It’s been a minute (thanks to a brief stop in Eberron) but I’m back with more information on Dark Eras 2 for the Chronicles of Darkness. In Part 1 and Part 2 I talked about the truly ancient settings in the book and now we’re getting a little closer to present day, but that doesn’t mean it’s getting any less crazy!
Rise of the Last Imperials
- Time Period and Setting: Imperial China, 1644-1661
- Game Lines: Hunter: The Vigil and Mummy: The Curse
- See Also: Fallen Blossoms (described here) for matters across the Sea of Japan and Doubting Souls and Foreboding Lands (both described here too) for European colonialists in this region.
The Good: The period chosen for this is a great example of Mummy‘s themes in a distinctly non-Egyptian setting. The year 1644 marks the fall of the Ming Dynasty after close to three hundred years in power. This is the dynasty that made Beijing into a capitol and created the famous Forbidden City for the imperial court. They were overthrown by the Qing Dynasty which is destined to rule another two hundred and fifty years until the Communist Revolution led to the modern Republic of China. In the twenty-ish years covered by this chapter, then, you have both the fall of a multi-century dynasty ruling from their capital city and the rise of another multi-century dynasty.
Beijing gets a full description with some excellent sites highlighted, including Beihai Park for making clandestine political deals and Niujie Mosque which is the heart of the Muslim community in the city. Jiangning, the former capital city, and Guangzhou, the redoubt of Ming Dynasty loyalists, are also detailed and different NPCs to populate your story have both hooks and stats. The Hunter section starts off with a run down of the plethora of ethnicities found in this tumultuous time period from Manchu and Han to Uyghurs and Kazakhs (even some few European merchants and missionaries). Likewise, your Hunter might follow Confucianism, Han Buddhism, Folk-Hero Worship, or any of the near-dozen spiritual practices cited in this section. Since Hunters are the leading character choice for mortals, this is an excellent way to outline the cultural setting of The Last Imperials, and can be used for other gamelines too. Throughout this chapter, the authors have done an admirable job at highlighting the differences between ethnic groups and how they interact.
The main concern for mummies in this period is tracking down lost relics of Irem which were traded along the Silk Road after the Nameless Empire’s collapse. They have moved their cults into China (and some sweet sorcerer tricks show how that can be done) and three example cults can give you an idea of where to start. A rite called soulcraft presents a new goal for mummies too, giving them a way to imbue their soul into Iremite relics for even more power.
On the antagonist side, a new tier-2 Hunter compact is detailed in the book, The Soldiers of the Forbidden Sun, which specifically fights the influence of the Underworld on China and has done for centuries. They mostly tackle ghosts and vampires but now that mummies are here they will try to stop them too… and likely run into some horrific utterances for their trouble.
The Bad: I don’t consider this a flaw, per se, but an aspect of the Hunter portion of this chapter is that the wars between Ming and Qing have scattered or destroyed most of the native Hunter structures during this period. There are local cells, who are said to operate in smaller areas, and a few surviving compacts: the multi-generational He family, a Mongol force called the Vanguard, and the fully-detailed Soldiers of the Forbidden Sun mentioned above. At the conspiracy level are foreign conspiracies (the usual cast) that have worked their way in. This means that the scope is either rooted in the setting or large scale but not both.
Something that I do find disappointing, though, is the focus on foreigners. On the one hand, it’s a good perspective to remember that China is not an isolated system frozen in time (inscrutable, mysterious, etc etc) but on the other hand much is made about how this group of Hunters or that group has made inroads into China. If you’re using conspiracies from other sources in a Chinese setting, why spend all your room discussing how they established themselves in this area in the past rather than discussing what they’re doing here in the present? I feel well-prepared to construct a story in this setting and develop characters that fit, but I have no idea how to portray the efforts of the Ascending Ones or the Lucifuge, for example. This is especially unfortunate since this is the one aspect of Hunters in Rise of the Last Imperials that I couldn’t research on my own…
The Scandinavian Witch Trials
- Time Period and Setting: Scandinavia (obviously) 1608 – 1698
- Gamelines: Geist: The Sin-Eaters and Mummy: The Curse
- See Also: When the Horsemen Rode, Doubting Souls, The Lost Generation, and Lily, Sabre, and Thorn (all detailed here)
The Good: This isn’t a setting and time period that has been visited often in literature but it’s one that works very well with the dark shadows of the historical Chronicles of Darkness settings. This is more than just a new setting for the sort of British witch trials that you might be more familiar with. The setting has the usual over-zealous Christian inquisitors but also hidden Norse worshippers, wild mountains, and an ever-changing political landscapes of small kingdoms.
The chapter does a good job of outlining the religious wars and historical witch accusations of the period, along with some Scandinavian sites to flesh out your campaign. The Sin-Eaters are a strong fit for this sort of setting, with all the hysteria leading to good people and misunderstood loners being executed. There are many unquiet spirits in this land and plenty of krewes (or “heresies” in this faith-soaked time) ready to help them find peace or force them to the Underworld. With some witch-hunting Merits for your krewe and a bitter spiritual divide between Catholics and Protestants, this setting has a lot to offer the Bound.
The Arisen are a little harder to picture but I’m a big fan of contrasts so I’m here for it. Portraying mummies from the desert in snow-covered Viking seas is great fun but the Arisen also are great avatars for the forces shaping Scandinavia at this time. One group of mummies and their cults are part of the Crimson Priesthood which infiltrates courts and the church. Another group looks to She’kalia Darnu, a Maa-Kep who fights for the well-being of women and outcasts… the people targeted as witches.
The Bad: This is one of those chapters where the only problem I see is that it’s not a full book. There’s plenty of source material here and so many great mechanics as well. The sources provided look great and the plot hooks hidden throughout and explicitly listed all give plenty to work with. Because it’s a short look, though, there’s less about the subtle forces at work in this time period. If I were running this campaign, I’d love to have it be a wide open exploration with the tidal forces of the Arisen factions underlaying all of it. That’s going to take a lot of research and writing on my part to pull off, though.
The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
- Time Period and Setting: The Golden Age of Piracy, 1716-1717 CE
- Gamelines: Geist: The Sin-Eaters and Mage: The Awakening
- See Also: Lily, Sabre, and Thorn shows things on the other side of the Atlantic during these years and Doubting Souls cover what’s happening in New England. Both are found here. That page also has Feeding the Fire which is eighty years later but still in the Caribbean so…
The Good: Pirates! Yar-har-har and avast and all that. It’s a good start for an era to have such a thematic concept as piracy and magic, and this one includes a very strong focus on the British colony of Nassau at the height of a chaotic few decades when it was without governance and rife with criminals. The locations provided include captured ships and there’s a brief guide to piracy practices and terminology. It’s a wide open time when opportunity existed for people at the end of their rope looking for a miracle to turn their fate around. Enter the Bound and the Awakened.
“Normal” Bound similar to what you find in the Geist core rulebook can be found here but there’s a larger focus on a network of Maroon Sin-Eaters, the descendants of escaped slaves both genealogically and spiritually. They are divided up into factions based around Obeah practices of following their geists and they most often travel to a place called the Ocean of Fragments when they cross to the Underworld. This dangerous, black sea contains the remnants of seafaring civilizations lost to time and is prowled by a massive ship that blasts visitors out of the water. A safe haven for Sin-Eaters called Libertalia can also be found, and the infamous Flying Dutchman, plus characters can benefit from a new krewe ceremony and some pirate-themed mementoes.
On the Mage side of things, the independence of pirate ports like Nasau really starts to come through. A third party faction has entered the fray in this setting, the Company of the Codex, which is a free-wheeling order of pirate-mages which takes in outcasts and apostates while thumbing their noses and thwarting the plans of Diamond and Throne mages alike. The Company is available as a Mystery Cult through a Merit and has both strong benefits and cult mysteries to benefit from. There are also some great supernatural connections from using sea shanties as sung rituals, the effect of gold tokens by sailors to keep Death spells from calling their souls, and a magical Bermuda Triangle which the Silver Ladder blames on the pirate-mages of the Company (spurring a West India Company vs. Jack Sparrow type conflict).
Best of all, there’s some guidance on mixing mages and Sin-Eaters together (my favorite thing from these historical settings). Mostly this is from the mage side with a secret cult of mages (rooted in Silver Ladder but not exclusively) who are very concerned with Shadow and taming loose spirits. It’s not enough to revolutionize things but there’s plenty to get you going on a joint chronicle and it’s solidly written.
The Bad: Overall I like this chapter but there are two glaring omissions. The first is mechanical: where are the mechanics for ship-to-ship fights and general seafaring? We get some statistics for ship types and how to modify the chase rules for ships but if you want to know how tacking is handled with dice, what modification that might have, and whether you can do that singlehandedly or it takes a crew, that’s stuff you come up with your own stuff as a Storyteller. Likewise there’s nothing for fighting between ships from personally swinging between ships to firing cannons, a curious lack in a piracy setting. Maybe you’d want to abstract ships blasting ships as background to your main story, but some guidance on how to use these elements and what options and tactics are historical and feasible would be great. Instead, I’m just going to have to turn to 7th Sea or some other game and borrow theirs.
The second is a little more upsetting, and that’s the lack of indigenous stories and people. In the history section we get told about the Carib, Arawak, and Taíno peoples but only in that they caught a bunch of diseases and then disappeared from history. Just from a writing standpoint, what a missed opportunity. The potential mixing of magical traditions from European, African, and native cultures would be several times cooler than a duel between two groups. Also, even if you keep these indigenous people as victims who were decimated by plague, maybe those scores of genecide victims would have an impact on the Underworld of the setting. There are bits and scraps around but the message from this chapter is that these are people who were around and died and that’s sad, but history is moving on without them.
More broadly speaking, to excise entire cultures from history is a pretty terrible choice. Not only were these people an important part of this multicultural landscape and time, not only were they part of the very thing you are describing, but they also did not disappear and also still have relations and descendants today. I get why they focused on the slave trade and the struggle of Africans to maintain their culture while being dehumanized and abused, but doing that at the expense of another group is just feeding the beast of racism a different way. I’m very happy that the authors went out of their way to contextualize the trans-Atlantic slave trade and to give Africans much more agency than just frightened and scarred victims, but the lack of indigenous voices, characters, and involvement in The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is pretty disappointing.
The Reign of Terror
- Time Period and Setting: France during popular revolution of 1793-1794
- Gamelines: Demon: The Descent, Mummy: The Curse, and Vampire: The Requiem
- See Also: Feeding the Fire (here) which deals with the Haitian rebellion against France in 1791. Lily, Sabre, and Thorn (also here) shows France in a more aristocrat-friendly time of a century earlier. A Grimm Dark Era and The Year Without Summer (both covered here) are two European settings that happen a few decades later.
The Good: This is a pretty wild setting, a blood-drenched horror show where the “good guys” are murdering people in the streets to free the poor and the “bad guys” are grabbing what they can to save their families from blood-thirsty mobs. This is the sort of grey morality that drives Chronicles of Darkness and it’s found an historic home in late-18th century France. The Reign of Terror was a popular uprising against widespread poverty and starvation (partially brought on by French proxy wars against England including the American Revolution) and the image of aristocrats as uncaring sadists who partied while the common folk starved. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI are headless and rotting, the monarchy is in pieces, Revolutionary Tribunals hold show trials in the streets, and the God-Machine is trying to save what infrastructure it can. This is a pretty tight timeframe of just two years so the timeline and events are very detailed. The theme and mood include factionalism and this really drives all three gamelines of the setting. Oh right, there are three different Chronicle of Darkness games colliding in these two years so… yeah it’s busy. We get lots of context and Parisian setting elements but I’m skipping straight to the supernatural stuff because time is short.
Obviously, Demons find a ready home during a bloody popular revolution. There’s a full page of short quotes by a dozen different Fallen with their thoughts on the revolution which just sets the whole thing off on an amazing start. The Inquisitors, Saboteurs, and Tempters all find their agendas working well in this climate but new agendas can also be found: the Augustinians are proxies for the French Enlightenment, trying to preserve infrastructure from wanton destruction so that it can be understood; the Feuilles are subversives trying to fan the flames of hatred until there’s only ash left; and the Mouths of Iron are the social revolutionaries of the angelic world, trying to push as many angels to Fall as they can. I love the adaptation of familiar Demon elements and the new stuff to fit this period and I have no notes.
While Demons are concerned with the big picture, both mummies and vampires have their own little revolutions to worry about. If you are a literal monster holding power and authority over a group (and in some cases literally feeding off the less fortunate) then you have some concerns during a revolution. The Arisen work their way into positions of power to maintain the cults that take care of their bodies during sleep, but they now find themselves having to ride the waves of revolution and not be taken down. From Maa-Kep manipulators trying to play one side off the other to Mesen-Nebu alchemists going all-in with aristocrat-killing to Tef-Aabhi architects looking for the Judges’ message in this bloodbath. The vampires are in no better situation, relying as they do on courtly power structures that are even more arcane in the 1790s than the French king’s court that the people are burning to the ground. The Prince of Île-de-France is trying desperately to keep his court from catching the same revolutionary sickness as the mortal kingdom, with mixed results. This is, of course, the birth of the Carthian Movement so you can figure out who’s going to win this one.
There are callbacks to other historical vampire sects including the Gallows Post (detailed in Requiem for Regina in the original Dark Eras, although this book says you can use Carthian rules if you like), the Cult of Reason (new, I think, and really just a short note), and some historical factions within the struggling Invictus and Lancea et Sanctum. There’s also a brand new covenant called the Tenth Choir which lists its mission as “seeking to destroy God.” They are determined humanists (vampirists?) trying to dismantle the religious trappings of the Night Society and allow open meddling in mortal affairs. They get a full two-page write up and a sweet Discipline which relies on using the blood of angels and demons (dun dun duuuun!).
The Bad: Honestly, the only thing that I have to gripe about is that there’s so much on vampires. After finishing the chapter (which ends on the vampiric material) I found myself suddenly remembering that there were demons and mummies bouncing around here too! There’s lots for those gamelines and more than enough to start a chronicle on the Fallen and the Arisen (hmm.. I just noticed that…) and I read those sections feeling pretty psyched about them. Then I got through the vampire section and now those other sections seem so short! It’s just a product of Vampire being the “senior” line in a lot of ways but I feel myself wanting to be revolutionary as well and overturn the vampiric focus with the younger, plucky gamelines.