The Gothic Pedigree of Vampire

I thought of being forced to witness the unnatural revels of a diabolical feast, of seeing the rotting flesh distributed, of drinking the dead corrupted blood, of hearing the anthems of fiends howled in insult, on that awful verge where life and eternity mingle, of hearing the hallelujahs of the choir, echoed even through the vaults, where demons were yelling the black mass of their infernal Sabbath.

— Charles Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)

Over the past several months, I had been exchanging social media drive-bys with John Garrad, who has been doing some academic work on the representation of the gothic in games. He shared some slides of his work in progress on Twitter, which I thought was interesting, so we talked a little further, and he agreed to let me share some of the contents of that conversation.

 

Gothic-Punk: do you see it as an evolution of a wider, long-term Gothic tradition, or a product of the 1990s cultural circumstances, or as a collection of what the developers over time have deemed relevant to the project, or… something else that I haven’t thought of?

Part of Vampire’s longevity, in either Masquerade or Requiem formats, is that the gothic trappings it affects are tied to an emotion rather than an era. Vampire wouldn’t have survived long if it was quintessentially 80s or 90s. (You can see a parallel evolution here in technology, in that V20, released in 2011, doesn’t bother to account for the prevalence of smartphones or of wide-scale surveillance, either of which would pose massive Masquerade threats. We just handwaved them away.)

While the early material deliberately attached itself to a specific subculture, social scene, and music expression, it slowly pulled itself away from those over the progression of developers, with the intent of opening itself up to a greater breadth of players. Even through that extrication of itself from a defined “scene,” it kept the literary component of the gothic movement throughout because, again, those transcend decade. I don’t know if it’s still out there, but I recall one of my style guides that hammered on the point “gothic, not goth.”

The big one on this front: how do you feel VtM goes about making its Gothic credentials concrete and real to players? I’m particularly interested in mechanics here — which aspects of the game create a Gothic ‘feel’ when people are sat down playing.

The big three for me:

Game Structure: The game was built in literary “units of play,” as opposed to the traditional RPG structures derived from wargames. We still had turns, just because they were atomic, but Vampire intended to wean storytellers away from tactical encounters and frame things more dramatically (whether literary or stage) in terms of things like scenes, chapters, and overall chronicles. The overarching story container was not a “campaign,” with its military-conquest connotations, but a chronicle, a record, a retelling of events that happened. And in so doing, it relied very heavily on unreliable narrators, so you were never sure you were getting a clinical accounting of events as much as you were getting a definitely biased perspective of events, unless you were there, and even if you were, you’re not unbiased yourself.

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Cultural Touchpoints: Vampire heavily invoked western, Abrahamic traditions, akin to the gothic movement’s reliance on religious and feudal motifs to carry its themes of superstition and relative primitivism. It leaned on straight-up gothic notions of madness and romance (themselves not very progressive…) and gave systems for them in terms of things like Humanity, Derangements (sometimes incurable…), and maintaining distance in relationships. The classic image of vampire lovers feeding from each other is actually a peril in Vampire because it can create a blood bond, which has all of the outward appearances of love, but strips away the (religious alert!) Free Will of the lover to exercise choice when it comes to the beloved. All of this is great stuff and immediately transgressible for players who have felt marginalized, in whatever context or extent, by traditional societal expectations, and provides mechanics by which one can express that transgression.

In more than one case, Vampire had intended to “open things up,” but when it showed rather than told, those showings became the default rather than a single expression. For example, the Caine myth was intended originally to be a myth, but it quickly became the predominant myth (IMO because it was so relatable, and because it gave a religious structure that players could rebel against and be rewarded for so doing. Instead of degenerate priests and corrupt churches, Vampire makes the religious institution part of the origin story and encourages players to break from their obedient relationship to it.) The Prince and Primogen structure in Gary and Chicago were originally intended to be a political situation, but over time they became the political default. (Again, IMO, I think this is at least partially because it provides an example that storytellers can depart from as they will, as opposed to having to define their home chronicle whole cloth — which Requiem demanded.)

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Supernatural Prevalance: This is obvious, but Vampire: The Masquerade wouldn’t have taken off if it was simply GOTH: THE VENDETTA. Giving players access to abilities beyond mortal ken isn’t just a game design call to action, it puts the tools of gothic literature into their hands. They’re the ones able to drop the helmet on Manfred’s son, they’re the ones able to call forth the children of the night, they’re the ones able to shroud men’s minds. And the framing isn’t “with great power comes great responsibility,” it’s “you are the monster,” and it expects some concomitant moral failure and abuse of those otherworldly powers in pursuit of selfish goals (which can themselves be regretted or indulged, back to the system above). Without powers, Vampire could have been Mad Men, with bitchy people doing awful but mundane things to one another. Instead, it’s a passion play on a deliberately lurid stage with an infinite special effects budget that flirts with the forbidden when engaged.

Did you strive for a different kind of Gothic with Revised? (I’ve been fascinated by the ST Vault submission guidelines, which really make plain the differences between the editions that I’ve always felt were there but never really articulated — and I wondered if any of the Revised development fed into the game’s genre positioning.)

I don’t know if it was a deliberate striving for a specific kind of gothic so much as it was an evolution. It became its own thing, with definite gothic influence, and true to itself. For my own part, I think this is a maturing and finding one’s own voice over the course of developing and writing the amount of books I did. I remember one of my earliest writing projects for school, which might as well have been a Lovecraft manuscript with a hasty find-and-replace, absolutely a pastiche, and early in Vampire, I was similarly attempting to copy influences. Over time, I thought it definitely took on its own voice, its own life. You can easily pick up a Vampire book and identify its gothic parentage, but on a more substantial reading and use, especially for the Revised and V20 material, you find that Vampire is consistent largely with Vampire, while still acknowledging and even revering the movement that helped it get there.

And finally: V5 aligns the Gothic-Punk with prior editions. I wondered if you had any insight about why that point was made, and if V5 is consciously trying to distance itself from something in the tradition?

On this one, I don’t feel qualified to render an opinion. By conscious choice, I haven’t been a part of V5, primarily because, as they’ve wanted to create a new envisioning of the game, I didn’t want to encumber that with assumptions that I carry, having developed and written for it for two decades. It’s others’ exercise to determine whether V5’s vision is an evolution for Vampire or simply another perspective on it, and whether that’s for better or worse, but none of my input is there. A different creative vision requires a different expression.

Despatch

In late May of 1984, a night-mist rolled inland to Somerset, leaving in its wake a horror.

Few noticed immediately. Those who did, though, acted swiftly. Within hours, a small boat troop of SAS agents performed an insertion mission to Somerset, but only two returned. They were unable to make a final report, and could only rave about some sort of cannibal bloodlust. Aerial surveillance of Somerset revealed innumerable motionless bodies lying all about the city of Bath and surrounding landscape, many of which had been stripped of flesh.

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Field research revealed that a blood-borne “entity” was to blame. Those “infected” became ravening monsters, losing all sense of self and self-preservation and seeking only to kill and feed on… human flesh.

The Prime Minister passed the Special Citizens’ Act in an emergency session of Parliament. This measure gave Special Branch the authority to detain — or liquidate — any citizens suspected of having a connection to the disaster. Paranoia spread as quickly as the tragedy, and hastily built detainment facilities teemed with thousands of prisoners across the country. Special Branch arrested anyone and everyone, victims of the horror and suspected conspirators alike.

It wasn’t enough. The horror spread too quickly. The detainment camps collapsed. Terrified people rioted, looted, and destroyed places suspected of being havens for the infected. The cities, towns, and countryside were a ruin.

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The World Health Organization and the United Nations quarantined the entirety of the United Kingdom. International forces established three camps, one in Liverpool, one at Aberdeen, and one in London, where they could evacuate those who proved to be untainted by theentity. A broadcast transmission implores survivors to seek the quarantine camps if they can make the trip.

You are one of those survivors, still clinging to life two weeks after the disaster. You and a few other individuals have convened in the basement of a block of council homes in Birmingham. The closest camp is Liverpool, just under a hundred miles away to the northwest. It’s by far too dangerous a trip to make by oneself, especially since it’s unknown what obstacles lie between here and there, but with the safety of numbers, it just may be possible.

Shift on the Fly

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Gruumsh rarely has someone else’s interests in mind.

Saturday’s session went well. It was a fairly standard rout-the-baddies scenario, with an extra layer of justice on top, as the head baddie had purloined a valuable piece of party treasure a few sessions before. Said baddie then holed up in a mountain stronghold with some surly flunkies. But the party was having none of it, and took it upon themselves to right the wrong.

This session concluded a chapter of the campaign, which I had planned beforehand. As a special reward, I had intended to offer the party its choice from a few benefits, to help frame their accomplishments in the terms of the campaign. You know how it goes — rewards are good and endogenous rewards are best. A little reskinning of some backgrounds shaped up as the following options:

Book One Conclusion: Marks of Prestige

Marque of Jandamere: As the bearer of a Marque of Jandamere, you inspire people to think the best of you. You are welcome in high society, and people assume you have the right to be wherever you are. The common folk make every effort to accommodate you and avoid your displeasure, and other people of high birth treat you as a member of the same social sphere. You can secure an audience with a local noble if you need to.

An Eye for the Land: Having liaised with the original folk of the region, you have earned an excellent intuition for the land, and you can always recall the general layout of terrain, settlements, and other features around you. In addition, you can find food and fresh water for yourself and up to five other people each day, provided that the land offers berries, small game, water, and so forth.

Prince-Bishop’s Sigil: You receive shelter and succor from members of the Church Militant and those who are sympathetic to their aims. You can gain aid from temples and other religious communities in the Prince-Bishop’s service. This help comes in the form of shelter and meals, and healing when appropriate, as well as occasionally risky assistance, such as a band of monks rallying to your side in a fight, or the residents of a cloister helping to hide you when you are being hunted unjustly.

(The middle one is struck through because the players never got around to meeting that faction. But the remaining two still offered a choice, and you can see that they’re all modeled on the backgrounds system.)

Responding to Feedback

As good players do, however, they threw a subtle but excellent monkeywrench into my plans. As they were scourging the mountain stronghold, one of the players casually commented that not only were they getting their treasure back, they were going to get the whole damned mountain fortress as well.

Touchdown!

So at the end of the session, I tossed that into the mix. The players could have one of the previous benefits, or, hell yeah, they could have the stronghold. It would be (at least initially) a non-revenue-generating territory, but it would be a “home base” nonetheless and one that they could develop to reflect their ownership.

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Welcome home!

What that meant for me was that I needed to rework how I would present the ongoing campaign. Previously, it had been constructed as a political thriller, in which the players’ characters moved as agents of influence from location to location in pursuit of artifacts and evidence. A secret faction of rebel nobility had been active, and the players had exposed them, making for the “blow up the Death Star” arc of chapter one. All very cool and satisfying, but now, with the players having a home base, I’ll have to retool much of the campaign and bring relevant events to the players, instead of moving the players to the events. I’ll have to change some of the events proper, too, but that’s fine, because overall, I get a lot out of the deal (assuming they choose to take ownership of the stronghold as their reward).

  • I get to keep reusing the same map. My group is geographically scattered and plays via roll20, so getting more use out of the same virtual tabletop map helps me control my production costs. Maybe I’m secretly a producer at heart….
  • A “home base” creates relatedness, as it gives the players a place in the world they can genuinely call their own.
  • It’s a location that can create rewards but also conflicts. That is, it should generate some ongoing benefits and positive relationships, but those relationships can also inspire new things for players to do and problems to solve.
  • It remains tied to the politics of the region, so the main campaign themes and antagonists remain intact. I have to adjust how the players come in contact with them, but none of the planning needs to be discarded.

But most importantly

  • It was a player suggestion, and a really good one, so the players are even more invested in the progress of the campaign.

So that’s the case for improvising and a willingness to change campaign direction based on player input. We’ll see how it shapes up from here.

The Player’s Craft

Much of my writing here focuses on the GM’s role or the designer’s skills. This time, let’s take a look instead at improving the experience of playing games rather than running or building them.

Be Attentive and Participate

This one’s free and easy. It’s probably the reason you play games to begin with, to take part in something, right? Indulge that. Lose yourself in it. Let go of the outside world and immerse yourself in the game. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb and close every browser tab that isn’t a game aid — assuming you have any tech at the table at all. Give your attention to the game, the GM, and your fellow players.

Remember what distinguishes games from traditional consumable media: the interactivity! Take your turn. Discuss your plans and actions. Coordinate. Reply. Act, if that’s your style. Be a part of the unique story you and your group are creating.

Note that this isn’t an excuse to bully someone into taking action. Some players genuinely play just to have a seat at the table, to share time with friends, so yanking them into a more active role might actually compromise their enjoyment. Invite, don’t browbeat.

Generate Evocative Detail

Part of experiencing an imaginary world is imagining its details. Ask questions of the GM. Sensory detail goes a long way. Beyond what you see, what do you smell, touch, and hear? The GM has a lot to keep track of, and offering them a chance to enrich the immersive detail by asking an evocative question is an opportunity few GMs will decline.

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“Okay, sure, let’s say the alderman has an orange at his desk. Now what?”

Many GMs are willing to share the description duties of sensory detail, as well, since it takes some of the work off their plates at the same time it helps build authenticity in the shared  world. Offer up detail — the GM can overrule it if it’s not contiguous with the world, but more likely they’ll embrace it as part of the whole. Describe your billowing breath in the cold air, the scent you’re wearing in order to entice your lover, the sound of your stylus as you write the damning confession implicating the Prince, the aroma of the spices as you cook your fellows a meal. Remember, you’re not stealing the spotlight, you’re revealing your perspective on the world.

Involve Others

When you have the chance, involve another player in your actions. As a ranger, scout ahead with the wizard. As an investigative reporter, take the soldier to search for clues in the study. “Combos” don’t have to reside solely within the realm of combat tactics. When you take game actions with other players’ characters, not only do you probably increase the chances of their success, you strengthen relationships with those players and characters. And whether your action succeds or fails, you have another player to help you effect the success (or share the consequences…). In terms of game flow, a single player monopolizing the GM’s time can bog down the pacing of what the rest of the table’s doing. Abating that with character groupings can maintain the game flow as well as sustaining player attention during a time that they might be tempted to check out.

Fail Interestingly

Most often, players undertake game actions with the intent to succeed at them. This makes sense, as tabletop RPGs frame player actions as part of a continuous narrative, usually seeking the accomplishment of certain goals. And that’s all fine and good.

As a player, however, you can engage in a bit of positive metagaming, because you know that there’s a distinction between player-you and character-you. Character-you wants to succeed (probably). Player-you, however, aims to be entertained and engaged by the activity at the gaming table. This means that failure in a game action is actually an opportunity to take further game action, to set the course right.  If the reward for success is narrative progression toward the goal and systemic progress toward character improvement, the reward for failure is an endogenous chance for more gameplay. It’s all a question of how you look at it.

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Game systems are tools, not hindrances.

Since most players seek an improvement to mastery during play, failure is a chance to grow knowledge — it’s proof that a certain tactic is unreliable, a certain approach to dealing with an enemy isn’t fruitful, or that the incriminating letter isn’t in the drawer of the desk in the library. Learning how not to face a challenge informs how to face it effectively. Narratively, failure is a chance to do more: to dig yourself out of a worsening negotiation, seek new aid against a common enemy, or otherwise emerge from the failure into accomplishment.

Success means you’ve accomplished your goal. Failure means you get to keep playing as you continue to pursue it. Either way, game on.

Propose Solutions and Approaches

A character sheet is a set of limitations. It’s a list of constraints in which your character operates. Hang on a minute — that’s a good thing.

It’s good because those limitations provoke your creativity. If nothing else, games are a venue in which you creatively solve problems represented by the limitations of your character.

With that in mind, creatively solve problems! If you assume the standard solutions to problems, you’re letting the rules hold you back rather than propel you forward. Talk things through with your GM, especially when proposing an unorthodox approach. Maybe the GM assumes the hobgoblin guard is there to be fought, but what if you bribe him? Negotiate with him? Cut him in on a share of what’s beyond the gate in exchange for taking all the heat if it’s an even greater challenge? “W want to purchase the house where the witches’ coven convenes and let it fall into foreclosure” is perhaps a more viable solution than burning the damn place down, especially since it leaves the witches alive and having to account for themselves at the solstice tribunal. Become credentialed as a press agent  to walk past the security guards instead of sneaking or knocking them out. Give a gift to the executive assistant instead of ambushing the bigwig in the parking garage. Buy a half-dozen pigs at the stockyards and deliver them to the kitchens of the hotel before the reception begins. (This also works to disrupt a high-school biology class, or so I’m, uh, told.)

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This isn’t to say you should expect to be successful every time (see “Fail Interestingly,” above). Nor should every crackpot combination of game inputs even have a chance of success — you can’t seduce a stake into the Ventrue Elder’s heart with Charisma + Manipulation. But neither should that prevent you from bringing to bear your character’s attributes and features to bear in satisfying ways that may be a bit unorthodox. You’re not getting away with anything, you’re flexing creative muscles to solve the challenges the game puts before you.

Rewards are Beginnings, Not Ends

Here’s a simple encounter model: You have an objective. You undertake a challenge to accomplish that objective. You receive a reward.

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Congratulations! You overcame the obstacle and got the goody!

…Now what?

In a games context, a reward should most often serve as a beginning, not an end. That simple encounter model above is one cycle of a loop, a repeating sequence. Which is to say, that reward can very effectively be used to engage players in what happens next, to encourage them to participate in the next cycle of the objective-challenge-reward loop.

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Let’s look at it in the terms of my favorite toolbox, self-determination theory.

Mastery

This is the big one. In tabletop RPGs, rewards often heighten the sense of heroic competence. The player obtains a better sword, new spells, improvement to a skill, a new Discipline, or better resources. Rewards often take the form of new or improved tools — which players then bring to bear against future challenges. They’re endogenous rewards: They serve to reinforce and improve the function of game systems the players have already demonstrated an interest in using. You like fighting orcs, so you fight orcs, and as your reward for fighting orcs you get a sword that makes you better at fighting orcs. Fighting orcs is intrinsically rewarding, and you just got better at it.

In additional to the improvements to character, players also gain an increasing understanding of their ability to act upon the world. Level-based systems used to take a lot of stick, but their increasing palette of options in fact works very well for keeping players from feeling paralyzed by a breadth of options. As player mastery increases, so does the significance and competence of their interaction with the world, because they learn to manage more options and they develop an understanding of combinations of options. Few players thrive when having everything available to them at once.

Autonomy

Wisely used, rewards open additional options to the player, or otherwise reinforce their volitional decisions. In a timeworn example, the players rescue the princess (objective) by slaying the dragon (challenge) and then gain access to the realm (reward)… where they find a host of new objectives to pursue. This is sometimes referred to as “gating content” (especially in video games), but it serves a greater function as a reward mechanism, and is also often used in onboarding players to new options, which is especially frequent in level-based systems. As the player grows increasingly familiar with their character’s abilities, their understanding of how they can use those abilities expands, increasing autonomy. Now that the realm is open to you, bold adventurers, what next? Now that you’ve deposed the tyrannical Prince, ambitious Kindred, what will you do in the domain? Now that you have the plans to the orbital battle station, you unintentionally noble space pirates, what will you do with them?

Relatedness

I often like to describe relatedness in terms of “the rewards of rewards.” Going back to our example of saving the princess, the players were granted access to the realm — but that’s not all. As they traverse the realm, NPCs they interact with greet them as “the dragonslayers!” and they see firsthand how their efforts have aided the realm: A scorched field showing signs of growth, burned villages being rebuilt, the sanctuary once again opens its doors. One of the intangible benefits of their actions is seeing the meaning of those actions, and understanding the improvement or aspiration that they’ve made possible.

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You find a jar with parts of Stevie Nicks inside it.

Rewards that suggest more to the world satisfy relateness very well. Finding a key suggests there’s a lock somewhere begging to be opened. Finding a map suggests a destination, or perhaps a journey.

Relatedness can also take the form of reputation systems, for example, which lead to future opportunities. This can scale up to a sense of kingdom-building or the expansion of domain, development of “tech trees,” or access to portions of the coterie chart that were closed. Relatedness is part of what makes communities function, so a sense of ongoing betterment of the home base is a very satisfying reward, even if it confers no mechanical benefits. And as that community betters, new objective opportunities open up for it, which feed the players back into the loop.

Inverting the Expectation

One of the default assumptions with rewards is that they’re all rainbows and sunshine for the recipient. That doesn’t have to be true. As a GM, consider over-rewarding the players every now and then… but with certain strings attached, especially if those strings aren’t immediately evident. Sure, you’ve found Excalibur, but now Modred and Morgan La Fay are after you.

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A reward can be a burden more than a boon, or invite new responsibility.

This is a reward technique to be used sparingly, but it’s compelling. In doing this, you must design the reward to be worth the extra trouble, but you don’t want to train your players to dread rewards. In this case, the players are gaining outsized mastery rewards as well as some additional relatedness rewards. Interestingly, there’s some amount of curtailing of their free will (autonomy) at this point, but it may actually increase their sense of volition, as they opt into being the caretakers of this particular artifact. Consequences are interesting after all. And what if the players decide that having Excalibur isn’t worth the added responsibility? How do they get rid of the damned thing?

As a Player

Constructing rewards typically falls under the purview of the GM in tabletop RPGs, but players can use their rewards to stimulate the process, as well. The simplest way to do this is in outlook: The very act of understanding rewards as a staging point rather than a conclusion is important for players to not only take satisfaction in their progress, but to project future goals. (See the previous post for more on goal-setting.)

Rewards can also send clear messages to the GM. If the party chooses to sell the Armor of Fire Resistance, that’s a pretty definitive statement that they won’t be interested in the journey to the City of Brass where they’d have to dance at the whim of the ifrit lord. Readily yielding the identity of the rogue ghoul to the Tremere Primogen is a fairly declarative that the coterie is more interested in the political story then they mystery subplot.

GM’s Craft: Cultivate Player Goals

Without an objective, a game’s choices lack meaning. It’s the function of the gamemaster to communicate the goals (in a more directed or plot-dependent game) or to clearly define the space in which the players can make their goal choices (in a more open game, such as a sandbox-style campaign). Naturally, players will have a lot of input on what a game’s goals may be. A pack of good-aligned monster hunters will have a very different goal than a crew of booty-hunting pirates, whose goals will be different from a band of rebels or escaped slaves.

It’s also the function of most games to provide enough “signposts” that players can gain a sense of progression through understanding the rules. For example, “gain a level” is a perfectly valid goal in a level-based game, while “gain a new dot in a Discipline” is a valid goal for a more open character progression game like Vampire.

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In multiplayer games like most tabletop RPGs, it’s also very likely that a group of PCs may be simultaneously working toward a common goal while they individually pursue orthogonal or even opposed goals. It’s possible that the paladin and warlock both want to slay the dragon, while serving rival gods or patrons. And the Ventrue and Brujah may both have a common enemy in the Tremere Prince but very, very different objectives in mind for how to pursue relations with the Anarchs.

But full circle, the game needs to indicate to the player or allow them to choose what’s next. If a player is wondering “what do I do now?” that may be a lack of information communicated by the GM, an underdeveloped progression system, or a lack of opportunity for the player to compare their choices and decide what’s next.

Manage the information at critical junctures — goals are what inform the player’s actions.

Technique: Prompt your characters to detail a goal their characters wants to pursue. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, they don’t have to provide it on the spot, and it can certainly change over time. They don’t even have to have just one; they may have several, of varying degrees of importance to them. Asking them about their goals gets them thinking about those objectives, however (if they haven’t been already), which puts them on the road toward better understanding their characters, and that in turn lets you better tailor the game to the shared story you’re telling.

Campaign Hacking: Tomb of Annihilation

Some posho’s flunky comes up to you and offers to strand you in a malarial jungle swamp, in which you must busk for enough money to outfit yourself for an expedition into a death-god’s lair and smash an artifact so the posho can have her hit points back. When you’re done, abase yourself before the merchant prince’s manor where she’s staying to let her know she’s good to go home.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an unfair summary of the framing device used to kickoff Tomb of Annihilation — but it’s not too far off course. For the record, I really like a lot of what ToA has to offer in terms of gameplay, but some of its setting assumptions rub me the wrong way. I’m planning to run it, but not stock out-of-the-book.

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It’s no secret that I love exploration campaigns.

When preparing a new campaign, perhaps the most important ingredient is the call to action. Your “elevator pitch” to the players should suggest to them exactly the sorts of adventures they’ll be having, and they’ll imagine characters they can project into that expectation of action. Everything in your preparations should point back to that question: How will the campaign use this detail?

Luckily, I recently ran across this tweet, which prodded me in the right direction, I think, for a game more in keeping with my tastes, and also that empowers the players more than making them thralls to a fantasy one-percenter.

Yes. Excellent. Flip the assumption.

With that principle in mind, I bashed together the campaign notes below. So how, then, can I frame the events of Tomb of Annihilation so that they can be used in the context of a reverse-grave-robber premise?

Anti-Imperialists

The PCs are members of a sociopolitical faction known as the Reclamationists. They can be native Chultans with an interest in protecting their own destiny, or they can come from abroad, acting against exploitative interests seeking colonial dominance of the jungle. The PCs are rebels, a resistance faction, heeding a moral mandate.

(GM Notes: I actually probably won’t set this in Chult, as I’m more attracted to other campaign worlds, but I leave it untouched here for the sake of clarity.)

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Playable characters. Okay, maybe this is a still from Black Panther. You get the point.

Beliefs

  • An ecological interrelationship exists between humans and nature, acknowledging the inherent connections between people and their surroundings.
    • “True freedom lies where folk receive nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth.”
  • Economic value derived from land (including natural resources and natural opportunities) belongs equally to all members of society.
  • Cultures and communities make sovereign decisions for themselves, and outside influence intrudes upon that sovereignty.

(GM Notes: This is swiped almost whole cloth from the Wikipedia entry for the Diggers, which seemed like a good conceptual fit.)

History

The most commonly accepted origin of the Reclamationists is the unification of a druidic circle and a locality of tenant farmers. With the spiritual guidance of the druids, the land-workers rallied to a common cause, giving rise to the faction’s motto, “All who believe are together and have all things in common.” Reclamationism spread among numerous land-working classes, and various offshoots of it exist, from deity-aligned dominionists to secular humanists and everything in between. It is a form of agrarian populism and often finds antagonism from traditional feudalists, across numerous nations.

(GM Notes: This section is pretty weak. It needs more supportive, actionable detail. It does, however, indicate some potential conflict, whether internal to the Reclamationists or from external entities trying to hinder opposition.)

Objectives

  • Occupy! Reclaim public lands that have been privatized.
    • Dig them over, pull down hedges, fill in ditches, etc. to plant crops.
  • Return any items of cultural significance to the cultures that claim them, if such cultures are still extant
  • Ensure that any items taken for academic purposes are taken by reputable academics — none of this “sell it to a museum or private collector” nonsense
  • Harry the efforts of factions seeking to exploit the resources of Chult
    • Ex.: The Merchant Princes are speculators intending to profit from colonial interests plundering the resources of Chult
    • Ex.: The Flaming Fist at Fort Beluarian is a rent-seeking organization extracting revenues from those who would themselves explore and exploit the lost regions of the jungle
    • Ex.: The Order of the Gauntlet may have some admirable aims in opposing the undead, but it may have more imperialistic aims, and cannot be completely trusted until any other objectives have been discerned.
  • Act in opposition to those entities that extend their influence at the expense of others
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Expect a great many undead foes. Undead are an inarguable call to action.

Opportunities for Action

  • Smash colonials, especially where they conflict with indigenous communities
  • Expand knowledge of indigenous entities
  • Recover items of cultural significance from those who would exploit that cultural significance for private gain
  • Explore the unknown

(GM Notes: Note the strong verbs in these last two sections, the calls to action. Most of them stand on their own, but some could use some touch-up. “Ensure,” “act,” and “return” can probably be replaced with more robust actions that are more engaging on their own.)

A Simple Narrative Model

In my day job working on computer games, I’ve been looking into a number of games that have procedurally generated features. From algorithmically built worlds to randomized characters, the computer creates various components and turns the manipulation of them over to the players. The result is an emergent narrative of the players’ story. Consider this in contrast to a more heavily scripted game structure in which the narrative beats are specifically planned. In games with key procedurally generated components, the heaviest decision making and the consequences imposed on the world are driven by the players’ choice, as opposed to the narrative designer’s (or in this case, the GM’s). While the GM always arbitrates the rules, some amount of outcome is always dictated as a result of player choice — because interaction is what distinguishes a game from more traditionally consumed media.


Heat Signature features procedurally generated characters and game spaces, and this critical video posits that three questions form the basis of the player’s interactions with and investment in the game. A simple expression of these three questions translates into the medium of tabletop RPGs, as well (and isn’t contingent on procedural generation).

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Example procedurally generated 3D geometrical prints.

What do the players have?

In this case, “have” is a broad understanding of the characters’ capabilities. This can include everything from their equipment to their skills to unique powers or functions. D&D’s class features, Vampire’s Disciplines, Mutants & Masterminds’ Advantages: These are all under the umbrella of what the players have, and they go a long way toward satisfying the essential experience of the game. The players can have much or they can have very little — the story of the game is about using what they have to effect change.

What do the players want?

At its simplest, what the players want is their immediate objective. Save the princess. Slay the dragon. Intercept the shipment. Beyond that, the game grows in complexity and the story grows in meaning as the players layer their characters’ personal desires with the shared narrative goal. The archetypal adventuring party is the most common example of this, and Vampire made much of subverting common goals and interleaving them with conflicting personal goals. Most games build upon the relatedness of goals by constructing the players’ various aims that can be represented as Venn diagrams, and groups that have good dynamics often see player characters assisting each other in achieving their personal objectives.

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An example of where a party’s interests and goals may overlap. Note that Limahl later went on to a musical career with Kajagoogoo.

What happens next?

This is up to you. This is the intersection of what the players have, what they want, and how the game systems model their attempts to achieve their goals with the tools at hand. This is where the verbs happen, this is where the static scene becomes a dynamic story. This is why everyone gathers around the tabletop.

GM Toolbox: Action Feedback

One of the major differences between interactive and non-interactive media is the concept of feedback. Games, as interactive media, show you the results of choices you make. If you’re running a game, that’s a tremendous boon for you, as understanding them is the key to keeping your players engaged. (And if you’re playing a game, receiving those feedbacks is part of why you’re playing.)

Computer games are very effective at communicating feedback. They pair immediate graphical output with nuanced sound and, in appropriate cases, fanfare that all demonstrate positive, desired outcomes. And in cases where a sub-optimal result has been achieved, or even failure, they can communicate that as well, imparting teachings that can increase player skill (even in their absence).

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There’s little ambiguity about what the player has accomplished here.

Around the RPG table, though, feedbacks are a different beast, and are almost solely the responsibility of the GM. And the GM has a variety of different means to communicate those feedbacks, to keep the players engaged. After all, players play games to make choices, and feedbacks frame the outcomes of those choices.

Granular Feedback

Granular feedback is immediate, showing the sequential, often instantaneous outcome to an action. A dice roll yields instant feedback — you see the number you rolled and you (usually) know whether you succeeded or not, and by how much. A GM description of events can also be granular competence feedback: a description of a combat maneuver’s result, an acknowledgement of having picked a lock, a spell that completely suborns the rancor of a hostile creature. Granular competence feedback is the easiest to convey as a GM.

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Quintessential RPG feedback.

Sustained Feedback

Sustained feedback may be a collection of successive granular feedbacks, but can be more than that in the employ of a skilled GM. Sustained feedback shows the player(s) that they’re on a roll, in the zone, or otherwise achieving an ongoing series of successes. Simple comments like, “The hall is strewn with the unconscious forms of your enemies” can go a long way toward reinforcing a sense of player achievement — they show the player, “Hey, good job, you’ve had a string of successes here.” Pursuit and other forms of extended challenges are great for sustaining feedback. Once the player has achieved the 10 successes required to hack into a database, for example, call out the accomplishment. The individual dice rolls yielding the successes show the granular accomplishment, but finally accumulating the required number is a payoff. Finally eluding a hunter or finally catching up to one’s prey are other strong examples. A bard gradually winning over a crowd, an artist creating their magnum opus, and a codebreaker finally cracking a cipher are other examples. Sustained competence feedback is generally the hardest for a GM to convey, as its circumstances are less frequent than granular feedbacks. But if the GM sets their mind to highlighting these sorts of indicators of progress, they can bridge the granular and cumulative competence feedbacks, and help transition the players from the “little bits” to the “big picture” overall.

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The intrepid adventurers were able to translate the demented sorcerer’s flesh-bound journal.

Cumulative Feedback

Cumulative feedback is that “big picture,” that overall expression of the little outcomes that shape the whole. RPGs are great for cumulative feedbacks. The campaign itself is a form of cumulative feedback, while individual sessions also represent smaller but still “chunky” cumulative milestones. Multiple-session books, chapters, seasons — whatever your terminology for them, they’re longer-form expressions of feedback. When an antagonist escapes the players or is ultimately brought to their just desserts, that’s a cumulative form of feedback, as it demonstrates the ultimate objective that so many of the granular and sustained actions were working toward.

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And everything concludes neatly with no loose ends….

Overall, feedbacks help communicate accomplishment, and accomplishment satisfies player needs. Note that accomplishment doesn’t necessarily equal success! Players may feel a sense of accomplishment through having foiled an antagonist’s plans only temporarily (as with many Call of Cthulhu scenarios). They may feel accomplishment through the relatedness of knowing they have earned the ire of a common enemy.

As well, feedbacks can transcend the game as a framework. While in-game rewards are immediate and satisfying, the game’s rewards aren’t bounded to the duration of play itself. Much like a satisfying book or film, playing a game can leave a strong sense of satisfaction after the experience itself has concluded. And that satisfaction is engendered by — and even described by — feedbacks. Indeed, player satisfaction can be the feedback a GM receives for a game session greatly appreciated by the participants.

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