My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Elders Did It (I am the Night)

Right before I stopped watching South Park, I remember there was this very meta episode where they were trying to come up with plots but the Simpsons had done everything. Ostensibly I think it was Butters trying to think up evil schemes to take over the world, but really they were talking about how often South Park itself had similar plots to The Simpsons. This was almost 20 years ago now, so I'm a little hazy on the details, and it doesn't matter much to my story.

But I think about that LINE a lot. The little sidekick(?) shouted, "Simpsons did it!" every time Butters tried to come up with a new plan.

"How about if I––"

"Simpsons did it!"

"Maybe we could––"

"Simpsons did it!"

Anyway, you get the idea. The––


Yes. Okay. Thank you! Jesus FUCK!

So...I think about this scene a lot when I'm trying to do something that someone has done before (and probably better), which is a feeling all writers (who aren't egomaniacs) have to deal with. The vast, vast, vast majority of us will never be as good as the greats, or even as the damn goods. We just have to do our own thing with our own voice in our own way and be glad that most people are happy to get "two cakes."

Reference for the uninitiated.
*Description below

What does this have to do with vampires?

Well, at my last game there were elders.....doing things.

I have a pretty niche character. He's a sweet guy almost anti-vamp in his sincerity and genuine kindness, but he's got all his points into a public speaking/leadership build. It's actually a 5-point performance in public speaking. For those who don't know the system, I'll just say two things about this. 1- It is considered the pinnacle of speaking ability among the mortal world. 2- It is absolutely as high as my character can ever go.

So in theory, that should be my thing, right? You want to fire up the crowd, call Mark.


There's NO concept I could have come up with that an elder couldn't do better (not computer hacker, not sneaky sneak, not investigator, not straight badass brawler, not mortal world manipulator, not sniper, not explosives expert....nothing), and in fact last game there was a SIX-point performance of oration (followed then by a TEN-point performance singing, which isn't a skill Mark has but it illustrates a further point about these elder characters). Mark literally can't EVER be this good at performance. Unless he went and sucked up several older, more-powerful vampire's souls (a behavior that is generally frowned upon).

Now....when it comes to vampires in this particular mythos of our role playing game, that's part of the setting. One of the central anxieties of the game's theme is that while you may have supernatural power, there is always someone above you who is better, stronger, could casually destroy you, and is probably using you. Neonates have to suck it up and just accept that elders are better than them and though they might be able to gang up on those a couple of rungs up from them, they would never be able to take out the progenitors and most powerful.

I'm pretty sure it's a metaphor for capitalism.

As a player, sometimes I'm not thrilled that these always-better-than-you-no-matter-what-you-ever-do characters are a distressingly high percentage of the playership and functionally inhabit all of the game's more "interactive" roles. I might wish elder PLAYERS would take it upon themselves to ALSO embrace (heh heh) the themes of manipulation by delegating instead of stamping around and fixing all the problems themselves, cloistering themselves in smoke-filled rooms to discuss issues only with the most capable, and never scheming with those beneath their station. (It's been four months and no one really even knows what Mark is good at––he should have been approached and tapped to be someone's pawn MONTHS ago! His ability to deal with mortals should be a boon to almost anyone.)

However this has been a problem with Vampire LARPs as long as there have been Vampire LARPs. Actual people aren't immortal beings who think a century is not that long to just wait and see if a problem will fix itself. Players of elders are much the same as players of neonates but with cooler character sheets: they still jump at a chance to interact with something novel, want to solve problem/puzzles/issues, show off their special powers, use their particular tools on the plots their particular tools work the best on, and be COOL! It can be a bit counter intuitive to assign a task to someone who is actually NOT the best at doing it, either because you have the leadership to want that person to develop or because you're a Machiavellian manipulator and don't want your power players to be moved to the front of the board.

And just think how much power the first elder gets whose player realizes the advantage of "collecting" neonates and using them like vampires do mortals.

It's because stories are about change and vampire elders are about stasis. The idea that you could live forever if you could basically keep from ever being angry, scared, or hungry leads to a decision making process that is very unfamiliar to most people. Honestly, the LAST thing they should want to do is take an action themselves (or even micromanage). Few players really GET how to play them right because they want to be a part of the story too.

Which brings me to the writing part. As I thought to myself, "How does this insight about glass ceilings make for a post about writing?" I realized what an unsatisfying character arc this frustration would make in fiction....and not just because a LARP is a story for 40, 50, or 60 people instead of one. Mark's character arc (and my enjoyment of it) are far from hopeless because I can set goals that aren't "be the best public speaker" and get embroiled in smaller conflicts.

Still....imagine if The Bad News Bears just....always lost. Not only that, but imagine that they never actually had the ability to win. And the movie was not changed into a story about character or friendship or overcoming failure, but was still the same movie about how important it was to win that game.  But they didn't. And they couldn't. Ever. No matter HOW hard they tried.

Now Mark in a story would not be hopeless either. His grim reality could be a background thematic part of a setting in which the central conflict involves some OTHER conflict. ("Mark would never be the best speaker, but one day he learned about a scandal among the elders that could rock the whole of Vampire society.") Consider the way in which hereditary monarchies and their socio/political faults are NOT solved in Lord of the Rings. Some people are just more powerful than others. And Frodo never becomes the best asskicker in Middle Earth (or even more powerful than the influence of The Ring). And they sure as shit didn't go punch Morgoth in the face. Because it's a story about other things.

OR there could be some way that the character can (and does?) overcome their limitations. Or at least HAS THE POTENTIAL TO but fails. ("Mark was never the best speaker, but he knew how to find the people who were hungry for change and spark a revolution..." or "Mark could have been the best speaker, but he befriended Joe Pesci, and learned that the real 'Honor' were the friends we made along the way.")

And another interesting story might be to be struggling at one's "own" power level. ("Yeah, we could call in the Avengers and win in five minutes, but the Defenders have to do this ourselves.")

All fiction involves conflict and most of it involves some kind of power dynamic. Writers have to deal all the time with worlds where a character is simply not as good as some antagonistic force in their world. (Not as clever, not as strong, not as powerful.....) And sometimes they even have to deal with forces no amount of montage training scenes will make them better than. But the protagonist has to figure out a workaround––one that maybe works and maybe doesn't.

Just be careful how much you let your more-powerful beings stomp around in your world. Whether they help or hurt the main characters it'll feel very ham handed and deus ex machina if they handle too much. And if they DO get tangled into the main plot, make sure that workaround exists in some form.

Because stories, at least the good ones, are about change (or at least the potential for change).

And vampire role playing games are about––


*Two panel comic with simple black and white line art.

The top panel is captioned "The Artist." It shows a stick figure person, looking dismayed, at two cakes of different sizes. The speech bubble reads, "Aw man, that guy's cake is way better than mine."

The bottom panel is captioned "The Audience." It shows a visibly happy stick figure in front of the exact same two cakes. This stick figure is holding a fork and a knife, and the speech bubble reads "Holy shit! Two cakes!"

1 comment:

  1. Back when we were playing in Paul's Rage Across Russia game we'd all attained Level 5 (Elder) or 6 (Legendary) status. I remember one session we came across a Level 2 bane infestation at a playground at a local school.

    We passed it by.

    It wasn't worth our time, and the local Fostern pack could use the 'assignment' to gain reputation that would help them improve themselves. We saved ourselves for greater threats.