Saturday, August 17, 2019

Chronicles of Darkness Second Edition... What's The Difference?

While I'm a fairly big fan of the World of Darkness setting, I came to the game a little later than most folks. My first exposure to it was just before I was allowed to legally drink, which just so happened to be shortly after the release of Vampire: The Requiem. I enjoyed the game a lot, but it wasn't until we'd finished the first arc of the campaign that one of the other players told me there was an older edition, and that it was jam-packed with more clans, disciplines, lore, etc. than the newer edition would ever have.

And that was how I started down this dark little rabbit hole.
Curious about what I'd find, I looked through Vampire: The Masquerade, along with a bunch of the other "old world" games. I found a lot to like, but one thing that kept stopping me from falling in with the old world crowd was that the games were mechanically clunky, and putting the different spheres together often required a lot of crunching and translation. They had been made as mechanical islands, and tied together with story ropes, in other words. The new world games, which would come to be known as the Chronicles of Darkness to differentiate them, started with a foundation template for all the characters and creatures. This made it simple to transition from one sphere to the other, ensuring maximum ease of play if you wanted your werewolves to fight vampires, or your changelings to go toe-to-toe with mages, etc..

Call me a sucker, but that standardization of mechanics went a long way toward making me a Chronicles player. Especially when the LARP rules came into the equation.

I took a break from the Chronicles of Darkness for a while, especially when I heard they were releasing a new edition. But I finally got my hands on a copy, and gave it a thorough look over. So I figured this week I'd dig into it a bit, and share my thoughts on the differences both good and bad.

And, of course, since this is Crunch week, I'm talking about the mechanical changes made to the Chronicles of Darkness 2nd Edition. We'll talk about story stuff another day.

General Mechanics: Mostly The Same

If you've played with the Storyteller System in the past, then you know how it goes. You add the dots for an attribute together with the dots of a skill, along with any bonuses or penalties, and then roll a pool of 10-sided dice equal to that number. Every die that comes up over a certain target number (typically an 8) is a success. If it's a 10, it explodes and you keep rolling it.

All of that, still the same.

In fact, a lot of the broad mechanics haven't changed at all. Your Willpower, Defense, Health, Speed, etc. are all calculated in the same way, for example, and combat is generally similar. While the Merits section is heftier, it has faithfully collected a lot of the favorites from the old system, and added a few new ones just because it can. This is including Merits that used to be only in certain spheres, or certain splat books, like Good Time Management, Parkour, and others.

So, if you were worried this edition would be completely different, rest assured that it's still recognizable when it comes to the mechanics.

Major Change: Virtue and Vice

In the first edition of this game, every character chose one of the seven deadly sins as a vice, and one of the seven heavenly virtues as, well, a virtue. These were used to determine when you regained Willpower, and given how much Willpower you can blow for bonuses in game and to activate your higher-tier powers and abilities, you can go through a lot of it.

In the second edition, though, virtue and vice are now mostly up to you, as a player. For instance, you might have the virtue "Patient" showing that your character always takes their time and lets people work through something at their own speed. You could also provide the vice "Competitive" to show that they like to win, and don't play nice when victory is on the line.

The idea is that the game doesn't work on a binary moral system, with some things being good and others bad. Rather, the question is what anchors you in your own skin, and what helps you cope with the world around you? This is further encapsulated by the system no longer being referred to as your Morality, and instead using the word Integrity. Given that this word can mean both how you're holding together, as well as the quality of your character, it's a little more nuanced. The section also gives you a list of questions that players should answer (many of which are similar to what you find on my 10 Questions To Put On Your Character Creation Document), which helps put things in perspective.

This is overall a change that might feel small, but which puts a lot more freedom into your hands as a player, and effects one of your major resources.

Other New Systems I Like: Chases, Doors, and "Alternatives"

There were, of course, some other additions. After all, why come out with a whole new edition if you were just organizing a bunch of stuff you already had?

The first new system I came across that I really liked was the Chase mechanic. Folks who have read If You're A DM, You Should Get Your Hands on a Chase Deck know that this is something I very much advocate when it comes to games. Because the ability to duck and weave, sprint down alleys and hood slide over cars can add a lot of spice to a game, and it prevents both players and storytellers from just slapping down X, Y, or Z power to prevent someone from escaping to fight another day.

Did I mention he has Allies: Military? You should run.
In addition to chases, the game also offers a unique system called Doors. This system is essentially used for those long-term goals that have traditionally been hard to acquire, and take a lot of time and effort. For example, you want to bribe the local district attorney into dropping some charges. The ST decides how many "doors" you would need to walk the attorney through in order to see things your way. Your successes, and your methods, determine how much time it takes, and the potential fallout if you fail... and sometimes even if you succeed. This system is also used for getting information out of people via torture or intimidation, turning it into a process rather than a best-guess, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants scenario.

Both very good things to codify and provide a structure for, in my opinion.

Lastly, the book offers STs some alternative systems for combat. One is Down and Dirty combat, which is typically used when you want to avoid wasting time on encounters that aren't that big of a deal. Because you know your Delta Green hit squad can take out the scum the vampire lord has on the door, so you just make one roll for them. This determines how handily the PCs win, and you can move onto the next scene where the real challenge lies. This is a solid solution for making fights feel like the players' stats and strategies matter, but without wasting a lot of time on mooks and incidentals.

And, of course, there's a section codifying vehicular combat. Because as I like to say, vehicular combat is always an option.

New Systems I Dislike: Beats, Conditions, and Tilts

For every up there is a down, and if this book was just a bunch of stuff I thought was great then I would have just said so in the beginning. So I'm going to take this section to talk about the things I found that might require some adjustment to your thinking, or which I don't think work all that well.

Not bad... but how's your sprint time?
Firstly, there's a greater emphasis placed on Conditions in this edition than there was in the last one. There's a huge chart of them in the back of the book, but the ST is encouraged to make up their own. Short version is that these conditions are anything that you may need to overcome. For example, getting hit by a dazzling ray can leave you blinded, making it hard for you to achieve certain tasks. If this Condition strikes in combat, then it's referred to as a Tilt, but it might turn back into a Condition if it lasts longer than the fight you're currently in.

The reason Conditions are so common is (at least in part) because of something called the Beat system. The idea is that every story has beats, and when you hit one of those marks you receive a partial XP point. You get a beat for overcoming a Condition, so it's important to spread them around to give everyone a chance to hoover them up. You also get beats for taking extreme amounts of damage, you get beats for achieving Aspirations (character goals), and you get beats for dozens of other things.

I don't like the Beat system for two reasons.

First, it's one more thing to keep track of. If players forget about collecting their beats, it's going to take them longer to gain XP, which means they aren't going to advance at the rate you've set out for them as the ST. And with all the other things you have to juggle, figuring out how many beats you need to spread around is just one more number for you to add to the line of plates you're trying to keep spinning.

Secondly, by granting players XP directly for their actions, it encourages them to do things that will earn them beats since they now know that X actions translate to Y amount of mechanical resources. This could (and probably will) push players who have an eye on getting as much XP as possible to take actions that are more likely to earn them beats, rather than the actions that best fit their character, the story, or even the situation they find themselves in. Much like how in a traditional fantasy RPG players are less likely to sneak past guard patrols, or to try and fast talk their way into an enemy stronghold, because if they don't kill the thing then they don't get XP for it. So murder becomes the only solution, because that's what gets them the mechanical reward.

My two cents is that, as a Storyteller, you're just better off setting a flat XP rate per game. It allows you to keep progression at the level you want, and it encourages your players to be creative and true to their characters rather than constantly collecting brass rings. If you want to reward your players' actions creatively, I'd recommend checking out All That Glitters is Not Gold to get some ideas of how in-game actions can lead to in-game rewards, rather than just tossing bonus XP at someone and putting them ahead of the curve.

Additional Page Space Dedicated To Advice

As a final point, this book dedicated significantly more page space to giving both players and STs advice on how to craft more nuanced characters and stories. From making your Breaking Points unique to your character (a career hitman likely isn't going to have the same reaction to killing someone as a scared fast food worker from the suburbs, for example), to discussing how to avoid binary rolls when it comes to investigations (something I covered in Dungeon Masters, Embrace The Concept of Failing Forward!), the book is overall more concerned with helping players ease into a world of gray areas that lacks the hard morality of other RPGs.

Overall, I think that was definitely a step in the right direction. This edition is more focused on leaving right and wrong up to the individual, and it gives it a much more cosmic horror feeling. Though it should be noted that unless you've got the protection of a supernatural template, things that go bump in the night are never something you're going to get used to.

Speaking of advice and resources for STs, I'd also recommend taking a look at Want To Run Better World of Darkness Games? Then Watch John Wick! before you get your next chronicle started.

Should I Keep This Going?

Normally on Crunch week I talk about Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, but I've been looking more and more into the latest games from the Chronicles of Darkness. Would you like to see me check out the other spheres, and see what's changed? If so, leave a comment below to let me know!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or if you'd like to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well! And if you'd like to help support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron! Even a little bit of help can go a long way, trust me on that one.


  1. I'm in a Chronicles of Darkness 1e so I'd like to hear more about it.

  2. Wooo! More World of Darkness 2ed!

    And it's always gratifying to hear someone complain about how clunky OldWoD is.

  3. Yep. I wouldn't mind an article on Mage: the Awakening, personally.

  4. Great article. I've been a fan of the series for a bit now and the thing that helped me was the understanding that conditions get hella rad as the game scales. (As more books/lines get added) it gets pretty Byzantine at times but they also get folded into the core mechanics of the other splats. Each one receiving special conditions that manage ancillary powers like auras and stuff. Is recommend skipping them while familiarizing yourself with the game initially. Then just playing around with new and interesting ones at your leisure. Sorry this ran a bit long lol. Cheers.

  5. Oh I remembered what the game design term is. "Combinatoric marginal mechanics"