I have a confession to make: I’m a fan of vampires in fiction. I honestly think that they are an excellent concept in supernatural action and horror, largely due to much of their mythos having easy ties to profound themes such as seduction, addiction, lost innocence, alienation, and the loss of humanity. Toss in a large chunk of my formative years suffused with badass supernatural bloodsuckers brought to life in films such as Blade, Underworld, Interview with the Vampire, and Queen of the Damned (plus TV shows such as Buffy, Angel and Hellsing) and you get a player who, even now, gets giddy at the chance to play in a game with a vampire focus. So when I find out that the company that is both behind my favorite Powered by the Apocalypse game (Masks) and already knows how to do horror well (Bluebeard’s Bride) already has such a game on the shelf…well, I couldn’t stay away. Which is what has brought me to Undying by Magpie Games.
I briefly mentioned the game, and my reasons for wanting to play it in our October Cannibal Halfling Radio podcast, but I believe that the game deserves a broader explanation. While Undying is hardly the first vampire-centric RPG, it certainly has space to occupy. As I have said before, and I will say again, I like the setting of the RPG that is likely the most famous, Vampire: The Masquerade. While I haven’t taken a look at the new 5th Edition yet, the early returns and story choices that I have heard about from other players might mean that I rectify that soon. However, as a personal preference, I have not had the best track record with the World of Darkness system mechanics, and I quite enjoy the more player facing and narrative driven style found in PbtA games. That said…even if you are completely and 100% happy with WoD mechanics I still think that Undying has something to offer. The mythology of vampire lore is wonderfully vast and inconsistent, meaning that players and GMs have an extraordinary amount of freedom in the kind of world and setting they want to create, and can pick and choose the themes they like without necessarily defaulting to grimmdark.
Setting creation begins with settling on cultural period and location, which can be helpful in providing a framework of who is who in the city, and what lore about vampires the group agrees to play by. The rulebook, like other PbtA games, has prompter questions to flesh out the setting, allowing the group to shape how things will play out and what will be the focus. The big areas players will decide will be things such as what places and practices are available for feeding, and in general how the social hierarchy works. These choices are vital in developing the big mechanical themes for the game: Blood, Debt, Humanity, and Status.
Status is how a community of literal (and figurative) predators fill out a pecking order, from the high and mighty Princeps to the lowly Pariahs. Status affects how people are treated, and the size of the area they are permitted to hunt in. This part of the game is all about the rise and fall of who is in favor and who is out, with the pariahs desperate for a chance to get anything at all and those at the top constantly trying to sabotage each other. This aspect of Undying could fit in with Renaissance Italian setting, or a modern corporate setting. But like I said, grimmdark is not the necessary setting, and there is another hellish atmosphere this could be applied to: high school, in case anyone here wants to play out a darker metaphor behind the sheen of a young adult novel. Status ties into the Pecking Order, which lets you make demands of those of lower status, with their refusal casting them to the lowest of the low.
Blood is a currency of personal power, the supernatural potency that is in your being. Players need to spend it to do anything that is supernatural, and predictably it can be replenished by feeding on prey. Status affords where you are supposed to be feeding, but you can choose to flaunt the regulations and meddle with the domains of your betters. The issue often comes in that it costs Blood to hunt your prey, and the more you spend gives you more options as to how cleanly you get away with your meal. You may get more by going cheap, but there will be hell to pay…but if you only play it safe you may only just be getting by.
In comparison, Debts are the currency of societal power. Minor Debts are collections of favors, the spider webs of “owed ones”, who walked away from the chance to feed so that you could, who kept a secret that could embarrass you, or briefly covered a duty for you so that you could take care of something. Major Debts, on the other hand…are BIG. John Wick 2 big. As the book puts it: “Owing a Major Debt puts you in the hole: one you may never crawl out of or one you might die trying to. If someone owes you a Major Debt, treasure it. Never let it go. You hold the strings; make them dance for you.” It makes sense for a simple reason: a major debt puts you higher in the pecking order over any vampire of similar status. You may have to owe them plenty of minor favors, but you can effectively order them around indefinitely…just be careful that you never need to call that Major Debt back in or be ready to die before the aftermath.
I bring these up first because these currencies are really how you get anything done in the game that faces any opposition from your fellow predator. Really…any. While Undying is a PbtA system, it is different from many in that it is absolutely diceless. Because of this, the main randomizing element of success that accompanies most games is absent. Meddling with another predator can be pretty much anything that isn’t simply keeling over to another, whether we are talking violence, or simply trying to short circuit a plan, or follow you when you are visiting your master’s mistress. Instead, it becomes a betting match of who can outspend over the other.
Anyone who wishes to Meddle must spend Blood, and every person in a group can choose to either accept what the meddler wants to do, match the expenditure or forgive a debt to thwart the attempt…or raise the amount wagered by increasing the amount you put in. While the latter two are temping, like all currency, you run out. Because there is no randomization resource management, budgeting, and the ability to read and outbid others take priority, and this may be off-putting to those who have put in a lot of effort to making dice calculations. Plus, I do kind of miss the “partial success” rules of most PbtA games, because here the “success with cost” or “failure, but something good happens” is nuanced at best. You are trying to outbid everyone and reign supreme. Fights are lethal, where the winner of the bet decides who lives and dies for people in the whole group, making team ups scary propositions.
Humanity, in comparison, is a mechanic that seems a bit more bolted on than baked in, reflecting the character’s relative state compared to who they once were. It is supposed to be a balancer between the amount of Blood you can hold (low Humanity) and the number of ways you can feed (that limits negative consequences), but it seems like a relatively minor part of the game when compared to the repeated importance of the status and resource management. If I were to make a guess, it remains in the game as a vestigial feature from VtM, where it serves a similar purpose. However, in that setting, because you have so many other varied types of actions and choices, the balancing act is more vital to the character because it marks an increasingly quick downward spiral to being a monster, while in Undying, Humanity is more of a Paragon/Renegade scale, and is fairly quickly glossed over at that.
Character creation is restrictive, even by the standards of PbtA games, which typically run on pre-developed playbooks with few choices for skills and moves. There’s no such choice of moves here within a playbook, as you gain all immediately, and there are five total playbook choices available. All you can choose that is part of a standard character sheet is where you want your Humanity to be, which as I mentioned before seems less intrinsic to the core mechanics. As such, you kind of have to take what you can get.
You can see some similarities to Apocalypse World in the design of some of the playbooks, with vestigial markers in their evolution. The Wolf is similar to the Chopper: they have a pack of violent predators that they keep in line, which is a fantastic source of power, but if that pack is dissolved they have nothing. The Sensualist is similar to the Hardholder: they have plenty of resources that they can leverage to get what they want, but they have to protect the vulnerable herd they feed on. Even with the framing of Apoc World, I do think that it’s a bit overly limited, and I think that the lack of progression ultimately puts a fairly short timer on the campaign length. The game does provide a jumpstart by network building by having characters owe a Major and Minor Debt to, and establish who your Maker (the vampire who created you) is. While this can be a fantastic way to build a relationship early, I still think some players might not be satisfied with the amount of choice they have.
All in all, I find Undying to be a novel way to break into the genre. It is going to be on the short side, and you are likely to get out in proportion to the amount of work you put in, at least as far as the story is concerned. I don’t know if I am trading in VtM permanently for it, but Undying was certainly worth a look, if only for the ideas.
If you are interested in Undying, you can acquire a digital copy at DriveThruRPG or directly from the publisher at Magpie Games (who also have a ton of other great products to check out). Are you curious about what brought on the horror binge? Take a gander on over to our Cannibal Halfling Radio podcast, where we discuss Undying and some of our other favorite horror tabletop games. As always, you can find me on Twitter @WHalfling, or lurking on our Discord channel making dark jokes. Thanks for reading!