Blood and Bourbon
“If a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, a lot was lethal.”
Wheels turn within wheels. The Kindred as a race are skilled manipulators and deceivers, the better to enact their schemes while maintaining a veneer of deniability. A neonate striking out against a hated elder might actually do so at the behest of that elder’s rival, who incited the turbulent vampire with a clever ruse. Indeed, some Kindred wonder if the whole of the Jyhad is the machination of the Antediluvians, and whether any vampire truly has free will.
—Vampire: The Masquerade Core Rulebook, “Theme and Mood”
“Also on the positive side is the general mystery-, darkness-, and conspiracy-laden nature of the game. I know that as a player I was never sure where the alliances lay with regard to Caroline, what parties were in play, and what was going on. Caroline’s never really felt comfortable, or that she could trust anyone (even Lou, except in desperation). Everyone has an agenda. Everyone is trying to use someone.”
The World of Darkness is a bleaker reflection of our world. The poor are poorer, criminals are more violent, leaders are more corrupt, and the everyman is twice as fucked. The divide between the haves and have-nots runs as sharp and impassable as a barbed wire fence, and the have-nots would rather fight each other for scraps than try to build something better. In such a morally bankrupt world, it’s all-too easy to slide into cynicism and looking out for number one. Mortal or supernatural, all of the World of Darkness’ denizens must wrestle with their inner demons and reconcile to what extent they are willing to become monsters in an inherently monstrous world.
That’s not the only reason their world is a dark place.
Darkness also represents ignorance. Darkness makes it impossible to imagine a better world or notice the monsters lurking just out of sight. Monsters embrace the darkness—it’s so much easier to hunt prey that doesn’t see them coming. Darkness is central to the setting’s core theme of being a monster, but it’s no less relevant to the secondary themes of mystery, intrigue, and conspiracy. So much of the world’s true nature is hidden, not just from mortals, but also the supernatural predators who fancy themselves wiser than the ignorant masses they exploit.
Earlier Vampire: The Masquerade setting books had a trait called “City Secrets” which measured how much a character knew about the suppressed histories, ongoing intrigues, and other, more nebulous secrets pertaining to their city’s Kindred. Every NPC had their knowledge graded from F to A+. Some were wholly ignorant of the events going on in the shadows, while others had been driven mad by the terrible weight of what they knew. These “secrets ratings” were one of the most interesting aspects of the setting books for me. You’d start reading at the F rating, which offered little detail about the city’s politics, then worked up to D-, which painted a basic picture of what they were like. With each grade you climbed, you didn’t just learn more information. You realized that everything you’d previously learned was either dangerously incomplete or an outright lie. Seemingly innocuous details were revealed as cogs in the silently grinding gears of ancient conspiracies. Fearsome giants were exposed as paper tigers. Sinister puppeteers were revealed to be orchestrating events from the shadows… only for they themselves to be exposed as puppets of still darker forces. Everyone had skeletons in their closets. Most Kindred were pitifully ignorant of their roles as pawns (or knights and rooks) in the Jyhad. The rare few individuals who had City Secrets grades in the A-, A, and A+ range were some of the most interesting ones in the books to me. They were the only people whose actions were informed by knowledge of what was really going on.
How to maintain that sort of atmosphere over our game’s wiki has been a long conundrum of mine. On the one hand, by posting otherwise secret details where players are free to read them, it’s considerably harder to cultivate a sense of dark and brooding mystery. On the other hand, players enjoy being able to read more information about the setting. I certainly do when I’m a player. Then it hit me that the big issue wasn’t what information was posted on the wiki, but how that information was being conveyed. On the several occasions when I raised this topic with players, some assumed that their PCs didn’t know everything on the wiki, while others figured it was common knowledge. That’s where City Secrets comes in.
All PCs will be given a City Secrets grade to determine just how many of the Big Easy’s secrets they are privy to. All setting information on the wiki will (eventually) be updated to include grades of its own. This will serve to let players know much their characters know… and don’t.
Sometimes that’s for the best. Ignorance is often bliss in the World of Darkness, because knowledge is not a safe commodity. Far from being a shining light of truth and understanding, knowledge represents the theft of information that malign powers have suppressed in order to better enact their designs upon an unsuspecting humanity… or unsuspecting Kindred. Such powers do not like having their secrets stolen and dragged kicking and screaming into the open. The higher a secret’s grade, the deadlier the consequences for its release, and the easier it is for a would-be seeker of truth to get into situations well over their head.
The worst irony of all is that the truth will not set them free. Every plot is a smokescreen for a deeper plot. Every conspiracy conceals the snaking tendrils of another conspiracy. The rabbit-hole goes on forever, and eventually, the truth-seeker is going to lose their grip and plummet. The darkness will swallow them, but they won’t hit bottom. They’ll look up and see the strings they’re dangling from. They’ll look for a face past the puppeteer’s deft hands, and see the same void yawning below their feet.
Tread carefully, Kindred.
It’s a darker world out there than you know.
Grades of Secrets
There are five basic levels of secrets, which are rated A through F. Each grade except F is subdivided into three further grades: plus, minus, and average, for a total of thirteen grades. A character’s grade of City Secrets can be enhanced by Skills such as Investigation, Politics, Occult, and Streetwise, but knowledge of the Big Easy’s Kindred politics is ultimately covered by City Secrets. A visiting elder might have high dots in all of the aforementioned Skills, but without having resided in New Orleans, their City Secrets rating is no higher than a neonate’s.
F: The character might have been presented to the Seneschal (who she might also mistake for the Prince), but knows next to nothing about the Kindred of New Orleans. At most, she is aware that the Prince and two rivals are engaged in a three-way struggle for dominance over the city. Most newcomers and a few particularly unfortunate neonates have this level of knowledge.
D-, D, D+: The character knows what is considered “common knowledge” among the Big Easy’s Kindred: the nature of the factional struggle between the three elders, the city’s recent history, what territories are claimed by which covenant, names of the most prominent local Kindred, and so on. Most neonates are likely to have this level of knowledge. At the lowest grade (D-), this knowledge is fairly patchwork and the faux pas is a way of life for such a character (“Isn’t Antoine Savoy on the Cabildo?”). At D, the character knows enough to get by in her night-to-night dealings among the local Kindred. At D+, the character has a strong working knowledge of the city (for a neonate) and is coming to realize how deep the games played by its Kindred actually run.
C-, C, C+: The character is “in the know.” She is aware of matters not freely discussed at Elysium, such as the city’s earlier history, Kindred who keep themselves out of the “public eye,” and the details of ongoing intrigues that more ignorant Kindred can only guess at. Most ancillae and a few exceptionally informed neonates are likely to have this level of knowledge, and it is the minimum grade required to play political games. At C-, the character’s grasp of such games is still imperfect, and she has difficulty keeping track of sudden shifts in alliances. At C, the knows enough to hold her own as a capable intriguer; she no longer needs to compensate for knowledge gaps with her own cleverness. At C+, the character’s lessers would believe she has a comprehensive grasp of the city’s deeper games. The character herself is aware that her knowledge barely hits the tip of the iceberg.
B-, B, B+: PCs have not discovered what these grades of secrets entail.
A-, A, A+: PCs have not discovered what these grades of secrets entail.
It bears repeating: characters do not casually swap the information they know through City Secrets, particularly at the higher grades. Doing so diminishes their information’s value and is inherently dangerous. George and Caroline both stumbled across the truth of a certain elder’s depravities, and when both threatened to go public with it, they attracted fatal attention from parties that did not want that knowledge disseminated. The higher a secret’s grade, the more dangerous it is to know. Characters who mishandle higher-graded secrets can easily get into situations well over their heads.
It also bears noting that not all secrets are knowable through City Secrets. Some information exists solely in one Kindred’s pocket because they haven’t revealed it to anyone else. This doesn’t make it inherently more or less valuable, just less known. Nevertheless, characters who thought they were sitting on certain “secrets” may be shocked to learn just how much their elders know about the skeletons in their closets…
PCs and Secrets
City Secrets determines how much information a PC has access to off the campaign wiki. City Secrets also serves as a cap on how much information PCs can recall through Politics, Streetwise, or Socialize rolls: a character can never recall information with a higher grade than their City Secrets. (As ever, further investigation on the character’s part may turn up further information.)
NPCs have whatever City Secrets grade the GM deems appropriate. Neonate PCs begin play with D-. Ancilla PCs begin play with C-. For every five combined dots the PC has in Occult, Politics, Investigation, and Streetwise, their City Secrets rating increases by one grade (C- to C, C to C+, and C+ to a maximum of B-.) This grade is determined during character creation (or, for extant PCs, their current Skill dots) and is not increased by future Skill dot increases: in-game accomplishments are the only way to make a character’s City Secrets grade go up. The GM may also decrease a starting character’s grade based on ad hoc factors, such as the PC being an outsider with no Status in Kindred or ghoul society.
Secrets use several basic mechanics.
Dice Bonus: A Secret provides an equipment bonus on dice rolls where it is useful. The bonus varies by the secret’s grade.
|Secret Grade||Dice Bonus|
Secrets are not always useful. Trying to bribe an elder with a C+ secret pertaining to his own clan is unlikely to influence him if he is already privy to it. On the other hand, threatening to leak the secret to a clan enemy would certainly let the dice bonus count… if the elder doesn’t decide to destroy the character for her impudence. Tread carefully, childe.
Beats: Characters take a Beat every time they learn a new secret, increase an existing secret’s grade, or leverage a secret to their meaningful advantage.
Boons: As a general rule, D-rated secrets are worth trivial boons, C-rated secrets are worth minor boons, B-rated secrets are worth major boons, and A-rated secrets are worth (at least) blood boons. A secret’s exact worth as a boon can vary depending on how valuable (or non-valuable) it is to a particular character.
Revealing Secrets: Some PCs have widely disseminated secrets to devastating effect, such as George’s public reveal (through Savoy) that John Harley Matheson was a vitae addict. This is essentially playing Jyhad with IEDs and molotov cocktails rather than cloaks and dangers. Doing so can cause more damage, but it’s also messy, attracts dangerous intention, and can have unforseen consequences (such as George causing the factional split among the Anarchs, when he had previously counted Coco Duquette as an ally). Furthermore, a bomb can only be detonated once. Once a secret is publicly revealed, it loses its dice bonus and ceases to grant Beats. Once it’s out, it’s of no value.
City Secrets and Individual Secrets
As mentioned, City Secrets ratings are not comprehensive. Some characters will be especially informed about certain topics, while others will be especially ignorant. Virtually every Ventrue in the city will know who sits on the clan’s Gerousia. A non-Ventrue will only have a tenuous grasp of the clan’s internal politics until the very highest secret grades, and even then, this will be slanted from an outsider’s perspective—the Blue Bloods are nearly as adamant as the Tremere about keeping the clan’s internal affairs private. Likewise, characters may stumble upon significant nuggets of truth but be ignorant of the larger context pertaining to such information.
Characters may thus know individual secrets at higher grades than their overall City Secrets grade. This is not only possible, but the standard norm: most characters are better-informed about some topics than they are about others.
Secrets are marked as follows on character sheets. Highest-graded secrets are listed first. Secrets of equal grades are listed in alphabetical order. Example:
• John Harley Matheson, Headhunter (B, +4)
• Other Secret (C+, +3)
• Other Secret (C, +3)
C-: The character has heard of John Harley Matheson, a Ventrue elder who dwells in a plantation outside New Orleans. He has been known to receive occasional visitors.
C: The character knows that Matheson was banished by Prince Vidal for reasons unstated and is barred from ever entering the city. She knows that Matheson prefers the company of neonates over older vampires.
C+: The character knows that Matheson was banished shortly before the Civil War, and Vidal’s reason behind it was consequently largely overlooked during the tumult of the Union occupation. The character knows that Matheson had an interest in spending time with neonates even before he was banished.
B-: The character knows Matheson still comes to New Orleans by possessing a ghoul, and that Vidal allows him to participate in certain affairs exclusive to Clan Ventrue. The character knows little of what these entail unless she is a Blue Blood herself or has Clan Friendship (Ventrue). She knows that Matheson mostly kept company with neonates from Redbone and Kaintuck clans (less commonly Creoles) and that he ended his associations with these neonates when they grew more than a few decades old.
B: The character knows John Harley Matheson is a vitae addict and has been feeding on neonates for years. It seems highly probable, or at least highly convenient, that Vidal had full knowledge of the crime and quietly banished Matheson from New Orleans during an eventful time in order to maintain Clan Ventrue’s reputation.
Matheson’s entry may raise a separate question from players: do all secrets go up to A+? Some do, some stop at other grades. The only way to tell how deep the rabbit hole goes is to play the game and find out…
Characters can spend Experiences on allies, mentors, wealth, the respect of their peers, and other social advantages. With the following Merit, they can buy secrets too.
Secret (• to •••••)
You have access to uncommon information that others would pay dearly to know… or suppress.
Prerequisites: Dots in a relevant Skill or Social Merit equal to (Merit dot rating).
Effect: You know a secret more valuable than your baseline City Secrets grade. This costs two Merit dots for ever grade by which the secret’s grade exceeds your City Secrets grade. For example, it costs four Merit dots for a character with C- in City Secrets to learn a secret rated C+. Characters may never purchase secrets rated A-, A, or A+ with this Merit, and B+ secrets will be subject to stronger vetting.
Secrets can be chosen from numerous categories. The following is a small sample:
• Clans (Brujah, Gangrel, Sangiovanni, etc.)
• Factions (Lancea et Sanctum, Invictus, Anarchs, etc.)
• Periods of history (the Civil War, the Antebellum, etc.)
• Locations (the Garden District, the French Quarter, Perdido House, etc.)
• Singular or recurring events (Hurricane Katrina, Mardi Gras, the Storyville Murders, etc.)
• Individual Kindred
• Coteries (the Cabildo, the Krewe of Janus, the Harpies, etc.)
Frequent overlap exists between these categories. This is not a drawback: Secrets (Krewe of Janus) and Secrets (Krewe of Janus) might both reveal something of Harlequin’s activities, but only as they pertain to those coteries. Secrets (Harlequin) might reveal a great deal of his personal doings, but an incomplete picture of the coteries he belongs to. In the same vein, characters can sacrifice volume of knowledge for depth of knowledge by purchasing more specific secrets, such as Secrets (The Dungeon) instead of Secrets (French Quarter).
Characters should have well-considered explanations for how they acquired their secrets, particularly at the higher grades. An avowed supporter of the Baron will have a much harder time obtaining Secrets (Perdido House) B than a trusted Hound like Rocco. As ever, the GM may disallow Merit purchases that don’t make sense for a given character.
Drawback: No power without price. Come up with a complication that resulted from your character learning her secret, such as having to betray an ally, being forced into a blood bond, or owing the Nosferatu a favor. This complication should be relatively minor at the lower grades, such as having eavesdropped on two Kindred conversing in assumed privacy. At the highest grades it should be quite dangerous, such as having broken into an elder’s haven or murdered her prize ghoul to obtain the information. Take a Beat whenever this complication returns to make trouble for you.
GM’s Commentary: There are several things I want to accomplish through introducing this Merit.
First, some of the older PCs (Caroline, Lou, Rocco, Cletus) have earned a lot of XP. Secrets is intended to provide another valve their Beat stream can run off to.
Second, older characters (not PCs) like Lou, Cletus, or Rocco are likely to have become privy to sensitive information (ie, not knowable through a simple Politics roll) over the course of their long un/lives. This Merit lets them buy it like any other social advantage.
Third, the simple fact is, the gameworld is too large and interlayered for PCs to discover every one of its secrets through real-time play. Even with this Merit, I doubt they will. That isn’t a bad thing, as the World of Darkness thrives on mystery and conspiracy: even a character with B+ in every listed secret doesn’t know everything that’s going on. But what they do know is certain to change them—likely for the worse—and I’m thus interested in the Merit’s potential to influence PC actions and lead to further plot developments.