Tuesday, October 8, 2013

30 Days of Night--The Vampire: The Masquerade Challenge

The Vampire 30 Day Challenge is a motivational tool to encourage people to, over the course of 30 Days, blog or post something they find interesting about the classic White Wolf game Vampire: The Masquerade. These posts can range from a few sentences to rambling, multi-page mini-essays. It doesn't really matter how much one writes, so long as you find the topic fun, and it encourages you write and post fairly regularly. It is, in many ways, similar to NaNoWriMo, in that it is an excuse to think and write about cool things.

The Challenge itself is a derivative of the "D&D 30 Day Challenge." The topics listed in that Challenge are of course highly focused on Dungeons & Dragons subjects, specifically the Third Edition of that game. As such, I have gone through and rewritten the "rules" or list of topics. As I progressed through the Challenge, certain topics seemed like an ill-fit, either for Vampire as a whole (for example, an entire week on "type of enemies" didn't really fit the World of Darkness) or based on my own way of approaching the game (for example, I make characters based on each Chronicle, so I do not have "characters I want to play" or "will never play again").  The original version of the Challenge can be found here, while the first update is here. The final version is below.

  1. How you got started
  2. Favorite Camarilla Clan
  3. Favorite Non-Camarilla Clan
  4. Favorite City/Setting
  5. Your favorite set of dice/individual die
  6. Humanity--What does it mean to you?
  7. Paths of Enlightenment
  8. Favorite Edition
  9. Favorite Character You Have Played
  10. Favorite Character You Haven’t Played
  11. Craziest thing that’s happened that you saw (to party/character/your players etc)
  12. Favorite Adventure You Have Run
  13. Favorite Chronicle Concept
  14. Favorite Alternate Setting
  15. Favorite NPC
  16. Favorite Theme
  17. Favorite Conflict
  18. Favorite Story Archetype
  19. How do you use boons and social obligations?
  20. What role does the Primogen and power play in your game?
  21. What role do the Harpies and social games play?
  22. Feeding and the hunt
  23. How do you handle Virtues and Degeneration?
  24. Favorite Background
  25. How do you form Broods and Coteries?
  26. Favorite Discipline
  27. How do you design your City?
  28. What role does history play in your Chronicle?
  29. Favorite Supplement
  30. Best Storyteller You've Had

Obviously, even this list missed huge parts of Classic Vampire, such as: Horror, Personal Horror, the Sabbat, other Sects, etc. The list above is just a the ideas that I followed, but others should pick those topics that inspire them.

So far,  I know of two other bloggers who have taken up the challenge. Anthony Jennings of Read the Damn Book and Teylen's RPG Corner. If you are interested in taking up this incredibly fun, if slightly exhausting, Challenge please let me know! I'd love to follow you on your journey.

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 30 Storyteller

It’s hard for me to narrow down my “favorite” Storyteller when it comes to Vampire. I had a few when I was younger who were, I feel, quite bad. But then again, most of us weren't terribly gifted at running games back then. In general though, I feel I've been blessed with having most of my Storytellers being pretty good. Sure, they all had their quirks and specialties, things they were particularly strong at--one was very adept at coming up with sweeping epic narratives, while another was gifted at bringing NPC’s to life. Naturally, though, they all had some weaknesses to go with their strengths, but that’s true of any of us.

What the best had in common, I think, was a shared interest in the player characters. A good Storyteller, I feel, understands that the main focus of the game should always be on the PC’s, and is as vested in them as the players. It took me awhile to really get this. It’s easy sometimes as a Storyteller to get wrapped up in your own head, thinking about themes and moods and narrative tricks, and in the process losing sight of the game happening right in front of you. As such, I created my own personal mantra when it comes to running games, a little phrase to help get me back to what matters.

The players hate your game, and want to destroy it.

Some people think this is a tad offensive, or harsh. And it is, to an extent. It’s to help cut through the crap that clutters up a Storytellers attention, and remind them of the simple truth: it’s not “your” game, it’s “ours.”

See, the players don’t care about your elaborate and lovingly detailed history. They don’t care about your subtle and nuanced NPC’s, no matter how fascinating they are or how tragically beautiful they are. They don’t give a damn about what elaborate schemes and plots that are unfolding around them. And they certainly don’t care about the gripping, thrilling, and emotionally charged story you’ve prepared for them.

Players care about their characters. They care about the world of the game only through their characters eyes. It doesn't matter how much detail you put into your perfect NPC, the players will only ever care about them through the lens of their character. One PC might find themselves involved in a torrid affair with an NPC, but when that character dies and the player creates a new one, do not be surprised when the new character has no interest in that NPC. Because, the player never really gave a damn about the NPC, they only cared about them in terms of their old character.

And this is how it should be. Role-playing is a collaborative medium, after all. The players are not the audience, they are the co-creators. They are not passive, they are active. They are there to be involved and be engaged, and your goal as Storyteller is to be as engaged with them as you possibly can. Time spent focusing on cool NPC’s doing cool things, or trying to force the players to follow the Story you have written is time when you are taking them away from “our” game and forcing them to deal with “your” game.

Many others have written much more intelligently than I ever could about choice and design in games. But it’s why I focus on the elements that I do, many of which have come up as part of this Challenge. By spending a significant amount of time prepping a game in advance, I have the information I need to allow the players to do as they will in the game; because it is a “sandbox,” not a series of well crafted stories that they must follow. It’s why I care more about an NPC’s feeding habits than I do about their doomed romance as a mortal--who that character is eating tonight is something that will impact that players, in one way or another.

At the same time, the idea of “The players hate your game and want to destroy it” isn't meant to all be “One True Wayism” or doom and gloom and “BAD GM, no cookie!” It also reflects the fact that I know I will never be able to predict what the heck my players are going to do. I can guess, I can plan potential scenarios, but it’s inevitable that they are going to try something more bad ass, more impressive, more creative than I could ever have thought of. Hell, if I don’t at least once per session do a double take and go “excuse me, you do what?!?” then I know the players aren't really into this particular session.

Because as much as I love talking about games, and analyzing games, and spending an inordinate amount of time coming up with NPC’s and histories, and plots and schemes and all that, ultimately this is not about telling a story. If I wanted to do that, I could write a novel or a screenplay. It’s not really about playing a game, despite how much I love dice and trying to “beat” things. This is about sitting around with a group of friends and acquaintances and playing “Let’s Pretend” and all the rules and mechanics and supplement after supplement are really just there to determine if my Laser Gun can pierce your Force Field. The moment I strive for, both as a player and a Storyteller, is for the times when everyone is involved in a scene, the world around you drops away, and everyone in the group is alive and present and engaged in this bizarre fantasy that we are Vampires (or Space Pirates, or Dragon Slayers, or Noir Detectives) and we respond and react as if that were real. When we all share in a living dream. These moments don’t happen in every session, and they don’t even happen in every game, but when they do happen, something magical and rare takes place that makes all the grunt work and the scheduling wars and the dumb self-referential jokes worth it. Because for a brief time you see and experience the world through an entirely different set of eyes, and when you come back from it, there’s a part of you that’s changed, even if just a little bit.

Let’s play.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 29 Favorite Supplement

That’s right, I’m finally saying something controversial. Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand (DSotBH) has probably the worst reputation of any supplement that White Wolf has ever published. Even Anthony Jennings relatively forgiving review describes it as “not the worst RPG book that I've ever read, but it’s close.” There were some vague attempts to fit this unholy monster into the general World of Darkness soon after it came out, but the publisher quickly gave up on that. When it came time for Revised to be released, the True Hand was wiped out pretty much “off camera” and it’s remnants left to wither.

How can you not love this face?

For those who don’t know, DSotBH created an entirely new sect for the World of Darkness. While consisting mainly of Kindred, it also included a few Werewolves, Mages, and Wraiths. The idea was that this was the first, true sect of Kindred, existing long before the Camarilla or the Sabbat. Despite it’s meager numbers, the True Hand (as they refer to themselves in the modern days) managed to manipulate and influence both sects from the beginning. The True Hand had two distinct goals--first, to serve the Antediluvians as an Army of Gehenna, and this assist in the destruction of the “false” Kindred. Secondly, they were involved in a “shadow crusade” against Vicissitude. DSotBH explains that Vicissitude is not a “true” Discipline, but instead the result of an extradimensional infection of the blood, which results in the Kindred losing control of himself and becoming something alien and hostile. Among its member are the remnants of the Tzimisce that still remain pure, and are referred to as “Old Clan.”

If you’re looking for a better understanding of the Sabbat, or a greater explanation for the world works for a solid anarch-based street level game, this book is at best worthless and at worst a slap in the face. Also, if you’re particularly invested in the “metaplot” this book requires significant logical twists to even begin to make sense. But, taken on it’s own, its a delightful book.

First off, it shows an entirely different way for Vampire to be played--breaking down and “remixing” various concepts of the game, creating something new, and different. It reminds me a bit of the remarks made in the first Storytellers Handbook --where concepts like “vampire as elite government operatives” or “vampires in Middle Earth” were considered as valid Chronicle ideas as any. It allows for and supports for an entirely different style of gameplay that what we were, and are, used to in Vampire.

Secondly, it what this style of game play is. Instead of the typical “street by street” fighting of a typical Vampire Chronicle, DSotBH is all about the huge, the epic. It really is a game for playing Blade or something equally over the top. This is a book all about Vampires, Mages, and Werewolves teaming up to fight Cthuloid Horrors from beyond Time and Space. Sure, it might throw “personal Horror” out of a speeding bus, but that’s an awesome idea for a Chronicle right there.

See, as much as I love 1st ed style Humanity based anarchs vs. elders games, even I’ll be the first to admit that after a while, those styles of games can start getting repetitive. They’re also not everyone's passion--some players and Storytellers wants to do something different, something with more action and big intrigue. Something where they can bust loose and go a little crazy, and put the focus more on “fun” than “horror.”

Also, many players get frustrated having to ‘start over’ every Chronicle, with their 3 dots of Disciplines. In an attempt to “balance” Vampires with Werewolves and Mages, they allow all starting characters to begin as “elders” or where basically your typical PC is in terms of power at the END of the game. For those who want to finally play around with those level 4 and 5 abilities, heck, maybe even level 6, this can be a godsend. Also, it’s a CROSSOVER. Ever since White Wolf released both Vampire and Werewolf, players have been trying to get a reasonable crossover together. I even played in a few, but they never really worked. The worlds are just two different, and the individuals involved have too many reasons to hate and fear each other. DSotBH works around this by creating a group that can contain all sorts of supernaturals (even a Mummy! Back when they were still cool “true immortals”!), giving a reason for them to trust one another above and beyond their own kind, and giving them a wonderfully weird and seemingly endlessly versatile foe.

Is DSotBH perfect? Nah, I’d be willing to concede many of it’s faults--I’m sure the mechanics are screwy and the artwork leaves a lot to be desired. But is it a fun and interesting alternative to the standard World of Darkness--you bet! Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and re-examine all the tropes and concepts we take for granted, and rethink them. And sometimes it’s ok to focus on having a fun and enjoyable game, where “over the top” is not something to be ashamed of, but rather something to be relished for its own sake.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 28 History

One of the most appealing aspect of the vampire myth is the concept of being able to live forever. The idea of being forever young and powerful, of being immune to the vagaries of life and fate, and being able to escape death itself is incredibly alluring. In Vampire, you get to play out this concept, both playing one of these immortals, but also living in a world shaped by the ageless.

Yet, like many iconic concepts and tropes of Vampire, I only see this sweep of history come up sporadically in games I’ve played. I mean, sure, the metaplot and “canonical myths” come up --Caine, Enoch, Flood, Anarch Revolt, Diablerie of Lasombra and Tzimisce, etc.--but rarely do the personal histories of characters or the local city as a whole have much of a place in a game. This is very odd to me, for surely if events that happened decades or even centuries ago still affect us, then these events must resonate even more powerfully with those who lived through them.

If the Prince took power a century ago via a coup--who backed him? What happened to the old Prince? His supporters and allies? What about the Prince’s other enemies--did they back the usurper? Do they still? I mean, surely even the most thorough of Prince couldn't eliminate ALL of his enemies. What are they doing now? Did they make peace with the new Prince? Are they secretly in league with the anarchs? Actively? Not only that, but what was different under the old Prince? Was he highly religious, and banned the feeding from holy men and women or the violation of churches? Are these rules still enforced? Or are they still “on the books” waiting to be used by enterprising young Kindred to damn their ignorant foes? Are there other elders who still remember when Kindred respected God, and are frustrated by the new Prince’s cavalier attitude towards the faithful?

It all started here...

Individuals, even those who have passed on, leave an imprint on the world, and struggles and fights long ago still leave scars and can cause unforeseen consequences long after the fighting is over. Most stories have their “backstory”--the history of the setting that influences what is happening now. Lord of the Rings had the failure of Isildure to destroy the One Ring, but also the tale of Bilbo which truly sets the action of the novels into place. Without Judgement Day, there is no Terminator/Terminator 2/Sarah Connor Chronicles. The concept of history defining and creating conflicts, tensions, and mysteries is well established in most other RPG’s, yet I find them strangely lacking in Vampire.

So, having thought about this, I've decided to steal from one of my favorite sources--the World Builder’s Guidebook. I found this an amazing resource when developing my D&D settings, and it taught me quite a number of lessons I could easily port over to other games. In this case, specifically how it does history. In brief summary, the book breaks down history into 3 eras--Ancient, Middle, and Recent. Ancient are climatic events that occurred hundreds or thousands of years ago--give this vast time frame, only the most epic and significant of events still echo to the present day. Middle are those of the past few hundred years or so--enough that scholars know most of what happened, and the effects are pretty obvious to all. Recent are those that occurred in the last 10 or so, and things that not only is pretty much every character aware of them, the effects of these are still active in the setting.

In Vampire, these have a bit of a mirror. Ancient would be Caine, his Childer, the revolt of the Antediluvians, the fall of Enoch, and the fall of the Second City. For a modern game, the “Ancient” era probably runs up to around the Anarch Revolt. This revolt, and the events surrounding and immediately following it (Inquisition, Sabbat, Founding of the Camarilla, the Masquerade, etc) would be the canonical “Middle” Age. Meanwhile the events of the characters starting city would be the “Recent” history.

Yeah, I’m not terribly wowed by that either. Mainly because the metaplot is so well known that there really isn't much mystery to it anymore, and I was never terribly impressed by it to begin with. So, instead, I want to focus on applying this to my personal settings. Obviously, a lot of this will be based on the concept and themes and conflicts I find interesting, and that I want to explore. Let’s say I had two settings--City A is all about vicious internal vampire politicking and violence, while city B is all about the Vampire/Lupine struggle.

The Ancient era will be all about the founding of the City, and how it came about and how it assumed its identity. In  A, this will be the tale of two ancient kindred, their struggles over the centuries, and their final battle at this location. The city was founded by their surviving followers, and by later allies summoned from far away to continue the struggle, but from the shadows. B would be about the ancient Caern that once dominate this place, why the Kindred came to this location, how they out-fought or out-witted the Lupines and took possession of it. The Middle era would be about the changes and twists the city went through, and how it came to take on it’s current forms. In A, this would be a grisly tale of constant internal fighting, or Princes rising and falling, and of vicious and long-standing feuds, even if most of the Kindred are entirely unaware of the puppet masters pulling their strings. In B, this would be the saga of the Lupine War, and how the Kindred were able to survive these constant threats, what horrible tactics they used to stay alive, and what effect the Caern has had on the Kindred. The Recent era is, well, recent. Definitely within the “unlife” time of the characters, possibly within their mortal lives as well. Perhaps a new tyrant finally seized city A and has imposed a harsh peace. Is he why the characters sire has gone missing? In city B, this might be the final victory of the Kindred over the local Lupines, ignorant how even victory can sow the seeds of defeat.

Or, not--I apologize, my thoughts aren't terribly well formed on this topic yet. I've talked quite a bit during this challenge of the “social sandbox” of Vampire, and I really feel like History is the missing component. It is the ingredient that describes why things are this way instead of any other way, and provides another way for the players to gain knowledge and understanding of the city, of why and how people behave the way they do, which allows them to be proactive players in the Jyhad, not merely adventures on a quest.  History, combined with NPC’s, Coteries, and City Design, can make for a living world, that the players can explore and interact with as they see fit, without relying solely, or even primarily, on the Storyteller to create the Stories.

The best Stories, after all, come not from the mind of the Storyteller, but from the actions of the players. The magic of roleplaying is what happens at the table, as the group bounces off each other and are all existing in the moment and responding not based on the needs of the narrative, but on the needs of the characters. The point of having a semi-detailed history, and other background information, is not to shackle the Storyteller nor to drive the players down a pre-written path, but instead to empower the group to focus on what’s happening now, to make things come alive, and truly live as their characters.

Sure as heck beats watching TV.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 27 City Design

As time has gone by, I've become less and less enamored with the idea that any given setting should be overly “realistic.” Most of the by Night series do a decent job of giving an overview of the actual city, even if it is a shallow one. The general consensus tends to be that a writer has to be a native of any given city, or have equivalent in-depth knowledge of a place, to write about it--all in the name of realism. As a Storyteller who has only lived in a few places in my life, this idea obviously inherently limits me to only setting games in the city nearest me.

Historical map of Genoa, where I'm setting my next game. 

But, ignoring that, I’m not sure realism has much place in a game. I mean, obviously, if you have a particular concept or theme for your city, then picking a real world city that syncs up with that is a virtue. For example, if you want to play up the “Sect Cold War” between the Camarilla and Sabbat, then a city like El Paso/Ciudad Juarez is a wonderful location. But if you can’t find one that is exactly what you want, a Storyteller should feel free to completely alter it, or even create their own fictional city, based on interest and passion. If the players balk at this, the twin excuses of “I’m the Storyteller” and “It’s the World of Darkness, not the real world” should be more than sufficient to justify any bizarre thing you want to come up with.

Even with that though, I don’t think most “realistic” cities are all that useful in a game. The main reason why is, well, the damn players--who, lets be honest, have been the ruin of many Storytellers dream Chronicles. When dealing with players, you have to deal with the fact that you have a group of individuals whose interest in the Chronicle, and it’s component setting, locations, NPC’s, and a host of other details, varies greatly. Not just between player and players, but also between sessions for the same player. I’m personally rather pleased when they can remember their own names, the names of their coterie mates, the current NPC they’re trying to track down, and the NPC who tasked them with the mission in the first place. Expecting them to notice, care about, and remember the subtle changes a city goes through as one moves through it is just a step too far. As such, excess work to really play up the nuances and details of a city, whether it is a real place or not, seems like a waste.

And in fact, more than a waste, since the end result is the city ends up feeling like a vague and indistinct place to most players with only a tiny handful of locations being even remotely memorable or distinctive. I mean, the Storyteller might have a nice streetmap they purchased or printed out, but other than the occasional times they jab at it with their fingers, most players will have only vaguest idea of where they are at any given time, and care about it less. As such, a Chronicle set in Philadelphia will “feel” the same as one set in Montreal, or Buffalo, or even Marseilles (to cite major locations in a game I played in years ago).

So, given all this, I've decided in my recent games to dump the concept of “realism” and embrace what I like to call the Star Wars School of Setting Design. It might be better to embrace the tropes and call it Single Biome Planet or even Patchwork Map. The virtue of this idea is that it is incredibly obvious to the audience that THIS planet is Tatooine and THIS one is the Death Star. Likewise, knowing that Hoth is a totally different place than Dagobah or Cloud City, all of which are completely different than the Forest Moon of Endor. It’s crude, it’s heavy handed, but it works in making each of these locations distinct and memorable.

So, nowadays, when I try to create a new setting for a Chronicle, I try to embrace this, by making each section of the city to be as distinct and unique as possible. The docks are always covered in fog and full of surly longshoremen. The university is covered in ivy and full of earnest young people with an affection for Zima (a personal trope of mine--because, yes, Zima still exists in the World of Darkness!). The barrens are full of rotting and rusty warehouses and shuttered factories, while the suburbs are a mind-numbing wasteland of strip malls, 7-11’s, and generic housing, seemingly replicated by a lazy computer program.

Obviously, the exact areas will vary based on the city I've chosen, it’s geography, and the general theme and mood of the Chronicle. But, in general, I’m not interested in the “in-between” areas as much as the stark and iconic places that will as immediately as possible get the players “in the mood” of a specific locale. I pick these areas generally based on either the “neighborhood” maps of a city (which as any local will tell you are at best questionable compared to reality), the police precinct or district maps, or through the simple expediency of taking a marker to a map and carving it up as I see fit.

Generally I’ll try to come up with “iconic” ideas for each of these areas, but if I can’t I don’t worry about it too much. I have no problem with leaving large chunks of the map blank so I can fill them in as needed later. Of the ones I do bother to detail, I tend to treat them similarly to how i do NPC’s. Here’s what I try to focus on:

* Map--I like having a vague idea of what the given area is like, even it it’s just a rough hand drawn thing. Are there are a lot of alleyways? Wide boulevards? Numerous parks? Basically, what is physically there.

* Overview--a brief text overview of what this place is, details about the atmosphere, what’s going on there, etc.

* Major locations--if an area is worth detailing at all, it better have more than one place the players will frequent.  So,  this is where I list what is here that might interest a typical group of players--clubs, bars, NPC (or PC) havens, libraries, weapon dealers, Elysiums, gang “headquarters,” etc. When first creating a section of the city, I try to have at least 3-5 of these. If I only have 1 or 2, then I just detail  THOSE places, without worrying about the general area around them. One of these locations should be the “anchor” of the place, the one that defines it more than anything and which the players will navigate by. Generally this will be a Kindred focused location like a club or Elysium, but could also be a really noticeable landmark. While in the area, I’ll use it to describe where the players are--”you go to the meeting at the warehouse, it’s about 3 blocks away from Club Paradox,” or “you’re driving in Oakridge, about a block from the Park, when you hear a piercing howl break the silence.”

* NPC’s--who lives here and what are they up to, both Kindred and Kine. This is generally pretty easy to figure out based on my NPC notes, but I might to create further significant NPC’s based on locations and atmosphere.

* Notes--this is my catch all category. Ideas and notes that don’t belong anywhere else go here. Two things I always try to think of is what Stories are happening here (for those that do not involve the players, but they may hear about, particularly through the Harpies) or could happen based on the PC’s, and “encounters.” The idea of random encounters is pretty out of vogue nowadays, particularly with such “narrative” games as Vampire, but I generally run it like an old school game. As such, having a convenient list of people and things that may or may not interact with the characters is extremely helpful in making a place feel distinct and making a setting feel “alive.” After all, you’re going to run into different people in the Docks area than you are at the University, and not everything is based on the “Story”--sometimes things just happen. It also creates uncertainty, as a character should never be sure if that “random drunk” really is just a recently laid off dock-worker or is secretly a plant. Of course, like in the best old school games, these are “encounters” not “fights.”

Anyway, I find that if you get a couple of these areas together, you can have a pretty distinct and living city, that the players eventually get to know pretty well.

So, how do you make your cities?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 26 Favorite Disciplines

As a huge fan of the Gangrel, I believe I am legally obligated to say that Protean is my favorite Discipline. And to a certain extent, it is. It is certainly one of the most useful, what with shape changing, seeing in the dark, and of course the safest Haven you’re ever going to find...well, it’s hard to pick a Discipline that will do more to keep your undead neck alive. And that’s not even including the most vicious weapons in the game, the claws you get at level two.

Aww, you brought an automatic shotgun with dragons breath rounds, that’s cute. Snikt! Snikt! RUN! Run my little pile of XP!

The truth is, I’m not a huge partisan of any given Discipline. I’m rather “meh” on some of the “other clan” disciplines--Vicissitude, Quietus, and Serpentis never really wowed me, but other than that I kind of like all of them. I remember when I was first getting into Vampire, my friends and I would discuss which “Clan” we would be, only for the Disciplines. If you didn't have to be a vampire, and you didn't have to deal with their flaws, which would you be? I always tended towards Malkavian--Dominate, Obfuscate, and Auspex. I mean, you can keep your super strength and speed, I’m going with psychic powers, mind control, and invisibility!

But that was at the same time when discussions about various fictional characters fighting other fictional character was a regular occurrence in my life. I think they’re all interesting, even if many have as yet untapped potential for characters in the game. Animalism of course is the classic underutilized Discipline, but I’d love to see someone do something cool with Necromancy or a player to finally deign to get higher than Level 2 in Auspex.  

Thinking about “favorite Disciplines” did get me thinking about how I tend to use them in games though. Now, I've always felt that the truly dangerous character in Vampire is not the specialist, but rather the generalist. I mean, sure it’s impressive to run around with your high melee and crazy amounts of Celerity, but there’s always someone out there who can take you out in a fair fight. Instead, the guy who is really dangerous and “unbalanced” is the guy who has the smarts to figure out your weakness and prey, charming enough to befriend you and gain your trust, and then subtle and manipulative enough to lure you into an ambush you never see coming. At that point, his combat prowess just needs to be “good enough.”

So, given that, I tend to run more “scenario” based Stories, where pretty much anything can be attempted, even if every action does not have an equal chance of success. As such, my players tend to “spread out” their Disciplines, generally getting their preferred Clan ones to around level 3, and then seeking to learn others. In the past, I feel I've been fairly lenient in this regard, but I’m starting to rethink that.

My default approach is to break the Disciplines into three tiers. Tier one are the physical Disciplines of Celerity, Fortitude, and Potence. I've always felt that these are natural extensions of a Kindreds ability to enhance their physical Attributes, and I've allowed these pretty easily. So long as a character has at least 3 in the related Attribute (Dexterity for Celerity, for example), they can buy it at the normal cost. Less than that, and they must first spend time improving that Attribute.

Tier two are the common Disciplines--Animalism, Auspex, Obfuscate, Dominate, & Presence. While still fairly natural to the Kindred, they are inherently weirder and more alien. If they have a teacher, it’s fine and they can learn it. If not, then they have to spend time improving the related Attribute and Skill. So, Wits and Stealth for Obfuscate, or Perception and Alertness for Auspex. Generally I base it off of whatever the Level 1 power requires to be rolled, or whatever “feels right” for that Discipline. Sometimes I’ll waive this requirement or use something else if a character is already particularly strong with these.

Tier three are the unique Disciplines--Protean, Vicissitude, Thaumaturgy, etc. These are so alien and “off” that they require a teacher to even begin learning them, and that teacher must be sufficiently advanced to instruct another. At least Level 3 in most cases. It is impossible for a player to learn these on their own.

I suppose there would be a fourth tier, which would consist of truly unique disciplines that the character creates on their own. However, this has never come in a game I've either player in or run, and so I’ve never really given such Disciplines much thought.

Anyway, this system has worked ok, for the most part. Most characters, after a while of game play, pick up about two or three out of clan Disciplines, generally one or two “physical” and one “common”.  I wonder though if there’s not a flaw in my reasoning.

First off, the players never seek out an NPC to learn a new Discipline, cutting off what should be a major Story in the game, and the potential stories that such a Mentorship would open up. Also, this is the “official” way, and I might be missing even more by not following it. Secondly, I worry that I’m short-changing the Brujah. I mean, if it’s pretty easy for anyone to learn Potence and Celerity, then aren't they being kind of “nerfed” compared to the Gangrel and Tremere? If everyone needed a Mentor to learn Potence, then maybe they could reestablish themselves as the kings of direct confrontation. If they were, generally, the only ones with Potence and Celerity, they would definitely put some fear into the “Wareadors” and Gangrel, after all. Finally, as my games have progressed, most of the characters end up with only Level 3 in various Disciplines or less. Level 3  tends to be the “sweet” spot for most Disciplines--Presence lets you make anyone your best friend, Dominate allows to erase memories, Obfuscate lets you look like someone else, etc. Higher levels are more “refined” and only useful in specific cases.

Or maybe not. Maybe by allowing fairly easy purchase of out of Clan Disciplines, I’m encouraging my players to not get what could, with a little practice, be really cool and neat tricks for their characters to do. Also, if I’m nerfing Brujah, aren't I really screwing over Caitiff--after all, their main benefit is starting off with any three Disciplines. If it really isn't that hard to learn new ones, then why deal with the all the side effects of being a Caitiff?

Having thought about this, I've decided to be much more “stingy” as a Storyteller for my upcoming Dark Ages game. The players can not spend starting points (even Freebies) to learn Out of Clan Disciplines, they must learn them in game, either through a mentor of some sort, or by paying dearly for the privilege. This extends to NPC’s as well. In the past if I had an NPC Toreador with, say, 10 Disciplines, they’d probably have 2 Auspex, 3 Celerity, 2 Presence, 1 Potence and 2 Fortitude. This iteration, they’re going to have 3 Auspex, 4 Celerity, and 3 Presence (or whatever,  I generally don’t stress about NPC’s stats all that much).

So, I guess I have a question--how do other people handle Disciplines in their games, particularly out of Clan ones? Am I far more liberal than most, or about normal? What’s it like being in a game where the Ventrue can’t easily get Potence or Celerity, but must truly rely on Fortitude to help them when combat starts?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 25 Broods and Coteries

Coterie is the generic term for any given group of Kindred. Generally, they are united for a purpose, though this purpose can range from “elite strike sent to destabilize a rival city” to “a bunch of people who like to hang out together.” In effect, it’s really just a convention, a shorthand method of describing any given group of vampires who are gathered together and are of different clans. Brood, by comparison, refers specifically to the childer of any given vampire--though how large that group can be, and if it includes the subsequent childer of the brood members, varies quite a bit.

You want them to have your back, not at your throat.

The basic books do a pretty good job of describing what a coterie is, and all the various reasons and why a group of Kindred could come together. Being in a band, assembled as an enforcement arm for the Prince, being the local Kindred in a specific area, enjoying each others company, teamed up to take down a common foe--really, it could be any reason. Where I think the “official” line drops the ball, however, is by making PC coteries unique in the world of Vampire, where it seems like most of the rest of the Kindred are united by Clan and blood far more so than by coteries.

This is one of the legacies of 1st ed., and despite my affection for that edition, it’s something that I feel needs to be excised. The idea that the players coterie, consisting as it does of vampires from various Clans, as being unusual and odd works wonders in a game of anarchs vs. elders, where the players are meant to represent a “third way” in creating a new and modern for vampires to live. Outside of that framework, keeping the NPC’s defined by the Clan and status does them a great disservice.

I think it works better to have the NPC’s in the setting also be in inter-Clan coteries, at least for those that make sense. Having political factions = Clan is rather boring, and limiting. Rather, I like to organize them much as I would a PC group, with an emphasis on the history and development of Kindred society within that city. So, for example, the Prince would have a coterie affiliated with him, while the remnants of the previous regime would form another coterie (which might be tentatively allied with a coterie of anarchs). Other city coteries might be a group of ascetics who seek to overcome the Curse of Caine, while another focuses on enjoying and celebrating what they have, regardless of politics or territory. Each of these would contain vampires of different Clans, of course.

I like this for two reasons, besides aesthetics. First off, it makes each faction a bit more dangerous, since the players may or may not know what the members are capable of. Sure, the Prince is a Ventrue, but what if one of his top allies is a Malkavian? Suddenly having the PC Nosferatu brazenly sneak into a meeting becomes far more dangerous. Secondly, it allows the use of Clan and “family” connections to cross faction line. If a player needs to speak with the aesthetics, having a brood mate or an “uncle” that’s a member can give them access that would otherwise be denied.

The other way to have a team of vampires is through the Brood. I've never actually played a game where all the players were members of the same Brood, unless you count Giovanni Chronicles. This is probably because, well, being a Brood means everyone has to be a member of the same Clan, and most players (and I include myself in this) like to play “special snowflakes”--the guys whose abilities are very different from everyone else's. Yet, the Brood concept remains very appealing, if only because it is perhaps the most “organic” way for a group of vampires to associate and ally with each other. The Requiem Chroniclers Guide has some excellent advice for running a game like this, but I think there is one thing I would do differently.

Just let the players pick their clans, and say they’re all part of the same Brood.

I mean, sure,  I get it. This violates the “same Clan” idea of the Brood, and it runs smack dab into the world as presented by the rule books. So what? I mean, unless everyone really wants to play Ventrue, what does it harm? You get the advantage of everyone playing “family,” and the players are happy because they all get to have their own special powers, which you can easily justify as “the Dark Gift expresses itself in many ways.” In fact, I might even dump the Caitiff and let anyone pick any three disciplines they want--subject, of course, to Storyteller approval.

I’m not overly concerned with “balance” in a game, particularly since I find the best way to balance a story is by paying attention to your players and giving them “scenarios” rather than plots which allow them to approach situations as they choose to, rather than as “scripted.” As such, the crazy Gangrel who spends his points on Protean, Fortitude and picking up Celerity and Potence isn't anymore “powerful” that the Ventrue who focuses on Presence, Dominate, and picks up Auspex and Obfuscate. If anything, as a Storyteller, that Venture would scare me a helluva lot more than the Gangrel!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 24 Backgrounds

I love Backgrounds. Of all the “mechanical” parts of Vampire and the Storyteller system, Backgrounds are the “fiddly bit” I enjoy the most. When I first discovered Vampire, these were the parts that most enthralled me, even more so than the cool powers or anything else. The idea that characters weren't just “blank slates” with only their weapons and gear was a revelatory concept, particularly since these connections to the wider world were something every character had, not something you have to spend extra for, ala GURPS.

See, the reason why I love them so much is because they are probably the best method to draw players into a Story. Having some NPC show up with an offer for a job is something that can happen in any game, and is generally not terribly interesting. But the Background system allows for numerous openings to Stories as players seek either to expand their possessions, or to protect what they already have.

Succubus Club--great background, or greatest background?

Of course, these require a subtle hand on behalf of the Storyteller. It is extraordinarily tempting to destroy or critically threaten these backgrounds in the name of hollow drama. Pulling off these threats is tricky--they need to be just serious enough to rouse the characters to action, but no more. The cost of having Backgrounds (in terms of how often and how strongly the Storyteller turns your character into a punching bag) should only rarely outweigh their benefit.

Given that, my “favorite” background is probably any one that is well defined, yet broad enough to drive numerous plots. Having a high Resources locked away in a Trust is boring. Having a high Resources derived from your influence over a street gang is awesome.  This is probably why I generally dislike the Generation background. It’s presence really only inherently drives one plot, which is “NPC’s are trying to kill and eat you” which can be fun for a short Story, but that’s about it. Certain Storytellers consider it a “powergamer” background, since it’s benefits are so significant and mechanical. While I think this is true, I would say it’s also the Background of choice for those who have little creativity or imagination, and also for those who do NOT want the Storyteller to exploit their Backgrounds to “force” them into Stories. Many players, most notably veterans, tend to be ultra-conservative and don’t want their characters to ever be placed at risk.

Due to that, and a general feeling that Generation doesn't really do what it’s intended to do, I’ve stolen from Requiem the “Blood Potency” background instead, and just rule by Storyteller fiat that all players begin at “1” in that background.

I try to sit down with the players outside of the game and work out what the Background ratings actually mean, and how they can best be expressed in game. For example, if a player decides that their Resources rating refers to their hip and popular club, then we will discuss the club, it’s name, theme, clientele, neighborhood, and staff. I’ll also try to think in terms of “mechanical” benefit that the player may derive from their Backgrounds.  In the club example, they might get bonuses to hunting rolls, or even free herd if it makes sense, while hunting within their club. Likewise, they might get a bonus to social rolls or resisting said rolls (and affiliated Disciplines) while on the premises.

In this, I was inspired a bit by the video game Bloodlines. In order to prevent players from accidentally (or psychotically) murdering EVERYONE, they enforced a rule of “Elysium” which prevents them from using their weapons and Disciplines in a club or other “haven” of an Elder. The way I view it in game, is that the longer a Vampire has recognized residence in a given area, and the more they customize that area to fit themselves, the more power they gain there. It’s not as potent as going up in age or more Discipline dots, but it is difficult to “push” a vampire around in his “center of power.” It makes these inherently vulnerable connections a bit more valuable to have, as well as explains why it is so important to have meetings on “neutral ground.”

The more I think about Backgrounds, the more I’m beginning to understand where the “conservative veterans” come from in their preference for such “safe” traits as Generations. Backgrounds are numbers on a sheet that are generally only used by a Storyteller to “punish” the player by “forcing” them into action in a Story, and they only ever go down. As such, there is little motivation for a player to invest much (either practically or emotionally) into these dots.

I think this is a shame. Just as backgrounds can be threatened or reduced by actions in play, so too should they be able to be increased or secured.  And this falls on the Storyteller. See, the tripartite system of rewards established in a game like D&D (XP, Treasure, Magic), has it’s place in Vampire as well. Experience is experience, naturally. Treasure equates to Boons, while Magic Items are Backgrounds.  Much as Magic Item allow players to “cheat” their way out of encounters in a dungeon, so too do Backgrounds allow a player to cheat in the social sandbox of Vampire. Contacts provide critical information, Allies step in to assist in ways players never could, Herd allows them to avoid the potentially disastrous consequence of open hunting, Fame grants access where it should be denied, etc.

So, just as a Dungeon Master will place Magic Items throughout their Dungeon for players to find and utilize, so too should  a Storyteller place Backgrounds in their Stories. When going after a mad cult of vampires that have been kidnapping mortals, perhaps one of the victims is the child of a competent, cagey, and feared lawyer. With the rescue of their kid, the lawyer now feels a debt they can never repay to the character, and will use their lawyerly skill and knowledge to get them out of various scrapes with the law..a useful Ally of 1. Or maybe they meet a young reporter after the story of a lifetime in chasing down the cult--the players can ply her for information, while offering an ‘exclusive’ on the case, giving them a Contact in the future.

A few things result from this. First, the world feels more “alive” as more NPC’s who are not explicitly part of the story are created and come to populate the world. Secondly, the players have additional rewards, which is always nice. We all like to see more dots on our sheets, after all. Thirdly, they have a reason to not be assholes--the person who is polite and shows basic human courtesy is more likely to reap such social rewards, while the selfish prick will find their potential backgrounds turning their back on them (or even turning ON them). Finally, it gives the Storyteller more leeway in utilizing and threatening Backgrounds in game--it’s one thing for a player to lose a valuable point spent during Character Creation (particularly if that point came through Freebie Points), another to lose one gained “for free”--particularly if other such Backgrounds are available to be gained as the Chronicle progresses.

Finally, I’ll admit that sometimes I have no idea what to do with my Characters backgrounds. I know I want to make them “living” things, but when I’m stumped, I rely on randomness. The 1st Edition Storytellers Handbook had a wonderful list of charts for backgrounds. You roll to see what background is affected in the current story, and how. Maybe the players are at risk of permanently losing a Retainer (arrested by cops, gone insane, etc.), or they are just not available right now (away visiting family?), or maybe there’s a chance they can gain a new one during the course of the story. The charts aren't perfect, and you would definitely want to customize them for your setting/Chronicle, but sometimes randomness is the best way to spark creativity.

New Year, New Character Day 22: Pendragon

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