The old saying goes: everything happens for a reason. Whether or not you believe that, let’s assume it’s true. Why do good people suffer? From where do weird unexplained things stem? Who calls the shots? What’s to blame? Is anyone truly in charge?
The answers to all of those questions (at least according to Demon: the Descent) are the same: The God-Machine and its Angels.
White Wolf has a long history of producing storytelling games in which players are the monsters (mostly), known as the World of Darkness. They did it with their original game lines in the 1990’s, depicting a gothic-punk world filled with vampires, werewolves, mortal magicians and other strangeness, then rebooted the property in the early 2000’s. Largely, the new World of Darkness has been re-envisioning the original titles in their most recent run, and they have already Reimagined Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage, as well as few other old standbys. In this ninth re-imagining, they have tacked their former Demon line but took a sharp turn for the unexpected, much like they did with the Changeling line.
White Wolf has done away with the Judaeo-Christian ethos that the game’s predecesor Demon: the Fallen took, and replaced it with the Angel-making entity of the God-Machine. The God-Machine itself is unknowable – it’s an entity so huge that it spans our world and probably more. It lays down plan upon plan in our cosmos and why it does anything is anyone’s guess. All it does is build and execute its occult machinery. Even the Angels that it creates to serve it don’t know if it has an end game, and couldn’t tell you if they wanted to. Everything is beneath it in terms of power, and those who know of it either hide from it or serve it willingly.
The Angels of the God-Machine are the entity’s experts when it comes to humans. As such a vast intelligence, the God-Machine has problems working with small scale components in its projects, like humans and the systems they maintain and work in. It’s superior intellect can’t be dumbed down enough to deal with us, so the job goes to the Angels to handle interaction with us, and these Angels operate without question, performing their duties efficiently, objectively, and with unwavering loyalty no matter how much blood needs to be shed.
Except when they don’t. Then, they become Demons. Outcast and cut off from the infinite plans of the God Machine, these fallen Angels come to earth and spend every waking moment addressing their own Descent: a post-fall existence in which Demons push for their own long-term goals, all while avoiding the hunting Angels of the God-Machine.
For those who are well into the World of Darkness, you shouldn’t find too much has changed so long as you’re using the companion rule additions that were released in The God-Machine Chronicle, but rather you find the systems that are inherent to Demonic existence. As is typical for White Wolf games, it comes down to inherent properties and supernatural abilities of each ‘monster’ portrayed.
All Demons are able to call upon their Angelic abilities in a limited way. They cannot remember all of their abilities from their time connected to and serving the God-Machine, but they remember core functions and can even improve upon some of them in the forms of Embeds and Explots. Embeds simply take a part of the occult matricies the Demon remembers how to use and performs them as they should. For instance, if a Demon knew how to exercise subtle influence while posing as a mortal authority figure by a special use of a badge, he could simply move people out of the way, or disperse a small gathering as an Embed. If the Demon uses that same Embed but tweaks it so that the badge shoots green electricity into a human and then totally dominates his will, that’s an Exploit.
Likewise, a Demon is always looking for a way to blend in with the herd lest Hunter Angels come looking for them. The best way they know how is to make use of Cover. Cover is a mortal identity they can wrap themselves into to avoid detection and they have several ways to get it. Most Angels can easily form a patchwork from not only the Cover they held when they fell, but also can patch together a stolen life from mortals. Demons can basically offer a Pact to a mortal to exploit existing infrastructure from the God-Machine to give them money, power, wealth, luck – anything they desire. But, in exchange, the Mortal gives an aspect of their life over to the Demon, and the Demon suborns reality to own whatever is offered. Sometimes this is a relationship with a mortal. Sometimes it’s an aspect of personality. Other times, it’s more direct in the form of an IOU – enjoy what you have while you have it, because later they may come back to utterly suborn the mortal’s existence and literally become them. Lastly, Demons can attempt an Angeljacking – the destruction an Angel and in order to take it’s Cover. All methods are effective, and all carry a bit of danger which will keep your Demon on its toes.
Additionally, as White Wolf always does, it forms a society of sorts for the fallen in the form of Agendas and Incarnations. Agendas cover four basic groups of Demons who want reconcilliation with the God-Machine, pure mortal hedonism, to simply keep tabs on their former creator, or to bring down the alien intelligence for their own ends. Likewise, all Angels served one of four roles that will define them while plugged into the God-Machine: Messenger, Psychopomp, Guardian, or Destroyer.
They also create a new setting in the form of Seattle, which at first is not surprising. Starting with Vampire: the Requiem, they have always included a ‘home city’ to briefly outline. But in this they’ve rather outdone themselves in the form of a city comprised of shards. Since some Demons have the ability to manipulate timelines they have created ‘shard’ Seattles in different timeline, in which there is one prime version of Seattle, but other shards that you can travel to.
The game drips with a kind of cat and mouse play ethos. All Demons are inherently deceitful – it was a part of what they had to do when they were Angels. Angels exist to maintain and implement the God-Machine’s infrastructure, and that often times means keeping inquisitive mortals away, killing certain humans, and sometimes protecting others. Subterfuge is useful for even the most combat oriented of Angels, and Demons are no different. They have gone for (and achieved) a cold-war style of game, where you have to be very careful in whom you trust, lest they prove to be one of the agents of the God- Machine.
They’ve also created a very rich world that explains why the World of Darkness is so strange. Ever since the beginning of the new World of Darkness line, there have been hints and nods to some strange and distant machine intelligence that operates on supernatural principles and even the God-Machine Chronicle didn’t really give you the whole picture. Demon: the Descent addresses the matter of the God-Machine more fully and really brings it home.
Lastly, you can really customize play. While the God-Machine has essentially four types of Angels, each Angel – even before it’s fall – was tailor made for its missions, complete with a customized demonic form, embeds, and exploits that you literally have the power to create using in game tools and systems. You too can be a unique and beautiful (or terrifying) snowflake Demon.
While the game is deep and rich, I think a lot of players might be turned off from it because of that very richness. Previous releases were a little more accessible. Vampires and Werewolves are really established. No barrier to entry. Get big, fuzzy and destructive, or pop your fangs, never die, and be a pretty corpse. Demon however is going to be another cup of tea. Demons in this setting are not the Christian concept of Demons at all, and players will have a lot to really absorb if they really want in on the game. Players should be really invested in the title and read the book cover to cover just to fully understand what you’re capable of and what the enemies are capable of.
In the same vein, the system for creating Embeds and Exploits are fascinating, but many gamers don’t like DIY systems. They like things to be laid out in advance so they can really refer to manuals and maintain consistency. While there’s a sidebar with guidelines on how the created the included smattering of Exploits and Embeds, there’s something to be said for something well defined and in-canon. It ties in with the above: you have to be fully invested and know the book cover to cover to make your powers.
Ultimately, this is a fascinating setting. It’s wide open for a lot of different types of storytelling with multiple themes to explore. That’s always been the hallmark of good White Wolf games – to deliver the ability to tell stories of mystery, horror, and personal darkness. This game does not fail to deliver.
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