Saturday, 5 December 2015

Not the Man I Used to Be: a plug-in approach to World of Darkness chargen

So obviously I've spent a fair bit of time thinking about White Wolf stuff, what with the sci-fi game and all the nitpicking.

One of the things that's come up repeatedly, and is a regular source of bafflement-slash-frustration to me, is that sometimes White Wolf seem to have completely forgotten their own fluff when writing the rules. Or perhaps simply couldn't be bothered to try and implement these rules. Although the fact that Vampire, the very first game, has sort of the same problem, suggests that they never really thought about it.

I'll talk about Demon, because these two are basically the most egregious cases, but it applies in varying degrees to some of the other games. The issue I'm talking about here is how they mechanically handle becoming a supernatural being.

The games can be broadly categorised by How You Got This Way. In Vampire, Changeling, Mage and I think Geist, you are a human who gained supernatural power and became inhuman. In Werewolf, Promethean and Mummy(?), you're a human-like supernatural being from the get-go as far as I understand it. In Demon, you're a supernatural being who possesses a human.

In Demon: the Fallen, you possess a living human, wipe out their soul and take over their life. When necessary, you can move on to a new host. But your mechanical abilities don't in any way reflect that human. It's particularly egregious when you compare physical issues: if your Str 3 Dex 3 Sta 3 demon possesses a Str 1 Dex 4 Sta 1 child, and then a Str 5 Dex 1 Sta 4 bodybuilder, both gestalts will end up with a row of 3s. You can possess a frail, elderly character with severe nerve deterioration and your Dex 5 will override it. You can possess an Olympic acrobat and still have Dex 1.

This annoys me partly just because it doesn't really make sense. The physical traits of a host, in particular, should be reflected in the gestalt's final scores if you're going to pretend it's in any meaningful sense a gestalt. I'd like to see the intellectual and social attributes be affected as well.

The second thing is that it also means there's less incentive to play around with hosts, particularly in Demon: the Descent. Specifically, it means there's incentive to look for hosts with social and political clout, and other intangible benefits, but that it makes no difference to you whether your host is fit and charming or gormless and feeble. Not that you should necessarily be angling for mechanical advantage, but I like the idea that you might have to compromise on a suboptimal host when you're in dire straits, and that seeking out a host who's really compatible with you is a meaningful exercise.

Leaving aside the demons, White Wolf games really push the idea of playing through character prologues, which means even if you're some dude who becomes a vampire, you're still running into this point. Either you play a vampire who's kind of average and whose main skills are administration, football trivia, gardening and getting through rush hour traffic (you know, like an actual normal person), or you play a charismatic badass who becomes a vampire. It doesn't really support playing an average jane who becomes a badass, even though there's plenty of genre trope support for that kind of thing - the vampirised character is suddenly sexier, stronger, tougher, braver, stealthier and so on and so forth.

(there's also a slightly odd thing where the difference between mortals and supernaturals is access to powers, because stats are the same for both, but I'm not getting into that)

What I'd like to see is something where a supernatural character, and especially those that are basically gestalts, consists of two layers: the part that is a human, and the part that isn't. This would allow for a significant change when a mortal character becomes supernatural (as the genre lit mostly seems to support), and allow for the nature of a host to influence the possession-type characters, and mean that the original human isn't just shrugged off and forgotten once the PC-as-intended comes to the fore, while also meaning you don't have to create implausible mortal characters just in order to be competent at the kind of things PCs in a roleplaying game are actually likely to do.


One complication here is that World of Darkness decided early on that mortals and supernaturals would have the same statlines, ranging from 1-5 dots except for really experienced characters. This means you can't just take the simple approach of building a mortal character, then adding a layer of supernatural dots on top of that.

There are other complications, like Skills and Merits and Flaws, but I'll maybe look at those later. To start with I'm just doing Attributes.

There are three approaches that spring fairly readily to mind, and which have their own advantages and drawbacks.

For reference, I'm going to call the process of turning a mortal character into a supernatural PC (no matter how that happens, whether it's in backstory or played out or possession or whatever) apotheosis. I'm sure this is also White Wolf jargon in at least one game, but I don't care.

I'm also going to take the line that, when you get right down to it, the mortal character is the primary determinant of physical form, while the supernatural character is the priority for the mental side. Personality and competence are a mixture of the two.

No Baseline

The simplest option is that the supernatural part of the character has 9 dots to distribute amongst their Attributes, to a maximum of 3 in any given Attribute at character creation.

When apotheiosis occurs, the human baseline of 1 dot in every Attribute is stripped out, and the supernatural dots are then layered on top of the human's Attributes.

This results in no overall change in power levels between humans and supernaturals. It's quick and simple, with minimal need for calculation.

The obvious downside is that in this approach, it's possible to end up with an Attribute of 0, which the game doesn't appreciate.

Half and Half

The next simple option is to just divide up the weight of each part. For simplicity, I'd say just halve the Attributes of the human - do not round halves at this point. The next step depends on which game you're running.

If you're running a game where the supernatural being exists in a sense separate from the human, they need a full stat array of their own. This would primarily be Demon, where shifting into full Demonic Form is a thing. It could arguably be used in other lines. When in supernatural form, these are the Attributes they use.

When using the gestalt form of the character, you use the human's halved Attributes, and the supernatural's halved Attributes added together. If the final value isn't an integer, round down.

Again, this has the advantage of being simple. It can't lead to Attributes of less than 1. And it supports going full-on supernatural in a way that (although not actually intended by the rulebook) might feel quite appropriate in a game where dual nature is supposed to be important.

A non-trival disadvantage here is that there can be discrepancies in character power level based on the distribution of dots. A starting character can end up with as few as 17 Attribute dots if they're very unfortunate, though 19-21 is more likely. Game balance doesn't have to be a big thing in White Wolf games, but it is still a mechanical artefact that will affect play (more or less permanently) and that players shouldn't have to worry about metagaming around if that can be avoided. That's certainly a point in the games with only a single host to worry about, like Vampire.

On the other hand, you can look at it differently: that, particularly in those games (or campaigns) where host-hopping is expected to be a regular activity, this is a sort of interesting randomness that has limited game effect but potentially makes the hosts feel varied. Some hosts being poor combinations with some demons can be viewed as a feature rather than a bug, if you like.

Conservative Half

This is a slight variant of the half-and-half. Once again, we halve the stats of the human and the supernatural parts before combining them.

This time, after combining, we take each of the non-integer Attributes in whichever order the player chooses. Round the first up, the second down, and so on.

This should result in a gestalt that conserves the number of dots no matter which host and possessor are combined. The number of dots should always be equal to the mean of the two Attribute arrays.

This will involve a bit more effort than the previous version. It allows players to form slightly different Attribute arrays with the same pairing, which might cause confusion and could potentially also lead to some quite minor jiggery-pokery, particularly where prerequisites are concerned.

This is all assuming both are starting-level characters. I'll talk about upgrades later.


You can basically do exactly the same thing with skills as you would with Attributes, to be honest.


Oh, now it gets fun.

So the trouble is, of course, that Merits aren't quantitative things in the same way as Attributes. Some are, of course - your vampire's Herd ranking, your demonic Legacy and so on. But many others are binary. You instinctively anticipate ambushes, or you don't. You can or can't use alternative medicine. You do or don't see dead people.

A second complication is that some Merits are completely inherent to the character, some are skills (or knowledge or experience or contacts) your character just happened to pick up, some can be seen as simply a refinement of a particular skill, and some in the middle. And we really ought to handle these differently.

The most obvious example for the first type is Giant. A character is physically huge, or not. This is an inherent part of that character, and can only be altered by transforming their body somehow, which is a pretty radical change. In general, I would say these types of Merits should be retained during apotheiosis, and that retaining these should be the highest priority. It is far more natural to me that a character becoming a Changeling should remain Giant and forget how to do kung-fu than physically shrink but remember everything. That's not to say it needs to be a hard-and-fast rule (amiable resolution is best, and making the character you want is important) but it seems the most sensible.

Again, this applies especially in Demon games where the difference between hosts is significant. In a Vampire or Changeling game, your apotheiosis is essentially a character arc-cum-backstory: being transformed from a towering Adonis into a shrivelled husk, or even from an iron-willed leader to a snivelling manipulator, might well be valid and important progressions.

I would tend to say the order of preference for retention of Merits from the human host should go something like this:

  1. Inherent physical properties (Giant, Small Frame, Double-Jointed, Fleet of Foot, Ambidextrous...)
  2. Reflexive abilities acquired over long periods (Language, Eidetic Memory, Danger Sense, Taste, Fast Reflexes...)
  3. Abstract knowledge and learned physical skills (Encyclopaedic Knowledge, Professional Training, Parkour, fighting styles...) and identity-based social merits (Contacts, Fame, Mentor, Staff, Status...)
  4. Mental idiosyncracies (Iron Will, Good Time Management, Meditative Mind, Patient...) and lifestyle merits (Resources, Safe Place...)
  5. Personality-based social merits (Fast Talker, Inspiring, Pusher, Barfly...)

Of course, there's lots of wiggle-room here, and it will vary based on things like the game in question; the style of the campaign; how the group envisions each supernatural creature-type working; and the timescale of apotheiosis.

For example, a vampire might retain most of the personality of its human self, while undergoing physical changes that negate some of its physical merits.

A demon, on the other hand, is more likely to largely annihilate the original personality of its host body. You might decide they lose access to most of the host's memories, including muscle memory, but retain anything based on identity. Or you might decide they have no interest in maintaining the host's social contacts, and so (over a certain narrative period) the mechanical benefit of friends and allies is lost. Or you might decide they essentially see the human body as a tool with lots of useful functions they can activate: "ooh, this one knows kung fu and is great at sweet-talking!"

Of course, you could also decide that your demons actually sit alongside the original personality, rather than blotting it out. This is one of the options offered in Demon: the Fallen. In this case, you might want to blend mental merits from both.

Halves Again

So one approach to Merits is just to do the same thing as before: have both halves of the character pick Merits, then decide which dots to keep on a strictly even basis.

This could, in theory, result in some oddities if both characters are very heavily skewed, but it seems quite unlikely.

Destined for Vampirism

For those games where a character is only going to consist of a single mortal and a single supernatural element (the permanent gestalt games like Vampire) you can also take a more pragmatic approach.

Rather than giving each half their own Merits, simply take the number of Merits the final character will have, and assign them as seems appropriate. The physical and cultural background Merits, education, and mortal connections would belong to the mortal half; vampire contacts, and any new skills that feel appropriate to stem from gaining vampiric power, would come from the supernatural aspect.

You can actually do exactly the same thing with Skill and Attribute dots: assign half the pool to the mortal side, half to the vampire side, and then add them back together. This allows you to be a super-strong, manipulative vampire even though you began as a gormless pizza-boy with the charisma of a sprig of broccoli and therefore don't have any pretext for those kinds of skills.

The obvious downside - and the reason why I didn't use this as a suggested option - is that until apotheiosis occurs, you have only half the number of dots you should! This may be a problem if extended backstory applies.

It also doesn't particularly help with the demon situation, where you still need a system for possessing existing NPCs who weren't built with you in mind.

Planning for Possession

Demon characters are liable to separate and even to appear as full-blown demons, so they require the most care here.

You can't necessarily plan for the mortal characters, since you might possess people haphazardly. Only your starting mortal is predictable. For the rest, you'll probably need to just apply rules like those above.

For the demon half, I'd actually suggest dividing your pool of Merits into two sets: those you want always to apply, and those you're prepared to only gain when in demonic form. These might be 50-50, (well, 5-5), but you might also want to apply a lot of specific abilities to the character via Merits.

For example, a strong-willed and charismatic demon takes over a lowly mortal. The player prefers to retain 8 points of Merits for this demon, as these are defining characteristics - unshakable determination and an aura of command. Plus, they've chosen demon-specific Merits like Bolthole and Suborned Infrastructure, and naturally wish to retain them rather than some pitiful human's worthless friendships.

In another case, the demon has a much more ambiguous relationship with their hosts. This demon tends to blend into the host's life, and takes care to tend and exploit the mortal's social connections. In this case, the demon retains only 3 points of starting Merits, which the player uses to represent the cult they have established. The remaining 7 points they always use to retain important features of their host body. When they assume full demonic form, they lose access to those Merits, but do regain access to their latent demon Merits.

You could, of course, rule that demons don't get to have two pools (gestalt and demon-only) in this way. Pragmatically speaking, the sensible thing to do with Merits you can only access in demonic form is to lock them into combat features. You might feel this will make combat too prominent, since these merits tend to be balanced on the assumption that the downside is inability to use them outside combat. With the two pools, that isn't really an issue, and the demon is effectively swapping between the general pool and the combat pool.

Personally I feel it's not a huge issue and I'm not particularly bothered about it.

Apotheiosis and Advancement

So the obvious question I ducked earlier is, what happens with advanced characters?

If we operate on the (not unreasonable) assumption that all starting WoD characters will have the same dot distributions, then it's not especially complicated to mash them together into a gestalt character that retains the same power level and shows the influence of both.

Once you get to advanced characters, though, those experience points could have been spent anywhere. If you use the add-and-divide methods I described above, you're going to suffer badly: you only get half the value of any dots you spend! A beginning character might mash together Str 2 and Str 4 to get Str 3. But if your advanced Str 10 character (recipient of many, many experience points) meets a Str 2 mortal, that's going to give us a relatively measly Str 6.

What I'd tend to suggest is actually tracking all experience-bought dots separately from your starting dots. It doesn't need to be complicated; you could just draw them in a different colour, or use squares for starting dots and circles for the rest, or something.

When you're calculating the gestalt form of a character, you then use the rules I've described based purely on the starting dots. Experience dots are then added on top of the gestalt form. You can think of it as your starting dots being your mortal nature (which combines with a supernatural essence to form the "character"), while other dots belong to the character as a whole. Or you could not, also.

Special Traits

Another area of concern is the more unusual properties: things like Humanity are supernatural-specific, while traits like Willpower, Faith and Virtue are intentionally much higher for supernatural creatures than for mortals, because it's assumed that the supernaturals will be the PCs while most mortals are NPCs. If you summed and halved these, you'd end up with PCs with stats well outside the intended benchmark.

I'd tend to rule for these kinds of traits that the mortal's should be discarded entirely. This makes sense mechanically, and I think you can also argue it from an in-world point of view given that these traits tend to indicate a creature's post-apotheiosis abilities.


Now I do appreciate that this seems like a fairly fiddly process: you have to maintain three full character sheets, plus two more for any additional mortal host you might have (or you could do it in a spreadsheet, of course). That's definitely not to be ignored.

The advantage is conditional: if you're the sort of person who prefers the verisimilitude of having distinct mortal and supernatural sides to a character, and particularly if you plan to play Demon or any other body-hopping game, this set of mechanics ideas may help you evoke that feeling.

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