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Ashes to Ashes foreword (unpublished)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Unpublished image from Anarch shoot.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.

The dead ride fast

On April 22:nd, after four years as Lead Storyteller, brand designer and creative director of World of Darkness and White Wolf Entertainment, I worked my last day at Paradox.

My departure is a complex affair, but I think it’s fair to say it’s a consequence of the decision to dissolve and restructure White Wolf as a part of Paradox internal Brand Management and Licensing unit in November of 2018. Organizations evolve, intentions are misunderstood, goals change, drama happens and that’s life I guess.

I’m immensely proud of what we achieved in three years. When I took the job I promised myself to spend 5 years on WoD if it turned out to be constant struggle and drama, 10 to life if it went smoothly.

Needless to say it was not an easy or quietly creative job. New obstacles appeared every week and friends tell me I’ve aged ten years. I still wish I had 10 more years to develop every WoD line as intended.

According to my own plans I should feel satisfied with my part in building the base for a transmedia future for WoD and move on. But as hard as it was I started to see the extent of what we could achieve, and how it could change gaming culture for the better.

White Wolf Entertainment was created as a separate company from Paradox. It was a small, well- funded, independent startup that allowed us to take the kind of creative risks we needed to take, at least if we were going to do it the way I was planning to.

Launched in 1991, Vampire was a one-of-a-kind game. It created its own pop cultural myth, cultlike groups of fans, inspired a really intense take on roleplaying and new forms of play (Minds Eye Theatre) and it reached audiences that wouldn’t touch D&D with a pole. It had women and clubbers and smart people in black playing it. It was different and wether you loved it or hated it, you had an opinion about it.

I wanted to make something as different and real as the punk visions of the original creation.

I’m kind of surprised that despite having my reign cut after the restructuring of WW, I still don’t feel like I’m done with telling stories inside the WoD.

I’m slowly returning to my existence as an active freelance writer and designer. I suspect Paradox may need some help on the further development of the bibles at some point, licencees may need someone who can write for WoD5 in his sleep, and since the creative center of WW is now with the developers of individual projects, that’s where I think I’ll be the most useful. I think I’ll try to be a Consulting Storyteller for a while. Hit me up if you think I could add something to your WoD5 product, or invite me over and I’ll hold an updated development workshop like the ones I ran before the books ate all my energy and focus.

But before I start the next WoD projects I’m taking some much needed time off to enjoy a Swedish summer fully, for the first time in years. Maybe help out a bit at the Bronx Sauna Club; we’ve talked about running a “End of the Line”- style V5 larp there sometime during late summer. I want to try reading things other than WW books and I hope to be able to share some cut material and design thinking from V5 and the two setting books Camarilla and Anarch and maybe the work of other writers right here.

This will be my humble new home on the webs for a Wolfless future.

I’m calling it Black Dog Blues.

www.blackdogblues.net.

If you want to know how I run the Word on Darkness and who I am as a Storyteller, please check out the podcast V5 Chronicle “No Man Is An Island” that I currently run with Red Moon and my old writer-designer friend Anna – Karin Linder as players. The prelude where three very different London cops are screened and selected by the Second Inquisition, begins today with Francis, a forensics scientist about to learn just how little the light of reason has revealed over the course of a domestic terror investigation in London a decade ago. Before the fall of London.

https://www.redmoonroleplaying.com/podcast

In future posts I hope to share some insight into the thinking and choices I made during my time on the throne of darkness. For now, allow me to just say that my brand work and subject matter choices always intended to bring WoD uncomfortably close to reality, letting us explore the worst parts of our world by mixing real horrors with metaphorical ones. I wanted to use WoD as a vehicle for awareness building and human rights advocacy. I wanted to show real evils by placing them next to fictitious ones. I wanted to weave myth and history so tightly that it becomes difficult to know where one ends and the other begins, make players untangle them for themselves, learning in the process. I wanted to transcend the genre with fresh darkness drawn from the filthiest wells of the commercialized internet menacing zeitgeist.

I wanted to become known for making the darkest shit using the best tricks for playing on serious subjects from the progressive Nordic larp scene and as opposed to censoring, ignoring, simplifying or romanticizing our real world material. I wanted us to be known as the company that treated our players as competent adult individuals, fully capable of enjoying a satirical vision of our own world, where everything is tainted and nothing is what it seems.

But for all my sorrow for leaving, I’m happy that almost all of the amazing work that Karim and I did with the V5 team is intact. I’m glad to have had Freja look at every text and idea with fresh eyes, and the biz dev and licensing teams skills, the Paradox Producers and employees know their shit, as well as the new stars of the show, the licencees did continues to evolve. V5 and Bloodlines 2 is quickly gathering recognition and exposure on the epic scale I always dreamed of. I’m confident that the courage and passion we tried to instill in everyone that worked alongside us (even if it sometimes scared the hell out of them) will be evident in the projects that were developed during my time as Lead Storyteller and for a long time to come.

It’s been real.

Blood and Souls!

P.S. If you want to do something small to help my transition to freelancer, please consider writing some supportive words about me and what you like about WoD5 and the return of the World of Darkness. Writing here is nice for me and all that, but please do it where you discuss Vampire or gamer culture. D.S.