Saturday, July 23, 2016

The marriage of rules and setting (Featuring V20: The Masquerade and Dark Ages)

I was recently seduced into looking at a lot of the new V20 material because I foolishly looked at (and backed) Beckett's Jyhad Diary, which looks 100% awesome. Vampire was one of the big turning points in RPGs in the 90s (and Vampire and Changeling finally got me to abandon D&D, so they're important for me personally) and Vampire still has a special place in my heart whenever I go back and look at it. But what really struck me looking through some of this stuff is how different versions do or do not actually let you make a character you want to play. 4e was all about reflavoring: I used a hybrid swordmage/artificer as an ersatz abjurer once to reasonable effect. But its a thing of beauty when the rules seem just right to express a character concept.

Now V20 isn't perfect; there are a few lingering legacy oddities. For example, all the elder disciplines (level 6+) are basically unattainable by player characters by the book, and the books just keep detailing them, pages and pages of these things players can't use. V20 Masquerade itself is largely a compilation and (relatively concise) redaction of much of the core material, while V20 Dark Ages aims to do that but also present a few new points of view, otherwise bother getting the new book at all (unless you're like me and sold all that old crap for a pittance and more shelf space a decade ago). So in between a few new merits or bloodlines we get some interesting new interpretations of things like a level 5 Serpentis power that isn't about removing hearts. It gives Setites a whole different angle on things, as its one of the 15 disciplines (i.e. magic powers) that the clan gets. Assamite Viziers in Dark Ages get their own version of Quietus which focuses on more, let's say, visierly matters rather than assassinish ones. This is exactly the type of thing I wish had happened earlier in the game.

Take another problem issue: Malkavians. Sure, they're a clan of madmen, but they were also said to be a clan of oracles and visionaries. Now, neither Masquerade nor Dark Ages quite fixes this: Dementation only has one oracular power—eyes of chaos—so neither of the two core books really provide much for being an oracle. There's an oracular ability merit that any clan can take, but its still a bit shit. I don't remember any of the old material that really made me want to play a Malkavian oracle, or worse, able to play one well (if there was a level 6 discipline that did, I don't know about it and don't count it). Finally V20 Lore of the Clans comes along with one good merit that might be worth stealing for other systems: cold read. This merit lets you risk willpower to ask questions about an NPC when you first meet them. I'm not quite sure if it'll play as well as I think it might, but its exactly the sort of reasonable mechanic that we need to play an oracle-type character. I might have to revise my Hakima. This merit isn't a perfect fix, but it can be combined with the slightly improved oracular ability merit and new prophetic dreams merit for some good play that is based on die rolls, not the whim of the storyteller or dungeon master.

Another issue: Baali. I freakin' love these guys, but they never supported the idea of the less-than-fully-evil Baali, despite teasing it in many places. The MET rules even go so far as to state that anyone with Daimonion are infernalists. Depending on which version of the rules you're using, Baali can't even actually make infernal pacts because that's a level 6 discipline. How are you supposed to make even an evil infernalist Baali by the rules for NPCs without ridiculous fiat involved? Well, along comes the new Black Hand book and Kraina of the Well. This is literally what I've been waiting for since I first learned of the Baali. Actual rules to let me do what the Baali do. Its still not perfect, as its never been clear how you learn out-of-clan disciplines (does it require a teacher or not?), but I can work with that.

Leaving Vampire for a moment, I had a similar feeling reading through Adventurer Conqueror King again. I like the simplicity of basic D&D with the complexity of some additional classes and options that give you some latitude in creating a character you want to play. But I liked the specialty mages and priests and kits such from second edition. Well, some of that is hidden in their feat system, like black lore of Zahar which is one proficiency (basically a feat) that gives your normal wizard a nice boost for necromantic powers. With a couple little alterations like that plus their nice rules for creating your own class, I might strongly consider that instead of 2nd edition if I run another old school game. Its kind of a shame because I had dismissed ACKs a bit because I wanted something like 2e specialty wizards and instead what they offer is something a little more like 5e wizard specialties.

The rules can also help constrain things. Back to vampire, the new larp rules do just that. Perhaps because of tons of bitching and complaining about blood magic and out of clan disciplines from the old rules (which gave out way too much XP too fast, particularly compared to the tabletop game) there were huge restrictions put on blood magic and they really emphasized the merits and flaws system. I think they went too far, honestly. Merits can be really powerful and you only get 7 points of them, maximum. Unusual or rare clans take up additional merits (2, 4, or 6 points) which is actually a nice way of saying that its a privilege to play a Samedi or Follower of Set. But some of the clan-specific merits are very powerful or stupidly required. I don't mind too much you need to pay more points to have Setite or koldunic sorcery, but Tremere and Giovanni need to buy a one point merit for each extra path they want to be able to master, which limits a dabbler Tremere who knows lots of paths but has mastered few. If you wanted to play a real loremaster, you need to play a Tzimisce because their clan-specific merit literally gives them access to the most potential lore in the game (+2 to max lore and an extra +3 to lore checks in your haven, plus its compatible with the 1 pt loremaster merit). You can never, by the book, play a Salubri healer with the 5pt golconda seeker merit though unless your DM makes Salubri healers a common clan in your game, just like the Tremere need to really plan ahead if they're focusing on their blood magic or not because there's also a limit to the number of rituals you can take based on your path mastery. Now, this feels too constraining to me, but I can see the desire to put out carrots to let each clan do what it was born to do and somewhat balance the clans against one another in a larp game. To be fair, I also found the nature of larp games to be quite constraining because they want stereotypical characters of each clan and the large shared nature of the game means you can't just come in with wacky concepts and your own factions or interpretation of the genre.

I think the point is, the rules can make a huge difference. I generally like a set of rules that's complex enough to let me do what I want to do (or, conversely, open enough to give me the freedom to do it). But I find it a bit unsettling when I look at the vampire larp rules and think of a cool character concept that I can't do. And alternately, when I look at the tabletop Vampire rules where I spot something that makes me think: yes! I can finally play the character that I've always wanted! Sometimes rules are flexible in a house game, and sometimes they're so complex its hard to say what one or two house rules might do. I even understand the need to constrain a game with some stricter rules, particularly for larps or player-vs-player type games. But I'm still struck how the rules can really open up come concepts as viable, or close off creativity.

No comments:

Post a Comment