The Owls Are Not What They Seem: Redeeming the Requiem

I’ve previously talked on here about how I think many of the innovations of Vampire: the Requiem represent improvements over Vampire: the Masquerade – and yet, I’ve tended to find myself more interested in the older game’s 20th Anniversary Edition and its supplements than in the Requiem line. The problem is that Requiem, in its original presentation, manages to be just different enough from Masquerade to excite you with the possibilities of a different vision of vampires and vampiric society whilst not quite being different enough to avoid reminding you of Masquerade and feeling like a slightly fanfic-y remix of the more archetypal presentation of the concepts there.

This is probably an artifact of the way Requiem was originally published as an outright replacement for Vampire: the Masquerade, rather than as an interesting and novel alternative for it. This really put the original designers in an impossible bind; on the one hand, they had to make Requiem recognisably different from Masquerade to stop it feeling like a cynical cash grab, whilst at the same time they had to make it similar enough to the original so that those who liked Masquerade didn’t end up completely out in the cold.

Of course, these issues have been exacerbated of late by the publication of the V20 line, bringing the Classic World of Darkness back into the picture. Now that those who dig Masquerade have ongoing support for the line from Onyx Path, there’s no need for them to look to Requiem unless it’s for its unique selling points – which were not as strongly played up as they could have been in the original version. A second edition of Requiem, liberated from any need to pander to the Masquerade crowd to soothe their hurt at the old line’s termination, has been necessary for a while now, particularly in the light of the God-Machine Chronicle rules update which established some interesting and distinctive mechanical differences between the Classic and New World of Darkness systems.

However, matters were complicated by Onyx Path’s relationship with CCP, who were of the opinion that putting out official second editions of the New World of Darkness stuff would confuse consumers in the lead-up to the launch of their World of Darkness MMO. Frankly, I think CCP were kidding themselves there – most videogamers would not and would never be aware of Requiem in the first place, and those who were would understand the distinction between the MMO’s Classic World of Darkness-derived background and the New World of Darkness. Either way, they refused permission to put out new editions until after the MMO project was cancelled, which is why the God-Machine Chronicle exists in the form it does in the first place, and why Vampire: the Requiem 2nd Edition first hit the market as Blood & Smoke: the Strix Chronicle.

Whatever you call it, this book is a welcome reorganisation, revision, and restatement of the Requiem, as well as setting up an interesting new formula for presenting World of Darkness games – possibly the first really substantial revision of the formula since the original publication of Vampire: the Masquerade. The God-Machine rules update is fully implemented here, but rather than presenting the rules revisions in a clunky appendix like in Demon: the Descent the game is instead a complete-in-one-book presentation of the system, eliminating the need to cross-reference it with other sources (though it does make occasional reference to them). Lead developer Rose Bailey and her team also spruce up the setting material considerably, jettisoning aspects of the first edition which didn’t do very much (like the whole “vampires don’t really have emotions, they just have echoes of feelings they felt when they were alive which are functionally indistinguishable from real emotions” thing) and drawing out the more unique aspects of the setting.

The various Clans and Covenants are presented in a way which I “get” much better than previously, and also in a way which really teases out the horror implicit in each of them – for instance, it was always clear that the Circle of the Crone was always about the old timey paganism, but it’s much more obvious here that this amounts to less hippified reconstructionism and borrowings from Wicca and much, much more in the way of primal old blood cults and human sacrifice. Likewise, the Carthian Movement feels less like a reskin of the Anarch Movement, losing what vestiges of punk romanticisation of rebellion it inherited from the Anarchs and instead gaining a nasty steel edge to it – you get the impression that cities ruled by the Carthians are less like the Anarch Free States of Masquerade and more like a neo-Stalinist commune, or for that matter a fascist dictatorship (fascism, after all, being the revolutionary radicalism of the far right just as Communism is the revolutionary radicalism of the far left).

On top of that, the book goes out of its way to illustrate how the pecking order amongst the Covenants which seemed normative in the first edition is merely one of a great many different ways a city’s politics can shake out, by providing a fat chapter full of interesting city writeups explaining the secret history of the locale, the state of the clans, what the local Covenants are like (some of them being radically different from the standard ones), and so on. This is frankly such a useful chapter of setting seeds – each of which providing enough basis to put a campaign together whilst leaving space for the referee to do their own research and development – that in retrospect it’s kind of astonishing that previous editions of Vampire in either iteration didn’t put such a thing in the core.

These setting seeds, which seem to me to be inspired by similar setting nuggets from Demon: the Descent, are just part of what supports the new “Chronicle” format that makes its debut here. The big idea seems to be that Requiem in its previous incarnation didn’t seem to offer a really compelling setting hook for the major conflict of the campaign world, as opposed to the whole “Sabbat vs. Camarilla” deal which lent a bit of urgency to Masquerade. Therefore, Bailey and company have plucked one of the juicier elements from the Requiem For Rome supplement and made them the major adversaries of vampirekind in the new Requiem: namely, the Strix.

Strix are shadowy owl spirits that can inhabit corpses, vampires, and when powerful enough even living hosts. Whereas vampires are performing a constant balancing act between their Humanity and the Beast, the Strix are not at all conflicted: they are utter monsters, they were never human, and they like it that way. One of the many contradictory stories they tell about themselves is that they are the source of the Beast (though they are not subject to its frenzies themselves, raising the delicious unspoken possibility that the supposedly inhuman Beast is just the less salubrious side of human nature cranked up to 11), and there are disturbing hints that they might have created the first vampires.

Certainly, they take a great interest in vampire society, though not one that the Kindred appreciate. You see, the Strix consider the vampires’ habit of clutching desperately to their humanity like drowning sailors to driftwood to be absurd and pretentious, and take great delight in pushing vampires into embracing the Beast. They also do the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers thing well, and the Mephistopheles thing; as the book notes, they have an alarming tendency to interpret “please grant me power” as meaning “please possess my body and use me to do unspeakable things”.

As the back cover of the book quite aptly puts it, whilst the Kindred are the vampires of pop culture (a pop culture which in its time was shaped by Masquerade), the Strix are the vampires of antique folklore, and the systems and setting information provided here does a great job of making them truly nightmarish enemies. Enough mystery remains to allow the Storyteller to draw their own conclusions about the true nature of the Strix, if they want to, but enough detail is given to create a vivid picture of what they do and what their reputation is. (There’s an eerie little anecdote about how occasionally cities will just go silent, with Kindred outside the town suddenly no longer getting anything from their contacts inside, and those who dare to make the journey to investigate finding no sign of any established Kindred presence in there, which starkly illustrates the stakes once a Strix gets to work in a town.) It also helps that you could totally do “BOB” from Twin Peaks as a Strix. What’s best of all, though, is that the book presents a selection of fully statted-up and fleshed-out Strix, each of whom has a very distinctive modus operandi. Take one, drop it into a campaign, watch sparks fly; they even come with suggestions as to the sort of scenarios which might arise from their activities.

I think the reason the Strix work so well as a major threat in Requiem, aside from the Bodysnatchers paranoia they provoke and the way putting an alien but not unbeatable threat at the top of the food chain instead of conspiracies of vampiric elders creates an instant and powerful separation between Requiem and Masquerade, is that they are a finely-calibrated nuclear-tipped ICBM direct to the Humanity system. Vampire in its various incarnations has supposedly always been a game about the precarious balancing act between maintaining one’s humanity and getting ahead in the grim world of the Kindred; the fact that the Strix are specifically interested and invested in pushing people to give up their humanity makes them an excellent “unacceptable face of vampirism”, a role theoretically served by the Sabbat in Masquerade but somewhat undermined by the fact that the Sabbat kind of had a point here and there.

With all this cool stuff in the book, some bits have to be cut here and there – for instance, Belial’s Brood were cut for space, as were the in-depth explorations of various Bloodlines that were at the back of the original Requiem rulebook. At the same time, I kind of think that having a very limited set of clans helps distinguish Requiem from Masquerade, especially since many of the Bloodlines provided in Requiem 1st Edition (plus Belial’s Brood) seemed to be tossed in there in order to include some touchstones that certain subfactions of Masquerade fans would have made a fuss and bother about if they hadn’t been mentioned, like the Malkavians. (Indeed, at one point the text of Blood & Smoke makes a mention of “Malkavia” as though it were an aberration that any Kindred could potentially manifest if their mind becomes unsound, rather than a Bloodline or pseudo-clan.) And having a complete-in-one-book game is a powerful boon. The main downside of the book is that, aside from the Strix, there’s kind of a dearth of NPC stats, so you’d have to either work them up yourself or source them from elsewhere, but other than that there’s everything you need in here to get a campaign running right away – just pick a city, make characters, add a Strix to the mix and watch the fireworks.

Thanks to this, plus the way that this iteration of Requiem ups the gothic part of the good old gothic-punk formula whilst drastically dialling back the punk, really helps clarify Requiem‘s place in the ecosystem. There are campaign types I would use Masquerade for (particularly if I wanted deep lore, a broad variety of vampire types, and a vampiric society dominated by conspiratorial conflicts between power blocs of elders), and campaign types I would use Requiem for (particularly if I wanted a slimmed-down range of clans, city-states which are truly islands rather than part of hidden empires, lore I mostly make up myself and a vampiric society under siege by dark forces who want to erode what little connection the vampires have left to humanity), and the respective systems support those campaign types nicely. Finally, the two games look like different tools for different jobs, rather than aesthetically divergent tools for the same basic task, and the improvement is so great that I’m not likely to keep hold of either my copy of 1st Edition Requiem or Requiem for Dummies.

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One thought on “The Owls Are Not What They Seem: Redeeming the Requiem

  1. Pingback: Old Vampires, New Tricks – Refereeing and Reflection

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