Turns Out Zak S. Is Worse Than We Thought

If you’ve been around RPG online discussion for a while – a somewhat different field from simply writing, playing and enjoying tabletop RPGs, with less overlap between the two than you might expect – you’ll probably be aware of one Zak Sabbath – AKA Zak S., AKA Zak Smith. He’s an artist, a porn actor, and a game writer and publisher. In terms of his RPG writing credentials, he first gained visibility through his blog Playing D&D With Porn Stars, which at least in its early phases came across as an entirely wholesome account of his fun home campaigns played, as the title implies, primarily with friends and colleagues he met through the porn world. The blog would later spawn a spin-off off video series on The Escapist, entitled I Hit It With My Axe.

On the back of this initial exposure, Zak has built an audience within the tabletop RPG community. He’s produced some well-received OSR-flavoured gaming materials, such as Vornheim (published through the Lamentations of the Flame Princess game line). He was one of several figures named as having been “consultants” on 5E Dungeons & Dragons; he also wrote a text-based mobile game for the new Paradox-controlled White Wolf as one of the first releases in their new Vampire: the Masquerade game line.

If you’re not the sort of person who keeps a weather eye on online forum culture or Internet RPG discussion, odds are that you’d only be aware of the above – if, indeed, you are one of the people who actually care about what name appears on an RPG supplement in the first place. (I greatly suspect that those people account for much less of the hobby than you may think.) In RPG discussion circles, however, for years Zak has had a vastly more controversial reputation.

Zak is persona non grata at a wide selection of RPG forums and platforms. Typically, he’ll get banned because of his posting style. Zak’s rhetorical style can best be described as take-no-prisoners; he charges in, asserts his point vigorously, has no qualms about demonising or belittling his opponents – suggest that there’s too much chainmail bikini cheesecake material and too little sensible armour in RPG artwork and he’ll compare you to Tipper Gore (because he’s stick in the mid-1990s for some weird reason) – and basically charges into a debate like a bull in a china shop. He has very developed and specific opinions and rules as to how debate should go, and if he spots somebody not following those rules he will try to present them as participating in bad faith.

This pattern has happened over and over again, over a wide range of fora, including his own blog. In general, he treats every disagreement or debate like it’s a full-on battle of crucial importance. It makes him very, very exhausting to discuss anything with, and I long ago gave up any attempt to engage him. (He tried to comment here once – a one word comment, “Ew”, in response to some article I wrote; I forget which because the comment was long since binned and purged, but I think it might have been this one. The only way to “win” at Zak is not to play his game, or let him into your playground in the first place.)

In short, Zak’s approach to online discussion is not conducive to a chill, relaxed space where people chat about their hobby in an essentially friendly manner. Rather, it’s the sort of rhetorical tactic which will turn a forum into a screeching hellhole of divisiveness, and under the circumstances it’s no surprise that many forum owners and moderators find it easier to do without Zak’s presence. The last I was aware, he was still welcome at therpgsite – I suspect because it’s run by the RPGPundit, who’s got a similar reputation for off-the-hook aggressive debating tactics.

The Pundit connection is significant. Back when 5E D&D was being released, a clutch of “consultants” were named in the Basic Rules PDF – Rob Monroe gives a fairly neutral accounting of them here. As I understand it, their role was mostly to act as sounding boards for Mike Mearls and his team to bounce ideas off of, so the concept of getting people with a wide range of outlooks on RPGs for that sort of consultancy is a good one. It’s a pity that none of the people listed are women, and an extra double pity with cream that the folk listed included RPGPundit or Zak S., neither of whom really rate on the same level as a Jeff Grubb, a Robin Laws or a Ken Hite, and both of whom took a substantial ego boost out of being named in that exalted company.

It was around this time that I became aware that a number of people had accused Zak of either directly harassing them himself, or mobilising fans through various platforms to do that. A number of people wrote in-depth posts about Zak and the issues surrounding him (and Pundit), such as this one from Fail Forward, and others such as the Problematic Tabletop blog have tried to bring together various evidences of the behaviour of Zak along with other toxic elements of the community. (Unfortunately, Problematic Tabletop used donotlink for a lot of their links – which now don’t redirect anywhere except a French domain squatter’s advertising page about folding touchscreens.) “Consultantgate” was underway, as folk decried Wizards for legitimising Pundit and Zak to that extent.

The tricky thing is that the nature of a lot of the harassment involved meant that – particularly before Problematic Tabletop and others did a lot of the legwork – actually recognising the pattern involved wasn’t all that easy for folk who hadn’t already been at least partially aware of Zak’s recurrent online behaviours. Shawn Struck hit the nail on the head when he outlined how Zak operates to give himself some form of plausible deniability. Since then, Problematic Tabletop has gathered some much more direct evidence – such as screencaps of Zak posting a link to some article he disagreed with, along with the on-word command “destroy” – and people have given cogent accounts of their own experiences with Zak, but at the time much of the evidence readily available was either far more indirect, or had been deleted and not archived.

So, Zak plead innocence and claimed that people were making mountains out of rhetorical molehills; depressingly, Wizards of the Coast seemed to believe him – and the Paradox-controlled White Wolf seemed to believe him later on, when objections were raised after they hired him to make that Vampire text game. I won’t go into all the complaints about that game, but I will note that it was one of the first signs that the Paradox-controlled White Wolf were going down the edgelord route real hard, taking the worst excesses of 1990s White Wolf and cranking them up to 11 – to the stage where Paradox has recently had to step in, dissolve White Wolf, and reconstitute it as a carefully managed and supervised subsidiary which no longer has that much independence and exists solely to licence out work and handle the approvals process with licencees, much as it was in the latter days of its ownership by CCP. (There’s a quote about a severed ass which goes around which reveals the absolutely risible writing standards the game is lumbered with.)

Controversy rumbled on from Consultantgate onwards, with new outbreaks occasionally happening (such as when Zak’s Vampire: the Masquerade game was announced.) Around the time of Consultantgate, Zak’s partner Mandy Morbid – despite being quite ill at the time – put out an impassioned defence of him; Zak would extensively link back to this, particularly when defending himself against allegations that women and/or LGBT+ folk tended to be recurring targets of his ire. Those opting to defend Zak would tend to link Mandy’s post on the subject, because of course why wouldn’t they? This is someone in Zak’s life who knows him extremely well, giving another perspective on the situation, and who was finding the whole situation distressing at a time when she was dealing with an ongoing chronic illness.

Time rolled on. More incidents happened. Bit by bit people who had defended Zak previously started backing away from him, as it became more and more difficult to deny that there was a problem there. (After all, if even 90% of the accusations against him are false, the remaining 10% are pretty fucked.) At one point Zak was caught red-handed impersonating Shannon Appelcine, owner of RPG.net, on Reddit, and pulled out the old “oh, my friend was using my computer as a joke” excuse, which seemed to nudge a few people out of his corner.

Now, however, we have a bombshell. Yesterday, Mandy Morbid re-emerged – having gone quiet for a good while – to reveal that she had split up from Zak, and that throughout their relationship Zak had been abusive towards her.

Mandy’s words are difficult to read – there’s violence in there, there’s lack of consent, there’s threats, there’s all sorts of shit, so I am not going to copy-paste them to here for the time being and will instead link them. (If you are Facebook-averse here is an archive.is link.)

It’s entirely possible that Mandy will come under attack from Zak’s defenders for posting this. I hope the support network around her will do what it can for her during that; she does at least seem to have a lot of support on the Facebook post itself. In particular, it’s heartening to see people saying that they had defended Zak previously but now felt differently, or that they were going to decline opportunities to work with him in the light of all this.

Whilst it is a shame that they didn’t see through Zak previously, I do applaud them for changing their minds with the emergence of new evidence. It is difficult to abandon an entrenched position when you have held it this long, and whilst we can carp on them for deciding to take that position in the first place, I feel that the “nyah, I told you so” angle is unhelpful and unimportant next to the community doing right by Mandy by supporting her – and doing right by itself by not giving an abuser the free run he’s had so far.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that it’s Mandy’s words that have nudged people into definitively breaking with Zak – or convinced them that their previous decision to break with him was the right call. That essay that Mandy put out in defence of Zak that I mentioned earlier? I was careful to say “put out” and not “wrote” because, whilst it was published through her blogging platforms and presented as coming from her, Mandy now says that Zak wrote the entire dang thing and had her publish it under her name, and that one of the major fault lines in their relationship was how he dragged her into his “online gaming arguments nonsense”.

This is far from the worst thing that Mandy reports, but it’s surely the one which sticks in the mind of many of Zak’s former supporters, since “Mandy’s” defence of Zak seems to have played no small part in persuading them of Zak’s good character. Mandy speaking out certainly has made Rob Monroe disavow his previous stance on Zak.

Another story worth looking at is that of Patrick Stuart from the False Machine blog, who over the past five years has gone on quote a journey in his interactions with Zak. At first he was an emphatic Zak supporter. Then he attempted to put together a timeline of all the facts which, whilst I think it tends to come at things from a Zak-believer’s perspective (it puts a lot of weight on people +1’ing a Google Plus post about James Desborough which Zak chose to kick off a crusade about, for instance), does end up highlighting how Zak clearly isn’t wholly innocent in all this; it’s pretty hard to correlate all the information together and not come away with questions about what Zak’s been playing at.

Then, despite clearly still wanting to be a pal with Zak on some level, seems to have decided that this simply wasn’t possible given how Zak behaves all the time; here Patrick finally snaps at Zak and says “People call you a dick because you act like a dick.” As Patrick notes in his latest post, responding to Mandy’s revelations, the connection to Zak in and of itself seems to have had a poor effect on his mental health; Zak seems to be a very, very difficult person to be online friends with (which should give you some idea of just how difficult people find it to be his enemy). I am going to quote Patrick here because I suspect these words of his may resonate with those who have been trying to reconcile their own interactions with Zak with what Mandy has said:

Its the dual-vision of being friends with Zak. There’s this person who’s such a great guy, and so interested in you personally, so talented, intelligent, charming and funny, with rare good taste.

And then there is this other guy. The one that comes out in text form usually. In arguments about nerd stuff. This guy is condescending, aggressive, clever and manipulative. This guy will say anything to win some fucking internet argument and never, ever, ever admits wrong, backs down or recognises the humanity in his opponents.

The first guy has friends who like him. They second guy has tools, things he uses, doling them out like playing cards or little army men.

At first it seems like the vituperative shit online is just a flaw in the larger person. Something you will have to put up with, a manageable flaw in an otherwise good man.

It takes a long fucking time to work out that the second guy is the real actual guy. That is the person making the decisions and for whom the decisions are made. The first person, the good guy, is just a set of behaviours he puts on like clothes.

Certainly, between the material that Problematic Tabletop has amassed since this controversy first kicked off, what Mandy has been brave enough to say now, and the way others who have previously been close to Zak have said “Yeah, actually, that kind of is how it is to be friends with him”, it feels like if you aren’t already persuaded that Zak has engaged in entirely inappropriate actions, you’ll never be persuaded of it.

Update: This situation has blown up and I would not blame anyone if they find it impossible to keep up with more than a fraction of what is being said about it. But there’s something which shouldn’t get lost in the hustle, and that’s Viv’s story as another one of Zak’s ex-partners.

Kickstopper: From Each According To His Arteries, To Each According To His Needs

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.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: From Each According To His Arteries, To Each According To His Needs”

Not Knowing When To Stop Digging

Mummy – also billed as A World of Darkness: Mummy, using the same branding as the original A World of Darkness supplement – was a 1992 release for Vampire: the Masquerade and was one of the last books for the Storyteller system released when Vampire had the stage all to itself. Indeed, as well as hyping the forthcoming release of Werewolf: the ApocalypseMummy makes a mild pretence of being a crossover supplement, claiming that you can use it just as well in a Werewolf game as in Vampire.

However, whilst you doubtless could use the rules explanation from Werewolf to run this, the fact remains that this was released with the distinctive green marbled trade dress that’s associated with Vampire, and precisely because Werewolf was still in development when this was being written it leans on Vampire much more than it does Werewolf; there’s a very, very few token references to the Garou, and the spirit world that the titular mummies enter between bouts of life is clearly based on a rough outline of Werewolf‘s Umbra, but the whole mummy thing calls on Vampire much more than it does Werewolf. (Indeed, the backstory of the mummies is intimately entwined with that of the Followers of Set, having been sparked off by a Kindred intervention in proto-Egyptian politics.)

Continue reading “Not Knowing When To Stop Digging”

Inconnu Can Make This World Seem Right

Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Vampire: the Masquerade should be all about the Inconnu all the time. But it seems to me that the near-disappearance of the Inconnu from setting material after the earliest years of the game is indicative of broader changes in White Wolf’s approach to the game – a shift to a more sober, buttoned-down, serious-minded approach that I increasingly find antithetical to fun whilst still being too tied to the absurdities of the game’s axioms to be a profound exploration of serious subject matter. The Inconnu in this respect are like the bellweather, the canary – sure, they had a single supplement in the Revised era as a prelude to Gehenna, but I have a strong suspicion that this was because White Wolf needed to fill a hole in the schedule and if they could have got away with doing the whole Time of Judgement thing without touching the Inconnu they would have.

Take, for instance, the original A World of Darkness supplement from 1992. This is one of the first Vampire: the Masquerade supplements to get really significantly retconned; a second edition of it in 1996 made major cuts to the existing chapters to excise material that was no longer wanted, and added additional chapters to allow for a properly global overview.

Continue reading “Inconnu Can Make This World Seem Right”

The Value of Tone

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 VampireWerewolfMageWraithChangeling 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.

Kickstopper: More of the Clans

Over on Ferretbrain we’ve had a long-running series called Kickstopper, with articles reviewing the outcome of Kickstarters from a backer’s-eye-view. That said, some of the Kickstarters I back cover topics which are a bit niche for a general audience, especially when it comes to tabletop RPGs. The general line I’ve taken is that if I can see my way to reviewing the core game in the article, then it’s appropriate for Ferretbrain, but if I can’t and the article doesn’t really shed much light on a topic of more general interest, like the long-term future of White Wolf (to give a recent example), it’d make more sense to put the review here.

For this first time putting a Kickstopper article over here, I’m going to cover what may be some of the last supplements for the 20th Anniversary edition of Vampire: the Masquerade; with White Wolf announcing that a 5th Edition will be coming out next year and precious little still to release for it on Onyx Path’s schedule, it looks like the game line – which is already remarkably complete – will likely be mothballed, at least to the extent of new products not coming out for it, so that the spotlight can go on the new edition.

For these supplements, the 20th Anniversary line offers its answer to the classic Clanbooks…

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.

The Campaign

The Lore of the Clans Kickstarter was the last World of Darkness Kickstarter that Onyx Path would successfully fund before the future of the World of Darkness line would change forever due to the purchase of White Wolf by Paradox, as I outlined in the Shattered Dreams Kickstopper article. (The subsequent Beast: the Primordial Kickstarter was for what is now known as the Chronicles of Darkness line to distinguish it from the World of Darkness setting, and the Shattered Dreams Kickstarter for Werewolf: the Apocalypse saw the Paradox takeover happen partway through the funding period.)

By this point, Onyx Path had the process of doing Kickstarters for World of Darkness supplements down to a fine art, setting sensible stretch goals and, as had become the norm, offering a mostly-complete text of the supplement during the funding period so that people could both see if it was the sort of thing they were interested in and satisfy themselves that a viable product actually existed. As such, the progress of the campaign was smooth and unremarkable and it ended up earning over $138,000, which by this point was pretty reasonable for a supplement and substantially better than more “niche” supplements have managed.

What Level I Backed At

Clan Lexicographer: You will receive a copy of the Deluxe V20 Lore of the Clan book, a copy of the V20 Lore of the Clan PDF, and the V20 Lore of the Clan PoD as close to cost as we can give you (see description in the text to the left). You’ll receive a PDF of the classic Encyclopaedia Vampirica so you can delve deeply into significant Clan representatives. You’ll get digital wallpaper featuring a collage of the evocative beautiful art from V20 Lore of the Clans. You or your character’s name will be listed on the credits page as a Clan Loyalist. There will be an extra shipping charge added automatically to nonUS pledges.

It’s worth noting that in addition to the above, some of the stretch goals involved producing writeups for the Bloodlines which, after sufficient goals were hit, were set to be compiled into a supplement called Lore of the Bloodlines, the PDF of which would be included in my funding level.

The Delivery Process

I got my hard copy of Lore of the Clans in April 2016, and its estimated delivery date was March 2016, so by the standards of RPG Kickstarters Onyx Path did pretty well. The PDF version went out to backers in mid-October 2016, a couple of weeks before the announcement of Paradox purchasing White Wolf – which may explain why that event didn’t disrupt this delivery process nearly as much as it otherwise might have, since it meant that the book was a fait accompli with its approvals process done and dusted before Paradox came in.

Reviewing the Swag

Lore of the Clans

One of the recurring commercial problems tabletop RPGs have is that once someone has obtained the core rules, they and their friends can pretty much play forever without ever buying another product. This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of traditional categories of RPG products, like prewritten scenarios and campaign settings, tended to be bought mainly by Game Masters/Storytellers/(insert absurd ego-puffing title for referee here) because they are stuffed with information it’d be actively game-ruining for players to read.

In the late 1980s, TSR made a bid to crack the problem by starting a line of player-facing supplements for the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons . Each book would take a different class (like fighters, priests or wizards) or race (like elves or dwarves) and offer the player a bunch of options for customising and detailing such characters, as well as providing game rules to help both players and Dungeon Masters cater to such classes. (For instance, the thief book included an extended discussion of thieves’ guilds.) By putting out a book that would be of interest both to referees running a game featuring such characters and players interested in such character types, TSR had created products which they could sell to a much broader proportion of the AD&D audience than more purely Dungeon Master-oriented products.

Although it was TSR who pioneered this product format, it was White Wolf who became synonymous with it, perhaps because the World of Darkness games were so adeptly suited to that model. In Vampire you had Clans, in Werewolf you had Tribes, in Mage you had Traditions and so on, but all of these “splats” ended up getting associated splatbooks. (The “splat” comes from the way they were referred to in early online discussion as “*books”, with “splat” being slang in some circles for “asterisk”.) Each game had its own line of player-focused Clanbooks, Tribebooks, Tradition Books, etc., and the market snapped them up.

What made the various splats such iconic and important features of the World of Darkness games is the way they very smoothly served two simultaneous functions. On the game mechanical side of things, they worked much like Dungeons & Dragons classes, offering a means of differentiating player characters and giving them distinctive areas of expertise. (In general, for example, a Brujah vampire will be better in a fight than a Ventrue, who will be better at political intrigue than the Brujah, unless the characters in question have been deliberately designed not to engage with their own Clan’s particular strengths.) At the same time, they also gave player characters an instantaneous social context in the game – not all thieves in D&D work in the same guild, for instance, but all Brujah in Vampire are connected to the extended vampiric family of Brujah, if only by the fact that it was a Brujah who turned them into a vampire in the first place.

By giving player characters a social context in the setting, you prompt players to take an interest in the setting and their character’s place in it, and it’s also a big help to the Storyteller – if a player player is keen to play a Clan loyalist, that provides one way to pitch content which will be of interest to them, and if a player wants to play someone who actively rebels against their Clan or tries to resist efforts to draw them into Clan politics that provides a different lever. There’s no position you can take on your Clan which doesn’t open the door to scenario possibilities – if “Do me this favour because it will help the Clan” isn’t going to motivate the player into action, “Do me this favour because it will hurt the Clan/change the Clan/free you from the Clan hierarchy/make the Clan leave you alone” is just as good.

Your typical Clanbook back in the day was a 64 page book detailing a specific Clan; you’d have sections on the Clan’s history, its current internal organisation and interests, perhaps some rumours about Clan secrets, and the package would be rounded off with some pointers and templates for making characters especially appropriate to the Clan and special powers that Clan members may be able to learn.

Now, 64 pages isn’t nothing, but if you are a player who wants to add depth to their character or understand their Clan better it’s entirely manageable. The problem, of course, comes from the fact that if the Clanbook is in play, the Storyteller will probably want to read it too so they can get a handle on the material in it and use it appropriately – at least to the extent of being able to either portray it in the way it is portrayed in the Clanbook or, if the Storyteller has a different plan, outline where the Clan differs for the purposes of this specific campaign.

Say you have five players in a tabletop game, each of whom is playing a character of a different Clan, each of whom wants to use their Clan’s Clanbook. Each individual player only has about 64 pages of reading to do. The Storyteller suddenly has 320 pages to look over and either approve or overrule. And if you want to give a similar level of depth to all 13 canonical Clans – perhaps because you don’t want a Clan to seem flat and lacking in depth simply because no PCs belong to it, or because you are running a LARP with sufficient numbers that there are PCs of all Clans, you’re looking at 832 pages of reading.

Lore of the Clans is a condensed one-book solution to that problem. Each of its chapters provides a summation, generally written from the point of view of a member of the Clan in question, of Clan history, structure, interests and so on, along with a few suggestions for archetypal character templates and cool Clan-specific powers for people to dabble in. In other words, it’s basically a bunch of mini-Clanbooks, mashing up the best of the old run with some fun new ideas and providing a much more manageable package than the full stack of Clanbooks, making using it in actual play a much more viable prospect. What’s more, because a lot of the information is presented as in-character rumours rather than out-of-character statements of fact, Storytellers need not feel bound by any of it.

I didn’t go in at a tier which would have given me downloads of the old Clanbooks, but in terms of information provided I suspect you actually get most of the good stuff here. Stripping out a lot of the mini-short stories that characterised White Wolf’s material back in the day, improving the layout, and going for a more information-dense writing style could help you drop the space required appreciably; jettisoning ideas which in retrospect seem silly, half-baked, or just plain bad must also be a big help. (They do still take the time to give a tip of the hat to some of the more infamous of the discarded plot points; the Tzimisce chapter mentions the old “the Tzimisce flesh-sculpting powers are the result of them being controlled by alien parasites” from the infamous Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand supplement (and semi-resurrected in the strictly apocryphal The Black Hand: Secrets of the Tal’Mahe’Ra supplement) as being a total absurdity… before dropping an alternate theory that manages to be similar in principle but more horrifying and much more in keeping with the general tone of Vampire, although very much also presented as a mere rumour.) On top of that, the core V20 book already compiled a great number of vampire powers from across a wide range of sources, so a lot of the cool Clan powers from old Clanbooks would already be compiled there, allowing the rules additions here to be mercifully brief.

The book is rounded off by a brace of useful appendices unlocked as stretch goals during the Kickstarter, including a section on Caitiff (vampires belonging to no Clan), some brief insights into antitribu of each Clan (antitribu being Clan members who have rebelled against the power structure and general consensus of their Clan and sided with its enemies), and a section on notable vampires. No rules details are provided on the VIPs, but that actually makes a lot of sense – remember, this is meant to be a player-facing book in part, so providing a full picture of these characters’ capabilities would give them a bunch of information they aren’t meant to have, and this also lets Storytellers set the power level and capabilities of these characters at a level they are happy with.

In short, Lore of the Clans provides the same sort of deeper depictions of the Clans and enrichment of the game experience that the Clanbooks offered, for the price of a single book and at a much more modest page count. It’s actually a better deal than what White Wolf presented gamers with back in the day, and is a product far more likely to be used in actual play than a teetering stack of Clanbooks.

Lore of the Bloodlines

This pretty much gives the Lore of the Clans treatment to a set of the more interesting Bloodlines – groups of vampires which aren’t as widespread or powerful as the thirteen major Clans, but are still forces to be reckoned with. Much of what I’ve said about Lore of the Clans applies to this, and it’s a handy resource if you want to develop any of the Bloodlines detailed future – especially if you’re veering away from canon and want options for replacing one of the Clans with something developed to a similar level of detail.

As a stretch goal, the extent of this book was largely dependent on how much funding was received in the project. As it stands, I think the backers inadvertently hit the sweet spot: the book is substantial enough to be useful and cover the most interesting Bloodlines, but stops before getting to any of the more silly or disposable ones. (The next stretch goal would have added the Blood Brothers to this book, which are to my tastes just a bit too much of a one-trick schtick to make for an interesting clan writeup – useful to throw in as creepy disposable goons, not interesting to unpack as fully fleshed-out characters.)

Encyclopaedia Vampirica

Not really a clanbook, but it’s a similarly information-dense summary of material covering the whole run of Vampire: the Masquerade. This came out in 2002, right towards the end of the original World of Darkness game line’s run, and is presented as an in-character encyclopedia written by vampires for vampires.

Since it’s designed as a document written by characters in the setting, it’s actually suggested that you could just hand it over to the players for them to read as and when they discover it in the game. That’s fine in theory, but there’s a few issues with it in practice. The first, lesser issue is that because it came out at the end of the game line’s run, the encyclopedia covers a bunch of metaplot events that may or may not be true for your particular campaign. That’s troubling, but you can at least patch this somewhat simply by pointing out that the compilers of the encyclopedia may simply be wrong.

The second and larger problem is that by putting the Vampirica into the hands of the players, you are rather implicitly stating that most of the stuff that is in there will exist in your campaign in some form or another. Whilst in principle if the players get interested in a particular entry but you don’t want to include it, you could just pull the old “the compilers fucked up” line again, there’s a limit to how often you can do that before the encyclopedia ends up looking like a massive waste of time. Generally, if you hand players a tome weighing in at over 200 pages to read, it’s considered a bit of a dick move if it turns out to be mostly useless. At the same time, reading the entire book to decide how much of it you want to actually be true would be an enormous chore, but on the flipside having to make a spot decision very suddenly on the truth or otherwise of some entry you didn’t notice and the players are now Very Interested in can be a royal pain.

Whilst I wouldn’t just toss the book out there to the players, I still think it’s useful for a referee, simply because it’s this big, dense collection of setting material you can keep to yourself and pick and choose from as you please. If you’re after an idea, just browse the book for a bit and something will jump out at you. (It’s nice that the book retains some self-awareness of how silly some Vampire topics and terminology is: for instance, in the setting Amaranth is the vampiric practice of drinking another vampire’s blood to consume their soul, but the designers goofed and didn’t realise originally that it’s the name of a cute little red bird from Africa, and sure enough the entry here for Amaranth gives “Small red finch from Africa” as its first definition and then the vampire-specific definitions after that.) There’s also a bunch of fun annotations in the margins, though the book often does a poor job of making sure they appear close to the references they actually relate to.

Encyclopaedia Vampirica is, therefore, a big fat 200-page reminder that Vampire: the Masquerade’s setting as both a blessing and a curse; a curse in the sense that if you got worried about canon (and if you wanted to actually follow the metaplot this was somewhat necessary) it’s a burden, a blessing in the sense that there’s always something you can draw on for inspiration when you need it.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

Yeah, sure, this is a decent product and there’s no embarrassment in being named in it.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I reckon I got this Just Right – going lower would have meant missing out on the rather fun Encyclopaedia Vampirica, going higher would have meant getting stuff I have little or no interest in, like the old Clanbooks and novels and the like.

Would Back Again?

The various Onyx Path Kickstarters are a bit of a crapshoot in terms of how smooth or shaky the delivery process is, largely as a result of head honcho Richard Thomas giving the various freelancers placed in charge of the projects their heads in terms of delivery. But the Vampire: the Masquerade contributors seem to have been pretty damn consistent in terms of getting product out.

Would I back another Vampire: the Masquerade Kickstarter from Onyx Path? The question seems academic – they’re almost certainly not going to do another one, at least not for a tabletop RPG product. But for the right product I might; I didn’t back Beckett’s Jyhad Diary, which followed this Kickstarter, because I have little-to-no interest in metaplot, and to be honest I am not sure what could be added to the V20 line at this point that would feel useful or necessary – it’s very complete. I guess if they did an official Underworld supplement or something I might.

New Blood For the Old Ceremony

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.

Continue reading “New Blood For the Old Ceremony”