A Difference of Expectations
Some time back, I was running a Werewolf game. Standard White Wolf, standard World of Darkness. Or at least, I was thinking that way on my end. I’ve spent a lot of time reading through the worldset of most White Wolf games, and of the lot of them, I like Werewolf best, for whatever it’s worth. There’s something innately wonderful about having a game where the characters are cast as the last, best hope of humanity…
… and they’re pretty sure they’re not up to the task of saving the world.
The way it’s written, Werewolf is a pretty grim game. The Garou were tasked with trying to protect the world from the strange and primal forces that were responsible for its creation in the first place. The natural world is severely out of balance, things are speeding toward their end (the Apocalypse in the game’s title), and there’s really nothing that any of the characters can really do about it. Depending on the scope of the game, they can either engage in inter-tribal political nonsense, pick fights with the local McDonald’s franchise, or simply stand back and watch everything burn around them. For the most part, there are no happy endings.
What’s interesting about this is that most groups I’ve talked to have never conceptualized the game this way. In fact, most people who are really heavily invested in the Old World of Darkness games tend to shy away from the deeper context of the game they’re playing in order to play things a lot more light-hearted. Vampire games focus on the local politics of a given city’s night life, rather than looking too closely at the fading bits of humanity that hearken back to the game’s origins with Anne Rice. Werewolf games venture pretty deeply into the Gifts and physical powers that one’s birthright as a Garou afford them, angling away from the very destruction of the world and loss of culture into what one reviewer described as being ‘furry Superfriends’. And Mage? Yeah, that game went all over the place in its heyday, veering sharply off the street level urban decay and its goal of winning the hearts and minds of humanity. Some games went heavily into Umbral exploration, with games that might as well have been described as ‘Starfleet versus Cthulhu’ as anything else.
For my part, I like the idea of Werewolf because I love the lore that follows it. The Garou are fuck-ups. Their very Rage is what screwed them over in their role as protectors of mother earth, and only now are any of them waking up to the realization that it may be too late to pull out of the spin. They were given great power and dominion, and for the last several centuries, they’ve used it mainly to kill each other.
This is where my games generally tend to start.
It’s made a lot more difficult when I have players that come into the game with a lot of preconceived notions about the way Garou society functions. The last time I ran Werewolf, I’d managed to recruit a new player who’d recently moved into the area. Nice guy, pretty level, and he had an extensive background in the various Live Action RPG societies that have grown up around World of Darkness. He knew the lore, and that was the main problem.
The character that he built was a solid enough starting character. He was a mystic, walking on the edge of human society and attuned to the spirits that lived in the dark corners of this grim reality. Except that he really had no idea of how to play this character, even with his years of experience with the game. He assumed that the character was a master of the arcane arts, despite his low starting stats, and he worked with the idea that the best way to fight the good fight was to stage an attack on the local Admiral gas station. These are likely acceptable in most games, where the emphasis is on exactly how ass a 9-foot tall mass of snarling furry muscle can kick in a given round.
It didn’t really fly nearly so far in the game I had in mind.
For me, the core conflict in the game isn’t about how physically powerful the characters are; it’s about what they choose to do with it. Most of the lore in Werewolf divides itself between the Old Ways, which the characters aspire to return to at some idyllic point, and the Modern Day, which has a host of struggles with a lot of seriously insignificant things. Modern Day Garou are caught up in tribal politics and momentary distractions like whether or not the local burger joint is poisoning its clientele. While they’re aware of the larger world going to shit around them, they’re not well equipped to deal with larger issues like that. The game makes it pretty clear (to me, at least) that most of the reasons that the world has skidded this far into Apocalypse is because the Garou are caught up in Things That Do Not Matter. If they’d put aside the petty differences and done their damned job, rather than wiping out the Werebats and Werepigs, things would not be this bad.
For the player in question, he didn’t consider how his actual, numerical stats factored into the entire equation. He was actually running less spiritual awareness than the ridiculously powerful Korean Martial Artist Garou, yet he was working on the assumption that by merely signing up to learn about Spiritual Things, he’d have enough insight to carry himself forward. It was actually pretty strange.
I have to assume, with this sort of reflection, that a good portion of how this player approached the game came from his long years in the Live Action community, where political maneuvering took precedent over many of the other aspects of the game. Live Action centers itself pretty heavily on the inter-tribal machinations rather than the encoded aspects of a character’s actions and morality in the scope of a dying world. And with my general disinterest in working up politics for this type of game, we were utterly at cross-purposes. He was interested in aspects of a game I didn’t want to run, and the game I was trying to put forth were utterly alien to him.