This series will be called Tabletop Insight. I will be discussing:
- My experiences and how I’ve come to love and cherish my hobby more
- The things I learned from running as a GM, framed in the context of a recent campaign I’m running.
A year ago, two friends of mine sat downstairs in my living room while I was working on some less important university work.
They’d told me that they were running a two player game. I scoffed at this idea. “Two players? Wouldn’t that be awkward? I personally wouldn’t do that.” I wasn’t even entertaining the potential benefits of such a game. Many players that I’d played with before that time had constantly said that RPGs needed at least a certain amount of players to run. And I believed this. Completely
When I came downstairs much later, the two of them were incredibly excited. This was doubly surprising for me as it was rare to see both of them so invested like that. They were playing the Fantasy Flight Star Wars game. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the details but I know they found it a lot of fun.
I thought about it for a couple of days and realised I’d fallen for the age-old pitfall of judging a trend too quickly. So I got to talking to one of my close friends, discussed whether or not we should play a game with just the two of us, to which he agreed.
Choosing the game: going on a fond experience of maturing as a player
Our regular group had very vanilla tastes from our point of view. We’d played everything that could be considered an easy sell from a tabletop game shop merchant; Shadowrun 5th, D&D5th, FFG Star Wars. In England, these sorts of games I feel have a strong grip in the subculture; so obviously more obscure games do not feature as much, especially in the area we were from.
Our choice of game relates slightly to my ‘first love’ as far as TTRPGs go; Vampire: The Masquerade. At first, I remember at the time I wasn’t really enthusiastic about this game to start with. I had played Pathfinder, D&D3.5 etc before that. It looked old, vampires in modern times felt weird to me; these excuses boiled down to one thing, “It was different.” But the GM encouraged me, and I can say, that V:TM had resonated with me and encouraged me to play a character like a person, not a stereotype.
Before this as a player I had made a ‘macho man’ Russian drug dealer I played in Shadowrun with all the bad stereotypes in tow and a D&D Yuuki Terumi knock-off that had a convoluted backstory involving a merger of souls between an elven captain and a bandit lord. Y’know, the types of characters that GMs dread. I own up to my shame.
My character’s original concept was a misunderstood prophet, I think, a big Malkavian stereotype in the player community, but this time, the character didn’t have reams of backstory about his exploits, about silly things he did.
This was the story of Daniel. He was embraced by his female personal assistant as a somewhat middling office worker in the 1970s in America; he was poorly suited for the Masquerade, indistinct in his profile, not a larger than life brute or superhero or a characature of some bizzare stereotype. A herbivore man, in terms of his general demeanour.
Why was Dan an important turning point for me as a player?
At first, I revelled in the fact that I would be playing, what I thought at the time, was a crazy guy. I played his sin eater neurosis in a very hackneyed manner, jokingly reliving the memories of people he fed on in a very pantomime manner, using the Malkavian Madness Network to bullshit for advice on what to do. Y’know, typical nonsensical ‘that guy-isms’.
But as I played on, I felt myself coming to understand subconsciously that this man had low self-esteem and identity issues. Perhaps like someone else at the time. The procedural experience of playing this character, with the help of the GM and the group, was getting me invested, getting me into character, making me relate.
He was being manipulated by another player character Malkavian (I’ll refer to the player and character as Jason, because he will feature a lot) who essentially was a serial killer with a saviour complex. This was challenging for him and was a very dark experience, as Jason kept gently and charismatically convincing him that ‘he was doing the right thing’ when he was helping with his mass murdering schemes. Dan went along with it, because he trusted the brotherly and reassuring Jason. Dan lost humanity for it.
He was also being manipulated by the Ravnos player character in the party, who, upon Dan waking from torpor, summoned a vision of the sun in response to the vivid torpor dreams that Dan was describing. This had the predictable effect of causing near instantaneous frenzy for the combat characters, apart from Dan, who believed finally he had made some sort of connection with something bigger than he was, something grander in design, beyond his own mediocre self-worth. The Ravnos and Jason, if I’m remembering correctly, also believed him to be this prophet.
This became the driving force behind using the Madness Network. He wanted answers, he felt lost. Each time he used the network, he either ‘burned out’ from failing or got increasingly more confused due to the myriad of answers he was receiving, that were poorly worded and often out of context, cryptic and vague. Emotionally speaking, he felt lost and slowly but surely, he began to act more on these delusions, the voices in his head (supplied mostly by clever GM in-character responses to my characters thoughts). He would respond to them out loud; they were a surrogate for his terrible sense of self. The group began to realise that Dan was going crazy.
Lastly, Dan had issues with the female sex, especially when they held some sort of power over him. This wasn’t your typical antagonistic relationship of ‘she a wimmin, wimmin are weak.’ Quite the opposite; Dan was scared of women that he thought held power over him, especially if he thought they were toying with him. The GM, spotted this from the moment we were first introduced to court, and made the female childre of the Prince a major feature in the campaign, who seemed arrogant and rather confident about herself but showed a bizzare interest in Dan (for example, often making sly looks and winking at him).
When the Prince went missing, and the childre immediately stepped in her place, Dan became paranoid. His paranoia became worse as, after reading her aura with Auspex, realised that she had black veins intermingling, a sign that might indicate that she is a diabliarist (read: a vampire that eats other vampires, soul and all, and a massive taboo in vampiric society).
At this point, at the mere mention of her or her involvement, he would begin to panic. The idea of being eaten, like prey, scared the living daylights out of him. This trauma was the focal point for a lot of Dan’s panic attacks, especially when, while using Auspex in a lift full of unknown vampires, he found them to all have black-veined auras and would, in part, factor into the climax of the campaign.
The climax: What I remember
When I had to take a break due to travel issues and I returned after a long time, the conspiracy of the campaign had deepened. The GM is one of many I have played under that has given me a great experience, and he managed to end the campaign on a high note.
The Malkavian player had long since jumped ship to another campaign, but returned for that last game. In-game, Jason had gone off the radar, but the party had spotted him in a rather obscene breach of the Masquerade stealing something, basically a cursed artifact of sorts. This had the unfortunate side effects of transforming him.
This is where the details get hazy; my memory isn’t great if I don’t have a tool to write down my experiences (I would often go to those sessions with a book to write down details and clues important for investigations). I don’t remember if I wrote down the climax, but what I did remember was the feeling of playing that character and returning to that helplessness, that terror.
We return to investigate a location, a basement of a flat, or a house?; it seemed unrelated to the foreshadowing that was previously established.
Jason was there. But he’d become a warped mess of a cosmic horror, turned into a pulsating mess by a Tzimize artifact. But Jason remembered Dan, remembered how important he was despite being inhuman now. And Jason wanted to become one with Dan; probably consuming him in the process and incorporating him into his warped body.
We did manage to kill Jason, in some crazy climax on top of the building, where the combat characters stepped in and killed him. But I remember, as my character wasn’t combat focused and had no major means of defending himself, what a major point of a character arc it was.
I felt a sense of terror, both in and out of character, that this guy who I had followed for a time but knew subconsciously that he was far gone into something very wrong, very twisted, very evil. And how he wanted to take me, and reduce me to something that wasn’t me.
It was Dan’s nightmare. His identity was fast becoming lost as a Malkavian as it was, but that fear of losing what little of himself he had left, his only anchor to his world, in a bloated mass of flesh. Dan, I felt, turned a corner, he made a choice to run, to resist that sensation in those moments of being chased. In that climax, he finally moved forward as a character.
Three years of not scratching that itch
There’s so much to say about the mess of events and descriptions above. But that campaign set the groundwork for my actual proper involvement in the hobby. It taught me that roleplaying is not just about stupid power-trips and being the centre of attention, being the hero. Or that it isn’t about a hero turning up to another group of nobodies, to act out a player’s special snowflake fantasy.
It taught me that roleplaying is about experiencing a story and living out a character’s foibles and flaws, far more effectively, in some regards, to the way we would as movie goers or readers or television addicts.
It also taught me that The World Of Darkness was a great place to explore this dimension. I realise now that, soon after I played that game and onto the three years of playing with another group, I grew quickly tired of D&D and games like Shadowrun after my experience of playing V:TM because it didn’t scratch my itch. I wanted a system that had different themes from the norm and had psychological and tough emotional situations.
The rampant statistical obsession that the more popular systems that we played as a group had inhibited that part of me. I found my players talked more about what they did in terms of their class and statistics rather than what they did as people in this universe. I lost a lot of my enthusiasm that I’d gained through playing that campaign I described above by playing some of these systems.
Campaigns that I ran with these mainstream systems petered out pathetically, I lost interest so quickly struggling with the arcane obsession with balance and statistics, gear lists and subsystems, on top of this, the mainstream systems felt that much more anachronistic and unfocused to me, a kitchen sink of psychics, magic users, sorcerers, elves, steampunk races and Conan the Barbarians, a unsatisfying soup of random ideas and additions that serve only to add types of characters so that players can get swept up with the joy of adding numbers and features together.
My rampant and rather vitriolic bias aside, that’s not to say those systems aren’t good for other people. People like games with crunchy statistics, that bridge between wargame and roleplaying, I have criticised those systems before, and I have resolved the fact that I will never willingly play them again. But a tabletop gaming system whose major focus in gaming circles is about builds and being optimised statistically isn’t interesting to me. If I wanted that I’d play Dota 2, or some other online game involving precise statistical elements and calculations.
This is why, in a way, me and my close friend, came to the decision of playing a storytelling system game. We went for Vampire: The Requiem 2nd edition, I quite liked the elements written about in that book and my friend was keen to finally play a game where he could be a vampire, a creature of the night. Surprisingly, my aversion to crunchy stats will come back later when I write later blog posts and reflections; the Chronicles of Darkness system and Requiem by extension looks deceptively simple, but has an unusual amount of crunch hidden away. Those posts will discuss about me coming to terms with that.
But I digress, we came to playing this game by breaking the mould. My close friend played a two -player game on a whim without giving a sod about convention, proved that we could do it and thus we started this campaign, which is easily one of the best games I’ve run, as I have learned so much through so little, and I have been able to regularly play because – surprise surprise – organising meet-ups between two people are a lot easier than five.
The lesson learned from this reflection
What to take away from this? Some advice to people new to the hobby, especially those of r/lfg struggling to find games, and newer players like me who have been introduced through d20 systems.
- Don’t be afraid to play out of your comfort zone. Even several session of a totally new game and setting might change your mind. Sell this perspective to your fellow players, they will thank you for it afterwards.
- In a hobby that’s all about made-up rules and situations, you shouldn’t believe everything you hear and read, especially when it comes to two player games. You know if its wrong until you try.
- With that in mind, if you’re struggling to find players or don’t want the hassle of organising a big get-together, grab a really close friend, crack out some books and start arranging a campaign.
- If you’re experienced as a player and you want to run a game, run something you loved! When you run that game, it won’t feel like work, it will feel like fun.
- Stereotypes might be your only point of reference to start when making character as a newbie to the hobby, but the best experiences are gained through accepting that your character is a blank canvas with an outline when they begin a campaign and are an interesting art piece that develops as you play.
Session 0 and learning to run a storytelling system