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Close to the Edit

Shiny Happy People in the World of Darkness

by Ross Winn
Sep 08,2004

 

Shiny Happy People in the World of Darkness

For those of you wondering if GenCon went well, it did. Frankly the show was smoother, the city more inviting, the people even more prepared. It seems they listened in Indy, and well. Attacked by the demons of real life and family responsibility, I was forced to cut my trip from four days to three. I count myself lucky. Hurricane Charley forced a couple of my friends to sit this year out. I heard even from strangers, or nearly so, that they hoped I was ok in the wake of the storm. Frankly Saint Petersburg, where I live, was completely unaffected. Thanks for your concern all the same.

Back to the first point, the show was a big success, for a lot of companies as well as a lot of individuals. I will be writing about a few milestones for the next few months, but to summarize the business news of the con: traffic was up, sales were up, and many companies had their best GenCon ever.

While many may attribute this to a simply better venue, and that was no small part of it, I think it was because the product was there as well. Many companies have foregone GenCon and Origins releases in the last few years, thinking they were cannibalizing their own sales or that there message would be lost in the background noise of other releases. There may be some truth to this, but the boost in income provided by direct sales from the manufacturer more than made up for it. Companies make a lot more selling direct to the consumer than they do through traditional distribution, in some cases four times as much per book. For companies suffering the D20 glut, the rising costs of printing, and the increasingly crowded marketplace, the better margin is a good thing.

I thought a lot about my column in the process of wandering the show. I made some notes, talked to a lot of people, and tried to take the pulse of the whole thing. As much as I have my own axe to grind in this column, one of my main points to date has been that there are not a lot of new ideas. I said no new ideas once, and then Chad Underkoffler went and wrote 'Dead Inside'. Frankly it was the first really new idea I had seen in a long time. Maybe longer. It wasn't that it was new way of doing things, it was a new thing to do. It was not bigger, better, faster, more; it was "psst, come over here let me blow your mind". I have talked about Dead Inside already, but if you missed it -- well maybe you shouldn't. Now, I am increasingly reminded that 'everything old is new again'.

Wandering about the show I saw some brutally cool products, and there was a sense of excitement in the air as well. Nowhere was this more apparent then the White Wolf booth. Now readers of this column may have guessed that I was none too pleased to learn of the 'Time of Judgment'. For those who may have missed that, I thought it was a bone-headed idea. White Wolf is the number two company in the RPG industry. They had an amazing installed base of players who were very well entrenched. Their products were everywhere, and the flagship game, Vampire: The Masquerade, had spawned the entire World of Darkness.

Reinventing the wheel would be no mean feat. I was convinced that they ran a large chance of angering their installed base, after driving away players in the past who may have been interested in something like the World of Darkness, but were put off by something about the current players. It was a huge risk, and if I were one of the officers of the corporation I wouldn't unpucker until after the first year, but I digress. As I was saying, I think I was wrong.

Friday at GenCon there was a palpable anticipation in the air. White Wolf has a great PR machine, and it had been running full-tilt for months. I spent some time chatting with Justin Achilli and I was struck by just how calm and self-assured he was. Rest assured that most developers and most companies would be as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Not Justin, he seemed somewhat more concerned about his set at the turntables later that evening than about anything to do with the World of Darkness.

The new World of Darkness, and Vampire the Requiem were released at a lavish get together. Drinks, dancing, and a lot of good company are the best way to celebrate. White Wolf is a stylish company, and it was a stylish fete. Justin did a credible job on those turntables, but he did a much better job as a developer.

White Wolf, or more correctly someone at White Wolf, decided that as the various elements of the World of Darkness were added over the years had really gummed up the workings of the Storyteller System. To go from a normal human all the way to a 'crinos-form' werewolf was a strain. As each game built upon and around the ones that had come before it there were a legion of incompatibilities, omissions, mistakes, and such. It made the whole thing as clear as mud.

In contrast the new World of Darkness was conceived and constructed as a unified whole, and based around a basic game book called, simply enough, The World of Darkness. Though necessary for playing Vampire: The Requiem, the forthcoming Mage: The Awakening, and Werewolf: The Forsaken; The World of Darkness book is a complete game in and of itself as well as being a foundation.

The design and appearance of the book itself are better than even White Wolf, a company known for great production values and snazzy graphic design, has done in a long time. I especially like the use of both glossy and matte inks on the cover. They give a feeling of depth to the cover, and allude to depth in the material underneath. The front cover design is better than the back, in my opinion. It is obvious the two were done by separate artists. Were I to have a photo as arresting and evocative as that on the front cover, I probably would have just repeated it on the back rather than using a pastiche of the interior art.

There is a spiffy new logo for the World of Darkness and little icon that I think we will be seeing a lot of as more elements are added to the World of Darkness.

The book opens with White Wolf's signature flavor text. It is also evocative and well written. I am drawn into the story and I want to know more. Of course, just as I am fully immersed, we begin with the game.

Fans of White Wolf are in for another big surprise. The Storyteller System has become the Storytelling system. Rather than just a retooling of the original, White Wolf has gone back to the well and brought up a system that looks very familiar, but acts very different.

Part of my chat with Justin, and reinforced by my experience with the new system, was about how The World of Darkness is a distinct game from White Wolf's other favorite, Exalted. It is informed by the lessons learned in Exalted, to be sure, as well as those learned through hard experience in the multiple editions of the previous World of Darkness games. The new World of Darkness is a distinct system, with its own tone and feel. It feels grittier than Exalted, and not just because the base target number is eight on a d10, rather than seven.

Just the flavor text, and the first fifty or so pages give rise to a lot of possibilities. As I progressed through the book there was even more. I found myself wanting to run a World of Darkness game without vampires, werewolves, or magi. I thought of The Prisoner, Kolchak (aka The Night Stalker, Event Horizon, and a lot of other stories I could run here. They were all horror, either psychological or otherwise, but here is hoping that White Wolf sees the same opportunities.

My only real gripe is that the developers chose not to include stats for any real adversaries other than a few types of ghosts. I would have liked to see stats for a 'Moth Man' a 'Bigfoot' and a few other of the adversaries mentioned in the flavor text and scattered throughout the book. I am getting ahead of myself somewhat, but I didn't want anyone to think I had been possessed.

My wife is a technical writer, and she normally dislikes RPG books because they almost immediately begin using slang, jargon, and technical language before explaining to the reader what any of this 'stuff' means. The World of Darkness does make an attempt to be clearer here, and while not a complete success, it goes further and more clearly than most anything else in the RPG market to date. There is a glossary, and a character sheet, before we get to the meat of the rules. Since White Wolf brings a lot of new players into the hobby this is a great innovation on their part.

There are three major attribute groups for World of Darkness characters: Mental, Physical, and Social. Each of these groups has an attribute for power, finesse, and resistance. It may be that the World of Darkness was informed by other games that have similar ideas, like my own Action! System (written with Mark Arsenault and Patrick Sweeney) and others. It may be just that I haven't sat down and read a World of Darkness game since 1997. I have played since then, but I always let someone else tell me about the rules.

In any case it seems that White Wolf has looked way outside the box. The World of Darkness has always described itself as about story above mechanics, but after the die rolls for attack, defense, damage, soak, and so on, it really didn't deliver on that promise. The new World of Darkness seems to do just that.

Rather than a precise and exhaustive skill system, the World of Darkness uses a more spare approach. This is a good thing, though some will no doubt complain.

One complaint. After reading over this book for the last week I must say that use of so many different fonts is quite jarring after a while. It makes text hard to read and tiring as well. For some of the flavor pieces this may well be the whole point, but it became increasingly more noticeable over time.

Another point that Justin made in our chat was that restarting the World of Darkness would restore some of the mystery and take away the almost mundane feel of the old World of Darkness. I concur, and it was a point I hadn't considered. One of the major failings of Vampire was that it made a human sacrifice about as exciting as opening a box of twinkies. White Wolf has given World of Darkness players a new morality mechanic. If the GM enforces it, I think it will work well. The more bloodthirsty diablerists in the White Wolf community may not appreciate it, but I certainly do.

What does it all mean? I touched on the early parts of my conclusion. Basically, as cool as I think it is, and as many initial sales as the product generated, none of that really matters, yet.

Resetting the World of Darkness seemed like a bone-headed move to me when it was first announced last year at GenCon 2003. It may yet be a bone-headed move. We won't know for some time. While I think that the game and the improvements to it are substantial, how the market will react over the long term is still unknown.

I have yet to crack open the copy of Vampire, being too busy with other things to do so until this week. For all I know, and to be honest for all White Wolf knows, the 'installed base' of Vampire players may detest the new setting. They may lose interest fairly quickly, or just dislike that 'their' favorite thing wasn't included in the new edition. Whatever the case may be, the risk of this venture was substantial, the stakes high, and the outcome unclear.

Every new edition has some of these risks. D&D 3e was a risky move with as much or more to lose as White Wolf. However D&D paid close attention to the core audience and created a game that was, in my opinion, better. Certainly the sales of 3e were better than anything WotC had done in several years, and it may be the best selling D&D ever. Whilst 3.5 was a dismal failure, and a much shoddier game.

It seems from the basics that I have read in the World of Darkness that White Wolf has paid a lot of attention to their core market. The game is easily accessible to the new player, and it is much more streamlined and easier to use even for the old hands. From a designer's perspective this is a slam dunk.

In closing, The World of Darkness is a damned sight better than I expected it to be. I am pleasantly surprised, and would be very happy to be wrong about this being a bone-headed idea. Only time will tell whether the fans like it as much as I do.

Next time we may talk more about the World of Darkness through the lens of Vampire: The Requiem, or I may veer off into the wilds of GURPS 4th Edition for a spell, if, that is, I can lift the two mighty tomes that comprise it. We shall see.

Finally, White Wolf announced that they had acquired the RPG component of Green Knight Publishing, and so Pendragon, one of the original story-telling games. If I were a betting man I might wager that White Wolf may also be trying to buy Chaosium. Some little gear-wheel clicked in my head when I read the former, and I thought the latter would be the next step. We shall see whether or not my next prediction is as bone-headed as the last.

Ross Winn
Freelance Geek & RPG.net Columnist
ross_winn@mac.com

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