Vampire: The Masquerade as a Violent School for Liberalism

The ink is still wet on my recently completed chapter for a forthcoming edited volume titled "The Politics of Horror." I've spent the better part of a year assessing emergent Realist power and Constructivist norms inside Vampire: The Masquerade (VtM), specifically amongst Denver-area live action VtM role-players.

I applied both theories of international relations theory with rough expectation that horror would mimic reality, with individual vampires and major power brokers serving as proxies for Realist-style states and clan behavioral templates as sources for Constructivism's normative social interactions.  For clarity and brevity I left Realism's theoretical counterpoint, Liberalism, on the cutting room floor.  In contrast to Realism's conflictual systemic view, Liberalism presents global politics as cooperative.

Left to right: Mike Porch (Robert Leopold, Clan Ventrue) and Adam Lake (Volk Cyerrebrra, Clan Gangrel)  Photo by Juliet Meyer,  Denver by Night ;  www.mindseyesociety.org

Left to right: Mike Porch (Robert Leopold, Clan Ventrue) and Adam Lake (Volk Cyerrebrra, Clan Gangrel)

Photo by Juliet Meyer, Denver by Night; www.mindseyesociety.org

At face value, however, VtM does not lend itself to Liberalism's cooperative behaviors.  How does one foster reciprocity in a political system dependent on violence to achieve greater power?  I identified The Camarilla, The Sabbat, The Anarch Movement, and The Second Inquisition as VtM's major actors in the Realist sense.  All four groups amass, project, and sustain power as defined under Realism.  At the same time, they also embody Liberal-style institutions in which vampires and clans give up a measure of individual power for the benefit of the entire group.  What's missing (at least in the lore) is cross-group cooperation: the three vampire institutions (Camarilla, Sabbat, and Anarch) fight each other for power, while the mortal Second Inquisition seeks to eliminate the global vampire threat. [1]  At face value, then, VtM's lore and mechanics suggest little room for Liberalism's more huggable, non-zero sum cooperation.

Left to right: Denis Abrate (Joseph Payne, Clan Brujah) Jeremiah Boyle (Ian Solerno, Clan Assamite), Nick Blew (Desmond "dizzy" Lockhart, Clan Brujah). Denis is also an experienced  Storyteller , or Vampire game referee.  Photo from collection of  Front Range Sabbat

Left to right: Denis Abrate (Joseph Payne, Clan Brujah) Jeremiah Boyle (Ian Solerno, Clan Assamite), Nick Blew (Desmond "dizzy" Lockhart, Clan Brujah). Denis is also an experienced Storyteller, or Vampire game referee.

Photo from collection of Front Range Sabbat

But, what about Liberalism emerging from the players themselves?

Although I focused my efforts on assessing Realist power and Constructivist norms during my literature review, game observations, and player interviews, hints of Liberal cooperation dodged at my peripheral vision.  Although players reiterated that conflict drove gameplay, achieving objectives at the individual character level often required cooperating with other characters.  Lore review alone suggests that, say, a pristine, suit-wearing Camarilla Toreador would likely kill a pestilent Nostferatu Anarch on sight.  But that Nostferatu might broker information the Toreador needs, while the Toreador's security umbrella protects the Nostferatu from detection.  How about a little back scratching, then, instead of fighting, especially if an encroaching Second Inquisition team would make for a great shared meal?

As observed, the metagame and venue preparation also required intense preparation by players and storytellers alike, with regular out-of-game cooperation to ensure smooth gameplay.  Many players I interviewed have also known each other for years, suggesting that both in- and out-of-game interaction strengthened reciprocity amongst the players.  My rough theory, then, is that despite VtM's blood-soaked lore and core game mechanics, the act of play itself becomes a school of cooperation and reciprocity in the Liberal sense.

Left to right: Em Hook (Ellie Rothstein, Clan Giovanni), Alex Goldsmith (Simon St. John, Clan Ventrue), Lana Kalei (Baby, Clan Brujah), Jesse Reynolds (Edward Harlow, Clan Brujah)  Photo by Mykle McGovern,  Denver by Night

Left to right: Em Hook (Ellie Rothstein, Clan Giovanni), Alex Goldsmith (Simon St. John, Clan Ventrue), Lana Kalei (Baby, Clan Brujah), Jesse Reynolds (Edward Harlow, Clan Brujah)

Photo by Mykle McGovern, Denver by Night

My chapter relating Realism and Constructivism to VtM's emergent power and social politics is ready for press, but Liberal cooperation remains an open question.  Moreover, I've also identified four layers which roughly dovetail (pardon the pigeon pun) with other works dividing games into distinct layer-centric views [2]:

  • Mechanics: quantitative and qualitative rules that govern core gameplay.

  • Lore: historic narrative that drives how players and their characters understand in-game political interaction.

  • Character: how the player interacts with lore and narrative as a distinct (and likely heroic) political agent.

  • Player: how the player's real-life behavior influences their character; and vice versa, if and how the character's actions inform the player's real-life political decisions. 

Given that the Liberal and layer aspects are me thinking out loud, I'm most definitely open to comments, feedback, and co-authoring interdisciplinary works studying emergent player/character political agency in roleplaying games!

James "Pigeon" Fielder's chapter "The Monster's Among Us: Realism and Constructivism in 'Vampire The Masquerade'" is forthcoming in The Politics of Horror, ed. Damien Picariello.


[1] There is another significant group called The Followers of Set, a Clan that believes vampires descended from the Egyptian God Snake Set rather than the biblical Cain.  However, I discounted the Followers of Set for my chapter since the group is not featured in the 5th edition rules and were not actively played in observed games.

[2] For example, see Montola, Markus. “Social Constructionism and Ludology: Implications for the Study of Games.” Simulation & Gaming Vol 43, No. 3 (2012): 300-320. DOI: 10.1177/1046878111422111