Immersion Tactics - Issue 1
Immersion Tactic Issue 1
Also entitled, “Not one, not you, but I’
Hello my fellow Children of the Night,
I was inspired to write a short essay. Though I am President of By Night Studios, this does not represent anything more official than my own musings. If it is well-received, I will share others. Below is predicated on the idea that you are going to write a backstory for a character before entering game.
When writing a backstory for a Vampire: the Masquerade character, one attempts to achieve a few goals. For example, one goal is to establish a timeline of the character from before embrace to present to better define them. Another equally important goal is to provide seeds for the Storyteller and staff to tie in for personal plot. They can be expansive one thousand plus word affairs, or as simple as “He lived, then he died, now he’s a Malkavian with obsession derangement triggered by the sight of blood”. Often, these backstories are written in the third person omniscient voice. That is to say, they are detached and all-seeing. This method is the natural one but is it always the optimal one? I suggest that in many cases a player should consider composing these backstories instead in the first person perspective. This could take the form of any sort of cleverly conceived excuse. For example, it could be record of a response to a Prince’s interrogation before acknowledgement, a letter of introduction, a personal memoir, or correspondence with an old friend. I suggest that it is at least sometimes better for the reasons elucidated below.
A regular person’s knowledge of themselves is rarely perfect and a character should be no different. Third person omniscient has a tendency to share details that the character themselves would not know or which may not be important to them as they develop. For example, “Oliver York was embraced in the 13th Century from his former role as a cupbearer in the King of England’s court by a deputy of Mithras after he had been successfully used as a champion in a particularly nasty game of Olympian”. Those details, while sometimes interesting, can hinder a player’s ability to roleplay authentically (as they try and consider the laundry list of all these intriguing facts when trying to reply in character). While you may be thinking the above is a great story hook for a staff though, I would argue it is not very valuable at all- unless you’re playing a game where the storyteller has time to work at length with player backgrounds. Any plot that could arrive from Oliver York’s unwitting victory in Olympian over 800 years ago would be a trifle reference at best, because two people (storytellers are people too we must never forget) could have very different ideas about the way such a detail could or should develop for plot. Unfortunately, a detached third person narrative almost always requires additional context for a storyteller to use effectively. Sometimes these details are just superfluous to the character rather than interesting and won’t affect their future in play. Having superfluous details makes the writing denser and harder for the storyteller and staff to use, like the pebbles in a river that don’t contain any gold; sifting through them is just work, and it’s better where possible to not put that additional burden on the storyteller.
Which leads me to my second point: the first person perspective is very much on theme for Vampire. After all, Bram Stroker’s novel Dracula is written in a series of first person narratives to great effect. It can also be a compelling method of describing both the timeline as the character recalls and the plot seeds that are of most interest. As the characters themselves are speaking in them, there is no ambiguity about how they are likely to interpret them. An example of this is the earlier post but told from the Ventrue Oliver’s perspective. “At first, I thought I was a prodigy, and I was proud of it too. I was embraced younger than most in the Clan of Kings without Royal blood but eventually, my inflated ego came crashing down like Icarus in the heat of the sun. To my disgust, I later learned I had been tested most assuredly as any courtier twice my age at Embrace, but the victory was my sire’s and not my own, I was just too young and naive to understand why so many tragedies were befalling my family… now I know the truth. It disgusts me now as it first did centuries ago. This ancient game of pitting one ghoul against the other, is in my opinion, a shameful practice my clan should have the grace to eradicate. Someday I will become a Strategoi, and use my influence to see that happen.“
That leads into the final and most important benefit of crafting the backstory in first person. The act of writing it naturally and consciously immerses oneself into the character before play even begins. That immersion makes it simpler to play the character without second-guessing oneself or needing to consider as often ‘would my character do this?’ This is especially helpful for characters who possess extreme viewpoints, as the simple trick of testing their voice in a private composition to be presented to the storyteller for approval can help one judge the ‘feel’ of the pc. That can be a tremendous benefit both in portraying them and in determining if one can find that voice during game, but before all the work of creating a character sheet and costume.
In conclusion, I recommend as a device to improve experience as a player in Vampire, one could consider writing a backstory in the first person. There are three advantages - 1. It eliminates superfluous detail filling in, forced by the third person omniscient view. 2. It flows in a compelling, thematic manner, and thus is easier for a storyteller or their assistant to absorb and use in game. 3. It aids in one’s immersion (which would be reason enough the other two notwithstanding), and helps determine if the Character you have designed is actually the right fit for you.
A simple rule of thumb, if you cannot describe your character’s backstory in the 1st person without it sounding ridiculous, then one should consider carefully whether or not your backstory is in fact ridiculous and needs further tinkering. ;)