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A Storyteller’s View of Virtue and Vice

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What They Were

1st edition

In the 1st edition World of Darkness rulebook, Virtues and Vices were presented as personal strengths and weaknesses based on the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Heavenly Virtues. They were said to reflect a character’s “fundamental sense of self,” for better and for worse, underneath any facades. These traits led to major impulses and various behaviors, including those that weren’t the best for the character.

Although characters could indulge in any Virtue or Vice during a chronicle, players could only choose one of each for the purpose of game mechanics. These selections represented the drives that were most satisfying to the character’s psyche. They worked the same way for almost all WoD characters, from everyday mortals to vampires to changelings. Thus, these traits could act as roleplaying guides for new players and a way for Storytellers to quickly sum up NPCs.

The main value of Virtues and Vices from a game standpoint was that they replenished Willpower points. Acting out your character’s Vice during a scene could only garner one Willpower point. Following your character’s Virtue for the whole game session could refill the entire pool. Only giving in to these urges during difficult scenes would qualify for a reward; resisting them or indulging them without risking consequences didn’t count.

The 1e system had its advantages. Streamlined lists of 7 Virtues and 7 Vices allowed for quick choices and easy memorization. The traits encouraged players to think about their characters’ internal struggles and relationship with sin. Instead of waiting a long time to act out a single Nature, a player could act out their character’s Vice for a fast boost while building toward a Virtue’s payoff.

Mirrors, published later in the 1st edition lineup, offered some options that are worth noting here. First, it suggested dropping the system entirely if your group didn’t like or need it; the book advised giving Willpower for overcoming challenges, instead. Mirrors also offered a system in which characters would choose and act out 3 guiding Motivations. The book even brought back Nature and Demeanor as a possibility.

Even Further Back: Classic WoD

Virtue and Vice is reminiscent of the classic World of Darkness’s Nature and Demeanor system. A character’s Nature represented their true self, and acting it out was the primary way to regain Willpower points. Demeanor represented the face a character showed to the world and could be changed at whim, but it wasn’t used for a mechanical purpose. There was a long list of archetypes to choose from, and gamers were encouraged to create their own to better fit their characters, if they wished.

What They Are Now

When Chronicles of Darkness was updated for its second edition, Virtues and Vices got an overhaul. At first glance, it seems like the system is no longer based on Judeo-Christian notions of sin and goodness; instead, they’re based on adjectives which describe personality traits. A Virtue still takes time and effort but now represents a “higher calling” that makes a character feel “self-actualized,” while a Vice is a way to seek comfort and escape from the world. Therefore, the same trait can be chosen as a Virtue or Vice, depending on how it’s described by the player and approached by the character.

The mechanics were tweaked, as well: a Vice can now be fulfilled in scenes that don’t threaten consequences, and a Virtue is determined on a scene-by-scene basis, but getting the reward for a Virtue still requires risk. Perhaps the biggest change is that only mortals have Virtues and Vices. Supernatural creatures have traits that depend on their type as they find different ways to deal with their new states.

Critiques

I’m going to say it up front: I still like Virtue and Vice as a quick metric of a character’s key drives. As a Storyteller, I can easily figure out these traits for NPCs and locations, and they’re evocative to me. But the more time I’ve spent with the system, the more I’ve pulled away from it when it comes to actually running and playing WoD games.

I’ll also state for the record that I was never a fan of Nature and Demeanor. As a player back in the 90s, they always felt miserably brief and confining. Even creating my own wouldn’t have solved the issue. Simply put, my characters had too many facets to be accounted for and did important things that wouldn’t have fallen strictly within their Natures. Luckily for me, my Storyteller didn’t care about the rules as they were written.

Same as it Ever Was

The earliest incarnation of Virtue and Vice in 1e WoD reflects Western Judeo-Christian ideals about goodness and hard work being difficult but most rewarding, as well as notions of vices as cheap, easy thrills. Stereotypically good behavior is rewarded most, so players are urged to portray generally nice people. That will work just fine for some groups and chronicles.

But WoD games offer the chance to play a wide variety of people, including some pretty destructive bastards. Such a system doesn’t seem broad enough to account for that. If you’re looking for something different and want to encourage other behaviors, another system would probably work better.

Options & Mechanics

Even if the base premises work for you and your chronicle, there are other concerns you should think about. Some of the original 7 Virtues and 7 Vices are quite similar to one another mechanically (like Prudence and Temperance, as well as Gluttony and Lust), which makes the list of 14 options seem much shorter. One of the reasons I revamped the list years ago was because I wanted more distinct options and mechanics.

In 2e (Chronicles of Darkness), the Virtue and Vice system seems to be fixed at first glance, but might be more problematic than before. Instead of reliable lists, players each make their own, giving the Storyteller more to keep track of. Most of the sample Virtues and Vices are a lot like the old options, and the underlying philosophy remains much the same. Players might now feel encouraged to seek their characters’ Vices in every scene rather than waiting for Virtues to pay off; risk isn’t even required, and nothing in the rules says they can’t try to top off that way.

Philosophical Issues

On top of that, Virtue and Vice only apply to mortals. Never mind that supernaturals started as mortals and continue to live in the material world. Never mind that mortals with unusual lives don’t gain access to another system. Every supernatural type now has its own lists to choose from, but most of these “new” traits seem to be repackaged Nature and Demeanor archetypes or Virtues and Vices. So if you’re looking for something new and are an experienced WoD gamer, you might be underwhelmed.

Finally, the update didn’t address a fundamental philosophical problem with the whole system, which is this: any Willpower reward has to be approved by the Storyteller, even though the mechanic is supposedly based on a character’s sense of self being reinforced during play. That’s an experience only a player can vouch for, however; no one else can (or necessarily should) tell a player or their character how they feel about a situation.

Other Options

Aspirations

2e presents a more objective system for regaining Willpower: Aspirations. Aspirations are goals that are likely to be fulfilled during the chronicle and upcoming session. Players choose short-term goals for quick chronicles; during longer chronicles, one goal should be longer-term. They’re written as action statements, so it should be pretty clear when their terms have been met. They’re replaced over time (with Storyteller approval, so they can keep track of everything), so they offer customization and novelty.

As written, Aspirations aren’t tied to Willpower. They’re primarily a way for players to let Storytellers know the things they want their characters to do and what they expect to happen next. But they can easily become ways to reward Willpower. Short-term goals can offer one point and long-term goals can replenish the pool. An indulgent Storyteller might decide to award a point for significant progress, even if an aspiration isn’t fully resolved. It’s the logical outcome of what was introduced in Mirrors: it merges overcoming challenges and choosing Motivations.

Behaviors

Another possibility is to create a system based on specific behaviors you want to reward. For instance, if you’d like to see players work together often, you could award Willpower when they use teamwork to overcome an obstacle. If you’re concerned about giving out Willpower too often, you could stipulate that the obstacle has to be significant and/or some measure of risk has to be involved. It shouldn’t be difficult to determine when they worked together, what the obstacle was, and what the stakes were. It can even be argued that characters feel a boost to their self-esteem when this happens, if you continue to tie these rewards to identity.

Roles & Professions

A slightly different approach involves thinking about the characters’ roles and/or professions. After all, in real life, social and work roles are major aspects of many people’s identities, and carrying them out well can boost self-esteem. For the Storyteller, the choice lies in what they want to highlight and encourage most in the chronicle at hand. If you’re running a game in which player characters have distinct roles in the party (the tank, the healer, the tech, etc.) and you want to reinforce those tactics, you can award Willpower for successfully carrying out their functions. Handling low-risk, everyday tasks may call for one point, while completing complex and high-pressure duties will replenish the entire pool.

If social or work-related roles are more important, then Willpower becomes dependent on successfully acting out those roles. For instance, if the player characters are changelings who hold various offices in a freehold, they will gain Willpower for handling those tasks. On the other hand, if the PCs are all students of a particular Kindred mentor, then they will be rewarded whenever their mentor praises them for showing what they’ve learned, carrying out assigned chores, or otherwise meeting their mentor’s expectations. An interesting evolution could involve the PCs “graduating” and becoming mentors themselves - at which point, they gain Willpower for actively teaching their charges, assigning tasks, and critiquing their work.

Chronicle-Reinforcing Virtues & Vices

Yet another method involves deciding on key Virtues and Vices for your chronicle based on what’s most valued and reviled in that culture, place, and era. All characters can then draw their primary Virtue and Vice from those lists, if you want to simplify the range of choices. When characters embrace those traits and act them out to meet an objective in a scene, they regain a point (or more for major victories). In this case, Virtue and Vice act as modi operandi that gain attention from others. The characters gain the satisfaction of getting their way while embodying what others prize or loathe the most.

Chronicle Goals

Another tactic involves awarding Willpower points for meeting chronicle-based goals. For example, in an amnesia chronicle, you could start by giving Willpower points whenever the characters recover memories, reconnect with former acquaintances, and decide who they are now. In a rags-to-riches chronicle where the player characters start with nothing but the clothes on their backs, Willpower points could be granted when they meet elements in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

In the end, it’s worth thinking about which system you use for replenishing Willpower and why - and whether or not it’s the best one for your chronicle and group’s needs. If you want to try something new, there are many options available for engaging mechanics that highlight the mood, values, and style of your game. And if you have other methods in mind for awarding Willpower, I'd love to hear about them!

 

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