So a while back I looked at some of the earliest Vampire: the Masquerade material and was rude about the Player’s Guide and Storyteller’s Handbook, but I have to make a little confession: I’ve kept hold of them, rather than passing them on as I ordinarily would.
The thing is, whilst the substance of what is said in them I tend to disagree with a lot, I can’t help but feel a certain weird enjoyment of their style. “Style over substance” was a charge levelled at Vampire a lot by its critics back in the day, but I’ve come around to the opinion that this was a feature of the line, not a bug.
Try to reconcile the various World of Darkness game lines and you end up with a headache; try and reconcile the various contradictory materials issued in one specific game line under that umbrella and you end up with a similar headache. White Wolf and Onyx Path like to wheel out the “Oh, it’s all written in-character from the perspective of the various factions” excuse, but that doesn’t hold water much of the time (too often it’s contextually clear that this isn’t meant to be a specific NPC speaking in the rulebook, but the neutral, omniscient tone of the designers trying to convey information directly to the Storyteller).
This is inevitably going to become a big problem for the new Paradox-controlled White Wolf. They declare they want One World of Darkness, a single cohesive setting that can be used as the basis of a transmedia franchise. If they actually intend to deliver that, they’ll need to make a final, definitive call on how Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Wraith, Changeling and all the rest fit together.
This will inevitably cause great drama. Entire factions of fans will no doubt feel that their favourite splat has been dumped on, or some other splat has been made too powerful. (The consensus in places I have discussed this seems to be that Mage is either going to stomp all over the other lines or end up feeling utterly gutted compared to prior editions, with little scope for a middle way between those extremes.)
This is a basic problem with the World of Darkness: it was never really brilliantly fine-tuned for crossover purposes, and whilst people did it anyway, I think they were fools to attempt it. As far as I am concerned, Vampire is at its best when it is presenting a setting designed solely with an eye to being an interesting setting to play a vampire in, and the same is true of each of the other lines; Werewolf is not improved by having to consider how Pentex fits in with the Technocracy, Mage is not improved by trying to figure out how the cosmology of Demon: the Fallen fits into it.
So there’s no cohesive setting and attempting to reach a canonical one is a doomed exercise. What’s left? What’s left is the tone, the atmosphere. I have come to the conclusion that the last thing I want in a Vampire: the Masquerade game is a setting which worries about trying to look too much like the real world; what I’m after is dry ice everywhere, ludicrous gothic cityscapes like something out of The Crow or Tim Burton’s take on Batman, and a world where the This Corrosion music video is a reasonable approximation of an Anarch meeting.
This is quite far away from a serious exploration of serious themes in a realistic setting along the lines of what the new edition is offering; it does, however, feel like a game where three-eyed vampires with a distinctly anime aesthetic to their introductory artwork are a viable addition to the game.
It helps that on the whole I actually think I was slightly unfair to these two books. The Player’s Guide is actually quite handy for giving a snapshot of what a player’s-eye-view of the setting was supposed to look like back when Vampire first came out, the templates offered, whilst not necessarily brilliantly designed, at least give clear pointers as to what you’re supposed to be able to do with the game, and the essays about roleplaying in the first edition Player’s Guide are reasonable enough accounts of people’s personal gaming experiences, which is far more useful than the 2nd edition Player’s Guide which replaced those with waffling about roleplaying and the Hidden God and other risible notions. The Storyteller’s Guide actually has some decent suggestions when it comes to setting design and the like.
Mostly, though, I prize them for the snapshot they offer of the early 1990s White Wolf style – a little naive, much less profound than it pretended to be, and a bit more willing to pander to melodrama rather than offering grounded drama. Here in 2017, I reckon that if you are going to do Vampire: the Masquerade, you may as well turn it up to 11, put your best goth playlist on shuffle, and be the full-blown cartoon version of the setting that the publishers since the earliest days have constantly tried to distance themselves from, and yet can’t quite stay away from.