Hunter: the Reckoning

WW 8100 $29.95 Nov-99
Written by Bruce Baugh, E. Jonathan Bennet, Carl Bowen, Ken Cliffe, Greg Fountain, Geoffry Grabowski, Jess Heinig, Ed Hall, Robert Scott Martin, Angel McCoy, Jim Moore, Wayne Peacock, Greg Stolze, Richard Stratton and Stewart Weick

Review by Kevin Mowery for rpg.net (17 Oct 1999)

Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 1 (I Wasted My Money)

(A note: Although neither I nor any of my gaming group are listed, we were playtesters for Hunter. I was surprised when I got my free copy. We hadn't heard for the longest time anything about our playtesting, not even a "thanks for your comments" then all of a sudden the guy who ran the playtest game showed up to Saturday's session with a box full of copies of Hunter.)

Introduction

I remember in The Hunters Hunted the image of the vampire hunter was that of a loner, stalking the streets at night, sucking down black coffee and chain smoking to calm their nerves. The hunter faced death every night at the hands of bloodsucking fiends; it was unlikely they'd live long enough to develop lung cancer. In short, vampire hunters were cool.

White Wolf followed with Demon Hunter X, about monster hunters in Asia. These weren't the sociopathic loners of Hunters Hunted, they were wandering kung fu masters and high-tech commando teams. Hunters Hunted was the monster hunter as envisioned in dozens of movies and books in the West, Demon Hunter X was the monster hunter from anime or Hong Kong action movies.

Now White Wolf has released Hunter: the Reckoning. This is not a second edition Hunters Hunted. Contrary to the advertising campaign, this game is not about average joes fighting the forces of darkness. These joes aren't any more average than any vampire or werewolf: they may have been just plain folks at one time, but now they're Imbued--granted strange powers by unknown benefactors. They're average joes like Buffy Summers is average.

Not that that's a bad thing. I'm a big fan of Buffy. The chance to kick the ass of, as the game says, "the walking-dead poseur and the bleeding-heart, tree-hugging shambling rug" really excites me. (Not that I haven't had a lot of fun in both games, and most of the other World of Darkness games as well.) So what the hell went wrong? Why aren't I frothing over this like I frothed over just about every other game White Wolf has published?

The Book

As always, the book itself is gorgeous. It's thick and apparently well-bound, with the cover showing shotgun shells falling through flames. The pages are slick and the artwork is almost entirely beautiful. The pictures by Richard Kane Ferguson and Ron Spencer are especially eye-catching.

There's the standard table of contents, and an index which could be more comprehensive than it is. In a book almost 300 pages long, there's more information than the sparse two-page index would indicate. The chapter numbers and headings are along the top of the pages, so it's easy to locate about where information should be, though.

The Setting

Here's where things started to fall apart for me. In an e-mail discussion with someone who worked on the book (who shall remain nameless unless they want to speak up), I was told that the original tone of Hunter was going to be much lower-key. Imagine the cops of Law & Order or the early seasons of Homicide: Life on the Streets going up against the walking dead. Grim and gritty vampire hunting like dad used to do.

Things changed, though, and we don't have ordinary folks fighting the creatures of the night. Instead, we have mysterious otherworldly forces granting different Edges to hunters, based on virtues and paths. Instead of hunters driven to kill the monsters, we have hunters who want to kill them, hunters who want to understand them, hunters who want to bring them back into the light, and others. In fact, there are 7 "creeds" of hunter. These aren't solitary stalkers of the night; they're organized! They've even got a webpage--it opens the book.

Admittedly, there's plenty of room to play in a game with a secret society of supernaturally-powered monster hunters. It's not the game I'd have created, but perhaps that's a good thing. I wouldn't pay for a game that was just like what I would have done on my own.

What irks me about the setting is that the hunters are given supernatural powers by mysterious beings. The hunters even call themselves the Imbued. What's supposed to be a game about average folks taking back the night isn't. It's one group of supernatural creatures fighting other groups of supernatural creatures. There are shadowy creatures granting powers to the hunters, and what do you want to bet they turn out to be villains, too?

The Rules

Okay, the setting gets a solid "eh" from me. At least the rules are as good as we can expect from the Storyteller system, right? Well, no.

The mechanics borrow some from the recent updates to the Storyteller system in Vampire Revised and Trinity and Aberrant. But not entirely. For the uninitiated, tasks are accomplished by rolling a number of d10s equal to stat+skill against a difficulty number to generate a number of successes. In a huge step backward, rolling a 1 subtracts a success. This was the source of one of the earliest complaint I ever heard about the system, that being more competent increases your chance to botch! There's an easy fix, of course (don't subtract successes), but at this point it shouldn't have to be made.

Damage is divided into bashing and lethal. Lethal damage can't be soaked. You get shot, you're going to hurt. Sounds good to me. Anything to make the game grittier.

The part of the system that really aggravates me is the Edges. Even if the rest of the system grows on me over time, these Edges won't. Let me quote something to you from the book: "Although a level-two edge is often more powerful than a level one in the same path, it isn't always." You read that right. You can spend experience points to go up a level in your powers and get a new power that, well, sucks. Take the Vengeance path: at the first level of power you get the ability to imbue a melee weapon with the power to damage supernatural creatures in a big way, or even to manifest a lethal blade of supernatural energy if you don't have a melee weapon! If you go up a level, you gain the ability to make monsters leave a trail you can follow. Eh. Another level and you can create a fog that obscures vision and sound. Double eh. At fourth level, you can boost your physical attributes, and at fifth you can make a cleansing holy flame erupt from your body and obliterate your enemies. Is the ability to boost your stats so powerful that it needs to be a level four power, especially when there's a lesser version of it available at level one to another path? (This was something we mentioned in our playtest comments, by the way. We thought it was a bug that second level powers tended to be lame. Instead, it's touted as a feature! Hunters get powers in the order they need them, say the designers. A violent, Vengeance-oriented hunter is more likely to need a butt-kicking power at first level, then need other powers later. Perhaps, but I'd be hard pressed to justify spending experience to get those second and third level powers. They just aren't that good. Not that I have to worry about spending experience points on them . . . just see below.)

This highlights another problem with the Edge system: there's little logic to what groups get what powers. Three out of seven paths give you the power to spot monsters; the Visionary path is not one of them. The Visionary path gives you the power to regenerate your own or others' limbs, though. The Vengeance path I mentioned above has two powers that have nothing to do with killing monsters. I get the feeling that there are powers that the designers really wanted to put into the game and couldn't find a place for them, so they just stuck them in anywhere they could. Wouldn't all the powers related to spotting and exposing monsters fit better into one path than across all seven? Wouldn't one path of healing powers work better than multiple paths each having a single healing power?

There's still another problem with that Edge system. Remember that cool immolating power that comes at level five on the Vengeance path? You can't have it. Ever. You can buy Edges from the Vengeance path (or other Zeal paths) with your Zeal virtue. You need to have one point to get the first level Vengeance power, and two more points to get the level two power. Once you've used those points to get one power, you can't ever use them for any other power. If you devote a Virtue to only one path, you can only get a level 4 power (1+2+3+4=10). Again, this is touted as a feature! There's even a sidebar devoted to what a neat idea it is that you can't ever get level 5 powers by the rules. Which means all that space spent explaining 7 level 5 powers is completely wasted. Heck, given the rules for character creation, practically all space for Edges is wasted. You get three points to put into your three Virtues. You can put no points into two and three points into one. This is the only way you'll get a level two power to start, since you can't raise Virtues with Freebie points. To get a level three Edge, you need to get a 6 in that Virtue. There aren't rules for increasing Virtues or gaining new Edges. Okay, to be honest, there are rules for it. The rules amount to: you can't do it with experience points, you have to earn it through the mystical experience of the hunt. That's it. There's a reason experience points are awarded: so that the character can increase in power according to the player's wishes. I can take my handful of experience points and increase my skills or attributes or even my character's willpower. But I have to rely on the gamemaster to tell me when I get new powers and what they are? I don't think so.

Summing Up

Hunter was a game I was really looking forward to. I desperately wanted this to be a great game. I was a little disillusioned after the playtest, but there was still the chance for things to be changed around and fixed. Little things got fixed, but the big things didn't. The game still doesn't allow you to play average folks fighting monsters, like the ad copy claims. Even as a game for playing hunters with strange, otherworldly powers for fighting monsters, the game falls on its face. Power paths are illogical, and the rules surrounding character advancement are ludicrous.

There's still potential for a great game in here, but it would take so much work to fix the problems that I can't recommend it. If you want to play low-powered monster hunters in the World of Darkness, go find a copy of The Hunters Hunted or Project: Twilight. If you want to play high-powered hunters in the World of Darkness, get a copy of Demon Hunter X or convert the Storyteller system to another game. I'd recommend Feng Shui. Hunter: the Reckoning is a mess. White Wolf can do better than this. Looking at the credits for designers and authors, I see a lot of overlap. I have talked with several of the people who are listed only as authors, not as designers, and bought other things they have written and I know they can do better than this.

For whatever reason, the designers created a piece of junk and ignored the playtest complaints that I know they got, since I was one of the people complaining. At least one of the authors is unhappy with the game. In short, if I hadn't gotten a free copy, you wouldn't be reading this review because I'd never pay money for this game.


Review by Derek Guder for rpg.net (16 Nov 1999)

Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 2 (Sparse)

There's been a lot of press about Hunter: the Reckoning lately, some good and some bad. The game appears to either instill love or hate in those who read and play it. Many of the authors and reviewers have said that it is one of White Wolf's best games, while others have taken the completely opposite stance. A close friend of mine, after reading my copy, said that it "sucked so hard I feel like I've been raped." Despite all of that, I tried to give Hunter: the Reckoning a clean try, I really did. I read it through and looked for what was good, and I found some of it. Unfortunately, like Masters of the Art, there was too much terrible material to keep its head above water, and Hunter: the Reckoning only manages to flounder a bit before it drowns.

The book opens up with a sample from the hunter-net web page, a in-game resource (and out of game site, see http://hunter-net.org/home/home.html) for the newly "imbued," the name those gifted with the power to see and combat the supernatural beings of the World of Darkness. After that is the standard introductory statements that preface all White Wolf books (and especially their base books). There is also a specific notice that Hunter: the Reckoning is most definitely not about pulling out that M-16 and blasting away at those damned monsters - despite that fact that 99% of the illustrations depict just such a situation. Odd choice of artwork if they were trying to set a certain mood.

Chapter 1: The Here and Now (The Hunter Condition) : This is definitely, easily, and most certainly the best part of the entire book. It really is good fiction, and seems to manage to grab a hold of that sense of mystery and fleeting sanity that the rest of the book completely loses hold of - once again resembling Masters of the Art. A lengthy extension of the excerpt previously available on the webpage, the story also has numerous side-bars and tangents that only serve to add to the tale, enhancing the paranoia and sense of insanity and surreality. Very nicely done.

Chapter 2: A World of Darkness (Setting) : This was also nicely done, set up as an introductory file available on the hunter-net website for newbie hunters. Unlike most of the setting chapters in other World of Darkness books, it does a nice job of capturing the darker nature of the setting, further enhancing the paranoia. The feeling of "They're all out to get you" is one of Hunter: the Reckoning's greatest strengths, but it also seems to fade away until re-appearing in the Storytelling chapter.

Chapter 3: The Hunter's Creeds (Character Types) : This is where the book makes like a lemming with a nuclear device, blowing itself and everything it had accomplished so far to hell. The creeds are like character classes from way back when, needless mechanical contrivances that accomplish nothing except furthering their two-dimensional stereotype. Again, to quote my friend, "it's like they tried to make a game without splats like Wraith, but then they realized how shitty Wraith sold, so they came up with some." I really can't fault him. In Hunter: the Reckoning, you are either a Defender, Innocent, Judge, Martyr, Redeemer, Avenger or Visionary. That's it. Now those creeds are actuallyorganizations, they just determine what powers you get access to. That and limit the setting, hamstringing an otherwise interesting idea.

Chapter 4: I Have Heard the Message (Creation and Traits) : This is where the game gets into the nitty-gritty of characters, and beyond the ludicrous creeds, I cannot say that the rules are that bad. Beyond being the standard fare for mortal creation in the World of Darkness, there are the new traits of Conviction and a new trio of Virtues; Mercy, Zeal and Vision. All are rated from 1 to 10, but are used in different ways. Conviction is the "spiritual juice" of hunters, and the rules have some interesting little uses, like risking Conviction to gain dice on rolls against supernaturals or risking Conviction to get more Conviction. I think that they are nicely done and well thought out.

The Virtues, on the other hand, are not so well done. You use your Virtues to roll for most Edges and to buy them. It is actually a pretty interesting idea. The problem arises when it becomes clear that to gain a level 4 Edge, a hunter must take 4 derangements because one of their Virtues has gotten so high. Furthermore, getting level 5 Edges is completely up to the Storyteller, with few guidelines given for their use. While I like the idea that excessively high Virtues can cause mental imbalance (not unlike psionic dysfunction from Trinity), I'm not so sure that they should warp hunters this much. Four derangements are more than excessive in my opinion.

There are some interesting "mundane" traits as well, like the Addict personality archetype as well as some new Backgrounds. Hunters can take backgrounds like Arsenal, Bystanders, Destiny, Exposure and Patron. Arsenal is self-explanatory, providing access to weapons, and seems just as out of place as the art, considering the statement about "It's not about Rambo!" in the Introduction. Bystanders is something like "hunter kinfolk" but substantially less useful. They seem to be little more than bullet sponges. The Destiny background works differently for hunters than mages, allowing them to redo one roll per game session for every dot they have in it. I like this variant a great deal better, actually, since it allows for the option of the character being unaware of their Destiny, which I like. Exposure is simply a trait tracking how much you have dealt with monsters in the past, it can help you with anecdotal information and tidbits of knowledge that may save the day. Patron is perhaps the most interesting Background, signifying that the Messengers of Heralds (those who give the Imbued their powers) haven't stopped talking to the hunter. In fact, depending on how high the Background goes, this can actually become a nuisance or health hazard (it's not wise to be swimming alone when God strikes up a chat with you).

Chapter 5: The Hunter's Edge (Powers) : Second only to chapter 3 in poor execution and planning, at least some of the Edges have kernels of interesting ideas and concepts. Almost all of the sensory powers are great, allowing the hunter to "see things as they really are" (supposedly). One the other hand, some of the powers are odd, poorly placed or just plain strange, like breathing out some kind of supernatural-killing smoke. I just don't get some of the powers, while others really excite me.

Another problem that the Edges have is that they are organized along paths that relate directly to the accursed creeds from before. Furthermore, they often seem haphazardly thrown together, some powers seeming to be very out of character for their path. Highly aggressive powers on the Innocence or Defense paths make little sense to me. In fact, I think that the basic idea of paths is something that should have been avoided at all costs. I think that something most along the lines of Gifts or the piecemeal powers that WitchCraft uses for monster generation in the Mystery Codex would actually have been better. As it stands, hunters end up getting much to supernatural for my tastes. I think that they would have been much better served without fireballs and flaming swords and the ability to call upon the Wrath of God.

Chapter 6: Laws of the Hunt (Rules) : Herein are the standard Storyteller rules, with a few modifications, like the dropping of aggravated damage. Most things seem alright and end up as old hat for those familiar with the game, but I think that some of the rules could have been explained better (like the rules for multiple actions).

Chapter 7: Tools of the Hunt (Systems) : I will never cease to wonder why White Wolf hasn't adopted the nice, concise format they had for systems and rules in Mage: the Sorcerer's Crusade for all of their games, but they manage to fill up pages with rules and sample rolls. The rules are, like the previous chapter, the standard Storyteller fare, except for some glaring exceptions, like how a bite in Hunter: the Reckoning does more damage than a bite in Vampire: the Masquerade.

The few pages on insanity should have been expanded (cannibalize the sections on creeds if need be, they were useless), considering just how central the theme of dissolving sanity is to the game. While it is one of the longest and best sections in a basebook yet, it is still much too little.

This is the standard Storyteller chapter on storytelling (go figure). It has all of the usual tips and hints, and is much better than usual because of the plethora of examples. When the book talks about tone, several examples of different tones are given, as well as several examples on how to evoke each tone individually. It makes for a much more useful reference than most White Wolf books.

There is also information on how to run games with the Imbued, but I don't think there is nearly enough. My dissatisfaction from the creeds and edges is not put aside here, where it could have been, so Hunter: the Reckoning ultimately fails in its attempts.

The truth (or at least some of the truth) about the Heralds is also revealed in this chapter, surprisingly enough. Apparently the Hunters Storytellers Screen has further information, but it is completely out of character for a World of Darkness book to host such blunt revelations. I think that White Wolf has learned well from its experience with Trinity. The truth, in any event, is that the Heralds are some sort of celestial beings that are gifting hunters with their abilities in an attempt to curb the monsters across the world. Something like emergency conscripted shih (see Demon Hunter X). Amusingly enough, the comparison is closer than most would think, judging from what I hear about future releases and the back of the Hunter: the Reckoning book itself.

Chapter 9: The Enemy (Antagonists) : Another one of the better chapters, this is also written entirely in character as a primer file for hunter-net. Its quality arises not from revelations or new information, but in the fact that this is among the best representation of how one group in the World of Darkness is invariably so uninformed about another group. Hunters know next to nothing, and it shows, and it makes for an exciting game. The section is also peppered with superb little anecdotal bits of fiction, which serve to further the feeling of ignorance and desperation.

One strange note, however, is the fact that apparently the World of Darkness has recently become infested with zombies. Maybe it's just me and the fact that I've been playtesting All Flesh Must Be Eaten for Eden Studios, but it seems that the shambling dead are popping up just about everywhere these days. I am sure that these zombies are somehow tied to the massive number of wraiths there were supposed to have been tossed into the Skinlands during the Sixth Great Maelstrom, but I cannot say that I am fully comfortable with the idea. I didn't quite like it in Ends of Empire, and I don't like it here, although it does work a bit better.

Appendices : This is where the book wraps up, with a discussion of the "Word," (the hunter's code), getting gear and hunter organizations. The idea of "the Word" bugs me, such "racial tongues" have been around in Werewolf: the Apocalypse for quite a while, and they bug me there as well (with the exception of the Mokole, whose Mnesis would explain it). Giving the hunters their own secret club language just puts them further into the realm of the supernatural, something which is bad in my opinion.

The section on how to get gear is okay, and is nice in that it brings home the mundane side of the hunters, which is something that should be strongly encouraged. The hunter organizations are okay. Some of them are good, some just okay, but all of them are better than the creeds. Just another example of how space that was wasted on useless splats could have been put to good use expanding information on the setting and making the game really good.

The final piece in the book is a document and an email that looks at the true nature of the Messengers. The document seems to allude to some great event in the past about "demons" and "fallen angels." Those who want more information and source material to form theories from should look at Kindred of the East, if my guesses (and some pretty blatant statements by White Wolf staff) are correct.

So, finally, I sit here with this book in my hand and I think That damn, I just wasted 30 bucks. Hunter: the Reckoning has a glimmer of a great game. I like the themes of dissolving sanity, paranoia, and a peeling back of the veil over reality (which makes me think I should just go play Delta Green) but the hunters themselves are no where near the "ordinary people" they are supposed to be. Even with the lowest power edges, some imbued can wield flaming swords. That is just way over the bend for me and what the game could have been. I think I would have much preferred a Hunters Hunted Second Edition. I think that such games would have great potential and could easily be the game that Hunter: the Reckoning should have been with the addition of a few supernatural merits and flaws. Much better actually, I would think.

Hunter: the Reckoning is a big disappointment. The book is a disappointment, with most of the artwork being below White Wolf standards (I just can't get into Joe Corroney and I hate Brian Leblanc, but Tommy Lee Edwards and Steve Prescott did the only good work in the book). The game itself was good in inception but poor in execution. More than even Changeling: the Dreaming, Hunter: the Reckoning doesn't manage to deliver on even its most basic goals.