Review: Vampire: the Masquerade 5th Edition
So here's something fun: On A Roll Games' first review! I'm going to try a specific format with this one and we'll see how it goes. I always appreciate feedback, of course, so let me know if you like it or not. I'm going to start with an introduction, then move into what I didn't like about the game, or product, followed by what I did like. I hope that by ending on a high note, it'll stick in your mind. I have an unscientific theory that many review readers dwell on the negative part of a game or book because most reviews end with it. I'm also going to avoid giving any numerical rating, mostly because I find that they're kind of abstract, and I'd have to develop a whole system for what a 1 looks like versus a 5 or 10, or whatever scale I'd use. Again, this is the first time I'm trying something like this, so I may change any aspect of my process. So without further ado...
The White Wolf family of Vampire games are very important to me. Let's just get that right off the bat. I love vampires as mythical creatures, I love the whole dark politicking thing, and I love stuff like the occult. As a kid I was very into X-Files and Forever Knight, and all that stuff. I even got into the Vampire: the Eternal Struggle CCG in the '90s when I was flipping through issues of The Duelist. I actually didn't get into the RPG until the 2004 revision of Vampire: the Requiem, but when I did, it honestly changed how I looked at RPGs. Here was a game that was story first in its presentation. In fact, the rules (while unique to me) actually seemed pretty bare-bones (for the time). But I was engrossed in the world it was setting up, and the flexibility it offered. I later took a look at Vampire: the Masquerade but was put off by the rules that early versions used. I thought Requiem was much more elegant, and I loved how all the different monster settings were interwoven into a unified World of Darkness. I loved the metaplot of Masquerade, though, so you could imagine my excitement when I heard that a new edition of Masquerade would take a lot of mechanics from Requiem, but merge them with the Masquerade setting.
Vampire: the Masquerade 5th edition (V5, from here on out) is a role-playing game published by Paradox Interactive under their White Wolf studio and brand. It's a game where you and your coterie (other player characters, or PCs) take on the role of vampires in an alternate version of our world; a darker one. The game setting is deep and has a lot of history, and has been well-developed since 1991. This edition not only updates the rules, but brings the setting up to the modern nights, and attempts to link the plot lines of the 3rd edition to now (the 4th edition is considered to be the 20th anniversary edition put out by Onyx Path Publishing, and was mostly just a "thank you" to longstanding fans of the game). As you could imagine from the subject matter, you're not the heroes you'd see in other RPGs. You're not even the unlikely, imperfect, citizen heroes of such darker RPGs like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, or Mutant Chronicles; you're actually monsters, and you need to grapple with that. Vampire gets the reputation of being a game of melodramatic angst, but this struggle between your former humanity and your current monstrous nature can feature as prominently as you want it to. You could just focus on the back-stabbing of vampiric society, or the mystical occultism that comes with inhabiting a world where monsters, ghosts, and sorcerers are real.
The game uses a system of dice pools made up of ten-sided dice (d10s). The statistics, instead of numbers, are made up of a series of dots that are filled in from 0–5. There are attributes and skills just like in any version of D&D after 2nd edition, and they all have ratings. Usually rolls are made by forming groups (pools) of d10s equal to the total of an attribute and skill combined. Want to hack into a computer? Roll a number of dice equal to your Intelligence + Technology statistics. The Storyteller (ST or game master) assigns a difficulty to this task from 1–7 (or more), which they keep secret from the players initially, and determines how many dice need to come up as a success in order to pass the test. Any die that comes up as a 6+, counts as a success. Like a lot of modern RPGs there are "fail forward" mechanics (where if you fail the test but came close you can succeed but at a cost determined by the ST), and "one-roll tests" (where a whole set of actions result from a single roll), so it's definitely taking its tried-and-true system of the past and updating it for modern nights.
There are also special abilities called Disciplines, which are kind of like spells. They're typically vampiric abilities like moving extra-fast, being extra-strong, turning into bats, and even sorcery powered by blood. I hope I'm not making this sound hokey; I'm just trying to keep things brief, but it's honestly cool, thematic stuff. Lurking behind every action, however, is the Beast. This is the metaphorical thing that's inside every vampire, sometimes materializing as a need to feed on human beings, and turning otherwise normal people into horrifying monsters just to survive. This is represented by hunger dice, which are 1–5 dice of a different color than your usual dice that replace them on a one-for-one basis whenever you make tests. If you score a critical (two or more 10s), and one of those 10s is on your hunger dice, then that's a "messy critical." You're going to do things way better, but with less control. If you don't score enough successes on your roll to meet the difficulty number and one or more of your hunger dice come up 1s, then that's a "bestial failure" and you lose control entirely (of course I'm oversimplifying it. There are a whole bunch of different things that could happen with either result, but those are the spirits of the effects).
One of the biggest flaws of V5, however, is that its rules aren't presented as clearly as I think they should be. The core rules (the circulatory system of the game, if you will) are defined in the Rules chapter, which states that these are "[t]he most basic of these rules, and thus the fastest and cleaner to use in play... They are the core of the Storyteller System." However, this chapter is also filled with optional rules and systems of resolution with no separation from what I would assume would be the core rules of the game. Lots of games present you with alternate rules, it's just not as clear as it could be when I was reading this chapter whether I should be having my players roll dice pools, letting them succeed automatically if they have double the number of dice to difficulty number, or letting them take half their dice pool as successes and moving on. All of these are fine mechanics, and groups should use whatever they find easiest or most pleasing, but experienced players are already going to know that they can hack a game to make it what they want, while newer players are going to be overwhelmed and confused by seemingly contradictory rules presented in the same breath as a core mechanic. In either case, alternative systems should be presented clearly and separately from the core rules so that they can be clearly, and freely, applied as the players and/or ST see fit. The Advanced Systems chapter should've been the home for a lot of these rules, and left the Rules chapter alone to have the clearest explanation of core concepts.
The layout and editing of the book don't help, either. Some pages have three columns of text, while some have two. Sometimes there's a space between headers and text, sometimes there's not. In the Disciplines section the Submerged Directive discipline has its name omitted. It simply distinguishes itself from The Forgetful Mind discipline by being in a different column. The header that denotes the level of disciplines in the Protean section is the usual look for Level 4, but Level 5 is in a regular font at the bottom of the page mashed up agains the bottom of the Metamorphosis discipline. I actually didn't notice it at first, and wondered where all the Level 5 Protean disciplines were. Some sections are only a line or two long at the bottom of a column before continuing on the next. While that last one's not a huge deal, it just looks like it could've used another graphic design pass and/or a different style (and to stick to the tried-and-tested two column format, please).
Combining these two complaints, some rules just aren't explained very well. And to be clear, there are a lot of rules in this game, more than I think the authors think there are. Some rules seem contradictory, or some concepts or sections just aren't explained, or leave a lot to be inferred by the reader ("Duration: Passive" on disciplines just isn't explained at all, and some of the extended test rules seem like they should have more explanation). Some rules have a lot of steps involved; more than I think they should. It feels like flowcharts or examples are necessary rather than clarifying. For example, it would be easy to forget about adding half your blood potency to discipline checks, or which aspects of blush of life you can use based on your humanity. It just feels like there are a lot of knobs and levers in this game, and it would be easy to forget to apply a rule for good or ill.
Honestly, I'd love to see a revised book. I'd buy it. As it stands, even as a manager of a games shop, whose livelihood ostensibly relies upon people buying physical copies of games, I can't recommend people pick up the hardcover rules at this point. I would stick to the pdf, which has updated errata and extra sections that the hardcover book does not (link provided later in the review).
That being said, every one of my rules complaints could also be seen as a virtue. This game can be anything you want, and when you have all the systems lined up in your head and you've decided on which ones you're going to use, this game is thematic as hell. Of the many rules that are here, not a single one doesn't further the theme of the game, nor feel tacked-on. The hunger dice mechanic is awesome, and adds tension to your actions. The dice do truly feel like they're adding to the story, and don't just feel superfluous or overly mechanical. Because you can combine attributes and skills as you feel appropriate to attempt a test, you truly feel like your characters abilities are at the forefront.
The game is really character-forward. All the extra elements of Stains, and Humanity, Convictions, and Touchstones really make your character deep and give you (and the ST) a lot to work with. In previous editions, you would fit your character into the world, but V5 makes the world and the story dependent on your characters. This is most obviously done through the Relationship Map, which is a simple mechanic of writing down the coterie, who's connected to them, and how they're connected to them. That's it! And yet it's a mechanic that feels deeper and more impactful than it is on its face.
Before I stop talking about mechanics, I want to mention how much I love the initiative system in the basic rules. They give you a more traditional initiative system in the Advanced Systems chapter, but in the Rules chapter the system simply goes in order of:
1 - Already engaged close combats
2 - Ranged combats
3 - Newly initiated close combats
4 - Everything else
Most attacks are contested rolls (both combatants roll, or the actor rolls vs a target's static number), so both sides get a chance to inflict damage during any step of the combat. It's intuitive, simple, and flexible. Other than Mutant Chronicles 3rd Edition's initiative system, this one is one of my favorites.
Though I mentioned my problem with the organization and explanation of the core rules, the Advanced Systems chapter is really where the game shines. Mechanics for things like Memoriam (flashbacks where one character improvises their history and the other coterie members role-play supporting cast), Prestation (gaining and cashing in on boons and favors), and hunting rules (a great way to avoid repetitive or awkward hunting and feeding scenes) are really inventive and neat. As someone who loves mechanics this is also the section that really adds meat to the conflict rules, as well.
The next two sections are rules and guidelines for building cities and running chronicles, which were extremely valuable sections that even an experienced game master like myself appreciates, if only to get in the heads of the designers of the game. The cities section gives you creation rules, and sample hunting grounds that you can whip out in a flash and make it seem like you've done more prep than you have. The Chronicles chapter is one of the better-written chapters in the book, setting up expectations for what a game of Vampire might look like.
Finally we have the Tools chapter and a bunch of appendixes. The Tools chapter gives you some antagonists and items, along with a selection of Loresheets, which are people, places, and things from the background of the Vampire metaplot that your coterie can employ. The Appendixes are actually absent from the hardcover book and only appear in the pdf. They're things like skill clarifications (in a game where you can make almost any combination of attribute and skill, it helps to have some examples to fall back on), long-term projects the coterie can undertake and considerate play advice. Some may scoff at the inclusion of that last one, but in a game that delves as much into personal horror as Vampire does, I think it's necessary, especially for people who are newer to these kinds of games. That being said, my group has been playing together for over a decade and we still check in with one another even if we don't follow the considerate play advice to the letter.
Looks-wise, if you can get past the layout issues, the book looks gorgeous. While I'm a fan of the older editions' marble covers, and drawn art (versus a lot of the pictures in this book being photographs), the stuff in this book just looks great. The color choices are beautiful, the photography and art are evocative, and the imagery is haunting. Sometimes the photographs can come across as cheesy, but with others (I'm thinking the Ventrue models) it looks really breathtaking. Everything fits, even if it has to fight the layout. When all is said and done, however, I just love reading World of Darkness books. The background is deep and interesting, and the style of writing is hip, if a little edgy.
All-in-all I think you should get the pdf if you're interested in this game or universe. I'd avoid the hardcover rulebook for now, and I'd actually start with the New Blood Starter Pack (and hopefully a physical copy of the starter kit, whenever that's released to stores) before moving on to the core rules pdf. I think learning the game from a product that's designed to get you started is better than reading even the most cherry-picked sections out of this book and turning that into a play experience. I'd even recommend V5 over previous editions of Masquerade. I might recommend V5 over Vampire: the Requiem depending on what kind of story you want to tell. V5 does a better job than previous Masquerade editions of telling a more personal story, but it still has that global feel. There are events going on in the world that your characters are a small part of, and they can't be ignored for too long. In Requiem, the kindred (vampires) of the city you're in might not even know if there are others like them elsewhere in the world. The byzantine hierarchy of kindred society in the city your chronicle (campaign) takes place in, could be the only one like it. In Masquerade, you're lucky if an outside force doesn't come in and try to disrupt what little order exists in your world. If you're interested in horror-, or occult-themed games where you're not just wrestling with the monsters without, but the monsters within as well, I think the work it takes to understand the rules are worth it.