Wednesday, June 29, 2022

An Alternative Humanity in Vampire: the Masquerade

Not dead, just busy. I finished another year of college, finally decided my major, read a very weird book and enjoyed it more than I can explain, have cultivated a wonderful relationship, and I've been running some one-shots in Cyberpunk RED. My only regret is that the Ptolus campaign collapsed a few months ago due to my Covid, then another player's Covid, then exams, and then entropy. It went for about 13 sessions, I'll probably write up a reflection on how I failed to execute on my vision for it.

I happened to listen to this video about Vampire: The Masquerade's bloodlines and it actually got me excited and thinking about VtM. "Golly!" I thought. "Shapeshifting Gangrels living as sea monsters? Packs of identical Agent Smith vampires that can freely shift body parts between each other? Just straight up gargoyles? Those do sound like elements of a fun game!" I went looking at the VtM 5th edition book, which I'd taken a shallow peek at before, in case any of it grabbed me. 

Or, you know, that other thing vampires do

Unfortunately not. Partly it's the book's layout and presentation, which is certainly moody (I like the opening pages which depict in-universe documents accumulating on a desk, clearly differentiated from the actual rulebook) but bloated with self-indulgent terminology. It's also the fact that the book isn't made for people like me (I was a theater kid, yes, but not goth). The underlying assumptions of modern storygames chafe, and I'm quite turned off by the book's attempts to mix the banal and modern into the grand and dark, like Camarilla members apparently saying the word 'lol' in secret communiques or one vampire referring to themselves as 'a fucking creature of the night.' 

I get what it's going for, I like the grotesque as much as anyone else, but there's more bathos than pathos here, and when vampires sound like teenagers (or young adults. Or twitter users. Or low-rate US genre fiction writers) I'm not inclined to feel horror, terror, or pity. 

I also recalled some posts by The Alexandrian and Yora (Spriggan's Den) about Vampire, specifically what a 'game of personal horror' is and how game structures, especially the Humanity mechanic, work, or fail to work, into it.

Vampire depends on a downward spiral of degeneration, the constant threat of falling to the Beast which makes a mockery of eternal life. In Vampire 1e, according to Alexander, this intent was undermined by the Humanity mechanic having very few things hanging on it, being triggered effectively at the GM's discretion, and being set up to plateau at the player's preferred level of behavior. I'm not sure how Vampire 5e's system holds up in comparison; the Humanity system has a few things hanging off it, mostly related to Blush of Life, the ability which allows vampires to appear human, and the Stains and Remorse systems seem to apply more pressure, even though the setup does seem to be the opposite of a slippery slope; the less Humanity you have, the more difficult it is to lose Humanity. 

Even so, the 5e book states that "Humanity only shifts in response to actions with major story significance." Which is kinda the opposite of what I would want for a game of personal horror. It centers the major, climactic decisions of the players, rather than the small and apparently meaningless decisions, or the slow grind of entropy. 

Hell, looking across the way to Cyberpunk RED, which I've run a few sessions of, the Humanity mechanic there serves its intended gameplay purpose much better. It's a rating out of 100, with an original maximum set by your Empathy stat, with both the current score and maximum score (usually to a lesser degree) decreased with every piece of cyberware you install. It's one of the very things which gives CPR its 'cool' factor, cybernetic enhancement, which degrades Humanity, a constant temptation to trade it for power, and the results on gameplay are immediate through its penalty to Empathy and all rolls made based on it. 

Compared to that immediacy, granularity and clarity, Vampire's Humanity system doesn't cut it. Still, I don't think a straightforward conversion. with every additional Discipline resulting in lost Humanity, would be effective.

I've never run or played in a Vampire game, so take this with the same bucket of salt you should always give any critique of a game system by one who hasn't played it RAW, but here's a little daydream about an alternate system, with a different vision for the game. 

The New Humanity

One thing I do like in the V5 Humanity system is the Touchstones element, "humans who represent what you used to value in life, someone who represents or seems to incarnate one of your Convictions. If lost, the conviction is lost as well."

That's what I like to see! A vampire in the early stages of their undeath clinging to the people around them only to gradually lose them, like sand slipping through their fingers! A few problems with this though, there's too few of them. RAW, characters start with as many Touchstones as Convictions, that is to say between one and three. Less sand slipping through your fingers, more like very large marbles. 

They're also not directly related to Humanity, they're a way to maintain your Convictions, which guide character behavior and can sometimes reduce Stains gained and thus Humanity lost. Not my idea of elegance. So, here's the idea.

When a neonate is first infected with the blood of Caine, when they first brush up against their new bestial nature, their soul recoils. No matter how depraved they were in life, the abyss stretching before them is deeper and darker than they could have ever imagined before, and they're sent screaming back to shore. But there is no more shore, only pebbles. The embraced vampire grabs onto whatever they most valued in life as a desperate defence mechanism. These are often people, family and friends, idols, mentors, students, but just as often can be other things. Institutions, ideas, ideals. If the newborn vampire was especially lonely and not very high-minded in life, wealth and property will have a prominent place there as well, the hard-won fortune and the family land. 

Let the players get abstract with this, they'll have the space for it. I think the right number would be either ten or twenty. Ten would allow you to work directly off the V5 Humanity list, twenty would allow you to incorporate the number of remaining touchstones into roll-under Humanity checks. A d100 list of examples would be useful. Touchstones, or maybe we'll call them 'Remembrances' or something, are linked directly to your humanity score, and cannot be switched out or replaced once lost.

And you will lose them.

They will be threatened, and since you start out with a bunch the GM can attack different ones without the game becoming repetitive. Trying to protect them is a constant struggle, and one ultimately doomed to failure, no matter which ones you pick or how stable they might appear to be. There will always be some contrivance ("my touchstone is the Notre Dame cathedral." "My touchstone is the environment." "My touchstone is the reliability of the scientific enterprise" well sunuvabitch). That contrivance is straight up built into the game's expectations and procedure, the GM always has an active list of player touchstones being targeted. 

God hates vampires, and the GM is His willing instrument at this table. 

A careful and competent vampire could go for a few decades before the living people on the list go out, claimed by old age even if they're protected from all other harm, and turning them into vampires or ghouls won't help. The more durable or transcendent ones will last a while longer, your family name, your nation, your ideology, your home. Eventually, an elder vampire is reduced to monomaniacal, obsessive focus on maintaining a handful of things whose relation to their original life is tenuous, their wealth, their influence, their power. They will do literally anything to protect these, more jealous of their hoards than any dragon, because if that last string is severed, they'll fall, and there's no rock bottom in oblivion.

This would depart slightly from the V5 expectations, where most neonates start out with Humanity 8, and having Hum 10/10 representing saintly behavior with according bonuses, but I actually prefer this. The idea that newborn vampires start out being almost indistinguishable from humans, the use of their powers being totally unnecessary to maintain habits like digestion, sex and daytime functioning, and slowly decay from there, fits my idea of a Vampire game much better.

What do you think? Have you played Vampire? Leave your comments below, and as always, have a good week.

No comments:

Post a Comment