Spoilers for all World of Darkness-related materials, primarily Old World of Darkness and Vampire: the Masquerade.
In 1991, White Wolf released the first edition of Vampire: the Masquerade (V:tM), a self-described gothic-punk roleplaying game of personal horror, thereby spawning a series of related, but distinct, franchises in which players could take on the personæ of various supernatural beings lurking at the periphery of human perception.
The rulebooks, in addition to being a bit of a mess, emphasized tones and themes as the core around which stories should be built: humanity and the beast which lurks within us all in Vampire; the cost of hubris and the pain of glory faded for Mage; the hell that is other people in Wraith and so on, thus setting the stage for a different, more mature kind of roleplaying game. This stage was ignored by almost everyone because the potential inherent in explosive violence and having a forum in which to air one’s emotional and sexual hang-ups, was too, er, “good”, an opportunity for most teenagers and twenty-somethings to let pass.
The books’ own examples did not always help. In an often sad attempt to be at the bleeding edge of what the authors think is counter-cultural, characters with names like MortyxX and DMZ are presented as examples to inspire the players. In this instance, to inspire them to play something with less silly names.
Although the potential is rarely realized in either groups or media, there are examples of some excellent games set in the various Worlds of Darkness, most (in)famously the ridiculously titled Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines which, despite being a buggy mess with terrible combat and an underwhelming final act, is still one of the best computer games ever made due to its sensible adaptation of the source material, excellent script, good acting, extensive characterization, and sense of atmosphere.
That said, the World of Darkness has some of the craziest world-building out there.
Layering it on thickly
Although V:tM (and later Demon: the Fallen) was grounded in a re-imagining of a Judæo-Christian world-view, other parts of the oWoD franchise broke away from this: Mage draws upon Gnosticism, Werewolf upon a coked-up paganism, and Mummy from that friend of yours in Year 3 who always had an everything-proof shield to survive playground make-believe.
The mutually incompatible cosmologies were, in theory, fine. It was not recommended to use the Mage rules in a Vampire game or vice versa, and certainly not to have a mixed party. The idea was that, although all these creatures inhabited the same world, in any given Chronicle (the unnecessarily capitalized in-franchise word for a campaign or set of related stories told with the same group/characters) the spotlight was on the players and therefore their version of events. New World of Darkness played this up even further by making the history of the setting as murky as possible.
This is all fine up to a point, but it fell apart whenever the settings met in an over-arching metaplot, which the authors foolishly decided would be a good idea, even after warning players away from that very thing. For oWoD, this meant the awakening of an ancient vampire, progenitor of the Ravnos Clan of vampires, his battle with kuei-jin (Asian vampires with a different cosmology) and subsequent destruction by a super weapon built by the Technocracy (wizards who do not believe in magic but do believe in a version of a third cosmology) at the same time as the ghost of a nuclear bomb went off in the Underworld (the fourth cosmology) thus freeing loads of demons from their prison (in a fifth cosmology, natch).
Each of those cosmologies is so complicated that they are all explained in lengthy articles on the White Wolf Wiki, many of which point out the inconsistencies between systems and books and even some of the failed attempts to tie it all together which I shall not attempt to replicate here for reasons of time, space, and sanity.
The creators’ most valiant attempts to explain it all fall flat as well. In Demon, the excuse for mutually exclusive cosmologies between lines is that, in the beginning, reality had different layers, different ways of being true simultaneously, so that whilst Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden on one level, evolution was gradually producing homo sapiens on another, and on a third it was a symphony reflected off of the tear of a space dragon lost inside the dream of a poem, or something like that. Only gradually did all these possibilities come together into the one reality of the “present” WoD. The attentive reader will notice that this completely fails to explain how the present cosmological paradoxes in the meta-plot can co-exist.
Much like other game worlds I have considered previously, the problem seems to be the requirements of marketing and industry. Presenting each game as fundamentally its own World of Darkness would have been fine; presenting each instance as, ‘What if the vampires/demons/mages are right this time?’ scenarios would have been fine. Trying to unite them was a disaster and led to a terrible conceptual snarl.
There are several lessons which the aspiring world-builder ought to take from this. Firstly, when in doubt, keeping it simple (or, at least, no more complicated than the narrative absolutely requires) is probably best. Secondly, and especially for urban fantasy or fantasy which relies upon a cosmology beyond the scientific, either decide on a version of events which is true, or do not spell out a specific version of events. If groups of people with contradictory views of the universe have a shared history, there should be enough doubt involved for either side to be right. If the story demands that this nebulousness should persist, avoid any cosmological crossovers which put mutually exclusive cosmologies alongside one another and require all to be true.
Paradoxically, although the creators failed in regard to the cosmological elements, they did very well in the historical: the conflicting, murky ætiological accounts given even between different factions in the same line of games are done very well, and give rise to the oWoD’s true masterstroke.
Diabolus ex libris
The real success of the World of Darkness in its various incarnations is the way in which it portrays God. Religion is about as sensitively and realistically portrayed as one might expect from a company as desperate to be seen as anti-establishment and progressive as White Wolf is, but WoD makes no bones about God.
In short, the God of WoD is malign. It is implied in most places and outright stated in others that the WoD-God is, at best, heartless enough to bring about and then abandon an imperfect and doomed creation. More likely, however, the WoD-God actively delights in the suffering he has created, as seen in one of the end-of-the-world scenarios conceived for Vampire, in which God, having destroyed the Earth and all that therein is, leaves Caine (the Biblical figure, progenitor of all vampires) alone and alive to wander an empty ball of dust forever, divine laughter ringing in his ears.
In addition to being, at a conservative estimate, 10,000 times darker than anything Philip Pullman had to say about God, this is a superb example of integrating world-building into a narrative. ‘How could a good God make such an awful, messed-up, nonsensical world?’ ‘Er, a good God didn’t make it. Obviously’. Yikes.
Even the scenario in which WoD-God judges all vampire-kind, and proves to be at least somewhat interested in redemption, it is demonstrated that he is, if nothing else, much weirder than anyone could have anticipated him to be.
There is a tendency in fantasy to have nice, neat moral compasses. Tolkein did that, but his stories remain compelling because goodness is something to which the heroes aspire and of which they sometimes (as in Boromir’s case) fall tragically short. High fantasy which apes Tolkein and fails to recognize this ends up as simplistic, patronizing and dull.
As a reaction to this, people seek out “dark” fantasy with moral ambiguities, like Dragon Age and World of Darkness. Where Dragon Age hints at moral absolutes and a judging creator but tries to show how difficult it is to be moral when caught in a brutal dilemma, however, WoD, like Pullman, invites the player to slay God and put something better in his place. Given that reality is often literally crumbling under the characters’ feet, this Nietzschean impetus works surprisingly well, and it would do fantasy of all kinds no harm if authors were prepared to say, ‘in my world, the gods are mad, bad, and dangerous to know’ rather than stringing along trite and tiresome humanist tropes or self-defeating notions of cosmic balance.
As with any roleplaying system, the world-building exists to serve as a stage on which groups of people tell their own stories. WoD proves that, whether for your club or novel, shining the spotlight carefully is vital for the survival of even the most complex fictional universe. Moreover, despite the painful virtue-signalling, it demonstrates the power of a narrative set in an unfair universe, where the only heroic thing to do is to attempt the impossible or be destroyed in the attempt. We do not need to live in a world any darker than our own to know how true that is.