Lords of the City
Hands down and without doubt, my favorite Vampire Chronicles either to play or run have involved plopping the players into the middle of a small or mid-sized city, tell them “it’s yours” and let them go crazy. The base book actually calls this either a “Gang” or a “Primogen” chronicle, but it works out to be the same. The players have a sandbox that they are, to one extent or another, responsible for. They can protect it and shepherd it, or exploit it to the utmost. They can try to build it up, save it, drive it further to despair to satisfy their lusts, or have the whole place burn the ground, a causality of the Jyhad.
I’m not a huge fan of “plots” or “overarching narratives.” The game shouldn't be something that the Storyteller came up with months in advance, and now the players are just rolling dice and moving their characters through it. If you want to do that, go write a novel. The story of a role-playing game only truly comes out based on the interaction of the group with each other—this is what defines the game, and what makes it such an amazing experience.
I find that giving the players a place of their own helps minimize the tendency to come up with a “meta-plot” for a game, and instead you get to focus on what’s happening now. The setting itself becomes a character, to an extent, and how the players respond to their city and what’s happening can be a constant source of conflict and stories. I mean, just because the players have “their” city, doesn't mean they are the only ones in the world, or that they will always get their way.
I also find that it helps to expand the game beyond just the characters. Of course, the best stories come about based on the characters themselves and dealing with their struggles, and goals, and hopes, and friends and family. But at a certain point, it’s nice to be able to break away from the purely character-driven stories and into something else. Given most cities with extremely old and manipulative elders and cunning and powerful princes, having the players take on threats outside their immediate lives can seem forced and awkward. I mean, if there’s a pack of Lupines prowling around town, surely this is a job for the Prince or his enforcer to handle, not some random licks who happened to be nearby. Sure, you can have the Prince “delegate” this duty to the coterie, but this is at best a stopgap solution to the problem.
As an aside, I'm generally a fan of trying to find ways to make the Prince (or Bishop, or Elder) of any given setting as incompetent as possible. Having reasonable, engaged, and powerful leaders is generally killer for a game, since they should have the ability and resources to handle any threat. By limiting them in some key way, you make room for the players to step up. It's the same reason that Gotham PD has to be corrupt or out-gunned--if they COULD handle the Joker, then there's no need for Batman. Of course, if the coterie directly works for the Prince, this less of a problem, and if the Prince is the main enemy of the game (like in a classic anarch Chronicle) then it's actually more important than he be competent and ruthless. In other games, though, you need to find a way to sideline the powers that be without permanently discrediting them as leaders.
In a Lords of the City game, the players are the only ones to handle these, and they need to take responsibility for most of the various issues that crop up in their town. It reminds me, somewhat, of a Call of Cthulhu campaign. You can run numerous one-shots in which the players inherit cursed tomes or haunted mansions or trying to find a missing loved one, but if you are going to make it work as an on-going campaign, the players need to take responsibility for tracking down the strange and unusual, and dealing with it.
Now, there are a couple of different ways to run a Lords of the City game. The most obvious, of course, is to simply make the coterie the only kindred in the city. Maybe this has long been the case, or maybe they are anarchs or Sabbat who successfully kicked out the previous inhabitants. It might even be a case where, as far as the characters are aware, they are the only vampires in the world. This does simplify matters quite a bit, of course, and allows one to focus on themes of isolation and loneliness in a way that a typical Chronicle never could.
But personally, I’m not a huge fan of isolation. I like relationships, the more complicated and messed up the better. I like foes that stick around, that continue to cause problems, and I like having to play a bit of the old intrigue and scheming and plotting that makes Vampire so much fun. Also, there really isn’t a better foe out there than fellow Kindred than a vampire, and cutting them out of a Chronicle also cuts you out of some of the best drama you’re going to get in a game.
So, I generally like to have a small population of other kindred in the city. The key is that most of these are incapable of dealing with general “city threats,” either due to lack of ability or lack of will, while still having their own lives and issues. As such, anything significant falls on the players’ shoulders.
How exactly does one accomplish this though? Gary provides a pretty useful example. Here, you have a small town containing only a handful of Kindred. The Prince, Modius, is personally powerful and decently influential. However, his spirit has been broken thanks to his long and bruising war with Lodin, and he no longer has the will to truly lead his city, nor engage with the changing outside world. Juggler, while another powerful and influential individual, does not care about Gary in the slightest. It is merely a staging ground for his planned assault on Chicago, and therefore it can burn to the ground for all he cares. The other elders are similar in their lack of concern—Lucian is a businessman who doesn't feel the need to risk his neck for anyone, Danov is just passing through, and Michael is too insane to even notice. Given all this, it truly does fall to the players to protect “their” city.
But the issue then becomes exactly how many other Kindred should be in the city? Too few, and you lose a good source of drama and stories and complicated interactions. Too many, and the logic of why the players need to step up and take care of things becomes increasingly frayed. In general, I base the numbers on the number of players. In a solo game, I’d probably come up with 5 or 6 NPC’s. Four or so, and I’d go with around 16. Enough that the players aren't the biggest and most powerful faction in town, but are still key players. You also want a small enough number that each can have decent time in game and the players can get to know them as individuals.
Then, I divvy the NPC’s into broad “factions,” similar to how Gary is laid out. A few are the current ruler and their key supporter(s). A larger number goes to the “other” group, while the rest are neutrals. One of the reasons why I liked Juggler so much in Gary is that he and his gang were perfect for the “other” or “opposition” group. A game like this needs a good, ongoing foe—one strong enough to be a real threat, but not so powerful as to just immediately wipe the floor with the coterie. This group has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo—this could be like Juggler where the city is just a means to an end, or a group of “Near Dark” vampires who stop by periodically to feed and steal and take what they need, a satanic cult that wallows in the current despair of the city, or really whatever is interesting based on the themes and mood you want for your Chronicle. The only key thing about them is that they would view any significant change to the city as a threat. And if it’s one thing players are good for, it’s promoting change.
The rest I make “neutral”—with the focus more on them as individuals. One thing I would change from Gary is how powerful yet detached the other Kindred in the city were, I’d want them to be a bit more down to the characters level, and have more of their active goals, allowing them to be characters the coterie and treat with and vie for their support. Some of these may care about the city as much as the players, but lack the raw power of the characters or the coterie as a whole to do much about it; alternately, they may just fundamentally disagree with the coteries tactics and goals, and attempt to find other solutions to problems. This can easily allow a philosophical concept to come into the game—if the coteries are ruthless and bloody, perhaps other Kindred attempt to resolve things more humanely and vice versa if the coterie attempts to do things the “right” way. It’s up to the Storyteller which of these approaches yields more fruitful results, of course.
Even with these extra characters, it can be tricky to come up with enough drama and stories for an on-going Chronicle. Which is why it helps to borrow another page from Gary, and place the city in somewhat close proximity to another, larger group of Kindred, like Chicago. This easily justifies the presence of new characters and enemies showing up, while also allowing their plots and schemes to “spill over” to the players’ city.
Obviously, this assumes a relatively small and independent city. But the same principles could apply to a setting based around a specific neighborhood or borough of a larger city, or suburb, or potentially even a specific family within a larger city. The key for me is a relatively open setting where the players are free to explore and develop as they wish—though, of course, this is not to say that there would be no consequences.