An unlikely contender, I have to admit. For years, the World of Darkness, and Vampire: the Masquerade specifically, have been the butt of many of my gamer jokes. It has always had a reputation of being pretentious and overwrought, and maybe a little creepy. After all, shouldn't gaming be fun? Why should I sit at a table with four people I used to be comfortable imagining we're elves with? I say used to because there's something that dies in the fragile eco-system that is role-play when you're confronted with a morally grey encounter with a vampiric prostitute and a drunken changeling logger...
How, fucking, wrong I was.
Now, in the title I delineated that this is the new World of Darkness; this is because there was an old one before it. The Internet has distinguished these two by calling the current offering from White Wolf Publishing the NWoD, and the older one the OWoD. What's the difference? I don't really know. I never played the OWoD. But here's what I do know, thanks to the Internet:
The OWoD contained the following games: Vampire: the Masquerade; Werewolf: the Apocalypse; Mage: the Ascension; Wraith: the Oblivion; Changeling: the Dreaming; Kindred of the East (a V:tM spin-off); Hunter: the Reckoning; Mummy: the Resurrection; Demon: the Fallen; and Orpheus. Many of the games had some spin-offs like a Vampire game that took place in the same universe but in the Dark Ages, or a Werewolf game that took place in the Victorian era, etc.
Characteristics of these older games and settings were that they all had, what was called a, meta-plot. The meta-plots of the various games were all story lines that ran through the various games. in Mage: the Ascension (M:tA) for instance there was a technocratic group of people who were trying to take over the world, or in Vampire: the Masquerade (V:tM) there were two organizations: one called the Sabbat, and the other known as the Camarilla. They fought a bunch. One common thread in all their meta-plots was that the universe was going to end. In fact, one of the last products released for all the games was a book that dealt with how to bring your games to an end. For good.
The NWoD did away with these meta-plots and these apocalypses, and instead presented the worlds as a toolbox (or sandbox as they call it). This means that they present you with the way things are in this world and let you have it. They don't tell you about key organizations or players, just that there are these types of creatures and there are those types of creatures, now have at it. I think this is the reason I fell in love with this game in the first place. It's so freeing as a GM (or Storyteller as they call it), to be able to create my own affairs within the framework of the world. Like someone who heard rock and roll for the first time in the '50s my world was shaken when I saw the phrase "you might want to do this" in the rulebook. They might as well have said "or whatever" after a key part of a mechanic. I never had more fun crafting a campaign.
There, of course, were some rules differences but I can't rightly explain them, as I've never even cracked an OWoD book beyond the opening chapters of the V:tM rulebook. What I want to get at with the meat of this article is the NWoD currently supported by White Wolf Publishing.
The system is intuitive and fantastic. You have a characteristic, or a power, or a skill that is measured by a number of dots (•) that go from • to •••••. In order to succeed at an action you find the characteristic and the skill/power/trait that go together with the action you want to attempt. Then you roll your number of •s in d10s. You need 8s, 9s, or 0s to succeed with 0s giving you additional rolls. If you roll at least one of these numbers, you've succeeded. If you roll more, then you succeed harder. If you roll none, then you fail. Easy.
Combat is simplified as well. A couple of the gamers in my group who have played the OWoD have had some complaints about the combat system but I really like it. Let's say you want to shoot a guy. You'd roll your Dexterity characteristic and your Firearms skill together in d10s. Let's say my Dex is ••• and my firearms is ••. I now have five dice. If I were throwing something at him, or punching him the guy would subtract his Defence characteristic from my dice pool, but I'm shooting him so he doesn't (it's hard to dodge bullets). Instead he's got a Kevlar vest which takes 2 away from any firearms dice pool. I now roll 3d10 and look for 8s, 9s, and 0s. I roll an 8 and a 0. I pick up the 0 and re-roll it giving me a 3. I still hit twice with the 8 and the original 0 so I do two points of lethal (as opposed to bashing or aggravated) damage, and we see if the guy dies.
Beyond that each of the settings has their own special rules on how to use powers, or create supernatural characters, but I'm not going to focus much more on the rules because the game itself likes to put story before rules anyway, so let's move on.
Mage, whatever. This leads to a nicer cohesion between the various supernatural beings in the setting and can even allow for your group to contain a Vampire, a Werewolf, a Mage, and a Changeling, though this isn't very common, and all those groups have very good reasons for never wanting to hang out with each other at all.
So what is the World of Darkness? Well, it's our world, but darker. Despair runs thicker through the streets, over which loom gargoyles and other forms of Gothic architecture. Cities are more corrupt, crime and violence is everywhere, and law enforcement and heroes are few. This world is inhabited by dangerous things that lurk at the edge of light: Vampires, Werewolves, Spirits, demons, ghosts; and these dangerous things are the people you play.
Of course the game is as depressing, or as evil as you want. In my last (and first) Vampire: the Requiem (V:tR) campaign there was a creepy Nosferatu Vampire, striding the alleyways next to an amoral Kindred (Vampire) who seeks only knowledge, a lone wolf criminal, and a wealthy eccentric who was on a mission to find the killers of his father and a missing girl from his past. They actually banded together and chose the lesser of two evils threatening Vancouver.
After I really got into these games I began to see past what some people would consider pretension and overwrought drama of these games and see a very well-constructed platform from which to launch adventures taking place in the modern age (or in the past, as the Requiem for Rome book allows you to do). Not only was I intrigued by being allowed to play "serious" games in modern times, but I really liked the story emphasis that seems to seep from even the character sheets. I've played through Vampire: the Requiem, but next up a friend of mine will be running a Changeling: the Lost (C:tL) game also set in Vancouver, and just after the events of the Vampire campaign. It's a brilliant sense of continuity, and I relish the thought of being able to play on the other side of the Storyteller's screen. This is definitely one of my favorites and I can't wait to revisit the dark streets of the World of Darkness again, and hopefully regularly.