Sunday, 13 December 2015

Vampire Masks and Dirges

So earlier I tried out some character generation for Vampire: the Requiem and ran into some trouble with Masks and Dirges. I just want to dig a little bit further into that.

Here, for background, I present the text of these mechanics.

Mask is the bearing Kindred present to the world. It’s the fa├žade, the pretty lie. It’s the excuse for why he can’t stay for breakfast in the morning. It’s the reason she gives the cab driver for dropping her off near an abandoned warehouse at odd hours of the night. It’s his excuse for barely touching his dinner. The First Tradition reads: “Do not reveal your nature to those not of the Blood. Doing so forfeits your claim to the Blood.” Kindred take this concept seriously, and extend it beyond the purview of their unnatural existences. Revealing oneself is a form of vulnerability. Vulnerability is a quick route to Final Death. Any time a vampire overcomes a small hurdle in defense of her Mask, she gains a point of Willpower. When committing atrocious or existentially risky acts in defense of her Mask, she regains all her spent Willpower points.

The Dirge is the truth behind the lies. It’s the vampire’s secret self; it’s who he is when the lights are off and nobody is present to witness his dirtiest moments. It’s his dark indulgence. It’s the self-loathing she will never admit. It’s his desire for an end. It’s her need for companionship.

A Dirge gives the Kindred a sense of identity. After all, her very existence is a lie. In the Danse Macabre, truth is rarely more than a pipe dream. For most vampires, honesty only exists within oneself. Defending that internal honesty helps her to maintain perspective. Any time a vampire withdraws from his outside life in defense of his truer self, he gains a point of Willpower. When committing terrible, damning acts in defense of his personal identity, he regains all his spent Willpower points.

It seems pretty obvious how these are supposed to work. Mask represents the way a vampire tries to present herself, for a number of reasons: it complies with the expectations of vampire society, it helps her control what others know about her, and importantly, it protects her self-identity. Narratively, these are what we see in scenes where the vampire is in control, when things are going right or she's otherwise able to keep her cool. Mask is what she wants herself to be, or to make others think she is, and we see it when she's able to step into that role.

Dirge is what happens when the vampire loses control - not in a ragey way, but when they sense their life careening off balance. These are what we see in their personal angsty scenes, and written from internal perspective. Dirge is all the things they dread revealing to anyone, and the magnet that pulls them back.

What's the problem?

The issue I have with Mask and Dirge isn't anything about the system, it's about the resources. Here's the list of archetypes presented by the game:

  • Authoritarian - assert authority
  • Child - avoid responsibility and test boundaries
  • Competitor - challenge
  • Conformist - conform
  • Conspirator - make things complicated for no reason
  • Courtesan - make people have fun
  • Cult Leader - seek devotion
  • Deviant - break the law
  • Follower - obey orders
  • Guru - impart wisdom
  • Idealist - refuse compromise
  • Jester - highlight absurdity
  • Junkie - indulge
  • Martyr - take burdens
  • Masochist - seek pain
  • Monster - cause pain
  • Nomad - move on for no reason
  • Nurturer - assist others
  • Perfectionist - titivate
  • Penitent - beat yourself up over stuff
  • Questioner - challenge assumed truths
  • Rebel - flout norms
  • Scholar - seek lost knowledge
  • Social Chameleon - make new friends
  • Spy - discover secrets and create false identities
  • Survivor - take the safer path
  • Visionary - share ideals with others

Okay, which of those make a good Mask? That's right, most of them. Arguably you could even use the antisocial ones as Masks if you want to play an openly controversial figure, and those are actually pretty common in a lot of story types. A Monster could be a figure everyone's too scared to touch despite their actions, or a useful tool under someone's control (the old ruthless assassin trope), or they might actually restrain their impulses enough that vampiric society is safe and it's only humans who get slaughtered.

A rebel might constantly skirt the edges of trouble without ever getting slapped down. That happens a lot in literature, either with your maverick antiheroes, or with antagonists who always conveniently avoid punishment until the protagonist gets involved and they raise their game unacceptably. The spy implies secrecy, but actually could be a perfectly good Mask for someone who's a known finder-outer or even an enigmatic facilitator whose true identity is unknown. Just about the only one that seems a major problem is the Deviant, because I'd tend to say regularly actually breaking law (and vampire law at that) should make it mostly impossible to play as a PC. Not if you want to do any of the actual vampire social stuff, at least.

Okay, and how about the Dirge? Let's just re-examine that quote. The Dirge is the truth behind the lies. It’s the vampire’s secret self; it’s who he is when the lights are off and nobody is present to witness his dirtiest moments. It’s his dark indulgence. It’s the self-loathing she will never admit. It’s his desire for an end. It’s her need for companionship.

Which of these archetypes represents something you are secretly? A hidden, shameful self?

Well, the Monster and the Masochist seem good bets. The Penitent also works. The Junkie has potential. Maybe the Conspirator? Oh, Survivor.

That's pretty much it as far as I'm concerned. I don't see how most of those would work as secret selves, simply because they place so much emphasis on your interactions with others. I don't think you can secretly encourage others to have fun, or secretly challenge authority, or secretly make new friends, or secretly highlight the absurdity of reality.

Others just don't really make sense to me because I don't see how they'd work. I suppose you could have nomadic tendences and just give up and leave when things get tough? I'm not really seeing things like Conformist or Follower as being dramatic narrative moments of angst. I don't think you can give in, shed the mask, and question assumed social norms.

Failing on your own terms

The other thing is, it feels to me like White Wolf have missed out on the more personal end of Dirges, even though that seems to be the entire point of them. Surely, these are supposed to be the scenes where our antihero falls into a pit of despair, allows their true nature or secret urges to get the better of them, and is revealed in all of their (cool, sexy) vulnerability?

Don't get me wrong, those I've listed above include several options for indulging in dark impulses: causing pain, feeling pain, self-flagellation, overindulgence.

On the other hand I don't see half the things they actually list in the description. It’s his dark indulgence. It’s the self-loathing she will never admit. It’s his desire for an end. It’s her need for companionship.

We can maybe put Masochism or Penitence down as "self-loathing", although that feels a little generous to me. I don't see anything that suggests existential angst, though. Nor do I see any need for companionship. Any sense that the vampire's actions are futile and pointless. Any desire to destroy everything they've done, convinced it is valueless. Any desire to drive away anyone who cares about them. Any desperate craving for affection, or validation, or even old familiar comforts from mortal life.

I think essentially the flaw here is trying to pretend that Masks and Dirges are, or can be, in any sense interchangeable. It's perfectly possible that what one considers a public virture, another considers a private vice - it's all about personality and social context. However, that doesn't mean absolutely anything can be pressed into this mould.

Broadly speaking, I would tend to say that most of the Masky ideas work because they describe actions, and these fit very clearly with the idea of Things You Do Publicly that is used in Masks. However, this performative aspect also means they don't fit well as things you do privately as self-expression.

Conversely, the things that work obviously as Dirges seem to describes impulses and feelings, and these are clearly things you can experience in private. Most of these also work as Masks, given a reasonably liberal setting, because being Someone Who Indulges In X is actually a plausible public identity that doesn't necessarily reflect your inner self. Just think about celebrities. How many seek attention by being Dangerous to Know, or Crazy Drug-Using Good-Timer, or Penitent in the Media?

Mechanical stuff

Because I'm interested in things like balance, I'm also going to quickly look at some of the specifics here.

One thing that strikes me is that there seem to be some Mask/Dirges who have a comparatively easy time earning Willpower, and some who will have a very difficult time. Bear in mind, of course, that this idea seems to mostly be about encouraging you to pick a broadly-archetypal character and play up to it, rather than some kind of power optimisation thing. Still, interesting.

An Authoritarian needs to clamp down on an inferior (not that difficult if they're your inferior), and can regain all Willpower by a "widespread hit against a rival’s mortal connections". Obviously not trivial, but if someone's a serious rival, this is kind of something you want to be doing anyway. Here, taking a mechanically-beneficial path (weakening a rival) is also narratively appropriate (taking action against a rival) and mechanically-rewarded (regain all Willpower).

A Child needs to find someone to take responsibility for a mistake. This may work out well if you have an established parent-figure who the GM (or player) will have do so on your behalf. If you don't, though, this might be very difficult. Certainly more difficult than telling an underling not to get above themselves, like the Authoritarian. The All Willpower option is "Commit a terrible crime to see how authority might react." This seems problematic. For one thing, it mechanically equates avoiding responsibility and testing boundaries with doing terrible things, when these seem like very different and unconnected aspects of a character. For another, it means the character puts themselves in serious danger. Here, the mechanical reward of Willpower is not an all-positive package; it comes with no broader mechanical benefit (quite likely the reverse) and involves a specific narrative path that makes you pretty clearly a bad person.

The Conspirator is an odd one because they don't seem to have a very clear motivation, just a set of actions. This is, essentially, "be that one kooky obviously conspiratorial character who does things in a really complicated way for no reason, which would also attract attention rather than avoiding it". They gain Willpower by, and I quote, "Add a layer of meaningless complexity to a plan." This is obviously causing trouble for yourself, because that meaningless complexity will increase the risk of failure. They regain all willpower by "Refuse to take an action in self-defense without excessive, dangerous plotting." Here, the mechanical reward of Willpower comes with a serious mechanical downside (putting yourself at increased risk) and involves doing something which is inherently foolish ("excessive, dangerous") which limits the range of characters it's appropriate for. There is no broader mechanical benefit from acting in this way.

The Courtesan is a slightly weird one because it seems to be a pretty easy ride. You get Willpower for accepting inconvenience to help others have a good time, which seems like a smaller hurdle than passing the buck or sabotaging your own changes. More bewilderingly, the All Willpower clause is the sort of thing that sounds vaguely cool but I have no idea what it's supposed to mean in practice: "Be the last one dancing when the party’s on fire." If it's anything like it sounds, that actually seems like an easy way to recover your Willpower, but also one that isn't really under your control.

The Deviant is exactly the opposite, in that regaining any Willpower is obviously risky, since they have to commit an actual crime. To regain all their Willpower, they have to "commit a high crime in plain view of an authority." If we assume their "recognised society" is vampires, well, that seems more or less impossible to pull off without getting your character killed off? I don't get the impression vampires are very tolerant.

The Jester merely has to point out that whatever's going on is absurd - and considering this is a roleplaying game about being vampires who hang around in large social groups brooding about their inner pain and occasionally going on arbitrary missions for people to enliven their unlives, there's likely to be quite a lot of existential absurdity going on. All of that stuff we politely ignore as useful genre tropes. Their All Willpower option is "Favor wit and cunning over direct self-defense in a situation of serious danger." which sounds dangerous, but actually doing something clever and unexpected may well work out better than trying to shoot someone in the face.

I'm not going to go through the whole list, because there's no point. Basically, there seem to be some archetypes whose shtick is doing something that's beneficial to their character and/or involves minimal effort. Others have to refuse some benefit, incur risk or even actively court risk to recover their Willpower. Once you get to the All Willpower options, we have a very non-trivial scale between those who have to put themselves at risk without any in-character benefit (Child, Monster, Conspirator); those who have to incur risk in the pursuit of a goal (Cult Leader, Idealist, Nurturer, Survivor); and those who don't seem to need any obvious immediate risk to benefit (Scholar, Courtesan, Authoritarian).

There's also a few who have non-danger costs: the Social Chamaeleon has to "burn an important bridge" to regain Willpower. This may actually be a more punishing option than simply incurring risk, because risk is often a relatively short-term problem, whereas loss of a useful contact or earning enmity can be permanent. The same applies to the Nomad - in fact, I'm not entirely sure how the Nomad is even supposed to work in a game with more than one player? Surely if they abandon their society or city, they're pretty much out of that campaign?

Obviously, people pick their own characters and I assume regaining Willpower is only a relatively minor part of gameplay. It just struck me as an interesting discrepancy. More seriously, I think it may make it more difficult to follow the authors' suggestion and devise your own Masks and Dirges, because there's no clear and consistent trade-off to regain Willpower. I would imagine GMs will tend towards the "more difficult and dangerous" end of things, as otherwise it would generally be better to make your own Masks and Dirges than to use an existing one.

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