So Front Heavy It Basically Falls Over
Tabletop RPGs have covered a vast variety of topics over the years. From fantasy to sci-fi, to weird mixtures of both, even totally out there topics like the history of the Mormons. One of the places that TTRPGs love to go is horror. From Call of Cthulhu to Lamentations of the Flame Princess (yes that counts as horror don’t @ me) horror is some pretty well-trodden ground. Another topic so well-trodden in popular culture that it could just as easily be described as trampled is vampires. So obviously the two have coincided many times in the past. Vampire The Masquerade 5th Edition is the 5th release (obviously) of the vampire-themed RPG from White Wolf Games. The newest edition of the game promises to be the easiest for new players to learn yet, possibly hoping to capitalize on the upcoming release of the much-awaited Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines 2. Does it pull off what it set out to do? Let’s find out.
If you aren’t aware we did a brief preview of the book a few months ago once we’d had the chance to give it a quick read through. At first glance Vampire The Masquerade 5th Edition might be a bit overwhelming if you’re not already well-versed in the lore of the series. The first thing that you see when opening the book is a 10-page letter from one character you’ve likely never heard of, to another character you’ve likely never heard of. Even if you decide to skip this and come back later on the next segment is then more lore to read through about what exactly the masquerade is and why it is important.
Obviously, for a game called Vampire The Masquerade, it’s arguably pretty important to know exactly what the masquerade in question really is. However, there is a fine line to draw between drawing players into your world and filling their heads with the past 30 years of lore that has grown up around the game. In many ways, it may have been better to start out with a little bit of information about the world and the important factions at play, then let the players figure out their character builds, before sending them on a 3-month corespondents course one exactly what the second inquisition is.
On the one hand, doing it this way does mean the first time a player makes a character it’s probably going to be awful or in some way at odds with the lore or rules. Then again, is this not true of pretty much anyone’s first time trying to play an RPG? Regardless, the other option is to try and tell players every single bit of lore and hope they don’t fall asleep trying to read it.
Once you get past the lore the rules are pretty simple. When performing a test of some kind to see if a character successfully performs an action the player in question has to build a dice pool. This is done by the Storyteller giving one or more attributes and skills to the player, who then adds up the points in the given areas, and rolls that many D10. Everything that’s a 6 or above is a success, and everything else is a failure, and each task requires a number of successes defined by the storyteller. As systems for tests go this is a relatively simple one. Instead of needing to figure out bonuses, or different types of dice, only 1 type of dice is ever used. It also makes communicating how to play to a new player quite easy, since the number of points in each stat is represented visually by a small dot for each dice in the pool.
Obviously, the characters in Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition are vampires, and therefore they do eventually hunger for blood. While this system is marginally more complicated than those in use for tests, it’s still overall pretty simple and has some interesting effects on the way that tests are performed. As players grow in hunger, either by being tempted or having to heal damage, they gain hunger points. Each hunger point replaces a die in any given test, and critical successes or failures on a hunger die can have some pretty nasty effects. Again, this system makes hunger a very simple mechanic to implement. Simply swap out dice in your dice pool for dice of a different color whenever rolling a test. Of course, that does necessitate buying a set of D10’s of two different colors, but considering the number of rolling apps out there, this hardly feels like much of a negative.
There are several other systems and mechanics which have been overhauled or completely changed from previous editions. The new abilities for Thinblood (younger generation vampires) characters, make them much more enjoyable, and viable, to play as. On top of that health is streamlined to only two types of damage regardless of status as either a vampire or a mortal. Honestly, a lot of these changes to make things much simpler to learn and teach, even if the ‘interesting’ layout of the book does tend to counteract them a little.
VTM 5th Edition is a very story-focused game, and as such, some really interesting plot points take place in the character’s backstories. A vampire’s humanity is very closely tied to ‘touchstones’, mortals who in some way remind the characters of their more human characteristics. These people tend to be relatives, usually descendants, or possibly even friends who keep the players as close to their human side as possible. Not only do these ‘touchstones’ force the players to think more deeply about their character during creation, but it also gives a storyteller plenty of options for character development during a campaign.
In the same vein as the touchstone system, there is the merits & flaws system which has been brought around since the last edition. Flaws and merits are optional character aspects, both negative and positive, which can help to define and personal a character. These range from things such as excluding characters from feeding on certain types of prey to giving them a resistance to being dominated. While these flaws and merits can be useful, they do feel a little superfluous for the most part. Realistically having a space for them on a character sheet is a good idea, but the system feels better suited to customizable use by the storyteller during a campaign instead of a player choosing a bunch of pre-generated ones during character creation.
Combat is probably not the correct word to describe these mechanisms in terms of VTM. The ‘combat’ mechanics actually give instructions for both combat and opposed social interactions. A better term is probably conflict since you’ll be using the rules more for winning an argument then you will do for winning a bar brawl if you play the game correctly. There are basically two forms of these conflict rules. The basic rules and advanced rules. The basic rules use a system of giving automatic priority to different characters depending on their situation, and the advanced rules are closer to a more traditional set of combat rules common in RPG’s.
The more advanced rules honestly feel better to use than the basic ones. During advanced combat, for example, there is a rule which states that after 3 rounds of conflict the storyteller should think about ending the said conflict. Apart from being a great way to keep the flow of the story going, it also prevents newer players from getting left behind by having to roll too many dice for too long. Honestly, some of the arguably best TTRPG’s out there have managed to streamline and reduce the number of dice roles necessary to tell a good story.
The bottom line:
While the front half of the book is heavy with lore that only a series fan is going to care about, the book does eventually get into rules which seem tailor-made to be easy to teach for newbies. If you've ever wanted to get into Vampire the Masquerade but thought it was too annoying or obtuse then this might be the time. Just have someone else explain the lore to you in a way that isn't totally asinine. With advanced conflict rules which will help you in any situation from a debutante ball to a street brawl and a heavy focus on storytelling, there is a lot to like about Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition.
Get this game if:
-You want a more streamlined version of VTM to play
-You enjoy tabletop games more about storytelling then mechanics.
-You keep making Vampire characters in DnD and your party is starting to get annoyed about it.
Avoid this game if:
-You dislike games with bad formatting.
-You don't want to have to get caught up on a bunch of lore.
-The thought of anything with vampires in it makes you feel sick.
The copy of Vampire the Masqeruade 5th Edition was provided by White Wolf Games.