B: What was your introduction to Jyhad / V:TES and what made you pick it up? Do you have much recollection of those first early games, and getting your head around the iconography and that tiny, thick rulebook?
RG: I remember that era pretty vividly. I was in my mid-twenties and me and my friends had been playing board games on the weekends since we were in high school. I saw the buzz at our local gaming convention when Magic: the Gathering was first released and we played a few games but it didn’t really click with our group. Mind you, I was at that gaming convention playing an 8-player, 8-hour game of Advanced Civilization so I’m not surprised we found Magic a poor fit for our tastes. The CCG genre definitely appealed to me. I had my Magic cards, we tried Spellfire, and I even did some playtesting for Wyvern. My gaming group created multi-player house rules for the Star Trek CCG and we had a good deal of fun with that.
But soon after, I saw the mysterious Jyhad box on the shelf at the local game store and I bought two starter decks out of pure curiosity. You probably remember that those starter decks were randomized so it required a ton of effort to get to the point of playing that first game but still there was something magical happening during those first experiences. The game has a pretty niche audience but we were definitely it. Once we discovered it, everything else fell to the wayside. Our weekly boardgames became twice weekly Jyhad games. Jyhad was my first exposure to the World of Darkness and, while I didn’t consciously care one way or another about the game setting, I did appreciate that the game mechanics felt like they were plucked from the WoD material instead of being a tacked-on theme.
How vibrant was that early West Coast scene, in terms of deck design and the size of the playgroup? What was it like seeing those deck archetypes that we all know and love (or love to hate) today emerge, and did the local scene bend more toward combat, deal-making, or something else entirely?My local playgroup was a consistent five to eight people but by word of mouth we came to know of games being played all over Los Angeles. One night we might play at my home, the next night we’d do an all-nighter after closing hours at a Burbank game store or at a random coffee shop in Hollywood. It seemed like people were playing everywhere around us. When you played in these pickup games there was an immediate recognition that your opponents fell into one of two camps. They were either RPG fans playing their favorite clans and cards from the World of Darkness or they were serious gamers looking for winning combinations. We fell into the latter camp.
Are there any classic Goudie decks or strategies that emerged here? Anything that’d make the locals would roll their eyes at and say, yeah, that’s Robert for you…
Funny but I was just reminiscing last night with some V:TES veterans on Facebook. Peter Bakija reminded me that I once had a bleed deck that had a single Dragon’s Breath Round in the decklist. This was back when a Zip Gun and Dragon’s Breath Round combo could appear instantly and ruin an opposing vampire’s day. I didn’t want to devote deck slots to combat so I just put in the single Dragon’s Breath Round solely for the purpose of discarding it. It was wildly successful ploy. Opponents had to assume I already had a Dragon’s Breath Round and a Zip Gun in my hand and that the discard was an extra copy. It was enough to make a combat deck pause and not attack me until they had some kind of counter in their hand. And that brief pause was hopefully enough time for me to oust a prey or two. All of that came from just playing a lot and being hyper-aware of what people assume of the game state when they see a card in the discard pile.
So maybe I’m known mostly for social manipulation, focussed decks with small, disposable vampires and some unusual play styles.
I had a speedy bleed deck at one time but I eventually realized it was too speedy! If you are bleeding big on turn two, your prey will stop spending pool and you’ll probably have to bleed them for nearly 30 pool to oust them. So after that realization, I decided to start my tournaments by refusing to bring vampires into play for 30 minutes or even as long as one hour so that I could start the next fateful turn with four ready vampires and hopefully, by that time, my prey (and their prey) had already spent half their pool. I was much more successful with that approach.
How conscious were you of the broader V:TES community?
We were very aware of the larger community and became involved early on. I was on the old VTES-L@ORACLE.WIZARDS.COM list server as well as Usenet, asking questions and keeping up with rulings and errata and relaying all of that info to the local players. Our own tournaments were drawing 25+ players so there wasn’t a lot of desire to travel and play in a smaller event somewhere else. More importantly, the closest games were on the other side of the country and much too distant for car travel. Our curiosity eventually got the better of us and we flew a contingent out to attend the V:TES World Championships at GenCon a few times.
So we’d be talking late 1990s here? What was that larger scene like, and how’d the LA crew fare?
Right. 1999 was our first time there. Only two of us went this first time and I reached the finals along with the world famous, David Tatu. I ultimately finished in 2nd place to Jarret Welch. In 2000 we took a group of 5 players and got two local players, Mike Courtois and Steve Bucy, into the finals (but again fell short of the win). Before 2000 we really didn’t know if our skills were on par with those of other players in the country so it was nice to have that question settled definitively.
As we move from the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, we have greater formalisation of rulings (I’m thinking here of the 7/7 rulings), the RTR, the creation of V:EKN, White Wolf taking over the licence, the V:TES in LA website (one of the best sites around, at the time). Looking back, it was a relatively short space of time from the game going from a Wild West of mechanics and play styles with no official support, through to a game that was back in print, formalised, and approaching new heights of popularity. How’d that feel from your perspective?
It’s interesting that it is perceived as such a chaotic time prior to White Wolf taking on support. It’s not an incorrect assessment but from where I was sitting it felt like we were always sort of organized. The players really kept the game alive coordinating our own tournaments, LSJ in an unofficial capacity archiving rulings, Stephen Buonocore creating “The Archon,” our own player ratings managed by Robyn Tatu, and even eventually getting control of the tournament rules from Wizards. The player websites like VTES in LA, The Lasombra, LSJ’s “Rulemonger” site and countless others basically filled the gaps left by the lack of support from WotC. Of course, the reality is that our efforts were only a taste of what was truly needed to support the game. Once White Wolf took over they pretty much adopted everything we were already doing and just expanded on it.
As players this was beyond anything we could dream of. We went from begging WotC for a few new cards (we had convinced them to let us share part of a sheet on an upcoming print job) to full-blown production from White Wolf. It was surreal for the game to again be so active.
I’ve heard of this intention for a partial sheet before, but it sounded like a thought-bubble rather than something that had progressed in any meaningful way. Were you one of the coterie working to win Wizards over?
If you are imagining some kind of dialogue or negotiation with Wizards you would be off the mark. At this point it was probably just organized harassment on our part and doing anything we could to be a nuisance to Wizards. We did a letter writing campaign for a while and I also weaseled my way into some conference call (for distributors possibly?) and asked during an open QA how Wizards intended to support their legacy CCG products. Somewhere during this time they agreed to print a single sheet of cards that would be split among all of their legacy CCGs.
The timing of this was bumping up against the expiration of the White Wolf license so the expectation was that the V:EKN would try to decide how best to use the few card slots we were getting while Wizards would take care of the formality of renewing the license with White Wolf.
Do you remember what sort of cards you wanted on there, or what perceived gaps there were in the game as it stood at the time?
That might be a better question for LSJ. Things happened quickly with the license so I don’t think we got very far along in this process. We may have been thinking about reprinting some hard to find cards but maybe also about fixing some cards with errata’d text.
You mentioned V:EKN earlier. How did the player organisation come to be, from your perspective?
Once it became clear that V:TES was going out of print we looked around and saw that we were not the first community to suffer this fate. Netrunner was already put on the shelf, had an organized play community, and was lobbying to get an already-developed expansion to the printer. We simply copied and pasted the Netrunner “Top Runner’s Conference” charter and changed the name. We even had the same goals–support our game as best we could in the interim while doing everything possible to convince Wizards to resume support and print more cards.
Are there moments of your time as Chair that you’re particularly proud of?
I suppose I’m a little proud that the game resumed production during my watch but that result may be more coincidence than causation. I don’t think I did anything particularly special or innovative. I was just trying to give V:TES the appearance of a game that still had some life in it. If “active” games had tournaments and player ratings then we’d have tournaments and player ratings. If some fool at Wizards says that V:TES lacks the kind of faction loyalty that is present with other successful games, well, then I guess we better start doing Clan Newsletters. The naysayers gave us our marching orders–whatever they said we lacked, we tried to implement.
Was the licence swap to White Wolf something that came out of the blue for you, or had you been doing some lobbying behind the scenes? Steve Wieck and White Wolf must have seen something impressive from the American scene to commit to licensing the game.
It was a complete surprise. I would be curious to hear Steve Wieck’s take on this. I had always assumed that Steve asked Wizards to flip the license but it could also be that Wizards initiated the conversation. I know that some Netrunner fans inside of Wizards were looking to entice other publishers to take over printing of that game. So the idea of ridding themselves of the distractions brought by their legacy products is an idea that was floating around inside of Wizards at that time.
I remember the game seemed to explode in popularity after the announcement. The one-two punch of Sabbat War and Final Nights in 2000 and 2001 brought in a lot of interest and transformed my local scene into something that was more tournament-heavy. What were some of the memorable evolutions in the scene from your perspective?
I remember that 2001 was a big turning point at GenCon and for the national tournament scene. White Wolf resuming production of the game meant that the tournaments were now officially supported and actively promoted. Attendance was huge that year and the most competitive field to date. The final table was stacked with known talent—Ben Peal, Jared Strait, Trey Morita, and Stephen Fazio. I was also again in the finals and was pleased to earn second place (again dammit!) with a weenie potence deck. Nearly 20 years later and I could still give you a play-by-play of that final table game. It was an epic first championship event of the White Wolf era.
It’s important to call out that 2000 and 2001 began the grass-roots creation of the Week of Nightmares. In 2000 it was simply a bunch of players agreeing to stay in the same hotel near GenCon and we ended up arriving early and playing some extra pickup games. By 2001 it had taken on a life of its own with dozens of players arriving a full week early and playing pickup games in the hotel bar for upwards of 18 hours a day. Being surrounded by so many V:TES fanatics, a shopping cart full of booze, and the epic tournaments, this was the absolute peak of V:TES for me.
How’d the local scene respond to and change due to the White Wolf sets? Was everything well-received or did the game head in directions that the group didn’t respond to?
Generally speaking, everybody loved the sets. The details are, of course, much murkier. As with anything that has such passionate fans, people are so invested in the product that there are a ton of things you can complain about at any given moment. Contentious areas of debate were the Imbued, Event cards, and then any number of cards that were deemed unbalanced at one time or another. It was probably the same conversations taking place in other playgroups but maybe amped up a tiny bit in mine since people felt like I might be able to put a bug in Scott’s ear.
And how was the relationship between White Wolf and V:EKN? Did you feel that White Wolf ‘got’ the game – and did V:EKN and the broader player base sufficiently understand what White Wolf were trying to drive, as well as the commercial realities of keeping the game going?
White Wolf and the V:EKN were perfect partners. Steve Wieck, especially, seemed to have a great feel for the game and the community. The most important thing he did was to observe and listen. He didn’t come in and shove changes down our throats. Instead, he took the time to learn what we liked about the game and then made sure not to screw it up. I don’t know if WW was really trying to drive anything at all. Our agendas were in synch. As long as they could justify things financially then there was no reason the game couldn’t continue.
It seems that the length and multiplayer aspect of V:TES were some of the key aspects that got you interested and kept you playing. Were there any aspects of the game that didn’t gel with you – whether as rules mechanisms or in terms of how they portrayed the setting and theme – and has your opinion on those aspects changed over time?
No, it all gelled with us – well, with most of us. When our weekly board gaming group became a fulltime V:TES-only group, we had some friends who drifted away to pursue other interests.
For those of us that stuck with V:TES, we were aware of the inherent flaws related to the game’s favoring of weenie vampires or that player elimination was a lousy design element. But I suppose the same things that make the game great are what limit its broad appeal. You could create a two-player version with stripped-down rules—maybe skipping initial influence and starting with all crypt in play, remove most combat steps, eliminate torpor, and so on. This revised version might be more popular than V:TES but I doubt any of us would play it. I’m involved with another niche hobby that struggles for broader acceptance and it has the same challenges.
Okay, I think I need to know… what’s the other niche hobby?
These days I do a lot of obstacle course and ultra endurance races. Obstacle course races can be as short as 3 miles but I gravitate toward 12-hour and 24-hour endurance events. (Now that I think about it, there is a lot of overlap between my old masochistic hobby and my new masochistic hobby) At some endurance events we might do things like wear a 40 lb. backpack while also awkwardly carrying three sandbags or a five-gallon bucket full of water.
Obviously this type of thing isn’t going to have a broad appeal but the athletes involved are fanatical and love the experience of being pushed to their physical and mental limits. I would love to be able to share these life-altering experiences with my friends but to successfully entice them to join me, the races would need to be a lot easier. And if the races were a lot easier then the experience would be completely different than the one I love.
From endurance event CCGs to endurance running… I think we have a theme here, Robert! You seem like a man who looks at the length of eight-player Twilight Imperium and thinks it sounds too quick.
Haha. Possibly. I never intentionally set out to do endurance gaming and endurance sports but that is certainly where I ended up.
Changing gears a little: you co-designed a number of sets along with LSJ. What was that working relationship like, and how did come into the design process? Are there particular mechanisms, cards or design principles that are more Goudiean than Johnsonian?
I really enjoyed being part of that. Scott and I had already been working together for several years on tournament rules and the like so this was a natural extension of that. The vision for each set was always LSJ’s and I was submitting cards that hopefully fit into the framework he set. All principles are Johnsonian.
When I started working on card designs the first thing that became clear is that Scott worked tirelessly on background. He pored through WW books and generated piles of notes to be used later. Sometimes it was a fully formed description of a vampire from the RPG complete with stats and a physical description. At other times, it could be a name mentioned in passing in one of the WW fiction releases. All of this was added to the library and could eventually be leveraged to create a new card. He set the standard for well-researched cards plucked directly from the WoD and I did my best to emulate that. As I mentioned earlier, I think this approach subtly adds to the depth and enjoyment of the game world. The alternative, making things up out of whole cloth, tends to create a generic experience. A great example might be Carver’s Meat Packing from the Gehenna set. To me that’s a perfect marriage of an interesting card effect plucked from the source material (as well as some great art). Without good source material you’ll eventually end up making cards like Etrius’ Desk Lamp or Harrod’s Mysterious Pinkie Ring. Blech.
The only challenge with this approach was when we needed Discipline-based cards to fill gaps in sets or to address a game need but had a lack of source material. We did make up cards when we had to but the preference was always to find source material when it was available.
Back to your local scene: when did the LA group start to dissipate? Was it due to disengagement with the game, or more just growing up, having kids, etc.?
Now that you’ve asked a question about more recent history, I am having a harder time knowing how to answer. There was never a moment where we said, “That’s it! I’m done!” Instead, there was a gradual decline. We started playing in our late 20s so we managed to keep playing through marriages, divorces, kids, and everything else. Hell, my son Cameron was born in 1995 right after we started playing and he eventually started playing in V:TES tournaments as a teenager.
Mike Courtois and I both diversified our hobbies a bit. More boardgames, more music, and more fitness. We had also previously given up all of our 3-day weekends for 10+ years attending local game conventions to run V:TES tournaments. Now, increasingly, we wanted to spend those weekends relaxing on a lake somewhere. The games trailed off to monthly and then maybe quarterly. Then just on-demand when our V:TES friends visit from out of town. I don’t think there’s been a local game in over a year. I’m fine with that. I sold all of my cards–but not my decks. I don’t think I could ever part with those even if I never use them again. I need to know that they are with me and that I could play if I want to. I’m not ready to admit that V:TES is permanently in my past.
What sort of decks do you keep packed away?
Maybe 20 different decks containing a little of everything. My tendency, especially in those waning years where I had less time to invest in the game, was to create decks and keep them rather than deconstructing them repeatedly. I’ve got a more recent Ravnos deck that puts Draba and Smiling Jack to good use. But I’ve also got a weenie Obf/Auspex deck that might be more than 20 years old. There’s a great bleed deck utilizing Mask of 1k Faces and then some oddball stuff like a Flash Grenade/Arms Dealer and Blood Brother Ambush thing.
I understand a cabal of players had been keen to buy the rights off CCP after the post-Heirs cancellation – were you part of that group?
I had some fringe involvement in an early attempt to revive the game. The licensing issues were so complex at that point that heads were spinning. Did we need to license the game from WotC? What impact did their CCG trademark have? What would need to change to avoid using any WotC property? I was never trying to be part of any ownership group so my involvement was mainly just advice. And that outcome is fine with me. Once your hobby becomes your job I suspect it would lose some of its allure.
Having scaled down your V:TES collection and playing, have you had much exposure to the latest sets – whether that be the PDF V:EKN sets or the Black Chantry expansions? What’s your take on them?
I’m completely out of the loop on the new sets. I don’t tend to half-ass things. If I’m in, I’m all the way in. So if I ever start looking at the newer sets it’s probably a sign that I’m ready to get deeply involved again. Given my time constraints, I never want to sort cards again. Maybe I’ll take the plunge again once I can build a custom deck online and have that exact deck printed and shipped to me. The technology is there.
V:TES has been part of your life now 25 years now. Do you have any closing comments around the game’s impact upon you, or what it’s meant for you and how that may have changed over the years?
I’m 50 years old now so to think of this being around for half of my life is amazing. In the early days it was all about the game. We all had high expectations for quality play and wanted to go head-to-head with the best players and then dance on the graves of the defeated. But as the years passed, I’ve reached a point where I enjoy playing V:TES with good friends–near and far–more than the game itself. I don’t doubt that I could drop myself at a random place in the US or Europe and find an old friend I met at a distant tournament—or even someone that I only know from online discussion forums. No doubt we would enjoy a great meal together, have some drinks and enjoy each others’ company. Maybe we’d even play V:TES but it wouldn’t be required or even expected. Twenty five years of continuing friendships is a pretty fantastic legacy for a game and I feel lucky to have experienced all of it.