Deviant: the Renegades Review

Role-playing games are like most media in that they tend to resonate with the largest audience when peddling a blend of novelty and comfort. That said, the hobby has a history of lashing out when too much novelty is introduced. Consider Fourth Edition D&D. Or Traveller:The New Era. Or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Third Edition. I could go on, but the point is fairly clear: Gamers like new things, as long as they aren’t actually that different from the old things they already have.

Say, what’s been going on in the World of Darkness recently?

White Wolf Publishing ended with a whimper, not a bang. After a fifth edition of Vampire marred with controversy and bad actors, adoptive parent Paradox Interactive basically let the guillotine fall. White Wolf is no longer a separate entity, Paradox itself is managing all White Wolf IP from here on out, and Modiphius Entertainment is publishing Vampire Fifth Edition. So what about the rest of the World of Darkness? Well, many of the game lines were licensed to a company called Onyx Path Publishing, founded by a former White Wolf creative director, many years ago. Onyx Path has been chugging away behind the scenes of the implosion of White Wolf, both continuing White Wolf properties like Exalted and coming up with their own, like Pugmire. And, as it turns out, a very significant portion of the new World of Darkness, now called Chronicles of Darkness, is in OPP’s hands. Enter Deviant: The Renegades.

Deviant is not an existing World of Darkness line, like Vampire or Werewolf. As such, it’s not quite as tied into a metaplot as some of these earlier lines were, though most of the Chronicles of Darkness games were spared much of the heavy-handed plotlines of their forebears. Still, story is at the center of Deviant and that is the story of the Remade. The Remade, or Deviants, are people who have been twisted into something not-human, whether accidentally, voluntarily, out of desperation, or even by their own hand. This trope of being pushed outside of the bounds of humanity is an evergreen one, and potential touchstones range from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis on one end to The Secret World of Alex Mack at the other. In the case of this game, though, Remade or (duh) Deviants are all linked by several narrative threads: in addition to being isolated from the rest of humanity, they are being pursued by one form or another of vast conspiracy, and all that’s grounding them is a combination of the people they love and the conspirators they hate.

If you’ve played a World of Darkness game before, you may be able to guess that these plot threads are generated mechanically. The core of the game is the Storyteller system, which is no surprise to anyone looking at this game. As such, the attributes and skills and to a broad extent the merits bought as part of character creation are all, well, familiar. For those completely new to Storyteller it may be worth looking elsewhere for a primer, but the basics are that an attribute and a skill are added together to come up with a pool of d10s. These d10s are rolled, and every die that comes up an 8 or higher is a success. All rolls are based off of this core math, though many of the special abilities require looking at derived attributes or ratings based on the ability. They’re not difficult mechanics, per se, but you end up tracking a lot of numbers.

Fortunately, Deviant doesn’t go off the mechanical deep end in the way its cousins Exalted or Scion do, mostly because the special character abilities cool it with the math in a way Scion couldn’t and Exalted perennially refuses to. The supernatural elements of Deviant are defined through Variations and Scars, with Variations basically being the good part and Scars the bad part. Instead of some merit/flaws nonsense, though, essentially all Variations taken by a character must be associated (entangled) with a Scar. And since each Variation must match up to a Scar of the same magnitude (the same number of dots, the same power level), characters with big powers have big consequences associated with them.

How do you know which powers you have, though, or where they come from? Well, since this is a World of Darkness game, you pick from a few lists that have five entries! Characters at a high level are defined by their Origin and their Clade. An Origin describes how the character became a Remade, whether they wanted it for themselves (Autourgics), they volunteered in pursuit of a secondary goal (Epimorphs), they were Remade against their will (Exomorphs), they were born Remade (Genotypal), or were victims of circumstance (Pathological). Origins have more subtle mechanical impacts, affecting the characters balance between Loyalty and Conviction (more on this below), and granting them one rank of a Variation that need not have a Scar entangled with it. A Clade describes the sort of changes a character went through, whether they’re psychic (Cephalist), hybridized with an animal (Chimeric), bound to an external power source (Coactive), have something implanted into them (Invasive) or simply had a base biological reaction to whatever happened (Mutant). The Clades have a more significant mechanical impact, limiting the majority of the character’s Variations as well as providing two Adaptations, unique character benefits.

Inevitably everyone will skip down to the Variations listing and marvel at the cool abilities, and they are in fact cool. That said, there are a few other mechanics of note, namely Instabilities and Touchstones. These are the plot mechanics, the ones that put walls around how the Remade behave which can ultimately drive campaigns. Instability is a parallel track to the wound track, akin to mental damage in Eclipse Phase or sanity in Call of Cthulhu. Instability, though, is much more precarious. Characters mark off instabilities at the start of every adventure, and any time they fail to resist the effects of their Scars. More significant, though, is how many Instabilities are marked off as a result of the character’s Touchstones; this is made more significant still when most of the ways to heal instabilities also come from Touchstones. As ignoring instabilities will lead to roll penalties, new Scars, and eventually death, it’s clear that Touchstones are meant to be quite important.

Touchstones are the people and entities which a Remade cares about. There are Loyalty Touchstones, which the Remade cares for and wants to see taken care of, and Conviction Touchstones, which the Remade hates deeply and wants to see destroyed. The exact balance between Conviction and Loyalty depends on choices at character generation, and can change in-game. Of course, both kinds of Touchstones can be destroyed. But, interestingly, it’s the motivation which is grounding the character, not the person themselves…if all of a character’s Touchstones are destroyed, the character goes feral, which is the end of their story.

If there’s one thing that genuinely surprised me about this game, it’s how crunchy it is. Gamers who came of age in the late 90s and early 2000s saw the World of Darkness games as the less crunchy end of the continuum, with D&D in the middle and the other end taken up by games like Champions and Heavy Gear. In 2021, though, a Storyteller game is presenting me with a whole lot of rules, and a whole lot of plot-driving rules. The Instability mechanics are, in a nutshell, punishment for not engaging with Touchstones enough. It’s a different sort of crunchy than what we thought crunchy meant when I was in high school; then, crunch meant options, it meant exception-based mechanics, it meant math. Deviant still keeps every roll in the same rough format, though you are tracking a lot when you get down into things like Scar Resistance and Scar Finesse. But that’s what makes it so different than other games I’ve read more recently, there really are more rules which gate the experience more.

My hesitancy towards this style does come from my recent experiences, which are all about doing more with less. Deviant is accomplishing its goals with rules, and defining things I would have never thought to define. Conspiracies are the high-level antagonists in this game, and there are some truly great mechanics and guidance for writing them and prepping how the characters will encounter them. There are even rules for when a Conspiracy is destroyed. And it’s not that those are bad rules to have, but when would you use them? When, on Earth, would a GM come to a scenario where instead of writing the consequences of character actions on their own, decide “welp, time to consult this table and see if the conspiracy got destroyed”. It might make more sense in a sandbox game, but that is not in any way what Deviant is.

While I know this is a phrase that gets bandied about, Deviant: the Renegades is an old-school game. It’s not only the use of the well-worn Storyteller System, but also the definition of a very specific plot arc and then the use of mechanics to bound that arc. Ultimately, though, I think it’s a good thing. I know the secondary mechanics of World of Darkness games have varied wildly in effectiveness; several of them are memetically bad (Mage, Scion). Deviant, though, appears to do what it sets out to do. I’m still taken aback by the heavy-handedness of the subsystems like Touchstones, it’s a mode of designing narrative games that is almost entirely absent from current conversations. That said, I still believe Deviant is a well-executed game. If you’re into conspiracy horror, Deviant sets out a great template to take at least one thread and run with it. Like other World of Darkness games, the key is buying into the concept. This is not a game that can do everything. But, if you want to be a mutant on the run, or the girl doused in chemicals who needs to hide her morphing power, then Deviant: the Renegades is for you.

Deviant: the Renegades is available on DriveThruRPG.

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