Review: World of Darkness: Chicago
Several years ago, White Wolf released Chicago by Night, a sourcebook for Vampire: the Masquerade. Living just outside the city in question, I naturally bought it to see what they did, what twists they put in, and who they made the movers and the shakers in the vampiric reflection of the city.
I will not detail the depths of my disappointment, lest this become a rant on Chicago by Night, a book no longer in my possession. For this is not a disparagement of the old book, but a review of the new. My disappointment in the old book did mean, however, that World of Darkness: Chicago (Chicago) had a lot of bad to make up for, and my purchasing of a $40, 422 page supplement was approached with a little trepidation. I needn't have worried. Chicago is yet one more example of how White Wolf has learned, for the most part, from it's mistakes in the past.
The BookChicago's a big city, and Chicago is a big book. I've already mentioned the page count, and the cover is a lovely piece of Tim Bradstreet's Artwork with a character representing each of the Big Three critters. Inside, each section imitates the style of the line it is voicing. The Introductory section uses the formatting of the basic World of Darkness, the Vampire section uses Vampire, the Werewolf section Werewolf, and the Mage section Mage. Unlike the core books of the line, however, there is no interior color so the excessively curving fonts of some of the Mage and Vampire headers aren't as difficult to read as they are in the books produced for a single line.
The textTen chapters, an introduction, an appendix, an index1, and one of the best pieces of introductory fiction I've read in a White Wolf book in a long time. That's a lot of ground to cover in any review, but then, as I said, Chicago is big. What I especially enjoyed about the introductory fiction was the way it really encapsulated the idea of how everything is connected in some way. It is a series of vignettes with each scene's main character mentioned in or connected to the last scene in some way. And naturally, the last returns to the first.
The introduction covers the usual information for a new World of Darkness (nWOD) sourcebook. "Theme and Mood" along with "How to use this book" are aptly covered, as they are in all nWOD books. "Inspiration" covers the darker movies and books that have been set in the Windy City, in keeping with the tone of "Our world through a Glass Darkly" that is part and parcel to the nWOD. The interesting part of this introduction comes in the section titled "What this book is not," which serves as a reminder that the Chicago presented in the book is not the Chicago we natives (and pseudo-natives) know and love. It is the Chicago of the nWOD, with additions to the city's history and landscape that suit this dark reflection. Some may feel that such a statement is a given, but by clarifying that they do not intend to portray the "real" Chicago, it reminds the reader that this is not a guidebook to the city. Several real guidebooks are referenced in the "inspiration" section.
The book's ten chapters are, after the first, divided evenly between the three "splats", or supernatural groups, to be found in the nWOD. The first chapter of a section is about the geography of the city from the view of that particular group. The second is made up of Non-Player Characters (NPCs) to be used as allies, enemies, or what have you. The third chapter is an adventure set in Chicago and focusing on the "splat" of the given section. Scattered throughout all but the adventure chapters are scenarios and plot hooks for a Player to perhaps include in her character's background or the Storyteller to use to build a full story around.
The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the setting of the city itself. In keeping with Chicago not being a guide to our Chicago, the history section glosses over all but the major events of public history and instead expands on those things which are not fully of any one "splat", but may be of interest to any or all of them... or to a wandering mortal occultist. It also covers some of the geography of the city with far greater accuracy than it's predecessor. One of the nicer features of the geography section is that in many of the sub-sections a character is introduced, without stats, with some potential story hooks for mortal or other character types. These characters also serve to give a feel for the nature of this darker Chicago, though washed free of any supernatural elements, any of these characters could be found in the real Chicago as well.
The first group of three chapters is dedicated to Chicago as seen by characters played in Vampire: the Requiem. While I, personally, don't play Vampire, I cannot deny that the geography chapter of this section is is clearly the strongest of the book. The chapter is solid, and gives a good feel for what sections of the city and near suburbs the vampires have under their bloody thumbs. I have to admit I was also quite tickled to think of Stickney (which is less than a mile from my home) as the haven of bloodsuckers.2 The question of why Vampire Havens are not commonly found in Chicago's suburbia is dealt with in a much more satisfying manner than in Chicago by Night.3 Some landmarks that I expected to be mentioned in the Vampire section were left for other creatures, and some of the near suburbs that I thought should have gotten at least a passing mention of their value (or lack there of) to vampires were ignored, but then, I've never claimed to be all that good at Vampiric Politics (thus why I don't play the game.)
The NPC chapter covers a large cross-section of the vampire population of Chicago. From the movers and the shakers such as Prince Maxwell and his Coterie, to lonely, newly changed vampires just discovering their Unlife in Chicago, any level of interaction is possible. Established groups of vampires (coteries), and some individual vampires are given a brief history as well as goals, needs and projects, again providing seeds for the Storyteller or the player to use with their characters. The characters as a whole are well developed and well written, though with the typically high levels of angst that characterizes the World of Darkness (old or new).
The story for Vampires is entitled "Hell Calling." After the introducion that warns away players and provides an overview of the structure of the adventure, the next section is a "what if the characters aren't there" account of the story. It's a nice technique for storytellers who are comfortable with players having a lot of control over events, because it provides the baseline from which the story is guaranteed to deviate as soon as the player characters step into the picture. Every experienced game master is familiar with the concept of "the plot never survives first contact with the players", and this sort of setup takes that into account. A short section with advice on the opponents follows the story, with three groups of scenes, or vignettes making up the bulk of the adventure. The vignette groups build in danger, making them as suitable for use in a long term chronicle, providing more life for the story. I won't comment on the nature of the adventure itself, to avoid spoilers, beyond saying it's a well structured and thought out adventure that is very appropriate for Vampire characters.
After the Vampires have their say, the Uratha of Werewolf: the Forsaken step to the fore. Admittedly, Werewolves have less of their typical territory in a city such as Chicago than they do out in the stretches of the far suburbs of the city, but there are still plenty of places for them to gather. Yet the Geography chapter of the Werewolf section is, arguably, the weakest of the three. Even within the city itself there are several parks that were not yet claimed by the Vampires nor are they eventually claimed by the Mages, yet beyond Grand Central Station, the actual Geography of the city proper is reduced to perhaps a page worth of text, with less still for suburbia, despite the prevalence of the forest preserves. The bulk of the chapter feels as if it's supposed to be dedicated to describing what it is like to be an Uratha in Chicago, but much of the information is rather generic in nature. Not even the section on the Shadow, the spirit realm of the nWOD really gives the reader a good feel for what it's like in the realm around Chicago so much as the realm around any major city. I really felt that most of this chapter would have been better served had it appeared in a book about Urban Uratha, than in a book dedicated to a specific Urban environment. The chapter is well written, but after the clear cut divisions of the Vampire chapter, the treatis on city living for werewolves was not what I was expecting. Considering that the Mage chapter was written in a style more closely emulating that of the Vampire section, it makes the lack in this chapter all the more obvious.
The NPC chapter is divided into packs, again ranging from the very strong to the very weak. Here is where we get some sense of the Uratha geography of the city, but regrettably it consists of a sentence or three at the end of the description of each pack, mentioning what part of the city the pack claims as it's territory. I would much rather have seen this covered in the previous chapter, or else a paragraph or two actually describing the territory of each pack. Just because I know some of the areas mentioned doesn't mean I'm familiar with all of them (and doubtless some I don't actually want to be familiar with). For someone who is not a native of the city, or even suburbia, I would imagine the lack of description of the various territories would be even more frustrating. The packs themselves are a balanced mix, much like the vampires of the previous section, and provide a good selection of NPC's for characters to interact with.
Fires in Winter is the name of the Werewolf story. Combined with the poor geography chapter, the story makes me wonder if the people who wrote the Werewolf section of Chicago are actually familiar with the city. 4. The story is set during a blizzard that dumps 31" of snow on the city in a day and a half, followed by a cold snap, which supposedly shuts the city's major transportation (except the el) for four days. Chicago has had a 31" snowfall, on a holiday weekend even (which is not when the story is set), and the city was hardly shut down for two days, let alone four. I know this is not the real Chicago, but having had to get downtown to work after said blizzard, it just snaps the disbelief suspenders too much. However, the story itself is decent, if a bit more structured, (and therefore subject to derailing by clever players) than Hell Calling.
Not as well written as the vampire geography chapter, but not as weak as that of the werewolves, the geography chapter for Mage: the Awakening is the middle ground. It has a bit more history specific to the Awakened, and many of the landmarks I was wondering about in the Vampire section appear here as well (though US Cellular Field being a Sanctum when Wrigley Field barely gets a mention in the whole book feels wrong to me, but then, I'm a Cubs fan.) There is not as much information on the landmarks and what makes them important to the awakened as in the Vampire chapter, but considerably more about the various sanctums and which cabal of mages a newly awakened character is likely to find than in the Werewolf chapter. There is a sort of strange McGuffin5 that takes up nearly two pages that feels a bit extraneous, even with it's connection to the history of the city. Roughly half the chapter is spent talking about generically "mysterious" Chicago, which, while I'll grant mages are more likely to investigate than the other two groups, probably should have gone in the first chapter.
The one true constant of the book continues in the chapter of Mage NPC's. All of the characters are a good mix for use in a wide variety of chronicles set in the Windy City. However, unlike in the Vampire and Werewolf chapters, where the groups were presented in descending order of power, mages are grouped by the dominant Order of the Cabal, with the paragraph describing the nature of the order in Chicago also including that order's importance in the Mage politics of the city. As with the lack of real geography in the Werewolf section, that the change is only in the one chapter is a bit jarring.
The Mage story is titled Unreal City. I believe it was written by Kenneth Hite, author of Pyramid's Suppressed Transmission column. A note early mentions that much of the weirdness presented in the book is based on actual Chicago folklore, which is very like mister Hite. The story consists of three inter-related sub-stories, each presented in a fairly loose and freeform manner. Without the overview, it's not as nicely arranged as Hell Calling, but it's more adaptable than Fires in Winter. It's an intriguing and suitably mysterious adventure that may well send the storyteller, and players, scrambling to the web to find more of the inherent weirdness of Chicago.
Appendix and Index The appendix of the book is made up of charts showing the relationships between the various groups of each faction. While interesting, I've never really found these charts to be of much use to me. Again, I don't play my games to play politics. The index is extensive, and the mere fact that it exists is a sign of brighter days for White Wolf's products which are characteristically lacking any sort of index. In a book of this size, covering this much territory, an index is practically required, and I was overjoyed to see it.
Conclusion Despite my own disappointment with the chapter on Werewolf geography, I do feel that there is something for all Storytellers in this book. Even if the chronicle in question is not set in Chicago, the book is worth something for its use as a guide in setting up a city with multiple supernatural types active in it (something every major city should be, even if some are only published for a given group.)6 It also provides up to three adventures, two of which will probably require some adaptation to fit a different group, or all three could be tweaked to suit a crossover chronicle where the characters are made up of all three types of supernatural. I like the book and how it presented my city, and I hope that in the future, White Wolf comes out with more crossover city books covering landmark cities throughout the world.
1: I was honestly concerned that Justin Achilli's dislike of Indexes (reportedly because the space can be better used for more book information) would prevent one from being included. A book of this size needs an Index, and mercifully, someone at White Wolf realized that.
2: Considering the troubles that they've had, neighboring Cicero seems like a more likely haven for the politicking vampires, but their reasoning for mentioning Stickney certainly works.
3: In Chicago by Night, the near suburbs, and indeed the suburbs in general were deemed "too boring" for Vampires. Naturally, as a Suburbanite, I disagreed, thinking that many of the well-to-do suburbs would make an excellent place for Vampire Havens. In Chicago, the reason presented is the very real possibility of getting caught in traffic either on the way into the city for a meeting with the Prince, or else on the way out too close to dawn and getting fried by sunlight.
4: Of the authors listed, I know that three are Chicago natives, but I don't know about the rest.
5: An item that exists for no other reason than to move the plot along. The Maltese Falcon, for example. The term was coined by Alfred Hitchcock, but it works equally well in movies, books, or gaming.
6:That is, just because Boston: the Unveiled or City of the Damned: New Orleans focuses exclusively on Mages or Vampires respectively, doesn't mean that they're the only sort of critter in the city.