“No one holds command over me. No man. No god. No Prince. What is a claim of age for ones who are immortal? What is a claim of power for ones who defy death? Call your *1* hunt. We shall see whom I drag screaming to hell with me.”
Vampire: the Masquerade, the premier horror roleplaying game (sorry, Call of Cthulhu), made its biggest appearance since V20 with the launch of a new edition at Gen Con 2018. Indeed, with the scope of differences in this fifth edition, it’s arguably the biggest update to Vampire since the game first launched in 1991. And I’m not just talking about the color of the cover, or the fact that they changed the tag line from “A storytelling game of personal horror” to “A Storytelling game of personal and political horror.”
There’s a reason Vampire: the Masquerade has been around so long. There’s a place (a big place) for roleplaying games likes D&D or Pathfinder – be a hero, defeat evil, tactics, save the town, collect some loot, do it again next time. But there’s also a more emotionally visceral sort of roleplaying game, where a lot of the game is about exploring the characters. And really exploring characters mean hard choices and pain, because that’s where the drama is. Vampire takes a supernatural framework that a lot of us our familiar with, and uses that framework to bring the pain. That doesn’t mean that being a vampire doesn’t have upsides. The characters are more powerful than mortals. They can have that supernatural strength and sexiness and cunning, bending mortals to their will. They can struggle against other vampires, and climb the ladder. But there’s always the Beast lurking in the background. There’s never a clean win. There’s always a trail of blood (and probably bodies). Vampire: the Masquerade pushes the players to deal with that, and get that really great roleplaying experience. I didn’t get in on the ground floor, but it’s still been more than 20 years since I was introduced to Vampire and it’s take on the World of Darkness (back when there was a lot of goth in the gothic-punk) and I’ve loved it ever since. And the fifth edition of Vampire: the Masquerade continues that and brings all of that into modern era.
So, You’re New To This Whole Vampire Thing?
Vampire: the Masquerade is the cornerstone of the World of Darkness, a darker reflection of our own world – the shadows are deeper, the lights harsher, the people meaner, and the monsters all too literal. The player characters are vampires. They drink the blood of the living to stay alive. They are not heroes, and they aren’t even anti-heroes, although they just might fall into the category of ‘not as much of a monster as some of the other monsters.’ The characters pursue their own personal goals, both noble (protect my mortal niece) to ignoble (exact petty vengeance on the scene queen who humiliated me), both political (obtain recognition of the right to control valuable access to the city’s airport) and personal (retain a sense of humanity), but beneath it all is always the Hunger.
Some basics are worth mentioning. First, the metaphysical – World of Darkness vampires have very few of the clichéd weaknesses. They’re vulnerable to sunlight and fire, and a wooden stake through the heart immobilizes them. That’s about it. However, each vampire must also grapple with the Beast within – a ravening bundle of hunger, fury, and terror. A vampire who loses too much of a grasp on their humanity falls further and further into the clutches of the beast, losing their ability to enjoy (or engage at all in) normal human interaction and, eventually, losing themselves entirely.
Arguably, the best thing a vampire could do is wait for the sunrise, knowing the harm they will cause. But, of course, that would make for a very short game, and so instead the characters will move through both human and inhuman society, striving for their personal understanding of success and satisfaction, and trying to cope with their inevitable monstrosity. After all, the more a vampire attempts to abstain, the easier it is to lose control to the Beast. Other moral and emotional quandaries abound. A mortal who drinks a vampire’s blood gains some power, and drinking it on a regular basis halts the aging process. But drinking a vampire’s blood also creates a supernatural affection, eventually to the point of total dedication and enthrallment. So, sure, your boyfriend loves you, and you love him, and wouldn’t it be great if he could be ageless with you – but knowing that, after a few months of this, he’ll be unable to be anything but adoring and subservient to you; no longer really capable of choosing to be with you. How does the character handle that?
Second, the political. Vampires are, like the humans they arise from, social creatures. They congregate heavily in cities, where there are other vampires and also enough humans to support their feeding habits. This tends to result in a den of backstabbing intrigue. The occurs at all sorts of personal levels, of course, but most vampires get classified into one of two sects. The Camarilla is the more well-defined of the two, and generally stands on the side of order and preserving the status quo. So it is relatively heavily populated with older vampires, and younger vampires who work with/for them. The other sect is the Anarch Movement, which includes some vampires dedicated to the overthrew of the Camarilla (generally replacing an entrenched tyranny backed by formalistic violence with a somewhat more egalitarian tyranny of more open violence), but can also include basically any vampire that the Camarilla hasn’t seen fit to induct into its ranks.
But, Camarilla or Anarch, the overwhelming goal of vampire society, referred to as the Masquerade (yup, the one in the title of the game), is to conceal the existence of vampires from humanity. This is of heightened importance in the modern era, as vastly increased state surveillance capabilities make it much harder for vampires to stay under the radar. Facial recognition, email monitoring, biometric identifiers? Everything that makes it easier for law enforcement (for Facebook) to track humans makes it harder for unaging vampires to simply slip from the scene.
In addition, vampires are divided into seven Clans, bloodlines of vampires that share some concepts in common (some through blood; others because the tendency of like to embrace like). In incredibly broad terms, the Brujah are rebels, the Gangrel are savage and animalistic, the Malkavian are blessed with insight and cursed with madness, the Nosferatu have a twisted and repulsive countenance, the Toreador are artists and sybarites, the Tremere are blood warlocks, and the Ventrue are born to rule (at least, they think so). There are also Clanless vampires (known as Caitiff), who are otherwise ‘normal’ vampires who have not inherited the blooded characteristics of their lineage, and the thin-blooded, vampires who are so many generations removed from the first vampire that they lack many (if not most) of the vampiric powers (but also may lack their weaknesses as well). For some, a vampire’s place in unlife is dictated by their Clan, but it is generally at least an influence on all (even the player characters, who tend to be more open-minded than their NPC counterparts).
Vampire: the Masquerade is a traditional tabletop RPG using dice for action and conflict resolution. V5 continues the longstanding tradition of using only ten-sided dice (d10). Although V5 also engages in the fairly standard new practice of offering customized dice for play, they are superfluous, and standard d10s work just as well, if not better (I mean, I’m still buying the custom dice, but they aren’t at all necessary). You do need two different colors of dice though.
Characters have ratings in attributes and skills (theoretically from 1-5, but really not more than a 4). These values are referred to as ‘dots’ because you fill in a matching number of circles on the character sheet. A character generally combines one attribute with one skill to attempt an action (so 2 dice if you’re bad at it, and 8 if it’s the thing in the world that’s your absolute strong suit). Each die that comes up with a 6 or higher is a success, with higher difficulty actions requiring more successes (1-2 for basic tasks, 3-4 for moderately challenging tasks, and 5+ for really hard to effectively impossible). A pair of tens is a critical, which is worth 4 successes instead of 2. When characters are going head-to-head, instead attempting a static challenge, then both characters will roll dice and compare successes (this is how basic combat works). It is suggested that, outside of combat, the storyteller (the World of Darkness’s title for the game master) apply an automatic win rule – if the number of dice to be rolled is twice the number of success required, the character automatically succeeds. Storytellers may also give players the option to ‘win at a cost’ if their roll includes at least one successes, but not enough to win the challenge.
Some common adjustments to this include the use of willpower and hunger dice. Willpower (which also serves as a de facto health pool for social combat) can be spent to re-roll up to three dice. For any vampire (such as, I don’t know, all of the player characters), hunger dice also become a factor. The vampire’s need for blood is represented by the hunger dice. The only time a vampire’s hunger is reduced to zero is when the vampire drains and kills a human being. You should not be surprised to know that murder is pretty high up there on the hierarchy of sins, and wantonly engaging in it makes it hard for a vampire to stay a functional character. So characters will almost always be rolling at least one hunger die. Many vampiric abilities (plus just waking up in the evening) require a rouse check – essentially a 50/50 chance that the vampire’s hunger increases, adding more hunger dice to the pool. Hunger dice can’t be re-rolled with Willpower (the Beast cannot be so easily controlled).
But more importantly, hunger dice can produce a ‘messy critical’ or a ‘bestial failure.’ A critical win with at least one 10 on a Hunger die is a messy critical; a failure with at least one 1 on a Hunger die is a bestial failure. A bestial failure is most commonly represented by the triggering of a compulsion, such as one of the Clan banes. A messy critical can be just as bad, either negating what would otherwise be a success, or causing collateral damage. This can be very literal, in the case of combat, but could also mean loss of status (due to a savage outburst) or a wearing down of Humanity.
Because Humanity is so important to Vampire, it’s worth addressing here, even if it’s getting a bit into the weeds for a ‘basic’ rules section. Humanity is, strangely, more important to a vampire than a human. Pretty much no matter what a human does, they are still human. A terrible human being, perhaps, but still human. A vampire, on the other hand, is no longer human. When they cling to their Humanity, they can also cling to their humanity and their ability to interact with the human world. When they begin to lose their Humanity, they become progressively more monstrous. A vampire with the highest realistic level of Humanity (let’s say a 7) can (with effort) pass as human and interact with them without penalty, even (temporarily) eating and drinking. A vampire who falls to Humanity 4, on the other hand, takes penalties on any effort to interact with mortals, can never quite pass as mortal even with great effort, and (when not making an effort) look more like a corpse than a pallid human. Humanity is managed through ‘stains,’ which the character receives when they violate the chronicle’s convictions (which are created by the storyteller or the group as a whole, to define the themes of the ongoing story) or, sometimes, their own convictions. If a character has any stains, then they make a Remorse test at the end of each session. If they are remorseful, the stains fade. If they are not, then the character has lost something, and their Humanity goes down.
The standard place to start with character creation in V5 is, as in so many other games, with a concept. But once you’ve got that down (or, at least, a general notion of that down), the first mechanical step is to pick a Clan. In addition to the social consequences that may flow from this decision, the character gets a clan weakness and three dots in Disciplines, the supernatural powers of the vampires beyond things like a general resistance to damage.
These Disciplines include Potence (physical power), Fortitude (toughness), Celerity (enhanced grace and reflexes), Presence (emotional manipulation), (Auspex (enhanced perception), Dominate (commanding others), Obfuscate (concealing or altering one’s appearance), Protean (limited shapeshifting), Animalism (communicating with and controlling animals), and Blood Sorcery. Each Clan is gifted with three Disciplines, and the character gets two dots in one of them and one dot in a second. Some Disciplines are common across several Clans (especially the physical enhancements), while others are unique to particular Clans (for example, only the Tremere get Blood Sorcery). There are usually a couple of power options for each level of a Discipline, so two characters with Presence 2/Celerity 1 will not necessarily have the same power set.
Characters get a standard spread of dots in attributes, of which there are nine – Physical (Strength, Dexterity, Stamina), Social (Charisma, Manipulation, Composure), and Mental (Intelligence, Wits, and Resolve). Health is derived from Stamina, and Willpower is derived from Composure and Resolve – these three attributes tend to be ‘defensive’ in nature, more often used when resisting the effects of someone else’s action. Characters get a single attribute at 4, a single attribute at 1, and the rest 2 and 3.
There are four different ways presented of handing out skill dots, but in short there’s a method that produce characters with lots of dots but no really high stats, a method that produces characters with focused but relatively few dots, and a couple in between.
Each character then gets 7 points of Advantages and must take a couple points of Flaws. These cover a wide spread of possibilities, from claimed territory in the city to mortal allies to appearance to a vampiric mentor. Some of the advantages have dot scales like other characteristics (the more points you spend, the better your ally is), while others are a fixed point spend for a fixed effect (for two points, your character is beautiful, and gets a bonus on some social interactions).
All of the above will get some extra polish from choosing the vampire’s Predator type – how it is that they typically go about turning humans into walking juice boxes. This will add a specialty to a skill, a dot to a Discipline, and combination of Advantages and Flaws. For example, the Siren Predator type (who lures victims into sexual encounters to feed) get a Seduction speciality, two points of good looks, and a minor enemy (e.g., a jilted lover), while the Alleycat (who takes blood by force) gets better at fighting/intimidating and gets several dots of criminal contacts, but loses Humanity.
The final touch is convictions and touchstones. Convictions define the characters guiding principles, and (as discussed above) violating them can result in a loss of Humanity (which starts at 7). Touchstones are mortals who important to the vampire and are tied to these convictions in some way – permitting touchstones to be harmed (or causing that harm yourself, because have I mentioned that vampires are not good people) is bad for that Humanity rating.
Caitiff characters are handled like any other vampire, except they have no in-Clan Disciplines. Caitiff characters get 2/1 in any two Disciplines, but it’s more expensive to raise them later on.
Thin-Blooded characters are kind of their own thing, supernaturally. They get no disciplines (although they can develop skill in their own, known as Thin-Blood Alchemy). They are missing some vampiric drawbacks, but lacking some vampiric upsides. Then, in addition to the usual advantages/flaws, they get to pick several advantages and flaws specific to their condition. The advantages generally make them more human in good ways (e.g., normal bodily functions) or grant some strength that a normal vampire would have. The flaws, on the other hand, tend to give them some weakness of a normal vampire, or of a normal mortal (e.g., inability to use blood to heal).
Once single characters are complete, the coterie (the term for a group of vampires, especially player characters) is developed. The coterie typically identifies a joint purpose – why does this group of vampires act as a group (well, at least some of the time, they do – a coterie of vampires is typically not a harmonious commune)? There is the option to be champions for some good cause, but they might be allied social climbers, a criminal fang gang, or attack dogs for the vampiric Prince of the city. Throughout the character and coterie creation process, V5 makes use of a relationship map (similar to what you might see in a game that’s Powered by the Apocalypse).
OK, I’ve Played V20, Tell Me About More Details and About What’s Different And Whether The Changes Are Good
There are a lot of differences between V20 (and all of the iterations of Vampire that went before it) and V5, some small, some pretty big. Let’s go into excessive detail, complete with some opinions. But first, here’s the TL;DR version:
- Pros: The new Hunger system, the addition of Predator types, changes to attributes, no Sabbat in the core book (there’s a comment section below for Sabbat fans with torches and pitchforks), graphic design/layout, playable Malkavians, Convictions/Tenets, modification of physical Disciplines
- Cons: Resonance, lack of freedom in character creation, some of the art
- Unsure If It’s Good, But It’s A Thing to Think About: sharpening of lines between Camarilla and anarch, vastly different Thin-Blooded, Touchstones, modifications to non-physical Disciplines
Purpose of the Book
Before delving into particulars, I think it’s worth emphasizing how different the purpose of V5 is, as compared to V20. V20 was a thoroughly comprehensive product that was, for the most part, aimed at those of us who already knew Vampire well. It contained every Clan, basically every Discipline (including multiple kinds of blood magic), tons of Bloodlines, piles of Paths of Enlightenment. That’s not what V5 is. V5 is, in some respects, a ‘back to basics.’ It’s more aimed at new players. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t for us older players too, but it does mean that it doesn’t feel obligated to present every option we’re familiar with from the last 25+ years. There are only the original seven Clans, and their Disciplines. There’s no option to play Sabbat or an independent (also, the Assamites and the Followers of Set were renamed the Banu Haqim and the Ministry of Set, for whenever they show up). There aren’t two pages on each Clan, there are six. That’s a lot of focus.
I wanted to tackle this up front, because I know it’s the sort of thing that has drawn a lot of commentary from some parts of the fandom (yes, I too have known the pain that comes from having those things we love change or not be presented in quite the same way). And my take on it is that it’s a good thing. I mean, I’d love a massive list of merits/flaws/backgrounds, but focusing the game back on the Camarilla (or, I suppose, the Camarilla and the Anarch Movement now) is a good thing, especially for an entry point. The Sabbat has had a variety of presentations over the years, but whatever the exact spin, it’s kind of the point of the Sabbat that they don’t really care about humanity (or Humanity) or the Masquerade. But those things – the struggle to stay hidden and the struggle to stay human(ish) – are central to the core premise of Vampire: the Masquerade (part of it’s literally there in the title). That doesn’t mean there isn’t value in a Sabbat game – combat, open savagery, alien mindsets – but it can get pretty divorced from the core experience that White Wolf is aiming for here.
Note that the details on setting changes (beyond the Second Inquisition) are pretty vague in V5. There are references, but getting the full skinny on this requires picking up a copy of Beckett’s Jyhad Diary and then waiting to see what’s in the Camarilla/Anarch books and the Onyx Path releases in the near future. But here are some generalities.
It may or may not be “Gehenna,” but there’s a Gehenna War going on in the middle east, and it’s pulled much of the Sabbat over there, along with a bunch of Camarilla elders. This seems to be primarily designed to pull the Sabbat out of the primary setting and open up space for advancement in the ranks. I’ve discussed the Sabbat above. I don’t know if removing many elders generally was ‘necessary,’ but to me that isn’t really the point. With or without the Beckoning calling elders away, I imagine that storytellers will pick a city and its vampire population to suit the story they want to tell, whether that be a calcified social structure full of immovable elders or something more fluid. So, from a play perspective, this is kind of a *shrug* for me. Whether it will be interesting from a ‘canon metaplot’ point of view isn’t something one can really tell from the core book. I can see the point of those who suggest it’s a bit heavy-handed … but then you could have said that about Ravnos waking up, killing most of his Clan, and then getting fried by the Technocracy, and I thought the Week of Nightmares was awesome.
A more pertinent setting change, to my mind, is the now sharp line between Camarilla and anarchs. In the past, the Camarilla has always presented itself as a broad umbrella organization – every vampire was supposed to be in (whether they liked it or not). There were always anarchs, but they were generally seen by the Camarilla as members, albeit troublesome ones. Now the Camarilla has locked the doors, and anarchs aren’t members at all. This development is a bit concerning, as it calls into question the standard social arrangement, and I think what’s been around before worked well. But all it can do is make me wonder, because there really isn’t enough detail in here to tell. I imagine the upcoming Camarilla and Anarch sourcebooks will provide illumination.
There’s a lot of emphasis on the Second Inquisition, but the actual change in life will mostly be up to the level of paranoia the storyteller wants to use. Sure, the Tremere Pyramid was toppled (more on that later) and Shrecknet is gone, but there’s always been a sliding scale of how intense the worry about the masquerade was. In general, it’s incredibly difficult to truly stay off the radar if the powers that be are tracking you. The introduction of the Second Inquisition emphasizes how much harder that is, but (as V5 discusses) there’s a certain level of paranoia that can really impede gameplay, where everything can revolve around (probably futile) efforts to cover your tracks. Like the Beckoning, the Second Inquisition to me is more of a lever for the storyteller to use, if they want to push emphasis on the Masquerade. Beyond that, it probably adds a little verisimilitude – this tracking technology is out there, and while Vampire (like every other RPG) deviates from reality, it’s also important that a setting adhere to certain (usually reality-based) expectations.
Art and Graphic Design
Overall, I have loved the art that Vampire has used over the decades. I’m not saying it was all great (and I know I’ve written a review where I bemoan how the art sometimes seems just random, rather than being connected to the text), but I love the art. Well, the art in V5 is a big change. Now, change doesn’t mean bad, and I love some of the new art as well. There’s a lot more use of photographs, and everything is full color. The cover style is really different, but I like it. The blood-spattered Malkavian iconic shot, the eyes closed/eyes open pairing that’s in the discussion of ambition and desire, the darkened road with the bridge at the beginning of the Cities chapter – they’re all great. But but a lot of the photographic work just didn’t work for me. There’s a certain freedom to shade and evoke that comes with illustration, especially with the supernatural involved. And some of the photographs catch that, especially where they’ve applied effects. But there are too many shots where, ultimately, it’s just somebody standing there. Maybe there’s some blood in the shot, but there’s a good amount where it’s just a person, or a couple of people. A lot of the ones that really stand out (and not the good kind of standing out) are from this Brujah-themed photo shoot:
I mean, even setting aside the apparent requirement in this gang that female members must have visible belly buttons, this is kind of emblematic of the photos from this shoot used in V5 (and they’re used quite a bit) – a shot of people just standing there trying to look vaguely menacing. There’s nothing here that would tell you that these characters are even vampires, much less impart any ambiance to the book. I choose this one because this photo shoot comes up repeatedly, but there are others – the older Ventrue with her plaything, the two thin-blooded huddled together, the middle eastern looking fellow who leads of the advanced systems chapter.
Also, the emphasis on the use of photographs of actual people means that the Nosferatu, in general, don’t really look all that repulsive (even the set of eight drawn characters in the Nosferatu splat). I’ve seen it joked that all of the Nosferatu now have the Rugged Bad Looks merit, and there’s a point to that. On the other hand, making the Nosferatu less outrageously hideous does let them operate like other vampires without every single Nosferatu needing Mask of a Thousand Faces up at all times. So, once I get past my knee-jerk anti-change reaction, this particular tweak is really a positive.
Overall, the graphic design and layout are great. But I am disappointed by a significant chunk of the art selection – I was expecting more from the flagship product of such an important game line.
Hunger dice are a great replacement for blood pool (especially when combined with the ‘automatic win’ rule so that you don’t have highly skilled vampires popping messy criticals all the time while performing routine tasks). This seems like a pretty widely praised aspect of the new system, and it’s deserving of that praise. So much more thematic than tracking points of blood, and a great representation of the Hunger that’s always gnawing at the vampires. Possibly also the most straightforward representation of “a Beast I am lest a Beast I become” that I can recall (althoug, protip, killing people just to avoid that one Hunger Die is almost certainly going to be a worse sin – or a least as bad a sin – than whatever your messy critical would have caused).
Note that, in addition to being a less attractive option overall in V5, drinking animal or bagged blood also means that the last Hunger Die will never go away.
Hunger Dice (and things like Predator type) make the game more thematic by focusing on the gnawing hunger inside the vampire, instead of tracking power points like this was a video game. But then Resonance comes along, and it really feels like a video game mechanic. In short, mortal blood can have a Resonance depending on the emotions being felt at the time of drinking, and how strong those emotions were. Drinking resonant blood makes particular Disciplines more potent, depending on the emotion involved. So, for example, a vampire might induce feelings of intense lust, drink, and then use that to fire up their Presence. Or violently assault someone to get blood that boosts Celerity and Potence. There are even more boosts to be had if the vampire works to long-term push Resonance into Dyscrasias.
It’s kind of ridiculous. I have zero interest in roleplaying through the process of Dyscrasias farming so my vampire can get just the right power-up. I mean, the thematic concept of mortal blood ‘tasting’ different based on emotional state is interesting. But turning humans into walking potion bottles for tactical purposes? No thanks. On the bright side, Resonance can be readily removed from the game without really affecting anything except Thin-Blood Alchemy.
Clans (and especially Malkavians/Tremere)
The main change to the Clans is the adjustment of how some clan weaknesses (known now as banes). And, for me, the biggest one is the Malkavians. To my mind, Malkavians were almost unplayable in old school Vampire: the Masquerade. It was an extremely narrow path to having a derangement that was serious enough to count, yet not so serious as to effectively cripple the character. There are plenty of real-life mental illnesses are serious, but it’s not like “you have severe depression, but it’s treatable with appropriate medication” was what the Malkavian weakness was about. In V5, that has really loosened up. There’s no effort at providing a list of “real” mental illnesses that your Malkavian might have. Instead, the derangement is of a more abstract sort (or, even if specific, not one that’s linked to a normal mental illness). The examplar case seems to be to tie it into the Malkavians penchant for seeing what others can’t. Regardless, the mechanical effect – rather than being an always-on state of lunacy – kicks in when the character suffers a bestial failure (or otherwise suffers a compulsion), reducing a broad chunk of dice pools as the character is overwhelmed by their experiences. It takes the Malkavians from marginally playable to pretty cool (although arguably still one of the more limited Clan concepts).
But while I’m geeking out about the Malkavians, you might be wondering about the Tremere. The Prime Chantry in Vienna has been obliterated by the Second Inquisition. The Pyramid has been broken. There’s no more one-step blood bond to the Clan (the new clan weakness is an inability to blood bond others). I already miss all those characters who got torched (you know, however many actually died), if only because the Tremere had some great metaplot, with all the Tremere/Saulot/Goratrix machinations over the centuries. But it really opens up the Tremere character concepts. There are the traditional ‘House Tremere’ Pyramid loyalists, the more mercenary ‘House Goratrix,’ and the new ‘House Carna,’ which is focused on modernizing the Tremere and combating the long-term misogyny present in the Clan. I know I led with the Malkavians, but the Tremere are really the bigger shakeup. So a big thumbs up for new kinds of Tremere, especially House Carna (and a bit of a thumbs down for whoever decided that the traditionally scholarly Tremere have instituted the same dress code for their female members as that Brujah gang pictured above).
I’m not going to delve into the nuances of the various combat rules in V5 as compared to V20 because, really, it doesn’t matter that much. It’s was, and remains, a really abstracted combat system (although, if you’re a veteran of the game, there’s a good chance you’ll want to use some material from the advanced section), and the details really only matter to the extent that there’s something obnoxious a player can do that the Storyteller has to watch out for. I don’t see anything immediately silly here (and the differences in how the physical Disciplines work probably limits the potential for abuse), but you never really know until things have been out in the wild for a bit.
Social combat, on the other hand, is a thing, and pretty different conceptually, with Willpower now serving as a social Health pool. In the basic conflict system, both characters are probably rolling against each other (maybe both players roll Charisma + Persuasion, if they’re having a debate). Whoever gets the most successes ‘wins’ that turn, and inflicts Willpower damage on the other (that will usually be superficial, rather than aggravated damage, and so will be halved just like physical superficial damage is). Superficial Willpower damage recovers at the start of each session based on the higher of Composure and Resolve. It’s frankly feels kind of punishing, since spending Willpower is the same as taking superficial Willpower damage – every point taken in social conflict is one less available for re-rolls or exerting brief control during a frenzy. However, it may be less punishing than it feels, because Willpower is no longer the go-to difficulty for things like Dominate, so being very low on Willpower doesn’t render a vampire as vulnerable as it did in V20.
Vampire has had the same nine attributes since 1991, so one of the more visible changes in V5 is that two of those nine are gone – Appearance (replaced by Composure) and Perception (replaced by Resolve). As noted above, these frequently served as ‘defensive’ statistics. For example, most rolls to resist the effects of Dominate or Presence involve Composure or Resolve. The loss of Appearance is welcome. It wasn’t that big a deal, unless the Storyteller went out of their way to force the issue – and even then, even if it’s vigorously pushed into first encounters, its value paled in comparison to Charisma and Manipulation. If there was a ‘dump stat’ in Vampire, it was Appearance (especially given the ability to visually describe characters as attractive, regardless of the dots; or the ability of Presence to overwhelm Appearance anyway).
The removal of Perception is more of a sea change. The things that Perception did are now the skill Awareness, which functions much like Alertness did in V20 (except you don’t always pair it with Perception; what used to be Awareness is now just gone). Awareness is most commonly paired with Wits or Resolve. There were those who would argue that Perception became way too important an attribute in prior versions of Vampire, so this is also probably a good change, although it still throws me for a loop.
Note that attributes are somewhat lower (22 dots instead of 24), but this is really neither here nor there, so long as difficulty targets are still appropriate. I do like characters being compelled to be weak in one area, in the form of a 1 in an attribute (and I say this as someone who generally has to force himself to give a character that sort of weak spot; it’s the same instinct that makes me want to avoid having any stats less than a 10 in D&D/Pathfinder).
As for Skills (oh, everything is just a social/mental/physical skill now, instead of being labeled talents and such), in addition to the aforementioned changes with Alertness/Awareness, Computer is now Technology (and what used to be Technology is probably now in Craft), Expression is now a specialty of Craft, and Law is now a specialty of Academics. The new Insight skill takes the primary portfolio of the old Empathy skill, while the new Persuasion skill takes over for a variety of bits of other skills (most heavily Empathy and Expression). The latter seems like a good addition, since I had to go back and double-check that, yup, there was no skill in V20 that was just about convincing someone. I also really appreciate that you can drive and use a computer without having a dot in the skill. You can’t do anything fancy, but there’s no more of those dots being mandatory if you want the character to be able to use the skill at all.
There’s a lot of shakeup in Disciplines. The biggest being the removal of the automatic progression of powers. A corollary to that is that many of the Disciplines are weaker – what was once the level 1 power might now be split in two.
The biggest changes come for the physical Disciplines (Potence, Fortitude, Celerity), because they are no longer just automatically scaling bonuses. Celerity options include auto-success on rolls to balance, dodging bullets, and faster movement. Fortitude options include extra Health, resistance to mental manipulation, and a couple forms of damage reduction. Potence options include massive damage to mortals, leaping, quick feeding, enhanced climbing … or you can just go with good old extra damage to unarmed attacks. The three physical Disciplines have all been various kinds of broken at different times (because Vampire can kind of fall apart when a character can just ignore all the political/moral stuff and just rip the enemy to pieces). V5 has the guts to just toss out even trying to play like the older versions of the Disciplines, and ends up better for it.
Animalism: Feral Whispers (the old one-dot power) is now a two-dot power (that also includes the old two-dot Beckoning), while level one allows the creation of an animal ghoul or sensing the Beast in others. The third dot can still be the traditional Quell the Beast, but there’s an alternative to have a passive ability that makes feeding on animals much more worthwhile.
Auspex: Auspex sees a big change right away, as the ability to sense the supernatural (including the ability to see through Obfuscate) is no longer built in, but must be chosen as a one-dot power (instead of heightened senses). Level 2 gives some premonitions, while Aura Perception is kicked up to level 3 (and Spirit’s Touch to level 4).
Dominate: Similar to Auspex, Dominate sees its level 1 power split in two, although both powers are the ability to issue one-word commands – one lets you make people forget, while the other is every other command. It’s pretty similar from there on out.
Obfuscate: Obfuscate pretty much has what it had before, but adds the option for Quietus and later the option to make the other powers apply to electronic surveillance as well.
Presence: At 1 dot and again at 3 dots the user of Presence will have to choose between scaring people and making them into adoring fans. In between is the ability to make the Kiss addictive.
Protean: The Gangrel can still take Eyes of the Beast, Feral Claws, Earth Meld, and Shapeshifting (all at 3 dots or less). They also have a new 1-dot option to becomes almost weightless. Alas, poor Gangrel, but Feral Claws no longer do aggravated damage to vampires.
Blood Sorcery: I want to quip about “Thaumaturgy” apparently being too fancy a word, but since Blood Sorcery is presented as something of an all-encompassing magical Discipline (at this point Tremere Thaumaturgy and a recast Banu Haqim Quietus), I suppose that the rename is warranted. The basic Discipline purchase basically grants abilities in line with the old Path of Blood. Beyond that, all of the abilities are Rituals, which are purchased separately (except that a character with Blood Sorcery at character creation starts with one for free).
Overall, it’s hard for me to parse how to think about these changes. I’ve played a couple of one-shots at conventions, but nothing where I can really see how they play out. Frankly it’s hard not to look at (to take a completely hypothetical example that has nothing to do with an actual character conversation, I swear) a character with Auspex 3; realize that this would translate over to Auspex 2 (because you can’t have 3 in a Discipline at character creation), and then that the character would have to advance up to Auspex 4 to be able to do what they do now; and then get a little grumpy. But that gut grumpiness doesn’t mean that it was the wrong call. Similarly, it feels ‘off’ to not have Disciplines advance in lock step … but stepping back from that one, my notions of general game design principles say that having options like that is almost certainly a good thing.
So, in V20 you got 5 points of Backgrounds, and then 15 freebie points. And I don’t know about you, but an awful lot of my freebie points get eaten up by more Backgrounds, plus Merits. Backgrounds are the glue that connects the character with the world. I always thought characters should get more of them, even in V20. So if you guessed that I would not be a big fan of only getting 7 points total to spend on backgrounds and merits, then you would be correct.
Let me illustrate. Let’s say your character has the most modest of standard backgrounds – they have a single lousy ally (2 points; see below for distinct rant on Allies), a single Contact (1 point), a junker of a haven (1 point), they have a neonate for a Mawla (1 point; the replacement for mentor, which represents a similar but broader concept), and are poor but have some tiny bit of cash/stuff (1 point). That’s 5 out of 7 points used up. No Retainer, no Herd, no local Influence, no Status, no alternate identity (which seems really important these days), none of those interesting merits and, of course, not having any of those Backgrounds a good level (e.g., a decent network of Contacts). Without the freebies, there just isn’t enough room to breathe life into the characters. I would strongly consider giving characters more points to spend here.
But the Background that really gets under my skin is Allies. Allies is one of those Backgrounds that can be really great for a character to have, because they (repeat after me) force the player to define the character’s connections to the world around them. Characters with backgrounds like allies and contacts and (what use to be) mentor should be encouraged. But the Allies Background is now really punishing because of its cost. In prior editions of Vampire, you basically got one ally for each dot in Ally you took. In V5, you have to both pay for the ‘effectiveness’ and the ‘reliability’ of the ally. So the worst ally in the world (a weak mortal who answers the phone maybe half the time) costs two dots. An average human being who will actually get back to you eventually when you need them costs four dots (again, that’s out of only seven points of advantages). I’m not sure how anyone could ever actually buy an ally at these prices, much less a meaningful ally who played a significant role in the character’s backstory. Plus, reading the example text makes me fell like they didn’t even realize what they were doing, because it refers to a character with two dots in Allies as having “a couple of allies” (I mean, I’m sure they did know what they were doing, but it still feels messed up). Plus, that effectiveness figure is, oddly enough, defined almost entirely in terms of how many attribute dots they have (not that a combatant can’t be useful, but I think of allies as usually being more useful because of who/what they know, or what access they can grant). I know this is only one Background, but as you can tell I think it was really messed up (and no, Storyteller of mine, it’s not just because I’m not sure how I’m supposed to rebuild by V20 character with the really important ally into V5 with these point costs, but thanks for reading this deep into this colossus of a review).
Outside of that, I like the mixing of merits/flaws and backgrounds. So you can not only buy positive status, but you can also buy Status Flaws (you aren’t just lacking in social standing, you’re actively suspected). Your haven isn’t just two dots (a row house), but it’s haunted (Flaw) and has a Laboratory (Merit).
Notable merits include levels of Looks, which replaced the Appearance attribute (and there is the option to be ugly but not Nosferatu ugly). There are also a series of merits that make the character more or less susceptible to Blood Bond, which could be pretty interesting.
The most distinctive Background is a Loresheet. These are specific (often very specific) hooks into the metaplot of Vampire: the Masquerade. Some of them are somewhat broad concepts (seeker of Golconda), while others are very specific (descendant of Helene, so you can open your own Succubus Club franchise).
Nothing else to add about the substance of Predator types, beyond the outline sketched above, but they’re a pretty awesome addition. They really force you to think about how it is that your character gets sustenance, and the whole “drinking blood to survive” thing is kind of central to the concept.
If you read the summary of character creation above, you may have noticed a lack of anything about generation. That’s because there kind of isn’t anything about generation. There’s no more being a 12th generation vampire who was embraced 100 years ago, and (more relevantly) no being a 9th generation vampire who was embraced ten years ago. Generation is strictly dictated by how long ago the characters were embraced, and strictly dictates starting Blood Potency (which is the much more pertinent number). The character creation rules are for childer embraced in the prior 15 years. Older than that (neonates) doesn’t change generation, but gives more XP. Ancillae (embraced before 1940) can be 10 or 11, Blood Potency 2, a few more points of advantages and flaws, less starting Humanity, and a larger helping of XP.
I don’t like this change. It’s such a straitjacket that I kind of assume that the first Onyx Path book (if not the Camarilla book) will have rules changing it. And, from an in-setting perspective, nothing has changed (that I’m aware of) that prevents lower-generation vampires from embracing.
As for Blood Potency it is, to some extent, and adjunct/replacement for Generation. And a character can raise Blood Potency, unlike Generation. To get an idea of what it does, going from Blood Potency 1 (starting character) to Blood Potency 2 doubles the amount of healing per rouse check and adds one die to all one-dot Discipline rolls, but means that the vampire only gets half benefit from animal and bagged blood. Blood Potency also defines the vampire’s bane severity – the higher the Blood Potency, the more the clan weakness affects the vampire. So, for example, a Malkavian with a higher Blood Potency takes a bigger penalty on all applicable rolls when their bane triggers.
I really like the idea of defaulting to having the group sit down in advance and think about why the characters are a coterie and how they relate to each other (and also how the characters relate to some NPCs).
But the formal mechanics of the coterie are limited by the stingy dots – all of one per player. For a group of four vampires, that’s a whopping 4 points to spend on their Domain and any other shared background the group is supposed to have (this is exacerbated because Domain has three different categories of dots to buy, for geography, security, and ease of hunting). Sure, characters can chip in personal Advantage dots as well, but as discussed above those are already in extremely short supply. And some of the coterie types have minimum buy-ins that require more dots than there are players in most Vampire games.
All characters must have at least one Conviction, but they can have up to three. Convictions can be a benefit, because if the character would take stains, the number of stains taken is reduced if the action furthered one of the character’s Convictions. There is, however, the possibility of incurring a stain for violating the personal conviction. The Convictions examples are generally bona fide moral principles (“thou shalt not kill” or “stand up for the disenfranchised”), although a few are more about order (e.g., “obey authority.”). Personally, I would like to play a Toreador who really believes that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” and so adopts the Conviction that “the truth is sacred; thou shalt not lie.”
In addition to these personal Convictions, the chronicle itself has Tenets. They are decided on by the group (presumably with the Storyteller having extra weight), and apply to all characters, whether the characters believe in them or not. An example set of Tenets is the Creed of Justice – don’t kill the innocent; be your own and never submit; and without a cause you are nothing.
I like both Convictions and Tenets. Just like defining a Predator type forces the player to really think about how that part of their vampire’s existence works, so does thinking about the Convictions force the player to consider what really motivates the character. Both of those are things that players can (and should) be doing anyway, but this is one of the ways mechanics can matter in a story-driven game – making it a mechanic ensures that it is given serious consideration.
Finally, there are the Touchstones. Each Touchstone must be a living mortal, and is supposed to in some way represent one of the character’s Convictions, although that feels really loose since the examples presented mostly seem to be someone who would be important to the character in some way, rather than anything tied specifically to a Conviction. Touchstones are important for maintaining Humanity. I’ll talk more about Humanity in a minute, but I can see the criticism of Touchstones, especially for older vampires. But even for new ones, why is the character’s humanity so tied up in one person? I think it helps to think of the Touchstone, and the loss of a Touchstone, in more long-term emotional terms. It’s not that, for example, a Touchstone parent’s death that causes a loss of Humanity directly, like a magical string being cut. It’s that the parent was one of the things that helped the vampire feel connected to Humanity, and without that buttress, the connection starts to fade. In that light, the Touchstone both makes sense and (to repeat a theme) forces the player to design hooks to the mortal world, and actually care about them.
The basics of stains and humanity were discussed way up higher in this review, but I want to get a little more into the weeds here about how Remorse checks work.
To recap, characters get stains for violating chronicle Tenets. They might get stains for violating their own Convictions, but when a Tenet is violated in pursuit of a Conviction, this reduces the stains gained by one. A “justifiable or less-than-appalling” Tenet violation might incur only 1 stain (so reduce to zero if in support of a Conviction), while a just murdering someone might be 3 (assuming that randomly killing people is a Tenet violation).
In a Remorse check (made at the end of a session), the character looks at their Humanity track, and rolls a number of dice (minimum 1) equal to the number of empty boxes – so (10 – Humanity – number of stains). One success means the character feels remorse, and all stains are removed. No successes means a loss of Humanity (and stains are removed).
This system felt a bit brutal to me, so I wanted to compare the math. Any vampire with Humanity 8-10 will get a one-die Remorse roll for any session in which they get even a single stain. Let’s set aside Humanity 9-10 (does any vampire every actually have Humanity that high?). But Humanity 8 can be potentially doable (and thin-blood characters start with an 8). This means that, any time the character gains a stain, there’s a 50/50 chance of losing Humanity. What about a Humanity 8 character under V20? Under that system, a Difficult 8 Conscience roll was called for if the character violated an applicable sin. Now, a vampire with Humanity 8 will surely have at least Conscience 3 (and could well have Conscience 4, because if the player wanted the vampire to be this human-like, they probably wanted it to last a few sessions). With that Conscience 3, there’s a ~65% chance of passing the check (Conscience 4 pushes this up to ~76%). So that’s harsher, but not as much harsher as it felt.
What about a more typical Humanity 7 vampire (starting Humanity for a fledgling or neonate)? Now, so long as there’s only a 1-stain violation, the vampire will be rolling 2 dice. That brings it up to an ~75% chance of success, while there’s no change for the V20 rules. However, more serious sins bring the vampire back down to the lower odds of the 1-die roll. That’s a justifiable difference, in that it now matters how bad the violation was (although there is no longer as much of an effect of holding to a higher standard – there’s no more getting dinged for having selfish thoughts when your Humanity gets high enough).
So, I’ll call this one a wash. I was concerned that it was becoming too hard to hold on to Humanity, and it is even harder for a Humanity 8 vampire (maybe too hard, maybe not), but at the 6-7 level where most of the player characters start, it’s fine.
Ambition/Desire (replacing Nature/Demeanor, I guess)
Characters each have a long-term (possibly very long-term) ambition – what keeps them going in the long run. In addition to the storytelling benefits of laying this out, it can also help recover Willpower (much like Nature used to).
The related concept of Desire represents a short-term goal – you can pick a new Desire every session. Working towards Desires can also restore Willpower (although not as well), and encourages characters to have goals to actively work towards every session.
I think that Ambition and Desire are positive additions. But are they positive as a replacement for Nature/Demeanor. Well, Demeanor had not mechanical effect anyway, so it can still be used – so I think the real question is whether they’re more useful than Nature. I’m inclined to say yes. Ambition (and Desire) need to be more concrete. Natures can be really vague and hard to suss out, unless they’re accompanied by more specificity – it’s not that I’m an Idealist, it’s that my ideals are X, Y, and Z. Ambition makes sure that extra definition is there up front.
Vampire is not really a game that focuses on character growth through the expenditure of experience. And experience gain in Vampire has always been limited, maybe 2-3 per session, with that being enough only to maybe cover the first or second dot of a skill, although in-Clan Disciplines were relative bargain at low levels (only 2-3 sessions to get a second dot). Still, characters do gain experience and the ability to round out skills (or gain a precious new Discipline dot), and that can enhance long-term survivability. But it’s a lot harder in V5. By default, characters are now down to just 1 XP per session.
And buying new dots is more expensive. First dot in a skill is still 3 XP, but the second dot is now 6 (instead of 2), and then 9 for the third. Advantages (backgrounds/merits) actually cost XP, instead of being earned through roleplaying. Disciplines are a wash on pure cost if you start at zero, because the first dot in a Clan Discipline is only 5 (instead of 10, so that’s a big discount, after that the price is higher – the second dot is 10 (instead of 5) and the third 15 (instead of 10). But even when the cost is ‘even,’ it really isn’t, because XP is earned at half the pace.
While traditional Vampire doesn’t involve a lot of power leaps, and that was fine, I wonder if effectively cutting character advancement to somewhere in the 17%-50% range serves a helpful purpose. I’m inclined to put this in the negative column.
I think my primary opinion on the Thin-Blooded here is “meh.” They’re given a much more prominent role here than in prior editions, and they’re much more complicated, with their own set of merits and unique Discipline (that itself takes up six pages), in a book that (as discussed above) is otherwise cutting the provided content down to the core of the setting (or, in other words, White Wolf must consider this a core part of the setting, even though I obviously don’t). The thin-blooded now are really pretty distinct from normal vampires, and I don’t really go to Vampire: the Masquerade looking to play a half-vampire type. Maybe if I had a better idea of what the thematic function of the thin-bloods was? Because there’s a lot more to them now than weaker vampires whose arrival heralds Gehenna.
But, setting aside my personal level of interest, how do the thin-blooded play? Well, I dropped them down here, instead of with the Clans, because half of what they do depends on Resonance (which, as you saw above, I’m not a fan of). So let’s set that aside too. The first half of what the thin-bloods do is the half-vampire thing. It seems fine mechanically, if that’s your sort of thing. The other half is their signature ‘Discipline,’ Thin-Blood Alchemy. Alchemy lets the thin-blood mix some of their blood, some mortal blood with appropriate resonance, and maybe some other stuff, to produce a potion that grants a variety of powers. They can copy most Discipline powers. There are some additional things unique to alchemy. The most basic unique alchemical concoctions can make the drinker telekinetic, shrouded by mist, or change sex. It’s kind of a grab-bag. Each formula has to be purchased separately, so it’s got some versatility, but is a lot more hoops to jump through than just having Disciplines.
The Rest of the Book
That’s only the first 320 pages or so of V5 (well, the first 290 or so, plus the Loresheets near the back). There’s another ~100 pages on advanced systems (including more conflict options, plus prestation, hunting, kindred intimacy; and having Highlander-style flashbacks called Memoriams), city-building, running a chronicle, an appendix of common rolls and how to do long-term projects, and even some antagonists.
You got my overall impression waaaaay back at the top of this review (and then with some bullets at the start of the detailed section), but overall there are a lot more positive than negatives moving to V5. The Hunger dice add a broadly thematic mechanic in place of one that was a little mechanistic, and a whole host of smaller changes push players towards really thinking about and dealing with some of the important aspects of unlife (Predator types, Ambition/Desire, Convictions/Tenets). These are joined by other positive shifts like the shakeups to the Tremere and, to a lesser extent, the Malkavians, plus the modification of physical Disciplines. On the other hand, I’m really not liking Resonance and there’s a lack of freedom in character creation (both of which can, hopefully, be readily modded away). V20 is really, really great, but ultimately it’s hard not to get excited about exploring V5 more.
Promotional consideration provided in the form of a review copy.