Thursday, April 27, 2023

(V: tM) Time of Thin Blood

Once again, I'm in a bit of a pickle. Time of Thin Blood (Dean Shomshak and Sarah Roark) is the worst kind of rpg supplement, but as an actual book, it may well be my favorite one in all of Vampire: the Masquerade (it definitely is so far). Like, I should, right now, be outraged on behalf of the c.1999 White Wolf fandom, for this optional supplement that shakes up the metaplot and creates a narrative rift between the 2nd edition and Revised settings, which can only be bridged by assiduously collecting all the new splatbooks, whether you want them or not. However, what I'm really thinking is "Damnit, White Wolf, you've done it again! You've pitched half the CW's fall lineup and somehow they're all shows I want to see."

"Vampire Dad," the innovative horror sitcom where a suburban real-estate agent is turned into a vampire by a bloodthirsty cult, only to have his new dark mistress perish in a well-timed garage door opener accident. Can he use his new powers to keep his secret, keep his job, and keep his family together? No, he cannot, but the ever-deepening spiral of chaos and despair, as he uses the Dominate Discipline to correct the thing that went wrong the last time he used Dominate, is sure to inspire both existential dread and twisted dark humor.

I mean, as a character concept, it's a bit solitary, but I would watch that show (actually, I may already have - it's called Santa Clarita Diet). However, I'm not sure the Vampire Dad template would even make a good NPC. How would the player characters even get involved, and if they did, would that not just completely disrupt the very dynamic that made him interesting? He's only really useful if you don't take him as a literal game resource and instead view him an example of Time of Thin Blood's intended vibe.

Which I would characterize as "yeah, there are vampires, but nobody knows what the fuck is going on." The world of the occult is gripped by millenarian fever. Vampires and the psychically sensitive are having strange visions. New supernatural powers are emerging, that no one can categorize. And a few things are happening that are completely unprecedented, even in the long lives of the vampire elders - a sinister red star, vampires whose curse is so weak that they cannot create childer, but can endure the sunlight, and the emergence of the strange half-human/half-vampire dhampir. Nobody knows what's going to happen, but the signs point to the end of the world.

It's a unique take on the urban fantasy genre, especially if you're reading it twenty-four years after the fact and know that they're not bluffing about the incipient apocalypse (although, as someone who remembers WW's vociferous denials of the very possibility of a book like Gehenna, I wonder how much of that was bluffing and how much of it was just them changing their mind).

There's only really one obstacle to getting involved in this chaos-mode interpretation of the Vampire: the Masquerade setting - and I'm using the word "obstacle" very deliberately here, because it's not even a flaw or a shortcoming or even an impediment, just something you'll have to stop, take a beat, and then choose to embrace - and that's White Wolf's weird insistence that playing a weak and ordinary character is somehow good for the soul.

This isn't like Initiates of the Art. The suggestion that you play at the very bottom of the vampire power curve is not something that breaks the game. I'd even go so far as to say that playing 14th and 15th generation vampires (the titular "thin-blooded," measured in degrees of separation from Caine, the mythical 1st vampire) is a good idea. It's the only way you'll ever get anything close to "Vampire Dad," for example. 

However, it is annoying. Because Vampire is genre fiction, and scour the genre all you want, but there's nowhere else where "easy to kill and bad at their job" is treated as a synonym for "compelling" (I was going to point out that Wolverine is immensely popular for being the exact opposite of this, but I couldn't think of an elegant way to say that the thin-blooded are the worst at what they do). Sure, the bildungsroman is a popular genre structure, and its main character usually starts off callow and vulnerable, but they don't often stay that way, and in any event, the structure is really just a pragmatic choice for fantasy because it allows you to explain the world and its rules to the reader through the guise of educating the character (also, many genre readers happen to be "coming of age" themselves, so it's just savvy marketing).

So Time of Thin Blood makes this great pitch "enter this world of confusion by playing a complete naïf that doesn't know what's what," but then it uses the word "kewl" again and says things like "lazy players define their characters by their Clans or Disciplines." Was 90s White Wolf just not capable of being normal for, like, five damned minutes? The place this book really needs to go is in the opposite direction - once they've shown us the cool and compelling concept of being weak and confused, they need to expand it so that you can be confused at every part of the power curve. Show me how to be confused while I turn into a wolf and hypnotise the media. Help me set up a game where the player characters are low-generation elders and still terribly confused. That's what gives Time of Thin Blood its horror and excitement - the world is coming to an end and old certainties no longer apply.

But, like I said earlier, I very deliberately didn't use the word "flaw," because while the book doesn't quite hand you the full range of campaigns on a silver platter, it does give you plenty of tools to build them yourself, and so this is really just an old White Wolf quirk, like their love-hate relationship with angst (seriously, the section titled "Angst" is accompanied by the parenthetical "You know we couldn't get away from it.")

Moving towards a wrap-up, I'll close with a couple of observations. In the course of trying to no longer be weird about the Roma, this book gets weird about the Roma. The G-word gets tossed around a lot, and not always in that innocent US way where you think maybe they don't realize it's a slur (also making an appearance, the N-word, in a passage explain that "caitiff" is a comparable insult among vampires). Also, I kind of thought that using a hurricane in Bangladesh as cover for a fight between vampire gods was in poor taste. I did an internet search, and I don't think it fictionalized a real event, but the Week of Nightmares hurricane had 6-figure fatalities, putting it in line with historically deadly Bangladesh hurricanes and . . . I don't know, it just made me uncomfortable.

Which is a shame, because the rest of the Week of Nightmares stuff was pretty cool. In fact, references to this book's appendix in Mage are the whole reason I bought it in the first place. Put some blame right here for the heroic Technocracy:
>>Code: Ragnarok
>>Operations Budget: Unlimited
>>Permissible Weapons: Unlimited
>>Permissible Casualties:
>>Local Inhabitants: 100%
>>Associate Personnel: 100%
>>Enlightened Operatives: 100%

Chilling, but awesome. Say what you will about the Technocracy, but they're willing to put it all on the line when it counts . . . and that's really not something you should be saying about sci-fi fascists, so something had to give. You can only keep one half of the characterization, which half do you choose? I know what choice my younger self made, and I don't know. I'm still quite a big fan of awesome things, but I'm also more highly motivated to take a hard stance against fascists, so I refer you back to the bulk of my output for the year 2020 (oh, shit, has it really been that long) wherein I have complicated feelings about Mage: the Ascension.

Overall, Time of Thin Blood was almost all upside for me (except the damned FONTS!!! The narrator saying "It has been pleasant . . . to imagine you squinting with your weak eyes at my terrible handwriting" isn't really cute when it happens to you in real life). It's probably more enjoyable as a piece of fiction than as a campaign guide, but basing campaigns off of enjoyable fiction is something like half the hobby.

Ukss Contribution: The "Hemetic" flaw. Take it and you're so disgusted by blood that you can't keep it down unless you're maddened by hunger. Pretty awkward for a vampire. I probably won't introduce the flaw as a general thing, but it might be fun to have an NPC vampire who's afflicted with it.

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