Review: Vampire 5th Edition

Rising from death-like torpor, as if it were a vampire itself, game publisher White Wolf has returned and released a fifth edition of the Vampire roleplaying game. This time, White Wolf is aided in publishing and distribution by UK’s Modiphius, publisher of several games including Star Trek Adventures.

Previously, a version of White Wolf released two version Vampire the Masquerade (along with a revised version of its Second Edition, a 2.5e if you will) before relaunching and reimagining VtM as its sister game: Vampire the Requiem. Following the dissolution of White Wolf, the licence to VtM and VtR passed to Onyx Path, which release products in support of both lines, as well as Vampire 20th Anniversary, which was largely an expanded and updated reprint of VtM 2nd Edition Revised

Unlike Vampire the Requiem, which reimagined the lore and history of vampirism (as well as how the potency of vampires was determined) Vampire Fifth Edition is a continuation of Second Edition (and/or V20), picking up at a point over decade following the presumed “apocalypse” that ended its predecessor.

My personal history with Vampire is limited in terms of play (I ran and played a small amount of Revised 2nd Edition in the 2000s), but I read the major hardcover sourcebooks for that edition. Devoured really. But I hadn’t cracked these open in years. (And deliberately chose not to open them again, until I had finished this book and wanted to find elements of comparisons.)

I’ve been a little worried about this game. The playtest has some inelegant/ insensitive language and a few previews and early reviews echoed these concerns that the game might be pro-fascist or provocative in content. And the response to these concerns felt lacking, if not outright dismissive. Plus, the hook of advancing the setting beyond “Ghenna” sounded curious. This prompted me to review the book myself and form my own opinion.

What It Is

The core rulebook of Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition is a 425-page full colour hardcover. The pages are plain white with black text (and red headers), with a majority of the pages having three columns. There is a decent amount of art in the book, which varies in style, with realistic paintings, punk-esque abstracted pieces, and photo-art of costumed models (occasionally enhanced and tweaked to be more abstract).

The Core Rulebook is apparently designed to be complimented by two accessories that detail the two main factions of this edition: the Camarilla and the Anarchs. Preorders for a slipcase collection of the rules are being sold, emphasising these books are the “core” set. A package deal. However, these two sourcebooks are currently still in production (with an estimated release of November), so the base rules are not entirely complete, so the core rulebook has to be judged on its own merits.

The book features numerous pages of fiction and in-world writing, the basic rules to play the game, introductions to Kindred (aka Vampire society) as well as the seven Camarilla clans along with two varieties of clanless vampires (Caitiff and thin bloods). Detailed are ten disciplines (groupings of vampire powers, plus rituals and alchemy.  It also provides introductions to running the game, making Chronicles, working with cities, and several appendices of advice.

Good

The book starts with a mature content warning. Not a bad idea given the fact the game assumes you’re playing blood sucking monsters. It also reminds you not to be a monster yourself. Good advice.

Similarly, when the book (finally) moves past its introduction, there is a sidebar on on individual limits and focusing on collaborative storytelling. This is echoed in the appendix, which provides several different ways of allowing players to set their limits and remain comfortable in the game. There’s even resource lists for further reading. I appreciate that the game puts this out there early in a quick sidebar and then reiterates at length. It doesn’t just have the aforementioned warning or token discussion and consider the matter closed.

I was a little worried when I saw the game used special dice. Special unique dice are en vogue with RP game systems these days—such as the FFG Star Wars game(s) or Modiphius’ own Star Trek Adventures—being a secondary source of revenue while also tweaking the odds of success. Thankfully, regular d10s work just fine; if you have a couple sets of old Vampire dice you’ll do just fine. (And even if you decide to get a set of the V5 dice, these are affordable, with the “per die” price being reasonable.)

Vampire has always been a particularly mechanics lite game system, but V5 keeps things even more simple than Revised 2nd Edition. There’s a few added wrinkles and subsystems, but the base rules are limited, and the hard mechanics of powers and merits feels purposely restrained. What needs to exist is present, but much of the time the rules strive to stay out of the way, and there’s even some advice on streamlining combat to single turn resolution or capping encounters at three turns. The base rules of the system will be familiar to anyone who has played Vampire before: you build a dice pool based on an Attribute + Skill, with opposed rolls for combat. Success is any die that rolls a 6+, with a number of successes equal to the difficulty being required to succeed. Not revolutionary, but it works and it has the nice effect of the rolls demonstrating how well you succeeded or how narrowly you failed, which aids in the narrative.

The twist in this version of Vampire is that your character’s Hunger is also represented by dice rather than just being a pool of boxes on your character sheet, with Hunger Dice replacing regular dice in your dice pools. Instead of separate Hunger checks, all checks are influenced by how well you are fed. This has the interesting effect of making Hunger a constant concern and the Beast a continual factor in the game without requiring additional checks and detailed subsystems. I like it a lot.

Likewise, the expenditure of blood for powers has been reduced. In part this is because maximum Hunger has been reduced to 5 (the maximum number of Hunger Dice). The mechanic for expanding blood has been made uniform: waking up each evening or dominating a mortal is the same Rouse check. Succeed and no blood is expended, fail and your hunger increases. It’s elegant and allows traits to easily modify the vampire’s powers, such as bonuses to certain Rouse checks. But a lovely side effect is that vampires performing light activity in social focused games might have to feed less.

I’m also surprisingly happy with the setting update. The new timeline feels dynamic rather than static. There’s far more room for player characters to gain power and influence, and elder vampires are less omnipresent and unassailable. Meanwhile, the cartoonishly evil Sabbat are all but gone, while the underappreciated Anarchs are given more chance to shine. 2nd Edition Revised was always somewhat dismissive of Anarchs, only reluctantly giving the sect a hardcover sourcebook at the end of the edition.

The two big changes are two-fold. First, the Sabbat is trying to kill the antediluvians somewhere in the Middle East, so vampires of that sect left the West en masse (a little hand wavy for a group of such rebellious vamps, but okay, it works). Meanwhile, elder Camarilla vampires are also being mentally called to that region to defend their sires. This leaves more room in cities for young vampires, while freeing other cities for Anarchs (or conflict for control), and also permits higher generation (aka weaker) vampires to rebel. These power vacuums create opportunities for all kinds of fun campaigns/ chronicles.
The second change of the setting is that mortals have (re)discovered the existence of vampires. Or, rather, government agencies have, but the public is still unaware. This is set-up as a variable threat: the “Second Inquisition” of government agents can be a omnipresent danger that drives a Chronicle/campaign… or not. I quite enjoyed the backstory to the reveal: following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Camarilla vampires were worried the assault was the result of manipulations by the Sabbat or other factions, and used proxy mortal agencies to seek proof, accidentally revealing themselves in the process. It’s an interesting twist on expectations, and works well with prior VtM lore: White Wolf actually released a book detailing the World of Darkness’ New York, which was written immediately prior to the 9/11 attacks but published very shortly after. Inside, White Wolf stated they would not be attributing that attack to secret vampire masterminds. It’s neat that two editions and over fifteen years later, 9/11 is still a symbol of human evil, and the writers remembered the paranoia of that time along with with concerns that it would be revealed that “a vampire did it” and instead spun it in a different direction.

Returning to the book, each clan receives several pages of description and lore, along with numerous characters concepts. Clans in general get a lot more attention, but the varying concepts do an excellent job highlighting the variations of each group. Even if you don’t directly use a concept, they can provide some excellent inspiration, showing the many different ways you can play a typical member of each clan.

That the book places so much focus on character and character concept almost slipped by unnoticed. The heavy focus on your character, their motivation, ties to the world, and concept are just such an established part of Vampire, that this remains a focus is almost expected. But it is worth noting that the book does a good job of encouraging you to make an interesting character while also focusing first and foremost on their personality and quirks over their mechanics and how much ass they can kick. The book not only reminds you that you can play a character of a different ethnicity, gender, or economic background, but encourages you to play a character of a different philosophy (while also reminding you in an Appendix to be respectful).

Similarly, the Chronicles section include a surprising number of sample campaigns, highlighting the many different ways you can play the game. Most of these are archetypal, but there are some neat twists and most build off the recent changes to the world.

The book includes the standard lexicon of jargon. It’s not as comprehensive as it could be, but it’s decent. This is the kind of thing that should have been expanded with some web support or a free PDF. But I’m sure it exists on a website or wiki somewhere. (Here’s one.)

Bad

The book takes a long time to get started.

It begins with a ten page short story that only loosely introduces the concepts of the world. It’s okay, but really exists for the “twist” of the narrator’s identity, which explains the previously vague elements. The story alone would be fine, but it is followed by eighteen other pages of realia text, only half of which feels necessary. This is all excessive and not only delays getting to the text players want, but is also largely incomprehensible without know knowledge of what all the lore and jargon means. This could easily have been spread out throughout the entire book.

Speaking or jargon, I don’t always like how the game insists on renaming role playing game terms. Storyteller instead of gamemaster is fine, and I’ll accept Chronicle instead of campaign. But “storyteller played character” (or SPC) instead of non-playing character/ NPC feels indulgent.

There are a surprising amount of contemporary references. It names a couple media personalities and alludes to current political events. While this arguably grounds the book in the real world and modern day, several of these references will likely be dated in just a couple years. This book won’t age well, which is awkward for a game about immortals that even mentions you can play in any era of history…

One example that has been referenced a few times is a Brujah character concept of a “neo-Nazi claiming to be “alt-right”,” an awkward modern concept using language that will likely be dated before this edition reaches the midpoint of its lifespan. Passages like that are one of many examples where the book is attempting to be needlessly edgy. It’s trying to be “mature” in a somewhat juvenile way, as if just being provocative makes it more adult. There are occasional usages of “fuck”, as if cursing were somehow grown up; in these instances the text has all the subtlety of a 13-year-old testing new vocabulary, trying to pass as older by attempting a bad caricature of what they think grown-ups are like. My favourite example is the transcript of two vampires watching a porn video involving a vampire, which references a performer’s “dick” and the “cumshot”. The video could have easily been a YouTube stunt or Twitch streamer, but its porn solely because it’s more “mature”. Or rather, less appropriate for children.

There’s also the curious page on “Fascism in Play” in Appendix II. While the following sections on Sexual Violence and consent are much better, this one feels like a clumsy response to criticism of the book. Focusing on fascism rather than all the other forms of human evil (white supremacy, holocaust denial, slavery), which could just as easily be found in a vampire game, makes this seem like virtue signalling and a defensive rebuttal of online concerns. Especially as s this concern is only raised here than any of the earlier mature content warnings, and the language is far more condemning. It’s clumsy and obvious… but I understand the sentiment and realise why they did this. And I suppose I appreciate the thought rather than just ignoring the controversy. 

Moving away from writing criticisms, one element of the original VtM I always stumbled with is mixed clan coteries. This is  never really explained satisfactorily; clans are often antagonistic and justifying a group of players socializing and interacting on a regular basis is always tricky. More could have been done to enable this, and justify intra-clan vampires of high generations cooperating.

The rules are awkwardly spread out throughout the text. They’re in the Rules chapter (obviously) but also in the Advanced Rules chapter, which also doubles as the combat chapter, and some vital rules are in Vampire section. I imagine the Vampire specific rules are separate in the event players are being mortals or to better allow that content to be reprinted in a Werewolf book, but that doesn’t make this product any easier to use.

I dislike the amount of examples in the book. It seems like ever rule is followed by a couple examples, often devoting twice as much space to examples as to the rules themselves. This feels inefficient, and wasteful given the amount of content that wasn’t included in this volume.

There’s a number of oddities with the layout: paragraphs that seems non-bold and don’t match the rest of the page, paragraphs with double indented, lots of negative space, sections that end in random places, and subsections that awkwardly cross pages. In a couple places I felt like a line had been missed or cut from the text box. And because the book decided to curiously have three columns, long words are often broken up and hyphenated. This is inherently awkward, but the book makes this even worse when the second half of a word is on an entirely different page! In one instance, a broken word is even separated from its ending by multiple pages of rules summary. This was very sloppy.

Ugly

Earlier, I mentioned the occasional needless provocative examples of characters and language. I held back the most egregious example because it really was beyond the pale. In the sample Brujah characters there’s an entry for the “Trolling Punk”. Okay, an Internet troll does work with the Brujah to some extent. (Albeit a simplistic take on the clan’s attitude, but you can imagine a passionate young vampire taking to the ‘net and pushing buttons.) But one of the examples given is the “fourth-wave token “feminist” who spent more of their mortal time attacking other feminists and their allies than coordinating responses to oppression.” Wow. Just… wow. Okay, people like that do exist. I’ve seen more than a few examples of the professionally outraged online, who are more interesting in picking fights than advancing their cause (I’ve even been attacked by one). But it’s super needless to get that specific in the book when it could have just gone with general slacktivism. This read like the author had an axe to grind. That it comes two pages after the new-Nazi characters reference doesn’t help.  

Complaints over the language aside, the biggest problem with the book is that it’s a terrible introduction to the World of Darkness. The book tries poorly to introduce concepts to newcomers while also filling in old fans with what has changed, but often defaults to the latter. This is really an update for people familiar with the setting. There’s a lot of jargon really quickly and a lot of terms and concepts are barely explained, if ever.

Heck, even mechanically the rulebook seems aimed at previous Vampire players: when explaining how the rules work, the book goes out of its way to repeat and clarify how the rules don’t work, to avoid confusing people who played two decades ago. (This feels akin to a 5th Edition D&D book pausing to clarify how higher AC is better.)

The book offers no explanation for Camarilla roles like the “Scourge” and the Harpies, the latter being namedroped a few times and given only the briefest of explanations. It repeatedly mentions how the SchreckNET fell and how this was a dramatic reversal for Nosferatu fortunes, but provides no explanation. Ditto the Society of St. Leopold, who are apparently Vatican vampire hunters but given no background. The (tiny) antagonist section features a statblock for a Noddist Bishop of the Church of Caine but doesn’t explain what the fuck that means. And, as mentioned, smaller clans are name-dropped a few times but no description is given, with curious details such as the reference to the Giovanni allying with “their Hecata brethren”, whatever the eff that entails: I can’t even find a reference to that on a wiki! New players are given nothing to work with regarding variant clans, and even existing players who do know the lore aren’t given any explications for how these major players function in modern nights. I don’t even think “bloodlines” are mentioned.

Worst is the Sabbat, which is almost nonexistent. I always had problems grokking the Sabbat and how they worked, so I’m not sad to see them de-emphasized, but they’re still teased as being around, serving as boogiemen. But zero effort is given to allow new storytellers to use these boogeymen, how to present them, or what their motivations are. And as their clans are also absent, you can’t play one as an Anarch (despite a Lasombra and Tzimisce characters being referenced as options), and are not provided with their specific Disciplines to even use them as NPCs. If you want to play a Lasombra or continue a long-running Chronicle of a Ravnos, I guess you need to buy another book. (I strongly dislike purposeful content gaps to sell more product…)

Meanwhile, the book seems apologetic for its default campaign style. When discussing styles of play, the book mentions the “Gothic-Punk” aesthetic that formed the spine of previous editions, and the hook of playing vampires struggling with their morality. And them immediately shoves that to the side to discuss how you can play an action centric game or “splatterpunk” Chronicle. It seems to be assuming that players are already familiar with all the core tropes of an archetypal Vampire the Masquerade Chronicle and the description “Gothic-Punk”, and that no ink needs to be spent describing either. It feels like if a Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide spent a short paragraph name-dropping “dungeon crawling” as a potential campaign before going on for a page on variant campaign styles…

The Awesome

There’s a number of cheat sheet and rules summary pages in the book, and most are black with white text. This makes them stand out and easier to find when flipping pages.

Relationship maps neat idea. These are visual mind maps of the relationships between player characters and NPCs. For a game as potentially social as Vampire—which can border on soap operas or TV dramas in their focus on relationships—having a visual representation is a good idea. (I’m a little sad there was only one hand-drawn example, rather than two or three. And no sample template: a form fillable PDF would be nice.)

A part of relationship maps is Touchstones, which are another great idea. Touchstones are characters who embody the beliefs, morals, of values of a vampire. The game encourages you to establish these connections, building your characters with ties to the outside world. This makes it easier for the storyteller/ GM to build stories and hook you into events.

A subsystem of feeding is resonance. Blood is associated with certain moods, which allows it to augment certain powers. This is somewhat complicated (one of the more complicated and finicky subsystems in the game) and potentially unnecessary, but adds a neat aspect to hunting: finding an appropriate person rather than a convenient one. Quality over quantity. And because it’s largely additive in the rules, it can be ignored for the first few sessions of a Chronicle and gradually added when the storyteller get more comfortable with the rest of the game.

Simplifying character creation are profession-based packs of skills. Rather than counting out all your skills, you can just use a template and quickly build a character. Augmenting this are a couple random tables that can flesh out a character’s backstory and habits. Making a simple character can be pretty quick. The game also provides different ages (read: starting levels) for characters, so you can play newly embraced childer to ancillae who have spent a human lifetime as a vampire.

In addition to clan and skills, characters are customized by their predator type. This is the vampire’s preferred method of hunting, which can add extra Disciplines and skills. This is very cool and allows you to slightly play against clan type while still having the powers you need and a baseline competence to play a character the way you want.

The game spends a little more time detailing the construction of coteries. Aka adventuring parties. This encourages the group to work together when planning their characters, supplementing characters’ bonuses with coteries merits.

Success is largely binary. You succeed, fail, or crit. But Hunger Dice add an interesting wrinkle. As you roll these dice in place of regular dice, they have added effects when they’re part of a crit or come up as “1” on a failure. Critting with a Hunger Dice is still a success, but becomes a “messy critical” that is far more flavourful.

Assamite have been renamed. It’s subtle, as non-Camarilla clans are barely mentioned. But they’re now just the “Banu Haqim”. Vampire always had some issues with ethnic representation and stereotypes. Which is to be expected when you’re mashing together mythologies and treating tropes as reality. The Aasimites along with the Setites, Ravnos, and Giovanni were always walking stereotypes. I’d rather these clans be made more well rounded and nuance than eliminated, and renaming one works in that direction. (It’s a start at least. Hopefully we’ll see more sooner rather than later.)

Final Thoughts

Vampire Fifth Edition is better than I thought. My expectations were low and I was regularly pleasantly surprised. The mechanics are good, the custom dice are a nice option, Hunger has a contest presence without interfering with the game, and the system retains Humanity as a sliding moral scale that separates feral vampires from those that manage to retain their compassion. Throughout my reading of the book I had to fight the urge to start planning a campaign and stifle a desire to run another game in my already stretched free time.  And if I do return to the World of Darkness, I might very well pull much of the rules and mechanics from this volume.

Additionally, while there were concerns that the game might be pro-fascist and made use of “Nazi dog whistles” and iconography/ symbolism of hatred, the game doesn’t seem to represent that as a whole. There’s some inelegant passages, but in general the game just seems to be clumsily trying to be edgy and topical rather than openly pro-fascism or pro-hate. Which, frankly, is probably pretty standard for the game: I doubt Second Edition Revised would hold up well upon rereading and will likely have similar instances of forced maturity and R-rated scenes for the sake of being “adult”.

Furthermore, Vampire the Masquerade has always had some uncomfortable sexual violence themes and aspects of assault, domination, and power fantasies. This game addresses these pretty plainly, while offering tools to make the game comfortable without glossing over those aspects, pretending they don’t exist, or just shifting the responsibility to the gamemaster.

But…

This is not a book for the uninitiated. This is not a book for someone who played a couple games of Vampire in college a decade ago, heard about a new edition, and wants to start again. This is a foundation to update the mechanics found in an existing library of Vampire the Masquerade books. If you’ve never played Vampire before, this book will likely confuse you and give you a fraction of the tools you need to actually run the game.

Despite being a hefty 400+ pages, this book feels woefully incomplete. Accessories and expansions are not only expected and a bonus, but required. Clans are absent, disciplines are missing, NPCs are limited, and lore is not present. Especially compared with earlier editions, this book seems lacking and detail-anemic. Somehow, this book is less comprehensive than 2nd Edition Revised, despite having over a hundred additional pages! This is annoying at the best of times, but is much more problematic when said past editions are easily available online.

Unless you’re just starting a new game building upon lore you already know, you’re much better off grabbing a Print on Demand copy of Vampire 20th Anniversary from Drive-Thru RPG. Or hunting down used copies of World of Darkness and Vampire the Requiem from eBay, Amazon, or NobleKnight.com. While mechanics might be less tight and the world less contemporary, the book will at least seem moderately complete and the lore more accessible. 

 

 

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