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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.