Monday, April 1, 2013

Vampires--they hunt

Since I haven't run Vampire in a bit, I wanted to spend some time thinking about various concepts and “tropes” (for lack of a better word) of the game, and what I like about it and how I want to approach things.  I had some idea to write these up and post them here on the blog, when I realized that I've already written them up about two years ago on a forum for  I'm not sure if I'm being lazy or indulgent by extensively quoting myself, but it’s quite possible that these are two great tastes that go great together.

The initial question of the thread was “What do vampires do all night?

So, I've been thinking about this for a bit, and I wanted to give my "real" answer to the question. This will probably be a long and semi-rambling post; so to sum up my point, the answer to "what do vampires do all night" is simple--they hunt.

Now, obviously there's more to it than that, but in my games a Vampires primary interest and emotional focus is tied to feeding. Drinking the blood of the living is the best meal, best sex, best drug you have ever had. Most vampires gain their greatest sense of satisfaction and pleasure from the act of feeding, and shortly behind that is the process of hunting. Just as a gourmand will spend hours making the "perfect" meal or Don Juan will spend hours seducing one woman, so too will a Vampire spend time hunting for the perfect prey--this is not a burden to most Vampires, this is something they enjoy, a pleasure, which no video game or the like could hope to compare to.

This leads to a couple of things. In my games, there's a difference between what a Vampires NEEDS to drink to survive (roughly, 1 blood point per day) and the amount they DESIRE. Just as a human can, and does, eat or drink more than we absolutely need to, so too do Vampires crave more blood than they actually need. It's a bit mathematical, but I use the rule of thumb of 1+ (10-Humanity). So, the lower the Humanity of a Vampire, the more they WANT to drink. (As an aside, this is only true for Humanity. Those on other Path's and Roads desire to drink far more than those on Humanity. Doesn't mean they HAVE to consume that amount, and those that teach self-control and discipline try to resist the urge, but it is there.) Also, one tends to spend blood in the process of a hunt--whether this is using Celerity to run in front of a fleeing victim or getting that "blush of life" to blend in more seamlessly with your prey. Of course, spending blood necessitates even more hunting.

Secondly, while only Ventrue have a prey-exclusion, most Vampires have a certain class or type of prey they prefer to feed upon. Some are the classic "beautiful maidens" (or at least Girls Gone Wild), but others can be more obscure, and personal. Often they are tied to their mortal lives--people they seek revenge against, or seek to prove themselves to. I tend to believe that Vampires are, inherently, emotionally stunted as the people they were at the time of the embrace. The centuries may come and go, and they may develop and change, at least a bit, but the nerdy kid who used to get beaten up will always, to an extent, think of himself as the "nerdy kid who used to get beat up." So, the preferred targets could be, well, almost anything, based on what they were as people, and who they prefer to feed upon. Not every Kindred wants to feed off the 22 year old model--some want to eat her manager (reminds him of his father) or her best friend (the "wallflower" who reminds the vampire of herself and who she once was) or the designer (the abusive boss who made her life a living hell for years).

Now, they don't NEED to feed off these people the way that Ventrue do, but it's an odd combination of resolving irresolvable emotional needs and being picky in a buffet. They can, and do, feed on others, but on a given night, in a normal time, they will spend their time hunting and feeding off their preferred prey. Naturally, there are consequences to this. First off, most Vampires don't, at least initially, give a toss about "controlling mortals" or building up contacts. What contacts and influence they do acquire begins with their preferred prey and hunting methods. Someone who likes feeding off college students, will gradually gain influence in and around the college (lots of contacts) from necessity (if they want to close down local bars because of too much drinking), and just from presence. In addition, they wish to preserve their "territory" and, ideally expand it. This is where I base most of my NPC's backgrounds--from who and where they hunt, to their attempts to expand on it, and make their lives better and more comfortable in the process.

Of course, there are other predators out there, and this is where conflicts naturally arise. The vampire who likes to party with college kids probably frequents the same bars and clubs as the vampire who likes to beat up athletes and jocks and feed off them. A number of bruised and broken football players left in alleyways threaten the first vampires hunting though, and the two are going to come into conflict. The Prince (or another Elder) most likely spends most of his time dealing with this level of crap. Vampires are not known for being calm and reasonable, especially when some idiot is threatening their herd.

In addition to feeding and hunting and establishing dominance over their herd and expanding their territory, Vampires also spend an inordinate amount of time in the prep for the hunt. One who feeds on college students probably knows the local band scene well, spends a healthy amount of time keeping the right look and the right lingo--whatever they need to be successful in the hunt. Are shiny shirts "cool" this year? Or is everyone wearing jerseys? Should I carry an iPhone, or an Android? Is "retro" still in?

When creating an NPC, in addition to the general questions one asks of any NPC (why are they in the game? What's their purpose? How do they interact with the players? Etc, etc.), I also ask--what do they hunt? How do they hunt? Why are they hunting THAT prey? What is their personal Masquerade? From there, the background traits tend to flow naturally and organically.

Years ago, a fellow player told me that "Vampire is easy. Just follow the money." I thought he was off then, and I still do. Vampires, in general, don't care about money. They care about blood--it is the search for blood that defines and directs them. Once one knows what blood a Vampire craves, one can begin to understand that Vampire. There are certain Vampires that transcend this, some based on personality and disposition, and some because the time and the "Jyhad" have replaced the raw pursuit of blood. These are the Prince, and the others who have attained the higher strata of Vampiric society. Oh, and players. While I'll talk with the players about how they hunt and why they hunt, and occasionally spend entire sessions on "just" hunting, I also assume they are among the unusual Kindred who can rise above their addict-like nature.

Hence why they are the "main characters" of this particular drama.

Can't argue too much about the blood part. It is definately a main part of the game, but how much of a part does one want it to be? I like the idea of vampires as junkies, but as far as that goes, when they have enough blood, nothing in the world really matters, and when they don't, nothing in the world really matters but getting more. Of course, I also have some other IMC occult reasons that vampires exist, and if they were constantly looking for nothing but blood,then they wouldn't get around to doing what they needed to be doing.

Well, to be glib, a vampire *can't have too much blood.* It's insane, and irrational, but one of the driving emotional elements of Kindred is the belief in the scarcity of blood. In theory, any major metropolitan area should have more than enough vessels for hundreds of Vampires, but this isn't how they see the world. They believe that every vampire is inherently in competition with them, and that each drop the other guy gets is one less drop for them. The fact that many voluntarily limit their feeding to certain segments only makes this worst, as they then become obsessed with increasing their herd--if this happens at the expense of another Vampire, so be it.

The reason why I like this approach, in my games, is that it helps to bring in the "onion" element. One of the ideas in 1st Ed Vampire, was that understanding politics was like peeling an onion--there was always another layer beneath it, but each layer appears completely understandable (not necessarily reasonable, since, again, Vampires aren't the most reasonable of creatures, but understandable) on its own terms. If two vampires are feuding, and you look into it, it will make total sense. Kindred A feeds on college kids, Kindred B feeds on one family. The child of the family went to the college, and Kindred A fed on him. Kindred B felt his herd was threatened, and believes he needs to retaliate. Rational? Kind of. But it makes sense. If you dig deeper though, you find that A's sire and B's Mentor were both in competition to embrace a particular mortal. The Mentor "won" and the sire killed the newly embraced childe. They have been feuding with each other ever since. But, behind THAT, THEIR sires each use to be Archons, whose Justicar was mysteriously killed, and they each blame the other. And behind THAT--all the way back to two sisters who were embraced in Carthage, and one of them slept with the other's husband.

Each level of the Jyhad makes sense on its own terms, but there's always someone else, someone behind the scenes, and when you reveal the puppet master, all you see is more strings. And it's not that they're battling for anything noble or grand, like high ideals or the "future of the Kindred"; no, the entire world is a chessboard for thousand year old punks still pissing about some bullshit that happened before bronze was a "neat but impractical" idea. There's no great mystery, just petty crap piled on petty crap that now makes your life miserable. Gah, doesn't it just make you want to burn the whole thing to the ground and start over?

Did I mention I really like Camarilla/Anarch games?

Oh, and as far as "what they need to be doing"--in general, in my games, there's nothing they "need" to be doing. One of the elements I try to bring to most of my games is the inherent tragedy of the Vampires. Not in the angsty "alas, I am cursed with awesome!" but in the practical sense. Here you have a race of creatures with fantastic magical powers and, at least conditional, immortality. They embrace the finest philosophers, merchants, scientists, musicians, scholars, and artists. Yet with all this, what have they accomplished? Nothing, besides survival. None of their kind have accomplished anything close to that which the greatest humans have done--it was humans who wrote the great poems and the plays, humans who discovered the earth revolved around the sun, humans who mapped and explored the world, humans who invented penicillin and the Internet. Vampires, for all their gifts and abilities, just lurk in the shadows, battling with each other over who gets to eat who, and hoping no one ever notices them.

In some games, vamps really are just parasites that are incapable of contributing anything meaningful to the world. In others, the vamps are magnificent-bastard-motherfucking-lords-of-the-night, controlling the winds of politics and finance, playing the world like a puppet, and driving the human herd before them like so much cattle - making them responsible for a large number of innovations and entirely why we have cities in the first place.

In other games still, it's somewhere in between.

I've been in games where they've been more directly involved in shaping the course of history. Personally, though, I didn't much care for it. It felt too forced and unnatural. Plus, having the elders and Methuselahs work out complex plans centuries in advance just didn't seem terribly interesting to me as a player. Of course, that could have just been those games, and not representative of other games.
I find the idea of the Vampires constantly forced to be reactive and attempting to take advantage of the changing circumstances to be far more interesting. It doesn't mean they don't have minions, and ghouls, and puppets, and influence, or plans and schemes.  It just means that they're not completely in control of everything.

It's like The Godfather. Sure, it's awesome when Michael hatches an elaborate plan at the end of the first movie to eliminate his rivals and secure his Family's future. But in two, the drama and energy comes from him NOT having an elaborate plan. He's busy trying to get control of a few more casino's and get the senator under his thumb, when Fredo and Hyman Roth start doing their own thing, completely catching Michael by surprise, and forcing him to take action. Sure, he has wealth, and influence, and retainers so loyal that they are willing to die so Michael can have his revenge, but he's not entirely in control of his own world. It's when the plans fall apart, and the character needs to salvage what they can--that's when I find characters interesting.

I also like the uncertainty of the situation, when Vampires aren't all Magnificent Bastards. I want my players wandering "did the Elder who was supporting us all this time subtly maneuver us so he can get one over his long term rival, or did he just take advantage of our actions? Or, did the Ventrue PC lead us against the Rival as a way of putting the Elder in HIS debt? Who is playing who here?"

Of course, to be fair, the "useless parasite" theme that pervades most of my games mainly works because I tend to run "street level" games, which focus on neonates and their struggles. The actual sweeping tide of Vampire history is just cluttered background, and none of the NPC's seem to share the same opinions on what ACTUALLY happened.  

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