Running #Vampire: Thaumaturgy—The Devil's Bargain
A light dive into Thaumaturgy (or Blood Sorcery, if you prefer), the vampiric Discipline of making up magic shit with your blood!
Thaumaturgy's one of the most popular Disciplines among Vampire players for the simple reason that it's flexible and powerful. Learning Thaumaturgy opens the door for a character to develop a very large range of abilities, combined with ritualized practices that can subvert the traditional weaknesses of the Kindred. What's not to enjoy?
Like all Disciplines, Thaumaturgy is part of the vampiric condition: It is a power that makes it easier to be wicked. Just like Auspex lets you steal people's secrets, Dominate lets you force people to do things, and Potence encourages you to solve your problems with force, Thaumaturgy gives you powers that let you weasel out of many of the usual problems of being undead. Deflect wooden stakes! Increase the power of your own vitae! Steal blood from people without needing to bite them! And so much more!
Yet even Thaumaturgy can't escape the constraints of Kindred flaws. In early editions of the Vampire game, Thaumaturgy was typically expensive in its costs, whether of vitae or Willpower. There's a price to pay when warping the Kindred condition, and Kindred offload that price onto others: the use of Thaumaturgy burns through blood reserves and forces the Kindred to feed again, to steal that rich sustenance of life in order to subvert the curse, however briefly. (This aspect of subverting the curse bears some resemblance to the Coils of the Dragon as seen in Vampire: The Requiem.)
In its earliest incarnations, Thaumaturgy was a signature power for the Tremere, a clan directly inspired by the wizards from the Ars Magica game. Since the Tremere became undead, they became incapable of tapping into the glorious wonders and variations of real magic, and were forced to hastily reassemble some semblance of power by experimenting with the power in blood. Being corpses pretending to be alive, they likewise made a mockery of magic itself, creating a pale shadow of their former power, all irrevocably tied up with their stolen life-force. Then, to cement their reputation as vampiric sorcerers, the Tremere made certain to keep their abilities a secret, letting only enough leak out so that other Kindred would fear them and suspect them of being capable of doing anything. Break the Blood Bond? Sure, we can do that. Set you on fire from miles away? Of course. Commit diablerie undetected? Absolutely! Make someone temporarily human again? Why, that's the easiest thing!
Who can say what's true and what's not? The Tremere aren't telling, and that's why they're so quick to come down on anyone else who offers up some inkling of the secrets of blood magic. Naturally, this means that the other clans not only fear the Tremere for their unknown powers, but for their apparently rigid hierarchy and organization: They appear to move in lockstep, working constantly for the "greater good" of the clan, even the young ones following orders with surprising alacrity.
(Remember how in the earliest editions of Chicago by Night the entire Camarilla-anarch conflict of the city ultimately boiled down to a struggle between the Methuselas, Helena and Menele? The other clans fear that the Tremere are an outward manifestation of that shadow war: That all Kindred, whether they know it or not, are secretly manipulated by the Methuselahs, that nobody is actually free, that even those who think they are rebels are actually serving some greater conspiracy. The Tremere just seem to embrace [ha ha] that notion.)
Yet Thaumaturgy itself still seems to follow rigid rules. It's never free. It can twist and bend the Kindred condition, but only temporarily. Perhaps most tellingly, it follows the same progression as other Disciplines, providing a fixed set of capabilities that must be mastered in a specific order (aside from the ritual magic that comes with the practice, of course). It lacks the vibrant, chaotic quality of life. Progress through Thaumaturgy is not a wondrous journey into reshaping reality or opening one's mind to new thinking and new dimensions—it is an arduous, plodding course in figuring out edge cases and loopholes to twist the power of stolen life into a transitory relief from the curse of vampirism, often in ways that simply make it easier to hurt others. It is a bargain in which the sorcerer tries to displace their sins to others in order to briefly alter the Kindred condition. It is stage magic: A lie performed to give one the appearance of mastery for a fleeting moment, feared by those who do not understand the trick.
In your own Vampire chronicle, there's probably a player who loves to pore through sourcebooks looking for obscure Thaumaturgy rituals and unusual Paths with which to make a powerful vampire character. (The wizards always love poring through musty tomes for obscure magic...) This leads to the same problem that pops up in Dungeons & Dragons with players who page through their books looking for oddball spells that they can use in unconventional ways to make characters that can face any challenge: Every time a new power or spell is added, it becomes part of the library of accessible tools for players, and this leads to people having very convoluted excuses for how they developed a neonate Lick who's skilled in the Lure of Flames and the Path of Technomancy while they were studying with Assamites in northern India but then came to the U.S. because they loved an obscure character from Dr. Who and wanted to do... whatever!
With that in mind, you may find it useful in your Chronicles to put a box around Thaumaturgy, to give it some distinct limits:
* Nobody knows Thaumaturgy unless they learned it as part of their upbringing, and if they do, then their mentor is guaranteed to feature in the story in some way. Someone taught you, and they know the tricks better than you. Even if your mentor died in your backstory, there's always the lateral connection: Your mentor's mentor, or a fellow student, or even a Kindred enemy of your mentor who comes looking for students to destroy them. You learned Thaumaturgy from someone, somewhere, and that means you have a connection, and that connection means you have dramatic consequences.
* Some forms of Thaumaturgy may be incomplete. Perhaps the Lure of Flames, in your chronicle, simply isn't available past the first three levels. Nobody's been able to figure out how to control fire, the nemesis of Kindred, beyond that. Putting these kinds of limits on powers can give your players very strong incentives to break them, which generates storylines for you automatically. How can I break that barrier? What happens if I run into a Kindred who seems to have that "impossible" power? These give your players motivations and keep them hungry in the search for mastering the Thaumaturgy that seems to be flawed.
* Consider who, in your Chronicle, knows about specific kinds of Thaumaturgy. Technomancy is purely the purview of the young, and ossified elders simply can't grasp it. The Lure of Flames may come from a long tradition of Mithraic mystery cultists, who only tutor members of their own secretive cult in it. Movement of the Mind may be a power that was awakened by a turn-of-the-19th-century spiritualist Blavatsky-esque mystic who makes everyone who learns it undergo a series of harrowing Mason-like initiations, and nobody knows which things are necessary steps and which are simply trappings. Different forms of Thaumaturgy may be the province of specific groups in your Chronicle, groups that have enmities and rivalries. Showing your knowledge of a specific Path, then, becomes a way to make enemies, because you are showing people that you have a connection to a particular group.
* If a player's character has Thaumaturgy, make sure that an enemy in the Chronicle also has Thaumaturgy, but is better than them at it. A great deal of the power of Thaumaturgy comes from the Kindred belief that it's a power system that could theoretically do anything, that so few people really understand its functions that the Tremere (and the few other clans that practice blood magic) can plausibly keep people afraid because nobody knows exactly what they can do. A player's character will know some possibilities but not all of them, and this adversary can also turn the tide by spoiling the players' plots when they try to fool someone else into thinking that their Thaumaturgy can do things that it can't!
* Use Thaumaturgy to appear to break the rules. One of the stables of writing engaging stories is establishing that certain things are rules, that they are immutable, and that there are no exceptions, right up until an exception appears. Thaumaturgy's powers often do things that seem impossible to Kindred: suppressing Blood Bonds, deflecting wooden stakes, making one appear living, improving the power of one's effective Generation. Yet these are all temporary or limited in some fashion. Use this model to approach other facets of the vampiric condition, and then use Thaumaturgy to seem to break the rules. Of course it's always fakery that only lasts a short while. Perhaps a Thaumaturgist appears to have found a way to sustain ghouls without the expenditure of blood of Willpower. Or a blood sorcerer might seem able to absorb punishing damage from Lupine claws as if it were no more than a papercut. Every time, though, these are simply temporary tricks. Useful ones, to be sure, but in no way comparable to actually overcoming the Kindred condition. Still, when an adversary uses one of these abilities, it will give the players pause. What else can they do? How effective is this? Can we really confront this foe, or will they have a trick for every occasion?
Once a player has read all of the Vampire game books and acquired System Mastery •••••, it's hard to put that genie back in the bottle, so you need to muddy the waters again. Everything they read is true, right up until it isn't. That power that they want just doesn't exist in your Chronicle, until someone uses it against them. Everything they believe they know about Thaumaturgy is useful, until someone else does it better.
Remember, the Tremere name itself in Latin means shiver, with the implied statement that the enemies of the clan will tremble with fear. Thaumaturgy makes people fear not because of what it can do, but because of what people think it can do. Thus, its true powers—and limitations—must remain a secret. The Devil doesn't give people power; he just tricks them into thinking that he did. And with that...