Run Vampire as D&D with Fangs

So, alas, one of the hosts of Saving the Game recently ended his Vampire chronicle because it was just too hard to figure out what the vampires were supposed to be doing from night to night. They didn’t want to scheme and backstab against each other, and he felt like there wasn’t a lot that was clearly left to do.

It made me wonder how much of the fun I had playing Vampire has to do with the way I learned to play, and the way that I then taught others to play. PCs backstabbing other PCs was actually pretty rare, though we certainly had plenty of conflict and disagreement. But I think that the pattern for ‘adventures’ may not be as clear, RAW, in Vampire as it is in D&D. D&D also has a lot more cultural baggage as a game that is played a certain way, which helps.

I know this has been said before, but if you too are stuck as to how to run a Vampire chronicle, you can run Vampire as if it was D&D, but with fangs. Make sure you change the flavor and dressing of the game to be Gothy and dark and urban, but a Vampire chronicle can essentially be a re-skin of a D&D campaign.

Coterie = Adventuring Party

A coterie in VtM is a group of Vampires who work together. This is one of the most obvious, and one of the clearest nods to traditional games like D&D that Vampire the Masquerade makes. All of the flavor is about how vampires never work together, but RPGs are played by groups of people working together, so coteries exist in the World of Darkness. Solitary, paranoid predators gather together in diverse groups to accomplish tasks, sometimes against their will and often against their best interests.

Scheming Elders = Quest Givers

If you are wondering how to assemble a new coterie, it can be simple – all of them are summoned by a powerful elder. The powerful elder demands that they accomplish some task for her, and they have to do so because they are new and of lower status than the elder – none of them can afford to refuse. It needs even less justification than a D&D quest – there is no reason to necessarily expect they’ll be paid or rewarded. The pay, the reward, is their continued existence.

Status and Territory = Treasure

Make it clear from the start that none of the PCs will get anywhere, or gain anything, unless someone else in vampire society loses. There is no available territory of value. There are no open positions in Elysium. Everything is taken, and has been taken for a hundred years. There are no franchises; there are no resources that a vampire would value that don’t already have vampires there with their fangs dug in.

Money doesn’t mean much to a vampire – it is easy to come by cash, and with Disciplines relatively easy to steal what you need from night to night. Status and territory, however, are things that one cannot gain unless they are given by, or taken from, other vampires higher up in the hierarchy (assuming a default Camarilla game). So in the same way that D&D characters go on dangerous adventures to gain gold and treasure they couldn’t get otherwise, Vampire characters take on dangerous tasks in the hope of earning status and territory that they couldn’t gain otherwise. It’s easy to create this pressure – shit rolls downhill, so status is desirable, and territory makes hunting each night easier. Of course, once you are given territory, you are responsible for maintaining it and solving problems within it – look, more adventures.

Night Clubs and Post-Industrial Ruins = Dungeons

Just as is the case with dungeons in D&D, you don’t have to draw out every detail of every adventure location, but it can be fun to do so. You can simply find a floor plan of a modern building, and then populate it with mysteries and traps and monsters the way you might populate a dungeon. Only in this case, the traps might be motion-activated cameras and the monsters can be hunters or Sabbat members inhabiting the building.

For more mysterious locations like tunnels dug out beneath crypts or abandoned subway stations, your design can be much more like a dungeon, with the PCs never seeing beyond the reach of their flashlights (or Discipline-enhanced eyes). For example: word is that there is some kind of warren dug out beneath an abandoned subway station. An elder sends the PCs into investigate. Is it a hidden brood of illegitimate Nosferatu? A Sabbat hideout? An Anarch gathering-place? Or is some other monster of the World of Darkness down there? Voila – dungeon-crawl.

Sabbat, Anarchs, Hunters and Werewolves = Monsters

When in doubt, have someone kick in the door and start a fight. This is true in many stories, and most games, and true for Vampire chronicles as well. Vampires are hunters, but they are also hunted. Camarilla members are hunted by Sabbat. Anarchs are hunted by Camarilla and Sabbat. All vampires are hunted by werewolves. Vampires and werewolves are both hunted by mortal monster-hunters. And so on. There are worse things out there in the night that go bump harder than the PCs do. Elders may be willing to kill the characters with boredom, or frustration, or betrayal, but there are plenty of things that want to kill them with fire. In large groups, regular people can be terrifying to Vampires. What if there is a Masquerade breach? Then the National Guard is called in. Now martial law is declared. Now religious fanatics descend on the city to hold fiery revivals. Things can get bad quickly, and hunters can easily become hunted.

Maintaining the Masquerade = Saving the World

The grand plotline behind a lot of D&D campaigns is saving the world, and a lot of the campaign is about growing in power through leveling and magic items to the point where the characters are up to that monumental task. Vampires are generally not concerned with saving the world, but most of them are very much concerned with saving their own skins. That means that the Masquerade must be maintained. (Even Sabbat and Anarchs have to tacitly acknowledge this necessity, or else they get wiped out by werewolves, hunters, and ultimately a panicked populace).

I like making the Masquerade into a doomsday clock that is visible to the characters and has an impact on their un-lives. The more the Masquerade is eroded, the worse things get, moving from suspicion to hunters arriving to riots to martial law. It should be clear that this is not just an arbitrary rule imposed on them from above (as so many rules are), but a matter of their survival as well. And as the most vulnerable and exposed of vampires, the PCs will be the ones hit first and hardest by any consequences.

Social Encounters = Combat Encounters

As much as possible, social encounters in Vampire should be about initiative, and attacking and defending, and high stakes. Ideally, PCs should do all they can to avoid elders in Elysium, and even avoid any notice being taken of them at all. There should be a sense of “roll initiative” before any significant social encounter with other vampires. You are surrounded by monsters, after all, and for much of a Vampire chronicle, all of the monsters you see around  you from night to night are significantly more dangerous than you are. And they all want something from you, even if it is just your fear and deference.

Sabbat = Murder Hobos

All of the above has assumed a default Camarilla game, which is what Vampire the Masquerade assumes for the most part. Some will want to run a Sabbat game, however, and if anything that is even easier than the above. Basically, you can run a Sabbat game like D&D with Fangs, only all of the PCs are assumed to be murder hobos. Often these chronicals make their way own a death-spiral as consequences pile up behind the PCs, but murder hobo D&D games often go the same way.

This Is A Shallow Dive…

Is there FAR more to the World of Darkness, and far more potential in a Vampire chronicle than what I describe above? Of course! But this is an easy starting point for people experiencing some version of the blank-page response when trying to start up a Vampire game, and most of the Vampire chronicles I have run could be easily described as D&D campaigns with some serial numbers filed off. Really, the way I run Vampire has influenced how I run D&D (with plenty of sandbox time and social interaction), and the way I run D&D has influenced how I run Vampire, and I think that’s a good thing. If nothing else, running Vampire the Masquerade as D&D with fangs is a good start.

Metagaming Is Good

The question is whether you are metagaming for more fun and drama, or metagaming for an advantage over the other PCs or NPCs.

Metagaming is a perennial topic of discussion among tabletop RPG players and has been, I imagine, from the beginning. What I mean by metagaming is thinking about what to do in a gaming session from your point of view as a player, with the knowledge you have as a player, rather than from solely from the point of view of your character, with the knowledge that your character presumably has.

I hear more people speaking against metagaming than for it. It is in a similar category to min-maxing or power gaming – behaviors that are common but generally frowned upon. In all of those three cases and more, however, I think these behaviors can be a good thing in game. In the case of metagaming, I think it is unavoidable. Given that it is unavoidable, I will give some instances where I think it is good for the game, and then talk about some examples of when it is anything but.

Good Kinds of Metagaming

Thinking about the other players

“That’s what my character would do” is a statement that I have heard many times as justification for something that made the game less fun. Here’s the thing – don’t prioritize the thoughts and feelings of your imaginary person over the thoughts and feelings of the real people at the table with you. Period. We don’t play RPGs because we are stuck for ideas of what characters might do – you can always justify your character doing something interesting.

Thinking about the moment

We’ve all been playing out an encounter or a scene, and have thought, wouldn’t it be cool if a particular thing happened right now? Sometimes it is up to us to make that interesting thing happen. Even if it might feel “out of character” for your own character, people do surprising things all the time. Maybe this is a sudden turning point in your character’s life – she dramatically chooses just this moment to show something she hasn’t shown before. Seize the moment, and make the cool thing happen.

Thinking about the story

No matter what kind of story you think RPGs produce, whether Picaresque, or Story Now, or Story Later, or improv comedy, or epic fiction, RPGs allow us to create stories together. And sometimes, it is best to prioritize the story in a given moment. Do we need to move on from this scene? Would this be the best moment for me to reveal my character’s secret? Should we skip this because it’s only interesting to me?

What Makes Metagaming Bad?

Doing it for your advantage as a player

Using your knowledge of the game, or the setting, apart from what your character would know so that you personally can have an advantage over the other players is just being a dick. Hopefully you don’t need me to tell you this, but laying out this distinction might be helpful if you need to call someone out for their behavior.

Doing it for your character’s advantage over the other characters

Metagaming to give your character an advantage over the other characters is also clearly a dick move. There are always opportunities for your character to shine if you know more about the setting or the system than the other players, but all of these are better opportunities to make the other characters shine.

Doing it to shut down another player

Niche protection is a thing. Every character hopefully has at least one special thing that they are best at. The street samurai fights in the street. The bard charms and improvises. The hotshot pilot hotshots and pilots. It’s possible, but crappy, to shut another character down where they would normally be strong. You understand the stealth mechanics better, so you out-sneak the rogue. You know the setting’s politics better, so you out-maneuver the courtier. A negative metagamer can shut down other characters, rather than letting them have their opportunity in the spotlight.

Bonus round: your stories

What’s the worst example of negative metagaming that you’ve seen? Or the best example of positive metagaming?

The Bodhana Group

The Bodhana Group exists, and the world is better for it. If you have not heard of them, then you’re about to have that enviable experience of learning about them for the first time.

I first learned of The Bodhana Group when executive director Jack Berkenstock was interviewed by the folks at Saving the Game. Jack is great at talking about his passion, and I’ll just link a video below of him doing just that.

(Oh yeah, they also run an annual local gaming convention called Save Against Fear as a fundraiser.)

The Bodhana Group uses tabletop games therapeutically, in particular with children, including children who are victims and perpetrators of sexual violence. So they use something I treasure, gaming, to help some of the most vulnerable children as well as people who our society so often abandons. In a country where convicted sex offenders live beneath bridges in Florida, The Bodhana Group works to heal through the power of games.

Not long ago I was made inordinately proud to become a member of the Board of The Bodhana Group. I don’t think of myself as much of a joiner, and it’s still weird to do something like be on a Board of anything. But I’m happy to be part of The Bodhana Group, to help them however I can.

One thing I’m going to help them with is a book they are putting together about therapeutic gaming. I got to go through a copy for an editing pass, and in a group as small as Bodhana I might actually be the most experienced writer and editor. The other project I want to help with is a board game they are designing. It’s been a while since I was in on a game design project, at least one that is headed to publication, so I’m excited about that opportunity.

In the meantime, it seems like Bodhana is in the midst of some rapid and exciting growth. They just relocated to a new HQ, which is pretty cool, and have been contracted by more than one organization to run therapeutic games. They recently had a training day for volunteers, and of course we’re all looking forward to Save Against Fear, featuring Bodhana’s first celebrity guest, Martin Klebba.

Back to the beginning, though, when I first heard about the existence of The Bodhana Group – I felt better about the world. I felt like it was a place with more good in it than I’d previously realized. It came at a time in my life that was very hard, when I really needed some good news. The Bodhana Group is good news. I’m so glad to be a part of it.

Dungeons & Dragons : Meetings & Retreats

Image result for awful meeting

In part because my last post was about suicide, and I kind of want to push that baby down the feed a step, I’m breaking from my usual pattern of uploading posts on Fridays to post about something that has become more and more clear to me: being a good DM, or GM or ST or whatever, is an incredibly useful skill. (I’ll use GM from here, as it is the term in widest use)

My sister goes to a lot of meetings. She’s been in higher education for a long time now, and is now in higher education administration, which means meetings galore. Her complaints about these meetings make frequent appearances on her Facebook feed, and then comes the chorus of agreement from others, in academia or related white-collar fields, who have similarly bad experiences in meetings.

I’ll say it – I give good meeting. I don’t love meetings and I understand why no one else loves them either, and in part because of this knowledge, I run pretty damn good meetings. In fact, I have realized that running good meetings (or good discussion groups or similar things) is one of my few features. I am currently the President of the Phoenixville Area Clergy Association and the leader of the Phoenixville Area Refugee Initiative solely because I am good at running meetings. (I have literally no other leadership qualities anyone can detect) As a pastor, I also run a lot of meetings – our board, and multiple committees, as well as Bible studies and other classes, planning meetings for weddings and funerals, annual retreats and training events; on and on. If I was bad at running meetings, or even just average, many innocents would suffer.

Where does this skill come from? It comes from running games for the last 25 years of my life. Think about it.

Taking Turns

In a discussion, making sure that everyone has a turn is exactly like running a combat encounter. Making sure everyone has approximately equal time and spotlight, that everyone gets to try to move their agenda forward a step, etc., is part and parcel of the GM skill-set. As a bonus, you’d no more skip a POC or a woman in a meeting than you would skip the rogue or the fighter. You know everyone gets to have a turn each round, and you keep going in rounds until you are done.

Keeping Up Momentum

As a GM you have learned when to talk to move things along, and when to sit back and let people roleplay with each other. You know when things begin to lag and you need to step in and move the story forward. You know how to creatively interrupt people who are stuck in a cycle that isn’t going anywhere. This skill is immediately applicable to any meeting or event you are running – you can read when people are just spinning their wheels and when they’re getting things done.

Rules and Rulings

When GMing a game, you always have to keep the rules in mind, and not only understand them, but also know when to apply them and when not to. In theory, most meetings are run according to Robert’s Rules of Order – where we get motions, and tabling, and calling the question, and all that procedural stuff that makes C-Span so action-packed. But not only is there widely variable knowledge of Robert’s actual Rules, but there are plenty of times when it is best to just set them aside. And who knows better when to set rules aside for the greater good than a skilled GM?

Prep

As an experienced GM, prepping even for a complex or difficult meeting is made relatively easy. If there is a curriculum or an agenda already, that’s kind of like having an adventure module to run. You have to read through, plan for the possible pit-falls, sketch out a few ideas for improvising, and you’re ready to go.

I tend to create things like retreats or classes form scratch, though. It can be a bit of a challenge, but honestly it’s usually nothing compared to prepping for a four-hour game session every week, where I have to keep five adults entertained while also telling a story, keeping rules in mind, adjudicating questions and debates, and juggling the agendas of every member of the supporting cast.

Go Run Awesome Games (and Meetings)

Compared to GMing a good game, running a good meeting is easy. I’m sometimes shocked at how bad some people are at it, but then I remember that they have not spent hours a week for 25 years prepping for, or playing in, RPGs. I have a feeling my 10,000 hours is long past, actually.

So everyone in every white-collar industry that features frequent meetings should start playing RPGs, is what I’m saying. Those of you who want to run good meetings should learn to be good GMs. As a bonus, you’ll be starting in on literally the best hobby there is, period.

You’re even welcome at my games – Friday and Sunday nights. I’ll show you how it’s done.

Making “Failure” Interesting in RPGs

Image credit: https://www.fantasyflightgames.com/en/news/2012/11/19/at-the-core/

I had an idea come to me as I was listening to a review of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG. This particular review was from someone (Dan Repperger of Fear the Boot) who was enjoying the game he was playing in but was simply baffled by the game’s mechanics – specifically, the custom dice mechanic.

I feel like I have an OK handle on it, having run the intro adventure for friends and read through the Edge of the Empire book. The dice system is complex, giving six different interacting results: Success, Triumph, Advantage, Failure, Despair, Threat). Basically, when you roll dice, the result of the roll gives you a lot of information:

  • Do you succeed or fail in your intended purpose? (Success and Triumph versus Failure and Despair)
  • Does your success or failure cost you any stress, or allow you to recover stress? (a use for Triumph and Despair when there isn’t something else to do with it)
  • Does the situation overall get better or worse? That is, you could succeed but the situation could worsen for you overall, or you could ‘fail forward’ where you don’t succeed but your situation improves through some unforeseen windfall. (Advantage and Threat)
  • Does your success or failure trigger some kind of special effect, like the equivalent of a critical success or failure perhaps, or a special ability. (Triumph and Despair)

But this post isn’t primarily about the dice mechanic in Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG. Rather, it is about failure, and how to make failure more interesting, which is a challenge in any RPG that features a success/failure mechanic.

The thought is a simple one, derived from the complexity of Fantasy Flight’s dice system – that a failed roll can either mean 1. you don’t get what you want, or 2. you succeed and get what you want, but the situation worsens for you. This is a variation on the “succeed with a cost” mechanic, but it is rooted in the narrative, in the player’s decision to accept greater overall peril in exchange for succeeding on a key roll. In the FF dice system, this is kind of like rolling Success and Triumph paired with Threat, but without all of the complexity of six different colors of dice with multiple custom symbols on them.

For example: your fighter is surrounded by a gang of goblins. She activates her special ability that lets her attack a group of lesser targets with one roll – you roll, and miss. So, instead of just whiffing on your cool ability, your ability succeeds, but just as you mow down the fourth goblin, you look up to see that the fighting has drawn the attention of the Goblin King…and he looks angry. 

What do you do in your game to make sure that failure is still an interesting part of the story?