Things did not go exactly as planned in my experimental chamber. I was originally going to ease into talking about monsters through observing the 1958 How to Make a Monster, or look at the lyrical, sunny mystery and nightmare of The Picnic at Hanging Rock: especially with regards to the real horror of the institution and society that led to its tragedy.
But then Cannibal Holocaust hit and changed the flow of what I was going to write in this Blog. You can never truly predict what will happen in an experiment of the observer-participant variety, as if there is any other kind. Yet we can still work with this tonight. Roads not taken can be Paths to strange Enlightenment, and when you look at the evils or foibles of another society interfering with another out of a sense of superiority, in attempting to create a certain story or cultural narrative, you can more than imagine the results.
You can especially more than consider what will happen when it’s a game like Vampire: The Masquerade. I suppose, tonight, we can talk about how to make monsters after all: creatures that, instead of vanquishing, you get to play out in an interactive table-top roleplaying game.
Vampire: The Masquerade was a table-top RPG created by White Wolf in 1991. I won’t attempt to analyze, or take apart, the entire game and how it has evolved over time, but this game and its conceit has always intrigued me: and led to roleplays with me and my friends. It takes place in what is called the World of Darkness, something much like our own world, only darker with more urban decay, a growing sense of nihilism and despair, with little pockets of hope and wonder to keep the thing going.
And in this World of Darkness are beings called Kindred. They are also known as Cainites, as many of them believe that Caine — the first Judeo-Christian murderer — is also the first of their kind, but we all know them as vampires.
The rules of the game are lyrical and almost poetic in their way. You have dots to fill out instead of numbers. In addition to Physical, Social, and Mental Attributes as well as Skills, you also have Disciplines: powers activated by your vitae: your blood. There are different Clans of vampires with their own inherent Disciplines, descended from their Founders.
Anatomically, a vampire from the World of Darkness is a reanimated corpse with undead vitae instead of blood, and they do not have the same bodily needs as they did when they were mortal. They can bond with other vampires through feeding them their blood, though if it’s one-sided it can enslave another vampire of lesser power to their will. This same blood can be fed to a mortal to arrest their own aging, and bond them to a vampire by changing them into a ghoul: like Renfield and Dracula.
Sunlight kills them. Fire kills them. Holy items can cause issues, as can silver, but those are individual flaws that don’t work on them en masse. A stake through the heart will simply paralyze one of the Kindred until it is removed. A Kindred can enter Torpor and become inert without too much blood to feed on, or excessive damage, or genuinely when the weight of ages becomes too much for their mind. Fire and the sight of sunlight creates something of a flight, or fight response in the form of something called Rotschreck.
And with that last sentence in mind, I want to talk about something integral with regards to these immortal blood-drinking beings, or how their mythos is interpreted by White Wolf’s World of Darkness. Vampire: The Masquerade is stated to be a game of personal horror. And it’s more than just waking up one night and realizing you can only consume human blood, or not be able to deal with the sun, or understand that your body is different forever.
You see, when you are a vampire in this world, you still have your memories. You are still you. But at the same time you have this hunger inside of you, this need to feed and destroy that you must always keep in check. It is called the Beast. And it is a bad thing when the Beast takes control, even when it is necessary. It’s that fight, or flight instinct taken to the extreme — to the point where it increases your sense of lust and greed and gluttony. If you indulge it too much you can become a danger to yourself, mortals, and other vampires. You can eventually lose your mind to it, and never come back.
But that is only part of it. The other part is: imagine this struggle I’ve just outlined for you. Except, consider that you are immortal. You have to keep consuming blood in order to survive, and you need to deal with the Beast … for a potential eternity. You need something to ground yourself. The game calls them Touchstones: like activities, goals, plans, and people. Especially people. They keep you in check. These relationships continue to give you meaning, and a reason to control yourself. But what happens when you live for too long? When your mortal friends and family die? When the institutions you fight for decline and become dust? When you eventually begin to lose a sense of meaning in the world around you as it keeps changing, and you don’t?
Yet it’s more insidious than that. You could have relationships with other Kindred but they are also struggling with their Beasts and more. Because this is where the Monster part comes into play. When you realize you aren’t human anymore, and then you want to spend time with beings like you, eventually power is the only thing that matters. Think about the temptations of living forever and amassing vast resources, controlling others through the mental powers of Dominate, using your powerful aura of Presence to get people to adore you, controlling the elements, changing your appearance, and so much more, and so much worse.
What society would beings like this create? Well, Vampire has several answers to that. No matter what Clan you are a part of, or an overall Sect you might join, there are checks and balances especially created to continue to bring meaning to your existence: prestation. When I first got into Vampire, I was mostly interested in the lore and the meta-narrative, but over time I realized prestation is important because it is a culture of boons: of repaying and trading debts and favours among other immortals. For instance, you might want to learn how to control or influence animals, and for that the other vampire in question might want a particular enemy’s resources inconvenienced, or a power of their own. It’s the barebones of their social interactions, in what are otherwise isolationist predators.
But what does all of this come down to? In a few phrases: there is a line when you play a vampire between not wanting to depict a human with supernatural abilities, and an utter, unrepentant monster that commits atrocities with no emotional consequences. And it’s a thin line, a deceptive on even. I’ve seen popular roleplayers like Matthew Dawkins — or the Gentleman Gamer — and his groups depict vampires that have warped and twisted relationships, a yearning to not be alone but the power and the nature of what they are ultimately reestablishes that they are creatures of the damned. By the same token, I’ve also watched Jason Carl and his LA By Night group also flirting with the terrible truths of their existence, but display much more positive attempts at interaction: genuine friendships and even love amongst the Kindred and those with which they spend their time. One and the other can become too much.
In my own roleplays I encounter the same challenge. How do I play a being who still has human emotions but isn’t one anymore? And how do I, or would I, interact with others as such? And I think while dealing with the Beast, and the dangers of becoming dispassionate a Monster are a constant, it depends on the character as well, along with the company my character keeps. For instance, in one roleplay I am a Tzimisce: a flesh-crafting vampire that likes to experiment on others. Clan Tzimisce generally belongs to a Sect called the Sabbat: a group of essentially vampire-supremacists that do not want to hide in fear from humans — or kine as some of them call them, especially elder vampires — and think they are above that condition, or can become so.
In contrast, you have a Sect called the Camarilla that heavily sponsors the Masquerade: a philosophy to hide all vampires from human society so they won’t be hunted down and killed. In a game that is mostly predicated on social interaction and manipulations, the Sabbat are fairly blatant — on the surface at least. They too aren’t going to necessarily expose themselves to humans, though they might attempt to maneuver their Camarilla counterparts into doing so, but they have a different society.
The Camarilla heavily relies on prestation and Elysiums — supposedly neutral places of interaction where you can’t lose face or control of your Beast — while the Sabbat are more combat-oriented with duels of Monomancy and various aggressive Rites of passage. One can argue that the reason why the Sabbat is downplayed, or moved away to another part of the world in version five of the game is because they don’t match that low-key manipulation and social element: or because they aren’t relatable as people. Most Sabbat vampires and the Clans that are a part of them follow Paths of Enlightenment, once called Roads. Basically, they are different codes of morality that are no longer human, cultural paradigms with which they interact with the world differently.
The irony is, while the Camarilla and another Sect called the Anarch Movement — Baronies that want to maintain their own independence and the Masquerade on their own terms — mostly embrace the Path of Humanity (or Via Humanitatis), the elders among them will eventually adopt the Paths of Enlightenment when they no longer have mortal friends, family, or places with which to call home, or to relate. And while they can still have relations with their fellows, the human element does erode — or change — over time, especially an eternity of bloodshed, consumption, and poisonous little games.
Being a Kindred in Vampire: The Masquerade is walking on a red string between the Beast and the Monster, trying to keep your mind, and the meaning in your existence. And the fear that you might lose control to your hunger and become a mindless Beast, or have all of your feelings and memories fade away until nothing but a cold-hearted immortal creature remains is integral to that. Even so, it’s just like horror needs humour and moments of levity to keep going: and to truly illustrate how terrible an immortal existence can be when contrasted with camaraderie, and love. And what stories they can make. Will a Kindred eventually lose everything, even the meaning, of everything they hold dear? Can they overcome it? Is there a balancing point? Perhaps even the Sabbat can be a family in an unconventional sense of Pack. They might not consider themselves human anymore, but has to be room for ambition, and dreams, and sentiment … and somewhere to go from there.
When I first encountered White Wolf I was fascinated with their Mage: The Ascension line: of people would could control and influence reality through different paradigms. But I never really found a group I wanted to play in that game. But Vampire: The Masquerade is all about dealing with the possibility of losing yourself along the way through an uncertain future, and I think I can see just why I can relate to that so much — why anyone could — in these particular, and perpetual times.
Well, what do you know: the conclusion of this experiment is that I got to talk about anthropological elements, poetry, and monsters after all.