Saturday, February 9, 2013

If You Stat It, They Will Covet It

Arnold in Predator "If it bleeds, we can kill it!"

            As a table top RPG ages, more and more supplements are printed for it.  Inevitably, these supplements will include stats for the movers and shakers of whatever world that the Storyteller is running.  For those of you who have played Dungeons and Dragons in the past, you’re familiar with Deities and Demigods and the stats for the gods of Greyhawk and other pantheons.  This book allowed players to size themselves up against nigh-omnipotent gods of their world.  Giving stats to powerful characters doesn’t end with the gods, famous characters from the world are also given stats, such as in The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting for 3rd Edition where you can find stats for Elminster or Drizzt Do’Urden.  And as any experienced GM or Storyteller knows, if an NPC has stats, it is killable because that NPC is limited by the rules of the system.   When I've run Star Wars the players have made plans to try to kill Luke Skywalker or anyone else because they thought Luke was "a whiny farm boy."
Drizzt from the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting
            Vampire the Masquerade doesn’t suffer from this problem.  Most of the truly powerful NPCs in the game don’t have stats.  The Antediluvians and Caine specifically don’t have stats.  The players and Storyteller are only told that these beings are infinitely powerful with whatever powers necessary to overcome any challenges set before them.  Players who encounter them die.  Even in the clanbooks, the famous or infamous members of a clan are not given stats, merely a short history with their motivations.
            However, a lesser known fact about players is that if it has stats, the players will covet it.  Players will devour any source book or supplement for a game, and come up with long lists of the powers, abilities, or equipment that they want.  Vampire the Masquerade is overflowing with powerful Disciplines that players drool over.  While in the core rule book for Vampire the Masquerade, only the first five levels of the Disciplines are described and given a system, in the supplements, levels six through nine are detailed with several variations per level.  Honestly, there are endless amounts of these high level Disciplines.  So many in fact, that it’s easy for Storytellers to become lost in those options. 
            The problem with having all these Disciplines available is that they aren’t attainable by an average character.  The only way to acquire a 6th Level Discipline is to be Seventh Generation or lower through diablerie of a Seventh Generation or lower NPC.  Diablerie is probably the worst sin that a vampire can commit, and the punishment for diablerie is death. The risk is extremely high, but the reward is also extraordinarily high too.  High risk, high reward encounters like that are the province of the power gamer and min/maxer. 
Image of Caine from Vampire the Masquerade
            For example, in V20 Presence has two level six options.  The first is called Love which after a successful roll creates a potent bond between the player’s character and target.  It’s essentially a blood bond that lasts for one full scene.  This power affects mortals, vampires, and other supernatural creatures equally.  The other is Paralyzing Glance which causes the victim to drop and curl up into the fetal position unable to act.  Using either of these Disciplines requires only the expenditure of a blood point and a roll where the difficulty is the target’s current Willpower points. In Revised and other editions, Presence Six has many other options spread across multiple supplements.  
            Just having these powers in the game creates a situation where players will want to acquire them.  It’s natural after all that players want their characters to progress and become more powerful.  Years of playing D&D has instilled that into many players.  Level 9 spells are more powerful that level 8 spells, so obviously you want to get to the level that you can acquire those spells.  Unfortunately, the generation chart is not the same thing as a level chart.  That thinking leads to a lot of problems in Vampire the Masquerade with power hungry characters who want to get as powerful as possible as quickly as possible regardless of the consequences. 
            I’ve been a player in several campaigns where power-gamers were playing as Assamites because they are “supposed” to diablerize other vampires (in Revised) or they were trying to gather as much vampire blood as possible to have the elixir made that would lower their generation (in 2nd Edition).  In both cases, the players were focused on growing their stats and not their characters.  So far, since I started running Vampire the Masquerade again after a long sabbatical, I haven’t had that problem with power-gaming. 
Timmy the Power Gamer from Magic the Gathering
            Diablerie is absolutely part of the system and setting for Vampire the Masquerade.  And it’s expected that players and their characters will want to become more powerful and rise up through the ranks of Kindred society.  However, I’ve tried to redirect that impulse towards more constructive goals.  Rather than focusing on the players and their characters' stats, I have given them opportunities to gain status and become part of the city’s political structure as either the Keeper of Elysium, whose job it is to maintain and protect the Elysium, or as the Scourge, who patrols the city looking for rogue vampires who are not recognized members of the city such as Sabbat members or Anarchs.  Of course, it’s only a matter of a time before a player decides he wants to be the Prince and tries to take over the whole city.  What fun that will be!

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