Vampire: the Masquerade Review

Vampire: The Masquerade Cover (2nd Edition)At its height, Vampire: The Masquerade was a serious threat to Dungeons & Dragons. It was contemporary to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. All the cool kids were switching over to VtM and treating D&D as an old fashioned game played by kids, rather than the ‘true roleplaying experience’. The game got its own Collectible Trading Card Game (originally called Jyhad, but changed to Vampire: the Eternal Struggle), a couple of computer games and even its own Aaron Spelling produced TV show called Kindred: The Embrace.

We added Vampire: The Masquerade to our Grand Gaming experiment as part of our rotation of Classic Games (which also included Rolemaster). Vampire: the Masquerade is being republished in a special 400 page edition in September 2011 to mark the 20th anniversary of its release.

Overview of the setting

Vampire is set in a gothic punk version of the modern world. This allows flexibility to have your campaign be familiar to the players without having to follow the world exactly if it doesn’t fit the GMs concept for the game. The ‘World of Darkness’ contains many denizens of legend such as Werewolves, Mages, Wraiths and Changelings (Faeries). Along with Vampire these are the original 5 games produced by Whitewolf. While the worlds overlap the games are usually played separately. Each game, despite being individually published, uses a common game mechanic. Vampire does provide some basic rules for Werewolves, but it’s really only enough to run them as NPCs. Later versions of the game produced other options, such as playing Vampire Hunters.

Vampire society in general upholds ‘the Masquerade’ trying to convince the world they do not exist. This concept began during the Inquisition where many real Vampires were captured along with thousands of innocents. The core rules only provide the option to play the 7 clans of the Camarilla who uphold the Masquerade (which interestingly I believe change between the 2nd and 3rd editions), however with expansions you can play the 2 Sabbat (Black Hand) clans that embrace the beast, or one of the 4 independent clans.

Within Camarilla cities society is very structured, with a Prince and ruling Primogen council, although there are Anarchs that fight against this hierarchy. As modern people have been embraced they no longer see the need to listen to their ‘elders’ in the way many have previously. There are many different interest groups within the world allowing for varied options in NPCs.

Campaigns can focus on the political aspects of a city, venturing into Sabbat held territory, testing the wilds of the werewolves or many other options. The world is richly described providing many different ideas for campaigns, characters and NPCs.

Clanbooks were available for each clan should a player choose to delve further into their history, and there are also expansions that allow for characters gaining experience or NPCs to be made at lower generations with more than 5 points in disciplines.

Overview of the dice mechanic

Characters are created on a point buy system which means that all the PCs should be on equal footing, at least at the beginning. The system runs on a pool of D10s determined by a character’s attribute selected from the first section of the character sheet and an ability from the next section to achieve what they have decided to do. This can of course be stipulated by the GM, but it is generally up to the player to justify why the stats they are using are appropriate.

Essentially any Attribute can be matched with any Ability if the situation warrants (the book provides the example of Stamina with Computer Use being the most unlikely but still potentially needed for a long term hack). You then add up the number of dots you have between the 2 stats and roll that number of D10s to achieve a difficulty set by the GM. A Difficulty Challenge (DC) of 6 is considered to be a standard difficulty and from there the GM can make it easier or more difficult as appropriate.

Any 1’s rolled offset successes, which I understand from those more mathematical than I, skews the odds to actually being more likely to botch the more dice you roll. To achieve some tasks you need multiple successes on the dice just to achieve a marginal success in the game. Having said that, none of the players in our game generally had any trouble achieving what they wanted to do (so maybe I set the DCs too low J ). Generally speaking, the game encourages you to roleplay anything that doesn’t involve physical contact with the GM or other players.

What we liked

The book, as written, gives the overwhelming sense of a complete world. Our world, but slightly twisted, gothic and dark. The amount of detail included is referenced casually and almost ‘by-the-way’ meaning that everything you read can, at times, feel like it is almost at the point of entering our own reality. It is this depth of development of the game setting that gives Vampire: the Masquerade so much of its appeal.

The character generation system is designed to walk you through the development of the personality of your character. From the very start you are forced to think of how your character portrays themselves to others, and how they really think when in private. You are guided through choosing whether or not they are more sociable than physical, more educated than life-skilled, how much of their humanity remains and whether or not you are rich, ancient, powerful, or any other number of things.

The game really encourages depth in character creation and this lead to the richest and most rounded cast of characters (on average) that we’ve had in any of the games in the gaming experiment.

What we didn’t like (and how we overcame it)

While the system works quite well for non-combat checks, it becomes a bit cumbersome if you play the combat rules as written. You commence a round by rolling for initiative. Actions are declared in reverse order (which gives you the option to change your action if needed when it actually comes to your turn, (e.g. if the opponent you were going to shoot is down and you want to shoot someone else) but this increases the difficulty by 2), and if you have certain disciplines you can take multiple actions per round. You also have the option to split your dice pool (e.g. instead of using 6 dice to attack, you can attack with 4 and use 2 to dodge). Within each round everyone is supposed to take their first action in initiative order, then those who have a second action, then a third and so on. After everyone has completed all his or her actions you resolve damage (to reflect that everything happened at once). After that, you roll initiative again to commence round two.

I really wanted to run this as written to test if it was ungainly as it appeared. It just wasn’t possible. There’s too much to keep track of. It was half way through the combat when I realised we had unintentionally house ruled it. Each person was taking their action in initiative order (after we did it correctly the first round anyway), taking all the actions available to them and resolving damage. We did re-roll initiative every round. While not being as accurate to real life this got us through the combat in a manageable period of time. And for a game that is not supposed to be combat centric I think fudging it and losing some of the realism is okay.

We also discovered that this is not the best system for a pick up game, at least not unless the players are already familiar with the setting. The main strength of this game is the depth of the world and options for political nuance. I would suggest that all the players should have read at least some of the opening sections of the core rulebook to allow the GM flexibility to move within the world. It is hard to arrange this for a short term game as it is unlikely that all the players will be able to invest in owning the book.

Another small complaint is that due to the emphasis on roleplaying the rule book isn’t exactly easy access on the rules. The index is somewhat deficient and mechanics for certain aspects are split between different chapters. There were several times when I was first reading it that it started referring to rules it hadn’t even explained yet. I ended up making my own summary and notes of the core rules (which was actually very beneficial for learning them).

Links to resources

The White Wolf web page contains information on both the out of print ‘Old World of Darkness’ which we played, and the ‘New World of Darkness’ which is in print.

There are a few Amazon resellers still selling the original Vampire: the Masquerade books.

We have also discussed our experiences playing VtM on our podcast here (Character Creation), here and here (full review)

A note about the impending 20th Anniversary Edition

See the guest post by Oalin for full details of the upcoming 20th Anniversary Edition. I’ll be buying one, at a minimum it will be an excellent read (you can read about it on the official webpage). We have also recently become aware that the 20th Anniversary Edition is only available on pre-order direct from White Wolf. The will only be printing as many book as they receive pre-orders, so it’s important that if you want a copy you place an order before the deadline on 1 July 2011. The books will be shipped in October, although it appears that if you can get to a convention in New Orleans in September you can pick up a ‘Grand Masquerade’ edition which has a different cover.

You can purchase the shipped version here, and the conventional edition here.

About Lisette

Lisette first came into contact with RPGs at University in the late 90s along with a brief sojourn into a Warhammer Fantasy Empire Army. After a break from gaming in the early 00s she competed in Blood Bowl tournaments for a couple of years, with mixed success. In 2007 she joined Rupert's gaming group and is loving gaming regularly for the first time.
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