A Decade of Vigilance

Author’s Note: This article might not be everyone’s cup of tea.  I said that I’d be doing this kind of article once in a Blue Moon and well, the timeliness of this article is a bit prudent since Hunter: The Vigil is celebrating its tenth anniversary.  That said, this game is actually fairly important to me.  So, I hope you enjoy this as…something different.

Introduction:

On August 14th, 2008 the publishing company White Wolf, released a tabletop role-playing game called Hunter: The Vigil.  The game was a pseudo-remake of an older game that White Wolf had published in the late 90’s called Hunter: The Reckoning.  But in many ways, Hunter: The Vigil represented a unique direction for the company and its venerable World of Darkness setting.

Playing the Game:

If you’ve never played a Tabletop Role-Playing Game or a TRPG for short, think of them like a hybrid of board game, and improvisational theater.  Each TRPG consists of a set of codified rules that outline how players may interact with the world.  Said characters are controlled by players while the world and story they inhabit is controlled by a Game Master.  The very first TRPG was Gary Gygax’s fantasy creation, Dungeons and Dragons but shortly after D&D’s explosion in popularity multiple companies and designers began to try their own hand at creating similar systems.  Every TRPG is different and emphasizes certain aspects of play over others.  Some games are extremely specific and focus on deep and complex rules systems.  In contrast, some games are considered to be “rules-lite” and emphasize the act of communal storytelling over concrete rules.  But in the early 1990’s,  a small company called White Wolf Publishing released a landmark title in the medium.

When the Sun Goes Down:

White Wolf Publishing was founded in 1991 via a merger between the smaller game design company Lion Rampant and White Wolf Magazine.  When the company’s founders (Mark Hagen, and brothers Steve and Stewart Wieck) set about creating their first product after the merger they broached a unique question: what if there was a Role-Playing Game based around playing a villain?  This idea wasn’t entirely unheard of.  Dungeons and Dragons had included its lauded Alignment System since it’s initial creation.  The Alignment System, which eventually evolved into an axis of nine unique moral alignments, allowed players to identify their own moral compass, ranging from the knightly Lawful Good to the savage Chaotic Evil.  But the end product of White Wolf’s work was decidedly different for it’s times.  It would be a grim, and moody game set in modern times.  But it wouldn’t be about normal humans.  Instead, Vampire: The Masquerade would be a game about playing as the monsters.  It was a game where the players weren’t bound by human notions of morality and were forced, by game mechanics and established troupes, to adopt a decidedly amoral play style.

Vampire: The Masquerade was an instant success on it’s release and it became the basis for a shared universe of games, all of which focused on playing as some kind of supernatural horror like werewolves, ghosts, and even wizards (here called Mages).  Every game emphasized the inhumanity of its protagonists paired with an equally bleak setting.  The Word of Darkness was a modern Gothic setting that drew on works as like the writings of Anne Rice to sell the idea of a stories about monsters and their relationships to each other.  Then, in 1999 the company released Hunter: The Reckoning.  In a departure from the previous games in the setting, Hunter would be different.  Instead of playing as a monster, the players would inhabit the roles of humans that were given the divine mission of eliminating the threat posed by the creatures of the old world.  It was part of the setting’s ongoing narrative regarding the approaching millennium.  Hunters were implied to be something new, equally as inhuman as the monsters they dealt with in their own way.  But with the release of Hunter, came a pressing concern for the World of Darkness on the narrative front.

A New Beginning:

The problem with telling a story that relies on a major event like the turn of the millennium is that when the event comes to pass, you’ve found yourself back at square one.  And such was the case with White Wolf.  They tried to do something unique with the setting, introducing new elements to the world in the wake of the multiple apocalypses that came crashing down on the players.  But eventually the writers decided to start with a clean slate and in 2003, they rebooted the entire game line.  This new setting, creatively titled the New World of Darkness would be somewhat similar to its predecessor though certain elements would be carried over between the two.  Once again, players were expected to play as the monsters of this world and their primary dealings would be with others of their kind.  But in 2008, the time came to remake Hunter: The Reckoning.  The task fell to a completely new group of designers who attacked the task with aplomb and in so doing created something that was unique both for the New World of Darkness and TRPG’s as a whole.

Taking Up The Vigil:

Hunter: The Vigil is a game and setting about fighting back against the darkness.  It’s a game where a handful of average people have actually glimpsed the truth behind the World of Darkness.  But unlike many, these regular people have deiced to do something about it.  They’ve taken up arms to protect themselves, their families and their communities from the monsters that prey on humanity.  They’ve become Hunters and the commonly agreed upon term for their mission is called the Vigil.  This is an important distinction for Hunter: The Vigil when compared to its predacessor.  In The Reckoning, players and the characters they inhabited weren’t given a choice in the matter.  They were given a mission by some divine force and they were granted magical powers to aid them in their new quest.  In contrast, in this new Hunter game the players were proactive, but they were largely outmatched.

Hunter: The Vigil is a game about surviving an adventure by the skin of your teeth and then going out to do the same tomorrow night.  It’s a game about fighting back against vampires, werewolves and other horrifying monsters with nothing but a flashlight, a crowbar and your friends by your side.  It’s a game about getting glimpses of a much larger world through the tiny keyhole you’re looking through.  The game pulls off that tone by being greater than the sum of its parts.  But the most important of those parts are the Compacts and Conspiracies, the various factions that you and your characters will align yourself with to survive the deadly threats this world can throw at them.

With Friends Like These…:

The foundations of Hunter: The Vigil‘s world are the hunters themselves and most of those folks are part of larger organizations called Compacts and Conspiracies.  The game does include mechanics and rules that allow for players to be unaffiliated with these mysterious organizations but it’s really meant to be run with characters that are part of larger factions.  Of the two types of hunter organizations, Compacts are the smaller of the two.  They’re relatively young groups (few are older than World War 2) and their focus is probably fairly broad.  Their membership might share a motivation or a method of hunting but beyond that, individual members are largely left to their own devices.  Compacts in the core rule book for the game include the hedonistic Ashwood Abbey, the underground videographers of Network Zero and the blue collar Union among others.  Conspiracies in contrast are much more powerful organizations.  Many are ancient groups that have been around in some form for centuries.  All of them boast Endowments, powerful resources that will help even the odds against the monsters.  Some of the Conspiracies include Aegis Kai Doru, a Grecian faction that focuses on uncovering ancient artifacts for use in The Hunt, the Chieron Group, which is a multi-national corporation with a “business first,” approach to The Vigil and The Ascending Ones, a modern offshoot of an Egyptian cult with access to potions and elixirs.

All of these groups are fun and charismatic in their own way.  A standard Cell of hunters could include an honest mechanic who just wants to protect her family, a blogger with a death wish, a lawyer who prosecutes actual vampires and a college professor keeping dark secrets.  That diversity of characters creates a real sense of camaraderie as motivations and self-interests bump align only to suddenly clash with each other, thus creating inter-party conflict on the way to the big climax of every hunt.  In this regard, Hunter is a game where “a problem shared is a problem halved.”  People pulling together can make a difference however small.  But beyond that optimistic theme there’s a darker side to Hunter: The Vigil that helps to elevate it into the upper echelons of TRPGs.  Because in truth, nobody in Hunter is really “the good guy.”

He Who Fights Monsters:

Hunter: The Vigil is a game about ruthlessness and pragmatism.  When you’re always outclassed by your foes you need every advantage you can get.  And that might mean allying yourself with less than savory individuals from some of the more amoral Compacts and Conspiracies.  It could also mean doing something that you or even your character normally wouldn’t in order to accomplish the mission.  All New World of Darkness games have what the publishing studio calls a Morality Mechanic, though the name is often a misnomer.  In the case of the Vampire games for instance, the morality mechanic reflects how apt your character is at controlling their hunger for blood.  But in Hunter, the mechanic is named Morality and is fairly cut and dry.  But there’s a catch.  Where normal humans face losing morality if they perform an appropriate immoral action, hunters are…buoyed by The Vigil.  And as such, as long as they can rationalize their actions in service to their mission, hunters can perform actions that would normally be seen as evil or even abhorrent.  And in a well told story, that will be the case.  Which creates an interesting paradigm for players.

When White Wolf created Vampire: The Masquerade based on the premise that it would be more fun to play as the monster, they stumbled upon a unique opportunity.  TRPGs provide players with the chance to explore behavior they wouldn’t normally indulge in while operating in a safe environment.  You’re not really vampires feeding on the innocent, you’re just a bunch of friends at a table (or talking over the Internet), describing what your character is doing.   But where Vampire: The Masquerade stumbles in this regard is that when the game begins, player characters are already amoral monsters.  They are already required to operate on a separate ethical axis.  In contrast, the design team behind Hunter hit upon the idea of introducing a slide into amorality.  In short, if Vampire: The Masquerade is about being a villain, then Hunter: The Vigil is about becoming a villain over the course of the story.  This is achieved through a few methods that involve game mechanics and the wider world of the New World of Darkness.  But in the grand scheme of things, I can’t imagine that’s of much interest to a person who is new to Hunter or the idea of TRPGs in general.  Sufficed to say that games like Hunter: The Vigil and other narrative-focused TRPGS can actually provide their players and storytellers with unique opportunities that other mediums may not.  And I don’t want to oversell it.  A game of Hunter isn’t just a bunch of friends sitting around sitting discussing matters of humanism or morality (that’s more like Promethean: The Created – that joke is for those of you in the know).  But in many ways, that’s why I wanted to write about this game.

More like Half a Decade of Vigilance:

In my senior year of college, I was part of a club dedicated to board games and RPGs.  I had some experience playing in games but I had never made an honest effort to run a full fledged RPG campaign and tell a story from start to finish.  So, when the time came at the beginning of the year, I announced that I was willing to run Hunter: The Vigil.  It was a game that I was somewhat familiar with and I figured the basic premise would be a winner, especially with players who were new to the whole RPG thing.  I was surprised when I got six interested students who wanted to play.  By the end of the school year, my game had exploded to a full ten players willing to listen to my rambling (and frankly ridiculous) story.  If you’ve never played in or run a Tabletop Role-Playing Game then suffice to say, six players is a lot, and ten is an almost Herculean effort.  But running the game did wonders for my confidence and it really sparked my passion for creative writing and completing research to make that writing stronger.  In that regard, I probably wouldn’t be on my path towards becoming a journalist if I hadn’t told that story.  More importantly, this game helped me to make friends.  I’ve never been a complete loner but I’m the type of person to be happy with a small handful of close friends rather than a larger group.  But I still consider every member of this game to be my friend.  I talk with most of them every day over social media.  And I sure as heck wouldn’t be the same person I am today without those great people.  What’s more the people in that game have gone on to run their own games, and tell their own stories.  It’s no hyperbole to say that the game I ran has spawned multiple sequels and has started its own little universe.  Of that I’m supremely proud and it should go without saying it’s a big part of why I decided to write this piece.

The Vigil Continues:

Ten years on, Hunter: The Vigil is still going strong.  A handful of books full of expanded material were released and a slightly reworked Second Edition has been announced to be in development.  The new creative team have a lot of their intentions clear and all of them have me intrigued.  Meanwhile, many of the original design team have gone on to do great things.  At least two of their number, Chuck Wendig and Jesse Hartley have become successful novelists in their own right.

So what was the point of this exercise?  Well, part of it is timeliness.  I don’t normally stay abreast of this sort of thing so it was serendipity that I looked up Hunter’s original release date when I decided to write about something with a more enthusiast leaning.  But apart from that, TRPGs are growing in popularity like nothing before.  Games like Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder are almost cool these days and their trajectory only seems to angle upward.  And I thought it’d be fun to get a word in for the TRPG that has affected me the most.  Because that’s what it’s all about.  Sitting down with friends, telling a story and becoming just a little better for it.

So maybe pick a copy of the rulebook, grab some dice, find some friends and tell a story.  Because the sun’s going down and there’s some hunting to do.

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