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”

Back to Vampiric Basics

There’s often something to be said for going back to the first edition of an RPG to see the original presentation of its central ideas. This is especially worth it in game lines which have seen an extensive amount of metaplot afflicting them – including pretty much any World of Darkness RPG. As subsequent editions came out such games often gain an accretion disc of canon, continuity, drift from the original concept resulting from different creative visions being glued onto the original over the years, and occasionally fun parts of the game getting excised by game designers getting mad at those pesky customers “playing it wrong”.

The various 20th anniversary editions of the World of Darkness RPGs are excellent resources, but in my view if you want to use them you’re going to want to have one of the earlier core rulebooks on the side just to help give things some focus. The 20th anniversary releases are so densely packed with information that it can lead to a certain amount of choice paralysis, so it’s good to have an earlier, simpler summation of the game in question to help get some focus and see what the baseline assumptions for campaigns were when the games first came out so you can then decide what later tangents and deviations to bolt on. On that level, the 1st editions tend to work best precisely because they lay out the original vision for a game without later addition and second-guessing.

The earliest version of Vampire: the Masquerade is of particular interest, because it pretty much set the format that the subsequent World of Darkness games would follow. Like OD&D, it represents one of those “catching lightning in a bottle” moments that changed the face of the hobby. So when I got an opportunity to snag it and some early Vampire supplements on the cheap, I jumped at it – let’s see if I’m going to come down with a case of buyer’s remorse.

Vampire: the Masquerade 1st Edition

One thing that really hits you about reading the original Vampire rulebook is how intensely rich in atmosphere it is. Yes, the writing can go off on pretentious little tangents here and there – there’s an especially risible bit at the beginning where it claims that tabletop RPGs are the revival of an ancient tradition of oral storytelling that has been dying out in the modern age, a theory that trips over itself when it tries to claim that chatting about the day’s events is an example of that oral tradition and, whilst I admit I was 9 at the time, I’m pretty sure idle gossip wasn’t a dying art back in 1991.

But these diversions are just that – momentary diversions quickly gotten over. Vampire has to introduce the game concept, setting and system in about 260 pages of fairly basically laid-out text. (The production values are eye-opening simple; later printings even of 1E would add some flair here and there, but my early-printing hard copy has a look which both Tales of Gargentihr and SLA Industries would in the same time both end up edging ahead of, despite being small press releases from companies even smaller than White Wolf was at the time.) It simply doesn’t have time to fuss around, but succeeds very well in conveying a distinctive tone in few words.

This brevity extends to the in-game fiction, which more or less confines itself to a no-bullshit introduction to the setting, a section of more speculative stuff at the end, section dividers which depict a new vampire overcoming his reluctance to hunt and a series of simple but effective illustrations depicting a doomed love story between an ancient Babylonian vampire and a man she Embraces because she thinks he is the reincarnation of her long-dead king. (Risibly, he grows a douchey little soul patch when vamped.) These are simple, effective, and get the point across without clumsiness.

Much is made of how the conflict of Elders vs. Anarchs and other young upstarts is given more prominence in the first edition of the game than the Camarilla vs. Sabbat conflict; in actual fact, it seems to me that both conflicts are alluded to just as often and to a comparable level of depth. The real difference is that this edition very much emphasises the tight city focus of Vampire, to the point where it makes a rather Requiem-like point about how different sets of Clans may have prominence in different cities. Only one of the proposed campaign models presented in the GMing chapters explicitly involves getting involved in Camarilla politics, whilst more revolve around city politics in a way which would tend to put the PCs on one side or the other of the Elder-Anarch conflict. This is to be expected, because inter-city turf wars between Sects are going to be intrinsically more difficult to interact with than intra-city conflicts under the assumed modes of play here.

One thing I am rather glad that later editions of the game dropped is the possibility of returning to mortal status – killing one’s Sire being given as a possible way to do it. The game notes that if the Storyteller makes this a possibility, it is likely to dominate the campaign – but also seems to assume that this is what most campaigns will do. Personally, I can think of nothing more fatal to the brand of personal horror the book is trying to push than making such an exit available, and a game about playing vampires where the PCs are putting most of their energies towards violently rejecting the premise of the game seems to me to defeat the purpose. Even the artist of the ongoing story in the illustrations seems to think this is bullshit; the caption of the final illustration in the story suggests that the protagonist has become human again but is still haunted by recollections of his brief time as a vampire, but his actual facial expression suggests that he’s very much “dead and loving it”.

Of course, this isn’t the only way that the game thwarts itself. The Storytelling chapter emphatically warns the Storyteller not to override the free will of the players – a premise which is good, but renders questionable the inclusion of Dominate as an in-game power. Likewise, it explicitly encourages the Storyteller to trick the players into letting enemies into their Haven so that it can be destroyed for the sake of the plot, which seems to prod people towards the douchier incarnations of “illusionism”-style railroading.

Yes, the White Wolf tendency to throw in really bad refereeing device may not cause brain damage, but it’s deeply irritating and is in force here. Perhaps the worst example is the sample adventure, in which the PCs are summoned to a party by the Prince of Gary, Indiana, get to talk to some NPCs, and are asked to deliver a letter to the Prince of Chicago – and, erm, that’s it. Deeply exciting exploration of personal horror it ain’t. This is a particular shame because the previous chapter includes Gary, Indiana as an excellent example of how to construct a setting for Vampire, taking the reader through how Mark Rein*Hagen cooked up the setting for the original playtest campaign and providing a brace of NPCs and locations that can be used as-is or reskinned accordingly.

Later printings of the book – including the one that the DriveThruRPG PDF is based on – included an afterword by Mark Rein*Hagen. For the most part he uses it to waffle about how he penned this vampires-with-superpowers game as an exploration of evil and gives a sophomoric lecture about how evil is totes a necessary part of the world, man. (He also ends it with that silly little PAX! he used to sign this sort of thing off with back in the day.) But he does, at least, provide a useful list of influences – a sort of equivalent to the AD&D 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide‘s much-celebrated Appendix N. Let’s take a look at what is in there, shall we?

Novels

The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, Dracula by Bram Stoker. Um, duh.

Those Who Haunt the Night by Barbra Hambly. I think Mork Rain-Hogan means Those Who Hunt the Night by Barbara Hambly, but that’s how it’s spelled here. Not read it, can’t comment, Hambly usually turns in good work though so I should probably track it down.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman. Why yes, Mark does refer to it as a graphic novel, as all overdefensive comic book guys would. Probably more insightful for the purposes of reading what all the goths were reading at the time and staying close to the zeitgeist than any actual relevance to Vampire; in World of Darkness terms, I would say that Sandman is if anything more of a foundational text for Changeling: the Dreaming.

Time Enough For Love by Robert Heinlein. Lazarus Long is not a vampire, though I guess on some level the book is relevant as a novel-length rumination on what it would practically mean to be immortal. The Heinlein connection would be more pertinent in the light of later entries in the list, so I’ll revisit it in a bit.

Movies

Near DarkVampThe Hunger, the original silent version of Nosferatu, the Bela Lugosi DraculaLost Boys. Again, duh. In particular, the occasional references to groups of vampires cruising around the backroads in blacked-out RVs seems to be a direct nod to Near Dark.

Blue Velvet. Shows excellent taste, and although at first glance I thought its relevance was questionable actually, now that I think about it, there is something to the way the movie starts out dominated by daytime scenes before becoming increasingly nocturnal, until the return of daylight at the end, which puts me in mind of the sort of journey into literal and figurative darkness that Vampire entails.

Rear Window. The relevance of this I cannot grasp.

AlienAliens. Given that body horror wouldn’t emerge in a major way in Vampire until the Tzimisce were introduced, I submit that at this point in the movie list Rein*Hagen is actively taking the piss.

Games

Ars Magica. Claiming to be profoundly influenced by something you co-authored is kind of amazingly egotistical and self-serving. Fair play to Mark, though – the Tremere were taken directly from Ars Magica, and the relationship of Clans to the Camarilla is a nicely realised reskin of the relationship of the various Houses to the Order of Hermes.

RuneQuest. I suspect the main thing taken from here is the way characters derive special powers and abilities from social groupings; in RuneQuest skill training and spells are offered via cults, in Vampire your Disciplines are based on your Clan. Both are good mechanisms to encourage players to buy into the setting and see their character as part of it rather than a visitor to it.

Shadowrun. The system is basically ripped bleeding from here, converted to D10s, and radically simplified.

Call of Cthulhu. Derangements in Vampire riff on the sanity system; the Humanity stat in some respects works like Cthulhu Mythos/Sanity in Call of Cthulhu in terms of providing a game mechanic which over time may blow up a character.

Pendragon. Probably the personality mechanics are an influence.

GURPS Horror. Not read it, but the GURPS system probably provided an influence on the way Backgrounds are purchased.

CORPS. This is a generic RPG that I’m not very familiar with and doesn’t quite seem interesting enough for me to bother to research. Perhaps someone who knows it better can help point out what Vampire borrows from it.

Illuminati. Presumably Mark refers to the card game. GURPS Illuminati would have been very relevant, since it’s the pre-eminent setting-agnostic text on conspiracy-themed RPG campaigns. However, it didn’t come out until 1992. Literally the only ways the Illuminati card game seems to have influenced Vampire is in the existence of shadowy conspiracies in the setting, and in the occasional nod to the Robert Anton Wilson corner of the counterculture. (The opening bit of fiction straightfacedly states that the increased use of recreational drugs in the 1960s opened people’s minds to mystical realities that the vampires had been trying to suppress, and thus began the process of undermining the Masquerade.)

Dungeons & Dragons. Let’s face it – Clans are basically character classes. And D&D did establish the traditional RPG format that Vampire follows to the letter, save for the odd nod to LARPing.

“Everything written by…”

Carl Jung. The use of Archetypes in character generation would be the main one here.

Joseph Campbell. Everyone who talks utter unsupported tosh about stories likes to cite Campbell.

Herman Hesse, Albert Camus, P.B. Shelly. All hallmarks of the misunderstood adolescent reading list, check.

Milan Kundera, Mercea Eliade, Vaclav Havel, fucking Ayn Rand. Ok, this is a pretty diverse and interesting crew. Milan Kundera did The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I haven’t read, and Life is Elsewhere, which I quite like. (Ironically, it’s about an egotist who is convinced he is a great poet based on nothing more than acclaim from parental and governmental authority figures.) Relevance to Vampire: nonexistent. Vaclav Havel was a prominent dissident in Communist-era Czechoslovakia who ended up being the country’s first post-Communist president (and president of the Czech Republic after the divorce), known in the US mainly for being a big environmentalist and Frank Zappa fan. Relevance to Vampire: nil. Ayn Rand was Ayn Rand and therefore awful; if she were the only one of these people cited, I’d suggest she was probably down there as a “this is what self-serving Elders actually believe” sort of thing, but there’s a connection here I’m going to go into in a bit. Mercea Eliade is the only writer out of these four who actually wrote a vampire novel; he was also a hardcore fascist who supported the Iron Guard in Romania in his writing, campaigned for their political wing, and ended up accepting a diplomatic post under the Iron Guard regime and the subsequent (still murderously fascist) regime of Ion Antonescu.

Now, what do these people have in common? They are all known for tangling with Communism. Kundera jousted with the censors often; Havel led a revolution that ousted the Communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia. Ayn Rand’s entire schtick is based around a furious opposition to Communism that went so far as to condemn anything hinting of collectivism or considering that human beings have even the slightest responsibility towards other members of society. Eliade was an actual, no-kidding, full-bore fascist whose political campaigning helped create ideological support for genocide and whose weaselly post-war attempts to deny being all that involved with them doesn’t survive exposure to the facts; his views on Communism were, shall we say, fairly easy to guess.

Let’s be clear about this: Rein*Hagen recomments “everything written by” these people. That includes Rand’s turgid, overwhelmingly selfish, and monumentally dull Objectivist texts; the long John Galt rant in Atlas Shrugged, apparently, is just as informative to a Vampire: the Masquerade game as Interview With the Vampire is. It also includes Eliade’s less mystical and vampire-y and more problematic political works.

To my knowledge, nobody has ever really commented on this. This is odd, because a passionate opposition to Communism seems to be a recurring thing in Rein*Hagen’s work here. The book is actually dedicated to Vaclav Havel, and in the opening fiction the narrating vampire gives the usual spiel about how not all atrocities in human history can be laid at the feet of vampires, the example he goes for isn’t Hitler and the Holocaust – the usual go-to example when people cook up this sort of thing – but Karl Marx and the atrocities committed by Communist regimes.

Now, this is a very particular flavour of anti-Communism we are looking at here. Lots of people have very legitimately criticised the terrible things that Communist regimes all over the world have done, but it’s entirely possible to take on a position that criticises that, and even connects those to weaknesses in Communism as an economic and philosophical system, without so directly connecting Marx to them as to imply that he bore a personal responsibility to, say, the Ukrainian famines or the Gulags or the Cultural Revolution.

This puts the narrator at a bit of an extreme. There’s lots of people who think Communism is a good idea but that it was botched in its implementation by the likes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and so on in various different ways. On top of that, plenty of people on the left and right have taken the position that Marx was at best an economic doctor who was good at diagnosing what was going on but bad at prescribing a course of treatment, at worst an idealistic dope who didn’t account for the inevitability of people acting in bad faith undermining attempts to achieve Communism. You can agree or disagree with those positions all you like, but they’re all consistent, defensible positions which allow you to express a disagreement with Communism without demonising Karl Marx.

The narration, however, jumps straight from Marx to the Killing Fields, as though the atrocities brought about by dictatorial Communist regimes were the direct and inevitable result of Marx’s writing just as the Holocaust was clearly pointed to by Mein Kampf. In other words, the narrator seems to take the position that Marxism was not a good idea corrupted by bad people, and was not merely a flawed or incoherent philosophy, but an actively evil philosophy.

Does Mark Rein*Hagen believe this? In the absence of this reading list, I would have tended to assume that this just reflects the biases of the narrator in question. However, when you combine hero-worship of Vaclav Havel, glowing endorsement of a bevy of anti-Communist writers ranging from entirely uncontentious sorts (Havel and Kundera) to extremists (Rand) to actual fascists (Eliade), and throw in a dose of Robert Heinlein (another famed anti-Communist and hardline libertarian), and it becomes difficult not to conclude that this is Rein*Hagen’s stance.

This is not to say that Rein*Hagen is an actual Nazi, so much as he seems to be a product of the post-1960s counterculture with a right-libertarian/right-anarchist spin; the sort of guy who is against the War On Drugs and for personal freedom, but gets a bee in his bonnet about taxation, collective responsibility to other human beings, and government getting involved in stuff. (In other words, a useful idiot for anyone wanting to promote a cyberpunk future where corporations exert more powerful than governments.) You can sort of see this in the structure of vampire society – there’s no form of government presented other than medieval despotism, and the underdogs who we are probably supposed to sympathise with are the Anarchs.

Still, this sort of libertarianism leads you to sleep with strange bedfellows – some of them, like Eliade, wear Iron Guard pyjamas. There’s a lot of people on the euphemistically-named online “Alt-Right” (rebranded neofascism) and “Dark Enlightenment” (rebranded neomonarchism/neofeudalism) movements who seem to have drifted into there after spending a while toking on the right-libertarian/anarchocapitalist pipe. Moreover, the gothic subculture actually has a bit of a nasty problem with genuine neofascists trying to promote their ideas there – there’s a bunch of musicians in the industrial/neofolk scene, for instance, who range between sailing close to the wind and explicitly exploring obscure fascist philosophical strands like Strasserism to just being outright Nazis. I have seen several people who started out digging the sort of ideas prominent on Rein*Hagen’s reading list but ended up slipping into pushers for fascist mystics like Julius Evola and Death In June.

Thankfully, Rein*Hagen’s personal evolution doesn’t seem to have taken him in that direction; at most, he seems to have been a geekbertarian (of a variety that would later congregate on Reddit tipping their fedoras to each other) with a slightly concerning tendency to gloss over the unappealing parts of people’s ideology if they scream loudly enough about how bad Communism is. (To take a Robert Heinlein example, more Stranger In a Strange Land or mmmmaybe The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress than Starship Troopers or Farnham’s Freehold.) It’s somewhat unfortunate that such an important text to gaming history ends by recommending the work of an unrepentant fascist, somewhat odd that a game that hinges on creating a sense of community and collective purpose amongst the PCs should recommend Ayn Rand, and somewhat ironic that, given the more progressive politics that seem to have persisted at White Wolf in subsequent years, that Vampire has this streak of radical individualism at the heart of it.

Then again, if anyone in the World of Darkness is going to be libertarian, it’s going to be the vampires.

Player’s Guide and Storyteller’s Handbook

When you have a boom on your hands, sometimes you end up shovelling shit out of the door just for the sake of feeding it. Such is the case with the original Player’s Guide and Storyteller’s Handbook, which are chock-full of evidence of that brain-damaging incoherence Ron Edwards was so upset about from the vampire obviously walking about in sunlight on the cover of the Player’s Guide onwards. The books aren’t altogether worthless – the better bits, like the merits and flaws system from the Player’s Guide, would eventually make it into later iterations of the core book – but there’s a fair amount of filler in both, which sometimes flies in the face of what the books offer.

For instance, each book contains a selection of essays about what individual White Wolf team members think about being a player or Storyteller, but these tend more towards empty waffling about their personal experiences without offering much beyond platitudes and obvious hints when it comes to providing advice on evoking a similar experience. On top of that, in the Player’s Guide this section comes next to a chapter stuffed with weapons stats and other goodies, rather undermining any attempt to convince players that this Totes Isn’t Like One of Those Hack-and-Slash Roll-Playing Games.

One point of interest in the Storyteller’s Handbook is Mark Rein*Hagen’s anecdote about how he got upset as a novice referee when his players outsmarted him and managed to complete a James Bond-style espionage mission in 10 minutes, which I guess is an insight into the style of Storytelling that White Wolf promoted; between that and Ron Edwards’ stuff, it seems an awful lot of people lauded in some circles as visionaries and slammed in others as The Cancer That Is Killing RPGs are actually just strongly responding to a gaming experience they had in the past that wasn’t to their liking and made them want to craft a game experience where others would be spared that. Here, it seems to amount to providing a lot of advice on railroading – including openly encouraging Storytellers to try and trick their players into thinking they aren’t being railroaded – whilst providing the occasional reference to the idea that you could just run a campaign genuinely led and shaped by the players’ decisions, but without offering much advice on how to do so beyond noting that it is difficult (to which I say “practice yer damn improvisation chops, sillies”). To use some Forgey terminology which in this instance is actually useful, the Handbook seems to endorse illusionism (trying to disguise the fact that the campaign is on a railroad) as opposed to participationism (being upfront about the railroad and convincing players to buy into it), and who knows how many awful gaming experiences resulted from this.

One last note: whilst the Player’s Guide introduces the Ravnos in their unreconstructed “here’s some stereotypes about Romany people” form, their inclusion seems not just offensive but actively pointless in a 1E context. In the original rulebook, the Gangrel were explicitly and directly presented as being the vampire clan closely related to Romany, so it absolutely baffles me why White Wolf decided that another such clan that doubled down on the classic stereotypes was needed. They seem to have had a recurring fascination with the subject, to the point where between this and the infamous World of Darkness: Gypsies supplement it almost feels like a substantial number of people in the company didn’t even realise that they were talking about a real race of people and thought that Romany folk only existed in stories. (It also makes the original book’s energetic endorsement of an Iron Guard propagandist even more uncomfortable.)

Another interesting thing is the list of musical suggestions provided by Rob Hatch in the Storyteller’s Handbook, which I guess provides the missing dimension of the “Vampire Appendix N” otherwise offered by Mark’s Last Words in the core book. Let’s see what bands are playing in the World of Darkness:

Bauhaus: “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, naturally, and “She’s In Parties” is also a sound choice. Rob also cites part 2 of “The Three Shadows” from The Sky’s Gone Out, though that’s the sort of song you’d cite only to demonstrate the depth of your knowledge of their discography and his attempt to provide a Vampire-appropriate context to it is a stretch.

Big Black: “Kerosene”. Not gonna lie, I kind of feel like Unknown Armies is a better fit for the desperate, fractured style of these guys.

Black Sabbath: “Paranoid” may be a good song but I think the slower, doomier numbers that were more representative of Sabbath’s work fit Vampire better.

The Cure: “A Forest”, “Three Imaginary Boys”, “The Drowning Man”, though any three random picks from the Cure’s back catalogue would probably work.

Dead Kennedys: “Police Truck” sort of works as an anarch song, but let’s face it – it works better for werewoofles. (In general I find vampires tend towards the gothic end of White Wolf’s much-promoted “gothic-punk” whilst the woofles held up the punk end.)

Front 242: “Headhunter”. Rob says this is “almost cyberpunkish” and I’d drop the “almost” – as far as your 1990s RPG fare goes this is better suited to Shadowrun.

Holst: “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age”. I guess it fits, but “shockingly gloomy”? That’s a stretch, and makes it look like it’s on here for the pretentiousness points.

Ice-T: “Body Count”. A good song, but of course the only hip-hop artist on the list is represented by a thrash metal crossover track.

Jane’s Addiction: “Three Days” is kind of a terrible pick, Rob says that it’s good for coming down off tense scenes and “evokes the peace of resignation” which makes me think he only listened to the first couple of minutes of this ten-minute track that visits so many different moods it’s a bad one to pick if you want to convey any single emotion because it doesn’t stay on it long enough.

Jesus & Mary Chain: “Cracked”. Yeah, OK, I’ll give you that one.

Joy Division: “She’s Lost Control”, “I Remember Nothing”, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, “Shadowplay” and “Day of the Lords” are recommended; when you go back to the Ian Curtis well that often you may as well, as with The Cure, recommend their whole discography and have done with it.

Killing Joke: “Inside the Termite Mound”. Yeah, I can see that.

Liers In Wait: “Blood & Family”. Ahahaha, OK, this one needs some explanation. Rob does the hipster thing of hyping up this band by talking about how they are an obscure local group that most of the readers probably haven’t heard of/can’t access, which is both a very dated attitude in these days of the Internet where more or less anything can be found on Youtube (including this song) and also kind of snobbishly pretentious when you’re penning a book which is supposed to be of use to an audience with a wide geographic spread. Plus he hypes up how the song is a totes extreme mashup of metal, grunge and techno when it isn’t at all, it’s bog standard industrial rock of the Ministry/Nine Inch Nails variety.

Metallica: “Fight Fire With Fire” and “Trapped Under Ice” are good songs, but thrash metal makes me think Werewolf again, not Vampire.

Saint-Saens: “Danse Macabre”, for more classical music points.

Scratch Acid: “Vacancy”. As is regularly the case with this article, Rob’s descriptions start to feel like the fakey cribbed-from-music-journalism enthusiasm that Patrick Bateman shows when he’s doing his patter about Huey Lewis & the News in American Psycho.

Siouxsie & the Banshees: “The Last Beat of My Heart” is good, but again, pretty much anything by Siouxsie would work in a Vampire context.

Sisters of Mercy: “Lucretia My Reflection” and “Marian” are good calls but this is another “just recommend their entire discography and be done with it” band.

Skinny Puppy: “Tin Omen”. No quibbles here, this is a good call.

Sonic Youth: “I Don’t Want To Push It”. Entirely tonally inappropriate, blatantly cited only for cool points.

Swans: “Will We Survive?” Not if whatever’s going on in-game merits a Swans track, you won’t.

Chicago By Night

This is the first of the By Night series of sourcebooks, a line whose standards tended to be a bit variable (LA By Night, whilst it offers an interesting look at what an Anarch-run city might look like, is apparently very obviously written by someone who’s never lived in the city) but at least offered some nice canned sandbox settings for Vampire. The first edition of Chicago is often held up as the archetypal example of the line, and benefits from an extra layer of richness, since it was the setting of the original Vampire playtest campaign.

Of course, enjoying this early prominence was ultimately to the detriment of the Chicago setting – White Wolf couldn’t resist going back to it again and again, blasting it with metaplot repeatedly until anyone who started running a Chicago campaign with the original sourcebook would sooner or later find that the canon setting had deviated from theirs markedly (if they weren’t fool enough to actually inflict the metaplot events on their players regardless of whether they made sense in the campaign). White Wolf would even end up publishing a series of Chicago Chronicles books compiling the earlier releases in the line, providing a handy way to navigate the series if you really wanted all the baggage that accumulated over the years.

Brush all that aside, however, and what you get with the 1st edition of Chicago By Night is a really nice sandbox setting. The history of the place seeds a bunch of mysteries in the setting and also sets up an interesting pre-existing web of relationships between the major players, and the book provides detailed NPC writeups of every single significant vampire in Chicago. You even have some honest to goodness random encounter tables, divided by theme, for when you fancy throwing a curveball at the players.

What makes it really, incredibly useful is a move which I sincerely wish that the subsequent By Night books had followed more closely – as well as providing individual NPC writeups and clan “family trees” showing who sired who, the book also provides extensive notes on almost every substantial social grouping, cabal, conspiracy, and network of obligation in local Kindred society, with associated diagrams showing how each member relates to all the others. This is astonishingly useful for working out the political ramifications of player character activities – if they please, displease, or kill a particular NPC, you can go back to the social diagrams and work out exactly what the wider ramifications of that are.

That leads into the other really nice thing about this first edition of the sourcebook, which is the way it sets up this complex status quo which is perfectly tailored for PCs to perturb. Provided that they don’t act like utterly spineless wimps and turtle up constantly, PCs will more or less inevitably throw all these careful equilibria out of what by their actions. That’s why the 1st edition of the sourcebook is so prized; the 2nd edition book assumes that a bunch of metaplot stuff has happened, so a bunch of the dominos line up in the original sourcebook have already fallen thanks to the work of canonical NPCs. This is inevitably going to be less interesting than dropping them in your own game in your own way.

Indeed, at the time they wrote this sourcebook White Wolf seemed to be willing to cater to varying plot outcomes much more than they did at the height of their metaplot addiction. The adventure Ashes to Ashes preceded this release, but rather than assuming one particular canonical outcome of this adventure 1st edition Chicago By Night actually goes out of its way to explain how different outcomes would have different ramifications. This would obviously become unwieldy if they tried to do it with every metaplot-advancing adventure, but it’s nice that they bothered here.

This is a particularly good companion to the 1st edition Vampire core book, since the city of Gary there essentially owes feudal fealty to Chicago, and is also substantially less under the thumb of the Prince, so you can use Gary as a venue where the vamps can let their hair down a bit and use Chicago as a place for Serious Business.

One thing which is interesting when reading the history of Chicago here is the way it presents such things as the Primogen, Elysium, the Rack, Blood Dolls, and all sorts of other bits which we’ve become used to thinking of as charactetistic features of the setting as actually being local innovations. (It’s particularly interesting when you compare this to the treatment of some of these subjects in the 1st edition rulebook – evidently, this book and that were developed in parallel as part of the playtesting process, so some ideas like the Primogen sound even more universal in the 1st edition core book than they are presented as here.) This implies a situation much more like Vampire: the Requiem than Masquerade where the social structure of cities is far more shaped by local history and politics than any broader orthodoxy within a particular Sect/Covenant.

In fact, you could use this book as the basis for including a little enclave in Vampire: the Requiem where the social conventions of Masquerade apply: say that the Lancea and Invictus merged in the Great Lakes area to form a revivalist Camarilla, have the Ordo Dracul and Crones join forces in a Sabbat-like cult, have enough time pass that they forgot that they were separate, and you’re basically there. Obviously the Generation thing would be a huge lie and the Cain thing would probably not be true, but the way Blood Potency works in Requiem means that there’d still be a viable rationale behind the Sabbat (putting down high-potency vamps who have started preying on other Kindred and won’t do the done thing and go into torpor).

In short, Chicago By Night not only provides an iconic example of a political sandbox setting which subsequent Vampire supplements struggled to match, but it also provides a context where the conventions of Masquerade make absolute sense and are grounded in well-explained aspects of local history. Were I to run Vampire: thr Masquerade in the future, I would be tempted to either set it in Chicago or transplant its history and reskin its NPCs for whichever city I chose to set it in.

As far as the Chicago Chronicles compilations go, the first one – containing this and The Succubus Club – is actually pretty good. As I’ve gone into elsewhere, this supplement provides twenty or so pages of an in-depth description of a signature site from the playtest campaign which makes a great recurring location for a Chicago-based game, and then a bunch of really bad adventures. As a standalone supplement, it isn’t so hot, but as a bonus package along with the original Chicago By Night it works much better.

V20 – The Supplements

As I’ve said on a different platform, I really dig what Onyx Path are doing with Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition – I consider it to be a marked improvement on the original run of the game, especially since it is deliberately set up to be metaplot-agnostic and I particularly like how the Anarchs Unbound supplement made the Anarch Movement feel like a viable Sect again rather than the doomed second-stringers that they increasingly seemed to be over the run of the original metaplot. That being the case, I figured I’d take a look over the rest of the product line to see whether they’d kept up the same level of consistency.

V20 Companion

This collects various bits and pieces which were a bit too peripheral to include in the core V20 rulebook. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the book is its cover – whereas previous iterations of Vampire (and other World of Darkness games) had companion volumes for players and Storytellers, there is no such division here. This presumably arises from the line’s emphasis on cramming in value for money and not going out of the way to hold anyone’s hand.

Trusting that people won’t need extensive chapters of character design and storytelling device, the book instead focuses on offering handy bits of setting information. There’s an interesting rundown on the various titles (well-known and obscure) used in the various Sects, essays on Prestation (the network of boons and favours that Kindred society works on) and Kindred uses of technology, and a collection of interesting locations around the world (effectively a bunch of evocative adventure seeds).

Of these, the tech chapter is perhaps the most interesting, since it demands that V20 offer a distinct take on the subject from the old line. It does so by taking the interesting but very logical stance that individual Masquerade breaches on the Internet are not the end-of-the-world scenario that many Elders (and previous editions of the game) assumed they would be. Put up a YouTube video of vampire shit happening and people won’t automatically flip out – they will just assume it’s a well-done fake. It’s really the critical mass of Masquerade breaches that the Camarilla and other vampiric authorities actually need to watch out for. At the end of the day it turns out that people don’t really want to believe in vampires, and it will take more than a badly-shot YouTube video to convince them otherwise.

At the end of the day, an odds and sods collection like this hardly qualifies as a must-have (since by definition if the material in here were that central, it would be in the core book), but it enhances my appreciation of the setting enough that I am glad I have it.

The Hunters Hunted II

Supported by its own Kickstarter, this is a second edition of the widely-praised The Hunters Hunted supplement from way back in the early days of Vampire.

This is one of those really useful supplements which simultaneously opens up a whole new way to play the game it is designed to support whilst at the same time remaining true to the parent game’s themes. In this case, it’s a supplement about mortal vampire hunters, with an emphasis on running games where the PCs are said hunters.

The original supplement rather opened up the floodgates for this sort of thing; inspired by The Hunters Hunted, most of the Classic World of Darkness lines sooner or later received a supplement focusing on individuals who hunt members of the splat the parent game revolves around or expanding on some of the secret organisations first detailed in Hunters Hunted.

The major exception, of course, was Hunter: the Reckoning, whose Imbued protagonists didn’t seem to have a group of mortals hunting them (though since the Imbued had a tendency to off people based on what the voices in their heads were telling them, a game where you play mental health and law enforcement professionals trying to enforce an involuntary hospitalisation order on the Imbued would be completely believable). Indeed, there’s a substantial bloc of World of Darkness fans who greatly prefer NWoD‘s Hunter: the Vigil to CWoD‘s Hunter: the Reckoning, at least partly because people wanted Reckoning to consolidate and expand on the idea of ordinary people hunting the supernatural rather than introducing a whole new category of supernatural character that nobody had asked for.

That said, if you want Classic World of Darkness monster-hunters, Hunters Hunted II has got you amply covered. Even though it’s nominally a Vampire supplement and builds on that system, in practice the Hunters you generate with it could just as viably go after other supernaturals, since it devotes a lot of consideration to the general problem of mortals having to hunt things which are much more supernaturally capable than them as well as the specific problems of hunting vampires. In addition, much like Hunter: the Vigil for the New World of Darkness (and more so than the original Hunters Hunted to my eye) it scales quite nicely – you can use it to run games with out-of-their-depth normal people with no prior supernatural contact hunting vampires, or you can use the various useful-but-l0w-key Numina to play Hunters with a slight supernatural edge (whether this is in the form of True Faith, psychic powers, or hedge magic), or you can delve into the larger Hunter conspiracies detailed towards the back of the book in order to play professionals with serious backing.

As well as scaling nicely, the supplement also has a couple of clever mechanical tricks. First off, there’s an elegant solution to the old problem where if you want to play a game where the player characters make careful, systematic plans before they carry out their raids on undead lairs, the time spent planning feels frustratingly wasted if the plan goes off the tracks early on. Here, the supplement suggests a system in which planning sessions generate a pool of “Plan Dice” which can be used to get an edge on important rolls when enacting the plan, with Plan Dice added to the pool when people propose bits of the plan, point out holes in it, and so on. I’d personally suggest measures to avoid gaming this system by having the GM start removing dice from the pool if the conversation goes for five or more minutes without coming up with any new points, but this still seems to be a good way to ensure that game mechanically it’s better to go in with a solid plan than to try and improvise.

Another interesting quirk is that Humanity is still tracked as usual in Vampire, although without the Beast within human beings aren’t subject to panic or frenzy or other downsides of low Humanity – beyond the fact, that is, that as your Humanity goes down you’re likely to become a crueler, more vicious hunter, less prone to worry about collateral damage, and less invested in the connections you have to other people. This creates a situation where in principle Hunters can afford to treat Humanity as a dump stat and ironically you can have a party of human beings behaving more amorally than many coteries of Camarilla vampires – but in practice, this would be a terrible idea for the Hunters in question, because part of the danger of the hunt is that if caught you can be turned. A Hunter with high Humanity who is turned vampire might feel enough loyalty to their old comrades to help them out in a variety of ways, or at least go vaporise themselves in the sunlight so as not to be a danger to everything they’ve fought for. A low-Humanity human who turns vampire, though, ends up thrall to the Beast almost immediately, and then becomes a terrible foe to their former party.

Applying the lessons of Hunter: the Vigil to the original Hunters Hunted is a genuine no-brainer: it’s such a good idea that a competent team should be able to create a great product just by following that concept, and White Wolf have done so here, creating a supplement even better than the original release.

Rites of the Blood

An in-depth survey of the occult interests, rituals and magical techniques the Kindred explore, Rites of the Blood is more than just a big book of extra spells – though there’s plenty of stuff to flesh out the spell lists in here – so much as it’s a faction-by-faction survey of all the different ways in which vampires end up dabbling in matters metaphysical. Each of the first six chapters looks at a different Sect or grouping – one for the Camarilla, one for the Sabbat, one for the Anarchs, one for the various independent Clans, one for the odd little sects like the Tal’Mahe’Ra and the Inconnu, and one for full-on infernalists; the final chapter provides a review of the underlying principles of blood magic and how these can be used to cook up new rituals, plus a grab-bag of extra spells to round off the lists.

What’s more, the chapters don’t just offer discussions of magical techniques but also illustrates how the various varieties of magician fit into the social world of their respective Sects and groups. So, for instance, the Camarilla chapter talks about how the Tremere fit into the wider Sect, and the Sabbat chapter talks about how their magical-religious rituals fit into the world of the Sect. Some chapters offer even more interesting material; the Inconnu part actually offers some details on the structures and internal procedures and rules of the Inconnu, whilst the infernalism chapter also looks at the Camarilla and the Sabbat’s own internal procedures for rooting out internalism as well as the infernalists themselves.

On top of that, whilst a note at the start of the chapter suggests that the demons of Vampire: the Masquerade don’t necessarily have to be one and the same with those of Demon: the Fallen if you don’t want them to be, at the same time the depiction of infernalism does a great job of reconciling how demons were depicted in Vampire and how they worked in Demon; based on the description, it seems like the vast majority of vampires who get into infernalism are working with Earthbound that they’ve summoned and bound to the land or a talisman, creating the genuinely interesting crossover possibility that the majority of the 666 Earthbound were made that way as a result of vampire infernalists and their mortal coreligionists.

This and the Tal’Mahe’Ra section suggest more in the way of crossover action than other V20 supplements, but frankly that makes sense – digging deep into magic and the spiritual world inevitably invites precisely this sort of crossover action, or at least a game where there’s plenty more supernatural creatures in play than just vampires, whereas a low-magic campaign could also very viably have no supernatural entities aside from vampires show up.

Dread Names, Red List

Another sequel to an old supplement, this is an update of the old Kindred Most Wanted – a supplement about the Camarilla Red List, the politics surrounding it, and the enemies of vampire-kind listed on it. Again, this expands on the concept of the old supplement somewhat, providing more guidance and support for running campaigns in which the player characters are Alastors – agents of the Camarilla Justicars tasked with tracking down and killing the folk on the Red List. As far as the entries here go, some are old favourites from Kindred Most Wanted updated and some are new to this book. Most of the Red List entries that have been outright removed seem to have been done so either because they were just plain tasteless and offensive (like the tiny child who is also a practitioner of a gruesomely inaccurate version of voodoo), or because they pandered a bit too much to the “vampiric superhero” style of play that early Vampire often drifted into (like the Gangrel Methuselah monstrosity), or because they hinged too much on crossover nonsense (for instance, one of them was a werewoofle, and given that woofles all have this raging genocidal hatred of vampires adding one woofle to the hate list seems kind of pointless). In the case of those which have been retained, crossover nonsense and other such stuff in their backgrounds has been toned down – for instance, one of them is no longer a secret agent of the Black Spiral Dancers, but instead has a secret agenda it actually makes sense for a vampire to have. The new entries, meanwhile, seem interesting and imaginative – including one mortal who could be a Mage-style mage if you wanted him to be but ultimately doesn’t need to be.

The real gem here, though, isn’t the NPC profiles so much as the guidance on how each NPC lends themselves to a different tone of Anathema-hunting adventure. Alastor action seems to be a decent concept for a short-term Vampire campaign, or a longer campaign if people are happy with such a thing being something of a mission-based villain-of-the-season sort of affair. As such, Dread Names manages to transcend being a mere NPC collection and becomes another supplement in the tradition of The Anarch Handbook or Hunters Hunted II in the sense that it opens the door to a brand new way to playing something which is still very recognisably Vampire.

Vintage Stuff

If I had to rank the V20 supplements reviewed here from least interesting to top quality, it’d go V20 Companion due to the fuzzy and indistinct nature of the supplement, Dread Names for the fact that it caters to a very particular campaign niche very well, Rites of the Blood for the thorough treatment it offers of its subject matter, and Hunters Hunted II for being not just an excellent support for playing mortals-based games in a Vampire context, but also the only book you really need to run player character hunters in any Classic World of Darkness game. That said, I’d highly recommend more or less all the books, though I might suggest waiting until it was on sale for the V20 Companion. If you already have the complete run of the earlier books, you might find these releases less useful, but by condensing down and concentrating all the awesome into these tight, dense packages, Onyx Path have made a product line that I consider to be much more useful for gaming purposes than the older, flabbier, more game fiction-packed material tended to be.

Blame Canada: Fleshsculptors of Montreal in Vampire and Tribe 8

For some reason Montreal gets a rap in a lot of 1990s RPG material as being a centre of great evil. At least one Call of Cthulhu campaign came out then centred on the town (Horror’s Heart), Dream Pod 9 immortalised it as the setting of Tribe 8, and White Wolf placed it firmly in the hands of the Sabbat as far as Vampire: the Masquerade was concerned. And when you add “horror” to “Canada” you tend to expect the end result to be David Cronenbergian levels of stomach-turning body horror. In Vampire‘s case, one of the most overtly grimdark sourcebooks for the setting would take Montreal as its subject, whilst in Tribe 8 the bad guy sourcebook Horrors of the Z’bri would become a showcase for just how nasty Dream Pod 9’s imagination would get. But out of the Sabbat and the Z’bri, who comes away with the crown of “grossest dudes in Montreal”? Only one way to find out.

(Note: some people reading this know I crew the Tribe 8 LARP Falling Down, so I should probably stress at this point that Horrors of the Z’bri is not part of that game’s official “canon” and I’m not privy to what the referees’ plans for that game are, so trying to infer anything about Falling Down from anything I say about Horrors is a loser’s game for losers.)

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