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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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Minireview: Victorian Age Vampire trilogy, by Philippe Boulle

The “Victorian Age Vampire” trilogy consists of three books: A Morbid Initiation, The Madness of Priests and The Wounded King. It’s a bit unusual for a World of Darkness / Vampire series of books. First off, as the metatitle says, it’s set in Victorian times (in England), mirroring the “Victorian Age Vampire” roleplaying core book from White Wolf. Secondly… it’s actually pretty good. Easily among the best World of Darkness fiction I’ve read, perhaps the best. Now, I know that’s damning with faint praise, but there it is anyway: this series manages to be a World of Darkness work of fiction which does not suck.

It’s the “coming of age” story (in a dark way) of one Regina Blake, young daughter of the Viscount Lord James Blake. Returned back to England from Egypt, the family has been beset by tragedy in the form of the death of Regina’s mother (Lady Emma Blake) in mysterious circumstances. Lord Blake tries to cover everything up, but Regina manages to see some things which leave her doubting her father’s story about events. In the wake of the death, Emma’s strange foreign relatives make their appearance, insisting that the funeral be done in a very specific and unusual fashion. Then there is the matter of Victoria Ash, a beautiful friend of Emma’s (who nobody has apparently seen before), showing up for the funeral and turning heads. Regina recruits her fiance and his army friends to help dig into matters, and things quickly take a dark turn. After this the story twists and turns, and eventually visits Paris, Vienna and other far-off places. Some WoD signature characters make their appearance here; apart from Victoria Ash who holds a spotlight role, Beckett, Anatole and Hesha all have side roles. To the story’s credit, these characters are kept firmly in side roles and the spotlight is on young Regina and her eventual mentor, Victoria.

There’s a lot to like here. The story uses Gothic story elements well, increasing mood without wandering into mindless cliché territory. We get the lonely mansion on the English moors, the strange and sinister foreign relatives, masonic secret societies, and such. As the protagonist, Regina is perhaps a bit anachronistically proactive – but then again, Mina in the original Dracula is no wilting wallflower either, so I don’t see any harm in her being very assertive and independent. It would be a boring story if she wasn’t.

What I liked best here is how the author keeps the various vampiric antagonists mysterious and scary. In many books, ghouls are treated as low-power cannon fodder, while here they are frightening unnatural engines of destruction – and their masters are almost unstoppable. Vampiric mind control is effective and scary, and in general mortals are shown to have little chance when faced with the supernatural. This is what the game posits, of course, but in too much of the literature the supernatural has been turned into something quite banal. Not so here. There are lots of cool and disturbing scenes here; I especially liked the interlude spent with Anatole in a Paris prison, his madness is shown in quite an unusual and very scary light. In general, the author does an excellent job in keeping the supernatural scary – you can figure out what game effects are going on in the background it you focus (and are familiar with the game), but only in a few rare instances does it scream “power X is being used by a game character here” (which is maybe the most common sin of roleplaying game fiction). The Tremere are nasty in this book.

In the end, it’s a very competent and entertaining Victorian vampire story, with a fairly classic feel. It is quite violent at times, and also features plenty of sex (vampiric and other), so it’s not for the overly prudish. I was very pleasantly surprised by these books. I expected to find barely-readable dreck, instead I got a good “classic” vampire tale, and one that requires absolutely no knowledge of the World of Darkness game world to enjoy. In fact, it might be even better with zero knowledge.

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Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition

As a heads up, the upcoming Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition is now up for pre-order at the White Wolf webstore. It’s expensive ($100), but then again I think we all knew that it would be: huge page count, color printing, all that jazz. For those out of the loop: it’s an updated luxury edition of the classic Vampire: the Masquerade game book, with timeline updated to current date and with tons of tweaks and additional material from various expansion books along the way. It’s pretty much a “for the old fans” book, and also a chance for the White Wolf guys to revisit their most famous game and tweak it around a bit.

This edition will not be available in game stores, Amazon, or anywhere else (except White Wolf’s own store). They are printing only based on pre-orders, with pre-orders running until July 1st and the book shipping in October. Grand Masquerade visitors will be able to buy a variant copy (with a different cover, I think). So, in short: if you don’t pre-order or visit the Grand Masquerade, you won’t get this book.

Needless to say my pre-order is already in, even though my wallet hates me. This is one book I must have.

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

Children of the Inquisition is a (very) old book for Vampire: the Masquerade. It’s a “coffee table” book, like the related Kindred Most Wanted book, and lists a number of famous kindred (as per the book’s subtitle “Who’s Who Among Vampires”). It’s a statless book, so you get art and the stories of the various vampires, but nothing related to game mechanics.

It’s an interesting read if you’re into old WoD backstory, though you need to be aware that many of the vampires here have gotten new and revised treatments in later books in the game line. It’s also fun to read as backstory on many of the vampires appearing in VTES: Tyler, Karsh, Vasantasena, Rafael de Corazon, Gratiano, Lambach, Etrius, Durga Syn, Jalan-Aajav and Dominique are all described here.

As noted, it’s meant as a “coffee table book”: lots of art, unusually large page format. I think this book and the KMW book were the only ones White Wolf published in this format, but not totally sure.

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Minireview: Bloody Hearts - Diablerie Britain (Vampire)

In the early days of Vampire: the Masquerade White Wolf was still trying to figure out the direction of the game – and nowhere is that more apparent than in the early pre-gen adventure modules. While WW adventures have a well-deserved reputation for sucking, these early “gems” really excel in that arena. So, here’s Bloody Hearts: Diablerie Britain, a sucktastic adventure “module” which continues in the hallowed footsteps of Awakening: Diablerie Mexico.

Well, the good parts first. It’s better than Diablerie: Mexico (though most things are). Instead of just being a high-level vampiric dungeon crawl, this one is only partly a high-level vampiric dungeon crawl. The other part contains some actually quite interesting NPCs, including the “target” Methuselah. The NPCs are mostly good and could easily be used to good effect elsewhere, and the Methuselah backstory is pretty cool and a bit unusual.

Then the bad. Well, first off, the thing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The PCs are expected to be Archons in service to a Justicar (an example one is provided here)… and then they are expected to suddenly decide to go to the U.K. and diablerize an ancient vampire, hidden deep underground. Wtf? Sure, a McGuffin is provided to drive this “plot”… but that doesn’t help all that much. In addition, while this is ostensibly set partly in the U.K. (with a geographically-challenged map in good old WW tradition), there is pretty much nothing British about the whole thing. It could be called Frozen Hearts: Diablerie Greenland just as easily, with minimal changes. There is some good in this, of course: this can be relocated to where ever easily, and at least WW doesn’t fuck up non-U.S. locations in their typical fashion since those locations are scarcely even mentioned here.

To top things off, there’s the dungeon crawl. It has a few interesting bits, but mostly consists of stupid “magic traps” and other things that so do not belong in Vampire. And in the end, the PCs get to fight a Methuselah. Whee.

So. Crap. But with some redeeming qualities, namely some nice NPCs that can be repurposed. In addition, it’s fun to spot the characters and items than have since been made into VTES cards. This book gives us Madame Guil, Hafsa the Watcher, and the Sword of Nul (renamed to “Sword of Nuln” in VTES for some weird reason), among others.

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