Variations on a Theme

I thought about holding that pun back for a post about the powers set, but… Nah.

Welcome back, faithful readers!

Deviant: The Renegades is but two first drafts off being in Redlines. Since I last wrote one of these posts, a good 95% of the book has appeared on my hard drive through the hard work and dedication of my amazing team.

You’ve all seen the ubiquitous Theme and Mood sections in our book introductions, something that dates back to the early Classic World of Darkness games. They’re usually the first thing a Developer writes into a book’s outline, and the choice of them defines a gameline. Mechanics, splat designs, setting elements – they all work best when they’re aimed at one of their games’ themes. The Chronicles of Darkness games all share a common mechanical and setting backbone – the themes chosen are how they differentiate themselves, and how Deviant isn’t just a Hunter/Changeling/Promethean crossover.

Which is to say, that when designing a new game, what its Themes and Mood are is a fairly huge decision. Also equally important are the tone we write in, the style of language we use, and the design elements like the page borders, the layout set for the game, and even the art style that are more Mirthful Mike Chaney’s department.

A game with depth has more than one theme of course – Mage: The Awakening‘s main theme is Addicted to Mysteries, but it’s about academic politics, the responsibility of the privileged, resistance to tyranny and a lot more. Vampire: The Requiem is about unhealthy relationships as well as its stated theme of getting through the night. We usually don’t publish sub-themes in the books (they’d take up too much space) and leave them for setting bibles and other backstage documents, but we spend almost as much time on them.

Last time we laid out what Deviant is like as a game and setting. This time, we’re talking what Deviant is about.

Theme: Isolation

David Cronenburg is famous for it, but Ovid did it first. Mutation is a metaphor for isolation. Changes in the flesh making someone less than human mirror their disconnection from society until you can’t tell which came first, the divergence or the isolation. And it progresses. The Fly seems normal at first. Tetsuo immediately after empowerment is not the monstrous cathedral of flesh he becomes, but as he’s driven away from his loved ones, he worsens, until he accidentally kills Kaori and loses control. Sometimes, a character can come back from the brink, finding something to anchor their humanity (which almost always, in Deviant’s inspirations, means what the game would classify as Loyalty). Robocop regains his identity as Murphy. Guyver and Spawn become heroes, of sorts.

The Remade have lost their place among humanity. Most are disfigured by their scars, but even the lucky few who can pass for normal are being hunted by the Conspiracy, and being identified, or going back to their pre-Divergence lives, is a fast-track to being found. So, they flee, and become isolated. Revealing themselves might gain a new ally, or it might elicit disgust and fear which drives them even further away. And that, thanks to the mechanics for Conviction, Loyalty, and Instability, is a slow death sentence. To survive, a Deviant needs connection. Or, in game terms, Touchstones.

Mood: The Cost of Revenge

If Deviant were only about isolated mutants, it’d be a grab-bag of powers without a game. Players’ characters need something to do, that drives them on. Vampire depicts the struggle to survive every night with its attendant compromises, Mummy the missions the Arisen return from death with.

Deviant is about Revenge. The Remade hide from the Conspiracies in order to gain places of safety, but instead of digging in Conviction drives them to confront their personal demons – they’re compelled to strike back, harass their enemies, and get payback for every wrong done to them. Loyalty gives them something to protect from the Conspiracies.
Setting the gameline up around this antagonist relationship – Renegade vs Conspiracy – needs mechanical backing in the games’ rules. In broad power level terms, Deviants are weaker than other gameline-types because their foes are (mostly) normal human beings, albeit well-organized ones. Our Conspiracy system will give rules for the Conspiracy-as-a-character, putting dots and dice rolls to the fight.

But Deviant is also a Chronicles of Darkness game. It isn’t as easy as good guys and bad guys. The CofD games are prized for putting faces on antagonist factions, for looking at the consequences of violence and leaving blood on the asphalt. The violence systems are designed for brutal beatdowns in alleyways, not action-movie heroics.

Our mood, then, is the cost of revenge. To the one seeking it, those they seek it on, and those caught up in the crossfire. Think Oldboy, not the Count of Monte Cristo.

Style: Gothic Science

Mage took all the Greek, Promethean took the Alchemical terms, Demon did the no-nonsense spy and technology lingo. For Deviant’s Lexicon, whenever we’ve needed to name a term we’ve gone for something that wouldn’t seem out of place in a 19th century natural philosophy or early scientific text. Look at the terms we’ve already got – Origin, Divergence, and Clade are straight out of Darwin. Within Deviant’s setting, the foremost scholars of the Remade aren’t Renegades but the conspiracies themselves, so common terms are usually something you can see a gothic secret society of meddlers in things man was not meant to meddle in using. Renegades have their own, much blunter, nicknames for a lot of things, that they tend to use when they don’t want to let the enemy define them. For example, one of the Origins is “officially” Exomorphs, but Renegade Deviants of that Origin normally just call themselves Unwilling.

And where something’s a game trait without any in-character definition for it, we’ve gone for as no-nonsense as we can – Conviction, Loyalty, Stability, etc.

And as the Awakening Developer, I am happy to report that Deviant‘s Lexicon is much, much shorter. Though that wouldn’t be hard. (Awakening‘s runs to hundreds of words, often with weird tenses, and I keep it in a spreadsheet.)

Tone: Simmering Hate

The tone for Deviant is one of suppressed violence, focused animosity, and simmering hate. The Remade are defined by a handful of touchstones, both loves and hatreds, and the Renegades focus particularly on enemies. Everyone else, for better or worse, is a bystander at best or collateral damage at worst. The Remade, to paraphrase John Wick, have focus and commitment, and dedication to making their enemies pay.

That capacity for violence is always there. The Remade aren’t like vampires or werewolves, frenzing or raging for a scene when provoked then feeling its aftermath – they’re always this pissed off, incapable of sating it. Even when a particular touchstone is punished to death, a Renegade can find more foes – and has to, if he wants to avoid degenerating into a monster.

Secondary Themes

A good game has a wider mandate than just its core Theme and Mood, and Deviant has more going on beneath its mutated skin.

Down and Out in the Chronicles of Darkness

Thanks to the conspiracies, mortal society is turned against the Remade, and the need to stay hidden, mobile, but able to strike back as Conviction dictates, along with the fact that most have nothing at all to their name, means most Renegades experience the world from the gutter. In the corebook, and especially in the Storyteller’s Chapter, we’ll be looking at advice for setting chronicles among the homeless and underclass. The game’s conspiracy mechanics will have rolls for the Conspiracy tracking any Remade who stay “on the grid” and try to use Resources, Status, and other Merits. (Those Merit’s entries in the character creation section will also warn the reader that they’re a double-edged sword) and we’ll focus the equipment and availability section of the core rules on things like Cash and alternate means of getting hold of needed supplies.

Few Friends, Many Enemies

When you’re on the run and your inhuman nature is progressively getting worse, a friend is a rare and precious thing, while enemies are everywhere. The true cost of a Renegade’s war isn’t the servants of the Conspiracy she fights or the Scars she suffers, but the toll it takes on her remaining supporters, each of whom is a valuable lifeline against Instability. Nothing stings a Remade harder than sacrificing a friendship in order to pursue their battle with the Conspiracy, and that’s going to be backed up with mechanics.

Anger at Bodily Failings

Body Horror isn’t about the gross-out. On a major level, it’s about becoming different as a metaphor for isolation, but Deviant leavens it with anger. Renegades are angry at the Conspiracies, sure (and those who have them at their Progenitors) but that’s what anyone should feel about a shadowy group bent on ruining their life and enslaving them. What fans the flames of the Remade’s legendary anger is their anger at what their changes have done to them. This should be easy to relate to, as writers and for our readers; whether you’re disabled, chronically ill, or just getting old, after a certain amount of time everyone’s body has let them down. Everyone’s had a moment when they tried to do something they used to be able to but couldn’t now, or when they realized that something had changed within them and wasn’t ever going to change back. The Remade’s anger is the anger of a war vet who came back without his legs, of an artist who’s going blind, of a public speaker who had a stroke and now can’t access his vocabulary. The flesh has failed them, and it pisses them off. Because of their broken souls, they can’t just internalize that anger – it needs a target, which is where Conviction comes in.

The Self–Martyring Impulse

Have you ever known someone in a bad situation who’s too busy lashing out at it to climb out? Have you ever known that something is the right thing to do even though it will cost you, and felt, secretly, that the cost made it more significant, more attractive a choice? I have, and the Remade do. Whether it’s because they feel worthless after their Divergence, or that they don’t deserve their friends, or a myriad of other reasons, a Renegade’s own worst enemy is often herself. Chronicles of Darkness games have a tried and true method of encouraging self-destructive behavior by characters, which is to give the player beats as a reward. When writing Deviant mechanics, use the carrot of player reward as well as the stick of mechanical drawbacks to push this theme.

People as Commodities / Self-Determination

The great sin of the Conspiracies is that they treat people as things. Even those Remade who weren’t literally kidnapped and forced into their Divergence are sought as resources or commodities by their antagonists. With their humanity fundamentally broken by their experience, how much personhood can a Deviant cling on to, and how much are they willing to let go to get their revenge or prevent others from falling into the same fate? Renegades are people who, no matter what happens to them, are determined to never be slaves again. While most of this will come through in the setting, there’s a slight mechanical edge to it – much as Demons are the perfect liars, Remade are really, really hard to mind-control, and most are stubborn as all hell on top of that.

Punching Nazis

All things said and done, though, there’s something awfully cathartic about beating on people who thoroughly deserve it, and we must cater for troupes who want to play Deviant that way, too. Not every encounter with agents of the Conspiracy should be a moral quandary, and Renegades who want to live longer learn to value and fight to protect something, not just for their own revenge.


… And I think that’ll do for today, and this post. The Deviant bible goes on to define some anti-themes; what Deviant is not about, but let’s focus on the positive. Although I might do a blog about the concept of The Buy In that we’ve spoken about on a couple of occasions before.

Once the game is into redlines, I will start picking out a couple of specific things – the Origins, maybe, or the Clades, or Devoted. Don’t know when it’ll go up, probably sometime early next year, if I’m honest.


As Rich says in his Monday Meeting blog, I, Eddy Webb (who as well as being King of Pugmire graciously wrote Deviant‘s chapter fiction,) and Matthew Dawkins (who isn’t connected to Deviant but is an alright guy as well, I suppose) will be at Dragonmeet ’17 in London, UK, this weekend. We’re not as organized as the bunch who went to PAX a little while ago so there isn’t an Onyx Path booth, but we’ll be wandering around. Say hello! I will have Deviant‘s first draft with me, and as anyone knows I care not for things like spoilers with a pint in me.

19 thoughts on “Variations on a Theme”

  1. I’m always a bit skittish when I see a game I want to play with a group with “Isolation” as a theme. I tend to worry that the characters are going to end up just as isolated from each other as they are from society. Promethean had the banded throng mechanics to help keep Prometheans together. Will there be a built-in mechanic to help keep a group of Deviants together?

    • Yeah. So, remember that the conspiracy is a “character” of sorts that the Storyteller creates with points derived from the PCs – cohort creation is a step in Deviant’s chargen, tying characters together.

  2. In the corebook, and especially in the Storyteller’s Chapter, we’ll be looking at advice for setting chronicles among the homeless and underclass.

    This was the jump-out to me. Will it have exposure mechanics? (There’s nothing like sleeping on the street to teach you meaning of the phrase frozen to the bone).

    • Extreme Environments are in the CofD’s core rules anyway, but you bet the descriptive text of it will be updated for Deviant’s setting.

  3. I know you stuck on “accentuate the positive” here, but I’m actually kind of curious as to what sort of things don’t fit deviant, at least in terms of “modified human media.” Most stories I can think of that focus on that sort phenomena seems to fit the “conviction-loyalty” dynamic reasonably well so, aside from power-level discrepancies, I’d like to know what sort of stories I shouldn’t be holding out hope for.

    Aside from the vengeance thing this seems almost too perfect for my sensibilities (and I can definitely work with the vengeance thing.)

    • A positive outlook on transhumanism. (This should be obvious, but as reactions to Promethean have shown, it often isn’t.)

      Queercoding the Remade as a whole. (They’re metaphorically the chronically ill or differently-abled, and being gay isn’t a disability.)

      Accepting your changes, characters who don’t need anyone else, characters who are happy being apart from humanity (the mechanics will first turn them into a bug, then crush them like one)

      • I get that the CofD isn’t necessarily for anyone who wants a “positive outlook” on anything, but are any of the games likely to ever have positive Transhumanist themes? Because I can’t really think of any so far.

        • Mage, I would think, as it’s about humans who realize their aspirations to become greater versions of themselves.

          Otherwise that’s really hard to do without at the same time branding the non-transhumanists as *inferior*. And when you’ve accepted that they are, then that’s quite easily to fit into Vampire or Mummy already.

        • Mage is all about being a Human, but MORE. It’s transhumanistic in a Blavatskian way.
          Vampire has the Ordo Dracul, who while not transhumanistic, are EXTREMELY transvampiristic.
          A lot of Werewolf society is “Yeah, we aren’t human any longer (if we ever were), we are something more! We are the hunters!”
          So there are a few transhumanist themes in the big three.

        • Demon, I suppose.

          Honestly I think it’s just kind of difficult to glorify transhumanism in a supernatural horror game. Being any of these monsters isn’t really supposed to be something you WANT to happen.

          Demon, though, is at least about being free and cutting a slice of the pie for yourself. In that sense I can see Mummy, too.

        • Prometheans may be trying to become human, but they study themselves, the world, and the power that animates them in order to transcend their current condition. And potentially *remake the world* in doing so (since the moment of becoming human can write a life for themselves into reality).
          The course of a game does reflect some pretty transhuman themes.

  4. If you’re constantly on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge, it really doesn’t seem like it would take that long for you to become indistinguishable from the Monster you’re trying to control. Or to just give in and become that monster in order to destroy that which you hate.

    Is there anything that helps them keep from taking that final step off the ledge, even if they can take their enemies with them?

  5. This concept seems to very much pull from the Kamen Rider series in addition to your other examples; the idea of an individual experimented on, then using the powers of their foes to fight a never-ending war against the people attempting to dominate the world, usually shadow governments of great power, cast out as a fugitive and villain. The original Kamen Rider himself even fought Nazis, as Shocker grew out of the Nazi party. Was there inspiration from Kamen Rider in this game, and will it hold a place as a reference for others?

  6. It’s starting to sound kind of like that old Incredible Hulk TV show in game format. I’ve got that sad closing music in my head, now.

    I’m starting to contemplate having my Changeling group encounter a lone Remade for a story. Pretty sure Changelings would feel kinship with someone like them, but at the same time, they’d be wary of sheltering someone chased by a powerful enemy. Any suggestions?


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