Chris Handley is a podcaster, games designer, and games writer (and a computational chemist for his day job). For the last 8 years, along with Mike Andryuk, he has been one of the lead hosts of Darker Days Radio, a podcast dedicated to the White Wolf properties World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness. Of these the most iconic game is Vampire: the Masquerade. On Darker Days Radio they review the books, interview the creators, and also provided original ideas for players of horror roleplay games, using as their inspiration real world folklore, myths, and urban legends in their Secret Frequency section. Darker Days Radio recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and had the honour of running a seminar at UK Games Expo back earlier in June 2019.
Chris has also published a number of books for these horror games, through the Storyteller Vault, and was co-designer, writer, and miniatures painter for FASA Games’ Noble Armada 3rd Edition. Chris is a contributing writer for the futurism and pop-science magazine, CYBR, and he is now a writer for Cubicle 7’s Warhammer 40,000 roleplay game “Wrath and Glory”, and has written introductory scenarios for Vampire: the Masquerade’s recent 5th edition, with these scenarios set in Manchester.
This August Fan Boy 3 are running a Gencon pop-up event (one of two in the UK which are the only events of their kind outside of the US). For the pop-up event Chris will be running a brand new scenario for Vampire.
How has the cityscape of Manchester and the surrounding area inspired your work?
Chris: Manchester as an inspiration for what I write for roleplay games is rooted in my time of living in Manchester. I come from the rural, and relatively isolated town of Kington, Herefordshire (origin of the legends that inspired the Sherlock Holmes tale The Hound of the Baskervilles), and moved to Manchester to pursue my Chemistry degree at UMIST. Following my degree I did a PhD at the University of Manchester in Theoretical Chemistry. So I have spent a good amount of time exploring areas of Manchester, and of course sampling the clubbing scene - Jilly’s Rock World, the Ritz, Canal Street, the Northern Quarter. It was also during my formative years in Manchester I really got into the Goth scene, and so I have also sampled the stranger club nights, like ArA which is held in a church, or more niche again.
It was during this time that the original World of Darkness game lines came to an end, the reimagining of these games were brought into being, in particular Vampire: the Requiem. This new take on the classic tropes of the Vampire roleplay game was less rooted in “gothic punk” and more in “modern gothic”. I think the distinction was important as gothic punk for me had less meaning, as it was a product of the early nineties, and here I was wanting to run a game of Vampire set in 2004. And where better to set it than Manchester! So of course I dived into the history and legends of Manchester in order to create a setting for my game that had a certain verisimilitude. Roman Mithraums, John Dee, the network of tunnels and canals beneath Manchester, and events like the Peterloo Massacre, all factored into how I created my setting for my own game. This was important as this new Vampire roleplay game had less of a prescribed setting or lore, meaning I had the breathing room to establish what I wanted, without the overbearing and exhaustive lore of Vampire: the Masquerade.
Manchester as a city is of course interesting for such games as it has both a long history, but as a city is still quite young. It has been the centre of battles during the Civil War, a location for technological revolutions - both the Industrial Revolution and the birth of modern computing. The city is also the birthplace of social reforms. For these reasons the city for me encapsulates the themes of the old vs new, elders vs children. We see this in the architecture of the city as red brick cotton mills stand next to towers clad in glass and steel. And this conflict of the old and the new is at the heart of what I ran for my games of Vampire: the Requiem, and what I now tap into for the new edition of Vampire: the Masquerade.
In the new edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, the themes of rebellion, and rising up against your elders (in this case elder vampires that are centuries old), that were iconic of the punk attitude of the game in the 90s - that Generation X vibe - are now relevant once more. And Manchester I feel for this new edition is the perfect setting for these stories of “occult revolution” in the modern age.
You were involved in Halloween in the City last year. Can you tell us more about this - and are you involved this year?
Chris: Last year for Halloween in the City, Vampire: the Masquerade had only been out a few months, and so I gathered some trusted friends to run sessions of the game - they were my team of Storytellers. The scenario we ran was one that featured elements of body horror, biological horror, and paranoia - within the modern setting of the game a “Second Inquisition” has arisen out of the global intelligence agencies and they are actively hunting down vampires.
The aim was to demonstrate to players, new and experienced, how the new game rules worked, and also the themes and moods of the new edition. We were generously supported by White Wolf, who provided books to be given away as prizes, and Fan Boy 3 were our hosts for the afternoon.
The overall result was players eager to start their own groups to run Vampire: the Masquerade, and I have had the joy of staying in contact with a number and providing advice on running games.
This year, as part of the satellite events being run for GenCon, Fan Boy 3 has invited me back to organise more demo games of Vampire: the Masquerade. Much like last time these demo events are for showcasing the game to players who have not played the latest edition. Furthermore, the scenario that we are using further expands upon the setting of Manchester within the World of Darkness, but this time coming at it from the angle of the elite of the Vampires, the Camarilla.
Players who participate will get to experience a different type of roleplay game compared to Dungeons and Dragons, or Pathfinder. Vampire and the World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness games, are games that focus on personal horror and social interaction. It will be quite possible to play through this scenario without a single punch being thrown - but scathing remarks and baring of fangs? Oh yes! Vampire is all about the centuries old social dynamics of immortals who are fighting back a hunger for blood - what could go wrong?!
Why does it matter to you to explore horror themes within gaming?
Chris: Horror in gaming is a chance to explore different sides of our humanity. At a basic level we as humans can’t help but delve into mysteries and explore old and forgotten places. We also love stories of fighting the monsters that lurk in the dark. But, we also enjoy horror in gaming where we play as the monsters, and where what we are fighting are the urges and weaknesses that make us these monsters. I think the reason for this is because games like Vampire, Werewolf, Mage etc offer the chance for us to consider different aspects of our lives. These monsters, and how the live and survive, can act as metaphors for real world issues. Vampires have the Masquerade, and not so long ago being able to openly express ones’ sexuality as being different to the established norm was not welcome, and so people also had a “masquerade” of sorts. Werewolf has the theme of “when will you rage?”. What this means is that as a Werewolf, you have the ability to change into a towering beast of savage fury and power. But the question is, just because you can wield this power, should you in fact use it?
Horror games also can allow for a cathartic release. Horror games, with the consent with all players at the table, allows you to tackle very difficult and challenging topics, but through the lens and filter of the supernatural. Vampires in particular have always been a literary creature through which darker topics can be explored. With the right group of mature players who understand and respect the topics being addressed, and the boundaries of the other players in the group. These themes are not being played for laughs, shock value or edginess, but to genuinely explore the human condition. We can be reminded that humans do bad things because we are humans. Not monsters.
What else are you running in Manchester as gaming events?
Chris: For the GenCon satellite event I will also be running a day of demo games for Wrath and Glory, and also a live edition of the podcast.
It’s always great to run demos at Fan Boy 3, as I was there when the original store open all the way back in 2003, and in fact ran one of the first demos, a game of the tabletop miniatures game Warmachine. Now Fan Boy 3 has been in a new location, having moved 2 years ago. Having 3500 square foot space to use for games, tournaments, and a cafe on-site is a bonus. The GenCon event is a great chance for those of us unable to make it to the US to still enjoy the new releases in gaming and play some new games. Of course we also have our eye on Halloween and replicating the success of our Vampire demo event last year.
Chris and his team of Storytellers will be running demos of Vampire and Wrath and Glory on the 3rd and 4th of August. Further details about how to sign up will be available soon on the Fan Boy 3 facebook page.
Images 2 & 3 copyright of White Wolf Entertainment - others are Chris' own