And we’re back from a month-long commercial break. My personal life changes at its usual pace. I’m a manager at a KFC and a receptionist at an "assisted living house" these days, and I never have enough time to do what I want – sleep is to precious. But enough about me, joining us this time is the subject of crossovers – much loved, much hated.
There is some little voice deep inside each and every gamer out there that cries out "These two games are great, wouldn’t they be great together?" Sometimes they do, and sometimes they really, really don’t – most don’t, actually. It’s that problem that has given crossovers the mark of death in the role playing community, they have a reputation for being cheesy wank-fests of unrivalled scale. The dreaded crossover is where the Gangrel hang out with their Garou buddies, drinking beer – or where the Technocracy is revealed to be the source of all Banality. The problem with the "two great tastes" is less about what they are, however, than they are about than how they are actually used. Almost any game can be crossed over with another and still come out on top, it just doesn’t work that well most of the time.
The key to running a proper crossover game lies in realizing that it is, in the end, no different from any other kind of game. You simply need a broader base of knowledge and a stronger sense of control.
The simplest kind of crossover game usually escapes people’s attention – one in which none of the PCs actually cross over themselves. A story in which vampires are fighting for their lives against the ravages of maddened lupines is still a crossover story, it’s still drawing from another game for detail. Werewolf: the Apocalypse can be used to give further culture and detail to the "Lupines," making the story more than a combat game of survival. You can even stick with one set of rules for this kind of game, even if you use the setting information, you don’t have to bog yourself down with concerns like Rage and Gnosis and Gifts if you don’t want to.
Another kind of simple crossover that’s related to this is allowing a single character to come from another game. These are the stories of mages with a single vampire in their midst, or the changeling immersed in Garou culture. I got to be the player in one of these kinds of games once. I played an Orphan mage in a reasonably standard Mage: the Ascension game – except that my character was kinain, part fae. By the rules, I should have had a few special powers, some fae gifts, but since the game wasn’t about the fae, the Storyteller decided to keep it simple, and I used my fae heritage to explain an unusually high Arcane Background and some elements of my paradigm. That (and some fun plot hooks) was all, there were no wank-trips of gleeful cackling, just using another game (i.e. a crossover) to give added depth and detail to a character.
For those who want more "true" crossovers in the sense of using all the rules in various games and going will-nilly with characters (both player and not), there are a few things to remember. First off, and most important, have a mature gaming group who is interested in more than just powergaming otherwise you will fail, even if you stick to one game. They also have to be prepared to have lots of "off-screen time." Attention is hard enough in a normal game, but in a crossover, it can be downright impossible to ensure that it’s evenly spread. Second, be familiar as possible with both (or more) rules sets. You don’t need to know every rule and exception, but you do need to know enough to wing it when the need arises. It does bear mentioning, however, that while I talk about these when discussing crossovers, they are really general concerns about trying to run any game. Odd that, that a crossover is run just like any other game, and has the same pitfalls.
The last thing to remember when running a crossover is sometimes the most important, at least if your concerned about your game becoming what you envisioned it to be. Again, this is a general concern for all games, but it is also one of the biggest criticisms of crossover games (although often with no basis). When running a crossover game, you have to have a clear idea of why you’re running the game, and hold onto the theme/mood/neat thing with an iron fist. Do not feel bad about vetoing certain character ideas. This, as I said, is also important in a normal game, but it can come to the fore in a crossover. Many people complain that crossovers "ruin the point" of both games, but that’s just a little too narrow a view for me. If I want to run a game revolving around paranoia and secrecy, then I can do it just as well in a Vampire: the Masquerade and Mage: the Ascension crossover as I can in either game by themselves. Indeed, the feeling may even be enhanced if I can handle it properly (and have good players) as everyone begins to wonder what secrets the vampires are keeping from the mages, and vice versa. Cohesion and control are more important in a crossover game because the question of "Why the hell are we hanging out together?" comes up more often, and with bigger teeth. Mediocre pot conceits will often make for a mediocre game, in cases like that.
In the end, the two things that must be in the foreground when planning a crossover is cohesion and utility. Don’t be afraid to discard character ideas, rules, elements of the setting, plot ideas, or entire whole games if you have to. Again, these are all things that should be kept in mind in a normal "vanilla" game, but they jump to the fore in more cosmopolitan games, since more crossover games are much more fragile. Decide on what you want the game to accomplish, stick to it, and discard anything that gets in the way.
Obviously, some games are easier to mix than others. Some just seem like natural candidates for the big ol’ "plot blender" but others look like nightmares if you even consider doing it. There are three broad categories of crossover games that involve mixed player character groups (at least within the World of Darkness alone), I would say: the natural, the difficult and the impossible.
note: once again, the omission of Hunter: the Reckoning is not a mistake on my part. I don’t like the game, so I’m not going to consider it here. It doesn’t do well with crossovers anyway, considering it’s attitude of "kill ’em all" about the other games. the Natural
These are the games that just seems to flow together, that you sometimes find yourself asking "Why aren’t they already meshed?" about. These are the games where it’s actually pretty easy to come up with reasons why the neonate vampire would be hanging out with the Euthanatos mage, so plot contrivances and party cohesion is only mildly more difficult than in a "vanilla" game. The problems that a natural game faces, however, are two-fold – screen time and rules debates. The former relies on either a brilliant Storyteller or a mature group to overcome (sometimes through troupe-play, giving everyone multiple characters), but it is still something that should be addressed. The rules, on the other hand, need something more. The Storyteller needs to be able to arbitrate on the fly between two different games that were not really designed to work smoothly together. Some enterprising people might want to come up with definite crossover guidelines and put some rules down on paper for easy reference. While this may take up a fair amount of time, it will also provide some kind of reference for the players, give them the feeling that the rules will be consistently applied. If you have the time, you should at least jot down some notes.
So which of the five World of Darkness games qualify as "naturals"? Especially with the release of Mage: the Ascension Revised Edition, that game seems the perfect mate for Changeling: the Dreaming (whether that is a good or bad thing is an exercise for the reader). There is a lot of legends about the fae and wizards, and both games share a strong link in almost identical overall themes. Crossovers can be either of a grand sort or smaller, more limited affairs, like the example I mentioned above. Mage: the Ascension and Changeling: the Dreaming are actually part of a trio of games that crossover quite well, the third being Werewolf: the Apocalypse.
All of the games share a common "high goal," a holy war against the forces of Badness and Boredom and Oppression, a unity of purpose that both Vampire: the Masquerade and Wraith: the Oblivion lack (not that that is a bad thing). Each side is in need of allies, and really in no position to refuse help offered. Mage: the Ascension and Werewolf: the Apocalypse further share a connection to the Umbra and Changeling: the Dreaming has a long history of interaction and binding pacts to the shifters of Werewolf: the Apocalypse. All three games blend easily into one another, you just have to be careful about losing sight of the point of the game and falling into "monster of the week" plots. The final natural game, and actually the least natural of them all, is a Vampire: the Masquerade and Mage: the Ascension crossover. Considering
The realm of difficult crossovers may actually be the largest, as it is home to nearly anything involving Wraith: the Oblivion. While each of the games has their own group of necromancers and mediums, wraithly crossovers are still incredibly difficult simply because of the nature of a wraith – insubstantial and hard to contact. The easiest ways around that – using Risen instead of wraiths or bringing the other characters into the Shadowlands – have their own problems. Vampire: the Masquerade and some stranger games of Mage: the Ascension may be the easiest to run, but they still have to face the same problems. Wraith: the Oblivion crossovers illustrate the major hurdles of difficult crossovers. It’s not the rules anymore, but rationale for sticking together and, more than ever, screen time. Difficult crossovers often involve one or more games that have an entire "secret world" that cannot be accessed by the other game. Take a Vampire: the Masquerade and Changeling: the Dreaming crossover (the other one in this category) for example. It will be extraordinarily difficult to run any sort of game involving the Dreaming or the more intricate secrets of chimerical reality – it’s just a realm that is usually completely cut-off from the blood-drinking vampires. There are ways around it, running a game centered around something other than those elements, or involving more "fae friendly" Kindred like Kiasyd or Malkavians, but those solutions often raise their own problems. Difficult games require a great deal more work and maturity than other crossovers, but such odd combinations can sometimes create spectacular stories. the Impossible Okay, so maybe these crossovers aren’t impossible, but they’re pretty damn close. This is where crossovers between Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: the Apocalypse reside, pretty much all by their lonesome.
Here, it’s not rules or screen time that are the biggest obstacle (although they need to be resolved as well), it’s rationale that is the big problem. Why the hell would a vampire and a werewolf cooperate anyway? Considering the animosity between the two species of supernatural, finding a convincing answer is difficult. It can be done, but you have to be careful to not have anything as silly as a Nosferatu hanging with his new Bone Gnawer buddy, swapping clan and tribe secrets. These kinds of games, where the odds seems stacked against the different characters interacting without carnage, lend themselves best to short, simply "alliances of convenience" stories, but those can only go so far. The story of the growth of trust between two bigoted enemies can make for a brilliant game as well, but it requires really mature players to do right. A note of Jade
While most of the Year of the Lotus setting material is considered a subset of the above game lines, it does bear mentioning that they lend themselves to crossovers with a startling ease. The formal court systems of both the Kuei-jin and the hengeyokai, as well as the impassioned meddliness of the hsien, make for an environment when two mortal enemies may be bound together by honor and duty, allowing for truly memorable games. Many, if not all, of these games would fall under the natural category, as there are a plethora of rationale that would work for such odd creatures bound by Asian honor and customs. Fans of crossovers or those simply sick of the ignorant prejudice of the rest of the World of Darkness should check out Kindred of the East and Hengeyokai: Shifters of the East for more ideas. those Outside I should also say here that "crossovers" don’t apply only to World of Darkness games. I can pull in any other game in print and mess with that as well (although that’s not always a good idea). This is almost always more difficult, as other games don’t even have the common base that all the World of Darkness games have, but it can be done. I had a promising (if still-born) and low-key Trinity and World of Darkness crossover. The key here, more than in other crossovers, is the axe. Determine the point (and often the "primary game") and then chop away everything else. Crossovers don’t need to involve every element of each game, and with wildly divergent game lines, trying to do so would be downright impossible, and the attempt would likely ruin the game – beware. You probably found that a waste of time.
Oh well, I tried. I hope that helped someone to either rethink crossovers or to plan their own better. Do feel free to let me know if I was of any help – otherwise I’ll be left in the dark.
As for next month, I’m unsure of what I’ll be talking about, really. Hopefully by then I’ll have a great deal more time, as many of my projects should be wrapped up by then, but I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll talk about what I would have done differently in Mage: the Ascension Revised, even though that’s a dead horse, or maybe I’ll talk about Changeling: the Dreaming and my love-hate relationship with it. Who knows, but if people send in suggestions, I’ll listen. This month’s crossover idea came from a reader, and I’d like to thank everyone who has sent in comments, it really makes doing this worthwhile.