This first playtest for the rough first draft of the vampire game was indeed played at Gen Con 2010. Let just state it up front, in case you want to move on to other things: it was a disaster; the kind of good disaster you want a playtest to be, but a disaster nonetheless. If that’s all you wanted to know, then you’re free to go do groceries or whatever else you had planned; if you want to read more, you are a masochist, but in that case, just go on.
As I prepare to leave for Gen Con, I whipped up a simple character sheet to use for the playtest of When The Fall…
[RAW]When the Fall… – Gen Con Playtest Sheet [/RAW]
It’s incredibly bare bones right now, containing only the stats I have outlined here in previous posts. The main statistic is the Humanity/Beast scale, front and center. To the left are the Blessings of Humanity, where a player writes his Joys and Sorrows; to the right are the Curses of the Beast, where the vampiric powers are recorded. At the bottom is Willpower, grounding everything in reality.
The spaces at the bottom are for recording Consequences taken during conflicts, and I may have other uses for them if I can organize my thoughts in time before the game (guess what I’ll be doing during my flight to Indianapolis).
I’m going with a dice mechanic of a total dice pool of 10, with players choosing how many dice they commit to any action up to that number, with minimum Humanity/Beast dice based on the trait they are using, whether a Joy/Sorrow or a Vampiric Power. Target number will start at 7 and be adjusted during gameplay as needed, with 2 successes needed for any Easy task.
I haven’t written yet about Feeding, but very quickly, I’ll be using that as a scene option that a player can call for. After framing the scene and roleplaying the action, dice are rolled: if successful, Willpower is entirely refreshed if the vampire kills the victim (which triggers a Humanity check), 2 points are refreshed if the victim is left alive (which triggers a Frenzy check as the Beast does not like to be denied). These checks are rolled with the character’s Humanity or Beast dice respectively, and they need to score more successes than they have current Willpower points to not succumb to the Beast.
I’m both excited and nervous to run this game on Saturday night. I’ll be sure to write about the experience after I return from the convention.
Because I’ve been writing about this game as I go along in a very piecemeal process, a lot of the systems have evolved as I set them down to “paper” from whatever I’ve been brainstorming in my head. The good thing about this approach is that it has let me focus on the different aspects of the game, making the process less daunting; the drawback is that there is a certain disconnect between the parts, and especially between things that are still in my head but not written down yet. Dice mechanics is the biggest item falling into that category at the moment; without knowing how the dice move during the game, a lot of the things I have already described just float in mid-air above the game. It’s time to bring them down to earth and tie them together. Let’s talk dice.
At the risk of this sounding like a preemptive apology, the dice mechanics is the one area where I am very unsure of how efficient the system is. Visualizing the complex interactions of dice probabilities is not something that my mind can do without considerable effort (I’m just right-brained, what can I say). The dice mechanics I settled on for this game are a mishmash of a couple of games whose dice mechanics I like and admire. Enough game designer angst, let’s go.
Auspex, Celerity, Obfuscate, Animalism, Obteneration, Melpomine, Chimerstry, Protean, Dominate, Cachexy. Those are just 10 vampiric powers (Disciplines) from VtM/VtR that came immediately to mind, without pulling out either book, out of what must be a couple dozen total, spread over the entire oeuvre of these two games. The point is simple: vampires have awesome powers, and White Wolf has made a huge point of statting up the classical ones from lore as well as creating a host of new supernatural abilities for the blood drinkers. People like the powers of a vampire; besides immortality (and really, that’s just power #1), it is all these nifty tricks that folks attracted to roleplaying creatures of the night find appealing. It’s what makes the trade-off of subsisting on blood acceptable: you gain in return a number of powers that truly set you above the mundane humans!
I won’t deny it, when I played Vampire, it was the powers that I found most appealing. I played a Ravnos vampire just because their Discipline of Chimerstry, the ability to create illusions. My players spent about 90% of their Experience Points on improving Disciplines, on becoming stronger, more powerful, in those dark gifts bestowed them by the Beast. Vampiric powers are an essential part of the vampire myth, and as such, something I need to include in my rebuild of the game.
If (as always, in my experience) Vampire had another underutilized game mechanic in addition to Humanity, this was Willpower. Yes, we used it to boost up rolls and such, but it just never had the oomph that it seems that it should have. I take some of that responsibility myself as the Storyteller; I rarely, if ever, pushed my characters to the brink of having to use their Willpower, nor did I force the scenes that I should have in order for them to recover spent points. It just sort of existed there.
In rereading the section on Willpower in VtM, I realize that it was mostly me; the advice is there on how to use it, I just didn’t quite heed it. Willpower is even better explained in VtR, I have to say, though I still feels like it doesn’t delve deep enough into what Willpower can truly mean for a vampire story (this, when it comes to VtR, seems to be a side-effect of the main book + monster setting book approach; the former has to keep it fairly generic, the latter can’t change it so much as to invalidate the core book).
Willpower, to me, is a driving force, and a very limited force at that. It’s what gives you the inner gumption to push back the darkness, but there’s only so much of it to go around, so much you can take before that reserve is depleted. That’s what the beast wants. That’s what I, as game designer, want as well.
Though I’ve been silent for some time now because of classes and then finals, I’ve kept the Vampire project (it remains untitled and I really need to find a way to refer to it) alive in my head all this time. Maybe not front burner, but certainly slow cooker-simmering to the side. I can’t help it, really, not even with the other stuff I have going, like Ierne: Celtic FATE or my new obsession with the Colonial Gothic RPG and American Colonial/Revolutionary history.
One of the things that I’ve most been giving though to in between study sessions of human physiology (or perhaps because of it?) is the concept of damage as it relates to a vampire character. Both Vampire games go for the very traditional “hit point” approach: a vampiric character, much like every other character in the World of Darkness, has health boxes to track damage received. As they get checked off, health decreases until it either sends the vampire into torpor or, if it’s aggravated damage, it kills the character. In the WoD, because of the mechanical distinction made between normal and aggravated damage, this work ok; vampires can shake off fairly easily most damage, as it is mundane in origin and no match for their healing abilities, but aggravated damage really puts the squeeze on them, making them face mortality a second time. Yeah, it works for Vampire, but the more I think about it, the more I know that this isn’t what I want for my game. Or rather, I should perhaps say, this isn’t what I want for my game entirely.
I do want a way to track damage received by the character, but I’m far less interested in knowing how many more hits can the character take than what effect the hits already taken have had. I want to know how the damage the character has taken is affecting her and her circumstance, if that explosion at the night club she just escaped from did more than just singe her skin: did it destroy her reputation with the Blood Conclave, or cost her best (mortal) friend’s life, or both? I want damage to be a catalyst for enhanced drama. I don’t want a record of wounds, I want a record of consequences.
Heading back to Ierne for another glimpse.
It was a terrible sight to behold, and I could not turn away. Fomorian heads and limbs flew in every direction, making me doubt those creatures had the same number of extremities as I did. Blood pooled at the feet of the giant a few feet away from me; hacked carcasses littered the field around us as far as I could throw a stone, yet the Fomorians did not relent. In groups of twos and threes they approached, frothing mad, evil incarnate, wicked blades flashing – only to be annihilated by the thing that only I knew to be my foster brother Bran.
I knew the stories of Cúchulainn, I knew about the ríastradh—the warp spasm—but I had never witnessed it myself. When, after fending the devils off for an hour, a Fomorian spear pierced my leg, Bran’s rage surged unchecked. His mouth foamed as he tore the shirt from his back, and as he rushed forward to meet the mass of Sea Devils attacking us, he started to grow, taller than a house, wider than three bulls. His skin bubbled from within like tar bursting from the earth, and his muscles stretched into shapes unnatural to humans. His right arm grew to the size of a thick oak tree trunk, and with every swing of the sword which now seemed like a toy in his mutated hand he slashed three Fomori in half. His hair stood on end like a halo of spikes, and from each tip burst a mist of blood and pure rage that choked any who came too close to him. His legs twisted around in their sockets, his knees now at the back, and he was able to leap high into the air and rain death as he came down. And just like the hero Cúchulainn, one eye sunk deep into his head, while the other almost popped out of its socket, and it was the last thing a Fomorian saw before being shred to pieces.
One hundred Fomorian died that afternoon at the hands of Bran, the warped one, hero of An Daingean, and I was never able to look at my foster brother the same way again.
—From the journal of Amergin Ó Míl
Ok, so I cheated a little here. This was originally published back in 2006 as the introduction to Bardic Lore: Ristradh, my D&D 3.5-compatible product introducing the warp spasms of Celtic myth. I did revise the above version, cleaned it up a bit, but it is essentially the same scene. The reason I brought it into the present, and into this Ierne series of vignettes, is that I need the warp spasm to be present in what I’m planning to do with Ierne in its early stages, and I saw no reason to write another scene when that one was very much to my liking.
To address something that came up in the comments to Ierne: The Gate, these little vignettes are not really meant to be interconnected. Imagine you’re flying over Ierne and every so often you zoom down to ground level and get a small glimpse of what’s going on with a few people, then you fly back up and go somewhere else on the island. I’m not saying they couldn’t be interconnected–some have already suggested ways in which they are–but I’m leaving that to you.
By the way, I promise I won’t tease forever on what Ierne is to be. Astute readers will have picked up the few clues I’ve left in previous posts or seen the one outright mention of it I made earlier in January. So I’ll come clean, but not just yet.
As I have already mentioned, at the crux of the tragic story of the vampire is the fact that they are on a downward spiral towards damnation, destined to destroy all that they held dear. If you read through the comments on the previous two posts in this series you will find that over and over we keep going back to the simple, and very important, idea of why should one care about the vampire’s journey on the road of dwindling Humanity. Or put another way, why should I (the player of the vampire character) care about the loss of Humanity? Why stall it? Why not give in to the beast?
There are traits in the two Vampire games that sort of deal with this. In VtM we have the traits of Nature and Demeanor, which basically sum up what your behavioral essence is on the inside and how you project yourself to the world. These are good to help shape how you want to play your character, but they really don’t say much about who your character is, which ultimately is what we’re driving at when looking for the reasons to cling to Humanity. VtR uses Virtue and Vice to replace Nature/Demeanor. I like the contrast of these two traits because, while they can help you shape how you play the character, they now say something about who this character is, if maybe a bit indirectly. The Virtue/Vice split also hearkens back to classical philosophical thought, something I can totally dig. Both of these sets of traits, however, have the same drawback for me: they are too vague. This is great for the games in which they are used, as a limited number of combinations can be used to represent virtually endless characterizations across a number of games sharing the same basic system, but for what I’m seeking to do, I want something that’s a hell of a lot more focused.
In thinking of what would I do to re-arrange Vampire’s mechanics to reflect the type of game I believe is intended (as opposed to presented), it always has been obvious that Humanity is the one central stat around which everything else must orbit. After all, the game is about the loss of this essential trait and the descent into the unbridled bestiality of the vampire (which, of course, presupposes that you want to stave this loss off as much as possible; otherwise you’d be an NPC).
So we have our main trait, Humanity. I’ll keep this on a 1-10 scale because it provides for a good amount of gradation in the middle, with 10 being fully Human, and 1 being inhuman (inhumane?). This stat determines how Human you are, serves as the fuel for your vampire powers, and determines how many dice you roll to avoid losing/regaining Humanity. When Humanity reaches 1, you have lost all connection to what it means to be a human, and your character is removed from the game.
Another tale of Ierne:
He held her arm as she took her first step up the hill towards the gate. “You can’t go there,” he whispered.
She looked at him with a curious look. “Why’r ye whisperin? And why I cannae go? Tis jus’ a ruin, tha’s all.”
She was beautiful, he found himself thinking. Her auburn hair spilled like an unruly cascade down her back and framed her plump face as she turned to look at him in a way that just made his heart ache. She was so beautiful. And she knew it. Used it to get her way many times. Used to make him do things he did not want to, used to do things he wanted to but felt too shy to do, used let her do things that she shouldn’t, things like going up the hill to the ruined gate. But she couldn’t. “I whisper because we are not alone in these woods. And you simply cannot go up the hill. And no, it is more than just a ruin.”
She gave him that practiced look of hers: full smile revealing only a sliver of her teeth, rosy cheeks pushed up making her eyes small and sparkly. Like every other time he melted inside. She was so beautiful. But he must stand firm.
“That there is a gate from another time, brought here by the Otherworld. The fili says the Tuatha travel through all places and times of Ierne, and sometimes things get dragged behind them. Like this gate. My grandfather’s grandfather saw it appear one day when in the woods training, I’m told. The fili also says we should not go up to it, lest we be pulled into the Otherworld. So no, you cannot go up.”
“Ye don’ wan’ me going to the Otherworld?” she teased.
“No,” he said smiling, blushing. “I want you here, with me.”
She looked at the ruined gate, its dark stones in stark contrast with the snow all around them. She looked at her young warrior-in-training, his strong hand still holding her arm. Gate. Him. Gate. “Let’s go back,” she said as she slid moved his hand from her forearm to her own hand.
They walked through the snowy forest, the cool air stilling everything around them except the sound of their feet on the dry ground. He put his arm around her shoulder, holding her to him, feeling her warmth, basking in the scent of her hair. She was a handful, but she was so beautiful. And maybe one day. One day…
She tripped him.
It was a simple movement of her foot, something he should have been able to recover from and turn into an offense, something his trainer would be ashamed to see him fall prey to. And fall he did, on his face. He managed to get up fairly quickly, but by then she was gone. He could hear her giggling ahead, running through the crackling underbrush, heading towards the gate. He called to her, asked her to stop, pleaded. She kept running, laughing. It was a game to her. It was horror to him.
He reached the foot of the small hill panting, but could not hear anything anymore. No laughing, no giggling, no sound of a young woman running, walking. Nothing. He looked down and saw her tracks headed up the hill, to the gate. Taking a deep breath, filling his lungs with cold courage, he ascended the hill as well. One step at a time. Matching her tracks. Left. Right. Almost there. Left. Right. Now at the gate. Left.
He stood with his right foot in the air, looking around for the next track. Nothing. The next one would be inside the threshold of the gate. He thought about it. He made a most minuscule move, almost a step. Almost.
He stepped back. All the way down the hill. She was gone. Into the Otherworld. Where he could not go. She’d be fine there, he thought, fighting back tears. She was so beautiful.
I found this photo linked from a post at the Irish Fireside Blog & Podcast about the recent freeze in Ireland. It caught my attention immediately, and I wanted to know what its story was. I guess now I know.
I also know what Ierne will be. But I’ll leave that for a post all its own.
Photo by Yvonne McNamara. Used with permission.