Review : World of Darkness Rulebook

White Wolf’s new rulebook for modern horror games.

By White Wolf, $19.99 / £11.99  Print

So here we are. Ten years after the begining of The World of Darkness it ends with Gehenna (or your personal choice of ending). With the old one dead, we get an entirely new one. Or do we? I’ll assume that in reading this you’re fairly conversant with the old World of Darkness (from here on in WOD) games, and try and focus on differences between the two.

Lets start with the bad. There’s lots of intro fiction. It’s hard to do right (I’ve tried myself) and the new WOD intro stuff just doesn’t grab me. Now this might be a taste thing – I’m willing to admit that – or it might be a sign that short stories aren’t a good way to introduce RPGs as a concept. It just makes the differences between fiction and group participation storytelling more obvious.

Moving on swiftly to the layout and illustrations. They’re good. Evocative black and white artwork throughout, with easy to read pages and nicely placed quotes. WOD 2.0 is designed. Everything I would expect from White Wolf. As an artifact the book is nice.

So, it’s page 22 and we finally get some description of what the book/game is about. It’s about horror, apparently, and mood and setting. And by the way, rules don’t matter…

Dive back into some florid prose.

Resurface again at page 32 for a solid 2 page rundown of the rules (which don’t matter, remember) followed by a brief 2-page explanation of character creation. Despite the inconsistencies of attitude to rules there’s good solid stuff here, lots of quick ins for existing players, who are bound to be the primary audience.

Next we have a spread of glossary and a spread of common rolls. Those 8 pages contain the core of the book distilled down: Make your character with points, Attributes, skills, Merits and Flaws. Roll a pool of 10-sided dice based on attribute+skill 8s or higher are successes.

The rest of the book is details; Minuitae that expand on those pages. I’m quite sold on these games which treat you like you’ve played an RPG before like this, but give new players options too.

The sections that follow expand our understanding from these basics. Attributes are described in detail, they’re now broken down by usage (power, finesse, resistance) and type (mental, social, physical) for a total of nine. It’s a scheme that makes sense, and adds clarity. Want physical finesse? That’s dexterity. Want mental resisitance? That’s resolve.

In the game Skills are used to achieve tasks (isn’t that a bit early 90s, isn’t conflict resolution where it’s at in storytelling games? I thought White Wolf were cutting edge?) Each skill is listed with examples, who might possess it and possible specialties. Skills are split into mental, physical and social categories and they’re all quite broad. Specialties can be used to make your character better at a particular niche within a skill, and you get three of these to start with.

Each character has Advantages. These are ways your character gets an edge in the world. Or derived attributes that are used for finiky things like initiative, willpower and health levels. Morality is here, interesting as it may put the focus on moral choice in all WOD games, not just Vampire as previously. A good thing in my opinion. Commit a sin on the morality table and lose morality rating. Losing morality costs too, you’re character is likely to gain derangements at each drop. They might get morality back at the end of a story if they redeem themselve too.

Each character must pick a virtue (based of seven virtues) and vice (based on seven deadly sins). Driving character traits that nicely map out a characters core thematic conflicts. They rock on toast, and are a great tool for player and Storyteller alike. A character with the virtue of Fortitude and the Vice of Wrath is about being tested by the world and sometimes giving in to anger. Cool, as an ST I got my handle on that character really quickly. The virtue and vice also feed into the willpower mechanic of points to increase chances of success, and indulging vices gets you back spent willpower.

You also have more chance of surviving with humanity intact if you commit a sin whilst following a virtue. These things are tiny tweaks but with a big impact on play. Sadly I suspect many groups will ignore the sheer story potential of using and abusing the virtue/vice pairing, since there’s relatively little about it in the actual storyteller advice.

Merits are things that make your character stand out, system bits that don’t fit into already defined areas. Every character gets some to define their niche. Are you knowledgable or a Kung-fu fighter, have allies or a mentor? The list goes on, and all are nicely defined.

The Dramatic systems chapter covers the rules in detail. Time and how it is measured (Scene, chapter, round and so on) is here, as are different forms of action. what do you roll and when. One key difference from old WOD is that while willpower cans till be spent to boost success, it now gives you 3 extra dice, rather than 1 automatic success. Fans of the old system will also notice smaller pools, due to less points to spend at character creation. Dramatic failures seem to be fixed nicely though, you now only have a chance of dramtic failure is your pool of dice is reduced to 1 and you roll badly.

Combat is detailed. More so than a storytelling game need be in my opinion. Many of these rules could be condensed into “has advantage gain dice” and “is disadvantaged lose dice”. There are three types of damange (bashing, lethal, aggravated) and details on a variety of different ways to take these, from fire to toxin. Finally there’s an example of play (mainly combat). On the plus side Combat is much faster than the old WOD, reducing to hit, to damage and soak to one roll is a good thing.

Oddly though for the “Storytelling System”, there’s a whole lot of the book dedicated to tasks and combat and not much to story. Storytelling is chapter 8. The poorly thought out argument of “roll versus role” is wheeled out again, and sounds just as unconvincing as it did 10 years ago. In a game with so many rules that actively encourage drama (like virtue, vice and morality) it’s sad to see this kind of “rules prevent good story” rubbish. Although there’s some useful material, the chapter can’t seem to nail down practicalities. There’s lots of advice on what you should be doing, but not quite enough on how to achieve those results. Maybe it’s just so they can sell a storytellers book later.

So how does this all work in play? Well, for old players the higher difficulty on dice (8s not 6s as default) and lower pool is a big change. Until your ST gets the hang of giving you bonuses for situations, I forsee a lot of failure, it certainly seemed that way in my group. You could argue that this meshes with the “grim world” of the WOD, but it does mean your guy who’s supposed to be talented at something ends up looking like a dufus quite often. With this in mind it would be worth a section in the book on how often to roll for tasks and abstracting to conflict resolution. However, I suspect that once players get the hang of following virtues and vices to replenish WP, and Storytellers grasp creating stories with these in mind, the game engine will hum along nicely.

Overall: Generally the game system works and the setting is really easy to grasp since it’s a darker version of our own world. Old players will find it familiar enough, new players will find this a better intro than the old games (if they are willing to wade through tawdry prose). The same old inconsistencies are here, but putting everything in one book means less duplication across game lines. The new additions like virtue and vice pep up the system nicely. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s a step up in the elegence stakes and it does the job that most existing WOD players will expect.