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.