Dark Eras: Part Four

Last time I reviewed historical eras for Chronicles of Darkness, I got as far as 1500 CE. This is a nice round number so I stopped there but this time I’ll be going up to a specific, world-shaking event: the Fall of the Western Roman Empire. I know this wasn’t a global phenomenon and it plays into a western-centric worldview but it’s a big event in world history and it’s a big event in the World of Darkness as well. Regardless, this set of entries is a great rewind through European history as things get worse and worse. Enjoy!

Beneath the Skin

Time Period and Setting: Height of the Aztec Empire (1486-1502)
Game Lines: Skinchangers and Demon: The Descent
Source: Dark Eras

Chronicles of Darkness - Demon the Descent
Image from White Wolf Wiki, based on images © White Wolf Publishing.

The Good: Let’s get started right off the bat here with a dual setting. Not just any sort of dual setting either, it’s got both Demons and Skinchangers. If you aren’t familiar with Skinchangers don’t worry, it’s a minor sourcebook in the line of Werewolf: the Forsaken where you can play (you guessed it) people who change shape with skins. Specifically, they skin animals and use horrible rituals to take on their guises. I didn’t realize it until I started reading this setting but this actually ends up working really well with the Faustian pacts and Cover from Demon: The Descent so well done, writers!

Chronicles of Darkness - World of Darkness
Image from White Wolf Wiki, based on images © White Wolf Publishing.

The world of Beneath the Skin is one of sacrifice and caste structure. It is another short chapter dealing with a complicated culture (similar to Fallen Blossoms and Princes of the Conquered Land, both of which I discussed last time) and they do their best to set the stage as much as you need. I won’t try to further smoosh things by truncating an already quick overview but suffice it so say that this setting covers the last forty-ish years of the Aztec Empire before it fell to Spanish conquistadores. The mythology of this nation, however, with it’s dying-and-reborn gods, its impending apocalypse, and its god-emperors, very clearly lends itself to the Chronicles of Darkness. Not only are there new Merits and Mystery Cults, but the chapter also covers strange creatures presented as Demon cryptids like the people of the first four suns, outcast werejaguars, and mind-controlling plants. There’s also an update for the Skinchanger template as a Skinthief Merit which can either replace your WoD template with a CoD Merit or you can use it to make an updated template.

The Bad: The one thing this doesn’t have is new Skinchanger effects nor any Demon Exploits or Embeds. There is a discussion on how Cover works in a much smaller community which is totally appreciated but including some options for abilities that take advantage of the wildlife in the region or the particular technologies of the Aztecs would be even more appreciated. You can certainly make them up yourself (especially since Skinchangers and Demon have homebrew design baked right in) but just know going into this that no one’s done it for you.

After the Fall

Time Period and Setting: Ottoman-controlled Constantinople (1453-1458)
Game Line: Demon: The Descent
Source: Dark Eras

Chronicles of Darkness - Demon the Descent
Image from White Wolf Wiki, based on images © White Wolf Publishing.

The Good: Our first sign of things to come is the Fall of Constantinople, the last gasp of the Roman Empire whose collapse we’ll get to by the end of this post. Out of all the settings for Demon that were proposed in the Dark Eras Kickstarter, this was the one I was most excited by. When the Ottomans captured the city in 1453, it was a sea change for the Mediterranean. The Roman world was finally over and a new age had dawned. For the Unchained, this is a time when the power of the God-Machine has been shattered by war and the city is lying open with fragments of infrastructure waiting to be coopted. Much like divided Berlin in Into the Cold, this is a land rush between enterprising Agendas to see who can get the most first, not to mention angels come to reclaim the city.

There is a lot of information to help the Storyteller, establishing the immediate events that led to the Ottoman invasion, the events of the siege itself (complete with quotes from Demons who lived through it), and the fallout from the Fall. Plot hooks abound to give chronicles something to work with from succession conflicts in the Byzantine court to the buried ruins of Old Byzantium to the Ottomans’ war in 1456 against none other than Vlad Freakin’ Tepes. Lots to work with here and that’s not even getting into the factions and motives of the various Demons in the city. Some Demons are devoted to containing the cryptid outbreaks following the God-Machine’s downfall, others belong to a group that might have facilitated the downfall. There are organized Stigmatics, monarchist Demons trying to build an Unchained kingdom, lost angels on mysterious missions, hunting angels looking for liars, an army of the God-Machine lying in wait, and more. In the end there are also five different story seeds to start your chronicle off with.

The Bad: In a lot of cases, I would be scoffing at the lack of new mechanics but this one doesn’t necessarily need it. The setting may be in the 15th century in a part of the world that I have no direct experience. The focus may be on a part of world history that I only tangentially understand (I’m big on Roman history, church history, and European history but this only lightly touches on each). And yet, I feel like I can instantly see what to do with this setting in a Demon: The Descent chronicle. I would love to see some Embeds and Cyphers with a Byzantine flair and if I were running this setting I would totally make one, but the work by this chapter’s author doesn’t seem to be missing a thing in their absence.

The Soulless and the Dead

Time Period and Setting: Western Europe during the Black Death (1346-1353)
Game Lines: Vampire: The Requiem and Promethean: The Created
Source: Dark Eras Companion

Chronicles of Darkness - Vampire the Requiem
Image from White Wolf Wiki, based on images © White Wolf Publishing.

The Good: This chapter starts off in just the right way. “The old chestnut among historians is that one third of Europe died during the mid-14th century epidemic of bubonic plague…Recent research shows that those estimates were far too low.” With this sort of bleak set-up, it’s easy to see how a dual Vampire-Promethean setting would fit in here. There’s some information about the background events leading up to the Black Death, including short paragraphs on various European social classes, but the chapter moves pretty quickly on to the two supernatural groups in this setting. I’m happy to say that both get some great boosts in terms of mechanics and detail, with some cool surprises in store for players.

Chronicles of Darkness - Promethean the Created
Image from White Wolf Wiki, based on images © White Wolf Publishing.

The vampires of this setting will seem both familiar and exotic to Vampire fans. First of all, the difficulties of feeding and of maintaining mortal Touchstones (from the game’s second edition) during a time of plague and death are given a good treatment in sidebars. Secondly, the covenants are in a time of great flux with the Lancea et Sanctum and the Invictus continuing from Rome while the Legio Mortis has been broken and the Circle of the Crone is out beyond the frontier. Still, there are many options for players choosing covenants. Al-Hamasoun are a Jewish covenant butting up against the Lancea et Sanctum while the Gallows Post (a lost covenant hinted at in Vampire: the Requiem Second Edition) travel broadly despite the danger of the times. The Morbus bloodline (of course) gets a Second Edition makeover.

On the Promethean side, the biggest thing is the Amirani lineage, which I’ve already mentioned in A Year Without Summer and When the Horseman Rode. They replace the Frankensteins in the time before the Gothic period and this setting is their heyday when the world is falling apart and their commitment to knowledge and prophecy is essential. It’s a really well-done lineage with roots in the Classical Era which is also poignant in this setting of retrospection and doomsday thinking. The chapter finishes up with mechanics for when the characters run into a plague-infested area: a timeline of the plague’s progression and how what rolls to make, as well as specifically how it affects vampires and Prometheans.

The Bad: I sort of breezed over it before, but let me say it explicitly here: there is hardly any setting material in this chapter. If you read carefully above, you’ll note that there is information aplenty on vampiric covenants during this period, about the motivations of Promethean lineages during this time, and about the specifics of how the bubonic plague spreads through a community. However, the various societies in Europe during this time period are painted with exceedingly broad strokes and 14th-century European geography is missing altogether.

I think there are good reasons for this: there’s a whole freakin’ line of books written about vampires in the Dark Ages (technically a century earlier than this, but who’s counting?) so whatever the authors managed to fit into this chapter would be repetitive. I’m certainly glad that they focused on the Chronicles of Darkness supernatural color here so that we can differentiate it from the classic World of Darkness stuff so I don’t really fault them at all for leaving Storytellers on their own for setting material. Still, if you’re someone who doesn’t have any of the Vampire: The Dark Ages books from White Wolf you will be at a bit of a loss as to where to start.

Father Governs Child

Time Period and Setting: The First Kingdom of Thailand a.k.a. the Sukhothai Kingdom (1238-1368)
Game Line: Vampire: The Requiem
Source: Ancient Mysteries ( WW 25311) and Ancient Bloodlines (WW 25312)

Chronicles of Darkness - Vampire the Requiem
Image from White Wolf Wiki, based on images © White Wolf Publishing.

The Good: Another fine example of a non-Western-focused setting and excellent proof that the authors at Onyx Path should do this more. This setting tells the story of how modern Thai vampires organized their Masquerade, a community that continues to this day according to the setting. In the mortal realm, the cities of Thailand were growing powerful and independent of the Khmer Empire, particularly Sukhothai, and so they broke and formed their own kingdom, a realm celebrated as the first independent Thai kingdom. The state religion was Theravada Buddhism, though it melded with the previously-dominant Hinduism which made for a cultural shift.

The period is marked among Kindred as well with a division between the incoming Buddhist philosophies and the long-standing Hindu practices. Vampires have even longer memories and so when a Buddhist vampire nun converted the Prince of the capital, Arisa the Naga King, to Buddhism conflict soon erupted. A champion of the old ways, Hong, fought him in a three-night duel and they reached an agreement: the Buddhists won’t stop any Kindred from practicing the old ways and the Hindus will keep their practices underground. Asira’s bloodline, the Mayarap, still rules in Thailand (practicing the Sukhothai principle of “father governs child,” ruling as a kind and attentive parent) while the Kinnaree bloodline of Hong operate underground.

The Bad: This is an awesome story and certainly a great foundation but it’s like the construction just stopped at a certain point. Thus seems definitely like a “flashpoint” to connect to a modern story set in Thailand but this isn’t really a setting for games as-is. The style bears this out too: it’s a single foreign Acolyte’s trip to Thailand “looking for answers” which means the point of view is by definition an unreliable narrator. There’s also not a lot of historical or cultural context (despite the excellent material on the dominant Sakadagami covenant in Ancient Bloodlines) so this is definitely a fixer upper, though the results could be spectacular.

Clash of Empires

Time Period and Setting: The Holy Land during the Crusades (1095-1300)
Game Line: Vampire: The Requiem
Source: Ancient Mysteries ( WW 25311) and Ancient Bloodlines (WW 25312)

Chronicles of Darkness - Vampire the Requiem
Image from White Wolf Wiki, based on images © White Wolf Publishing.

The Good: Vampires are a natural fit for the period of the crusades, but not usually on the side of the crusaders. This is a period of riven loyalties and ideologies for the Kindred as much as mortals. The mythology is a little dated after other developments of the Chronicles of Darkness timeline but we can at least get behind the fact that this was a major period of power for the Lancea+Sanctum (no that’s not a typo, it’s supposed to be for “et“… I don’t like it either) before the Invictus had really built itself up. In fact, the Sanctified were in a bit of a position during this era since their numbers were booming but they didn’t know enough about governing to really make it stick. So they handed power to politically savvy Sanctified, even though those tended to be the less pious ones, and sewed the seeds of their own downfall as the political elements broke to create their own power structures.

The really interesting side to this setting, though, is the maneuvering and the fits of political infighting that plagued European Kindred in the wake of Rome’s fall. In Rome, now a fading power in Europe, the Nachtkaiser (Emperor of the Night) rules the Heiligen Nacht Reich (Holy Night empire) for the rising Invictus, something which parallels both the Holy Roman Empire of the time and the German domination of remnant Roman power structures. Meanwhile, in Constantinople the Adamantes Athanatoi (Unconquered Immortals) lay claim to the heritage of the Eastern Emprie with their own Sanctified Patriarch. The eastern and western Sanctified are at odds (naturally) but both of them can agree that al-Amin (the Faithful) of the Muslim Midnight Crescent needs to be removed from the Holy Lands. Add to this the heretical dualist Mystikoi bloodline of Gangrel, the burgeoning Order of Sir Martin bloodline serving the Invictus, and a new hunter conspiracy (!!) called Ahl al-Jabal operating in the Holy Land and you’ve got a seriously complex setting.

The Bad: I really, really, really wish that there was more mechanical information provided for all the factions during this era. There are the two bloodlines and the hunter conspiracy (still a sweet addition) but if you want mechanical ways to make the western Sanctified of the Heiligen Nacht Reich different from the eastern Sanctified of the Adamantes Athanatoi then you’re on your own. And if you want to know pretty much anything about the inside view of the Muslim vampires (including clan names and internal factions) then you’re completely on your own. Add to that the fact that there are about a dozen little groups that I haven’t even mentioned here and there’s a lot of legwork a Storyteller needs to do to make this a strong setting. Some Storytellers might like that as it allows them to build as they want. In fact, I love the chance to do some worldbuilding but it also irks me that this reads like the summary format of a really cool setting that I can’t actually get.

The Wolf and the Raven

Time Period and Setting: Europe during the Viking Age (700-1100)
Game Lines: Werewolf: The Forsaken and Geist: The Sin-Eaters
Source: Dark Eras

Chronicles of Darkness - Geist the Sin-Eaters
Image from White Wolf Wiki, based on images © White Wolf Publishing.

The Good: This setting, like A Grimm Dark Era and Into the Cold, seemed a little too on-the-nose when it was first brought up. Werewolf Vikings? Well, obviously. These settings aren’t bad because they fit so well but they seem like a missed opportunity. This one, however, made an immediate positive leap in my opinion when it became a dual-setting with Sin-Eaters. It’s presented really well too, discussing how inaccurate most depictions of Norse culture are but mentioning some fun and engaging media that do a decent job like Vikings or Vinland Saga. Though the setting can focus at any point during the “Viking Age” (four full centuries of time starting around 700) this chapter is  concentrated on Dublin in the years immediately before the Battle of Clontarf and the period after. This is both the height of Viking power in Ireland and also the time right before it all comes crashing down. It also has the definite benefit of being a distinctly different setting than what’s protrayed in the Werewolf: the Apocalypse supplement Wolves of the Sea so you can both reimplement the material there and try new areas of the Viking world.

Chronicles of Darkness - Werewolf the Forsaken
Image from White Wolf Wiki, based on images © White Wolf Publishing.

It should be a mystery to exactly no one that the wolf in the title refers to the Forsaken and the raven refers to the Bound. On the other hand, wolves and ravens are just two of the powerful icons in Norse myth and a lot of the chapter is spent discussing these in the context of both game lines. The mythological affinities of werewolf auspices, the role of tribes and , how Norse traditions can meld with a krewe’s, and the impact of channeling mortal belief when you pretend to be a god. Werewolves get a new Merit called rune caster that helps them with any oracular abilities and a slew of Viking-appropriate fetishes and Gifts. Sin-Eaters get a mechanics patch for the Industrial Key, three new Ceremonies featuring ravens and visions of fate, and different Norse Underworld realms (and one Christian). There is also a new werewolf lodge (the Lodge of Muspel for Fire-Touched) but no mechanics for it.

The Bad: The only thing that I didn’t like about this chapter was the length. I wanted a whole sourcebook! The material on the werewolves was brief but enough to get things started and an enterprising Storyteller can use outside material to make a great and engaging setting. The Sin-Eaters, though, seem added-on (which they were) and have less material and a few obvious gaps. Do Viking Sin-Eaters consider themselves reborn by the gods? What are the potential consequences of existing openly as a soul brought back from death? What are momento mori like in the world of the Vikings? These are questions you can answer reading between the lines here or with some critical thought yourself, but I would have liked a little more from the authors.

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