Wednesday, November 20, 2013

System Troubles with World of Darkness

By the way, I do love World of Darkness but sometimes I need to rant about what I love.

Most of the games I run and play use the World of Darkness system as I absolutely adore the world building and character types that can come from it.  The trouble is that the system has more than a few hiccups.  I mean, it's a horror game but most of the creature types are so hopelessly overpowered that the whole 'vulnerable protagonist' is kicked out the window.  Sure, you're vulnerable toward more powerful members of your race but that is more often than not reminiscent of being bullied at high school with greater repercussions than the kind of terror evoked by having something in your closet that you dare not face.

If you try to play a human, you're also hopelessly outmatched but not in a fun 'try not to die' kind of way and more of a 'try not to forget they exist' sort of way.  In order to justify the hidden supernatural elements in our world, most of the creatures have some kind of mandate to stay hidden and some degree of super power to help them do it.  This might be literally re-sculpting memories to corrupting you into a slave addicted to their blood to simply being incapable of remembering the sight of them the moment they do anything supernatural.

Of course there are ways around these issues with house rules or very cruel choices of enemy antagonists (hey Mage, want to have to deal with a True Fae?)  

What bugs me is that my favorite type of World of Darkness game is of the survival horror or investigative horror variety.  Now the former works out okay simply because World of Darkness creatures have a set amount of resources which are difficult to get back if they're not near the right sources (humans, loci, hallows) so you can watch them scramble to avoid using certain powers while still throwing things at them that are better off undisturbed.

But what about the latter?

What about investigative horror?

Well, the trouble with this is that most of the creature types geared for it and justified in doing it are also difficult to involve in a meaningful and not cheesy and broken way.  Take Mages.  They're a curious bunch who actually gain bonus experience points for interacting with the supernatural.  However once you get a group of four together (who will likely be four different Paths), you'll soon run into strife as they can just magically solve most of the more interesting plots - potentially from their living room.

Space, Time, and Mind can also make things terribly easy.  Space can find a sympathetic connection between a murder victim and their knife and it can also allow a person to teleport (with paradox risks, but still) to an area which holds a kidnap victim simply by holding their teddy bear.  Or take the less vulgar issue and simply scry on them and move the scrying window around until they can see some landmarks.  Mind allows people to read auras and even thoughts at higher levels.  Time allows a person to literally see what's come before so they can know exactly what happened unless it's a particularly cold case.

Werewolves have to do more work to get their information but Primal Urge means that they'll probably get smacked on the nose so often due to humans rushing off that they'll give up unless it's a supernatural crime.  After all, if there's a recent murder, who would look more suspicious than a werewolf on location? Generally most werewolves aren't all that interested unless it somehow involves or affects the spirit world, too. There's some traction in that but unfortunately most people don't connect Investigave Horror to Werewolves so I find it hard to get the right type of player + character combination for the game.

Vampires have the right level of abilities though Revelations and later levels of Auspex can be a pain.  Of course, they can only investigate at night and it doesn't take long before it starts getting irritating to have to come up with excuses why meetings can only happen at night. Besides, technically they shouldn't care about much in the way of crime and should be perpetrating it more often than solving it. Super Heroes with Fangs is kinda a faux pas ... though one I encourage others to commit whole-heartedly.

Changelings would be pretty easy to run a case with, though most games there tend to slide toward the Hedge and the Freehold, and therefore they often end up either insanely difficult cases or simply incomprehensible cases. Not conclusions, mind, but cases. After awhile it gets hard to meaningfully follow clues / leads in the Hedge and it becomes an Alice in Wonderland adventure. Fun, but not quite investigation. Though that might just be my experiences as a player.

Of course, this might just be me and my experiences.  Have you found the same?  Have you found the solutions for these sorts of issues?  Or have you found it easy to run an investigative game with these creatures in World of Darkness without a problem and without breaking 'canon'?


  1. I can only really speak about Awakening, but I've found it very easy to run investigation horror with it. Indeed, I actually experienced the opposite problem; I found a lot of their abilities to be not nearly as helpful as they first appeared.

    As for making the players feel vulnerable, enemy magi, especially the Seers are very good at that. They're basically there to lend the game a level of constant paranoia. Unknown people are out to get you, and there's no way you can be sure that the people you pass in the street aren't Seers using magic to disguise themselves. It can make a group very tense.

    On a side-note, a small but useful thing I found, was unseen senses; it merely informs the player that *something* is going on near them. I found it to be a very easy way to induce panic in my players.

    1. To be fair on Mage, I've never really played it in investigative horror due to my fears about it making things really easy at higher level. The one time I did try worked out, but it was a very short game, with starting level characters so it didn't really sort out my concerns.

  2. Completely untested suggestion: massive power discrepancies.

    PCs are either humans, or another creature type skinned as less powerful than the Big Bad. They become aware early on of the Big Bad's existence, and the campaign is based around dealing with low-powered malevolent forces while avoiding the attention of such a disastrously-powerful foe.

    For example, they may be trying to dig up clues that will help them defeat it, and encountering other supernatural entities or mysteries in the process, that aren't directly linked to the BB. At other times, they may fall foul of minor servitors of the BB, but not to the extent that the BB learns much about them or considers them a threat. The challenge is in keeping their activities covert and subtle enough (by not overdoing things) that they can achieve their ends without making themselves serious targets of the BB.

    This might involve avoiding the use of abilities (drawing on them will create ripples in reality that attract attention), while the fact that other supernaturals are involved restricts the success of those abilities (weird auras or deliberate blocking of scrying abilities).
    There's also clues vs. truth. Maybe the Mage can see exactly what happened, but doesn't understand it: Stephen King? has a book where a telepath forces people to kill themselves, or perhaps the criminal swaps bodies regularly, or makes themselves look exactly like an innocent NPC who's supposed to be in the vault.

    Any good?

    1. Very good. This tends to be the main template I used in my investigative horror adventures. *thumbs up* It's also the direct New New WoD seems to be going with a focus on God Machines, Idigam, etc.