One Thousand Years of Solitude
When I heard that Tim Hutchings’ Thousand Year Old Vampire was a solo RPG, my response was pretty much, “Buddy, if I wanted to pretend to be somebody else when I’m all alone, that isn’t a game. That’s my life. Now cease disturbing my slumber.”
The first chink in my armor was the book itself. If it weren’t so pristine, this thing could have passed for a tome stacked under a hundred years’ worth of library sediment. The title and byline appear as though they’ve been shoddily glued into place, the description on the back secured with masking tape that’s peeling at the edges. The cover’s golden debossing calls to mind pottery mended by kintsugi, but more veined, more branching, like rivulets of blood straining for shared warmth. With great restraint, in only a few spots, the spine exhibits dents and tears. And within, an academic’s trove of article clippings and telltale stains and artwork of a dozen styles, none of it detracting from the actual utility of explaining how you, the reader, will spend the next few hours sharing the story of a vampire in bloom and decay, love and ruin, tragedy and beauty.
As for partaking of a solo role-playing game, pay no attention to my earlier reaction. Thousand Year Old Vampire is devastatingly therapeutic.
Thanks to a previous review, I’ve been brushing up on the history of Christian Nubia. As such, I couldn’t resist the temptation of making my first character a member of the royal family of the Christian Kingdom of Makuria. Qalidurut II he was named, after his father and king. His life was demanding but sheltered, a military commander who saw no battles until the Muslim invasion of Makuria in 651, an archer who loosed no arrows in violence until he was tasked with defeating the army of Abdallah ibn Sa’d at a ford near the Nile village of Dongala. Qalidurut carried possessions that befit his status: his father’s bow — repaired so often that it had become a portable example of the Ship of Theseus — the signet of his royal lineage, and a Byzantine Bible thick with family marginalia. He also had skills and acquaintances: his status as a master archer, a premarital affair with Thisauria his betrothed, and a theological curiosity that sprang from his lover’s tendency toward Chalcedonian heresies.
These are the things you create at the beginning of Thousand Year Old Vampire, an entire lifetime indexed as a list of traits. Your name and a few sentences of backstory, plus three each of skills, possessions, and supporting characters. From these, you generate four “experiences.” They’re largely what they say on the tin, a few sentences explaining how you learned such things, why so-and-so was important to you, how you came to carry around this item rather than some other.
As an aside, nothing forces Thousand Year Old Vampire to follow the curve of history. The book’s examples are historical, but a rough outline will serve for many. Despite my best intentions, such an outline did not serve for me. For my first attempt, cursory research salved the discomfort of character-building. Wikipedia, sure, but verisimilitude demanded greater sacrifices. Battle maps, JSTOR articles on Nubian lineages and treaties, a few scholarly guesses at what set the Makurian Christians apart from their neighbors. Very little of this made it into the phrases and sentences that constituted Qalidurut’s inventory and retinue, but the details had a way of becoming snippets ready to be drawn from a mental catalog — arrows in the quiver, as instructive as they were deadly. As we will soon see, the concept of a “mental catalog” was eerily appropriate.
But such preparations don’t conclude the setup. One final step remains. A fifth experience, requiring one additional character and one additional trait. This experience is your protagonist’s transition from life to unlife, from walking beneath the sun to skulking along a trail of darkness. The new character is the vampire who turns you. And the new trait is the mark that betrays your immortal likeness. In Qalidurut’s case, a bow-hand that is raw and bleeding after being hewn from his arm in battle, never again to draw back the string.
This is how the game begins. At the tipping point. At the moment your character begins a plunge that will not strike bottom until the centuries have had their way with you.
Going in, I had no idea what to expect. Interactive fiction? Choose-Your-Own-Adventure? Mad Libs, with Qalidurut and Abdallah ibn Sa’d and my father’s bow filling in the blanks of somebody else’s story?
None of the above. Much like the debossed scratches on the book’s spine, Hutchings’ approach to storytelling is the model of restraint — and, by extension, the model of letting his readers chase their own imaginings. This is done via prompts. Each page is numbered, and each contains three snippets. But rather than hewing to a preset story, these snippets are guidelines, cues, questions, meant to nudge you along beguiling avenues or challenge your character. Sometimes you’ll be required to check a skill — literally by adding a checkmark to one of your listed attributes. Other times you’ll need to kill a character, or invent one, or surrender a resource, or whatever else. But your control over your possessions is usually absolute, apart from the occasional crushing surprise.
Rather smartly, navigating between prompts is straightforward. Whenever you’re ready to pen a new experience, you roll two dice. A d10 moves you forward through the pages of the book while a d6 moves you back; summed together, you arrive at the appropriate page. There you read the topmost prompt, spend a few moments jotting down a new experience, and then roll again. If ever you arrive at a page where you’ve already seen the top prompt, you instead answer the one beneath it, sometimes (but not always) digging deeper into whatever tale you unearthed earlier.
The beauty of this procedure is that it soon evaporates into the background, almost invisible apart from the momentary flutter of waiting to see what injury the dice have inflicted on you. Which is a good thing, because the remainder of Thousand Year Old Vampire lands like a punch to the stomach. In the case of Qalidurut, for example, my very first prompt demanded that he devour somebody close to him. It was either dear old dad or his betrothed. Leaning into the tragedy, I wrote, Thisauria tends to me after the battle, treating my limb with ointments that cannot staunch the bleeding. In the night she comes to me, heavy with intention. My appetite overcomes me. I tear into her as a penitent consumes the flesh of the sacrament.
Don’t worry, all this sunshine and rainbows will soon be overtaken by a depressing miasma. But in order to understand how, we first need to say a few additional words about experiences.
I’ve already explained experiences; they’re your responses to the books’ prompts. There’s no need to write a novel, although some require more effort than others. In my case, shorter experiences were only two sentences long, while others filled half a page of the spiral-top notepad I’d dedicated to the game.
But experiences don’t exist on their own. They’re grouped into clusters called memories, bound by some common theme, like the chambers of a memory palace in the practice of ars memoriae sans all the weirdo glyphs. There’s great latitude when it comes to binding experiences together. Maybe the common theme is a character, a feeling, or an abstract concept like “anger.” Maybe that theme bends as the story progresses. For Qalidurut, one of his starting memories was of discovering Thisauria’s heretical bent and loving her all the better for it. The next, of course, was his grim sacrament with her body functioning as both wafer and wine. Later, when prompted to find a more regular feeding source, I wrote, My hunger must be sated weekly. No longer content to kill at random, I hunt the cruelest overseers who extort the jizya tax from the Egyptian dhimmi. The memory’s common thread had initially been Qalidurut’s lover, but it was also stitched together by the theme of hunger. The game had produced a significant realization about my character by merely requiring that experiences be connected.
But memories accomplish so much more. In addition to being connected, they’re also limited. Severely so. Each memory can only hold three experiences. Worse, your poor vampire’s head can only hold so many memories. It isn’t long before you’re forced to make a tougher decision than anything offered by your average prompt — which memory to discard. The old memory, with all its experiences, is scratched out. In its place you now have precious blank space for something new.
It’s a bold request on Hutchings’ part. There’s a natural emotional attachment to the things we produce, even if they’re only fragments. To his credit, Hutchings follows through in every regard, stretching the concept of fading memory until it cracks bone to blot out some hopeful glimmer from your vampire’s more glorious past. Some prompts require you to invent new skills or other traits, but these must be based on existing memories, not those you’ve already discarded. You’re also allowed to slip a few memories into a diary, but like the rest of your possessions these are liable to be stolen or sold or destroyed. Sometimes the game takes further steps. These batter the emotions with sufficient force that their appearance is best left in the moment rather than spoiled here.
And it works. More importantly, it works in a way that’s both heartbreaking and mindful, like prodding a dangerous memory, albeit with the padding of fiction to keep the barbs from taking root. For Qalidurut, the memory of what he’d done to Thisauria was a splintered tooth that wouldn’t dislodge itself. But the ache wasn’t nearly as terrible as forgetting the source of a pain that never dulled.
About a year ago, I was driving with my daughter when she asked me something. It was the perfect five-year-old’s question, adorable and boundlessly curious and slightly more perceptive than expected. I told myself that I shouldn’t forget it; that when we got home, I would write it down. And I remember that. The need to remember, not the actual question. Telling myself that I wouldn’t forget. And then forgetting anyway.
Vampires make perfect meditations on the fragility of memory and the frailty of our bodies because to be eternal is to be eternally growing old. Infernal pacts are always edged on both blade and hilt. You never die, but you’re consigned to the darkness. You’re nearly unbreakable, but the things worth being broken over are forever out of reach. Bottomless virility, but also the growing realization that maybe people don’t want to have sex with you anymore. Maybe your clothes have started to look lame. Maybe you don’t speak the language like you used to. Maybe technology has passed you by. Maybe you’re getting scammed more easily. Maybe everything goes by faster. Maybe you’ve come to resent young people’s music. Maybe you look forward to naps.
Thousand Year Old Vampire accomplishes nothing less than a direct examination of that process of aging and decay. The glass may be dark, but there’s value in seeing ourselves even when the view is distorted. Qalidurut experienced periods of madness because I too have experienced periods of madness. Bitterness, retreat, relief — these as well. Content warnings aren’t often useful to me; where some people read fiction and play games to blow off steam, for me these are activities that accumulate steam, that bottle it under great pressure, that animate my imagination and my actions. Here the content warnings are apt, and not just because vampires walk around in bondage gear and transform living beings into lengths of sausage. When I played, I grew somber and moody. I dimmed the lamp. I welcomed the conclusion, when Qalidurut, no longer known by that name or any of the memories that once shaped him, was finally granted release.
Yet that moment was indeed a release. It was painful in its own way, but this was the pain of venom drained from a wound or a scab peeled away to reveal new flesh. When at last I gathered together the torn-out pages that had been Qalidurut’s memories, most long forgotten, the act left me revived. It hurts to forget. But some hurts are worth the path that caused them. Or at least the person they shaped us into.
In other words, Thousand Year Old Vampire is a tremendous accomplishment. It’s gorgeous, evocative, and its rules fade into the background to better highlight the effortless creativity and examination it unleashes. I went in skeptical, came around to anticipating a few hours of grim entertainment, and ultimately came away convinced that Hutchings has pulled off a feat that’s both deliciously historical and surprisingly therapeutic.
Thousand Year Old Vampire can be purchased over here.