Campaigns (or, more properly, “chronicles”) in the World of Darkness involve a lot of different elements. These gamelines have been celebrated for decades as rich storytelling systems that have huge followings but they also are notoriously dense in lore. If you want to start a new campaign using the Chronicles of Darkness, here is a short list of items to get your gaming group up to speed.
The classic World of Darkness setting has many editions and book after book of metaplot, but even the relatively lighter new World of Darkness has its share of history to get up to speed with. White Wolf and Onyx Path do great jobs at summarizing things in their book (weirdly, my favorite part of these games is the breakdown of each sourcebook in the Introduction) but you might want to send your players a list of the salient points instead of directing them to a summary chapter in a book.
The list of Things to Know posted here is not a complete introduction to the World of Darkness (and you’re on your own for the old World of Darkness). Reading through this will just prepare you for an opening session and for making your character; there will need to be more exposition at the start of a new campaign to get everyone up to speed with the ins and outs. Still, this is short and sweet so your gaming group can start the conversation even sooner!
1. This is Our World
The first thing that sets the World of Darkness apart from games like D&D, Star Wars, or even Earth Prime from Mutants & Masterminds is that it takes place in the real world. There are vampires and ghosts and secret wars between factions of mages but everything that has happened in real life has happened in this world as well. This isn’t even an alternate history thing like the alternative World War II of Godlike or a future scenario based on our world as with Star Trek or Eclipse Phase. In your game world it is the present day (or, if you like, one of the game lines’ historic settings) which means if your player characters check out the New York Times it will have today’s headlines and if they want to drive from Boston to Washington D.C. it takes exactly as long as Google Maps tells you.
You can change this, of course, and you shouldn’t feel boxed in by reality too much. If you need an occult professor on staff at Columbia University and they don’t have anyone who fits the bill then just invent one. If you want your player characters to run a bar in downtown Chicago they can put pick an address that really has a Starbucks and no one should care. On the other hand, you have the whole of the internet to tell you what is found at specific locations and what sites might be interesting to visit. When it hasn’t been changed for your campaign, whatever Wikipedia tells you can be considered canon. This gives players a ton of options while also skipping over the day-to-day details of a new, strange setting. They’ve been training for this their whole lives!
2. There’s More to It
With all that said, there are histories and cultural details that players (and GMs, or “Storytellers”) will need to get up to speed on. Each game line has its own shadow history but we’ll get into that later. For now just know that there are dark things in the hidden parts of the world and that a lot of the myths and legends from around the world have some basis in truth.
How much your character knows about these secrets depends on their background and the type of campaign your Storyteller has in mind. In general, though, most of the planet doesn’t know about any of the really big stuff happening in the world and you are probably only a little better. Even if you are some supernatural creature, you likely know just a sliver of your own kind’s business and nothing about other creatures’. A vampire character, for instance, knows the big stuff for vampires but there are secret societies, hidden bloodlines, clandestine politics, and millennia of vampiric history that they don’t know about. On top of that, they probably don’t know anything about werewolves or mummies except (maybe) that they’re out there.
3. You Used to Be Human
Starting with a character in Chronicles of Darkness means thinking about what that person was like when they were normal. Most of the game lines focus on humans changed into something else (again, more on that later) so players will have characters that aren’t so different from them in the broad strokes. These are not ancient elves, sentient AIs, or brutal Klingons whose childhood is pretty unimaginable for (presumably) human players. Your character is some guy from Philly or a biochemistry major at Georgia Tech or a housewife with frenemies in the PTA. Use your imagination and try out something different but, again, this is taking place in the real world so you don’t have to try to imagine yourself in some alien society.
At the same time, you used to be human. You had a normal life (probably) and then became something else. What exactly that “something else” is and how the change took place depends on the specifics of your campaign but suffice it to say that your character’s life is wholly different now. They might be trying to pretend in their day-to-day life while maintaining a secret supernatural existence, or they might have totally abandoned their previous life to live as some strange creature. Again, this all depends on what your Storyteller has worked out for you but know that you have “normal” human experiences and that they are probably in your rearview mirror now.
4. Ghosts Come from the Underworld
There are two other realms in the World of Darkness besides the mortal realm that is our real world. Mostly. There are some others that sort of mess things up but let’s just keep it simple: there are two realms that matter to every game line and that the core book talks about.
The first one is the Underworld. It’s the realm of the dead and it made up of various areas and kingdoms that hold particular souls following particular afterlives. If your characters encounter ghosts (this may or may not be an expected thing) then these are spirits that were once living humans and that now should be in the Underworld… You might want to send them back there if you can.
Ghosts vary in power but they all have Anchors that keep them around, people or places or objects that are tied to the unfinished business that keeps them from going on to the Underworld. The process of sticking around past their due date (and potentially the circumstances of their death) makes these spirits a little twisted and strange. Depending on what sort of creature you are you might try to help these poor souls and find out what they know, avoid them because you’ve already got a ton on your plate, or devour them for power. No one said this wasn’t messy.
5. Spirits Come from Shadow
The other “other realm” that is commonly seen in the World of Darkness is Shadow, a realm that is definitely separate from humanity. While ghosts are the souls of deceased people, the denizens of Shadow (called spirits) were never human and certainly don’t care that you (probably) once were. They have other goals like preserving the purity of a river or spreading malicious jinxes or eating everything they can get their hands on. It’s fair to refer to these generally as “nature spirits,” but keep in mind that they just as often represent abstract concepts (love, hate, hunger), human creations (machines, cities, weapons), or they are strange amalgamations of different things (acid-tree hybrid spirits or electro-rats). It’s a weird world out there but, unlike ghosts, these spirits usually come through at soft spots or because people are calling them through. Avoid those places/people and you should be alright.
6. Characters are Made with X and Y Splats
Now we’re getting technical. Characters in Chronicles of Darkness have a lot of different parts to them including their base Attributes, their Skill ratings, their powers, and their Merits. This is a separate topic that doesn’t need to be in a setting primer list like this but let me take just a minute to talk about the skeleton that these characters are built from: X Splats and Y Splats.
First off, “splat” isn’t the official term but comes from old computer programming jargon for an asterisk, as in the character that’s a placeholder for something else. What Chronicles of Darkness (and the classic World of Darkness before it) calls “character axes” designers and fans usually call splats from the “splatbooks” that describe them. It hardly matters. The upshot is that there are two aspects that you will need to choose for your character that will decide both where they fit in the world and mechanically what their strengths will be.
The X Splat is generally something inherent to your character. This might be the bloodline they were born or pulled into, the sign they were born under, or something else that they didn’t get a say in. This is similar to race in D&D except that usually the difference between two X Splats is a lot less pronounced than the difference between elves and dwarves. The Y Splat is a social group or philosophical commitment that the character has purposefully made. While they are born (or “born”) into their X Splat, characters choose to enter their Y Splat and, therefore, can change their minds later although this is not something that is handled very robustly in the game lines.
7. Politics Are Local
This is both a change from world-spanning settings like Forgotten Realms and Eberron and it’s a change from the classic World of Darkness with its planet-wide (and universe-wide) plotlines. There are things all over the place to pull into your game and players should absolutely expect to meet strangers from far away or visitors that no one knows much about, but the scope of Chronicles of Darkness games is localized to a particular city or region. Vampires worry about their particular urban area, changelings about their band of broken refugees, and werewolves about the stretch of land that they claim as theirs. You can absolutely expand this and have a globe-hopping adventure (I often do) but the games are set up for campaigns with a narrow setting that’s treated in many ways like another character.
This is a list of 10 Things to Know, so where are the other ten things? Well, the seven points above are good reference material for the Chronicles of Darkness in general but there are things for each game line that are just absent from others or just plain not a big deal. Rather than try to create a longer generic list, I’ve opted for this shorter list that covers the common ground and I’ll be following this up with individual posts about the specific game lines. Stay tuned for all of those but I’ll also be linking them all back here as they go up. Let me know how your gaming group finds this list and if there’s something I missed!
- Vampire: The Requiem, a game of personal horror.
- Werewolf: The Forsaken, a game of savage fury.
- Mage: The Awakening, a game of modern sorcery.
- Promethean: The Created, a game of stolen lives.
- Changeling: The Lost, a game of beautiful madness.
- Geist: The Sin-Eaters, a game of second chances.
- Mummy: The Curse, a game of immortal souls.
- Demon: The Descent, a game of techgnostic espionage.
- Beast: The Primordial, a game of endless hunger.
- Hunter: The Vigil, a game of light and shadows.