Review: Chicago By Night

The fourth book for Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition is effectively a campaign setting pf the city of Chicago. A guide to the Windy City (which it apparently isn’t called by locals) that blends real world history with the supernatural of the World of Darkness, detailing its many Kindred and Coteries along with their various dramas and backstories.  

Chicago has a long history with Vampire the Masquerade, almost being the default cityscape of the game. This is actually the third version of “Chicago By Night“. The original was released in 1991 for the first edition of Vampire, which was updated in 1993 for Second Edition (published at the same time as Under a Blood Red Moon, which detailed the Garou of Chicago and served as a crossover with Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Chicago was further featured in the 1st Edition book, The Succubus Club, which focused on the Chicago nightlife, and the titular club (which remains a key location). 

Chicago also featured in a number of stories, such as Ashes to Ashes—a companion to the first published Chronicle, set in nearby Gary—along with the story Blood Bond. And a trilogy of novels published in 2001 start in Chicago.

With that much Vampire publication history, it’s certainly a good choice for the first “By Night” city guide for the 5th Edition. Or, potentially… the worst location.

What It Is

Funded through Kickstarter a little over a year ago in October 2018 Chicago By Night is a massive 357-page tome. The book features the standard three-column format of most Vampire books, but mixes it up semi-randomly with two-column pages in many sections. The art is mostly colour illustrations, which have been drawn, and I didn’t see any of the art portfolio photographs like in the other Vampire 5e books.

Chicago By Night is written by Onyx Path rather than White Wolf or Modiphius, who are the actual publishers of VtM5. Onyx Path have a long history with the World of Darkness, having published material for Vampire the Requiem and done their own version of the game (Vampire 20th Anniversary). Prior to the reformation of White Wolf as a publishing entity (and its partnership with Modiphius), Onyx Path was the publisher for the World of Darkness. 

The book starts with 10 pages of fiction before diving into eighteen-odd pages of first person miscellanea and realia. Then there’s seven pages on the Lasombra clan (one of the thirteen subtypes of vampire) and their surprising entry into the Camarilla. (Yes, this big metaplot element is here rather than last year’s Camarilla book.) Another half-dozen pages of Lasombra rules follows much later.

The city itself gets 32-pages, which covers truths and misconceptions as well as brief descriptions of the neighbourhoods. This is followed by 152-pages of the Kindred of the city, with full backstories, sorted by clans. Only the clans released so far are covered, and there are no Giovani (Hecata?) or Tzimisce. 58-pages is then devoted to a half-dozen Coteries along with expanded rules for Coteries and a surprising 23 lore sheets!  

The book ends with 15 pages of Chicago Chronicles (read: campaign or adventure seeds) and a 36-page short adventure.

The Good

The book is nice and clean to look at. The pages are mostly white but have a slight image of an aerial view of Chicago (the same as the cover) partially visible at the bottom of the page. It’s nice and professional but not too busy or dark. The many sidebars with fragments of in-world text mostly use a typewritten font that is easily read, and the handwritten-style sidebars are also very legible. Too often hand-written fonts opt for style over readability, and that isn’t the case here.

The book has a decent mix of in-world flavour (the first forty-odd pages) and straight gamebook prose. But even in the lengthier sections of straight out-of-character text there are the occasional sidebars with in-character letters or statements. This is flavourful without being overwhelming or missing the point that this volume is meant to be a reference book for a game and not just an entertaining read.

The bulk of the book is dominated by the entries on the vampires, which are very detailed. Each Kindred gets 2 to 2-1/2 pages of information, which details their early life (pre-Embrace) as well as their unlife as a vampire. Each vampire receives a semi-complete stat blocks that are mostly a chain of text, but does provide all their statistics, including the number of dots they have in each Discipline. Mercifully, this is written straight, and the book doesn’t try to make the histories told in first person or retold by some extended narrator or investigator. 

Also included is each vamp’s “Plots and Schemes”, which are essential to running such manipulative and selfish beings but also do double duty as motivations and plot hooks. Many also have relevant Whispers (aka rumours), which is pretty damn neat as they can provide some decent uncertainty to each character (the book even warns they may not be true). Even a player that has read the book might not be entirely certain what the storyteller has planned or how they’re interpreting a certain SPC. The haven and allies of each vampire are also described, dropping some brief names of other residents of the city and potential supporting casts. This whole section provides well over 50 vampires and probably twice that number in named ghouls or humans, enough to fill an entire Chronicle with storyteller played characters or serve as inspiration for several homebrew campaigns. Looking through wiki entries on past Chicago By Night volumes, something like 2/3rds of the vampires in the book are previously established. I do appreciate some continuity, even if it goes over my head. The entire city wasn’t depopulated, and many existing faces are still around. Someone did their research. But the status quo has also been changed, with a new Prince and new vampires in power, so even established players who read every prior word on Chicago can be surprised.

The Bad

There is a lot of history in this book that is only barely explained. Right at the beginning there’s a heck lot of proper nouns, mostly of vampires, and many of whom are name dropped but not detailed. There’s a lot of former characters, absent vampires, and ones who have met the Final Death. As someone who never read any of the old Chicago books (and only really confirmed they existed when prepping for this review) I was often lost and uncertain who was relevant for current games and who was long since double dead and thus irrelevant. 

I found the lore particularly hit-and-miss. With the early sections being written as very brief in-world snippets: realia that might be found or read in the Chicago of the World of Darkness. This was mostly letters and transcripts. These sets the tone of the setting, and interesting, but they have to strike an awkward balance between informing and entertaining, all while being true to the setting yet informing the reader on vital details. So far the entire Vampire 5th Edition has struggled with this balance. The current metaplot of the Second Inquisition actually makes this worse, as many pieces seem to be even more vague and less informative than usual, as the Kindred are trying to be discreet to avoid attracting the attention of mortal hunters. The book tends to favour being authentic and “realistic” rather than being informative and useful. 

(In fairness, this book is significantly better than prior books, being less oppressive than Anarch or the first half of the Core Rulebook. But being “better” doesn’t equate with being “good.” And earlier vampire books and other products have managed to do this much better.)

As such, this is very much a book for people who are already fans of Chicago as a setting and are very familiar with the lore and trappings of Vampire. This is a book that sets out to fill you in on what happened to a beloved setting, updating it to 2019, rather than introduce it to newcomers. This seems to describe “Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition” as a whole: it’s not meant for the uninitiated. This isn’t to say a newcomer will be lost or find the book unusable, just that they’re not the primary audience, and they may have to work that little bit harder to parse the text.

This is another place where having White Wolf’s Wikia handy is useful. That way when you hit the third or fourth instance of a name, you can search it up and find out who they are, adding the missing context. (I had to look-up “Lodin” as he’s mentioned as a person of importance in three or four subsections before you’re clearly told he’s an ex-Prince.)

I imagine a page of two with a “cast of characters” akin to a glossary of jargon would have made all the difference.

As another example, Al Capone was a vampire. Yes, that Al Capone. The book mentions Capone several times, but doesn’t clarify it’s really him (I had to infer) but it doesn’t matter because he was killed by the Prince for being a walking Masquerade breach as he was so famous. Which makes sense, as vampires, trying to be secretive, probably shouldn’t/ wouldn’t embrace anyone famous. But this feels very much like what often happens in old Vampire books (or in rookie Chronicles with new players) where it seems cool to have “famous person X” secretly be a vampire. So even though it’s silly, and having vampire Capone raise all many of questions and weird issues, the book can’t just ignore him and pretend he never existed, and has to address the “where’s Capone?” question for the fans who read old editions. This is just one example, but there are many more callbacks and Easter eggs designed to catch people up on how the city has changed in twenty-plus years.

Getting away from the lore, the vampire stat blocks don’t include their powers, just the ranks they have in certain disciplines. This creates a little more work, as you can’t use a character right out of the book, but this does allow some customization so it’s firmly a feature/bug.  However, it can mean some of the statistics are wrong, as certain powers increase numbers. Like Fortitude increasing Health. Also, none of the vampires seem to have advantages or merits (apart from their haven and allies). 

Given half the book is NPCs, it feels weird to complain that there’s not more… but I will. This book only details the vampires of the city. There’s no Second inquisition figures, or similar antagonists. No mortal hunters or clergy trying to root out sin. (Excluding the one in the adventure hooks at the end.)

The Ugly

The biggest complaint about this book is the Lasombra. This isn’t the book one would expect to find information on a new clan. And, really, if I were to guess at which clan would be in a book focusing on Chicago, I’d have probably picked the Hecata.

Heck, even the final Chronicle (read: adventure) is about their joining the Camarilla and less about the current state of Chicago.

It’s unfortunate that the book focuses so much on the metaplot element. It’s here not because it’s the best place, but because this book was out around the time they wanted to advance the metaplot. This is especially awkard as the Lasombra being a “newcomer” is a plot point with a finite lifespan, and in a couple years remembering which book came out for the change might be hard. (“It was that one about the city…. Fall of London? Sure that makes sense, I’ll buy that.”) Very quickly it will feel like an old change, like the Bruja leaving the Camarilla, and someone might find it as unlikely to look for a Bruja revolution adventure in a Denver sourcebook as the Lasombra plot element in the Chicago book.

From a sheer logistic perspective, it will be awkward for Lasombra players to have to bring this giant 350+ page book to a game so they can reference their shadow powers. Or for storytellers to let said players reference the big book of city secrets when making their character. To say nothing of eventual Hecata players also needing this books for their Oblivion disciplines. 

There’s so much actual Chicago content that could have been included in those dozen pages. 

But, then again, I bought this book solely because I wanted the rules for the Lasombra, as I wouldn’t have purchased a city book otherwise. So their strategy of mixing content worked.

The Awesome

The short adventure that ends the book increases the usefulness of the book with stat blocks for security guards, a group of punks, some ghouls, a newly embraced vampires. Always handy to have more adversaries for a game, in the event the players do the unexpected and you need a quick stat block. And, because it involves Chicago that little bit less than one might expect, it’d be easy enough to swap the proper nouns and move it to New York or Dallas. (Or Seacouver, Washington where I have my game set).

Really, most of this book is excellent for inspiration and quick character, being the Big Book of SPCs. (Read: NPCs.)

I also found it rather interesting as a way of getting other perspectives on the types of people who become vampires, how other writers consider vampires’ backstories, other takes ad interpretations of certain clans, and even how the Camarilla controls a city. For someone still fairly new to running the game and getting a feel for the setting, this book did provide me with a lot of inspiration from “the pros”. 

Final Thoughts

The book contains information on six coteries. Each of which contains a relationship map, showing the connections between vampires and their opinions of others. These are some nice examples of how these maps work, and might be useful for newer players and storytellers. And the existence of these groups also allows players to jump in and play one of these pre-established groups, which would be very useful for a one-shot game session or side campaign.

In terms of inspiration for both characters and worldbuilding, I think I got my money’s worth for this product. It’s a reasonable guide for how to present a city, build a coterie, design a haven, and many other aspects of the game. And it even has a little description of Chicago to boot.

While I tease the book for only having minimal information on the city itself, far too little to really capture the feel of the city or have an idea of its landmarks and history, to be completely honest I’m not sure the book *really* needs that. That kind of generic real-world information can be found quite easily on Wikipedia and tourist websites. It should be pretty easy to get an idea of what Chicago looks like, and what being on the street is like, especially with tools like Google Street View. What isn’t readily available elsewhere online is the information on vampires and other undead residents of the town, which is what this book provides. 

So, really, what’s missing is a page of recommended reading.

Although, the absence I felt most was an extended in-character introduction to the city. The transcript of one vampire showing a newcomer around the city, or a long note left for someone with the same intent. A longer form introduction that can plainly inform the “character” and the reader of the vital information all at once. Instead, we received a smattering of different notes and emails and transcripts, which we had to piece together into a coherent history and description, and didn’t really provide an adequate “view from the street” or “view from the penthouse”.

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this review, you can support me and encourage future reviews.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website, including a bundle of my Ravenloft books including the newly released Cards of Fate and my FIRST adventure on the Guild, Smoke, Snow & Shadows. Others include my first level 1 to 20 class, the TacticianRod of Seven Parts, TrapsDiseasesLegendary Monsters, a book of Variant Rules.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (Now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

Plus, I have T-shirts available for sale over on TeePublic!