Keeping The Vigil
What I learned from falling in love with the game that everyone else hated: White Wolf's Hunter.
At four in the morning the wind was blowing and a light rain was falling as I walked back to my dorm at the conclusion of another Friday night gaming session. As a sophomore in college, I'd been playing Mage: The Ascension with the same large and unwieldy group of for about a year - a fun but frequently frustrating bunch of people who fell prey to OOC drama at least as frequently as they came together to produce good gaming. For me, that night's session had been particularly enjoyable, since it had given me the opportunity to chew some scenery while playing out a few particularly dramatic scenes between my Virtual Adept and her NPC love interest. I was feeling tired but satisfied as I walked in the company of one of my fellow gamers who was headed to the same dorm; he'd joined the game late and I didn't yet know him well enough to spend a lot of time together outside of the weekly sessions, but we were going in the same direction and so we chatted about the game while we walked.
I don't remember exactly how the topic came up, but before long my fellow gamer was telling me about his plans to run a game of his own. It would be smaller than the Mage game (which averaged from six to 10 players) and open by invitation only - and he wanted to extend one of those invitations to me. I was surprised by this since I didn't figure he knew me well enough to want to invite me, but told him I was always interested in more gaming - what was the system? "Hunter: The Reckoning," he responded.
Right away my doubts were multiplied.
Right away my doubts were multiplied. As a longtime World of Darkness gamer, I knew of the existence of the at-that-time new Hunter game, but a cursory flip through my Mage GM's copy of the book (and thus an eyeful of that terrible artwork) and his general disinterest in the game had been enough to keep me away from investigating it further. I had the idea of Hunter as being a shallow sort of shoot-'em-up game, populated by trenchcoat-wearing katana-wielding loners who made a career out of hacking to bits the deep, nuanced supernatural characters I'd encountered in the other WoD games. I said as much to my fellow gamer, who responded that he'd been reading the book a lot and you didn't have to play the game that way if you didn't want to - and he certainly didn't intend to run it that way. He begged me to give it a try. Fine, I said, but will you let me play a mage instead of a hunter? He refused, and asked me to at least try to step outside of my comfort zone and do something new. All right, I said, I'll see what happens, but I'm not sure I'm going to like this.
We met for our first game session on Halloween 2001. Our group consisted of me, my roommate (who had seen me with the Hunter book, asked what it was about, gotten intrigued, and asked to be let into the game), a friend of ours who had no interest in the Mage game and was looking for a way to get some roleplaying in, and an affable stoner who lived down the hall and apparently felt that nothing accompanied a good buzz so well as an RPG session. Somewhat spitefully, the character I'd generated was a 15-year-old Mexican foreign exchange student and a staunch pacifist - let's see that on a monster hunt, was my thinking. So it surprised me when my character not only fit in with a party that also consisted of a handyman, a reformed gangbanger, and a record store clerk/small-time drug dealer, but thrived there. (In fact, the same qualities that I had thought would be antithetical to the nature of Hunter led to some of the best and most dramatic moments of the game when my character was forced to question just how far her moral convictions went in a life-or-death situation.)
...the two-year campaign remains the best in which I've played.
That first session, in which our characters became the targets of a gang of vampires and were forced to band together for survival, remains one of the best beginnings to a game that I've seen. And the two-year campaign that followed remains the best in which I've played. Playing in a good and long-running game isn't remarkable, though; the remarkable thing is that now, seven years later, the same group (with a few minor adjustments due to moves and schedule changes) is still gathering every week without fail to play games together. With the exception of a year-long experiment with playing Mage, we have spent that entire time playing Hunter. And judging by the fact that I'm soon planning to run a campaign of its new revision, Hunter: The Vigil, we're not tired of it yet. I don't know whether I'll ever be.
But of course, not everyone shares my opinion about Hunter. When the original campaign first began, I immediately ran into the arms of the Internet, flush with enthusiasm about a new game and ready to correct what I saw as the mistaken beliefs of others who had failed to open their minds to the possibilities of the game. It was a rude awakening indeed to discover that many gamers did not share my opinion - and that they weren't likely to change their minds about the game's quality anytime soon. Indeed, after involving myself dozens of vitriolic flamewars on various message boards, I was forced to admit that I had fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with a totally unpopular game. Even worse, my group played Hunter in an unpopular way - preferring talky sessions that were heavy on the investigation of mysteries and the reform and redemption of most monsters to the gritty ultraviolence that most other groups seemed to tend toward, and thus even making discussions with other Hunter fans deeply unproductive much of the time.
As frustrating as I found it to talk about Hunter on the Internet during that time (and I still do, for much the same reason...funny that I'd be talking about it here, then), I am forced to admit that I'm glad for what the experience of loving a hated game taught me. First off, it made me much more confident in my own opinions, and willing and able to defend them. (Arguing about anything a lot will do that to a person.) But at the same time, it made me more receptive to the opinions of others, at least where gaming is concerned. I'm much more willing to try new games now, even those that I've heard bad things about before or am not sure whether I'll like; I know from experience that I can never be certain whether I'll find a new favorite.
Back when I started on my Hunter journey, I would have defended to the death the idea that some games are simply and provably better than others (and Hunter, of course, was one of the good ones). Certainly there are parts of some games (combat systems, for example) that are better than others, or at least work better in the circumstances in which the game is meant to be played, and many popular games got to be that way for a good reason. But I came to realize that popularity doesn't mean everything where the quality of a game is concerned, nor does public opinion of a game, necessarily. If a group of near-total strangers is having fun with a game I'd never play, or playing a game I like in a way I find distasteful and enjoying it, who am I to tell them that their game is terrible, or that they should stop having fun just because I wouldn't enjoy what they were doing? I would want them to extend the same courtesy to my Hunter group.
...the success of my Hunter group had everything to do with the people.
And if I follow that thought along a little further, I realize that the success of my Hunter group was only peripherally related to our having found a game that worked well with our interests and play style. Rather, it had everything to do with the people. We were blessed with an excellent GM and a group of four talented, reliable gamers whose personalities and play styles were different enough to create interest, yet similar enough to get along - a plot and story junkie, a character-focused method actor, a skilled puzzle solver and strategist, and a laid-back casual gamer to keep things from getting too serious. We could have taken any game and made it work for us under those circumstances. So the secret to good gaming isn't finding the perfect game and sticking with it at all costs; it's finding great players and sticking by them.
Everything changes. As I mentioned before, my Hunter group continues to meet weekly, though we're now giving D&D a try. Hunter: The Vigil was recently published; in my opinion, it improves on many things from Reckoning, though there are many aspects of the old game that didn't transfer and that I will miss. (My thoughts on this may be forthcoming in a future Gamegrene article.) The important thing is what my experience with Hunter taught me. So now I'd love to hear from you: What unpopular games do you love? How has it changed or improved you as a gamer? I have a feeling that my experience is shared.