In my review of Grey Ranks, I expressed my feeling that the game was capable of creating, in players, the kind of emotional response we associate with art of power; that playing the game can be a worthwhile and important experience, but that this kind of experience cannot reasonably be classifed as "fun." My phrasing was "fuck fun." Coincidentally -- or perhaps not coincidentally, since I believe Gijsbers is attempting to get at something similar -- the rules to his game Vampires says that it "transcends fun." (Gijsbers also created Fate, The Baron, and Stalin's Story).
And yes, playing this game can be a powerful emotional experience -- in a very different way from Gray Ranks. And in a way that makes this game an important one from a game design perspective, an exploration of a part of design space no one else has addressed -- and perhaps, one that, hereafter, no one needs to address again.
The basic set-up is this: Each player is a vampire. The power of vampires (expressed as "blood dice") are spent during conflicts with other vampires. Power is gained from human women whose blood you suck. The game is played in alternate conflict scenes and intimacy scenes -- the first dealing with conflicts among vampires, the second with vampires getting what they need from women.
During an intimacy scene, the vampire who is involved with this woman must decide whether he is using her pain, despair, or self-loathing to manipulate her into providing him with blood. A scene is then roleplayed out. At the end of the scene, the other players vote, stating a number between 0 and 5; the number of blood dice received by the vampire is the average vote. Here's what votes mean, per the rules:
- I like my lover to act like that.
- I would not like my lover to act like that, but could easily forgive him or her if he or she did.
- That was pretty evil, but still within my comfort zone.
- That was terrible. This roleplaying experience is reaching the borders of my comfort zone.
- That was really bad. I feel uncomfortable playing this game.
- I had not expected to hear something that disturbing in the context of this game.
In other words, Vampires is playing the game that all game designers play: It provides in-game incentives for players to behave in the fashion the game designer wishes to encourage, in order to achieve the designer's objectives in terms of player experience. Typically, the designer's objectives are along the lines of "having fun" and "continuing to pay a monthly subscription." Gijsbers's objectives -- well, I won't detail them (he has written an essay explaining them, which you should read only if you do not intend to play this thing), but clearly a statement about gender relations is involved.
Students of games will be familiar with Huizinga's conception of "the magic circle," the notion that when a game begins, the players tacitly agree to behave, while playing, as if the outcome of the game matters to them, but that in fact everything within the game is also expected to have no real-world impact, that once the game is over no ill-will should be retained, that the magic circle creates a safe place within which to play.
Vampires is interesting precisely because it challenges the magic circle directly. It asks the question of how safe it makes gameplay, and how far you can press that notion of consequencelessness.