Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Last Night

In this post, I want to look at The Last Night, the sample adventure which comes with the V5 Pre-Alpha rules set. There's actually quite a bit going on with this slim 56 page book, and as such, I want to  approach it in a couple of different ways. First, what is the adventure itself and how does it work on its own terms? Secondly, what does this tell us about the world and setting they have lined up for V5? Finally, what can we glean as far as the mood and themes of the game going forward. Needless to say, this post is full of spoilers. If you intend to play this adventure, please do not read any further.

The Adventure Itself

Since the adventure is freely available, I'm not going to spend a lot of time recapping the events here. What I will say is that the basic framework is pretty well setup. The players are a pre-existing coterie with a strong reason to be together and to engage in the adventure. The first significant scene (Siege of Golden Gate) is tense and exciting. The players then get a "breather" of sorts with its own issues and challenges--where to hunt, where to find safe haven, where to secure their friend, etc. Finally, the players are left with what should be a difficult choice given the chaos that is erupting in Berlin.

In each main section the adventure allows for players to make meaningful decisions, as well as accounting for potential failure at any point. While there is something like a "right" way to finish the module, the players have the freedom to go more or less in their own direction, and the adventure provides a decent amount of support for these alternate routes. At its most basic, its one of the better Vampire adventures I've read, and I hope it's a sign of how they'll approach adventure design going forward.

There are a few caveats, of course. The module is heavily tied to a LARP event. Now, normally I dislike the ideas of LARPs carrying over to the table top realm (or vice versa), as the two are different games, and I really dislike the idea of players in another game directly impacting events in my game. But, it's was for a convention, and assuming every player in the adventure had been part of the LARP, or at least heard about, is reasonable.

Secondly, the motivation for all the characters is tied to a Blood Bond with an Elder. This seems extremely heavy handed, but "heavy handed" is pretty much required for a convention adventure. If you're playing D&D, a wizard teleports you to room 1A, and if you're playing Vampire you all need to rescue the guy you're Bonded to.

Thirdly, there's certain parts with heavier than normal "rail-roading." For example, there's a powerful Anarch who (might) interrogate the coterie, and his Disciplines are high enough that you just can't lie to him. At all. This seems extreme, and I'm not sure how it works with the Rousing the Blood system the provided in the basic rules, but I'm willing to hand wave for such an adventure. I would despise these elements  if it was standard published adventure, or even if my local Storyteller came up with this, but I'll let it slide based on the needs of the convention format. I just hope it's not a design philosophy they'll stick with when the game is finally released.

Still, at it's core, this is well designed adventure that allows for a lot of player choice in how to resolve things, including the ending. I'm eager to give it a whirl.

The New World
They've released the basic mechanics, but the setting itself remains somewhat opaque for 5th Edition. We really only have this adventure and the mobile game We Eat Blood to go on, and neither of which was focused on explaining the world in any significant way to new players. Far as I can tell, here is what we know:

The Camarilla is a shadow of its former self. It is far more Balkanized and local than how it was presented in Revised or V20. While I certainly prefer the focus to be on individual cities and the vampires who dwell there, I find the idea of the Camarilla being an isolated "elite" within these communities to be a bit odd. I always liked the idea that the Camarilla operated on the assumption that every vampire was a member, regardless of what that vampire might say. Now, it seems to consist of a core of loyalists imposing their will on others. Perhaps this is not a significant change in reality, but it does seem off to me.

I'm reminded of a couple of instances I saw in my (admittedly brief) LARP career. Fairly often, a Giovanni or a Setite or some other "independent" would arrive in the city, and basically tell the Prince they weren't part of the Camarilla and they were going to do whatever the hell they wanted. And the Prince, acknowledging they weren't part of the Camarilla, would let them. This confused me, greatly, since in my table top games the Prince wouldn't have cared what the Giovanni thought--it was his city, his rules, and they obey those rules and traditions, or else. The "else" being lack of the Prince's protection, which means they were fair game for fraud, kidnapping, murder, really anything short of diablerie.

Still, this slight change seems to fit the LARP world, I suppose. And while I'm not excited by this change, I'm willing to hold off judgement until something more concrete is released.  Given how idiosyncratic each of my settings have been, I doubt this will be a major change going forward. We'll see.

Also, the rise of technology has left many vampires paranoid and unwilling to trust any message over the phone or computer. I've been running the game this way since the 90's, so this just makes sense to me. Even if the Second Inquisition wasn't in effect, murderous criminal conspiracies need to be careful in how they communicate.

The Sabbat is barely mentioned. There's a vague reference to a "Gehenna War," but that's it. So far, the crazy bastards seem to be of little standing in the new setting. Which is fine. While I've certainly run a few Chronicles that focused heaving on the Camarilla/Sabbat struggle, in general I like the idea of the Sabbat taking a back seat. Others will likely feel differently. I'm sure there's more going on with them than what little we've seen.

The Second Inquisition is a final piece of the puzzle, and the one that calls out for more information. Apparently, around 2006 a significant number of governments became aware of the vampiric threat, and are actively hunting them down, under the guise of anti-terrorism operations. It's unclear how they know about vampires, what they know exactly, and how widespread the information is. For example, how and why has the secret been kept from humanity as a whole? I suppose this is a bit of two-headed solution to the modern day. Humans do know about vampires, but they are helping to keep it secret. But, they are also eager hunters, so gross Masquerade violations can and will be met with trained and prepared legal authorities, who are ready to use lethal force.

One change does happen with this, though. In Last Night, you spend a significant amount of time fighting or running from the German part of the Second Inquisition. In most games I've played, mortal law enforcement was a minimal role in the narrative. They were there, surely, and drawing their attention was dangerous. In fact, smart vampires did their best to avoid law enforcement as much as possible. With the Second Inquisition in effect, it looks like law enforcement will play a much larger role in the game going forward. How long until we have vampires working with the Inquisition, to hunt down the truly monstrous ones? Or, vampires and other supernaturals forced into a "suicide squad" situation? Or just the cops becoming corrupt, and lording their extra-legal authority over the kindred?

Mood and Themes

This is probably where the most controversial aspects of the game start to emerge. Like We Eat Blood, The Last Night does not shy away from making the characters monsters, and doing and committing atrocious acts. Acts which are vile enough to sicken players, and perhaps turn them off the game entirely. While "playing the monster" is a key part of Vampire's appeal, how one presents it and what one does with it is the key to this working or not. I firmly believe that artists, and yes I consider roleplaying and video game writers to be artists, need to be free to explore the world through their works as they see fit.

Of course, the audience is equally free to reject this art.

Much like the mobile game, I'm probably more accepting of some of the choices in The Last Night, if only because of its nature.  As a convention module, and the "first look" at the new world, it needs to cram as much into is as possible. And that rarely is an opportunity for subtlety or nuance. Given the choices that it makes, particularly with pre-generated characters, it is a terrible tool for introducing new players to the game. But, for exploring these particular characters in this particular situation, it may or may not work.

On a broader level, however, the choices that White Wolf has made with both this adventure and We Eat Blood gives me pause. In both cases, certain tropes and themes become abundantly clear, and with  these I do have a problem. The characters seem to exclusively be jaded "scene kids"--artists of one sort or another who waste their lives in a drug and sex filled binge, with no conception or concern for tomorrow.  While I generally agree with the association of vampires to addicts, I have a bit of a problem with turning addicts into vampires. Or, with making all vampires such characters.

On of the things that always appealed to me about Vampire was, yes, the element of wish fulfillment. Or, more to be more acculturate, relatability. While I don't live in a fantasy world of magic and orcs or on the fringes of a distant Galactic Empire, I do live in the modern world, in the here and now. And therefore its very possible to understand and relate to a character in that world, someone like you or at least someone you understand, and then explore the world of darkness with that character. It doesn't mean that you always play someone just like you. Maybe your character is from a different country, different ethnic group, different religion, or gender, or sexuality, or economic class or...whatever. Anyone could become a vampire, and of any Clan, and therefore the game could reach an element of universality.

In 1st, they presented you with sample characters such as Malcolm, a burned out shell of a man driven by a perverted sense of vigilante justice. Travis, the artistic comedian turned vengeance driven rebel. Euclid, the homeless man just struggling to survive, while being torn between two fathers. Hell, you even have the story of Kyle, the photographer, and Shelzza, his ancient sire, weaving its way throughout the book. Each of these characters were different, and unique, and responded to the emotional, physical and social challenges of their change differently.

The characters as presented so far seem to be depressingly similar to each other--privileged drug addled nihilists who will suck and fuck anything presented to them. It's possible this is a coincidence, perhaps Zak Sabbath had his own idea for a vampire character, and the sample PC's are just similar due to the need of blood bonding them all to Andre. Neither necessary reflects where they are taking the mood of the game, nor examples of what kind of characters they'll encourage players to make.

Of course, it's possible that it's just me. I'm far from the core audience for the new edition of Vampire. My partying days are over, and even when they were in full swing rarely involved anything resembling the world so far presented. Maybe such characters as "dirty club kid," "urban culture blogger," "wealthy inheritor," or "techno-tourist" are eminently relatable to the majority of players. To me, they just seem more like empty cliche's than actual people.

And because they feel empty, the inherent horror potential of the characters falls flat. I love the idea of characters being monstrous, and fighting against those urges, and struggling to make sense of what has overtaken them. But when the character is empty, and they perform utterly reprehensible acts, the horror feels empty. Shocking for the sake of shock. Gross for the sake of grossness. Empty horror descends into mindless shlock.

I think this is what bothers me so far with the themes and mood of the game, as presented so far. The empty horror, the shock for shocks sake, the empty "sophisticated" nihilism--these are the "bad" guys. The ones who can't handle the world, and so turn in on themselves to numb the pain and avoid emotion or connection. Those who are without hope. The ones you want to avoid becoming.

See, hope is a difficult thing, but is the key to making horror work. The characters need something to strive for--peach and justice if they overthrow the Prince, serenity if they can reach Golconda, balance if they can keep their mortal friends and family in the dark just long enough, SOMETHING to strive for. Something they want, something they seek to protect or attain or accomplish. Some hope that keeps flickering in the night sky, some faint thing that promises that it will all be worth it. Some hope that might be snuffed out, but maybe one can reclaim it. Without hope, horror is nothing but blood and screams. With hope, it can be transcendent.

The characters so far aren't fighting against emotion and death...they are dead. And nothing matters.
I hope I'm wrong about this, and it's just a result of the small sample size of characters we've seen before. Or, perhaps I'm just not appreciating the characters for who they are. Perhaps there's more to them that will be revealed in the hands of a player.

But also, regardless of the nihilistic horror, they all seem like freaking morons.

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