This issue I will mostly be continuing to talk about the Vampire: Dark Ages campaign series Transylvanian Chronicles. I am nearly getting to end of my first phase of writing about this topic so until then please consider me a stuck record… a stuck record… a stuck record…
But before that I must say that I was much amused to see the announcement of Robin Laws' of Gamemastering a new title published by Steve Jackson Games. Rarely can any writer have tempted nemesis as surely as this act of hubris.
Attaching your name to any product is usually a risky venture. To do so and in the same breath link it to an effort to define the One True Way is truly admirable. Or insane… Of course we all know that Mr. Laws is a good postmodernist who is just punning around and certainly not attempting to push his peculiarly blinkered vision of RPG as cheap television yet again. Or is he? Cue the Twilight Zone theme.
What seems curious about this incident is whether Laws genuinely thinks he is that interesting a designer and human being that he can sell a book with his name alone.
Certainly there seems plenty of unhealthy hero worship available from RPG fans. There are also too many RPG designers who act as if they were bona fide microcelebrities. Too often this relationship seems to bloom out of the claustrophobic hothouse atmosphere of a tiny subculture rather than because of the talent and abilities of those involved.
Has Laws really contributed such a great deal to roleplaying design that he is of interest outside his work?
The nice thing about tempting the Fates is that the issue rarely remains hypothetical for long.
In the last issue I presented the campaign as a series of annoying incidents of railroading and sideshow participation. Were the first two books really so bad though? Was the only thing that kept us going through this monstrosity of a commercial campaign our firm ironic promise. Even though we were students and therefore replete with ample spare time and little cash to occupy it I don't think we could have stuck to it if there were truly no highlights.
Yes I do, or rather Cicero, my Transylvanian Elder character, does. Or did… or whatever. At some point in the campaign the characters get catapulted to the high position of being Prince of one of Transylvanian Seven Cities. Sensibly the book seems to try and make all the PCs rulers, each one governing a different city. For the outdoorsy Gangrel types wilderness domains are also possible.
The switch from the pointless MacGuffin hunts to the city governing was extremely welcome. Vampire: The Dark Ages is really a game confined to urban areas if it is to be any fun. Since the characters need to regularly drink blood and can only travel at night the idea of a wilderness trek is ludicrous. Of course the campaign up until this point included two and they seem to be a recurring motif in the series.
With the characters safely installed as the rulers of their cities the game started to take off. The focus shifted to the politics and influence games that are meant to engage the vampires of milieu. As group we had already conceived a great hatred for an NPC called Count Radu (a name unfortunately more often associated with a commercial pasta sauce in the UK), who is meant to be the PCs ally in Transylvania. If this is the case then the writers should have gone to more effort to make the NPC a little more likeable. For all their flaws few of the PCs were likely to warm to someone who keeps living human tapestries.
Anyway the PCs finally exorcised that ghost by deposing Radu and driving him out of Transylvania for a century or two.
In addition to removing the terrible tedium of pig hunting from the game the move to the city environment allowed a lot more character development. Now the characters were no longer living in the same wagon day in, day out there was a chance to express their individual viewpoints. Previously there had been a tendency to ignore the differences of opinion in favour of banging our heads against the ridiculous problem du jour.
Now with time and space available a lot of things began to change. One of the clearest things was that each ruler impressed their own personality deeply onto the city they ruled. Cicero was a background figure, manipulating from the shadows. His city was tolerant but had distinct rules that were not broken lightly. Konrad, a Brujah, on the other hand, operated a despotic state with informers, secret police men and torture for dissidents. Imre, a Gangrel, combined a spy network, a laissez faire approach and numerous Childer to distinctive if unclear purpose. Even now I don't know quite what the hell Imre's city was about.
This had the welcome effect of differentiating the cities that had previously had pretty much the same depth as one of Hollywood's plywood sets. The players contributed details of their lairs, reception halls and even small shops and inns that they used. Each city began to take on its own character, Konrad's was dark and mysterious, Cicero's seemed gloomy and decaying. You could practically tell where you were just by looking at the passers by.
A point that neatly brings me to the Theme for this issue of Saint Sebastian, namely, PC Bases.
There are only two key qualities for a PC Base whether it be an inn, a keep, a starbase or entire dimension. Firstly the base must reflect the character's personality and beliefs. Alternatively the PC must hold a great affinity with the place.
Secondly a base must always seem safe or have the aura of sanctuary. It may seem safe because it is secret, or well guarded or defended by hideous traps. The reason does not greatly matter.
Bases often have many secondary characteristics such as allowing a character to rest, recuperate and resupply.
However like Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind a true base is the place where the PC returns at their lowest and leaves at their highest.
Despite abdicating under bitter circumstances Cicero returned to the city he had once ruled on several occasions. Before he left he had collapsed several of the secret passageways that led to his lair leaving a few that could be accessed from outside the city walls.
The lair was mostly a relic; it did not have servants, guards or even a crime lab. It did have the remnants of Cicero's library and an observatory that now looked onto the foundations of the buildings above but that was about it.
It was not your traditional AD&D keep on the border but it was a fundamental spring of wellbeing for the character. A base is both a home and a starting point.
The Transylvania game was interesting in a comparison to real life social dynamics. Like a lot of dictatorial campaigns the PCs were thrown together rather than coming together naturally. The characters' natural conflicts were initially suppressed by the fear of failure and mutual loathing for the violent and idiotic elders who sent on these stupid quests.
Later on acute differences did arrive and the characters did divide into factions. However the collective difficulties endured during the "early years" really did have a bonding effect with small slights being overlooked and petty infractions of turf and politics being set aside. Things that have caused wars in other Elder games I have seen played were dismissed as "just Konrad being Konrad" or "silly games".
I think there is an important lesson there for those who like to play games that have centuries of "background time" but whose games seem to end in a bloody denouement in one year of "game time".