RPG Reviews – The Contagion Chronicle

The Contagion Chronicle (Onyx Path Publishing)

My first experience in crossover gaming in the modern supernatural horror genre came from playing on World of Darkness MUSHes. For the unfamiliar, they were text-based games, with computer-coded rules, that operated a little like an online LARP. You would create a character, log in, chat and interact with other characters, and occasionally get involved in plotlines the various Storytellers would create. The experience could be anything from fun to frustrating – the latter sometimes based on how many different types of supernatural were available. If it was one or two groups it wasn’t so bad, but once vampires, werewolves, mages, wraiths, changelings, mummies, highlanders, were added it could get a bit out of control, in part because all their rules were played straight from the book and the power levels of each game were vastly different.

One of the things I really appreciated about the construction of the New World of Darkness, was the “core book + supernatural book” design. Since each game (Requiem, Forsaken, etc) was using the exact same structure, more coherence was created between them. All games had a “power stat” and a “morality stat”, and some thought was given as to how their abilities might interact with each other. This has continued in the Chronicles of Darkness line for the most part. There are some small divergences between each core game but nothing astronomical. All of this has primed the games for a proper crossover treatment. The Contagion Chronicle gives a focal point for all the supernatural denizens of the world to rally around and gives solid guidance on setting up and managing a crossover Chronicle.

In order to provide a unified grouping of characters, The Contagion Chronicle introduces meta-factions that the various supernaturals can rally around in reaction to the phenomenon known as The Contagion. The Contagion is the manifestation of something “wrong” with the world. To help illustrate how the Contagion manifests and the Factions respond, there’s an entire chapter which covers major historical breakouts of the Contagion, theories as to its nature, and ways the factions view and attempt to treat it.

The two groups introduced in The Contagion Chronicle are the Sworn, made up of those who band together to defeat the Contagion (and the intended protagonists), and the False, who either don’t care to save the world or are going to burn and purge to save what they can. Each faction within the two major groups approaches the battle against the Contagion based on how they perceive its nature. For example, the Sworn Cryptocracy view the Contagion as social entropy, exerting itself upon the world through the breakdown of order and society. To combat it they infiltrate human institutions and gain wealth and influence, using supernatural powers focused on subtlety and influence – they’re the supernatural Illuminati. Other factions see the Contagion as Divine retribution; as evolution that will render them obsolete; an actual enemy guiding the ruin of the world; and my favorite: a message from another realm or Time Before that needs deciphering before it’s “too late.” The False include those who aim to destroy it with a scorched earth policy, a dark mirror of the Cryptocracy, and those who view it as the Apocalypse and aim to inherit what remains after. Each of the faction writeups inform you what they believe the Contagion to be, their history, how they fight the Contagion, how they interact with each other and the opposing side of Sworn/False, and what they will lose or gain depending who “wins”.

While it’s positioned as a crossover Chronicle, it’s really up to the group how much of a crossover they want to make it. To encourage maximum crossover, the special powers available to the Sworn to fight the Contagion, called Vectors, are enhanced further the more variety of supernatural types are in your Faction. For example, “Authority”, available to the Cryptocracy, allows access to their surveillance and communications network. Beasts and Deviants get a further “Edge” to each power in the Vector, Changelings, Demons, and Werewolves a different one, and so on. If the PC is a member of a specific group in their supernatural type (Task Force: VALKYRIE in Hunter, for example), they get a further “Specialization” to the power.

What’s interesting is that Vectors are acquired with Sworn Experience – experience accumulated from separate Beats, gained by fulfilling faction goals and combatting the Contagion. However, these are shared among the group, and each Sworn type can only use their own Vector. This means cooperation will become key when spending XP on Vectors.

I found the Storyteller’s section really good. Typically, Onyx Path writers have solid GM advice regarding group and play management. Being a horror game and specifically one about a changing reality, it’s important for the ST to be conscious of how events affect players and their characters. Contagion Chronicle is about breaking things and changing the rules, which not every player takes to as well as others. As a result there’s advice on how to pace “game breaking”, how to handle issues of trust so the players know there are still rules being followed, and how to pace out the introduction of the Contagion to a game. The latter content is even useful as a way to structure any game where something is shaken up in the status quo.

Naturally time is taken to explain how the different Chronicles of Darkness games interact with the Contagion Chronicle – how the supernaturals involve themselves with the Sworn and False, when and how they’d notice things going wrong, and why it’s important to them. All of this is very handy to help provide motivations for PCs in the game. Chronicles can take place on one of three tiers: local and small scale, isolated to a person and their circle or neighborhood; regional, that will spread to wider organizations like Covenants, Compacts, businesses, or phenomena like the Hedge or Gauntlet; and the final tier where cities are infected, worldwide institutions succumb, and the fundamental laws of reality change. It’s a potentially huge scope for a Chronicle to cover and there are some simple rules presented to track its progress. Each tier also receives story hooks related to a number of the different character types to facilitate crossover from that hook.

On that note, the actual act of running a crossover can be daunting. I’ve typically avoided it because I feel each game has such a strong internal theme that I want to explore rather than tell the tales of a mix of supernatural creatures. However, I do like the idea of a motley crew of monsters and there are bound to be people who’ve tortured their vampires enough by this point and want to see how they get along with the local mummies. This section draws on the universal advice from each of the other game lines, but also shows how key elements like “Climbing the Ladder”, from Vampire, and “Music Is Always”, from Mage, can harmonize and work together when building a chronicle. Ideas of “balance” are cast aside in favor of “make sure everyone contributes to the story”, and there are some solid thoughts on how to streamline your game to avoid the clutter born of 900+ pages of combined games.

To help Storytellers get infected, 12 different locales are detailed, along with their specific manifestations of the Contagion and how the local supernaturals interact, both in their own right and as Sworn/False. Due to the ubiquity of the God-Machine in this setting, it naturally plays a major role in the clash between Contagion and Infrastructure.

Each entry includes the cause of the Contagion (or Contagions), its symptoms, locations of importance to the Contagion, story hooks, highlights of certain factions, and what may be the “Cure”- though achieving it won’t be easy and not everyone agrees on what it is.

The way the Contagion manifests in each of these settings is interesting and adheres to the Storyteller advice given to “break things.” Though each locale only highlights a few supernatural types, all the gamelines are represented across the breadth of them. Seeing different Chronicles set up in this way really helps highlight how to do it yourself. I initially wasn’t quite certain what to expect – would these be titanic-level situations where supernaturals went to DEFCON Omega and moved orbital mirror satellites into place? As discussed earlier, they do a good job of covering the spread from localized to a bigger scale, giving a variety of options.

Each example setting would make for an excellent Chronicle and they all have very interesting premises. In Edinburgh, a vampire that should never have been Embraced causes a blood virus which weakens the walls of reality to allow a powerful Mummy to impose his reality over ours. In Akko (Acre), an ancient Templar artifact binds an ever-increasing population of ghosts and Abyssal energy to the city. In Kyoto, multiple Contagions afflict the city in insidious and overt ways, linked to its supernatural history and the conflict with the demon lord Shuten-doji. Forcing either servitude to the Demon or attacking the host’s identity through physical mutation and isolation, the Contagion affects the societal structure of the city.

All the examples involve multiple supernatural types and explore different genres and realms of horror. They’re great fun to read and provide interesting locations in which to set a game (even if you only used a portion of the entry). The Contagion manifests itself mechanically via new Conditions and Tilts, fully detailed in the Appendix.

The Contagion Chronicle is packed with fun and interesting reads and advice and is a really good resource to build a multi-splat Chronicle. In my own games I include numerous types of supernatural in the setting but I typically keep them apart. This book, however, makes me more comfortable than I expected with regards to actually running a crossover game. There’s so much to draw on that you won’t be short of ideas and each city section is written very clearly with plot hooks and relationships well- spelled out. The examples are all very entertaining and could fill years of Chronicles. The Contagion Chronicle is a smart book and well-worth adding to your collection if you’ve ever wanted to attempt a crossover Chronicles of Darkness game.

The Contagion Chronicle is available in PDF and Print-on-Demand at the below Affiliate Link!



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