The school where I work has run a competition for students to write a story inspired by a thought provoking photograph of the students and staff from 1918, with a melancholy figure of a young girl watching from the high window above - said to be a 'ghost.' It reminded me of the year I spent as the Daily Ghost, writing a ghost story every day. Here's my ghostly story inspired by the photograph and the school's war memorials.
Sometimes they come back, but they don’t find the one who loves them.
Mr Edgoose told me that, on the day my childhood ended.
Of course, I had no way of knowing, when I heard those words, that the day would be so momentous. It was another school day and I was spending an idle hour before my train would arrive, roaming the school corridors, as I would have done with Jack. Except Jack was not there anymore. He was crossing the Rhine in his tank, racing to Berlin, to win the War. It said so in his letter, that I carried in my breast pocket.
I paused in front of the school photograph from 1918 and looked at the smiling faces from a hopeful time. School folklore said – and the younger boys believed – that the girl in the window was a ghost, watching over the masters and students gathered on the grass below.
That was when I heard the tap-tap of Mr Edgoose’s cane and soon the teacher’s crumpled silhouette came into view. I remembered him teaching Latin to me in the First Form, but he was not seen outside of his room much, especially since what my mother called ‘the Great Blow.’ His boy Raymond had died on a Normandy beach. Raymond had been in the form below Jack.
Mr Edgoose stood stock still when he perceived me there. He called to me, but his voice was a dry croak. Then he approached, his cane tap-tapping, slowing as he drew near and recognised me.
“It’s Cheney, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. My brother is Jack Cheney.”
He seemed apologetic, as if he had mistaken me for someone else.
“You’re very tall, Cheney.”
I nodded. People often commented. I was as tall as the boys who had been conscripted.
He joined me in contemplating the photograph. Mr Edgoose smelt of tobacco and boot polish and the salty-sweet odour of gin that used to cling to my auntie’s dresses.
“Sometimes they come back,” Mr Edgoose said.
I didn’t take his meaning, but supposed he was thinking of Raymond.
But then he continued: “I arrived in the school just a year after that photograph, A year after the Great War ended.”
It was curious to hear it called ‘the Great War’ now that it was just the first and the Second War was grinding to its conclusion.
“I did not serve,” he added, tapping his cane to his shin by way of explanation. “I thought, as a teacher, I would contribute to the peace.”
His voice became thick and syrupy. I felt the childish dread that an adult was going to cry right there in front of me.
But he recovered his composure: “I came up for an interview with the old Head Master. I was met by a young fellow named Robinson. Wilfred Jenkins Robinson, his name was. Charming young gentleman. I couldn’t judge if he were Sixth Former. There was a sorrow in him and a dignity that you don’t find in the young, but of course war makes us all grow old too soon. When he offered to show me around, I decided he must, like me, be a junior Master, so I allowed myself to be led here, to look at this very photograph.”
The girl in the photograph was framed by an oblong of darkness. There was something inexpressively sad about her expression. She wasn’t contemplating the happy crowd below. Her gaze was upon a distant horizon, far across the East Anglian Fens, across the grey seas, across the broken fields of Flanders.
“The girl in the window was his sweetheart,” said Mr Edgoose, interrupting my thoughts. “More, they were affianced, although secretly. She was a maid at the school. Wilfred Jenkins Robinson spoke movingly of their separation, of the promises they exchanged, before he left … before he left for …”
I said, “Before he left for War,” and my voice was louder than I intended and the word ‘War’ echoed along the corridor and around the empty classrooms.
I thought of Jack’s leave-taking. He didn’t have a sweetheart. I remembered how he tousled my hair. “You’re the man of the household now,” he said, adding, “the pater familias,” because he was top of the form for Latin. I made him promise to come back. “I’ll meet you after class,” he said, “when the school bell rings.”
The echoes faded and the silence became oppressive.
“Did they marry, Sir?” I asked. Then, when Mr Edgoose didn’t reply, I asked: “Wilfred Jenkins Robinson and his sweetheart. Did they marry?”
Mr Edgoose considered the girl in the window but his vision, like hers, drifted far away, to the shores of Normandy.
At length, he answered: “They did not. It was very tragic.” Then he added, “She took her own life. She threw herself from that window when she heard the news.”
He turned away and there was something about his manner, the stoop with which he walked and the tremulous tapping of his cane, that I felt I could not let the conversation end there. I trotted beside him until we reached the doors to the Hall, where the bronze plaque marked ‘Dulce et decorum est’ recorded the names of the schoolboys who died in the last War.
Mr Edgoose paused there. He stared at the list of names.
“Sometimes they come back,” he said. “But they do not find the one who loves them.”
“Like Wilfred Jenkins Robinson?” I said. “He came back for his sweetheart, the girl in the window.”
Mr Edgoose drew a deep breath and the phlegm rattled in his chest.
He said, “I wanted to ask him how it happened, how he learned of it, why he was still here in the place where she had died. The distance he had travelled. The journey from that place of death to this place of life. Only to arrive too late. But the school bell rang and the corridor filled with young boys. The Head Master arrived. He had been looking for me, it turned out.”
He drew out his pocket watch and inspected the dial.
“Sometimes they come back,” he said. “But not today.”
I stood for a while, thinking of the girl in the window who had killed herself, and Wilfred Jenkins Robinson who had come back to marry her, but too late.
Then I saw the names on the plaque; the names of the glorious dead of the Great War: J.C. Morrison, M.S. Page, J. Palfreyman …
And underneath them: W.J. Robinson.
I turned to Mr Edgoose for an explanation, but he had gone, though I never heard his cane tapping down the empty corridors. Those corridors were dark now. It was March and winter still haunted the school. Where was Jack, who should be with me? Then I remembered that Jack was in Europe and my train would be here soon.
I ran from the baffling name on the memorial plaque. I ran to the station and my train, wheezing and smoking in the dusk. All the way home I read and re-read Jack’s letter. I heard again Mr Edgoose’s promise: Sometimes they come back.
At home, the telegram had arrived.
“We regret to inform you …”
My mother in tears, the dog unfed, the hearth unswept. It was the day my childhood died. As Jack had promised, I had become the man of the household.
That night, I dreamed of Wilfred Jenkins Robinson making his long journey back from the Fields of Flanders. He crossed the great wasteland. He made a raft from barbed wire and sailed the grey seas. In the high window above the school, he brushed a tear from his sweetheart’s cheek. I saw them together, clinging to each other in that oblong of darkness. I awoke before down, weeping, and watched the grey light creep across the ceiling of my room. I told myself that Jack too would return. The wide lands of the Rhine would release him and the beaches of Normandy would send him home and he would be waiting for me, at the end of the school day, his smile turned to sorrowful dignity, but still Jack.
There are times, all these years later, when I think I see him. The school bell rings and a figure passes my doorway, or a voice calls from the corridor, and I rise from my desk, scattering ink and student essays. But it is only a tall Sixth Former loitering or a boy’s cry from the schoolyard. I lower myself into my chair, my bones creaking. I examine my wrinkled hands. I walk to the window.
Below me stretches the lawn where masters and students gathered for their photograph in 1918. I stand, framed by the window, and stare out across the East Anglian fens, the grey seas, to Europe, and further. I think of the girl in the window, stepping into that oblong of light, to meet her lover, as the Apostle promises, in the air.
But I do not follow her. I will wait another day for Jack.
Back when I was 14, I wanted to branch out from ordinary D&D, the game that had burned through my adolescent soul over the previous three years. But I didn't want to branch too far. No d6-only Traveller where you died in character creation. Definitely no Petal Throne with its unpronounceable empires and goddesses.
TSR, the creators of D&D, had brought out Top Secret the previous year and I thought: D&D, but you're spies, what could go wrong?
In my day, RPGs came in boxes! with dice inside! with great cover art! and with an introductory module that came with its own screen.
Then it turned out to be a d10-only system and I couldn't pronounce the name of the introductory module.
Ah, but that introductory module! Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle. Beautiful. Baffling. Unplayable. How it haunted my dreams. Sadly, I put Top Secret away, thinking, I'm just not grown-up enough for a game that's D&D but you're spies.
Well, now I'm 56 so it's time to return to Sprechenhaltestelle and Top Secret and this time nobody goes home till that module gives up its secrets!
D&D, but you're spies!
Back in the 1980s, games designers were still figuring out how the conventions of D&D could be adapted to other genres. Top Secret perhaps had the misfortune to emerge between 1978's Gamma World (basically, D&D, but you're mutants and the entire world is a post-apocalyptic dungeon) and 1981's Call of Cthulhu, which redefined the sort of adventure experience that was possible with RPGs. Call of Cthulhu proposed a mature style, with fragile investigators coming from real-world professions, onion-skin storytelling focusing on mystery rather than mayhem, and complete abandonment of the kill-things/level-up trope. It had the effect of making games like Top Secret redundant in a single stroke.
That's a shame, because Top Secret moved away from D&D in important ways.
Merle Rasmussen, tasked with creating Top Secret in that pre-Cthulhoid era, was innovative in many ways. The game has character classes (Assassins, Confiscators, Investigators), but these classes have limited relevance: they simply dictate what sort of missions you get bonus XP for completing. You gain XP and level up, but levels don't shape the game in a big way either: you gain Trait-boosts for XP as you earn it, so all hitting a level milestone means is that you gain another 'I'm not dead after all!' Fame Point.
Traits are rolled on modernist d100s, with bonuses to ensure PCs are of heroic stature, then you calculate a bunch of secondary and tertiary Traits from these, including your Life Levels (HP). No, you don't gain Life Levels by going up levels, but from raising your core Traits with XP, causing the benefits to trickle down to derived scores like Life Levels.
You get $400 and an equipment list to spend it on. The cool (i.e. deadly) guns and stuff are too pricey for beginning characters. So D&D.
So SO 1980.
Also "so D&D" is the focus on loot. You get paid money as well as XP for each mission that you do. In a way, this makes your rather more like mercs than spies. For example, a mugging is worth 100 XP and $50. An Assassin would get a +100 XP and +$25 bureau bonus. XP awards are divided by your level - so a 2nd level Assassin would claim 100 XP. Money awards are multiplied by your level, the target's level and a d10, so a 2nd level Assassin mugging a 3rd level NPC claims $450 multiplied by a d10. Yes, that's the difference levels make: loadsamoney. Money that you spend on guns and bombs and sports cars and gadgets.
Most of the rulebook is taken up with combat, also so D&D. Gunfights are pretty deadly, with a huge advantage to the person who shoots first. They're also slow to perform, with a lot of changing calculations based on how fast you're moving, how fast your target is moving, your accumulated recoil, the day of the week, and the last time you ate a cheeseburger. It's manageable, if you can do mental arithmetic, but THACO this is not.
Hand-to-hand combat is much more innovative, but no less ponderous. You choose your attack style (untrained, wrestling, boxing, judo, or martial arts). The attacker secretly selects an offensive tactic and possible a limb being used (left/right). The defender chooses two defensive tactics, possibly with limb choice. Reveal and compare on a big matrix. The defender chooses the better result for them, which might result in taking damage or escaping harm, gaining the advantage (and becoming the new attacker) or losing it, or possibly comparing Traits to see if someone has escaped.
It's certainly different and infinitely preferable to the 'grappling' rules in just about any iteration of D&D.
This system gives players interesting choices and exploits paying attention to whether your adversary is left-handed. It's adversarial, pitting GM directly against player - but that at least allows the GM to roleplay the NPC combatant's fighting style, perhaps choosing aggressive or timid manoeuvres rather than simply the optimal ones. It rarely involves any dice roles.
There are inconsistencies. 'Feint' just never seems to be an optimal tactic. It seems almost impossible to bring about a wrestling take-down if the opponent doesn't want to participate. There are no rules for how hand-held weapons alter the outcomes. There are no rules for how this 5-second-round system interacts with the 1-second-phase gunfire system. The assumption seems to be that either everyone is shooting or everyone is brawling, but shooting into a brawl, or trying a judo throw on a gunman, causes these two sets of mechanics to confront each other, stymied.
Interacting with NPCs is handled strangely. You compare your Trait with the NPC's Trait on a table and read off the result. For example, if you're trying to Fascinate someone and your Charm is 77 and their Charm is 34, the result is a one-third chance they will leave, a one-third chance they'll ask you to shut up, and a one-third chance they'll ask you to leave. Sounds like real life dating, for sure, but notice two things. First of all, your Traits have to be sky high before you can get a NPC to do a damn thing, and secondly the outcome is always the same, every time you interact in that way with that NPC.
Certainly, this can be better than the old D&D reaction check, that could result in harmless gnomes attacking you in a psychotic frenzy while Nazgul find themselves moved to be helpful. But it needs house ruling.
There are rules for sneak attacks and called shots, poison and deactivating security systems, surviving being executed and fencing stolen goods. What jumps out at you is that there's a different mechanic for everything. There's no movement towards a unified rules engine. So very D&D - and meanwhile, Call of Cthulhu is waiting in the wings with its tidy, rational 'Basic Roleplaying' architecture.
You could drive yourself mad trying to house rule a game like this. For one thing, there's a 2nd edition rules set that corrects some things but (so I hear) creates new inconsistencies. Then there's Top Secret/S.I., a 1987 root-and-branch reinvention by Douglas Niles which is, by all accounts, very good. So why not just use that?
The answer is simply that it's nostalgia I'm chasing here. Merle Rasmussen's 1st edition Top Secret was the game that broke my 14-year-old heart and this middle aged date is with that lady, not her easy-to-please younger cousin.
That's why I'm GMing Merle Rasmussen's impossible Sprechenhaltestelle module with 1st ed. rules, no matter how many house rules it takes!
It's a fixer-upper, like the Old Granville House.
The module that accompanied the rules has acquired a sort of legendary status. It sends a bunch of starting agents to the quirky Mitteleuropean town of Sprechenhaltestelle, a fictional waterfront district where just about everybody is some sort of spy.
I have a sequel in mind ...
Somewhere within Sprechenhaltestelle, two Soviet defectors are being held prisoner and your job is to find and free them. It's a sandbox spy adventure. It's an espionage dungeon crawl.
It also feels like a lovely place to stay. This is Talinn, BTW.
Merle Rasmussen used Mike Carr's seminal D&D module B1 (In Search of the Unknown) as a template. It really shows. A lot of the explanatory text is copy-pasted from that module, substituting 'agent' for 'adventurer' and advising players to write down a marching order. Another feature of B1 that Rasmussen adopts is the list of 'targets' (NPC antagonists) and 'object targets' (treasures) that the GM can choose to place at different locations. There is a map of Sprechenhaltestelle's surface and subterranean level. There's a rumours/legends table to roll on. There's a random encounter (wandering monster) table.
The town has over 100 NPCs scattered through it, but they are all known by code numbers, sometimes by occupation. For example, C6 runs the tailor's shop so he must be the tailor. None is given a name or a personality, but most of them move around, going to different locations at night. A table at the end assigns passcodes to half of them, indicating their membership of one or more factions that get briefly described. You have to figure out yourself what they're doing.
In other words, the module is itself a code to be cracked before it can be played. Thus, my adolescent confusion. Thus, also, a tendency to treat the module as a 'spy dungeon' in which a gang of armed PCs move round the map, bursting into properties, interrogating nameless NPCs at gunpoint or just straight-up shooting them, until they find the 'treasure' which is the kidnapped scientists.
I guess this means Europeans are orcs!
There's always been a sense among players that we weren't quite doing it right, that Merle Rasmussen had loaded plotlines into Sprechenhaltestelle implied by all these NPC codes and movements, but just neglected to explain them to anyone.
I came across a thread on RPGnet from ten years ago entitled Top Secret Module 001: Sprechenhaltestelle -- Analyzed [SPOILERS]. It blew my mind. It explained everything. Finally, finally, I thought I understood what was supposed to happen in that module.
So I repurchased a copy of Top Secret and approached the nice people on Facebook's Top Secret RPG Fanpage for advice. Then I set about prepping the module.
This is where the madness began.
Because the RPGnet thread was incomplete - and occasionally inconsistent with the text. So I started a deep dive into the module, drawing relationship schematics for every set of NPCs, proposing theories about their connections and motives, discarding those theories, then going back to my earlier theories, then dividing by the number I first thought of ....
What this left me with was a 100-page document called the Sprechenhaltestelle Companion, covering every NPC, every faction, every plot, and several different possible agendas for the big players. Because, you know what? It's not just a dungeon for spies. There's a detailed conspiracy going on that's dynamic and responsive to the players' choices. What I'm saying is, whatever the shortcomings of the Top Secret rules, Sprechenhaltestelle is an incredibly sophisticated scenario.
Click the image to go to my Top Secret page and download the file.
All of which is to say that I'm finally in a position to fulfil that boyhood dream of GMing Top Secret and the daunting Sprechenhaltestelle module like a PROPER GROWN UP.
Four players have created agents. We're three sessions in. The PCs have had their first mass shooting. It's great fun: atmospheric, tantalising, dynamic, compelling. Even if the rules don't make as much sense as they should.
Ghost Hack was the first of my ventures into redesigning World of Darkness settings with Black Hack inspired mechanics.
I just discovered it had been reviewed on Amazon - and what a fantastic review!
Click the image above to go straight to the product page
As Pete Dee says, Ghost Hack needs to get a better package - something combining rules and expansion material into a single volume, with a hard cover option.
While I'm at it, I can redraft the rules to bring them into alignment with Vampyre Hack and Magus Hack.
This is the beginning of the World of Hackness!
Hot on the heels of The Vampyre Hack (see blogs passim, such as here) comes its unholy spawn, a rather dense supplement covering mortals and almost-mortals that serve, traffic with, and hunt down the undead.
The dynamic cover is ‘All Hope Is Lost’ © Gary Dupuis. The book is available as PDF from drivethrurpg or physical copies from Amazon.
Like most sprawling endeavours, this book started as a modest project to provide some rules for human Witch-hunters, either as more developed antagonists or as Player Characters battling against NPC vampyres. But then I added in more detailed rules on the Familiars that serve vampyres ... and then I thought I ought to cover the half-vampyric Dhampirs who are born with vampyre blood in them ... well, I got carried away.
I'll take this promotional blog as a chance to indulge in a bit more critical nostalgia about Vampire: the Masquerade in the 1990s, the directions it took, and the various ways I've stuck with or departed from that template.
Ghouls Just Wanna Have Fun
Ghouls were there in 1991, in the original V:tM rules set. They are humans given a sort of provisional immortality and a bit of a strength boost by feeding on vampire blood. If the immortality and the strength isn't enough of a motivation, they're usually victims of the Blood Bond, making them devoted slaves of the vampire that feeds them. You can use the background dots in Retainers to represent these guards and flunkies, a convention which established an anonymity about them which endured right through the product line. Subsequent expansions developed the vampire Clans massively, but never really got to grips with Ghouls, who surely outnumber actual vampires by orders of magnitude and were pretty essential for their functioning and safety.
Ghouls: Fatal Addiction came along in 1997 to set things straight. The book was part of the Year of the Ally series, focusing on the sidekicks in all the World of Darkness games at that time. Its cover and interior art drew heavily on BDSM themes, making it feel like a release from the company's Black Dog imprint, specialising in mature themes.
It's been replaced by similar supplements for later editions, but the original is still on driverthru in all its kinky glory.
Ghouls:FA leans pretty hard into the idea of Ghoul-dom as soul-crushing addiction and debasing submission. The supplement actually has a lot of neat rules for Ghoul characters of different sorts, including settling lots of questions about the nuts and bolts of feeding on vampire blood and the effects of withdrawal.
The only catch is that the theme of sexual fetish running through the art and a lot of the fluff fiction rather distracts from its purpose. What was needed was a book looking at Ghouls across the vampire world and the uses different Clans find for them. Instead, there's a rather relentless focus on sexual and kinky motivations, to the point of making you wonder whether the authors are venting some personal issues.
Guy Davis' art is GREAT, but if your PC's Ghoul is a snooty cordon bleu chef or a garrulous taxi driver named Frank, you might wonder what all the leather and rubber is for.
Making the Revenant Relevant & Resonant
While the poor old Ghouls were being debased, another concept was emerging from the margins of the World of Darkness. A rather controversial supplement called Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand (1994) introduced the idea of Revenants, which are humans born to Ghoul parents and granted long life and supernatural powers by the vampire blood in their veins.
Yes, 'Revenants' is a bit of a stupid word for this sort of creature, since they haven't died and come back to life again. It's an odd misstep for White Wolf, who were normally so inspired in their naming conventions. But then, DSofBH is full of missteps and Revenants are among the few concepts introduced in that book to be adopted widely.
DSotBH introduced three Revenant families bred by the Tzimisce vampires to serve the Black Hand: Enrathi child-snatchers, Marijava spies, and Rafastio witches. Ghouls:FA introduced a few more that serve the wider Sabbat: monster-wrangling Bratoviches, mortal-manipulating Grimaldis, scholarly Obertus, and party animal Zantosas. Other splatbooks, especially for Tzimisce, added many more - and the Tremere get their own Revenants, the wizardly Ducheski.
There's no doubt that Revenants are a significant addition to the World of Darkness setting, shifting it away from 'real world with vampires in it' into a dystopia infested with half-human collaborators practising abduction, murder, and exploitation on a grand scale. Your mileage probably varies with this sort of thing. It's part of the mid-'90s 'Vampions' phase of the game where everything got lurid and nihilistic and the 1st edition's rather gentle and melancholic moral tone was binned.
The designers seemed a bit ambivalent about Revenants. Perhaps aware of how their presence in a game could destabilise the power politics of the World of Darkness, they took pains to point out how most Revenant families survived only in remote parts of the world (this was the '90s: Eastern Europe or Central Asia might as well have been Oz) or worked solely for the Tzimisce, with their parochial Balkan obsessions.
Vampire Hunting: what a difference a decade makes
In 1992 there was a delightful supplement for 1st edition V:tM called The Hunters Hunted which took the idea of mortal vampire hunters and turned them into player character options.
Covers are so revealing, don't you think? Janet Aulisio's cover art for the 1992 original is full of atmosphere, as a geeky squad of amateur hunters peer by flashlight into a cellar, clutching their tomes of lore, stakes and a mallet. What's down there? Dare they descend? Will they ever come out again? By contrast the 2013 edition shows a bunch of dudes straight up staking a vampire on the floor. Something subtle has been lost along the way ...
Hunters Hunted is maligned as a flimsy document that lacks ambition. It sets out motives for vampire hunting, gives some equipment and a few templates, and describes some organisations that hunt vampires, like the governmental NSA and CDC and the occultist Arcanum. It introduced the idea of 'Numina' or minor magical gifts, including the power of True Faith hinted at in the original rulebook and paths of 'Thaumaturgy' for mortals that were later re-branded as Hedge Magic.
The main thing the book offers is a ton of theme and sensibility. Predating the cosmic scope of the later World of Darkness, it describes a setting in which vampires are the main - or possibly the only - supernatural threat and Hunters go after them armed with chutzpah and solid brass balls and not much else.
Contrast 1999's release, with Hunters getting their own standalone game Hunter: the Reckoning. By the end of the '90s, the night has become a crowded place and Power Creep is well under way. Vampires are by now assisted by Ghouls in gimp suits and veritable armies of Revenants, not to mention all those Level 6+ Disciplines. New-look Hunters are called 'the Imbued' and they are honest-to-goodness superheroes with magic powers. Yup, that's where the game line ended up.
So, what went wrong?
In a sense, nothing went wrong. Vampire: the Masquerade was incredibly successful. It went from a little indie project to a world straddling publishing phenomenon, with spin off TV shows, card games, and video games. It beefed up, put on some muscle, lost its shyness, gained some swagger. The original themes of moral struggle and redemption got sidelined, in favour of horror, epic sweep, and Nietzschean bombast.
It was following the fans in all of this. People got the game they wanted, which wasn't quite the same as they game they were originally pitched.
The 1st edition rules had a story serialised in the illustrations, in which a a family man turned into a vampire by a seductive lover at a 'Midnight Michelangelo' exhibit finds the resolve to confront his creator and win back his humanity. Later editions abandoned this sort of sentimentality, in favour of torture-porn dominatrices and inhuman spiritual paths. Each to their own, but the later iterations of Vampire struck me as coarser than its first expression, for all that the setting became crowded, louder, more violent, and more dazzlingly diverse. There's a metaphor there, for postmodernism, or growing up, or something.
Expanding the Vampyre Hack
This book took a lot of writing. The Vampyre Hack adopted the framework of Matthew Skail's excellent Blood Hack and adapted it to thinly-disguised pastiches of the 'Classic 7' vampire clans from V:tM. It pretty much wrote itself. Bride of the Vampyre Hack was a bit more innovative, playing fast and loose with the independent and Sabbat Clans introduced in later V:tM supplements. More novelties required more thought, but the templates were still there to lean on.
Both are on drivethru (click images for links) and as a bundle, while there's a complete physical edition called Tomb of the Vampyre Hack on Amazon.
Spawn of the Vampyre Hack goes a lot further from the source material. First off all, there's a bunch of rules for mortals. Mortals can only get to 5th Level, they have to choose between increasing their Usage Dice or getting useful Talents, they suffer Hunger and Exhaustion and more formidable Out of Action (OofA) penalties. They're flimsy.
Let's start with Familiars (aka Ghouls). In V:tM, any vampire can turn a human into a Ghoul. In Vampyre Hack, you need a Greater Blood Gift to do this or a Rank 2 Goetic Spell. Starting characters could recruit a single Familiar via a Lesser Blood Gift - and the lordly Sangrali can create Familiars for free as their class ability - but Familiars are generally rarer and a bit more precious as a commodity. They are an investment.
You're also restricted to managing no more than one Familiar per level you have (twice that for Sangrali) which makes it important to choose them carefully. There will still be vampyres out there whose Familiars are sex toys, but the rules make you choose between such self-indulgence and more practical concerns.
Of course, any vampyre can bind mortals to him using the Sanguine Fetter (i.e. blood bond) but Fettered mortals don't become Familiars: they still age, they don't get super powers, it's just not as useful.
Out of your general pool (or Paddock) of Familiars, one is your adjutant, known as your Grimalkin. This Familiar is a cut above the rest: you've imbued her with your essence, she goes up in levels with you and acquires more powerful Blood Gifts. Grimalkins get the player character treatment.
A Talent available to some Familiars is Unfettered, which weakens the Sanguine Fetter, allowing PC Grimalkins a measure of independence. It also explains the existence of Gallowglasses, who are Rogue Familiars struggling to preserve themselves by working for payment in vampyre blood. Alchemical Talents enable them to avoid the Sanguine Fetter by making blood donations last longer or even removing the enslaving effects.
Familiars at 1st and 2nd Level can hold their own against a vampyre of the same level, but even with the extra powers that kick in at 3rd-5th Level, vampyres start to pull away.
Then there are the other Familiars that don't have it so easy.
Blajini are the malformed creatures that higher level Zoltan vampyres create with their flesh-warping. They struggle to pass for human, but at least they aren't usually Fettered.
Strega vampyres can't create Familiars with their blood and few of them know Goetic magic, but they summon ghosts and place them into corpses and their Zombies serve many of the same functions. Of course, the ghost has its own memories, attachments, and agenda, and the rules encourage Zombies to pursue a side hustle of dealing with the issues they died without fixing.
Chorazin vampyres use Goetia to create Golems and Flesh Golems make tank-y alternatives to Familiars. Once again, the brain sourced for the Golem preserves fragmentary memories and desires from when it was alive, which PC Golems can fulfil when their masters aren't watching.
Un-persons are the soulless victims of the Unlife that higher level Rakasha vampyres manipulate. It's not much fun playing one of these, but how about playing all of them? The Bhuta is the collective intelligence of the Un-persons serving a vampyre and it switches its consciousness between bodies in order to pursue its Weird - an alien agenda that the vampyre had better not find out about.
Unfamiliars are an exotic option for experienced roleplayers, especially as they are hiding not just from humanity, but concealing their independence and intentions from their own vampyre masters.
Dhampirs are what Revenants should have been called (though, to be fair, the World of Darkness applies the term to a different type of creature).
Since Familiars and Unfamiliars can't beget life, something very odd has to happen for one of them to conceive a child who will be born with vampyre blood.
I set about concocting reasons why this might happen. For example, the Ajakavas have their foetal soul replaced by a ghost thanks to necromancer and are born 'possessed' while the Grosvenors are descended from werewolves whose vitality overcomes the poisonous vampyre blood in their parent's body; Czernobogi are made fertile by a cthonic ritual in a sacred grotto while Harpagons have literally made a deal with a devil; the all-female Nafarroa have used their witchcraft to remain fruitful while the alchemist Darzis use potions. The Fae-touched Duvaliers, werecat Nunda, and leprous Jahangirs have similar backstories.
Dhampirs are split between the Vassal Lineages who work directly for vampyres and the Mercenary Lineages who manage a degree of independence, selling their services without committing themselves.
What I'm trying to do here is build the idea of Dhampirs existing independently (albeit very contingently) from vampyres. Part way between humans and the undead, they're a 'third force' in the setting, albeit a weak and disunited one. They function as powerful enforcers for the vampyric 'hegemon', but also potential allies PCs can go to that won't automatically turn the in to the Elders. They're not liminal figures like V:tM's Revenants, but they're independent and unreliable, and as likely to be the targets of vampyric plots as the instruments employed by them..
Here are the Hunters that this supplement was supposed to be all about in the first place.
There's a bunch of mortal character classes, like Clergy, Psychics, Shamans, Techies, and Special Agents that cover the broad templates from Hunters Hunted. The Fanatics and Paragons are a bit more like the 'Imbued' from Hunter: the Reckoning, since they are mortals whose life-changing traumas or supernatural benefactors confer powerful abilities.
The Security Usage Die from Vampyre Hack is reinterpreted for hunting vampyres. You have to force the vampyre to roll Security by fulfilling investigative challenges until it shrinks and fully exhausts: then you've got him at your mercy. Yes, it'a a pretty clumsy system, but most of the time Players will roleplay their way to the showdown before the Die gets exhausted, which means a trap or ambush is in store.
What has Spawn of the Vampyre Hack got goin' on?
The Vampyre Hack is my part-apologetic, part-wistful, part-resentful love letter to Vampire: the Masquerade.
Partly, it's a fun project to reinterpret the clunky handfuls-of-dice 'Storyteller System' into a simpler, more intuitive D&D-style game.
Partly, it's a way to go back to vampire RPGs without the wider setting that V:tM acquired in the '90s, much of which I took issue with. It's a chance to approach the clans, lore, and institutions, like ghouls and revenants, afresh, saying to myself 'How would you rather this had developed?'
Partly, it's an original creation, saying, 'Isn't this a novel and intriguing way of doing vampire tribes and their various undead and semi-undead apparatchiks?'
TL:DR, Spawn of the Vampyre Hack concludes this project for the moment. I've got a scenario in mind and a solo rules set in development, but the old vampire itch has been scratched.
If you play Vampyre Hack, with or without its Spawn, let me know how it goes!
Next on the list, The Full Moon Hack, for werewolves and their ilk.
Two new additions to the Vampyre Hack family, bringing everything published so far together in one volume.
Tomb of the Vampyre Hack with lurid red interior and the budget 'Midnight Edition' in B&W throughout. The striking cover art is by John Blaszczyk.
I like selling on drivethrurpg but their interface for uploading books is ... unhelpful. Once I've mastered a software package like Affinity, I should be able to create softback and hardback options for drivethru, but until then it's PDF-only and you must go to Amazon for the physical editions. Amazon has a nice new budget colour option (which is why Vampyre Hack costs less than Magus Hack, until I get round to re-creating the old books with this new option). However, this option doesn't offer print-on-demand in Japan and Australia and it's still a bit pricey.
Which is why the Midnight Edition is here. It's the same as the standard Tomb of the Vampyre Hack, but it's all in Black & White which drives down the price.
What's next for the Vampyre Hack?
I'm working on a set of tables and mechanics for generating adventure outlines or running the game solo - meaning GM-and-one-player or GM-free, according to taste.
This sort of roll-your-adventure would be anathema to the designers of Vampire: the Masquerade, but it works pretty well for The Vampyre Hack, partly because it's core processes are indebted to D&D (classic 6 stats, levels, hit points) and partly because I've already outsourced some storytelling decisions to dice rolls, like the Security Die that exhausts and triggers a crisis or the vampyre demesnes (or 'Belfries') which are districts in each city with their own rules.
Inspiration for this comes from a rather lovely fantasy RPG called Scarlet Heroes by Kevin Crawford. It's a OSR game, but it's strayed a little further than most from the Original D&D template, not least in its setting, which is a South Asian archipelago blending Chinese and Japanese influences.
If OSR classics like Labyrinth Lord take their cue from D&D as it took shape in the early 1980s, then Scarlet Heroes is referencing a particularly fine AD&D sourcebook that reinterpreted the standard classes in a fantasy version of Asia: Oriental Adventures (1985) by David "Zeb" Cook.
If you're a fan of 1st edition AD&D, then OE is a must-have, particularly for the way it reinterprets the original D&D classes in a new context. Of course, here in 2023 it's all very problematic and culturally appropriated and so forth, which is why publisher Wizards now front-loads the product description with a hand-wringing disavowal - but hey, they have my respect because they're still making it available in unedited and unadulterated form. Try getting a copy of Agatha Christie or P.G. Wodehouse that's free of bien pensant tinkering by the publishers. But I digress!
Scarlet Heroes doesn't wade into those murky waters: it just presents a system for rollicking adventures in a fantasy Asian setting, with the emphasis on FANTASY. The monster bestiary is particularly vivid and unsettling, with great art and evocative names.
If there were enough days in the week and enough players to seat at my table, I'd happily run Scarlet Heroes. But here's the thing, I don't even need the players! Kevin Crawford wraps this slim book up with a fantastic set of tables for rolling up an adventure in a city, wilderness or dungeon - and then tops that by adding mechanics and tables for a solo adventure system.
It's simple and intuitive and I want to adapt it to modern cities and The Vampyre Hack. If you own VH, you'll know I've already gone a certain way down this path with tables for generating cities, campaign goals and story hooks and plots. The plan is to build that into a more complete system. Since it's a vampire RPG, there will have to be some elements besides just gathering clues, getting out of scrapes then having a big fight - there has to be a moral dilemma or an unexpected betrayal or a deep plot being revealed. But VH already has the basic mechanics for inserting these dramas.
These solo rules will go straight to drivethrurpg as pay-what-you want. Once they are done, it's time to publish a Vampyre Hack Module. Red Rain Falls is my working title for a three act scenario that should cover enough sessions to get a group of vampyre PCs up to 3rd or 4th level by the end.
Robert G. Male's cover illustration for the expansion just pops with ghoulish glee. You can find the Bride on drivethrurpg or a softback edition on Amazon.
When I was gripped by an urge to revisit 1990s Vampire: the Masquerade, I didn't want to buy back into its convoluted lore, multifarious Disciplines or Great Handfuls of Dice, much less its tired tropes about each Clan. I wanted an OSR-style approach, simple Classic-6 Stats, roll-a-d20 resolutions. I wanted the Black Hack's addictive exhausting die mechanic. I wanted Matthew Skail's Blood Hack RPG ... But then I had to adapt it to V:tM's broad outlines and it ended up becoming a game in its own right: the Vampyre Hack was born.
Still advocating for Matthew Skail's Blood Hack; my own Vampyre Hack is also on drivethrurpg or there's a softback/hardback on Amazon.
In the last blog, I shared some design notes for the planned expansion, inspired by where White Wolf went next with Vampire: the Masquerade in 1991. Four new vampire Clans arrived plus a fifth former-Clan, but they were all half baked. Each one of them has been revised several times over the decades, whereas the 'Classic Seven' Clans from Mark Rein-Hagen's original rules remain pretty much unaltered. In particular, it seems to me the decision to root these new Clans in (stereotypes about) real world ethnic groups and religion has been very problematic. It's a direction of travel I wanted to reverse with Bride of the Vampyre Hack.
Then, in 1992, there were more innovations.
The 1992 Players Guide to the Sabbat
If the 1991 Players Guide (PG) had been a bit of a disappointment, the following Players Guide to the Sabbat (PG-S) was a barnstorming tour-de-force. Up until now, the Sabbat had been a shadowy sect of vampire cannibals who didn't seem to care about restraining their humanity or hiding from humans - your classic Big Bad Evil Guys in any campaign. Now here they were as player character options - with a Sabbat chronicle now very much an option too.
For everything that felt half-baked, wishy-washy or clichéd in the PG, there was something developed, sharply realised and wildly imaginative in the PG-S. Not that Vampire needed revitalising, but PG-S was that brilliant third album after a sophomore slump - like Blondie's Parallel Lines.
One of these things is just like the other one
Lasombra and Tzimisce
At the core of what PG-S offered was a pair of new Clans. The Lasombra are shadow-wielding puppetmasters and the Tzimisce (how we anguished over the pronunciation!) are flesh-warping sociopaths.
The contrast between this pair and the lacklustre efforts in the PG cannot be understated. Although not rooted in anything (to my knowledge) in real-world vampire folklore or horror movies, these two Clans immediately made themselves at home in the game's legendarium. Unlike the hokey Assamites or Ravnos, these two felt archetypal not stereotypical. Like the Classic Seven, they've been extensively added to since then, but not revised in their core concept.
Moreover, although taking some flavour from the real world regions (Tzimisce are pagan demonists from the Balkans) and cultures (Lasombra are parodies of Roman Catholic aesthetics), they're not boringly reductive in the way that Setites and Giovanni were.
Fans loved them - and still do. I bet, if someone took a global poll of Vampire players and asked for their favourite Clan, Tzimisce and Lasombra would take the top two positions, and by a clear margin.
In hindsight, there were problems brewing. The designers clearly had an urge to tie vampire Clans in with real world cultures and kept pushing Tzimisce in the direction of being literal Transylvanians. They couldn't make their minds up about the weird Sci-Fi horror Discipline of Vicissitude - infamously, a later supplement suggested it was an alien parasite from another dimension. A goofy mis-call, but understandable because Vicissitude just didn't seem to fit with the other vampiric powers (it was always hard to imagine a non-Tzimisce learning it).
A related issue, though in itself a nice touch, was adding a Derangement discipline for Malkavians. In hindsight, should have been their gig from the outset - though it raises the issue of why this Discipline should be available to any other Clan? Really, it's a class ability, not a generic power that this type of vampire happens to excel at.
Meanwhile, the connection between the Sabbat generally and Lasombra in particular with Latin America hasn't aged well. It's a barely-coded phobic reaction to Hispanic immigration into the USA with some derogatory tropes about Mexico and Catholicism for good measure. Spain now joins Italy as a country that, in the World of Darkness at any rate, is basically just an exporter of vampires. But all that was for later editions to clear up.
My problem is more with the moral direction the game took. Mark Rein-Hagen's original rules (released only a year earlier but now already outdated and replaced by a 2nd edition in 1992) emphasised the tragedy of vampiric existence: 'a beast I am lest beast I become' was his catchphrase and the tone was elegiac and despairing. The PG-S ushered in a new 'Vampions' style of play, where PCs exulted in their monstrous natures or else acted like amoral nocturnal superheroes. Lasombra and Tzimisce and the wider exploration of the Sabbat's ideology didn't create this drift, but it certainly intensified it. The new catchphrase felt like: 'my monster's cooler than yours!'
The 1992 Storytellers Handbook
I remember valuing the Storytellers Handbook (SHB) at the time, since it offered lots of advice (and a few clarifying worksheets) for designing settings and supervising political intrigues. It also marked what I think was the last appearance of the suggestion that vampires could regain their humanity by killing their creators and the first of many revisions of the game's clunky and imprecise combat system. It also developed the World of Darkness by providing stats for werewolves, magi, ghosts, faeries, demons, and mummies.
Since a lot of this content went on to get its own bespoke game (Werewolf: the Apocalypse came out that same busy year!), the SHB now functions as a sort of roleplaying time capsule, preserving a window into the state of the game before the now-famous wider setting emerged.
But it's lasting contributions were two new Bloodlines and their signature disciplines: the flying Gargoyles and the demon-worshipping Baali. Both were clearly signposted as being NPC-only propositions: the Gargoyles because they were a slave-race for the wizardly Tremere and the Baali because they were just cartoonishly evil.
I never really understood why the Gargoyles needed to be vampires at all. In the Bride of the Vampire Hack, they're Golems, as they always should have been.
The introduction of the Baali brings me back to V:tM's recurring vice. Mark Rein-Hagen creates a game in which everyone is a monster but also no one is: every vampire is a tragic figure, locked into bestial behaviour by her own physiology and the toxic political structure that such physiology creates. The design team almost immediately bins that notion by making irredeemably evil vampires a playable option within the Sabbat and introducing first one (the Setites) and now two vampire factions that literally worship Evil.
In fact, the following year, Chaos Factor was published: a cross-over scenario for Vampire, Werewolf and Mage which was pretty much the template for the 'Vampions' style of play and featured a Baali 'Methuselah' as its ultimate Boss Fight. These trends are not unrelated!
Ahhh, Sam Haight - a ghoul who became a werewolf who became a mage. They always reassure you not to worry, it'll never happen, then immediately it does.
What's the Bride's take on this?
Writing the Vampyre Hack involved a straightforward adaptation of the 'Classic Seven' Clans into Blood Hack style Tribes. Only la Tribu Dullahan represent a real step away from the Malkavian template, offering a mystically divided personality instead of a vague and problematic 'just roleplay crazy.'
Bride of the Vampyre Hack tackles the later Clans and the last blog covered the independents, known here as les Tribus Dévouées for their devotion to the Blood Gods. Incidentally, Vampyre Hack enables me to downplay V:tM's role for Antediluvians, leaving it unknown whether the 'Blood Gods' are really vampyres and whether they founded particular Tribes.
One benefit of the Hack approach emerges straight away. By treating Tribes as character classes, the clumsy one-note Disciplines get abolished in favour of a broad selection of Blood Gifts available to all vampyres. Now, class-based abilities give each Tribe its distinctiveness.
For example, Tzimisce become la Tribu Zoltan. Instead of creating a bunch of vicissitude-style Blood Gifts, the Tribe gets a flesh-warping class ability the starts off small (granting extra eyes, shaping claws or scaly hides) and grows into merging bodies together to make monstrosities.
The Zoltanok have the predictable curse that they must rest in their grave earth, but I've gone a bit further with this, giving them a Frenzy triggered by crossing running water and a connection to the land that can make them unlikely allies of environmentalists.
The Tzimisce pic from the 1998 Revised Edition [left] really captured their weirdness, but 1996's Vampire: Dark Ages [right] got the Transylvania vibe - l felt the newer Clans were served better by the Dark Ages setting than the modern one
Meanwhile la Tribu Rakasha has a shadow manipulation ability that improves as they go up levels. They open rifts to a dimension known as the Unlife, the influence of which starts to corrupt any place they spend time in, including turning humans into black-eyed Un-people that serve as the Rakashas' familiars, but probably have an agenda of their own. Ultimately, Rakashas fear the Unlife will consume them.
Rakashas don't cast visual reflections, same as Lasombra, but I've given them the rest condition of being in absolute darkness, since my Lamias (Setites) no longer have that link to being in darkness - which always struck me as overlapping with Lasombra in the first place.
Molechim are my Baali analogues. I've decided to make them a barely/kind-of playable option. They're demon-possessed, but the human persona still clings on and the two struggle for control. While the demon is in sole charge, it goes about a villainous agenda to identify a special victim, corrupt them and then turn them into a Molech. The human persona can frustrate this agenda. Yes, it means there are periods where you can't fully control your own character, but it's got a tragic arc to it that I like.
The general tenor of this is that these Tribes are not objectively horrible, but they are tragic and doomed. You can still play them as cool edgelords if that's your thing: Zoltan can be cackling Tzimisce and Rakasha the preening Lasombra, while Molech fits the bill for vampyre diabolist. I just like to think I've put a bit of mystery and ambiguity back into them.
The intent is that these Tribes should often end up acting just like the V:tM Clans, but the reasons offered are a bit more open and interesting. For example, the Lamias (Setites) sponsor gang violence, drugs and sex trafficking, but do so because the want to bring down a social order they think is horrific for humans and vampyres. The nuance is their new weakness: they become besotted with anyone they feed from, so if they provoke a gang war in a neighbourhood, there's a mortal they must protect from the consequences of their own actions at all cost. Love and hate are part of their package; they don't just worship Evil.
What other secrets is the Bride keeping?
Like most RPG expansions, the main order of business is Lots More Stuff.
The Coven are my ersatz Sabbat and there are rules for their unusual version of the Sanguine Fetter. I'm dialling back their inhuman horrible-ness - or at least, allowing GMs to make what they like of it, rather than baking it in. Vampyre Hack doesn't have a 'hierarchy of sins' but it does have the idea of a moral code, whereby you're spared making a Corruption check for somethings in return for making extra checks for others. Coven vampyres don't feel bad about mistreating humans but they do get corrupted if they betray, let down or disobey the Coven.
There's a lot more Blood Gifts and Spells, including Necromantic Spells for the Stregas - but which other vampyres can learn if they pick up the Necromancer Elder Blood Gift.
I give cities a lot of consideration, with some tables for random city generation if you want to build a game that way. Vampyres call their power bases in a city demesnes, but I figure the younger vamps are irreverent and call them 'Belfries.' There are rules for a dozen different Belfries, the dangers they pose, the benefits you can claim in them and special Exposure Crisis tables for reach one, to replace the generic table in the core rules.
The Security Die mechanic from The Vampyre Hack gets a revision, incorporating the idea of Heat building up from adventure to adventure. The Security Die is a sort of wandering monster check that also represents the efforts by your enemies to cause trouble for you. Once it exhausts to zero, you have an Exposure Crisis, which might be a threat or an attack or the appearance of Witch-hunters who've been tipped off about you.
Favours and Duties represent the help you can call in from grateful Elders or the chores those Elders might give you out of the blue. This is tied in to the job of maintaining the Charade that keeps mortals (largely, somehow) unaware of the undead. Favours can be leveraged for rumours or traded at the Rialto, which is the Belfry ruled by the arty Messalines.
Each Tribe gets a section on its culture, with a focus on Beloveds and Ensigns. Beloved are the people vampyres feel irrational drawn to and obsessed with turning into vampyres too, triggering a centuries long obsessive relationship. Ensigns are people turned into vampyres for more practical reasons: they have valuable skills or resources that the undead want the use of. Players need to decide which type of vampyre they are and roll or choose the type of NPC who will one day be their Beloved ...
It's been a minor labour of love. While Vampyre Hack just delivered V:tM-as-D&D without too many deviations, Bride goes a lot further when it departs from its source and ends up being (I suggest to you) a different and distinctive RPG.
She's on the way ...
The expansion to the Vampyre Hack (with bangin' cover art by Robert G. Male) will feature 8 new undead Tribes and a bunch of other stuff to make OSR Vampyres fun again
The Vampyre Hack has been an unexpected success so far - and see here for more information on modern vampires through the lens of a Hack-style Old School RPG. Ahead of this companion volume being released, I thought I'd share design notes on the new Tribes - especially as it's an opportunity to reminisce and critically reflect on the directions Vampire: the Masquerade took in the early 1990s.
1991: The Players Guide
Hot on the heels of the revolutionary Vampire: the Masquerade came the Players Guide. It was clearly more of a team project than Mark Rein-Hagen auteur-like approach to the core rules. Here were (excellent) essays by the likes of Stuart Wieck, David Greenburg, Andrew Greenberg and Sam Chupp.
There were also four new 'independent' (i.e. non-Camarilla) Clans and a former Clan reduced to a Bloodline. And this is where the rot set in. Rein-Hagen's 'classic seven' vampire Clans were templates for a huge variety of character types. They were archetypes rather than stereotypes. The same could not be said of the new bunch - nor were their powers and weaknesses as well thought out.
Even if you were happy with the assassin stereotype, the signature Quietus Discipline felt undercooked: a one-note series of 'poisonous blood' abilities that weren't particularly powerful or versatile.
Over the next decade, Assamites went through a huge number of alterations. Their blood curse was abolished. They were given magical spells. They were reinterpreted as pious Muslims. Consultants were employed to get the Arabic terminology right. They were renamed the Banu Haqim.
Much less problematic, you'll agree, but (whisper it) kind of boring. The Banu Haqim have been reimagined as a nice Clan of Camarilla-friendly Muslims, with no villainous streaks and whose main weakness is that people tend to vilify them unjustly because of their stained auras. Great for representation but no longer fizzing with dramatic possibilities.
Followers of Set
As with the Assamites, there have been repeated revisions trying to water down the implication that African vampires are just plain evil. These days they're known as 'the Ministry' and model themselves on slick televangelists, with the idea that Set is symbolic for the friends we screw over along the way.
Never mind the implied racism, my real problem is that V:tM never needed a Clan devoted to philosophical evil. The whole point of Rein-Hagen's original premise was that being a vampire was in itself enough to produce monsters: the Beast inside, the cannibalistic social structure, the enslaving Blood Bond, the paranoia of Elders, the frustration of the Neonates, the corrosive effect of the passing centuries on conscience and empathy. There's no shortage of reasons why a group of vampires might be The Bad Guys without having to make them worship a God of Evil.
The Giovanni are necromancers who all belong to the same Mafia-like Italian family.
Giovanni got a lot of development, with a series of published scenarios exploring how a Renaissance cabal of Venetian necromancers cannibalised an Antediluvian to acquire Clan status. Plus, their ghost-wrangling powers tied in with the forthcoming Wraith: the Oblivion product line.
All of which is great, except for two things. Having to be some sort of Italian mobster was a bit limiting for Player Character concepts. And the idea of late Medieval wizards cannibalising a snoozing Antediluvian to steal immortality had already been done with the Tremere. The overlap became even more pronounced when the Necromancy Discipline was replaced with a collection of magical Paths and rituals, very much along the Tremere template.
Since then, the Giovanni have been reinterpreted as the Hecata, a sort of umbrella Clan of necromancer-vampires, with the cannibal Giovanni just one branch. Definitely better for player choice and diversity, but even more lacking in real distinctiveness.
To be fair, I quite enjoyed the directions they took Ravnos in and, unlike the Assamites, they never made them boring. But when White Wolf started their apocalyptic 'Gehenna' storyline in the late '90s and one Clan was slated to be destroyed, it came as no surprise that it was the under-loved Ravnos. Yes, during the 'Week of Nightmares' the entire Clan turned on each other in a cannibalistic orgy then their newly-awakened Antediluvian got nuked. Subsequent editions of V:tM were able to approach the Clan with a clean slate. That's a hell of a way to 'Year Zero' a problematic concept.
Not much else about the Salubri makes sense. It's ironic that, like the other Players Guide Clans, they're not really suitable for Players. They're Plot Hook NPCs in peril, to be protected or hunted by the PCs. The idea that the Tremere could exterminate the entire Clan and turn all the other vampires against the survivors strains belief. Sure, maybe inside the Camarilla this prejudice against Salubri would become normative - after all, recognising the Tremere as a legitimate Clan sort of implies de-legitimising the Salubri as heirs to the original Clan founder. But outside the Camarilla (i.e. throughout most of the world) there's no reason the Tremere's writ should run. Why wouldn't the Assamites, who hate the Tremere, make a point of sheltering Salubri?
The developers tried to fix this by taking the Salubri in different directions: creating a martial kick-ass variant, making their blood so tasty that other vampires can't resist cannibalising them, making their bleeding Third Eye a perpetual threat to Masquerade, all sorts of muddled things. The consensus view remains that they're only good as NPCs.
New Tribes, Vampyre-style
The Vampyre Hack introduced les Tribus Éternelles – seven Tribes including the hideous Karnsteins, lordly Sangrali and hedonistic Messalines, all very much drawn from Rein-Hagen's archetypal clans but re-orientated for a simple D&D-inspired system of 6 Stats, character classes, levels, hit points and David Black's ingenious exhausting usage dice.
For Bride of the Vampyre Hack I made a decision that all the Tribes would be global affairs, not regional powerbases or ethnic enclaves. The new Tribes are not defined by race or religion.
I’ve called four new Tribes les Tribus Dévouées, which means ‘the Dedicated Tribes.’ This is because they are all locked into some sort of relationship with the Blood God they believe to be their founder, as opposed to the Tribus Éternelles who believe they are independent of the Blood Gods and look instead to their Elders and Voivods for authority.
The name is a Persian Zoroastrian term for an infidel. These are my rebranded Assamites and I want to link them historically to Persia – specifically ancient, pre-Islamic Persia - but the Tribe is now global and not linked to any particular Middle Eastern religion.
The Juddin believe they are serving their Blood God and his strict code that all vampyres should live peacefully together and separately from humans. They see themselves as the police of the undead world. Since a lot of their laws are rather subjective in interpretation, they rely on oracles to reveal their Blood God’s wishes. PC Juddin start each adventure with a randomly rolled mission - they have to watch out for a vampyre (or any supernatural creature) doing a particular forbidden thing, like abusing humans' freewill or ruling over mortals openly or disrespecting the Elders. Then they have to work out what to do about it - and if they're too lax, they will be targeted in their turn by a Juddin hit squad.
Juddin as a character class get magical silence for free - and a dramatic version that makes them utterly inaudible at all times unless they choose otherwise, including detection by motion sensors or microphones. Their poisonous blood gets more toxic as they go up in levels.
Jakhalò is a Romani term for the 'evil eye' but these vampyres aren't Romani. They're a Tribe whose Blood Goddess was an explorer of the Otherworld but came back changed - perhaps possessed or replaced by a doppelganger. She's been hunting her creations down and exterminating them, so the Jakhalos are a Tribe on the run from an all-powerful enemy they call Dya Milo ('Mother Vampyre'). Around the time of the fall of Rome, the last remnants of the Jakhalos hid themselves among a nomadic people making their way across Asia. At around this time, Dya Milo's relentless assaults stopped. The Tribe enjoyed a thousand years of safety, known as the Disrobireja ('the Liberation'). The Jakhalos felt a debt towards the Romani people who had (unwittingly) sheltered them - a feeling not widely reciprocated.
Jakhalos are not Romani, but they are wanderers and fugitives who must change their Lair regularly or risk being exterminated. On the positive side, they can create illusions that increase n scale as they go up levels.
Lamia was a monster from Greek mythology that was located in Libya - the Greek term for Africa generally. Their Blood Goddess promotes a radical philosophy that humans and vampyres are both part of the natural order and ought to be partners. She broke with the other Tribes at the start of human civilisation. Her Tribe uses use the term 'the Ziggurat' to refer to the whole corrupt structure of urban living, with its oppressive hierarchies and predator-prey relationships. They want to tear it down but not because they love anarchy or misery but because they want humans and vampyres to be happy and fulfilled. In the 21st century, they're allies of degrowth, rewilding, population reduction and other Green concerns but also work towards making cities as unbearable as possible.
Lamias can perceive weakness in any structure, social group or person and exploit it ruthlessly. They also turn into snakes and their snaky powers increase as they go up in levels.
These are the undead necromancers but with a new twist. Their Blood God now exists in the Underworld of ghosts and wants his Tribe to join him there. Special humans who die and return to life again come back with the Sigil of Strega on them visible only to Strega vampyres. When a marked mortal dies, they rise from the grave as a vampyre. Stregas seek out the bearers of these marks to hasten their second demise (ideally with but alternatively without the mortal's consent) and induct them into the Tribe.
This unusual way of growing their populations makes up for Stregas having 'dead blood' that cannot create vampyres or Familiars or Sanguine Fetters. Their other compensation is their own Streghani Blood Magic which uses ghosts to accomplish the things they cannot.
Arioch is a mysterious Old Testament king, but also the name of a demon and a Chaos God in Michael Moorcock's 'Elric' novels. The Ariochites are the hated healers with the mystical Third Eye.
But here's the novelty. The Ariochites really do feed on souls and if they want to perform their miraculous healing they need to consume an entire soul. They can use this soul-energy to raise the dead - and that includes curing a vampyre.
You can imagine how threatening this makes them to Elder vampyres with lots of enemies who absolutely do not want to be turned back into a helpless human. Likewise, their ability to break the Sanguine Fetter undermines the power structures vampyres enjoy or endure. Best to exterminate them on sight and by calling them 'soul sucking monsters' you are not even lying.
Ariochites are one of les Tribus Perfides (the treacherous tribes) along with the demonist Molechim, of which more later.
Next blog will look at the Sabbat Clans and the demon-worshipping Baali, both from 1992
In the last blog I wrote about my nostalgia for the 1990s iteration of Vampire: the Masquerade and how I was experimenting with using Matthew Skail's The Blood Hack to replicate V:tM's setting without its handfuls of d10s and burdensome lore.
Then one thing led to another, as it does, and before I knew it, I seemed to have penned a new Hack-inspired RPG trans-cloning V:tM as an OSR project. Hello, The Vampyre Hack.
Ducks in a row! Click images for links to drivethrurpg editions. Vampyre Hack cover art by Wouter Florusse.
I've written a lot (like here and here) about my admiration for Matthew Skail's Blood Hack, so I had to think carefully about adapting it into a Hack of my own. Firstly, I don't want to cut into the chap's revenues or appropriate his ideas as my own. His innovation of the Morality Usage Die that gets bigger as it exhausts, meaning it grows quickly while it's a feeble little d6 or d8 but slows down as it turns into a monstrous d12 or d20 - that's just genius. His system for Blood Magic is very elegant and treating Blood as a usage die rather than a point pool, well that's inspired too.
One point of view would be, given my love for the game and, in the words of Cogsworth:
On the other hand, there are things Blood Hack is crying out for. Matthew Skail's game takes clear inspiration from V:tM but heads off in a different direction. It's not about angst and politics, it's about kicking supernatural ass in the middle of the night. There are only four clans and they are broad templates rather than factions or institutions. The setting imagines loose cabals of vampires scrapping with other denizens of the shadows rather than city-wide conspiracies. There are lots of typos and some of the rules Matthew has himself imported from other Hack rpgs are rather undigested.
But the main reason is that I want to run a '90s-style Vampire campaign, but using a rules set inspired by the Blood Hack. So I want the classic array of Clans - ugly Nosferatu, aesthetic Toreador, lunatic Malkavians, wizardly Tremere, etc. - and I want Princes and Masquerade and Ghouls and Diablerie.
This project started off as a Blood Hack expansion or supplement - just a few pages, really, saying "Here';s how you could port V:tM Clans into the Blood Hack." But once I started doing that all sorts of implications emerged and I found myself constructing something more like a brand new game.
Let me take you through it ...
Cloning or Contrasting?
The first Hack RPG I designed was a root-and-branch rethink of Wraith: the Oblivion, one of White Wolf's horror RPGs from the same stable as Vampire: the Masquerade. I never made my peace with Wraith, so the Ghost Hack was an opportunity to do Wraith as (I felt) it should have been done.
Among the new directions Ghost Hack took was making Wraiths vulnerable to iron and salt and I designed a scenario, Upon A Midnight Dreary, in which a team of ghost hunters secure a haunted house with strips of salt-encrusted tape along the walls and iron chains on doors. PC Ghosts find it difficult to move around unless they can influence the living to disrupt these barriers.
Matthew Skail similarly departs from the White Wolf playbook in Blood Hack: his vampires cast no reflections and don't even register on film, photographs or over telephone communication - rather like the wonderfully elusive vampires in the intense '90s UK TV series Ultraviolet.
Seriously, watch it. And yes, that's Idris Elba.
Likewise, Skail's vampires are vulnerable to silver and holy symbols generally - the more so as their Morality Usage Die gets larger. Meanwhile, vampiric 'Disciplines' get dropped and, other than the starting build mandated by your Clan/Class, your vampire can be designed with any powers you want.
Following this logic, I could have taken the Vampyre Hack down the same path, breaking away from the World of Darkness tropes and exploring vampires from a wider folkloric perspective. But on this occasion, I was more interested in creating an OSR analogue for Vampire: the Masquerade - in effect, a way of playing 90s-style V:tM with d20s, classic 6 stats and character classes.
Like I said, it's a retro-trans-clone.
What's in a Name?
Mark Rein-Hagen, the creator of Vampire: the Masquerade, has many talents, but not the least is his flair for evocative naming conventions. His undead secret society is the Camarilla (meaning a political clique, but with connotations of medieval Spanish cloisters) and vampiric cannibalism is Diablerie (a French word for mischief with heavy hints of Satanism). The vampire Clans Brujah (inspired by the Spanish for 'witch'), Gangrel (a Scots word for a vagrant) and Nosferatu (German for vampire) along with the fear-frenzy of Rötschreck (complete with unnecessary 'metal umlaut') show off his linguistic range, while the vampire ancients are Antediluvians and Methuselahs, highlighting Biblical erudition.
A clone RPG is going to feature 7 vampire lineages analogous to Rein-Hagen's Clans, vampiric cannibalism and an undead secret society. New names are important. No one wants "Generic Vampire Wizards" and "Arty Vampire Socialite Types."
In Vampyre Hack, there are 7 Tribes or 'les Tribus Éternelles,' so the best name for their ruling coalition is the Heptarchy - a delightful Greek word more commonly used to describe the 7 Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Dark Ages Britain. Sticking with Greek, vampiric cannibalism is Necrophagy, which is both horribly on-the-nose and slightly Shakespearean for 'eaters of the dead.'
Chorazin is a town cursed by Jesus in Matthew 11: 20-24. It's also referenced in M.R. James' unsettling vampire story Count Magnus (1904) where the Devil-worshipping Count makes a pilgrimage to the accursed town. It seems a fine name for a cabal of medieval wizards who have turned themselves into vampires, hence La Tribu Chorazin or the Chorazinites.
Leave the big coffin ALONE. The BBC did a fine TV adaptation of Count Magnus in 2022.
Rein-Hagen seems to have invented 'Malkavian' out of his own head, but I went to Celtic folklore to find the Dullahan. In Ireland, the Dubhlachan isn't so much a vampire as a headless horseman but it can be a goblin or evil spirit.
It's hard to get anything to match, never mind replace, 'Nosferatu' as the name for a clan of hideous vampires. I drew on Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla (1872), where Karnstein is the lineage of the titular vampiress. It's also the name given to a trilogy of Hammer Horror films (1970-71) so its vampire pedigree is impeccable.
Pleasures? Guilty as charged!
Valeria Messalina was the Emperor Claudius' 3rd wife. She had a reputation for promiscuity and cruelty and, after her grisly death, was sentenced to damnatio memoriae which means being erased from history. She is remembered today with notoriety: a 'Messalina' is a devious and sexually manipulative woman. La Tribu Messalina is my aesthetic sensualist vampyre lineage.
The happy couple: Sheila White as Messalina and Derek Jacobi as Claudius in 'I, Claudius' (1976)
Rein-Hagen seems to have invented 'Ventrue' for his undead aristocrats. It connotes 'vein' or perhaps 'vain' as well as 'true' - unless, of course, it's meant to refer to the 19th century Italian scientist Giovanni Ventruri. I'm going with the former, which is why I chose La Tribu Sangral for my lordly undead family. Yes, 'Sangral' means holy grail but 'Sang Real' means royal blood: I think self-absorbed vampire nobles would relish both meanings.
Tokoloshe is a goblin or demon from Zulu folklore - I went looking for an African name for the Brujah-analogues precisely because that continent was so ill-served by White Wolf in the 1990s - the only explicitly African Clan developed for their game is one devoted to philosophical evil and corruption. La Tribu Tokoloshe has been recast from inveterate troublemakers to a lineage of undead warriors.
Vukodlak is a Slavic vampire/werewolf hybrid, so that's an ideal name for the shapeshifting, wilderness-haunting and werewolf-inspired Tribe (never mind that it was also the name of the Final Boss in 2000's Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption).
Vive les différences
Vampyre Hack doesn't end up as an utter pastiche of V:tM, I'm glad to say. Some of the differences are the result of the Hack rules engine and a couple of Matthew Skail's distinctive innovations. For example, vampyres are made distinctive by their character class (i.e. Tribe) but after that they can learn any Blood Gifts they like and this includes Blood Gifts that qualify you to cast spells. Although Chorazin excels at Blood Magic, any vampyre can dabble in it.
Similarly, all vampyres take damage from sunlight, but those with a small Corruption Usage Die (renamed from Morality Die) only take ordinary damage and can stay active a few hours after sunrise or before sunset. As the Die gets bigger, sunlight starts to deal Grave Damage and you fall asleep at sunrise and don't wake up until after sunset. Similarly, holy symbols and consecrated ground start becoming a problem, but don't bother you while you are virtuous.
Likewise, virtuous vampyres only need to feed every two or three nights and just a drop of blood will do; more Corrupt vampires need to feed nightly.
Other differences are my own. In Rein-Hagen's Vampire: the Masquerade, any vampire can create a new vamp by feeding their blood to a corpse or use their blood to turn humans into tough but addicted henchmen called Ghouls. I thought it would be more interesting if these techniques weren't widely understood and have to be purchased as Blood Gifts - and duplicated using Blood Magic - with only the Sangrali getting to do so as an innate ability.
Other changes include making each vampyre Tribe have their own distinctive way of Frenzying, with the Messalines being enraptured by beauty whilst the Karnsteins are repulsed by their own reflections.
I've also introduced a Security Usage Die that represents how much protection or tolerance you have from the wider undead community. As the Die shrinks, your enemies get bolder and hitherto-neutral vampyres start to see you as a threat or an irritant. When it shrinks to zero, a threat manifests. I've got a nice table to prompt ideas - friends and loved ones get menaced, your Lair gets compromised, mooks turn up to fight you, ultimately you get Witch-Hunters or werewolf Lycans on your tail. Yes, it's a Wandering Monster mechanic by another name, but it helps promote the edgy, paranoid feel of a good Vampire RPG, especially as the Die shrinks when you fail CHA or INT tests around mortals or higher level vampyres. If you've drained a mortal (rather than just feeding on a drop of blood) then you can be 'flushed' and appear fully human - and of course the Messalines are 'flushed' most of the time as their class perk.
What's it all for?
I created the game to run it myself - I was intending to do a straight V:tM chronicle and refer to everything by Rein-Hagen's names in play. But now that I've written it, I'm rather intrigued by the differences and want to GM this version of a vampire campaign, with Chorazin not Tremere and the Heptarchy not the Camarilla.
I wonder how much interest there is out there to do the same? I do feel that Rein-Hagen's wonderful imaginative creation, which was so provocative and teasing when it was first introduced to us in 1991, became congested, codified and overburdened by lore as the Nineties wore on. I want to go back to playing the game the way it felt when I first encountered it. The renaming and the new-but-familiar Hack engine helps me see the old game in a fresh romantic light. Like when the nerdy girl takes off her spectacles.
Laney was beautiful all along!!! Who could know???
The other benefit of the Hack approach is that the game becomes a bit more pick-up-and-play. It was never terribly time consuming to create V:tM characters, but treating Clans as actual character classes accelerates things further without distorting the concept. I've added a set of tables in the Appendix that enable you to roll up your own Vampyre Scenarios, complete with the inevitable twists, betrayals and last act reveals. These might help those of you who like roleplaying without a GM!
Currently, you can find Vampyre Hack on drivethrurpg, but I struggle with that site's arrangements for creating and selling physical books, so for that you can get it on Amazon.
And yes, I'll soon support it with an expansion, revisiting all those other Clans which (to my mind) were rather less successful additions to Vampire: the Masquerade and might benefit from a bit of reinterpretation.
I've been enjoying the expandable card game Vampire The Masquerade: Rivals. There will be a review to follow, but the immediate effect of the game on me and my fellow players has been to make us all want to play Vampire: the Masquerade RPG again!
Ah, V:tM, how do I love thee? Well, let's count the ways.
V:tM appeared in 1991. I remember discovering it in Virgin Megastore, which (rather bravely) sold RPG products on the high street back then. I was at a bit of a crossroads at that time, recently graduated and married, uncertain about my career direction, having outgrown dungeons (or so I thought back then) and distanced from the RPG crowd I had known at school and university. I was on the edge of Moving On and consigning roleplaying to the category of Dumb Stuff I Did Back In The Day.
That's when I saw her.
Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.
Such an intriguing cover: rose on a cobwebbed slab, bare title, no explanation. On the back cover, just this teasing testimony:
"No one holds command over me. No man. No god. No Prince. What is a claim of age for ones who are immortal? What is a claim of power for ones who defy death? Call your damnable hunt. We shall see who I drag screaming to Hell with me." -- Günter Dörn, Das Ungeheuer Darin
And that was it. That was all you got.
So of course, I bought it, pulled off the shrinkwrap and settled down to read. And it took me on a rollercoaster: ancient lineages, cannibalistic politics, heady romance, bleak tragedy, punk edginess. No one could read that 1st edition rulebook and not be enchanted by the world it presented. Yes, in the future the World of Darkness that this game introduced would get overcrowded, over-explained and dubiously interpreted. The warning signs were here, with indulgent pieces of fiction introducing each chapter and check-me-out music quotes from rock bands with the right haircuts all over the place. But it was so fresh and innovative, who could care?
The things that V:tM introduced to popular culture can't be understated. If it didn't outright invent the tropes of undead crimelords and business moguls lording it over the neon-lit nights of modern cities from their skyrise lairs, or the immemorial war between vampires and werewolves, or younger vampires rebelling against their millennia-old sires, or the conspiracy that conceals the undead from humanity, or just different clans of vampires with different cultures and signature powers, well, it certainly presented the defining iteration of these concepts, that almost every movie and TV series picked up and ran with, going forward.
And how nice it would be to go back to that source, back to what it felt like to play Vampire the way it was before they over-complicated things, before the silly one-trick Clans appeared and the Sabbat had its mystery torn away and all the other World Of Darkness games came out, resulting in campaigns where vampires adventured alongside mages and faeries and werewolves and everyone was really just a power-maxed superhero with 'Brooding' dialled up to 11.
All of which is to say that, once you get the bug to go back to play V:tM like it was in the Good Old Days, you get it bad.
Except for one thing. I really don't like the World of Darkness rules system.
I never did like the Great Handfuls of d10s approach, or the arbitrary constellations of Skills and Talents lined up alongside 9 Abilities in 3 tiers, or everything in dumb 5-dot progressions. I really disliked the way combat worked (slow and grindy but with little opportunity to act tactically). Several of the Disciplines were broken and never got fixed to my satisfaction. Yeah, I know, there's a new ruleset out there with special 'Blood Dice' but (i) I don't want to invest in a new version because what I want to play is the original game and (ii) RPGs with bespoke dice irritate me now.
Looks beautiful - but I can't be bothered
I welcome Shannon Michael correcting me here - the fancy dice in Vampire v5 are cosmetic but inessential and you can play the game with a handful of ordinary d10s so long as the hunger dice are a different colour from the rest or rolled separately.
Where then does that leave me...
Oh, look what we have here.
Matthew Skail's Blood Hack is on drivethrurpg
I've already covered what I like about Matthew Skail's Blood Hack and this little OSR-style Vampire game inspired me to create some similar games of my own: the Ghost Hack and the Magus Hack.
If I'm going to run a short campaign, set in the world of V:tM but using the Blood Hack's lovely rules (character classes! going up levels! 6 stats! hit points!!!), then some rules tweaks are needed to accommodate the familiar clans and V:tM's distinctive features.
If you're interested in such an adaptation, read on. You'll noticed that, in order to honour some of the interesting features of Blood Hack, I've taken a few liberties with the Clans - such as giving the Tremere an aversion to holy symbols (after all, they're a bunch of medieval wizards who damned themselves to attain immortality), representing Malkavians as possessing a very specific sort of derangement and making Ventrue unusual in being able to create ghouls without using magic. The idea that each Clan has its own specific sort of Frenzy and way of restoring its Frenzy Die appeals to me.
Going up levels likewise is rather different from the way advancement occurs in V:tM, so some assumptions have to be made about what justifies experienced PCs in gaining the powers of Elders and Ancients.
The biggest change is the addition of a new usage die, the Frenzy Die. You roll this when your vampire is exposed to fire, sunlight or blood (if you're starving) and, as usual with Hack RPGs, it gets a size smaller if you roll certain numbers: d6 shrinks to d4 and d4 disappears altogether. Normally, usage dice shrink like this when you roll 1-2, but the Frenzy Die shrinks if you roll the two highest numbers (e.g. 5-6 on a d6).
If the Frenzy Die shrinks, your vampire becomes temporarily deranged (attacking or running away). But here's the thing: each Clan now has its own Frenzy trigger and specific way of responding to that trigger. For example, Toreadors are triggered by beauty and respond by falling into rapt contemplation. Each Clan also has a Resting activity that restores the Frenzy Die to its original size. For example, Toreadors can spend an hour in unhurried contemplation of beautiful things: they don't fall into a rapture and instead refresh the Die. Brujah need half an hour of competitive activity, Tremere an hour of occult research, Gangrel some time being an animal.
The problems pile up when your Frenzy Die drops to zero (i.e. a d4 exhausts and shrinks). From this point on, if a Frenzy is triggered, you roll your Morality Die instead and that's bad, because no one wants to be rolling their Morality Die in this game (as it exhausts, you lose your humanity).
Blood Hack: the Masquerade
To create vampires in the style of V:tM, ignore the Blood Hack rule that vampires do not create reflections. Instead of the four classes in BH, use the Clans below. Two new Dice are used with this ruleset.
The Frenzy Die
The Frenzy Die as a d6 and increases by one size at 4th, 7th, 9th and 10th level. The Frenzy Die permanently shrinks by one size the first time a vampire’s Morality Die grows to d10, d12 and d20; if this would shrink the Frenzy Die below d4, increase the Morality Die by one size instead.
The Frenzy Die is rolled under special circumstances for each Clan. However, all vampires must roll the Frenzy Die if they are exposed to fire or sunlight or if they are exposed to blood when their Blood Die is zero.
If the Frenzy Die rolls its highest two numbers, it exhausts (temporarily gets one size smaller) and the vampire is briefly deranged: if exposed to blood, they become ravening and must feed, attacking if necessary; exposure to fire/sunlight means they become craven and flee.
The Frenzy Die is restored by a day’s rest. It is refreshed once per night if a vampire engages in a Clan-specific restful activity.
If the Frenzy Die is at zero, the vampire must instead make Morality rolls to resist Frenzy.
Frenzy rolls now replace WIS rolls required by your Morality Die.
The Wealth Die
When the vampire makes a purchase, that’s more than pocket change, roll the Wealth Die. A 1-2 means they make the purchase, but they’ve depleted their reserves. Special purchases might require 2 or 3 rolls. Losing the final d4 means they’re out of cash or credit.
At the end of any adventure where a character depleted their Wealth to zero, have them make a roll with their base Wealth Die. On a 1-2, their Wealth Die is treated as one size smaller for the next adventure.
You might create a non-standard PC, like a millionaire Nosferatu or a dead-broke Ventrue. A simple fix is to adjust the Hit Die size up or down one to increase or decrease the Wealth Die.
Clan Brujah are rebels and warriors, both in life and undeath. The Clan founders were philosophers who questioned the nature of society and reality and modern Brujah delight in conflict and change.
Starting HP: d10+4
HP Per Level: 1d10
Weapons & Armour: Any and all
Attack Damage: 1d8/1d6 unarmed
Frenzy: when insulted or frustrated, Brujah become ravening and attack with Advantage for a number of Moments equal to the Frenzy Die roll; rest by spending a half hour engaged in a competitive activity (sport, chess, debating, hunting, etc.).
Wealth Die: d6
Special Features: Gain +1 to their starting STR and DEX.
Brujah are effective warriors while Frenzying (as above) and benefit from Resilience of 3 in this state (in addition to any Resilience they possess normally).
Brujah are potent, regardless of their mortal strength. They possess Might of 1d6 at start.
Brujah are immensely intimidating. On a successful STR Test they can cause crowds of Mortals to part for them and make way. This enables them to run through crowds and also makes guards and sentries give way to them, but this test is at Disadvantage for guards who are Thralls.
Weakness: Brujah are prone to Frenzy and this occurs when the Frenzy Die rolls its highest three (rather than two) scores; e.g. 4, 5 or 6 on a d6 and 2, 3 or 4 on a d4.
Leveling Up: Roll to see if stats increase, roll twice for STR and DEX.
The vampires of Clan Gangrel are shapeshifters who dwell in the wilds. They claim kinship with Roma travellers and some maintain (uneasy) truces with the feral Lupines.
Starting HP: d8+4
HP Per Level: 1d8
Weapons & Armour: Any, no heavy armour
Attack Damage: 1d8/1d6 unarmed
Frenzy: when in the presence of their totem animals; Gangrel revert to animal behaviour (and Totem Shape, if possible) for a number of Moments equal to the Frenzy Die roll; rest by spending half an hour in Totem Form engaged in ordinary animal behaviour (e.g. hunting, nesting, marking territory).
Wealth Die: d4
Special Features: Gain a +1 to their starting CON and WIS.
Gangrel roll all WIS tests with Advantage when hunting prey, following tracks, or
otherwise surviving in the wilderness.
Gangrel can change into a Totem Shape. This allows them to either turn into a small, fast animal (or one that can fly) such as black cat or bat, or they can take a large, deadly animal form such as a wolf or mountain lion. In a small form, they are fast. When in doubt, a small animal form can always move further than any other class. Initiative is rolled with Advantage, and they need one less move to get to a given range in combat. In deadly form they add +1 damage per level to their unarmed damage roll. They can transform into their Totem Shape once a night for free. Each subsequent transformation calls for a Blood Usage Die roll. Gangrel begin the game with a single small form and a single large form.
Gangrel are resilient and possess 3 points of Resilience at start.
Weakness: Every time a Gangrel Frenzies they grow an animal feature. The number of features is adding to any CHA Test that isn’t based on terror.
Leveling Up: Roll to see if stats increase, roll twice for CON and WIS.
Clan Malkavian are vampiric tricksters, prophets and fools. Their bloodline is blessed (or cursed) with madness.
Starting HP: d8+4
HP Per Level: 1d8
Weapons & Armour: any
Attack Damage: 1d8/1d6 unarmed
Frenzy: when a non-dominant persona takes over; Malkavians enter a Fugue state (wandering off, forgetting about the current activity, ignoring friends) for a number of Moments equal to the Frenzy Die roll (or an Hour if this is due to being OofA); rest includes spending an hour pursuing the interest or agenda of a non-dominant persona
Wealth Die: d6
Special Features: Gain a +1 to their starting WIS and INT.
Malkavians start play with the Lesser Dementation Blood Gift.
Each Malkavian has a divided personality, starting with 4 personas of which one is Dominant. At the start of each night, a randomly determined persona is in charge. You may choose to have the Dominant Persona in charge by passing a WIS test. If the PC is Out of Action (OofA) as a result of non-Killing Damage, they recover on 1d4 HP with no other penalty and a random persona takes charge (make a WIS test at Disadvantage to make the Dominant Persona in charge). While the Dominant Persona is in charge, you may invite any other Persona to take over (but not the other way round).
Personas may perceive themselves to be of different ages, races, genders and backgrounds but
share the same Stats and Blood Usage Die; they have their own Morality Die (when asleep, they obey the Morality Die of the Dominant Persona)
The personas are aware of each other and have access to (but don't necessarily take any interest in) each other's memories and experiences. If persona and physiology do not match (a young girl in the body of an old man), costume and make-up can make a persona convincing to onlookers on a successful INT test (at Disadvantage in extreme cases like an adult and a small child).
Blood Gifts are usable by all the personas. However, each persona other than the Dominant Persona has an extra Blood Gift of their own that the other personas do not.
At 4th level, gain 2 more personas (both with d6 Morality); you may change who the Dominant Persona is. All personas except the Dominant Persona gain an extra Greater Gift of their own.
At 8th level, gain 2 more personas (d6 Morality) and may change who the Dominant Persona is. All personas except the Dominant Persona gain an extra Elder Gift of their own.
Integrating Personas: A PC might be able to integrate two personas into a new combined persona that has access to the Gifts of both and uses a single Morality Die.
Weakness: Each persona has a trigger that causes it to take over – each trigger only occurs once per adventure.
Leveling Up: Roll to see if stats increase, roll twice for WIS and INT.
Lesser Dementation: By talking to a victim and making a successful WIS Test, the Malkavian causes the victim to experience hallucinations for a number of Minutes equal to the WIS test roll. The Malkavian gains Advantage on any further actions against the victim and can usually feed on them without the victim realising what is happening. This is at Disadvantage when used against other vampires and does not work at all against Malkavians or vampires who are Frenzied.
Greater Dementation: By plumbing her own madness, a Malkavian can interpret patterns in the world that others miss. The Malkavian gains a clue that is appropriate to the adventure, such as the location of a vampire’s Haven or the identity of a traitor. The Malkavian must then make a Frenzy roll to see if a different persona takes over.
Elder Dementation: The Malkavian must make a Frenzy roll to broadcast their own madness, causing all Mortals and vampires in earshot to enter Frenzy: Mortals become psychotic while vampires act according to the Clan Frenzy.
The hideous Nosferatu are outcasts in vampire society, but their talent for secrecy makes them valuable as spies and information brokers. Despite their monstrous features, many are courteous and humane.
Starting HP: d10+4
HP Per Level: 1d10
Weapons & Armour: Any weapons, medium armour
Attack Damage: 1d8/1d6 unarmed
Frenzy: when confronted by their reflection or filmed image; Nosferatu become craven and for a number of Moments equal to the Frenzy Die roll; rest by spending an hour in the polite company of other Nosferatu (or civilised vampires who do not mind their appearance) – this time must be spent in unhurried conversation or leisure activity, like playing chess or reading books
Wealth Die: d4
Special Features: Gain +1 to their starting CON and WIS.
Nosferatu are resilient and start with 3 points of Resilience. They also start with Beast Voice.
Every Nosferatu enjoys the power of Shadowiness and becomes invisible if they stand still behind even the most minimal cover or in shadows. If they wish to move, they are still unnoticed if they succeed on a WIS test – but this is at Disadvantage if any onlooker has Supernatural Senses.
The humanity of Nosferatu means they start with a d4 Morality Die.
Weakness: Nosferatu are hideous; Mortals react with terror and either flee or attack and even other vampires are uncomfortable around them; CHA Tests that aren’t based on terror automatically fail against Mortals who behold Nosferatu and are at Disadvantage with vampires or with Mortals who cannot see the Nosferatu.
Leveling Up: Roll to see if stats increase, roll twice for CON and WIS.
The ancient Toreador Clan delight in humanity and use their immortality to savour beauty and pleasure. They can be patrons of the arts or else degenerates who seek beauty in suffering and death.
Starting HP: d6+4
HP Per Level: 1d6
Weapons & Armour: Any weapons, medium armour
Attack Damage: 1d6/1d4 unarmed
Frenzy: when they behold something beautiful, Toreador become entranced for a number of Moments equal to the Frenzy Die roll; rest by spending an hour contemplating beautiful things in an unhurried way (no need to roll)
Wealth Die: d8
Special Features: Gain +1 to their starting CHA and DEX.
Toreador roll CHA tests with Advantage when interacting with mortals. This means that even the more monstrous Toreador still possess some ability to interact normally with humans (Advantage cancels Disadvantage as usual).
Toreador can Mesmerize a target by glancing into their eyes. This requires a CHA
check and if successful, the target can do nothing but gaze at the Toreador so long as
they hold the gaze. The Toreador can use this to immediately feed on a victim without
another roll. If they use the delay to attack the target, they automatically gain
Initiative and they attack with Advantage.
When a Toreador feeds on a target during a passionate encounter, they gain 2 Blood
Usage Die steps for each one they take.
Weakness: Each Toreador must choose a type of Beauty they are susceptible to (art, music, sexuality, natural world, architecture, pain, death, etc.); when they Frenzy because of this sort of Beauty they are entranced for an hour.
Leveling Up: Roll to see if stats increase, roll twice for CHA and DEX.
The Tremere is an order of wizards who became vampires through a magical ritual. Some time in the Middle Ages, they consumed a vampire Ancient, acquiring its powers and earning their status as a Clan.
Starting HP: d6+4
HP Per Level: 1d6
Weapons & Armour: Light weapons only, light armour only
Attack Damage: 1d6/1d4 unarmed
Frenzy: when presented with holy symbols; Tremere become craven and flee for a number of Moments equal to the Frenzy Die roll (most Tremere are vulnerable to the symbols of Christianity but some react to other religions); rest by studying magic (performing rituals, reading spell books, etc) for an hour
Wealth Die: d6
Special Features: Gain a +1 to their starting CHA and INT.
When casting Blood Rituals, a Tremere may use CHA or INT to determine whether they succeed at spell casting. Tremere can cast their level of rituals a night without a need for Blood Usage Die roll (so a sixth level Tremere could cast two level 3 rituals without spending any blood).
Roll with Advantage on INT to avoid the hostile effects of blood rituals.
Tremere begin the game with 1d6+2 levels worth of blood rituals known.
Weakness: Tremere are Thralls to their Clan and must make a CHA Test at Disadvantage to disobey the Clan’s rules or instructions.
Leveling Up: Roll to see if stats increase, roll twice for CHA and INT.
Clan Ventrue are aristocrats and rulers, both in life and undeath. The Clan founded the Camarilla and masterminded the Masquerade.
Starting HP: d6+4
HP Per Level: 1d6
Weapons & Armour: Medium weapons only, medium armour only
Attack Damage: 1d8/1d6 unarmed
Frenzy: when disrespected or ignored; Ventrue are compelled to rant about their pedigree, ancestry, accomplishments and/or influence for a number of Moments equal to the Frenzy Die roll; rest by spending an hour contemplating symbols of their ranks (ancestral home, coats of arms, portraits, stock portfolios, genealogies or even the company of their Mortal descendants)
Wealth Die: d10
Special Features: Gain +1 to their starting STR and CHA.
Ventrue roll all CHA tests with Advantage when interacting with other vampires.
Once per hour, a Ventrue may drink a swallow of blood and heal themselves of 1d8
points of damage.
The blood of a Ventrue turns Mortals into addicted Thralls: when they feed a Blood Usage roll worth of blood, the mortal will obey any commands the vampire gives them for the next month. Mortal NPCs gain a HD while under the effect of this. This does not work on Mortals who are already Thralls.
Weakness: Ventrue can only drink Blood from Mortals with a specific characteristic (e.g. one sex, racial type, distinctive features, occupation or ancestry)
Leveling Up: Roll to see if stats increase, roll twice for STR and CHA.
Generations are not a feature of the BH rules but are important in the V:tM setting. It’s not necessary to record a vampire’s exact generation, just the Generational Division they belong to.
In place of acquiring a Lesser Blood Gift, a vampire PC can declare themselves to be of Potent Blood, making it possible for them to advance to the next Generational Division when they reach 4th level; in place of a Greater Blood Gift, they can be of Elder Blood and are allowed to advance to 7th level when the time comes; instead of taking an Elder Gift, they can claim Ancient Blood and unlock the possibility of advancing to 10th level. The in-game explanation for this could involve discovering more about your true vampire heritage, secret diablerie or receiving blood donations from a more powerful sponsor.
Diablerie allows a vampire PC to go up one level and, if this would take the PC up to a new Generational Division, no Blood Gift needs to be sacrificed.
Ghouls, Thralls, Sires, Blood Bonds and Diablerie
In BH, ‘ghouls’ are Thralls (ghouls) created through Blood Rites. However, Ventrue vampires can create Thralls even without a Ritual. The GM might allow other vampires to acquire a Lesser Blood Gift that enables them to do this too.
In V:tM any vampire can ‘embrace’ a person to create a new vampire. BH doesn’t specify how vampires are created. This ruleset treats embracing a new vampire as something that must be learned rather than an innate vampiric ability. The Embrace is a Lesser Blood Gift that turns a bloodless and recently deceased Mortal into a vampire, through the automatic exhausting of the sire’s Blood Usage Die. The Rite of Damnation is a 2nd level Blood Ritual that is used by the Tremere to create a vampire.
The Blood Bond is an enduring enslavement that occurs after consuming another vampire’s blood for the third time. In BH terms, the enslaved Thrall must make a CHA test at Disadvantage to act against their master’s wishes or interests (or pass a CHA test with Advantage to make a NPC Thrall act in this way) and it is absolutely impossible for the Thrall to attack or use powers against the Master.
Diablerie is consuming a helpless (or OofA) vampire. This requires a series of STR tests; each success reduces the victim’s Blood Usage Die by one step. Once the Blood Usage Die is zero, a final test at Disadvantage is required to consume the victim’s essence; if successful the victim is destroyed and the consumer goes up a level – assuming that the victim was from an earlier Generational Division.
My indie RPG The Hedgerow Hack has been a modest success - more than modest, really, since it has been picked up by Osprey Games and I've just submitted the MS for a much more innovative and expansive game based on The Hedgerow Hack's quirky legendarium. More news on that in due course! For now, here is a scenario for the original Hedgerow Hack, with a Christmas flavour, pitting mystical Briar Knights against two very unpleasant versions of Santa Claus.
There's a lovely physical edition of The Hedgerow Hack but drivethrurpg has a perfectly decent PDF for next to no money at all. If you prefer, you can try this scenario with any Black Hack related system and it lends itself well to OSR retroclones like Labyrinth Lord or Blueholme - or my own The Magus Hack.
During the Age of Plagues (1640s and 1650s), strict laws were passed against holding or attending a Christmas church service. Shops and markets were told to stay open on 25 December and soldiers patrolled the streets, seizing any food being prepared for Christmas celebrations. In January 1645, Parliament made clear that Christmas was not to be celebrated but spent in respectful contemplation.
This Christmas scenario features the conflict between two Old Gods: King Christmas and his monstrous older brother Lord Yule. When the Puritans ban Christmas during the Age of Plagues, this interrupts a yearly celebration at a Legendary Location that used to empower King Christmas, leading to his defeat by Lord Yule. Enraged, King Christmas enters the Mortal Ages to punish humans, but finds himself bereft of his power and strength. He is arrested by agents of the Witch Harrow and taken to a witches’ prison for breaking the ban on Christmas activities. Lord Yule also enters the Mortal Ages, growing stronger on the mayhem he and his Winter Goblins create.
King Christmas is a majestic giant over 8 feet tall, with the head and claws of a lion and a silver mane. He wears a long robe of deep green and a hood lined with ermine. He embodies medieval monarchy: proud, bombastic and haughty – although events in this story will change his character. He draws power from the gifts left for him at sacred sites like Hollin Howe (Act II) or left on hearths overnight. He is unaffected by Cold Iron but completely disempowered by the Dolour.
Lord Yule serves the Dark, so if the Malignity Die ever exhausts, he appears to assault the PCs.
Lord Yule and his Winter Goblins cannot enter a home or camp where the occupants have exchanged gifts within the last 25 hours. The ‘gift’ doesn’t have to be physical, but it must be something significant either to the giver or the receiver.
Charlie is a 12-year-old boy from 19th century London, brought back through time by Peterkin, a Gypcean boy with a magical talent for traveling the Hedge. Charlie’s parents are in debtors prison, so he lives at a lodging house run by a friend of his family and works to pay rent. He carries his dearest possession: a letter from his parents expressing a confident faith they will be released and will spend Christmas together. Charlie is a brave and curious boy but at the start of the adventure he has been abducted by Dixon’s Deserters (Act II). Charlie will not be killed during this adventure: he has 4hp but if he is reduced to 0 he is simply captured or runs away and becomes lost.
Prelude: Through The Hedge
As usual the Briar Knights are summoned by the Light and sent through the Hedge. This is like walking a narrow hedge maze with wintry branches hemming the Briar Knights in on both sides. At clearings in the maze, there are mysterious visions that set out their mission.
Act I: The Realm of Winterfae
No map is provided of Winterfae or Christmas Castle. This is a magical landscape and the Briar Knights will find themselves where they need to be, regardless of what direction they take.
The Briar Knights arrive in the Age of Fable in a realm called Winterfae. It’s a snowy wonderland of pines, majestic frozen waterfalls, gleaming icicles and sudden blizzards. Over the treetops can be seen Christmas Castle, but once the PCs arrive there they will find the castle in ruins, with signs of a violent siege that ended with the collapse of its gate. The Malignity Rating is 2 (d10).
Lord Yule’s Winter Goblins roam the surrounding woods and the corridors of Christmas Castle. These vicious creatures were part of Lord Yule’s invading army and attack on sight.
The Elfin Workshops
King Christmas’ Craft Elfs toiled in his workshops, turning gifts from his mortal devotees into weapons for his war against Lord Yule. The workshops now stand empty, but PCs might discover 1d4 partially-made magical Treasures.
Some Craft Elfs remain in hiding in the workshops; they are less vicious than the Winter Goblins but still inclined to treat Briar Knights as invading enemies.
1d4+1 Craft Elfs: HD 1, 4hp, d4(2)dmg, AP1: create traps
Craft Elfs create traps out of any junk to hand and at the start of an encounter every opponent must test WIS or DEX to avoid a trap:
If defeated, Craft Elfs turn into mannequins of holly and mistletoe. If captured or parlayed with, they can reveal the same information as the Winter Goblins, but also that they have no love for their King, who enslaved them in ages past. King Christmas lost his power recently when mortals stopped offering gifts to him, which allowed Lord Yule to gain the upper hand. The King went to exact revenge on the mortals who betrayed him and many Craft Elfs fled with him.
One Elf named Rimenose remains perversely loyal to King Christmas (“he was a cruel master, but he was fair!”) and will accompany the Briar Knights if they offer to find the King. He could fashion on partially-made Treasure into a working one (roll randomly) that can be brought to any Age where King Christmas is present.
The Midwinter Throne
King Christmas’ throne room has been looted by Goblins but the ice throne remains untouched. Any Fae character sitting on it will see a vision of the mortal boy Charlie in the company of dangerous looking soldiers (Act II, Dixon’s Deserters), of Lord Yule dancing on the rooftops of a town and King Christmas imprisoned in a dungeon (Act III).
The Solstice Tower
The highest turret contains a portal to the Mortal Ages: a tapestry depicting a winter glade of holly trees. If examined closely, snow falls and shadows lengthen in the scene and characters stepping into it appear as woven images in the clearing.
The portal is defended by 1d4+1 Winter Goblins awaiting Lord Yule’s return but if the PCs have befriended Rimenose he could negotiate safe passage.
Act II: The Age of Plagues
It is the year 1645. Christmas has been banned across the Old Shires. Midwinter approaches and no carols are sung and no gifts left out on the hearth for the pagan spirits of the season.
Briar Knights arrive at a Legendary Location: Hollin Howe (MW). This is the bare summit of a hill, ringed by holly trees. The Portal to Winterfae appears as a column of swirling snowflakes, even on a clear day.
A path leads to Yeavering Farm; footprints in the snow show traffic coming from Aster’s Camp. Monstrous hoof-prints in the snow head off in the direction of The Copper Kettle Inn.
Travelling through the woods risks encounters with more Winter Goblins or Fugitive Elfs; encountering Dixon’s Deserters is a mandatory encounter. The Malignity Rating in the woods is 1 (d12) going up to 3 (d10) by night.
If Rimenose accompanies the Briar Knights, he will cloak himself in a Glamour that makes him seem like an ugly human urchin - but this is dispelled by Cold Iron or the Witch-Harrow's Dolorous Word.
I'll get round to creating a map for the woods and the locations around Hollin Howe, but they are few enough that I think most GMs can 'wing it.' Similarly, floorplans for Yeavering Farm or the Copper Kettle Inn can be created on the fly.
These creatures are gathering human captives for Lord Yule to feast on. This band of 2d4 Winter Goblins keeps Henry Yeavering and his son John in chains. If freed, they will take their rescuers to Yeavering Farm to be reunited with their family.
This group of 2d4 Elfs have gone rather mad with their sudden freedom and enjoy playing vicious pranks on mortals. They have a magical ability to craft almost anything from pine cones, icicles and snow and use this to lay elaborate traps (ice cages, exploding pine cones, avalanches, skewering icicles). If Briar Knights survive their traps, the Elfs flee, but if the PCs brought Rimenose with them they might be able to parlay.
The Elfs believe that King Christmas has been captured and that Lord Yule has gone mad with rage and perhaps grief.
Dixon's Deserters (mandatory encounter)
The Deserters are crafty enough to ambush PCs and demand they surrender, robbing them of weapons and food. Fighting the Deserters is a dangerous undertaking, but events take a course that might spare cautious PCs from doing this. On the night they make camp it is Lt Chester’s turn to give a gift, but he refuses, dismissing Christmas gift-giving as a silly old superstition. He and Dixon nearly come to blows but are interrupted when the camp is attacked by Winter Goblins. In the melee, the Deserters are wiped out and Charlie escapes into the snowstorm.
At the GM’s discretion, Dixon himself survives; moved by guilt, he joins the PCs if they will help him recover Charlie safely.
Aster is the leader of a clan of Gypceans whose wagons are camped in the woods. The Aster leads them in the exchange of gifts every night, so the Winter Goblins leave them alone.
The clan is angry with one of their younger members: a boy named Peterkin who has the magical gift to pass through the Hedge. Peterkin returned recently with a playmate: a boy from a future century named Charlie. Aster was furious that the Laws of the Light were broken this way but is also aware that Charlie would not be able to pass through the Hedge if he did not have a Destiny in this Age.
A few nights ago, a group of bedraggled soldiers arrived in the camp, robbed the community of food and black powder and abducted the boy Charlie.
Aster offers hospitality to Briar Knights. His forge can turn incomplete artefacts from Winterfae into working Treasures (roll randomly). All he asks for in return is that the PCs find Charlie and protect him. He knows that the family at Yeavering Farm are in danger as are any guests at the Copper Kettle Inn. Aster has a kinsman in Thornyford, a farrier named Ralfe who can offer a hiding place in the town.
Margaret Yeavering lives at the farm with her father-in-law Cecil and her daughter Anne. The household is under nightly attack by Winter Goblins who have already abducted Margaret’s husband Henry and son John.
The family will beg for the PCs to protect them. During the night there will be 1d4 assaults by 2d4 Winter Goblins.
If the PCs can fight off one assault, the GM can choose for Old Cecil to insist the family put aside their Puritan religion and celebrate Christmas “in the old style” by hanging a holy wreath, singing carols and exchanging gifts. This will immediately end the goblin attacks. Old Cecil remembers the festival to King Christmas that used to be held up on Hollin Howe. He can sing a medieval carol about King Christmas (Elder Lore MW).
In the morning a troop of 2d4 Hexenhammers arrives, led by a Snoop named Harrison Pry. If Pry finds evidence of ‘pagan’ (i.e. Catholic) Christmas celebrations, he will have the family arrested and brought to Thornyford to face trial. If not, he will reveal that a giant man in fur robes has been arrested for witchcraft (“He was going around demanding Christmas gifts!”) and Briar Knights will recognise the description of King Christmas.
The Copper Kettle Inn
This old medieval inn serves travellers on the road to Thornyford. It is under siege by Winter Goblins by day and Lord Yule himself comes here at night.
Briar Knights approaching the inn will see lights inside, but then a huge host of 6d10 Winter Goblins emerges from the woods to chase them towards the inn. One of the occupants throws open a door and shouts ‘Get inside, quick!’
The defenders are:
Act III: The Town That Christmas Forgot
The NPCs in Act II all know that Thornyford is the nearest town, that it is dominated by Puritans and that the Witchfinders have taken over the town council and imprisoned many supposed-witches in a ‘Hexen House’ (the old medieval keep). The PCs will come to the town if they hear about King Christmas being imprisoned there – or perhaps to look for Charlie if they failed to rescue him from Dixon’s Deserters or the Copper Kettle.
Thornyford is a wretched place. Many houses are boarded up and the doors painted with plague warnings. Notice boards have ‘wanted’ posters for individuals accused of witchcraft. Hexen Hammers patrol the streets in groups of 1d4+1, alert for anyone behaving like a witch (which includes anyone conducting Christmas festivities). The Dolour is 2 (d10) throughout the town, rising to 4 (d8) at checkpoints; this makes it difficult for PCs to use Gramayre in Thornyford.
By night, Lord Yule and his Winter Goblins dance on the rooftops, break into houses and abduct the helpless inhabitants: Malignity is 5 (d8). These depredations are also blamed on ‘witches.’
If the PCs did not rescue Charlie, they will hear gossip about him: the Witchfinders have arrested a strange ‘witch boy’ and taken him to the Hexen House. If Charlie is accompanying the PCs, he will be separated during an encounter, arrested and taken to the Hexen House.
Briar Knights might find sanctuary at the workshop of the farrier Ralfe, a cousin of Aster the Gypcean. Once they have been in Thornyford long enough to get an impression of the place and locate the Hexen House, the Witch Harrow goes on the offensive, sending a small army of Hexenhammers out onto the night time streets to battle the Goblins. This is an opportunity for the PCs to enter the relatively undefended Hexen House.
The Hexen House (Dolour 8/d4) contains only 1d4 Hexenhammers and prisoners in cells. There is a chapel at the back, where Charlie has been left to study the Bible; rescuing him is easy if the Hexenhammers can be chased away, tricked or overcome.
King Christmas is chained up in the cellar. He is still a giant, but badly weakened: his class have been clipped, much of his mane has been plucked and his robes are filthy. He will greet rescuers with a deep bass rumble:
“Come in and know me better, man (or woman, girl or boy)!”
The Briar Knights can restore King Christmas’ power by presenting him with gifts. The GM should encourage the players to be creative in their gift-giving. The decisive gift is from Charlie: he offers King Christmas his parents' letter. Reinvigorated, King Christmas snaps his chains and bursts out of the Hexen House, freeing the remaining prisoners and routing the terrified Hexenhammers.
Showdown on Christmas Eve
The final showdown between King Christmas and a 10HD Lord Yule takes place on the streets and rooftops of Thornyford. Briar Knights can assist by encouraging the townsfolk to exchange Christmas gifts.
These tasks can be accomplished by magic, CHA or WIS tests or just by roleplaying. The Dolour Rating is 0 unless the GM makes a task more difficult by introducing a pesky Snoop like Harrison Pry or interfering Demagogue like Jonah Thanks-Be-To-God.
Once each PC has facilitated one Christmas Gift, King Christmas triumphs, casting Lord Yule down and binding him in the chains he formerly wore.
The Repentance of King Christmas
King Christmas drags his brother back to Winterfae and imprisons him. He then renounces his old title: henceforth he will not be a king, but simply Father Christmas and he will not demand gifts, but give them. He replaces his lion face with a human one and his mane with a silver beard. He summons his Elfs, saying, “Come in and know me better, lads!”
He frees his Elfs and invites them to work with him instead of for him, crafting toys instead of weapons. His first gift is to bestow one of his Treasures upon a PC, who can take it to any Age.
The Homecoming of Young Charlie
If Charlie is returned to Aster’s Camp, his friend Peterkin can take him back through the Hedge to the Age of Steel and the year 1824. If the Briar Knights accompany them, they will see barely any time has passed in that year. When Charlie enters his cramped lodging house, a bad tempered woman calls from within:
“Charlie? Charles! Where is that boy! Doesn't he know his parents are here? Charles Dickens, you come here this instant!
The Briar Knights will wish the young Charles Dickens a Merry Christmas before departing.
God bless us, every one.
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..