As I’ve already commented on, I was a pretty hard core tabletop role-player when I hit high school. I’d played a multitude of systems and genres with my friends, and had even run games at local conventions. I was a gaming butterfly, fluttering from story to story without ever really getting invested in anything, and I suspect my closest gaming friends were the same way. There hadn’t really been a successful regularly recurring game since we were kids, because we wanted to sample everything.
One day, my friend Ben (now a Classics Professor) handed me a game book that didn’t look anything like what had come before. Instead of a lurid action illustration on the cover, the whole thing was patterned with green marble, broken up only by a photograph of a single red rose.
That Book Changed My Life
From the photo-realistic Timothy Bradstreet illustrations through to the (at the time) extremely loose rules system, everything in the first edition of Vampire: The Masquerade was eye-opening to me. The rules were similar to Shadowrun, which had been my go-to game for several years (since my younger brother bought the first edition for me as a birthday present), but where that game offered a very granular breakdown of different types of equipment, Vampire said essentially, “a gun is a gun when it comes to this story.” Having stuff that other games had focused on be so abstract was refreshing, but it was the subject matter that really got me: you ARE a vampire, and it kinda sucks.
As presented in the game, vampirism is a curse. Vampires are guilt-wracked shells of people who are engaged in a constant struggle to maintain what was left of their humanity. There was a secret society of vampires, dedicated -it seemed- only to screwing each other over (and keeping their existence secret). Only by forming a bond of friendship with a “coterie” of like-minded individuals could you hope to navigate the Machiavellian landscape of vampire society. Man, when I was a teenager, I dug every single thing about that paragraph.
My friends and I began playing the game regularly, and gradually our interest in other games waned. Soon, we were playing every Friday night, first in my parents’ ramshackle garage and later in dingy old basement of their house. The demographics of the group changed, too: girls wanted to play this game, which helped the more socially awkward of us forge our first platonic friendships across gender lines.
We played through high school, building massive story arcs and creating a canon that is somehow still more vivid than a lot of the long-lasting role-playing campaigns I’ve engaged in since then. When the first generation of players graduated high school and left for college, those of us remaining recruited younger siblings and younger friends to continue the shared universe. We didn’t want it to end.
If the above passages seem deeply steeped in nostalgia, it’s because they are. These were the halcyon days of gaming for me and they informed not just how I played games, but who I played games with. My interest in history largely stems from the backstories written in the books published for these lines, and I eventually became high school history teacher. That’s maybe not as strange as our one player who became an academic researcher of Coptic death rites.
The Other Shoe Drops
It’s been 26 years since Ben handed me that book, and more than 20 years since our long-running Vampire game drew to a close as I myself left for college. Since that time, fortunes were fickle for the game publisher, with the company being sold to the company that made EVE online who did very little with the intellectual property they acquired in that deal. Relatively recently, the company (in name alone, since none of the principle writers or game designers remain) was sold again to computer game developer Paradox Interactive (who incidentally, made a game that I was more than a little addicted to).
This time, the new owners plan on launching a new version of Vampire and let’s just say that I found their pre-release document a little “rapey.”
You Can Never Go Home, Can You?
I hate to see something that I love -something that held such an important place in my teen years- turned into some sort of “edgy” alt-right monster. But I took solace in the fact that I had all the old books and the Swedes who own the IP currently are unlikely to break into my house to take a pen to those older editions. At least if my kids ever showed interest in the confluence of 1980s goth aesthetics and role-playing games (highly unlikely), I could share those with them. But the existence of a 5th edition that seems to have been created to shit on everything I liked about the earlier editions, and includes things like mechanics that require player characters in certain circumstances to force themselves on unwilling partners means that I will never take that step. The risk is too high that a teenager interested in the old material will find the new stuff and I don’t ever want them to see it.
In fact, its very existence makes me concerned about my daughter’s place in the gaming hobby at all. This is not a self-published independent game, this is a big budget (well, for a niche hobby) game published by a large game studio. What does that say about the gaming community?
We just got back from Gen Con, and my daughter felt perfectly at home among the massive throng of geeks. I want her to continue to feel that sense of belonging, but games that try for shock value at the expense of women are one step back from the progress I felt for sure was happening. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe that move towards empathy and acceptance was illusionary, but regardless it pains me to find this kind of icky stuff in the hobby I love, and even more of a knife twist because it was an intellectual property that I had, at one time, been so heavily invested in.