When creating a unified setting for many of its signature role-playing games, White Wolf decided on a particular world that was both influenced by and conducive to the many scary monsters which would inhabit it. They called it the World of Darkness, and while it’s a very common setting, I feel many players and storytellers don’t see the whole picture.
Most of my WoD experience comes from playing vampire, and so I come at it from that perspective, though I have also dipped my toes into mage, werewolf, and other games. I’ve tried to make this post game-neutral, focusing on the setting as a whole in a way that could be adapted to any number of specific systems.
If basic human morality could be graphed from one extreme to the other, it’s not a far cry to say that on the whole, people in our everyday life are neutral, tending toward helpful. There will always be exceptions, but by and large others are willing to offer a helping hand when the opportunity presents itself. To me, what defines the WoD is that the average person has slid down the sale into selfishness, perhaps even hostility.
Throughout history, various dark forces have been at work in the WoD, guiding, shoving, or coercing humanity to adopt attitudes that would allow them to strengthen and solidify their hold on the world. Vampires have made it so street-level violence is a commonplace occurrence, so any slip-ups in feeding don’t go noticed. The Wyrm has encouraged self-destruction and societal breakdown to grow its armies. The Technocracy has stifled imagination in order to save and protect humanity from itself.
Charities in the WoD are almost all scams, spending 85% or more of donations on “administration.” Gangland violence is a fact of life, as cities grow upward and not outward, humanity clinging together out of fear of the dark and wild expanses. Walking down a dark alley is to invite tragedy, and the truly pious and generous are ground down and broken by the strain of every day life.
While there are many visions of a dark world, whether looking at cyberpunk novels or other future-timeline games, I personally think the WoD is unique in that there have been dedicated attempts to make normal existence worse for the common person.
A question often arises, after I’ve discussed the above, of what kind of stories are worth telling in such a oppressive and hope-crushing setting? For me the answer is actually one of hope. Whether a character is a monster whose very presence taints the world, or a would-be hero trying to save it, everyone is trying to make their own way, take what’s theirs, and perhaps stick it to those who would hold them down. For me it’s the struggle against almost certain inevitability that creates compelling stories, forges surprising strength, and brings out the best in even the worst of characters.
In speaking of the “worst of characters,” I want to digress and talk about three-dimensionality. Just because a setting is different than the world we know doesn’t change the fact that the most rewarding, interesting, and worthwhile characters – in my opinion at least – are those that are believable, real, and multi-faceted. It’s not enough to say “my character is evil” or “I’m going to try and fight the system.” Those aren’t character concepts, they’re just aspects or ideas of what a character wants, and do poorly to describe or detail all of who a character is.
Over the years I’ve talked about this subject as I’ve helped players young and old come up with the stories they want to explore through the World of Darkness, but even with that background it’s difficult to organize my thoughts into discrete paragraphs. I hope for those who play in various WoD games this has been helpful, and at least encouraged you to ask questions and give serious thought into who your character is and how they fit into (or don’t) the setting at large.