Review – Milwaukee by Night (Vampire: the Masquerade)

               Milwaukee by Night is a setting and story supplement for Vampire: the Masquerade. It was one of the first Second Edition books, and was originally released as a 128-page B&W softcover (it was later released as part of Chicago Chronicles, Volume 3). Although the two cities are geographically close, Milwaukee as presented here has little to do with WoD Chicago, and there’s no need to own the Chicago sourcebooks to run anything in Milwaukee by Night.

Note: As always for story/adventure modules, you can’t really write about the book without spoiling the story. So, in the unlikely event that you might be playing through the story contained in Milwaukee by Night more than two decades after it was published, consider yourself warned.

The Basics

Milwaukee by Night is both a city book (“Book One”) and a story module (“Book Two”) – the story module being used as a way to make the characters integrally involved in the setting. If you happen to read the book, I’d suggest doing so a little bit out of order, since the fourth chapter (Politics) won’t fully make sense unless you’ve read the story in Book Two. As an ongoing setting, Milwaukee is a overpopulated city without a prince, under siege by Lupines, and heavily influenced by a 1500-year grudge match between a couple of Ventrue (they are not, thankfully, another pair of Methuselah like those duking it out in Chicago, but only 7th-8th generation). The reason that the city doesn’t have a prince is that, in the story, the player characters will kill him. Acting under the prince’s orders. Sort of.

Writing/Editing/Layout/Art

The biggest difference between the very first Vampire books and the second wave is improvements in art, layout, typesetting, and the like. Second edition books like Milwaukee by Night start getting full-page art to start chapters and, while neither the full-page nor the smaller art is yet as good as it will be, it is definitely better than the stuff presented in the shoestring budget first edition books. The writing isn’t great, but it’s improving, and Milwaukee by Night was a reasonable read. The editing is what it is.

Contents

Book One: Barren Streets, Barren Hearts – Book One is the city sourcebook side of Milwaukee by Night, and takes up the first 75 or so pages of the supplement.

Chapter One: History of Milwaukee (~5 pages) – This focuses a lot of the rivalry of two Ventrue and war against Lupines, who plague Milwaukee to this day, isolating it from the outside world more than most cities. The werewolves continued interest is based in part on a magical dead zone in the city that resulted from the burial of two werewolf totems under Marquette University.

Chapter Two: Geography (~10 pages) – A collection of some basic maps, hot spots, and things to do, this chapter gives some reasonable location hooks without going into pointless levels of detail.

Chapter Three: The Kindred (~30 pages) – This collection of Milwaukee vampires is presented a little differently than usual, which each Kindred’s entry being written in the first person (although each write-up still has third-person comments on image, roleplaying tips, haven, and influence). If nothing else, it makes the chapter a somewhat more interesting read.

Chapter Four: Politics (~15 pages) – If you’re reading Milwaukee by Night, I’d recommend skipping this chapter until after you’ve read the adventure, because it’s about the politics of the city after the death of the prince in that story, and until you know what went on with that (and the role the PCs will have played) then parts of it won’t make a lot of sense. Beyond that, this is the usual White Wolf coterie-interactions chapter, with the standard relationship charts. The political structure is loosely balanced on the rivalry of the Roman-era Ventrue (one Roman, one barbarian), but nobody really actually likes the politically-minded Gracis, Hrothulf barely cares beyond wanting to be rid of Gracis, and there’s also a strong gang-fueled Anarch presence, so there’s a lot of wiggle room. There are elders, but unlike Chicago by Night they aren’t Methuselah who are literally controlling everyone from behind the scenes.

Book Two: Psychomachia – Book Two is the story module side of Milwaukee by Night, and it’s 25 scenes take up the final 50 pages or so of the book. “Psychomachia” means a conflict of the soul, and the conflicted soul in this instance is the Prince of the city, who has truly gone over the deep end after murdering his vampire wife. The PCs then become pawns in his struggle with himself, as he gives then a lot of authority and leeway to hunt down his wife’s murderer – while also trying to have the PCs killed. To up the stakes, the wife was a Gangrel, and one of the city’s few non-violent links to the lupines, and so the werewolves get involved.

Fire and Blood: The characters are interrupted during feeding (however it usually is that they do this), and “invited” to come see the Prince immediately (this is intended to throw the characters off their routine and make them skittish). On the way, after being brought together as a group, they are attacked by quite a few mortal gunmen (they have an opportunity to make a helpful friend here by saving the Prince’s henchman and not just themselves). Once they finally make it to the Prince, he designates the group as “The Mask,” and gives them a lot of powers and leeway in the pursuit of Masquerade violations, starting with solving his wife’s murder (the Prince is already crazy, so there’s an actual in-game reason why he might choose a random collection of vampires to do this sort of thing). The chapter wraps up with the likely-hungry characters being offered drinks from the Prince’s herd, the condition of which may have moral implications.

War of Tribes: The PCs are told to check out the Anarchs first, and the story assumes they basically follow that command. The PCs are to be steered to the territory of one Anarch gang (the Blood Brothers), and it’s largely assumed that at least one of the PCs will be willing to engaged in a destructive “duel of wills” with the gang’s leader (it mostly doesn’t matter if they win, just that they’re willing to play) – the story requires a decent amount of Scotch tape to fit together if they just walk away, losing information and allies. The PCs and the Blood Brothers are then attacked by another Anarch gang (The Union), presumably, resulting in some camaraderie-building combat. The next day there is another gruesome Vampire-caused murder, which the Prince tasks the Mask with investigating. At this scene, the PCs will likely spot a Lupine or other shadowy figure watching, give chase, and then follow back to a Union base, where there will be another fight (with, again, the Blood Brothers on the PCs side). The PCs may also choose to go after a hunter with a flamethrower who shows up, although they can skip this.

A Midnight Moon: One of the characters wakes up with a dead body lying in bed next to him/her, and the police banging on the door. At some point after the character has figured a way out of this dilemma, the Prince will send the PCs out of the city after a Lupine/vampire pair who were spotted fleeing (just like the Lupine/vampire pair that they PCs went chasing the day before). Then the Prince calls some Lupine buddies, tells them the PCs are coming, and the PCs get ambushed and beaten senseless. The characters wake up staked next to the remains of a Justicar, and hopefully at some point start piecing together than all is not right with the Prince. The PCs find themselves in a talking match with a couple of groups of Lupines, and if they can manage to seem competent and take a lot of verbal abuse meekly then the larger and more moderate faction of werewolves will send  them back to the city to solve rather than start a war and risk exposure (if the PCs can’t manage to avoid combat here, they’re just dead).

The Unmasking: Most of the scenes here are unnecessary to the core story, but gives the PCs some interactions with the other power players in Milwaukee, and potentially inroads to new allies for after the story is over (it can also give them clues, if they haven’t figured out that the Prince is trying to kill them, which personally I think is more likely than the book does, as I think the story here risks running into the problem of the writer/GM thinking that it’s obvious what’s going on because it’s obvious to him as the writer). The book presumes that, regardless, the PCs will eventually go visit the Prince again (even if they’re entirely at a loss for what to do next, they’ll likely feel obliged to report back to the Prince at some point) and he will capture them (yes, this is the second time that the PCs are required to non-lethally lose a fight in order to progress the plot).

Dreams of Madness: The characters are drugged and this chapter alternates between real scenes and hallucinations. There’s a lot of psychodrama here, including one scene that would take a lot of effort but should work and will ultimately have the GM getting the bulk of the players to agree that they need to drain 1-2 of their fellows in order to have the strength to break out. Even the “real” scenes are a bit symbolic and trippy, so it’s possible that the PCs will actually buy that they’re all just a series of hallucinations. After at least one not-real escape (which probably takes a lot of GM work for a hallucination, as it probably takes a good amount of actual rolling to sell to the players), the PCs will have the chance to actually fight their way out of the Prince’s mansion, which is going up in flames, and kill the Prince.

Opinions/Judgments/Thoughts

Milwaukee by Night provides a nice option to the standby Chicago setting if you’re looking at really old school Vampire sourcebooks. The whole isolation-causing “siege” of the city by the Lupines feels contrived, but is more about theme than the actual day-to-day ramifications on characters’ activities (unless your players make a habit of wandering between cities). But, compared to Chicago by Night, the sourcebook really tones down the power level of the elder conflict and puts the PCs in a much more influential place that doesn’t really feel contrived going forward (beyond your feelings about the whole “insane Prince” thing, anyway). Personally, I think that this sort of setting is more interesting to play in, even if the antics of the “we secretly control everything and everyone” Methuselah and Antediluvians might make for more interesting reading. And the story also does a reasonable job of introducing the characters to the various factions in Milwaukee.

The story is on rails and is more experienced by the players than it is guided by them. Most notably they (basically) have to make semi-nice with the Blood Brothers, and then run through two combat encounters they’re guaranteed to lose – either of which might be a problem, depending on the attitudes of the players and characters involved (on the bright side, other than needing some combat skills, there aren’t likely to be any issues with the characters/players getting entirely stonewalled by just not being able to figure something out). And unlike some of the other early Vampire story module efforts, there really isn’t much (if any) guidance provided on how you might reconstruct the story if your players derail things. On the plus side, the story looks like it would do a good job of keeping the players/characters on edge – the Prince keeps them coming and going, they’ll end up short on blood several times, enemies may or may not become allies, and there are several really solid trippy scenes during the hallucinations.

Ultimately, Milwaukee by Night presents a reasonable setting and a story to introduce the players to it that, while certainly flawed, does have some strong points. However, the story gets weaker when it no longer serves as an introduction to the city setting (because all of the scenes designed to introduce the characters to everyone become semi-pointless), and the city doesn’t have the same level of detail that Chicago ends up with. You could probably run Chicago for a while without really coming up with any new NPCs for a while, and that definitely won’t work with Milwaukee; the book simply doesn’t have the space for it (this could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your preferences). Given the choice, I’d rather play in Milwaukee, and just import interesting characters (and/or the iconic Succubus Club) from Chicago as needed.

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