Monday, April 13, 2009

Campaign Postmortem: Vampire (Part One)

Vampire Campaign Post-Mortem (Part One)
Not sure I have a specific format for these campaign post-mortems, so I'll try to develop that as I go along here. I should note that this is one of those campaigns where my notebook got destroyed in the house fire, so I'm going mostly from memory.

A few years ago I was asked to run a Vampire game. I'd just come off of running a short campaign fantasy campaign which had gone pretty well-- it had been fairly anime in that it was over-the-top and I'd used a system where I asked players at the end of each session what they wanted for their character and then wrote up new abilities or powers and gave those to them. In any case, one player told me that he'd enjoyed playing in a White Wolf Vampire campaign that hadn't lasted all that long. When he described the campaign to me, it sounded like your typical Vampire/Super Powers game-- where the monsters are cool because they can do these neat things. I questioned the player about it and expressed my reservations about that approach. We talked and he said he'd really like to play in another Vampire game, especially because he liked the background and liked the idea of more interactions and social stuff. I warned him a few times that it wouldn't be like his other game, but he persisted and eventually I agreed.

Now I should go back a little further to talk about my experience with Vampire as a genre that had evolved. I worked in the game store during the time when Vampire really first arrived on the scene. I saw it evolve from a basic Ann Rice adaptation into something more gamey and then into something more literate. I watch the arrival of LARPs and the eventually explosion of the “World of Darkness” metaverse, which included Werewolf and Mage. Mage I had been excited about but was initially disappointed by the execution. I didn't play in these games but I did read a great deal of the material.

Then I finally played in a Vampire game. It started as kind of BS'ing session with a GM we'll call HJ. He wanted to work through some of the themes and consequences of someone becoming a Vampire. He had me run a session where I ran myself in that situation. I normally don't like that approach to games-- in that running 'yourself' brings a lot of potential baggage and connections. In any case, he right away made apparent that doing any “Vampire-y” stuff had consequences: people's lives shattered, cleaning up the bodies, the uncertainty of life, at that stuff. I got it pretty much right away-- and we played a few more sessions with just my character. Then he decided to expand the game and bring in some other players, again playing as themselves, into things. And that's where it got really strange. I expected the others to see and be shaped by the consequences of their actions-- but they never did. I was stuck in the unenviable position of being, to my mind, the only sane person, while the others still ran their characters like they were playing in a game. That produced some of the strangest and yet most compelling sessions I've ever played in-- as I tried to extricate myself from the group and they kept pulling me back into their sociopathy. The game kind of abruptly ended and on the whole it had more problems than successes, but it really did clarify some of those issues for me.

Anyway, with that in mind, I came into the campaign with the core concept that I wanted to undercut the idea of Vampires as superbeings without a real sense of consequence to them. I had run a World of Darkness campaign that was more oriented towards supernatural super-powers before. Here I wanted to reverse that. I knew it would be tricky-- and I knew that while I wanted to undercut expectations, I also needed to provide a compelling and interesting story. If I didn't it could simply come off as a big FU to the players-- essentially mocking their own desires for the game. Early on I tried to recognize that potential issue and deal with it.

Coming into the campaign I had a number of concepts I wanted to work with:
-I had picked up some of the Victorian-Era Vampire game material, as possible source stuff for the Steampunk campaign. I hadn't used much of it for that, but I liked some of the things. I decided that there would be a portion of the game, although using a modern setting, which would be set in that period. The group would flip back there (ala Dark Shadows) and would be uncertain about what was happening. At first they might believe it to be actual time travel, but eventually I would have another reveal.

-That reveal would be based around another figure-- a sleeping very old Vampire. In the classic Vampire setting, they have these Antediluvians who are incredibly old and powerful but slumber. For reasons I'll get into in a minute, most of these would be dead. My Vampire would just be really, really old. He'd sought redemption, but hadn't found it. Now he slept and went over and over again in his mind the events of the past which had led him here. The player's experience in the Victorian era would actually be them seeing those re-creations. Eventually the players would see the whole story there reset and would have to figure out a way to change things.

-One of the McGuffins would then be that the various factions in the city would be seeking out the power of this slumbering old one, in order to make it their own. That plot, and the slumbering vampire's potential redemption, would be crucial to the story arc.

-I knew I wanted to break with the traditional Vampire structures which implied a wide network of Vampire families, a large population scattered across the globe and a good deal of baggage. Instead I wanted the situation to feel strange and threatened. In the previous World of Darkness campaign I had run, I ended the game with essentially an Apocalypse for supernaturals as the world changed. Essentially a moving effect crossed the globe destroying all of them-- which some saw as a viral effect and others as a moving shockwave of reality rewriting. I decided to base this game in that world after that event. That gave me a set of previous stories to build upon-- not that any of the players had played in that game, but it would serve as a history which could be explored. It also meant that something like 95% of the typical supernatural creatures in the world had been destroyed. Those few remaining had gathered in a few key cities, like the campaign city of Chicago/Hub City, and had lost contact with any real groups outside of that location.

-I also wanted to establish a strongly and explicitly split power structure within the campaign setting. Therefore there would be essentially two Vampiric “Princes”, each with their own set of allies and ares they controlled. My main intent was to avoid the problem of a singular authority in a role-playing game. Often when there's a single figure or force in charge, players instinctively set themselves in opposition to that force. The logic often simply reduces to “Authority=Bad”. I wanted to make that decision more complicated. If they chose to deny one person in charge, would they then be allying with the stated opposite? Or would they explore both sides and potentially find a way to use one against the other. I've used this trope-- in a very different fashion-- in the Changeling game as well.

-I also had a good deal of additional World of Darkness material that I liked. A chunk of that revolved around the various Spirit realms-- both from Wraith and Orpheus. The former had several books detailing their take on the Chinese Underworld. I knew I wanted to bring that in as a threat. Eventually I decided that one of the major threats of the campaign would be forces trying to reach here to tap the power of the sleeping Vampire to convert his dream power into a remaking of the 10,000 Hells and the Dark Kingdom of Jade-- with the plan to bring that into the real world. The later book had great concepts which I would use to create a potent set of NPCs, ghostwalkers who would at first seem to be adversaries but who would, in the course of the game, join with the PCs.

-The other meta-concept that I wanted to play with was some of the third-hand Gnosticism I'd picked up from the Kult RPG which had an awful vision of the world with the Demiurge as absent from the world, leaving horrific angels in charge and battling over the world. Or maybe it wasn't the Demiurge but God...I was never really sure. I used some of those ideas in the previous vampire game and I'd seen them executed in different ways in HJ's and Derek's games. My idea was this: in these dark games, haunted by the nihilism of post-modernism, you have an absent, corrupted or dead God-figure. You see some of this in some people's takes on the Lovecraftian mythos, particularly Dereleth's approach. Anyway, my concept would be that 'God' or the Demiurge or whatever had returned to the world and would be putting his or her house in order. Not that we'd deal really directly with this, but I wanted at the heart of the game that there could be redemption and success even in the face of an awful world. I didn't want to lose sight of the morality tale at the heart of the story.

-Finally, I knew the players would be newly made Vampires-- but that they would have an additional shift from their time of embrace to the present situation of the campaign.

Tomorrow I'll talk about the player characters, my specific prep, the flow of the game/highlight moments, and my final thoughts on the play.

Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part One 
Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part Two 
Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part Three
Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part Four

Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part Five