[V:tM] Readthrough Review: Secrets of the Masquerades’ Guide to Storytelling

Disclaimer: This review was requested by Mme. Secrets after I won a copy of her Guide to Storytelling book in a giveaway she ran. I’m not sure we’ll be friends after she’s read this, but I do actually sort-of-know and like her, even if I disagree profoundly with elements of her approach to vampire fun pretend time.

Preface

Mme. Secrets attempts to draw a (soft, permeable) line between propaganda and education. The backlash, natch, is that any attempt to ‘use RPGs as a tool to educate myself and my fellow players about given specific themes and subjects’ is a form of propaganda, a contamination of the true and politically neutral escapist elfgaming with political nonsense.

Personally I think that’s hot garbage and that nothing is politically neutral, especially not anything mobilising the powerful symbolism of the vampire (and later in the preface, Mme. Secrets agrees). BUT: I think it’s pretty ballsy to open your meisterwerk with “I play RPGs to teach myself and others” – it suggests a kind of always-on pedagogy that I find deeply tiring to engage with, even professionally, let alone in my recreational hours – are we really going to stop and have a debate about castle architecture and class relationships and the Other in the middle of a goddamn game session? BUT: I have to applaud Mme. Secrets for being up front about the kind of gamer she is and where she’s coming from. That’s important. It lets us know where we all stand.

And I can’t argue that we have to understand what our games are saying to our groups, our friends, our communities etc. Do we look like the kind of scuzzchuds from whom we actually want distance, and if we do, how can we prove we’re better than them?

Chapter I – Set up to tell a story

Thank GOD someone else gets right in there and says “this isn’t like writing a novel, a fiction, a script or any other form of authored narrative”. People don’t get this, and they pass around writer’s advice without thinking about form and purpose at all.

Presenting ‘Storyteller’s Benevolence’ (asking your ST about the relevance and consequences of your actions) as a Merit to be bought with points seems a bit weird to me, because… well, for one thing there are mechanics in the core game that specifically rely on this kind of conversation (degeneration in particular) and for another, it’s turning “reasonable and mature discussion about the game and its direction” into a resource to be husbanded rather than a policy decision. It’s a good description of a sensible game style, I’m just not sure why the hell you’d make it a Merit.

Good stuff on defining how your WoD operates. I wouldn’t have said ‘looks like’ – that’s an aesthetic point, and what the section’s actually about is basically how night to night existence works, what the social mores are, how difficult characters’ lives should be. Which is an important conversation to have, and I’d have liked some more on implementing those difficulties into an actual session of play.

The idea that you should treat your RPG group with the same “we’re not friends” mentality that most people fail to implement in their workplace is, to my eye, unworkable. The idea that you “make sure everyone is ignorant of each others’ views in all subjects” and somehow have The Conversation about problematic stuff up front likewise.

Mme. Secrets, I have considered your “chaotic neutral approach: depict and show everything as terrible… everything is corrupted, all is shit, and there is no hope“, and I reject it. It’s not a world in which I want to spend my time, it comes from a failure to appreciate the conventional mores to which the Gothic returns and the opposition to systemic awfulness at the heart of the Punk, and it’s ultimately banal and vacuous, lacking a moral centre that makes any of it mean anything. I prefer to spend my recreational time in a world where people try to do the right thing and sometimes succeed – in small ways, and always at a cost.

No objection to the X card. I’ve been using a ‘time out’ hand signal since 2002, before we even had these ridiculous conversations about whether or not people should be able to tap out of fantasy situations they don’t want to handle. It’s never stopped my groups having a good time or made me feel like my almighty vision is being compromised in some way.

Chapter II – Campaign Preparations

Solid up-front caution against having a linear plot that you’ve planned. I think it’s fine to have an ending in mind – Constantinople was always going to be reclaimed, the Latin Empire was always going to fall – provided you don’t overmap the details on how you get there, but that’s a particular problem of historical games, I think.

Once again; thank GOD someone else gets it. Find your themes, find your players, then pick the city – or pick the players to suit the city and the themes. I like the point about different contexts – “a strike in 1968 Paris does not carry the same ambience, connotations, meanings and weight as a strike in 1940s Chicago” – and the scathing handwave away of ‘the canon material published by White Wolf’ in favour of doing the goddamn research? Nice.

The caution against fancy Bloodlines, Paths and Disciplines is solid – the best games leverage the core stereotypes of the game in interesting ways instead of relying on your visiting Archon who has ties to the True Black Hand. The suggestion to lean into mortals, ghouls and Backgrounds is spot on (and it’s something I’ve fucked up in previous stories, to be quite fair). Creating coteries and agendas to tie your SPCs together is best practice, as is creating a volatile environment that the players can change (it’s one thing to have them start off feeling oppressed by the weight of millennia, quite another to have them do, say, achieve and obtain nothing for session after session because everything’s locked down).

I do think Mme. Secrets is making work for herself and us here, though. Five months doing pre-research that spans over a thousand years and amounts to an MRes dissertation’s worth of labour, rewriting a short novel’s worth of plot from the perspective of each major SPC, all for a game endeavour which might fall apart in a week if the players don’t click or the schedules collapse? Bite me. The basic principle – do the diligence or stay in your lane – is one I salute, but it seems detached from the realities in which the game session exists.

I reject entirely the “do not create a tutor character” approach. Some of my best games have revolved around broods with a shared sire – an SPC who can hold the fledglings’ hands and give new players an opportunity to learn and discover and be mentored within the game. But I do make a point of having those characters die a few sessions in. If I’ve done my job right a PC will be the one to kill them.

The section about preludes and sires is bangin’ good stuff, including the give and take aspect of building a sire (the player’s agency has to form the reason for the Embrace, but the sire is not the player’s character or even necessarily their friend. There’s a good long list of reasons why one vampire might Embrace another and then we’re on to a new chapter.

Chapter III – Pace and Continuity

This is meaty stuff, and clearly articulates the practical differences between short chronicles with a planned length and the default week-in-week-out that V:tM’s core books always seem to assume. The advice to lead with plot hooks and ensure PCs have something in common should frankly be adhered to in every game, and – ah, right, here Mme. Secrets admits that you don’t need to do five months’ work for a game that might last two. That’s reasonable. And she’s properly teeing up her examples in this chapter too, and explaining exactly how much work needs to be done around the ‘tentpoles’ of the shorter game. I certainly like the strict “no prequels, no sequels, no bigger giants, encourage players to think of these characters as Done When This Story Is Done” approach.

It may well be that I’m simply used to thinking in terms of chronicles that have to be over in two months before people lose interest or go back to Big School or whatever, and so I naturally design in this way anyway, but this chapter is basically vindicating the way I do things. There’s one oddity around style that I want to call out, though:

If you don’t describe there’s something that can be searched, they won’t know there’s something to search

Well, that’s certainly one way of doing it, but I’ve found players tend to ask “is there this? is there that?” unless they’ve been fattened and made sluggish on the old-school “this room is twenty metres long and a hundred metres wide and contains the following” mechanisms of the dungeon delving brigade. It’s something else you have to brief people on up front – how much detail will you give them and how much are they expected to ask for?

There follows a long section on Humanity rolls. I think everyone who has run V:tM for a while has their take on Humanity and how often you should roll for it and what kind of world the World of Darkness is and so on. I will not deny that degeneration is a major theme of the game, if not the major theme, and I will endorse that automatic humanity loss is often the right call. However, Mme. Secrets is often vague about who’s rolling and who’s losing – if they try to justify their actions then you don’t need to roll – and this whole section would benefit from exquisite care that builds up from the mechanics rather than down from Mme. Secret’s perspective. By and large, I agree with her conclusions: to succeed in the Conscience roll is to fail at protective rationalisation and realise you’ve done wrong and must make amends and live with it. I don’t think that’s a particularly well designed mechanic – “succeed to fail and roll to see how you have to pretend you feel” – and I’d prefer a practical guide to dealing with that inside-out design at table. But I guess that’s when I break out the template and write Uncle Gio’s Guide to Degeneration…

The mission-to-sandbox pathway is exactly how a longer term chronicle should develop, and how the gears can change between short and long term if you’re just trying things out and decide to keep going, as is the idea about asymmetrical information. I wish Mme. Secrets had deconstructed her lengthy example some more – clearly differentiating what happens in the example from the thought process about why it happens – but I get the gist. Character relationships as further layers of information – that’s all good. I’m amused that an author who was warning us about local context in the Preface is now making sweeping generalisations about people over the age of twenty-five or seventy, by the way: the point is sound, but Mme. fails to take her own advice and applies the French context on a universal scale.

The final piece of advice here is the one thing I want everyone to wrap their head around. Use the players’ sheets. Mme. Secrets uses this as a way to manage character knowledge – “you have enough dots to know this or that”, “you don’t have the dots to use this or that”. I would go further, talking about how PCs’ Backgrounds are the currency of the dynamic and engaging chronicle and how you, the mighty Storyteller, should ground yourself in them at every turn. I might even suggest a corollary to the effect that actually, I do expect players to match their own traits to what’s on the sheet in certain circumstances. There are people out there who I can’t buy as playing a character with one dot in Intelligence, same as there are people out there who I’ll insist take the Encyclopaedic Knowledge Merit because I don’t expect them to pretend they haven’t been playing this game for twenty goddamn years and are past the stage where their performance of ignorance does anything other than slow down the game experience. It’s a good section – I’d have liked a page count closer to Humanity or the Embrace on this one, because I do think interacting with your PCs’ sheets is that important.

Chapter IV – A Practical Game

“Mme. Secrets, are you dunking on yourself in the pretentious quote box for this chapter?”
– 
A presumptuous British oaf

It seems odd to tuck the “no, let’s go back to ‘what is an RPG’ for a minute” section in at the very end. I might have led with this. Anyway, there’s some good stuff in here about how the game mustn’t feel like a job for players (only for the ST, right?). I’d have liked a bit more on the practical use of the Storyteller Screen (there’s a worthwhile debate over what these are for and what they say about the kind of game we’re running) and the thesaurus (I’m sorry if this sounds patronising, but some people do not understand how synonyms work and think it’s as simple as slotting one word out and another into its place).

The section on music is about the right length for such a debatable point (although I question Mme’s taste in recommendations – personally, I would never use anything from a major film, TV or game property, because I don’t want people going off about Tempest Keep while I’m trying to put them in downtown St. Petersburg).

Mme. Secrets’ system for knocking together SPC die pools in a hurry is good – a nice balance between template and bespoke approaches. It needs grounding in the “two dots is average, three dots is trained, four dots is professional” paradigm, which people don’t always remember from the core book, but its a useful abstract way of putting together pools for characters from particular backgrounds and with particular personal drives. Wins the “most likely to see actual use at my table” award.

Sadly, the following section for Disciplines falls flat on its ass. It’s really, really obvious which Disciplines Mme. is not interested in and which aren’t usually germane to her own table, and the advanced powers (while interesting) really should be provided with a proper system writeup (you did it for a janky “mechanising the ST’s playstyle” Merit, but not these?). They’re good ways to think about the implementation of Disciplines, but they’re not so much powers as moods.

As for the offhanded “summarise the unique Disciplines in a sentence”, follow-up, I wouldn’t have bothered, Mme. This adds no value. Instead of discussing themes, applications, capabilities they afford the SPC, or telling the putative ST anything they can’t get from the core book, it wastes space on a list for pure completionism’s sake. You said you wouldn’t include them – and then you paid them the lippiest of lip service. Shallow and pointless and leaves the chapter as a whole feeling like you ran out of steam.

Points for being a Tremere player who recognises that the Path of Blood is all you need, though.

Appendix

I like both the “about the author” bit and the justification for it – one does have to explain where one’s coming from and what circumstances and contexts have formed the book.

I would never label Mme. Secrets as a critic-troll-whiny-ass. I might label her as a committed sociologist who occasionally fails to practice what she preaches, and as insufficiently interested in game mechanics to really offer the definitive guide to running a game, or crystallise her insights to the point where they’re concrete and applicable.

The recommendations list is good but leans in the wrong direction. Having built herself up as a working academic, Mme. Secrets stops short of providing accessible recommendations for academic readings that would contextualise and extend her perspective – instead, she goes on about anime and Yann Tiersen (who is, admittedly, quite good: I’m listening to the Black Session as I write this). It’s a perfectly adequate list but it could have been so much more.

Assorted petty gripes about the text as a whole

Proofreading’s wonky. There are dozens of odd Restaurant Capitalisations, pluralisations and so on. (Mme., I’ll pro-proofread the next one at mates’ rates if you’re still speaking to me after this hatchet job.)

I get that two columns with strict justification are White Wolf house style but the barrage of hyphenated words will never sit easily with me. This isn’t Mme. Secrets’ fault so much as the Storyteller’s Vault at large’s, though.

Some of the hyperlinks are broken and frankly, if you’re going to discuss cutting Acts 1 and 5 of a tragedy within your text, your text needs to actually present the five act structure within its own body, not rely on a Wiki link. (If nothing else, you know how it is with Wikipedia: don’t send your readers down the hole!)

The slightly embiggened and italicised sections where Mme. Secrets discusses examples of how this stuff works in play are a decent touch, but they’re not properly offset from the rest of the text and we’re not always primed to expect them, so it takes a while to work out what these strange blocks of differently formatted text are for. She gets better about this later on but it’s a bit weird at first.

The Bottom Line

This is an odd book. Elements of it are very good and practical. Others are gatekeepery, suggesting that if you’re not capable of doing postgraduate level research on your setting you need to sit on your hands.

At the end of the day it’s exactly what it says on the tin: Secrets of the Masquerade presents a guide to running games like she does. Self-limiting and sometimes disagreeable, but a fat sight more interesting than most of the Storyteller’s Vault because it’s focused on praxis instead of shovelling out More Content like that’s all we need.

I endorse half of it, disagree with two fifths of it, and wish she’d cut some in favour of more depth for what she actually gives a toss about. Split down the middle, err in the author’s favour for trying to do something different and worthwhile. 3 angst dice out of 5.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s