Blame Canada: Fleshsculptors of Montreal in Vampire and Tribe 8

For some reason Montreal gets a rap in a lot of 1990s RPG material as being a centre of great evil. At least one Call of Cthulhu campaign came out then centred on the town (Horror’s Heart), Dream Pod 9 immortalised it as the setting of Tribe 8, and White Wolf placed it firmly in the hands of the Sabbat as far as Vampire: the Masquerade was concerned. And when you add “horror” to “Canada” you tend to expect the end result to be David Cronenbergian levels of stomach-turning body horror. In Vampire‘s case, one of the most overtly grimdark sourcebooks for the setting would take Montreal as its subject, whilst in Tribe 8 the bad guy sourcebook Horrors of the Z’bri would become a showcase for just how nasty Dream Pod 9’s imagination would get. But out of the Sabbat and the Z’bri, who comes away with the crown of “grossest dudes in Montreal”? Only one way to find out.

(Note: some people reading this know I crew the Tribe 8 LARP Falling Down, so I should probably stress at this point that Horrors of the Z’bri is not part of that game’s official “canon” and I’m not privy to what the referees’ plans for that game are, so trying to infer anything about Falling Down from anything I say about Horrors is a loser’s game for losers.)

Montreal By Night (Vampire: the Masquerade)

You have to hand it to White Wolf – the By Night sourcebook series for Vampire: the Masquerade was a stroke of genius. The formula is very, very simple: take a real world city, assign it to a designer (preferably a local, or at least someone with local knowledge), and have them provide a writeup of the local history and landmarks (giving a vampiric spin to both), a “Who’s Who” of the vampire community in the city, and some ruminations on ongoing conflicts and crises affecting the vampire community in town.

The end result, when the formula is applied competently, is a supplement which will appeal both to gotta-catch-’em-all book collectors and to people with a particular interest in setting a Vampire campaign in the city in question. In addition, the By Night books were often excellent value for those that wanted to run a more sandboxy (or at least not ramrod-linear) Vampire campaign – simply make sure you’ve read up on the significant NPCs and political interactions in town, set your players loose, and see what sort of reactions their activities inspire.

Frankly, if you stick to that formula it’d be really hard to make a bad By Night book. What makes Montreal By Night so special?

Well, first off there’s the fact that Montreal is the spiritual capital of the Sabbat in North America. That’s already a shift from the baseline assumptions of Vampire, which tends to assume you’re going to be playing in a Camarilla-dominated city. Secondly, Montreal By Night was the first – and, as it turned out, only – By Night book to be released under the Black Dog Game Factory imprint. Named after White Wolf’s self-parodying self-insert in the World of Darkness (the in-setting Game Factory being an insidious Pentex conspiracy to give people brain damage), Black Dog was originally made a real-life imprint as a joke – White Wolf used it to put out the parody RPG HoL, a piece which doesn’t exactly fit with the RPG-rulebooks-as-art aspirations of White Wolf at the time. From then on, the Black Dog label would be brought back from time to time whenever White Wolf wanted to put out Led Zeppelin fan fiction material considered too “adult” for their main game lines.

Considering that Vampire: the Masquerade is a game whose “personal horror” mandate specifically encourages an unflinching look at the grim realities of being a bloodsucker with an eye to scrutinising the line between retaining some semblance of humanity and succumbing to the beast within, and seeing how there’d been some pretty grim Sabbat-related content coming out for the game prior to this point, you might wonder how they’re defining “adult” here. Spoiler: it comes down to sex.

Sexual content in RPG rulebooks is a perennially tricky subject; D&D had its problems with it early on considering that the game was originally marketed to a college-age-and-above audience, but then started marketing to younger gamers (particularly with the development of the Basic Sets), making some earlier material seem decidedly inappropriate. Whilst at the same time White Wolf can’t be said to have been marketing to kids, some game shops – desiring for obvious commercial reasons to maintain a kid-friendly environment – had objected to some of what White Wolf had been producing. In particular, the back cover of Clanbook: Tzimisce depicted a vampire who had used the Tzimisce art of fleshcrafting to sculpt their face into the likeness of a vagina (as you do), and a number of stores had point-blank refused to stock it.

That being the case, it rather made sense for White Wolf to find some way to denote those books whose sexual content went well beyond the mild “taped-up-nipple-slaves, lesbians, snarly dudes in leather jackets, and antique furniture” that Zack Parsons accurately identified as perennial features of Vampire artwork in the first WTF, D&D? feature on the subject. On the other hand, the existence of the imprint meant that it inevitably went beyond being a safe harbour for supplements which went a little beyond what would otherwise be considered fair game in a World of Darkness book, and ended up constituting a challenge to see who could produce the most extreme material possible. Due to the nature of the material in question, the World of Darkness games already had their fair share of designers and artists including self-consciously “edgy” material that crossed over into tedious try-hard gross-out nonsense; pretty much any horror game does. Declare “this is an imprint where anything goes in the name of ART” – there’s even a one-page rant at the back of the book about how the first volume of the Giovanni Chronicles series of adventures put out under the Black Dog label winning an industry award at least partially exonerates the Black Dog material as ART – and what you inevitably do is create an expectation that supplements under the Black Dog name are going to be genuine no-boundaries affairs which are shocking to an extent beyond the mainline White Wolf products, which for commercial reasons must be more restrained.

Weirdly, as far as Montreal By Night goes, the supplement is both way too edgy and at the same time not nearly shocking enough.

To take the “too edgy” angle first: very rarely, the supplement will got to a place that is so overtly gruesome that the “adults only” distinction is well and truly earned, but in a way which isn’t particularly useful for implementing in-game – either because it’s so universally offensive that it’s only worth considering deploying if the group as a whole has degenerated into mucking about trying to gross each other out (which, whilst fun in its place, is a fairly sure sign that any efforts to establish a suitable atmosphere for horror roleplaying has gone down the tubes), or so potentially triggering that many groups will find it to be beyond the OOC boundaries of what they will accept in a game, or because it’s such a specific image that forcing it into a session would feel stiff and awkward.

Often, several of those issues will apply at once. Let’s tackle the elephant in the room: many people know Montreal By Night only for one thing, and that’s the outright horrendous illustration that is featured at the end of the second WTF, D&D? article on Vampire – trigger warning for a nigh-pornographic depiction of the aftermath of rape, bloody violence, and possible murder. This image almost cartoonishly sums up everything held to be edgy or extreme back in the 1990s whilst at the same time adding nothing to the supplement except shock value. I think the Marilyn Manson lookalike with the horrible braids is meant to be a particular NPC (who is described as an androgynous figure who goes around wearing S&M gear made from human leather), but even so what do we really gain from this illustration beyond an understanding that this NPC’s feeding habits are extremely nasty and, it appears, needlessly complicated? Not much, aside from perhaps a really gross encounter idea (“You walk into the men’s toilets and find THIS going on – how do you react?”) and a general sense that the vampires of Montreal know absolutely no boundaries – but we already knew that.

The really damning thing about this illustration, though, is that actually for the most part the rest of the supplement doesn’t measure up to it. Say you’ve bought into the Black Dog idea and you’re looking to Montreal By Night to provide a truly Grand Guignol experience, a blood-splattered phantasmagoria of horrors suitable for groups willing to let all content boundaries go and dive directly into the dark heart of the Sabbat. Aside from this illustration, you would be disappointed, for the kindest thing I’ll say about the picture is that it shows an imagination that the rest of the supplement often lacks.

This brings us to the “not shocking enough” category. For the most part, the supplement really isn’t that much more grim than an average Vampire city book, except it is a lot more blunt about sexuality and it will occasionally throw in a bit of pedophilia or child murder for shock value. What’s even more problematic is that a lot of the time a shared sexual preference is considered sufficient to distinguish particular Sabbat cliques from each other – there’s a group whose common thread is literally “we’re all gay and to a certain extent embody gay stereotypes” and that’s it as far as distinct and individual flavour goes. Maybe I’m a dried-up straight prude, but I can take or leave White Wolf’s conception of “Adults Only” if it amounts to “lol bondage”, “lol child abuse”, and “by the way: LOLHOMOSLOL”.

Had the book really been a cover-to-cover orgy of grim, then I could at least have made some use of it; maybe that version of Montreal wouldn’t have been particularly useful as a home base for a campaign, but it could have been an interesting city to undertake a brief raid into in order to hit the Sabbat on their home turf. I could almost see the point of having read an ultragrim Montreal writeup even if as Storyteller I never intend to take the PCs to Montreal – if the campaign happens to have a big Camarilla vs. Sabbat emphasis, having an idea in the back of my head of just how bleakly awful it gets when the Sabbat really get their claws into a city could be useful. As it stands, the most damning thing about Montreal By Night is that it manages to be crudely offensive without at the same time being entertainingly shocking; the best thing I can say about it is that it proves that there’s a difference between those two things. It’s like if you edited together all the glibly politically incorrect bits of a sleazy Z-grade horror film but took out most of the scares that’d have made sitting through all the awkward, problematic stuff stuff worthwhile.

Horrors of the Z’bri (Tribe 8)

This is the “adversaries” supplement for Tribe 8. Other factions in the gameworld, like the Keepers or the Squats or (easiest of all) non-Fallen Tribals, could conceivably be used as player characters in a Tribe 8 game, if you are willing to do a little work; the biggest obstacle there is that the setting as written is obviously stacked such that the Fallen are going to be the catalysts of cataclysmic change one way or another, so that may need a little work if none of your players want to play Fallen or you want to avoid the old syndrome of “Ooops! You picked the wrong faction at the start of the game, metaplot says you’re fucked now”. This work is not only well within the reach of most competent GMs, but it’s also something Dream Pod 9 seemed to be working on before the game line got shitcanned.

I am reasonably confident that they were not working on rules for Z’bri PCs. There’s two reasons why Z’bri don’t really work as PCs, one slightly patronising and not 100% true and one very much hardwired into the structure of the setting.

The slightly patronising, not really true reason is that the Z’bri are meant to be extremely alien, to an extent where it would be really difficult to properly portray one even for the space of an extended encounter, let alone for a campaign. This is patronising because generally, I’ve found that if someone doesn’t really “get” the premise of a particularly unusual character concept they’ll steer clear of it anyway – as a rule people aren’t often enthused by what they don’t understand – and if someone is really intent on giving a particular concept a go then usually they can be trusted to have a good stab at it, and if they don’t quite succeed, well, we’re none of us here to get Oscars are we?

It’s untrue that the Z’bri are utterly unhuman, and in an interesting twist this is precisely part of what makes them so disturbing here. The Z’bri houses – Melanis, Koleris, Flemis and Sangis – are of course named after the classical humours, which in retrospect is a bit of a hint; the Z’bri do not represent utterly alien motivations, so much as they represent distinctly human motivations taken to pathological extremes. Humans want community; the Flemis come together in mass hive minds. Humans want intimacy; the Sangis are basically Hellraiser Cenobites. Humans want to understand the world; the Melanis conduct grotesque experiments and cook up bizarre inventions. Humans want to fight for what’s theirs; the Koleris would rather rip themselves to shreds than miss a good fight.

Running through the various narratives presented by Z’bri, their servants, and those who have studied them that constitutes most of the book are a set of more direct hints at their origin than are given in the core rulebook (though I suspect you need Adrift on the River of Dream, the metaphysic supplement, to really nail down some of this). This story again intrinsically links humanity to the horrors; human beings yearned for something beyond the physical, and the Z’bri answered the call – but not only was the answer not what humanity wanted, but the very act of answering the call would ultimately change the Z’bri themselves, particularly with the closing of the Fold that had until then been an intrinsic feature of the cosmic superstructure.

Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been reading Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race in parallel with this, but this whole setup strikes me as being fascinatingly pessimistic on both a cosmic and personal level. Human beings could have been happy had they not been cursed with sufficient consciousness to wonder at their place in the world; so cursed, they wondered, and the result of their wondering broke both them and those who came in response to them. The most awful implication here might be that back in the day the Z’bri were alright dudes – but having been broken in contact with this awful world, they have not only lost their original purpose, but have become (to borrow a term from Ligotti) MALIGNANTLY USELESS, spinning their wheels to no good end and making the situation steadily worse and worse because that’s all they know.

In short, the Z’bri are not alien; they’re intrinsically bound with humanity and their motivations are recognisable as caricatures of human motivation. It’s just that this happens to be a cosmos where the boundaries of “human” extend a bit further and in darker directions than we are used to. In this respect, I’m kind of reminded of Kult, and it’s tempting to work out some sort of cosmology mash-up of the two games. (Swap out Fatimas and significant Z’bri for the Archons and Death Angels, and the Mother Goddess and the Seed for the Demiurge and Astaroth, and you are already most of the way there…)

The entirely true and justified and hardwired-into-the-setting reason why Z’bri PCs wouldn’t work in any but the most divergent and atypical Tribe 8 game is simple: the Z’bri are the problem, or are at least too closely connected to the major crisis of the gameworld to make sense as anything other than antagonists. Yes, there’s some downright stomach-turning things that the Z’bri are depicted as doing in here – enough so that for Falling Down the GMs have specifically had to deviate from the default writeups of some of the Houses because they would fly in the face of the lines and veils they’ve set for the game. But setting aside each and everyone one of those specifics, the fact is that the setting as written sets the Z’bri up as the enemy. The default assumption is that the Fallen are going to rise up and shift the status quo, but you could just as easily run a campaign in which the Fatimas lead the Tribals to a final victory over the Z’bri or the Keepers actually accomplish their dream of restoring the world to the way it was pre-invasion and you wouldn’t necessarily have to change much beyond making mild shifts to your assumptions about who’s telling the truth, who’s lying, and who’s kidding themselves.

Conversely, there’s no real scope for the Z’bri to tackle the major issues of the metaplot, because they’re the cause and the symptom of those very problems. Yes, there are some dissident Z’bri – the most relatable being the lonesome Hunters who prey on their own kind and whose psyches are dominated by their sense of not belonging in this world – but at the same time it’s fairly evident that the Hunters are in no place to actually solve the problems of the setting on any structural level. Furthermore, the very geography of the game world is set up to establish the Z’bri as being the big bad – they’re constantly looming in the north threatening to sweep into Vimary itself and end the Tribals’ enclave of safety for good, and (at least based on the core book and the material here) there’s little to suggest that they aren’t the pre-eminent forces in the wider world beyond the vicinity of Vimary.

As such, Horrors of the Z’bri is basically a big book of adversaries, but its heavy emphasis on showing the point of view of the different Houses and other components of Z’bri society means that it’s less of a monster manual and more like the sort of book that Montreal By Night might have been had it gone the full-grimness route: an illustration of just how (let’s wheel it out again) MALIGNANTLY USELESS the bad guys in Tribe 8 are, so that the referee can better play them and come up with things for them to do.

2 thoughts on “Blame Canada: Fleshsculptors of Montreal in Vampire and Tribe 8

  1. Pingback: The Unintentional Comedy of HoL « Refereeing and Reflection

  2. Pingback: A Severn Valley Holiday – Refereeing and Reflection

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