Detritus From The Past

Detritus From The Past

If you ask any fan of White Wolf’s games what their least favourite supplement for the classic World of Darkness was, there’s usually one book that features very highly on the list. In fact, if you’re a fan of “Vampire: the Masquerade” and you’re reading this, you’re probably already mouthing the words “Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand”.

This is actually a pretty good book

DSotBH was produced at the height of White Wolf’s fetish for crossover madness in 1994. They had four core games under their belt at this point, and with the release of a second edition of “Vampire: The Masquerade” and “Werewolf: The Apocalypse” there were attempts underway to unify the games’ mechanics. This can be seen in publications like “The Book of Madness” for “Mage: The Ascension”, where the rules for spirits in “Mage” – previously shorthanded to use the rules found in that game’s core book – were brought into line with those in “Werewolf”; the game which had most of a focus on the spirit world.

Oh man…this f***ing book…

However, DSotBH was one of the first times where White Wolf had gone all in on the crossover. It had vampires, mages, wraiths and abominations (vampire-werewolf hybrids) who all lived together in a ghostly recreation of the vampires’ mythical first city. The book tries to conjure up a sense of conspiracy – of a secret Gehenna cult working behind the scenes to manipulate events – but actually just ends up slamming together the worst excesses of power gaming and “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if…” together into one awful, sticky mess.

Another decent read

It was pretty grim reading, but there were some things you could salvage from it. Indeed, in the VtM’s revised “Storyteller’s Handbook” they include an appendix where they reintroduce the True Black Hand in a context that is much more useable.

However, this article isn’t going to be me bashing DSotBH – dear knows, there are enough web pages devoted to that already! No, the title I’m going to talk about is far more heinous than anything found in DSotBH, and if you haven’t read it, then lucky you – I don’t recommend you do.

The title in question, I first became aware of back in the 90s, and I thankfully never owned a copy. A friend at university showed me the book, and I believe we both marvelled at how completely awful it was, and that was that.

This book would probably have remained lost in the mists of time, had I not recently stumbled upon it during a recent foray into acquiring old “Mage: The Ascension” books. As I mentioned in a previous blog article, I’ve always loved MtA, and I was always a bit gutted that I sold nearly all of my books prior to emigrating. So, I decided to take a look on eBay and see what first edition titles there were kicking around, and there – amongst the Tradition books and genuinely good reads like “The Book of Madness” – was this book, and all the memories came flooding back.

If “Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand” is a love letter to crossover, this book is “Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction” and crossover is getting sent a boiled bunny.

The book in question, if you haven’t already inferred, is “The Chaos Factor”. For those of you who haven’t had to experience this nonsense – and please don’t go out looking for a copy after reading this, it truly is utter tripe – here’s a rough synopsis of what goes on:

Just look at this cover – this book is garbage

Samuel Haight – and we’ll come to him in a moment – is an all round bad guy, and he’s on his way to Mexico City where he believes there’s an antediluvian vampire buried and he wants to steal its power for megalomaniacal bad guy reasons. Mexico City is a veritable smorgasbord of supernaturals, being the home of the Sabbat (who are enjoying that early “Vampire” fad of being all wildly in league with the devil), a bunch of Technocrats (who, in this scenario, are generically “evil black hats and mirror shades bad guy agents”), a colony of evil werewolves and some infernalist mages. Oh, and the action takes place during the Day of the Dead so obviously the local wraith population are up in arms…

The plot can basically be summed up best as a bunch of fight scenes which, after they are ticked off, lead to a final confrontation with Samuel himself. Oh, and because the writers were apparently embarrassed / sick of Samuel Haight by this point it was pre-ordained that, no matter what happens, Sam must die. If the players can’t manage it the ST can deus ex that bad boy with something like a paradox backlash.

Don’t go adding to this to your list of “must have books either”. It genuinely has Heinrich Himmler and Herman Goering as characters…

So far, so “1980s B movie plot”. White Wolf have made far worse books than this surely? Just because an adventure sucks doesn’t mean that it’s part of “the worst book ever”.

No – that’s very true.

White Wolf released a lot of bad adventures in the early days, back when they acknowledged that their games were not intended to be used like traditional RPGs…then tried to create “modules” for them. Something like “Berlin By Night” was, all things considered, just as excrementally awful as “The Chaos Factor”. Quick plot synopsis – 4th generation Ravnos uses some gooby discipline to convince everyone he is Caine, fights with Nazi vampires ensue and a big, bad NPC combat monster saves the day. That’s in the same league of terrible as the adventure presented in “The Chaos Factor”.

However, while “Berlin by Night” is bad, it confines itself to the realm of vampires. In “The Chaos Factor” EVERYONE is invited to the party…

Business as usual in the WoD…but in the Chaos Factor they’re best buds…

For starters, it’s made clear that the PCs can be vampires, werewolves or mages, and there are reasons given why each of these groups would want to stop Sam. However, very little thought is given to why these groups would want to work together. It’s kind of hand waved away in a “well they’re the good guys and just think how cool it will be crossing everything over!” No thought is given to the fact that werewolves see vampires as inherently wrong, or that the power dynamic of mages vs well….pretty much anything else is waaaay off kilter. All this logic is sacrificed on the alter of kewl.

Then there’s the NPCs…

A much more measured and interesting approach to crossover

Urgh.

For starters, everyone seems super clued up on everyone else’s secret lore. One of the Technocrats really wants to destroy the Black Spiral Dancers, for example. Compare this to the main Technocrat in “The Red Sign” – released right at the end of the WoD – whose driving motivation is that he’s discovered that vampires are real and wonders why Control kept this from field agents.

NPC inspiration – the Chaos Factor

Also, they’re all just soooooooo evil. The Technocrats are soulless. The Mauraders are either the worst examples of either “haha – madness is hilarious! Look! This guy rides a unicorn!” or “Raaaar! Madness makes people angry!” The Sabbat are either badasses, twisted (“I’m a MASTER of torture – look how dark that makes me!“) or odd-balls (Samedi, Daughter of Cacophany, Giovanni, a Nosferatu that looks normal). I’m not going to bother going into the Nephandi or the Black Spiral Dancers – they’re basically cartoon characters.

The power level is also utterly cuckoo – expect to see Technocrats with Arete 8…

However, the thing that makes this book so utterly egregious is Samuel Haight himself. You see, he’s not a normal man.

He’s kinfolk to werewolves…

…who became a regular old hunter…

…who took to hunting supernatural creatures because he’d got bored of the challenge that regular game provided…

…who then found out that vampire vitae could give him powerz, so he started killing them for their blood and became a masterless ghoul…

…who then started learning Tremere thaumaturgy from books and stuff that he’d found in the lair of a vampire he’d killed…

…who learned a ritual that would let him become a werewolf if he completed the herculean effort of skinning five werewolves…

…who promptly skinned five werewolves and became one himself…

…who learned to travel in the spirit world…

…who stole magic from mages (?) and became capable of wielding True Magick.

This was a real add…seems more like someone’s “kewl” idea than a joke…

…Yeah…

This character just typifies the sort of nonsense that encouraged players in White Wolf games to pester their Storytellers with similarly bizarre concepts “because, look, it’s official…” Obviously, individual STs were free to turn this porridge down, but it was painful to have to deal with.

There’s some apocryphal tales that Sam Haight was created as a joke by White Wolf and that it got out of hand, but I don’t buy that. The fact that he featured in half a dozen supplements, and that a lot of White Wolf material at the time seemed giddy every time crossover was mentioned, suggests that at one point White Wolf considered all their games to take place in the same universe and actively encouraged crossing the streams.

I could name half a dozen players whose character concept would be “that guy in the trenchcoat with the sword from DSotBH””

Thankfully, White Wolf seemed to learn their lessons, and later entries in the various game lines discouraged crossover, and dialled back what each supernatural faction knew about each other. Even if a mage was aware that vampires existed, he probably wouldn’t go around using words like “Camarilla”, “Sabbat” and “Tremere”. There were even some supplements near the end that suggested that each game line existed in a separate continuity.

Regardless, “The Chaos Factor” seemed to be the high point (low point?) of White Wolf’s crossover madness, and although DSotB came a little bit later, it was more the last gasp of a dying trend than any serious attempt to reinvigorate the concept.

As if to hammer the point home, Samuel Haight was allowed one last moment in the limelight – a crossover with the one game he’d never actively tried to involve himself with (back when there were only four).

In a nod to people’s dislike of the character, Sam Haight featured in a later “Wraith” supplement. It seems, that when Sammy crossed over to the other side, he pissed off someone important, because his last canonical appearance in the original WoD was in “Wraith: The Book of Legions” where we learn that he was soulforged into an ashtray that sits on the desk of a minor Hierarchy functionary in Stygia.

A fitting end, for the the biggest power gamer munchkin ever to exist.

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