There’s an RPG about vampires

Whew! Convention pile-up has me sucking wind on getting posts finished. This one’s about playing Svart av Kval, Vit av Lust, by Simon Pettersson. He’s a one-man Forge here in Sweden, and now that I think of it, reminds me of my good pal Jared Sorensen. When I visited Indierummet at Gothcon, I noticed several games with his name on it and was told that he was the right person to “introduce” me to games of this sort. So I dropped by later and found him just about to start this particular game with a group, and they said “come on in.”

The name translates to Black as Torment, White as Hunger (the Swedish word “lust” has the more general meaning of the cognate in English, so this is an accurate rather than precise translation). Links: Clockwork Games and the direct link to SaK/VaL. (it’s free at the “Nedladdningar” link at the left) (in Swedish)

[Now editing a bit: spoiled by video presentations, I didn't actually describe playing enough. What follows is upgraded from the initial post – RE]

I have spent some time in the past criticizing heavy set-up, furious-showdown play: the kind where you improvise or draw up a complex diagram about everyone hating or loving everyone else, then play out what amounts to a multiple-vehicle collision. It does very well for operatic sessions at conventions but, as you’re probably tired of hearing, I consider it minimally interesting. There’s not much authoring as a process when all that remains is to connect dots 98-99-100 to see the pony. As soon as I saw the whiteboard work, using the dynamics I know from Ganakagok or In a Wicked Age …, I sighed a little.

However, there is more to it in this game, specifically, the directive mechanics for behavior. You can gesture at other players to make them play in specific ways. There are several types, but the most important is simply a direct command to do something all bestial, White Wolf frenzy-like. You gesture broadly, with a knife-hand at the play, say something savage, “Seduce her!” “Suck all his blood!” “Kill them all!” that sort of thing.

The targeted player has the choice to act accordingly or to refuse the command, and must take one of the white counters from the central bowl. This is relevant concerning later resolutions. The baseline resolution is handled by a hierarchy of actions and identities, e.g., a younger vampire vs. an elder, a violent act or a manipulative one, et cetera, in a usable pattern. It so happens that no one type of character is entirely screwed in it. But if you have any white counters, then your winning role in the resolution hierarchy is nulled.

Play becomes subtle in terms of players’ previous choices about what to make other characters do – whether the commands are refused, and what that means for later confrontations. When you play your vampire's better or at least understandably human self, or perhaps too cautiously or civilly so, then his or her bestial hungry side can manifest hard, and you consider very intuitively, but consequentially, whether it hits. The counters take on a similar roll as the Pool dice in The Pool, in that they do not represent in-fiction quantities but rather serve as a collective unconscious for creative decisions and events. (I am more than ever curious to play the original Wraith with the addition of hacking the Nemesis rule to include this counter system.)

Go ahead and try to game it. Easy, right? It would seem that you’d just act all savage and bestial anyway, and thus not have to refuse commands, but the downside there is that you have this diagram that sets up how your character lives and what they’re trying to do in the context of mortal society and persons. In other words, you wouldn’t be getting what you want that way. Play therefore becomes a dance of urges, outbursts, interactions, and desires very much in the context of … now what shall I call it? … the masquerade all of them are invested in.

It wasn't like the superficial emo-fest that games with this overall structure or this particular content typically produce in my experience. Instead, play was remarkably intimate and connected, due to the mechanics and due to the people (you could not tell which "caused" which; that's not a very meaningful comparison). The deep attention, friendliness, and general sense of sympathy toward one another – toward how each person played – led me to think this was a long-standing group that I'd crashed. It wasn't. The game allowed all of us to bring best-selves to one another, and to share/see personal emotional priorities, even as we influenced one another's characters to be their worst.

Our game was pretty gaudy, this is true, set at the death of the Sun King, full of outrageously extravagant French names, and – if I may say so – featuring the kind of jaw-dropping, no-Lines no-Veils play that I have observed almost exclusively among mixed men-and-women groups, as this one was. It did end in a splatter fest. But it might not have, and I think this game is perfectly capable of delivering or allowing a gentler if emotionally even more brutal set of final moments. Play went that way for a while in the middle, for instance, when Simon’s character, initially the least sympathetic or nuanced, turned out to be tragically all too human after all. By contrast, I happened to play the only non-vampire player-character who turned out to be the most calculating murderer of the bunch.

It is very, very welcome not to have seen all there is to see under the sun, to be surprised and to learn from a zone or sphere of play which I had considered to have run its course in design. I'm glad it hasn't.

P.S. I do have a list of vampire games I'd like to play, e.g., Feed, and um … well, it's a short list.

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13 responses to “There’s an RPG about vampires”

  1. I wonder if there is a game

    I wonder if there is a game in the difference between Byronic/Polidorian vampires and the traditional type? Or in the latter, or in an explicit version of the former.

    Are vampires predatory aristocrats? Or the mud covered corpses of peasants?

    Bram Stoker's Irish background has never been explored enough. What if "Dracula" had been a Byronic (English) nobleman? Or were the walking dead that dug themselves out of their graves the famished remains of Irish peasants?

    There are certainly more games to be written in the vampire genre than the ones that have already been produced.

    • I agree with your general

      I agree with your general point.

      For Svart av Kval, Vit av Lust, the only baseline concepts are that the vampires live in some "faking it" sort of way, and that they do have very identifiable human passions as well as the strong potential for acting-out, i.e., dropping the mask. I know these are not the single marking variable for vampirism throughout cultures and stories; it is what this game focuses on and, I think, absolutely nails (or stakes). Beyond that, the game permits considerable customization to location or other specifications.

      Vampire: the Masquerade struggled a bit with this issue, seeking a wider range with its Nosferatu clan for instance. I will be a little judgmental in saying it didn't get far in that attempt, and instead established its own unified, forceful meaning of vampire clans as stand-ins for subcultures or even cliques. That turned out to be a feature rather than a bug, commercially speaking.

      The most customizable vampire RPG I've yet seen, permitting extremely monstrous and asocial forms as well as highly sophisticated dramatic ones, is the one I mentioned in the post, Feed. I haven't seen much about it since its Kickstarter campaign, but I was a backer and I have the PDF for playing one day. When I do, I will definitely favor some interpretation that we haven't seen beaten to death either in the long run since 1897 or the short run since the 1980s.

    • I’m not inclined to pursue

      I'm not inclined to pursue vampire games, though your description of this piques my interest. I went to the website, and was surprised to see how well the google translator worked, so I just might put the rules through that engine to see whether it gives me a playable game. Also, I'm engaged to doing a run of My Life with Master in June, and some type of vampiric master might make an appearance there if the players push for a Feeder type. 

      I'm curious about your comment that the game featured "the kind of jaw-dropping, no-Lines no-Veils play that I have observed almost exclusively among mixed men-and-women groups." Was that something that the players agreed to, or was it something that happened in an unspoken manner? And how did that approach impact the play at the table? 

    • It’s a callback to very old

      It's a callback to very old discussions about playing with men and women together. Hard to believe, perhaps, but before Sex & Sorcery was published in 2003, RPG-dom assembled unanimously claimed that all players must be Ken and Barbie or … bad things would happen, I don't know, cats and dogs would live together, whatever. Even for games with explicit content or otherwise alleged to be for adults. Whereas many of us had observed a certain charge formed at mixed-group tables, riddled with pitfalls, but also often productive in terms of raw creativity, willingness to be more candid (I choose the word carefully), emotional opennness, and sometimes explicit content. And strangely, nothing "bad" happened.

      I don't know if you've seen Sex & Sorcery, but it's a whole book about exactly how real-person sexuality and creative socializing interact with the candid and/or explicit fictional content of play. I was just thinking the other day about the anonymous "testimony" accounts it includes with each chapter, many from Big Gaming Names, which present a remarkable picture of what can go wrong when you don't admit that such things are happening.

      To answer your specific questions:

      • There was no agreement regarding the dynamic I am talking about; it was emergent. The game did include an opening agreement about explicit content that drew directly from Lines and Veils work.
      • One of the more obvious or standout effects was to see more sympathy or empathy among ourselves as people when characters did crossed emotional, social, or sexual lines, rather than less. That is, instead of provoking shock and recoil, these statements were provided and received in a certain shared state of knowledge, sometimes in a "charged" or I guess what you might call energized state of communication. It's not arousal but has much in common with it. "I mean 'this' and you know I mean it, and I know you know that."
    • That parts about seeing more

      That parts about seeing more empathy when entering into charged content territory is interesting. I think that it can really heighten awareness. We know we're in dangerous territory, and we need to pay attention to each other to make sure everyone is ok and enjoying the game. And, well, paying close attention to each other and the game is what usually makes for a great game, so I think playing "edgy" content can serve as a boost to the session, making us all play with more intensity and purpose. It's an interesting reflection on something I hadn't though about before.

      And, of course, arousing the emotions is always titillating. And let's not forget the "misattribution of arousal" phenomenon, which is the reason you should take your date to a roller-coaster or horror movie.

    • Yes! I would love to discuss

      Yes! I would love to discuss Sex & Sorcery with you when we get the chance.

    • We’ll have plenty of time to

      We'll have plenty of time to discuss that at LinCon, I'm sure. I think I read the book, but it was a long time ago, so unfortunately I don't remember much. I had very little awareness of my own play at that time and I don't think I reflected much on the text.

  2. Author here

    So I'm the Simon that wrote the game and also played with Ron here.

    First of all, thanks for your kind words about the game, Ron. I had a lot of fun in that game, though I think we didn't get to explore some of the relationships enough (for example, your priest and my chancellor never had a scene together!). The game is certainly one of setting up relations and conflicts and then seeing them break down, and in convention games it does tend to end in lots of characters ending up dead. The game does well in campaign play, however. In particular, there's a group in Malmö who have played some epic campaigns with wonderful, complex relationship maps. They spend a full session just doing the prep.

    Regarding the name of the game, if it sounds pretentious and teenage angsty, it's … well, not an unfair characterization. It's from a poem by Karin Boye. The frothy, gorgeous original can be found here, and the unfortunately underwhelming English translation here. The relevant passage:

    Blown seed on wide waters,
    flower of the Deep, that never saw its root,
    dragonfly shy of the night –
    one day the Mothers' night will greet your foot!
    Death with pain is black.
    Death with joy is white.
    Plunged in his murmuring waves
    you will forget life's coast of clouded light.

    Anyway, for those who are interested, there's a post on Story-Games where I explain the rules of the game, and I'm happy to answer any questions about it if you're interested. I know at least two people have started on an English translation (I don't translate my games myself, but I don't mind others doing it), but as far as I know, noone finished the project.

    • I think I’d like to try it at

      I think I'd like to try it at that long-term level. Taking the relationships seriously as potential, unplanned plot waiting to happen is much more suited to my interests than treating the initial map as a movie preview so we can watch what will obviously happen happen.

      The title and the poem are gloriously extravagant, which I don't mind. It's a bit like saying "Hold my beer" to the White Wolf game.

  3. Reflections

    About the session itself, there was an instance at the end which stuck with me as somewhat of a failure on my part, that I should bring with me as a lesson. The rules of the game are simple, but they're not very conventional, and it can be hard for new players to grasp them and their consequences. Here's the background in the rules and the way it backfired:

    There's an interesting power dynamic between young and old vampires that's an emerging propery of the game. Basically, if there are two vampires of different age in play and none of them have refused the beast, there's a sort of hobbesian standoff. If the elder vampire dominates the younger, there's nothing the younger can do to resist. As long as the elder vampire holds that domination, they can command the younger to do anything, including killing themself (though the rules are explicit in not allowing the death of a PC without player consent). On the other hand, if there is a physical conflict, while the elder will win initially, a younger vampire without refusals can unleash the beast and win the conflict, 100% of the time. So in a scene with an elder and a younger vampire, there's always this tension. Whoever acts first will win. Even if you don't want a conflict, you might be afraid that the other one will start one.

    As an aside, the predictableness of the rules where you can clearly see who will win (though there is a decision point involved) can lead to some interesting play. I recall a scene with a firend, Gustaf, playing a human talking to Niklas' character, a vampire. The human character had a gun pointed at the vampire's head. And yet he knew, Gustaf knew, everyone knew, that this was meaningless. He didn't have a chance. There was no possibility of him killing the vampire, and this really gave the scene a dramatic feeling.

    Anyway, in this session, there was just such a scene between an elder and a younger vampire. But I had not explaied the rules properly enough, and this tension was not evident. Worse, when Tobias started the conflict and I commented that he's not going to win, it became clear that Cissi had though that she had to wait for him to start the conflict in order to win. I think this may have something to do with her having played an earlier version of the game which worked somewhat differently, bit I'm not sure. Anyway, it was a valuable lesson for me to make sure that everyone clearly understands the rules before I go on with this game. You can't really explain it "as it happens", because by the time a conflict starts, it's already too late.

    • I remember that. Because

      I remember that. Because those two characters had very different relative moral (or dramatic) status, it was a significant hiccup. I've had the same experience in my games, more than once, when the system is ready to hold its own but I have not quite managed to communicate it in time. That was toward the very end, as well, and I wouldn't be surprised if we were all a little tired.

  4. Oh, and …

    It so happens that no one type of character is entirely screwed in it

    This is not quite true. Humans (vampire hunters excepted) are pretty much entirely screwed.

    • True. I took that as a little

      Good point. I took that as a little bit of a challenge in playing my ultra-good, so-nice, everyone-likes-him priest fellow.

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