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.