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Agon RPG - Review

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  • A Game About Tears in Rain - Thousand Year Old Vampire RPG Review

A Game About Tears in Rain - Thousand Year Old Vampire RPG Review

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MB Updated October 06, 2020
 
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Thousand Year Old Vampire

Game Information

Publisher
Players
1 - 1
There Will Be Games

All these things will be lost, in time...

Tim Hutchings’ Thousand Year Old Vampire is one of the most difficult, challenging, and demanding games I’ve ever played. It’s intensely personal, it requires you to surrender to its whims, and it may leave you feeling exposed and alone. And all you are really doing is writing a vampire story.

Packaged as a lovely hardbound book filled with a Vaughn Oliver style collage of images, textures, and words, Thousand Year Old Vampire is a solo role-playing game with just a scant whiff of mechanics to support the generation of an almost boundless narrative of memory, experience, the relentlessness of time, and most significantly loss.  The game is the story of your character, who becomes a vampire at its outset, and through pages and pages of prompts you will create not only this identity but also the world around them as you play.

Initially, your vampire is just a couple of Experiences, which are grouped into Memories, along with a couple of Resources, Skills, and Characters that have a relationship with you. You get a Mark, which is a physical representation of your affliction, and you create who or what made you into the monster you will remain. From there, you’ll roll dice and advance to prompts throughout the book. These will ask questions that you respond to, writing down your new Experiences within Memories. You might have to check off a skill or lose a resource. Or someone you love might die at your hands, whether intentional or not. The game (and your life) can end prematurely if you can’t mark off one of your skills or resources, or you could go the distance and reach one of several ends. 

Perhaps you’ll decide to start out as a Mayan warrior sent to eliminate the Jade Fang, an outcast lurking in the jungle around your village who turns out to be the vampire that creates you. Or perhaps you are a sculptor in fin-de-siècle Vienna, turned by your mentor who wants to preserve your talent for the ages. You could even set your story in a sci-fi setting, exploring entirely different themes and concepts as your vampire’s lifespan stretches into a speculative Afro-Futurist alternate history. You might travel the world, hole up in a castle for 200 years, become the CEO of a global corporation, or haunt the sewers of Rome. All while dealing with love and friendships, learning new skills and talents, and watching everything you hold dear or otherwise slip away while you persist. 

The catch to all of this is that Mr. Hutchings has a very specific idea about vampires. If human identity is an accumulation of our memories and experiences, then the vampire’s identity is as much about losing those memories and experiences. You see, you can only have Memories, each of which contain three Experiences. Eventually, you have to lose Memories. And as you strike through these on your character sheet or delete them from your Word document, you’ll feel something very strange. The game is telling you that you’ve forgotten the love of your life or the empire you once ruled.  And it’s just gone. This is a profound, impactful sensation as you continue with your story, watching your own history disintegrate with the passing of time.

Losing a Memory might mean that a hundred years have passed. It could mean that you’ve chosen to forgot how you killed the little girl that befriended you and brought you rabbits to feed from as you hid in a cave when she got older and realized you were a monster. Or it could just mean that whatever it was has just slipped away, rendered as unimportant and irrelevant as a random Autumn day 200 years ago. You can preserve some memories in a Diary, which could be anything. Maybe your vampire has painted an elaborate mural sometime during the Renaissance that contains secret symbols and codes to remind your future self of your past. Maybe hidden in the genetic code of an android are your Memories and that is your “diary”. Or maybe you’ve written them all down in a book called Thousand Year Old Vampire.

Playing this game, I can’t help but think of Roy Batty’s dying words in Blade Runner. You know the speech, attack ships on fire and all that. Tears in rain. This is a game about tears in rain, about watching time wash over you and wash things away from you. But Roy Batty had a four year lifespan. Your lifespan in this game could be the whole of human history.

That’s a lot of time for tragedy, but also triumph. Over the course of your character’s life, there are undeniably moments of beauty. Sometimes you will connect threads that you’ve developed in ways that are surprising. You’ll be amazed when elements just work together, and your story takes on an almost magical logic. The prompts are simple, but what they cause you to reveal in your storytelling can be harrowing, surprising, startling, or even upsetting.

Without a doubt, this game is undeniably tragic, and I’ve been surprised at how emotionally wringing and sometimes introspective it can be. I’ve found myself pondering decisions for days. I’ve felt regret at making painful choices. I’ve dreamed about situations that I have created in the game with my characters. This is a game that is digging deeper than just about any other I’ve ever played, and this is why I find it uniquely challenging and even difficult to play. It demands a lot out of you, and not just because you’ve got to write sentences and come up with characters, timelines, settings, and environments.

It’s also particularly demanding if you want to play it as a strictly or roughly historical game. You might wind up searching online for Cherokee names so that you can give a character an authentic name. You might be learning more about the Ainu people than you ever expected to while playing a game. But this is also game that will generously give back to you whatever you decide to put into it so ultimately, the commitment is worth it.

But it is not, however, a game I could recommend to anyone. The book warns that it is a “lonely” game, and that is very true. I’ve found the loneliness to be not in playing the game alone, but in visualizing situations and creating this detailed identity and having no one to share it with. And also in some of the deep-seated psychology that the game has dug up and made me aware of. This kind of isolated self-realization is not an “all audiences” kind of quality, and some players might find themselves confronting situations that make them uncomfortable- alone, with just a book, some dice, and something to write with. This is not necessarily healthy for some people.

Thousand Year Old Vampire is a stunning piece of work and specifically as an example of the kind of narrative that games can create. It is profound and moving, contrasting almost bottomless mortal grief with the limitless ascendancy of the immortal. And it is maybe a little dangerous, which is not a quality I think I’ve ever attributed to any game in my entire life. It’s thrilling to encounter something as singular and engaging as Thousand Year Vampire, but I would caution that one must completely surrender to what it is doing in order for it to work. You might be surprised at how difficult this is to do, to let the game absorb what you create and return feedback on it for you to react to and play with. But if you can let it in, a delicious life awaits. 


Editor reviews

1 reviews

Rating 
 
5.0
Thousand Year Old Vampire
A profound and demanding solo RPG about the persistence and transience of memories and experiences.
MB
Top 10 Reviewer 137 reviews
Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #313096 13 Aug 2020 17:34
Seems like the perfect game for 2020. Might need to get this.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #313097 13 Aug 2020 17:39
With both yourself and Thurot being enamoured of this thing this week I'm intrigued anew. Interestingly it seems to have already inspired offspring such as the recent indie 'Into the Deep' though they perhaps requires less of an emotional investment. Perhaps if I live to be a thousand years old I'll forget how much the postage was to get this thing to my doorstep in Australia.

Thanks for the review and the caution about wallowing in introspective tragedy. They should have those on Smiths LP's.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #313100 13 Aug 2020 17:57
First printing is sold out. I just plunked down $40 USD to pre-order the second printing, which should reach my doorstep by October. Perfect timing, as there will be five weekends this October, but probably zero social events that I will attend (in case any of them turn into re-enactments of The Masque of the Red Death). There was also an additional $10 USD charge for shipping. The shipping charges are much higher for overseas, but there is also a pdf-only option. Speaking of pdf, my pre-order came with a pdf to download, available immediately. I may have time to take a look at it tonight.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #313102 13 Aug 2020 18:06
$44US shipping for me. The tyranny of distance is taking the piss.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #313105 13 Aug 2020 18:21
So is this like an adult version of a Fighting Fantasy book or something? I'm not grasping the mechanics of it but the narrative result sounds amazing.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #313107 13 Aug 2020 18:27
You have a character sheet with slots for memories, experiences, skills, resources, etc- all the game elements. You roll a d10 and subtract a d6. You move forward that many pages of prompts, and there are three on each page. You use the prompt to write an experience into one of your memories, which may require you to gain/lose something. Or lose a memory completely. There are no resolutions- you either have something or you don’t. It is also not a branching narrative or preset story beats other than “you become a vampire- anything that actually happens is something you create.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #313108 13 Aug 2020 18:34
Dan Thurot really loves this thing too so that's a good triangulation between your tastes...
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #313116 13 Aug 2020 20:04

Andi Lennon wrote: Thanks for the review and the caution about wallowing in introspective tragedy. They should have those on Smiths LP's.


That joke? Not funny any more.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #313117 13 Aug 2020 20:21

hotseatgames wrote:

Andi Lennon wrote: Thanks for the review and the caution about wallowing in introspective tragedy. They should have those on Smiths LP's.


That joke? Not funny any more.


Oof. Nice one, Dad.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #313121 13 Aug 2020 23:27
What I am expecting will be an unusual creative writing project, with just enough structure to get my creativity going without feeling like I'm staring at a formidable blank page. Less of a Choose Your Own Adventure and more like Dear Diary I Slew A Lamplighter This Eve And Drank Blood From His Heart.

I suspect that it requires a significant degree of buy-in from the player, but may reward it with a rich and unusual experience not found in other games or entertainments. Try to whip through it fast with low commitment, and you will get the approximate entertainment value of a book of Mad-Libs. Take your time, do some research and thinking, and you might discover a unique diversion.

One reason that I am particularly interested in Thousand Year Old Vampire is the gradual erasure of past memories of the character. My mother passed away in 2017 after nearly a decade-long spiral into Alzheimer's disease. She was living with my sister in a distant part of the country, so I only saw her about once a year, and the changes each year were jarring. I also talked to her on the phone on a fairly regular basis, until finishing sentences became too difficult for her and she mostly stayed on the phone just to hear me talk at her.

For most of her life, my mom was somehow a warm, friendly extrovert who also loved to read. The dementia gradually stole language from her, to a point where she could read a sentence out loud and not comprehend it because she had already forgotten how the sentence started. At first, she mainly lost short-term recent memories. After years, most of what she had left seemed to be childhood memories, often leaving her in a childish state. I was just as relieved as saddened when she died, and I have not really allowed myself to fully process those feelings since.
marlowespade's Avatar
marlowespade replied the topic: #313125 14 Aug 2020 01:16
Every review I read of this makes me want it more. It sounds like an extended engaging creative writing project that offers a lot of immersion and a unique twist, and frankly it's the only "solo RPG" that I've seen that made me even halfway interested in playing it (Dragonholt was fantastic, but it was definitely more of a guided experience than a true RPG.)

And yet.

I have a deep, deep phobia of Alzheimer's, for familial and personal reasons. I'm not sure I'm in a place where playing this would be remotely healthy right now, and so I very much appreciate the caveats in the review.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #313128 14 Aug 2020 08:41
This game sounds like it would be an amazing one to pass around a circle as a creative writing exercise, or as a play by mail.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #313129 14 Aug 2020 09:24
Pretty much echoing what has been said already, but I think this sounds like an amazing achievement. As someone who watched my grandmother wither away due to Alzheimer's.... I don't think I want to intentionally relive that.

I went to Disney World while she was in a nursing home, and got her a tiny Mickey Mouse snow globe. When she passed, I got the snow globe back and put it on my mantle. It was really the only keepsake I had of her.

Years later, I got a cat. It jumped onto the mantle, knocked the snow globe over, and it smashed into bits. I can't describe the despair I felt at that moment.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #319206 14 Feb 2021 11:14
Paulo (original name forgotten)

Marks:
Twin puncture wounds on the neck which have scabbed over but never healed

Skills:
Can hold my ale
Care and feeding of horses
Bloodthirsty
Sketching with Coal
Mastery of knots
Recognition of ghosts
Pistol
Bartending
Painting

Resources:
A pouch of gems
A poem written by the lover I turned into a vampire

Mortals:
none

Immortals:
Lucius, Roman centurion turned vampire and my sire
Poppy, my half-sister, lover, and vampire childe
The necromancer Pierce
A foolish old man turned into a walking blood supply

Memory 1:

In Venice, I take up work as a barkeep; the hours suit my aversion to sunlight.

I return to Venice and find an old cache of wine, aged to excellence.

I sell the old wine and invest in jewelry and paintings.

Memory 2:

An unfortunate series of events leads me down the Silk Road to Cathay; I ply a new trade as the fur trader Paulo.

I awaken in an ornate tomb in the orient, covered by the dust of ages.

To occupy the long nights, I learn to ply the brush in creation of intricate landscapes.

Memory 3:

Increased trade along the Silk Road makes my pale skin less remarkable.

Memory 4:

In Milan, I meet a familiar woman but know her not; Poppy tells me that we were sweethearts until I turned her into a vampire, but now we are friends again.

Time takes a toll; my fangs have fallen out and hunting becomes too difficult. At dawn, I choose to pass into dust and history.

Memory 5:

The mortals have deadly new weapons, so I learn to fire a pistol.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #319211 14 Feb 2021 16:47
How much actual game time did it take to acquire all that?

I feel like these synposes need to be scribbled into old leather bound journals and just left in those used book seller booths at cons for unsuspecting folks to find and marvel over :p
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #319212 14 Feb 2021 19:22
That was the end state of a game that took a few hours to play. In the context of the game, the passage of time wasn't precise, but I estimate that my vampire lived about four centuries. I had no mortals in my life at the end, as I had only recently revived after a long torpor. I also had no diary at the end of the game, because my previous three diaries were all lost or destroyed.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #319674 25 Feb 2021 10:47
I am now sort of DMing a game of Thousand Year Old Vampire for a friend via email correspondence. I had a suspicion that he would love this game but would never get around to buying it himself. My friend has vast experience at DMing D&D, is a major history buff, a big fan of the movie Bram Stoker's Dracula, and designs board games including one that got published. I sent him an email briefly explaining the nature of the game and laying out the process of character creation. I stressed that each Experience should only be one or two sentences long.

My friend responded with great enthusiasm, sending me a full-page write-up of his character, plus another page of paragraph-long Experiences to start each of his five Memories, plus another half page of lengthy descriptions of his Skills and Resources and Mark. On a daily basis, I send him a prompt and he sends back at least a paragraph of an Experience. Three prompts in and his word document is already over four pages long. It will be interesting to see if his wordy approach changes once he starts losing Memories.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #319688 25 Feb 2021 13:49
That's kind of a creative, fun way to play this.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #319689 25 Feb 2021 13:58
I pondered doing this with several players in a multi-player game, but I found it difficult to envision how their narratives might overlap without railroading the players. There are some brief rules in the book, but they don't really address my concerns.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #320329 10 Mar 2021 10:55
For more than a week, my correspondence play with my friend was going great. He really leaned into the historical setting and sent really long responses to every prompt. His character is a baron with a castle, and his story has involved regional politics, the Catholic Church, gypsies, and peasants. But he has only responded to one prompt since March 1st, though that response was lengthy and interesting one involving a dryad.

I see three possible issues. First, his responses have been so long and detailed so far, and that is much more demanding than the one or two sentence responses recommended by the game designer. Second, his most recent prompt asks about a humanizing experience with a child, and that might not hold much interest for him. Third, this experience will fill up his last available space in memory, so he will face the daunting choice of either moving memories to a physical diary that could be eventually lost, or losing some of his long memories right away. All three of these issues could have been avoided if he had stuck to the guideline of one or two sentence responses. For example, I got that same kid prompt when I played, and got past it with a brief, perfunctory experience.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #321597 01 Apr 2021 22:08
Since I last posted here, my player picked up where we left on and responded to a total of 6 more prompts over the course of 12 days. Now it has been nearly 10 days of silence. His most recent prompt to respond to was:

"The hunters are persistent, capable, and well-informed. They know things about you that you don't - create a Mark that is revealed during a confrontation. You are driven into hiding in an unpopulated wasteland. Lose any stationary Resources. Learn a new Skill related to this desolate region. What new name comes to you in this loneliness?"

Seems like an interesting prompt to respond to, but maybe he is thrown by the idea of his character leaving his familiar homeland.

Three weeks ago, I was telling another friend about Thousand Year Old Vampire on the phone, and he wanted to play the same kind of correspondence game. I know that he is a very concise writer, so I expected his responses to prompts to be less burdensome for him. But he is also taking some college classes, so he warned me that he might get busy from time to time.

It took him a few days to respond with his character and his starting experiences, skills, resources, and mark. But he misunderstood the concept of the game and had described a vampire that was already 1,000 years old and now living in our time. I re-explained the default assumptions of the game, but offered him the option to go ahead with his character anyway, with the understanding that most of his game would take place in a science-fiction future of his devising. I guess that he wasn't feeling to creative, because he has stayed in touch but never mentions the game.