[V:tM] A Vampire: the Masquerade Watch List

THE UR–EXAMPLES

The Hunger is about as close to the ideal of Vampire: the Masquerade as you can get. Nightclubs! Gratuitous Bauhaus! Lesbian kiss! The aesthetic is spot on: it looks and feels like early Vampire art, or rather early Vampire art looks and feels like this film. V:tM may have come out in 1991 but it’s rooted firmly in the 1980s and the vampire chic this film defined. The Hunger will dump the vibe of the game right between the eyes and it’s as close as I dare come to “must-watch.”

V:tM’s Gehenna concept is heavily mirrored/inspired by the novel Queen of the Damned, which was adapted for film around the time Gehenna was actually happening and the line was coming to a close – so watch that too. The Hunger defines where V:tM came from, all Eighties post-punk writhing – this chuggy post-industrial apocalypse-glam perfectly sums up where it’s going.

THE META TAKE

Shadow of the Vampire is about a vampire playing a vampire in the first vampire movie. In a weird way I think that’s perfect for the sense of the Masquerade, hiding in plain sight, preying on the worst instincts of humanity and encouraging them to let you get away with all the awful things you want to do. In microcosm, it’s the perfect analogy for the “vampires secretly run society” vibe.

(It may help if you’ve seen Nosferatu too – either the 1922 original or the 1979 remake. I personally like the 1979 – it’s beautifully composed and, well, Isabelle Adjani. My God.)

GATHERING DATA ON VARIOUS OF BASTARDS

Depending on what type of vampire you want to be (and I’m going with V5’s categories here), I recommend at least one of the following:

Thinbloods lend themselves well to the What We Do In The Shadows conceit of vampire flatmates (or The Carmilla Movie, I suspect, but I haven’t seen that one). They’re millennial and Gen Z vampires; all the power and resources are concentrated in the hands of previous generations, so they pretty much have to bind together and find something else to enjoy in life, ’cause they’re never going to be powerful in the conventional sense. Thinblood games are low power, a bit domestic, and often the closest to “normal life but we happen to be vampires and bigger vampires try to kick our heads in occasionally.”

Neonates are your classic Gen X eighties/nineties vampire movie – The Lost Boys. Still weak enough that they’re better off standing together, strong enough that they can afford to be a bit cocky around humans. Probably share a sire, mentor, authority figure of some sort and should probably be working on his agenda once they’ve finished prowling the boardwalks and clubland at night. They’re a step further removed from society, but they can pretend to be human for an hour or two if they really try. Also, this is the other one that was in the air and influential when V:tM first came to be – along with The Hunger, I’d recommend it as the closest to a must-watch.

Ancillae (the upper reaches of age and power offered by the V5 corebook) are more your Interview With The Vampire kind of deal. You’ve lived a long life, your adventuring days are behind you, and now you’re something of a mover and a shaker – you’re probably permitted or at least not prevented from siring and you’re looking to give someone the choice you never had. Modernity gives you a headache but at least you can work a smartphone four times out of five. Ancillae games are a nice balance between “you’re powerful” and “you still have to answer to someone”.

SECTS MANIACS

If you’re extending into Inconnu territory, settle down with a small glass of something and enjoy one of my favourite films ever, Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s a slow story, and not a lot happens, but that’s elders for you. They become introverted. They fall into a groove. They keep to each others’ company. It’s beautiful and haunting until some clueless childe comes along and screws it all up for them and they have to admit what they really are.

Want to figure out the Sabbat? Watch (or read) 30 Days of Night and thank me later. The vampires there are getting away with something horrible because they’ve fallen through the cracks in the world. They act alpha-predator but they still live on the fringe or civilisation, the little savages.

REFLEXIVE ACTION

It would be deeply remiss of me not to talk about Underworld, the film series transparently inspired by V:tM,.to the point where lawyers were involved. Underworld reflects V:tM at its most “gamery”, its most superheroes-with-fangs – all custom weapons, trenchcoats and corsets, fighting werewolves in the dark, flashing back to the Middle Dark Ages and preoccupied with impenetrable why-does-this-matter world-building.

It sits at the end of that tendency toward Desert Eagles, katanas, Dragonsbreath rounds and C4 appearing on every character sheet that found its way into V:tM’s DNA from Shadowrun, along with the penchant for dice pool mechanics and wearing sunglasses indoors. I dislike that sort of game and I’m not mad keen on Underworld either (although Bill Nighy is a delight in any role where he gets to fight things, bless him) but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this sort of thing is also peak V:tM.

WAIT, THIS ISN’T VAMPIRES!

V:tM is synonymous with politics and backstabbing, and there isn’t in my opinion a vampire movie that really hits that. Thing is, Mark Rein-Hagen apparently loves Mafia movies, and the sense of the Mafioso as outlaw “protector” and power broker from the shadows, bound by a tradition of secrecy and self-regulation, goes right down into the roots of V:tM. Hence: The Godfather. (I’m open for other recommendations along these lines, if anyone has any: classic Mafia films are not my strong point.)

YOUR OWN PERSONAL JESUS TASTE

What are your top three non-vampire films? Why? That’s as good a way to start finding your feet as Storyteller as any – interrogate your own taste, know yourself, and discover from that what kinds of stories you enjoy. Now grab some friends and ask them the same question. Wherever you find an overlap in your tastes, that’s something that’s worth focusing on in your game.

Why “no vampire films” rule? Because “being a vampire” in and of itself doesn’t make a story (unless it’s a quiet, short one like Only Lovers Left Alive, but in RPG terms, that’s a one-off and definitely not a chronicle). V:tM works because it fuses vampires-as-protagonists with something else, be it cyberpunk style action thriller or gloomy crime drama or whatever it is you like.

Mine, discounting the one I’ve already gushed about up the line, are Rocknrolla, Franklyn, and In The Loop. My games run on generally have a couple of seemingly indestructible SPCs nobody likes and a dark secret that can absolutely take them down, someone WILL have an impenetrable regional accent, there will be convoluted political scrambling that nobody entirely understands (but someone who moves fast enough can come out on top through sheer bastardry)…

… but there’s also a layer of exaggerated Gothickry over everything, neuratypical characters will perceive the world very differently, vengeance and trauma will drive the major players and love may conquer all but you’ll have to lose a lot to get there.

None of this is essential to V:tM but it’s what makes my V:tM different from A. N. Other Storyteller’s, and it’s important to figure out your own taste. People often expect an RPG to come ready-made and ready-to-go (“We’re playing the Lost Mines of Phandelver”) and Vampire, at its best, is a bit more bespoke. Asking players about their taste in media is one way to start that tailoring process, making your V:tM something a bit different from everyone else’s and getting into that transformative stuff that makes RPGs so gosh-darn amazing.

7 thoughts on “[V:tM] A Vampire: the Masquerade Watch List

  1. That was a flashback to a lot of vampire films watched over many years. Very excellent stroll down memory lane and some of not heard about so will be looking them up. I know very little about Vtm though so will also be looking into that. Thanks (I think 😉) for pipping my curiosity

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    1. Thank me later – World of Darkness brainrot is a recurring condition I have never quite been able to shake, and you may regret your curiosity once you know your Ascension from your Oblivion, as it were…

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  2. Another vote for Only Lovers Left Alive over here! Though it also highlights the importance of Session 0 communication – the first Vampire Chronicle I ever played featured me blundering into it with an angle for an OLLA style story (the adventure was supposed to be set in Detroit! How could I resist that!), leaving the poor Storyteller – weaned on a steady diet of Underworld and action films that he was – scrambling to find ways to keep my beautiful artistic Sundance-grade Indie Film Ukranian broken bird of a Malkavian with no more than two dots in any kind of physical stats relevant in the grungy gangster-fuelled action story he had prepared. They got there eventually, but it was never fully seamless.

    On a related note, when discussing non-Vampire films as inspiration for VTM escapades, I’d also throw out Black Swan as a very good recommendation for any combat-light intrigue-heavy Chronicles (ESPECIALLY if there are any Toreadors in the house). It’s a good window for framing the character that’s coming to grips with their innermost nature, especially its darker side, while struggling to survive under the relentless pressure of mutually conflicting authorities that they’re inescapably under the thumb of, and every so often getting an occasional glimpse into just how deep the rabbit hole really goes. In other words, exactly what the typical Fledgling/Neonate is going through.

    However, there is something of a hole in this lineup that I cannot help but feel needs must be remarked upon, because the thing with visual media and watch-lists – especially vampire related ones – is that movies are really only half the story. When talking about stuff to watch when diving into VTM, there’s a whole world of TV shows out there that are just as important, and of them one in particular. And since I mentioned ‘vampires’ and ‘TV shows’ in the same paragraph, I suspect you can hear the Nerf Herder blasting already.

    For if VTM’s beginning is The Hunger, and its end is Queen of The Damned, then its middle must surely be Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

    Now, strictly speaking its sibling show Angel with its darker atmosphere, downtown inner city setting and lead protagonist that’s actually a vampire is probably somewhat more relevant to VTM, but the two shows are so closely intertwined that it is virtually impossible to talk about the one without talking about the other, and from the perspective of cultural DNA and influences the two are somewhat interchangeable, since they share most if not all of the same world-building elements and mythos.

    Regardless, for better or worse it’s hard to avoid the cultural impact Buffy had, and even VTM, rooted as it was in a 1991 that was culturally the 80s in all but name (in much same way that 2000 was pretty much the late 90s in all but name and the cultural boundaries between the early 70s and late 60s can get very blurred), was not able to escape it. It’s not for nothing that my go-to references for communicating the ethos of the Brujah, Toreador and Malkavian clans to newcomers are Spike, Angel and Drusilla respectively, and that my main point of reference when characterising Sabbat characters is Angelus.

    Likewise, it’s no coincidence that one of the most mainstream VTM appearances, Bloodlines, has a LOT of Buffy/Angel in its DNA, from the snarky self-aware meta jokes to the game’s flagship NPC Jeanette Voerman bearing more than a passing resemblance to Darla.

    On a more practical note, watching through Buffy/Angel is also a pretty good idea for any aspiring GM with a need to plot out and execute combat sequences in their games, because the action sequences in both shows are often choreographed in a very RPG-esque style.

    But then, it’s probably inevitable that I’d immediately jump to the big Vampire TV show first, since I’m much more of a television man at heart. I couldn’t tell you my favourite film even if my life depended on it, and struggle to put together even a Top 15 shortlist, but I can point to my favourite TV show without a second thought (it’s Firefly).

    So I’d probably go a step further and suggest talking about favourite vampire and non-vampire TV shows as well when talking watchlists. This is particularly important since TV series, with their serialised format, are much closer in nature to tabletop RPGs – consider each game session an episode, and each Adventure/Chronicle/whatever a Season, and the resemblance can be uncanny. Which is why for my debut VTM Chronicle I approached the whole thing as an exercise in half-writing a TV series (well that and career background, since it made a lot of work skills cross-compatible). Which had some advantages (a very tight focused narrative with a well-planned end point to prevent the adventure from fizzling out and growing stale, and a very strong stable of well-fleshed out STCs) and some disadvantages (in hindsight trying to apply the weekly TV serial formula probably left the PCs with slightly less room to manoeuvre their own long-term plans than would have been ideal) but then we’re back to how One’s VTM is a little different from the others!

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    1. It’s a great idea, with only one personal drawback: I am far, far less interested in television! It’s like you and cinema, although I can at least say The Thick Of It is both my favourite TV show and a huge influence on how I run Vampire. I’d also point to ‘Lock, Stock…’ the series and the UK House of Cards… and Doctor Who, although that’s more of a chronicle structure thing – like you, I tend to put stories together as a serialised endeavour, planned to run four, six or eight sessions in total and then take a break.

      I will observe that American syndicated television, with its godawfully long seasons, filler episodes and obsession with arc plots at the expense of individually stimulating stories (I’m looking at you, Battlestar Galactica!) is probably a model for the crap kind of RPG: the one that meanders on indefinitely and indirectly before petering out due to lack of interest, assuming you can persuade a group of functional adults with lives to sign away their time on an indefinite basis anyway.

      This is why I adopted the Who model in the first place: British Brevity isn’t just a trope, it’s a guarantee that you get a story which ends in good order, and a way of telling your players there will be regular opportunities to exit without letting the side down or ruining the experience for others, so the time-poor or commitment-phobic can pencil in six weeks at a time and then think it through. I encourage my players to come up with short-term achievable Ambitions, with the additional reward of a big XP handout between stories for achieving them, and to take a few nights at a time. It seems to work.

      Moving on: you’re probably right about Buffy but I’m going to admit something now that’ll probably have my Vampire Expert card taken off me. I have only ever seen two episodes: the very first one, and the musical. It’s odd: I live with a big fan, I’ve worked with big fans, you would expect it to be wired into my cultural DNA, and yet I’ve never been particularly interested. Nonetheless you make a very compelling argument, even if I think I’ve done a stand-up job of running the game without it so far. Then again, I was in my thirties before I functionally played Dungeons and Dragons, so perhaps “compensating for gaping cultural lacunae” is the case God gave me…

      As for your Malkavian encounter: ouch. I feel for you. Once again, I was fortunate to encounter Stevy’s Advice to Vampire GMs early on, long before “Session 0” entered the popular consciousness. If you don’t ask, or at least tell, your players what genre the story’s going to be, and you end up with a recently awakened eleventh-century eighth-generation Cappadocian nun, a bemused New England medium, a down-to-earth gangster and a Nagaraja who’s spent more time around ghosts than people (who mostly register on their cognitive radar as ‘snacks’), you have only yourself to blame. (Yes, that was the cast of my doomed-at-launch all-Hecata game. An object example in how clan and sect do not a coherent game make, not by themselves at any rate.)

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      1. A detachment has been dispatched to induce compliance. Your opportunity to surrender has passed. We have come for you!

        Seriously though, it’s a fair cop. After some recent facebook talks it appears that I’m one of the only Warhammer 40,000 Tau players in the universe who has never really seen any anime (like D&D and Doctor Who it’s one of those things that theoretically SHOULD be right up my wheelhouse, but that I never really ended up getting around to) – it took until my mid-20s to finally see Ghost In The Shell and Akira, and even now that’s pretty much the limit of my viewing experience there.

        Even in the subject of vampire media it took until this year for me to see Interview, and I still haven’t seen Fright Night at all. These days even I’m probably out-of-date on my vampire references, since I only followed the first season and a half of True Blood and never watched any of The Vampire Diaries, both of which are probably more relevant than anything in today’s V5 post-Twilight Gen Z world. I’m at least reasonably up to date on Supernatural, which IS pretty good fuel for OWOD antics, though it’s atmosphere and backwoods US setting probably make it a bit more relevant to Werewolf: The Apocalypse or, well, Hunter: The Reckoning than VTM itself.

        If you’re prepared to explore the Buffyverse further, then I’m actually tempted to recommend the Heresy of starting with Angel first. It’s a shorter series and thus probably closer to Commonwealth syndication lengths, and based on the references above it’s probably closer to your particular style. There are a modest handful of crossovers and in-jokes that are written with the assumption you’ve seen the other show, but as someone who followed Angel faster than Buffy I can attest that you won’t be completely lost with only seeing Angel and it’s not going to be a serious detriment to enjoying the show.

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