The Storytelling System derives its name from the title it foists on the Games Master. Dubbing this figure a Storyteller nails the system's credentials to the mast; this is a game that's devised for extended narrative play, not for a series of 'encounters' or 'modules' or even for an overall 'campaign' or anything as, well, gamey as that. These days I tend to think Storyteller brings to mind a middle-aged woman in a cardie, or possibly a man in tights with a mandolin who's come into the local primary school to support a lesson on mythology - I also happen to think the refereeing and rules-arbitrating parts of the GM role are as important as shepherding the emergent narrative, and so I prefer to call myself a GM. But it can't be denied that there's something compelling about renaming the role. It suggests the game's priorities very neatly, and there's nothing I like more than clearly apparent design principles.
Anyway, the Storytelling System has done the rounds in several different games. An embryonic version appeared in Ars Magica, the unfortunately-named game of medieval wizards and their less-than-wizardly associates plotting and adventuring in a twice-removed 'Mythic Europe', a thirteenth century where all the legends were true. This version used a single ten-sided die, and encouraged players to build multiple characters apiece (since wizards tend to spend a lot of time holed up in their towers, having one or two associates to go out on adventures with adds spice to the endeavour). It didn't emerge in its present shape until the arrival of Vampire: the Masquerade, which set a general template that the system's followed through its various revision since then.
The basic mechanic of the Storytelling System involves a 'pool' of ten-sided dice. To work out how many dice you need to roll for your character to attempt an action in the world, you add together one of the character's Attributes (innate characteristics from a 3x3 grid which cross-references Physical, Social and Mental capabilities with Power, Finesse or Resistance applications thereof) and one of their Abilities (learned and developed skills, which again divide neatly into Mental, Physical and Social categories for ease of reference). If the task is particularly easy or difficult, the Storyteller might delicately suggest that you roll a few more or less dice to reflect that.
Then you roll 'em. Eights, nines and tens are 'successes' (indeed, 10s are exploding dice, and can be re-rolled with another shot at success), while ones are 'failures' which cancel out one success each. The total number of successes indicates how well your character has done what they were setting out to do. A negative total - rolling more ones than eights, nines or tens - is a botch, in which case something embarrassing and cruel happens.
It hasn't always been that clean. The previous iterations of the system toyed with things like variable difficulties (changing the target number that you needed to roll on the dice, and applying modifiers to that rather than to the number of dice being rolled), which tended to screw with probability a lot; they also had a janglier, more awkward selection of Attributes rather than the neat and precise "trying to resist hypnotism... that's Mental Resistance, innit?" effect that the game has now. The Dude (he of Armored Gopher Games fame) has, I believe, observed that it took White Wolf three goes to make good on their cool idea for a system, and I agree with him.
Combat in the old version was particularly clunky, as it added opposed rolls and comparison of total successes, a damage roll based either on a weapon and an Attribute or a weapon's innate statistics, and then a soak roll based on an Attribute plus defensive powers or equipment. It was, in short, a bit fiddly. The current iteration, that which features in the World of Darkness core rules manual, is a bit cleaner and eliminates some of the superfluous rolling, but it's still a pretty granular system, all things considered.
Unlike previous iterations of the system, the various supernatural entities all use the same essential mechanics (which is, frankly, a mercy, as anyone who tried to run a crossover game in the previous edition will testify if they have any sense). Supernatural entities have Attributes and Abilities just like the rest of us. They also have a statistic indicating how powerful a supernatural wossname they are - Blood Potency for Vampires, for instance - which they frequently get to add to their dice pools or use to deploy and resist supernatural powers. They have a resource pool - Mana, for Mages - which is used to power these supernatural powers. And then they have powers... Gifts (I think) for Werewolves. Spot the WoD game I'm least familiar with, folks.
Precisely which powers they have depends on what type of vampire, mage, werewolf or whatever they are. White Wolf is... somewhat notorious... among RPG folk for the phenomenon of 'splats' - two-page spreads describing a particular clan of vampires, tribe of werewolves or order of mages - which inevitably give rise to 'splatbooks' - supplements in which the splat is more extensively detailed. In the current line of games, each supernatural type is divided into a five by five grid of splat combinations, with social groups (organisations your character chooses to join or leave) up one side and more innate groups (archetypes your character is inducted into at the moment when they become whatever it is they are, and can't ever leave). Think of it as friends and family; you can choose one, you're stuck with the other.
The splat choices influence what powers are innately available, what powers can be learned, and also the role your character is likely to play in the developing narrative, as well as providing small bonuses to Attributes, Abilities or other character traits like Backgrounds (which represent things like your character's wealth and well-connectedness). Groups tend to end up comprised of members of several different splats, and much fun can be had of the tension between characters whose innate and chosen allegiances provide conflict both within themselves, and within the group as a whole.
|I can't work out if these are meant to be players or characters...|
All right, so who plays it? Well, the cheap and churlish answer is 'goths who like RPGs'. That was definitely the audience White Wolf pitched the first edition of Vampire at, and it certainly worked on me as a teenaged silverware fetishist trying to charm dark, mysterious drama students who owned corsets and wore black velvet in the middle of summer. A slightly more nuanced answer would be 'groups of gamers who are interested in character conflict rather than players-versus-world conflict with characters as avatars, and happen to think vampires, werewolves, wizards, fairies, and the humans who hunt them, are a bit cool'. Which still tends to mean you end up with a goth or two, now that I think about it, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Especially if you like drama students in corsets. And I do. Almost as much as I like RPGs with clear and apparent design principles.
Maybe slightly more.