There are a lot of bad World of Darkness GMs out there, and this annoys me because people who have a bad experience with a game, run by someone who doesn’t seem to have cottoned on to what makes the game different and worth playing instead of Ravenloft or Call of Cthulhu, seldom come back to play it again, and talk shit about it in my presence to boot. I could spend forever grousing about how a bad GM doesn’t make a game bad, or I could be pro-active and spend a week blogging about how I make story games, particularly the World of Darkness flavour, go well.
I’m not going to overdo the advice on how to, I don’t know, build an atmosphere or play an NPC in a story game, because that’s Shannon of ST Wild‘s stock in trade and she does a damn fine job of it. What I’m going to do is headhunt a couple of particular problems and talk about how to do ‘storytelling’ without telling a pre-planned story – in other words, I’ll stop you doing wrong and leave you and Shannon to work out how to do right. First things first: the tricky starting choice that World of Darkness GMs always have to make: are the characters already supernatural entities at the start of the game?
If the PCs are vampires, werewolves or mages at the start of the first session, you skip over the essential “how the hell do I learn to live with this?” aspect of the game, which is vital in creating the sense of personal horror and character growth that makes the game what it is. If they aren’t, you have to go through everyone’s prelude and get to know everyone as a mortal and have people play characters before they’ve become what they’re meant to be and people will have to sit still while someone else gets Embraced, Forsaken or Awakened… it’s frustrating, and it can feel wrong if you’re wanting to get on to the meat of the game.
It’s a toss-up on which is the right way to go. If your players are patient and mature and don’t mind taking turns, starting PCs off as mere humans is probably the way to go – let the player settle into the person before making them into something more, let them play out the character’s reaction to the most life-chaning experience they’ll have. If your players are new to the whole WoD thing, definitely start the PCs off as humans, they’ll need to be ushered in gently, and the Embrace/whatever werewolves have/Awakening is the sort of event that defines the World of Darkness experience, not something that should be downtimed over in someone’s first experience. The WoD books have plenty of advice on how to run a good prelude, and beyond that I’d suggest watching ‘Rose’, the first episode of the new Doctor Who, to get an idea of the kind of storytelling that’s at work here. Fast, choppy montages that build up who a character is, then crash into real-time shortly before the moment of transformation.
If your players have gone through the whole ‘what’s a Kindred, what’s a clan, what’s a Prince’ routine enough times to be bored with it, though, or if the character generation session went so well that everyone feels they know their characters already, start off in media res. Tell your players which NPCs their PCs are on friendly terms with, drop them into an environment where said NPCs might all be expected to be, let them describe physical appearance, maybe do a bit of freeform roleplaying between PCs who know each other or want to introduce themselves, and then introduce conflict.
You need to time this right; too much small talk between PCs result in a game miscarriage, not enough means they won’t interact well when the conflict happens. The conflict should be immediate, personal, and potentially threatening – a fight, a loss of face, a correction of something the character was sure they had right, a threat from a superior… basically, give at least one player a plot to get their teeth into, and make sure it’s one that’ll have the other players’ sympathy or interest. If you did the character generation right, this should be easy street.
This initial conflict will resolve itself as the players scurry off to find out who’s making their characters’ lives a nuisance. Try to resolve it within one session, and try to have the NPC who initiated it (it should always be initiated by an NPC) escape. Give the other PCs a subplot – a romantic interest, or a commission/instruction/mission, or (if your players are anything like mine) offer them the opportunity to steal a new hat. Whatever. The point is, one player’s got a plot for the session, the others have sidequests. You may have to do this two or three times, maybe even once per player.
By the end of that time, and given that your NPCs are interconnected to each other and the players, one or two NPCs should be emerging as antagonists. Whoever’s name comes up most often, whoever the players hate most, whoever’s plans they keep accidentally scrobbling – the point is that by the time you’ve done a session where each character is the protagonist, you should have catalysed enough dynamic world development that ‘protagonism’ can take a back seat to the ensemble. Congratulations, you have a plot!
Now, don’t have that plot rely on correctly assembling a series of clues in the correct order. It’ll never happen. You can run a murder mystery, but have the clues be the things the PCs latch onto of their own whim; don’t have a plot that won’t advance unless they can be guided into noticing the right things and interpreting them the right way. Because they won’t. Following the trail only works if there are actually three trails pointing in three different directions and each trail is actually two trails running parallel. As it were. It helps if you have players recap at the beginning of every session – for one, people remember what they say and do more than what they read and hear, and for two, what players have decided happened is pretty much what you’ll have to work with in deciding what will happen. No point in correcting them – they’ll remember anything that’s worth remembering, anything passionate and life-changing, if you’ve done your job right, and anything they totally forget remember will provoke blood, sweat and tears if you try to force it back into their awareness. Your role is to arbitrate, to define, to clarify – to nudge remembrances into a more inspiring, moving, developing course. Ask questions, don’t make statements – it’s easier to say “are you sure?” than “that’s not what happened”. You’ll only be making statements in the event of an out-and-out argument, resolving the situation and deciding what happened.
Don’t necessarily plan an ‘episode’ in advance, but be aware of when you started, when you have to finish, and how many groups the PCs have split into – and they will. Unless, of course, you’ve been sensible and said the story, the instalment of the campaign, will only run for, say, eight sessions. You’ll find the PCs crawling over hot coals on their bellies to get back together by the end of week seven because they think you have a Big Finale planned, and you will: you just won’t have made it up until week six at the earliest. Players do things, those things have consequences, the NPCs keep doing what they’re going to do or adjust their schemes to fit, and the story develops organically as the PCs make an impact on the setting you’ve made for them.
Make the last session of a chapter dramatic. Build it up. Tell them someone’s going to die. It might be one of them, it might be their favourite NPC (and they’ll have one, probably the one you made up on the spot in week three because one of them needed help in a fight – true story), but make sure someone they care about gets it in the neck. Then bring someone else back from the dead, or something equally surprising. Keep something up your sleeve. Surprises are good. The last session can afford to be planned, provided that you’re not so hung-up on your plan that you cry when the players break it ten minutes in. You’ll probably have to ad-lib it, but as long as you ad-lib something big that’s rooted in players’ actions, they’ll think you planned it all along, the saps.