Narrative Dissonance and Humanity in the World of Darkness

World of Darkness

Who is the true, underlying villain in the original “big five” games of the World of Darkness?  I can’t really think of a more loaded question related to White Wolf’s flagship IP.  At first glance, it seems as though every game has its own villain: Werewolf has the Wyrm; Mage has the Nephandi, and in some editions the Technocracy; Wraith has, well, everyone; and Changeling has humanity itself.  Some editions of Changeling shied away from the Humanity-as-villain narrative, but whether the enemy was the Shadow Court or uncaring nobles, those foes can be traced back to what humanity’s abuses have done to the Fae.

If you look closely, the theme of humanity-as-villain is central to most of the game lines, with Vampire being the one exception.  In Wraith, Oblivion historically is a more productive force than it is today.  Every description of harrowings talks about how they were once a critical part of attaining transcendence, but over the centuries have become increasingly dark and twisted.  When you look at how Oblivion has manifested in the other dark kingdoms, such as the Dark Kingdom of Ivory, where there is no great human administrative infrastructure, the “sins” of Oblivion seem less cosmological and more the result of humanity’s relationship with their darker impulses.  This is hardly the only game where we see these tropes.

Mage is an even more acute example.  As the Technocracy-as-villain narrative has been intentionally subverted over time, we have seen the horror of Mage shift, holding up a dark mirror.  Mage is a game about a human being displaying enough hubris to believe they have the power to change reality and the wisdom to do it properly, and then act on that belief.  In many ways, the greatest enemy in Mage are the main characters, and every time you spend experience you are giving that villain more power.  While some view mages as a class of “others” like vampires or werewolves, they are arguably the most distilled expression of human existence in White Wolf’s canon of work.

When the villain lives in the mirror, the villain is humanity.

PentexartIt’s a little harder to see this theme in Werewolf. When you trace the Wyrm’s story, it doesn’t take  long to see the paragon of destruction as a victim, and that leaves the Weaver as the real villain. No matter how much emphasis you put on pattern spiders, or the Weaver’s other spirit minions, her greatest avatars are humans.  Pentex is seen as doing the Wyrm’s work, but they function as a strictly controlled and organized corporation.  I can’t think of anything more Weaver-like or symbolic of modern human advancement than the corporation.

That leaves Vampire, the largest and most financially successful game in the World of Darkness.  This is where these themes fall apart.  Humanity isn’t the primary villain in Vampire; Humanity is idealized in the system as its primary morality trait.  The hierarchy of sins for Humanity, which acts as an in-game guide to which actions will send a character into a crisis of morality, reveals a collection of scolds that elevate Christian moralism more than they reflect anything true about innate humanity.

The humanity dynamic is obviously inspired in part or whole by the challenges faced by Louis in Interview With the Vampire. The Embrace, the struggle with shame and guilt, and many of the social/political themes of Masquerade draw heavily on Anne Rice’s early work, and as a standalone piece inspired by and inspecting some of the questions Rice posed in her books, Masquerade holds up very well.  The problem is that White Wolf then published 4 more games that present a much less flattering view of humanity, and the new White Wolf has publicly stated they want to engage more fully with events from the real world.  In a world where Duterte not only exists but has a non-antagonistic relationship with America’s President, I have a hard time envisioning White Wolf engaging with real world events and political themes while presenting Humanity as a glorified ideal to which Vampires cling.

Are Paths the answer?

Vampire provides an alternative to Humanity in the form of the Paths of Enlightenment, which serve as alternate moralities a vampire can use to hold their beastly hunger in check.  In my personal experience, the Paths of Enlightenment become a way to get around tracking morality far more often than they prompt players to meaningfully inspect themes of self justification, which is how they were originally framed.  The burden of calling for morality checks falls on the ST, and in a Sabbat or Independent game where five players each have a different path of Enlightenment, knowing when a given player has violated their path is cumbersome enough that it is often ignored.

It is also wortTuskegee_University_sealh noting that the current relationship between speculative fiction and the idea of “The Other” is very different than it was in the early 90’s when the first edition of Vampire the Masquerade came out.  Vampire swept several issues related to humanity’s less savory tendencies under the rug.  Vampires aren’t sexist, because why would you care about gender when you are an immortal entity with no sex drive?  Young vampires wouldn’t enter the early days of their unlife with that perspective, though they might shift their views on gender after their first run in with a 500 year old female Tremere – assuming they survived the encounter.  

Additionally, our conversations around prejudice have become more nuanced. Claiming vampires become nothing more than ravaging beasts if they victimize people, regardless of their races, genders, sexual orientations, etc., while allowing humans to take similar actions with no repercussions creates some messy narrative dynamics.  A Kindred held to the sins of the path of humanity would fall to their Beast long before they got around to internalizing the “more enlightened” philosophies that allow them to resist that fall if you allow vampires to demonstrate the kind of monstrosity mortals have perpetrated during the Tuskeegee Syphilis Trials, or the Trail of Tears. As many players have pointed out, we shouldn’t minimize these horrors by pretending that only supernaturals are responsible for such acts in the World of Darkness.  In 2017 it’s hard to ignore these reflections of humanity and if we try to play Vampire without them the game ends up being reduced to little more than the urban fantasy escapism that the new White Wolf has said they want to avoid.

The Future

downloadWhite Wolf has announced that Vampire 5th Edition is slated for 2018, and they are planning on making some pretty dramatic changes to the systems, including changes to what the Beast represents.  If the Beast changes, then the relationship between the Kindred and their morality could change as well.  Personally, I’d like to see a core morality mechanic that emphasizes the creeping alien nature of immortality.  I would like to see a mechanic that accommodates what happens when a genocidal despot or a mass murderer styled after the likes of Dylan Roof is embraced without invoking a Path of Enlightenment that exists only in Vampiric society.  I want to see an edition of Vampire that joins the rest of the World of Darkness in forcing us to stare into the mirror to find our horror instead of allowing us to pretend that some alien other is the true monster in the night.

This may be a tall order, and I know that, like all changes to an established and loved product, a large swath of fans would protest a change to Vampire this drastic.  However, Twenty years of thematic development in the rest of the line and the goals laid out by the new White Wolf necessitate some shifts.  I can’t pretend to know exactly what this change would need to look like, but I think while Vampire 5th ed is in development it’s important to talk about our future hopes for the line, because White Wolf has reached out to their fans and by all indications is really listening to what we have to say.  Instead of just posing a solution, I would like to ask the question: “What morality dynamics would you like to see for Vampire 5th ed, and how can the game more acutely focus on the horror of the human condition instead of the evil of the alien vampire other?”

 

Victor Kinzer has been roleplaying since he first picked up Vampire Dark Ages in high school.  He nabbed it as soon as it was released (he might have been lusting after other Vampire books for a while at that point) and hasn’t looked back since.  He role plays his way through the vast and treacherous waters of north Chicago, and is hacking away at the next great cyberpunk saga at http://redcircuitry.blogspot.com/.  He is an occasional guest on Tempus Tenebrarum (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvNp2le5EGWW5jY0lQ9G39Q/feed), and is working to get in on the con game master circuit.  During the rest of his life he works in Research Compliance IT, which might inform more of his World of Darkness storylines than he readily admits.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

A Red Rose on Marble: Review of Vampire: The Masquerade 1st Edition

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Introduction

My first experience with Vampire was a LARP at the local State University in my hometown. I was 15 or 16 and I’d been talked into making a character by a friend. By that point, the first edition of Laws of the Night was out, and for a long time I didn’t realize that was effectively the 3rd edition of LARP rules for Vampires in the World of Darkness. When the Revised table-top rules came out, I played with friends and dove head first into the various games. At the time, the only 2nd Edition game I can remember reading was Werewolf, and even that I quickly replaced with its Revised version. So, I ‘grew-up’ with the Revised rule-set for the World of Darkness as my standard and even though I occasionally picked up an older Clanbook, or supplement, the game for me was highly polished and well crafted. That was largely my vision of the WoD until recently.

Martin Ericsson has mentioned his desire to recapture the spirit or essence of the first and second editions of Vampire and I had to admit, I didn’t know what he meant. So, I decided I would do my due diligence as a fan and seek out a copy of the game, as written in those early nights. A friend was generous enough to send me a copy of 1st Edition Vampire: The Masquerade a few months ago and I’ve slowly worked through it while reading about a dozen other gaming books.

My first impression was that it reminded me of quite a few books I loved that were written in the late ‘80s and early 90’s. For example, I was a big Robotech fan, and Palladium’s style was distinctive. V:TM, as different, transgressive, and progressive as it was, still has the vibe of a role-playing game of its era. That is not a negative critique. In fact, some of that vibe is part of its charm. It feels like a bit of a relic, but a relic that is still potent and possibly dangerous. 1st Edition Vampire is like its namesake, a being willing to sap your time and energy. It is a lovely monster able to see into your inner darkness. In some ways, I think it does this much more effectively than the Revised or even 20th Anniversary edition does. Why?

There are a few reasons, but they weren’t really easy to put my finger on at first. There is a lot of similar basic content from edition to edition, and though the rules were tweaked a little here and there, the core Storyteller System is the same. What’s different then? I think answering that question is complex, but I’m going to try and lay out a few of the elements I’ve noticed between the two.

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The Center of Conflict

In Revised, we are presented with a centuries long conflict between various clans of vampires. These vampires are split into two larger sects and several smaller, and arguably, equally important groups. The 13 major clans are embroiled in conflict with the Antediluvians, Caine, other Clans, and occasionally other supernatural elements of the World of Darkness. What is missing in this equation? Humanity. The central conflict in Revised is intra-Vampiric. Brujah versus Ventrue, Camarilla vs Sabbat, Inconnu hiding from the Jyhad (the ancient fight between elder and younger Kindred), these conflicts are between other Vampires.

In 1st Edition Vampire, these conflicts are only hinted at. They exist in the background. In 1st edition the central conflicts are, The Beast vs Humanity, Humanity vs Vampires, and Anarchist vs Establishment. These themes are present in Revised, but they are less central to the writing. To be clear, I’m talking only about the core books here, the 1st and 2nd edition adventures frequently focus on Vampire vs Vampire conflict, often conflating Kindred conflicts with mortal ones in a very confusing way. Dark Colony is a great example of this. As a setting, New England is Gothic and during the late 80’s early 90’s had a ton of Punk elements. However, the story lines presented in Dark Colony focused on ‘Armies’ of vampires in conflict with one another. This, in an area of the US where there were at most 100 vampires across New England. I think I’m exaggerating that number too, I am pretty sure it was closer to 40.

Buy at Own Risk

Buy at Own Risk

That being said, the 1st edition Core Book lays out a human focused world. Yes, you are a vampire, but you need to remember your humanity because you have to live with humanity. Based on demographics, you interact with humans more than you do with vampires. Kindred society is written as a slightly intangible element of the unlife of the Kindred. Considering the population density of vampires to humans was suggested to be around 1 to 100,000, that makes sense. Humanity is incredibly important for feeding, for social life, for a sense of belonging. The fight against the Beast is a constant one, because you are constantly surrounded by those whom you feed upon. In Revised, humanity fades into the background. Are they important? Yes, but not in the visceral way in which they are presented in 1st edition.

Story Goals/Motivations

Players and characters have multiple goals and they are presented with several options in all versions of the game. However, keeping in mind the central conflicts we discussed above, the goals of vampires in 1st edition are different from those in Revised. In 1st edition we are presented with several goals that players may focus on. All of them are based on some element of how vampires deal with humanity.

Humanity

Staring on page 129, Vampire 1st edition examines Humanity, the importance of clinging to a version of human behavior that is, honestly, unrealistic. Why is humanity put on a pedestal by vampires? There are a few reasons that I can see for this. Vampires have to contend with frenzy and the closeness of their Beast. The Beast is a visceral manifestation of the inhuman desire for blood that lives just below the surface of the Kindred mind. That’s one explanation at least.

To me, the Beast is simply the reflection of humanities capacity for inhumanity. Humanity has a beast, all of us have the ability to let slip an anger that cannot be contained, to harm others, to demean others, to lose empathy and murder. The Beast is a mechanic that brings those elements of our character as a species to the forefront. Vampires are monsters because they inherently lose their empathy for other human beings. They have to lose that empathy, if they don’t, they struggle to feed. Feeding from animals will only sustain you for a short time.

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Not Following Humanity

This is why Humanity is so important, it represents holding to a higher ideal than real people are capable or even cognizant of, so that the Vampire can attempt to retain their empathy. What if they don’t care about being empathetic to their cattle? In 1st edition the vampire’s choices are Wassail or Golconda, they either embrace their humanity or they descend into complete and utter depravity. This binary is less pressing in later books because of all the various Paths and Roads of Enlightenment that are offered. By removing the central question of humanity or oblivion, one of the central themes of the game is drastically shifted away.

Golconda

This search for enlightenment is presented directly after the section on Humanity. Golconda is presented as a common story line for players to seek. This changes in later versions of the game. This mystical state of being is relegated more and more to rumor, and even the Iconnu that have supposedly reached the state are represented as having probably fallen victim to falsehood by elder Cainites. In Revised, Golconda is played down significantly as a goal for the Kindred, its not impossible to reach, but it doesn’t feel like something you would have in most story lines.

In 1st Edition though, the search for Golconda, presented as difficult and rare, is still something that is achievable and there are specific, if seemingly limited benefits from this state. The vampire no longer experiences frenzy, as they have recognized the Beast is a part of who they are. If you ask me, they realize that the Beast is simply what makes them human, and by accepting that, they return to a state closer to normal people. The other two benefits of Golconda mentioned are a reduced need to feed and the ability for elder vampires to gain sustenance from humans and animals, even if they have the Methuselah’s thirst.

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Diablerie

Between the sections on Golconda and Diablerie is another section, which I’ll touch on last. It’s peculiar to 1st edition and I think that peculiarity makes it special. That being said, Diablerie is the clearest element of Vampire on Vampire conflict in 1st edition. Young vampires hunger for the power of their elders as it brings them closer to Caine and closer to great power. The Diablerist in Revised has a significant social stigma attached to them, and though this is mentioned in passing in 1st edition, it does not appear as strongly in 1st. Diablerie is a valid path for the players, though it might keep them from attaining the last goal we’ll look at.

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The Rebirth

When I came across the Rebirth I actually sat slack jawed for a few minutes. For me, the condition of vampirism presented by White Wolf had always been one of eternal torment. I had no inkling that in the 1st edition of the book the idea of returning to humanity was presented as a central story idea for player characters. “It is possible for a Vampire to escape the curse and become mortal again. Though it is exceedingly difficult, it is a major theme of the game and something that will direct the ambitions and thoughts of many characters.”

Holy… a major theme??! Not even close for any game I’d ever played in. I had never heard of this being a theme of Vampire: The Masquerade. By the time Revised came around it is basically impossible to turn a Kindred into a mortal once more. Yet, at the start, Rein – Hagen and the other writers had intended for Vampire to have this strong kernel of hope as an element of the game. This again is an element that makes humanity important. Wanting to be human again is a theme in a lot of vampire literature, so it makes sense, but it was removed as an element of Vampire through the years. I can’t even imagine wasting time fighting over who was in charge of undead politics if my characters knew this was possible. I can see most of them spending their nights, at least for their first 50-100 years, trying to be Reborn. Of course, this Rebirth isn’t easy, it requires killing one’s sire, or an antediluvian perhaps, sacrificing oneself, performing an arcane ritual, or even reaching Golconda. As a major theme of the game though, it changes things drastically.

Goals in Revised

Revised provides different goals. Kindred in revised are focused more on Vampiric politics, fighting against or for the Elders, and though Golconda is mentioned as something that some Vampires strive toward, it isn’t as immediate of a goal as it seems in 1st edition. The Rebirth was removed as a plot motivation early in Vampire. Which makes sense if you are focusing on the theme of eternal horror that Revised Vampire seems to express better than its earliest incarnation.

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That is one area in which Revised provides something that 1st doesn’t capture well. In Revised, the idea that you have become forced into a society of monsters in which you will never escape is visceral. This is the battle of humanity in Revised. Camarilla society may espouse the values of Humanitas, but most Kindred lose their connection to those whom they feed upon. Killing becomes commonplace, normalized, and this disconnection, this lack of empathy is a central element the Beast can play upon. Manipulating younger vampires becomes natural to Elders, it’s how they survive, and being a childer to one of these elders is a curse. Imagine being forced to work for an abusive boss, now imagine you can never quit, never find another job, and never get promoted. That is one of the core horror elements that Revised develops excellently. It’s simply a different horror than 1st edition Vampire.

Other Elements

Introduction

Both editions start off with a story that explains the world of Vampire. Revised presents a narrative, a sire explaining the world of the Kindred to their childe to be. 1st is written as a note from a vampire to a human associate where they explain the hidden world of Vampires. The story in 1st has shades of Interview with the Vampire, and in some ways so does the story in Revised. Each is quite obvious in its exposition. Revised though, is accompanied by well crafted background images, art, and evocative pages. 1st is accompanied by a bit of Tim Bradstreet art, and pages that evoke a worn well crafted letter or journal. Both are awesome, but different. Revised speaks to a slightly sexy, exciting, powerfully impactful game were you play the Monster in the Dark. 1st speaks to a gritty, personal, slightly unfinished game that has a ton of hidden lore where you play the monster who wishes they were still human.

Font

Both editions use a different font at times, but the main font in Revised is small, maybe 11 point at the largest. Its readable, but at times almost too small. 1st edition is larger but overall the font styles seem similar between editions. This is a subtle thing though, the font for Revised is very late 90’s and the font in 1st is clearly early 90’s and they obviously fit into the era they are from. Maybe I’m the only font geek that would care, but this is something that set the tone for the book for me.

Art

The art in Revised is polished, beautiful, well drawn. I could go on and on about how awesome it is. Bradstreet is amazing, an artist that everyone should appreciate and admire. Bradstreet’s art in 1st edition, though? Iconic, but not the art I was really drawn to while I was reading through the book.

No, ironically the art that interested me the most was the single image story that was placed throughout the book. This story tells a tale of a woman who becomes embraced, proceeds through torpor, conflict, and power to the modern age. She then follows a similar predatory path to the one in which her existence began. She embraces a man that resembles her sire. Ultimately, she is killed, and the man she embraced is freed from the Curse of Caine and he returns to his mortal life. This story is compelling for the humanity lost by the woman in question as she proceeds through her unlife, and just as compelling for the way in which she steals the life of the man she embraces and the way he fights to regain that life. I’m not sure who the artist for that story is, it doesn’t look like Bradstreet’s art, but I’d love to give whomever they are credit.

My favorite Bradstreet Art - Check out his website

My favorite Bradstreet Art – Check out his website by clicking the Nosferatu

Character Options

1st edition Vampire assumes the 7 Camarilla clans are the only options for characters. This reduces the amount of conflicts possible with this rule set. Revised provides us with the 13 clans from the beginning, including the pillar Sabbat clans and the Independents, whom were only hinted at in 1st edition’s core book. This limited set of options focuses the story more on the nuances between Kindred and humans. Of course the conflict between Brujah anarchs and Ventrue bluebloods is present, as are other elements of conflict between the Camarilla clans. However, it doesn’t feel like powerful creatures fighting against one another is the central theme of the game. In Revised, the camera lens is firmly on the world of the Kindred, in 1st, the story is shot from the shoulder of the vampire, as they gaze upon the herds of humanity on which they prey.

When I read 1st edition I could see why people wanted to play this game so much. I wanted to play Revised when I read it as well. Vampire: The Masquerade has changed a lot over the years, and if you ask me, one is not better than the other. They are simply different. I can respect the desire of the new White Wolf to try and recapture some of the themes in 1st edition. Those themes are important. Humanity should be important to the Vampire. Humanity sustains them, humanity is the essential element which they must draw upon to survive. Finding ways to refocus the camera on humanity, will have an interesting impact upon the games that people craft together. I look forward to 5th edition Vampire, if it finds a way to capture the essence of 1st edition, and the skillful hand of Revised and the 20th anniversary edition, then it will be a wonderful game to add to my collection.

This article was written by Josh (he/him/his) the admin of this spectacular website. Consider donating to our Patreon if you would like to support other columnists.

*Note, all opinions are the opinions of their respective Authors and may not represent the opinion of the Editor or any other Author of Keep On the Heathlands.

4 WAYS TO EFFECTIVELY USE THE HUMANITY ROAD/PATH/RULES IN VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE

Content Originally Appeared at High Level Games

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Vampire: The Masquerade is a horror game; even if every game played isn’t about horror, the fact you are playing an undead parasite on the side of humanity is something that is horrific. That being said, the humanity/road/path rules have not always been cut and dry and that makes things a little difficult to use them effectively. In most of the VtM games I’ve played, most storytellers have ignored the rules or used them sparingly. I don’t think any of them disagreed with the concept, but they did get frustrated with remembering the hierarchy of sins and understanding when and how a roll should be made. Some also understood the horror side of the game, but didn’t want every session to be about the brooding horror and so they would sideline these rules to focus on other awesome aspects of the game world.

Here is a short list of things I think help make the rules easy to use.

1) Make your players learn the rules too.
I know that the Storyteller should know the rules, but this is one of the rules that your players will need to spend some time with. Your players should learn what the hierarchy of sins looks like and why it exists. You should take 10 minutes to talk about what the Path Rating each player has really means. If it is high, why and how will that impact their role-playing are great questions for them to consider. Also, discuss the basic purpose of Conscience/Conviction, Self-Control/Instinct, and Courage. Players need to read this section of the book a few times, and don’t be afraid to start a session with a short-refresher training. Encourage your players to ask for appropriate checks. If they are thinking about draining a human because that person made their character angry, encourage the player to roll a Self-Control check to see if they follow-through, particularly if they have a high Humanity rating. If the players start suggesting such rolls for themselves then you are headed in the right direction.

2) Oh, if I go down in Humanity I can kill everything!
Sure. Let your players do this if that is the direction they think their characters would head. Then make them regret it. Remind them of the power of their Beast. Describe scenes to them differently; focus on the primal hunger inside them by making even basic human interactions a game of fight or flight. If they had an activity their character loved doing, find ways to make them realize that activity no longer holds appeal. Try adding Beast Traits, or other physical markers of their separation from humanity. I’m not talking about doing this every time they lose a dot of Humanity, but it is a good thing to add in every now and then to make the transition down into wassail worse for the character.

3) How about I switch to a path/road then?
Again, sure… then remind the character that such a transition takes time, not only time, but a true role-playing dedication to acting inhuman. Paths are alternative worldviews created by Cainites to help them try and reconcile their base natures with the Beast. The Path of Night does not simply allow for a player to act “evil” at will. Adhering to that path requires a dedication to thinking as that character, making choices that would fit a philosophy in line with that Path. For characters on a path or road (depending on which rule-set you are using) that player must spend the time reading about that path. I recommend that player also create a sub-set of rules alongside the hierarchy of sins. This rule-set are parameters of how their character understands the Path/Road and how that affects their behavior.

4) Know when to Roll and when to Role-Play
In my experience, most WoD players know when to role-play their Path/Road/Humanity rating, but very few know when they should be rolling their virtues or rolling their path rating. This is in some-ways a recap of number 1 on this list, but it is focused more on the ST. Know when you should let your players role-play out a loss of humanity or regain it without rolls. If you think a roll is justified to make the decision the player is making stick, do it. This applies to path rating as much as it does to Self-Control. If a player on the Path of the Beast needs to roll Instinct to see if they chase after prey, even if that prey is inside Elysium, ask yourself if a role or a roll is the best way to handle that situation. I’ve personally seen Courage rolled the most, because I think most players and storytellers can get their minds around fear and a roll to see if they are affected by supernatural or ‘natural’ derived fear.  Self-Control and Conscience are very similar, find times they are appropriate and story-driven to force rolls, and then encourage effective role-playing of the effects.

It can be awesome to role-play vampires as supernatural heroes, but you are missing something special about Vampire: The Masquerade when you do so. VtM is a horror game for a reason, darkness lurks behind every human action, and the creatures that lurk in that darkness are truly monsters. Don’t make every game depressing, but don’t be afraid to drive home the inhumanity of your characters every now and then.