Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/05/09/tabletop-review-mummy-the-curse-cursed-necropolis-d-c-world-of-darkness/
Back in January of 2013, 1,767 people backed a crowdfunding effort for the (then) newest setting for the New World of Darkness line: Mummy: The Curse. While the Core Rulebook received a rave review from me and it eventually won our “Best Core Rulebook” award in the 2014 Tabletop Gaming Awards but the system has been pretty silent since then. Sure we’ve gotten a Storyteller’s Screen, some pregenerated characters and the Guildhalls of the Deathless sourcebook (which was a fine follow up) but the setting has been quiet as a tomb since October, 2013. Still, our third release for the system is finally here.
Where the core rulebook gave us the mechanics and setting and Guildhalls of the Deathless gave us fleshed out information about the various factions that make up the game, Cursed Necropolis: D.C. is something different. It’s more in-line with the old XYX by Night books for Vampire: The Masquerade as it is a sourcebook slash campaign setting for a city, its history and its inhabitants. This makes sense when you consider that one of the people involved wrote D.C. By Night for V:TM and at least three of the people involved are “local to the area” (which honestly could meaning as far away as Baltimore or Fredricksburg depending on one’s outlook). Of course they’d focus on a location near and dear to them and which is rife with Egyptian imagery. Of course, as a resident of the District myself (walking distance of the Pentagon for my home, but with offices in Gallery Place and Brookland) I was torn. I was happy to see D.C. getting its own sourcebook, and for my favorite NWoD line to boot, but also worried because D.C. By Night was not very good compared to other By Night books and was/is especially picked apart or outright ignored by locals who are familiar with V:TM. So Cursed: Necropolis: D.C. had me wondering what the overall quality of the release would be right up until I finished the very last page. Unfortunately I do find Cursed Necropolis: D.C. to be a notable step down in quality from the previous Mummy: The Curse releases, which sounds worse than it really is as Mummy: The Curse‘s core rulebook was so out there that anything that came after would pale by comparison. There are several big reasons for this which we will look at later in the review, but I can’t deny that there was a lot of missed opportunity and lost potential in this piece. This does not mean the book is bad by any means. There is a lot of good, even great, stuff to be had here. It’s just while still a fun read and worth picking up for a Mummy completionist, I can’t help thinking about what this book could have been compared to what the end result actually was. This is pretty ironic if you’ve read the book as it means the product mirrors the core theme running through D.C. itself within it.
Cursed Necropolis: D.C. consists of five chapters and two prologues. The first prologue is a compelling short story called “From Tears, Dust” which makes a lot more sense after you read the full book. It sets up the overall mood and theme of Cursed Necropolis: D.C. nicely and I couldn’t think of a better way for the book to begin. Next up is “Kingmaker and Kings,” which is an intro to the book complete with the usual fleshed out chapter summaries you tend to find in a WoD style book. There’s also a sidebar about liberties taken since this is a work of fiction and not an actual travelogue. Said liberties include the murder rate but not say, Nation still being here. “Kingmakers and Kings” gives you a great look at what you’ll be getting from Cursed Necropolis: D.C. and just from reading those few pages you should know if this is a book you want to purchase or not.
Chapter One is “Moment To Fate” and it is here where you get the WoD take on Washington D.C. In a nut-shell, D.C. appears to be the vision of a single Arisen, Seb-Hetchet of the Tef-Aabhi, who sought to remake Lost Irem and learn from its mistakes so the new version of the empire would never fall. Washington D.C. would be the site of that location. “Moment to Fate” talks about the inherent problem mummies have with mortals and that for all their godlike powers, Arisen’s grand schemes and almost plans are damaged, if not outright destroyed, by the machinations and folly of man while they sleep. This chapter talks about the history of D.C. from the point of view of the Arisen and just how important the geometry, key locations and monuments are to both the city and the Arisen as a whole. It also covers key moments in history from the American Revolution straight through to today. The War of 1812, the Civil War, 9/11 and even the D.C. sniper get touched on. Honestly, this chapter is brilliant. I couldn’t have asked for anything better here and it alone is worth purchasing Cursed Necropolis for once it is made available to the general public. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there.
Chapter Two is “A City of Pillars” and it’s a guide to D.C. in general for people to learn the city, its flow and key locations for gaming. Unfortunately, even though the people in charge of this say they are local to the area, there are a lot of big mistakes, glaring omissions and strange commentary that makes this chapter read like it was written by people somewhat near the area but not actual in the diamond zone of the District proper. Like down by Richmond or in Delaware removed. A local, for example, would never make the mistake of saying that Regan National Airport is accessed by the Red Line Metro when even a tourist who spends a minute looking at the map can tell you it’s on the Blue and Yellow Lines. There’s also not even a mention of the oft delayed Silver Line, which would connect with Tyson’s Corner and could really shake up getting around to parts of Virginia and even to Dulles Airport. That really should have been in here. There are also things like half truths such as how terrible driving on the beltway is. The Beltway is the loops that surrounds DC. Yet there is no mention about how 395 is usually worse (and also how it bisects the beltway. Heck, there’s no mention of 395 in the entire book! It also fails to mention how bad driving anywhere in DC is compared to other major US metropolitans. New York Avenue alone should get an aside! I mean, I love that the authors took the time to mention things like driving in DC and how rage inducing it is, as well as giving it an Arisen based reason for being the way it is, but then like a lot of this chapter, it drops the ball and only talks about the outliers or the experience a transient/tourist would have rather than what it would be like to actually live here. So much like D.C. By Night, the book is going to be picked apart by locals and lose credibility within the very city it is meant to represent.
There is more of course, the chapter pretty much just focuses on the Northwest quadrant of DC, with the Northeast only getting a single paragraph and a quick mention of two locations. The entire South of DC only gets two paragraphs between them. Virginia is barely touched. Alexandria gets a mention of Old Town briefly, but none of the actual temples or Egyptian bits in the city are mentioned. There’s a huge Masonic Temple right next to the Alexandria train depot. How did that not even get lip service. Same with Arlington. The National Cemetery is brought up, but not the Pentagon, even though in Chapter One the look and design of the Pentagon is integral to the flow of power in the city? Why touch on that in one chapter only to never bring it up again? There is so much missing from this chapter. Why talk about the importance of monuments in Seb-Hetchet design but then only bring up the three most famous and obvious ones? Why not mention all the others in even a sidebar lists and lets Storytellers decide their importance? Important areas like Gallery Place/Chinatown are missing from the book and considering how important that area is to the city, it’s kind of sad and shocking this was missing. Same with other important areas like the Nationals stadium and all the drama that went into and still exists over that. Hell, the Kennedy Center isn’t even mentioned and that’s the best place to find celebrities, politicians and the like all in one spot, not to mention the main source of highbrow entertainment in D.C. Yet, even though this is begging to be an Arisen hot spot, the very name isn’t so much as brought up.
I’d also have included a list of local celebrities ranging from Jose Andreas to Lynda Carter to give more detail to the piece, but that too is not included. This is odd because it would be a great parallel to the fact that D.C. has arguably the highest population density of Arisen in the world. I got to Guapos in Shirlington and there’s John Baynor. I’m driving home from the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and Newt Gingrich cuts me off. I’m at Target and there’s Michelle Obama. I’m eating at MXDC and there’s Kojo Nnamdi. I’m a neighbor of Dave Bautista for crying out loud. You can swing a stick without hitting someone marginally famous here. I could keep going on and on about the many problems plaguing this chapter, but I think you get the point. Nothing but lost opportunity and missed potential.
As great as Chapter One was, Chapter Two is one of the worst city guides I’ve ever seen in a White Wolf/Onyx Press book. Now I can’t say it was the authors’ fault, or even the editors. This section needed at least a five to a dozen more pages and they might not have been given them. They probably had to cut, and cut a lot to make the page/word count and unfortunately, the entire chapter suffers because of it. At the same time, it could just be they did a REALLY lousy job here. From the fact the metro map isn’t in color (instead choosing to go with the usual color scheme of mummy pages, which is understandable to a degree, but when the metro is color-coded, the map should be too) to the fact the entire chapter is so shoddily done, “A City of Pillars” doesn’t feel like it was written by locals at all, but instead by people who picked up a Lonely Planet or Frommers’ guidebook and cribbed a bunch of stuff. This had SO much potential because D.C. and a Mummy based theme are pretty much made for each other, yet the ball was dropped in every possible way here. It’s just hard to believe that Chapters One and Two are in the same book and written by the same people. It’s that stark a difference. I think even non-locals are going to see the sheer lack of quality in this one, but as an actual resident, it’s hard not to be brutal on this chapter.
Chapter Three is “The Washingtonians” and it continues the strange bi-polar aspect of this book. This is the chapter where you will find all the different Arisen and a list of the Merets some are in. The Deathless are grouped by guild and then by ranking. The chapter is all over the place with quality. Some characters have in-depth bios and others don’t. Some have full character stat blocks while others don’t. There’s no uniformity and the chapter feels really piecemeal because of it. Some of the characters were really interesting while some definitely feel handed down by editorial or how a being thousands of years old would think or fit. I don’t know who wrote what here, so I’ll just say the chapter is a mixed bag, but for the most part I liked what was here. Some of the Arisen (and their concepts) are just stupid as all get out though, so when it’s bad, it’s really bad. Besides the Arisen you’ll also find some important human cultists in the city and this was a nice touch. I was glad to see more than just the mummies under the NPC lists. So a tentative thumb’s up for this chapter.
Chapter Four is “Ephemeral Strands.” This is the second best chapter in the book as it harkens back to discussions of themes, purpose, atmosphere and Storytelling ideas to make the D.C. of the WoD come to life for players. It’s wonderfully done and there are so many options provided here that even a Storyteller will have a plethora of ways to tailor his or her campaign. It gives you different eras besides the modern one to try and play in as well as different ways to group players. The chapter does feel a lot like it could be about V:TM/V:TR though and the writers themselves realize that which is why they give a half page sidebar about “Not that type of undead” showcasing how very different vampires and Arisen are in terms of thinking, goals and needs. I loved this. The chapter ends with five possible outcomes for Seb-Hetchet’s ultimate plan for his New Irem. Each one is quite different from the last and at least one of them will really make players and/or Storytellers happy. Just a great job here.
Unfortunately Chapter Five aka the Appendix aka “The Great Hunt” is to “Ephermeral Strands” as “City of Pillars” was to “Moment To Fate,” which is that it is so bad that the juxtaposition between the two is almost physically painful to experience. There are two big problems with the adventure, both of which are things that have severely hurt White Wolf games in the past, specifically Vampire: The Masquerade. The first is that after those five options in the previous chapter, well the adventure says “Just kidding! There’s a sixth and it’s canon so too bad!” The Old World of Darkness rightly gets criticized for having too much emphasis on the metaplot and forcing canon on players left and right whereas the New World of Darkness tends to be “Everything’s Optional.” A good comparison is that the original WOD was more a “clean your plate or else” sort of situation while the NWoD tends to be a buffet where you can pick and choose what you want to your heart’s content. While I do admit I prefer the old WoD overall, I have to admit that this common criticism of the line if well founded. That’s why I’m so surprised to see the adventure in Mummy: The Curse, a game all about personal exploration and discovery, be so “Ignore the end of the previous chapter. Here’s what happens and how.” If this had been a short story or even a full novel, I’d have loved it. As an adventure, though it’s a terrible piece because you’ve just determined the outcome for the core plot point of the city instead of letters players decide for themselves. Sure individual groups can ignore the story for their own game but it’s still forced canon that will be brought up if DC is ever tred upon again. So again, had this been a story or work of fiction – great. As an adventure though – it pretty much does everything one shouldn’t when giving a published adventure to players – ESPECIALLY for the NWoD.
The other problem is that the adventure is a little too on rails for my liking. Now obviously most published adventures are scripted paths players go down with a little railroading, but “The Great Hunt” feels like a lot of bad White Wolf adventures from the mid to late 90s where players are just along for the ride and the true stars are the NPCs. Often times “The Great Hunt” has the players is a mostly supporting role. Players should be the main focus of the adventure rather than bit players in their own tale. This is doubly true for Mummy: The Curse so I just don’t know how this adventure is able to coexist with the core rulebook I reviewed over a year ago because they feel like they are for two very different games.
So big thumbs up for “A Moment to Fate” and “Ephemeral Strands.” Big thumbs down for “The Great Hunt” and “A City of Pillars.” We’ll give a thumbs in the middle to “The Washingtonians.” As you can see that means Cursed Necropolis is just an odd collection of really good and really bad stuff and even at the tail end of this review I’m not sure whether to give I mild recommendation to pick it up or avoid it. I guess the best I can say is that when the book is good, Cursed Necropolis is top notch and perhaps worth picking up for those two chapters mentioned above. At the same time, when it’s bad it’s horribly bad, committing some previous grievous errors and dropping the ball where the sourcebook really had the most potential. It’s all going to come down to what Onyx Path Publishing prices this at. My suggestion is that if it’s ten bucks or under for the PDF, pick this up. Otherwise you might find it not worth the time or money. I’m glad it was a freebie to Kickstarter backers but I think if I paid full MSRP for this, I’d have been pissed rather than disappointed.