TI2: That all important Session 0: how to stop biting off more that you can chew

It’s time to talk about the Requiem game I planned in earnest.

But first, a small aside.

So… many… titles….

The ‘Vampire’ RPGs, which are often referred to as Vampire: The Masquerade or Vampire: The Reqiuem, are part of a larger setting universe made by publisher White Wolf.

Worse yet for newcomers, is the fact that Requiem and Masquerade are part of two seperate game lines and have slight thematic differences at a glance. That’s not even getting into the fact that, after being acquired by another publisher, the new setting universe was rebranded again following its second edition release, causing more confusion for fans. This was followed by changing Requiem’s 2nd edition name to Blood and Smoke: Chronicles of the Strix, which swiftly returned to Vampire: The Requiem 2nd edition.

Phew. Needless to say, getting hard or pdf copies to run this game was difficult; on my bookshelf is the first edition of Vampire: The Requiem which I bought for a great price at Dragonmeet in London from the used book stalls.

It looks great! But it does not have the core rules in it, only the rules for the vampire game. So I had to get the second edition pdf.

For players who’ve played Masquerade but not Requiem, here’s a sarcastic and conscise summary, because I’ll be honest, the main themes are roughly the same. Vampires are more like local freemasons than a full-blown world spanning Illuminati, there’s no big ol’ vampire crusade only smaller, pettier factionalism, clans have been cut down considerably and there’s no argument-baiting metaplot to speak of, including the vampire apocalypse.

Art from the 2nd edition of V:TR. Other than some magical boogeymen that give the vampires the heebies from time to time, there’s no ultra old vampires that have evolved into cosmic horrors lurking in the shadows… Unless you want that sort of thing in Requiem…. 

Oh, and the system as a whole is way more forgiving (rolling 1 on a d10 doesn’t subtract from your successes), so its less risky as a whole when you roll your skills or disciplines, since the GM applies dice pool penalties before you roll.

It’s not better or worse, merely different.

For people not familiar with Vampire: The Requiem’s setting or have never played any White Wolf vampire game, it is essentially this; vampires have existed since forever, live among us and reproduce unnaturally, all the way up to the modern era. They feed on the living and huddle together furtively in close knit communities, mostly within urban areas. This is in order to protect themselves from human hunters or, worse, nastier creatures that remind vampires they’re not the supernatural apex predator that they think they are (READ: Werewolves).

To get around their obvious curses (fire, sunlight), the vampires use their super addictive blood and will-bending disciplines to control human populations and manipulate human infrastructure in order to provide themselves with protection and to live in relative comfort.

Easy, right? Here’s the catch. Vampires generally hate (or are wary) of each other and need humans emotionally to give them meaning.

This is because of the ‘beast’, a wider metaphor for their predatory side, which, if it takes over too much, turns them into draugr that only care about eating, sleeping and feeding. Worse yet, the ‘beast’ is prone to prompting temper tantrums, known as frenzy, which is bad news for any bystanders generally as the beast likes to use whatever it can in its vampire’s magic toolbox to lash out against what provoked it.

So from the moment of their embrace, a vampire feels the horror of the ‘beast’ at their backs, feels the ‘beast’ in other vampires and quite often, have to stave it off by making the effort to connect with humans in activities other than feeding on them.

Art piece by Lora Zombie. ‘Connect’ is a very loaded term in this game, something that may become apparent as you read this blog. 

This book’s subtext is all about Lestadt style vampires, y’know, manipulative, quite often depraved but vulnerable to their own hedonism and insecurities.

Which is a good thing, as it makes for interesting stories! But it can also be a bad thing; as RPGs anecdotally speaking always run a risk of recreating trauma for participants

So long as your group agrees on mature themes to explore, and as long as the GM doesn’t go full magical realm. Seriously, if your table has experienced some awful shit with their families, friends, partners or ex-partners, talk it out first to see if its the game for you.

Setting the stakes

The player I regularly play with; I will give a psuedonym, probably one they’ll may smirk at; Rokki.

Rokki has honestly been great to play with in previous games, quite traditional in the way he plays and with some genuinely interesting insights on how to play.

Yes, he’s done some disruptive things in games (arguing with a particular player in a reoccuring minigame of ‘I’m right about this and that’ throughout MANY sessions), and Jesus, he doesn’t half love talking my ear off if he gets excited about things, but I’ll be honest, I’ve fucked around in his games and wound him up too (Pro Tip: the OneShot podcast jokes about stormtroopers transporting prisoners isn’t funny the seventieth time round the table to a GM trying to run his game seriously).

No player is a true saint in that regard. But we came to this table with the best of intentions. This time I planned on proper closure and continuity as a GM and he was game to take the plunge once more with a GM that regularly flits between systems and games like a child in a sweetshop.

Session 0 was pretty drawn out. We used the ‘Climbing the Ladder’ tool in the VTR2nd book. This creates a character, using a series of specific 12 steps that fleshes out the PC, steps that lead them towards becoming a vampire.

Personally I found the tool to accurately set the tone for what Requiem aims for. The game likes to cite itself as being more about personal horror, so it’s all about digging up how your character got you to this point and what harrowing things they may have encountered as a part of slowly being immersed in vampire society over time.

The tool IS supposed to be used with a group of people; a mindmap of names and connections develop between the party, to solidify why they’re together as vampires and who they’re connected to socially and emotionally.

“Ah,” I thought. “First hurdle, I have one player.” But we’re no stranger to house ruling stuff . So we adapted it as best as we could.

We agreed on setting in Victorian London, mid-19th century. Rokki’s character is Denzel, a Gangrel1 who used to be a workhouse boy. After somehow surviving the hot mess that is Victorian England workhouses, Den grew up to be a small-time ganger on the streets, was briefly turned into a ghoul2 by an emotionally manipulative Vampire pub owner named Betty and met his Vampiric sire, a nobleman with a penchant for boxing, in an amateur fighting ring within underground Victorian Britain.

After some time, Den was inducted into vampiric society, scored entry into the Ordo Dracul3 covenant in order to master the vampiric curse and gained some subordinates; freshly introduced childre, to work with, as well as a Mekhet4 kindred of middling age who had the leverage to get rid of Den’s unsavoury past. Either way, through the ‘Climbing the Ladder’ tool, I had my base supporting cast of NPCs, some of which would feature throughout the story.

Art by Victoria Frances. Victorian vampires are an old as sin theme; White Wolf even made a Victorian splat for Masquerade. What we’re doing isn’t new.

It sounds like pretty standard fare, I know, but this is what we needed for the set up; Rokki clearly wanted to keep it simple, play it simple. He was a thug that was uncultured but aspired to be ‘the gentleman’, and as a broad aspiration and concept it worked, especially in terms of England in the 19th century, which was, despite being far more equal than its feudalistic origins, was still classist as fuck.

Looking back at it, as we are in our campaign, I felt like we kept true to the elements that Rokki wanted to explore. They wanted psychological aspects of turning into a human into a monster, he wanted elements of ‘people trying to manipulate him’. They DID NOT want to just mindlessly fight things over and over. It fit the game perfectly.

Reflections on the Session 0: Going back to past events

So where’s the lesson in this? What did I learn? I’m just recounting a play-by-play of how I came to understand Vampire: The Requiem and what we chose in Session 0, without much detail on what it meant for my development.

Let’s rewind a bit to a year ago.

My first proper shot at a session 0 was a D&D5th campaign I ran for a year. It was my longest running campaign and a lot of my success I owed to when we established that early groundwork of what we wanted out of it. It ran much longer than previous games; I had way more interest in it and it didn’t peter out as quickly.

It’s because I simply asked the players what they wanted out of the game and what sort of characters they wanted to make, rather than just making random characters. We made the theme of the game together.

Some of my session 0 notes. In hindsight, I don’t think I had any clue of how much of a kitchen sink this campaign would be.

But, there was an issue. Because it was after a year I became rather jaded with the system and began to wail on D&D5th and the issues I had with it. The players had set a theme but for some reason, as the campaign ticked on and the players went up in levels, things stopped feeling ‘right’, stopped feeling ‘consistent’. It was happening again, my interest was waning. The players were awesome, they worked well together and were really invested; most of the time I felt like I got positive feedback. But something wasn’t right for me.

Rokki and I have discussed that game in depth and gave his criticisms of my GMing, based on what i told him about my misgivings. I told him that the original concept and story hinged heavily on intrigue and feudal lords vying for power.

Rokki, always straight to the point, basically got to the centre of the issue; in fact, he’d told me near the start of the campaign of the main problem. “D&D isn’t a good system for those sorts of themes.”

He was right I fear.  It’s high fantasy, magical and anachronistic. No matter how grounded the narrative we weaved, the players would use abilities that would defy the internal logic of the campaign. The theme we established started to bend at the seams under the gonzo-ness of the heroes.

The cover of D&D 5th. It is pretty obvious about what sort of game it is. That didn’t mean however I was paying attention.

Most of the lords and clergy weren’t magic users, weren’t openly exploring magic, yet the players were throwing fireballs and cure light wounds around non-stop. Monsters were rare and so were dungeons, so I would often chuck NPCs at them with similar abilities to them, but there weren’t many humanoid ones in the Monster manual that would be able to enjoy relative freedom in the contradictory setting we made without the massively medieval populace freaking out.

I didn’t have the creativity nor the mechanical knowledge to weave encounters properly. Aside from the mid game when I sent an assassins guild after the players, the overall string of encounters were all over the place and did not make sense in the story.

One session they’d be fighting sahaugin, other times demons or undead with rust monsters, and then I’d be chucking them into a high society party or a civil war.
I thought to myself why I wasn’t enjoying this, not thinking of the obvious answer.

I was violating the spirit of the system I was running; it’s about crumbling ruins, treasure spelunking and big ol’ monster fights. That’s not the player’s fault. That’s my fault for not getting the nature of D&D; it’s all about your class and your abilities, what you do level by level, that’s its draw for people who play it. And as a GM it’s about understanding that appeal of gaining power level by level.

The fact is, some of the players were into A Song of Ice and Fire at the time (Game of Thrones). I should’ve turned around and said ‘This isn’t a system that supports social interplay and intrigue, lets aim for a traditional game.’ But I was desperate for something other than a dungeon crawl, so I gleefully sponsored the player’s wishes. I should’ve realised that it wouldn’t work very well under a system that has a clear vision and mandate for what it wants.

Lessons learned?

Simple:

  • Know your system.

Read your corebooks back to back. Twice, prefereably. Play in your system or a similar one so you know what it’s like to be a player. Run a one-shot before you commit. This will all help in solidifying your knowledge base for the game.

  • Keep it simple if you don’t know your system; cliched adventures are ok to run.

It’s easy to be ambitious; but running Grey’s Anatomy in D&D will probably not work. Neither will Game of Thrones in Shadowrun. Unless it’s a generic system, don’t try to shove a square peg through a round hole. You will thank yourself for it later on.

  • Canvass your players early. Send messages before your Session 0 to find out what game might be good to suggest, and veto games that you do not want to run.

The hobby nowadays is massively diverse. One click into any recommendation thread on any TTRPG forum will give you a slew of games to run and reasons why to run it.

That being said, you need to give yourself time in order to prepare for the player’s tastes. You also need to not bend over backwards for your players. Don’t be pressured to run a certain type of game if you know the system won’t work for it.


1 Gangrel refers to Clan Gangrel, a clan considered more aligned with the beastly or animalistic side of Vampires. As a result, they’re more susceptible to fall into frenzy mechanically speaking.

2 A vampire can turn humans into a ghoul; a human with none of the curses that vampires suffer, while obtaining some supernatural talents of their master. The drawback is that vampire blood is addictive and is used to keep the ghouls dependant, like a type of drug, as they cannot synthesise it themselves like vampires do.

3 One of the five ‘secret vampire societies’, a covenant that is all about ‘vampiric science’ and study of the vampiric condition in order to overcome the curses that plague them. They have lofty goals, but end up being probably being the most inhumane and calculating due to their experiments on subjects, living and dead. It gets results. Just don’t ask them what their methodology and results were. Or their sample size.

4 A clandestine bloodline of vampires that often covet knowledge, but have a clan curse which involves their ‘insubstantiality’ and ‘furtive’ nature as a individual likely to know secrets, they suffer more curses that could cause them harm. Vampire society is generally paranoid of them on top of this in terms of what they might know, as knowledge of your neighbour is likely to make them feel vulnerable.

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