Monday, June 3, 2019

The Social Satire of Vampire: The Masquerade


    It's risky to interpret any fiction through a political lens nowadays, even though that is one of the foundations of literary criticism. Virtually everyone is ready and willing to say that Pokemon is about dog-fighting or class warfare. Other people object to any sort of interpretation that suggests a work is more than entertainment.

    Examples: Star Wars is a pro-democracy, anti-fascist work even if these shouldn't be particularly controversial opinions. Storm as leader of the X-men makes a political statement just by being a black woman and immigrant. Whether any of this actually means anything to the reader is up to them. One thing is certain, though, and that's the World of Darkness by White Wolf game is political and Vampire: The Masquerade is probably the one I feel is the most interesting to interpret through a socio-political lens.
Fight the Man.

    If you're wondering how I'm qualified to talk about any of this crap, I should clarify that I'm a 25+ year fan of Vampire: The Masquerade dating back to the distant year of 1994 (when I was fourteen) and I'm also a Master of Literature. This is also meant to be a mostly fun essay rather than something that will try to blow you away with its conclusions. Take it for what its worth.

    For those unfamiliar with Vampire: The Masquerade, it is a tabletop roleplaying game that has spawned comic books, one television series, multiple video games, and several tabletop roleplaying game spin-offs. The premise is that the Biblical Caine was real, God cursed him 13,000 years ago, and he spread his curse to 13 different bloodlines that each represented a stereotypical depiction of a fictional vampire.

    In the Modern Era, the players each created a newly "Embraced" vampire that is shoved into a complicated feudal heirarchy. They must survive the backstabbing politics of vampire society, hunters, rival young vampires ("Neonates"), the religious extremists  Sabbat, and the looming apocalypse brought on by the 13 "Antedilivuans."

    No stranger to politics in his work, Vampire: The Masquerade was created by Mark Rein Hagen. The game was conceived in the counter-culture district of Atlanta, Georgia in the Bible Belt by Goths for Goths. It was inspired by Mark driving through the already economically devastated city of Gary, Indiana on his way to Milwaukee. The collapse of the American steel industry had left the once-prosperous city in ruins and it was easy to imagine all manner of monsters living in the burnt-out factories as well as abandoned homes.

    Mark Rein Hagen was also inspired by the already-popular in RPGs and literary circles concept of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is something I've gone into over here but the simple version is: it's near-future fiction where technology is used to oppress society more than liberate it. Mark envisioned the game as "Gothic Punk" with the same tropes of super-rich masters of the Earth oppressing the poor and downtrodden but instead of using technology, they used supernatural abilities.

    The vampire is a very good metaphor for a number of things but in this case it lends itself easily to a criticism of unlimited looter capitalism. The parasitic immortal rich that feed by literally taking the lifeblood of those beneath them. This was embodied by each city being ruled by a "Prince" who wielded the authority of the "Camarilla." The Camarilla controlled the (un)life and resources of all vampires that are born into its circle while distributing them unequally to the benefit of its senior members. They controlled the vampire police ("The Sheriff") and enforced draconian laws to keep its members in line.

    At least in the original gameline from 1st Edition to the end of 2nd Edition, player characters were expected to be oppressed despite being vampires themselves. The Camarilla resents new vampires as society is overcrowded, resources concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, and every new member is potential competition. Your only options are toadying fidelity to one of the High Clans (Toreador, Ventrue, Tremere) or attempting to overthrow the establishment to forge something better ("The Anarchs" as embodied by the Brujah and Caitiff).
The OG Anarch - a complete sellout.

    Early supplements like Chicago by Night (1st Edition) made the connection between revolutionary movements and social justice. The Anarchs compromised of 1930s trade unionists, Civil Rights leaders, Black Panthers, and 80s punks. They were a disorganized bunch but all of them were recognizably linked to those fighting against authority. It is no coincidence that V:TM contained more black, gay, and other minority NPCs than virtually all other tabletop roleplaying games of the time combined.

    It should be noted that as a tabletop roleplaying game that these themes weren't necessarily things Storytellers and players had to explore. Games could follow the above premise with the Anarchs as the heroes (or at least lesser evil) or they could follow more personal stories of struggle against the Beast. They could also be rollicking urban fantasy adventures where the PCs fought werewolves ala Underworld. For the purposes of this essay, though, I'm going to focus on the class and hierarchy elements of the setting.

    Indeed, the game was not wholly pro-revolutionary and the Anarchs were not considered to be heroic rebels against the Camarilla (at least not completely). While the majority of sympathetic NPCs in early supplements like Erichtho, Maldavis, Jeremy MacNeil, and Salvador were Anarchs--the very first Anarch we encountered in any supplement was the hypocritical Juggler. Juggler rebels for the sake of rebellion against the toothless Prince Modius and is depicted as every bit as awful in his own way.

    Vampire: The Masquerade proved to be a setting suspicious of all organized movements with the Anarchs no different. The places where the Anarchs overthrew their Elders like the California Free States or Czarist Russia quickly became every bit as bad (or worse) than the Elders they replaced. Third Edition ("Revised") even had the view of the Camarilla as a bulwark against the more (at least overtly) heinous Sabbat and Independent Clans.

Bloodlines reminded us the Prince is not our friend.
    The Signature Characters also moved from being Neonates like Evelyn or Damien to powerful Elders like Victoria Ash and Lucita. Ironically, Vampire: The Dark Ages established that the Sabbat was nothing more than a Anarch movement gone horribly wrong and that Elders like Lucita were often rebelling against their own controlling sires or grandsires. It was layers of oppression all the way up to the Antediluvians and perhaps beyond.

    While predating the War on Terror, the Sabbat were an interesting critique on religious extremism. Claiming to be fighting for the freedom of all Kindred, they were an army that claimed authority from the worship of Caine and his betrayal by the Antediluvians. Members were Embraced, indoctrinated into their religion, and then sent as suicide soldiers against the Camarilla. By coincidence or design, many of their activities bore resemblance to real life terrorist organizations or cults. Their members were the most oppressed and held in the littlest regard while continually told they were the only free and that the only way to survive was to destroy the sect's enemies.
Blood hungry assassins.

    The Independent Clans proved to be a somewhat mixed group of stereotypes that would largely be retconned or explained away as Western prejudices. The Assamites were a militant blood cult every bit as insane as the Sabbat (but perhaps nobler), the Followers of Set being a Satanic religion venerating the Egyptian God of Storms, the Giovanni being sinister incestuous bankers plotting the end of the world, and the Ravnos being a bunch of thieving Romani. Either way, they represented an other that the Camarilla guarded against much like the Sabbat. It is no coincidence that the Anarchs became less prominent while the "worse than the Camarilla" became more detailed. This would reach its nadir when the Kuei-Jin (a lumped together collection of Indian, Chinese, Korean plus Japanese vampires) appeared to wipe out the Anarch Free States and threaten all of vampirekind with their terrifying alieness. It seemed the social satire of the poor young vampire versus the Man was over.

    Until it wasn't.

    The Assamites (now Banu Haqim) were now a diverse Muslim clan of philosophers and mystics as well as warriors now opposed to an extremist religious minority. The Followers of Set would diversify into a polytheist sect that was less overtly evil. The Giovanni would merge with their ancient ancestors and Caribbean Samedi to form a more diverse sect. The Ravnos? Well, after they were retconned as a Indian sect, they were almost wiped out. Even the Kuei-Jin became much more nuanced and interesting characters uninterested in war against the foreign devils. The books also introduced the Thin Bloods, even weaker than the average Anarch, who just wanted to hold onto their humanity but were a hated minority by birth due to religious justification.

    Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition would revive a good deal of the Anarch subtext by linking the burgeoning Occupy Wallstreet movement and a stand-in for Anonymous with the Anarchs in Anarchs Unbound. 5th Edition Vampire: The Masquerade also moved some of the changes started toward the end of Revised to the Independent clans. The Banu Haqim would join the Camarilla and the Followers of Set (now the "Ministry") would join the Anarchs.

    The Anarchs would permanently split from the Camarilla and build their own sect with its own territory. Much more focus was also given to the international world of vampires with the struggle between inequity and Elders supplemented by human governments rising up to exterminate the undead. The rich Camarilla, of course, threw the poor Anarchs under the bus. Because of course they did.

    Yeah, this isn't political at all.

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