Peaceable Demeanor #4

Being a House Organ for
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Copyright © 1993, 1999 B. A. "Collie" Collier

(commentary on the module review)


Can it be fancied that Deity ever vindictively Made in his image a mannikin merely to madden it?
--Edgar Allen Poe

The Zines

I've just recently had something rather nice happen to me because I've been contributing to TWH. My roommates, Bob and George, have seen some of the zines I've written (I tend to have zines written ahead of time, and add comments later). They urged me to submit some to Adventurer's Club, a Hero System magazine, as a possible column. The editors, Bruce Harlick and Bill Robinson, liked the roughs, and asked me to be a columnist.

They also invited me into a game they have regularly, on the basis of what they considered the unusual opinions I showed in the column roughs (funny, I don't feel unusual! :-). This game was started about 10 years to play-test Fantasy Hero. It is what I referred to once as an "incestuous" game -- the players are a somewhat elitist group that knows each others' body language well, and are somewhat resistant to new players. [George's comment on hearing I'd been invited, (mock sneer) "ooOOooh. I see you've arrived in the game world!" :-)]

The Nice Comment!

Anyway, that's not the nice thing I was mentioning. What I thought was nice was when one of the players in the game came to me and said he'd read my roughs. He'd realized, by reading my column roughs, that his behavior might be construed as unfriendly to a new person, and that wasn't the impression he wanted to give. So he came up to me to tell me this.

I'm tremendously pleased! It's so nice when someone both understands and agrees with your opinions!

The Con

I've just spent my weekend at Pacificon. *groan* Ask me later. Anyway, while in the dealer's room Bob, one of my roommates, asked the Task Force Games people if the next printing of the Central Casting supplement "Heroes Now" would still contain the politically correct point of view, as expressed by Paul Jaquays (sp?). They answered yes, as they had heard from very few people complaining about the supplement. I intend to write them a letter and I'd like to quote comments from The Wild Hunt. I've found a number of zines where it is mentioned, but if anyone has anything specific they want to remind me of, please let me know which issue it was in. If anyone doesn't want to be quoted, please tell me so in the next TWH, or call me. I'll wait at least that long before I write. The phone number is in the title section. Leave a message if I'm not at home.

The Game

I recently participated in a Vampire game based on a module. I found it very annoying. I intend to analyze what it was I found so depressing, so I guess you could consider this an elaborate product review.

I first became somewhat uncomfortable with the Vampire game I was in when the PCs were saved from overwhelming opposition by NPCs -- for the second time. I don't mind a challenge, or fighting against incredible odds. I do mind having deus ex machina saves. I also mind feeling that any plan the players come up with will not succeed, regardless of its cleverness. I found myself very unhappy with the situation -- frustrated and simmeringly angry is more like it. Needless to say, I do not deal well with frustration.

I like understanding why I feel a particular way before I try to talk out problems with the people involved. It took me a while to analyze the exact cause of my anger; I was bothered most by my feeling of helplessness. I have no desire to play that feeling. I fight it enough in both my (and other's) day-to-day life.

The game was no longer fun because my character's presence made no difference to the game. The story was going to churn along the way it was written, regardless of my character's actions or my feelings.

The Interruption

I have played in this type of game before. The GM thought he was God, and felt his control of the game was more important than the PCs or the story. The players were all very good, mature role-players. The GM could be fascinating to listen to. So I stayed in the game, even though it wasn't fun. It was, in fact, the most horrible 'gaming' experience I ever suffered through for the sake of art. :-) In retrospect, and after I realized that some of the other players shared my feelings, I no longer thought myself the "fun-void" in the game. The most important part of that experience was that I promised myself (insert impressive music here) never again would I put up with a storyline being more important than the players.


I knew the Vampire referee was using a module, and I prefer not to assume the GM is a jerk. I also knew that we were in a cliffhanger ambush that would be resolved the next week. I was not optimistic about the probable outcome. So I did something I would ordinarily consider cheating. I described the two deus ex machina encounters and the ambush setup in as accurate detail as possible to a friend. Then I asked him to read "Milwaukee by Night" (the module the GM was using) and tell me if those encounters were intended to be that drastic, and if there was more of the same in the module.

I was shocked to find out those encounters were being run exactly as the module intended. Imagine my horror at discovering we had somehow avoided more such encounters (which could be inserted later in the storyline as desired), that there were further such encounters ahead, and that the ambush we were headed for was intended to be a no-win situation. Perhaps you can understand my determination to have it out with the GM right away.

This narrative does have a happy ending. I found the GM himself was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the way the story was running. He decided to skip several of the forced encounters and heavily modified many things in the module. He also resolved to use no more Vampire modules after this story arc finished. As a consequence, I and the other players (who were also unhappy with this story arc) were quite relieved, and the game became once again a pleasant experience for us all.

Since then I have read the module myself.

The Book

"Milwaukee by Night," by Dustin Browder: 127 pgs, SC, White Wolf
Editing: Andrew Greenberg, Rob Hatch
Development: Andrew Greenberg
Layout: Sam Chupp
Production: Josh Timbrook
Maps: Chris McDonough
Art: John Bridges, John Cobb, Josh Timbrook, Richard Thomas
Cover: Janet Aulisio
Back Cover: Chris McDonough
Vampire: The Masquerade was created by Mark Rein*Hagen

Book I

It starts well enough. There are two halves to the module, referred to as books. Book I is titled "Barren Streets, Barren Hearts", and details the history, geography, kindred, and politics of Milwaukee. It is an interesting read, and there are several NPCs who would complement any game. There are many GM role-playing tips. There are several charts which delineate the politics and relationships for quick and easy understanding. The art is adequate. The maps are clear and helpful. I thought this part of the module to be a useful addition to the game. Then I got to Book II.

Book II

"Psychomachia" is defined by Webster's English Dictionary as "conflict of the soul". It is also the title of Book II. Some of the introductory paragraphs read:

"Impulses and wild instincts are the greatest threat to a Vampire's sanity. They tug and pull at his rational mind and threaten to drag him into a darkness of unthinking depravity. The loss of humanity is what every sane Vampire fears, and it is this loss "Psychomachia" explores in depth...

Vampires show human problems amplified to an extreme degree. Reason and animal instincts are both part of being human, and each of us walks a balance between these two. This Story shows the price of failure if ever these two parts of human nature should become confused or if one should become dominant. ...

[A]s Storyteller, it is your responsibility to bring out this theme of reason versus emotion (the animal part of all of us) ...

[W]hat kind of inhuman monster could be committing these senseless acts of violence...

[I]t would only take one bad night to push them [the PCs] over the edge of sanity and into the unknown area called madness. ...

[the PCs] will be subjected to one bad night where they must battle insanity to save their own fragile, rational minds."

An interesting, if somewhat intense beginning. Still, intense has never been a problem for me -- I enjoy that sort of role-play (dare I say it) intensely. However, it is unfortunate the author recommends beating the players over the head with what is supposed to happen as the way to depict this intensity.

The story is laid out with great detail and useful role-playing hints. The different scenes of the story connect smoothly. Again, the art is okay. What bothers me is the story being more important than the PCs.

The Problems

To start the story, the main NPC commands the PCs to do several disagreeable things. Lack of instant obedience is punished. Two of the first encounters do indeed entail a deus ex machina save. The PCs are supposed to feel grateful and indebted to the NPCs. My personal thought during the game was that if the GM did this to me again, my PC was going to turn on her saviors in a frenzy. The end of one chapter says,

"It [is] unlikely any of the characters will end up as prisoner ... at the end of this scene (players hate having their characters go through the "humiliation" of being captured)."

If the authors of this book are aware of this, why do they insist the PCs must be so humiliated on two separate occasions? A later chapter reads,

"The characters will no doubt lose this fight. They are surprised, outnumbered and outgunned. Do not stop them from putting up a good fight though. Nothing is more irritating to a group of players than to have the cards so stacked against them that there is no hope. Unfortunately, for good plot and drama this is sometimes necessary. When you are forced to make the players lose, you want the players to feel that they put up a good fight... [emphasis mine]"

This annoying battle is immediately followed by yet another overpowering menace. This menace is exceedingly rude, as is expected by his followers. If the PCs reveal most of the information they have fought so hard to acquire "and do not lie very much," the exceedingly rude menace will "explain why he is going to let them go." The GM is encouraged to "be as insulting to the characters as possible." If the PCs are goaded into attacking the overpowering menace "they will be certainly killed." One option that is mentioned in the scenario is:

"[A]llow the Vampires to fight as well as they may, letting them die or live as their actions and the dice dictate. As a Storyteller, this is not usually what you want to do, but you cannot be bailing your Vampires out of the stupid mistakes they make."

The only possible mistake I see here is allowing your GM to continuously pull this kind of crap on you. Instructing the GM to insult and humiliate the PCs until they are forced to give up all their secrets to their mortal enemies is not a way to build character, it is a way to tear it down. Furthermore, I would much rather the GM not waste my time with a useless fight. If we are predestined to lose, just tell us so, kill us, and be done with it.

One of my roommates is a noted GM. He commented, on hearing some of the quotes, "If you as the GM have to capture everybody, get it over with."

Yet another quote concerning yet another battle capture,

"It is the sad truth that even in the most carefully designed Story the plot must sometimes be forced. ...

[T]he characters must be captured, and it is your job as Storyteller to make sure this happens. If the characters start to win, give the bad guys reinforcements. ...

The trick is to make the players feel like the prince (not you) captured them. Do not ruin their good ideas. Allow them to work -- to a point...

So allow them some victories in their hour of defeat (that is, if they earned them)."

This particular capture is followed by several scenes of drug-induced dreams and hallucinations. Some of the dreams are supposed to be made more horrific by being played out as part of the story without the players being informed these are just dreams. One of the episodes has the strongest PCs attack and kill the bound and weaker ones. The GM is supposed to arrange this with the players of the stronger PCs, so as to frighten the players of the victims. This is bad for any game. Consider any group of (already paranoid) vampires suddenly turning on each other. Even if it is supposed to be just a dream, my PC would never trust the attacking PCs again, much less I the GM.

The GM has been consistently instructed to squash any initiative on the part of the players: capture them, terrify them, abuse them, insult them, kill them, but don't allow anything they do to change the story. By the end of this, I'd be stunned if any remaining players gave a damn about their PCs. To end the module with the following statement tells me that the authors have no idea of how dictatorial their supplement is and wouldn't care if they did know:

"[T]his is likely to result in a party massacre, who knows? Your players may surprise you."

The Wrap-up

I feel strongly that if a GM has to force the story by crushing the players and/or PCs on five separate occasions (yes, I counted them; no I am not exaggerating) in order to continue the story, and the module instructs you to do so, then there is something seriously wrong with the module.

The End

In conclusion, I have mixed opinions concerning "Milwaukee by Night." I thought Book I was a nice supplement. I can recommend it in good conscience to anyone interested in buying the supplement. However, I loathed Book II, and I cannot recommend it to anyone.

Comments on The Wild Hunt #174.

Last Updated: Wed Sep 06 2000