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Fangs in the Nordic twilight

At Odin's request, we're playing Vampire: the Requiem, 2nd edition, which I have agreed to learn enough to GM and for which he is the go-to for rules details during play. We've been at it for three sessions of varying length; the embedded video playlist is current through session 2 and I'm just exporting the set for session 3 as I type this. (edit: done!)

Our game is set among the three cities associated with the Öresund Strait, a bit of the North Sea bounded by Sweden and Denmark in a weird way (I've attached the map). You may know it via association with the titular structure of the murder-drama series Bron a.k.a. Broen. The cities are (using Swedish spelling) Malmö, Helsingborg, and Köpenhamn, the latter better known to most readers as Copenhagen. The middle one's name is too perfect to ignore for playing vampire-anything, so that's where I've placed most of the action.

I'm not entirely clear about why, but in our preparation discussion, someone determined that play would be set in 2011, and I simplified it in my mind by specifying precisely a decade ago, meaning early November. That turned out to be hilariously apropos, as Henna later reminded us that Twilight: Breaking Dawn premiered in the nordic region exactly then, and she was charmed at the idea of promotional posters or some similar tie-in to our play locations. What's especially weird about it is that we'd also independently determined to focus on the covenant called the Ordo Dracul, which is obsessed with "elevating" vampiricism into a form which transcends sunlight and other limitations. We haven't made much of this during play, but the discussion was so entertaining that I've preserved that clip as one of the early videos.

I have not followed the ins and outs of Vampire publishing through the years, as every time I checked in there seemed to be some kind of kerfuffle. But in readying myself for this game, I decided to get educated, resulting in this diagram. I've attached a PDF with the same diagram and some annotations.

The first point is that we are playing the game published in 2014 by CCP (the owners at that time, in Iceland), which has basically nothing to do with the game published a decade earlier under the same name and with a similar cover. This one is a rebranded compilation of several previous works (Danse Macabre, Blood Sorcery, and especially Blood and Smoke) and is completely stand-alone, with similar terms but no canonical connection to all things World of Darkness published before or since. So my request is to ask that you abandon all your baggage about any of those things, as this is effectively an orphaned game title with little pop culture identity in present-day commerce.

The second, related point is that the game is a direct if not-necessarily-successfully mutated child of the Forge. The primary authors were all active there and (as with many 20-teens RPGs) the rules are a somewhat messy mix of techniques from The Shadow of Yesterday, Dogs in the Vineyard, Primetime Adventures, and Sorcerer. It is clearly a very sincere attempt to humanize Vampire, seeking to live up to the original's dramatic rhetoric by focusing on the human costs of being dead and feeding on the blood of the living. I'll go into some of the relevant pieces in the comments, including which work pretty well and which flounder around - stuff like Vitae, Humanity, Touchstones, Aspirations, Conditions, Beats, Mask/Dirge, and Willpower.

In this post I'll focus on my general conundrum, or ongoing uneasiness as GM. Briefly, the content relies on three distinct things: naturalistic society, humanity, culture, and all related matters; accessible horror, squick, temptation, crisis, eroticism, and tragedy associated with "vampire" as a topic; and the setting and details, like Clans and whatnot, with hard and soft rules, specific to this game and more generally to the franchise, some of the latter being present and some absent. Play has to work in the easy-peasy Venning thereof:

Well, maybe it's peasy, but it's not all that easy, at least not for me. The authors tried hard to bring the lore into usable form, but they tried just as hard to legitimize it or validate it for the fanbase, and the result is frankly laughable. I have already cursed some of the patrons with my venting about it, in order not to do it here, so I won't, but just as with the original game, I cannot take seriously their whole chimichanga of what a vampire even is, let alone their subdivisions and politics and the "masquerade," for even thirty seconds.

I did what I always do in such cases: I surgically chose a very few in-game, setting-specific features and junked the rest. So for our game, "clan" doesn't mean a thing except as a kind of lineage-detail of who bit you; it has no social meaning at all among the vampires. I've dropped the implicit population size of vampires by a factor of probably 1000, so we don't see them infesting nightclubs and whining about "turf," and cities don't have vampire princes or dukes or any such thing. In fact, the nightclub thing, where you bare your fangs at the bitch who looked at you wrong, is flat out - just gone.

I chose the rules option that allows us to play older, scarier vampires, so "ancilla" rather than "neonate,' thus there is no "OMG I'm a what" or "how we met" in play. We've leaned very hard into this game's concept of Covenant, and the players selected, by elimination, the group called the Ordo Dracul - which means, whatever you may think of this, that we are playing mad scientist vampires who are, as far as I can tell, reading the game rules and trying to break them. I'd recused myself from that preparation step, so I'm as bemused or bewildered by it as anyone might be, but hey, OK, mad scientists we are and that's what we'll do (see attached diagram for the experiment). I've also picked up, partly in desperation, the book's extensive material about the Strix, basically "the enemy" for this game, but treating it as a monster as such, rather than a type or race or conspiracy with any kind of rationale behind it.

None of this is hard or unfamiliar to me. The whole White Wolf shebang was a specification of Champions genre and structure from the outset, and doing as I'm describing here is merely what I did for any kind of superhero role-playing anyway. But during play, I'm finding that I am forced to channel a lot of the "lore" content by myself, to the point of explaining to the players what their characters know or care about far too often, as they are merely placed in the three-act structure which I have built and now direct. It's especially to the detriment of playing the other two boxes, which I am good at and would much prefer to do, but basically am too worn out or distracted to do. Watching myself in the play videos is head-desking for me, as I groan "Moron, do this! Do that! What the hell are you playing at!" all the time.

To their credit, the players' characters are starting to hum along. We have:

  • Nora, evidently mid-20s Swedish woman, 30 years a vampire, a small Swedish woman, Mekhet (steath-spy invisible type), with Mask: Child and Dirge: Scholar, played by Odin
  • Hans, evidently mid-40s German man, 100 years a vampire, Ventrue (haughty stare dominating type), with Mask: Spy and Dirge: Idealistic, played by Nathan
  • Ansa, evidently early-20s Finnish-Swedish woman, 70 years a vampire, Nosferatu (scary ogre-bogeyman grungy type), with Mask: Follower and Dirge: Idealistic, played by Henna
  • Ejde, evidently early-20s "big and round" Turkish-Swedish man, 100 years a vampire, Mekhet (as above), Mask: Guru and Dirge: Deviant, played by Ola

Finally, I've attached a couple of concepts we're using to specify status and Willpower recovery rules for the characters. I am also worn-out by typing all this so whatever pithy or heuristic point I intended for this moment must remain unknown.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Greg's picture

It's hard to tell if any of you actually enjoy playing. The difference with the mountain witch game is striking.

Ron Edwards's picture

Yes, and I know why! There are several variables at work, but this is the main one.

Unlike the other versions of Vampire that I’m even passing familiar with (mainly the very first one), this game demands proactive players. They must say that their characters do things, and a lot of the text struggles to reconcile goal-oriented player activity with GM direction and control. The book is a bit silent about the GM, except in a deeply implicit way ... well, here, this is what I mean.

Touchstones are people tied to the vampire’s Humanity score, “anchors” in the sense you may have encountered in many other games like Nobilis. Here’s a bit of text about them in the Storytelling chapter.

I give the authors credit in trying to focus play on the human presence of the Touchstones, as well as on related matters of vampires being really actually dead, and trying to reconcile the romance of pop vampire with the squick of deadness and a certain sense of regret. But look at how it is to be done, in that paragraph. The GM is to deliver “exciting and traumatic events” as the body of play, and interacting with the Touchstone is implicitly not part of doing that. Therefore the outstanding questions are “how to get the Touchstones in there” and “what for,” as if those were questions rather than the strikingly obvious, unnecessary answer that the whole system is predicated on the Touchstone already being “in there.” If a vampire player-character isn’t engaged with them proactively, without the GM providing them or saying “now it’s Touchstone time,” then the person isn’t freaking playing the game in the first place.

It might look like I’m over-reading this paragraph in order to slam it, but I’m not. This same implicit contradiction is present throughout the book, and sometimes it’s the foundation for whole sections and chapters. Arguably it defines the game, unfortunately.

Here’s how it’s manifest in our game regarding a very similar feature of the rules, Aspirations. Nathan’s character, Hans, includes an Aspiration to rescue one of the human research subjects, i.e., someone who’s being used in an Ordo Dracul experiment. Nathan wrote this himself when I stressed to everyone that they needed to have Aspirations.

My first point about it is that nothing comes from nothing. You have to have something in order to aspire to anything, either toward the something or away from it or in contrast with it. In a game with some such rule, one must take a certain step one during character creation, or during the first couple of sessions, for the Aspirations to be anything but place-holders to satisfy the annoying requirements. In my games, frankly, that step explicitly demands that the player get personal, and therefore for the character to be a personal lens or even imposition into play. Whereas in this and the World/Chronicles of Darkness franchise in general, all the “personal” is supposed to be already-present in the Awesomeness (tm) of Being a Monster (tm), as pre-described in the text, and as delivered by the GM Storyteller (tm) via their "exciting and traumatic events." There really isn’t anything to go by for Aspirations, especially since so much behavior is tied to up-and-down numbers across many variables.

Therefore Nathan doesn’t have much to do with that Aspiration in play, except when I provide that research subject under his character’s nose and say, “Hey, this is that guy in your Aspiration” – and he’s supposed to say, “Oh golly gee, I care so much about that, I guess I shall now strive to rescue him.” What for? I don’t know, I’m just the GM, it’s his Aspiration. But he doesn’t know either, as he filled in the blank as required and – perfectly reasonably – needs context from me, the GM, to build or develop that caring from something. The Aspiration clearly puts him at odds with his own Covenant, that’s fine – but we haven’t played his relationship to the Covenant, so neither of us knows what “at odds” even means in this case. I’ve got nothing for him and he’s got nothing for me.

We could have co-written a novella about Hans and the Covenant over the past century, plus a backstory for this particular research subject person, plus some specific reason why it’s all fallen together here and now ... but you see that problem, right? We need tools for play, whereas writing a novella is expressly and clearly not play, or rather, if you have to do that, then why bother to play, just finish the novella with its final chapter.

That’s what I’m facing in the first two sessions of play, for all the characters. I have to choose which bits of their sheets (Touchstones, Aspirations, as well as others) to use, and effectively tell them, “This is what you care about, so care! Now!” It forces the players to jump into thespian shoes and act as if they care, and why? To be in my story that I’ve prepared. It’s dishonest and tiring for everyone.

My second point is much more positive: that in the third session, I had reluctantly provided more backstory content, to the extent that I felt like I was playing the characters, because I’d realized it was necessary. That’s where the experimental design comes from – in a better world, I’d have asked the players to design the experiment themselves as part of preparation.

You see, it took me until the third session, in play, really to get into this Ordo Dracul thing myself. You know when it really clicked? Right there in the text of the main post, when I characterize the Covenant as trying to break the actual game system. All of a sudden playing this Covenant made sense in terms of what players do, and it also became aesthetically pleasing to me for the first time: Nora as “crazy scientist’s daughter,” and Ansa as “Igor who wants to be the Doctor,” and, charmingly, that play itself was already about hauling dead bodies all over the place, which is movie evil-science in spades.

Ha! I said, now I know what we’re doing! I went back to the scattered and frankly spitballed content: the monster from the depths, what had happened to Solveig, why Osteen was so important to the experiment, the creepy unknowns and squick of blood experiments (in a nice, privatized, modern bourgeois medical facility, no less; I hate those places), and more. I found my feet regarding what I should be providing, and especially regarding what I wanted them to be providing without me staging and serving it for them to do.

A lot of this was obviously proper character knowledge, either from the outset or as gained by Nora’s and Hans’ investigations and perceptions. So I began session 4 by making sure they knew those things, and also by explicitly asking the players to own their characters, whether formal things like Aspirations and Touchstones, or informal decisions and opinions of the moment. “Yes!” they responded, with some force, and ... well, I’m editing session 4 now, so you’ll see soon. It’s a whole new experience.

James_Nostack's picture

I meant to post about how Requiem's setting lore fails to deliver gameable situations, but something about your Nice Clean Medical Clinics reminded me:

In Hunter: the Vigil (2008 sibling game of Requiem 1e) there's a multinational pharma corporation that's capturing and running experiments on vampires, etc. and harvesting their tissue for various break-through drugs.  I expect the implementation in the Hunter rules and text is hit-or-miss, but simply as a concept for vampire-hunting antagonists I liked it.  

James_Nostack's picture

I've wanted to run Requiem for a while, but I keep getting tripped up on what anyone is supposed to do with the Clans, Covenants, and Strix nonsense.  My inclination is to reject, say, 90% of it, but even then I still feel the game is slightly under-charged.

It shouldn't be, though, right?  The core is pretty solid.  You're a vampire.  Every few days, you have to persuade, trick, or force a human to give you some blood.  If you fail to do this, you fall into a coma.  If you get too sloppy, you'll face mortal vampire-hunters and police-vampires.  That's a good start!

Requiem 2e adds touchtones, which seem to be like DNPC's in Champions: likeable folks struggling with mostly mundane problems, which help to contrast and contextualize the vampire's predicament.  Okay--so far, so good: a slice-of-life soap opera featuring an anti-hero with supernatural powers.  That's pretty solid!  Especially if you add in one or two asshole vampires as foils/antagonists.

Then they slather on Clans and Covenants and City Status and the Strix.... all of which are vastly disconnected from human social concerns or visceral vampiric needs.  The designers clearly meant for this stuff to show up in play, but I really don't see what it adds in practice.  (Clans have value to the extent of being an immediate family, I guess.)  I don't want to junk it completely, but it's dead weight.

One comment on aspirations:

The way I see Requiem, it's a game about living with serious depression, the core of which is self-loathing.  In the long run, you're condemned to parasitic sociopathy and nearly all of your relationships are based on exploiting people.  How can you reconcile yourself to that sort of existence?  What's your source of hope and courage, and how far will it take you?  Whether this stuff needs to be nailed down in Aspirations or left as an emergent property, I don't know, but I do think any sympathetic character is eventually going to have to grapple with those questions.

Ron Edwards's picture

However you want to slice it, "fix it up all modern, but keep that base on board" is an impossible task. Whether Glorantha or D&D or Vampire, it seems as if the more the new team knows what they want and how to do it, the more they must (i) paint a pretense of same-old mechanics in the front and (ii) retain and rephrase a bunch of baroque nonsense that didn't work the first time. Their actual new game doesn't get much chance to shine - and in all three cases just mentioned, doesn't get the real hard-hitting play and necessary blowtorching throughout the course of design.

I think my own response to your specific questions is already in my main post, but I also think it doesn't really come together as player activity until session 4.

Ron Edwards's picture

We began with a question Henna brought concerning Mask, Dirge, and refreshing Willpower. In this game, Mask is about the vampire's human demeanor and habits, whereas Dirge is about their vampiric self. As the names imply, the first is considered more of an act and the second is considered more of a self. Both of them can refresh Willpower, and the text isn't very clear on whether you can use the Mask criteria to refresh Willpower when you're basically being vampiric, and vice versa, whether you can do the same with Dirge when you're basically acting human. It's a good question. [I have asked already and I'm saying it more bluntly now: in this discussion, I do not care how some other version of Vampire did it. Let's talk about this game.]

The session itself is the big shift for the game's enjoyment, although I think you can see us coming together toward it in session 3. I'll write more about it as we go along. Here's the link into the playlist.

Ron Edwards's picture

I was armed with a system check this time, to see how many various mechanics were in play or could possibly be invoked. The list is ... extensive.

  • Breaking points (Humanity checks)
  • Conditions: Tasked (everyone), Tempted (Nora and Ejde), Tainted (Nora), Burned (Ejde), Inspired (Ejde)
  • A bunch of vampire and Strix powers: Celerity, Labyrinth, Possess Corpse, Possess Vampire, Synthesis
  • Predatory Aura, a.k.a. Lashing Out, which the adversary-thing can do as well as the vampires
  • Frenzy
  • some things specific to a newly-risen vampire (Osteen)
  • Diablerie/Amaranth
  • Coils of the Dragon
  • Aspirations and regaining Willpower

All of these have specific rules or subroutines involving different resources and dice-reading, and many are triggered by situations and by behaviors, and sometimes, by the result of one of the others. So at any given moment of play, one has to run a scan for all the possible bits and pieces which may apply.

In this session, you'll see the players buying into this for themselves and helping us (collectively) to do it, to varying degrees of success. However, as I see it, we are still short of the necessary facility, which is most evident when I suggest to Henna that Ansa has the opportunity to form a Blood Bond with Osteen. It seemed to follow from what she was saying and turned out to be exactly what she wanted, but I don't enjoy the GM-centric process of describing what's going on and then identifying what to do about it, which was a little close to where we were.

That brings me to the game mechanics which I didn't prepare for, the Blood Bond of course, but also the feat Nora achieved by Lashing Out with the Seductive Beast and seducing the Strix-ish monster with extraordinary success. Anyway, it's back to the book for me for next session, as I think we really doing some weird brand of Blood Sorcery via the science route, as we're about to see how Strix-absorbed life force, Amaranth-adjacent Vitae (mixed sire and childe), and the Wanton Condition - Nora's stuff - collide with the Blood Bond and the in-progress heinous sunlight-mastering experiment concocted by Ansa ... on that sire, no less.

Here's the direct link for session 5 into the playlist. I'm still thinking about one feature you might observe: that although all these rules like Frenzy and Conditions seem so behavior-heavy, they also have a curious ineffective quality which I'm not quite ready to articulate yet. It's very, very similar to my disappointed frustration with playing Monsterhearts, as well.

James_Nostack's picture

One of the things I'm most curious about in this game is whether all these zany little sub-routines "add up" in play, in the sense of creating bouncy new situations.  Work, personal life, and holiday season stuff have gotten in the way of watching the videos, but I'm hellbent on checking them out.

Ron Edwards's picture

Well, now having played a sixth session as well, I think I can fairly say "no." Unfortunately, because the creators clearly did want "system does matter" for the psychology of the lonely predator which dreams of love. They simply threw in way too many Kewl Indie Rulez all at once, and a number of them interfere with one another, numerically and categorically. I suppose if you kept an expert spreadsheet going at all times, you could ultimately be confident that you'd accounted for Blood Bond, Blood Sympathy, Willpower, Discipline, and a couple of Conditions, to name but a few merely as example, for a net bonus of +1d10, or whatever. But it's a lot of maintenance for similar minor net modifications.

I've tried pretty hard to carry the load, but in the fifth session, I went right into the rules for resisting Frenzy when the awful fish-Strix abomination confronted Ejde ... although Ola actually wanted Ejde to accept Frenzy and start rampaging. I was trying so hard to apply all the required bits that I forgot about asking him that one little step, and thus robbed Ola of his rightful nanosecond of player choice about his own character's behavior. And on top of that, the effect of being Lashed Out against landed Ejde with ... the Bestial Condition, which is pretty close to being in Frenzy anyway. So the mechanics turn out to be baffling, like square-dancing when you're just trying to walk.

There are two aspects to this beyond merely a multiplicity of things to know about and monitor. Some of you know I like to think of role-playing in Boolean terms, but not to be too boring about it, in this case, what I mean is that sets work best when they intersect, but not when they overlap.

  • The first issue is basic redundancy: you don't want ABC to mess with your dice bonuses along with XYZ already doing so, if ABC and XYZ overlap in concept. When you have Lashing Out with the Monstrous Beast, why have Frenzy? If you have the Bestial Condition, why have either of those other two?
  • The second issue is criteria for use: basically, whether doing a thing triggers a dice condition or effect, or whether a dice condition or effect triggers doing a thing. Plenty of games feature both, but the problem in this case is that you have both methods concerning the same behavior, and far too often, you find yourself impelled mechanically to do the thing you were already doing, or finding yourself rolling to resist doing the thing you were trying to do.

It's conceivable, yes, to use all these rules at once and have almost every single action in the game emerge mechanically from a unique mélange of redundant and voluntary/involuntary subroutines, but the payoff for the effort is elusive, especially when you want to just fuckin' hit the guy or something equally straightforward. A single mechanic to handle both "I want to very much, but I'd rather not," vs. "I am scared and reluctant, but I will do it anyway," would nail the vast majority of the cases we've seen in play.

Ron Edwards's picture

Here's the direct link into the playlist.

Now is a good time to consider Nathan's character, Hans. In isolation, he's an ideal concept for this specific game. He's been a vampire for a century, he's a shady investigator straight out of the literature of that time (1920s, Dashiell Hammett), he cares greatly about his biological descendant who doesn't know his life is shadowed by a vampire, he has well-established feeding grounds and resources, and his "inner self," the "real vampire self," is an Idealist. This is gold.

... which is in no way possible actually to play in our game. Our game is necessarily defined by the only thing "Vampire (tm)" possible, Covenants. In this case, the Ordo Dracul, the weird science-y vampire society or shared notion of Awful Forbidden Blood Experiments (tm) to stick a finger in God's eye and overcome the Curse. It is, I have realized, the in-game expression of all the legalistic what-ifs that White Wolf fandom accumulated by reading the rules for Vitae, et cetera, as if it were an actual biology book.

Was that a good idea, in terms of the play experience we're having? It was the only one possible and it's good enough. First, it was the one chosen by the players. Second, the Covenants are the only thing I can find, past or present, which makes any sense to me at all for "party" play among vampires. I refuse to play this game as Sorcerer, with entirely individualized characters who happen to be in the same place, with no crazy elaborate social setting features; if I wanted to do that, I'd go ahead and play Sorcerer, or something easily tuned to a desired aesthetic like Primetime Adventures, or for vampires specifically, Kris Newton's Feed. Buying into the high-school politics of the World/Chronicles of Darkness is part of this territory, and Covenants are the only piece of it I can stand without falling over laughing. Third, it is in fact affording us an enjoyable mix of logistic horror + just enough hijinks - with any luck, enough of the former to approximate Re-Animator, although I suspect we're not going to make it and will have to settle for the level of one of the sequels.

But it's not a good idea for Hans. Hans is totally sufficient for a good modern Nordic-noir detective horror vampire story, all by himself. In fact, other vampires and especially "vampire society" and made-up metaphysics of Vitae, et cetera, are exactly what he does not need. Of the five characters he is the best example of anything that "vampire" was, is, or could be about in any worthwhile sense. The failure-of-fit is especially clear in that we have played six sessions with no emergent understanding of what his Dirge (Idealist) is actually about, or even a hint. Nothing has offered itself - not even the rescuing of one of the lab subjects - to supply it and for Nathan to latch onto as a player. Or to be a little critical, he's offered us nothing about it to respond to.

The legacy of group/party play, social/posturing conflicts, and in-setting metaphysics, which are all three explicitly and romantically front and center in this game and its text, is not merely a poor fit with the concept of the brooding tormented predator and its kinky sex/feeding relationships ... it obviates it. So all the complex mechanics to express and pressurize the latter are a problem. Not merely due to their messy design, because they are indeed a mess and a half in pure RPG utility terms, but from the start, a priori, do not pass Go. From the start, the White Wolf promises of Story, Saga, "real role-playing" were at best incompetent.

I could just be "doing it wrong." And I can say for sure, if I'm supposed to be providing three-plus hours of (as the book says) "exciting and traumatic events" book-ended by moving Touchstone and Mask/Dirge moments, you can grade me an F and I won't object. However, I defy anyone to do it without jettisoning 60+% of the rules and textual content, just as you would have had to do with the 1991 first version of Vampire: the Masquerade.

At this late date, I can only say to any of you who feel, well, if we did it right, if we had the right system, you know, there's something there ... no, I don't think it was ever there. I think you ought to let go and walk away from Lucy and her football. There are other games out there actually about vampires or capable of addressing vampires. This legacy cannot and will not do it.

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