Remember where you were when the dark world ended, that fateful day in 2004? You know, when Ravanna – the Antediluvian vampire who founded Clan Ravnos, right? – fought Changing Breeds and Euthanatoi in Bangladesh? An Elder Kindred of the East summoned a hurricane, and the Technocracy launched neutron bombs that killed a million people. Meanwhile, in the Deadlands (the afterlife), the traitorous Smiling Lord detonated the relic version of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, which created a Maelstrom that consumed Stygia and, by mistake, himself. The explosion shredded thousands of Avatars, starting a permanent storm that walled off the Umbra. The Technocracy finally bumped off Ravanna with three orbital solar mirrors. Remember?
Grandiose, grand opera, Grand Guignol! In that conflagration, the “Week of Nightmares,” countless world-beating antagonists met a suitably overwrought end in White Wolf Game Studio‘s tabletop roleplaying setting, the World of Darkness. And the calamity heralded not only a remade world, but a new cast of adversaries who – like their designers – put aside childish things.
Even non-roleplayers know the World of Darkness, whether from the quickly-staked 1996 TV series Kindred: The Embraced, Troika’s 2004 PC game Vampire: Bloodlines or the forthcoming MMOG. Or maybe the non-roleplayers just saw countless pudgy Goth-wannabes at 1990s game conventions. From the debut of Mark Rein-Hagen’s Vampire: The Masquerade in 1991, White Wolf made a huge impact. In Vampire, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Mage: The Ascension and other “play the monster” games using its Storyteller rules system, the World of Darkness embodied Gothic-Punk angst just as it became fashionable. “A beast I am lest a beast I become!” lamented thousands of player characters, who had been unwillingly Embraced or Awakened or endured the First Change. Now these characters were grappling with newfound powers and possibilities, wondering how to fit in with their Clan or Sept or Cabal and perceiving the existence of long-standing yet shadowy conspiracies of superannuated elders.
In other words, these characters, like their players, were coping with puberty.
White Wolf’s games derived immense power and huge sales from their adolescent concerns, as well as their crazed originality – incoherent, sprawling, uneven yet infused with energy. The company emphasized a more personal, artistic approach than in the majority of earlier RPG lines; each support line bore the strong personal stamp of its line developer. Pretensions soared, shown by the books’ litter of epigraphs, Incorrectly Capitalized Words and exhortations to the Storyteller to throw aside rules when they interfered with drama. For employees at Gen Con 1994, the company made buttons: F— YOU, MORTAL, I’M WITH WHITE WOLF.
Designers couldn’t use the term “villains,” and never, ever “bad guys.” Not even embodiments of pure cosmic evil were “bad guys.” No, the term was “antagonists.” The Storyteller antagonists, as much as anything else, showed the lines’ originality.
Phil Brucato, line developer for Mage‘s first two editions and now a freelancer for the Werewolf line, tells The Escapist, “For a World of Darkness antagonist, I want someone who embodies a theme and suits the setting. Tezghul the Insane (from Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade) represented bestial chaos. His hordes rumbled along the edges of the Sorcerers Crusade world and could unite the various warring factions against him if he showed his ugly face. I also want someone who makes my own skin crawl. The Centipede King from Infernalism: The Path of Screams creeps me out to this day.” Brucato prefers the low-powered World of Darkness adversaries, though he says occasionally “it was nice to pull out the stops and feature a wild villain like Voormas, the rogue Euthanatos with his flying Umbral castle and cadre of magical killers.”
One wild villain, though, still stands as the company’s most notorious mistake: Samuel Haight, an invincible evil vampire-werewolf-mage whose story blighted three game lines.
“We were a very young company,” Brucato recalls. “The oldest person on staff when I was hired fulltime in 1993 was 31. On many levels, we were still figuring out what we were doing, and the Sam Haight saga seemed like a good idea at the time. It certainly wasn’t a unique concept – other gaming and comic companies had been using the ‘continuing villain’ idea for years. Had the WoD been D&D, it wouldn’t have been a problem. The approach, however, clashed with the WoD atmosphere of the time, and ran counter to the whole appeal of the line. The lesson would be this: Tailor your marketing concepts toward the appeal of your product and the desires of your audience.”
But the audience also desired more power. Over time, White Wolf’s systems grew rules-heavy, victims of grognard capture. The Storyteller games’ growing emphasis on munchkin power-gaming led some to label them “AD&D with clove cigarettes.” There were were-dinosaurs. By 2004, even Sam Haight would almost have fit in.
The secret-conspiracies metaplot began to collapse under its own weight. Like software long maintained, every pop-culture world setting accumulates cruft. Think of shelves of Forgotten Realms novels, or the exhaustive corrigenda for every alien and object in every frame of Star Wars. A comics fan must grok 40 years of superhero continuity merely to read DC’s Infinite Crisis or any Marvel X-Men title. Let’s not talk about Star Trek.
Sustaining the World of Darkness metaplot required Jesuitical effort. Designers felt less like fleet-footed news reporters and more like librarians. In earlier years, writers had briskly ransacked history to describe their vampiric Primogens and Master mages; now, instead, they read dozens of previous supplements. No one but hardcore fanboys could track the incredible panoply of antagonists and conspiracies. White Wolf never compiled a comprehensive overview; even today, its World of Darkness wiki is fragmentary. Everything had bogged down.
So, like many pop-culture settings, the World of Darkness got rebooted. “The Time of Judgment,” a 2004 set of four hardcover scenario collections, described multiple ways to end the sprawling metaplot. None explicitly listed the Ravnos-werewolves-Euthanatos Bangladesh battle; that appeared in a tie-in novel trilogy. The novels, like the scenarios, toiled so hard just wrapping up the mess, they achieved little dramatic effect. Few players recall them fondly. White Wolf’s official site for the End Times books has lots of dead links, which seems appropriate. Perhaps the most memorable result of the Time of Judgment was Scott Leaton’s review of its promotional shot glass.
Gumbo vs. Applebee’s
Launched in summer and fall 2004, the new World of Darkness games – Vampire: The Requiem, Werewolf: The Forsaken and Mage: The Awakening, plus later “satellite” games like Promethean and a revised Changeling – feature a new, simpler, more consistent “Storytelling System.” The setting, completely re-imagined and streamlined with (note well!) no metaplot, emphasizes personal horror.
Supernatural beings don’t run the world any more; in fact, many are hard pressed just to survive. Player characters tend to move in a circumscribed area, a city or even a single neighborhood, surrounded by adversaries. It’s all very, umm, dark. “The old WoD got to be like the setting of Chaos! Comics,” Brucato says. “The new one is more like The X-Files.”
The back story sounds the same in both original and new games: “In the old days when magic was everywhere, somebody screwed up, ruined everything, and therefore your life sucks.” But where the old games blamed bad guys – sorry, antagonists – and whined that everything was about to end, the new versions (particularly Werewolf) take a more constructive view: “Our forerunners messed up, so we must fix it.”
Reflecting this maturation, the setting’s new antagonists “fit the far more localized experience,” says Requiem line developer Justin Achilli. “Things like Nexus Crawlers and rampaging Antediluvians don’t fit the xenophobic, isolated moods of the games, so we scale down their power or otherwise configure their stories so that defeating one isn’t a matter of ‘Save the world!’ It’s more, ‘We saved our own asses.’ I think there’s a lot more grayscale morality in the new World of Darkness, and a lot less room for the players’ characters to be overt heroes. The antagonists reflect that. Check out Promethean’s qashmallim, for example. They’re incarnate pillars of flame that embody the utterly amoral Divine Spark. How do you even deal with something like that, let alone cast it in the light of right or wrong?
“I think the spiritual enemies made the transition best. They became even more alien and esoteric, less knowable, and more like forces of nature, riddles in themselves. Spirits aren’t inherently friends or enemies. You have to figure out how to deal with them on an individual basis. That’s the stuff that makes great stories and challenges the gaming group. There’s no sense of, ‘Oh, that’s creature type “X,” weak against fire magic but resistant to bullets.’
“The new World of Darkness antagonists [are] more representative of the games’ conflicts, rather than the objects of the conflicts themselves. It’s not about a factory full of a hundred slavering nuclear mutants, it’s about, ‘Who’s killing the single women in this city, and how can I keep him from getting to me?'”
Does White Wolf’s approach to antagonists reveal anything about the World of Darkness MMOG? Staffers are forbidden to talk. Achilli does tell The Escapist the reboot wasn’t specifically to prepare for computer versions: “When you look at the types of stories being told in the world, they’re far more personal and internalized than most videogame fare. On the other hand, we all love videogames, and hoped one day to move into that medium. Things like Belial’s Brood in Vampire, spirits in Werewolf and Mage, and Pandorans in Promethean can make the transition easily.”
It’s perhaps too obvious to draw parallels between the new maturity of the World of Darkness and the aging White Wolf line developers. Yet what has been lost? After two decades, everyone’s vigor fades. Some players find the new World of Darkness less exciting, less copiously imaginative. The new games still provoke argument; in particular, Mage flamewars burn eternally. An RPG.net forum user called Bailywolf posted a comparison: “The new Mage is so polished, so well crafted, balanced, designed … a real dance of the celestial spheres, rather than the mystical gang war of old Mage. New Mage is like Applebee’s: You get variety, decent service, many locations and a decent selection of pretty well cooked food that all tastes suspiciously similar. Old Mage was a bowl of gumbo from Mother’s in lost New Orleans: Everything went into it, and the restaurant is filthy, the service lousy (unless you’re a regular) and the company dubious. But goddamn, is it the best bowl of gumbo you’ve ever had.”
Nonetheless, the new World of Darkness has earned wide respect. Many players prefer the new versions for their polish, consistency, tight focus and effective horror. The comprehensive RPG.net Gaming Index lists a respectable user ranking for Vampire and laudable highs for Werewolf and Promethean. The ultimate sign of acceptance came in 2006 with Wiley Publications’ Vampire: The Requiem for Dummies. It seems the audience, like the setting – for better or worse – has grown up.