Players Versus Vampires

Posted by on May 8, 2009 in Design, Horror, Musing, RPGs | 17 Comments

For quite a while I tried to cultivate V:TR as an espionage game — sometimes set in posh parlors, sometimes in lavish state houses, sometimes in awful bloody gutters formed in the spaces where de facto nations (like the police, the media, and the living) simply didn’t have the stomach to look at directly — but long have RPGs called Vampire been torn between the setting’s call for secrecy and the players’ thrill of spilling the beans.

(I wrote this thinking I’d drop a short comment in a thread at RPGnet before I tried to sleep off this headache, so of course it turned into a thousand words of yatter. It’s a little “tl;dr” for a forum post, so I’ve put it here. Maybe this’ll break my last few days of mental paralysis.)

There’s an inherent conflict between the premise of vampires hoarding secret power and players flaunting supernatural power, between the appeal of the hypothetical vampire opera the game implies and the appeal of the system-bucking antihero that such secret societies are usually aligned against in the associated sources of inspiration. It’s the conflict between the players who want their Vampire RPG to be like Blade and Underworld — stories about sexy system-bucking badasses — and the players who want it to be about The Godfather and Goodfellas, which are about people who either want out but end up belonging, or who want to belong and end up getting out.

It’s a question of looking at the Vampire games, whether V:TM or V:TR, as either essentially honest or essentially pretentious.

“Here’s your guide to the game world,” he says, “and here’s your box of matches.”

Do you see the society set up in V:TR as the playground and the stage — as the game world to be explored and mastered? Or do you see that society as the status quo to be defied — as the pretense which your coterie of badass trench-coat loners will overcome and override? Do you think all the vampire society stuff is just posturing on behalf of the designers, delivered with a smirk and a knowing wink?

“Here’s your guide to the game world,” he says, “and here’s your box of matches.”

It’s a natural, even intuitive progression. The appeal of the Ricean vampire is that it belongs a layer of culture that’s sexier, savvier, more powerful, more shameful, and more shocking than our living, daylight society. But quantifying vampire society into playable units — clans and teams and magic powers — sort of ruins it all. The more novels you read, the more game books you have, the more you know about vampire society, the better lit it gets.

The players, then, are probably right to think their characters should relate to vampire society as vampire society relates to the living — they should be cooler, hotter, more awesome, and more invincible. Otherwise they’re not the superior outcasts they came to play, they’re just citizens in a different, smaller, more expensive, more leathery culture.

If you think Vampire is actually about what it says it’s about — escaping mundane human culture in search of a badass existence as a creature of the night and finding instead an ugly, mean, and quantified other society with its own rules and limits — then it actually is a horror game. That horror is complimented by the sweet harsh you experience as a player when you realize that playing a make-believe vampire isn’t all anonymous sex and violence without consequence.

On the other hand, if you think Vampire is actually about every player around the table (or in the hotel ballroom LARP event) being a uniquely charming and powerful star — as incomparable and authentic as your favorite historical figure or urban fantasy protagonist — then, it is only a horror game if you fail to be an exquisite exemplar of style and guile. The horror is that you will have “become a vampire” (i.e., bought all those books/costumes) for nothing.

How this meta-conflict between the game’s shifty identity and the players’ perceptions will manifest when the presumptive World of Darkness MMO trumps and displaces the paper game, I do not know. How on earth Vampire‘s particular themes of secret cultures, secret power, and personal power will be put into play for a massively multiplayer game world — or if that’s even a goal at all — I do not know. (I have ideas, sure, but now’s not the time.)

In a tabletop chronicle, players naturally organize and adapt to some workable compromise between the pretense (or “pretense”) of the game world and the antiheroic system-bucking that makes their characters special. In an MMORPG, the players who want to play Vampire and the players who want to play Blade or True Blood may come into direct contact… and conflict. The game will presumably have to solidify its position regarding its own identity and intentions in a way that a paper RPG doesn’t. Either players will have the freedom to burn down vampire society or they won’t.

I think V:TM implied that vampire society was a demented establishment to be brought down by upstart rock-star punks, but that the battle was essentially un-winnable. I hope V:TR implied that vampire society was a demented establishment to be mastered and reshaped, but which inevitably reshaped you at the same time, rendering you the eventual demented establishment, the monster you either replaced or surpassed.

If you think Vampire, in either incarnation, was pretending to be about politics and romance, but was really about violence and sex, then of course it was pretentious. But if your Vampire chronicle was actually about politics and romance, then maybe the people who thought you were pretentious were louts.

The magic was that somehow both groups were playing the same RPG, battling each other on message boards about it, and making the game feel alive. It’s so meta: head versus heart, love versus lust, poise versus the pounce — these were conflicts both in the game and with the game itself. A beautiful thing, really.

17 Comments

  1. Ray
    May 8, 2009

    Right on the money, Will. The disconnect implied herein was a major factor for friction in most of the games I played and ran.

    Reply
  2. Wood
    May 8, 2009

    What Fawkes said.

    I find, though, that unlike you, most people on the internet have no idea what “pretentious” actually means.

    Reply
  3. Kenneth Hite
    May 8, 2009

    This immediately starts one — well, me, anyway — thinking about the inherent conflict in other FRPGs.

    D&D is “epic heroes in a fantasy world,” but if you’re 2nd level nobodies in a near-industrial magic setting like FR or Eberron, you’re playing “rats in the magical walls” or something instead. Again, the more details you have of your D&D world, the less “fantastic” and the more grounded it becomes. D&D does at least have level progression, so you can see the epic carrot dangling ahead of you.

    TRAV is interesting in that the accumulation of setting material didn’t alter the players’ relationship to the game world, but that of the designers. The game actually delivers what it sells at first — freebooters in Imperial SF — and the conflict between playing “space accountant” and “space Viking” is foregrounded in the setting and rules, as opposed to implied as you point out VTM does.

    CoC? One again can argue that the delineation of supposedly unknowable lore already changes the game from a Lovecraftian universe to a Derlethian (or Lin-Carterish) one even if the Keeper ignores Elder Signs and Nodens. The ideal CoC player, by that reading, is one who hasn’t read the rulebook or Lovecraft — the equivalent of a VTM player who time-travelled here from 1975. This requires more thought — there’s something tantalizingly conflicted about the system and player assumptions of CoC, for all that it’s the greatest RPG ever made.

    Enough for now…

    Reply
  4. Jason
    May 10, 2009

    Only the internet can someone make game flexibility into a bad thing.

    Reply
  5. Adam Drew
    May 10, 2009

    Over the years I have played a lot of Vampire, more than any other single RPG (I mostly ran Mage, but Vamp in its various incarnations was our biggest table-time-investment overall, since everyone ran it).

    We played the game both ways; as Stoppard puts it: “I can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can’t do you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory — they’re all blood, you see.”

    We tended to do the games where we would start things off slowly, pretentiously, building and building (and meanwhile sinking and sinking as our inhuman acts caught up to us) and finally culminating in something exploding and Kindred society changed forever.

    We rarely felt the disconnect, but I think it’s because it’s that dividing line that really drove our play.

    Reply
  6. Will Hindmarch
    May 10, 2009

    Not sure what you mean, Jason. Flexibility can be great when it’s a feature, not a bug. The thing is, a designer only has so much say in whether it’s a feature or not — players can immediately regard flexibility as a bug or transform it into a bug through mischief.

    Espionage, as a form of play, happens to be particularly susceptible to the ability of players to opt out of the premise.

    Adam, I think the arc you’re talking about, where the chronicle eventually builds to an explosion of the game’s default setting, is an ideal, built-in storyline. To be clear, Vampire benefits from its meta-conflict — but it can also be molested by it.

    Reply
  7. Will Hindmarch
    May 10, 2009

    Ken, that conflict between the player and his or her character in COC is one of the game’s rare and vital characteristics, I think. It and Paranoia derive and run on electrical charges generated by dramatic irony. They create layers of expectations that can be satisfyingly fulfilled or thrillingly defied, so that the character can be miserable and the player delighted, or perhaps vice versa. (Ever see a COC player disappointed that his character survived?)

    As for the idea that different players are playing different iterations of COC based on the amount of understanding that they, the player, possess — this is why the fear of grisly dismemberment must always be present, too, in my opinion.

    This also ties into something I’d love to write a book on (and which we see with MMOs aplenty): player progression versus character progression. Though you can always go back and play starting D&D and COC characters again, you can’t ever really be a new D&D or COC player again. (Though new editions grant a fleeting taste of that starter content.) Depending on one’s “player level,” COC is actually a couple of different games, with distinct newbie and endgame content, I think.

    Is there anyone more qualified to write about that than you?

    Reply
  8. Jason
    May 11, 2009

    What I mean is this:

    Flexibility is never a bug in any game where there’s a GM. Not ever, never ever, not once. It has never happened. It never will. Flexibility gives the GM the tools to make the campaign what they want it to be. If a game goes off the rails it is because the players didn’t buy into the GM’s vision of the campaign – either the GM didn’t explain it right, or a player didn’t get it, or the GM changed it halfway through, or someone is up to mischief, not because the designer made some mistake boo hoo hoo. Or if a game stays pleasingly within the sweet spot of what the group desires, it is not because the designer made some brilliant move, it is because the group has communicated well and support each other. Fuck the designer, the GM is the one responsible for virtually all of what’s identified in this essay as the content of Vampire.

    This is particularly not an issue when the flexibility is pointed out by the game itself, over and over, as it has with every edition of Vampire since the very first. Those “pick a theme for your game” sections aren’t optional ya know! Those essays in the back about how to run it – you know, the contradictory ones? – those are a giant 100 foot tall sign saying “this game can be run in many different ways”. Requiem is even better at this than previous editions. Ever run an all-one-clan game? Did ya do it before Requiem? I did, but I felt like a rebel when I was doing it. In Requiem, it feels like a well-supported design decision. That’s flexibility. It is never, ever wrong, period, if you have a game with a GM.

    Reply
  9. Will Hindmarch
    May 11, 2009

    Jason, I’ve got a lot I’d like to write on flexibility in RPG design, but I don’t have the time right now. So just two quick points:

    1. If you think the post above boils down to “flexibility is bad in Vampire,” then perhaps I am a terrible writer.

    2. You know that I was the developer of V:TR for three years, right?

    Reply
  10. Jason
    May 12, 2009

    Absolutely, and it’s a monumental accomplishment. Some really great stuff got done during that time. One love, and all that.

    But that just makes the essay double super baffling. I mean, the game says “Hey, this could be katanas and blood-driven superpowers, or we could all hang around and have haircuts, you should decide and talk about it”, if a game group has problems because one person has katanas and another person has hair gel, that’s not the game’s problem, and changing the game won’t ever change that problem. I figured you knew that but maybe forgot or something? I don’t know.

    Reply
  11. Will Hindmarch
    May 12, 2009

    Most players associate their play experience with the brand. That matters to the publisher. A public identity for a game persists, even when a game is flexible.

    The spirit of the game, as put forth by the books, still does some work. Otherwise the entry on Malkavia would like this:

    Go ahead and put Malkavians back in play. We thought it might be cool if they caught crazy like an infection, but you can get the old Malk clanbook on Ebay if you just want to do that.

    Many players view flexibility as a charitable pardon for those players who want to play it weird, I think, than as a broadening of the definition of what Vampire actually is.

    (What is a game’s identity anyway? Is it a description of what’s on the page? Of play as viewed through the campaign? Through the session? Through the combat turn?)

    Requiem‘s focus on local power is one of the first things people use to separate it from Masquerade, even though individual GMs had the freedom to just chuck that idea away. Yet it persists as an important descriptor for the edition, even though we espoused flexibility at the same time. People want a game to have an identity.

    Still, it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong about Vampire. You wouldn’t be the first to say so.

    But boiling my essay down to “flexibility is bad” pretty well misses the point. There is conflict between the public perceptions of what Vampire is as a brand, as a product, as a design statement, and as an instance of play, but that conflict also gave Vampire incredible life.

    Reply
  12. Jeff Tidball
    May 12, 2009

    Flexibility is never a bug in any game where there’s a GM.

    Say that a certain amount of flexibility is desirable, sure, but say without reservation that flexibility in any quantity is never undesirable in any game so long as there’s a GM? That’s crazytalk, and I think it undermines your point that flexibility is highly desirable. Too much flexibility eventually overwhelms the point of having a defined game in the first place. It also makes a larger community of players hard to build, or support, because none of them are playing the same game. What’s good for the play group and what’s good for the larger community aren’t always the same, granted.

    Reply
  13. Jason
    May 13, 2009

    Well, I admit, I don’t know anything about branding. That is marketing, and if I ever start to learn something about marketing past the fact that girls in bikinis will not come wash my car if I drink the right kind of beer, please remind me to shoot myself in the head.

    Reply
  14. Too Defined A Setting Can Prevent Player Creativity - Gnome Stew, the Game Mastering Blog
    May 18, 2009

    […] This is written somewhere in every WW book, but I like the way that Will Hindmarch says it:  “Here’s your guide to the game world,” he says, “and here’s your box of matches.” And I’ve seen something similar in almost every other roleplaying book I’ve read […]

    Reply
  15. Genghis Philip
    June 11, 2009

    Hey, sorry to dig up ancient posts, but this is a topic dear to my heart as a GM and I only recently found this site through The Escapist.

    GMs can control their games, per Jason’s comments above. However– to say ‘the GM is the only one, ever ever ever to make decisions about a game’ is denying the designer any credit at all. I’ve played plenty of “what world do you want to do a pickup in” games, and run them using homebrew rules. In those cases? Yeah, the GM is solely responsible for what the players can get into.

    But for RPGs that are published and have an established, playtested system? Give me a break. Compelling backgrounds are written, tested, and balanced by people who think about collaborative storytelling -for a living-. To act like the design of a game doesn’t effect the stories told is asinine. What the clans, bloodlines, etc. can do is what defines them. Altering those abilities alters the viability of play.

    The system, and the core game, matter. It’s what compels chronicles and characters. Maybe it’s only tenuous connection– maybe you’re setting Exalted in Revolution-era North America– but there’s balance between classes, threats, and system mechanics that let the game work.

    Reply
  16. Will Hindmarch
    June 11, 2009

    Let it be said that Gameplaywright is now, and expects to remain, in favor of digging up old posts.

    For what it’s worth, I ran D&D in a fantasy version of Revolution-era North America and it went swimmingly. D&D was not built for it, but since I did it with elves and dwarves and halflings and all that noise, of course a lot of the work was done for me. I don’t give D&D all the credit for that campaign, but when I tell people about it I do tell them that it was “a D&D campaign.”

    Reply

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