|Vampire: The Masquerade, 2nd Edition|
A Storytelling Game of Personal Horror
Copyright 1992, White Wolf
Vampire: The Masquerade (abbreviated as V:tM) was the first game in the World of Darkness line, and even in the second edition, when the other games of the line had already been developed, V:tM appears to have remained the core game. Like all of the other games in the World of Darkness, V:tM was complex, and could be used to tell many different kinds of stories. The core story that the game tried to convey was an internal struggle between a vampire's monstrous urges and the need to keep those urges from consuming the vampire's personality.
Vampire's World of Darkness
The setting was deeply atmospheric: rich, dark, and conflicted. There is a strong odor of apocalypse in the air, with all of the attendant moral quandries to consider. To understand it, we must discuss the origins and mythology of vampires. Vampires are created by a deliberate act. They don't need to take all of a victim's blood to sustain themselves, nor do those they kill end up as vampires automatically. Should a vampire decide to reproduce, they drain all of a victim's blood, then offer the dying human the chance to drink from the vampire. Drained of blood, the human is confused and overwhelmingly desires to drink. Nearly all do. A small amount is enough; a new vampire has been "born."
Creating offspring is a powerful and frequently rebellious act. According to vampiric legend, uncontrolled reproduction led to wars between vampires, and was also partly responsible for the Inquisition, as humans came to learn of their existence. Vampires protect themselves by hiding among humanity; this is the Masquerade. Protecting the Masquerade is the overwhelming responsibility of every vampire. This also means keeping their numbers down: vampires are not supposed to create offspring without permission from higher authorities. However, progeny mean many things to a vampire: immortal companions, assistants, and power. Thus, some flaunt the rules.
Vampires are nearly immortal. Contrary to what most humans believe, they are not often inconvenienced by running water, garlic, or religious symbols. They are, however, vulnerable to fire, sunlight, and wooden stakes. But the power of vampiric blood dilutes with every generation since the first, the biblical Caine. Each generation is somewhat weaker than the earlier one, and the current generation, the thirteenth, is unable to create further progeny. One can gain strength by drinking the blood of other vampires, particularly that of earlier generations. Thus, the truly elder vampires hide themselves and manipulate others from the shadows. There has been a shadow war among the vampires for generations called the Jyhad, where elders strive to murder each other using younger vampires as weapons. Vampiric legend says there will be an event called Gehenna, when the ancient ancestors who have remained hidden for millennia will return and slaughter all of the younger generations. Gehenna is believed to be immanent.
To make existence even more complicated, there are many socio-political divisions among the kindred. First of all, vampires belong to tribes. Each tribe traces its line back to the second or third generation of vampires. Each tribe commands a different set of supernatural abilities, and they also maintain different worldviews. The Brujah are eternal rebels, the Gangrel are wanderers and survivors, the Malkavian are insane, the Nosferatu are physically disgusting but good at hiding and gathering information, the Toreador are artistic pleasure-lovers, the Tremere are spell-casters, and the Ventrue are sophisticated aristocrats.
Vampires are also organized in larger groups called Sects. These include multiple tribes (or possibly ignore them) to focus on larger goals than mere survival. The largest sect is the Camarilla, a political organization that enforces the Masquerade. As the largest sect, representative of most of the world's kindred, the Camarilla is able to force a collective will on all vampires. The Camarilla have divided the world into Domains, territories that are each ruled by a Prince, a single vampire who enforces his or her will on the vampires within the borders he or she claims. While a Prince may be weak, he or she at least nominally represents the will of the Camarilla. A vampire who chooses to disobey the Prince must consider the consequences.
The Sabbat is a sect opposed to the Camarilla. These are clearly supposed to be the bad guys: they are described as aggressive, hateful, and violence-prone. Members largely come from the Lasombra and Tzimisces tribes, which are not described in the core book. While the Sabbat are drawn as the villains, the book points out that not much is known about them by the Camarilla, and that their evil reputation could be a ploy by ancient vampires to create strife for unguessable reasons.
The third sect is the Inconnu, who have largely removed themselves from the world and the affairs of other creatures.
Thus, even though player characters are possessed of great power and abilities, they are still constrained by the multi-layered hierarchy above them, and the possibility of humans below them penetrating the Masquerade. There's open conflict between the Camarilla and the Sabbat, and the covert manipulations of the Jyhad. There's the looming presence of Gehenna in the air. Does that provide players with enough things to do? Evidently not.
Even though the setting provides many opportunities for conflict and mayhem, the game is also focused on each vampire's internal struggles. There were four systems for this. The most basic was the panic called Rötschreck, which may occur when a vampire confronts the sun or fire. A failed Courage roll meant the player lost control of the character who fled the scene until he or she recovered by means of a Willpower roll. A more interesting loss of control was the Frenzy, where a vampire loses their ability to control their behavior due to hunger, stress, or humiliation. A frenzied character was still run by her player, but was to act without regard for their goals or self-preservation. Frenzy could lead to vampires gaining a Derangement, such as catatonia, multiple personalities, paranoia, obsession, and so forth. As the game had no mechanism to repair Derangements, vampire characters would gradually go insane. Finally, the game included the slow degradation of the character's Humanity score as a result of the character committing heartless actions and failing a Conscience roll, the result of which was a lost of a point of both Humanity and Conscience. The loss of Humanity showed the vampire's decay into inhuman monsterhood. (In a sense, this decay mirrored the sanity mechanic of Call of Cthulhu, where characters are known to be doomed in the long run, and gave the V:tM game an air of elegance and regret.)
Characters in Vampire: The Masquerade
Character Advantages (the fourth step of character generation) in Vampire consisted of Disciplines, Backgrounds, and Virtues. Backgrounds include connections with humans (as allies, followers, servants, or food sources), connections in kindred society (status), and the all-important generation. As noted above, vampiric power depends on how many steps they are removed from the original vampire, Caine.
Disciplines are the supernatural powers that all vampires possess. Which specific powers one has depends on what the player chooses, based on what's available from their tribe. As noted above, vampires belong to tribes, based on who sired, or created them. Tribe provides a basic outlook for the character and limits which powers one may choose, as well as adding other advantages and disadvantages. The Discipline choices in V:tM were Animalism (the ability to communicate with and control animals), Auspex (extra sensory perception abilities), Celerity (supernatural speed), Dominate (mind control), Fortitude (supernatural toughness), Obfuscate (the ability to be unseen), Potence (supernatural strength), Presence (supernatural charisma), Protean (shape changing), and Thaumaturgy (a limited ability to do magic). Many of the Disciplines had specific sub-abilities that had to be purchased separately. Starting characters only received three dots to distribute among their Disciplines, so even with the Freebie points at the end of character generation, only vampires controlled by the Storyteller were likely to possess the truly awesome Disciplines. This emphasized the power difference between generations: while a player could create a powerful character, the Storyteller could easily create vastly more powerful beings from earlier generations.
The three Virtues for characters were Conscience, Self Control, and Courage. These were key to the game because they were used in internal conflicts to show the vampire's tragic devolution into horrific beast. Conscience was the trait that determined if a character lost a point of Humanity when commiting atrocious acts; self-control was used to resist Frenzy; and Courage was used to resist the Rötschreck, as noted above.
Three additional traits were calculated. Willpower was set as equal to Courage, and was used to recover from Frenzy, or to resist Domination, or to use the Thaumaturgy discipline. Humanity was a measure of how well the character remembered being human. As humanity dropped as a result of failed Conscience rolls, the character loses human drives, tastes, and the ability to function in living society. When humanity dropped to zero, the character became a bestial monster and was removed from the player's control. This trait started as the sum of Conscience plus Self Control. The final score was that of the Blood Pool, which is a measure of the character's energy level. Blood points could be spent to recover from injury, increase willpower, or perform other actions. The points could be recovered by drinking from a victim, and in fact, as blood points go down, the character becomes hungrier and less able to control themselves. This was set at the result of a single d10 roll at the beginning of the game, but a character starting with a low score could easily boost it by finding a victim.
Important questions for vampire characters to settle included when they were Embraced (turned into a vampire), who their Sire was, their relationship with their Sire, how long their Sire kept them in thrall before introducing them to Kindred society, where the character hides during the day (their haven), and what their preferred choice of victim is. Much of this could be displayed in the character's Prelude, the short one-on-one scene at the very beginning of the game.
As noted above, players are supposed to tell the tragic story of their character's decay from life to unlife to eventual full monsterhood, while also addressing the political struggles of vampiric society. For the most part, vampires fear little save the more senior of their own kind, but there are a few foes to consider. As noted above, there are human vampire hunters who present a physical threat as well as the potential threat of shredding the Masquerade. The only other creatures that vampires seem to fear are the werewolves. Where vampires are creatures of the city, out in the natural world, the werewolves prowl and hunt. Of course, werewolves are presented in their own game, Werewolf: The Apocalypse.
V:tM also presents another possible story to play, that of the traditional heroic quest, where the hero seeks to become more than they were. This is Golconda, a state of peace for the very, very few where vampires learn to balance their bestial impulses with their humanity, and no longer lose control. This would make it possible for vampires to retain whatever Humanity score they have left without worrying about being forced into committing further atrocities. This is considered an epic story, and few manage to reach the end of it. Those who seek or achieve Golconda may join the Incounu and withdraw from the rest, which would seem to effectively end the chronicle as well.
No matter what story one chooses to play, Vampires are not human and have special requirements. The game models their need to prey on humans by creating a blood economy for the game. Vampire characters have to maintain a blood pool to sustain themselves. Vampires must spend a blood point every day to stay alive, and as most player characters have a maximum pool of ten (the pool is bigger for older vampires), they're going to need to recover those points. A typical human victim holds ten points' worth of blood, but if a vampire drinks more than five of those, the victim may die, which would lead to a Conscience check.
Besides mere survival, blood points can be spent to temporarily boost physical attributes, recover damage, or if the characters are willing, one vampire may drink from another to pass along blood points. This risks another complication, because if one vampire drinks from another three times, they become bonded to one another, with the drinker at risk of becoming a willing servant of the donor. Contrarily, if one manages to kill another vampire by draining its entire blood supply, one gains some of its power (and effectively reduces their generation by one, allowing them to become more powerful). Needless to say, this practice (called diablerie) is frowned on in vampire culture.
Vampires are also extremely tough. Most damage can be healed in one round by spending a blood point per point of damage (and rolling a check). However, damage from sunlight and fire (and from the teeth and claws of other vampires) is called Aggravated Damage, and heals much slower. Aggravated damage costs five blood points per point of damage, and requires a day of rest, although it can be healed faster if the character spends double the blood points and a point of willpower. Vampires are also vulnerable to wooden stakes through the heart: a successful hit through the heart immobilizes the vampire until the stake is removed.
V:tM is difficult to summarize because it has so many layers. It's intensely atmospheric, with a specialized vocabulary, flavor fiction at the beginning of the book to prepare readers, and tons of art. (We estimate roughly a third of the book is art.) Like the rest of the World of Darkness books, it's packed with advice to referees on how to run a Chronicle.
We note the clever application of the sanity mechanic from Call of Cthulhu, measuring the character's slow decay into uncontrollability and retirement. As designed, one only needs a conscience roll if one's humanity is higher than the atrocity committed. As humanity drops, the character becomes inured to the behavior, which makes sense. The more atrocities the character commits, the more resistant they become to further humanity loss. At this point, the loss of player control through the Frenzy mechanic would lead to the truly bestial atrocities to further reduce Humanity scores towards zero.
However, we feel one of the prime features of the game is also its critical flaw, and that is the subtle politics of the setting material. The most senior vampires are incredibly powerful, in hiding, and capable of secretly manipulating just about anyone into doing their will unwittingly. This turns the game into one of shadow puppetry, where the Storyteller could pull the rug out from the player characters at any time by claiming everything they did was to fulfill the goal of a hidden master. Defeat that master, and there's another one hiding behind her, with an even more insidious plan, and so on. The game becomes a massive puzzle palace where the characters can never be sure if they're fulfilling their own goals or somebody else's. (This is made even more explicit, but less universal in Wraith: the Oblivion.)
This is visible in the game from the very beginning, where the sample adventure has the Storyteller's characters acting almost randomly. Are they mad? Stupid? Or is this some sort of subtle plan? What's worse, the introductory adventure is a pinball game where characters ricochet off the Storyteller's characters, but there's really only one exit for the player characters, to do what they're told. While the rules say repeatedly "take what you want and ignore the rest," if you don't do what the introductory scenario wants you to, it's not of much value.
For all this, V:tM was a tremendously popular game. It attracted legions of new fans to the hobby, sparked the imaginations of many, and may have boosted public interest in vampires as characters for other fictions. Regardless of any flaws the game may posses, that makes it a champion of RPGs.
July 18, 2011