Thoughts on Vampire the Masquerade’s V5 Preview

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I just downloaded and read the V5 preview that White Wolf made available today. It’s 27 pages, and contains sections from the final, published book (though I hope they gave it one more read-through, as I found one typo without looking very carefully).

Dossier of the Damned

These are interesting snippets of information intended to set the scene – notes from vampires and from those who are researching vampires. The Masquerade simply can’t be maintained in 2018, but the question is, who knows about vampires, and what do they know? This introduces the new terms they’re using for vampires among those who study them – blackbodies, or blankbodies, drawn from the Pre-Alpha scenario and referring to how vampires show up in IR scans.

Concepts

This is really more like “themes”, concepts the guide you in understanding the World of Darkness and creating a chronicle together. One theme has always been that vampires are not the good guys, and White Wolf hits this theme here as well. You are playing a predator who feeds on human beings. Maybe you cling to humanity and maybe you don’t, but you are not a Good Person.

Fashion

Basically a few examples of imagery, and the repeated reminder that you can’t dress like a vampire in public. Sort of the “This ain’t the 90s Goth scene” section.

Clans

We get write-ups of the Brujah and the Toreador, and both are very much in line with the past of those clans. I like that they list more than one nickname for each clan, and I like the artwork of sample Brujah looks in that section. Well, I like that it’s there, and I like the concept of multiple views. Unfortunately, the four female examples are all models with hooker shoes, and the four male examples are all models wearing fashionably ripped street clothes. I would have much preferred a variety of body types here, as well as some indication that one can be a vampire and not necessarily be fashion-forward. They’re also all posed as if they are at a fashion show instead of caught in the action, so the art fails the test of “Show me what my character can do in the game.” Unless V5 is about standing around and looking cool.

We don’t get the same images for the Toreador, ironically, since that’s the only clan I could imagine composed mostly of people who stand around posing in over-priced distressed clothing. But, again, in both cases, these are recognizably Brujah and Toreador as far as the text goes. Clan flaws are now Banes.

Speaking of which, the Toreador’s Bane got a lot worse in this version. Not only do they lose themselves in beauty, but when surrounded by ugliness (according to their particular aesthetic), Toreador lose dice from all uses of Disciplines equal to the Bane score. So…ouch. Also, flavorful. Why do they surround themselves with beauty? In part, because they have to. Overall, though, this feels like giving them two Banes instead of one (albeit weaksauce) flaw.

Beliefs

Characters begin play with between one and three Convictions, which are up to the player at character creation; things like “Thou shalt not kill.” These are the moral lines that the character has set for themselves (surely to be stressed and pressed upon by the Storyteller). We read that incurring Stains in pursuit of your Conviction might mitigate Stains, which is confusing and, since this is a sample, unexplained. Violating a Conviction might also, at the ST’s discretion, incur a Stain.

I’d have to see the full text but we might have Capitalization Creep here.

Chronicle Tenets are kind of like themes combined with lines and veils from other systems. You are setting the genre conventions, key ideas, and also limits of your chronicle together, and I like the way this is handled. This is the kind of conversation that games increasingly call for, and it looks like these will have mechanical weight, as violating Tenets can apparently be a source of Stains. Basically, you’re postmodern vampires and you are creating a shared morality together that will be in effect over the course of your chronicle.

Touchstones sound similar to what is used in Chronicles of Darkness and Vampire the Masquerade 2nd Edition. They are specific things in the world that keep you grounded in your humanity (or threaten your humanity when they are threatened).

Ambitions are just what they sound like – the general things that drive your character from night to night, beyond the hunger for blood. Desires are specific, and must be connected to something that’s come up in the relationship map for your chronicle already (i.e. must be connected to an existing NPC or key aspect of the setting for the chronicle). I like this – knowing what a character’s Touchstones, Ambitions and Desires are is pretty much all an ST needs to know where to push a character from night to night, and are all of course “flags” that let the player say “This is what I want to see in this chronicle.”

Celerity

Explicitly recreated so as not to mess with the action economy, Celerity has variant powers for each level (and it isn’t clear if you choose both or have to pick one or the other). The powers also don’t build on each other like previous versions of Celerity, but rather give the character a specific ability or move they can use, often by making a Rouse roll. So you can dodge bullets, rush around the battlefield in a blur, and run across ledges without having to roll to keep your balance. Feels like Celerity to me, and I like it.

Loresheets

These are the most interesting thing in this whole preview, an idea that I love. There has always been a tremendous amount of metaplot layered over Vampire, since 2nd Edition at least. It has been something I have seen integrated into chronicles, and the problem has always been that those “in the know” nod sagely when something comes up that they read in a splatbook while the rest of the players are just in the dark, wondering why everyone thinks this weird name is so important.  And I say this as a ST who has included metaplot things in my chronicles to make the in-the-know players nod sagely.

Loresheets give actual connectivity between the mechanics and the backstory of the game in interesting ways. The three examples given are a loresheet for Theo Bell, a loresheet for Helena, and a loresheet for the Week of Nightmares. Each bit of lore is treated like a background, rated from one dot to five dots, with more dots giving you deeper connections to the backstory. For example, one dot of lore in the Week of Nightmares means you tell the story of that harrowing time in a way that vampires find fascinating. You are sometimes invited to retell it in Elysium, and get 3 extra dice to your performance roll. Five dots in Week of Nightmares means you have a vial of the Ravnos Antediluvian’s blood. What you do with the blood is up to you, and the effect it has is up to the ST. That’s…awesome.

Overall

V5 feels like it is trying a bit too hard to be fashionable, but then previous editions all felt like they were trying too hard to be Goth, which is just a subset of fashionable. I did feel like the artwork was more fashion and less horror, which was too bad, despite some of it being beautiful (and full-color).

There might be too many things to keep track of, though I’d have to see all of these mechanics in play of course. But Disciplines, Banes, Humanity, Stains, Convictions, Chronicle Tenets, Touchstones, Ambitions, Desires, Disciplines….and that’s just a taste of capitalized words from this 27-page preview. These are all cool ideas, but they make this already a significantly more complicated game than D&D 5E, for example, and it might just be too much for some players to want to keep track of. Again, though, how this all works in play remains to be seen.

And to be clear, I like this version of Vampire. I like the direction they’ve taken. I think this is an improvement on previous editions of the game in many ways – the way morality is seemingly handled, the way Celerity was reworked, and especially the Loresheets to name a few things I really like. I just need to find some players who want to play Vampire.

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Mage the Ascension: Resonance and Hubris

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Image credit: http://wiki.wodgotham.com/index.php?title=Mage_101

Recently I hosted Session 0 of my first Mage the Ascension chronicle in…years. Maybe 10 years? Mage is a game that I played a lot in college and with my college group in the couple of years after, but since we’ve all moved away from each other Mage has fallen by the wayside.

There’s something about Mage that fits really well with undergraduates. It’s all about ideas, and focused on the self, and changing one’s beliefs. It was a blast, and when I was talking with gamer friends now it turns out some of them were interested in a Mage game. So here we are again.

I’ve already written out my my opinion that M20, the recently released 20th Anniversary Edition of Mage, is inferior to the Revised edition of Mage released 17 years ago. Basically, it takes twice as many pages to accomplish less clarity, and mashes together multiple sets of sub-rules without putting as much effort as I’d like in streamlining them and making them consistent with each other. In addition, they cut out a rule that I really liked, that was the center of an important house rule I’ve had for Mage: Resonance.

In the Revised version of Mage, Resonance is a way that your magic is expressed to the outside world. It is like a smell, or taste, or color that marks your magic as yours as opposed to anyone else’s. It might be Dynamic, Entropic, or Pattern Resonance, and the Resonance is kind of like a fingerprint. The more Resonance you have, the stronger and more obvious your fingerprint. At a certain point, it’s probably like a calling card that anyone, magical or otherwise, can sense.

In the RAW, the downside of Resonance is that the more you accrue, through things like Paradox backlash, the more obvious your magic becomes, making it easier for enemies to find you. It can also have an effect on places where you use magic a lot. For example, if you have a lot of Entropic Resonance, plants might start dying around you when you use your magic.

Now, Mage the Ascension has always dealt with the theme of hubris, a particularly powerful temptation for Mages. There have also, from the beginning with 1st Edition, been particular Mages known as Marauders, who have fallen into a madness which not only corrupts all of their magic, but even their minds, bodies and surroundings.

In my Mage the Ascension games, a house rule developed which connected this idea of hubris, which didn’t have mechanical teeth so to speak, with Marauders, who were interesting but who seemed somewhat disconnected from the system. Any time a player rolls Arete, she can also roll Resonance along with it. If she does so, her character takes an automatic point of Paradox, and her Resonance is considered to be more powerful and noticeable.

For me, this house rule solved two problems. One was to make hubris, the “quick and easy path” in Jedi terms, truly tempting. Extra dice! The other was to connect this to the fall into Marauder-hood – you draw on this power again and again, accruing more and more Paradox (in addition to what you’d normally accrue), which results in more Resonance, which further twists your magic, which also tempts you with more dice for your effects, etc.

The end result is that arrogant, reckless mages are incredibly powerful, and also on a swift slippery slope towards madness and self-destruction. This simple house rule seemed to connect themes of Mage, to add teeth to some of its core ideas, and gave players an interesting choice to make every time they rolled their few, precious Arete dice.

I recommend it in your own games.

Simplifying Combat in Vampire the Masquerade

My V20 game that I’m currently running seems to be coming to a head. Multiple Sabbat packs will be attacking an ancient vampire and his minions, and a second ancient might join the fray. In the past, this has been the point where we have a whole session where two hours or more are all one fight.

One big culprit here is Celerity. Probably the biggest. Each round of combat involves multiple turns for a number of the characters. Not only does Celerity make it less fun to be in a fight when you don’t have it, but there is more time spent as a player sitting on the sidelines messing with your smartphone or whatever while everyone else has multiple actions.

A second issue is that resolving a single attack requires at least four dice-rolls: the attack roll, a defense roll, damage roll and soak roll. One thing I really like about NWoD is that this is all simplified to one weighted roll per attack. I used to like the variability and flexibility of the OWoD system, but that was also back when I played with the same group every week, and we had tons of hours to devote to gaming minutiae.

Fix 1: Celerity
In the past I’ve adapted the LARP rules for Celerity, as I actually like them better than the V20 or previous rules, but in writing them up for this game, I realized they would just add another layer of complexity. We have two players who don’t give a damn about the system and would rather it not get in the way, one who is in his very first tabletop RPG, and a fourth who is up for whatever, so I decided to go with simplification.

What I decided was that Celerity would simply add to all Dexterity rolls. I had changed initiative to Dexterity + Wits (rather than Wits + Alertness), so Celerity would also add to initiative rolls. This would be the equivalent of the LARP preempt ability that Celerity grants, and it just makes sense that characters with Celerity would act first. This would also add to pretty much all attack rolls, move around rolls, and so on. I decided Celerity would cost no blood, since frankly this is quite a nerf. I have also not been allowing split actions, and so the extra Celerity dice would not be useful for that either.

So far, the players seem to be happy with it, though one player moved her Celerity 3 point to become a Fortitude 4 point (from out of clan to in-clan), which was fine by me. When I make a change like this (and I don’t seem to be able to resist) I always give players a chance to adjust accordingly.

Fix 2: Fortitude
I also wanted to nix the soak roll, and so I had to address Fortitude first. I decided that Stamina + Fortitude + Armor would be the difficult of damage rolls, but this meant that Fortitude would be less useful overall. (You still roll it to avoid fire and sunlight). So I decided that for a blood point, a character could add their Fortitude to their normal Health levels temporarily. These would be health levels that you couldn’t heal, but would be a buffer between you and real damage.

Again, so far, so good.

Fix 3: Defense and Soak
As mentioned above, there is no longer a soak roll, but the difficulty of a damage roll is the target’s Stamina + Fortitude + Armor. I also decided that the maximum for this difficulty would be a 9. Beyond that point, the extra health levels help, and you have dice to roll against fire and sunlight, but I found that my players had a lot more fun if they could at least bruise powerful NPCs in a fight.

Similarly, I got rid of the defense roll by simply having the difficulty of an attack roll be the target’s Dexterity + Athletics + Celerity. Again, with a maximum of 9. This really short-changes my super-powerful Elders, but also makes dealing with those Elders a bit more fun in this game, at least so far. This could easily be adapted to another house rule (or is it a house rule?) that for difficulties over 9, you simply need more successes. So difficulty 12 = difficulty 9 with three successes required for the first success.

Problem: Stakes, and other attacks that are more difficult than normal. Not sure what to do with this, but it basically makes staking a bit more likely and common in the game, which frankly is not a problem so far.

Again, players are liking the rules change, I have to explain rules much less often during the game, and fights go a lot quicker overall.

Mass Combat
The next session of my game is going to be a big-ass combat, with more than 20 named NPCs. Obviously, this is nuts, but the players are feeling it and are excited about it, and it is kind of what has been set up to happen. They are attacking an ancient vampire and his minions, and have the assistance of a couple of NPCs in their pack as well as a Black Hand cell. Late in the fight, another ancient might jump in with her minions to try to diablerize the PCs target, her enemy for the last 3000 years.

So, cool stuff, if it goes quick enough to be at all interesting.

First thing, for the most part, I’m going to hand-wave NPC vs NPC parts of the combat. I have a very good idea of who would win in a given fight and how long it would take, leaving me to focus on the PCs. For the NPCs vs NPCs, I just note what the PCs would see (she tears him up with claws; he empties his clip into her, etc.) and move on. If they want to get detail, they have to go look. Otherwise, it’s a mess, as fights should be.

Second, I have to have a way to keep track of NPC dots and numbers without having a fat stack of character sheets. Even the 3×5 cards I usually use for NPCs are a bit too large, as I want to have them out on the table so I can move them around. I decided to cut the 3x5s in half, and to have some notes for the combat only. What I have on the lined side of each card:

Name, Type (ghoul, clan, generation, etc.), Nature/Demeanor if they might come up in a fight
Physical, Social and Mental dice (these are just average pools for rolls of each type)
List of powers and level
Primary attack
Secondary attack
Special effect (if any – for example, Majesty with the Courage roll difficulty, an aura, etc.)
Path (if any) and Willpower
Blood pool total/Blood spent per round
Any other little note

Then, on the un-lined side of the card

Initiative number (I rolled ahead of time)
NAME
Boxes for the health levels, assuming that everyone has activated Fortitude who has it

And that’s it. We’ll see how it works on Sunday night.

Recent Developments in V20

I’m very excited about the release of Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition – I’ve already ordered my own copy and it’ll be a great early birthday gift when it comes out.  You can see the huge banner above.

I’m also following the open development process, reading and commenting in the few cases where I think I have something smart to say.  Here is some of what has been going on lately:

The Tzimisce Clan document is up, as well as the Gargoyles and Giovanni.  These have been out for a few days, but I was away at UnConference11 and didn’t have time to do much reading while I was getting ready and certainly not while I was there.

I’m currently working on a one-shot to possibly run with friends while on vacation in a couple of weeks.  I actually don’t expect us to have the time, nor for enough people to have the inclination, but it takes my mind off work.

With any luck, when my V20 book arrives in October, I’ll have figured out the basics of keeping a human larva alive and will be able to have some bitey adventures.

V20: Vampire the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition

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Not too long ago, White Wolf announced that they would be releasing a 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire the Masquerade.  20 years ago, VtM’s huge impact on the gaming industry and overall geek culture began.  In terms of system mechanics, Vampire was a hymn to Shadowrun and others before it, but there was some kind of sweet spot that was waiting for something like Vampire the Masquerade to strike home.
According to demographic research done for Wizards of the Coast, Vampire is responsible for bringing in a huge number of women into the gaming hobby, what was up to that point apparently the purview of war-gaming grognards…or something.  I didn’t start gaming until around 1991, and I started with Mythus and then GURPS, but one can imagine what a hobby with even fewer women would have been like.
From their official comments, it would appear that V20, as they are calling the anniversary edition, would only be available to those who are attending the Grand Masquerade in New Orleans this year.  Fortunately, I am pretty sure this is not true.  I asked the question via Twitter, using their preferred hashtag #v20, and got a quick response that the book (which is going to be around 400 pages) is going to be available apart from the Masquerade – they just aren’t sure about the details yet.
I like how White Wolf is going about this process.  They are actively soliciting and responding on a forum devoted to the topic of the new edition, and they are also posting drafts of the rules and text that will go into the final book.  The book is going to have new, full-color artwork from ‘classic’ Masquerade artists, and will not be a new edition, nor will it be the beginning of a new round of book releases for Masquerade.  They are saying that it is simply something for those who have been playing Vampire since it was released 20 years ago.
That’s what they’re saying now anyway.  As always, we’ll see.
I’ve been following the hashtag #v20 on Twitter, and that is where I am getting most of my information and updates, apart from the documents they release and the forums, where I am participating as time allows.
I can honestly say that this announcement has re-ignited my desire to play Vampire the Masquerade.  I started in 1998, my first year of college, and I played in games for the next 7 or 8 years with the same group of great people who are still some of my closest friends.  Before I played VtM, I was actually kind of contemptuous of a game that seemed to be all about being goth and bemoaning one’s fate and blood fetishism.  And yeah, there’s some of that.  What I got was a fantastic game and great memories and friends.  I’m not really a fan of vampire fiction or movies; I’ve never been even remotely goth; but VtM is still one of my favorite games out there.  I’m really excited about the new edition, and will definitely get myself a copy when it is available.
In the meantime, for any other fans, I recommend checking out the open development documents and blog, the forums, and also following the news as it comes out.  You ask questions and much of the time, one of the guys working on the book answer you.  That’s one thing I really like about our little hobby – the people at the very top are not so high up as to not be accessible to even casual fans.
Updates:

Hunter: the Vigil and the New World of Darkness

The New World of Darkness games seem to be intentionally designed to give players insane results. In the old world of darkness system, you could get crazy results, but it was because you gamed the system well – you set up a roll with lots of dice and low difficulty.

In the NWoD, everything is target 8, so successes can be relatively rare, but you also have “exploding dice”, re-rolling 10’s and sometimes even 9’s and more rarely, 8’s as well. This means that the most common results of rolls are one or two successes or a large number, and it comes out of nowhere. It is also less under your control. Even when you can make some of your successes explode, they are relatively rare, so its more of a game of luck and randomness.

One effect of this that I found in my own play is that it turns the game towards comedy. There is a lot of botching and absurd successes, and it is hard to handle.

The exception here is in combat, when some kind of defense number is subtracted from almost all of the dice-pools for attacks and special abilities. This means that you’re rolling fewer dice than you’re used to, which in turn means that combat involves a lot of singular successes or marginal failures.

This can get to be…a little unexciting. Your vampire grows her agg-dealing supernatural claws, leaps from the rooftop onto her opponent, slashes the claws down his back, and deals…one aggravated damage. Nowhere near a would penalty or anything. A scratch, really. Then in rage he turns around, pulls out his Desert Eagle, shoots you, and deals…two bashing. And so it goes until one of you has some exploding dice and randomly ends the battle in a paroxism of bloodshed.

I like a lot of the changes that were made to Vampire, Werewolf and Hunter. I think that Mage took a step backward both in its fluff and in the system itself in almost every way. But the dice system is just sort of hard to manage sometimes. It doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t deliver the play experience I want – it isn’t reliable when it should be, and it isn’t exciting when you want it to be.

I find that I’m left wanting to hack White Wolf’s games all the time. When we used to run V3 (Vampire third edition), we probably had a minimum of house rules, but by the end of a chronicle we had a few to make the system more playable.

I wonder – did they playtest the new system before they brought it out? It just comes off as…unfinished in a lot of ways. So you have huge, beautiful books with unfinished systems in them that don’t deliver what you want them to deliver.

I sort of want White Wolf’s graphic designers and artists and setting designers to team up with Paizo, maybe, or a team of designers who can create a game that is tight, efficient, and delivers when you want it to deliver.

We just had a session of Hunter: the Vigil with some members of our new home group we’re trying to put together, and it went really well and was a lot of fun. It isn’t like I’m not having fun with White Wolf’s games – I almost always do. It just isn’t…reliable. Their new system, its core dice mechanic, just isn’t as good as their old one, and it takes something away from the game that used to be there. I’d have kept a similar dice system, with variable pools and variable difficulties on d10s, because that just lead to a more interesting game, a system that the players can use to set their characters up for huge success or for big risks at critical moments. The dice helped the game along – not so much with the new WoD stuff. Its really too bad.