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.

That was great article gamerchick. It kind of struck home with me as well.

You see, me and my group come under fire from roleplayers of various systems all the time. We play D&D, and use the 3.0 version despite it's many perceived flaws. Certainly this isn't an "unpopular"game...but our method certainly is when compared to your "typical" D&D group. (not the fine people here mind you...I mean those "other" roleplayers...LOL)

We play a very combat-heavy rules system, but in a very non-combat-heavy way. I'm constantly being told by others to use a different system that suits our style better (by people that don't play D&D), or that we're somehow playing the game "wrong" (by the hardcore CR smashers that I *think* D&D was made for).

Something about 3.0 stuck with us. It resonated well. There was a glut of 3rd party material to help with creativity. It just plain worked and we decided not to question it. Sometimes we laugh about how there's 90% more rules than we actually use; but who cares, right? It's working for us. In the end, it was a minor decision to switch to 3.0. We didn't even start a new campaign...we just converted characters (from WFRP of all things!) and kept going with the current one. We even tried to go diceless for awhile, but found ourselves right back at d20 within a month.

We tend towards very plot- and character-centric campaigns like you and your group do, some of which I've written about on Gamegrene. In the weekly that I run for Tara and one other player we've currently gone three sessions without even picking up any dice (that is, until the final scene of the last session).

I also share your view that systems and settings are second to and in some cases completely seperate from a good gaming experience. I've mentioned on here before about how important the right players are, and how if you have that part of the equation right then the rest just comes all by itself.

I've changed and improved as a GM and gamer in general by not worrying about things like rules and systems and whether I'm using the right one for the style of game we play. I honestly don't think it matters, as the campaign is the thing...the players are the thing...not the math we use to settle things. I've also learned that compromise in players or style is the enemy of good gaming. All too often I've seen (or experienced) GMs and players that are constantly making compromises with each other so that they can get what they all want. That's not good gaming in my opinion (and only my opinion; others can game how they want). I've learned not to compromise one iota on what I want out of a campaign, and my players have learned the same.

Granted, it always takes a bit of work to begin with, but once you've got the right people sitting in the right spots at the table, you don't need to compromise anymore. It ceases being a game that a bunch of people are playing and starts to be a story that a bunch of people are telling; and that's exactly where me and my group have been for a while, and where we intend to stay.

-(intersting side note to the "right people in the right seat" players have bounced other gamers from our group due to differences in style and expectation than I have. Of course, it's always me that has to have the "this isn't going to work" conversation, but it's generally been at their request. Being a manager of people by career means that by default I get to do the exit conversation...LOL)

-(other interseting side note; I ran a Chill game about a million years ago that started similar to your first Hunter experience. The characters were all DJs or partiers at an after party following a rave, when they found themselves the target of an attack by Loup Garou. The campaign lasted for 6 monthes and it started out just as a one off for that one night! Who knew? One of my players came to me with a Werewolf: The Apocalypse rulebook in the game store when it first first came out and said "hey, you should run this for us! It'll be like that one campaign you ran last year!" Then he looked at the back of the book and said, "oh this game *you are* the werewolves...lame." And he put it back in the wrong place on the shelf.)

-(last side note...don't even get me started on the James Bond campaign that I ran for over a year and a half when I was 14. Memories of guilty pleasures...mmmm. And Year Of The Phoenix...does anyone remember that? The Russian in our group didn't get the irony AT ALL)

-(interesting side note; don't let Scott get all reminescence-y on you - he'll talk forever! lol)

What you're saying rings true with me, too, gamerchick. Unfortunately, I am currently dealing with the pangs of a broken group, as on of our players, who was Lorthyne on this site, actually (and introduced me to this site, incidentally, with the help of Wroe), has left on a mormon mission for two years. Angst! I'm telling you, I never thought going without gaming would be this rough, but it's killing me. So, for everybody, when you find a good group, don't ever leave them! At all costs! I've got to get some gaming done. I think I'll gather up what's left of our previous group, see if we can find one or two new people who fit and go from there. But, yeah, most of our gaming was done with D&D, definitely not any of ours favorite system. But the group made it...nothing short of amazing. If I can capture that again...oh, good times ahead.

It's all about what you love, and finding people who love the same thing. That's when you move the world. Also, I wanted to thank you, gamerchick, for informing me that they were updating Hunter! I've never played a game of Hunter, but I've always been fascinated with the idea and always wanted to. But I thought they might not update it. And that was rough. But they did! It says so on their website. I think I'm gonna go buy it right now. I wish they've kept the name, though. All in all, I like the new names better than the old names (specially Werewolf; the Forsaken is an awesome name), but I really loved Hunter's old name. I dunno, it just fit. When I first read that, I could see like a movie trailer in my head. It was all like: (voice over narration of various shots of supernatural horror, murders, etc.) "For too long these monsters have prowled our streets, taking what they please. For too long they have taken our loved ones. No more. (chest shot of dude loading a shotgun or something) Now it's time for...(he cocks the gun) the Reckoning!" Awesome.

-(yes...yes i do. given the chance to talk about my players and all the fun we've had in the last 20 years i have, do, and will again talk at great great greeaaaat length. that's why i love my players SO much)

-(off topic, sorry; many players do you currently have? some of the best times i've had gaming were solo campaings, so even if you have only one other player all is not lost! that, and RPG Registry. it only ever got me three good players out of about 15 that i found over that site, but it might be worth a shot. Also, i'm still gonna kick some ideas at you about that whole alignment thing. i just haven't had a chance. go figure, i can get on gamegrene at work, but not facebook..eek!)

On Topic; somethng I've learned from gaming in general is sticking to my guns. I encounter alot of non-roleplayers, and regardless of system I've always been the guy that will talk at length about his stuff...even if it's talking gaming with non-gamers. From their point of view *none* of these games are popular and neither are the people that play them. Nonetheless, I've made it my mission to be an advocate for gaming and have done so for the better part of the last 20 years. If nothing else, it's taught me how to be able to say anything to anyone. "You're fired" or "sorry Mr. CEO, but that's a terrible idea and our department won't be doing it" is alot easier to say after you've already been through, "Oh tonight? I can't make it to the company golf thing, sorry. My gaming group is getting together for our weekly D&D session. Tonight the players are finally going to see what's at the bottom of that creepy well, and i wouldn't miss that for the world..."

Amen, brother. I would not miss it for the world either.

Right now, we have two other players, but one's been strangely non-existent, and the other is super busy. I mean super, super ridiculously busy. So I'm hoping to pull something out of this. I've actually been planning on doing a solo campaign (with me as the player) with the super busy one, but, her being all super busy, it hasn't exactly gone anywhere. I'm also trying to run a game with my two younger siblings, but that's going slowly. Once it gets started it'll be amazing but...getting started is, for lack of a better way to say it, a pain in the ass. Especially since my little sister also has the annoying habit of being super busy.

I feel like I'm not doing anything with my life.

So right now the only solo campaigns I can run are with myself. And that's rather boring.

When it comes to what you love, you've always gotta stick to your guns. There's no playing politics with what's important - like roleplaying :).

Honestly, aside from trying to play (and study) RPGs in Texas and Louisiana (particularly in a town where Pat Pulling was hailed as forward-thinking), I've not run into the "unpopular system" issue...except with the release of D&D 4.0. Most of my FLGS people see it as WoW in paper-and-pencil, and the general consensus is that the kind of play that it fosters is "roll-play" rather than "role-play."

I think, Gamerchick, that you're spot-on with the assertion that it is the group which makes the game. Certainly, any gamer who has been at table with a really bad player knows that the one can kill any chance at a good game, regardless of who else is at the table; the reverse is, unfortunately, not true (whether that reverse is with a good player or with the game killing the bad player instead of the player killing the game...).

As a side note to Scott Free's comment about who D&D is meant for, I offer that there is in my field of study an article written by Wimsatt and Beardsley, "The Intentional Fallacy," which argues that the "intent" of whoever makes an artistic object--and I subscribe to Mackay's contention (in _The Fantasy role-Playing Game_) that the RPG is one such--is not a valid basis for critique of that artistic object. When the "CR smashers" gripe, tell them they need to go read more, so that they can learn something.

As ever, Gamerchick, I appreciate your writing; your commentaries have long been interesting and informative.

-"When the "CR smashers" gripe, tell them they need to go read more, so that they can learn something."

LOLOLOL!!! I actually tell them to go play Mordeheim. Which is the RPG equivalent of asking them to turn the bass down at a dancehall party. But I do it anyways. HA!

Glad you appreciated it. I'll keep the Mordeheim in mind.

I'm not surprised that you like Vigil. It really is a brilliant game.

I'm one of those people who can't really say I like Reckoning. At the same time, every game of Reckoning I've ever been talked into (all run by this one brilliant friend of mine) have been lots of fun. As a game writer and designer, I think I've figured it out:

Hunter: the Reckoning suffered from a bad case of creative inconsistency. The core book was primarily concerned with the idea of Hunters as sexy (huge thighed) action movie heroes, empowered by mysterious forces, kicking ass and taking names. There was a bias against geeky Hunters who liked books and studied monsters, or talky Hunters who wanted to understand the monsters. Those groups existed, but there was little artwork, chapter fiction, or system material (that is, magical powers) to support that sort of play. Most people who aren't fond of Hunters see this as the core of what Hunter is.

My beef with Hunter is that I find it to be a very simplistic game, as written in the corebook. Hunters are magical super heroes empowered by mysterious forces whom they all trust - they have to, or else they wouldn't trust the powers that let them discern "the Enemy" from ordinary people. I counted, once, and Hunters have six methods available to tell monsters from people, including mundane perceptions, the Sight, and several Edges. Of these methods, five are magical. It is implicit, then, that the characters on some level trust their magical invisible patrons and accept their white and black worldview. Otherwise, they'd all be doing the thorazine shuffle. That white and black, I feel, washed out the difference between Hunters and monsters and made for an overwhelmingly bland read.

The rare reader (clearly not including myself) who slogged through the corebook and decided to check out the supplements discovered, I'm told, a whole different game, where the fine line between Hunter and monster was explored more sensitively, Hunters were expected to be smart and tough to survive, and the themes included horror and alienation and not improbably proportioned heroines.

In my mind (again, as a game writer), this isn't really much of a defense. It's the job of a roleplaying game to communicate its themes. The fact that there's a good game in there, somewhere, doesn't account for much.

I'm happy that you like Vigil, though. I'm really pleased with it, too, and I can't wait to play/run it.

In fact, that friend who always ran me Reckoning? He's getting a copy of Vigil for his birthday.

Popularity and quality are two different things, and have very little to do with each other.

Not necessarily very little. They can be related. If a thing is popular it obviously has something in it that people consider a good quality, else it wouldn't be popular. That doesn't mean popularity is a good-o-meter, but it definity should color your judgement of something.