Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Vampire: the Masquerade should be all about the Inconnu all the time. But it seems to me that the near-disappearance of the Inconnu from setting material after the earliest years of the game is indicative of broader changes in White Wolf’s approach to the game – a shift to a more sober, buttoned-down, serious-minded approach that I increasingly find antithetical to fun whilst still being too tied to the absurdities of the game’s axioms to be a profound exploration of serious subject matter. The Inconnu in this respect are like the bellweather, the canary – sure, they had a single supplement in the Revised era as a prelude to Gehenna, but I have a strong suspicion that this was because White Wolf needed to fill a hole in the schedule and if they could have got away with doing the whole Time of Judgement thing without touching the Inconnu they would have.
Take, for instance, the original A World of Darkness supplement from 1992. This is one of the first Vampire: the Masquerade supplements to get really significantly retconned; a second edition of it in 1996 made major cuts to the existing chapters to excise material that was no longer wanted, and added additional chapters to allow for a properly global overview.
The original left out entire continents because it was more of a set of essays on especially interesting regions for vampires rather than attempt to a full global overview: its subtitle, The Promised Lands, makes me think it was originally intended as the first of a series. It was also gloriously over the top and included some absolutely wild ideas that were cut from later releases and almost entirely banished from canon. Yes, the individual authors in the book had a very heterodox approach going from chapter to chapter, but that diversity was in some ways the book’s strength – you have here a continent-wide overview of Europe sitting next to a fully developed British Isles setting, two different cities (Petra and Hong Kong), and two locations – which I will get to later. That’s actually quite a usefully broad set of resources, and the fact that they don’t try to cover the entire globe in a single sourcebook means that they can go into a decent level of detail on the parts they do cover.
The British Isles setting is interesting in part because comparing it to later iterations of the material really teases out how Vampire suffered in some ways from being part of the wider World of Darkness setting. The history of the setting is infused with this long feud being fought between the Ventrue and the Tremere, with the Ventrue being led by Mithras, Prince of London and former Roman soldier, whilst the Tremere are led by John Dee, the famed Elizabethan occultist – and Aleister Crowley is also a vampire here, a Malkavian wild card who was duped into thinking he was a Tremere in the early stages after his Embrace so as to ensure he’d cause a great deal of embarrassment for them.
In the second edition of this supplement, all this gets toned down; Mithras is killed off (presumably to have one less elder in a game which was increasingly more about Camarilla vs. Sabbat instead of elders vs. anarchs), Dee is absent, and Crowley is mentioned solely in passing; none of them have stats provided for them. Later on in the Revised era things got retconned further – there was a mention of a Malkavian who believed he was both Dee and Crowley and was probably neither, which may have been an attempt to write off the previous setting history as merely being this individual’s delusion.
This is dull and sucks all the fun out, but I can see why they did it – having two of the most famous occultists in the world be snatched up for the Vampire setting leaves Mage impoverished. But of course, this book was written when there was just Vampire, and though subsequent World of Darkness games were planned for the time being Vampire didn’t need to be a good neighbour – it could do what it wanted without much regard for the needs of other game lines, caring only about the needs of Vampire itself.
I can’t help but feel like the new Paradox-controlled White Wolf’s One World of Darkness plan for a truly unified setting to act as the common basis for a transmedia franchise is going to end up running into this problem a lot: the approach seems to demand finally settling on a common metaphysic and canon across the game lines, and that’s going to have all sorts of side effects because what is absolutely necessary for one game line might be terrible for others. (It’s been pointed out on the RPG.net forums that they’re going to have to either bite the bullet and say “OK, mages basically win at everything compared to almost all the other supernaturals” or present mages as being much less potent than Mage has made them out to be previously; certainly, there doesn’t seem to be a path through the minefield which won’t leave one faction of fans or another furiously upset.)
Another thing that Vampire had to adjust over its run to make space for other game lines was the extent to which vampires were implied to have secret conspiratorial control over mortal power structures. For the purposes of Vampire alone, I quite like this setting feature (not least because, to be honest, it’s rather necessary to explain how the vampires keep the Masquerade going) – but it’s incompatible with the extent of many of the conspiracies in other games. (Mage‘s Technocracy – especially the New World Order subfaction – fits into a very similar puppetmaster niche, as does to a lesser extent Pentex in Werewolf.) Here, again, Vampire can go hog wild with this stuff, with the whole thing with the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union coinciding with the reawakening of Baba Yaga from Torpor. (For that matter, Baba Yaga is a folkloric character who you’d think would be a more natural fit for Mage or Changeling if you were designing the whole World of Darkness from the ground up.)
Another thing that this supplement doesn’t have to worry about is Kindred of the East, though it manages its own flavour of fail here. We get a chapter on Hong Kong which works in the conceit that the Asiatic vampires are largely leaving Hong Kong alone until the handover to China in 1997 (remember, Britain still owned Hong Kong when this book came out), which at least provides an elegant way to avoid needing to write about them at this point. However, we do get two distinctive East Asian supernatural entities described here… except bizarrely they’re both Japanese, the folklore of China and Hong Kong being more or less entirely ignored for this purpose for the sake of the authors indulging their anime-inspired Japanophilia. (A Japanophile who writes about Japanese traditions concerning the undead is, of course, a ouijaboo.)
These are Gaki, notable mostly for being a first stab at trying to incorporate a distinctly non-Western vampire-type legend into the Masquerade framework, and sweet kitteny cats – specifically the Hengeyokai shapeshifting cats who drain people’s life force as they sleep. Not only does this lead to hilarious section titles like “Key Differences between Cats and Vampires”, but it’s such a fun choice of a thing to include in the setting that I am mildly annoyed that White Wolf never did anything with it ever again. As a Storyteller, I refuse to pass up the opportunity to have a sweet softy smookum-cats be a major NPC, and as a player I will going forward at least request the opportunity to play a wuzzy woo-cat in any Masquerade game I participate in. Tossing them into the Hong Kong chapter on the “eh, it’s all Asia” principle is galling, but at least it isn’t the worst way the book resorts to national or regional stereotypes. (The Haiti chapter is not as bad as it could be, but still basically appropriates the entire history of Haitian voodoo and rubs vampires all over it.)
The major Inconnu-themed inclusion in this book is the description of Hunedora Castle – which is basically Castle Dracula. This is the headquarters of the Inconnu and the centre of their power – and their hypocrisy, because it is kept hidden from the world (its historical connotations being attributed to the “real” Hunedora Castle elsewhere) thanks to a pact forged between the Inconnu and a powerful demon. “They’re secretly in league with Baphomet” is pretty much the only real secret or coherent agenda White Wolf presented for the Inconnu, but for my part I really like it – it makes them less of a bunch of goody-two-shoes Golconda-chasing hippies and really helps underscore the point made in the 20th Anniversary core book’s discussion of Golconda that that state might not be as benign or sweet as it’s made out to be.
(For that matter, what if Golconda is nothing more than a gift that demons can confer upon vampiric followers, much like the gifts that the Fallen and Earthbound can give their human followers in Demon: the Fallen? I’ve always found that Masquerade and Fallen are the two World of Darkness games where the prospect of crossover is most interesting for me, partly because their metaphysic is far more compatible with each other than either of them is with Mage or Werewolf or other major World of Darkness games and partly because they end up filling a similar niche in a radically different way, thus providing an interesting contrast. Making the Inconnu the main thrust of a demonic attempt to subvert vampiric society – with the Baali being the more loud-and-proud obvious diabolists who are a useful distraction from the real centre of Hellish power – is the sort of fun which largely faded away after the early days of Vampire.)
Perhaps my favourite wacky setting feature introduced here and them promptly forgotten about, however, is the Vampire Club, based out of a luxury ocean liner buried underneath San Francisco and owned and operated by a certain “Sebastian Melmoth” – AKA Oscar friggin’ Wilde himself, given a far happier ending in the World of Darkness than he got in real life. I love the fact that they did that and kind of despise the fact that they stopped it on the grounds that it was too fun.
Another supplement that wasn’t afraid to drink the early Inconnu Kool-Aid was Children of the Inquisition. This was a supplement showcasing a host of powerful elders, with by far the greatest attention given to Vlad Tepes, AKA Dracula himself. This is a weird one because I’m honestly not sure what the intention of the product is; there’s a rundown of the basic principles of the Masquerade setting at the start, which would seem to be completely redundant unless this were intended to be a promotional item intended to gain the attention of a crossover audience beyond the game-buying public. The fact that it doesn’t include any actual NPC statistics for the characters described further gives that impression. At the same time, I think the book would be entirely incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t already have a pretty good handle on the setting.
Still, the fact that it doesn’t include NPC stats has its advantages; it means you can give the characters presented here whatever stat you feel are appropriate, for one thing. In general, the supplement is at its best when it’s presenting an interesting elder NPC with a distinctive modern-day agenda which you can make a significant feature of a campaign; unfortunately, author Dan Greenberg has a bad tendency to spend a lot of energy writing the NPC’s backstory but not putting very much effort into describing what they are up to these days in anything but the broadest terms, which isn’t as helpful as it could be.