Sunday, 16 December 2018

Vampire 5th Edition

I played Vampire in the 90s. I had that book with the green marble cover and the o-so-evocative red rose. My heart belonged to Wraith, but I couldn't always get players for that haunted setting. Vampire was always the more popular game, because it fed into the power fantasies that the players enjoyed.

I don't know where my old books are now. In the basement, probably. Or given away. I still have the Wraith stuff. I have a new gaming group now, and some of them remember Vampire fondly, so I picked up a copy when I was last in the UK, shortly after its general release. Ken Hite's name attached to the project lured me in. I see Neil Gaiman's in there as well, not sure where. Some of the background material, presumably.

This thing's huge, and it doesn't waste a page. Even the endpapers are covered with 50 vampire victims for the characters to snack on. Hardback, full colour, a thing of beauty. I found it difficult to read at times and I'm not sure why; I compared it to the old Wraith books and there doesn't seem to be a huge difference, except in line thickness and colour plates. The new book's thinner font may be the problem, or perhaps it's just the difference between colour and black and white. One's prettier, the other clearer.

Rules-wise, while there have been changes, seasoned veterans will soon wrap their heads round them. It's still the old d10 mechanic at core. You have a dice pool, you roll your pool against a target number, the more times you make or exceed the target number the more spectacularly you succeed. Botches and critical successes are possible. There's more to it than that, but if you can understand that base concept you're laughing.

The old game had backgrounds, blood-powered Disciplines, and so does this. It's all basically the same as before. There's just a lot more than there used to be. This wealth of information is bound to be intimidating to neophyte and veteran with poor memory alike, so be prepared for lots of hand-holding if you're the Storyguide. For that matter, if you are the Storyguide, read the main book at least six times. You'll thank me later.

Is this a horror game? Yes. In fact that may be its greatest weakness, because the original wasn't.

Back in the before times, Vampire aspired to be Gothic with two Gs and extra Vathek. Yes, you played Vampires, tragic figures cursed with a lust for … something, it's on the tip of my tongue. Gaze not into the abyss, lest it steal your credit card information and run up a whopping bill on Amazon. Play pretty people power gamers controlling things behind the scenes.

But horror? Nooo, never heard of that. You must be thinking of some other Vampires. 

This was a game that, more than most, was guided by its fans, and what the fans wanted was a power trip dosed with a hefty slug of Anne Rice - which, again, was pretty vampires doing Gothic things, often in a historic setting, without serious consequences for the main character.  Humans? They were your toys, but in practice what this meant was you controlled things behind the scenes - local government, state, the cops, the Feds. For someone in their teens, being able to tell the Mayor of New York where to get off, or the cops to go screw, was heady stuff. 

Yes, there was a Humanity mechanic, and going into Frenzy was a pain in the ass - but that could be contained, and there was always the promise of Redemption, where you went up to Nirvana on a big pink cloud so long as you filled in all the squares on your celestial Bingo card.

People, meanwhile, were handy-dandy blood tacos you consumed to power up your Bejeezus Stick. Few players gave serious thought to the mechanics of hunting, or what it might mean for the faceless, nameless prey. Humans were a means of recharging Disciplines, which you then used on the more important stuff, like Dominating the Mayor of New York. 

One Hunt stands out in my memory. I thought it might be interesting to play through rather than just handwave it, and God, was that a mistake. The player hadn't the least idea what to do. It was like watching Inspector Clouseau chasing a guy in a gorilla costume round a roundabout. In the end the prey got away. The player thought I was in the wrong for making him go through it. He just wanted a good time, and this wasn't it. 

The designers, poor lambs, expected people to get deeply involved in the lore, the political intrigue, the social cut-and-thrust. That was doomed from the start. You don't give a player a Bejeezus Stick and expect her not to smack some fools with it. Often quite a lot of fools. 

Maybe somewhere out in Neverland where the flying fishes play there was a group that played the political game, but it soon became clear to everyone, including the designers, that what the gamers wanted was More Power, Please and Thank You. That led to a deluge of books. Camarilla, Sabbat, setting books, Clan books, more Clan books, special Sabbat Clan books, each with upgrades to the Bejeezuz Stick, till the thing resembled a nuclear powered Christmas tree with extra smiting. If you were a Gothically inclined Munchkin, this was the game for you.

I referenced the Nietzsche bit earlier about staring into the abyss. That got quoted frequently in Vampire circles; it was heady stuff for those greasy teens. It sounds good, sure. Nietzsche gives quotable stuff, but if you're a self-obsessed 15 to 23 year-old, to you, the abyss is old hat. You're already convinced you're dark and tragic, and have a poetry diary to prove it. This is the kind of thing Vampire gamers flocked to; that pop psychology 'yes, I am both interesting and tragically flawed, even doomed' reinforcement of an idea you're already convinced is the Ultimate Truth. All that, and power too - the power you didn't have in real life. Very attractive message.

This thing, though? Vampire 5th Edition? It's horror through and through, in one large package. 

There's absolutely no question what you are, in this game, and it's not a tragic antihero. You are the enemy, touched with Evil, hunted, slaughtered on sight - and this is because you hunt, and slaughter. You don't run things. Your Bejeezus Stick is pretty nifty, but it won't save you if the Second Inquisition comes calling. Humanity is monitored the same way someone with life-threatening allergies checks each and every thing they come into contact with. Frenzy can be character-ending. The Hunt is real. All too real. 

You're no longer the baddest man in the whole damn town, friend. You're meat, and if you want to keep on … whatever it is you're doing … you'd better get with the program. 

The clearest indicator of this is the Thin-Blooded, who've come to the end of the bloodline and now know how much it sucks to be undead. The central conceit of Vampire is that, back in the days of Caine, there was a first generation of Vampires. Each generation sires another, and each generation is weaker than the last. Vampire 5E goes one step further and gives you the Vampire without a clan, because there wasn't enough of the clan left to go around. Like mules, they're sterile. Unlike their kin, they haven't the dubious comfort of a working Bejeezus Stick; since the warranty expired on their bloodline, they don't have access to the full set of Disciplines. They can fake it till they make it, eating a stronger Vampire to join an actual clan, but until then they're the lowest of the low.   

All the old institutions have been destroyed. The Tremere Chantry is gone, the Nosferatu hacker network blown away. There's a new player in the game, the Second Inquisition, and it's here because Somebody, naming no names, let the Masquerade slip once too often. Now governments know what Vampires are, where they can be found, and how to kill them. As you might expect, the 'how to kill them' bit is what really fires them up. There were Hunters in the old game, Buffy-esque Scooby Gangs of civilians and witchy folk who pounded stakes into corpses on weekends. Now they're out of the picture, replaced by Langley spooks and NSA watchers with drone squadrons at their command. So don't say anything on the internet or your cell phone you don't want Uncle Sugar to hear, or you might find yourself on the wrong end of a well-equipped government sponsored kill team.

As a Vampire, you have to do some horrible things to keep going. So the game goes into detail about your style of hunting. Do you engage in Consensual vampirism? Cleave to your old mortal family, only ever drinking from your own people? Are you a Farmer, drinking only from animals, or a Bagger, taking only cold, bagged blood? Victim types, when described in the text, are precisely that - Victims. There is no romantic pretext that you're doing anything other than killing people. You might have been Compelled to do it by your lack of blood, but that's still a corpse on the ground.

Not just any faceless corpse, either. Remember those 50 Victims on the endpapers? That's Kevin, he was stuck in a dead-end job but wanted to be a poet. That's Faye, who wanted to fix the system. That's Maddie, who was trying to start her own business. 

Then consider some of the gruesome aspects of your chosen path. Cleavers feed covertly from their mortal family, which can include children. The most extreme Cleavers adopt children, marry a human, and try to maintain a family life for as long as they can [p176]. The Sandman attacks sleeping victims. The Siren feigns sex to get what he wants. Child abuse, sexual assault, stalking - it's all there, bubbling under the surface. 

If what you are looking for is a horror game, then this is what you're looking for. Ken Hite's on record as saying that if it were up to me nobody would ever get to play the good vampire ever again in any medium [NBA p126] and these most definitely are not the good vampires. These are the bloodsuckers, the killers, the villains, and if that is the game you are looking for - the game where you sink as low as you can go, and then sink further - rush to your friendly local game store and buy this now. 

Think very carefully about that for a second.

By now I'm sure you've heard that White Wolf no longer calls the shots for this franchise. Paradox, the parent, absorbed the White Wolf team into the company. Sections of the Camarilla book have been retconned, and by now I suspect unaltered versions of the Camarilla and Anarch .pdfs are very popular downloads on shadier parts of the internet. This is in response to a specific section of the Camarilla book, which puts vampires in effective charge of state-level butchery in Chechnya.

I've not read the Chechen section of the Camarilla book. I have read sections of it reprinted on various websites. I will say that if your RPG supplement ends up being blasted by Russian crime news sites then things have gone badly wrong. According to the author of the Chechnya bit it was an editing error more than anything else. Judging by some of the customer commentary there are certainly plenty of those.

[Side note: does nobody attribute, anymore? I've spent the last however-long trying to find out who wrote the Camarilla book. It might have been Winnie the Pooh for all I know. Nobody refers to the author by name; even the site linked above just refers to whoever it is as 'the author.' Mark Rein-Hagen and Matthew Dawkins provided 'insights and perspectives' which isn't the same as saying they wrote it, but I suppose that's as close as I'm going to get to solving that mystery. Vampire 5E has ten different people listed as writers or contributing writers, so I'm guessing that Rein-Hagen and Dawkins weren't the only two involved in Camarilla, but you'd probably have to own the book to know who the others are. 

Mind you, there's no Vampire 5E author info at White Wolf or Modiphius either; for all I could prove to the contrary, Vampire 5E might have been written by that talented polymath, Fartknockers McGee. If I'd talked Neil Gaiman into writing for my RPG setting I'd be shouting that from the rooftops, even if all he did was add an extra comma to paragraph 3, page 56. The only reason I know about it is I looked at Vampire 5E's front page. Until I did that, I had idea he was involved, and I've been following the progress of this book for a while.]

In this version of the game, those greasy teens and their power fantasies wrapped up in Gothic romanticism get a nasty shock. There's no disguising what you are, not even with a handy-dandy Nietzsche tag-line. In fact, I'm not even sure Nietzsche gets name-checked in the 5E book, though my memory could be faulty. You don't have the authority you used to, and forget about Dominating the Mayor of New York, lick. Stick your head up above the parapet, and a government assassin will blow it off. The moving hand has writ, and not one word or quote from your poetry diary can lure it back to cancel even half a line. You aren't the vampire you thought you were. You're the bloodsucker of the 21st century, a thin-blooded, bottom-feeding, treacherous asshole. 

Therein lies the problem.

Maybe the audience doesn't want a horror game where they're the monster. Romantic, doomed antihero, yes. However this time you have no redeeming features. You can pretend you have redeeming features, if you're into self-delusion. You can pretend to have a moral code. 

Kevin, the wannabe poet, might challenge your world view. 

If you're feeding off your family - including the kids - sneaking into people's homes at night to attack them while they sleep, tricking the gullible lovelorn into giving up all they have, there's no pretending you're anything other than evil. That's what makes this work, as horror. If horror is what you're looking for.

Like Charlie Hall over at Polygon, you may find this game isn't for you. Frankly, played straight, I'm not sure I'd want to play a full campaign of this. Some one-shots, sure. I don't know how my new gaming group will react to it either. The ones who played Vampire back in the day may be into it, or they may not. I can think of at least one player who won't want anything to do with it.

Charlie Hall brings up one more good point: how to do this so you don't squick out, weird out or emotionally scar the group. A White Wolf representative tells him the company wants to put out a series of essays about caring for the folks at the table, but it wasn't going to be available right away.

We saw it as a separate product, as a separate SKU,” [Jason] Carl said. “I think the timing is inconvenient because we wanted to have it ready for Gen Con [when V5 will first be available for purchase] and I don’t know that it will be ready for Gen Con.”

Maybe a Gen Con release date without the essays wasn't wise, in hindsight; maybe releasing those at the same time would have blunted some of the criticism. Yes, a Gen Con release is good for sales, but this is going to be a tough one to find an audience for, which is all the more important because a quality production like this needs good sales to make its nut. One reason why, back in the day, black and white was preferable - less expensive means a lower break-even.

It's good stuff, well written, excellent production values. It's a mass-market book looking for players who want to be evil. Not murder hoboes, not doomed and tragic, not Gothic with two Gs and extra Vathek. Evil.

One tough sell.

Now, since I complained about attribution a while ago it's only fair I attribute:

Vampire 5E

Developed by: Ken Hite, Karim Muammar

System Design: Ken Hite, Karim Muammar, Karl Bergstrom

Story & Creative Direction: Martin Ericsson 

Written by: Ken Hite, Martin Ericsson, Matthew Dawkins, Karim Muammar, Juhana Petterson

Additional Writing: Mark Rein-Hagen, Karl Bergstrom, Jason Andrew, Freja Gyldenstrom, Neil Gaiman

Edited by: Freja Gyldenstrom, Karim Muammar, Jennifer Smith-Pulsipher


  1. Vampire 5th with Ken Hite had me all excited when I heard of it (I loved his Madness Dossier for GURPS), but what's the fun in playing someone waiting to be killed by the government?

    1. I wouldn't oversell the government bit. Yes, the Second Inquisition is a thing, but it's not the be-all and end-all of the setting. That said, it is part of the de-escalation of character power; another reminder that your Vampire isn't the swaggering bravo of yesteryear. Which means you have to find a place in this new world, and fight for it. That can be a lot of fun.

  2. The vampires in my games were minor players, power-wise, as there were other supernaturals - Garou outmatched them physically, mages beat them with magic (or HIT Marks), wraiths and fae had strange powers too. Really the only reason the Kindred continued to exist was a sort of social convention that they were part of the setting. (And on MUSH, powerful NPCs keeping things on track).

    You suggest to overselling the government, but this isn't Dracula Dossier - the Kindred's enemies are the whole intelligence and law- enforcement apparatus of multiple nation-states, many of which work together. Further, the real might of the Kindred is gone after Gehenna - surely only the Assamites have any strength left. The Sabbat is surely gone and the Camarilla in shambles after the Antedeluvians fought.

  3. (You suggest NOT to oversell...)