|Year of the Lotus|
|Written by Jim Moore|
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
There are beautiful phrases in the English language.
One of them is "Let's kick in some heads."
Demon Hunter X allows you to do just that; at least, in the East, and in the World of Darkness. I actually liked the looks of this book so much that I picked up Vampire - on sale - and then Kindred of the East to ensure that the rules were compatible. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the only thing that you need to play is any White Wolf core rulebook and this, although Kindred of the East will, of course, be awfully helpful. (To further explain my spending spree, I had more money that was technically good for me at the time.)
Anyways, Demon Hunter X is the progenitor to Hunter: The Reckoning, in a sense. The Middle Kingdom - China, Japan and points related - have their own understanding with the supernatural; as long as your luck isn't bad, they'll leave you alone. They'd got a place in the order of things. Their traditional opponents, the shih, have had the mandate to keep them in line when they get out of hand; but their numbers are small, and they seem to be slowly dying out. Their replacements and/or compeititors, Strike Force Zero, have new technology and a zero-tolerance policy, but they're unfamiliar with the supernatural and are as likely to blunder, unarmed, into a hive of Black Spiral Dancers, as they are to do any real good. So it's up to the PCs to make up for the flaws of both organizations.
It's a great book, although the stuff about Strike Force Zero lags in comparison to the shih. The book opens with a history of the shih and their methods. The instutition of a wandering hunter of the undead goes all the way back to before the Kuei-Jin were vulnerable to sunlight; as a matter of fact, it was the first shih, Wan Kung Yi, who insituted that particular curse. His story is told in a rather oblique fashion; monks aren't Shao-Lin, or Wu-Tang, but simply "monks", and his story is shy on stuff like proper names for various locations. (Most stories are very careful to keep track of the names of various places and items, mind you, but that's just nitpicking.) After defeating the Kuei-Jin in an enormous battle, Yi passed along his mantle to a legion of followers, who then diffused through the Middle Kingdom and kept the supernatural population under control. Over the years, they've become the equivalent of a supernatural police force, one that's more interested in keeping the peace than killing every supernatural they stumble across.
They've also got a nice array of martial arts and supernatural powers to fight the shih, which seems perfectly in tone with the aspect of the game. Hunter: The Reckoning garnered a lot of complaints because the supernatural powers dealt out to its PCs didn't seem to match the setting. The shih's powers match the setting exactly, especially since they're fighting anime-style battles with hideous creatures just about every session. Prayer tickets that burst into blue flame or electricity upon contact, mystical arts that let you strike many times during a combat and inflict aggravated damage, additional strength, the ability to take hideous blows without flinching, self-exorcism...it all makes sense within the context of the game. It works perfectly. You won't be dealing out enormous amounts of damage or hopping from building to building when you're starting out, but neither will you be plinking away with the supernatural equivalent of a BB gun once you're experienced. There's also a list of fancy martial arts moves that shih can learn, including one just for shapeshifters that lets you smack them in the snout, blinding them. In short, you can engage in a kung-fu fight with a Garou and live through it.
What's especially nice about the shih is that the book goes beyond the stereotypical Kane-on-Kung-Fu stereotype. The average shih lost a family member to a supernatural creature, has more scar tissue than hand on his fists, and is acutely aware of the fact that there are more supernatural creatures - good and evil - than he can possibly deal with. Playing a shih is a lot like playing the only cop in Gangsterville, and the book goes to pains to point this out.
Strike Force Zero, on the other hand, is out of its depth. Although the book doesn't reveal it until the GM section - and spoilers apply, here - Strike Force Zero is an arm of the Technocracy, tasked with wiping out the supernatural in the Middle Kingdom. They've got strike teams, they've got cybernetics, they've got money, they've got a communication network. They're also mostly ignorant of what they're facing, and while they do have the guns, the thing that they're fighting aren't always fazed by a full magazine of automatic rifle fire. I believe that the idea here is to simulate, to some degree, anime - where five bright and perky team members fight against a foe that always go down on a magnum load in minute twenty-four of the show. In the case of Demon Hunter X, three of the five are killed in the opening comic, and only one gets out in something even remotely resembling good shape. It's the bubblegum world of bubblegum anime butting up against the unpleasantness of the World of Darkness. Most of the focus here is on the slow exploration, culminating with a gun battle against some kind of belligerent sack of foulness that just vomited itself out of a sewer - like Call of Cthulhu with BFGs. There's a lot of comfortable stereotypes here, like the Yakuza hitman gone legit, or the technical wizard who's always fiddling with some kind of fancy device, or the rogue with a heart of gold - there's even a list of anime stereotypes in the back of the book, for those who want to play a true anime-style campaign. There's also notes that could be used in-game to hand out to players, from a Strike Force Zero standpoint, and a description of the higher-ups in Strike Force Zero; the leader has had a bad experience with what I assume are Wyrm-corrupted Corax. (Or maybe the Corax are just mean around that area.)
There's also - and these are rules that I wish that White Wolf had created a long time ago - rules for cybernetics, which Strike Force Zero uses extrensively. The rules themselves aren't terrifically complicated, and I found myself wishing that it could be a little deeper, but I'm not complaining. Both Mage and Werewolf have made reference to cybernetics, but it's only here that they've actually been formalized into a rules setting. As for the cybernetics themselves, they're not bad. There's nothing really out there, like some of the stuff in Cyberpunk's Chromebooks - no de-centralized hearts, no cyber-pets -but there is a nice selection of basic cybernetics - gills, pulse cannons, body sheaths, cyber-claws, enhancers and vibro-blades. What's especially neat is a particular cybernetic called a kabuki mask, which is implanted underneath the skin and changes the user's face with a thought. Cybernetics are governed both by the expenditure of various kinds of chi and by loss of humanity; you can turn yourself into a robot, but it'll cost you your humanity. Annnd, if you run out of cybernetics in the Demon Hunter X book, there's plenty of other sources out there that'll pick up the slack - GURPS Bio-Tech springs to mind.
The back of the book covers creating adventures for Demon Hunter X adventures, and there's some good stuff here, including fighting with tongs, other shih, how to handle a solo shih adventure, where Strike Force Zero came from, the difference between horror and terror - which I don't like; fear is fear, and you don't need to label it in order to figure out what needs to be applied - and, to top it all off, Demon Hunter relics and famous personages.
Are there flaws? Yeah. The fact that most of the shih act alone tends to limit games to Mr. Fantastic and his buddies, and I doubt that somebody will want to play the role of Buddy #3 to a guy who can punch through a wall without injury. (Mature role-players can, but even I wouldn't want to be a non-shih player unless I had something to compensate for the lack of fancy abilities. Strike Force Zero games, by contrast, could devolve into a series of fights with supernaturals, devoid of much in the way of plot development. The "monster of the week" formula was given in Guide to the Technocracy, but I think that it'd apply here. There's also the requirement of owning Kindred of the East; I'm not exactly distraught over this requirement, since KOTE is a good product in of and of itself, but it can stand alone if you have another rulebook. (The shih can always fight Black Spirals, or the Sabbat, or Nephandi, or whatever happens around the bend with a mad gleam in its eye.)
The art is nice, but it also leads me to one question - how in the world are some of these things able to do what they do? The Kuei-Jin in the opening sequence turns into some kind of horrible monster, and while I am aware of the ability of Kuei-Jin to take on a monstrous form, there are things depicted in this book that are the size of construction cranes hanging around. A lot of it is really neat - and some of it is really excellent, like a picture of a shih giving a Garou the business end of a weighted chain, but some of it just made me wonder what I'd need to create a creature like that. It looks neat, but there's no stats, no suggestion of what it might be.
In short, Demon Hunter X is a worthwhile purchase just for the flavor of the game - the cybernetics and shih special abilities are nice, crunchy additions to a combat game, while the overall atmosphere of exploring an environment of stark terror will appeal to fans of conspiracy games.