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5 Tips For Running Better World of Darkness Games

Chronicles of Darkness, Too, If That's Your Bag

By Neal LitherlandPublished 2 years ago 9 min read

The world is a terrible place. Pollution coats the streets, and beggars line the alleys like ghosts, their spirits broken by the grinding gears of society. Money stained with blood and edged with drugs changes hands for services best not thought about, and people look the other way when they hear cries for help. The cops take their cut, using their fists and truncheons to keep the status quo balanced while the rich, the entitled, and the politically connected play in the ruins of what was once a promising tomorrow.

It's a terrible place, but all of that is just the icing on the cake. It's what lies beneath, down through the cracks of the world you need to worry about. Predators stalk the streets, feeding off the life of unsuspecting victims, and leaving trails of bodies in the garbage for their minions to dispose of. Men and women walk the streets with beasts lurking just under their skin, ready to tear their way free to vent their fury on anyone unlucky enough to be caught in their path. Holes in the world lurk through unseen doorways with alien creatures ready to snatch the unwary, and half-mad workers of the will drift through a world that's little more than a clever lie, re-writing reality on a whim.

The World of Darkness (or the Chronicles of Darkness, if you prefer that edition) is a place filled with horror and wonder... but it can be hard to make your particular chronicle live up to the promise of the setting. That's why, whether you're a new storyteller or an established one, I'd suggest keeping some of the following tips in mind!

And if you're looking for additional tips and WoD/CoD topics, check out the following entries from my Vocal archive:

- 5 Films You Should Watch to Really "Get" Changeling: The Lost

- 5 Non-Vampire Movies You Should Watch Before Running a Vampire Game

For more great gaming content, check out my blog Improved Initiative as well!

Tip #1: Don't Ignore The Mortal Side of Things

The World of Darkness setting is filled with astonishing creatures who run the gamut from the terrifying to the tragic. Vampires, werewolves, mages, changelings, and more might be the stars of the chronicle, but there's also the ghosts, hobgoblins, ghouls, and myriad of other beasties that lurk in the shadows with them.

With that said, though, the shadows are not the entirety of the game. The player characters, and by extension the chronicle they're in, are supposed to have a foot in two different worlds. Part of the challenge of the game is that sometimes you can really cut loose with all of the powers and abilities on your character sheet... but other times you have to keep that stuff under wraps. You have to be subtle. And for every slavering monster and vengeful spirit the PCs have to cope with, there need to also be mortal challenges and inconveniences to remind them that they aren't just playing any old fantasy game... this is a modern fantasy game, and the mundane world has a role to play as well.

I talked about this a bit in World of Darkness Storytellers, Don't Forget The Mortal Side of Things, but it bears repeating. Because sure, your vampire might be caught up in a power struggle with the city's prince, but the IRS might also be examining their holdings and trying to figure out whether they're paying their tax bills. Your werewolf might be actively hunting their foes in the concrete jungle, but they still have to show up to court to handle minor criminal complaints. Your changeling might have duties to handle on behalf of the season's monarch, but there's a private detective on their tail who's working for the character's overbearing parents who never stopped looking for them after they were taken by one of the Gentry.

If the game only happens in secret, private places where the players never have to keep what they are or what they can do under wraps, then one of the major aspects of the game (the masquerade that keeps the fantastical hidden from the mundane) disappears in a way that always hurts the stories you're trying to tell.

For those who enjoyed the audio drama linked above, consider subscribing to the Azukail Games YouTube channel so I can make more of them!

Tip #2: Don't Overuse Your Big Bads

Mmm... capitalism. Always a solid enemy!

Every sphere of the World of Darkness has its own super-special big bads that are meant to act as the unique threat for that part of the setting. Whether it's the antediluvian vampires, or the True Fae, or the Great Banes, there's all sorts of end-of-game threats that are meant to act as major enemies in a particular chronicle.

A lot of storytellers, though, will just hurl these big threats at their players until they grow numb to the danger and dread they're supposed to represent.

It's a lot like the monsters in horror movies. When you keep them in the shadows, leaving them lurking in the background, players start growing paranoid. They worry, and they start jumping at every, little thing. Whereas if you just trot the alien out under bright lights, it becomes a known quantity. It's no longer intimidating, and its power to add fear into the mixture is diluted. Much like a spice, use the big dangers sparingly so they don't ruin your stew.

There's more detail on this tip at World of Darkness STs, Don't Overuse Your Big, Nasty Threats! Additionally, for those who want to check out the supplement pictured above, you can fid it at Evil Incorporated: 10 Pentex Subsidiaries.

Tip #3: Embrace The Setting's Pageantry

The World of Darkness is filled with secret rituals, shadow governments, and hidden power structures that add a lot of flair and ambience to the setting as a whole. Whether it's changelings needing to locate a particular gateway into the Hedge, speak the proper phrase, and then enter into a court, or vampires going through a series of doors and security checks before they're admitted to the underground lair of a Nosferatu information monger, those little bits of pageantry are what set the scene going forward.

But a lot of storytellers just skip right over them, the way you would a cutscene in a video game.

This is a huge mistake, and it's one that can really suck out player enthusiasm and wonder. As with the cutscene example, you should only go through the full motions the first time players are introduced to a particular area, individual, or concept. Once someone has fully entered the Meat Market in the Hedge, or experienced the elaborate protocols demanded by the Prince of Shadows, you can hand wave it the next time they come through. But that first time, take a few minutes and make an impression on your players.

I provided additional details on this in Want to Run Better World of Darkness Games? The Watch John Wick!

Tip #4: You Need Light To Contrast The Darkness

Darkness means nothing without light to shape it.

The setting is called the World of Darkness, and for a lot of storytellers (and players as well, if we're honest) that means everything needs to be grim, dark, and awful at all times. Your allies should be terrible people, you should never be able to trust anyone, and there's no such thing as a happy ending. Your only reward for surviving one more day is another boot to the face... sometimes metaphorical, but very often not.

The issue with this, though, is that darkness has no meaning without contrast. Your allies being slaughtered has no weight if they were terrible people you didn't much care for. Betrayal means nothing if you were already expecting it, and prepared for it as a given. If you have no connections to the world, and no hope that your efforts will genuinely succeed, then when bad things happen it will run off of you like water down a duck's back.

For the darkness to have an effect on the characters (and the players) it needs to get inside them. It needs to hit them in a way that matters, and tug on their dread. For example, if a vampire makes friends with an NPC, makes that NPC into a ghoul, and has them as a loyal retainer and a good friend, it will hurt all the more when hunters kidnap that ghoul, or kill them. Someone who was a loyal servant of a seasonal monarch who held deep bonds of respect and friendship with them, may be absolutely crushed by a betrayal they never would have seen coming. Players who have built a place for themselves, and made friends, will fight like mad to protect that place from being corrupted or destroyed by enemies.

If darkness is all there is, then more darkness won't have an effect. You need to have good things to contrast the horrors with... and to be put at-risk when the plot comes knocking.

Tip #5: Every Situation Should Have Multiple Solutions

Well, I'm out of ideas.

One of the most challenging aspects of being a storyteller is that you often expect players to take certain actions to resolve a plot. When you design plots that have a single solution and no other way to complete them, though, you often end up discouraging your players.

As such, consider providing at least three potential solutions to most plots: Mental, Social, and Physical.

As a brief example, say that the players need to get the local police chief off their backs. He's really determined to make their lives hell, and they need something that will make him go away.

- A mental player might hack into a database to acquire surveillance footage of the chief cheating on his spouse to use as blackmail. They might throw up road blocks by filing legal documents and civil suits to tie his hands. They could even use their knowledge of chemistry to cook up a batch of street drugs and frame the chief for possession, if they wanted to get really creative.

- A social player, by contrast, might be able to negotiate with the chief. Figure out some kind of compromise where he looks the other way in exchange for the PCs doing some kind of favor, or not crossing certain lines. If the chief himself proves intractable, the social player might be able to go to the media to spin a narrative that puts political pressure on the chief to back off, winning the hearts and minds of the public in a way that hobbles their antagonist.

- A physical player might use a more direct approach. They might smash up the chief's house, wreck his car, or rough up several of his deputies to send a message. They might put the chief in the hospital by giving him a thorough beat-down. In extreme circumstances they might assassinate him, hoping that whoever replaces him will be more open-minded to not interfering in the PCs' business.

These are just a few of the potential solutions one might pursue, but if the storyteller had chosen a single method players had to use (they have to do a favor for the chief, they must kill him to end the investigation, etc.) that takes away a lot of player agency. Not only that, but this setting has so many different tools for players to use that limiting their options can quickly lead to a rapid drop in interest.

Just remember that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and the setting should respond organically to the PCs' actions.

Returning to the example, killing or wounding the police chief is going to put the cops on high alert. So while the immediate problem may have been solved, it could spiral out into creating a number of other issues. Trying to win public support for your cause to pressure the chief into leaving you alone might work, but it could also lead to investigative journalists digging into the PCs' backstories and finding out more than they should, leading to breaches of secrecy that might need covering up. Even hacking into a database might set off alarms, notifying other power players what's going on and bringing bigger antagonists into play while simultaneously solving the original issue.

No solution is perfect, and you should always ask yourself, "How does this method keep the story going, and escalate us to the next stage of the plot?"

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. To stay on top of all my content and releases, make sure you subscribe to my newsletter as well!

Again, for more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the Azukail Games YouTube channel. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my cat noir thriller Marked Territory, its sequel Painted Cats, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my latest short story collection The Rejects, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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About the Creator

Neal Litherland

Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.

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Blog: Improved Initiative and The Literary Mercenary

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Comments (1)

  • Babs Iverson2 years ago

    Excellent!! Well done.💖💕

Neal LitherlandWritten by Neal Litherland

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