No one is perfect, and neither is any game. I like V5 Vampire: The Masquerade, but it is, of course, not perfect. Below are some thoughts on what those imperfections are, and how to address them. There are a couple of themes running throughout – mechanics that a lot of playing are ignoring or modifying anyway, and mechanics that (in my mind) detract from the themes of V5 (this is about mechanics, not whether the core book is well-organized or a model of clarity). And I’ll even spare you my usual schpiel about the generic difficulty scale in V5, so it’s five new things to read about.
I’ll start with the easy one first. I think at this point everyone knows that the Allies background is a mess. Three dots of Contacts can get you almost anything, once per story. Three dots of Retainer gets you a blood-bound mortal with supernatural powers at your beck and call. Three dots of Influence makes you influential across an entire major metropolitan area. Three dots of Allies means you get an average mortal (that means 7 attributes at 1 or 2) who, once per story, has a 50% chance of not showing up when you need them. The fact that you have to pay for your Allies and then pay again to have even a chance that they show up is the obvious culprit here. And that makes for an easy fix – just get rid of the payment for “Reliability.” You pay for a 3-dot Ally, your 3-dot Ally will show up when you need them (at least, as much as you can rely on anyone in the World of Darkness).
Not Enough Experience Points
V5 has one of the stingiest base experience point rates around – 1 experience point per session. There’s an option to give 2 points for shorter chronicles. One of the most frequent questions I see in V5 discussions is about how many XP Storytellers really hand out. And basically nobody answers “just the one, mate.” One XP per session is just miserly – it takes forever for even the most basic character improvement. You made a new ally or recruited a new retainer this story? Too bad – there’s no way you’re going to have the XP to actually keep them around. And good luck ever getting a 3-dot Discipline you didn’t start with (15 sessions of play?!). Notably, as compared to prior editions of Vampire: The Masquerade, V5 has both increased the cost of many dots and reduced the level of XP handed out. Ouch. So you have a mechanic that, in my opinion, is not well-calibrated. And it’s a mechanic that most games of V5 change. That’s a sign there’s a problem with the rule. At a minimum, the 2XP handout per session should be standard, not an alternate rule. Personally, I like something more like the system from older editions, where you award a variable number of XP for different actions (e.g., good roleplaying). One of the ways that a system can encourage a particular style of play is to award XP for certain activities (e.g., Numenera awards XP for finding something new, because the game wants to encourage exploration and wonder). But even if you don’t customize the amount of XP provided, at least increase it.
Lack of Baseline Moral Standards
Chronicle tenets are a neat idea – customize the moral/humanity standards of the chronicle to meet the themes. But by removing any standardized humanity scale, V5 left a gaping hole where a lot of the personal horror of the game is supposed to be. Rules as written, you can easily run a chronicle where the characters can feed, torture, and kill from the innocent at will, and it will have no effect whatsoever no their humanity. But such a game has little to do with the central themes of Vampire that are highlighted in V5 – there is, after all, a reason why the Sabbat are cast as antagonists in V5. So what usually happens is one of two things. Either the Chronicle adds tenets about how it’s bad to hurt people. Or, entirely separate from the tenet system, the ST applies a de facto hierarchy of sins where the characters get stains for hurting people (and possibly other things). One even sees this in published stories, which tend to suggest giving characters Stains based on actions that would contravene common moral standards. So, if the pull between ‘being a vampire’ and ‘not being a terrible person’ is so central to Vampire, why isn’t it just baked into the V5 rules like it was baked into the rules for every prior edition? Even if you want the flexibility to use a set of chronicle tenets that permit characters to just be supervillains with fangs, why not have a set of ‘standard’ tenets that fill this thematic need and give a roadmap for the majority of games that are just employing some system to bring something like traditional Humanity back into the game anyway? V5 should include some sort of baseline mortal precepts for judging what sorts of behavior generate Stains.
I’m not a big fan of the mechanics of Resonance. I like the thematics of it; the idea that a person’s emotional state makes them taste different to the vampire who’s feeding off of them. But giving dice bonuses to characters for feeding on certain people feels, to me, like a video game power-up (who knows – maybe it will be in Bloodlines 2). I think it detracts from the human connection involved in feeding. Given that, you will not be surprised that I really don’t like Dyscracia, which is basically a super-Resonance – an even bigger boost for the character. Usually this takes the form of a bonus on certain feedings or extra dice on some rolls (in addition to the normal Resonance bonus), but it can even be free XP. This really starts making mortals feel like some sort of magical potion – not only does it not add anything thematically, but it actively detracts from the V5 themes on humanity mattering. These problems are aggravated by how one goes about getting Dyscracia from a mortal. In theory, one in 25 victims will at random provide Dyscracia, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone going through the three-roll process to randomly check this every time a character feeds. I mean, who wants loot crates in Vampire? But more likely it will come from “Dyscracia farming” – long-term projects to induce extreme emotions in a particular mortal so that they produce a Dyscracia. Again, what does this add to the themes of V5? This is the sort of thing that’s typically reserved for monstrous elders, not neonate PCs, who are still more human (and also probably lack the resources to set up this sort of farm). I can’t imagine wanting to sit through scenes of some other player going through how their character grooms and tortures victims just to milk an extra die out of some rolls a few sessions from now. I would remove Dyscracia from the game entirely.
There are a lot of positive aspects of the V5 dice system. Messy criticals are not one of them. They don’t seem to do a lot of work thematically, and they get ignored or misplayed a lot. Feeding is the main place that messy criticals work – you kill someone when you were just intending a clean feed. But when do they work other than that? They at least make sense on physical tests – the beast gets out of hand, and you trash something, or kill someone. But even there folks don’t often seem to use them as described in the rules. Messy criticals are supposed to be a real downside (equivalent to failing the test in the first place, or worse), but usually when I see a messy critical the Storyteller just makes the scene savage cool. Even the rulebook suggestion of a Masquerade breach is hard to work out, because few Vampire fights take place in front of people you aren’t willing to let know you’re a Vampire or aren’t planning on killing anyway. And non-physical actions? Even the rulebook mostly gives up on them, just suggesting that the ST make it a failure most of the time. This half-baked mechanical approach might be worth it if messy criticals carried some real thematic significance, but they don’t (outside of feeding, which already has Hunger frenzies to take care of the thematic elements of the Beast getting out of hand). Handing out stains for things the character didn’t even do (another suggestion in the book) has minimal resonance, at best. What does it thematically even mean to get a messy critical on a Finance or Stealth roll? If they can barely figure out a couple of examples for the book, I don’t want to have to do it on the fly as Storyteller. Messy criticals feels like someone had this neat idea for really swingy play where you get get all of these extra successes but then maybe there’s a downside, and they never really quite got it to work, but they kept it in the book anyway. To hew as closely as possible to the existing criticals mechanic, while also having a flavor of the Beast inhibiting your potential, I would simply remove the critical symbol from hunger dice. Mechanically, everything is simpler – you either get a critical or you don’t. From a thematic perspective, the Beast simply isn’t capable of the sort of precision necessary to help you critically succeed. (It has been pointed out that the V5 Player’s Companion includes triggering the vampire’s clan compulsion as a possible result of a messy critical, in addition to a possible result of a bestial failure. This would allow the character to succeed with the Beast’s help, but at a cost of the Beast gaining some measure of control for a time – Ed.)
So, there are my five things I would change about V5. Let me know in the comments how your group handles these rules, or if there are other parts of the system you regularly ‘hack’ to better suit your tastes.
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