A statement from my latest post on Rebuilding Vampire about the Vampire: The Masquerade character sheet turned into an all-day Twitter discussion about character sheets in RPGs in general. It was a good series of chats, actually, but it highlighted very quickly that I was talking to two different groups of people and that what I wanted to convey about why I said what I said about the VtM sheet was not clear at all for those who lacked a certain context. This post is me trying to explain my views on character sheets and what I see is their role in an RPG. I would love it if from there we can launch a greater conversation about RPG character sheet design in general.
In 2008 I listened to episode 54 of the Master Plan podcast, in which Ryan Macklin interviewed Daniel Solis. The name of that episode, and the idea that was hashed out over the half-hour interview, was that “A Cover Is A Promise.” Briefly (and really, you should listen to the episode to get the better explanation), Daniel poses the idea that when looking at the cover of an RPG, it gives the prospective customer a solid idea of either what you will do in the game or an emotion/theme that the game will create; the cover makes a promise of what’s to be found inside and in play. That phrase has stuck with me since then, and I have brought it up in various conversations ever since because it speaks to me, and solidifies a feeling I have had about roleplaying games that I simply had no way to voice. Following that line of thought, when I think of character sheets, this is the statement that comes to mind:
A character sheet is a map.
Over a year ago I wrote about two traits I wanted to focus on in my vampire game, traits I called Joy and Sorrow. These were to be brief phrases that described something that brought Joy to the vampire or cause her Sorrow; either way, they were emotional triggers that kept the vampire connected to her Humanity in the face of the imminent loss of it to the Beast.
Through all the various thought processes, version of the game I’ve assembled in my mind, playtest drafts, moments of frustration, through them all Joy and Sorrow remain at the core of my design. It’s simple why, really: to me, they are the fuel for conflict in my interpretation of the vampire myth via a roleplaying game.
Since V20 was announced, my mind has been churning old thoughts around on the back burner (I am in the middle of classes, after all), stirring them over low heat. Every so often a bubble escapes and a half-formed thought comes to the forefront, teasing me with things I won’t have a chance to pay closer attention to at least for another month. This past week, it was Joy and Sorrow. Again.
Yes, I know that I wrote a goodbye post to this series earlier this year, but what can I say, events in the last few weeks have conspired to bring this back from the dead (pun firmly intended). I’ll talk about the biggest one now.
White Wolf has surprised the gaming world by announcing a very special project to be published later this year, the Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition, to be released at the Grand Masquerade in September.
This quote from the Basic Design Directives for V20 by Justin Achilli sums it all up beautifully:
Vampire is our crazy ex-girlfriend and we’re scrawling her a handwritten note confessing a desperate, to-hell-with-everyone-else kind of love, and she’s agreed to give it one more go with us.
It’s been months since my last entry in this series, since the last time I dedicated serious mental space to the topic of vampires and to the game that began to emerge from these ruminations. I am here to put the proverbial nail in the coffin, or more appropriate, the stake in the undead heart. Sunrise has come; this series is now over.
When I started what would eventually turn into the Rebuilding Vampire series, I was simply gushing enthusiastically about a game that still holds a special place in my heart, Vampire: The Masquerade. From there, I went on to deconstruct certain elements of the vampire myth that I felt VtM was underserving and found myself designing the beginning of a new game, one centered on the issues of the vampire’s story that I found most appealing, namely: the struggle with the beast within, the certainty of the fall into the abyss, and the struggle of how to best live during the inevitable fall. I can tell you that those are still items that are of essential interest to me and to my enjoyment of the vampire myth.
The problem, as it were, lies in what this developing game latched onto within me as I worked on it. In 2009 I lost my mother to cancer, and it affected me in ways which I refused to acknowledge, even as they drove me down into a deep dark pit and affected every other relationship in my life. Working on the vampire game, this game that I eventually came to call When The Fall, became a way to tap into that darkness within towards some productive goal. It worked, it focused the pain I felt and helped it move out of me, but at a great mental and spiritual cost at times. If use the word drained please don’t think it’s merely a clever pun.
I need to both make some money as well as make room in my bookshelves, so I’m putting up for sale my entire Vampire: The Dark Ages collection. These are all physical books, and most are in near-mint condition (exceptions noted below). I’m looking to get rid of them, so prices are low. If you’re in Miami/South Florida and want to save on shipping by picking them up, something can be arranged.
Prices below are per book, and I will be happy to bundle titles together, or sell the whole lot for the right price. Shipping is extra and on you, the buyer, so we can talk about that privately as well.
Got an offer or a question? Leave it in the comments below. Thanks.
Vampire: The Dark Ages RPG Collection
- V:tDA Core Rulebook (Hardcover, some spine and cover damage) – $4
- Storyteller’s Screen + Character Sheet pad (Parchment-like paper) – $4
- Book of Storyteller Secrets – $3
- Dark Ages Companion – $3
- Constantinople by Night – $3
- Transylvania by Night – $3
- Clanbook: Cappadoccian – $3
- Clanbook: Baali – $4
- Liege, Lord & Lackey – $2
- Three Pillars – $2
- Libellus Sanguinis 1: Masters of the State – $2
- Libellus Sanguinis 2: Keepers of the Word – $2
- Libellus Sanguinis 3: Wolves at the Door – $2
- Transylvania Chronicles I: Dark Tides Rising – $2
- Transylvania Chronicles II: Son of the Dragon – $2
- Cainite Heresy – $2
- Bitter Crusade – $2
- Clash of Wills – $1
This first playtest for the rough first draft of the vampire game was indeed played at Gen Con 2010. Let just state it up front, in case you want to move on to other things: it was a disaster; the kind of good disaster you want a playtest to be, but a disaster nonetheless. If that’s all you wanted to know, then you’re free to go do groceries or whatever else you had planned; if you want to read more, you are a masochist, but in that case, just go on.
As I prepare to leave for Gen Con, I whipped up a simple character sheet to use for the playtest of When The Fall…
[RAW]When the Fall… – Gen Con Playtest Sheet [/RAW]
It’s incredibly bare bones right now, containing only the stats I have outlined here in previous posts. The main statistic is the Humanity/Beast scale, front and center. To the left are the Blessings of Humanity, where a player writes his Joys and Sorrows; to the right are the Curses of the Beast, where the vampiric powers are recorded. At the bottom is Willpower, grounding everything in reality.
The spaces at the bottom are for recording Consequences taken during conflicts, and I may have other uses for them if I can organize my thoughts in time before the game (guess what I’ll be doing during my flight to Indianapolis).
I’m going with a dice mechanic of a total dice pool of 10, with players choosing how many dice they commit to any action up to that number, with minimum Humanity/Beast dice based on the trait they are using, whether a Joy/Sorrow or a Vampiric Power. Target number will start at 7 and be adjusted during gameplay as needed, with 2 successes needed for any Easy task.
I haven’t written yet about Feeding, but very quickly, I’ll be using that as a scene option that a player can call for. After framing the scene and roleplaying the action, dice are rolled: if successful, Willpower is entirely refreshed if the vampire kills the victim (which triggers a Humanity check), 2 points are refreshed if the victim is left alive (which triggers a Frenzy check as the Beast does not like to be denied). These checks are rolled with the character’s Humanity or Beast dice respectively, and they need to score more successes than they have current Willpower points to not succumb to the Beast.
I’m both excited and nervous to run this game on Saturday night. I’ll be sure to write about the experience after I return from the convention.
Ok, it’s time. Gen Con is in a week and a half, and I want to run my first playtest of this game there. I’ve dropped the ball a bit on blogging and development during the last couple of weeks, due to traveling and vacation time, among other things. It doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about the game, about the parts I had yet to build, about where to take this. I have, it’s just been all behind the scenes. But that doesn’t matter now. What matters is that in a week and a half, I need to have a working draft of this game to play at Gen Con so I can start putting the idea and the system through its paces.
I’ll be running the playtest on Saturday, August 7, from 9 PM to Midnight, almost assuredly at the Embassy Suites. The game information is already up on my Gen Con Schedule post, as is the list of the players that have confirmed their attendance.
I must warn: this will be work. Playtesting is fun, but it’s a different kind of fun than just roleplaying. We’ll be making characters, seeing how that moves, then play a few encounters, both pure roleplaying and conflicts, to see how those parts of the system behave. If something’s not working, we’ll make changes on the fly to see if we can fix it. I want and need feedback, and that will only come from putting the proto-game through the wringer. After it’s all done, we’ll chat for a bit and I’ll gather the playtester’s feedback, then we can all go and enjoy the last night of Gen Con.
Lastly, I now have a working title for the game (though the series will continue being called Rebuilding Vampire). Through all the development, one phrase has been the clearest idea of what the theme of this game is, and in my mind, it titled the game a while ago; I’ve just come to accept it. For the time being, the game is titled “When The Fall Is All There Is, It Matters.” Or more simply, “When The Fall…”
Ready or not, here we go.
Gameplaywright has published a book called THE BONES: Us And Our Dice, a collection of articles and essays celebrating those funny-shaped randomizers that every gamer just absolutely seems to love. To celebrate the publication, I suggested to Gameplaywright’s Jeff Tidball and Will Hindmarch that they hold a blog carnival on the topic of dice; after all, it’s a universal topic among gamers, whether wargamers or roleplayers (and even some card gamers as well), so gaming bloggers should certainly have their own stories to tell. They liked the idea and launched the carnival in early June and here I am, on the very last day of the month, and I have yet to add my own post. Tsk, tsk. Let’s fix that now, shall we?
The Gift of Dice
As pretty much any male gamer out there, I wanted a gamer girlfriend. I was totally into games; beyond school, it was about all I thought about, and when I thought about girls, I wanted one at my side with whom I could share this awesome hobby. Alas, awkward teen I was, getting a girlfriend was hard enough as it was, let alone a gamer one (especially in Puerto Rico, where the gaming scene was tiny at the time). I just didn’t know any gals who gamed, though a couple of friends from the local game shop had these mythical women at their side, so I knew it was possible.
Fast forward to college, where by divine intervention I now had a girlfriend. She wasn’t a gamer, but she’d lived in the US for a while and had heard of Dungeons & Dragons once or twice, so I had an in. Once I was sure she wasn’t going to run away the moment I whipped out my books, I revealed the full extent of my geekness and brought games into the equation. She found them interesting enough to give it a try, so during our year-and-a-half together we ended up playing two fairly lengthy campaigns, Star Wars (West End Games) and Cyberpunk 2020. I loved the fact that she gamed with me, and I thought she liked it well enough as well, so in between our two campaigns, I one day said to her, “I should get you your own set of dice.”
“Nah, there’s no need. I’ll just use yours.” I won’t lie, I felt deflated, both because my gift had been turned down, but also because my gift of dice had been turned down. Even though we went on to play another couple-months-long campaign after this exchange, I knew this whole gaming thing was soon to be done with. And it was; after the Cyberpunk 2020 game, she didn’t want to join any other game the group proposed. There was something about that denial of the dice that told me she was not interested in sharing that one part of who I was. Later on this would come up in conversation, and to her it had barely been worthy of remembering. Me? This was seventeen years ago and I still remember.
So what’s the big deal about her not accepting the gift of dice? It isn’t so much about not accepting the gift per se; I had the chance to give her many other gifts to express my affection. It’s the fact that dice represent the most tangible and accessible part of my love for this hobby, and in giving them, I was giving a part of myself. I can give a book, but the book, to a non-gamer, can be a threatening thing, especially the games I mentioned above, both of which are 200+ pages of esoteric rules. But dice? They’re safe, shinny, sparkly. You can treasure them as little keepsakes, roll them for the sheer fun of seeing what number comes up, enjoy their geometrical cuteness. They also hold the promise of the game that may be. In not accepting them, the message I got was, “This is of no further interest to me beyond my relationship with you.”
It is entirely possible (read: 100% possible) that I over-reacted, even if my external reaction was simple, “Ok.” But I was 18, so gimme a break.
Fast forward again about three years. I was living in Miami now and I had a new girlfriend, another non-gamer. She has seen my ample collection of game books and finds them a charming aspect of me. She’s looked through them here and there but simply does not have any interest in trying them out. Until she comes across Vampire: The Masquerade. That called her attention.
After a few conversations where I explained to her the concept of the game, she actually acceded to trying it out, so I put together a game with her and one other of our friends: just two players, all three of us good and trusting friends. It was a hit! She really dug the game, loved her character, and completely got into the shared experience of making a story. And I was as happy as a gamer can be.
After a few sessions I decided to try my hand at the gift of dice once more. The previous experience was still fresh in my mind, but I go on with the idea, for I am both a hopeless romantic and a masochist. This time, however, I did not ask if she wanted her own dice, I simply went to work (I was living the dream, working in a game store at the time), ordered a very special set of dice, and when they came in a few days later, took them home and presented them to her before our next game session.
I got her the special set of Vampire: The Masquerade dice made by White Wolf: ten 10-sided dice in the same green marble color as the core rulebook along with a green dice bag bearing the ankh icon. She loved them. And I was the happiest gamer ever. My girlfriend accepted my gift of dice, and in doing so, to me, she accepted my love of gaming as an integral part of who I was.
She went on to use them all throughout our long chronicle; when we gamed, and my gamer friends pulled out their dice, she would proudly whip her own set out. Even if she did not identify herself as a gamer, she was part of the tribe now. When we later played Changeling: The Dreaming, I also got her the set White Wolf sold for that game. Another gift of dice that was gladly and happily accepted.
It’s been a few years since those chronicles ended and we have not played any other roleplaying games since. That is entirely my own fault, and it’s one of the thing I want to remedy this year, to the point that I made it one of my own Gaming New Year Resolutions. She is now my wife, still not a gamer as I am, but she has her dice, her own set of dice which no one can use, no one can touch. I did not end up with a gamer girlfriend/wife, but I did end up with a wonderful woman who accepted my gift of dice, and thus accepted the gamer that I am.
In Vampire: The Masquerade, vampires can enter a state called “torpor,” an extremely deep slumber basically comparable with stasis. This word entered my household’s regular use years ago and is one we sometimes whip out in front of “normals” without noticing except for when we see the confused faces wondering, what language are these two speaking? That’s two very long sentences merely to get to my point that I feel like I’ve fallen into torpor regarding development of the vampire game.
It’s not that my interest has waned in any way, but that the forced breaks during classes have cooled my writing engine and now I’m finding it very hard to get it restarted. Obviously I’m trying – this post, which really doesn’t say much – is me turning the key in the ignition, letting the car sputter, hoping the car will finally turn on.
Ok, enough of the car analogy.
My point is, to have stepped away from this project for months (and the occasional short post I threw in there was merely a way for me to keep the topic current in both my mind and yours, but not really a full-fledged effort at actual on-the-fly game design) makes it really hard now that I have time to go back to it with the same level of enthusiasm as in the beginning. Not impossible, just hard.
I’m not saying anything that doesn’t apply to any writer, I know. I’m just working through my own awakening from torpor.
I continue to hold Gen Con as a deadline for a playable-with-me first draft (this being a draft that is playable only if I’m running it, that is, one full of mnemonics, short phrases completed in my head, references that I’ll understand), which leaves me about a month’s time to work through the parts I know are still missing and put the entire thing together into some semblance of order.
I’m also fighting an innate tendency in my own personality: the close-enough-you-can-see-the-finish-line drop in interest on a project. By nature, I’m far more efficient on the early stages of any project; I have energy, ideas, desire to get the thing going, motivation. I’m a starter, one who gets fires burning. But I have a problem in the long term, as I lose steam or get distracted by other new projects. It’s simply a reality, and unfortunately I have not had the fortune of partnering up with others who can complement my early-in-the-game fire with the endurance needed for the long haul. Given how writing this game has been such a solitary endeavor, it means it is up to me primarily to work through the lethargy and find the inner reserves needed to see this project to its end. Which I desperately want to do.
So, one month left, and perhaps about 25% more of the game to get designed enough for a first playtest draft. I can do it. I just have to shake off this torpor and get designing again. By Dracula’s teeth, I will finish my first full-fledged game.