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Minireview: Chicago By Night (Vampire: the Masquerade)

Chicago By Night was one of the earliest sourcebooks for the first edition of Vampire: the Masquerade, and it shows – not necessarily in a bad way, though. While the art is hit-and-miss and the layout is somewhat primitive, the content itself is pretty damn good. Some of it’s cliché, but in a strange way: this is actually the book that gave birth to many of Vampire’s clichés. Ancient Methuselahs slumbering beneath a city and controlling what happens while waging an ancient war against each other, a Prince whose rule is constrained by a strong Primogen group, the Nosferatu who knows much of what is going on (but won’t tell)… the list goes on. Many games (both tabletop and LARP) have copied the elements presented here, because they are quite interesting. Until they get overused, of course.

I’ve only read this now, and not when it was first published in 1991, so I can’t totally gauge the impact that this book (and the game itself) had when it first came out. While it’s a “classic” game now, at the time it was quite different to what was on the market. It emphasized social interaction instead of combat, it spent page count on description and atmosphere instead of raw mechanics or stat blocks, and in general it was just…. different. It also attracted some new audience to roleplaying games, some of them even (gasp!) female.

Onward to the book itself. As one might imagine, it’s a city setting for the game, using a World of Darkness version of modern Chicago as the base for a large population of vampires. The structure of the book is interesting, and quite different to what was the norm back then (and the norms even now, to a large extent). It spends quite little page count in describing the city itself; that’s one of the benefits of using a modern, existing city as your base model. The bulk of the page count goes towards describing the inhabitants, with pictures and descriptions of a huge menagerie of Kindred. Again, this highlights the game’s focus on social interaction and politics. I was quite surprised as how little stereotyping I found here. While there are some “Clan stereotypes” here and there, most of the NPCs are anything but, and most are quite interesting. Also included are lots of diagrams showing the interactions between the different social groups, and also their internal politics. The book wraps up with some story hooks, but it’s almost an afterthought, this book is clearly meant to be used as a “social sandbox” to dump the PCs into, sink or swim.

I was quite impressed by this book, all in all. Considering its age, I wasn’t expecting anything all that great, in fact I expected to find a ton of silly stereotypes. I (mostly) didn’t get that. Sure, there are the occasional slightly silly bits, but a lot less than I expected.

As an aside, many of the small details here are interesting from a game history point of view. I haven’t read the first edition of Vampire so I’m not sure how that book presents things, but from reading this you get the impression that many things that later became Camarilla staples are here presented as Chicago-specific oddities. The concept of Elysium is presented as something weird that that was imported here by the whim of the Prince, the setup where a strong Primogen constrains the Prince’s actions is presented as something strange and unusual… in fact, the whole concept of the Primogen is presented as somewhat of an oddity. I have no idea if these were things that later evolved into the game’s basic features or if some of the material here is just confusingly presented (and/or the writers were still figuring out the game). It doesn’t really matter which, but I have to admit I found this model to be somewhat more interesting than the “standard Camarilla” which became a bit too much of a uniculture for my tastes later on. Here, you get the impression that each city is very different, completely depending on the whims of its vamipiric ruler, and the Camarilla itself doesn’t exert much direct control.

Of course, the book does contain some of the more annoying traits of the game line, leading with the idea that whatever happened at whatever point in history, “vampires did it”. The concept of ancient immortals controlling modern society is interesting, and was new(ish) when the game was first published, but at times they want way overboard with it, especially in the early days. Oh, and the book also contains a vampiric Al Capone. For some reason, it’s a lot less silly that it might seem, maybe because he’s decently written into the game and makes some sort of sense. Still a bit silly, though.

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