soul pact, is turning into a giant biomechanical killing machine really the best way to go about it? In a lot of cases, that's going to put them right off. That's particularly true if you're trying to recruit fairly nice, normal people who'd like you to cure their pet dog or help them impress girls.

The thing that's particularly facepalmy about this is that Descent goes out of its way to block characters from taking any supernatural Merits, even though a human whose identity you take over might have those Merits (they get redistributed). I actually can't think of any reason whatsoever why that would be necessary, other than sheer contrariness.

So from some perspectives, it's actually easier for a human to have demonstrable supernatural abilities than demons. For a human, it's relatively simple to demonstrate clairvoyance, telekinesis, telepathy or various other powers, simply by taking the merits. These are also fairly broad. A demon has no such option; they are explicitly bound to a limited list of highly specific powers, most of them too subtle for humans to detect.

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