Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Theme and concepts

Now that I have my outline done, and a general idea of what I need to work on, it’s time to get working on the actual game itself.

First up is the General Overview—the basic ideas and concepts that are going to inform everything else I create for the game. Eventually I'll need to break this down to specific themes and concepts, but first I want to spend some time thinking about Vampire in general, how I want it to be for this game, and what I want to explore.

I've always been more attracted to the earliest editions of Vampire, and what I want to run is a game with the “First Edition Vibe.”  What I mean by that is the feeling you get from reading the first and second edition core rulebooks.  To me, this means a focus on the local politics and local situation and on the individual characters, with the “greater World of Darkness” with its various supernatural denizens and epoch spanning sect wars between the Camarilla and the Sabbat being a distant and a minor element of the setting.  So, that’s what I'm going to focus on, a game where the attention and the drama are localized.

The first element I want to bring to the game is the idea of the inherent tragedy of Vampires. I've mentioned this before, but I want to expand on it a bit. When I speak of the tragedy of Vampire, I don’t necessarily mean the “Beast vs. Humanity” conflict, or the “dead yet not dead and forced to feed on the blood of the living,” and certainly not the faux-angsty “woe is me, for I am cursed with awesome powers!” Instead, I refer to the tragedy of Vampires as a people. In Vampire: The Masquerade we are presented with a race that has existed, in theory, since the dawn of civilization (and perhaps earlier). They are immortal; they have powers far beyond the ken of mortal man. And yet, in all that time, with all that power, they have not truly accomplished anything of note. And I say this comparing the real world to the “World of Darkness.” Without Vampires, the same discoveries and changes took place; the same empires rose and fell. The only difference between our world and the “gothic-punk” world of Vampire is that it’s more violent, more polluted, and more corrupt. All Vampires truly accomplished over the eons is basic survival and making things crappier for everyone else.

So, that’s one of the themes I want to explore—the idea that Vampires are incapable of truly creating or improving anything, that the corrupt and warp everything they touch or involve themselves with.

The second element is the original idea of the “Jyhad.”  In Vampire, it refers to the millennia long struggle between the Vampires. Specifically, it refers to the “War of Ages”—a ceaseless and unrelenting struggle of young Vampires vs. old. 

When you take away or minimize the Sabbat conflict, and make struggles against Others (hunters, werewolves, mages, what have you) minor elements, there suddenly is no benefit to the Vampires for having offspring. Basically, in addition to being essentially “blood addicts,” your typical Vampire sees the world as one of scarcity, despite all logical arguments to the contrary. Without a massive war to throw the young into, these neonates become inherent threats to the Elders and their lives and livelihoods. Sure, each Vampire has a reason for embracing a new Kindred, and many do for a variety of reasons. Some for love or companionship, some to create a guide who can help them navigate the modern world, or build up their own power base, or to punish the mortal, or on a whim, or, well, for any one of dozens of reasons. But as a group, the Elders have no need or reason for these grasping neonates who only seek to destabilize their society and threaten their lives. 

To me, this is one of the key themes of Vampire. What makes the game so appealing is that it is, in effect, about being a teenager, or any other young person starting to come into your own. You find yourself suddenly and inexplicably full of power and seemingly limitless potential. But no one truly understands how amazing and cool you are (The Masquerade forces you to keep your existence hidden), and those who are supposed to teach and guide you (parents, teachers, society as a whole) instead push you down, tell you to mind your own business and do what you are told. They promise you that if you behave then someday you might get some crumb of respect, but they never deliver on it. And these parents and teachers have been around for hundreds of years, and every scrap you are given is an insult and a threat to them, and all they want to do is beat you back into place.

Some people often criticize Vampire, or at least certain games of Vampire, as being nothing more than “superheroes with fangs.” Honestly, I agree with them—that’s what it is. Peter Parker is crapped on by everyone around him, and even as Spiderman he is vilified and derided by the city he’s sworn to protect. It’s the same thing with young Vampires, they have great power but no appropriate or healthy way to use it.

If they do attempt to use their powers to do something different, it’s a threat to their creators. Any change of any sort can be perceived by the Elders as a threat, at least in their paranoid and reactionary minds. This existential fear of change, combined with their inherently corrupting natures is why the World of Darkness is so bleak and so hopeless.

Not to be too motivational speaker, but in a world such as this, hope itself becomes a weapon.

So, if the theme of the setting is “everything a vampire interacts with becomes corrupt” and “fear controls the fearful.” If there is an essential conflict, it would be “hope vs. fear.”

To put it more poetically, I'll sum up the theme as “Can the circle be broken?”  Can the players do something to break this cycle of corruption, fear, violence and decay, or is the world forced to repeat the same conflicts over and over again?

This conflict is already helping me to come up with a number of plots and stories, but I’m going to hold off on spending too much time on them for now. The big thing that I'm getting from this is a generic plot structure—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 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. Of course, “not all change is change for the better” could also be an element of the game.

Oh, and since I don't want to sink to far into theory and pretension, I want to clarify that when I speak of “resolving the essential conflict between fear and hope, and the possibility of change” I fully intend that often this resolution will occur in the way of a massive gunfight while racing sports cars down a highway. Fun and having a wacky good time is also a key part of Vampire.

This post is already a bit longer than I had planned, so I’ll go ahead and call it here. But first, one thing I like about Vampire is the random quotes they scatter throughout the books.  So, I'm going to start collecting some quotes of my own—I might try to place them through the game or just use them as personal inspiration.

Next up: coterie concepts 

Is it that they fear the pain of death, or could it be they fear the joy of life?
Toad The Wet Sprocket, Pray Your Gods (1991).
Quite an experience, to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave.
Replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner (1982).
Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.
Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays, An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish (1950).
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural horror in Literature (1927).
The broad effects which can be obtained by punishment in man and beast are the increase of fear, the sharpening of the sense of cunning, the mastery of the desires; so it is that punishment tames man, but does not make him "better."
Friedrich Nietzsche, Geneology of Morals, Second Essay, Section 15 (1887)

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