This is the first in a series of essays I plan on writing focusing on White Wolf Publishing and their TTRPG products over the years.
In the early 1990s, tabletop role-playing games by and large were still built around the idea of playing heroic characters. The turn of the decade saw a sharp shift in the tabletop RPG landscape with the release of Vampire: The Masquerade in 1991, by the fledgling gaming studio White Wolf Publishing. Instead of focusing on heroic elves, dwarfs, and other fantasy creatures, Vampire: The Masquerade asked players to delve into a metaphorical heart of darkness, portraying anti-heroic Vampires seeking to survive.
I came upon Vampire: The Masquerade long after its initial release in the early 90s when I joined a live-action roleplaying group who used modified rules created for a live-action experience rather than a tabletop one. The games produced by White Wolf Publishing during the 90s and early 2000s remain some of my favorites, despite their sometimes-poor quality and often controversial material. Along with games such as Cyberpunk 2020, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and Shadowrun, Vampire: The Masquerade pushed players and gamemasters into darker storytelling ideas, encouraging players (rightly or wrongly) to embrace (for lack of a better term) the idea that playing anti-heroes or outright villainous characters could be a lot of fun.
At the core of the Vampire: The Masquerade gameplay was the “gothic-punk” style behind the setting. Mixing the themes of gothic horror (fear, paranoia, and the past haunting the present) with the ideas of punk (anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, and transgressive ideology) together was an inspired idea, one that stamped Vampire: The Masquerade and White Wolf Publishing as pushing the boundaries of the tabletop RPG genre in a new direction. Instead of focusing on characters who would ostensibly seek to save the world from evil, players were tasked with creating monsters, parasitic “Kindred” that fed on the blood of the living and fought an endless nightly war for supremacy and survival against their own kind.
Instead of dealing with exclusively external threats such as dragons or demons (although the latter did start to show up as game modules were published), players in Vampire: The Masquerade would be facing both internal and external threats. Each Vampire character was indelibly connected to what is referred to in-game as the Beast, the feral part of a Vampire that only wants to hunt, feast on blood, and survive. How well a Vampire manages their Beast is determined by their characters stats but also on how the character handles outside stimuli designed to test their resolve. On the flip side, the world of Vampire: The Masquerade is one of constant paranoia, marking the external threats that player characters would have to contend with.
Picture for a moment a corporation, with a CEO and a board of directors, executives, vice presidents, middle managers, and lowly office drones. If you look at it from a macabre point of view (which is encouraged in Vampire), the benefit of a mortal corporation is that no one can remain in power forever. Whether its due to promotion within the company, someone deciding to leave the company, or someone passes away and frees up a spot in the hierarchy, it is possible to move up (if you’re both lucky, good, and well-connected) into a position of power and authority.
Now picture that same corporate structure except every single member of the corporation is an immortal creature bent on keeping their own power intact and gaining even more power.
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The external threats are numerous in Vampire: The Masquerade, the most pressing of which are your fellow vampires, who will stop at nothing to advance their own agendas at the expense of your character. Everyone is playing an angle, everyone is looking for a moment of weakness to pounce and lay claim to more power, and everyone is out for themselves and themselves alone. While there is a strong combat element to Vampire: The Masquerade, the primary focus is on social politics and non-violent gamesmanship, something that was fairly unique among tabletop RPGs at the time. With an emphasis on political machinations, Vampire: The Masquerade gave players the opportunity to learn and understand how political systems can be used for their own benefit and for the detriment of others (something that has become increasingly relevant over the years). The facet of Vampire: The Masquerade that intrigued me then (and still does to this day) is the personal horror of the character you choose to play. Faced with the idea that you are now immortal and can only survive by feeding on the blood of the living, what choices do you make to ensure your survival? Do you cling to your Humanity in an effort to refrain from being a cold-blooded killer? Or do you embrace the monstrous nature you’ve now inherited, knowing deep down that every moment of depravity you engage in makes it that much easier for the Beast to gain complete control, leaving you a mindless creature intent on only feeding and survival? The core experience for me as a gamer and storyteller was to examine how a person’s morality would shift and change over time given the complete lack of moral direction you are surrounded by. That question of morality in the face of bleak darkness is what drew me to the game and still continues to inspire me in my creative endeavors to this day.
If you’re interested in checking out more of the Vampire: The Masquerade game products, check out the World of Darkness site.
My book series The Atalante Chronicles is now live on Amazon for Kindle, Paperback, and Hardcover Print-On-Demand. Your support is greatly appreciated.
Blood And Stone, Book One in my series, is also available on Smashwords (Affiliate Link)
The Crone and The Curse, Book Two in my series, is also available on Smashwords (Affiliate Link)
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