I have accumulated a lot of roleplaying game books over the years. A lot. As you can see, they’re back to fitting in my 5×5 IKEA shelf after I kicked out all of the Pathfinder Pawn sets. But you may also notice an unorthodox arrangement to the books. You see, I’m tall. I used to sort all of the books alphabetically – first by publisher, then by game, then by book title. Unfortunately, while this worked out well for the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game (published until this year by Alderac Entertainment Group), it meant that anything “White Wolf” or “Wizards of the Coast” was down near the floor (and, in particular, D&D 5E was a pain to get at). So, because I want my favorite books to be more readily visible and accessible, I sorted things into columns, and then within each column I put my favorite stuff on top (note: I reserve the right to change my preferences at any time without warning; this is just how the shelf is arranged right now). Dungeons & Dragons has a column, Legend of the Five Rings has a column, White Wolf/Onyx Path has two columns, and everything else gets put into the final column (at this point, the plurality of that fifth column is Pathfinder). The White Wolf columns are divided into two sections – modern age Vampire (Masquerade and Requiem) and everything else (the historical Vampire books like Dark Ages and Victorian Age, the similar-to-but-not-the-same Kindred of the East, other World of Darkness or new World of Darkness books, and Exalted).
In five Top Shelf articles (this is the first one), I will be taking a brief look at quite literally the top shelf of each of those columns – what are the books that I chose to put there, and why? Some of those reasons will be personal. Some will be more ‘objective’ (to the extent that any opinion on the better book can be objective). Here’s what we’re looking at today:
I should say a couple of things about what’s not there. First, if I don’t own a physical copy of it, I can’t put it on the shelf. I pre-ordered the three-book slipcase version of Vampire: the Masquerade Fifth Edition. That hasn’t come out yet, so there can be no V5 on the top shelf.
Second, although this column of the shelf includes Requiem, you’ll note a dearth of Requiem books. It turns out I like Vampire: the Masquerade better than Vampire: the Requiem. So there is exactly one V:tR book on the shelf, and you can’t even tell what it is because it’s a skinny print-on-demand paperback that doesn’t have lettering on the spine. I’ll cover it at the bottom.
Vampire: the Masquerade (Second Edition) and The Vampire Player’s Guide (Second Edition) – With the books on the shelf arranged by edition, a good Perception + Alertness roll will tell you that almost the entire shelf is Revised Edition books. And there’s no first edition at all. Well, it turns out that I was 11 years old when Vampire: the Masquerade first released. You know how much Masquerade I played when I was 11 (or 12 or 13 …)? None. So the very first Vampire book I owned was the second edition core book. And almost the only other Vampire: the Masquerade book I owned in high school was the Player’s Guide, because that’s where a wealth of character options lived that would later be incorporated into the core book – merits/flaws, independent clans (Assamites, Followers of Set, Giovanni, Ravnos), bloodlines (Salubri, Daughters of Cacophony, Samedi), and the disciplines for those clans and bloodlines. I have always loved merits and flaws in particular, and so to me the Player’s Guide was a necessity. Also, it’s a new version of the character in the most iconic Vampire art.
Giovanni Chronicles III: The Sun Has Set – This is the only other pre-Revised book on the shelf, and as I write this I now realize it’s in the wrong place (I’ve got it shelved with the Revised books). The first three books of the Giovanni Chronicles (a Black Dog Game Factory production, because they liked to make the Giovanni stuff as nasty as possible sometimes; just read the 1E clanbook) take the characters across centuries as they are embroiled in the formation of the Giovanni and subsequent plotting between the ‘elders’ of the new Clan. I am, in general, a fan of ‘normal’ Vampire games – younger characters, still with mortal ties, still struggling to be somewhat human as they navigate unlife and vampiric politics. But … I love the V:tM metaplot. And the Giovanni Chronicles lets the characters play through some interesting times. Note that Giovanni Chronicles I and II aren’t on this shelf because I lump them with Vampire: Dark Ages (books I-III take place in the 15th, 17th, and 19th centuries, respectively). Giovanni Chronicles IV isn’t here because it takes a turn for the lame, throwing out the existing characters in favor of mobsters, entirely changing the tone of the chronicle.
Vampire: the Masquerade (Revised Edition) and Vampire Storyteller’s Companion – Revised Edition came out when I was an undergraduate. And, while I didn’t have a lot of spare cash, I had more than I did in high school, so this is where my Vampire collection began to expand. The core book is here because this will probably always be the core book for me. Revised Edition really polished off a lot of rough edges from first/second edition (although I’m not sure that trying to make the Sabbat more playable was, in the long run, helpful). If I had been heavily invested in the nuances of the setting before that, maybe it would have rubbed me the wrong way. But for me Revised was just a better game – it wasn’t the originator, but it was a perfection(-ish) of the concept. The Storyteller’s Companion is here because, apparently, I really like the Salubri and the Daughters of Cacophony (it certainly isn’t for the equipment list).
The Art of Vampire: The Masquerade – Not a game book, but I couldn’t care less. I love the art of Vampire. There’s a bit of rose-tinted glasses there, because it certainly wasn’t all good. But there’s enough great stuff to go around. The Art of Vampire includes a lot of it, including plenty of gorgeous cover art.
The Book of Nod (Deluxe) – This is my single favorite Vampire: the Masquerade book. Don’t get me wrong, if I had to keep one I’d keep the deluxe limited edition version of V20 – it’s more expensive and, I hear, it’s actually the game. But the Book of Nod is such a great, angst-ridden piece of poetry and prose. “I cried tears of love as I, with sharp things, sacrificed that which was the first part of my joy, my brother.” I’m not going to argue with you if you say it’s over the top, but I just loved the mood. I like it so much that I thrilled to give my V5 character (who is a Noddist researcher) “I Am My Brother’s Keeper” as one of her convictions.
Revelations of the Dark Mother – Not as fantastic as the Book of Nod, but still really good, this provides some vampire history from Lilith’s point of view. If I recall correctly, I was playing a Lilim in a game of In Nomine when I got my copy of Revelations of the Dark Mother, so I may have been a bit Lilith-fixated at the time. Does that color my assessment of the book? Maybe. But it’s my shelf, so that’s all right.
All of the Revised Clan Books – There is an unbelievable wealth of flavor information in the clan books. Oh, there are some interesting crunchy bits (merits/flaws) and some pointless crunchy bits (high-level disciplines), but for me the real pull for the clan books will always be the deep dive into the history and themes of the clans. Just look at the volume packed in there compared to, say, Lore of the Clans – there was just so much more ability to convey a lot (even once you account for things like those pointless character sheets for the sample clan members). Because of my buying patterns (discussed above), I owned the Revised clanbooks before I owned the original clanbooks. As with the game overall, I think there’s an improvement from the first edition to the revised versions, although the first edition ones are good reads in their own right.
New York by Night – This is, to my mind, the best of the city by night books. It provides a setting with some metaplot tie-in, but one where the characters are dealing with aftermath, rather than having ongoing local plot run over. The relative absence of elders opens up a lot (although there is an antediluvian plot hook to be had, if you like that sort of thing). It helps that it is a U.S. city – it liked Cairo by Night as well, but I think it would be much harder to play because layering the real cultural differences on top of the whole vampire thing can be asking a lot. Also, I love Aisling Sturbridge and the Chantry of the Five Burroughs.
Nights of Prophecy and Time of Thin Blood – I mentioned that I like the metaplot. Nights of Prophecy is nothing but metaplot (in the form of five high-impact stories to read or, theoretically, have a troupe play through). And Time of Thin Blood includes the Week of Nightmares (plus a bunch of flavor stuff about playing a thin-blooded and the end of days … but mostly the Week of Nightmares).
Transylvania Chronicles III: Ill Omens and IV: The Dragon Ascendant – Like the Giovanni Chronicles, the first two books of the Transylvania Chronicles are housed in the Dark Ages column. Unlike the Giovanni Chronicles, the Transylvania Chronicles are great all the way through the fourth book. Demons in the earth, the fall and rise of clans, Dracula, the “extermination” of House Goratrix, all-out war – the Transylvania Chronicles up the ante, giving the characters central roles in some of the biggest events in the last thousand years. Again, I’m normally in favor of street level sorts of games – but Transylvania Chronicles does the big stuff right.
Encyclopaedia Vampirica – This will probably be what goes the next time I decide to add a single book to the top shelf (of course, if I add the whole V5 slipcase set then a lot more will have to go). It is what it says it is – an encyclopedia of stuff about Vampire. And I was really excited when I got it (and not just because finding it at Half Price Books made it affordable). At the time, I really enjoyed just reading the encyclopedia of vampires. Now that doesn’t seem as appealing. But I still have more affection for it than the possible replacements (Cairo by Night, Mexico City by Night, Midnight Siege, Archons & Templars, or Counsel of Primogen – I’d move up the whole first edition clanbook set, but for mental health reasons they do all need to stay together as a set).
V20 and Lore of the Clans – I know I said earlier that Revised was the perfection of the game. And it was at the time. But while V20 will continue to get played now that V5 is out (there’s a much bigger shift from V20 to V5 than there was from Revised to V20), I can’t really see going back and playing a Masquerade from before V20. Really, while Revised got it good enough for almost 15 years, V20 took that system and owned it. And the core book is so comprehensive that it’s hard to find anything that’s really missing that one might need a little extra supplement.
New Wave Requiem – This is one of the rare instances where a supplement for a product is higher than the core book. But, although I was too young (and possessed of overprotective parents) to experience them in a serious way, there’s an eternal charm to the excess of the 1980s (I’m really a child of the 1990s … but since that’s when Vampire was launched, there’s really no need for an era supplement). And New Wave Requiem feeds right into that. You can check out the mix tapes and everything. Also, the cover is pretty much perfect. The only thing lacking is the length – I’m not saying there’s objectively enough to make a 300-page sourcebook about vampires in the 1980s. But I would totally buy it.
Well, there you have it – Top Shelf: Modern Age Vampire. Thirty books worth of awesome.
If you’re wondering what books almost made the cut, so you can take solace that my opinions aren’t that bad (or be enraged that your favorite didn’t even make the second shelf), here you go:
You can look for the next Top Shelf article next week (it will not be the other White Wolf shelf though; we’ll give that a few weeks).