torsdag, augusti 10

Why Kindred of the East is better than Vampire.

There seem to be a lot of disdain for Vampire - Kindred of the East at least among swedish fans of the World of Darkness, which has always bugged me as I consider KotE more or less my favorite RPG of all times. As I've recently become reacquainted with WoD after a long hiatus, and learnt about the upcoming Vampire 5th edition, it felt like it was due time to write a defense of Kindred of the East. This post will be in two parts. First, I'll briefly discuss why I think people dislike KotE, and whether those reasons are valid. Then, I'll argue why I consider KotE to actually be a better RPG than Vampire the Masquerade (not that I don't love that game, too).

Reasons to dislike Vampire: Kindred of the East


It's orientalist: KotE should have been done by people with a better knowledge of Asian culture and daily life and a bigger commitment to Asian mythology, and less Japan-fetishism. As it was, it often felt clichéd and exotifying. (Having both lived in China and studied Asian history and religion, one of my dreams as an RPG writer would be to get to work on a complete remake of KotE, and fix these issues).
Verdict: Valid.

It has a very eclectic art style: True, but so does most WoD games, Vampire included.
Verdict: Invalid.

It has a bad rules system, shock full of power creep and utterly imbalanced options: So does all WoD games. However, KotE was especially bad in this regard, especially when combined with Vampire, as the powers of the Wan Kuei and the Cainites really didn't mesh well. A few things, like the KotE take on Fortitude, were simply better done than in Vampire the Masquerade, but mostly it's a disaster.
Verdict: Partly valid.

The disciplines are bad: Well designed Vampire-disciplines have a clear theme and a stringent and intuitive power progression, Obfuscate and Dominate being great examples, but even oddball ones like Dementation and Obtenebration work relatively well. Badly designed Vampire-disciplines are completely random to the point of being silly, and have no good coherent theme - Serpentis is the worst of the lot (why, dear god why doesn't the Setites all just have Setite Sorcery instead?). Almost all of the KotE disciplines are like Serpentis.
Verdict: Valid.

It's silly: Absolute not, though it's certainly more urban fantasy-themed and superlative than Vampire. But that's part of it's awesome, as I'll soon argue.
Verdict: Invalid.

It's too complicated: I have seldom seen as inaccessible a game as KotE. The philosophies and nature of the Wan Kuei are very, very complicated and occasionally convoluted, the disciplines are very eclectic and hard to remember, and the advancement of dharma is not explained well enough. The Wan Kuei are very challenging beings to portray. But that is also part of why KotE is actually good, as I'll argue later.
Verdict: Partly valid.

It's a crossover orgy: Yes. I shall argue that it makes it a stronger game, not a weaker one.
Verdict: Invalid.

Reasons that KotE is actually better than Vampire


It has a cooler setting:  Asia has a stronger contrast than the West between old and new, and this contrast enhances the themes about immortal beings. Asian cities are enormous and vibrant and shabby and seedy in a way few western cities can match, all the while being steeped in mind-blowing antiquity. The Vampire book Cairo by Night had this too, but it was basically the best city book for Vampire.

It builds on a cooler cosmology: The buddhist cosmology is grossly underappreciated in western fantasy. It has a conceptual stringency the abrahamic cosmology lacks, with a fascinatingly elegant feel to its clear categories of beings and existential concepts. Its lack of a supreme God, its many different realms of existence, its cyclic worldview and unyelding cosmos ruled by suffering that can only be mitigated by insight has enormous potential when mixed with contemporary fantasy themes, as proven by KotE, if not taken to its fullest potential.

It knows what it is about: Vampire has always felt schizophrenic to me. It claims to be about the personal horror of the Beast, but the Beast is rather sidelined by the rules system, and we almost never get to see a vampire who has actually fallen to the Beast. Is Vampire about intrigue? Sure, but what are they really plotting about? KotE, by contrast, has a clear sense of purpose - you portray undead beings resurrected due to a karmic debt, that they now have to repay by fighting the Yama kings and searching for dharmic insight.

It has better villains: The Yama Kings are amazing creations. The Thousand Hells book gave them complicated and nuanced personalities and colorful and terrifying hellish realms to rule, and made them feel tragic yet extremely threatening; ancient, twisted beings, both pitiful and loathsome. They have clear agendas, cool minions, and are super-easy to use as a catalyst to create a story.

Its vampires have better backstories: The fact that Wan Kuei are not Embraced, but risen from the dead due to karmic debt and a tragic fate in their stained past life makes for amazing backstories. It roots them in humanity yet gives them a feel of being both chosen and cursed, both blessed and tragic.

Its vampires cannot create new vampires: This is something I've grown to dislike somewhat with Vampire - the Masquerade. The fact that vampires can, at-will, create new vampires makes the whole concept feel somewhat cheap, and dilutes the tragic aspects of vampirism - in Vampire, quite a lot of vampires would basically be vampires just because they wanted to. KotE is the whole other side of the coin; here, vampirism is -always- a curse, and humans cannot be made vampires through any effort on part of the Wan Kuei. This has several important consequences:
- The relationships between Wan Kuei and mortals are more tragic, as there's no easy way out from the problem of time.
- Any Wan Kuei is valuable: Any time one turns up, others try and calm her and care for her and see what purpose she might fill.
- Any Wan Kuei is who she is for a reason. (See 'better backstories', above).

Much, more more is done with the Beast: It's a huge irony that KotE handles the Beast much better than Vampire, the game that was supposed to -be about- the Beast. In KotE, in stark contrast to Vampire, the Beast has a personality and an agenda, you can draw on its strength, but do so at your own peril, several disciplines deal with the Beast in various ways, and the writes even suggest the Wraith - the Oblivion concept of having a shadowplayer, which I cannot even fathom why they never used in Vampire.

It's a big crossover with Wraith and Werewolf: So all Wan Kuei have Lifesight and Deathsight, and they all, to some extent, deal with wraiths and spirits. They have rituals to journey into hell itself. The game's books at length elaborate on the spirit worlds and how they interconnect with the mortal realm. I think these themes strengthen the dark urban fantasy atmosphere the game is supposed to evoke, and enriches it immensely. Wan Kuei is given more to -do-, plain and simple, more roles to fill in the world. KotE becomes so colorful and full of mystery.

They have no generation, but a dynamic power level:
Instead of being locked into a power level slot by birth, and only being able to increase it through soul-drinking murder, the Wan Kuei must gain insight into the workings of their nature and the world in order to increase in power. Is it less tragic and unfair than Vampire? Certainly. But it's also more dynamic, and makes the very process of leveling up a fascinating personal and spiritual journey. The game even went to some length to describe how a dharma-increasing moment of insight felt, thus merging the rules with immersion into the setting and the story.

Salvation is possible: Tightly connected to the previous point. Like with the previous one, I'll understand people who prefer the harshness of Vampire the Masquerade here, but I dislike utterly hopeless settings. I like vast, dark worlds with a tiny sliver of distant hope attained through enormous and patient effort, and that is basically the concept of buddhism - as such, it meshes perfectly with what they chose to do in KotE. Salvation waits at dharma 10. But has anyone even reached that level, ever?

The coteries are justified:
Vampire did a poor job at explaining why exactly a group of very random vampires (the PCs, that is) would hang together and what they would occupy themselves with. KotE does this much better, by creating a traditional five-fold group, the Wu, where you would ideally have members of five different dharmas following five different directions. In practice, few Wu looked like this, yet their traditional structure and concepts like sharing a guardian spirit made the Wu a much more interesting structure than the coterie ever was.

The winds are super cool:
In KotE, each vampire choses a wind direction, which symbolises a pathway she is then expected to follow. A vampire of the eastern direction is expected to nurture the mortal world, a vampire of the western direction is supposed to nurture the wraith world, a vampire of the south is expected to be a warrior, etc. These concept made for very interesting characters when combined with the dharmas (the clan equivalent) and the nature/demeanors, which gave great possibilites of both deconstructing stereotypes or going in atypical directions.

The dharmas make more sense than the clans: While the clans of Vampire are classic for a reason, many of them have always felt to me like they completely lack any kind of social organisation and would completely fall apart throughout the centuries. This is why I consider for example the Tremere, the Giovanni and the Setites among the better and more interesting clans - because they make sense, as they have distinct organisations, hierarchies and agendas. Guess what? In KotE, -everyone- has that. The dharmas are something you affiliate with -by choice-, and they have very, very distinct philosophies, motivations and organisations. They're not there just to give the PC a stereotype to belong to - they're there to give the PC -a role in the world- and something to, you know, actually -do- in the game.

The dharmas are more interesting than the clans: See above. While their philosophies were convoluted, and ought to have been described much better, the dharmas were by and large very interesting and innovative, providing some excellent conflicts and plot hooks, especially for PCs. How do you really go about being a Devil-tiger? Can you do so without being a complete monster, while not squandering possibilities to gain insight? Can you go against your nature if your dharma demands it? How do you balance the needs of your dharma with the needs of your wu?

South-East Asian folklore is fucking metal: A minor aspect yes, and closely related to "cooler setting" a few points above, but it deserves special mention. Thai, Filipino and Indonesian mythological creatures are insanely hardcore, we have for example the vagina-invading baby eating aswang and the ghost girls who are floating heads and bloody spines, and scores of other stuff crawled out of drugged nightmares, stuff that just needs to be in an urban fantasy horror game. KotE is the perfect fit for that, and already made several allusions to it (the Flesh Shintai discipline being the strongest one).

Concluding remarks

That's all I can think of for now. I understand that KotE is not for everybody, with its exotic setting and AWESOME, unashamed urban fantasy theme. I've played it way too little myself, due to its horrible rules system. But I've always found KotE much easier and rewarding game to run than Vampire, finding it both more colorful, interesting and tragic all at the same time. Compared to Vampire - the Masquerade, Kindred of the East has more fascinating vampires, more tragic themes and much clearer conflicts and more solid roles for the PCs to play, altogether making it a stronger game.