Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Transylvania Chronicles Redux -- ACT XII

Transylvania Chronicles IV
The Dragon Ascendant
Act XII: Revelations

(Massive Spoilers)

Summary: It's the year 2000. One of the characters receives a phone call from Lucita. She needs the coterie to meet with her and Anatole, as he has had another of his prophetic visions. If the players no longer possess the ivory tablets from Dark Tides Rising, then she has managed to acquire them, and informs the characters that the language appears to be proto-Chinese. After delivering his final message, Anatole and Lucita leave. Soon after, a torrential storm erupts and the players receive another message, this one from Celestyn, former Chief Librarian for the Tremere at Ceoris. He offers the coterie great knowledge in exchange for their aid in stopping the rise of Kupala. The characters travel to Romania to meet with him, only to be ambushed by a cult of Nosferatu acting on behalf of their Antediluvian master. During their victory over the Nosferatu (or their escape, if captured), the characters are able to rescue Celestyn, who then guides them to meet Ying Lei, a Kuei-Jin geomancer who has been sent to aid in the unraveling of the mystical network forged by Zelios. With information from Celestyn, Ying Lei, and interrogation of the Nosferatu prisoners, the coterie learns that Nosferatu seeks to utilize Romania's secret nuclear weapon system, empowered by the ley line web, to destroy New York. A massive earthquake strikes Romania, as the delicate mystical web begins to shatter. Ying Lei can translate the tablets, revealing Saulot's plans to both save the world, and elevate himself to the status of God. The characters must hide as best they can in the wreckage and destruction, and the next day make their way to the Cernavoda nuclear power plant, where they must work to save the plant from going critical, while fighting attacks from more Nosferatu cultists. Successful, the players see the hidden missiles launch, and then blink out of existence, hidden by the Antediluvian's power. They then must gain access to the control bunker, defeat the stationed soldiers, and attempt to Abort the missiles. Having done so, they are approached by the mocking figure of Kupala itself. Informing them that the web that has bound it for so long compels it to keep the missiles flying. The coterie is presented with an offer--free Kupala, or allow New York and Bejing (it's complicated) to burn. Assuming they free the demon, the bargain is upheld and it departs.

Key Factors: Have the ivory tablets translated, stop the nuclear holocaust.

And they never bother to bring in
actual Kupala worship.
Initial Thoughts: Um...huh. So...that's how it all ends. I'm really not sure what to make of this Act. I know that I'm disappointed, as it certainly was nothing like I was expecting. I still have no idea what Kupala is or what the hell this creature wants. I'm fine with some ambiguity, but this truly did not feel like any sort of ending at all.

In fact, it's not. There's additional information about hunting down the resting place of various Antediluvians (a piece of information Celestyn provides for the characters aid), Kupala remains free to wreck havoc (I guess?), and the only thing that marks it as an 'ending' is the final dissolution of the ley line nexus the players helped forge hundreds of years ago. Oh, and all the Signs of Gehenna have come to pass.

There's two ways to look at Act XII, as a general standalone adventure, and as the final piece to an epic, centuries long campaign. As a standalone, I'd rate is as middling. It's exciting--you are, after all, racing to stop nuclear missiles from killing millions and wrecking the Earth. There's some very cool and tense scenes, and some fun and interesting fights. But, it's also extremely linear, with the players choices more or less reduced to specific tactics in any given scene. Also, the characters can't really fail. Well, I suppose they could, if one was willing to continue the campaign in either a World War III scenario or in the face of Nuclear Winter, which is something the authors strongly argue against. Personally, I'm of the opinion that a Storyteller should never put a bomb in a story unless they're willing for it to go off, so that also counts a strike against it for me.

Nukes and vampires! C'mon, it'd be awesome!
As the grand finale? It's even less satisfying. Assuming you ran the Chronicles "straight," you're still looking at roughly six months of game play, at a minimum. Easily more, if the Storyteller added their own personal content to the game. Despite the high stakes drama, I don't feel that it works. And the authors don't seem to have intended it to be the end, merely the final story that they were going to publish. I'm not sure if the fault is in this last Act itself, or in the Chronicles as a whole, but I'm left with a general feeling of disappointment in the whole mess.

Vampire is not a game like D&D, where you can generally easily guess or assume various characters motivations, which allows you to create long running epics. It's intended to be more personal, more focused on the individual characters. Should they have brought back in Dracula? For someone like me, well, no, the less that bastard is around the better. But, others might really like the Impaler; some even end up falling in love with him. Honestly, given all his build up, he probably should have featured somehow in this Act, but how would one make that work?

A number of readers have taken mild issue with some of my complaints in this series. Many have run or played the Chronicles multiple times, and had great experiences with it. My hat is off to them, though many do admit to telling their own stories by the time the modern day comes around, and skipping the "official" story. Which is probably for the best. When I read or run an adventure series like the Chronicles, I'm willing to tweak things here and there (which was the original intent of this series, after all), but I'm trading money and a certain degree of creative freedom in exchange for an expected amount of quality and narrative thrills. I'm not sure, in this case, that the trade was worthwhile.

Of course, it is possible that, like Shakespeare, the Chronicles "play" better than it reads. Since I started this series, I've deliberately shut myself off from the other takes on them. Perhaps now I will look up the various websites dedicated to the Chronicles and the various "actual play" threads on forums and the like to get a better sense of how others handled it. I would love to have my take challenged and my eyes opened to new, and better ways to play this iconic chronicle.

It's difficult to say. Assuming I was running the Chronicles "straight," I would do a few things different.
Poor bastard, never even got to say goodbye
  • The primary Nosferatu antagonist is Mihail. He's a fanatic, but also dominated into obedience by his Antediluvian master. I'd replace him with Zelios. Not only is he much, much older (and therefore a far more interesting threat), but the players know him. He's an ally, and a potential friend, who has been turned against them by the Ancient--battling him would hopefully have far more pathos than a brand new foe. Canonically, it appears Zelios "disappears" in the sewers of New York, which is a narrative waste for the Chronicles.
  • Replace Celestyn and Ying Lee. First off, I don't particularly like Kindred of the East in my Masquerade games (I actually think KotE is a cool game, I just think the two stand better on their own). Secondly, again, they don't know who these people are. Picking NPC's from previous stories, or, hell even Lucita and Anatole, would give a greater urgency and passion to the story.
  • The final race into the reactor and the bunker should be trippy. I did like the idea of "what once was magic is now science" element, but I want something different. I want more than just rain storms and earthquakes, I want the world to feel like it's coming apart at the seems. Make the entire trip bizarre, and alien. Have slaughtered sires and betrayed childer show up to the characters, to torment and confuse them. Have sudden nuclear explosions burn characters alive, only for them to come to and realize it was never real. Have them take the part of Nosferatu in his murder of the 2nd Generation, and then take the part of Arikel to reject him. Have players flash back to their mortal lives, and go through a "Last Temptation" before being returned to the horror of what they've become. That thing that really scared the players 6 Acts ago? Bring it back. That NPC that made them all laugh--he's there, either as comedic relief or as tragic counterpoint. Do something to make this at least the emotional climax of the entire Chronicle, even if it's not the narrative one.
That's all I can think of for now. Though having read the Chronicles, I'm not sure I'd ever honestly try running it "straight." I just don't feel I'm the target audience for a product like this. I don't care about nor particularly enjoy "canon," either as a Storyteller or a Player. I don't care about meeting someone from a supplement or a novel, and I don't want to be there to 'witness' major historical events. I've certainly used the canon, but as a jumping off point for my own Chronicles.

And I've never cared about Gehenna. I mean, it works great as a looming threat, always in the background, always 'coming' but never arriving. Something to motivate dangerous and delusional actions, but not anything to ever actually come to pass. The signs and prophecies, when literal, just bore me and take me out of the game.

I might change my mind with more thought and reading on others games, but for now I just feel disappointed with the Chronicles, and feel that it was a wasted opportunity.

(Transylvania Chronicles IV: The Dragon Ascendant, written by Brian Campbell, Jackie Cassada, and Nicky Rea. Published by White Wolf Publishing, Inc. 2000. Available for purchase at drivethrurpg.)

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