Let the Streets Run Red (for Vampire: the Masquerade) is the second additional supplement funded through the Chicago by Night Kickstarter campaign (the first was The Chicago Folios). It currently exists only as an uncorrected proof for backers (I was one), so that’s what this review is based on, but I would anticipate the final PDF is just some proofreading away from a release on DriveThruRPG.
Let the Streets Run Red is a book of stories set in or around Chicago, and characters to populate those stories. Two of those stories (Power Prey and The Dying Fields) could be transplanted anywhere, while two are pretty attached to the Chicago area because they serve as launching points for a write-up on nearby cities – Innocence in Blood updates Milwaukee and introduces Indianapolis, while Rusted Jungle returns to the starting point for the very first Vampire story, Gary, Indiana. The four stories span about 150 pages, plus another 60 or so for write-ups of SPCs. There are also nine loresheets and nine ‘ready-made’ characters (for use as PCs or, more likely, as SPCs to populate a city). And, tucked into one of the stories, a couple new Blood Sorcery rituals.
Of the four stories, I think Rusted Jungle will be a real crowd-pleaser, Power Prey is solid and easy to run, The Dying Fields has potential but won’t work with some groups, and Innocence in Blood is ultimately too muddled by trying to do too much. There aren’t a ton of loresheets, but I think that the overall quality of the mechanics in them is improved. I imagine that, for a lot of folks, the biggest draw will be pulling updated details on Gary and Milwaukee out of the stories and the SPC write-ups. If you’re into the canon lore and the early Vampire stories from the 1990s, you’ll want to pick up Let The Streets Run Red. It is, regardless, definitely an add-on to Chicago by Night as is written assuming you have that book, so make sure to pick CbN up first.
Because much of this book is stories, a decent chunk of the review contains spoilers and is aimed at prospective Storytellers. That part is further down below a spoiler bar. You should be safe to read up here, unless you don’t even want to know even the most basic things like the themes of a story, in which case you should just stop reading after I talk about the loresheets.
The nine loresheets include werewolf hunters (and, separately, Mark Decker), mystical weirdness in Milwaukee, social media influencers, more about Carna, and loresheets based on long-time SPCs Eletria, Juggler, Maxwell, and Modius (note: the presence of these loresheets does not mean you’re going to run into these characters in any of the stories).
As is often the case, assessing the value of these is based on some combination of personal preference and whether that three-dot loresheet entry translates to two dots in advantages or four. Social Media Influencer, while mostly consisting of these sort of ‘buy loresheet to buy other advantages’ entries, manages to be both flavorful and avoid options that are too under- or over-powered, so I think it’s a solid option.
There are a couple of one-dot entries that players may find attractive (without just spitting back out more dots than you put in). Juggler’s one-dot power is potent, adding an extra die in brawl, melee, and streetwise when opposing the Camarilla. Similarly, Maxwell’s one-dot entry granting two extra dice on political (or, less relevantly, military) planning could go a long way.
Eletria also has a couple of interesting options for the budding artist. Her one-dot entry reduces the difficulty of all Painting, Sculpture, and Performance tests. Those don’t come up as much as Subterfuge or Brawl, but difficulty-reduction makes an enormous difference. And If you’re really good at Craft or Performance (i.e., you can reasonably frequently make a Difficulty 4 test … reduced to Difficulty 3 if you have the one-dot entry), Eletria’s two-dot entry allows you to heal all superficial willpower damage, which can allow you to much more heavily lean on ‘failure at a cost’ rolls (or recover from social disasters, if your Storyteller uses the social damage rules).
Power Prey – A story for 3-5 players, with an estimated runtime of 10 hours, Power Prey straightforwardly pits the characters against against mortals who have learned way too much about the characters and their mortal connections. A fun, if uncomplicated story, that makes the Storyteller’s life pretty easy.
The Dying Fields – In this 9-16 estimated hour playtime for 3-5 players, the characters head to a nearby small town in search of a missing person. But this trip turns out to be a horror movie where the characters are the victims (and also still bloodsucking monsters, of course). Could be very atmospheric, but it will be hard for some groups to pull off.
Innocence in Blood (Milwaukee, Indianapolis) – This story, for 3-5 players with an estimated 10-15 hours playtime, puts the coterie on track to locate the missing childe of the Prince of Milwaukee, although this story is as much a short write-up of Milwaukee and Indy as it is a story. Milwaukee, perpetually under Lupine threat, is run by the paranoid, dictatorial Mark Decker (it’s something of a red flag when keeping a keepsake or speaking positively of a vampire Decker had punished itself warrants the death penalty). Indy is Anarch-controlled, run by the Ministry, and urges Kindred to pursue whatever faith or enlightenment they desire, so long as it involves leaving their mortal connections behind (there is, sadly, no mention of the best four days in gaming). Unfortunately, between telling a story and being a pseudo-city-guide, Innocence in Blood suffers from trying to do too much, and ends up somewhat muddled.
Rusted Jungle (Gary) – Returning to the site of the very first Vampire: the Masquerade story, Rusted Jungle drops 3-5 players into Gary, Indiana for an estimated 10-15 hours of playtime. As the most longstanding and integral (for Vampire purposes) of the cities surrounding Chicago, there are a number of significant SPCs who could show up here, although I’ll save it for the spoiler section which ones are actually alive and making appearances. That integration continues here, as the characters (either Camarilla or Anarch) are Chicago residents being sent into Gary to investigate the source of a recent attack, and their findings may prove significant. Rusted Jungle pulls off its dual role better than Innocence in Blood, and it will probably be very satisfying for long-time players who are familiar with the role of Gary, Indiana in the history of Vampire: the Masquerade.
As noted above, the lore updates on Gary and Milwaukee will be a big draw for Let the Streets Run Red, and for players interested in that sort of thing the Rusted Jungle story will probably be a big hit. Now farewell to anyone who might be playing these stories, because there are spoilers below.
Below are my thoughts on these stories from the perspective of a Storyteller, which necessarily includes spoilers of some of the plot twists of the stories, as well as any other spoilers.
Power Prey – This does an overall good job of laying out a path that the PCs are likely to follow – it generally provides clear clues and a clear, pressing motivation to follow up on them (a mortal threatens and blackmails the characters’ touchstones, so the characters will want to find and deal with him). This includes detailed examples of how to tie the characters into the narrative and detailed descriptions of likely conversations. All of this makes the story fairly painless for the Storyteller. Power Prey does have a few too many “make this or you’re stuck” rolls. And there are some places where it’s unclear why there are rolls at all (why do I have to make an Investigation roll to get my Touchstone to provide a description of the man who attacked them or make a Technology roll to realize that blog posts are in chronological order?). While the final confrontation with the mortal is overall (intentionally) not tough, watch out for the ambush when the characters head to the second floor – the story’s recommended tactic of 4-6 mortals with assault rifles focusing fire on one vampire is reasonably likely to drop one of your player characters.
The Dying Fields – The ultimate threat here is a town cult that sacrifices blood and life to feed a harvest god – up to and including vampires. It’s like a horror movie where the characters arrive at the seemingly innocuous town, and then the unpleasant folks and the odd happenings keep piling up. The end is a little less horror-movie, as it’s anticipated that the characters can either physically or supernaturally overcome the evil cult, rather than them having to flee for their lives. The final twist is that the coterie cannot leave the town unless they convince all three of the vampires who live there to leave as well – or just kill the vampiric residents so that the coterie is all of the vampires in town. As a longstanding complainer about what I feel are excessively high default difficulties in V5, I appreciate that The Dying Fields includes some rolls with graduated successes (e.g., get this much info for 1-2 successes, this much for 3, and even more at 4). I think the main challenge in running The Dying Fields is setting the pace to build dread of what’s going on without frustrating your players as days pass with little action. I’d almost be tempted to suggest early on that the coterie can just leave if they want, so they can find out that they actually can’t just leave, which could get the players in the right sort of paranoid, frightened mindset for this story. Getting PCs motivated initially may be a little hard, depending on the players. When you’re looking for a missing person, it may not be immediately clear that you will care about things like the old church or the famer’s almanac – some groups will jump on every clue like it’s the most important thing in the world, but others won’t bother with that sort of background stuff until you’ve given them a firm shove. There’s a recurring theme of it being easy to get lost in the small town, which can amp up the spooky if played right – but be annoying if not properly framed. There’s a lot of hypothetically optional stuff in this story that’s really mandatory – the players just won’t get it or won’t act as assume if they’re missing some of the information. This caps off with an “optional” scene where one of the characters gets kidnapped (and they will get kidnapped, unless they are super-vigilant or you go out of your way to take it easy on them), but it doesn’t really feel optional because the story doesn’t really present another reason for the characters to arrive at the climax.
Innocence in Blood – Although it’s ostensibly open to all types, Innocence in Blood is very much configured for Camarilla vampires, not Anarchs, and preferably Camarilla vampires who have never been to Milwaukee before. The central path in Innocence in Blood is pretty straightforward. There’s a lot of talking to someone who sends you to the next location where you meet someone who sends you to the next location. In Power Prey, that simplicity felt clean, and accompanied by all the details you’d need to make it run smoothly. In Innocence in Blood it feels messy. The nature of this chapter as a partial write-up and partial story makes both parts muddled. A lot of places in the cities have some sort of tie presented to the story, but there’s no story motivation for the characters to go there and no ultimate relevance to anything learned there. There’s this ongoing thread of FBI agents searching for the childe as well (she was reported as a missing person), but there’s little guidance on how to use these FBI agents, just reminders that they were there to be used to interfere. Ultimately, there’s no “good” ending for Innocence in Blood – which isn’t a bad thing. The characters have agreed to help the Prince of Milwaukee, and following through on that means subjecting a (relative) innocent to domination and punishment. Leaving her with the Ministry isn’t much better – it’s what she would prefer right now, but it’s pretty clear that they’re taking advantage of her and are putting her on the path to inhumanity. What seems like the “best” option – getting her out of that part of the country entirely – would force the coterie to join her, having burned all of the bridges. That sort of no-win choice, with hard choices between morality and practicality, ties into some of the best themes of Vampire, and is the strongest part of the story. Ultimately, however, I can’t escape the conclusion that Innocence in Blood would have been better as a chronicle or a city guide, not both.
Rusted Jungle – Unlike Innocence in Blood, Rusted Jungle should work equally well for Camarilla or Anarch vampires. The characters are either Camarilla infiltrating the Anarchs or vice versa, but either way they are investigating an attack in Chicago that was launched from Gary. Regardless of faction, the characters seek the same information, and the cost of getting that information will instigate a lethal showdown between the Camarilla and Anarchs of Gary, with the characters able to determine who wins. The characters will then discover that the true source of the attacks is Maxwell, former Prince of Chicago. Be careful with this final encounter – I imagine that most coteries will not be particularly interested in joining up with Maxwell, the “run” option has some really high difficulties (all 5-6), and the “fight” option will be rough for some coteries (Maxwell has a pile of dots and mortal help). Some adjustment may be in order. Like Innocence in Blood, there’s guidebook-style information here that isn’t pertinent to the story, but given the intertwined nature of Gary and Chicago, and the fact that this story will likely leave the characters will allies in both cities, the Storyteller is more likely to be able to put this background to use. Similar to Power Prey, however, there are potential problems with skill test walls and randomly excessive difficulties. For example, there’s a Difficulty 4 skill test right when the characters enter Gary, and for at least one path failing that roll means that the story is over or the ST has to immediately go off script. And why is it a Difficulty 5 roll to a remove a hard drive from a desktop?
SPCs – I’m including this in the spoiler section because many of these characters come up in the stories, and some of them are intended as surprises. Old mainstays who show up include Juggler (former Baron of Gary), Modius (former Prince of Gary), their childer Evelyn Stephens and Allicia, Eletria (Lodin’s sire), Maxwell (first Prince of Chicago), and Mark Decker (current Prince of Milwaukee). Another returning character who, I think, wasn’t previously associated with the Chicago area is Archon Dawn Nakada, who was embraced out of an interment camp for Japanese-Americans during WWII (extra spoiler: if you’re one of the players in my ongoing New York by Night chronicle – yes, this is the Dawn Nakada you’ve met, and she’s obviously not the fledgling she’s been pretending to be). As for the new characters, I’m partial to Elizabeth Stevens, but perhaps that’s because she reminds me of my own Beth from Providence by Night – grad school in archaeology, academic influence, embraced to serve as a researcher, left alone with little knowledge of Kindred society but hoping for some sort of place in it, potentially problematic relationship with an older female vampire. The modern era also makes its presence felt, with SPCs in the vein of that Social Media Influencer loresheet, like a video gaming streamer and an Instagram influencer.
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