This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.
This Kickstopper is going to delve quite deeply into what might otherwise be a slightly niche topic for Ferretbrain – I’ve included tabletop RPG products on Kickstopper articles before, of course, but not to the extent I’m going to do here. At the same time, I think it’s justifiable because not only does it involve a company that has turned the Kickstarting of product into a smooth and routine process, but it also involves a product line whose present existence has been shaped by Kickstarter. Moreover, the products provided give a fascinating cross-section of the history of the line in question. What we have is the story of how Kickstarter reinvigorated a game line which in its prime was unquestionably one of the most important force in tabletop RPGs, how the game line in question came to need reinvigoration in the first place, and how Kickstarter allowed a new publisher to rise from the ashes of White Wolf.
In short, we’re going to be looking at how Vampire: the Masquerade rose from its crypt to feed on the wallets of crowdfunders.
Usual Note On Methodology
Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.
At the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place.
Less-Usual Notes On History
The Anarchs Unbound Kickstarter takes place in a very particular context – not only is the Kickstarter not for a standalone product, but it’s also part of an ongoing business strategy that is increasingly becoming a significant Kickstarter success story, so some notes on the history of all this are called for.
It wouldn’t even be controversial to suggest that Vampire: the Masquerade was the most important tabletop RPG release of the 1990s. On its release in 1991, Vampire caught lightning in a bottle – by capturing and popularising an aesthetic and genre which so far had been poorly served by the industry, it not only caught the attention of a wide swathe of existing roleplayers but also brought new blood into the hobby by appealing to an audience that other games hadn’t previously captured. As risible as the “gothic-punk” posturing of Vampire and sequel games in the World of Darkness series might seem, it struck a chord at the time, with the World of Darkness line solidly in second place to industry leader Dungeons & Dragons for the next fifteen years or so (and at points even ahead of it, depending on what polls on sales you pay attention to).
One of the more divisive aspects of the World of Darkness was the prominence of the so-called “metaplot” that White Wolf applied to both the individual game lines and the range as a whole. This was a centrally-controlled storyline which involved major changes to the setting as additional products were published. Such things are always controversial in tabletop RPGs, because if your group decides to follow the metaplot you’re ceding control over the direction of your home game from you and your friends to a bunch of game designers who don’t know you and sooner or later will probably make some decision relating to the metaplot which really doesn’t sit well with you, and to actually follow along with the metaplot you needed to buy a whole swathe of products you might not otherwise have much use for (including products for other games, in those cases where major metaplot points turned out to be crossover events between game lines). Conversely, if you ignored the metaplot that was fine – you had every freedom to do so in your home games – but of course, if the metaplot ended up contradicting what had happened in your home game in some major fashion, then subsequent products in the game line would become correspondingly less useful to you, since the published products assumed that everyone would be following the metaplot.
Although it would be a nuisance for people trying to actually play the game, the metaplot didn’t seem to be an encumbrance to sales. Indeed, a certain portion of the market ended up simply buying White Wolf’s (usually beautiful) books and reading them rather than actually using them for the purpose they were theoretically intended for. Though I can’t speak to how extensive that market segment was, you could quite reasonably make an argument that a lot of the metaplot stuff actually served that segment of the market far better than it did people actually playing and enjoying Vampire and its siblings.
Regardless as to who it was eventually marketed for, on the back of the success of Vampire and its successors White Wolf became one of the biggest tabletop RPG publishers in the industry. But, of course, no fad lasts forever, and when an RPG’s sales begin to dip there’s always a temptation for the publisher to put out a new edition to refresh and revitalise the game in question (and, hopefully, its sales). In the case of White Wolf, the need for a major refresh of the World of Darkness had become especially acute due to the nature of the metaplot: Vampire and many of the other games in the line had a metaplot intrinsically built on the idea that some sort of massive apocalypse was coming Any Day Now, with many of the more significant metaplot events directly pointing to Any Day Now being Really Quite Soon.
Although White Wolf were able to keep Any Day Now in the category of Not Quite Yet for over a decade, there came a point where they were faced with either slowing the progress of the metaplot to an utter crawl (which would be farcical), constantly postponing the apocalypse (also farcical), or actually biting the bullet and having the apocalypse happen. In 2004 they pushed the button and made the apocalypse happen, with a range of supplements covering each major game’s own end-of-the-world scenario (Gehenna, for Vampire) and a single book covering apocalyptic conclusions for the various minor game lines.
That was supposed to be it. In August of 2004, the New World of Darkness (NWoD) premiered. NWoD brought with it three major shifts. Firstly and most obviously, the game world was redesigned from the ground up, with at least token attention paid to the idea of providing a consistent metaphysic across game lines. What you got with NWoD wasn’t New Vampire: the Masquerade, the same old flavour you love with a tuned-up engine under the bonnet; instead, you got Vampire: the Requiem, which might borrow an idea or two from The Masquerade but on the whole was a radical reimagining of the setting.
Secondly, the game system was standardised; a single core rulebook, The World of Darkness, provided the main system (and also provided support for games based around human characters encountering the supernatural), whilst the individual game lines such as Vampire: the Requiem would have their main book providing only the additional rules necessary to support the particular supernatural entities those lines focused on.
Thirdly, just as the game system was standardised and the major metaphysical underpinnings of the setting were brought into line, at the same time White Wolf largely turned its back on the idea of metaplot (as far as NWoD went at any rate). Allegedly, they’d realised that the increasing burden of the metaplot and its unwieldy canon had begun to affect sales; whether or not this is true, the fact is that the NWoD range has no equivalent metaplot, and indeed leaves an extensive amount of decision-making up to individual groups when it comes to the setting’s various mysteries. (One of the cornerstone themes of the setting is that there is no single ultimate capital-T Truth – it’s enigmas all the way down.) This may have been one of the better-received decisions at the time; in particular, it meant that people could be confident that they could buy products in the new line and not worry about half the product being unusable in their home campaign due to disparities between the metaplot and the home game.
White Wolf were bought out by CCP, the developers of Eve Online, in 2006, the game plan being to produce a World of Darkness MMO. That troubled project eventually died a death in April last year, but thanks to the comparatively friendly circumstances of the buyout (in fact, it was in theory a merger, though CCP ended up the senior partner and White Wolf the subsidiary) White Wolf’s staff were able to keep producing tabletop RPG material and the NWoD line continues to this day.
Seven years after it had been laid to rest, there was a flicker of activity in Vampire: the Masquerade‘s bat-haunted tomb. White Wolf decided that a sumptuous 20th Anniversary Edition of the game should be produced; the deluxe leatherbound version was the subject of an extremely successful preordering campaign, and both PDF and print-on-demand versions would become available on DriveThruRPG, the major storefront for PDF and PoD RPG books on which the old World of Darkness back catalogue had provided White Wolf with a decent amount of passive income.
The runaway success of the 20th Anniversary edition made it clear that there was still an appetite for material for the pre-World of Darkness games; the rise of Kickstarter as a funding platform suggested a means by which products in the game lines could be funded with radically reduced risk to CCP. Coming at a time when NWoD sales were beginning to dip, the resurrection of the old lines under the Classic World of Darkness (or CWoD) banner was a no-brainer – as well as a useful moneyspinner at a crucial time, for in 2012 CCP announced they would be shutting down all tabletop RPG publication through their own auspices – effectively killing White Wolf as anything other than a trademark of theirs. A new firm, Onyx Path, helmed by White Wolf veteran Richard Thomas, would be the new licensees for producing World of Darkness tabletop RPG material (and also bought the rights to a range of other White Wolf lines outright), and since then most of the significant supplements in the V20 line (as well as the core books and most of the supplements for other CWoD 20th Anniversary lines) have been the subject of Kickstarters – as, indeed, have a number of major releases in the New World of Darkness range, with new lines such as Mummy: the Curse and Demon: the Descent having been enabled by successful Kickstarter campaigns.
The transition has not been painless for Onyx Path. Whereas during White Wolf’s day you could fairly consistently expect to see an extensive range of their games on sale anywhere that sold tabletop RPGs, access to the distribution networks that had previously worked with White Wolf has proved to be beyond Onyx Path’s grasp and, if Richard Thomas is to be believed, not even economically sensible for them. Despite their Kickstarter successes, Onyx Path have had to struggle with a resultant lack of visibility; on top of that, you also have had the teething troubles that come with anyone engaging with Kickstarter for the first time. Whilst recent Kickstarters from Onyx Path have had more reliable outcomes, some of their earlier Kickstarters ran into delivery issues – and, indeed, the long-awaited third edition of Exalted is over a year overdue and still doesn’t have a finalised text. Still, despite those hiccups, it appears that Kickstarter will be a keystone of Onyx Path’s project funding and planning process for some time to come, Thomas having effectively built the business around the demands of its various Kickstarter campaigns.
This particular Onyx Path Kickstarter was to fund Anarchs Unbound, a V20 supplement covering (as the title implies) the Anarchs – the extended network of vampires who rebel against the hidden authorities that rule over vampiric society for the sake of making it more equitable. A feature of the Vampire: the Masquerade setting from its early days, the Anarch position is often a tempting one to player characters, partly because players love to buck authority and make mayhem and partly because the powers that be in vampiric society tend to be deeply unpleasant, but it’s also one frequently overlooked by the game in the past. (Indeed, one of the better aspects of Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines was that it remembered that they exist and made them a decidedly viable faction to side with.)
As is typical for Onyx Path’s Kickstarters, the idea is to provide the funded book in a Kickstarter-exclusive deluxe edition with a somewhat fancier presentation than you’d typically get from a hardcover print-on-demand copy on DriveThruRPG. On top of that, as is normal for Onyx Path’s Kickstarters PDFs various classic Vampire supplements were available as add-ons to sweeten the deal, so for a little bit more I could get a cross-section of the Anarchs’ treatment over The Masquerade‘s original run.
Being a Kickstarter for a modest supplement to a game rather than a new core book, this wasn’t the Stretch Goal-demolishing monster campaign some of Onyx Path’s Kickstarters have been, but it did exceed its goal by a healthy amount. Thanks to Onyx Path’s now-extensive experience with Kickstarters, they are well aware of the potential dangers and gave clear indications of what the risks were – in this case, not many since the book was mostly written before the Kickstarter began and Onyx Path had gone out of their way to control shipping charges to avoid them eating up the funds. (To be fair, Kickstarter itself are better about handling shipping charges these days, integrating the ability to present variable shipping costs associated with reward tiers into the funding process, so the “I didn’t calculate the shipping costs right and now I can’t send you your stuff” crisis is now substantially less likely.)
On the whole, the campaign was a very smooth and calm affair. At this point, Richard Thomas and his Onyx Path collaborators have this down to a fine art, after all – and there’s an extent to which their displaying that level of confidence and competence makes it easier to justify funding them in the first place.
What Level I Backed At
Lurking Anarch Scholar (nonUS): You will receive a copy of the Deluxe Anarchs Unbound, a copy of the Anarchs Unbound PDF, and the Anarchs Unbound PoD as close to cost as we can give you (see description in the text to the left). You also get PDFs of the classic Anarch Cookbook, Guide to the Anarchs, Children of the Revolution, LA By Night, Succubus Club, and Succubus Club: Dead Man’s Party. You get a beautiful electronic wallpaper file featuring a collage of selected Anarchs Unbound illustrations, and you or your character’s name will be listed on the credits page as an Anarch. You will also receive the Anarchs Unbound Storyteller’s Screen, a sturdy three-panel screen featuring a beautiful collage of AU art on the outer side, and on the inside there’s a selection of charts and other info to make the Storyteller’s job a little bit easier. This is for backers outside the US.
I would have been tempted to also get a PDF copy of the core V20 rulebook too, since this was available as an add-on, but I actually already own it in hardcopy. I will review it here anyway since a) it was one of the various rewards offered on this Kickstarter so some people will have received it through this route and b) it would otherwise be difficult to assess how well Anarchs Unbound fits into the V20 line without taking a look at the V20 core book.
The Delivery Process
Extremely smooth! One of the things Onyx Path have learned with Kickstarter is that delays are more or less inevitable; that being the case, they’ve taken to being very conservative about their estimates on delivery times. In this case, my tier was estimated at receiving its goods in December 2014, and in fact I did receive my copy of Anarchs Unbound and the Storyteller Screen before the end of that month (and of course the PDFs of older products came out quite early after the end of the funding period), making this the first Kickstarter I have covered here which actually hit the deadline it set itself.
Reviewing the Swag
Rather than cutting to the main product first, I am going to take a slightly eccentric approach to reviewing the substantive products in question. First, I’ll cover the core V20 book, so we can look at the baseline we are dealing with. Then, I’ll review the various PDF products I received in the order of their original publication, since this lets us trace how the Anarchs were developed over the course of the original run, and I’ll wrap up with reviews of Anarchs Unbound itself so we can look at it in the light of what has come before.
Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition
Vampire: the Masquerade is based on a gloriously simple idea: you have your basic horror setting where it’s essentially the real world with supernatural entities with agendas not especially compatible with humanity’s interests existing in the shadows, and those creatures include vampires – which the game focuses on and who by default all the player characters are. (Exceptions are of course possible. Crossovers from other World of Darkness games are doable, but not especially supported, and Vampire offers some provisions for playing human beings – for instance, one suggestion is to start with everyone human and play through the process of becoming a vampire. and a supplement offers support for an entire alternate campaign premise where the player characters are vampire hunters. But in the vast majority of Vampire games, all the player characters are going to be bloodsuckers.)
Vampires are possessed of a range of powers – some of which are common to all their kind, and others of which are passed down to new vampires from those who Embraced them (turned them into vampires) and must be cultivated over times. Most vampires are members of major Clans or minor Bloodlines defined by common characteristics, weaknesses, and shared powers – for instance, vampires of Clan Nosferatu tend to draw their vampiric superpowers (or “Disciplines”) from the same three groups of powers, and all suffer the curse of grotesque, monstrous ugliness that afflicts their line.
The politics of the clan are dominated by the Jyhad, the centuries-long and ill-defined struggle for mastery over vampire society. On the surface the major struggle of the Jyhad is between two Sects (coalitions of vampires from various Clans). On one side – the side player characters are assumed to hail from more often than not – is the Camarilla, who seek to maintain order and maintain the Masquerade that keeps vampire society hidden away from a humanity who would exterminate vampirekind like at the start of Underworld: Awakening if the existence of immortal predatory bloodsuckers became common knowledge.
On the other side is the unrepentantly violent blood cult known as the Sabbat, the self-styled Sword of Caine, who venerate the biblical crime innovator as the first vampire and who revel in their vampiric nature, embracing their inhumanity to an extent that sets them beyond the pale. But, of course, there are hidden complexities to the Jyhad – for the Sabbat are out to murder the Antediluvians, the ancient founders of the Clans, since dark prophecies suggest that at the end of days the Antediluvians will rise to consume their descendents and bring about the end of the world.
Since for the most part cities are the only concentrations of human beings large enough to support more than a few vampires, it is the cities which are the battlegrounds of this constant struggle. Whether a city’s vampire population is ruled by a Camarilla Prince or a Sabbat Archbishop has profound effects on the very character of undead society within the city itself – the Camarilla claim to promote the rule of law but effectively apply the rule of entrenched privilege, whilst Sabbat territories are steeped in a combination of cultish loyalty rituals and bloody violence.
Are the Camarilla the only hope for vampires seeking to retain some semblance of human morality, or puppets of these elder blood gods? Which side will the player characters serve in the never-ending struggles (both political and physical) for control of their home city? Will they retain anything of what made them human, or succumb to the raging Beast within? Can any of them dream of attaining Golconda, a much-rumoured state of enlightenment which allows the vampire to conquer the Beast and their hunger for blood? These are the sorts of questions you can expect to answer through play in a typical Vampire game – or at least, as a typical game is depicted here.
The 20th anniversary edition of Vampire intends to present a definitive edition of the core rulebook. Its major strategy seems to be to cram the book with as much material as possible whilst still keeping it easy to navigate and viable to use for actually playing the game rather than sitting on a bookshelf looking big (and make no mistake, this is an imposingly fat volume). So, page upon page of in-game fiction of the sort that used to be a hallmark of White Wolf rulebooks are out, the writing is clear, direct, and manages to balance being information-rich with being easy to follow and understand, and the book is so stuffed with useful material that it’s a far better toolbox for gaming purposes than any previous edition of the rulebook.
Every Clan, Bloodline, and Clan splinter faction is presented, as are all the Disciplines – no more hunting through sourcebooks to work out what a powerful Assamite sorcerer can do. A similarly encyclopedic take is offered on the various Paths – alternate moral codes to human morality that vampires can latch onto in order to avoid succumbing to the Beast – whilst other character options like Backgrounds and Merits and Flaws are carefully chosen to give plenty of choice but simultaneously avoid character generation overload.
Where the book really shines in comparison to previous core rulebooks is in the presentation of the Sabbat. Frankly, with the earlier rulebooks you were kind of on your own when it came to fleshing out the Sabbat unless you bought the relevant supplements; at most, you were told that they mostly consisted of Clan Lasombra, Clan Tzimisce, and “antitribu” – members of the other Clans who had rebelled against their Clan leadership and joined the Sabbat, often putting a distinctly Sabbatty spin on their Clan’s values in the process. Only the Lasombra and Tzimisce were actually detailed in the core book (and those only in later versions of it), and the details given on the internal structure and practices of the Sabbat were minimal compared to the details given on the Camarilla.
On the one hand, this made sense – it was assumed that most campaigns would centre on Camarilla vampires, and as such only the referee (or “Storyteller”, as they are dubbed in the World of Darkness games) really needed to have the lowdown on the Sabbat, and they could just make stuff up if they liked. (Indeed, this was more or less what the first edition of Vampire left you to do.) However, many Storytellers will be glad to have the details on the Sabbat presented here for them to use or discard as they see fit, and in addition the presentation of this information offers up new possibilities for play. It is now much more viable to start up a Sabbat-based game using just the core rulebook than it has ever been before, and whilst the basic flavour of the factions hasn’t been diluted very much there’s just enough ambiguity around the whole “maybe the Antediluvians really do need to be killed” deal that the Sabbat, whilst still debased and inhuman, aren’t such cartoon villains that you couldn’t run a very antiheroic campaign centring on them. Of course, having all this Sabbat stuff in the core book is very handy even if you don’t go for running a Sabbat campaign because it at least means you have the option of running with the canon Sabbat (or cherry-picking those aspects of them you enjoy) if you wish, and you have plentiful resources to use when cooking up villainous Sabbat opponents for your player’s characters to tangle with.
If the book is missing one thing, its a robust set of pre-statted vampiric stock characters for the Storyteller to use for non-player characters. Vampire hunters and supernatural adversaries get suitable writeups, but if you want to stat up the principal vampires of the city your game is set in you’re essentially expected to build them yourself using the standard character generation system. Admittedly, this has always been a weakness of the World of Darkness games – White Wolf never quite sussed out that since a Storyteller is going to be generating lots and lots of nonplayer characters whilst players only make one player character at a time, Storytellers really need a quick and dirty method of NPC generation, especially if the standard player character generation process can take a while. Then again, some White Wolf games did undeniably do better than V20 manages at providing adversaries fitting the same supernatural niche as player characters – for instance, Demon: the Fallen included at least one statted up bad guy from each of the demonic Clan equivalents, so the absence of the equivalent here is notable. Admittedly, the game does at least give you an extremely broad and deep toolkit to use when creating NPCs, but a page or two of brief statlines covering the major niches you might expect to cover would have been really useful.
Over their lifespan the World of Darkness games did attract an audience of collectors – customers who would buy the books for the purpose of reading them, or simply owning them, whilst not engaging in more than a minimal amount of actual play. When I first heard about the 20th Anniversary project I thought it would be a product targeted squarely at that audience, but I am pleasantly surprised to discover otherwise. Yes, it’s a gorgeous book, but at the same time between the clarity with which it presents its ideas, the information density, the inclusion of a decent index (a rarity in classic World of Darkness books!) and the almost total lack of in-game fiction, the 20th Anniversary edition of Vampire absolutely screams out to be played, and by mostly divorcing itself from the old line’s messy overarching metaplot (some details of it are mentioned, but only in the sense of “in the old line’s plot this thing happened, here’s how you implement it if you want to run with that”) the game doesn’t feel like a tombstone for the line so much as it is a sudden revival, brushing aside the crust of metaplot which had accrued around the game.
In short, Vampire: the Masquerade feels more alive, more complete, more playable and more worthy of being played in its 20th Anniversary undeath than it ever did during its original lifespan. Sticking a stake in its heart, letting it lie fallow for the better part of a decade and then seeing what springs to life when you feed it a little blood has done the line a world of good.
The Succubus Club
When you have a hit RPG on your hand and a market hungry for supplemental material, strip-mining your playtest campaign for product is a smart move – after all, you’ve already playtested the material concerned, so all you need to do is tidy up your notes for public consumption. The reason that one of the first supplements for Vampire was Chicago By Night (as the title implies, a vampire’s-eye-view look at Chicago) is that the original Vampire playtesting campaign took place in Chicago; likewise, The Succubus Club revolves around a nightclub which played a key role in that campaign, having originally been established as one of the PCs’ personal resources.
The supplement consists of about 20 pages detailing the club itself, its layout, and its various clients. This is the most useful part of the supplement; even though it’s largely presented as an addendum to Chicago By Night, the club can be dragged and dropped into any major US city if your campaign doesn’t happen to be set in Chicago. That said, some may find it tonally inappropriate since the club embodies the particular quirks and excesses of early Vampire to an almost comical extent. For instance, it’s the hub of the Blood Doll subculture of people who get off on dressing gothy and sharing blood, which seems to have been created mostly to provide an easy way for vampires to feed, and there’s also the way the club is written about which makes it clear that the authors haven’t actually spent much time in real nightclubs researching the subject. (For instance, allegedly the DJs at the Succubus just play whole Sisters of Mercy albums from beginning to end, and come on, you don’t get away with that lazy shit even in dedicated goth clubs.) On top of that, you have a hyper-ancient vampire stashed in the basement secretly manipulating everything, because in early Vampire hyper-ancient vampires literally ran everything and nobody else had a shred of free will at all.
Still, it’s relatively easy to tone this stuff down if you want to slot the club into a less silly setting, and equally easy to keep it in if you want to revel in the sheer cheesiness of it all. The real problem in The Succubus Club is not in the 20 or so pages of setting material it leads off with, but in the 100-odd pages of adventures accompanying it. Whilst in principle offering a brace of adventures tying into the club in some way is a good idea, in practice the adventures offered here showcase just how diabolically awful White Wolf were at producing prewritten adventures at this stage. (Some, of course, would argue that they’ve never actually got much better at it.) Each adventure consists of a linear series of scenes leading inevitably through a predetermined plot to a predetermined ending, with the player characters more or less along for the ride – where they do have to make a decision, it’s usually along the lines of “Are you going to co-operate with the story or do we have to strongarm you into doing what we wanted anyway?”
Now, on the one hand I’m not a dogmatic advocate of sandbox gaming or other models of planning RPG sessions. A linear adventure with plentiful railroading can be fun for all concerned, provided that the players buy into it in the first place. This requires that the railroad go somewhere that the players are interested in going and has scenery they are interested in along the route, mind – and moreover, any pretense of offering interactive entertainment or a game where the players’ choices matter goes out of the window if the railroad is so tightly plotted that it doesn’t offer any scope for the players to go off-script if they decide that they aren’t interested in following the rails any more.
The adventures collected here offer plenty of examples of the bad sort of railroads – railroads which offer no scope for the players to take matters in an unexpected direction, and which I suspect most playing groups will find frustrating and tedious to play through if they try to play along with what the adventure wants from them. Frequently, the player characters are left as mere passive observers to plot-significant events as they unfold; at points, the adventure designers describe scenes as though they forgot that there were supposed to be player characters involved at all. (I’m not even joking; there are entire sections of adventures which just list a bunch of stuff that NPCs do, with the assumption that nothing will happen to derail any of this and no consideration of how player characters might have any sort of interaction with what is going on beyond watching it.)
When the adventure designers do remember to include the player characters, it usually involves pushing them around. Several adventures involve the plots of Methuselahs manipulating the major NPCs from behind the scenes in such a way that the player characters aren’t actually supposed to find out, with the result that game sessions using these adventures are likely to make sense only to the Storyteller – a rather solipsistic way to run a game. Moreover, gimmicks like having player characters kidnapped (without any real chance to avoid this kidnapping) and locked away in sparse, featureless vaults with only the occasional NPC thrown in to interact with seem like recipes for frustration, particularly when combined with such a poor command of the system that the only two ways to open the vault are both so difficult that it’s quite likely the PCs will never manage to free their captured comrades.
In short, these aren’t just railroads – these are railroads directly passing through cruddy scenery on a bumpy ride which nobody could possibly enjoy. It is precisely this sort of material which gave early White Wolf such a godawful reputation for advocating railroad-heavy, interaction-free gaming. As glad as I am to have the writeup of the nightclub free, the rest of the supplement is just so much extra padding next to it. Given that it came out in 1991, it seems quite likely that this supplement was rushed to publication in order to capitalise on the early feeding frenzy for Vampire material; if that isn’t the case, and it was actually given a full and careful allocation of development time, then it reflects extremely poorly on all involved.
Frankly, I’m not sure what this supplement has to do with Anarchs. I suspect it’s included due to its connection to Succubus Club: Dead Man’s Party, because the club here isn’t specifically an Anarch hangout and the adventures generally don’t have a major Anarch theme to them.
The Anarch Cookbook
Emerging in 1993, this first supplement dedicated exclusively to the Anarchs bills itself as “a friendly guide to vampire politics”, but it’s even more than that – it’s a toolkit for a distinctively Anarch-flavoured mode of play revolving around the establishment and growth of Anarch movements, actions they can take to undermine the power structure of a city, what happens when the chips are down and the revolution kicks off and what happens in the aftermath. (There’s even a fascinating postscript on what to do if the revolution fails and how you put the case for your continued existence to a victorious Prince.)
This slim tone briefly addresses the canonical version of the anarch movement – mostly by providing The Anarch Manifesto, a samizdat piece that sets out their worldview, and by providing a brace of NPCs for the Storyteller to use as they wish (including Justicar Petrodon, a Camarilla enforcer who would make an ideal nemesis in a game where the PCs are anarchs, or a good patron in games where the PCs are trying to derail the Anarch menace). For the most part, though, the book outlines in general terms the sort of practices you might expect to get involved with if you go down the revolutionary path, with pointers here and there offering guidance on how to model some of these tasks and strategies in the Vampire system. From getting in touch with the Movement (or starting your own local branch) to surviving, thriving, and fighting back in Camarilla turf to declaring war on the Prince, the book helps both players and Storytellers to see how city-wide subversion and revolution can be handled in a tabletop RPG format and positively encourages you to go to town with these ideas.
Now, thanks in part to adventures like the awful ones included in Succubus Club and in part to some really awful advice for Storytellers the books propagated, the World of Darkness games did over time become associated in the RPG hobby’s consciousness with a particular style of refereeing. The whole “Storyteller” term became associated, rightly or wrongly, with games in which the Storyteller inflicts a mostly immutable storyline on the players and they don’t really have much say in anything beyond their characters’ emotional reaction to what’s going down. On White Wolf’s part, that reputation was sometimes exaggerated but not actually unjustified – Dan identified how this refereeing style was directly promoted in Changeling: the Lost, for instance.
Right here, though, we have a product from the golden early burst of White Wolf’s success which presents and encourages a much more player-led style of play. An Anarch revolution gives the PCs the chance to grab the reins of power for themselves; more generally, the existence of an option for characters to directly oppose the Traditions that rule vampiric life means that there’s an outlet for players who want their characters to reject the vision of vampiric society promoted by the Camarilla (or the Sabbat, for that matter). The Anarchs are consciously presented as a more modern vampire faction than the others – they even use BBSs and stuff, which is pretty good going for a supplement that came out before White Wolf actually had a website – and the Cookbook makes a tempting one for those inclined to smash shit up and change the world to an extent to which the Camarilla is explicitly set up to prevent and which Storytellers aren’t often encouraged to support in the Vampire line.
That isn’t to say the book is free of White Wolf’s more risible habits. As with many early Vampire supplements, the artwork mostly consists of processed photos of LARPers not quite pulling off a vampire punk look (anarchs are most definitely on the punk side of the gothic-punk equation), and the book proudly boasts of enjoying contributions from first-generation Discordian (ugh) Kerry Thornley, but so far as I can tell his input amounts to one sidebar whose forced comedic tone jars with the rest of the book and whose content doesn’t really mesh with or even remotely engage with the subject matter. Presumably, they threw that in anyway so they could get cool points for giving a co-author credit to a 60s proto-hippy anarchist whose name is known to geek circles via Robert Anton Wilson and the whole Discordianism thing..
But this mild bit of pretentiousness doesn’t take away from the high value of the rest of the book to any Vampire campaign; even if your game doesn’t involve much in the way of an anarch contingent, the process of establishing a power base, undermining a Prince’s power, and fighting all-out war in the shadows against a Prince are likely to be very similar for Sabbat infiltrators in a Camarilla city (or vice versa), or for that matter for inter-clan warfare within the Camarilla or Sabbat for control of a city. If more Vampire material from the game’s era of peak popularity were of this standard and took this approach, we’d be looking at a very different game line. In particular, as mentioned in Dan’s Changeling review White Wolf did have a habit of producing games which made you say “that’s nice, but what am I supposed to do with this?” The Cookbook offers one answer to that.
Los Angeles By Night
The Anarch Cookbook isn’t the only Vampire supplement to challenge White Wolf’s reputation for only catering to ramrod-linear railroaded storytelling. The “By Night” series of supplements (kicked off by the aforementioned Chicago By Night) is an entire set of books which feature barely a hint of railroading. Tying into Vampire‘s assumed focus on cities, each book in the series takes a city and presents a Vampire-based guidebook to it, discussing the major figures, factions, conspiracies, locations and divisions within the local undead scene. Although these could include short adventures to introduce characters to the setting in question, for the most part they were set up perfectly to support a more “sandbox” style of play – the sort of game focusing on the player characters encountering the various significant NPCs and factions in the area in the process of trying to accomplish their personal goals, with the subsequent interactions advancing or complicating both the PCs’ own agendas and the state of play between the various NPCs depending on who the players decide to support and who they elect to oppose, and what they end up doing to support their allies and undermine their enemies.
1994’s Los Angeles By Night for the most part follows this formula; the particularly interesting thing about LA, aside from all the stuff which makes LA a distinctive city in real life, is that it’s the hub of the Anarch Free States (and indeed the various outlying towns which make up the rest of the Free States are also covered here). With the former Prince of the city having been overthrown in the Anarch Revolt of 1944, the city has become a haven for both ideologically-motivated Anarchs and vampires who for, whatever reason, find the idea of living in a city ruled by neither Camarilla elders nor Sabbat sociopaths appealing. Although they have in the past shown an ability to unite against overt external threats – such as a Sabbat attempt to seize the city in the 1960s – the vampires of LA are otherwise perilously fractious, much of the local territory being carved up by vampire gangs modelled along similar lines to mortal ones.
The end result is the perfect setting for an interestingly non-standard Vampire campaign – player characters could wind up working with the architects of the Revolt to preserve its hard-won freedoms, or form their own gang and try to carve out and rule their own little barony in the territory, or play Camarilla or Sabbat infiltrators intent on taking over by stealth what the Sabbat couldn’t conquer by force, and so on. In fact, more or less the only Vampire campaign type that LA would be downright unsuitable for would be one which focused a lot on the politics of a Camarilla prince’s court or a Sabbat bishop’s entourage – and even then, a Storyteller who wanted to could just invent a suitable prince or bishop and have them take over a major chunk of the city, writing out a few unlucky NPCs as casualties of the invasion and having the player characters play crucial roles in helping the incoming authority conquer the rest of the city block by block.
As well as presenting an interesting vampire’s-eye-view of LA history and a broad selection of useful and interesting NPCs, the main meat of the book consists of detailed descriptions of various areas of town, right down to estimates of the human and vampire population. Neatly, a lot of use is made of real local landmarks, some of which prove to have a secret supernatural significance and others of which are merely noted as the sort of point of local colour which residents would be familiar with. Emerging shortly after the release of both Werewolf: the Apocalypse and Mage: the Ascension, the supplement came out at a time when crossovers between the various World of Darkness games were the flavour of the month – more so than the games’ incompatible cosmologies, wildly varying power levels and clashing themes could really support. Fortunately, in this case whilst references to other World of Darkness games do exist, they are presented in a suitably low-key fashion; there’s a very few nods to Mage which are easily ignored, and werewoofles have taken over Malibu in a turn which can not only easily be ignored, but which ignoring actually opens up an entire section of the city for the referee to develop as they see fit. (Or you can keep it, ignore the background and cosmology of Werewolf: the Apocalypse entirely, and just use the werewolf adversary stats from the core book to go full Underworld on LA.)
My only real complaint about the book is based around another White Wolf quirk of the era – namely, the tendency to attribute more or less any historical event to the intervention of supernatural entities, to such an extent where it seems that ordinary human beings have absolutely no will or volition to contribute to significant events without occult prompting. That’s the case with the history of LA presented here, to the point where the major gangs are the Blood and the Crypt’s Sons – veiled references to the Crips and Bloods. Again, this is easy enough to fix if you are bothered about it – rather than having the vampires be the secret masters of LA’s gang culture, have a setup where mortal gangs rule the streets by day but cede control of certain sections of town to certain nocturnal groupings they have tenuous alliances with – and the developers do at least show enough sense to attribute sensitive issues like the Rodney King beating to human action (the vampires merely exploited the riots in order to settle some scores, rather than engineering them).
On the whole, Los Angeles By Night presents a vivid and exciting setting for anarch-themed Vampire games that is a credit to the game line – a sandbox I’d absolutely love to play or run a game in. I’d even be inclined to not update it in any way and just set it in 1994, for some of that delicious early-1990s nostalgia that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was so good at.
So, of course, White Wolf blew up the Anarch Free States as part of the overarching Vampire metaplot.
Guide to the Anarchs
Coming out in 2002, the Guide to the Anarchs displays every bad habit that the White Wolf had developed in the years since The Anarch Cookbook came out.
For starters, it spends a lot of time focusing on what official canon says you can’t do with the Anarchs rather than supporting what you can. It leans heavily on the idea that the Anarchs are of necessity a subfaction within the Camarilla, that they can’t really work with the Sabbat (even though the history presented here clearly establishes that actually they have heaps in common with them ideologically), and that they are generally the poor cousins to the other factions. Whereas The Anarch Cookbook reflected a dynamic world in which control of a city could slip one way or another if the PCs played their cards right, Guide to the Anarch portrays a world which is mostly static, unless and until the centrally-controlled White Wolf metaplot demands it.
One particularly galling bit of metaplot reflected by the book is the destruction of the Anarch Free State after its conquest by “Cathayan” vampires – vampires based on various flavours of Asian folklore as detailed in the spin-off game Kindred of the East – who establish the New Promise Mandarinate in its place. On the one hand, I can see the logic in providing a means for crossover between the two game lines, but this decision came at the expense of pandering to the sort of appalling neo-Yellow Peril fears about the Japanese conquering the world with their economic might that were running amok in the 1990s – and it also came at the cost of effectively exterminating one of the most interesting and useful staging grounds for Anarch-based games. Yes, of course people could ignore that bit of metaplot, but the Guide to the Anarchs isn’t going to provide you with much support in doing that – and furthermore, part of the fun of following the World of Darkness stuff back in the day was in following the metaplot, and destroying the Anarch Free State puts people in the position of either trashing their home campaigns (if they are set there) or abandoning the metaplot altogether.
(It’s notable that even White Wolf’s licensees for Vampire tie-ins tried to retcon this away – Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines is set in an LA that has been reclaimed by the Camarilla but which could fall under the sway of any of a number of Sects – or the Kuei-Jin could potentially reclaim it if the player sides with them.)
Even if you are a fan of the metaplot, however, you’re probably going to find this book’s treatment of it to be lacking. A thick chapter concerning the status of the Anarchs around the world, written from the perspective of an Anarch veteran, is rendered useless by a combination of cribbing pointless information from encyclopedias (it’s nice to know that you looked up how many different families of language exist in Africa, White Wolf, but how does telling us about each of them give us insight into the exploits of vampiric revolutionaries in Africa?) and just plain poor research. (The treatment of the Troubles suggests that the writer isn’t aware that the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland are different entities, or that the Republic was basically peaceful during the time period, and they also seem to have been under the impression that the IRA operated like an actual standing army fighting a war based on obtaining and holding territory rather than a group of terrorists who’d melt back into civilian life when they’d had their fun with their balaclavas and bombs. I am sure people from all over the world can find howling examples of White Wolf misrepresenting their homelands in these pages; it was pretty much what they specialised in at this point.)
Another enormous waste of page count is the extended discussion of character creation for the purposes of an Anarch-focused campaign. Whilst providing guidance on this is a sensible thing to provide, turning it into what verges on a full-blown reprint of the character creation chapters from the core rulebook with Anarch-specific information spliced in feels like pointless padding. The prevalence of padding and excessive wordiness of the Guide is is particularly evident if you read Guide to the Anarchs shortly after reading The Anarch Cookbook, as I did, or even if you compare it to the V20 core rulebook. It’s simply a much less information-dense book than either – and a far greater proportion of that information is stuff which is only going to be tangentially useful in an actual game.
Succubus Club: Dead Man’s Party
This is another short, swift supplement in the spirit of the Anarch Cookbook, in the sense that it’s mostly dedicated to supporting a particular focus of play – a pleasant surprise considering that it came out in 2003, towards the end of Masquerade‘s original run. Whereas the Cookbook was written to support political subversion and violent revolution – with the assumption that this would be carried out for the anarch cause but in sufficient detail to cover such actions on behalf of the Sabbat or Camarilla, Dead Man’s Party is an extended meditation on the social engagements of the Kindred – with an emphasis on the Camarilla, but enough support to handle the same subject for the Sabbat or anarchs.
The Camarilla focus makes sense for two reasons – firstly, the Camarilla is the default focus of Vampire: the Masquerade so it has the broadest application, and secondly the Camarilla has the most ideological interest in establishing a broad range of social tiers (with different activities taking place at each) – the Anarchs are overtly interested in social levelling, and the Sabbat’s creepy, cultish nature combined with its contempt of the Camarilla’s pretensions of humanity tends to make them less overtly elitist.
In four meaty chapters, the book provides substantial, instantly-usable material for games. First up is a consideration of the various types of social engagement common in vampiric society, the reasons for them and the surrounding etiquette – from the stultifying confines of Elysium, in which formal social rules are strictly enforced and backed up by the restrictions of Camarilla law, to substantially more informal affairs where a vampire who’s otherwise of no account at Elysium might be able to get the ear of someone significant. Of course, it’s established thoroughly in the core rulebook that vampires do have their own society and so parties and other social events must of necessity, happen, but this section helps illuminate how different types of engagement differ, and in particular how much potential there is for soirees beyond formal Elysium.
The second chapter covers the practical considerations of actually putting on a party of more than the most basic variety. This section neatly cuts both ways – not only does it give some idea of what a player character needs to accomplish to pull off an impressive, status-building social event, but also a skilled Storyteller can note numerous points where the player characters can be drafted in to help an NPC pull off such an event – or where the PCs can interfere to sabotage an enemy’s plans.
The third chapter gives a specific example of the principles established in chapter two for Storytellers to sink their teeth into – the reincarnated Succubus Club. In the metaplot, the original Chicago club had been destroyed at this point in a werewolf attack; the version of the club here trades on the name of its illustrious predecessor but is a very different beast in practice, being a touring event that shows up in cities for one-night-only rave events before moving on to its next port of call. The description here, then, relies less on a physical description of the location – because, of course, its location changes from event to event – and focuses more on the NPCs involved in putting it together and all the tasks they have to accomplish to pull off a Succubus Club event in a particular city. (Naturally this comes complete with heaps of story ideas for ways in which PCs can be involved in either helping or hindering the Succubus Club, as well as stuff to do at the event itself.)
The writing out of the Succubus Club and its replacement here honestly doesn’t bug me as much as the nuking of the Anarch Free States does. It strikes me as the good sort of metaplot – the sort which opens up opportunities for stuff to do in a game, rather than shutting them down abruptly. For starters, the Succubus Club was just one location in Chicago, and taking it out doesn’t invalidate the rest of Chicago By Night – if anything, it opens up a gap in the Chicago nightlife which enterprising PCs could try to fill. At the same time, if you decide you don’t want to follow the metaplot and keep the original Succubus Club going, that doesn’t make the material here useless – the “touring club” concept is still legitimate and the version of the Club presented here could just keep going under a different name, or be a “franchise” operation supported by the original Club that uses its name to cash in on its reputation amongst the Kindred, or it could even a competitor brazen enough to rip off the original’s name.
By comparison, the Kindred of the East conquering the Anarch Free States is near-impossible to integrate into a campaign without outright invalidating Los Angeles By Night, not to mention horribly undermining the anarchs as a faction in their own right. Conceivably, you could just have them take over Malibu (which in the canonical LA By Night is owned by werewoofles, remember), but this would be a very different state of affairs from that established in canon. Most significantly, whilst you can use more or less all the Succubus Club material from this supplement and from the original Succubus Club and have them working in parallel without changing them one bit, you can’t simultaneously use LA By Night and the Kindred of the East take on LA as written – the one inherently cancels out the other.
The final major chapter provides a wealth of advice to Storytellers on how to use parties and social events as the major focus of a session, rather than simply using them as establishing scenes for other purposes. It’s a slight pity that this supplement came out well after White Wolf stopped including pointers on how to adopt the material at hand to live-action play in their tabletop RPG books (reserving LARP support for the Mind’s Eye Theatre line, since this misses out one of the best uses of vampire social engagements in that context – providing a basis for large numbers of player characters to assemble in the same place to begin with. Still, that aside the chapter makes a good case for making vampire gatherings significant events in an ongoing campaign, though to be honest I question the chops of a Storyteller who read this far and hadn’t come up with some ideas about how to use this stuff by themselves.
An appendix provides an attempt at a “social combat” system for Vampire – a popular feature of Exalted, a fantasy-based Storyteller system game, social combat involves using rules systems to resolve social situations like persuading a powerful NPC to give the PCs a favour or humiliating an enemy. To a large extent I find it preferable to play through such things through actually acting out the conversations in question – after all, tabletop RPGs are a verbal, conversational format, so I see no problem in keeping conversations above the “abstraction layer” (below which things are adjudicated by the rules system rather than acted-out activities), but I could conceivably see myself using the social combat system for situations where a social “hit” would take a long time and involve a large number of individual conversations to pull off.
To be honest, I was surprised by how much I liked Dead Man’s Party – momentarily, designers Richard Chillot and Christopher Kobar seem to have shaken off the bad habits White Wolf had developed up to this point and produced a supplement that’s genuinely useful during a time when White Wolf’s energies were primarily directed towards the buildup to the end of days. (Remember, the year after this came out they’d nuke the entire product line.) The inclusion of Dead Man’s Party here makes somewhat more sense than the original Succubus Club, since whilst the supplement isn’t specifically Anarch-focused it could still see a lot of use in an Anarch-focused campaign, since both arranging secure meetings of Anarchs and sabotaging or infiltrating the rulers’ soirees are likely to be key parts of such a game. It doesn’t make me forgive the awful adventures in this supplement’s namesake, but it certainly takes the sting away.
Children of the Revolution
One of the first supplements in the resurrected V20 line, Children of the Revolution is simply a collection of NPCs. With ages ranging from unspeakably ancient to decidedly modern, and origins from around the world, what ties them together is that they were Embraced during times of major cultural or political change, either within the mortal world or in the twilight society of the vampires, which presumably is the Anarch connection here. (There’s also a neat little essay giving pointers on why members of each of the major Clans might Embrace someone during such difficult times.)
The NPCs presented are different enough that few Storytellers would want to incorporate all of them into a campaign, not least because their pursuit of their personal agendas is likely to be so disruptive that tracking how they all interact would rapidly become a nightmare. Instead, it would work better to be more selective, picking NPCs one by one either when an NPC belonging to the relevant niche is required or when selecting a character to build a scenario around. Most of them would actually be really good as the central antagonists of a campaign, or the catalysts whose actions kick off events prompt the PCs to act, or as people to show up if the player characters specifically go looking for someone with the appropriate skills or background.
The backstory of each NPC is presented in enough detail both to get a handle on their pasts and their role in vampiric society and also to give some idea of the tone of campaign they would be suited for – high-metaplot, low-metaplot, high-politics, high-action, whatever. There’s even one or two characters who’d work in a more comedic than typical Vampire campaign; for instance, “Azrael”, a vampire recruited from the ranks of the Norwegian black metal underground and whose biography includes references to some of the most infamous incidents from that scene (as gleaned from, I suspect, this Wikipedia article), could conceivably be played straight as a troublemaker whose immature evil-for-evil’s-sake worldview made him a tragically bad candidate for the Embrace, but it’d be really difficult to resist portraying him as a farcial character, like the leader of a Vampire equivalent to Dethklok or something.
My major criticism of Children of the Revolution is that it contains no discussion of bumping and grinding for psychological benefit, twisting, shouting, letting it all hang out, tearing planes in the falling rain, or driving a Rolls Royce in order to improve speech, and nor does it provide any discussion of how difficult it is to deceive or otherwise trick the children of the revolution. This feels like a major oversight to me. Otherwise, it’s heaps of fun and makes me more keen to run or play some Vampire than many of the original run of supplements did.
So, here we have it – the main event. The deluxe edition of Anarchs Unbound is bound in red and has stylish marks, graffiti, and stickers on it to give it the look of an Anarch vampire’s personal notebook that’s seen its way through numerous revolutions (including a ribbon bookmark made of humble string) which, at the same time, manages to aesthetically fit the rest of the V20 line; somehow it manages to look like a Vampire supplement even though its exterior uses more or less none of the Vampire trade dress, which makes it a fun little artifact to have.
What doesn’t vary, whether you just buy it on PDF or print-on-demand hardcopy or whether you have this Kickstarter-exclusive deluxe edition, are the contexts of Anarchs Unbound. As far as the major Anarch-focused supplements go, I would say that Unbound resembles an updated and radically improved Guide to the Anarchs more than it does the Anarch Cookbook. Next to Unbound, I would say that the Anarch Cookbook is still quite useful because of its focus on the street-level practicalities of both surviving as an Anarch and kicking off revolution, whereas Unbound shares with the Guide a more global-level, sect-wide perspective.
What it doesn’t share with Unbound is the uncomfortable yoke of the original metaplot. Anarchs Unbound presents a vision of the modern Anarch movement where, for instance, the Anarch Free States are still a thing – the encroachment of the Kindred of the East is alluded to, but it’s an imminent crisis rather than a done deal, which is much better because then that creates game-worthy material (running a campaign about rallying the forces of the Anarch Free States against the subversion by the Kindred of the East, the Camarilla and the Sabbat would be pretty awesome) rather than destroying it.
A side panel explains that various Anarch-related plot developments happened due to the original metaplot’s ongoing buildup to the apocalypse, and gives some details on how to implement them if you actually want to keep the original story details, which offers the best of both worlds since now everyone can use the version of the setting they personally prefer. And to give them their due, expressing these plot developments as reflecting the Gehenna theme does make me understand them a little better; if you are going to have the prophecies of Gehenna have some truth to them, the inevitable consequence of that is that the Anarch philosophy is tragically doomed; at most, you could possibly have the Anarchs emerge from the rubble of the end of the Jyhad, after the mutual destruction of the Camarilla and the Sabbat, in order to establish a more equitable order in the wake of the Antediluvians’ meltdown. But the fact is that the Anarchs’ general scepticism about the whole Caine/Antediluvians/prophecy thing dooms them to be bit players in Gehenna – you can’t, after all, expect to be a full player in the game if you don’t even believe in the chessboard.
Conversely, because V20 is much more relaxed than any preceding edition of Vampire about metaplot, to the extent that even the existence of Gehenna is something for individual Storytellers to decide, Anarchs Unbound can afford to present the Anarchs as a much more viable third force than Guide to the Anarchs made them out to be. For instance, where Guide tended to focus on the Anarchs as a rebellious troublemaking wing of the Camarilla, for instance, with not much consideration of their interactions with the Sabbat beyond “it’s a mistake to ally with them” and “Anarchs in Sabbat cities are pretty much fucked”, Unbound instead a) gives a lot of attention to the fact that the Anarchs do, in fact, want to overthrow the Camarilla rather than co-existing and b) gives some interesting considerations of what it takes to run an Anarch cell in a Sabbat city. (In short: you need to play the Sabbat’s game, at least to the extent of demonstrating that you are violent psychopaths who should not be fucked with, because anything less will be seen as a sign of weakness and get you curbstomped. Simply telling you this single fact not only establishes that a Anarchs vs. Sabbat campaign is a viable, gameable option, but also gives you an instant grasp as to how it would differ in flavour from an Anarchs vs. Camarilla game. The Guide to the Anarchs would have taken several pages to make the same point in a far less clear way, and would have probably loaded it with caveats as to why it can’t possibly work.)
To a certain extent Unbound follows the lead of the Guide when it comes to selecting what material to include (with the notable exception of the life-on-the-road appendix). The main difference is that it’s substantially more focused and less rambly, with a better focus on gameable material. For instance, the history section rattles through the past of the movement fairly quickly and includes a substantial amount of more immediately relevant material detailing matters going on in the modern nights which are more likely to be directly relevant to an actual Vampire session than the fine details of early Renaissance agreements between vampires. (Indeed, the actual texts of significant documents like the Convention of Thorns are delegated to a brief appendix here.)
Similarly, the “Anarchs around the world” section wisely elects to just focus on a grab-bag of locations which have particularly interesting Anarch-related stuff kicking off in, which is much more useful than the corresponding segment in Guide which struggled to find something interesting to say about as many different locations as possible. Wisely, the authors decide to focus on what the local Anarchs are up to, which means that overt gaffes in the real-world research are less prominent (because they just cover the counterfactual aspects of the places in question rather than trying to provide a full introduction to the chosen cities), and this has the useful side-effect of avoiding all the tedious encyclopedia-mining that the Guide indulged in. Another usefully trimmed-down section is the section on generating Anarch characters, which simply focuses on the particular questions to consider when creating your Anarch and introducing a few new Anarch-appropriate Backgrounds, Merits and Flaws to consider purchasing rather than trying to reproduce all the character generation guidance from the core book.
As with the Guide, some of the chapters are presented as in-character documents written by NPCs, but Onyx Path seem to be much better than old-timey White Wolf were at keeping these succinct and to the point and not allowing the in-character waffle to obscure the gameable material in those chapters. Between this and the tightened focus, Anarchs Unbound is about 100 pages shorter than the old Guide was, but it feels genuinely useful and crammed with exciting material in a way that the Guide frankly didn’t. In particular, it accomplishes the most important task an Anarchs supplement for V20 could set itself, which is to make playing an Anarch-focused game as tempting and as viable as the core rules makes playing a Camarilla or Sabbat-focused game.
Anarchs Unbound Storyteller Screen
It’s a three-panel cardboard screen to hide your notes from the players, with a nice collage of Anarch-themed artwork from the book on the player-facing side and a range of useful charts and rules summaries on the Storyteller’s side. A decent enough screen, although irritatingly it’s arranged so that the individual A4 panels stand in portrait orientation rather than landscape orientation – I vastly prefer the latter because I find it doesn’t create so much of a visual barrier to eye contact between you and your players. Otherwise, not much to report here.
I could name a heap of Vampire products I’d be embarrassed to be associated with. Happily, Anarchs Unbound isn’t one of them. Even the artwork is better than some of White Wolf’s less successful efforts.
Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?
Well, I like having the deluxe version of the book so I wouldn’t want to go so low as the tiers where you don’t get that, and I didn’t already have a Vampire screen so that’s handy, so this really hinges on the selection of PDFs on my tier and whether they are worth the $35 dollars difference. The PDFs I really enjoyed were LA By Night, The Anarch Cookbook, Succubus Club: Dead Man’s Party and Children of the Revolution. I could have done without Guide to the Anarchs and The Succubus Club, but because of the way the add-ons for this Kickstarter were priced I wouldn’t have saved any money by going for a lower tier and missing out Guide to the Anarchs – Succubus Club was bundled with LA By Night and Dead Man’s Party, and to be fair I’m glad to have the portion that describes the club and its denizens so it isn’t without value to me in the way Guide to the Anarchs was.
Based on the prices on DriveThruRPG, buying the PDFs of the LA By Night, The Anarch Cookbook, Dead Man’s Party and Children of the Revolution would come to $42.78, including current discounts, so if I take that as a $7.78 saving, toss aside Guide to the Anarchs and regard The Succubus Club as a free 20-page supplement about a nightclub with 100 pages of waste paper at the back, that strikes me as a pretty good deal. (On top of that, if you look at the total PDF costs for the various books offered on DriveThru, and then include $15 for the screen, the effective price I paid for the book itself compares very well to the price you pay for a premium-quality hardcover PoD of it, so on the whole I think I got good value for the main product.) So for this one, I reckon I got my pledge Just Right.
Would Back Again?
Whether I’d back at a similar level for an Onyx Path Kickstarter again would depend on what additional bells and whistles were available. I wouldn’t want another screen for a game I already own one for, for instance, and I wouldn’t want to pay for the deluxe edition of a book unless the freebies from the stretch goals were sufficient to make buying the deluxe edition compete with just waiting to buy a premium hardcover.
What I would certainly do is give any Onyx Path Kickstarter whose subject matter was at all interesting to me as much careful scrutiny as I could. I confess, in fact, that I’ve already backed a few others (at least one of which is likely to be the subject of a monster Kickstopper article outweighing even this tedious textwall), so the answer to this one has to be “Yes”. Richard Thomas has become a master Kickstarter salesman, and whilst the Exalted side of the business seems to be in ongoing trouble, that seems to be a consequence of the way Thomas has left the developers of the different lines to manage things as they see fit. The Vampire side of the equation, at least, seems to be fit and healthy, full of delicious O-negative and firing on all cylinders.
I’m going to extend the usual Kickstopper format here because, like I said back in the intro (remember back at the intro, when our hair wasn’t so grey and the sun seemed so much brighter?) that there’s more stories going on here than the funding and delivery of a single product.
The thing which stands out for me about this whole trip from a gaming perspective is how radically and explosively Vampire is transformed when you take the metaplot-agnostic approach that V20 does. One of the big successes of the New World of Darkness project was the way White Wolf – and later Onyx Path – well and truly committed to the “it’s your game” idea. Reminding themselves that the sole authority over any tabletop RPG session consists of the people sat at the table playing at the time meant breaking the game design habits they had developed over the entire course of the Classic World of Darkness product line and completely revising their design process.
It hasn’t necessarily been a complete success – I still think they stink at writing adventures, for instance – but when it comes to core materials and sourcebooks and other resources “it’s your game” is a philosophy which really makes the difference between a product that is actually useful for playing a game with and a product that doesn’t do much except tell you how someone else wants you to run your game. Those who actually enjoyed the metaplot, or aspects thereof, can patch it in trivially easily (indeed, there’s a planned supplement – Beckett’s Jyhad Diary – which is intended to provide a summary of the major characters and events of the metaplot and notes on what effects they may have on an game if you include them), and the rest of us can ignore it; that’s always been the case, of course, but the difference this time is that Onyx Path are publishing for all of us whereas White Wolf were only publishing for those who were following their primrose path to mediocrity.
Of course, Onyx Path don’t necessarily have a choice. For as long as their fortunes are linked intimately to their Kickstarter campaigns – and this is likely to be the case for some time to come – they’ve got to take the big tent approach. They can’t entirely tell the metaplot junkies to go away and they haven’t outright declared that any aspect of the metaplot is no longer canon – but equally, they can’t force the sizable audience portion that considers the metaplot to be the worst aspect of Vampire‘s original run to accept it. They need to get as much of the fanbase as possible to buy into what they are doing with the line if their Kickstarters are going to continue to be major successes. Sure, there’s some scope for slightly more niche supplements, but Anarchs Unbound seems to be about as niche as Onyx Path can really get and still count on being able to reliably get their products funded.
Once Onyx Path walk away from Kickstarter, watch out. On the one hand, that’ll be the time they can start to really take some risks with the Classic World of Darkness and try to give us something that we don’t even know we want, but which we’ll love when we see it. Alternatively, they could abandon all good taste and produce something that nobody outside the Onyx Path offices could possibly want. Until then, Kickstarter is the fanbase’s means of policing them, if the fans are willing to use it that way. They haven’t yet come up with a supplement idea lousy enough to outright fail to fund, but there’s every chance they might one day: how they react to that, and how they adapt to life beyond Kickstarter, will be the real tests of whether the Onyx Path is a road to nowhere. Until then, I’ll enjoy this unexpected high water mark while it lasts.
EDIT TO ADD: Richard Thomas mentioned on Twitter that Onyx Path aren’t wholly dependent on Kickstarter – they put out over 40 products in 2014, only 6 of which were Kickstarters – so I should stress that here I am mostly looking at how Kickstarter relates to the Classic World of Darkness line, which seems to be more Kickstarter-dependent than other lines.
For instance, in 2013 they put out Blood and Smoke: the Strix Chronicle, a revision to Vampire: the Requiem so major it would eventually get republished as Vampire: the Requiem 2nd Edition once CCP had a change of heart about NWoD 2nd editions and gave permission, and that wasn’t associated with a Kickstarter at all, whereas by this point a strong expectation has been established that 20th Anniversary editions of Classic WoD games will be associated with Kickstarters.
Of course, like with the boom in old-school CRPGs and point-and-click adventures prompted by Kickstarter, this is another example of the crowdfunding model benefiting greatly from a healthy dose of nostalgia on the part of a fanbase.