One of the things which I think White Wolf and their successors in Onyx Path were actually quite good at, when they put their minds to it, was in providing interesting alternate modes of play in their various games through supplements. When they were at their best, a core World of Darkness rulebook would offer a strongly-defined default mode of play (or a selection of such modes in the case of the 20th Anniversary bricks) and then use supplements to open up interesting alternate possibilities, offering Storytellers a brace of new ideas and players suitable character generation guidance and support to make PCs who would engage with those ideas.
This was not just commercially sensible – though it does mean many of their books could appeal to player and Storyteller alike, which can’t have hurt. By approaching the product line in this way, at their best White Wolf made sure to give a clear answer to the old “but what do we actually do with this?” question, and I would go so far as to say that the weakest game lines were consistently those which did the worst job of handling that question.
The iconic example of this sort of thing is, of course, The Hunters Hunted and its V20 sequel, flipping Vampire on its head to let you play human vampire hunters going after bloodsuckers. Arguably the various guides to the Sabbat or the Anarchs also qualified, since they provided alternatives to the assumed Camarilla focus of the pre-V20 core books. For this article, I am going to look at a brace of other examples of this sort of thing in the Vampire: the Masquerade line, the first one from its early run and the latter two from the V20 line.
Elysium: The Elder Wars
Vampire has tended to have the reputation of a game where the PCs spend a lot of time subject to the whim of powerful Elder NPCs in a completely annoying and deprotagonising way, and certainly there’s plenty of supplements and adventures out there to justify that reputation. Some of the adventures in the original Succubus Club supplement, for instance, fit this depiction perfectly.
However, that hasn’t absolutely always been the case; see, for instance, Elysium, a 2nd edition Vampire supplement from 1994 offering guidelines on playing Elders and running campaigns for Elder PCs. In system terms, it doesn’t really offer much revolutionary (though there are some nice guidelines for helping you drill down and establish just where the various tentacles of an Elder’s influence go), but it’s an interesting enough primer on Elder psychology and existence and the problems and opportunities faced by the elite of the Camarilla and it does present a nicely distinctive different mode of play from the assumed “ancillae and neonates batted about by their betters” mode of early Vampire. There’s also guidelines offered up on running Vampire games spanning centuries, which are nice to have.
Naturally, even if you never intend to run a game in which the actual PCs are Elders, at the same time the supplement remains useful if you want to have Elders play a significant role in your campaign, and can offer a useful framework for plotting out the capabilities and reach of a particular Elder antagonist. It also offers up a brace of “Gehenna Cults” in an appendix – little clubs that Camarilla Elders join to talk about Gehenna without the social fallout of admitting that Gehenna exists, with little agendas of their own and fun names like the Royal Order of Edenic Groundskeepers. These are an especially nice addition to the game if you want to have a take on the Masquerade setting where, whilst the Camarilla doesn’t officially believe in Gehenna, its leaders aren’t just sitting around like lemons waiting for it to happen, or if you want to run a game where Gehenna features prominently but you don’t fancy having a significant Sabbat presence involved.
Elysium is a particularly interesting supplement to have if you prefer the earlier Vampire line’s emphasis on the major conflict in the setting being Elder-vs.-anarchs, as opposed to Camarilla-vs.-Sabbat; in fact, one of the easiest and best ways to get ahold of Elysium is to acquire in hardcopy or PDF the War of Ages compilation, which offers Elysium and the absolutely excellent early Anarch-themed supplement The Anarch Cookbook in a single volume. I actually think The Anarch Cookbook has a bit more meat on the bones than Elysium – possibly because the authors dug the Anarch agenda and had more sympathy for it than the developers of Elysium had for the Elders – but War of Ages is an excellent presentation of the Elder-vs.-Anarch conflict and an extremely useful tool if you want to focus on that.
The Black Hand: A Guide to the Tal’Mahe’Ra
Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand holds an astonishingly controversial place in Vampire‘s publication history. Perceived as being the height of the “superheros who drink blood” style some sections of the line crept into, it was stuffed with so many wacky ideas – the True Black Hand! The city of Enoch, hidden in the very underworld itself! The Vicissitude discipline as an infection of alien mind control parasites! – that a great many felt it was entirely tonally inappropriate for the line. Indeed, you could make an argument that an awful lot of the thrust of the Revised edition of Vampire (as well as portions of the late 2nd Edition) line was to firmly distance the game from Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand and similar pulp silliness – which is fine and dandy if you didn’t like Dirty Secrets, but if you actually thought it was kind of fun you were left out in the cold. (So determined were White Wolf to excise the True Black Hand from the setting that in the Revised metaplot Enoch literally got nuked – an incident which also let them put Wraith out of its misery and kicked off the storyline of Demon: the Fallen.)
With the V20 line, though, White Wolf and Onyx Path chose to take a more metaplot-agnostic and playstyle-tolerant take on the game; rather than saying “You shouldn’t play with the True Black Hand, that is Doing It Wrong”, they were much happy to take a stance of “in the canon they’re gone, but it’s your game so maybe they’re still around, or maybe they never existed – your call”. And in this manner, the Tal’Mahe’Ra is actually quite a useful tool for the setting; it allows Onyx Path a space where they can cordon off all of the wackier stuff that came out for Vampire over the years, so they can make it available to those who want that sort of thing and make it easy for those who actively dislike that stuff to ignore it.
The Black Hand, then, is a grab-bag covering not just the True Black Hand itself, but all the nutty stuff (including ample crossover material with other game lines) that got forcibly shoved out of canon during the anti-Dirty Secrets backlash. The Tal’Mahe’Ra is a fun vampiric Illuminati of folk who want to serve the rest of vampiric society up to the Antediluvians on a platter; you also have a take on the “Vicissitude is a sinister corruption” idea which is adaptable enough that it could just be a big hoax, or it could be something demonic or vampiric or otherwise totally inapproprate, or it could totes be aliens; you have details on followers of Lilith and the Baali (both the outright-infernalist sort and the “we’re only sacrificing people to these demons to keep them a sleep, we’re not really infernalists – *wink*” variety); you also have a stack of rules for wild shit like ghouls who are also Awakened mages and other utterly broken things.
Also, there’s rules for Vampire-Werewolf cross Abominations here, for when you want to go full Underworld. And let’s face it, if you start using material from this book in your Vampire game, it probably is going to feel like you’re going Underworld to some extent or another.
Underworld is probably an apt comparison, come to think of it. Like those movies, The Black Hand certainly isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste, and you probably wouldn’t want to follow its lead for every Vampire campaign, particularly if you want to go for a more serious or low-key style of horror (or, indeed, a style of horror that’s less prone to slipping into dark fantasy). But at the same time, it’s nice to have the option there, and I wouldn’t outright reject an offer to play in a campaign featuring a lot of Black Hand material provided that everyone was onboard with “personal horror” going out of the window and global conspiracies, Abominations, and utter chaos being the order of the day.
Ghouls & Revenants
The core V20 book already includes a fairly detailed appendix on ghouls (humans fed vampire blood to give them powers and bind them into service) and revenants (families of people whose bloodlines have been tampered with by vampires so extensively that they are effectively born ghouled), but a supplement to flesh these ideas out is welcome. There is a long, long history of using ghouls as player characters in Vampire; as well has having been the subject of past supplements, some of which have had truly ballgag-tastic cover art, they’ve been a feature of the game since the beginning, and considering that the project that became Vampire was originally meant to be a riff on Ars Magica for the modern day I suspect that ghouls as a player character option may have been intended from the start – perhaps to fill the Companion or Grog niche from that game.
Since the baseline rules are already provided in V20, the supplement can largely focus on expanding on them and providing a larger toolkit to support ghouls, whether as player characters or as more detailed NPCs. Notes are offered both on how each Clan tends to approach making ghouls and on how the various Sects view them; I particularly like how the Camarilla is essentially presented as officially disapproving of extensive ghoul use but in practice makes massive use of them on an institutional basis, because it’s a nice acknowledgement that the Masquerade setting can’t really work unless you assume that the Camarilla are way more hypocritical and lax about the enforcement of their rules than some of the early material made them out to be. You also get a host of revenant families, and some organisations of ghouls, and quite handy restatements and expansions of the ghoul rules and notes on character generation which, whilst possibly a bit redundant, at least reduces the extent of book-hopping needed to turn out a ghoul character.
There’s also some careful consideration offered when it comes to the abusive themes which the whole ghoul thing tends to lend itself to bringing out, offering thoughtful guidance on handling such themes in games (or on simply not touching it if would be best for your group to simply not touch such subject matter). The designers have evidently paid attention to the discourse on these issues in games, as witnessed by a nod in a section title to My Life With Master, an indie RPG that’s pretty much exactly about examining abusive relationships. At the same time, they also see the fun possibilities in the ghoul concept, and include some really useful tools in the appendix – a range of nicely-developed stock ghoul NPCs, as well as a whole section on using animals as ghouls, as well as some truly off-the-wall biological horrors constructed by the Tzimisce.