Episode 1: Black Dog

So today the first episode of my Vampire: The Masquerade thriller “No Man Is An Island” is out as an improvised audio drama starring Red Moon Roleplaying and Anna-Karin Linder.  

It’s my debut at running a RPG session for broadcast.

Well, almost…

Like any child of 70’s and early 80’s Sweden, my dose of fantastic audiovisual media came less from glitchy pirate copies of Thundercats or Gundam and more from from Swedish Radio’s various amazing radio dramatizations of CS Lewis, Tolkien, Enid Blyton, LLoyd Alexander and other early greats.

The unforgettable Swedish audiobook version of Star Wars aslo bear mentioning. R2D2’s beep told you when it was time to turn the page.

So anyways, it might not have been a too strange idea that the Drakar & Demoner – sessions I ran with my group would make for good listening to someone, right? I tried recorded my first trpg actual plays as GM in 1987 or so on a series of 5 C90 tapes on a portable cassette radio.

It stank. My voice was embarrassing, I hesitated too much, my acting was flat and annoying, my descriptions incoherent and everyone talking in each others mouths, and there was that one player that insisted on talking about school or the Björklöven game that weekend. I hope they are lost forever.

Full of teen certainty and pride I wrote off Roleplaying for radio, and with it concluded ALL MEDIALIZATION OF ROLEPLAYING IS UTTER SHITE and absolutely not that my GM’ing and group were a bit shite.  

Truth is we sucked so hard I never did another try. Until now that is. Hope my skills have improved somewhat.

I think Red Moon has again transcended their genre, and created something that runs more like the high production Swedish radio dramas that ran on sunny afternoons throughout the endless early 80’s summers. If significantly less child friendly.

First part has a lot of me talking but that kinda comes with the territory of running the intro as a police manhunt set smack in the middle of the G20 London summit protests. The players take way more space as the plot, and the blood, thickens in later episodes.

Just like in audio drama, music without lyrics plays a huge part in crafting a Tabletop Roleplaying mood and drive. Even if these sessions are recorded without a live soundtrack I always Imagined I was running it to Lola Zaza’s Vampire tracks. And that’s exactly what you will get, thanks to Red Mood getting thumbs up from Paradox to use the music from the discontinued Vampire visual novel.

I hope we’ll be able to commission Ossian and Zaza for some new tracks for a possible maybe season 2.

So please take a moment, put your Walkman headphones on, and enjoy an hour with me in a world under a Red Moon, where the shadows are longer and no one is safe.

Francis, Paul and Gabrielle

Below you find recordings of the three pertinent interviews conducted by Sgt. Anna Kitwara and Cpt. Isaq Kahn during the merger of Special Operations Group 12 and 13 to form a new team within the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit. The recruiters know what they will be hunting. The candidates do not.

Tune in this Friday and find out how the three veterans of the London Bombing investigations work together in the field in the first proper chapter – “Operation Glencoe”.

Also tutorial sessions on the character generation system of Vampire: The Masquerade 5th edition.

Preludes in V5

If you’re an old Vampire: The Masquerade player, you probably remember the “Prelude” chapters in the 1st, 2nd and Revised (3rd) editions of the core book. To many ST’s Preludes seemed a bit off (a structure of play you use only once during a Chronicle) and somewhat pretentious. I loved the sense of connection to mortality they gave characters and that they were often more dramatic than later sessions.

If you have checked out the three narrative character creation sessions (Francis, Paul and Gabrielle) Red Moon Roleplaying podcasts of our Second Inquisition chronicle “No Man Is An Island” , you’ve probably already figured out I’m still a huge fan of the concept of playing your way through character generation rather than just crunching numbers and juggling concepts with the other Players and the Storyteller. It fits especially for a Podcast game focused on character drama, thrills and BBC cop drama level of authentic-ish detail.

The job-interview style of Prelude I use in the pod is not the same as the one here. It’s another template of Prelude.

This one is about the last day of your life.


I really wanted to get Preludes into the character generation chapter of V5, but in the end it was a darling that needed to be killed. Including it in core would bloat the chapter and make the character generation process seem like a too daunting process.

That doesn’t mean Preludes are not pure gold, or that their importance for the development of TRPG’s should be understated. I partially blame the technique for the explosion of “Freeform” and later “Jeepform” in Sweden in the early – mid 90’s. The quick scene-by-scene structure and heavy reliance on player (rather than Storyteller) descriptions are virtually identical to much of Freeform.

Here are my notes for the Prelude sub-chapter knocked into some kinda playable structure. It’s my attempt to take some of the techniques from Freeform and Nordic LARP workshopping and feed them back into the system I contend inspired them. Use and abuse it.

Like all advanced systems in V5, it’s very much optional.

Enjoy, remember your first idea is always good enough when you improvise or roleplay and try not to do like Miss X, one of my old high angst-drama players and walk out into the sun before the game actually begins.

Also, don’t miss the first proper session of No Man Is An Island this Friday!

Unpublished storyboard sketch for the V5 Toreador photoshoot in LA.
Concept and styling: Mary “Twisted Lamb” Lee
Art: Fiona Cribben


YOUR LAST NIGHT – A PRELUDE FORMAT

A prelude consists of a series of short scenes where the Storyteller and the Player tell the story of the Character’s last day of life together. It works best if it’s done in a focused, serious and almost ritual manner. Sit across from your player so you have eye contact. Dim the lights. Play some appropriate music in the background and start running through the script of the Prelude. For most characters the example script below will create a series of interesting scenes and choices, but many ST’s want to write Prelude scripts tailored to their Chronicle. Always make the script your own and insert local detail, sounds, sights along with the characters and terrible events you are about to narrate. After you have run “last day” preludes a few times you may want to experiment with a different sequence of events. Examples include running a session as a Wake (see The Wake box), as a series of interviews about the character, an interrogation with the character about how she ended up next to two bloodless corpses or a series of scenes dealing with the key life-events in the characters existence, from birth, first loves, betrayal of ideals, marriage, divorce and ending in a compressed last-day type Prelude scene.


A Prelude is per definition a horror story. No matter if the mortal is caught unawares or has been prepared by the Kindred for years, the moment her heart slows down and the Embrace of death sets in is always traumatic and nothing can prepare her for the things SHE will do once death has passed and the Hunger sets in. In the Prelude the player is mortal, alive, weak and about to have her life shattered, so play up the horror and the personal drama in the Prelude. This is where you get the chance to tell a story where the vampire is the unknown monster and the player human, before the tables turn and the player becomes the monster. Give her the mortal perspective to give depth her journey through the night.

A Prelude should be fairly quick. Aim for no more than 20-30 minutes and if you have more than 3 players around the table you should consider letting other players act as supporting characters

LIFE

“It’s the last day of your life. As ordinary a day as any day can be. You were probably unaware this was it, but it was. It was an ordinary day. Where did you wake up to see the morning one last time?”

The player (or players if two of them are a couple, or friends or whatever) describes her character’s surroundings. It can be home, in a sofa at work, at a lovers, in a foreign country, it doesn’t really matter, but it dictates where the rest of the Prelude is set, the social circumstances and so on.

The ST can help out by asking additional questions like: “Is there anyone there with you?”, “where in town is your place / hotel / lovers place”, “as you look around, what items mean the most to you, tell us about them”. Keep the mood nostalgic and focus on the character, what she looks and likes and her immediate surroundings, what she owns and what she values.

“How do you prepare for the day ahead, what are your plans? It’s a weekday, right?”

Let the player narrate how they are going to work, to meet their dealer, to the airport or allow her to protest and say it’s the weekend and they’re going partying or whatever.  

Play out the scene the player has indicated. Ask the player to fill in details and describe what her life and play it up to her. Introduce a character in this scene, perhaps a contact, a person from work. Don’t make it one of the Family characters, but make sure something happens. Perhaps a workmate wants her loan back and the player character can’t pay, perhaps one of the girls the character is seeing behind her partners back shows up at work just minutes before the wife gets there or maybe a sadhu / street preacher jumps her and tells her soul is tainted by something she will do in the future.

At a dramatic point in the scene, have the PC’s device ping her or have her suddenly remember an important meeting.

“Dusk is near. You’re going to meet one of your Family later today. You can’t believe you’ve forgotten it. Who is s/he and what are you going to talk about? Make it something really important.”

Let the player describe this Family person and why this meeting is so important. The The point of the scene is that the meeting will become a crisis or triumph of some kind, an unfinished piece of business for the character to take to an early grave. What the player thinks the meeting will be about doesn’t have to be the truth.

Start playing out the scene, perhaps letting one of the other players around the table play the Family. In a Chronicle where two players play Family this could be a confrontation between the two of them.

After a few exchanges that establish what’s “normal” between the PC and Family person, raise the stakes and twist the story. Perhaps the player said “I’m meeting my significant other to break up with her” and instead you have the partner tell the PC she’s pregnant, will kill himself if she leaves him or something equally dramatic. Always escalate the conflict in this scene far far beyond what the player expected. Don’t be afraid of screaming, tears or violence in this scene. Don’t use dice tho. Just decide what the best dramatic outcome for the scene is. If the player beats or kills his girlfriend just before becoming a vampire that’s great food for drama, just avoid killing the player character.

A triumph in the characters life works just as well as a tragedy. Perhaps the best friend that wants to meet about a job opportunity tells the PC she’ll get a job as creative lead on her dream project or the cheating boyfriend tells her that he’s ended the affair and wants to marry.

The meeting could go also sideways in some non-personal fashion. Perhaps Retainers of the Sire-to be rush in and kidnap them both, the loved one is gunned down in a senseless revenge shooting or perhaps they get a message that their daughter is being hospitalized for a heroin overdose.

In the moment of crisis, the vampires appear. Make sure the scene has progressed to nighttime at this point.  

The Sire

“As you take in the situation, a stranger appears. Something about the way it looks at you is wrong. It’s too still, too hungry and too poised to strike. This is your Sire. The one who will take you into the night. Who is she? Have you met before? Do you know what is about to happen or are you unaware? If you want me to decide all the details, just nod.”

Let the player describe their Sire. It’s likely she has made a decision on what type of Predator and Clan the Sire is. The PC will inherit these qualities after the Embrace and they will have a massive effect of the way the character develops. To make the scene better, ask the player to describe the Sire without directly mentioning Clan or Predator type at all. If you are running a Thinblood or Storyteller Prelude, describe the Sire you have in mind. The Sire could appear in the scene in any way you want, but the intention is that the arrival of the Sire somehow breaks the scene. A thuggish Sire shakes the pair down for money and the Family runs away or is killed, the stare of the childlike figure across the streets makes your sister nervous and she looks at her phone and needs to leave, a lover reacts with violent jealousy and runs away as a gorgeous Sire walks up and kisses the PC on the mouth, a workmate feels uneasy in the loremaster Sire’s refined and educated company and has to call it a night, or the Sire walks into the room where the PC and the Family person are tied up and puts the Family member to sleep with chloroform or her whispering voice. No matter how, the PC is alone or alone with her Sire when the scene ends.

“What do you think about the meeting with your Family? What would you say if you could say one last thing to him/her? You can’t though, because death is close, in the shape of your Sire. How do you deal with what just happened? What do you do next?”

The next scene can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. But first make sure that during it, your player lands in what the crisis / happy moment with the Family means and where she would have taken it if she had lived.

In this scene let the player describe what she does and respond with descriptions. Perhaps she cries and pleads, wanders town to get drunk to celebrate / drown her sorrows, tries to break out or enthusiastically pursues her Sire. No matter what happens, it’s in vein and death finds her.  

The Embrace is the most final of the Prelude scenes, this is where the character gets to say goodbye to life and enters the nightmare world of the Kindred. The Embrace is best narrated by the ST, while the player describes what she feels. The details of the Embrace is best left to the ST, a feeling of powerlessness is key to making it scary.

Describe the events leading up to the Embrace. Maybe the mugger takes her right there in the alley or drags her off to her sewer lair to do the deed, the stunning Sire takes the character for one last night of dining and dancing as a mortal or maybe the Sire starts to extract the characters blood with medical equipment. Make the description of the embrace as sexy, raw, poetic or cold as you need it to be. Don’t hold back here.

“Breathe after me. In. Out. In. Just like that. In out. Be aware of your breathing. Lokk into my eyes and continue to breathe. Breathe slower and slower with me. In…. Out….You are starting to feel faint, out of breath and lightheaded. Your sire pulls back for a moment and looks into your eyes. What are you feeling? The Sire looks at you and whispers “Do you want to die as a human, or live as a monster?” What do you say to your Sire? These are your last words alive.”  

Change the Sire’s question to something suitable or let her be silent. The important part is the players response, that should tell you a lot about the character’s attitude to unlife. No matter if the player pleads, cries or accepts death the Sire continues the deed. It’s too late to save her she explains. Even if she chooses death as a mortal, the Sire goes through with it, or another vampire arrives at the scene and Embraces the dying PC when the “Sire” looses her nerve. Then describe death.

“Breathe with me. Fast. desperate. In-out-in-out-in-out. There’s a soft dull pain, like the worst heartbreak you have ever felt. Then a quiet emptiness creeping in from the edges of your vision. You remember the best and the worst thing you did in life. What are they and how do you feel about them?”

Let the player describe her “life pass in front of her” and focus on some core questions like the above or just “What mattered the most to you in life?”. After she has described this treasured thing just say.

“As you slip away, what do you believe will happen? Do you believe in an afterlife? In God or reincarnation or something else?”

Her answer is useful of course, but no matter what, they are wrong about Death.

“Breathe out. Out. No air in your lungs. All stillness. Your last words slip away from you, your last wish will never be granted. Emptiness. Absolute silence. No time. No space. No breath. No angels or devils, just a dusty endless emptiness and a grey city full of masks.”

“But just as peace and emptiness fills you and a cold wetness covers your face there’s a sharp pain in your chest. Your Sire bleeds into your mouth and involuntarily, you begin to Drink. It tastes like ashes and stings like a live-wire. Boom. Boom. Your dead heart begins to beat, hard, like it’s tearing out of your chest and then your soul explodes flooding your body with sensation. No heartbeat. But still you open your eyes. You are still there, still you. But you are not alone. Inside the blood your Sire fed you, something stirs and wriggles, an ancient worm whispering of palaces in sand and empires of blood long lost. It’s an old thing, dead and hungry that rises. It takes a while to realise the thing. Is you. And you Hunger. You wish you had never woken up. This Hunger is much, much worse than death, and you really know what you are talking about”

Next up is a terrible choice. Describe the scene again, but this time tinted by the peternaturally sharp senses of a vampire. It can be beautiful or frightening, but the night is suddenly alive with a myriad sounds, colors and smells, all feeding the Hunger. If the scene includes a Family or other character, that NPC is pretty much fucked. If the Sire is still around she might help you to your victim or present an animal or bagged blood .

“You need to Drink. Who is your first victim? Do you take what is offered or do you fight the impulse to feed?”

Let the player describe what she does. Even if the PC rushes out into the streets, feeds from an animal or a stranger, do your best to put one of her Family (ideally the one she had the intense meeting with earlier during the Last Day) in her way and watch her consume a part of her living days as the Beast ceases control and a feeding frenzy ensues. Describe the details of the feeding closely, with gross attention to medical detail. There is nothing romantic about a first feeding, it’s unskilled, sloppy and almost certainly ends with the death of the first victim.

“Suddenly the pain just goes away. The limp thing in front of you is the source of all the joy in the world and you feel yourself grow excited, pumped, high on blood and power. This. An escape from death, more real than life ever was. This makes it all worth it. Then you see the thing in your arms clearly.”

If the PC shows no remorse over her first feeding it might be a good idea to start her off a point lower Humanity than you planned since the player apparently enjoys being a monster. Let her react as she wants and take note of it.

This is a great place to end the Prelude if you plan to start playing a Thinblood Cronicle or want to start playing immediately after the Embrace and have the players experience the first chaotic nights as a vampire and their possible introduction into Kindred society. If this is your players (any of your players) first Vampire Chronicle, we strongly recommend you to play the whole sequence of event out as the first Chapters in your Chronicle. If you are creating older vampires, even ones just a few months into the Masquerade, continue with the last three scenes of the Prelude. If you are playing from the Embrace, use the last three scenes as inspiration for your first session, but try to get the Coterie together as quickly as possible so they can experience these things together.

In the next scene the PC plays out her first meeting with another vampire that is not her Sire. This character could be a future contact with the Camarilla or the Anarchs, a mysterious tempter or a mentor in the ways of the blood. Be sure to add this character to the relationship chart as she is described or add her after the Prelude.

“Nights pass. Blood flows. Alone or with your Sire, you start to understand the limits of your new existence. But there’s so much you don’t know yet. How many others like you are out there? Where do you come from and what is the purpose of all this living death?  One night you meet another of your kind. Where do you meet her and how do you spot her?”

If you want the player to decide who this first encounter is, let her, but many ST’s have plans on how to introduce the PC’s to the world of vampires and the characters they want to appear in the story. Having the stranger be one of the other PC’s is a great way to start pointing the Prelude towards its conclusion – the forming of the Coterie. If that is the case, the ideal is to have that other player play her character in the scene.

Narrate the meeting scene, describe how the other Kindred reacts when she sees the player. Examples include walking into a bathroom stall to find a sloppy feeding in progress, realizing that the three Ugandan businessmen at the bar haven’t touched their drinks, being introduced to a member of the Primogen by your Sire, being called by a mysterious voice to the attic of a hospital, where the Elder that has chosen you as her inheritor waits and so on. It’s a good idea to insert some action into the scene, maybe allowing the use one of her clan disciplines to get the player to try them out before play begins in earnest.

“Another of your kind. A chance for some answers and a different perspective. What do you say? What do you ask?”

This NPC is best used to give a perspective different from the Sire (if she is present in the PC’s life) and make sure to point out that the answers are not exactly the same as her Sire has given her before. If the Sire is Camarilla, perhaps make the first other vampire the PC meets be an Anarch or an Autarch critical to the Ivory Tower. If you do want to create an Anarch fanatic or a closeted Camarilla member, let the NPC be hostile and unsympathetic or have her be another member of the same sect as the Sire who shows the PC another face of the society.

“Meet us there, the stranger says. This is a lot to take in. There are other like you, but will they be able to understand you? What does the stranger say to convince you to meet with the the Kindred who will become your allies? What hopes and fears do you have about the meeting. What does your Sire think about you connecting with others of your kind?”

In the last scene, that ideally carries over directly into the first scene of the Chronicle proper, we meet the rest of the Coterie. This scene is important to run with the whole group present. You may want to run through your individual Preludes and then start the next session with this part to kick things off. Meetings like this are a regular occurance in Kindred unlife and a good way to kick off a Chapter if you have nothing better planned.

“The meeting place feels secure. Where are you? Who is there first? Who arrives next? Describe yourselves and how you appear at this first meeting.”

This will take a little while, but be sure not to interrupt and let all players describe their characters in detail. Encourage them to write down some details as they come up with them. Descriptions don’t have to be detailed, just a few words and impressions are plenty. This scene is made for the characters to have a chance to talk among themselves and decide a little bit about what the Coiterie is all about, what the characters think about each other and what the first goals of the Coterie are.

“The first subject of conversation is ambition. What is this Coterie trying to achieve together? What is the first step towards that and what obstacles lie in your way?”

Since you know the rough aims of the Coterie from the first steps in the Prelude Session, have fun playing your characters align themselves towards that goal. There may be resistance and internal divisions, sure, but in the end the Coterie agrees on a course of action and the Chronicle can begin. This first action should be something simple that the group needs to do. It could be running the Wights out of an abandoned hospital they are going to claim as their communal Haven, going in front of the Prince to be officially recognized as the inheritors of a Primogen Elder, infiltrating a biker gang to take over their leadership and assets or making a grotesque pact to kill each other’s families to save them from a fate worse than death.

“Sun is rising. Where do you sleep? Your mind is spinning, full of memories of a human life you know will soon be forgotten. When you think back on your Last Day, what was most important? What will you carry with you into eternity?”

In the last step, have the players describe their Havens and how they drift off into slumber. This is a great place to wrap the Prelude up with some poetic words or a song that captures all the impressions and emotions of the Prelude.

Be sure to thank the player and instruct her in the final steps of Character Creation – applying the Vampiric traits to the mortal character you have created and mapping out the relationships inside the Coterie. Remind the player that they are free to adjust their character creation choices now after the Prelude. Perhaps it felt wrong thet the character had a handgun and knew how to use it (Firearms), but had no skill in Craft, despite being describes as a ceramic artist, so the player wants to move the Firearms points to the Craft skill. This is one of the reasons you run preludes, to test out what is an interesting character to play.   

In the next step, apply the Predator type that best reflects the Players actions in the Prelude or make it the same as the Sire. Then, finally, apply the appropriate bonuses from the Clan and choose Kindred merits inspired by the Prelude.

The Majority

Photo: John Paul Bichard Models: Hampus Ahlbom, Henrik Lillier

A WoD interlude. Unpublished.

I don’t belong here. I’m cursed with this outsider’s clarity. The inherent vice of my “condition” reminds me constantly of the hidden machinery guiding civilization towards its inevitable end. We are the secret councils that rule your Kings and Presidents. We are the back room deals and brutally enforced conformity that keeps the system afloat.

By night I see the polite facade dipping beneath the surface for a moment, showing me a vast sea of cold, dark truth. Where others see budget-cuts and privatization, I see the unbroken night-reign of monstrous kings. An endless history of immortal oppression.

By day, the minutia of modern life turns your gaze to the pavement. Bowed and broken by arbitrary professional and personal duties you’re unable to spot the patterns in the cracked asphalt of your life. But here, in the absolute absence of normalcy, I dare you to strain your eyes and look straight into the night. You see it? Patterns coalesce, break apart and give way to wordless understanding.

In the light of the you-tube riot-fires you catch a glimpse of brutal, old men commanding knightly orders of riot-police to ride bloodied through the raging human mass. The flickering embers of a hundred bushfire-wars light up skies pregnant with rain and streaked with charcoal-smoke rising from the last burning patches of rainforest. Blind prophets point to instant communications, ecological awareness, drone armies, rising population-curves and extended lifespans and declare this an age of wonders. I’m not impressed. Knowing that such progress means nothing but more slave-blood for the hungry gods of night is sobering, to say the least.

It’s past midnight and we can’t turn back the clock. The oceans rise. The last elephants and tigers will be dead within a decade. The rich piss on the poor. Millions throw their lives away in violent slavery to a long-dead God. Hate and fear and intolerance are everywhere. Moralism, fascism and racism disguised as social protectionism will soon be the order of the day. We will make sure it will. It’s all a part of the Blood’s plan.

You shrug and chalk it all up to human nature. You really believe you are masters of your own fate? Victims of nothing more sinister that your own insatiable greed?

I told an old hobo a little bit about my own perspective on things the other night. She smoked all my Camel Activates while I talked. The bag-lady hobbled away before I was finished, her gait measurably slower and more intent than when I found her. Yesterday, on my way to the club, I found her bloated body curled up behind the loading-bay of ICA Högdalen. Her throat was torn open. Glass bottle. Suicide. I could see the hesitation-marks.

I laughed and called Sabina before the cops. Got her voicemail. Relic of the nineties that I am I left an actual message.

“Just wanted to tell you the bet fell my way this time. She couldn’t handle it. No breach. Not even a note. Not a fucking word actually. She just crawled away and died when I told her how things are. No, I didn’t have time to… No. The juice is crap anyway Sabine. Double next time, ok?”

So yeah, so much for full disclosure.

You still wanna know what I am? Who you are? Who rules the world? Seriously. Ok, get a little closer and I’ll whisper it to you. Yes. Just like that handsome. Now just hold still now and shut your fucking mouth.

You feel it? The rising dark? That’s the truth right there.

Let me tell you the only truth that matters.

You are the minority.

The boy spoke for the first time since sunset. Voice hoarse as he was being drained.

Who?

The living.

So who are the majority?

Throwback Thursday – Playing Ashes to Ashes V5 style

Once upon a time we planned to re-release 1st edition Vampire and a few select products in a facsimile edition with new forewords. I wrote a piece to introduce one of the best Vampire adventures – Ashes to Ashes, the story that goes with 1st ed “Chicago By Night”. Eventually some of these ideas found their way into the amazing modern day V5 Gary adventure “Rusted Veins” by Matthew Dawkins, used as a demo game and a playtest.

I think it can be interesting to old fans of these classics and to anyone that wants to run them in the style of V5.

Ashes to Ashes foreword (unpublished)

This is the first major chapter of “Forged in Steel”. The series of adventures are more famous as “The Chicago Chronicles” and continued in Chicago By Night, The Succubus Club, Under a Blood Red Moon and many other early White Wolf titles. It’s one of those roleplaying adventures that begs you to start playing before you’ve finished reading its first chapter. I honestly think only a few vintage titles have held up as well. Re-reading ”The Enemy Within” (WFRP), ”Fallen Angels” (KULT) and ”Masks of Nyarlathotep” (CoC) evoke the same feeling of having re-discovered a seminal work of participatory literature as I get from “Ashes”. No, it’s not just nostalgia, there´s real quality here, instilling me with a sense of awe at the level of sharp craftsmanship at work here.

Unpublished image from Anarch shoot. Photo: me Model: Tyrone Tugwell

Even tonight, after twenty-five years of more-or-less World of Darkness-inspired novels, movies and TV-shows, the experience of those first wide-eyed nights in the Lake District of the early 1990’s still feels like something uniquely Masquerade. The tone of the narrative, seeped in hyper-real local color, politics and landmarks, to me feels closer to an existential take on The Wire or The Sopranos than they do to the tales of domesticated suburban fantasy vampires filling our Netflix watch-lists.

”Baptism by Fire” (found in the last chapter of Vampire: The Masquerade 1st and 2nd Editions) is set in Gary, Indiana and kicked off the Chicago Chronicles in a direction where the time and place (the lake-area of the early 1990’s recession) is just as important as its early and genre-defining depiction of an undead society fraught with personal conflicts and all the familiar contempt of an inbred social scene.

What I’m trying to say is this: even if the execution is sometimes a touch juvenile and some ideas that were fresh in 1991 feel like tired tropes today, you should give running Ashes to Ashes with 1st edition rules, straight out of the book a go. Tonight.

BAPTISM BY THORNS

To make Ashes to Ashes a bit more of the Quick-Start Story for Vampire 1st edition that it should be, I’ve included some notes on making the setting more correctly reflect it’s real – world counterpart, and some ideas from my own group’s session prep and preludes. The notes assumes you’re familiar with running roleplaying games, but I hope even a complete newcomer to roleplaying will have use of this chapter.

Murder capitol

Just google Gary, Indiana and you’ll find a ton of unbelievably horrifying stories from the late 80’s up to this day. Most concepts and ideas below are based on real events. Even if your PC’s slaughter a vice-cop and half a dozen gangbangers in a single session, that counts as a pretty slow night in Gary.

Verisimilitude

Both Carmilla and Dracula are framed ”as if they were true” – narratives heavy with detail and local color. Take a clue from the masters of the genre and make your game feel grounded and real.

Realistic demographics

The majority of characters in “Baptism by Fire” are white. This does not conform to the demographics of the region in reality. For a more realistic (and just) portrayal of Gary, assume every character belongs to the black majority of Gary unless there is really good reason they should not.

One way to do this is simply to not mention the ethnicity of any black character in your descriptions, as they are the norm. Just describe most characters without mentioning color at all, unless they are white or hispanic or such.

In the 90’s Gary had the highest percentage of African Americans in any US city above 100K – 84%. Since then the city has shrunk (perhaps due to your PC’s actions) to below 80K but the demographics are roughly similar.

Any non-black characters are likely to be cops, priests, prostitutes or from Chicago. These should most often be of eastern European descent and have Polish, Hungarian or Romanian last names.

To make the original cast actually fit the demographics of the setting a little better assume these ethnic origins for the main cast. Change their described appearance accordingly: 

  • Modius is a nobleman of colonial French (Senegal, Cameroon) or of North African descent. Black nobles holding titles in 18th century Europe did exist and feature in art from the period. Researching the subject of ”moorish nobles” in Renaissance Europe could give Modius more depth.
  • Allicias mixed-heritage parents are working-class from Georgia (RU) and Georgia (US).
  • Juggler is of southern Italian (Sicilian) descent and passes for an unusually light but definitely not white-skinned gang-member of a Chicago gang.
  • Michael is a local heroin addict with some serious issues. He was embraced in 1970.
  • Jugglers recent Childe, the Evelyn Stephens is of mixed heritage as written.
  • Alexander Danow is white. And deformed.
  • Lucian is a North-African, like many mercenaries in Julius Cesar’s army.
  • Sullivan Dane is British, white, a stranger to Gary and a massive pain in the ass.
  • Special Agent William Sheperd is of Italian descent and Detective Gregory Stephens is afro as written.

News

1991 was the year the crack-epidemic hit Chicago with full force. Bloods and Cribs were a real thing and the 4 largest gangs of Chicago numbered 19K members. Violence has never been worse, before or since. Looking up news stories from this time is a great source of plot and character ideas. Do it.

Music

Hip-hop music of the time is spectacular. Use it. Think about starting and ending each session with an appropriate track by Cypress Hill, Public Enemy, 2-pac or Ice-T. Local Gary Hip-Hop takes off later, in the mid 90’s, but changing the release dates of a few Grind Family or CCA tracks is cool if you’re not as anal about timelines as I am.

Remember that Techno is black music from the 90’s. For non-lyrical tracks just look for original 90’s Techno and House labels like Underground Resistance. You can find any pulse pounding mood for chase club and action sequences in the early Detroit / Chicago stuff. For horror and ambience the lesser known works of John Carpenter are excellent.

Fan-material

http://www.creative-eclectic.co.uk/darkrise/Forged_In_Steel.pdf. It’s a fan-made extension of the forged in steel chapter. It’s very useful if you want to hit the ground running and includes a great map of WoD Gary.

Official version

https://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/content/documents/history-of-street-gangs.pdf. It’s an official government examination on criminal gangs and it has a good section on Chicago / the midwest in the 80’s / 90’s.

Movie

Only Lovers Left Alive. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as rustbelt Autarchs in love. I’d be very surprised if the depiction of lonely vampire life in a disintegrating Detroit doesn’t owe a lot to 1st ed. Vampire and The Chicago Chronicles. Even if it doesn’t, its a great inspiration on how to lower the pace of the game, and focus on the details to play Vampire in a personal and believable way.

Other White Wolf Sourcebooks

Destiny’s Price is a WoD sourcebook about street culture in the 90’s. It was written back then so it’s in a great flavor. It’s pretty great.

Chicago by Night. Not needed and may mire you in it’s compelling web, but yes, it’s the companion volume to Ashes by Ashes. Out soon in pub we hope.

THORNS – EXTENDED GARY PRELUDES

Photo: me

Problem: The beginning scenario ”Baptism by Fire” is not anywhere near as good as ”Ashes to Ashes” It’s basically set up as a two-hour larp-scenario and can easily turn into a tabletop session where the Storyteller spends a lot of time talking to herself in different voices over the PC’s head. Not ideal for establishing characters and setting and generally not a lot of fun. This assumes you are more interested in running Forged in Steel / Chicago Chronicles as a sandbox style chronicle with strong personal motivation. 

If you’re a first time ST, ”Baptism by Fire” can honestly be really hard to run, and runs the risk of moving too quickly away from the grime of real-world Gary to the internal politics of the local Camarilla. It also lacks suggestions for meaningful personal interactions with the players mortal lives. 

Fix: Run the players ”Preludes” with the whole group around the table, including all players in a way that grounds their characters (and the Non Player Characters they portray in this first session) in the local environment and gives you an array of mortal NPC’s with personal stakes in the Player Characters future choices as well as creating a plausible rustbelt coterie.

Step 1 – Social Scenes

Each player chooses a social ”scene” in Gary 1991. Her character will belong to this scene, as will her dependents. Brief notes include priorities for character generation and relationships between groups. Roll or choose one.

  1. National Gang clique. (Black Gangster Disciple Nation, the Latin Disciples, the Latin Kings, or the Vice Lords). Characters are likely to live in different cities but gather in Gary. Physical.
  2. Sex-worker collective. Pimps, regular customers and prostitutes. 40% of all prostitution is male. Social.
  3. Crack / Heroin zombie squatters. Radically different backgrounds, only commonality is the shared passion for a specific drug. Talents. 
  4. Union family. The unemployment rate in Gary is a hefty 15%. This scene (steel-workers or teamsters) have irregular employment and constantly dread falling below the hunger-line. Almost every family has a black sheep that belongs to 1,2 or 3. Skills. Physical. 
  5. Gary PD: Vice. Assume the characters are dirty cops. There is a great news-story from 1991 on cops getting caught for shooting and robbing drug-dealers in Gary while off-duty. Snitches and regularly abused hookers (1-2) are good contacts. As are 6. Physical. Contacts. Characters may be caucasian without ST permission.
  6. Family in local politics. Family with strong church-roots and ambitions to rise. Has one 1-3 black sheep. Social. Backgrounds. Contacts.
  7. Entertainers. Former gang that’s pulled itself up by the hair. Rappers, producers, techno-DJ’s, stand-up artists, graffiti writers. Talents. Social. Deep connections in 1-3. Talents. Social.  
  8. Social workers. Secular or Lutheran. An inner-city rehabilitation clinic / abortion clinic / needle exchange. Regulars from 1-3. 6 are their bosses and 9 their rivals / competition. Talents.
  9. Church / Convent. Catholic. An inner city diocese or nunnery with a strong social outreach program but no needle exchange, abortion clinic or other morally questionable activities. Regulars from 1-3, frequent visits from catholics in 5 and a long-running moral battle with 8. 
  10. Family. Lower middle-class family with a place to live and double employment. Very aware of their secure position and willing to do anything to stay safe. 

Make characters (no stats needed yet) for each player in each scene. Or choose the pre-generated characters below.

Step 2 – Mortal / Embrace Preludes

Run a Mortal Prelude session with all player characters belonging to one of the scenes above. It is not decided who’s Prelude this is. You don’t need to stat out all the characters for the Prelude, just do that for the player who becomes The Vampire. The goal of the session is to play out a few scenes with this group in their mundane (but exciting) life as mortals before one of them becomes The Vampire and the dynamic of the group changes. The climax of the scene is one player being Embraced and the others reacting to that knowledge in some way. The character’s Sire / clan is also introduced as a major NPC in the scene and should inform the mood of the whole Prelude.

Example Mortal Prelude (Juggler as Sire, Dirty Cops as Scene): A shift of variously dirty vice cops of Gary PD are about to sell an impounded shipment of decent coke to Williams, the ghoul that runs The Auction. They are strapped for cash and have gambling debts or something. PC’s don’t know about The Auction, and we assume a contemporary slave market is a big enough deal to shake even dirty cops into righteous anger. Williams doesn’t show up and they track him through gangland / junkie Gary (use the search to introduce other NPC’s from the other player’s Scenes). The PC’s catch up with him at The Auction and realize what it is. Williams is watching Juggler watch him, ultimately looking for a fix in the shape of Juggles blood. Williams may make the coke-deal if the PC’s pursue it, but tries to turn the tables on the PC’s (he can’t look like he’s working with cops in front of Juggler) at the last moment. Alternatively he runs like hell when he realizes these cops (not the ones he’s paid off) know about The Auction. As they give chase after Williams, Juggler follows them secretly, intending to protect his asset (Williams) and the Masquerade. The cops confront Williams in an abandoned steel-works in The Wasteland. After a brief gunfight / argument he spots / senses that Juggler is stalking them and pleads with the characters to help him take the Juggler down. He refers to Juggler as a ”Night-Man”, some kind of Gangsta urban legend. In a protracted horror-scene Juggler seriously wounds or kills all the characters. Last man standing is embraced and left behind as morning creeps closer. 

Now run a Mortal Prelude with another scene / main character. Make sure to set it roughly at the same time as the earlier Prelude and involve several of the characters featured in the last prelude as NPC’s in this one.

Example Mortal Prelude links: The second prelude focuses around a group of male hookers who draw straws over who will be sold at The Auction to pay off a hefty debt to their pimp / madame (Alicia or Juggler). One of the cops from the first Prelude is a regular and the ”Short Straw” character is a devout Catholic, hooking in two other PC scenes into the story. The cops from the first Mortal Prelude burst into The Auction before the Short Straw PC is sold, forcing the group to return to their pimp with empty hands. As a result the Kindred Pimp embraces the Short Straw. The rest of the hookers manage to escape but believe their friend is dead, vowing to seek revenge. Possibly by contacting a brother in the Vice Lords.

Step 4 – Kindred Preludes and coterie commonalities

Run Kindred Preludes. Keep running Mortal Preludes until one character in each Scene has been embraced. Now you’re ready to play out a first round of Kindred Preludes in a more traditional manner. Your objective in these sessions is to make sure the PC’s vampires come to need each other and rely on each other. This is fairly easy to motivate in one of the following ways. Choose or roll.

1-2 Vengeance. All the recently made Kindred characters are shafted by a local vampire (not Modius, default to Juggler) and have pretty close mortal connections to each other as exemplified above. They stick together to take down their enemy and go to Modius place to present themselves when they have figured out Kindred existence out well enough to understand the concept of a Prince.

3-4 What the fuck are we? No one else understands. The Kindred Preludes are a series of attempts by the Kindred PC’s to reintegrate in their mortal lives. They fail miserably, killing several dependents and bystanders. During their botched hunts and early sunrise frenzies they recognize a handful of others in a similar predicament and they stick together to figure out the what and the why af their condition. They stay away from other Kindred and are forced to declare themselves as another Kindred find out they exist.

5-6 Same Sire. Common Blood draws the characters together. This is the best and easiest way to create a Coiterie and the lack of ”variety” in a single-clan / Caitiff coterie should not discourage you. There character generation rules and disciplines are broad enough to make sure any single-clan coiterie work just fine if you choose varying abilities, skills and backgrounds. The Preludes are the story of a ”family” of vampires as they learn to hunt under the guidance of their Sire, who then either dies (forcing them to seek out Modius) or introduces them to Modius.

7-8 Dreams of Darkness. The characters are seemingly unconnected and try to figure out Unlike in their isolated Scenes, until they dream of the same decaying inner-city mansion and the faces of strangers- When they get to Modius ”party” they recognize the others from their visions. Cheap but effective.

9-10 Ideals. During the first nights of hunting the new Kindred of Gary run into each other. They witness the extremes of urban decay in the city and do something about it. For instance they could permanently shut down The Auction. This makes Modius concerned about letting the Neonates operate freely (socially progressive coteries are Masquerade breaches waiting to happen) and he forces them to join his Party and bend the knee.

Step 5 – Baptism by Fire

Run a custom version of Baptism by Fire integrating characters and details from several of the above sessions and Social Scenes. Modius may require the PC’s to prove their loyalty by killing one of their dependents (scene characters from the Mortal Preludes), one or more of them may be an unknowing visitor to Modius Party. The Prince’s gathering and court could look more like a gangland after-hours with 10 mortals to a Kindred and all Vamp-business done covertly, obscured by clouds of chronic and booming House, than a sparse get-together with only vamps in attendance. 

Step 6 – Keep the Scene’s going

No matter how far the PC vampires dive into the Kindred society of Chicago, they still belong to their Social Scene. Colleagues recognize them, old lovers are concerned for them and family members become misguided Hunters that try to save their souls. Every session of Ashes to Ashes should include at least one character directly drawn from the Mortal Preludes. Ideally the same player that portrayed the character during the Prelude should run it (with instructions from the ST of course) during the campaign.