Guest author Wood Ingham is a poet and storyteller. He used to write a lot of role-playing games, including a bunch for White Wolf and Onyx Path. His latest one, Chariot, is still funding, and you should support it at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/chariot-roleplaying-in-an-age-of-miracles#/.
The words and opinions below are his. Note that your host removed the “Fuck” in the headline purely for blog portability, not because the content will be free of fucks. Well, in some sense it will. Anyway:
So Vampire: the Masquerade (or Green Vampire, as I like to call it, to differentiate from Red Vampire, the one I spent all those hours writing for) cast itself as the Storytelling Game of Personal Horror. The main criticism directed at that, or at least the main non-stupid one, went like this: how do you model personal horror in a game that has lists and lists of cool powers, a bunch of badass factions and a complex set of rules for fighting?
The answer of course lies with the one legitimately genius mechanic in the game. That’s the Humanity system. There’s a school of thought that the Humanity system is somehow a bad thing. To be honest, this extends to designers too, which is why in the most recent iteration of Chronicles of Darkness, for example, this system’s completely been deprived of its teeth. But that’s about four versions of the game beyond what I want to talk about.
You probably know, but to summarise, you have a Humanity rating, and it goes up to ten dots, and it measures how, well, human you are. How decent. If all ten of the dots are filled in, you’re basically Gandhi. If you’ve got seven you’re still a pretty good person. If you have three or four, you’re probably killed someone and don’t feel bad about that, and if you have none, you’re so devoid of scruples you can’t actually operate as a human being… and you lose you character forever.
Every time you do something sufficiently selfish or violent you roll your Conscience stat and if you succeed you feel bad about what you did. Your conscience acts up. If you fail, you don’t feel at all bad about it and would probably do it again, and you lose a dot of Humanity. The fewer dots of Humanity you have, the worse the things you have to do to lose them are… But the harder it is to keep them when you do these things. At 7 and above it’s assault, at 4 it’s murder. And so on.
What makes this an amazing mechanic is the fact that in Green Vampire, and I appreciate this is obvious, you play a vampire. Which means that if you’re playing the game – using the cool powers, interacting with the badass factions and engaging in acts of violence, you’re going to do bad things. Because, vampire.
So the more you play a vampire doing vampirey things, the more bad stuff you do. And this tension has for me always been the most interesting and rewarding part of Green Vampire. Something important is at stake here. It matters. And you know it matters because it’s on your character sheet, because the stuff that’s defined on your character sheet defines the way you lean into the game. Incentives for gameplay are codified in the things on the sheet. And that’s the personal horror right there – the violence, powers and badass factions make you lose something important.
They are there to tempt you. Green Vampire makes you play an elaborate metaphorical game of chicken. What will you do to win at this? How far will you go? What will you give up?
This row of dots is a measure of the good in you. And this world of supernatural powers is stealing the good from your soul. All your compassion, charity, affection, everything in you that’s fucking worth something. As it slips away you’re tempted to do worse and worse things for power.
And this is where the game models personal horror. Because we as people like to think we’re good. We do. And we’re playing a game where we’re made to question how strong the good in us actually is. And if you’re invested in this game that diminishing row of dots invites you to stop and go “fuck, what am I doing?”
Some of the best games I ever played had players who scared the living daylights out of themselves by daring themselves to go lower and lower until…
I don’t think a single refinement on this system has improved it any. The best versions of it are in the first editions of Green Vampire and Red Vampire respectively, and they’re the mechanic that puts all the other, more obvious fantasy mechanics, into relief. Without it, it’s just an action adventure game. With it, you’re suddenly forced to ask yourself what these things are getting you. And if you’re really the person you thought you were.
And that’s both personal and very scary.