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Review: Book of Spirits & Umbra (Revised)

Book of Spirits (White Wolf, 2008)
Umbra (White Wolf, 2001)

It was interesting reading these books back to back, since they are in almost every way the equivalents of each other between the new and old World of Darkness. Yet there are real differences between them, not least because Book of Spirits falls under The World of Darkness line, while Umbra sits comfortably under Werewolf: the Apocalypse. I'll do more comparisons at the end.

Book of Spirits

Content:
Book of Spirits starts off setting Spirits as frightening antagonists. Then the first chapter sets out various misconceptions the unawakened have of spirits. Moving on, it explores resonance, loci etc. and the 'physics' of the Umbra. The second half of the book is a thorough guide to spirits, supplementing the information the Forsaken core and Predators.

The look:
Different to most Forsaken art, it combines sharp human images with the etheric look of the Umbra, creating works imfused with emotion. Good stuff.

The good:

There is actually a lot of really good detail in the book. The Umbra section in particular deals with many details left unstated in W:tA. Moreover, since the book tries to be inclusive there are some sections which you wouldn't find in a Forsaken book (such as the particular Node examples). The spirit section nicely expands on the previous material. While some of it is duplicate (by necessity), the numina are inventive and useful.

The bad:
There are a couple of big instances of bad development decisions that seriously detract from the book ('editing' is farmed out to Scribendi, so I assume that this part of editing falls under development).

The first chapter starts off by really putting a downer on religion. I don't think it was meant to, but there was a certain inevitably that the chapter would feature 'fallen' priests (notice that the Muslim example isn't fallen!). Even if you aren't religious, this makes it very depressing reading (priests are meant to be a source of peace and hope). I don't see any need to remove the chapter, but turning it around a bit or putting it somewhere else in the book would have been wise.

The second instance of this are the sections on resonance and the life cycle of spirits. I say this because both resonance and motes are generated by the same things and I feel that treating them seperately begs the question of which actions create one and which the other. Indeed, reading the resonance section first made me feel, at the time, that they hadn't read the W:tA books (and also left me wondering if there why the entire world wasn't covered in resonant hotspots).

The ugly

Apart from the two sections mentioned above, there isn't that much I can fault this book on. Once more, the real issue is the nature of Forsaken (or, more widely, the new World of Darkness). The Umbra in Forsaken is a finite place and, while the spirits aren't, there is only so much you can say. Moreover, it is a duplication of smaller sections in other books and that in itself limits its use. I am also marking it down on ideas because, although it does its job, it doesn't really provide any convincing hooks itself beyond what is available in other, more important books.  Book of Spirits is far from essential if you have the Forsaken core and Predators, but may prove useful if you want more than those books or want spirits but no werewolf.

Execution - 8
Ideas - 5


Umbra

Content:

Umbra is the Revised edition of Umbra: the Velvet Shadow and, in effect, Axis Mundi: Book of Spirits. It was one of the last 'big' books produced for Werewolf: the Apocalypse and as such is rare and expensive (depressingly, despite taking extra care, my copy has managed to get a phone number imprinted and several water stains in the two weeks of reading). It's tone is that of adventure, taking in the Penumbra, many realms and other areas, and then the final third on spirits.

The look:
The art of Umbra is big in scope, conveying the vast space and the vaster personalities that inhabit it. Both the art and the artists exemplify the best of W:tA art.

The good:
The book is chock full of ideas and flavour.  It has expanded immensely the general portions of the book, including descriptions of what it feels to step sideways and how it all hangs together.  It also includes great sidebars on myth and destiny, featuring a quote that sums up W:tA that I hadn't seen in print anywhere else:  "If a hero goes looking for his fate, he'll find it."  This philosophy is somewhat askew of my usual style of consequential realism (if you do something stupid/clever you will suffer/benefit), but makes a lot more sense for werewolf.  *PaF looks back on wasted opportunities*

The bad:
Umbra skips over the Penumbra almost immediately, same as before.  Despite the fact that it is the bit of the umbra most commonly seen by PCs, they bury it amongst general descriptions of the umbra and odd zones which are going to be rarely seen.  Similarly, they skip over the description of moon bridges - I still haven't read a decent description of what they actually look like (at least, in an official book).  This section of the book is very much a case of style over substance.

The ugly:
Each realm only gets 2-4 pages on it, which is barely enough.  Compare this to the original where each realm got 3-7 pages.  I actually prefer this format, due to the number and occasional nature of the realms, and scarily I understood the layout of the Aetherial Realm better from this than from Rage Across the Heavens.  The trouble with the realms - and the reason why the ideas score might be higher - is that they are fairly specialised.  None of them are really places you want to take an inexperienced set of players or PCs, so a game has to be going fairly well before they are really introduced.  Hopefully by then you already have a story and so the realms pretty much have to fit into the story.  This contrasts, for instance, with the mini-worlds available in Lesser Shades of Evil which can contain the entirety of chronicles.

The section on spirits was an odd size, being distinctly larger than the previous edition, but also much smaller than necessary to truly replace Axis Mundi.  They didn't update any of the spirit rules, but they did provide a much better spirit overview and the sample spirits chosen were very good examples.

Execution - 7
Ideas - 7


Comparison

Many of the comparisons have already been sketched out above.  The major one, of course, is the scope.  While Forsaken very much focuses on the local area, and so almost exclusively with the Penumbra, W:tA has this titanic monster of a universe which it tries to squeeze into one book.  Umbra Revised manages this exceedingly well but, even in condensed form, they take up a lot of space.  Moreover, despite improvements, it still doesn't tackle the actual practicalities of the Umbra too well.  This is almost reversed in Book of Spirits, where whole sections on mortals are added to flesh out the book:  even after comprehensive descriptions of practicalities there is only so much to talk about one realm. 

In W:tA, the Umbra is seen very much with a sense of adventure, containing antagonists of all colours.  In Forsaken, it is a bleak place populated by spirits who are rarely benevolent.  Similarly, Forsaken is much more usefully written while W:tA is just a lot more interesting.  The final comparison I want to draw is between the top-down spirit world of Apocalypse and the bottom up world of its successor.  W:tA never truly explained why Earth was so important.  Yes, it talked about Gaia but what made Earth unique?  If everything came from Gaia historically, how are new spirits formed?  Forsaken does explain these things, and spirits are created by human patterns.

If only they could have kept the magic.
Tags: review, roleplaying, werewolf
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