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Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition Pre-Alpha

by on July 3, 2017
 

Just so you know where I’m coming from with this get yourself settled and I’ll tell a tale or two about my role-playing history with World of Darkness. Don’t worry, it’ll be quick.

I lost my RPG cherry to Vampire: The Masquerade. I was 13 and had mistakenly been bought it for Christmas. It was completely different from Magic: The Gathering, Marvel Overpower and the Vampire Collectible Card Game (CCG) which I’d been getting into. I had no idea what to do with the hardback book splashed with its gothically lavish Tim Bradstreet illustrations and not owning this mysterious D10 artefact my brother and I used paper torn up with the numbers 1-10 scrawled upon them. We scrawled city maps onto anything to hand and used cards from the CCG to represent NPCs. We probably got most of the rules wrong and after a hiatus of a few years got into other RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, Alternity and Chill.

I returned some time later to Vampire and especially the satellite games Mage, Wraith and Hunter. It was the first time cross-game continuity happened as “The Warehouse Incident” crossed over with each WoD game I ran for several years. One pivotal fight between many forces all in or around one place. The books were fascinating for a young teenager, all dark, brooding, sexy and tormented. The thematic meat of the system the battle for humanity with vampires really captured my interest depressingly this was mostly ignored by many players favouring instead trenchcoated super-fast ninja warriors with blood magic and twin katanas. The stories I heard at the comic shop I worked at were laughable.

The New World of Darkness materialised around 2004 It solidified much of the mechanics and while it sacrificed all of the previous setting, that was fine with me. I missed the clans from Vampire, but the politics were more interesting, the ‘toolkit’ nature of the books suited my GMing style. You made humans first, then you turned them into monsters.

I ran the same premade campaign for my group and there were moments of discarding humanity for revenge, of the angrier people in the party relating to humans for the first time since they turned or forgiving their sires. It was fascinating and the idea of ‘just normal folks’ turned into vampires with both horrendous medical needs and a new political society to deal with was great.

Finally, I ran a Hunter: The Vigil game. It was good fun and the third iteration of a Hunter campaign. Some kids between the ages of nine and twenty went missing, pulled through The Hedge by one of the Fair Folk. The kids reappeared, but the Hunters knew they were… wrong. They were creatures of mud and sticks, given life to hide the abductions. When the group rescued the real youths, most of the constructs were returned but two fled; the eldest and youngest. Two of the group in the final scene of that game tracked them down to a motel and broke into their room. It was brutal and a complete reversal of who the heroes were for a moment. The elder creature fought well, hitting one of the player characters with a kettle and getting shot. The other player character smothered the youngest, crying as he did it, repeating that she was just twigs and mud. It was traumatic in all the right ways. They had gone from people to hunters to monsters. It would stick with them and with me.

So this isn’t my first rodeo, when we come to darkness in RPGs, or the World of Darkness, either.

I loved World of Darkness, but when I got a low-paying office job I couldn’t afford the regular hardback books and lost track of what happened. White Wolf made the World of Darkness, then they were bought by CCP (the Eve online guys) in order to make a WoD MMO. Following six years of development and multiple SNAFU’s by CCP the project got canned and a lot of the WoD creative teams were scuttled for use on Eve. Then Onyx Path appeared, putting out deluxe anniversary versions of the older books. They were possibly also making WoD (now re-christened Chronicles of Darkness as the few flaws in the game were rejigged). Now White Wolf is back, only it’s not Onyx Path, also it’s Swedish and owned by Paradox. It’s still not the clearest where the divisions lie and garbled interviews like Martin Elricsson’s do little to clarify things. It also doesn’t help that the new White Wolf seem fine throwing Exalted and CofD under the bus.

Also, it’s made a trailer for a WoD documentary, loaded with some impressive boasts and setting the tone for the company.

Which brings us to Vampire: The Masquerade Pre-Alpha. It’s been making the rounds and getting… reactions. I’m fine suffering for my art and it’s free, so I thought I’d have a look.

VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE – PRE-ALPHA RULES

This is a pre-alpha, so this is all a work in progress, as it’s quick to mention. The introduction calls it a storytelling game of personal and political horror which is fair enough, the previous editions have been that way, too. There’s a section on design goals which apparently are mainly to be experienced in the rules rather than the ‘design goals’ section of a book.

The System

You roll ten-sided dice, looking for a number of successes (results of 6+). The Chronicle of Darkness upped the difficulty to 8 but only required one success almost all of the time. This at least keeps the difficulty to six instead of a sliding scale of difficulties and successes.
There’s no 10-again rule, no botches, it’s cut back on a lot. One success is easy and nine or ten is nearly impossible.
You roll dice equal to an attribute plus a skill. The attributes have gone from nine to three, merging all physical, mental and social attributes into one and then turning those into specialities. I’m torn with this but it’s not too bad. I’d be curious to see if you could stack specialities so you can still be a super fast vampire who’s not very strong or tough.
You can choose to succeed with a cost if you miss the difficulty by one, which feels like a nice nod to less binary success systems in other games.

Combat

Fighting is a contested roll (or a roll VS half stat which is the NPC success shorthand). Successes are scored against each other as damage unless the defender dodges, as they forego doing damage. Dodging ranged attacks drops people prone, unlike CofD where you basically can’t dodge guns because they’re guns. Neither’s a great approach.
Damage is split into two instead of three; superficial and aggravated. Superficial is extended to anything which would kill a human like a gun or knife. Aggravated is fire, teeth, claws, it’s hard to heal from. There are a lot more aggravated sources of damage here.

There’s Humanity which is supposed to be a big thing in Vampire. The struggle between man and beast. It’s not included here in the playtest.

Blood

Instead of a pool of blood, there’s an abstracted Hunger. That’s a pretty cool idea. I like abstracted money and inventory, why not blood?
To do certain things you ‘rouse the blood’ which adds to your Hunger pool. This maxes out at five. Then you feed to reduce it. Many small animals recover one Hunger, a Human gives three unless you kill them, in which case you get five. Also, you can only get your Hunger down to 0 by killing someone when you feed. I assume there are Humanity-based repercussions. The Hunger dice are used for some special abilities and on a one you suffer some kind of compulsion. There’s a table for this, including some results based on your vampire clan.

After reading the ‘Darkest Self’ sections of Monsterhearts 2 and the elegant use of permission to freak out and do terrible things, these seem simply clumsy by comparison. You have to roll to avoid your hunger at the end of every scene, which also feels more cumbersome and unnecessary than anything else.

Oh and there’s a critical injury table. In Vampire. This seems weird. I didn’t expect to see this sort of thing.

Disciplines

The disciplines are there. I preferred my games more mundane than super-powered so we generally kept low level. Celerity used to be broken, then less so in CofD, now it seems to be way too good again. Dominate could have been far grosser, so I admire the restraint there. The same with Presence. The physical disciplines like Potence and Fortitude had been simplified in CofD but are expanded into needing a new ability for each level.

The rules are hit and miss. Some aspects are commendable for simplifying things, some throw the baby out with the bathwater and some add unnecessary complexity where there was none.

So that’s the system out of the way, now to the adventure:

THE LAST NIGHT
Here we have it, the main feature. Martin Elricsson and Ken Hite wrote the adventure and… it’s… it’s not great.

Spoilers, I guess, but this feels like it’d be no fun to run or play, so I feel fine in spoiling this.
The background feels like a title crawl in an exposition-heavy film and a perfect example of why I grew to love the continuity-less Requiem. The Vampire government (Camarilla) have driven out the bad ones (Sabbat) and the other bad ones (Anarchs) are still here, kicking off in what is perceived as terrorist attacks. In this continuity-laden game, apparently, the characters are all questionable servants of an evil regime whether they like it or not and this appears to be their comeuppance. This would be fine (relatively) if the players had any agency over this.

Oh! Before we get to the adventure we should get to the characters, who I’ll tackle in reverse order. You’re all the spawn of a dude called André and blood-bonded to him, which apparently is all we have to go on for motivation.

Bruno is a low-life clubber who’s not been very good at politics or vampirism, hanging with André in order to party in clubs. He wants to save and kill André so no one else can have him.

Amir is a wealthy inheritor who was bored, met André while hanging around clubs, trying to rescue him.

Nicholas is a cutting-edge journalist for Vice who met André in basically identical circumstances to Amir, but this guy feeds only on vegans, wants to kill the next player character.

Amelina (often with different spellings in the adventure) is a… “connoisseur of the young”. Again, she met André as a filthy homeless club kid and ended up bound to him. She’s a bit different, feeding and screwing young vampires. She only feeds off children and young teenagers, which we’ll discover later involves going to an orphanage for refugee children, feeding on them and it becomes known she’s killed at least five.
These are your characters, fairly indistinct, immoral and in one case abhorrent.

The way the adventure is structured is on rails. The beginning offers no choice of player decision, it describes the situation, what the players are doing and specifically what Bruno’s doing. Their discussion includes possible defection to the Anarchs, although the character sheets are primed against that and the adventure says that it’s suicide. Many times in the adventure it says this is suicide, even with “THE END” bits out of a Choose Your Own Adventure book and a lot of derision for poor player decision-making straight out of Hackmaster.
There’s a section on ‘wayward players’ and policing them, as well as NPCs to feed from and bonuses for feeding on them. FYI, apparently feeding on a one-year-old gives you the ability to appear human for a scene. I know this because there’s an edible one-year-old in this scene. The constant drain of Hunger and the pull of the thirst means there’s a veritable menu of mostly youths and/or drug addicts to feed from. Yes, it’s that kind of “edgy”. The next scene has a pregnant cop and another one who’s been in a brothel.

The group are summoned by the blood bond to find André, but there’s what the police suspect to be a terrorist attack. Confronting the police or screwing up around them leads to arrest, murder and mockery from the game about stupid players. While presenting alternatives in case players go off the rails is good, I thought we were beyond this kind of competitive attitude against players or such strict railroading.
When they’re in the nightclub they’re summoned to, it’s on fire and filled with dead or panicking people. There are more opportunities for GMs who want to ‘be harsh’ to their players as well as a recommendation to have them Frenzy at each other in order to fuel later resentment. Even in a burning club, there’s an elfin ‘techno tourist’ and a couple of glitter-covered dead girls to feed from. The site is mainly falling apart with a lot of opportunities for harm and frenzy, then a coded lock with no real clue about how to find the combination and an unconscious André who won’t wake up no matter what the players do.

We skip ahead to the next day and every part of the Camarilla seems to have been destroyed, leaving the group stranded with a torpid boss and a message to get out of the city, which is on lockdown. Here things open up which could be more interesting, although there’s enough to dispel that notion. They are primed to hate the Anarchs and for the most part each other at this point.
There are some hunting grounds for most of the group, but not all of them. I guess because of space or a lack of ideas. Place number one is a cosmetic surgery clinic with people who are again either sad or awful. Place number two is a gay sex club with a bunch of guys dressed as the Spartans from 300 because of course. Also, they always stay in character. That’s not actually so bad and could cause some daft fun.
Then there’s Place number three. This is the hunting ground for Amelina, a home for 12-18-year-old refugee children, most of whom have been through a lot and are traumatised. Apparently, it’s a great place for Humanity loss, even though that’s beyond the scope of this adventure. There’s a table of randoms to feed from including a lost child who the writer points out is the child of a cop, just in case any vampires play Good Samaritan.

After a bit of that, a xenophobic fundraiser sneaks a message to the group that their havens will be raided, by an NPC who hasn’t been mentioned and doesn’t appear. Betraying the Camarilla becomes a bit more of a potential choice here, although still not a great one. Also, there’s a mention that all the vampires don’t trust modern technology which is why I guess they can ignore anything since the early days of Vampire on the players’ part.
One of the anarchs who they meet cannot be lied to at all and leads the group into a basement where they’re pretty much railroaded into joining the anarchs, apart from Amelina who they might kill. Here’s where we find out she’s killed at least five kids.
Fleeing’s not so easy with a body as the police have all the names and aliases of the group. Vampire blood-addicted dogs will be sent after them if they’re caught and flee, leading to their deaths. Same with trains. Flying gives them the options of getting fake IDs or killing their way into getting transport and possibly freedom. If they walk out, there’s a werewolf just out of town who heals constantly and is super-deadly to the group. That’s fine, but the game seems to glory in this.

The adventure feels like it’s written by a teenager who’s just discovered Vampire and wants desperately to be ‘controversial’. It’s like it’s been created by some Red Pill subscribing, fedora-tipping, Hatred playing edgelord desperately looking for anyone to tell them how gosh darn rebellious they are.
It skews dark but without any point or nuance to it. The deep conflict between a vampire and their dwindling humanity has been a part of the game forever and here seems to have been carelessly discarded all for the sake of being extreme.
It’s reached the point now where there are people online quibbling about whether Amelina is a paedophile or whether she fucks young vampires, but feeds from children. It is the latter, but that doesn’t make it any better. Also if you can mix the two up, not that either’s great, then that’s really bad.

Okay, story time again, just briefly this is for some context OK?

That Vampire: The Requiem game I played in had one player who couldn’t get it. His name was Ben and he was a good guy if a little tightly-wound. There were times he wouldn’t play samurai games because they were a bunch of bastards in real life or spy games because they were immoral government shills. Generally, we stuck to fantasy or Lovecraft. When we started Vampire, he was a couple of weeks late and joined as a Nosferatu (ugly-arse) vampire who wanted to be a famous musician. He didn’t see the human beyond the monster, failing instantly to accomplish what the core concept of the game was. Another player in another campaign played him as a failed aspiring Kurt Cobain, trying to play his music despite being visibly repellent to mortals now. Ben played him as cartoon cackling moustache twirling eeeeevil. He was going to pick up a prostitute because he was edgy. He was going to get her high and then feed off of her because like he was all like evil man.
He didn’t last more than a session, left the group and the GM subsequently played the character as a parody. A desperate vampire eager to be the edgy monster while we were looking out for each other as a weird undead family unit. We were humans who’d become monsters trying to claw onto the last vestiges of our humanity aspiring to be more than just simple monsters.

Not only does this feel like Ben’s prejudices are confirmed, but the stupid parody of his character is also the template to go with. Darkness without depth. A pointless evil. It has all the nuance and subtlety of a Rob Liefeld RPG.
I’ve seen no official response or update about any of this yet. So far the system is functional, with the prevalence of tables and constant Hunger checks concerning. The supplied adventure is a train wreck and hopefully a misstep they can course correct, otherwise, this will be where White Wolf and I part ways after twenty-four years.

Subsequent to this article being published White Wolf have indeed responded in a recent post and seem to be intent to ignore many opinions regarding the content in this release until it sneaks up and bites them in the arse.

Make no mistake, the player characters in the V5 pre-alpha playtest are monsters and villains. Through them, we intend for our players to view the Camarilla sect from the Anarch perspective, as a perverse and privileged class of old-school vampires and who adhere to an antiquated code of morality and obsessed by the realpolitik of staying in power at any price. The player characters are written as dictators and collaborators who deserve to fall hard, perhaps even deserve to die, as they are torn from power.

The full article can be found HERE.

PREVIOUS VAMPIRE DEMOS
So what about the previous demos? Well let’s have a look:
Safe as Houses – A two-page fetch quest for a local Prince which goes a little awry, with enough openness for it to go all over the place. A bit of a faux-pas which could turn into a comedy of errors, a conspiracy or bloody betrayal.
Mary’s Child/Danse de la Mort – This story by Matt McFarland is a fantastic introduction to the Requiem system one aspect at a time, even to the idea of being a vampire. While it starts a little more prescriptive it feels almost more like an early BioWare game with just enough freedom in the set areas and then ballooning out to let players pick where they go and the ultimate fates of the mysterious vampires who created them. I’ve played it once and run it once, both very different and with compelling reasons for the different fates of each pregenerated character.
Reap the Whirlwind – Chuck Wendig’s exploration of what happens when you kill the Prince of the city. There’s a lot of chaos going down which feels like a more freeform version of what could happen in The Last Night if the players were more involved. It even lets people make their own characters and work out their motives for killing the Prince. The only downside to this one is that it’s the only paid quickstart at £1.57.

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  • July 12, 2017 at 4:08 pm

    I would like to add a point to your overview. This game needs a followup generation of players. In the 1990s this game was banging and now its player base is basically a bunch of fans from the 90s who are getting older and busier with life. Just compare a MET game of the 1990s with a local MES game today. You can totally see it. Almost no new blood. Just a bunch of tired veteran players.

    This used to be an very accessible game. Back in the day, I would just tell people, “Awe yeah, Vampire is a cool game, look at the rule book, its a game that plays like that movie …” (insert popular movie, blade, underworld, whatever) and people would thumb though the book and see what they would expect (or wanted) to see from a quintessential game-that-has-it-all about vampires. It was around 2nd edition VtR where I had to get off the train. I felt embarrassed by the game. I didn’t want to show it to new players. “Awe, yeah, Vampire is a cool game, its like a game about failure and being miserable, here is the rule book. Oh that, yeah that is a picture of gay vampire sex in the core rule book. No the game is not about BSDM, don’t pay attention to that page either.” I mean, I can’t sell the game to anyone new. I get that lots of established players don’t want the game to be an action game and prefer the elements of personal horror. I do to! But the more they get forceful with their interpretation of “dark personal horror” the less generic the game becomes and the harder it is to bring in people who don’t want to play a game about “the hard knocks life of a hungry pedophile POS blood junkie in a world of R rated scum and trash.”

    The game needs to be presented in a more generic form. It needs to invite players who want to play any interpretation of the game and play it any way they want. And the presentation of the core rules needs to not make normal people feel like perverts. I know the people who make the game struggle to grasp this, but keeping the book content restrained enough so that I would be willing to let me 13 year old son have a copy is a really really good thing for this game.

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