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Working Through Grief with Role-Playing Games

I mentioned previously that a long-term player in my Dungeons & Dragons campaign passed away unexpectedly. I also didn't expect a role-playing game would help me deal with my grief.

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A Very Old Vampire​

My drunken father tracked me down. He appealed to the Tsar repeatedly, demanding I speak with him, swearing he could prove I was his son. The Tsar gave me the opportunity to deal with the matter personally. He father was huddled in his cell, dirty and caked with mud from working at the pig farm. He showed me the amulet he still wore, the one matching mine. I thought there was only one amulet, but he told me it was my mother's. I didn't ask him how he got it. I just reached into the cell and pulled. I pulled and pulled and pulled on the amulet until something snapped, and then I pulled some more. Eventually, the amulet was in my hands, the evidence of my filthy history erased, and I told the Tsar he was just another crazy commoner angling for money. It was the truth.

Thousand Year Old Vampire (TYOV) is no stranger to EN World; Sean Hillman conducted a comprehensive interview with the author, Tim Hutchings, that is included in the print version of the book. TYOV won three Ennies this year: Best Production Values (Gold), Best Rules (Gold), and Product of the Year (Silver). If you’re not inclined to read the full interview, here’s a great summary from Shut Up & Sit Down:
Thousand Year Old Vampire is a procedurally operated solo game in which you follow the story of a vampire over the many centuries of their existence, making choices and answering Prompts to create a unique story. Follow the guiding Prompts and the vampire will surprise you as they do unexpected and sometimes unpleasant things. Making hard decisions and reconciling difficult narrative aspects is what this game is about.
TYOV is fundamentally a solo experience, although there is a group play option. As you can guess from the above quote from my game, TYOV can turn dark quick. Tim is sensitive to this and provides appropriate content warnings and an innovative way to check in on yourself. You don’t want to put yourself in the shoes of a human predator if you’re having a bad day.

And yet, there’s something to be said for how TYOV works that it helps bring closure to grief. And it does that by forcing your vampire (and the player) to choose what they remember and what they forget.

Remembering to Forget​

In my rage I track down Marius. I corner him in the forest, a smoking ruin of human and animal corpses. He doesn’t understand what he’s done; he expects gratitude, praise even. The shock on his face as I feed on him gives me pause. Perhaps it is the grief; perhaps it is my own self-loathing at what I created. It is an eternity too long, as Xaveria intervenes, stopping the feeding. Even now, even in the ruins of her home, she holds life sacred. Marius escapes, and I have managed to finally give birth to a child I never wanted. Xaveria and I do not fight; there is no point, and the weariness is like lead around our feet. Our war is over because there was nothing to win. I have destroyed our forest, and she helped create another monstrosity. Let Marius fight her, I am done chasing unicorns.

A vampire consists of Memories, Skills, Resources (Mobile and Stationary), Characters (Mortal and Immortal), and Marks.

Your vampire can have up to five Memories, each of which consists of up to three Experiences, for a total of 15 Experiences. These Experiences are journal entries. In a Quick Game, you write no more than a sentence summarizing each Experience. In a Journaling Game, you write as much as you like. For game masters like myself who enjoy creation and writing, the Journaling Game is too tempting to pass up, but be warned: this version of the game took me a week to complete.

Your vampire begins with an Immortal who turned him, a Mark that indicates he is a vampire, three Mortals of importance, three Skills (which can be vaguely descriptive like “bloodthirsty”), three Resources (e.g., “an ancient boar spear”), and five Memories with one Experience each (the first being when your character was turned into a vampire). You then subtract a D6 roll from a D10 roll and consult the book for numbered Prompts to determine what happens to your vampire.

Sometimes, things get better over time. Mostly, things get worse.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back​

I awaken to a changed world, but some things remain the same. The forest has regrown, to my joy. It is as if the war never happened. But more important, I know that Xaveria, if not dead, is gone from the forest. Marius lets me know he was busy while I was away. Vildspyd is speared through the ground like a signpost.

The simple brilliance of TYOV’s dice mechanic creates a feeling of dread that, as a player, I prepared for. I knew my vampire’s long life would eventually end; the only question was how he would go out.

Like Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity mechanic, the further the game progresses, the worse things get for your character. It’s possible to stay right where you are in this progression by rolling a 0, in which case there are two alternate Prompts for what happens (although they are usually related to the first Prompt). If a Resource is broken the first time, revisiting the same Prompt might mean a different resource is stolen on the second visit. The Prompts play with Characters, Resources, and Skills while encouraging you to make natural connections between them.

Central to TYOV are your character’s Memories. With just five Memories and fifteen Experiences, vampires are vulnerable not to physical harm but to forgetfulness, and as your vampire’s Memories accumulate you begin to lose them. There is limited relief in a Diary which can hold up to four Memories (and thus 12 Experiences). You can only have one Diary however and it becomes just another Resource. The Prompts will regularly steal, destroy, or otherwise damage diaries like any other Resource.

It is possible to play a vampire who works to keep his humanity, who is fundamentally decent, but the odds are against them. TYOV has no illusions about what your character is and it reinforces this with betrayals, deaths, and a leaden sense of immortality that ironically has an end.

You create a monster in this game, and then you kill it.

Putting a Stake in It​

Marius is dead. I journeyed to Velikiles to meet with him, but he was not there to greet me. It was Xaveria. She thought I would want to know. In that regard she wounded me more than her horn ever could. I will have my revenge.

TYOV encourages the kind of deep-dives and digressions that are familiar to any game master creating content for their campaign. Many players steep their vampires in history, using Wikipedia as inspiration to round out the characters they play. I went a different path.

My vampire, Silvandyre, was created over twenty years ago. He was a cardboard villain in a story inspired by Barbara Hambly’s Those Who Hunt the Night. In that novel, the vampires are near-mystical beings but approached with a logical, even scientific bent in an attempt to understand them. Silvandyre was also inspired by the events of my time playing Ivory Towers, a Multi-User Dungeon. But the fact remained that Silvandyre just wasn’t that interesting.

I set out to make him the centerpiece of a Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure I’m currently writing, and I knew he needed to be more than just a cipher. TYOV gave me the opportunity to place him in my campaign world. This made things considerably easier in some ways, because I wasn’t beholden to a historical timeline, but challenging in others as TYOV assumes the march of technological progress is relatively swift. Still, as a narrative game TYOV’s rules can bend tremendously without snapping, and players have postulated using it as the diary of an artificial intelligence or other supernatural creatures.

Silvandyre ended up accidentally spawning a vampire of his own (Marius), had an ongoing feud with a unicorn that ended in a truce (Xaveria), brutally tortured the progeny of a woman who betrayed him (Lamech), and ultimately tried to redeem himself by saving his forest home (Velikiles). His journal became an epic tale, and the end result far outstripped the original story I’d written about him.

Perhaps more important, Silvandyre’s story ended. TYOV doesn’t always end cleanly, but it does end once you get into the 70s Prompts. And in that regard, playing TYOV is a cleansing experience. Sure, your vampire will do awful things. But everything comes to an end, and as a narrator you get to end it on your terms.

In that regard, TYOV is quite therapeutic at a time when real life can thrust death upon us without warning. With TYOV, you see the end coming from a long way off. TYOV helps you make your peace with it, and that's what makes it such a great game.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca



Hatmatter

Adventurer
The group I DMed from 1988-1992 features two main people who passed away, one in 1992 from Hodgkin's Disease and one in 2009 from H1N1. I think of them both often. I dedicated the first book I published to my friend who died in 1992, Josh.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
Sorry for your loss. My best friend comrade in dice died a couple years ago. TTRPG was his favorite thing in the whole world and we went through great lengths to keep him in the game despite his illness. He has passed into legend at my table now as we tell stories of his heroic deeds. I cannot chuck a polyhedron without thinking of him and that is a good thing. Grief and fear still overwhelm me at times but I try to think of his bravery in the face of his illness.
 

Hatmatter

Adventurer
Sorry for your loss. My best friend comrade in dice died a couple years ago. TTRPG was his favorite thing in the whole world and we went through great lengths to keep him in the game despite his illness. He has passed into legend at my table now as we tell stories of his heroic deeds. I cannot chuck a polyhedron without thinking of him and that is a good thing. Grief and fear still overwhelm me at times but I try to think of his bravery in the face of his illness.
I can relate, Univox, I feel much the same way. May his memory be eternal!
 



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