World of Darkness: Mirrors (Post-Mortem Q&A)

And, bam. My copy of World of Darkness: Mirrors dropped into my hands today. Exciting to have, because this is one of those books I was most excited to develop. See, more and more I become convinced that while a core book’s purpose is to lay down the law, everything that follows should endeavor to bow to no law: in the first book you build the prison, and subsequent books show you how to escape that prison.

I know there exists some frowny-face action over the toolbox approach, and I get that. In many ways, I miss the “old” World of Darkness for all its Byzantine canon and its signature characters. What I felt about the oWOD, though, was that it was about someone else’s game. It was about the guy who played Jan Pieterzoon or about the girl who ran her pack through the events surrounding the death of the Stargazer Tribe.

The “new” World of Darkness, though — well, that feels like it’s for my game. Not the game of someone distant, but the game of this motherfucker sitting right here.

The nWOD didn’t want me to read. It wanted me to play.

Mirrors is for me the culmination of that attitude. I wanted the writers to take the rules and molest them, mutilate them into shape and more importantly, show everyone else how to shape the game to their whims and wishes. You want to see the intro to my outline, the one I sent to the writers, well, here’s a portion:

The Idea Is This

The World of Darkness and the Storytelling System as they exist are written to strike a balance.

The setting of the World of Darkness (we’re talking from the Rulebook here, not with the addition of the various cores) is purposefully a bit direct and flavorless – it’s got that creepy occulted-conspiracy vibe, but never commits to it entirely because the World of Darkness is meant to be a template over which all the core games can be laid.

Similarly, the Storytelling System isn’t meant to skew one way or another; it’s a system that tries to marry the simplicity of story-based games with a reasonable-yet-unobtrusive conflict resolution system. It favors story more than system, probably, but not by much.

Both the setting and the system have, throughout all the current gamelines, taken on something of a “toolbox” approach. Lots of tools for different purposes. Some games and books do this more directly, others try to keep the tinkering behind the scenes or at a minimum – this is easy to see in the major gamelines. You look at, say, Promethean: The Created, and you’ll see a game whose themes and notions are very concrete and very intact. The toolbox factor is present, but not extreme or overt. Hunter: The Vigil is something of the opposite: its themes and notions are, frankly, all over the place, but that’s as designed. It doesn’t approach the hunter experience from one direction, it tries to approach it from all directions. The themes are a bit muddier, perhaps, but the variation on “play experience” is far greater.

One of the more recent overt examples of this is what you’ll find in Armory Reloaded, with the final chapter: “Combat Hacks.” [Matt] McFarland and [Travis] Stout took combat and rejiggered it, providing a beautiful basket brimming with all manner of crazy ideas. (I will send the “Combat Hacks” section along for reference.)

That’s what this book is, except not bound only to combat systems.

We’re going to take the World of Darkness setting and the Storytelling System and offer a variety of “hacks” that players and Storytellers can use to customize any and all aspects of the game we can think of.

Multiple play-styles and play experiences will be addressed and provided for.

The Approach

Here’s part of the approach we’re taking:

We’re not judging the system or the setting as it stands. Maybe the system and setting work for you as written. Maybe they don’t. I don’t care. This book isn’t here to say, “Gosh, it works perfectly,” but it’s also not here to say, “Whoa, this shit needs fixing.”

It’s not about repair. It’s not about building a better mousetrap.

It’s about variants. Options. More tools in the toolbox.

You probably play videogames, right? Multiplayer-type? Even if you don’t, you’re likely familiar with, say, Halo? Well, when you start a Halo multiplayer game, you can customize certain elements of this session. Bigger shields. Lower health. Only certain guns on the board. Everybody’s invisible. Whatever. (More obscure but no less relevant is the game called Worms, which features tiny cartoon worms blowing the unmerciful fuck out of each other with lunatic cartoon weapons like bazookas and flying sheep and holy hand grenades. Worms also allows customization, often far deeper than most games – how many seconds is a round, the level of gravity, the type and theme of the board you’re playing on, how many banana bombs a worm gets, and so on and so forth.)

That’s what we’re looking at, here. We want this book to serve as a kind of Advanced Options Bible for anybody about to begin a World of Darkness game. We want them to pick up this book before really settling into the game to say, “Do I want to borrow anything from this book for the current game? Should I use this Virtue/Vice hack? Maybe I’ll take a different look at Morality this go-round.”

We want to encourage them to fiddle with the levers and knobs.

Oh, one more thing about approach: include lots of transparency. Any time you can clue them into the nitty-gritty of how a mechanic really works, do so. Feel free to remind them, “Hey, three dice generally equals one success,” or “Here’s what happens if you tweak the difficulty or add 9-Again or 8-Again.”

Questions, Questions

Whatever you’re writing in this book, whenever you’re writing it, you should have a few questions firmly stapled to your brainmeats.

First: “How can I dial this up?”

Meaning – how to make it more complex? More present and overt? How can I make this system or setting element a more prominent feature than it already is?

Second: “How can I dial this down?”

Meaning – how to either simplify it or reduce the game’s focus on this one thing? Note that those can be two very different approaches. You can punch up an element’s meaning while making the system more simplistic, certainly.

Third: “Can I fit one more option in here?”

Meaning – when you think you’re done, don’t assume you’re done. Try to approach the element from a new direction. Rethink it one more time. What happens if you remove it? What happens if you replace it with something entirely different? Even if that just means throwing in a quick 200 word sidebar to give some off-the-cuff variant, do it.

Tricky Shit

Writing this book might be some tricky shit, and here’s why:

It’d be great if we had 300,000 words to totally just blow the doors off this thing.

We don’t.

Hell, we could probably write a nine-volume series.

We won’t.

So, that means the writing needs to be punchy. It needs to be brief. Systems and options need to be very sharply written – lean protein, no fat. Right?

Except…

Fat is delicious.

Seriously. Fat and seasoning is what makes most protein delicious.

So, we need to add the fat back in.

Which means we need a really delicate balance.

That balance is writing a punchy system without using lots of junk words, but also writing it in such a way that it is interesting to read. A book of system and setting permutations runs the risk of being a useful but dull menu, and we cannot have that.

So, I encourage you to write conversationally. Enjoy yourself, because if you’re not enjoying yourself, the reader won’t enjoy himself. Obviously, we’re still writing a World of Darkness book, and horror blah-blah-blah darkness, but in the end, have a little fun. Speak to the reader directly. Speak to the reader in a frank discussion.

Don’t bog your systems down with heavy game-ist theory, but do approach each option as a kind of argument – discuss briefly why the reader might want to use this, and why they might not want to use it. What’s the point? What can be the result?

Again, the Combat Hacks chapter from Armory Reloaded is a good starting point – it provides lots of options, but it presents them in an interesting, readable way.

Lucky me, I got a bushel and a basket of kick-ass writers to do the job. Together, those crazy dicemonkeys and playgibbons descended out of the light of the sun and leaped down from the trees and ninja-fucked the shit out of this book. They did a slamming job, and they get a tip of the hat (and a tickle of the nipples) from me. Hopefully they have their books and are happy with the end result.

In fact, I should thank all the writers who did work for me on the books I’ve developed, and since I’m getting all maudlin here (seriously, my panties are moist with tears), I should also say thanks to all the great developers who have let me pollute their books with my foul-spunked word count. I’ve written, mmm, well, let’s just go with “a lot.” (At the last rough count it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 million words written across a number of game lines.)

Which is, as they say, batshit. Hell, it’s moonbatshit, you ask me.

I don’t know if my ride with White Wolf or the World of Darkness is really for-real done, but I know that I don’t have any work lined up at present. Mirrors isn’t strictly speaking the last writing or developing I did — I did quite a bit of mutant wordsmithy on Danse Macabre and also pinch-hit the second stage of development on that book, so keep your grapes peeled, cats and kittens.

Anyway, I figure this is a good time for a Q&A. You got questions about Mirrors, I’ll try to answer them. Well, I’ll definitely answer them — I just don’t know if they’ll be the answers you want.

To head off one question I suspect I’ll get: yes, the mighty Stephen Herron did write a Sci-Fi “Shard” for the book. And yes, I went ahead and cut it out of the book. I had two reasons for doing so.

The first and biggest reason is that the book ran way over word count. Bursting at the seams like a microwaved baby hot dog. For example, the space allotted to the Shards section was 60,000 words, and with the Sci-Fi section in, that section’s final draft tallied to a big ol’ 70k. And that was just that one goddamn section. All the areas of the book ran over count. Normally, hey, writers should write to spec — but what, I’m going to complain because everyone delivered a little extra awesome-sauce? (For future record, though: writers, write to spec, or I’ll punch you in your respective gender-specific genital regions. You don’t write to spec and you make Santa cry, you make angels kick babies, and you make me cut word count from other people’s sections. Don’t make me get nut-punchy. Or labia-slappy.)

The second reason was that the Sci-Fi section was a great sampling of lots of awesome ideas, but it ended up a little too scattershot — science fiction being as broad a subject as it is, well, it’s hard to say, “Here’s the entire genre of sci-fi crammed into a World of Darkness can in 15,000 words.” Pretty tough job. And Stephen did it with aplomb — I blame myself for not seeing that problem ahead of time and planning for it in the outline. Stephen’s section was solid, and in a perfect world I could’ve thrown him another 10,000 words (or even 100,000 words) and said, “Hey, keep going with this, because I want to see more, more, more.”

(So, to reiterate — he did his job. I didn’t do mine so well.)

Unfortunately, yeah. Way over word count. Which means I either needed to pick through the little-bitty sections and start clipping (which then creates the worry of, “Can this system stand reliably on three legs instead of four?), or I needed to find a big honking section that could undergo the brutal swipe of the developer’s machete. Hence how the sci-fi section, while good, ended up on the cutting room floor.

So, apologies to Stephen and all of you for that. The realities of cramming lotsa lotsa words into a not-so-hugetastic book are harsh and unyielding. Like the DMV. Or herpes.

You’re going to ask me now, “Will it be released as a PDF?”

And my answer is, I have no idea. I’m not an employee of White Wolf. That decision lies squarely in the hands of Eddy Webb — and, for the record, he’s aware of this, he knows all about it, so please don’t get all up in his shit about the issue. No matter how politely you press, it will only serve as a redundancy. He knows. He’s on it. He’ll make the right decision, and if it doesn’t end up in a PDF somewhere, maybe I’ll be allowed to post it here (or Stephen can post it to his site).

That out of the way, onto the Q&A.

You got questions, ask.

I’ll answer!