Monday, August 24, 2015

Let's Compare Editions! Part 6 -- Combat

Let’s Compare the different editions of Vampire: The Masquerade

Despite the fundamental basics of gameplay not having changed significantly between the various editions, each has their own rather unique take on Combat for Vampire. Given this variation, I'm going to do a brief overview of how each Edition handles Combat, saving the comparison and analyses for this end. Let's get to it!


Especially in 1st, DODGE! Dear Lord, DODGE!
Initiative is generally a Wits + Alertness (Diff 4), but any other appropriate Ability (Brawl, Melee, Firearms, etc.) can be used. Combat is divided up into two different categories-- Hand-to-Hand and Firefight. Initiative is generally not rolled for Hand-to-Hand but is for Firefights. 

For Hand-to-Hand, each combatant rolls Dexterity+Brawl/Melee, with a difficulty based on the maneuver they are using or the weapon they are wielding. The one with the most success manages to make contact. The Damage is determined based off the weapon/maneuver plus the additional success they attained in the attack. Defender may soak, which is Stamina+Fortitude with a difficulty equal to the number of damage success + 5 (max 10). A botch on this roll means that one health level is aggravated.

There are three different basic maneuvers one may attempt in Hand-to-Hand. A throw in which one attempt to throw an opponent, such as into a wall or onto the ground.  If even one health level of damage is inflicted, the target is stunned for the next round, with any die pool limited to their Stamina. Grapple is an attempt to hold another character. No damage is inflicted, but each success reduces the number of dice the opponent can use the next turn. At any time, the grappler may assign dice to a damage roll, with a difficult of the opponents Stamina + 3. A strike is any other maneuver which intends to do damage. To stake an opponent, one needs 5 successes to do so, accumulated on a single turn. It is not clear if this is 5 successes on the to hit roll or the damage roll. 

Firefights do require initiative, generally the standard. Highest declares first, and their actions are resolved prior to moving on to any other participant. Attacks are made with Dexterity + Firearms. Difficulty is based on the weapon, unless the fight is at point blank range (in which case the difficulty is 3) or at extreme range (double the range listed, difficulty becomes 8). If the player succeeds, then each success is considered to be an automatic level of damage.  The damage roll is based off of the weapon, at a difficult of the opponents Stamina + 3. The target may soak by rolling Stamina + Fortitude against a difficulty of the weapons damage factor + 3. A botch on this roll indicates on the levels of damaged is aggravated

Three-round bursts add 2 dice to the attack roll and 2 to the damage roll. Full-Auto is accomplished by splitting your die pool and taking as many Three-round bursts as you can, up to 7. Dual Wielding is accomplished by splitting your die pool, like normal, as has no special penalties or bonuses. 

Initiative is Wits + Alertness, Difficult 4. Each participant declares their actions in reverse order--
those with the lowest Initiative declare first, with the highest going last.  Attacks are resolved by Dexterity+Firearms/Brawl/Melee, with difficulty based on weapon/maneuver. Each additional success with a firearm adds an extra die to the damage roll, though this is not true of Brawl or Melee. The target may soak with a Stamina + Fortitude roll against a difficult of 6. 

Three-round burst increases the difficulty to hit by 1, but adds three dice to the attack pool. Full-Auto increases the difficulty by 2, but adds 10 dice to the attack pool. Multiple Opponents increases ones difficulties by 1 per opponent, and staking requires three successes after dodge, and three health levels of damage, after soak. Grapples are started by grabbing the opponent with a Dexterity + Brawl roll, followed by an opposed Strength + Brawl. Whoever loses is immobilized. Body-Slams are accomplished by hurling oneself at ones foe. Success increases the opponents difficulties for the rest of the round by two, and most roll Dexterity + Athletics (difficulty equal to the number of success to hit + 3) or fall to the ground. Damage is equal to the attackers strength; each success above the minimum adds one to this. If the attacker does not do at least three success, he falls to the ground and is treated as though he has no dice left for this round.

Initiative is the sum of a characters Dexterity + Wits plus the result of one die. Characters declare in reverse order. Attacks are made with Dexterity + Firearms/Brawl/Melee, at a difficulty of 6, though certain weapons will modify this. Each additional success adds to the damage pool. Damage is rolled at a difficulty of 6.  There are now three types of damage--bashing, lethal, and aggravated. Bashing damage is reduced by half after soak. Bullets are considered to be bashing damage against vampires. An opponents my soak with a Stamina + Fortitude roll against a difficulty of 6. 

All maneuvers now have a listed Accuracy (which modifies your attack die pool) and Difficulty (which modifies the difficulty of the attack) ratings. Dual-Weapons is treated as a normal multiple action, with an additional difficult of +1, unless she is ambidextrous. Staking requires at least one success, but must be a targeted at the heart at a difficulty of 9 and three health levels of damage. Three-round bursts now are at +1 difficulty, but +2 accuracy. There are also a far greater number of maneuvers one may performs, such as Clinch, Disarm, Hold, and Tackle

Other than an optional rule regarding initiative in which one just adds 6 is the characters initiative rating (the sum of their Dexterity and Wits) and some slight changes due to how Celerity works (which we'll cover when we get to Disciplines), the combat rules in this edition are more or less identical to Revised.

As you can see, combat has changed quite a bit. 1st in particular is just weird. I have never actually played 1st straight, but now I'd like to give it a shot and see what it's like. There's a whole host of unanswered questions, though I know the Storytellers Handbook went into quite a bit of detail in answering them. Each though, for me, has it's quirks and charms. I like how Revised has a unified system of Accuracy and Difficulty, though I really dislike it's Initiative system.

For the past several years, some of my favorite games of Vampire have consisted either exclusively or primarily of "n00bs." Honestly, I think it works great, but the Revised initiative is always a sticking point. It's just...counter-intuitive. After many, many rolls of "Attribute + Ability" to suddenly switch to  "sum of two Attributes plus the results of one die" always grounds things to a halt and causes confusion. It might be more statistically sound, but I've found the Wits+Alertness, difficult 4 to be a much simpler method.

The other thing I've noticed is how guns have been gradually "depowered" over the years. In 1st, they are nasty. I mean, automatic damage based off of successes? Soaking is a variable difficulty based on the weapon, and can go as high as 9? Ugh, nasty. 2nd still keeps them fearful, as they are the only weapons that add dice to the damage pool with successes. Not as bad as 1st but still scary. With Revised, you'd almost be a fool to use them against anything but mortals. Everything now adds successes to damage pool, but guns are now bashing

It's the bashing thing that really changed the game. I mean, it's nice to finally have a clear explanation for what exactly a mortal can and can not soak. But, the "vampires only take half after soak" really knocked down a lot of methods of combat. When I played 2nd, I see a lot of "combat builds"--some people use knives and swords, sure. But, there's also those who like guns, and those who go with their fists, feet, and whatever they can grab at the scene. 

In Revised it's swords, knives, claws, and that's about it. You might use a gun or a fist against a mortal, but that's about it. I guess it depends on what kind of feel you want. When Revised first came out, I was very excited about this rule change. But over time, it made each fight feel much like the last one. 

Also, Stamina has been generally devalued. In 1st, it is a critical combat attribute. Not only do you use it for soaking, but it also increases the difficulty for damage rolls, making it less likely that you would suffer damage in the first place. Once you get to later editions, Stamina becomes less and less important. The presence of bashing damage makes this even less important.

Let's take a look at how this plays out in a gunfight in each edition. We'll assume average Attributes and Abilities, just for ease of comparison. So, a 4 die pool to attack, and a base of 2 for soaking.

1st Attacker rolls 4 dice with their gun, get's average success (2). That's one more than they need, so they get one bonus automatic damage. They roll damage (4 dice) against a difficulty of (Stamina+3,) 5 and get 2 success. Total of 3 health inflicted.  Defender rolls Stamina + Fortitude against (Weapon Damage+3) 7, and gets 1 success. Takes 2 damage.

2nd Again, 4 dice rolled, 2 success. They get an extra die of damage, so it's 5 dice against difficult of 6, We'll say they get 2 successes on damage (I got that about 7 out of 10 rolls). Defender soaks with Stamina + Fortitude for 1 damage.

Revised 4 dice, 2 success. They score 2 Health Levels of Damage, Defender soaks 1. Guns are bashing, so that should be "halved", but that still leaves 1.

So, at "low levels" it's about the same. Let's look at "high level" Dex 5, Firearms 5, Stamina + Fortitude pool of 5.

1st Goes all out with multiple three round bursts. We'll say 3 of them. First attack is 4 dice, plus 2 for the burst, for 6 dice . 3 Success. 4 damage dice against 8 is 1 Success, for 3 Health Levels. Target soaks 2, takes 1. Next two attacks are a 5 (3 base+2 for burst), for 2 success each. Damage is 1 Success, for 2 Health Levels, Defender soaks both. Takes a total of 1 Health Level of Damage.

2nd Goes Full auto. Base pool of 10 + 10 dice for full auto against a difficulty of 8 for (average of 10 sample rolls) 6 success. Rolls damage of 4 + 5 for 6 success for damage. Target soaks 2 of them, for a total of 4 Health Levels of Damage.

Revised Again, Full Auto. Base pool of 10 + 10 versus difficulty of 8, 6 successes. Damage of 4 + 5, for 6. Target soaks 2 of them, but the remainder is halved, so the end result is only taking 1 Health Level of Damage.

Hrm, maybe guns are really only nasty in 2nd? Though I suppose in 1st you would keep dividing up your attacks to do more and more bursts, each doing a net 1 Health Level  of Damage.  Though, my sample pool might be too small for any meaningful comparisons.

I don't really have strong feelings on the various Combat systems. The truth is, I've never really enjoyed the Storyteller System for combat. In fact, even in the most battle focused games--Werewolf, Aberrant, Exalted--I've found it to be a pretty boring once the fighting actually starts, at least compared to many other games--Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun, hell, even GURPS

No, where Storyteller excels at is being a murder simulator. Sudden, brutal violence brought on by the one you thought was your ally. Betrayals. Ambushes. Desperate acts that you must flee from, or die. THIS is where Vampire shines, and these are the kinds of combats I like to see. In fact, for most of my games I've abandoned the "official" combat system for something more or less derived from the 1st Ed Storytellers Handbook take on narrative combat. It's a much simpler and more free form take, less concerned with specific and discreet rules, and more up to the troupes imagination. It works great for some groups, less so for others. Still, I'd recommend giving it a try.

Oh, and one house rule I'd definitely do, something I'm amazed didn't make it in to V20 and, despite my advice to "ignore the fans" something I hope the do in 4th--LET FORTITUDE AUTOMATICALLY SOAK NON-AGGRAVATED DAMAGE. I've been playing with this house rule for years, and all it does is make Fortitude be as useful as Potence and at least comparable as Celerity. Before this house rule, NO ONE bought Fortitude, even the Gangrel and Ventrue were only getting grudgingly. Once that House Rule came into effect, suddenly, it became a semi-useful Discipline. Seriously. Get on it Onyx Path. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Transylvania Chronicles Redux -- ACT X

Transylvania Chronicles IV
The Dragon Ascendant
Act X: The Danube By Moonlight

(Massive Spoilers)

Summary: In 1897, the characters learn of the recovery of a long lost tome dedicated to Kupala. A deranged and vengeance obsessed Ravnos named Vladislav has shared the information with various interested parties--Camarilla, Sabbat, and Dracula. A fourth faction of mortal hunters and scholars also involve themselves, and learns of Vladislavs scheme, and attempt to retrieve the book themselves. The characters arrive in Vienna, meet with their old friend (?) Nova Arpad, present themselves to the Prince of Vienna, and begin their investigation into the book. After various inquiries, the players learn of strange goings on in a nearby cemetery, When they investigate, they see a Sabbat mass creation rite. Or, it would be, if not for the intervention of Mitru the Hunter, who has slain the fledglings, and is in Vienna for the book himself. He heads to a Cathedral where the book and the Arcanum are located, secured behind stone, Faith, and magic.  The characters by force or guile retrieve the book, gaining valuable information and leading to the final Act of The Transylvania Chronicles.

Key Factors: Get the book.

The Tremere library. Subtle. Understated.
Initial Thoughts: This is a really solid adventure! The Summary I posted does not do it justice. The characters have a solid reason to travel to Vienna, there’s a nice mix of social scenes and investigative one, as well as plenty of combat and action. And the players get to DO something and be active throughout the Act, with only the most minimal of “powerful NPC talks to you about what you need to do.”

And unlike some previous Acts, this one builds up to a really fantastic set piece ending. The Cathedral where the book is kept is a damn fortress the players need to crack, with a ticking time of “dawn”--for once day strikes, those mortals are taking the book and are out of the damn city. It’s a tough nut for a vampire to crack, guarded not only by intelligent and prepared mortals, ready to face off against the undead, but also by the inherent True Faith.

On top that, the Act finally starts considering some of “other” rules that are rarely brought up--Frenzy, Rotschreck and Paths, which is nice to see them finally get some attention in the game.

Fixes It’s a pretty solid Act, I’m not sure what I would do to “fix” it or resolve it.

I’ve noticed that, since Act VI, that’s become more and more of a response from me regarding these Acts, good or bad. Part of this is because the writing of these later Acts has improved--I may have issues with some of them, but in general they’re better written than some of the earlier ones. Part of it is because the authors have finally acknowledged that the characters aren’t rank neonates to be ordered around, which even if you’re playing neonate isn’t fun, let alone when you’ve been around for two hundred years and are a Prince.

But, part of it also is how much they’re leaving out in these adventures. Often times the exact motive of the characters, certain NPC’s, and other details are left “up in the air.” For example, exactly WHY the characters are in Paris in Blood of Tyrants is left purposefully undefined. It’s up to the Storyteller and the troupe to come up with why they are here. Likewise, in Act X, exactly what the characters do with the book are left undefined. There are certainly ideas presented, but it’s not “official.”

On one hand, this is necessary. As the Chronicles have gone on, more and more uncertainty is added to the proceedings. Are the characters Camarilla or Sabbt? Are they in “good standing” with their Sects, or rogues? Are they on a Path of do they follow Humanity? Even their “power level” can’t be determined with an degree of accuracy. One group of players might have numerous side stories, allowing them to accrue significant amounts of experience and maturation points compared to a different group that played the Chronicles “straight.”

On the other, it is a tad bit of a cop-out. One of the reasons for purchasing the Chronicles is to have a ready-made Chronicle ready for you to run, and having to generate additional content prior to them being playable is frustrating. It’s not so bad in Act X, where you really just need to tweak some stats based on how good the characters are in a fight, but Act IX it was a bit much.

Then again, it could be a matter of the authors creative freedom. In general, the stories that focus on Kupala are just more interesting than the ones focused on Kindred history. Probably because in the later, the players are forced to the sidelines so things can unfold the way they must. Whereas with the Kupala, the authors can have a little more fun.

None of which explains Dracula, though.

All in all, though, this reminds me of Twilight of the Graverobber and I’d run it pretty much as is. The only change I’d HAVE to do, not knowing anything about the players or characters who or may not show up for this Chronicle is, is to emphasize the change in travel. The Orient Express began service in 1883, and after centuries of traipsing around Eastern Europe on horseback, it must have seemed a miracle. The ability of these Lords of the Night to travel quickly, safely, discreetly, and comfortably is a change that must be emphasized, especially since the next Act takes place in the era of luxury automobiles and private jets.  Take a moment and let the characters enjoy the wonders of the Industrial Revolution.

Rolling in style.
Can they fail: Yup, which is another one of the reasons why I like this Act. Even if they fail to storm the Cathedral, the adventure can keep going. The various factions still want the book, and the Arcanum will be on the run. Finding them and retrieving the book from rivals and clever mortals will be difficult, but still makes a great fodder for an adventure. And, even if the players do fail completely, there's enough justification that, in the years to come, one or the other faction will approach them with the necessary information, as the players are, after all this time, quite possibly the best positioned to make use of it.

(Transylvania Chronicles IV: The Dragon Ascendant, written by Brian Campbell, Jackie Cassada, and Nicky Rea. Published by White Wolf Publishing, Inc. 2000. Available for purchase at drivethrurpg.)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Let's Compare Editions! Part 5 -- Setting

Let’s Compare the different editions of Vampire: The Masquerade

Probably the most striking difference in the Setting as presented in the various Editions of Vampire is how much more detailed and codified the presented setting became. Obviously, there's continuity between each Edition -- there's always a Camarilla, Sabbat, and Inconnu. There's a Prince, there's the Traditions, the Primogen, the Elysium. There are the Conclaves and the Justicars and...well, actually, that's about it. At least, that's about all there was in 1st.

I mean, granted, a bit more information was presented in the various by Night books and in the Storytellers Handbook. But, at it's core, the information is relatively sparse. In a way, it reflects a more wide open take on the setting. Take, for example, the brief information we have for the Primogen in 1st
Many Elders invariable support the existing Prince, simply because they do not wish to risk turmoil. They have grown protective of their long lives, and they do all they can to provide themselves with a stable environment. They are extremely conservative in all that they do, for they seek only to survive, not to evoke change. This group of Elders has become known as the Primogen...
Not quite the description we are used to seeing for such characters. No comment on their status of "Clan representatives," no concept as to how one becomes a Primogen, merely that they are a powerful force that supports the Prince, but out of their own, base, concerns.

By 2nd the Primogen have been altered a bit, into a group of fractious "advisers" who are the only Kindred in the city comparable to the Princes power.  Of course, by the time 2nd came out, there were quite a few by Night books (Milwaukee by NightChicago by Night, and Alien Hunger) that that have given the players and Storytellers a certain sense of what to expect in a given City, and how they were "supposed" to be setup. And it is in Revised that this influence becomes most apparent.

In Revised certain roles are now heavily codified, and expected to be present in most if not all cities. These are:

  • The Primogen -- now they are "assembled elders of each clan in a city."
  • The Sheriff -- appointed by the Prince and approved by the Primogen, the Sheriff is the Prince's enforcer. Naturally named after the character of Balthazar in Chicago (dubbed "Sheriff" by the Anarchs he so vigorously hunted).
  • The Harpies -- first made their appearance, I believe, in The Storytellers Handbook, and so named because the Prince hated the damn whispering and gossiping that the elders did about him. Now they are a slightly more organized group of "social managers."
  • The Whip -- the Primogens aid, used to rally support during Clan meetings.
  • The Seneschal -- the Princes right hand. Surprisingly, this is not an ally of the Prince nor one of his Childer (despite Neally from Chicago by Night being the Ur-example), but instead is apparently appointed or confirmed by the Primogen.
  • The Keeper of Elysium -- well, at least the Prince can appoint the Keeper, who gets to decide if Friday night is a Toreador art show or a Brujah debate club.
  • The Scourge -- and the Prince can appoint the Scourge, who has the authority to slay any Kindred in the city who hasn't presented themselves to the Prince.  
V20 includes most of the positions in Revised, but adds details on the Archons, the Alastors, and of course the various positions within the Sabbat. As the Sabbat as a playable Sect is a bit outside this series of posts, I don't really have much to say about these additions. Except to note the oddity that the Seneschal has been dropped from the various positions within the Camarilla. I suppose the Princes got sick of fighting over who would be their assistant, and just made a childe or an ally do it without the benefit of a fancy title. Also gone is the Whip, to no ones remorse.

Oh, and the Sheriff now has "Hounds" who aid him. I suppose "Deputies" would have been a bit too on the nose, but "Constable" would have been valid. Well, you know vampires, no respect for history.

So, what exactly are the changes? Again, it comes down to a greater amount of information and detail presented in later editions. But, the cost of that detail is a certain degree of sameness also takes over the Setting. The Vampire settings of 1st required far more work for the individual Storyteller to bring to life, but also allowed for a far greater degree of uniqueness within the Setting. And one just has to look at the initial cities presented in 1st--Gary, Chicago, Milwaukee and Denver. Gary has only a few vampire, most living their own lives, paying only the most token amount of respect to the Prince. Milwaukee is a god damn war zone, with the Prince and his enforcers (oddly, the characters) barely holding on as the Elders sit in council and seek to destroy each other. Denver is ruled by a Triumvirate of allies, and the city is divided less by Elders vs. Anarchs than it is by the "Court" (The Triumvirates hangers on) and the "Outsiders" (those who seek their own in the world). Chicago most closely resembles the later Settings, with the Sheriff, a coterie of Harpies (though dubbed "Annabelle's Party Elite"), a Seneschal in the form of Neally, and a powerful group of Primogen manipulating everyone behind the scenes (though of course these aren't "one for each Clan" and their large number is presented as something of an oddity). 

Obviously, Chicago by Night had a huge amount of influence on subsequent developments in the game, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened if things hadn't been so codified. Would the Chicago model remain the base line? Is that really the coolest and most interesting way to organize the characters in a given setting? Or would we have seen even further experimentation and radically different takes on the "standard" setting.

My personal theory is there was a force working to ensure a certain degree of "sameness" and conformity on the Setting, and it had nothing to do with the Camarilla. Or, wait, maybe it did. There was a fan club called The Camarilla (Minds Eye Society). They were (are?) primarily focused on the Live Action Roleplaying part of the fandom, and held a lot of influence over the direction of the game. In many ways, this was a positive thing--Vampire had, and still has, some of the most dedicated and engaged fans of any RPG, and the LARP community is a huge part of that.

However, the needs of a Live Action game are different from a Table Top game. A Table Top game can have a coterie of gossipy Elders and Ancilla off on the sidelines providing color commentary to the players actions. In a LARP, however, you (or, well maybe not YOU you, but a living, breathing person) is playing one of these gossips. As well as other people playing the other gossips. And still other people playing the people that they are gossiping ABOUT and on and on until it's just turtles, all the way down. 

As such, there was a need to define and give mechanical game support to such a position as "gossipy elder." In theory, this shouldn't have been necessary. The gossips who get together and talk about everyone else until they reach an unofficial, but not less authoritative, decision on the behaviors in question just...happens. It happens in High Schools with the stereotypical "Mean Girls." It happens in politics with the "Pundits" (yes, Bill O'Reilly and Rachel Maddow are OUR Harpies). It happens at any sufficiently large organization or group, no matter how unoffical or nebulous such a group is. In many ways, these gossips are the glue that hold a group together.

So, they should emerge naturally in an environment such as a Larp. Throw a bunch of people together and, over time, certain roles will naturally be fulfilled. Alas, since a game is not reality (stupid reality), this didn't and couldn't emerge naturally. A Larp may only exist for a single night, or a single weekend, and such positions still need to be filled. Or, for a long running Larp, a given player may wish to play such a character, even if they lack the natural talents, connections, or interest to do so outside the game. We certainly don't require the Brujah player to be a weight lifter and trained in mixed martial arts, so why should such standards apply to the Social characters?  But, if we can't rely on "natural" results, then the game has to step in with the necessary mechanics.

In fact, I'm fairly confident that the major changes in the game from 2nd to Revised are due in large part to the influence of the Live Action community. The decline of the Anarchs from "default characters" to "one option out of many, and a poor one at that"? Well, yeah, because you had people playing the Primogen and the Harpies. When rage against the machine, when you can be one of the well-compensated elite? The switch of the game from Personal Horror with politics as the back drop to a political game with horror tropes? It's hard to do Personal Horror when you have a hundred other people at your house, and they're all playing together. 

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the game hadn't gone the way it had. Obviously, any game is going to add details and nuance and more information to its setting as time goes by; it's the nature of the publishing beast, and the fans will often demand it. But what if it had stayed with the more flexible and vague setting of 1st, and kept its focus on Personal Horror rather than pure politicking, or ignored the great Sect Wars that came to dominate the game later in its run? To some extent, the answer is Vampire: The Requiem, but that game never satisfied me. Or, more accurately, never inspired me the way that Masquerade has been able to, even after all these years. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Let's Compare Editions! Part 4 -- Derangements

Let’s Compare the different editions of Vampire: The Masquerade

Derangements are probably best known to players of the various editions of Vampire for their role as the defining Clan Flaw of the Malkavians. They have long been a source of debate, discussion, and often intense arguments among the various players and Storytellers; debates that have had few, if any, "winners." Ultimately, how one handles such a delicate issue is best left to the individual Storyteller, as their word is final for any give Chronicle. Having said that, each Edition has their own way of handling this thorny issue.

And thorny it is. Before we proceed, I feel I must put my own cards on the table, so to speak. While I did major in Psychology in College, I do not possess any advanced degrees in this field, and am incapable of speaking about actual Mental Health issues. Secondly, I am approaching this strictly from a "game mechanic" point of view--the actual DSM V definition of various conditions matters little to me, for this discussion. Thirdly, I have very little experience with Malkavians in game. Most Storytellers I have played with straight up banned them due to their "disruptive" tendencies, And most of my players have shied away from them.

Which is a damn shame. I do feel that Derangements can and should be an excellent tool for
Roleplaying. Now, I'm using something of a colloquial definition for "Roleplaying" in which "a players makes a decision for their character based on what the player feels the character WOULD do, with no consideration of it being 'right' or 'effective' at them succeeding at the game. Such choices are generally sub-optimal at best, or actively negative or dangerous at worst." An example: the coterie are brought before the Prince, who begins lecturing the characters for their many failings. One character is an angry, rebellious character who always has to have the last word. "Good role-playing" would have that character interrupting and arguing with the Prince, no matter what the consequences may be. "Bad role-playing" would be to sit there quietly and take the abuse, knowing that the Prince (and the Storyteller) is making a public lecture so he doesn't HAVE to really punish them.

Of course, a character who "talks big" but always folds when push comes to shove SHOULD keep his mouth shut, then complain about it later. What is and is not "good role-playing" often varies troupe to troupe and character to character. But, here's the thing, Derangements help encourage role-playing, because they provide an excuse, often mechanically based, for performing these "poor" choices. And good characters make mistakes. They make bad decisions, they do stupid things. Just like real people do. Now, characters often DO commit stupid actions, but these are often provoked by the players understanding that they are in a game, and as such expect to be able to act with a certain degree of impunity. Derangements help to ground that decision-making into the reality of the game.

Having said that, how has Derangements changed between the Editions?

Well, 1st probably has the most extensive treatment of Derangements. It begins with this useful tidbit from page 126.
These Derangements are not meant to be all-consuming and hamstring the player into role-playing in a tightly constricted way. Rather, they are meant to add some drama and a little bit of reality into the game. A character doesn't need to exhibit the Derangement 100% of the time. People can slip in and out of it, and it may only surface in particularly tense moments. The Derangements does not have to rule the mind of the character; it only need influence it
 A useful bit of advice, and something I think is often forgotten in most discussions of Derangements.

Now, 1st also has a system for overcoming Derangements. They were not intended in this edition to be a permanent part of the character, aside from the obvious Malkavian flaw. Each derangement had a value that was the sum of two dice (so, 2-20). Once a player had spent sufficient Willpower fighting their Derangement, they were, to some degree, "cured." A character generally acquired one as the result of a botched Frenzy roll, and there are three random tables based on the type of Frenzy--Madness, Rage, or Terror. Each table has 9 entries (10 always being "Invent New Derangement.")

2nd, in contrast to its usual "let's reprint 1st" approach, lists only 10 Sample Derangements. These are: Multiple Personalities, Fantasy, Regression, Perfection, Overcompensation, Obsession, Paranoia, Amnesia, Manic-Depression, and Delusions of Grandeur. Also, unlike in 1st, there in no method listed for overcoming or being "cured" of a Derangement.

Revised begins playing up the more serious elements of mental illness. Whereas earlier editions emphasized that the Derangement influenced a character, Revised states that "The insane, however, are only responding to a pattern known to them, stimuli that they perceive in their own minds. To their skewed perceptions, what's happening to them is perfectly normal -- to them." This view is far more medically accurate. One of the rules I was taught at school is that the definition of insanity is "a perfectly reasonable and rational response to a stimulus that does not exist." In addition, Revised plays up the difficult role-playing that comes with a Derangement, stating "Derangements are a challenge to role-play, without question, but a little time and care can result in an experience that is dramatic for all involved."

Like 2nd, Revised offers no method for overcoming a Derangement. Their list is, however, far more vampiric-focused than previous ones, including such conditions as: Multiple Personalities, Schizophrenia, Paranoia, Megalomania, Bulimia, Hysteria, Manic-Depression, Fugue, and Sanguinary Animism.

V20 keeps most of Revised's language intact, with one small change. One of the experiences that can cause a character to gain a Derangement is "being buried alive as part of a Sabbat ritual." Does this mean that in V20 all, or most, Sabbat have at least a Derangement? That would be an interesting take on the Sect...ah, well, something I'd need to keep an eye out for when we get to the discussion of Setting. Otherwise, the situation is more or less the same, with a slightly altered list. V20 uses almost the same list, but adds Obsessive Compulsive, and finally corrects Manic-Depression to Bipolar Disorder.

So, given all these changes, which is "best?" I've tried to avoid overtly commenting on which Edition I prefer through these posts, and I would like to keep it that way, at least until we reach the end of this series. But, given how much this subject has changed over the years, I feel like some sort of final comment is needed. Obviously, the correct answer is "whatever your Storyteller says"--such a subject is best handled with the players and storytellers discussing the issue openly and calmly, and coming to an agreement away from the game.

But, ignoring the obvious, what do I think is best? Well, V20 and Revised score points for being more medically accurate, as well with their more interesting take on "vampire specific" Derangements. But, even taking that into account, I have to say I prefer 1st.

Vampire has always billed itself as a "Storytelling Game of Personal Horror." That's a hell of a statement, and something that I'm still trying to wrap my head around. But after reading through 1st's take on Derangements, I think I'm beginning to understand it better. The horror in "Personal Horror" is derived in seeing what horrible and disgusting acts YOU perform, of confronting the monster that lies within us all. But for that to work, to a certain extent the player can not be in full control of the character. If a players can comfortably draw a line and say "no, I would NEVER cross this" and never does, then there is no Horror. The Horror comes from crossing these lines, sometimes against your will, and sometimes, even more horrifically, because of your will.

It also brings the genre of Vampire back to Horror, rather than the "dark superheroes" it often ends up being. Yes, it has vampires, and werewolves, and witches...but the mere presence of these troupes doesn't necessarily make it a Horror game. Horror games are, arguably, about the lack of control, and as such most have some kind of "sanity" or "fear" mechanisms. As the players experience increasingly horrendous and terrible events, their sense of self is gradually (or violently) torn away until they go mad. In Vampire, as a game of Personal Horror, it is not the events you witness or experience that shakes you to your very core, but instead the acts that you perform that does it.

Now, much like Call of Cthulhu, for a character to survive long enough for a campaign to exist, then there has to be some method of clawing themselves back to an at least somewhat neutral state. In CoC, you do this by gaining sanity for defeating the soul-sucking monstrosity from beyond the stars or spending time in the tender care of a Psychologist or in an Asylum. A vampire, obviously, can't check themselves in to a mental health clinic; though I will point out that another player can role-play out such sympathy and aid, and roll a relevant Social Attribute + Empathy to assist another character. Sure, the use of "spend willpower to overcome your Derangement. Do it enough time, and you can 'cure' yourself" might be overly "gamey" and far from realistic--I doubt "suppression and denial" are valid techniques for overcoming real mental issues. But, they do work for a game--they allow the character to participate in and commit horrendously horrific acts and tear themselves apart, but then, over time, to overcome and resolve them, only to set themselves up for the next round of horror and torment.

So, why the change? Unlike most of the significant changes in Vampire which occur between 2nd and Revised, this change happened following 1st. Truth be told, I have no idea. It was more or less the same creative team that worked on these editions, and these individuals were in charge of the company, so I can't imagine it was "corporate" decision. And surely the Derangement mechanics weren't the controversial element in a game where you play undead, blood sucking monsters. Maybe it was because the system in question was a bit clunky. It certainly isn't the most elegant take on such emotional stress that I've ever seen. But that seems insufficient for the radical change that did take place. It might have been simply a matter of math--perhaps the frequency of botching in 1st led to players acquiring far more Derangements than the designers intended. Or maybe they felt that the loss of Humanity was sufficient to track the emotional turmoil be inflicted upon a character.

Personally, though, I don't think that was the case. I think it was the players. I think that few, if any, truly wanted to play through such trauma, or focus on Personal Horror. I mean, it's rough, and its not fun. Now, plenty of people certainly enjoy seeing their characters go mad in Call of Cthulhu or other Horror games, so I think it was more than that.

Sleep all day, party all night.
When I first got into Vampire, I had the hardest time convincing my friends to give it a shot. They didn't want to deal with Humanity, or "feeling bad." They wanted to be monsters, they wanted to be the bad guy, and freaking enjoy it. They didn't want to be Michael, seeking to escape for the horrid state he found himself in, they wanted to be David, undead, evil, and damn proud of it. At that's true for many of us.

I mean, look at where vampire fiction has gone over the years. Compare, let's say, Twilight to Lost Boys. In Twilight, the vampires aren't scary, and there is nothing about their lives that isn't appealing. They're all young, and thin, and beautiful, with awesome abilities and seemingly limitless wealth. Becoming a vampire in such a world seems to be one step next to living in heaven, after all.

Well, aside from the whole "having to keep going back to High School"--seriously, don't be embracing no teenagers, damnit!

In Lost Boys? Being a vampire is horrific. Yeah, they look cool on the outside, drive kick ass motorcycles, have an awesome "clubhouse," and seem to be young and cool forever. But it's all a sham. A...Masquerade if you will, to conceal the true nature, one of relentless hunger and need.

The "cool gamers" mock Twilight because of its romance and "sparking" vampires, but it's what most of us want in our game. Or,screw it, let's say Underworld--we want to be the beautiful, the popular, the powerful, the rich. We want the freedom to cast away chains and commit any act we see fit to, because we can justify it as being necessary. We want to play as the Ubermensch, for our Will to be the only thing holding us back.

And Derangements and emotional trauma tell us this is not true. That we are not in control, that being a monster is not freedom but a cage. That embracing the allure of false power and and wealth is a trap that will surely doom us, and the only true freedom comes from fighting the Beast within, not accepting its lies. Whether it's suppressing and overcoming your own emotional trauma, helping another overcome theirs, trying to do the right thing when the wrong one would get you what you want more quickly or easily, or striving for Golgonda or to reclaim your lost mortality, it is the struggle against yourself that is the essence of Personal Horror.

Should this be the defining element of Vampire? Well, no, perhaps not. Giant gun battles in the middle of the highway are plenty fun too. But the more I think about, the more I feel it needs to be an element in the game,

Vampire: The Masquerade is a game, and as such bears little to no resemblance on the real world. For more information on Mental Health concerns please see the following sites:

National Alliance for Mental Illness

Call 800-950-6264

Monday, August 17, 2015

Let's Compare Editions! Part 3 -- Clans, and their Flaws

Let's Compare the different editions of Vampire: The Masquerade
Clans, and their Flaws

The Clans have remained one of the great constants throughout Vampire's run. While 1st and 2nd listed only the Camarilla Clans in the core book -- Brujah, Gangrel, Malkavian, Nosferatu, Toreador, Tremere, and Ventrue -- the Sabbat/Independent Clans still certainly existed back in these early days, even if they were then restricted to the Players Guide. What basic changes there are between editions tends to be more a result of shading and nuancing the Clans rather strong initial archetypal presentation, rather than a wholesale re-imagining. The Sabbat and Independent Clans more so that the Camarilla ones, as these were often initially conceived purely as antagonists to the players, rather than as viable characters in their own right. 

The changes between the editions for a few of the Clans, at least in terms of the core book, has been in their flaws. The main ones are:

Assamites: in Revised, Assamites have a Blood Addiction. If they ever taste the blood of another Vampire, they might develop an addiction. The next time they "come in contact with Kindred vitae" they most roll to avoid entering a frenzy and consuming as much as possible. I'm honestly not sure how this Flaw works--does the vinuculum count? Because if so, how the hell is the Sabbat still functioning? If not, how often does the Flaw even come up? I assume it's not triggered by being sired, after all. In any case, V20 brings back the original Clan flaw, of not being able to commit diablerie at all--in fact, attempting to do might even kill the character. I always felt this was a far more interesting Flaw. After all, the Clan is deliberately created to be the perfect killers of vampire and sacred mystics of diablerie. Making them incapable of "sealing the deal" is a lot cooler than "they're just TOO damn good at killing people."

Toreador: The flaw remains the same -- becoming entranced by beauty -- but the resit roll changes from Willpower to Self-Control. I suppose this is the result of "cleaning up" the system in the major change from 2nd to Revised, as Willpower stopped being a thing you rolled, and instead became a thing you spent much like blood pool.

The face of a vampire you
need to Blood Bond before
releasing to the public.
Tremere: In 1st, each Clan member was straight up Blood Bonded to the 7 Elders of the Clan. Now, how one can be Bonded to multiple Kindred isn't explained. It sounds like a variation on the vinculum, but it's important when going through these not to "read backward." In 2nd, this is changed to only a "one step" bond to the Clan. Revised adds the note that "the difficulty of any Dominate attempt from a clan superior is one less." V20 changes this again--now Tremere become Blood Bond on only 2 drinks from any potential domitor, rather than the typical three. It also includes this note: "The elders of the Clan are well aware of this, and seek to impart loyalty to the Clan by forcing all neonate Warlocks to drink of the blood of the seven Tremere elders soon after their Embrace." Are V20 Tremere Bond to the Clan, a la 1st? "Two-step" (as per their flaw) to each of the seven Elders? I'm not sure. In Revised, does the Dominate bonus apply to any Clan elder, or just to a superior in the Pyramid? 

Malkavaians didn't change all that much. Well, ok, the whole Dominate to Dementation thing happened, I guess having a derangement monster who can control your mind and impose his view of reality on you wasn't as scary as a deranged monster who couldn't predict what was going to happen next.  In any case, we'll look more into that change when we get to Disciplines.  The main thing right now is their Flaw. Now, the big change wasn't their flaw, itself, necessarily. They always had a "Derangement," after all. However, the answer to the question of "what is a Derangement?  And how does it affect the game?" has been answered in different ways in each edition. In fact, it's enough of a change to warrant its own post.

There are few other minor things with the Clans that I found interesting. The Brujah are described in 1st as creating several childer at a time, and calling these groups "packs." This was dropped in subsequent Editions, maybe due to fear of potential confusion with the Sabbat, or maybe the authors just didn't find the idea compelling -- after all, nothing like this crops up in the original set of supplements.

Also, there's the Gangrel/Gypsy thing. The "Gypsy" situation has been a long issue for White Wolf and Vampire. On one hand, they're an iconic horror element stretching at least as far back as the publications of Dracula. On the other, such depictions are often really, really racist. So, in 1st/2nd there is an understanding or alliance between the two groups. Sure, there's a myth that the Gypsies are the mortal descendants of the Gangrel Clan founder, but even within the text this is presented as a justification Myth--i.e., these two groups get along, therefore they must have a common origin or mythical connection back in the distant past. But, they weren't particularly close--it was more of a various travelers and wanders need to look out for each other rather than a direct connection.

As the Ravnos moved to a more prominent place in the game, this connection was lost from the Gangrel. The Ravnos, of course, are not "allied" with or "sympathetic" to the Gypsies; they are Gypsy Vampires. The do start referring to them by the more accurate term of Rom, of course, but it always struck me that the racist stereotypes, if anything, got worse with the Ravnos connection.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Transylvania Chronicles Redux -- ACT IX

Transylvania Chronicles III
Ill Omens
Act IX: The Blood of Tyrants

(Massive Spoilers)

Summary: It is 1789 and the players have decided to travel to Paris, the greatest city in Europe. Some might have already moved there, others are invited to partake in its social life, or to learn about new ideas they have heard of such as “Liberty,” or perhaps they’ve come to burn the place to the ground. Initially, they all share a terrible, portentous dream of them chasing a young man through a labyrinthine fortress to the sound of Anatole’s reading/chanting. When they arrive in Paris, they are met by a friendly local (who he is varies based on their history) who welcomes them and prepares them to enter Parisian society. They attend a fantastic ball, where they meet such old friends as Lucita and Anatole, as well as new ones like the scholar Becket, the Sabbat agitator Chatelle, and the Prince of Paris, Francois Villon. After much celebrating (including a potential faux pas), the peace of the evening is ruined by the actions of the mortals storming the Bastille. The players might go the Bastille themselves, or head there with Anatole. Or, they might go off with Chatelle. At the Bastille, they learn of an escaped prisoner with some knowledge of the tablets, as well as of Zelios. Those that go with the Sabbat are either targets of the bloodthirsty Cainites, or welcomed as brothers. For four years, the city of Paris is rocked with crisis after crisis, with each Sect seeking to use the chaos to their own advantage. If they pursue the prisoner and the tablet, they may, over the years find him. If they earn his trust (for his will is too strong for Dominate or Presence), he will guide them back to Innsbruk in Austria, where they will find the tablet and additional prophecies.

Key Factors: Players go to Paris. Paris burns. Players need to find someway to survive amidst the chaos.

I don't care what your Influence is, this is happening.

Initial Thoughts: Is the tablet key? In any other adventure, the players getting the mysterious McGuffin of Prophecy would be key, but it doesn’t seem necessarily so in this adventure. Honestly, though, I have a hard even calling this an adventure. Even the Act itself refers to it as a “mini-chronicle.”

Congratulations on finally being treated like
a noble!
The Blood of Tyrants does have its virtues. It acknowledges that the characters may be following entirely different paths, rendering the ability to tell one neat story almost impossible at this point. They might be aligned with different Sects. They might be fervently in favor of their Sect, or at best neutral to it.  They may not care about the fate of Paris, and instead focus on the Prophecy and what it means for them, or they may focus entirely on the politics of the setting. What they aren’t, though, is a group of nobodies that the Elders can order about with impunity. They are several centuries old, and it’s nice to see the books finally recognize this change.

Ah, simpler times.
And the setting? It’s wonderful. Paris is one of the most iconic and storied cities in the world, and the Revolution one of the great eras of history. It’s a vibrant, chaotic, messy, and fascinating location for a Chronicle, of any length. Not to mention it’s a welcome change from the forests, peasants, brutal lords, and storm-wrecked castles overlook mountain passes.

Even with all that going for it though, I’m still left with a sense of “what the hell is this?” First off, why are we doing an entire mini-Chronicle in Paris. Again, awesome setting. If someone came to me and pitched a Vampire game set in late 18th Century Paris, I’d be all about it. But to take the Transylvania Chronicles away from their home in Eastern Europe for such a long period of time just seems...bizarre.

And then there’s the issue of support. It’s nice to have a “Chronicle outline” but when you purchase a pre-published adventure like the Transylvania Chronicles you expect at least some of the “heavy lifting” to be done for you. Other than two or three local NPC’s, it falls on the Storyteller to generate the various Kindred of Paris, the Sabbat who seek to take over, and the dozens (hundreds?) of vampires who enter the city as refugees in the wake of the Revolution. If it was just a session or two, the lack of support wouldn’t matter. You only need the key players, you make up the rest as needed, and go. But for a Chronicle where the players might be trying to take over the city, or trying to save it, and where distrust and paranoia run rampant...this is a lot of additional work.

This seems like a nice place to stay for awhile.
Finally, there’s the question of why the players are staying in Paris during all this? They have spent centuries building up their power in Eastern Europe. They might be Princes or Bishops of major cities by this point, or if they’re wanderers then they, well, are wanderers. I get that the plot-line of the Prisoner is there to help motivate the characters to stay (after all, their visions eerily remind them of the Bastille, and they have seen the prisoner in their dreams), it still seems like a slim thread to keep the Kindred away from their homes.


I don’t know.

I mean, tracking down the Prophetic McGuffin is such a side plot in Blood of Tyrants, that you really could drop it down anywhere else in the world and it would still work. Perhaps a Chronicle set during the Napoleonic Wars or the like. You really don’t need to run anything else in this Act to keep that information flowing.

But, Paris is awesome, and Revolutionary Paris is iconic. So, let’s assume you wanted to keep that.

1) The characters need to start in Paris. They mention this in the Act, but you need to tell the players what’s going on, and have them come up with their own ideas as to why they would be there. You also want them to be there for at least a decade or so, to have some roots and vested interests in the City. Even if they’re Sabbat and want to conquer the place, they still need to be there for their own desires.

2) Detail the city. Paris is a massive city for this time, with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. Even in our world it was a dystopic nightmare between the poor and working classes on one side and the nobility and church leaders on the other. This is great fodder for a World of Darkness game, and so create and detail your own Paris by Night book. Obviously, focus on what you need based on this being a Camarilla focused game, or a Sabbat one. In any case, you’re going to need to generate your own city. I recommend checking out Chicago by Night 2nd Edition or Milwaukee by Night for examples of settings that take place after a massive event shakes the city to its core.

3) Let the players nuke canon. Let them have a shot at conquering it for the Sabbat, or for seizing the Princedom for themselves. Or, the chance to fail, and lose the City to their hated rivals.  I don’t care what Sect is supposed to run the city in the official World of Darkness or who is supposed to be its Prince. If you’re going to stick the players in the center of such a turbulent time period, give them the ability to make or break it for themselves.

That’s really all I can think of, because unfortunately, that’s what the book wants you to do. Running it as is or not, you’re going to need to make your own Paris. If you’re cool with that and the players are too, I’m sure it can be great. if not, well, you’re going to have to create your own Act IX anyways.

(Transylvania Chronicles III: Ill Omens, written by Reid Schmadeka with Brendan Moran. Published by White Wolf Publishing, Inc. 1999. Available for purchase at drivethrurpg.)

Let's Play Alien Hunger

What follows is an experiment in Solo Gaming, or at least an experiment for myself. I have run a few games in the past, but I wanted to...