Saturday, October 5, 2013

Vampire: Undeath, Daemoni...

I’m going to call this one. I’m on the ropes, hit the mat, down for the count. It’s just an exercise in tedium to keep proving the same point over and over again:

Everything for Vampire: Undeath is a case study in the ultimate Vampire: the Masquerade heartbreaker. At the same time it's a convenient how-not-to of game publishing. After reading through the Daemoni sourcebook I'm convinced this won't change, either. As a result what follows is more of a critique - of decisions regarding the product overall, the quality and heartbreakiness of the book (and the line in general) - than a review.

The short version is that the Daemoni sourcebook is a splatbook for Vampire: Undeath that details the evil-bad-nasty vampires that can turn themselves into monsters and practice thaumaturgy. Basically they are badly written Tzimisce complete with the Voivode, Viscerorr instead of Vicissitude, and Dhampir instead of Revenants. There’s a war between the Daemoni and a mostly mortal House that stole the secrets of their magic (not exactly The Omen War, but fucking really?). Even the things that aren’t Tzimisce are identifiably ripped from elsewhere (Underworld and its sleep-rotating ruling class, I’m looking at you). The fact that Mykal Lakim completely dances around any reference to World of Darkness in the book’s inspirations, naming everything else but, is a testament to how hard one really has to try to not see the similarities.

Nope, no World of Darkness in these inspirations

Except for completely missing the only one that actually introduced the idea of clans 

Considering the cookie-cutter nature of the book, unless something changes the above could probably stand as a review for any future products. Just replace various words as appropriate. It's like Mad Libs, only much sadder.

That isn't to say that there aren't differences in details between the Daemoni and the Tzimisce (or the setting of Wastelands of Damnation and World of Darkness). They're just easily overlooked as either cosmetic or uninspired. The secret history of the world seems like it was cobbled together from Wikipedia research on the Carpathian mountains and some flimsy Biblical references (that the world created by Lobo Blanco also, coincidentally, share). The historical portions and explanations of what it’s like to be Daemoni that aren't readily identifiable as being sourced from somewhere else are filled with a lot of clumsy exposition about how the Daemoni are dark and mysterious and break all of the rules and are really scary. Otherwise, what meat there is in the book relates to lists of powers, thaumaturgical rituals, spells, and - again - a lot of reprinted material. There’s no real reason to go into detail about any of it, because a lot of things were covered in the Vampire: Undeath review on RPG.Net.

According to Lakim, the reprinting of material is because of an assumption that it’s easier on players than having to “carry around ten or twenty books”.

The sentiment is all fine and dandy, except for it misses the mark in two ways (not to mention that the game line doesn't have anywhere near ten or twenty physical books available). The first is reprinting content like that doesn't make most gamers happy - at least, when you're not reprinting a new edition (then they'll eat it up. "I've bought this sourcebook five times already, but I don't have the new 6th edition version!"). The second thing is that the buying public isn't stupid - they might be susceptible to sly marketing, but are sensitive to feeling short-shrifted. It doesn't matter if the price point is $2 or $20, copy/pasted material is copy/pasted material.

But you have to see a couple examples of the copy/pasted material to believe it. It quickly crosses the realm into sheer laziness and sloppy work.

Being dead and having a huge ego sucks. But being hard when no one realizes it? AWWW YEAH
Apparently, you don't even have to be a Daemoni to play a Daemoni

What becomes apparent from this book when compared to the others, and based on Lakim’s own statements, is he has developed a cookie cutter routine for his books. Take material from a book, copy it to the new book, change some things and drop in a few terms specific to that book's subject, and call it a day.

No one is safe from Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V. Not even Venom.

The copy/paste mistakes just set the stage for the writing. There are rampant typos, misuses of words (“counsel” instead of “council”), changes in tense mid sentence, and just bizarre sentence structures. This is half-draft material here - I have better organized stream of consciousness compared to some portions of this book. It manages to be painful, awkward, hilarious in its execution, confusing, and outright nonsensical - sometimes all at the same time. From just oddball paragraphs:

Too bad he couldn't will an editor into existence (you can thank +Jeremy Kostiew for that one)

to odd metaphors:
My challenge to you: use "like condensation on a soda can" in every meeting for a full day
To philosophical ramblings:
He's actually Brian, and also was never very good at spelling
and riddles wrapped in enigmas:
But do you know if you are your brain?
it reads like Lakim dropped some of Timothy Leary’s private reserve, grabbed a copy of The Vampire Lestat and Underworld, and then asked a 10 year old to write a summary of everything he said.

Not only does the reader have to slog through passages that would make a sixth grade English teacher slit their wrists, but a lot of the logic is likewise swiss-cheesed. We're not just talking about Lakim's tenuous grasp of physics or odd assertions. There are holes in the history of the setting large enough to drive a train through. At one point we’re told the Daemoni are responsible for 40,000 year old human remains found in a cave. Next, the Daemoni were created during Biblical times. These time-travelling Daemoni don’t stop there - we also learn that Dhampir (half-blooded vampires, basically) were created after the discovery of the New World, but a couple paragraphs later we’re told their existence goes back at least to the 12th century.
Leading us to the only logical conclusion. Dr. BOOOO!
Our history lesson takes us to the discovery of the New World, where for some unfathomable reason untold riches and the possibility of shaping the destiny of a newly settled continent weren't of interest to the Daemoni. It was slavery. Yep, the slaves were it. But they didn't cause the institution of slavery - they found out about it second hand, like when Nellie threw a party at the general store but didn't invite Laura, but she found out anyway. The Daemoni thought the slaves were all totally cool, because of secrets and slavery is “Mwahahahahahaha!” bad. Also, the Daemoni keep their mortal servants in breeding pens and feed them vampire blood and pretty much let them go all Lord of the Flies on each other while lapping water from the stone walls (I know I've seen that somewhere, but I honestly can't place it) - yet when they need a new vampire they choose a specimen from those same breeding pens. Kind of like picking the new warden from among the prisoners.

I’m going to stop here for a moment to address this before Lakim seizes on it as proof I can’t comprehend the stunning brilliance of his work. As the reader, it’s not my job to perform mental gymnastics to follow crap writing and logic. If the writing sets up a contradiction, I should not have to ferret out what you - the author - mean. I get that the meaning of this:

followed three paragraphs later by this:

probably means that the Daemoni realized the Dhampir were ideal for infiltrating the early Americas. But that’s not what logically follows from those two (using the term loosely) paragraphs and I shouldn't have to guess.

It’s painfully obvious that Daemoni has never known the loving touch of an editor, proofreader or layout artist, and there’s no grounds for Lakim to complain when someone calls him on it. For me, at least, if someone wants to say they are a publisher they can be held to the same standards as the rest of them. He doesn’t get a free pass from critical review because he's self published, or put a lot of work into it, or a gamer like the rest of us. That's the kind of thinking that leads to kids getting trophies for just showing up to the game or not getting failing grades. Half-assed attempts need to be criticized. If the product is also really mockable, that's just icing on the cake. His skills with InDesign or whatever are probably sufficient to throw together a bake sale flyer, but don't stack up for a publication.

Of course, I have serious doubts about how much effort it really took to throw together a book like Daemoni. I could probably raid any number of files I have lying around, throw them into a document with minimal editing and no attempt to make sure everything matched up, and call it a book. The fact remains that modern roleplaying products are a far cry from the photocopied cardstock-covered booklets of the 70s, and the audience has become a lot more sophisticated. On the flip side, the bar for getting quality help isn't as high as it once was - a freelance professional editor, proofreader or layout artist is affordable and not too hard to find with a minimal amount of networking.

Why Dark Phoenix Publishing doesn’t do any of this and continues to pretend that they do is a matter of conjecture with too many possibilities - ignorance, laziness, delusion, legal reasons, there’s just no way to know. In the end I think just labeling the Dark Phoenix Publishing books as one massive heartbreaker is probably the best explanation we have.