What’s so horrific about being a vampire anyway?

So in my old days, I actually started getting interested in Vampire: The Masquerade. Who would have thunk? It actually was one of the big games when I first came into RPGs at the tail end of AD&D, along with DSA, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, and Legend of the Five Rings. I would have been too young for it when it came out, and already felt too old when I started looking at other games. By that time I already had it filed away as the game of leather jackets, frilly shirts, and terrible makeup. I leafed through a rulebook once, but didn’t find anything of interest back then, and basically forgot about it after that.

I don’t know how I got to that, but a few weeks ago I somehow ended up hunting down a rulebook for the 1998 Revised Edition and the 1992 Storyteller Handbook to get a glimps of how the game was originally presented, and then got the pdf for the 2012 V20 edition to have all the basic info and crunch for all 13 clans in one neat package. The game always proclaims itself to be “a storytelling game of personal horror”, but in no point in any of the three books is there any mention of what that means. Or what horror in general looks like when you play as a vampire. It says existence as a vampire is horrifying, but does not mention why. Like virtually all RPGs (except d6 Star Wars), Vampire assumes that it is completely obvious to every new gamemasters how you run a campaign, and that the setting is self-explanatory. You have superhuman powers and are immortal. Go and be scared.

But if you really comb through the text with arduous care, and keep pestering people on the internet what this game is about and what you’re supposed to do with it, there is indeed sufficient implication that it is a game about keeping hold of your humanity in the knowledge that you will turn into a monster that destroys everything still dear to you eventually, and that you’re stuck being a pawn of much more powerful people who will still be your uncaring asshole bosses centuries down the line. The game then sabotaged itself by getting sucked up in its own metaplot hype about the world ending next week, which would completely negate it’s own premise. But that’s one of the reasons I wanted to start with really old rulebooks. The initial vision and concept for games and game setting is universally much more interesting than the lore snarl that build up over time. Those are stuff for novels, but not playable game material.

But after a way too long introduction to the topic, here now my actual ideas how the premise of Vampire: The Masquerade can actually be used to make it a horror game. A fundamental part of being a Vampire is that the vampiric instincts called the Beast are completely inhuman, and that any humanity still left in a vampire is really just force of habit. Vampires act and think like people because that’s what they are used to and they are actively forcing themselves to repeat the familiar patterns of their life. But over time, keeping up these appearances becomes less and less important to a vampire, as they become nuisances and their original meaning forgotten. At the end, all that remains is a monster that has no concept of friendship or affection and exists only to kill. Not sure if the creators were thinking about it this way 30 years ago, but what this is is fear of dementia. The understanding that you will become something in the future that is horrifying to your current self. Something that you can do nothing to prevent it even while you watch it happening, until in the end you don’t even understand that anything is wrong. And on top of that you will also kill and destroy everything that matters to you and you hold dear.

But this is a very long and slow process that will stretch for centuries, unless you get killed before that. Not really something you can play out during the game. But what you can do is to have the players be confronted by the the things that await their characters in the future. You can show the players how other vampires lose the remainders of the humanity at different stages, making it clear that “this will be you”. Here’s a couple of ideas I’ve come up with myself. (Which totally should have been in the books from the start.)

  • Some vampires in the city have been killed one way or another. An elder tells the PCs that a moving company will be clearing out their places, but before that they need to get over to the dead vampires homes and kill their ghouls. Can’t have mortals with knowledge of vampires out in the street uncontrolled, with a terrible craving for vampire blood. If possible, the players should know the dead vampires, and perhaps met and talked with some of the ghouls as well.
  • A human friend of the PCs gets killed by another vampire. He apologizes that he didn’t know the person he killed was connected to them. He would have murdered someone else otherwise.
  • A young neonate calls the PCs because he urgently needs their help. He had a little accident while feeding and now has remove a corpse before it is found by humans, and really hopes to keep the whole thing from his sire.
  • The PCs are visiting another vampire at home, and as he lets them in, he apologizes that there’s still empty bodies lying around in his living room that he hasn’t cleaned up yet. Maybe rolling a corpse from the couch before offering them a seat. Or it’s wrapped in a tarp in the hall, next to a garbage bag that needs to be taken out next time he leaves.
  • If you want to take it a gear higher, a vampire could have a half-empty and half-conscious vessel around that he’s keeping for later.
  • The PCs are called to take part in a blood hunt for a vampire that has lost its last humanity and now threatens the Masquerade. This will be them at some point. For bonus points, make it a vampire the players know and have recently talked to.
  • Diablerie is considered the most evil and horrible crime that vampires can commit against each other, as drinking all of a vampire’s blood to gain his power is believed to also devour his soul. (And it can only be done by younger vampires against older vampires, and the old vampires make the laws.) A good introduction of this concept to new players would be to show how everyone is in a frenzy because a vampire friend of the PCs has been diablerized. For bonus points, the murderer was one of their friends as well.
  • During a blood hunt, a vampire the players consider to be quite decent gets really excited, because he assumes there won’t be any punishment for diablerizing the outlaw, and he has always been waiting for an opportunity to do it.

4 thoughts on “What’s so horrific about being a vampire anyway?”

  1. Wow! I personally prefer the Dark Ages campaign but this is both insightful and obvious at the same time. I agree that these ideas should’ve been in the rulebooks. If that had been the case, perhaps there would’ve been less emphasis on ‘how cool it is to be a vampire.’

    1. So far on my journey, I noticed so many things that make me think “Why are they constantly sabotaging their own great ideas?”
      I mentioned “You’re doomed for eternity, but everyone will die very soon”.
      There’s also “This game is all about the players making hard choices”, but the GM is told to write out finished scenes and stories in advance. Some versions say vampires don’t care for sex, but the artwork is all dolled up pinups. The clans are like rival factions, but they are also not. Cities have two or three dozen vampires in total, spread over several clans, but the PCs are seven or eight generations apart from their primogens and prince. There’s not enough vampires to have even one vampire for every generation within each clan. And vampires don’t usually travel and are trapped and confined to their cities, but they are also being puppets of even older methuselah playing a global game.
      Nothing wrong with creating a game that offers a wide range of different suggestions what the world in your custom campaign can be like, but then it’s also the game with the most infamously complex official metaplot.
      From everything I hear, 5th edition finally made serious attempts to fix all this mess, but in the process dropped the original clans and sects, which I always thought were the main selling point of the game. (And I just can’t read rulebooks that have photographs instead of illustrations.)

  2. I started playing Vampire as a young teen, and clearly didn’t play the way it was meant. We basically were “Vampire Anti-heroes” that had to drink blood to refresh our superpowers.

    Later, after playing in Cons and with other groups, I got to play a Toreador that actually had depth.

    1. I totally see how many people came to consider them unplayable as PCs, but I think Malkavians are by far the most interesting of the clans.

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