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Solo RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

RPG actual play: Thousand Year Old Vampire

I was going to do a Twitter thread while playing through Thousand Year Old Vampire (TYOV), a solo RPG by Tim Hutchings in which you’re an awful, awful vampire, but couldn’t figure out how to provide a meaningful content warning that would 1) persist and 2) allow people to avoid the whole thread while 3) still making it comprehensible. So here we are!

Content warning: violence, allusions to self-harm, gore, torture. Intended for a mature audience.

Also, this game is stunningly gorgeous and I highly recommend it. I posted about its beauty here on Yore; you can buy a copy from Tim on itch.io.

In this post I’m going to try to preserve the rapid-fire delivery of a Twitter thread because it suits the Quick Game for TYOV (one of its two modes of play) and my own inclinations.

Character creation

Your vampire is a collection of Memories, Experiences, Resources, Skills, other Characters, and the trait which identifies you as a vampire, your Mark. My first Experience is a character summary:

  • I am Garnier, son of Roland and Isabeau, born in southern Brittany in 14th Century France; I became a monk to avoid poverty but found strength in my faith

It’s around 1340 at the start of this playthrough; the Black Plague is just starting its grim march through Europe.

I also came up with three Skills, three Resources, and Characters — and four more Experiences, each tied to those people/things. Here are my starting Characters:

  • Melisende, a beautiful young woman in the village of Réconfort near the abbey; she visits regularly to transport wine made by the monks (mortal)
  • Brother Eudes, a beautiful young monk who is secretly my lover; he loathes himself for straying from God (mortal)
  • Abbot Roul, iron-fisted ruler of our abbey; he believes in harsh punishment for all offenses, no matter how minor (mortal)
  • Qadir, an ancient, withered, stick-like vampire who haunts the abbey’s library, feeding on the monks; it illuminates manuscripts in blood (immortal)

Resources are a secret copy of the key to the abbey’s forbidden book room, a love letter from Brother Eudes, and my personal Bible I am illuminating for the abbey’s collection. Skills are Conceal My True Feelings, True Prayer, Skulking About. My other four Experiences are:

  • Brother Eudes, at great personal risk, slips me a love letter during Mass; I feel truly alive for the first time
  • I press the abbot’s key to the forbidden book room into a bar of wax and carve a copy; my visits there are frequent
  • Melisende, to whom I am drawn, asks to see my illuminated Bible; I feel more strongly about my faith in God than I do about her
  • I sneak into the abbey’s forbidden book room for the first time and encounter Qadir, its eyes coal-black; it mocks my prayers and delicately slits each of my wrists

And finally, my Mark — Garnier’s “vampire tell”: The wounds in my wrists never heal, and must always be bound or blotted with cloth; I cover them with my sleeves and change the dressings often.

This is a game about surprising yourself, and forgetting

As you move through the game’s prompts (with die rolls determining where you land), each will fuel a new bit of your story and require you to create an Experience. Some will prompt you to check off a Skill or Resource; the game ends when you must do that and cannot.

You’re not in complete control of your character. You make many of their decisions, but not all of them; it’s intended to make you uncomfortable, and it works.

When you gain enough Experiences, you’re forced to discard your Memories — flitting through the centuries, you cease to be who you were. Although, cruelly, you may retain legacies of those memories: people you used to know, skills you still possess despite having forgotten how you gained them, etc.

I’m not going to write out a whole journal here, nor give away Tim’s farm — rather, I’ll try to give you a sense for how the game plays and feels by sharing what came of the prompts I encountered on Garnier’s journey.

Prompt me, baby

The first prompt is always the same supposed to be rolled, but I picked prompt #1: you kill a mortal Character close to you, and gain the Bloodthirsty skill. (Updated because Tim mentioned on Twitter that the first prompt is the result of a die roll, like all the others.)

I kill Melisende the next time she comes to the abbey to collect the wine, drinking the blood from her wrists the way Qadir taught me; I feel nothing

Garnier

From there, die rolls lead you forward or back through the prompts — and each prompt is layered, so if you land on it again you can pick a new layer to explore.

My second was about being exposed:

I am found out to be a killer, and convince Eudes to run away with me, lying to him about everything; we pose as itinerant monks — I am now Roland

Garnier, now called Roland

I put that one under my Memory about my beloved Eudes. Unfortunately, he got the next prompt as well:

Unable to live with our many sins, my beloved Eudes threatens to reveal me; I kill him, and drink because I hunger

Roland (Garnier)

At this point I have 2/4 Skills checked and 0/3 Resources checked. These are still Garnier’s salad days.

Decades later, Garnier has forgotten all about the abbey’s forbidden book room (although not about Qadir) and the Plague has largely ended. He blends in for many years. Until:

I sneak into a monastery and drain every last monk; I leave the last one alive for days, draining him and watching, and then steal all their gold

Garnier

A couple observations

In solo games I tend to create the biggest piece of shit I can think of and then see what it’s like to live their life. I want to be uncomfortable, yet also delighted — in a slasher movie sort of way — at my character’s awfulness. TYOV is very much my jam.

TYOV is also an evil game. It fucks with you. It fucks with itself. It fucks with its own rules. It places you in discomfiting situations and makes you proceed.

For example: A century or more has passed and Garnier is now on his fourth name. He has fled to a foreign land, a place where he knows no one and doesn’t speak the language. I have to write an Experience for that . . . but if I fill up my first Memory, the one which appears first in this post, that will put me perilously close to forgetting who I am.

I don’t want to fill that slot.

Which, of course, is exactly the kind of gleefully wicked friction TYOV is designed to create.

Checking in with Garnier

A couple of centuries have passed. Garnier now lives in Greece. He has renounced God, discarding his 200-year-old personally illuminated Bible — which I chose to destroy over the letter from Brother Eudes.

One: holy shit, that’s making me feel things.

Two: how did Garnier preserve any faith for 200 years of being as evil as he is?

By the 17th Century, I no longer remember being Garnier at all. I strive to live an unremarkable mortal existence to avoid detection. In addition to my suppurating wrist wounds, I walk in an animal crouch and see Melisende — my first victim, who I no longer recall — in half the people I meet. I have been ground down by what feels like the inevitability of time, the curse of immortality weighing on me.

I’ve been happy precisely twice in 400 years: When Brother Eudes (who I later killed) confessed his love, and when I slipped into a 200-year torpor and felt nothing.

As fate and chance would have it, my last remaining skill is True Prayer. I’ve met my progenitor, the impossibly ancient vampire Qadir, and found in him now a kindred spirit. Little more than Qadir’s protection (which I’ve taken as a Resource) stands between me and the final death.

TYOV’s mechanics are deceptively simple. The natural probability of the roll you make every turn tends to drive you deeper into the book (though you do backtrack as well, just less often). The deeper you go, the more the prompts trend towards an ending — or an Ending, if you prefer.

I hit my final prompt and said aloud, “Holy shit, this is it.” And I knew instantly just what shitty, terrible form this ending would take for Theodorus — the name Garnier adopted in the 1600s and will now keep, eternally in the thrall of Qadir, the vampire who made him what he is.

My final Experience was this:

I am Qadir’s thrall, only his protection, his care, can stave off the final death; I live only to live, feeling nothing save the desire to continue being, forever

Theodorus

Fuuuuuuuuuuck that’s bleak.

Friends, Thousand Year Old Vampire is extraordinary. I’ve played a ton of solo RPGs, and this one does things I’ve never seen before. It lays out its goals and accomplishes all of them; it’s rewarding and moving and disturbing to play; and at the end of my first playthrough I feel wrung out.

This game rocks.

Categories
Old school Story games Tabletop RPGs

Dead Friend and Two OSR Dungeon Crawls

I’ve added a couple new books to my list of my favorite free & PWYW RPG products on DriveThruRPG (covering about 3% of the 7,500+ products available) that are both so good that I want to talk about them here.

The first is Dead Friend: A Game of Necromancy, by Lucian Kahn, which is a two-player RPG — one of my favorite types of game.[1] One of you plays a necromancer; the other plays the necromancer’s dead friend. It reminds me of Murderous Ghosts (which I love), and I can’t wait to try it.

In it, you place a ritual symbol in the center of the table, surround it with a ring of salt, move coins around, hum, make strange utterances — and try to pursue wildly opposed goals — like “bring your dead friend back to life” for the necromancer, and “kill your friend” for the dead. It’s a polished and fantastic-looking little game, too.

The other is John Battle’s Two OSR Dungeon Crawls, which provides what it says on the tin. Bland title aside, these are both fascinating dungeons. It would benefit from some editing and a nicer layout, but the content is delightful — so delightful that I dropped it right into my “I’d love to run these modules anytime” folder.

My favorite of the two is The Globe, which involves an enchanted snow globe, a tooth-stealing lich, a host of mummies, a truly terrifying variant of mummy rot, and some deeply creepy moments. It also includes something I’m always excited to see in any dungeon crawl: potentially campaign-shaking consequences based on how the PCs handle it.

[1] When I first started gaming, one GM and one player was the only way I played for a couple of years. In retrospect I don’t know why I didn’t try to link up the separate friends I gamed with, but the intimacy and tone of two-player gaming is so fantastic that it just never occurred to me.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Excisions: “lazy GM” and “it’s like herding cats”

I’ve excised these two phrases from my gaming lexicon: “lazy GM,” in any form (“lazy game mastering,” etc.), and “it’s like herding cats,” when used to refer to players.

I don’t care how anyone else games unless it negatively impacts others, including me, but I submit that these two phrases need to go the way of the dodo.

Fuck this noise

There’s no such this as a lazy GM.

GMing is as much art as craft as science as performance, and some approaches to it require work. But for fuck’s sake, no one is a “lazy GM” because they don’t enjoy, and/or don’t do, the parts that feel like work to them.

I’m not lazy because I don’t like spending hours doing game prep, and neither are you. Conversely, if doing hours of prep isn’t work for you, that’s awesome. Do what you love!

When GMing feels like work, I don’t enjoy it. When I take out the work, I love every minute of it. There’s no work I “should” be doing that I’m not doing, so “laziness” doesn’t apply.

Fuck that noise, too

I love the phrase “it’s like herding cats.” It’s fun to use; the visual is fantastic. But I loathe when it’s applied to players.

Translated, it sounds like this: “It’s hard to get my players to what I want.”

Well, duh. Maybe talk about what everyone wants, and do that instead? Or find a group that wants the same things you do?

Gaming is alchemy. It’s magic and science and hokum all in a big ball, and sometimes you turn lead into, well . . . other lead. But when you turn lead into gold, through play, it’s fucking magical.

In my experience, “herding” players toward that goal has a much lower success rate than putting down the fucking lasso, getting off the fucking horse, and joining the cats.

Ixnay

As concepts, these phrases are insulting and counterproductive. They send a bad signal to new gamers: that you have to do a bunch of work to be a GM, and that players need herding — neither of which is true.

Adios, “lazy GM” and “it’s like herding cats.” You won’t be missed.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Inclusivity, old days, fun taxes, and empathy in gaming

In the wake of the Pulse massacre in Orlando, two posts about gaming and inclusivity have stood out to me.

To both, I say right the fuck on.

The “good old days”

The first was Steve Kenson‘s The Bad Ol’ Good Ol’ Days. On what sorts of characters he wants to play, Steve says:

Do I want to play someone who is like me and either deal with the world as it was then or ask the GM for a fantasy variant where homophobia and misogyny (which spring from the same root) don’t exist? Or should I play an asexual character—or even a heterosexual one—in order to fit in and dodge the issue? They’re the same questions queer people have to ask themselves about their real lives all the time, and that can be wearisome when it comes to something that’s supposed to be just fun.

This gets at privilege, in a nutshell, and Steve’s conclusion is as painful to read as it is accurate:

If, by chance, you’ve read all the way to the end of this and find yourself thinking, “Wow, that sounds like it would suck all of the fun out of things. Do we have to deal with such heavy stuff in our games?” Well, then you have some small idea of how it feels for some of us all of the time. While it must be nice to have the option to just ignore it, but some of us don’t. Consider that as you create your next world.

I was nodding while reading that, because I used to say things like, “I just want to play.” Which sounded reasonable to me at the time, but makes me wince now, as I type this.

Changing how I approach gaming in order to be more welcoming to other folks isn’t hard. Nowhere near as hard as, say, being the object of ridicule, bigotry, hatred, and exclusion, like millions of LBGT folks — and other minorities, of all stripes — are every fucking day.

The fun tax

The second post that stopped me in my tracks was Curt Thompson’s “And on the topic of inclusion in gaming” over on G+.

We’re gamers. We accept FTL, strong AI, magic, vampires, dragons and superpowers as part and parcel of the gaming experience. As givens, even in ‘historic’ games, a lot of time. If we can accept those, we can damned well accept that prejudices can be overcome. Even erased.

Who gives a shit if “that’s how it was” if making it that way in a game sucks the fun out of it for others? Curt ties this back to privilege, and his point is similar to Steve’s:

But for me it always comes back to that concept: the fun tax. Should there be a extra burden for gamers like us? And at my table, the default answer to that is no.

A-fucking-men.

Empathy

No one’s perfect. Everyone fucks up, and that includes fucking up at being empathetic — at trying to see the world as others see it, and learning from that experience. I’ve fucked up in that way before, and I’m certain I’ll do it again; I’ve been hurt by friends who couldn’t empathize with me, and I’m sure that will happen again, too.

But I’m mystified by folks who aren’t willing to even try to be empathetic. Where’s the cost? Where’s the burden there, exactly? It can be challenging to empathize; it can be draining. But at the most basic level, it can sometimes be incredibly simple.

Empathy trumps hate. Empathy is part of what makes us human. It has a place — an important place — at every gaming table, and in every gaming book.

Categories
RPG community Tabletop RPGs

You can validate others’ experiences without invalidating your own

Tabletop Gaming has a White Male Terrorism Problem, by De Scriptorice, has been making the rounds in my circles on G+, and I’ve been trying to figure out what I wanted to say about it. Not because I’m of any importance, but because what that post describes is awful, and speaking up matters.

Yesterday, I read Why Should We Listen To Anecdotal Evidence of Harassment in Gaming? and Why I Don’t Play Magic Any More (both by Ferrett Steinmetz), and it clicked.

De Scriptorice’s experiences

Here’s an excerpt from De Scriptorice’s post:

I am thirteen years old and in a game store for the first time. I examine their selection of dice and take them to the counter to pay.

“How old are you?” asks the balding, middle-aged man behind the counter.

“Thirteen.”

“Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed!” he chuckles in glee. The Warhammer 40K gamers at the table behind him take up the refrain. “Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed! Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed!”

I run.

That’s one of the least-bad experiences she relates, which speaks volumes about the kind of shit she’s dealt with over the years.

My experiences

None of the experiences in those three posts jibe with my experiences as a white, male, cisgender[1] gamer.

I’ve gamed in groups with women, people of color, gay and bisexual folks, and folks with physical disabilities, and if there was harassment at any of those hundreds of gaming sessions, I didn’t spot it.

I love that anyone can sit down together and pretend to be other people for a few hours, no matter who they are in real life. This has shaped my perception of gaming as a positive force, and of gamers as a welcoming community.

But

But. But. The fact that I haven’t witnessed harassment doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, or that it’s not a real problem.

The world is much, much bigger than my worldview. Which is sometimes an uncomfortable thing to realize, but just as often a transformative, meaningful, mind-expanding thing to realize.

And at the same time, recognizing that there’s a harassment problem in gaming, and in related spaces like conventions and gaming stores (and related hobbies, like cosplay), doesn’t invalidate what I’ve experienced. Both truths are true.

It’s possible to both see gaming as a good thing, which it is, and as a hobby that attracts its share of assholes, bigots, sexists, and other problematic folks, which it also is.

Willingness to change

Seeking to invalidate someone else’s experiences of harassment in the gaming community is bullshit.

The same goes for fighting against inclusivity and diversity in games — that’s bullshit, too.

Change is good. Change can be hard! But it’s still good. When I see bigotry, I see people who don’t want to change even a little bit. Who don’t want to acknowledge that the world isn’t exactly as they’re currently picturing it. Whose personal identities appear to be so bound up in their current worldview that calcification is preferable to admitting they’re even a tiny bit wrong.

We — everyone, all of us — should be open to seeing the world in other ways. If someone says they’ve experienced harassment in the gaming community, accepting that as truth costs you nothing.

For those who aren’t open to that, well, Chuck Wendig says it best in this response to folks complaining about gay characters in Star Wars: Aftermath:

And if you’re upset because I put gay characters and a gay protagonist in the book, I got nothing for you. Sorry, you squawking saurian — meteor’s coming. And it’s a fabulously gay Nyan Cat meteor with a rainbow trailing behind it and your mode of thought will be extinct.

Harassment, bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, and hate speech have no place in the gaming community.

The more gamers there are rolling dice and making cool stuff and designing weird adventures and sharing their perspectives, the better off all of us are.

That’s what I want gaming to be.

[1] My gender identity matches the gender I was assigned at birth.

Categories
DCC RPG Old school Tabletop RPGs

DCC RPG wilderness encounter tables

I needed wilderness encounter tables for the DCC RPG hexcrawl I’m running, but there aren’t any in the book. Jeff Rients created some excellent tables for wandering monsters by dungeon level (which also appear in Crawl! #5), but after searching high and low I couldn’t find any wilderness encounter tables online. So I created some.

They’re broken down by terrain type (for “fantasy western Europe”) and include number appearing for each monster. You can download them as a free PDF: DCC RPG Wilderness Encounter Tables. They’re also available as a plain text file so that you can fiddle with them to your heart’s content.

(2018 update: My tables, along with a shortened version of the design notes, appear in The Gongfarmer’s Almanac – Volume 3, 2018, with excellent editing by Rob Brennan.)

There’s no scaling by PC level or party size in these tables, and they’re not “balanced” in any way. The world is the world, and what’s out there is what’s out there.

To use them, you’ll need a way of figuring out whether or not a random encounter takes place (I use the system from the B/X Expert Set). That’s all!

I love design notes in gaming books, and a surprising amount of design goes into making wandering monster tables (these took me about 12 hours to make!), so the rest of this post is about my goals, process, assumptions, and the theory behind my tables.

Design goals

I went in with a few goals in mind:

  • Quick and dirty — when in doubt, make the choice that sounds the most fun, and do a lot with one roll
  • Showcase the flavor of DCC
  • Give each terrain type its own feel, which should be discernible to players after just a few encounters
  • Use only the monsters in the DCC core book, and use whatever they say (including rarity)
  • Don’t have too few monsters, because lack of variety is dull
  • But don’t have too many, either, because that dilutes each terrain type
  • Reflect “fantasy western Europe,” and a borderlands/wilderlands kind of region
  • Match the terrain types I used in Hexmancer, my system for procedurally generating hexcrawl terrain and features
  • Play nice with B/X D&D’s encounter chances by terrain type, since that’s what I use

The overuse of “men” in the monster names, while matching the feel of Appendix N, bugs me, but I figured changing it would make these tables less useful to others, so I left all of the monster names as-is.

Baseline

My baseline was always “What does the DCC rulebook say?”

If a monster entry listed terrain types, number appearing, relative rarity, or other details, I used those. If it didn’t, I looked at B/X and/or Jeff’s wandering monster list, and then came up with something that felt right to me.

I excluded monsters that are listed as underground-only, as well as the weird ones that seem like they’d work best as placed encounters, not random ones (extradimensional analogues, for example). I also left out things that only live in hot places or jungles (which aren’t in fantasy western Europe, or in Hexmancer).

Massage, dismantle, repeat

My first step was to list every DCC monster under all of the terrain types where it could appear. That gave me a picture of what a world created with this monster manual might look like, as well as some unique monster for specific terrain types and a host of critters that appear only in a couple places — both great starting points for flavor.

It’s not a short list, but it is short on specific things — normal animals, for example. And it’s a quirky list, which I like! Sure, the world likely does have animals in it the PCs could meet . . . but I didn’t worry about that.

I started out with d8+d10 tables, because that roll produces one of my favorite distributions for encounter tables. But I quickly found that I wanted more granularity, which led me to percentile tables. Those also have the added advantage of making the odds immediately discernible, which I like.

A few hours in, I hit on the idea of creating a template table based on the concept of using “brackets” of monsters to convey things about the world.

Broken out, those brackets look like this (in the order they occur on the table):

  • 10% (1-10) say a lot about the world (and the style of game I like to run), while being quite rare. Results 1-10 are on every table except Water, a big-picture statement about what kind of world feels like DCC to me.
  • 25% (11-35) emphasize the importance of humans and humanoids. Humans, humanoids, and subhumans (which are kind of like a mix of both), are on every table.[1] Humans are big in sword and sorcery fiction, and humanoids are big in D&D.
    • Taken in aggregate, the first 35% (1-35) also serve another purpose: Most of them are things that won’t always just try to eat you. Intelligent monsters, and encounters that aren’t always fights, are both good things in my book.
  • 20% (36-55) round out the flavor of the terrain type. These are often unique to the terrain type, but not always, and they’re indicative of what kind of place it is.
  • 45% (56-100) define the terrain type. You have a 45% chance of meeting each terrain type’s signature monsters. More than anything else on the table, these convey what that terrain is all about.

Seeing those odds in graph form also helped me decide that this was a fun distribution model (column height equals percentage chance of that encounter):

Having a template really sped up the process, too, because it made it feel less daunting. Instead of staring at long lists and not being sure quite where to start, I could just look at each terrain type and go, “Okay, which three say ‘forest’ best? Cool, now which four also look like good forest options?”

I ripped apart my draft tables a couple of times, but once I built them using these brackets they stayed pretty stable. My last couple iterations mostly involved comparing the lists, looking for ways to sneak in monsters I regretted not including (so many!), and — most importantly — making sure that the flavor of each terrain type came through clearly.

In B/X, some types of terrain are more dangerous than others by virtue of how likely it is you’ll have an encounter there: 1 in 6 on clear terrain (plains) vs. 3 in 6 in the mountains, for example. The way my lists shook out, some terrain types are also more dangerous because of what’s on them. For example, you’re 40% likely to meet some sort of giant in the mountains, which seems like fun to me.

Surprises and rolling your own

Two things surprised me about this process: how much work it was, and how personal it turned out to be. If two GMs sat down with the DCC book and designed wilderness encounter tables, I guarantee they’d look different — and probably not much like mine!

They’d use different die rolls, different breakdowns of monsters, and different philosophies about what a DCC world looks like. One would follow the B/X model of rolling once for terrain and then again on a sub-table for that terrain; another would compress things into one roll, like I did, but use 2d6 instead of d100. And since they’d both have to choose a subset of the overall monster list, they’d play favorites (just like I did!).

Chances are, if you’ve read this far, you can think of all sorts of things you’d do differently in building a set of DCC RPG wilderness encounter tables. I included my template in the plain text version, in case you like that baseline.

If you make your own tables, I’d love to see them. Post them somewhere and share them with the DCC community — the more the merrier!

[1] Except Water. Just add “except Water” to pretty much everything. Water is weird because there just aren’t that many water monsters in the DCC core book.