Friday, June 30, 2017

Sabbat Pack Creation Rules

I'm starting a new Vampire Chronicle soon, in which the characters will be Sabbat. For a change, I want there to be an emphasis on the Pack as the central figure on the Chronicle, rather than the individual characters. Think of it something like Sons of Anarchy, where the Club was the center point of the relationships between all the characters, and it's fate and fortunes dominated their concern and attention.

As such, I've put together a rough "Pack Creation" rules set to allow my players to design and define the Pack as they see fit. These rules are inspired by the Covenant Creation rules from Ars Magica. I'm sharing this with two hopes. The first is that it will inspire other Storytellers and their troupes. The second is for feedback and ways to improve them.

First, there are four main types of Packs in the Sabbat.

1) Vespers (Evening/Twilight): mostly comprised of neonate Cainites, these Packs are the bulk of the Sabbat.  They are young, bold, brash, and eager for action. While they lack little in the way of power or influence, their potential is unlimited. If they survive. Most are “split off” from a Compline or Nocturn Pack, by members who seek to go their own way for whatever reason. Generally consist of 5-7 members, with 3 being the minimum for existence as an independent Pack. Most members often follow the same Path, or are on Humanity. Players would be the leaders of such a Pack, with the remainder filled out by weaker (but still competent) NPC’s.

2) Compline (Night): Vespers that survive and thrive become Complines. These are the pillars of the Sabbat, the powers that keep the Sect functioning. They have the most mortal influence and are one of, if not the, leaders of individual cities. They have at least 2 “generations” (often more) of members, and their leaders are often Ancilla, and are at least a century old. Some are even older. Generally two or three Paths conflict for the devotion of the members. Players would be the newest recruits, acting as operatives and trouble shooters working to secure the Pack.

3) Nocturn (Midnight): As Complines age and grow in size and power, they become Nocturn Packs. Led be Elders, they have immense power and status in the Sabbat, but often find their mortal ties fading. They are almost always conservative, and dominate the largest cities. Particularly powerful ones dominate entire Regions.  Generally, they have at least 3 “generations” of members, with the leadership being centuries old.  They are often greatly divided among the various Paths, and religious debates play a major role in their lives. Players would be the youngest members, attempting to keep the power of the Pack intact against a rapidly changing world.

4) Orthros (Dawn): The oldest of the Packs, only a handful still exist in the world. Their founders pre-date the Sabbat, and their loyalty to the Sect is seen as questionable, at best. They have seen the rise and fall of Empires, and have generally withdrawn from the world, seeing little that can rouse their passions. Their Methuselah members provide the raw power to make the Pack unchallengeable, but they are often weak and poor when it comes to making their will felt elsewhere.  They follow ancient and alien Roads, and can barely even pretend to be anything but what they are. Soon it’s members will face Torpor, leaving the youngest members (the characters) to strive to rejuvenate the Pack.

Next, each Pack has a list of traits associated with it--what the Pack has, what it can do, what others want from it, and what it offers its members. Not every Pack is the same, and so while there are a number of default traits, each can be tweaked based on what the players would like to see, what they want to struggle with, and what they wish to ignore.  Each trait is fairly broad, and it is up to the troupe as a whole to define what each actually represents and what it means in the Chronicle.

For example, one of the traits is "territory"--the physical area the Pack, for lack of a better word, "controls." If they end up with a "marginal" territory, they should think about what makes this territory so marginal. Particularly from a vampire's point of view. Maybe it's the decayed remnants of a near-abandoned Rust Belt city. Maybe its the suburbs of a burgeoning metropolis. Maybe it's just a small tourist town.  Whatever best fits the needs and interests of the troupe and the Chronicle

The other factor to think about is what the "deal" with this Pack. What does its members care about, where do their interest lie. What Themes and Conflicts are going to explored in the Chronicle, and how will the Pack reflect them? Here are some ideas, though the list is far from exhaustive.

  • Improvement -- the Cainites of the Pack seek to push and challenge themselves every night, in every possible manner. 
  • Belonging – the Cainites are Panders or other outcasts, who seek to prove themselves and earn a place of respect within the Sabbat
  • Mystery – something unknown or hidden is central to your Pack. Perhaps their original Pack has vanished, or they seek to understand bizarre and strange circumstances that plague an area.
  • Power – the Pack seeks power, for its own sake. This could be domination of mortals, rising among the Sabbat, or a naked hunger for diablerie.
  • Unorthodox – something is off about your Pack, separating it from the rest of the Sabbat. Maybe all its members are on Humanity, and high at that. Or they have close ties to the Fae, or the Restless Dead, or something else that is just weird. 
  • Evangelists – your Pack are strident devotees of your Path, and seek to prove it’s superiority by word and deed. 
  • Erosion – something is chipping away at your Packs strength and power. This could be a mysterious outside force, or just bickering and in-fighting from within. You must stop it if you wish to survive.
  • Freedom – seeking liberation from even the restraints of the Sabbat, the Pack seek to discover the limits of independence and freedom. 
  • Corruption – the Pack prospers, but at what cost? Somewhere in the past, a deal was made, and the Pack must now deal with its consequences. Or, the Pack are crusaders, ferreting out corruption (both demonic and mundane) from the Sabbat.

Next, there are the traits associated with the Pack.

  • Territory:  The actual, physical area that the Pack claims. This is a both an element of prestige (controlling downtown is more impressive than some residential area), and the difficulties for hunting. Simply put, better territory makes hunting easier. Stats wise, the hunting difficulty is listed twice. The first difficulty is for any vampire to hunt there, the second is for your Pack. Since it's your turf and you know its bars and alleys well, the second is generally two less than the first.  For example, hunting in a truly marginal area where there are hardly any mortals at night, and even fewer outside, would be a 10. The Pack's knowledge of the area, and the best places to find SOMEONE would give them an 8. Meanwhile, the popular club area where mortals are eager to meet someone and try new things, not to mention stagger foolishly down dark alleys, would have a base of 6 (with a 4 for the Pack).
  • Size: How large is the Pack, and how powerful are it's most powerful members? All other characters in the Pack will be NPC's, and the majority will be "neonate" level. As these are NPC's, they'll be slightly less powerful than a starting character (basically, fewer dots to play with, and no freebies).Of course, if the Pack has Ancilla, Elder, or even Methuselah members, well, they'll be correspondingly more powerful. 
  • Defenses: Turf is nothing if you can't control it. The Defenses are a collection of servants, allies, and mortal dupes who keep an eye out for anything unusual. While they may not be able to stop a Camarilla infiltrator, rival Sabbat, desperate anarchs, or other truly weird things from entering your territory, good defenses can be made aware of the strangers presence and let the Pack know what it going on.
  • Communal Haven: Most Packs live together, in a "temple." Some are nothing more than the unfinished basement under an abandoned house. Others are elaborate and multistory affairs, effectively a combination of military bunker and underground palace.
  • Internal Politics: Despite the use of the vaulderie (communal Blood Bond), even the Sabbat rarely get along. Debates about who should be in charge, what the Pack should do, and what they believe can drive a Pack apart or at least ground it down in incessant debate and arguments. Generally, this is defined by the number of Paths (Sabbat spiritual believes) the Pack follows, but even the most religiously unified can still fall apart.
  • Retainers: Mortals and ghouls willing and able to impose the Pack's will. Or at least serve as convenient canon fodder.
  • Knowledge: What does the Pack know about the larger world, and the secrets it contains. Generally represented by a library of forgotten diaries and "lost" texts, but can also be an oral tradition from elder members. It also indicates how much influence the Pack has over mortal knowledge and its institutions, which allows the Pack to improve their own abilities and skills. Want to increase your melee? Better to have connections with a local university whose fencing team is taught by a former Olympian than trying to make do with a YouTube video.
  • Herd: Mortals that Pack members can feed from freely. Exactly what they are varies--some are slaves imprisoned in the Temple, others are brothels "owned" by the Pack, or deranged "blood cults." They make feeding easy, but are rarely endorsed by the Sabbat leadership.
  • Equipment: What "stuff" the Pack has, and what the characters can use. Everything from weapons, to clothes, to vehicles are covered by this. Vespers are lucky to have a couple of light revolvers, a shotgun, and a 10 year old van the whole Pack can ride in. Compline run with assault weapons, sniper rifles, and the latest cars. Orthos don't even bother.
  • Resources: How much money the Pack has, and how much each member can spend freely. Money really isn't that valued by the Sabbat, other than the gear it allows them to buy. But sometimes you need something the Pack doesn't have, and sometimes money talks better than a gun. Or even Dominate.
  • Contacts: People (mortals) outside your immediate control you have some form of relationship with. Doddering scholars, desperate gun runners, corrupt cops--any of these can be a key source of information about the wider world.
  • Status: How well respected is the Pack among the Sabbat. Each Pack has a basic status, which determines how it's members are treated, which gives a typical member it's rating. The leaders of the Pack are treated slightly better. For example, a standard Vespers Pack has a Status of 1, which is how most members are treated. The Ductus and the Priest are treated slightly better, as if they had a 2. An average Compline begins at a 2, with it's leaders being treated as a 3. 

In addition to general roleplaying, there's also a mechanical effect. In an opposed social roll, the DIFFERENCE between the Status of the two vampires reduces the difficulty for the higher status one. Example: Steve is part of a Vespers, with a Status 1. He's trying to fast talk his past the Priest of a Compline Pack (status 3.) Steve rolls Manipulations + Subterfuge at a difficulty of 6, with the Priest rolling his Perception + Subterfuge at a difficulty of (6-(3-1)=) 4. 

  • Relationships: No Pack is truly alone, all have some kind of ties to the wider world. The most obvious is the "parent Pack"--whatever group the Pack was part of prior to their creation. Others are allies they can call on if needed, and will call on the Pack as well. Others are enemies that seek to discredit or even destroy the Pack. Not all of these relationships are Sabbat, though. Perhaps the Pack has a deal with a particularly violent group of werewolves, but are hated by a group of Setites.  While listed as Pack types (Vespers, Complines, etc.), these are just general power levels. Perhaps instead of a rival Nocturn, your enemy is a Prince of a powerful Camarilla City, or a Mage Chantry, or something else all together.
  • Obligations: The Sabbat demands much from it's members. Those of low rank are expected to provide vast numbers of mortal vessels for major celebrations, or provide boring and monotonous "security" for key parts of the city. Those with greater prestige are expected to secure the "Silence" and keep the mortals in the dark, no matter what vulgarities their fellow Sabbat commit. Even the most dominant ones are expected to stand up as leaders, and deal with herding the various Packs to something like a common goal. All must contribute, as either leaders or followers.

Except the Orthos. The Orthos don't give a shit. 

So, that's the basic Pack break down. In a follow up post (HERE), I'll list the  overview of what the "basic" stats are for the Pack's in question. Each has a default for each of the traits above, but with "PRO" and "CON" to adjust as needed.  The troupe can pick a PRO or a CON (or none) for each category, so long as everything is balanced out at the end. Maybe they decide to go Vespers, but want a better territory. They can balance out that PRO by taking a CON in relationships and have more enemies to start off with. Or, if they go Orthos, maybe they want the Pack to actually talk to each other once in a while (PRO for Internal Politics), and off set that with a truly non-euclidean Haven.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Vampire 5th Edition, After Action Report

I was finally able to run a game with the 5th Edition play-test rules, using the provided scenario The Last Night.  I've posted previously my thoughts on the new rules based on a read through, but seeing them in action is a different thing all together.  This post will be divided into two sections--the first on the rules, and the second on the scenario.


In general, I like the new rules. Of course, the ones provided are very limited. There are significant aspects from the game missing, including some very basic ones. This is not a set or rules I'd hand to a new Gamemaster who wants to run their own game for the very first time. But, the audience is clearly for those who are already playing Vampire, so that's fine.

But, more or less, my initial impressions wore born out in the play 

The only real complaint is how many things one needs to keep track of with the new system. Willpower, Composure, Hunger, and Rouses all fluctuate throughout the game, and each needs to be tracked and altered on a near constant basis. Having tokens or the like might help with this, but we were playing over Roll20. Despite their design goal to simplify and speed up the majority of the mechanics, there seems to be a lot more book keeping associated with these rules. Each rule works well on it's own, but in total it can be distracting. I generally prefer the rules to play as little role as possible in the Story, and let the players focus on their characters and what they're trying to accomplish. Having to constantly track every little thing can snap you out of that.
The Last Night

I'm not terribly good at reading a module. It's one of the problems I have as a Gamemaster in general. And it's one of the reasons I spent so much time going through Transylvania Chronicles--because when I just read the adventure, I often miss some critical things that only end up haunting me later. And there were some issues that only became apparent in play.

But, first, the adventure is decent, particularly for a play-test. It showed off the rules, everyone seemed to have a good time, and it had enough tension and energy to last the entire session. Of course, I am judging it as a con/play test module, rather than a standard module like Alien Hunger, let alone an epic like Giovanni or Transylvania.  Which means I imagine the writing process went something like this: 1) come up with some cool scenes to show off the rules, 2) come up with something resembling a plot to tie these scenes together, and 3) create characters that will follow said plot. Fortunately in my play through, the character of Amelina was more or less sidelined for most of it, so that element of the game was downplayed. Though I did follow +Jennifer Fuss 's advise and age up her feeding to teenagers.

For as much as I liked it, I did run into a few problems. Some the result of the developers, some due to my players being clever assholes, and some just due to random fate. Let's tackle them in reverse order:

No Module Survives Contact With the Players

So, the characters begin the game hanging out in a casino, talking about what's been going down lately. For some reason, it's extremely late and they all should be finding new havens after the chaos, but that's just the way things are. Suddenly, there's a terrorist attack on a club they have every reason to believe a "friend" of theirs might be at and after some debate they all head over to it. So far, so good.

The module is well-written enough to provide multiple paths to get to the club. Sneaking around alleyways, jumping over roof tops, bluffing you way past the distracted police, using Disciplines, etc. My players thought "yes" to all these options, and split up, each approaching the club on their own. Which means even when they got into the club, they were still not "together," instead running around on their own, all trying to do their own thing. Which was fine, until they found the stairs into the cellar. The stairs are very delicate and about ready to collapse, which the first player down discovered. The second player was leery of them, and decided to just try to jump down it, to avoid them all together. I had him make a roll to pull it off without hurting himself, and he failed, but by one. I gave them an option to succeed at a cost, that he could land without getting hurt if something else bad happened. They all voted to have crash into the stairs. Well, there go the stairs, and half the coterie is now stuck on the ground level.

They got to spend the rest of the module dealing with the cops.

Clever Girl

So, one of the PC's is the main villain of the piece (um...spoilers? I guess. Whatever, this is an After Action Report!). And I deliberately gave that character to the most experience Vampire player in the group. He was smart, he was clever, he was a freaking monster, and he easily "won" the game. And he did it by playing Bruno as presented.  And Bruno is presented as bitter, petty, jealous and, above all else, Patient. As soon as they entered the club, he activated his Obfuscate and just watched what everyone was doing. Later, when challenged, he had a reasonable excuse for why he wasn't there. He took the minimal actions necessary to screw over the coterie, and watched with glee from the shadows as they ran themselves ragged thanks to his actions. Actions which led them into direct conflict with the Anarchs of Berlin, and their brutal beating and capture.

My Players Don't Need Any Help Turning On Each Other

My favorite module for Vampire remains Alien Hunger. It's just a wonderful setup for a one-shot/micro-Chronicle. The players begin as mortals who are friends, or at least friendly. They are then turned into vampires, have to experience the horror and blood lust of the change, and are forced to work together to face the challenges that come with their new existence. And each time, but the end of the Story, the coterie has torn itself apart. Either due to morality, ethics, tactics, or just personality--they group never survives in tact.

In The Last Night, they group is already at each others throats. Some are utter monsters, others want to kill other members. And one of them is actively and deliberately working to destroy the whole thing. I know the new developers of Vampire are heavily influenced by Nordic-Style LARPS, where heightened emotion and personal struggles are emphasized, while "traditional" challenges (solving mysteries,  for example) are down played or non-existent. But, by creating characters who are so obviously at odds with each other, it almost hindered the ability of the players to make the characters their own. Just having four characters who were basically only together because of Andre, and who had their own view of the world and their place in it would have resulted in a far more organic inter-coterie conflict. And one I think would have been a lot more enjoyable. 

In fact, the one significant critique of the session came from the player of Bruno, who felt he was playing an NPC to the game, with little freedom of action. He had his goals, he had the personality, skills, and contacts necessary to accomplish them, and he spend most of his time "off camera." I would have been happier if the dissolution of the coterie resulted from the choices of the players, rather than from those of the writers. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What is the point of Vampire, anyway?

Since the release of the V5 play-test rules, and particularly the included scenario, The Last Night, there has been a lot of outrage at the characters provided. Specifically, the character of Amelina. You're free to download the scenario yourself, so I won't go into too many specifics, beyond the most obvious. She is a monster. All four of the provided characters are monstrous assholes to one extent or another, but Amelina stands out as singularly vile. If an NPC, she would be the "big bad" of the adventure. As a PC, she is, to put it delicately, "problematic."

Personally, I embrace the idea that she is a monster, and one the other characters should overcome in their adventure. Yes, she's vile and despicable, but she is so vile that one couldn't even pretend that she anything but an obstacle to be overcome. This, however, might be overly generous to the authors of the provided scenario. I really have no way of knowing what they intended, or what they're trying to accomplish with this character, or where they intend to take the game. I've talked briefly about this before, but I want to look at a broader question. Just what is the point of Vampire?

First off, it's a game. You sit around with your friends and pretend to be vampires. You might stand around with a whole bunch of people if you're LARPing. The goal is to have fun--get involved in mysteries and action adventures and try to overcome impossible odds. Maybe you focus on grindhouse horror. Maybe you like long trench coats and awesome action and fighting. Maybe you're all about the political maneuvering of various groups. Whatever, so long as your having fun. But, is Vampire really any different from any other RPG?

And this is where it gets thorny. One answer I like is "no." It's a game, you have fun, it's just the tropes and conceits that vary. I'm an old-schooler at heart--I like random tables and random encounters and the like. The "story," such as it is, is the result of what happens at the table. The interaction between Storyteller and Players, between the characters and the world.  The story isn't some platonic ideal imposed on the players, but the natural result of their actions and choices.

But the other answer is "yes"--vampire is somewhat different. It's a story of personal horror, a story about the lack of self-control, and coming to terms with the evil that resides in all of us. And this is the defense for Amelina--yes she is a monster. But, Vampire is a game about being monsters. So what, exactly, is the problem?

The problem is that Vampire is not a game about being monsters. It is a game about confronting and overcoming the monster inside us. I want to quote the 1st Edition Core Book here. Sure, the writing is typical early-White Wolf "artistry"--but I think it's important to try to understand what Mark Rein*Hagen and the others were at least aiming for. Even if you don't agree with their goals, or feel that they failed to accomplish what they wanted.

We must learn not to expel the dark side, but to harness it instead. We must somehow come to terms with the Evil, accept and understand it, and then, finally, overcome it...You can not reason with the dark side, it does not understand our world of logic and reason. It must be attacked in a different way. We must become, in order to overcome.

And to me, that's the key. Vampire isn't about playing a horrible monster and glorifying in your evil.  It's about confronting the evil that lurks inside all us, and finding someway to overcome it. To face the horror within and emerge a stronger, better person for it. The big bad evil threatening to the destroy the world isn't an ancient thing waiting to rise and consume all. It's part of you, within you, and if you fail to understand and master it, it will master you.

You don't have to play Vampire this way, of course. You can treat it as a tool to tell awesome John Wick style action stories and it works great. Even if you do try to play it this way, you need to vary it up. You need action and romance and broad comedy to make a story work. Hell, even Shakespeare included dumb comedy in Hamlet, and if it's good enough for the Bard, it's damn good enough for us.

But if you do, you have to understand that the more evil and vile the character in question, the sharper the divide needs to be between acceptance and condemnation. If you choose to embrace Vampire in all it's artistic aspirations, you have to understand it is ultimately a moral and spiritual game, and one where actions like eating babies is unambiguously wrong.  Any player burdened with such a character should be revolted at that, and spend the game struggling to resist. I doubt such a play would be particularly enjoyable for the player, though. And given the extreme to which they take Amelina, I doubt any player could learn much about their own moral condition through the character.

The theme of "A Monster I Am Lest A Monster I Become" is a powerful one, when used properly.  When used improperly, it's teen age "edginess" with no meaning, no power, and can kill everyone's enjoyment.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Last Night

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

The Adventure Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mood and Themes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Are What You Eat

This is a supplementary post to my overview of the Pre-Alpha Rules for the 5th Edition of Vampire: The Masquerade.

One element of the game that's been talked about by various sources ia a rule generally referred to as "You are what you eat."  It seems like different mortal provide different minor bonuses to the vampire that feeds on them. Someone outgoing and gregarious might give you a use of Presence without needing to Rouse the Hunger, while a young and innocent mortal might give you a free use of "Blush of Life."

Now, I have no idea if this is a good idea or not, which is one of the reasons I'm about to run a play test for these rules. The problem is--this rule isn't described in the rule packet. I had heard about it, and it's a recurring mechanic in the adventure that comes with the rules. In fact, I was going through that adventure, The Last Night, when I realized I wasn't quite sure how this mechanic is supposed to work.

Here's the questions I have for it:

  1. Do the players know what bonuses they'll get BEFORE they feed? Do they know that Mortal A let's them heal one level for free, while Mortal B let's them activate Celerity for free?
  2. If they don't find out before, do they find out after? Like, does the vampire know after feeding from Mortal B that they a free use of Celerity?  Or, do they only find out when they attempt to use that discipline?
  3. How long does the bonus last? All night? Till they feed again? 
  4. Can you "stack" bonuses? Can I have a free Celerity and a free Blush of Life waiting to be used? What about multiple uses of the same bonus--like, 2 free Celerity uses?
  5. Do I have to kill the mortal to gain the bonus, or just drink from them? How much do I need to take to get the bonus? Can the entire coterie sip from the mortal and so gain the bonus?
  6. Does this rule allow one to access a Discipline you don't normally have. If I don't have Celerity, but I feed form a mortal who gives me that bonus, do I get to use it as a one time thing, or is it a waste? 
So, yeah, there's a lot I don't understand right now. I actually asked about it in one of my vampire groups. Fortunately, a few of the members had played in the Berlin Play Test, but even they had contradictory answers.  For one of them, the Storyteller kept it hidden until called upon. For another, it was out in the open. Which sounds like one of two things are going on with this. Either White Wolf hasn't yet formalized this rules in a form they're happy with, even for a pre-Alpha release, or they forgot to write the rules down and share them with the play-testers. Which is fine...this is a very, very rough draft version of the game.

But, for now, I think I'll play with these in the open, at least once the player feeds. In a real game, I think I would rather keep it hidden till called on, but for a play test I want this to be a public thing.

Monday, June 19, 2017

5th Edition Alpha Rules Released!

On June 15th, White Wolf released the "pre-alpha" rules set for the upcoming 5th Edition (download the rules and read the official blog post here). I've been quite interested to see which direction they intend to take the game, but aside from a few dribbles here and there, information has been hard to come by. I download the rules immediately, but have tried to stay out of the wider discussion until I've had a chance to get my own thoughts in order. Here then are those thoughts, with particular attention being paid to the changes from previous editions, what my initial thoughts are on them, and my reservations (if any) for how to implement this new rules. Of course, this is a Pre-Alpha rules set, which means a lot can change between now and Beta, and even more before the actual release. They are trying a few different things, which is exciting, but there no reason to get too excited or melancholic about these rules. It's possible that any or even all of these mechanics have already changed.

Still, though, I think it's worth going through. Consider this an unofficial addendum to my Let's Compare Editions! As the rules are free, though, and only about 48 pages, I encourage anyone interested to download them and check them out for yourself.

Basic Actions
Looks like they're keep the classic dice pool in it's basic form--Attribute + Skill, rolled against a base target of 6. Their are a few changes note, however.

1) They've changed the meaning of difficulty. No longer is it the number you need to roll on each die, but instead it's the number of successes you need to acquire. So, before a ST would say "roll Strength+Athletics, difficulty 6. You'll need 3 Successes." Now it looks like the nomenclature would be "roll Physical + Athletics, difficulty of 3."

This seems fine. I like that they kept the 50/50 odds, which I prefer over the CoD default of 8. I'm less happy about the setting everything to 6 always. One of the reasons I love Storyteller is how flexible it is in resolving issues, and part of that is the ability of the Storyteller to switch up the numbers based on the needs of situation at hand. Sometimes you want a Difficulty of 10, but only need 1 success.  Other times, you want a difficulty of 4, but need 3 successes. It's the flexibility I adore, and I bristle at anything that takes away that flexibility. But, as a basic system, it's fine. If a bit odd in the terminology.

2) They're dropped the individual attributes, and instead you have a broad rating. So instead of Strength, Dexterity, and Stamina, now one merely has a Physical Attribute. You are able to get a "specialty" in each attribute, which works out to +1 in one of the classic attributes--i.e., one could specialize in Strength, or Dexterity, or Stamina.

This seems...fine, all things considered. I never thought having 9 attributes was excessive, but this way might help negate the debates about which attribute should be used for what. Charisma and Manipulation were always the two that caused the most arguments in games I played in, and Appearance often ended up feeling like a waste for some players. Still, having just three seems somewhat boring. At least the specialization tool will allow some degree of variety.

3) Willpower is no longer spent prior to a roll for an automatic success, but instead spent after to re-roll as many as desired.

I actually like this. It's been on my "house rules for next Chronicle" for a while. I didn't "pull the trigger" as I thought this might be too powerful. But, one other change they made helps balance this--now, instead of Willpower being a 1-10 scale, it's a 1-5. Oh, and if you ever need to roll it, you roll current value. So, I'm a fan of this change.

4) Succeed at a Cost. So long as you roll at least SOME success, and are only one success short of the difficulty, you may succeed but something else happens to make things worse. The entire troupe is involved in this discussion, and it only works if everyone, including the Storyteller, is happy with the cost.

I'm torn on this change. On one hand, I like the vibe it puts off, and anything to increase the "chaos" of a game session is a good thing. On the other hand...I'm leery. I dislike any rule that has players directly involved in the "mechanical" part of the game. This isn't some "sacred Storyteller power" thing or the like. Instead, I'm happiest when my players forget about the rules and the mechanics and tropes of the game, and instead focus on playing. I want the Storyteller to worry about the mechanics, and the players to be able to play. There is one thing that makes this a tentative bonus, which is that everyone is involved in the discussion. In other games I've played with similar rules, the burden of being creative fell on the "active" player, and the result wasn't always great. Some could min/max there way out of any problem, others would be paralyzed by indecision, and others just annoyed to be taken out of the moment. These issues should be mitigated with the entire troupe involvement.

5) Take Half. For opposed rolls, the ST is encouraged to "take half." Assume the NPC rolls exactly "average" and move on. So, if they have an eight die pool, assume they get four success. This makes the game faster. and focused on the players action.

This is a subjective thing. I do it sometimes when running these days, but I wouldn't recommend it all the time. The chance and chaos of succeeding against the odds can be great for a game. But, for routine actions, it seems fine. For example, for a guard doing his rounds with no idea there's someone about? Sure, Take Half. For a guard carefully exploring the supply closet after hearing an odd noise, and in which the PC is hiding? Yeah, roll that out. Hell, roll that out in the open and let the dice fall where they may.

6) Other. On top of all that, certain things have been removed. 1's no longer cancel successes, and you can't Botch a roll (though the new Hunger mechanics have their own roll to play, see below). Also, nothing allows you to reroll 10's.

Character Traits
1) Attributes. We covered this above, but one thing to add. In the Design Notes Section, they say the following:
We reduced the number of Attributes from 9 to 3 and created these specializations because this allows players to customize and personalize their characters. Some Brujah, for example, will have Dexterity as their Physical specialization; others will choose Stamina. Not every Brujah is the same!
Maybe I've been running different games than the developers, but I've never run into this particular problem. Sure, certain attributes, such as Dexterity, are more valued than others. But I'm not sure how reducing the number of them allows for more customization. For the "standard spread," it's the same. Now you have a Physical of 3 with a Dexterity Specialization, instead of Str: 3, Dex 4, Sta 3. It only disallows the "odd spread" of, say, Str: 4, Dex 5, Sta 1. Sure, the "odd spread" was always, well, odd, but it fit for certain character concepts.

2) Skills. V5 changes the description of these from "Abilities" to "Skills." They also add two new ones, Physique for pure physical strength actions, and Technology for using modern tech. I guess "Computer" was too specific for this crazy modern age.

The terminology is fine--hell, pretty much everyone already called Abilities "Skills" anyway, and it brings Vampire in line with most other games. The new Skills seem to be fine. Bureaucracy is still gone, which is a shame, since I've always found it to be an incredibly useful skill, and one not easily covered by anything else.

Backgrounds and Merits
Briefly discussed, but are apparently still in "deep development." As such, I can't really comment on anything here. None of the sample characters even have any. 

 Discussed above in Basic Rules.

Virtue & Vice
They don't go too deeply into these mechanics, but each character has a Virtue and a Vice. The Vice is your weakness, and surrendering to it gets you back one spent Willpower point.  Following your Virtue gets you back all spent Willpower, but only if great personal risk is involved.

This could be cool. It was an element of Requiem, and it seems a fitting replacement of the old Nature and Demeanor. Honestly, I think I was the only the Storyteller I knew that even tried to bring these aspects into the game, and most players would forget them anyways. There is a risk of subjectivity here, though. As others have pointed out, the Twin Towers were built by Pride, and destroyed by Faith. Not all virtues are always virtuous, after all...

But, beyond the broadest description, there really isn't much in the play test about this.

1) Initiative. Initiative is now Mental (Wits)+Highest Combat Skill. It's also a rating, not a roll, so if you have a 3 Mental and a 3 Melee, you're Initiative is always 6. 

At my core, I dislike fixed initiative. I prefer more chaos and uncertainty in my conflicts. And, while I understand the logic of tying it to your combat skill, I also like the idea of someone who isn't a "combat monster" being able to go first and try something before the "bad asses" get into the action. It does, however, speed up combat. This could be good, or irrelevant. I tend to have a big action scene ever two or three sessions. Hell, most of my "action" scenes are more likely to be ambushes and murders, rather than straight up fights. But, if you run with a lot of battles, this could really save a lot of time.

2) Attacking. Melee and Unarmed attacks are now opposed rolls. Ranged attacks may only be dodged. Multiple opponents have a -1 penalty, but it's in sequence. First attack is normal, -1 for the second, -2 for the third, etc. Damage is based on the number of successes attained in the opposed roll, plus bonus for the weapons.

I am REALLY happy with this. Ever since I got back into 1st Edition, I've been using rules similar to these, and I've been having a blast with it. I LOVE the opposed roll take on combat. Though, I suppose you no long split your die pools for multiple actions, though that might be a misreading of the situation on my part.

3) Health and Damage. Health is no longer set to "7" levels, but is instead equal to your Physical Attribute + 5. There are two types of damage, Superficial and Aggravated. What is superficial or not differs between mortals and vampires. Bullets are superficial to vampires, but Aggravated to mortals. Once the Health track is filled, you suffer -2. Further damage converts Superficial to Aggravated. Once your track is full of Aggravated, you either go into a coma (mortal) or torpor (vampire). There's also a random Critical Injury Table. Final death is only possible with decapitation or total body destruction. 

There's no more soaking, but since Physical is tied to your health track, that might be fine. Other than that though, I dig the new damage system. I despised the Revised/V20 setup of  "bashing/lethal/aggravated" damage, and so I'm happy with the V5 Superficial/Aggravated split. I also like how one must deliberately kill another vampire--just clawing them up isn't enough anymore.

Question, though. Does a "Stamina" specialty increase your Health?

Blood, Hunger, and Compulsions
Blood Points are gone, replaced with a 0-5 "Hunger" rating. 0 means you are completely satiated, while 5 means you are ravenous. At it's core, this changes Blood from a "resource management" game to a "risk management" game. The more you use the blood, the more likely you are to lose yourself in your hunger.  You almost always have at least a 1 Hunger. Not only do you wake up this value, but the only way to get to 0 is to kill a mortal. The vast majority of vampires are almost always at least a little hungry, with all the danger that entails.

1) Rousing the Blood. Instead of "spending a Blood Point," one now "Rouses the Blood." The effects are the same--you "Rouse" when you wake up in the evening, use a Discipline,  increase an attribute, etc. 

2) Hunger Dice. To represent your urges, your Hunger rating translates to Hunger Dice. If your Hunger is at 2, your have 2 Hunger Dice. These are part of your dice pool for anything you attempt to do, but they replace normal dice, rather than add. So, if you have a Physical of 3 and Melee of 3 and a Hunger of two, you would roll your attack with 4 normal dice and 2 Hunger Dice, for the total of 6. The Hunger Dice function normally, unless you roll a 1. In that case, a Compulsion kicks in, ranging from whispers in your ear urging you to feed to immediately frenzying. 

If there is one element of V5 that fascinates me, it's the new Hunger mechanics. I like it...I really, really like it. I like it so much I fear that I'm misreading it, or that it will crash and burn in a play test. But for now, I think this is a wonderful improvement on the old system. And not just in the backhanded "hey, they're back to my beloved 1st Ed" of the Combat, but an honest improvement that I never even though to house rule.   

3) Composure.  Composure is a new Trait in V5, and seems to replace the old Virtues of Conscience, Self-Control, and Courage. You spend it like Willpower, and it's primary purposes seems to be resisting the compulsions brought on by your Hunger.

This is probably fine. I think I was the only person I knew who used the Virtues to really guide my roleplaying, and so combining them into one more immediately useful Trait probably makes sense.

4) Increasing Hunger. Just because you "Roused" the blood, doesn't necessarily mean your Hunger increases. Instead, keep track of how many times you "Roused." At the end of the Scene, roll a number of dice equal to that number, and the successes indicates how much your Hunger increases. 

This rule does solve the age old problem of blood expenditure and asking the Storyteller "wait, is this a new scene or the same scene." I do like the uncertainty of how Hungry you are versus how much you've Roused. Maybe you use your blood often, but it doesn't bother you tonight. Tomorrow, even a slight usage of the blood might make you desperate. The Beast isn't logical, and neither should the Hunger rules.

I hate the term "Rouse the Blood" though. Also, I might flip this. Since increasing your Hunger is a bad thing, shouldn't it be your failures increase your Hunger, with successes marking that you are in control? Or at least lucky?

edit: the above comment is incorrect. It's only dice that FAIL that increase your Hunger, not successes. So, the way I wanted it is the way that it is. 

5) Frenzy. They don't go into much for Frenzy, though it seems more or less like the older editions. You use Composure to resist, which makes spending it to resist your Hunger Compulsions a potential risk.

I like the use of Composure to both resist Frenzy and Hunger, but in different ways. Saving it to resist Frenzy means a greater risk of Hunger, and vice versa. 

Appendix 1 a list of potential Compulsions, which can be random. Also, there are sub-tables based on Clan--a hungry Brujah and a hungry Ventrue behave very differently.

I like this. I like how the clan flaws really kick in when you are desperate. And I love random tables. 

Appendix 2 Critical Injury chart.

I have nothing to say about this, except "YAY RANDOM CHART!" 

Appendix 3 Disciplines. Only a few disciplines are described in these rules. Most function the same as we are used to, more or less. With only a few notable changes. 

1) All disciplines and all levels of disciplines require you to Rouse the Blood. Even Dominate 1 or the like. No longer can the Ventrue casually Dominate their way through the night. 

2) The Physical Disciplines are, more or less, "nerfed." For Example, Celerity 1 allows you to double your Initiative and add your Celerity Rating to Physical (Dexterity) rolls. Celerity 2 allows you to Dodge against Ranged attacks with no cover without giving up your next action. It's only at Celerity 3 that you gain a single extra action. 

I actually rather like these changes. They seem to keep the spirit of the Discipline, without allowing them too much power. Though, I've never had a problem with the old rules getting in the way. Sure, the Brujah with a Potence of 3 and a Celerity of 3 can tear through a mortal gang. But, the Ventrue with Dominate 3 and Presence 3 can do so much worse to that gang...

Appendix 4 Skills. Brief overview of the various skills. Not much to add, as they aren't even given the classic "1: Student" through "5: Dated reference to a Celebrity we really dig, or have at least heard of." 

Appendix 5 Generation. A quick and dirty system for Generation. Long story short, your Generation translates into a "Blood Potency" rating. This rating is subtracted from your Rouses to test for Hunger increases (so those of lower Generation can use the blood more freely and get Hungry less often), is added to the Compulsion table (so when they DO get hungry, it's far more intense than a higher generation vampire), and subtracted from the amount of Hunger lost when feeding (so lower generation vampires need to feed more often and from "better" sources.)

I'm leery of this, if only because "the upside to a lower Generation is able to do more crazy things, and the downside is you do more crazy things" might appeal to exactly the wrong sort of player. Otherwise, it seems fine. 

So, those are my thoughts on the Pre-Alpha rules. There's a lot here I like, some I'm unsure about, and a few I dislike. Though, most of that is terminology, an easy house rule, or something I'm sure they'll change soon. I'm actually surprised how much I like the changes, at least as presented here. A lot will undoubtedly change between now and final release, but I still encourage everyone to download these rules and give them a whirl.

As for me, reading the rules are one thing, but playing is a different thing all together. I have my own play test coming up soon, and so there will be a follow up post coming shortly. Also, the Play Test Packet included an adventure, which I'll be running. That will also be discussed in a different post (edit: here!). 

New Year, New Character Day 22: Pendragon

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