Sunday, September 19, 2010

Story of the Storyline

Vampire: the Eternal Struggle Storyline events have traveled down some dark and dangerous roads. They have explored sinister conspiracies, infernal pacts, desperate power struggles and terrible secrets. Only now can I tell the deepest and darkest tale: the story of the storyline itself.

Well, maybe it’s not that dark. Or deep.

The story of my path to VTES storyline coordinator starts with my work on the Player’s Guide. Robert Goudie was coordinating that effort. I was asked to edit a version of an article I had written on strategic postures for the guide. I said the article could be included on the condition I was allowed to submit ideas for other pieces. Robert agreed and my persistence was rewarded with more assignments. I was also willing to pitch in with whatever was needed. So, I received a variety of assignments like: write 300 words on strategy for the True Brujah (Step 1: Make a good deck. Step 2: Add a True Brujah).

By the time the manuscript was complete The Powers That Be were generous enough to bestow me with a co-author credit. I was able gaze proudly at my name on the cover of that fine volume, search for myself on, and check out our Amazon Best Sellers Rank at any time (#2,183,000!).

After the book, Robert and I exchanged a few emails where I pitched some storyline theme and plot suggestions. When a request came along for someone to write up the Millennium Cultist aftermath fiction, I was happy to pitch in and take that on. When it came time to prepare and design the next event, the torch was passed to me.

I was excited to take on the VTES Storyline. It’s a great, unique format - a series of design and narrative experiments that bring together the strategic depth of VTES with the rich World of Darkness source materials. Robert deserves a lot credit for conceiving of the series, making it real, his great designs, and running all those events in the early years.

When I took over as coordinator my lofty goals were:
  • Make storyline events a more frequent, predictable, integrated supplement to VTES
  • Coordinate the themes and timing of the storyline with the core sets
  • Establish the setting for VTES and it’s relationship to the (defunct) old World of Darkness
  • Create some character and story continuity between the events (and include prior events in that continuity)
  • Raise the stakes and explain how the events of the storyline are important to the game setting

My tenure as storyline coordinator got off to a slow start. I got my first sense of the long lead times involved in game production. By the summer of 2008 I had been coordinator for a year and still hadn’t run my first event. I did learn the set themes for 2009. So, before Anarchs & Alastors started I had a road-map in place that would take the storyline through to Battle Lines.

Searching for a common meta-plot that might run through the storylines, I settled early on the legend of Lilith a useful theme. In the source materials Lilith is presented as a powerful, counterpoint to Caine - sometimes an equal sometimes and enemy. Her role was significant enough to serve as a useful foundation and vague enough to suite a wide variety of my purposes. The Bahari proved to be useful device- versatile enough to applied to event themes including anarchs, Montreal, and Africa. Initially those purposes would be mysterious and in the background - the shadowy cult sought by the anarch gang or the force motivating the power struggle in for the Kaymakli Fragment. In Battle Lines the Lilith followers stepped to the forefront. I was especially pleased to come up with an event concept that could encompass all (and only) the diverse bloodlines.

The peculiar structure of the storyline means that the coordinator writes the introduction to the story. Then players around the world play the middle. Then we have to take all those results and produce an outcome. The aftermath fiction should reflect the actions of the players, and be the story of their games. But it also needs to make sense in the story. No matter what the players chose, the ending should read like that was the plan all along.

In terms of sticking to the script, storyline players were remarkably generous. Infernal Helena reunited with her lover and rival Menele and claimed victory in the Montreal event. A Black Hand Seraph lead the anarchs to their destination, lending the series a bit of intrigue. I had no expectation that Count Germaine would return to play a prominent role in the Imperator. And it was a pleasant surprise to find the source materials implying Germaine’s rival Karsh was also a pawn of the infernalists. We established Dmitra Illyanova as a key Germaine supporter (and thus a likely Bahari). She conveniently reappeared to lead the Brujah in an effort to ignite Gehenna in Eden’s Legacy.

In Battle Lines, a new set of characters came forward. The dilemma facing the Kiasyd had been in the introduction. The rise of the Baali within the Bahari conformed to the overall storyline arc. This provided a reason to revisit the ideas introduced in the Infernal Plague and an excuse to bring back Nergal. With each event, member of the Lilith cult claimed victory. The faction grew in power as the storyline progressed. For continuity purposes, this was a happy outcome.

While I was deeply involved in the overall story, I recognized that VTES is at heart a strategy game. I have always loved the narrative aspect of VTES game - they way the card interactions lend themselves to storytelling. But ultimately it’s card game, not an RPG, and many players care more about the mechanics than the “fluff”. Storylines are also about introducing strategic experimentation and mechanical variety. In that regard, I thought the storyline designs worked well.

I was most worried about the Anarchs & Alastors event. That was my first storyline event. And I wanted to start off on a solid footing. White Wolf had requested a sealed league format. My design focused on the anarch and trophy mechanics. Each of these could fall under the heading of “things VTES players think suck”. I added in some Assamites to complete the set. But the auction mechanics were an interesting addition to the format. Among the players willing to try a draft league at all, the event went over well.

The original plan for Rise of the Imperator was to sell a fixed Imperator deck as part of the kit. But, for art-rights reasons I couldn’t get permission to reprint most of the cards I wanted. No one seemed overly upset that organizers were asked to construct their own decks for the event. And the the mixture of decks added variety. In the rules you could use a master phase action or a discard phase action to cycle a card out the deck. Players focused on getting rid of cards that hurt them over finding cards to play. If I were to do it again, I would still say you can do a discard during either phase. But I would add a rule that a player can’t do both in the same turn.

I was pleased with the Eden’s Legacy rules. The Laibon had enough of a boost to encourage their use, but didn’t dominate the event. The four motivations were well balanced in the standings. I expected the Jyhad-bleed boosting motivation to be the strongest, but it came it last, far behind a dead-heat of the others.

Battle Lines ended up as the least well balanced of the events. I was pleased by the outcomes of the bloodlines-only rules. And the relaxing of the slave and scarce mechanics allowed for some novel deck opportunities. I was surprised by the strong showing of the Baali given their general lack of defense. Maybe removing the infernal cost only after they because Bahari would have been a better rule.

A greater source of the imbalance was difference in the relative strengths of Lilith’s Blessing and Guide and Mentor. Earlier versions of Lilith’s Blessing were used during the untap phase and cost a pool for each use. I didn’t fully comprehend the changes until they were pointed out to me during the second round of the event I played in (“Why are you paying a pool?”). I should have been more observant. At the very least, the printed pool cost of Lilith’s Blessing should have been maintained and paid for at the start of the event - which might have encouraged players to choose loyalist by default.

Overall I was pleased with the events and their reception. I was glad to be able to complete the initial arc I had envisioned. At this point, it is not clear if the storyline can or will continue. But I hope it does. The storylines played an important role in establishing the VTES setting after the RPG ceased its run. With White Wolf ceasing production the need for something new will be stronger than ever. Being storyline coordinator was a lot work and a lot of fun. It was a great experience for me. But all great things end.

Perhaps it is time for the storyline torch to be passed once again.

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