I only ever played Vampire: The Masquerade once growing up. It was disastrous — I mean, we were in junior high, and none of us were emotionally mature enough to handle the game. We were used to playing games like Rifts, more straightforward titles about powerful heroes going on daring adventures. I’m not even sure how we got our hands on Vampire. In any case, it was a mess. Decades later, I decided to run a Vampire chronicle with a few of my friends after playing a couple of the New York visual novels. It was my first time running a tabletop game in years — here’s what I learned about roleplaying, storytelling, and the World of Darkness.
1. Set a time frame
When we started our Vampire chronicle, we set a rough target of ten sessions in which to tell a complete story. I wish I’d done this more often in the past, because too often tabletop games tend to just peter out as people have increasing demands on their schedule, lose interest, or drift apart. Saying “we’re going to tell a story over x number of sessions” gives you the opportunity to have a beginning, middle, and end to your characters’ journeys. And if you’re really invested in them, you can always extend them or run a second “season” afterwards.
2. Upfront investment can be worth it
Fifth edition Vampire has systems for building out your players’ Coterie, their little group of Kindred, as well as relationship maps and a whole host of other things. These can be extremely helpful for determining your chronicle’s narrative. By the time we’d finished character creation, though (which can take a while), we just wanted to jump into things — so we mostly skipped this stuff. I kind of wish I hadn’t, because having a coherent theme for your group can be extremely useful. As it is, I had to kind of justify why three very different Kindred were just hanging out and living together. It was fine, but I realized that those systems are there for a reason.
3. Make use of established material
I played Coteries of New York (which is ok) and Shadows of New York (which is excellent) a few months ago, which is what made me want to play Vampire in the first place. When it came time to populate the world with non-player characters, I just lifted a bunch of them from the games. For whatever reason, I’ve never really done this before, but it saves a lot of time. A game like Vampire has a lot of established characters, and if you’re already familiar with them, say from playing a visual novel or two, it can make things much easier to pull them into your game.
4. The most memorable stuff is inevitably that which you make up on the spot
You can develop NPCs, settings, and plotlines all you like, but the things players end up latching onto are always going to be the spur-of-the-moment details. One session, a player was doing some street work trying to get in touch with a higher-up Anarch, and I had to make up an NPC for the character to talk to. Enter “Doug the Vampire,” a Hamilton-loving, trucker hat-wearing faux-revolutionary who I brought back later on as the focus of a rescue mission because he was so beloved.
5. Lines and veils are useful
Most of my roleplaying experience was back before the tabletop revolutions of the 2010s, so I’m not really familiar with the tools designers have created to support player safety and comfort. To be honest, I bristle at some of the overly cute design and rules around this subject sometimes, but one tool I found useful in running Vampire was the concept of lines and veils. It’s really simple — lines are hard boundaries excluding certain topics from your game, and veils are “fade to black” moments. Since Vampire is a horror game about supernatural predators, it makes sense to talk beforehand about the subject matter, so that when a character turns her ex-lover/enemy into a vampire by spitting blood in her mouth as she lays dying in a graveyard, nobody’s blindsided by it.
6. No one’s as hard on you as you are on yourself
In any game that requires a lot of work from a DM-type role, most people are just going to be happy that you’re volunteering to run the game. Before every session, I found myself worrying that I was underprepared, that my players weren’t going to have a good time, that I was a terrible storyteller. And then after each session, they were effusive about how fun the game was. There are always going to be areas you can improve in, but I expect many DMs have higher expectations of themselves than their players do. You don’t have to be Matt Mercer or Griffin McElroy — nor should you try to be, since you aren’t producing a game for an audience. Prepare as much as you feel you need to, and take your players’ word for it when they tell you they’re having a good time.
Images from Vampire: The Masquerade Fifth Edition