22 March 2011

Games I Wanna Play, Part 2: Supernatural Games

Note: If you aren't interested in my self-absorbed opinions about the World of Darkness, you can skip to the end. Otherwise, prepare for an essay (or even rant) about Vampire the Masquerade and as many of its spin-offs as I can recall.

First off, let me clarify: I'm not talking about the Supernatural RPG by Margaret Weis Productions. To my mind, "Supernatural" is a genre of gaming akin to Horror, but is instead where the players portray the monsters instead of the victims. Not that the monsters can't also be victims (in many cases, they are). More often, they're antiheroes. The games have elements of Horror, true, but the focus is usually on the loss of humanity, guilt, and/or angst derived from being a Creature of Darkness (tm).

Chief amongst such games is Vampire: The Masquerade, the original tragically hip game of Lestat-esque vampiric shenanigans. Truth be told, though, I'd explore this genre from a more traditional angle before the original V:tM was released. I was a big fan of Mayfair's edition of the Chill RPG (more on that when I talk about Horror games), and I got the idea into my head to turn my friend's character into a vampire. Without his prior knowledge, of course. It's always more fun when they're surprised, right?

Thinking back, I don't remember the specifics of the scenario, other than he lived in the middle of nowhere and a new neighbor moved in next door. It was very Jerry Dandridge/Fright Night, I'll admit, but I was younger then and not quite as aware of stereotypes. For whatever reason, Chris (my friend) ran afoul of his new neighbor, was overpowered, and then drained of every last drop of his blood.

Flash forward to Chris' character waking up in a coffin, six feet under. It'd taken some time for the whole vampire curse to take effect, and he'd been found dead, shipped home, and buried in a local cemetery. Lucky for him, the local groundskeeper heard his hammering and dug him out. Chris leaped from the coffin and made good his escape. Being hungry, he stopped by a nearby Circle K and discovered that food wasn't what he was hungry for...

We never got very far. In fact, I think we only ever played that one game, though Chris might have different recollections.

The World of Darkness
Speaking in broad strokes, the World of Darkness is the penultimate setting in this self-designated supernatural genre. I had a sort of love/hate relationship with the WoD for a while, but I've come to appreciate its finer details and do my best to ignore the more banal ones.

Vampire was really popular with a bunch of my friends, and it quickly replaced just about every game that we'd ever played. I didn't have the depth of knowledge of the setting, or of any of the fiction they were reading (Anne Rice, specifically), so it didn't have the same sort of appeal to me. I played in a few games of the original first edition, but beyond that... I was more attracted to other games and other settings.

When Werewolf: The Apocalypse (first edition) came out, my friend Chris snatched it up. It was his new pair of shoes, and he ran a few games, too. I remember them well. I remember sitting in a Burger King on San Marcos Boulevard with Chris, flipping through the book and talking over character ideas. I was his guinea pig.

Mage: The Ascension was another milestone for WW, but outside of an overarching appreciation for the content and ideas behind the game, I never really enjoyed playing it. That might be due to the games I did play, which I never found all that enthralling (and I can certainly blame the storyteller for that, I guess). As for the rules... I've always found them somewhat intimidating, given how open-ended they are. So in that regard, I'll never run Mage, but I'd certainly give playing it another shot, so long as I can find a storyteller worth his salt who's willing to run it.

I've picked up a lot of WoD books over the years, everything from Kindred of the East to Orpheus. After White Wolf canned the old World of Darkness (oWoD) and introduced the new World of Darkness (nWoD), I stopped buying their books. I didn't like what I'd seen of the new rules, and given there was no backwards (or forwards) compatibility at the time, I chose to stick with what I knew and avoided spending money I didn't have on a game line I didn't care about.

Vampire: The Masquerade
The original had some holes in the rules, but the second edition cleared most of them up, and the third edition went even further. It's funny, because it came to pass that any of White Wolf's first editions were akin to playtest copies that you had to pay for. The second editions, ultimately released in hardback, were much more polished than the firsts. I generally couldn't help myself, though... I bought the first editions. About the only first edition WW product I didn't buy was of Vampire: The Masquerade, and that was mostly because (at the time) I was sick of it.

After the release of the second edition, I came to appreciate VtM a lot more than I did initially. I also managed to pick up a slew of supplements at bargain basement prices, which helped to flesh out my collection. Working in a game store, I also had an employee discount (and it's true, more than half of my income went right back into the cash register... sad, sad days, those).

I've run a few VtM games in the past, only one of them being truly successful. The others were one-hit wonders, including a brief game set in Miami that ended just as soon as it began due to issues with players and their personal lives. It could've been good, but I have yet to revisit it. If I ever intended to run another VtM game, I'd attempt to resurrect my 1920's VtM game. Set in San Francisco during the heyday of Prohibition, it involved the forces of the Camarilla, Anarchs, and Sabbat struggling over control of 'Frisco. The players were all caitiff. Despite their clanless nature, the size of their coterie gave them a strength that no side could ignore. Plus, the '20's are a kick ass era.

I've been playing in a VtM game at work, run by my friend David. Without going into details, it's a lot of fun, and in playing I realized how much I'd missed the relatively intuitive mechanics of the Storyteller system. So the more of I've played, the more I've tossed around the idea of running my own game. I haven't gotten around to it yet, but I've been revisiting my books. As it happens, though, I haven't been looking real closely at my VtM books... instead, I've been pouring over my Vampire: The Dark Ages books.

Vampire: The Dark Ages
VtDA was the game that really gave me an appreciation for Vampire. I don't know what it was that attracted me to it. Was it the fact that it wasn't set in the modern era? That the traditional factions of Camarilla, Sabbat, and Anarch hadn't been established? Or was it the art and styling of the Dark Ages book? I think it was probably a little bit of everything, honestly.

I ended up running a long-term and, IMO, successful VtDA campaign. The first half involved a two-person play group, but it eventually grew to four players by the time the game was finished. The second half was a continuation of the first, but it involved a couple of the original players and two new ones. Both games were a lot of fun, and I'd love to run it again someday.

When Dark Ages: Vampire was released, it seemed somewhat superfluous to me. It lacked a lot of what made VtDA appealing to me. While VtDA was pretty open-ended, DA:V established a meta-plot that I didn't care for. Plus, the rules on paths and roads were revised in a manner than didn't resonate with me. I bought the core rules for DA:V, as well as the first couple of supplements, but I decided to stick with the original VtDA after that. I've become aware that there is a vocal group of folks out there who feel that DA:V is superior to VtDA, and that's fine with me. I'm happy with the vast amount of support that the first DA line had, and I'm not interested in upgrading to a new edition if I don't feel the old one is broken.

Werewolf: The Apocalypse
I've also been mulling over running a new Werewolf game eventually. While the first edition of the rules was rough, the overall tone of the game was much darker and less campy than the second. Despite this, the second edition's rules were a heck of a lot better, and it's easy enough to focus on the parts I like and ignore the ones I don't.

I've only ever attempted to run one Werewolf game. Being someone who is never quite willing to leave well enough alone, I had to run something that wasn't quite traditional. The premise was the the Apocalypse had happened, the world had "moved on" (in a vein similar to the world in King's Gunslinger books), and the players portrayed orphaned cubs who didn't even know the tribes they belonged to.

The PCs were raised by a crotchety old werewolf, and part of the fun was the self-discovery of it all. The players made the foundations of their characters, while I secretly chose their Tribes and gifts. Of course, one of the players was a Black Spiral Dancer. I don't remember if that ever came out or not, but the nightmares were definitely a clue as to his origins. The overarching story, outside of learning who and what they were, involved establishing a new cairn while standing against enemies, old and new.

The game ended prematurely, as many games do. I'm not sure why. I still have my notes, though, and it'd be fun to bring it back, even in the context of a short-term campaign. We'll have to see about that.

Back to the present. A few weeks ago, I was seriously considering putting together a Werewolf: The Wild West game. I pulled out my W:tWW books and started reading, and I remembered (with dawning disappointment) why I'd hated that product so much. It's so damn shallow! It'd be easy enough to run a wild west game using just the W:tA rules and a firm grasp of history. Nothing in the WW book was particularly necessary. The setting information concentrates quite a bit on the struggle between the Euros and the Native Americans, as well as the more stereotypical aspects of a "Cowboys and Indians"-style setting. No mention is made of the Civil War or its effects in any of the history (though it is giving a passing entry in the brief time line supplied with the game).

Some of the rules were utter crap, too. The rules on silver bullets, especially, made them much less useful, and were presented in a style that said, "We're not going to explain the physics of this, so you'll just have to trust us." Basically, if you could find someone to make you silver bullets, you'd pay out the nose for them, they'd be more difficult to hit with, and do less damage than regular bullets. In my own research of the topic, the bullets would be more difficult to make, but they might actually be a little more accurate at short range (due to the density of the material). They'd also deform less than lead bullets, which would probably make them less damaging than traditional ammo. But it was the way that the authors handled the topic which really got my dander up.

So, long story short, I decided that I'd avoid the wild west setting and look into other alternatives... and this brought me to my copy of Werewolf: The Dark Ages, a VtDA supplement that I'd had since its release, but never quite read in depth. Outside of the lack of an impending Apocalypse and a lack of a central threat to the Garou, the DA setting is much more appealing to me. At the moment, it's at the top of my "I Want To Run This" list. I don't have any story ideas (that I want to discuss right now), but I'll get around to it soon, I'm sure.

Wraith: The Oblivion
Wraith was another first edition WoD product that I bought, read, and immediately disliked. I can't remember why, but I think it had a lot to do with the mechanics. Much later, I ended up buying the second edition used for $10, and I found it possessed none of the problems I'd had with the original. By this time, the Wraith product line was being phased out, and I was woefully behind in supplements. Luckily, this time period also coincided with a bunch of local clearance sales, as well as a good run of the books and the aforementioned used book shelf. In a short time, and for much less than cover price, I had a nearly complete collection of Wraith supplements.

As much as I've wanted to run a Wraith game over the years, I've never been able to. I even worked out rules for converting mortals to wraiths (which I still have) which I intended to use to hoodwink my players into a game. They'd start as mortals, get involved in something terrible, die, and then wake up in the afterlife (headed for the serious strife). I'd still like to do this eventually, as I think it'd be an interesting way to explore Wraith. Maybe I'll have the chance to in the near future. The real question is, do I want to surprise my players with such a significant change? I mean, if you expected a game about mortals in the WoD, but ended up dead and ghostified, would you be upset?

Other oWoD Titles
I've done a little bit of talking about oWoD titles in general. I've got the majority of them on my shelves, but I'm not all that interested in exploring them with more than a peripheral interest.

I was initially excited about the prospect of Hunter: The Reckoning, but after I bought the book and read it, I lost interest. I was looking forward to a more detailed version of The Hunters Hunted, not a game about humans imbued with special powers who hunted down the supernatural.

Changeling: The Dreaming was another one I didn't buy on release, though I did eventually pick it up used. It didn't really appeal to me.

I do have a copy of the Mummy RPG, as well as the two previous WoD supplements for mummies. It might be interesting for building interesting NPCs and villains, but I don't think I'd ever run it all by itself.

Orpheus interested me, at least initially. It seemed like a reboot of Wraith, but with a finite limit to the depth of the game. I never picked up the rest of the Orpheus books. I might do that eventually to see where it went.

While I'd never dare to run Mage: The Ascension, I might consider exploring Mage: The Sorcerer's Crusade. It's the non-modern aspects of the setting, mostly. It's got a lot of neat setting material, too, and was just as good as VtDA in exploring the whys and wherefores of the Renaissance and how it applies to Awakened individuals. I mostly bought it because I felt I could leverage some of it into my Dark Ages games. That, and it was cheap.

Of course, there's Kindred of the East, which I really, really liked after I bought it and read it. It seemed to take all the interesting things about VtM, WtA, and WtO, and mashed them together into an Asian-infused supernatural game. I always felt, though, that it'd be difficult for most players to assimilate all that Eastern mysticism and mumbo jumbo. Still... it could happen. We'll have to see what I think after I review the particulars.

Last off, I only picked up Demon: The Fallen because a local game store was going out of business, and all the stock was 60% off. I got the Storyteller's kit, too, as well as the Los Angeles supplement. It might be interesting if I cared to dig into it some more, but without a Player's Guide (which goes for a lot of cash, depending on where you look) I'd be hard-pressed to seriously consider running it. Chalk it up to my feelings on the Mummy game: it'd be an interesting way to develop new and unusual NPCs and bad guys.

So, in summation (and after all that reflection and blathering), I would most like to run a Werewolf game set in the Dark Ages, or a Vampire game set in the 1920's.

Next up, I'll talk about the horror genre in general, because (dammit) I'd really like to dust of my Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green books and get down with some madness!


Alan said...

A few things:

Fright Night is a truly wonderful movie - loved it!

Mage: the Ascension - I bought the rulebook, tried reading it, and had to choke back the vomit from all the new vocabulary they felt needed to be invented for the game. It just didn't "click" with me I guess.

As far as Delta Green goes, well that is just pure goodness in all it's sanity-blasting modern CoC garb!

dherber said...

Maybe CoC is kitch in Massachusets but seriously if I lived 30 miles from Salem that's all I'd be playing. Can't get any better inspiration than living there. can't wait for your insight into it.

sirlarkins said...

Mmmm, VtDA--yes! The first White Wolf book I ever bought. The art was a definite selling point for me. Never managed to run a long-term campaign with it, but we did have a couple successful mini-campaigns and a lot of fun. I'd love to return one day and run a Cainite Heresy campaign, or a sandbox Transylvania by Night chronicle.

...I'd attempt to resurrect my 1920's VtM game. Set in San Francisco during the heyday of Prohibition...

I'm just getting a Cthulhu game set in 20s San Francisco off the ground. If you ever get around to running your campaign, drop me a line. I'd be happy to share my setting notes!