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Minireview: The Strix Chronicle Anthology (Vampire: the Requiem)

“The owls are not what they seem:”

Yes, that’s Twin Peaks, not Vampire, but it applies here too.

The Strix are one of the creepier elements in the new Vampire game line. While the game originally featured VII in the “sinister threat” category, that group (or whatever it is) was left so vague that it became a bit toothless. Enter the Strix, first described in the Requiem for Rome book. Probably responsible for the destruction of the Julii clan, these creatures are scary as hell, much because they are both a concrete threat and a big unknown. Maybe spirits, maybe not, and apparently linked to owls, they are smart, vicious, sadistic and they hate vampires. Why? Nobody knows. They can posses vampires and act as uber-predators – and in the game world, having something hunt them, the self-styled hunters of humans, is deeply unnerving to vampires. Additionally, it seems to be personal; vampires hunt humans for food, but the Strix hunt vampires because they hate their guts and want to cause misery and destruction.

I gather the Strix have been described somewhat more in other sourcebooks, but I haven’t read those yet. Most notably, the new Strix Chronicle sourcebook features a campaign framework based around them (haven’t read that yet, either). This book, The Strix Chronicle Anthology, is an anthology of stories based on the Strix – or, more exactly, on vampires encountering the Strix.

It’s a good collection. Most of the stories are remarkably good, and many are quite suitably creepy. Some of the standouts are Greg Stolze’s “Four Years, Old John”, which features some characters familiar from the Chicago books, and Joshua Alan Doetsch’s “Lullay, Lullay”, which only has the Strix in the sidelines, with the spotlight on the relationship between a (surrogate) father and his “little girl” (who only has bare shreds of humanity left). Oh, and Eddy Webb’s “Second Chance”, which features a vampire forced to solve a mystery… and lots of twists. Not all that many happy stories here, which suits the main theme. The Strix are not happy campers. The owls want blood.

As far as “gaming fiction” goes, this is a top-notch collection.

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Minireview: Dust To Dust (Vampire: the Masquerade)

What a difference 20 years makes. While the original Ashes To Ashes scenario wasn’t too horrible, it did partly suffer from the railroading that plagued most White Wolf modules and had the PCs being manipulated by forced they had no control over. Dust To Dust is a (very loose) sequel, written for the 20th Anniversary edition of Vampire, and using White Wolf/Onyx Path’s “SAS” format. It’s both a very good module in its own right, and it also showcases how far White Wolf (well, Onyx Path nowadays) have come over the years as far as scenario design goes.

The story is set in Gary, Indiana, which completes the circle in a way; Gary was the original home of the Neonate PCs in Ashes To Ashes even though the city itself did not feature there (it was briefly detailed in the original first edition Vampire and its intro adventure, which transitions into Ashes). It’s set more or less in the modern day, which doesn’t stop it from being a sequel, even a direct one, to Ashes – 20 years is nothing to vampires. That said, the assumption here is that the PCs will not be the same ones you may have used in the earlier adventures.

The theme here is urban decay and obsolescence, and its mirrored effects on vampires. While never being an important Kindred city, in older times Gary was semi-popular because it game some Kindred, especially the Anarchs, a safe-ish haven from Prince Lodin’s rule. In particular, it gave them a place where they could sire new vampires without fear of deadly retaliation. Now, with Lodin long dead, that reason has vanished and with it the lure of Gary itself. The city is slowly dying in the mortal world and also in the world of the Kindred; most have moved on, and only the die-hards are left, bickering over scraps left over. Prince Modius still “rules”, but there is precious little left for him to rule. Juggler still opposes him, but there also it’s more out of old antagonistic habit than anything else, his own schemes of turning Gary into an Anarch stronghold having failed over and over again.

Into this graveyard of past ambitions stumble the PCs, along with a few other NPCs with agendas. Before long, life and unlife in Gary will become a lot more interesting, if only for a passing instant.

This is one of the better pre-generated adventures for Vampire that I’ve read to date. Granted, that’s not a high bar, but still: this is good stuff. The PCs have full freedom of choosing alliances, there are multiple scheming parties with (partially) conflicting agendas, there’s an interesting but reasonably low-power main antagonist, and the main end scene has the potential for devolving into awesome chaos. The NPCs are interesting, especially since some of them are still intent on seizing their former glory, and the GM has the option of running this after Ashes To Ashes for a really nice “before and after” look at Chicago and Gary.

My only real complaint is the cover art: a badly pixelated image of the town seal (I presume), which really doesn’t do this one justice, especially since a lot of the interior (full-color) art is very good. There’s also one visiting NPC who is a bit superfluous to the main plot, and may just be a jarring distraction. On the other hand, he’s very easy to trim from the story, if required.

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Minireview: Ashes To Ashes (Vampire: the Masquerade)

Ashes To Ashes is one of the first books in the original Vampire: the Masquerade game line, predating even the old venerable Chicago By Night tome (even though it takes place in Chicago). It’s an adventure module, continuing the starter adventure in the 1st edition Vampire core book. I haven’t read that one, but apparently it sets up the PCs as Neonates in Gary, Indiana, under the rule of Prince Modius. The PCs happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and are sent off to Chicago to present themselves to Prince Lodin… at which point we transition to this story.

Turns out that Prince Lodin has vanished (it takes the PCs a while to get this information, because they will get a run-around from various personages in the city), and the PCs are prime candidates for being set up as patsies for the disappearance. So, naturally enough, they get an offer of finding the Prince… or else.

While there are some railroaded bits, it’s surprisingly free-form for an early White Wolf adventure. The PCs have quite a bit of leeway in how they’ll approach things and who they’ll ally with, and in addition they get more than a few red herrings thrown at them – not everything and everyone here is what or who they seem. There’s a bit of combat, but the emphasis is on social stuff and investigation. The general theme here is “someone else is pulling the strings”, and the adventure mostly manages to pull that off without too much railroad (something many other adventures in the game line fail miserably at). Sure, having the PCs tangle in the vanishing/death of a Prince is a bit of a cliché here, but on the other hand this is the first time they did it so I can’t blame this book.

My main complaint would be that the back story runs the danger of staying quite opaque to the PCs/players, unless the GM injects some awkward exposition at some point. There are lots of plot points that the PCs will probably never figure out, as written. To the module’s credit, it does have the (somewhat unusual) mechanism of providing a secondary story, where the PCs can play the part of the antagonist(s), set in an earlier time – this is intended as a way of explaining the why and the what of things. As such it’s a fun idea, but I’m not sure how many GMs/groups will feel like actually doing that.

Overall, not bad at all. Better that had reason to expect, given WW’s abysmal record with things like this. If run successfully, it sets the PCs up as residents of Chicago, with some new allies (and, probably, enemies) and a small amount of local fame. There is one caveat here: the adventure doesn’t railroad the PCs rescuing the Prince, it’s quite possible they’ll fail. This will immediately segue into the later version of Chicago as presented in the 2nd edition of Chicago By Night, because canonically Lodin is supposed to die later (in Under a Blood Red Moon).

There’s a bit of overlap between this book and Chicago By Night, because the Chicago setting book was published after this, but it’s not too bad.

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Minireview: Milwaukee by Night (Vampire: the Masquerade)

Milwaukee by Night sounds almost like a comedy title, compared to the iconic old Chicago by Night… but it’s not, it’s a companion product of sorts to the Chicago book (which also references Gary, another city located on the shores of Lake Michigan). Here, Milwaukee is an isolated city; geographically not that far from Chicago, but surrounded by hostile country (to vampires) patrolled by werewolves. This makes is a great setting in combination with the old Chicago/Gary pair: close enough to make it plausible that the PCs move to/from the place, but difficult enough to access that the move is never trivial.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first one mirrors the Chicago book, though with a smaller page count. It describes the city in very general terms, and the local inhabitants and politics in much more detail. The basic setup is quite interesting; though there is again a grudge match between two ancient vampires going on in the background, unlike Chicago these aren’t godlike Methuselahs but “just” old vampires. In general, the power level is much toned down, and PCs have a lot more wriggle room – there is less of the “ancients control everything” vibe going on here. As written, the city is overcrowded (vampirically) due to the (ex)Prince’s lax laws, and is also now without a Prince – how that happens is detailed in the second half of the book. Overcrowded, surrounded by werewolves, no Prince and chaotic political situation… sounds great, in terms of story potential. And it is, to a large extent.

The second half of the book is an adventure module / minicampaign, titled “Psychomachia”. It starts with the PCs getting “recruited” to help out Prince Terence Merik as a special task force: the Prince’s wife is missing, possibly kidnapped, and the Prince desperately wants her back. Enter a bunch of expendable dupes, “willing” to help out. Well, perhaps genuinely willing, since the Prince does offer them some nice perks, especially nice if they are just neonates. In any case, the PCs go off to investigate and stuff happens. Lots of bad, confusing, violent stuff. And werewolves too.

I’m hesitant to say too much about the adventure, since it contains a few twists which are actually very cool, and there is still a non-zero chance that someone may want to run this. I’ll just say that the adventure is a mixed bag. It has some very nice scenes and ideas, which read like they could be a lot of fun. It also puts the PCs at least somewhat in the center of action. On the minus side, it’s at times quite railroaded (as White Wolf modules tend to be), and has lots of critical points where something is just expected to happen, with no ideas of what to do if it doesn’t. In other words, this one needs a careful GM touch and some extra work. It also features multiple fights which the PCs are expected to lose, this may not sit well with players. All that said, I do think this one may be worth running, the plot twists are (possibly) worth the effort and some of the scenes are very creative (in a good way).

Overall, I liked this. I think Milwaukee as presented here is actually a better starting point that the “classic” Chicago; there’s less elder-driven stasis and much more opportunity for Neonates, and the chaotic politics together with the werewolf threat makes for lots of plot potential. In addition, the included adventure is actually not bad at all. Well, for a White Wolf adventure anyway. It does need some work.

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Minireview: Blood Bond (Vampire: the Masquerade)

White Wolf’s adventure modules have a poor reputation, and it’s mostly deserved. For every one that is interesting and at least somewhat well-written, you get five that are horrendous railroaded abominations. Blood Bond, one of the earliest ones, belongs firmly in the “abomination” category. It manages to showcase almost all of the bad things about a White Wolf module.

The story is set in Chicago, the signature city of the original Vampire, and concerns one of Prince Lodin’s trusted lieutenants, Neally Edwards (first encountered in Chicago By Night). The PCs get caught up in the story of his slow degeneration and fall from grace… and cannot do much anything except act as spectators. As an added bonus, the backstory is mostly opaque to the PCs, needing lots of bad exposition from key NPCs. This whole “watch NPCs do stuff without any say in events” is a signature feature of most bad WW modules.

There is some good here. The backstory is decent – though, as noted, is not really made clear to the PCs in any interesting way. Also, the plot is stretched out over time; the intention is that other game events happen between scenes here. That’s a decent design, and lets the GM place this in a story more organically.

…assuming any GM wants to run this, which I soundly recommend against. It’s a mess. The way a Blood Bond functions in this module is totally bizarre and contradicts much other information in the game. For example. at one point a key NPC Blood Bonds another NPCs, and then proceeds to remote-control him to do horrible things… because Blood Bond! Huh? To be fair, it’s a Sabbat Blood Bond, and the Sabbat here are very very different from what they later become, and maybe the writer thought this was some weird Sabbat mystic shit. If so, it’s never clarified, the text just says this happens because of the Blood Bond. Oh, and the whole thing assumes the PCs are Anarchs and/or hostile to the “administration”, and are quite willing to do things like go joyriding with the Sabbat just for fun. It’s also assumed that at least one of the PCs falls madly in lust with a certain ghoul. Because.. plot! The list of “huh?” things goes on and on, and some of the bits just make no sense at all – at times because of shoddy proofreading.

This is worth reading for humor value if you’re a WoD fan. Otherwise, avoid.

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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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Minireview: Children of the Revolution (Vampire: the Masquerade)

Children of the Revolution is the third Kickstarter-backed new book for Vampire: the Masquerade from Onyx Path. While not without its faults, it’s vastly superior to the V20 Companion book, in that it actually has interesting content. It’s modeled after the classic Kindred Most Wanted and Children of the Inquisition books – “coffee table” books which detail a number of Kindred (with a certain theme), with full-page artwork for each one, a reasonably detailed history, and game stats. Like the earlier books, this is mostly for background color in the game world, though some GMs may want to use some of these characters as-is.

So, since it’s a big catalog of NPCs (18 in all), it lives or dies based on the strength of the characters. On that basis, this book partly succeeds and partly fails; some of the characters are quite interesting and avoid easy stereotypes, while a few are particularly poor (including one fairly silly “Dread Pirate Roberts” wannabe). The characters are quite varied, which is a bonus. Some are young Neonates, while others are truly ancient creatures. The theme of “revolution” is used here as a basis for selecting the characters, and while it’s easy to see in some cases (a young ex-Occupy Wall Street protester), it’s vague to the point of invisibility in others.

The art is mostly high quality, and the layout is quite pleasant. While the characters themselves are of mixed quality, the writing itself is perfectly competent and usually engaging. In the end, this is a decent book; an interesting read if you’re into old WoD metaplot and back story or if you’re a GM looking for ready-to-use NPCs.

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Minireview: V20 Companion (Vampire: the Masquerade)

V20 Companion is an add-on book for the (fantastic) Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary edition (V20 for short), consisting of add-on material which didn’t fit in that already huge tome. While intentions were good here, the end result leaves something to be desired. The biggest problem is: there’s simply not much here. At 80 pages it’s a very thin book, and to add insult to injury only some of the material is new and interesting. Furthermore, there are way too many wasted pages here, reducing the actual content even further. Looking at price per content ratio, this book isn’t really a “recommended buy”.

That’s not to say it’s a total waste. The layout and are is very nice, and the content is competently written as such. The first half of the book is a re-examination of the title and boon system in the Vampire world – all fine and good, but much of this was already familiar to GMs and players, and while having it in one place is nice, it doesn’t really warrant taking up half of this book. Additionally, the new details (being able to buy titles with experience, for example) do not sound like awesome ideas considering how this game is usually played.

The second half of the book is better. First off there’s an examination of (high) technology and the Kindred, which is a subject that tends to come up in games quite a bit. A lot of interesting discussion here, including various reasons why older vampires do not use high tech to any great capacity (beyond just “they are stuck in their ways”, though that is a big part of it). This section is easily the best part of the book. After that we get a section on international (read: non-US) interesting locations in the game world. While a nice idea, the allowed page count only gives room for a couple of paragraphs per location, much too little to really do more than mention major details. This section is something that would work much better as a standalone book, with enough room to examine the various locales in detail.

Last off, there’s a short appendix consisting of things that were cut from the book (in general detail) and the reasons why. Now, this section simply makes no sense. In a book already starved for page count, we get multiple things dedicated to stuff that, while interesting, would be better served as a blog post? Meh.

In the end, while it’s a pretty book and is does have some interesting discussion in it, I cannot really recommend this. It’s very, very light on actual content, and is a bit of a rip-off when you consider the price and the page count. Pity.

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Minireview: Rites of the Dragon (Vampire: the Requiem)

Rites of the Dragon is both a piece of fiction set in the Vampire: the Requiem game world, and a possible in-game artifact. In the first role it’s only so-so, someone reading thing with no background information about the game won’t get much out of it – it’s basically a quick-read variant of the old Dracula myth, as narrated by Dracula himself. As an in-game artifact it works better: this book also outlines the source of the philosophy of the Ordo Dracul (which claims Dracula as its founder) and something like this might well be something that is given out to new recruits as background. To help reinforce this notion, the book has a fancy felt cover and is in a smaller format, looking more like a “normal” book than a “game book”.

It’s not the first time White Wolf has done this, of course. The new Vampire also has The Testament of Longinus which is the counterpart for the Lancea Sanctum, and the old Vampire had lots of similar books, starting with the old Book of Nod. It’s a fun concept.

The tale itself is nothing spectacular. We’re given a bit more background on how the Ordo came to be (well, supposedly anyway) and on some of the other leaders of the Order. There are some fun historical bits, but in the end, this is very lightweight stuff and it’s a quick read; the word count is quite low and there are plenty of pictures. Still, it’s a moderately entertaining expansion on the game background.

In the end, this book really isn’t worth the high(ish) asking price, unless you really want this for an in-game prop in a LARP or some such (in which role it’s great). That’s not to say that it’s a bad book; it’s worth a read if you’re interested in the game and can get hold of a copy for a lower price.

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Minireview: Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition

I’ve written before about the genesis of Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition, so I won’t reiterate much of that here. Long pre-order period, original one-volume luxury edition only available for people who pre-ordered (or attended the Grand Masquerade in person), etc etc. Now that I actually have the book and have read it, I’ll start with this: the book is absolutely gorgeous, it’s probably the fanciest and more impressive rpg book I own currently. It’s also huge.

The book is now also available via DriveThruRPG’s print-on-demand (“Now In Print”) scheme, though the cover there is a normal book cover and not the embossed faux-leather used here. The black & white edition is available as one volume , while the color version is split into two tomes because of print-technical reasons. If you want a one-volume full-color edition… too bad. You can’t have my copy, so eBay is your best bet. Be prepared to pay mucho cash. I do suggest you get the color version, even if it is two separate volumes, since there’s a lot of beautiful new full-color art here.

Enough about the physical presentation, what about the content? Well, I’m happy to report that it’s also fantastic. They’ve taken the whole Masquerade core, updated and totally revised it, and then added similarly updated and revised versions of Sabbat and most independent clans there. All Disciplines (including very weird and rare bloodline disciplines) are described up to 9 dots, and are heavily revised. I’ve never actually played or run tabletop Vampire so I did not catch all the changes, but a lot has been tweaked in this book (most due to fan input). In general, Discipline power level has been slightly reduced (at least at certain gonzo levels), and many old loopholes have been closed. Lots of things have been streamlined, for example Mortis is now a Necromancy path, and in general the layout of the various disciplines is more logical than much of the old rambling mess. Skills have been streamlined a bit, and in general things have been tweaked all over the place.

In short, this book contains a distillation of the major Vampire books over the last 20 years, with fixes to issues that have cropped up and general streamlining. To me, this is very much the “ultimate” version of Vampire: the Masquerade, and the version I would use if I were to run that game at some point. While I’m sure some people will gripe at the various nerfs to this and that uber-power, I see the general balancing of the power levels as purely a good thing.

The book leans heavily on the Revised edition of Vampire, but most of the metaplot events incorporated in that edition (or published after) have been relegated to the sidelines and sidebars here. Some others are mentioned as “rumors” and options, so that the GM can decide to either use them or now. They did keep some of the really stupid shit, though, there is still mention of the Week of Nightmares (though that, too, is thankfully left quite vague, so the GM can do the smart thing and ignore it). There is mention of the Tremere Antitribu maybe suffering a mass die-off… but it also is left somewhat vague. Overall, I think this is a good approach – there were some cool bits in the WoD metaplot, but also some astoundingly stupid bits. Mentioning them but leaving them open to interpretation is probably the wisest path to take, here.

I cannot really find much to gripe about this book. It’s a massive single-tome compendium of the whole expanded Vampire core, including Camarilla, Sabbat, the Independents and lots of bizarre bloodlines to boot. It contains revised and tweaked rules for everything, based on 20 years of “playtest” (i.e. fan input). Sure, the biggest value of this book is probably to collectors and people who remember the game with nostalgia – but honestly, purely as a game core book, this thing rocks. The layout is clear, the art is a combination of the old classic stuff and very pretty new pieces, and the game itself… well, it’s a classic.

The lazy approach would have been for White Wolf to cut+paste pieces from the old books, slap some fancy covers on, and call it an “Anniversary Edition” (I’m looking at you here, Chaosium). They didn’t do anything remotely like that, a huge amount of work went into writing and polishing this thing, and it shows. It’s clearly a labor of love for the writers, too.

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