“Can an entire city be haunted? Haunted as some houses are supposed to be haunted? Not just a single building in that city, or the corner of a single street…not just one area—but everything. The whole works. Can that be?”
- Stephen King, IT
Once upon a time, when I was a small child, my mother and I acquired a place to live by a stroke of luck. We were offered a cute little back house with plenty of space and its own back yard for very modest rent. The neighborhood itself was lovely, taken up by trim homes and green lawns and a barrage of flowers in the spring. From a distance, it seemed like paradise - but once inside, behind closed doors, we got to see what kind of a place it really was. Maybe there was something in the soil that turned people mean. One set of neighbors was just short of psychotic. The next set, my aunt and uncle, found a ridiculous reason to take offense at us and moved. We didn't speak again for some years. After that came the worst neighbors yet, and things went dangerously wrong.
Time and again, we found that the police would drag their feet or simply never appear when they were called. It was odd for a middle-class neighborhood to be so neglected. I recall shouting that should have roused every house nearby but no lights went on and no aid arrived. My mother and I could have been murdered back there and it's not that no one would have known - it's that they might have left us until we started to smell before making sure the police came. When I first read the story of "Bluebeard," in which a terrified wife asks her sister if help is on the way, I thought of my childhood home each time her sister replies, "I see nothing but the sun shining and the green grass growing." That place was my first model for the World of Darkness.
The World of Darkness is based in our world, generally speaking. The same sorts of historical events have occured and the same countries that we know exist. The default setting is modern day (roughly within the last ten years), with familiar technology and arrangements, so it can be very easy to explain to new players. But the time and place are up to you. Although many of the books focus on America, there are White Wolf players running games set all over the world, from large cities like London to small towns no one's heard of. There are also published historical settings that allow Storytellers to run games in bygone eras with a bit less research. So if time and place aren't essential, what is?
The World of Darkness is a particular mixture, and one of the major ingredients is an emphasis on contrasts. The shadows stand out more, the divide between rich and poor is greater, and the monsters are more frightening. This might make it sound like the World of Darkness is always dismal, but that only happens when people forget the flip-side. Good deeds, love, and beauty can have even more impact in such a place. Breathtaking spectacles and riotous fun can be found, but they tend to be stars in an otherwise benighted sky. The World of Darkness favors the darker aspects of storytelling, in various forms. They might be reflected in run-down, hopeless slums or in the seven deadly sins at work in people's lives. Or the darkness might be represented by the unknown, in secrets that are hidden or strange things that shouldn't exist - but do.
The World of Darkness is also defined as a place where the mythological and the mundane live side by side, each hidden from the other as neighbors are by curtains and venetian blinds. Many things from traditional myths and legends - vampires, mummies, fairies, werewolves, and wizards - walk the streets among us and help to shape the world in ways we don't understand. A certain suspension of disbelief is needed to play such a game, but for me, it's never been hard to imagine that a monster is living next door. Monsters can be even better at hiding than humans, and the things that humans hide from one another! Just ask Jeffrey Dahmer's former neighbors.
Although many people in the World of Darkness deny it, magic exists and takes its own toll on the world. And no matter how fantastic they seem, the mystical elements of the setting become a part of its gritty reality. There are fancy theories about why different supernatural beings exist but, at the end of the day, they're just theories and the vampires still need to be fed. Sometimes the mystical elements get loud or careless, and the people living next door get a peek at something they don't understand or don't want to see. And sometimes the man who takes a gun to his family is driven by the demons we say we don't believe in.
Beneath the skin of the world, something is not just lurking - it's moving, preying, and scheming according to its own drives. The horror of the setting is often rooted in hidden rot, buried blood, and dangerous denial. And the antagonists in the World of Darkness aren't just creatures of legend; the inhuman monsters are defined - and obscured - by the human ones. It might be a spell that keeps your neighbors from hearing you scream, or it might simply be that they refuse to get involved. Either way, the cops aren't going to come.
Whether or not it is apparent, there is a necessary divide between the ways that Storytellers and players approach the setting. This is not to say that players or Storytellers are more important, but that they are responsible for different things and have different needs. Players start out with one way to influence and experience the setting, and that is through their character. A single avatar in a big world doesn't seem like much, but one character can feel like a lot when they are firmly embedded in the history of the setting and when they are actively engaging the present day. The first step, then, starts during character creation. From the start, your character will be limited by the milieu - certain character types exist and are supported, while others aren't allowed.
But the first opportunity to embrace the setting is when you are drawing up your character's background. Give a thought to where they've been and what kinds of major events have occured. Were they raised in a good, normal neighborhood? Were they known by a lot of people, some of whom they might bump into later? Were they part of social structures like sports teams, gangs, unions, or churches? While some characters are torn out of their former lives when they enter the supernatural, that doesn't mean they'll be a world away from their old existence. That doesn't mean they won't be haunted by old loves and old obligations. Maybe they'll choose to return to a neighborhood they knew as a kid because they feel safe there (and this can figure into your vampire's lair, and suchlike).
Beyond that, an enterprising player needs to develop a different kind of eyesight when it comes to the world. The player needs to keep an eye out for danger zones, where their character is likely to be chased or hurt. Every city has a few places that even the strong avoid. A player also needs to watch out for what their character can influence. Maybe a random act of kindness to a night-time waitress means that she'll give you information or shelter when you show up at her restaurant. Don't just think about the people you can gain through the Contacts and Allies Merits - think about where they work and where they live. Consider the kinds of favors you can ask of them then.
Very likely, though, characters will be looking for places to rent or own. It's one thing to have your character living hand-to-mouth in a dingy studio apartment, and it's another thing to complete a shady deal that nets you enough cash for a house. Or perhaps there's an abandoned building that the character can find a use for. A home base of some kind can make the character feel more stable. They'll have a place to put their stuff and a place to lick their wounds. Their main base will likely be the most important one and it will start to take on personal touches that give a game real flavor. The abandoned secret house has a room that the "good" doctor makes into his shrine to science and torture. All tools are utterly organized, from the scalpels to the hand saws, and a number of accessories indicate that the room is ready for surgery. But the restraints on the brushed steel patient table aren't just for the patient's safety. On a hook, an impossibly white medical coat hangs, and when the doctor wears it, he speaks and stands like a different man.
As characters progress, they might start to collect locations. The "good" doctor, for instance, has an apartment of his own that he retreats to for privacy, though he goes there less and less. He also has the use of a den called a hollow, which is nestled in a magical buffer zone between the real world and realms far more magical than most people can stand. It can be entered if you know the right password and you step through the door of the right bathroom stall in a small restroom on the beach. Another door leads to the buffer zone and all the beautiful dangers it holds.
Some characters will also have particular places that they frequent. The "good" doctor spends a lot of time at a certain hotel because other changelings are there, and at his girlfriend's house because she is there. If the characters keep going back, that's probably a sign to the Storyteller that more details are wanted.
Enthusiastic players can take a look at Damnation City and ask their Storytellers if they can implement some of the rules found within. While many things in the book are aimed at addressing Storyteller concerns, some sections might be of use to players. Individual locations that are outlined in the book might make good lairs or meeting spots. Perhaps you want to know the stats of the neighborhood your character is looking to live in, so you can figure out how big places are and what security they start out with. Or maybe the idea of ruling over a neighborhood and dealing with the very different style of play outlined in the book appeals to you. The least you can do is ask your Storyteller, who might already be using the book for inspiration.
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