Tue 17 Jan 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?
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.
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 Miéville’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?
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 Miéville’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.