Native author brings cultural blood suckers to 'Vampire: The Masquerade' game

Vincent Schilling

"Descendants of the Three Sisters' is an RPG game that combines culture & modern Native American blood-sucking vampires

One of Lisa J. Ellwoods’ and Joshua Heath’s admitted favorite moments in the role-playing game book they co-authored, Descendants of the Three Sisters, is when Matunaagd, a 16-year-old Native vampire that has existed for 800 years, rips the skeleton out of a man’s body.

Such is the world of Ellwood’s and Heath’s project on culturally-appropriate Native American blood-sucking vampires in Descendants of the Three Sisters: Native American Clans of the Northeast.

In 2017, the role playing game enthusiast and book author Joshua Heath began looking for a way to bring culturally appropriate Native American vampires into his series of supplement books into the wildly popular role playing game Vampire: The Masquerade.

He reached out to a self-proclaimed Native nerd, Lisa J. Ellwood (an Indian Country Today correspondent) — who with her extensive knowledge of the gaming world and live role-playing games made famous by such platforms as Dungeons and Dragons — decided to accept the offer to work on Descendants of the Three Sisters: Native American Clans of the Northeast.

The role playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade, has been the go-to (Role Playing Game) RPG platform for decades in the world of Vampire role play. The original author of the gaming series and tabletop RPG was Mark Rein-Hagen. The game was released in 1991 by White Wolf Publishing. The game was lauded as #6 out of the top 50 RPGs in the world. A new updated version (5th Edition) and reprint was released August 2018.

Descendants of the Three Sisters: Native American Clans of the Northeast and the other supplemental book, Dark New England Regional Sourcebook, are designed to update information and plotlines from several early editions of Vampire: The Masquerade books, including Dark Colony.

Joshua Heath, Lisa J. Ellwood and an additional contributing author J.C. Stearns worked to create characters that embraced the truest origins of New England including the perpetuation and even re-writing of a bit of the history to be more inclusive of three additional and not before-revealed Native clans of Vampires.

In an interview with Joshua Heath and Lisa J. Ellwood — whose affiliation is interrelated as the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, the Nanticoke Indian Tribe (DE), and Nanticoke-Lenape Indian Tribal Nation (NJ.) They are known as the original people of the Delaware Bay Region — talked about the role playing game, and why Native Vampires that are culturally appropriate is so important in undoing the previous history of a fantasy world.

Vincent Schilling: So what exactly is your book project / gaming project that has been published all about?

Joshua Heath: In a word, vampires. The World of Darkness is a roleplaying game world created in 1991 by White Wolf Publishing. It’s a dark reflection of our world, close to the same, but all creatures of myth and legend exist in some form or another. Their first game was Vampire: The Masquerade. That game is now on its 5th Edition. In 2017 White Wolf Entertainment AB launched a way for community creators to make semi-official supplements for that game through their Storytellers Vault website. Our works, Dark New England and Descendants of the Three Sisters are supplements that cover New England’s vampire population, including three new Clans of vampires who are native to the region. In the core setting, all vampires are descended from the biblical Cain, spelled Caine. However, Lisa created a story that offers an alternative. Perhaps not all vampires come from the same source? These three clans are descended from Three Sisters who made a terrible decision, one that has ramifications up till the modern day.

A page from Descendants of the Three Sisters

Vincent Schilling: How do you play the game?

Joshua Heath: High Level Games is the company I’m COO of, based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. This is a storytelling game, a game of make-believe with dice to settle arguments. In this game, you take on the role of vampires. These vampires have to struggle with the balance between being human and predators. They also exist in a series of secret societies who war continually upon one another. Each player has one character they portray, and a storyteller who describes the world and plot they move within. A bit like a director and actors in a play.

With our book you’ll need one other to play the game. Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary. From there, you’ll need ten 10-sided dice, we recommend 10 for each person playing and the Storyteller. The rules in the core book are enough to really get started, but there are a lot of groups on social media that can help as well. There is a 8000+ person Vampire: The Masquerade Group on Facebook, and several forums for the game.

We also recommend checking out a few actual play games if you are totally unfamiliar with this type of RPG. An actual play is a recording of people playing these games, which is a great way to learn how to do what needs to be done. Twin Cities By Night, Caffeinated Conquests, and there is now a Vampire 5th Edition game on Geek and Sundry. These are good options that give a good feel for the game.

Vincent Schilling: How did it come about? Who are the people responsible?

Joshua Heath: Dark New England has been a book in the back of my mind for years. I’m from New Hampshire, and my family has been in the region since the late 1630s. There was an early supplement for the game called Dark Colony, which wasn’t very great. It started ‘history’ with colonization of New England by Europeans. That always struck me as ridiculous. Why wouldn’t there have been vampires here already? So, I started writing the book as a product for the Storytellers Vault and I wanted to present some history of the Native Nations that made New England home. A little over a year ago, I did an interview with Alina Pete, who wrote a game supplement called Ohunkakan for Monte Cook Games, and she reminded us at High Level Games to stop, collaborate, and listen when working with Native cultural elements.

Vincent Schilling: Stop, Collaborate and Listen? Would you say Vanilla Ice has words of wisdom the gaming world needs to heed in terms of working with Native cultural elements?

Joshua Heath: LOL, Vanilla Ice may not be the philosopher poet we need (or want), but Alina Pete did a great job of using that line to really spark an idea that is super positive and one we really took to heart and we hope others take to heart.

How did you connect with Lisa J. Ellwood?

Joshua Heath: I actually got lucky. Lisa was one of the first people I contacted for help with consulting on the project. There was something about Lisa’s tweets, her writing, and her interests that caught my interest. Our conversation didn’t start well, but I think I quickly showed her that I was serious, willing to listen, and straightforward with the downsides of the project and the work required.

Prior I’d only reached out to a few of the Native Nations in New England. We struggled to get anyone else to email us back though. Several consultants and creators just didn’t get back to us ever, which was hard.

Lisa J. Ellwood: Amazingly enough Josh reached out to me via @WomanistNerd account on Twitter (I have several; each target marketed for a specific purpose). He’d already tried contacting tribal cultural consultants across New England and hit a dead end with no replies. We chatted briefly via Twitter direct messaging and then began emailing.

Interestingly, I had never even heard of The World of Darkness and Vampire: The Masquerade before. The work on the main Dark New England book that Descendants of the Three Sisters links to was already halfway done as I understood it, plus there was already another writer (non-Native) who was already involved. The three principal Native characters were already in place, with few details besides names and tribal affiliation.

Descendants of the Three Sisters: Native American Clans of the Northeast and the other supplemental book, Dark New England Regional Sourcebook, are designed to update information and plotlines from several early editions of Vampire: The Masquerade books.

Vincent Schilling: So the great thing about this project is a sense of two worlds, Native tradition and history, and the world of desktop gaming. In my case an exciting #NativeNerd world.

Lisa J. Ellwood: From a Native perspective, and as a Lenape and Nanticoke woman, I was inspired by these words: “the peace loving Lenni-Lenape are called the ‘grandfathers’ or ‘ancient ones’ by many other tribes and are considered to be among the most ancient of the Northeastern Nations,spawning many of the tribes along the northeastern seaboard. We were known as warriors and diplomats, often keeping the peace and mediating disputes between our neighboring Native Nations and were admired by European colonists for our hospitality and mediation skills.”

Though the tribal community is not named in the story of “The Descendants of the Three Sister,” this is what forms the basis for the story.

As far as gaming, I’m a huge Native Nerd / Geek. I’ve been a gamer since the early 1980’s when I used to program in BASIC in high school. I’ve always loved role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and I’ve been immersed in metaverse Second Life and MOORPG The Lord of the Rings Online for a long time. I’d always harbored a dream to write and contribute visual art for games - but had let it go. Even in my 30s I was hearing that I was too old.

My first ever opportunity to write & design for games is also my first published work as a creative writer, and to have finally cracked both at the old age of 52 still amazes me.

Vincent Schilling: How has what you've done compared to what the gaming company has done previously?

Joshua Heath: White Wolf was progressive for their time, but they still made a lot of mistakes along the way. There have been a few Native Vampires before this, but none rooted in New England in the way Lisa wrote. Most of their Indigenous vampires have been South American, and even they are fleeting or connected to European or Middle Eastern vampires in one way or another in most cases. Lisa isn’t the first Native writer to write for the World of Darkness, but this book and her work is the first time that it has been done with this much respect for the traditions.

Vincent Schilling: How exciting is it to write about the world of vampires and Native people in the same genre / gaming project?

Joshua Heath: It’s great to tell stories people often try and ignore. Native people deserve to be represented in all media in a way that is respectful and real. That was awesome to help make happen. If it’s vampires, or any other media, it is good to show the diversity of our world in a true way, that addresses real issues, and gives people a chance to learn something while having fun.

Lisa J. Ellwood: For me it was, and still is, exciting to try and right some wrongs in the portrayal of Native peoples from previous versions of the game. I wanted to do something that could be a positive blueprint for what’s possible with Native / Indigenous peoples in the world of Vampire: The Masquerade (VtM) and also RPGs in general.

I love RPG games, they take me out of horrific stuff that I have existed in. This game can be played with others. We all go through stuff together and the great thing is - is that you can be immensely powerful in this game the way you may not be in your real life.

Vincent Schilling: Can you tell us something about one of the most ominous and or scary Native vampires?

Joshua Heath: My favorite is Eliza Hooke, an ancient vampire who has taken on the mantle of the Settler vampires to protect as many of her people as she can. She calls herself Prince (Vampire leader of the city) of Newport Rhode Island and Aquidneck Island. She is also capable of accessing the Abyss, a nightmare world of shadow, darkness, and horrors. She uses this power to protect a powerful site of evil energy, but something has escaped from that prison.

Vincent Schilling: Would she give me a chance since I am a Native guy, or would she just bite my neck and drink all my blood? And would she turn me or just discard my crumpled body on to the ground?

Joshua Heath: She actually enjoys mentoring other vampires, and the three clans only embrace (make people vampires) from Native populations. So, she’d probably really like you.

A page from Descendants of the Three Sisters: Native American Clans of the Northeast showing three new never before revealed clans.

Lisa J. Ellwood: I think the scariest of the three main vampires would actually be the male role-playing character (RPC;) named Matunaagd, he’s a 16-year-old badass who has been a vampire for 800 years and still hasn’t quite grown up yet. He means well in some respects, but he’s reckless and sometimes violent when he needs to make a necessary point. In one passage, he literally rips the skeleton out of a man’s body. He’s also very paternalistic and rationalizes it self-serving way.

My favorite female vampire is the oldest of the three in human years and I love her because she’s epitomizes what I think are the best attributes of a Native woman guiding a matriarchal indigenous society. She does this while trying to navigate the perils of the dominant settler society that she has no choice but to deal with, and do what she and her Council deem best for their people. She has Two Spirit folks in prominent roles and is the most progressive of the three.

Vincent Schilling: Any other ideas or possible things to come in the future?

Joshua Heath: High Level Games is continuing to create other RPGs, some for this game role playing universe and some for others. We’d love to work with Lisa again in the future.

Lisa J. Ellwood: We have talked about creating a second edition of “Descendants of the Three Sisters” with a new story or two and new art somewhere down the line. I have 2 novels that I am working on that I started and as coursework taught by one of the greatest mentors Indigenous, Black and people of color could ever have, New Times bestselling Author Daniel José Older.

The beauty of the Storyteller’s Vault system is that there’s still room for more Native content from other perspectives. And this is just one region of North America; our approach can be used for other Indigenous populations across the world.

Where can people get it?

Lisa J. Ellwood and Josh Heath will also be on the Native Trailblazers radio show this Friday. Hosted by Vincent Schilling and Delores Schilling. ​

Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter -@VinceSchilling


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