An Endzeitgeist.com review
This supplement for the excellent season 2 of Vs. Stranger Stuff clocks in at 23 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC,1 page SRD, leaving us with 23 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreon supporters.
So, first things first: Yeah, gender is a hot-button issue, so the book starts explicitly stating that, while the book is written with tropes associated with women in mind, it is explicitly not intended to lock out other genders. Beyond that, and this is probably more useful to bear in mind, the supplement is written from a Western perspective, and creeds of witches or traditions can vary, obviously, greatly.
As far as rules are concerned, the booklet takes the notion of witchcraft and portrays it in a simple to grasp method that seamlessly integrates with VsM-engine-based games: The “You’re a Teenage Witch” good gimmick. This is basically one of the several options that serve as an “unlock” function. The Initiated good gimmick represents when a witch has performed a special rite that initiates you into the coven, allowing you to aid witchcraft. NPCs initiating you double as trusted tutor. The notion of Covens (deliberately spelled with capital “C”) also bears mentioning. Coven spells draw an additional card as long as at least 3 members cooperate in the witchcraft. (Yep, there is a reason that “Charmed”, alongside the more obvious “Chilling Tales of Sabrina” or “Salem” are included in the suggested media list…) This also makes clever use of Easy Mode and Hard Mode gimmicks, allowing you to easily generate gradients of power.
In Easy Mode, we have the assumption of the 90’s era Sabrina sitcom, with asy and reliable magic that can be performed alone without complications. Everyone can use witchcraft (no need for the gimmicks) and the TVs are reduced. More importantly, magic is per default White Magic, unless explicitly stated otherwise.
There are three bad gimmicks included as well – there is one that makes you require a Talisman to cast spells, and is not Stuff, but other witches with your Talisman can draw one additional card. The Talisman can always be your Focus. Complaint here: If a ton of witches have this one, they can just hand all Talismans to one witch for insane amounts of cards – this should probably have a hard limit or a negative repercussion for the person losing their Talisman. As written, it can actually make the group stronger, which is probably not what was intended. Coven dependent Witchcraft is pretty self-explanatory. Tainted Magic locks you into Black Magic, either preventing you from casting White Magic, or making White Magic spells count as Black Magic, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Powerful Witch is a good gimmick that allows you to draw two cards instead of one when performing witchcraft, and mentions interaction with Covens properly. In Hard Mode, one character should have the You’re a Teenage Witch good gimmick. Additionally, in Hard Mode, this may require a bad gimmick, or an increase in TVs. An important narrative option that hearkens closer to the current iteration of Sabrina would be the requirement for a pact with a powerful entity – that doesn’t have to be the devil – it can be a ghost, a manifestation of nature, fey – you get the idea. This option is represented by the Pact Witch bad gimmick, which punishes violations of the agenda of the supernatural patron via either the loss of Toughness or all-out loss of spellcasting abilities.
Now, obviously, all of these can be mixed and matched pretty easily to create a representation of your custom vision, but you didn’t need me to tell you that, right? ;)
Now, as for White vs. Black magic – Black magic basically causes some sort of harm; it’s basically “bad”; in the absence of a proper alignment system, the fluid shades of grey distinction between White and Black Magic and the things between makes for something I very much enjoy seeing. The pdf introduces some interesting questions regarding the subjectivity and fluidity of these, and also presents rules to determine the general nature of the magic type involved.
All right, the basics of access out of the way, how does witchcraft work? The book establishes witchcraft as something being based on Intention (capital I, is, wait…intentional…I’m so sorry. I just can’t stop.) –the witch determines what the spell is supposed to achieve. You need to think of the implications and make sure the spell is specific…open-ended Intentions are dangerous. As the pdf astutely warns witches-to-be: Dead folks have no problems anymore, so phrasing is of tantamount importance. Ultimately, the main challenge of presenting this is one of roleplaying, which is something I very much applaud. Very detailed examples are provided to help you get an idea of this process. A repeatable verse, for example, is something that represents the magic – and yes, the players should write that down! (Aren’t you folks in the US thankful that the age of satanic panic is over?)
After you determined this aspect, you choose and gather ingredients – and the concept of correspondence, is explained – there is a 1:1 correspondence between emotion, value, etc.; thus, a spell dealing with happiness might require ingredients associated with that. There are three ingredients: The Focus, which is the target or catalyst of the spell; the Actor is something that usually changes or affects the Focus, often destroying the third component, the Sacrifice. Cool here: If you prefer light-hearted Easy Mode games, suggestions for e.g. meat from the butcher etc. are provided. You can play this as really dark, or as super light-hearted for-all-ages feel-good. The important thing about the Sacrifice component is, that it goes away; it’s the price you pay for magic. And if you want a bit more complexity, the pdf does offer rules for rare and dangerous ingredients as well. Beyond that, we have an optional rule that allows for powerful sacrifices, implementing a gradient of sorts.
To cast a spell, you draw a single card per witch participating in the witchcraft, compare it to the TV, and there you go! Variable success variant rules and a handy table to sample TVs/durations and example spells and effects helps the GM to judge the impact of these without any hassle. There also are optional rules for the cards being drawn face-down (GM only knows!), and one that makes an effect on Aces permanent – which can be potentially hilarious.
Here’s a pretty big thing: Cards used for magic are NOT reshuffled into the deck, unless you’re playing in Easy Mode/in a setting where magic is intended to be common. Magic is also unreliable: When a card to cast a spell successfully is a Heart, the spell has beneficial side-effects; the inverse happens when a Spade beats the TV. If no successes occur, spades can also cause feedback. Once more, plenty of examples are included. Speaking of witch (I just…can’t stop…the..groan-worthy…pseudo-jokes…) – nine sample spells are provided, and we get a really gorgeous full-color two-page cheat-sheet for spellcrafting that summarized all components. This sheet is laid out as though it was a page from an ancient grimoires. Nice touch! The pdf closes with a Vs. Stranger Stuff 2 character sheet.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard, with comic-style full-color artworks. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Lucus Palosaari, with additional content by Rick Hershey, provides something that may look deceptively simple, but really isn’t: We get a properly functional magic engine for VsM-Engine-based games, one that does a great job of depicting occult/folklore style magic. Not the flinging of colored balls of death, but the magic that we know from lore, that feels mysterious and primal.
Now, I get the obvious Sabrina-angle here, but rest assured that this pdf is not simply content trying to duplicate the series; instead, its usefulness goes far beyond the tropes of the Teenage witch – in all but the names employed for the gimmicks, this is a full-fledged magic system that focuses, much to my delight, on the roleplaying, while not neglecting the mechanical components. What really impressed me, though, would be the vast modularity of the system: You can cobble together a ton of different variations of how magic operates and build from there. This modularity ensures that you’ll time and again return to this humble little booklet. I am more than positively surprised by the depth this offers. I consider this to be an absolute must-own supplement for Vs. Stranger Stuff Season 2. 5 stars + seal of approval, and this gets a nomination as a candidate for my Top ten of 2018, as well as the EZG Essentials-tag for VsM Engine-based games. If your game has magic, then you need this, plain and simple.