Mythic Fantasy and the Days of High Adventure

Among the many different branches of fantasy, one of the more obscure ones that is rarely seen in the wild is Mythic Fantasy. I believe it’s actually more a hypothetical idea than an actual concept anyone is working with in practice. I’ve seen it come up a few times in Fantasy-RPG books for gamemasters, as one of several suggested options for what different forms of styles a fantasy campaign could possibly take. The general idea seems to be fantasy that takes its main inspirations from Iron Age myths of the Greeks, Celts, and Germanic peoples, which tell tales of gods and superhuman heroes. And that’s usually about the full extend of detail for how this kind of fantasy would work. The only concrete suggestions I’ve seen is generally “I don’t know, I guess you use some medusas and minotaurs, or something”. But I say no, that’s not how you make a mythic fantasy campaign. That’s just reenacting Greek myths as an RPG. When we are talking about how we can give a fantasy RPGs like D&D different tones and flavors to make it more similar to other styles of fantastic stories, the goal is to put the default material into a new context. Stories of ancient myth are one thing, but I think when we use the term Mythic Fantasy, we should apply it to something else. Mythic is the adjective that describes that thing. Fantasy is the noun that is the thing.

I’ve been thinking about this these past few days, and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions to how you can create original fantasy material, in a newly envisioned world, and present it in a way that evokes a similar overall feel without just directly copying existing material.

The Monster

This is a big one, and I believe, the most critical of all the points I am going to make here. Modern fantasy in general, and fantasy RPGs in particular, seem to have lost touch with The Monster and forgotten it’s central role it plays in many of the oldest tales that survive to this day. Not all stories need monsters, just as not all fantasy needs to evoke the style of ancient myths. But we just don’t see The Monster anymore. RPGs in particular are full of “monsters”, but these tend to be swarms of critters that appear as the heroes come around the corner, and after a short action scene, are immediately forgotten one’s the turn around the next. Monsters are there to be fought, because fantasy is supposed to have monsters that are fought, but they generally don’t really have any impact on the greater story.  The story plays out between human(oid) characters. And I believe this even mostly holds true in D&D, with its big tomes of high level monsters. Yes, you might occasionally have fought a beholder or aboleth. But how often was that creature the main villain of the adventure that the entire story revolved around? What interactions did the PCs have with that big monster before they opened a door and found themselves immediately attacked? These monsters may make big and memorable fights, but from what I’ve seen over the past decades now, they are almost always just window dressing for a story that would work just as well without any monsters in it at all.

This is very much not the case with the monsters of ancient myths. There may be both perception bias by me and survivor bias by the ravages of time, but most if not all of these tales are about one monster. Medusa, the Bull of Minos, the cyclops Polyphemus, Cerberus, Fenris, Grendel, Humbaba, Ravana. They all have a name. They all are known to the people living near them and greatly feared. They have a history. They are not just some random creatures that live by themselves deep in the wilderness, minding their own business. The heroes who fight these monsters are not simply showing of their strength and power, they are performing a great service for the community. Yet somehow, we don’t really see that in modern fantasy. I think having these unique great monsters, that are an active thread to society and that ordinary people can not deal with are a central element of what makes a story feel mythic and really need to be included when trying to make a world that feels like Mythic Fantasy.

The Courts of the High Kings

Mythic tales as a whole seem to have a much bigger focus on specifics than the general, compared to what is overwhelmingly seen in games. Take any setting book for a fantasy RPG and look at the description of cities. If there is any useful information at all, it tends to be general stuff about the overall feel and appearance of the city, for when a group of mercenary adventurers is coming through on their way to new adventures. Cities often are central to mythic stories as well, but usually they are not described at all. When mythic heroes come to a city, they really are coming to a king’s court. That’s really the only part of the city that matters. Perseus comes to Knossos, to meet with King Minos. The city of Knossos is irrelevant to the story. All that is important is the palace of king Minos. Beowulf travels to Heorot, the court of King Hrothgar. We would assume that the king’s hall is inside a small city or town, but it is of no importance of the story. The name of the king’s court is not.

As a broad generalization, mythic tales like to give specific names to all the important characters and places. Myths will often take care to mention the homes and lineages of even secondary characters. It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that the original audiences of these stories would have been able to glean a great amount of context from these pieces of information. The home and lineage of different characters could inform deeper meanings in the things these characters say or the things they do, that are now lost to us. But even so, I still think that we would recognize such thing as being characteristic of ancient myths. And this is something that shouldn’t be too difficult to emulate in a game. When introducing new characters that are to some degree relevant to the story, don’t just tell the players their names and outer appearance, but also have them be introduced as “the son of X, brother to the king of Y”. It does not have to actually mean anything, but it still creates an impression that these things would be greatly meaningful to the people within the world of the story. Present NPCs as important leaders and emissaries, and have other NPCs treat them and speak of them as people who have influence and power, or at very powerful and influential friends. The world of myths is in many ways a very small one, in which everyone knows everyone and everything is connected.

The heroes should be Heroes

In common usage, the term hero is often used to simply mean protagonist. Or simply any person who did something risky out of kindness. But that’s not the original meaning of the term. A mythical hero is a person who stands above all others and exist in a different category than everyone else. And furthermore, they perform great deeds that bring a significant and permanent benefit to society as a whole. Unsurprisingly, many ancient heroes are said to be demigods who are descended from divine beings. A hero almost has to be superhuman by definition. Heroes are the people who go down in history, and they don’t even have to be good guys.

If you want to have a game that feels like stories of myth, the protagonists have to be heroes. And in any kind of roleplaying game, the players have to play the protagonists. There are many awful examples of published adventures where this is not the case and the PCs are merely spectators watching the real heroes do cool stuff and save the day, which has been emulated by countless numbers of GMs. But that’s objectively bad gamemastering and adventure design. The medium of roleplaying games demands that the players play the protagonists of the story. The game is the story of the PCs. In mythic stories the protagonists have to be heroes, and in roleplaying games the PCs have to be the protagonists. This means that in a Mythic Fantasy campaign, the PCs have to be heroes. And what makes or makes not a hero are not their deeds, but the perception of their deeds. A hero is who the people regard as a hero.

One major aspect of realizing this in a game is in the way that NPCs talk to the PCs and behave towards them. Heroic PCs should be treated as being exceptional people who stand tall above the common men of women. Heroes mingle among the highest ranking people of society, and they will gain the personal attention of kings and queens when they arrive in a new city, who will treat them with the same honor and respect as foreign dignitaries. Even when the PCs are from simple backgrounds with no titles and few possessions to their name, their deeds elevate them to being part of the elite.

To make this really work and feel believable in an actual campaign, PCs need to exceed the prowess and skills of ordinary warriors pretty early in the campaign. Having PCs start at a higher level or with larger numbers of character points is one option. But I am personally much more in favor of instead having ordinary NPCs all be of the most basic type. The default soldier and brigand are usually good enough for all common soldiers and brigands throughout the entire campaign. When the PCs reach 5th level, there is no need to have them encounter ultra-elite soldiers and brigands. If they can just steamroll over any ordinary warriors they encounter then let them. They are heroes. They are supposed to be superhuman. Equally important is that this makes it more believable that the ordinary soldiers are not capable of dealing with the monsters that threaten their cities and people. In some fantasy setting, many adventure ideas are frequently shot down with the simple reason of “why doesn’t any of the powerful NPCs or the giant armies take care of the problem?”. The answer to that is simple. There are no powerful NPCs. There are no armies that could be wasted to die at the feet of an ancient horror.

Swords of Legend

As with monsters and NPCs, another way to make a game feel more mythic is to apply the same principle of specificity to magic items. In mythic tales, there are no +1 swords or mass produced amulets that are found in some random hole in the ground. Every magic item is unique. Often they have a name, and almost always they have a history. They don’t just lie around to be found by the first person who stumbles upon them. They are either pried from the dead hands of slain main antagonists who used them for their evil purposes, or given as gifts from influential people as rewards for outstanding deeds performed by the heroes. Or alternatively, the heroes go to on a quest to retrieve the items from their ancient resting place, overcoming many hardships and foes along the way.

But even with this in mind, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have any magic items that are discovered unexpectedly in forgotten ruins. A great example of this is early on the movie Conan the Barbarian. Conan has been released from slavery by his master and is being chased by wolves, and trying to climb to safety on top of some rocks, falls into the well hidden entrance of an ancient tomb where he discovers his new sword. Since the movie has barely any dialog, neither the scene nor the sword gets any mention later in the film. But as the story have it, it was supposed to be a highly special and remarkable sword, a relic from the great and powerful realm of Atlantis that has long faded into myth. And in that scene where Conan discovers it in the tomb, this really comes across. He does not just find a sword lying around. He discovers an opulent tomb, with an ancient warrior king in his armor, sitting on a great stone throne, covered in dust and spiderwebs, the sword in his skeletal hand.

We do not know the name of the sword, or the name of the king. And we do not know any of their stories. But the way in which the sword is found makes it clear that this is not just some random sword from the shelf, that you can sell to a village blacksmith in bundles of ten. This is a unique artifact with a great history, even though the tales have been forgotten. And it still might just be a sword +1.

Illustrations by Justin Sweet, showing scenes from various Kull stories by Robert Howard.

Can’t see the forest for the trees

Given how many fantasy worlds are dominated by uninhabited wilderness, and how much the generic image of fantasy is based around forests, it’s pretty surprising to see how little ink has actually been spilled on this aspect of fantasy worlds. If you look around the internet for information about forests in RPGs, there’s basically nothing. All that I could find is how to draw forests on a map. There’s a bit more stuff on the topic of wilderness in RPGs, but most of it comes down to “how do I make overland travel less boring?” There seems to be almost nothing in regards to exploring forests as a setting in itself. About how the environment can be a driving force in the narrative of the campaign and how it can communicate tone and themes. Forest is just there, as an amorphous blank space.

So much potential for adventures? Don’t you feel inspired yet?

Interestingly, it seems that deserts have been explored much more over the decades, both in RPGs and fantastic literature. Deserts pose a clear immediate danger, in the lack of water and shelter from the sun. It’s also immediately obvious that you can’t just have a full campaign set in nothing but sand dunes. You also need rocky deserts, barren hills and mountains, and various oases, and you can occasionally break things up a little with a big sandstorm. For forests, we don’t really have such palette of different shades. On maps, you might get “light forest” and “heavy forest”, or possibly “forest” and “jungle” as two different shades of green, but at the end of the day, forests end up being big green blobs on the map, with about as much variation as the ocean surface.

In Veins of the Earth, a book about entire campaigns set in caves, there is an appendix about “Twelve Kinds of Dark”. Darkness is always a simple absence of light. In the physical reality, all darkness is exactly the same thing. But narratively, and in the context of tone and atmosphere, darkness and shadows can have a wide range of different feels. The darkness of a basement in a ruined house is very different than the darkness in the corners of a jarl’s hall, that is illuminated only by a single fire as the skald is telling his tales of old heroes to his audience.

At the end of the day, every forest is an area covered in trees. But really, not all forests are the same. Far from it. Different forests have different visibility based on the density of tree trunks and the undergrowth. They have different amounts of light based on the canopies. Some forests have almost perfectly flat floors while others grow on extremely rugged and rocky terrain. Some forests seem almost bone dry for long parts of the year while others are flooded or a soggy mud everywhere you step. Forests can be home to large numbers of animals, while others seem almost empty. And some can be full of fruits while others are nothing but pines. And this hasn’t even touched on the subject of introducing specific tones and atmosphere.

With Planet Kaendor, I always had this idea of making it a forest world. But in practice most content I work on deal with coastal cities, while the tree covered interior remains that damned big green blob without distinguishing features. Four of my favorite evocative settings are Barsoom, Dark Sun, Dune, and Morrowind. All of which are essentially desert settings. But you can’t just take these places, cover them entirely in trees, and call it a day. In all of them, the deserts are an active character in the world. To make a setting a forest world, there first needs to be a deeper exploration of what a forest can actually be as an environment and how it can shape stories.

More on that hopefully soon.

More More Maps

I think this might finally be enough maps for now. I really am quite happy with how this one turned out. A few places still need names, and I’ll have to draw in the rivers by hand in Krita (that‘s what Inkarnate decides to exclude from the free version?!) But otherwise this is a really nice map that I’d be happy to hand out to players.

To get this coastlines, I did a composite of several satellite images. Most of it is based on the coastline of California and British Columbia, with pieces of the Sea of Okhosk, Papua, and the Solomon Islands thrown in. I find the end result to look quite convincing.

Another thing I noticed is how much the size of map icons and writing on the map affects the perception of scale. Using pretty small icons and letters, I think it looks much more like a good portion of a continent than just a single county when I had them considerably larger.

More Map Magnificence

Two years ago I made a pretty decent looking map for Kaendor in Krita and GIMP. I was actually quite surprised that it was that long ago, as I had been used to my maps constantly changing and being revised. But the overall layout and the important settlements really have not changed at all since then. Which I take to be a sign that the setting has settled into a stable state that I am more or less happy with, even in the long term. I still have not finished naming everything, but I think I’ll be getting there over this year.

Today, I made a new version of that old map, in one afternoon trying out Inkarnate for the first time. This still could use some more polish, but I really quite like how it looks overall.

I still think this actually looks too clean and pristine as a handout for a Bronze Age Sword & Sorcery setting, though. I might end up tracing the final map in Krita to give it a more scribbled and grimy look.

How large does a setting have to be?

This is North-West-Cental Europe. It it an area exactly 1,000 miles from North to South, and 1,000 miles from East to West.

Think of what comes to your mind when you hear “The Middle Ages”. Unless you have a specific, personal interest in medieval Spain, Ireland, or Russia, almost everything that you think of will have been within this area, with the one notable exception of the Crusades. Even the vast majority of all Viking stuff.

Historians generally place the Middle Ages in roughly the time from 500 to 1,500 CE, which happens to coincide with the disappearance of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, and the discovery of America and the Reformation. So it all also falls into a span of 1,000 years.

A thousand miles and a thousand years. That’s the Middle Ages as a setting for popular fiction and reference frame for Fantasy. Compared to many popular fantasy settings, that’s tiny. But there’s so much stuff in this little box. More space than you could ever possibly need to tell your stories. It certainly won’t hurt if you can give names to the distant lands that lie beyond the edges of the map, where merchants get the most exotic of their goods. But to characters dealing with their own lives inside of this box, they don’t need to be anything more than that. Things are of course different for campaigns about traveling to far away exotic lands, which certainly have their place in fantasy. But those really are the exception, not the rule.

Worldbuilding Scale References

Starting on a new map for Planet Kaendor, I made a quick comparison of how big a 2,000 by 2,000 miles area would actually be compared to Europe. Since it was really easy to do, I did the same thing for North America and East Asia as well, and might as well share them with the world.

All maps use the same 100×100, 500×500, 1,000×1,000 and 2,000×2,000 miles squares.

The Scholar class for Planet Kaendor

As I am falling again deeply into the B/X hole, I have once again found myself having to deal with the question what I want to do about the issue of Clerics. Planet Kaendor is ultimately my own take on Sword & Sorcery, and with the passing of (many) years, I am seeing more and more the meaning and relevance of the typical conventions of this particular style of fantasy. Early on, I was all in for various (A)D&D-isms, like having elves and gnomes, goblins and gnolls, dragons, powerful elemental magic, other planes to visit, and a classical pantheon of gods. That’s all long in the past by now and I’ve fully accepted our Lord and Savior Robert Howard into my heart. And I really find myself enjoying the abstract magic of Moorcock and Smith much more than magic missiles and fireballs.

Finally getting a good picture of what I want gods and spirits to be in my setting (I never had really made a decision on this aspect in all the years), it’s really become clear that clerics don’t have a place on Planet Kaendor. Temples and priests are cool, as are barbarian shamans, but a clear separation of arcane and divine magic just doesn’t make any sense in the context of the supernatural forces that shape the setting. (Which will be the topic of a different post.) My main concern had been how the game would change if you no longer have clerics in the party who can cast healing spells and the players will only rely on healing potions. But when you look at how much healing spells they can actually provide in B/X, it’s really not that much. No spells at all at 1st level, and even well along into a campaign at 7th level, it’s still only two first level spells and one fourth level spell. And you might want to sometime cast other spells than just cure wounds as well. So I think when you’re not too stingy with healing potions as the GM, there should be no real disruption from the lack of clerics.

The most interesting alternative approach to priests that I’ve seen is from the Conan d20 game, which is build on top of a D&D framework. It only has a single full spellcaster class called the scholar. What spells they learn and how they present themselves in public is entirely up to them. Sorcerers and witches are obviously scholars, but so are priests and shamans. They don’t get their magic powers from their gods, but through the same arcane study as everyone else. Priests may claim that they get their magic powers from their gods, and might even believe it, but except for rare cases of divine intervention, it’s all their own doing. That’s an approach I feel is right for Planet Kaendor as well.

The Scholar class is really just the default magic-user with a different spell list. In any other regard, it’s really identical, including hit points, attack chances, saving throws, and number of spell slots. I’ve never been a fan of spell slots as it’s too obviously a game mechanic and not an abstraction to represent a plausible magic system in game terms. But I really don’t want to work out a completely new magic system myself. The most convenient solution for me is the one that was introduced in the 5th edition of D&D. Casters really have two separate sets of “preparation slots” and “casting slots”. You prepare spells as you would always do, but when you cast them they don’t disappear for the rest of the day. You’re still limited in the number of spells you can cast by your casting slots, but you’re not limited to cast a spell only once per day, or forced to prepare it in two slots if you want to be able to cast it more than once. It solves the weirdness of spells being forgotten without actually requiring any modifications to the classes themselves.

Since I want to cap character levels at 10th, the list only goes up to 5th level spells, but of course you could always expand it to 6th level spells as well. It’s mostly spells from Basic Fantasy, which are almost identical to B/X, but I also included a few from OSRIC as well.

1st level spells
  • Cause Fear
  • Change Self
  • Charm Person
  • Command
  • Darkness
  • Detect Magic
  • Entangle
  • Hold Portal
  • Light
  • Protection from Demons
  • Read Languages
  • Remove Fear
  • Resist Cold
  • Sleep
  • Spider Climb
  • Ventriloquism
2nd level spells
  • Blindness
  • Charm Animal
  • Detect Demons
  • Detect Invisible
  • Detect Thoughts
  • Invisibility
  • Knock
  • Locate Object
  • Mirror Image
  • Fog cloud
  • Phantasmal Force
  • Resist Fire
  • Silence
  • Sorcerer Lock
  • Speak with Animals
  • Slow Poison
  • Stinking Cloud
  • Web
3rd level spells
  • Clairvoyance
  • Darkvision
  • Dispel Magic
  • Growth of Animals
  • Haste
  • Hold Person
  • Invisibility, 10′ radius
  • Protection from Demons, 10′ radius
  • Protection from Normal Missiles
  • Slow
  • Speak with Dead
  • Striking
  • Suggestion
  • Water Breathing
4th level spells
  • Bestow Curse
  • Charm Monster
  • Confusion
  • Growth of Plants
  • Hallucinatory Terrain
  • Polymorph Other
  • Polymorph Self
  • Remove Curse
  • Shrink Plants
  • Sorcerer Eye
  • Speak with Plants
5th level spells
  • Animate Dead
  • Cloudkill
  • Conjure Elemental
  • Contact Higher Plane
  • Dispel Demons
  • Feeblemind
  • Hold Monster
  • Insect Plague
  • Slay Living
  • True Seeing

The weird Demographics of Vampire populations

One thing that has always been left very unclear about Vampire: The Masquerade (maybe in part deliberately) is the question of the scale at which the vampire society of a given domain exists. To some degree, the concept of the World of Darkness is pulling in two opposing directions. On the one hand, the game has for a very long time been promoted as “a game of personal horror”. Horror is inherently dependent on a sense of isolation and vulnerability, and the rulebooks make it clear throughout all editions that vampires are generally solitary loners who usually don’t want to have much to do with each other. But on the other hand, it’s also really big on the concept of Clans as interconnected organizations in conflict both with each other and among themselves in a global struggle that spans centuries. And on top of that are even older vampires that hide in the shadows and pull the strings of hundreds of unwitting pawns who consider themselves to be the lords of the night. So what is it? Bleak isolation or tightly knit families?

The Camarilla consists of seven clans, and while not every city would need to have a strong presence of all seven, I think most players and GMs would want to have all of them represented in their campaigns to t least make them options for player characters. Then each clan also has elders of the 7th or 8th generation, while the default generation for PCs is 13th, which are the most common vampires. And there’s also a growing number of vampires of the 14th and 15th generation in recent decades. That means that clan would have members of 6 to 9 different generations. Even if you have only one vampire per generation per clan, you’re already starting with about 50 vampires. That is a pretty large community.

Population Sizes

Quite early on, a rough estimate was mentioned that the Camarilla considers 1 vampire per 100,000 humans a good number to not cause any occasional killings by vampires to raise suspicion or interest. The number is widely dismissed as not being really based on anything, but it’s the only number there is. Combine it with 50 vampires that inhabit a domain, and you would need an urban area of 5 million humans. (City borders are a human administration thing, vampires only care where the rural country side starts.) And when you look at the US, Canada, and Mexico, where most of the published material for the game is set, you get 11 urban areas that lie above that number (in the mid 2010s). For smaller vampire communities of 20 to 50 vampires, you get another 20 domains. That actually seems pretty workable.

“Europe”: The dark blue area has a similar population to the United States. The light blue area is similar to Canada and Mexico together.

However, things get wonky when you apply the same assumptions to Europe. As it turns out, the population in Europe is more evenly spread out. Even though the balance between urban and rural population is about the same (~80/20), European countries tend to have more mid-sized cities instead of a few giant ones. In an area with a comparable population of humans, there are only 5 urban areas that pass the 5 million people mark, and another 14 above the 2 million people mark. That would mean that America could maintain +50% more vampire communities of at least 20 vampires, and more than twice as many communities of at least 50 vampires. And with the Cainites having been established in Europe ten times longer than in North America, that just feels wrong. Europe should be the heart of the Western Vampire World.

However, there is another important difference. As the saying goes “In Europe, a hundred miles is a long distance. In America, a hundred years are a long time”. The area from England, through the Low Countries, Western Germany, and to Northern Italy has a population like the US East Coast but at only a third the length. Getting from one major city to another can be a lot quicker than getting from the outskirts to the city center during high traffic in a lot of places. I think for campaigns set in Europe, there needs to be a different image of what the domain of a prince looks like. Instead, you could have domains consisting of dozens of smaller cities that all can support only one or two vampires each. Or a prince who holds dominion of four cities that are each home to half a dozen vampires. In the most densely inhabited areas, there is very little empty space that could truly be considered rural by American standards.

Age Distribution

Another interesting topic is the matter of generations. As the books explain, when the vampires decided to go into hiding and disappear from the human world at the end of the Middle Ages, it became a necessity to move to the cities, where more people would be out on the streets after night, and stories of attacks and death seen as nothing that unusual. While a vampire can easily survive by feeding on just a few dozen humans, doing so without ever noticing a pattern of strange sightings and disappearances requires hiding among thousands of humans. So even while the human population in Europe increased significantly over the centuries, the number of vampires would not have risen with them and remained stagnant, if not even decline as killed vampires were not replaced in already overcrowded cities. And it was in this context that some vampires chose to try their luck with risking the highly dangerous journey to the New World.

The vampires with the most to gain by migrating to America would have been the ones with the least to loose. Which in the society of the Camarilla means the youngest one. The new Masquerade and threat of werwolves in the countryside made vampires mostly confined to cities, and the laws created by the Camarilla elders to ensure that no infighting among vampires would raise the suspicions of mortals also just happened to protect the interests of the same elders against young upstarts trying to get their own slice of the pie. Those 8th generation elders who are now princes in America would still have been neonates less than a century old when they first came to the colonies, to later be joined by a slow trickle of 9th and 10th generation vampires.

While Europe saw a significant population growth in the last two centuries, the boom in North America at the same time was on a considerably different scale. From 1870 to 2000, the population in Western Europe roughly doubled in size. In the same period, the population of the United States increased eight times. Much of it driven by new immigration. But in my own opinion, that migration of humans would not have been mirrored by an equal migration of vampires. Crossing the open ocean on a ship, crammed with hundreds of people for weeks is extremely dangerous, and even when you get to your destination you start with no contacts and no shelter. Instead, the growth of the American vampire population would have come from local vampires creating new fledglings in large numbers. Even if the oldest vampires of the 8th generation want to create new childer, they would only be 9th generation themselves. And most new vampires would be created by younger vampires who had no childers yet of their own. It’s easy to see the ranks of 11th, 12th, and 13th generation vampires explode alongside the human population.

In Europe, the situation would be different. Almost all the 6th and 7th generation vampires would have stayed in their well established domains, together with a majority of 8th generation vampires. So my view is that in Europe the total amount of Elder vampires is several times larger than in America. But since we are comparing two areas of similar human populations with similar degrees of urbanization, the total amount of all vampires would be the same. At the same time, with human population growth being only a quarter the rate as in America, the growth of the vampire population would have been much more limited as well. Quite likely Europe would have been overcrowded by old vampires at the same time as America had huge potential for growth, so the vampire population in Europe might not have grown at all. I can totally see many European princes decided that keeping the vampire population the same while the human population doubles makes maintaining the Masquerade much less stressful. The books talk about American neonates being miffed at not being able to create new fledglings any time they want. In Europe, it would be so much worse. However, at the same time, with larger numbers of old vampires of older generations, there is still much more possibility of new vampires being added to older generations. In America, the few 8th generation elders can always only create a new 9th generation vampire. In Europe, a 6th generation vampire might still get the idea to have one more 7th generation childe to raise for the next couple of decades. This of course continues further down the line, with 9th and 10th generation fledgling being just as likely as 13th or 14th generation ones.

In Summary

I think there’s a good case for approaching vampire society in Europe quite different from how vampire society in America is described. In Europe, the urban development is more conductive to spread out and decentralized domains than the monolithic metropolis surrounded by a ring of suburbs.

The idea that there are a tiny number of elders and a large majority of neonates also doesn’t have to stay true in Europe. Populations that are roughly one third elders, ancilla, and neonates each absolutely makes sense.

While it’s not necessary, and arguing demographics and sociology in a game about undead monsters is pointless, I think it would actually be quite interesting to have America and Europe be distinctively different. I already talked about how the typical urban decay with street gangs and burning cars does not really feel right for a darker and twisted Germany. Having different regions feel actually different is much more interseting and exciting than simply switching all KFCs for Nordsees.

Vampire: The Masquerade: Northeast Passage

On the Reeperbahn, late half past one
If you got a girl, or got none
You will have great fun, that’s the way it’s done
On the Reeperbahn, late half past one

Who never in one cozy night
Strolled past the Reeperbahn’s lights
Is a sorry sod, ’cause he knows you not
Oh my Saint Paul’s, my Saint Paul’s by Night

Basically as soon as I started considering working on a Vampire campaign, I decided that it would have to be set in Hamburg. The premise of the game requires that it’s set in a major city (unless your deliberately want to run a nonstandard campaign), and every time I start worldbuilding on something, I always take a few moment to think if there’s anything from the Baltic Sea region that I can use. We almost never get to see our regional history an heritage make an appearance anywhere. The only thing you ever get is Vikings, and even those seem to always be shown far away from home. Hamburg is the biggest city in Northern Europe between London and Saint Petersburg, and it also happens to be where I was born and lived as a kid for 10 years (and I still pass through there pretty regularly). So it really was the obvious choice with no other contestants. And it turns out to actually have a lot of recent history that is great material for a Vampire campaign.

Hamburg

As a major city with a metropolitan area of 5 million people, Hamburg obviously qualifies as a perfect setting for a Vampire campaign. But once I started looking up various barely remembered details from places I remember from my childhood, I rediscovered so many things that not only make it suitable but amazing for that task.

While not nearly as old as the Roman cities in southern Germany, Hamburg has a long history that stretches back over a thousand years. The city really came into its prime with the rise of the Hanseatic League in the 13th century. Merchants from many important port cities on the Baltic and North Seas formed an extensive network of relationships that eventually grew into something akin to one of the world’s earliest megacorporations. In many of these cities, the Hanse merchants formed their own aristocratic class that often came to govern the ports as independent or autonomous republics. The capital of the League was in nearby Lübeck, which with modern city growth and transportation infrastructure is now part of the Hamburg metro area. In the Holy Roman Empire, Hamburg and Lübeck were among a small number of cities that had no lords and owed allegiance only to the Emperor himself. This arrangement lasted until the 1920s, and even today the city of Hamburg is one of the 16 states of Germany, only one administrative level below the Federal Government. The merchant aristocracy of Hamburg was so proud that they would not accept any medals or join any orders of foreign powers, as they would recognize no authority other than their own. There really is no doubt: In the World of Darkness, the Hanseatic League was undisputed Ventrue territory.

Early on in the 30 Years War, Hamburg invested heavily in new massive fortifications to surround the entire city, and it was one of the few major cities in the Empire that were never besieged or pillaged, but still had the war come right to its doorsteps during Wallenstein’s campaign against the Danish king Christian, whose possessions included the northernmost parts of the Empire. Hamburg and Lübeck marked the greatest extend of Naploeon’s empire in the North at the start of the 19th century. After a great fire in 1842, the rebuilding of Hamburg led to a great industrial boom. Growing into the third largest port in Europe and becoming the gateway for emigrants to America and where exotic goods from around the world would come into Germany.

24 Then the Lord rained sulfur and fire out of the sky from the Lord on Sodom and Gomorrah, 25 overthrowing those cities, all of the plain, and everyone who lived in the cities. He also destroyed the plants that grew out of the ground.

– Genesis 19

Ruin of St. Nicholas’ Church, destroyed in 1943.

In 1943, the British Royal Air Force launched Operation Gomorrah, and for a full week they attacked Hamburg with incendiary bombs. One night the relentless bombing exceeded their wildest expectation, with the inferno turning into a giant tornado of flames that incinerated much of the city. Later the amount of destruction and deaths from the atomic bomb in Nagasaki would be rated as “not nearly as bad as Hamburg”. Along with tens of thousands of humans, the fire destroyed a majority of the city’s vampires, including many elders of many centuries. There are few things that scare ancient empires, but this night haunts those who survived to this very day. Not even 20 years later, Hamburg suffered a great flood that devastated the poorest parts of the city in the South, there the old dykes had still not been properly repaired. Since then, things have been looking upward for the city.

Hamburg by Night

The classic style of Vampire: the Masquerade is one of urban decay and street gangs. While this was a very contemporary style in 90s America, it just really doesn’t make any sense for Hamburg in the 2020s. You could do such a version of Hamburg, but it just wouldn’t reflect the character of the city, even in a darker and more twisted way. With most of the historic buildings being completely destroyed by the two fires in 1842 and 1943, most of the current city only 70 years old. And with the hastily constructed concrete blocks from the 50s now showing their age and being considered eyesores, the city is giving itself a makeover of shiny glass and gleaming lights. It just looks very modern and crisp, with a booming economy. Industrial ruins and burning cars simply don’t fit into this place.

But even with such a shining exterior, there is absolutely room to fill it with evil and corruption. There are persistent stereotypes and jokes about German society and culture, which are so persistent because they are not exactly wrong. They don’t get it quite right and miss many of the finer nuances, but there is a lot of truth to that. And even with Germany as a whole, the “Northern Lights” have a reputation for being dour, joyless, and lacking in courtesy. In my experience, “Germany” is really just a language area. Culturally, people in Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, and Mecklenburg are Scandinavian. When we look South and see the Rhur Area with its Karneval, and Bavaria with its Oktoberfest, we just think they are all mad and an embarrassment to the whole county. It’s not that we mean to be rude or have no sense of humor or enjoying fun, but our regional culture puts a much greater emphasis of giving other people their space and being unobtrusive. We like not being bothered and extend that common courtesy to others.

Hamburg City Hall

But even so, it does take very little to go from courtesy to callousness. There is only a small step between not being nosy and willful ignorance, and between not rocking the boat and complacency. It’s easy to find yourself kicked out into the freezing rain. And the 1930s were not our proudest moments. This version of Hamburg that I am going for is one of order and oppression, but not enforced by police with clubs, but by social pressure. The police is not the hand of the oppressor, but the foot of the people, put down on those trying to disrupt a good thing. Corruption is not a serious concern of the people, as you don’t see it unless you want to. It’s not the drugs that bother people, but the junkies passed out on the sidewalks. Fighting crime is not about dealing with the causes, but removing it from sight.

Hamburg is an old Ventrue city. Shaped just as much by the vampires who infest it, as they are shaped by it. It is orderly, efficient, and makes a whole lot of money. It’s running smoothly, and the masses just hovering ever so slightly above poverty is by design. People who can’t afford to lose their job don’t ask questions or make demands. With Ventrue pulling many of the leavers that control the city, “Human Resources” take on the full horrific meaning that the term implies. The city and its industry does not serve the people. The people are the fuel and the grease that make the city run.

A City of Steel and Sin

While Hamburg is generally not considered to be among the fancy global cities of Europe, like London, Paris, Berlin, or Moscow, it is still a quite impressive place of its own.

The port of Hamburg is the third largest in Europe, after Rotterdam and Antwerp. Aside from its massive container terminals, it also includes several shipyards and oil refineries on the south side of the Elbe. Hamburg is also the site of the largest copperworks in Europe, an Airbus production site, and countless machine factories. It also has a major airport and a main train station with 12 platforms inside a single 150m long and 75 meter wide hall of steel beams and glass.

Hamburg is also home to the second largest cemetery in the Old World. Most cemeteries have a but stop. Hamburg Ohlsdorf has its own two bus lines with 24 stops. Right nearby are the Fuhlsbüttel prison and the Ochsenzoll Asylum, making for a quite unique neighborhood.

The Reeperbahn in the St. Pauli neighborhood is probably the second most famous Red Light District in Europe after Amsterdam. Originally the area started as a shanty town outside the walls of the cities Hamburg and Altona and became the home to all trades that were forbidden inside the cities. In the 1920s it fancied itself to be a glitzy and glamorous entertainment district the likes of Berlin, but after the war it was never properly redeveloped and turned into a crime-infested slum. In recent decades great efforts have been made to straighten it up and return it to its glory days. But it never lost its pride in its self proclaimed title as “The most sinful mile in the world.”

Synthwave-Noir is the new Gothic-Punk

Vampire: The Masquerade was created at the start of the 90s, with the first rulebook explaining it’s stylistic and aesthetic vision as “Gothic-Punk”. Some years ago, I had a long discussion with several people about the very question if this overall dominant style dates the game so much as a product of the 90s that it would no longer work for current groups of players unless you deliberately aim for retro-nostalgia. I think it was when I saw something or another about Bloodlines 2 (a Vampire videogame currently in development), that I had the thought whether the Synthwave aesthetic of recent years could be a viable way to transform Vampire into something that evokes very similar conceits in the present day.

Synthwave is a electronic music style that came to prominence in the late 2000, which makes heavy use of synthesizer sounds that strongly evoke the sound of 80’s electronic pop, and was hugely influenced by the music from the movie Blade Runner. But it uses these references and influences as a starting point for something that is new and actually quite different rather than being actual 80s retro music. For reasons unknown to man, Synthwave also has an extremely distinctive aesthetic for album covers, dominated by abstracted vector-graphic shapes in bright pink, blue, and orange.

While I personally think it’s very cool music, it also has a strong overlap with various visual arts. Probably the two most influential places where Synthwave got mainstream exposure are in the movie Drive from 2011 and the videogame Hotline Miami in 2012, both of which combine extremely brutality with detached coldness in a world of extremely evocative colors and lighting. Again, it is a style that is very reminiscent of Blade Runner, which also just got it’s own return in 2017, again with stunning visuals and sound. A similar style was also used earlier in Collateral from 2004, and in the super successful John Wick movies.

I think Neo-Noir and Synthwave in 2020 are really the spiritual successors that Gothic and Punk where in 1990. Back then, the name of the game was radical extravagance. Clothing, hairstyles, and makeup all carefully crafted to the smallest detail to be as eye catching and provocative as possible. Punks look dirty and sit on the curb with broken beer bottles, but their outfits are as deliberately designed and customized as the most dolled-up goth. Make no mistake, goths are totally aware that their outfits with full war paint makes them look like lunatic weirdos to most people. That’s entirely the point. And I think this is something that doesn’t really translate properly into the 21st century. It no longer comes across as edgy, just silly. Street gangs are no longer the boogeymen of the middle class, and today’s youth has more serious concerns than rebellion without a plan against the establishment. Maybe society has become more open to individual expression as well, and when your outfit can no longer provoke the boomers, then what’s the point of spending all these hours on it?

But while the typical Brujah and Gangrel styles may no longer be considered the cutting edge of what is cool, I think we’re currently at a point in popular entertainment that gives the stage to Ventrue and Tremere. It’s now the time of nice suits and Mercedes. When you can’t beat them, joining them starts to become attractive. Even if you first tell yourself that it’s to beat them at their own game. You also have that look in Kingsmen and the current James Bond movies, which despite being about public servants leaving carnage across the world in service for their states, really don’t have any love for authority.

And look: It’s our old friends pink and blue again.

It’s probably not quite an aesthetic you can go for with an Anarch campaign. But for a campaign centered around Ventrue, Toreador, Tremere, and Lasombra, I think this is perfect! And when you think about it, John Wick and his pals are living in their own Camarilla. And vampire society in the World of Darkness has always been filled with endless parallels to organized crime.

But Vampire is not only a game about politics. While it often seems to be forgotten and glossed over, it also presents itself as a game of horror. Big influences on me for what I imagine horror in my campaign to feel like are True Detective (Season 1, of course), and also Twin Peaks. I’m probably not able and also have no intention to make something as funny as David Lynch, but I really like the sense of eerie wrongness and malevolent evil in that show.