Thursday, 19 April 2018

Becoming Monsters

My most recent play of Blood & Water has given me pause to reflect on the role of monsters in the game and what happens when the residents start to become them... If you're just joining here (hello!), let's back that up a bit before we dive headlong into an analysis of what I mean.

Image result for being human ukSo, Blood & Water is a storygame that's shamelessly inspired by the British TV series Being Human, and to a lesser extent the New Zealand film What We Do in the Shadows: the premise is that some supernatural creatures who were once human (a ghost, vampire and werewolf in the TV series; just vampires in the film) share a house in a modern urban setting and have to deal with all the problems that set-up entails.

The game allows players to create any sort of once-human supernatural beings that they want and their take on each one becomes the mythology for all (or most) creatures of that type, so if they say "Vampires are sparkly," then they get a stake through their heart all vampires are sparkly by default. In my current online game, the three residents of a house in Fulham, London, are:

  • "Rocky", a 16th century alchemist who accidentally turned himself into a gargoyle; he turns to stone in direct sunlight and needs human flesh to replace his calcified constitution.
  • Martin, a professional football goalkeeper who woke up one morning as a zombie with no idea how it happened; he also needs human flesh to live.
  • Fran├žois, a photographer with press contacts who lost his soul and became a spirit-trapper; he doesn't need human flesh, but he lacks any kind of empathy so he doesn't really care what his housemates get up to.

This set-up has lead directly to a situation where the residents have definitely acted as monsters: the zombie ate his ex-girlfriend, while the gargoyle ordered a 'take out' from his contact in the morgue at Charing Cross hospital. A visit from the police lead to the horrific deaths of two police officers, which they pinned on someone who had slightly annoyed them in the past and was seen as an 'easy mark.' This is hardly the way mundane, everyday human beings go about things, but there's nothing in the rules to say you can't act this way. For a long time with the design, I worried about that: what's to stop the PCs going on a rampage and just embracing their monstrous side? I toyed with various rules and mechanics to penalise that, but ultimately didn't because I want the consequences to emerge from the story.

Image result for zombie eatingThe PCs are nominally trying to act like human beings, so the more they act like monsters, the greater the complexity they find in their lives, but there's also the other side of the equation: if you act like a monster, the monsters will begin to accept you as one of them and likewise will expect you to accept them. The PCs in the current game are getting deep into this now and it's my role, as GM, to show them the consequences of their actions and ask them if they're sure that's what they want. If you're running Blood & Water and you're finding this aspect of the story problematic or challenging, here's my advice, with some hints about where I intend to take my players on their characters' journey next...

Making a Mark

When there are reports of scary goings on in one neighbourhood, people start disappearing or bodies begin piling up, the police and other authorities will take an interest and there's only so many times you can murder the investigators before you bring down an armed assault on your heads. If the residents act like monsters, the mundane society they live in will take notice and respond: it might be that the residents come across a shrine to the lost or fallen, or even a candlelight vigil to remember them, and when they look upon the photos of their victims or talk with their families, only the most hard-hearted villain would not question their life choices.

More directly, the residents are putting their street or even their house on the map and it's possible the innocent appearing visit from the local council authority or the gas fitters, water engineers, etc, might really be the cover for a much deeper investigation. You can't murder everyone who rings the doorbell, but the more you interact with them, the more chance there is that they will learn something: if this sort of thing spirals out of control, the residents might soon be looking at moving house, possibly with the police tracking their every move...

Do As I Do

Hey, it must be cool to be a monster; I mean you are, right? The greater the number of extreme & monstrous actions the residents take, the more normalised these sort of actions become, so who else is in their circles? Are they the only monsters they know? Even if they only really know mundane humans well, those people might start to think it's reasonable to carry a knife, gun or crucifix around for their own defence. In an atmosphere of horror, horror becomes the norm and the boundaries start to shift, making the unthinkable move towards the acceptable.

In one sense, this might give the residents a little cover: if they're not the only monsters committing murder, the heat might not come down on them so hard or so fast, but no-one is an island. Just as their victims may seem like anonymous opportunities to them, the few people they are associated with will appear to be anonymous opportunities to other monsters: you might have sworn never to eat your own family, but if you've made it acceptable to eat people in general, then aren't you a little bit to blame for what happens to them?

A Favour for a Favour

Let's say the residents outsource their needs and get everything they want no questions asked... but for a price. Did they think to ask what the price would be before they made the deal? What's the going rate for human flesh these days anyway? Even if the residents are just trying to do the minimum they have to in order to live and don't really see themselves as 'evil', they might be backed into a corner when the bill comes due.

Image result for shadowy figureIf they're lucky, then cash is acceptable, but they'll have to work for it: one of the foundations of Blood & Water is mixing mundane solutions with supernatural problems, so maybe they can set up a direct debit with their 'meat' supplier? They'd better actually have a job though, so make them go and do it, no matter what other matters are pressing for their attention.

Of course, if they're not working or if money is not acceptable, then they'll have to find another way to settle their debt, but if their supplier is merely a go-between, then who's really pulling the strings? Brokering a deal might mean accepting an obligation from an unseen third party with their own agenda: the residents may not have thought of themselves as monsters, but if they are doing the bidding of one, then what's the difference?

How Bad can it Get?

If the residents take a cavalier attitude to using their monstrous strengths and feeding their own desires & needs without concern for others, then things will escalate rapidly: those who observe these matters will not be content with merely investigating for long and will soon take direct action. If they are fully informed about what they are facing, then this might be an assault backed up by sorcerous powers and occult artifacts; if not, then it will be a bloodbath as the residents tear through the frail humans. laughing off the bullets... which is the proper time to deploy the rocket-propelled grenades.

On the flip side, doing a few dodgy favours for a silent partner might not seem like such a bad deal, especially if if was the sort of thing the residents would have been doing anyway: hey, what does it matter who they eat, as long as it's no-one they know? Unfortunately, with these obstacles removed, the silent partner is at last free to enact their evil plan and the next thing you know, it's good morning apocalypse! Give yourselves a pat on the back for helping to make it happen.

In short, being a monster is easy, because it's meant to be and the residents should reap the short term rewards, the emphasis being on short term; they're building up a heap of karma that will swallow them whole before long. It's being human that is hard, but accepting the short term hardships that entails will provide long terms benefits for the PCs and they might even find an equilibrium they can maintain for the rest of their unlives.

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