Sunday, June 7, 2015

Continuing Adventures In Darkness

I've mentioned before that I'm new to any version of the World of Darkness. Because I'm new, but having fun, I'm almost hesitant to voice my opinions. I worry a bit that criticisms will be met with, "but you are new, and maybe this stuff isn't for you" as an answer.  To a certain extent, that may be true. There is an established fan base that likes what they like, and obviously Onyx Path will be shooting to have a finger on that pulse.

However, the above also presupposes two things:   that the way they have done things in the past is the best way to do things for all of their current fans, and that making current fans outstrips concerns about garnering new customers. Since I'm not sure that both of these are true, I thought I might go ahead and lay out what I've been thinking here.  Granted, even when looking for new fans, the target demographic may not be a 40 year old guy that's been gaming for decades, so in the end, take my opinions for what they are worth.  I'm not saying my preferences are better than anyone else's opinions.

I can't claim to have read everything new World of Darkness. My primary points of reference here are the World of Darkness core rulebook, the Werewolf the Forsaken book, the God Machine Chronicles update, and the Beast the Primordial "beta" that is available at the Kickstarter at the moment. It's a cross section, but I can't claim that it's representative.

The Good

I wouldn't have been drawn to this line if there wasn't a lot to like. The concepts of the game are really interesting. There is a lot of thought provoking material for roleplaying in these concepts, while still striking a chord by invoking very iconic images that most of us already have in our minds.  You can say werewolf, and most people have an image immediately, and you can keep their interest not by restating the obvious, but by telling them how you diverge from the core concept they already know.

When you get to them, the game mechanics are pretty simple as well.  Even the multiple sub-systems tend to all work the same way, so as long as you remember that that sub-system is there, you can usually figure out how it works, because everything is working on the same dice pool mechanic.  My personal preference is for the updated version of the rules that appears in the God Machine Chronicles, because it seems to have addressed those things that, in my mind, did move away from a more intuitive functioning of the rules.

So the setting is good, the concepts are good for roleplaying, and the mechanics are solid and easy to resolve at the table.

Less than Good  (For Me)

I love setting information.  I love atmosphere.  I'm a fan of Fantasy Flight's Star Wars and Warhammer 40K RPGs, and the Iron Kingdoms RPGs.  Those are huge books that take up a lot of space explaining the setting and the expected campaigns on top of the actual rules of the game.  So I get the concept of a large book that has a lot in it other than the actual game in question.

The problem is, those books seem to follow a different pattern than World of Darkness books.  There is introductory fiction, then there is an explanation of rules, there are examples to show you how it works in play, but once the mechanical discussion starts, the fiction largely subsides, and there seems to be a progression from making a character to resolving character actions and how character options work.

In the World of Darkness books, you might get a few paragraphs that seem to introduce a game mechanic, way before you know what the terms actually mean, and at the end of the paragraphs, there is a dice pool that you would roll to resolve that game mechanic . . . in a vacuum, with no idea where those dice came from.

For the most part, there is generally a summary of how to create a character that outlines all of that stuff and ropes it together a little bit better, but to see how things actually work, you still have to sift through a lot of flavor text and fiction to find where those dice pools where seeded earlier in the book.

It's almost like there is a fear that if all of the mechanics are thrown together in one area, that people will forget that this book is suppose to be about a roleplaying game that puts a high emphasis on storytelling, so mechanics have to be tucked away and almost hidden in fiction and flavor text to remind you why you are using those dice in the first place.

There are also a few places where concepts are very obliquely defined.  It might be broadly introduced in one place.  Parts might be touched upon elsewhere, and how the concept interacts with other concepts in the universe are in another sections.  Together, you start to get an idea of how it all works, but you are never quite sure, because you had to "construct" that definition from multiple descriptions.

To be fair, the above is something I've run into a lot when it comes to Powered by the Apocalypse games.  Concepts are mentioned, definitions are implied, but never plainly stated, and game mechanics are named in a manner that is atmospheric rather than clear, from a game standpoint.  It almost feels like there is a concern that if game mechanics are too clearly game mechanics instead of story tropes, that people will think of games first and stories second, if at all.

A Recurring Theme

Some of my consternation with the presentation of the World of Darkness games is a variation on a theme of something I've pondered before on the blog.  Rulebooks serve multiple masters in teaching the game and being a reference book in play.  Additionally, game books that are also setting books also need to set the stage and explain the history.  It's a difficult juggling act which makes me lament that the industry isn't better able to separate "teaching the game" books from "running the game" books.

I do think that the World of Darkness books could stand a wee bit less fiction, and a bit more centralization of game mechanics.  Don't get me wrong.  I really like the fiction.  I actually purchased the Werewolf short story anthology, because I wanted more in setting fiction to get me in the mood and set the tone.  But I don't want that fiction to get in the way of me learning the game.

Trust me to use the rules to tell a story, and know that if someone isn't going to run the game the way you envision it, no amount of thematic reinforcement is going to stop that from happening.