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Winging It

Driving Up the Intensity

by Ian Sokoliwski
Aug 24,2005

 

Driving Up the Intensity

Welcome to the tenth instalment of the column 'Winging It', a column discussing the promises and pitfalls of a more improvisational approach to GM'ing.

This particular instalment will deal with how to bring about, and what can result from, bringing the intensity level of a game up to the point that the players begin to argue with each other, loudly, passionately, and, most importantly, in-character, without degenerating into player backstabbing or powergaming.

In the original 'Hunters Hunted' sourcebook for Vampire: the Masquerade, there was a description of a group of Ghouls that would travel from town to town, capturing unwary Vampires to feed from, thereby maintaining their independance from any individual Vampiric 'masters'. I thought that this would be an interesting idea to play with in my Hunter: The Reckoning game, as (two sessions previously) the PC's (Izzy and Daniella) had made a reluctant ally with a Vampire in the city. So, I thought I would start with this basic idea (creating a character sheet for only one of the Ghouls, and developing the rest as they needed to be) and see what it would turn into.

The basic idea was, this type of 'biker gang' (really, they traveled across North America in a pickup truck with an old camper shell, plus a couple of other vehicles) was going to show up in town, discover the Vampiric ally of the PC's (Viv), and attempt to capture her to drain her of her blood. It was up to the reactions of the PC's to determine how complex the entire situation became.

So. The aforementioned camper truck pulls into the garage where Izzy is working to have some repairs done. Izzy (using her Second Sight, plus just the general paranoia that several months of being one of the Imbued gives her) discovers that these people are Vampiric Servants (so she thinks, anyway), and tries to think of a way to talk to them, to find out what their deal is.

Well, the favourite standby of getting bad guys and good guys introduced into this game so far is for someone to ask someone else out on a date. So, one of the Ghouls starts chatting Izzy up, asking where the local 'goth' hangouts are, and if she is free that evening. Wanting to learn more about them, of course, Izzy tells him about a few places, and agrees to meet for drinks later.

Later, Izzy and Daniella make plans. Daniella will follow them from the regular bar to the goth club later that evening, to see what they all have planned, and how best to determine how 'good' or 'bad' these fellows are, and what possible agenda they may have.

Now, I'm thinking that most Vampires in a given city would probably not want to hang out at traditional 'goth' places, being too obvious and cliche. In fact, the only ones that would do that would be young, inexperienced, and just plain dumb ones, Vampires still adjusting and 'posing'. Through decades of experience, these biker Ghouls would have determined the same thing, and would be deliberately going after the weak, the young, the inexperienced, and the just plain dumb ones.

Eventually, Izzy and her new 'friend' wind up at a goth club, with Daniella following. They both see most of the Ghouls that Izzy had seen earlier (the Ghoul Izzy is with had called them to let them know where they were going), and even spot another Vampire they had not known about earlier.

Through a series of misadventures (the point here is to get to the intensity of the disagreement between the players here, so I'll just jump ahead a bit), we then find Izzy and Daniella in the motel room used by the biker Ghouls, with Izzy's 'date'. They are questioning him about why he is here, why he and his friends are tracking that Vampire in the club, and what is up with the body bags, IV bags, surgical tubing, and other various medical supplies in the room.

He is stalling for time, lying and generally making them mad, but they do begin to understand that they are trying to hunt down Vampires (making them potential allies). Still, not everything seems 'right' about this situation, and they cannot seem to 'break' him to get him to tell the truth.

Well, this seemed like an opportune time to have the rest of the Ghouls show up. Disarming our PC's (and, really, it only takes one Ghoul with Celerity to disarm everyone in a small room), the Ghouls begin to question them on what is going on, and why they are trying to help this other Vampire (or at least prevent them from killing the Vampire).

The leader, Jake, begins driving a wedge between the PC's - they are split as to whether they should be helping the Ghouls (Vampires are bad and should all be destroyed) or stopping them (these Ghouls also seem pretty bad; besides, they know of at least one Vampire who is not necessarily bad...), ending only when Jake realizes just how 'different' these two are...and that perhaps some local Vampire honcho would like to 'buy' them, to learn more about them. Of course, that would only happen after Jake has a 'taste'...

Using her Ward ability, Daniella fends off the Ghouls, allowing the two of them to escape (barely). Needing to regroup and gain some sort of ally, they decide to go and talk to Viv, to see how she can help, and to warn her about this Ghoul threat.

Now, obviously, I had anticipated there would be some sort of meeting between the PC's and Viv, due to the nature of this group of Ghouls and Vivs status as an 'ally' of sorts. However, I hadn't really decided on any sort of reaction from her, figuring it would more be based on the tone and actions of the PC's. When they met with her, they were very anxious and nervous (especially Izzy - she realized that the Ghouls knew where she worked, and should be able to find out from her boss where she lived, thus increasing her paranoia). So, I decided to play with this, and really heighten the tension and unease.

Viv decided that the best thing she should do would be to warn the local 'Vampire Court' of the existance of these rogue Ghouls. However, she also decided that the PC's should be the ones to tell the Elders directly about the incident (protocol and such - mostly this was a handy way for me to introduce the kind of encounter that should never ever happen in a game like this, but that every GM wants to put in). The main trouble, of course, is that the Elders would have no reason to believe 'ordinary humans', and would get very ticked off at Viv for revealing their secret (their existance) to mortals.

Thus, Viv would have to turn the PC's into Ghouls.

Now, a brief mention of game mechanics and background is in order. In the World of Darkness setting, a Ghoul is, stereotypically, a servant of a Vampire, one who has certain supernatural edges conferred by imbibing Vampire blood. They are still mostly human, but are usually a bit stronger and tougher (and, occassionally, will have access to one or more Vampiric Disciplines). Vampires with enhanced senses can usually tell the difference between a normal human and a Ghouls (thus, simply lying about whether the PC's are Ghouls or not would not work).

The Imbued (such as Izzy and Daniella), however, cannot become Ghouls - the nature of who they are now prevents any sort of supernatural 'enhancement' (well, mostly, and it can vary from game to game - this is just the standard way of playing it). This means, of course, that Viv's plan will not work.

However, with the Imbued being a recent occurance in the World of Darkness, and not all the Imbued knowing what can or cannot be done to them, none of these characters knows that they cannot be Ghouled.

And, most importantly, having not read the books, Izzy and Daniella's players (Victoria and Sara, respectively), also do not know about this.

So. Viv basically tells them her plan. There is a meeting in three days (well, nights, really) of the Vampire Court, and this is where they should tell their story. They should be Ghouled, and be presented at the meeting as servants of Viv (thereby being allowed to speak and not simply killed on sight). But, as Viv finds the whole process of creating Ghouls distasteful (as it, in most cases, eventually creates a Blood Bond between the Ghoul and the Vampire who is providing the blood; this Bond is a physical and psychological tether between them, with the Ghoul basically willing to do anything the Vampire wishes), and as Izzy and Daniella would both find the entire idea less than thrilling, she suggests they think it over for a day or so, and then decide what to do.

This inspired another debate between the PC's (and, indeed, the players). I have been finding, the more I can create and encourage these types of in-character debates between players (reducing my role to a mere observer rather than directing the action), that the entire role-playing experience becomes so much more heightened and enjoyable. Certainly this one, with two very divergent points of view (for and against the idea of becoming Bonded to a supernatural creature, and in even becoming the enemy they are fighting) made for some fantastic role-playing.

Of course, eventually, they did decide to go with Viv's plan (the deciding factor was Victoria being concerned about Izzy's life, much more than any potential threat that these Ghouls may pose to a relatively-weak Vampire such as Viv). Each of the PC's drank a small amount of Viv's blood.

As an aside on this point. We are all adults here, and we did play out this part as a partial 'live-action' moment, with each player actually drinking from the same cup. However, the 'blood' was diet cola, and that is about as far as the ritualistic nature went. Once in a while, we do incorporate a bit of 'live-action' into the game, mostly to determine things like 'who can you see to shoot at' or 'if the bad guy has his gun in your throat like this, how can you get out of the hold without getting show'. With this scene, because both the PC's and the players were tense about the whole thing (but, for the players part, in a good way), having them physically act out this bit added to the drama (well, melodrama really) of the evening. Keep in mind, however, that I was being very aware of the 'comfort level' that everybody had in the game and in me, and was prepared to not do things like this if it made either or both of the players uncomfortable.

With that caveat taken care of, back to the narrative at hand.

I knew that, ultimately, the PC's could not be Ghouled, as stated earlier. However, I determined that the blood would have some effect, but just not the one predicted. Essentially, they both felt very weird and ill, while their 'auras' did distort to resemble that of Ghouls - to a limited extent, anyway. This made Viv very nervous, and she told them about this, but they still decided to risk the situation anyway.

Cut to two nights later. Both Izzy and Daniella (suitably garbed in fetish/goth gear, in stereotypical 'Vampire Servant' style) were presented to the inner sanctum of the local Vampire Court. I played this up as the most dangerous situation they had ever been in, with just being around such powerful Vampires causing headaches for the characters (literally - I've always determined that, if something attempts to use any sort of mind-reading or similar ability on one of the Imbued, their Second Sight ability will prevent it being successful, but that the Imbued in question will get dizzy or a headache as a result - well, these were the most powerful Second Sight-related migraines inflicted thus far in the Chronicle), not to mention the tension of having to 'act' (playing the role of dutiful servants) and dealing with the effects of the misfiring Ghouling procedure.

Both PC's basically related what they had seen of the actions of the Ghouls in the goth club - however, they had to pretend that they were already Ghouls of Viv (even though the Vampire Court had actually forbidden anyone in the Court, and any of their servants, from attending this particular club - it would too easily draw attention to themselves), and eliminate any sort of mention of the encounter in the hotel room.

The meeting ended (with Viv receiving a mild rebuke over the indiscreet actions of her servants - mild, however, because they ended up providing 'interesting' information about a new threat in town), and both PC's ended up running out of the building (once out of the sight of the Elders and other hangers-on), vomiting into the snow due to the stress, pain, and illness they were experiencing. This final purging of the last of the Vampire blood, however, also removed any and all Ghoul taint in them, and they felt much better.

(As all of my players can attest, I am certainly not above adding a level of grossness to my games, to get a point across.)

Thus ended this particular session. There were still many, many loose ends to tie up (it seemed that they were getting the Vampire Court to do all the dirty work for them, but, of course, that is not how it would actually turn out in the next session, for example), and there was a growing dichotomy in the outlook between the PC's as to their approach to 'the Hunt' and the nature of the supernatural (one that, while it encouraged character growth, I would continue to encourage).

As I've stated, I believed the best parts of this session (and of many of my other games) have been when the players were interacting with each other (almost to the point of excluding me) and were really exploring what their characters thought and believed. The tension and 'reality' of the game was really pushing their reactions and interactions with each other, to the point that anything I could add in the way of encouraging ideas or directions would have been completely unnecessary.

And it would only get better from here...

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