Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: World of Darkness

Somewhere between the crunchy, rules-heavy D&D and the narrative-driven, rules-lite Maid lies World of Darkness (which I will abbreviate as WoD; the old system is marked as oWoD, and the new system is marked as nWoD).  As noted elsewhere, this is the system that introduced me to roleplaying with its Vampire: the Masquerade, second edition.

Even though the WoD has two major rules changes and almost twenty game lines, I tend to count it as a cohesive unit.

No matter the edition, the WoD has the same basic premise: this is the same basic world we know and love, but monsters are hidden in it.  In, say, Call of Cthulhu, you're a human fighting these powers; in the WoD, you usually play one of these creatures.

In the old World of Darkness (1991-2004), characters coexisted along labrynthine, eons-old conspiracies.  Supernatural creatures battled for supremacy, though in the modern nights, vampires and the Technocratic Union were pretty much the main powers behind the scenes (though even they, admittedly, could hardly be said to control the world).  Most published scenarios involved the PCs reacting to one of these hidden threats, further building the setting's metaplot.

As for rules, the rules were simple — though, admittedly, I used them long enough that determining dice pools and difficulties was practically second-nature.  Every character has statistics rated from 1-5 (some were rated from 1-10).  Some combination of statistics would be rolled as a pool of d10s; for example, a scientist with Intelligence 3 and Science 4 would roll 7 dice.  Any dice that met or exceeded a numerical difficulty (difficulty 6 was average, and could skew upward and downward from there) were considered successes.

I felt this system was fairly fast and elegant, though I have since heard complaints about this system.  The main complaint came from combat; one attack may very well require four of these rolls.

In 2004, White Wolf ended the game line to clean up the metaplot — the long-threatened apocalypse happened.  Cynics suggest they ended the game line to sell more books in the future.  Oh, internet; don't ever change.

White Wolf then implemented the new World of Darkness (2004-present).  Like the old, supernatural powers lurk among humanity; unlike the oWoD, global conspiracies are practically nonexistent.  Instead, the supernatural powers now rule petty fiefdoms rife with paranoia, and there is no "official" metaplot (though a plot, such as it is, is frequently suggested across sourcebooks).  Most supernatural creatures realize they cannot trust members of the same power bloc enough to consolidate power, or they are so harried that they can't form a power base to start, so each city is an independent domain overseen by a mix of supernatural creatures.  Or not; some cities skew toward one group over the others, and some cities have little to no supernatural presence at all.

This latter fact emphasizes the dark mystery of the setting: you cannot ever hope to fully understand the world.  That city without a supernatural presence might have somehow escaped colonization, or it might not have enough resources to support a supernatural community, or it might host a sapient colony of space-insects that devours any supernatural creature who stays more than a day or two.  This is another reason why supernatural creatures don't form large societies; in addition to concerns from neighboring domains and concerns regarding human discovery (because even disorganized humans are much bigger threats in the nWoD), why would you want to forge an alliance with a neighboring domain when you barely understand the weird stuff around your domain?  Additionally, since supernatural creatures no longer have unifying origin stories (and, in fact, almost seem actively unable to recall or determine their origins), they have no reason to work together.  Your bloc of vampires and the neighboring city's bloc of vampires might both look and talk alike, but you have no way of knowing whether these guys are actually vampires like you, or some weird offshoot (and even if you both made your characters from Vampire: the Requiem, you still may not be the same type of vampire).

As for the rules, they're similar to the old system, and most people think they're more streamlined.  You add a dice pool and roll the whole thing against a target number of 8.  Reroll 10s until no more 10s occur.  Count successes as normal.  Though it is harder to get successes in this system, individual successes count for more, and critical failures are much harder in this system.  Additionally, things like combat only require one roll per attack; the opposing character's dodging, armor, and suchlike are taken into account with modifiers to attack rolls.  Remembering all the modifiers is sometimes wonky, but some things are a bit smoother.

Additionally, character advancement is different; characters could become powerful very quickly in oWoD, as many low-level abilities were very effective.  The nWoD, however, promotes game balance, and even makes individual mortals a credible threat.  However, advancement tends to be slower.

Overall, I still like the oWoD better than the nWoD in many respects.  The old World was ostensibly horror, but had a gonzo vibe that just worked — you could build just about anything given the wealth of material, and there are some times you just want to run a game where a cyborg, a mutant, a vampire, Frankenstein's monster, and a Highlander fight evil (or are evil).  After working with the rules for so many years, I'm still faster with old than new.

On the other hand, the nWoD is more unified into a cohesive setting, friendlier to new players, and is creepier than the old World.  The horror in the new game tends to be more personal.

I would ultimately recommend either system to anybody, though.  Whether it's the weird, gonzo, subjective horror of the oWoD, or the creepy, personal horror of the nWoD, either one works.

A final note: White Wolf really excels at some of its newer, smaller lines.  I still think oWoD Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage had something that the newer versions lack, but Promethean, Changeling, Hunter, and Geist are really good.  Changeling (which takes the reincarnated, dying otherkin of the old version and replaces them with supernatural abuse victims — and I think the new version was an improvement despite the fact I am one of the few who will admit to really liking Changeling: the Dreaming) and Promethean (you're a golem made from one or more cadavers, and you can use spiritual alchemy to become mortal — which is for the best, because despite your personal power, the universe itself hates your soulless, undead husk) particularly deserve a look.  The human-centered Hunter: the Vigil is good, but I know some people who still like the bewildered, supernatural hunters from Hunter: the Reckoning (I like both but prefer the newer version).  Wraith might still be a personal favorite, but the zealous, life-lusting, rum-and-sugar-skulls vibe from Geist is a neat design choice, one that almost places the games on different axes (I like both, but for different reasons).


  1. Nice review. I have to agree with your distinction between oWoD and nWoD though I'd add one more detail: nWoD is far more concerned with making combat fast, fun and diverse with more fighting style merits than social merits (by far) while oWoD made combat ultra-deadly with hobbling penalties and healing far more grueling for humans.

    1. I am 45 years old, and focus on fighting was in the first generation roleplay we, as teenagers, rebelled against... Though SAS aka Storytelling Adventure System overdid with the social-skills needed.

  2. It is actually a quite nice article. May not reflect my opinion, nor my decades of roleplay, still it was by far not the worst I had to read. Thank you.

    1. I forgot to beg & whine about receiving verified-customer reviews over at:

      I can send cost-free review copies due automated mail, too.


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