"Foolishness it were for any being free,
To covet fetters, though they golden bee."
-Edmund Spenser, the Amoretti, sonnet 37, lines 13-14
You must have heard this phrase by now, especially if you're a Requiem player: The term is most likely borrowed from cages wrought in the 1800s to house exotic birds. The idea was that the cage should be as beautiful and expensive as the thing it held, and supposedly animals (but really the humans) would be happier in visually appealing surroundings. This was not the case, as many of these exotic birds pined away and died in captivity. In the Worlds of Darkness, the term is mean to apply to vampires who live in the city, with all the luxuries their undead hearts can desire, surrounded by food and entertainments... but also trapped within the cities, hounded not only by their own kind but by mortal hunters, werewolves, and who knows what other horrors. Their bodies are pristine and beautiful, but dead and cold. They fool themselves into thinking that what they fear and hate is what they desire to be, and those things that keep their minds bogged down with petty matters of materialism and secularism are what ennobles them and sets them above their peers. All these things are the Gilded Cage that vampires exist in.
On the literal level, the Gilded Cage can be as small and tight as the vampire's own body, to their haven, to the city in which they find residence. Surely many vampires who do not practice Vicissitude must get frustrated with their bodies at some point, as even Disciplines like Celerity, Potence, Protean, and Serpentis can only offer brief escape. Those Embraced before the modern era may find difficulties with regards to body type, height, or complexion. (One of my own characters, Dontien a'Constino, a powerful Lasombra elder, stands only 5'8" - tall enough in the Dark Ages, but he doesn't exactly get respect on the street nowadays.) Let's not even get into the Nosferatu. A vampire's haven also frequently represents the Gilded Cage, on a more recognizable level. The haven is the place of refuge, but many vampires treat it as a place to store all their wordly valuables, to the extent that they become bound to their havens because they cannot bear to give up their wealth and comforts. The Tzimisce must have it the hardest, as the haven is also the source of their power - without their haven and the native soil it contains, they quickly become weak and ineffective.
The city is another beast entirely. There are only a handful of vampires who exist outside the city - most of them Gangrel, Caitiff, Nosferatu, or others who have been cast out either because of their own natures or through more political causes. The city has all the amenities the modern vampire might require - innumerable sources of blood, plentiful havens, many dark corners to hide in or stash bodies in, and the warm rush of humanity in a constant flow. But outside the city, there is next to nothing. Hunting is sparse, havens even more rare, but there are plenty of dangers that would seem to outweigh any potential benefit. Within the city, there are few dangers, at least few dangers that a vampire couldn't recognize. Even then, the source of those dangers are frequently other vampires, and if the only goal is to strike back against those who have wronged the vampire, they have to stay within the city to exact revenge. By nature or by force, a vampire's cage is the city.
But there are many more ways to read into the Gilded Cage. The Paths of Enlightenment, including Humanity, come to mind. Many of the Paths come complete with their own form of bars, as well as the gold leaf with which to coat them. "Thou shalt not" puts up the bars, but the selling point is that each Path will provide structure and meaning in a vampire's life, those things which prevent them from falling to the Beast. Much like the city and the dangers outside of it, it's not that life under a Path is so good, but that the alternative is much, much worse. The reasoning goes, then, that one must make one's stay as comfortable as possible.
The political scene of vampire society is the next way to read the Gilded Cage. Prestation, the act of exchanging boons and favors, ties vampires very tighty together along the lines of honor, mutual benefit, and of course pure greed. Even if one doesn't give a damn about playing politics, they still take prestation very seriously when called upon to do it, for being known as an oath-breaker or somebody who doesn't live up to their end of the deal means that they become a rogue element - and the vampires stuck in the cage looking out do not much care for rogue elements. Some vampires under a Blood Bond or otherwise foolishly in love may enjoy the cage, and would not leave even if there were no bars. Even for the most powerful of vampires, however, the bars are still out there whether they can see them or not. More frequently, I imagine, those bars must seem close and claustrophobic, as a powerful vampire cannot act without equally powerful repurcussions, so their own power, supposedly the instrument of freedom, is instead what keeps them locked in perpetual inaction.
The last way I can think of to read the Gilded Cage is the Blood itself. The Jyhad, the struggle between the generations, the manipulation of one's elders, the fear and paranoia that drive much of vampiric action. Merely by being Embraced, a vampire is now strung with multiple chains - to one's sire, to one's Clan, to the Antediluvian who founded that Clan, to the sheer unadulterated hunger. The Beast is often characterized as being caught up by a chain or leash - one often hears that when a vampire frenzies, they have "unleashed their Beast". But the thing about a leash is that there has to be somebody else holding the other end. A vampire is as much bound to their Beast and the things their Beast would have them do as the Beast is bound to them and the constraints the vampire puts around it. All too often a vampire forgets that the Beast can turn around and bite the hand that chokes it, and then the vampire is dragged along helplessly in its wake.
The quote I take from the Amoretti above raises an interesting paradox for the situation of vampires. It seems to ask the question of "Are any vampires free to begin with?" By merely becoming vampires, are they trapped in the Gilded Cage? Were they trapped even as mortals? Just how far back does this kind of spiritual and mental bondage go? It's very easy to spot the ways in which vampires are so much more free than mortals - they are not bound by as many physical needs, they are not bound by mortal niceties or morals. They are not even bound by death. But as I have tried to point out above, all these freedoms come with a heavy price, many, many other burdens to replace those that mortals suffer under. In some ways, the load is even heavier, as vampires have multiple mortal lifetimes to discover the exact limits of the Gilded Cage. Freedom from death turns into not being able to find the escape of death. What possible reason could there be for any being born free (or at least, think they are born free) to want to put themselves in a cage?
This is perhaps the most interesting question posed by the situation of the Gilded Cage is not "How do I escape it?" or even "Can it truly be escaped?" but rather "Why do vampires not even seek escape?" Many vampires of the Independent/Unaligned and Anarch/Carthian Movement variety keep asking the first two questions, but I think it is only the province of the player to get to the third question. There has to be a reason behind a character's motivations and conflicts and ambitions, even if that motivation is to simply be free from all of it. Such is the stuff the legends of Golconda, and prince-making, and even Gehenna are made of. By looking for all the ways in which your character is already bound inside a cage, even if it seems a little bit like a plot-device, can greatly enrich their presence in a story. Then finding the ways in which they do not want to leave the cage - the carrot to go with the stick, the gold to go with the bars, the comforts that go with the pain - and the ways in which they can make the cage work for them, that is what I find so incredibly interesting about the Gilded Cage.
1 years 44 days ago
Nice... one of the Interpretations I didn't see you mention was the Cage of Immortality. The Trap of Immortality, and how kindred tend to gild heir own cage, in an effort to distract themselves from the ennui of it all.
1 years 44 days ago
I thought I had mentioned a little something of that, but I would probably dual-file that under the double entendre of "the Masquerade" - a vampire's desire to fool themselves into thinking that they are not monsters, that their lives are not empty, that they still have real passions. To me, the Gilded Cage is less about being jaded than it is self-delusion and Stockholm syndrome-esque type stuff. To quote from another rather dark setting, "The loyal slave learns to love the lash". Perhaps the Cage of Immortality is that vampires try to fool themselves into thinking they they are not slaves to the grind of immortality to begin with, much less loyal ones.