Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Campaign Postmortem: Vampire (Part Two)

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

This first section should probably go in my after-thoughts comments, but I had sketched it out so I'll post it. I'll come back to these ideas in part three.

Vampire presents a challenge to the GM in the concept of Humanity for PCs. This trait measures the character's distance from the two poles of utter bestial nature and absolute moral restraint. That's an important measure for a game like this, one rife with moral dilemmas and questions. However it brings up the problem of how one manages to separate between a player's moral choices and a character's. In fact, they're inextricably linked. So when a GM reduces a player's Humanity, or makes them take a test on it, is in fact an immediate judgment on the player's actions. Add to that the question of whether certain actions have greater or lesser weight for different characters-- should you present an absolute benchmark, which eliminates some of personality of the characters, or should you present a flexible mechanic, which can make one character more potent than the others.

That's a tough call-- and I'll admit that I often steered away from those mechanics when I was running. Late in the campaign one of the player's was surprised that the stat and mechanic actually existed. I have a similar reaction to the concepts of Honor and Reputation in the Legend of the Five Rings system. Reputation's a little easier, in that you can make a clear argument about perceptions external to the player and the character, but Honor is again a moral judgment that feels applied from above. But given how necessary those concepts really are to the play, can you ignore them? Changeling has Clarity, which isn't a moral measure directly, but instead can be affected by seeing strange things and by doing things which challenge your morality. But there, the PCs have a model of what bad behavior looks like-- essentially, if they act like Keepers, the beings who took and held them, that's a challenge to their Clarity. As a side note, there's the additional problem, in some of these games, of having these traits be purchasable. That means that a loss on these scores effectively steals experience points away from that character relative to the others.

*****

For game prep, IIRC, I sketched out some of the general plot ideas I mentioned earlier. I knew a few things about what I wanted to have structurally. First, the players would early on gain a safe location to work out of. I'd give them a couple of sessions of worrying about that-- just to make clear how important it was, but then I'd give them a protected area. Second, I'd wait a few sessions before having them collide with the greater Vampire community-- not knowing if perhaps no other supernatural beings actually existed. Third, I wanted to avoid potential problems with direct inter-party conflict. I knew tensions could run high in games like these and I hadn't played all that much with a couple of the players so I opted to impose a strange magical effect (tied into the storyline) which prevented the PCs from deliberately causing harm to one another. That worked out well-- as the couple of times where it did get tense, the players couldn't actually start a fight among the group. Had I not had that, I do think one of the players would have quickly turned things into a fight for pack dominance ala Werewolf.

I had each player write up a general backstory about themselves, but stressed that there would be a break with that material. I didn't want people investing too much in that, since I knew I would flash forward a few years from the opening sequence to the beginning of the game. Once I had some notes, I asked them which Vampire Clans they preferred or hated and then I made some notes about the various NPCs they'd mentioned. I used my card generation system for NPC character traits, built up the structure of the Vampiric characters in the city (about two dozen or less) and found images for each of them. They I did some pretty thick narrative write ups for the PC's embrace-- the moment when they were turned into Vampires, as well as my first session plot mechanics. I thought originally about doing the embrace material via email, but decided to handle it at the table. That allowed all of the players to hear the events and get a sense of the characters-- despite it taking a huge amount of time at the table (between a half-hour and forty-five minutes per player). I tried to split the time in each sequence between their previous lives and the horror of their change--

Brandy-- An artist and photographer. She had a pretty good life until she was asked to temporarily look after a distant younger relative. That kid, along with an ambiguous nanny figure moved in. Brandy started seeing strange things and getting creeped out by the kid. I built up the tension until she suddenly got dragged into the middle of an Anarch party(one of the rebel factions in Vampire). Her “brother” had set her up resulting in her taking a shovel to the face and then being feasted on by the group of Anarch. Then they buried her in a pit-- a typical ritual for them, intended as a test of strength. However as they were finishing up, the Anarch's themselves got jumped by enforcers from the local regime. Even as Brandy took her second breath and tried to claw her way out, she could hear the firefight above. She broke surface and went into the fury of her new state, but then was put down by one of her would-be rescuers.

I included a couple of visions her as well—before and after her taking. I decided that Brandy would be a Malkavian, but not know it. She'd have visions of being a fairy princess throughout the game to echo this. I'd originally intended this for another player, by they opted not to join the game so I used this detail for her.

Shari
-- a translator and homebody from a mixed Asian family. She discovered that she had great powers-- the ability to modify time and space. Soon after her Awakening, she was contacted by one of the Mages in the city-- explaining that this new power and her reborn Avatar could be a force for good in her life and the lives of others. Essentially, she had a bright future ahead of her. However, that night in her father's grocery store, she's attacked and bitten by a Vampire. As she lays dying she can feel her soul leave and see the Avatar, a piece of the world's soul, darken and shatter from what she's become. She's reborn, but immediately finds herself face to face with a team from the local Mages, including the recruiter who spoke to her earlier. Crying, he uses his powers to gun her down.

This was in part a reference to the previous campaign, in which a Mage had become the “Prince” of the City and kept the other magical groups in line a little. I also wanted to focus on the awfulness of having that new life torn away in an instant.

Chris-- a roughneck with anger issues. He had a shady roomate who might have been involved with drugs and a job at a bar. He came home one night and got a strange phone call. A few minutes later, he went to answer his door and suddenly found it kicked in, sending him flying across the room. A group charged in and one of them stabbed him through the heart with a stake. As he lay there dying, the trio suddenly realized that Chris' wasn't the person they were looking for-- and merely a human. The Vampire who stabbed him and the others opted to leave him to die. However, one of them after arguing something should be done, decided to take action. He kept Chris barely alive and dragged him into the sewers to a Vampiric contact who could save Chris. The Nosferatu there asked Chris if he wanted to live and he begged for another chance. He was turned, but immediately found himself turned over to the Mage Prince of the city for containment. Again, most of this passed in a blur for him-- and he's only find out the full story about this later.

This scene was a specific reference to an event in the previous game where one of the player's assumed someone they were going after was in fact a Vampire. So he busted the door down and stabbed her with a stake to keep her quiet-- only to discover she was a mortal and now dead. The other players looked on in horror-- pointing out that this person had been their only lead on the important case they were working on. I should also note that the Nosferatu character here was another version of Art's The Word character. He'd originally been a disfigured vigilante who lived in the sewers. I used that but made him a Nosferatu trying to gain some kind of redemption.

Sherri-- an EMT, she went down into a building collapsed after an explosion. Alone, she found a survivor trapped and pinned by the wooden support beams. She realized quickly this person wasn't human, but he didn't seem savage-- instead he seemed at peace. He begged Sherri to pass a message on to someone. He spoke his peace and then faded into dust. Freaked out, Sherri returned made her way out of the rubble. The image would haunt her for the next couple of weeks. Then, one night, see returned to find someone in her apartment. Apparently the intended recipient of the message he questioned her about the man in the basement's death. The stranger seemed moved but then went crazy when Sherri passed on the message which suggested that the dying man had found the peace and forgiveness that eluded him. He struck out at Sherri and broke her neck and back against the wall. Then, terrified and sorrowful, he bit and turned Sherri into a Vampire like himself. Before she could go far, he vanished and enforcers from the Prince arrived to take her away.

This would be a crucial scene for unraveling what would come later. The man in the basement had been been sired by the Stranger. They would eventually learn that the basement man had led the Stranger to betray his own chance for love and redemption in the past. They would see them at that point in Victoriana London, which that being the crucial scene the Stranger, being the Antediluvian Vampire, kept replaying in his mind. It also meant that I required Sherri to buy Generation, an advantage showing how close the character was to the oldest vampires, at a high level at the start of the game. That made for an interesting dynamic.

I'll wrap this up tomorrow with a discussion of the actual play and my after-thoughts. I'm trying to keep my entries to not much more than two pages so I don't go overboard.

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