Midnight Express

... yet more proof that White Wolf should really just stick to making characters and situations, rather than try its hand at short Adventures ... In spite of starting out strong with a brilliant setting, Midnight Express is quickly derailed by poor writing, and never quite gets back up to speed.

Reviewed by J. Edward Tremlett

I think the true strength of White Wolf's World of Darkness is not in its action, but in its presence. The games at the top of their form are lush and atmospheric, presenting entire worlds for Storytellers and players to explore. And when the writing for these worlds is at its best, they lend themselves readily to story ideas - making a Storyteller's job a lot easier, not to mention a lot more enjoyable for all involved.

Given that, Midnight Express should produce a lot of really wonderful story ideas for Storytellers to use. The Relic train the Ferrymen assembled offers travel through the Tempest to just about any major destination the players' Characters might want to go, as well as a neutral ground to meet with others and a chance to find a path towards Transcendence. It is one of the most versatile mobile locations in the Underworld, almost akin to the Tardis from Dr. Who in terms of travel possibility, and the cross-factional fun you could have with it just makes the imagination reel.

In theory, having a chance to play around with the Express should inspire writers towards great heights of possibility: making for an astounding "Journey of Mystery and Adventure," as promised on the front cover. However, I'm sorry to say that the end result of this opportunity was an uneven, unfortunate mingling of success and failure. It succeeds in presenting a wonderful and evocative setting, but the suggested "adventures" - while all based on decent ideas - range from pretty good to just plain awful in execution. The useful pieces of information in the book almost make up for the poverty of their fellow travelers, but the badly-done scenarios far outweigh the good ones, and leave the vast majority of Midnight Express a waste of perfectly good book space.

The art is fairly good, and at least evokes the nature of the Shadowlands, the Tempest, the train and its passengers decently. Not all the Adventures have art that correspond directly with the Adventure, itself, but rather set-pieces of the train and its regular faces. The pieces that correspond are very good, though: Larry MacDougall's pieces for "Six-Guns and Soulfire" are mostly delightful, as are John Cobb's work for "Shadow Play" and whoever did the pictures for "The Price of Vengeance" (Great War STs might want to have a look at that last one)

As for the cover... I'm not entirely sure what the heck any of that has to do with the Express, much less the rest of the book. It looks more like semi-gothic rough trade run amok in a pool hall, to be honest. Surely they could have gotten a picture of the engine, or the train going through the Tempest, or coming into the Shadowlands... something along those lines? I also found the "winged clock" motif of the Express silly, mostly due to the addition of the half-tone skull. I like the art deco lettering above it, though.

While the layout of the book is pretty decent, the editing is not. It suffers from the usual, forgivable typos, but some of the Scenarios are either too poorly-written or too dense for easy comprehension. There are also areas of the text that look like they were pasted up out of order, causing confusion the first time they're read. This negatively affects the book's use, as we'll see later in the review.

The first part of the book is the Introduction: Into Midnight, and it is one of the best parts of the book. It sets up the rest of the journey for us, relating the history of the Midnight Express, how to get a ride on it, how it's used {and looked upon} by various factions, and so on. It also gives us a rundown on the crew of the Express, including its lone Ferryman, Nicholas. I was a little disappointed that it didn't give us any stats on Conductor J.W. Stillwell, but it's survivable.

That's more than can be said for Chapter One: A Shadow of Doubt, though. What is supposed to be a Troupe's introduction to the Midnight Express is terribly hampered by an overly-complicated narrative. There was an excellent idea at the core of the Scenario, but somewhere between there and the denouement it turns into a complex, almost algebraic affair that has you presenting different things at different times depending on what did or didn't happen the Scene before. It was so badly written that I was literally unwilling to read any further after a certain point - pg. 29, actually - and just skipped ahead to the end to see what happened.

The way gets a heck of a lot better when we get to Chapter Two: Six-Guns and Soulfire. This is a clear example of White Wolf playing up its main strengths of setting and characterization, with a fairly straightforward plot presented to get the characters involved. While some of the specifics of the Scenario are a little ludicrous {the "Tin Star" Artifact letting you turn your hands into six-guns} or dated {the write-up on the Spectre}, and some of the text was pasted in out of order, I think Storytellers will enjoy their trip to Pumpkin, Arizona.

Storytellers might also enjoy the Chapter Three: Midnight Run, as it's pretty clearly-written, sets things up well in advance and presents a simple idea that gets complicated due to outside interference, rather than convoluted presentation. I'm not certain I buy the notion of a Spectre allowing the person he's impersonating to live, rather than just discorporating his ass, but with the agents of Oblivion you never can tell. It also suffers a little from "this has to happen" syndrome, but not too terribly so.

Chapter Four: Next Stop: Oblivion is aptly named, because it is a mess. What we have here are two good ideas that could have either been short Scenarios of their own, or else one really long, epic Scenario. However, as they're presented as one, short Scenario, the latter half of the story is sadly shortchanged. It's too bad, really: I like the idea of coming across a fake Midnight Express run by Spectres, and needing to Redeem the cars, but I also find it hard to believe that the Circle would be dumb enough to board it. I also find it hard to believe that the Xenophon would lose it to his Shadow just because no one wanted to ride his train, anyway....

I also found the setup for Chapter Five: The Price of Vengeance to be hard to believe, too. While both the back story and the way the characters get involved are good ideas, the complexity of the whole affair's backstory quickly turned my head to jello. I like the notion of having a set of train cars just attach themselves to the train, presenting a mystery for the characters to solve, but the way it's presented is just too much. There had to have been a better way to do this up.

Chapter Six: Shadow Play is the last Scenario presented, and it's also one of the better ones. This takes full advantage of the Ferryman's presence on the train - as well as some of the passengers and the nature of some of the cars - to give characters a test and see if they're ready to seek Transcendence, by Nicholas' standards, at least. The chance to have characters square off against their own Shadows is always a treat, and while some of the contents could have been improved, I think this stands out as a worthy stop on the way.

Finally, we get to the other, really good part of the book - the Appendix. It goes through the Express one car at a time, and speaks in brief of the train's history and defenses. The cars are all a treat to read about, and should give Storytellers numerous, dark ideas for their use and abuse. While some of the information builds on what we've already learned from the Introduction, or other Chapters - especially Shadow Play - some of it will be entirely new.

And, for us Wraith completists, there's also the 1st Edition Errata in the back. Besides clearing up some of those pesky Page XX's, his book is one of the few places - other than Necropolis: Atlanta - where we are told only way to soak Aggravated damage is with Moliate. {And if that elicits a response of "So?" from you, then you must have missed out on those flame-wars. Trust me, this is really important info to have ; )}


White Wolf usually does an amazing job with its settings, but its Scenarios tend to leave a lot to be desired. There's also a bit of a safety valve with setting books, as even a mediocre one can still be of some use to an enterprising Storyteller who want to go the extra mile and soup it up. Scenario books, on the other hand, are largely hit-or-miss, and the margin between success and failure can be really thin, sometimes.

Keeping that in mind, I have to say that Midnight Express is a major disappointment. The setting itself kicks ass, and if the Scenarios had been better-written - and better-edited, for that matter - the book could have been a really good piece of work. But, sadly, this was not to be, which leaves us with yet more proof that White Wolf should really just stick to making characters and situations, rather than try its hand at short Adventures.

In spite of starting out strong with a brilliant setting, Midnight Express is quickly derailed by poor writing, and never quite gets back up to speed. The setting is good enough to justify a Storyteller's time to ride the Express, but at the end of the journey you're going to want at least a partial refund. I'm sorry to say that I can't give the book anything more than two skulls out of five.

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