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.
For a number of reasons, this Gen Con was one in which my head was a in a thousand different places. Working at the Exhibit Hall was good in the sense that it drove everything else away, but after it closed every day it was back to unfocused, scattered mind, which did not help at all my plan to run a playtest of a game I have barely assembled in any coherent fashion. End result, when Saturday night rolled around I was one player short and this close to calling the whole thing off.
The only reason this game happened was because of Tim Jensen, bless his heart. He was at the place I’d chosen for the game before I was, with photocopies of the character sheet I threw together the day before leaving for Gen Con, and an eagerness that made me feel like an ass for thinking about canceling. The other player, Chris Sims, didn’t make it due to a miscommunication on my part about the time and place to meet up. It would be an hour later than my original call time before we’d start, but I had Tim and some dice, so what the heck.
I would like to interject here that I was nervous as hell. To the point that I actually wanted to not do this. For all the game design I’ve done (and it hasn’t been a lot, either), I’ve never tried to create an entire game wholecloth, so this process is alien to me, and I worry that I am simply not good at it and that I’m wasting other people’s time with my shenanigans.
We ended up playing a very short game, little more than a couple of scenes to explore how conflict and the dice mechanics moved in practice, not just in theory. Tim built a character named Thomas, with a Joy defined as Old Bruno (a vamp who helped the newly-created Thomas survive). I decided to attack that Joy for the conflicts, so off Thomas went to look for Old Bruno, who seemed to have been kidnapped.
Don’t worry, I’m not gonna go through the entire narrative.
I set up a couple of conflicts where Tim decided to use some vampiric powers, which means a minimum of Beast dice in his pool, but I went with allowing the player to assign as many dice to a conflict as he wanted. It took two conflicts to realize this was going nowhere; by going in with 7 or 8 dice, most of them Humanity dice, it was highly unlikely that Tim would roll more Beast dice successes than Humanity dice successes, the pre-requisite I had in mind for triggering a Humanity check. There was no threat, really, just a chance of loss of ground to the Beast.
Eventually Tim lost a conflict and took damage to his Willpower (damage defined as difference between # of successes rolled under minimum # of successes needed to win the conflict). He decided to take the damage to Willpower instead of taking a Consequence, mainly because there was no downside to having a reduced Willpower. We decided on the spot that lost Willpower points would also reduce his maximum dice pool for conflicts, but he accepted the 3 points in damage any way. Loss of Willpower is an immediate trigger for a Humanity check, so we moved on to that.
And then I froze. I went blank. For 10 minutes. I could not remember at all how I had defined a Humanity loss check played out. What’s worse, I could not come up with an on-the-spot option. Total game design fail.
Tim decided to accept the Humanity loss and we moved it along (because, really, it had no effect on the game whatsoever), roleplaying through the end of the scene and closing it up.
It was painful to me. Mainly because I felt I had cheated Tim out of time he could’ve spent playing Dresden Files with another group. Tim was far more gracious than I deserved, I have to say, as he said he actually enjoyed the exercise.
We stayed there chatting about the game. I realized my entire dice mechanic, at least as I saw it there, sucks. There was no threat of the Beast taking over, at any point, and this game is supposed to be about the Beast breathing down your neck. Every time you roll the dice in a conflict, there should be at least a minimal threat that things will go wrong and the Beast will come roaring out to claim one more piece of Humanity for itself. Great flavor, but it never happened at the table.
Clyde Roher happened by and sat down with us to chat about the game and game design, and in explaining things to Clyde, who was not at all familiar with what I’m working on, I had to distill my ideas down from wordy blog posts to sentences conveying meaning, which was very helpful to me in reminding myself what it is I am actually trying to do, and for Clyde to actually help me out in figuring what it was about the game that truly I wanted to shine, and thus should really focus on.
As I told Clyde, the focus of my game is the Humanity/Beast scale; it’s in that sliding-scale stat that the game resides, and the items on the sides (the Blessings of Humanity and the Curses of the Beast) are all simply ways for me to attack that central stat, with Willpower acting as a shield. As I replied to Clyde when he asked what was my game about, this is a game about exploring what does it mean to be Human when your Humanity is being eaten away from within.
Those are sentences I need to print out on a banner and have it pasted on the wall opposite wherever I sit to write/work on this game.
I also voiced out loud that this game is really not about vampires per se, but about cancer devouring you inside and you trying to make the most out of life before it wins. The vampire is an application, an allegory, placed over the core topic.
Some ideas were tossed about on how to tackle the issues in the game mechanics, and I got a couple of reading suggestions, including one I picked up at the con from James Brown (thanks for selling me your copy). We’ll see where this goes from here.
Next week I start classes again, so expect work on this to slow down, but as always, it remains in the back of my mind, gnawing at my brain, growing, preparing to burst forth.