Monday, September 30, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 22 Feeding and the Hunt

I've been in too many games where feeding was nothing more than a nuisance, something the players avoided unless they had too in order to recover from a particular battle, or minimized as much as possible with the presence of ghouls. Indeed, a number of players took great, if seemingly perverse, enjoyment on not hunting, having their characters spend multiple nights cooped up in their havens, watching TV or playing video games, and only hunting when the absolutely had too.

This always confused me, since hunting and feeding off of a mortals is pretty much the definition of a vampire. I mean, it’s what they’re designed to do. If you don’t want to play a literally bloodthirsty predator, then why are we playing Vampire? So, taking a cue from not only my own preconceived notions of what a vampire should be, but also from what the core book describes, I've come up with my ideas for feeding. It’s something I've started enforcing in the games I run, and so far has worked pretty well.

First off, a vampire's primary passion and focus is feeding. Drinking blood is the great pleasure of their lives--a combination of the best food, drink, drugs, and sex that a mortal can experience. Now, just as a gourmand will spend hours crafting the perfect meal, or a Lothario will spend time seducing a particular woman, so to will a kindred spend time “hunting” a particularly desirable vessel. This is not an inconvenient burden to most Kindred, but instead a rarefied pleasure, something they look forward to and engage with great gusto. Compared to the pleasure of being on the hunt, such acts as games, or movies, or even battle are like ash to a vampire.

In the modern city, the vampire population is generally set at roughly 1:100,000, creating a vast supply of vessels available to any Kindred, far more than they could ever possibly consume. This ratio is of course created not for their convenience, but instead as shield for them. Having less than 1% the of mortals in any given city ever even come close to interacting with the undead makes preserving the Masquerade that much easier. But this vast gulf of numbers creates an odd discordance within the vampire--having a practical ocean of blood available, they end up becoming picky and fickle, and living under an illusion of scarcity.

Vampires are not healthy individuals--they were ordinary men and women suddenly and often violently thrust into the role of supernatural predator. In addition to the moral and ethical issues that arise from such a condition, there is also the psychological toll. In many, this is expressed as a form of selectivity among their prey, as they find certain mortals preferable to others, and end up focusing their hunting on these select group to the exclusion of all others. Granted, this is most extreme in the Ventrue, with their flaw being the inability to feed off of anyone EXCEPT their specific prey, but many Kindred express this tendency.

The classic favorite prey is of course the young and beautiful woman, but this is far from universal. This favorite prey can be anyone the Kindred desires, and is often tied more towards their own unresolved issues they had as a mortal than any lingering sense of sexual desire--though of course those whose issues are tied to sex remain fairly common. This proclivity is often expressed within the first few years of their unlife, and will often remain fairly common throughout their existence.

So, what kind of prey would any given character prefer? Well, it depends. Let’s take as an example of “nerdy young man who used to get picked on a lot.” He might go for the the beautiful model or Girl Gone Wild--which represents to him all that he couldn't have as a mortal, but now he can “take.” Or, he might go for the nerdy “wallflower” type--the girls he might actually have known and dated (had he the confidence), but for whom he always felt deep affection and unrequited crushes. He might feed on other “nerdy young men” out of a sense of both affection and lingering self-hatred, or he might target “jocks” and athletic men, driven by revenge for all the abuse “they” heaped on him as a mortal.

As the examples above show, the preferred prey can be a wonderful tool for characterization and focus for a character, taking them away from a generic vampires, to a specific person with specific issues and world view.

Now, given their preferred prey, once can also extrapolate behavior and influence. Let’s take our nerdy young man from above, and say he prefers the “Girls Gone Wild” type. As such, he tends to favor the college bar scene, where his prey is most easily located. In order to blend in, he seeks to look and behave as a “typical” college student. He might sign up for classes (part time, and night courses only, of course) so he has an ID, knows the campus, and can speak intelligently about the school and the issues that a “normal” student would face. He would seek to dress the way other “alpha males” at the university dress, and behave the same way; looking to pass himself off as, or at least similar to, a “cool frat guy” or the like--whatever he feels his prey would find most desirable and nonthreatening. Even when he is “off” and associating with others outside of the specific area of the hunt, he is still likely to dress and behave in a similar manner.

Secondly, his need to blend in and secure his own personal Masquerade would necessitate the development of some sort of influence.  He would to know how to manipulate the University, so he can attend there for a long time without being flagged as suspicious, as well knowing how to use the college bars and their employees to his own advantage. From these, further influences may develop, as various threats and risks inevitably arise that he must deal with for his own safety and the security of his “herd.”

Finally, there is the issue of how much blood one consumes on a given night. Physically, vampires only truly need to consume a single blood point to keep functioning on a typical night, assuming they do not need to heal or spend blood for any particular purpose.  I mean, as human, I only NEED roughly 2,000 calories a day, which I can easily get through basic foods combined with supplements. I do not NEED to drink alcohol, or consume other drugs, nor do I need to have sex for anything but the most basic of reproductive reasons.  Of course, we all consume/do more than we absolutely need to survive--after all, what is life without love, and what is a celebration without shared drink or food?

Besides, vampires are unnatural bloodthirsty predators--one blood point a night is starvation rations.

So, I assume that vampires consume MUCH more than they need on a typical night. The actual amount varies based on their Humanity. Those with high rating genuinely desire to consume less, while those with low ratings desire significantly more. As a rule of thumb, I use 10-Humanity Rating for the amount of blood a vampire wants to consume on a routine night. Some of the excess is spent as the Kindred burns blood to increase attributes, power disciples like Celerity, or to give themselves the “blush of life”--the rest is wasted. Because, you know, vampires are assholes.

For Paths, I deal with them on case-by-case basis. Those that espouse Conscience and Self-Control like Road of Heaven, would use the above rules. Those that follow alternate and in-human virtues would be treated as having a Humanity of 0. Such is one of the costs of fully embracing your identity as a vampire.

Failure to consume their preferred amount leaves a vampires shaken, like an addict going through withdrawal. If they did not consume “enough” during one night, the following night they are -1 to all dice pools. This is cumulative for each night they do not feed “sufficiently,” but each night of normal feeding likewise reducing the penalty. So, if a vampires is forced into hiding for three nights, on the third night they would be at -2 (they were fine the first night, -1 the second, -2 the third). If they could then feed to their content, they would go to -1, and after two nights of normal feeding, be fine.

One may spend a Willpower point to resist this, and the penalty is ignored for the night, though it still increases if one does not feed the following. Eventually, either the penalty or the lack of Willpower will force the character to feed, and with odds stacked so against them, once can be sure that their hunt will be messy, and violent. Regular hunting and feeding is necessary to control the Beast.

In game, when players hunt, i do tend to be rather generous. If targeting their preferred prey, I will often given them reduced difficulty, with bonus dice if they can operate in their “hunting grounds.” It is really only when one is forced outside of their comfort zone, or lacks such hunting grounds, that the difficulties and dangers or the Beast become apparent.

Knowing who and why a particular character hunts allows me to further develop and detail that character, be they NPC or PC. It allows me to see where they are strong, and where they are vulnerable, it allows me to understand how they fit into the city as a whole, and who they are likely (or currently are) running into problems with. In fact, without this information, I’m not sure I’d ever be able to run my “social sandbox” style of game.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 21 Harpies and Social Games

The “Harpies” are the social glue of vampiric society. They’re the “other” guys, the ones that most of the great drama of the Jyhad tends to gloss over.  Neither powerful and established Princes or Primogen nor desperate and hungry Anarchs, they sit, more or less, on the sideline, commenting and judging all that goes on around them.  It is they who determine the nature of Boons and indebtedness, as well as granting or withdrawing Status and fame. The best comparison is the stereotypical clique of “mean girls” who dominate their high school, not through physical or intellectual prowess, but through their mastery of social interaction. If they say “you’re cool” then you are cool, and no one can challenge that, not matter how obtuse their judgement might be.

Of course, like any self-respecting 1st Ed player, I hate the term “Harpy.” When first presented, it was an insult, a slur slung at them by the anarchs for their useless gossip. In Chicago by Night the Harpy equivalent certainly weren't CALLED that; instead they were referred to in the book as “Annabelle’s Party Elite.” Much like the Primogen morphing into a City Council, I assume this “codification” is a result of the LARP community, but it’s a decent enough term for discussing a vital phenomenon in the setting, so I’ll use it. Actually in game, however, I tend to not use this term, preferring instead to call them by either direct name, or the name of their most prominent member--similar to how Chicago handled it.

In any case, like a number of elements that should be prominent in a Vampire Chronicle, I've only seen the Harpies show up sporadically. Part of this is my fault, with my tendency to run smaller city games with such a small population of Kindred that the “social butterflies” are pretty much non-existent. In the games that I have played in with larger communities of the undead, the Harpies were fairly insignificant to the game. I mean, the PC’s could go the parties, and if we asked specific questions we might get answers, but whenever I just wanted to “hang out” and get caught up on what was going, the Storyteller had no idea how to respond. Generally I would get a vague non-answer like “you know, they’re talking about parties and stuff” or it would be whatever the current top news story was in the real world. While I’m sure Harpies do talk about mortal politics from time to time, I doubt the issues of the debt ceiling are a routine topic of conversation.

Now, I do understand why my Storytellers have run into this problem. First, it’s difficult and annoying to run crown scenes…talking as multiple NPC’s while the players just listen in is boring for everyone. Also, they often don’t know what the gossip or rumors are, and therefore they don’t have anything to tell you about, except for what is specifically happening in the current story. I sympathize with them, but I still feel it’s a shame.

This is one of the reason why I started creating my NPC’s the way I do--by having each significant NPC in the setting having goals (some perceived, some hidden), favored hunting environments, and plots and stories that revolve around them/originate from them, I have the raw information I need for a social sandbox. Using this, I can come up with a number of rumors that are percolating through the city, and are fresh fodder for the gossipy mavens of Elysium.

See, I've come to view the Harpies more as the taverns of a D&D game--the source for rumors and “plot hooks” that can drive the game. Given what I know about the NPC’s, I can see where the friction and fault lines in the city are, which of course is going to be talked about behind everyone's back. Also, the plots that derive from each NPC, which may or may not directly impact the PC’s,  can be happening all the time--the city is not, after all, a static place. Talking with the Harpies allows the PC’s to become aware of all this, and therefore able to respond or exploit these events as they see fit.

Not all, or even most, of this information is going to be accurate, after all. It’s going to be juiced up as it gets passed around, with each retelling being more dramatic and interesting than the last.  For example, the players may hear about Edward--a relatively minor Kindred who makes his haven in the suburbs of the city, barely eking by; but he has a prominent sire, and so he is known by the Harpies. The PC’s may hear that Edward is being hunted by, let’s say, a Lupine! Apparently, he fell in love with a beautiful, if sullen, mortal woman, who, upon discovering Edward’s true nature, rejected him and fled. Enraged, Edward hunted her down and murdered her. Unbeknownst to Jason, however, her heart truly belonged to a man named Jacob, who, discovering his love murdered, sought a powerful witch to turn him into a werewolf, and is now hunting his lovers killer!

The truth, of course, is different. As a Storyteller, I know that Edwards territory includes a haunted house, which is actually built on the site of an ancient Werewolf Caern. The Lupine, whose name is definitely NOT Jacob, is trying to find the Caern, but specifically hunting for a lost fetish, and is unaware of Edwards existence. Edward passed the word around as a warning to other kindred, where it was completely blown out of proportion. Potentially, this was deliberate, if there is someone among the Harpies who has a grudge of some sort against Edward, or his sire. After all, a rogue Lupine in the domain of a Prince should demand some sort of “official” response, but if the Lupine’s presence is the result of one particular Kindreds mistakes and foolishness, then dealing with the beast falls on his head, not the Kindred as a whole.

So, I try to come up with a half dozen or so rumors based on the NPC sheets I’ve created, and make notes on what the Harpies know, or think they know, about it. When the players go to “hang out” and get caught up on the gossip, I’ll include some things that are related to the current story, if applicable, but also include a couple of these little tidbits. Generally I make the players roll something like Charisma + Etiquette to see how well they behave and how readily people want to fill them in, with a separate die roll determining what rumors they hear about.

The other virtue of Harpies, of course, is their ability to bring in social pressure. If the players are being jerks for no good reason, it’s the Harpies who will put them in their place. If they show up in their body armor, black trench-coats and silver-plated Katanas, it’s the Harpies who will laugh and mock them, referring to them as “Neo” and “Highlander”  And if they are untrustworthy with their Boons and debts, it is the Harpies who will decide that their ties with others are broken, and now none owe them any of the Boons they are owed.

Of course, it’s not like they have a vote or anything on this. These decisions are the result of small groups talking among each other, passing information and opinion back and forth, until a general, if unofficial, consensus is reached. On the flip side, the players can certainly engage with the Harpies as another playing field of the Jyhad, spreading their own rumors, with their own biased accounts, to get THEIR story out. I haven’t really worked out a detailed “social mini-game,” since so far I've been treating it on a more ad-hoc basis, but controlling the “news cycle” can be as critical to a Kindred as it is to any politician.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 20 Primogen and Power

It was my very first time at a LARP when I lost all respect for the Primogen.

I was playing an “NPC” sent to see what the hell was going on in another city. I hung out with the local clanmates, Brujah, and they seemed nice enough, if rather passive. Eventually, the Prince called a meeting of the Primogen and as an “honored guest” I was allowed to sit in and bear witness to what was going on. One of the issues that came up was the Brujah Primogen--apparently he had in some previous session done something that rather upset the Prince. The Prince, in his regal majesty, proclaimed that this individual was no longer allowed on the Primogen council, and should leave immediately. I snorted under my breath, waiting for the inevitable backlash, but it never came. The character in question didn't stand up for his rights and power, the other Primogen didn't lash out at this violation of their rights and privileges, and the Prince had no fear of those around him.

In short, while this group of Kindred may have been a council, it was one convened at the will and whim of the Prince. They were not Primogen. At least, not in how I conceive of the concept.

What the hell is the Primogen? In a lot of games they are the “legislative” branch of Kindred government, with each clan getting one member--a “Brujah Primogen” a “Gangrel Primogen,” etc. Often the Prince’s clan is the only one that doesn't have a Primogen, as it is assumed that he provides sufficient “representation.” Their job is to represent their clans interests to the city at large, and enforce clan unity through “whips.” They are the “City Council” to the Princes “Mayor.”

Personally, I think this is the lamest bullshit I've ever seen in a game. I mean, sure, one can do some  interesting things with that setup, and I can see a cool city built around that idea. But as the default/standard “this is the way most cities are organized”--forget it. For one thing, it’s repetitive and boring. Secondly, there’s no mystery or nuance to the politics of the city. Thirdly, you’re dealing with violent psychopathic killers--no matter how jaded you are to politicians in the real work, Vampires’ closest analogues are not Democrats or Republicans--it’s mob bosses.

The Prince is the biggest, nastiest “Bad” in the city--the Kindred who in one way or another can get any other Kindred to follow his lead. He might be personally so powerful than none dare oppose him, but there are other ways to be the Boss. One might have so much personal wealth, resources, and mortal influence that only they can keep the Masquerade in tact. Another might have a loyal and dedicated band of followers that allow them, as a group, to take down any other faction in the city. Or maybe he’s just the guys that, regardless of his naked power, enough Kindred trust with the responsibilities and obligations of the Princedom.

Remember, a Prince has three critical responsibilities. Number one, is preserve the Masquerade--no matter the cost, mortals must never find out about the existence of the undead. Two, enforce the Traditions. Third, and related to Two, is to be a “neutral arbitrator” and resolve the conflicts and disputes that are endemic to the Kindred. If one can not fulfill these three roles, no matter how powerful one is, then one is not a true Prince. Likewise, one can not be a Prince without some measure of power, else one could not perform the duties expected of the position. But heres the thing--one does not need the entire city to support you to be the Prince. In fact you don’t even need a majority.

All you need is a dedicated minority willing to enforce your will, and a majority that doesn't care enough to oppose. Now, this minority might be your own childer, but more likely also consists of a coterie of like-minded individuals and maybe a handful of significant allies. This “court” or “ruling clique” is the natural outgrowth of Kindred society, and will be present, in one form or another, in any location where the undead gather in any appreciable numbers.

The Primogen are different though. The Primogen are the other blocks of social and political power in a city. Their power source varies much like a Prince’s and the end result in similar. These are individuals who have sufficient power that the Prince needs to worry about them, and take them into account. Any given Primogen may not have the power to overthrow a Prince, but as group, united, they just might. They certainly have the ability to make his reign a living hell, and are, pretty much by definition, the Prince makers. A Prince may not “serve” at their leisure, but he needs to keep them at least on the sidelines of any given issue.

Of course, not every City has a Primogen. In others, there will only be a 2 or 3. In fact, the Chicago by Night source book made a point that Chicago’s Primogen is unusually large with six members, two of whom are the same clan. This, to me, proves another point. There should not be a “Brujah Primogen” but rather a “Primogen who is a Brujah.” Each city will and should be unique, and the only constant is that the Primogen are those who are outside the Prince’s immediate circle of followers that he needs to tread carefully around.

By keeping the exact power and identity of the Primogen somewhat obscure, you allow for much more nuance and uncertainty in the social game of Vampire. Maybe there is a “Council” consisting of these powerful Kindred, or maybe the “Council” is a rubber-stamp body, with the “real power” existing outside of it, or there is no Council at all, and the Prince is only swayed by his close and personal advisers and friends. In any case, when creating the city, one should think first of what would be fun and interesting, rather than merely what the book describe is how things “should be.”

Which does raise the question--how did Vampire go from describing a more loose and nebulous Primogen in initial settings and rule books, to the more formalized “legislature” of later editions? Personally, I think it was two interrelated causes. First, is the fact that it is easier and more relatable if they were a “council.” Secondly, and I think more pertinently, was the LARP community. As the LARPers became a more dominant element in the fan base for Vampire, their concerns and interests became to increasingly dictate what the game was and wasn't.

As the LARPers were the ones playing the Primogen (in most tabletop games, the Primogen are NPC’s, after all), clear rules of their powers, roles, and responsibilities became needed. In addition, the presence of One World by Night enforced a certain element of similarity and conformity in its various members, and the books and support were written with them in mind (in fact, a number of by Night books were written by members, often based on their own games). I doubt that there was an active effort on their part to “make the game safe for LARP,” but their influence was definitely a factor in changing the Primogen from subtle and mysterious masters of the Jyhad to “representative of the Third District.”

I say, stick them back in the shadows, where they can truly rule.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 19 Boons and Social Obligations

Boons are one of the trickier elements of the society presented in Vampire. They are the “currency” of the game, the complicated interaction of debts owed and favors given. Given their supernatural abilities, mundane concerns like money are comparatively irrelevant to the Kindred. Instead, it’s the back and forth of favors that defines their relationships, and keeps their society functioning.

In most games I've been involved with, Boon are rare and wondrous things. Almost always they flow from the Elders to the Neonates--young Kindred need something they can not accomplish on their own (such as getting a favored ghoul out of legal trouble, or cover the death of a prominent mortal at their hands), and so they need to approach a more entrenched vampire to do these things. Such favors are rarely given, and then only at great cost to the supplicant.

This makes sense, but really only in the context of a 1st Edition game--specifically one that focuses on the “classic” vampire struggle of anarchs vs. elders. In the original version of the game, the Elders, as a group, had no need for the Neonates. In fact, the Neonates very existence was resented by the Elders, as they represented nothing but a risk and a threat to them. With little resources of their own, these young, foolish and hungry vampires sought to take what the Elders already had, and their very foolishness threatened the existence of the Masquerade. As such, the Elders had no need for them, and would only deign to treat with them under the most unusual and favored of situations.

Thing is, this does not make sense in other versions of the game. Obviously, if the coterie are Archons or the Brood of the Prince this dynamic is altered. But it’s also changed in any situation where raw, naked conflict is more prevalent. This conflict can be pretty much anything--an on-going struggle against the Sabbat, against Lupines, or even a highly balkanized setting where various “houses” of Kindred are constantly at each others throats. Or even one that focuses on the changes of technology and society, and the risks and dangers these present to the Masquerade. Basically, if you have a setting where social and tech savvy neonates have a role to play, or one where stupid, violent, and overly in love with their ability to talk to dogs and leap across rooftops neonates have a “healthy” outlet, then this dynamic of stingy Elders and grasping Neonates doesn't really work.

See, being in Social Debt isn’t a horrible thing. In the books, it’s presented as such, and there’s a lot about avoiding being in debt to another Kindred. But a Neonate being in debt to an Elder can actually be a useful thing, for both parties. Setting aside from now the raw value of the actual favor itself, if a Neonate owes an Elder a favor, that Elder now has a vested interest in that Neonates future. After all, a poor and unconnected Neonate has little to offer the Elder--but, if that Neonate has the potential, in a few years, to gain significant resources and influence, then the Elder can have the repayment of the debt be many times its initial value. Now obviously, a wise Neonate won’t take on too much debt from a single Elder, but being in debt to multiple Elders can provide a critical early base of support. Each of them is vested in your future, and you can expect them to step in of their volition to assist you in the Jyhad, if only to protect their investment.

Conversely, there is value to an Elder to place themselves in debt to a Neonate. Having some “sway” (no matter how minor) over an Elder firmly places a young Kindred in the system, and encourages them to “play ball” and not go Anarch. It also establishes an element of trust between the two, and can be the baseline for a close, personal connection, which is the best way to guide and influence this young Kindred to the Elders profit. And, much as with any debt, it helps make that Neonate interested in the furthering of the Elders schemes, since having a prominent Harpy in your debt is one thing, but how much better would it be if that Harpy became a Keeper of Elysium?

A key part of the game, and the ability to create plots and stories, suffers if the Storyteller is too stingy with Boons. Used properly, they can quickly get the players wrapped up in the Jyhad, and make them players in the game, rather than just people on the sidelines, waiting to for plots to come to them. But there’s also a “game” element too, and Boons can be one of the great “rewards” a player can get.

D&D remains one of the most popular games out there, for a number of reasons. One of these reasons, I believe, is it’s three-tiered system of rewarding players. After going on a quest or completing a dungeon, a player can expect to get Experience Points, Gold/Treasure. and Magic Items. All of these are neat and fun in their own way, and it’s the variety that makes it work. You might get a lot of XP in one session, a lot of GP in another, and a long-desired or just cool Magic Item in a third. I’m ignoring such things as “world knowledge” or “meeting cool NPC’s” or “the fun of role-playing” and the like for this example. These should be part of any game, after all.

Vampire really only has one reward for the players--experience points. And don’t get me wrong, the “point-buy” system of Vampire is a lot more fun and interesting than the level approach of D&D, but it’s only the one thing. I think this is a waste, since it cuts out a lot of things that can be enjoyable and fun for players. By loosening up a bit with Boons, by having NPC’s not only want to place the players in their debt, but also being willing to go into their debt, you open up another method or “reward” and present the players another resource they can “spend” to accomplish what they want.

Obviously, this depends on what kind of game you want. If you want them to hate the Elders and be actively trying to take them down, you want to keep them stingy. If you want a game of bloody action and feats of derring-do, then Boons really won’t play a major role. But, if you want a more socially focused game, where the players need to navigate complicated webs of betrayal and alliances, where mystery and intrigue are more prominent, then you want the players to have a number of Boons, both owed to others and to themselves.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 18 Favorite Story Archetype

Bug Hunt

As a Storyteller, I have a couple of default stories I like to run. One is Alien Hunger--my absolute favorite adventure published for Vampire; it's particularly solid for new players. But, I also have a few that I've developed over the years that are my “go to” stories, which I like to run for a variety of players, new and old. “Bug Hunt” is the main one of these.

It is, in effect, a classic Vampire vs. Vampire conflict, with an added element of the Beast vs. Humanity. The basic idea was stolen from another player in a game I played in years and years ago. He wasn't a huge fan of Vampire, and wanted to do something different and a tad wacky with his character. The basic concept was Kafka’s Metamorphosis. He played a Nosferatu who had gradually lost all concept of Humanity, and viewed himself as nothing more than vermin.

The character was certainly fun, particularly since my character and another had “adopted” him and were trying to help him get back to being “normal.” For the story, I make his character into the titular “Bug.” There’s a neonate Nosferatu on the loose, one who has lost all semblance of Humanity and has become a beast. The players, quite simply, need to hunt him down and put an end to his deprivations.

Sometimes i give him more motivation (such as protecting his family, with characters often stolen directly from Metamorphosis), while other times he is more of a monster, or a force. It allows for a fairly clear cut story--the players, after all,  know from the get go what they need to do.  But for such a simple story, it can rapidly become more. Such as exploring the nature of the Beast, and why you would want to nurture your Humanity. As a vampiric foe, it also introduces the difficulty and complications inherent in trying to struggle with one, particularly when your foe has a good amount of feral cunning.  I tend to look at the coterie I have for this particular Chronicle, and try to emphasize those elements that I feel would be most interesting for them to struggle against.

As far as the story itself, I tend to run it as more of a “scenario” than a “plot.” The story almost almost always begins at a location at least one the characters cares about--such as their club, or something similar. Mr. Kafka has slain a mortal and stuffed the body in the ceiling, and the players need to find a way to keep this hidden from the mortals currently filling the venue, as well as find out who did this, and why. My prep basically consists of figuring out what Kafka is up to, and where he hangs his hat. After that,  I let the players loose in trying to hunt this bug down.

Normally, this has been my “opening scenario” to a Chronicle, though I imagine it might work even better in the middle of a game. Using it as the first adventure works to give them a clean, neat story, with a foe on their “level.” However, it also cuts down on the ability to make him a spoiler. If the coterie were currently feuding with another band of Kindred, or already on the Prince’s shit-list for some previous wrong, having him show up and cause havoc might have more of an impact.

Of course, I like using variations on this at other points. The “bug” doesn't have to be Kafka, after all. A hunter, Lupine, or Sabbat--really, any solo foe the players need to hunt down and eliminate could be used for this, and I've used pretty much every enemy I can think of. Subtle politicking and manipulations are fun, but sometimes putting the players on a hunt across the city, seeking the destruction of an out and out “bad guy” can be a wonderful change of pace.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 17 Conflict

That all stories require some sort of conflict might just be the least controversial thing I've ever said in my life. In fact, I’m pretty sure one can define a  story more by its conflict than anything else within it.. This can be anything from a man vs. man to man vs. self to man vs. society to, well, anything. So long as you have two entities (no matter how you define those them) who want different things, you have a conflict; and therefore, a story.

One of the strengths of Vampire is the wide variety of Conflicts it can encompass. You can go with the straight up, rock ‘em-sock ‘em violence of Camarilla vs. Sabbat, the subtle paranoia of Diaberlist vs. Targets, or the existential conflict of Beast vs. Humanity. In a way, Vampire is a “kitchen sink” game when it comes to Conflict. Pretty much any struggle you can imagine, from the most gritty and realistic (Beast vs. Humanity) to the most outlandish and comic booky (Tal'mahe'ra vs. Aliens) can be expressed in the game.

Personally, I like Vampire vs. Vampire. Despite my affection for Humanity, the quieter, subtler struggle of the Beast isn’t something that really wows me-though I’d love to play in a game that proves me wrong. Same goes for Vampires vs. Humans in a Lords of the City game. While these kinds of conflicts can make for interesting and fun stories on occasion, when it comes right down to it, nothing makes for a more exciting tale than vampires feuding with other vampires.

A lot of this is due to the Pax Vampiricus that’s in effect in most of the sects. The Camarilla has the Tradition of Destruction, while the Sabbat keeps the direct violence in check with the widespread use of the vinculum. As such, direct, violent action is forced onto the back burner, necessitating more complex and interesting tactics to thwart one's foes. Not that violence and combat can’t break out, of course, but it’s something rare, and only engaged in with some element of trepidation.

This is what makes Vampire fairly unique and unusual for me. I haven’t seen many other games where violence isn’t a viable solution to most problems. Obviously, games like D&D thrive on combat, and killing your foes is often not only a solution, but often the best solution. Even games that try to tamper down on the violence do so by either introducing lethal combat (and all the mechanical complicated that entails) or by creating monsters that are so terrifying that mere guns and blades can not hope to harm them--the game is instead more of a “puzzle” to be solved.

Vampire is different. You get to play supernaturally powerful killers, who have every reason NOT to use your supernatural powers to kill. It’s an odd contrast, but that tension is a key reason why Vampire works so well. Each character is perpetually one step away from lashing out, and the one that does is often the loser. By struggling against others that are so encumbered, you allow for far more interesting and complicated stories, and great deal more work and effort to actually resolve these conflicts.

It’s not the same with other supernaturals. Sure, a coterie of vampires will need to approach a Werewolf or a Mage with a great deal of trepidation, and only strike when the odds are in their favor. After all, once can turn you into a lawn chair with a look, and the other...well, they’ll have to spend a round clawing you all to death, then use their Crafts skill to turn you into a lawn chair. The point is, if you screw up against one of these guys, you’re gonna have a bad time. But, they’re still conflicts that can be, and often are, resolved with death and violence.

Which makes them fun, for the occasional story. It’s enjoyable to roll some dice and get your fangs dirty. But, killing Werewolves, no matter how many different tactics one uses, lacks the nuance and depth than comes from going up against a fellow Jyhader.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 16 Theme

Theme is one of the trickier elements of Vampire. It’s not something every Chronicle needs, but it certainly is a neat way to tie everything together. A Chronicle without a theme feels meandering and chaotic—a collection of characters and stories bouncing off each other for no greater purpose. This can certainly be fun, but it can also end up with the game feeling rather hollow and pointless.

In short, a theme is the question that the Chronicle seeks to answer. It’s not necessarily something that the characters are aware of, but it is the underlying tension that drives the narrative. Some of the example questions that they give in the base book are solid—“What create the emotions of hate?” “Is perfect morality impossible?” “What is required for a leader?” Of course, any thorny issue you wish to explore will be superior to what they list in the book, but I find that spending some time thinking about Theme and how to apply it is well worth the time. If anything, it’s a convenient way to differentiate this Chronicle about neonate vampires waging war against their elders from any other anarch/elder game. Also, it can help to focus the stories and help inspire new ideas and new situations.

Many of the games I've been involved in haven’t bothered with Theme. I think it’s because on the surface it seems like one of those high-falutin’ things that make Vampire a “narrative” game instead of a “real” role-playing game. Also, it’s weird, and not something that most people are used to thinking about when it comes to game prep. Then again, they might have had a Theme, or something like it, but as a player I was never able to see it.

And I think that is one of the great mistakes many GM’s make. By blocking the players out of the discussion of the Theme, you also prevent them being actively engaged with what the Chronicle is about. As such, they are incapable of making characters that are truly part of the Chronicle, instead of creating characters driven by rage and hatred, they’re left playing “straight men” who are wondering why the hell all the NPC’s seem to be psychotic idiots.

Also, players can be an excellent resource in checking or correcting certain ideas. Say you want to explore “what is the origin of hatred?” That’s obviously as sound an idea for a Chronicle as any, but it may not work for THIS Chronicle, with this group of players.  They may find the idea trite or simply boring, or at least something they’re not terribly interested in exploring. But, in discussing it, a superior theme might come up—maybe something involving “what is the difference between vengeance and justice in a society without laws?” or the like.

Now, everyone in the group is on something like the same page, both players and Storyteller. The players, inspired by the theme, can then make characters that actually fit the theme—one may be obsessed with tracking down the Kindred who killed his sire and bring his crimes to light, while another may seek bloody retribution. You don’t need every PC to be built based on the theme, but if enough are they entire coterie becomes much more part of the Chronicle than if the Theme is merely something that happens to the NPC’s.

Of course, you don’t want to go into the game with an answer already in mind. If you see a question like “Is perfect morality impossible” and think “well, duh, obviously” then this is not a theme for you. Despite its Humanity systems and its exploration of the nature of good and evil, Vampire is not a black and white game, and the presence of a Theme is not an excuse for a Storyteller to lecture players on ethics or philosophy. It is intended to be a question that the entire group explores throughout the game, even if they never truly come to an answer. Hell, it’s almost better if the question lurking at the heart of the game remains unanswered, if only because answers are boring. It’s the questions that drives drama.

If I had to pick a “favorite” Theme, I would say that I prefer those that deal with Leadership. It’s a side-effect on my interests in Lords of the City concepts, but it also speaks to one the most appealing elements of Vampire--if you were turned into a vampire, with all the power and abilities they possess, what would you do with it? What responsibility would you have to those around you? To your family? To others of your kind? Is it even possible to use these abilities morally, or ethically? If you do end up “taking over” something or someplace, what responsibility do you have to it?

Naturally, though, I don’t have one Theme that I've explored in various Chronicles, but instead try to pick one that is interesting for both myself, the players, and the game concept itself.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 15 NPC’s

So, this post was supposed to be entitled “Favorite NPC”—but honestly, that just sounds boring. I could either focus on iconic or published NPC’s, but I’m not a huge fan of most of them (well, except for Modius), or a particularly cool NPC I came up with. But, in that case, you’d have to take my word that they were cool.

Instead, I want to talk about what I do to create NPC’s for my games. While vivid and well-defined NPC’s are key to pretty much any RPG, they tend to be even more critical in a game like Vampire. In other games, the mass of NPC’s can be categorized as “shop owners,” “quest givers” or “dudes to be stabbed in the face.” While there are plenty of dudes who need to be stabbed in the face in Vampire, of course, the setting and concept of the game doesn't really allow for this to be the “standard.”

See, you have this world populated by supernatural killers, who would really only feel safe and secure if they were the only supernatural killer they had ever met. But, there are these damn “rules” and “Traditions” that say you can’t just up and murder someone who pisses you off, so instead you have to be more cunning and treacherous than the next guy just to protect yourself.  As a result, the natural conflicts and territoriality that erupt when you have a bunch of vampires living in close proximity to one another gets turned from direct conflict into something more subtle and Machiavellian. As such, it’s far more important to know exactly who these people are, what they’re capable of, and what they’re after than it is in a game like D&D.

On top of that, I find the write-up’s of NPC’s in the by Night series to be less than impressive. They generally spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the character’s tragic back-story, often all the way back in their mortal days. Now, granted, knowing someone’s history is useful in knowing who they are, but it is not the end-all, be-all of a character. When I run an NPC, I want to know who they are NOW and what they are up to. So, I came up with a little template I use to detail NPC’s for my Chronicles.

Name—the character’s name, specifically the name he goes by in Kindred circles. Most don’t have full names, like “John Smith.” They go by either a single name (“John,” “Jack,” “Johnny”) or a nickname (“Twitch” or “Joker.”)

Other Name—their mortal birth name and/or the name they use for their Personal Masquerade.

Personal Masquerade—The Masquerade is the key element to vampire society—there’s a reason it’s in the title of the game, after all. Per the Traditions, mortals must never find out about the existence of the undead predators in their midst, and any who reveal themselves face brutal and immediate punishment. Maintaining this Tradition is more than just a job for the Prince—it is the primary duty of every single vampire in the world. To do this takes more than killing witnesses and squashing police investigations—each Kindred must blend into the mass of mortals and disappear.
As such, each NPC needs to have their own Masquerade—what do they pretend to be? What do mortals, both neighbors and the cold impersonal agents of the government, see them as? Obviously, those that excuse a “sleep all day, up all night” lifestyle, particularly those that explain a lack of obvious income, tend to be the go-to for most kindred. “Internet Millionaire,” “Real Housewife,” or “Trust Fund Baby” are common, but for those with less ready access to cash, so are “freelance artist/programmer” or “professional gambler.”

Even those that have cut themselves off from most of mortal life need to be careful with their appearance, and what others think of them. A wandering Gangrel still needs to have a driver’s license and insurance (even if it’s fake), and still presents himself as something. There is a world of difference between “nomadic biker come to town to raise hell and have some fun” and “business traveler here for a big meeting.”
Role—NPC’s aren’t “real characters,” they are there to fill a need in the story or setting, and this sums up the characters position in the game, as a game. “Prince,” “Traitorous Advisor” “hapless newbie” are some examples of descriptions.

Theme—if Role describes their position in terms of the GAME, then Theme describes their role in the STORY. When I created my Charleston setting, I defined the Prince (whose role was “Prince of Charleston”) as “Meet the New Boss, same as the Old Boss.” Something that quickly sums up his history and nature as a former rebel who overthrew the last Prince, but now finds himself succumbing to the same corruption, temptations, and “system” that destroyed the old one.  The Theme helps me to remember what this character’s deal really is, and what beats to hit while I’m playing him.
Perceived Goal & Actual Goal—everybody has goals--no one moves through their lives without desiring something, even if its just as simple as “be left alone.” Naturally, some are more ambitious than others, but everyone is trying to pull off something. These goals can range from “Become Prince” or “Diablerize Caine” to “Get their new haven in order” or “find the bastard who’s been feeding from my herd.” Perceived is what is most apparent about the character, what people think he’s up to, and the type of thing you can find with just a bit of asking around--or even talking to the NPC. Actual is a bit more hidden, and is generally loftier than the Perceived. Sometimes these are pretty much the same, other times they are completely different. In some cases I could describe the “Perceived” as “immediate” and “Actual” as “long term” but the point is to have some notes on what the hell the character is up to.
Haven—where does the NPC sleep, how secure is it, and how hard is it to find? Finding out where a Vampire rests his head is a critical advantage to young Kindred.
Herd—not everyone has a “Herd” background; this is more to think about whom the character feeds on, why they feed on them, and how they conduct their hunting. I like to focus pretty heavily on the “vampire” element of being a Vampire, and this is where it comes to light. Knowing where and how a Vampire hunts helps to understand his place in the world, and how he interacts with it.
Base of Operations—some Vampires are quite likely to be found in one or two particular locations on any given night. Maybe it’s a funeral parlor that they use as a front for their drug trade, or a particular club or bar they like to frequent. IF the character has such a place, this is where the players can find them.
Influence—it is a natural side effect of their powers and hunting that Vampires will somehow affect the world around them. Some merely influence the local neighborhood, while others can sway national politics—this area is where I come up with a general idea of what kind of sway the character has in both mortal and undead circles.
Notes—this is basically for any other random thoughts or ideas for the character that don’t fit into any of the above categories.
Plots—for any NPC warranting this kind of write up, I should be able to come up with at least 2 or 3 story ideas that can come from them. Some of these will directly involve the PC’s, while others could just be things they are up to on a particular night. It’s more of an inspiration source on how to use the character, since I’m sure that better ideas will come up in game.
It may seem like a lot, but all this tends to take up less than a page, and is something I can easily keep with the printed character sheet (if any), or skim through during game prep. Most of the information I need for the character I can find at a glance. Time wise, it takes me generally 5 to 10 minutes to write all this down. This one page summary combined with one of Mr. Gone’s excellent sheets gives me everything I need to run a character.
Naturally, it takes me more than 10 minutes to make a character, but spending time thinking about a character, who they are, what their deal is, and what they want is one of the pleasures of Storytelling.
The virtue to having this information really comes up in game, though. Too many games I've been part of have ended up being “kill fests” as the players solve all their problems with brutal, lethal violence. Unfortunately, this tends to be boring after a while, and really does not play to Vampire’s strengths. But, if the players don’t have the option to engage the world through manipulation and intrigue, then killing everyone becomes their default plan.
So, after I make a couple of NPC’s, I look them over and see where they can bump up against one another. Is one looking to expand his drug trade, which might lead him to targeting another kindred’s herd as consumers? Is someone trying to find who murdered one of their coterie mates, which happens to be the mentor of another? No matter how calm a city may appear, there should be numerous minor struggles happening every night, as various Kindred inevitably cause problems for another.
Having this knowledge allows the players to find out this knowledge, either through social ties or gossip or by just paying attention. They can then leverage this as weapons against their foes, by making it appear another kindred did something, allying with the enemy of their enemy, or manipulating the situation in another way.
One of the frequent complaints I hear about Vampire games is the tendency of players to engage in wanton violence. Sometimes this is due to players just not “getting” the game or just enjoying being disruptive and psychopathic for kicks. And I get that, I really do. Hell, I’ve spent more time than is probably healthy playing GTA and seeing how quickly I can get five stars and how long I can survive the subsequent police hunt. But the thing is, when I see players lash out in Vampire, it’s only rarely caused by such urges. Often, it’s the result of boredom and frustration.

Given that one of the tropes of Vampire is “ancient and cunning supernatural entities are secretly pulling all the strings in the world, including the PC’s,” it is very easy as a Storyteller to make your NPCs be always one step ahead of your players, no matter what. So, it doesn’t matter how clever of a plan they come up, the elders will always have a contingency in place and the players can never get one over on them. The thing is, as a player, this is boring and frustrating as hell. If none of your schemes and intrigues will ever work, then the players quite rightly will fall back on violence and explosions to get the job done.

I want my players to scheme and intrigue, and I want such tactics to be their “first” and “best” option. Hell, even when their plans are questionable I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt just because its more fun that way. Using this template helps me create what I like to call a “social sandbox” type game. And much like an actual sandbox, it only works if the players have a map and some rumors to point them towards areas of interest. Their mentors and sires can provide the basic map, and keep up on the rumor mill will let them know which way to “explore.”
Now, I've been accused by some other storytellers of being a tad too lenient when it comes to my players plots and schemes. After all, the World of Darkness is a harsh and unforgiving place, and only the most cunning and ruthless survive for long. They feel that the elders SHOULD be one step ahead of the neonates, and I should “force” the players to come up with only the best of plans--anything less is doomed to failure. And yes, I admit, some of the ideas that the players have come up with have been...well, let’s just say it. INANE. FOOLISH. WHY WOULD YOU EVEN THINK THAT WOULD EVER WORK?

But in D&D, I wouldn't send a 1st level character up against an ancient red dragon because “hey, the world is a dangerous place,” and I don’t want to smack down every “out of the box” idea that my players have--because all I end up doing is teaching them that “trying to be clever is doomed to failure, so max out your Celerity and hope to take them in a straight fight, since that’s the only thing that will work.” Instead, I want to work with them. I’ll try to give them a benefit of the doubt, or have them give me a roll of some sort to try to pull off their intrigue. Or, I’ll take off my Storyteller-hat and put on my part-of-the-group-hat and ask them “what are you trying to accomplish here, exactly?” Obviously, I don’t want to feed them the “correct” thing to do, but a lot of times I can help encourage them to think about what they’re doing, and why, and how they hope to achieve that. And then, a number of times, what  they are able to come up with is a HELL of a lot better scheme than I ever could have.

So, basically, if you want your players to kill NPC’s, write up combat stats. If you want them to socialize with them and scheme against them, you need to write up THOSE stats--and this template gives me those stats.

(oh, and I’ve talked about this before, but not in context of the 30 Day Challenge--I’m sure it’s a tad gauche to quote yourself, but I really like this template!)

New Year, New Character Day 22: Pendragon

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