The comparison of Vampire the Masquerade and Dungeons & Dragons is not a fair comparison to either. Nevertheless for the purposes of this article, the comparison is necessary if only to point out the contrast. Character progression falls into three distinct categories: improvement of traits, increased material wealth, and enhanced reputation. Improvement of traits is the most obvious way that characters increase. Whether you are playing a classic fantasy table top RPG or a science fiction MMORPG, experience points are gained and then spent on improving a characters abilities, attributes, traits and so on or once a threshold is met a character gains a level. Put more succinctly, characters level up. Their hit points improve, their attacks hit more easily, and so on. Increased material wealth is also an obvious way that characters improve. With greater wealth, characters in a fantasy themed RPG can earn gold to buy greater and greater magical swords or have new armor commissioned and so on. Enhanced reputation is not as obvious. By enhanced reputation, I mean all the rewards and accomplishments of a character that are included in the Backgrounds section of the character sheet for World of Darkness characters, or not directly tracked at all for other games. An enhanced reputation can take several forms such as a title granted by a king or prince or an infamy that spreads across the lands.
In Vampire the Masquerade, characters gain experience and improve their skills and so on, but they do not gain much in material wealth. Money is just not that important for the Kindred and that’s reflected in the way wealth is handled during character creation. A beginning character in Vampire the Masquerade can be as wealthy or as poor as the player decides. In truth there isn’t much that can be bought in Vampire the Masquerade that will give a character a greater advantage over his or her enemies.
Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, access to money does not mean access to more power; instead, in Vampire the Masquerade, characters cannot improve themselves just by acquisition of wealth. Of course, having more points in Resources, the measure of character wealth in VtM, means having a nicer car or perhaps more firearms or a prettier sword, but that firearm or sword won’t do more damage. The focus of character progression in VtM then becomes enhanced reputation. Tracked as Backgrounds in Vampire the Masquerade and other World of Darkness games, they cannot be purchased with experience points. These are earned through game play and role play. These are the key to character growth beyond improving attributes and abilities.
The most important trait on a character sheet, mechanically, is the Background Generation. This single stat defines the maximum level for every other trait, ability, Discipline, and attribute along with the size of the character’s Blood Pool and blood use per turn. The more points in Generation a character has the greater his or her power. However, after character creation the only way to improve Generation is through Diablerie, murder of a vampire and the taking of that vampire’s soul and power. In this single trait, Storytellers and players are offered a variety of plots, and improving this trait also means that the character is now a criminal. If anyone discovers the crime, the punishment is the Final Death. The singular importance of Generation means that some players often risk everything just to get that sixth point in Generation which allows them access to sixth level disciplines and the powerful abilities they offer. Entire campaigns have been derailed by a player character’s diablerie and then earning a sixth dot in a Discipline. Generation is the ultimate reward for a player’s character if handled properly.
After Generation, the most important trait is a character’s Disciplines. Disciplines, even the early levels of some Disciplines, are extremely powerful, almost game breaking. Each Vampire begins play with access to three clan Disciplines. However, beyond those, players should not be allowed to simply spend experience points to buy new Disciplines. According to the Vampire the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition book, in order to learn a new Discipline a character must drink a blood point from a Vampire who currently has that Discipline. This restriction puts players at a significant disadvantage because players don’t want their character to lose his or her autonomy and become a blood bound servant to another vampire. This alone is a deterrent for characters.
Many players want to expand their characters suite of Disciplines beyond just their three Clan Disciplines. A Brujah brawler is greatly enhanced if he/she acquires Protean Two which gives the character claws that do aggravated damage. Players should be able to acquire new Disciplines, but only through role playing and earning the respect and trust of an NPC mentor. However, the Storyteller should keep a tight rein on the disciplines made available to characters. Otherwise, things become unhinged rather quickly as players combine Discipline effects and run roughshod over NPCs and plots.
Generation and Disciplines have mechanical effects, but Status is purely a factor of the player’s ability to role play and to enhance his or her character’s reputation. Of all the Backgrounds available to characters, Status is the most telling of a characters true power within Kindred Society. Status is a reflection of how well respected a vampire might be and whether or not his/her word is listened to at Elysium. The slow climb up the hierarchical ladder of a Kindred City is the real mark of a character’s growth. Whether that city is Sabbat or Camarilla, a character’s Status reflects what NPCs may think of him or her.
Without Status, a character is a nameless, faceless, and worthless neonate that no one respects. Even the most powerful character with tons of Disciplines and maxed out Attributes and Abilities is beyond notice or respect without points in Status. However, as a character’s status grows, so does the characters ability to influence the politics of the city. Primogen and Princes begin to listen.
Status, unfortunately, has a glass ceiling built into it. Only the Prince has a Status of Five. Only the Primogen of a city have a Status of Four. Player characters can’t rise above level three in Status unless they can also claim the title associated with that Status. These titles are a double edged sword; a high position in a city also brings with it increased responsibility to the operation of a city. Outside of a single city’s hierarchy, other positions are available in the Camarilla and Sabbat. In the Camarilla a PC could rise to the rank of Archon who are responsible for traveling from city to city and upholding the rulings of the Camarilla’s leadership, the Inner Council. Inquisitors serve a similar role in the Sabbat, seeking out heretics and infernalists. Beyond Status in a particular sect, a character could also rise in status amongst his or her clan. In previous editions of Vampire the Masquerade, Clan Status was tracked independently with Backgrounds such as “Brujah Clan Status” or “Assamite Clan Status.” These are no longer used in V20, but offer options for looking at character growth.
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Secret societies are another way to advance as a character. The Inconnu, the Black Hand and the Tal’Mahe’Ra, or True Black Hand, are three such examples found in Vampire the Masquerade. Each society offers different objectives for the players and often these objectives may be at odds with the stated objectives of the group. Players can discover the truth behind these organizations as they balance their own desires against the well being of their coterie. Black Hand Membership is included as a Background in V20 which offers players back up in the form of Black Hand members who will come when called. The Tal’Mah’Ra and Inconnu don’t provide a mechanical benefit but offer many opportunities for advancement.
Another important way for a vampire to grow is by increasing his or her territory. The Domain Background provides the mechanical benefits of controlling territory. Beyond the mechanical benefits, territory represents a vampire’s powerbase. A Prince claims a whole city and divides that territory out to his or her followers. Claiming territory is a symbol of power and dominance over the other vampires in the city. Domain provides a place from which the vampire may control other aspects of the city or world. Good choices for a domain are a university or hospital as both provide the character with access to a Herd and Influence over a useful mortal institution.
Allies, Contacts, Influence, Retainers are other Backgrounds that allow for character development beyond just experience points. Allies and Contacts provide access to mortals who can assist the character as he matures. A player can focus on expanding the character’s access to mortals. Resources may provide the money, but most characters can’t actually lay their hands on military grade weaponry or a powerful artifact without help from mortals Allies or Contacts. Retainers, on the other hand, are usually ghouls who directly assist the player character. Increasing this Background is only a matter of blood bonding NPCs and maintaining those blood bonds throughout the chronicle. Influence, on the other hand, represents control over a mortal institution whether that is the city’s police force, a political institution such as city hall, or the previously mentioned hospital or university.
Whether it is a Background or a Discipline, each of these ways to improve a character’s reputation and power within a city allows for new conflicts as well as growth. Resources in a city are limited and most have already been claimed by Elders and Ancillae who have lived in the city for decades or even centuries. Wresting away control over the police or a university from a powerful Elder is the heart of an Anarch story or just the story of an upstart Kindred looking to take advantage of an Elder who has grown complacent with his power.
More information about titles and Status can be found in the V20 Companion which offers titles and mechanics for their use in the Camarilla, Sabbat, Tal’Mahe’Ra, Inconnu, and Clan Specific Titles. TheGilded Cage has many suggestions for ways that characters can improve their Backgrounds and amass power in their city.
Thank you Niccolo for suggesting this topic. If you have any suggestions for an article please submit them to me via email.