I discovered Vampire: The Masquerade in high school, and played a fair bit of it in college, both tabletop and live-action roleplaying. My first real campaign was not that memorable and had a host of player-driven problems. Put together five or six neonates who had no resources, no plan of how to feed, an average Humanity of 5 and Dark Secrets they took for points, and you end up with a mess.
I wasn’t super-invested in the plot, which went slowly from session to session and involved some powerful low-generation NPC waking up in an Egyptian temple beneath Wales. But I did get to show off to my friend Jenny that I wasn’t a dick-measuring asshole like three of the other boys were, and while they were all off in a separate room trying to kill one another’s characters, she and I got to talking. My friend Jenny became my girlfriend Jenny, and then my co-writer Jenny and years later, my wife. So I have good memories even of a not-so-great game.
Sophomore year was much the same: I was in a brief campaign with my same character, Alex slowly garnering experience while the other players plotted a revolution against the Prince of the city. That campaign fizzled after a few sessions, too. By the time senior year rolled around, there was a new crop of younger players, and our friend Rob, who was a junior at the time, invited us to a 3rd edition Vampire campaign. And it was a campaign unlike any of the others. It worked great.
Us Against the World
Rob was from Los Angeles, and his premise was that we were all Camarilla vampires on Santa Catalina Island off the coast of L.A.. California was Anarch territory and L.A. had a lot of Sabbat, so our misfit bunch of fools were going to be the lone Camarilla foothold. Catalina Island in reality is the size of a postage stamp — it’s got a small touristy town, and other than sea lions, its main feature is some wilderness populated by buffalo released after an old movie was filmed there. In Rob’s world, it also had a Garou caern. There wasn’t a high population of vampires on Catalina Island — there would be no Ventrue prince lording over us, no Tremere manipulators or Toreador harpies, no one except us. Jenny and I were both Brujah, which Rob decided was great for the Camarilla — we would be diplomats to the Anarchs, and if we fought the Sabbat or Garou and died, it was no big loss. Jenny would be Prince of Santa Catalina for as long as she could hold the position. But the only vampires she would rule would be the party. And Jenny knew exactly how to do that.
Jenny created Josephine.
You know that old question people pose every now and then to gaming advice columns, “What do I do when my players know everything in the books but their characters don’t?” Jenny made sure that was never a problem. Because Josephine, before she became a vampire Prince, was a librarian.
Josephine was an Intellectualist Brujah with zero combat skills or Disciplines. She started by prioritizing Knowledges: Investigation 4 and Occult 5 were just the start. Jenny opened up the Player’s Guide and took all those lore skills you can get for half-cost. Two points would get her Camarilla Lore 4. Two more, Sabbat Lore 4. Then Lupine Lore 4. Brujah Lore 4. Faerie Lore 3 because we didn’t expect any, but she covered that base anyway. For Linguistics, she learned to speak freakin’ Garou. And with a Humanity of 7, she didn’t smell like the Wyrm, so she was exactly the sort of diplomat the Kindred would send to a Garou-infested island. She was like Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, able to spot whatever monster of the week was coming at us, then give us the low-down, and then we could formulate a plan of how to deal with it.
Nor were her Disciplines for show. Jenny had made noncombatant characters before who just wanted to skip town when times got bad. Josephine was not going to fall into that trap. She juggled the numbers to get Presence 3 and Dominate 3 and nothing else — because she needed nothing else. If some fool in the party violated the Masquerade, she could see to it personally and charm the socks off the mortals before she edited their memories. In short, Josephine was going to rule not by being the party’s worst enemy, but by being their best friend. And with her tell-me-the-plot skills, she was the Storyteller’s ally to boot. If she needed combat, she turned to me.
I brought in Alex, my character who’d survived two previous campaigns. Rob signed off on him, even though he was a bit more powerful than a starting neonate. Alex hadn’t started off very min/maxed — yes, he was a martial artist who excelled at self-control and willpower, but he was 9th Generation and had no way of delivering aggravated damage other than his fangs. That didn’t stop him — over the years he’d paid off enough to get a lot of Celerity and Potence, and with a Brawl specialty in grappling, he could grab an opponent and tear out their throat with the extra actions if he needed to. (Later in the campaign, we noticed if anyone was going to find the Secrets of the Brujah such as the Burning Wrath, Josephine’s Brujah Lore and Investigation was an excellent place to start.) Alex naturally fell into the role as Josephine’s enforcer, but (as mentioned above) his Humanity was also a 7 and he tried not to be an asshole. To make an impression the first session, I asked a simple question of the other players. I said, “Do you all know the Traditions we abide by?”
They didn’t. So I recited them. The Masquerade was there so we didn’t get the mortals coming in a mob to kill us during the day, or the Garou coming to kill us during the night. Hospitality was there so we’d give each other blood and shelter when each of us got in trouble. Progeny, the one that said not to sire vampires without permission, was there because new people are lousy at keeping secrets and could bring it all crashing down, and that goes back to the Masquerade and Lesson Number One. In short, the traditions weren’t because some Prince demanded unearned respect, they were there for self-preservation, and on an island full of mortals next to a wilderness full of Garou and a city full of Sabbat, we would only make it through together.
By the end of session one, the other players were on board. Screw all the usual Vampire backstabbing. We were starting off good to each other, and as long as no one got stupid, we’d all live to see another night.
Bonnie Situation Buffalo Problem
Of course, new players to a Vampire game don’t always think things through, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the first session when they attempt to feed. We had a Gangrel (Humanity 7), a Tremere (Humanity 10, somehow!), and a Giovanni (Humanity 7), and even though they weren’t bent on murder for breakfast, they didn’t have a great idea of how to get blood. The Gangrel had a little Animalism, so he took the Tremere to go find one of Santa Catalina’s buffalo. Burning a Blood Point to pop his claws and another to increase his strength, the Gangrel found he was pretty low, and he and the Tremere drained the buffalo to death.
“Crap,” said Zeshan, who was playing the Tremere. “This bloodless buffalo might violate the Masquerade. What do we do?”
“Um… what if we Embraced the buffalo?” said Arne, playing the Gangrel. “Then, when the sun dawns, it’ll burn up and there will be no evidence. Hey, Alex, what do you think?”
“Um… to Embrace a buffalo, you’re going to need to spend another Blood Point,” I said. “And the point of draining the buffalo was to gain, not lose blood. On top of that, you will then have a starving vampire buffalo probably going into Frenzy on the end of your arm, with fangs as thick as your thumb. This is not the way to go.”
“We’d better call Ash.” Ashley was playing our Giovanni. He had two mob enforcers on retainer and had seen Pulp Fiction’s “The Bonnie Situation.” They were gonna come out there with chainsaws, rev them up, and disassemble the bloodless buffalo, never mind the sleeping mortals near the buffalo habitat, who would complain to the police. Sure, Josephine knew the police, but this was getting much too complex for what should have been a fifteen-minute start to Session 2. Alex called Josephine, who called Ash.
After they had finished explaining, Josephine said, “Okay, here’s what you do. Open up a phone book and turn to the letter L, for ‘livestock removal.’ I’ll be there in ten minutes.” She showed up just as the livestock removal folks did, and through Dominate, ensured that they didn’t register anything unusual about a buffalo that was clearly down a few gallons. With Presence on top of that, she ensured she was suddenly the livestock guys’ best friend. After a few admonishments to spread out the feedings to ensure the herd survives in the future, we had a feeding plan. We would make it through together.
“That’s why Josephine’s Prince,” Jenny said. “Because she knows when to use a fucking phone book.”