Roleplaying by the Numbers

This essay appeared originally in Mind’s Eye Theatre: Vampire The Masquerade Storyteller Secrets, a collection of original essays, guidance, design notes, advice, how-tos, recommendations and, yes, secrets to help Storytellers of Mind’s Eye Theatre. But it’s not specifically about VTM—the essay discusses a core philosophy, the Economy of Cool, that underpins all By Night Studios game development, including our newest effort, MET: Werewolf the Apocalypse.

 

Roleplaying by the Numbers

By Kevin Millard

Roleplaying and rules are often thought of as diametrically opposed forces. Some players hate it when their roleplay is interrupted for the purpose of throwing tests or using mechanical effects. Others feel that the mathematical and tactical challenge of rules is more exciting (and more “fair”) than relying on dramatics. A great LARP must strike a balance between the two.

The best game systems are those in which rules support and reinforce roleplaying and the story of the setting. This theory can be seen in the mechanical composition of the Mind’s Eye Theatre: Vampire The Masquerade (MET:VTM) system. . Imagine that the rules are a glass of water. The glass provides structure and organization. Story is the liquid that fills the glass. It is the reason the glass exists, and yet it is shaped and formed by it. Rules should support roleplay; roleplay should build from (not be hampered by) the rules.

This essay covers how we designed the rules and the story to work together to produce the best possible game system and personal roleplaying opportunities.

Why Rules Are Important to Story

So, why are rules important? If a chronicle is run by a good Storyteller, the game will be fun even if the system is terrible. On its surface, this is a fine argument, but in truth, a poorly created rules set causes a number of subtle problems. These issues wear down even the best Storytellers, deeply affect player trust, and can eventually ruin a chronicle.

  • Storyteller Workload: Every time the rules fail, a Storyteller must solve the initial problem, create a rules-fix, maintain any precedents created, and keep careful track of adjudications and systems additions. This burden becomes exponentially difficult in a large or long-running chronicle. If a Storyteller is constantly dealing with such issues, it is difficult to allocate time to devising plots, encouraging character development, or running stories.
  • Limited Game Size: A poorly written or badly balanced system requires a large number of Storytellers per capita. These volunteers are needed to judge ongoing issues or educate new players about “house rules.” This situation requires more and more players to volunteer their time shepherding the rules rather than playing the game.
  • Player Trust: Even if a Storyteller works diligently to maintain rules balance, it is inevitable that difficulties, arguments, and simple errors will occur. With an unbalanced core system, Storytellers must constantly put a strain on player trust, hoping that each new change or addition to the rules will be seen as impartial and fair. Even if the Storyteller has the best motives, constant mechanical alterations will cause accusations of bias or cronyism, driving players away from the game.

A good Storyteller can build a fun game on an unstable foundation, but imagine how amazing that chronicle could be if that Storyteller built the chronicle on a solid and balanced set of rules! A strong mechanical base allows a Storyteller to keep her focus on stories, rather than bureaucratic minutia, accusations of mistrust, or constant rules arguments.

Balancing the Rules with Story

Although no rules system is perfect, the MET: VTM mechanics are designed to be as reliable and balanced as possible. It was playtested in massively populous, interconnected chronicles and also by smaller, independent troupe games. Design choices were made to facilitate Storytelling and to make the game easy to learn and easy to run. To understand the game’s mechanical design, it’s important to explain a few of the design pillars inherent to the system.

  • Merits vs. Experience: A character’s power level in MET: VTM is represented by experience points, used to purchase powers, abilities, and other advantages that give the character an “edge.” In this manner, characters that have survived many games have more experience points and are more powerful than newly created characters. Merits, on the other hand, are universally limited to seven points, no matter how new or how senior the character in question. This double-pronged system of advancement rewards older characters by assuring them a breadth of purchased items, while allowing new characters the opportunity to be useful and distinct from their first night in game by purchasing an unusual merit. A player whose character has navigated many dangers and seen many victories is rewarded for those accomplishments. However, a recently made character must not feel entirely outgunned, otherwise new players (and experienced players replacing initial characters) will have no incentive to join a game in media res. Both systems, and their limitations, are necessary.
  • Only Important Tests: With very few exceptions, tests to activate powers or rituals are only necessary if the mechanic targets another character. If a player spends hard-earned experience to purchase a power or ritual, she should to be able to rely on that item’s basic functionality. Performing tests every time a character wants to use a power on herself is needlessly time consuming, and wasting resources (Blood or otherwise) on an item that randomly fails to activate simply isn’t fun.
  • Don’t Waste the Storyteller’s Time: The MET: VTM rules are designed to be self-sufficient and not require the constant attention of a Storyteller. Storytellers have a lot to do at game and cannot constantly pay attention to every power activation or ability use. A Storyteller can roleplay a character’s Nightmare flaw if it is a plot point or creates an important character moment, but merits, flaws, and powers she should impactful even if the Storyteller doesn’t have time to throw pre-game challenges with everyone.
  • Rules Enforce Theme: Brujah are described in story as being very loyal to one another; therefore, their clan’s 1-point merit offers an advantage when they fight as a group. Nosferatu are described as information-gatherers and spies; therefore, Nosferatu merits and powers help them perform such functions in game. Offering advantages to characters that reinforce story-based themes will encourage players to portray those archetypes, while still allowing non-stereotypical characters to exist (though they may be less efficient) for the purposes of roleplay.

Every Game is Different

Whether handling an independent troupe game or a massive international chronicle, every Storyteller runs things a little differently, and every game has unique requirements. The MET: VTM system provides a mechanical base, but it is also designed to allow Storyteller customization to meet the needs of her specific chronicle. You can see this flexibility in the various settings described in the core book (Anarch, Camarilla, and Sabbat), which add custom items and limited systems additions or changes. Through creating a setting document, Storytellers can tailor the base systems of MET: VTM to the needs of their chronicles.

The settings in the base book flesh out the traditional Vampire: The Masquerade environments and provide templates for Storytellers who want to integrate custom systems appropriate to a chronicle’s theme and storyline. Still, before adding new mechanics or changing inherent systems, a Storyteller should carefully consider the possible pitfalls.

  • Game Balance: Each time a Storyteller adds, subtracts, or changes the rules, she alters the fundamental game balance and impacts the play environment. If diablerie becomes easier or more rewarding, more players will choose to diablerize. Therefore, the game’s player-versus-player conflicts will potentially increase, as players seek to exploit those new rules. Like water rolling downhill, players will typically follow the course of least resistance (or greatest efficiency). Be sure to plan for the storyline and roleplay consequences of any mechanical change.
  • Barrier to Entry: Most new players learn a new system by reading the published books. When they arrive at a game, they expect the rules to be familiar. It is difficult for players to remember custom rules, particularly when they must memorize an entire compendium of changes or additions. With each alteration, the Storyteller makes it more difficult for new players to join her chronicle. If changes are truly necessary for your story, make sure that each one is well thought out and easy to understand, and be sure new players are made aware of these changes (and are given a printed copy).
  • Perception and Trust: Player perception can be as important as game balance. By allowing some players access to an item, but disallowing others from buying it, a Storyteller can be perceived as having a bias even if her motives are pure. It is better to raise costs, but keep the item available for purchase by all players, if you wish to limit an item’s rarity in your game.

Custom Rules

Custom rules can be powerful tools to make a chronicle feel distinct, but used unwisely, such items can raise the barrier to entry and create serious game imbalances. Before you create custom systems, make sure they are necessary and impactful. If possible, Storytellers should rename or add distinct story changes to existing systems and items, rather than creating something entirely new. Perhaps the Black Hand in your game is an order of Seraphim; perhaps all vampires take aggravated damage from gold. Such changes have minimal impact on the rules, but can provide a distinctly unique feel to a chronicle.

Mechanics that are restricted to a particular group (such as clan or setting-specific merits) are intended to define the stereotypes of that group. Allowing characters outside that group to possess such items will cause significant imbalances, especially if only a few characters (Sabbat refugees, perhaps) are allowed to purchase those mechanics. No matter how compelling a character’s background or history, this kind of unequal access will imbalance the game and create a strong perception of Storyteller favoritism.

That said, we can offer a few suggestions for Storytellers who find customization necessary. Once you understand the pillars of rules design, you’ll be much more confident tweaking things for your chronicle’s needs!

Attributes

The MET:VTM system of attribute dots allows characters to begin with an equal foundation. As the character spends experience (initial or earned), the system offers the player concrete choices that will specialize the character, making it better at certain tests or in distinct situations. Bonus attribute dots are granted with the purchase of Generation, providing a tangible benefit to that background, which are carefully balanced against the experience cost of techniques, skills, and elder powers (among other things). This system touches every opposed test between two characters, determining victory and offering advantage if one character has a significantly higher attribute.

Current System Design

  • Choice: By allowing players to decide where to place bonus attributes, the system allows for a Neonate to potentially defeat an Elder in an attribute comparison—depending on the relative allocations. Players can choose for their characters to be utterly focused in a single attribute, or to create a well-rounded attribute set.
  • Alliances: MET: VTM utilizes a thematic rock-paper-scissors randomizer for more than just throwing and resolving challenges. Different character types (and different powers) work better against some targets and less well against others, giving items both strengths and weaknesses. Attributes figure into this balance strongly. Because a single character cannot have a completely maximized attribute in all three categories, alliances are necessary in order to “cover all the bases.” Creating (and betraying) alliances is a critical part of a MET:VTM game; no character should be able to stand alone or the game loses a critical aspect of interpersonal connection and reliance.

Simple Customizations

  • Additional Attribute Bonuses: A Storyteller could provide a different number of bonus dots per Generation. For example, a Storyteller might give two bonus attributes instead of one. This change would create a play environment where Elders are significantly more powerful than Neonates. Before you make this change, plan for a larger percentage of your player base to gravitate towards the Elder generation in order to capitalize on this mechanical advantage.
  • Removing Attribute Bonuses: Another potential setting option is to remove all attribute bonuses, so that all vampires (regardless of Generation) have a maximum of 10 in each attribute category. In this scenario, merits like Skill Aptitude become much more powerful, and players will be more inclined to portray Neonates or Ancilla.

Merits and Flaws

The merit system may be Mind’s Eye Theatre: Vampire The Masquerade’s most important cornerstone. Altering the cost of merits and flaws (or creating new ones) can provide a great deal of customization, defining a setting’s unique distinctions. However, because the merit system is so integral to the balance of the rules, altering the system itself or raising the merit cap can cause significant problems. Merits are carefully balanced in cost, ensuring that no character can possess two 4-point items. Further, the merit cap of seven points is built into the system to ensure that characters must make choices and that no single individual can possess all of a clan’s stereotypical advantages (thus letting everyone be distinct and useful). Lastly, maintaining a strict merit cap helps new players feel that they can contribute in a unique manner from their very first game, providing small advantages not possessed by even the most long-played characters in the chronicle.

Caveat nuntius.

Current System Design

  • Balance: Merits are specifically designed to be more powerful than an ability or discipline with a similar point-cost. A 4-point merit may provide an advantage equal to the expenditure of 20-30 experience. Raising the merit cap allows players to buy even more of the most efficient mechanics in game, and that can significantly skew game balance.
  • Clan Archetype: Clan and setting-specific merits outline that clan’s major story themes and stereotypes. Ventrue merits encourage those characters to interact with the mortal world of influences and retainers, and so forth. These merits support the stereotypical image of that clan.
  • Sense of Fair Play: Portraying a member of a rare clan or unusual bloodline is innately powerful. Such a character has access to unique disciplines and merits, and even if those abilities are not overpowering in themselves, their rarity will create tactical advantages. Rarity merits ensure that other players know that anyone could play the same character type, provided they were willing to spend their limited merit points in the same way.

Simple Customizations

  • Unilateral: Providing all characters a single flavorful merit for free (all vampires in this chronicle have one Acute Sense), or requiring that all characters take certain flaws (all vampires in this chronicle have catlike eyes, and must take the Eerie Presence), can be a very good tool to alter the feel of a chronicle. By utilizing the merit system in this way, a Storyteller can promote unusual aspects of her setting without unbalancing the game’s mechanics.
  • Sub-Organizations: Some merits define subgroups like the Black Hand, Josian Archons, or legendary Anarch heroes. These sub-organization merits provide special background items with minimal mechanics. Merits can indicate that a character participated in a decisive battle, manipulated or mentored a famous kine, or performed some unique duty for her sect. Because players must choose to spend their limited merit points on these background highlights, story items such as these can be fairly rare (and very prestigious).
  • Flavor: A Storyteller could use the preexisting cost and mechanics for a merit, rewriting only the flavor of that item to make it feel more appropriate for her chronicle. This can allow a significant amount of customization without impacting game balance.
  • Custom Mechanical Merits: If the Storyteller wishes to create merits unique to her chronicle, these new merits must be made available to all players at character creation, or there will be the perception of bias. The best way to point-cost a merit is to overestimate; if players look at the merit and say dubiously, “I’m not sure if that merit is really worth X points,” then you’ve correctly estimated the cost. Players should feel as if they’re making a difficult choice, and it’s better to adjust a merit’s cost downwards rather than upwards if you later feel you have incorrectly evaluated the item’s capacity.

Skills and Backgrounds

Skills and backgrounds provide a great deal of flavor, helping players flesh out character histories as well as prodigal talents a character possesses. Fields of study further reveal a character’s interests and occupations. Backgrounds detail a great many aspects of a character’s interaction with the mortal world, and these items can help a Storyteller can flesh out the environment of her game.

Current System Design

  • Limited in Number: VTM’s skill list is deliberately limited. This is to ensure that players and Storytellers don’t have to memorize long lists of obscure items, and also because each skill now provides minor mechanical benefits—benefits that can add up very quickly! Rather than creating a new skill, try offering new uses for existing ones, expanding the scope without increasing the overall number.
  • Breadth vs. Specialization: A character with many skills at low levels will have access to a significant number of minor mechanics, providing a great deal of utility. A character that instead specializes in a few skills and purchases them to maximum levels will have an advantage when using those skills in static and opposed challenges (both offensively and defensively).

Simple Customizations

  • Fields of Study: Creating a list of specific fields of study for preexisting skills can help a Storyteller portray the scope of her game. For a chronicle set in Rome or the Dark Ages, a list of fields of study such as Herbalism (under Medicine) or Cavalry Tactics (under Leadership) might help players grasp the feel of the chronicle and tune their characters to that theme.
  • Specialized Backgrounds: Storytellers can highlight a particular background by allowing players to choose from a list of minor bonuses each time they purchase a dot. The Haven background is a good template for this type of enhancement.

Powers and Techniques

Elder powers are static things, created by ancient and powerful vampires over centuries of research. Techniques, on the other hand, are idiosyncrasies, formulated (or stumbled upon) by thin-blooded vampires (usually Caitiff). Players commonly ask the Storyteller to allow custom powers, justifying an item’s creation with a character’s “long history of study” or “strange mix of disciplines.” Storytellers should be aware that custom powers and techniques can significantly imbalance a chronicle, both because of the new item’s power level and simply because the item is tactically unusual. Further, custom powers can become cartoonish and feel out of place within the gothic-punk theme of the game, harming immersion and roleplay. Lastly, allowing some players to create custom powers can make a Storyteller appear biased, providing one player access to an item that others cannot purchase (even if they otherwise meet the requirements). It is better for a Storyteller to give the power a visual or theme-based customization without changing the mechanics, if there is a genuine need.

Current System Design

  • Too Much Shiny: Don’t allow players to make custom powers involving the disciplines of rare clans and bloodlines. Those unusual character types already have an advantage. If the chronicle is genuinely in need of a unique item, that item should be accessible to the largest majority of characters.
  • Transparency: Publish any custom rules in your settings document, and make sure that all players are aware of the item’s capabilities out-of-character. This may lessen the feeling that the item is a “neat surprise” for the creator, but it will go far toward ensuring that other players understand the item’s limits (though their characters do not), and maintaining Storyteller trust from the rest of the player base.

Simple Customizations

  • Change the Feel: Storytellers can give already-existing powers a visual or theme-based customization without changing the mechanics, if there is a genuine need. A character or NPC that is intended to be “spooky” may use the mechanics of the Thaumaturgical Path of Weather Control, but the visuals may depict the effects of haunted house rather than environmental anomalies.
  • Requirements: A Storyteller who wishes to incorporate a certain technique or elder power more broadly in her campaign might alter the requirements of the preexisting power. If your chronicle requires all vampires to potentially teleport through shadows, the Storyteller might give the elder power Shadowstep an appropriate experience cost and make it available for purchase by all characters. So long as the power is openly accessible, game balance will be generally maintained.

Sect Status

The status system is specifically designed to promote the ideals and tenets of a specific sect of vampires within the setting, providing in-character punishments to characters who do not properly adhere to the sect’s social doctrines (even the hypocritical ones), and rewarding those who are willing to promote those ideals or support the sect hierarchy. Giving status (or imposing a new status ban) allows a Storyteller to communicate and enforce vampire society’s ideal of “appropriate” and “inappropriate” behavior.

Current System Design

  • Discourage Collectors: The core of the status system is in the flow of earning and spending status. Characters should be encouraged to maintain a fairly constant flow of temporary status, not to hoard an accumulation in order to have “the most.” A character’s number is not important; it’s the use of status, and how it alters political situations, which makes these mechanics meaningful. Spending and regaining status is an important tool to encourage players to roleplay, making them actively create and maintain alliances. Storytellers should avoid giving weight to the number of status traits a character possesses, because this will cause the status system to stagnate.

Simple Customizations

  • Status Bans: A sect’s status bans help enforce a sect’s views in the social setting of a chronicle. If a sect places a ban on the possession of certain merits, disciplines, or backgrounds, it sends a strong statement about that sect’s ideals, values, and fears. Adding or removing status bans during the course of a chronicle is a way to show that leadership is changing hands or to indicate that powerful vampiric authorities are paying attention.
  • In-Character Prejudice: Many of Vampire: The Masquerade’s themes revolve around prejudices and bigotry (such a hatred of Caitiff in the Camarilla setting), but responsible players have difficulty portraying these prejudices, especially if it means avoiding fun roleplay or treating a friend’s character badly. To help with this, Storytellers can build setting-appropriate bigotry into a chronicle’s status system. Such bans might include limiting certain status traits to “acceptable” character types or allowing the expenditure of other traits to only affect “disreputable” clans or bloodlines. This kind of customization helps players portray the setting’s bigotry and prejudice, supporting players who are trying to play to these biases without actually asking them to be mean to their friends.

Custom Rewards

When players provide exceptional roleplay, solve extremely difficult tangles in creative ways, mentor new visitors or otherwise provide a tangible service to a chronicle, it’s a wonderful idea to reward them for that effort. However, giving extra experience (or allowing a character’s experience total for the month to go over the game’s general cap) can cause an imbalance in the game’s power scale.

There are ways to reward individuals without giving a permanent mechanical advantage. By doing so, the Storyteller provides all players an opportunity to learn from and emulate the positive actions of an individual being rewarded. Ideas for exceptional player rewards could include:

  • A free downtime action
  • A feeding chip, useable for one immediate refresh of the character’s Blood pool during game
  • An information chip, exchangeable for one piece of unique or advanced plot information (ask the Storyteller one question)
  • An involvement chip, useable to insert your character into one scene that she would not otherwise have access to (assuming that scene has no possibility of player vs. player conflict).
  • A “gold star player” spotlight each month on the chronicle’s web or wiki page
  • A free influence specialization, useable for the next month

Conclusion

The ability to make customizations to a game system is the privilege of the chronicle’s Storyteller. A Storyteller can alter the flavor description of items, increase or decrease cost, or otherwise modify the systems in her Setting Style Document as is appropriate for her chronicle. However, altering foundational mechanics can cause a game system to fail, resulting in more work for the Storyteller or in significant player discontent. Be cautious about such alterations, and always keep in mind what’s best for your entire game, not just the interests of a few players. Good luck!

Storyteller Secrets is available as a downloadable PDF here.