Thursday, January 12, 2017

Revisiting a Classic 2 - Vampire: The Masquerade (First German Edition, 1993)

Vampire: tM has been HUGE in the 90s and when the German translation of it hit the shelves (the second English had been the first German ...), I was no different than many, many others. We played it for a while and then stopped. Now, 20 years later, I take another look at those books to find out ... well, to find out what I'll find out. Spoiler: it's more different than we played it back then and way more "old school" than most of the old school today. This is Part 2.

New to this series? Here's Part 1!

Second things second ...

Did Vampire fail as a game because it succeeded as a business model? Is this even the proper line of inquiry? I don't know. What I know is that I lost interest in the White Wolf splat book orgy way before I lost interest in the game. I mean, it had been kind of insane, right? V:tM 2e (English version) saw 57 publications between 1992 and 1998. And that's just classic Vampire! There'd been several other lines, Werwolf: The Apocalypse being the strongest among them (I think).

Then they revised it in '98, published and re-published it all until they actually discontinued the whole thing in 2004 ... to start the franchise completely anew the same year and revive the "classic World of Darkness" (cWoD, not oWoD as I wrote in Part 1) again in 2011. Sheesh, that's a lot of canon. No 2 (c)WoD group ended up with the same game, for one reason or another.

Add discrepancies between the different rule sets and the lack of compatibility that came with it and you have a beautiful mix for all kinds of edition wars, splat book wars, variant wars ... So boring. You invest hundreds and thousands of credits into a game, just to start from the beginning every 6-something years, you make it your own every time and then you fight for it because you want to be more right about your decisions than others. Sounds very much like the D&D publication history, right? Still don't see the appeal.

Once a year in Leipzig ... the WGT! [source]
Anyway, the World of Darkness was a phenomenon and made lots of people earn a decent buck. So many, in fact, that the game is still running strong today. At least where I live (Leipzig, home of the famous WGT - Wave Gotik Treffen) and on several strong communities all over the internet. Add PoD for almost the whole product catalog and high availability (most local game stores will have some of it or can order more quite fast, amazon has a decent selection, lots of cheap used books and so on ...).

Well, they couldn't have known in the beginning. The 2nd English edition was published just one year after the first edition and the German translations had been even more behind, which left the game quite, let's say, innocent and untouched from all the bloat that was about to follow. Back then we didn't draw as much inspiration from the World of Darkness as we'd get from movies like Interview with a Vampire and The Lost Boys or comics like Preacher ...

Actually, I think it's safe to say that they hit a nerve with their game. Urban Fantasy was already in the gaming subconscious in the 90s and is still running strong today. White Wolf managed, if nothing else, to constantly add to that some way or another. They still do. As a matter of fact, I just saw a huge part of the SyFy series The Magicians and it's a picture book Mage: The Ascension campaign (without being associated with WoD).

That's why it worked for me back then and still kind of does today. But back to the book ...

BOOK 1 - The Riddle

Chapter 1: Introduction

The introduction chapter is remarkable for a couple of reasons. Of course you get the basic "what is role playing"-part and there are some words on the position of the storyteller and the players. All of it is written as if the reader is completely new to the hobby, building references to the nature of the game and about telling stories in general through common denominators like playing cops and robbers or board games. That's one way to do it and, as such, completely unremarkable.

Where it gets interesting is as soon as they finished talking about characters and describe what a "Brut" is (English equivalent seems to be the "coterie" or pack the characters form). It actually becomes part of the "hierarchy" implicit in the games structure that is: storyteller - players - characters - group.

That is something you see rarely (and I think something White Wolf than dismissed at least for the revision) and I think it's a good thing. Role playing is not only a bout playing a character, it's about playing a character that needs to function in a group. It's the first time they make that point in the book and pretty early established, at that. We will encounter this again later.

Another great piece from the book
by Tim Bradstreet [source
Another thing the introduction does, is explaining some core terminology of the game. Interestingly enough, this is solely focused on becoming a Vampire and what that means, which then, in conjunction with a few sentences about the winning or losing in Vampire, ends the whole affair with the spirit of the game: what's it like to be a Vampire.

I think this is nicely done, leading the reader from having no idea to knowing the gist of it without already overloading it with choices or details. The only thing I felt a bit out of place here were the parts about Vampire LARP, but I guess it's fair to mention it here, as it gets a little bit more detail later in the book.

Prepared like that, we can dive into the World of Darkness as a setting in the next chapter ...

Chapter 2: Scenery

The World of Darkness is a Gothik Punk setting and we get to read about that, true to the introduction, through the eyes of a Vampire. This is the first impression we get. A transition from our world to that much darker and scarier counterpart of that world, where Vampires actually exist. Streets full of blood, corrupt politics, decline of western culture, overpopulation, all that experienced in an endless night and trapped in the cities because creatures more dangerous than vampires wait outside the city limits. Horrors facing horrors.

It's a nice blend, ending with the idea that Vampires try to keep as much humanity as possible to keep sane in a cruel world, before we dive into the World of Darkness proper and learn about the social hierarchy of the Vampire society. This is still keeping on the surface, but we get an idea how old Vampires could really be, like biblical old. And it introduces the concept of a "prince", something almost every city will have in one form or another.

That's what Gothik Punk is nowadays: a fashion statement ... ah, well,
can't make that shit up [source]
Again, I admire the structure here. After introducing a couple of new terms, we go back to Vampire politics and intrigue, which then leads to the necessity of rules for a Vampire society and introduces the Traditions, the rules enforced on most Vampires and what happens to those who break them. A good example how a setting informs a style of play, hierarchy and plot before the rules.

Next we learn about different Vampire sects, Camarilla, Sabbat, Inconnu and all those different political groups and their ideas. This slowly gets more and more detailed, going slowly from the outside to the core, conveying general knowledge to allow a reader seeing how it all connects.

The next part is, consequently, about the different clans and their origins. A nice twist here that this introduction really is about the origins of the clans instead being about what you could be playing. So the learn here that the Brujah had actually been guardians of knowledge before they fell from grace and ended up in the desolate state they are when we enter the game.

The way this is set up, a reader will have to wonder what of it is true and what kind of scheme is behind all of it. Why are the Brujah held in this state of desolation? Is it all a big scam from one of the old ones? Part of the Djihad? I found it very inspiring. You get just enough pieces of the whole to wonder what it all might mean. That's good writing.

This is a meaty chapter and before it really goes into detail about the generations and origins of Vampires, we also get to read about lesser clans and other oppositions, like werewolves and witch hunters. It all sums up to a quite delicious Urban Fantasy mix and it makes quite clear that the Vampire characters players will get to play are monsters, for sure, but very low in the food chain.

The end of this chapter is a lexicon not of game terms but of slang terms, used by Vampires and divided between general terms, old terms and slang. I love that. The idea is that you can get a sense of a Vampire age by the language he uses, which is solid advice to begin with, but getting that close a look into the culture at this point is just gold. I really enjoyed reading this although it's basically a list of entries with short explanations.

Chapter 3: Storytelling

Notice the pattern here? After getting a head full of ideas and concepts, the next thing you'll read (when reading it in order) will be about how to make a story for the game out of it. Still no rules, just a world, a couple of ideas and some basic structure to get them told. That's what I'm talking about. The book is taking the reader/storyteller by the hand, teaching basic knowledge about the craft before anything else and it's about telling good stories.

Role playing games being a medium with it's own set of peculiarities (compared to books or movies or what have you), this whole chapter is a lot about the dynamics between storyteller, players and the rules and the things you have to consider when telling a story in a role playing environment. It's all solid advice.

Actually, I had been a bit afraid encountering the tendency I've seen in other storyteller games, where the story always trumps the rules (which always means that storytellers should ignore die results that harm the story, like a character dying, for instance). But no, they actually say that you have to find your own way handling it, but ignoring bad die results because they might hurt the story, will hurt the game instead in the long run. So what a good storyteller does, is finding a way to make the result work despite the bad consequences.

This doesn't mean the rules have to be obeyed by the letter, but the storyteller will always have the last word (which is good), he just should consider the implications if he openly ignores the rules to change some outcome (which is true).

This chapter also talks about different player motivations to participate in a role playing game, about storytelling techniques, in general and advanced, gets a bit more specific about LARPing Vampire and how important props and the right surroundings are for the game's atmosphere (never play during daylight hours, use lots of candles ...) and has a nice list of do's and don't's.

At the end we get an excerpt from the Book of Nod about the biblical origin of the Vampires in the cWoD.

And that's the first three chapters (or 75 pages) of the book. I'll say it again, this is good writing and a great introduction. It leaves the mind spinning with possibilities and ideas while establishing all the pieces necessary for the game. At this point someone aiming to be the storyteller of a Vampire campaign, might already have a general concept or idea what he'd or she'd like to do and how. I think that's impressive.
The kind of story* I had in mind in the 90s ... [source]
It really shines with it's general advice. I mentioned at the beginning of Part 1 that this game really informed how I DMed all my later games and this is why. You don't get that by reading the Rules Cyclopedia and I don't know about any game before Vampire that explained role playing the way Vampire did (if you know one, please share in the comments!). If you read a bit on my blog, you'll know it all had a lasting impression on me.

Part 3 will be about BOOK 2 -The Becoming

After reading about a quarter of the book, we finally get a glimpse of the rules. Just the basics, really. And then we get to make characters and plan proper campaigns in the cWoD. All this will be discussed in Part 3, of course. In the near future (I might mix it up a little and write about something else in the meantime ... let's see how people take it).

I have to say, I enjoy good old Vampire a great deal more than I should. Already have an idea for a campaign, too. Well, maybe I'll make a final post with a campaign hook and all the ideas I have collected so far. We'll see.

When writing this and doing the research, I found out that they changed a lot with the revision of the rules in '98 and I started to wonder at what point people entered the game and which editions they read or what their impressions had been. Is there a huge difference to what I described here? I'd be happy to hear some thoughts on that, if someone is willing to share!

* I mean the Preacher comic, of course, which I was a huge fan of back then. A Vampire, a preacher and an assassin go into a bar ... never gets old. Was the source for some great stories, too. I just got to re-read it and I have to say, it's still fun (just not very pc ...). Btw, ignore the tv show. It has nothing to do with the comic. Nothing.

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