Review – Vampire: The Masquerade Companion

After another round of corporate licensing shuffle, Paradox has brought World of Darkness tabletop roleplaying games back in house, and the first product of that is the V5 Companion, available as a free download on The 65-page V5 Companion is most notable for adding two vampire clans (Ravnos and Tzimisce) back into the game, along with the Salubri bloodline, plus relevant Discipline powers (but not new Disciplines). It also contains rules “coterie merits,” for playing as human or ghoul characters, and a bit of errata. Note that, although I refer to things like “Tzimisce Discipline powers” below, this is a lore reference, not a mechanical one. For example, there’s a specific reference to a Nosferatu using the Vicissitude amalgam power.

Ravnos – Gone, at least in the limited material here, are the ethnic associations and vice-based clan weakness that made the Ravnos problematic in prior editions of Vampire. The clan concept now is presented as simply nomadic tricksters, without that cultural baggage. The clan’s bane is “doomed” – they cannot sleep in the same place twice in a week, and so must maintain either a mobile haven or a series of static ones. Their clan compulsion is “tempting fate” – the next time they need to solve a problem, they need to choose the most daring or dangerous way of addressing it (personally, I am compelled to wonder if the tabletop would be more interesting if everyone always had this in effect).

Ravnos Discipline PowersThe Ravnos Disciplines are Animalism, Obfuscate, and Presence. The non-existence of Chimerstry as a distinct Discipline was expected, given that clan-specific Disciplines aren’t a thing in V5, but the Ravnos also drop Fortitude in favor of Obfuscate. This seems to sync up with the mechanics for Chimerstry (a 2-dot Obfuscate/Presence amalgam) and Fata Morgana (a 3-dot Obfuscate/Presence amalgam). These amalgams line up with the 1-dot and 2-dot powers of V20 Chimerstry – make brief, single sense illusions and then later make elaborate hallucinations (although anything all that elaborate quickly becomes all but impossible, unless you can make a Difficulty 6 roll for your audio-visual-scent illusion of a rotting house). Note that Chimerstry is not a prerequisite for Fata Morgana, making it ripe for skipping – once you have the dots you can just use Fata Morgana to replicate the effects of Chimerstry anyway.

Salubri – I’m not sure why the Salubri got the nod as the first distinct bloodline to get their own write-up (the various flavors of Hecata do get distinguished in Cults of the Blood Gods), but that’s fine by me as I’ve always has a soft spot for Saulot and his childer, from their original presentation to the various metaplot contortions they’ve gone through over the years. They don’t try to cram all of this metaplot history into a brief introduction, although the write-up has references to rumors of there only being seven Salubri at any one time and various subgroup Disciplines references show up. They are still a former clan (although it does not specifically say here that it was the Tremere who usurped them) and they are still generally concerned with Golconda and the vampiric condition. The Salubri still bear the third eye on their forehead – although the V5 Companion somehow manages not to mention this until the third page of the write-up. It is not, interestingly enough, the Salubri’s bane. And not only is it not the Salubri’s bane, but it has a drawback over and above the whole “I have a masquerade breach on my forehead” thing. The third eye now bleeds whenever the Salubri activates a Discipline. Higher-level powers are described as causing a “torrential flow.” And the V5 Companion specifies that the third eye blood flow will trigger a hunger frenzy from nearby hungry vampires. So, ouch. And that’s on top of the actual bane, which is to be “hunted.” This label seems like a bit of a misnomer, however. It doesn’t relate to any social status, being hunted by the Tremere, or the like. Rather, their blood is particularly tasty to other vampires, meaning that any vampire who drinks a Salubri’s blood must test for hunger frenzy. Other than limiting kindred-to-kindred intimacy, this is thankfully not the worst bane – most hostile vampires who drink your blood weren’t planning on stopping anyway (I would much rather have this bane than the old feeding restriction). The Salubri’s clan compulsion is “affective empathy” – they become obsessed with seeking to resolve a problem that afflicts someone else in the scene.

Salubri Discipline Powers – The Salubri Disciplines are Auspex, Dominate, and Fortitude, with Dominate replacing Obeah/Valeren as the third clan Discipline. Obeah is a now an Auspex/Fortitude amalgam power. If you spend a scene to use it, then it heals Willpower damage equal to the number of successes rolled on Composure + Auspex. It can also be used on the fly, but at a higher difficulty. Be careful about the rules when using the single-turn version. It’s a Difficulty 2 roll, but the amount of Willpower healed is equal to the margin, and the margin of a roll is the amount by which you exceed the difficulty. So to heal even 1 Willpower you need to roll 3 successes. Given that it takes a rouse check to use, the one-turn version is much less efficient. However, if the subject is a mortal, then they are also calmed and put at ease (this kicks in with any win, so just two successes required), which could have beneficial uses beyond any healing. The Obeah amalgam power has little to do mechanically with the old Discipline of Obeah (except perhaps 5-dot power Mens Sana), but it thematically seems to fit very well. I wish the underlying Disciplines were a better match for the effect, however – isn’t a vague emotional effect like soothing someone more a Presence power than anything?

Valeren also appears as a two-dot amalgam (Fortitude/Auspex). While Obeah heals Willpower damage, Valeren heals Health damage. It’s handy, using a rouse check to heal far more than a rouse check’s worth of damage. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the old Valeren Discipline, however.

The old 6-dot Obeah power Unburdening the Bestial Soul gets a 5-dot Auspex/Dominate amalgam version here. At the cost of multiple rouse checks and a stain, the character can remove stains from another or, with a critical, even restore Humanity. The power mostly only works on low Humanity subjects, as the Difficulty is the Humanity of the subject and activating the power has too high a cost to use for poor odds of success. I have to admit I don’t really understand the cost here. It’s unclear why, exactly, it stains the soul of the Salubri to help heal the soul of another. And, in the typical situation of the Salubri healer being higher (possibly much higher) Humanity than the subject, a stain on the Salubri’s soul is much more likely to convert to a Humanity loss than a couple of stains on the subject’s soul. It doesn’t make thematic sense, and mechanically it makes the power kind of bad, which is not what I would want in a 5-dot power.

Tzimisce – The Tzimisce are in an interesting spot in V5. They’re best known for their signature Discipline of Vicissitude, and this is an edition that doesn’t have signature Disciplines. In conjunction with that, they’re also known for a particularly gruesome level of body horror that leaves them particularly inhuman, and this is an edition that seeks to refocus on vampire’s relationship with humanity (and Humanity). The thematic focus of the Tzimisce in V5 is possessiveness, and not a possessiveness limited to Transylvanian soil, or even a physical place at all. In line with that, the clan bane requires them to sleep surrounded by whatever it is they see as theirs. That can still be the soil of the land, but it might be a type of person or a particular building. And the clan compulsion, covetousness, makes them fixated on gaining possession of something present in the scene.

Fleshcrafting is still emphasized, although so to is a distinction between the out-of-this-world stuff done by elders (read: NPCs) and the more limited transcendentalism of younger vampires (read: PCs). Stat blocks are also presented for fleshcrafted ghouls (szlactha and vohzd), although the narrower scope of fleshcrafting in V5 doesn’t seem to support the creation of such beings (see below). It is mentioned that many Tzimisce are in the Sabbat, but the V5 Companion also presents many of them as being in the Anarchs (so I suppose that the Tzimisce and the Lasombra, after so long spent as bedfellows in the Sabbat, have for play purposes largely split into the opposing Camarilla/Anarch camps).

Tzimisce Discipline Powers – The Tzimisce Disciplines are Animalism, Dominate, and Protean. Like the Salubri, this is a bigger change than just trading Vicissitude in for Protean, with Auspex also being replaced with Dominate (Dominate was the Vicissitude replacement for Old Clan Tzimisce in prior editions of V5). There’s part of me that inherently rebels against the notion of just changing a clan’s Discipline selection, but Dominate really does make way more sense for the Tzimisce than Auspex.

The first three Tzimisce amalgams (all Protean/Dominate amalgams) somewhat replicate the first four dots of old-school Vicissitude – shape yourself (2-dot Vicissitude), shape others (3-dot Fleshcrafting), and then Horrid Form (4 dots). Vicissitude is more precisely cabined than in the past (there are, for example, actual rules about what you can do with it). Any use of Vicissitude/Fleshcrafting takes a physical attribute dot away from the subject, and then grants a benefit (but no more changes than the Protean rating of the Discipline user). The benefit can be an increase in another physical attribute, weapons (+2 damage), armor, or an appearance change (increased rating in the Looks Merit or hiding identity). All changes can be mended as if they were a point of aggravated damage (including getting the attribute point back). There’s also an option for more “creative” uses (e.g., mutilating your enemies), but that’s left up to the storyteller. Notably, using Fleshcraft requires an entire scene. These changes get rid of some of the abusive/broken things that could be done with Vicissitude in prior systems (e.g., I dump my Appearance stat, then use Vicissitude 1 to give myself Appearance 5). Every semi-permanent benefit has a cost. No more instantaneously and permanently mutilating people by randomly touching them. A clear, straightforward way to ‘heal’ from the power.

Horrid Form allows the user to temporarily apply combat-related changes without sacrificing attribute dots – adding physical attributes, weapons, and armor. The latter is pointless, however, as vampires cannot benefit from armor (it may be useful to Fleshcraft onto a mortal underling, but Horrid Form only works on the vampire themself).

The final amalgam, One with the Land, is a Protean/Animalism 5-dot power. Thematically reminiscent of the old 9-dot power Earth’s Vast Haven, One with the Land allows an Earth Melding character to sense what’s going on within a mile of their resting place. They also aren’t limited by what type of surface they’re melding into – the wall of a manor house will do just as well as the bare earth. The Animalism aspect of the power is a bit of a stretch. Theoretically, the vampire is not directly sensing through the land, but instead sensing through animal populations, which the power seems to assume will be omnipresent (and possessed of relevant senses). Plus it allows you to directly sense things through humans (one of the examples given is “physically experiencing a lovers’ trust”), which is not an Animalism thing, and would seem to moot most of the need for the omnipresent minute spies. Note that the Animalism/Protean combination makes this easy for Gangrel to access as well.

Other Discipline Powers – In addition to the clan-specific-ish amalgam powers, the V5 Companion also has a new 2-dot Dominate power, Domitor’s Favor. The write-up references the Tzimisce, but it doesn’t seem to have anything in particular to do with them. Domitor’s Favor makes it borderline impossible to defy the Blood Bond, applying a huge penalty to the roll and precluding the expenditure of willpower. It’s a little vague on how the power is used, however. Does the vampire make an extra rouse check when the thrall takes their monthly drink? I’m not sure how I feel about Domitor’s Favor – I like it that your blood bound thrall can never be completely trusted (you are compelling obedience, after all), but Domitor’s Favor largely removes that narrative element.

Clan Coterie Merits – Designed to encourage coterie cohesiveness (definitely the sort of thing that can be an issue in Vampire), coterie merits are 1-to-3-dot merits that give a benefit to another member of the coterie or the coterie as a whole. There’s also a flavor write-up of what role a member of a particular clan might play in a coterie, but let’s be honest – it’s the crunch people are looking for in this particular book, and Vampire doesn’t need anything else pushing players to feel like certain concepts are “supposed” to be in certain clans. Banu Haqim can hand out Willpower (motivational speaking), Brujah help you on physical tests (by scaring you into doing better), Gangrel fight well with a team, Hecata can clean up messy kills (which is super-useful), Lasombra can turn your failures into messy criticals (thanks, but no thanks, Lasombra), Malkavians do something confusingly worded about changing which skill is used for gathering information, the Ministry can learn what a character wants, Nosferatu grant bonuses to a roll based on their Contacts, Ravnos gives the coterie their own coded language to communicate in, Toreador can always get into a moral event or facility, the Tremere can borrow someone else’s loresheet, Tzimisce grant extra Willpower healing to their guests, and Ventrue has knowledge of vampire history.

I’m not sure that these have much to do with coterie cohesiveness, really. Gathering information, winning fights, talking your way into places – sure, these are all useful for the coterie, but that’s just because they’re generally useful. But that doesn’t mean some of them aren’t handy to have. Some of them are things that characters can likely accomplish with decent rolls anyway (the Ministry’s Discerning merit or the Toreador’s All Access merit), but those are only one dot and it’s nice to have an absolute guarantee of being able to accomplish that sort of task when needed. Plus, from a Storyteller’s point of view, I like anything that prevents me from having to come up with ways to advance the story after the characters flub a key roll – yes, please, use your merit to get into the party I took all this time planning!

Mortal/Ghoul PCs – This is a third of the book that’s both really nice to have and not of use to me personally. I have yet to want to play a non-Vampire in a game of Vampire. But I know it’s always a request, so it’s good that formal rules for it are here.

Errata – There are some potentially significant changes here, especially as it relates to Blood Potency. A rouse check to increase an attribute by one for a single roll is generally a bad trade. That’s not a thing anymore, as every Blood Potency now adds an extra die to that (so your standard vamp who would have added one now adds two). On the flipside, everyone’s Bane severity just went up – too often, clan banes just didn’t do that much. I like both of these changes.

There’s the option to have players take half on rolls, and this option does not seem to have that much of a point. Taking half just means counting half of your dice pool as regular successes. So, six dice = three successes. This is kind of like automatic wins, which just let you succeed if your dice pool is equal to twice the difficulty. And Storytellers are encouraged to use them a lot. Now, automatic wins don’t generally apply in combat or other highly stressful situations, so that seems to be where taking half could apply. I don’t make my 6-die combat roll, I just take 3 successes and see how that goes. Except a significant part of taking half seems to be that the players aren’t allowed to know what the Difficulty is before they decide whether to take half, and that’s an irrelevant concept in combat, which is all about opposed rolls. I’m also unclear on how taking half would speed things up all that consistently – rolling dice doesn’t take all that long, and I’ve known a lot of players who will take way more time trying to guess the difficulty and then decide whether to take half.

The 2-dot Presence power Lingering Kiss also gets nerfed.

Final Thoughts

It’s hard for the V5 Companion to go wrong. It’s free. It adds two more clans and a bloodline to the game. Everybody likes that. Players who dislike the lack of signature Disciplines will still dislike it. Players who like the system of broader Disciplines but more options within Disciplines will probably still like it. Personally, I am fine with not trying to mechanically carve out an extensive mechanical specialty for every clan outside of the original Camarilla 7, so I’m quite all right with that design decision generally. It is, however, somewhat undermined by doing things like recreating a bunch of these specialty powers. I would like to see more new Discipline powers that aren’t amalgam efforts to recreate or reference old powers.

I’m glad to see the Salubri appear – entirely subjective, but they’re still one of my favorite bloodlines. I like that the Obeah and Valeran amalgam powers seem quite handy, and I even like the Auspex 2/Fortitude 1 vs. Fortitude 2/Auspex 1 mirror that they have going on, although I wish (for flavor and mechanical reasons) that Unburden the Bestial Soul didn’t apply stains to the user. I’m glad at the Ravnos seeming to have their problematic edges polished off (I think this works much better than the Revised efforts to “fix” their original concept). I’m glad to see Vicissitude be more structured (although I’m unenthused about things like having stat blocks for fleshcrafted ghouls that can’t be created under those more structured rules). I’m glad that there are rules for mortal and ghoul characters, even if I don’t ever plan on using them. I like the changes to Blood Surges and Clan Banes. I find the rules for taking half as a player fairly pointless, but there are worse things than an option I don’t think I’ll use.

But, really, I’m mostly happy to see some movement on V5. The RPG market is not the same as it was, and I don’t expect a new Vampire book every month. But the pace of Vampire releases might be described as glacial, and I’m heartened by the quick release (relative to the announcement of Paradox resumption of control) of the V5 Companion and the fact that it hits something very high on players’ wish lists (rules for the remaining clans).

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