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.