Sep 07

I WAS A GOBLIN: I Was A Gothling

FT8 comments • 1,230 views

The World Of Darkness series of RPGs, beginning with Vampire: The Masquerade, were nineties gaming’s great success story. They appealed to an older audience than D&D and its imitators; they brought new gamers, including a lot of women, into the hobby; they drew on and seemed relevant to wider popular culture. 

They also built into their systems a lot of modifications designed to make gaming more story- and character-oriented, correctly recognising that this was the one real point of difference the tabletop hobby now had in a world where videogames could handle the dice-rolling and levelling-up more efficiently and enjoyably. Characters in Vampire and its successors were created with personality traits and flaws to the fore, things that would make a real difference to how a game might progress – and there were game mechanics to allow decisive player interventions in the story flow that might override the throw of the dice.

I ought to have loved Vampire – it aligned with everything I wanted from a RPG and represented a major break from the wargaming tradition. But, though I played a handful of games, I never liked it, and its success marked the end of my involvement in structured, rule-led gaming. In one sense the reason was quite simple: I didn’t care about vampires. I’d never read Anne Rice, never read Dracula even, never watched many vampire films. I thought vampires were corny and unresonant, and the pseudo-literary tone designer Marc Rein Hagen* brought to his games – emphasis very much on dark nobility, suffering, vampirism as a curse incomprehensible to the common herd, etc – brought me out in hives.

There was something else, too. Vampire was – I think – the first successful RPG to be set in a recognisable version of the real, modern-day world. There had been historical, and near-future, RPGs, and games like Shadowrun which posited a real world transformed by magical events. But in Vampire the characters were vampires living in the shadows of present-day existence, which carried on as normal alongside them.

Modern-day RPGs make a wholly different set of demands on referees. In a magical or science-fictional environment the gravity of logic is lower – as a referee you can handwave players from action to action without thinking too much about the tedious details of their everyday existence. In a modern-day setting these details can wreck the credibility of the gameworld – where do players get their money from? What are the police doing about their actions? How about the press? What do they eat? (In Vampire this final question is rather central to gameplay, though quite easy to answer.) The need to think about these questions isn’t a bad thing, but it means you need referees (and players) with a good idea about how pretty everyday things – credit cards and banks, security systems, airlines, computers, criminals, other human beings – operate. And How Stuff Works isn’t always what the kind of people who play RPGs are expert in, especially when they’re gawky 19-year-olds.

In practise, playing a modern-day RPG was generally like wandering through a composite of half-remembered film sets – criminals out of Scorsese, skyscrapers out of Die Hard, security systems out of, erm, War Games most likely. It was fun, but not the immersive psychological experience the likes of Rein Hagen probably anticipated – in fact, it was generally less immersive than a good game of D&D, because as a player you were much more qualified to quibble with the referee’s version of reality.

That alone wouldn’t have made me dislike playing Vampire, though – RPGs are still fun even if they’re corny. But a modern-day game – or this one, at least – also demands a very different relationship between characters and gameworld, and here was where Vampire really turned me off. To be continued.**

* I took against Rein Hagen from the off, because instead of a hyphen between the two barrels of his surname, it always appeared with a solid black dot, like a bullet point. I will continue pettily ignoring this affectation, even though it’s somehow incredibly characteristic of the games he designed!

** Honest, it’s already written and everything.


  1. 1
    Andrew Farrell on 18 Sep 2007 #

    Good points all, but I do think this is a little off:

    And How Stuff Works isn’t always what the kind of people who play RPGs are expert in, especially when they’re gawky 19-year-olds.

    Considering that, as you say, it’s supposed to expand the audience of people who play RPGs.

  2. 2
    Tom on 18 Sep 2007 #

    It expanded it from the fat 19 year olds to the gawky ones.

  3. 3
    Pete on 18 Sep 2007 #

    No I see what Tom is getting at and tend to agree. It might not be that the “how stuff works” is or isn’t what the gamers are expert in, but if the game is supposed to be escapism, then the unfortunate appeal to this in the modern day game could wreck the enjoyment. I might be really good at my job, and therefore suggest that my vampire character get a similar job to pay for his day to day existence. But at that point I have the power over the referee about what would or wouldn’t happen.

    Since to be exciting the game requires conflict, then even tedious things like the operation of security systems becomes prey to the person who knows about that stuff.

    I remember refereeing a game of Ghostbusters where this problem came up and the players had to explain how they could traverse the North Circular from Edmonton to Neasden in ten minutes by car (they had refused to consider the option of an experimental rocket I had left for them). Whilst an entertaining quibble, one does not expect to hear “bear in mind the knock on effect of the Brent Park Tescos” as part of escapist drama*.

    *The response was quite good “considering that hell has erupted out of Neasden, I reckon most people would avoid the Saturday shop for a week”.

  4. 4
    Tom on 18 Sep 2007 #

    The example I was actually thinking of – which I didn’t retell cos I couldn’t remember the details – involved a lengthy and increasingly embittered argument about ninjas and burglar alarms. The guy playing the ninja eventually went to the kitchen for a sulk.

    (A cardinal rule of all RPGs should be: if someone’s interested enough in ninjas to want to role-play a ninja, they’re too interested in ninjas)

  5. 5
    Tom on 18 Sep 2007 #

    This essentially applies to Vampires too.

  6. 6
    aldo on 18 Sep 2007 #

    I can’t help completely agreeing with Tom as well. A couple of years ago, one of my Cthulhu group (before it completely fractured and people moved away) announced he had A GREAT IDEA for a sort of coming-of-age drama “a bit like Buffy”. Turned out to be Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Which is possibly even worse than Vampire: The Masquerade as it is full of cod-American Indian twattery and communing with the Earth Mother and such.

    After a while I realised that everybody else had read all the sourcebooks and understood all the subtleties of the different classes and groups and had written their initial characters up – despite us allegedly not being told in advance what game system we were playing; the extent of the character brief was “teenage, New York” – to match the classes and groups they expected to be in, kind of leaving my FAR MORE ACCURATE pudgy Korean kid mainly interested in internet pr0n and playing XBox kind of marginalised.

    When I realised the REAL WORLD ACCURACY brought by the game system meant he got put in a suit, in an apartment overlooking Central Park, while doing some completely esoteric BUT NEVER ACTUALLY DEFINED job in IT that he could do from home, and pick up or put down when he liked, I sort of lost interest.

  7. 7
    aldo on 18 Sep 2007 #

    I should say, that experience marked the end of my second dalliance with RPGs.

    I had run the game before that, a White Dwarf scenario for Cthulhu that I had beefed up and brought into the modern day. (“Draw The Blinds On Yesterday” from WD#63, fact fans) It was a simple yet strangely complex plot, involving a shut box mystery (a flight in from Greece, which using terrorist-related shutdowns I managed to put the right sense of oppression and paranoia) and then a move to rural Wiltshire where cultists on a farm are trying to channel (? can’t remember) into the National Grid and BLOW SHIT UP. Again, overemphasising only slightly the rurality of Wilts I managed to keep them away from broadband, decent strength of phone signals for GPRS etc… of course, if they’d thought about it then they could have driven somewhere. Anyway, after a FRANKLY HILARIOUS incident where they shot the local policeman because HE MUST BE IN ON IT, THEY ALWAYS ARE (as an immediate result of which the only other guy who was actually really any cop at playing took his character off back to the university she was a professor at, in protest that the incompetence of everybody else was almost making him play out of character – as a favour I had the inevitable destruction stop at Bristol so his character could be relatively safe in Cardiff and he could use her again) and featured them trying to do a million impossible things with a transit van on country roads before ‘staking out’ the Cultists. For nearly 6 hours gametime. Which might have been all right, had they not shot the cultist who snuck away from the main group SPECIFICALLY TO TELL THEM that if the group didn’t get stopped in the next three hours then WOE DISASTER ETC.

    I think, in the end, the real reason I gave up is because too many people who ‘play’ RPGs seem to think just being themselves is enough. No imagination. No roles.

  8. 8
    Ned R. on 21 Sep 2007 #

    What, you mean being a vampire with my name and qualities isn’t enough? *cries* Actually that would be a pretty sad vampire.

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