Rebuilding Vampire: Bringing the Pain

Though I’ve been silent for some time now because of classes and then finals, I’ve kept the Vampire project (it remains untitled and I really need to find a way to refer to it) alive in my head all this time. Maybe not front burner, but certainly slow cooker-simmering to the side. I can’t help it, really, not even with the other stuff I have going, like Ierne: Celtic FATE or my new obsession with the Colonial Gothic RPG and American Colonial/Revolutionary history.

One of the things that I’ve most been giving though to in between study sessions of human physiology (or perhaps because of it?) is the concept of damage as it relates to a vampire character. Both Vampire games go for the very traditional “hit point” approach: a vampiric character, much like every other character in the World of Darkness, has health boxes to track damage received. As they get checked off, health decreases until it either sends the vampire into torpor or, if it’s aggravated damage, it kills the character. In the WoD, because of the mechanical distinction made between normal and aggravated damage, this work ok; vampires can shake off fairly easily most damage, as it is mundane in origin and no match for their healing abilities, but aggravated damage really puts the squeeze on them, making them face mortality a second time. Yeah, it works for Vampire, but the more I think about it, the more I know that this isn’t what I want for my game. Or rather, I should perhaps say, this isn’t what I want for my game entirely.

I do want a way to track damage received by the character, but I’m far less interested in knowing how many more hits can the character take than what effect the hits already taken have had. I want to know how the damage the character has taken is affecting her and her circumstance, if that explosion at the night club she just escaped from did more than just singe her skin: did it destroy her reputation with the Blood Conclave, or cost her best (mortal) friend’s life, or both? I want damage to be a catalyst for enhanced drama. I don’t want a record of wounds, I want a record of consequences.

My thoughts immediately fly to the FATE System, to a rule unofficially established for Spirit of the Century but firmly in place now for the Dresden Files RPG: the 2/4/6 Consequence rule. Basically, this rule allows you you as the player to exchange damage done to your character for a descriptor that places some sort of temporary drawback, with the “temporary” part being determined by how much damage you reduce (the 2/4/6 part). So for example, if my character gets hit for 6 points of physical damage and I only have 4 health boxes, I can take a -4 consequence, take no damage to my health boxes, but be afflicted for X amount of time by a descriptor of Broken Arm. Consequences, not damage.

When talking about vampires, this makes far more sense to me than tracking health points which can, and will, change quite often as super-healing is a basic vampire trait (I haven’t spoken yet about vampiric powers, haven’t I? *tease*). Consequence descriptors, Aspects if we are using the FATE System parlance (which I will most likely borrow for this game), in a way also track damage, but they can track it on a far more diverse way than merely health. With this mechanic in play, damage can be physical, mental, spiritual, social, circumstantial; you can just as easily have a Wound That Won’t Heal as you can Out Of Favor With The Prince or even My Lover’s Gone (with apologies to Dido). These consequence Aspects can then be used by the player and Game Master to add drama to the character’s story, to push the character’s buttons and drive toward more interesting conflicts.

The obvious question then remains, what is that gets tracked on the character sheet that one would reduce damage done to by means of a consequence? If I’m not going to health points, what is this resource that must be maintained at the cost of situational modifiers? The answer is Willpower, the one weapon a vampire has to fight off the beast within. But I’ll leave talking about Willpower for my next post.

12 comments

  1. I’ve never played any WoD (though my grandfather was from Transylvania), but using Willpower sounds to me perfectly appropriate. I’ve been playing around with the idea of using only consequences and no HP track. You could do something like compare damage to Willpower to determine the level of consequence. You could then limit the number of consequences before death. Or—and this is where I’m probably going—make it pure player choice when to throw in the towel. Because sometimes dealing with the consequences is a fate worse than death.

    Looking forward to what you come up with…

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  2. @David
    That’s more or less along the lines of what I have in mind. Willpower is going to be a *very* limited resource, probably not more than 5. Willpower will allow you to counter the beast, to affect the story on a meta level (authorship), and most importantly, stave off Humanity loss. As the Beast gains dice over Humanity, at some point it also erodes Willpower. Also, damage will have the potential to erode Willpower as well. Which is where consequences come in. And yes, consequences are completely in the hands of the player.

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  3. @Mountzionryan
    Yep, very much so. The main difference is that I don’t have a list of traits to absorb damage, only Willpower.

    As I said in a previous post, I’m not looking to be revolutionary in my originality, but to put together tools I have seen used to achieve my design goal. I very much tread on the shoulders of prior innovators. 🙂

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  4. I’m not going to be a wet blanket… I certainly think if you like this go all out and I’m interested in hearing about the results, but thinking of it as a player, I would find this system very frustrating.

    First, it seems like it slows down play, because players are having to make an extra decision about combat… “do I take a wound or a consequence?” or even two extra decisions because once they decide to accept a consequence, they have to then come up with what that consequence is.

    Second, it seems tailor made to start arguments. If people at the table, especially GM to player don’t agree about the nature of a consequence, this creates tension and a need to discuss each consequence further… especially if you have a problem player that consistently needs conversation on the topic.

    Third, the damage system in Vampire (and many other games) already does this. Those systems just do it more abstractly. When you are wounded in WoD (for example) you take penalties to actions. These penalties are supposed to represent the damage taking its toll, in the form or sprains, breaks, missing pieces (depending on how bad the damage) without spelling it out. Most RPGs view combat as very abstract process that is less about a one-to-one simulation of damage being done and more about accumulated stresses that take their toll on a character’s ability.

    So, again, take this as just one perspective, but as a player (and GM, I guess) these were the immediate thoughts that popped into my head while reading this system. I suppose, from looking at the responses though, that this is why I don’t really enjoy most indie games out there… *shrug*

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  5. @Rhetorical Gamer
    Hey, thanks for sharing this side as well; I need to consider all angles to make sure whatever I decide is what I want achieved.

    I understand the abstraction of most RPG combat systems, and in general I welcome it with no problem. I’m just not sure that I care for that particular subsystem in this exposition of a vampire game. As I mentioned above, tracking hit points always seems futile with creatures that heal pretty much anything. I know with my players we just stopped doing it; we’d agree with some sort of penalty for the encounter, but afterward it would be negated since they’d just heal. I guess all I’m doing is mechanizing what we already did in our game in freeform.

    You do have a point that the consequence system can create delays and annoyance. I’m going into it fully in the knowledge. That means that it falls to me as designer and writer to explain as fully as possible the system and give enough examples so that it becomes second nature the more it’s done. Based on my (limited) experience playing FATE-based games, consequence-based Aspects tend to be fairly obvious depending on the circumstance in which they are earned. Sometimes I’ve been stumped and fellow players have come up with suggestions to fit. And at least once I recall having taken the consequence but leaving it blank to think about it after the session was over. These are all valid options.

    I also fully admit to the fact that this is all very much based on techniques learned from some small-press games based around more Narrative structures (I SO don’t want to say “indie games”). If these kinds of more descriptive mechanics aren’t to your liking, then yeah, this is probably not going to be a game for you. Or who knows, it might be the one that makes you try it and have it all click. We won’t know until I’ve written it, but I am fine with the end result, whatever it is, being something that is not for everyone.

    Thanks again for your comment.

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  6. You need ideas for names, I got ’em:

    Vampire: the Re-Imagining
    Vampire: the Improving
    Creatures of the Night: Done Right
    Fangs of the Evil Hat
    Fangs of Fate
    The Vampire Traveler
    This Game Doesn’t Suck But Its Protagonists Do
    Hunger, Humanity, and All That Angst
    The Scarlet Tooth

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  7. @Rhetorical Gamer
    Something else that came to mind that I wanted to lay out loud: this damage system applies to all forms of conflict, be they physical, mental or social. A unified mechanic/resolution system is something I find very appealing.

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