Campaign of the Month: October 2017
Blood and Bourbon
XP is an optional system in Blood & Bourbon: the game does not use it by default. Part of the reason for this is the unique nature of our chronicle (more on that below); another part is that the GM found tabulating XP awards to be extra bookkeeping for little return.
So, we have gotten rid of the middleman: the GM simply awards increases to PC Attributes, Skills, Edges, and Disciplines on an ad hoc basis, much like Background increases already work under V20’s rules.
There are three ways PCs can increase their traits: in the present, retroactively, or (optionally) with XP purchases.
To increase your PC’s traits in the present, simply have them take in-game actions that warrant an increase.
Attributes & Skills: Increasing these is fairly direct. Play your PC in a manner reflective of the higher trait, undertake challenges involving the trait (your PC doesn’t necessarily have to succeed at the challenge—failure can teach as much as success), or have them spend time learning from another character who’s more proficient at the trait than they are.
For example, if your PC cleans up someone’s Masquerade breach, the GM may award a Subterfuge increase. If your PC gets in lots of fistfights, the GM may award a Brawl increase. If your PC goes back to school for a few years, the GM may award an Academics increase.
As a general rule, it takes less time and effort to earn lower dot ratings than higher dot ratings, since characters must push themselves to develop their abilities. A Melee 0 rube who can barely hold a sword can go to Melee 1 fairly quickly, as any competent training regimen will challenge them. On the other hand, a Melee 4 swordsman isn’t going to earn their fifth dot by trouncing even a thousand rubes who can barely hold a sword. Their existing knowledge is enough to carry them through and they aren’t being forced to push themselves.
Disciplines: Characters can increase their Disciplines or develop new Devotions by using the Discipline regularly, feeding on mortals with a matching blood resonance, or learning from a teacher. (This last method is generally the fastest way to increase a Discipline.) As with Attributes and Skills, it takes less effort to learn lower dot ratings than higher dot ratings.
Some Disciplines and Devotions can only be learned from a teacher, as detailed under the Disciplines rules.
Merits: Many Merits are supernatural in nature and make sense as powers for a PC to have been “born with.” (See below on retroactively awarded trait increases.) PCs can also develop Merits as a result of their experiences. For example, when one PC grew close to a vampiric lover they’d also been close to as a mortal, they developed the Closer Than Blood Merit. Many Merits can also be obtained by fulfilling more esoteric requirements. For example, another PC’s NPC Mentor once volunteered to grant them the Hidden Diablerie Merit via unknown means if they would, “Bring me a child. The younger, the better—the innocence within an infant’s blood would conceal your crime most totally of all.” (The PC wound up declining that: they weren’t so terrible a monster.)
Backgrounds: Backgrounds are fairly simple to earn: makes inroads with the relevant characters and/or social groups. For example, if a PC impresses an elder in Elysium, the GM may award them as a Mentor. Declarations can be a particularly useful tool for PCs in this regard, since they let players declare details about the game world that may make it easier to develop social relationships.
The GM may also hand out trait increases “retroactively:” that is, we assume your PC always had the higher traits, and we as readers simply didn’t find out until now. Retroactive trait increases can be completely unrelated to anything your PC did in-game, but are heavily determined by their background. For example, the GM might hand out an extra Expression dot to a high-Charisma priest PC even if they haven’t recently delivered any sermons: however, the GM probably won’t hand out an extra Potence dot to an effete Toreador who’s made a habit of avoiding fights.
As mentioned above, XP is an optional component of Blood & Bourbon: it’s typically only given out to players for posting content on the campaign wiki or contributing to the chronicle in other OOC ways, as detailed on the relevant section the Player FAQ. A player who doesn’t post content (not all players have) doesn’t earn XP. They also don’t need to.
If you have XP, you can simply buy whatever traits you’d like for your PC if the GM feels they’re reasonable. The below section on XP outlines the costs of each trait.
Traits can go down as well as up. For example, if a mortal PC falls into a coma, their once-mighty Strength 4 might waste away to Strength 1 after enough months lying in bed. A doctor who goes too long without entering a hospital or keeping up with their CME requirements might find their medical knowledge grows outdated. Torture can sap someone’s Resolve and reduce them to a shell of their former self. People can improve their abilities with practice, but they can decline from trauma, doubt, and neglect too.
Traits can also decrease as a result of how players roleplay their PCs. A high-Resolve character who easily gives up and rarely asserts themselves, for example, will probably wind up with a lower Resolve score. A high-Socialize character who’s stiff and awkward at parties will probably wind up with a lower Socialize score. The GM will usually warn players if it looks like their roleplay of their characters warrants a trait decrease, thus giving the player a chance to correct course. Talented individuals have bad days too.
Backgrounds are especially fluid, as they represent social relationships rather than qualities inherent to a character. Allies can grow alienated, Mentors can lose interest in their proteges, and Retainers can die in their master’s service. The World of Darkness is treacherous and unpredictable. No one can be certain what tomorrow will bring.
Traits can go back up, though, even after they go down. A sharpshooter who doesn’t touch a gun for years can still go back to the gun range for practice. A sickly coma patient can hit the gym. Alienated Allies and Mentors can be reconnected with under more amicable circumstances. It might take more effort (or humility) the second time around, but few setbacks are impossible to recover from.
Sanctity of XP
Players who lose a trait they purchased with XP get its XP cost refunded. They earned the XP through OOC contributions to the game, so it’s not affected by IC ups and downs.
Traits earned in-game, however, are gone without recompense when lost—unless the PC earns them back, as described above.
The GM typically awards increases to a PC’s traits at the ends of chapters. (Background awards usually happen in the middle of the game.) A chapter is a single posted adventure log. Look at the Master Logs Page for some examples: their exact length varies by whatever makes for a good self-contained log.
Once players have played out enough scenes with their PC to constitute a chapter, the GM posts it on the wiki and typically pauses play in that PC’s channel (it’s harder to keep the log’s events fresh in memory while continuing to play out subsequent scenes). Players re-read the log and post feedback on it: elements they enjoyed, elements they might have improved, stuff they would like to see in subsequent chapters, and any other thoughts and impressions they feel like sharing.
The GM uses player feedback as a tool to take stock of the game’s direction and adjust course accordingly. I’ve played in another long-running game that solicited regular player feedback and the GM there found it a very valuable tool. Another pleasant effect I’ve noticed from players re-reading their PCs’ logs is that they tend to pick up details they overlook the first time around.
Players can post feedback in two ways: off-the-cuff impressions in the OOC channel (fastest) or writing a feedback post they leave in the comments section of their log (slower, but worth an extra Willpower point.)
Once feedback is in, the GM awards any trait increases and resumes posting in their room. Not all logs will see trait increases. PCs are particularly likely to receive trait increases, and larger increases, after accomplishing significant Aspirations.
If a player has multiple PCs, and a given PC’s log warrants no trait increases for them,, the GM may award retroactive trait increases to one of the player’s other PCs.
The Pace of Advancement
When your PC begins play, you should expect to receive fairly brisk trait increases. As discussed above, some of these will represent your PC’s skills increasing as a result of their in-game actions and experiences. Others awards will be “retroactive” and raise your PC’s traits to a level supported by their background. You ultimately don’t need to buy every trait you feel is necessary to support PC’s concept during character creation: just the essentials and the things you want to use soonest. The Players’ New Player’s Guide Guide also touches on this concept.
Over time, as we fill in your PC’s traits, rates of advancement will start to slow down. In this manner, new PCs may catch up to the older ones. In other words, if the oldest PCs were level 10 and a new PC was level 1, it would take less time for the new PC to gain five levels than it would take for the older PCs to gain another level.
More than anything else, though, the pace of advancement is determined by a player’s rate of play. We have one PC who accumulated ~2,000 pages of logs in a year-ish of play, and another PC who accumulated ~800 pages of logs in four-ish years of (on and off) play. Unsurprisingly, the former has higher traits. More play begets more advancement.
Players experience points (XP) by contributing content to B&B’s wiki. See the relevant section of the FAQ for more details. Players can spend XP on a number of benefits for their PCs.
• Accomplish Goal: You can have your PC accomplish a goal off-screen, such as investigating a mystery, taking over a hostile domain, spying on someone, becoming famous for something, subjecting someone to a blood bond, or anything else you can think of. “Off-screen” means it happens retroactively (e.g., “Oh, I already figured out who the killer was,”) or happens during downtime between story arcs.
This costs a variable amount of XP depending upon how difficult the goal is. The GM will veto goals that would be sufficiently anticlimactic or uninteresting to resolve off-screen: PCs can’t become prince or defeat long-running antagonists by spending XP, but they might be able to accomplish shorter-term goals which facilitate those longer-term ones.
• Lower Hunger/Craving: Every 2 XP can lower your PC’s Hunger or Craving by 1, to a minimum of their Blood Potency. This costs 3 XP to do in the middle of an ongoing scene.
• Other Player: Every 2 XP you spend on another player gives them 1 XP to spend on themselves. This is at a markup to encourage players to only help one another as an irregular tactic, as well as to make players feel in no way obligated to help their fellows when they’re spending XP at a loss.
• Willpower: Everything you can buy with Willpower (Declarations, Debts, secrets, GM hints, flashbacks, roll bonuses) you can buy with XP. See the Willpower section for more information.
For a variable amount of XP, you can raise your PC’s traits. Costs are cumulative. Raising a one-dot Edge to three dots, for example, costs 12 XP. Traits costs 1.2 times as much XP (round up) to raise during the middle of an ongoing scene.
Costs for Devotions are an exception and not cumulative: buying a three-dot in-clan Devotion, for example, costs only 6 XP.
|One Dot||Two Dots||Three Dots||Four Dots||Five Dots|
|Attribute||Free||10 XP||15 XP||20 XP||25 XP|
|Skill||3 XP||6 XP||9 XP||12 XP||15 XP|
|Edge||2 XP||4 XP||6 XP||8 XP||10 XP|
|In-Clan Discipline||5 XP||10 XP||15 XP||20 XP||25 XP|
|Non-Clan Discipline||6 XP||12 XP||18 XP||24 XP||32 XP|
|In-Clan Devotion||2 XP||4 XP||6 XP||8 XP||10 XP|
|Non-Clan Devotion||3 XP||6 XP||9 XP||12 XP||15 XP|
|Blood Potency||7 XP||14 XP||21 XP||28 XP||35 XP|
Skill Specialties: Specialties cost a flat 6 XP (for a Skill’s first Specialty) and 9 XP (for a Skill’s second Specialty). Skills can’t have more than two more Specialties.
Devotions: You first Devotion in any Discipline level comes free as part of the Discipline. Your second Devotion costs the XP values above. Every additional Devotion at the same level costs a cumulative +1 XP. This is to encourage players to make their selection strategically and to impose a soft rather than hard cap on how many they can have. Devotions a PC learns in-game don’t count towards this XP increase.
The Glass Ceiling
B&B faces a unique challenge as a chronicle. As of this page’s writing, the game is six years old: under many game systems, neonate PCs who received a steady stream of XP could become powerful enough to directly challenge the setting’s elders.
The GM doesn’t want that, as it would be inconsistent with the setting’s lore. Masquerade is not a “fair” setting: elder vampires are more powerful than younger vampires, have no intention of surrendering power, and will use their power to oppress and tyrannize the young. This is the War of Ages in a nutshell. This is why Anarchs exist. The only way for neonates to compete with elders on even footing is to become elders themselves or to “cheat” via diablerie… and even then, social institutions are on the elders’ sides.
(PCs can still challenge and defeat elders without doing either of those things, of course… but “how to beat elders” is a topic for another wiki page.)
Consequently, it breaks the setting to have neonate PCs waltzing around with oodles of Disciplines and 5s in many traits. OOC, it undermines the threat elders pose and thereby the game’s themes and moods. IC, it begs the question of why more neonates don’t have such high stats, and how the “elders oppress neonates” setting as presented above can exist. PCs in the game are no more inherently exceptional than other vampires. They are the story’s protagonists, but they aren’t the Chosen Ones.
Ultimately, Blood & Bourbon isn’t a D&D game where PCs can go from level 1 to level 20 over the course of several in-game months. Elders will always remain “higher level,” and past a certain point, neonate PCs will stop being able to learn more Disciplines (outside of diablerie), and trait increases in general will slow down to keep PCs at a power level appropriate to their vampiric age bracket. The highest they can rise is “exceptional neonate.”
However, much of the fun in playing RPGs is to advance your character, and the GM still wants playing years-old PCs to beget advancement of some kind. The GM also wants to reward player wiki work with tangible benefits. So what to do?
After quite a while of playtesting, the GM has implemented a number of solutions to address this issue.
• First, the Decanter rules offer more lateral advancement than the official game rules. PCs can receive multiple Devotions at each Discipline level to give them more supernatural toys. Retainers, who receive full stats, can also receive trait increases as awards. There are tons and tons of available Backgrounds. All of these increase PC options without directly increasing PC power (i.e., bigger dice pools). Very few PCs are likely to completely run out of toys.
• Second, the Decanter rules offer a multitude of short-term rather than permanent benefits. Chiefly, our expanded uses for Willpower. Players can boost dice rolls. They call in Debts. They can know secrets. They can declare facts about the game world. All of these offer players numerous ways to leverage better outcomes for their characters, which is so much the better in a long-running campaign: in my experience, players of old PCs tend to be more interested in their character’s narrative success than obtaining higher traits. Willpower is designed to facilitate that. So is the cap that requires players to spend it or lose it.
This holds equally true for XP. Players can spend it on immediate things rather than trait increases. The Roll Bonus and Accomplish Goal uses, in particular, give players a nigh-inexhaustible valve they can divert their XP to. There will always be more goals players want to accomplish and dice rolls players want to get high results for.
• Third, players can play multiple PCs. The new PC enters the game with baseline stats and gets to climb their own way to the top. The GM strives to make new PCs’ distinct and to give them new areas of the setting to explore, so the player is less “starting over” than “experiencing something new.”
When a player earns wiki work XP, they are also free to divide it as they please between any number of their PCs: thus, if the player has run short on attractive things to buy with their oldest PC, they can spend their XP on their newer PC or PCs instead.
• Fourth, or arguably sub-point of three, established players may (potentially) play ancilla characters. Older vampires, being older vampires, are likely to have a higher trait threshold and to receive more frequent trait increases, especially retroactive increases. While ancilla PCs will eventually reach a plateau point too, they can justify having a lot more 5s and Discipline dots than neonates can.