As you might remember, I played and bought Demon: the Fallen some time ago, and despite some positive feelings, I found my early confusion was thoroughly compounded by appalling editing and skewy mechanics, until I yielded to complete apathy.
So naturally, when Arthur revealed that his copy of the successor, Demon: the Descent had arrived, I was keen to take a look.
DtD, from what I've read and what Arthur told me, basically throws out everything from DtF and starts all over again from scratch, and I would just like to pause for a moment to offer my appreciation for what must surely be one of the best decisions ever made in the industry.
This is just a quick skim through a few highlights, not a detailed comparison. I don't know enough about White Wolf games to do that, nor do I own DtD. However, I've read some stuff, and Arthur was kind enough to run an introductory game for us.
First off, let's talk setting. The setting is, as far as it possibly can be while retaining a vague semblance of a claim to be about fallen angels, utterly different in every possible way.
In DtF, the Judeo-Christian metaphysics are all true. You were angels tasked with something or other by God, and drifted away from Heaven through one cause or another. Some angels rebelled, leading to a massive, universe-shaking war that destroyed all kinds of things, completely changed you, and took up an inordinate amount of the rulebook for something that is freaking backstory, guys. Millennia in Hell changed you further, and you drifted into one or another political position. Eventually you found a way back into the mortal world by possessing someone. You discover no trace of either God or angels, and begin trying to work out what to do with your life, which probably relates to that political position.
In DtD, the universe is controlled by a vast, invisible, nightmarish machine-like thing called the God-Machine, which is like a combination of Skynet and the worst nightmares of all the most paranoid tinfoil-hat-wearing sign-wavers and armed survivalists crammed into one. Yes, the government is controlling your choice of television viewing via chemicals in ice cream vans, and the television programmes do influence your behaviour so you buy more Coke, and Coke is made by aliens. But that's nothing. You were an agent of this machine, tasked to invisibly keep stuff going, but something glitched in your programming, and you went rogue. You exist amongst humans in a cover identity built for you to get your latest job done, but underneath you're a biomechanical monstrosity who can exploit bugs in the system to bent the laws of reality.
The first one offers the chance to play in a Judeo-Christian supernatural setting, with the baggage that brings. Fallen angels, demonic powers and possession are well-known tropes. In practice, though, it offers an incredibly specific and personal interpretation of everything, from a huge range of generic supernatural powers, to a massive emphasis on their own version of the War in Heaven as defining you. It doesn't feel very Judeo-Christian to me, which sort of ruins the point.
The latter is basically their own thing, borrowing only broad ideas from the mythology. It has touches of the Matrix, a bit of Cold War sensibility, a bit of Terminator. Since it makes no pretence at being a general game, I didn't get the same sense of bait-and-switch. There's a lot of new ideas to learn, but since you know they're new, it's not a big problem for me.
Powers and Authorities
The next obvious point of comparison is how being different types of demon works.
DtF uses fixed demon types that are an exact parallel to the Clans, Tribes and suchlike of other games. You were an Angel of X, now you are a Demon of Y. Each gives access to a set of three Lores that are, in most cases, incoherent and poorly-balanced and occasionally downright awful. From these, you can learn a small number of powers. You must learn these powers in a specific order, which is sometimes not very logical and often means spending a lot of points on a power you don't want so that later you can spend even more points on a power you do want. Powers within a Lore have a specific theme (except when they don't really), and tie into the favoured abilities of your House (except for most of them, and also each power usually requires a completely different set of abilities, which means often you can only use one or two powers out of five even if you buy them). Political agendas are just for roleplaying.
DtD has a small number of angel types, which have no mechanical effect on your abilities 99% of the time. All demons have access to the same array of powers, which are divided into Embeds (low-power) and Exploits (big hits), with each Exploit requiring a relevant Embed to explain why you can do it. The decision over "relevant" is left entirely to the group. You can take any combination of abilities, in any order. In contrast, your political agenda does make a difference, because each Agenda gets bonus XP for a specific kind of behaviour. These are also basically roleplaying prompts - kick up trouble, agonise over whether to turn yourself in, cross-examine others about what they're doing, or talk someone into doing things for you.
The complete freedom of choice in DtD actually makes for far, far more coherent characters than the supposed demon archetypes presented by DtF. Simply put, you can make your character have a set of abilities that make sense for you, rather than to some half-assed designer. This isn't just a matter of taking Embeds/Exploits that seem to fit together; it's also much easier to put together a set of Skills, Attributes and Embeds that make sense by working from the ground up. In contrast, DtF really needed you to pick the powers you'd want, then go back and pick your Skills and Attributes so they'd enable you to use them, bearing in mind that you'd probably need a wide array of incompatible abilities to use your powers. Because DtD doesn't lock you in that way, you can make a far more tightly-focused character with specific strengths and weaknesses.
Torment vs. Cover
Another area where the two games take radically different approaches is in the compulsory White Wolfy "measure of self-worth sort of thing" stat. Vampire had Humanity, Werewolf had Harmony, Demon the Fallen had Torment.
Torment in DtF is essentially a measure of your angst. Are you really wound up about having rebelled against God, participated in a cataclysmic metaphysical war full of unthinkable horrors, and spend millennia seething in Hell? Or, alternatively, do you just get off on hurting people? High Torment. Are you basically chill and like, really tuned into other people, man? Low Torment. You began with a lowish score of 3-4, and probably aimed to decrease it. In theory, you might choose to let it go either way; in practice, this would often be a bad idea, because Torment affected your powers. A high-Torment demon often casts the Tormented version of its powers, and the difference depends entirely on your power set. Devils (yer'actual Bedazzled-style tempter demons) often benefit here from a choice between two alternative powers. Some Lores are simply flat-out more powerful in Torment mode. Others are basically useless. In contrast, there's no downside to low Torment.
DtD scraps this whole thing entirely, and replaces it with a stat that is not actually a measure of your personal worth. As such, it's probably (from my limited knowledge) the best example of this mechanic, if you view it as a mechanical tool rather than a roleplaying prompt. What we have instead is Cover, which represents how well-hidden you are from the God-Machine's scrutiny. Doing supernatural stuff or doing things that contradict your cover identity will compromise your safety, potentially attracting unwanted attention and even attack. One of the things we liked about this is that unlike most of these Morality-like mechanics, it doesn't make even the slightest attempt to judge your actions. You can be as benevolent or malevolent as you like; all the mechanics care about is how subtle you are.
The Cold War in Heaven
One of the themes played up by DtD is the Cold War. The idea is that demons are to act like characters in a Cold War story, working to maintain covers and hide from the God-Machine, while trying to undermine it. This is a very cool idea, and after considerable thought I'm forced to conclude that it doesn't quite work.
See, the thing about Cold War is the political balance. Two immensely powerful entities don't want to risk outright confrontation, so they turn to more subtle methods. These allow them to save face, avoid large-scale damage, and look for ways to undermine their enemies' strengths. It also allows them to carry on semi-normal relations with other entities, without those bystanders feeling obliged to gang up on one side or another. Huge numbers of civilians on either side have no active part in the War, and can be suborned, spied on, exploited or recruited, but aren't specifically enemies of the other lot.
The world of DtD explicitly doesn't support that, because the God-Machine is all-powerful and the demons are a bunch of scattered renegades lurking in the shadows. There is no balance of power to maintain. There are no bystanders to object to all-out war (humanity simply doesn't count). There's no political norms to uphold. Demons aren't a united political entity of any kind. In addition, there aren't civilians within the population of each side; all demons are renegade agents, all angels are tools of the God-Machine. The God-Machine is limited by juggling priorities and by minimising collateral damage to its own interests, not by fear of what the demons might do.
To my eye, this setup is actually far more like a revolutionary movement, resistance movement or even terrorism. The God-Machine is a powerful monolith which has no qualms about wiping out demons whenever it can, and no reason to show restraint other than its own convenience. All demons are renegades and should be destroyed. Harm to humans doesn't particularly matter to either side. For the demons, the God-Machine is a terrible omnipresent threat that they need to avoid. They aren't remotely capable of fighting it directly, so their only options are to avoid it or undermine it. There are a few common factors between how demons behave and Cold War agents did, but this mostly boils down to maintaining a cover identity amongst an ignorant population while plotting against a powerful agency. And while I suspect White Wolf would like us to think of DtD as showing the God-Machine analagous to the USSR and demons as the Western agents... it's actually far more like the early Soviet revolutionaries working against the West-supported Tsars.
Actually, given that demons are former agents of the 'state' who rebelled and want to destroy that state out of their own interest and purportedly on behalf of humanity, it's more like a bunch of civil and military officials deserting the government and plotting a violent coup while hiding amongst the civilian population.
But I suspect that would be a harder sell.
This isn't to criticise the game. Being a resistance movement of disillusioned soldiers trying to undermine their old employer is a perfectly fun game. But emphasising the Cold War actually gives slightly the wrong impression about what the game offers. You don't have your own side to run home to. There's no big block of civilian interests you need to watch out for, no glorious motherland to fight for. You aren't working for handlers you can't trust who work for spymasters you can't trust who work for governments you can't trust, until you feel closer to the angels doing the same job than to other demons. There aren't angels feeling the same way, because they're either mindless tools of the God-Machine or about to Fall, they don't have complex personal agendas. You can't infiltrate the God-Machine in angelic disguise and establish networks of traitors and informants and angels who just don't care about anything but money (at least it doesn't look like it) because the God-Machine knows whether you're part of it or not. Basically, you can either fight the God-Machine, explore the human world, or immerse yourself in the politics of the disparate rebel groups. That's fine. But it's not the Cold War. It's just got a little of the same paranoia going.
Despite throwing out the entirety of DtF and rebuilding its powers from the ground up, DtD still has some serious issues with its powers. On the plus side, these don't seem to include powers that can't actually do what they say, powers that duplicate things that should be accomplishable by skill alone, powers that exist only to play complicated minigames with anyone else who took that exact same power, or powers that exist only to let you interact with another game line.
Two come quickly to mind, because we encountered these in our playthrough.
The first is Play on Words. This is the sort of thing that sounds like a great idea when you are expounding hypothetically about games over a coffee, and is almost certainly a terrible idea. It's very simple: you can swap out a word for a homophone from any language to change the game reality. Sounds awesome, right?
The first reason this is terrible is that whoever was writing this bit of the rules clearly didn't have a very definite idea of what they wanted it to do, but wanted to pin it down specifically. The end result is a set of mechanics that don't actually make sense. I'm going to have to reproduce it here.
A particular collection of sounds can have many different meanings in a language. For instance, /rait/ can be “write” (to produce a graphic representation of words), “right” (correct or just) or “rite” (a ceremony or ritual). In French, the words “cent,” “sans” and “sang” all sound very much alike, but mean “100,” “without” and “blood,” respectively. In Spanish, the sentence “Está esposadocan either mean “He’s married” or “He’s in handcuffs.” A demon using this Exploit can shift the meaning of such a word, and change the situation in the process.
Note: This Exploit is challenging to use. It requires that the player pay attention to what other characters are saying and jump on the opportunity to activate the power. It’s perfectly acceptable for a player whose character has this Exploit to have a list of multiple meaning words (do an online search for that phrase; teacher resource websites have them) to keep handy. The Storyteller should not allow players to use this power on phrases more than a sentence or two back in the conversation (though the player is allowed to ask for a “time out” in the conversation while she briefly considers whether and how to use this Exploit).
Success: This power works on spoken words only. The demon might see a character having a shot of vodka, but cannot change it into a shot of penicillin unless the drinker actually uses the word “shot.” When the demons hears an appropriate phrase, the player activates the Exploit and suggests to the Storyteller what happens.
The potential uses for this Exploit are quite beyond the scope of this book to list, given that words with multiple meanings vary between languages and even regions (a “crick” might be a pain in the neck or a small stream in the woods, depending on where you live). Instead, here are a few suggestions:
Damage: The demon changes reality so that a target suffers damage (the aforementioned shot of vodka could be changed to “shot by a gun”). The target suffers one point of lethal damage per success on the Exploit roll.
Incapacity: The demon shifts meaning to inconvenience or incapacitate a character (the Spanish-speaking victim says “estoy esposado” — “I am married” — but winds up in handcuffs). The victim is immobile until the Exploit wears off or the demon releases him.
General Strangeness: The victim says that he will “write” something down, only to wind up performing a “rite.” Another refers to the right to “bear” arms and looks down to discover his shirt sleeves missing (“bare” arms), or that they have grown thick fur and claws (“bear” arms). Effects like this might have any number of consequences, but for truly drastic ones, the Storyteller is justified in asking for a second compromise roll.
The first thing is, it's not clear which words you can use this on. Is this anything anyone says at the table? Anything directly game-related? Can you use it on the narration, or on characters' descriptions of their actions, or only on actual dialogue? The latter is far more limiting, but is the only one that support an in-game version of the power rather than a completely metagame version. The rules don't say.
One example says "This power works on spoken words only. The demon might see a character having a shot of vodka, but cannot change it into a shot of penicillin unless the drinker actually uses the word “shot.” When the demon hears an appropriate phrase, the player activates the Exploit and suggests to the Storyteller what happens." This suggests that the power works only on actual dialogue. The first sentence is entirely unhelpful, since virtually everything that happens at the table is spoken - the question is, in- or out-of-character? But the next emphasises that what the demon hears is crucial.
The next example is more confusing, unless it's aimed at groups where speaking Spanish in character is a thing that happens. It's an American game, so hey, that's possible, but it's confusing. "A Spanish-speaking victim" suggests that the crucial thing is the character's language, not the player's. Is the DM supposed to be speaking in Spanish to a group of players who also speak Spanish, in a game where they otherwise use English? Or is this supposed to be an example from a group that always use Spanish? It's important, because another interpretation is that this is from an English-speaking game featuring Spanish characters, in which case the example relies on the player (plus the DM or another player) being able to mentally interpret what the Spanish character would actually say, then parse it for homophones, which is kind of nuts.
Why so important? Well, partly because those are just very different ways of using the power, and it's important that everyone can get on the same page. But also because the latter case is really powerful if you have, say, any Chinese characters, due to the massive number of homophones in the language.
Another point that isn't at all clear is whether the power applies only within a language, or across language boundaries. The universe doesn't care what language you speak, after all. Does it have to remain within the language currently being used by that character? What if they're bilingual and prone to code-shift? Can I use any languages my demon understands? Can I use all existing languages?
Second is a rather bigger problem, which is lack of clarity over the linguistic scope of this power. The power description states that the demon can "shift the meaning of such a word" in order to change reality, which suggests it's basically a pun-based power. The Spanish example has a very simple transformation, where the words are preserved but the interpretation changes. However, the other two are much looser and more powerful. The "shot" example under Success implies that a close match of words is needed, but that under Damage doesn't seem to require anything except the one word "shot" being used somewhere. General Strangeness definitely suggests that all you need is for a word to occur somewhere in an utterance, and you can essentially replace it with a completely different utterance containing a homonym. That is a huge difference, and makes a very big difference to how game-breaking this power might be.
Bear in mind also that the major limit on this power is what words are used in the game. That's it. And you can, of course, get other players to say things for you. This is assuming you aren't allowed to use it on yourself, which isn't clear.
A few examples to ponder:
- Prime Minister announces from his heavily-guarded conference room that "this policy will give a shot in the arm for the economy". Can the demon replace this with a scene of the PM being shot? And do they have to be present, or is hearing a live broadcast good enough? RAW says the latter.
- At a state banquet, the chef serves praline bombe. The demon changes this into dishes full of bombs. What is the mechanical result? Inflicting 1 damage per success for a load of bombs going off in a crowded room is clearly nonsense. If we're limited to individual languages, does this count as a sufficiently Anglicised word to count as English despite being of French origin?
- Someone says "look at this rock". The demon replaces this with a roc, monstrous bird of legend. Is this possible even though rocs do not exist?
- The demons and an arch-enemy are near police headquarters. A fellow demon says "I would like a shot of whisky". The demon uses the word "shot" to state that their arch-enemy has taken a shot at the cops. The police descend en masse, plugging away at the arch-enemy and possibly killing or arresting them. They are now a wanted criminal even if they escape, which hampers their activities and possibly ruins their cover.
- The demons and an arch-enemy are in a cafe. A fellow demon says "I would like a shot of whisky". The demon uses the word "shot" to state that their arch-enemy runs across town (taking two hours) and takes a shot at the cops.
- The demons and an arch-enemy are in a cafe. A fellow demon says "I would like a shot of whisky". The demon uses the word "shot" to state that their arch-enemy shot the President yesterday.
- The demons and an arch-enemy are in a cafe. A fellow demon says "I would like a shot of whisky". The demon uses the word "shot" to state that their arch-enemy has been shot into space on a one-way trip to Mars.
- The demons and an arch-enemy are in a cafe. A fellow demon says "the muzak really mars the atmosphere". The demon uses the word "mars" to state that they are now all on Mars.
- The demons and an arch-enemy are in a cafe. A fellow demon says "the muzak really mars the atmosphere". The demon uses the word "mars" to state that they are now all on Mars, which has an extensive civilisation of astonishing sophistication, and is very demon-friendly.
But the biggest problem isn't mechanical, it's that we were all pretty sure this would be incredibly annoying. When you're playing a game, do you really want one player to be sat back parsing your sentences for potential puns and looking through lists of homophones? Do you want the rather farcical tone that's likely to take over, as soon as one person can change game reality by using puns?
The second power is one I actually took, called Deep Pockets. This lets you be Mary Poppins. You can pull stuff out of any container, providing you can lift that stuff with one hand. It's incredibly broken, and I didn't realise until well into the game.
The demon can pull anything that he can lift out of his pocket, coat, suitcase or any other aperture he can fit his hand into. He doesn’t have to own the object that he is retrieving, but it does have to come from somewhere, so he has to be able to picture it. Since demons have perfect memories, however, even a moderately well-traveled demon has a wide range of objects to call upon. Demons with this Exploit often have a special room in their homes adorned with large objects that they can retrieve at will, seemingly from nowhere
The demon pulls the desired object out of whatever vessel he reaches into. The demon must be able to picture a specific object, so if he pictures a chainsaw he saw on a shelf at a hardware store, he can retrieve it — but it will be that chainsaw (meaning it won’t have fuel). The demon can’t retrieve an object that he couldn’t lift with one hand (which means that if he has a way of boosting his Strength, he could theoretically pull a motorcycle out of his pocket).
Can you spot the problems?
Okay, this requires either a weaselly brain or a certain amount of play. Essentially, the main problem is that they have carefully balanced this power to limit your ability to acquire useful stuff with it. You can acquire quite powerful things, but you need to have seen that object, you need to be able to lift it, and you pay for it.
What they haven't balanced it for is the fact that this is the best thieving ability of all time.
Even under the strictest possible interpretations, this is an incredibly, plot-breakingly powerful ability. We realised this when our introductory game featured negotiations over some vital items that were going to be used to blackmail the very God-Machine. We worried a bit over who would end up getting them. Then I realised that it didn't matter, because if I ever thought they couldn't be trusted with them, I could simply take the item back by reaching into my pocket.
Then I realised that even when the items were bargained back to the God-Machine, I could simply reach into my pocket and take it off the God-Machine again ready for another round of blackmail.
Then I realised that there was a vault full of items just like this one, and if I ever got even a peek into that vault I could produce several artefacts of enormous power from my pockets every single day, and they could never be permanently taken from me.
This power is a thief's dream. You can't be caught with anything. You don't need to touch anything. If you can get into somewhere and take a look around, everything you see is now yours. Fort Knox? No problem. Crown jewels? Easy. Huge arsenal of weaponry? Sure. The laptops of every single senior figure in that corporation? Yup.
But the fun doesn't stop there. This power specifically takes individual objects, takes them away from where they were, and has no clause about ownership. Get yourself thrown into a maximum security prison, then find any receptable whatsoever (even a toilet) and pull out the keys to your cell, plus the weapons of every single guard you passed, and walk right out again. Scope out a bank, then take the guards' weapons and rob the place effortlessly. Or wait until a security van calls somewhere, and take the box of money you just saw.
Whoever was writing the rules completely forgot to balance them for what it actually is - the ability to take anything away from anybody whenever you feel like it.
If you feel like being pedantic, the rules say absolutely nothing about objects already being present in a scene. By RAW, you can reach into your pocket and pull out the gun that's being held against your forehead.
They also don't talk about what constitutes an object. If I once looked at an armoury, can I reach into my pocket and pull out the pin from one of the grenades inside? Boom boom. Can I extract a vital component from a machine that I looked into? Can I pull out your heart?
Being less grisly for a minute, what about "see"? We see all kinds of things second-hand. Can I produce something I've only seen on TV? If so, does it have to be live TV? There's no obvious reason why. How about a photograph? Can I look at CCTV footage of a suspect and take out her handbag to get at her ID? Can I look at a photograph of a book that got destroyed in a fire ten years ago, and pull it out of my pocket? The rules don't say no. We know the rules of time and space work differently for demons - that's their whole schtick.
Okay, how's about this. Imagine there is a photograph, or some footage, taken just before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Can I reach into my pocket and pull out the weapon that Gavrilo Princip is holding in the seconds before he fires? It is explicitly that specific object. I took it away. What happens to reality?
The powers stuff is a bit groan inducing, but relatively minor. A more fundamental problem is that DtD, despite completely revamping its setting, background and character creation, still leaves you in the lurch at the most basic point of making a demon: your Core Concept.
To recap, in Demon: the Descent you play a rogue agent from a universe-spanning God-Machine seeking to hide and thrive in the shadows while bringing about your creator's downfall - unless you have a change of heart.
When creating a demon character, you are creating an agent caught in a shadow war whether she wants to be or not. The only other option is to return to being a tool of the machinery that grinds at the core of the world. Such a character has three major aspects, three different individuals rolled into one, all of which must be tended to for the character to be complete. There’s the demon, a member of the Unchained, hiding from detection and waging war in her own way. There’s the angel, the previous existence as a soulless instrument of the God-Machine’s will. And there’s the human, the Cover identity that the demon hides behind, a person different from herself who must yet remain convincing and alive in the eyes of the world. A strong Demon character needs to integrate all three.
A demon is created, not born. The God-Machines creates its angels with a specific purpose in mind, and that purpose is narrowly defined. None of the Unchained were ever truly human, and as you go into the process of forging your very own demon, it’s a good idea to keep in mind what purpose the God-Machine created him for. Just like your character has already transcended his original purpose, however, don’t be afraid of going beyond the concept in the process. It’s the core of your character, not the whole.
Think hard about that. And what are the sample character concepts offered by this book, in the light of this information?
Most concepts only consist of a few words: “Passionate street-punk warrior,” “Hardboiled information broker,” or “Creepy librarian.” Demon concepts can also often be a little incongruous. Demons do not truly fit into society, so concepts like “Wealthy journalist,” “Ascetic businessman,” or “Fire-and-brimstone Buddhist preacher” can occur...
What the actual White Wolf?
Okay, let me unpack that a little. There are two huge problems with this advice.
Firstly, do you notice anything those ideas have in common? That's right. None of them have anything whatsoever to do with being a demon. They do not relate to your angelic past. They do not relate to your fall. They do not relate to your current relationship with demonic society or the God-Machine. They do not relate to the game universe. They are, in fact, character concepts for a bunch of random human characters in any setting whatsoever. This is terrible advice. Sample characters should be very strong examples that highlight the ways in which your game is special. "A strong Demon character needs to integrate all three," my left nostril.
The second problem is even worse, because it isn't just a case of getting some lazy work experience kid to fill in character concepts. This one suggests that the people writing the game don't actually understand what their game is about. Here's the thing: do you remember me talking about cover, way back at the top? Every demon starts the game with a human cover identity. As the game progresses, you can obtain new cover identities, while old ones may be compromised and lost, or discarded as of no further use.
Please tell me you now see the problem with a Core Concept built around the human identity you start the game with.
This is a game about being a demon with some kind of powers and some kind of relationship to the God-Machine. The gameplay is about interacting with other demons, hiding from angels and plotting against the God-Machine. Surely, surely, the only possible sensible basis for character concepts is to build them around your demonic identity and attitudes? Tell me I'm not going loony here. The human stuff you do only happens as a way to hide from the God-Machine. It is nonsensical to declare that the core of your identity is human stuff, when you might at any moment abandon that identity in its entirety.
I appreciate there are some difficulties. A lot of the time you'll be in your cover identity and interacting with humans, which means that personality and those interests are significant. But I'd have thought the obvious thing was to define your Core Concept as: a) what kind of agenda you have; and b) how you balance your demonic and human identities. Demon Incarnations (classes) are sort of relevant, but far less so.
- I used to be a messenger. Now I want to learn the truth of the universe. I use my human identities as a way to make contacts and discover new things.
- I used to be a messenger. Now I want to acquire power to build my own reality. I use my human identities as a way to make contacts and gain power.
- I used to be a guardian. Now I want to smash the God-Machine and break free. I hide out in my human identities awaiting another chance to strike.
- I used to be a maintainer. Now I want to forge a new, better relationship with the God-machine. I explore new kinds of self and relationship through my human identities.
- I used to be a destroyer. Now I want to learn the truth of the universe. I immerse myself in human identities to better understand myself.
- I used to be a destroyer. Now I want to smash the God-Machine out of revenge. I resent hiding behind a human mask.
I'm not saying this is the best character design thing ever, but it does at least give you demonic concepts that you can flesh out with detail, and which is resilient to the process of changing cover identity that we're informed it an important part of the game. So important that they completely forgot about it when explaining the most basic part of the game, apparently.
So what do you actually do?
During chargen for our own game, there was a bit of confused discussion between me and Arthur about spending points on Primum. Primum is generic Demonic Power. Essentially, to me the obvious thing to do was to buy up a stack of powers I could play around with during the game. Arthur was confused by this approach, and felt very strongly that I should spend half my points on additional Primum, which offers the ability to maintain multiple identities - although it doesn't actually provide a new identity, you need to get that through gameplay.
We realised in the ensuing conversation that we had two completely different ideas of what this game is about. More specifically, I think both of us had one notion of what this game is about, and couldn't (at least initially) see what else you could possibly want to do with it.
I apologise wholeheartedly if I have misrepresented Arthur's position.
What I saw in this game is a conflict between the God-Machine and the demons. You are a bunch of rebels hiding in the shadows, resenting and fearing the God-Machine you broke free from. To me, the obvious gameplay in this consists of shadow war against the God-Machine, striking at its weaknesses and learning its secrets, with the aim of ultimately no longer needing to fear it. Everyone would have their own methods and priorities, and for some the war might take second place to seeking knowledge or gaining personal power, but the war would define the campaign. It never occurred to me that multiple cover identities would be anything but an advanced, optional part of gameplay with its own benefits and costs. Naturally, I gravitated towards the Saboteur agenda, which seeks to directly attack the God-Machine. I interpreted the other agendas as taking less direct routes towards that same goal, with the exception of the Integrators (traitors) who seemed a bit pointless and annoying.
I believe Arthur's impression was of a game with a heavy focus on maintaining, gaining and building cover identities, and swapping around between them. This seems like it would be a more political, intrigue-heavy game, where the God-Machine is often an environmental hazard and background threat, rather than a target or antagonist. Presumably, the Agendas would be interpreted very differently. But I'm speculating a lot now, so I'll stop guessing what Arthur might have envisioned.
There's not much conclusion I can draw here, other than that this game obviously offers enough scope that two of us could interpret it in very different ways. That's promising.
During our game, I mentioned that I thought DtD could be generalised in a way that DtF's explicit Judeo-Christian setting didn't offer. The others rightly pointed out that it's easy to assume things are more universal and less culturally-specific than they are, which is true. DtD does still have a lot of Judeo-Christianity in it, but I think you could scrub most of that out and still have a viable game.
The main Judeo-Christian parts of the setting (as far as I know) are the Fall and Hell. You as demons are defined by the idea that you used to work for the God-Machine, and then you rebelled, which is extremely Judeo-Christian. And demons are obsessed with the idea of Hell, which is nominally Judeo-Christian and focuses on the absence of God(-Machine).
I don't pretend to be particularly knowledgeable about other cultures. I suspect you could do quite a lot by entirely scrapping the Fall, and simply establishing the Machine and the demons as two metaphysical power blocs, one of which is much more powerful than the other, or at least currently victorious. Perhaps you could skin them as the Pantheon versus the Titans, with the remnants of the defeated Titans now hiding amongst mortals in human guise and debating whether to cower, seek an understanding, undermine the Pantheon's activities or simply philosophise. Maybe "frost giant" PCs and "Aesnir" God-Machinealike are the power blocs. Each skin would lend a slightly different tone to what's going on, but the fundamentals of individual rebels against a single powerful entity, human disguises and glitching the universe would still apply.