The World of Darkness as a published game setting is by most players and storytellers, as well as those who write the books, considered a whole. The ‘canon’ setting as directed by the books is very colorful and varied in its supernatural populace, having vampires, werewolves, wizards, ghosts, changelings, mummies, etc. all sharing the long night and evading the eye of mankind. This article is intended to explore some of the pros, but mostly the cons of such a viewpoint, and to look at a possible alternative.
The wide range of supernatural influences in the World of Darkness, and all the rules for successfully combining all of them, is considered one of the great strengths of White Wolf’s system. All the core books have an ‘antagonists’ section that presents the other game lines, and the variety of supplements out there makes sure that no chronicle with a strong crossover element ever has to run out of new, exotic elements when something is needed to spice it up. This is probably the way the different game lines most often cross, when, say, a vampire turns up as an antagonist in a werewolf game. This approach gives the person behind a story or chronicle plenty of material for alternative or unusual twists. The full-scale crossover game is another option, where the characters are usually from different game lines. This obviously caters for every taste – whatever your favorite angle on the World of Darkness is, you have the option of realizing it in the game.
These are great ways of playing the game. However, my personal experience and preferences lead me to prefer another way entirely.
The main flaw of the crossover chronicle, as I see it, is a tendency for total acceptance of what we call the canon. The idea behind this is the mentality that all that has been published in the books is fact, and nothing else. Where this can be fascinating and mysterious for someone who doesn’t know what the other games are about, this is very rarely the case. In my experience, players (and storytellers) that are attracted to such games have read most of the books and can’t wait till they reach those certain elements, such as supernatural powers, they know by heart. Which can certainly be fun, no doubt about it – but one of the elements I love about roleplaying is mystery, and that is hard to invoke in that particular type of game.
This isn’t to say that a crossover chronicle can’t be well crafted and provide lots of mystery, horror and great roleplaying. That is simply a matter of involvement and skill on behalf of the players and storyteller. But that leads my to my second, more personalized point about crossover games.
What makes the WoD line of games, and every roleplaying game to an extent, catch my eye is the strong visual concepts behind each. What makes me want to play a game has less to do with the rules or background than it has with the color scheme and imagery around which the concept revolves. Each core book in the storyteller series – I’m thinking primarily of Vampire, Werewolf, Wraith, and Changeling – has a specific light in which it sees the game world and itself. That of the vampires is a red light of dark sensual intrigue, where that of werewolves is a darkly brown of eco-tribal rage. The light of wraith is the gray of decay and tragedy, and that of the changelings is a dazzling pale rainbow of dreams. Taking an element of one color and trying to blend it into another where it doesn’t fit, by having the alien element existing in the colored world, messes up the original color scheme enough to make it impossible for me to enjoy the world in the light it was presented in. I don’t know if anyone else feels this way, but it’s a way of looking at it.
The alternative to the presented World of Darkness, where universal crossover is canon, is to consider each of the game lines to have their own unique world, one created by select elements from the game line as well as the imagination of the storyteller. That way the players shouldn’t convinced they know any facts about the world, as nobody does but the ST. This has the advantage of keeping the players on their toes and the game mysterious. Other supernatural elements can be readily included should any be called for, but again the other game lines need only be consulted for ideas. Using certain elements but not others can help make an alien element fit in the color scheme (I like that concept) of the unique game world.
There are advantages to only using a single supernatural element in your stories though. The one that first leaps to mind is the plausibility. Somehow it is easier (and scarier) to imagine (for me at least) that a race of for example vampires could exist as a unique mythical element in the world, than to imagine them existing as one out of a whole string of completely separate mythical elements. You could call it willing suspension of disbelief, if you like. Which I believe is the cornerstone of ‘fantasy’ roleplaying.
An interesting (and recommendable) way of looking at the whole discussion is to not look at the different supernatural and mythical elements as separate, but rather to look at the basic premises of the World of Darkness. All of the games are built over the idea of a supernatural remnant of the past, believed to be myth by the human race, existing as individuals in their own right (in addition, 4 of the 5 game lines also refer to a mystical hidden realm of spiritual energy). This is the basic idea. The next step is to figure out how to approach it. You can either slice the basic idea into different pieces, each piece outlined in the different game lines, or you can keep the idea in one piece and choose the game line you like the best to represent it. Or make up your own. Regardless, the choice is yours.