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Thousand Year Old Vampire Arises on Kickstarter

Tim Hutchings is putting out a game about playing a Thousand Year Old Vampire called, ironically enough, Thousand Year Old Vampire. EN World talked to Tim about his history of game design and Thousand Year Old Vampire itself.

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Sean Hillman (SH): Tim, before we get into Thousand Year Old Vampire, can you tell folks about how you got into gaming and game design? What were the biggest influences?
Tim Hutching (TH):
I'm one of those people who can say "I first played RPGs when I was seven or so and never stopped." Games, all sorts of games, are an important part of my life. It kills me that I don't get to play enough games, and especially that I don't get to play enough weird games. The important shift, though, happened in my 20s in NYC. I was doing art stuff there, showing in galleries and trying to solve the world’s problems by making efficacious objects. I started applying my art thinking to games, and this meshed nicely with my introduction to story gaming through NerdNYC. There I was introduced to games like the Shab-al-Hiri-Roach and The Mountain Witch and spent years playing Burning Wheel. These games made me want to be in the play world more than the art world. I left NYC and artmaking to come to Portland, Oregon. Here I easily slid into game making with the support of the now-defunct Game Garden design group. I'm mostly making freeform RPG/larps and simple little card games now.

SH: Talk to us about your Golden Cobra! Did winning have an affect on how you designed games moving forward?
TH:
The Golden Cobra Challenge is a themed game design get-together built around freeform gaming. If it's not exactly a larp or an RPG or a board game then it's maybe a freeform. It was founded by Evan Torner and Jason Morningstar with help from Emily Care Boss, Whitney "Strix" Beltrán, Kat Jones, and Steve Segedy. My first submission was a game about school shootings called Active Shooter, it was given an Honorable Mention. My second submission was a game about arguing crows called A Crow Funeral. That won a Best Use of Touch; players make a "handstack" in the middle of their group which controls who can talk at any given moment. I won another honorable mention for It's All Good, a game about the stories families tell about their ancestors. I submitted another game this year called Egg-Eating Rabbits which is about rabbits that eat eggs. I doubt that one will get any kind of award. The Golden Cobras are sort of an embodiment of the awesomeness of a good vibe. The whole thing is supportive and positive and made of high fives. It's not competitive, it's a challenge, which is awesome. The awards are announced at Metatopia and then the winning games are played at the con--how cool is that? "Pretty cool" is the answer.

SH: What were the difficulties, if any, in making a game like Dear Leader?
TH:
Dear Leader's big challenge was how to coat an incredibly serious subject in a fun candy shell. I wanted to make a game that would lure people in for the fun, but leave them with experiences that helped them better understand the real horrors of dictatorships. This experience can be crafted in a game like nowhere else, but it was hard to get it just right. There was also the difficulty of being a white American commenting on the difficulties of a people far away. To help offset this I sought out folks with a direct investment in the subject matter; their insider feedback helped me ensure the game was respectful and effective. Mighty powers took an interest in my game and put it in front of North Korean refugees who gave input on it. And then there were practical finishing issues, and those were all on me. I'd never worked on an actual boxed game before and everything took much longer than I expected. So much longer. Part of the delay came from new opportunities only made available after the Kickstarter was public, following up on these made the game better but kept pushing the schedule back. But also, I messed up. I kept fiddling with the game and spent a year making it 5% better when I should've just delivered it. I learned a big lesson and won't do that again.

SH: What was the moment where you said “I want to make a vampire RPG”? Is this a project that has been on your mind for a while or something fairly recent?
TH:
I never thought I'd make a vampire game. I'm not a vampire kind of guy. But the whole thing resolved itself in my mind so quickly that I never had a chance to say no. Vampires are uniquely suited to the themes I wanted to deal with: Memories lost to the centuries, burying oneself beneath layers of persona, and horrible, selfish decisions being made by a character that the player doesn't quite control. I had this stuff idly spinning in my mind when I read " “The Vampire” by Ben Passmore, a comic in Now 3 (a comic compilation). I was like, oh heck, this is exactly the feel I want; the subject is a vampire and not dreadful European iron-fearing fairies.

SH: The design cycle for TYOV seems pretty quick? What is the inspiration for such a quick turn around?
TH:
It's way quick. So quick. Maybe too quick, but I'm cool with that. When I was making art I did it in a way that was quick and fluid. I would work on a thing and look at it and change it and then maybe I was done. The objects I made might have flaws, but the flaws became a portrait of the making. Thousand Year Old Vampire recaptures that mode of artmaking: It's intuitive and dirty and incredibly personal. It might have some flaws but those aren't problems so much as thumbprints. That, and I've learned that a year of revisions can make something 5% better, but even better than that 5% is making three totally new projects in that same amount of time.

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SH: Thousand Year Old Vampire is a solo RPG. What about doing a solo RPG excites you? Were there specific games or influences that convinced you to choose a more asymmetrical path.
TH:
Brie Sheldon used the best term "lonely games" and I think that's absolutely perfect for Thousand Year Old Vampire. It's a game about being an alpha predator surrounded by those you feed on. It's a game about being alone that you play alone and that's perfect. I can point backwards at the tradition of solo wargames which fascinated me so much in the 80s and 90s. Some of the best games of that type become story generators, like Richard Berg's Blackbeard by Avalon Hill. Wargames needed solo rules because there weren't nearly as many gamers back then, and because so many wargames were designed as a puzzle you solve rather than a game you played. There's a draw for me toward solo games as I'm a pretty lonely guy, I think. It's also a difficult area for me to think about as most of my games are about channels of communication and breaking them, a lonely game is the opposite of that.

SH: The Diary and Memories play a big part in the game as do Experiences. These concepts feel like the core of the game. How do you hope the player will interact with the Diary and their memories on an emotional level, if indeed that is a goal?
TH:
Memories are the core of the game. They are built around the framework of Beliefs in Burning Wheel and, uh, Memories in Freemarket--they are concise summaries of a moment, a single sentence that distills the importance of an event. In Thousand Year Old Vampire you have five "slots" for Memories, and each Memory is made up of up to three Experiences. Every prompt you resolve generates a new Experience you have to add to one of your Memories. This forces the players to find continuity between moments in the vampire's life as they tie Experiences one to the other; it's a natural guide for story generation--"Oh, I have a prompt here about something I desire being stolen and it seems like a natural tie in with a Memory describing a Mortal lover who abandoned me. Yeah, they definitely stole that symbolic key to the Vatican Archives I received when I was a Cardinal. I wonder why they'd do that?" Over the course of the game you run out of space for Memories. New Memories force existing Memories out of your head; you can write a few down in a Diary but even that will fill up. What will you choose to forget? becomes a major decision in the game. You will forget your birth name, your homeland, your parents, your first love, your dog, everything... Diaries are a mechanical way to store additional Memories, but they can be lost or stolen. As a chronic sketchbook keeper and dabbling archivist, losing a Diary is awful.

SH: Do your own experiences with memory and mortality factor into the design of TYOV?
TH:
Yeah. I've watched people's minds sicken and die and it is heartbreaking. This game is a momento mori, of a sort, as I watch my own brains get soft and forgetful. I have a couple of marker experiences I can reach out and touch that remind me that this is dreadful and sad and to not forget that.

SH: Do you foresee this as something players will play by themselves and compare notes with their friends or perhaps even something a player might do with others watching? Even though it is a solo game, might there be opportunities for groups to play together as the vampire?
TH:
<Looks left, looks right, drops voice to a low whisper> If I didn't make multiplayer rules then people would just do it on their own because that's what gamers do. The jerks. I'm going to be at Metatopia testing multiplayer rules. The structure will be each player guiding their own vampire through the centuries. Players can answer prompts out loud for the table or silently, to themselves. There will be a shared pool of NPCs that all the Characters interact with. Actual direct PC to PC interaction will be minimal, though, it's definitely not an "adventuring party of vampires" type thing. My main playtester, Jessie Rainbow, and I would watch each other play the game through Google docs. We'd watch each other's character sheets change and grow and accumulate Memories then see the hard decisions get made. I never would've thought I'd get that wrought up watching a spreadsheet update.

SH: The relationships built through the game, with various characters and memories, how important will they be to the vampire’s journey?
TH:
The NPC Characters are very important, but the Mortal Characters are also ephemeral. You might only have a Mortal around for two or three prompts, certainly not more than five or six. You'll get bound up in the importance of these people and then they'll just be gone. Immortal NPCs are almost always going to be enemies, so they are present when needed but they aren't ever going to be pleasant. It's not uncommon to have your vampire re-encounter an Immortal NPC but not actually have any extant Memories of them. That's always a favorite moment of mine. The Prompts drag these NPCs into you're vampire's life in interesting ways, allowing them to boomerang in and out as needed. There the NPCs become complicated and develop personalities and relationships and then they go away, maybe forever. It's awesome and sad, and no one is acting out this NPC for you but you are just figuring out what they did and how it affected your vampire. For me it has been making a more intense interest in these NPCs because they float in an undefined abstraction.

SH: Where did the Prompts come from? How hard was it writing all those prompts! Where did the mechanic (the D10 and D6) and moving up and down the Prompt come from?
TH:
Writing the Prompts and ensuring their variety was hard. I've been rewriting and refining them and realizing that it's something I could do for years and never be satisfied. The Prompts are a balance of learning about the vampire and how they relate to a constantly changing world, of bringing back the vampire's past to haunt them, and of resolving the horrific things the vampire might do because they are an awful vampire who sees humans as prey. The Prompts have to be open-ended enough to apply to wherever and whenever a vampire is at a given moment. I've started vampire's in ancient Mesopotamia, Pictish Britain, 1300s France, and the prehistoric Indus River Valley and the Prompt's are flexible enough to make sense in all those instances. This isn't a generic game system, but the Prompts are very flexible. To navigate the Prompts you subtract a d6 from a d10 and move forward or backward along the Prompt list that many entries. Each entry has two or three Prompts, you encounter the first entry the first time you land on that Prompt, the second entry if you land on it again, and so on. This let's a page of Prompt entries become a mini-story arc; the second entry builds on the first. This also creates an interesting probability spread because you'll only seldom encounter a third tier Prompt entry. This means that third tier entries can be gigantic and outrageous and change the story or the world dramatically and you'll only encounter one or two in a game so it doesn't feel overblown. Answering Prompts is pretty easy. You are usually forced to gain or spend resources or skills in a Prompt description, so these give you good hooks to hang your narration on.

SH: You have mentioned baking spaces for queerness into some of the prompts. Could you talk a little bit about that and why you felt it was important to do so?
TH:
I'm a cishet white guy, but I work in a world full of LGBTQA+ folks. Some Prompts make a space that can used as a point of thinking about queerness for people like me, I think.

SH: Do you find yourself drawn more to the Quick or Strolling version of the game? Have you had any feedback on preferences from play testers?
TH:
I'm 100% a "Quick" player. I think that comes out of years of writing succinct Burning Wheel Beliefs. My main playtester is 100% in the other camp, though, and she's smart as heck so I'm not going to make doubtful sounds. Other playtesters seem mixed. I think the most exciting possibility for the "Strolling" version is that players might write in their books like a Diary. That was the original intention before I realized the elegance of streamlined play.

SH: How have your experiences with Kickstarter shaped the way you design games? Is it a tool you use every time or only on selected project?
TH:
I'm mostly making ridiculous little two or three page games I give away for free. There's no real way to package those, even if there was a demand, and that's fine because their best form is a free PDF. I do think that Kickstarter makes me realize that there is a possibility for a game to be realized if it's best form happens to be a book or a box or a carved piece of wood. It lets me think bigger and that's great. The game renaissance that Kickstarter has kicked off is incredible and I can't thank the company enough for it.

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SH: Do you have expectations for Thousand Year Old Vampire in terms of its success? More than just making its Kickstarter goal?
TH:
Ergh. Honestly, I think that Thousand Year Old Vampire will meet the minimum goal that lets me produce a POD hardback book. I don't have the social media presence, the fan base, the advertising savvy, or enough friends to have it be a success by most measures. I'll be happy if I survive this with my dignity intact.

SH: Do you have a favorite vampire from literature or a favorite that you have created while playing the game?
TH:
I really was affected by Ben Passmore's comic. I keep going back and rereading it. The vampire in the comic is a creature of senseless habit who can't tell mortals apart, and keeps running through the same cycles of need and accidental murder. It's fantastic. Fictional characters that most influenced the way I think about this game are the ancient characters in Adventure Time--Princess Bubblegum, The Ice King, Marceline, and in the last episode BMO. Each of them have deeply ****ed up ways of dealing with being ancient and they are rife with things that come back to haunt them. In the last episode of the series BMO get's Finn's name wrong and, oh man, that's just the most heartbreaking thing ever. Thousand Year Old Vampire does a great job of stringing together three or four Prompts into a story arc that goes places. One instance that I just can't shake had a vampire who had been turned when he was a Roman caesar. He was ultimately forced to flee westward with a legion which devolved over generations into banditry in the Russian steppes. Wherever he went a supernatural thundercloud cast a shadow over the region, letting him go about during the day. He negotiates a title by marrying a daughter of the Tsar who then betrays the vampire and tries to have him murdered. He and his new bride flee back into the steppes on the day of their wedding; there they find his wife Empress Augrina from centuries ago waiting, somehow now an immortal. They all three go to the wedding bed together only to get a Prompt that a century passes and all mortals die. I decide that they go to sleep and waked up a century later, the Tsar's daughter a desiccated corpse. The next Prompt calls for confusion and madness and betrayal, so on a train the vampire is betrayed by his immortal former wife harms him grievously. The next Prompt is "You awaken covered in dust. Generations have passed. Your sleeping place has been sealed off. How do you escape? Lose a Resource." But I had no Resource or Skills left to spend, so that was the end of the vampire's journey. He lies there still, alive and conscious in a coffin deep beneath the earth. And this might be the greatest testament I can give my own game: It makes me want to do that most awful of all things--tell you about my character.

SH: Tim, when does the Kickstarter go live?
TH:
The plan is to launch Oct 23 at 10am PST.
 
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