‘Disco’ Stu, and being part of something bigger.

(With thanks to Mark O., who was responsible for getting this interview off the ground.)

“I got into analogue gaming pretty early on. My older brother bequeathed me his sizeable Fighting Fantasy collection around 1986, and soon after my parents got me the D&D red box and Talisman board game. While I didn’t have many friends who shared my interest, I used to buy Dragon magazines regularly from the newsagent and saw the CCG explosion through that little window into the nerd world. Around the same time, I’d been absorbing references to the World of Darkness RPGs wherever I could find them, and would leaf through those books whenever I travelled up to Melbourne and hit the hobby stores.

I got my first hit of Jyhad pretty early on – November 1994, I think. I spotted a hobby store with a ‘buy a starter, get a booster’ deal and I ripped into those packs so fast. The rules were so complicated that I missed a lot of details and had to go back and re-read – I recall being very confused when it instructed me to burn my cards! A workmate of mine at the local K-Mart had scored the same deal and we got a game together within a few days, but the rules didn’t quite click (particularly stealth and intercept – we only had one intercept modifier between us, with no Sport Bikes in sight), and he moved away shortly thereafter so we never got a second try. Still, I picked up a few extra boosters and kept plugging away at that rulebook. I also found White Wolf’s book called ‘The Eternal Struggle’, which included a design diary of sorts by Richard Garfield (including a peek at the infamous clip-art early playtest cards). While the strategy and deckbuilding sections really don’t stand up now, the book provided a great window into the bones of the game, particularly the multiplayer dynamic and its ability to create emergent storytelling.

Late 1995, into 1996, was the tipping point for me. I’d picked up White Wolf books and found a couple of friends who a) wanted to roleplay, and b) already had decent Jyhad collections. It was through Steve B that I discovered Jyhad had become Vampire: the Eternal Struggle, that Dark Sovereigns was already out and Ancient Hearts was just around the corner. We got a few other friends involved, and things exploded from there. My disposable income was devoted to buying boosters whenever we hit Melbourne, or writing out money orders to get stuff direct from a wholesaler called Jedko Games. I remember being the first one in our group to pull an Assamite, and promptly threw Melek and some Coagulate Bloods into a pre-existing deck. No one had a card list of the set, so they were petrified as to what my Assamites might do to them! (The answer: not a great deal).

The group was small but regular. We could get 2-3 player games going most days, and every now and again we’d manage four players if we were lucky. That meant combat and filthy bleed tended to dominate – with no crosstable buddies in sight, table talk was not something to bother with. I think we played a game most weekdays during school hours, then another few times on the weekend. Playing often didn’t mean we were fully across deck balance or the rules – I’d typically stuff 3-4 copies of Ascendance in the deck because it seemed such a broken card, and we’d splash a Computer Hacking in to get rid of the other players’ Army of Rats (as it needed a (D) action to burn). On top of this I was running Vampire: the Masquerade sessions deep into the night every week, and we were drowning in the lore (not to mention a lot of cask wine). Good, good times. For the few years of publishing torpor that followed, we managed to build out the local player base, and developed a local league with up to a dozen players in a single game. Not many of us were particularly committed to exploring the design space however – deck designs went into a lull, and my focus shifted a little more to roleplaying in the absence of new cards.

The revelation in 2000 that White Wolf had scored the rights back felt huge, and gave me a chance to reconnect with the game. Within minutes I had scored one of the first VEKN numbers and declared myself Prince of Gippsland (the region I was based in). The local scene was spluttering out, and when I moved to Melbourne shortly thereafter I quickly changed title. There was a brief bit of confusion with another Prince of Melbourne, a dodgy retailer who’d signed up to score promotional freebies, but it was a relatively bloodless coup.

My first job in the big smoke was at Mind Games, a hobby store that quickly became a hub for the game. Sabbat War was selling well and Final Nights was on the horizon, and it was a great way for me to meet players, then organise meet-ups and forge a more structured scene. I learned the importance of Blood Dolls from James V, the art of razor-sharp deckmaking from Wayne and balancing the table from Jason T. The WW/V:EKN website and mailing lists gave us a chance to reach out across state- and international lines. We scored multiple visits from the late, great Matt ‘Lord Ashton’ Barnett as well as world #1, Rob Treasure. We were all so young, broke and unreliable: numbers for tournaments would vary from six to twenty-odd players, and sometimes people would arrive only to play through severe hangovers (looking at survivors of James V’s costume party – you know who you are!). My tournament organisation skills quickly had to deal between-round drop-ins and drop-outs.

I left Mind Games not long after Camarilla Edition released and got myself a ‘real’ job that could, you know, pay the bills (which cash-in-hand retail work at a hobby store isn’t great for). The scene carried on, naturally, although it had already started to change from its 2001-2002 heyday. We’d started to lose a couple of players to interstate moves or declining interest, and not long after that the closure of the infamous Ong’s Food Court meant we’d lost our main hangout. It’s only been in the last couple of years that we’ve got a quasi-public rallying point for the community again – a hobby store, rather than someone’s dining room table. That aspect is so critical, and people should never underestimate the impact it makes to play around other gamers. We’ve scored quite a few additional players along the years through that visibility.

My first championship was, I think, Brisbane 2006. We had about eight Victorians fly up for the event and I was really impressed by the quality of play. It was a weird, crazy day, filled with VtES-themed beers and a player who insisted on using a butt-plug for an Edge. I scored sixth place, separated from the finals table by only a couple of tournament points – I was so frustrated! My deck that day was a ‘No Secrets’ deck using Tsunda, the Dementation-wielding Ravnos Magaji.

Despite my love for Tsunda, I’ve never been a Ravnos expert; they’re a clan who require a certain diligence and focus that I’ve never been able to muster. I’m far more interested in combining cards or clans in ways I haven’t seen before. I like being surprised by my deck almost as much as other players seem to be. They zig and zig and zig, until all of a sudden they zag. That’s where the magic is; revealing an entirely different perspective of a deck that’s wholly uncharacteristic with the tactics employed for the previous hour. I like people underestimating my ability to lunge, or truly not knowing whether I’m bluffing when I say that I can or can’t do a certain thing. That said, I often overestimate my own deck’s abilities, and find myself reducing an opponent down to a couple of pool only to find myself helpless as they bloat. Seizing defeat from the jaws of victory may be my signature move.

Whilst many of my decks certainly encourage that crazy reputation (419s with Form of Corruption, for example), my builds nowadays are more likely to be based around a moderately solid core. Tap and bleed, for example, has earned me quite a few VPs over the years. The Disco Stu difference is that I try and achieve the design through some version that’s less commonly seen (some may say sub-optimally!). In 2017 I made the Championships’ final table for the first time with Unre wielding the Codex of the Edenic Groundskeepers, with necromantic support to Jar the Soul. Probably not the most focused build, but it had surprising staying power.

Whilst I’ve strayed into a couple of other CCGs over the years, it’s pretty much always been VtES for me. I love the multiplayer dynamic, and that feeling you get as a bunch of incremental decisions add up to something bigger. So many times I’ve won a table while hanging on by a single pool, where every play I made had the potential to oust me. All too often, the difference between success and failure has come down to the last couple of minutes of a table, where all the cunning moves and bad judgements of the previous two hours come back to haunt you. I remember winning a tournament in Sydney, and going from 1VP and a couple of pool to 4VP and victory in the space of what felt like a few agonising minutes. I was buzzing with adrenalin. It’s brain-meltingly good fun, when that sort of situation happens.

On top of this, there’s the community. I don’t play very much anymore but, no matter how long it’s been since I last sat down with a deck in front of me, I always feel like I’m part of something bigger. There are so many genuinely good, interesting folk I’ve met through this game. So many of my long-term friends have some connection with the Eternal Struggle, and that moment of connection and camaraderie you get sitting down at the table together is truly special.

VtES has died and been resurrected a couple of times, and the things that make it apparently indestructible also confine it to remaining a highly niche game. I’m stoked that Black Chantry have stepped in as publishers, and I’m really happy with the changes that they’re making. In addition, the broader context of Vampire: the Masquerade Fifth Edition provides an opportunity to leverage a hot intellectual property like we haven’t had since the days of Sabbat War and Final Nights, where the game seemed to be closely tied in with Vampire‘s Revised Edition.

The game’s future now depends on the community’s willingness to accept a further evolution. The World of Darkness has moved on since 1994 and VtES, great as it is, could find itself increasingly out of step with the IP it is based on. That means the community should not only anticipate change – we should plan for it, and lean into it. Vampire: the Eternal Struggle is a complex game with a big card pool and complicated interactions, and that’s not something that can be tampered with lightly. At the same time, many aspects of it could do with an overhaul to make it more palatable and clearer. There are many things that are bugs, that players mistake as features. It’s partly sunk cost fallacy, but also because there are so many aspects of the gameplay that people are attracted to; unpicking that is an unenviable job.

All in all, I think the next few years are going to be one of VtES’ most interesting eras, as it has the chance to fundamentally reshape the game and the player base. Whatever happens next, I can’t wait to see it.”

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