Monday, February 25, 2019

The Best Design Idea White Wolf Ever Had (Villain Theory 101)

Though it may not be the titan of roleplaying games that it once was, White Wolf still stands as one of the best-known brands, and creator of some of the most engaging games out there. Because if you didn't start your gaming career slinging spells and steel in Dungeons and Dragons, chances are good your first experience was baring your fangs in Vampire the Masquerade, howling at the moon in Werewolf the Apocalypse, or navigating the fine line between the impossible and the banal in Changeling the Dreaming.

Changeling: The Lost has a very special place in my heart.
While these games (and the half dozen or so I didn't mention) were all unique spheres within the ever-growing world of dark fantasy and bleeding horror found in the shadows, I'd like to talk about one idea that sprang up in several of the game lines. One idea that is a godsend to the storyteller, and that you should add to the arsenal you keep behind the screen to help when designing campaigns.

The idea of the Ever-Present Threat.

What Is The Ever-Present Threat?

The short version is that the Ever-Present Threat is something that hangs over the game, and that affects every character at the table. They may respond to it in different ways, and take different actions to deal with it, but the Ever-Present Threat is not a single foe that can be vanquished. It is something that is so powerful, or so de-centralized, that it can never truly be said to be defeated. While it might sleep, or be staved off for a time, it will always be back in the end.

I'd like to take a look at two of White Wolf's games here, and how one is (at least in my opinion) greatly hampered by the lack of an Ever-Present Threat, while the other is enhanced by that threat being up-front and in your face. All right, so, let's begin at the beginning with Vampire.

In Vampire, both Masquerade and Requiem, you are a vampire. It is now your job to navigate the shadows of the world, find allies, avoid repercussions from your enemies, and to play the games of power, influence, and prestige that may devolve into brutal savagery and bloodshed.

You know, vampire shit.
The trouble with this setup is that if you're the storyteller, then you have to work extra hard to corral a bunch of players toward the same goal. Even if their interests align for the moment, or they have some other reason to work together, the setting is fluid enough that it can feel like herding cats. Especially when, because you're immortal, you could go to sleep until today's problem is no longer a problem.

Now, contrast that with the Werewolf the Apocalypse setup. If you've never played the game, well, you're a werewolf. However, every tribe of werewolves is on the front lines of a secret war with the Wyrm, a force of corruption, chaos, and destruction. The end times are coming, and if you don't push back the tide of the Wyrm and its servants then the world will burn, and everything will be destroyed.

THAT is a setup that immediately gets you invested. Not only that, but it makes it clear that even if two characters don't like each other, they're both proud members of team Save The World when all is said and done.

After all, what really IS the alternative here?
You don't have to go that extreme with it, either. As another example, in Changeling the Lost, you are a changeling. You were, at some point, stolen by an otherworldly, god-like being from another dimension, and changed in fundamental ways. You managed to escape back to the real world, but you still bear the scars and powers you were given. And you know your Keeper is out there, somewhere... even if you killed yours, there are Others aplenty, always eager to retake one who got away.

In both of these examples, the Ever Present Threat is something that is big enough that it affects every character at the table, but also vague enough that you can't simply charge the stronghold to try to slay it. It hangs over the game, helping set the tone, but it can also be used by the storyteller to help create cohesion between the characters, and to create challenges players are instantly invested in, or afraid of. Your pack of werewolves bickering amongst each other? Well, they're sent on a mission to slay a corrupted boar that's been sighted in the ruins of Chernobyl. Along the way they have a common foe, and they learn to work together to get over their issues. Or if your changelings are getting a little too complacent behind their walls of money, private security, and mortal barriers, that's when they awake in the middle of the night to find a messenger of the Raven Queen. She has sent an invitation... refusing would lead to dire consequences, but accepting may not be that much safer.

And so on, and so forth.

Cultists, and Cthulhu

I'd like to switch gears for a second, and mention the Call of Cthulhu setting as a way to tie this up. Because the Great Old Ones are foes that exist, and their colossal, cosmic presence lurks in every corner of the mythos setting. And while they can be defeated (typically by disrupting rituals, strengthening ancient wards, or in some cases committing suicide before your mind can be used as a gateway), you don't fight Cthulhu. Even with the most potent of modern weapons at your command, and a score of ancient, eldritch talismans, if the Sleeper awakens, it's game over.

Oh hell... who let Wilbur make a call?
You aren't supposed to kill the cosmic gods of the mythos, though. You're supposed to solve their mysteries, and while you may be able to kill their cultists (if you're a hard-bitten team of Delta Green enforcers, for example), and you might be able to slay a mythos monster with some good dice rolls and the proper ritual, that's as far as you go.

The trick here is to give your players victories against the Ever-Present Threat, but not to defeat the threat itself. You close the door, you seal the gate, you bargain with Dormamu, and you emerge victorious. Possibly broken, bleeding, and mad, but victorious nonetheless. That's important, because making progress against an unending threat can light a fire under players to do more. But if you emphasize that nothing they do will make a difference in the grander scheme of things, then they're going to wonder why they bother rolling the dice in the first place.

Unify Your Players, Provide Instant Motivation

Your Ever-Present Threat can be a lot of different things. It might be the zombie apocalypse that's swept the world. It might be the demons that lurk, trying to peel open the gates of hell enough to escape. It could be Cthulhu, or the True Fae, or the Wyrm and its minions. It could be the Titans and their servants, if you're a fan of Scion.

Whatever your Ever-Present Threat is, it immediately gives your players context for the fight they're in, and why they need to step up to do their part. Because an Ever-Present Threat has touched everyone's lives in some way. It isn't something you can just sidestep, and carry on with your day. It is something that affects every decision a character makes, and which is always there in the background; constant storm clouds, making you wonder if today is the day that lightning strikes.

You can't fight the storm... but every day you hold it off is another day you've won. Which is why, if you've ever found yourself asking, "Well, now what do I do?" once your players have completed a particular arc, you might want to consider using one of these Threats. Because it reacts, moves, and changes, providing constantly new challenges to the PCs, and it saves you so much effort stringing your campaign together.

Additional Reading

For folks who are curious about additional topics, or even supplements, that build on these ideas, consider the following:

- 5 Tips For Running Better World of Darkness Games: The World of Darkness is dripping with atmosphere, and it can be hard to get your game just right. So check this one out if you want to make sure you avoid the obvious mistakes for this setting.

- 5 Tips For Creating Fantasy Towns and Cities: I've been doing a lot of settlement design, particularly for supplements like Towns of Sundara. So check this one out if you want your settlements to feel more organic and lived-in!

- 100 Tips and Tricks For Being a Better Game Master: Pretty much what it says on the tin. I've got 10 years or so if the advice I've field-tested myself, all condensed into a single, easy-to-read supplement for Game Masters new and old!

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  4. good stuff herein found. Watched one of your videos on youtube (session zero) and found it a great primer/refresher (depending upon the age/experience of the Judge) - kudos!