Tabletop Review: The God Machine Chronicle (World of Darkness)

The God Machine Chronicle
Publisher: White Wolf/Onyx Path Publishing
Cost: $17.99/Free (Rules Update Only)
Page Count: 250 Pages/104 (Rules Update Only)
Release Date: 04/30/2013
Get it Here:

With some many games getting new rules sets this year like Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Tunnels and Trolls, and so on, World of Darkness’ The God Machine Chronicle may have slipped past your radar, especially since it’s tucked away under a very peculiar name. There are two parts to The God Machine Chronicle. The first is 149 pages that reveal the God Machine and a corresponding twenty or so adventures and principal NPCs to go with it. The other 100 pages are a rules update to the New World Of Darkness as opposed to the OLD World of Darkness. Some of these rules are minor cosmetic changes, while some really change the way the game is played. If you’re ONLY interested in the changes to the core game rules, you can get those separately as a 104 page PDF for FREE. Yes that’s right: for free. Go right now and download it. You have no excuse not to. However, if you do choose to go that route, you are missing out on the most compelling and creepy adventure collection I’ve encountered since Chaosium first released Masks of Nyarlathotep and Horror on the Orient Express. Yes, The God Machine Chronicle is that amazing. Between this release and my beloved Mummy: The Curse, I think the Storyteller System has become THE frontrunner for our System of the Year award. Will it still be at the end of the year? Only time will tell…

So what IS The God Machine Chronicle? Well it’s hard to explain; partly because I don’t want to spoil the journey for those of you taking the time to read this and partly because the game goes out of its way NOT to define the God Machine. I know, for those of you who are long time White Wolf fans, the fact they managed to keep something nebulous and vague is either a miracle or a sign the apocalypse is at hand. For those that aren’t aware of what I mean, White Wolf, in the Old World of Darkness was notorious for pinning everything down, giving specific exact canon reasons for everything as soon as a mystery or group that was open to interpretation came into being. There was no sense of the unexplained and thus a lot of the potential for horror and mystery went out the window with it. I loved the settings and system but when you’re told every last detail about the Black Hand, Inconnu, Sabbat and so on AND these details are published repeatedly so that any player can get their hands on them easily, well, you couldn’t really establish a sense of foreboding or dread. It was more or less Chill from the POV of the monsters.

So what IS the God Machine? I know, didn’t we just ask that? Well the best way I can describe it is how I interpreted it, which is automatically wrong and yet completely correct for no being or even group of beings can truly fathom the God Machine. However, I’ll take a stab at it. First, take one part Hellraiser mythology distilled with the pure essence of Clive Barker – that being a strange machine-like god being (Leviathan) that is never fully described or understood, even by its own followers which are strange beings that occasionally offer a semblance of man (perhaps even once were human) but beat to a drum we can neither hear nor fathom. The Angels of the God Machine also are similar to the Cenobites of Barker’s mythology, but more their original form in The Hellbound Heart where their nature and purpose was never given any true depth, leaving you with a sense of “Why are they doing this?” and thus heightening the creep factor. Then take the mood and atmosphere of Call of Cthulhu where the players characters begin to realize that they are bit players in Existence itself and that in the shadows and underbelly of our planet lurk things our mind was not meant to understand. Things that neither bear us malice nor kindness. We are merely fleas to them and if the flea bites, well there are ways to get rid of it without passing a second thought on the subject. Feelings of helplessness, doom, and paranoia are commonplace amongst the PCs and the question becomes not, “Will the PCs win the day?” but, “How long can they stave off their own destruction?” or “How much of a difference can an ant colony make when someone decides they really want to kick it down or fry it with a magnifying glass?” Next add a portion of the Technocracy from Mage: The Awakening with its multiple factions severing a high purpose (in this case the God Machine) but with different groups interpreting the best way to achieve said goal in fundamentally different ways, perhaps even utterly contradictory to another. These would be the secret societies and cults that serve the God Machine, although in the case of this, said groups are sometimes PURPOSELY given orders that put each other in conflict. Indeed, for me, The God Machine felt very much like the early games of Mage we used to play run through a Black Dog set of glasses. Finally add a bit of comic books style magical realism. Think 90s Vertigo comics. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. ESPECIALLY Grant Morrison’s Animal Man. In this regard you have heroes and villains alike serving a higher purpose – oftentimes unaware that their actions are being subtly guided by a higher force that is able to manipulate reality in ways that would drive most people mad if they thought such a thing was truly possible. Add these four things together (maybe a little of 2001: A Space Odyssey for good measure) and you have the closest I can come to describing the God Machine. It’s not good or evil, lawful or chaotic. It simply runs according to its own plan; a plan that will never be even partially revealed to players or Storytellers and doing so would only be folly and an insult to the very concept of the God Machine.

Whew. That was one long paragraph. Basically the God Machine is the answer to most horror Storyteller/Keeper/GM’s dreams. It is a nigh omnipotent/omnipotent thing that will never be fully described, shown or explained. This not only gives the Storyteller unparalleled freedom to shape the God Machine in whatever form he or she sees fit, but in trying to discern more about WHAT the God Machine IS, simply makes the God Machine pay more attention to the PCs, eventually bringing about their own demise or perhaps even causing them to become one with the Machine. A “cog” if you will. Note that the God Machine doesn’t have to be an antagonist to the PCs. In fact, you could run an entire campaign without the players ever encountering actual evidence of its existence. One adventure could have the PCs working for the machine (directly or indirectly) and the next having them be a roadblock in the Machine’s path. It’s so utterly flexible and because the God Machine’s plans are so alien they can’t be described or understood, even by the Storyteller, you have no worries regarding contradiction in its behavior or any shift you might need to do to the game’s mechanics in order to further the feel of the tale being told. In a sense, The God Machine Chronicle is a rules lawyering min/max’ers worst nightmare and a horror Storyteller’s pipe dream come true – a truly indescribable concept that won’t be bogged down by stats, mechanics, dice rolls or in canon descriptions. Now that doesn’t mean you won’t be rolling your d10s en masse like you always have with a Storyteller System game. Just that rules might change according to the God Machine’s whim.

The God Machine Chronicle gives us an introduction, three chapters and the Rules Appendix. The introduction runs twenty pages and it gives us the mood and theme of a world plagued/blessed by the God Machine. If your World of Darkness contains the God Machine then realize you have something that even supernatural characters are unaware of and should even fear. Sure you might be able to turn into a bat or cast some magic, but what happens if the God Machine throws a few angels at you or offers you the powers that give you the leg up in your every day in exchange for what feels like a rather mundane task. Would a vampire trade a month of not having the hunger in them for simply sticking three woodchucks in an old abandoned farmhouse. WHAT HARM COULD OCCUR FROM THAT? Conversely what do you do if you piss off the machine and suddenly you find that it’s not silver that causes you aggravated damage but cotton? So on and so forth. The core of the introduction is to make it clear that WW/OPP will not be fully fleshing out or defining the God Machine and the true joy/horror of experience a God Machine focused chronicle is that you will NEVER understand it fully and that should drive players and their characters nuts because THEY WANT TO KNOW and there is no actual answer. You’ve given multiple examples of those that fear the God Machine, those that serve it, those who have an intellectual curiosity about it and those that fight against it. In each category you have those that have justifiable reasons and those that are obviously in the wrong when looked at objectively. This contradiction only serves to muddy the water more and make the only certain about the God Machine is that nothing is for certain.

The intro also begins to define Infrastructure, which is the way the God Machine goes about its planning and projects. It gives you a bit of a flowchart in which to design the bizarre things that occur both because of and in spite of its actions. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Intro points out in no uncertain terms that the God Machine is not 100% omnipresent and omnipotent, because what fun is it in playing a game where the God Machine can do anything and stop any action the PCs take? It then becomes Storyteller vs Player and that never ends well. Instead think of the God Machine a la Cthulhu. Both are insanely powerful and SEEM unstoppable and all powerful in every way, but they don’t always win. Sure they probably will win the long game, but humans don’t think that far or in those terms. Both are also utterly alien to our thought process so trying to make them evil or 100% out to do terrible things to humanity just because is not only a disservice to those concepts, but also greatly ethnocentric on the part of the person writing/running those type of adventures because honestly, how often do YOU think about the microscopic bacteria you have on your skin every day?

Chapter 1 is “Building the God Machine Chronicle” and is all about the Storyteller’s role. How can you use the God Machine as a powerful unfathomable THING yet still give the PCs a chance to win and/or survive the adventure? You’ll find it here. The chapter also defines tiers (first seen in the nWoD’s version of Hunter) which are used to help a Storyteller craft their adventure. These tiers range from a local occurrence to a global event. You’re also given some rudimentary organizations that may work as antagonists for the tier you are using. It then goes into advice on how to run a God Machine adventure, chronicle or campaign. This is wonderful stuff for beginning and intermediate Storytellers and even long time veterans will pick up a few things along the way. By the end you should know what tale you want to tell, the number of sessions and adventures it will take to unfold and the right number of players to make it happen. They key is to remember that just because you are using the God Machine to not have it squash the characters instantly and utterly. Otherwise what’s the point of playing the game? The chapter ends with suggested story arcs for the Storyteller. It gives you several different overall themes and then creates a connection between multiple adventures that you’ll find in Chapter Two. It’s a bit odd to see the book talk about the adventures and ways to group them into a cohesive experience before you even read the adventures, but for once this does not feel like the typical bad layout and flow we’ve come to know with WoD publications, but rather a fine example of the disconnect and weirdness you’ll feel playing a God Machine chronicle. I really loved seeing how the premade adventures can fit into different themed story arcs and connect to other adventures in very different ways. Sure some connections are harder to justify than others, but the book acknowledges that. In the end, Chapter One will give you so many ideas of what to do with a God Machine, your head should be ready to burst from the adventures you want to run/write/play.

Chapter Two, “Tales of the God Machine,” is where all your adventures live. They aren’t grouped by Tier or any of the potential story arcs listed in Chapter One. They are also not listed in alphabetical order. They’re just kind of thrown together in no real order, which is fine as it fits the mood of the game but will make it hard for Storytellers to find the adventure they want to run without using post-it notes or Ctrl+F in a digital copy. There are twenty different adventures here. Now they’re not fully fleshed out to allow Storytellers the chance to modify them to their own vision. What is here is laid out wonderfully with seven different sections. You have the title and summary section which well, I don’t think I need to explain that to you. You have Infrastructure which lays out the overall story and why things are occurring in the way they are. You have Interchangeable Parts which shows how the characters fit into the story, the background they should probably have and how they can affect things. Blueprints gives insight into what the God Machine wants to happen and how it is going about achieving those goals in this instance. Linchpins are ways the God Machine is not infallible in these adventures and gives characters a way to defeat its Machinations. Methods gives you examples of ways to use your character sheet to get through the adventurer or at least advance the plot. Escalation gives you the climax of the adventure and the way things can unfold. The layout for these adventures is wonderful. Any Storyteller, regardless of experience, should be able to run one of these smoothly by following the format. It reminds me a lot of the Shadowrun Missions layout and while not as good as what Catalyst Game Labs does with those, they’re also single adventures while The God Machine Chronicle crams TWENTY DIFFERENT ONES into this chapter. I really hope this becomes the standard for how we see adventures laid out in World of Darkness adventures, albeit it a bit more fleshed out, because this format is so inviting to newcomers while extremely helpful to veterans as well. Awesome job.

The content of the adventures will vary based on what you want out of the God Machine. There are some adventures I fell instantly in love with and some I knew I would never use. The key is that ALL of them are well written and showcase the multifaceted nature of the God Machine. These things are weird, dark, exciting, freaky and most of all memorable. Obviously I don’t have room to review each adventure separately as we’ve just hit the 2,600 word mark but if you would like me to in another piece, by all means, I’ll consider it; just let me know. What you need to know is that all twenty adventures are worth reading even if you don’t play through them because of the insight you’ll gain regarding making God Machine based adventures of your own. I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen an adventure collection that blew me away this consistently. With a price tag of only $17.99, that means you are paying less than a dollar per adventure and that doesn’t even factor in the rules changes and the rest of the book. That alone should have you thrusting a fistful of money at Rich and his team demanding them to take it. I honestly can’t think of a better deal in gaming. Even if you don’t play games in the New World of Darkness. Even if you only play something like Earthdawn or Traveller, you should get this book just to read it. It is that well written and it’s an experience unlike any other. I can’t emphasize enough how this chapter alone is worth your money and the fact you’re getting so much more on top of it means I honestly can’t fathom why someone wouldn’t pick this up and more importantly, why they wouldn’t enjoy it.

Chapter Three is called “The Cogs in the Machine” and there’s not much to say here. This is a list of NPCs that work for or fight against the God Machine in a myriad of ways. Most of them are tied to specific adventures in Chapter Two, but a few are there just to have to write your own adventures around them. This chapter is what it is and the use you will get out of it pertains more or less to the use you get out of Chapter Two. In this chapter you’ll meet angels, mortals gone mad and a living oil rig.

Now we come to the Appendix which is where all the rule changes and revisions for the New World of Darkness can be found. It’s roughly a hundred pages long, which may be intimidating to some of you, especially those of you who already have the old rules memorized (along with probably half a dozen other RPG systems), but the good news is that most of the changes are small subtle ones. It does seem odd and ill-placed to tuck the rule changes in the back of an adventure collection where the rules are totally turned on their head and are far less tangible than they’ve ever been before, but think of it as a bonus. After all, you can get the rules for free in a separate PDF, so it’s not like they’re forcing you to purchase these if all you want to do is play a game of V:TR and you have no intention of ever touching the God Machine. So, a hundred pages of rule changes, revisions and clarifications. Man, how does one begin to cover all of that? We’ll try though by talking about the most important bits.

Character creation is mostly the same. The big thing you’ll see right away is that it doesn’t cost you two dots to purchase a level five Attribute, Skill or Merit. Awesome! I think a lot of people ignored this rule anyway though. Aspirations, Virtues and Vices are now more open ended instead of “pick from a list,” which allows for more creative freedom. They have added two new merits that can be obtained if a Player regularly plays his Virtue over his Vice or well, vice versa (no pun intended). I think this is a great idea and it rewards a player for playing his character instead of going, “Oh I got my Willpower bonus from one, better do the other now.” You’re basically trading a short term disadvantage for a long term bonus via a free two point Merit. I like that. Morality has been replaced by Integrity, which will probably split people down on the middle on whether they like it or not. I see the positive and negative in both although honestly, for most people they are close to the same in terms of real world concepts. What I do like is that Integrity is more akin to the Sanity aspect of other horror games and when you risk losing Integrity you also risk incurring a Breaking Point, which is when your character’s ability to understand and/or rationalize what is going on around them goes out the window along with the winged firebreathing sloth they just saw. Breaking Points replace the concept of Sin in the New World of Darkness which I greatly approve of. Breaking Points are tailored to specific characters and it also gets rid of a lot of the baggage that came with the term “Sin” as well as applying it. I mean, if you’re an unrepentant serial killer are you really going to “sin?” But I digress. Break Points gives both players and Storytellers an excuse/need to really flesh out a PC’s back story and also define what are their trigger stressors. It might be hard to do these at first, especially if you are new to tabletop game, but for those that enjoy the story aspect of role-playing over dice hucking, this is no doubt a welcome change from the old rules.

Experience Points gets a massive overhaul though. Character progression is now more linear and standardized instead of level that you want times X number = how many experience points you need to purchase it. That’s a big change because everything costs far less XP now that it used to. 1XP nets you a dot of a merit, Skill Speciality or Willpower point. 2XP is a dot of a skill. 3XP is a dot of Integrity and 4XP is a dot of an attribute. Crazy cheap, huh? However, this is balanced out by how you earn experience. Basically you now earn “Beats” and five Beats equals ONE Experience Point. You earn a Beat (or “Take a Beat” in actual game terms) in various ways. Through achieving an Aspiration, experiencing a Dramatic Failure, recognizing a specific plot point or having a significant character experience are just a few examples. I was surprised hitting a Breaking Point wasn’t one of the ways listed though. So people are either going to love or hate this. My big problem with the new Experience System is that it may be too nebulous for a lot of people to make work. In the hands of a person that really gets the new rule changes and also knows his players well, this will be quite a good change. In the hands of others though, the potential for this to be a train wreck is pretty obvious to anyone who reads this section.

Merit are given an entire list of what is now in the game. Some Merits are gone but that is because they were found redundant or reworked. Other than that, it’s pretty unchanged. The Sanctity of Merits section is well worth reading though. Flaws are replaced by Conditions though and are less permanent than the original concept. Conditions can go away if the circumstances are right. Longer lasting Conditions are known as Permanent Conditions. They also aren’t necessarily negative (99.99% are though) and unlike Flaws, they can be obtained through simple roleplaying. For example, a Breaking Point can cause a Condition but so can an exceptional success. The Conditions list is far smaller than the Merits one, but there is also a section on designing Conditions for your players and characters so it is more open ended and flexible.

One thing I DON’T care for is the concept of Soul Loss and the mechanics behind it. This is something I feel should be done through role-playing only. The rules and the mechanics are badly defined and there’s no actual description of how one moves from one stage to the next. So basically you have specific rules for each stage but absolutely no rules for how they occur. This is a wasted concept that didn’t need mechanics at all.

A lot of the die roll stuff such as Extended Actions, Dramatic Failures and the like make a lot of sense and honestly aren’t that different from how you’ve probably used the Storyteller system before. Really everything in these sections is just shoring up the slow subtle changes made over the past decade and putting them in one concrete block. The Social Maneuvering section is similar. It’s far more in-depth than in the past with these rules, adding more possibilities and explanations rather than changing how things work. The truth is, most people I know that play WoD games (both old and new) tend to role-play these out rather than roll-play them out, so I was surprised to see how long this section was but also glad to see that it very rarely made mention of dice rolling or specific mechanics.

Combat has some slight changes, but it’s mainly optional rules and expansions of what you already know. I don’t mean to underestimate the changes that are here, but most of it really is intuitive and has slowly been implemented over the last few years anyway. The combat summary chart is well done and helpful to players of all experience levels. Tilts are probably the thing that will be the most new or unheard of those, but that is only because they were introduced in Danse Macabre for Vampire: The Requiem and thus if you only play, say, Forsaken or Mummy, these are probably new to you. Basically Tilts are Combat specific Conditions. They can be either personal (broken arm, temporary blinded) or environmental (sandstorm, blizzard). Again, these are all thing you’ve probably done instinctively or made up rules for on the fly at some point, but it’s nice to have them grouped together in one spot.

For Ghosts and other Ephemeral beings, rules from various (sometimes contradictory) books are combined and unified into one system. There are seventeen pages of rules just for ghosts, spirits, angels and the like, so fans of using or playing ghosts will see their world change the most. To be honest though, with all the rules for Twilight, Wraiths and the like spread across multiple books, this was a long time coming. The book then ends with a collection of new pieces of equipment for characters of all walks of life to use.

All in all the rules changes aren’t huge ones and as always, Storytellers and their troupe of gamers can ignore the changes or stick to the old way of doing things. I’d say the vast majority of edits and replacements are for the better. The problem will be getting people to use and/or remember the changes, especially if they assumed The God Machine Chronicle was just well, God Machine related.

All in all, The God Machine Chronicle is incredible. The basic premise is fantastic and one of the best things to come out of the New World of Darkness. It’s been sitting untouched more or less since what, 2004 and it’s nice to see something come of it. The adventures are fantastic, easily the best collection I think I’ve ever see White Wolf/Onyx Path Publishing put out (but then, how often do they actually DO collections instead of individual adventures). I went into this expecting something I could take or leave, and I came away being more impressed by this book than anything else I’ve read since the start of the New World of Darkness save for Mummy. If you’re a fan of either WoD, you really should pick this up as you’ll enjoy the writing even if your friends want nothing to do with playing the adventures or concepts contained herein. Hell, even if you’re not a Storyteller System gamer, any horror games should pick this up and devour it as there is so much to enjoy here. The lessons and stories this book holds can be applied to anything from say, Don’t Look Back to All Flesh Must Be Eaten. The Rules Update isn’t as big a deal as some have made it out to be in either extreme. Story trumps rules after all. I can’t heartily recommend this enough and honestly, between this, Mummy and Werewolf: The Apocalypse 20th Anniversary Edition I haven’t been this excited for the World of Darkness as a whole since the mid 1990s. Just an amazing job in every way and I would love to see another, albeit more fleshed out, adventure collective just like this one in the future.

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