Escalation in BNS Vampire: the Masquerade
There’s a BNS mechanics discussion that I love above all others. It’s the one that goes “That is a core problem, isn’t it? Social solutions not sticking.” and “Social solutions aren’t allowed to stick.” What does ‘stick’ mean here? For that matter, what does “allowed” mean here? The general hypothesis is this: there are mechanical reasons social conflicts escalate to killboxes. There’s plenty to say about human reasons for that escalation, and human costs too, but the mechanics– I want to talk about those. Changing people is hard. Changing mechanics? Easy. What if we could avoid some of that human cost paid in OOC misery with just a bit more awareness of where things get sticky?
So, I’m going to write in a Camarilla context, because that’s what I’ve played. Here’s the list of social mechanics that I think relate to stickiness in this context:
- Remove character from play permanently (Killing a character)
- Helping character gives a penalty (Blood Hunt)
- Deescalation requires help from a limited set of players (Boonbreaker, Forsaken)
- Remove character from status system without a time limit (Forsaken)
- Remove character from boon system temporarily (Disgraced, Boonbreaker)
- Remove character from status system temporarily (Disgraced)
- Remove character from play temporarily (Blood Contract penalty)
- Penalties to character actions/backgrounds temporarily (Blood Bond level 2 & 3, Attacking a character)
- Change roleplay interactions around the character temporarily (Vulgar, Warned, Disgraced, Forsaken, Blood Hunt, Blood Bond, Boonbreaker)
And it’s pretty easy to think of some ways to wiggle out of some of these mechanics, isn’t it? Socially, the Blood Hunt only gives a penalty if you’re caught helping in character. Deescalation gets easier and easier the more characters with ties to your character, and of course there’s the possibility of payment for those IC actions. Reward motivates people to work around rp-enforced punishments– if most PCs are ostracizing a character, then that character’s resources can be monopolized by the person willing to ignore the negative status. And there’s RP there too, which is an OOC reward. ‘We’re not talking to that person’ is boring for both sides, but changing the situation is a story and we’re all at game to make stories.
Moving on, blood contracts can torpor people, but waking from torpor is easy and with Telepathy in play, torpor doesn’t even stop a character from affecting the world. And then there’s everything that needs to be enforced through RP in games where we can’t /actually/ read a character’s status by looking at them. If I miss the game where a character is Warned or am in a different domain and if I don’t follow the email lists or it wasn’t publicly announced, am I going to know to treat a given PC as Warned? Hell, even if a status is announced, many people don’t know the status system mechanics and this makes it even harder to enforce. When can and can’t you talk to officers? Who counts as an officer? What boon should you offer for breaking a negative status censure? And what if someone tries to get fancy and use the custom penalty mechanic? I’ve never seen or heard of it done, and I think that’s because the existing ones are hard enough to enforce as it is.
The Camarilla status system mechanics are designed as a system of escalation with lots of steps where a PC can stop and cut a deal or wait it out and suffer. So I’m going to say there are three ‘sticky’ ends – forcing someone into a deal, generating enough IC suffering to satisfy the IC need for punishment, and murder. Only one of those can be enforced without the cooperation of all players involved, and that’s the killbox. And if the various steps on the way to Forsaken aren’t effective in pushing players to take their PCs off the escalation track, then it’s not at all hard to understand why people jump right to the end. To change that, the IC and OOC incentives need to line up for all three paths off the status escalation track. Mechanics should encourage people to be aware of their status, to interact with their status, and to want to cut a deal to get out of their status.
So! Let’s look at some of the problems discussed above. If we can counter them, status should feel more real and generate more roleplay, creating space for characters to get off the escalation track before the end.
- The 7th Tradition
Nothing matters if you don’t get caught doing it, not breaking a censure, not helping a Blood Hunted kindred, nothing. This is intentional design for Masquerade and also I love the 7th tradition. I feel bad even putting it in the ‘problems’ section. However, if you want people to be a little more worried about getting caught and thus a little more inclined to rp out their negative status, how about offering IC rewards for catching someone breaking the rules of their negative status? Warn PC X: okay, fine. Warn PC X AND offer a boon to anyone who catches them doing something that would break the censure and thus push PC X into being disgraced? Now not only are other PCs motivated to know what the censure is, they’re also motivated to push PC X into breaking it and PC X is motivated to avoid that. The game is on.
- Ostracizing a PC is boring and a waste of IC time and resources
“You can’t talk to these PCs,” is a punishment for both sides, let’s be honest. It’s a parlor larp, there’s not a lot of things to do other than talk. This mechanic is particularly painful in smaller games where half the court might be officers and are supposed to enforce the shunning via demanding boons for casual rp. In tabletop, this sort of punishment is very useful; it shifts the game field from higher status areas to lower status areas because characters can just go talk to some anarchs, independents, or mortals, but in larp, the storytellers are limited by time, space, and other players.
Given that, I see two ways to get around this negative incentive– one is to utilize the alternate restriction option for Warned (BNS p316) and impose a censure which generates RP instead of stomping on it. For example, a censure could require telling X number of PCs about what you did to get negative status and why it was wrong, which is both embarrassing and also basically a miniquest. A censure could require spending resources for a given cause or demand a player take certain risks that will lead to interesting story.
The other way I think people could try to deal with this negative incentive is to create some sort of low status area and make sure it’s populated. Basically, to make sure that characters with the ability to interact with a shunned PC without breaking setting are aware of the situation and motivated to act. There’s a variety of players who should be motivated to talk to someone who was just censured– anyone outside of the relevant sect looking for opportunity, infernalists looking for vulnerable PCs, and even high social standing PCs who might find taking a private moment to apply some education to be a rewarding scene. Since the MES is a national club, we could also take advantage of that to connect socially disgraced PCs across domains. Some players can do all of this for themselves: finding the outliers motivated to talk to them, reaching out across jurisdictions, building their own space. Some players can’t, and that’s when formal techniques to get things moving in the right direction would come in handy.
- People not knowing the status mechanics
I’m going to lay this one on the Storytellers. It doesn’t matter how many handy cheatsheets people make, there will always be people who don’t have the time to read them and there will always be new players. But pretty much everyone learns how disciplines and skills and backgrounds work, right? That’s because we use them in game on a regular basis. To fix people not knowing the status mechanics, USE THEM IN GAME. Have a batch of NPC ghouls to run errands for anyone who spends their Confirmed or Loyal status. Have a special privilege for Triumphant characters. Have NPCs treat people differently when they’re Favored, or Defenders, or Gallant, and call it out specifically when you do this.
Best of all, make social plots: An NPC was warned, and they want a Victorious kindred to help them before their enemy forces them to break the censure and they become Disgraced. An NPC wants the Prince to announce their event, but also hates the Prince, so they go looking for someone Acclaimed to force the matter without paying boons. An NPC wants to see some other NPC given negative status, but they don’t have the ability to do it themselves– can the players find someone who has the ability and create an excuse to apply the status? NPCs might be trying to avoid getting caught for desecrating Elysium, or they might want negative status for anarch bragging rights, or they might need to trade information to a PC in order to get a status given in order to fulfill a boon, and overcomplicated as that is, it’s still a way to distribute a plot hook while also demonstrating the social mechanics. Use status in game and people will learn from the examples.
- People not knowing which status mechanics apply
This one can be improved by everyone who wants status to be a bigger part of the game, because this is a paperwork problem. Put your PC’s status in your email signature. Put it on your wiki, if you have one. Log it with the harpy and the storyteller. Report it to the lists. Reference it in introductions. Gossip about it IC! This is why we use forms of abiding status as a title of address, even when they’re not actually titles. PCs can also go briefly OOC and make leadership checks, but if it’s possible to spread this information through passive or IC means, obviously that’s the better option.
Some elder PCs give physical tokens to represent Favored. Perhaps a censure for Warned could also come with the local equivalent of the shame cone? But mostly, fixing this particular issue is a matter of paperwork. And when status can’t be avoided through ignorance, the resulting RP is more likely to drive the escalation mechanics.
So we can emphasize status mechanics with IC incentives and information, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s only one way to force someone off the escalation track without their cooperation. If you want to actually avoid a killbox, in addition to emphasizing the steps along the way, you need to point out the paths away from escalation. This can mean finding someone to take a wild neonate under their wing, sending a messenger to talk to the kindred who your PC is too proud to deal with, or just straight up waving a reward at the censured character. It doesn’t have to be a reward in character, but even reminding people that things can go back to normal for their characters can help break the feeling of the negative status treadmill. Emphasizing the mechanics of the escalation track helps status punishments stick, and pairing a carrot with that stick encourages the cooperation AND THE OOC TRUST (important) needed to end the escalation. Of course, one could also change the status system to have more player-enforceable killbox equivalents… but I think there are some good reasons not to have those in BNS as it is currently written. However, as I’m inching past 2000 words, that, and the ooc trust, are a topic for another post.