Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Want To Run Better World of Darkness Games? Then Watch John Wick!

I finally got around to seeing John Wick 3: Parabellum last night, and I found it to be an immensely satisfying addition to the series. Like the previous two installments of this criminally well-written action franchise, the movie expanded the world, introduced new, colorful assassins for John to meet (and of course fight), as well as giving us some more glimpses into the seedy underbelly of the world of the Continental and the High Table.

Beware what lives in the shadows.
Like any gamer out there, one of my first thoughts while watching the film was that you could capture the feel of globe trotting assassins and the secret wars of the High Table with a Spycraft campaign (a game I highly recommend if you want a John Wick style experience). However, the second thought I had was that watching the John Wick films is an ideal way to really get at the meat of how to make game settings like the World of Darkness really work.

Adding Weight to a Secret World

One of the primary appeals of settings like the World of Darkness, as well as Mr. Wick's world of covert criminals, is that they operate off of the hidden world trope. The conceit is that these things could be really happening just out of sight, but only those who know what to look for can see what's going on.

Where a lot of storytellers lose the thread, though, is they allow the intricacies of the World of Darkness (or Chronicles of Darkness) setting to become the new, mundane reality. They skip the pageantry of it all, and by doing so it reduces the mystery and atmosphere of the game setting. Because without a proper atmosphere, the game is going to suffocate.

Have any examples?
Let's say, for instance, that your coterie of vampires needs to have a conversation with the Viscount of Shadows, a powerful information broken among the Nosferatu. Sure, as an ST, you could just do it via a direct phone call or an exchange via a back chatroom on the dark web... but why would you do that? It reduces the exchange to the purely mechanical, taking out anything that might make the experience memorable or unique in the minds of your players. It also completely undermines how special such an NPC should feel, and how difficult getting a meeting with him should be.

Instead, make an event out of it! Instead of just knocking on a door, or showing up at a regular gathering, the coterie has to go through the Viscount's protocols. They need to catch the 9:19 express train, hand the conductor a small, black coin with a skull on it engraved with the phrase memento mori, and say, "End of the line, please." The conductor will then take the coin, and ask them to wait until all other passengers are disembarked (or maybe a few trapped to be taken as feeding stock for the Viscount). The train arrives at precisely 10:30, pulling up to an abandoned platform that has been converted into a haven for the Viscount. His ghouls and attendees lounge on mismatched leather furniture, and chandeliers of crystal hang from the arched ceiling. Aged storefronts have been converted into side chambers, and rats line the galleries like supernatural sentinels. The Viscount's personal ghoul, a hulking albino with his master's red eyes, carries your words into the back room. Will the Viscount choose to see you? Do you talk to any of the others, knowing full well that everything you say and do (even your very presence here) is being noted by someone? Or is the Viscount himself among the throng, watching you from anonymity? Is he truly the shabby figure in the ragged coat curled into a wingbacked chair? Or perhaps he's actually the woman in the elegant dress with the dirty feet, having an earnest conversation with a large rat?

That sort of atmosphere is what really brings your players' heads into the game, and makes them feel like their characters are part of a truly secret world. It's also the sort of thing you should take every opportunity to hammer home.

If you're running a Changeling the Lost game, don't just let players show up at the Summer Court; have them go through the protocol with the guardian hobgoblins, and announce themselves according to the security procedures put in place. If you're running Werewolf the Apocalypse, don't hand-wave the bizarre things these characters have to deal with on a daily basis. Have them walking down the street, ignoring the beggar on the corner, who stops his cries to whisper, "The City Father seeks a meeting with you. Wait for him beneath the Main Street overpass in two hours." Have that Fight Club thing happen where kinfolk who recognize werewolves give them that nod of recognition and understanding (or the full Tyler Durden deference, getting them a car, free food, taking care of a witness, etc.).

And so on, and so forth.

Keep It Fresh

The other important lesson to take away from Mr. Wick's world is that you need to keep things fresh. When you introduce players to a new character, a new place, or a new element for the first time, make sure it gets a slow reveal with a lot of pomp and circumstance. But those dramatic moments are like really good jokes... you can only tell them once before you get seriously diminishing returns.

Yes, yes, a pineapple. I got it the first time.
The first movie gave us the coins and the Continental, the second film gave us blood markers and the Bowery King, and so on and so forth. When we return to these elements after their initial introduction, they're treated as established and familiar, but that first time really sets the tone for what makes them important, or how players should react to them. That first impression can give your game a lot of momentum if you instill a bit of gravitas into it... but it can be really hard to come back from if you don't.

As a quick aside, if you are running a Werewolf the Apocalypse game, and you're looking for unique kinfolk to bring into your world to help drive home that the tribes have connections everywhere, then you might want to check out my 100 Kinfolk: A Werewolf The Apocalypse Project that I've been putting out with High Level Games!

Alternatively, if you're more of a Pathfinder player, then you might get a kick out of my John Wick Character Conversion that I wrote up some time ago. I've also got a John Wick conversion for 5th Edition DND, as well. They're both on my Character Conversions page along with a dozen different Avengers, the Game of Thrones cast, and a whole slew of others!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. If you've used this strategy in your games, leave a comment below and let us know how your personalized your game, and what you'd recommend others do to get the best results!

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  1. Love this! Need to adapt it to more games I think. Any thoughts on how you could apply this to a God Machine setting, while trying to keep up the unknowable, cosmic uneasiness of it all?

  2. Thanks for this, really helpful stuff right here!