The Trouble with Transylvania

Some thoughts on the epic Vampire chronicle.

(warning spoilers may follow for White Wolf’s Transylvania Chronicls)

I bought Transylvania chronicles as it came out. A book at a time. For those of you not familiar with it, Transylvania chronicles is one of White Wolf’s epic chronicles. Eight centuries worth of vampire scenario, published over four books. When it first came out I was bullish about the series, after all, the people who worked on it were responsible for Vampire: Darkages, my then favourite game. I waited until I had all the supplements to run the game, so I could work in as much of the overarching story as possible.

I ran the game for nigh on two years, most Thursday nights. I had players who I trusted, with character concepts which I liked, and which had lots of potential for development. Yet somehow the end of the game has left a somewhat stale taste in my mouth. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy running it, most of the time I did. It’s more the level of effort I had to put in to make it enjoyable. These are published scenarios, I paid good money for them (some forty quid in all). Yet a good portion of my time was spent rewriting the material, often to take into account basic player psychology and weird plot elements that the authors seemed to believe were insurmountable, but which could be solved with the simple appliance of a basic discipline.

I think the most annoying thing about TVC is the shear mix of quality. The plot arc is good, it has that ancients manipulating events shtick that is a Vampire staple. This part of the story works well, and the characters slowly get to discover some of the biggest secrets in the World of Darkness. The introductory sections too, are remarkably well thought out, giving nice précis of the historic changes over the time period involved and a strong idea of the themes for each piece.

The problem is with the individual chapters. Each book has three of these, and they seem to follow a standard format of okay story, good story, appalling story. Part of the problem with the appalling stories is the vast amount of railroading and deprotagonisation (i.e. the players are not the main cast). A good many of the stories are linear, leaving no room for clever thinking. Now that I can forgive if the story has an interesting moral problem or a good twist, or if the illusion of control is maintained. But once again we get the standard white wolf plot device of “If your players fail to go left, there is a large group of elders with sticks who beat them around the head until they do.” Not only this, but the linear nature of the stories is often solely there so that some signature character (White Wolf’s favourite NPCs) can turn up and do all the interesting bits, whoopy doo, why are my players here again? I’ve played in dungeon bashes with more character control of plot.

That’s not to say there aren’t good scenarios. The second book, Son of the Dragon, has the elegant Convention of Thorns section, where players are given free reign to influence major events in Cainite history. It’s very freeform and can be tailored to your individual PCs desires to change history in their favour. It’s the grand scale politicking that make vampire such a Machiavellian setting. It’s a shame then that the other stories in the book are both, characters turn up, Dracula does something cool, PCs watch. The third book, Ill Omens, contains a wonderful moral dilemma piece. The PCs have given shelter to the last Capadocian during the Giovanni purge, and must choose whether to aid her or sell her to the highest bidder. They must choose political favours in the world of the damned, or their own humanity. This is a story that shows the themes that Vampire should make central, but which are all too often marginalised.

In the end, the biggest success of Transylvania chronicles has been in convincing me that books of scenarios just aren’t for me, and for cementing my ideas on what a good roleplaying scenario should contain: A good hook, a moral dilemma, a conflict players and characters care about, and player characters firmly in the limelight. So maybe it was worth the 40 quid after all.