Thousand Year Old Vampire
game play and review
game play and review
I’ve been wanting to play Thousand Year Old Vampire for quite a while.
The gameplay sounds intriguing. The book looks beautiful. It has a bunch of awards and stellar reviews.
There’s a vampire NPC in the campaign I’m running and I think my players are going to go meet him soon. And I figured that if I played this game with him as the subject, he would be more interesting because of his complete, centuries-spanning backstory.
I ended up getting more than I bargainned for.
You have three main resources: memories, skills, and ‘resources’ which are any kind of possession, from a family heirloom trinket to a castle or a fleet of ships.
To play, you roll dice and respond to prompts, some of which will expend a skill or resource. If you run out of both, the game is over. The game comes to a more natural, narrative ending if/when you make it to the final prompts.
Memories are where stuff can get really interesting, and this mechanic does a really good job at simulating the grind of the centuries. For every prompt, you must create a new experience and attach it to a memory. You only have a finite number of slots for these, and so quickly have to make tough choices about which memories to forget. It’s possible to move some precious memories to a diary for safe keeping. But diaries have even less space for memories, and can be lost. And there’s the fact that you still cannot actively recall firsthand anything in your diary. You only know it happened because it’s written down. And there’s some sorrow to that.
Another aspect of the game is marks, which are ways in which you are physically monstrous. You gain one when you turn. And you might gain more during gameplay. For me, these made the vampire more cursed and a little more monstrous than your classic handsome movie vampire. These are wretched things.
Here’s the highlight reel from my game. I fully recognize that it’s a little self indulgent to write out your game summary, so you can skip to the review if you want to.
Content warning: gore, body horror, death, murder
As a young man, Valentine was a book buyer for his father’s bookstore, traveling far and wide looking for rare tomes to restore and sell. On one such trip, his father fell ill. And upon his return, Valenine had to take over running the store for him. No more adventuring around. He felt constrained and confined.
His one joy was Sari, a beautiful young woman who came into the store almost every day to browse. She was knowledgeable and enhusiastic, and he was enchanted by her. He hired her as a book clerk so they could be closer together. And they were. Eventually she moved in with Valentine and his father in the apartment above the shop.
A man called Torance came into the shop one day inquiring after a particular book that Valentine had acquired on his final expedition. Some kind of old book on the occult, full of diagrams and rituals. Valentine was not ready restoring the book and told the man so. It is not currently for sale. The man left.
That night Torance broke into the bookstore seeking the book. Valentine confronted him, and Torance tore into him with inhuman strength and speed. He plunged his hands into Valentine’s chest and split him open, exposing his still beating heart.
Sari appearing from upstairs caused Torance to flee. When she saw Valentine, she cried and screamed. Valentine, not dead but in fact suffused with some strange new vitality, attempted to quiet her but succeeded only in distressing her further. He held her close, pressed her into his chest, until she grew still. And when he pulled her away he she was dead. He had inadvertently crushed her.
He buried her under the floorboards in the basement and learned to feed his new hunger, and to hide from the sun.
He covers up the hole in his chest, which does not heal, with a small piece of wood that he screws into his ribs. On a whim, he cuts the center out, and reattached it with a hinge and a latch so that he has a little door in his chest.
Valentine runs the bookshop and a hundred years pass in a blur. His mind dulls, his emotions harden. He forgets, and feels less human than ever.
He is discovered and when the mob descends on his book shop, he waits until they are all inside and then he locks the doors and burns it to the ground. He regrets only leaving Sari inside.
He leaves the city and travels the routes he used to use when buying books. Preying on small towns now and then, but mostly living out in the wilderness, and he becomes a wild thing himself.
One day Sari comes to him. Her small body already crushed by his own hands, wasted away from lying under the floorboards, and thorougly burned by the book fire, bathed in the screams of the dying men.
Valentine vows to cherish and protect her from the humans who will see her as a monster and not the treasure she really is.
He finds the second volume of the ancient tome, and finds Torance. They meet as equals now, as immortal vampires. But not as equals, for Torance has much to teach Valentine. And he does. And Valentine learns sorceriers.
He studies in a frenzy. He searches for a way to restore Sari’s body so that they can live together as people do. He does not find it.
He attempts a summoning ritual and it fails and his mind and body are drained completely and he sleeps for one hundred years.
When he awakes, Torance and Sari are gone.
The humans war with each other and Valentine flees the tower and lives simply in a small seaside town, feeding on sailors and stangers. Living amongst humans restores a little of his humanity.
One of his would-be victims stirs his emotions with his sensitive soul, and he keeps him in a cage in the basement for company. He re-learns how to cook food for his guest, and he enjoys feeding and caring for him. His guest writes poems and reads them to him. This is their arrangement.
His paranoia grows as he feels his body changing. The blood in his veins starts to glow brightly and can be seen shining through his skin. His heart grows most brightly of all, light shininig through the cracks and around the edges of the door he wears in his chest. He wears layers of clothing and cake makeup. It doesn’t help that he can only go out at night, when the glow is all the more visible.
He hires a manservant to handle all his affairs and never leaves the house. For safety, he sleeps locked in a chest, the key to which only his man has.
He becomes infatuated with the sun, his enemy for hundreds of years, and stays up dangerously late, watching the first rays break over the horizon before retreating. He weeps at the beauty of it, and abandons the house with his servant and his prisoner.
He lives in the wild again. Not as a raging wrathful thing, but one as a peaceful as the breaking dawn.
For a while, Valentine knows peace.
He continues to court the sun and one day boldy, carelessly lets the sun’s light consume him. He burns, dripping molten gold as his blood flows. He loses most of his left arm before he shrinks away. A hole has burned clear through his forearm. He has almost no use of his hand. It does not heal.
But the next time he courts the sun, it welcomes him. It envelops him its its warm light and he does not burn.
He feels warmth. He enjoys daytime activities for the first time in a thousand years. He plants a garden. And starts cooking again, rembemering fondly the meals he shared with the human in the seaside town, forgetting entirely that he was his prisoner.
He studies medicine and becomes a doctor and saves the lives he can. Those he cannot, sustain him. He has ample access to stored blood and doesn’t need to hunt.
His enemy sets him up for a fall, and Valentine is accused of selling body parts on the black market.
He flees and is intrigued by the laws of man, and those who operate outside of it. He gets involved in organized crime and becomes a mob boss.
He tires of the game. He has been the societal elite, and the criminal elite, and it’s all just humans playing their parts and preying on each other.
Valentine withdraws and runs a simple barroom, catering to laborers and workers. He listens and offers advice. He draws on centuries of knowledge and ancient texts now long forgotten.
His words win him devotion. And he is revered as a wise man and a spiritual leader.
His mind is barely human at this point. He feels no compassion. He kills for sport instead of only to feed. He is reckless.
A young woman joins his flock. She is the very image of Sari. She haunts him. He hunts her.
He starts to be able to distinguish one face from another, and he sees Sari everywhere.
He no longer remembers how Sari died. When he reads his diary and learns that she died at his hands, he doesn’t believe it, and distrusts his own writing. He burns the thing.
A gang of youths mock him when he drops the books he was carrying. Laugh at his lame hand and his thick makeup.
He scolds them and they laugh harder.
He slaughters them and leaves their bodies to be found.
And when the hunters arrive, they overpower him. Truth be told, he doesn’t fight back that hard. His body is a wreck. His mind is going. The last face he sees is Sari’s.
They tear him to pieces and scatter him to the far corners of the earth.
So this game is intense. It is violent and tragic. Mortal characters are introduced and discarded alarmingly fast. The passing of the centuries make you really indifferent to humanity.
The memories work great as a mechanic. You quickly get to a point where you might remember somebody, but not harming them. Or you might have a resource but not remember its bloody past. You cling to what memories you think are precious, and hope you don’t lose them.
One thing I wish I had done better—and I don’t know if this is me, or the game—is create more continuity between the writing prompts.
For example, Valentine, according to the story, is a sorcerer. But he never gets to use magic.
What was the deal with burnt, zombie Sari coming back? We don’t get to find out. Narrative threads get severed or abaonded, not to be resolved. Which I guess is part of the game?
I mentioned this earlier, but my vampire was interesting and fun to play with, but he was not wholesome or good. He was a mangled, vile thing. A mad villain who preyed on the weak and innocent. Which, you know… vampire. Nonetheless I often found myself uncomfortable with his choices and his actions.
Which I think is probably a sign of a good game. A good game pushes you and challenges you. There book includes a bespoke safety mechanic, a safety flower. I think the next time I play I will incorporate it into playing.
10 out of 10. Would definitely play again.
After playing, it was sharp in my mind and I wanted badly to talk to somebody about it, about how my hero turned into a dark and pitiable thing. How his beloved Sari continued to appear throughout, and was ultimately part of his downfall. (I didn’t get to talk to anybody about it; that’s why I ended up writing this blog post. Thank you for reading.)
I’d like to play it a little more freeform and fantastical, and not with the focus of creating an NPC for a game of D&D. See how wild things can get.