That’s right. We’re going full-on pen and paper nerd this time.
For the past several weeks, some friends and I have been playing Vampire in a Play-By-Post (PBP) game on a forum we all use together. We’re using the Revised edition books, because NWoD is trash and Revised hits a nice sweet spot where most of the tone-deaf racist shit present in the early editions has been stripped out (well, except for the Ravnos), and the rules are in a nice solid place without going off the deep end. Today I wanna talk about what I enjoy about this particular game and setting, my style of Storytelling, why I love PBP gaming, all that good stuff. This really isn’t a review of the game itself so much as it’s like a livejournal type thing. If you’re not into that, come back later.
First, lemme tell you briefly about my history with pen and paper RP. I grew up in the mid-to-late 80s and early 90s, during the heyday of “Satanic panic”, in a Christian household. That is to say, one where Dungeons & Dragons was explicitly named as being the work of the Devil, where pen and paper RP was the root of all evil and would make you into a heathen degenerate worshiping the dark lord for XP, et cetera. So of course, as soon as I hit junior high and made some actual friends, we all started playing it together in secret. Forbidden fruit tastes sweetest, after all.
D&D is okay. I’ve had a lot of fun with that system over the years, but these days I’m pretty much sick of elves and sorcery and forests and all that. Even back in the day, as a budding little goth chick into JTHM, my favorite settings were always Ravenloft and sometimes Dark Sun. I cut my teeth on AD&D, and spent most of my time playing under those rules. Gotta love detailed encumbrance!
As I got older, two things happened: first, I moved on from D&D. Other, more exciting games were coming out, stuff like Shadowrun and the White Wolf games, games with modern gothic and cyberpunk themes. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was on TV, and we all wanted to smooch Angel, so this urban punky stuff appealed to me a lot more than the stuffy distant castles and stuff in Ravenloft. We didn’t want to kill the vampires, we wanted to be them. If only our parents knew. Their heads would have probably exploded.
The second thing that happened was this: I was a late bloomer, but eventually I grew big honkin boobs. As a result, ridiculously, I became increasingly alienated from my nerd guy friends. As I became more visibly feminine, I lost access to those spaces. Their behavior became too toxic, and eventually it was just too weird for me to keep participating. I’m under no obligation to subject myself to boys ogling me constantly, conversations stopping when I walk in the room, and having my nerd cred repeatedly called into question all the time by little testosterone-filled idiots who knew me and had hung out with me forever. Nearly a decade and a half passed before I would touch dice again.
Most of my experience is as a Storyteller (a game runner, specifically in the World of Darkness systems). I’ve played my share of PCs and I enjoy it, but at the end of the day, I’m a top. If you want something done right, you’ve gotta do it yourself, and there’s far more people who want to be PCs than there are those who are up to the task of creating and running a chronicle properly. I like the freeform nature of the WoD systems, how RP is encouraged over mechanics and dice rolling. It really keeps out the munchkins (min/maxers, very annoying behavior), for one thing, and the stories you can tell together tend to be richer and more nuanced as a result. The World of Darkness in particular encourages interpersonal arcs and politically-focused games, an air of conspiracy and intrigue, which I love to play around in.
My return to the world of pen and paper was thanks to the internet. So, I guess it’s “keyboard and screen” RP now. Once you’re a working adult under capitalism, where everybody works weird long hours on different days and times, it’s pretty difficult to wrangle everyone together to just have fun together. So, playing by posting on a forum (PBP) is an ideal way to get a game going. Other added advantages include me being able to act as Storyteller while having the most egregious sexism blunted. Since the boys involved can’t stare at my tits, they generally act like reasonable human beings. I never have to worry about my personal safety or boundaries. Having a game like this with grown-ass people is also really nice because we all have life experience on which we can draw to role-play with more depth. People have time to think on their responses, and type them out properly, which means the game as a whole is elevated to a whole different level.
Future Applebaps note: this particular game did eventually fall apart due to an excess of testosterone, harassment, and bullying behavior. So, men and gamers are still trash, it turns out, even in PBP.
My style of Storytelling is to blend all the different properties together. The rulebooks themselves aren’t difficult to find online these days, so it’s a simple matter to amass a nice collection. Vampire, Mage, and Werewolf are the big 3, obviously, and they’re pretty easy to smoosh together. My current chronicle is set in Seattle, where there’s a strong Garou and Technomancer presence, for instance. But all the players are Kindred, thrown into a political no-man’s land, trying not to get chewed up by the machinations of those with vested interests in controlling the region.
I also don’t like to actually roll dice. If I roll them at all, I don’t have the players do it. When you’re playing IRL, they invented Storyteller screens for a reason. That reason is so that you can fudge dice rolls without your players getting upset. Playing online just means nobody can possibly peek around the screen. I’m more about what’s going to best serve the narrative, rather than letting the mechanics drive things. The best game-runners know how to determine from moment to moment whether success or failure is going to be more interesting. The dice are just a crutch to get you started. This is “high Arete” game-running, basically.
I guess I do have a video game related thing to talk about. Bloodlines 2 was just recently announced, and I’d like to get my hot take on record that it’s not going to be good. It’s clear from the preliminary interviews I’ve seen that they’re not really paying attention to the lore and are just going to make some random-ass RPG game with Vampire slapped on it for brand recognition.
For starters, only the Sabbat would ever do something like a “mass Embrace”. Jumping on a big group of kine and turning them is how you get shovelheads. But they’re talking about giving the player a choice of clan, including (exclusively?) Camarilla-loyal ones. Um, okay. No Tremere is gonna be throwing their blood in a Vaulderie chalice, you guys. That ain’t how it works. Also, I can just picture the scene already where some asshole is like “hmmm do you remember what your sire looked like???” and then you get like a dialogue choice and then poof, you’re that clan now. Letting you choose after the game is already well underway is going to be “video gamey” as hell no matter how you slice it. The original Bloodlines knew better than that, and had you go through a character creation process before anything happened. Just like the pen and paper game! HMMMMM! Imagine that.
Second, they said the PC will be a Thin Blood. Yet the first trailer they released clearly shows the player using Disciplines. Granted, they said it’s not gameplay footage, it’s clearly not gameplay, but what they’re trying to convey is that the game is action-focused and you’re running around fighting for your life unleashing vampire superpowers on whoever. And, okay, maybe I could see that for a Sabbat-focused game. But not one where you’re at all concerned with upholding the Masquerade. You know, the thing in the title of the game and one of the central political and ideological conflicts of the setting? Yeah, that thing. Furthermore, Thin Bloods are Kindred of such high generation (read: super weak, very far from the original vampire) that they often lack some vampiric characteristics or are of no discernable clan at all. Many of them can’t use Disciplines. Some can even withstand sunlight. So, which is it, guys? Are we thin blooded? Or are we a powerful vampire jumping up on walls and swarming people with bats or whatever?
Third, there’s talk of a faction war system, with areas under different factions’ control and a reputation/reward system. Do I even need to spell this out for you? The conflict between the Sabbat, the Anarchs, and the Camarilla isn’t a “faction war”. This isn’t World of Warcraft. The conflict is an ideological and political one. While the Sabbat is known to be openly violent at times, they’re not idiots, either. No Kindred, no matter their political beliefs, is going to knowingly participate in open, prolonged war on the streets. As Jack puts it in Bloodlines 1’s tutorial, “We’re livin’ in the age of cellphone cameras. Fuckups ain’t tolerated.” You can’t tell me that an ongoing faction war, even in a politically-unstable non-Cam region like Seattle, would be allowed to go on for very long before you’ve got Justicars and Sheriffs crawling all over the place to shut it down.
Fourth, the trailer shows the player drinking the blood of another vampire while on the run during combat. This is fucking ridiculous for two reasons. One: drinking the blood of a fellow Kindred is a heinous offense in V:TM. It’s called Diablerie, and it’s a crime punishable by Final Death if the Camarilla catches you doing it. Two: Diablerie is an involved process where you not only drink every drop of the target’s blood, you then hang on for dear life while you literally drink their soul and they fight you for control of your body. It is not, I want to make this absolutely clear, not possible to do quickly or while concentrating on other things. Certainly not while you’re sprinting around doing fucking parkour. Even if this person that gets drained in the trailer is a kine, like let’s say I just made a mistake in what I thought I saw and it’s a mortal. Even then, draining a mortal dry takes a piece of your humanity with it. If you take more than 4 blood points from their pool, you send them to the hospital. It’s not something you would do lightly unless you were already a monster with super low Humanity, or maybe you’re in Frenzy and the Beast is in control of your body. So like, again, doing Diablerie and/or rampaging in Frenzy, these could be compelling ideas in a Sabbat-focused game. But given my other complaints, it doesn’t sound like that’s what they’re doing at all. So I’m left questioning their awareness of the ideas in the property they’re supposedly adapting, here.
Now, I also recognize that I’m being kind of insanely nitpicky and pedantic here, and that the trailer is a very early one. I don’t want Bloodlines 2 to be bad, I obviously want it to be good. I do have an idea as to how that could happen, taking what they’ve said so far.
You make it a Sabbat game. You have the player be a shovelhead, which makes being beaten over the head and turned in a mass Embrace okay from a lore perspective. You have them perform the Vaulderie, have them run with their packmates, listening to sermons from their leader on Sabbat history, just dump the text of the Lasombra clan book down their ear holes. You give them a choice of clan, sure fine, but only make Sabbat clans available. People don’t know what antitribu are, so you make those DLC if you absolutely have to put them in. You make the player start as a Thin Blood, but use Diablerie to lower their generation, gradually giving them access to more power. And you have packs pitted against each other in a brutal struggle for survival, with the winners being ready to be pointed at the Camarilla for one big lightning raid in the endgame. You go all-in on having the player be part of the Sword of Caine, and you bet your ass you could have a cool V:TM game. It would also complement the first Bloodlines very nicely, which has you running around mostly upholding the Traditions and trying to ignore the antediluvian in your face, like a good little Cammy.
But I really really really question whether that’s the game we’re going to get. I’ve just been around too long, seen what the game industry is like now. When I hear people say things like “player choice” and “faction wars”, I get cagey. If they’re talking about thin bloods using Disciplines, are they really going to care about things like the Paths? I doubt it.
Anyway, I never really know how to end these things. I love Vampire as a setting, and I wanna encourage you to check out the books. If you liked the first Bloodlines, even though there are definitely some lore mistakes in that one (the Tzimisce are far more nuanced than their portrayal in that game, for instance, and many of the Disciplines had their mechanics changed dramatically), it’s a pretty good intro to the P&P just based on atmosphere and tone. And it does get a lot right. Anyway, let me know in the comments if you like these games too, or if you think BL2 is actually gonna be great, or we can talk about lore stuff. See you next time!