Monday, January 18, 2016

Retrospective: Alien Hunger

Alien Hunger is, without a doubt, my favorite published adventure for Vampire: The Masquerade, and the one I have run more than any other. It's also one of the oldest, published back in 1991, and one of the first supplements ever published for the game. Which might be why I like it so; there's a sense of chaos and experimentation in many of the earlier supplements that is invigorating.

It's a different kind of Vampire adventure than most of what White Wolf published (even contemporaries like Ashes to Ashes). It's more immediate, local, and personal, at least compared to the more dramatic epics.  The players aren't dealing with a massive change to Kindred history, or even alterations to a city. Instead, the adventure is about them, how the change into vampires affects them, and destroys them, and ultimately what they decide to do with these changes. As such, it's only really appropriate for a new Chronicle, and I find the less experience with both roleplaying in general and Vampire in particular, the better the experience will be for the players. Though I'll go more into what I mean by that later.

I can't really talk about Alien Hunger without getting too deep into the "plot" of the adventure, such as it is. So, here's spoilers for a 25 year old adventure. At the beginning, the players either create mortal characters, or choose one of the pre-generated ones. The only restriction is that they all must live in Denver, know each other in some fashion, and have a general liking to each other. They're friends and acquaintances, not necessarily friends. For example, all the pre-gens are connected via community theater, so they're all members of the same social group. One night, a stranger kidnaps each of the characters. Hours later they awaken, changed, and locked in the basement of a burning building with a few mortals.
'Cause when you think Vampire, you think DENVER! Actually, I wish
they had done more with some of the less "iconic" cities.
Their "sire" (for lack of a better term) is an Elder who has been researching a cure for vampirism, and believes he has finally found it.  Now ready for more advanced trials, and has grabbed the characters to test his theory. The plan was to turn them (through a special technique), make sure they were vampires, and then administer the cure. In theory, no one should have remembered anything, but local Kindred intervened, slew the Elder and set fire to his haven.

As ever, it's more complicated than that, but that's the basics.

The players have an obvious and immediate goal, to get the hell out of the building. It's tricky, but there are ways. The bigger issue is how do they handle the mortals? Do they frenzy and slay them? Do they reveal what they are? Will they even figure it out before it's too late?

Once out, they need to deal with the changes they've gone through. In fact, once they're out, the adventure opens up. The players can, more or less, do whatever the hell they want. There are certain plot threads, of course, that they'll need to deal with in some form sooner or later. First, understanding what they are, what they can and can't do, and what, if any, precautions they need to take. This is exacerbated by a local detective who just knows there's something fishy about the characters. Secondly, the Kindred of Denver. While they had no idea what their creator was up to that night, they have little patience for these strange outsiders and there seeming deliberate actions that threaten their community. After all, the players are going to screw up, somehow and in someway, which the locals will view as a threat. Finally, there's the question of what happened to them, why, and if there's anyway to undue it.

I think it is this structure that makes me so love this adventure. The various threads do follow each each logically--the cop and dealing with changes would come first. After all, the Kindred of Denver don't even know the players exist at first. Then, once they begin hunting the coterie, survival becomes the focus. Only once both of these are settled can the players comfortably deal with the greater questions. But, it doesn't HAVE to be this way. In one play through, the players never really dealt with the police, instead going "off the grid" and being on the run the entire game. In another, the war with the other Kindred continued even after the had resolved the question of their origin. Each time I've run it, the game has gone some in its own unusual fashion.

This is the kind of structure I use for my own games; create a situation and let the players respond to it as they see fit. There are no "scenes" or chapters, the story unfolds as it will based on the characters actions. It's a style that I wish more Vampire adventures adhered to. For some groups, the struggle with the law and their own changes will predominate. Others will resolve this quickly but will go to war with the other vampires. Its entirely up to them, which makes for an incredible experience.

Of course, there are some flaws in Alien Hunger. First off, it's pitched as "Jump Start" for Vampire. But, the very nature of their embrace makes for an odd and unusual setup for a Chronicle. Since they are created as lab experiments, the ties of sire and Clan, and the benefits and consequences of these relationships are entirely lacking not only for this story, but for any that come after. While the coterie will have a strong reason to be together, at least initially, it also makes it damn difficult to replace characters or add new players to the game later.

It also doesn't work well for veterans, of either Vampire or gaming in general. This is not because they know the "rules"--understanding disciplines and blood use, or knowing about how the city has a "Prince" isn't the issue. The problem is that if you think like a "gamer" you are going to have a VERY tough time with this adventure. Veterans often think "well, we can just kill this cop," whereas new players often never even think that, understanding that killing cops is a bad thing. Particularly if you're trying to not draw attention to yourself. Likewise, veterans often assume that any enemy vampire presented in the game most be "level appropriate" and will often choose to stand and fight when they should run. Alien Hunger isn't intended to be a blood bath, but approaching it like a game can have disastrous consequences.

Finally, while Alien Hunger provides an excellent setup for the coterie to form initially, it is terrible at keeping them together, making it as best a crap shoot as a basis for an ongoing Chronicle. In fact, I've never seen a coterie survive the story. Not the characters--again, it's not a blood bath. But the coterie has fallen apart every time I've run this story. This might be a negative to some Storytellers, but to me it's an amazing positive.

By the end of the story, the characters have been through hell. Death, damnation, murder, violence, and paranoia have been their companions for days or weeks, and they are irrevocably changed from who and what they were. As they find the final clues and uncover the lab work of their creator, they are presented with a number of choices. Risk the cure? Destroy it? Turn it over to other vampires? Ignore it? More critically, there are broader questions of what they've become, how they feel about being vampires, what they want going forward, and what they have done to survive up to this point.

Every time, it's these questions that tear the group apart. Morality, ethics, Humanity, acceptance or rejection of others of their kind and what they have become. Questions for which there are no "right" answers, but merely each individual characters point of view. I've seen betrayals and lies and hour long debates about things that really matter tear the coterie apart. Not the group, not the players, but the characters.

It's an amazing thing to witness. I generally dislike "inter-party conflict," that tiresome trope of players backstabbing others because "it's what my character would do" over some slight, real or imagined, or some insane theory, or just because of "lolz." But this kind of conflict? Arguing about philosophy and morality and right and wrong, and the group falling apart over those who embrace being vampires and the power they have over those who are terrified and reject their existence? The kind of conflict where after the game, everyone has had a great time, and feel more alive and engaged than they did before the game started? The kind of conflict that makes the story powerful and memorable, and might even leave a player with a new perspective on things in the real world? Yeah, this is why I love Vampire and why, when it works, there is no other game like it.

As such, I feel that Alien Hunger works best as a "one-shot." Approach it as a closed story, a brief diversion from your other games that might last a session or three (I generally find it lasts 2-4 sessions, but this is up to each group). If everyone has fun, then continue the game (if the coterie survives) or start a more conventional Vampire game as a follow up.

So, if you have a group of people who have never tried roleplaying before, and they're into vampires and horror and all that junk that we love, run Alien Hunger. It can be an amazing experience for everyone. If you're players are really into Vampire and/or want to do something epic and "badass," well, there are other adventures that will better suit their needs. At the very least, any Storyteller can learn a thing or two by reading it, just to get a different perspective on what Vampire can do.

Alien Hunger by Jeff Berry. Published by White Wolf Publishing, Inc. 1991. Available for purchase at DriveThruRPG

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