Now that the public thirst for vampires has been gorged in the popular media with works like True Blood, Twilight, and Let the Right One In (all book-to-visual adaptations, I might add), it’s time for tabletop role-playing games to join the proverbial party.
Oh sure, there’s Mark Rein-Hagen’s ol’ workhorse Vampire: The Masquerade (and its not-quite-ambitious-enough sequel). But playing White Wolf’s mediocre munchkinizer system for decades has left me yearning for a role-playing game that – rather than enabling the play of angst-ridden, pseudo-mysterious, bloodthirsty super-beings – addresses the core issues of vampire fiction, namely the poetically rendered psychology of the vampire’s victims: what makes one attractive to the vampire? how does the vampire manifest and seduce someone? what does the vampire represent?
The system that addresses these issues and more exists and has a name: Annalise.
The Hard Facts
Before I get analytical and philosophical here, let me summarize the game for your benefit. Annalise is an independently published role-playing game designed for 2-4 players, in which all involved grapple with the turmoil and discovery of a threatening vampire in the manner of Gothic horror fiction. It’s a little like a board game (with cards and dice), a little like improv theater (acting out characters in scenes) and a lot like a writer’s workshop on melodramatic overdrive. As the author himself describes it, Annalise is:
… a noprep, short- to medium-form, setting-less, GM-less
game. It could be considered a “story game” in the
sense that the product of play is intended to resemble
the kind of Gothic horror fiction described above.
“Noprep” means none of the players need to come prepared with any pre-developed story materials (i.e., character sheets, plotlines, etc.) and “short- to medium-form” means it’ll run between one and six sessions of play, each four hours in length. “Setting-less” means it can take place in any location at any time, and the threat need not even be a vampire. “GM-less” means all involved are players, and no one possesses any arbitrary authority over any other. As a “story game,” it suggests Narrativist leanings, or at least the inclusion of conscious, articulated metaplot rules (i.e., how to reiterate a story’s themes) along with ordinary task-resolution rules (i.e., whether or not my character succeeds at something).
It’s a parlor role-playing game you play in a candlelit room with your three closest friends, or (more likely) in a brightly lit convention center with three near-total strangers, as seen below:
Jonathon Walton and Shreyas Sampat play an early version of Annalise in 2008.
As you can see, a lot of tokens and paper are needed to pull introspectively into your character’s relationship with the vampire. All bargains have a price…
How to Role-play a Novel
It is curious that Nathan D. Paoletta chose to name his game Annalise, an Anglo-European girl’s name with connotations of grace and/or favor. Yet the odd name of the game is somehow tantamount to the game itself. Viewed as an analogy to the game’s content, the name conjures up the image of a vulnerable white female (see cover above) who not so much acts as reacts, whose power lies in the granting of permissions, and who is beset with internal conflict. It works, however, as an analogy to the game system as well: players assume the roles of protagonists somehow affected by the vampire rather than the vampire itself, with key mechanics determining how much sway the vampire has over your character’s emotions and/or how far you permit the vampire to take things. In effect, Annalise is a game about finding a response to the external demons who threaten you by coming to terms with the internal demons who haunt you. It is (in this respect) the closest gaming equivalent to the experience of reading proper literature I have ever experienced.
How does a role-playing game accomplish all this? Well, since the game is built on the premise that system does matter, Annalise deploys solid design with an eye for the necessary functions of literary narrative. Now it would take me all day to unpack what a “literary narrative” is for all to see, so I’ll limit the definition to: a narrative that gives equal weight to poetic imagery, character interiority and conflict-motivated, chapter-like scenes.
A long digression: most gamers still actually think their role-playing games generate all of the above, such that a game with the right chemistry among the players suddenly produces all the trappings of satisfying fiction. The game “feels” like a book (Amber), movie (Feng Shui), play (most jeepform games), video game (Street Fighter), TV show (Primetime Adventures), comic book (With Great Power), etc. Yet I associate certain role-playing titles with certain media (like those above) because, in my mind, they somehow capture the distinct internal rhythms of that particular medium better than others. Feng Shui gets that movie feel from the introduction of metacinematic game mechanisms like “One Bullet Left” (i.e., no matter how many shots you have fired in an action sequence, you always seem to have one bullet still left in your gun… when you really need it… like in a movie). Primetime Adventures does it through metatelevisual mechanisms, like the producers’ limited budget determining actual game length. Street Fighter even steps it up with its video-game-like combat system, in which you deploy special moves during combat scenes as if you were pounding buttons in an arcade. To these ends, Feng Shui mechanically organizes itself around the opening fight / plot complications / midway showdown / total disaster / final showdown dramaturgy, Primetime Adventures around the inevitable character twists that drive TV viewer interest, and Street Fighter around a mixture of structured and unstructured martial arts dueling. That means no extra dangly bits to get in the way. Most games, however, run into trouble striking a suitable balance with the media of their inspiration: pre-4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons was a hybrid with two leaden feet in war simulation and mid-20th Century fantasy literature whose patent absurdity to outsiders and insiders alike led it to becoming easily parodied medium of its own; Rein-Hagen’s Vampire was busy forming a vampire mythology to parallel Ann Rice without bothering to fix its own debilitating fascination with war simulation (i.e., the game rules still care whether you’re shooting a vampire with a revolver or an Uzi); Steve Jackson’s GURPS deems itself suitable for telling any story in any setting, so long as your story is an adventure story that tests competence. Not that games not intending to simulate certain specific media are always incoherent, but they tend to consistently whisper to the player: “You are trying to tell a simple story by playing a silly little game.” A whisper that undermines all kinds of creativity and interest.
Back to Annalise, a game which drowns out that silly whisper inside you with the seductive whispers of Faustian bargains carelessly struck and the anguished whimpers of tormented dreamers clinging desperately to their last shreds of humanity. The game mechanically articulates the finer points of literature without losing sight of the cheap tropes (i.e., blood-red roses, curtains blowing against a closed window, etc.) that continue to raise goosebumps. Let’s see how it does this:
* Dramaturgical Structure – The structure of a good literary story is practically written into the four phases of the game: Discovering Characters, Laying the Foundations, The Confrontation, and The Aftermath. Players create and introduce their vulnerable characters in the first, build their relationship to the vampire in the second, confront it in the third and determine the fallout in the fourth.
* Scene Guides – Instead of having a game-master, players take turns as “scene guides,” setting up compromising scenarios for their fellow players’ characters as the vampire’s grip on them tightens. Authorship is passed around easily and sans power struggle.
* Claims – Players can “claim” non-player characters, props, locations, visual motifs, relationships and events introduced by other players as bits of fiction they control. Shadowy dogs, bodiless limbs, Frank’s uncle, the oncoming storm, tapping fingernails; the cheap tropes list is nigh inexhaustible. This is the players’ way of telling the others: “That thing you came up with was so awesome, it’s got to come up again!” These Claims then help you out later in the game, ensuring their recurrence in the story as well as a useful game boost.
* Core/Satellite Traits – Characters are built from the very traits that make them interesting as literature would make them: their Vulnerabilities and Secrets. The former come from the character’s player, the latter from a group-generated pool of Secrets, guaranteeing that someone likely suspects a character of having “their” Secret and adding a metaplot element of dramatic irony to the game. My Core Traits could be “I am vulnerable because my parents never denied me my wishes” and “I can never reveal that I only care about myself,” from which my Satellite Traits “Wealthy,” “Ambitious,” “Manipulative,” and “Irresistibly Cute” may develop over the course of play. Signifiers already point to Signified, with the players knowing what to expect from a character while still in suspense (via the Secreet) about their true motives.
* Moments – To drive each conflicted scene to resolution, Moments determine what Achievement a character gets from a conflict, if any, and what the Consequences are for their actions. This is, again, an elegant means of depicting the basic flow of literary conflict: how characters get what they want, and how much they need to pay. In Annalise, winning every fight with your parents and refusing the vampire’s every advance may make you more than ripe for the vampire to take possession of your body later on…
* Confrontation – Do you Give In, or do you Resist? The game makes your choice about the vampire absolutely explicit.
The New Edition
Though Annalise has been available online as a PDF and in varying print forms since 2008, the Final edition will be made available at GenCon 2010 in Indianapolis next week. What else can I say, other than this edition reads easily, references itself quickly and looks beautiful? Annalise exemplifies how RPGs should present themselves and how they should organize the information contained within their highly sculpted pages. The twenty-four pages of angsty teenage fiction (complete with 30 Days of Night-worthy artwork by Jennifer Rodgers) and six Guided Play scenarios (for fast convention action) feel like added value rather than game publisher’s fluff. Play examples, summaries and a step-by-step guide to each game phase make the game immediately understandable to the lay and experienced reader alike, as well as recognize the game’s inherent complexity without insulting the intelligence of the reader.
A unified vision of coherent game rules, integrated visual design and clear technical writing may make this vampire game the bridge we’ve all been waiting for between the smallish coterie of story gamers and the vast, geeky gaming world that surrounds them.
Now if only the “Twihards” knew about this…