Review of Vampire the Masquerade v5

Summary

The 5th edition of White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade quickens the blood of long-held traditions in the game’s history.  Mostly good things here, including the move away from blood pools, an updated metaplot, social combat mechanics, and more.

Masquerade 5th Ed. seemingly focuses on the “street level” of cities where characters play, which can be jarring for older players used to the grander politics in a kindred cold war.  This is partially due to the metaplot having moved forward to a point where the Camarilla’s ivory towers have mostly fallen, the old alliances are broken, the Sabbat are all out in the East, and most nights are about trying to sate the beast riding shotgun in your soul.

Hunger mechanics are odd at first blush of life, but you’ll come to appreciate this clear element of risk in the horror genre.  There are some flaws with hunger, not the least of which might be the confusing way they are presented in some of the book’s examples, and the “messy criticals” leave something to be desired in the case of what the core rulebook considers impossibly non-messy actions, like stealth.

Given that rouse checks are usually made with one dice and players may feel a little weak without being able to soak damage, I wonder if most players will rush higher blood potency and later levels of Fortitude.  If so, I’m not sure if the game will keep in-line with the sort of “fear” the system appears to try and instill in players at the table.

That all being said, there’s more focus – with mechanics – on your character’s relationship to the city, his coterie, the metaplot, and all else that makes up his/her unlife.  V5 is a welcome, modern take on an old classic.  It provides a streamlined system that is at once dangerous and elegant, which screams “vampire.”

Score: 8/10


 

The Good

  • No more “fill-the-tank” blood pools
  • Larger spread of success (successes are now 6+)
  • Risks with hunger mechanics
  • Loresheets
  • Disciplines and powers
  • Predator types
  • The story moves forward in an explosive way

The Bad

  • Some cases of messy crticals
  • A sense of weaker(?) vampires
  • Lack of clans in core book
  • Dice roll explanations

Review

Looking back at the past decades of vampire, we see that 5th edition (v5) has given us a lot of momentum in more “modern” directions.  We no longer have a blood pool, there’s loresheets to directly put you into the overarching metaplot, and other elements that focus on character choice and aid in personal story than in the past.  Whether or not it gets played, however, might rely on the framing for these stories, because even though masquerade was starting to show its age in the early 2000’s, people stuck with it up until today because of the story and how they played the game.

Of course, the question is “why?”

Anne Rice vs. Stephen Norrington Vampires

Part of it has to do with the type of story you want to tell.  If you want to tell a story of politicking, powerful monsters trying to skirt the shadows of humanity while living in a pretentious world where death was so rare it was shocking, you might play the “Anne Rice” version of masquerade.  If you wanted to play a localized story about vampires on the street, fighting for turf against different factions and feeding more brazenly off humanity, you might play “Stephen Norrington’s” masquerade.

For inspiration of what is meant by these names, recall the former, Anne Rice, is an author who wrote the books inspiring their theatrical translations: “Interview with the Vampire” and “Queen of the Damned.”  The latter is a nod to the Blade movies starring Wesley Snipes and directed by Stephen Norrington, wherein death runs rampant, and the older, politicking vampires are murdered in favor of young blood flouting traditions to generally eat, kill, and be merry.

(These are presented as extremes of how to approach the vampire games you play, but don’t take them as gospel.  You can play however, you like; these are just the two camps I see most people falling into when they play Masquerade.)

In “Anne Rice’s Masquerade”, you have these grand metaplots that explain the origin of vampirism all the way back to Caine and Abel from the Christian bible.  The game takes place on this same scale, focused at a higher political level where the monsters are in a war that is typically as cold as their hearts.

When telling stories from this frame-of-reference, players focus on out-politicking their opponents and maintaining humanity, because Vampires need some way to pass eternity without going mad; they gain and spend favor as amusement amongst the other undead.

We’ve got three factions (Camarilla, Anarch, and Sabbat), with the Camarilla and Anarchs calsically being in a sort of truce against the Sabbat.  There’s generally little killing among the Camarilla or Anarch Movement, and when it happens to members of either, it’s shocking.  (Mostly because there’s a law stating that they shouldn’t kill one another, but also because the vampires are powerful and death isn’t something they like to be reminded of.)

Another way to run vampire, which I’m referring to as “Stephen Norrington’s Masquerade”, takes place at the street level.  There’s a focus on feeding scenes, how you hunt prey, and the benefits you get as part of being that hunter type.  Your hunger for blood is a driving force of the game, and you’re doing (or not doing) what you can to keep yourself sated.

Some folks would like to say that the older iterations of vampire are Anne Rice and this new version is Stephen Norrington; that the new version is not a true spiritual successor to Masquerade, but a modern blasphemy.  I don’t think that’s true, because v5 incorporates everything from the older versions of the game – including the cherished metaplot – while allowing for the street-level play in a more magnified way.

The story has also taken a leap that many people are familiar with.  The factions are completely split.  There is no more canon Camarilla/Anarch truce, the Sabbat are mostly gone across the ocean to prepare for Gehenna (a crazy big vampiric war), and the second inquisition from the Catholic Church is out to rid the world of vampires.  In your run of Vampire v5, you create your city, the rules for it, and the alliances among vampire factions (if any).  It’s more free-form while true to the story that the old masquerade guard of players love.


A Brief Aside on Dice

You still roll d10’s, successes are at 6+ on the dice, and 0’s (10’s) count as two successes.


Hunger Mechanics

You want to use your magical blood powers?  No problem.  Let’s just see if you’ve burned off those McBloodburger calories before you try to use ’em.

The most obvious difference between v5 and older incarnations of masquerade is the Hunger mechanic. In the past, there was a blood pool that had some max amount of blood (vitae) you could store.  Full blood meant you could heal and use powers without fear; low blood meant you were close to frenzying or an easier target to take out.

With the blood pool, you as the player said “I’m spending this blood and rolling to see if this thing happens.”  With sufficient blood in your blood pool, you could do what you wanted.  The other thing about the blood pool was that you always knew how close you were to running out of blood.

The Hunger mechanic of v5 changes that entirely.  You now have Hunger levels from 0 to 5 (0 is completely sated; 5 is starving).  Whenever you make a dice pool for a skill or discipline use, a number of those dice equal to your hunger become “Hunger Dice.”

So, you sort of know how close you are to “running out of blood” (i.e. hitting hunger of 5), but at the same time, you don’t, because if you use blood enough (more on that and rouse checks later) and have poor luck, you could end up being famished in short order.  Because gaining hunger is based off a dice roll (rouse checks) or can be given in case of bestial failures/messy criticals, you’re always a little on edge about using blood.

The book uses red to identify the hunger dice, and it’s important you find a way to mark them as well when rolling at the table (keep some red d10’s handy), because results of 0’s (10’s) or 1’s on hunger dice produce serious consequences.  Another reason to keep track of these hunger dice are that you cannot re-roll hunger dice with willpower.

Now things are going to get a little more complicated.  The book has the straightforward descriptions of messy criticals and bestial failures showing up after the examples of rolls in play (which I found confusing), so let’s just explain the two here:

  • Messy Critical: When your roll is a critical success and any hunger dice show a 0.
  • Bestial Failure: When your roll is an overall failure and any hunger dice show a 1.

You can think of the messy critical as the “yes, but” or “success with a cost” of the v5 system, because while your roll has succeeded, your beast (hunger) is the one that got you there.  The beast has no care for how it achieves it’s goals; so, when it succeeds, it does so violently.

Some example dawbacks given in the book for a messy critical are things like (paraphrasing): “you succeed in subduing the guard before he can call out, but you ripped out his throat in the process.  Now you have a body to deal with that won’t wake on it’s own.”  The drawback could be simply gaining humanity stains (see below) for doing something gruesome as part of the action, losing a dot of resources (totaling a car as part of ending a high-speed chase successfully), or a combination of multiple drawbacks.

Bestial failure is the “no, and” or “failure with a drawback” of v5.  When you get a bestial failure, things go wrong in all sorts of ways.  You don’t get what you want and now you have to roleplay a compulsion (e.g. a clan-specific one, like Gangrel’s bestial, one-word sentences), suffer one or more agg damage, lose a dot in an advantage, or if no one is imaginative, hunger increases by 1.

Because messy criticals and bestial failures can be bad for you, using willpower to re-roll your regular dice can help stave off disaster.  By pushing down a critical success into a regular success or upgrading a failure into a success, willpoer has the ability to “keep the beast at bay” as it were, which creates this narrative of walking the line between satisfying its need to succeed/survive with its nature of lashing out against challenges against it.  Neat.

The problem I have with the hunger dice is the wording regarding messy critical in the case of actions requiring subtlety.  If you’re making a roll that depends on mental characteristics, stealth, or generally things that a beast couldn’t succeed in, you just fail your roll.  Even though you got a critical success, the beast has overpowered your senses, preventing you form succeeding.

I don’t know about you all, but if I’m rolling 10’s and beat a difficulty or opposed roll, I should critically succeed.  The storyteller can find some other way to make things messy (now or later) or simply increase my character’s hunger.  Failing a roll when I’ve got 10’s showing is something I can’t agree with.

Gaining Hunger (Rouse Checks!)

Every time you call uppon the blood to assist you in some way, be it using a discipline, heal yourself, boost an attribute, you make a rouse check.

A rouse check is a single die roll, with successes being 6 and higher (as usual).  If you succeed, your hunger stays where it is; fail and it goes up by one.  With a sufficiently high blood potency, you can roll two dice as part of the rouse check and if either succeed, your hunger stays where it is.

The rouse check is one of the things I worry about in v5, since all these nice powers and healing hinge on feeding and rousing the blood.  If you have a 50/50 chance (at low blood potency) to become hungrier with every use of the blood, you’re looking at between 4 and 9 uses (on average) before you need to have another feeding scene or potentially provoke a hunger frenzy.

We’ll have to see how it plays in practice, but my fear is that folks will rush to higher blood potency for the 2 dice rouse checks just to avoid feeling so chained to yet another feeding scene.

Reducing Hunger

Might be a little obvious given the subject matter, but drinking blood reduces your hunger.  Blood potency (don’t worry, generation is still a thing), determines how much hunger feeding from a vessel reduces, what the maximum it will reduce it by, and so on.

Reducing hunger also takes time if you want to do it without killing something.  Draining a human of their safe limit of blood (2 hunger slaked) takes a scene to accomplish.  If you want to do it violently, you can make it faster, but it could kill the vessel.

Some things to note here are that vampires of sufficiently high blood potency cannot slake their hunger from mortals alone (or maybe they can, but only if they outright kill them?  I can’t recall at the moment), and the only way to get your hunger to 0 is to drink a mortal to death.


Damage

Big difference in v5 is the lack of a third damage type.  There’s only superficial and aggravated.

In the older versions of Masquerade, there were three damage types: Bashing, Lethal, and Aggravated.  When you took Bashing damage, you put a little “/” in your health box for each damage taken.  Bashing would become lethal after all the health boxes were filled (marked as an “X”), and then lethal would become aggravated (marked as an asterisk).  In this way, you sorta had 3x as much health as your character sheet showed (assuming opponents were only doing bashing damage to you).

The best part was that humans did Bashing damage.   Guns, bats, punches, and other bludgeoning weapons all did the lowest damage type, which meant your vampire was in a combat for a long time against the usual mortal opponent.  Knives, claws, swords, and other bladed weapons dealt lethal, which was about par for combat against other vampires.  Aggravated was hard to come by, but Protean claws and fire would deal aggravated damage, and it was terrifying to get hit by that damage type, because once you died from “agg” damage, your vampire was dust.

In v5, there is only superficial and aggravated.  Almost everything does superficial, including guns and swords, while fire and other egregious things deal agg.  The catch is that vampires halve superficial damage from any source, which means that while health only “wraps around” twice now, you’re still (in a way) getting a third wrap-around.

People will argue that you’re ultimately easier to kill, and I just don’t think that’s true.  One-on-one, a mortal will never beat a vampire, but against three mortals with +3 guns, certain kindred will have a rough time.  It’s always been the case in masquerade that multiple opponents will spell your doom, and that’s no different here.

What is different, however, is that you now have those hunger dice to worry about, which can end up screwing you over in a way that can sometimes be unfair.  (See “Hunger Mechanics” above.)

The last thing to mention is healing damage.  You make a rouse check and you just heal superficial damage (aggravated can be mitigated with Fortitude).  The amount of health you heal with this use of the blood goes up as your blood potency increases.


Clans

Out of the original 13, there are only 6 given in the core book (7 if you count Caitiff).  There are Brujah, Gangrel (yay!), Malkavian, Tremere, Toreador, and Ventrue.  Each has the usual set of disciplines you’re expecting and some lore related to them.  Something interesting (or odd, if you prefer) is a set of fashion for each of the clans, which I suppose is for the LARP crowd (this includes me; yay, but I’m gonna keep wearing jeans and a t-shirt).

Rumor has it that clan Lasombra is going to appear in the Chicago By Night book, while other clans will appear in the Camarilla and Anarch supplemenet books set to be released in November 2018.  Where the rest of the clans are has not been mentioned afaik, but I hope they will appear in time.


Disciplines and Blood Sorcery

Thew LARP community comes up with some great things, and it’s probably because of them that the disciplines were built as they are in v5.  In fact, they have their own iterations of the Vampire game, and one might argue that the LARP community is the reason Vampire has held on for so long.

Specifically made for LARP is a Vampire: The Masquerade system from By Night Studios.  In this vision of masquerade, every discipline power has a focus with it, governed by a specialization in different attributes.  If you happen to have a focus in “Manipulation”, for instance, you might be able to do extra things with the first dot of Dominate, whereas someone with a focus in “Charisma” would be able to do things with Dominate you could not.

Enter Disciplines in v5, where there can be multiple uses for a given power, meaning that two users of the same disciplines may present different playstyles.  This is an incredibly welcomed take on Vampiric powers in the system, since you generally (1) don’t want other kindred to know what yours can do, and (2) adds variety of choice for players.  Choice is always a good thing for players.

What’s more is that many disciplines almost always have a non-combat use, which I think everyone can appreciate.  Celerity, Potence, and Fortitude aren’t stupid powerful like they used to be (well, I think most of them are okay, one of the fortitude powers might get house-ruled at my table), which is another welcome change.

And all I’ll say about blood sorcery is that it’s not as super as it used to be.  Is this a bad thing?  Maybe, but then again, much like how celerity and potence have been tamed, that’s really what I see having been done to blood sorcery.

There’s only the Path of Blood now and some rituals, which are still useful, but there’s not Path of Flames or any of the other standby’s of earlier incarnations.  Path of Blood does have Quietus stuff in there, which is cool, and overall, I think it’s as it should be.

The original blood sorcery was becoming a catch-all for combative and investigative abilities that were on par with (if not better) than many non-sorcery powers.  So say what you will, but I think this is a move in the right direction, and I’m confident more sorcery paths will be released if for no other reason than to sell more books.


Social Combat and Willpower Damage

Social combat is something from Blood and Smoke (Onyx Path’s go at Vampire: The Requiem v2) that added mechanics for people wanting to politic in a way that was less “fluffy.”  In v5, you’re making opposed rolls based on the situation, and when you succeed against another character, they take willpower damage.

Yes, Willpower damage, and it comes in the two types we’re already familiar with: superficial and aggravated.  Taking willpower damage is no joke.

Willpower – like health and humanity (more on that below) – acts like it’s own health tracker.  Whenever you use a willpower, you take a superficial willpower damage.  I’m not sure I’ve found it in the book, but I’d assume that you could use willpower with superficial damage on it a second time and turn it into agg. willpower damage.

Getting superficially damaged willpower back is done by acting on your convictions, roleplaying a bestial failure / messy critical, etc.  Getting aggravated back requires some greater risk to yourself, forcing you into more hazardous predicaments.

These are good things.  The problem is that willpower is just so useful that you need it all the time.  It allows one to re-roll their non-hunger dice, which could mean the difference between a bestial failure or messy critical and success.

Now if we look back to social combat, you’re treating your successes against an opposed roll as an attack on their willpower, meaning you can quickly damage someone’s willpower.  You can now take someone’s willpower away (in a manner) if they lose in a battle of tongue-jabs and vocal fisticuffs.

Another thing to mention about social combat is the audience in which the social combat takes place gives you a sort of weapon rating.  Larger, more important audiences that witness your successful rolls might add up to a +4 in willpower damage dealt.


Feeding and Humors of the Blood

If it wasn’t already clear, feeding is a big thing in v5, and it’s made more important by the type of blood you’re feeding on.  Different blood types – called Dyscrasias – will give you different benefits, and the type of blood you get from a victim will depend on their demeanor.  The book makes it clear that some are temporary while others are permanent features of whom you feed on.

Choleric dyscrasias from a victim you jump in the alley might grant your character a bonus on combat against weaker foes, whereas sanguinous blood could give you the blush of life for free.

Maybe this will be enough to make (and keep) feeding scenes interesting?

If not, I should add that every character has a predator type that helps them understand how they get their blood.  If you’re an alleycat, you might get your blood by bullying others or overpowering them physically.  The book presents several options, but the specifics are up to you.

The thing I like about predator types is that you get some advantages and flaws based on the one you choose, further helping chisel a sense of who you’re playing into something more solid.  Now that toyu’re a predator who plays a medical worker after easy blood, your scenes – feeding or otherwise – should be easier for you to roleplay.


Loresheets

This is one of my favorite things in the new system, but could have been added at any point.  Loresheets are merits (advantages) that you can purchase, ranging from 1 to 5 dots, with each being tied to a specific person, belief, or group in the overarching canon of the metaplot.  Each dot in the merit also gives you bonuses while getting you “closer” to the lore associated with the merit.

What a great way to tie the player to the world, get the player invested in the new metaplot, and give the storyteller plothook ideas!  Seriously, we need more of this.

Some of the loresheets include:

  • Low Clans – Gangrel, Nosferatu, and Malkavian
  • High Clans – Ventrue, Tremere, Toreador, and Brujah
  • The Trinity – For those who endeavor to recreate the kindred “utopia” originally built by Michael, the Dracon, and Antoninus
  • Descendant of Hardestadt – A descendant (or heir?) to the Ventrue Hardestadt
  • Golconda – For those seeking to truly escape the beast

Humanity

Those familiar with the masquerade will recognize another core of the game: the fight between the beast and the inner humanity of the character.  There’s still humanity as one has seen in previous iterations of the game, however, there are some changes to point out in v5.

Let’s start with the basics.  You’ve got a range of humanity that runs from 0 to 10.  At 10, you’re a paragon of saintly virtue and at 0, you’ve lost all will to the beast and are unplayable.  Every character starts out at humanity 7 (as usual).

Whenever you commit a bad act, you get a stain.  If the act is more appalling, you might take 2 or more stains.  If you act in-line with your conviction (e.g. my sire must be protected), you lessen the number of stains for the act by one (no minimum is mentioned, so I guess to a minimum of 0).

Stains go on the humanity track, ticking off the empty boxes from right-to-left, while the humanity dots are the “blacked out” boxes going from left-to-right.  For example, if there was a vampire with Humanity 7, he would have levels 8-10 “free”.  If that character then committed some act that gave him/her one stain, the 10th box would have a slash through it, indicating that humanity was being “damaged.”

Now at the end of a session, you roll the difference between your humanity and the number of boxes showing stains.  So, if you had humanity 7 and 1 stain, you would roll two dice.  If there are any successes, you feel remorse and remove the stains.  If there are no successes, you lose 1 point of humanity and then remove all stains.

“Cool,” but I can hear you asking, “what about if I have more stains than I have humanity?”  Well, during the game, you take aggravated willpower damage equal to the “overflow” from stains on humanity, and you get the “impaired” condition (a -2 to all social and mental pools).  For the duration, you are also incapable of intentionally taking actions that would give further stains.

If you don’t like this impaired condition (who would?), you can immediately lose a point of humanity and remove all stains.  Ouch. On the other hand, losing humanity makes it easier for you to get stains and remove them at the end of the game, because the divide between your humanity and the max on the tracker widens with every shred of your soul that’s lost to the beast.

Humanity xp costs (which, I maintain is dumb and players should have to rp being good guys to get humanity back) are 10x the point you’re buying.  So, if you drop from humanity 7 to 6 and you want to buy back up to 7, it will cost you 70 xp.  Double Ouch.

That having been said, these new humanity mechanics might be one of my favorite things in v5.


Coterie and Domain Creation

As the book describes it, coterie creation gives players additional buy-in to the story and the world.  It also gives them a chance to really create a group with one another, establishing how they interact with the domain(s) they intend to explore.  Each PC in your coterie gets a free point to help build it and may spend additional advantage dots to grant it additional benefits.

These coterie and additional advantage points are there to build what your group has and can draw from as a team; they are not for you alone.  So, if you’ve built a biker bar on the bad side of town with 3 dots of coterie contacts there or 2 dots of coterie allies, any one of the coterie can make use of that.  Note that flaws can be added to coteries, which means your pal’s problems are yours, too.

Coterie’s also have themes, which exist to give your specific play group an identity and can be whatever you desire.  Many examples are given in the book, such as “Blood Cult” and “Plumaire” (basically a bunch of socialites).

In the book, coterie and domains are closely linked, because the coterie typically controls some turf (as an exception, you can be a nomadic coterie without a domain).  This makes domain creation – your parts of the city – extremely important, and there are mechanics to drive this home.

Domains use three different stats: Chasse (domain size), Lien (integration of the coterie in a given domain), and Portillon (domain protection level).

Chasse determines how much turf you can actually argue belongs to you, ranging from a city block to large collections of land or buildings, such as “all farmland South of the river.”  Lien gives 1-for-1, dots to dice bonuses on getting information related to the city, who’s in it, and what they might have done.  Portillon is how well-defended your domain is, subtracting one die from an intruder’s dice pool on any action taken against the domain without the coterie’s knowledge.

This is another one of those helpful things that v5 has done to help stream-line the game and get more buy-in from players.  At-a-glance, both the storyteller and the players have a solid feel for who they are and what they control.


 

A Blunt and Personal Opinion on v5

Vampire: The Masquerade (and Requiem) – at least in the circles I haunt (mostly LARP) – has been treated as a “dark superheroes with magical blood” game for too long.  A return to personal horror is something I’ve longed to see, and v5 gives me that, because every action can be risky.  The mechanics – particularly hunger – give a sense of the unknown, which strikes fear into the players at the table.

Some people are going to hate v5 simply because it’s different.  Others will veer away, because they feel it’s too punishing.  But hey, a beast you must be lest a beast you become.  I say get in there, get messy, and dig into the genre.  Be a monster and turn the downward spiral into a roller coaster of devil-may-care loop-de-loops.

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