What lurks in the shadows?
I’ve been putting off deciding what other supernatural beings exist in the world of The King is Dead for months, but I need to make up my mind. I think best when I’m writing, so I’m going to write out my internal debate. Your feedback is welcome.
I’m sure some readers will look at the beginning of the previous paragraph and think “What do you mean ‘decide what other supernatural beings exist?’ It’s a Gothic horror setting – of course there’s Frankensteins and werewolves and zombies and everything!” To be honest, that’s a valid response. Why shouldn’t there be all the usual panoply of monsters?
My storytelling instincts warn me that The King is Dead isn’t just a horror setting. It isn’t Rippers 1776 or even Colonial Gothic; it’s a setting about political revolution. The vampires who rule Malleus don’t live in isolation from the populace; they’re not mysterious folk legends who slip down into the villages once in a blue moon and make off with occasional unwary maidens. They rule in the open as a blatant satire of the aristocracy of pre-revolutionary France (and their modern parallels). Killing these vampires isn’t monster-hunting; it’s political assassination.
One of my main goals with The King is Dead is to create a setting where the player characters are obligated to become criminals. Most RPGs assume that PCs are going to be kind of shady – D&D’s adventurers rob tombs for fun and profit while they thumb their noses at the feudal hierarchy, Call of Cthulhu investigators will be forced to occasionally turn to arson and murder, superheroes of any stripe only disobey the letter of the law to uphold the spirit, and White Wolf PCs (whether they’re monsters or Exalts) obey the rules of their own societies even as they exist apart from the mainstream world – but (aside, obviously, from crime setting like Leverage and Streets of Bedlam) PCs are rarely outright criminals working to undermine lawful authority through murder, seduction, and theft.
Yes, murder, seduction, and theft. If history is written by the winners, then right now the vampires are the legitimate rulers of the western world – vindicated by the Church of Sthaniel and their inarguable mastery of Malleus. If the player characters don’t win the revolution, then their monster-slaying is mere murder. Until you manage to rouse the populace to outright revolt, any time you kill a vampire you’re going to want to do it in a way where you don’t get caught (and bursting into his house bristling with weapons is an almost sure-fire way of getting caught).
You need to be a Casanova, seducing the virginal fiancees of key vampires in order to prevent the conception of new dunpeals. You need to be a Cagliostro, poisoning the nobility’s precious blood with dubious alchemy. You need to be the Madame de Pompadour, bleeding the treasury dry because you’ve got a prince of the blood wrapped around your finger (admittedly not an actual criminal enterprise). You need to be Hawkeye (1992 edition), living a life of honor removed from the laws of the land. You need to be freakin’ Captain Jack Sparrow!
You really can’t be Captain Kronos or Abraham von Helsing. The vampires aren’t an aberration you can just put down like rabid dogs. You need to plot, you need to plan. You need to leave no clues behind or set up a patsy. If you want to storm the castle, then you’re going to need a rampaging mob behind you, you’re going to need the whole land on fire.
This focus on proactive plotting by the PCs skews the emphasis of the game away from reactive monster-fighting, so my gut instinct is that muddying the works with other supernatural beings is tricky at best, wrong-headed at worst. I’ve implied that werewolves exist (or maybe just existed) but there’s a long-standing confusion of werewolf and vampire lore that could be used to argue that they’re the same thing. I adore the fae, but how the heck would I fit them into this world? I’ve also implied the existence of a God or gods who – though weak – act in opposition to the vampires, granting miracles to adepts and the faithful. The vampires themselves believe in angels of the Unseen Creator, of whom their progenitor Sathaniel is the chief, so the presence of angels and demons (who may in fact be demons and angels instead) could be justified.
On the other hand, fighting only vampires and dunpeals (who are, after all, practically the same thing) all the time could get boring. Now, vamps and dunnies are as different as normal people are from each other – one might be an effete fop who relies on bodyguards and social status to protect him, another might be a mighty warrior in his own right, and another might be a sorceror who commands “angels” – but they’re all going to be vulnerable to ash wood and sunlight. Are the incremental differences enough to keep players interested?
[Note to self: I really need to stat up a dozen different vampire archetypes; the “young” and “ancient” varieties won’t provide enough… variety.]
I plan to borrow from the Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter the conceit that there are different breeds of vampire with different strengths and weaknesses. I don’t think I’ll go so far as to have some steal youth and some drink blood (or steal breath or whatever), but there are definietely going to be some variations in the abilities of the vampire bloodlines in Malleus. In fact, an explanation for the vampires’ obsession with pure bloodlines popped into my head during my last game session with Robin: whenever a vampire sires someone who isn’t a dunpeal of their own get or the descendant of that vampire’s dunpeals, there are unpredictable mutations. If a vamp turns a descendant in whom vampiric blood already flows (so NOT one of the three Blood Princes born before 1066), then that new vampire will have abilities and weaknesses identical to his sire. If a vamp turns a mortal who has no vampire blood, then that new vampire’s abilities may be radically different from his sire’s.
I’m veering really close into “vampirism as weird-ass sci-fi,” aren’t I?
Hmm… I’m veering pretty far off-topic. I like where this is going, though. I think that a lot of vampiric powers require training and dedication (effectively requiring Edges or working as an Arcane Background), so many vampires have only the bare minimum abilities. Some, though, are absolute Hellsing-style monsters.
Is that enough variation, then? Weak, nearly-human young vampires up through protean elders? Does the setting need werewolves or fairies or monstrous beasts when it has not just Bela Lugosis but also Harmonys, Spikes, Drusillas, Christopher Lees, Ds, Bloods, Mina Ţepeşes, and Alucards?
Damn it. I really, really wish the answer was “no,” but I just realized the reason it has to be “yes.”
There has to be hope.
There has to be a reason (besides self-preservation) that humans believe there’s more to the world than being food for vampires. Unless you want to set your game in Lovecraft’s hostile universe, then any game with supernatural evil has to have supernatural good, too. Even Supernatural – about as bleak a paranormal series as it gets – had that loving, supportive witch/familiar relationship in “Man’s Best Friend with Benefits.” I sometimes let my atheism blind me.
There isn’t a lot of other supernatural activity in the world. The Old Gods are crippled or dead, the faeries have retreated to their mounds (but might still be summoned by the crazy Clan O’Nail), and wizards can summon and bargain with angels, demons, and elementals. Strange beasts still lurk in the hearts of the old woods, and perhaps even the most ancient trees forcibly resist the vampires’ domination. Vampire necromancers surround themselves with skeletal and zombie servants. The Cruthin speak directly to their nature spirits, and the Pariah answers his worshippers’ prayers as best he can. A man might live on the verge of the Nachtwald his whole life and see nothing supernatural besides his vampire lord, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know there’s more to this world.