Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/03/11/tablet-
I’ve always been a huge fan of the various Mummy products White Wolf has put out over the years. The original supplement for First Edition World of Darkness was something I used a lot over the years, and I was thrilled when my favorite version of the undead got their own full core rulebook in Mummy: The Resurrection. Then White Wolf killed off the Old World of Darkness and replaced it with the new version. I’ll admit I strongly prefer the oWoD, but that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying products put out for the NWoD like Left Hand Path and Blood Sorcery (Winner of Diehard GameFAN’s Best Sourcebook Award in our 2012 Tabletop Gaming Awards!). Still, something has always been missing from the New World of Darkness, and that was Mummies. That is… until now.
Back at the tail end of 2012, White Wolf and Onyx Path Publishing did a Kickstarter for Mummy: The Curse, which would be the first NWoD core rulebook release since 2009 and the first appearance of Mummies in that setting. I admit, I wasn’t impressed with how the first two White Wolf oriented Kickstarters were handled, nor was I impressed with either of the end products. Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition Companion was flat out disappointing, while Children of the Revolution was merely mediocre (but had some great art). However, Onyx Path’s third Kickstarter, for Werewolf: The Apocalypse 20th Anniversary Edition (Which I’m currently going through) was a vast improvement in the way they did things, so I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and joined with 1,766 other Kickstarter backers to fund Mummy: The Curse. The campaign was not only successful, but it raised 350% of the funds Onyx Path Publishing was looking for, ensuring several more releases for the new Mummy line would be forth coming.
So I’ve had Mummy: The Curse for a month and a half now and I’m just now writing the review. This is for three reasons. The first is that at nearly three hundred pages, this is a huge tome of text to wade through and make sure I understood all the important details before critiquing the product. The second is that I wanted to re-read the core World of Darkness manual and flip through all three oWoD versions of Mummy for comparison and contrast reasons, which meant even more time spent reading and researching before writing. The third is that because Mummy: The Curse is such a esoteric game, it took me a while to figure out what I was going to say… and more importantly, how to say it. In the end, though, I can sum up my feelings on Mummy: The Curse is one sentence: Mummy: The Curse is by far the best core rulebook for the New World of Darkness line in all aspects, but it’s also the hardest to recommend simply because it’s going to take a very specific group of gamers AND a pretty methodical Storyteller to make a one-shot, much less a Chronicle, work. Intrigued? Then read on my friends…
The thing about Mummy: The Curse is that it’s probably too esoteric for a lot of gamers, no matter how wonderful the design of the overall package. That’s because, more than nearly every other tabletop RPG that I can think of, players give up huge chunks of their character to the Storyteller. In some ways, it’s like a lot of old video game RPGs in which you can customize the character, but in the end you’re still following a path laid out by the developers (or in this case, Storyteller) with very little room for deviation. Unlike most games, the Storyteller will actually be responsible for at least one of your Mummy (called Arisen in the same way a vampire is a Kindred or werewolf is a Garou)’s powers. As well, much of your character’s history, back story and very existence is decided by the Storyteller rather than the player. All the players involved in a Chronicle need to be comfortable with the idea that what they are mainly providing is an aspect of the character they are playing, rather than the fully fleshed out being they would normally play in an RPG. This is a bit daunting of an idea, and I can totally see how some gamers will instantly be turned off by this concept, especially those that dislike playing pre-generated characters in an adventure. Most gamers want to create a character from scratch rather than play a character that is handed to them, and I totally understand that point of view. In that same vein, some players don’t want to give up control of their character to the person running the game, even slightly. If either of those sound like you , Mummy: The Curse is not for you. In some ways, you are a passive participant in the character’s eternal existence, and this is a DESIGN CHOICE that you have to be aware of going into the game, lest you sit unhappy or worse, make the game miserable for your fellow players.
On a parallel level, the sheer control the Storyteller has over the PCs thoughts, dreams, hopes, personality and history means they need to be exceptionally good at running a game. Mummy: The Curse is NOT a game for a person running a tabletop title for the first time, nor is it even for someone who casually runs a game now and then. A Mummy Storyteller needs to be exceptionally organized, have an end game in mind from the very beginning that he or she pushes players to, but they also need to make it feel like the players have a lot more control over where the game is going and how they get to that end point than they actually do. The game offers a lot of rules and mechanics that could easily be abused by a bad GM to force players into a very linear adventure, where all they are really doing is rolling dice rather than acting out or breathing life into a character. Again, these mechanics are a design choice, and in the hands of a good Storyteller, they will add to the overall tone and feel of a Mummy chronicle, but in the hands of a bad Storyteller, these same mechanics will come off as (or purposely be used to say), “Play this adventure exactly how I want you to or you will be punished.” Again, all these things are why I say you need a very specific makeup of people to let Mummy: The Curse play as it is meant to. You need players who are willing to give up a larger chunk of their character than they ever have before in exchange for a unique experience that may really let them grow as a roleplayer, in addition to a Storyteller that can craft an intricate adventure without abusing the mechanics of the system OR the trust players have to put in him or her to make this game work. If you have all the people lined up correctly, Mummy: The Curse promises to be one of the most fantastic and original RPG experiences you’ll encounter. For everyone else though, Mummy: The Curse is best left read rather than played.
So let’s talk about the core concept of Mummy:The Curse so I can better illustrate what I’ve been talking about. Each player usually takes on the role of a Mummy. Now this can vary. Perhaps one plays a Mummy, while another plays a servant of the Mummy, and a few others play cultists devoted to it. Because Mummies are so rare, as well as arguably the most powerful creatures in the New World of Darkness, a triad or more of Mummies might be akin to say, oh, a Technocracy convention in town where the guest speakers are Caine and the Wyrm. Okay, maybe not that bad, but I’m trying to make a point that Mummies are amazingly powerful, from being able to hurtle a gross of meteors from the heavens at their enemies to being able to bring the dead back to life. However, this nigh unstoppable power is tempered by the fact they are awake and walking around the earth too often. For long stretches of time, Mummies lie dormant in their tomb (or Judges forbid, a British museum) until they are awakened. Various ways to awaken a mummy include despoiling their tomb, trying to damage their physical form, being summoned by their cult which is in need of their aid, or a Storyteller device known as the Sothic Turn, which is a time every X number of years (purposely leaving out the number for spoiler reasons) where Mummies arise without a specific reason. Once awake, Mummies are at their most monstrous and powerful, able to tear apart even some of the most powerful creatures of the NWoD without thought or hesitation. The catch is that, indeed, when they first wake up, Mummies really aren’t capable of thought or hesitation. They are little more than death dealing automatons until their memories catch up with them. Some Mummies, however have lost much of who they are to the ravages of time and the constant phasing between Lifeless and Deathless cycles. Others, however, retain a decent amount of recall regarding who and what they once were – but not all of it. This concept of memory and what makes a being him or herself is the primary focus of Mummy: The Curse.
Memory is somewhat, but not really, diametrically opposed to the Sekhem trait. Memory replaces morality/humanity/what have you in Mummy. A character starts off with three dots (out of a possible ten), but you can purchase more in the character creation process. However, when first awakened, Memory is at zero, and it slowly climbs to your starting level. Memory can be raised or lowered through the course of play. The higher the Memory, the more the character remembers about themselves and all of their previous awakening. The lower the Memory, the more the Mummy is an automaton, going about the mission it was resurrected for and little else. Sekhem, on the other hand, is the pure magical energy animating the Mummy. You start off with a full ten points of Sekhem, which slowly dissipates throughout the adventure/campaign/Chronicle. The lower the Sekhem, the lower the characters abilities and powers get. Once Sekhem hits zero, it’s time to go back to sleep until the next summons. With ten full points of Sekhem, a Mummy is at its most powerful, but it’s also when the Mummy’s Memory is at its lowest, making it a potential mindless killing machine bent only on its mission – if it is even aware of that at first.
Now a Mummy can slow his Sekhem loss by staying true to the reason he was raised. Staying on course slows the process, while taking time to explore the world they have awoken to, or rediscovering who they are (say, raising memory) speeds the process of Sekhem loss up. So how closely does one follow the path laid out for them? Do they plow forward with the mission? Do they abandon their quest in order to figure out who they are? Do they see how far they can stretch out their time on this plane to accomplish goals of their own in addition to the one that raised them? These are all questions the player must answer, knowing all the while the Storyteller can call for a Sekhem roll on them based on their actions, or more importantly, inaction.
Hopefully, with all this in mind, you can begin to understand why so much of the PCs background and history are given over to the Storyteller rather than the player. As a good deal of Mummy: The Curse revolves around self-discovery, if the player has every tiny detail of the PCs back story determined before the first scene ever begins, then much of the very reason one plays Mummy is lost. There’s also the inevitability of player knowledge bleeding into character knowledge. I know not everyone is guilty of exploiting this, but it does happen to some extent. As well, in the case of Mummy: The Curse, knowing everything, or even a huge chunk about your character’s back story, robs the player of the thrill of discovery or shocking twists that may occur as the Mummy regains some of its lost memories. So as you can see, Mummy: The Curse not only requires some pretty skilled players to make it work, but also a very strong sense of trust between players and Storytellers. Players need to be able to trust that they can hand off what is usually a big chunk of the player domain to the person running the game. Storytellers, meanwhile, need to be able to craft an intricate story while making sure the back stories they have planned or want to use jibe with the rough personality guidelines the players come up with. You don’t want to slam a player with things that are completely alien to the core concept of the character. Unless you’re Vince Russo, but even then Mummy: The Curse isn’t late 1990s WCW.
So that, my friends is a snapshot of one of the most important aspects of Mummy: The Curse and why it is one of the most awesome and innovative ideas for a tabletop RPG I’ve seen in some time, though that same originality is what will no doubt bar the game from being anything more than a very niche product. Still, while the vast majority reading this probably aren’t the audience for playing Mummy: The Curse, I can’t recommend READING the book enough to see just how outside the box the game is while still holding true to traditional RPG trappings and White Wolf style mechanics. There’s still so much more to the game I haven’t covered, but seeing as we’re 2,500 words in already, let’s give a quick overview of what you’ll find in the core rulebook, save for the above concepts we’ve already discussed.
Mummy: The Curse is actually two books in one. The first half of the book is the “Player’s Guide” while the second half is the “Storyteller’s Handbook.” If you’re familiar with most White Wolf games, you’re used to these being two separate purchases. Part of me is quite skeptical about having both in the same book, if only because you KNOW whoever picks this up is going to read both sections and get spoilers a plenty. I’ve yet to meet a gamer who, when given a similarly laid out book, hasn’t at least snuck a peek at what they shouldn’t have read. So while I like that you’re getting both books for the price of one, I do worry about the fact the World of Darkness game with the most locked in metaplot and a game heavily based on secrets offers that almost irresistible temptation to those that would play it. Again, this harkens back to my repeated comments that it takes a very special type of gamer to “get” Mummy, much less play it.
Chapter One is “The Arisen World” and it is here the book discusses how different Mummy is from other Storyteller products. I do find it interesting that both here and in the Kickstarter video that the Old World of Darkness version of Mummy is brought up, and how that game featured the most heroic characters in that system, while Mummy: The Curse does not. I beg to disagree, because I find the Mummies of Mummy: The Curse to have just as much heroic potential, if not more. After all, a hero puts the mission before their own personal desires and needs. They’re selfless and self-sacrificing, which in many ways are traits the Arisen hold. As well, it takes a very different kind of hero (but one no less heroic) to stand in the face of everything they have been told is how they are supposed to act, what they are supposed to do and how things are supposed to work and say, “No, you are wrong,” drawing a line even in the face of madness and physical torment. This is another thing many Arisen will have to deal with. So no, I disagree with the creators that the Arisen are less heroic than their oWoD counterparts. Closer to any other NWoD “race,” the Arisen have the most potential for heroic deeds and noble actions – it’s just up to the player to get their character to that point.
Chapter One also covers the back story of the Mummies in this world. You’ll learn about the culture they came from, the land of Lost Irem, who made the Mummies and why, along with the reasons for how the Arisen are the only true immortals in the New World of Darkness, and the awesomeness and horror that comes with that powerful gift. Chapter One is all the rich information about the setting and the characters that inhabit it that is needed in order to understand the core concept of Mummies, as well as the options open for character creation.
Instead of character classes, clans, and the like, a Mummy in The Curse is a multi-faceted creature with many options to choose from. You’ll first have to pick between one of the five guilds that Mummies come from. First there is the Maa-Kep, who are the middle management caste in the era when Irem was still known to the world. They are the masters of amulets and tend to be modest, hard workers. The Mesen-Nebu are the Alchemists, the Sesha-Hebsu are the scribes, the Su-Menent are the priests and the Tef-Aahbi are the masters of idols and effigies. Picking a sect (the one that best fits the character) nets you that Guild Affinity – a multi-faceted power that the Mummy can use regardless of Sekhem or Pillar ratings.
From there, the player picks from a list of forty-two Judges. The Judge is basically the specific godlike being the Mummy serves, directly and indirectly. Choosing the Judge determines the Mummy’s defining Pillar and gives them another Affinity. As you can see, there are a LOT of options laid out for character building in Chapter One, and it’s not even the chapter devoted to the concept!
Chapter Two is “The Modeler” and this IS the actual character creation area. Here’s where you do the usual World of Darkness stuff like choose your Attributes and Skills, but also your specific Mummy oriented stuff. I’ve mentioned Pillars briefly, and these are categories comprise an Arisen’s five-faceted soul. The defining Pillar is the core aspect of the Mummy and it’s the most powerful. The five Pillars are Ab (heart), Ba (Spirit), Ka (Essence) Ren (Name) and Shuet (Shadow. The defining Pillar also gives your character another category to belong to, similar to the earlier guilds. You have the passionate and instinctive Lion-headed for the Ab, the Falcon-headed adventurers for the Ba, the strong willed Bull-headed for the Ka, the studious and knowledge seeking Serpent-Headed for the Ren and the contemplative Jackal-Headed for the Shuet. So you can have a Jackal-Headed Tef-Aahbi, but also a Serpent-Headed Tef-Aahbi. It’s a combination of things, similar to birth form and moon cycle combinations back in Werewolf: The Apocalypse.
After that, you get your Affinities and Utterances, which are the two types of powers Mummies get. Affinities are related to a specific Pillar, while Utterances require mastery of two or three Pillars. You get three affinities – one for your Judge, one for your Guild and a third one that the Player or Storyteller picks out. You then get one or two Utterances. You get two if you have at least one dot in each of the five Pillars. So it’s up to the player to get an extra magical ability by having a little in all areas, or only one Utterance, but a higher level in less pillars, which will give them access to the upper tiers of the Utterance. Personally, I’d take the two Utterances because a) I like well rounded characters, b) extra crazy awesome power and c) Utterances cost a lot more than Pillars in the beginning of the game.
Finally, you do the merits, willpower and then the character is given between 20 and 125 experience points right off the bat to spend. Hey, Mummies are the oldest and most powerful creature in the NWoD. It’s like the Elder trait from the old Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand book in a way. The chapter follows the character building process, with detailed descriptions of all the new stats that are unique to Mummy: The Curse and how they work, along with new merits and the personalities of the five “heads” you can choose from. Personally, I’d have preferred to see all of this BEFORE you launch into character building, as that flows better and lets a player know his options first before having to choose them, and thus flip through the book looking for descriptions and a better understanding of what you just read. You don’t throw algebraic equations at a kid without first explaining what algebra (or an equation) is, do you?
In fact, my only real complaint about Mummy: The Curse is the layout of the book. So much could be positioned in a different order to improve both the flow and absorption of the material itself. Things just aren’t laid out in a smooth manner, meaning you’ll have to flip through the book constantly to look for something or for clarification. For example, I’d have put the description of the five heads right after the description of the guilds. That way, you get both set of options clarified and discussed in depth before you have to go into character creation. I’d also completely rearrange how affinities are listed in the book. There are a lot of affinities – eleven and a half pages worth. Mummy: The Curse chooses to list them in alphabetical order in the name of the Affinity. This is okay, but it is not search friendly. What the editors should have done is laid out the Affinities first in alphabetical order of the prerequisite and then based on the level of the Pillar needed. So for example, instead of powers being listed ABCDE, it would be by AB, BA, KA, REN, SHEUT – each with their own bold face imprint, so the reader knows which Pillar they are under, and then under that heading (or sub-heading) you would have the powers arranged by, say, AB *, then AB **, and so on. God, this would have made searching for powers so much easier, ESPECIALLY during character and NPC creation. Now, Utterances make sense to be strictly in alphabetical order by power name, because each Utterance has three levels, each of which requires a different Pillar (again, why you want to diversify in Pillars), but man, they could have definitely done a better job with organization in this book. Things just seem slapped together without any real sense of cohesiveness. That doesn’t lessen the quality of the game or its mechanics, but it does make the book feel clunky and neither reader nor player friendly. I will end this negative Nellie section with one last note – the PDF for Mummy: The Curse is kind of poorly made. You’ll find it has loading problems regularly, be it on a gaming style computer or e-reader. It’s just not layered well and, often times, if you try to change the size, part of the page simply won’t load up so you’ll have to move forward or back a page, then come back to the page you were reading, try to resize and hope you don’t have to repeat. This was especially painful on a Kindle Fire and/or iPad, but PCs seem to handle the PDF better. Still, if you’ve worked in the printing industry or made a lot of PDFs in your time, you’ll be able to spot some noticeable design flaws in how the PDF was made almost instantly. The good news is that none of these issues are major, merely annoying, and that they certainly won’t plague the physical copy of Mummy: The Curse. As well, while these issues plague the first and second version of the PDF given out to Kickstarter backers, there is a very good chance the final version that will be sold on DriveThruRPG.com will get these errors cleaned up. After all, last year the PDF version of Cthulhu By Gaslight was horrendous when it first came out, but Chaosium cleaned that up. I have no doubt Onyx Path Publishing will do the same, but just in case – here’s your warning.
The final chapter in the “Player’s Guide” section is “The Inhuman Condition.” This chapter is a combination of more information about the Arisen and the culture that spawned them, along with mechanics like how they heal, Sybaris (the reaction that a Mummy causes in other creatures), how a Mummy is resurrected after being “killed” in combat and more. It’s a nice, informative section with lots of helpful stuff to play a Mummy, both roleplaying and roll-playing wise, and a good way to end this half of the book.
The second half of the book is the aforementioned “Storyteller’s Handbook” and because so much of Mummy: The Curse rests on discovering secrets, be it about oneself of the world around them, I don’t want to go into too much detail here because it could potentially lessen the effect the game has on you. So let’s just lightly touch on it.
Chapter Four, “The Scroll of Ages,” gives the Storyteller a lot more information about how Mummies came to be, Lost Irem, the realm of Durat and other things players will have to discover as they go through the game. Chapter Five, “Faces of Undeath,” gives the Storyteller information on various NPCs and antagonists to fill little his or her Chronicle with. It also talks about how different Mummies will treat common things, like their cult or their tomb, quite differently. It’s quite clear that even though all Mummies have a compulsion to finish the task they were awakened for, they will all go about it in quite different ways. Chapter Six, “Vessels of Power,” talks about the artifacts Mummies are often compelled to seek out and how they work. It also talks about the potential powers and curses associated with them. Chapter Seven, “Framing Immortality,” is a chapter on how to properly run a game of Mummy: The Curse, and due to the nature of the game, it’s arguably the most important in the book. Anyone thinking of running this game needs to read this chapter several times over to prevent their Chronicle from turning into a game where the players are just kind of there, rolling dice and acting as Automatons while the Storyteller dictates everything via Sekhem drop rolls. There is a massive amount of behind the scenes and metaplot information in this chapter, ranging from locations to drop your Chronicle in to how to come up with a story that makes sense, where multiple Mummies are active at the same time AND working together.
Finally we have the Appendix, “Eve of Judgment,” which is a full length adventure for players and Storytellers to try set in Rio De Janeiro. It’s a pretty straightforward affair, but it captures the heart of what Mummy: The Curse is all about, constantly asking philosophical questions and making you question not only who you are (as a character) but what is the right action to take as a Mummy, as a sentient being, and as a servant of the Judges.
Okay, I need to stop. I’m at 5,000 words and I feel like I could write another 5,000 about the game because there is so much I want to talk about and praise the book for doing. Instead, let’s just leave it at “BUY THIS WHEN IT IS AVAILABLE TO ALL” and call it a day. For those that already have it, we can always go even further(!) in depth in the comments section.
All in all Mummy: The Curse is simply an amazing core rulebook, and page for page, it’s the best game set in the New World of Darkness yet. Mummy thrills me because it’s such an introspective game, even while your characters wield insane amounts of power. Yet, for a Mummy, the ability to say, scorch miles of earth with but a thought or raise an army of zombies with the flick of his or her wrist is nothing compared to the mental and spiritual aspects of the game. All this power, yet the focus will rarely be on combat. This is so beautifully done and balanced out that I am chomping at the bit to see the other upcoming releases for the game. I can’t strongly recommend reading Mummy: The Curse enough, but I do have to again reiterate that this is not a game for everyone. You’re going to need a very specific dynamic between the players and Storyteller for it to work. This is not a game I’d run with random strangers at a convention, for example. If you can find the right group to play Mummy: The Curse with, you will be rewarded with one of the most unique and philosophical tabletop games ever released. Sure, Mummy: The Curse will inevitably be a very niche game that only a small cross section of tabletop gamers will be able to play and enjoy the way it was meant to be played, but just because the game is a very niche one doesn’t make it any less awesome.
[5 of 5 Stars!]