The problem here is the premise. This isn't school or work. You can't force people to do homework if they don't want to, at least not without creating bad feelings at the table. The single most important rule of gaming is to have fun. Are they having fun when you try to force them to do these things?
I don't feel that most of what I'm asking is exceptional, and most of
it is suggested in the storytelling section of the God Machine
It is, and it isn't. It depends on what kind of game they want. In my current D&D campaign, I have players with very detailed backgrounds, multiple ongoing stories, NPC affiliations, the whole nine yards (lets call him player A). I have another PC who has only the most basic character backstory, and are primarily interested in doing quests and reacting to the story that I give them (lets call him player B).
A goes so far as to write character journal entries between sessions (something I also do). B doesn't think about the game between sessions. A has good mastery of the rules. B requires help at games to know how to use some of their abilities. You get the idea.
I don't have to do anything to get A to do these things. I didn't even ask for some of it. A does it because A finds creating this stuff fun, and thus wants to do it. That's what gaming is supposed to be: fun. If players find it fun, you won't have to try and force them. They'll want to do it. If they don't find it fun, are you really adding anything by trying to make them do it?
Like you, I'd like it if B was more like A. Unlike you, I don't particularly try to change how B acts. The only thing I do is offer a gold incentive for those who wish to write character journals or session recaps, and that goes to group treasure. It's a "do this and everyone gets a bit more awesome" benefit, rather than a personal benefit. The reason why is that it's an encouragement to do it without creating ill feelings that someone with more free time can gain an extra advantage in character.
B simply isn't into the game that much. They like the company, they enjoy playing, we have a good time with them there, but that's it. If I ask them to do more, they'd refuse. If I try to force them, they'd get annoyed. They just aren't interested in putting in that kind of work.
I don't have to cajole or pressure A, as A is doing it because he finds it fun. B is not, and that's cool. A is happy, B is happy, and we all have fun at the table, so I'm happy.
It's worth noting that as the DM, I spend far, far more time on the campaign than anybody else. That's part of the job. World of Darkness in my experience with it (which was all in Old WoD) is no different, the storyteller has a lot more work to do than the players, even if the players are especially engaged. That's just how it is, and you shouldn't hold that against the players.
So to me, your real problem is that you have a mismatch in expectations between you and the rest of the group. You expect them to put time into the game when not actually playing, and they don't.
None of you are wrong in how you want to play. However, you can't have this kind of a mismatch in expectations without someone being unhappy. Right now, that someone is you. You have three options:
- Do nothing, and continue to be frustrated that they aren't putting the effort in that you want.
- Nag, cajole, beg, plead, or bully them into doing the things you want, and risk building resentment in them.
- Have this same conversation with them, and explain to them straight up why you want things like a character history. Do it respectfully, and just explain how you'd use it in part of your story. Do not try and guilt them based on how many hours you put in.
Obviously, I recommend #3. If they decide they can do some of what you want, great! If they don't want to, at least you will know that and can accept it (changing expectations accordingly) or re-evaluate how much effort you want to put in... or even if you're playing the correct system and type of game at all.
System/Campaign Style Change
If you're playing in a system and campaign style that expects players to put in work on backgrounds and your players don't want to, it's possible the only good answer is to change one or both of those things.
Campaign styles are things like a story intensive narrative game, a sandbox game, a dungeon crawl, a mindless monster bash, a zombie apocalypse survival horror, and so on. You want to match the campaign you're running to what your players actually want to do. If you're trying to run a narrative campaign with extensive backstory and they mostly want to run around as "Steve" bashing the heck out of everything in sight, you probably need to adjust the campaign.
Similarly, although it's possible to do most styles of campaigns in most systems, some systems are more suited to some types than others. WoD (back when I last played it) did really well for a lot of things, but a game where players don't want to invest in backstory, and especially a straight up dungeon crawl are not what it excels at.
You should try and sort out with your players what type of game you want to play. Once you agree on that, you can figure out if Hunter (or WoD in general) are suited to that. If they are, great! If not, it's time to consider picking a system that has mechanics that are suited to what you do want to do.
You don't necessarily have to change if you really like the system. I've played in narrative heavy, RP heavy, story driven D&D 3.5 campaigns. It's entirely possible to do it, even though the system doesn't do a lot to help you do it. It's easier to do it in another system, but everybody at the table knows and likes D&D, so we wanted to use it anyway.
The most important part is to get the campaign style right. If you do, you can usually make it work even if the system isn't suited to it (but a system that helps you do it is going to be beneficial).
The Same Page Tool can be of some help in figuring this out. It's important that you do it with your players, as it's the group collectively that has to sort this out.
I think this all depends on your group(I'd say this is the biggest factor), the game you're playing, and the tone you've had since the beginning of the game.
If your party's willing to accept a TPK, then you can either start a new campaign, have them roll up new characters that pick up where the group left off, or have them fight their way out of hell (if the game has it, or you want to make it up).
Otherwise, like Stefano said, you can say "it was all a dream". I read a blog post a while back (can't find the link) that described how he did this with his party, and they were actually playing in a "flashforward", so when the combat ended and they were all dead, the group was actually speaking with an oracle, and the oracle had been showing them what dangers lay ahead of them. The group then knew what kinds of things would show up in their next encounter, and be more prepared for it. Useful if you kill the party with an encounter you accidentally made too difficult.
Other options are having the combat get interrupted; having the attackers get distracted, allowing the party to flee. A TPK can really add a lot to your storyline. You could say some powerful magic user comes along and raises them, and the party is now in their debt. Where you go with it depends on your story.