Struggle versus Self

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.

Vampire the Masquerade is a role-playing system unlike virtually any other in its intent. When you turn to systems such as GURPS, AD&D, Champions, Villains & Vigilantes, Palladium, 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.

This is not Vampire the Masquerade. Trying to apply this same viewpoint to Vampire is a drastic mistake in the long run, no matter how momentarily successful it may be in the short term. Vampire the Masquerade's own tag line carries the hints that this is far from the mindset they are putting forth, the largest being the word 'Personal'. Vampire the Masquerade is inwardly focused, whereas all the other systems mentioned are outwardly focused. This makes Vampire the Masquerade utterly unique in the arena of role-playing games.

Vampire the Masquerade 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 Staff cease being opponents in the arena of the mind, and become partners in the creation of 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 approach the game with the idea that the horror element is meant to come from 'somewhere else'. They see their characters as protagonists - a stalwart band of intrepid heroes, facing whatever terrors are held in store for them by some outside agency. Worse yet, many players approach the game with the desire to 'play the monster' and wreak savage havoc without conscience or concern.

Vampire the Masquerade has a different focus however. Is perhaps one of the most moral and intelligent game systems there is, and its 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 Vampire the Masquerade the players are both protagonist AND antagonist in the story. Everything else forms a support structure for the drama of these internal struggles.

Playing Vampire the Masquerade 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. Those that simply adopt the veneer of a monster and never consider these questions miss a large point of the game.

Other game systems mentioned earlier 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 Vampire the Masquerade. In fact, the core of Vampire the Masquerade 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 Vampire the Masquerade world and ask 'What's the point? My character is a weakling compared to the Princes, Archbishops, Justicars, Elders etc. 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' (such as gathering power and standing, or becoming a better killing machine) is likely to be a BAD thing, since it tempts you to commit acts of wrongdoing, which in turn results in gaining inhumanity traits. 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 Vampire the Masquerade, 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 Willpower, or into Skills that make your character more realistic. Maybe use some of that XP to buy off a Beast Trait or Inhumanity Trait.

After all, Vampire the Masquerade 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.

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Original Work is licensed under a CC Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 US License.