Mechanics and Character Creation in Vampire: the Masquerade (V5)

Let me preface this article by acknowledging that there are going to be some number of readers who find the entire concept of focusing on mechanics when creating a character to be offensive in some way. And they will be absolutely correct in the general notion that story and concept come first. But I still think that this sort of examination can be helpful.

I think that it’s relevant to be able to make sure that your character concept is embodied in the dots you actually put on the sheet. It’s one thing to create a character who isn’t combat-capable because that’s your concept. It’s another thing to create a character who isn’t combat-capable even though you wanted them to be. In general, this sort of guidance is agnostic to character concept – there is no inherent conflict between character competence and character concept.

And, all other things being equal, I think most players want to be able to pull off awesome things at some point, even in a chronicle that is mostly drenched in angst. And it’s a letdown to realize that the array of dots on your sheet won’t let you do that.

Below you’ll find an examination of some basic mechanical concepts of V5, and how they might affect a character, then a brief rundown of the various attributes, skills, disciplines, and backgrounds, with a focus on what is likely to come up in a chronicle and what else you need on your character sheet to make it work.

TL;DR – The Highlights

The article below is pretty long, so here are some high points to keep in mind:

  • V5 requires a relative lot of successes. It is difficult to succeed with small dice pools without spending Willpower, and even that option is off the table if you’re hungry. If you want to have any sort of real skill at a particular task, you probably want to have at least 6 dice.
  • Combat is very all-or-nothing, and all the Disciplines in the world won’t help if you can’t win the combat roll. If you want to be any good at combat, make sure to invest in the applicable skill/attribute combination. In particular, carefully consider whether you want to be bad at Strength + Brawl.
  • Make sure your Predator Pool has a lot of dice in it.
  • If you don’t know which attribute to put stick at 1 dot, go with Stamina or Dexterity.
  • Think carefully before taking Allies – V5 significantly overcharges for them. Resources are still very, very powerful (but be prepared for your Storyteller to limit your ability to use Resources to simply duplicate other backgrounds). Take Status 1 unless your concept is to play a social pariah.
  • When in doubt, spend a lot of coterie background points on Chasse.
  • You can’t go wrong with dots in Awareness.
  • Remember that you are no longer effectively required to take dots in things like Haven, Drive, and Technology just to have somewhere to live, be able to drive a car, or be able to operate a computer.
  • Know your Storyteller and their style.

Difficulties Are High, Use Your Willpower, and Small Dice Pools Are Weak

Difficulty Numbers Are High In V5: In V20, the standard difficulty was a 6. If you were rolling one die, you would succeed at a task half the time. If you had an average attribute (2) and some training (1 in the skill), you would get at least a marginal success approximately 88% of the time (a “complete” success only ~13% of the time). A “straightforward” task (e.g., “seducing someone who’s already in the mood”) was a difficulty of five (~93% chance of success with three dice). Challenging tasks (e.g., locating the source of a whisper) were a difficulty 7 (~78%). In V5, these difficulties are now 2 (straightforward), 3 (normal), and 4 (challenging) – except now you need that many successes, with a 50/50 chance per die, and there’s no concept of a “marginal” (although you might get success at a cost). For a challenging task, you now need to be rolling eight dice to have a 50/50 shot at succeeding (barring a critical). In V20 you would succeed, and the question would be by how much. In V5 the question is whether you can succeed at all. You need a lot of dice to consistently succeed at ‘standard’ difficulty tasks. I also suggest hoping that your Storyteller realizes that a ‘hard’ difficulty of 5 borders on impossible (barring a critical) for characters who aren’t highly specialized in that task.

Use Your Willpower and Hope Your Storyteller Allows Success at a Cost: I know this isn’t really about character creation, but given the above, keep in mind that Willpower is meant to be used. The relatively bad odds can be significantly mitigated by the three-die re-roll for spending a Willpower. Additionally, being able to succeed at a cost can be important, when the cost isn’t too high – not that it’s sustainable to spend a Willpower to re-roll and then take a Willpower damage to eek out one more success, but it helps that the option is there. Note that this is less useful if your Storyteller has you roll a lot – most characters will only get 3 or so Willpower to spend per session.

Small Dice Pools Are Really Weak: A character with a pool of three dice needs a success on every single one to succeed at a standard difficulty task. Being able to succeed once every eight tries is the sort of success rate where you generally don’t even bother trying. You can do Willpower re-rolls, but they’re less effective. With a big dice pool, if you are failing you probably have the full three bad dice to re-roll and only need another 1-2. With a small dice pool, you probably don’t have the full three dice to re-roll and you may need every single re-roll to come up a success.

… And Hunger Makes Them Weaker: Now, take all of the above, but remove the ability to do Willpower re-rolls, increase the chance of a bestial failure, and make any possible critical a messy one. That’s what happens when you’re hungry with a small dice pool – when you’re at hunger 3 and you’ve only got 3 dice, every die is a hunger die. It makes even trying a little scary.

What Does This Mean For Character Creation: I think it means being cautious about how much mileage you can get out of having one dot in a lot of skills. I, personally, am inclined to spread dots all over the place, making a relatively well-rounded character. But that may not be terribly effective, because the difference between rolling 2 dice and 3 dice may not matter – there’s still a high probability of failure either way. Even if dice aren’t rolled, having at least one dot in a Skill makes me feel better about the character having at least basic knowledge on a subject, rather than having to worry about whether I’m not roleplaying them well enough. But, of course, that has no mechanical meaning.

Combat

I’m going to mention combat up here because it’s one of the places where dots matter most. Your Storyteller may or may not have you rolling dice at Elysium, but they will certainly have you rolling dice if you get in a running gun battle.

A central thing to remember about combat is that there are no half-measures. There isn’t really a lot of “trading blows” where both sides get worn down. You’re rolling, your foe is rolling, and the whoever wins that roll isn’t going to take any damage at all. If you can’t win the conflict roll, nothing else really matters. So, while small dice pools don’t necessarily face bad odds, because they don’t face static difficulties and the opponent might be weak as well, when one character significantly outclasses the other in the combat roll there is very little chance for the weaker opponent.

So if you want to be able to succeed at combat, I would suggest a non-trivial investment in something – just adding a single dot in Brawl onto your sheet is something, but it isn’t going to accomplish much. The conflict rolls are Strength + Brawl (fists, teeth, etc.), Dexterity + Melee (one-handed melee weapons), Strength + Melee (two-handed melee weapons), and Composure + Firearms (Dexterity + Firearms if doing a quickdraw; Resolve + Firearms if you’re sniping; Strength + Firearms if you’re trying to shoot while in melee). If you want your character to be able to hold their own in combat, real investment in one of those is recommended. Strength is the most likely component of this, because it can be used for anything but small melee weapons.

Significantly, there are no disciplines that directly help win these rolls (although mental disciplines might be able to befuddle opponents). In particular, note that Potence does exactly nothing to help win combat rolls. Like Fortitude reduces damage when you lose the roll, Potence increases damage when you win the roll – but it doesn’t help you win the roll in the first place.

Also keep in mind that the focus on Attributes/Skills means that vampires aren’t really that much better at combat than a human. An average or slightly above average human (2-3 dot Attribute) with real experience with a weapon (2-3 dot Skill) will be rolling 4-6 dice on a combat roll. A vampire with that 3-dice pool I keep talking about won’t be too far off a low-level thug (4 dice), but one on the more competent end of that scale (6 dice) will clobber them. This relative equality is furthered by the changes in the blood surge rules. Attributes increased by spending blood now only last for one roll, so you can’t build up to a higher Strength as the fight goes on (and the fights usually don’t last very long anyway). The inherent advantage of being a vampire is toughness – vampires take superficial damage from guns and melee weapons, while mortals take aggravated damage. Like Fortitude, this helps survive when you’re losing (leaving open the possibility of winning later), but it doesn’t directly help win a combat roll.

Dodging is generally a poor tactic in combat. Dodging just replaces your attack dice pool with a Dexterity + Athletics pool. You make the same opposed check, but you can only really avoid losing, because winning the roll just means you don’t take damage. Unless your Dexterity + Athletics roll is significantly better than the combat roll, in most circumstances you might as well try to be able to hit back.

Many-on-one combat flips a lot of the above on its head. A character can dodge without too much penalty against multiple opponents, but will never be able to hit back. A character who is trying to hit back against multiple opponents has to split their dice pool, which is punishing. If the character faces their foes one at a time, that means that the extra opponents get ‘free shots’ – since there isn’t a static difficulty to roll against, even relatively combat-ineffective characters can get hits in because they only need one success (and can then get damage bonuses from their weapon, if they’re using one).

Experience Point Efficiency

This is very mechanistic, but V5 retains some disparity between ‘costs’ during character creation and in-play (although not nearly as much as there used to be). Because there is no option what values to have for attributes, and advantages don’t have escalating point costs, this arbitrage could only be applicable to Disciplines and Skills (although it turns out to only apply to Disciplines).

Disciplines are mostly pretty straightforward – you get a 2-dot and a 1-dot, both in-clan. But predator style gives a fourth Discipline dot. A first dot in an out-of-clan Discipline is slightly more valuable (2xp and you don’t need to get partially blood bound). A third-dot in an in-clan Discipline is way more valuable (15xp). Starting 3/1/0 for in-clan Disciplines is far more efficient than 2/2/0 or 2/1/1.

While there isn’t any way to adjust individual Skill levels during character creation, there are three different options for which dot spread to take. The ‘jack of all trades’ gets lots of skills, mostly at 1 dot. The ‘specialist’ gets a skill at 4 (the only way to start with a 4), but relatively few dots overall. The ‘balanced’ set is somewhere in between. However, they all work out to the same number of experience spent (120). As noted above, I personally lean towards having a big spread of skills. However, as also discussed above, small dice pools in V5 are really weak – you may find that having 3-4 dice pools in a lot of different things isn’t all that satisfying (although it can be useful if your Storyteller liberally applies the automatic win rule or otherwise doesn’t require rolling – having just 1 dot in something like Technology or Politics can justify the character actually knowing enough to apply common-sense solutions that you the player think of). Balanced against that is the extreme cost of high-level Skills – sure, having 4 dots is nice, but one Skill at 4 is the same experience point cost as ten Skills at 1 (or one at 3, one at 2, and one at 1). Which is a long way of saying that there are reasons for any of these options, so you can safely pick whatever suits your preference, from an xp efficiency perspective. However, given the weakness of small dice pools (as discussed above), I would recommend avoiding Jack of All Trades.

Note that the method described in the text from pages 144-46 is the same dot spread as the balanced quick skill assignment. However, some of the skill suggestions in the ‘Sample Profession Packages’ include Skills specialties that don’t exist, such as Craft (Writing) for the scholar when Craft isn’t used for writing at all and academic writing is covered by the Academics Skill. Personally, I would just stick with making what you want with the quick skill assignments and avoid the ‘detailed’ method.

Predator Style and Predator Pools

Feeding is important in V5, as it always has been in vampire. You shouldn’t be bogged down with every feeding, but it’s going to come up. Even the most satiated of vampires is only a few bad rouse checks away from starving. You’re probably going to need to be able to make hunting rolls. Because the baseline difficulties for rolls are so high, I suggest making sure you’ve got at least one hunting pool that’s a big one – it’s no fun to be hungry, fail your hunting roll, and then just have nothing. The easiest hunting rolls are difficulty 2. So if you’ve got a 4-dice pool, then even the easiest hunt is a 50/50 shot (you’re going to be hungry, so Willpower isn’t going to help). Difficulty 3 or 4 might be more likely if you don’t have the time to visit the Rack.

In examining hunting, remember that feeding style isn’t something that is locked in – picking Siren or Alleycat doesn’t mean that your character is bound to only feed that way; it’s just how they’ve fed the most in the past (and tends to give them mechanical tools to feed that way in the future).

This is particularly noteworthy for the Alleycat Predator Type/Pool – even if your character is capable of feeding by force (and does so on a regular basis), you might not want it as a Predator Type. Each of the Predator Types that doesn’t affect Humanity nets a Discipline dot, a speciality, and a one-dot advantage. Alleycat, which loses a point of Humanity, nets a three-dot advantage, while the two Predator Types that gain a Humanity (Consensualist and Farmer) net a two-dot disadvantage. In conceptual and experience point terms, a dot of Humanity is the most valuable thing on a vampire’s character sheet. And it’s arguably all the more precious because character creation is the only time your character will have Humanity this high – it’s all downhill from here (the experience point cost to increase Humanity is prohibitively high, even if your character is the most self-restrained vampire in history). It’s hard to take advantage of the Humanity-increasing Predator Types unless they really line up with your character concept. This is because the Feeding Flaws – Prey Exclusion (non-consenting) (for the Consensualist) and Vegan (for the Farmer) – pretty much define that aspect of the character. But if starting Humanity is of any real value to you at all, the Alleycat pays a very steep price for a couple extra dots of Contacts.

Additionally, when picking which speciality you’re taking from your Predator Type, give serious consideration to the one that works with your likely Predator Pool. So, for example, a Sandman can take a speciality in Medicine (Anesthetics), which has a very, very narrow application. Or they can take a speciality in Stealth (Break-In), which they will use every single time they roll their Predator Pool.

The most common “uh-oh, need to eat” rolls are probably Alleycat (taking blood by force), Sandman (breaking and entering), and Siren (taking blood by seduction). The first is Strength + Brawl. The second is Dexterity + Stealth. The third is a Charisma + Subterfuge. Be good at rolling at least one of these. Or maybe Composure + Animal Ken, if your character is willing to stoop to that. Other predator styles are harder to do on the fly – most vampires can’t use standard blood bags (because they don’t have Iron Gullet), most vampires don’t have a family groomed, most vampires don’t have a blood cult ready to go, etc. (Although there is some efficiency in overlapping these, as Manipulation + Subterfuge or Persuasion comes up repeatedly in those Predator Pools).

Chronicle Tenets

This is a fairly vague topic, because of course I don’t know what your chronicle tenets are. But keep them in mind when thinking about your character’s makeup. For example, in Providence by Night, our home game that we’ve been posting recaps of here on the website, one of the tenets is “Every Person Their Own Master.” Under this tenet, things like significant mental control of others can cause stains. This can significantly impact the use of Dominate and Presence. If you want your character to have a fighting chance of maintaining Humanity for long, then investing multiple dots in one of those Disciplines could be an exercise in frustration for you. Similarly, there is an example in the V5 core book core book of the chronicle tenet “Act like a person, not a Beast.” The book explains that this tenet would be violated when a character does something “clearly inhuman, such as surviving horrible physical trauma.” This could cause a significant impact on the Fortitude Discipline, which is all about surviving horrible physical trauma. That doesn’t mean taking a lot of Fortitude in such a chronicle is ‘wrong’ – but it’s one thing to intentionally play a character concept that is going to accumulate stains quickly, and it’s another to accidentally back into it because of a missed rules interaction.

Attributes

Not all Attributes are created equal – although they tend to be closer to it in V5 than they were in V20. And you want to make sure that your Attribute spread matches what you picture your character being able to do. Keep in mind that seven of the nine Attributes will be average or a bit above average – there’s only one aspect your character is really good at, and there is one that they are really bad at.

I discuss what each of the attributes is used for below, but the question of which Attribute to use as a “dump stat” will loom over a lot of character creation (I know, it isn’t really a dump stat when you’re forced to make something bad, rather than choosing to make something bad for strategic reasons), unless there’s some part of your concept that demands the character is weak in a certain area. I don’t know if anything is really a “good” choice, but Stamina, Dexterity, and Intelligence are the least painful from a mechanical perspective for a lot of character concepts. Assuming you’d actually roleplay out being of below-average Intelligence (which you should if you have 1 dot in it) and don’t want to do that (which I typically wouldn’t), I would recommend Stamina if you don’t know what to be terrible at. It isn’t rolled very much, and health is not that big a deal (it’s better to avoid getting hit in the first place, and survivability can also be addressed with Fortitude). Also, all other things being equal, playing a glass cannon is more fun (for me) than playing a tank – having a lot of ability to affect the world (and be affected in turn) makes for more exciting play than just being a bundle of resistance.

Wits is used for many, many rolls. So are Resolve and Composure. Make sure you know what you’re giving up before you throw a bad rating there. I’d suggest trying to have at least one of Charisma or Manipulation be at least 3 dots, unless your concept involves relatively limited social capability.

Note that, because Discipline use (and much Discipline resistance) is tied entirely to Attribute and Discipline dots (rather than Skill dots), having Attributes that support your Disciplines can be very important.

Each of the attributes is either physical, social, or mental, and in those three categories, one is more of a ‘brute force” stat, one is more ‘finesse,’ and the third is resistance.

Strength – Strength is used for the lion’s share of melee combat – all unarmed combat and combat with two-handed weapons (for example, a baseball bat or tire iron). Strength or Dexterity will be used for short-burst physical activity. Stamina can be used to resist some Animalism powers, and is important for one Blood Sorcery power.

Dexterity – Dexterity is used for sneaking around (including Sandman Predator Pools). It covers trickiness of a physical sort (e.g., sleight of hand, pretending to eat). It is used for one-handed melee attacks (for example, a knife). It might be used for short-burst physical activity, but that also might be Strength (or Wits). Climbing and balance are based on Dexterity. Dexterity is used to ‘fake it’ when engaging in intimate activity with a mortal, and for some Celerity powers.

Stamina – Stamina is fairly straightforward – it’s used to engage in some sort of physical activity for an extended period of time, whether that activity is running or holding completely still. Stamina also increases Health, and resists a couple of powers from Animalism and Blood Sorcery.

Charisma – The generic stat for non-tricky social interaction. Vampire is a usually a very social game, although how often you have to roll for social interactions varies from Storyteller to Storyteller. Assuming you roll for this sort of thing, any character who wants to have some decent social skills should probably have an above-average Charisma or Manipulation (of course, those who are really good at the social stuff may want both). If your Storyteller will let you get away with lousy social stats because you never have to roll, then I suppose this is where you take advantage of that. Charisma is also used to ‘fake it’ when engaging in intimate activity with a mortal, and is the most common attribute for using with low-level Animalism and Dominate powers.

Manipulation – The generic stat for tricky social interaction – and because this is Vampire, that can be a lot of the social interaction. As noted above, Vampire is usually a very social game, and if your character is going to have decent social skills, they should probably have either above-average Manipulation or Charisma. Manipulation is also used for some Animalism powers, is frequently used for Dominate, and is used to push Awe on a knowing target.

Composure – Composure is the “social resistance” stat in V5. It’s rolled to resist frenzy. It’s the most common ‘cool under pressure’ attribute (including its use with Firearms). It adds to Willpower. It will even be used on some non-resistance social rolls. It’s the most common stat to use with Firearms. It’s used to resist Auspex and resist Presence. It’s not quite as omnipresent as Resolve, but it’s pretty versatile.

Intelligence – Intelligence will be used with the vast majority of Academics and Occult rolls, or other rolls that require research. It can also be used for things like planning a heist and technological aspects of breaking in (e.g., shutting down a security system) or planning how to construct something (with other aspects of those Larceny/Craft plans executed with other attributes). Intelligence is used to resist a blood bond. It’s used for some Auspex powers, for resisting many Dominate powers, resisting Awe (when you know it’s being used), and every single Blood Sorcery ritual. Intelligence can also be used (with a variety of skills) to determine if your character thought to bring along a piece of equipment that would be really handy right now.

Wits – Wits is the passive perception stat in V5 – it’s used to notice things when you aren’t actively searching for them. That includes noticing physical things out there, but also noticing social cues. It’s also just in general what gets used for quick-response actions (for example, Wits + Drive to swerve to avoid a pedestrian who jumps in front of your car). It might also come into play in social rolls that require fast thinking (including the ever-popular rap battle). Wits is used for half of Auspex rolls, for resisting some Dominate powers, protecting Obfuscate against supernatural detection (or your own clumsiness), resisting one Presence power,

Resolve – Resolve is the “mental resistance” stat in V5. It will get rolled all the time in resisting Discipline use. It’s rolled to resist frenzy. It’s also the stat that gets rolled anytime your character is actively looking for something. Resolve is used to resist the blood bond, for some Animalism powers, for half of Auspex powers, for resisting Dominate, resisting the scary side of Presence, for most Blood Sorcery powers. And it adds to Willpower. So it can get rolled a lot. Note that Ventrue have an extra reason to take Resolve, as it is pat of their roll to determine whether a mortal meets their feeding restriction.

Skills

Skills vary drastically in their general utility. There are some skills that are helpful for almost all characters with some frequency. And there are other skills that a character will never be called upon to roll, unless the character’s specific concept is doing that thing. As discussed above, if your concept involves being good at something, I would suggest aiming for at least 6 dice in your relevant pool (most commonly 3 + 3). In this regard you can largely ignore the flavor descriptions of what the skill levels mean. For example, Intelligence 3 + Academics 3 would theoretically be the appropriate stats for a very smart, but not genius level, person with a doctorate in a subject, based on the flavor text. Based on that description, you would think that person would routinely be able to accomplish hard tasks in their field – but 7 dice (free speciality for Academics) will not routinely get you 5 successes.

One way to check out the breadth of a Skill is to examine the specialities listed. Also make sure to check out “Appendix I: Standard Feats” when trying to assess what skills a character might need for certain activities – the information back there is more detailed than (and not always consistent with) the descriptions in the main text of the core book. In general, where there is a conflict, I would go first with the appendix, then the skill description itself, and only then with an example elsewhere in the text. For example, Architecture is a speciality of the Academics skill and the Appendix discusses using Academics (Architecture) to design a building, so I would recommend ignoring the example on p.304 that calls for a Craft (Architecture) roll.

If you aren’t sure where to put your Skill dots (after selecting the ones necessary for your character concept), consider taking the following: Awareness, Brawl, Subterfuge, Streetwise, Persuasion, or Insight (if your Storyteller does rolls to read other characters). Other generically strong skills include Firearms, Larceny, Intimidation, and Technology.

Athletics – Athletics can be of surprisingly little use in a game of Vampire, which often doesn’t include a lot of physical activity outside of combat. In my experience, Athletics will most often come up in chases.

Brawl – Vampires can get violently physical with each other at times. And they will certainly get violently physical with mortals at some point. Brawl is the most likely Skill to be used in those confrontations. Sure, there’s more damage to be had if someone is preparing for a fight, carrying around a melee weapon or a gun. But fists are always available, and attract a lot less attention that Firearms. Not having a decent Strength + Brawl roll can mean an embarrassing inability to accomplish simple tasks like “grab that witness before he runs away.” It also cuts your character off from being able to Alleycat when needed. It can also turn what’s supposed to be a terrifying anger frenzy into a pathetic mess, as your character gets readily flattened by the target of their fury, instead of doing something interesting like mauling a friend.

Craft – Craft involves physically constructing things, whether practical or artistic. Which is something most characters will go an entire chronicle without ever doing, despite the wide breadth of real-world tasks covered by this skill. If you take Craft, don’t forget the free specialty. Note that Intelligence might be called upon for the design aspects of Craft, in addition to the attribute appropriate for actual construction.

Drive – Unlike in V20, you don’t need to buy Drive just to be able to drive a car. Note that Drive rolls will more often be based on Wits than Dexterity.

Firearms – Vampire can be a violent game. A lot of character types who might never touch a gun in “real life” as mortals end up wanting one in Vampire. Firearms also has the advantage of being primarily based on Composure, which is a generally useful attribute, so it can be handy for characters who didn’t load up on Strength/Dexterity.

Larceny – Larceny isn’t nearly as broadly useful as Streetwise, but (much like Firearms) it can come up a lot more for vampires than for ‘normal’ people. Note that, although Larceny is grouped with the physical skills, it will probably most often be rolled with Intelligence, because so much of security is electronic (and because the physical act of sneaking is Stealth, not Larceny). Larceny is the Skill for setting up security, which will also typically be Intelligence-based.

Melee – Overall, a combination of Brawl and Firearms might be a more useful combination of combat skills (it’s just a lot easier to conceal a gun, and you never have to conceal your fists). But if you want to be that loner with a sword under their trench coat (or something less stereotypical), Melee is what you’ll need. Melee is also used with more modern ‘weapons,’ such as baseball bats, tire irons, or tactical batons.

Stealth – Stealth is a less commonly rolled skill than one might think (in part because there’s a decent chance the Storyteller won’t make characters roll Stealth to stay quite once they’ve activated Obfuscate, and if you’re making a sneaky character concept, Obfuscate is the way to go). It is, however, used for Sandman Predator Pools. Note that sneaking around can be very all-or-nothing. Wits + Awareness is a pretty universally useful attribute/skill pair, and it’s what a Stealth roll is most often opposing. And it is often the case that when you sneak, you want to be pretty sure you’re actually going to be stealthy, not just a 50/50 chance. So Stealth might be more ‘take a lot of it or don’t bother’ than most skills.

Survival – Survival does have urban applications, such as hiding bodies. But Vampire is typically an urban game, limiting the applications of this Skill.

Animal Ken – I guess you can take Animal Ken if you are a Farmer, but don’t have the right Animalism to summon snacks?

Etiquette – Etiquette can be a handy skill for group social situations. However, it’s very easy for potential Etiquette rolls to be swallowed by Subterfuge or Persuasion, especially since the sort of establishing speaking that might be involved in Etiquette is less likely to prompt a roll at all.

Insight – Insight is the skill used to read other people, and in the social world of the Kindred it can be a vital skill – if your Storyteller makes you roll for such things. The more your game involves you the player assessing credibility and motivations, rather than dice rolls, the less useful Insight gates – to the point that it is almost useless with some Storytellers. Another use for Insight is carousing; just having a good time and leaving others with a good impression of you.

Intimidation – Like Firearms and Larceny, Intimidation is narrow, but narrow in a space where Vampire often plays. Sure, you may catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but more often than you’d think the one fly you need to catch right now really only responds to vinegar. Intimidation will never be as broadly useful as something like Subterfuge, but it is unlikely to be wasted.

Leadership – A Prince or Baron might need a high Leadership score to keep their throne. But your character probably isn’t a Prince. And while the coterie might have a leader, it’s highly unlikely that the group’s leader will be called upon to see how well they are leading the other player characters. This makes Leadership one of this skills that may never be rolled, unless the character’s concept specifically plays into it (for example, a rabble rouser).

Performance – Performance covers any sort of live artistic presentation, be it dancing, singing, or reciting poetry (don’t forget your free speciality). Like Craft, Performance covers a vast breadth of real-world abilities. Also like Craft, they are the sort of thing that might never come up for most characters. However, Performance does include public speaking, which a character might be called upon to do whether they like it or not.

Persuasion – Persuasion might be the go-to social skill, except vampires lie all the time about a lot of things, and that’s covered by Subterfuge. Still, Persuasion covers a lot of ground. And unlike some of the other social skills, Persuasion covers ground that’s relatively likely to actually call for a roll, such as negotiations or other places where there is a very concrete objective for the social interaction. Note that “fast talk,” although listed as a speciality of Persuasion, belongs under Subterfuge.

Streetwise – Streetwise can be omnipresent in a Vampire chronicle, because vampires so often become embedded in the underworld. Drugs, blood bags, unregistered firearms, people who don’t want to be found – all Streetwise. Even most tracking is Streetwise. It’s hard to go wrong taking it.

Subterfuge – Completing our trifecta of extremely useful social skills in a row is Subterfuge. The sneaky partner to Persuasion, Subterfuge comes out to play whenever you move from just playing on someone’s emotions to flat-out lying (did I mention that vampires have to lie a lot?). In addition to its use in Siren Predator Pools, note that Subterfuge is also one of the few Skills that can be used to resist some Discipline powers.

Academics – Academics is the third of four extremely broad, free-specialty-granting skills that still probably isn’t that useful (again, unless it’s specifically part of your character concept). It’s the sort of thing one might think should be slapped on the vast majority of characters (because they went to high school), but you’re never going to be asked to roll to do high school level academics.

Awareness – Awareness is the most common skill used to notice something, which is pretty much always important. It’s hard to go wrong putting dots in Awareness, and it’s the #1 place I’d check if I had some extra skill dots. Ventrue have an extra reason to take Awareness, as it is part of their roll to determine whether a mortal meets their feeding restriction.

Finance – I suppose it says something about how much money matters (and how important the concept of Ventrue corporate overlords is) that going to business school gets its own skill, when getting every sort of PhD in the world is all dumped into Academics. Still, Finance is really only useful if your character is running a business, actively engaged in stock trading, etc.

Investigation – Investigating things is a pretty common activity is a lot of roleplaying games, and it’s the sort of thing that’s highly likely to come up in a game of Vampire. However, the particular value of Investigation can vary depending on the Storyteller. Is spotting a clue Investigation or Awareness? Is figuring out cause of death Investigation or Medicine? Is locating a missing person Investigation or Streetwise? Is using a database Investigation or Technology? One good possibility is that the answer will be “either one,” which can let Investigation go far, but also makes Investigation a skill that can be covered by other skills.

Medicine – Not typically something that’s needed, unless your character concept is a doctor, nurse, EMT, etc. It’s possible for Medicine to be very high leverage when it comes up, but even then it’s more used for stabilizing someone until they can get to a hospital, not for having your vampire perform surgery.

Occult – Occult can be incredibly useful, or completely useless, depending on the themes of your chronicle and your Storyteller’s beliefs on what vampires know about the world around them. When a chronicle includes appearances by other sorts of supernatural creatures, Gehenna myths, or vampiric history – and your Storyteller limits knowledge of those sorts of things – then Occult will be vital (even if you don’t roll Occult, the Storyteller may still look to Occult to determine what general information your character might know in a way that’s less likely than with other skills). On the other hand, if your chronicle focuses mostly on ‘modern’ topics – or if your Storyteller assumes that all vampires have at least a passing knowledge of things like the Book of Nod – then Occult is unlikely to come up.

Politics – Politics is more likely to be relevant than Occult, also more likely to be ignored. It is somewhat the ability to engage in politics. But Kindred politics are typically so personal that Persuasion or Subterfuge is going to be called for (there really aren’t enough vampires to make a faceless bureaucracy). And messing with mortal politics can also be handled with Influence. Politics is also somewhat just knowing about the political situation – but I’m not sure how many Storytellers will make characters roll Politics to have a grasp of the local Kindred power structure. It’s usually either you know it as general background information, or it’s the sort of thing you have to find out personally.

Science – Science joines Academics and similar skills is covering a really, really broad area of knowledge, most of which will never come up in a game of Vampire (don’t forget your free speciality). Just because I do math in articles like this doesn’t mean that anyone is going to be crunching numbers during play. On the more practical side of things, Science is used to create explosives (with a Technology or Craft follow-up to actually build the bomb), so there is one practical application if you want to up the damage level in your game.

Technology – Note that (unlike prior editions of Vampire), not having technology does not mean that a character is unable to perform basic tasks on a computer. However, unlike compatriot Drive, there is an awful lot that can be done with Technology (even keeping in mind that hacking is not magic, and that a lot of hacking is about tricking people into giving you access). In fact, if your Storyteller is overgenerous, Technology is a skill than can overwhelm the game, given how tech-dependent and interconnected modern life is (and since I’m guessing that the vampires in your game will still be carrying smartphones and using the internet, regardless of what V5 says about the Second Inquisition).

Disciplines

Disciplines are where vampires really differentiate themselves from mortals (well, that and the bloodsucking monster thing). Make sure your Discipline power do what you want and work when you want. Note that this discussion will not examine the higher level powers (or amalgam powers), only the first three dots. In general, it is important to pay attention to the rolls required for Disciplines. Disciplines that can be resisted are most often resisted by Attribute + Attribute rolls (with Composure + Resolve being the most common). That means that, when resistance is applicable, the target of the power will often get to roll 5 dice. If your Discipline dice pool is smaller than that, the power will probably fail. Disciplines failing all the time is probably going to feel lame. So consider having a 3 in the Attribute tied to your most important Discipline powers, and consider how your roll (of Attribute + Discipline) encourages you to pour multiple dots into a single Discipline.

Animalism – Animalism can give the character a familiar, let them sense the hostility of another, summon and communicate with animals, gain additional sustenance from feeding off of animals, or cow another mortal or vampire’s Beast. Summoning and directing animals is probably the signature low-level Animalism power – Charisma is used to summon and Manipulation to direct. Charisma is also used to cow mortals with Quell the Beast – unfortunately, Quell is pretty weak unless a critical hit is scored.

Auspex – Auspex can allow the vampire to see the supernaturally hidden, have heightened senses, receive premonitions, read auras, and tap into another’s senses. Auspex primarily relies on Wits and Resolve (depending on whether the character happens to notice something or is actively searching), but checking in on Blood Sorcery wards requires Intelligence. Heightened Senses dodges that, as it only requires rolls to avoid being overstimulated. Sense the Unseen, on the other hand, wants lots of dice, because it will always be opposed by another Discipline. Premonition can be an extremely useful tool for the player and the Storyteller – there’s nothing quite like a ready-made tool to shove the coterie back on track. Classic Auspex power Sense the Soul, however, can be very hit-or-miss. It’s opposed by a Composure + Subterfuge roll – so the more likely you are to need a supernatural power to figure out what’s going on with someone, the less likely that power is to actually work.

Celerity – Celerity, as with the other physical disciplines (Fortitude, Potence) feels significantly different because it’s no longer just a powerful, automatically-stacking effect. Celerity can grant supernatural balance, some help against firearms, increased Dexterity, straight-line speed, and walking on walls. When Celerity requires a roll, it uses Dexterity, but most uses of the Discipline require no roll at all. However, in exchange for this, the scope of most of the powers is limited. It isn’t all that often that a vampire needs to roll to keep their balance, or can’t find cover in a firefight, or makes generally makes Dexterity checks (note that Fleetness somewhat negates the value of Cat’s Grace, so I would consider avoiding the latter if you’re going to take the former). Note that it is not until 5 dots that a character can do something like search a house a high speed.

Dominate – Dominate is the power of directly commanding. It can make a target forget, follow a single-word command, follow a slightly longer command, follow an implanted command, or re-write memories. These commands are limited to very straightforward ones that require no judgment on the part of the target. The lowest-level Dominate is based on Charisma, while Manipulation kick in for the 2- and 3-dot powers. Dominate is most commonly resisted with an Intelligence + Resolve roll, and lower-generation vampires can shrug the power off by spending a Willpower (I think the only mechanical benefit of being lower generation). However, that’s usually only against a vampire – most mortals get no roll at all against Dominate, making it very effective against them.

Fortitude – Fortitude can make a vampire physically and mentally tough, or or mitigate aggravated damage to superficial. Although Fortitude has primarily existed as a physical Discipline, the mental aspect of it is not to be overlooked. While, as discussed in the combat section above, Fortitude helps you weather blows, but doesn’t let you avoid getting hit in the first place. That isn’t true of 1-dot power Unawayable Mind, which adds extra dice to your pool to resist social/mental assaults, from mundane seduction and intimidation, to the use of vampiric Disciplines such as Dominate and Presence. A couple of extra dice can make a huge deal in those rolls – only the most august of predators will be able to overcome a 7-dot dice pool (for example, 2 Intelligence + 3 Resolve + 2 Fortitude) to resist Dominate. And second-level power Toughness reduces all but the most catastrophic superficial damage to one (for example, take four damage from a gunshot, reduce that by two, halve that to one). As another plus, Fortitude doesn’t require a roll to activate. The first two dots of Fortitude are purely defensive, of course, but are very powerful nonetheless.

Obfuscate – The most unchanged of the Disciplines with the transition from V20 to V5, Obfuscate lets you stay silent, stay hidden, move hidden, blend into a crowd, or avoid electronic detection. Unlike most Disciplines, Obfuscate does not, by default, involve a roll. Wits + Stealth, however, is an important combination to have, because Obfuscate is broken when you do things like accidentally make a lot of noise, so mundane sneakiness is still important. Wits is also the attribute used to keep up Obfuscate in the face of the Auspex power to Sense the Unseen.

Potence – On the other hand, Potence has a drastically different feel from the scaling automatic successes on combat rolls that it used to be. Potence lets you inflict severe damage on mortals, leap far, increase unarmed damage, improved feats of Strength, quick draining of mortals, and enhanced climbing ability. Like Obfuscate, Potence generally does not directly involve a roll. It does, however, require hitting with an unarmed melee attack, which means making a Strength + Brawl check. Most uses of Potence are completely useless if you can’t win a combat roll using Strength + Brawl. Also note that many of the Potence powers (such as Lethal Body and Brutal Feed) are relatively ineffective against other vampires. If you don’t think your vampire needs to be extra-good at ripping apart mortals in combat, you might want to look at the more cinematic options, such as Soaring Leap (jump onto or across rooftops) and Prowess (picking up, knocking down, and throwing are all feats of Strength) – plus the damage bonus from Prowess is in full effect against other vampires.

Presence – Presence can make a character supernaturally alluring or frightening, or imbue their Kiss with even more supernatural pleasure. Presence has the advantage of generally operating unknown – persons who have been affected by your Presence won’t know that unless they have the Auspex power Sense the Unseen. The basic function of Presence is the 1-dot Awe power, which typically does not require a roll, and adds Presence to Charisma + Persuasion/Performance checks (or any other appropriate Charisma checks, which can be many, but will include Siren hunting pools) – a little bit of Presence can make it a lot easier to throw 8+ dice pools for social checks than pools of that size for physical checks. Alas, when the target has the ability to resist, your roll is based on Manipulation, so you can’t just pile onto Charisma. The other 1-dot power, Daunt, adds only to Intimidation checks, but note that this includes checks that aren’t charisma based as well (e.g., Strength + Intimidation). Daunt can be helpful, but Awe has much broader applications. The 3-dot Dread Gaze can sometimes substitute for Daunt, but is much more of a blunt-force weapon (using Charisma as the roll). Still it may be an appealing option instead of Entrancement, depending on how your Storyteller plays entrance. By the flavor description, Entrance seems very potent – make someone fall in love with you for the night (roll based on Charisma). But love is not stupidity. And the mechanical effect of Entrancement is to add Presence to Social dice pools against that subject – which Awe already does for most Charisma rolls (although not for manipulation rolls). So how much mileage you get out of that will depend on how much your Storyteller plays up the description over the mechanics. You might want to double down on the alluring or the scary aspect of Presence – but it might be a much more versatile power to go one way at 1-dot and then the other at 3-dots. Or, if making mortals addicted to your feeding on them isn’t your cup of tea (if, for example, you don’t want to devote that much time in-session to managing a blood cult), remember that you can take a 1-dot power when you take the second dot, getting both Awe and Daunt.

Protean – One of the more versatile powers, Protean can let the vampire see in the dark, be ‘light as a feather,’ do extra damage in unarmed combat, sleep in the earth, or change shape into an animal. None of these powers require rolls, unless using Weight of the Feather when unexpectedly falling – although, unless your chronicle involves an awful lot of falling, Eyes of the Beast is way more useful. However, Feral Weapons does require winning Strength + Brawl combat rolls. Earth Meld remains one of the strongest survival tools a vampire can have. Note that Feral Weapons laughs at Potence when it comes to dealing damage. It takes two different Potence powers to do most of what Feral Weapons does (although Lethal Body and Prowess also each do something Ferals Weapons does not). By eliminating the ‘half-damage’ aspect of superficial damage against vampires, Feral Weapons effectively increases your damage by at least 4, in a game where most vampires won’t have more than 6 health. However, with Protean effectively restricted to Farmers and the Gangrel (your Storyteller really shouldn’t let you take the Blood Leech Predator Type in most games), it’s only a select few characters who have the option.

Blood Sorcery – The main line of Blood Sorcery powers deal with directly manipulating vitae (yours or others; this mirrors the Path of Blood from V20, plus some Quietus) – turning your vitae corrosive or poisonous, learning abouts others from their blood, increasing the Hunger of other vampires, and temporarily increasing Blood Potency (primary benefit: getting an extra die on Discipline rolls). Blood Sorcery powers directly use a variety of attributes, most commonly Intelligence or Resolve. Scorpion’s Touch requires Strength, but it usually additionally requires a successful melee attack, so Strength was probably going to be called for anyway. All of the Blood Sorcery rituals (and there are a lot) require Intelligence.

Advantages and Disadvantages

You’re required to take both advantages and disadvantages (and, if you’re like our game, you can take even more of both so they can cancel each other out, although that isn’t allowed in the rules-as-written). Here are some thoughts on which ones can be interesting, or worth it. Note that many (if not most) of the flaws are punishing, so I’m not going to call them out just for being generically painful.

Linguistics – Not a bad pickup to speak a second language, but it’s prohibitively expensive to be fluent in many languages, or to play a concept like a scholar of dead languages.

Looks – How often looks comes up will vary based on the Storyteller. It’s not going to matter much when interacting with other vampires (who you have probably interacted with before), but it can matter a great deal in one-off interactions with mortals – there can be a real social cost to not meeting beauty standards. And some Storytellers may let you get away with being Repulsive without it every really mattering. But don’t be that player who is always trying to insist that their stunning looks apply to every single social situation. Note that the looks advantages will almost always apply to Siren hunting rolls – combined with Presence and a decent Charisma they can provide some attractively large dice pools.

Substance Use – There’s a lot of swinginess here. The disadvantages are debilitating. But the high-functioning addict, when set up properly, can be extremely strong. If you-the-player are interested in playing out a character who establishes a ready supply of persons using your drug of choice (possibly because you’re selling it to them), then you can get a perpetual one-die bump to all of your [physical/social/mental] rolls. That’s an enormous boost (just think what the cost would be to increase Charisma and Manipulation and Composure by one would be).

Mythic – I would suggest avoiding Stake Bait, because it’s mean to your Storyteller. A flaw that either never matters, or kills the character, is just really rough for them, because they (probably) don’t want to just kill your character and (probably) don’t want to just let you have two free points. I’d be hesitant about taking Stigmata either. It may not seem like much, but vampires are already getting pretty touchy at Hunger 4, and bleeding all over the place can really get in the way of rectifying that hunger problem.

Allies – Allies are way too expensive in V5. A one-dot Contact will help out once per story. One-dot Allies don’t exist. A two-dot Ally is relatively ineffective and only helps half the time. A reasonably competent Ally who will show up, but will it can take a while, is four dots. And you don’t get all that many dots at character creation. Pass. You could, however, get a one- or two-point flaw for a gifted or deadly enemy – as I’ll say again elsewhere, enemies make games interesting, so you might as well get some credit for them.

Fame – Fame has its ups and its downs, but there’s a lot of interesting roleplaying potential, in addition to the practical usefulness of people going out of their way to help you and some shielding for overt physical assault (because your enemies have more of a Masquerade issue if you disappear).

Influence – The Despised flaw is another one of those that can be an easy two points if you aren’t planning on being a mortal political player. Even if the Storyteller gets your haters involved in the story, that’s OK – enemies make games interesting.

Haven – The biggest thing about Haven is that you don’t have to take it. No points in Haven doesn’t mean you don’t have a haven. It just means you don’t have something fancy (avoid the “No Haven” flaw unless you want it to define your character). The Haven rating mostly affects the defensibility of the haven. Keep in mind that, for mechanical reasons, Resources doesn’t just let you buy a better Haven. The Compromised flaw is worth looking at if you’re willing to play a vampire who has a haven, but can’t really rely on it. Many of the Haven upgrades are so narrow that it’s hard to see many Storytellers requiring them, even if they technically should – do you really need a dot in something to have some guns in your haven?

Herd – You know how I talked earlier about how you aren’t locked into one kind of feeding? Well, you will be if you take the Obvious Predator flaw – and it will mess up an awful lot of mortal social interactions at well. Overall, Herd is of questionable value. If you’re willing to sink tons of points into Herd, you will probably only have to feed once a week to maintain yourself (if you aren’t using any Disciplines). But with that many background points you could just have a Domain/Chasse that reduces your hunting rolls to difficulty 2, which can generate far more blood in the long run.

Mask – Mask is either useless or priceless, depending on the sort of story that you’re playing. In the long term, every vampire will need a mask.

The Advantage Formerly Known As Mentor (Mawla) – I’m not a fan of Mawla in most circumstances. Sure, I can spend a dot to have another friendly neonate – but isn’t going around making allies (and enemies) of other vampires a thing I’m going to be doing in the game anyway? However, if you want a friend in high places (e.g., a Primogen or Prince), this might be your only shot. On the flipside, my suggestions on enemies above can apply here – enemies are interesting, why not get points for them? With that said, an elder (or worse) is generally going to be a far more potent threat to a character than mortals generally will be. Sure, you can get three points for making the prince your enemy, but that could be one miserable unlife.

Resources – Probably the single most powerful advantage. As the lady says, “money changes everything.” Indeed, too much resources can be a quick way to a boring unlife – when you can get “anything money can buy” (and money can buy pretty much anything), where’s the drama? Contacts, allies, fame – enough money can replace all of them, if the Storyteller isn’t careful.

Status – In some settings, a lack of Status can be crippling. Strongly consider taking a dot if your character wants to be taken seriously by the city’s power structure. But a new vampire generally shouldn’t have more than that.

Domain

Domain is the province of the entire coterie, not one character, but there are still better and worse ways to use it. The first mechanical oddity is that Domain, by itself, has no mechanical effect. Domain only has a mechanical effect through Chasse (hunting difficulty), Lien (familiarity), and Porillon (security).

Chasse can easily be the most significant of these. Hunting is very important. And as discussed above, hunting difficulties can be quite high. Indeed, the hunting difficulty in your new coterie’s Domain will be a 6(!) unless dots are invested in Chasses. At that point the Domain is essentially worthless as hunting grounds. But a couple of dots in Chasse doesn’t change much. Sure, a hunting difficulty of 4 is better than 6, but it’s still really rough. At that point the coterie is probably relying on somewhere else to feed anyway. But a chasse of 4 or 5? Now the hunting difficulty is down to 2 or 1! A storyteller may be unwilling to have a coterie of neonates be granted such rich hunting grounds, but if you can get a Chasse of 5, it is the most valuable use of coterie points I can think of (the vagaries of how Coterie Resources interact with personal Resources mean that I’m inclined to avoid putting Resources with the Coterie, but if your Storyteller will let Coterie Resources effectively serve as that level of Resources for everyone, then go to town).

Lien and Portillon are handy, but substantially less valuable. Lien adds dice to rolls to interact with local mortals or get the ‘word on the street.’ It can add up to powerful dice pools. It can also never come up, unless there are a lot of really handy mortals in the Domain. Portillon takes dice away from enemies, whether they’re trying to sneak around, investigate, plan an attack, etc. Note that this is on top of whatever security systems are in place – the security system sets the difficulty, and Portillon then reduces the dice pool the enemy has to beat the security.

Conclusion

Hopefully you’ll found these considerations useful the first time (or the next time) you sit down to create a V5 character. Drop a note in the comments if you have any tips or tricks!

 

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