Blood and Bourbon
Declaration and Setup
“The best way to keep something bad from happening is to see it ahead of time.”
—William S. Burroughs
One of the classic twists is the revelation that a character has anticipated a misfortune, and already planned for it—indeed, perhaps even made the disaster part of their larger plan. The audience smiles or gasps. Playing smart characters is tricky because typically, you’ve got to be out ahead of things, and anticipating complicated circumstances in the chronicle actually requires the player be as smart as his character, and as invested in long-term planning in the game. So, to provide a way to keep character intelligence separate from player intelligence, and to establish a pattern of play that maps fairly well to the revelation-of-genius thing, we’ve got Declaration.
This element gives players mechanics that allow them to retcon (the mashup of “retroactive continuity”) events that have already happened in the chronicle, casting them in a new light and revealing actions or preparations taken in a brief descriptive flashback. Within the story, this happens as if by dramatic reveal. The player makes the required rolls at the moment when the effects become relevant, and then explains how their smart character, at some point in the past, foresaw this situation or one like it, and planned ahead. Given the perspective of having seen events unfold in the story, players can then counterfeit genius fairly easily without having to do any mental heavy lifting along the way, and it partially removes player intelligence as a hard cap on effective character intelligence. Added bonus, the “revelation” moment in the game mirrors that in the source media that inspired this module.
Declarations can alternately be flavored to have characters dramatically become aware of something or recall something relevant, and in gameplay terms, allow the player to declare certain details to be true and retroactively to have always been true in the chronology of the game. Declaration also simulates both the keen observer and the broadly knowledgeable, and lets players fill in undefined elements of the chronicle’s setting.
What Declaration Can Do:
• Add details that become fact within the chronicle’s setting.
• Make statements about Storyteller characters or small groups or organizations.
What Declaration Can’t Do:
• Contradict previously established facts.
• Redefine a player’s character without her permission.
• Make sweeping statements about whole populations rather than small groups or individuals.
• Add details to the chronicle’s setting that the player’s character is unaware of. You can’t Declare, “My friends called a lawyer while I was in jail”, for example, because your character has no way of immediately knowing that. You could, however, Declare that “I’m owed a favor by a lawyer, who I’m now going to call”. The first Declaration is a bad one, because the PC doesn’t know about their friends’ actions until someone else tells them, and is an effective nonparticipant in the narrative. The latter Declarations makes the PC a more proactive force.
• Directly decide an NPC’s current actions or behavior. You can’t Declare, for example, that “My enemy decides to back off”. Declarations can set up circumstances that influence an NPC’s behavior. You could Declare that you know his secret weakness and then threaten him with it, or that you anticipated trouble and had your Allies show up as backup. But you can’t directly Declare how an NPC currently thinks or feels. (You can Declare an NPC’s past actions, subject to the “Details your PC has to be aware” rule).
• Be narratively boring. This one is self-explanatory. A bad Declaration might be, “No one broke into my house while I was away.” A better Declaration is, “I have cameras installed in my house that caught the faces of anyone who broke in.” Now, a GM could just as easily decline the first Declaration under the grounds that it’s contradictory (he’d planned for the PC’s house to get broken into), but this is worth specifically calling out. Declarations should give PCs tools to resolve conflicts with: they shouldn’t neuter conflicts from happening in the first place.
Here are some sample past Declarations that have come up in both Blood & Bourbon and Witiko Falls, along with reasons why they were good or problematic.
• Amelie: “The police officer threatening me is a client of my aunt’s (who runs an escort business), so he lets me off when he recognizes me.” Problem with this is that Amelie doesn’t know her aunt runs an escort business. If she did, she could Declare the police officer was a client, and threaten him with, “Arrest me and you’ll never go out with any of my aunt’s girls again.”
• Caroline: “The transgender boy I murdered while feeding was disowned by his family, so they won’t look into his death.” This falls under narratively boring. It’s factually plausible (transgendered youth in the South disowned by family), but it nips a potential conflict in the bud and lessens rather than heightens drama, without any action on the PC’s part.
• Caroline: “I don’t leave any bite marks on the woman I fed on while frenzying.” Narratively boring for the same reasons.
• George gets ambushed by unknown assailants on his drive to Matheson’s plantation. He Declares, “Uriah Travers happened to be in the area and shows up to save me, scoring an easy prestation debt.” This makes George a passive bystander who gets his ass saved by an NPC. We ended up tweaking the Declaration to, “I anticipated that I’d run into trouble on the road to Matheson’s. I made prior arrangements through a contact with Uriah Travers, pledging him a debt in return for dealing with any attackers I run into.” Same consequence as the initial version of the Declaration, but it makes the PC look smart and proactive.
• Hazel was mind-raped with Nightmare by an elder vampire who’d been stalking her days. She Declares, “My nemesis would rather prolong than end my torment. He decides to withdraw, watch, and savor my terror rather than kill me.” Problematic because it directly decides an NPC’s current actions/behavior.
• Mouse gets his wallet stolen by a random pickpocket in the French Quarter. He Declares, “My tough guy brother is here and saw me get robbed.” This contradicts an established fact because it relies on an implausible coincidence: Mouse’s brother doesn’t live, work, or otherwise spend much time in the French Quarter, but happens to be at that exact street corner at the exact moment when Mouse gets robbed.
• Caroline: “I anticipated Matheson might use Dominate to wipe my memories, so I had my phone left on and set to record everything.” This is a pretty basic “I cleverly anticipated this” Declaration. It also took good advantage of an anchronistic elder who probably didn’t even know that phones could be used to record conversations.
• George: “I anticipated someone would betray me at the meeting I called between Matheson and Hurst, so I planted explosives in the bags of thirty silver coins I tossed out to everyone. Fitting, right? And they thought that was just a poetic gesture.” Hella fitting. This was probably the most effective Declaration a PC has made in the game.
• Kurt: “I go so insane that I attract the notice of a major supernatural bad guy.” Okay, so this is probably the weirdest Declaration a player has made in either game, in the sense that it didn’t actually help their PC. It also breaks the “your PC has to know about the Declaration” rule (Kurt sure didn’t know what happened in the ensuing chaos), but that’s actually okay. If a player wants to use Declarations to introduce new dramatic obstacles for their character to confront, sky’s the limit.
• Hazel: “One of the girls murdered by the vampire stalking me still haunts her old house as a ghost.” Adds a colorful new detail to the setting, and it’s one the PC is aware of when she attempts to summon the ghost.
• Jon: “My sire and I have a series of pre-arranged code phrases that we can use to communicate basic messages without being understood by others.” Boom. A no-frills Declaration that adds a useful new tool for the PC to take advange of.
• Lou: Lou is pursuing a fleeing tail who gets away by hailing a taxi cab. “I figured he’d try to escape that way. The driver of the taxi actually works for me.” Boom. Another good “I cleverly anticipated this” Declaration.
Dice Pool: (relevant Attribute) + (relevant Skill). Recognizing and Declaring a Storyteller character as an acquaintance (and notorious drunk) you knew in high school could be rolled with Wits + (Empathy or Socialize), for example. Noting a gun with a particular modification is prone to jamming could be Intelligence + Firearms. Spotting that a mark is religious, and would respond well to a con fronted by a fake preacher would be Wits + Academics (or Occult).
The Storyteller should using the Declaration’s plausibility to determine its DC, ranging from DC 1 for fairly believable Declarations up to DC 5 for ridiciulous and highly improbable ones, or can veto the Declarations entirely if need be. This is particularly likely to apply towards multiple Declarations that are invoked in the same scene. (_"Every single person in this room really owes your character a favor?")
Action: Reflexive. If the Declaration involves your character directly competing against another character in some way, such as saying you stole the keys off a guard when he wasn’t looking, it may also be contested.
Cost: First use is free during each game session (over our medium, each OOC week of play or IC day); each one after costs a point of Willpower.
Dramatic Failure: You anticipate trouble or notice something and… you were completely wrong, or whatever you spotted was dangerously misleading. The Storyteller introduces a new twist to the scene that makes things even more difficult for your character.
Failure: You weren’t able to anticipate or notice anything of use after all.
Fail Forward: As success, but the Storyteller introduces some new twist or complication that makes the Declaration a two-edged sword.
Success: Your ability to cleverly anticipate events, or to notice helpful details, lets you retroactively introduce a new element to the story.
• Gain bonus dice on another roll equal to the successes gained. Example: Saying you know an NPC and have done a past favor for him, granting a bonus on your next Social roll.
• Access equipment or services with an Availability rating equal to the successes gained. Example: Happening to find a gun under the couch of your paranoid friend.
• Gain immediate, one-time use of a Social Merit you do not possess with a dot rating equal to the successes gained, or immediate use of any Social Merit you do possess. Example: Having the police sergeant you know through Allies (Police) show up in the middle of a firefight.
• Instantly spend a number of unspent Experiences equal to the successes gained, even during the middle of a scene, to suddenly manifest new powers and talents (or reveal hidden ones you’ve “had” all along).
• Retroactively take a single action that would call for a dice roll, using the result of the Declaration as the roll result. Example: Revealing you stole a guard’s keys with a Dexterity + Larceny roll.
• Add new Storyteller characters, locations, or events to the game’s setting. The scope and/or usefulness of these elements is proportionate to the successes gained. Example: Declaring a Rank 1 ghost haunts a nearby house with one success.
• Add new details to existing characters, locations, and events within the setting. The scope and/or usefulness of these elements is proportionate to the successes gained. Example: Declaring a hostile character suffers from severe acrophobia during a rooftop chase.
• Anything else in line with the above effects. Example: Having an escape route in your apartment building that lets you bypass the toughs coming after you.
Exceptional Success: Things go even better than you planned, or the detail you notice is especially useful. The Storyteller can introduce a new story element that makes the Declaration particularly helpful, grant your character a beneficial Condition, or have the Declaration’s use be for free.
The introduction of new facts into the chronicle has story-level effects that can become dramatic, and these Declarations can be marvelous hooks onto which to hang future plots. A casual use of Declaration and Wits + Empathy to recognize the signs of someone who’s suffered in abusive relationships might spin off into a whole subplot dealing with that character’s fucked up family life. Every time a player adds additional details to the chronicle’s setting, it gives the Storyteller, cruel mad genius that she is, more parts with which to build the narrative equivalent of a biting cyborg Doberman.
Investigation: Swiss-Army Skill?
So, can Investigation be used to make any kind of Declaration? Well, sort of. Investigation is a skill focused on uncovering things. That’s all it does. So is it the only skill you’ll ever need to make Declarations? Nah. Investigation has some limitations on how it’s used in this context. You’ve got to say in some general terms at least how you’re looking and what you’re looking for, and this serves to focus the details you can declare with success. If you’re searching through the morgue at the local paper, looking back over their archive of dead papers for references to a suspect’s criminality in the 70s, you can’t make Declarations about their current activity online. You just don’t have the access within the scope of the roll.
Investigation is also most frequently used to uncover true things the Storyteller has already pre-plotted rather than giving you, the player, the power to define those things on the fly in play. Both forms are exciting and provide a different experience. In fact, with the Storyteller prerogative to decline Declarations if they contradict as-yet unrevealed but significant facts, both modes of representing the smart and observant character are really important.
“I knew you would double-cross me, and that’s why I notified the police before coming here, and look, here they are now.”
“Oh bravo, very good. Yes, it was very inconvenient hiring someone who could convincingly portray for you a senior narcotics officer as well as ‘Officer’ Murray did. The other fellows don’t share his acting ability, though they are quite excellent shots with those automatics of theirs.”
No reason a character, suffering because an opponent’s anticipatory action hosed them, can’t respond with their own Declaration. Whether played out within the immediate action of scene itself, or across a broader plane of the whole chronicle, Declaration makes a good set of mechanics for handling battles of wits. I knew you’d put the poison in my glass, so I’ll pick your glass. Well, I knew you’d think this, which is why I used a poison I’m immune to, and put it in both glasses. This can be played out as an extended contested action, with each participant trying to accumulate enough successes to beat their opponent before running out of the Willpower they need to keep rolling. The battle ends when one or both choose to stop or can’t continue.
Take this to a grander scale, and you have masterminds controlling people, organizations, public opinions, and laying down plans within plans within plans to defeat their unseen opponent. On this level, the anticipatory battle of wits can provide the structure for a whole session of play, with each scene spawned by the results of the battle of wits (er, not necessarily Wits) rolls, with the players finding themselves dealing with the fallout from the battle “on the ground.”
The Storyteller’s Prerogative
Sometimes, Declarations might contradict things the Storyteller has already plotted out, planned, or built into the backstory or personality of a significant one of her characters (note we didn’t say, “things the Storyteller has already established”—if he hasn’t put them into play yet, they don’t “exist”). A Storyteller can always decline a Declaration by saying it is contradictory. This itself gives the player some useful information—there’s something there to be uncovered! Some secret to be wheedled out! But further, the player gets to make another Declaration instead of the declined one, so it all remains equitable.
City Secrets and Declarations
Not all Declarations are created equal. It’s one thing for a vampire character to Declare that a neonate coterie likes to frequent a certain bar: it’s quite another to Declare that one of the coterie’s members is secretly a diablerist. If information created through a Declaration is valuable enough to constitute a City Secret, then the GM can rule the Declaration falls under “Instantly spend a number of unspent Experiences equal to the successes gained” and require the player to purchase a City Secret.
The Declaration’s DC is equal to the City Secret’s Experience cost or its plausibility, whichever is higher. Declaring that a Status 0 neonate is a diablerist might be a D-grade City Secret, but the GM could set the DC at 5 if the neonate in questiom is very unlikely to be a diablerist (or veto the Declaration entirely for being contradictory).
As a general rule, a Declaration should fall into City Secret territory if the information is valuable and well-kept enough that the GM wouldn’t allow a Politics, Streetwise, or other Mental Skill roll to be aware of it. Information can only be a City Secret if it pertains to the world of the supernatural, and Declarations cannot be used to discover A-grade City Secrets.
Declarations are still a very powerful tool where discovering City Secrets is concerned, as they take only a single instant dice roll that has no consequences for failure. However, there is a way to avoid paying any Experience cost for City Secrets Declarations: the Setup.
The Setup is like Declaration, but involves a deeper level of detail. Instead of the character simply explaining how they took precautions or saw this coming, the story instead moves to a flashback scene, and the preparations are actually played out. When this nested scene is completed, the focus of the chronicle snaps back to the “present” and the interrupted scene is resolved, with the flashback now reframing what’s going on. (For added fun, begin a game session with the after-effects, and then use this Setup element to flashback on how it got here.) Unlike Declaration, Setup lets characters make more than one retroactive dice roll, so they can potentially make much larger changes to the chronicle’s continuity.
Also unlike Declaration, the Setup has no initial dice roll: any advantage earned by the characters is generated by what they do during the flashback scene. If you initiate one, you get to frame the scene—say where it is, when it is, who’s there, what’s going on (the latter two within reason). Then the Storyteller picks up and provides the usual opposition and challenges. Setups can break the flow of a game pretty dramatically, putting an intense scene on hold to play out a humdrum one. Storytellers and players should come together to create a dynamic scene of suspense and tension, rather than some yawn-worthy extrapolation of events. Ideally, players should get to feel clever and excited by the possibility of turning tables on an already existent scene.
Setups vs. Declarations
A Setup has several pros and cons relative to Declarations. Nothing that happens in a Setup can contradict established facts (making it impossible for PCs to die in them), but failures may have more significant consequences than simply a wasted Willpower point. On the other hand, a Declaration’s scope is limited to a single dice roll. Characters in a Setup can take as many actions and make as many dice rolls as they want, allowing them to make far more significant changes to the present narrative.
Another advantage to Setups is that City Secrets do not cost Experience when a character discovers them in-game. Thus, City Secrets also do not cost Experience when discovered through a Setup—though the character will have to overcome challenges or obstacles that they would not need to with a Declaration. In effect, a Setup has more risks than a Declaration, but also more rewards.
Example: Isa wants to Declare that her sire Marcus Pollard is selling information on Antoine Savoy’s activities to Doc Xola. The GM rules that this constitutes a D-grade City Secret: Pollard isn’t particularly high-Status, but this is also secret information that a simple “off the top of your head” Politics or Streetwise roll couldn’t find out.
If Isa wants to discover her sire’s double dealings through a Declaration, the GM asks how she does so, and Isa says that she stealthily follows Pollard to the meeting site and evesdrops on his conversation. The GM says the Declaration will be a Dexterity + Stealth roll (or maybe Stamina + Stealth if Isa knew where they were meeting and lay in wait for a long time), and sets the DC at the average result of Pollard’s or Doc Xola’s Perception dice pool, whichever is higher (Isa’s player does not know what this is). If Isa fails the Declaration roll, it doesn’t take place and Isa loses her weekly use, but there are no other consequences. If Isa passes the roll, she spends an Experience and learns the City Secret.
Alternatively, Isa could discover Pollard’s double dealings through a Setup, and actually play out a scene where she follows her sire to his meeting with Xola. There will probably be a Stealth roll, but if she fails, there will likely be a chase sequence too as the two vampires try to apprehend her. She can’t die in a flashback (as that would contradict an established fact in the present), but something bad will probably happen. However, actually hearing their conversation in-game will likely yield more substantive information, and Isa will not have to spend any Experience due to discovering the City Secret in-game. Additionally, Isa could take other actions during the scene to advance her agenda. The only limitation is not contradicting the present’s established facts.
If a player wants to initiate a flashback simply to flesh out their character’s past and engage in roleplay, no Setup is necessary. A Setup is only used if the player wants to gain a tangible and immediate advantage from the flashback.
Making It Happen
Dice Pool: None. The character’s actions and dice rolls during the Setup will determine whether it succeeds or fails.
Cost: First use is free during each game session (over our medium, each OOC week of play or IC day); each one after costs a point of Willpower. If additional player characters want to participate in the Setup, they must each spend their Setup use or a point of Willpower.
Effect: The present plotline pauses as a player-initiated flashback begins at a prior time and place potentially conducive to the player’s goal in the present plotline. The flashback lasts for one scene. Results from the flashback may help or hinder the player’s goals, depending on their actions and rolls, but will never create results that contradict previously established facts. Once the flashback scene ends, the plot returns to the timeline and plot interrupted by the flashback. Characters can extend the duration of the flashback by an additional scene by spending a point of Willpower. If additional player characters want to participate in the continued flashback, they must also spend a point of Willpower.
Example: The characters are pinned down by gunfire from across the street, and they’re stuck hiding behind a dumpster, and are totally out of bullets. It would seem that they’re fucked, but one player initiates a Setup to go back and allow a change of conditions on this city street. The other players expend their weekly Setup use so their characters can also be present.
The group decides that they showed up at a sanitation company earlier in the day. They make a Dexterity + Stealth roll to sneak into the building, and a second Manipulation + Persuasion roll to “convince” (read: bribe) one of the truck drivers to do a little freelance for them that night. With two dice rolls, this is beyond the scope of what a Declaration could do.
Fast-forward back to the main scene, and just as they run out of bullets, along comes Joe the Trash Truck Driver, who not only blocks the bullets with his giant monster of a truck, but also backs up, allowing the characters to hop in the back, thus making their escape.
Your Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal
Combine the Setup with Social Combat, and you can pull such marvelous bastardry as having your enemy’s henchmen suddenly turn their guns on him. You try and use the Setup flashback to suborn an enemy, imposing the Swayed Condition to turn their loyalties (at least temporarily) in your favor. Bribery (using your Resources as a “weapon” on the roll) or other forms of influence can work to generate Sway and change up the scenario.
An even more devious way to do this is to run the Setup when you’re carrying enough Experience to add some Allies, and then spend them to make the guy you’re trying to win over an actual on-your-character sheet Ally who’ll help you beyond your immediate desire to have him screw somebody over for you.