Hunter: The Vigil
In my previous article here at Gamegrene, I talked about my experiences with Hunter: The Reckoning, particularly in light of the fact that my unconditional love for H:tR was not shared by the vast majority of gamers. Though the publication of material for Reckoning ceased a number of years ago along with the rest of the old World of Darkness, I (and other Hunter fans) are fortunate in that the Hunter concept was chosen to be revised and republished.
Title: Hunter: The Vigil
Author: Developed by Chuck Wendig and written by a cast of dozens
Publisher: White Wolf
MSRP: $34.99 US
I was more than a little nervous.
For the months leading up to publication, I was more than a little nervous. Would the new Hunter provide a daring and intriguing re-imagining of old concepts and win an army of new fans in the process, as Changeling: The Lost had done before it, or would it go too far or not far enough in making changes? So I am even more fortunate in that the recently published Hunter: The Vigil corebook is a fantastic game that will appeal to both fans of the original game and those who never gave it a second thought.
It only takes a single glance at the cover of Hunter: The Vigil to see the differences between it and its predecessor. While Hunter: The Reckoning's cover was a lurid shade of orange and bedecked with flames and shotgun shells, Vigil goes for a more subdued green and black cover scheme and an indistinct collage of figures, skulls, and scribblings (including a prominently featured headshot of someone who bears more than a passing resemblance to The Matrix's Trinity). The interior art follows a similar strategy and is a refreshing change from the godawful musclebound superheroes who adorned the pages of nearly every Reckoning book (and who were, in my opinion, largely responsible for Reckoning's general lack of popularity, but I digress). It's also enormous, weighing in at about 360 pages - no complaints about getting your money's worth here.
Another major difference from Reckoning can be seen in Flesh Trade, the opening fiction by Mike Lee. It's a sort of detective story that actually continues in serial format throughout the book, with the "chapters" interspersed between sections of game content. I can't remember seeing White Wolf make use of cliffhangers and serialization to this extent before, and I have to say that it's a fantastic idea. Though "Flesh Trade" isn't the best game fiction I've read, it gets the main themes of Vigil across in a much more succint way than the excessive amounts of fluff for which Reckoning was infamous, and splitting it up between chapters did a lot to heighten my interest in the story.
The Introduction is pretty basic stuff, talking about the theme and mood of the game (which is compatible with the rest of the new WoD) stuff and listing an eclectic bunch of influences. More power to whoever saw to the inclusion of the film Frailty and TV show Supernatural on the list of inspirations, since both have been my benchmarks for good Hunter stories for as long as I can remember.
It's a nice shift in perspective...
Chapter One: Shadows Cast by Firelight is the obligatory setting and concept chapter. It gives a brief overview of the hunt throughout history, talks about hunter society and community (which can range from a few guys banding together to deal with the vampire on their block to a globe-spanning conspiracy of hundreds), and goes into a little detail about the sorts of monstrous antagonists that hunters often face. Here we see the first major difference between Reckoning and Vigil. Reckoning hunters were literally Chosen Ones - selected by the inscrutable forces of the Messengers and given bizarre powers and a vague mission to seek out and deal with monsters. They didn't choose to fight monsters; something chose them. Vigil hunters, on the other hand, are invariably people who see something wrong with their world and decide to do something about it. It's a nice shift in perspective from "reluctant heroes" to "everyday heroes," and may make the Hunter concept more understandable to and fun for a larger audience. Another fun new development lurks within the section on antagonists, where amidst the expected discussions of vampires, werewolves, and zombies is a brief section on "slashers" - serial killers, some of them former hunters, who gain supernatural powers á la Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. This is, in a word, badass. I never would have guessed that what was actually missing from my Hunter game was the opportunity to let my players participate in A Nightmare on Elm Street, but there you have it.
Chapter Two: Character Creation is exactly what it sounds like: details on how to apply a hunter template to the rules already given in the World of Darkness corebook. It's pretty much the same solid, straightforward chargen process you'd find in any other new WoD game, with the addition of a few new hunter-specific Merits (such as status within a compact or conspiracy, which I'll get to later) and one brilliant new mechanic in the form of Profession. Basically, Profession describes not just your character's job, but his calling in life, whether that be Artist, Criminal, Doctor, Hit Man, Religious Leader, or a host of other possibilities. A character's Profession gives her a boost in skills related to that calling, as well as the opportunity to get even better at it through the Professional Training Merit. This humanizes characters and causes players to think about what's important to their character on a slightly more profound level, as well as giving the character a slight but very needed edge over the adversaries they will someday face.
Chapter Three: Hunter Organizations is where the game once again clearly sets itself apart from its predecessor and truly begins to shine. For a long time I've contended that the new World of Darkness has lovingly borrowed many of the best aspects of Unknown Armies and applied them to its new system, and nowhere is this more obvious than Hunter: The Vigil. Vigil does the same as UA in splitting up its cosmology into three power levels, here called tiers. At tier one, or "cell" level, hunters aren't a part of any organization larger than the group of PCs. At tier two, hunters choose a compact, which is a group comprised of many cells and with something resembling resources and organization. Tier three is the highest power level, at which hunters participate in global conspiracies with supernatural-style abilities that can be downright scary; these abilities include possessing magic weapons or hyper-advanced technology, brewing up drugs and potions that temporarily impart supernatural abilities, or even being able to channel demonic powers. Your group chooses which tier they want to play at, with the possibility to move up or down the power scale as you see fit in the course of the campaign.
The tier system is one of Hunter: The Vigil's greatest triumphs, and probably the aspect of the game that is most likely to win over those who despised Hunter: The Reckoning. Whereas Reckoning alienated some gamers by forcing them into what could be perceived as the role of yet another supernatural critter, Vigil takes a page from the rest of the nWoD games in affording its STs and players almost infinite flexibility. Any and all cool powers are totally optional; even if you join a conspiracy you're not required to take them. So what it comes down to is this: Want to play a down-and-dirty, gritty, desperate struggle between small-time humans and much more powerful dark forces? Vigil can do that. Want to play a tormented soul with weird powers who wonders whether he's any better than the monsters he fights? Vigil can do that. Still miss the Technocracy from Mage: The Ascension and want to play as a member of a similar group? Vigil can do that. Want to play X-Files: The Roleplaying Game as government agents investigating and perhaps trying to disprove weird phenomena? Vigil can do that. Want to play four-color pulp heroes swinging magic swords and calling down divine retribution on their foes? You guessed it, Vigil can do that too. And I couldn't be happier about it.
The compacts and conspiracies themselves are a mixed bag...
The compacts and conspiracies themselves are a mixed bag, with mostly positive results. From the first pages of the section which introduce the thrill-seeking sybarites and degenerates of Ashwood Abbey, who hunt monsters not because they want to save the world but because nothing else could be quite so exciting or risqué, it's clear that these organizations are not just version 2.0 of Reckoning's creeds. I'm sure that all of you will have your particular favorites, but apart from Ashwood Abbey some groups that stood out for me were the Loyalists of Thule (can you ever go wrong with Nazi mysticism?), Network Zero (check out this werewolf video, I'm totally putting it on YouTube!), the Union (blue-collar hunters who support each other through an Internet forum, and probably the closest analogue to Reckoning-style hunters in the game), the Lucifuge (children of demonic heritage who fight monsters in order to dominate their own diabolical natures - it feels like a throwback to White Wolf games circa 1994 in all of the best possible ways), and the Cheiron Group (a massive corporation that gives its operatives an edge by literally grafting bits of monsters onto them).
Unfortunately, I do have one major problem with Hunter: The Vigil's compacts and conspiracies in comparison with how groups were handled in Hunter: The Reckoning. Although Reckoning's nine creeds (of which only seven were generally playable by PCs) and the powers that came along with them got to be extremely limiting after a while, one of the great things about their existence was that four out of the seven basic creeds were by nature focused on dealing with monsters through dialogue, investigation, redemption, or strategies other than violence. The ability to play a Mercy or Vision creed and to have your character's hunt defined as something other than "kill them all and let the Messengers sort them out" was something I deeply appreciated about Reckoning, since the potential for nonviolent solutions as well as for conflict between PC philosophies deepened the game beyond the simple shoot-'em-up I had originally feared it would be. In Vigil, the Vision virtue is upheld by a number of the compacts (Null Mysteriis, Network Zero, and the Loyalists of Thule in particular) that keep the vigil primarily to research and investigate monsters, but I'm extremely disappointed that the only compact or conspiracy to make even a cursory mention of its members attempting to redeem or deal Mercifully with monsters are the fundamentalist Christian hunters of the Long Night compact. Of course, this is not to say that you can't choose to create a hunter who approaches the hunt from a Mercy-based perspective regardless of their group, but the writers of the game certainly did not go out of their way to make Mercy an evident and viable choice for PCs, as they did in Reckoning. It's not a deal-breaker for me, but I fervently hope that the design team will choose to address this oversight in future supplements.
Chapter Four: Special Rules and Systems contains a list of useful weapons and equipment for hunters, as well as another particularly exciting crunchy bit in the form of the Practical Experience and Tactics section. In addition to the standard XP that every character is given, Hunter cells earn Practical Experience which they can use to purchase Tactics - basically, team combat maneuvers that can make monsters' lives or unlives miserable in a wide variety of ways. The great thing about Tactics is how they encourage cooperation among groups; all of them require more than one person to make them work, and most benefit from a wide variety of skills. This drives home one of Vigil's major themes: that nobody can make it alone on a hunter's mission, and that cooperation will take you a long way.
Chapter Five: Storytelling contains recommendations for STs about how to run a successful chronicle of Hunter: The Vigil, including ideas for plot hooks and further discussion of the game's theme and mood. It's more than adequate for these purposes, and contains some intriguing suggestions for monsters and antagonists.
The systems proposed are definitely solid...
With all these basics out of the way, the book can finally move on to Appendix One: Morality and the Vigil, which discusses some of the difficulties of running a Vigil game under the World of Darkness Morality system. Unlike supernatural creatures in other nWoD games, hunters don't receive any modifications to the basic human Morality scale, which can make for a rapid slide into degeneration if you play it as written. The Appendix suggests a variety of solutions for how to approach this problem (if you consider it such), including the addition of Trigger Points which can modify a hunter's moral code as the hunt goes on, at the expense of gaining Tells (derangements that relate to the hunt) as the character's morality progressively shifts away from what would be considered a normal human's. The systems proposed are definitely solid, but what I appreciated even more is the fact that the writers saw the moral costs of the hunt as important enough to discuss so extensively in the corebook.
Finally, Appendix Two: Philadelphia: Monster Hunting in the City of Brotherly Love details a potential and iconic setting for a Hunter game. I won't get much use out of it personally (my own Vigil game will be set in Europe), but it seems to be a solid and interesting setting for those who are looking for such ideas.
Ultimately, Hunter: The Vigil represents a substantial improvement over Hunter: The Reckoning (which was already a great game in my opinion!). White Wolf has kept many of the themes and ideas that made the first Hunter game unique and fascinating, while also responding directly to many of the criticisms leveled against it and creating a better game because of that. It should appeal both to fans of the first game as well as those who weren't too fond of it. Here's hoping that Hunter: The Vigil meets with the same success as Changeling: The Lost, and for all the same reasons.