Review – Fall of London (Vampire: The Masquerade)

Fall of London is the first chronicle book for the fifth edition of Vampire: the Masquerade. Because Fall of London is a chronicle book that is primarily for storytellers, most of this review is going to be below the ‘spoiler bar.’ But the basics here up top are aimed at players and will not include story spoilers beyond the sort of high-level concepts you might see on the back of the book.

Fall of London is about a coterie of vampires who were recently awakened from torpor for the purpose of obtaining several mystical relics for Mithras, the millenia-old vampire who once ruled Britain (and hopes to do so again, of course). In canon, London today is a wasteland for vampires, the Second Inquisition having mostly wiped them out. Fall of London is set in 2012, and the pitch for the chronicle also talks about how the story will explore the events that led to the fall. This could be a bit misleading. The Second Inquisition is around and is a problem for the vampires in the chronicle, but the chronicle is very much focused on Mithras.

Historically, a lot of Vampire chronicle books have been a bit shaky, because they’re hard to get right. Vampire is a game that tends to have story that’s a lot more fluid. Writing an adventure/chronicle almost inherently requires some assumptions about what the characters are going to do, or it gets blown up. This is fairly easy for something like Dungeons & Dragons – it really is overwhelmingly likely that, when presented with an assignment to go help those people or explore that area, the PCs will just go do it, and fight anything hostile. A Vampire writer usually doesn’t have that luxury, but a lot of early chronicle books just assumed that the characters were going to decide to do exactly what the chronicle needed them to do, in exactly the way the chronicle needed them to do it – even if such a course of action was highly unlikely. Fall of London handles this issue by coming up with circumstances where the characters almost certainly will take certain general courses of action – they have to find four ancient artifacts, there are four specific vampires who have those artifacts, and the characters are going to have to go deal with those vampires in order to complete their mission. They have freedom in how they’re going to ‘deal with’ them, but there is enough structure for the chronicle to actually work (yes, it’s possible for the characters to just leave London at the first chance, but that really just means there are bad players in the group who don’t understand that one of their jobs is to make interesting choices). I can see some Vampire players not loving the ‘fetch quest’ aspect of the chronicle, but, frankly, there always has to be some level of what some will label as ‘railroading’ to make any published chronicle work, and starting off by giving the characters concrete goals is about as subtle a way of doing it as there is.

Whether a particular group’s iteration of Fall of London will stick to just that quest for relics will depend on the Storyteller. It’s certainly possible for a ST to run a ‘lean’ Fall of London chronicle, going from one relic to the next over a couple of in-game weeks, with minimal interaction with non-essential NPCs. There’s also material built in to the chronicle that the ST can use to expand things, letting the characters get to know modern London a bit more (the chronicle as written mostly seems to presume that vampires from the 1940s will not have much difficulty operating in modern days almost immediately after waking up). My guess is that most Storytellers will be somewhere in between, building out the NPCs presented, but not putting in the significant time that would be required to create an expanded cast of vampires to more fully cover things in the city (Fall of London is not a substitute for ‘London by Night’).

One aspect of managing the chronicle is that it is designed to use five specific, pregenerated characters. Some players will, I imagine, not be a fan of this, but it allows the chronicle to build in hooks specifically for those characters. This is even more important in Fall of London than it might be in some other chronicle, because a significant part of that is the characters figuring out who they really are – each character has a vague idea of their history, but because of the thaumaturgical ritual that set the characters on their path 70 years ago, their own identities are not clear to them. It would rather defeat the purpose to have the players go through detailed character creation.

On the subject of identities, Fall of London makes sure to cover a lot of bases (I imagine that, in addition to their personal thoughts, the team working on Fall of London wanted to make sure to avoid some of the problems that the original trio of V5 books ran into). Fall of London accurately depicts a multiethnic city, including a player character who is black and another from the Indian subcontinent. Various sexual orientations and gender identities appear as well. As with ethnic variety, these appear in both NPCs and the pregenerated player characters. Orientation and gender are smoothly handled – the characters are queer, and this is neither a big secret nor made a big deal of. For example, the blurb handed to the trans PC simply notes that the character is a man, but has “a body which society would typically assign as a woman.” Several NPCs are referred to with they/them pronouns.

Ultimately, while the ‘plot’ of Fall of London is about recovering relics (and, secondarily, about worrying about hunters), I think that the main draw will be in the characters learning about who they are, learning about the history of the cult of Mithras, and (to an extent dependant on the Storyteller) developing connections with the vampires of modern London. The relics are a means of taking the characters through all that, rather than an end in themselves.

As one might except for a chronicle book, there is little new mechanical contents for players, although there are five new loresheets. These loresheets are tied present-day London (which has fallen entirely to the Second Inquisition), after the chronicle, and don’t really relate to what happens during the Chronicle. Some of them could be repurposed for other cities as well. One could be a Justicar’s Agent in any city, not just London. And the Hunt Club is a multinational sort of loresheet that seems rather out of place in a post-Fall London that no longer even has a Prince to call blood hunts. The London underground loresheet would work in any city with a major underground tunnel system. And having connections to the Second Inquisition is probably handy anywhere as well.

Fall of London will be a 250+ page, full-color hardcover (although this review is based on a work-in-progress PDF review copy, as the physical book has not yet released; the book is currently available for preorder). I prefer the graphic presentation in Fall of London to that in the V5 core book, primarily because the photographs are mostly replaced with illustrations. And the photographs used are generally better suited – there aren’t many that appear to be of seemingly random people who have nothing to do with vampires (although we do get a couple of those as chapter introductions). Instead, the photographs include more things like location shots of the London underground or mood pieces like a bloody rosary or a burning flower.

Fall of London is the first Vampire: the Masquerade release developed by Modiphius under the new multi-publisher method for the IP (they have taken up publication duties for the core book, Camarilla, and Anarch, but those were developed by White Wolf). There’s a decent amount of cross-reference to Cults of the Blood Gods (currently on Kickstarter), which seems to indicate a healthy level of collaboration between the different companies involved.

Overall, I think Fall of London could be a great chronicle in the hands of the right Storyteller (and without the Storyteller needing to put in hours and hours of extra work). It creates a framework that allows very personal moments for the characters and directs them enough to make the chronicle function, while still allowing freedom in how objectives are accomplished. It has a wide enough array of NPCs to let the players run into someone they find interesting, and provide a social touch so that the chronicle doesn’t get reduced to a series of “missions.”

OK, that’s all for the players. Spoilers and more Storyteller-focused analysis below. I suggest not reading on if you might be playing through Fall of London.

 

 

OK, last chance to avert your eyes, players! From here on out, I’m assuming your the Storyteller (or perhaps a dirty cheater who deserves to have their chronicle spoiled).

So, the plot overview with just a bit more detail is that the coterie were members of the cult of Mithras who were voluntarily subjected to a ritual that turned them into vessels for advancing the cause of Mithras, incompletely-replacing their memories and identities with gestalt thoughts and feelings from the collected members of the cult who helped fuel the ritual. Their torpid bodies were lost during World War II bombings, and were recently discovered. They have now been awakened by the remnants of the cult in order to help Mithras complete his takeover of the body of Monty Coven (a younger vampire who managed to diablerize a torpid Mithras in the 1990s after the Methuselah had been kind-of blown up in 1940). The ritual that will restore Mithras to his power seems transparently manufactured to give a way to guide the PC’s actions but, as I noted above, I think that sort of thing is kind of necessary for a published chronicle to function.

On the Second Inquisition front, note that there is no monolithic global organization here. The ‘Second Inquisition’ in this context is just the London/UK government knowing and taking action on vampires in the city. This task for is known as Operation Antigen. So when I talk about the Second Inquisition in this review, I’m talking about police and other government agents, although ones who are generally very well informed and generally very well armed. There are a handful of specific encounters (as referenced below), but the presence of Antigen is mostly through an increasing ‘threat level’ that makes more vampires hide and otherwise makes things a bit less convenient as the chronicle progresses.

There are six chapters to the story in Fall of London. The first (when the coterie first gets their mission) and the last (when they ultimately help complete the ritual or turn on Mithras) are fixed. Each of the other four chapters can, according to the book, be presented in an order of the Storyteller’s choosing, and each presents its own distinctive themes. However, I would suggest doing them in the order presented, which gives the most natural flow to the story. For example, it would be normal for newly-awakened vampires to present themselves to the Prince. The Elysium/party being held by the Prince works far better if the vampires of the city are blissfully unaware of the threat of Antigen, instead of already having fled in terror (the theme of the chapter is supposed to be “decadence and arrogance,” which will hardly be conveyed by a handful of vampires cowering at a forced party). And Antigen’s attack on said party serves as a wake-up call to the city’s vampires. So the relic held by the Prince works way, way better as the first one the party goes for – which is exactly where that chapter is in the book.

The book also suggests that the ST make sure to read each chapter before running it. I would strongly suggest ready all of the chapters before running anything. There are some things placed in later chapters, such as potential long-term contacts for the players, that the Storyteller will definitely want to know about up front. The ST will also definitely need to be very familiar with all of the flashbacks/memoria for each of the characters, as revealing the characters’ pasts is a very big part of the chronicle. One potentially confusing aspect (for the ST and the players) is that there are individual flashbacks that are real memories of the characters and then collective flashback scenes where the coterie as a group is, through the ritual that implanted them with fragments of other members of the cult of Mithras, reliving past events through the perspective of other members of the cult. This is used to provide background information (sometimes meaningful, sometimes not so much) on the cult of Mithras and some of the significant vampires of the city. It will be important for the ST to ensure that the players know the difference.

On the subject of ‘long-term’, there is, I found, a bit of a dichotomy in the presentation. Fall of London seems best suited as a short-term chronicle, and it features characters who have essentially zero relationships with modern mortals. The book talks about getting mortal contacts or touchstones, but there’s mostly no real ‘use’ for them within the scope of the chronicle (the handling of touchstones also makes me wonder if the Player’s Guide is going to broaden how they work, as the player characters have convictions without touchstones, and the touchstone possibilities seem unrelated to convictions, instead simply being any sort of human connection). There’s at least one reference to how a mortal might become an ally – despite the fact that this mortal is only met in a “flashback” of events that happened over 120 years ago, where the coterie sees events they were never personally around to witness. The book also has things like two-page write-ups of the background story of a vampire NPC who the characters only ever see in a flashback. That isn’t bad thing, per se, but in a world where I usually think of the word/page count of published RPGs as a precious resources, these sorts of side discussions struck me as an odd use of space.

So, assuming that the story is run in the order presented in the book, things kick off with a bang, as the coterie are awakened, given their marching orders (which they should go along with, given that loyalty to Mithras is one of the things still burned into them), and then subjected to a coordinated Second Inquisition strike. This is one of several places where the coterie can learn that discretion is the better part of valor.

The first relic is, not-so-coincidentally, by Queen Anne, the Prince of London, who is also not-so-coincidentally holding a big party to which the characters can be invited. This chapter makes sure to provide lots of different ways that the party can learn what they need to before showing up at the party (e.g., make sure to bring a gift). The party itself largely serves as a way to show the characters some of the vampires of London, and give them a chance to start making allies (or enemies) (these can be skipped if the ST is just focusing on the main plot). When the characters do get to meet the Prince, they get a flashback to her embrace at the hands of Mithras’s former seneschal, who happens to be the one who tried to kill Mithras. Her price for her relic is killing her sire. The characters might accomplish this in several ways (with ‘getting the Second Inquisition to do your dirty work’ being the nuclear option), or might try to double-cross the Prince. Once they have returned to the party (it’s a long night), they will get the information they need to retrieve the relic, and then have to survive their second big hunter attack in as many chapters, with assault helicopters closing in on the high-rise party. This is, however, probably the last time the characters will have such a fight, until the end of the chronicle.

The second relic is held by a vampire out in the ‘burbs, which gives the characters the chance to interact with some rogue Tremere, some thin-bloods, and a vampire who is about as ‘moral’ and human-involved as most vampires could possibly hope to be (of course, if they play their cards wrong, they also might have the chance to see said vampire frenzy and maim a mortal descendent). The vampire with the relic and family is Sri Sansa, and meeting him will grant the coterie a joint flashback where they can see how he was sought by Mithras as a spiritual advisor, making the Methuselah just another Londoner taken in by Sri Sansa’s act as a wise spiritualist. Ultimately, negotiating for the relic is easy – Sri is just trying to get his family out of London, and doesn’t want any trouble with the cult of Mithras. That makes this chapter very much about interpersonal relations and moral choices – figuring out what other vampires want, why they want it, and how they treat mortals.

Retrieving the third relic will send the characters underground into their own horror movie, as they must grapple with a maze of tunnels while under the effects of ritual that saps them of their blood. The encounters here primarily serve to amp up the fear level and increase the amount of time the characters might be stuck below. Ultimately, though, the characters will find the lair of their target, prompting another collective flashback, this time a short one where the characters witness Mithras sacrificing a mortal in a ritual. There’s a less-than-climactic confrontation, but the characters eventually find the relic.

The fourth relic will be obtained primarily through bargains. The coterie knows a vampire (a Nosferatu holed up in the walls of a theater) who knows where the elder vampire with the relic that they’re looking for is. To get that information, they have to do a favor (and not a terribly humane one). The characters’ metaphorical approach prompts the elder to send a grandchilde to meet with them. The nature of this ‘meeting’ depends on their interactions with the grandchilde in a prior chapter, but either way they again have a chance to make a bargain – another favor for the relic (this time, helping the elder escape a tight spot). Then they have to go figure out to accomplish that task, which may require them to call in another favor just to find out who to ask. Eventually they’ll end up at a hopping queer nightspot – where, of course, they will have to agree to do a favor for the proprietor in order to get her help with the favor for the elder. One rescued ghoul later, and the characters will finally be in the vicinity of their meeting with the elder. This triggers multiple collective flashbacks, as the characters see the cult of Mithras in action thousands of years ago and then when Mithras came to Britain, forcing the fealty of the elder they are now meeting. Between this flashback and a possible information dump from the modern day, this is the place where the characters are most likely to get the big picture on Mithras, and in their conversations with the elder recognize that just doing what Mithras says might not be the only option. Again, there will be bargaining, and the characters will presumably exit with their final relic.

The final chapter is the endgame. The characters’ primary choices are to legitimately go through the ritual and restore Mithras to power, or support the Camarilla and try to take down Mithras while he’s still weakened. The upsides of supporting Mithras are fairly obvious – service in exchange for power. And, after all, the characters were loyal to Mithras before (although the sort of loyalty where you can never be sure how much supernatural influence is involved). Some groundwork is probably necessary in advance to make the Camarilla route seem more appealing. For example, the Camarilla has a Justicar in town and she and Queen Anne have been working against the Second Inquisition (while the cult of Mithras has been feeding them information). But this is the first time that the Justicar is mentioned, and there hasn’t been anything about Queen Anne since she ran away and left her party guests to die back in the second chapter. So it’s probably important that the Storyteller seed some of this information in advance. It may also be necessary to push the idea (possibly through the Justicar) that the characters have a real chance if they betray Mithras, because the players may naturally assume that going against him is a suicide mission.

These aren’t the only options, but it would be a boring group of players that decided to run away entirely at this point. And, while it’s possible to make a deal with Operation Antigen, the terms offered are so terrible that I can’t see many coteries going for it. There is the option for the characters to try to gain power for themselves in the course of betraying Mithras. This might be more likely than the prior two suggestions, but it probably also becomes a chronicle in its own right – the characters can get the Camarilla to withdraw support from Queen Anne herself, but there really isn’t any reason anyone would pick the characters to run the joint in her place. Still, this is an example of the book not just assuming that the players are going to make certain choices – there’s real discussion given to all of these options.

At this point, the Storyteller should probably deploy some ‘farewell’ scenes with favorite NPCs, and then the characters will be off to meet with Mithras for one nefarious purpose or another. Supporting Mithras is easy – the ritual works, the vampire god is returned to his full strength, and the characters shall be his acolytes. The other route requires actual work. Again, the book discusses multiple options the characters might take. There’s one person out there who Mithras actually cares about – maybe they kidnap and threaten him in order to get the Methuselah to leave. Or maybe they show up for the ritual, but sabotage it. This is probably the most exciting, because it results in a showdown where, because Mithras is weakened by the failure of the ritual and because he’s still in Monty Coven’s body, the coterie has the chance to actually win the ensuing fight.

In some ways, the end of the chronicle is let down by the canonical events you know are coming after the story is over. If the coterie supports Mithras all the way, then he regains his full might … and runs away to Scotland. He can’t stay in London because it’s going to ‘fall’ in a couple of years. It’s worse if the coterie supports Queen Anne, because then the chronicle very much ends on a ‘and then she and the Justicar have this Antigen thing under control’ note. It can really feel like the ‘good’ ending … except you know that, in canon, nothing really gets under control and everyone dies/runs away. This is unfortunate because, in general, the plot is much less about the Second Inquisition than it is about Mithras and the vampires of the city. Just having a well-organized group of hunters, instead of “The Second Inquisition” would allow the players a more satisfying option of picking whether Mithras or the Camarilla would have control of London. This is Vampire, so it’s not like a depressing ending can’t be appropriate – but it’s an awkward juxtaposition here. Also, the post-Fall London of 2019 does not seem exciting to set  game in – no electronics, no open communication, no public gatherings, no public transport, etc. To me it emphasizes that maybe the V5 core book inflated the Second Inquisition a bit too much. Is it realistic in our hyper-surveilled world for governments to identify and eliminate vampires? Sure. But laying it on so heavily can suck the fun out of things.

Overall, there’s the chance for a lot of great interplay between the characters and the other vampires of the city, with the opportunity for some explosive combat as well. The direction of play should be manageable, as the characters should tend to follow the general course laid out for them, and the book takes the time to address multiple ways that they might respond to certain events or achieve certain objectives. A Storyteller who wants the chapters to unfold in a certain order (and, as noted above, I think you should want them to unfold in a certain order) will have little difficulty with this, as Fall of London provides a number of natural-feeling ways to ‘gate’ the players off from the ‘wrong’ course of action (generally because they need some piece of information to kick off a chapter, and the ST has an easy way to make sure they get that information when it’s time to go). My main quibbles are that the book sometimes provides more information that could ever be relevant, and that the post-chronicle setting isn’t amazing – and those are pretty minor quibbles that won’t really affect player enjoyment during the game. Well worth checking out.

 

One thought on “Review – Fall of London (Vampire: The Masquerade)

  1. I think your take on the endings are a bit off. If the PCs side with Queen Anne, for example, I assume that the “canonical” Fall of London won’t happen. This is, after all, an open-ended chronicle and we know that Queen Anne’s death at the hands of the Second Inquisition is retconned here along with other details. The “canon” London that we see at the end of the book is only one possibility for your chronicle.

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