Alrighty-righty-righty, step right up to read the fourth installment of the unfortunately intermittent column called The Thirteenth Legion here at De Vita In Excessum. I’m your host, the handsome Derek Guder and I hope you enjoy today’s show. First of all, we have to get the standard formalities out of the way. For those avid fans (I’m pretending that there are some) who care out there, my email address has changed yet again, send all fan mail to email@example.com. To keep those who have been following my travails updated, my book proceeds apace, but at a snail’s pace and the other opportunities at publication have fallen through – but I remain undaunted and I continue to fight the good fight! And stuff – mainly stuff.
Enough banter already, let’s cut to the chase here. What am I going to drone on about this month? What subject have I picked that doesn’t really need to be picked at? Well, any Storyteller or player worth their salt (and salt is good too, I love salty foods) has watched one or another movie and said to themselves "Hmmm, now that would make a damn fine game in blah blah blah…" I did it just this night/morning. I finished watching the really rather good Three Kings and thought it would make for a great idea for a game. Borrowing and "getting inspiration" (the harsh might call it plagiarism) is a perfect way to build up a game. Hell, even all the "Storyteller’s Handbooks" and Companions and Screens and Wipies say that, but they never give an example of how to take an idea from a movie and bend and twist it. The astute readers should now realize why I chose this month’s title.
A while back I finally rented Apocalypse Now at the urging of a friend of mine (those of you who haven’t yet, stop reading and go rent it – you can come back afterward) and I was completely blown away. It’s a brilliantly done movie with a shocking and brilliant point to it (it’s that point that separates it from most war movies, really). It had compelling characters, great plot, action and philosophy. Not a common combination by any stretch (no, The Matrix doesn’t count – eejits).
So just what the hell is it that I want to do with this idea of the movie? Even more astute readers should be able to puzzle that out – I’m going to give it the barest of dissections and then stretch it’s lovely skin over the bones of the each of the five World of Darkness games. People who keep up with the general happenings of the lines from White Wolf should be warned, however, I am now, and will likely always be, ignoring the existence of abominable Hunter: the Reckoning and the death of the glorious Wraith: the Oblivion. As far as I am concerned, the latter exists, the former does not, I get a much better World of Darkness that way. Returning from my mini-rant and venting, let’s be more specific about what I’m going to do. First, I’ll look at the movie Apocalypse Now (bear with me, I saw it a few months ago at this writing, although I have some notes) and talk about what makes it tick, at least to me – why it’s worth bothering with. Then I’ll look at each of White Wolf’s dark little game lines in turn, giving a basic outline for a chronicle/story based on the movie, with a few unique setting twists – we want to be inspired by the movie, not recreate it, after all.
So, on to the show.
First off, I should provide a general warning – I don’t remember the movie in exacting detail, just in general, most of the names have fled. Whatever quotes I may have from the movie should be assumed to be loose excerpts, "it went something like…" instead of the literal truth. "The names are made up, but the problems are real." That would be a good disclaimer – and points to the first to figure out where I got that from, ah youth.
So just what is this "great and brilliant masterpiece" about, eh? On the surface, it’s about a soldier – who’s name escapes me damnit – who is given a simple assignment: kill a man. You’d think that in wartime (specifically the Vietnam War this time) this wouldn’t be such a big thing, but the man he has to kill is a US soldier (named Kurts), not "the enemy." He is supposedly acting without orders and carving some sort of bloody kingdom for himself in the jungles. Surrounded by natives who have flocked to his banner, he’s apparently gone mad ("I dreamed last night of a snail, crawling along the edge… of a… straight razor…") – and he’s beating "the enemy," sending them running. Our "hero," the soldier, accepts the mission and heads up the river in a patrol boat deeper into enemy territory. Long story chopped into the Reader’s Digest version, our soldier finds Kurts to be no different from himself. Maddened by the lies and the hypocrisy of the war and burdened by the guilt of his own actions, Kurts has apparently simply snapped. The "horror" of which Kurts is obsessed with is the horror of Truth, the horror that there is no such thing as "justifiable killing." That any man could be a – and even is on some level – a psychotic killer. The movie is not about the war, it’s not about killing, it’s about the Truth and the lies that men build around them – and the realization that we all do that. Kurts is the Malkavian we all have inside us, to cheapen the point of the movie into a stereotype. So how do we make this a story? We take the central elements and mold them to our needs. So what are those elements? You have to decide that for yourself, in the end, but the point of this column is to provide and example, so I’ll look at the chosen movie.
The central elements of Apocalypse Now are the power and danger of the Truth and the universality of lies. It shows us that through a sympathetic but flawed main character who makes an allegorical journey into an increasingly chaotic and barbaric world only to find a darker reflection of himself, whom he is forced to kill and, in doing so, accept. Sounds like fun, eh? So to fit this to the various games without it just being a clone each time, we have to get creative. Let’s go down the line, shall we?
"We cut these people in half – and give them a band-aid"
The war between the Sabbat and the Camarilla has been a long and bloody one, and ultimately it has gone no where. It’s a stalemate in the end, and all the Elders know it – but they’ll be damned if they tell the neonates. At least it was until things started shaking up.
Those in the know (the rarest of the rare in Kindred society, only beaten by the "nice guys") have realized that Gehenna began a long, long time ago, but now barely anyone can deny it’s reality – they can feel it in their blood. The Ravnos have fallen and the thin-blooded run around, some of them even have children, by Caine. The Gangrel didn’t bother hanging around the mansion waiting for the owners to come home from vacation – and put everyone in the oven. They left the Camarilla when what was going on became obvious – and their departure has tipped the balance by more than a bit. The Camarilla’s strong arm has decided it didn’t like the rest of the body and made off for its own pastures. As a result, the rest of the great Clans have been forced to pick up the slack, lest the Camarilla fall like the house of cards the Sabbat claims it is. "Peaceful" Kindred have been impressed into wartime duties.
Vilheim Kurtsweild was a German-born, self-made businessman who got himself hired into the employ of a vampire – and then Embraced into the ranks of the Ventrue. He was set in charge of Ventrue interest in military construction contracts across the East Coast, working out of New York. Later, he served to organize the Clan’s general military interests, working as a facilitator for his brethren.
When the Sabbat wave across the Eastern seaboard fell upon New York, he was forced to be a warrior. Instrumental in reclaiming and defending a great deal of territory from the Sword of Caine, he decided to take the fight to the enemy, and with blinding charisma he took his growing cult of personality through the city, actually terrifying the Sabbat, shaking the faith of many in the fanatical sect.
Unfortunately for him, however, those in charge of New York don’t appreciate his accomplishments and are fearful that his often blatant tactics will draw attention from the authorities or hunters. His horrific tactics have earned him censure from several Princes and other power players, and a small coterie has been organized to "terminate his command" while the rest of the Camarilla can focus upon holding New York.
So what do you do in this game? Try to stress the lies that layer everything in Kindred society, paint everyone as an almost pathological liar. Nothing should be as it seems, and everything has a string attached to it. Show the players that they are predators, monsters, and liars – but let them continue with their hunt, let them take down Kurtsweild, and make sure they realize that they are liars themselves. They lie others, to each other and to themselves. This works best if members of the group or like Kurtsweild, it can drive home to feeling of kinship.
Other complications can be brought in by further following the Vampire: the Masquerade metaplot. The Sabbat official takes New York in the published material. What if that happens after Kurtsweild’s death? The characters, in a way, may have handed the largest city in America over to the Sabbat. Other possibilities include running this right in the middle of the Week of Nightmares or involving the thin-blooded, either as sideline prophets or perhaps as the real target in all these maneuverings. And what does the Ancient sleeping under New York think of this?
"Give me a hundred moral men…"
The Silver Fangs have always been the leaders of the Garou Nation, and today is no different, despite the claims of some other werewolves. Tradition stands strong and tall among the followers of Gaia, wanton change is for the monkeys. In the Amazon War, like everywhere else, the Silver Fangs lead and they are in control. One such warrior-general, a Silver Fang known as Wounds-of-Gaia, has been among the few who have not left yet. In fact, he has taken his pack and those that decided to join with him deeper into the jungle, past the "front lines," almost as if they were trying to dig into the very heart of the Wyrm itself. The Garou and the kinfolk (and the other breeds of shifters) who follow him watch his every move for wisdom and enlightenment, they nearly worship him. The Elders of the Nation, however, point to his barbaric tactics as signs that he has gone completely mad, fallen to unspoken weakness of his tribe, and that he must be put down. They say he has gone too far, that he is "Wyrm-tainted" and a betrayer of all that can be held sacred. Although King Albrecht has not commented on the issue (some say he is avoiding it), many older Garou have organized packs solely to "return him to Gaia."
Are they right in their accusations? Has Wounds-of-Gaia gone too far? His followers say that he is simply a genius, that his mastery of the Truth frightens the Elders. The spirits seem to be frightened of him – and at the same time, perversely drawn to the energy surrounding him. His victims don’t argue, they simply stare into the jungle, impaled on spikes – those that have eyes, at least.
This is a tale about what is required to win, the dedication that is needed to completely conquer an enemy. What are you willing to sacrifice? How much are you willing to pay for this combat? This battle? This war? How far is "too far" when so much is riding on the line? Put obstacles in the pack’s way that are almost impossible to get around without compromising their cherished beliefs (re: lies). Show them the success that Wounds-of-Gaia has managed to pull from the maw of the Wyrm – and then show them what he paid to get it.
Up until now Werewolf: the Apocalypse has had almost no metaplot, and what it did have was confined to novels. This will finally be rectified with the newly announced revised edition (see the website for details, I’m sure it’s full of information and press releases), but as of yet there is little to worry about. Some interesting twists, however, could be such things as abandoning the idea of a barbaric war, and instead making the game a shadow war against agents of the Wyrm in the civilized world, such as the Seventh Generation in New York. This allows you to emphasize the violence and horror by painting it against the contrasting "safe world." Another alternative would be the War of Rage or a war against the Black Spiral Dancers, but bother suffer from having pretty much unassailable moral high-ground. Significant reworking would be needed. You could even take the entire event into the Umbra, placing it in a Realm, perhaps something like Scar even.
"The horror… the horror…"
They say the Ascension War is over, but the bullets keep flying. The Technocracy still has the Pogrom to enforce and the Traditions still have the Faceless Monolith to lash out at. Each side kills the other for the benefit of the Sleeper between them – who could care less about their undying devotions. Even if the prize has fallen asleep, the combatants are still tearing away at each other.
The orders came from up on high. The Crafts have been destroyed and the Traditions have been beaten – stop the fighting and come in out of the rain, there are more important things to do on the Timetable. Then Command was gone, cut-off, and communication hasn’t been re-established. Kurt Blackwater of the New World Order received his new orders, read them, and replied promptly to the local Construct. While they listened to some mad gibberish about razors and slugs, he picked up his guns and took his men back to his war.
Like Sherman, Blackwater has marched his way through the magical community. Those superstitionists he finds, he kills. Those vampires he finds, he kills. Whatever horrors lurking in the shadows of the World of Darkness he can get his sights on dies – in horrible ways. And he isn’t subtle about it, he leaves signs, signs that scare the supernatural community – and terrify the populace. Desperate stories of "psychotic killing sprees" and "gang wars" are used to buy time and the Technocracy scrambles to "relieve" Blackwater of his command before he pulls every in the shadows on the Technocracy. All those in his path scramble around trying to survive, or trying to take revenge.
This story works best for a Technocratic campaign where the PCs are handed the task of eliminating Kurt Blackwater by an over-extended and increasingly desperate Construct. He’s disobeyed orders and he’s committing atrocities left and right, even if he is "cleaning up the streets." Hunt him down, take him out, simple, right? Those on the business end of his crusade are similarly after him, but this is much more personal, and it can actually be much more powerful if they realize just how much like them he might really be.
This game is about philosophy and morality. Blackwater’s actions are wrong, aren’t they? Or is he just going "a bit too far." It’s hard to tell sometimes. To keep this from being a black-and-white issue, bring the good side of Blackwater’s crusade to light – maybe there was a hidden layer of Nephandi in the city, or the local supernatural creatures were notorious for their depredations – like in Mexico City. In some ways this game is like the one for Werewolf: the Apocalypse except that it’s a bit more abstract and a great deal more difficult. This should be a game about ruthlessness on all sides and about the morality of war, and perhaps of the Ascension War itself.
With the revised edition of Mage: the Ascension, there are many issues that will have to be ironed out, due to it’s rushed and incomplete nature. The Avatar Winds, if they will affect the campaign, need to be given a plausible explanation and the true extent of the loss of the Masters should be given a great deal of thought, especially for this game since much of the theme relies upon looking at how close atrocity and necessity can be. That gets harder without lots of superiors to use as tools in painting that theme.
More than the other game lines, Mage: the Ascension will call for multiple screenings of the film throughout the chronicle, simply to get an idea of what your trying to do.
"I don’t know if I can kill a man face-to-face."
Everyone knew that the Sixth Maelstrom was coming, even those who ran around decrying it the loudest – they knew it the most. No one, except maybe Charon himself, knew that it would come in such a small package, however.
The Dark Kingdom of Jade invaded the Dark Kingdom of Iron in an attempt to keep its empire together in the face of an outside threat. Working from the inside, they managed to flood their troops in and surprise Stygia all across its territories. Some cities pushed back the invaders, other weren’t so lucky. Most were simply forced into some kind of stalemate. London was one of those necropoli caught between two great powers.
Kurts was a legionnaire from the Emerald Legion when the Jade Empire struck, and he was given a field promotion when all of this commanding officers fell under the enemy’s weapons. He took his troops and led them back against the Jade troops, pushing and shoving and bashing his way through their defenses. He seemed unstoppable, a slow juggernaut of Iron. Those he led were convinced that he was a genius, there were rumors that he had known about the invasion and had refused Transcendence to lead Stygia against its enemies. Others said that the Ladies of Fate had chosen him, or that he was Charon himself. Both the Jade and the Iron troops look at him and at each other and shiver – all they see is a Shadow-eaten madman clawing towards their throats. The Iron Citadel is forced to send a circle of wraiths to eliminate Kurts, even during a war with the Jade Empire, they cannot afford to have a charismatic Shadow-eaten leading their own troops. He must be stopped, at all costs.
And then the Smiling Lord’s final deceit is revealed and the Maelstrom hits.
This is a tough game about identity, and how much of the self is a convenient lie. Here, you have to strive more than anywhere else to show the players just how much Kurts is like them, and how he seems to be nearly completely dissolved away in the face of the Truth unveiled from its lies. Is he really Shadow-eaten? Maybe, or maybe that’s just another convenient lie to shield everyone, including himself. This is a game about how war, horror and necessity all lead to forcing people to violate their own sense of identity, whittling away at their psyche (and Psyche as well). That’s the Truth that has apparently driven Kurts insane.
"He’s a great man!"
Some wars never die, they just take a rest to let everyone lick their wounds and feel complacent and safe. Some of them return, like the Accordance War. When the sidhe returned, they returned with tyranny and despotism and hate. They hadn’t changed since the Sundering and they still held the same time-honored lies to their lips. Some things never seem to change.
When the peace came, the proud troll Kurt Grendoal stopped swinging his axe and watched. He watched the sidhe rule and lie, and then lie again. He watched them bend the commoners down and rape them for all they had, and make them say thanks afterward. He watched it alone, seething with rage until he couldn’t take it anymore and he ended it, just like he ended the sidhe’s lives.
A troll renowned for his compassion and honesty, he was obviously mad, a crazy fae fallen into some kind of violent Bedlam – or even become a Dauntain, if the rumors were true. But those who he had "freed" saw him as a near-prophet. His revelations of the Truth were chilling like the soft and deadly caress of Banality, but they could simply not be denied – and neither could the war he started.
Now Concordia is in an uproar, and the wise see flames in the future. The nobility calls for Kurt’s head on a platter while the common man has been riled up by tales of his success at emancipation – and terrified by word of his atrocities. Mutilations, killings – even Cold Iron, all kinds of horrors have been attributed to the bloody troll, many of them true.
The Parliament of Dreams has sent justice after the troll, in the form of death. The sidhe simply cannot stand for it and many of the commoners have convinced themselves that they like the reign of their nobility. The Parliament desperately hopes to avert a war across the continent, but it may already be too late as other "resistance cells" rise up against their oppressors, whoever they happen to be.
This game should focus on several things, actually. Framed within the insanity of the war is the reality of its inevitability. It will come, in the end, violence really is the way – and even if it isn’t, it’s a well-beaten path. Beyond that as well is the realization that atrocity and violence and horror serve to destroy all sense of safety and home more than they do to solve anything. Those who survive this war will have nowhere to go, nowhere will be safe, because they will have nowhere to hide from the Truth inside, the realization that is colder than Iron or Banality itself. This returns you to the insanity of the whole situation.
Never let anything work as planning in this chronicle, keep it messed up and make sure everything is just a bit wrong. This is a war, it is the essence of chaos and insanity. It is also unstoppable, with or without Kurt, this would have happened, it was simply unavoidable, a near force of nature. Survivors of the last Accordance War and orphans of this one can make the last element of this story more than painfully clear.
No adjustments have to made for a metaplot here, but those who want even more insanity should think about having the Week of Nightmares rip through the Dreaming in the midst of this, and watch everyone fall to pieces in the chaos and unrivalled insanity. Bedlam and Banality both should be flying fast and furious, and chimera and thallain can be used to great effect. Maybe this wave of terror has an even greater root, perhaps the greatest symbol of "home" and a "safe place" itself has been destroyed. Arcadia the great is no more.
I can’t believe you actually kept reading
Sorry to keep you waiting for so long, but I thought it might be worthwhile for someone out there. If anyone actually uses any of this crap, please drop me a line, I’d love to hear about how it works out.
I guess I don’t have much else to say now, except what I’m planning for next month (re: next article). I had originally intended something about internet resources for White Wolf for this month, so I might do that, but I doubt it. After last column’s look at Werewolf: the Apocalypse, I’ve had a few people say I should turn my overly-winded gaze to the wonderful and deeply flawed Changeling: the Dreaming, so maybe I’ll do that. But it would be a big project indeed. Thinking about it now, I could write a column on crossovers, both within the World of Darkness and without, that might be fun.
As always, let me know if there is a personal preference of any sort, I love to get feedback.