“Who granted you the Embrace!?”
Sunday evening, 6 September 2015, PM
GM: Driving to her Uncle Orson’s home in the Garden District takes Caroline some ten minutes.
It’s a plantation-style Greek Revival mansion on 1134 First Street known as the Malveaux-Strachan House. The handsome portico with its double gallery is adorned with great columns, Ionic below and Corinthian above, in the architectural style’s classic tradition. Massive gables with twin chimneys are typical of the high quality of materials and workmanship employed during the period. The cast iron capitals of the columns are marked New York, 1848. On the south side of the house is an enchanting garden pavilion.
The majestic house would draw enough notice through its beauty, but in the words of The Great Days of the Garden District, “history has touched the house and made it a local landmark.” The Confederacy’s first and only president, Jefferson Davis, died within the downstairs bedroom on December 6, 1889. A granite marker placed beside the front walk by the United Daughters of the Confederacy memorializes the event. The side facing the street is inscribed with the ex-president’s resume and and includes his stint as a postwar prisoner. The side facing the house notes that this is where Davis died on December 6, 1889, a ‘Christian chieftain’ and ‘truly great American.’
Jefferson Davis had been a close friend to the Strachan family, who built the property in 1848 and owned it until 1915, when it was sold for the first and only time to a one Mr. Joseph Malveaux and Mrs. Rexanna Malveaux, Caroline’s great-great-grandparents. Although the Malveauxes like to style themselves as a great Antebellum family of descent from the casquette girls, Caroline knows her ancestors’ fortunes only truly came into their own during the Civil War, when they supported the occupying Yankee forces and gleefully stole as much wealth from the established Creoles and Anglos as they could. In 1915, with their fortunes doubly swollen by black gold from the oil boom, the Malveauxes set their eyes upon a house befitting their new station. 1134 First Street has been the family’s ancestral seat ever since.
Armed security guards with the crucifix logo of Hammer Security Response (Orson always preferred them over the secular Blackwatch) see Caroline through an iron gate that clangs ominously shut behind her. Security cameras silently follow her journey up the front steps and past the cultivated greenery. The home’s interior is a study in cold luxury, interspersed with a fine collection of European and American antiques and objects d’art, the former predominately in the Baroque style. Catholic iconography in particular predominates. The beams are cypress; the floors are heart pine. Window frames and doors are of mahogany. The decoration of the house is more subdued than in most of the houses built after the mid-19th century when a greater exuberance came into vogue. The blue ceilings are a popular design attribute in the Garden District. Most believed it kept insects from nesting in the wood; others believe a blue ceiling wards off evil spirits.
Yet, as Caroline proceeds through the mansion’s imposing halls, there is little sense that anyone lives here. There are no children’s toys strewn over the Persian rugs, there are no misplaced books or papers over the tables, nor even any ashes in the crystal ashtrays. Perhaps if the house were home to an actual family, it would feel more lived in, but her Uncle Orson has it all to himself.
Caroline’s escort brings her into a luxuriously appointed dining room, where her uncle Orson sits at the head of the table. Despite the late hour, a resplendent spread of food is laid out, including roast beef soaked in gravy, buttered lobster, steaming bowls of soup, caesar salad, and several bottles of wine. Caroline has heard allegations that her uncle molests children, but from everything she’s seen his greatest vice is gluttony, not lust.
“Leave us,” Caroline’s uncle commands her escort, who silently withdraws.
Orson Malveaux is obese, middle-aged man with thick jowls and a small hairline that has almost but not entirely receded into baldness. Thick glasses typical of senior clergy frame an imperious face all-too frequently set in an expression of disapproval.
The archbishop turns to face his niece and smiles dimly. “Caroline. Please, sit. Help yourself. There is plenty to go around.”
Caroline: Caroline slides gracefully into a seat opposite her uncle. “Thank you, Uncle Orson, but I went out earlier.”
GM: “I must insist, if only a small glass of wine.” Her uncle’s smile doesn’t waver. “To eat is to renew one’s life. To eat together is to renew one’s lives together, and to symbolically commit those lives to unity of purpose. I am certain you recall the sharing of food as a central motif in the New Testament.”
Caroline: The thought of the food is enough to turn her stomach, but Caroline smiles. “If you insist.” She pours herself a glass of wine.
GM: Her uncle waits expectantly for her to drink.
Caroline: She bring the glass to her lips for what appears to be a sip before letting it down.
She waits expectantly for the coming rebuke. She has to get through this meeting.
GM: “Is the vintage not to your liking, Caroline?” Orson inquires as he brings a piece of lobster to his mouth. The wine smells very fine.
Or at least might, to someone who hadn’t just been killed. A single whiff of the noxious beverage is enough for Caroline to know how her dead stomach will handle it.
Caroline: “I’ve had a little much to drink in the last week.” She gives a weak smile. “Something of an object lesson in why temperance is a virtue.”
GM: Her uncle’s smile still doesn’t waver. “Truly? And what other lessons have you taken from this past week?”
Caroline: “That some things are forbidden for a reason.”
GM: A soft crunch sounds as the archbishop takes several bites of salad.
Caroline: “But you already knew that. I presume Aimee told you something of what happened.”
Is there a bit of an edge to her tone? If so, it is slight.
GM: Orson takes a sip of his own wine. “Why, yes. She told me that she had tempted one of my nieces into attending a debauched festival that I have been attempting to have banned for years.”
Caroline: “With good reason, as I learned too well.”
GM: “It is disappointing when one’s family are unwilling to take matters on faith.”
Caroline: “Isn’t it the nature of youth to seek answers on their own, and reassuring when those searches bring them back into the fold?”
GM: “‘Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you,’” the archbishop recites.
“’Disappointment remains the mood foremost in my thoughts, Caroline. Disappointment that faith could not move such youths to overcome their base natures and heed the wisdom of their elders and leaders.”
Caroline: Caroline sits up stiffly. “I cannot change the past, only learn from it.”
GM: Her uncle enjoys a slow sip from his soup. Cream of mushroom, if the smell is any indication.
“That is correct. I aim to help you and your… friend learn a great deal from this experience.”
Caroline: Of course he does.
“What did you have in mind?”
GM: “Your friend has decided that she wishes to join the Ursulines as a nun.” Her uncle strokes his chin thoughtfully. “I am still uncertain whether you will decide the same.”
Caroline: Caroline stares daggers at her uncle. “Has she now. What a fascinating and swift change in her worldview.”
GM: Orson smiles thinly between a bite of lobster. “She is a wanton, sinful girl. Those are common enough in New Orleans, true, but she remains the only such girl to draw one of my family into her debauchery.”
“Fortunately, she has seen the error of her ways and wishes to atone for them. The Holy Mother Church welcomes all wayward souls back into her fold.”
Caroline: “Indeed, most of the family seems drawn into the debauchery quite on their own.”
GM: “Is that so, niece? Should I notify the mother superior to prepare for additional aspirants at the convent tomorrow?”
Caroline: “Tell me, uncle, what lever did you pull on her? What did you use to put the fear in her so greatly that she was willing to give up her dreams? One of your employees? Did you threaten to hurt her? Hurt her family? Throw them into ruin? You’ve always been so good at picking out people’s vulnerabilities.”
GM: “You care a great deal for this girl, don’t you?” the archbishop asks, perhaps rhetorically. He does not glance up at Caroline while cutting off several sections of beef with his knife.
Caroline: “And you don’t care for girls at all—family included. Was that true before you took your vows, or a product of it? I go out. I don’t end up with an arrest record, don’t end up in the paper, and am back the next day, and you’re threatening me with the convent?”
GM: Her uncle still doesn’t look up between bites of roast beef. “I care a great deal for the well-being of my family, Caroline. It is much to my regret that I seem to care for it more than they themselves do.”
Caroline: “That’s why Westley got a slap on the wrist when he ran over that poor girl?”
GM: Orson smiles dimly at the memory. “Westley’s stay with the Brothers of St. Joseph did much to curtail his behavior. I am confident that a stay with the Ursuline Sisters will prove similarly beneficial to you, though I am yet unconvinced how long that stay should be.”
Caroline: “And I’m going to go along with this because?”
GM: Her uncle’s smile doesn’t waver. “You will find it preferable to the alternative.”
Caroline: “Which is?”
GM: “Caroline,” the archbishop tsks, pouring himself a second glass of wine, “I am graciously receiving you in my home at this late hour for the benefit of our family and your own spiritual well-being. I had hoped that, like your friend, you would wish to repent for your disobedience and doubtlessly many sins. But if you do not wish to enjoy a stay with the good sisters, I will not drag you to the convent kicking and screaming. I will make you wish that I had.”
Caroline: “What did you tell Aimee, and where is she now?”
GM: Her uncle removes a phone from his pocket. “I will make this even simpler for you, Caroline, as you are clearly in no state of mind to discourse with me civilly. Tell me everything that happened during the time of your absence and I will decide how long a stay with the sisters your actions warrant.”
Caroline: “What have you done to her, Uncle Orson.”
GM: Orson dials a number into the phone.
Caroline: “Look at me, damn it!”
The room seems to squeeze around them as Caroline demands her uncle’s attention. The full-sized dinner table between them suddenly feels as though it is just a cramped coffee table, and Caroline is so close he could reach out and touch her. The light falls just right on the her dazzling green eyes, her hair falls just right. The shadows around her seem to retreat… or does she simply shine so brightly?
GM: Orson’s head jerks up from his phone like it’s been pulled by an invisible magnet. The archbishop’s gaze fixes on his niece, and for once, there is no trace of superiority or condescension behind it.
“There is no need to swear, Caroline. I am looking at you.”
Caroline: “Who are you calling?”
GM: “One of my men, who is looking over your friend.”
Caroline: That easily?
She waves off her surprise. “Where?”
GM: “In the guardhouse.”
Caroline: There’s a flash of fury. “Have him bring her out. He can take his time.”
GM: Orson re-dials the number into his phone. “Alphonse? Bring out the girl.”
Caroline: I’ve done something to him, she realizes.
She waits for him to hang up, then asks, “Can I see the phone?”
GM: Her uncle extends it towards her.
Caroline: She finds the voice memo option on the tiny device and hits ‘record’, setting it down beside her.
“What did you threaten her with, Uncle Orson?”
GM: Her uncle picks up the phone and turns off the recording button.
“That isn’t the sort of thing we want on record, Caroline,” he chides with a smile.
Caroline: Limits, then.
She smiles back. “You’re right. What did you tell her, though?”
GM: “I threatened you, of course. I knew nothing about the girl beyond that she was your friend.”
Caroline: “With what?” she asks curiously.
GM: “Sending you to the Ursulines for life. Instructing the mother superior to make things miserable for you. She didn’t believe me at first, until I informed her about your cousin.”
Caroline: “And how were you expecting to get me to go along with that?”
GM: “There are ways,” Orson smiles vaguely. “Alternatives that would not have required your willing consent. Our family would not have become masters of our fellow men if we could not master our own children.”
Caroline: “Like Westley and Susan.”
GM: “Your brother was no less intransigent at first, but realized it would be less painful to humble himself and seek forgiveness. God hates the sin of pride and disciplines the proud.”
Caroline: “Well, you don’t want to do that to me now, do you?”
GM: “Certainly not, Caroline. I’m certain you’ll be far more reasonable than he was.”
Caroline: She tests her influence. “I really learned my lesson from the experience—and did so without embarrassing the family. There’s not really any need to go to extremes.”
GM: Her uncle nods. “I still need to know where you were, Caroline. I’ve had Ferris and other investigators looking all over for you. One of them has yet to report back.”
Caroline: “I lost my phone in the crowd and got pulled away from Aimee. Not really unexpected—I’d been drinking too much as it was. It took me hours to make it home with no money in the crowds, and I didn’t want anyone in the family to see me that way, so I went and stayed somewhere off the radar until I could sleep it off and come see you to tell you what happened.”
GM: Caroline’s uncle nods again. “That was prudent of you. As prudent as could be managed under the circumstances. But attending Decadence… you knew full well that the church is opposed to the festival, and that my will is the church’s.”
Caroline: “Did not Jesus walk into the desert to face temptation? What is important is that I passed through without corruption or deviance. You have to see the dark side to appreciate the light.”
GM: Caroline’s newfound power clearly has limits, as the newly-turned vampire has to spend several further minutes buttering up her newly-amenable uncle and promising not to ever repeat that sort of behavior. At length, he gives in, patting her hand with an affectionate smile.
“Very well, Caroline. You have always been my favorite niece. The Devillers and Whitneys are still besides themselves with gratitude over your actions at the police station. Given those, I think we can let this off with a promise not to tell anyone else.”
Caroline: If Caroline was smiling, she’d stop.
Sarah. Who might still wind up a vegetable.
But she’s not smiling.
“Is there anything else you’d like me to do, Uncle Orson?” she asks.
GM: “Beyond keeping the matter discrete? Merely to continue being a credit to our family’s name.”
Caroline: “No special plans for me that I should—or shouldn’t—be aware of?”
GM: “None. Your friend should be just outside. Have a pleasant night.”
Caroline: “You as well, uncle.”
Caroline rises to leave.
GM: Caroline finds her friend in the mansion’s entrance hall. Two security guards with the Hammer Security Response’s crucifix logo on their uniforms watch by the door. Alphonse Meridian, the archbishop’s nominal driver, also stands nearby. He’s a thin man with thinner hair, dressed in a somber black suit. Wiry build. Gaunt skin. Cool expression. Dead eyes. He doesn’t remind Caroline of a shark so much as an angler fish without a lure. Lurking in some dark place until her uncle trots him out.
Aimee seems to be doing her best to ignore the three’s presences and has her arms stiffly folded. Her eyes look red from crying.
Caroline: ‘Driver’ really is such a bland euphemism for all that he does.
Caroline wraps the shorter girl in a hug.
“Come on, Aimee, we’re going home.”
GM: Aimee all but falls into the hug as Caroline shows up.
“Let’s get out of here,” she agree shortly, sparing one last angry look for her ‘escorts.’ They stare past her as if she’s invisible.
Except for Alphonse. He just stares at her.
Caroline: Caroline starts to walk out. Then stops as the hairs on her neck stand on edge.
There is… something familiar. Something close.
“You gentlemen are going to walk us to my car,” she instructs the guards.
GM: “I don’t want them with us,” Aimee hisses. She shoots Alphonse an especially hateful look.
His dead eyes don’t change at all.
She glances away.
Caroline: “I know.” Caroline doesn’t change her demand as she starts to lead the girl out to her car.
GM: The Hammer Security personnel look towards Alphonse, then follow him as he silently follows after Caroline. Aimee’s glare doesn’t subside, but she follows along after she sees her friend’s mind is set.
Caroline: Fortunately, Caroline didn’t have to park that far away. Her head is on a swivel until they make it.
GM: A second car, a black luxury model, is parked next to hers. A black-suited, cold-expressioned driver opens the door. A figure steps out.
He is clad in a priest’s plain black habit, but trimmed with blue, and walks with a slender black cane that almost resembles a shepherd’s crook. A silver ring set with an onyx rests on one of his fingers. He is shorter than Caroline by about a foot, and cadaverously thin, with limbs like a scarecrow’s. His skin is so pale she’d think he poured flour over it, and his short, slicked-back hair is similarly white. His eyes are an unhealthy reddish-pink. His nose is just a little large, his features just a little off: an albino. His exact age is difficult to pinpoint. Caroline hasn’t ever seen him before. But there is one thing she can instinctively sense:
He is… like her.
Caroline: Caroline stops like she’s been shot.
“Get in the car, Aimee,” she orders, eyes fixed on the stranger.
Another one. There are at least three, then. Her rational mind says there are far more. But why is he here? What is he doing? Was he looking for her? How did he find her?
GM: The pale figure fixes his gaze on Aimee. He rasps out in a dry voice, “You never saw me.”
Her friend’s eyes glaze over.
“Get in the car.”
Aimee shuffles over to Caroline’s car as if sleepwalking and gets in.
Caroline: Caroline steps in front of the car to keep her from driving off. “Who are you?”
GM: “Stand aside,” the pale figure rasps. Caroline’s feet shuffle out of the car’s path before her mind so much as processes the words.
The albino fixes his gaze on Aimee again. His red eyes are so deep, like pools of magma. “Return to your home.”
Aimee twists the keys, which Caroline could have sworn she had in her purse. Her friend closes the door and drives off.
Caroline: Caroline might be past the physiological need to swallow, but she still feels the urge to. This man is… far more advanced than she is. He actually seems to know what he’s doing, and the power of his influence…
Part of her, that wild beast, wants to run and cower. It recognizes an inherently superior predator.
GM: “You are in my domain,” the other vampire hisses at Caroline, clutching his cane by its silver head.
Alphonse motions at the two guards, who silently withdraw back to the house. None of the three have so much as blinked at the strange exchange.
“I’m sorry. My uncle…” She gathers herself. “The archbishop insisted I attend him. I was just leaving.”
GM: “Identify yourself,” the vampire rasps.
GM: “Your lineage, clan, and covenant,” the vampire demands in an impatient tone.
Caroline: "I… "
Caroline is not accustomed to not knowing the answers. She swallows her pride.
“I don’t know what that is.”
GM: The vampire’s pinkish eyes dangerously narrow.
“Have you presented yourself before Seneschal Maldonato?”
Caroline: “I will if required.”
GM: The albino’s pinkish eyes flare with outrage. Caroline gets the distinct impression that was not the answer he wanted to hear.
Caroline: Caroline is very still.
GM: “You intrude upon my domain,” he rasps, angrily pointing his cane at Caroline like an accusing finger, “unpresented, ignorant of your own clan? What is the meaning of this? Who granted you the Embrace!?”
Caroline: “The Embrace? Is that what he did to me? Turned me into something… turned me into the same thing as you?”
She shivers. “He hid behind a mask. I never saw his face. But he said his name was René.”
GM: “A Caitiff.” The vampire’s tone all but spits. “Get in the car. Others will decide your fate.”
Alphonse meets the vampire’s eyes, then withdraws to the house. As if all business here has been concluded.
Caroline: Caroline considers running. She really does. But some part of her suspects it would be futile. To run from a being who was able to stop her with but a word? Better to play the game. Besides… this may be her best opportunity to find out what in the hell she is. She complies.
And she’s a Malveaux. They don’t run.
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Pete Feedback Repost
Wow. That was…. quite wow. Caroline’s uncle is a pretty scary guy, and that interaction was more than a bit awkward for her. Lots of stuff in play, from threatened Touchstones to the lingering effects of Paxton’s death to newfound abilities. I felt like the beginning of their meeting really drove home the nominal inequality in power. For all her tough talk to a very real extent he held all the cards, and if Confidante hadn’t gone off (and if she weren’t a vamp) she would have had a very tough time leveraging her way out of the situation (though if she weren’t a vamp she probably would have been more submissive and willing to kowtow).
Her activities earlier in the night really came back to haunt her in a big way here mechanically, if not in terms of fluff. The size of her pools isn’t really conducive to eating significant penalties in interactions with important individuals, and as a result she blew through Willpower with a swiftness trying to influence him. Then the big flop that resulted in her introduction to vamp politics with no Willpower, a -2 penalty on everything, etc. really drove home the cost of that murder to her mechanically as well as personally.
Overall I thought the scene played out pretty well, especially as she was able to wrangle out an upper hand with her new supernatural powers. It’s an interesting change in the power dynamic. Sorry to shoot down the flashback—I was just really digging all the stuff in play in the present day, the tension with Aimee, their conflict, the way it seemed to be blowing up, etc. While I am interested in exploring her past with those scenes the timing just felt off. This was pretty high stakes.
Speaking of though, that’s one thing that as a GM I think you’ve accomplished pretty well throughout Caroline’s story to date. Most of her scenes have managed to feel ‘real’ while also seeming to have very significant consequences and high stakes for her personally. It feels organic, while also feeling dangerous (in the personal and social sense). It’s something that think this system accomplishes better than PF in general, but also something I felt that my past experiences tended to struggle with maintaining. Again the emphasis is not-contrived while also aggressively driven and meaningful.
Also really digging how you play up an aspect or two of each NPC’s characterization. For each of the NPCs that Caroline has interacted with meaningfully I can identify a couple words to describe them that really summed them up and gave them a combination of recognition and continuity. Orson for instance and his gluttony, Paxton and his doggedness, etc.
Overall very sorry to be missing the session this week.
Calder Feedback Repost
Responding to Pete’s feedback first, as I somehow missed it (and didn’t give him XP for it until tonight):
I’m glad to hear the encounter with Orson felt as tense as it did. Caroline’s uncle held most of the cards, but she was a vampire and he wasn’t. Who knows what would’ve happened if you’d failed the Majesty roll? (Low odds, granted, as mortals only roll stat and vampires roll three.)
GM’s 2020 edit: Obviously, this references mechanics for the Storytelling Rules back when we were using those. Under the Decanter rules we’ve since adopted, vampires now use two traits for Presence rolls/Discipline rolls and mortals only use one. Odds are that Caroline would’ve still mind-controlled her uncle given that disparity. By design, ordinary mortals are supposed to succumb to the supernatural more often than not.
We also give Willpower instead of XP for feedback now.
I’ve actually toyed with the thought of getting rid of detachment-imposed Conditions, or simply replacing them with ones that have shorter-term durations. While I applaud the idea behind them (give players mechanical incentive to roleplay their PCs differently after they endanger their Humanity), in practice, I’ve found that PCs with the Bestial Condition haven’t acted terribly bestial, ones with the Wanton Condition haven’t acted particularly wanton, etc. I can’t totally blame players—the Conditions have relatively long durations, fairly minimal mechanical impact (well, other than Competitive), and don’t directly incentivize players to portray their characters differently like other Conditions do (e.g., “gain a Beat when you do something jerkish” for a Jerk Condition). Then again, your feedback impressions sound pretty positive. Would you say the system is working as-is, or could use tweaking?
There’ll be future opportunities to play out scenes from Caroline’s past, and I’m glad the desire to focus elsewhere stemmed from interest rather than a lack therof.
How would you say that Caroline’s scenes feel real? Is that because of the real-world, lower-magic setting, or simply the game’s greater emphasis on social interaction vs. combat and adventuring?
Pete Feedback Repost
In short? They don’t feel contrived. I doesn’t feel as though for good for for ill that the world is revolving around my PC. Rather events play out organically. Nothing seems arbitrary. NPCs react like they are the NPC in question. This flows naturally for good or for ill. Often times in other games I’ve seen GMs that had things just seem to ‘work out’ for the PC in question as they followed the plot. Good example from Kain’s game where he decided he wanted to send a PC to Greyhawk on a mission, but needed them to be back in Sasserine very early on. As a result he just sort of arbitrarily had an NPC show up with time travel fey horses to take her back in time so she could still arrive on time. It worked out in the PC’s favor, and the encounters in Greyhawk were fun, bit it felt as though the world as contriving to “make things work.” Similarly, it often felt as though NPCs in general put on appearances for specific purposes, and as much as anything else it was figuring out what the purpose behind their appearance was and then following it through. I don’t get that feeling from your game. NPCs feel more as though they are sort of just “there” pursing their own agenda. PCs can try to sway them towards a given agenda or not, but they rarely feel as though they have something specifically scripted towards a specific goal.