[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.

[Game Dev] On Wraith: the Oblivion and an Untitled Ghost Game

These thoughts are brought to you by a spirited attempt to play Wraith: the Oblivion last year. Not even run it – one of the Chrises who’s married into my old V:tM squad was kind enough to step up and give it the old college try, so I got to stat up the ghost of Bill Hall and Private Walker and sit on the other side of the screen for a change. Started well enough, but the sheer unrelenting misery of Stygia was not what any of us needed in times of pandemic and isolation, and we rapidly degenerated into what the other Chris insists on (accurately) calling Carry On Haunting. But it did leave me thinking: what would it take to make a Wraith game work for me?

A vampire is a dead person walking around being a predator, it eats blood so it can stay alive, that matters because eating blood is tricky in a society that frowns on that sort of behaviour and you have to do morally questionable things to stay alive, and that hooks you into the core “a beast I am lest a Beast I become” aspect. And almost every time you roll dice, the game reminds you of that by forcing in the Hunger dice and altering the consequences of the roll.

Wraith, as it currently exists, is an overdeveloped mess of guilds and legions and powers and conflicts and PvP gameplay without a core sense of what a session looks like, what the little characters we play do and why they do it and how the rules make sure it’s done. I’m sure everything it needs is in there but no edition of Wraith has successfully put that core loop explicitly front and centre; it always feels like a Vampire hack that hasn’t quite been thought through and pulled tight.

To me, a person who tried to learn Wraith by reading the books, there’s a huge amount of ink spilled on top down stuff – but apart from “join guild, get powers” it’s not immediately clear how this impacts at session level. Wraith seems more interested in its worldbuilding than in being played.

They got “what is a ghost” but didn’t follow it through. There isn’t the same almost… autonomic start-up process for a session there. Vampire, when in doubt, starts with feeding, because someone will be hungry, and feeding has consequences or is a platform for exposition, and “eat blood” is the central fact of vampire existence. I don’t see anything that concrete in Wraith – any such confident answer to “what shall we do tonight, Brain?” Something about “resist the Shadow” doesn’t click – it’s too passive, I think, or perhaps that “fuck with each other” gameplay loop doesn’t make for a functional table when the default for RPGs is that we play together. Maybe Spectres should actively wander through sessions more, make Oblivion a tactile threat that always needs to be worked around? Maybe Wraith should be run as, I don’t know, a storytelling game of survival and psychological horror?

I really like the guilds and if I had my druthers I’d lean more heavily on them as splats. What KIND of ghost you learn to be really matters and says a lot about your character and your goals in play, and it could be a choice. I feel the moral centre of Wraith is “you can choose to save yourself”, the work of resolving fetters and getting out of this awful existence should be the arc, and the act of choosing what kind of ghost you want to be feels like a good start to that.

I could see how a V5 hack might work, with dice swapping pools, but what to hook them off? Better pools near your Fetters, maybe – hammer home that sense of being tethered to a place, an object, a moment in time… Haunt Dice.

So yeah, I’m really hoping for Wraith 5 or whatever it gets called. But it has to be at least as iconoclastic as V5 is in terms of mechanics, and a lot more direct about how it plays and what makes it worth playing. In the meantime, I’m half tempted to knock up something that explores this same turf, because I very much doubt I’m going to get the Wraith I want. I won’t be able to use the cosmology, but the idea of an unstable and hostile underworld between Haunts might give me enough peril to hang the whole concept on. I don’t have a good name for this yet, so Untitled Ghost Game it is.

[V:tM/V:tR] Top Tips for Vampire Storytellers

Ask the players where their characters get their blood from. Really make them think about it, especially if the PC in question has no business hanging around fingering hoboes or picking up prostitutes. Do they have a trusted servant who bares vein for them twice a week (paid overtime for the pleasure, of course)? How does the servant feel about this? Above all, what would happen if that safety net of regular, planned, safe feeding was taken away? This is always a good plot to break out if the PCs don’t create one for themselves, or in the lull while you frantically work out how the hell the local Tremere are going to react to having their chantry filled with lawn ornaments or what the Toreador primogen thinks about having her childe’s illegal blood doll left in her conservatory with a note saying “people who live in glass houses can’t throw stones”.

Continue reading “[V:tM/V:tR] Top Tips for Vampire Storytellers”