RPG Reviews – Chronicles of Darkness


Chronicles of Darkness – Onyx Path Publishing

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Abandon hope, all who enter here…

The house at the end of the street never stays sold for long. Moving trucks come and go, and sometimes the residents don’t go with them. People say there’s a bad aura about the place on account of the mass murder that occurred there back in the ‘70s. They never found the killer you know? It’s ready for investigating – do you have the guts to enter after nightfall?

Maybe you were a little out of line, mouthing off to the chief that way, but did you need to be reassigned? And to the basement office of all places, partnered with the guy who’s constantly spouting conspiracy theories? Since then though, the cases you two have pulled -something hasn’t been right about them. Like the perp last week who you’re sure you shot in the leg and who didn’t slow down. Then when you turned the corner he’d vanished, as if into thin air…

I love the horror genre. Movies, books, comics, all of it. Maybe it’s because of watching Evil Dead 2 at age 11, or Evil Dead at 12. One way or another, I find it fun to be scared and confronted with terrifying events in a safe and controlled environment. This extends to roleplaying games, both when running and playing them.

There are a number of great horror roleplaying games, and the Chronicles of Darkness is among them. It’s the “Second Edition” to White Wolf’s “The World of Darkness” – the core book to their revamped World of Darkness setting. It was a great book for playing humans in horror scenarios and this version builds further on that. Combining classic game resolution with modern narrative elements supporting horror themes and strong character play, Chronicles of Darkness provides a comprehensive set of rules for playing in the dark mirror of the world.

The mechanics of the system are very straightforward. They maintain a “traditional” dice pool concept while incorporating modern design elements and a focus on “systematizing” gameplay that would “traditionally” have been relegated to “roleplay-only”.

The Chronicles of Darkness series uses a dice pool system, where you roll a set of 10-sided dice determined by the attributes, skills, and powers of your character and count all dice that roll 8+ as Successes. If you roll a 10, you reroll that die until you stop rolling 10s, counting any additional Successes to your total.

Overall, one Success is enough to qualify the action as successful, but your die pool may be modified by equipment or circumstantial difficulties, adding and subtracting dice as necessary. If your die pool is reduced to below 1, you still roll (a “chance” die), which only counts a success on a 10 (that is not rerolled). 5 or more Successes is an Exceptional Success, which grants you (or another character) a beneficial Condition, and rolling a 1 on a Chance Die results in a Dramatic Failure, where things get bad, fast.

There’s a very helpful set of common actions listed out, with an excellent layout clearly identifying the action (Argument, Investigating a Scene), how to construct the required die pool, and the effects of both kinds of Failure and Success. The layout is convenient enough that you could even print or photocopy them as reference cards.

Characters in Chronicles of Darkness are made up of inherent Attributes (Strength, Intelligence, Manipulation, etc), learned Skills (Computer, Crafts, Drive, Socialize, etc), Merits (distinguishing elements like a network of contacts, wealth and resources, an eidetic memory, fighting styles), and personality mechanics (known as Anchors) like Virtue & Vice, Integrity, and Aspirations. These are ranked on the character sheet in “dots” which tell you how many dice to roll when using them, or their level of potency.

Some Characteristics are generated through distribution of points (Attributes, Skills, Merits, and Powers) others are derived through various calculations. Characteristic levels can be raised through the spending of Experiences, which are points accumulated each time a character acquires a certain number of Beats. Beats are given at a variety of points during play when a narrative benchmark is reached. It’s a very elegant method that allows the players a way to dictate how their characters gain experience.

If D&D-Style gaming has the three pillars of combat, exploration, and social interaction, I feel a horror game should stand on investigation, violence, and character stability. The first leads to the second (whether physical or psychological), which in turn impacts the third.

The investigation rules contain advice on how to avoid railroading by keeping revelations and discoveries flexible, and working with the players’ speculation, to direct the final result. There’s guidance on how to incorporate Clues as a rules mechanic, and more. This all helps GMs build compelling mysteries that have an interactive and mutable structure, so players who put their character’s points into investigative abilities are able to shine and not be outclassed by players who are natural detectives, or just more awake at the table.

Further to that, there’s a very nice set of rules on social interactions. I know there are people out there who might think of social maneuvering rules as “roll-play” not “role-play”, but I’ve been in plenty of games where extroverted, conversation-dominating players talk their way through everything, despite having spent no points developing their character’s social attributes. This allows everyone to get to play the kind of character they want, without being overshadowed by someone naturally gifted with a silver tongue.

Now it’s time for some violence. For players who want a more traditional blow-by-blow combat, fights are treated as resisted skill rolls. Die penalties are applied as Health is reduced, creating a Death Spiral. I love Death Spirals as a mechanic. Even though it’s brutal to be hindered after taking lots of damage, it makes the successes more worth it and the aftermath almost cathartic. It’s like seeing John McClane at the end of the movie – bruised, damaged, and beat up – but not beat down.

There are plenty of combat options for players who like to sink their teeth into the tactical side of things, but also rules to allow quick resolution of fights in a single roll. For mortal humans, combat is vicious and deadly, and not something to enter into casually. You do not heal very rapidly, so be warned.

A horror game really shines when it has good personality and psychological mechanics, and these are present in the form of Anchors. These include Virtues/Vices, Aspirations, Integrity, and Breaking Points.

Virtues are descriptors that represent characters at their best and Vices are short-term comforts. Acting in accordance with their Virtues and Vices allow characters to regain Willpower points, which are used at a variety of points during play, including to gain extra dice on rolls. I love that players are encouraged to invoke their Vices by gaining mechanical benefits for playing the flaws in their characters.

Aspirations are goals that determine what sort of stories you want your character to be involved in. Accomplishing Aspirations are one of the main ways of advancing characters and accumulating experience, resolving them grants a Beat.

Breaking Points are actions and events that test and push a character’s stability. These can be actions that violate a moral or social code, terrifying events, or being the victim of supernatural attack. When a Breaking Point is determined to have been violated, the player rolls to resist psychological damage being caused. The roll is modified by their Integrity rating (a numerical measurement of their self-image, psyche, and spiritual health). If they fail they lose Integrity (hindering future Breaking Point rolls) and gain a Condition. If they succeed they still gain a Condition but don’t lose Integrity.

Conditions are status modifiers that indicate the story has affected a character in a certain way. They may be Blinded, feel lasting Guilt, suffer the consequences of an enemy having Leverage over them, be Inspired, things like that.

The section for Storytellers is filled to the brim with good advice on creating and structuring stories. Since it’s inception, the entire series of Storyteller/Storytelling games have been about creating good and deep stories, so this is another area that the game should shine. In just the first few pages I discovered great guidance I would apply to any game.

In the past I might have asked players “Is there anything your characters want to do at this moment?” But now I may ask “what scene do you want to play out?” It’ll give structure, an end point, establish who is present and where it takes place – it’s a great way to foster focused roleplay and it’s guided by what the players are interested in pursuing, investing them deeper in the narrative. Even if it doesn’t advance the story much, it could create memorable character moments.

The protagonists of this game are very fallible. Their flaws are supported mechanically with the Vice attribute, and encouraged by offering Beats for choosing to fail a roll. This isn’t really a game for elite, badass monster hunters who execute plans without fail. Instead it’s for flawed monster hunters who may not be able to help sabotaging themselves. These are much more the protagonists of True Detective than Blade.

Chronicles of Darkness games aim to achieve an experience beyond “Go from Point A to B, here’s a side quest and a big action scene at the end”. You can definitely play that kind of game, but you’re really encouraged to dig deeper. The GM is strongly encouraged to flesh out the communities the characters live in, make use of their relationships, and show real consequences for their actions.

The rules section wraps up with Antagonists. From simplified mortal foes, to more detailed Ephemeral Beings (ghosts and spirits), Angels (agents of the God-Machine), and very detailed Horrors (extending from vampires and werewolves to creatures of urban myth and folklore like The Black-Eyed Kids and The Vanishing Hitchiker). There’s enough for GMs to build most any antagonist they want – though not necessarily a lot of guidance on relative power levels. Just be mindful that all opponents can be deadly, from a rampaging revenant to a guy with a knife.

Then begins The God-Machine Chronicle…

What has risen may fall…

What has fallen may rise again.

In the first edition of the The World of Darkness core rulebook, one particular chapter opener enticed readers with the story of Marco Singe, the “Pain Prophet” of New Delhi. He told the story of his encounter with an angel, who revealed unto him the secrets of the universe, and of the existence of the God-Machine. Inside that brief story were references that could suggest one possible origin for the various World of Darkness game lines. The story became the core mythology of the techno-gnostic thriller game Demon: the Descent – the first release for the Chronicles of Darkness that also presents an earlier, separate rules update and chronicle framework that would become this core book.

It’s tradition to include a sample adventure/story in a core rulebook. It helps familiarize players and GMs with the rules, the setting, and ideally how a particular game is intended to be played.

The God-Machine Chronicle is much more than a sample adventure.

With a game premise like “Humans investigating and confronting the secrets of their world, only to unearth and face indescribable horrors” it isn’t easy to create one story that will suit every character. To make it easier, the writers gave us a full Chronicle. It’s not all prefabricated and laid-out with flavor text, stat blocks, and scene-by-scene descriptions, so it does mean the GM needs to do some work. However, it offers incredible flexibility and reusability, and if the GM has read the storytelling section of the book, they’ll understand there’s only so much planning that can be done.

After a chapter detailing the cosmic horror of the God-Machine itself, a mechanistic and unknowable entity, inscrutable in its motives and unpredictable in its methods (though an extensive methodology is given to the GM), the structure of the Chronicle is given. This is a Chronicle themed around “The Hidden System”- the idea that something is manipulating events from behind the scenes. Who is it and how deep does the rabbit hole go?

Twenty “tales” are offered – stories ranging from the investigation of a school for the gifted, to the hunt for a serial killer, to encounters with a city that rearranges itself every night. These tales are then collected as four Chronicle “tracks” composed of five tales, each focusing on a different aspect of the God-Machine. So that’s effectively four full Chronicles given to you to run, and twenty tales – any one of which could spawn a whole different Chronicle without using the rest. It’s a brilliant concept and a perfect way to structure and play a modern horror game.

Even if you choose to go a different direction than delving into the complex gears of The God-Machine Chronicle, this book gives you a wealth of tools to create bone-chilling horror roleplaying sessions, and, as the rules are compatible with the other Chronicles of Darkness line, you’ll be primed to enter the shadowy worlds of its supernatural denizens.

Whether you’re out to emulate your favorite tv shows like Supernatural, The Haunting of Hill House, The X-Files, or True Detective, or the work of your favorite horror authors, the Chronicles of Darkness is the perfect book to get you started!

If you’re prepared to enter the shadows, click here to purchase the title from DriveThruRPG in PDF or Print-On-Demand and help support this site!


5 thoughts on “RPG Reviews – Chronicles of Darkness

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