Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What's the matter with White Wolf?

First off - the point is that this is a rant with a title stolen from an essay called "What's the matter with Kansas?" where the point was to demonstrate that everyone who lived in Kansas was crazy and every mad thing the US did as a matter of policy happens in Kansas first. The point of this rant is not to defend White Wolf, but to figure out precisely what it is about them that pisses me off, and why I thought they were so good (because I did) in the first place.

The primary reason White Wolf piss me off is the same as the reason I would cheerfully gut George Lucas - they made something I once loved into something utterly crappy. But, as is clear on a re-watching of Star Wars or a re-reading of old WoD books, they weren't that great to start with. So what was the appeal in the first place?

The first factor, I suspect is age. I started playing Vampire when I was 14, having played nought but MERP and one astoundingly shoddy game of Shadowrun beforehand. Being particularly vulnerable to wangst at that point, Vampire seemed like pretty much the best thing since sliced bread, and expansion into Changeling, Mage and eventually Werewolf from there on out only maintained my massive adolescent WW-hardon.

The other factor is book-ownership. I never owned a single source or splatbook for the entirety of my WW-honeymoon period - I just had the (blessedly simple compared to MERP or Shadowrun) rules and setting explained to me by the ST and other players. In retrospect, this is the best possible way to play a WW game, as it means all WW metafiction is filtered through sane human minds first, and setting info is given out on a relevance-level and need-to-know basis.

Unfortunately, I have since realised that what I really liked about WW was the groups I played with. Every one of them had two things in common I had never experienced before: a maximum of one really annoying layer (as opposed to a minimum of 3) and a really good ST. The STs are probably the most crucial factor here, as they all had ideas of their own which were utterly unrelated to the metaplot of WoD and were pretty tolerant (even encouraging) of genuine inventiveness in character-creation and roleplaying (something totally alien to MERP).

The only truly shite WW game I had heard of was totally excusable on WW's part, as it was run by a notorious local gamer who has a bad rep for setting and metaplot obsession, railroading, and being an incredibly whiny bitch all the time. Seriously. The man plays in every local LARP and is always killed by other players for the crime of being too annoying to live, within the first three sessions.

Since those halcyon days, I have been involved in a couple of Vampire LARPS (which all suffered from the same fatal STing flaws - run by aforementioned notorious gamer or one of his cohorts) but otherwise had only tangential contact with WoD in either incarnation.

Last year I played in a long-term Vampire LARP which (though generally well-run and pretty entertaining) threw into sharp relief everything that had historically rankled with me about WoD. Since joining this forum and reading some pretty savage reviews of WW books, it's becoming clearer and clearer to me that almost none of the things that I liked about WW's games had anything to do with them. I like the promise the WW gave me, but not the way they tried to fulfil them.

So, in no particular order, here are the things I personally think White Wolf consistently do wrong:
  1. A game system that is less intuitive than it looks. Example - my last WW character was a Malkavian (crazy vampire) obsessed with occultism. In order to mirror this, I took a real hodgepodge of Disciplines to reflect his patchwork-magpie approach to magic and academia. What this did was to make him incredibly ineffective in terms of game mechanics.
    Because: White Wolf superpowers never have anything to do with your rank in the superpower - it's always tied to some other dumbarse stat. Why won't you let me have someone who's no good at stealth but awesome at being invisible you dicks? Or a werewolf who can knock people over without having to know surgery? From what I've read about Exalted it appears to be the apotheosis of this principle. Being railroaded into a particular min-max-y line of character creation doesn't actually piss me off that much unless you lie to me about it.

  2. A back-story and meta-plot that is almost entirely a detriment to the game world. All five of the original WoD games are (Vampire, Werewolf, Changeling, Mage, Wraith) are awesome ideas which only begin to blow really hard when you read the background fiction and splatbooks. On the subject of Vampire splatbooks, it has been my observation that there is usually one sentence (not counting specialised extra superpowers which may or may not be any good, depending) that is worth reading.

  3. The stupid urge to have all WoD games inhabit the exact same WoD. It was actually OK to have inconsistencies between the various worlds - it fit with their whole "reality is subjective" angle. Every attempt to gel the settings into a coherent world turned the suck up a notch.

  4. The assumption that they are in fact the apex of the gaming industry, rather than an (admittedly notable) piece of divergent evolution. People are currently doing what White Wolf originally set out to do better than they do it. People are also realising that being a bit limited in scope is actually OK, so long as you take everything at its face value and don't try to force it into being anything else. D&D is good at being D&D, and that's OK guys. We acknowledge that you're over it, but you have to realise that some people (even intelligent people who realise its limitations) find it entertaining.

Still and all, I'm glad I went through a WW phase. I kind of owe them my continual interest in roleplaying games. So, despite all the shit, thanks for that guys.

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