Review – The Chicago Folios (Vampire: the Masquerade)

With Chicago by Night now available at retail, Onyx Path is moving on the Kickstarter-generated supplements, which brings us The Chicago Folios. The Chicago Folios is primarily a collection of story hooks, secondarily another helping of vampires in Chicago (and the vicinity), and then there’s a mechanical splash with more lore sheets and Blood Sorcery rituals. If you didn’t back the Kickstarter, it’s available as a PDF or print-on-demand (POD) from DriveThruRPG (this review is based on the premium color POD version, which I purchased at a lower-than-usual price because I was a Kickstarter backer).

Note that, while the Chicago Folios is a nice book, it is definitely a supplement to Chicago by Night. So, unless you really, really want some new Blood Sorcery rituals and a couple of non-Chicago lore sheets, you probably don’t want to get The Chicago Folios unless you already have Chicago by Night (which is a great book, by the way, and well worth picking up).

Shejana the “Caitiff?”

One high-level tidbit that may interest long-time Vampire fans is that a Ravnos appears in The Chicago Folios … sort of. There is a character (with a related story hook) who is very obviously Ravnos, but is labeled as a “Caitiff?” I don’t know what that portends for whether the Ravnos ever show up in V5, although I tend to lean towards it being an indication that they won’t be in the Player’s Guide.

The biggest chunk (~80 pages) of the Chicago Folios is story hooks, divided up into four groups by whether they are about the Camarilla, Anarchs, independents/mortals, or “Heretical Threats and Observations” (cults of the blood gods, what’s left of the Sabbat, other supernatural stuff). And they are very detailed story hooks. Normally I would think of a story hook as occupying maybe half of one column, but some of these span close to two pages. Despite that depth, however, they remain story hooks – they’re going to set up a situation, and tell you several outcomes that might result, but there’s no detail on how to get from that setup to one of those outcomes. The primarily exist as possible inspiration for a ST running a chronicle set in Chicago.

There are a broad array of story types presented, from street-level crime with the One-Eyed King (aka Lodin, former Prince) to high-stakes meetings with Camarilla officials to organized hunters to masquerade breaches to the Beckoning to murder mysteries to business opportunities. One of my favorites is the shortest – there’s another vampire who has come into possession of a warehouse, and needs to figure out what to do with it. I also liked a set up where a Camarilla Ventrue who is sympathetic to a feminist Anarch is filmed attending one of her rants, but then circumstances develop to casp suspicion on the Ventrue – it may be up to the coterie whether these two can become allies or if their inherent suspicions turn them into enemies.

The weakest portion was the tail end of the ‘heresies’ section. Many f the story hooks presented are tied in with well-established Vampire material – the Church of Caine, the Sabbat, the Bahari, Mithras, Set, that sort of thing. But Chicago is already kind of full up on random non-Vampire supernatural stuff, so I wasn’t too enthused about the collection of story hooks at the end that presented random off-beat stuff, some of which was just extended character backstory. For example, while Zal is one of my favorite characters in the book, it felt out-of-place to have an extended monologue about her personal obsessive-compulsive issues in this part of the book (just give her a longer character write-up). And I could have done without Bartleby and his Church of the Crawling Tongue at all, although I imagine that there will be a group of Vampire players out there who think that the idea of a magical tongue that’s transplanted into various mortals and controls them to be pretty cool.

Following on the story hooks are ~25 vampires presented over ~60 pages. These characters cover almost all of the existing clan options (although there is no representative of the Ministry). The highest level of representation is for the Gangrel (because pretty much the entire Wolf Pack shows up) and the Ventrue (because wow Lodin left Chicago with a lot of Ventrue).

Al Capone

While Chicago by Night had a mix of returning and new characters, almost everyone here is new. One notable exception is Al Capone. I ended up with mixed feelings about his appearance. On the one hand, it was nice to see another returning character. On the other hand, I thought it made a lot of sense when they presented him as dead and gone in Chicago by Night, what with the obvious masquerade issues he presents.

I definitely have a couple of favorites among the new characters. I liked Jennifer Mackay, who happens to be the feminist Anarch mentioned above – not for that, but because of the loving but surely gutting relationship with her heroin-addicted girlfriend (“Jennifer knows she will always play second fiddle to heroin in Catrinel’s affections” – that’s a gut punch right there). As mentioned above, I liked Zal, starting with her name (she was born Christal, but starting calling herself “Xal” as a bit of rebellion because her parents would become enraged when people referred to Xmas). She was embraced by a Giovanni, but his blood didn’t imprint, and she ended up a Caitiff. Now her life has been overcome by an obsession with death and dead things – goth knick-knacks, skull-themed decor, learning dead languages, working at the morgue.

In addition to these story hooks and characters, The Chicago Folios presents 12 new loresheets and 11 new Blood Sorcery rituals. The new loresheets are Archons, The Convention of Chicago, Descendant of Menele, Justicar Lucinde, Khalid al-Rashid, Kindred Dueling, Malkavian Family, Occult Artifacts, The Pony Express, Sheriff Damien, and The Wolf Pack. With five options per loresheet, I couldn’t possibly analyze them all here, but a few I found interesting include:

  • Color of Authority (Archons ••••): While this is essentially a version of Status: Camarilla 4, I liked seeing a firm way of demarking the mechanical cost to having the power of an Archon.
  • Sibling Bond (Malkavian Family ••): The Malkavian Family loresheet is based around Jason “Son” Newberry’s despotic control of his clan in Chicago. But this option, which creates a shared Haven and Herd for you and another vampire, could easily be used to represent all sorts of relationships with another vampire (this sort of thing is especially handy during character creation to really tie a PC into an NPC).
  • Symposium (Descendent of Menele •): With a lot of experience debating, the character can re-roll a single die on all Persuasion rolls.

I liked seeing new Blood Sorcery rituals at all, although it’s interesting how my interest in new mechanical content for V5 (medium-high) is so different from my interest in prior versions of Vampire (mostly indifferent). I think it’s because there were so many existing options fairly early in prior editions, and Disciplines tended to provide fairly broad powers. In V5, on the other hand, there were not nearly as many character creation options at launch (followed by delays in releasing supplements), and with Discipline powers relatively narrow there are a lot of times I find myself wishing for more choices. Thaumaturgy/Blood Sorcery exemplifies this dichotomy, with V20 and Revised swimming with paths and rituals. What Blood Sorcery really needs is some more options for early Discipline powers (because the existing ones are really weak), but for now I am happy to at least see more rituals (although I do wish they were clustered at 1-2 instead of 3-4). Most helpful (because I think that low level powers are, in practical terms, the most important for player characters) is a Level 2 Ritual enabling the vampire to question a reflection of a dead human or vampire (Calling the Aura’s Remnants). But they really open up at Level 3, with options allowing the vampire to see the history of a place over the last five years, conceal cause of death, or enhance unarmed damage.

The overall presentation of The Chicago Folios was nice, although did not seem as good as the core Chicago by Night book. I do not have much in the way of POD books, so I was curious how that would turn out. I thought the feel of the paper was comparable to pre-V20 Vampire: the Masquerade books, so obviously serviceable as an RPG text (although, of course, those older books were black-and-white while this is in color). It is, however, definitely a step down from traditionally printed V5 and V20 books (and Vampire: the Requiem, if you want to go back that far). On the art front, I really like that the art within the chapters tended to match up with the context of the writing in the vicinity – someone is exploring a house and there’s a picture of a basement nearby, there’s a website with Kindred-related information and there’s a picture of a computer nearby. Not that the contents lined up perfectly, but I liked seeing that instead of the completely-unrelated images that often go along with text in these sorts of supplements. And many of the character descriptions actually matched the character portraits, which has historically been a problem area in World of Darkness books. On the other hand, I was unenthused about the offerings from one of the artists who was used for a significant portion of the character portraits, which seemed hit-or-miss (Shejana hit, Al Capone not so much). The shading on the face of the Toreador Dr. Benway, for example, looks almost deformed. The copyediting didn’t seem as on-the-ball as either. For example, someone was being a little overzealous with the hyphens in the loresheets (you can gain a “two-dot Ally” but you don’t “gain … four-dots in Status”). Characters’ pronouns slipped on a couple of occasions (not trans-related). And, while I get that maybe there’s sometimes a need to adjust font size on the lore sheets to fit a longer mechanical effect into a defined space, please, please do not change font sizes in the middle of a paragraph.

Ultimately, The Chicago Folios is a solid offering for those wanting even more Chicago by Night. It doesn’t live up to Chicago by Night, but Chicago by Night did set a pretty high bar. The Chicago Folios will be of most interest to Storytellers who favor taking story hooks and expanding them out, as these take up a significant chunk of the book. Non-STs will get the most out of the character write-ups and the mechanical additionals.

One thought on “Review – The Chicago Folios (Vampire: the Masquerade)

  1. Fantastic review of THE CHICAGO FOLIOS. Al Capone surviving is something that I enjoyed but also kind of iffy on because Kevin Jackson getting rid of him did help establish why he was Prince as he was always a “silly” aspect of the setting. I really did enjoy seeing Shejana a.ive and well, though, but it doesn’t bode well for the Ravnos. 5 star review.

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