Nuts & Bolts: How ‘Hunger’ Drives Vampire: the Masquerade

A simple mechanic that changes everything about a tabletop game.

In the tabletop roleplaying game Vampire: The Masquerade and the video games based on it, players play the roles of Kindred — creatures better known as vampires. They’re tasked with evading government and religious institutions that have caught wind of their existence, dealing with the petty squabbles of their kind, and most importantly, getting their fangs on more of that good red stuff. Hunger drives vampiric existence, and it’s codified in the rules in a system that ultimately brings everything back to it.

The core mechanic of VtM is a test — the Storyteller (game master) gives you an attribute and a skill with which to form a dice pool, and you try to get a certain number of successes on that many ten-sided dice. (A success is a 6 or higher, so it’s 50/50). For instance, if a player is trying to convince a bouncer to let them into a popular club, the Storyteller might say to roll Charisma (an attribute) plus Persuasion (a skill), with a difficulty of three. In that case, the player needs three rolls of 6 or higher to succeed.

But Vampires in the world of VtM aren’t just sparkly humans. They’re locked in a constant struggle with the Beast, the animalistic energy that compels them to just do what they want as apex predators. And the hungrier a vampire gets, the harder a time they have keeping the Beast under control.

In game terms, that means that whenever a player makes a roll, they replace dice in any pool they assemble with Hunger Dice equal to their current level of Hunger. Vampires can’t go below one Hunger without actually killing someone, so all but the most psychotic and Masquerade-flaunting Kindred are going to be at least a little hungry most of the time.

On their own, Hunger Dice don’t do much. But if you roll a success which happens to include a 10 on a Hunger die, or a failure which includes a 1, they kick in and trigger a “messy critical” or a “bestial failure,” respectively. A messy critical, like a critical roll in many dice-based roleplaying games, is still a success — but it’s more like the Beast pulled it off, rather than the character. Whatever they were trying to do happens, albeit in a gory, vicious way that can generate moral “stains,” cost the character resources, or just generally made a huge mess of things. A bestial failure, on the other hand, represents the Beast throwing a fit, forcing them to act out a vampire Compulsion — to hunt, harm, establish dominance, and so on.

What’s cool about the Hunger mechanic to me is how it makes itself known across nearly every aspect of the game. Since tests are the basic mechanic in Vampire: The Masquerade, players roll a lot of hunger dice. And that means there are plenty of opportunities for things to go horribly wrong, or horribly right. Hunger powers most vampiric abilities, too — but rather than a straight up cost, VtM asks players to roll whenever they try to disappear from sight or use supernatural strength, giving a chance but not a guarantee that it’ll burn up some of their precious stolen blood and drive their Hunger up.

If players don’t want to let the Beast out too often, they have to keep their Hunger down. But like emails, the Hunger never stops coming, and hitting inbox/Hunger zero brings its own challenges. Is it worth killing that club kid or unlucky commuter just to wipe your Hunger clean? By drawing the gameplay and thematic implications together, VtM’s Hunger mechanic gets players thinking about tough questions and keeps the narrative moving forward.