Secrets of the Masquerade, and punching up.

‘Secrets of the Masquerade’ is an AFAB queer political sociologist who’s been steeped in Vampire and the World of Darkness for about fifteen years. She is a board member of VEKN France, and also writes some truly fantastic fan supplements for Vampire: the Masquerade that demonstrate a keen understand of character, horror and nuance, and uses role-playing as an opportunity to teach and learn about intersectional diversity and social dynamics. You can find Secrets of the Masquerade on Twitter at https://twitter.com/secretsofvtm.

B: So, let’s start at the start: how did you get introduced to Vampire: the Eternal Struggle?

SotM: I started playing both Vampire: the Masquerade and Vampire: the Eternal Struggle in Mexico City, in the early 2000s. I used to play a little bit of Magic: the Gathering as a kid at the time, but I found the Vampire: the Masquerade revised corebook somewhere when I was 13-14 and in my goth phase, so I got involved very quickly with the world as a whole. Because of the configuration of Mexico City, all these interests were often grouped in “once a week markets” for nerds and geeks, including video games, manga and anime (my other big passions). We also had conventions every three months (as in, BIG conventions) and all of us “frikies” would meet and play and exchange.

My Mexican friends were very casual, we played mostly duels every now and then. I did participate in a VTES tournament back then and I loooost so badly because I was just a kid for whom English was the third language only. We weren’t competitive, and as such our decks were more thematic than functional. Had a lot of fun trying to make a Beckett, Lucita and Anatole crypt work!

After Mexico, when I turned 18 I moved to the USA (middle-of-nowhere, Kentucky), and then back to France. I didn’t get to play in the US, and the only differences I’ve encountered as a player in the two regions were linguistic differences and how people go about shuffling the cards or announcing their actions. Overall, the decks between countries looked similar enough to me, as well as the general play styles. The crowd itself is very similar cross-country (as in, mostly straight, mostly nerdy, sometimes creepy dudes; couple of fedoras too).

My go-to play when I started playing in Mexico was Malk stealth-dementation (extremely boring) with a chaotic element. Now I tend to work on more… weird concepts. Both then and now, I am fully and completely oblivious of the meta. My husband is far better at the finer details of the mechanics, but I’m always the first to seize opportunities as they appear. When I build my decks myself, nowadays, it’s always around a key library combo or concept, and I just match around it (I have one of the largest collections in Europe so I’m rarely frustrated in terms of availability of most cards).

B: What was it about the game that attracted you, and made you stick with it? Was there something special about VTES that you didn’t find anywhere else?

SotM: It was the art, the ambiance of the cards, the multiplayer mechanics (even if I mostly play duels or trios for now, I do see the long run). For the art, Timbrook’s works in color are just so iconic, I wish I could convey to him how much his lines have inspired me to this day. There’s a reason why I hired someone with such a stylized way of drawing for my VtM book!

‘Dominate’ by owlvirus.deviantart.com. Taken from Secret of the Masquerade’s Guide to Playable Characters (http://tinyurl.com/SotmPCs).

And then I found out Rebecca Guay had done art for VTES as well, well, I was sold.

I also think what I appreciate the most is how each game can translate to “World of Darkness” lore-like events. Bleeds are attacking the influences of the opposing Methuselah, obviously, but if Anatole bleeds with Kindred Spirits a Methuselah whose minions are all Euro-Brujah, what does it mean, in terms of narration? That’s my thing.

B: Having played so much 2- and 3- player VTES, are there particular aspects of the game that shine in that format? Vampire‘s multiplayer dynamics are often seen as a strength and a weakness, so I’d be keen for your thoughts on what you see as the benefits and downsides of playing with a smaller player count.

SotM: Of course certain cards just don’t have a place in duels, and certain political cards have far less leverage. With 2 and 3 players, our games are shorter in time, not only because a turn takes less time, but also because we tend to play more aggressively. If I take a swarm deck, my goal is to run over my prey, then over my grandprey (which is my predator) ASAP. There’s far less “resources management” and playing long term. It also happens that we can find ourselves in a locked state, in which we just call it quits because else it’d take hours for one to truly gain advantage. That’s no fun :p

B: You’re very much a fan of Vampire: the Masquerade as well as the card game – what do you enjoy about how VTES translates that World of Darkness into a different medium? Are there particular aspects you think they’ve fumbled, too, and how would you address them?

SotM: There’s plenty that was well done, like the cost of doing things without a legal existence (plenty of equipment actions require pool, which translates to moving and using powerful influences to obtain them), and the overall dynamics of methuselahs playing against each other, all while making sure they don’t leave themselves open to their rivals. The use of your own influence to obtain minions, which weakens you and leaves you dependent on those working for you… very much WoD-like, and I like that. 

Now hopefully you’ll excuse me going full blown meta on it, but there’s a few things about the game that are from “damn” to “oh that’s just bad”. The lack of social combat (as in, Elysium/Harpy stuff) is a miss, but the game has already so many mechanics, I can’t blame them; overall those aspects are swallowed in “bleed actions”. There’s also a meta issue with art and depiction of non-Western things: the drawings of Black characters and the Laibon / Ebony Kingdom expansions tend to be very arguable in terms of representation, there was no expansion on Kindred of the East (for better or for worse), and well, one of the original artists is a literal Nazi. Overall that was dealt with as time went on, but it’s important to realize this, especially with the current issues in the pen and paper publications. It might not have been the explicit, conscious goal, nevertheless it’s there and it must be tackled (which sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not). The lack of diversity in the VTES playerbase and higher ups allows certain biases to go through, which attracts certain types of people that plenty would agree we do not want in our community. This is why I accepted being part of the VEKN France board, and to be Prince of my city. Now that I finally have some job security I’ll be able to push for better inclusivity, both in groups, but also in how the game is handled.

I also miss the “punching up” message in VTES that the World of Darkness transmits. Vampire: the Masquerade used to be about playing marginalized people who became monsters, living at the fringes of society, and being bossed around by whatever sect in power and anyone with a week of seniority over them. It’s about oppression and personal, political horror. It’s not about empowering or glorifying the NPCs and more. VTES doesn’t have any horror element to it nor does it have this questioning of “what message does this game convey”. I suppose it isn’t possible to transfer that to the card game, so I’m not actually angry at it.

B: Yeah, White Wolf’s approach to representation was frequently well-meaning but doesn’t stand up to a more informed position. I have a real soft spot for Kindred of the East, and it was a brave attempt in many ways, but the more I look at it the more I cringe. Ebony Kingdom was better in some ways, but White Wolf’s frequent use of dictator’s names for many of Legacies of the Blood’s vampires was not great. 

SotM: And Leif Jones’ super deformed art used for black characters might have not been the most relevant choice for Laibon cards. Now I like Leif as a person and as an artist, many of his pieces are iconic, his style is unique, but there is a certain message behind having a white man draw super deformed black characters. I doubt a person of color was consulted before it went to press, which is just unfortunate.

B: Okay, so a question off the back of that, what would you like to see from VTES to improve representation in future releases? Not reprinting Harold MacNeil cards or the most egregious cards is one thing, but how to we begin to consciously reshape the game?

SotM: Just “not hiring Nazis anymore” isn’t enough. Actively hiring more diverse artists and creators, thinkers, designers, encouraging it and communicating around it. Openly welcoming a wide range of talents, showcasing them, and actively fighting against those in the player base and in the general organisation who want to push or keep us out. Overall I don’t think the game itselfneeds to be reshaped (cards that exist already exist) but informing and acknowledging the issues the game has had in the past and addressing it all openly is necessary. Black Chantry deciding to hire new artists for certain new cards is a thing, but actively doing so and saying why they’re doing will bring more weight to it. 

B: What are some of your experiences and observations that you’d like to bring to coordinators and princes across the world, to improve the game’s diversity, representation and strength?

SotM: I’d want to tell other Princes and National Coordinators to watch out for, amongst others, misogynist language, and openly state “that’s not tolerated around my table”. This however cannot happen if those at the top don’t do so, and they need to show a paradigm shift by hiring such diversity to begin with. It’s also important to openly welcome players’ Significant Others to participate (which they often don’t, hell, they’re even contributing to tournaments by taking care of the food for attendees? How is this even totally accepted and talked as a regular occurrence?).

B: I must say that’s the very first time I have heard of SO’s doing any catering of events! It may be the size of events where I’m based, but it’s completely outside of the regional experience. I cannot even imagine.

SotM: It seems to be a common occurrence for certain tournaments over here in Europe! As for involving Significant Others, I’d explain the game from a narrative, social perspective, the diplomacy and plays around it. Boardgames have managed this transition, involving spouses, so VTES should be able to do it too. I’ll be working on “as little text as possible, as simple effects as possible” beginner-friendly decks soon, to spark interest for new players to get that learning curve smoother. That will help new players get interested, especially those who aren’t very good at English! Also, nowadays, people younger than me have been used to getting most media dubbed/subbed, while I’ve grown with English-only games (English is my third language). Because we can’t really have the game translated into a bunch of languages (despite some lexicon efforts), fully committing to Globish would be a smart choice.

B: What would you love to see VTES change into, to capture that younger audience and broader market appeal that board games have seen? Is it about how it presents itself, or do we need to re-think rules, templating or even the fundamentals of the game?

SotM: VTES remains niche, as it is and was always considered merch from the tabletop roleplaying game. That’s unique – Legend of the Five Rings, the card game, inspired the tabletop roleplaying game, not the other way around. I am still very nostalgic and attached to the game as it is, and I don’t want all current and older cards to go to waste and either basically become worthless, or high-end secondhand market.

I think perhaps a full rehaul, like it happened for L5R or Netrunner, will be needed to fully appeal further. There’s been plenty of new Vampire: the Masquerade board games announced recently, such as Heritage, with the new ownership of the IP and Paradox stepping in. Perhaps a new card game inspired by VTES‘s core idea might be worth doing, and keep it a living card game or trading card game. If we feel wild and have extra funds, a Keyforge-like system maybe? 

VTES games are too long, we take far too much time reading each other’s cards because “oh yeah, this one with such a specific effect”. I’d like it to see closer to Tarot (the card game, not the reading), which allows for a 3vs1 or 3vs2 system that depends on a certain level of chance (you don’t really decide who are your allies). It makes for faster rounds, smoother transitions, and less rules bickering which push out new players by default. Simply taking a crypt card from every player’s deck, once everyone is seated, and taking two at random, would make those two allies, and share VPs, while the other three would either stay alone (and unofficially unite until they oust one, or backstabbing because why not).

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