While not truly RPGs in a traditional sense, journaling games seem to have a large place in my heart, as some good stories can be told with just a prompt and a few gameplay mechanics to drive the narrative further. I had earlier said how Thousand-Year-Old Vampire was one of the best, if not the best, journaling games I have ever played. I’m going to expand on that by comparing it to the other journal games I have played, as I feel like Thousand-Year-Old Vampire fixed the holes I had with those games.
Now, I shall start with a disclaimer. Obviously, no RPG is created equal (even those that share the same system will have their differences), especially in the terms of quality, as some of these games were made for Jams. I love all these games evenly, as they each hold a place in my heart. However, it’s through comparing do we see how a game mechanic makes the game enjoyable, especially in examining through a solo lens. With that out of the way, let’s begin with…
Winter: A Vampire Does Not Choose Their Path
Winter is an interesting game about surviving in the trench during WWI. It serves as a nice introduction to journaling games, though upon examination, there’s a bit of a flaw with it. You’re able to freely choose which scene you can do. This doesn’t sound bad at first, especially when other journal games just randomly decide the scenes for you, but there’s a problem.
There’s no real incentive to pick the scenes. Any of them, actually. Now, I can kinda see how the game can be polished in a way where each scene contributes to something, such as Camaraderie scenes restoring hope or Survival scenes recovering health. However, rules as written, there’s no real benefit to them. Especially since Volunteer scenes, one of the four options, is an almost guaranteed game over with zero reward.
The only thing that is close to something that is forced on the player’s path are the Violence scenes, in which they have to occur at least every five scenes. With how it is written, the optimal way to play the game is to pick Camaraderie scene after Camaraderie scene, since you won’t lose hope, then pick a Violence scene when the time comes, rinse and repeat until you end up succeeding in rolling for relief.
The game is Narrativist in nature, but it’s easy to see how you can get into this with a gameplay mindset and cheese the game. However, Thousand-Year-Old Vampire doesn’t have the same luxury that Winter does. You roll for the prompt and that prompt challenges you and makes you fight to keep your resources. Mechanics wise, if you run out of skills to check and items to lose, you get a game over, but narratively, each loss your vampire has is a loss for their overall humanity.
Both games are about trying to survive in a harsh world, but Thousand-Year-Old Vampire has it that you can’t just take the easy path, for a vampire doesn’t chose their path…
Beloved: A Narrow Peek to The Sky
Beloved is purely narration heavy, to the point where my game is just a story. Its premise is a simple “rescue the damsel in distress” style story where it never truly ends, as each time you beat the gauntlet of monsters, it’s revealed that your titular beloved isn’t the actual beloved and that they’re held somewhere else, and it’s up to you on whether you want to continue.
The cool thing is that everything is determined by you. What does the Beloved look like? Up to you! What are the monsters that have them captive? Up to you! How do you beat the monsters? Up to you! However, as you might tell with the infinite nature of the game, you’re bound to run out of ideas unless you use an external force like random image dice.
Thousand-Year-Old Vampire is similar in that a lot of the matters are left up to you to decide. Who is your vampire? Who are their friends and rivals? When does the story take place? However, the prompts are there to guide you along, asking questions like “how did you manage to survive almost getting caught that one time” or even “hey, you slept for this long, so now you’re in a new era!”
Despite the game being slightly more restrictive than Beloved, it gives the player leash on how to play their game and tell their story. While the sky is the limit, Thousand-Year-Old Vampire offers you a narrow peak at it…
Plot Armor: A Thousand Memories
Plot Armor’s concept is excellent. Play out a Tomino-style mecha anime where the protagonist is doomed to die at the very end. However, its execution can be odd, as the prompts used to generate each episode were limiting and its wording implies it only has one shot before it loses its impact.
I went into detail over in my game of Plot Armor, but the long story short is that you roll on two D6 tables to describe what happened in the episode. You would then roll on those over and over, no matter how many times you get the same result. The trick that makes Plot Armor enjoyable, however, is that with a combination of high dice rolls, creativity in interpreting the prompts, and maybe even implementing an optimization rule that makes the final episode #24 instead of #32, you won’t end up repeating your rolls.
However, Thousand-Year-Old Vampire ups the ante and has prepared the gamer in case they get a rerolled prompt. Each prompt is actually a mini-arc where a plot line is followed, offering three mini prompts that build up on the main prompt. If you were to revisit the prompt after answering the first one, you just move down the prompt and be asked a follow up question to the earlier prompt you’ve answered, having a theme that tied to said prompt.
And if you’ve exhausted all three mini-prompts? You’re advised to skip to the next immediate prompt. This, along with many different prompts to utilize, including alternative prompts in the appendix if you feel dicey, means that you won’t be running into the same prompts repeatedly.
The Beast/Holidays: Bonds Do Not Last
One thing about the Beast and Holidays that can’t be replicated in Thousand-Year-Old Vampire is the concept of creating a bond between yourself and another character. The Beast follows the story of a protagonist and their romantic, even sexual bond with an otherworldly creature while Holidays is more wholesome, where you spend a vacation with a partner. Their prompts are limited, but you’re also expected to play the game randomly rolling a handful of prompts (Holiday) or by seeding the deck (Beast) which means you won’t end up running into the same prompts.
Upon retrospect, these two games are practically second place in terms of best journal games I’ve played, as they invite a completely different play experience. This isn’t just your story, it’s also the story of another person you’re with, be it some sort of monster or even a loved one. Thousand-Year-Old Vampire doesn’t have that sort of bond creating process…
Since the entire point is that bonds do not last. Aside from the Immortal characters, every few prompts will see a passage of time that will mean the deaths of friends and family for your vampire, as well as any potential allies and enemies. And that’s if the prompt doesn’t tell you to kill them off personally. Not even the memories that the vampire has with them will last forever, as they too fade with time.
But, that’s the overall point of Thousand-Year-Old Vampire and what seems to be the antithesis of the Beast and Holidays. The protagonists of those games I’ve played will remember their time with Bowsette and a humanized Alolan Ninetails, but Elijah “Diavolo” Brown will never remember his wife as he used to, just a delusion that he cheated on her one night, killed her in a night of fury, and that a blob that’s the spitting image of her just came up one day… Instead of the brutal truth that he murdered her to conceal the secret that he was a vampire and proceeded to eat her corpse to dispose of the evidence only to regurgitate the blobby remnants years later.
Beast and Holidays are about the bonds one has for a few days, but Thousand-Year-Old Vampire is about the isolation of an immortal being living out a millennium. Out of the journal games I’ve played, Beast and Holidays doesn’t have any flaws that Thousand-Year-Old Vampire does better.
Conclusion: What Makes A Vampire Human?
In conclusion, Thousand-Year-Old Vampire takes what I found lacking in other journal games and heavily improves upon them with innovative ideas, all while taking a theme from one of them and turned it on its head. Looking back at the other games made me realize what sets Thousand-Year-Old Vampire apart from the others and reinforces the thought I had of it being one of the best journal games I’ve played.
If you haven’t already, I absolutely recommend Thousand-Year-Old Vampire. It is an absolute treat to play it through. Well, happy Halloween and bon voyage, Gamers.