Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Transylvania Chronicles Redux -- Transylvania by Night Chapters 3 & 4

It’s in chapters 3 & 4 that we get into some serious meat in Transylvania by Night. In fact, I was originally intending on going over these as separate posts, but as I was reading them I realized these two chapters are thoroughly intertwined. Reading them one after the other, in fact, is the worst way to understand what’s going on. You have to flip back and forth between the two for any degree of comprehension.

If Chapter 2 was the “broad overview” and history of the various kingdoms covered in Transylvania by Night, then Chapter 3 is the “zoomed in” focus. Each major city--Prague, Krakow, Budapest, Esztergom, Sophia, Kiev--and quite a few minor towns are given a tolerable overview. For each town there is a rough physical description, an idea of who lives there, what their relations are like with their neighbors and other powers, and some ideas of what the Kindred are up to. Most even have a nice listing of “notable mortals” -- just to remind you that the undead aren’t the only ones who have secrets.

It does have two problems though. First, there is again a disappointing lack of maps. I know Vampire isn’t intended to be a “hex crawl” or the like, but seeing how a town is laid out can do wonders for running it, or to at least understand what the authors are talking about when they describe the various wards/neighborhoods. Ah well, I’m sure I can
You know White Wolf, this really isn't helping.
dig some up online, but it’s still rather frustrating.

The second problem is the separation of the chapter from the Kindred, who don’t show up properly until chapter 4. I kind of understand what the intended logic of this is. In most “by Night” books, the vampires are organized by Clans. For one, you need to organize them SOMEHOW, and Clans are as good a way as any in most cases. Secondly, it’s because knowing who is whose sire or brood mate and knowing how they feel about each other is, generally, pretty damn important in most Vampire games.

Transylvania by Night is not most Vampire games. As I mentioned earlier, this book covers an insanely vast distance, and the Venture of Krakow are at best distant (and I mean distant) cousins of their clanmates in, say, Sophia. Lumping them together gives me little understanding of either the city/region they call home nor the clan they represent. Far better would be to put the kindred of Budapest in with the Budapest description, regardless of clan.

As for the quality of the Kindred presented, it’s ok. Some are intriguing, some are boring, most have pretty neat “Destiny's” which would be interesting to see how they play out over a long game. None really wowed me, though, and few had that “brutal Beast barely hidden by a mask of Civility” I so wanted to see as a touchstone of the setting. It did explain a bit more about the ethnic tensions which sort of called my previous ideas out. Namely, they talk about how, for example, mortal ethnic groups still hold sway over the undead--so a Saxon Ventrue and a Vlach Ventrue would not get along due to their mortal tribes. I’m not sure how much I like this idea. I always viewed vampires as being a bit removed from such petty human concerns, more concerned with who YOUR sire is, rather than with where your great-great-grandfather was born.

But, there is enough here to make an interesting Chronicle, that’s for sure. One would need to spend a lot of time developing even a town as detailed as Budapest, let alone one of the various smaller towns. Despite it’s significant page count and numerous named and statted NPCs, the Storyteller would need to spend quite a bit of time filling it out, doing additional research and development, to really make the setting work. Which is all right, I suppose. I certainly enjoy such creations, but I feel like this was a missed opportunity. I wish they had divided it up into two--one called “World of Darkness: The East”  (or whatever) and one that really focused on Transylvania itself in much greater detail.

All of which naturally got me thinking about how I would develop one of the locations for use in Transylvania Chronicles. Obviously, at this point, I'm not sure. I think I need a better sense of how the Chronicles ebb and flow before really investing time to such a project. In particular, which cities have major roles to play the adventure, and which ones would best serve as a “home base” for the PCs. But, in general, I do have my preferences for developing a setting, or at least NPCs.

First off, vampires are, generally, fairly conservative and reactive. They like to build up their local nest and comforts and are really unwilling to take risks that might threaten their lives or what they have. Of course, there is still plenty of paranoid and incestuous conflict, as it’s very easy to perceive others actions as potentially threatening what you have; and in the brutal world of the undead, to believe that any threat, real or imagined, must be met somehow. And if that person wasn’t intentionally threatening you before, well, they are now, and so the cycle begins.

Secondly, blood is both not a big deal for the undead, and the most important thing they have. What I mean is, from a raw survival standpoint, the “ideal ratio” would be about 1:100 for the undead. So long as about half that number are healthy adults between say 18 and 50 with no major threats, you should be set. Worse case scenario, you may need, what,  30 blood points, max?  That community can support that, especially since you are generally only going to need 1 or so a night.

Which means that the typical Dark Medieval ratio of 1:1000 is almost too much. But here’s the thing, in the face of such abundance, Kindred get picky. They like to feed off of nuns, or monks, or crusader knights, or young nobles, or beggars, or salty serving wenches, or whatever. Sometimes this a tactical choice (no one cares if beggars die or go missing/I control the monastery), sometimes it’s dealing with some messed issue from their mortal days (their father was a crusader knight, and the man was brutal tyrant, so now…), sometimes it’s just an preference. Regardless, this is what they focus on, this is what they care about, interacting with, “playing” with, and engaging with their favorite prey takes up the bulk of any Kindred’s time.

This allows me to understand who they are, what they’re doing most nights, what kind of influence they may or may not have, and in general what their deal is.

Secondly, I like to know what their goals, both near and long term, are. A vampires who feeds off of whores may currently be trying to seduce a particularly virtuous and beautiful nun to come join him (which surely will piss of the master of the monastery where this nun resides), but long term he hopes take over the entire neighborhood, preferably by humiliating the Prince's childe who is its current “overseer.”

Finally, I like to spend some time thinking about what they care about, and what they admire. Do they like bold action (at least in others?), or do they see it as suicidal foolishness? Are they interested in scholarly pursuits? If so, do they enjoy learning new things, or do they like being the smartest in the room? Basically, if the players wanted to impress or get along with them, how should they behave and what opinions should they express? If they want to get into the game of prestation, what kind of things do they care about, and how can the players exploit that to get the best deal possible. For example,  if a player wants to meet the minor nobles and wealthy merchants of a city, the Brujah might charge a moderate boon, since he cares about guarding his contacts. while a Toreador might invite the PC to a party with many of the same people for a minor boon. A smart PC though will learn of the Toreador’s fascination with Arabic art, use his sire’s resources to train him up on that skill, gain a broad (if shallow) knowledge, “accidentally” run into the Toreador and engage her in conversation. Once she invited him to the party, demur, insisting that your sire has a task for you that night, and only cave when you can swing a minor book from her (because of the “inconvenience”). Therefore, a clever player who does their homework and learns to exploit the game can go from being significantly in debt to get what they want, to getting what they want and have people owe them.

(Transylvania by Night, written by Brian Campbell and Nicky Rea. Published by White Wolf Publishing, Inc. 1997. Available for purchase at drivethrurpg.)

Session "0" for Scarlet Vampire

The tools are all in place. Now it is time to begin the game. Base Game: Vampire: The Masquerade (1st Edition)  Not familiar with Vampire...