Thursday, April 16, 2009

Campaign Postmortem: Vampire (Part Four)

Sigh. This game postmortem has ended up taking longer than I expected. I just don't want to go too long with any individual entry. Today I start describing the actual play. Tomorrow blog day off. Saturday I'll finish the summary and make a few last comments.

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

After I did the Embrace and return as Vampires scenes for each character, I moved on and brought them together. They had a shared vision, including meeting each other, of an abandoned city. In the distance they could see fire consuming the realm itself. They traveled, finding themselves on a great open dais with a throne and a cracked inscription reading either “God is no where” or “God is now here”-- a bit stolen from elsewhere. My intent was to show the placed called Metropolis, the horrible gnostic underworld of the evil angel figures from Kult. However, this place had been emptied and was being destroyed. It would serve as a metaphor for the battle over the spirit and dream realm that I knew would be the key turf battled over by the bad guys.

They woke up in the real world, each of them in what appeared to be some kind of suspension and feeding system. Their pods had been damaged either by time or an earthquake. This would be one of the places that the Mage Prince of the city had established to keep safe dangerous creatures for a time. However, as it transpired, he and his people had been mostly destroyed by the events which wiped away most of the other magical beings on the planet. So they had been lost and forgotten for five years.

The first couple of sessions were about acclimating the players and the characters to their situation. I focused on the need for hunting and the consequences of it in these sessions. If they killed someone, they had to clean it up and deal with it. If they needed to keep themselves sane through blood, we played out when and where they were going to hunt. They had to figure out about money, about safe places to sleep, about their basic needs. I tried to emphasize these things early on. As the game progressed, I abstracted these issues more. Instead of taking time to do scenes, I would allow them to make hunting rolls and eventually I'd take care of some of the issues of shelter and money. But I had to set up the costs and consequences early on so that I could move to that stage to prevent players from taking those things for granted.

We spent some time on this-- figuring out their routine, where their past lives had ended up, and what had happened in the meantime. Eventually they would come across another Vampire-- this led to their being brought before the Prince of the City. This created the first big switch in the game-- giving them a sense of the broader scope of the Vampire society, some answers to what had happened in the last five years, and a starting place to establish themselves with mentors and rivals. The next step would be one of the members of the Court pushing them to look into the estate of the late Mage Prince of the City. They'd discover that unlike most other Vampires, their group could enter the grounds, making it-- despite the weirdness a perfect haven for them. So we'd evolved a little and removed some of the more prosaic problems from the table.

At this point we had three major threads I started juggling-- and my memory might be a little off on this. First, they dealt a little with the Vampiric politics-- meeting the various factions and trying to gauge where they could learn some of the more advanced disciplines. I kind of set up at least one NPC with each of the player characters. However, that never really went all that far. We did a few encounters, had a few email exchanges, but I don't think the group every really wrestled heavily with this. I think I did a couple of things here that kept them away from that. First, the players perceived such enough threat and ambiguity from the other Vampires that they never felt comfortable moving beyond basic interactions. Second, early on the PCs made a couple of faux pas with some of the NPCs-- I'd intended these as plot points-- trying to figure out why X person reacted so strongly to Y situation, but instead they shied away from further contact. In the case of Palladino, the other Vampire Prince, that meant that they dealt less with one half of the Court structure of a long time. Third, I began moving quickly forward into other plot developments-- episodic mysteries and eventually the larger plot such that they had less time for this. Fourth, by about the mid-point of the game I established a number of non-Vampire NPCs which the group took to. That took up time devoted to interactions and also meant that the group felt a little defensive, worried that the other Vampires might threaten them, and so kept the two worlds apart.

The second thread would be the little bits and episodic adventures I set up. They tracked down someone who'd killed a Vampire, only to discover he was the son of a retired Hunter. They looked into some mysterious visions which led them to their first encounters with Ghost People. They found a group of school-kids who had managed to kill a Vampire-- ala Monster Squad. Eventually they'd track back a series of murders and animal kidnappings to an imprisoned Tzicmce flesh-shaping vampire. They encountered some of the Jade Emperor's spirit soldiers and tried to figure out what that was about. They clashed with Irish Traveler clanfolk to some of the city's werewolves. Some of these things played into the larger plot, but more of them stood alone-- as a way of giving them a fairly direct purpose.

The third thread involved the group being flung back to the Victorian era-- slightly changed in dress to match the period, but otherwise appearing identical to themselves. They had to orient themselves and figure out what had happened. I split this out, to start, across enough sessions that for a long time they weren't sure if they had actually traveled in time (through the weirdness of the house) or something else had happened. They saw some of the characters they knew (or knew of) in the present day as they were back then. That gap, and what had happened to change those NPCs served a major function in the game. Eventually they would figure out that this world showed a potent imagination-- when they tried to make major changes to the events, the story reset itself. Over time, they would begin to feel the presence of one of the major enemies of the game, the forces of the Dark Kingdom of Jade, trying to subvert and usurp this dream in order to use it as a conduit for entry into the real world.

I have mixed feelings about this portion of the game. On the one hand it worked really well for me in terms of story logic. I loved the concept as it played out. It also gave me a chance to show a few of the current NPCs as they had been-- which opened them up for some of the players. Showing a potent Vampiric Court from the time before Gehenna created a nice contrast. I also liked the chance to show off my knowledge of that historical period (which served double duty with the Steambuckler game I was running for at least part of the same time-- background reading worked for both). I also liked the chance to reference Kim Newman's Anno Dracula-- and to look at the Colonial-era relation between the Western Vampires and those of the East, the Kuei-Jin. On the other hand, it also meant a very particular split in the momentum of the narrative. Assuming that a session would most likely take place wholly in one world or the other, it could be multiple weeks between trying to follow up on something in either situation. It also meant that the players had to keep track of many, many more characters and NPCs-- which I think at least a little contributed to the PCs not creating close bonds with certain groups. Finally, the Victorian-era ended up being a severe info-dump. I had to explain the setting, the situation, the politics, the people, and finally, since I introduced those concepts there-- the idea of the Kindred of the East, the “other” vampires. In the future, they would be subverted by the Dark Kingdom of Jade so the group needed to see them before that. Plus, Colonialism in the supernatural world has always been an interesting concept to me.

So a mixed bag on that count.

By the late mid-point of the campaign I had begun to juggle many plots. Most of them tied together, at least tangentially. I had also forced the players to confront some of their past lives. Chris confronted his character's history of abuse, uncovered how he'd been set up in his being turned into a Vampire, and discovered that he'd fathered a child just before he vanished. Brandy worked to track down her Anarch “brother” who had turned her. She also discovered that her former roommate had taken the various photographic work she'd done and claimed it as her own. Shari had the most interesting arc, in my opinion, trying to build an online life and seeing how much her “death” had shattered her family. Eventually she'd bring her broken and suffering father to the house in order to try to nurse him back to health. That set up a string of great scenes. Sherri, on the other hand, tried to keep herself away from her old life. She made contact with the detective who had turned her over to the Mage Prince. But more than anything she tried to figure out how to minimize the group's impact on the populace.

Most significantly at this point I'd begun to introduce some of the Orpheus concepts into the game. As I look back on the few sketch notes I had (posted previously) I see that I'd already decided to integrate some of the other World of Darkness products-- Kindred of the East, Dark Kingdom of Jade (from the Wraith line), and Victorian-era Vampire. However, after I started the game I picked up the first Orpheus book. That was brief experiment by White Wolf, set in the World of Darkness, it had a strong overarching metaplot spread across a main book and six supplements. The core concept was that the players were agents of a corporation who used the PC's ability to project as “ghosts” to carry out jobs. White Wolf did a great job with these books and I really regret losing them in the fire since they're (of course) well out of print now. I knew I probably wouldn't get to run a campaign of this anytime soon, so instead I borrowed those ideas to use in this campaign.

When I read sourcebooks for characters and campaigns I'm not going to directly use I tend to imagine how these ideas would look to a complete outsider. PC's have deep knowledge of the logic and background of the kinds of roles they play-- but what do they actually look like to someone who doesn't know them. A good Hunter campaign, for example (like Will's), plays off of that lack of knowledge and reinforces it by changing things up. The group began to encounter ghosts in various places, some actual corporate agents and some their opposition from the Dark Kingdom of Jade. Eventually they'd realize that the two actually opposed one another. The PCs intervened when a cell of the Orpheus group came under fire and rescued several of them. These “ghost-walkers” became important NPCs for the group. They had the added complication of at least one of them being dead, and several others being bed-ridden and only able to act through their ghost selves.

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