|Written by Elizabeth Ditchburn and Heather Grove, and Jackie Cassada and Nicky Rea|
This first Guildbook compilation, the new direction for the Guildbook series, details the Underworld's Puppeteers and Pardoners. If you thought your bank was nasty when it came to repossession, just wait until you meet the Puppeteers. These are the wraiths who joyride in human bodies. Think it takes guts to face Spectres in the Tempest? Try facing the Spectres-in-waiting who lurk in every wraith's head. The Pardoners do it every dark day.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 3 (Average)
Pardoners and Puppeteers is a collection of two splatbooks for Wraith: The Oblivion.
Okay. That's the obvious part out of the way. (Speaking of which, somebody revealed the origin of the word "splatbook" on alt.games.white-wolf not so long ago - wish that I'd saved the post. )
What are they? Essentially, they're wraiths who have specialized in certain Arcanoi - wraithly abilities - to the point where they've joined Guilds, quasi-outlaw organizations of wraiths. The Puppeteers are wraiths who are able to possess living human beings for brief periods of time, while the Pardoners are spiritual surgeons, capable of controlling the Shadow of a wraith through the Castigation arcanoi. The books detail the history, leadership and special abilities of both guilds. Are they worth getting?
The Puppeteers book is pretty interesting - the basic theme is that the Puppeteers are essentially addicts to the experiences of living again, and can't bring themselves to give it up because the law of the Hierarchy prohbiits interaction with the living. Rather than being genial aids to beloved relatives, the Puppeteers actually cause a fair amount of damage to the people that they possess. Besides constantly interfering with the lives of mortals - sometimes just riding along (called "skinriding", memorably), sometimes controlling, and sometimes deliberately destroying a soul in order to permanently take over the body for a while. While you can do a lot of good with puppetry, it's easy to slip into moral compromises in order to get full enjoyment out of the puppteering experience, and that's a nice bit of moral ambiguity. The first part of the book details nothing but the activities of the Puppeteers, and they're doing quite a bit - including aiding the Risen.
A note about nothing in particular: There's a short quote in the beginning of the book from Ray Bradbury that is about as spooky as the entire World of Darkness line put together. It doesn't have a lot to do with the Puppeteers, but it does have a lot to do with the idea of there being something _else_ besides humans in the world. In other words: Damn, Bradbury's good.
The fiction and art are both pretty good. The beginning of the book is taken up with a metaplot about the Guild's reaction to a proposed expedition into the Labyrinth to try to find Charon, and it's interesting in a sense, but it's severely hampered by the fact that you have to buy _all_ of the Guildbooks in order to find out exactly what's going on. They stand on their own, but most of them follow the same pattern - significant figures in the Guilds meet in order to discuss what's going on in the search for Charon. It's kind of boring after you realize the direction that they're taking - they're going after Charon, this guild wants to, this guild doesn't, this guild knows where Charon is - but "Ends of Empire" is coming out soon, and that's going to answer the question about where Charon and why he's coming back.
The focus on the movers and shakers in the Guilds also removes detail about what the average wraith is doing in all of this. I think that the direction of the stories is interesting, but without all of the Guild books, you're not going to be able to make much of it. Not a great idea on the part of White Wolf.
On the other hand, the other fiction in the book is pretty good. There's some angst that seems a little overwrought in a piece about a Puppeteer initiate, but a second piece about a Puppeteer skinriding her favorite body is perfect in its mix of sympathy, addiction and simple callousness towards the puppet.
A section of the book that I _really_ didn't like is an extended piece of fiction/history about the Puppeteer guild's history, told from the hospital records of a man in an institution, being skinridden. It's fairly informative stuff, but the problem with it is that it's old information - and old, generic information, too. I knew about the breaking of the Guilds and the expulsion of the Fishers and the 2nd Great Maelstrom and so forth from Wraith 1st edition; to see it from the Puppeteer perspective is just dull. There's a lot of specific information on the guild itself, but it just describes how the Guild survived through the breaking. The interim bits of fiction, which deal with the man's terror at being skinridden and the doctor's morbid fascination, are decent, but they're so...unsettling that they detract from the rest of the piece.
There's a link between the Risen and the Puppeteers, material that really should have been included with in the Risen sourcebook - when I was writing that review, I was forced to leave out a lot of information about the Risen that I wish that I'd been able to mention. Essentially, the Risen are aided almost constantly by the Puppeteers in exchange for some rather tangible benefits that the Risen provide, including the creation of animal conduits and more information about how they rise. There's also an important thematic point about the Risen and their quests - that they tend to stack up innocent casualties - that REALLY should have been included in the Risen book. You don't really need this book to work with the Risen unless you want to turn an existing character into one of the Risen, but it'll be helpful. There's enough separation between the two that you won't need both, fortunately enough.
What else? New uses for the Pupptery arcanoi - for Guild wraiths only, which could be a good focus for an adventure - and something that I REALLY wish had been included in the Wraith's Player's Guide - wraithly flaws that are unique to the Puppeteers. There's the occasional dog, like "Silly Accent" - an excuse for a player to drive everybody insane with his "outrageous French accent" until somebody stabs him in the eyeball with a fork - but the rest are good, solid additions to the options available to Puppteer wraiths. The character examples in the back of the book are pretty sweet too, giving a good idea of the manipulative nature of Puppeteers, and the famous Puppeteers contain both another version of Raspution - I understand that there's at least two other groups in the WoD that claim him as a member - and a man who's remarkably like a ghostly version of Jim Henson. (It's a nice tribute of sorts.)
The Pardoners are much different in several respects. They're essentially crosses between spiritual counsellors and surgeons. Nobody dares to interfere with them simply because the Pardoners are invaluable in ensuring that their Shadows are suppressed - and the Pardoners know it. And they also know that they can't withhold their services from anybody without strengthening the cause of Oblivion. So they're basically stuck in a job that requires them to deal with the darkest part of every wraith, tainting themselves in the process.
So basically it's as bad a job as you're going to get in the afterlife.
Which is awfully confusing to me; when I first read through Wraith, I thought that Castigation was one of the best abilities that you could get. Yes, you have to inflict health levels of damage in order to do it; yes, it gives Angst to your Shadow. But you get to grab the malevolent little voice in the back of your skull - or somebody else's skull - and squeeze its testicles until it promises to stop causing trouble. It's unfortunate that Pardoners comes off as such a downer, because I feel that it could have been a lot more. For what it is, it's great, but it's not what I expected out of the book.
The book opens with a standard piece of fiction, which seems awfully conflict-free for an organization that deals with other people's Shadows - the only Castigation scene reminded me vaguely of sex, which isn't what I'd imagine Castigation to be like. It continues the plotline from Puppeteers, but deals specifically with Gorool - the monster that ate Charon - and the plan to go down into the Labyrinth after him. It's a sad piece - emotionally, not quality-wise.
The opening chapter follows the line of an introduction to a training camp for Pardoners - there's even exercises described for potential Pardoners, like imagining what it's like to cleanse a Shadow, be able to see into people's souls...it feels awfully goofy. I kept thinking of Stuart Smalley every time I read an exercise - it's well meaning, but it feels a little ridiculous to sit there visualizing something when you could be practicing Castigation instead. The tone is vaguely patronizing, and that tends to grate as well. The Shadows get their say in this book as well, in a series of boxes set off to one side. Most of it is the usual Shadow smart-assing - not really malevolent, but knowing just enough to think twice about what the Pardoners are saying.
Now, that's not necessarily a flaw; I get the feeling that these Pardoners are a lot like this in person; but the extended lecture gave me the impression that these people were more accustomed to being therapists than Castigators. Doomslayers has a section where an experienced Doomslayer tells you, point-blank, that fighting Spectres may require you to kill Spectral children pleading for their lives - not because they want to, or mean it, but because their Shadow has decided that's the best way to try to purchase its survival. They'll prey on your compassion or your sadism, whichever will work best. A Shadow isn't a Spectre - yet - but all of your friends have one, and that means that you have to inflict pain on them in order to heal them. A counsellor, however well-meaning, isn't going to be able to cope with that kind of situation.
Of course, maybe that's just me.
There's a six-page history of the Pardoner's guild in the next chapter - and the flaw, again, is that it covers ground that's already been cdoverd in Puppeteers and in the Wrraith rulesbook. Since the Pardoners guild is the least disposable, and most tolerable to the Stygian Hierarchy, it survives through almost everything without real incident. There's much made of the relationship between Charon and his Pardoner, Sister Rapture, which leads to one of the major revelations of the Pardoners handbook - the link between Gorool and Charon's Shadow is the book's major spoiler. But you could remove all of the redundant information and summarize the important stuff on a single page. The other problem with this is that it's written in a stylized handwriting font that steadily grates on the eyes after you read it long enough. Puppteers pulled the same trick, but it had the good sense to use the Courier font. (It looks exactly like a typewriter, if you don't have it.) Using a font with lots of flourishes for a large body of text is a sure path to giving your readers a headache.
There's details of the Pardoners organization,, the link between the Pardoners and the memory-altering Mmnemoi, philosophical division within the Pardoners ranks, friends and enemies within the Guild...good stuff, a litlte dry, but it gets the job done. And then the Shadow gets its own chapter to rebut what the Pardoners have been saying. It ultimately sounds like a smartass kid trying to challenge his betters; maybe that's what Shadows are, but it doesn't seem that menacing. The revelations that it reveals about the Pardoners are likely untrue, given what we've read, and the back-and-forth between the Shadow and its owner seem like a low-grade flame war. It's argumentative, but not vicious enough to seem like the fundemental war between different parts of the personality that it is.
The book concludes with new uses for the Castigation arcanoi, and various relics that Pardoners can use - they're pretty decent., and the addition of a Ghostbusters-esque storage device for Angst makes things even better - there's lots of potential for stories there, as long as its handled carefully. There's only a few flaws and merits for Pardoners, which is somewhat unfortunate, but it leads you into what I felt was the gold of the book - the character archetypes. Usually they're fairly standard, and somewhat boring, but these were all fantastic. The Sin-Eater archetype is almost the prototype for the whole Castigation art, and the art for that archetype is great as well. Other archetypes - with the exception of the evangelist - give a much more realistic feel to the Pardoners guild than the rest of the book.
One thing that I have to mention before closing: The art in this book ranges from the odd - there's some SCAR-like art in Puppeteers - to the beautiful, like the soft pencil drawings in Puppeteers. Pardoners takes a hit in the art department - it looks good, but it's not as detailed and evocative as certain scenes in Puppeteers. (I wish that White Wolf artists would put their names on their work; it's too much work to figure out who's who in the credits, and I would be interested in giving credit where credit is due.)
So: Is it worth buying? On second look...there's some very interesting material in this book, and the production values are fairly high. I think that my panning of Pardoners is more because they seem too touchy-feely for my tastes., rather than because the book itself is bad. If you're interested in developing a character as a Puppeteer or Pardoner, I would recommend this book; but buy Doomslayers first, and then move from there. It's a good, stable product, but it doesn't stand out enough to make me recommend it without first hesitating.