CJ Carella's WitchCraft
CJ Carella's WitchCraft Playtest Review by Dan Davenport on 30/10/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
If Joss Whedon, Stephen King, and H.P. Lovecraft got together to create a game setting…
Product: CJ Carella's WitchCraft
Author: CJ Carella
Company/Publisher: Eden Studios, Inc.
Page count: 320
Year published: 1999
Comp copy?: yes
Playtest Review by Dan Davenport on 30/10/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Horror Conspiracy Vampire Gothic
CJ Carella's WitchCraft is a game of modern horror and dark fantasy that pits supernaturally gifted humans and their mundane and monstrous allies against an upsurge of horrors heralding a metaphysical Apocalypse. This is a review of the game's second edition.
Note: In this review, I will at times compare and contrast WitchCraft with the World of Darkness. I know from experience that this annoys certain people, so let me say up front that I will not be slamming the WoD. The fact is that the two settings share the same niche, and given the WoD's prominence in the gaming world, reviewing WitchCraft without addressing those similarities -- and without pointing out the differences -- would do my readers a disservice.
Chapter One: Introduction
Eden's standardized introduction chapter, including chapter summaries, text conventions, a quick bio of C.J. Carella, and, of course, the requisite explanation of roleplaying.
Chapter Two: Setting
On the surface, WitchCraft looks much like the World of Darkness. There are some rather fundamental differences, however, among them the facts that WitchCraft's reality is completely objective -- that is, things exist because they exist, not because people believe that they exist -- and that the One True God is part of that objective reality. The only thing disbelief in the supernatural produces is easier prey for supernatural predators.
One of several improvements to this edition over the first is that it offers a "Reader's Digest" version of Creation as it first appeared in WitchCraft's follow-up game, Armageddon. Unfortunately, it appears in the form of an in-character commentary, casting its accuracy into question for anyone who hasn't read Armageddon.
Aside from offering these theological revelations, this chapter serves as an overview to setting elements that will be fleshed out later in the book. These include:
Since these concepts are expanded upon later, I'll cover them in a moment as well.
Chapter Three: Roles
WitchCraft was the first game to make use of what has since become Eden Studio's house system: Unisystem. Because All Flesh Must Be Eaten shares this system, I'll be referring you to my review of that game at several points in this review rather than repeating myself here.
This is the first such instance. Character creation in WitchCraft mirrors that of All Flesh Must Be Eaten, with the main differences being character roles and Associations. Associations get their own chapter, so I'll cover them there. The character roles featured in the main rulebook are:
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Playtest: Despite the relative generosity of character creation points, several of my players didn't feel as though they could create the characters they really wanted. For that reason, I bumped up the point allocations from the default Heroic Campaign Level to the Legendary Campaign Level (see below). This was mostly an issue for the players with Gifted and Lesser Gifted characters -- there were just a lot of interesting abilities they wanted to have.
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Chapter Four: Rules
Once again, I refer you to my review of All Flesh Must Be Eaten for my thoughts on Unisystem. However, that review wasn't a playtest review, and this one is. Soooo...
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Playtest: As I was told it would, the system mostly fades into the background as play proceeds. I've heard some complain that the system is "boring", but personally, I'd rather a system get out of my way than dazzle me with cute tricks. My players seemed pretty impressed as well, with two of them strongly considering using Unisystem for future games they might run, albeit with a few tweaks.
Strangely, combat is both cinematic and gritty: Cinematic, because the multi-action rules and overall PC competence levels allow characters to accomplish a great deal in a single round; gritty, because offense, on the whole, far outstrips defense, and guns, in particular, are very, very deadly.
In fact, I found that guns can overwhelm creatures that really ought to scoff at such weapons. For example, a Relentless Dead (see "Chapter Seven: Supernatural" below) in my game went down courtesy of a few completely mundane submachine gun bursts. Now, the bullets didn't kill the creature, and given time he would have regenerated… but, of course, the PCs didn't give him that time. Instead, they kept pounding away at him with every weapon and power at their disposal until an NPC Necromancer was able to send him off.
The upside to this lethality is that in general, combat is really fast -- something that I demand in a game.
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Chapter Five: AssociationsLike the World of Darkness line and certain other modern-day fantasy/horror game settings, WitchCraft includes various mystically inclined groups to which the PCs can belong. Most such groupings feel contrived and restrictive to me, but such is not the case with the Covenants in WitchCraft.
The main reason for this is the fact that the Covenants are not class- or concept-driven subdivisions of larger groups determined by character type. They are (super)natural extensions of the setting, not game design requirements to which the setting had to conform. In fact, aside from their dealings with the supernatural, the Covenants have little in common with one another in terms of organization and reasons for existence.
On a related note, Covenants do not, for the most part, determine a character's abilities, or even his access to abilities. Members of each Covenant get some small perk, but so do unaffiliated Gifted.
I'd have preferred that there not have been a "group" name given to Gifted outside of groups, as it gives a false impression that groups are central to every character concept. They are not.
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Playtest: Initially, almost every player in my group had planned on making a member of a Covenant. In the end, however, they all went the Solitaire route. This rather last-minute change did disrupt a specific plot hook I'd devised regarding the Rosicrucians, but didn't affect the plot at a whole. While inter-group conflicts are an aspect of the WitchCraft setting, they aren't the focus of it.
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Chapter Six: Metaphysics
One strength of both the setting and mechanics is the fact that the Metaphysics feel different. While they all use the same basic mechanic, it is applied in very different ways for each. The four basic Metaphysics presented in the main rulebook are Magic, the Sight, Necromancy, and Divine Inspiration.
It's more than a little ironic that in a game called WitchCraft, Magic would be -- to my mind, at least -- the most flawed Metaphysic. This isn't to say that it's broken by any means, however. And, being by far the most detailed Metaphysic, it may be that it simply has more room for flaws.
At any rate, it definitely has its strong points. In particular, I like the way in which it handles Essence -- the fundamental building block of Creation and the fuel behind all supernatural powers. Anyone can use Magic, but Mundanes require the use of lengthy rituals and elaborate trappings in order to gather the necessary Essence. Gifted Magicians, by contrast, possess the quality known as Essence Channeling, which allows them to draw upon their personal Essence and do in seconds what might take Mundane casters hours. This allows the tedious, baroque magic of horror settings and the flashy fireballs-and-lightning-bolts magic of fantasy to coexist quite nicely.
And speaking of elaborate trappings, I also like the way in which Magic covers all the bases in that regard. Times, places, symbols, numbers, and tools can all have enormous significance regarding how much Essence is available and other important effects. For example, a caster will have a lot more Essence available at midnight on Halloween at Stonehenge with twelve other Magicians assisting him in the casting. Oh, and if it's a Demon summoning the casters are after, they'd be wise to summon the beast inside a Ward in the form of a pentagram (more Essence) inside a circle (still more Essence) drawn with salt (even more Essence).
All of these options have the further benefit of allowing schools of Magic to use the same powers while maintaining their distinct feels by using different Essence gathering techniques. In other words, a witch doctor might gather Essence with wild dances and a feathered staff, while a more stoic Rosicrucian might rely on detailed diagrams and a crystalline wand.
One other neat aspect of Essence and Magic helps explain the relative ignorance of the general populace about Magic's existence in the setting. Unlike Mage, WitchCraft's reality is completely objective, so Mundanes cannot believe magic out of existence. However, Mundanes' sensibilities are naturally hostile to the concept of Magic. The effect of this hostility is a kind of subconscious counter-spell that raises the Essence cost of an Invocation, forcing the Magician to pay the increased cost or have the Invocation fail. So, the reason why most Mundanes never see Magic at work is the fact that they shut it down before it can take place. This is what's known as the Crowd Effect.
Magic in WitchCraft is divided into "Invocations," with each Invocation being treated as a separate skill. (The Invocations in the main rulebook are all "Lesser Invocations," with the Greater Invocations appearing in The Mystery Codex.) To use an Invocation, the Magician summons up as much Essence as he thinks he'll need and makes a skill roll.
Now, in the first edition -- and as an option in the second -- the amount of Essence used affects the difficulty of the casting. But by default in the second edition, the amount of Essence used has no effect on the difficulty of the casting at all. What's more, the first edition's mandatory Dismissal -- effectively a second casting roll, this time used to dissipate the gathered Essence to prevent some form of random backlash -- is now only required after a failed casting roll or for Magic used in anger. (The amount of Essence used does affect the difficulty in the latter roll in both editions.)
Honestly, I'm a little conflicted on this change. On the one hand, I'm a firm believer that fewer rolls are better, and I can appreciate the fact that powerful Invocations were prohibitively difficult using the first edition rules. But on the other hand, the second edition rules greatly water down the value of Invocation skill levels. Complicating matters further is the fact that while Essence expenditure is the key factor in most Invocations, a select few factor in the degree of success on the casting roll. Oddly, then, it pays to have a particularly high level of skill in some Invocations, while for others it's simply a matter of having a skill high enough to prevent failure.
Invocations may be used for one or more different effects, with the Invocations varying in flexibility. In this respect, they occupy a kind of middle ground between specific spells in games such as D&D and the Spheres of Mage. For example, the Elemental Fire Invocation may be used to ignite blazes, cast gouts of fire, protect oneself from fire, and other create fire-related effects, while the Soulfire Invocation is limited to being the Magician's answer to the Ghostbusters' proton pack. The text indicates that GMs should use the listed effects as Essence cost guides when players come up with their own effects, but this is not as easy as it sounds.
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Playtest: For example, one player wanted to use Elemental Air to create a kind of bubble formed by an air-free layer around the group in order to allow them to speak without being heard. That one took a bit of thought, although I was able to come up with a cost that was to everyone's satisfaction.
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Damage-causing effects are trickier, since the relationship between Essence cost and the dice ratings of damage isn't particularly clear.
And speaking of things that will take some GM fiat, Spirit Mastery -- the Invocation used to summon, bind, and dismiss spirit entities such as Demons and Elementals, with separate versions of the Invocation required for each type of entity -- will require quite a bit of that. The amount of Essence required to summon a given spirit depends upon the spirit's Essence, which in turn may be used to determine the spirit's attributes. (That latter part isn't spelled out, by the way, but becomes clear once you read the entry for Spirits in Chapter Seven.) The problem is that the special powers of Spirits vary even within the same type, and those powers aren't determined by the Spirit's Essence. In other words, it's up to the GM to decide what powers a given summoned Spirit possesses, likely with some negotiation with the summoner's player.
Much more negotiation will be required if the player wants his Magician to start play with entities already summoned. The issue here is that the Essence required to summon and bind a Spirit regenerates, meaning that if the summoning takes place "off camera" and before play begins, there's no game mechanics reason for the summoner not to have any number of extremely powerful Spirits available. A possible fix for this would be to require summoners to commit a certain amount of Essence to each summoning that would not be freed up until the Spirit is released.
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Playtest: One of my players wanted his PC to start play with a summoned Earth Elemental. Together, the player and I determined what seemed like a reasonable expenditure of Essence for the character, then decided upon what powers the Elemental might have. It wasn't a laborious process, by any means, but those requiring strict rules for this sort of thing should beware.
One last issue that came up regarding Magic was the Shielding Invocation. Simply put, it's a force field that can be very, very powerful. The two basic forms of Shields are Essence Shields (for blocking magic) and Physical Shields (for blocking physical attacks, naturally). Physical Shields are the problem children, simply because they're extremely difficult to defeat. Physical Shields can have Armor Values (the amount of damage they can block) and Damage Capacity (the amount of damage they can absorb). With a sufficiently high Armor Value in his Shield, the Magician becomes practically invulnerable. The only way to get around a Physical Shield -- physically, anyway -- is to get the Magician to harm himself in some way, such as falling, since the Shields don't block damage caused by the Magician's own movement.
The climactic battle of my first adventure really bogged down as the heavily-Shielded PC and NPC Magicians traded tedious mystical broadsides, with the hapless Mundanes chipping in with automatic weapons fire while trying to stay out of the way. Eventually, I let the PCs take out the Big Bad by dumping kerosene under her and setting it alight, but the general opinion on the WitchCraft mailing list was that this wasn't within the spirit of the rules.
It should also be noted that two important limitations on Shields from the first edition -- the facts that Shields with Armor Value shatter when the Armor Value is exceeded, and that Physical Shields are visible to Mundanes without an extra Essence expenditure -- have been removed in the second edition, ramping up the power of the Invocation still further.
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Of the four Metaphysics, the rules for the Sight (a.k.a. Seer powers, psychic powers, psionics, etc.) are my favorites.
For each power they possess, Seers have a score in Art and Strength. Strength determines what the Seer is capable of doing, and Art determines how skillfully he can do it. For example, a telepath with high Strength but low Art might be able to read only the emotions of people miles away, while one with low Strength but high Art might be able to pry just about any information from the head of a person he's able to touch. This methodology allows for the simulation of psychics from a broad array of fictional sources.
Unlike Magic, the Sight doesn’t require Essence -- although, in a cool touch, Seers who do purchase Essence Channeling can use Essence to temporarily pump up their Strength in a power. It makes a great Akira-style visual, even if Mundanes can't see the actual effect.
And speaking of Mundanes, that brings up another advantage Seers have over Magicians: within the setting, the general public is far more accepting of the concept of the Sight than they are of Magic. As a result the Crowd Effect does not apply to the Sight.
Put the above facts together, and you have a power that may be used with relative impunity, the only real limitation being fear of identification as a Seer.
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Playtest: Since there's no reason to turn their powers "off," I found that Seers were akin to low-grade superheroes, or at least were a step closer to being supernatural creatures rather than simply supernatural practitioners. This has a profound impact on game play that isn't immediately obvious. For example, one Seer in our group was a mindreader, and mindreading also allows the Seer to see flows of Essence, which includes the presence of Magic and Spirits. Quite understandably, he walked around with this power on all the time, so supernatural traps and entities were extremely difficult to hide from him. (A Spirit can try to hide from a Seer with this power, but that requires that the Spirit have reason to suspect that a Seer with this power is present. And how often would you bother to hide behind a rock if you were already invisible?)
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The available powers cover the whole range of "common" psionic abilities seen in fictional sources and in the "real world" of the paranormal -- everything that doesn't fall into the realm of Magic or Necromancy (see below), at any rate. Telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinensis, mind control, precognition -- it's all here. Annoyingly, the powers aren't referred to by those names, however. Instead, each is named with the suffix "mind-". Mindsight, Mindhands, Mindfire, Mindrule, Mindtime, etc.
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Playtest: We simply couldn't keep a straight face while using those names. "Mindtime" was the worst -- I kept imaging M.C. Hammer yelling "STOP! MINDTIME!"
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The rules also allow for Seers to combine their strengths -- again, true to much of the source material -- and illustrate how each power may be used defensively. (For example, a Seer can anticipate an attacker's next move with Mindtime or block a blow with Mindhands.)
As a nifty little aside, Seers with sufficiently high levels of Mindheal Strength effectively become immortal, healing even the effects of aging.
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Playtest: I did have one problem with the Scanner-like offensive power known as Mindkill. It's not a bad power -- it's just somewhat difficult to defend against. The problem is that the attacker can choose to go after the target's Life Points, Endurance Points, or Essence points. This allows the attacking Seer to toggle through each form of Mindkill attack until he finds the target's weak spot. In my game, for example, the PCs were up against a Wendigo -- in WitchCraft parlance, a werecreature that's been tainted by the Mad Gods (see below). In other words, a big, mean, killing machine. But the Seer's player, suspecting rightly that the beast was a mostly physical threat, had his character use Mindkill to target the Wendigo's Essence. Bye-bye, Wendigo. A perfectly fair maneuver, but a little anticlimactic for Yours Truly.
One final note: The rules don't address the combined use of Seer powers. For example, one player wanted to know if he could use Mindview to see inside a mansion, then use Mindtime to view the past inside the mansion. I was stumped on that one, but finally decided not to allow the combo. Seers have enough free reign as it is.
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In a sense, Necromancy blends elements of Magic and the Sight. Necromantic powers are divided into "power paths" akin to Disciplines in Vampire: the Masquerade, requiring increasingly powerful abilities in a given path to be purchased in order. The powers include the ability to manipulate the Essence of the Dead (Death Lordship), control Death itself (Death Mastery), speak with the dead (Death Speech), and channel the Dead (Death Vessel).
Certain powers do not require Essence expenditure, making them akin to Seer powers. Other powers -- especially higher-level ones -- do require Essence, making them akin to Invocations and making Essence Channeling or rituals and mystical trappings a necessity. As a result, the game once again simulates a broad range of abilities from fiction and the paranormal, from the inherent "I see dead people!" to the elaborate rituals of the séance.
While certain higher-level Necromantic powers have broad and powerful applications -- such as the ability to use the power of ghosts to augment the Necromancer's physical strength to superhuman levels, and the ability to literally wish someone dead -- for the most part, these powers are informational, investigative, and supportive in nature. (Unless the Necromancer is dealing with the Dead, of course. In that case, they kick ectoplasmic butt.) That being the case, pure Necromancers might best be left to those uninterested in action-oriented characters. Those wishing to play a Necromancer who can duke it out with non-ghost opponents would be well advised to take some mix of Necromantic powers, Seer powers, and/or Magic.
The rules for Divine Inspiration and the Miracles that it can produce are identical to those in AFMBE, so I won't repeat my thoughts on the subject here. The one rule specific to WitchCraft is that Divine Inspiration is the only Metaphysic with a restriction regarding other powers: A person with Divine Inspiration cannot also possess Magic or Necromancy, although he can have the Sight.
Chapter Seven: Supernatural
This chapter begins as an overview of the world of WitchCraft. Fundamentally, the setting is one of growing fear and tension. Unlike in the World of Darkness, the supernatural isn't a secret to the general public due to the efforts of supernaturals to hide themselves and of conspiracies to make sure they stay hidden, although that's part of it. Rather, the supernatural just hasn't been all that prevalent for a long, long time, aside from spikes that occurred during the Black Plague and during and between the World Wars. But now the amount of supernatural activity is starting to ramp up dramatically, becoming more and more obvious. John and Jane Q. Public are starting to take notice. Those in the know suspect that this is leading up to a Reckoning -- a time of great mystical upheaval that may be the end of a great cosmic cycle or just simply The End. The Gifted are becoming more and more numerous as well, and now they may have to step forward to defend a world that fears them.
Another point of difference between WitchCraft and the WoD games is the manner in which they present antagonists. In the latter, supernatural antagonists in one game line are simulated using the abilities of the creature that's the focus of that line. For example, in Vampire: the Masquerade, you get werewolves, mages, faeries, and ghosts simulated with vampire powers. If you want the "real deal," you have to buy another game.
By contrast, WitchCraft offers a bestiary featuring creatures with their actual powers. Supplements -- not games -- offer additions and refinements, not completely different rules.
Creatures included are Spirits (including Nature Spirits, Elementals, and Ghosts), the Undead (Relentless Dead and Vampyres), Bast, Demons, Seraphim, the Mad Gods, and human antagonists. I found it to be a nice selection, lamenting only the absence of werecreatures and faeries. (The former appear in the Mystery Codex and the Abomination Codex as NPCs and PCs, respectively, while the rules for the Fey are still forthcoming.)
Players of Mundane PCs may be frustrated when dealing with the Undead in this game -- it's practically impossible to destroy them without some form of Metaphysic. The Relentless Dead -- akin to the unstoppable undead serial killers of slasher flicks -- can be imprisoned, but only severing their souls from their bodies will finish them. And the Vampyres of WitchCraft don't share many of the weaknesses commonly associated with such creatures, such as the ol' stake through the heart -- Essence depletion is the best way to go about it, which doesn't leave a Mundane with many options.
Speaking of Vampyres, many people -- myself included -- have complained about their New Age-y aspect. They don't have to drink blood, feeding instead on Essence released by strong emotions. If that bothers you as well -- and if you don't want to rewrite them yourself -- I'd strongly suggest picking up the Mystery Codex. There, you'll find rules for good old-fashioned blood-drinking vamps, among others.
The Mad Gods are the equivalent of Lovecraft's Great Old Ones and Outer Gods. Creatures from outside of all Creation, they provide a common enemy for everything from angels to demons -- a concept explored much more fully in WitchCraft's sequel game, Armageddon. Bear in mind that your PCs won't have to dig around in musty tomes for mind-blasting spells with which to combat these creatures and their minions, Call of Cthulhu-style -- not with access to powerful and relatively safe supernatural powers at their disposal.
Among the human foes in the chapter are Dark Covenants (who use Black Magic, the Invocations of which require suffering), the Damned (who've sold their souls to Infernal powers), the cultists of the Mad Gods, and the Combine. I like that the first three offer three flavors of "wicked witch" to pit against the "Wiccan witch" of the game's title. As for the Combine, they're a conspiracy that seems to consist mostly of Mundanes -- although Seers are rumored -- and that seems hostile to the Gifted. Their main power is in their astounding degree of influence over mundane affairs.
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Playtest: And don't underestimate the fear value of that influence. One of my players was running a filthy rich and seemingly fearless Mundane monster hunter. No supernatural threat seemed to phase him, but when a Combine agent threatened to erase his identity and ruin his life, he completely folded.
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Chapter Eight: ChroniclersThis final, short chapter contains useful tips for GMs. Among them are suggestions for altering the power level of play from the game's default "Heroic" level down to "Pre-Heroic" or up to "Legendary" or even "Mythical".
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Playtest: As mentioned previously, after much discussion with my group, we finally decided to play at the Legendary campaign level. This was mainly due to the fact that some players just couldn't quite afford all of the abilities they really, really wanted their PCs to have at the Heroic level. In the end, it worked out just fine: Yes, the PCs were badasses, but so were their opponents. And besides, the fact that scores in abilities get more expensive after 5 resulted in more breadth than extraordinary depth in ability scores.
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The chapter also discusses the creation of settings, adversaries, and plots, and includes three sample plots. All three of these -- the PCs as reincarnated 1920s gangsters, a police precinct taken over by a Vampyre, and a town's population slain and raised by a Dark Covenant -- are all quite good, even if they do require a good bit of fleshing out.
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Playtest: The third one formed the basis for my first adventure, with a good bit of AFMBE thrown in for spice.
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The cover art is a vast improvement over that of the first edition, featuring a beautiful witch clutching a tome with a black halo about her head, a raven flying past the moon in the background, the whole thing in Halloween-y orange-and-black. The interior art is also uniformly excellent, handling everything from horrific to elegant with equal aplomb. Sadly, some of the first edition art has been shuffled around and no longer appears in its original context.
The writing is conversational, unpretentious, and clear, with very few typos. I found that the short fiction at the beginning of the book and each chapter to set the tone of the game perfectly.
The layout is up to Eden's normal high standards, with different fonts and backgrounds highlighting different sorts of information and thematic fonts setting off the various powers in the Metaphysics chapter.
Finally, in a vast improvement over the first edition, the second edition features a large and useful index.
So, when it comes down to it, what's the real difference between WitchCraft and the World of Darkness? Fundamentally, it's the focus. The WoD games are focussed inward, while WitchCraft is focussed outward. The WoD games say, "You're a supernatural being. How are you going to cope with that?" WitchCraft says, "You're a supernatural being in a world that needs your help. What are you going to do about that?" In WoD, morality is ambiguous; in WitchCraft, it's much more clear-cut. If the WoD is Anne Rice, WitchCraft is Stephen King. Which is better? Neither, of course. Like Rice and King, they take the same source material and go in very different directions, and which you prefer is a matter of taste.
The WitchCraft approach just happens to be my preference. The core rulebook offers a generous look at a darkly compelling setting, standing well on its own while serving as a solid foundation for the rest of the game line. If you're looking for a modern-day horror/fantasy setting in which heroes can make a real difference, give this one a look.