[V:tM] On SPC Design in V5

The following process is an attempt to patch over one of the most glaring omissions from the V5 book: designing a Storyteller Played Character that operates within a fairly comprehensive sense of “the rules.” At the end of the day the Storyteller is a player too, albeit one with a different set of responsibilities: that’s why I don’t like to call them VtM NPCs, and why I like to have my SPCs operate on the same plane as the players’ characters have to, even if they have a lot of advantages.

(For visual handholds, and because I forgot I had them: a few images of my extended STPC family, as drawn by a Discord buddy I’m afraid I lost touch with. hubris, if you’re out there, thanks a lot for these, they still make me smile!)

Sorcha: a Gifted Fledgling,
do not underestimate her,
but do not estimate her too highly either.

How to build an SPC

Start with a Mortal template from page 185, depending on how strong you want the character to be. Careful observation reveals that a Gifted template is roughly equivalent to a fledgling PC: their Attributes won’t be as strong but their Skills will be more developed. Deadly is super strong and should be reserved for the biggest and baddest dudes around; even my STPC isn’t Deadly! Weak is absolutely feeble in vampire terms and should be reserved for characters whose dramatic role is tied up with failure.

If you’re struggling to pick their Skills, assign them a Profession (page 145), a Life Event for each century they’ve been around (page 146) and four or so Pastimes (page 146 again).

Also, look ahead to their Disciplines and Predator Type and make sure they’re appropriately kitted out with the Skills listed there. They don’t have to be good – you might design an SPC to be crap – but consider that three dots is “trained and practising to professional standard” and that an experienced Kindred is probably at that standard in what they need to get by night to night.

If the same Skill comes up twice, assign a Speciality to it.

Any leftovers get put into the Skills that are important for your chronicle’s style. Mine tend to be Insight, Awareness, Streetwise, Subterfuge and Athletics, because I run a chronicle that’s about second-guessing the motives of others and rolling with a surprise fight when it happens. Your mileage may vary.

Take all the Flaws from the Mortal Template, as this gives your SPC some weird weaknesses that diligent players can uncover and exploit. (I’m a big fan of Folkloric Banes and Blocks on my elders, for instance.) I think this is an important part of Vampire – the more old and powerful a Kindred is, the more they need a few specific eccentricities and vulnerabilities. It makes them feel more inhuman, and it gives the PCs a fighting chance.

Then add the following vampire mechanics, including all the extra Specialities and Backgrounds from their Predator Type. (I like to give SPCs both of the either/or Specialities to represent them having some different developed strategies for feeding. If they’re total babies with no idea, they might not get a Predator Type at all. Thinbloods don’t get any of this stuff at all.)

Fledgling

■ ■ 1 Blood Potency, Humanity 7
■ ■ Disciplines: Clan (2, 1), Predator Type (+1 from one)

Neonate

■ ■ 2 Blood Potency, Humanity 6
■ ■ Disciplines: Clan (2, 1), Predator Type (+1 in both), +1 anywhere

Ancilla

■ ■ 3 Blood Potency, Humanity 5
■ ■ Disciplines: Clan (3, 2, 1) Predator Type (+ 1 in both), +2 anywhere

Elder

■ ■ 4 Blood Potency, Humanity 4
■ ■ Disciplines: Clan (4, 3, 2) Predator Type (+1 in both), +3 anywhere

Adjust all this by Predator Type as normal, so a really scary elder might get Blood Leech (for Blood Potency 5 Humanity 3) or a particularly kindly ancilla might take Consensualist (for Humanity 7, probably a better person than the PCs).

Next, give your SPCs a Coterie Type. You might want to have a group of them working together (if they’re meant to be lowkey rivals who are on the PCs’ level) or maybe assign all those Backgrounds to one more senior figure and assume they have some lesser Kindred operating the machine behind their back (Weak or Average builds).

I do this so I can quantify exactly what resources my SPCs has to call on outside of direct confrontation. The PCs don’t necessarily get a fair fight but they do get one that exists and operates in the same systemic terms as their abilities, rather than me just going “oh yeah the prince can do that because they’re prince”. I often use the Background ratings of the SPCs to set the Difficulty of conflicts with them, and of course SPC Backgrounds make great targets for PC Projects if you’re using that subsystem.

Alistair: if I’d known how much the players would love him,
I’d have made him Deadly,
just to nail the sheer badassery they think he has.

You can do a lot of odd things with this template. I set up a Weak Ancilla as the first primogen my current crop of Anarch players took down: he was out of his depth, after his time and generally the weakest link in the Camarilla’s chain. Their Mawla, meanwhile, is a Gifted Neonate: he’s only been undead thirty years, but he had a long and hard life as a ghoul before then and he has a lot of tricks up his sleeve. I will say that I’m not sure how to make sense out of a Deadly Fledgling or Weak Elder, though…

How to tune your SPCs for conflict

So far, so good, but there is (as I discovered) a world of difference between building an SPC who works on paper and building one who can actually stand up to a group of PCs and make their players feel a bit sweaty. Midway through the Wild Roses chronicle (at the end of Act One, which was about twice the length of the others), I actually had to redraw my entire SPC roster because I’d dramatically underestimated what they needed to accomplish.

The main thing to think about is action economy. Your SPC gets to do one thing in a round, the PCs get to do one each.

Obviously the easiest way around this is to bring minions via the Background dots. Retainers and Allies have mechanical details already, as does the Haven: Watchmen perk (most of my SPCs have this one), but if you really want to crank the odds against your PCs, build an SPC with a big Herd and lean into the “perform basic services” aspect. When push comes to shove, a Herd can put a lot of bodies into play and enough Weak dice pools can overwhelm any PC, one bare-minimum point of damage at a time. Ask the Roses how unnerving it was to set up and bushwhack a Toreador ancilla only to discover he’d turned up with thirty men against the four of them and a pig.

For an SPC to feel powerful one-on-one they have to build dice pools big enough that they can afford to split them between players if they need to. Pick up extra dice from Specialities (don’t be afraid to give an SPC a signature weapon and corresponding speciality, that extra die goes a long way). Build bigger defensive pools with Celerity: Rapid Reflexes and Fleetness. And don’t be afraid to Blood Surge for more dice, especially since an SPC can and should be throwing around higher Blood Potency numbers than some playable neonate.

Santino, who has one dot in hoo, a whole bunch of useful Disciplines.
Oblivion’s Sight, Lethal Body and Daunt go a long way!

After that it’s a question of Disciplines and tactics. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it should give you some ideas to get started with. A lot of these ideas will involve going deep into one Discipline: the template I’ve shown above often gives them four or five dots in one place and I’m not afraid to use them.

  • stop themselves being attacked by throwing around a crowd control Discipline like Presence: Daunt, Dread Gaze or Majesty, or Potence: Earthshock, or the stealth hit of Fortitude: Flesh of Marble (not exactly crowd control, but serves the same purpose of keeping player attacks off your back). Oblivion, the way the Lasombra play it, is pretty good for incapacitating players, especially in social conflicts (stack Oblivion: Cloak of Shadows and Presence: Daunt for a Lasombra to whom no will not be said).
  • hit hard enough that they can Impair a player in one round and force someone to play defensively. Protean: Feral Claws or Potence: Prowess are good picks here, and once the SPC’s Hunger builds up a swift and brutal combat feeding with Potence: Brutal Feed can rip through a player’s health track. I used this with Celerity: Blink to create a three-round-kill sheriff who, alone, could incapacitate any one of my PCs.
  • facetank! Fortitude is a powerhouse of a Discipline for SPCs. Resilience, Toughness and Defy Bane will give your character a longer Health track, make it take longer to fill up, and manage the Aggravated damage that could incapacitate them quickly. Prowess from Pain bears special mention here as it puts more dice in the SPC’s pools and keeps them fighting for longer. Socially, Unswayable Mind and Fortify the Inner Facade keep the SPC ticking over nicely. And word must always go out to Defy Bane, which is perfect for extending a Conflict just that little bit longer without making it feel insurmountable.
  • bring some friends! Animalism is the classic Discipline for this one: bring a Famulus along, and either Unliving Hive or Enduring Beasts to keep ’em effective for longer. At the very top end, Animal Dominion can keep multiple PCs occupied. Oblivion can also work for this if you have Cults of the Blood Gods and fancy going a bit necromantic: nobody should mess with a Hecata on home turf if they know what’s good for them.
  • flatten the players’ dice pools. Animalism: Quell the Beast or Blood Sorcery: Extinguish Vitae take options and outcomes away from players and make them feel powerless in a given situation. In social conflicts, Dominate: Dementation chips away at available Willpower and that has a huge knock-on effect in terms of player resources. At least, it does if yours are as reroll-happy as the Wild Roses were. Be careful with this one, as players who feel deprived of agency are not happy players. I think you can get away with this once or twice in a story as a big flex, and the SPC who did it will be resented for ever (alas, Baron Kilkennie, I really hoped you’d be their friend).

Why Do It Like This At All?

It is certainly possible to get by without ever setting proper stats for your SPCs, in an “only players roll” style: just use the table on the ST Screen to set appropriate difficulties for all their rolls based on the significance of the challenge they’re up against, with the occasional “you’re outmatched, but each success will ‘save’ a level of damage” really scary roll.

However, I like to build my SPCs in more depth. This gives me more of an idea of who they are as people, and it also reassures me that I’m engaging my players within the same rules that they use to interact with my world. It feels more fair. Not every group is so far up the trust tree that we can abandon the dice altogether and play mother-may-I for over a hundred Sunday evenings. If that lightning hasn’t struck again, I think it’s important to operate within a shared set of rules, and apply those rules to my gameplay as well.

I hope all this has been of some use to you. If it has, let me know in the comments. If there’s something else you want to ask about V5, hit me up there too: I may well have some backed-up Vampire thoughts after a year of finally running the current edition.

3 thoughts on “[V:tM] On SPC Design in V5

  1. “I’m not sure how to make sense out of a Deadly Fledgling…”

    You may say that, but I recall hearing about this one Fledgling in LA a few years’ back now, and suffice to say they really took the place by storm…

    Coming from a retrospective of having ran a V5 Chronicle (which I still consider to by my GMing Magnum Opus so far) a couple of years ago, this was an interesting look at a road not taken and of convergent evolution at work.

    A lot of the reasoning outlined in the ‘Why Do It Like This At All?’ section followed a similar beat to my own processes when I was creating SPCs. I also wanted them to have depth, and liked the idea of them working on the same principles as PCs and having roughly the same set of tools to work with – another helpful aspect here is that having a full ‘set’ of SPC stats/capabilities to work with generally means less chance of being caught flat-footed when the PCs do something really out-of-the-box (PCs try to look for individuals precious to your big tough Anarch Baron that can be used to blackmail them into helping, instead of going through that trust-winning mission you had carefully plotted out? Good thing you’ve already worked out some Touchstones they can investigate as leads).

    The difference then is that when I was working out SPCs I only really touched the Mortal templates for making, well, mortal characters. For Vampire SPCs I went for the simple expedient of literally following through the exact same process used for PC character generation (or rather the abridged summarised version of that process presented on pgs 136-137). Vampires around the same age as the PCs got the Neonate profile, the one group of Thin-Bloods I threw in got the Thin-Blood profile, and anyone older got the Ancillae profile as a base, with extra dots piled on top of that for Elders.

    Sometimes the process would be tweaked a little – often omitting some of the later steps if they weren’t fully appropriate (it didn’t really make sense to assign any Touchstones to a dyed-in-the-wool Sabbat character who stopped caring about her humanity a long time ago and never looked back, for example).

    Then once that was all out the way I tacked on a few extra dots here and there where appropriate. This had two purposes. Mechanically, it acted as a bit of extra compensation for the economy of action you touched on above – a way of levelling out the fact that there’s only one of them and 3 or 4 PCs. But it also served a worldbuilding function as well, by acting as a kind of equivalent of in-game XP rewards and thus highlighting that the SPCs do have (un)lives outside of what the PCs are doing and are growing and learning from their experiences just like the PCs are, which in turn helps make them richer and deeper characters.

    This process ended up being somewhat energy-intensive, but ended up with very well-rounded SPCs that by and large tended to have the same kinds of strengths and weaknesses that the PCs had (give or take), which in turn helped with the feeling of agency.

    Of course, this was probably helped by the fact that for a lot of these SPCs I had some pretty strong base concepts already going in, which the V5 Character Creation rules encourage as a starting point. As an example, the original genesis of the Chronicle story was the idea of “You know I really want to run a Sabbat character, but this group seems pretty keen on sticking with the Camarilla. How do I reconcile those two?” with the ultimate answer being to simply take the unrepentantly evil Sabbat character I had brewing, turn them into an SPC and make a whole adventure out of it. Which in turn conveniently had the first plot hook built-in from the start: Why does this Camarilla coterie have a Sabbat character in their midst?

    I can see this method working a lot better for when a lot of well-rounded SPCs need to be statted out very quickly, and quantifying in-universe resources is a good idea that I never really bothered to do at the time.

    And funnily enough, the one time I DID break out a Deadly Mortal character – a veteran Vampire Hunter on the trail of the Sabbat defector the PCs had to guard – they ended up very quickly neutralised, captured and then killed about a session or two after their debut. So just because they’re a lot stronger than the average PC on paper doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be a serious menace when the dice start rolling…

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    1. “You may say that, but I recall hearing about this one Fledgling in LA a few years’ back now, and suffice to say they really took the place by storm…”

      A valid point, and I wonder now if a Video Game Protagonist kind of character would work as an *antagonist* for a conventional coterie.

      I started with a similar process to you, building by-the-book ancillae and maybe tossing extra experience points onto the heap, but after the first couple of serious conflicts fell apart SO hard in favour of the PCs, I needed to go harder. I wanted to come up with a rubric rather than rely on my own sense of what was appropriate, partly because I’d misjudged the first attempt so hard and partly because I like to know Rules have been Followed. At least one person in the group was very keen to have consistency in rulings and operations (not in a confrontational way) as well. Agency links arms with fairness upon a bedrock of consistency, lashed by the tide of hasty improvisation, or something like that.

      “I can see this method working a lot better for when a lot of well-rounded SPCs need to be statted out very quickly, and quantifying in-universe resources is a good idea that I never really bothered to do at the time.”

      That is essentially the situation I had in front of me with Glasgow By Night. I’d had the core idea for the chronicle and a few of the senior players sitting in my head for years; once I had players and they’d built their characters I needed to reify those ideas very quickly to get into the first session and maintain momentum. (I tend to do a lot of my nitty-gritty where-the-numbers-go city designing AFTER character generation, since that always throws up connections and necessities I wouldn’t have thought of. Like needing two extra Toreador characters in a hurry…)

      “So just because they’re a lot stronger than the average PC on paper doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be a serious menace when the dice start rolling…”

      Don’t I know it! Prince Cecil was absolutely fearsome at working a room with Dominate, but fell apart like my Wood Elf army when tasked with “get in the back of a car and be driven away…” Nevertheless, having those numbers on paper made me a lot more confident about flexing with him when necessary. Player consensus was that conflict scenes continued to improve throughout the chronicle, maybe a tiny flutter at the end (we had a few too many SPCs on stage, the limelight was not exclusive to the players, but at least their Mawla got to show off a bit… it’s OK if it’s one they’re invested in, right?).

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    2. I realise something escaped from the revisions and reconsiderations to that last comment: the REASON for falling back on the Mortal templates, specifically, is that they are least were calibrated to provide discrete levels of threat, and since “threat” was a primary motivator in redesigning all the SPCs, I thought it best to use what the game provided to gauge it as a foothold.

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