Saint-Sebastian #7

Transylvania Chronicles

The Transylvanian Chronicles are a series of "adventure/sourcebooks" for the Vampire RPG that are meant to provide the bones of a campaign that stretches from the Middle Ages to the Modern Day. The campaign therefore spans both the Vampire games: The Dark Ages and The Masquerade, with the one constant being the mystical crossroads of Transylvania.

We started playing years ago as White Wolf had promised that when a group completed the series they could write up their version of it and submit it in a competition. The winning entry would then be incorporated into the "canon" of the game. Since we had just finished a series of games that we felt would make highly subversive entries to such a competition we felt that we had to tackle this series (which promised to be every bit as abysmally bad as most WW adventures). Due to an unanticipated change of home city I have recently handed in my notice on the effort. I was the last original player, so I think this monstrous creation has most definitely taken us in and broken us all. Since there is no real hope of bringing the series to an end with the characters that embarked on it there is little chance of submitting our version of events for "canonisation". Instead I have decided to write about the experience here - drawing a few sketches of the characters and the game incidents as well as trying to review the much maligned series "from the inside".

Opinions in the general

The series is very bad, it has all the classic WW hallmarks of rail-roading and watching the immensely powerful NPC erect THE PLOT around you. It also has the correct epic feel of a secret history unfolding that equally characterises a lot of the WW books. TC eventually proved too mind numbing to play straight and the GM (who was not me for once) started adding in his own material and improvising over the main story. Which is what might be expected but is explicitly not the goal of something that is going to be fed back into the game background. If you are not a big Wolfie fan I would probably suggest that a kick in the teeth is both shorter and cheaper than these books.

The Continuity

The books cover a period from the Middle Ages to the Modern Day. In terms of the game mythology we have so far met Goratrix, Tremere, Dracula, Sasha Vikos and been present at the diabelrie of Tzimesce. Like I said in terms of the vigorous broad strokes required to create a feeling of sweeping epic history the series has it right. There are plenty of "big moments". Most of which though you are only allowed to sadly watch through the plate glass of the plot line. In this respect the books hideously misfire. What is the point of visiting the great moments of your setting's history if you are condemned to do so as Spearman #7? The White Wolf world is not even particularly that important or unique.

The attitude of the author being king and the clear importance of preventing the players from changing the history of the game world is stupid and short-sighted. I would not object if the authors only insisted on keeping the broad outline of the history consistent. That approach makes sense to me so as to ensure that players can easily move from group to group without having to learn too many campaign-specific details.

This is not the case though with increasingly ludicrous devices being used to keep the player in their place. Initially it was the usual suspects of bandit ambushes, peasant revolts, hidden traitors and so on. During the Fall of Tzimesce however the NPCs used mind control, mind reading, telepathy and "NPC-only" statistic ranks to ensure that the whole affair went off as stated in the book. I almost threw my toys out of the cot that time. It was fun to "see" the event for yourself but if we were simply thwarted every time we wanted to do anything outside the book why didn't the GM just read the book at us down the pub or something. Of course it wasn't his fault and even he found the experience less than satisfying.

As a result I need to mention...

The Transylvanian Chronicles Take Two: Send on the Anarchs!

The Anarch campaign was started after the loss of most of the characters from the straight attempt to play the series. The game was planned as a "Reflection" campaign of the original game. This in fact made it a lot easier, since we knew that the events of the first campaign were fixed there was not the same frustrating feeling of being undermined by the plot constantly.

This may seem oxymoronic initially but the difference is that we had played the original game and we were therefore specifying our own limits. Essentially we were all agreeing not to violate the events of the previous game. Self-imposed limitation is far better than an authoritarian directive from some jumped up freelance hack. Secondly as the "must happen" events in the books were now all out of the way we were free to pretty much pursue our own goals and in short experience a lot more character freedom.

Playing in the earlier game I knew that several times our characters had been foiled by Anarch activity. However this always seemed to be one of the "player blocking" tactics as whenever the characters agreed to take collective action against Anarchs it was usually pretty effective The Anarchs would always come across as disorganised rabbles whose one talent was "going one further" than their opponents.

Therefore I was interested to discover which view of the Anarchs was correct. Had the earlier characters totally misjudged the Anarchs or were they truly a rabble capable of devastatingly efficient action only when needed to block the players?

Next Time

As there were two campaigns I will deal first with the straight or "Elder" campaign and then comment on the Anarch campaign afterwards. The latter will mostly be as a way of pointing out the flaws in the plotting of the books and examining their potential for expansion into a wider or more general campaign.

Remarks

I have chosen a few comments and points to make. For the most part these comments are simply "closers", thank you to everyone who commented.

Paul Mason, Fluxus

Surely you are engaged in a version of the Jerry Cornelius game right now? I tried the style you put forward, the problem I encountered was that players seemed to have really limited imaginations. They simply didn't generate enough material for a whole session and my own stuff dominated. Perhaps the sudden transfer of creative power took them by surprise.

The session I used it for was an extended drug trip or spiritual quest (the idea being that the true nature of the event could only be decided by the PCs) where one player was their regular PC and the others were all aspects of this strange world. All the aspects wrote down what they thought was going happen and then played as normal NPCs. This should have meant that the NPCs would have seemed strangely prescient and contradictory at the same time. It had a good atmosphere but not as strange as hoped.

Onions must be different round your way: in these parts when you remove all the layers, you're basically left with... nothing.

Or perhaps everything?

It's certainly true that it can be tough to remember details of religion ... but I don't think it's necessary to go into excessive detail for it to feel right.

This is an important point, you can be a Catholic without knowing the name of every saint or which saint is associated with which day in the calendar. I feel that a character should explore an in-game religion from the point of view of someone who is only moderately devout first, someone who "knows" the principles of the religion rather than the dogma. Once the basic ideas of the faith are established then I think they sink into the background in the way that you mentioned elsewhere in your comments.

Dave Castle, Ship of Fools #2

I sincerely think (or perhaps I hope) you are wrong in trying to equate Disneyland with roleplaying. If such a comparison could be made it would be a terrible thing.

The main reason I think you are wrong is that Disneyland tries to take control of your imagination by assaulting all your senses with an idea in totality. Roleplaying requires an idea to be assimilated from one imagination to another (or others). For me it is the difference between trying to explain to someone about Mickey Mouse and seeing a minimum wage slave prancing around a plastic castle. The latter is diminished by its attempt to be "real". The former is more vibrant (and in some models more real) but at a cost of being fragmented into different "visions" of Mickey Mouse. Every imagination has constituted a different Mickey Mouse by taking the elements understood from the description and gluing these together with internal imaginative elements culled from within the individual. For me this is the power of roleplaying.

Lisa Padol, This Isn't The Zine You're Looking For #122

There may well be human constants, but why do you, as a particular human, employ these particular themes? If you say it's a human thing, you imply that all human GMs use those themes, which I don't think is so.

The piece tried to explain why these elements are constants regardless of whether the characters are ducks, greys or knights of the realm. I feel it could become too introspective and narcissistic to dwell on why I personally use them or at least I cannot think of anything either daring or informative to write on why I use them.

What if science is the principle of the world, but the GM doesn't want PCs discovering gunpowder et alia?

Then science is not the principle of the world. The GM has become a god-like creature interfering with the natural rules of the world.

The other point I can make is that the gunpowder equation usually relies on player rather than character knowledge - which is an abuse of most roleplaying systems. In fact few roleplayers seem to truly know how to make gunpowder or guns, they know the components but have no idea how to put it all together without killing themselves.

What, in your opinion, is "the idea" of Post Modernism?

I'm not sure which section this is related to but I'll take a stab. In the context I'm thinking of the idea of Post Modernism is simply that of a mirroring philosophy that offers a critique of Modernism.

Brian Rodgers, Subplot Kudzu #8

Something you seem to be missing on the CCG front: some people just enjoy building decks.

And some people enjoy sorting their CDs alphabetically by genre. I feel that games should be played and by talking about making the games non-collectible I was trying to attack the idea of deck building which I regard as a form of intellectual masturbation. The series is meant to attack the very idea of deck building. Deck building takes a very different set of gaming skills to actually playing the games themselves. I would like to emphasis the latter to the deliberate detriment of the former.

Don't suck me into your world

I recently had an enquiry about placing advertising in my "regular" zine carnel. Sorry if this piece is introverted but everything is grist to my mill. The request came through on the wrong e-mail address so I knew instantly that this wasn't an enthusiastic reader eager to bring their largesse to me. The mail had a request for more information - which in my past experience means sending a free copy off (of a zine that is free except for an SSAE) and then hearing nothing more.

I quickly brushed the request off onto other publications that are more "prozine" than I am. The marketing minion seemed disappointed by the brush-off, which just confirmed that she had probably never seen the zine. I am superstitious on the subject of advertising. Every magazine or prozine I know that went under had at the root of its financial problems unpaid advertising.

My zine is an extremely low-overhead venture and consequently very low profile. You sadly won't find it in UK game shops, it is not glossy and it doesn't arrive on any kind of schedule (punctual or otherwise). This makes it financially very viable but realistically a terrible prospect for advertisers. I could take money from someone and not have published their advert a year later. Not only that but the low readership means that the advert would not be exactly punching into an advertiser's key markets.

Prozines that have high production values, that are stocked widely in game stores and do have large readerships are inherently more financially unstable. If even a single advertiser drags their feet on payment it can put a major spanner in the works and force some very hard sums. This means the editorial team of the prozine have to spend as much time watching the numbers as creating content and that seems to me to be wrong. Unless of course they enjoy acting as part-time accountants rather than fanzine editors, in which case I think they enjoy the wrong aspect of the job.

Production values and circulation can only be obtained by substantial investment yet very few fanzines can get away with charging the true price for such a production. In fact it seems that anything more than 5 is unlikely to prosper unless the zine is aimed at a game or game system that already has a substantial hardcore market already established.

Advertising can of course subsidise that cost and encourage impulse purchase but without strict rules about payment before publication and an understanding on the behalf of the advertiser that there are few guarantees in the amateur world the whole process seems unnecessarily dangerous.

The dilemma created by the conflict of ambition, service and financial reality seems impossible to resolve without a change in attitudes either by the general readers of fanzines or those of the advertisers.

Give a man a family

Everyone has a family, known or unknown, except quite often RPG player characters. A disproportionate number of whom were abandoned at birth, had their immediate family slaughtered in tragic accidents or are the only member of their family to leave Darkest Peru.

It seems a shame that so many forego a situation that is both familiar and yet filled with roleplaying possibilities. The truth is that players sometimes feel that families are sticks with which the GM beat their characters. It must also be said that sometimes GMs are guilty of using families as those self-same sticks.

Families and lovers are devastatingly effective tools for a GM trying to convey a point to a player.

The New York Vampires

The first campaign where I really learnt this lesson was in a Vampire campaign I ran during my second year at university. I had been playing in another campaign run by a very good GM and I had been noting what I enjoyed about the game. When I started my game I wanted to focus on those fun elements and include some of my own preoccupations. This opportunity to learn and assess the mysterious quantities of a good game is one reason I think all GMs should play from time to time. Even if they have to endure the teeth-grinding experience of wanting to jump in because the GM is making sure a terrible hash of the whole thing.

One thing I had enjoyed was my character's complex love-life, he had a knack for getting hung up on the wrong women. Therefore in my game I wanted to show the changes in the character's behaviour through the reactions of their nearest and dearest.

The result was a fantastic success (in my own mind). Some of the NPC relations were horrified, some were curious, others refused to accept or believe what had happened to their relatives.

Vampire is often described as a game of "personal horror" in that part of the game's subject is the self-loathing aspect of turning from a person with normal human concerns into a ruthless monster that is compelled to kill to live. This aspect completely fails though if the player is not really associating with their character or is treating the character as a vehicle for power or revenge fantasies.

One player in particular behaved as the archetypal powergamer, unfazed by his transformation he immediately started scheming for the favour of the vampiric "master" and set about acquiring an armoury for himself. The latter aspect was disturbing, at one point the character ambushed and brutally killed a policeman just to steal his gun. As the other players tried to point out as an undead killing machine blessed with supernatural abilities the importance of possessing a .38 pistol is rather minimal.

The player eventually came to a halt when the character met his girlfriend who was furious and deeply upset about his three-week absence. The player seemed as shocked as the character and immediately set about discovering who had been. He still liked a good fight but he was no longer psychopathic in his actions. I think the problem had been that as a person he could not relate to being a vampire, he disconnected from the character and was almost taking the piss as he made his character perform ever more extreme acts. He could however relate to a twenty-something Manhattenite who had disappeared one night leaving his family and friends behind. It was an important lesson for me as a GM.

Convenient Amnesia

With the New York Vampire game I ruled that all the PCs were amnesiacs. There were a few reasons for that. In-game the vampire that had created them had wanted obedient servants and a past-life would simply have been an inconvenience. In the "meta-game", so to speak, I wanted to make sure that the player and character reactions would coincide. By not letting them generate backgrounds for their characters I (rightly) assumed they would be forced to react as both a player and character to the revelation of their backgrounds.

I generated the "back story" for each character after character design and then tweaked it after the first few sessions play. In the example of the problem player above I decided to revise my first background completely and instead make him a financial high-flyer on the basis of the character's ambition and ruthlessness. Another player saw his character as a comic book artist with artistic integrity. I had a slightly different take on it and it became an interesting aspect of the game. The character's friends were all slightly seedy and it was clear that in the past the character had noble intentions that were often compromised by the realities of his situation.

Although I "fixed" the character's background against the desires of the player I actually didn't take away that player's freedom. The result was more interesting than if the player alone had created the background, in my perception of the game it was as if the character was "fresh of the bus" again. His integrity was restored when the memories of his compromises were suppressed.

Again the use of friends of the character was vital for presenting the situation in an in-game way. Their confusion and frustration with the character was met in equal measure by the character's anger that he had allowed these people to become his friends.

Reasonable Amnesia

Of course it is not convenient to have every PC start of an amnesiac. Normally I rule that the player may define any part of the PCs background (as long as it is in keeping with the setting). If however they do not detail a particular element of the PCs back story that becomes relevant to the game then the GM can step in and define it for them. This is partly to stop the flow of the game getting interrupted by some minor point (was would my brother do for a living?) but also allows a great deal of freedom in a narrative campaign to develop new plot lines and threads. If a player has never defined where the character's family home is then perhaps it is the province where the group are about to conduct a civil war. Such an additional detail may change the whole game.

Of course allowing the GM to define the characters' background wholesale would ruin the game experience for the players. It is a question of both restraint and consistency on the part of the GM and trust on the part of the players. Anything that a player thinks is integral to the character should be noted down as soon as possible. That way the player does not feel like their character is being ruined by GM meddling and the GM can start constructing character-driven stories around the information the player has supplied.