World of Darkness, a supernatural-roleplaying game released in the early 90s, is apparently getting a holistic screen treatment from the same people who brought us The Witcher. I’m excited- but I’m also worried that some of the setting’s, uh, “classic” missteps might doom the ‘verse before it gets established.
If you haven’t heard of the World of Darkness or WOD, here’s the gist: there are a host of supernatural creatures in the world, all dealing with their own drama while trying to navigate complicated inter-species relations. The WOD is host to vampires, werewolves, mages, changelings and other Fae creatures, wraiths, and the hunters who work to keep all the above in check. That’s not counting humans just trying to live their lives.
I’m not surprised to see Eric Heisserer, Christine Boylan, Hivemind, and Paradox Interactive getting involved. It’s a rich world with a lot to explore. With so many competing viewpoints and a setting literally designed for endless playtime, there’s no risk of running out of story material.
There have been some forays into World of Darkness screen adaptations before. The WOD platforms list some YouTube and Twitch series as officially sanctioned material. We also can’t forget (though wish we could) Kindred: The Embraced, which Fox ran for eight episodes in 1996 before pulling the plug. Nothing has really made a major public impact outside the fandom.
With a creative team this powerful, I have a feeling that’s going to change. This could be something really, really cool. I am not exaggerating when I say this cinematic universe has the potential to be big on an MCU scale if it’s done right. Teenage and Young Adult me is more hype for this than I can possibly describe.
We have got to talk about the werewolf in the room. World of Darkness has a complicated history, and the showrunners need to navigate that history carefully.
In a statement about the series, Boylan said:
The World of Darkness story universe is deliberately and unapologetically inclusive and diverse. It has always made a point of including equal gendered characters, protagonists and antagonists of every race, and representation of all creeds – bringing a female and diverse audience to gaming like nothing prior. Its games and fandom are a place where women, POC, and the LGBTQI community feel welcome and we are very proud to bring these stories to life.
Let’s be honest. The INTENT of World of Darkness was obviously that things like race, sex, and orientation were less important than what type of supernatural horror you were and your status in that group. The early game was considered one of the most left-leaning RPGs around. It swung hard at oppressive governments, polluters, and anyone trying to profit off misery. It’s still widely seen as a socially-progressive RPG.
I myself played it for years in both tabletop and LARP games. I felt pretty safe taking positions of power in-game. While there were sometimes sexist players, the setting supported me crushing them into oblivion.
But we can’t say World of Darkness has “always been inclusive”, can we? In the beginning, the steps taken to be more inclusive of POC were… well, let’s say “less than successful”. While the game makers tried to include a wide group of cultures, they did so with the view of “what cool mechanics and story hooks could we introduce?” instead of “how can we include people from these groups in a way that’s both interesting and respectful?”
As a result, the classic World of Darkness setting (distinguished from the later updates, which is now called Chronicles of Darkness) had some PROBLEMS. Let me run down a few:
- Racist stereotypes used as core concepts for some Vampire clans and Werewolf tribes (looking at you, Assamites, Ravnos, Wendigo… wow, I could keep going for a while here, couldn’t I?).
- Gypsy, a setting built around Romani stereotypes with an actual racial slur as a title. (I’m aware it wasn’t widely recognized as one at the time, but that’s the problem- they didn’t consult with any person from that group before writing the setting.)
- A Werewolf tribe that heavily leaned into white supremacy (but were actually really just about meritocracy! The Nazi thing was a misunderstanding! So it’s all cool!).
Basically, every social group was painted like horror-themed cartoon characters. It was hailed as very progressive, and I sure thought so as a young gamer. Now, of course, that kind of treatment would be full-on cringe.
The newer editions of the game by and large present more rounded views of different cultures. There have been some missteps, though. Some settings highlight minority characters while still having them be among the weakest, most maligned groups around. Other times they’ve made tone-deaf attempts to include current events that were just plain gross, like the time they put Chechnya’s purge of their LGBTQ+ citizens in a sourcebook.
Paradox Interactive does seem to be constantly working to improve the World of Darkness setting. They took major steps to fix that Chechnya situation, for example, and admitted they hadn’t been overseeing the material as thoroughly as they should have. I have some hope that they will keep a tight rein on the cinematic universe from the start.
What I’m afraid of is this: when a niche fandom is brought into mainstream media, there’s a tendency to go back to the very beginning. Creators like to give new viewers the backstory so they can fully understand the world moving forward. For World of Darkness, this would be disastrous. The setting has grown out of those harmful stereotypes, and if the cinematic universe doesn’t also learn from those mistakes-
Well. It would be unwatchable. What was thought to be progressive for the 90s would not play well today.
So let’s hope the showrunners stay away from classic WOD problems. If they put together a truly diverse writers room and crew, choose their cast carefully, and cultivate an environment where constructive criticism is actually taken into consideration, they have a good chance of making something really special.
This setting is better suited for a cinematic universe than whatever Tom Cruise is doing, but it can only reach its potential if everyone on the team is mindful of the potential minefield that is Classic World of Darkness.
Khai is a writer, anthropologist, and games enthusiast. She is co-editor (alongside Alex DeCampi) of and contributor to “True War Stories”, a comic anthology being published by Z2 Comics. When she’s not writing or creating games, Khai likes to run more tabletop RPGs than one person should reasonably juggle.
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