Review – Camarilla (Vampire: the Masquerade)

Without a doubt, the biggest roleplaying game (re)launch of 2018 is the fifth edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, the flagship game of the World of Darkness from White Wolf Entertainment. The core book first appeared at Gen Con 2018, and the first two supplements – Camarilla and Anarch – released in PDF format a few days ago. As you can tell from the title, this article is about the Camarilla book (you can read about Anarch here).

The Quick Take: Camarilla features stunning cover art, some dashes of brilliance inside (all hail Victoria Ash), the introduction of the Banu Haqim to V5, background on the Second Inquisition, and a lot of information that anyone running a V5 campaign will want to get their hands on. However, it does have some flaws, most notably a few sections that miss the mark, leaving me wishing they could have been reworked (religion) or dropped (Chechnya) to provide more basic information on nightly existence in the V5 World of Darkness.

In Vampire: the Masquerade, the Camarilla has always been the ‘default’ social structure for the game. An organization that ostensibly spoke for all vampires, but with seven pillar clans (the seven from the core V5 book – Ventrue, Tremere, Toreador, Brujah, Nosferatu, Gangrel, Malkavian). As a global notion, the Camarilla’s universality was obviously a sham. But on a more localized level (most of Europe and much of North America), it was essentially true. Not that all of the vampires in Camarilla cities were true believers – they weren’t. The Anarchs, railing against the system, have always been a thing. But everyone was considered part of the Camarilla. And everyone was expected to (mostly) follow the rules, and was (mostly) protected by the rules, regardless of oaths to the Tower (I mean, as much as one can expect in a corrupt oligarchy of immortal monsters, anyway). Sure, maybe the rabble weren’t the Prince’s favorite Elysium companions – but they could come the same as anybody, and they were shielded from physical attack the same as anybody.

The Good Old Days

With V5, that has changed. The Camarilla has closed ranks. It no longer considers all vampires to be members, even if they live in Camarilla cities. The Brujah and the Gangrel are no longer collectively members (of course, individual members of the Anarch clans can be members of the Camarilla, and individual members of the Camarilla clans can be Anarchs). The protections of the Camarilla only extend to members of the Camarilla, and membership is a formal process. But these basics we knew from the V5 core book.

What Is The Camarilla Now?

So, on a very fundamental level, not a lot has necessarily changed for vampires who are still in the Camarilla, except perhaps the loss of the ability to feel like you’re being noble and egalitarian in any way. The book really comes out hard with the feeling of the Camarilla as an elitist social club, complete with hazing rituals and an incredibly condescending attitude. Not that it wasn’t always an elitist social club with a condescending attitude – but it was less harsh when everyone got to be in the club.

Vampires who are not in the Camarilla, however, are probably now stuck in some sort of ghetto – a designated (and crummy) area of the city where the non-Camarilla vampires are tolerated. They don’t get to come into Elysium. The Camarilla structure will not generally protect them (although it will still protect the Masquerade, of course). This introduces new frictions, although it does make more difficult some of the classic Vampire clichés like the punks, thugs, and socially inept trying to make their way through a scene at court.

The Coterie system has become more formalized through the resurrection of some 17th century paperwork that no one had looked at in the last 200 years. Coteries are now a formal institution. You can’t just have a few random licks start hanging out, they have to be sanctioned by the Prince. They have to be assigned a mentor – whether they or the mentor like it or not. They are required to Haven together.

The general structure of a Camarilla city is explained, including the formal positions such as Prince, Seneschal, and Sheriff (sidenote: I am baffled why the first-listed “example” of a Prince is someone who held the office for literally two months). There are some modifications though. Most notable, at least for me, is the renaming of ‘Harpy’ to ‘Herald’ – a term with a broader ambit, more respect, and lacking the sexist undercurrents of the term harpy (seriously, how many times has there been a male Prince and a female lead harpy, and which of those titles has a positive connotation?).

Alliance With The Ashirra/Banu Haqim Join the Camarilla

The biggest metaplot addition from the V5 core book to Camarilla is material on the Ashirra and the Banu Haqim. The Banu Haqim (formerly known as the Assamites) are a Clan with its power base in the Middle East and Central Asia that, after the rise of Islam, gradually saw a membership shift that was more and more Muslim. The Ashirra is a sect consisting of Islamic vampires (although not all Islamic vampires). Many (something more than a majority) members of the Ashirra are Banu Haqim, but far from all. So there’s a significant overlap, but the two are distinct.

As a clan, the Banu Haqim have been sundered by the reawakening of a potent Methuselah, who predates Islam and wants to purge the Clan of it. This plot development kicked off many years ago, and has now been mostly consummated, with the Muslim members of the Clan having to flee the ancient stronghold of Alamut. Many of these individuals have subsequently joined the Camarilla, and many are members of the Ashirra. Although many Banu Haqim are still in Alamut (especially those of the warrior caste), the Banu Haqim appear to be positioned to become the new ‘sixth Clan’ of the Camarilla (there are also hints that the Camarilla is trying to find a new seventh Clan).

The alliance between the Camarilla and the Ashirra is in no small part driven by the Gehenna War, as the territory being assaulted by the massed Sabbat is typically the home turf of many Ashirra, giving the Camarilla and the Ashirra a common foe. There are a few new tidbits about the war, such as discussion of how the Sabbat used the U.S. military to gain access to the region, but the additions on that front are more about flavor and less about additional concrete detail.

Note that the alliance with the Ashirra is also indirectly tied into a resurgence of religious practices among Camarilla kindred, especially cult worship of Methuselahs. But I will admit that I found the section on religion fairly confusing, as it tries to blend multiple different religious notions, to acknowledge that this is kind of completely different from before while also making it sound like these cults have been around from ages, and its lack of a clear notion of what the Camarilla thinks of Antediluvians (it’s gone from saying they don’t exist to protecting them in the Gehenna War; but it’s unclear why Methuselahs are now worshiped, but not their Antediluvian forebears).

The Clans

Each of the five Camarilla clans from the V5 corebook gets a six-page spread. This includes one full-page art piece and one page of ‘paper dolls,’ and discussion of the Clan’s role in kindred society, its role in mortal society, and the sins of the Clan. One of these discussions takes the form of a sidebar of a Second Inquisition report on the Clan or an intercepted electronic communication between members of the Clan. The ‘sins’ vary, but mostly focus on feeding – feeding preferences (Ventrue), love/lust (Toreador), whether Aisling Sturbridge should stay in New York (shout-out for the Regent of the Chantry of the Five Boroughs), and drinking blood to quiet the voices in your head (Malkavian).

A longer presentation is, of course, reserved for the Banu Haqim, who are given a lawgiver/peacekeeper spin. They get the equivalent of the material presented in the core book plus the equivalent of the material presented here for the other Clans (including the Clan Compulsion). The spin on the Banu Haqim still leans towards the combat side, even though it was the vizier caste that more heavily went to the Camarilla. But there is no longer any mechanical distinction between the two lineages. They share the traditional Assamite Discipline spread, with Blood Sorcery replacing the signature discipline of Quietus (this was expected, since some of the Quietus abilities were distributed to Obfuscate and Blood Sorcery). Possibly because all Banu Haqim now know Blood Sorcery, there is no reference in the Camarilla book to the third caste, the sorcerers. The Clan Bane still relates to a possible urge to diablerize other vampires, although is only triggers in a particular situation, rather than being a free-ranging urge (indeed, a Banu Haqim will mostly be able to entirely avoid the bane if they so choose).

There is material on the Brujah, Gangrel, Caitiff, and Thin-Blooded, but it is very much of a ‘view of others’ variety. But it still illuminates how Camarilla Vampires might think of these lineages (note to self: do not be a Caitiff in a Camarilla domain).

Victoria Ash

I loved these letters so much I’m giving them their own section. Victoria Ash (the signature Toreador character from the Revised edition of Vampire: The Masquerade, who recently made a guest appearance on LA by Night) has penned a lengthy series of letters to her childe, which are scattered throughout the Camarilla book. Victoria Ash is the apex Toreador – all about experience and beauty and excitement and connecting and romance (and social standing and power, while you’re at it). The tone of her letters perfectly and consistently captures the tone of this seemingly-but-not-really shallow take on Kindred existence. You may not want Victoria Ash herself showing up in your chronicle, because she can twist you around her little finger and have you thanking her for it, but the world of Vampire is a richer place for having Kindred like her in it, making sure that the World of Darkness isn’t all grim power plays divorced from the mortal world.

However, Victoria Ash also gets her own lore sheet, so perhaps one player character will be thrilled to see her show up. Options include the one-dot ‘you had a fling with her’ background (which mostly helps if she shows up in the chronicle) to the five-dot ‘she actually cares about you and will move heaven and earth to help you sometimes.’ Note that the other three do not relate to having that sort of relationship, but mostly to emulating her.

Crunchy Bits

In addition to the basic rules for the Banu Haqim, there are also two new rituals. Ishtar’s Touch, a level 2 ritual that enhances Presence/Dominate, and One with the Blade, a level 3 ritual that basically makes a magic sword.

The more significant, and more interesting to me, material content is another six new lore sheets. These lore sheets, like the ones before them, are quite specific (many rely on a relationship to a particular canon character), but I suspect that I will look forward to any new ones that are published, because they they hit they can really hit (for example, I have a character converted from V20 to V5 who could really sync up with the Carmelita Neillson lore sheet, which is reprinted in the Camarilla book for reasons unknown – when that sort of synergy comes up you can get a real kick out of just grabbing a dot for flavor reasons).

The new lore sheets are Fatima al-Faqadi (an elder assassin of the Banu Haqim who was the Revised signature character for the Assamites), Fiorenza Savona (who is apparently the older woman who has the half-naked guy on a leash in the Ventrue images in the core book), Pure Ventrue Lineage (when you really just want to brag about your great-grandsire), the Cult of Mithras (the blood cult that venerates the eponymous Ventrue Methuselah who was inspiring mystery cults back in the Roman Empire), the Pyramid (status in the reforming Tremere Pyramid), and Victoria Ash (discussed above). Yes, that means half of the lore sheets are Ventrue-focused, although only Pure Ventrue Lineage is restricted to Ventrue.

The lore sheets in Camarilla seem to be a bit more internally varied than the ones in the core book. Lore sheets don’t have to be bought in order – although every lore sheet has five levels and 1-5 dots, you don’t buy them in a progression. You can buy the four-dot background without every buying the two-dot one. Nonetheless, the lore sheets in the core book tended to have a ‘progression’ feel to them – like you could naturally buy the one, then the two, and so forth. Many of the lore sheets in Camarilla forego that, taking more advantage of the piecemeal nature of the mechanic. So, for example, the Fatima al-Faqadi lore sheet includes one level that represents your character having survive an assassination attempt, while another makes her your ally to the point that she will kill for you. Others are not directly opposing, but don’t make sense to buy in order. For example, the 3-dot level on the Fiorenza Savona lore sheet means that you’ve known her for a long time, so it don’t really make sense to take it at any time but character creation – but the 1- and 2-dot levels could readily be picked up later by some vampire who only recently met her.

Finally, Camarilla has rules for institutional conflict, which can be used to simplify situations such as the local newspaper v. the Catholic Church, or well-funded PAC v. the police department.

Art, Layout, Design, Editing, and Such

The biggest thing I have to say about the design of Camarilla is that I LOVE the cover. Very striking. And there’s a less elegant, more decayed counterpart on the inside.

However, there’s also some less rosy things to say. There are, unsurprisingly, a lot of similarities between the art in the V5 core book and here, including additional photos from the same shoots that were used in the core book. Unfortunately, at least from my point of view, these pictures of people that don’t really convey ‘vampire’ were not exactly my favorites when they appeared in the core book, and that hasn’t changed here. The cover art is amazing, but there wasn’t anything else that was really a ‘wow’ moment for me – too many of the full-page spreads are those photo shoots. My expectations for the V5 art may have been too high, since the old Vampire images you remember are the best, not the random ones. But such an iconic property should be able to do better than a couple of really great pieces per book.

Another nagging issue was the editing here. I didn’t go over it with a fine-toothed comb, but V5 seemed pretty solid. Camarilla, on the other hand, had a bunch of errors that leaped out at me – misspelled words, doubled words, goofy line breaks (like someone had put a line break in the text and then changed the column width), and one place where the text just … stopped … then started a new bit at the top of the next column like nothing had happened. Only the PDF is out now, so I’m sure there will be an updated PDF to correct these problems. But that always raises the question of what the status of the physical books will be.

The overall graphic design/layout is solid, with quotes, Victoria’s letters, Second Inquisition reports, and artwork appropriately presented.

Organization

I read Camarilla from cover to cover, front to back (as one does). I would not recommend reading the book in that order. Too much of the basic information is stuck in the back of the book. The second full chapter (Our Faith) is pretty non-illuminating, and spends its final five pages on the story of a Methuselah who I’ve never heard and who didn’t do anything interesting, and then a cult of the Methuselah’s take on a Catholic mass (e.g., “Vester Methuselah vobiscum”/”your Methuselah be with you” instead of  “Dominus vobiscum”/”the Lord be with you”). I don’t get why precious page count near the start of the book is being consumed on what are essentially massive sidebars.

Even worse, eight pages in the Gehenna War section are spent on the status of Chechnya, despite the fact that Chechnya is not controlled by the Camarilla and is not really involved in the Gehenna War. This means Camarilla spends as many pages on this non-Camarilla territory as it does on the “important cities” of Aleppo, Berlin, Brussels, Chicago, Constantinople, Dubai, London, Paris, Prague, Rio de Janeiro, Stockholm, Tokyo, Venice, and Vienna put together. I’m not saying that there isn’t something interesting to write about a bunch of criminal vampires taking over an entire region, giving everyone blood ID cards, and making them show up for regularly scheduled feedings … but a Camarilla book isn’t the place for it.

As you can tell, I found it frustrating reading through some of these early parts, because I really wanted to find out some basic information on how the Camarilla works in the modern nights – the sort of thing that can really affect how a campaign will play on a night-to-night basis.

Keeping it simple, I think I would read the beginning (Introduction and The View From The Top) through about page 17, then skip to page 73 and go from there, only coming back at the end for Our Faith, Mission Statement, and the Gehenna War. If I was being more complicated, I would suggest something like reading Introduction (5), The View From The Top (9), Loyalty and Order (85), The Court (99), Mission Statement (37), The Second Inquisition (73), Kindred Clans (125), The City (113), The Gehenna War (53), and Our Faith (19). You definitely want to get a little bit at the beginning though, since it will introduce the context for the Victoria Ash series of letters that are spread throughout the book, and they are really good.

Final Thoughts

Camarilla features stunning cover art, some dashes of brilliance inside (all hail Victoria Ash), the introduction of the Banu Haqim to V5, background on the Second Inquisition, and a lot of information that anyone running a V5 campaign will want to get their hands on. However, it does have some flaws, most notably a few sections that miss the mark, leaving me wishing they could have been reworked (religion) or dropped (Chechnya) to include more basic information on nightly existence in the V5 World of Darkness. It’s good, but not as good as it could have been.

 

5 thoughts on “Review – Camarilla (Vampire: the Masquerade)

  1. Also, if I had to guess I’d suspect that the Chechnya stuff was probably Rein·Hagan’s addition. He was living in Georgia (the country) and trying to raise awareness of the Russian incursion a few years ago, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he wanted to highlight another country that was also struggling with Russian influence.

    1. I know who wrote the work and the big issue is that it was edited without his permission to change a two 1st person narrative descriptions (one by a psychopath and one by a humane vampire) into 3rd person. It’s why the text is so schizophrenic.

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