We’ve had many people join us in the World of Darkness over the past several years, and we’ve also been watching how players are using the roleplaying materials that let people tell their own stories in the World of Darkness. One question we hear frequently is “how do I prepare for a new story or chronicle?” So to get you up and running quickly, let’s hit a few high notes.
As a Troupe
Storytelling games are group activities, and one of the best ways to plan is to get everyone together (maybe virtually, in these plague-addled times) and discuss everyone’s expectations for the chronicle. Key things to discuss are:
- Chronicle Tenets: The Vampire rulebook discusses chronicle Tenets, but the best way to think about them is to ask “What will our story be about?”. Chronicle Tenets help shape the common understanding of the game experience, and set boundaries. Discussing chronicle Tenets means the players won’t be suspecting high-action combat chronicle only to have the Storyteller deliver a brooding thriller, for example.
- Calibration and respectful play: Players should feel un-anxious at the table and know the Storyteller isn’t going to spring anything on them that they’d prefer not to deal with. The World of Darkness explores some fairly dark subject matter and mature themes, but that’s not a license to inflict awfulness on players. Our Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition corebook dwells deeper into this topic in Considerate Play addendum.
- Group dynamics: Build your coterie together — establish relationships that are in place before the chronicle actually begins. It’s everyone’s responsibility to create a character who works well with the group. You don’t necessarily have to be eternal besties with the coterie — you’re a group of selfishly motivated blood-drinking night-haunts, after all — but the coterie is the social unit that will need to navigate the story with some amount of cohesion. Detached loners and terminal betrayers might show up in vampire fiction, but it’s tough to get a good game out of them, because players and their characters should relate to one another.
- Story type: Obviously, this is important to discuss. See our previous entries on story types for ideas here and here.
As a player, you have a very straightforward responsibility during “pre-play.” Understand what to expect based on the troupe’s discussions, and create a character who wants to accomplish things. In fact, goals are better than backstory because goals affect the choices you’ll make. Backstory establishes context for those goals. Without goals, you’ll be purely reactive. Make a bullet-point list of what you want to accomplish. It helps to look to your Ambition and Desire for inspiration defining these.
You may have a lofty goal, such as “Become Prince” (or “destroy the Prince…”) or you may have a more immediate goal, such as “Protect my Touchstones from vampires, including myself.” Goals might be material (“Get rich by forcing out a Ventrue rival”) or spiritual (“Learn more about Golconda”). Anything that gets your character out there and doing things works, especially if it can involve the other members of the coterie… even if reluctantly. Two or three bullet-point objectives will keep you from asking “What’s next?” and provide great points of compromise with coterie-mates. You scratch their back and they’ll scratch yours. Hopefully.
Storytellers: Scene and Chronicle Loops
As a Storyteller, chronicle planning continues with creating scenarios that prompt choices from players. Resist the urge to over-plan or even script scenes. A good scene involves back-and-forth between the players and Storyteller, with each surprising the other (in a good way!) through their responses and those outcomes.
If the scene is the base unit of storytelling, we can break that down into components. Understanding and defining these are the bulk of your planning work.
The Objective is what the players want to accomplish. This may be something an individual character wants (see? Have goals!), or something the coterie collectively intends to achieve. The Objective in a feeding scene might be vitae; the Objective in an investigation scene might be determining the city’s social hierarchy; the Objective in a combat scene might be to survive another night.
Example Objectives: Kidnap a rival’s childe, find a defensible haven, feed without being caught, set that goddamn Tremere on fire and pin it on the Sabbat
The Challenge is what stands in their way, what prevents them from obtaining the Objective. A physical antagonist is a straightforward example, but especially as these become group goals, greater complexities emerge. A challenge might be a chain-wielding Brujah and her pack of murderous ghouls, or it might be convincing a resentful Nosferatu Harpy to both forgive a debt and part with the secret of who put the debt in place to begin with.
Example Challenges: The rival’s childe is alert and well-protected, the domain is overpopulated with Kindred and the best havens have been claimed, the city is on edge and mortals are more alert than normal for “night-prowlers,” that goddamn Tremere is unwilling to be set on fire and used as a ploy to frame the Sabbat
The Reward is what the character or coterie can expect to enjoy afterward. In many cases, accomplishing an Objective is its own Reward, but the way things work out, there’s often another Reward that comes out of making things happen. So maybe that Nosferatu Harpy’s boon is erased and they give up the Banu Haqim who had pushed for it — but the Harpy also appreciates the coterie’s initiative and offers to act as a behind-the-scenes Mawla for the players’ characters. The players and their characters might not even realize what specific reward is in the offering for a scene as they undertake it. And who knows — what seems to be a huge asset might turn into a great liability. That Nosferatu probably has numerous enemies, whom the coterie will inherit if their mentorship becomes known….
Example Rewards: The rival’s childe actually wants to be emancipated and offers damning secrets implicating their sire, a down-on-their-luck ancilla is willing to yield their haven so long as it takes some heat off them, a vessel’s vitae has a particularly appealing Resonance, the Tremere had a set of journals with a number of experimental Blood Sorcery rituals contained within and the journals didn’t catch on fire when the Tremere did
It’s a Game Loop!
So if you think about Objective-Challenge-Reward like this:
You’ll see that scenes give you a convenient “loop” format that can be interwoven with other loop-scenes. As well, once the character or coterie has accomplished one Objective, that positions them to undertake their next.
You can arrange loops sequentially, or you can simply have a number of loop-scenes planned, and how the players resolve one will affect how they approach others. You can arrange the loop-scenes like nodes in a flowchart, or you can just have a pile of them out there, scattered among the social sandbox of the chronicle setting.
That’s the secret, though. You don’t have to plan every last movement in a sprawling epic to have a compelling World of Darkness story. You simply need to know enough about the atomic units of your story to know what scenario might occur next. (Or to fake it, for those who are especially gifted at improvisation.)
If everybody does their bit (and, admittedly, the Storyteller’s bit is no mean portion), you can have a chronicle up and running in no time, and without having to know every answer beforehand. The chronicle becomes a story of discovery and accomplishment.
– Justin Achilli