This is an easy one for me, and a welcome respite from the past two days when it felt like I spent more time complaining about elements of the game I didn't like than praising the parts that I did. Today, I get to talk about not only my favorite setting in Vampire, but also the home to one of my absolute favorite Chronicles I've ever run—which also just happens to have been the first “straight” Vampire game I've ever been involved with.
For those who don’t know, Gary is a sample city/adventure in the back of the 1st and 2nd edition Vampire core books. In real life, it’s a decaying and almost dead urban blight laying along Lake Michigan, just about 40 minutes from downtown Chicago. In fact, you know that show on History Channel “Life After People?” Yeah, they use Gary to illustrate what happens to an urban area when there’s no one there anymore.
Needless to say, the World of Darkness take isn't much better. There’s not a lot of hope in Gary in the game, and only a handful of Vampires live there. The core books list the few who remain, as well as a handful of human hunters who either know or seriously suspect what’s going on.
Now, it’s possible my affection for Gary is the result of misplaced nostalgia—I've already spoken about my complicated feelings for the core Vampire book when I first got my hands on it. But, I’m not sure that’s the main reason I like Gary so much. See, Gary wasn't my first setting, or even my second. I played numerous games in a variety of settings before I first ran Gary—some published, others home-brew. I even ran a game in Chicago for a while, and another one in Atlantic City. But a few years back I had a group of new players who had never played Vampire before, and I wanted them to experience it “fresh.” I didn't have a heck of a lot of time, so I figured I’d start them out in Gary, and once they got the hang of things, gradually move them over to the “real setting” of Chicago.
Well, I didn't have to. The players took to Gary like fish to water and the game was just amazing—it is the longest running game of Vampire I ever ran, and my example of “yes, you CAN run Vampire as a bunch of neonates running around with Humanity and make it an awesome game.”
So, without going into too much of a recap of the entire Chronicle, what is it about Gary that makes it so wonderful as a setting? I mean, couldn't it have just been my mad GM skills that made the game rock?
· It’s small
· It has a delicate status quo
· It’s near a major area
So, first off, it’s small. I mean, heck, even when 1st edition was published, its population was roughly 116k—that’s just enough to support a single Vampire, per standard Vampire rule of thumb (1:100,000). Thank goodness I never really worried about such ratios. Even still, the city only has a handful of Kindred in it—Modius, his childe Alicia, Juggler, HIS childe Evelyn, Michael (one of the better “fishmalks” I've ever seen), Lucian, and Danov. Also, being a small city, it’s pretty easy to divvy it up into really obvious locations. All this means that the players can know and understand the city, at least in broad strokes, pretty quickly. And the sooner the players can “get” what’s going on, the faster they can take the lead and start driving the story.
Secondly, it has a delicate status quo, or at least, that’s how I ran it. See, aside from Modius, nobody really gives a damn about Gary; and he’s so lost in self-pity and ennui that he can barely rouse himself to give a damn. Lucian is a businessman who is content with where he is, but has no second thoughts about pulling up stakes and moving elsewhere should the situation warrant. Danov is by definition a wanderer and a traveler who is just stopping over in Gary, and Michael is, well…he’s insane. I was a little unsure how to run him, so I played up the freaky medium/oracle element, while keeping the “creepy guy in the graveyard” as a defining characteristic. Alicia, as written, is blood bond to Modius and just meant to be used to try to blood bond other vampires to Modius through her. Also, she doesn't talk, which I think was meant to be “coquettish” but really just came across as “creepy.” So, I kept her bond to her sire, and someone who talked RARELY, but instead gave her some dreams and ambitions of her own—which mainly involved getting out of this dump and away from her of a sire.
As for Juggler, well, he REALLY doesn't care about Gary. See, he’s planning a war against Lodin, the Prince of Chicago. Since Gary has its own Prince, there’s not much Lodin can do to him while he’s there. And it’s not like Modius would do Lodin a favor and help him take out the Anarch; Modius hates Lodin almost as much as Juggler does. Also, Juggler has some sort of hold over Modius—canonically it’s a mysterious “major boon,” but I just treated it as “Juggler knows how to push all of Modius’ buttons and thus keep him in line.” So, yeah, Juggler is gearing up for war, and Gary is just a convenient staging area—he can bring in weapons and allies, hunt with little fear of retaliation, meet with his followers and discuss strategy, and when the time comes for the big push, do a bit of mass embracing among the mortals without anyone figuring out what’s going on until it’s too late.
So, what does this have to do with the players? Well, not much on the surface. Most of the other Kindred in town are distracted with either their own issues or the own plans, leaving the city more or less alone. This makes it an ideal setting for my favorite of all the Chronicle Concepts in Vampire—the Lords of the City.
Lords of the City is very simple—the players have a territory and are responsible for it. It can be a city, a town, a neighborhood, what have you. It doesn't really matter how big it is or where it is, so long as it’s theirs. It could be “official” (they’re the Prince, or the Prince has officially “given” them territory), or unofficial—they live here, stuff is going down, and no one else is going to do anything about it. This leads to all kinds of stories—from the reactive (rogue vampire on a killing sprees, werewolves trying to steal back a lost fetish, Sabbat looking for easy pickings, etc.) to the proactive (whatever the players want for their characters). And this is where the “delicate status quo” comes into play.
See, the most powerful Kindred in town ISN’T Modius, the Prince. It’s Juggler. He has a small army of followers at his beck and call—sure most of them live in and around Chicago, but that’s only a half an hour to an hour away, at best. Between his personal power and his followers, he could curb stomp any other Vampire in town if he ever needed to. But he doesn't care—he wants to rule Chicago, and as such he just wants Gary to be an independent city ruled by a Prince he can control and that’s crappy enough that he and his gang can operate without attracting attention, but not so crappy that it draws too much attention to itself.
So, what does this mean about the “delicate status quo”? Simply, the players, by their very presence, are going to upset this. A new coterie, especially one running around getting involved in the city, is going to mess this up for Juggler. No matter what they do, whether they try to save the city or drive it further into the ground. I was fortunate that my players saw their own self-interest served in trying to “save” the city (by legalizing gambling along the lake, and increasing the number of strip clubs and bars to cater to the tourists), rather than destroying it. (I always prefer it when the PC’s are somewhat “good guys.”) The very fact that they were changing the town in any way was enough to disturb Juggler, and sooner or later the two factions fell into natural conflict. The struggle took many forms—there were “pleads to reason” and attempts to recruit various characters. They tried kidnapping and assassinations, planting false evidence linking various characters to the Sabbat, and all the various methods to sway the Prince to favor one side or the other. Eventually it all fell apart and descended into brutal gang land warfare, where the killings were more the result of fake meetings and ambushes than anything “honorable.”
Finally, no matter how interesting the town is, a city this small is going to be limited, and that’s where its third virtue comes in—it’s near Chicago. As such, a near limitless supply of other characters can easily make their way into the city, depending on what’s going on. The most obvious are “Jugglers Crew”—but a whole lot of other people could involve themselves in the shenanigans of Gary, without straining credibility. Of course, my players did end up mocking themselves when the words “there’s a new player in town” became something of a catchphrase for them.
So, yeah, all in all, Gary was a fantastic setting to run a great Chronicle in. I’m not sure I’d use it again though—I’d probably use it as a template for another Lords of the City Chronicle though. I’d want Gary 2.0 to be a bit further away from the “Chicago” of whatever game I ran next, and I think it could benefit from a few more Kindred to be on the sidelines/neutrals that the players need to treat with/ally with for whatever reason. But still, if you’re just starting a game of Vampire, and want to try letting the players set the pace of the game rather than be constantly ordered around by the elders/tripping themselves up in various schemes, I can’t recommend Gary strongly enough.