Game Review: Vampire: The Masquerade

Hey guys! PT here with a review of the recently rebooted Vampire: The Masquerade core rule book.

Full disclosure: The Old World of Darkness (OWoD) universe is my absolute, hands down, favorite roleplaying game campaign setting ever . I’m a huge fan of dark fantasy and the horror genre, generally, so when I discovered the OWoD games back in high school I was hooked. Werewolf was always my nearest and dearest, but Vampire came in a close second. What Werewolf lacked in political intrigue, Vampire more than compensated. The other settings were interesting and imaginative in their own right, especially Mage and Changeling, but Vampire and Werewolf remain the bread and butter of the WoD for most people, myself included.

Since this is a huge book, with a lot to discuss, I’m going to break it down by chapter and discuss what I feel to be the good and bad things about it and how they compare with the old game system. Hope you enjoy!

Chapter 1: Concepts

So, right out of the gate, I was struck by the book’s committed return to the OWoD. A return to the millennia-old intrigue and politics of Caine, the Antediluvians, and their descendents is a good one, I feel. A bold move, for sure, that I hope takes off in a big way.

The old metaplot is back. The world is on fire and Gehenna approaches as the ancient Antediluvians stir in their crypts and vaults. Younger vampires scramble to ready themselves in an unstable era, while elders and ancilla shore up their defenses against the younger generations. The Camarilla moves in the shadows of humanity, seeking to preserve the Masquerade, while the Sabbat musters its forces to defeat the perceived threat of the Antediluvians. And thrown into the mix, we have a new organization of mortal hunters, calling themselves the Second Inquisition (you get one guess about their company mission statement…) to add a little more gasoline to an already incendiary situation. There’s a whole world full of intrigue, adventure, and horror wide open for old players to revisit and new players to discover, and I’m pretty excited to find a group and get started.

Outside of this new information, this chapter essentially sets the tone for the book, discusses some of the themes, plots, and content inherent to the WoD. It’s mainly for new players, but old players wouldn’t be worse off to jog their memories and imaginations through it as preparation for the rest of the book.

Chapter 2: Kindred Society

This chapter goes into more detail about the history and particular intrigues associated with vampire society. Here, we take a closer look at the Camarilla and its history, the Autarkis (outliers who typically don’t participate in the global Kindred political movements and wars), and the Jyhad which pits the elder vampires against the younger generations, as the latter rise up to establish themselves as more than simply pawns in their ancestors’ political machinations.

This chapter also establishes Kindred history and lineage, beginning with their progenitor, Caine the Wanderer, and continuing through the ensuing vampiric generations down to the present day. The important thing to note, here, is that all the old content is back in place with lots of familiar faces moving throughout the shadows of history, manipulating Kindred and mortal society alike. The blend of real world history with the history of the OWoD was always one of the strong points of the fiction behind this game setting, and I’m pretty excited to see it back in business.

We are also given tools such as the Kindred lexicon and a fashion article to help us immerse ourselves in cultural nuance, as well as an introduction to the Traditions of Kindred society. This is all stuff I would normally skip over as someone who’s pretty familiar with the game setting, but it was nice to experience again to get myself back in the mood for the game itself.

Chapter 3: Clans

Gone are the flat and boring clans from Vampire: The Requiem; the old clans are back in business. The seven major clans are all represented in the book: Brujah, Gangrel, Malkavian, Nosferatu, Toreador, Tremere, and Ventrue, with extra sections for Caitiff and the Thin-Booded. They are as flavorful and idiosyncratic as ever and updated for modern nights.

Each clan entry gives a typically brief overview of the clan, along with some italicized flavor text and a breakdown of how each clan represents itself within the context of Kindred society. We also get a list of clan Disciplines and character archetypes to help players and storytellers with character creation. Pretty typical stuff, here.

New to this edition is the detailed section for the Thin-Blooded: vampires of the 14th, 15th, and 16th generations. These Kindred have always existed, but their occurrence was usually handled through merits and flaws, or some other less rules oriented manner. This seems like a fine addition to the rule set and could be an interesting thing to add to a campaign or to use as the basis of a campaign.

A cool addition they’ve made over some older books is the inclusion of sample character illustrations to demonstrate how some members of each clan might look. One of the greatest things about this book is all the excellent artwork, and these illustrations are excellent inspiration when creating new characters.

Chapter 4: Rules

So, here’s where things get tricky. Right out of the gate, the authors tell us that dice rolling is secondary to roleplaying. I agree with this statement, wholeheartedly, and believe it to be one of the key advantages of the Storyteller systems over other more rules-centric RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve spent entire Vampire and Werewolf gaming sessions with barely a die rolled. The system didn’t require it and it slows down the dramatic pacing of the game. However, the new rule set seems a little counter-intuitive to that goal in several ways.

For instance, the combat system isn’t very straightforward. Instead of the traditional sequence of every participant: rolling initiative, choosing actions, rolling dice vs a target difficulty/number of successes, and applying the results of the combat round, we now have an odd initiative system based on types of actions within the combat, which leads to contested rolls of one player’s dice pool versus another players dice pool…or something (it’s not always clear). The rules pertaining to action rounds is perceptibly vague and not always intuitive. I plan to give them a try for my next campaign, but if they are as practically convoluted as they seem on paper, I’ll likely just go back to the more traditional system of the OWoD for ease of play.

They’ve also added lots of extra things to the rules systems like a willpower health bar, lots of overly complicated types of health and damage and damage tracking. It seems very odd to me to claim that dice rolling slows down the flow of the game, but then adding all this arbitrary paperwork and dice rolling.

Also the “Three Turns and Out” rule seems ill-conceived, and could I could see it easily leading to a case of the feelbads if strictly applied. Simply it states that conflicts should never go past three turns and that the Storyteller should simply describe the rest of the encounter as he sees fit, make one party run away, or change the scene entirely (e.g. a train runs between the combatants so they can’t finish the fight). I honestly don’t know what they were trying to do here. Their stated reason is to keep long conflicts from ruining game pace (despite the fact that their new rule system threatens to do that anyway); however, I know the players I’ve gamed with in the past and they would be pretty upset with me for even trying to implement this rule. My players have typically leaned toward the bloodthirsty…

I think what this comes down to is perhaps the developers attempting to overly legislate the creativity and imagination that goes into this sort of gaming experience. As a Storyteller, I should know when a conflict is threatening to damage my gaming session’s pacing. I don’t need an extraneous blanket rule to do it for me. And there seems to be a theme of this throughout the rules sections of this book. As I said, I plan to field test these rules to see how they fare off the page, but if they are as clunky and counter-intuitive on the table as they were to read, I will likely just go back to the older rule-set that has served me well for decades, now.

Chapter 5: Characters

So, this is your character creation walk-through chapter. It gives you all the information you need to create a character for the game pertaining to attributes, skills, and the myriad of new traits they’ve added to the character sheet. Essentially, there has been a lot of arbitrary relabeling of old traits to fit in with the new game system. Some of these changes seem to streamline play, while others seem like unnecessary convolution that doesn’t really enrich the game in any way other than to create extra steps to achieve the same ends.

Sometimes, the road isn’t taken for a reason…

For instance, gone is the old “Talents, Skills, Knowledges” framework, as all of those traits are now known as Skills (Mental, Physical, Social). While it may not seem like a simple relabeling of these traits is very helpful, I would contend that even the smallest measure of streamlining adds up over time, to eventually produce a lighter and more efficient system. After all, ten additions of +1 are greater than one +5. Everything counts when we’re trying to offload deadweight, and some of the changes to the rule set are good ones.

And then we have all the other new traits that we’ve been doing just fine without so far: Predator Types, Ambitions, Desires, Touchstones, et al. The purview of these traits have traditionally been handled by creative players and storytellers imagining, roleplaying, and immersing themselves in the fiction of their characters and campaigns. Reducing these things to a simple game mechanic seems counter-productive to the goal of unshackling the roleplaying experience from the bonds of dice rolling and numbers on a character sheet. As before, I intend to try the entire system out and give it a chance to surprise me, but if it’s not an improvement over the older systems, I’ll have no problem tossing it for something better and more efficient.

Another change I’m leery of is the new Merits and Flaws system. This has always been one of my favorite steps in the character creation process. It’s the section of the rulebook you always go to trash up your character and make life more difficult and shiny. My own personal characters are generally laden with flaws because they are always some of the most flavorful and interesting additions to the character sheet. I think this section has traditionally been sort of a controversial and problematic aspect of the game, due to the fact that this is where power gamers go to break shit, so I totally understand the desire to tone things down. But again, this problem is easily solved by a stern and observant Storyteller guiding and mitigating the destructive impulses of a few bastards who just want to troll the game and that’s where any potential troublemaking should end.

I don’t see the need for a drab sterilization of the Merits and Flaws system to mechanically mitigate players’ destructive tendencies. Storytellers should be able to handle these things on their own. Many of the old fun Merits and Flaws are gone from the game, replaced by lackluster and uninteresting traits that fail to inspire much of anything besides an extra plus or minus on a sheet. I will definitely be adding the old Merits and Flaws to my games, regardless of whether I play the new system or not.

Chapter 6: Vampires

This chapter opens with a pseudo intellectual condemnation of the use of the term “vampire” among vampiric society. The name of the game is literally “Vampire: The Masquerade” and the term “vampire” is used thousands of times throughout the book. I’m not even sure how to take the introduction, all things considered, but that’s a thing that made it through editing, somehow.

Anyway, this chapter is dedicated to fleshing out the vampire and its society. This is particularly useful for those of us who may be just picking up the setting and it was a good read and recap for those of us who may be returning after a long hiatus. Here, we discover who and what these creatures are, how they live their unlives, and how their bodily processes function. We are also given a system of rules to govern those things. Again, I’m not sure how useful or efficient these rules are, but strictly on paper they seem clunky and often arbitrary. That said, much of the text devoted to the new system I found to be interesting to read and descriptively helpful, so I think new players especially might find this section useful insofar as the imaginative process goes toward creating living characters and the world in which they live.

Chapter 7: Disciplines

This section explains the vampires’ superpowers. Thematically, not much has changed from the old game to the new. All the old powers are here, tied to the same clans as before. Unlike some of the other chapters, this one seems to have actually been improved mechanically, in some ways.

One of the cool ways they’ve improved the Disciplines is the addition of an extra power to some levels of each tree. Don’t like the Level 1 Auspex power Heightened Senses? Take Sense the Unseen instead. I recall countless times having to take a lame or redundant power while working my character’s way up a Discipline tree and this is a pretty great way to eliminate that aspect of feelsbad from the game. This should be a core theme when developing any game at all, but that isn’t always the case.

Another improvement is the orderly inclusion of amalgam powers to the Discipline trees. These powers have always existed in a quasi-state between Disciplines, off the official trees, in the dark corners and recesses of game expansions and oddball sourcebooks, which is problematic for a number of reasons. I have never taken much issue with this type of powers, even though my groups rarely used them, but having them off the charted path of the majority of players and Storytellers can lead to a number of gaming problems. I’m glad the game developers recognized that and included them in this book.

The Rest of the Book

The rest of the book deals with a bunch of oddball subjects that essentially fill in what gaps are left to help players and storytellers put together a campaign and get it up and running. This is the garnishment section of the book to the entree we’ve already discussed. Veteran WoD players can likely get along just fine without this section, but I feel like it’s worth a read for the sake of atmospheric refreshment.

The first section is an advanced rule set. If you want to make the marginally convoluted game mechanics more complicated, this is a very good chapter of the book. Personally, I wasn’t especially thrilled with this chapter as I don’t believe this game requires many rules at all. The fact that a few dozen LARPers can hang out in a room together for an entire night, playing this game, with barely a need for game mechanics should say everything that needs to be said here. However, if you like meticulous rules navigation, as I know some folks do, this chapter of advanced rules will suit you well. Whether you like the new rules or not, having options is seldom a bad thing.

The remaining chapters deal with establishing and running a chronicle. There are some good sections, here, and also some redundant ones. I’d say this section is pretty comparable to the Old WoD books’ equivalent chapters. You get another overview of how vampiric society functions and how that pertains to your chronicle’s city, lists of story antagonists and gear, and how to plan a chronicle in both the short and long term. These are the nuts and bolts that make your game sessions function both individually and as a series of sessions. This section is a good one to be familiar with as it is a vital part of your toolbox.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

Overall, I think this game release is a mixed bag. On one hand, I was (and still am) pretty stoked about the release of an updated version of my favorite game setting of all time; on the other hand, it comes with some possibly unfortunate baggage. Ultimately, I don’t think the baggage is too heavy to bear, however. This game isn’t even close to being the sad disappointment that the New WoD was for me. The dark and interesting historical timelines, that were perfectly blended into our own, is back as a foundation for the setting, only updated for modern nights, which is the most important thing in my eyes. Like many of us, I actually never stopped playing OWoD. the NWoD being so lackluster and uninspired that I just couldn’t muster enough interest to invest very much of my time into it. I did try.

While there are seemingly many unnecessary, and often arbitrary, convolutions and complications to this rebooted version of the game, I believe that we have a solid win, here. Even if the new game mechanics feel a little bloated and distracting, the renewed interest in growing and expanding the WoD from the solid foundation of the old game setting gives me a lot of hope for the future.

-PT

And remember, Frontline Gaming sells gaming products at a discount, every day in their webcart!

secondhandhsop

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4 Responses to “Game Review: Vampire: The Masquerade”

  1. Ty September 13, 2018 12:25 pm #

    That sounds disappointing, though I suppose not really surprising.

    • Reecius
      Reecius September 13, 2018 2:51 pm #

      My thoughts, too. I played OWoD (Werewolf FTW!) so would like to see it succeed but when I read the combat system I too was a bit baffled. However, to be fair I didn’t super dig in to it or actually try it so take my opinion with a grain of salt.

      Great review though, PT! I really enjoyed it and it brought back some great memories form playing Werewolf back in the day!

  2. Sam September 13, 2018 5:46 pm #

    IMHO the clan dressing code/look illustrations are very unrealistic in how a WoD vampire looks. You’re still mostly humane, at least is how you look. That kind of clothing looks like something coming from a space opera or modern fantasy. You will not be able to blend into human society without calling attention to yourself. Hard to feed or keep the Masquerade when you call too much attention.

    The book have good quality of illustrations, but the overall look is like a fashion magazine.

  3. abusepuppy September 14, 2018 6:23 am #

    I feel obligated to point out that the guy who wrote this game is kind of a piece of shit and very nearly caused a lot of the other authors at White Wolf to quit when he came back this time around. Whether or not that colors your perceptions of the game is up to the reader, but personally I find the man pretty repugnant and his game to be lackluster in the extreme.

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