Christopher M, and a new coat of paint.

B: Let’s start, as I so often do, at the beginning. What was your entry into gaming?

C: I was eight or nine when I first started playing games and didn’t really have any friends who were into the same sort of weird stuff at the time.  I had Dungeon! and the original Dark Tower as a kid, and both games had single player rules. Dark Tower was my favorite. It had this big circular board  with this huge mechanical tower that lit up and had a very primitive computer in it that would keep track of the game state. Setting up Dark Tower with all the buildings and physical scorecards was almost like a ritual.

It wasn’t until I was twelve or thirteen when I found a group of friends from school who were into Dungeons & Dragons. We never did play much, we would just buy different sourcebooks and geek out at each other over how cool we thought a particular setting or monster was. I eventually had collected nearly the full catalog of Ravenloft sourcebooks.

Most of that changed when a friend from my judo club introduced me to Magic in late 1994.  It actually wasn’t that long after that one member of our group had come into a bunch of Jyhad cards and tried to teach the rest of us to play. Due to a very limited card pool that my friend sniped all of the good cards out of to make his deck before we got to pick the scraps for ours, we only played one or two games before abandoning it.

In the next few years, our group stopped playing Magic and transitioned to playing a lot of Legend of the Five Rings and Warhammer 40k. We were always looking for new places to play 40k, and we found one store in particular called Haunted Hobbies that had sand tables and an impressive collection of terrain. This store also would sometimes host weekend-long game-a-thons where we’d show up Friday night and game well into Sunday morning, crashing on couches or cots set up in the back of the store. There were often ten or twelve people playing V:tES at a single table these nights.

They ended up convincing me to sit down and try it again, and it was a much better experience than my first games were! During my first game years before we didn’t realize that a whole bunch of basic actions didn’t have stealth and now I could actually DO STUFF. 

Did that mean V:TES was your first exposure to Vampire: the Masquerade and the World of Darkness?

Technically V:tES was my first exposure to Masquerade back in ‘94. Even after being positively reintroduced to it at Haunted Hobbies in ‘98 or ’99, I still wasn’t super into V:tES at the time. Rick, the owner of Haunted Hobbies ran a Masquerade game Thursday nights, and that was where I really found myself delving into the setting and found the roleplaying game more engaging and rewarding. Playing Vampire with a borrowed deck at a single huge table of players didn’t really do it for me at the time, especially when I would usually be ousted quickly (or worse, hamstrung and left to rot) then had to wait five or even sometimes six hours for the game to finish. Luckily there was always something else going on, so it wasn’t a really big deal.

Rick and I ended up becoming really good friends and got an apartment together back in 2003. We were still regularly playing Masquerade and 40k; he had to close the store a few years earlier, but this just meant we had an entire game store’s worth of stuff at our disposal in the apartment!  After several false starts, this is where I began my journey into V:tES in earnest.

The Vampire playgroup had dwindled down to four or five people, and Rick really wanted to have a fifth regular player in the group.  He sat me down and we built a deck together out of his stock of cards, went over in-game strategies, and gave me a bunch of knowledge that better equipped me for playing against other archetypes.

What do you remember about your first games with that group?

I was the newest person who stepped into a very well established group so not only were there a lot of established deck archetypes, the players themselves were very set in their ways in terms of playstyle. I bought a few boxes of Camarilla Edition and Bloodlines, and ended up putting together a terrible Kiasyd deck after raiding Rick’s stash of Obtenebration cards that he wasn’t using. There was an equally terrible Thaumaturgy combat deck in those days, too. I lost a lot in the early days, but I eventually figured out that the group was playing with a bunch of really wild house rules.

This group was still playing with a four card limit, despite that not actually ever being a thing for the game. They also ignored the max deck size rule, and argued that it was balanced because of the four card limit.  So me, with my infant collection trying to square off against decks built by people with thousands of cards under this meta was challenging to say the least. There was a guy in this group that had -and this is no exaggeration- an Enkidu deck that was 350 cards. He would usually cycle at least a dozen cards on each action he took, and his strategy was to just go around the table and hamstring players until no one could do anything, then slowly oust.

The strategy wasn’t always successful, but after one particularly egregious game, I counted his ash heap and announced to the rest of the table that he had played over three hundred cards compared to the very robust three cards of the winner of the game. I threatened to quit the group if they weren’t going to abide by the deck construction laid out in the rulebook, because having opponents that could play ten cards for every one that I did wasn’t fun.  Eventually we agreed on a deck cap of a hundred cards because we would sometimes have a six person table, and no per card limit. At the time I think I might have had only five or six copies for a handful of different cards, so it was easier to convince them to abandon this.

The other house rule they ran with was ostensibly the weirdest: they played old card/new card rules. Apparently during the evolution of this group someone deemed that keeping track of errata was too troublesome, so they decided to just play with the text on the cards. 

Being that my only real source was to buy newer Camarilla Edition cards, I pointed out that this house rule gave them a substantially unfair advantage over me (like Majesty), despite some cards getting better in the newer printings.  I volunteered to keep track of errata and rules changes for them, if they would actually play by the official rulings and errata.

That approach to taking the card’s text as written is pretty astounding – I don’t think I’ve come across a house rule like it, in my travels! I do remember Jyhad-era Misdirections and Pulled Fangs being super-powerful back in the day, but that’s in context of decks that were sub-optimal in pretty much every other way.

Once I took over as the rules junta for our group, things got better. I still was at a huge disadvantage most of the time, but I had to take small victories when they came to me. “Hey, I wasn’t the first one ousted!” “I actually scored a victory point!”  Games that used to run four hours or more started to wrap up a little quicker. Instead of playing only one game when we got together for cards, we could actually play two games! Eventually, I started to play the game well. I learned how to play the players as well, because they were still more or less running their old decks with their old cards while I was building a collection of more modern cards that enabled me to try out different angles and made me harder to predict.

There was one big rules argument that came up during this time that I got a lot of pushback from one player in the group, regarding ‘non-Camarilla’ vampires, Vampires printed in Ancient Hearts, and that passage at the back of the rulebook. Things got a little heated between us initially, because he interpreted that ruling in basically the polar opposite way that most people would read the rule: To him, only Independent vampires could be non-Camarilla.  I had to drag out every example of a card that used ‘non-Sabbat’ and ‘non-Laibon’ to eventually convince him that he was misreading it.

It was really this event that shaped my opinion that the game could use some kind of reset and consolidation in its rules. It never made sense to me that Ventrue antitribu were treated as a wholly separate clan. In fact, when I first started building decks by myself, I didn’t realize the antitribu clans were wholly separate clans!

I’m with you on that; I used to like the separation, but over time it’s seemed to be an impediment to design rather than a benefit. I’ve done a bit of analysis on that front and removing the barrier between the two seems to make decks slightly more optimised rather than fundamentally breaking the game. Ventrue get a little better at politics, Gangrel get a few more combat options, that sort of thing. I can see why they did it at the time but it’s caused all sorts of pain as it’s become set in stone.

Yeah, V:tES doesn’t break if you merge the antitribu clans in with their counterparts, and if you remove the inherent sect rule, everything becomes a little bit simpler and only clutter is lost. Masquerade’s main themes are a modern gothic horror. It often feels like people mistake what gothic means in this context and it’s just a reference to pale people who smoke clove cigarettes and dance weirdly to people singing songs about how sad they are. Gothic in this case goes back to the original Germanic Gothic Tribes assaulting Rome; the barbarians are at the gates! In Masquerade, the barbarians call themselves The Sabbat. The whole idea of holding up a ‘dark mirror’ to the camarilla clans was probably really cool and edgy thirty years ago when the game was first written. But as The Sabbat had its culture expanded upon and made thematically deeper, they stopped being a thing that makes a good monster in the closet.

So, so let’s get into some questions around resets or consolidation. What do you think would be the most important but painless change to achieve (in terms of getting the older players / grognards to accept it), versus what’s the one you’d make if appeasing existing players wasn’t a consideration?

Unfortunately, as we’re seeing now, there’s really no way to please everyone. Social media and internet culture favor these bombastic takedowns and toxic behavior.  Fans of any sort often feel like they have ownership in whatever fandom they consider themselves a part of. Just take a look at all of the salt that’s been thrown around the last few years about Star Wars. when people are so deeply invested in a thing and see a change being made that they don’t like things get heated. 

When it comes to easing into changes, I think Black Chantry is on the right track, for the most part. One thing I would do differently is instead of fixing a few cards here and there in these reprint bundles, I’d take whatever particular rule or concept I wanted to fix and dedicate a whole reprint bundle to that.  So let’s say we want to cut combat up into the discrete phases that actually exist, I might have a reprint bundle that dealt exclusively with that. Most of the cards might be cards that are played ‘before range is determined,’ but with updated text reflecting whatever changes are made. Do this for each concept and trim up the rulebook accordingly.  I would also keep a detailed changelog so that returning players could have an easy reference.

One of the things that’s really challenging to work around is that outside of a handful of cards, there’s over four thousand cards that are legal for play.  People have spent a lot of money on collections of tens of thousands of cards, and allegedly one of the draws of the game is the size of the card pool and the complexity that’s inherent with that. however with no set rotation of any kind, it makes it difficult to keep things balanced.  A soft reset could be feasible, and basically say “the old cards are still compatible with the game, but going forward we’re only going to print cards under the new ‘rules’ and support that.” In a lot of ways this has already been started with the grouping rule for the crypt. The genius part of the grouping rule is that it allows for a more limited pool of cards, but doesn’t invalidate the old cards. Grouping could be expanded out to the library with a little bit of legwork, and would actually go a long way to subduing just how good Dominate is. Imagine if you had to pick between boosting your bleed, or having bounce? Doing a soft reset like this allows players to continue using their old cards to play people with new cards.

The biggest problem with updating card texts when that the old cards still exist and are valid is that no matter how widely available your shiny new errata’d cards are, the old ones are still out in the wild.  A hard reset of the game would be just that: wipe the slate clean and start over from scratch, taking what we’ve learned about how people play the game and building on that. Take all of your cards and have a bonfire, then buy the new cards. A hard reset would allow the core mechanics to be kept, and everything else to be streamlined so that we don’t have a bunch of different game elements that are similar, but different.  The biggest challenge with a hard reset is that the majority of playerbase doesn’t want one. As I mentioned, many people have spent a great deal of money on their cards and want them to maintain their perceived value. I could go on about how that’s basically the Sunk Cost Fallacy, but that’s a separate thing that applies to more than just V:tES.  The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how mechanically and thematically perfect your game is if nobody wants to play it.

Either way, I’d throw a new coat of paint on the card templates and give everybody a new background. I’d homogenize the design of library cards a little further, by giving Master cards an icon and making the Event icon fit within the established icon design.  Ideally, a fresh take on the material while still paying homage to previous eras is possible.

Let’s change tack a little bit. What’s at the core of an ideal game of Vampire for you (e.g., table talk, interaction, emergent tactical plays, etc.)? Was that the same thing that initially hooked you on the game back in the early 2000s, or has your perception of the game’s strengths shifted over time?

What drew me in is just how many viable strategies and deck archetypes there are. An archetype can have several different ways to achieve its goal beyond that. It’s also fascinating to see how each deck performs depending on where it’s sitting at the table. A sneak and bleed deck can sweep a table or stall out depending on what decks are where. I am my happiest playing the game when there’s table talk happening. I try to watch my opponents while they bicker and negotiate and look for tells and body language to gain whatever insight that I can. I’ve only played in a few tournaments, but they were big (US NE regional qualifiers ‘14 and ‘15 I think), and I managed to earn a seat at the Final table each time. A lot of how I play is based off of watching and gauging the other players at the table, and it shows when I play on Lackey where I can’t see who I’m playing against, because I generally do very poorly when playing online.

What are some of the design decisions you’d love to see made for V:TES, to complement that ideal version of the game?

I would do away with the inherent Sect rule. That rule adds a lot of corner case situations to how some cards interact, and doesn’t provide much in the way of meaningful thematic or gameplay mechanic options. Even Salubri antitribu could just be Salubri who are Sabbat and aren’t Scarce. Granted, Scarce would the slightest of tweaks to accommodate this change, but then that opens up some design space in having scarce vampires being able to individually be scarce rather than all members of that particular clan. Not much is lost thematically either, and this would allow Scarce Ventrue. And I would fold antitribu clans into their counterparts. Merging the antitribu clans lowers the barrier of entry for new players, as you now don’t have ten clans running around with almost identical clan icons.

I’d also like to see more mechanics based off of titles and keywords.  There’s so much lore that’s yet to be tapped in the roleplaying game, like Harpies and Sheriffs.  I would also give Independent vampires their own titles and have them function like every other title.  Currently, Independent ‘titles’ are inconsistent with how every other title functions and have some corner case rules that were intended to make them a little spicier, but often end up adding to the rules in a way that feels like it’s different for the sake of being different, and not very meaningful.

Lastly, I’d either like to see each clan get its own unique discipline, or do away with the notion of unique disciplines altogether; one or the other. The way each clan had a unique discipline in Vampire: The Requiem worked really well for that setting (and on a side note, V:TR actually works better as a setting for V:tES, but that’s likely a whole other interview). But looking at the direction V5 is taking, I would hazard that there will be fewer unique disciplines in the future of V:tES. People might get salty about it, but Black Chantry still has to follow the rules laid down for them by White Wolf, and I would be utterly shocked if Black Chantry wasn’t obligated to support the V5 setting as terms of their license.

At the end of the day, I’d like to see more cards that follow in the vein of Aire of Elation, that do a thing but give an additional thematic bonus to a clan. It would be great to see how Potence might differ between Nosferatu and Brujah, Or Presence between Venture and Toreador.

Let’s get back into your play style. We didn’t do table talk for many years in our group until the World #1, Rob Treasure, popped in to see us and taught us deal-making 101. What would be your suggestions for players who are unfamiliar with getting more negotiation and table talk into their game?

I subscribe to Illuminati Rules: deals that can be fulfilled the same turn are binding. “If you vote for this Year of Fortune, I’ll call a Consanguineous boon for your clan.” or “I promise to bleed you for one, I just want the Edge.”  Deals that require someone to wait more than a turn aren’t. A lot can happen in a turn, and circumstances can change.

I even had a situation during a championship where there was a Smiling Jack on the table that was causing everyone trouble.  My Ventrue Lawfirm prey was trying to make a deal to take down HIS prey, who was running a Tzimisce wall with Lambach. I gently told my prey that they were absolutely barking up the wrong tree. Why do I want to help you score a victory point?  Moreover, I was playing a Thaumaturgy Bruise/Bleed deck that ran off of Dawn Operation and Weather Control. I want my prey to block me so that I can send all of their minions to torpor.  I ended up sweeping the table that round.

It’s tough as a new player decoding table talk because it’s so variable. Sometimes it’s warning about a player’s play style or how their deck works, other times it’s trying to recognize a solid bone thrown to a player. But there’s always an ulterior motive, especially when someone is trying to keep you in the game, which is delightfully thematic. Making deals, and then breaking deals is an integral part of the game. Some groups have an expectation as to uphold every agreement or face the wrath of the table. Personally, I only expect the other player to hold up their end of whatever bargain we made for as long as it’s convenient for them. Especially when they’re my predator.

Ah yes, Illuminati! I played that a few times back in the day. The deal-making and -breaking rules in that were excellent, albeit our limited selection of cards meant we never got serious with it in the same way we did for Jyhad. Hey, I noticed on Board Game Geek that you recently redesigned some card layouts for RAGE. Was it your redesign of some of the V:TES frames that inspired that piece, or have you been playing around with RAGE designs for a while?

Oh shit. Board Game Geek. I haven’t been there in a few months. I just checked my inbox there and it apparently has a bunch of people asking me about my Legend of the Burning Sands update. *Pauses to answer messages*

Okay so the deal with the RAGE revamps was a cross pollination of two bad ideas: Make Garou actual crypt cards in V:TES, and bring Vampires to RAGE. I wanted to use the original RAGE backgrounds, but wasn’t able to find them out on the internet and reconstructing them from scans was going to be more time consuming work than I was willing to undertake.

I did find a few files that had been cobbled together by the RAGE fandom for their custom cards, and the backgrounds looked good and were easy to plug into the V:TES crypt template. For RAGE: my original intent was to just add Vampire Clans to the mix, but my ADD brain convinced me that I could make all of the frames look better, and it was down that rabbit hole I went. There were a lot of very minor inconsistencies that were just annoying enough if you knew where to look for them, so the quickest way to get everything in order was to reconstruct everything from scratch using a template instead of trying to adjust each particular card frame. I took away some of the dead space on the cards and used some Icons to give the old frame a more modern feel. I also realize they were missing a card type, so I created it from whole cloth using some royalty-free stock photos.

The Vampires In RAGE set that I started putting together has been shelved until I decide to get back to it, much like the Burning Sands Project that I’ve been working on and off over the last fifteen years. I don’t have much in the way of aptitude for coding and programming, and even less desire to learn how to do it myself. Sure there are some sites out there that have scans of cards, but getting a rulebook and cards together to actually use them is still a huge challenge. As a very long-term goal, I’d like to create an archive that would make it easy for people to play long-dead CCGs. Something similar to how Amaranth for V:tES works, but for multiple games and it’s got rulebooks available to download. Mostly because there were so many that I wanted to play when I was younger, but didn’t have the time or money until the particular games and cards went long out of print.  Maybe some day I’ll find a few people willing to help with this project.

Going back to answer your actual question, my unasked for revamp of the RAGE card frames was basically a direct descendant of my work on the V:tES card frames. A few years ago, I had seen some really cool full bleed layouts on some Legend of the Five Rings cards and thought that Vampires would look cool with that layout style. Initially I was using the clan backgrounds from the now defunct Warghoul.net site, which had 800×600 wallpapers, but with some inspired googling I stumbled across a VCM for V:tES that had high quality art assets.  Granted, these weren’t the Original Files (which I think have been sadly lost), but there was enough for me to work with and have it look good. The results garnered enough positive feedback that I kept trying my hand at the layout design just to see what worked and what didn’t. I had fun with it and made some pretty neat card layouts. There are several sizeable threads on the VEKN.net forums by myself and a few others with some good discussion and work by myself and other people. In the end, I showed that a full bleed art style can work, and I hope they use the layout for promotional cards.

So you’ve been involved with V:tES and Vampire for the best part of twenty years now. Any final thoughts you want to share about what the game has meant for you, and what you’d love to see over the coming years?

Probably the biggest thing that I’m glad I did was attend Temple-con back in 2016. I got to play in a big tournament and do surprisingly well, which made me appreciate my formative years playing V:tes. All of the challenges I had to face along the way had been a crucible that apparently made me a much better player than I thought I was at the time. Everyone I met welcomed me warmly, and it was truly a delight to play against new people and see new strategies and styles of play. 

The impetus behind the different projects, like the full bleed and proxy demo decks, has been to give back to the community at large and enrich it.  Despite the fact that I feel there’s some significant improvement that could be made in this game, I still profoundly enjoy playing it as it is. I’m excited to see what Black Chantry is going to do with it going forward.  I’m trying my best to be a positive influence and do my part so that we, as a community, can continue to build a space that’s welcoming to everyone who wants to play this game that we love. I’d love to see the design team bring in more representation for people and cultures that aren’t currently well represented in the game to make Vampire: The Eternal Struggle a game that truly spans the globe.

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