It’s truly remarkable that they managed to mess this up so completely. Look, I had an intro ready to go that would lay out how Vampire the Masquerade changed gaming and, to a lesser extent, society when it came out, but this newest incarnation is such an offense to that legacy that I don’t want to waste time before I say the following: this is a bad game. In its current state, and likely any that it will ever inhabit, this product is inadequate by any metric that you would use to judge it, and does not warrant attention, playtime, or financial support.
This hurts me to say, but it has to be said. The World of Darkness was my introduction to gaming, and remains my favorite setting for RPGs. Both new and old incarnations, despite all of their ups and downs, have such vibrant and terrifying possibilities, that I will never be finished exploring them. As hesitant as I was when this product was first announced, I let my mind go wild with the possibilities that more Masquerade could bring to the table. I remain an enormous fan of both editions of Requiem, but the idea of updating lore that has not evolved since the Long Night started to intrigue me.
I have also had only the warmest, most genuine interactions with the staff at White Wolf so far. They have proven to be passionate, intelligent people who seem to want the best for this game line, and have the tools to give it to us. I believed in them through every step of the process, despite some of their mishandlings of recent controversy, and I was ready to be in love with this game.
After reading through the core book, I am certain that we would have been better off without it. All these months of waiting and imagining, raising the hopes of the fans, have ended in a sour and jaded product that looks like Rian Johnson’s misunderstanding of plot structure mixed with Zach Snyder’s infectious style-over-substance mentality and Michael Bay’s lack of maturity. Caine would not be pleased.
Controversies that Stand for Nothing
Throughout this game’s development it has been plagued by controversy over the politically tone deaf jokes and efforts at making itself out to be an edgy project. The worst interpretations are definitely overblown, and nothing in here is veiled extremist agenda. Rather, the book is overladen with attempts at puerile humor and misunderstanding of what it means to embrace dark subject matter, all of which feel like a slap in the face. I have no issue with, for example, stating that a Brujah might be a member of the alt-right. Difficult political truths in a game about confronting prejudice and keeping hold of one’s humanity are only appropriate, and in keeping with the game’s central themes. This franchise exists on a foundation of disturbing moral quandaries, where the line between villain and hero blurs almost to nonexistence. But this text goes so much farther than that. Plastered all over the book are small nods not to the darkness lurking at the world’s edge, but the juvenile humor spewed out by internet trolls.
The sample prey section, an otherwise useful place to draw NPCs from to give them motivation and character rather than making them walking blood bags, has to include a Cuckold character, as a snide wink and rude gesture at anyone with any sense of decency or taste. The opening fiction includes dick jokes and cumshot references for no clear reason and with no context except that it sounds mature to someone with an adolescent understanding of the world. Engaging with real darkness does require handling violence, sexuality, and other unsavory details, but not with the flippant attitude this book seems dedicated to.
Listen, I own a physical copy of Montreal by Night. I am well aware that the World of Darkness is no stranger to manufactured edge, but in the past it was always at least tinged with the gravitas of the lore and ancient mannerisms inflicted upon the child generations by their parents. With the Anarchs let loose from the Camarilla, the franchise now feels like a house party hosted by 14 year olds, first finding their way around the concept of “cool” and missing the mark. Gone are the intense power struggles that gave the game an engaging focal point, replaced by this impotent attempt at making itself feel revolutionary. This is not a worrisome or irresponsible game like Beast: the Primordial, which is a several hundred page diatribe about how great it is to get away with rape. Rather, it fails to feel like it stands for much of anything, with a tone that vacillates between faux-revolutionary and bland.
Layout and Art Design
The best aspect of the new core book is a mixed bag, but only for those of you who agree with me that the art is overall good. For the rest, you might as well write off the look of this entire book as a baffling exercise in following poor decisions with poor implementation.
The art style is mostly composed of photographs of real people playing the parts of Vampires. This might sound ill-conceived (and again, some of you will reasonably conclude that it was) but I was surprised at how effective and evocative most of these pieces ended up. The costume design, makeup, lighting, and delivery all create a portrait of a more grounded world, where these creatures can and do exist. The stately Ventrue or bloodied Brujah do not feel out of place, and stand frighteningly close to our reality.
It’s ironic, then, that the times they do implement paintings, they are usually far more effective than the photographs. Some of them have a morose detail to them that makes me ache for more, even those pieces that are put into the book with less thought. Clans are often accompanied by fashion spreads, and while this is all clearly concept art that somehow found its way into the final release, it comes across surprisingly well.
It’s in layout that this all falls apart, and to a degree that I am surprised this mess came out of a professional studio. The vast majority of the text is broken up into three columns across the book, meaning that information is both too dense and too stratified to read comfortably. You will come to a page FILLED with text, but in columns that force you to constantly adjust after getting through a few words. There is too little space in the column to fit a whole sentence, so your eyes will be darting around the page like a startled Fish-Malk. The other type of text is more friendly in form, but splashed over a photograph with shifting colors and lighting, making it a challenge to get through a sentence without having to wait for your eyes to adjust.
The way information is presented is just as confusing. Rules and prose are thrown together in a blender, and tossed wayward over the text in ways that make it impossible to determine where information would be. There is no logical progression to where something is located in the book, or even within a given page. For example, it isn’t until page 202 that we get the basic rules for vampires’ physiology and weaknesses. Over halfway through the book before we get that basic information. While the book finds room for strange meandering passages on fashion, it takes little pains on crucial information like setting, but that is its own bag of disappointments.
Setting and Lore…or the Lack Thereof
The most engaging aspect of V:tM was always its setting. The story is composed of a dense web of plots and factions, taking place over thousands of years, all pointing towards an ending with the threat of impending apocalypse. Everyone had a character or a clan or even a time period that drew them to the lore and kept them coming back, and everyone has spent these long months waiting in anticipation to see what happened to those factions after the Long Night came and the apocalypse occurred. The developers gave us sparse information: the Second Inquisition struck, with humans discovering and hunting down vampires, shattering their power structures. The Camarilla was driven further underground into a secret society for the elite, following the similarly depopulated Sabbat, who left for the Middle East to embroil themselves in a war to uncover the resting places of the Antediluvians.
It is with disappointment and resentment that I say the core book provides no more information than what I just wrote, all of which we were told in preview materials. The structure of this conflict, the ways it has changed vampiric society, and the scope of the Second Inquisition are almost entirely left to our imaginations or, more likely, future books. It may be that the incoming Camarilla and Sabbat sourcebooks will fill in the gaps (or more accurately, chasms) left in the lore, but we are currently left in the unenviable position of having to invent their own lore completely in order to make a functional game. Now, most RPGs ask you to do precisely that, but Vampire is different, and always has been. Sure, the metaplot was often overbearing and stupid, but this was an opportunity to make new decisions and forge a better path. Instead, the new White Wolf has chosen to do nothing.
This is a problem for new players and old alike. Those who have invested years or decades into this setting will be left high and dry. I never expected White Wolf to be able to answer questions on every aspect of the setting, after so many years of buildup and so many small details to contend with, but it is not unreasonable to think that we would get some discussion of where things fall after such a monumental shakeup as an apocalypse they had been building towards for 20 years of game releases. At the same time, new players will be confused and bewildered at the lack of explanation for what the World of Darkness looks like. Sure, they will not be buried under the weight of too many years of lore, but they will also be sent directionless into a setting with no clear goals or direction. I didn’t need, or really want, a definitive list of every antitribu and minor bloodline after the Long Night. What we all needed was more material on how this had changed the world as a whole, and how it will affect your games. What we got was nothing.
I disagree with the concept that as a core book this release is exempt from the expectation that it should provide these things. Yes, we will be getting more releases and this is intended as an introduction. Even by that metric it fails, leaving one bewildered as to what one actually does in this game. Apart from the need to feed on blood, which takes a more central role in this than previous editions, there is too little discussion of what individuals in this world spend their time doing, and why you should care to buy more books in this series beyond filling in fundamental gaps left by the core release.
Mechanics and Character Creation
All of this might be fine if the rules were at least exceptional. They aren’t. Everything about them that I like is confounded by strange, unintuitive design, and my favorite part is something I know much of the fanbase hates. Let’s get into it.
There are a few good decisions here, at least broadly. Treating Health, Willpower, and Humanity as health tracks makes some sense (and that idea worked very well in the fan game Dragon: the Embers, whose ideas have been slowly making their way into more and more official releases for some time now.) That way you have a unified way to resolve issues with those tracks, rather than treating them as separate resources. It’s an elegant solution that keeps the game running, without needing to weigh you down with extra systems.
The Hunger system is also brilliant in principle. Some of your dice will be replaced by red Hunger dice, representing the ever-present urgings of the Beast within you. You can use stored blood to power supernatural Disciplines or make yourself more powerful. Vampires with higher blood potency can do so more effectively, but they also find it more difficult to sate their hunger. As you utilize blood, you replace more dice with Hunger dice, which can override your actions as the Beast takes hold, to potentially catastrophic effects. This basic concept, centering on the push and pull of managing your short and long term needs, is the best part of this game. It evokes all the struggles of the addiction metaphor at the heart of this game.
At the same time, those of you who take issue with this have some reason to do so. The Hunger system enforces roleplay, allowing the Beast to take over your character for short bursts. I see this as a benefit, putting you right in the shoes of your character, who would be equally afraid of losing control to their own dark nature. But that verisimilitude comes at the price of letting you decide how your character reacts, and displays a certain lack of trust when it takes things going wrong out of your hands.
I am less than impressed with the rest of the system. The game is at the same time overcomplicated and oversimplified, with strange fiddly rules bolted onto an annoying insistence at speeding everything up. For instance, when the book explains the combat system, it CONSTANTLY urges you to ignore the complete rules and resolve combat quickly and artificially, rather than just designing one that is fast and lethal already. It has a basic and an advanced set of combat rules for both physical and social conflicts, but seems actively resentful of players who want to use the full ruleset, yet I am certain that almost everyone who plays this game will want to do so. The actual combat rules come down to a roll-off, where each action is equivalent and resolves quickly but largely by relying on GM fiat. This does run smoothly when you get your head around it, but it lacks the care to make it feel truly special.
The dice system contains needless complexity as well. You make a dice pool out of your attributes and skills, with 6-10 being a success. But multiple tens count as individual and collective successes, so two tens count as four successes and three as five. I don’t know why. Previous editions have allowed you to reroll tens or count them as double successes individually, and in a system that is going for simplicity I don’t know why they ignored these options.
Humanity is a strange system of tracking your sins and rolling at the end of each session to see whether your character can rationalize them or not. This part almost works, and I love the idea of pushing the envelope with your own humanity, wondering how far you can go and knowing that you might slowly degrade. You are taking a risk, and if you go too far, you risk suffering a derangement. For the first time I feel like we have a humanity system that is workable and uniform. It will cause some headaches for the GM, who will have to track everyone’s Convictions and those of the group as a whole. It’s in the number of things that you need to keep track of as each session goes on that I find this new edition grating, even given the elegance of its implementation.
Characters, you see, each have a set of Convictions that connect them to the world, as well as one Touchstone connected to that Conviction. A Touchstone is a human who represents that ideal, and their death will cause you to lose that Conviction forever. This seems to imply that any sufficiently aged vampire cannot possibly hold onto any shred of their humanity, and that a Conviction cannot live past someone who upheld it. I completely understand the concept, but I question how this will turn out in play. Every human contact will be a de facto damsel in distress for the GM to threaten, and I know as a storyteller that I don’t want to do that, but now feel I have to in order to make the game feel emotionally threatening.
Coterie rules are also interesting, causing your party to agree to a group of principles and letting you apply merits such as area of influence, size of herd, and other benefits that you could already pool together in prior games, but now it is a default part of the game that you and your group pool them together.
Characters are made up of the predictable nine attributes we have come to know, as well as a familiar set of skills. You are not allowed to use a point buy method to make your character, rather being forced to choose between a few premade stat distributions. You will then choose a Predator type, which will give you a few specialties, Discipline dots, and Advantages/Disadvantages, the merits and flaws of this system. The Clans are as you would expect, but their weaknesses are surprisingly toothless. No, the Brujah weakness is not called Triggered anymore, and the Toreador does not seem to imply it would lead you to commit assault. Rather, many of them feel nebulous to the point of frustration. As we have come to expect, not all disadvantages are created equal.
This system works, and parts of it work very well. The actual rules are my favorite part of the game, and with more sourcebooks we could end up with a more powerful experience on our hands. Some of the strange, inelegant choices don’t play out as badly as you would expect, but the strange layout and tone make the rules more difficult to unearth. With some house rules and experience, these rules might make for a truly rewarding game. If the rest of the book were up to that same quality, I might be making a firm recommendation. In its current state, that is a bridge too far.
The book ends with some conspiracies that your characters can join, along with a list of antagonists and equipment, but I am sad to say that all of these feel underdeveloped. There aren’t enough antagonists to get your games going, and the ones that are there have far too little written to make them feel evocative. The conspiracies are fascinating, and are the only parts of the book that suggest the depth and darkness of this lore, but they are only given a paragraph or two to explain their concepts, beliefs, and practices. The equipment section is, like most of the other rules, in natural language text that makes getting to the meat extremely difficult. Moreover, there are far too few examples available, so be ready to create your own equipment section in order to play this game.
The Superior Elephants in the Room (Anniversary and Requiem)
There was a question on many of our minds when this product was announced, and one we finally have a definitive answer to: with the definitive 20th Anniversary Edition and the exceptional reimagining Vampire: the Requiem still in print, what reason do we have to support this new game line? At the time of writing, with the Camarilla and Anarch sourcebooks still on the horizon, I can say without hesitation that we have no such reason. The only real innovation here is the Hunger system, which as much as I love, is something I know for a fact has turned many of you fans away, and for reasons I completely understand. But even to get to that you have to wade through so much unreadable text and half-baked rules systems that it isn’t enough.
V20 has everything you need from the old franchise. It is a definitive collection of the game’s best features, and integrates almost seamlessly into previous books. Requiem, whether in the first or second edition, is an equally powerful and well-designed game that encourages you to explore a more personal and political journey through the World of Darkness, without the overbearing weight of meta-plot to dog every step.
And all that is without even mentioning excellent supernatural themed horror games outside of the World of Darkness umbrella, featuring such titles as Unknown Armies, Dresden Files, Demon City, or Night’s Black Agents, which was a better game designed by Kenneth Hite, the lead designer behind this game.
Vampire: the Masquerade 5th Edition
Designed by: Kenneth Hite, Karim Muammar, Karl Bergstrom
Art direction: Mary Lee, Tomas Arfert, and Martin Ericsson
Published by: White Wolf Publishing
Age Rating: 18+
Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition
As it stands, I cannot recommend V5 to old fans or new. Even those who rush to its defense out of pure contrarianism will be met with a messy and unsatisfying ruleset that will require serious work to excavate under poor layout, awkward writing, and insultingly juvenile humor. With better alternatives existing more cheaply within the same franchise, I can see no reason to support this disappointment of a core book.