The Storytelling System

Setting

The World of Darkness is possibly best described in Mage: The Ascension (pages 6 - 7 in the second edition). "The woods are dark and monstrous, the cities labyrinths of steel and pavement. In the shadows, beasts out of nightmare plot and bicker...Here the landmarks are familiar, but the shadows are longer and peoples' glances are more wary. It's a place where hope is fading, where superstitions carry more weight than reason. The aesthetic of this world is Gothic-Punk, where the flowing black and towering stone of Gothic ideal meets pierced flesh and battered leather...This World of Darkness is myth incarnate, and that myth is equally dark."

The World of Darkness encompasses more than a material world. There is also a complex spiritual/astral world called the Umbra, which is subdivided into various subrealms. The Penumbra is closest to the material world, and can be described as "more real than reality." As one moves deeper into the Umbra, the realm becomes more spiritual and less material. Between reality and the Penumbra is the Gauntlet, a barrier to travel between worlds. Deep in the Umbra lies another barrier, the Horizon, which demarcates the safe limits for mortals to travel. The Umbral worlds have varied importance across the games, ranging from Vampire: the Masquerade which doesn't use it at all, up to Mage: the Ascension where it is a major feature.

Various supernatural (or superhuman) forces stalk the World of Darkness. They may interact with each other, but each is concerned mainly with its own affairs. Each game thus focuses on the affairs of a single type of creature but offers the possibility of interacting with the creatures of the others.

Commonalities

We'll start with some themes that appear to have been inherited from Dungeons and Dragons. While characters start out tremendously powerful compared to normal mortals, they are at the weak end of the scale for their kind, new and soft additions to their society. The books hold out the promise that player characters will eventually become the equals or masters of the great powers of the world, but that road is a hard one, and few will survive that long. (More likely, the game will run out of steam for various reasons.) The games all have "tribes" which serve to differentiate characters as D&D's character classes did, for each group possesses different powers and abilities, and each has their own world-view (as well as stereotypical views of the other groups). While these tribes are described as having goals for their members, and allies and enemies among the rest, the games are all designed with mixed parties from different tribes in mind, so that there's a diversity of personalities and abilities within PC parties. While there's nothing like alignment in these games, the books generally describe a situation where most of the tribes form a disorganized force split by infighting against a small number of tribes who oppose the majority. PCs generally come from the larger group.

World of Darkness games played very differently from D&D. Although they certainly presented obstacles to overcome and foes to fight, they were far more interested in the progression of each individual's psychological development. Most of the characters had to deal with internal struggles between opposing forces in their own psyches. All of the games are elegaic, mourning the decline of the supernatural beings of the game. This theme is usually expressed in apocalyptic terms: the End is coming, and the good guys are destined to lose (yet each game has a different end in mind).

We note two thematic progressions from Vampire: the Masquerade through Werewolf: the Apocalypse to Mage: the Ascension. One is the extension of the game world from reality to the spirit realm: where V:tM is entirely concerned with the material world, the werewolves are intimately connected to the nature spirits of the Penumbra, and Mages will surely spend a lot of their time traveling through many of the spirit realms. The second is how far away the apocalypse is. The vampires gossip of a rumored Gehenna, when their hidden elders will rise and slaughter them all. The werewolves see themselves in the midst of the apocalypse, where corruption is strangling the life out of Gaia. Mage sees the apocalypse has already happened: the Technocracy have essentially already conquered the earth, and while the Traditions work to overturn it, it's not likely to happen in most campaigns.

 

The Game System

The Storytelling system was a die pool system. Task resolution involved adding together a single character attribute plus a relevant skill, rolling that many d10s, and counting all the dice that equalled or exceeded a target value, called the Difficulty Number. The more successes, the more powerful the result. However, each die that rolled a one removed a success from the pool. Should the player have more ones than successes, the character Botched, which might be a minor complication or a devastating failure.

Should a character's die pool equal or exceed the task difficulty number, the character could skip rolling and claim an automatic minimal success. Players might choose to roll anyway, in order to try for higher level successes. The rules explicity advised keeping rolls to a minimum.

More difficult tasks typically had higher difficulty numbers, but sometimes a minimum number of successes were needed to acheive the goal. Players might be able to attempt multiple rolls to increase their pools of successes. This allowed the system to distinguish between binary tasks (you failed to hotwire the car) and those where there might be shades of failure (you didn't successfully leap onto the wall, but you're hanging by your fingers from it).

Storytellers were advised repeatedly that the rules were merely guidelines, adjuncts to the story they were trying to create. There were many examples in the books of how to use the rules, but storytellers were told to make up whatever they needed, because pausing to look up rules would interrupt the flow of the game. Dice should only be rolled when they would make the outcome more interesting than simply narrating it.

Character Creation

Character creation followed the same system point build system in every game, with different traits available in each game. Characters had nine Attributes: three Physical (Strength, Dexterity, and Stamina), three Social (Charisma, Manipulation, and Appearance), and three Mental (Perception, Intelligence, and Wit). Each of these traits was rated on a scale of one to five dots, with two dots being human average. Abilities were subdivided into Talents (intuitive abilities that are picked up by experience), Skills (learned through training), and Knowledge (book learning).

Characters were created using a five step process.

  • First, players came up with their character concept. This usually included the choice of which tribe they belonged to, which determined which powers the character would have access to.
  • Second, they set their attributes. Players received seven dots to distribute among the three Attributes they ranked as primary (Physical, Social, or Mental), five dots to distribute among their secondary Attributes, and three dots for their tertiary Attributes.
  • Third, players bought Abilities, using thirteen dots for their primary set (choosing Talents, Skills, or Knowledge), nine dots for their secondary set, and five dots for their tertiary set.
  • Fourth, players chose various Advantages. Like Attributes and Abilities, players received dots to distribute among three sub-categories. Unlike Attributes and Abilities, the number of dots for each subcategory was fixed. The specific subcategories varied from game to game, but they included the character's supernatural powers and background. Background referred to social resources the character might have, and these varied from game to game as well.
  • Fifth, the players provided finishing touches to their characters: they set secondary characteristics, decided on their appearance, any quirks the character might have, and spent fifteen "Freebie Points" to either boost scores or to obtain new Abilities and Advantages. This final step used points instead of dots because there were different costs for upgrading Attributes, Abilities, or Advantages.

Given the games' interest in characters' internal states, their personalities were very important, and the Storyteller system created many hooks for players to build their personalities on. For several games, personality had two layers, the character's true inner Nature, which was rarely revealed, and their surface personality, or Demeanor. One's Demeanor might change from session to session, but the character's true Nature was considered firmly set. The interplay between Nature and Demeanor was considered a crucial part of the character. In addition to this two-level personality, characters had a set of stereotypical personality traits to consider based on which tribe they belonged to in the game.

Players were expected to flesh out their character with quirks, simple traits that had no influence on the game beyond characterization, such as a love for black and white movies, or a nervous tic.

Once all the characters were developed, players were expected to have a short Prelude scene, a one-on-one interaction with the storyteller designed to show off the character's backstory before they became a monster. This was also used as an opportunity to bring the character to life.

Experience

The rules recommended awarding one to five experience points each session, for accomplishing character goals and for good roleplay. One point should be awarded automatically for each session played. Experience points could be used to boost just about any facet of the character, with supernatural abilities costing more than physical abilities. Storytellers were advised to make players roleplay their improvements, rather than simply spend points and note the changes on their character sheets.

Combat

Combat followed the basic Storyteller system, but with more complexity, requiring up to four checks per round. Initiative was determined by characters rolling a difficulty four Wits + Alertness test, where the most successes went first; a botch meant the character could not act this round. After the initiative roll, everybody declared their character's actions.

The attack was a standard skill roll. The relevant Attribute was Dexterity, while the Skill would be Firearms (for a gun), Melee (for a hand weapon), or Brawl (for hand to hand). The difficulty of the roll was based on the weapon: for example, six for a punch, four for a knife, eight for a heavy pistol, six for a shotgun, and so on. Each success from the attack roll added one die to the damage pool (although firearms successes added two dice).

To determine damage, players took as many dice as there were successes in the attack roll, and rolled them against a Difficulty of six. Each success did one level of damage to the defender. As defenders were incapacitated with seven points of damage, combat could move quickly. However, defenders usually got a chance to reduce damage by making a difficulty six Stamina + Fortitude check, called a Soak roll. Each successful soak removed one point of damage from the hit.

Weapons had their effect by modifying the attack difficulty roll and the amount of damage done. While a club did no more damage than a punch, it lowered the attack difficulty from six to four, making it a useful weapon. More dangerous melee weapons added dice to the character's Strength for the damage roll. While guns raised the difficulty of hitting, they had more damage dice (five for a heavy pistol, eight for a shotgun) and every successful hit with a gun meant rolling two damage dice instead of one, which made them very dangerous if they hit.

 

Supernatural Abilities

Most of the player characters in the World of Darkness possessed supernatural abilities. These are selected at character creation like any other ability: players began with a pool of dots that could be used to select powers from a list, with selections limited by the character's background.

These abilities worked like everything else: each defined which ability plus trait combination to roll, defined the difficulty and number of successes needed, and the power would take effect. Sometimes these abilities just worked, while sometimes the character had to spend points from a pool to activate them. While the magic system was fairly consistent from game to game (with the notable exceptions of Mage: the Awakening and Changeling: the Dreaming), each game described differentnames for magical abilities, and described the energy used to power the magic as coming from a different ineffable source, so that characters from one book could not possibly learn the powers listed in a different book.

 

The standardized system made it easy to jump from one game to another. While the common mechanic made the game easy to grasp, we note that the combat system required a lot of die rolling against changeable difficulty numbers. Combat must have been slow.

Now that you have the basics, we invite you to explore the second edition of the World of Darkness.

—RAD
September 1, 2011

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