Mystery Codex Capsule Review by Dan Davenport on 06/01/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
A supplement in the truest sense of the word, you don't have to buy this book. But if you own and enjoy WitchCraft, I highly suggest that you do so.
Product: Mystery Codex
Author: C.J. Carella
Company/Publisher: Eden Studios, Inc.
Page count: 224
Year published: 1999
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Dan Davenport on 06/01/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Horror Conspiracy Vampire Gothic
The Mystery Codex is the long-awaited general-purpose supplement to WitchCraft. It doesn't really have much of a unifying theme beyond "More!", so I'm going to beg your patience while I break it down by chapters.
Chapter 1: Introduction
This short chapter is simply an explanation of how the book "works" -- a summary of the chapters, writing and formatting conventions, etc. Nothing really noteworthy, aside from the explanation for the five font/background/frame combinations used to signify different subject matters.
Chapter 2: Rules
The chapter starts out by introducing four new character types: Forsaken, Scoundrel, Student, and Wanderer. Each is well suited to the genre and gets close to a full page of explanation.
Next up are introductions to two new character types (Spirits and Undead) and four new associations (The Fellowship of Judas, the House of Thanatos, the Pariahs, and the Storm Dragons). The former get little more than a "these exist", while the latter get enough information for a player's use. Both receive much more attention in chapters 3 and 4, respectively, so I'll deal with them there as well.
Next are new Qualities and Drawbacks. Aside from the Qualities that allow PCs to be Ghosts, Phantasms, Relentless Dead, and Vampyres, the most noteworthy additions are the Nerves of Steel and Age Qualities.
Nerves of Steel was left out of the first edition, despite its appearance on the Sentinel Warrior Scholar character sheet. Characters with this Quality have to make Fear Tests only for the most terrifying supernatural threats, getting a hefty bonus even then. Given that Fear Tests are Difficult for Mundanes and Simple for the Gifted, I'd say Nerves of Steel is a must for players of Mundane characters who want their PCs to stand firm beside their Gifted allies. (Of course, it would come in handy for Gifted characters as well.)
Age refers to the benefits derived from a supernaturally long life span. Every level of Age purchased increases the PC's points for Skills, Metaphysics, and Essence points. Obviously, a high score in this Quality could become unbalancing, but it's an ideal option for playing ancient supernaturals as starting characters without simply giving such characters more creation points.
Next are a number of new skills and a couple of new skill-related rules. A particularly nice addition here is the Magic Theory skill, which reflects the scholarly approach to magic favored by the Rosicrucians and which allows the user to recognize incantations at work and know the best way to counter or resist them.
Following are rules for campaign levels (Pre-Heroic, Heroic, Legendary, and Mythical) and how to tailor PCs for them; new optional rules for factoring PC intelligence, age, social standing, and resources into beginning skill point allotments; experience point awards options; rules for becoming Gifted during play and purchasing Metaphysics after character creation; optional rules to slow skill improvement; new rules for combat, including advanced bullet damage options, targeting body parts, and martial arts; and, finally, rules for poisons.
The martial arts rules are especially welcome, since the first edition rulebook neglected to include even the damage rules for unarmed attacks. These rules reminded me somewhat of the martial arts rules in the first edition of Kult: the various martial arts styles grant 2-3 basic moves at the level of the PC's Martial Arts skill and access to a number of special moves that must be purchased separately. The styles offered -- boxing, judo, karate, and Storm Fist, the versatile martial art of the Storm Dragons (see below) -- seem broad enough to emulate most martial arts. The only real drawback I can see in the system is that certain moves completely supercede others; e.g., from a game mechanics standpoint, there is no reason for a character who knows Roundhouse (damage = 1d6 x Strength) to ever use Punch (damage = 1d4 x Strength).
Finally, Eden respects their consumers who own the first edition rulebook by reprinting all of the rules revisions from the second edition rulebook in the Mystery Codex as well. (This was an especially welcome move due to the fact that publication of this book preceded that of the second edition rulebook.)
Chapter 3: Inhumans
To the roster of playable nonhuman creatures begun in the main rulebook with the odd choice of the Bast, the Mystery Codex now adds Spirits (Ghosts and Phantasms) and Undead (Vampyres and the Relentless Dead).
Ghosts are pretty self-explanatory, with most of the powers and limitations you'd expect -- they are normally intangible and invisible, have a relatively hard time affecting the physical world, etc. In keeping with WitchCraft's tradition of mechanics with the right feel for the subject, Ghosts bound to a specific location tend to be more powerful. Furthermore, Ghosts with the Haunt power can merge with these locations to such a degree that they can warp time and space within them, making them terrifying adversaries within their own domains. On the flip side, the book accurately points out that Ghosts' relative detachment from the world of the living makes them best suited to games involving other "death-oriented" characters (like Necromancers) and/or travel to the Death Realms (in some of which Ghosts have physical forms).
Despite the name, Phantasms have nothing at all to do with supernatural Jawas and brain-drilling metal orbs. Instead, they represent an excellent way for players to play Ghosts without the limitations: Ghosts who can take on actual physical forms for limited periods of time. Wisely, Phantasms are made very rare in the setting, even by Ghost standards --otherwise, death just wouldn't be a very big deal in WitchCraft.
The WitchCraft rulebook lightly gave the concept of vampires feeding on blood the back of the its hand, opting instead for New Age-y Vampyres who feed on strong emotions -- everything from fear to lust. (Some Vampyres do bleed their victims, we were told, but it is little more than a sick-o kink.) This was a weak point in the setting for me -- the image of Vampyres jumping out at people in dark alleys, switching into Buffy-vamp "fanged Klingon" mode, and yelling "Boo!" to feed on the humans' fear just left me cold. Well, with the release of the Vampyre PC rules in the Mystery Codex, not only do truly bloodsucking Vampyres become part of the official setting, but the emotion-feeding Vampyres are made infinitely more interesting to me. Now vampiric feeding can range from the "traditional" predatory (not just via bloodsucking, but also through torture and even line-of-sight Essence draining) to something approaching symbiosis (e.g., performing for an audience and feeding their appreciation or acting as an artist's Muse and feeding upon her artistic fervor). The end result is that individual Vampyre characters in WitchCraft are only as inherently monstrous and/or tragic as you want them to be.
The Relentless Dead
The WitchCraft rulebook focussed more on these nearly unstoppably engines of vengeance from beyond the grave as the source of Michael Myers/Jason Vorhees-style "psycho killers". For reasons that should be obvious, PC Relentless Dead are expected to be more akin to the Crow. The book has some good suggestions for overcoming the difficulty of incorporating a being driven by -- indeed, powered by -- a single overriding goal into a PC group. However, my problem with the Relentless Dead remains as it was in the main rulebook: they are simply too damned indestructible. Unless they are both completely physically destroyed and drained of all Essence and subjected to some form of soul-severing power or ceremony, they will simply keep coming back. This means that the vast majority of threats in a game will be merely potential inconveniences to Relentless Dead characters. And any threats that effectively could remove them from play are of the "all or nothing" variety -- burying them in concrete and dropping them into the ocean, for example. Still, a Relentless Dead character could be fun for a "one-man army"-style single-PC adventure.
Chapter 4: Associations
One big selling point of the WitchCraft setting for me was the fact that unlike the endless stereotyped "clan" variations in the World of Darkness, associations in WitchCraft seem more like real-world groups, based as they are upon shared interests rather than shared abilities. For the most part, the new associations in this book hold to this standard, although they do take a few baby steps toward being "The [INSERT STEREOTYPE] Groups".
Fellowship of Judas (a.k.a. Iscariots)
The more I think about this group, the bigger the kick I get out of it.
The idea here is that the first Vampyre -- of this group, at least -- was a Biblical figure. No, not Caine… Judas Iscariot. It seems that he was so overwhelmed with remorse for his betrayal of Christ that not only did he hang himself, but also subsequently returned from the grave as a Vampyre, determined to make amends for his crime. To that end, he began gathering other assorted scumbags who repented for their misdeeds -- before or after death -- and making them Vampyres, with the group expanding from there. Together they set about protecting Christianity and generally fighting the good fight. (The unusual nature of vampirism in WitchCraft makes the latter entirely feasible.) In the process, they came into long-term conflict with the mysterious Combine, making the Iscariots very conspiracy-minded.
So in the Iscariots, you have a group comprised mostly of vampiric redemption-seeking reformed criminal conspiracy geeks. Again, this group is a bit more stereotypical than others in the WitchCraft milieu. But in this case, the stereotype is so off-the-wall fun that I really don't mind.
House of Thanatos
At first (and maybe even second) glance, this group seems to be a near twin to the similarly death-obsessed Twilight Order from the WitchCraft rulebook. The difference between the two is fairly subtle and has to do with their respective foci. The Twilight Order seems more concerned with protecting and maintaining the cycles of life and death, while the Thanatoi seek to dissolve the barriers separating the two states altogether. In addition, the Twilight Order doesn't generally accept Spirits or Undead as members, while many of the Thanatoi are such beings.
In a way, the overlap with the Twilight Order seems realistic -- after all, how many real-world groups have remarkably similar goals? The need for such a group in the game is dubious, however, except as an organization in which Spirits and Undead can play a major role. Thankfully, the text emphasizes that the Thanatoi are a diverse mix of the Living and the Dead, thereby preventing it from becoming the generic Dead Guy Group.
If the young hero/victims of Little Fears grew up a bit and (possibly) gained supernatural powers from their experiences, they likely would be something like the Pariahs. They are the downtrodden survivors of horrible physical and mental tortures who have dedicated themselves to protecting their fellow societal outcasts. Roughly half of them possess the ability to channel their pain into the terrifying Disciplines of the Flesh (see below), and it is this ability that seems most closely associated with the group. Again, however, the text emphasizes that the other half of the group is made up of a wide variety of Mundanes, Gifted, and supernatural creatures.
These are the ultimate martial artists practicing the ultimate martial art (Storm Fist) and the mystical powers of Tao-Chi in the defense of humanity against supernatural evils.
For some reason, I had a difficult time taking both the name and the premise of the group seriously. Maybe they just sound to my ears too much like one of those horrid action figure-based cartoons of the 1980s.
That bias aside, the group does provide an opening for players wanting to play fully human Buffy-esque monster-stomping bad-asses without the monotheistic ties of the Sentinels.
Chapter 5: Metaphysics
New Invocations and Necromantic Powers
The chapter begins by offering new Lesser Invocations, introducing the Greater Invocations first featured in Armageddon, and providing higher-level Necromantic powers.
The Invocations are about the closest the Mystery Codex comes to filling gaps in (rather than supplementing) the main rulebook, providing for such standard magic tricks as invisibility, levitation, teleportation, and weather control.
The Necromantic powers are far more supplementary in nature, and while I doubt they would entice someone to play a medium who wasn't already inclined to do so, they do give Necromancers some new and interesting ways in which to expand their abilities. The powers to possess a dead body and to manifest ectoplasm for use as ghostly hands are particularly clever additions.
Disciplines of the Flesh
This is meant to be a very disturbing power for two reasons, but it only really succeeds at one of them.
The first reason is the "what": the power involves the reshaping of the human body for a variety of effects, including stretching, growing claws or armor, or taking the form of animals or animal swarms. As creepy as that may be, it doesn't quite manage to disturb in the context of a setting with as much weirdness as WitchCraft.
The "how", on the other hand, is rather unnerving. Disciples of the Flesh are all victims of abuse, and they call upon their powers by reliving those abuses. So, for example, a Disciple might re-experience being sodomized by his father in order to turn into a swarm of roaches.
The book points out that for obvious reasons, this power -- and, by extension, the Pariahs, with whom this power is most closely associated -- may not be welcome in every gaming group, but it's a good addition for those who enjoy darker games.
This power represents WitchCraft's foray into the realm of over-the-top martial arts, and I must confess to being somewhat disappointed in the implementation.
The problem, I think, stems from the fact that Tao-Chi is the signature power of the Storm Dragons, who are dedicated to fighting supernatural threats. As a result, the limited space dedicated to sample abilities for each new metaphysical power in this case goes almost exclusively to bringing the human Storm Dragons into parity with their nonhuman opponents. So, in addition to a healing power, we have two variations of "Hit Real Hard", one "Make Self Stronger" power, one "Punch Intangible Ghost" power, and one "Make Self Faster" power. All are obviously useful to monster-fighting martial artists, but missing are the kind of flashy over-the-top abilities that the text seems to suggest are also possible -- super-leaps and the like. Of course, the text also explains that the listed abilities are examples of "Lesser" Tao-Chi, so perhaps the more Feng Shui-like powers will appear in a future sourcebook. (And no doubt whatever martial arts powers appear in the forthcoming "Enter the Zombie" sourcebook for All Flesh Must Be Eaten will be fairly compatible as well.)
At any rate, as I mentioned previously under the "Storm Dragons" heading, these powers are ideal for the creation of Buffy-style monster hunting martial artists.
Essence and Immortality
This little one-column section reveals a new and interesting reason for people to seek out supernatural power; namely, that the greater your Essence Pool, the more slowly you age. This makes room in the setting not only for centuries-old sorcerers, but also equally ancient psionics, mediums, or any other Gifted being.
New Item of Power
Appropriately enough for a book introducing werewolves into the setting, we also learn the value of silver as an Item of Power and why its Essence-absorbing nature makes it the favored metal for magic item creation.
Chapter 6: Supernatural
This chapter introduces the concept of Sephiroths (with details on two of the Death Realms), a new Dark Covenant, and were-creatures, the Ferals.
This section gives an overview WitchCraft's multiverse. We're told that there are ten different layers of reality, or "Sephiroths," each subdivided into smaller Realms, worlds unto themselves. In addition to the Sephiroth of Earth, known as Malkuth, we are given fleeting glimpses of four of others in this book: Kether (Heaven?), Binah (home of the angels and elementals), Netzach (home of the pagan gods), and Yesod (home of the Fey). A fifth, Geburah, land of the Dead, is covered in much more detail, as are the mechanics behind permanent Gateways between the Sephiroths.
The two Realms of Geburah detailed in this book are the Threshold and the Twilight World.
The Threshold, as its name implies, is the point of entry for the newly dead into Geburah. There's no real information given about the appearance of the place, except that it is a dark, dreamlike world apparently shaped by the collective unconscious of all humans -- living and dead -- and lit only by Gateways to Kether and the other Death Realms. The main reason for the living to visit the place is to seek out the visions it often provokes, although powerful Gifted and supernaturals can create private and undetectable sanctuaries there as well.
The Twilight World, by contrast, looks to be far more adventure-friendly, being akin to a darkly ominous shadow of Malkuth lit by an ever-present full moon. The place seems vaguely Kult-like, consisting of multiple regions comprised of a mishmash of human history: a massive city surrounded by a howling wilderness interspersed with ruins, which in turn is surrounded by a mountain range crisscrossed by the Byways, roads leading to the other Death Realms.
Rounding out the Geburah section are brief descriptions of six other Death Realms and a small bestiary. The latter includes the Grim Reapers (a kind of supernatural border patrol) and the Soul Eaters (Lovecraftian predators that feed upon Essence).
The Cult of Pain
Every modern horror game needs a group of twisted cultists, and the Cult of Pain fills that niche quite nicely. This Dark Covenant makes use of a new power known as Sadicas, which allows practitioners to store Essence released during acts of ritual abuse and humiliation. This Essence can then be used instead of personal Essence to power Invocations. The main perks to this nasty practice are easier Dismissal tasks and a much quicker access to the life-extending benefits of Essence. Throw in the fact that these evil bastards tend to be people rich and powerful enough to literally get away with murder (and worse), plus the fact that they may have links to the Combine, and you have a great love-to-hate'em foe that definitely deserves to be soundly thrashed.
The rules for creating Feral (lycanthrope) PCs appears in the Abomination Codex, and many game companies might have let that be the creatures' introduction into the game. But instead, they appear fully fleshed-out in this book, ready for use as potential allies or adversaries.
The Ferals follow most of the traditional imagery of such beings: they tend to transform involuntarily during full moons and are particularly vulnerable to silver, for example. Like the Garou of the World of Darkness, they are combat powerhouses who regenerate wounds at a terrifying rate. Unlike the Garou, they have no unifying noble cause, however -- in fact, while some of them have full control of their faculties, others have completely given in to their bestial sides and are every bit as monstrous as their horror movie counterparts. In short, the Ferals provide a broad range of interpretations of the werewolf legend in one creature.
The writing is clear and apparently typo-free, and it manages to be evocative without drifting into purple prose. As was the case with the main rulebook, the fiction that opens each chapter is excellent and doesn't reek of game mechanics.
Unlike some other reviewers, I had no problem with the use of different fonts to distinguish different subject matters. The closest I came to having a problem with it was with white-on-black text, which was a little hard on my eyes. On the whole, I found the layout very crisp.
The cover art, showing what might possibly be an angel, is attractive and nicely enigmatic. The interior art is excellent without being overused and seems more relevant to the nearby text than did the art in the main rulebook.
Finally, the appendix includes a glossary of game terms, combined reference tables for character types, associations, qualities and drawbacks, and skills from both this book and the main rulebook, the Fear Table, and (hooray!) a good index.
The Mystery Codex is that rarity of rarities: a supplement that truly is a supplement (as opposed to being "Rulebook II: The Sequel") while providing loads of cool new information about the game. That being the case, if you own WitchCraft -- either edition -- you don't have to buy this book. But I can heartily recommend that you do so.