I did not grow up playing tabletop roleplay games. If you regularly read this blog, you know that I was homeschooled from Kindergarten through High School and then attended a private Christian college. If you know the type of people choosing to homeschool their children in the 1980s, you probably have a good picture of what I was dealing with. My parents did not make a lot of sense, and now I can reflect on it and realize they were just reactionaries. We have Focus on the Family and some of its satellite publications coming into our home. My parents regularly listened to Rush Limbaugh. I remember we also tuned into G. Gordon Liddy’s radio show. It’s pretty ugly when you look back on it.
I wasn’t allowed to watch shows like He-Man because he called upon a power that wasn’t Jesus (this is the part where you laugh and/or eye roll), yet I watched GI Joe and Transformers regularly. I became a comic book nerd around the age of eight, which continues to this day. Through comics, I got little hints about the world of tabletop RPGs. There might be an advertisement for Dragonlance or Ravenloft that left me scratching my head. This wasn’t a video game or another comic. What exactly are these things? I remember seeing an ad for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness during the 1990s. I loved TMNT and always wondered what this thing was.
Around 2011, my wife-then-fiancee Ariana was still finishing her degree in Puerto Rico while I wrapped up my Master’s and was searching for a teaching job. That summer, she convinced me to pick up the reasonably new Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition and see if I might want to run a game of it. I had never run a game of it, but in 2009 I had briefly stayed with a college friend & her fiance. He played D & D for years; I think he ran 3rd edition or 3. I watched them play a game with a friend, which intrigued me. So I dove in the pool, ran a game very poorly, but had fun nonetheless (for the most part, bar one rules lawyer).
A couple years later, I could still feel the bug to want to play more and did some research. Stumbling across the Powered by the Apocalypse series of games was exactly what I needed. I don’t care about crunch and lots of math in my RPGs; I want good stories. So, Ariana & I explored the ttrpg world. Along the way, we went to Origins in Columbus three times and met some very lovely people. Some others, we would later find, were not so nice, but no need to dwell on that. The reason we live in the Netherlands now is due to a friend my wife made through our time in the gaming scene. I have very fond memories of playing great games. We eventually walked away because of a lot of toxicity, mainly from white people (damn, we just ruin everything, don’t we?).
Before we get to the meat of this review, and trust me, not every review in this ongoing series will begin with a prologue, I want to say that I trust people now by their actions, not their words. There were, and I suppose still are, many white men in the ttrpg industry paying a lot of lip service to progressive ideas. They will write long essays and talk about a desire to bring more women & BIPOC into the hobby, yet not put much effort into it. Even worse, they will protect the industry’s harmful people because it is connected to their bottom line. I can see depending on networking as part of continued income, but if that money comes at the cost of protecting admitted & accused rapists, well…I don’t think money is more important than standing up for the vulnerable.
But still, I like playing these games because I like imagining and making stories. So, I decided in 2023 to explore the world of solo tabletop RPGs. It is undoubtedly different from playing with a group of people, but that is to be expected. In many ways, I compare it to eating plant-based meat. Yes, it says it is a hamburger, but that is different from what you will eat. Of course, there will be similarities & it can be satisfying, but you have to understand going in that you are having an entirely different engagement with the game. Many of these are rather elaborate story-making machines, using some randomizers to propel the player forward. And damn, are they fun!
Thousand Year Old Vampire
Designed & Published by Tim Hutchings
Available to purchase here
I don’t really like vampires. I’ve never cared for movies, books, comics, or anything about this monster. I much prefer your Frankenstein’s monster or werewolves. But I wanted to give Thousand Year Old Vampire a fair shot because I’d heard such positive things about it. Going into the book, my excitement level was not too high. However, once I started playing the game, I absolutely loved my time with it. I was astounded at how much meat is on the bones, in that I’m still in my first game and am continuing to get so much out of it.
A vampire is a collection of Memories, Skills, Resources, Characters, and Marks. Memories are the core feature of the game, a key event in the vampire’s life. Beneath each Memory, players can have up to three related experiences. You begin the game with space for five Memories. When given the option, a diary or journal can be created as a Resource and store some Memories for you, but ultimately the player will be making choices about what moments from the vampire’s life are lost to time & themselves. Living for a thousand years with limited brain capacity means people & moments will be lost along the way.
Skills & Resources are reasonably straightforward. Skills get checked along the way, and Resources are gained & lost. Resources can be stationary locations or objects that are difficult to move. Narratively, when the vampire has to leave a place for their safety, these immovable Resources get left behind. At one point in my game, I had created a pretty sweet Resource and had to throw it away when an angry mob turned on me. You really feel those losses, knowing your character will be back to struggling where they end up. It doesn’t hurt as much as the Memories going away, though.
Characters are people that have some relationship with your Vampire. When you begin the game, the instructions have you create three Mortals and the one Immortal responsible for turning you. The first prompt then asks which Mortal you killed when your newly found vampiric hunger took over. So, from square one, the game makes its themes of loss very tangible. You must kill someone you’ve spent time creating a relationship with, and then your vampire must reckon with this.
Finally, Marks are the signs that you are a vampire. You can choose something obvious, like fangs or pointy ears, but there is no limit. Knowing that, within the context of the narrative, building a more prominent mark should affect your interactions with other people. I like the idea of starting subtle and making them more monstrous as prompts force you to create a new Mark.
The game also suggests two ways of playing: Quick Game or Journaling. I have been journaling my game which is why I am still working through it. Quick play is updating your character sheet as appropriate and letting the story happen in your mind. Journaling involves writing down what happens but also understanding this is more an immediate mental narrative. The record of Memories and Diaries, if you have them, are the only official things your character can recall from moment to moment.
For my game, I created Daniel, an Irish peasant farmer whose family works the land for a Lord. He is bitten by a Catholic monk who works in the nearby monastery while Daniel is out one night looking for his drunkard father. The first person Daniel feeds on and kills is his older brother Niall who was his role model. This sends Daniel into a mental collapse, and he hides in a dilapidated old house in the woods, feeding on animals he can catch. Sometime later, Daniel can’t hold back any longer and attacks a man wandering home through these woods only to realize it is his own father, once again drunk and walking through the night. He turns his father into a vampire, and then things get crazy.
Daniel wakes up a hundred years later in a cave. He realizes he has been the thrall of an extremely powerful & ancient Egyptian vampiress. Daniel slips away, covering himself in a tattered cloak to shield himself from the sun while she sleeps. A kindly woman named Gwyn thinks he’s a vagabond and offers him one of the rabbits she raises. That night, Daniel returns in the night and feasts on her livestock. Eventually, he uses his powers to put her in his thrall and have her invite friends over for dinner, where he feasts on the friends. They must flee, and he brings her with him to Dublin. Daniel cuts out Gywn’s tongue so she cannot tell anyone who he is if she escapes his control. In Dublin, they get involved with a Roman cult that secretly performs rites that transform Gwyn into a harpy. Now she can speak and tells the cult whom they have let in while trying to claw Daniel’s eyes out with her talons.
Later, Daniel ends up in London. He shacks up with a bookkeeper for the East India Company and exploits the man’s wealth. The bookkeeper defends Daniel and lets an angry mob kill him to protect his lover. Daniel responds by leaving a bloodbath in the house and allowing only one attacker to escape. Even later, Daniel uses his ability to enthrall by joining an independent church congregation (proto-Puritans) and acting as a lecturer. He meets Mary, a community member who is also secretly immortal. She is a witch and teaches Daniel the Dark Arts. At a certain point, Mary sees Daniel as becoming drunk on his power. Members of her coven slowly infiltrate the congregation and turn against Daniel, who has to slip aboard a ship headed to Normandy.
I really enjoyed the structure of the Prompts. They are centered on relationships & questions about conflict. When you’re forced to check a Skill or lose a Resource, the player stops and thinks about what they can afford to give up. Memories being marked out hurts even worse. At one point, Daniel operates under an assumed name. He chooses “Niall” to honor his older brother, whom he killed. By the time Daniel changes names again, his brother’s memory is gone. In my journal, I had Daniel remark that he wondered where he had thought up that name, that maybe this Niall had been someone important. He shrugs and moves on with his immediate worries. I loved the heartbreaking nature of that choice the game allowed me to make and caused the game to be all that more entertaining.
Thousand Year Old Vampire is a fantastic game for people who are into Gothic horror. If you are a history buff, then the game should be a cinch; I did have to do a lot of searching online to keep my game as historically accurate as I wanted. The benefit is you learn some things about world history. How horrific! If you can embrace the darkness & the tragedy that a vampire tale should have, if you are willing to let your character lose important things and explore how that affects them, you will love this game. This is not the game for people who love happy endings and their character succeeding. It’s through the loss that we learn in Thousand Year Old Vampire. Time moves very quickly, and it can be impossible to hold onto all those grains of sand as they slip by you.