Thousand Year Old Vampire (2020) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameThousand Year Old Vampire (2018)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [1.75]
BGG RankN/A
Player CountUnset
Designer(s)Tim Hutchings
Buy it!Amazon Link

Changelog

12/3/2021: The designer, Tim Hutchings, let me know over Twitter that there’s a pure text version available in the download pack. I didn’t see that myself but I confess I may have scattered its contents to the wind when doing my last half-organisation of my drives. I’ve amended the text to note that it should be available, and will amend farther once I’ve found it and had a chance to check it out.

Version Reviewed

PDF Version from Website

Introduction

If our review of Thousand Year Old Vampire was an experiment in exploring outside our comfort zone, it’s the laboratory of the accessibility teardown that has the results in which I’m really interested. There are lots of reasons to believe a teardown on a roleplaying system can’t be a useful document. It’s a bit like giving a review of a live performance – the fact it went well, or poorly, on one night doesn’t mean the experience will be the same on another. So much about roleplaying as an activity is driven by group chemistry and DM philosophy that I’m genuinely unsure whether it’s even worth going through the process.

This is a bit of a ‘proof of concept’ teardown then. If it works, perhaps a sign of things to come in the future. If not, at least I’ll have done the initial shakedown tour and decided on what work is needed before we venture out into new and unfamiliar oceans.

I often say at the start of a teardown that I’m likely to be as surprised at the result as anyone. It’s never been truer than it is here. Let’s find out if this even works.

I’m going to talk about this as a book and also as a PDF. In the latter case I’m going to be guided by the excellent article that Sightless Fun have written on the topic of ‘the accessibility of digital manuals’ when it comes to assessing visual accessibility.

Colour Blindness

You can get the game as a book, which has some visual issues in its presentation. As a PDF though you get a lot more tools for ensuring its accessibility. Here though it’s not especially important which you get – colour is only ever used as ornamentation. Colour is not a significant channel of information in any sense – you’ll mostly be working within a word processor or your own written notes, and the prompts are uniform in their colours. The rest of the text is readable regardless of flavour of colour blindness. For example, instructional text:

Thousand Year Old Vampire colour blindness

And the main set of prompts themselves:

Thousand Year Old Vampire colour blindness and prompts

As such, we’ll strongly recommend Thousand Year Old Vampire in this category.

Visual Accessibility

Let’s consider this from two angles – first, the accessibility of the layout and typography and then how well the PDF conforms to the requirements of screen-reading in the context of the gameplay.

First of all, as a book it’s a bit of a cluttered confusion. I’ve certainly seen busier layouts but the problem for those trying to make out the text is that it’s often very small, overly ornamented, and inconsistent in its placement and conventions. For example, the information about ‘playing safely’ is represented as a kind of post-it note sellotaped onto a page and it partially obscures the header below. It’s certainly in keeping with the theme of the book but this kind of ‘pretend feelie’ is commonplace through the instructional material.

Text is usually well contrasted against the page upon which is placed though making it at least relatively easy for players to tell what is ‘main’ content and what is a flavourful addition. Text is written mostly in columns, which isn’t ideal, but switches up repeatedly in the course of the document. The prompts for example are single column and split into three sections for those that land on the same prompt more than once. Alternate prompts, in the appendix, are instead in list format in a much smaller, harder to read font. There are then additional prompts. These are hard to read against the background given the font choice, and then inconsistent in the font use and the weight of the font against the page. They alternate between dark and faint in a way that is really unhelpful.

For those without access to a ten sided dice and six sided dice, the game offers a kind of ‘lookup table’ where you pick a cell at random and use the number in there. That’s great for those that don’t have accessible dice, but not so great for those that can’t easily read the figures. Visually impaired players are far more likely to have an accessible d6 than an accessible d10, but honestly there wouldn’t be that much difference in rolling 2d6-1 and then subtracting 1d6. It would change the bend of the chronology ever so slightly but it wouldn’t ruin it.

The way in which you use the dice is that you take the prompt you currently occupy and then add the result of the dice rolls to it to find the number of new prompt. There is one prompt per page, which is excellent, at least as far as the standard prompts go. Moving into alternate or additional prompts is a more fraught exercise.

So, the book is an inconsistent jumble from the perspective of clear accessibility and we wouldn’t advise you to get it as a physical product if visual accessibility is important. PDFs though can be a lot more amenable to exploration if they are well structured.

It’s not here though. Most of the text is actually output as text, permitting it to being read aloud by Adobe reader or the various read-aloud protocols in browsers. Unfortunately, as best I could tell it’s blocked off at the page level which means that if you go on to the next page or the previous page you need to start again at the beginning of the block and so you can’t easily skip back a paragraph or section. Headings are not well marked out, and punctuation is often threaded through the narration in a very jarring way.

I say ‘most of the text’ because some of the psudeo-feelie elements are exported as images and don’t lend themselves to easy parsing with narration. I couldn’t find any evidence of alt-text being set on these either. And, even when you highlight passages in the prompts you’ll often get the text of a different one read out.

All this said, you certainly can get a good feel of the rules, such as they are, through narration. They are not complex enough to require multiple readings and intuitive enough once you learn them that you don’t often need to check back. The column text flows well, and the layout of that is sensible in terms of when it’s read back. There are though no bookmarks, no tags, and a whole host of other accessibility fails.

Here’s the real problem though…

When you get to the prompts, the narration works perhaps too well because as soon as it finishes with one prompt it then instantly flows on to the next and there’s no clear delineation between them. It’s almost impossible to tell where one prompt ends and another begins and even if the spoilers weren’t a problem it’s not straightforward to work out what you should have done for your prompt and what was another prompt on the page.

Or, indeed, what was a prompt on the next page…

In short, as a solo experience I don’t think Thousand Year Old Vampire is actually playable at all for people that need a screen-reader. At a minimum what it needs is someone to narrate the prompts in a way that is logically consistent, doesn’t result in prompt overflow, and that permits easily stepping through the prompts based on random number generation. As a two player conversational game, it might be great – although since so much of the game is writing down your responses to what happens (and mechanically it doesn’t translate well into narration) – it wouldn’t be ideal for the person doing the reading. I don’t know though, as an evening’s activity I’ve heard worse ideas.

As an addendum though, per the changelog – the designer Tim Hutchings let me know on Twitter that there should be a pure text version of the game available in the download pack. I’m in the process of hunting it down but it was specifically put in there to support a player that used a screen-reader, in which case I’ll be able to raise this recommendation grade up a bit once I’ve checked it out. Watch this space!

We can’t recommend Thousand Year Old Vampire in this category.,

Cognitive Accessibility

The need for literacy is considerable here – both in understanding prompts and writing down experiences. And while the rules are very simple, they require a relatively deep understanding of implication, consequence and general knowledge. Consider this prompt:

Some mortals have banded together to hunt you,
well-armed and wise to your tricks. How do you
defeat or evade them? Create a mortal hunter related
to one of your checked Skills. Check a Skill.

What you’re supposed to do here is consider your vampire and their skills and work out how one of those (that you haven’t used before) may have been used to defeat a hunter that is related to a skill you have used before.

So let’s say your checked skill is ‘I know my gospels’. How might a hunter come after you for having used that skill before?

The options are truly endless, of course. Maybe you cheated someone through your knowledge of the bible, and this is a relative of theirs come to enact vengeance. Maybe you used your fluency with catechism to get close to a young religious woman so you could turn her into a thrall. Maybe this is the priest of the church come to rid his domain of your presence. It all flows together, but you need to understand how in order to write a compelling experience. Your whole vampire history is made up of these narrative moments – it, and the expulsion of memory – is really what the game is.

But really, you don’t need to stress this too much. Fundamentally as long as you are happy with the activity, you’re doing it correctly. Even your responses can be largely perfunctory – a sentence that serves as a basis upon which to build. ‘The priest is angry that I read the bible. I escape him using my horse-riding’. You don’t need complex stories in your experience, they can be super-brief elevator pitches. ‘Doug my friend betrays me. So I kill him’.

The thing is though, the payoff of the system comes at the end when you look back at the journey taken by your character and reflect on how it went. That becomes more difficult to do when there’s nothing evocative in the writing. It’s like the personal version of recounting an RPG campaign with ‘Remember that time we stormed the castle of fire, and you were thrown down onto the rocks by the Balor of the Crag so had to fight your way back up through the orcs and goblins of the mountains?’

People don’t say ‘Remember when you grappled a demon and rolled a two on your roll, which meant he won the challenge’. That may be, mechanically, what happened in the rules. It’s not what happened in the game. I think of Thousand Year Old Vampire, more than anything else, as a writing game. A creativity exercise in the mould of Once Upon a Time. The good news is that creativity comes in many layers and ‘satisfying characters’ will look very different to people with variable cognitive profiles. It’s just that what magic there is in this system lies in its ability to create surprises even when you’re the one writing it all out. I think there’s a minimum level of achievement needed with each experience to make that happen.

Were the theme something else I might even say ‘I think this has utility as a therapy tool’, but I think it might genuinely be upsetting for some people impacted by issues in this category. I have a mental image of the cruelty of making someone with a degenerative memory disorder play a game that is explicitly about the pain of forgetting. This exact game, with a more pleasant framing, would probably excel as a low-cognitive cost creativity exercise for those that want to explore writing when more traditional formats are inappropriate. As it stands though… no.

We can’t recommend Thousand Year Old Vampire in either of our cognitive accessibility categories. The system though has a lot of potential were it less dependant on the ability to rationalise experiences and if it had a less troubling mechanic than the slow decay of memory.

Physical Accessibility

This is an interesting category because I have no worries as far as the game itself goes – if a book isn’t appropriate (and it likely wouldn’t be) then the PDF is easily navigated by a few clicks of a mouse or a switch control or whatever digital compensatory regime is used. Even In the worst case scenario, it can be navigated by eye-blinks if someone is willing to do the scrolling.

The problem is in the actual writing part, because here I think it has to become a two person endeavour because of the recording of memories. As I mentioned above, these don’t need to be complex or verbose. They do though need a degree of permanence, and experiences should be thematically linked together. It would be perfectly okay for someone to simply answer the prompts out loud but it loses the coherence of a paper trail. If writing – electronically or otherwise – isn’t a problem then the game gets a clean bill of health. If it is a problem though then a transcriber is going to be needed, and that transcriber will need to be able to strike out text and reorder things pretty regularly. Voice recognition might be a workable solution but I’ve personally found that to introduce nothing but intense frustration.

I am Scottish though, so…

I’m going to tentatively recommend Thousand Year Old Vampire here because in some circumstances it will be completely trouble free. In others, it will be playable only with support.

Emotional Accessibility

Ah, this is the really complex analysis here because it’s a title where two seemingly contradictory things occur.

  1. You are in full control of what you write
  2. You will be confronted by things you don’t want to confront

I think this is really the genius in the design. I said in the review that I ended up with a vampire that was fangs deep in the slave trade. I didn’t intend that to happen. I wasn’t happy it happened. And given that I was thinking forwards to the review it wasn’t really something I wanted to confess happened because it seems utterly bizarre to say ‘It wasn’t me!’. But it wasn’t, not really. It was just the logical conclusion of having been chased to Africa by mortal hunters, and then getting this prompt:

Vast numbers of humans are migrating around the
world. What group becomes easy to feed upon?
How do you capitalize on their helplessness?
Create a Resource.

I mean… yeah, I can answer that in a way that doesn’t mean ‘Hey, slaves are easy and helpless prey’ but there’s an inauthenticity to that. There’s only one authentic way a soulless monster like mine would react when in a position of privilege in a continent full of human misery. Yes, it was me that sent him into the slave pens, but it wasn’t – y’know?

I was unhappy with both my vampires. I disliked both intensely. I went in thinking that I was going to end up with Interview with the Vampire fanfiction. I came out with blood on my hands and a sense of disgust at my own creations. I was glad when they died. I didn’t want to keep writing them – not because of the system, but because of their actions.

The game gives a kind of content warning at the start, but I think given the pitch of the game it is incredibly easy to dismiss.  It says ‘You may end up killing children’ and you think ‘Haha, no. I’m writing this vampire, remember? You’re silly’.

But then you end up, contextually, creating a small child mortal character. Maybe one that saves or befriends you. And you nurture that relationship when you can because it’s so nice and pure and you get very little of that in your unlife. But mortals die. They pass off the pages, both in prompts and implicitly. And then you get a prompt that says ‘Kill a mortal character’ and you find – to your angst – that your innocent little friend is the only one you have left.  Sure, you don’t have to keep on playing. Sure, you can say ‘that doesn’t count’ and roll again. Sure, you can cheat it. But if you play properly – you’ve killed that little girl and you need to write about the experience. How it made you feel. Justify it even if it’s a decision you took because you had no other available. You become an apologist for unforgiveable sins just because you’re the one writing the autobiography of the beast.

There are themes that emerge from your journey through the ages that are not explicitly embedded in the text but occur as a natural consequence of the decisions you made. And some of them are extremely unpleasant.

Writers sometimes talk about how they don’t make up their characters, they just write down what they do. When I wrote my own dreadful (thankfully unpublished) novel I found the same thing. They did things I didn’t expect, said things I didn’t know they were going to say. Your vampire will do the same here, and by virtue of the framing of the system they’ll do things that are upsetting. You don’t find your vampire surprising you with its heroism. You find it surprising you with the depths of its depravity.

Similarly, you’ll often find the tone of what you write is influenced by the nature of your creation. That, at least, is something that is completely in your control. I certainly found myself writing of things like ‘godless savages’ in the diaries of my monster when I’d never dream of saying that of real people in real life. Yeah, you can say ‘That’s on you buddy’ and I can certainly see the truth of that argument. But if you’re writing thematically, and have any respect for the period in which you envision your character, I found it a natural affectation that didn’t feel entirely like it was a choice.

We can’t recommend Thousand Year Old Vampire in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

The rules are written in the second person perspective, and the accompanying art shows a good blend of men, women and supernatural figures. The specifics of your vampire are entirely up to you to decide – it can be literally anything you want. The only limit is your imagination.

Thousand Year Old Vampire cover

And it’s also hard to fault as far as the price goes. The book plus the PDF is $45 from the author’s website, the PDF only is $15, and there are free ‘community copies’ if you want to pick it up without paying for it for whatever reason, ‘no questions asked’. It’s impossible to fault a pricing model that includes ‘Free if you want it’. There is though a profound inaccessibility in the way that the page talks about potential customers, in that it says:

If you are a supporter of the near or far right I am going to ask that you not buy my games. I don’t want your money, but more importantly I don’t want you to feel comfortable enjoying things produced by the people and systems you want to destroy. I don’t want bad people playing my games–and that includes folks who are willing to look the other way while braver bigots perform their hateful work.

Yes this means members of cartoonishly evil hate groups, but it also specifically includes Trump supporters and those Republicans who voted for Trump. You are lobbying for the death of my friends and relations, you are pushing for dangerous authoritarians to destroy the systems that let books like mine come to be. And this goes for equivalent groups outside the US–you know who you are.

People who make art and beauty and fun almost universally revile you and it’s time you started to feel that. You aren’t welcome here, you don’t get to play with my things. Shoo.

I mention it primarily because it is a perfect example of a sociological inaccessibility – making people feel as if they are not welcome to play the game. I don’t count it heavily against the rating though because I often say the job of a designer is to remove any inaccessibility they didn’t intend to be there. This is an uncontroversial example of an ‘intentional inaccessibility’ that the author considers core to the experience of Thousand Year Old Vampire. I include mention of it here purely because it’s interesting and some are definitely going to be put off doing anything with Thousand Year Old Vampire as a result of the message. It’s not a big problem – the author knows that – it’s just information that is worth emphasizing. It does though merit a minus on the rating, which given the strength of feeling shown in the message is a price I’m sure the author considers well worth paying. Despite it not applying to me me anywhere in its catchment area, I myself almost passed on the game because of this warning.

Even so we’ll strongly recommend Thousand Year Old Vampire in this category.

Communication

While there’s no need for someone to communicate during the course of solo play, there is a heavy emphasis on literacy. Not even just literacy in terms of ‘comprehension’ of writing or being able to write comprehensible text. It’s about creative writing and that’s going to be challenge for some people if they’re not fluent in the language or even just uneasy about working with fiction.

We’ll tentatively recommend Thousand Year Old Vampire in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

It’s odd that a system like this should have the accessibility profile it does, but there are a lot of ‘don’t recommend’ ratings across the board and that always makes these sections easier to write. My sole additional note would be that those with physical impairments that impact on writing will find the game unplayable if they cannot articulate experiences to a transcriber. At that point the game devolves into complete unplayability.

Thousand Year Old Vampire has a variable playtime that easily lends itself to being broken up into digestible chunks. You could write a lengthy diary over months, or a quick CV in an hour or two. You can stop writing in the middle and carry on days later. It has the same ease of continuation that any creative endeavour does, which makes it a pretty much ideal experience in terms of time invested.

Conclusion

So, how did the experiment go? I think it went passably well – the visual accessibility section was the most cumbersome to write because the experience of a book versus the experience of a PDF is qualitatively different. Everything else seems to have held up reasonably well though. Is the teardown useful? That’s for other people to decide. I do feel though that while it can’t be reflective of anyone else’s experience – this is a creative writing exercise after all – it is at least illustrative of some of the issues people might encounter.

Thousand Year Old Vampire, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessA
Visual AccessibilityD
Fluid IntelligenceD
MemoryD
Physical AccessibilityC
Emotional AccessibilityD
Socioeconomic AccessibilityA-
CommunicationC

I’m surprised though to find it get a bit of a bruising in the teardown. I didn’t expect it come down quite this way. Part of it is technical (the PDF is just not very accessible), part is going to depend on the demons that are loosed from the bottle of the author’s mind. Some of it is clearly ideologically justified by the author’s political stance. Whatever the reasons – there’s a lot of orange the table above.

My own inexperience with the breadth of RPGs out there is perhaps part of the reason the results surprised me. You may think it’s not a big deal to shift the teardown framework to ‘a different kind of game’. One thing I’ve developed over the past five or so years of Meeple Like Us is a comprehensive framework of comparisons that give me at least some sense of where something is statistically likely to land. Thousand Year Old Vampire confounds my expectations, because I have none.

Anyway, it’s a massively interesting system. If you think it might work for you you’ve got literally nothing to lose in giving it a try.

 


A Disclaimer About Teardowns

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.