Hmmm…. I think it has to be Heart of Darkness, which was also the longest, most complicated, and most recent. It’s certainly the most fun to re-read (the advantage of playing in chat… transcripts!). So much happened, and there were so many good character moments. In fact, the reason this blog was created was to tell that story—and hopefully I will get more of the fiction segments up soon.
It was also the most seat-of-the-pants storyline we ever had. The premise was simple: How can we get two centuries-old elders, who have become persons of some stature in their respective (and opposing) sects, into a shared-peril situation, and trap them in a “foxhole” so they can finally (maybe) talk out their also-centuries-old personal differences with one another? They weren’t really enemies, per se; they had a history together going back to the 15th century, and it really wasn’t a bad history, as these things go. It’s just that they never quite got along. Due to circumstances at that time, they managed to start off on just the wrong foot from their first meeting. And, well, Etienne can carry a grudge for a long, long time… Then there was that stunt Etienne pulled that forced Marius to call a blood hunt on him back in 1526… The fact that Etienne is Tremere and Camarilla, and Marius is Lasombra and Sabbat doesn’t help either, but really that’s more of a final straw thing; both remember a time when those distinctions didn’t matter nearly so much.
Their paths normally wouldn’t cross (in fact, they’d probably go to some trouble to avoid it), but for this story, they had to be pulled together, willing or not. And it needed to be a storyline that posed a serious challenge to centuries-old elders (as well as allowing younger vampires and even their mortal associates to play significant roles in the process). Fortunately, there were other characters whose involvement would be certain to draw them in as well…
Etienne de Vaillant – Tremere Pontifex of Spirits serving House and Clan in Hong Kong. Former cardinal of the Catholic Church. Savvy politico and master magus, who has (after centuries of struggle, including the longest apprenticeship on record) managed to win a fair degree of freedom, independence and prestige among his highly-competitive clan, and even some small measure of peace (the source of which is one of his most closely held secrets). Etienne (played by the wickedly brilliant and talented Sarah Roark) was the primary protagonist throughout the chronicle; Charles and the others were generally following his lead, except when the story dictated otherwise.
Marius dell’Aquila – Lasombra Priscus of the Sabbat and senior Black Hand remover and dominion. Former Prince of Milan (though this is not widely known), a warrior and undercover operative, with a number of closely held secrets of his own, including his long-term alliance/friendship with Gabriel Roark, eccentric Ventrue iconoclast. Marius was one of my NPCs.
Gabriel (Kristevani) Roark – Eccentric Ventrue Autarkis, being a Dur-an-Ki sorcerer, Noddist scholar and demon-hunter with an eclectic collection of knowledges, skills, and relationships, including some that are rather suspicious in nature (such his centuries-long friendship with Marius dell’Aquila). Gabriel was played by the charming and sharply witty Myranda Sarro when she was available (she originally created him); when Real Life and Family Responsibilities sidelined her, I played him as an NPC.
What brings them to cross paths again starts with the discovery of and race to collect a set of ancient Cainite relics—four canopic jars dating back to the 19th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, and a few blood-stained fragments of basalt tiles (even older still and not Egyptian in origin), all of which featured written characters in an unknown runic script. But those written characters could only be seen by Kindred, or those mortals who have tasted Kindred blood—which immediately implies blood-magic of a specific Kindred nature (though from what clan is unclear). Etienne is introduced to the mystery through a Ventrue acquaintance, Dr. Charles Hewitt, who has one of the canopic jars (and three fragments of the tiles). But their attempts to compare it to another possible jar of the set brings them into direct conflict with the Black Hand, elite warriors and assassins of the Sabbat, who appear to be collecting those artifacts for nefarious reasons of their own. And they reason (quite correctly) that anything the Black Hand is willing to go to such lengths to acquire must have great significance—and it’s highly likely that whatever that purpose is, they will need all four jars to accomplish it, which means at some point, they’ll be after the one Charles has as well. What purpose might that be? Well, if it involves the possible remains of a 3,000 year old Kindred, who might actually have survived mummification and has been in torpor all these many centuries… it’s probably not good.
The title “Heart of Darkness” came much later—while we were playing it, we referred to it as “Treasure Hunt! Treasure Hunt!” or sometimes even “Tomb Raider” – because the story started out as a race to track down and recover the missing artifacts, trying to get to them before the Other Guys did.
But the story grew considerably in the telling. It had to. I confess… when we started out, I had no idea where the story was going. I knew the jars would be Vitally Important, and the ancient vampire whose organs were sealed within them would eventually show up (but exactly who he was, what clan, and why he had been hidden for so long was up in the air). I knew who their adversaries really were (sort of, they got more specific names and clans later). I knew that Gabriel Roark and Sarah McCullough (a young Tremere of both Etienne’s and Marius’ acquaintance) would be drawn into the story, and that they would cross paths with Marius at some opportune point, as he was pursuing an investigation of his own.
The highlights of Heart of Darkness (at least for ME) included:
- Sarah’s and Myranda’s fiendish imaginations, and their ability to play more than one character at a time, and also pick up new characters as needed at the drop of a hat, plus come up with inventive directions for the plot to go. One reason I wasn’t too stressed over not knowing exactly where the story was going was that I could trust Etienne (ie, Sarah) to come up with something plausible to explore, and just go with that, until the rest of the story jelled more firmly. (We also had actual plot discussions along the way as well).
- The key role of the mortals in a Vampire chronicle—mostly Charles’ grad students, but also later including Gabriel’s security team, and a few others picked up along the way—the mortals became absolutely vital to the story’s heart. Not just because they could be useful (and they were) for more than the obvious, but because their relationships with the vampires, even the moldy oldies, had a considerable impact on how the vampires—even the Sabbat vampires—behaved. You need mortals—ordinary human beings—in a vampire chronicle to remind players (and Storyteller) of just what it means to be a vampire—an undead predator of the night, who survives predominantly by stealing blood from human beings. The “friend or food” question came into very sharp light sometimes—because when the vampires spared the mortals traveling with them the worst excesses of their hungers, the mortals knew that meant other human beings weren’t so lucky. Mortals have always provided a secondary storyline (think of it as a kind of modern Upstairs/Downstairs scenario) in our chronicles, just because this brings out the subtle (and not-so-subtle) horror of what a vampire must do to survive on a regular basis, and what that means for the normal people around him.
- Richness of ritual magic. Because magic lay at the heart of the story (the sealed canopic jars) and several characters (including three Tremere) had varying degrees of knowledge and skill in occult arts (not to mention what the ultimate Big Bad Guy could do), thaumaturgy and rituals played a large part in the story. We didn’t play out every detail of the rituals, but we did do a lot more with magic and magical principles (not necessarily strictly following the rules in WW books), and that was kind of cool, especially for the Tremere.
- Globe-trotting travels, by land, sea and air. The chronicle visits a number of places, including at least one surprise destination NO vampire would ever expect to visit (and survive), and one they are all hoping to never ever ever see again. Researching was LOTS of fun. (It’s certainly as close as I’ll ever come to chartering a Lear jet or luxury sailing yacht). Also, Wikipedia and Google Earth are our friends.
- Vykos. Anytime I get to bring out Vykos, I am a happy Storyteller… in part because whenever Vykos comes out to play, Etienne de Vaillant becomes a VERY unhappy Tremere. But Etienne did get the dubious ‘reward’ of witnessing Vykos become a VERY unhappy Tzimisce at one point, so that was fair. (Well, I thought it was, anyway).
- Digging into a wide range of Kindred history and mythology. Which also meant digging into real history and mythology as well, particularly Egyptian mythology, but also a lot of ancient Kindred myths and certain Dirty Secrets from the White Wolf canon that many of the characters (being younger than our moldy oldies) had never heard of before.
- Everyone’s darkest secrets got revealed. Sometimes very, VERY painfully. This is, of course, why characters have dark secrets—so they have something to protect, and then panic/angst/frenzy about when they finally (as they eventually must) get revealed. In fact, revealing a number of characters’ dark secrets was one of the goals we had set for ourselves in this chronicle, and as it happened, the secrets actually turned out to be very, very relevant to the plot.
- The Past comes back to haunt you, sometimes literally. One of the things that made this story work was that we’ve been playing some of these characters for a long time, through multiple chronicles, over a period of centuries in game time, and years in real time. Which meant when Etienne and Marius clashed, it was because they had real conflicts over events that had actually occurred in game. Their memories were our memories, and very real (and we had transcripts to refer to). The story also gave us opportunity to come up with some of the details of other incidents that we had not played out – even just short vignettes – of what the main characters (the seven main Kindred, anyway) had done or experienced in their pasts. And the three elders definitely had far more skeletons in their closets than any of the younger ones.
- Surprises. One of the special delights for me was managing to pull off a surprise – and hearing (well, reading) Sarah’s reaction when she realized who a particular NPC that had been oh-so-casually introduced earlier in the scene really was. I so rarely get to pull off a dramatic reveal like that…. Very satisfying.
- Dirty Storyteller Secret: the best way to do a prophecy for the characters to fulfill is not to write it until the story is nearly done. Introduce it early, but be extremely vague about the wording – ask your players to take it on faith they will have the wording when it becomes important. Then, at the point in the story where the characters (in this case, Etienne) remember having heard it and realize how perfectly it EXPLAINS what they’ve just been going through and where their path seems to be leading them now – then it’s much easier to write one that fits their situation to a T. In this case, the existence of the prophecy (uttered in trance by a thin-blooded seer earlier in the story) was useful in persuading Etienne (who can be quite a suspicious bastard when he’s been deceived once already) of the necessity of taking his last plunge of faith (that involved trusting people who had just deceived him, no easy matter!)
I’m not giving many details of the actual plot here. That’s why I’m writing the fiction part of the blog. But if anyone is really dying to know, you can message me, or drop a note below, and I can provide more details. Or look at the banner images above and below, and see what clues you can find…..