I’m twenty pages in before I realize I was only supposed to be reading for a few minutes. Unconsciously, I chew on a pimple that has beaded up from the sweat on my lower lip. I reach up to scratch it, and pull back a stripe of scarlet. I should have known. I am reading a Rafael Chandler book, after all. Bodily fluids are mandatory. I shift my butt, and breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t appear to be bleeding from my anus.
But it makes me think of how much things have changed in how we buy RPGs. Once upon a time, we bought RPGs like board games – here’s a new box with different dice to the other games, and it has a space setting. Now we buy RPGs like novels, looking for authors’ names and water cooler darlings of the week. Which brings me to my point: this is Chandler’s second RPG and I feel it resembles nothing so much as the difficult second novel. And like a lot of second novels, it treads a lot of the ground of his previous work. It also finds new places to go and expands greatly on the previous work…but that leaves you wondering if the first one wasn’t a warm-up. And all of this would be mostly fine in a novel, but it’s a strange situation for a roleplaying game.
Let me explain. In 2007 we saw the release of the revised and updated edition of Dread, Chandler’s first RPG. You can read my review of it here (LINK) and you should because 95% of that review applies to this game, Spite. Of course, this is no accident. Dread was the “First Book of Pandemonium”, Spite is the Second. The games operate within the same setting. They are both written with Chandler’s take-no-prisoners, guts-n-all style and cover the same grisly horror subject matter with a splatter-action approach. Both games use the Disciple 12 system (a dice pool of d12s) in exactly the same way. Crossovers between the two are not only possible, they’re encouraged.
But the problem is, the games are too similar. Vampire and Werewolf – in either of their incarnations – are set in the same world and use the same system but they’re very different games. Not so here. To wit: Dread is a game about hopeless people being recruited as Disciples by shadowy, powerful Mentors, given disturbing powers and sent out as the last and only hope to stop the demons preying on humanity. Spite is a game about people being recruited as Zealots by shadowy, powerful Monitors, given disturbing powers and sent out as the last and only hope to stop the angels preying on humanity.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t a difference between the angels and the demons, although on the surface it is hard to spot – both of them are hideous monsters that bring agony and torment. Mostly, the difference is that the demons of Dread spread sin and suffering upon the innocent, whereas the angels of Spite prefer to seek out those who are at least a little guilty, assuming you read the Ten Commandments as literally and violently as possible. Should the angels find anyone actually innocent, they kill them too, sending them to heaven. Make no mistake, these angels are the bad guys: their punishments are as horrific as their forms and they need to be put down. The result is Spite is an angrier game; in Dread there was a sense of holding back really dark horrors feasting on at least somewhat innocent reality; Spite is more about the horror of the fact that these alien killing machines have some kind of “holy” agenda, and that there are a lot of people you’re willing to let be cleansed by that..
Indeed, it’s hard to shake the feeling, as you read, that Chandler has a lot of anger himself towards the uglier parts of Christianity and the more judgemental parts of the Bible. The game is something of a primal scream of rage against the kind of God that burns Sodom and kills the first born of Egypt. And the expressions of that rage are the PCs, armed to the teeth with machine guns, kill-mobiles and the ability to go nova when they need to.
The last is another key difference between Dread and Spite. Most of the demons in Dread were all on the same level, but Spite allows for four different types of antagonists: Seraphim, about the same level as Dread’s demons (hard mothers, but something a starting party can take down altogether), the low-level threats of the Rephaim, the enormous Godzilla-level threats of the Ophanim and the cybernetically enhanced wtf-when-did-this-turn-into-Rifts PC-hunting Erelim. This allows you to mix up your games a lot more, with four different types of play depending on the enemy. And to enable you the PCs to deal with monsters the size of cities or with guns big enough to level cities, the heroes get more than just the reality-bending spells of Dread. Each class (more on that in a second) gets access to unique Imprecations which allow them to go Godzilla themselves, turning into massive combat monsters, both mechanically and literally.
And speaking of this being an angry game, going nova like this causes massive damage to civilians, killing some or turning others into Rephaim. So to the blood-soaked, sin-stained streets of Dread, Spite adds the guilt of not being much better than the monsters. And I wonder, did we need it? The same question applies to whether taking an already way over-the-top game of street violence into the realms of city-smashing doesn’t just end up in farce. I mean, when characters start spurting giant throbbing phalluses topped with mystical heavy machine guns, the horror kind of falls by the wayside. So once again, did we really need to go that far? That sounds like I’m contradicting myself because I said earlier the games are too similar – but we’ll come back to that.
I said classes earlier. This is no great change from Dread: once again we have three basic character archetypes as classes: Fighters, Investigators and Sorcerers, and again, each class gets special abilities tied to what they do best. Spite adds more powers to choose from, including one very confusing one for Investigators. If they take the power I’m talking about, Investigators can build up clues about each angel, giving them clues both specific to the angel’s genus (“the Evaiaci smells of burning hair”) and to this specific beastie (“this one hesitates to strike the penitent, so if we bow our heads we can get an extra shot in”). These clues add extra dice to a pool that the Investigator can use against that particular angel, adding a little mini-game ala many indie rpgs…but only if you take that ability.
But the clues about angel species brings us back to a central problem with Spite and Dread: I still can’t figure out how the monster hunting is supposed to proceed. There are no books to hit in this game, as there are in Buffy or Call of Cthulhu: this is a brand new mythos for players and characters. Yet over and over, in both the adventure design section and the angel listings, Chandler highlights the physical evidence left behind by the monsters. Who, exactly is this information for? Is this like D&D where we the players slowly learn what a smell of pine indicates, like looking up for piercers when you enter each room of a dungeon? Or is the GM supposed to just go “Yeah, it smells of pine, that means it’s an Avaenoi, which you know Somehow”.
There are other ways to hunt the angels, thankfully. Unlike the randomness of Dread’s demons the angel’s punishment has a twisted logic to it: identify the sin being punished and you can figure out the procession. Chandler seems to figure that if you get enough criminal scum, guns and angels in the same city, things will just work themselves out in the gunfire, and adding anything else would be ‘railroading’. But this lack of a real sense of process harmed Dread and it is back again in Spite. And the only adventure provided (in a chapter falsely labeled “scenarios”, plural) provides no further insight. – the scenes are deliberately disconnected to allow for an organic flow, yet scenes list things like “mangled corpses” and “angel droppings” as important “evidence”.
Maybe the players are supposed to just narrate a scene where they go somewhere and make rolls to figure out what it all means. Maybe you’re just supposed to go “crap, it was a robot all along” and just start shooting. But colour me as confused once again, and that’s a damn shame. Especially since it’s even more important in Spite than it was in Dread because figuring out if you’re dealing with a Seraphim or one of his nastier big brothers will totally change how you approach the final Takedown. Heck, you might even be facing a totally non-angelic threat: the end of the book features stats for vampires, werewolves, aliens, killer robots and much more. Which brings us back again to the issue of too much being just too much.
The extra antagonists don’t just end with killer robots, though. They continue with covert government agencies, several crime syndicates, mad science groups, corporate security firms and crazy flesh-eating cults, and the weird powers they’ve managed to gain from studying or obtaining angels and demons. Then there’s also renegade and/or insane Zealots and Disciples who (much like me) have gotten confused about who the bad guys actually are and are thus just as likely to point their automatic weapons at the PCs. There is a cornucopia of threats in this book, not to mention a plethora of plot hooks. Combined with the different levels of angel, Spite is a huge tapestry of potential stories. Dread could have been criticized for being one-note and of limited potential; Spite is clearly designed to support long-term campaign play and to provide as many avenues as possible for the GM to explore.
And there’s more toys for players, too. Spite has had a visit from the White Wolf Fairy and gained another level of splats, based on character roles (as opposed to play style, as with the classes). Crusaders are driven, paladin types, Lepers for those who like to play the freak, Messiahs are for the show-ponies, Prophets are thinkers and Sinners are the smash-and-kill types. Each also gets to pick a unique power, making sure they feel different no matter how you play them. There are also now more cool stunts you can pull off with Fury (the “drama points” of the game), plus more skills, more guns and more gear than we saw in Dread. And a completely new list of spells, with even more variety to their effects. Characters in Spite thus have more toys to play with and are much more customizable as a result.
But there’s the rub.
See, here’s the thing. In Dread, you weren’t playing a supernatural warrior. You were playing a guy who literally had nothing left to live for. And when you got nine points to spend on your three stats, one of them had to be five or six. You had to be min-maxed, and you had to have little personality. It was all about the fight. And the mystery didn’t really matter.
And that was one of Dread’s greatest features. It wasn’t about anything except blood, bullets and body count. And in an industry where most books are padded to the extreme lest they ever be accused of narrowing a GM’s vision, this made Dread spectacularly unique.
Now we have a game which mirrors much of Dread’s other qualities: it’s still got a good, simple, high-speed system that lends itself well to brutal action. Once again, it’s got a seriously messed-up dark-as-all-hell balls-to-the-wall setting to throw that brutal action against. And it’s full of Chandler’s writing which is at once clear as day yet so soaked in atmosphere you can smell the cordite and the blood coming off each page. But at heart it’s the same old cordite and the same old blood. It’s just another version of Dread. Yes, much more has been added, but when the core is the essentially the same, it makes the weaknesses much more obvious. In other words, if w had to get another version of Dread, did we have to lose the simplicity along the way?
Of course, this also means that, at heart, it’s as good a game as Dread was. And because it adds so much, it could even be considered a better game. Certainly by the standard rubric of game design, it would be thought so – more is better, after all. It takes Dread and adds new scales of play, lots more fun toys, a gazillion new plot hooks, a much more detailed setting and heaps more advice on and rules for bringing it all to the table.
The cost is that a lot of that variety has added more rules to look up and more words to read and more buckshot to the barrel. Dread was a shot straight into the neck at close range. Spite tears your skin to ribbons leaving you to die slowly. It’s just as horrific, just as efficient, just as effective – but it’s less clean and it’s less quick and it’s less brutal. And as a lazy, lazy man, I miss that. I don’t mind more rules, but it left the game feeling a little heavy. And after Dread had no fat on it at all, that felt like a shame – especially since even with all those rules, it didn’t really bring in anything truly new to the experience.
But for the normal person, we’ve got another great Chandler beast here. If you like the idea of Tarantino filming Barker, then it’s as worthy a buy as its predecessor. If you want a game with more meat on its bones, Spite is the better purchase than Dread – and you should consider Dread your first supplement to buy. If you already have and enjoy Dread, you’ll definitely be interested to see an expansion into the wider world, but consider it a fantastic supplement not a whole new game – with the added bonus of reprinting the basic rules. And that’s a good thing. The only person expecting anything more is me, and that’s just because I was so damn impressed with Chandler’s first time at bat, and wanted to see something equally breathtaking and new. But as Cat Stevens so rightly said, the first cut is the deepest. Especially if it is in your anus.
Style: 4 (well written but what’s with the sideways pages?)
Substance 4 (a damn fine game, but it felt too much like old times)