Roleplaying games are, more often than not, about the heroes of the story: The paladin of light who stands fearless against the forces of evil, the punk glaring up at the high-rises of the people who wronged them, the nervous investigator of the unknown. Sometimes the game encourages the players to be the villain of the story: The thief, the gangster, the assassin; the witch, the mad scientist, the cultist.
The World of Darkness asks something else of players. It asks them to ignore the concept of heroes and villains. To exist in a place where each character is less—or more, depending on who you ask—than human. Political, predatory vampires. Bestial, possessive werewolves. Supernatural hunters, no more moral than their prey. A resident of the World of Darkness is not a hero, not a villain– they are just surviving in a brutal world, not unlike our own. This is what is most appealing about the World of Darkness; there is no morally correct choice– only the one that you take.
But what is the World of Darkness?
The World of Darkness is the main setting for a series of gothic-punk roleplaying games originally published by White Wolf Publishing and now published by Paradox Interactive. The current core line-up consists of three games: Vampire: The Masquerade, Hunter: The Reckoning, and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Each is centered around a group of supernatural beings (or hunters of supernatural beings) and their story as they struggle to survive the horrors of modern life and the supernatural world.
Originally created by Mark Rein-Hagen and published in 1990, the World of Darkness rapidly grew in popularity, becoming the second-largest RPG by sales in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It featured a long list of titles, peaking at a whopping 11 product lines. By the mid-2010s sales had begun to drop dramatically, leading to a culling of the line-up to the three remaining today. A series of controversial decisions during the release of the current edition of Vampire: The Masquerade lead to a full restructuring of the publishing company and game content by Paradox Interactive, dissolving White Wolf Publishing for good. Currently, the 5th editions of Vampire: The Masquerade and Hunter: The Reckoning are in circulation, with the 5th edition of Werewolf: The Apocalypse coming soon. Vampire: The Masquerade remains the most popular, as well as the game with the most additional material published for the current edition.
But why should I play them?
There are three main draws to the World of Darkness games:
Each system is about personal horror– the fear that comes from within one’s self, the fear about who you are as a person, the fear that comes from guilt over past actions and choices. Morality, humanity, virtues– these are all concepts that are tracked concretely and have very real gameplay consequences. Sure, you could decide out of the blue that your vampire rampages through an entire diner, killing a score of humans but the fun of the game is that while your character can do anything, they still feel everything. Personal horror is about the self. Could you live with committing murder on that scale? What would that do to your mind? How would that affect the supernatural parts of yourself? That is what is so enticing about the World of Darkness.
The metanarrative of the World of Darkness is vast, and constantly evolving. Government agencies and church-funded societies, vampire clans and hunter organizations, individual characters from the mass of spin-off media– in each new publication, a hundred different pieces move around each other in an ornate, complex dance that can, if the players will it, impact each and every home game. It isn’t necessary to keep up with it– like any other roleplaying game, the goal is to have fun, not necessarily to create something cohesive with the published plot or lore. If the idea of a central metanarrative interests you, however, then the World of Darkness has it in spades.
The Storyteller system is simply fun to play. The system itself is very roleplay focused– dice rolls are rare, and most of the progress and action is based on how the characters interact with the world. When it is time to roll dice, the method of determining success is simple: each character sheet has a number of dots in various skills or attributes. For each dot you add a 10-sided die to your pool and roll them together. If you get above a 6 on a die, then that die is a success. The more successes you get, the better the outcome.
It’s flexible, but also concrete. You can only have 5 dots in a skill or attribute, and you can only rarely modify a dice roll. Therefore every time that dice are rolled feels impactful– it’s luck based, sure, but if you’re good at something it’s hard to fail outright, a far cry from systems with binary failure options.
Which game should I play?
Ultimately, it’sup to personal preference: which type of monster do you find most appealing? What kind of horror do you most want to explore? To help you pick a game, here is a breakdown of each currently offered game set in the World of Darkness, along with a brief guide to getting started.
Vampire: The Masquerade
Vampires dwell in the shadows of society, from artificially lit board meetings in high rise office buildings to sewer hideouts underground, from the forest preserves to the boarded up apartment buildings, from neon lit clubs to elegant ballrooms: the Kindred come from all walks of life, but they all share a taste for blood.
Want to be a vampire? This is the vampire game. Whether you want to be a seductive, charismatic monster or a half-mad count with three rib cages and two hearts, Vampire is for you. The main draw is, however, the interpersonal politics: vampires have long lives, and hold a grudge for even longer.
Hunter: The Reckoning
Predators, monsters, ghosts and ghouls… the night is a dangerous place for human beings, and doubly so for the unprepared. In their mind, a hunter is the last thing standing between everything that goes bump in the night and the destruction of the human race.
Buffy fan? Maybe The Dresden Files? Hunter is about normal (ish) human beings hunting down the supernatural, albeit to limited success. The main draw of Hunter is in the, well, hunt: will you track a vampire by frequenting her favorite club? Burn down a building you know houses a werewolf pack? Maybe prep EMF detectors for ghosts? Regardless, you’ll need a lot of luck to survive the night.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse
Maybe vampires and hunters are too human for you, maybe you prefer to play as a beast fighting the ultimate war: to save the world from everything that means it harm. To be a werewolf is to live and die for your pack, and, more importantly, for the sake of the Earth.
Modern civilization is trying to destroy the wild parts of the world, and demons are trying to destroy the rest. A game of Werewolf usually involves fighting against the nastiest, most evil, soulless monsters dedicated to their own selfish goals. And sometimes, you fight demons.
The World of Darkness is a scary place, one that can be made even spookier by gathering some friends, dice, and rulebooks. Be warned: They’re heavy games that aren’t for everyone; each book contains an individual content warning for what readers can find inside, something that I wouldn’t recommend ignoring. Games are meant to be fun, after all. But, if you’re interested in exploring the World of Darkness further, stick around for the upcoming breakdowns of each individual game or check out the official website here. Good night, everyone. Don’t let the Kindred bite.