Jesse Heinig (trekhead) wrote,
Jesse Heinig

Running Vampire: The Thief Game

Another chat with wickedthought brought out some more notions that may be useful to you game-running folx out there, this time for Vampire. I played for a time in a Vampire game that John ran and I noted to him that he was basically running a "thief game" with Vampire. I'll explain what all of this means and how it can help you to run Vampire games!

(Art from someone's Skyrim guide, I dunno)

The "thief game" is a subgenre of adventure gaming in which every member of the team is some shade of thief (or rogue, I guess, if you're playing latter-edition D&D). It's inspired partly by the early swords & sorcery stories with thieves (like the whole Lankhmar series) and partly by pulp heist stories (which fostered games like Wilderness of Mirrors and Fiasco). In a D&D game, this means that everyone has levels as a thief—whether as a solely single-classed thief or a multiclassed one—and you're all working for the local Guild (because if you're not in the Guild, then you have both the Law and the Guild hunting you). Typically your characters are living the "lean and hungry" lifestyle, but all kinds of thief archetypes show up: the bored wealthy socialite who steals for fun; the burned-out veteran who serves as muscle on jobs; the box-man who does locks and traps and has weird eccentricities; the face who might be a bard who moonlights as a thief, using charm and wits to talk into and out of sketchy situations. You put together your team, you ask a Guild contact for a likely job, and you run a heist.

There are several elements that really prop up a thief game:
• Most of what you would want to do as an adventurer is illegal in the city. You want to carry a sword? You don't have permission from the Chief of the Watch, it's illegal. You practice magic? No license from the College of Sorcerers, illegal. You're a down-on-your-luck veteran whose only skill is violence? Sorry, buddy, no jobs for folx like you. You're a cleric of the god of thieves? Not a legal religion in the city, no preaching and no alms-collecting. Thus you must deal with the Guild and take jobs that are illegal because you can't do anything legally, and you gotta eat and pay rent!
• You can't really trust the Guild, but they're your only source of gigs. You have to give the Guild a cut of your earnings, and what you earn is usually pretty small because you're fencing stolen goods and doing illegal blow-off cons and the like.
• You always need a team for any really lucrative job. On your own, you do petty gigs—defrauding merchants, picking pockets, fixing watches for pennies for the wealthy elite—but it's when you put the crew together and combine your skills that you can pull off a truly lucrative heist.
• Everything of worth in the city is already controlled by someone more powerful than you. You can't open a store because you'll lose to the better store that someone else already owns (and you'll never get the permits to do it anyway). You can't angle for a position on the city council or in politics because you'll be crushed by people who are wealthier and better connected than you. You can't even buy your own home because it's too expensive and thus you're reduced to living in flophouses in grimy, squalid neighborhoods, all while trying to stay one step ahead of the Law.
• You're a thief, but are you a mass murderer? Are you an arsonist? Are you a cult-leading abuser? How low will you sink in order to survive?

Starting to sound familiar? Vampire, for neonate games, has a similar set-up:
• Just by dint of what you are, you are constantly having to look over your shoulder and worry about who is watching you—you are, effectively, a criminal; always on the run, always having to find ways to keep people from realizing what you are.
• The laws of your society make anything that would ease your unlife illegal. You want to have a few mortal confederates upon whom you feed, who have given consent because they know what you are? Illegal; violates the Masquerade. You need a Domain of your own so that you have people to hunt and a place to go to ground during the day? All of the city is already parceled out to the elders and it's illegal to poach on their Domains. You want to create a brood of your own so that you can parcel out duties and have a support network? Illegal to make new vampires without the say-so of the city's elite.
• By yourself, you can't challenge the status quo. The elders are too powerful, too connected, too influential. But working as a team with other neonates with different abilities, you can do things that you wouldn't be able to do alone.
• You may be a vampire, but are you a mass murderer? Are you an arsonist? Are you a cult-leading abuser? When you're fighting against the elder network, you can win if you are more evil than they are willing to be. How low will you let your Humanity sink in order to get what you want?

The similarities should be pretty clear, and this is great for Storytellers because it means that a really simple way to run a Vampire chronicle is to treat it like a thief game—like a series of heists, cons, and illegal jobs. You can run:
• Assemble a crew to steal a painting from the home of one of the elders, a painting of the elder's former (mortal, now deceased) spouse. Then trade it off to the highest bidder—either the elder in question, or one of the elder's rivals who would use it to twist the knife.
• One of the elders has a magical McGuffin that would be great for you, and now due to Kindred politics that elder is on the outs with the Prince. Arrange a heist to steal the item for yourselves, knowing that the elder no longer has the Prince's protection.
• Run a con on the vampires of the city by running an illegal fighting ring of ghouls, and allowing Kindred to bet on it. Take Boons as well as money and property as bets, and "seed" your roster by telling people "Oh, someone put in a bet that they are willing to train another Kindred in Obtenebration—but that bet's already been called. You should bet now to get something good!" Run your illegal fighting matches with ghouls until you have a bunch of Kindred at a match with tons of bets on the roster, then suddenly swarm the place with "hunters" and "police" (your minions, of course). Tell the assembled Kindred that you have a secret escape for just such an emergency and help them get out, but you go back to hold off the "hunters" and get staked and dragged away. Of course your minions simply pulled you out of there and you keep all the goodies that were bet as you flee to another city and start over. (John and I actually ran this at a Vampire LARP, and people fell for it.)
• One of the elders disappears and the ruler of the city declares that the elder's former Domain is up for grabs—if you can hold it, you can keep it. Run an operation to get your claws into this suddenly-vacant Domain, but to do so, you need to repel ghouls from other elders, scam the elders into thinking that you're using your influence in a different neighborhood, and leverage your knowledge of modern technology to communicate, coordinate, and suborn local government services to your side, just like the heist movies in which the cops show up after the thieves have left and prevent the angry rich criminals who were robbed from chasing after the heist team, or the heist crew that escapes in the ambulance that they bring in and use to drive out their own people and loot while pretending to respond to the crisis.

This lets you very quickly and easily make memorable Vampire stories that you generate from your favorite heist- and con-job movies, and these give the players a strong reason to stick together in a coterie and have a wide range of capabilities. These stories also expose great moral dilemmas to challenge Humanity: How far will you go to succeed? Do you just let the stone-cold killer in the group murder a witness? Do you stick to stealing what you came for, or get greedy when another prize presents itself? What do you do when the person you contacted for the job decides to sell you out for favors from your mark, and now the job's gone sour and you must figure out how to escape? There are as many possibilities as there are criminal-protagonist films and pulpy novels.

Ciao for now!
Tags: game design

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