Evoking the Vampire City Setting

23 Sep

The city setting is not unique to Vampire the Requiem, notably D&D had a number of city source books, as did Warhammer Fantasy and Call of Cthulhu. I’m sure there are a great many other examples. However, Vampire is perhaps the first game where the city is directly linked to a multitude of decisions from PC’s haven, allies and contacts to the GM’s choice of location for various vampiric domains, strongholds and the like.

The rulebook suggests gathering maps, guidebooks and online sources to help everyone gain a fuller picture of the city setting. It’s good advice, which I’ve used previously for campaigns set in Puerto Rico, New York and Budapest.

As a challenge to myself to avoid becoming complacent with the ways that I run Vampire, I’ve decided to experiment with a different approach for my Moscow campaign setting.

Reality vs great stories

There is no question that there are some fantastic aspects to many cities and historical periods. There may not be any need to vary from real world locations or historical record. It strikes me that there are a number of arguments to be made in favour of taking a more liberal approach to RPG settings based ‘reality’.

1) Player perception and expectation

For a group of Australian players, sitting on the other side of the world contemporary Moscow summons a range of images, most of them primarily influenced by our exposure to media representations and the occasional film. When I think of Moscow, in terms of a fun setting to play a game I get the following:

  • Moscow: ‘fearless, immortal, immoral’
  • stark contrasts between wealth and poverty measured from grimy housing tenements to the euro-trash opulence of temporary night clubs
  • heavily armed bodyguards using police lights on their private cars to speed their clients across the city
  • grey skies, snow covered buildings, steaming metro stations, urban decay
  • confused old socialists walk the same streets with technologically savvy kids
  • neon-lit onion domes and forgotten monuments
  • a few good cops fighting a loosing battle against crime syndicates made up of former KGB and tattooed ex-cons
  • moustaches and fur hats

I doubt any of this bares any real resemblance to the real Moscow. But it plays into expectation that could make for a more interesting roleplaying game unfettered by a dedication to being strictly accurate.

2) Free to roam

Storytelling is simplified when you don’t have to fire up Google Maps and establish the walking distance from The Kremlin to that hot new club. Sure, you’re going to need to pay attention to some real world notions (the PCs will need to pay with rubels, they’ll be speaking Russian, the bouncer is unlikely to be Bolivian), but as a GM you’re freed up from small details that don’t add to your game session. Of course, none of this stops you from using a schematic of the Moscow metro for a session map, but you don’t have to sweat the details.

3) Wonder and marvel

By acknowledging that the city setting is an exaggerated version of our own, new locations and crazy architecture can feature. A café in the hollowed out head o a statue of Stalin, a massive underground chamber that was built as a fall out shelter, an oil baron’s skyscraper that looks out over the entire city… A bit of wonder and marvel can really work toward setting the mood.

4) Anything could happen

This is not the real Moscow and anything could happen. I expect that this sense of deviation from reality will be liberating and thrilling for the players.

5) Keeps it focused on the vampires

I like that Vampire the Requiem has a strong sense of vampiric domains within the city, regions bestowed by the Prince where feeding rights must be sought. This ‘neo-Feudalism’ lends itself nicely to a vampire centric view of the city, giving the player characters a different perspective on what is actually going. This has the dual benefit of freeing things up (‘I’d like to travel to the Rack to feed’) while putting the game setting front and centre (‘This is where Elysium is located, these are the barrens where vampires sometimes go missing…’).

I imagine this ‘reality vs great stories’ approach will free me up when writing sessions. Rather than hitting the web first and starting with research, I’ll think more in terms of the stories that fit the PCs and the outlandish ideas I can include. While it’s not an approach I’d use for a historical setting (Call of Cthulhu or Ars Magica for example) I think it lends a hint of the fantastical to what is at it’s heart a urban horror game which that couldn’t hurt. I’m already looking forward to designing my domain map in Photoshop.


10 Responses to “Evoking the Vampire City Setting”

  1. Nikitas September 24, 2010 at 3:08 am #

    Good article!

    I’m a roleplayer from Naples, Italy (that’s to explain my potentially poor english vocabulary).

    Well, I’m running a “Mage: The Ascension” campaign set in my own city, and I found out that, if you just look in the right corner, you’ll find the strangest, most marvellous (and unsettling) things, right beside you. I don’t know, it may be more likely for old cities like this one, but it’s not solely related to history, or crime etc (for istance, I found out that just few miles away from our coast there’s *the biggest* European active volcano, under the sea, and that we’re all potentially at tsunami risk!).

    This is not to say that the best setting is your own block of course: I’m fascinated with exotic and far away (both geographically and historically) settings. But I’m literally astonished by how many interesting informations appears about your neighborhood, if you just bother to look for them. I’m still not sure about wich option (exotic or homelike settings) I appreciate the most, I guess it depends on the game theme & mood (for istance, I guess Vampire and Mage chronicles could work just alright here, while Werewolf or Changeling wouldn’t. I’m not sure)

    That’s my personal opinion of course, and, once again, thank you for these articles (I read the “Why do we roleplay” one, found it great!)

    • RPG Plotter September 24, 2010 at 10:03 am #

      I’m thrilled that you liked the article Nikitas! I agree 100% with you that home town settings can be fantastic for the World of Darkness games, it gives everyone a familiar starting point and saves on a lot of explaining. I’ve played in and run several games set in Melbourne and there’s plenty of weirdness around the city to make for interesting roleplaying.

      For me the sultry undead and exotic locations go hand in hand. I liked Moscow as it seemed to sit nicely with the ‘unlife is cheap’ premise of the game and the stark contrast of glittering wealth and bleak urban decay.

      I’ll be posting more about how the campaign goes if you’re interested in seeing how things progress. Thanks for dropping by.

      • Nikitas September 24, 2010 at 10:34 am #

        Of course I’m intersted!
        I get you, speaking of violence, exotism, cheap unlife and the like. I tried, once, to set a campaign for the Sabbat (talking about the old world of darkness) in Mexico City! Honestly, I went mad trying to be “correct”. Looking at the past, I’d say I was far too much detail-oriented. It didn’t pay anyway, because the campaign itself barely started!
        I know it’s a common place, but it’s also true: you can toil over every little thing, but if you don’t have a group of players really motivated, it’s pointless!

        One thing I don’t get: so you decide about the theme, plot, setting etc aforehead, and then you give hints to your players, to make them fit better? I don’t know, I just couldn’t think about a plot without knowing the PC histories and background. I mean, I could think about an investigation-oriented plot, political intrigues and the like, but what’s the point, if I get 3 PCs out of 4 that can’t wait to get in a fight?

        I don’t know, I guess there isn’t THE *right* way, is it?

      • RPG Plotter September 25, 2010 at 12:18 pm #

        I think you’re absolutely right about taking into account the players you’re running the game for. I’ll be getting into this soon on the blog, how I approach the players, how I try to gauge their interests for the prospective campaign, etc. For the most part, I think players simply want the opportunity each session to feel like their character is being engaged. So if they like combat and are waiting for the fight, I’d give them some, but make the outcomes tie into the story rather than fighting for just fighting’s sake. Making choices, picking sides, hard decisions — these give the outcome of the combat more weight and can feed back into the political intrigues. Anyway, as you say, there is no *right* way, just different approaches for different groups.

  2. Nikitas September 28, 2010 at 5:14 am #

    To tell the whole truth, now I’m having the opposite problem: In my Mage campaign, I’ve got three players that are barely able to raise their hands to someone, let alone fight to survive. So, in brief, I’m puzzled, wondering how can I possibly resolve a conflict. I mean, there’s the “bad guy”, they follow a lead and get to him/her(/it). Then what? Should I let them be able to talk their way out each and everytime? Or should I use the uber-mage NPC to save them (making them a little bit less protagonists)? Or should I feel free to make every enemy weak just to their level? (I mean, a cult leader who’s threatening the city is not likely to have the same characteristics and powers of an average thug, that’s not “realistic”!)

    I know these are my personal problems, it’s just that I think I could use your advice and experience. If you think I’m out of line, abusing by treating this blog or this particular article like a chatroom, just tell me and I’ll stop.

    thanks aforehead!

    • RPG Plotter September 28, 2010 at 1:07 pm #

      I welcome the discussion! I’ve often had players feel reluctant to get into a fight. Two ideas

      1) I up the ante, have the villains threaten their friends, their family. Give them no choice and see if they respond well to it. Kidnappings, threats, removing body parts of loved ones, anything that might push them over the edge. Even better if their emmotional investment can be built into the sessions early on.

      2) Back up. Rather than giving them uber-mage, what about their own footsoldiers to make them feel more confient. I recently had the PCs bribe the city watch and take them in to the final fight during a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay session. It actually worked quite well. I just increased the number of goons or the watch to do battle with while the PCs tangled with the main villains. The sudden switch from having them feel cocky at outnumbering their opponents soon gave way when a demon was released and it lead to a thrilling final battle with city watchmen fleeing/dying and the PCs feeling responsible/on the back foot all of a sudden. Give them the illusion of strength might help coax them into the fight (plus it gives them the responsibility of other lives to watch over and you’ve got an NPCs on hand who could have itchy trigger fingers)…

  3. Jason Badower October 2, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

    One of the things that I always admired was an old Vampire: The Masquerade game you ran. We started out hating, then tolerating, then finally befriending the Setites. You drew us so deeply into their web of intrigue we didn’t realize we were screwed and had no way out until it was too late.

    I’ve always wondered how you plotted and planned something like that. I’d love it if you covered something like that in a future post.

    • RPG Plotter October 3, 2010 at 2:07 pm #

      Definitely. As I get into the campaign I’ll cover off some of the background its plotting. Don’t want to say too much yet, of course, in case some nosy players wander by…


  1. Bringing it all together (Part 1): the Campaign Manifesto « RPG PLOTTER - October 22, 2010

    […] also made a city map, that I’m pretty happy with and regular readers will have heard it mentioned here. I’ll post it after the first session so I don’t inadvertently spoil things for the […]

  2. Blood Money 2: Dark Territories (Part 2) « RPG PLOTTER - June 9, 2011

    […] Completing the dissection of Moscow’s Vampire territories. Again the city map is here, some general notes on this Vampire: The Requiem chronicle setting are here. […]

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