So Emotional

Robin Law’s Twitter feed announced “Designing Emotion into your RPG resolution system” and pointed me to the latest part of his ongoing “Designing RPGs the Robin D Laws Way” series. It’s an interesting article that deals with how to make the players feel through game mechanics – it’s technically out-of-character, but still connects the player to the character and the world.

That’s something I value highly – it’s probably why I like Lace and Steel’s combat and sorcery metagames, which are properly self-contained mini-games that require player skill and strategy to win. (I’ve been told that you should only play poker for real money, otherwise you won’t be invested in it. Now imagine staking your character’s life on a poker game that you played against the GM – wouldn’t you be more invested in the outcome?)

Of course Laws covers a broader range of concepts than just life-or-death struggles – I’m very intrigued by GUMSHOE which appears to apply interesting mechanics to information gathering. No surprise that it was used for Trail of Cthulhu, then, since most CoC games devolve to a load of Spot Hidden and Library Use rolls1.

Myself, I’ve been considering running Vampire the Masquerade with ORE. I wanted to change the feel of the game so that a familiar setting appears new and fresh, while at the same time bringing focus to the areas that are key to Vampire such as the loss of humanity.

On reading Laws’ tweet I was expecting a discussion of emotional mechanics, which made me think of Wraith. I’ll argue that with its passions and fetters and harrowings and shadows, Wraith was a more deeply “personal horror” game than Vampire could ever be. OTOH I guess the way it took place in the underworld made it less immediate than Vampire, because it was essentially a fantasy realm only superficially connected with our own, with weird metaphysics.

The Flames Rising blog published a retrospective of Vampire recently. The author, Crystal Mazur, cites four reasons that VtM became iconic and while I kind of agree with the points, I think Vampire did not achieve its objective to be a personal horror game. It managed to be a goth game alright, with Tim Bradstreet’s fabulously dark art, and because we were all tortured gothic artsy types back in our twenties we equated that with personal trauma and horror.

But mechanically it wasn’t horrific. What should happen in Vampire is you risk losing Humanity, and thereby do worse things, going into Frenzy and so on. Maybe I was playing (and running) the wrong games, but I only ever heard of a Frenzy once, and I think that was volountary on the part of the player. The problem is that Humanity is a precious commodity that has non-emotional in-game effects, such as making the vampire less effective during daylight hours. Avoiding losing Humanity wasn’t a roleplaying decision, it was a gaming strategy. Furthermore Humanity cost experience points, and anything that costs experience points is a resource players are terrified of losing (oh, the irony).

What could you do to make Humanity more significant? Make it easier to lose and gain. Consider the example of the FATE system – specifically Spirit of the Century. If you’re playing the game right, fate points should be flowing like water. That’s how Humanity should work.

The GM has to challenge the players in ways that threaten their Humanity, so they are forced into situations where they choose whether to volountarily drop Humanity points to survive. That subtly changes the definition of Humanity. Perhaps Humanity = effort, and players have to stake (pun intended) Humanity points in order to interact with society – it would make it more interesting than just staying sated with blood, which was what players usually did.

It’s Humanity as much as Blood that the Vampire needs to survive. Recently we’ve been watching Angel through from series one, and the premise is that Angel needs people around him to stop him descending into darkness and losing his humanity. Blood on the other hand is in plentiful supply.


p>1. Call of Cthulhu is probably the exception to the rule “players shouldn’t have to roll dice to encounter the plot”. Because frankly, you wouldn’t be doing them any favours if you just gave it to them.