The World of Insufficient Lighting
The World of Darkness is a horrible and grim place, full of vampires browbeating police chiefs with Dominate and mages traveling to other dimensions for fun and profit. Changelings are enjoying a delicious snack of shame and sex in the back of a brothel, and werewolves are cursed to enjoy the feel of the mountain snow against their coat as they run with their pack.
….wait. This is a horror game?!
I’ve run plenty of World of Darkness games. Its my favorite setting (Mage in particular). However, as the dots on the sheet grow and the chronicle expands beyond its first claustrophobic glimmers, the “horror” becomes less and less tenable. The spirit which terrorizes a neighborhood with its thirst for blood and violence becomes a big fat target for a Spirit 5 mage. The suspicious police chief on the trail of a vampire becomes a thrall with ten seconds of eye contact and one Vitae-spiked drink.
There are many solutions to this evolution, but I prefer to tweak the WOD a little bit…dial down the horror, and ramp up the existential crises. If all your characters desire is a little circle of influence and power, never to leave or change – fine, grats, you win. Your Mage owns six square blocks of the city and gains a lot of weight as he spends most of his free time on the internet. Your changeling’s only goal is to avoid the keepers? Sure! You die seventy five years later, old and tired, and everyone has forgotten that you exist.
The World of Insufficient Lighting isn’t about horror and hiding. Its about making a mark and making a difference. Its about sticking your neck out in a hostile world because just *maybe* you can find another battery and turn the flashlight up another notch.
Then, when your character sheet has more dots filled in than not, you get to worry about things that actually matter. How do you run a city of contentious mages without murdering them all? When your Keeper is dead, how do you make peace with the changes permanently wrought in you? When the centuries have passed in peace and torpor, how do you find that spark of true creativity that died with the Embrace? What will you do when the sandbox opens for play?
So, let’s get to it.
Mechanically, the WoIL uses new world sheets, powers, and rolls. I played NWOD first, and I’m far more familiar and comfortable with it than the old world. Anything from the Old WOD that doesn’t cause a direct conflict with new material may exist. Want the Wyrd, the Worm, and the Weaver? Sure! They’re Rank 10 spirits of creation. A fan of the story of Cain? Then you’d be interested in the secret tome deep in the bowls of a Lancea Sanctum church…
The world itself is as dark as the World of Darkness. Its the world according to the six o’ clock news, all bombings and shootings and hysteria. Conspiracies dangle the governments like puppets, and hungry creatures prowl the Spirit realm looking for victims.
Cities are dark and dense, humanity crowded for shelter in the embrace of their fellows. Supernatural types wage vicious proxy wars against each other for control of scant political resources, and the last police chief who *wasn’t* a ghoul, sleepwalker, or ensorcelled was in 1940. You can’t go a city block without stepping on someone’s turf, and the Spirit reflection is a twisted and claustrophobic maze. So why would anyone choose to live there?
Because long haul truckers carrying assault rifles tell of roads that lead to a grey nowhere, full of sharp-toothed gremlins. Because once you step off the shiny, carefully guarded highways, you’re in the Wilds. Ancient forces rule here, and the small towns of America are slowly dying. In one town, every person has a peculiar golden gleam to their eyes, and in another a tired old Thyrsus wages perpetual war against an army of forest spirits who want to reclaim their homeland.
Caught in the crush between Man and Nature, hundreds of miles of placid rural farmland hide the vicious war of ideals in the Spirit realm. The courts of agriculture stand in the crossfire, staving off spirits of Drought and Fire while struggling to stay free of pernicious Corporations offering genetically modified organisms that control minds and bodies. These are the frontiers, the personifications of John Wayne and Little House on the Prairie, men and spirits tough as nails who fight the earth and the sky for every pound of corn that keeps the cities alive.
The cornerstone of the WoIL is getting players to create ties to the world that are at risk in the world…and then not taking those ties away. A *player* who doesn’t care if their character’s family dies will not provide good roleplay, and no amount of dice will fix that. Maybe they have a sister who they love? Get her hooked on a mystical changeling drug, but don’t murder her on the doorstep. The WoIL is about making a difference, and players measure that difference by effects in their character’s sphere of influence. If you murder their family, their friends, and their little dog too, the players will respond by making their next character less emotive than a Western shooter.
Mage: Oh, Mage, how I love you. I could write blog posts just on how you rule and vampires drool. Unfortunately, sweetie…you have a few scaling issues. Death and Spirit mages whiplash from being unable to do anything more than glare at spirits to being masters of alternative realms of reality, impervious to harm from anyone who cannot cross the barrier. A Prime/Mind mage with a dash of Fate can reactively cancel any aggressive effect using previously ritually cast Prime counterspell, all while turning your brain inside out until you love them for trying to kill you.
I like to elaborate and tweak the spell types used in the core (Lasting, Weaving, Fraying, etc) like this: Rank 1 – sensory. Information gathering and awareness. Rank 2 – Control minor. Localized control (make a puddle of water dance, alter a temporary Fate). Rank 3 – Create minor. Conjure flame from air. Open a bubble of Time to think inside. Rank 4 – Control major. Cause a landslide. Rewrite the fate of a mortal. Rank 5 – Create major. Stop Time for a city. Conjure a hurricane. Turn a small island into jello. Using this, mages typically become lethal around Rank 3, and by rank 5, they act as unstoppable forces inside of their particular focus. The greatest benefit of this is to some of the weaker spheres, such as Fate, which are rarely capable of direct action against something like Mind in the core book.
Paradox is likewise unflattering. Havoc and Abyssal Manifestations are threatening, but a character can simply choose to soak paradox to avoid those two effects, instead taking the minimal effects of either bashing damage or the three middle effects. To solve this, the GM needs to get more creative. For one…Paradox does not have to be instant. Bank a player’s Paradox with no discernable effect for a few games..and then hit them with a sudden wrench in reality. Oh, I’m sorry. You thought you were an investment banker? That’s funny. Your name badge says janitor, and no one remembers a banker with your name. Its in no records and cannot be seen with Time. The guy in your office? His eyes glitter like black coal as he smiles at you and says “thanks”. Other good paradox effects include mental effects. Suddenly, your mage is effected by the worst sort of 1950’s scifi stereotypes. When she falls down, and she invariably will, she cannot get up or run away…despite the monster walking roughly five feet a minute. Maybe your character finds that everyone believes him to have died, and he’s arrested for fraud. The entire world is the plaything of paradox – use it. Curses, changed lives, forgotten memories, wild effects, and even the ever-dreaded loss of dots off their sheets! (Which they might regain if they work hard.)
Any rule that increases flavor is embraced. Want to get extra dice for aligning your magic with an Element, explaing the effects in terms of primal fire? Sweet! Want to make it so you can only use magic by elaborate calligraphy or Hermetic seals? Sweet! Players should be rewarded for increasing the visceral feel and uniqueness of their magic with extra dice pools, much like a spirit gets new powers for accepting extra Bans.
I ignore the soul stealing rules if I can help it. Stuff be dumb, yo. Death 3 can steal a soul, but you need an array of much stronger powers – like Spirit 4 or Fate 4 – to reattach it. Worse, a player whose soul is stolen is put in effective time out, unable to even participate as a death clock runs down to zero. There’s nothing the body can do to reunite with the soul. It just has to sit and wait for others to solve the problem or die. The entire point of the WoIL is to create invested, active characters, and these rules run directly contrary to that goal.
I typically relegate the Technocracy to standard faction status. Mashing old and new worlds, the Technocracy, Pentacle mages, and Traditions all overlap in a mess of temporary alliances and territorial clashes. There’s no overwhelming agent of surveillance to smash down mages, and any mage with a few dots in Arcanum and half a thought should never be without a source of free money. Got Matter? Fence titanium by the ounce. Got Fate? Lottery tickets. Prime? Craft and harvest tass gardens for other mages. If your mage’s only goal is to rule a city block in richness and power, your very own little fiefdom, then you can do it. Just don’t complain to the GM when you’re bored.
All of this adds up to a much more freeform Mage game, where the players are free to actively search for the secrets of Atlantis, the Abyss, or Mars, instead of spending their waking moments trying to fight the shadow apocalypse.
Werewolf: the Urathra are stronger in the WoIL, bolstered by the stronghold of their kind. The Rocky Mountains stretch the spine of America, and every last inch is claimed by the werewolves. This is their bastion, their keep, the strongest territory for their kind in all the world. No other supernatural can contest their dominance here, and the Rockies are the beating heart that sustains the battered outposts of Uratha in the far flung corners of the world. Many of the werewolves live their whole lives in peace among the peaks, devoted to crafting arms or songs of their warlord brothers…but not your character. You’re not the village blacksmith. You’ve been called for something greater. Would you lay down your life to protect the Uratha’s only home?
The existing structure of Loci and spiritual desires laid out in the core book create a situation where a few werewolves try to plug their fingers in a leaky dam. How is a pack of Uratha to keep order in its territory when it is vastly outnumbered by rabidly hostile spirit courts? I prefer to make changes to the nature and order of spirits (seen below) that turn the Uratha into mediators and police, involved in a surprising amount of spirit politics and bargaining to help keep the balance.
Vampire: I ran a Camarilla Vampire LARP for several years, which has given me a serious case of Kindred burn out. I haven’t played Vampire since the LARP, and I would love to hear community suggestions for how to better thematically balance the Kindred. Particularly, how to balance the WoD’s heavy hammer of “You are a monster!” with the array of cool powers which transform Kindred into blood-sucking Batman. How can a storyteller make mortals matter when a vampire can corral any given person with a few sips of Vitae and one good Dominance? Mages delve into the mysteries of reality, and werewolves have a nation to protect…but what do vampires have to make them feel threatened?
Changeling: Another genre in need of retooling. As written, no rational changeling would ever leave their hovel. The threat of the Keepers is simply too close. My solution is to add another kind of Fae called the Tenders. the Keepers steal changelings, torturing them for power and amusement; the Tenders keep stables of changelings, half-mortals who provide steady Glamour by enacting the mystery plays and myths of old. These two factions, as you might guess, do not like each other. Both seek to tempt escaped changelings, whether with candy or the stick, but the true focus is on their eternal war and its mortal proxies. This opens up wonderful questions for the players, such as “What situations exist where it is acceptable to give a person over to a Fae, even a Tender? What if they were about to die? What if they are an abandoned orphan? Can there truly be consensual changelings?”
Another tweak for changelings is a form of Pledge called a Role. By adopting a mythic archetype, the changeling accepts mental, physical, and life transformation in exchange for power in the weave of the Wyrd. A changeling who accepts the Role of Knight finds that her sword burns the attacking Keeper like fire when all other attacks fail…but she also finds herself thrust into dangerous quests and royal intrigue. By using a Role, depending on how much a changeling is willing to give, even a relatively weak character can temporarily become as mighty as the Fae…but can they accept the price? Can they accept becoming beings of mercurial, ever-changing faces? And if they do…how do they tell the difference between themselves and the Fae they claim to hate?
Morality systems: I dynamically award or subtract the relevant morality based on play. One problem high morality players have is that a bad scene can cause them to drop despite their best efforts, and it costs more to raise Humanity back to 7 than it does to buy a decent Discipline. Morality tends to swiftly enter a death spiral as it descends, where the lower actions seem more and more expedient. I’ve had too many crass players who figured Humanity 2 is good enough, and they settle on solving every plot with murder. Rather than dicker over what exactly counts as “mass murder”, I prefer to simply rule that they’re gits and need a new character. The WoIL does not *work* if the players have no ties to the world.
Spirits: Acting as a catch-all light weight system to encapsulate everything from the spiritual Ruler of a country to a nasty demonic imp, the spirit system also spends lots of time exhorting how inscrutable and alien it is. Yeah, right. You might call it a non-existent Abyssal nothing with no mind or sentience, but it has stats, abilities, and a clearly outlined set of rational goals. Rather than try to treat everything spirit as some form of cypher, I prefer spirits who are self-interested, but not overtly complex. The spirit of shame wants to see you fall during a marathon, and the spirit of love wants you to meet your soulmate. Both are capable of working for or against players, and they are capable of long term planning. The spirit of love, for example, can realize that it will receive far more Essence for setting up a happily married couple than by spurring a series of one night stands.
Thus, spirits become more understandable, losing their mystery, but they also become valid pieces of game. Something inscrutable and strange can’t act in a reasonable way, becoming an ally or confidant, because it must always be guarded against. Yet a spirit of friendship can truly become a comrade, despite being self-interested in the same way any hungry human is. Spirits can serve as wizened advisors or the guardians of ancient relics without having to dance around in a mockery of being “too crazy for the human mind.”
I prefer to reserve the idea of spirit possession and the Ridden for only a few truly villainous spirits. Much like wanton soul stealing, abuse of the Ridden phenomenon leads players to see mortals as little more than meaty victims for the GM.
That’s the skeleton framework of the World of Insufficient Lighting. Maybe next time I will show how this all works in practice with an account of a game!
TLR – Buff the supernaturals so they have an actual shot of winning against their various setting enemies. Complicate the world with more factions who aren’t quite as overwhelmingly strong. Encourage personal ties to the game world. Smooth the power growth of characters to discourage systematic gunning for “uber” powers at the expense of concept or flow. Ignore flavor or rules that emphasize unknownable mysteries in favor of concrete answers that lead to existential or personal consequences. The players have the flashlight; there should be goodies to be found in the dark!