Pros: Good fiction; customization material; character creation ideas; legendary Renegades
Cons: History too biased; artwork; structure of Renegade society; a case of multiple personality disorder
Rating: 3 out of 5
First published 1/1/1999
Previously published on RPGNet
This is a review of “Renegades”, a sourcebook for Wraith: the Oblivion “…About Dead People Who Are Mad As Hell,” or so it says on the front cover. Renegades are wraiths who’ve been kicked out of Stygian society, or who have chosen to remain separate from it. Some are what they are for political or idealistic reasons; others want oboli (money, but worse), and still others just don’t want anyone telling them what to do.
Fiction and Introduction
“CAT” is the story by P.D. Cacek that starts off “Renegades”. It’s quite good, and made me shiver a bit at the end. It’s more story than “gaming fiction”, and I mean that in a good way. Frequently gaming fiction aspires to be fiction and ends up being gaming. The author obviously read the rulebook, however; the lingo slips in quite smoothly.
Tom Deitz wrote the second story, “Viking.” It isn’t as moving as Cacek’s, but it is a solid story and provides a wonderful alternative look at how a wraith might end up a Renegade. (And a few interesting ideas about Heretics, as well.)
The introduction to “Renegades” provides a nice look at a range of attitudes and outlooks you might find among the Renegades. It gets a bit old after a page or so; the quotes and proselytizing all start to sound the same. Perhaps this would have worked better spread throughout the book. It quickly establishes what I think is a major point of the book, however: “Heaven help any wraith who thinks that the Renegades are all ‘good guys.'” Amen. This is not a book about sweet-natured freedom fighters who all have hearts of gold. You’ll find those sorts of Renegades in here all right, but you’ll also find the ones who’d sooner sell you to a slaver than recruit you into their soul-steel-hugging army.
Chapter 1: A History of Revolution
The history takes the form of a “history of the Renegades” written by a dead photojournalist and then handed around from wraith to wraith. It’s riddled with hand-written commentary from the peanut gallery. All right, it’s a really minor gripe, but I have to say it. You don’t start off the leaflet that has yet to be printed by saying that it’s been blacklisted, and that the punishment for having a copy of it is such-and-such. How could it be blacklisted when it hasn’t even been written yet?
Minor griping done with…I both do and don’t like the history. That is, taken as itself, a written history of the Renegades, it sucks. It’s very sunshiny, very positive about the state of the Renegades. If half the things in the history were true, the Renegades would have already taken over Stygia. What saves the history is the commentary in the margins. Some of the comments could have easily been eliminated and contributed little to the story, but the rest nicely pointed out (in one way or another) exactly my point above. That if the account were true, things would not be as they are in the Shadowlands. One commentator even went so far as to suggest that the supposed photojournalist was actually a Hierarchy stooge trying to flush out Renegades. He may well have been right (now there’s a fun plot idea).
The idea of a highly biased history was a good one. The format of the “booklet” and the commentary was fun. However, I think that the history was too biased. It still has to be useful, after all, and in my opinion this history will take a fair amount of tweaking to be truly useful.
The history did make a number of very good points, however. The concept of Ferryman defectors would be a fun one to play with. The point that rebels whose revolutions succeed are no longer rebels is a gorgeous one. So is the fact that “Renegades profit more from failed revolutions in the Skinlands than they do from successful ones” – a revolutionary has to die a revolutionary to be useful to dead Renegades.
Too many of the marginal comments (ostensibly written by different people) sounded alike, however. And artwork of active women with gravity-defying semi-naked chests was more than a little pointless.
Chapter 2: Under the Gun
This chapter covers the structure, such as it is, of Renegade society. And therein lies my problem. Structure? Okay, sure. Gangs here and there. Occasional larger organizations with loftier goals springing up and then being toppled. A general run-down of the types of people who tend to get themselves into this situation – I firmly believe that there are as many different types of Renegades as there are Renegades, but certainly some trends would be evident. The same should be true of the types of groups and gangs you might find among the Renegades.
Instead, we get four groups of Renegades, each with its own type of gang structure. Now, I could even have accepted a simple “well, here are four types of Renegades, and here are four types of gang structure. You might be more likely to find structure x with type a, but then again, you might not, and here are a few other possibilities for good measure.” However, Renegades are lumped in by background and social leaning: Protesters (“Pols”), Idealists (“Dealers”), Outlaws (“Cons”), and Drop-Outs (“AWOLs”). They form themselves into, in respective order, cells, blocs, bands, and communes. From there, all sorts of broad sweeping statements are made along the lines of “Idealist Renegades prefer the name ‘bloc’ to describe their gangs.” Really? I’ve met some idealistic people in my time, and I’m pretty sure not a single one would ever form a gang called a ‘bloc’. Even if they were dead.
Most of this book goes to great lengths to stress the variety to be found among the Renegades – and I think that’s just the way it should be. Most of this chapter, however, does the exact opposite. I recommend that you either don’t read those sections of this chapter, or be very ready to reorganize the Renegades for your game. By the time I was done reading this chapter, I had visions of little clone gangs running around all over the place, where everyone in a gang looked the same and had the same viewpoints and background. Maybe they even wore the same clothes, had the same haircut, and spoke in the same voice – I’m sure there’s a stereotypical “outlaw” voice in everyone’s repertoire.
The author of this chapter seems to think that Renegades with differing social leanings wouldn’t work together unless forced to. And AWOL communes tend to have social directors and group Skinrides. What is this, the Love Boat of the Sunless Seas? This is a book with Multiple Personality Disorder. It says that Renegades vary widely, then lumps them into four groups and makes blanket statements about them. It says that Renegades aren’t nice people, and then talks about them as though they go on Sunday picnics. “Oh, look mom, what a pretty lady! Can I Skinride her home today?” “Of course dear, but make sure you get home before sunset. We wouldn’t want you running into nasty old Spectres now would we?”
It even looks as though every piece of artwork that couldn’t find a place elsewhere in the book got dumped here. It’s all completely and utterly irrelevant – unless I’ve been dreaming the whole thing and this was really a copy of “Freak Legion” or maybe, in some lucky cases, “Dark Reflections: Spectres.”
I do have to say that the “journal entries” interspersed with the meat of this chapter are gorgeous. They show far better than any of the long paragraphs on structure what the Renegades are like, and the wonderful variety apparent in their “society.” I wish the entire chapter had been made of these.
The sample gang in this chapter, amazingly enough, is of a mixed gang – members of different groups (gasp!) working together. I like it. The moral is, do as this chapter examples, not as it says. Some of the Famous Renegade Gangs are also good for fun & games. I’d use some of them wholesale.
Chapter 3: Bridges & Barricades
Chapter 3 is sections on the opinions of Renegades on the Hierarchy, Heretics, other Supernaturals, the Quick (living), etc. As is appropriate for the wide variety of Renegades out there, a good handful of opinions are given in each case. When it comes to the other types of wraiths, however, it gets boring. It gets much funnier (and much more fun) when it reaches the other types of supernaturals.
From the Introduction through Chapter 3, this feels like a splatbook*. It shouldn’t feel like a splatbook – it’s larger and more comprehensive than a splatbook.
*Guildbook, Clanbook, Tribebook, Kithbook, Tradbook, etc. Any sort of book that comes out in handfuls and has a consistent (in the bad cases, cookie-cutter) format across the board.
Chapter 4: Making the Revolution
I have to say, the artwork in this chapter is relevant! Quite a step forward.
Chapter 4 provides very basic “material for customizing Renegade characters and stories involving Renegades.” And it does it very well. It provides brief sections on some of the tactics a Renegade gang might employ, from disinformation to espionage, insertions to sabotage, assassination to assault. And my favorite detail: assassination covers both physical assassination and character assassination. (Making someone look bad, not killing their gaming character off!)
There is enough information in these sections to get the ideas rolling and to provide the bare bones of a long number of stories without going into too much (and inappropriate) detail. It certainly gave me game ideas, which to me is the first, and most important, mark of good game material.
Two alternate arts are provided (one for Castigate, one for Keening). They’re both interesting, creative, potentially fun, and not ridiculously powerful. (I see that last as a positive; some people may not.)
All in all, a good, solid chapter, and much better than what has come before it. Dare I make the pun – the writing finally comes alive at this point.
The first page of this chapter is where this book stopped feeling like a splatbook.
The Soul of a Renegade
This chapter is where I stopped, put down the book, and told my friend “this is great! I love this book!” Considering the number of complaints he’d had to endure earlier, he was quite surprised. The only real negative is that the artwork became somewhat irrelevant again.
Chapter 5 concentrates on the creation of Renegade characters. The “choosing a concept” part is very well done, and provides some good ideas. All in all this is one of the best “how to make a character” sections I’ve seen, and I’d recommend it as reading to newbie players or storytellers, once they’re familiar with the terminology.
A list of “Standard Archetypes with a Renegade Twist” is provided, and makes for enlightening reading. The author even provided ideas for Renegades with the Follower and Bureaucrat archetypes. “Remember, sometimes the least appropriate Archetypes make the most interesting characters.” Words to stay dead by. I’ve not always been enthralled by the concept of archetypes, but I think this author uses them the way they should be used – as sources of inspiration rather than as straightjackets. Present is also the only discussion I’ve seen on the variations possible within an archetype.
Ideas regarding times and civilizations older Renegades might have come from are provided in brief, and are quite worthwhile.
Unfortunately the chapter does eventually roll round to factions and gang structure. If you use this simply as an opportunity to think about your character’s outlook on things and the structure of your gang, this won’t be a problem. But please, please don’t say “well, I’m playing a Protester, so I’m in a cell…” We don’t need character classes in Wraith, least of all. At least this section does admit that a fair number of gangs may be independent or mixed. It also provides a good example of creating a mixed gang.
The section on running Renegade chronicles doesn’t have as much information on the “themes” as I would have liked – I would have preferred to see some sample specific story pretenses under each. There are good notes on storytelling for mixed (i.e., some dead, some living) parties. It would have been nice, if the author was going to tackle this, to have provided some information on abilities the living might have (instead of just Arcanoi) that might help. (Mediums, the abilities of some supernaturals.) Some very good examples are given of mixed party plots.
As far as the ideas for Renegade chronicles: the author always has just the right angle to look at them from. The ideas read well, and are good, but the best part is when you get to the end and find the one question that makes you say “wow, I hadn’t thought of that.”
Chapter 6: Children of the Revolution
This is the traditional chapter of templates/sample characters. They’re not bad, but on the whole not particularly inspired. I did like the Slaver, however.
Appendix: Leading the Charge (Legendary Renegades)
The “legendary Renegades” are far more appealing than the templates. Most “such-and-such of note” chapters leave me flat, but this one gives me so many ideas. A storyteller could read these few pages alone and have gotten his money’s worth out of this book.
I like this book. If you were to chop out most of Chapter 2, I’d say it was quite good. However, I will say that even with Chapter 2, it’s worth the price of admission for the stories, chapter 4, chapter 5, and the appendix. But please – don’t let Chapter 2 shape your idea of Renegade society! Your world will be much poorer for it if you do. Use your own creativity instead.
My thanks go to Jeffrey Howard for being my sounding-board and for helping me to get past “agh! how could they!” to a semi-functional critique.