Saturday, March 08, 2008
The Tabletop: Promethean: The Created
This review, like the other I've posted here, was first put up over at RPG.net. You can buy the book by clicking the above image.
PROMETHEAN has been a long time coming. White Wolf has tackled vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and mummies, among other supernatural beings, and in this twisted version of the Universal horror movie line up it was inevitable that the Frankenstein monster would get a look in. PROMETHEAN: THE CREATED, one of the more recent entries in the new World of Darkness line of games (all requiring use of the WORLD OF DARKNESS core book), is a bit broader than that, expanding on the “artificial life” premise to incorporate golems, muses, mummies (again, though their last incarnation was in the old WoD so it’s not really overlap), and shamans (shamen?). It’s a strong game, one with a few odd quirks here and there but a great central conceit, putting the players in the role of tormented creations in search of a soul.
A Promethean is a resurrected corpse, gifted with life by the mysterious alchemical fire of Pyros. Their history stretches back to five individual acts of creation: the killing and resurrection of Osiris by Isis, Pygmalion’s construction of Galatea (not through sculpture, as the myth says, but through the assembly of particularly good-looking body parts), the resurrection of Tammuz over in the Babylon region, the strange birth of the shaman Ulgan in Siberia, and of course Victor Frankenstein’s unusual experiments with lightning. These five experiments created five unique Prometheans, gifted with the Pyros, and they in turn created many descendants, each retaining the distinct characteristics of his/her lineage. Thus, we have the Wretched (or Frankensteins), the Galateids (or Muses), the Tammuz (or Golems), the Osirans (or Nepri), and the Ulgan (or Riven). The Frankensteins are ramshackle assemblies of body parts given life by lightning (and tied to the element of fire), the Galateids (tied to air) are beautiful and social creatures whose inherent otherness nonetheless creates problems, the Osirans (connected to water) are priests of the god of the dead intent on mastering their condition through knowledge, the Golems are born slaves whose strength comes from the earth itself, and the Ulgans are mystics, tied to the spirit world despite their own lack of a soul. Most Prometheans- including the PCs, one presumes- are on a quest to become human, an achievement they know to be possible but only after a long journey of self-actualization and mastery of the forces that rage within them, including the morally questionable act of creating another Promethean.
Of course, being a hideous supernatural monster always seems to come with perks, and through mastery of their Pyros, Prometheans can attain various “Transmutations”, powers reflective of their natures- this can range from detecting electricity to temporarily animating the dead. Starting characters start out with three dots’ worth of Transmutations, and the ones you select are based on your Refinement, a weird kind of template regarding your current emphasis in your quest for humanity as expressed by alchemical elements (the Refinement of Gold is about learning to understand humanity, the Refinement of Copper is about understanding yourself in relation to the world, the Refinement of Iron is about strengthening the body, etc.) You can change Refinement, but you have to roleplay the shift in philosophy and it usually takes a bit of time.
Character creation is mostly run by the guidelines of the WoD core book, except that in this case you’re not creating a human who is changed by the supernatural but someone who is a supernatural being to start with. The WoD Morality trait is replaced by Humanity, a 10-point scale which shows how well you understand (or at least can imitate the behavior of) the mortal world around you. Monstrous behaviors (like throwing little girls into ponds and the like) reduce your Humanity and make it harder to resist the Torments of being an inhuman creature. Promethean characters also have Pyros which they can spend to power Transmutations, and Azoth, a form of purified Pyros which functions as the strength of the fire contained within you. Having lots of it makes it easier to spend Pyros and ultimately attain humanity, but also makes the mortals who meet you more unsettled and can attract Pandorans, misbegotten creatures who feed on the Pyros.
This is probably getting confusing. There’s a lot to absorb with this game, which is typical of World of Darkness stuff- it’s a matter of becoming used to the specific terminology of each little subculture. Unfortunately we’re not quite done yet- there are plenty of capital words to follow. It does get a bit simpler, though.
There are three mechanics which reflect the difficulty of being a Promethean in a mortal world. Prometheans can generally give the illusion of a normal appearance, but something about their soulless nature causes Disquiet in humans- mortals have to roll a test of Resolve and Composure, against the Promethean’s Azoth, and failure places them in the first stage of Disquiet, initially suffering strange dreams about this odd person in their lives, moving on to dark fantasies, paranoia, and finally destructive action. Disquiet can also spread from person to person, turning entire communities against the Prometheans and causing everyone to break out the pitchforks and torches. This is perfectly in tune with all kinds of “artificial life” stories, from A.I. to EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, and the mechanics leave a lot of room for interpretation. Then there’s the psychological pressure on the Promethean, represented by Torment. Various conditions and occurrences (including being damaged by fire, which is especially dangerous to a Promethean- fire BAD, if you will) trigger an unopposed Humanity roll, failure throwing the Promethean into a state of rage and temporarily smothering his or her humanity. Frankensteins get vengeful and violent, Muses take on a stalkerly attitude, Osirans become detached and almost sociopathic, Golems go on mindless destructive rampages, and Ulgans become dominated by the spirits they contact. This has some good potential, though obviously Storytellers have to be delicate about guiding PC behavior. Finally there’s Wasteland, the corrupting effect Prometheans’ Pyros has on the world around them. When a Promethean spends longer than a day anywhere, the Pyros starts to degrade and twist things for a mile around, and over a period of months the landscape develops in a way relates to the Promethean’s lineage (and the element connected with it.) A Wasteland can also spread if things get too bad in the center area, and there seems to be no upper limit on how big they can get. Now, I like the basic idea of the landscape where Prometheans live changing to look like something out of a James Whale movie, but at times the effect seems a bit severe, especially when the land starts spreading Disquiet and perhaps subtly prodding mortals in the area to do something about the taint. It makes sense for Prometheans to be under pressure to keep moving, but it also seems like these rules would make it difficult to run an urban campaign (and lower the value of the Lair merit.) Wasteland stages run from one to five, but for some reason the description of effects by lineage only goes from stages two to four. Wasteland probably isn’t too bad in practice since it does spread on a monthly basis, but it seems like it could have been limited and simplified a bit. It just seems weird to me that you could theoretically create a Wasteland the size of Rhode Island by staying in a shack for long enough, especially in an overall setting where humanity is largely ignorant of the supernatural forces that surround them.
Both the Wasteland and Torment rules have a weird addition that also seems to force a certain style too much. A party of Prometheans is, most properly, a branded “throng”, in which the characters make an alchemical connection in order to help each other. Being part of a throng with Prometheans of other lineages makes Torment easier to resist and slows the spread of Wasteland- however, having one of the same Lineage as you makes these problems worse. Encouraging diverse parties is one thing, but I’m not sure why the designers went out of their way to discourage there being two Ulgans, two Golems, etc. in a given group. I think it’s at least possible that players can come up with interesting variations on the basic archetype behind each Lineage (say, one Galateid with a naive Pollyanna attitude who fancies herself an actual Muse, and another who more cynicaly manipulates her good looks and unearthly charm to get what she can from the mortal word before it turns on her), and that two characters of the same type can be played in different and entertaining ways. The carrot makes sense, the stick is unnecessary.
Fortunately, despite all the things the system sets against Prometheans, the rules also provide a lot of support for guiding their progress towards humanity. There are rules for the creation of new Prometheans (or Pandorans if something goes wrong), and the journey of each Promethean is laid out as a series of milestones which the Storyteller specifically determines based on the character and what vision the player has for him or her. It’s about understanding humanity on intellectual and emotional levels, and basically becoming a well-rounded (though not necessarily well-adjusted) individual. Personal development is really the theme of this game, which is an interesting one.
Of course, there are enemies, and not just humans suffering Disquiet. The chief antagonists are actually the Pandorans- corrupted vessels of the divine fire, lacking any sense of humanity from the start and often completely mindless. Pandorans feed off the Vitriol that Prometheans accumulate as they refine themselves, and are attracted to the natural Azothic radiance that all Prometheans exude. Pandorans get created when a Promethean tries to make another one of his or her kind and fails spectacularly, and can also reproduce by division when exposed to an excess of Azoth. They are divided into five mockeries of the Lineages; the Ishtari, the anti-Tammuz, lurk deep in the earth and enjoy capturing their victims and feeding on them at leisure, the Renders, a twisting of the Ulgan creation ritual of being pulled apart by spirits, actually do the ripping and tearing themselves. Sebek, the Osiris mockeries, are savage crocodile-like creatures lurking in the water. The Silent mock the Galateans through stealth and mutilation of their prey; the Torch-born, born of fire like the Wretched, seek to burn their victims to death. Most of these things are mindless, but some, the Sublimati, are born as intelligent as human beings or Prometheans. There are also Centimani, Prometheans who follow the “Refinement” of Flux, embracing the chaotic forces within them and abandoning any search for humanity. There are also clones, mindless psuedo-Prometheans created by unethical scientists (are there any other kind in a White Wolf game?), and some vague hooks for a new, barely understood Nuclear Promethean born from an accident either in Los Alamos, Bikini Atoll, or the USSR.
The book closes out with an introductory adventure- any potential players might want to skip this paragraph, but basically, a human alchemist summons the characters together and promises to help make a dose of aqua vitae which will help one of them on their journey towards humanity. They have to gather a few symbolic ingredients, and there’s some intrigue involving other Prometheans, and some business with Pandorans as well. It’s kind of slight, and didn’t really stand out to me that much, but some GMs might find it a decent campaign starter.
The book is well produced, with an above-average bit of fiction scattered through a few separate sections like a magazine article, and attractive black and white art. The arrangement is sometimes a little weird- the detailed listings of the Refinements come before those of the Lineages, which are more likely what you’d want to know first. Character creation involves looking back and forth between this book and the WoD core, which is annoying since I’ve only got the latter on PDF, but such is the nature of the line.
Appropriately enough, PROMETHEAN has entered this world a little rough around the edges. The writers as much as admit that this game is harder to run than most because of the level of character involvement required; you could argue the same for many of the World of Darkness games, but this suffers the curse of being new and not having had any default play models evolve yet. But there’s a lot of potential here, and the system seems to back it up. The game captures the tropes of isolation, rejection, and need to connect with humanity that underlie not only the Frankenstein story but many other myths of artificial life, and they’re able to make what seems like narrow subject matter offer a real range of possibilities. The rules will need some tweaking, I think, but if you’re interested in the subject matter (or the burning question of what would happen if the Frankenstein Monster, Imhotep, and Kira from XANADU rented an apartment together), this is definitely worth taking a look at.