Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hello Darkness

When one thinks of the defining games of the tabletop RPG hobby, D&D of course comes immediately to mind. And it should, for good reason. But it isn't the only decades-old game that has had a profound effect on the hobby, shaped minds, and ushered in new eras of creativity and collaborative storytelling. There are a few others. I'm going to blog about one of my favorites right now.

I was 16 years old. A sophomore in high school. After weeks of scrounging for loose change and shamelessly begging parents and friends alike for cash, I finally had enough to walk into our town's one little hobby shop and walk out with my very own copy of Vampire: The Masquerade. Unlike other childhood staples like D&D, the old West End D6 Star Wars, or Palladium's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG, I didn't just tear into Vampire and start looking at how to make characters and run adventures. No; I took my time reading the book, a then unheard-of practice for a teenage boy like myself. I read Vampire: The Masquerade like a novel, cover to cover, and let the secret world of vampire clans just wash over me. I wrote pages and pages about the chronicle I was going to run in Boston, about the Tremere prince who was rapidly going insane from his studies of forbidden lore, the Toreador mafia don who was eyeing his power; the Nosferatu crime-fighting vigilante who thought nothing of shattering the Masquerade and slaying vampires he felt deserved that final death; the Gangrel with an army of rats in his sewer fortress, plotting to take over the city. I called it "When the Demons Clash."

Vampire: The Masquerade was, like many, my first foray into the World of Darkness. Two years later, for my birthday, I would receive Werewolf: the Apocalypse. Over that summer, I would go on to blow most of the paychecks of my first job as a cart-jockey at Wal-Mart to purchase Mage: The Ascension, Changeling: the Dreaming,Wraith: The Oblivion, and Hunter: The Reckoning. I even picked up Trinity and Aberrant. I remember at one point, I just laid all of the books around me in a circle, like some pagan geek ritual. It was glorious.

(following this blog entry is a short, vague history of the World of Darkness games, for those of you new to the hobby and unfamiliar with the system and its many iterations).

For all the money I spent on those books and the time I spent learning their systems and settings, I had disproprtionately less time actually playing them. I only played Vampire and Werewolf a scant number of times. I was in a Wraith campaign, but I wasn't the one running it. I never even played Mage, Changeling, Oblivion, Hunter, Trinity, or Aberrant. You know what, though? That's okay. Those books were such good reads that when I look back at my time spent with them, I don't consider it wasted.

That's the thing about the Storytelling System, the engine behind the World of Darkness games. It truly lives up to its name in the fact that the nuts and bolts of the system are never, ever in danger of usurping the focus from the story. That's a good thing. It can a bad thing, too, though, because the system is decidedly un-sexy, and it gets clunky really fast when you try and put it to real hard use. Comparing even the latest iteration of the system against other "story-first" RPGs like Fate Core usually leaves the game at a disadvantage. But it always comes back to the story, the setting. It's pretty obvious to me that that is why the system has been in circulation for over 20 years.

Much like D&D for fantasy, the World of Darkness is an unavoidable giant in horror role-playing, particularly supernatural/urban fantasy horror. Whether you like the system or not, that hold has only gotten stronger over the years, stretching to gothic horror (Vampire: Dark Ages) and, most recently, cosmic, existential horror (The God-Machine Chronicle). World of Darkness is also the system that put LARPing (live-action roleplaying, essentially playing an RPG completely in character the whole time, like an adult version of make-believe) on the map with it's live-action spinoffs of Vampire, collectively referred to as "Mind's Eye Theatre."

I'm bringing all of this up because I just finished reading The God-Machine Chronicle. It, like Vampire: The Masquerade, I read cover-to-cover. I usually just skim through new RPGs, learning the details as I play. I suspect many GMs are the same way, possibly fueling the indie scene's notion of "play to find out" and "figure all that shit out yourself!" But there is something to be said for a good, well-written book. Obviously you don't need to read it cover-to-cover (many RPGs aren't even designed to be read that way), but that, to me, is part of the lasting value of role-playing games. They aren't just games that collect dust when they aren't played. They are stories, ones that you can pull off the shelf and read just for the glory of reading. So I don't know if, or when, I'll get to revisit the World of Darkness at the table. But it's a hell of a read, and time I absolutely do not regret spending.

And now, a brief history on the World of Darkness. If you're already familiar with the history, or you don't care all that much, you can stop reading now. I'm writing this mostly for those of you who may be new to role-playing games, and not be aware of this horror RPG empire of which I speak of:

White Wolf Publishing released Vampire: the Masquerade in or around 1991. It was a roleplaying game about, unsurprinsgly, being a vampire. This was way, way before Twilight or The Vampire Diaries or any of that, so the game took itself quite seriously, and was much more about pure supernatural horror than romance or drama or anything else. It used a system of dice pools consisting of ten-sided dice, similar to Shadowrun (which, incidentially, also came out around this time. The early 90's was a GREAT time for role-playing games.)

White Wolf wasn't done yet, though. In the following years, it would release several other games that followed the structure of Vampire. In each game (Werewolf, Wraith, Mage, Changeling), the players played as the titular beings listed on the cover. In each game, there was an epic global event (Gehenna for vampires, the Apocalypse for Werewolf, Oblivion for Wraith) and the players were typically anti-heroes fighting to stop that epic thing from happening. The various supernatural beings had their own organizations (clans in Vampire, tribes in Werewolf) and they fought against "evil" organizations (the Wyrm in Werewolf, the Sabbat in Vampire). Each being had incredible powers with different mechanics (Vampires had to acquire blood and used it to fuel their abilities; Werewolves had rage and gnosis to channel their powers; mages had to walk a tightrope of not disturbing reality too much with their spells). Though the games had a similar structure and explored similar themes (almost every game had something to say about the nature of humanity), they played very differently, and were not designed to be played together (werewolves and vampires and mages all hated each other and fought fiercely against each other; wraiths and changelings existed literally on other planes of existence and had little to do with the mortal world as we know it).

Perhaps it was this purposeful disconnection that became a problem for White Wolf, or perhaps they had a longer, meta-game all along, but they cancelled all the lines a few years after all of them came out. They each got their own "end of the world" sourcebook and that was that: White Wolf officially said goodbye to the entire old World of Darkness. Then they said hello to the new World of Darkness. In 2004, the World of Darkness core rulebook came out. This book stripped the rules out of all the other "storyteller" games, and made it into a generic system, called, appropriately, the "Storyteller System." White Wolf (which around this time merged with another company, Onyx Path Productions) then released "reboots" of each of the game lines, with new themes, mechanics, and organizations. Vampire went from "the Masquerade" to "the Requiem;" Werewolf went from "the Apocalypse" to "the Reckoning;" and so on. The new World of Darkness was made to be faster and more flexible than the old one, and more capable of crossover events. Though it did achieve this, it also got a lot of criticism for what many people thought was a homogenization of the game worlds and an attempt to make the World of Darkness more "game-y" than it's previous iteration.

Last year, White Wolf/Onyx Path released The God Machine Chronicle, and with it, a new iteration of the World of Darkness. This wouldn't be a completely new game like they did in 2004; rather this would be a single, mega-sourcebook that changes and streamlines many of the rules and ties in the lore of the world more carefully. This new system was designed to give players the flexibility they want to reshape the World of Darkness in their own image, but also provide enough structure to re-create the living, breathing, epic worlds that the old World of Darkness had created. Later that year (or maybe it was earlier this year, whatever), they released the first "post-God Machine" game, Blood and Smoke: the Strix Chronicle. This is the new vampire RPG, built from the ground-up with the innovations from the God Machine in mind. How will this new-new World of Darkness be received? Only time will tell.

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