Halls of the Arcanum
Halls of the Arcanum depicts the workings of the Arcanum, a scholarly organization in the World of Darkness that seeks to uncover what is hidden. Halls offers a different take on The World of Darkness more as a place of danger and of things not illuminated rather than simply a gritty world of despair with the odds against you. The odds are against the Arcanum as they have no supernatural resources and the agents they’re working against are quite cunning but they have patience and scholarship which is often in short supply in the dire circumstances of some builds of the World of Darkness.
The book has that aged much more gracefully than at first I had figured. With the exception of the progress of computers, much of the book holds. The NPCs and templates could be used with little difficulty and the maps and schematics are still useful as are the lists. This book is largely about Sleepers and their attempts to unravel the World of Darkness but with varying degrees of success. Chapter houses are spread across the globe offering a lot of ability integrate local lore as well as lodges which are kind of frontline assemblages to research odd happenings. The book goes into these topics in some detail and does a good job of reminding the reader of how big the World of Darkness can be. Rather than just referring to Shangri-La, the book references a half dozen hidden cities. Instead of listing just a yeti as a cryptid, it again lists a dozen. Instead of just listing the five main lines in WoD, the book lists fourteen types of odd occurrences. While this book is geared towards mortals, there’s nothing preventing mages from investigating the same things.
The book also outlined internal politics within the organization and did so in vague terms at first and then in detail in the Storyteller Chapter. Rather than just saying “this is what’s going on” the book provides four options of what’s going on. It’s quite pleasing to have thoroughness plus ambiguity within a tome.
The only two sections that I felt ran flat were in regards to numena where I figured they would be all up in testing and developing that kind of power. Also, the question of accumulating information and where it goes brought up questions. It’s suggested that the group sometimes makes discoveries. Besides its in-house journal, when will this information be shared if ever?
Ascension's Right Hand
Ascension’s Right Hand is a frustrating book that I will describe with this analogy: You want eight plates for a dinnerware set and you find a set that’s very well priced and there are ten plates but two of them are chipped. You realize you’re getting a really good deal but you’re annoyed at the chipped plates. Couldn’t they just fix them?
Chipped plates is an accurate summary of Ascension’s Right Hand. Much of the book is repetitive and uninspired such as the section on factions and their custos. I almost never skim books when I’m reviewing except for maybe long lists of skills but the listing of the kind of acolytes and consors for each tradition and faction was uninspired at best and played to stereotype at worse. Each Tradition book gives this information and often in more detail than was presented here.
The systems provided often didn’t make sense. Suddenly linear magic is affected by unbelief when the entire contrivance is that that linear or hedge magic always works without paradox. Here, it’s presented as being toned down but even after this, high level practitioners may have much higher dice pools as unlike true magick being a straight arete roll, hedge magic is attribute + ability as a dice pool plus some sort of willpower cost (sometimes). The way numina/psychic powers/linear magic is presented is at least highly flavorful. The section on Enchanting and Curses had at least a dozen great examples that could help flesh out an appropriate paradigm.
The section on build-a-familiar are similarly flavorful but poorly balanced. For instance, 1 point of paradox nullification chews through a point per month but 6 points chews through a point per day. Flat out spending 15 points makes a character unkillable. The book flatly says new powers can’t be added and that existing ones can only be developed. Eh, if you spend the XP and come up with a narrative reason, I don’t see why a creature couldn’t gain firebreathing for instance. It’s not much stranger than a dragon leveling up their breath weapon.
The world-view presented in the game also doesn’t mesh well with the world as explained so far. The book presents mages as generally being busier and richer than the game expects. I rarely see character sheets with dots of resources but you gotta pay your custos in may cases or they’ll bounce. No system or method is provided to explain why things are this way. Adding in acolytes and consors grows considerably the number of people involved in and possibly aware of the Ascension War in a way I’m not too happy with. While providing an answer to the question “who does the mage’s laundry” we’re also left asking “so what happens when someone blabs” which isn’t much addressed. The fact that the book has fraternal societies for consors is further problematic as it suggests these people know each other and have some sort of network to propagate information which strikes me as a real easy way to blow the lid off of things.
Where the book shines is in providing a large number of characters to work with who are fully fleshed out have a variety of power levels. The book also excels more or less in providing stories that relate to mortals and how they should work. This includes both plots and themes such as mortality and power imbalance. These sections are quite good and were you discard the crap, you’d wind up with something about the size of a 1e tradition book or so.
Should you get it? Eh? Much of the information here has been superceded by Gods and Monsters but the characters in here are good and the book is cheap as part of Mage Chronicles.