Since its inception, Vampire: the Masquerade has been presented as ‘A Storytelling Game of Personal Horror’, a powerful catch phrase and an impressive tag line for the covers of the various books. But what does it mean? The real clues to the meaning lay within the books, but also within the words chosen in the rather short and simple catch phrase itself.
V:tM is a role-playing system unlike virtually any other in its intent. When you turn to systems such as GURPS, Dungeons and Dragons™, Shadowrun™, Pathfinder™, and a plethora of others, the principle mentality is very strongly an ‘Us vs. Them’ approach. The band of characters are the protagonists of the story, and the rest of the world takes the antagonist role. The world is there to challenge the characters, threaten them, and the party battles its way across fields of mental and physical conflict to whatever goal is involved in the particular GM or DM’s plot.
Trying to apply this same viewpoint to V:tM is a drastic mistake in the long run, no matter how momentarily successful it may be in the short term. V:tM’s own tag line carries the hints that this is far from the mindset they are putting forth, the largest being the word ‘Personal’. V:tM is inwardly focused, whereas all the other systems I have mentioned are outwardly focused. This makes V:tM utterly unique in the arena of role-playing games.
V:tM uses ‘Storytelling’ as a replacement word for ‘role-playing’. Why? To de-emphasize the importance of the role and the protagonist viewpoint in favor of the plot and story. The players and moderator (referee, game-master) cease being opponents in the arena of the mind, and become partners in the creation of a story. The moderator (storyteller) provides the plot line, but through cooperation with the players, the plot line becomes a story.
The keynote portion of the entire description lays in the words ‘Personal Horror’. This is a game about the terrors and tribulations of dealing with your own existence and what must be done to survive and prosper in that existence. Too many players and storytellers approach the game with the idea that the horror element is meant to come from ‘somewhere else’. They search the books for protagonists for the plot line, leaving the characters to become the same ‘stalwart band of intrepid heroes’ facing whatever terrors are held in store for them by some outside agency.
This approach shows a shallow and incomplete understanding of the game.
Worse yet, many players approach the game with the desire to ‘play the monster’ and wreak savage havoc without conscious or concern.
This approach shows a complete lack of understanding.
V:tM is perhaps one of the most moral and intelligent game systems there is, and it’s intention is to explore morality and horror from the inside out. The principle exploration of horror lays in the character’s struggle with their own morality as they are forced by the reality of their undead existence to perform acts which they never would have considered when they were alive. The epitome of the story is the character’s struggle with their fading humanity, their failing grip on the social and moral reactions that supposedly make us ‘human’. In V:tM the players are both protagonist AND antagonist in the story. Everything else forms a support structure for the drama of these internal struggles.
Playing V:tM true to its intention demands a level of maturity and courage never before demanded by any system. You must be willing to shed the ‘Us vs. Them’ and ‘Kill ‘em All’ mentality and be willing to delve deeply inside yourself. You must be willing to face hard questions and explore avenues that many of us shun automatically because the path is too uncomfortable. To simply adopt the veneer of a monster and never consider these questions is to completely miss the entire point of the game.
Other game systems such as the ones I mentioned above have their basis in the ‘pursuit of power’ concept. The characters grow in power, able to tackle larger and more impressive opponents, thereby reaping greater and greater rewards. In simplest terms, these systems are embodied by the pursuit of the ‘High Score’ – the most gold, the most impressive stats, the greatest victory.
There is no room for this mentality in V:tM. In fact, the core of V:tM is designed to defeat this mentality and approach from the very outset. The characters exist in a world primarily populated by humans – completely normal human beings. The characters begin the game with an array of abilities that even at their most fundamental level makes them vastly superior to most of the world around them. At the same time they are reborn into a massively oppressive structure formed by the shadow politics of their own kind, where upward mobility seems virtually impossible, and every avenue of ‘Hack and Slash’ self-improvement is punishable by death.
Many might view the incredibly oppressive overview of the V:tM world and ask ‘What’s the point? My character is a weakling compared to the Princes, Archbishops, Justicars, Elders, and let’s not forget the intangible threat of the Antediluvians. How am I supposed to succeed? How am I supposed to improve in a structure where the upper levels are all taken by ancient vampires vastly more powerful than my character, in a system where any attempt to thwart the system is rewarded by the death penalty?’
The answer is – you aren’t. The answer is – that kind of improvement and struggle just isn’t the point of the game. The point of the game is to turn your struggle inwards, to explore how your character reacts to the demands of her undead existence and the pressures placed on her by the world in which she now exists. That is why any typical measure of gaming ‘success’ in V:tM (improving your inhuman abilities, becoming a better killing machine) is actually treated within the system as being a BAD thing, represented by loss of Humanity, derangements gained from high stats, etc. You are NOT MEANT to be on a crusade to become the biggest and baddest anything.
Vampires are already immensely powerful, and any vampire could wreak immense and catastrophic horror on the world if they chose to. A lone Ventrue neonate could begin the end of the world through thermonuclear destruction, just by using their vampiric abilities in the right place at the right time. There is no point to the pursuit of personal power in V:tM, because vampires already possess power that could end the world in a heartbeat – if they chose to.
But this hasn’t happened yet. No vampire has exerted their powers on the world and brought it crashing down. Why? Because the true conflict, the true struggle, comes from within.
So take a look at your character sheet, and maybe move some of those freebie points from Disciplines into Virtues, or into Skills that make your character more realistic. Maybe forgo the Merits that make you a better monster, and take a few Merits and Flaws that help illuminate the struggle with the beast within.
After all, V:tM does say that characters that have lost the battle with the beast have lost the game, and should be put away. So if you the player approach the game with the idea to don the shape of the beast in all of its bloodthirsty glory right from the start – you’ve already lost the game, wholly and completely.
And as a final note – the Sabbat is not a ravening pack of inhuman monsters dedicated to chaos.
To think of it this way is to show a level of idiocy and obtuseness that demands that you be firmly separated from any sharp objects or household cleaners. Just because the Sabbat proposes shedding human constraints does not mean they are immoral monsters. In fact, in the shedding of Humanity, those Sabbat members that survive and succeed tend to adopt even stricter moral codes through the Paths of Enlightenment. It may not be a morality that we as humans share, but in the strictest sense of the word, the Sabbat are the most ‘moral’ of all vampires, adopting the strictest and most oppressive stance against chaos in the entire World of Darkness.
Think about this – the ENTIRE purpose behind the Sabbat is to SAVE vampire society from the ravages of the Antediluvians and the eventual destructive return of Caine. Their entire war on the Camarilla is based on the belief that the Elders are the pawns of the Ancients, and that all vampires are doomed to destruction unless someone wakes up and sees the danger for what it is.
Inhuman monsters dedicated to death, destruction, and chaos?
Not even close.
The Sabbat are holy warriors on a crusade to save the whole of Kindred and Cainite society. They are heroes. Heroes that do bad things, and must suffer the personal horror of the bad things they do in the service of a greater good.