A World of Darkness

So, I keep recommending Hunter: The Reckoning to everyone who’s got a question about their characters hunting monsters. Well, okay, so I recommended it twice last week, but, it’s something you should be aware of if you’re writing urban fantasy. Part of this is because I really like the World of Darkness setting it’s part of, or I wouldn’t be writing about it a decade after the setting nuked itself and closed up shop. The other part is; today, World of Darkness represents a road not traveled in mainstream urban fantasy.

With all the urban fantasy questions we’ve been getting lately, I really should talk about setting in more detail and why I recommend it.

More urban than fantasy, the World of Darkness setting drops it’s supernatural critters into the world, and rather than isolating them off, forces them to cope with modern realities. Vampires that were alive to see the fall of the Roman Empire face the threat of a street punk with dragon’s breath shotgun shells. Werewolves have to contend with gangbangers that pack a silver round in their guns “just in case,” and human hunters have to circumvent or avoid the police in order to actually hunt because rigging up a car bomb will bring a federal taskforce down around their necks.

First off, these were roleplaying games. We continue to recommend RPGs for writers because they’re fantastic idea toy and toolboxes. A well researched sourcebook will cost far less, and be much easier to digest than a detailed technical manual. As a quick aside, the GURPS books are consistently a fantastic research starting point.

That said, RPGs can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to writing. Once you understand the numbers, they’re a very slick and effective way to quantify what your characters are actually capable of. On the other, they can quickly create nonsensical fight scenes because, “no really, my character would get an attack of opportunity because her opponent just moved through two adjacent spaces, so I can do a circle kick from behind while they’re using bull rush.” …just, no.

I don’t like recommending D&D (or D20 in general) for dummying up characters, because of the amount of paperwork a basic character requires in those systems. But, with some caveats, D&D is really good about limiting your character to “realistic” levels. So long as you remember that anything over a level 10 character is rapidly heading into superhero territory.

For dummying up characters, the World of Darkness games actually work pretty well. You have a list of attributes and skills and other traits that score 0 – 5, with 2 as average for most things. When you’re dummying up a character with the system, you can do it really fast. That said, there isn’t any power checking the way there are with levels in D&D, so you’re left to your own judgment on how powerful a character should reasonably be.

The system itself is pretty abstract, so it tends to avoid the kind of tabletop eccentricities I was giving D&D flak for a minute ago. Just keep in mind, either of these (or really any RPG) can be a good tool to work through your fight scenes with, but they both have flaws. The same thing applies with dummying up characters. It can be useful, but you should never take that as gospel.

So, that’s systems, and, while I like the system, it isn’t really anything special, so let’s talk about what we’re really here for; the setting.

Well, settings, there were two different Worlds of Darkness, and in spite of some overt similarities, these are completely different animals. Normally, I’m inclined to recommend the old setting, but depending on where you are as a writer, the new setting might be more useful, so we’ll get back to it in a minute.

Old World of Darkness entered print in 1993 with Vampire: The Masquerade. This was rapidly followed with Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Mage: The Ascension.

From the beginning, the setting was on the clock to the end the world. The books do a really good job of capturing pre-millennial anxieties about how the world was going to end when the clock struck 2000 (the end of the world arrived in 2004). There are signs and portents all over the place that “the end is nigh.” Including new supernatural creatures appearing (and a few old ones reappearing) as the clock ticked towards the end. This, incidentally is where Hunter: The Reckoning fits in.

 The world, as a whole, is a sprawling Rashomon gestalt as various supernatural societies try to deal with the world. One thing that’s really important to understand about the setting is that there is no unifying body. No one group polices them all or oversees them. More importantly, no one has a complete picture of the world.

Everyone has their viewpoint. As an outside observer you can look at what the Vampires say about the Werewolves, and then go look at the Werewolf book to see how wrong they actually are. This might sound like a minor thing, but from a writing perspective, this is incredibly useful. As a writer, you will write characters that are trying to learn about something, and inevitably, when they have incomplete information, they will make mistakes. Here are hundreds of examples of that scattered through the books, where you can actually check the perceptions against each other. In many cases you’ll also get both their views of themselves and an objective, systemic truth.

If you’re writing urban fantasy, this is even more valuable, because it’s a persistent reminder that: no, as an outsider, your character probably shouldn’t be fully conversant in the exact cultural norms for a secret society of monsters. Or even really know everything they’re capable of.

There’s also subtle rule differences between the different games. On one hand, this is kind of annoying, because you can’t just cross one character from one system into the other. And it can confuse players (no, Imbued don’t actually deal, and never receive, aggravated damage). But, at the same time, it’s an important reminder. If you’re working with an urban fantasy setting that has vampires, werewolves, and any number of other creatures, why would they all work under the same rules? On the whole, I’d stick this as more of a negative, beyond simply thinking about the general concept when you’re building a setting.

The setting is also really good at setting up mysteries. Not so much with actually paying them off. Usually the answers would be buried, in a supplement for different series. Now, 10 years later, the easiest way is usually going to be to just go digging on a wiki, to have someone else put the pieces together from the half dozen books you’d need. But the original sources are useful to see it actually being done. To be fair, the way it hides information isn’t a bad example, the issue is more where it hides its secrets.

The setting has a kind of “horror-punk” aesthetic. Depending on your preferences that can easily translate into a permanent sense of “trying too hard.”

Also, it’s worth knowing that this isn’t always the most culturally sensitive settings. The Mafia book is more Goodfellas and Godfather than actual organized crime, the middle east book for Hunter recommends Patai’s The Arab Mind, and one of the writers on the Gypsies book didn’t realize they were a real culture until after the book had gone to print. So, be careful with what you pick up along the way.

Having said that, let’s cover the games and what they do. In rough order:

Vampire: The Masquerade is an Anne Rice soaked game. The game does a good job of dropping Vampires into a modern setting where someone with a flare gun is a real threat. The game thrives on petty political maneuvering. You know, vampires, back when they were threatening, parasitic monsters, and weren’t particularly interested in high-school girls.

Werewolf: The Apocalypse is about eco-terrorist werewolves. Which sounds kinda goofy, but at least you can’t accuse the writers of doing the same thing as everyone else. The werewolves see themselves as guardians of Gaia, and one of their primary antagonists is actually a multinational corporation. The game has a slightly amusing Captain Planet on meth vibe. But, at the same time, there is some really interesting stuff with how they treat their human (or animal) relatives, and an entire culture facing extinction. Also the non-wolf shapeshifters go way beyond “like werewolves, but they transform into a cat/snake/bird.

Mage: The Ascension is about people trying to change the world without getting caught. The Mages have the ability to alter reality at a fundamental level, in very fluid ways. But, if they practice magic overtly, they’ll be crushed by the disbelief of the populous. This is easily one of the most philosophically complicated RPGs I’ve ever seen. Also, if you’re using magic in your urban fantasy, the consensus reality mechanic Mage uses is something you should be at least aware of.

Changeling: The Dreaming put players in the shoes of Faeries stranded in the setting. Beings of imagination and whimsy they are fighting against the banality of modern life in order to survive. Part crazy person living out a storybook tale, part, well, storybook fantasy, this was actually one of the most upbeat pieces of the setting.

Hunter: The Reckoning focused on people suddenly being forced to confront the presence of monsters as a part of their world, and going insane. More Falling Down with monsters than Buffy, the game focused on the deterioration of characters, as their lives fell apart from hunting monsters. There’s also borderline urban terrorism theme, because of the lengths the hunters need to go. This often manifests as a reminder that, “the cops will be hunting you for this, plan accordingly.” There’s also some fantastic interplay between different outlooks on how to deal with monsters in the first place, ranging from “we need to save them” to “kill ‘em all, and anyone who helps them.”

Wraith: The Oblivion focused on the setting’s underworld. It’s interesting, particularly if you’re writing about characters dealing with life after death, but bleak as hell. Ironically (or not), Dark Souls comes to mind as the closest analogy with characters that were constantly struggling to retain their identity.

Mummy: The Resurrection was the only series in the setting that was outright about “the good guys.” And, that was kind of the crazy part, because you were playing a Mummy. Mummies had a split soul. A modern character who’d lived and died miserably. And a millennia old soul from Dynastic Egypt who had purified the modern soul. Mummies were actually trying to save the world from the apocalypse, and ease the world’s pain, as best they could.

Kindred of the East dealt with Asian vampires. (Kindred was an explicit term for vampires in the setting.) There’s some really interesting stuff with the Chi eaters interacting, and fighting with, the western varieties of Vampires.

Demon: The Fallen focused on demons who’d just been released from hell. This was one of the last games in the setting. The demons would possess the corpse of a recently departed, and their return was one of the biggest signs that, no really, the world is about to end. This was loaded in Judeo/Christian/Islamic cosmology, more than most of the other games in the series. It casts the demons as semi-sympathetic figures that rebelled to fight for giving humans free will.

And then the world blew up. There were four books, Gehenna, The Apocalypse, The Ascension, and Time of Judgment, which detailed multiple possible endings for all of the series. Time of Judgment covered most of the smaller lines, while the big three got their own book. (Gehenna is Vampire’s.) If you’re writing about a supernatural apocalypse, these are probably worth looking at.

There was also a limited run series, Orpheus, about ghost hunting mortals. Technically it’s supposed to be part of the old World of Darkness, but it doesn’t really fit into either setting smoothly. Systemically it has more in common with new World of Darkness. So, let’s just move on to that.

Launched a couple months after the original setting detonated, new World of Darkness was an attempt to create a more accessible setting. Gone are the massive metaplots, the impending end of the world, and a lot of the interconnectivity.

The biggest difference is that new World of Darkness is modular. If you pick up a book for the setting, you’ll get a lot of random pieces you can pick out and use, or modify and use. It’s more of a toolkit for a writer. Want to write about cops that hunt the supernatural? Grab Tales from the 13th Precinct, and see what gets suggested in there. Want to do the same thing, but with soldiers? Dogs of War. This is actually a good thing, because it means you don’t need to go hunting for five or six obscure books to parse out what you’re seeing. But, in the process you lose the effect of seeing the same thing from multiple angles.

The new World of Darkness launched with Vampire: The Requiem, Werewolf: The Forsaken, and Mage: The Awakening. Which is why I have to keep typing out the subtitles for most of the games.

Superficially, Vampire: The Requiem is basically a rehash of Masquerade, but with most of the clans missing (and one from a vampire that didn’t produce a clan in Masquerade). This actually manages to sidestep about 90% of the most convoluted mess in Masquerade’s backstory. And, as a result, Requiem is remarkably accessible. But, you lose a lot of the pay off for political relationships that have stretched back centuries, with various groups stabbing each other in the back whenever the opportunity presents itself, that is to say: “almost constantly.”

So, minor mea culpa, I’m not nearly as well versed in the new setting as the old. In part because the piecemeal format didn’t really appeal to me. So, this information might be a little wonky.

Werewolf: The Forsaken focuses more on werewolves as your traditional movie monsters. There are still elements of the “Protectors of Gaia” theme buried in some of the supplements, but these are a lot more generic, which might be what you want.

Mage: The Awakening shifted off the philosophical bent of understanding magic, to a more adventure focused finding and preserving ancient sources of power. There was also a transition from the freeform system in Ascension to a more traditional spell list in Awakening. You can still create magic on the fly, but the game is actually more obtuse on that front.

Hunter: The Vigil isn’t really an update of Reckoning. It’s more of a revival of the Hunters Hunted books. These focus on normal (or mostly normal) humans who go out and hunt monsters. Possibly because it’s their job, or because they’re freelance.

Changeling: The Lost is almost a polar opposite of The Dreaming, it deals with malicious Fae who are victimizing children into becoming the next generation of Fae.

Geist: The Sin-Eaters is (sort of) a relaunch of Wraith. This is one of the two series I don’t have books for. This focused more on ghosts that had returned to the living world, as opposed to wandering in the underworld.

Prometheus: The Created is a new addition to the setting. This dealt with beings that had been artificially created. Like Frankenstein’s monster or a homunculus. As with Geist, I don’t actually have a copy.

Scion isn’t technically a World of Darkness game, so far as I know, but, it is in a similar vein. This is the American Gods or Percy Jackson presentation of players as the offspring of gods from various pantheons. Scion actually gets pretty creative with this, including things like American and Soviet pantheons in one of the later books. This trends more into the fantasy end, we are talking about the offspring of gods after all. But, it might be just what you need.

New World of Darkness, as a whole, is more useful to newer writers. As I said above, it’s a toolkit, and each book will give you more ideas to play with. It’s also (systemically) a better, or at least more streamlined, game. Gone are the mixed rule systems, that actually hid some pretty important interactions and thematic elements. It’s also a much better to look at if your setting only has one kind of supernatural creature.

Picking apart the old World of Darkness is more valuable to writers at an intermediate level. You can get a lot of practice in working out what characters would know about one another, especially in a setting where your supernatural critters don’t have any kind of formalized relations with one another, and don’t have easy access to the others’ cultures.

It’s also better about presenting a cohesive world where monsters can’t simply segregate themselves off from the modern world whenever they want. This is especially important if you’re writing monster hunters, and why Hunter: The Reckoning keeps coming up.

-Starke

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