Referee’s Bookshelf: The World of Darkness

What with The World of Darkness and Vampire: the Requiem being under consideration for my beginner’s game, I though it was past time I caught up with the New World of Darkness line and take a look at the core book.

I genuinely like it, but I also think it is an enormous mess.

The streamlining that’s been applied to the Storyteller system to yield the Storytelling system (or “Storyteller system 2nd Edition” for those who don’t believe in changing the name of a system just because it has had a thorough makeover that leaves its fundamentals mostly intact) makes a lot of sense, and I like where the system currently stands. It might have some probabilistic wrinkles, though thanks to the changes to the way 1s work (they don’t subtract from your successes now and they only cause a botch if you’re making a Chance Roll) I think it is much less wonky than previously, and perhaps more importantly for a game which purports to want to put the story above rules the rules seem to make a sort of intuitive sense and seem capable of fading into the background for the most part.

Likewise, I dig the idea of having the core game be focused around ordinary human beings, with the various supernatural stuff essentially layering onto the top of the human baseline. However, I think a referee working solely from the core book would find they had to do a lot of legwork to come up with setting details and antagonists; the former are more or less entirely absent, and as far as the latter go the only developed supernatural gribblies in the book are ghosts, and whilst a skilled GM could construct an entire campaign around ghost-busting you’d need to bring a fair amount of finesse to bear to save it from becoming repetitive.

Where I think the book is a complete mess is in its organisation. The thing is stuffed to the gills with game fiction, with most of it towards the front of the book, and spends its opening chapter in a maddening dance with the reader as to what sort of game this is and what the setting is actually like. (Of course, the latter part might arise from a desire to keep spoilers out of the game’s Player’s Handbook equivalent, though I think it goes too far in this respect – even 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons let players know that the game was about dungeons and dragons.) For crying out loud, the book doesn’t even bother defining what roleplaying or storytelling games are until the last chapter, and even then the description is so crap I almost wish they hadn’t bothered.

In particular, the sniping at other styles of gameplay is insulting and patronising and seems designed to encourage White Wolf fans to behave like elitist shitheads who delude themselves into thinking their play-pretend time is superior to others’ play-pretend time, and a lot of the chapter is weighed down with a ridiculous attempt to apply terms like Scene and Chapter to roleplaying game sessions and their component parts without giving any thought as to whether mashing up theatrical and literary terminology makes a blind bit of sense on its own, let alone applying that unholy chimera to analysing what goes on in an RPG. (I particularly dislike the use of “Scene”, which imply a particulate approach to events in a session which I find just as irritating as the use of “Encounter” in 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons – in my game sessions typically we don’t have gaping temporal discontinuities between one important section and the next, at most we have downtimey bits where the players get to mull things over and choose what they do next which could in themselves develop into significant incidents if that discussion gets heated or could just come down to the players quickly deciding to go to point B having exhausted the possibilities of point A.) Although I despise Ron Edwards’ deeply offensive “brain damage” comments in relation to White Wolf games, I begin to see where they are coming from – if I encountered someone who genuinely thought that the use of Scene or Chapter in this book makes sense in any storytelling medium I would have cause to wonder too. (Though unlike Ron, I don’t think World of Darkness games prompt people to apply the terminology as used here to fiction in general – at least, the presentation here is too rambly and ill-communicated to really blast someone’s sanity to the extent Ron talked about.)

Part of the book’s messy structure seems to be down to the designers writing the book and not giving it the “does this make a blind bit of sense to someone who doesn’t already have a working knowledge of tabletop RPGs?” test, part of it seems to be due to ideological decisions – the Storytelling advice specifically pushes a very narrow style of refereeing (basically what the Forge called “illusionism” right up to the hilt, with the referee making sure no player choice actually meaningfully changes the scenario to a sufficient extent to derail the referee’s beautiful coherent story arc). Thankfully, the game’s rules actually seem diverse enough to make Storytelling a “big tent” system, capable of supporting a wide range of play styles, but White Wolf’s groupthink clearly can only acknowledge one as being legitimate.

The thing which really bums me out of this is that the World of Darkness franchise – Vampire in particular – used to be really good at snagging new people for the hobby, especially folk which the 1970s and 1980s generations of games hadn’t been so good at reaching out to. This, conversely, is a book structured with little apparent interest in accessibility – a shame, given how accessible the system actually is – and which seems intent on indoctrinating any new player or referee who does persist to the end with a particular ideology of gaming which the system doesn’t especially support. (It doesn’t necessarily get in the way of it, but the Storytelling advice is clearly written by someone who thinks World of Darkness is some sort of hyper-focused Forgey story game and it is quite clearly nothing of the sort.) In addition, a confused goth who just wants to play Vampire now – at least, under the setup assumed in this book – has to get two books, which feels like ramping up the price of entry sufficiently to create a really nasty barrier for new players.

Indeed, White Wolf’s recent shift to an all-print on demand model seems to suggest they have completely given up on the idea of recruiting new blood for the hobby. Nobody buys a POD RPG rulebook unless they are already very much aware of what the hobby is and are very sure they want this book and actually know where to go to get this stuff. For what used to be a major source of recruitment for the hobby to come to this pass is a crying shame.

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8 thoughts on “Referee’s Bookshelf: The World of Darkness

  1. Nice review.

    The thing is stuffed to the gills with game fiction, with most of it towards the front of the book, and spends its opening chapter in a maddening dance with the reader as to what sort of game this is and what the setting is actually like.
    I did notice this when I was looking through it at Dan’s. Lots of greybox text, which I seem to remember was mostly or all the same overarching storyline but was incredibly vague about what that might be. That’s also a bit all-eggs-one-basket, because unless that specific story grabs someone, you don’t have anything else; I’m not sure it’s the best approach, even for a game trying to focus on story.

    It does sound like a bit of a disaster zone though – in particular, I think I’d personally write off a rulebook that didn’t equip you to actually run a game as is. D&D demands three rulebooks, but is at least up-front about it. That being said, I’d probably be up for a one-shot of ghostbusting…

    While I kind of see your point with Encounter, it’s a quite mechanical idea in 4E that’s specifically built around balance and resource allocation, which I think mostly works okay in my experience. But I agree that narrative terminology doesn’t help, because the same hour-long fight with some skeletons might equate to Chapter 10: The Battle In The Crypt, or an offhand “…having battled our way through a skeleton-infested crypt…” in terms of how important it feels to what’s going on.

    1. To be rigorously fair to the book, I think a competent, confident and experienced GM could homebrew sufficient stuff to run a campaign just with the core book. On the other hand, there’s a big jump from “an old hand could easily run a game with this” and “a novice could easily run a game with this”.

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  3. Hmm, I’m not sure. A few very minor structural issues aside (I agree not putting the “What is storyplaying/roletelling” section in until the very end is odd) there’s very little that seems different about Old WoD and New WoD. WW products always opened with waffle and ended with waffle and drowned the player in game fiction, the reason they were so successful at getting new people into the hobby is that, sadly, this is exactly what a lot of people want.

    1. Thing is though, does having a big book of game fiction and setting lore inspire much actual play, or does it just inspire people to collect books of game fiction and setting lore? I thought White Wolf used to inspire the former, though I agree that it has always and consistently catered to the latter.

      1. To be fair, I did actually play Vampire, and so did a lot of people. I think it inspires Actual Play amongst people who like that kind of thing. Whether people who like that kind of thing are people I would like to Actually Play *with* is another matter.

      2. I don’t dispute that the Vampire actual play boom happened, I’m just becoming increasingly convinced it was more a matter of happening to be in the right place and the right time (and maybe appealing to a few people’s collector and lore geek instincts) than it was about WW being good at inspiring actual play.

        Indeed, the decline of White Wolf seems to be fairly firm evidence that whilst there is a market of people who just buy books and read up on setting lore without actually playing, at the same time there’s not enough of them to sustain a company like White Wolf at its peak level on a long-term basis.

        It’s kind of like how Marilyn Manson isn’t actually that interesting of a musician but he got big for a while there because it was the 1990s, and he went small again as soon as it stopped being the 1990s.

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