January 2012

On Sunday I wrapped up the last chapter of a short, four session chronicle of Vampire: the Masquerade using the new 20th Anniversary “V20” edition. It feels so good to run a game and have it finish. That sounds silly, probably, but to see a narrative reach its conclusion and everyone close the book on it together is so incredibly satisfying. It’s a sense of accomplishment in which I’ve been basking non-stop ever since – and yet, here I am, still high on the sense of success from my V20 game (no one died and the players didn’t revolt so I’m putting a mark in the “win” column) and already I have only one thought: what’s next?

Record Scratch…

Wait, has it really been twenty years since Vampire hit the scene? I haven’t been playing Vampire for the full twenty years but I have been playing it for fifteen. Fifteen years ago I sat down with a few members of my fraternity and made my first VtM character after complaining that D&D was fun but I constantly found myself wishing my character could just pull a gun and start shooting.

One fae-obsessed Malkavian neonate later, I had what I wanted and I never looked back.

For the intervening decade and a half I’ve been in two gaming groups with overlapping memberships, known colloquially as “the vampire group” and “the D&D group”. The former has actually played a wide variety of systems and settings and games, not just Vampire: Trinity, Exalted, D&D 3.5, D&D 4E, Pathfinder, Palladium Fantasy, Aberrant, Mage, Changeling, Kindred of the East, non-Werewolf-but-still-WoD shapeshifters (Judge Fang! ♥), Vampire: the Dark Ages, Vampire: the Requiem, Vampire: the Dark Ages fast-forwarded to modern day and any other combination of World of Darkness systems and settings we could possibly put together. We’ve also swapped around player and GM roles, traded people and characters in and out with wild abandon (including roping in members of the D&D group from time to time) and scheduled games of Vampire to start at 11:00 AM on Sundays because the bells of the church across the street made for a deliciously ironic way to call the game to order.

The D&D group has always played D&D and always will and that is completely OK. Our D&D group is happy playing D&D and so am I. I’m not happy just playing D&D, though, and neither is anyone in the vampire group. That’s why we keep branching out into something different and swapping roles and trailing off mid-chronicle to try something new: we’re curious, restless, fickle people and the only cure for boredom is the new.

Opportunity Knocks

It just happens that a gaming blog to which I am completely addicted, Gnome Stew, is running a New Year, New Game contest. That’s all the excuse I need. As soon as I read the post about it I realized that I had the excuse I needed to run a game of Third Eye Games‘ excellent-looking Apocalypse Prevention, Inc. It’s all zany action and crazy apocalypse stuff and the creator of the game is very explicit when discussing it that he draws on White Wolf’s World of Darkness games as one of his influences. Whereas WoD sometimes tries really hard to make the player feel bad about their character, however, API seems to have “fun first” as its conceptual foundation. It’s meant to be a little funny. It’s meant to be a lot of fun. It’s meant to be over-the-top and silly and at the same time it’s meant to be scary and horrifying, too. It’s all the things I love about a lot of different games and shows and ideas: Buffy mashed up with X-Files and John Woo and China MiĆ©ville’s Kraken and some Good Omens and a dash of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. It reminds me of the crazy good times that group has had in our most memorable, most reminisced-about games: Pants Wilder’s “Seattle by Lava Lamp” and C’s Trinity game are two that leap to mind. Those were games in which we, as players, were rewarded for being creative. I want again to nourish and produce that sense of wondrous delight at toys of our own making and I think one of the keys will be to engage what hunger everyone in that group already knows we all feel: the need for new.

Running a game of API is going to require a lot of preparation, though. I envision this as third-rate globe-hopping adventure: being sent to Cleveland instead of Malibu to cap a demon with distinctly bargain-basement desires; at least, that’s how it starts. If I’m going to run a short game of API – I’m a big fan of limited series and short campaigns – then I’m going to need two or three really evocative locations in one or two cities that are not exactly vacation destinations and at least one setting for a big-finish set piece. The exotic, in the world of API, is as often found in a grimy, shadowed alley as it is anywhere else. I want to preserve that sense of the gritty and faded, of encroaching entropy, that the World of Darkness so effectively presents. I want the mood to be one of fighting to save a world that could, when all is said and done, use a good washing up.

The Big Problems

There are a lot of challenges to this idea, though, and I’m pretty sure they’re challenges faced by many gaming groups if not most:

  • We had a lot more time on our hands ten years ago than any of us does now. We’ve got careers, mortgages, trash to take out, cats to feed, work to do. A couple of us even have schoolwork, still, on top of all the petty water-carrying required to maintain a pretense of adulthood. Players may not have the time or desire to read and absorb an entirely new game system, especially not for a short game.
  • That Vampire game I just ran? It was about people madly obsessed with an apocalypse and all the stupid/crazy things they do to make it happen or try to avoid it and both the final combat boss and the off-screen figure manipulating the party to arrange events in a certain way were obsessed with that apocalypse. So, yeah, I know, why don’t I run a game about people trying to stop apocalypses? Er…
  • API might feel too much like White Wolf’s World of Darkness. There’s an argument to be made that there’s no reason not to run a WoD game instead, especially since they already have characters created and one of the players said just yesterday that he hopes we come back to them. It’s possible that the most practical option would be to come back to what we’ve got in a few months rather than yet again reinvent the wheel. The main advantages of API are (a) its unbelievably diverse array of possible characters and (b) the fun of trying a new system. WoD isn’t exactly lacking in options, however, and I have always had a strict “play whatever you want” policy when running games; as to new systems, see problem #1 above.
  • Someone else might want to run a game! I’ve heard murmurs from other players about other games they’re interested in trying, especially Mouse Guard and the E6 variant of D&D. The very little I’ve read or heard about them has me very intrigued as a player!
  • I’m in my second semester of grad school. Yikes! Am I crazy?

Medium-Sized Solutions

There are ways I can imagine to try to address those concerns. Some of them probably need a lot of work and no plan is ever perfect, but I’m going to give it a whirl:

  • One of the best solutions to the time issue is just that: short-term, limited-run games. Our most memorable campaigns have felt open-ended but had defined victory conditions that, when met, meant the story had come to a natural conclusion. The V20 game was an experiment in shortening that to just a few sessions instead of a year or two and it seemed to work reasonably well. The last session ran long and I did a terrible job of explaining why certain things had happened behind the scenes but it was fun and it worked and I never felt like anyone at the table hated me for wasting their time. Those are the real victory conditions for any game: a fun, worthwhile way to invest a few hours. Viewing that time as just that – an investment – is key. I worked to set hard start and end times for each session as a way to respect that all of us have stuff to do. Only with the final session did I fail to stay within my boundaries but that’s at least in part because I also failed in the first place to set them for that session.
  • One big difference between “the apocalypse” in API, in contrast to most games, is that there are many apocalypses. This is where some of it reminds me of MiĆ©ville’s Kraken, actually. The eponymous investigative organization in this game isn’t trying to stop an apocalypse, it’s constantly trying to uncover and defuse new ones. In many of our games there’s an overarching narrative of stopping the end of the world or otherwise overthrowing a specific power structure to establish our own. In the Vampire game, much of the plot was driven by trying to stamp out a specific aberration of the normal order – an obsessed Salubri antitribu who believed a specific spontaneous revenant was the key to preventing Gehenna – and an assumption that dealing with those factors would resolve the situation more or less permanently. Getting there required learning what it was the various NPCs wanted and finding out their relationships. In API, characters and players know from the get-go what the story is about. Also, having the day-to-day of the company be the prevention of the apocalypse opens up the idea that the exceptional series of events – and every good game tells a story that is somehow outside the bounds of the expected or the known – is about something else.
  • One big advantage of going with API is that the tremendous diversity of player options for characters is built in and I have access to the books such that I can lend them to players. No one will need to spend money on new books and no one will need to do more than the degree of reading up on the various character species than they would if they decided to try on a new flavor of White Wolf character for a White Wolf game. On the other hand, figuring that stuff out and getting to flip through new books is sometimes half the fun of a new character.
  • I’m going to stay mum about my new game idea (except for this post and a few conversations and – OK, no I’m not, but neither will I hammer away at it) and give others the chance to suggest something. If no one else does, I’ll bring up Apocalypse Prevention, Inc. If anyone else suggests something first then I will respect our group’s give-and-take dynamic and shelve this idea until the autumn.
  • Grad school is a huge time sink, it turns out. Not only that, but I’m also playing SWTOR a little here and there. YOWZA! It’s like I want to fail! That said, I successfully juggled the huge group project phase of my Autumn 2011 class with D&D and National Novel Writing Month, so surely I can manage doing nothing more than prep work and planning during the spring semester, right? If I do run this game this year then I will schedule it for the summer and that will relieve me of a lot of the pressure.

All those sound good, but there will undoubtedly be things that crop up that I can’t anticipate. It may be that no one else shows any interest whatsoever, in which case I’ll tuck this away and come back to it at a later time. Even if the group doesn’t bite, the “New Year, New Game” challenge is a great way to reinvigorate my interest in running games and to get groups like mine to come up with strategies for continuing to enjoy a favorite way for us to spend time together.

This post was written for the first annual New Year, New Game blog carnival hosted by Gnome Stew as part of the 2012 New Year, New Game challenge and, for it, I have blatantly ripped off elements of what I think of as the Gnome Stew style.

This post is about some of what made 2011 so goddamned terrible and the things that have happened just today, out of nowhere, to heal over some of that.

In a lot of ways, 2011 was a big bag of suck.

Several years ago I wrote two short stories about zombies. One is about a vampire who’s at a meeting of his HOA when zombies attack and the other is about a woman who feels out of place in a tiny religious school when the dead rise. There were problems with each story and I had only done the first draft of either of them but I liked the concepts and I would occasionally get email from someone who had read them and wanted to know if there would be a third. Instead, last year I sold them to someone who wanted to include them in an anthology with a really clever connecting thematic thread only to have the publication of that anthology fall apart.

There was also the small matter of getting mugged, an event which still resonates in my daily life. Stupid, I know. There are people who get mugged all the time. There are people who live in places where muggings are just a fact of life. There are people who get mugged and instead of simply having a few things taken from them they are hurt or killed. I know, I need to stop throwing a pity party or firing up the inner mosh pit every time I think or talk about it, but it’s still there, still weird and freaky to think about, still making me jump out of my skin every time I’m surprised or caught off-guard or walk into Target and see someone of the same approximate morphology as any of my muggers. As noted in that post, a particular regret was that they had taken my last Russian money – a 500 ruble bill from my trip to Russia with KJ nearly twenty years ago. KJ sent me a card later in the year, around our birthdays, that contained a coin for fifty rubles. It is my new Russian money and I cherish it.

There were plenty of things to bitch about regarding last year. I could whinge about 2011 for hours but instead I will simply say that it was the worst year I’ve had since my cousin Chris died, which was the worst year I’d had since my sister Mona died, which was the worst year I’ve ever had. 2011 was #3 out of all 37 if ranked in descending order from worst to best, hands down, and I’m someone who dropped out of college three times, survived the tech bubble and spent a few years as a problem drinker.

There were two major good things that happened: I lost 100 pounds and I got an A in my first class in grad school. There were other good things that happened – excellent gaming experiences at Dragon*Con and my trip to Columbia, SC, to visit high school friends spring to mind – but the highs were few and far between. I just have to be honest about that. One of the things that wore me down more and more as the year went on was how much work it seemed to take to get anything good out of life. Losing weight was a tremendous amount of effort and I’m having to maintain that regimen of exercise and diet to maintain the weight loss even now, months after hitting my target weight and figuring out how to stay there. My grad school class took many hours of study and work, including one night when I essentially missed one of my closest friends’ housewarming party because MS Word used curly single-quotes and Firefox preserved them when pasting commands into a MySQL interface and I couldn’t figure out why my queries wouldn’t run and they were due the next day. I won a major victory at work but it took months of campaigning and cajoling and lining up all the pieces in exactly the right pattern to convince someone powerful of the thing I needed them to acknowledge. Every victory was exhausting last year and I had become convinced that the only joy in life is that which we make for ourselves; that tragedy is prone to walk in the door any fucking time it feels like it but that happiness was prey we must chase or abandon.

Today, though! Today has helped.

For one thing, I started work on the third of the zombie stories. It, combined with the other two, could make for a nifty little novella. The would-be editor of that anthology knows that I have withdrawn my stories to use for another project and I’m going to use them by combining the three into a work that I can release on Kindle. Why not, right? The only way to guarantee that I never sell a book to anyone else in my whole life is never to try.

Another great goodness is that I found a long-forgotten cache of ruble bills. Now I get to have the 50 ruble coin from KJ on my altar at home – the space where I put the things I really value – and carry a bill with me as well. Finding those bills was like winning the lottery. I teared up a little as soon as I realized what they were.

Last, when organizing some papers on my desk at home I randomly discovered the schedule from my gaming sessions at Dragon*Con. My major regret from Dragon*Con was that I hadn’t gotten the email addresses of any of the other players or of any of my DMs and I had wanted to thank the DMs for running great games. I went into Dragon*Con just terrified of gaming with strangers and had nothing but incredibly positive experiences. The schedule made it easy for me to track down the DMs on Facebook and lo, the best of them – the guy whose one-shot was so good that the next day I realized what I was planning to do during the next session even though I knew that session would never occur – has an old friend of mine from high school as one of our mutual friends. All of a sudden I had the chance to say thank you.

So, I did.

And now I’m grateful that it’s 2012; that there can be moments of unexpected good in life; that the construct of a calendrical year gives us the chance to compartmentalize the past and move on when we need it; that there is more Russian money in my house; that I can still make myself smile when a story idea occurs to me; and that I got to tell a DM he did a great job.