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The elders have entrusted you, an elite vampire courier, to deliver their secrets. Can you outrun the hunters, the other drivers, and the rising sun? Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road is a 650,000-word interactive novel by Kyle Marquis. I sat down with Kyle to talk about writing in the World of Darkness shared story universe, and Kyle’s abiding love for the opera.
Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road releases this Thursday, September 24th. You can play the first three chapters for free now.
As a special offer, if you purchase the game on release day, and send us your proof of purchase, we will give you the “Usurpers and Outcasts” IAP, featuring the options to play as Tremere or Caitiff for free!
As I learned from your Outstar interview here, you actually have experience playing Vampire: The Masquerade? Tell me about your background with that.
I followed a pretty common trajectory for gamers in the 90s: I fell in love with Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, fell out of love when I wanted a game with more bite, and then went all-in for the World of Darkness. I ran Vampire and Mage games, organized live-action role-playing events, and listened to a lot of industrial music about vampires.
My favorite part of writing in the World of Darkness was seeing how much our world—our regular world—has changed. Everything is cleaner now, even though a lot of people are even worse off. I had these weird little moments writing Night Road where I tried to describe a trash-strewn alley, but the trash has all changed! No more Styrofoam McDonald’s cartons, no more thick carpets of broken needles. Everything got cleaned up; people in charge learned how to hide the rot where tourists won’t see it. So that’s how I approached vampires. Everyone has a camera; you can’t just let it all hang out like you could thirty years ago. That makes everyone brittle and on edge, and it means that all the awful stuff happens behind closed doors, where no one can find out.
What’s the most off-the-wall idea you pitched to WOD that they accepted?
They were really tolerant of my eccentricities. I play it pretty straight when you’re in Tucson (your base of operations), but Night Road gets weird real fast once you’re out in the desert. Out where the Masquerade is a problem for “city ticks,” you’ll encounter polymorphic Gangrel inspired by Coyote (the shapeshifting god), swarming packs of necro-clones, Sabbat relics, and at least one Rolls-Royce with an aircraft engine in it. I think there’s also a giant crossbow for killing equally giant vampires. And Stonehenge.
I wanted to avoid the “ancient tomb” vibe a lot of Vampire material has, especially since, look, has “ancient tomb” stuff ever been cooler than the Ankaran Sarcophagus in Bloodlines 1? Why even compete with that? So Night Road skews toward mad science, forgotten experiments, and—especially with the Sabbat—this weird, eerie feeling that these people are just gone, leaving their art and science behind. What happened to them? Why did they vanish, leaving these empty monuments in the desert?
It’s sometimes easy for VTM players to slip from the mode of personal horror into that of blood-drinking superheroes. Night Road is very much not about being a superhero, but rather the gritty night-to-night existence of sleeping in dumpsters and scrounging enough cash to fill up the tank of your car. How did you navigate a balance between the spirit of the game, player expectations for doing cool vampiric stuff, and player satisfaction with what needs to happen in the story?
It wasn’t easy when I ran tabletop Vampire either, because hey: we’re all here to have a good time, to take charge of our destinies in a way we can’t in real life. No one wants to be a vampire nobody…at least not past chapter 2. But as a writer and game designer, you learn ways to give players a bit of dignity even if their characters are sad-sack dirtbags no one likes. Think of that first haven in Bloodlines 1: what a shithole! But it was your shithole. (Also nowadays that place would go for $2,600 a month, but never mind that.) You give players a bit of ownership, a bit of real choice—something Choice of Games stories allow for—and they won’t mind fighting stray dogs for rat blood.
Also, Night Road isn’t just a story, it’s a game, too. It takes some skill and attention to do well. You want to drive a Lamborghini and live in a Spanish mission with your sexy ghoul and the Prince at your beck and call? You better fight for it, and you better win those fights.
This was quite an ambitious project from a design standpoint. You previously wrote variable-order scenes for Silverworld, but that was only one set of three. Here, you did two sets of three. Any regrets?
Oh yeah, a lot of regrets. It was incredibly stupid of me to do that, but the results are great and the players are going to have fun. Freedom to move around was one of my key design goals going in, and I’m glad I kept the variable-order scenes despite all the headaches they caused me.
Let’s keep this between you, me, and everyone reading this interview, but one inspiration for Night Road is the old LucasArts comedy-adventure game Sam & Max Hit the Road. I wanted to give players a feeling that they could go where they wanted—at least sometimes. Because of how they’re designed, all Choice of Games stories have a relentless forward pace, but like with Silverworld, I wanted to introduce a few choices about where you went first, and why. Also like with Silverworld, I wanted a chance for players to shape their own environment a bit: when you’re back in Tucson, you can acquire property, check out guns ‘n’ gear, learn new skills and powers, even go on mini-missions with your ghoul. Because once you’re back on the road, you’re racing for your next destination.
How do you decompress from writing vampires all day?
I have a garden and a cat, and I cook—mostly Italian food. Please don’t use any pictures of my everyday life in the promotional material; no one would buy my Vampire stuff if they saw my cat lounging in the sun in front of that green bean trellis.
You tweeted a lot about opera while you were writing this game. Did you end up drawing on those stories for this game? Or was it just a way to decompress?
Around two-thirds of the way through designing a Choice of Games story, the pace always gets crazy. It’s because you know what the whole game needs to look like, so if you’re not careful, you’ll work every waking hour pushing toward that finish line. Opera meant that every night at 6 pm, I stopped and made myself do something else. It kept me from burning out, which is important: Night Road is over six hundred thousand words. That’s 4-5 Draculas, back to back!
What was it like working in a circumscribed environment: sharing Invidia Caul with Coteries of New York, watching LA by Night for potential overlaps, being careful to color within the lines of the official WOD lore…
One of the first things I did when developing Night Road was write up a list of things I wasn’t going to include, either because of editorial request, because they never excited me, or because they just weren’t going to work in a courier story. The World of Darkness is so huge that the real risk is overlap: I spent time checking developer notes for other games to make sure I wasn’t doing something that was going to show up elsewhere. But as I said, I received quite a bit of leeway from WOD. Night Road is unambiguously Vampire: The Masquerade, but it’s also definitely filtered through my perspective on the World of Darkness. You really grapple with the Masquerade as a concept, because I think the Masquerade, as an idea, is really cool. Other elements of the setting are skewed from the baseline but still recognizable: Julian Sim is an “Anarch,” but he’s not part of the movement–he’s doing his own weird thing; Tucson has a Gangrel Prince who used to be a First World War fighter pilot and who keeps spying on you with his eagle. In Tucson I wanted to strike a balance between the recognizable and the weird. You shouldn’t ever feel comfortable in the World of Darkness; you shouldn’t be able to walk into a new town and say “That’s the Prince, that’s the local Anarch, this is just like the last town.”
A lot of the canon-continuity work is just about sending the occasional warning email: “Hey, I want to talk about El Paso; is there anything I need to know?” “Hey, I’m bringing back an obscure plot line from a story from 1991 that no one remembers; is that okay?”
You originally wanted to pitch a Mummy game for the WOD license. What was the idea there?
I threw a lot of oddball ideas out when Choice of Games and WOD were working out initial plans for this partnership, from a hardboiled Mummy game where you investigate serial killers by taking on the appearances of their favored victims to…does anyone know what the Qyrl is? No one? Well, the World of Darkness has always been full of weird little corners, and I think that’s where a lot of the horror lies.
Writing for Vampire: The Masquerade is a balancing act in many ways, not just in terms of balancing the ugliness of vampire existence against the player’s understandable desire to be an awesome creature of the night. Balancing horror with WOD’s need to systematize their setting is hard. I was reading Rilke’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Notebook of Malte Laurids Briggs, while writing the first draft of Night Road, and I had the strange realization that a single scene in that novel—a memory of being a small child, and looking under a table, reaching into the darkness, and seeing another hand reach for your hand—was creepier than a lot of scenes in my ostensible horror game. So when I started the second draft, I drew from the more obscure corners of the World of Darkness and populated the story with the unknown, the incomprehensible—things that were a part of the setting, but not categorized and systematized the way Camarilla vampires are. Things that feel wrong and confusing, that shake even a veteran player out of their complacency. There’s bad weird shit out there, and even if you survive it, you might not ever learn its name.
Tremere. And not just because blood magic is cool. My favorite thing about the Tremere is how they (sort of) got their start in a completely different game with a different setting and metaphysics (Ars Magica). So they never quite fit in with Vampire. It’s like you can look over their left shoulder and see a whole different universe out there. I love how, no matter how canon changes to try to fit them smoothly into the setting, they never feel like they quite belong. They’re intruders from someone else’s game.
Do you know that when I was a little black-clad mall rat back before The Matrix came out I thought Vampire: The Masquerade was the least political of the World of Darkness games? I mean, Werewolf’s environmentalism and Mage’s defiant misreading of Baudrillard made their politics obvious, but I really went around for years unaware that a game about sadistic old parasites hogging all the resources and letting their descendants fight for the scraps was political. I was pretty stupid.
To return to the question, I’m very simple and I love the First Tradition: the Masquerade—don’t let mortals know what you are. I love it because it’s such a naked demonstration of “power does what it wants.” What’s a Masquerade violation? Whatever the Prince says. Is creating a ghoul a Masquerade violation? Is feeding? What about just being one of those really ugly clans, like the Nosferatu? Who knows, man. It looks like there’s some kind of coherent ideology, but the Masquerade—even more so than the other Traditions—is just an exercise in naked power. It was always fun running tabletop games, once I figured out what Vampire: The Masquerade was really all about, when new players started to realize that. Wait a minute, this government doesn’t reflect a consistent internal ideology at all! It’s just a load of self-serving bullshit to keep a bunch of old psychopaths in power? And a few minutes later they’d get their heads ripped off. Good times.
Who is your favorite vampire in books/tv/movies and why?
In my media-addled brain there’s a kind of statistical average “cool vampire,” an amalgam character created by comics, anime, and paperbacks I absorbed when I was young and impressionable, not the sophisticated and discriminating aesthete I am now. It’s hard to pull a single character out of that morass of gunfights, sex and witchcraft, but I think the closest single character might be Sonja Blue, of Sunglasses After Dark and subsequent novels. The Sonja Blue novels are violent, fast-paced, almost gleefully cruel at times; they’re not sophisticated entertainment, but if I want sophisticated entertainment I don’t read about vampires, you know? I just want someone to kick ass, live forever, and maybe feel bad about it.