Fri
May 25 2012 4:00pm
You Should Run Your Next Fantasy Game in The World of Darkness

You Should Run Your Next Fantasy Game in The World of Darkness

The World of Darkness is largely famous for the game Vampire: The Masquerade, but I think that is just the tip of the iceberg, a mere glimmer of potential. White Wolf, the company who publishes the World of Darkness, rebooted the setting to be more open ended and cogent, as well as more mathematically feasible — there were persistent statistical anomalies in the so-called “Old World of Darkness” that the “New World of Darkness” fixed. The company tried new paradigms of RPG publishing, pushing both core products and a range of limited series, allowing small ideas room to flourish without requiring that they continue in a “publish or perish” fashion. A really nice idea…but all this is beside the point. Despite the fact that the World of Darkness is ostensibly a modern setting populated with an urban horror edge, I think the framework of the system is great when adapted to running a fantasy game. I use the World of Darkness’ Storytelling System as the mechanics for my fantasy roleplaying campaign, and you should too.

 

1.) One Book is Enough for Most Players

You Should Run Your Next Fantasy Game in The World of DarknessOnce you buy The World of Darkness you are good to go; you can spin out an infinite number of characters out of just the one book. Sure, there are sourcebooks with merits galore, but they are truly optional; because the system is elegant and open-ended, all you need is the core book. Heck, if you run a Low Magic or Gritty campaign, you could easily run the game with just The World of Darkness book. Dice-wise, the system uses ten-sided dice, but you probably already have a whole mess of d10s, don’t you?

For storytellers or players who want to pursue a path towards supernatural characters, I recommend Vampire: The Requiem as a good purchase, since the supernatural powers are eerie and well balanced; Promethean: The Created, Werewolf: The Forsaken and Hunter: The Vigil all have some interesting options as well. For those inclined to tinker and explore fringe options, I can’t recommend Mirrors highly enough; it is The World of Darkness’ version of Unearthed Arcana and filled with a host of great optional rules.

 

2.) The Character Sheet is Only One Page, Single Sided.

I’m a believer that game rules are the little white lies of the hobby. They are a necessary evil that create randomization and can in the right circumstances help describe the logic of the characters and setting, but left unchecked they can swallow a session right up. Rules are best when acknowledged but glossed over, bumps in the road that help the story move right on. The last thing you want is someone floundering with pages of abilities or spells, flipping open a book to consult opaque mechanics, trying to crunch the math in their head. The World of Darkness has an “Attribute + Skill” system that is intuitive and a snap to use. Roll a number of dice equal to your relevant Attribute to the relevant Skill, add any dice for items or circumstances, subtract any dice for penalties, and roll.

 

3.) A Few Quick Tweaks to the Skills Will Make Any Setting Workable.

Now, I’m not claiming that you can just pick up The World of Darkness and just run with it out of the box, not entirely. You’ll have to make changes, but we’re talking some pretty minor ones; mostly, you’ll have to substitute a couple of skills for something else. “Computers” is a modern skill that won’t come up in a lot of fantasy games, for instance. Personally, I replaced it with “Mechanics,” since between Rube Goldbergian traps, siege weapons and mysterious ancient machines, there are plenty of things you could call “mechanical” and fiddle with. “Firearms” is another big offender; guns are always a contentious subject in a fantasy setting. I recommend taking off “Weaponry” and Firearms both and replacing them with “Melee” and “Ranged,” respectively. Some games might have a problem with “Streetwise,” I suppose, but if you think about Lankhmar, Waterdeep, Zobek or even historical metropolises like Rome or Alexandria, there is plenty of room for thieves’ guilds and skullduggery. Game Masters — my favorite trick is to look for unlikely Attributes and Skill combinations. Strength and Mechanics to fix the rune giant’s rusted cuckoo clock or Intelligence plus Socialize to make friends with the hyper-intelligent brain-elves, that sort of thing.

 

4.) Merits Allow Rules Wonks to Go Nuts While Keeping Complicated Rules Optional.

Some players like being able to complicate their character. It is all well and good to rely on abstractions and description up to a point, but there are people who like mathematical options, who like seeing a concrete ability like “Disarm” on their character sheet. It helps anchor their conception of the character. The World of Darkness has Merits to give that stripe of player what they want. You can learn a combat style like Kung-Fu and get special maneuvers…and be balanced with a player who wants to be good at martial arts but avoids the complex rules by putting their experience into just the skill “Brawl.” Players who don’t want to be swamped with ad hoc mechanics can focus on more conceptual Merits. World of Darkness gives you the best of both worlds.

 

You Should Run Your Next Fantasy Game in The World of Darkness

5.) The Combat System is Quick, Gritty and Evocative.

I know a lot of gamers have “hit point fatigue.” I mean, they have become the industry standard despite being...fairly poor mechanics for approximating health or injury. The Storytelling System is much more realistic, but not quite a “simulationist” approach; there are no crit tables or location charts, just a scale based on your size and toughness with wound penalties at one end. There are three types of damage — bashing, lethal, and aggravated — which allows a big range of harm and healing. You can get over a fist fight pretty quickly, but if you get really hurt it can take weeks and even months to heal. Getting poked with a big pointy sword is something you’ll want to avoid; the average hit won’t kill you outright but it won’t be something your character can just ignore. Because of the aforementioned abstraction and optional rules, fights resolve quickly and rely on the players and the narrator’s inventiveness and imagination…which is the best part of combat, if you ask me. Supernatural creatures are terrifying and supernatural powers are weird. Heroes are pitted against incredible odds and actually risk life and limb.

 

6.) The Humanity System Makes a Great All-In-One Sanity and Alignment System.

Alignment systems can be troublesome, but they do offer a built-in way of marking a character’s often nebulous ethical position. Humanity — or Morality, as they call it in the core book, though I prefer “Humanity” — presents an easy way to show where the character is, psychologically. Hack and slash fantasy gaming makes it easy to forget that exploring a dungeon and killing some orcs is…the same thing as having strangers break into your home and murder you, from the orc’s perspective. Morality provides a nice benchmark system for how rationalization can result in a PC who sees no problem with a little pre-emptive genocide. It also provides the mechanics for pulling a Lady Macbeth if and when the guilt overwhelms you. As a bonus, if you tilt it on its side? and start making characters roll Humanity — sorry, Morality — when they confront your campaigns Call of Cthulhu-esque horrors? You can use the derangement system as a SAN check, too.


Mordicai Knode was going to call this post “A Connecticut Yankee in The World of Darkness” as a spoof on his non-satirical “A Modest Proposal for Increased Diversity in D&D” post, but it wasn’t really all that funny. He totally uses the Storytelling System to run his Weird Fantasy campaign. Follow him on Twitter and on Tumblr if you want to know more.

26 comments
Bernie Schlotfeldt
1. Bernie Schlotfeldt
As I've noted before—I understand your love of the system, and am open to this. But White Wolf needs to get with the times and allow folks to create d20pfsrd.com style websites.

Unlike you, I do find the extra options in other books important, but the books are poorly layed out (making it sometimes hard to locate the kind of options crunch I crave), and they need a business model that makes it easier to open source (and which banks on the resulting customer loyalty and expanded user base to ensure sales).
Mordicai Knode
2. mordicai
1. Bernie Schlotfeldt

I mean; I think it would be a smart move; The Storytelling system is a good system & I am happy to pay for well tested, well imagined powers & merits & options. It seems to me that opening up the floodgates could only contribute to a richer atmosphere. I mean, if the OGL of 3.x DnD made Dungeons & Dragons the industry standard again, it seems like an open license approach to the World of Darkness could only help...especially if they want to focus on the "old" World of Darkness stuff.
Shoshana Kessock
3. ShoshanaK
I'm glad to see someone else preaching the love for White Wolf here - I've been a White Wolf player for nigh on ten years now, and while it's not the end all of tabletop (or even LARP gaming) it's been one of the fundamental gaming experiences for so many people out there. From their national club to the home-brewed campaigns, they put out solid books with great writers. Personally, I'm a fan of the "Old" World of Darkness, which I started out in (my opinion, probably one of the best game settings out there is Mage: The Ascension) but New WoD is a solid sandbox world to spread your storyteller wings.

Should they open source more like other well-known companies we know? Maybe. That doesn't take away from the great work they're doing.
Bernie Schlotfeldt
4. BRubinstein
Nice writeup! What are your thoughts on the Mage system? I notice it's one of the few you don't mention, and it omission seems very pointed. Was that intentional?
Bernie Schlotfeldt
5. Bernie Schlotfeldt
Not that our friends at Paizo want to telegraph their business model, but I suspect open source rules publishing shifts some of the profit center towards campaign setting and published scenario splat books.

That would also be a big shift for WOD, but potentially a smart move (again) in terms of creating a model that attracts more fans.

And of course there would be good-will-oriented patronizing of the company's products. [After all, as players we know we need to keep our game designers fed.]
Bernie Schlotfeldt
6. WWFan
Hi, Mordicai. I agree in principle, but they *don't* want to publish only classic WoD content. A brand new WoD game -- Mummy: The Curse -- is coming out this summer, with supplements already on the way.
Paul Weimer
7. PrinceJvstin
Isn't Mummy: The Curse a reboot of their previous Mummy game from second edition, though? @WWFAN
Mordicai Knode
8. mordicai
3. ShoshanaK

I think the world of the Old World of Darkness had a lot going for it & was arguably better or richer...but the New World of Darkness having functional mechanics makes it a no brainer for me. As a Storyteller/Dungeon Master/Game Master/Narrator, I can put together my own world, my own monsters, but what I really want from a game company is material that works, you know? I want functional, balanced mechanics...& some of (a lot of) the Old World of Darkness ain't all that functional within itself. The New one is...well, like you said: sandboxy.
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
4. BRubinstein

Actually, the omission is largely based on the fact that Vampire, Werewolf & Promethean all have the same "experience cost" for supernatural powers; the "x5 or x7" system, where "in theme" powers are dots x 5 & "out of theme" is x7. Or, if you are me, you can just say they all cost x6.

Mage is its own beast, & it always has been. As far as I'm concerned it is all or nuthin'-- you could have a fantasy game with the Mage system, but when you do that, all the other systems become lack luster. The strength of Mage is its greatest weakness, at the same time. It demands a rapport between the players & the story runner, & even the best groups can run into trouble. It is flexible, but if you flex it too far it shatters.
Mordicai Knode
10. mordicai
6. WWFan
&
7. PrinceJvstin

Honestly I find it a little hard to keep up with them these days; the blog on the site seems to be only updated with fiction & the twitter hasn't posted since April. I don't know about Mummy-- though as a side note I thought making Promethean have the Osirans & making them related to "Frankensteins" was genius-- but if it is New World of Darkness so much the better; I'll buy the core book (or order it POD from DriveThru...) & if I like it, I'll get the rest of the run!
Bernie Schlotfeldt
11. Kingtycoon
You should run your next fantasy game with the mecahnic I'm building right now!

Truth though - and you know this - I pass on the WoD ruleset - for reasons that have come up before but which I'll state very specifically: Generic rules tailored to a setting are way, way less satisfactory than a system tailored specifically to the game being run. Note that this is my argument against WotC and Pathfinder as well - the ruleset makes the game- it doesn't matter how elaborate, beautiful and well crafted the setting and characters are - they're still DnD characters - not your-setting-characters.

I think a good example of what I mean is this: Look at porting a character between systems - I can take my Crane Bushi from out of L5R (the best game that there is) and stat him up for DnD or WoD - sure I can - and he'll not be Kakita Endo - he'll be some kind of D&D statblock that has a bunch of weird attachments - Mounts? Spell Lists? They'll be so weird! A character with that stuff is a whole other person! WoD he's got what? Kinda the same thing going on - but all the Samurai flair is diminished - it's eroded down to nothing - now he's just bare-bones statblocks with a couple of... I dunno? Disciplines?

I took your advice once and picked up those WoD books - but they're pretty much of the same type as a lot of modern game-books in that they're pretty boring to look at or read.
Mordicai Knode
12. mordicai
11. Kingtycoon

I mean-- I agree that a system can evoke a story; I think that is very true, & so I agree with your axioms that far. That being said, I think there is a...Platonic Character out there, so to speak, that various rule sets can approach, so long as a DM or Storyteller (et al) & the player can come to an understanding. You talk about your Crane Bushi & I dunno, I feel like I could make that guy in most systems, or someone approaching it. You won't neccisarily have the same bells & whistles, but you can evoke the same mood. That being said, if it is "DnD Hack & Slash," maybe Endo isn't the right dude to drag into the dungeon...but there are d20 games out there were people are doing courtly stories & focusing on ancestor feats & rolling the highest initiative. I could make it work...

...& I guess the point is I could make it work in World of Darkness in a cinch. What is the flair you want to keep? Like I said, that is the whole point of Merits. If you think the Kakita "first strike" is essential, we could totally build a fighting style around that. If you think his renown as a Topaz Champion is important, well, hey! Fame (Topaz Champion) sounds about right. What, is it his clan position? Status (Crane) sounds lovely.

You are right that a generic system isn't always the answer, but that being said, for the generic system that I then bash some house rules onto? World of Darkness, all the way.
Bernie Schlotfeldt
13. Kingtycoon
I'm saying that the whole arc of the merits and the role of background as character identity is vital to the character's design. Sure we could hash out a WoD character that I'd like to play - I'm a player and a good one - I'm down with whatever and won't complain. I'm just saying- when the structure is built - it's easy to let us say - Festoon it with characters. Without that strucutre (and L5R does the best job of making one) you're kind of rootless - or at least kind of up to GM fiat a little more than is awesome.

I get what you've got going on you've had the same players for 3 campaigns or so right? They're invested already and they're into the setting - they know the stuff that they need to know. On the other hand - how many times do you have players show up to your highly stylized games who have no sense of it and throw down some character that makes no sense at all.

I'm thinking of how here and there at SR games people have shown up with... Batman. And how in Superhero games people have showed up with... Conan. Players get an idea and it's on them to have that idea - good for them - but... It's a better experience when people are invested in the setting to start - and a good mechanical carrot/stick combo can really make a setting pop to life.

D&D doesn't do that at all - at all. Players are punished by the setting at the GM's peril - WoD has humanity and Wilpower and those are good mechanics- but I strongly prefer a third or fourth kind of track that essentially says how well your character integrates into the setting - and how much people appreciate that. Honor and Glory you know?

A distinct difference- but the inward look of the WoD system - where, kind of, you're the arbiter of your character's goodness/badness... Meh? It's fine but just too - portable. It doesnt' mean anything.
Mordicai Knode
14. mordicai
13. Kingtycoon

Well wait you know that there are WoD rules for Glory & Honor, right? Anyhow, I am not disagreeing with that, & I'm not arguing about the power of a ruleset to set the tone. It totally can & does; like, a guy with hit points is going to be dumber & braver than a guy with a health track like World of Darkness or Shadowrun, because in DnD or whatever he just isn't as fragile or as "realistic." & it goes down higher & lower too; skills? Levels? Honor? All of those things. I think honor is a crazy example though; that is a perfect example of how a good ad hoc house rule can set the generic strengths of WoD into sharp relief.

I think the word isn't GM Fiat, it is Player Cooperation. If I was running Shadowrun & someone came to me with Batman I'd tell them how & why it wasn't a right fit. I'd find out what they wanted from the character-- the secret identity? Face. The sweet ride? Rigger. The gadgets? We can do that too. Then I'd have them build that character. I just wouldn't say yes! Same for Conan. You wanna be like, the Hulk? Like, Captain America? The Thor? What part of Conan is the part that is drawing you in?

Also, Batman, Conan, both guys I could totally make in WoD.
Morbus Iff
15. MorbusIff
I'd love to, but the only problem is: the White Wolf sites make this almost impossible to get (back) into. Note that I've played nWoD before - I've about 20 books from their various lines. I haven't been to their site in a few years though, and this article made me go "Huh, I should look into that again." Clicky-clicky.

First step? Click on nWoD and then Products. Get sent to a store page that forces me to agree to a TOS that means little to me before I can even see a page. OOOOk. Screw it, I'm not logged in, why not? I agree!

0 results found.

Hrm. OooOk. It was only until much later that I found the link to DriveThruRPG. Which is actually the wrong link - they've linked to a tagged page (I guess) vs. the actual manufacturer's link (on the lower left hand corner of the DriveThruRPG sidebar). Even still, it's virtually impossible to easily see what the "newest" book is for a particular system (or even what the latest lines *are*). Generally speaking, the DriveThruRPG interface is, and always has, sucked balls.

Ok. Fine. Check White Wolf's news pages! Oooof. They've not been updated since the middle of last year, at the latest. oOoOh, there are wikis! The wikis will have product lines! OH DEAR GOD, they're ugly as sin, outdated, and have red links all over the place!

All the excitement that this thread renewed? Fading away. Even Palladium's website is better than this.
Mordicai Knode
16. mordicai
15. MorbusIff

Oh man, I feel you, especially with all the "OOOs" in your comment; if you purposefully meant to evoke the dot system of WoD, congrats! Ha. That said, & while I'd really like them to have their act together-- or for CCP to give them the staff or money, if that is the case-- the products stand by themselves, with or without their support. I say, stop by your local game shop, pick it up. Folks like us can be the new grassroots!
Bernie Schlotfeldt
17. Bernie S.
Man, big agreement on the website. It's been a disaster for years. I'd be more inclined to invest in it as a game system if it felt alive and not undead...
Morbus Iff
18. MorbusIff
16. mordicai

Unfortunately, the only game store in town doesn't stock White Wolf - they've been descending down into the bowels of Magic, D&D Encounters, and Warmachine et. al. for a few years now. Grabbing game material online is my only current avenue of self-satisfaction.

For official website grumblers, http://whitewolf.wikia.com/ is a monumentally better resource for their product lines and though it too has flaws (FIX EM YOURSELF MORBUS JESUS) it's far more comprehensive and relevant than the official stuff.

@mordicai: Incidentally, when's your DnD Next article coming out? ;)
Bernie Schlotfeldt
19. BenTheHugeTroll
I'm with MorbusIff there. I recently got the MtAs rulebook pdf off of drivethru, without any prior knowledge about WOD products, but I really really liked the idea behind it. But as I'm no good at studying rules from a screen decided to get the (oh hey, it's newer) MtAw rulebook through Amazon. Oh, there's a core WoD rulebook too now ... and then I want some extra's, armory seems nice, is that new or old WoD? Not in stock? are they being reprinted or did they quit the line? Do I have to go hunting for a ST gamescreen on ebay or are they bringing out new ones? That book, is that new or old WoD, Mage first second or third edition? Just a publicationslist on their website with a division of books by storyline and in/out of print notice would be wonderful. The WoD system is simple, but it's a lot to take in (and remember) if you're coming there out of the blue (money/wealth in dots, virtue/vice/willpower mechanics, morality, merits/flaws, how/when to assign derangements). So if on top of that you have to invest even more time into figuring out which books are need and which books are greed it puts off a lot of people. That said I've played mostly RuneQuest/Call of Cthulu percentile type skillsystems and DnD, and for ease of grasping how it works for me and the players I'd go to percentile and am awaiting the soon to be published RuneQuest rules. In versatility and for psychology and immersion, I feel WoD (and probably mostly Mage) has more to offer though.
Colleen Palmer
20. arianrose
This just makes me so nostalgic for Old WoD. I beta'd Vampire with a friend and played it until about a year or two *after* they blew it up
Roland of Gilead
21. pKp
Might be because I've spent a large part of my high school years playing Vampire: the Masquerade, but the new WoD just didn't click for me. I'm currently in a Mage: the Ascension campaign, and even though it can easily get stupid with the wrong kind of players/DM, I'm having a lot of fun. I've heard a lot of bad things about the new Mage, too.
Mordicai Knode
22. mordicai
18. MorbusIff

Playtest is this Sunday, which reminds me, I should really read this adventure module & cherry pick some minis. I haven't run a straight up dungeon crawl in years! Or at least that is how it feels-- I sometimes have Silent Hill-esque places of rusted metal or Resident Evil mini-levels where you get through an underground location swarming with unearthly oddity, but my regular campaigns are more new school, less delve.
Mordicai Knode
23. mordicai
19. BenTheHugeTroll

I know what you mean; there is a frustration, a "I want to give you my money, why won't you help me?" DriveThru has a decent system of filters-- & you know, they do Print on Demand through Lightning Source-- but even then...that is partly why I recommend going to the local gaming supply shop, because actually looking through a book is important to me before I buy it. Does it have stuff I can use, or stuff I want to read?
Mordicai Knode
24. mordicai
20. arianrose
&
21. pKp

I have friends who speak very highly of the new "Anniversary" Vampire: the Masquerade book-- do you know what I'm talking about? About a year ago they came out with a massive tome with everything you need shoved into it & put into a premium binding. It was a little too expensive for my tastes, though, if I recall-- yeah, well; DriveThru has it at a number of different price points, but the $90 version is the one I'd get if I was going to get it, you know? Go all out.

Sorry, I'm rambling. Like you guys, I have super fond memories of V:tM from once upon a time. That said, the botch mechanics are the kiss of death, if you ask me. I think it is easier to run a generic game on the nWoD, but I bet you could do it on the oWoD...I mean, Vampire: The Dark Ages was basically that, anyhow, right? Which, crap, just makes me wish I owned the Dark Ages: Fae book...that is one of those out of print books that just got away. DriveThru has the pdf but I want the physical book.

(Also, I guess the DriveThru model of business is close to working; you guys may not be able to find products well enough, but at least when you do, it is there. You know? Still, too many barriers for consumers.)
Bernie Schlotfeldt
25. JustinS
But what if I don't like Dark and Gritty? The WW system is built around characters being emotionally driven, even if the players are not wanting that.

For a light system, I'm liking FATE, which is an open game that a number of different people have been putting different modified skins on. I'm in a Dresden files game, and some of the character sheets could fit on index cards if you took off all the background info and mechanics reminders. So far, it has been working well for both pressed combat and emotional moments, whith a really wide range of characters sharing the spotlight.
Mordicai Knode
26. mordicai
25. JustinS

Well, I don't think it has to be Dark, actually; my current campaign isn't very dark at all. Least, no one has the equivilant of Dark Fate.

I do have a very...roleplaying heavy style. For wargame simulations, or campaigns that approach that, it probably isn't the best pick.

I mention Mirrors, which has some ingenious ideas on how to make it more High Fantasy & less "gritty," like a "Heroic" template that adds to your health dots. It isn't going to be as "video game fantasy" as hit points, but for me, that is a positive. Your mileage may vary, but one of the things I like about WoD is how adjustable things are with a little fiddling.

I'll check out FATE; I like light systems & ideologically I think open games are attractive.

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