Posted on October 18, 2011 by Flames
The Vampire Retrospective Project continues this week with a new essay from Yair Robinson, a Rabbi who tells about the search for a game that explores a character and the first time playing Vampire: the Masquerade.
Elements of the Character
It was 1992 or so when Vampire: The Masquerade entered my life. I was a sophomore in high school, knee-deep in the kind of existential crisis that only arises when you’re 15, when my friend Amber and her boyfriend Keith asked me if I wanted to try a new game out called Vampire.
Initially I was unconvinced. I had played role-playing games before, and hadn’t been impressed. Oh, some of them had been amusing: Marvel Superheroes in Middle School (with appropriate ‘pew-pew’ noises); AD&D and MERP, which always struck me as a math textbook pretending to be a game; TORG (not going there), all provided a good laugh but never really moved me, never were more than a vaguely amusing board game. Oh, there was something called ‘character development’ in each of those games, but the rules surrounding them always seemed arcane and overly complex, with most of the effort spent on stats and figures rather than the nuances of the character himself.
You see, before I was a sci-fi nerd, or a fantasy nerd, I was a theater and literature nerd. I read books and acted in plays because I was interested in where the characters were going with their lives. I read to feel what they were feeling (and to learn new bits of witty dialogue to store away for the right occasion). When the protagonist would suffer some embarrassment or heartache, I felt it in my own heart, empathizing with the character to the point that their hurts were my own, and was endlessly fascinated by the way they developed. How did they deal with conflict? How did they relate to their friends, or their enemies? So I was totally ill-equipped to deal with standard rpgs, with the emphasis on combat and achieving specific goals independent of the character’s own drive. Sure, I wanted him to be able to hold his own in a fight, but I also wanted to know something about the character’s soul and explore it. And, deep in the throes of angsty teenagerdom, I wanted to give voice to my own aches and longings, the rage and disappointment and passions churning within.
For all intents and purposes, I should have said no, and gone back to what I was doing (probably staring at the orange carpet or go back to whatever poetry I was scribbling in my composition notebook), but the look on Amber’s face told me I should give this a try (that I had a crush on her, all rubenesque curves, piles of curly hair and edgy leather jacket, didn’t hurt).
I called my mom from the payphone at school to say that I was walking to Keith’s house and would have dinner there, slung on my old army jacket and walked home with them, as well as fellow longhairs Mike (a tall, gangly genius who played the bass and usually was the one to introduce us to various boardgames) Steve (shorter, younger, more intense and embarrassingly self-assured), Mike (a fellow acting and poetry buff) and Jim (who’d be a typical computer geek except he was built like a Viking). In Keith’s kitchen in Hyannis, surrounded by kittens and popcorn, I filled out my first Vampire character sheet and instantly fell in love.
Here was my game! The rules for character development (and as I’d learn, the mechanics in general) were simple yet contained great depth, where the difference between a ‘two’ and a ‘three’ in one stat could make a huge difference. More importantly, it was clear that the game was equally interested in the character himself; what were his motivations, his outward poster, his inner concerns and shames? The World of Darkness, all dark shadows and rot, reflected the darkness of growing up in New England in the early 90s nicely, to say the least of my own mood as an adolescent. And the idea that each of the characters was struggling to restrain the monster within–well, what could be a better metaphor for the teenage years? Finally, the interpersonal connection: while the Storyteller provided the scenario, the path forward wasn’t so obvious to us as players. We had to learn in character to work together–sometimes against our own self-interests and ambitions–and risk harm to our relationships and ourselves in order to quell the monster within and realize whatever objectives we needed to achieve.
That weekend I went out and bought the main rulebook for Vampire, and picked up the Player’s Guide shortly thereafter. And while the rules and stats and options (new Clans! New powers! Boy, that’s a lot of guns!) caught my eye, it was the essays in the back: about the role of women in role-playing, the idea of character exploration and learning to conquer your inner monster that have stuck with me ever since.
Eventually, Keith and Amber broke up, we moved on to other games (including Werewolf and Mage), I got over my crush and the turbulence of adolescence gave way to the stability and (relative) inner calm of adulthood. I’m now a rabbi serving a congregation in the northeast, happily married and raising a four-year old son. I still play role-playing games, though now the stakes are much lower (no pun intended). However, the lessons I learned from Vampire still resonate twenty years later; conflict resolution within a party as well as without, leadership, communication, listening to one’s inner self. And I know in another ten years, my son will be full of rage, passion, and will see the corruption around him. And when that day comes, Vampire: the Masquerade will be sitting on my shelf, waiting for him to discover and learn to quell his own inner monster.
Yair Robinson – 2011
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