|Written by Geoffrey C. Grabowski, Richard E. Dansky|
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
Sometimes you come across a book that really just seems to be the platonic ideal of what a supplement should be. The Holy Grail of splatbooks, so to speak. Most of the time you don't, however. Most of the time we're stuck reading some second-rate pile of paper and ink with no inspiration. Look at almost al of the clanbooks and tribebooks for Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: the Apocalypse is you want to know what I mean.
Geoffrey Grabowski manages to grab that Holy Grail and shove it between the pages of Dharma Book: Devil-Tigers - or do a damn good imitation of it. I can confidently say that this really is what I would consider the almost platonic ideal of a splatbook. We are given culture, history, people, philosophy, rules and even interesting templates - not an easy feat. The only thing lacking is waves and waves of conspiratorial plots to drown my players in. But then I'm weird and I love that a bit too much.
the book its own self
The book itself looks pretty nice, like most Kindred of the East volumes you. The comic book in the beginning was illustrated by Melissa Uran, and while she has gotten better, I still cannot say that I completely enjoy all of her art, like I can about some other White Wolf artists. She does a reasonably good job, however, and the excellent story (about the growth of a Devil-Tiger along his Dharma) more than makes up for any lacking in the illustrations.
The rest of the artists produce some excellent works of their own, although I wonder about the credits (the full-page plates are signed "Huddleston" while the closest in the credits page is "Hutchinson"). The full-page pictures at the beginning of the chapters are half excellent and half okay. Jeff Holt manages to ring in with some of the best work I've seen by him (usually he leaves me cold), strongly reminding me of such Hong Kong classics as The Killer and Hard Boiled. That's a Very Good Thing for those keep score at home. I'm simply in love with the picture on page 30. The other excellent artists of the book seems to be Michael Gaydos. I instantly recognized his distinctive sharp-line art style (familiar to Vampire: the Dark Ages fans) but his name didn't ring a bell, unfortunately.
The layout of the book is equally nice, following the proud Kindred of the East tradition of a variety of backgrounds behind the text (which might annoy some readers but I enjoy) and lots of useful sidebars with juicy text (like what happens when a Kuei-jin consumes yugen from a hsien or just what the Crimson Tigers think of the bombing of Hiroshima). The chapters are organized nicely, split along lines of history, culture, rules and personalities. The divisions work well, not having the bleeding over that sometimes plagues White Wolf splatbooks.
Finally, the writing is exhilarating. Sure, it's just a book, but Grabowski manages to write the entire book in a very compelling manner. Just like The Thousand Hells, story ideas and anecdotes are tossed about left and right, keeping you riveted to the text. Beyond that, Grabowski also manages to actually create inter group relations that grow beyond the stereotype and make more sense that you would imagine. I was very pleased by the departure from the standard World of Darkness trait of unjustified xenophobia. The Devil-Tigers don't wantonly hate they feel.
just what's here
Is everything you've come to expect from a splatbook: history, factions, traditions, culture, rituals, new powers, templates, a warning that this is just a game, etc. It is not what there that makes the book so good, but just what Grabowski does with it. The Introduction chapter (Let the Revels Begin, Let the Fires be Started) is a great deal longer than I expected, and has a surprisingly useful amount of information. Aside from the standard in-character set-up for the book (which could have been abandoned with no loss at all, it has no further impact on the book), there is also information on just how to role-play a Devil-Tiger, something of a primer and refresher course for their philosophy and dharma. There is also some information on character creation for the Dharma, from things to remember during the prelude to how the Dharma works within each of the five directions. I was surprised by its placement here, I think it may have been better served to have been placed in the rules chapter. The most surprising feature of the introduction, however, was the inclusion of Mind's Eye Theatre guidelines, and the book doesn't stop there. This continues through the rest of the book, and apparently through the rest of the Dharma Books as well. Sidebars with rules conversions to the Mind's Eye Theatre system are placed in the rules chapter, providing rules and guidelines for the rituals and artifacts presented in the book under table-top systems. While I myself don't much go into LARPs and I would have preferred that the space have been filled with more wonderful prose from Grawbowski (no, he's not paying me, but he should be), that's just because I'm greedy. I can fully understand why the rules would be consolidated, and I'm sure that Mind's Eye Theatre fans are happy to finally get some kind of support for the game line.
The first chapter (Where the Dead Men Lost Their Bones) is equal parts "relations with others" and "philosophy" with some history mixed in for good measure. The history is intertwined with relations with other Dharmas and supernatural races as well as explanation for some of the foundation of the Dharma's beliefs in such a way that afterward I was left feeling like I had read an entirely separate chapter on history. Going through the book now, however, I realize that it was just scattered throughout the book, liberally placed here and there so that it came together more as a whole than as an artificial tale. Unfortunately, this does limit the ability to quickly reference information, but then no White Wolf book can really boast that ability. Furthermore, I'm struck by the lack of a detailed history. There is ancient history and some modern history, but little in between, which is unfortunate because I love detail. The text gives a good enough feel that such a history could be quickly constructed, but it still feels like it's missing.
The relations section of the book is one of the best (second only to the factions later described), largely because it is comprehensive, well thought out, and interesting. Instead of saying something like "The Resplendent Cranes hate the Devil-Tigers for their adherence to the wishes of their P'o instead of the disciplines of their Hun," the book paints a picture of sects that see each other more as brothers than enemies. Each sees the other as wrong, yes, but just because someone is wrong doesn't mean you have to hate them. It's this level of common sense and reality that has been missing from much of the World of Darkness material to date, and one of the reasons that I think that the Year of the Lotus material was so good on the whole.
God is not Mocked, He Knows Our Business is the next chapter, detailing the divisions within the Dharma, from greater sects like the August Body of Sagacious Devils (further proving that Grabowski has that whole over-blown flowery name schtick down) to the proscribed sects like the Searing Wind. Each of the sects manages to have both good sides and bad, and be interesting while it also demonstrates the flexibility of the Dharma, how it can adapt to both circumstances and the changing times, and itself, oddly enough. I was particularly happy with the Black Iron Talons, the first Inquisition actually really concerned about not harming innocents, and the Righteous Earth-Prison Smiting Fist, a group dedicated to the overthrowing of Yu Huang's underworld government, and affront to heaven itself. Maybe I just like crossovers, but I enjoyed the idea a lot.
Preparing for the Whip-Crack Time is the systems chapter, with a slew of rituals (some of which I was surprised at, seeing as how they reference "unrighteousness" as their source of power, but that is exactly what the Devil-Tigers seek to excise from the world). I was surprised and excited by the books willingness to delve into demons and banes and place no compunction against trucking with them. Indeed, if the Devil-Tigers are truly devils, is it not their duty to control such beasts? As a result, bakemono and banes are often found in Devil-Tiger employ, it was one more thing to highlight the difference between the Eastern and Western cosmologies in the World of Darkness. That is also a Very Good Thing. There are also several new and really interesting spirits (mainly banes) provided in the chapter, but one of my favorite part was the look at the Disciplines. While there is one new power provided (an alternate level 2 Blood Shintai power - you have to learn one or the other), the rest of the section is simply looking at which of the Disciplines available are valued the most, why and what repercussions (social and not) they have. I think that the impact of many of the supernatural powers in many games has been ignored, and I'm glad to see it given some space here.
What's the crowning feature of this chapter though? The Holy Books of Hell. Kindred of the East has done this before, mentioning and briefly describing some of the holy texts of the Dharma, giving names and brief histories, as well as summaries of their contents. The value of this cannot be understated. It is much easier to bring the game to its philosophical heights when you can refer to established documents woven into the setting. Sure, it's just flavor, but flavor is what eating. I mean role playing is all about.
The book closes out with five templates and a slew of famous Devil-Tigers (all of them either alive now or recently dead, by the way). As I said before, this is one of the very few splatbooks that have actually had very interesting templates. Usually I'm quite bored, skimming and skipping, but I was actually entertained in these character descriptions. The notorious Devil-Tigers were also all interesting, each having some sort of sympathetic trait drawing you to them, but each also having that taint of naughty evilness that leaves you dirty if you read about them for too long.
The very last thing of note in the book (I'm pointedly ignoring the atrocious ads for Hunter: the Reckoning) are some notes an how to play Devil-Tigers in the west, in a Kin-jin chronicle. This is actually useful advise for any game with more than one player (that is to say, nearly all of them). The statement "Don't make antagonistic or screen time monopolizing characters, it's no fun" works universally.
Oddly enough, there is no character sheet either. I was surprised, but I suppose that if White Wolf intends on following their usual pattern for sheets (that is simply change the header and some little decals and nothing else) then it is better gone.
Buy it damnit!
Really, just go out and buy the book now. It's more than worth it. Despite the minor flaws I've mentioned in my review, I came away from reading Dharma Book: Devil-Tigers feeling like I had been shown what splatbooks should be. This book is really essential for any game involving the Dharma as anything more than fang-toothed boogeymen, and it works to provide them such a degree of depth and substance that I can scarcely wait for the later Dharma Books.