[Rebuilding Vampire] The First Playtest

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.

From Within.


  1. It was a pleasure to meet you and help you work through your design. As I said, I went down the Vampire-rewrite path myself once, so I can emphasize. You had no reason at all to be nervous! I didn’t do much except bust your dice mechanics and play deliberately badly just to see what effect losing Humanity would have.

    As Clyde put it, vampires come with a lot of baggage. Everyone has their own idea of what a vampire is “supposed” to be like…whether that’s Dracula, Barnabas, Lestat, Angel or Edward. If ‘The Thing That Eats You From Within’ isn’t really about vampires per se, then you may want to look for another metaphor.

    Just remember, any play test where you get lots of feedback is great. It’s when players say “That was fun” and walk off without further commentary is when you’re in trouble.


  2. I was sorry to miss it, but I figured, by the time I learned where it was, I’d be interrupting. I guess I thought wrong. Sorry about that, Daniel.

    I’m glad to help if I can.


  3. Even though I haven’t played this game this was interesting to read because I have been kicking around a lot of ideas in my head about gaming and game design. Being able to sum something up in a few sentences or maybe less (i.e. a thesis statement on the game) is a good idea and I could see how it could act as a valuable guide to design.


  4. @Chronic Geek
    There’s a lot of help out there on the ideas behind designing a game, things like the 3 Questions or the 19 Questions. At the core, you should be able to answer one basic question: What is your game about? Not what do the characters do, not where is it set, but what is it about. Answering that unlocks the true theme of your design.


  5. MY humble opinion is that maybe is not the system, is the players… The vampire folklore is being tarnished by mediocre people trying to set a rule to the nature described in the history in many perspectives. Whenever player realize this game is not a “Only the strong will survive” attitude or Hack and Slash attitude… the game will evolve into the true nature of itself. Players wanted to win so bad, they forget this is a HORROR game. I am available if my knowledge of playing this game (not rules knowledge, but the Horror within) is required.

    Regards and with much respect,



  6. @Robert aka. Marcos del Cantaro
    I think when it comes to Vampire, yes, there is an element of that. The game has evolved over the years, and frankly, I’m ok with the core game being able to provide support for a variety of stories dealing with vampires, be they tormented souls or blood-powered katana-o-matics.

    But that’s precisely why I set out to build a new game that tackled what intrigued ME about the vampire story. Along the way I realized I was actually dealing with a slightly different topic to which the vampire provided a good allegory, and that’s what I am now mulling over.

    I know a few of the guys at White Wolf, and I know they have very clear ideas of the true horror inherent in Vampire, and I know they are working to continue to bring that element to the forefront without dictating the one-true-way to play Vampire.

    In my case, I’m trying to build what will be the best game for what I’m looking to explore in the vampire myth. In all honesty, I am not interested in creating a game that will support anything but the particular exploration of the vampire I am going for, but that’s why this is a small experiment by this one guy rather than a big production from a big gaming company.

    Read back on the other [Rebuilding Vampire] posts and stick around for whatever comes next. I always appreciate the feedback.


  7. things to consider in my opinion:
    1) Vampires, mostly on folklore were human once, therefore survival situations they face will not target the beast within.
    2) Aggression to a friend, allies, family, progeny, will result in the same response a humanbeing responds, therefore the beast within will not be (usually) affected. *Note that after a resolution to this kind of conflict, a Setite like myself will use it to corrupt many, and his beast will NOT be affected, since its in his Nature.
    3) Nature plays a huge part on the involvement of the beast in a Vampire. *Maybe there is where the beast becomes a subject on your new taking of the Game, NATURE of the Character.

    I mostly am going blind in my opinion since I really don’t know your true intrigue on the Vampire stories. But if this helps, I am glad, since there is a de-evolution of the Game I love by players who think this is either a D&D version that “sucks”, or another excuse to kick someones ass because in real life they can’t… what ever it is… this game have gone from a success to a failure… I would like for you or someone who care to go back, sit down with real players and re-evaluate the curse… Untill then, good luck and any help you need I’ll be glad to help!


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