Recently my game group wound down our D&D campaign for a bit of a breather. I’m the GM and we’re using Beyond the Wall as our rules. I’ve run Beyond the Wall before (here’s the first post about that game), but this time I leaned into its implied YA fantasy setting. The game had a teen delinquents and their up-tight friend solve/commit crimes and fight monsters feel to it.
Some notes and revelations:
- Magic. BtW keeps it scary and unpredictable, so much so a few times the party had beneficial items that they were too frightened to use. Also every mage the players encountered was awful or at the very least damaged in some way. A downside to this is that the spells veer towards the looser end and require negotiation between player and GM.
- Small setting. The furthest the players traveled from the village was four days away. Most of the time they were interacting with known people and places around town. Known dungeon sites got a bit of that Zone spice, never quite cleared out, but always there spooky and weird just beyond the edge of town. It also opens the calendar and locations.
- The Calendar. Some places are more powerful at certain times than others. Some locations only appear on nights of the full moon. The cult is having their meeting a week from now. If you hurry maybe you can get there. I wasn’t that strict with it, but I certainly made it a bigger part of the game than I’ve ever done in the past. One danger is it can become grindy as players try to divide turns down into rounds like they’re riding Zeno’s Arrow.
- Locations. Make places magic items. Light a fire in the old temple and no fire can harm you while you remain there. Stop by the local saint’s shrine before setting out and get a bonus. This is one way to keep magic limited and add a strategy element. This location has this effect. This other location has a different effect.
- Pesky Kids. I dug the teen detectives uncover secrets and solve crimes angle and played up the fact that except with few exceptions no adult was going to take the teens’ accusations seriously. I did this until one player asked me to stop because they found it triggering. By then they hated the home village (with its stupid adults) so much they had to be coaxed into protecting it.
- Reputation. Small town reputations provide a lot of pressure points for characters. At one point the delinquents got kicked out of their house by their guardians (the twins did burn a building down). They ended up having to pay rent at the inn. And they hated it! But I loved saying, “Master Barrelhelm wants his gold piece for the week.”
- Who Gave the Kid a Knife? Despite the characters being 18-year olds, the players weren’t and for some reason those with kids of their own were reluctant for their characters to give an NPC teen friend a bunch of weapons. Go figure.
- No Hirelings. It’s hard to hire a bunch of torch-bearers and Men-At-Arms to use as meat shields when you’ll have to see their widows and orphaned kids around town. Despite this the players had a couple of NPCs they could occasionally lean on.
If you want to read more about the game, here’s a link about its inspirations.
This is for those random persons who enjoy reading about other people’s TTRPG games. Here’s a look at all the material that went into the recent game my group and I finished*. Expect a lot of links to wikipedia pages.
THE RULES USED
Beyond the Wall
We use all the Beyond the Wall material to date. Its roots are as a retroclone of D&D, but it welds on bits from AD&D (race and class) while keeping the rules loose enough. I’d love to see it overlap more with more narrative games like Dungeon World and Five Torches Deep. Also since BtW leans into YA Fantasy for its inspiration I could easily see another table mixing it up with Monster Hearts. For what it’s worth, BtW’s version of the Banshee has one of the best save or die mechanics.
The one bad thing about the rule set is that it’s scattered across multiple books. Personally, I’d love to see an omnibus “Rules Cyclopedia” edition published some day. Through Sunken Lands (the latest iteration of the rules) does this somewhat, but TSL has a different vibe. TSL is bronze age sword & sorcery, and not the high medieval YA fantasy we wanted.
OTHER GAMES & SUPPLEMENTS
- Dolmenwood: For the vibe more than the particulars, although I did lift the Haunted Abbey from here and tweak it.
- Harn: I’m a fan but have little time for its level of detail. Doesn’t stop me from pillaging it for names and lore, especially its pantheon.
- B10 Night’s Dark Terror: One of the greatest D&D modules. A good story and mix of wilderness and dungeon adventures.
- The Gazetteer Series of D&D products. Again, it’s less the details and more the names and site tags.
- Carse and Midkemmia Press’s Cities supplement
Some provided plots, others only atmosphere.
- Night of the Demon: The cursed parchment, the hypnotism scene, the congenial devil worshiper, and the arrival of some inescapable doom at a certain time.
- The Old Dark House: Nobody scares like Brother Saul!
- Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Every fantasy game needs a backwoods clan of cannibals. My players rightfully called me out when I gave them southern accents.
- Phantasm: It, like my game, is stitched together from whatever seemed weird/cool at the moment.
- Harold & Maude: Maude’s the model for the elderly shield maiden having a fling with the party’s wizard.
- The Mummy // Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Do you need links to these? Both do a great job blending fantasy and naturalism. Okay, The Mummy doesn’t but the action’s fun and the props are bulky. It leans gracefully into the yakety sax.
- Rankin & Bass’s Tolkien and The Last Unicorn movies for their cute but grotty weirdness and because they’re deeply imprinted in my brain.
- Those Passolini Trilogy of Life movies set during the Middle Ages/Renaissance did similar imprinting from a different direction.
- Spaghetti Western // Hammer Horror // Shaw Brothers movies all mashed together and left to ferment and link mycelia. In my opinion these three genres meld very well together.
BOOKS // AUTHORS
- The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books by way of spoof covers.
- Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories
- The Innkeeper’s Song by Peter Beagle
- The Book of Goblins by Alan Garner (Yallery Brown!)
- One Thousand and One Nights (Especially that story where Sinbad gives a piggy-back ride to an awful man.)
- The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson
- Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti
- The Wizard of Earthsea series by Ursula K. LeGuin
- Chaucer’s Knight by Terry Jones
- Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli in His World by Erica Benner
- Early American Serial Killers and Mississippi River bandits like the Harpe Brothers.
- Every European folklore page on Wikipedia. I would try Stargazey pie.
- Cherry picked bits of Medieval/Early Renaissance History.
- Cape Ann.
*It’s not done, but we reached a good pause point and I wanted to take a break and other people wanted to run games. The goal’s to come back to it before the end of the year.
I’ve done a couple of play-throughs now of the game Thousand Year Old Vampire and thought I’d put my impressions down here.
This isn’t quite a review, just thoughts and reactions, and I’m dividing it into two posts, this one with my impressions, and another post with the write-ups of the stories the game created. That one screams of “Let me tell you all about my D&D character” and no one who doesn’t want that needs to experience that.
A tl;dr review would Thousand Year Old Vampire is good. Is it a game or is it an activity? I don’t know and I don’t care. I liked it and thought it a great way to simultaneously create and enjoy a story.
For folks who don’t know Thousand Year Old Vampire is a beautiful little game-book by Tim Hutchings of numbered entries that each contain a writing prompt that allows you to live the many centuries long life of a vampire. The way the game works is you create a character with a limited number of traits, connections, and memories. Then you become immortal and you roll dice to discover what happens to you. Events unfold mimicking the passing years and decades, each roll causing you to gain and lose memories until you’re making desperate choices about what to forget and what to remember. Soon the game becomes about whether it’s possible to retain any aspect of your original humanity as you slowly succumb to your vampirism and the toll of years.
It can be sad. It can be enlightening. It can be comical. Whatever it is, it’s certainly emotional.
And it’s random, so the story that emerges is at best messy and at worst incoherent.
You don’t get to choose what happens to you. What might seem like a cool foundation for a grand narrative early-on becomes a dead-end that never gets developed. This was the case in my first play-through, and while the experience was still fun, it didn’t feel coherent like a good book or movie would. What I did feel was like I was creating a living breathing character with a rich history, and certainly someone who could be useful in another situation. For example, Waldemar the Wolf has the makings of at least three different RPG villains depending on what stage of his incarnation you took him: the bandit wolf, the mercenary captain, or the sinister opera fanatic.
One thing I loved about it was that it’s backwards story telling: you tumble forward at random, but can craft a narrative by looking back and seeing the connection points. Do you nudge it and shape it? Yes, probably. Or I should say, it’s fine to give in to the temptation to nudge, because the game invites that just as much as it invites not doing that by churning up a series of unrelated random events.
Overall, each game took about 90 minutes or so, and at the end I felt like I had watched a pretty good horror movie either in its own right, or because it suggested other stories. When I played I went back and forth between two word documents: my vampire’s character sheet and the journal of their life while consulting wikipedia to create the concrete details.
Is it sort of like homework?
But so is Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and I love that game. If you like vampires and story-telling, this game is well-worth checking out. While I did get the book via the kickstarter, there’s a PDF available at DrivethruRPG.
And here’s another link to the second part where I tell you all about my vampires Waldemar and Antonio.
You have been warned!
Read this post for my overall thoughts on Thousand Year Old Vampire.
Continue reading here to learn all about the much checkered careers of Waldemar the Wolf and Antonio the Alchemist.
When I played I used two word documents. One was a character sheet. The other was a timeline where I recorded the events of their lives. I also had a few wikipedia pages open dealing with whatever epoch and area my vampires found themselves. For most of it I stuck to Italy starting in the Roman era and going forward as far as the game allowed. Waldemar died wretched and inhuman sometime in the 17th century, while Antonio made it all the way into the early half of the 20th century before he died a hero fighting against Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Read on to learn the particulars…
Waldemar the Wolf
Waldemar started life as a Visigoth slave in the latter days of the Roman Empire. He had a gift for canines and a charming smile. He was also having an affair with his master’s concubine. All that ended when he gets attacked by a vampire (a decadent Roman senator) and changes. His first victim proves to be his lover, only she’s transformed into a vampire, and the two end up at odds with each other. She betrays him to the authorities and Waldemar flees into the Alps where he spends so much time among the wolves that he starts to resemble them. His vampire marks take the form of sharp teeth and a whispering voice. Eventually an avalanche buries his lair and he spends centuries entombed in a cave.
It’s not until the Middle Ages that Waldemar emerges to join the mercenary free companies. Over time he attracts many followers and gains a reputation for ruthless brutality. The whole while he’s pillaging and amassing a vast fortune that he hides in the countryside near Venice. But in time, the other mercenary captains grow jealous of him and denounce him as a satanic monster. This sends him packing for Germany where he returns to more wolfish banditry, preying upon the unwary.
It’s in Germany that he gains a new mark: gnarled claws for hands. And it’s also there that he falls in love with classical music and opera.
At some point in the 16th century he remembers his hidden fortune and returns to Italy. There in a Venetian villa he starts to take a keen interest in the theater. Meanwhile, his hands become more painful, and he hires a shady doctor to inject narcotized blood into his knuckles. He’s also keeping an old crone around to look after him, because she reminds him of his mother.
He tries to write an opera and it fails catastrophically. He takes to brooding in his villa.
It is there one day that he first espies the doctor’s daughter. And so would begin a new obsession, but the doctor realizes what’s happening and kills Waldemar by injecting him with toxic blood.
So long, Waldemar.
Antonio the Alchemist
I pretty much stuck with the Rome theme and had Antonio be another young man made into a vampire by a decadent Roman senator (the same one that would go on to bite Waldemar a century or two later).
Antonio’s an urban youth, caught between his petty criminal brother, an early Christian street preacher, and a noblewoman lover. The one with the strongest pull over him is the preacher, who will unfortunately become Antonio’s first victim when he’s turned into a vampire. Antonio will take the preacher’s place and establish himself as a messianic figure in the early church. His brother and lover will join him and the three will use the cult to benefit themselves. However, when the Emperor passes some anti-Christian laws, Antonio’s cult collapses leaving only the most fanatical behind. These he preys upon until a betrayal by his brother sees Antonio entombed alive.
There he waits out the centuries, until a priest unseals his tomb and returns him to life. Antonio bends the priest to his will and takes up once more feeding upon a Christian congregation. He might have gone on this way, if not for the arrival of a powerful wizard known simply as the Woman From Across the Sea. She takes Antonio with her on a mystic quest where their fates become bound. In the end, she claims a favor from him.
The experience somewhat unhinges Antonio’s mind and he heavily rewrites his journal to hide his more atrocious crimes. Yet, guilt plagues him and he becomes obsessed with the question of salvation. This makes him take actual religious vows.
In the Church, he gains a reputation as an alchemist and scholar, but he no longer remembers his brother, his lover, or even how he became a vampire.
At this point the Woman From Across the Sea returns claiming her favor: a vial of Antonio’s blood. She uses it to create an elixir that satisfies his blood cravings.
Meanwhile, Antonio’s skills as an alchemist have earned him many patrons and he has no problem taking money trying to transform lead into gold. This makes him wealthy and disliked. But his enemies are no match for his quick-wits.
Alchemy gives way to astrology which gives way to astronomy. Antonio becomes obsessed with the stars and starts experimenting with telescopes. He wants to see the sun again. This leads him to study solar eclipses. Despite it being the 16th century, he starts constructing a device with which he might view the sun’s corona during an eclipse. This gets him in trouble with the church and denounced as a heretic. But it doesn’t stop him from making the attempt. This ends in failure, and leaves him almost blind. But his reputation as an expert on optics remains. His next attempt succeeds, and he manages to capture an image of the sun’s corona.
And for a generation Antonio’s the darling of the scientific world. It’s only later when a new generation unearths his alchemical poetry that his reputation falters, and he gets viewed out as a quack.
This sends Antonio into seclusion, where the Woman From Across the Sea finds him again. They speak of many thing, the nature of transformation being the most prominent. Something in Antonio once more stirs.
It’s around here that Antonio takes up poetry, using it to veil his esoteric ideas.
By now it’s the 19th century, and Antonio’s poetry has come into favor with a new generation. He once more has disciples and devotees. But he’s a little bit more wary, knowing how fickle fashion can be. He establishes a school for metaphysical research, and it’s there that the Woman From Across the Sea finds him one last time. Together they manage to conceive a child.
Before long, it’s the 1920s, and Antonio’s Metaphysical Institute is viewed as subversive by the Fascist government. The Blackshirts arrive in the dead of night ready to do their worst, but Antonio is there ready for them. He fights them singlehandedly allowing his disciples enough time to escape. He dies, burned to death by the Fascists, but future generations remember him as a hero.
Each story was a wild ride, full of unpredictable twists and turns. Waldemar met three other vampires early in his life, but never interacted with them again. Antonio had a weird relationship with the immortal Woman From Across the Sea. That came about quite nicely, and whenever the story prompted me for an immortal character I had her appear again.
Here’s the link again to my other post on my impressions of the overall game.
Adventure the Last: Who’s that Knocking Under My Floor?
The summer was nearly over. Folks had to go back to work or their home countries.
The adventure opened with Oscar, Boulder, Micah, and Jenny the serving girl from Adventure Four at home in the former haunted house from Adventure the First, when the floor cracked open and a bunch of zombies stumbled out.
These were quickly defeated, but the hole remained and it turned out the party’s headquarters had a whole unexplored level beneath it holding who knew what horrors. The crew (except for Jenny who stayed upstairs) headed down to investigate and found various undead menaces, sacrificial altars, and tombs all controlled by the reconstituted ghost of the necromancer they had defeated all the way back in the first adventure. Only now it was stronger and meaner. In the end the ghost was defeated, but not before cursing Boulder and making him age 70 years.
And that’s how Boulder stayed, since this turned out to be the last adventure. It was kind of nice coming full circle that way, but if we had gone on I would’ve had the party try and find some way to heal Boulder.
And so, it ended…
Like I said the campaign felt very episodic and didn’t have any big storyline pushing it forward. I didn’t mind this, especially since a neat setting was starting to emerge as the players interacted with the world around them. Mancuzo, the Maddling, and the Volod Brothers all would have made great recurring antagonists. If the game had gone on I would have added more politics to it by having the authorities and various factions take note of Oscar Gordon start interfering.
And despite my complaints in regards to running an open table, I did like the variance of different personalities showing up from week to week. Of course now I’d only be able to get one of the core players back since almost everyone else has left town, and we’re already playing other games so I’m resigned to let this lie and smile when I think of where the Madling is now.
Adventure the Sixth: Every Ghoul Has Her Day
Fun fact: I’m lousy at doing voices and basically every one of my NPCs sounds like Tom Waits. And so this adventure…
The party was hired by a woman who sounded a lot like Tom Waits and planned on running off to the swamps to live with her ghoul boyfriend. Her family of course had other ideas, as did another family of ghouls that wanted to disrupt the marriage.
This was the only adventure without the core players of Oscar or Boulder. Instead it was Ahtera, Micah, Wilson (who at this point was almost full Wendigo), and new characters Fellborn and Ekniv. Fellborn’s player was the same guy who ran Nibless and Geth, and Ekniv’s player was the one that made me refer to an open table as one susceptible to pests as he was just there to heckle and annoy the Fellborn player. Without Oscar and Boulder the rest of the group didn’t really cohere (they were also the ones with the least game experience.).
The swamp roads were full of all sorts of odd things, plus potential sites for dungeon-crawling if the party wanted to come back and do so. There was a mad hermit (who sounded like Tom Waits) and some weird slime tentacles all around. The party managed to avoid the girl’s family, but ran afoul of the hermit and the rival ghouls. There was a showdown on a bridge, and Wilson failed a saving throw against eating one the ghouls. His player was a sport about this, although never really followed up on what was going on.
I did enjoy how Wilson’s arc was like some after school special about the small town boy who moves to the big city to fulfill dreams only to get transformed into a horrible flesh-eating monster.
But they reached the ghouls they wanted and the woman paid them and there was a wedding, but I don’t think anyone, except Wilson, stuck around for the reception once they saw what was on the menu.
Last adventure Oscar Gordon and crew escorted a box of bones across town and while doing so bumped into a drunk wizard named the Dread Mancuzo.
In this adventure, the Dread Mancuzo invited them over for dinner…
Adventure the fifth: Enter the Maddling!
So the Dread Mancuzo invited the party over to his tower for dinner, vaguely remembering meeting them but unsure of the circumstances. Oscar, Haragrin, Micah, Boulder, and Geth accepted.
Of course Mancuzo had another motive. He’d betrayed another wizard, Rendak the Absconder, and now feared Rendak’s revenge. Mancuzo hoped by having the party around they would give him some protection.
But before Rendak showed up the party hung out with Mancuzo and his aged mother, and they gave vague answers as to how they met each other. Finally after his mom went to bed Mancuzo took the party on a tour of his workroom. And it was there that Rendak showed up with his four-armed ape sidekick, the two of them riding giant bats. Not only was this bad, but Rendak had led the inter-dimensional monstrosity, the Maddling, straight to Mancuzo’s door.
I loved this adventure. Although it was less an adventure and simply a horrible situation with the party stuck between two feuding higher-leveled NPCs (Rendak and crew were there to steal a McGuffin from Mancuzo) while an horrendous beast rained destruction down upon everything. And while the Maddling was simply a reskinned white dragon very much in the PCs power range, I showed them that picture at the head of this post and they were terrified.
In the end the Maddling survived, Mancuzo fled in a metal orb, and Rendak and crew got whatever they came for, while Geth and Haragrin died and everyone else fled with Mancuzo’s valuables stuffed in their pockets. Fun times!
Regarding reskinning, I’ve played with both GMs and players that won’t do it, because they think it’s unfair. In their minds: the players should know what they’re up against and all that. A white dragon should be a white dragon, and recognizable as such. Needless to say I don’t buy into that at all, but I can see the point of the counter-argument.
I don’t know, but if you have thoughts either way, I’d be interested in hearing them.
(But I mean, c’mon, when you see a picture like that at the top you have to stat it up!)
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