20 Years of World of Darkness! 20!
It’s easy to forget these days, when pin-up models regularly sport N.E.S. tattoos and cosplaying is more synonymous with cheesecake than living in basements, but there was a time when being a geek was a social stigma. This stigma was especially strong with table top gamers, who were known for obsessively collecting dice, confusing real life with epic campaigns, and putting everything on graph paper. Or, as my Senior Advisor said in my High School Yearbook , “Dave you are a cool guy, you should ditch that D&D stuff and get some chicks”.
However, back in the 90s, Nine Inch Nails, Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles, and D&D all had a bastard child named Vampire: the Masquerade, and suddenly everything changed. Goth clubs started hosting live action roleplays (LARPs to us gamer nerds). People played RPGs at coffeehouses while smoking clove cigarettes. For the first and only time the local RPG convention became overrun with goth girls wearing vampire fangs and/or fox tails. It was a strange, confusing time to be an RPG geek for sure.
This new generation of RPGs was intended to concentrate on stories and moral decisions rather than smiting enemies and gathering treasure. The books were splendid at invoking their gothic-punk atmosphere with art, writing, and bits of song lyrics. However, their mechanics could be a bit slippery and the books became infamous for meta plots involving sometimes ridiculous characters, weird cosmic events, and vampires wearing trench coats carrying katanas and/or paired desert eagles.
Concept and mechanics slippage led to multiple reboots of White Wolf’s core lines over the years (particularly Mage, their book about modern occult practitioners) and eventually led to a book that ended the game universe followed by a new, more subtle line called the New World of Darkness. The New World of Darkness (now published by Onyx Path) tried hard to curb the excesses of the old editions, maybe a little too hard as many believed a bit of the joy was gone from the old game. That, coupled with the decay of table top popularity in general led to a successful game line that had far less cultural impact than the old one.
That was 2004 – 2012. But, this year, we are seeing a new version of the New World of Darkness. And this is why you should care:
1. We Aren’t Tired of Vampires Yet
There’s a new Dracula television series on the way, all full of darkness and hot girls and a bit of metro-sexuality and science wherein Dracula pretends to be Tesla, or something. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is in it, and he also was in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, which came out this year… and has more vampires! Also, as you know, that pensive pale girl and the sparkly guy over in Twilight land.
100% Sparkle Free!
Vampires seem bigger than ever, which is funny since it has been true most of my life. This starts to give me the impression that vampires will grow ever more famous as I live on until all the TV shows have vampires. Which I heartily endorse by the way as vampires basically make everything better.
World of Darkness games let you play these characters, and not in the sense of ‘a vampire can fly 6 inches above the ground and drink your blood in ten minutes’, I mean, that is part of the game, but more important is all of the angsty bits. Angsty bits are fun because if vampires don’t have angst they’re basically zombies, and we’re all sick of zombies. To be a World of Darkness vampire, you still have to drink blood, but if you aren’t really nice about it or lose your vampire temper (which is a constant danger) you end up degenerating to a serial killer, and then a dribbling idiot fast. You have your powers but you hate them, too. It’s sort of like me and my terrifyingly powerful charisma.
2. World of Darkness is Staying in Touch with Its Fans
The RPG publishing industry is shrinking. The only company around who manages much of a corporate front these days is Dungeons & Dragons (owned by Hasbro). This is, in some ways, a good thing. Unlike comics where the people in charge seem to hate their audience for not being kids, the RPG industry has generally adjusted well to serving adults and people who have expectations. They have a playtest blog, where they post new stuff from the games and ask for feedback. They interact more with their customers and generally give a feeling that they care.
Tickets are still available! There will be hot goth girls there. I swear.
Nonetheless, World of Darkness is still big enough to have its own convention, LA By Night, as well as a Grand Masquerade. (It’s in L.A. this year, and I’m going! Huzzah!) The publisher, Onyx Path, also has a strong Facebook presence, and have even been good about freebies lately, releasing a preview of the new Vampire for free as well as all rules changes for the new books on PDF. Communication is really important these days (or so I keep hearing in marketing meetings) and World of Darkness has it pretty well covered. I doubt @WWpublishing is going to crush Twitter any time soon, unless they take up twerking, but you can find them if you need them.
3. The Goths Are Getting Old
Now Vampire is the RPG of the Goth generation, which is widely understood to have started up along with The Smiths and The Cure, which was kind of a long time ago. And while though those of us with Goth leanings like vampires and all that eternal beauty and youth stuff, the fact is that Robert Smith looks a bit bedraggled these days. Don’t get me wrong, he looks great for being above half a century, but none of us are getting any younger. For example, Bar Sinister is one of my favorite places to be on the rare nights the wife and I can get sitting for the daughter and doggy, then sneak up to Hollywood. But the fact is… it involves a lot of dancing and climbing stairs. These things aren’t great for old folks necessarily.
Wikimedia Creative Commons
Well, he certainly looks undread now.
What’s my point? Well, the great thing about roleplaying is that you can do it while sitting down. Heck, it’s not like rolling dice is so exerting. And how much easier is it to say “my character goes to the club and dances for hours, her perfect body moving in time to the bass as all around her are entranced” than to actually, you know, get in shape and go to a club and entrance anyone? It’s MUCH easier if you have other obstacles than fitness and spare time such as being overweight, hairy, a man, or an overweight hairy man. Although if you keep doing things like that, Steve, no one will want to sit next to you at the next convention.
4. More Modern Rules
Fate is a rival roleplaying system that just had a kick-ass Kickstarter. They invented a new kind of roleplaying game that uses far less detail to keep track of. Say you want to hack a computer. Now, and I’m simplifying, but basically there is a spectrum between having a ten page chapter in the book related to hacking that involves charts, times, and consequences to failure, and having a game where you say ‘I hack it’ and the person running the game says ‘ok.’ I would call the really detailed stuff simulationist and the really loosey-goosey stuff narrative. (I’m wincing a bit when I write this because it is a terrible over simplification, and I imagine the site coming under the angry fire of people who take this stuff more seriously than I do. But I think it works).
So, Fate is all about the narrative side, where you roll dice and you succeed or fail, and everything else you fill in with neat story bits. Now, the World of Darkness setting has always been much crunchier than that. However, the new books are more of a fusion, adding more loosey-goosey character stuff, like personal goals and rewards for failure on top of the more straightforward “be a vampire and don’t die” stuff. I think this is good because though I like FATE, I think at times it can be too simplified. My brain likes things such as different guns doing different damages while FATE might just say “your weapon is just window dressing, its attacking someone that matters”. I am, as mentioned, a classic geek. I’ve only fired a gun once in my life, but I know a fair amount them because details in RPGs add those nice bits of semi-realism that can help you get past the vampires and the fire breathing robots and junk that litter your average RPG.
Vampires have guns now. It’s a thing.
Trivia Note! The makers of Underworld were sued by White Wolf Publishing for being too similar to their World of Darkness setting! True Story!
5. World of Darkness Still Has a Strong Fan Base
World of Darkness had some crushing Kickstarters this year. They funded a new version of the live action rules, rebooted some game lines, and generally exceeded every goal they had. Onyx Path’s Kickstarter for a reboot of their wuxia-influenced fantasy game, Exalted, was funded in 18 minutes, which is pretty damn amazing considering that they were raising a cool $60,000. World of Darkness has an upcoming Kickstarter for their new demonic themed line as well, which is looking really good so far. This shows the power World of Darkness still has.
Look at those numbers! Impressed?
To be fair, these Kickstarters weren’t all necessarily slam dunks, either. The new game setting this year was Mummy. Now, a mummy is a classic monster, sure, but they lack some of a vampire’s pizzazz. You don’t necessarily think of them as drowning in money and women, for instance. Nope, they tend to wear bandages and complain a lot, which isn’t everyone’s bag. They’re basically the grumpy old people of monsters. The name is the worst – how long can you play a Mummy game without someone asking “Are you my mummy?” Sure, Moffat made a scary Doctor Who episode based on that question before he fell in love with River Song, but it’s still a long shot.
6. A 21st Century Business Model
The RPG industry has basically always been tied to a business model based on small hobby stores. They were great because they introduced you to people, helped you find new games, and were generally cool places to be. They were homes away from home for the misfits who didn’t want to be with their parents, but didn’t have anywhere to go. However, they aren’t really as practical these days, with tight margins and few customers. So, lately the industry has largely been going PDF. I have a problem with this, though. RPGs are reference heavy books and have lots of tables, often requiring a lot of flipping. I am slowly gaining these skills with PDFs but generally am much faster with a physical book (which works better in the bathroom as well).
Onxy Path has a great solution to this. Their partnership with DrivethruRPG allows them to offer a great assortment of Print on Demand versions. This means that I can get the physical book that I want as well as the PDF, and it gets to me within about ten days. This isn’t Amazon speed, but it isn’t bad either. I am aware that many consider my preference for physical books to be very old-fashioned, but this way I seem to get them without harming anyone. No print runs to put distributors or stores out of business, no overhead for anyone. They also have deluxe editions I would be tempted by if most of my pretty RPG books weren’t transformed from Topher Grace to Ron Perlman by being carried about to clubs and conventions.
Book abuse at it’s finest.
7. New Editions! New Editions Are Cool!
Yes, much like, say, DC Comics, RPGs get too confusing and weird after a while and need some help. You have all of these freelancers writing and rewriting things, then after a while you just have a lot of contradictions and ideas that have gotten away from people. This is not unknown to geeky properties, but is especially bad because the G in RPG is for Game, and so all of those differences can matter. You have to keep people interested in your books, and an easy way to throw out some red meat is in the form of cool secret moves and powers that crush the stuff that came before. Also, people thinking the old rules are boring can lead to all kinds of weirdness, a weirdness that can lead to rage and arguments and mean words like rules-lawyer. While there is often a feeling of rage when publishers start releasing books that are just like the old ones you already have, new editions are generally better as the designers have learned from old mistakes and can pick the best of the old edition.
Free RPG Day release, complete with new “Blood and Smoke” rules updates!
World of Darkness did this one better in that the rules updates in the new books are a free download for the core book. This means you can get the new rules for free, which I think is pretty great, as well as fair to all of us who have the original books. Roleplayers are somewhat infamous for being penny-pinchers, but I think it is pretty hard to feel ripped off by this deal, especially since the new rules are actually better than the old ones. Though then again, given the number of people you see raging against sites like Facebook, which are completely free, I’m sure the universe can find a way.
8. The God Machine
The original World of Darkness book was huge on ‘sandbox’, which is to say it was trying to give you a few ideas to build your own mythologies with. Although later lines like Werewolf and Mage had a lot of ideas for the universe, the main book was pretty vague. It generally talked about mysteries and small town horrors that could more or less hide in plain sight, elevators that go nowhere, weird little kids, all of those sorts of things. It had some great flash fiction, cool art, and generally just seemed creepy as hell. However, the big setting questions were up to you.
Tentacles make everything more awesome. Even this cover.
Now, however, there is a God Machine, a giant sentient device that plugs into the stars and generally runs life on Earth as we know it. It isn’t evil, just alien. It has its own purposes and is not a big respecter of human lives. If something strange happens in the world, instead of it being just because, it is a result of a glitch or malfunction in the God Machine or, on the other hand, some strange and mildly sinister project it is working on. On one hand, you still have immense freedom since no one understands the God Machine in the first place. But on the other, it has a little more detail and fleshing out.
Personally I found it a bit more disturbing than the old ‘monsters behind every shadow’ approach. I think that was a bit of a post-modern approach, the Truth is out there, the world is more than we know, etc. There is nothing wrong with it, but it is a product of its time period. It may be because I’m getting older or my experience working at a corporation, but the horror of the universe being run down by an old, stupid, breaking down machine is a lot scarier to me than any given Lovecraft style entity or conspiracy. Maybe I’ve just seen too many senseless things and faceless entities ruining things I love. Like, the economy getting wrecked by useless loans. Or the Green Lantern movie. Or Firefly getting cancelled. Or, you know, Congress. Anyway, its faceless stupidity we have to worry about now, not zombies. Although, zombies are pretty faceless and stupid. So there is that.