Let's Read Vampire: The Masquerade, 1st Edition, Part Five
Chapter Eight: ChronicleWe've reached the first Storyteller chapter, and it may be the best of the lot. This chapter contains the beating heart—pardon the expression—of VTM, one bit that sums up what makes this game different from the editions that descend from it.
"The characters in Vampire are expected to be heroes—they must care about what they have become and about what they may soon be. … [F]or the Vampire character to find some way to "win," they must somehow become heroic. They must defeat the monster within by exerting self-restraint, nurturing the impulses of human virtue, and displaying genuine courage. Sometimes the tragedy of Final Death is the Vampire's only hope of heroic escape."
This blew me away when I first read it. All of my previous experience with Vampire had been about duplicity, backstabbing, and generally reveling in being monsters. Here this book was saying, "Grow up. Be better than that." When did that sentiment die, and who buried it?
This chapter lays out a number of campaign frames, from the Classic to the Bizarre. The Classic frames are described as "archetypal…examples of what a Vampire Chronicle can be about." And with the exception of one, all of these frames are about outsiders ignoring or in one case flouting the laws and traditions of Kindred society.
The chapter wraps up with a sample chronicle set in Gary, Indiana, called Forged in Steel. It's a game about decay, the death of a city in the shadow of economic collapse and Gary's more powerful neighbor, Chicago. The story of Forged in Steel is continued in some of the original adventure supplements for VTM and transitioned into the War for Chicago storyline that dominated much of the line's early years.
Chapter Nine: StorytellingWhere the last chapter was about big picture ideas of what your chronicle would be about, this chapter goes into the more specific problems of the Storyteller at the table. How do you run a game session? What motivates players? How do you build suspense? And so on.
We get a good overview of storytelling techniques. I suspect this was a better section than its equivalent in many of VTM's contemporaries, but from today's vantage point, a lot of the advice is obvious and well-tread. I can believe that that's because of the ground broken here.
A brief sample adventure wraps up the chapter as a way to introduce new players and new characters to the game and the world. It's short, but it does a decent job of guiding a new Storyteller through its few scenes.
There's a short fiction epilogue and then some last words from designer Mark Rein•Hagen that reiterate the game's theme of overcoming the evil within. He also includes a list of inspirational sources, including the obvious (Rice's Vampire Chronicles, Lost Boys, and Call of Cthulhu) as well as the unexpected (the works of Ayn Rand and Vaclav Havel).
ConclusionI knew before I ever found my copy that VTM was influential. It seeded the roleplaying hobby in an entire subset of today's gamers with its focus on emotion, drama, and internal struggle. Looking back on it through the lens of a quarter century of design and aesthetic evolution, I think it still holds up. Even visually, compared to other games of its age, it looks good. The rose-on-marble cover is iconic, and the interior chapter art from Tim Bradstreet is just as evocative as ever.
I can't help but wonder, though, what gaming might look like today if VTM and its successors had kept more of the spirit of this first edition. The juxtaposition of tragic heroism and monstrous potential within these pages feels more tangible than the lip-service paid to the theme in later games. I can see why a fresh crowd was drawn to it back in 1991, and I understand why some of them surely drifted away from the hobby as that spark guttered under the splatbook treadmill of White Wolf's prime.
Thank you for sticking with through all of this. I hope you enjoyed it.