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VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE 5TH EDITION Review – The Dead Live On

Vamps 2 232x300 - VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE 5TH EDITION Review - The Dead Live OnPublished by White Wolf Publishing

Suitable for ages 16+

Available in print for $61.99


Sundown in the big city. Neon billboards flicker to life, the clubs get louder, and humans huddle a little closer together, seeking comfort in numbers. They peer anxiously out at the shadows, not knowing that the real danger is already inside.

Vampire: the Masquerade is a game about modern-day vampires. Some of its stories focus on the hunt through the shadows, highlighting the conflict between a character’s humanity and their inner monster. Other tales explore the backstabbing and political intrigue of the vampire court. If there is one law that all vampire-dom adheres to it is this: the humans can never know that their worst predator also wears their face. The Masquerade must be maintained.

I’d heard a lot of stories about Vampire: the Masquerade, but never played it before. So when a copy of the new 5th edition of the game arrived in my inbox, courtesy of White Wolf, I wasted no time pulling together a playgroup. I seeded it with some experienced Vampire: the Masquerade players, as well as some newcomers like myself. We showed up to session one hot, LA Saturday morning dressed in black and armed with bottles of wine. When you play a vampire game you commit to it, dammit.

In Vampire: the Masquerade, one person plays the role of the facilitator, which this system calls the Storyteller, and everyone else is just called a player. Players are responsible for building a character under the guidance of the Storyteller and then playing that character’s actions. The Storyteller is responsible for everything else: rules adjudication, plot building, non-player characters, and setting. According to the rules, “The Storyteller’s primary duty is to make sure the others have a good time.” Hopefully, the Storyteller is expected to have some fun as well.

Character creation took about four and half hours, which isn’t unusual for a game intended for campaign play. We had a lot of fun swapping character concepts and speculating on the what-ifs that the game’s extensive lore suggested. One of the things I immediately liked about Vampire: the Masquerade’s character creation process is that you build your character as a human first. The book walks you through developing your character’s skills and life story, then drops the vampire powers on top of that afterward. We came up with a pretty diverse crew: a World War II vet turned hardboiled detective, a mafia hitman, a Youtube personality, and a scene kid that picked the wrong drug trip. Needless to say, they did not all get along like one, big, happy, undead family.

Vamps - VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE 5TH EDITION Review - The Dead Live On

I liked Vampire: the Masquerade’s character creation system because it offered two major advantages: first, it gives the characters a nice, three-dimensional feel by the time you’re done with them. You have a good sense of where they’ve come from, and what they want out of un-life. The second is that it helps curtail the impulse to arrive at the first session with a six-page typed backstory for a pre-envisioned character. I also liked the game’s Disciplines, which is essentially its magic system. It has a nice variety of options that provide interesting narrative hooks and isn’t particularly difficult to understand. Vampire: the Masquerade also has you build out some stats for your team as a whole, which helps lend some coherency to the group and gives them a reason to stick together. My players decided that their characters’ task in death was to be Masquerade enforcers, ensuring that humans never find out about vampire-kind.

Like I mentioned before, a large part of what made the character creation process as fun as it was is that Vampire: the Masquerade gives you a massive amount of lore to work with. The first thirty or so pages, in fact, consist of nothing but found-footage style documents of vampires and vampire hunters conferring with one another, leaving snarky commentary on the opposition, or waxing eloquent about their own philosophy or raison d’etre.

Personally, I don’t prefer games with this much pre-established lore, but in the case of Vampire: the Masquerade, it does add a tremendous amount of value to the game. The foremost of these is community. A world as built out as that of Vampire: the Masquerade creates a common language across player groups. Two strangers could meet at a convention and swap stories at length, speculate on the future of the world, and so on. It brings people together. Furthermore, it does an effective job of setting the tone and creating player buy-in, which is essential for any game to function. My players, for instance, all said that the lore was one of their favorite parts of the system. I can see why this game became as popular a LARP as it did, and would be curious to compare the rulesets. As a facilitator, the lore also provided a ton of built-in hooks and I was able to whip together a compelling plot arc in an hour or so.

Despite grabby nature of much of the lore, there were some places where it faltered. In theory, I like the idea of immersing the reader in the vampire underworld from page one, but in practice, it made for some pretty dense reading. The first of these, a ten-page document ostensibly written by Mina Harker of Bram Stoker’s Dracula fame, is particularly difficult to wade through. In theory, it’s supposed to serve as an introduction to the world of Vampire: the Masquerade, but it’s dry, rambling, and name drops like it’s trying to fill a quota. I thought maybe my frustration with the letter was because I was unfamiliar with the world, but my experienced Vampire: the Masquerade players also found it notably difficult to get through. The text picks up after that, but there’s still a lot of jargon. There is a glossary dubbed “The Lexicon of the Damned”, which is helpful, but it doesn’t appear until later, well after its many terms have been used repeatedly, and without explanation. (That glossary is on page 58 by the way, in case you need to go looking since it doesn’t appear in either the table of context or the index.)

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Vampire: the Masquerade’s struggle to introduce its lore in an organized fashion is symptomatic of a much larger problem the system faces: the rulebook is badly in need of an editor. Normally, that would be a secondary complaint on my part, but in this case, it felt like the game was actively opposed to anyone playing it. There were typos, strange sidebar placements, and questionable sentence structure. As just one example, early on in the character creation process, there’s a description of how to allot attribute points for things like a character’s strength, intelligence, etc. There’s a handy chart below for easy reference, except that the chart shows information that directly contradicts the text immediately above it. It’s possible that White Wolf had another go at editing this document before they sent it off to the printers, and the errors will not appear in the physical version, but I can only review what I was given.

The overall layout of the book is also difficult to work with. Quick references and summary pages appear at seemingly random intervals throughout the chapters and aren’t listed in either the table of context or the index. For instance, the Hunger mechanic (which I quite liked) appears quite rightfully in the section on vampire mechanics on page 205. There’s also a quick, one-page reference on how to handle Hunger if your group decides it just wants to freeform the entire game. Useful, right? But the reference page for Hunger doesn’t appear until page 293, in the middle of a section on styles of play. The reference page isn’t necessarily out of place here, but heaven help you if you want to find it again in this 400+ page document, as it doesn’t appear in the index or the table of context. Character creation itself involved a lot of flipping back and forth between different sections, as each of them seemed to dictate a different order in which to build the characters. When we finally made it to play itself, the game frequently ground to a halt as we made lengthy searches for the relevant text. The wording in a few places where it instructed us to “refer back” to sections that hadn’t been covered yet suggest to me that different portions of the book were written in isolation from one another and then combined without an eye towards the coherency of the whole.

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Difficulties with editing and layout notwithstanding, we finished up character creation, broke for lunch (and broke out the wine) and then got down to the business of play. The core mechanic of Vampire: the Masquerade is a d10 dice pool system. It’s pretty straightforward and very easy to learn. In order to find out if a character succeeds at whatever they are attempting to do, the player assembles a pool of dice. The number of dice in that pool depends on their attributes and skills. For example, if I decided to stalk across rain-slicked rooftops undetected like the badass that I am, I would take my Dexterity score of three and my Stealth score of two and combine them for a pool of five dice. Those five dice are rolled, and anything that comes up six or above counts as a success. The Storyteller would give me a target number I needed to hit, say, three. As long as at least three of my dice come up as a success, I’m good to keep ghosting through the night. In some cases, something about my situation might give me an advantage, and I’d add a dice to my pool, or a disadvantage, and I’d remove one.

There are also rules for challenges, social and physical combat, and so forth that operate along similar lines. Vampire: the Masquerade also has a recommended “three and out” policy to help streamline things. Basically, if an obstacle takes more than three rolls to resolve, the Storyteller should dispense with the dice, make a ruling, and move on. For example, in our game, one of the players got into a scuffle with an enemy vamp over a “misunderstanding” about hunting territory. They were pretty evenly matched and at the end of three rolls, they’d only succeeded in putting a point of non-lethal damage on each other. Instead of continuing to drag out the encounter, the “three and out” principle prompted me to declare a draw between the two, and both vamps slunk off, vowing to “finish this another night”.

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Of the various systems in the game, the Hunger mechanic was among my favorite. No matter how refined, tough, or cunning vamps like to think they are, at their core, they are all driven by the need to feed. The Hunger mechanic does an excellent job of reinforcing this fiction on a mechanical level through the use of a separate set of d10s (the game recommends you use red). Every vampire has a hunger score ranging from zero to five. Whenever the vampire makes any role, they swap out a number of dice equal to their hunger score for red ones. So if I had a pool of six dice with which to distinguish myself in court, and a Hunger of two, I’d be rolling four of my normal dice, plus two red ones.

There are two instances when these Hunger dice might work against a character. The first occurs when they make an indecorous comment about the late Lord Vladimir, think of a witty repartee ten minutes after the insult, and generally fail the roll. If one of those red dice comes up as a one, a vampiric compulsion kicks into gear. A character might immediately start attempting to seduce the nearest person (or vamp) in order to feed on them, or become wildly paranoid and assume everyone is out to undermine them.

Even when a player succeeds, Hunger is still lurking in the shadows. If a player makes in their roll, but one of the red Hunger dice comes up 10, the beast inside rears its ugly head again. The character gets what they want and then some. Shoving past a bouncer might send them flying across the bar, attracting unwanted attention. Instead of sipping from a victim’s throat and then slipping off into the night, they drain their prey dry and now have a corpse to deal with. Hunger is a great mechanic because it brings the unwelcome at any moment and with it, an opportunity for a compelling story.

As much as I liked the Hunger mechanic, it does seem to have one major drawback, which manifested itself by the end of our first session. The complication of Hunger is that it creates an additional risk to players rolling, since even a low Hunger of one is a threat. On the one hand, this adds an element of danger to even mundane situations. At any time, the vampire’s facade could slip, the Masquerade broken, and all hell breaks loose. On the other hand, it makes players reticent to try anything, which leads to passive play. “I think it’s honestly just better if I stand back and don’t roll anything,” one player told me frankly. They were sitting on a Hunger of three and trying to decide if they wanted to tangle with another vamp’s sire.

I don’t think that this is a shortcoming of the Hunger mechanic itself. Rather, it’s indicative of a bigger challenge the system faces as a whole. Vampire: the Masquerade is not a game that rewards failure, either mechanically, or fictionally. Failed actions do not propel the story forward in this system, nor do they result in an experience gain. A veteran facilitator might choose to make use of a miss chance, especially if they’ve played other systems that do motivate such play, but Vampire: the Masquerade does not have this built into it. Failure is something to be exclusively avoided. As a result, players are more likely to sit back, look at the Storyteller, and wait to see what happens next, rather than propel themselves forward into interesting situations and conflicts.

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There exists the possibility that this pressure towards passive play was intentional on the part of the designers. Similar to other traditional systems like Dungeons and Dragons, Vampire: the Masquerade is very prep-heavy on the part of the facilitator. Storytellers are expected to create a series of interchangeable scenes ahead of time that the players will run through in a session. Each scene should have a hook leading into it to make the players want to engage with it. The rulebook also has advice for how to redirect players who reject the hook back into the scene anyway. The goal is to give the players the illusion of choice, but ultimately, direct them through your pre-prepared work. Vampire: the Masquerade also recommends that if you do want to give your players a decision that might have campaign-altering significance, be sure to leave it until the last scene so that you have time to build around it when you design the next session. Within such a system, passive players aren’t a bug, they’re a feature, since player initiative is less likely to upset hours of Storyteller preparation.

Beyond its dice pool system, Vampire: the Masquerade has a number of additional “advanced systems” with some interesting variants on the basic mechanics of the game. I liked the Memoriam subsystem option, which is very similar to a Blades in the Dark style flashback. In short, you can invoke a memory of your past and make a test within that memory to give yourself either a bonus or danger in the present scene. There are also advanced systems for combat, ranged combat, and so forth, but due to time constraints, I wasn’t able to test all of them out.

There is a difficulty in judging Vampire: the Masquerade by its mechanics and it takes the form of a half-column paragraph that appears at the end of the Rules section. It’s so significant, in fact, this single paragraph has its own listing in the table of contents. The game calls it “The Golden Rule”. It reads, “This is the most important rule of all, and the only real rule worth following: There are no rules.”

Such a rule puts me in an awkward position as a player and as a reviewer. Critique of the rules seems unnecessary; why discuss something if it can, according to the rules, just be ignored? Does this anti-rule apply to the game’s fiction and lore as well? If so, at what point am I still playing Vampire: the Masquerade, and when have I gone off and just designed my own game? This is not a one-off paragraph in a sea of rules. Throughout the system, the book consistently reminds the Storyteller that they can ditch the rules any time they feel it interferes with the dramatic nature of whatever story they’re telling.

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I’m sympathetic to what I suspect the creators of Vampire: the Masquerade are trying to do here. I think this principle — and with it the assumption that mechanics are things which get in the way of a good story — is a reaction to an old (though still prevalent) style of play in the tabletop RPG community. It’s a style of play that pits the facilitator against the players. Under such systems, players are highly motivated to appeal to every possible loophole and secondary rule set as a matter of course in the quest for victory or, in some cases, mere survival. It is from this style of play that the much-reviled “rules lawyer” arises. To a facilitator who is primarily interested in the narrative of a game, a rules lawyer is often regarded as a “problem player”. From the perspective of such a facilitator, the rules lawyer is constantly disrupting the fiction, or rendering the fiction ridiculous, by calling on the “rules as written”. Under Vampire: the Masquerade’s Golden Rule, the rules can simply be done away with, and the fiction can progress with minimal interruption. Vampire: the Masquerade even offers up pure freeform as an acceptable style of play, disregarding the mechanics entirely.

A younger version of myself would have been happy, even thrilled, with this solution. Story is the reason I play tabletop RPGs, and this sort of statement would have been the permission I was waiting for to play the game I wanted to. Here’s the problem though: counter-intuitively, the removal of rules puts more work on the facilitator, not less.

Vampire: the Masquerade is already a prep-heavy game. Removing the rules of a game increases this load by requiring the facilitator to manage the added stress to the social contract between themselves and the players. A game without rules for the facilitator is necessarily an adversarial one because when the players want to achieve something, the facilitator and only the facilitator is the thing that stands in the way. The facilitator giveth, and the facilitator taketh away. Add to this Storyteller’s stated purpose, “make sure the others have a good time,” and you have a recipe for facilitator burnout. If the game is not fun, if the players did not get what they wanted, if they got what they wanted too easily, it is, under this set of premises, the facilitator’s fault.

If I’m correct about the problem that Vampire: the Masquerade is trying to solve, then it strikes me as a dated solution. Dozens of systems have been designed since then that create more equitable play and responsibility for fun by adding rules to the facilitator’s side of things, instead of taking them away. If an obstacle is put in the way of a player because the rules said to put it there, it is a drastically different thing than if the facilitator put it there because they chose to. As mentioned before, I haven’t played previous iterations of Vampire: the Masquerade. It’s very possible that the creators of this game were reticent to stray too far from older design theories for fear of alienating their existing player base.

Ultimately, I don’t think that Vampire: the Masquerade players are showing up for the mechanics of the game; it’s the lore that draws them. In this, Vampire: the Masquerade does not disappoint. It is brimming with world-building content. I was impressed by how much work the creators had done to build a subculture full of its own idioms, references, and allusions.

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At the end of our session, after I’d jotted down my own thoughts, I asked my players what rating they would give the game. “A two, maybe a two and a half,” was the immediate response from one player. “But if they fixed the formatting, I’d give it a four.” I thought about it a lot, and I think I disagree. Here’s my reasoning. I was trying to parse out what the core of Vampire: the Masquerade is, what component of it is essential to its play. For a while, I toyed with the idea that it might be the Hunger mechanic. Even though the game allows for total freeforming, there’s a note informing the Storyteller that they still need to keep track of the player’s Hunger in order for the game to function properly. They also provide several alternative mechanics by which to do this. I think, however, that Golden Rule still might supercede even this. Should I choose, as a Storyteller, it is within my right to ignore Hunger entirely, and I would still be playing Vampire: the Masquerade. The core of the game, then, seems to be the lore.

The heart of Vampire: the Masquerade is a world in which people tell stories about vampires wrestling with their fading humanity, then in this, it has succeeded. The world it builds is rich with history, subcultures, and plot hooks aplenty. I give it a three. The lore is there but the game as a whole suffers from serious editing and layout issues. It also doesn’t succeed in its attempts to create a better story by doing away with its own rules. Newcomers might find this system difficult to access, but fans of the previous editions are likely to enjoy this latest installment in the franchise.

Happy gaming, everyone.

  • Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition
3.0

Summary

The 5th Edition of Vampire: the Masquerade delivers a vast amount of fresh, engaging lore to the franchise but suffers from significant editing and formating issues. While its mechanics succeed well in several places, its tendency to discard its own rules hurt the system as a whole. Newcomers may find the game somewhat inaccessible, but long-time fans are likely to enjoy this new addition to the world of Vampire.

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User Rating 3.75 (4 votes)
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