In an offhanded comment in Changeling vs Vampire I pointed out how while both titles highlighted shadowy political machinations in the text, the presented rules did not actually support play involving that content. Most of the World of Darkness line talks big about politics and pulling strings from the shadows, but in actual play, this usually just turns into character and setting color. Players get to feel good because they get to say, "I'm a Reformist! That means I'm not a stuffy Traditionalist!" Generally this is followed up by working for the Duke without question, and me shooting myself in the head. Now, if I wanted to rip out all the stuff that I liked about the setting of those games -- shadowy conspiracies of demihumans lurking in the shadows of the modern world -- and create a system to support the political and conspiracy play, how might I go about doing that?

Thematic Components

Relationships, Power, and Need

the Other and Transformation

Facades, Shame, and Fear

Let's boil the concept down to three elements: politics, fantasy, and secrecy. Politics is all about relationships, power, and needs. Fantasy is all about encountering the Other and transformation. Secrecy is about facades, shameful truths, and fear. Connecting these, we get... the Other, behind facades, exercise power through relationships to feed their shameful needs, fearful of what happens if they're found out. I'm missing transformation, though, which should permeate the entire thing. Yes, this sounds exactly like what lots of the World of Darkness was trying to be. But it also falls into the same trap as the WoD: these aren't protagonists. No, I don't mean good guys, I mean proactive characters. These guys are parasites, clinging to the underside of the world, purely reactive. Their goal is nothing constructive, it's mere survival, a continuation of the status quo. Not people I'd be too interested in playing. You know what this needs? This needs T. S. Eliot. The only way that the Other will be able to step out of the shadows is to transform their world, but they fear that transformation as much as they fear the vengeance of humanity. So the concept becomes: the Other, behind facades, exercise power through relationships to feed their shameful needs, as fearful of the vengeance of humanity as they are of transforming their world. What we have here is the first answer to the Big Three: this is what the game is "about".

What about the characters and players, though? The characters, obviously, are individuals from the ranks of the Others that are caught up in the transformation of the world that they both fear and need. Some might work towards transforming the world; others work against it. They do so by exercising that power through facades and relationships, careful not to upset the status quo too much too fast for fear of inciting the vengeance of humanity. Of course, all of their actions require that all-important need, and that need is dependent on the human society that they lurk within.

The original novelty of the World of Darkness line was its inversion of the encounter with the Other. Instead of being the vulnerable female protagonist encountering the terrible vampire, you were the vampire out to encounter your prey. Instead of being the knight lost in the land of faerie, you were the faerie lost in the real world. Let's see if we can invert that back, but by doing so invert some other intrinsic bits of gaming culture. Let's start with a protagonist -- the Chosen One -- on a 3x5 card placed in the middle of the table. She's nobody's PC, but she's the main character. She is somehow essential to the transformation of the world -- good or bad. Each player starts with a 3x5 card in front of them, for their shadowy conspiratorial transformed character. Because they're a shadowy conspirator, though, the card starts out blank.

The players jockey their resources (power, facades, relationships) in order to carefully transform the fictional world towards their goal. The system will need to support and encourage the players actively shaping their environment -- oh look, situation again -- but make sure that they do it subtly. If they make too many obvious moves, humanity exacts vengeance. Perhaps every action increases tension, and if tension hits some threshold, badness happens -- think the Black Ship in Catan. The Badness should not be a game-stopping event, and in fact I'd suggest that it should happen at least once in every game, knocking out some but not all player authority tools and changing the situation. There also needs to be a determination of how much transformation is 'enough' and the Others can live at peace, perhaps without need -- in other words, the situation is resolved. Throw in some "pulling strings" system-color and I actually think the Stitch-a-Sitch idea from my prior article could be well-suited.

Let's assume at least for now that players frame scenes and do a variant of the reveal-and-address elements of the situation that I outlined in that article. Everything that gets introduced into the situation gets based off of the protagonist in the middle of the table, slowly working out from her. Since the Chosen One is somehow the key to transforming the world, each player wants to weave the web of the situation back to their conspirator, which gives them more power over the situation, so they can effect the transformation they want, or squelch it before it destroys their precious status quo.

Players by default have relatively weak power over the situation by "pulling strings," but can greatly increase that power by revealing and working through one of their conspirator's facades, which allows them to take a little more control over developing events. So if I want there to be an art gallery party with a new collection to display, I introduce my conspirator's facade as the art gallery's owner, hosting the event. I imagine each Other has a limited number of facades -- say three -- that start out blank and can be defined as play progresses. The Badness created by tension thresholds might lose players facades.

Each player also has a pool of resources -- call 'em Influence Chips for now -- that they expend in order to perform actions to shift elements of the situation. Spend a chip to add characterization to an established element, spend three chips to introduce a new element, that sort of thing. Thing is, the only way that you can refresh your Influence is to feed your need, and feeding your need always creates tension, whether it's drinking blood, haunting dreams, or manipulating the stock market (Vampire, Wraith, Technocrat, for those keeping score). Feeding your need always impacts the situation -- it must be a reveal or an address -- which means that the Chosen One might track it back to you.

All the players around the table, then, will be motivated to make the Chosen One curious, prodding her with mysterious deaths and kidnapped friends, in the hopes of directing that curiousity at their opponents.

Conspirators (and perhaps all Situation elements) have an arbitrary number of 'slots' for characterization -- let's say three -- and players will want to keep theirs blank for as long as possible, remaining in the shadows. Other players will want to fill in your slots, revealing elements of your conspirator, and eventually exposing them. In other words, you start out the game not knowing what your conspirator's true nature is -- are they a hungry ghost, a vampire lich, a dark faerie lord, a grey from beyond the stars? -- and through the course of the game the other players will be striving to shift the situation in such a way that lets them characterize your conspirator. Once all three of your characterization slots are defined, you are "exposed" -- I imagine this means you can no longer use your facades, but have some potent personal abilities and a heavy turn-by-turn drain on resources (which you can then replenish, ratcheting tension). Needless to say, since the Chosen One is the main character, characterization of the conspirator always happens when the Chosen One finds out something about you. All the players around the table, then, will be motivated to make the Chosen One curious, prodding her with mysterious deaths and kidnapped friends, in the hopes of directing that curiousity at their opponents.

Which is nice and all, but I'm still groping after the end game or goal, the determination of how the world gets transformed and the situation resolves. I mean, I could totally bail out and do it the cowardly way, saying that, for instance, the last unexposed conspirator gets to narrate the end of the world / preservation of the status quo. Alternately, I could introduce some sort of investment mechanic where players flag certain elements in the situation as "significant" and if/when they all get connected (via relationships) to the Chosen One, the apocalypse occurs and the world is transformed. Facades are already in play as elements and carry some player investment; perhaps any need-feeding flags the involved elements as significant. The only thing missing from that is an incentive for the players to ever forge those relationships -- perhaps whoever has the most Facades/Influence/Points/Whatever survives the transformation, and the others don't. If it's a threshold, it would be possible for two players to win and the others to lose, or even everybody to survive the world-transformation, for that matter (the "Super Happy Ending").

There are lots more specifics to be hashed out and I suspect such a game would need some terrifically complex balancing of the mechanics to not spin out of control too easily. However, so far I've got hiding in the shadows, backstabbing, encounters with the Other, pulling strings, and dark secrets. I think they're even supported by the system rather than suggested by the color. Now I suppose it's time to put this on 'simmer' for a while and see if it fades away as a diverting thought experiment or sticks around as a project worth spending some real development time on.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Bravo. I want a taste when


I want a taste when the toureen comes to the table.

Wow. I've always wondered (as

Wow. I've always wondered (as I never have been a good at applying what I've seen at the Forge) how to fix World of Darkness. My only comment is encouragement. I'd LOVE to play your game above. Please, keep at it.

Interesting. And weirdly

Interesting. And weirdly enough, not that far off from the structure I kept trying to get to through blunt social-contract and illusionist manipulation back in the 90s when I GMed Vampire. Of course, I kept wondering why it didn't quite work.

Heya, With your "goal is


With your "goal is to win" thing there at the end, you make the game very Gamist. I like that! The problem with WoD was that it posed Narrativist and played Simulationist. What you've got is a very tight design that focusses on the goodies and has a big juicy reward at the end. Incoherance: gone!

Here's what I might suggest, though. Don't have it end at the Transformation. Or at least, make the Transformation one possible ending. What if the players could continue playing after the Transformation? In fact, what does happen after the Transformation? There's a whole new world to conquer/explore, right? So the characters that survived have a new, high place in the New World while the players who didn't make now have to do something else. For instance, they could:

1) Have to make new characters according the perameters of the winners

2) Play opposing roles to the winners and try to return the world to the way it was

3) Take on supporting role characters and aid the winners in wresting control of the New World from other vamps/fairies

Of course those are only off-the-top-of-my-head ideas, but it's something to think about. I applaud the use of an Endgame in your design here. The more I work with designs, the more I see how an Endgame can add so much to the enjoyment. Anyway, it looks like a really cool game, Josh. Nice work.



I have this sneaking

I have this sneaking suspicion that you have just described Sorceror, played from the point of view of the demons, but since I have only passing knowledge of the Sorceror system beyond Humanity, you can take that with a grain of salt. Even so, when I recently contemplated running a 'fixed' version of Changeling, mostly it involved replacing Glamour/Banality with a Humanity scale a-la Sorceror, where the players define it beforehand.

Bringing it back to your example, if what is to be Transformed is the humanity of the Chosen One, this makes it easy to see what kind of actions the conspirators might take to push the balance in one direction or another. The goal for some is for the Chosen One to transgress, and for others to preserve. A Transformation occurs when the scale is tipped far enough to create some sort of crisis moment, which is resolved in some unexpected way.

At that point, I don't want the game to end -- I want the scales of transformation to change. The idea of transformations, plural, is appealing to me (I am still trying to figure out how to design a game of scientific research based on the premise of paradigm shifts, for example) -- after enough fighting, the rules of engagement change, and allies may become enemies or vice versa. Certainly, there is a new Chosen One. Ideally, the characteristics that were in flux in the previous stage are now resolved into permanent traits, which modify continued play. Think of it as building the spiritual/emotional/social history of humankind.

Troy, ICE, I agree in

Troy, ICE, I agree in principle -- I just haven't figured out how, procedurally, this bare-bones premise of a system turns one 'finished' situation into a new 'fresh' situation. The fact that I haven't really designed this out to its end or actually played it probably has something to do with that. ;)

Thanks Fred, Mark, and other-Mark. This is more or less what I always wanted out of those games, or when I tried to imagine playing American Gods or War for the Oaks. Glad to hear I'm not the only one!

Heya, It definately would


It definately would be a unique system that had players create one character for the begining part of a campaign and a second, wholly different charcter for the latter part. Keeping the stream of continuity would be difficult, IMO. But if it could be accomplished...whoa.



Something that comes to mind

Something that comes to mind having reread your post is that all the WoD creatures had a human foil: the Vampire's prey, the Changeling's source of imagination, etc. Maybe there could be more than one Chosen One, chosen by each of the players to anchor them in human society?

Right, Mark. That essential

Right, Mark. That essential link to the rest of humanity that got conveniently overlooked in every game I ever played. I didn't stipulate and I should have that whenever you 'feed the need' said need would have to involve you with people. Increasingly I like the idea of 'marking' who's been fed off of, as well. There's no reason why you can't create a 'herd' for your vampiric Other, and in fact it would probably be a good strategy. That's where the inescapable link to humanity -- and the characters involved in the situation -- comes from. So basically, yes, that link needs to be done, it just shouldn't be through the Chosen One.

The Chosen One, on the other hand, is not really a feature of the standard World of Darkness. The Chosen One is an agent of change, probably the most sympathetic character in the game, and the key protagonist. If you look at War for the Oaks or American Gods, they're the main characters that get batted around by the Others. But the Chosen One's purpose is not to link the Others to humanity, which is all status quo "this is how it is," it's to forward the game, which is all "this is how it's changing." Diluting that out into multiple Chosen Ones would allow players to drive change in different and unreconciled directions; with one Chosen One, the focus is preserved.

That make sense?

Having just read a shitload

Having just read a shitload of Sandman, I can also say this is pretty much how lots of Sandman works. Ye olde Sandman isn't the central character, he is the other circling the central character -- who changes from arc to arc.

So a similar structure could work for Nobilis as well.

Nobilis, sort of -- each

Nobilis, sort of -- each blank-card conspirator would be an Imperator, and the "facades" would be individual Nobles. But then, the Imperator/Noble thing is designed specifically for a (somewhat) standard roleplaying party, so that's to be expected.

Sandman, um, sure. It's only recently that I found out that Sandman comics weren't about the badguy in Spiderman. Who was made of sand. Yeah, I have the trait: "Comics: 3d4".

Damn stupid typist. There was

Damn stupid typist. There was supposed to be more to the above post.

One of the things that is a big issue in Sandman, and can be in Nobilis (through anchors and flower rites), is that a lot of the plot gets pushed by the decisions of the central character.

So in this type of game I think there should very much be the circling darkness and other, some trying to protect, some trying to destroy, and with the black ship comming in when things are pushed to far. That all works very well. But what about the transformational issue occuring when the protagonist finally makes their decision. The change then, is what comes because of that decision.

Imagine, if you will, an alternate reality in which the Matrix series fulfilled its potential rather than turning to shit. (And don't tell Laura I'm talking shit about the Matrix again, thanx.) When Neo becomes the One, there is a change -- the shadows world gets boot fucked and inverted. Then again when he goes into the Source. Then again when he dies. The end of the first movie shows the quintessential aspect of the transformation -- once you are THE ONE --the fight doesn't end, it just changes form.

And, though it did it clumsily and often in a very lackluster way, the Matrix series did show us that if you can control which way the Chosen One goes (not just keeping them ignorant, but ignorant of the right things at the right times) you can push them the way you want. Until, of course, someone clones themselves 50 billion times...

At that point it becomes like resolving a kicker and then making a new kicker in Sorcerer. The Chosen One's CHOICE doesn't end play, it just determines a new round of goals for everyone around the table.

Right now, my unexamined

Right now, my unexamined kneejerk is that, if you play out a full situation of this, the blank-card conspirators are no longer blank-card entities at the end of the first situation. The second situation and all others after them will not have the same element of mystery around the conspirators. Sure, you can say that each situation adds three new slots that can be revealed in that situation, but... we've all seen the sequels to movies that were meant to stand alone, where they take a character that's been revealed in the last one as one thing, and then reveal more things about him to 'reinvent' him in another direction. The Mummy Returns is a great example. Sometimes, sure, it works; most of the time, though, it's just dumb.

So: not "this is an unavoidable problem" but "my first reaction is this."

Hrm, That could be an


That could be an issue.

Another idea, with many problems, is to make the revealed things become the center. Do it Chthlhu style, where once you reveal the darkness you then have to look for the darkness behind the darkness, and the utter gibbering horror behind that.

Or combine the two. Maybe you get rid of one level, and move back to another?

Or specifically reinvent

Or specifically reinvent those characteristics rather than fill in the blank spots, I suppose. However, this shifts the focus of the game -- with the Chosen One as a fleeting "guest star" and the conspirators as ever-complicating mainstays, the game very much becomes about them, their drives, their interests. Which is not to say that this is bad, but it does make the Chosen One relatively immaterial.

Also, when I describe the world-transformation as an apocalypse, I mean it. I mean shit gets changed. Sunnydale becomes a giant fucking crater. But maybe that's just me.

Heya, I'd stick with the


I'd stick with the Sunnydale becomes a crater thing. Don't lose that aspect. But say the crater is all that's left of the world. The Shadows and Strings guys would want to rebuild somehow. Just now they are inexorably changed. The characters would go through a radical change.

But what you're really changing is just the ephemera. The styles and techniques would still stay the same. At the time of the transformation, each character would be faced with a choice (aka Bang). The results of their choice would determine what they transform into.

BTW, let's say you go with this in some fashion. Someone would have to play the Chosen One, right? Who would do that?



See, somebody playing the

See, somebody playing the Chosen One is something I do not want, which makes it hard for the Chosen One to have to make "a choice". Alternately I just need to think of some workable means for the playgroup as a whole or one or more "winners" to dictate what the Chosen One's choice is.

I would think that everyone

I would think that everyone would control the Chosen One, and vie with in-game mechanics to be a narrator and/or scene framer for the Chosen One. Like in Face of Angels, you have a pie sliced up for each conspirator, when you declare certain relationships of other NPCs in the game, they become off-limit for certain actions (can't kill any other players NPCs unless they make that a part of the stakes themselves, etc.) So a player wants to frame a scene for their conspirator, and allows the other players to vie for control of the Chosen One in the scene or everyone bids for different things they want in each scene, and someone wins framing rights, someone else gets stakes setting rights, and others could win rights to the Chosen One or other NPCs. Am I making sense? I'm being really long winded, I know.

No, that all sounds like good

No, that all sounds like good stuff, Mark. If it's my turn and I'm revealing or addressing, I'd need to play opposite someone during that; assigning roles to the other players -- including the Chosen One -- is a good way to do that.

To put a finer point on my comment above, I don't think I want whoever is playing the Chosen One to formulate an address for them. The choices made by the Chosen One should be something that is determined by inputs from all players, probably siphoned through the system. Since the players are already characterizing the Chosen One, I imagine that it shouldn't be too hard to allow players to "appeal" to those characteristics (give in to your anger!) in order to do so.

Hm. Cogitating.

Heya, That's totally cool,


That's totally cool, Josh. And in the end, these are all suggestions off the top of our head. If they don't match your vision for the game, then toss 'em. It's really about what you wanted to get from Vamp and Changling.



Oh, like any of this isn't

Oh, like any of this isn't off the top of my head. I appreciate the feedback, even if I don't go forward with this. It's an interesting thought experiment.

Paying to play the Chosen One

Paying to play the Chosen One should be expensive in the game currency as the Chosen One is the only entity/mechanic that can reveal a Conspiracy or permanenty harm or affect a PC.

Web of Shadows is the next

Web of Shadows is the next article in this chain.

"This is the idea that would not die and leave my brain alone — formerly Shadows and Strings. The numbers aren’t very thoroughly checked yet, but the basic ideas are pretty solid thus far. I need a better term than ‘black dot’ in the Backlash mechanics, though. And the Endgame rocks the effing world, man..."

Post new comment