Engine Trouble

We played Canyon’s Vampire game, online, me and Canyon.

Here are the rules:

Victim creation
You think of yourself as a victim. You have admitted this to yourself, at least once. What are you a victim of? Something keeps you going, for now. What? After the victim has made their character, read it out. Then the vampire makes their character privately.

Vampire creation
You are a monster, a really bad guy, somebody you, the real you, find bad. You want something from the victim: to feed on them, to control them, to destroy them, or to render them totally dependent on you. Doesn’t have to be literally drinking their blood. What do you want? What tools do you have to help you do this? Don’t tell the victim who you are.

To start the game, the victim frames a scene from their everyday life, and the vampire intrudes. Take turns framing scenes. The victim can frame a scene where they seek out the vampire, or a scene from their everyday life. The vampire can only frame scenes from the victim’s everyday life. The vampire can intrude on or spy on any scene at any time.

At any point, the vampire can end the game by declaring that they will (try to) feed on the victim in the next scene. At any point, the victim can end the game by declaring that they will (try to) escape the vampire.

I played the Victim: A Mexican-American guy named Uriel in his late 20s, set in Here & Now USA. He’s a victim of a religious upbringing that taught him to be passive (I chose to go close to the bone here). He has motivation issues, or, y’know, “engine trouble”–towards the end of this post I’ll go over a scene where this motif crops up in a more direct way. What keeps him going is a group of buddies that he hangs out with on a regular basis. I further defined that Uriel grew up middle class but has been kicking around blue-collar jobs for a while. As the game starts he works at a tire shop.

I start the first scene by saying I’m training a new kid at the shop. That turns out to be Juan, the vampire, who desires to replace me, most specifically in my friend group. His tool is that he’s very charismatic (I don’t find these choices of Canyon’s out until we’ve finished play and are discussing). To be clear, Juan is not a traditional blood-sucker, but something like a social vampire. We didn’t play with any fantastic content.

I want to focus on two things in this post, both related to how the game is played in what is usually known as a “freeform” manner. That is, there are no known and agreed-upon resolution procedures at the outset. We are probably talking about “Drama” from Everway and the Forge Glossary (http://indie-rpgs.com/_articles/glossary.html). Anyone feel free to correct me if I’m misusing that term.

First, any given scene or unit of play has no secondary aim or consideration beyond immediate play. We’re not playing toward and then checking to see if we’ve triggered a conflict, or if we’re hitting a particular fictional difficulty that calls for a roll or other stochastic procedure, or if we’ve completed a requirement necessary to end the scene. In the first scene, while Uriel was training Juan, he got a call from his uncle Rojilio asking to borrow some money because of a water pipe disaster at Rojilio’s house. Uriel hemmed and hawed and in the course of the conversation we established their relationship, more or less, and finally Uriel gave in, because I decided he would, and we ended the scene. To be clear, I’m neither praising nor criticizing this element of our play, just noticing it as a feature. That said, there is something nice about having no “anxiety” (that word is too strong for the feeling, but it’s the closest I can think of) around whether we are getting to the conflict or not. Play was relaxed and kind of refreshing.

The second element of “freeform” play I want to discuss is the question of how we came to make decisions about what was to happen. How did outcomes occur? I don’t have an answer already in mind, but let’s look at a scene:

Uriel, guilted by Rojilio, visits his parents on Sunday after church. He forgets that every Sunday they host a big lunch at their big house after church, which is why he stopped coming on Sundays, of course. He’s berated by various relatives about his dead-end job and lack of a girlfriend, and then finally his dad lays into him about how he needs to have more motivation and ambition; that he can’t rely on other people to live his life for him. He also cautions Uriel against being too helpful to Rojilio. He may be family, but he’s not the type of family you want to get too embroiled with. I play Uriel pretty passively in this scene; he’s not telling anyone off. He’s just trying to get through it. He goes to leave early and finds that a wire to his starter/alternator has been cut and his car won’t start. His dad offers to help him, but Uriel reminds him that he’s not supposed to rely on other people, and lets the car sit for a week until he can afford to fix it. A friend picks Uriel up and we decide to end the scene (we ended scenes, I believe in every case, by mutual consent. “I think that’s the end of the scene, unless…?” “Yep, I agree.”) 

For me playing Uriel in this way, while fictionally it looks passive, felt active. I made decisions based on what I felt he would do or what I was interested in having him do, and I based those decisions on what the other characters said and did. I felt that Canyon and I were doing a good job of listening and reincorporating throughout the game, and the nakedness of the resolution would have exposed the lack of those things. I think resolution came about due to this paying attention to what each other was saying (i.e., due to paying attention to the fiction): given what that other character said, plausibly here’s what my character would do, or what I would like to have him do, based on how I see him and his relationship to everything that’s going on.

One thing to note is that I, as the victim, defaulted to a sort of PC-GM mode of play, where I have authority over my character but not really over anything else, assuming the vampire player to have authority over all other characters. The text does not specify this as the way to play, and after the game Canyon said they would have preferred if we had a more 50-50 split over the non-victim non-vampire characters.

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5 responses to “Engine Trouble”

  1. I really enjoyed playing with Hans. Our back-and-forth felt very natural and easy.

    I default to a very abstracted depiction of social interaction, rarely focusing on individual exchanges of words unless I have something specific to say. Hans was the opposite, constantly pushing for specificity of language, place, and participants. Between the two of us we achieved a nice balance, for me anyway. Maybe Hans would have preferred more specificity throughout?

    We didn’t have specific authorities assigned explicitly for control of side characters. In this game, it felt natural to for me to speak for most or all of them, occasionally asking Hans for details. I don’t need a 50/50 split in authorities for this game — I want to keep it loose, and let individual play groups find the right balance for individual sessions. For instance, if we had played out Juan’s interactions with the friends, it would have made sense for me to be Juan, and Hans to be the friend. (As written, there’s no obvious place for such a scene in the game structure. We could either add a new scene type — the vampire scheming, playable on the vampire’s turn — or say that such interactions are always off screen. More play is needed.)

    I was pleased at my own ability to play a wide variety of people with different motivations and personalities, since I consider this my major weakness. For some reason it was easy and natural to represent these people faithfully. Maybe because they’re not a bunch of fantasy monsters?

    • I enjoyed it a lot, too! It was a tight hour or hour plus, and the experience was super satisfying for me–unbeknownst to you, we were dealing with places, images, issues, and people straight out of my own 20s.

      Regarding whether I would have preferred more specificity: I think I always want more specificity. This impulse is not strictly positive, as it can bog down play, and in the past occasionally I’ve been hung up on us all imagining the *exact* same details as much as possible, which I’ve come to understand is not a requirement for functional and fulfilling play. The good side of this impulse is the desire to avoid workshoppy or storyboardy play, which I think we were both wary of falling into, regardless of the level of first-person exactitude or summary we were using.

    • Do you know, I was thinking, the whole time, “This situation is unpleasantly familiar”! Not the religious trauma (which was more of an explanation for the starting situation than an active element of play, alas). But I did strongly relate to Uriel feeling aimless, stuck in a dead-end job, a step or two down the class ladder from his parents. And I almost took a job at a tire shop 6 months ago.

      This personal comment has me thinking about “playing across difference”, as it were. (The original term is “writing across difference”.) The following is speculative, kind of icky, and maybe best discussed elsewhere/in another format, but here goes!

      I usually don’t specify any ethnicity, ever, during play. I guess this means all my characters are white. That’s an easy way to do things, because in the US, in my opinion, whiteness is an unmarked category: if you play a white character, you aren’t saying anything about whiteness, and whiteness won’t say anything about your character. You’re the default.

      In this game, Uriel started off with some Hispanic stereotypes: lower class, works in a tire shop, religious upbringing. The political upshot of playing a character who *isn’t* an unmarked category is to either evoke or subvert such stereotypes. It also helps us choose names for characters.

      Of course, once play starts in earnest, Uriel had to develop as a genuine character, and this means moving past simple racial tropes. So his family is middle-class, and he’s got such-and-such friends in such-and-such a situation, and here’s how he spends his time, etc… Some of these decisions we made, about who Uriel is and how he lives, align with racial tropes, and some don’t, but we didn’t make them to uphold or subvert those tropes, just to play honestly and put him in interesting situations. If we made the decision to play him on specific racial lines, we we not be authentically playing the situation, we’d be beholden to some exterior authority, the racial tropes.

      (Not to say that authentic roleplaying is automatically a post-racial utopia. Or that it lacks ideology. Someone could easily be steered by their ideology to authentically play a character as, eg, a racist charicature.)

      (On the topic of ideology, I was interested to see how the values implied by the resolution of the game differed from my values. Maybe they accorded with Hans’ values, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with working in a tire shop, nor anything right with going back to school, though they might or might not be convenient, profitable, or personally fulfilling activities. — Of course, I *do* think people should actively choose and affirm their lives, to whatever extent possible. The specific affirmation here is foreign to me, though, because we don’t get the sense that Uriel disliked his job or was curious about some academic topic. Then again, he was constantly broke, which must suck.)

      I was already thinking about race in this game because, when I expanded the notion of vampire and added the explicit victim mentality, I was thinking, “I want to play a game where an aggreived white guy joins a white nationalist cult”.

      Do these comments make sense? They are all very inchoate. Normally I’d do s bit of drafting but I’m writing everything on my phone and the quality of my contributions is suffering as a result.

    • They make an immense amount of sense, setting a high-water mark for content and for human contact among all of us here, and I hope others are paying attention.

      You may be interested in some of the past presentations/work here regarding the topic.

    • I hear ya, Canyon. I was and am aware of how the racial element of this character in this situation could come across to outsiders. But I kmew we weren’t going to be dealing with him as a stereotype, so it didn’t bother me. Further, just from personal history, I worked with a Mexican-American named Uriel at a tire shop. We were a bunch of asians, whites, latinos, and blacks (I know this exact way of phrasing US-racial categories is outmoded but it’s not, I don’t think, insensitive and it has the benefit of concision and clarity) all embroiled to one level or another in each others’ lives and in many ways all dealing with the same shit.

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