Whew! Convention pile-up has me sucking wind on getting posts finished. This one’s about playing Svart av Kval, Vit av Lust, by Simon Pettersson. He’s a one-man Forge here in Sweden, and now that I think of it, reminds me of my good pal Jared Sorensen. When I visited Indierummet at Gothcon, I noticed several games with his name on it and was told that he was the right person to “introduce” me to games of this sort. So I dropped by later and found him just about to start this particular game with a group, and they said “come on in.”
The name translates to Black as Torment, White as Hunger (the Swedish word “lust” has the more general meaning of the cognate in English, so this is an accurate rather than precise translation). Links: Clockwork Games and the direct link to SaK/VaL. (it’s free at the “Nedladdningar” link at the left) (in Swedish)
[Now editing a bit: spoiled by video presentations, I didn't actually describe playing enough. What follows is upgraded from the initial post – RE]
I have spent some time in the past criticizing heavy set-up, furious-showdown play: the kind where you improvise or draw up a complex diagram about everyone hating or loving everyone else, then play out what amounts to a multiple-vehicle collision. It does very well for operatic sessions at conventions but, as you’re probably tired of hearing, I consider it minimally interesting. There’s not much authoring as a process when all that remains is to connect dots 98-99-100 to see the pony. As soon as I saw the whiteboard work, using the dynamics I know from Ganakagok or In a Wicked Age …, I sighed a little.
However, there is more to it in this game, specifically, the directive mechanics for behavior. You can gesture at other players to make them play in specific ways. There are several types, but the most important is simply a direct command to do something all bestial, White Wolf frenzy-like. You gesture broadly, with a knife-hand at the play, say something savage, “Seduce her!” “Suck all his blood!” “Kill them all!” that sort of thing.
The targeted player has the choice to act accordingly or to refuse the command, and must take one of the white counters from the central bowl. This is relevant concerning later resolutions. The baseline resolution is handled by a hierarchy of actions and identities, e.g., a younger vampire vs. an elder, a violent act or a manipulative one, et cetera, in a usable pattern. It so happens that no one type of character is entirely screwed in it. But if you have any white counters, then your winning role in the resolution hierarchy is nulled.
Play becomes subtle in terms of players’ previous choices about what to make other characters do – whether the commands are refused, and what that means for later confrontations. When you play your vampire's better or at least understandably human self, or perhaps too cautiously or civilly so, then his or her bestial hungry side can manifest hard, and you consider very intuitively, but consequentially, whether it hits. The counters take on a similar roll as the Pool dice in The Pool, in that they do not represent in-fiction quantities but rather serve as a collective unconscious for creative decisions and events. (I am more than ever curious to play the original Wraith with the addition of hacking the Nemesis rule to include this counter system.)
Go ahead and try to game it. Easy, right? It would seem that you’d just act all savage and bestial anyway, and thus not have to refuse commands, but the downside there is that you have this diagram that sets up how your character lives and what they’re trying to do in the context of mortal society and persons. In other words, you wouldn’t be getting what you want that way. Play therefore becomes a dance of urges, outbursts, interactions, and desires very much in the context of … now what shall I call it? … the masquerade all of them are invested in.
It wasn't like the superficial emo-fest that games with this overall structure or this particular content typically produce in my experience. Instead, play was remarkably intimate and connected, due to the mechanics and due to the people (you could not tell which "caused" which; that's not a very meaningful comparison). The deep attention, friendliness, and general sense of sympathy toward one another – toward how each person played – led me to think this was a long-standing group that I'd crashed. It wasn't. The game allowed all of us to bring best-selves to one another, and to share/see personal emotional priorities, even as we influenced one another's characters to be their worst.
Our game was pretty gaudy, this is true, set at the death of the Sun King, full of outrageously extravagant French names, and – if I may say so – featuring the kind of jaw-dropping, no-Lines no-Veils play that I have observed almost exclusively among mixed men-and-women groups, as this one was. It did end in a splatter fest. But it might not have, and I think this game is perfectly capable of delivering or allowing a gentler if emotionally even more brutal set of final moments. Play went that way for a while in the middle, for instance, when Simon’s character, initially the least sympathetic or nuanced, turned out to be tragically all too human after all. By contrast, I happened to play the only non-vampire player-character who turned out to be the most calculating murderer of the bunch.
It is very, very welcome not to have seen all there is to see under the sun, to be surprised and to learn from a zone or sphere of play which I had considered to have run its course in design. I'm glad it hasn't.
P.S. I do have a list of vampire games I'd like to play, e.g., Feed, and um … well, it's a short list.