Before the Darkness

The Prelude - why you should do it every single time

Hello, fang brothers and sisters. My name is Chris, and I currently run a Vampire: The Masquerade game for a group of entirely new players, who have never had any experience with VTM before. Aside from a variant linear experience system, I use V20 straight out of the box.

My thesis for this article - Player-Characters (PCs) who have preludes done are more real, have more story hooks, and tie more deeply into the horror hooks of V:TM.

Background

I’ve been gaming Vampire since 1992, when I was using a friend’s softbound 1st Edition Vampire rulesbook. A lot has changed since then, but in those intervening years I’ve regarded some of the changes that took place almost immediately before the 2nd Edition (VTM’s 1st hardbound) to have harmed the game as a whole.

In the 1st edition Vampire rulesbook (and indeed, every edition since then), Mark Rein*Hagen and nearly every other Vampire writer since him has emphasized the need for a PRELUDE (in caps. Hey, it’s White Wolf!). The Prelude is the introductory portion of the game where the player plays his PC as a normal human, and plays through his or her character’s Embrace and eventual entry into the world of the undead.

In the vast majority of my gaming experience, I’ve seen the Prelude treated as bothersome, as secondary to the main action - mega violence, power fantasies, or whatever. I was lucky enough that my first Vampire Storyteller (ST), Jose, played out my full embrace. I played a Gangrel highway patrolman whose wife was taken by a pack of monstrous vampires and who he later sought out, embraced by an old drifter who felt the need for justice. But other than that, most of my embrace experiences and those I witnessed were either blue-booked or dealt with as mere descriptive dialogue.

Pardon a vampire pun, but this really sucks.

It leads to one of the most awful stereotypes in Masquerade gaming - Bob the Brujah.

Here is how it usually goes.

ST: Welcome to my new Vampire: The Masquerade chronicle. So, you all have your characters ready and we can begin? Bob, tell me about your character.

Bob: Well, Bob is a tough guy biker, you know, a Brujah.

Bob and his ST obviously did not play through a Prelude. I want to scream at him, did your fucking vampire spring out of the ground like a plant? It seems that some Masquerade players don’t ever want to deal with the fact that their Kindred PC was ever a human being!

On every level, a Prelude is worth it. It makes the PC more solid in the game world, it builds the game world, and it creates story, hooks, and emotion that are the undead hungry heart of Vampire: The Masquerade. Some gamers want to show up and simply kill shit, be a dark and beautiful stereotype, or be simply glorious. These gamers need to get back to playing Counterstrike.

Vampire: The Masquerade is not comfortable gaming. In Vampire: The Masquerade, you see your PC who you first meet as a normal everyday breathing, living human being with relationships become transformed into one of the damned. The horror of the game is when you hold your first cooling corpse in your arms, and then it manifests again the 100th time... and you cannot stop your descent. You are becoming this terrifying thing and you, as the player, experience horror either by how your character is horrified and aghast at this unholy change or at how he or she might be indifferent or revel in it. After a year of VTM gaming, you should feel the need to run for dear life from the vampire your character has become. Then the ST has done something right.

Why Preludes are good for traditional Camarilla neonate games

This is Masquerade in it’s introductory and classic form. This is traditional Masquerade, and the form which I enjoy the most.

Play starts with the PC being a normal human. During character creation, I advance the mechanical process as far as to the Backgrounds stage. I allow players, if they wish, to also spend Freebies (as a rule, I don’t use Flaws, as they are prone to abuse, but I do let PCs buy Merits.) I let players put aside any points they like for what they envision them getting as a result of their transformation into Kindred, or as free points to be spent during play (up to usual character generation limits.)

During character creation, I always ask,

  • Who are your relatives, living or dead?
  • Who is your best friend? Whose guts do you hate?
  • What is your life’s ambition?
  • Where do you live? What do you do for a living?

And I throw in a few incidental NPCs and locations for spice, especially any bought with Backgrounds (Contacts, Mentors, Allies). The idea is to set the stage for a player’s normal, daily life. I ask the player what themes, if any, they want to address.

I roleplay out some interaction from the daily life. I firmly establish that this person (the PC) is living a regular human life. We do just enough to get the tone set, to make sure that when the PC is a Kindred, they can look back upon their human life with longing, loathing, regret or several emotions mixed in at once. I especially emphasize best friends, family, and so on. These people don’t go away when the PC gets Embraced - these loose ends need to be dealt with.

Then, comes the Sire! Even if a Neonate PC does not buy Mentor background, the Sire is the most important relationship the newborn vampire will have. Be really careful how you portray the Sire, and make sure you collaborate closely with the player. I feel that Sires may Embrace for any number of reasons, but it will always involve the following -

  • Sires are never the PCs friends. Lovers, parent figures, devils and tricksters, but never, ever a friend. There can absolutely be love, but it must be terrifying, obsessive, mixed in with fear or hate or guilt. This doesn’t mean that the Sire need be villainous (and indeed, may have a positive relationship with the Neonate, although I usually assume that is not the case, as explained below), but the Sire must always be seen as the beginning of the nightmare that the Curse of Caine is for the player character.
  • Sires never Embrace because the like the PCs. The Curse of Caine is a horrible, terrible thing. Sires will always have a specific reason to Embrace a Neonate (combat utility, skills, reminding the sire of someone they truly love, a pawn in some gambit, loneliness, or simply amusement). Neonates must fulfill a need that a Ghoul or mortal pawn cannot. Neonates must have utility to the sire, as Sires must gather considerable political capital to gain permission to Embrace.
  • Sires should always be interesting. This requires work. Even if the Sire is absent, his or her presence should shape the unlife of a Neonate the way a parent shapes the life of a child.

So, carefully introduce the Sire. Most likely, the player will have strong ideas as to how the Embace takes place, what events occur, and so on. Play them out to the player’s satisfaction. This is special, it’s the origin issue in a superhero comic. Don’t rob a player of the tone or visuals of this scene - this is their time, above and beyond all others in the Chronicle (which they have to share with other PCs.) Of course, no dice rolls are needed, but it should drip drama, and the scene should be dripping with the symbolism and motif that will forever form a backdrop to the rest of the PC’s story.

Depending on how your chronicle works, you may want to end the Prelude right at the Embrace. In my Crimson Souls chronicle, I’m having a hell of a good time as the PC vampires are slowly trained in Kindred unlife by their Sires, as they explore their powers, and as they realize that they are now monsters. Various aspects of human life are gone forever. The Prelude also gives you a complete cast of family, friends, and challenges that the new Kindred must face. Do I fake my death? Do I kill my family? Do I change my identity, do I simply run away? Can I? How do I deal with old lovers or friends? Do I use my new power of the Blood Bond to enslave them? Do I use my new found vampire status to even old scores? How do I adjust to my undead existence? The list of challenges and hooks go on and on and on.

Some other STs who have a specific plotline in mind, want PCs who are ‘adult’ Neonates that are comfortable, to a degree, with their undead existences. This is also fine, and if a player wants to, these issues can be blue-booked between sessions (a technique where players work between game write-ups, creating Tumblr blogs or other media to supplement the Chronicle).

But even if the first baby steps of undead existence are not covered, these elements taken from the Prelude inform the PCs and make them richer. Bob is no longer just Bob The Brujah. He’s Robert Andrews, a former US Marine who returned from Iraq with PTSD and who has a wife and two kids. On his way to recovery with weekly therapy, Bob was chosen but Bethany Harold, a gunfighter embraced in the old west, for help in her wars with the Werewolves. Bob was marked as a soldier who understands the prices of war, and who is skilled in urban guerrilla warfare.

Only his therapist, Doctor Morris, who he was working with before the Embrace, knows of his changed nature, and helped him fake his death so that his wife and children can move on. While Bob is a patriot, skilled and cool under fire, he bitterly resents his Sire taking him away from his wife and children. Bob watches over them from afar. His wife Elaine is putting things together and suspects that perhaps something is going on - that the mysterious stranger who watches over her and the kids might be her husband.

This makes Bob into more than just a stick figure. This makes Bob someone who the player must play in a fully realized manner. This does Masquerade justice, and I feel hews to Rein*Hagen’s original intent.

Why Preludes are good for Sabbat games

Preludes are good for Sabbat games for all the same reasons. The major difference is that in the Sabbat, the Monster is glorified, and Embraces are not graceful seductions but are more likely brutal seizures. One option is the Shovelhead Embrace - roleplay out the usual elements of the human life, then have the war party recruitment occur in a crash of madness. Instead of individual Sires carefully grooming Childer for their entry into unlife, an entire pack can simply grab a large group of hapless mortals, drain them, Embrace certain people individually (where the player gets to play as the Clan they want) or communally from the Vaulderie cup (where the PC is by default a Pander, although the ST can rule that the blood of a particular clan took hold).

The big difference here is that the Sabbat pack takes the communal role of Sire. A Sabbat pack might mass embrace during a city seige, but they never do it mindlessly. Certain Sires may stalk certain mortals and then drag them to the Creation Rites for the mass Embrace.

Also note that a traditional Camarilla style Embrace is possible in Sabbat chronicles, although the creation of new vampires will always be accompanied by Sabbat ritual and dramaturgy. Much inspiration can be taken from Werewolf: The Apocalypse for Sabbat expressions of faith, Pack dynamics, and so on. New Sabbat vampires may develop intense relationships with the pre-existing vampires in the pack, who may use or abuse them, or they may develop into relationships of siblings, aunts or uncles. To the Sabbat, the Pack is family and home, and even though Sabbat may hate each other, they will love each other, especially because of the Vaulderie. This communcal, tribal approach can’t be overstated.

Why Preludes are good for Elder games

I insist on Preludes for Elder games. This establishes all the same things that a normal traditional Camarilla Prelude does. Some players may balk. “My Kindred is hundreds of years old. They wouldn’t be the same person they were when they were Embraced.”

Oh, I disagree!

One of the essential aspects of Kindred is that Kindred don’t change. An essential theme of Elders is that of regret - regret over decisions made while breathing, regret over decisions made while a younger Vampire, regret over how much evil, or not enough evil, has been done. Regardless of their power, Elder vampires have as their most precious possession their memories, and as Humanity slowly fades, they desperately cling to these memories, these passions, and these relationships, always looking to the touchstones of their breathing lives to give them identity and purpose. One of the reasons that Elder vampires may be reluctant to change habits of speech or dress or even beliefs is because these things say to everyone else - this is my identity. This is who I am. In the Beast, all vampires lose their identity, so memory, identity and habits, even bad ones, are clung to like rocks in a storm.

So, here’s my advice on using the elements developed in the Prelude to fuel ongoing stories and emotional power in your Masquerade chronicle -

Don’t pull punches. Be ruthless with your PC vampires. In the Prelude, the players will telegraph to you the poison they want and the themes they want, give them what they ask for. Make them as afraid and uncomfortable as you can safely do at a gaming table. Vampire: The Masquerade is the storytelling game of personal horror. Make sure that you abide by the player’s sense of safety, however - I use the X-Card so that players can signal that a piece of content is too much and they want to opt out.

Use the interaction effect. A general rule in my games, which I make sure that players understand clearly, is that thematic and narrative elements that are not secured by point purchased (NPCs that are anchored to Backgrounds, for example) are entirely subject to what I describe in the narrative. This means that if I see a narrative opportunity for elements of PC backgrounds to become intermixed, I will do so because I am an awful bastard who wants to see my PCs suffer.

For example, when our Tremere Cate’s mortal sister Anna met Marcus Southlake, the handsome PC Toreador vampire, and blew off his current girlfriend Leanne, this had consequences which eventually lead to Leanne being drank to death by Marcus to preserve the Masquerade. This one little act has had repercussions that are still playing out in the chronicle, especially considering that Cate’s sister was, unknown to her at the time, a Werewolf. This drama is intense, explosive, and both of my players love it.

Stir shit up. If things are calm and quiet for one of your PC vampires, go look at their Prelude. Find an element. Change it up a bit, drop it in, and see what happens. For example - say Bob the Brujah has been assidously avoiding his human family and has taken on a new identity so as to preserve the Masquerade and spare them pain. He learns from his old therapist (an Ally 1) that his wife is now seeing someone new, or that maybe his son plays basketball at the PAL league in his rival’s territory and that his Kindred rival knows that his son is somehow related to him (or that even that the territory is in a possible Sabbat invasion route.) Vulnerability leads to conflict, conflict is the heart of drama, drama is the heart of good role play gaming.

Finally, a word for our friends in the Neo-OSR - Vampire is often decried by some grogs in the OSR as being swine-based story gaming filth. While there are a number of approaches you can game Masquerade with, the traditional approach to Masquerade is a gothic punk sandbox. VTM was written in a time before modern story game theory had even been developed.

The city map you develop for VTM makes for an ideal exploration based sandbox, especially since much of sandbox, simulationist gaming revolves around procedural focus and the act of exploration. A Kindred probably only knows of the small sliver of territory he has been parcelled, his Sire’s territory, areas marked as Elysium, and overtly marked hunting grounds. Much of the game can involve exploration and making contact with other younger Kindred, braving such places as parks, sewers, building tops, and different sections of town.

Even if the PCs may have been intimately familiar with these areas from their breathing lives, their entry into the shadow world of the Undead has changed these places and their interactions with them radically. Those ghosts in that ruined tenement might have left normal mortals alone, but may seek to wreak vengeance on vampires. The locations developed in the Prelude are highly important and PC Kindred may seek to claim these places (or may have already, as part of the Domain background).

I highly recommend the Vampire: The Requiem book Damnation City for any ST who wants to take a Neo-OSR sandbox approach to urban fantasy gaming. It’s too big a book to go into here, but it shows you how to run a vampire city. The book is written for Vampire: The Requiem, but is essentially the same if it is used for Masquerade. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

So, that’s it! You can find me at +Chris Bell on Google Plus. I also run the White Wolf/CCP Google Plus community. Leave your comments below!

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Authored by Chris Bell

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Also, if you have a history with Vampire: the Masquerade, you probably have an interesting story to tell. Submit it to Draconic Magazine and we may publish it.
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