Handling Tense and Difficult Topics in VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE

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Twenty-seven years ago Vampire: The Masquerade was released in 1991, and it’s been through a few iterations thus far along its journey. Our RPG show, Vampire: The Masquerade – L.A. By Night is diving into the Vampire: The Masquerade’s Fifth Edition and the World Of Darkness it resides in. If you’re as excited about it as we are, but aren’t familiar with the universe, here’s a crash course get you up to speed.

Vampire: The Masquerade can be an intense genre shift for roleplayers new and experienced alike. Layering in elements of player versus player, horror, and the basic themes of being a vampire. Biting someone’s neck, draining them of all their blood, and leaving their body in a dumpster is murder—and yet these characters are the protagonists. In other fantasy games, the wholesale slaughter of monsters is more accepted since aberrations don’t have feelings. Wearing the skin of a dragon for armor and casting powerful spells often require horrible acts of butchery if you truly think about it.

Yet in the World of Darkness, this morality is placed front and center. The struggle for most White Wolf game lines is balancing that line between human and monster. Most Vampire LARPs completely eschew feeding scenes for logistic reasons and the amount of murder in any Sabbat game from players is just mind-boggling (it’s no wonder that the Sabbat isn’t fully back in V5 yet). This mindless desensitization of the undead condition can creep into other elements of what shock horror means for the game. Knowing where to draw the line and what topics are okay for you and your players is an ever-evolving conversation. Articles about bleed or handling tough and troubling topics at the table have been covered before.

All of these topics are also covered wonderfully in the V5 core book, including how to approach and balance the right lines as a storyteller. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, players find themselves in a scenario that’s shocked them. Not just in Vampire either, but in all games and genres. Today we are going to look at storytelling and playing with those tense moments for fun, particularly found in games with a horror element. This article covers how to decompress and restore emotional balance in consensual, high stakes roleplay—in order to have good horror, you also need hope.

Define Your Horror

Vampire Malkvaian Featured 2

Personally, I hate hospitals, but I’m terrified of spiders. The thought of going under for surgery or having some major medical catastrophe spikes feelings that make me jittery. Spiders just make me scream in unholy terror. Knowing this difference myself, allows me to make Vampire characters that often skirt around the edges of hospitals while steering clear of any one (or anything) that is putting my mental head cannon around spiders (sorry Nosferatu). Horror movies, games, and the entire genre thrive on skirting these edges. Where jump scares might work for some people; creepy ghost stories work for others.
Only you get to define the kind of horror that works for you. Nobody else.

When building your character, and sitting with the other players—let everyone know! All players at that table are there to have a good time together and nobody should want another to have an actual panic attack (if so, please eject that player). A good “heebie jeebie” session with everyone ahead of sets the horror boundaries while getting a good laugh about how terrifying the Librarian from Ghostbusters really was. It’s also the perfect time to talk about how people feel about feeding. Pop culture paints vampires in many different lights, and thanks to newer shows like What We Do In The Shadows, we’ve got some humor to help lighten the mood around vampiric legends.

Explore Avenues for Hope

Touchstones are a critical part of the V5 character creation process. They end up on relationship charts, they ground your characters to the human world, and the storyteller is likely to murder half of them within the first three sessions. Wonderful. When one of them inevitably dies in the chronicle and you (and your character) are really hit hard by the story; take your personal care first. Then search for hope in the World of Darkness. It may sound strange given the grim titles of Vampire: The Masquerade or playing around in the Gothic-Punk alternate reality—but the game is as much about hope as for horror.

Your character may have accidentally gone into a blood frenzy and killed someone very close to them, and maybe the character might need to run for their life. A good storyteller should always add an avenue for hope. In the above example, maybe they have close vampire family in Boston and if they can just get there… they can help figure this all out. Even if the amount of hope is a single thread your character has to get out of their situation, that thread needs to be there. Make sure when a scene gets tense (in a good way) before you hop back in character you identify your thread of hope.

Some Stories Need To End

Vampire Boon Article

There is no shame nor tragedy in ending a story early. Some of the best horror stories cut with a well-timed fade to black. This vital storyteller tool can be used not just by the GM, but also by the player at any moment in the game. You don’t need to describe the visceral horror of feeding or the way a spider’s feet feel on your arm. Just fade to black and let the player fill in their details (in this case it involves lots of fire, screaming, and me probably running into a wall knocking myself out). There are times where this idea clashes with what other players want to see, and it’s pretty common to find players that don’t understand the beauty or nuance of a fade-to-black moment.

In every case ever, from now until the end of time, the player requesting the fade-to-black moment is correct.

Which brings us to the larger tale of the storyline. Let’s say the players finished a story where they engaged in a bloody coup, ripped leadership away from other vampires, and lost much in the process. It is okay to end the story right as the doors close when victory is within their grasp; sometimes better for it. When dealing with immortal (well, unaging) characters you can skip ahead a few years to the next compelling moment in their life, or tell a new story in the world the prior characters helped shape. A great way to handle a dramatically difficult topic in a storyline is to let that portion of the story be the climax and close the book after your resolution.

Do you have any tips for storytelling horror or running tense scenes that your players want? Let us know in the comments below!

More Vampire: The Masquerade Gaming goodness!

Image Credits: Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition

Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age Series, Dread Adventures, and a storyteller with a focus on D&D For Kids, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and an overdose of LARPs. You can follow the game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook or reach out for writing at [email protected]

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