Blood and Bourbon
“You? You demand money from me?” he bellowed angrily as others peered out from their camps and coves. “Do you know who I am?” he shouted, his voice echoing down the walls. “I am Bernard, Lord of the Tunnels!”
—Jennifer Toth, The Mole People
It’s not a modern word: baron. Once, barons were low nobles who held land in the name of their overlords. It was a title of honor, authority, and responsibility. Even a baron who was reviled was addressed as Lord. Tonight, the most common barons — the American barons — are plutocrats who devour or capture territory for its money. They hold it not because it is their responsibility but as a means to end: money. Money is their overlord. It’s money that gets them the land and it is for money that they tend it.
These were the robber barons of the 19th century — rail barons, lumber barons, ore barons — whose heirs continue to rule by the grace of cash in the modern nights (and are, in fact, making a great comeback). Some of the original robber barons of the 1800s, years after they have become undead themselves, continue to twist money out of the living. They haunt the living by sucking blood and cash like specters of the feudal age.
The original robber barons were medieval Germanic noblemen who taxed merchant ships sailing the Rhine through their lands without the blessing of the Holy Roman Emperor. These men, illegally and unethically manipulating the dress and customs of legitimate business, passed their greed onto generations of copycat nobles across Europe and the world. In the 19th century when a new American strata of über-wealthy moguls and capitalists emerged as a de facto aristocracy of their own, the name of the robber barons was resurrected for them.
The title of baron is not so flattering tonight.
Among the Damned, both kinds of barons remain, and the most powerful Kindred combine the formal service and authority of a landed baron with the underhanded money-making of the modern business baron. For Kindred, money is just one part — the least important part — of the wealth that motivates the Danse Macabre. Money facilitates the acquisition of the two greater treasures for vampires: territory and blood. Territory translates to power and the freedom to hunt. Power and hunting bring in the Blood. The Blood is everything.
In Vampire, Barony (capitalized) is a style of gameplay in which the troupes’ characters are presumed to actively participate in the landed politics of the Jyhad. They are lords of their small tract of the city while striving to grow their territory and their power. They struggle to pay homage and fealty to their overlord at court while in the streets they may be scheming to behead him and take his turf. They’re like a gang fighting to take territory from other gangs — and there are no police to intervene. Every Kindred is a potential opponent, a potential rival, and potential enemy.
Kindred Feudalism Basics
• The Prince grants land to Regents or any lower status of Kindred.
• The Regent grants land to vassals or any lower status of Kindred and owes fealty to the Prince.
• The Vassal grants tenancy to any lower status of Kindred and owes fealty to a higher vassal (e.g., a Regent) and the Prince.
• The Tenant can allow any vampire who she’s willing to be associated with to spend a few nights in her haven or immediate feeding ground. The tenant has to answer for any trouble caused by her guests should her lord demand it. The tenant has no authority to grant territory and owes fealty to a liege vassal and the Prince.
• The Serf toils in the turf of higher-ups. Though he has a haven on land belonging to a lord, he has no authority over anything outside the walls of his haven.
Playing the Serf
A chronicle in which the players’ characters are serfs, as the Kindred use the term, has no special rules or traits. Characters at this level of the political hierarchy are likely to be unaligned with the covenants and may be outlaws. Unlike the role of the serf in mortal society, Kindred serfs are not essential to the societal system of the Damned. Tenants handle enough of the production of vitae and service necessary for the lords, and many vampires are self-sufficient anyway .
Serfs among the Damned are hardly considered Kindred yet. They hold a place more suitable for ghouls and blood dolls—though even ghouls may be brought inside the house.
Playing the Tenant
This is, more or less, the default situation of play in Vampire. The players portray Kindred who are subordinate to elders, covenant leaders, and landlords. Though the characters may have their own havens, they have to scratch out a place for themselves in the city and their covenants if they want to get ahead in the Jyhad or find satisfaction in their Requiems.
Characters at this level can have virtually any level of Covenant Status or Clan Status but seldom have more than a dot or two in Camarilla Status, at least at first. Characters are likely to be agents of more powerful Kindred or the covenants in general. A superior wants something done, and she asks the characters to do it. That’s the basic hook for stories about tenants.
For examples of the kinds of things tenants may be dispatched to do, see the relevant covenant guidebook or Coteries.
Playing the Vassal
A city’s political scheme may have multiple layers of vassals between the low tenants and the Regents who are so near to the Prince. A vassal, generally, is any Kindred beneath a Regent with the ability to grant out (sub-infeudate) her territory to other Kindred. Thus, all Kindred above tenants and below the Regents are vassals.
Characters at this level of the hierarchy may be influential members of vampire society and in command of prestigious domains and valuable Sites that put her at the center of Kindred plans for the future. Or a character at this level may be a backwater nobody sitting atop a useless span of houses and garages with little political value and waiting to find her big break. Vassals may be prominent members of local covenants, promoted simply to encourage them to share their valuable turf, or are rank-and-file groundlings who are expected to graciously host the occasional covenant-mate out near dawn now and again.
Vassals, owing fealty to their liege lords above them, may participate in the same kind of errands and missions as tenants (and any other street-level vampires). Vassals are also close enough to the action, though, to plan their own local coups and take power where they can. Vassals are the most mobile creatures in the Kindred hierarchy and are often the source of the strife that shakes the schema of local politics. This is a terrific place for players’ characters in the Jyhad.
Playing the Regent
Regents are those Kindred lords who receive their territory directly from the Prince. Even when a Regent has granted no land out to vassals below her, she is known as an overlord. Regents are prominent even when they are not particularly important. Their proximity to the Prince — always politically and often personally — makes them visible to the Kindred court, but their authority gives them the privilege of retreating from the Jyhad to a degree.
Regents are often high-ranking or leading members of covenants and are given territory by the Prince as a means of forcing responsibility for covenant-member actions on an affiliated Regent. Regents are highly visible figures in the Jyhad, at least insofar as their names and territories are usually well known. Some neighborhoods take on nicknames among the Damned based on the Regent who controls it — Sykestown, Cameron’s Hills, or Richville, for example.
Involving a Regent in one’s political schemes is dangerous. To unseat a Regent, one must strike close to the Prince, possibly even attacking one of his confidants. A Regent who doesn’t stick her neck out may be able to hold territory for a very long time. Regents who stay active in the Jyhad probably have vassals whose necks they stick out instead. What a Regent without vassals can’t do, however, is defer blame for things that happen in her domain, so wreaking havoc in her turf forces her to act and reveal what kind of lord she really is. (Of course, if the Regent reveals herself as a competent or excellent lord, the troublemakers in her territory are in bloody trouble.)
Regency is the dream of many vassals. The Prince has great power, but the Regents have access to him and the luxury of staying out things now and again. The Primogen, who are frequently Regents themselves, are likewise in a fine position. The Prince is an obvious target, and many Kindred are simply not cut out for the position. A vampire who knows it might strive for Regency, then fight to hold that seat for eternity.
Stories about Regents are about calculated responses to political attacks. Though players’ characters can certainly become Regents (or even the Primogen or Prince), Regents are more likely to be antagonists in a Barony chronicle — at least at the beginning. At this level of play, the coterie may have to circle round one of its members, who takes on the mantle of Regent while the rest of them make do with vassalage or even less.
Barony gameplay hinges on the customs of Kindred politics and uses them to fulfill a vital goal: Give Vampire characters things to do.
All positions in the neo-feudal hierarchy, save for the Prince and the scots, owe fealty to another vampire from whom they take their power. In the fictional game world, this is a method for keeping vampire society in order, keeping tabs on Kindred of lower-station, and formalizing culpability among treacherous and secretive monsters. In the game itself, fealty is a simple, reusable way to get stories started. The lord demands her rent, and off the coterie goes.
Fealty among the Damned typically requires lower-station vampires to perform a service for their superiors. Just what’s fair for the lord to ask of her vassal depends on their agreement at the time the vassal swore homage to the lord. Traditionally, Kindred vassals pay their rent in one of two pays: blood or service.
Taxed in Blood
The Blood is the only crop on which the Damned truly depend. It is all that grows in the fields and all that the lowest vassals and tenants are expected to tend. Though elder vampires are typically also excellent hunters, lots of them aren’t willing to risk their centuries of experience on a simple errand into a perilous city. If their vassals fail to deliver, the elder can hunt. Should something go wrong, it is the vassal who suffers and not the lord.
Many lords demand a payment of mortal vessels, still fresh and vital, to be paid at set dates. This is also called the Annual Flesh, though lords with few vassals often demand payment several times a year. It’s the responsibility of the vassal to acquire suitable payment for his lord and to deal with any consequences of getting it. The vassal must hide his crimes, or the vassal must take the fall if he screws up.
Some lords demand particular terms of their vassals — a woman between the ages of fifty and sixty or a Kindred no more than seven nights old — so that the vassal can be discarded when he fails and replaced with a new favorite.
His Choice of the Crop
A popular American variation on the Tax of Blood is the right of the lord to choose a vessel from the vassal’s fields. This is, in effect, quite similar to the Annual Flesh but is different in practice. Typically a lord exercising this custom goes out into the city with the vassal and selects a target in person. “That one,” says the lord. “Bring it here.”
For some lords, this is a means of measuring the vassal’s capabilities and character. For other lords, this is a tiresome chore mandated by a Prince who thinks lords should see their vassals firsthand. Some lords abuse this privilege by asking their vassals to hunt and deliver a mortal precious to them like an old lover or a neighborhood child. A vassal who refuses is technically in violation of his oath and may be dismissed (or brought before the Prince and charged as a renegade). Again, lords interested in replacing their vassals make them jump through this hoop.
Taxed in Service
Not so different from the tax of blood is the tax of service, which is traditionally called corvée. It is a period of service to the lord by the vassal, for which the vassal receives no pay except for an extension of his rights beneath the lord. The exact terms of service depend on the oath agreed to by the vassal when he swore fealty, but a few customary standards are common.
First, a lord seldom agrees to a rent of particular actions in advance. A vassal typically owes his lord a number of nights of service per year, which the lord may divide up into individual nights as he sees fit. Just what the vassal will be called upon to do depends upon the lord. A smart lord does not declare any action off limits or any action particularly required when the oath is sworn, so that he can make up his mind up later.
Some lords call for clandestine or political business like messaging, surveillance, shadowing, collections or delivery, and duties at court like speaking, singing, or ushering. Other lords call upon their vassals to soldier for them, extorting from mortal Assets, hunting fugitive ghouls, or dissuading the vassals of rival lords from expanding their territory.
Corvée is essentially any service short of soldiering. In practice, though, serving as escort, bouncer, or bodyguard is considered corvée if violence doesn’t break out. The Kindred have terms for particularly common kinds of corvée:
• travail pour le sang (labor for the Blood) — Any service that calls for the vassal to collect vessels for the lord, especially animals or to clean up after a lord’s feeding by scrubbing blood or getting rid of bodies.
• travail pour la puissance (labor for the power) — Any service that calls on the vassal to behave according to his lower position beneath the lord, such as acting as a messenger, porter or valet, or being loaned out to another lord in any capacity.
• corvée sanglant (bloody service, bloody drudgery) — Any service that is humiliating, gross, or nasty, whether or not it involves blood. Cleaning up after debauched drug-addicted blood dolls have shit the sheets, for example.
• loyer (rent) — Also called “black rent” (loyer noir_) or “blood rent” (_loyer sang), a corvée of regular payment may require the vassal to pay his lord a monthly sum and be it of money, drugs, blood, or information suitable for espionage or blackmail against another lord.