Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The coterie, and how it fits in the world


Now that I've worked out the rough themes and concepts for my upcoming Vampire Chronicle/Setting, I need to spend some time thinking about the players. Who are the PC’s going to be, why are they together, and what are they going to be doing?

Most of these have been more or less conveniently answered with the ideas I came up with in the last post. The players are young, marginalized vampires who are trying to find their own place in the world. The Chronicle is about their hopes, dreams, struggles, victories, and defeats. The second question of “why are they a coterie?” is a bit trickier to answer. I don't know what characters they are going to create, so the exact details as to why this group of vampires routinely gets involved in wacky and dangerous situations together can't really be answered at this point. What I can say is that, to a certain extent, they are all they have. They might have individual allies or mentors or patrons, or even group allies and the like, but when the chips are down and everything is falling apart, they really only have each other to rely on. 

Right now, I'm going with the assumption that they have all been pushed out to one of the worst areas of the city (or even the suburbs!), and have banded together to make the best of a shitty deal. I’m also assuming that this will get more detail once we create characters, and it’s quite possible that this will change completely.

The final questions—what are they going to be doing—actually requires the most thought. Mainly because I'm faced with two potentially contradictory desires and needs for this game. On one hand, I want to run the game as something of a “sandbox” style game, but on the other I know that at least one of my players, if not more, is uncomfortable with taking initiative and coming up with independent goals for their character.
So, let me think a bit about what I mean by “sandbox.” It’s a bit of a loaded term in gaming circles, and if you look online you will see pretty much endless debates about what it really means and if a game really is or is not a proper sandbox. I want to use it in its most generic meaning—here is a setting, here are some toys, have fun! But in this case I actually mean something a tad different.

I’ve been thinking lately about some of my all-time favorite games, the ones I still talk about years later and bore other people with. While some of them match the sandbox description above, not all of them did. In fact, quite a few of them were either quite modular or actual modules/pre-published adventures. And I realized that what I loved about these games was not the “here’s an area, go crazy” element, but instead the ability for the players to make meaningful decisions as early in the game as possible.

They key to that is of course the word “meaningful.”  Presenting a player with a hallway, at the end of which is two doors and asking them which they open isn't “meaningful.” It’s a decision, true, but with no context and no information it’s the same as flipping a coin. Actually, it could be worse, because it’s quite likely that no matter what door the player chooses, the same even will happen. Or, one could be a supply closet and the other the “correct” door. It’s choice, but a meaningless one.

Adding context and clues to the environment helps. If from behind door A emanates the sound of crude voices laughing and joking, while Door B is busted up and barely hanging on its hinges—well, now the players are in a slightly better position to make a decision. I still wouldn't call it meaningful, because the player doesn’t really know what he is trying to accomplish. If the player has a goal in this hallway, then we're getting closer. The goal, of course, could be anything. It could be to escape, or to find treasure, or rescue someone, or capture someone, or even do a “sweep and clear” and take out all the baddies.  Now the player can make a more meaningful decision, based on the environment and what they are hoping to accomplish.

Obviously, the best is when the player understands the rules enough to be able to make an intelligent guess regarding their chances to pull something off—could they kill the baddies laughing behind Door A, or are they potentially too big of a threat for him to handle? Even better is when the goals are driven by the player; such that they are there to rescue their friend or find the treasure they've been searching for. Even better than that, however, is when the game has built up to that moment, with their friend being kidnapped by the baddies in retaliation of something the player did.

So, I want to allow the players to make meaningful decisions about the game as soon as possible, and base most of the action and stories on these decisions, their consequences, and the natural responses of other characters in the setting.

But, as I said, I'm fairly confident that at least initially I won’t be able to rely on the players having a really strong personal goal. I might, of course. One of them might come up with an idea of “what if my Sire was murdered, and I’m trying to find their killer?” or something like that. But since I can’t assume that, I'll need to place various NPC’s in the setting who can function as, for lack of a better term, “quest givers.” Characters and places that can provide strong hooks for the players to go and do something, and give them some idea of what they are “expected” to accomplish.

This isn’t that unusual from most games, of course. I don’t want to force the players to become the A-team taking on a “case of the week”--though, if the game does go that way, it could be oddly satisfying. Instead, I'll be using these “quest givers” to start the game off, and use them when the action lags or the players aren’t sure what to do next. I'll worry about them when I get to Section 3 in my outline, but for now it’s something I need to consider and keep in the back of my mind.

Of course, this shouldn’t be too tricky to work with, since my overall concept gives me a pretty decent generic plot structure. As I mentioned in the last post, “something comes along that changes or threatens to change something in the world. This could be a mortal, an outsider, or the PC’s. The Elders and their minions react with fear and outrage, and use their power to attempt to re-establish the status quo. The players will either be on the side of change (particularly if they are the ones initiating it) or find themselves stuck somewhere in the middle, often having to find some way to resolve this conflict.”

That’s not a bad setup, and it does remind me of your basic procedural TV show.

Which brings me to last point I want to make—now that I have the themes and concepts worked out for the game, I need to come up with the “elevator pitch.” I don’t often think in these terms, as I tend to be a tad more verbose than is strictly called for when it comes to gaming. But I was hanging out with some friends last night, and they reminded me of how key the concept is in getting the players excited and on board for a game. So, here is my “elevator pitch” for the game:
You play vampires, in the modern world. Vampires have been around since the dawn of civilization, hiding among humans since, well, they eat us and if push came to shove, there’s a lot more of us than there are of them. The eldest vampires have been alive for centuries, and they have their fingers in EVERYTHING—governments, police, finance, media, gangs, organized crime, freemasons.  You name it, and some vampire has corrupted it to their own ends. The world is a lot like ours, but even darker, more corrupt, more violent and even more hopeless.

The older vampires, though, can’t stand the younger ones, seeing them as threats to their power and a risk to their control.  For everything a younger vampires gets—money, blood, whatever—they see it as something taken from them. So, they insist that the younger vampires get in line, and follow their orders. Some just sit around ‘waiting their turn’ while others are used as pawns and foot soldiers in the Elders endless conflicts.

Some refuse to play this game though, and try to strike out on their own, do their own thing. That’s the players. You've been pushed into your “place” by the elders, pushed around by their boot-licking minions, pushed out of the best hunting areas, and pushed into the crappy barrens until you can’t be pushed any more.

The game begins when you decide to push back.

The duty of youth is to challenge corruption.
Kurt Cobain

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
George Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists (1903)

The first duty of society is to give each of its members the possibility of fulfilling his destiny. When it becomes incapable of performing this duty it must be transformed.
Alexis Carrel, Reflections on Life.

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