A Bloody Mess: A Vampire 5th Edition Review
I wanted this game. I wanted it so bad I could have grown my own fangs in anticipation. I was all ready too. I had a campaign mapped out in my head complete with a soundtrack dripping with Sisters of Mercy and Type O negative (This is no joke. Here’s the YouTube playlist). I had a batshit crazy Malkavian just scratching to get put to paper. You could say I was boiling over with 90’s nostalgia, ready to reclaim my place among the denizens of the night.
While I may have first started gaming back in the late 80’s, I didn’t seriously cut my teeth until my freshman year of college in 1995. My college group was obsessed with the World of Darkness, and I more or less flunked out of college my first go around (which is not something I’m proud of – kids, stay in school!) because I was busy gallivanting about Washington D.C. with my coterie as my Malkavian, Romeo. I loved this game! I loved the setting, I loved the mood, I loved (with a few exceptions) the system. Never had I played a game so adult in all the right ways. It was so lush with plot and story and LORE! It was so immersive with its lore that I still, to this day, get lost reading the old edition books as if I were reading musty tomes of forbidden knowledge. The prospect of MORE of this game, of it resurrecting itself anew, made me sadistically gleeful at the prospect of what new horrors I could subject my group to!
When I first received this book, I was rather pleased with its presentation. The artwork is fascinating and more importantly, it is inspirational. There is a powerful mixture of art and phototherapy that masterfully blends the now of 2018, with the gothic punk of the nostalgic 90s roots of the game. The images also set the dark, gritty tone of the game brilliantly. Just combing through the pictures my brain began to hatch ideas and even the Warhol inspired painting on page 50 captured the social dystopia inherent in Vampire rather nicely. Combined with the rather lovely introduction and the story-based preludes that have become a standard of White Wolf, chocked full of juicy fictional letters and correspondences only feed my growing hunger. And by the gods, it even had a useful table of contents! Oh, what novelties (this speaks to a gripe I carry with me from older editions)! As I began reading I thought to myself, “This is it!”
Vampire the Masquerade, 5th Edition is a book about eating. Okay, it isn’t only about eating but it just feels mostly about eating. The book spends pages upon pages upon pages on the hunt for blood, so much so that it feels as if the only purpose the writers had for this book was to make you hungry or convince you to bite into the necks of your fellow players. Nearly three full chapters and over 30 pages! Hunger, predator types, and even an ENTIRE chapter on Blood types! Finally, what Vampire the Masquerade was missing: A MENU! I can see the RP now: I hate eating Sanguine when I first get up, it gives me reflux.” Also, the research teams at White Wolf might want to tread lightly here. There is a bit of history regarding the “science” of the Four Humors and racism. There’s been no line crossing that I noticed here in V5, but it would be wise to keep eyes on the cracking ice.
What makes this new incarnation of Vampire even more upsetting to this reviewer is its attempts to manipulate roleplay. In the effort to encourage roleplay, White Wolf has narrowed choices to an extent that feels almost ridiculous. Between Beliefs, Convictions, Banes, Desires, Ambitions, Frenzy Types, Touchstones, predator types, and Humanity, it feels like V5 thinks we are in Deer Hunter and has a gun to the player’s head screaming “Shoot Nicky Shoot!” And as we dove into this during our playtest, my fears became a reality as my players were being corralled into what they and myself felt were fairly tight pens. Just meeting the requirements of their own character sheet demanded enough of their in-game time and concentration that distracted from the actual intrigue and unique story. And as a Storyteller, I can only equate the process of running each individual player’s requirements as juggling a half-dozen opened bags of marbles. There was so much to keep track of just based of the characters that it became nearly impossible to squeak in actual story. Our freedom to roleplay was ironically being strangled by the systems attempt to force us to roleplay.
And I get it. I am all about roleplay. I have always been a “role-player not a roll-player”, and I am in support for system mechanics that encourage roleplay and character story. But this was like asking for a glass of water and instead being drowned in your own swimming pool. With so much to monitor and keep track of, they have turned the beauty of the storytelling system mechanics into a knot of self-regulation. This cuts off the ability to improvise and to brainstorm. It cuts off the ability to really roll with the story and developing changes as a good story should. And while the authors do offer modifications to the system, those modifications don’t really cut the chains so much as they give a spare couple of feet to run the leash.
Now, I am not some grognard here bemoaning the days of old. I love new games and new systems, and I can easily say that D&D 5th edition is my hands down favorite D&D game to play. But the true beauty of the older editions of Vampire the Masquerade was their ability to tell a story. It was being able to play your character how you saw fit, and to let the system take a back seat to your own immersive narrative. By trying to “inspire” White Wolf choked the players voice, gagging on the need to keep the beast at bay. And yes, a good ST could make use of many of these ideas and work some excellent roleplay, taking and leaving what they may. But a good tabletop RPG system should not have to rely on the skills of a judicious ST in order to make a sensible, playable game. Good roleplay needs gentle nudges and freedom to blossom, not a leash and collar to drag it by. Trust your players!
Which brings me to the Lore. Here is where the knife cuts deepest. While I enjoyed watching the Tremere get their comeuppance, and I truly liked this idea of a Second Inquisition, which in all seemed inevitable given the previous canon truth (and let’s be honest, all the games I ever played, we broke the Masquerade like we were slamming a stack of Pringles), but that’s all we get. The richness and depth of lore, mystery, and history was so absent from this book that the authors seemed to be trying for a retcon instead of a true continuation. And yes, there where hints of a Gehenna war, and the Calling of the Elders, but this was so deeply buried under the threat of the Inquisition that what could be found was barely enough to whet the appetite. The lore of I held dear felt lost.
Frustratingly, this core book feels more like a ploy to manipulate players into buying future books just to get a more complete picture of the setting. I understand that White Wolf Publishing is a business, and that encouraging the purchase of more books is a substantial part of that, but instead of an appetizer to satisfy and intrigue with promises of things to come, V5 delivers table scraps of lore, picked down to a bare bone. Perhaps instead of a million paged guide to sucking blood for dummies, V5 could have used that page space for the other 6 clans, curiously missing from the pages of the core book. Hell, I would have settled for a detachable Shasha Vykos playing card, anything more than the crumbs of discontent left on the banquet floor of my beloved lore.
It isn’t all bad news, though! Celerity and Blood Sorcery were improved, limiting the abuse of power seen in previous editions, such as giving Celerity individual powers instead of cramming your combat with 12 thousand Celerity rounds. And the core mechanics were cleaner and less convoluted, keeping the success target number locked at Six and using the number of successes needed to measure difficulty (though by Hardestadt’s bloody whiskers, just let 10’s be two success!). The sections on Coterie building were rather refreshing and ingenious. I think such mechanics would do wonders bringing players together in a game based on individual survival and pursuit. And individually I liked the roleplaying stats and what they hoped to achieve. I am even tempted to steal the Hunger mechanics for my own future games. But ultimately, this is a system in desperate need of a reevaluation of its priorities. It feels out of focus and lacking its former identity. But if playing an intricate game of blood sommelier while avoiding in-game cellphones and emails like your tech-phobic great-aunt Margie is your cup of Darjeeling, White Wolf has a book for you. For the rest of us waiting for Vampire the Masquerade’s Second Renaissance, stick to your previous edition of choice and scrap this book for usable parts.
THE FINAL GRADE: C-
You can lead a gamer to water, but you can’t make them roleplay.