[V:tM] City Of Lost Clanbooks – an experiment in lassitude

Here’s something I did a couple of weeks ago and only just got around to copying the notes for. Since I have PDFs of all the Revised Edition Clanbooks, and since many of them provide sample broods of NPCs, I had a flick through to see if I could nail together a working city out of those (and thus with minimal effort on the part of me, the alleged ‘Storyteller’).

Everyone’s quite high generation (I think the eldest character here is eighth or ninth), but… I think it works, maybe for a city where the Prince has recently been eliminated and various powers are struggling to take control, with less emphasis on sect and more emphasis on clan. The Ravnos afford an interesting B-plot to the competing Lasombra and Ventrue leadership bids, while the responsibility for keeping the Masquerade and arranging Elysium has devolved to the Setites and Malkavians respectively. The other broods are out-of-towners who can show up as ‘adventures’ in their own right or descend on the city sensing opportunity.

Clans with a * next to them don’t have a sample brood, and I’ve given some thought as to where they might be. My thoughts took a sort of post-Gehenna “some Antediluvians rose and others didn’t, some clans survived and some didn’t” turn. A more sensible alternative is covered in the fourth image.
What happened to all those Antediluvians? I dug up a copy of Gehenna to see.
Here’s the thing. When Ravnos/Ravana/Zapathasura/whatever died, Clan Ravnos went mad and tore itself apart. Was this a) an effect of Chimerstry 10 (see V:tM Second Edition… I want to say Storyteller’s Handbook?) or b) something that happens with all Antediluvians? If b), does the clan still go mad if the Antediluvian is a) diablerised or b) genuinely dead? Then I lost my patience with this nerdism, remembered why I was actually doing the thought experiment, and got back on task.
Here’s the one I’ve tried to keep clear. The way I see it, you have two options for what to do with the “missing” clans. Either all the PCs are members of one clan, and form a brood with a shared NPC sire (or maybe one of them sired another, or one of them’s a ghoul; can your group handle that?), OR the PCs are (as is traditional) members of different clans and you present them with that shortlist to choose from. Given that all the other clans are quite united in this city, I’d opt for the first one – a brood of three characters with an NPC elder to look out for them. Maybe a star-crossed lover or lone infiltrator from another clan, since the Ventrue brood has a rogue element who’s pretending to be a Toreador.

[Meta Gaming] Terror, Horror and the Gothic Fantasy

There is a split in the tradition of Gothic fiction, almost as old as the recognisable genre itself. At its most clear, the split is between the ‘terror’ Gothic of Ann Radcliffe and the ‘horror’ Gothic of Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. This is not after-the-fact critical flimflam but a distinction articulated by Radcliffe herself, around the time she was writing The Italian as a repudiation of Lewis’ style and proclivities.

Radcliffe’s Gothic plays upon the sensibilities of the novel readers of her day – middle-class women for the most part – and beneath its explained supernatural trappings it is as much a matter of manners as Austen. Among its qualities is the emphasis on ‘imagined evils over actual, physical threats, in accordance with theories of the sublime (terror expands our mind through imagination, while horror contracts it through earthly fears)’. The surroundings and situations in which Radcliffe’s heroines find themselves prey upon their susceptible, sensitive minds until they keel over in a swoon of pure terror at the thought of what might be about to happen.

As you’d expect, Lewis’ ‘horror’ Gothic is much more about physical threats: the dagger held to Matilda’s bosom presents the threat of injury to her own person and of sexual temptation to the onlooking Ambrosio, while the novels’ incidents are full of physical desire and panicked flight through dark places.

This is not to say that a given work is either terrifying or horrible, although Lewis seems to have won out. Terror and horror are present to varying degrees in varying works within the tradition. Masterpieces of the Gothic successfully blend them to some extent.

Frankenstein has the grotesque appearance and physical power of the Creature, but it also has the moral sensibility of the Creature and his creator at its heart, the ethical struggle over what the Creature might do or be. Dracula is closer to Lewis, a series of perilous incidents unfolding upon one another, but the physical and spiritual contamination of undeath is a threat of terror to the rational Victorian middle classes forming Stoker’s cast and readership. Gormenghast, the peak of the tradition as far as I’m concerned, comes in for flak because ‘nothing happens in the first book’ – the truth is that the first book is a slow burner which explores terror and, barring the library fire and Steerpike’s flight across the rooftops, provides little physical threat. The third book is a fever dream of horror as Titus reels from incident to incident with little comprehension of where he is or what is happening to him – the great evil which he imagines is the absence of a physical qualifier for his experience, the possibility that Gormenghast does not exist and never existed, but he is constantly beset by lesser physical evils and these drive the narrative. The middle book is the pinnacle, in which the physical perils of fire and water harmonise with the psychological perils of ritual and unfettered nature. But I digress.

On screen, Gothic often slides too far into horror. Horror films are rich with incidents and implied physical threats but they do not always achieve that access to the sublime sensibilities which is necessary for terror and thus the complete Gothic experience. Without cultivated access to the inner lives of characters, the events of Gothic cinema – however faithfully adapted – lose their ability to terrify. This is further compounded by the tendency of Gothic cinema to go easier on the physical threats than the gore porn of ‘pure’ horror. The result is the cosy non-horror of the Hammer movie or the Hinchcliffe-era Doctor Who serial: the style of the Gothic without its substance.

What is all this to the Master of Games? Well, let us consider Ravenloft. The original Module I6 is a blur of Hammeresque visual trappings and generic events which falls into exactly the same trap as the films which set its tone. It has too much of Lewis’ lurid adventuresome romp and not enough of Radcliffe’s excision of sensibility for my liking.

This is a problem of D&D and its ilk, if I’m honest. Terror resides in the imagination and the characters, the avatars by which we navigate the imagined world of the RPG, do not have an imagination of their own. It is the sensibility of the players at one’s actual table which must be identified and incorporated into the events of the game, and we must go beyond “your character may die!” – this is an imaginary peril which puts the wind up a player but it is nothing that roleplaying in some other genre does not accomplish equally as well. For the Gothic we must go further.

I have lunged for and sometimes achieved the complete Gothic experience in my gaming. It has invariably been done with players who I know well. I know their heartstrings and can saw on them as a virtuoso on his fiddle. In the early days of my Victorian Age Vampire group (fourteen years: we were so much younger then…) things were more Lewis than Radcliffe, a lurid bloodsoaked romp through Victorian London, more style than substance. It wasn’t until I knew the people behind the characters that I could feed them clashes in sensory perception, fragmented awareness of time, isolation in exactly the sort of place that preyed on their thoughts or the looming presence of a genius loci, and in so doing provoke them into roleplaying convincing fear or madness – and in one case have one player sleeping with the lights on for a week.

A Gothic module will only ever achieve tired aesthetic Hammerisms – the genre’s lowest common denominator played for lighthearted, unmoving fun. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the pinnacle of Gothic roleplaying. That needs tailoring. It needs players with sensibilities which can be played upon by a DM willing to do so to a point just shy of trauma. It’s not for everyone. Too much resilience drives it back into the realm of cliché and pastiche: not enough and the DM becomes a mere bully, fucking with vulnerable players who aren’t entertained by his antics. I haven’t had a group who can do it right for years and the last time I did I let them down by running Module I6 by the jolly hollow book instead of reaching out for what I knew was there, but I now have a couple of players with whom the right chord (D minor) might just be struck.

Ask Uncle Von: Habitat and Habits of the Pripyat Beast

Dr. Shiny gave me a buzz the other day and said:

Can I have some GM advice? I recently ran a Call of Cthulhu game set in Pripyat (with two Pripyat Beasts wandering around). The problem is, with such a large play area, there are too many places to run away and hide, and only so many times the creatures can randomly stumble over the player without it becoming ridiculous after a while. It was a really good game (and I really want to use Pripyat again), but how would you go about plausibly upping the risk of an encounter?

First things first: here’s what he’s on about.

When the secondary nuclear reactor exploded, it spewed forth a torrent of radioactivity. The inhabitants of the surrounding towns survived just long enough to dig mass graves for their dead. The unprotected and ultimately doomed clean-up volunteer force sent a flurry of distress signals, reporting the emergence of jumbled beasts from underneath piles of bodies. These creatures, sickening amalgamations of people and livestock, varied in appearance.

art and text by Keith Robertson, Drawing and Painting the Undead.

So, basically, it’s an eldritch horror spawned of radiation and Forces Unknown acting in terrible, unconscious concert to bring forth a shambling wossname that rends and devours the living. So far, so good, and something I’d expect intelligent players to use the environment provided to avoid or defeat. It’s a good monster.

The problem, as I see it, Herr Doktor, is… well, in classical roleplaying terms, it’s that you’ve built a city-sized dungeon and you’ve only put two encounters in it. I might, if I were a bit of a git, call it quite a severe case of Maliszewski’s Syndrome.

You have a few choices.

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