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Dust to Dust: Dirty Secrets by Matthew McFarland

Posted on February 3, 2012 by Flames

The design essay series continues with Matthew McFarland telling us about Dust to Dust, a new story supplement for Vampire: the Masquerade from White Wolf. Dust to Dust is a story supplement using the Storytelling Adventure System designed for use with Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition, and it acts as a spiritual successor to the classic story Ashes to Ashes.

Dust to Dust: Dirty Secrets

    Probably more dramatic than absolutely necessary, but hey. You’re reading it now.

    Dust to Dust wasn’t the hardest scenario I’ve ever had to write (that’d be “To Grandmother’s House” for Nights of Prophecy), but it certainly presented some strange challenges. The biggest and most obvious one, of course, was that I hadn’t touched Vampire: The Masquerade since 2004 or so (probably longer, since I think the last Masquerade material I wrote was for the Vampire Players Guide (well, other than the Vampire Translation Guide). The differences between Masquerade and Requiem are real (though much subtler than, say, the differences between the versions of Werewolf or Changeling) and I’d been working with Requiem and the rest of the new World of Darkness for six years. Getting myself back into an old — sorry, “classic” — World of Darkness headspace was harder than I expected.

    And, to be honest, I resented that I had to do it at all.

    When the 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire was announced, I was thrilled. Not because I wanted to run right out and scoop up a copy — I didn’t have any plans to run Masquerade or any classic World of Darkness game. But I thought it was a cool idea, a great way to mark how far White Wolf had come and rekindle some of the fire that fans felt for such an influential game. Hearing about the Onyx Path, though, kind of annoyed me. I was afraid that White Wolf was backpedaling, like maybe the occasional Internet chatter (“NWoD sucks! OWoD is better! NWoD doesn’t sell — I was totally in my FLGS the other day and there were NO NWOD books at all! I talk mostly in letters!”) was getting to them. And honestly, too much blood, sweat and tears went into the new World of Darkness, in my opinion, for White Wolf to just give up.

    But then I had a conversation with Eddy Webb at Origins (I think — maybe GenCon?) that set me straight. Eddy said that, in analyzing the sales, Requiem and Masquerade were selling about equally well. There was a fanbase for both games. They didn’t have compete.

    We didn’t have to choose.

    I often tell my daughter, “if someone offers you a choice of two things that you like, the correct answer is both.” Vampire just nicely underlined that.

    So once I kind of got over myself, working Dust to Dust was a lot easier. At that point, all I had to do was write a Vampire scenario based on a 20-year-old supplement using mechanics, tone and metaplot with which I was largely unfamiliar. As they say on the Internet, facepalm. Dave Martin and the Wrecking Crew were nice enough to give me an outline to work from. The outline was pretty basic; it just suggested keeping Juggler and Modius (and Allicia, whom I wound up cutting), using Sullivan Dane as an antagonist, and raised the possibility of the “jar of ashes that turns out to be an elder Samedi” as a Macguffin, which I thought was just too cool to ignore.

    I was thrilled to see Dane mentioned. I love Sullivan Dane. I used him in a lot of my old World of Darkness games, though I don’t remember him ever actually fighting characters, even in Vampire games. He was one of the first in a long series of Storyteller characters who were nominally antagonistic, but were too well-realized and useful to just kill (plus, my players really enjoyed the accent I used when playing him). He shows up in the very first thing I ever wrote for White Wolf (Giovanni Chronicles IV: Nuovo Malattia), just for a cameo, and I knew I wanted him in Dust to Dust in the same capacity I’d always used him: the unspoken threat. The guy had True Faith 8 in his original presentation, for crying out loud, if he wants a vampire dead, it’s dead. Even with the Faith rules cleaned up a bit for V20, Dane is a badass. The suggestion in the outline was for him to become blood-addicted, but that didn’t make any sense (again, True Faith). If Dane had fallen far enough to become a ghoul, the story would have to be about him to make any sense, and I didn’t want to do that.

    So at that point I knew I wanted to use Dane, that I really liked the notion of a dormant elder Samedi in ash form, and that I had to make some kind of use of Gary’s political structure as presented in Vampire: The Masquerade and Ashes to Ashes. This isn’t an easy starting point. Political scenarios are hard to write, because they’re boring to read. Heck, opinion is sorely divided, in my experience, as to whether they’re any fun to play (my own opinion is yes, they can be fun to play if you have a group of players that favors dialog and improvises well, but if your players would rather go see supernatural craziness or have bloody brawls in alleys, politics is a poor substitute). And the other problem with political Vampire scenarios is that they’re slow. I needed a sense of immediacy.

    From that need was born the theme that Gary is dying, and the characters aren’t fighting over a vibrant city so much as trying to use every part of the beast, so to speak. I tried to think like a vampire — vampires don’t care whether the city thrives, but they do want people to be in the city, so how to get them there? By increasing traffic, and then feeding off that traffic. The actual residents of the city are incidental.

    That conflict let me rope in Modius and Juggler, but I needed, I felt, a good way to bring in my dusty old elder Samedi. Plus I wanted something more overtly supernatural. The notion of a city dying made me think of the idea that cities have souls and identities (very true in the World of Darkness, which is kind of animistic), and so if a city has a soul, it can have a ghost and thus be affected by necromancy, right? I have a soft spot for the Giovanni. I ran the first Giovanni Chronicles for my friends when I was in college, and it was a really awesome experience. I know the clan has some wonkiness about it (really, what in Masquerade doesn’t?), but the fusion of the Mafia and necromancy always seemed really cool. So I fused it with a slick, Los Angeles movie producer would be a good front for a Giovanni. I had her working on a zombie movie, complete with a zombie walk, because I wanted to highlight what vampires have become in the 20 years since Masquerade. Interesting, they’ve become something that the Camarilla might like — they’re sympathetic, non-threatening romantic figures. Sure, we get some threatening or dangerous bloodsuckers here and there (Colin Farrell in the recent remake of Fright Night, I thought, was pretty damned creepy, and though I haven’t watched much True Blood, I think there’s some good inspiration there), but for the most part, mention “vampire” to people nowadays and one of the first things that comes to mind is “sparkle.”

    So maybe vampires aren’t relevant anymore? Maybe, as a monster, they’ve been usurped by their dumber, lurching cousins, the zombies? I didn’t want to make it an overt theme of Dust to Dust, but I did want the hint there that, perhaps, it’s time for the vampires to pass the torch. (Do note, though, that the scene following the zombie walk is Jean Lisle bursting out of his prison and killing everyone in the area, which I think is my answer to the question of whether vampires aren’t relevant anymore.)

    I recognize that Dust to Dust is busy. Going through it again now, I’m thinking maybe I put a bit too much in the stew. But honestly, that was deliberate — Dust to Dust was meant to be, as the outline from the Wrecking Crew said, a sandbox. A troupe isn’t going to get through it in one session, not if they want to experience everything in it (this is why, when run at the Grand Masquerade, certain elements tended to get excised — I think Dane, sadly, was one of them). I’m happy with the way it turned out, though. As I was writing it, I found my mind separating Requiem (which I’d been running for several months at that point) and Masquerade, and thinking back to the games of Masquerade I ran before the end of the original World of Darkness. I think Dust to Dust is pretty representative of Masquerade rather than Requiem, and that, I think, was really the biggest challenge of the assignment.

    Matthew McFarland – 2012

    Dust to Dust is available now in PDF and Print editions at the Flames Rising Shop.

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    One Response to “Dust to Dust: Dirty Secrets by Matthew McFarland”

    1. Lost_Heretic says:

      I sure wish this was title “Dirty Secrets of the Black Hat.”

    Leave a Reply

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