Published on June 10th, 2015 | by Luke Turpeinen0
Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?
A Review of Beast: the Primordial
The Role Playing Game of ostracization, family bonds, and eating people.
Earlier this week Onyx Path, the current makers of the World of Darkness line of tabletop role playing games, revealed the Kickstarter project for their latest creation- Beast: the Primordial.
Beast is exciting for World of Darkness fans because it is not a reboot or reinterpretation of one of the “original” World of Darkness game lines (if you don’t know what that means, I wrote a guide to the differences here). All of the other “nWoD” games are based off of, or strongly informed by an older game that White Wolf made in the 90s, with the sole exception until now being Promethean.
Without an existing fan base to draw from, it could be argued that it was inevitable that Beast was going to be a harder sell than prior game lines had been. Whether or not that had anything to do with it’s current reception is debatable, but it’s a fact that some White Wolf fans are vocal about their dislike of the game and its themes. A current thread on RPG.net shows that 55% of members of that forum who read the Kickstarter preview document disliked the game.
That said, Beast: the Primordial made its entire base goal of $50,000 on the first day of the campaign, which shows that there is fan base enough to support the project at the very least. What is interesting to me about the debate surrounding the game on Twitter and internet forums is how far away most of it is from my experience reading the Kickstarter draft. I have seen numerous accusations that the RPG is feminist propaganda, but just as many calling it offensive to marginalized groups.
I tend to like White Wolf products, especially their nWoD line, so I was planning on reading the draft and had been considering buying it. But now all of this controversy has made me even more intrigued- what kind of a book could provoke such a varied response? I delved in with more gusto than I usually do, in an effort to ferret out what was bugging people so much about the silliest named game line in World of Darkness history.
The Grab Bag Monsters
One of the main premises in World of Darkness games is that each core book focuses on one type of supernatural creature. Vampire gives you the tools to be many different kinds of sanguivore, from Nosferatu to Lestat, but at the end of the day those divisions are just different aspects of the vampire myth. This is a great way to approach the game lines, and it allows for a really in-depth look at how to connect disparate themes and stories about these different creatures. But after a while, if you keep making new game lines, you run out of monsters.
Beast is in a lot of ways, an answer to that problem. For years people have speculated if White Wolf/Onyx Path would ever even create a new game line, due to the lack of conceptual space left in modern Western horror tropes. They’ve already done vampires, werewolves, ghosts, mages, frankensteins, faeries, mummies, demons… and those are just the ones that got full hardcover core books. I mean, what else is there left to do? Sure, someone always follows up with “the Creature from the Black Lagoon” to continue the Universal Monster theme, but that’s a pretty thin premise for an entire game line, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
Beast: the Primordial tackles this problem head on. Instead of typing itself to a specific kind of monster, Beast takes a wider angle view of what it means to be a monster. In this game you are the spiritual (emphatically not literal) descendant of The Dark Mother- an archetypal female representation of creation and horror like Lillith, Tiamat, Echidna or Izanami-no-Mikoto. Just as Echidna was said to be the mother of the Hydra, Sphinx, Cerberus, Nemean Lion and more, Beasts’ connection to The Dark Mother means that they are some of the most varied creatures in the World of Darkness.
This connection to myth is constantly reinforced throughout the book, you are someone whose soul is in some sense the soul of a Dragon, Gorgon, Baba Yaga or Erinys. Instead of making a pre-made list of every specific monster they thought players would want to experiment with in the game, Onyx Path made the wise decision to make everything very toolkit. No matter what it is you want to play as, including any monster previously listed here, you can play as it. In fact, most of the monsters I’ve listed are used as examples in the book itself.
Nightmare Spawn and Fear Eaters
Like every World of Darkness game, the creatures are arranged into groups, but they’re less formal this time around. In Beast the monster groups are centered around what kind of Fear they evoke in people (hopelessness, destruction, revulsion, exposure, depths) because the Beasts use Nightmares to feed on human fear like Vampires do on blood or Changelings do on emotions.
Beasts’ other group determines what their Hunger is. Every Beast hungers for something- prey, power, wealth, etc and they must fulfill their Hunger or they risk losing control and fulfilling it in the most horribly direct way possible. While some Beasts are very monstrous and kill, maim or even eat people for pleasure (we’re talking about sphnixes and minotaurs, remember?), some Beasts maintain their Satiety by doing lesser evils. Still other Beasts might be brutal, but take care only to hurt people “who deserve it”.
It seems that a lot of the material that people find objectionable in the book is found in this conflict- that Beasts must harm someone, at least psychologically or emotionally, in order to feed and satiate their Hunger. I can see how that might be objectionable to some people, and there are definitely themes and subject matter that some people will find uncomfortable to participate in.
For my part, I can’t see much of a difference between a vampire needing to feed on someone’s blood or a changeling needing to manipulate people so as to be able to feed off of their emotions (some of whom feed off of fear as well, I’d like to point out). To me, Beast fits the themes of the World of Darkness well and isn’t more grim dark than some of their other game lines.
Exploring Alternate Moralities
In fact, I would go so far as to say that Batman could be a really easy way to look at being a Beast who is not totally monstrous. Batman is a person who identifies more with his secret alter-ego than he does with the life he was born into, much like Beasts feel isolation and ostracization, especially before they realize what they are and begin to feed their Hunger. Batman has an obsession with instilling fear into those criminals he punishes, he “thirsts for justice” in a way that is totally creepy (to the point where it regularly weirds out Superman).
Over all Batman would be a great model for a heroic Beast character. If you must hurt someone, then it may as well be serial killers and harmful criminals, right? And at the end of the day, wouldn’t it be better for everyone if Batman just killed the Joker? Beast is largely a game that lets you examine your own answer to that question.
If you want what I think is a really good look at some of the issues brought up by Beast: the Primordial, I’d suggest clicking the picture above and reading the full comic, which is from the webcomic SubNormality. There is a poker game being played by mythical creatures who (as had been previously established in the comic) eat humans, like, all the time.
The comic brings up a good point, in a world where these monsters exist and are sentient, sapient creatures, are they evil if they have to inflict harm on us to survive? Is the lion evil for killing the antelope? What about the animals we kill to eat? I’m sure some people will have very quick answers to this line of reasoning, but I think the point here is that it’s fun to play out the “what ifs” of that scenario within the boundaries of a safe space such as a game.
Beasts exist in a wide variety, and are meant largely to be a catch-all for “things that go bump in the night”. Because of this, many Beasts share a lot of thematic similarities to other World of Darkness creatures and were actually designed to be “crossover friendly” creatures that you could include in almost any World of Darkness game. Beast features a large focus on being alienated and othered by the norms, so groupings of Beasts are called Families and the crossover mechanics r describe the other WoD creatures as “kin”, thereby further establishing a familial dynamic.
I really enjoyed the look that Beast gives us at how the different supernatural types interact. While the “stereotypes” section of the Families chapter was extremely poorly written and uninteresting, that’s nothing new. I don’t think I’ve seen a WoD book that had a stereotype section that was well written, if they never did one again, it couldn’t be too soon. Despite that, the crossover information in Chapter Five was great.
Sometimes crossovers with Beasts will make them better suited as antagonists than as fellow protagonists, but that is largely up to the characters involved in each specific story. While many Changelings would tend to view Beasts’ ideals of succumbing to the monster revolting (as Beasts identify more with the True Fae and Fetches than Changelings), some Beasts take that ideal further than others and some Changelings are less idealistic than the majority too.
Beast: the Primordial allows characters who have bonded with specific supernaturals and share something in common with them to gain special powers that let them “pass” in that group more easily. That means if you want to make a Beast to fit in a Vampire chronicle, he wouldn’t be totally out of place powers wise, which is a nice touch that I thought worked out pretty well.
One of the coolest things about Beast: the Primordial are its line-specific merits. Instead of having Integrity, Wisdom or Clarity as a sort of “moral compass” value, Beasts have Satiety- which measures how Hungry you are for your compulsion. Instead of having some abstract marker of their progression like Blood Potency or Gnosis, Beasts enjoy the benefits of a Lair- their very own pocket in the Primordial Dream which acts as a personalized sub-dimension that houses their beastly Soul.
The Lair effects are really awesome, and there are tons of systems for growing your Lair and using it to travel the highways and byways of the spiritual realms. You get to customize your Lair, with major and minor effects. One of the examples in the book says that a dragon Beast might have “engulfed in flames” as a major effect. You choose how bad the flames are, then you gain immunity to all flames equal to or less than the intensity of the Lair’s.
In addition, whenever you are in a place in the physical world that resonates with your Lair, you can evoke your other Lair’s effects more easily. So if that dragon were in a warehouse that is on fire, he could summon another effect from his Lair like “earthquake” because his Lair is in a volcano. Lairs don’t exist in reality, though some parts of them may be based on real locations. For the most part they exist in the Primordial Dream realm, housing the bestial soul and therefore are places of literal nightmare.
Narrative Death Wishes
Every once in a while, a Beast will do something stupid and it will come home to bite her in the ass. Or, a lot of little things pile up and finally there is a problem that needs to be dealt with. That problem is a Hero. In the game Beast, Heroes are antagonists: misguided, genocidal crazy people who want to kill all Beasts. Heroes have a knack for finding Beasts and they have special powers that let them inflict the Beasts with weaknesses that wouldn’t otherwise harm them.
While I dislike even the sarcastic naming of the antagonists “heroes”, I don’t object to the idea per se. Medusa had Perseus, the Minotaur had Theseus, Elphaba had Dorothy- eventually you inspire enough fear and nightmares that someone comes back to you to get theirs. That said, I disliked the Hero section of the book. I felt that it conflicted in tone with the rest of the book and went over ground that I thought had been covered enough.
What happens is that the text tries really hard to make you be sympathetic to the Beasts and not towards the Heroes, despite having numerous examples of both parties being both reasonable and psycho-killers. Even within the Hero section there are examples of characters meant to be antagonists that are 100% sympathetic (like Sleeping Beauty, pg 305 of the KS draft) and who I have a hard time not siding with.
This leads to confusion about the message the game is trying to send, which I believe is at the heart of people’s dislike of Beast. People are basically arguing over whether or not Beasts can or should be considered sympathetic, depending on how they read the Hero section of the book, which to me means that the Hero section was poorly written if it’s causing this much debate and turmoil.
Beast: the Primordial is a hot bed of new ideas for the new World of Darkness. Despite having an incredibly silly name, the book sold itself pretty hard. The Lair and Hunger mechanics are interesting as replacements for power stats and Integrity. Lair definitely makes the game feel more like Nobilis, and the recurring Narratives Are Reality themes remind me of Nobilis as well. I like the idea that you can now play as any monster you wish, instead of trying to shoehorn an idea into an existing game line. I like the crossover notes, and the wide range of themes that Beast uses, which can be translated to every other WoD game.
I wasn’t a fan of the editing, many ideas were strewn across the book (like Kinship) and there seemed to be a lack of organization in the text. Some of the writing was poor: I especially feel that the Families and Hero chapter were poorly written, with the exception of the example characters, which were the only parts I found useful.
Would I ever run a Beast: the Primordial chronicle, of all Beasts? No, I would not. The game doesn’t seem to lend itself to playing with a bunch of other Beasts. On the other hand, I would let a character be a Beast if I were running a Crossover friendly game using one or more other game lines as the base. Beasts really can fit in well anywhere, provided you fit them to that narrative space.
Would I back Beast on Kickstarter right now? Yes, I would. The game has some flaws, but I feel that the product that they’ve shown us the preview for is something I’m willing to purchase in hard copy form. The good here definitely outweighs the bad, in my opinion. I’d love to see the physical book with finished art, and I know that Beasts will be making guest appearances in my future games.