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!
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
“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.
“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.