Open up your eyes, you keep on crying, baby, I’ll bleed you dry
Kings of Leon, “Closer”
I thought of that vampire again decades later, when the ninth series of the revived Doctor Who introduced the character of Ashildr, played by Game of Throne’s own Maisie Williams. A 9th century Viking girl, the Doctor saves her life in such a way that it renders her immortal. When next they meet, six centuries later, she had taken to calling herself “Me” because she too has forgotten her name. Her lifespan is infinite, but not her memory. She writes in journals to preserve things, and tears out pages for things too painful to remember.
All this brings us to Tim Hutchings’ elegiac little masterpiece, Thousand Year Old Vampire. The plot is all right there in the title (spoilers!). You, the player, will create and take on the role of a vampire and (un)live out the millennium (give or take a few centuries) between the loss or your mortality and the eventual end of your existence. You will watch the world you knew and everything in it slowly crumble to dust, as incomprehensible new people and ideas replace it. Then you will watch these new ideas turn to dust and get replaced. And as the centuries slide by, you will fight to hold on to your memories, forced to either discard old memories in favour of new ones, or to cling to your ancient memories and forget the new ones. You will lose memories, loved ones, resources, and perhaps even your own name. But your existence goes on and on and on.
I still remember, I still love
I still remember, where I came from
Love to lover, days in the sun…
Grace Jones, “Seduction/Surrender”
TYOV is a solo game (though it does not have to be, read on) played with just you, the book, and somewhere to keep notes. A D10 and D6 are recommended, but there is a random number generator in the back of the book. It works like this: first you will create a vampire, and its powers, weakness, origin, and human identity are all up to you. Then, you play the vampire through a series of prompts in the rule book. The choices you make create a unique and often desolate saga of immortal existence. You can chose to play this quickly, all in a single sitting, or chose the journaling option where you write a vampire story as you play.
Your vampire is defined by Memories, Skills, Resources, Characters, and Marks.
The vampire begins play with five Memory “slots,” and since Memory is the most complex (and probably most important) part of the game we will spend the most time explaining it. Basically, a Memory is an episode of your existence, and it is in turn is made up of smaller “Experiences.” An Experience is a couple of sentences that sum up the character’s response to a prompt (more on those below). For example;
A prompt reads “How do you find solace from the raging hunger within you?” You decide that your vampire falls in love with a mortal, and for a time forgets his own curse. You write;
I sat and watched him from the windowsill, the moonlight sliding over his body, and the dead heart that no longer beat in my chest ached for him with a hunger that eclipsed my lust for blood. I did not wish to drain the life in him, but to preserve it.
This single response to the prompt is an Experience. But subsequent Experiences can be linked with this one (up to three total) and these linked experiences become a Memory. For example, another prompt reads “You commit a despicable murder, but not for the sake of feeding. Why?” You decide that you discover the object of your love has betrayed you with another, and kill him in a jealous rage. You write;
The woman lying naked beside him saw me first, and her scream filled the house. I ravaged her, her blood a red torrent down my throat. He watched me, helpless, and did nothing when I came to him and snapped his neck. Weeping, I watched the light go out in his eyes.
These two Experiences form a Memory that you call “Arad,” the name of the man you loved.
Every time you respond to a prompt, you create a new event which must either be linked to a previous Memory or form a new Memory all its own. The problem is, after awhile you will “fill up” (you can have five Memories of three Experiences each), so as new Events come you must start choosing which to keep and which to discard. You can delete older Memories to make space for the new, and yes…even forget your own name.
I’ll never wash these clothes, I want to keep the stain
Your blood to me is precious, nor would I shed it in vain
Sinead O’Connor, “You Made Me The Thief Of Your Heart”
Skills are things you are capable of doing or things you have done. Sometimes a prompt will tell you to check a skill. This means you use that Skill to resolve the prompt. Once checked, however, you cannot check it again, and must use a different skill in a later prompt. Prompts also give you new Skills from time to time. If you have no unchecked Skills, you fail the prompt and lose the game. Any Skill can resolve any prompt, but part of the game is explaining how. How does your “Ruthless Cunning” defeat the mob of vampire hunters? How does your “Silent as the Grave” defeat the invading army?
Resources are things the vampire owns or has at its disposal. Sometimes a prompt will give you a new resource, sometimes demand you expend one. Again, if you have no resources to expend, you lose the game. Resources can be as small as “a jeweled dagger” or as large as “a criminal empire.” Part of writing the Experience then is how you use the Resource to answer the prompt.
One of the more important Resources is the “diary.” A character may volunteer to shift a Memory into a Diary, allowing them to preserve it. However, there are prompts that destroy Resources, and it is very possible to lose one or more of your diaries in play. They can even fall into the hands of your enemies.
Characters come in two varieties. Mortals are the humans, and Immortals are other vampires, demons, angels, deathless witches, etc. As with Resources sometimes a prompt will give you new characters and sometimes it will take them away. One common occurrence is with Mortal characters. To keep track of the passage of time, periodically you will be asked to scratch out Mortals from your character sheet, showing that they have aged and died. Characters can be allies, enemies, and everything in between.
Finally we have Marks. A Mark is something that marks you as inhuman. It might be a lack of reflection, icy skin, dead black eyes, claw like hands, etc. Certain prompts will cause you to gain Marks and others remove them.
All this brings us to the actual prompts. There are about 80 of these in the “core” game (though the book includes scores more for use after you have played a few times and need fresh ones). They are numbered, and they progress roughly through the beginning, middle, and end of your vampire’s existence. For example, all the earliest prompts deal with experiences becoming a vampire while those in the 70s are how you meet your demise.
These are writing or thinking prompts, very open-ended. For example, prompt number one reads;
“In your blood-hunger you destroy someone close to you. Kill a mortal Character. Create one if none are available. Take the skill Bloodthirsty.”
From this you decide who the victim is, how exactly the death occurs, how this effects your character, etc. Since you start the game with mortal characters you created as part of the background, this might involve the trauma of killing someone who was part of your human existence.
Later, you encounter prompt number sixteen which reads;
“Some mortals have banded together to hunt you, well-armed and wise to your tricks. How do you defeat or evade them? Create a mortal hunter related to one of your checked skills. Check a skill.”
Here you would add a new Character to your sheet (the hunter) and check one of your skills to defeat them. You decide to use Bloodthirsty from prompt one, and then to proceed to describe how you do not go after the hunters, but instead hunt down and slaughter everyone dear to them until they are devastated and broken and give up their hunt.
Prompts are randomly determined by rolling a D10 and a D6, and subtracting the latter from the former. You then move forward, or back, to the corresponding prompt. If you land on a prompt a second or third time, extra variations of that prompt at give, the second and third in increasing severity and intensity.
In a quick play game you just answer these prompts, verbally or mentally. In a journaling game you might write an in-character diary entry to describe them, ending up at the end of the game with your very own vampire novella.
Appendices and Final Thoughts
The appendices are full of extra prompts from various contributors, expanding the game in some very intriguing ways. There are interviews with the author, giving valuable insight into the game’s design, and there are ideas for group play. One involves exchanging letters with other players (or perhaps a shared online document) and having the vampire characters share Resources and Characters…sometimes stealing resources from another, or killing one of their Characters. The vampires of this game are not necessarily the political, clan-based infighting sort seen in the various iterations of Vampire, but they are apex predators who do not play well with rivals.
Which brings me to one of the final points about the game. There is no baked-in mythology here, no setting, not even a timeline (it is called Thousand Year Old Vampire but nothing stops yours from being 5000, or even 500). Does your vampire drink blood? Suck breath? Feed off the life-force of mortal lovers? Devour victims whole? Your Marks allow you to be as weird or unique as you like. The book reminds us that Google is our friend. With a bit of research you can play in any historical period you like, or even into the far future. Again the prompts are more creative writing tools than anything else, so the only practical limit is the players imagination.
But this is not a pretty game. You are running a character that has a mind and will of its own. The prompts will often tell you what your vampire has done, and then leave you to justify it. The central theme of it is loss: yes, the vampire is immortal, but absolutely everything around them rots and is lost to time. A secondary theme is reinvention. Your vampire will often willingly chose to forget their extensive knowledge of medieval heraldry or classical Latin in order to make room for computer programming, automobile driving, and the like. Thus the vampire moves through history, but retains no tangible hold on it. It is a lonely game, a scary game, and yes…an addicting one.