Saturday, March 21, 2020

How Dark Is The World of Darkness?, Part 2.1--Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition

In the intro post, I set up three framing questions for these reviews--(1) do these games speak to me in a way that they didn't when they first came out?; (2) how do the mechanics hold up in light of 25+ years of tabletop RPG design evolution?; and (3) how does the lore land in 2020?  I think it makes sense to tackle these questions in reverse order, so let's begin with the lore, at least in Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition (hereafter "V20") form.  Because this got long, even by my standards, this post is just going to deal with the lore and aesthetics, and 2.2 will talk about mechanics and overall impressions.

The Premise
This might be basic to the point of ridiculous, but the premise of V20 is that you play a vampire.  Vampires as presented here are more or less a pastiche of the vampire myths--they drink blood, they are immortal, they have cool powers, sunlight burns them, a stake through the heart puts them into a state of suspended animation called torpor (the first of what is an extensive list of specialized terminology, something that the World of Darkness is known for), etc.  Critically, being bitten by a vampire does not make you a vampire--you must have all of your blood drained and then be fed a portion of vampire blood in order to transform into a vampire, a process known as "the Embrace."

The core mythology of Vampire: the Masquerade is that all vampires are lineal descendants (via Embrace, not by genetics) of Caine, as in "Cain and Abel" in Genesis chapter 4.  The "mark of Caine" bestowed by God on Caine for murdering his twin brother Abel is the curse of vampirism.  The power of a particular vampire is defined by his or her "Generation" from Caine, with 13th being the default for PCs.  Caine and his immediate children lived in a city called Enoch, until the 3rd Generation rose up, overthrew Caine and the 2nd Generation, and then were scattered when the Flood (again, as in Noah and Genesis) destroyed Enoch.  Those 3rd Generation vampires are known as the "Antediluvians" (literally, those before the Flood), and are the founders of the Clans, about which more in a bit.  Caine and the Antediluvians are truly mythological figures, treated in explicitly religious terms by some, and viewed as fictions by others.

Another core concept in Vampire: the Masquerade is the Beast.  A vampire is, unambiguously, a monster, expressed in both the fiction and the game mechanics as the Beast.  When a vampire is hungry, or is put into fear from fire or sunlight, or just gets angry, there is the possibility of slipping into Frenzy, which is basically what it sounds like.

As far as feeding on blood goes, one of the more engaging concepts is the idea of the Blood Bond.  Taking a drink of a vampire's blood creates an emotional connection to that vampire; take three drinks, and you are Blood Bound to the vampire.  This applies both to humans and vampires, and so Blood Bonds are a key element of vampire politics.  As I read it, to be Blood Bound is to be forced to love the vampire you took the drink from, and the implication is that on some level you know the love is fake, but it is nevertheless compelling.  It's also, by definition, entirely one-sided, as the party you love has no similar feelings for you (unless they too are Blood Bound).  This works for me on basically every level, as a metaphor for every kind of distorted and dysfunctional romantic or sexual relationship, as well as for addictions and compulsions of every sort.  And, since this plays on some of my personal fears and insecurities, I found this to be one of the most horrific ideas in the book. 

In terms of V20 specifically, all of this material is presented in an easily accessible form in Chapter 1.  There is a useful pull out box that talks about themes and mood, mixed in with the presentation of the lore itself.  There is a lot of terminology and concepts to take on board if you are unfamiliar with this material, but it is logically organized and easy to digest.  Speaking of terminology, I was a little surprised that I found the bespoke terms for common gaming terms (the gaming group is a "troupe," a campaign is a "chronicle," the GM is the "Storyteller," etc.) to be evocative and flavorful, as opposed to forced and affected.  This, I am certain, is a change from when I first encountered Vampire in the 90s.  I don't know--I think it sets a tone and expectation for the play experience in a subtle way.  It's a small thing, but it's fine.

It's also worth noting that if V20 is deeply immersed in the metaplot developments from the history of the line, I can't detect it.  I mention this because Mage: the Ascension puts the discussion of the metaplot developments front and center, whereas here, if it is there it is tucked deeply into the background.  For newbies, this is clearly to the benefit, as there is no confusion as to what the current state of things actually is.  That's not to say that there is not depth here--I felt like I had a solid sense of what was going on and who the major players were.  But it was also accessible for someone like me who was not deeply immersed in the lore already.

Clans and Sects
The political dimension of the game is set up on two axes, Clans and Sects.  The Clans (of which there are 13, plus some "bloodlines" in the Appendix which seem to be mini-Clans) are the heart of what attracts people to Vampire, as the Clans are generally speaking reflections of archetypes of vampire fiction.  So, you have punk, Lost Boys-style Brujah, the animalistic Gangrel, the Nosferatu from the classic 30s film of the same name, the beautiful people Toreador, the aristocratic manipulator Venture, the charmingly monstrous Tzimisce, and the darkly religious Lasombra.  These Clans with a clear theme and antecedent are great--very evocative, and easy to latch onto when developing character concepts.  Some of the other six, however, are interesting concepts but lack a clear thematic hook.  Vampire sorcerers (the Tremere) and crazy vampires (Malkavians) is OK, but not as flavorful as the others.  The remaining four are weird grab-bags of ethnic stereotypes and play concepts that don't really work for me.  I mean "what if the Mafia were also vampires, and also necromancers?" is too many moving parts to be a coherent idea, in my opinion.  There is also the trickster, Romani-associated Ravnos and the Islamic assassin (in both the original and modern meaning of the word) Assamites, both of which come pretty close to line of perpetuating problematic ethnic stereotypes.
The 13 Clans

Despite some missteps, there is a lot of good stuff here.  Most people, I suspect, resonate pretty quickly and strongly with one of the Clans, in a way that makes character creation, at least the conceptual part, easy.  [I always make a character when evaluating a new game system, and it didn't take long to come up with the Irish former priest of Clan Lasombra].  The Clans are different enough that there is going to be significant diversity of characters in a group, and with a few exceptions each of the Clans is broad enough to create space that characters are not going to be pigeon-holed into boring, predictable archetypes.  Though I suspect some of the 90s-era designers of Vampire would bristle at this, the Clans are basically character classes, and generally well-designed character classes.  And it works for all of the reasons that character class work in D&D and other similar games--it's a flavorable, easy to internalize hook for making a character.

As far as the Sects go, there are a couple of smaller ones that are given limited presentation, in the form of the enlightened, detached Inconnu and the conspiratorial Tal'Mahe'Ra.  But the groups that get the most presentation are the Camarilla, the Sabbat, and the Anarchs.  The Camarilla are the Establishment, trying to maintain a stable, quasi-feudal society of vampires while keeping the prying eyes of humans away from their activities.  This effort of secrecy is the titular Masquerade, and becomes the first and greatest commandment for the Camarilla.  By virtue of that focus on staying in the shadows of mortal society, the Camarilla promotes a dark mirror version of human virtues and morality (more on that in the mechanics section).  They also represent rigidity and stasis, as the leadership consists primarily of very old, and thus very powerful, vampires.  This represents a bit of a conundrum, especially as the Camarilla appears to be the default framing for campaigns. . . excuse me, chronicles.  Because of the power disparity between the folks running the Camarilla organization in a city and the PCs, it's going to be hard for the PCs to take over and run things, which is perhaps the most obvious premise for a chronicle.  The leadership in your city is The Man, and you are very much not, and so you are pretty much a permanent underclass.  That's certainly dark, and not inconsistent with the themes in the rest of the game, but I think it limits the creative freedom of the players and Storytellers.

On the flip side, you have the Sabbat.  They are organized around two big ideas--we have to kill the Antediluvians before they kill us, and being a vampire makes you a superior form of life to the mortals.  The Sabbat are, very explicitly, a religion in addition to a political faction, and are organized around a series of religious rituals (including one in which a group of vampires more or less Blood Bound themselves to each other to form cohesive strike teams).  They, too, have a hierarchical structure like the Camarilla, but it's a little more open and fluid than the Camarilla, providing more political opportunities for PCs.  The challenge, however, is that the Sabbat are not at all bound by any sort of human morality, and view mortals as animals to be exploited at will.  So, while the Sabbat present some interesting ideas, a Sabbat chronicle is likely to drift into some pretty brutal and morally challenging territory.

Finally, the Anarchs are the rebels, either trying to overthrow the Camarilla or Sabbat in their particular city, or having done so, trying to govern things on more egalitarian lines.  The Anarchs are the least clearly delineated of the Sects, but also the one that provides the most freedom of action for players and Storytellers.  This gets to one problem with the Sects--they are basically mutually exclusive, as the Camarilla and the Sabbat are at war, and the Anarchs are trying to overthrow both of them.  So, you basically have to pick one of the three as the basis for a particular chronicle, as they don't really work or play well together without some serious contrivances.  As a result, no matter which way you go, a big chunk of the material in V20 is going to be relegated to background or antagonists.

Art and Aesthetics
Probably the most famous of Bradstreet's
Vampire pieces
Vampire always had a distinctive visual look, defined by Timothy Bradstreet's pen and ink pieces.  Of late, I have become more plugged in to the way games communicate the ideas of the game via a unified visual approach--Fria Ligan is the current king of this.  But Vampire and the World of Darkness was ahead of the curve.

V20 blends three different visual approaches--Bradstreet-esque black-and-white pieces, digitally-altered photography, and some more standard painted pieces.  As to the third category, there is a piece on Page 2 of V20 (I couldn't find it on line, otherwise I would have included it here) that shows Caine killing Abel that I found to be particularly striking--it feels like a genuine piece of religious art.

I also really like the photography-based pieces.  They are recognizably grounded in photographs, but the filters made them walk the line between aged photographs and faded portraits.  There is something ethereal about them, and they fit the mood of the game perfectly (my favorite is the woman in red on Page 4 of the V20 book).

The bottom line is that it's a beautiful, evocative book, and it communicates what the game is about, and more importantly how it is supposed to make you feel.

OK, let's turn to the rules. 

How Dark Is The World of Darkness?, Part 2.2--Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition

Part 1 of this review was about lore, and this will be about rules and my overall thoughts.  As far as the rules go, it is probably worthwhile from the outset to articulate what the general objection to the design of Vampire and the other World of Darkness games is.

Vampire, says this critique, spends a great deal of time talking about and promising to deliver a deep immersive role-playing experience, in which the players explore what it means to be human as their characters lose their humanity.  But Vampire delivers little in the way of mechanical systems that actually create that sort of play experience.  Moreover, it doesn't seem to be mechanically trying to create a particular play experience at all, instead engaging in a kind of self-negation at every turn by telling the reader that the rules are not really all that important, and that they (especially the Storyteller) should throw them out at the first sign that they are not working.  This is, by this school of thought, bad game design, as the goal of ttrpg game design is to build a mechanical system that generates the play experience you want.  If you as the designer is not putting in the work to make the system do the thing you promise in the lore and fluff, then why am I paying you for your game design?

Having now gone through V20, I think this criticism is completely fair, but only insofar as you accept the underlying premises.  If you believe that the job of a game designer is to engineer a play experience at the table, then you will find lots in V20 that will leave you scratching you head.  But, having gone through the book, it is clear to me that V20 are working off of a very different set of goals and a very considered understanding of what it is doing.  It doesn't engineer the play experience because it is not trying to engineer the play experience, as part of an intentional design ethos, not because of incompetence or laziness.

At the beginning of the very short "Rules" section (Chapter 5), the designers lay down a very interesting marker for what the rules are there to do: "Game rules exist to impart a sense of fairness  among story participants."  As the section goes on, it becomes clear that the mechanical components of the game are there to do two things (1) inject fun uncertainty into the story (after all, rolling dice is fun); but primarily (2) to make sure that the players don't feel like outcomes are being rammed down their throat by the Storyteller.  On the next page, there is a discussion of the difference between an investigation scene (where the advice is to forego rolls and just hand out the clue a la GUMSHOE) and a combat scene (where players would likely be very unhappy if the Storyteller just dictated the outcome to the players).

I can't help but see the strong influence here of the massive LARP community surrounding Vampire, in which game rules primarily exist to adjudicate intra-player disputes or potential disputes.  Here, the game systems are really there to avoid or negotiate player vs. Storyteller problems.  In this light, the complaint that the rules of Vampire have a disproportionate focus on combat relative to its role in the lore comes into focus--there are lots of combat rules because combat is going to be a pain point and place for disputes.  Whereas, if the interaction can be resolved without rules engagement, and everyone is going to be OK with that, then it should be done so without rules engagement.  Rather than "say yes or roll the dice," the ethos here might be "come to group consensus over what is happening, or roll the dice."

None of this is likely to sway the people who believe the goal of ttrpg game design is to engineer a play experience.  But, to be honest, I found the approach set out in V20 to be something of a breath of fresh air.  Games, and especially those games informed by the broad "indie"/Forge tradition, have become hyper-focused on a specific play experience, and as a result become very narrow, and even a little overbearing.  As exciting as I found the ideas in the Powered by the Apocalypse games when I first encountered them five or so years ago (hence the title of the blog), I am finding them (especially in their more recent incarnations) to be confining, a bit too much of a straight-jacket for the players and especially for the GM.

I'm also thinking about the time Critical Role played Monsterhearts.  Mercer and the gang (or, at least, some of the gang and some other folks in the broader Critical Role orbit) did a one-shot of Monsterhearts last Valentine's Day, and there was some loud backlash in the fan community that Mercer "didn't play the game right."  And, I think on a strict reading of the rules of Monsterhearts, those critics were right.  Monsterhearts, maybe moreso than any other PbtA game, is very aggressive in pushing a very specific play style, with very specific play experiences and outcomes.  To pick one example that I think best reflects the game's ethos, by rule an NPC or other PC can cause a particular PC to be turned on, regardless of how the player running that PC thinks his or her or their character would react.  This is usually talked about with the idea that "by rule, everyone is bi," and that's true but it is much broader than that.

So, I think the people saying that Mercer was "doing it wrong" are right.  But, would "doing it right" have made the overall play experience better?  Everyone was really into their characters, and I thought the session was very entertaining.  I don't think anyone at that table needed any of the mechanical elements of Monsterhearts that Mercer et al. admittedly glossed over.  Watching that game made Monsterhearts feel over-engineered and over-determined, full of systems that aren't ultimately all that necessary, or at least not necessary with that group.

Maybe they would have been better off just playing Vampire.

The Basic Mechanics
V20, like all of the World of Darkness games, is a dice-pool system.  The trend in dice-pool systems appears to be toward fixed target numbers--you need to roll a certain number or better on each die, every time, with difficulty set by how many successes you need.  This is the approach taken by Fria Ligan's Year Zero engine, and it is also what Vampire 5th Edition goes with.  V20, however, sticks to its roots by keeping the variable target number model--difficulty is modeled by sliding the number you need to get on each die up or down (with 6, i.e. 50% chance of success, as the default).

I don't think the variable target number system is inherently more complex or difficult to internalize than fixed target number system.  I think the problem comes when you do both--where there are two different difficulty sliders (TN and # of successes) and the relationship between them is complex and/or opaque.  We will come back to this issue in a big way when we get to Mage: the Ascension, but here I will point out that V20 doesn't do much with number of successes except as a narrative device--one success is a "marginal" success, two is "moderate," etc.  Some specific abilities (especially the Disciplines) have fixed success-level scales that are pretty easy to apply, though you are likely to be referencing the chart pretty often.

Most rolls are a pool equal to Attribute + Ability (i.e. Talents, Skills, and Knowledges--Skills in other systems).  One of the better elements is the concept of Feats--specific combinations of an Atrribute+Ability, a difficulty, and an outcome for a particular game play scenario. So, there is a climbing feat, a pursuit feat, an awakening (meaning vampires waking up from sleep) feat, and about two dozen others.  This is conceptually much like Moves in PbtA games, in that it is a discrete, self contained mechanical system that is triggered by the fiction.  I like it, especially since the rules go out of their way to say that these are basically a cheat-sheet for the Storyteller, one that the Storyteller can always modify or ignore at will.

PCs have two resource pools--Blood points and Willpower points.  Willpower points are probably the closest to Hero points or Benes in other systems, and do big things like give you a bonus guaranteed success, or overcome a compulsion or derangement (which, given that this is Vampire, comes up a lot).  It's also worth noting, given the discussion of tying setting and roleplaying to mechanics, that one of the core ways to refresh Willpower is to take actions consistent with the PC's nature.  Blood points power Disciplines, and heal damage, and as you might expect are recovered by feeding on blood from humans (or, other vampires, though as discussed above that can be a risky move).  The pools are relatively small (5-10 for Willpower, up to the low teens for Blood pool), so they are not all that difficult for a player to manage.

One of the things that is noticeable from a brief look at the character sheet is that a Vampire character has a lot of stats and characteristics.  In addition to Attributes, Abilities, the Disciplines, and the Blood and Willpower pools, there are also Backgrounds (things like Status and [higher] Generation), Merits and Flaws, and Virtues.  The character sheet is very busy.  Here, though, I think the convention of expressing stats using dots as opposed to numbers actually works and pays off.   Yes, three dots is the same as a numerical 3, but if V20 and the World of Darkness games used numbers, the character sheet would like like an accounting ledger or lines of code.  I think the dots are more accessible and visually appealing.

Disciplines and Combat
Cool vampire powers are a big part of the appeal of playing a game like this, and the V20 book devotes almost 120 pages (a bit under 1/4th of its total length) to Disciplines.  The Disciplines are the definition of a mixed bag--some are very broad like Animalism (both controlling/manipulating animals and also the Beast), some very narrow like Serpentis (various snake-related powers).  Likewise, some of these Disciplines are associated with multiple Clans, and others are specific to the themes of a single Clan.  Each Discipline is rated on a scale of 1 to 10 dots (though, only 1 through 5 are accessible to PCs using the base rules), and each tier unlocks a new ability.

More importantly, given that there are 17 Disciplines and more than ten entries for each Discipline, the power levels and utility of the different powers are all over the map.  Many of the 6 to 10 dot powers are OP, but they are supposed to be kinda broken powers for antagonists, so that's OK.  The bigger problem is that you have to ascend the chain of each individual Discipline, so you have to spend points on some of the lamer powers to get to the good stuff.  It's also worth pointing out that a PC vampire is not likely to have the full range of Dracula's iconic abilities, as they are spread over multiple Disciplines that would take a a ton of experience points to gain.  Instead, PCs will have a couple of the Dracula tricks, or a group of PCs from multiple Clans will have all of the Dracula tricks collectively (and a few other weird ones thrown in).

As far as OP Disciplines go, let's talk about Celerity, which requires us first to talk about combat.  The combat system shows off the fact that this game is 30 years old.  I don't mean that in a dismissive way, and I don't even mean that the combat is bad; I mean that you can see that certain ideas have become ubiquitous in ttrpg design via their absence here.  For example, it's been a long time since I have seen a game that uses turn-based combat that doesn't use some variation of D&D 3rd edition (and its successors)'s "action economy," in which a character gets a hierarchical suite of actions on your turn that can be used for various purposes.  By contrast, in V20, the default notion is that on your turn you get to do one thing.  You can move, or your can defend, or you can attack.  If you want to do more than one thing, you have to "split your dice pool"--you must declare which actions you are taking, use the smallest pool of the selected actions, and then literally divide those dice between the various actions.  While this provides a lot of flexibility on a turn, splitting your dice pool is very punitive.

Celerity lets you add your dots in the Discipline to your Dexterity, which is good because Dexterity is going to be the base Attribute for most combat actions.  But, even better, you can spend a Blood point to convert one of those bonus dice into an extra action.  And, when you get that extra action, you don't have to split your dice pool between them, but you get full dice for each of them.  This is crazy good, and my brief internet research shows that this is toned down from the original presentation of Celerity.  To be fair, basically every ability in every game that allows you to break or bypass the action economy is OP, so it's not like this is some unique problem for V20.  And the number of extra actions is limited by the need to spend Blood points, so it's less broken than, say, wired reflexes in Shadowrun.  Still, it's hard to see how a vampire with Celerity isn't going to wipe the floor with non-Celerity opponents, unless the Celerity character is vastly outnumbered, as each Blood point spent with Celerity more or less doubles a character's dice pool.

Putting that issue aside, one thing about the combat rules is that they seem to play very fast.  Since each participant gets only one action, the round moves very quickly.  Plus, in something that surprised me when I saw it but I remembered was exactly the way it worked in then-contemporary AD&D 2nd Edition, you roll initiative each round and declare actions at the top of the turn.  All of this reinforces the speed at which combat is occurring, as well as pushing players to make choices for their PC as quickly as possible.  There is a frenetic quality to the combat, one that I think that fits well with the tone of the game--especially since combat is likely to be less frequent than in many ttrpgs.

Humanity and Paths
I should say up front that I am very uncomfortable with the idea of the GM/Storyteller grading the choices and roleplaying of the players and dealing out rewards and punishments based on his or her assessment of said roleplaying.  It feels to me like a power imbalance, as it's not like the players get to vote on how the GM/Storyteller is doing in playing the NPCs.  Plus, the GM has enough on his or her plate as it is, without having to take a discerning eye to the characterization of the players.  So, I don't like systems that require the GM to give out XP or Inspiration or what have you based on the players' choices and implementation of those choices.

So, I am not inclined to like the Humanity system.  The basic notion, set forth on page 309 of the V20 book, is "[w]henever a character takes an action that Storyteller decides is morally questionable, the character may suffer degeneration--a permanent loss of Humanity."  And then V20 doubles-down:

A Storyteller has carte blanche to monitor character morality in her chronicle.  This is a huge responsibility for the Storyteller, but one that ultimately makes for a great deal of tragedy and horror, as the characters gradually descend into a state of utter monstrosity though they desperately rail against it.  Storytellers, beware--players should never feel that you are screwing them out of Humanity, or consequently, their characters.  Use degeneration checks consistently but sparingly, lest the tragedy erode to an incessant series of failed rolls.

(Page 310).  Ehhh.  I get that moral degeneration is a key part of the themes of the game, but this is exactly the kind of power dynamics that make me uncomfortable.  On the flip side, it's presented as having such a central role in the game that there is a strong case for informed consent on the part of the players--if you agree to play V20, you are agreeing to let the Storyteller make those calls about your PC's moral choices, so you have no room to complain.

Mechanically, the degeneration rolls are tied to a Humanity scale of bad actions.  If the PC's action is below the PC's current Humanity rating on the scale, they have to make a Conscience check to avoid losing a point of Humanity.  This makes further degeneration less likely, but low Humanity has game mechanical effects--most importantly, it caps the rating of your PC's virtues, with means that Frenzys are going to be more likely.  This requires that the Storyteller keep track of all the PCs' Humanity ratings, in order to evaluate whether a particular action triggers a degeneration check.

Complicating things are the Paths.  Paths basically replace Humanity with an alternative moral scale, tied into a particular philosophical position held by the PC.  The Paths are conceptually interesting, in that they bring out some unique points-of-view that raise interesting roleplaying opportunities--the Path of Caine treats Caine as essentially the vampire Jesus, the Path of Cathari is actually a reversal of the views of the actual historical Cathars, etc.  The problems are two-fold.  First, the diversity of Paths means that the Storyteller has to keep track of multiple morality scales and the particular PC they are associated with if the PCs are part of different paths, which sounds like a nightmare (and something that I know myself well enough to know I would completely butcher).  Second, some of them are set up in a way that makes it hard for the PCs to violate, leading to what commentators have dubbed "Path of What I Was Going to Do Anyway."  Given how much the early part of the Morality chapter emphasizes the importance of these systems to gameplay, it's a little weird for players to be able to bypass the whole system with Path choices.

Does This Game Work for Me?
The short answer is yes, V20 works for me.  Themes that held no interest for me back in the 90s have much more resonance for me now.  In particular, I found the Caine framing myth to be very compelling, especially in the way it interfaces with theological considerations.  I won't get off on a tangent here, but the Cain and Abel story is a touchstone for Girardian-inspired approaches to Christianity (which is my primary approach to Christianity--you can read more on my other writing project).  So, the idea of Caine's curse as the foundation for corrupted civilization, violence, and exploitation is right up my alley now.  Sixteen year old me didn't really have any experience with obsession and distorted love, but now 42 year old me resonates much more with the ways you can explore the concept of the Blood Bond.  More generally, though, I think I'm less afraid of exploring dark themes and moods now than I was--and it feels genuinely dark, as opposed to performative and edgy-for-edgy's sake.  Maybe I just resonate better with what V20 is providing than I was before.

I also found the three page spread of testimonies about how Vampire affected their life to be compelling.  People clearly found community and safety and belonging from this game, and now reading the game, I get it.  In fact, it makes me a little bit wistful that I didn't try out this game and this community at the time when it was so big.  I absolutely looking for a place to belong and be accepted at that time, and I think if I were more open I might have found a positive experience.  Reading V20, I feel like I missed out on something.

As far as the rules go, I think they are perfectly serviceable.  I think the complaints about the game, while not unfounded, do not tell the full story.  The game makes some very intentional choices, and its systems are much more considered than the indie critique would suggest.  It's probably one standard deviation more complex than it needs to be, but it's not over-the-top or unplayable.  Moreover, it is designed in something of a modular fashion--you have a core, flexible dice system, some central mechanics, and then a series of take-it-or-leave-it systems that the Storyteller can add or ignore.  It doesn't do the things that a part of the ttrpg zeitgeist says games should do, but it works if you take it on its own terms and don't get bogged down in insisting that the game by "played according to the intention of the designers."  The designers intend you to use the rules as you need them; just do that.

V20 is an excellent compilation of a game that is a classic.  And, moreover, it deserves to be a classic.  I'm glad it's back.  If someone asked me to play V20, I would be in, no questions asked.  If someone asked me to run it, I would hesitate a little more, but I'm likely in if the group was all on the same wavelength.  Basically, I was wrong about this game.

Monday, March 16, 2020

How Dark Is the World of Darkness?, Part 1--Pre-Conceived Notions

Everyone, or at least everyone who is likely to be reading this post, is likely aware that Dungeons & Dragons is in the midst of a renaissance.  The renaissance has reached the consciousness of people who are not ttrpg fans, several of whom have mentioned it casually to me in various circumstances.  This D&D renaissance, one hopes, will lift ttrpgs as a whole, such that the benefits of it are not simply limited to those who are part of the Wizards of the Coast ecosystem.

Vampire: the Masquerade [5th Edition]
But, of late, I have also noticed that there is a discrete renaissance in another ttrpg--Vampire: the Masquerade.  In a way, this is perhaps not surprising, as Vampire is probably the second most popular, and second most important historically, tabletop RPG behind the collective versions of D&D.  If we are in the midst of a tabletop RPG renaissance (as opposed to simply a D&D revival), you would expect it to reach Vampire eventually.  But I think there are other factors in play.   One is the release of the 5th Edition of the game, which despite controversy has generated broadly positive reviews from what I can see.  Another is that its own "Critical Role"--a streaming game that showcases the ideas and style of the game in a stylish and accessible package--in the form of Geek & Sundry's LA By Night.

This rise has gotten me to re-examine my position on Vampire and the entire World of Darkness game line.  Despite getting into this hobby in the late 80s, I was never a big fan of Vampire, and was only somewhat more interested in the World of Darkness games.  The majority of that, I think, was where I was, and who I was, at the time.  With Vampire, I found the themes to be off-putting, but I think more importantly I found the aesthetic to be very off-putting.  Young me was desperate to fit in, to be seen as normal, and so the very intentionally outsider-ish and provocative posture of Vampire was the opposite of what I was looking for at the time.  I wasn't ready to be seen as any weirder than I already was, and so I avoided those spaces.  Now, with the benefit of being able to look back, I think I missed out on something that might have been very enjoyable, and even beneficial, to the person that I was at that time.  Be that as it may, I basically became convinced that I was not a "Vampire person," and maintained a healthy distance from the World of Darkness and especially Vampire.     

Vampire: the Masquerade
 [20th Anniversary Edition]
In the interim, there has been another layer of ttrpg discourse, one that asserts that the World of Darkness games are bad games.  The basic version of this argument is that World of Darkness games promise deep, character-driven play experiences, but don't provide sufficient mechanical support for that style of play.  Indeed, many of the folks in the "indie" ttrpg design space will point to Vampire and the other World of Darkness games as, while perhaps a step in the right direction, an example of what not to do.  And yet it certainly seems like the folks who have been playing these games have been having character-driven play experiences.  So, one of the things I would like to do is to dive into these games with the benefit of modern rpg design "tech" and concepts.  Maybe they will feel clunky and discordant, or maybe some of the negativity is overblown.

Finally, there is the thing that really hooked people on these games in the first place--the lore.  My perception is that the lore is perhaps second only to the aesthetic as the reason people get "hooked" on the World of Darkness games.  And these games had a lot of lore.  This lore was also, intentionally, something of a moving target, as the World of Darkness was firmly planted in the 90s ttrpg love affair with "metaplot."  For those who did not live and play games in those days of yore, the 90s was the apex of the idea that ttrpgs were about story, and designers understood stories move and progress.  As a result, ttrpg designers would release a game that would set out the lore of the game world, and then release supplements or adventures that would introduce events that would move things along and change the circumstances presented in the original book, often rather dramatically.  This ongoing story made up the "metaplot" of the game.  The concept of a metaplot has been essentially abandoned by the ttrpg world now, on the grounds that it makes it difficult to onboard new players and GMs ("yeah, I know it says in the core book that Mr. Jones is the Prince of this town, but as it turns out Mr. Jones is dead"), restricts GM freedom of action, and makes much of the books you buy retroactively out-of-date and useless.  But, in the 90s, everyone was doing it, not just White Wolf Publishing for the World of Darkness--TSR was particularly aggressive in adopting metaplot via its novel tie-ins for its D&D campaign worlds, making the Dark Sun boxed set out of date in less than a year.  So, I am interested to see what the lore and metaplot looks like now, after it has all been wrapped up.

Mage: the Ascension
[20th Anniversary Edition]
It will also be interesting to look at this lore on its own terms.  While many people passionately loved the World of Darkness lore, even at the time some people had complaints and problems about some of the material.  The World of Darkness was trying, I think, to be edgy, and being edgy is always a hit-or-miss proposition.  On the flip side, there were issues raised about the less-than-sensitive-and-aware treatment of religious and ethnic themes (I hear that the book on the Romani people, titled with a name that I believe is now considered a slur, is especially bad).  And then there might be stuff that just doesn't work anymore, or seems especially dated.  Because the World of Darkness and its corresponding lore was very unique at the time, I imagine that things that seemed creative and fresh in 1994 may not seem so in 2020.       

I want to figure all of this out.  As weird as it might be to "review" games that are as much as 30 years old, I am going to do a series on the World of Darkness games as they stand now.  At 16, in 1994, I decided that the World of Darkness was not for me, but how do I feel at 42, in 2020?  How do these games hold up, particularly in light of the changes to the approach to tabletop RPG design that have occurred in the intervening years (changes that, in many respects, were generated in reaction to the World of Darkness games)?  How does the lore land now?

To make this a little more coherent, I am going to limit my look to the three "core lines"--Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage.  Each of them have robust "20th Anniversary" editions that collate and streamline the original games, and my reviews are going to be working off of those texts.  I am also going to take a look at the Vampire 5th Edition book, since it is an attempt to repackage the material in a modern format.  In looking at these books, I'm going to focus on three things (1) do these games speak to me in a way that they didn't (or I wouldn't let them) when they first came out?; (2) how do the mechanics hold up in light of 25+ years of tabletop RPG design evolution (fun fact--when the 1st edition of Vampire came out, ttrpgs as a whole had barely existed for 15 years)?; and (3) how does the lore land in 2020--still edgy and fresh? cringeworthy?  blah?
Werewolf: the Apocalypse
[20th Anniversary Edition]

To that end, a brief note on terminology.  In 2004, White Wolf "rebooted" all of their game lines with a revised rule system and (more importantly, given the nature of these games) new lore.  This "new" World of Darkness has become officially known now as the "Chronicles of Darkness," as distinct from the original [old] World of Darkness.  I have even less familiarity with the Chronicles of Darkness games than I do with the World of Darkness--I played two sessions in a Changeling: the Lost game almost 10 years ago, and that's it (verdict--genuinely creepy and disturbing, would play again with a good GM/Storyteller).  I hope to take a look at the core games of the Chronicles of Darkness--Vampire: the Requiem, Werewolf: the Forsaken, and Mage: the Awakening--at some point, but definitely after taking a full look at the World of Darkness games.  And, to keep things from becoming impenetrable, when I refer to "the World of Darkness" in this series, I am only talking about the pre-2004 games and those games who are derived or share setting with the pre-2004 games (i.e. the new edition of Vampire)--not the Chronicles of Darkness.

Part of me wants to start with Mage, as (despite my anti-World of Darkness attitude back in the day) I always thought the lore of Mage was very engaging.  But it seems silly not to start with Vampire, which is really the jewel in the crown of the World of Darkness.  So, I think the order is going to be Vampire [20th Anniversary], Mage, Werewolf, and then the new Vampire.  So, let's get to it.