Tuesday, July 25, 2023

(V:tM/M:tAs) The Red Sign

The Red Sign (Brian Campbell, Conrad Hubbard, Jacob Klünder, Carrie Lewis) is a toolkit-style adventure that really should have been a metaplot book. There's a sense, especially on the last page, when it talks about how to handle "background lawyers" (rules lawyers, but with WW's expansive lore) that maybe, in the final days before the old World of Darkness is to come to a close, the company has started to chafe under its reputation for publishing intricately connected game supplements that each require all the others to properly use. Actually, the book seems to tell us, White Wolf has a "fondness for free will," and doesn't want to give us a bunch of official answers. The Red Sign can be used in multiple ways, with no official canon ending. It's merely a tool for the GM to tell the story they want to tell.

And they really shouldn't have done that. As well as the hands-off, no metaplot approach worked in the Chronicles of Darkness and Exalted, it's completely the wrong vibe for this book at this point in the World of Darkness' history. There's only one more supplement between now and Gehenna (and it's not clear from the wiki when The Ventrue Chronicle takes place, chronologically). It's not only too late to try and earn a reputation for being chill, it's the exact opposite of why we buy these books in the first place.

There's this scene that keeps cropping up in shows and movies - our viewpoint character is a teenager or young adult, but they've got a reputation for being kind of sheltered and stuffy. Then, one day, the parents go out of town and leave our protagonist in charge. Somehow, this turns into a big party at the protagonist's house and the story becomes one of internal conflict - they like the attention and notoriety of throwing a party, but they are still responsible enough to not want to destroy the house. So you follow them around the party and they're constantly saying things like "coasters!" even as they're trying their hardest not to be a buzzkill, so that they are not to blame for the party coming to a premature end. With very few exceptions (and, in fact, none that I can think of at the moment), the audience is inclined to side with the coasters and against the party.

That's what reading The Red Sign was like. It will say something like, "Outside the context of the game, how can we possibly define the impossible with game mechanics? How do we assign a probability to a task like making a vampire mortal again? And after it's been done once, what's to stop other aspirants from accomplishing the same feat again and again?" and I can't help but hear the cracking voice of a socially awkward teenager, desperate to be "cool," but acutely aware that "the rules are there for a reason."

"If you document rules for doing the impossible, the players will find a way to exploit it to bring other drastic events into your game." And I'm like, oh, honey . . . yeah . . . that's kind of the point. Your friends making out on your parents' bed is why you throw a wild party, it's not a side-effect to be contained. It's okay that you're not cool with it, though. We like that you're a nerd. It's exactly that sort of stick-in-the-mud behavior that we've come to know and love.

Just like all you readers have come to know and love my habit of using obtuse extended metaphors when a direct approach would be more illuminating. The Red Sign is about an occult conspiracy to "redeem" a vampire, turning them back into a living human. Sinister vampire manipulators (who think the process might be adapted into a weapon, or a method of having immortality and power without the drawbacks) exploit guilt-ridden seekers of redemption (who wish only to be freed of the agony of their curse) and together they recruit the aid of mages - ranging from the sci-fi fascists who think vampirism is a disease to be "cured" to religious mages who believe that redeeming vampires is a holy mission, to mystery-obsessed occultists, who view it as a puzzle to be solved.

Most of the book is given over to establishing a wide cast of characters who are interested in reversing vampirism, detailing their motives and methods, and vaguely hinting that something terrible may happen if they are allowed to succeed.

I cannot overstate how careful The Red Sign is to tell us that what they're trying to do is "impossible." It's supposed to be thematic. The curse of vampirism supposedly came directly from God, so to reverse it is to court his wrath. It only becomes an option now because the world is about to end, and the impossible becoming real is one of the signs of the apocalypse.

Which is a compelling story. A sinister occult ritual, driven by hubris, powered by dark sorcery, results in an unprecedented, unthinkable event - a vampire becomes mortal - and you're left with a burning mystery - how could something of such unholy provenance have an outcome that looks so much like grace? A prophecy has been fulfilled. The doomsday clock strikes 11:59. The redeemed vampire will play a pivotal role in upcoming events . . . find out how in Gehenna, coming spring of 2004.

The Red Sign has glimpses of that, but it insists on giving us multiple options for how the story will end . . . and multiple options for how it will begin. And also, the middle is a little soggy too. There are some good bits - I liked the ancient remnants of House Tremere, the ones who stayed mages instead of becoming vampires, trying to reverse their predecessors' greatest mistake - but it lacks the essential White Wolf magic. I am not as good at this as Justin Achilli, and reading a book that was basically just the component parts of a potential metaplot event just served to drive that home.

Of course, there's a balance here, between not being given enough to work with and laboring under the oppressive thumb of a game company that pronounces its One True Way, but I can't help but feel that The Red Sign overcorrects from White Wolf's previously spotty track record. It's not general enough to be a universal "cure vampirism with a Mage: the Ascension crossover" supplement, so the bulk of its appeal is as a last chance to tie up previous plots and set the stage for the really truly final Vampire: the Masquerade supplement. And it doesn't do that. Looking back, I feel like I was being trolled.

Ukss Contribution: The strongest part of this book is its central hook: what if "curing" a vampire was the first step in a dark prophecy? It will go well as an element of vampire eschatology.

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