Ashes to Ashes was one of the first couple of Vampire: the Masquerade supplements. It is set in Chicago but pre-dates the venerable Chicago by Night. Ashes to Ashes is an immediate follow-on to the Baptism by Fire story in the first edition Vampire core book – so immediate that Baptism by Fire is considered the first chapter of Ashes to Ashes (it is not reprinted in the book, however). Ashes to Ashes is, then, the first introduction to Chicago for both the characters and the players. Ashes to Ashes is an 80-page B&W softcover, and was also later re-released as part of the Chicago Chronicles, Volume 3 (along with Milwaukee by Night and Blood Bond).
Note: Because Ashes to Ashes is an adventure module, and it’s basically impossible to review without spoilers. So, in the wildly unlikely event that you might be running through this adventure as a player, you have been duly warned.
The “Forged in Steel” chronicle suggested in the original Vampire core book, which led off with the Baptism by Fire story, places the characters as neonates in Gary, Indiana, a city whose rust belt decay has been heightened as compared to the real world by the enmity between the prince of Chicago (Lodin) and the “prince” of Gary (Modius). Baptism by Fire basically wraps up with Modius acting outraged at Lodin’s demand that the newly-embraced characters be presented in the court of Chicago. Realpolitik intrudes, however, and Ashes to Ashes sees the characters traveling to Chicago to present themselves. They then get an introduction to some of the locations, factions, and players in Chicago, eventually being blamed for and having to investigate the disappearance of the prince.
Ashes to Ashes is designed, in part, to reinforce for the players that they are pawns, that their seemingly free choices have been manipulated from behind the scenes. In this case, they are being used in the conflict between the two Methuselahs slumbering beneath the Second City. On the other hand, the characters are also pushed to make a real choice – whether to side with the Anarchs or the Elders in Chicago (and how much loyalty to have to Gary).
Ashes to Ashes indicates that the characters may very well fail to save Lodin. On the other hand, the book is designed to lead into Chicago by Night (First Edition), where Lodin is still around (he is later killed off in Under a Blood Red Moon). There is still a reasonable amount of flexibility in the story, however, as there are a couple of distinct paths to get to the endgame (or the players may end up going through both paths), and several of the scenes have the acknowledged possibility of the players just failing or going off in a direction that takes them out of the story. In general, this tends to play itself out in the story as presenting the players with binary choices that will tend to land them in the same place for purposes of this story, but will probably have significant ramifications for their future interactions with the inhabitants of Chicago.
Chapter One: Baptism by Fire – As mentioned above, this is included in the 1E Vampire core book.
Chapter Two: Such Tangled Webs – The characters know basically nothing about vampiric life Chicago, but they (of course) know about the Succubus Club (perhaps they’ve already read The Succubus Club), and so it is presumed the characters will end up and the landmark nightclub in their efforts to figure out how to present themselves to the prince. This pretty quickly presents the characters with a sort-of-choice – Gengis (stereotypical anarch) or “Sir” (drunken low-level elder). Gengis will rail against the establishment, and can ultimately invite the characters to an anarch meeting later that night. Sir will direct the characters to a bar called The Cave, where they can find out how to get in contact with one of Lodin’s subordinates. If they go to the Cave, they will find some biker gang vampires, where the characters may make some unfortunate assumptions about which side of the power struggle these bikers are on, but (if they can navigate the social landmines) they will eventually directed to a meeting with “Lodin.” If the characters go to the anarch meeting, it will be broken up by the Sherriff, who torches the place. It is also possible that the characters make nice with both Gengis and Sir, and are present for both scenes. If the characters meet “Lodin,” they will be asked a lot of questions, and eventually find out that they’re really talking to Neally, one of the prince’s lieutenants (Lodin has already disappeared at this point). Neally will send the characters off to Soldier Field to be picked up by helicopter and taken to somewhere safe for the day – which results in the characters either standing in the middle of the football field as the sun comes up before they are actually picked up; or in the characters getting hunted down for not following the instructions.
Chapter Three: The Breaking Point – Regardless of what the players did in Chapter Two, as long as they are still “alive” and in Chicago, they’re going to end up meeting with Ballard, Lodin’s top lieutenant, at the start of this chapter (either because they agreed to meet him, or because his agents snatched them; trying to fight in this scene is essentially a death sentence). Ballard will blame the characters for the prince’s disappearance, but the characters are given the opportunity to discover the realm culprit and exculpate themselves. The only real lead available is to check out Lodin’s haven, and the story presumes the characters will head there. The description of the haven is pretty detailed, with lots of clues (some helpful, some red herrings) lying around. On the way out, one of the characters will have a premonition, and I rather liked the note that this should be handed to whichever player has been the least involved in the story so far, as a way to hook them in. At this point the characters have several ways they might go based on clues, which if they guess right might mean skipping quite a few scenes (and jumping straight to Chapter 5). There’s also a scene designed to shove the characters in the right direction if they don’t know what to do (the characters are attacked, rescued, and told to lay low; except the guy they are told to lay low with turns out to be the guy who actually kidnapped Lodin). If the storyteller wants, this scene can also be used to shanghai the characters back onto the “long path” instead of jumping straight to Chapter 5. The rest of Chapter 3 includes scenes where the characters explore the now-abandoned (and police-monitored) 7-11 where Roarke used to hole up. The characters can get past the police (and discover that they’re monitoring the location because a very strange dead body was found there) and potentially discover a hidden basement, where they’ll find a vial of rather potent blood.
Chapter Four: King’s Gambit – This chapter kicks off with the characters likely heading to the local police precinct to look into the mysterious body, which the characters are reasonably likely to believe is Lodin. The body is no longer with the police, but the more information they’re able to glean from the officers, the more it sounds like the body was a vampire in torpor. The characters may also follow-up by visiting a quack newspaper reporter who penned an article about the “vampire cult” that was operating out of the 7-11. The reporter has a good deal of information, most importantly including a tip to go to a particular location outside the city, but the characters may have to reveal secrets about themselves in order to get it. If the characters continue to follow-up on the body, they will end up in a conflict with a hunter who has used government contacts to obtain it for purposes of experimentation. The hunter is ensconced in a well-defended and trapped warehouse, and rooting him out will be rather difficult for the characters. Upon killing the hunter, the characters will learn that the body is a vampire, but not Lodin (possibly a disappointment to players who thought this nasty encounter was the climactic battle). The body is actually that of a Methuselah, and there’s a strong chance that one (and eventually most or all) of the characters will end up secretly Dominated, at which point they whisk the Methuselah to safety, and then wake up with no recollection of this.
Chapter Five: Check and Mate – The characters are now left with one lead (or maybe they just went there right away), a wooded ritual site outside of Chicago that is used by some satanic cultists. This chapter is pretty heavily combat-focused, as the characters must deal with a super-ghoul ram, possibly the cultists themselves, a swarm of rats who are permitted to feast on Lodin and then, ultimately, Roarke (a super-ghoul himself, after feasting on a Methuselah). This string of confrontations seems pretty brutal for neonates (even the ram’s horns do aggravated damage), including a time limit on the fight with the rat swarm (take too long, and Lodin is done for). Assuming the characters somehow manage to make it through this meat grinder (there’s a lot of blood to be had from the cultists, so there’s at least that option to heal and recharge), they’ll either have a very grateful prince on their hands, or some ‘splainin’ to do, and how things end will depend strongly on how the characters interacted with the new powers-that-be during the course of the story. Oh, and if they think to break off the ram’s horns, they now have magical satanic aggravated-damage-dealing weaponry. [insert eyeroll here]
Optional Advanced Storytelling Section – This is a secondary villain flashback story that the storyteller may choose to run alongside the primary story in Ashes to Ashes. Basically, the characters will from time to time flash back (to the 1960s) and play for a little bit as a group of mortal retainers for Lodin, including Roarke, who is “killed” at the conclusion of the secondary story. For example, there is a flashback to these retainers hanging out at Lodin’s haven, to be played right before the normal characters go investigate it. The retainers accompany Lodin on a harrowing journey across the Atlantic, during which more than one attempt is made on the prince’s life. Roarke will be “killed” in a manner that suggest that Lodin has betrayed him, thus setting up his motivation for going after the prince in modern times. After this, the remaining characters finally arrive at Lodin’s destination, the haven of the Queen of London, where they are unceremoniously dumped into a side room while the important people talk – and the characters will also learn that they have undertaken this oh-so-important and dangerous trip so that Lodin could place a game of chess face-to-face with the Queen of London. This secondary story is designed to wrap up around when the characters defeat the hunter – presumably so they have a better idea of what’s going on with Roarke before they fight and kill him.
The layout and art for Ashes to Ashes (like all 1E Vampire books) is less than impressive. The editing/proofreading is what it is for an old White Wolf book, although the discrepancies between the story map in the introduction and the actual scene titles was a bit annoying. The writing’s decent, but nothing that’s going to make this adventure into exciting reading material.
It’s not really anything about this book in particular, but there’s a reasonable amount of re-hash between this and Chicago by Night – it was necessary at the time (and makes the book stand alone better), but it means that if you’ve already got Chicago by Night there’s a certain amount of text that feels wasted (and, really, if you’re actually going to read or run Ashes to Ashes at this point, surely you’re going to own Chicago by Night as well).
As for the story itself, I kind of feel about this like I did about some of the stories in The Succubus Club – it’s not that it’s particularly good, but I have a hard time condemning it because writing great, tightly-knit stories for this sort of RPG is really hard without just railroading the characters. Here, while there are some stretches made in pushing the characters from one place to another, and a couple spots where I could see the characters just running into a brick wall, Ashes to Ashes is at least designed with the flexibility to let the characters do some things out of order, ways to deal with floundering characters, and several opportunities for the characters to figure out where they ultimately need to go. The villain flashback is optional, but I imagine that without it the characters would need a big speech from Lodin to figure out what was going on with the kidnapping – an extra problem here because this story already includes the sideplot with the Methuselah for which the characters will get absolutely no explanation. The story of how Roark nabbed Lodin in the first place also relies on the kinda-silly premise that he because beyond uber-tough after drinking the Methuselah’s blood (but can then later still be taken down by the PCs), but it’s not like the players will ever know that.
The story also serves its intended purpose of getting the characters an opportunity to see some highlights of the Chicago setting, although I have to say that princes getting kidnapped or killed as a way to involve the characters in high politics seems to be something that the early Vampire writers fell back on way too often (you have it here, it shows up again in the transition from first to second edition for Chicago by Night, and then yet again in Milwaukee by Night).
Ultimately, like most of the earliest Vampire books, Ashes to Ashes seems mostly interesting as a historical relic, a glimpse into the origin of what was once a big part of the RPG market, or possibly part of an ambitious effort to revisit the origins of Vampire by running a chronicle through Chicago in the early 1990s.