Sunday, October 6, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 28 History

One of the most appealing aspect of the vampire myth is the concept of being able to live forever. The idea of being forever young and powerful, of being immune to the vagaries of life and fate, and being able to escape death itself is incredibly alluring. In Vampire, you get to play out this concept, both playing one of these immortals, but also living in a world shaped by the ageless.

Yet, like many iconic concepts and tropes of Vampire, I only see this sweep of history come up sporadically in games I’ve played. I mean, sure, the metaplot and “canonical myths” come up --Caine, Enoch, Flood, Anarch Revolt, Diablerie of Lasombra and Tzimisce, etc.--but rarely do the personal histories of characters or the local city as a whole have much of a place in a game. This is very odd to me, for surely if events that happened decades or even centuries ago still affect us, then these events must resonate even more powerfully with those who lived through them.

If the Prince took power a century ago via a coup--who backed him? What happened to the old Prince? His supporters and allies? What about the Prince’s other enemies--did they back the usurper? Do they still? I mean, surely even the most thorough of Prince couldn't eliminate ALL of his enemies. What are they doing now? Did they make peace with the new Prince? Are they secretly in league with the anarchs? Actively? Not only that, but what was different under the old Prince? Was he highly religious, and banned the feeding from holy men and women or the violation of churches? Are these rules still enforced? Or are they still “on the books” waiting to be used by enterprising young Kindred to damn their ignorant foes? Are there other elders who still remember when Kindred respected God, and are frustrated by the new Prince’s cavalier attitude towards the faithful?

It all started here...

Individuals, even those who have passed on, leave an imprint on the world, and struggles and fights long ago still leave scars and can cause unforeseen consequences long after the fighting is over. Most stories have their “backstory”--the history of the setting that influences what is happening now. Lord of the Rings had the failure of Isildure to destroy the One Ring, but also the tale of Bilbo which truly sets the action of the novels into place. Without Judgement Day, there is no Terminator/Terminator 2/Sarah Connor Chronicles. The concept of history defining and creating conflicts, tensions, and mysteries is well established in most other RPG’s, yet I find them strangely lacking in Vampire.

So, having thought about this, I've decided to steal from one of my favorite sources--the World Builder’s Guidebook. I found this an amazing resource when developing my D&D settings, and it taught me quite a number of lessons I could easily port over to other games. In this case, specifically how it does history. In brief summary, the book breaks down history into 3 eras--Ancient, Middle, and Recent. Ancient are climatic events that occurred hundreds or thousands of years ago--give this vast time frame, only the most epic and significant of events still echo to the present day. Middle are those of the past few hundred years or so--enough that scholars know most of what happened, and the effects are pretty obvious to all. Recent are those that occurred in the last 10 or so, and things that not only is pretty much every character aware of them, the effects of these are still active in the setting.

In Vampire, these have a bit of a mirror. Ancient would be Caine, his Childer, the revolt of the Antediluvians, the fall of Enoch, and the fall of the Second City. For a modern game, the “Ancient” era probably runs up to around the Anarch Revolt. This revolt, and the events surrounding and immediately following it (Inquisition, Sabbat, Founding of the Camarilla, the Masquerade, etc) would be the canonical “Middle” Age. Meanwhile the events of the characters starting city would be the “Recent” history.

Yeah, I’m not terribly wowed by that either. Mainly because the metaplot is so well known that there really isn't much mystery to it anymore, and I was never terribly impressed by it to begin with. So, instead, I want to focus on applying this to my personal settings. Obviously, a lot of this will be based on the concept and themes and conflicts I find interesting, and that I want to explore. Let’s say I had two settings--City A is all about vicious internal vampire politicking and violence, while city B is all about the Vampire/Lupine struggle.

The Ancient era will be all about the founding of the City, and how it came about and how it assumed its identity. In  A, this will be the tale of two ancient kindred, their struggles over the centuries, and their final battle at this location. The city was founded by their surviving followers, and by later allies summoned from far away to continue the struggle, but from the shadows. B would be about the ancient Caern that once dominate this place, why the Kindred came to this location, how they out-fought or out-witted the Lupines and took possession of it. The Middle era would be about the changes and twists the city went through, and how it came to take on it’s current forms. In A, this would be a grisly tale of constant internal fighting, or Princes rising and falling, and of vicious and long-standing feuds, even if most of the Kindred are entirely unaware of the puppet masters pulling their strings. In B, this would be the saga of the Lupine War, and how the Kindred were able to survive these constant threats, what horrible tactics they used to stay alive, and what effect the Caern has had on the Kindred. The Recent era is, well, recent. Definitely within the “unlife” time of the characters, possibly within their mortal lives as well. Perhaps a new tyrant finally seized city A and has imposed a harsh peace. Is he why the characters sire has gone missing? In city B, this might be the final victory of the Kindred over the local Lupines, ignorant how even victory can sow the seeds of defeat.

Or, not--I apologize, my thoughts aren't terribly well formed on this topic yet. I've talked quite a bit during this challenge of the “social sandbox” of Vampire, and I really feel like History is the missing component. It is the ingredient that describes why things are this way instead of any other way, and provides another way for the players to gain knowledge and understanding of the city, of why and how people behave the way they do, which allows them to be proactive players in the Jyhad, not merely adventures on a quest.  History, combined with NPC’s, Coteries, and City Design, can make for a living world, that the players can explore and interact with as they see fit, without relying solely, or even primarily, on the Storyteller to create the Stories.

The best Stories, after all, come not from the mind of the Storyteller, but from the actions of the players. The magic of roleplaying is what happens at the table, as the group bounces off each other and are all existing in the moment and responding not based on the needs of the narrative, but on the needs of the characters. The point of having a semi-detailed history, and other background information, is not to shackle the Storyteller nor to drive the players down a pre-written path, but instead to empower the group to focus on what’s happening now, to make things come alive, and truly live as their characters.

Sure as heck beats watching TV.

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