A popular setting in science fiction and fantasy games is the dystopia – life is terrible, existence is futile, the powerless have lost to the powerful. In these games usually the protagonists are working to upset the system or are just trying to survive. Having played both Vampire and Shadowrun for many years, I wanted to talk about the very real differences in the tone of these settings.
This blog entry was inspired by a player of my former Shadowrun game decrying how negative and ugly everything was in that universe. Knowing that this person also played Vampire, I was confused – to me Vampire is a far more “negative” setting than Shadowrun. An ensuing conversation resulted in me writing out my most salient points for this post.
By way of introduction, Shadowrun takes place in a near-future time-line that branches off of ours in the mid-1990s. Large multinational corporations have supplanted governments as the de facto ruler of people’s lives, and science and magic have accelerated the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Vampire, and I refer specifically to the World of Darkness setting created by White Wolf, supposes that evil creatures have been lurking in humanity’s shadow from time immemorial, subtly encouraging society to be more fitting for their needs. Violence is pervasive, no good deed goes unpunished, and the idea of “charity” is a laughable one for most denizens. I’ve written about the setting more at length elsewhere in this blog.
Contrasted as above, I think it reasonable for people to see stark differences between the two settings, not the least of which is the central conceit of the world itself. I’ve painted the worlds in large strokes, so let’s dive into the characters, our protagonists.
In Shadowrun our “heroes” live in the cracks between the mega-corporations, eking out a living by doing jobs, often dirty ones, that the big boys want to be distanced from. Their backgrounds are often tragic – few people intentionally go into risky international sabotage as primary employment – and many of the people they encounter are lost, forgotten by the big companies. They’re the down and the destitute living as best they can, given the circumstances.
In Vampire, the protagonists are bloodthirsty monsters of the night, with varying degrees of bloodthirsty-ness. Their very existence helps to further the corruption encouraged by their forbearers, as their night-to-night existence depends on preying on mortals. Often they are the lowest of the vampiric social ladder, only the most powerful (and paranoid) eventually rising to prominence. It’s a game about loss, and about losing. I’m sure I’ll write a longer essay on the topic in the future.
In comparing the types of characters, again speaking very generally, let’s see how they compare. Violence, check. Vast wealth/power inequality, check. Struggles to survive in a hostile environment, check. Often bad people doing bad things, check. It’s sounding like these games are much more closely-related than their setting would suggest!
Realistically though, and I alluded to this before, Shadowrun is ultimately about character bucking the trend, making far more out of their circumstances than others would think possible. Sure the mega-corps are are overpowering, but there is plenty of goodness and honesty in the world. Heck, a truly dishonest and disreputable character will quickly find themselves out of a job, black-balled for their attitude and methods. The setting breeds stories of hope and survival, of conscious choice and repercussions.
Vampire, in my opinion, really is about the struggle against the inevitable. The characters lose ties to humanity and so become increasingly bestial, humans lose (or have lost) their own agency, just doing whatever it takes to survive – usually by giving in to their more base natures. Vampire is a game where every character is an Icarus, trying to fly as high and as far as possible before their wings melt and they come crashing to Earth. It breeds stories of pain and downward spirals, about eventually having to give up or give in.
Both games present dark or dystopian settings, worlds which (I hope) we scarcely recognize as our own. While individual characters may have unique and varied outlooks, histories, methodologies, and goals, for me a large part of portraying a consistent world or setting is by setting the mean, the average day-to-day or night-to-night as true to the presented material as possible. Shadowrunners may interact with the underbelly of society as part of their jobs, but vampires are that underbelly, playing a role in society’s downfall, whether they want to or not.
In short, I would argue that Shadowrun characters largely represent hope and the struggles of the common person against forces larger than themselves. Vampire characters strive to hold out against the weight of their very nature for as long as possible.
Both settings have their place, and both can be the seed for amazing stories. What I want to reinforce, at least to my potential player base, is that the settings are highly distinct, the games themselves focused on telling different types of stories.