Guildbook: Haunters

... a masterpiece: a damn-near perfect combination of fear and fun that teeters between full disclosure and partial concealment ... quite easily the best Guildbook ever written"

Reviewed by J. Edward Tremlett

One of the hazards of reviewing books is that we come to them incomplete: sometimes we "get it" on a first reading, but sometimes we don't, and it isn't until we re-examine them - years later - that the true genius sinks in. So I can say that some of the books for the Wraith line seemed good when I first read them, but were later revealed to be lacking, and some of them seemed lacking at first, but later revealed their true worth when my perceptions changed.

Guildbook: Haunters, on the other hand, has always been a masterpiece in my eyes. And that achievement is quite considerable, once you understand what a challenge it had to be. How do you write a decent Guildbook about a group like the Haunters: the big, bad "boo job" boys of the Underworld who are way too easy to stereotype as mad weirdoes? Do you play to the stereotype, or do you try and break it as harshly as possible?

The answer was to hand the reins over to Lucien Soulban, who created something that works with the stereotype, rather than being worked by it. The result is a quick and darkly amusing read, filled with inspiring ideas and sinister secrets... not to mention a lot of revelations left half-unsaid. None of the Guildbooks written before Haunters can match it for sheer economy and brilliance, and none of the Guildbooks written after come close to it. It could definitely be said that the Guildbooks jumped the shark, here.

The art in the book is almost perfect: the vast majority of it works with the text. J Cobb plays with his true strengths, here, and the pieces by Darren Fryendall add a strange sense of macabre realism to it all. Fred Hooper and Eric Lacombe are also right on the ball, here, too. Work by Henry Higganbotham shows up again on pages 2 and 3, and while it doesn't exactly scream "Haunter" to me, it definitely sets the mood for the rest of the book.

The layout is also very good. The "flavor font" isn't impossible to decipher while reading quickly, unlike some of the font choices in certain other books, and the little half-tone insects scattered throughout are absolutely darling. They also have a nice, running gag with half tone, backwards chapter and section names that either mock or add a certain question to the proper names for those pieces of the text.

As an added note, this Guildbook is the first one to feature a picture of a Guildmember on the front cover. In the future, they would hand the duty over to J. Cobb to do the letters and Eric Lacombe to do the portraits. However, this time it was all J. Cobb's work up front, and damn if it doesn't grip you by the throat. The cover picture for this review doesn't even begin to do it justice.

The Guildbook proper starts with part four of Ghost Story: A Road of Steel and Souls, entitled Midian's Game ("niaG s'naidiM"). Midian and Lord Ember appear to be having a game of chess, but there are several different games going on in this story. I like it because, as well as advancing the metaplot along, it shows how both how clever Midian can be, and how dangerously insane he actually is. And, as with all the Guildbook fiction, there's plenty of foreshadowing going on, here, too: see if you can catch the hints...

Chapter One: The Recruiting Process ("dessecorP tiurceR ehT") explains who they are, what they do and why, and their views on others ... as told by roaches to a still-living recruit for the Guild. A good deal of the chapter is concerned with "who": Alliances of like-minded(?) Haunters who form the different aspects of the fractured Guild. The Bedlameers, Mandelbrots and Caligarians fill roles that one might readily associate with the Haunters, but there are also other Alliances - such as the Dantes and H.G. Dwellers - whom you might not have expected to find there at all, or else put a whole new wrinkle on Pandemonium's uses. Best of all, the Alliances all make sense and present any number of possible characters.

The roaches then give us a brief rundown of how they came together, how they settled onto Pandemonium - as well as what it does to them - and their common goal of tearing down the Shroud. They also go through the Guild's relationship(s) with other, wraithly factions, most notably their odd ties with - or animosity towards - certain other Shroud-rending Guilds. The section on other WOD boojums is a bit too well-informed for my liking, but it's nowhere near as bad and overly-chummy as certain other Guildbooks were. (See what you make of the Guild calling both other wraiths and skinlanders "aliens")

Chapter Two: History ("yrotS A") presents the story of the Guild to a small boy in a sad situation - one of the creepier vignettes of the book. It covers a history of haunting the living in general, going back to ancient times that predated any notion of "Guilds" or the like: in fact, they even take credit for what happened to Pandora. They also cover the coming of Charon, who figures into the Guild's history quite a bit - especially in one section where they reveal how it was they came across their signature Arcanos (maybe...) After that, the book goes into how they formed, how one faction amongst them left to become the Spooks, the War of the Guilds, the so-called Golden Age of 19th century Spiritualism... and so on, up to more recent events.

One thing that struck me about the Guild's story is how well it showcases their rather skewed views on how Stygian history occurred, and why things went the way they did. It's also good and jaunty reading, not allowing itself to be bogged down by endless specifics or too many whyfores. The only real complaint I have is a boxed section on the Fae, which suggests far too chummy a relationship with them for my liking.

That small problem was quickly wiped right out of my mind by Chapter Three: Dearly Departed ("detrapeD yldaeD"), which is the mechanical "goodies" part of the book. It gets off to a great start with a cute little application of Pandemonium during an autopsy, and then goes on to dissect the Guild's methods - and madness...

We get Alternate Arts for Pandemonium, which all make sense and present a lot of interesting, creepy ideas. We also get a run-down on what using the Wyld does to Haunters - the Quirks that manifest within them, sometimes requiring black cloaks to hide. We also get some evocative Merits and Flaws, most of which revolve around the Guild's use of the Wyld. And we have a description of an extremely powerful Artifact that - thankfully - doesn't seem to have seen much use.

One complaint from me, here, is that I would have liked to have seen some more Haunter-made Artifacts and Relics. Given how sick the Guild's members can be at times, the imagination just staggers with the possibilities...

Which brings us along nicely to Chapter Four: So You Want to be a Haunter... ("...detnuaH eb ot tnaW uoY oS"), where we have five Haunters, all with a joined starting point which I won't give away, here... save to say that you might get a real bang out of it. The character sketches are all excellent pieces by Darren Fryendall, and the characters themselves are all interesting pieces, carefully providing enough "usual" Haunters along with some rather unusual ones. I'm not sure all the Shadow Archetypes work with the Dark Passions, but that could be easily fixed. And, as always, they give them Relics - like a Walther PPK - but don't make them pay for it in Background points. Tsk tsk...

The Appendix has a look at the major players within the Guild: Midian, Dr. Shudder, Sweet Sorrow and Corrina. All of them are well done, and all of them sound like they would be interesting springboards for games, or else good people to have machinating in the background. Especially Midian.

One thing that should be mentioned in the review is that, at various parts of the Guildbook, the reader is forced to confront what some Wraith fans might see as a grievous sin. Namely, it binds another game's workings directly into it - The Wyld from Werewolf: the Apocalypse. This not only opens up a huge can of worms for a Wraith Storyteller to deal with, but might also come across as being cheesy, much like a certain Kindred bloodline made with the "help" of the fae, or any number of other examples of first edition interplay.

In the end, the extent of the problem posed by this depends on how you, the reader/player/Storyteller, look at it. If you're a total game purist, then the notion might probably drive you up the wall. It might even rob the book of any use to your Chronicle, given how much of the Guild revolves around this plot point.

On the other hand, if you don't mind a little give and take with other systems, or enjoy crossovers - especially when done well - then the author's treatment of the Haunters' odd and abusive marriage to the Wyld will most likely stir more inspiration than anger. After all, the Haunters might have gotten some power out of the bargain, but they did not get away scot-free. They do pay for what they've taken, here.

As I often find myself in the "a little give and take" camp more often than not, so long as it's done well, this plot point presents no problem with me. In fact, I kind of like it. And if you're not so crazy about it, then I'd suggest either replacing the Wyld with some other, nebulously-defined force, or else allowing the name to stand, but having it be a falsely-applied appellation for something that might resemble the Wyld, but is really something else.

Who knows? Maybe the stories about the Haunters courting Oblivion might be more true than anyone guessed...

I said it before, and I'll say it again - Guildbook: Haunters is a masterpiece: a damn-near perfect combination of fear and fun that teeters between full disclosure and partial concealment, with lots of juicy plot ideas hiding amongst the shocks. With enough information, ideas and mechanics to keep your players entertained for entire Chronicles, coupled with a very easy read, it is quite easily the best Guildbook ever written, with only a few minor quibbles to mar it. I gladly give it 4.5 out of 5 Skulls

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