Tabletop RPG Review: Thousand Year Old Vampire

Not gonna lie, vampires aren’t my bag and when I first heard about Thousand Year Old Vampire, I just let it fly by without any investigation.  Yet, it kept coming up again and again.  Folks whose opinions I value would mention it, articles and videos would throw it out there as a modern classic.  I don’t put much stock in awards (I’ll always take a moment to mention that The Oscars are garbage), but it ended up taking home three Ennies.  I don’t remember who pushed me over the edge, but at some point this year I decided to check it out, so I grabbed a copy on Free RPG Day.

The first thing you’ll notice when you pick up a copy of this book is that it’s gorgeous.  Designer Tim Hutching hasn’t simply made a game, but a piece of art that is also a game.  It has the appearance of an old and well loved book, something you’d read while wearing a smoking jacket and sipping brandy from a snifter in a library filled with leather bound volumes.  Little details, including what looks like a hand-written price from a reselling agent on an inside page help to sell the atmosphere of the thing.

The game itself is intended for solo play.  The first twenty three pages explain the premise and give you the general rules.  You can play a quicker, fast & loose style game, sketching down notes, or you can enjoy a longer game where you write full journal entries, which could leave you with a fascinating artifact at the end.  But what is the game about?  Well, it’s in the title.  You take on the role of a vampire and through prompts provided in the book, you begin to explore your long, tragic, terrible, and long undeath.  You choose where to start, creating the human you once were and a few important things about yourself. 

For example, when I played a game, I began life as a shepherd in Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages.  I was in love with a young woman, had a sickly beloved uncle, and ran afoul of a local bully.  After finding an ancient, pagan idol, a long forgotten god manifested and turned me into a vampire.  From there, I ended up turning my beloved uncle, who became an enemy.  I was enslaved by an evil occultist, but escaped and ended up in Venice, where I became wealthy and started diving into the dark occult arts myself.  After a child reawakened my humanity, I accidentally turned her and she became a vicious murderer, terrorizing Venice until she was caught and killed.  After many triumphs and failures, I was driven out of Venice and eventually landed in Amsterdam, where I became a successful playwright, but that took a turn rather quickly and I fled to the New World.  By this time, things were going very wrong.  My inhumanity had become more pronounced and it was harder to remain hidden or function within society.  My memories had faded (you can only hold onto so many memories of your vampiric unlife at a time).  Wealth I had built up in previous centuries had been lost, squandered, or forgotten.  New York City was my home only briefly before I was forced to flee west.  Though I found freedom there living as a drifter, away from the press of the city, my already fading mind became more fractured and inhuman until I eventually got caught in the sunlight and died a final death.

Many other things happened.  I gained and lost allies, enemies, and resources.  Whole chunks of my past were lost to me as new memories filled those places in my mind.  As the game played out, I felt a sense of sadness as this sort of pathetic character lived out its days, eventually in a sort of mechanical stupor, no longer remembering the good times or the bad.  At one point, an ancient enemy came back and neither of us really knew why we’d hated each other, so we mostly just remininessed about whatever we could remember.  My options became more limited as resources went away, allies and enemies died, and at one point even the number of memories I could hold onto dropped.  A few times, something almost good would happen, but because I’d already fallen so far, I couldn’t take advantage of it, so my unlife faded more and more.  When the eventual end came, it was with a whimper.

I found this story to be compelling and was constantly curious where it would go, what new turn it would take.  So much happened while my vampire was in Venice that it was genuinely shocking when all of a sudden, everything in Venice went pear-shaped and I was forced to flee.  Then there was the realization that one of the most important things to ever have happened to me was in a memory I no longer had.  The whole thing definitely captured a mood.

I haven’t done a lot of solo RPGs.  Most of what I’ve done have been like advanced Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books.  This is something else.  The combination of the prompts in the book, some randomness, and your imagination creates something unique.  Oddly, it kept reminding me of the sadder and more wistful parts of What We Do In The Shadows.  I think because those characters are loveable, yet terrible, and ultimately kinda pathetic.  The book is a touch expensive, which kept me from picking it up for a while.  However, it’s completely worth the price.  Again, the book itself is a work of art, and the game is a really impressively designed solo storytelling adventure that lets you engage at whatever level you want.  There are some extras as well.  Alternate prompts, advice on how to play the game with more than one person, some Q&As.  All together, it’s one to have on your gaming shelf for sure.  You’ll go back to it again and again.

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