Josh F, werewolves, corner cases and non-regrettable engravings.

B: Let’s kick off by talking a little about how you got introduced to the Vampire: the Eternal Struggle. Was it something you picked up on a whim, or did you have an existing group you could tap into?

J: Like pretty much everyone else, I started with Magic. I started playing around the release of Antiquities, and had an on-again/off-again relationship with the game for years. (Right now I’m “on-again” but only in the form of zero-money Arena) Never played competitively; we just had fun with it. But one of the first things I did when I moved in to my freshman dorm in fall of 94 was to paste a Magic card up on my door with a note “If you recognize this, knock” (early social media!). And it worked, leading me to the still-forming university Strategic Gaming Society.

My earliest memory of V:tES was seeing Dave Zopf and friends in the back room of Your Move Games, cackling as they opened some cheap Jyhad boxes together. The game looked interesting, but at the time I wasn’t too familiar with the World of Darkness and didn’t know the connection.

A few years later, after I’d played some Vampire: the Masquerade and was in another one of my “off-again” phases with Magic, I decided randomly to try out some other collectible games. I tried Doomtrooper, I tried Dragon Dice, and then I saw the Sabbat War starters on the shelf of YMG and decided to try that out with friends. We tried teaching ourselves the game out of the rulebook and that went about as well as you’d expect.

On December 29, 2000, I made my first post to rec.games.trading-cards.jyhad, and by Jan 18th (thanks Google Groups for helping me find the exact dates), I had been contacted by Prescott Jenner and sat down to play with the Boston Group, now under the Domain of one prince Ben Peal. After getting laughed out of the room when I played Werewolf Pack in my very first deck, I started attending play pretty much weekly for about a decade, traveling to tournaments, even taking the reins as Prince myself for a couple of years.

Friends don’t let friends play with Werewolf Pack! But if it makes you feel any better, my earliest decks would have 4x Ascendance and occasionally splash an Order of Hermes Cabal or something similarly useless in there. How long did it take for you to find the groove of the game, in terms of its multiplayer dynamics and strategic depth? 

In the company of the Boston group, it didn’t take me long to start understanding the flow and rules of the game, and to begin exploring the corner-case card interactions and constantly bothering LSJ on the newsgroup with questions about things that would realistically never happen in play. I still always tended more toward “fun decks” than “competitive decks”, but that’s one of the things that makes V:tES great. Within reason, you can play the deck you want to play and always have a chance of winning.

What’s the local gaming community like where you are? Is it a regular scene still?

I don’t play as much as I used to, but I am still occasionally gaming with people I met through V:tES. We’re all older and busier with our lives but I try to get games as often as possible. I also took on “owner” privileges of the official irc channel from Snapcase several years ago, and migrated those operations over to discord recently, so I keep in constant touch with gamers around the world – V:tES players or not.

So, I sit down at a tournament, look to my right and see you as my predator. What can I expect for the next two hours (if I last that long)?

I definitely always preferred playing decks that are more “If this wins a tournament, it will be interesting in the TWDA” than “This has a high chance of winning”. I never went for Tier 1 when it had already been done. Or sometimes I will use a card that is proven to be powerful, but in a different way — such as the half-dozen Tupdogs that are really support/distraction in my Chaundice-focused deck. So if you’re sitting as my prey, there’s a good chance you’ll have some time to build up and you may get a new predator with 6 more pool as I collapse 🙂

Where’s your happy place for V:tES – is it in the deck design, pulling off a weird combo, or the social interaction at the table? (or all of the above)

I definitely stick around for the people. Win or lose, I don’t care. But being at the table with the same people I was playing games with 15+ years ago just has a great feeling of community. On the other side of things, I was well-known for seeking out weird corner-case rules interactions. Not ones that actually did anything great, but things like “what if you put a Vicissitude master and an extra life on Bima and he played Bauble twice?” Check my post history on the newsgroup and you’ll see some truly odd questions.

You play both Magic and V:tES, like a number of people – what do you get from one that you don’t get from the other? Do you think Vampire could ever increase in popularity or strip itself down to a two-player variant without losing its inherent V:tESness?

I play Magic purely through Arena these days. It’s a quick mindless 2-player experience I can grind through and hold my own without spending any money.  When it’s time to play V:tES, that’s really an “event”. Gathering somewhere and seeing all the people in person and just enjoying a few hours together. 

I don’t think Vampire: the Eternal Struggle will ever be a good 2-player game. The heads-up is inevitable but starting as a 2 player game misses the core features of alliances and backstabbing, and basically becomes a combat game instead.

As for a resurgence in popularity, I think Black Chantry are doing a great job in bringing things back, but.. I personally think the game still has a bit too much duct tape and WD-40 on top of 1994 game design flaws and WotC mistakes (such as how they handled sect rules) to be able to become truly popular again in today’s game environment. In the last 10 years or so, I’ve been an advocate of something akin to “set-rotation” but I am met with torches and pitchforks when I bring up such blasphemy. I just think that the game could be helped by massively nuking cards that are mechanically problematic (not necessarily over or under-powered) and stripping it down to the true core. But if we can’t do a game reset to eliminate these things, then I’m in favor of making as-minimal-as-possible card/rule changes to support sanity.

Set rotation seems like a fine idea to me too, albeit it’d need to be well managed considering the tournament scene remains relatively humble in size. We’re in a strange situation as a fanbase to still play 25 years’ worth of releases in the general card pool; Magic players wouldn’t accept Beta at a regular tourney. Now you mentioned earlier about corner-case interactions, and you seem to have a real joy in unlocking unforeseen combinations of effects. Do you have any favourite decks or combos that have been based around things like that, that have undoubtedly made the designer shake their head in dismay?

Most of my corner-case questions were about things that shouldn’t actually be done, but were technically legal. Such as how I discovered that a Bima with a Vicissitude skillcard and Putrescent Servitude could technically play Bauble twice.

For actually playable weird interactions, I am a fan of the Twister archetype (not my idea) that originated in Boston with Pochtli and then was improved when Burn Option came into place.  But when I had the goofy idea that D’habi Revenant could be used by Mata Hari to create War Ghouls and was also Burn Option, and handed this information to Ben, I was proud that I had contributed to his tournament-winning Econoghoul deck.

I imagine that designing cards for V:tES is a fine art, in the sense that the designers are hiding a plethora of subtle design choices by including or excluding a certain word (thinking here of how the slightly non-standard phrasing of Maris Streck’s ability makes her work in such a different manner than so many other vampires). Do you think there have been times when your questions have made the designers think differently about how they template or playtest cards?

Most certainly. Over the years in conversation with LSJ, floppyzedolfin, Ben, and other core design team members, both for playtest and just general discussion, I know that some things I’ve said have led to them being a little more careful about how things are worded. In a game where more things are conveyed in text than in symbology, it’s better for the text to be unnatural-but-consistent than to sound like a normal English sentence. Especially for multilingual audiences who have to figure out how to translate all of these effects.

I feel I was instrumental in getting Seeds of Corruption banned, for example, not because it is overpowered or even good, but because it causes too many questions about what qualifies as a “special ability”.  And I’ve more recently done some direct analysis on what would be required to eliminate the concept of “Default Sect” going forward (thanks to the design team for fixing Al-Ashrad!) which seems to be a leftover of poor design decisions all the way back to Dark Sovereigns and amplified by Sabbat

Okay then… time for the big question. What’s the story with Ossian?  

🙂 I actually wrote up a reddit post about this a couple of years ago. The gist is that the sorcerynet IRC channel was always a silly place. When Ben asked me for a copy of Ossian and I didn’t have one, and I was bored at work, I created the iconic image in MSPaint as a deliberately zero-effort off-handed garbage drawing. Little did I know that it would become a meme of its own on the IRC channel, to the point where it got on to a T-shirt, mugs, and other printfection/redbubble items that human beings actually spent real money on (at zero profit to me).

It became my identity, to the point where I had a joking conversation with Heather Kreiter at TempleCon and she said she’d put him on a real card. Which became Gift of Sleep.

So I became “OssianGrr”, I made several variations on the image for shirts and memes, and I even paid Crayola to make me a plush Ossian from my drawings – now that was a fun conversation! I am always amused when I’m wearing an Ossian shirt out-and-about and a complete stranger with zero context throws me a compliment on it. Or asks me if my kid drew the picture and I go into an abbreviated explanation. 🙂

If I were one to get a tattoo, this would be the most personal and non-regrettable image I’d engrave on my body.

It has become more me than me.

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