Campaign of the Month: October 2017
Blood & Bourbon
“It is no tragedy to do ungrateful people favors, but it is unbearable to be indebted to a scoundrel.”
Francois de La Rochefoucauld
“Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift.”
Vito Corleone, The Godfather
That, my friend, is no different than mortal life, she reflects. The many fools who sought to have her father in their debt, and their failures relative to the ones in his debt. Always better when the boss thinks he has a hold over you.
Everyone in the World of Darkness dances to someone else’s tune. You can persuade people with logic, intimidate them with violence, and even compel them with supernatural powers, but in the end, they’re probably just going along because it’s easier than fighting you.
Unless you’ve got a Debt. Once people owe you, you can ask them for all kinds of things. And when you put the weight of a Debt behind something, it carries all new meaning. If they want to be taken seriously in the city, then they need to pay what they owe. Only someone who can’t be trusted—who isn’t worth saving when the chips are down—goes back on their accounts.
When you do someone a favor, they owe you a Debt. Gaining Debts means going out of your way to do a favor for other characters. Anytime you help someone out without recompense, you get to claim a Debt from them that can be cashed in at a later time. You can claim Debts from both PCs and NPCs, provided you do something useful for them.
A favor has to be acknowledged by the other party or it isn’t a Debt; you can’t do something for someone and claim a Debt if they don’t really care about your efforts. You can work this out in advance—“Yeah, I can totally help you out, but you’re going to owe me”— or you can draw attention to something that happens in the moment—“I just saved your life. I’ll let you know when you can return the favor.“ You can even work it out afterwards, if you want to be underhanded—”Remember how I helped you out back then? Yeah. You owe me."
If you do someone a favor because you’re already getting something from them, it doesn’t count. Consider that a wash. No need to keep the books when everybody’s breaking even. That said, one-sided deals—“Rat out your friends, and I’ll give you a ride across town”—don’t count as even exchanges. You can’t avoid a Debt by offering something paltry.
Example: During a lengthy negotiation with the local Sanctified, the Tremere Vincent uses thaumaturgy to distract them long enough to steal a phone off one of their ghouls. Later, he brings the phone to a Gangrel Invictus named Gary, hoping to push Gary further into his Debt by sharing crucial information.
“The phone’s yours, but you’re going to owe me,” says Vincent as he holds it up.
“Sure,” replies Gary. “Quid pro quo.”
Vincent’s player records the Debt on his PC’s sheet. He can call it in later when it’s useful to him.
Example: Nathaniel and Elaine are Anarchs who’ve teamed up to take down an older Invictus Nosferatu named Weston, working together to kill enough of his ghouls to draw him out of hiding. Nathaniel’s got his own reasons for wanting the Nosferatu ashed, but Elaine isn’t asking too many questions. Weston eventually calls a parlay to negotiate an end to the conflict, but when he tries to double-cross them Nathaniel frenzies and rips the older vampire’s head off.
Nathaniel remarks, “You’d have been ash if I wasn’t here. You owe me.”
Elaine rolls her eyes. "Did we get a chance to find out? He was trying to kill you too—and now we both have to cover this up from the sheriff. You didn’t do me any favors.”
The GM concurs. Nathaniel wasn’t doing Elaine a favor by saving her unlife when his was also on the line.
Some vampires like to use physical markers to keep track of boons. Popular choices are silver coins stamped with a variety of insignia—the debtor’s initials, signature, personal heraldry, etc. Many Kindred have clan- and covenant-unique insignia; some Gangrel use elaborate claw or bite marks, while Tremere have thaumaturgic sigils. Toreador are known for creating beautiful markers that can be works of art in of themselves.
Markers serve two purposes: authenticating owed debts (by a means other than telling the harpies) and providing a tangible, physical form to debts in a way that appeals to many vampires’ sensibilities. Some elders keep chests in their havens full of markers they’ve collected over the years.
It’s popular for Kindred to create customized markers for large enough boons, such as a coin stamped on each side with some insignia of the debtor’s and the creditor’s. It’s considered especially auspicious to authenticate a marker with one’s own vitae, though given the ways in which a vampire’s blood can be used against them, this is usually only done for the greatest of boons.
Cashing in Debts
Cashing in a Debt is easy. Whenever you want something from someone who owes you a Debt, remind them why they owe you and tell them what you want. Anything from the below list is usually legit at all times.
You don’t need to quote the reason for the Debt exactly; alluding to the favor owed is plenty reason enough. What matters is that both parties recall the Debt and acknowledge it, and that they both know that it’s been spent if the debtor honors the Debt. Of course, debtors can always refuse to honor a Debt with all the cost and consequences that come with going back on their word.
• Get a favor at moderate cost. This is a broad option, encompassing all sorts of favors. You might ask someone to hide something sensitive for you, steal something valuable, or leverage influence in a sphere of mortal society. It’s all dependent on the skills and talents of the character who owes you the Debt. For some characters, killing someone is a favor they can perform at moderate cost. For other characters, it’s not. As always, the GM arbitrates any disputes on what’s moderate.
• Back you up. The debtor helps you out in a dangerous situation, usually by showing up with whatever resources they typically rely on for support: i.e., their ghouls, a few members of their coterie, or even a more physically able vampire they’ve called in a Debt from. Don’t expect them to die for you, though. If things get really rough, they’ll bail to save their own skin.
• Drop their Name. Dropping someone’s name means using it as leverage against your opposition, granting a moment’s advantage or hesitation and creating an opening that was previously closed. You might use it to get someone to rethink hurting your character or to gain access to a sensitive location. It’s useful any place you think the debtor’s name might help you get by. Just saying the name of the Kindred who owes you isn’t enough; you’ve got to inform your opposition that who you’re naming owes you and you could call in that favor against them specifically.
If you’re dropping someone’s name in a situation where you’d make a dice roll, cashing in the Debt lets you roll with Advantage. If you’re already rolling with Advantage, you don’t need to roll.
• Erasing a Debt they hold on someone else. This means that you’re spending a Debt to erase a Debt, effectively clearing the books. You lose a bit of your control over the person who owes you the Debt, but you can get out—or get someone else out—from under their thumb, assuming they don’t hold other Debts over you or the person you’re trying to save.
• Give you a Debt they hold on someone else. Trading boons is common in the Camarilla. Sometimes another vampire is better-suited for a task you have in mind, or maybe you want to snub a debtor by implying their Debt wasn’t valuable enough to keep. You don’t even have to swap Debts with a vampire who owes you a Debt: two creditors are just as free to trade two unrelated Debts they hold from other Kindred. This requires that you know about the Debts in question, first. Many vampires aren’t open about who owes them, so you’ve got to get the information before you start asking Kindred to hand over their Debts to you.
• Make introduction. Getting the debtor to introduce you to an influential member of their clan, covenant, or other faction they hold Status in allows you to bypass the obstacles that elder Kindred usually put up to avoid dealing with riffraff. Your debtor may not like you, but they must give you a friendly introduction and guarantee safe passage to the other vampire. If you screw things up at the meeting, though, that’s on you.
• Provide information. Calling in a Debt is one of the few ways to get the absolute truth from another vampire, as most Kindred would rather postpone repaying a Debt (see below) than deal with the consequences for repaying one in bad faith. Essentially, you can force another vampire to be honest by cashing in Debts. Their answer to whatever question you pose must be full and complete: none of the usual misleading bullshit. The information has to be within the scope of a moderate favor, though. You can’t demand that someone reveal they’re actually a diablerist for a single Debt.
• Social leverage. By spending a Debt, you can gain Advantage on a dice roll in a social situation against your debtor. You always count as having leverage in a social situation if you’re willing to cash in a Debt. A setback on the roll can sometimes mean that the NPC weasels out of the Debt, returning the Debt to you as if they had successfully refused it.
One Debt is worth a moderate favor. What do you do, though, for bigger favors, like killing the prince or hiding that someone is a diablerist?
The answer there is multiple Debts. For every additional risk, complicating factor, or service rendered within a larger service, there’s an additional Debt involved.
Example: Caroline holds a Debt over Caitlin Meadows and asks for the scourge’s help in a fight against Donovan, the sheriff of New Orleans. For Meadows, this is indeed a moderate favor—she’s a fearsome warrior and is going to have help from Caroline and the Ventrue’s allies in the battle. This is a textbook case of backing you up (see earlier).
For a character who isn’t a warrior, though—say, Meadows’ cowardly grandchilde Andrew Philips—getting their help in the fight costs two Debts, because this isn’t something they’re trained for and it’s more dangerous for them.
Now suppose Caroline tells Meadows to fight Donovan all by herself. Meadows’ price goes up to two Debts, since that’s riskier. For Andrew Philips, fighting Donovan by himself is worth all of three Debts. This also isn’t as (completely) suicidal for Andrew as it sounds, because fighting him isn’t the same thing as “I want Donovan staked or torpored and brought to me.” There are plenty of reasons you might fight someone without needing to torpor them. Maybe they’re attacking you or your allies and you just want to drive them off. Maybe you’re raiding their haven and you want your debtor to keep them distracted. Maybe they’re transporting a torpid vampire you want to rescue (or kidnap for yourself), and you need to fight them to make off with the torpid vampire. Just fighting someone isn’t the same thing as staking and delivering them.
But let’s say that is what Caroline wants, and she tells Meadows “I want you to fight Donovan, I want you to fight him without backup from me, and I want you to stake him and deliver him to me.” That’s three favors for Meadows, and her success definitely isn’t guaranteed. That’d technically be worth four Debts from Andrew Philips, but Caroline probably knows better than to ask—there’s no way Andrew can realistically accomplish this favor by himself.
Finally, suppose Caroline goes one further and tells Meadows, “Not only do I want you to fight Donovan, torpor Donovan, and do it without backup from me, I want you to kill Donovan and cover up the deed too.” Killing another vampire is a major crime, but also the logical next step in the chain of favors Caroline has asked, so it’s worth one more Debt, bringing the total owed to four.
Asking a vampire to assassinate a peer by themselves thus costs four Debts. In contrast, just helping you out in a battle you’re also present for is worth one Debt, or two Debts if you also want them to cover up evidence of a murder.
Refusing to Honor Debts
Just because someone has a Debt over you doesn’t mean you have to honor it… right now. Maybe it’s not a good time or the thing they’re asking for is just out of your reach at the moment. You can’t be all things to all people all the time. And sometimes people ask for “reasonable” things that are going to cost you more than you want to pay.
Refuse to honor a Debt lets you try to slip out of your obligations. It won’t mean you no longer owe the other character—the best you can hope for is delaying the payback for another time—but it might keep you out of the fire until you can sort the situation out. Live to fight another day and all that.
When you refuse to honor a debt, the GM may call on you to make a dice roll.
1: “No, and…” You can’t avoid the noose. You either honor your Debt or face the consequences.
If you choose the latter, your creditor gets to pick two different options off the list under “No, or…” for you or cancel a number of Debts you hold over other people equal to (creditor’s Status + 1). If you won’t honor a Debt, then why should anyone honor their Debts to you? Best be careful.
2: “No, or…” You slip the noose, but not for free. The GM will pick from one of the below options:
• Interest: You owe your creditor an additional Debt. Basically, you’re getting out of what you owe now by owing more in the future. Interest, we call that.
• Lose Face: You lose face with your creditor’s faction, losing a dot of Status (if you hold any in the same faction) or gaining the Disliked (faction) Flaw. Members of the faction start to think less of you because you didn’t pay up when asked. This is a subtle cost, but it means that the faction is a little colder to your advances, a little less likely to go out on a limb for you when it really matters. Best of luck surviving in the city when a large swath of the folks who matter think you’re a fuckoff.
• Lose Humanity: You lose a dot of Humanity. Doing this means that you shut out the Debt with the sheer force of your will… at the cost of a bit of your soul. Relationships are what keep us grounded; when you push them away, you might find yourself drifting toward the worst parts of yourself. At some point, you won’t be able to come back toward the light.
3: “No, but…” You slip the noose, but not for free. You get to pick from one of the above options.
4: “Yes, but…” Re-roll this result.
5: “Yes.” You weasel out of the current deal without further consequence, but still owe the Debt.
If you successfully refuse a Debt, your creditor can’t cash another in with you until the situation changes. After all, they already asked for one favor, right? No point in asking again so soon. You’ve already said “no” once.
6: “Yes, and…” Re-roll this result.
The Harpies & Debts
Creditors within the Camarilla have an additional stick to ensure they get paid what they’re owed: the harpies. These Kindred enforce the rules for what is and is not proper behavior throughout the masked city, and they make it their business to record other vampires’ boons. The harpies don’t know about every Debt in the city, as some Kindred prefer to keep certain obligations private. Informing the harpies of one’s Debts can pay off down the line, though. If a debtor defaults, the harpies almost always back the creditor up. If a fledgling released last night credibly accuses a respected elder of shirking their obligations, the harpies will take the fledgling’s side. They will ensure a Debt is honored when no one else will.
Whenever a vampire refuses to honor a Debt to you, you can try to drag out what they owe by threatening to involve the harpies. This may or may not take a dice roll.
If it works, the debtor chooses to pay up rather than risk their name being dragged through the mud in Elysium.
Going to the Harpies
If you still go to the harpies, proceedings are weighted towards the creditor. They’re the one who’s owed the debt, after all.
The GM may call for a dice roll. to convince the harpies of your case if you haven’t told them about the Debt in advance. A Declaration can retroactively establish that you did.
If it works, or if the GM thinks no roll is necessary, the harpies compel the debtor to pay up now. If things go particularly your way (whether from high rolls or arguing an especially convincing case), the harpies may impose additional Debts as “interest” for the creditor’s weaseling, or even cause them to still lose Status if they pay up.
For obvious reasons, most debtors would rather settle things “out of court” than publicly involve the harpies.
Pity the would-be creditor who lies to the harpies about a nonexistent Debt. They rarely fail to get to the bottom of such matters, and declaring all of the liar’s Debts null and void is usually only the start of their wrath.
Mortals & Debts
Many vampires hold Debts over ordinary mortals. Their powers, connections, and longevity give them no end of ways they can perform incredible favors for mortal associates. Such favors aren’t free, though.
While many vampires have numerous means of imposing their wills upon mortals (especially the Ventrue), these are ultimately less convenient in the long run than a simple exchange of mundane Debts. Mortals who get something out of their relationship with the vampire make more cooperative pawns, and are likely to come back for more favors (many easily fulfilled by the vampire) once they get used to an undead patron helping them out. Most older Kindred cultivate expansive networks of mortal pawns who owe them significant favors if not their entire careers.
Unfortunately for the mortal, this quid pro quo arrangement is usually only good for as long as the vampire thinks they’re getting more out of the relationship. A vampire who decides otherwise suffers far fewer consequences for failing to honor a Debt towards a mortal.
• When a vampire “loses face with their faction”, this only applies to whatever organization or general sphere (Corporate, High Society, Street, etc.) the mortal belongs to. Gaining the Disliked Flaw with one of these groups can be inconvenient, especially if the vampire is closely involved with them, but it’s not the same as losing face among one’s own kind.
• If the mortal creditor tries to cancel the vampire’s Debts, it’s only good for Debts owed by other mortals from the same sphere. Kindred society could care less if a vampire breaks their word to mere kine.
• Wen a vampire refuses to honor a Debt, they can decide to simply never pay it back—period. This causes the vampire to gain the Disliked Flaw with the mortal’s faction and lose any Debts from its members. Kindred society could still care less, but if the vampire doesn’t want to deal with even those consequences, they can simply kill or otherwise permanently silence the mortal. This carries no inherent costs beyond the potential loss to one’s Humanity. Such selfish behavior obviously isn’t conductive to keeping the Beast at bay.
Ghouls & Debts
Vampires typically don’t owe ghouls Debts or hold Debts from them. A ghoul is their domitor’s property, which makes them a simple proxy or middleman to Debts between vampires. For example, if a ghoul saves a vampire’s unlife from hunters, the vampire will consider the Debt owed towards the ghoul’s domitor. Likewise, if the vampire saved the ghoul’s unlife from those hunters, they would claim a Debt from the ghoul’s domitor.
Some ghouls deal with vampires as persons in their own right. Doing so can be profitable, but also fraught with peril.
• A vampire can choose to never repay their Debt towards a ghoul, as described above for mortals.
• Dice rolls by PC ghouls to persuade or strong-arm a vampire into paying up take Disadvantage. Getting a reluctant vampire to cough up what they owe is damn hard for ghouls.
• Dice rolls by PC vampires to persuade or strong-arm a ghoul into paying up take Advantage. The vampire can’t threaten to involve the harpies (who could care less about a ghoul’s Debts), but they can threaten to go to the ghoul’s domitor. It’s all-too easy for vampires to push around ghouls in their Debt.
• A vampire never loses Status or gains the Disliked Flaw for failing to repay a Debt towards a ghoul. Kindred society doesn’t care if they break their word to a mere half-blood, while most ghouls know better than to expect anything approximating respectful treatment from vampires.
Given these social dynamics, most ghouls prefer to bargain with vampires for an immediate exchange of services. Vitae is always a popular choice. A single hit of blood (around one pint) counts as a single moderate favor for a ghoul.
Other Ghouls: Ghouls can hold Debts over other ghouls and treat such obligations seriously. A ghoul who refuses to honor a Debt to another ghoul can lose face among ghoul society. A ghoul who blows off a vampire (assuming they even have the stones) still suffers the normal consequences for failing to honor a Debt—there is a social double standard.
Mortals: Ghouls can go back on their word towards mortals just as vampires can. Ghoul society holds itself above the kine and is glad to have someone else to look down upon.