Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Undying: a hyper-focused vampire RPG about power (review)

Undying by Paul Riddle is a diceless RPG about vampires. It's on Kickstarter at the moment, with a couple of days to go.

Undying is about vampires as predators

It's natural to compare Undying to White Wolf's Vampire or Urban Shadows. However, Undying is a simpler game, focused on two aspects: preying on humans and the way predators fight each other for dominance.

Here are some exercepts from the rules that establish what it's about:

"You are a predator: a vampire who stalks human prey in the night, feasting on their blood. ... Predators are misanthropic, but not solitary. They are a pack of wolves.

"[In this pack of predators], the most cunning and ruthless is the alpha. All predators envy that power and prestige. Each hopes to one night rule the pack. Thus, from the greatest predator to the least, all are embroiled in a ceaseless conflict of intrigue and bloodshed.

"Game play revolves around brief periods of intense conflict, where old rivalries and new slights spark an inferno, and long stretches of intrigue, where intricate plots are set in motion. ... During the course of one or two sessions, the PCs experience tumultuous events initiated by a galvanizing crisis. The story unfolds hour-by-hour, night-by-night until the conflict resolves with a new status quo."

Undying's simplicity also comes from the way there are only a few 'dials' to keep track of: humanity, blood, debts (to other vampires), and status (relative to other vampires). Coupled with a fast moving conflict resolution system to deal with violence and with interfering in another vampire's plan, Undying looks like it will play quickly and create nasty conflicts of interest between the characters.

Predators are not inherently sympathetic characters

I initially thought this game would be perfectly tailored to my tastes. I like the idea of vampire conflicts (both political and physical), and the relationships between vampires over decades and centuries. 

This game deals with that time-frame: it divides the action into 'nightly play' where a conflict is resolved, and 'downtime play', where years can pass in a few minutes of real-time, vampires execute a long-term plot or strategy, and a new crisis is created. That new crisis becomes the basis for another round of nightly play.

It's a well-executed structure for a game.

However, I had a really unsettling reaction to the character creation section. The game's playbooks (character classes) are things like the Devil, the Nightmare, the Puppet-Master,

Reading them, I recoiled and went "I don't like most of these archetypes". As in, when I'm reading/watching fiction involving these sorts of characters, I think of them as the 'enemy'. After reflecting on what I liked about the Vampire games I played in the 90s, I realised I liked seeing new vampires caught between their old human society and the new and alien vampire society. Tested loyalties, tough choices, terrible mistakes in ettiquette and alliances.

So, Undying is nailing its vision of play: these characters in this situation aren't wish-fulfilling gothic superheroes. They are predators ... and they prey on humans and on each other.

The closest match in fiction I can think of to what a game of Undying looks like is the vampire plot in the first Blade movie. You focus on the soap opera of the entitled and ambitious vampires, screwing with each other for dominance.

The GM prep advice seems perfect for engineering these sorts of situations.

Undying is really about power

Thinking more about why I was alienated, I realised characters in Undying still have 'humanity' (which varies between 0 to 3). So, despite each playbook's theme, you're able to be human inside that

And each playbook showcases one way of handling power.

That opened my eyes. The game is about power, and now I can see other playbooks in that space that I'd love to have in a game of Undying.

  • The Diplomat - who builds alliances between groups
  • The Follower - who works as a soldier for someone more powerful
  • The Kingpin - who relies on brute strength to intimidate others
  • The Anarchist - who tries to destroy the power structure
  • The Outsider - who tries to remain aloof, unaffected and neutral.

I've written more about my thoughts on Undying here. It's a brilliantly-crafted game. I can only imagine the amount of playtesting that's gone on in order to focus on its core so successfully. I'm looking forward to playing it.

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