It’s Devil’s night, and a warm wind is blowing. Carousers and arsonists swarm through the streets, thinking themselves at the top of the food chain. How wrong they are. Still, caution is deserved…all it takes is one of them getting a bit too happy with one of those smartphones, and suddenly new foes are on your doorstep. It used to be that a Kindred only had to worry about others of their kind, or some of the other supernatural creatures that bumped in the night. Mortals were catspaws, beneath notice, the few hunters more of a distraction for all but the most careless of the Kinde. That was before Vienna and London. Now, no Kindred with half a brain underestimates them…which seemingly excludes a shocking number of your Elders. Still, their (un?)timely Final Death serves a purpose: finally, finally, finally there are holes at the top, room to advance, to actually make some real change. But until then…well, needs must be met: A Beast you are, lest a Beast you become. You spy an increasingly drunk punk rocker type, working through his second bottle of liquor as he stumbles down a side street. Yes, he’ll do nicely…
As I recently mentioned, I am a big fan of the fiction of the World of Darkness, and a fan of the metaplot of Vampire the Masquerade in general. Being billed as “a game of personal horror”, there was honestly a lot of variety in the types of the horror that you could study thoughtfully. The body horror of finding yourself transformed into a being that was humanish, but not quite human, where all bodily fluid were replaced by blood, including those used sex, or worse, being hideously or animalistically deformed. The personal horror of the gradual loss of humanity, as choices that led to power made you increasingly jaded about the costs it took to acquire them until any vestige of what you once were is gone. The existential horror of how easily who you are and what you believe in could be from a foreign source, compulsion forced upon you by someone who has given you their vampiric blood or manipulated you with their powers. And, finally, the cosmic horror of the approaching Gehenna, an apocalyptic return of vampires so old that their powers made wiping you out an afterthought.
How well these pieces of horror were used in the majority of games, whether that was an issue of the Storyteller in charge or the question of how well the mechanics lent themselves to pursuing such a story, is up for debate, but the concepts were still there. Still, even as a fan, I can admit that the setting was beginning to fray around the edges. The original VtM was published in the early 90s, and still carried with it a lot of 80s aesthetic. For reference, it was published about a year after the 2nd edition of Cyberpunk 2020, and about three years before the release of The Crow, and so it’s not surprising that a lot of the setting (even in the updated 20th anniversary edition) has roots in yuppie, punk, and goth culture. I’m not saying that as a bad thing…it’s more I think one can make a realistic case that the world has changed more in the less-than-30 years since the original’s release than in the century that precedes it, and it has changed in ways that would drastically alter the vampire society: communication, inter-connectivity, and a shift in world combat that increasingly sees governments combating decentralized forces. In short, the setting was due for an update. Love or hate the game in general, love or hate the new setting, or how the game was rolled out, I don’t think that it is in any way disputable that White Wolf, under the new ownership of Paradox Interactive, made changes to reflect how the world that they built in the early nineties might have changed today in 2019.
To understand the changes, here is a quick primer on the setting lore: Vampires have existed for millennia, with some of the early generations having characteristics so pronounced that they have become passed down to the next vampires they make, and so on, with each successive generation being slightly less potent. Those with similar bloodlines organized themselves into clans, and somewhere in the middle ages, a group of these clans got together and decided that for safety they needed to hide in plain sight. They laid down rules to keep themselves from being noticed, and decided to enforce them with the form of government they knew best: feudalism. Each city would be considered a city state unto itself, and a single leader would rule it, doling out territory and authority to those who served it, with the local leaders of each clan functioning as lords. This would become known as the Camarilla, and the duty to keep the secret became the titular Masquerade.
The problem, first starting to bubble up in the first edition, is actually a human one: we are resistant to change. Vampires, as timeless creatures, reflect this very human problem. Imagine every generation’s frustration with their parents and grandparents over how the previous generation views the morals and realities of the modern world and constantly frames them in the morals and realities of the times of their formative years. Take the current frustrations of Millennials (people now in their late 20s and early 30s) who are stuck in middle management while those in the Baby Boomer generation want to stay around, or pass on authority to people who look like them, and view the younger generation as entitled children. Now the problem is with gaps in centuries instead of decades. Like the vampires who created it, the Camarilla has kept its traditions preserved in amber, even as the feudal system that it was based on gave way to absolute monarchs, nationalism, and modern democracy. Its system was enmeshed with timeless beings who wanted to stay in power forever, even as its members swelled with those who were younger and younger. Those born in modern times have become increasingly unhappy with constant relegation to the lowest posts while those in power are increasingly out of touch with the modern world, giving rise to splinter factions known as Anarchs. These groups have been mostly kept down…until recently.
One Camarilla head grew arrogant, and decided to use a group of mortals as a catspaw…the CIA. If there’s been a single defining moment that changed American policy in the last thirty years, it’s been 9/11 because of the War on Terror that followed. Now, mundane governments have been honed to look for isolated cells, secret bank accounts, and Dark Web activity, which was beginning to shine a light on the places where the Camarilla had been hiding, right around the time they attempted to use mortal intelligence agencies. The results have been catastrophic: while not everyday knowledge, there is now a core of the global intelligence community looking to wipe out the “blankbodies” that they are now aware of, and with modern weaponry, communications, and decryption they successfully wiped out Camarilla strongholds, including obliterating the leadership of one of their clans. With the sudden removal of figures who seemed like permanent fixtures, the foundations of the Masquerade have been rocked to the core. The Anarch factions, no longer kept down but still not organized, have begun to act more openly, and there are now finally openings in the ranks for the ambitious young Kindred.
This is a lot of exposition the book gives, and to its credit, while it is a bit of an infodump the book authors definitely have tried to make it interesting and not quite as staggering. A lot of the information that is included in the dense columns of the rules is actively discussed in letters, manifestos, missives, and reports included within the pages. It turns out that Willhamina Harker didn’t get away from Count Dracula so scott free after all, and there is still an abundant amount of misinformation out there about vampires, to the point where vampires mock it. While there is still a ton of information and background to go through about vampire history, what myths are real and what’s fake, clan details and more, these do a nice job of breaking it up.There’s a lot that has changed, and alliances have shifted, but the overall upshot is that the plot changes give more viable factions for players to be part of, regardless of what clan they want to play as, and there is real room for growth and advancement, whereas in previous editions, the overall stasis of Camarilla life was already baked in. I think this gives a bit more impetus to have players actually try to push the status quo instead of working within it, which I think would make for more interesting games.
Mechanically speaking, this iteration of Vampire doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It stays with the bread and butter d10 system that the World of Darkness has been perpetually built upon, but modifies a little with a tweak. While the Chronicles of Darkness moved the probability curve by making fewer dice results count as successes, in this case the exploding tens have been replaced by pairs of tens being worth double (for a total of 4 successes) and by having the GM increase the number of successes required to do anything. The assignment is a little arbitrary, meaning that players really need to trust the GM to guess the difficulty curve. The developers have changed the character building process though. Previous editions had broken attributes out into Physical, Mental and Social, and offered point buys for each category. Now, attribute placement is more open, with a set block of stats to be placed in each slot. My one qualm with this is that, before, the groupings were designed to prevent min-maxing. Yes, you could still work toward that, but it would be trickier. Now, I think that it is a lot easier to become gamebreaking, especially because the Merits and Flaws system is still active, and one important change in the clan types. Overall, the clans are similar to what was there before: each has a few powers that they buy into at discounted rates (Disciplines) and they each have a situational weakness. The changes, however, have been in the Caitiff and Thin Bloods.
Previously, each of these had been considered taboo, caused by Kindred ignoring the warnings not to make more past their generation. Caitiff were those who, while still mostly vampiric, were without a clan, while Thin Bloods were so far removed that they were considered a blight and were often actively hunted. While they take damage more severely, and don’t have the same level of power, they suffer fewer consequences from vampiric weaknesses. In particular, Thin Bloods have been given something called Thin Blood Alchemy. Blood now has a “Resonance”, based on the Four Humors that varies depending on the emotional state of the person fed upon, and these Humors correspond to different Disciplines. As long as they remain fed, Thin Bloods can use powers taken from these types of blood as a grab bag, making them potentially able to use all powers based on planning. Combined with the ability to rank attributes more freely, I suspect that might be a strong way to min-max a character with situational powers and fewer weaknesses.
Even with that caveat, I still think that there are positive changes to character creation as well. Players are now encouraged to choose what type of predator they want to be, offering advantages if they choose their preferred method of gaining unlife-sustaining blood. It could be as simple as continuing to feed on the family your human self left behind, or for building a cult about yourself to keep offerings flowing: each choice offers extra skills and Discipline rankings, and provides the GM with a story hook to tease the character with. Finally, if the players are managing to build some kind of party together (called a Coterie in VtM jargon) and it fits a certain archetype, it can offer discounts on group merits that the party has gone in on together. It isn’t strictly necessary, but in offering a mechanical benefit for players, it gives the GM the benefit of streamlining some encounters as well, which is a win-win in my book.
There has been one nice change to Disciplines as well. While they continue to be power trees that get exponentially more potent as you invest in them, some of them now require buying up to certain levels in other Disciplines to get those powers. I, for one, am in favor of that. It makes branching into other trees worthwhile, and it makes a certain amount of sense: you can give yourself superhuman speed, but without the increased senses to keep up with it, you would likely run into a wall. It keeps players better rounded, and can help players make decisions on their build if they want to start with powers first and work backwards.
In the end, while I don’t think that it nailed a perfect ten out of ten on anything, I do think that Vampire the Masquerade 5E is, at the very least, an updating that keeps it relevant for the modern times. Do people who absolutely love the older versions need to change…well, I wouldn’t necessarily say that. You keep doing you. However, there are some real positive changes at work here. While mechanics aren’t perfect – they certainly weren’t beforehand – I think there are more options that somehow don’t get in the way of what people liked about the original. If I were to start a game myself, I would begin here in 5E rather than trying to go backwards, and that is certainly something.