“There isn’t anything personal or horrifying in V:tM as a *system*, except what you bring from how hardcore you bought into all the delicious fiction-y bits”
That quotation is from Lenny Balsera, commenting on Ryan Macklin’s post.
Vampire‘s premise as a “personal horror” game is still as fresh as it was in 1991 (even in our post Dresden Files/True Blood/Blade mainstream vampire malaise). At the risk of patronising my readers (all three of you) I’ll quickly list what I think are the most important parts of Vampire:
- They are hungry for a forbidden food
- They can frenzy and lose all control if they don’t get it or if they’re they’re threatened
- They find it harder and harder to relate to humanity as they get older, sometimes becoming deranged
- They need to keep the Masquerade, or they get whacked by the mob a blood hunt called on them
- They’re immortal, but mortally afraid of the few things that can kill them
Vampire handles the Humanity vs Beast inner conflict this mechanically through Humanity, Willpower, and Virtues. You know the weird thing? When the power-creep set in and stats began being inflated above 5 dots, Virtues did not improve. Imagine your 19th level Fighter/Mage/Patissier never improving on his first-level saving throws. And they’re odd little stats anyway; they’re on a scale of 1-5 when everything else is on a scale of 1-10. They’re tucked away in the bottom-right of the character sheet like an obscure second cousin screwing up the seating plan at a wedding; no wonder all we ever did with them was make small-talk.
The problem with Humanity is not visibility, it’s gameplay effect. Certain dice pools are limited to the Humanity rating (1-10); these include Empathy rolls, Virtue rolls and all dice pools during daylight. That’s great! Except that it’s absolutely impossible to generate a PC with a Humanity score below 5 at character creation, and at the same time there aren’t too many dice pools above 5 that would be frequently affected. Vamps lose Humanity according to a “heirarchy of sins” which is not difficult to circumvent.
A player needs to do a perverse min-maxing exercise with Virtues and really behave badly to get their Humanity to drop below 5 and be threatened by any real penalty. If you’re playing that kind of sociopath, you probably want to be in a Sabbat game anyway.1
The other issue is hunger, which should be a prime motive for vamp behaviour. In VtM blood point consumption is fairly low for survival, but high for discipline use. So to avoid losing blood, don’t use disciplines that are powered by blood: no celerity, or blood buff, or healing. This means if parties practice an avoidance strategy the need not spend much blood at all; they can still use all of the other tasty mind-warping powers (plus Fortitude and Potence) for free. By avoiding combat they avoid hunger and avoid those annoying Humanity checks. Simples!
Build a Better Vamp
My ideal vampire system would
- Track how hungry the character is
- Have a mechanism to test for or resist frenzy
- Have a system for developing derangements
- Keep track of masquerade violations
- Not feel like StorytellerTM
There are commercial systems available that can achieve most of these aims with minimal tweaking. Here are some suggestions.
One: Don’t Bite The Neck
Don’t Rest Your Head is almost a drop-in for this kind of game, as long as you don’t expect the characters or campaign to last too long. Substitute Hunger for Exhaustion and you’re mostly there; now it’s hunger rather than tiredness that both gives the vampire its power and threatens destruction.
Madness becomes The Beast; by giving into the Beast the vamp can access their supernatural powers. But if the Beast dominates, they may Frenzy; a Frenzy is basically a fight-or-flight response.
Both use of The Beast‘s powers and overall Hunger can lead to bad consequences. In the “vanilla” DRYH, Madness leads to snapping and Exhaustion leads to crashing. In this case, substitute snapping for degeneration. When the vampire degenerates it gains a point of permanent Frenzy, which manefests as either a beast trait or a derangement, and roleplay appropriately. Either traits will severely limit social interaction. The GM may also spend a despair token to force the vampire’s derangement to surface.
For Hunger, once the number of Hunger dice exceeds six, the vampire comes under the GM’s control and will slake their thirst however they can. This will more than likely be a masquerade violation and could very well end the character. In regular DRYH it’s assumed that the mad city has caught up with the character, so in Vampire assume that the Camarilla intends to clean up. If you want to work in some politics you could implement a “three strikes” policy, maybe even get the PCs to work off a strike with political favours. But that’s outside the scope of the system, so I’ll leave it for further development.
Two: Vampires and other Childish Things
What does Monsters and Other Childish Things bring to Vampire?
The monsters in MAOCT are extradimensional terrors which have somehow emotionally bonded with children. The system makes heavy use of Relationships, noting that Monsters eat Relationships. That sounds like a vampire to me.
Using this game for Vampire requires some reinterpretation. The monsters in MAOCT are supposedly visible to the children, but not to adults or anyone else except for a few shadowy monster-hunting antagonists. However the effects of their mayhem–such as devouring the substitute teacher–are very real. There’s the obvious suggestion that the children are monsters and have made up their imaginary friends to account for something worse.
MAOCT probably doesn’t suit an “adult” Vampire game, but a high-school game for the Twiglet or Teen Wolf genre would work. Relationships are the key. Children can loan their relationships to their monsters, but if the monsters lose a fight while using them, those relationships get shocked. That’s a nice mechanic for illustrating the teen vamp giving into the Beast, and the damage it does to their family relationships.
Normally relationship dice are used to boost the pool in the right situation; but for a Vampire-style MAOCT game they may have a very specific function–to shield the character from the authorities. Take it for granted that the character’s vampirism will be noticed by the various MIBs, argents and other vamps; but while the PC is protected by a relationship (teacher, family or friend) the hunters can’t touch them. Relationships are a finite resource, however, and could even be attacked (there are rules for doing this in MAOCT’s relative Wild Talents).
Since MAOCT is usually played for laughs, it’s assumed that the monster will get the character into trouble, so players can expect not to be in complete control of their monster. And there’s the rub: the loss of control aspect of Vampire should be something that the players avoid at all costs, but in MAOCT it’s accepted, expected, even encouraged. That doesn’t make the game particularly horrific when they PCs can lose control by consent.
Still, this system could be used to run a teen vampire game effectively. All the comments about the helplessness of children with monsters apply equally to children with supernatural powers that aren’t under their control. The power levels of the monsters probably should be given a bit of attention. Candlewick Manor’s creepy skills could be a good starting point.
I picked one “traditional” option; this is mostly just a mechanical replacement for Storyteller based on my preference. I did consider VampORE, but that idea isn’t fully formed yet and in any case MAOCT does ORE simpler and better.
There are a lot of metaphysical power options to translate the magic and action mechanics from VtM to Unisystem, but you could do that with any game (although Enter the Zombie covers undead PCs and Witchcraft is arguably Eden’s version of the WoD, so it’s not a bad starting point). The question is how can Unisystem cope with the loss of control, the estrangement of friends and family, and the masquerade?
The Abomination Codex has useful rules on Taint, a kind of insanity trait. Unlike CoC’s implementation of Sanity where investigators lose points, Taint is gained; at certain thresholds (multiples of the Willpower trait) characters will gain mental problem disadvantages, and may also change physically. There are also Taint Powers, which include infecting other people with Taint. Taint is the antithesis of Essence (the creative metaphysical force in the Unisystem) and is used to power a twisted version of regular magic. It’s a nice expression for the vampiric blood curse–the players should be aware of the temptation to use their powers, the way their powers pervert their minds and bodies, and the fact that there is a benign, creative essence in the universe and they’re not part of it.
Taint is related to the Mad Gods in the vast Witchcraft metaplot. Witchcraft has its own brand of vampires (vampyres) as well as a lot of other secret society stuff; if you want to play all of that you’re probably better off playing Witchcraft straight as an alternative to VtM. I’d advocate lifting the Taint rules and inserting into a less conspiracy-charged system like AFMBE.
Like MAOCT, this approach probably suits a Vamps vs Hunters type of game; in this case the Hunters are Essence imbued and can “smell” Taint if it’s used. Taint therefore does two duties; a mark of the “curse” that could lead to loss of player control, and a masquerade breaker. Swap the word Taint for Wyrm and it drops into the Werewolf mythos nicely, too.
p>Project Nemesis is a free supernatural conspiracy game published by Arc Dream and also using the one-roll engine. Although it’s based on mortals, its four-axis approach to insanity (lifted from Unknown Armies) is interesting and is very comprehensive in detailing response to different kinds of mental trauma, even if it doesn’t actually take control away from players the way a vampire’s Frenzy should. Worth a download.
- The Sabbat‘s use of Paths turns this mechanic on its head, almost to the point of religious dogma. Instead of Humanity proscribing what the vamp shouldn’t do (making loss fairly easy to avoid), the Paths tell the character what the vamp must do to preserve their Path rating. This is either a very interesting way to enforce behaviour on your character, or an excuse to behave badly. I don’t own Vampire: Dark Ages but I’m aware of its use of Roads.