Non-Digital: Writing About the Gehenna War

I worked as a freelancer on Vampire: the Masquerade 5th Edition, originally put together in-house by the new Swedish incarnation of White Wolf. (Now subsumed into the parent company Paradox Entertainment.) As part of that work, I contributed the chapter “The Gehenna War” to the Camarilla setting book.

The discussions before, during and after the release of the game books have been tumultuous, at one point escalating even to the office of the President of Chechnya. (Here’s an article in Finnish about it, and another one in Russian. Google Translate works for both.)

In the aftermath of the release of the books, control over the direction of Vampire 5th Edition was passed to the licensee company Modiphius, although ownership of the property remains with Paradox Entertainment.

Modiphius has made numerous changes to the already published books, rewriting the original material into more conventional form and censoring entirely some chapters. (Such as one I wrote for the Anarch book called “Is It Okay To Feed Vitae To a Baby?”)

The cover of the Camarilla book.

I was looking over the changes made to my chapter about the Gehenna War in the Camarilla book. They are extensive, the rewrite made by Khaldoun Khelil. What’s extremely unusual is that Khelil also wrote a post on his Patreon explaining his reasoning. It was a fascinating read, and a rare glimpse into the strange project of remaking an already published setting book.

(You can read Khelil’s whole post here. It’s for backers only but that just means you should become backers!)

Inspired by Khelil’s text, I decided to write my own post, detailing the thinking that originally went into the chapter.

Incidentally, the presence of differing versions of the books, including print versions, will surely make for an interesting collector’s market down the line!

A comparison of the original and the edited version of the opening paragraphs of the chapter.

Game Design Ideas

In the world of Vampire: the Masquerade, vampires become more powerful as they age. Young vampires are oppressed by their elders. While this is a resonant setting element, through the years of actual Vampire play it has also created a lot of trouble. The default character in Vampire is young, and a stifling hierarchy makes it harder to find opportunities for character agency.

For this reason, the 5th edition of Vampire introduced new ideas into the setting of the game. A mysterious supernatural Beckoning was calling ancient vampires to the Middle East, where a Gehenna War was being fought between the vampire sects of the Camarilla and the Sabbat, often through human proxies.

This in turn thrust the old hierarchies of the Camarilla in chaos, revealing lots of opportunities for player characters to do something interesting. For example, take over the empire of political power built by an Elder who suddenly decides to decamp to Baghdad.

The idea was to make Elders rarer and more terrifying, empower Neonates while retaining the idea of ancient monsters and their malign influence, and create dynamic story opportunities.

The chapter “The Gehenna War” is in the Camarilla book to make this real and work it into the setting. It’s an in-character view of what it means in practice when both humanity and young vampires get swept in events initiated by those vastly more powerful than themselves.

Thematically, the idea behind setting the Gehenna War in the Middle East was built to mirror the way foreign powers have had their proxy wars in the region. Thus, the local vampire sect of the Ashirra is trying to deal with a conflict fought by two foreign sects, the Camarilla and the Sabbat. As in real life, the war is fought over resources. Because this is Vampire, the resource is not oil but the slumbering tombs of ancient monsters who lived in the region thousands of years ago when this was one of the cradles of human civilization.

Since the core nature of vampires is parasitical, the idea is that they are not the instigators of these conflicts (since human evil is human evil) but parasites exploiting them.

In game design terms, the idea of having a very specific place for the Gehenna War was so that two things happen: Ancient vampires become much rarer in some parts of the world, while concentrating in one part of the world. This would make a game set in New York or Cologne or Helsinki into a playground for Neonates while transforming the Middle East into a unique setting where young characters can interact with ancient monsters all over the place.

In the rewrite, the Gehenna War has been decentralized so it no longer centers on the Middle East. This obviates its original design purpose.

By this stage in the chapter, the differences are significant. Palestine gets erased.

Details

In time of the 2003 Iraq war, I was 23. The war was a seminal event in shaping my worldview. It demonstrated how American rhetoric and power interact, how wars get started, and how media consensus is sometimes spectacularly wrong.

Because of this, I wanted to make the viewpoint character of the Gehenna War chapter into an Iraqi man who had left his country as a human and returned as a vampire. For the personal details, I relied a lot on two interviews I did some years ago with the Iraqi novelist Hassan Blasim, about whom I wrote in Helsingin Sanomat. (I really recommend his novels and short stories, they are wonderfully good.)

Although the chapter I wrote has nothing to do with Blasim, a few individual details in his story stuck in my mind and I figured human detail was necessary to balance the real life stories of war and fictional stories of vampires.

The viewpoint character was also designed to demonstrate the core ideas of the new 5th edition in that he was a Neonate Archon. The thinking here was that with the deepening alliance between the Camarilla and the Ashirra, the historically European Camarilla needed young people who could speak Arabic. Anyone older would be too important to do the grunt work.

I wanted to make the reason the point-of-view character was made into a vampire somewhat arbitrary and impersonal to underline another key setting point: The Camarilla is a society of monsters. Thus, our point of view should reflect that, with an regular guy looking into this terrible world that has taken over his life. This basic idea carries through the whole chapter.

Instead of sending anyone important into the midst of the Gehenna War, the Camarilla makes a refugee into a vampire, dubs him an Archon and drops him into the middle of the horror. Conveniently, this could also be something that might be basis for a game with player characters as the Archon and his entourage.

Palestine

During the chapter, the viewpoint character travels around the Middle East, encountering increasingly horrific things as the nature of the Gehenna War reveals itself. The Camarilla, the Ashirra, the Sabbat, all those Elders and their massive egos in one place.

I placed one scene in Ramallah, Palestine, and introduced a local Ashirra vampire character called Leila for reasons that combine personal and political. In 2012, I traveled to Ramallah to play in the first big international larp organized in Palestine, Till Death Do Us Part. It was a deeply profound experience, and had a lasting effect on my life.

(They are organizing a rerun of the game. The sign up is open right now, and I really recommend it.)

After Till Death Do Us Part, I became part of the organizing group of the Palestinian-Finnish larp Halat hisar, originally run in 2013 and later in 2016. The larp was an attempt to create an experience of the Palestinian political reality in Finland, and it was made by Palestinian and Finnish designers. The Guardian writes about it here, among other things.

Because of these experiences, I learned a lot about the Palestinian situation. I also noticed that Palestinians tend to get erased in American and European media productions, often because their mere existence is seen as “political”. For this reason, I wanted to put in a Palestinian character, to fight in my very small way against this erasure.

Unfortunately, in the rewrite, that section of the chapter has been scrubbed clean of Palestine.

Terrors

In an extremely basic way, one of the guiding principles behind my writing in this chapter and everything else I did for Vampire is that vampires are monsters. They might think that they are good people, but in truth they are poisonous parasites who destroy everything they touch.

In the Gehenna War chapter, the viewpoint character is rescued by one of Vampire’s classic signature characters, Fatima al-Faqadi, an ancient assassin. He comes to believe in her because he falls for the illusion she represents. Yet in the end, she is just another ancient horror. By that point, however, it’s too late to step out of the world of terrors. Once you’ve become a vampire, there are no happy endings.

Reading the rewrite of my work, it often felt like it hearkened back to an older conception of what Vampire: the Masquerade is and how it works. We’ll see how that works out in terms of the upcoming wider slate of V5 material.

You can check out my original take on the Gehenna War chapter for yourself in the first printed run of the Camarilla book or in the earlier PDF versions. The new version is in the PDFs that have been sent out this spring, and probably in future print editions of the book.

It’s interesting to look at the comparisons and consider how they change both the game world, the politics and meaning of the game, and the design functions setting ideas have!

When I and the other writers wrote the three original books, everything we did was interconnected and meshed together. Thus, if you’re not careful, when you change one part it might throw another out of alignment. For this reason, my original Palestinian Leila still appears in the books, as a little shadow of what used to be…

At least until an editor finds her and she gets redacted in the next PDF update.

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