The front of the book calls Demon: The Descent a “game of techgnostic espionage,” but what the heck is that? Imagine you are playing a cyberpunk game, but instead of having an implanted set of Wolverine-like spurs…you have an implanted flaming sword that chants “hosannah” in a blasphemous growl. Imagine a game of top secret cat and mouse like The Matrix, but rather than men in black and hackers wirefighting, H.R. Giger-esque shapes with the names of angels clash. It’s Twin Peaks, where the death of Laura Palmer was engineered by a false gnostic machine-god at the heart of the Black Lodge and Agent Cooper is an enlightened angelic freedom fighter (which he sort of already is, to be fair).
Demon is a game about building up a mortal life as a “Cover” and using that Cover to strike back at the horrifyingly Lovecraftian God-Machine that keeps the World of Darkness in chains. You know how to hit it where it hurts because you used to serve it as one of it’s constructs, one of it’s robots, one of its angels. Before you Fell.
I’ve played World of Darkness for a long, long time, and I have always been leery of the calls from fans for a “Demon” game. The World of Darkness games that work are successful because they have a paradigm that makes the material fresh. Vampires…are immortal beings who play at being the Illuminati. Werewolves…are fighting a spiritual war against pollution. Mages…are arguing about the very nature of reality. Demons seemed…too blunt. Inelegant, not so much as creatures—Promethean is my favorite new World of Darkness game and there’s nothing particularly poised about frankensteins and golems—but as a trope, as a fictional creature. Demons just have too much religious baggage to star in their own line; Dungeon and Dragons only managed to make them interesting by using the alignment to delineate Lawful Evil devils and Chaotic evil demons, and putting them in a fantasy context. Demons in the modern day? What’s the hook to that? A splatbook, sure, but a whole game line? How do you pull that off?
Going full Phillip Pullman is the answer; gnosticism and a heaping spoonful of cyberpunk, as well. Those two things take the religious angle and distort it enough to make it a playable idea. They re-contextualize it in very appealing fashion. When I read The God-Machine Chronicle I described the God-Machine as a mechanical Azathoth, an oppressive god-thing responsible for the “darkness” in the World of Darkness. It creates the status quo, it is the reason the world is the way it is. The Demiurge, the gnostic anti-god, all sputtering engines and crackling electricity. and in Demon: The Descent, that’s the “god” from whose grace you’ve fallen. The god of murdering firstborns and of Morgellons, of black helicopters and pillars of salt.
The rules for demons are simple enough that during character generation you could pick out the options that you feel like having without too much difficulty just by following the directions…but they also have a crazy secondary system that lends itself to those more inclined to game mechanic puzzles. Embeds are the glitches in the Matrix you exploit to get relatively covert powers. Pull out a lynch pin that wasn’t there a moment ago and disable any mechanical device, show a psychic paper passport to breeze past authority, or emit a Babel signal that renders the mortals nearby unable to understand each other’s languages, even if they speak the same one. Stealthy powers as you hack reality.
Exploits are Embeds taken to eleven, subtlety be damned, pun intended. Possess a house or factory and haunt the place. Kill someone and retroactively erase the last thing they did when they were alive…throw fireballs, raise zombies, the curses of Exodus, the works. Embeds and Exploits are easy, you pick and choose. You also have a Cipher, which is the way the game is built to allow the player and storyteller to design their own custom powers to fit the character. The explanation is a little wonky, but the idea is sound; everyone wants to tweak some spell or power. Build it into the mechanics, but make it so that it’s not really germane till you’ve been playing for a while, unless you really want it to be: sort of like Vampire: The Requiem’s bloodlines.
Demons have Covers. A cover is a life, an existence, rendered artificially and in abstract. At it’s simplest it can be “the electrician,” a bare bones cover with no frills used only to keep under the God-Machine’s radar…but it can become much more complex. “Darrell Fishburn, single father of Sarah and Tyrell Fishburn, who lost his electrician job in the Recession and has been struggling to make ends meet working two minimum wage jobs, who loves the bounty hunters from Star Wars.” Covers are as good or bad as they needed to be for the God-Machine’s purposes, before the demon fell. If you need an angel to slip in to a public building to rig up an electrical fire, “an electrician” will serve the purpose; if you need someone to be such a good first date that he makes someone cancel their awkward plan with someone from OKCupid, thus preventing the birth of the Chosen One…you might get Darrell.
Maybe the demon falls because their cover is too good; “Darrell” can’t leave those kids when his mission is over. Or maybe the angel, a Watcher, has a crisis of “faith” as she questions the wisdom of setting an electrical fire in a library. Could be a random glitch, or anything. But you Fall, and from then on, you’re the enemy. The adversary. You can permanently blow your Cover, become the creature of burnt ozone and brimstone you truly are, flaming swords and rail-guns, and you will be a dark avatar of freedom…but without Cover, you’re doomed when the heavy firepower of an angelic hit squad comes after you. You can blow your Cover to invoke your demonic form, or strain against it to invoke single aspects.
Seven different innate powers—though you can buy more with experience—that make you able to brawl on equal terms to the worst the World of Darkness and the God-Machine can toss at you. A xenomorph-esque barbed tail, a crown and aura of glory, plasma drives, turning into swarms of locusts: pick your poison. How do you get Cover back? Well, you can hijack it from Heaven next time they prep for a new angel to infiltrate the mortal world…or you can bargain for it, piece by piece with mortals. Demonic Contracts are about stealing pieces of your life…because someone needs it more than the human. Sell your memories of true love to bring your aunt back from the brink of death…and now some demon out there has that “true love” as part of their Cover.
The God-Machine is out there. It wants to reclaim you for scrap, and to tie up loose ends, but meanwhile, the gears keep grinding. A new airport hanger full of creatures of smokeless fire…who are condensed into tanks and put onto commercial airliners to be spread a chemtrails is built. A kid in Queens has his science homework eaten by Cronenberg dog and fails his final project won’t grow up to cure Alzheimer’s. The events seem random, but they aren’t. There’s a vast game being played…and demons decide to take up the game. A spy story, a hacker story, a heist story; demons hijack the God-Machines plans for their own ends, or sabotage them or…try and fail to be taken back into it’s good graces. Build the right Cover and you can infiltrate the airport and take the jinn hostage, commandeer the facility to their own ends and then get out fast before the hideous fist of the God-Machine’s retaliation comes in the form of screaming biomechanical angels. Hope the dice come up in your favor, bub.