💭 Townscapes by Christin-Bilal
♟️ Vampiric Palette Cleansers
At the moment I'm running a Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition palette-cleanser1 campaign set in 2012 Venice, our group of four Kindred is a mix of Hecata2 and other clans. One of the aspects of Vampire that I particularly enjoy is the sense of history, the characters are after all playing immortal creatures that potentially been around for hundreds of years (although the default assumption is that player-characters are more recently created vampires), certainly there will be old vampiric NPCs to whom the weight of history is extremely important.
This is also reflected in the setting, the eponymous World of Darkness which is often portrayed as a run-down, through-a-mirror-darkly version of our own world, one in which the injustices and shadowy parts have been strengthened by years of manipulation by immortal blood-suckers and other terrible creatures. Mankind is controlled from the shadows by creatures that--although looking like them--are very different with alien motivations and the monstrous patience that only an immortal lifestyle can bestow?
📜 The Weight of History
Despite it's importance the feeling of history is something that can often be difficult to capture in RPGs, on my Youtube channel I've talked in several videos about how it's not worth creating hundreds of pages of written history for campaign settings (unless you enjoy doing that sort of thing, in which case crack on) if the players are only going to scratch the surface of it. Most players in my experience are only concerned with the history of a game world as it pertains directly to the events unfolding around them in the present-day of your game setting.
That doesn't mean you should ignore it completely, in some games--especially games like Vampire--history can and should play an important, and if you want to bring history into your games here are a few things to keep in mind:
Sketch out your history in broad vague strokes: Don't try to write up every event that occurred in your thousand year campaign history, confine yourself to a few major events and periods of time.
You can always backfill it later: Keeping your history vague allows you the opportunity to go back in and fill in more concrete details only as and when they are required in your game.
History is mutable: Most real-world history is getting re-evaluated all the time as new ideas and evidence come to light, historical narrators are biased and often unreliable, this gives you a lot of wiggle room to flex it later and is another good reason to keep it vague until you need to describe it in more detail.
When people refer to historical events in your game most of it should be vague: Whether you're asking a local sage or a vampire who actually lived through it, secondary sources and even immortal memories are fallible. Who can remember exactly where they were and what was happening a few years ago, never mind hundreds? Your NPCs shouldn't be able to reel off an exact list of dates and events, couch your NPCs recollections in vagueries and approximations, this also gives you that all important wiggle room to tweak the history later.
If your PCs ever find a way to the truth, it should not be what they think it is: Due to the factors listed earlier, if your player-characters ever discover a way to find the objective truth or even directly witness an event (past-life regression, a scrying orb, etc) then--although most of the events may unfold as per the legends--you should throw in a couple of surprises or deviations from historical account. Perhaps the hero who killed the evil Lich and became a beloved King, was actually just a mercenary who got lucky and then rode the popularity train to the throne?
📖 Literary Inspiration
So where does Townscapes by Christin-Bilal by Enki Bilal and Pierre Christin come into this?
Well the graphic novel tells three seperate stories of towns caught up in strange and magical circumstances, each beinng loosely linked by the presence of a mysterious psychic stranger who wanders into the unfolding events and becomes part of them. My favourite of the three stories is called The Ship of Stone and it deals with a shady big business trying to force people from their ailing local village, which sits in the shadow of a mysterious stone castle. The inhabitant of the castle is a legendary hermit reputed to have a strange air who is rarely seen.
When the psychic stranger arrives and is taken up to meet the hermit, to persuade him to help the town avoid its fate, the old hermit--who seems to be a sorceror of some kind--describes the castle as a 'ship of stone' that bought the people's ancestors here many generations ago. A spell is woven to move the town and the castle to another place, the sorceror summoning all the deceased ancestors that went before to travel with them.
Here we see beautiful panels showing the recently passed, pilgrims and pock-marked plague victims, before the author goes one step further and the most ancient ancestors--creature who seem more aquatic than mamammalian--are bought forth. These creatures look like that would be more at home in the H.P. Lovecraft story 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth.' There's even a great couple of pages where the modern day inhabitants of the village meet the spirits of their ancestors and are startled that their furthest ancestors are these strange fish-like behemoths.
For someone like me who loves their cosmic horror I ate these panels up.
🦑 So how could I use it in my game?
Well, as I said, I'm running a vampire game set in Venice, and the lineage of vampires in the Masquerade is rumoured to stretch back all the way to Caine the biblical first murderer (who in the fiction of the game was cursed with vampirism for his crime), all the later vampires are descended from him.
As we pointed out earlier in this blog post though, the course of history is never as straight or true as it seems. Who is to say that these beings--who existed in an unimaginable mythic past--were even remotely human as way understand it today? And if they were, I find it hard to imagine that all those years labouring under the curse of vampirism has not had a profound effect on them.
Combine this with the fact that my game is set in Venice and I'm sure you're not finding it too difficult to imagine where I'm going with this.
🐟 Invasion of the Fish-people
So is my game going to invaded by vampire fish-men from the mythos? Probably not TBH, although the idea has some appeal, it's a bit too much on the nose for my liking, and also my players might get round to reading this blog. However, the lore of the previous edition did mention ancient Giovanni vampires lurking in flooded tunnels below the city, and lore also talks about ancient aquatic colonies of Nosferatu vampires presumed long wiped out; I like the idea of leaning into this old edition lore but re-making it a little to suit the needs of my current game.
When we did our session 0 for the game we discussed what we wanted to focus on for the game; since it's only a limited campaign we decided to focus on a single major plotline with only a few minor deviations. The plotline we chose was that of a great ritual or peril lurking below Venice that the player-characters would stumble on, investigate and possible try to stop or halt in its tracks.
I think that the idea of truly ancient vampires lurking below the water, slowly rising from a long sleep that has twisted them and made them barely human any longer is a great potential endgame/antagonist for our campaign, combine that with immortal necromancers, a sinking haunted city and I'm really looking forward to seeing where the game goes ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)
Additional: After posting this blog entry Eric Vulgaris over on the Clerics Wear Ringmail Discord recommended that I take a look at a blog post on the Wizard Thief Fighter blog called Anti Canon Worlds and the UVG which does a great job in discussing the tyranny of canon and how you can both break out of the mold and also use it to your advantage in game.
A short, confined campaign run after a more long-running campaign, often with a different system or setting, as a break before jumping into another long-form campaign.↩
In Dark Ages known as the Cappadocians before they were deposed and murdered by an offshoot of their own clan known as the Giovanni, the survivors of their disparate offshoots have now formed a shaky alliance against more grave external threats, re-branding themselves as the necromantic Hecata Clan, the Clan of Death.↩