Thursday, August 09, 2012

From the Dark Ages to Modern Times an Experiment with Elysium and Inexperienced Players

So I'm going to be making some role playing blog posts here on occasion.  No promises about how often.  There are some other blogs that I post to and I only have so much writing in me from day to day, but I do want to post the larger events in my chronicle to this blog.  So first my concept and how I came up with it.

It all started with the current season of True Blood.  The story about Lilith and the vampire "Authority" got me thinking about Elysium games.  For one thing much as I'm happier with True Blood's treatment of vampire society this season than previous seasons I still find the overall story lacking.  I blame White Wolf for setting an unrealistic bar on this front.  I want the Lilith mythology in True Blood to be as rich as the mythology of Cain murdering his brother out of love and then twisting the power of God back around on himself as a curse for what he had done.  I know not everyone reads the Book of Nod in this light, but I very much see the Noddist texts and the nature of Golconda to point to a mythology where God was actually totally ok with what Cain did.  After all, it's a rather epic sacrifice.  However, when he continues to offer Cain access to the kingdom of heaven Cain's own guilt warps the offerings into curses.  Either that or God is so put off by the fact that he has lost the individual who gave him the greatest sacrifice imaginable that he decided to curse Cain instead of bless him, but he gave him a way out if he can overcome his own guilt.  Between that and the role the Dark Mother plays in the creation story and the end days there is a richness filled with deep psychological torment and complexity that would make Poe blush at least a little.  I really want that from True Blood, but while they are creating a ground breaking excellent vampire story if you look at TV history it's no Black Dog buffet.

So that brought me to wanting to run an Elysium campaign.  Now I've always been very apprehensive about the idea of an Elysium game.  You give players that kind of power and they are bound to run amok with it.  Much like a good Wraith game you need players who are willing to dig into the story and aren't going to power monger.  You also need a storyteller who can out think all his players.  The last time I really played vampire I was in mid college and I wasn't nearly good enough at storytelling to do that kind of wrangling.  However, I am now 30 (at least for a few more days) and I have an end times Mage chronicle that lasted over a year under my belt where at least one of the players wanted to take the story in a completely different direction than I or most of the other players did for at least 80% of the chronicle.  I felt like on a basic skill level I could handle an Elysium game.

Awesome, so that's one barrier down.  Now for the larger barrier.  I'm not playing with experienced White Wolfers.  My partners have both played a little bit of White Wolf since meeting me, and two of the other players in the campaign only have a Changeling game with a little over half a dozen sessions as primer in the WW universe.  If I tried to jump into an Elysium game none of the good plot twists would ring true because the players don't have the lore knowledge to make any of it make sense.  They are a talented, mature excellent group, just without lore context.

So I got to thinking about that problem and thought it might be interesting to play out the entire life of a group of vampires.  You could slowly build up their understanding of Vampire society.  It's also a fascinating opportunity to create organizations that are completely unique with a complete set of "errenous assumption", because let's be honest every group in the World of Darkness has their own set of assumptions about what is right and true, and they are ALL wrong.  White Wolf was very clear about that one fundamental element of the world from the beginning.  It was never your side, my side and the truth, it was 500 different sides on a slow day and a truth that no one ever actually understood but each storyteller could craft for themselves.  That's what I have always loved about the game.

Ok, so now I had a rough framework, what was I going to do with it?  I wanted the game to involve major meta lore, so that when the game moved into a modern Elysium style setting I could easily engage with major WoD events and have the players understand what was happening, and I had to figure out how to pace a game like this.  The solution lied in the basic campaign model as described in the White Wolf books, that ironically very few people adhere to.

A chronicle in the WW model is a series of stories.  Where each story has a conclusion, comes with extra experience and gives an opportunity to start a new story and take the chronicle in a different direction.  So I thought each story could be a time period moving forward through history.  The waypoints along the way could change based on inspiration, the direction the players take the story in etc.  Each time the chronicle moved forward in time they would be given a chunk of experience that would represent the accumulation of power represented by the "Age" background in the Elysium book.

All that was left was establishing the first setting.  Choosing something truly iconic in the history of the Vampire experience, but doing so without going so far back in time that I'd be dealing with Elders who's only place in a modern context would be Gehenna.  After giving it some thought and pouring back over the Book of Nod and reading the Erciyes Fragments for the first time I decided that a recreation of the first city was in order.  A city where man and vampire lived in harmony, and where vampires were worshiped as demigods, though they seek no worship.  It goes against written cannon, but is hardly impossible that an elder survived from the first city and sought to re-establish that ephemeral Utopia again.  It would be a naive act, but elders can be shockingly idealistic and silly when they put their minds to it.  So the game is set in a recreation of Enoch, hidden in a valley in the Balkan mountains.

The players will be raised to live symbiotically with humans.  Not exactly "mainstreaming" as the trendy kids are calling it these days, but also hardly the debauchery of modern Kindred living.  While I wouldn't describe the results of this little experiment as being devoid of evil I wanted to create something with an idealism to it that will hopefully rub off on the players.  Then as time progresses and they move into the world they will have to interact with and adapt to more pervasive Cainite norms. 

I would love to post more details about my plans, but the first session hasn't happened yet, and I don't want to put anything in here that the players shouldn't know.  I will hopefully be posting summaries of the games themselves and occasionally putting up NPC docs, and maybe even PC stat sheets and back stories.  I'm definitely curious about what people think of the chronicle as it unfolds.


Bryan Kieft said...

Wow that sounds pretty awesome. I have 3 things to say about it: 1. I want more elaboration on what you mean by "You also need a storyteller who can out think all his players."--I see the contrast being a game that is more collaborative, though I suppose I can see the "need" to outthink if you are planning a lot of plot twists and surprises. The word outthink to me tends to imply a more adversarial approach than I am generally used to in my games. so I'm curious what you mean by it.

2. To some extent this philosophy of playing through becoming/just starting out and learning about the world of any particular game is my prefered way to play. . If I've played a system a lot, so that I don't have to do a lot of homework reading to be familiar with the politics and factions, then I'm more willing to jump into a role that assumes I know more, but even with DnD I really want to learn about the particular world in the particular game I've gone into by having a character really really knew to the society if nothing else. One sort of problem that vampire games (or any game involving immortals and linierish progression of xp)is the age vs. power level problem and I'm impressed at how you are handling that. It is a little ambitious, but a very elegant solution. The problem, of course is that without a reason for things to be different for your PCs we usually end up with either PCs that never get very powerful (to stay realistic with NPCs) or become powerful comparatively fast when age is usually a big indicator of power. Your solution is really cool

3. I want to play this game :) Actually I'd love to find some way to play a game you run one day, I think it would be really fun to play and I think that even though we've had some very different experiences with different systems.. ultimately it would make for a very interesting game...

Victor J Kinzer said...

Thanks for the feedback I really appreciate it.

To answer your question about the adversarial tone I have to admit it is adversarial. I have yet to run a game where there wasn't at least one player who took an adversarial approach to the game. The Mage end times game I reference had 2 players who were totally on the same page with me. One player who absolutely thought my view on the world was completely off base and refused to bend in his views at all to fit the setting I had created, and said difficult players wife, who when left to her own devices really got into the game but would occasionally end up in gamer spouse syndrome and cooperate with her husband. Now don't get me wrong, all the players were excellent gamers. It's just I clashed styles with one of them profoundly and some players just really want to try to out think the situation instead of trying to experience it for what it is. Sometimes that's really awesome, and sometimes it's terrible. For high power games you either need to be able to out think your players and stay one power level ahead of them, or you need to just put on the brakes occasionally and say "golden rule, I'm not letting you do that". I really REALLY hate doing the latter. I want a game where I can let the players get really powerful, and have them feel like they can be as creative with their power as they want and attack the situation from whatever angle they want, but if I allow that then I need to have created challenges and settings that will not fall over at the first puff of their Methuselan bluster.

Daniel Youngren said...

What a great idea! How do you think your setting or approach might have changed if your awesome players were really knowledgeable about Vampire genre?

Victor J Kinzer said...

Well, this is one of those "necessity is the mother of invention" situations. Had my players been really knowledgeable about the setting I probably would have just tried to run an Elysium chronicle and called it a day. If I woke up and all my players had read all the books and knew the lore and I didn't need to worry about it now, I would still run this chronicle. I'm in love with the story, and I don't know anyone else who has used this model so that really excites me. I'm sure someone somewhere has, but it's certainly not a normal game progression. We'll see how it turns out.

Daniel Youngren said...

Yes, we will see! I hope you do post updates on your thought process, the problems and surprises that crop up, the plot, and so on as it goes. It sounds like a great premise. Jealous of your players!

Victor J Kinzer said...

I'm working on the post for the first game. I was just going to focus on plot, but posting about the problems and my thought processes would be really worth while. I'll try and put something together on that, but it will probably be a separate set of posts form the plot posts. I also need to be careful not to give anything away. I'm going to try to make sure I don't post anything I wouldn't want my players to read yet. So development process might be difficult if I plan my plot out much in advance, which seems to be the direction it's going.