Most RPG companies operate on an economic model similar to that of Microsoft. In the same way Microsoft releases a new version of Windows every few years, most RPG companies release a new version of their game mechanics every few years and new versions of their campaign worlds at the same time. White Wolf Publishing ended its old system and folded up their old campaign world in 2003.
The first World of Darkness only served as a backdrop and setting justification for the old lines of Vampire, Werewolf and so forth. However, in the new game the World of Darkness itself received its own line of books, starting with a single book titled the World of Darkness. This book describes the new setting and provides the game mechanics for all the following games, including Vampire the Requiem, Werewolf the Forsaken, Mage the Awakening and the White Wolf Publishing game that produces the most sweaty night terrors, Mimes the Silence.
Books in the basic World of Darkness line are nominally for a campaign featuring mortals, rather than the usual grab bag of monsters. However, most of the books in the World of Darkness line are useful with the other main lines of games. It is worth noting the main lines, vampire, werewolf and mage, to some degree each encourage players start with a normal mortal that something turned into a monster, or who later discovers their own latent power.
The World of Darkness as a setting is a hungry version of the modern world, one in which every stark horror movie, every predatory urban legend, every irrational conspiracy theory either is true or at least could be true. This is the only kind of modern world in which vampires, werewolves, mages… and mimes could exist.
Events moved along in the previous world of darkness as part of a metaplot, or a larger story dictated by parent company White Wolf Publishing and one that impacted all the game lines. While dynamic, the metapplot also proved to be confining, limiting game possibilities. The new World of Darkness books do not have a metaplot and what is made of the world is in the hands of the storyteller and the players.
The book is also home to the basic game engine, called the storyteller system. This grew out of the original game mechanics of the storyteller system used in the old games, thought the new version is simplified and unified across all the current game lines White Wolf Publishing produces.
A series of dots on a characters sheet represent the various abilities, skills, supernatural powers and so forth a character possesses. At the time of character creation, player distributes a finite amount of dots as they choose. Experience points allow you to purchase new dots. The number of dots represents the number of 10-sided dice the player may roll to try to accomplish something. This game only uses 10-sides dice and it usually has to use a lot of them. Getting an 8, 9 or 10 on a roll indicates a success at a task – and getting multiple successes is useful. Getting a 10 allows the player to reroll that dice and if they get another success, it adds to their total number of success – and they get to reroll the 10 if they get another. It is theoretically possible to keep rolling forever if you keep getting 10s.
A drawback is keeping track of lots of 10 sided dice can be a hassle, slowing the game down when you roll six or seven or more of them, count out success versus failures and then gather your dice. Further, pegging the minimal number required for a success at 8 is too high – a 7 is more reasonable.
The mechanic system is distinct, but ultimately no better or worse than the other systems available on the market, such as d20, 4th edition D&D, the system employed by the Call of Cthuhlu game and so forth.
Something that really sets the system and the setting apart from others is its approach to a character’s morality. From the book, “Morality reflects a character’s sense of compassion for his fellow human being and basic respect for the rule of law.” All characters created in this system have a morality score, running from 1 to 10. Each level comes with its own list of sins, sins if committed character feels bad about, if they have that score or higher. The default starting point of 7 reads; “petty theft.” If your character has a 7 morality score, then she should feel guilty about shop lifting. If a character violates their morality, if they do something they should feel bad about, then the player rolls to see if the character actually feels bad or stops giving a damn. If they stop giving a damn, their morality score decays. As the character’s morality decays, they become at best unpleasant to be around and more likely become a danger to themselves and others.
Anyway, included in this mechanical package is a characters willpower score – or their ability to really apply themselves and kick ass and take names. This score bounces around a great deal, as the players spend willpower points to do many things, included negating mental and emotional attacks. The character also has two traits related to willpower, these traits are the characters personal vice and virtue. The lists of both vices and virtue are strictly biblical in nature and selected at the time of character creation. Indulging in the characters vice will grant a willpower point, but can erode the characters morality score or otherwise land them in hot water. Pursuing a virtue is difficult and time consuming but also grants a willpower point.
The nature of the World of Darkness means the character’s morality score is more or less under constant assault. Vampires have to do harm to others to survive – period. Werewolves have hysterically bad tempers. Mages prosper by being ruthless bastards. None of this is conducive to a moral life. Even normal mortals, assuming they are player character, will face a steady stream harrowing decisions to make and consequences with which they must deal. This morality system more dynamic, and perilous, than the simple alignment system of D&D and is a corner stone for the entire new storyteller game system. It is arguably what makes them system distinct because by 2011 White Wolf Publishing is not the only RPG company to offer players the chance to run vampires, werewolves, mages… or even mimes.
This moral system is also a significant part of why the game can legitimately claim to be a mature title. Everything else is just titties and blood.
I hope my mother never learns I just said that.
Another thing that sets the games from White Wolf Publishing apart from others is their sense of style – the books look different from other game books and always have looked different. While not pretentious – or at least not very pretentious – the style can get in the way of the substance. Text that opens the book and chapters can be difficult to read while the font at the heads of chapters and section is too busy in design. The White Wolf Publishing tradition of using 100 words where 40 or 50 would do makes the pages dense and grey. This is not a damning sin, but it is a hurdle for a reader.
Art in the book ranges from decent to good, though there is less of it than there could be if the text were less wordy. The book sports a blue color tone and an attractive and mysterious cover image. As a mature title, the interior art does convey sexuality, violence and sometimes violent sexuality.
In terms of organization, the first portion of the book lays out character creation with admirable clarity, the middle of the book breaks down and describes its use of skills, abilities and powers while the last section of the book provides guidance on running a game. The end of the book also contains a section on antagonists that is adequate and could be better. Ghosts – as presented here – are a disappointment. However, it was probably too much to expect something like a new version of Wraith.
The World of Darkness gets a 15 on a d20 roll – issues of style and presentation, minor issues of game mechanics and a relatively mediocre antagonist selection keep it from getting a perfect score. It is still worth exploring, though the elements that make it so distinct mean that like the Vampire the Requiem book, buyer beware.
[4 of 5 Stars!]