Second Look - Boardgame reviews in depth. Check out that cat.“Thomas, would you like to review Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition?” they asked. Would I? I mean, I’ve never played Vampire before. I’ve heard things about it, sure, but played this game that’s been around for over 25 years, a game that changed rpgs, bringing in a new wave of gamers to the hobby? I haven’t. Friends have played it. I’ve seen Kindred: the Embraced. I’ve attempted to play the Jyhad CCG. I’ve thumbed though a few titles in the line over the years such as Hunter: the Vigil, Changeling: the Lost, and Wraith: the Oblivion. I’ve heard of years and years of world building, metaplot, and lore so thick White Wolf killed the line at least once to make it easier for new players to join in.

So yeah, let’s take this new edition from the position of a completely new player to the World of Darkness. I don’t have many assumptions about the setting or the game apart from you probably start a campaign with a scene as you, a mortal, before becoming a vampire; there are vampires from different bloodlines secretly running things; and there’s an official LARP that is simultaneously awesome and universally hated with a passion that burns like the sun.

I’m also eternally unclear about the differences between White Wolf, CCP Games, Paradox, and Onyx Path, but that’s something else. (This version is created by White Wolf, has graphic design by Free League, and is distributed by Modiphius. Disclaimer: Modiphus is a graphic design/layout client of mine.)

So. What does Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition (V5) look like to a first-time player?

Thick. There book is 406 pages long. Do I have to read all of that to play? Open book, Thomas. Dive in.

The art style of the book is centered around the use of digitally-manipulated photographs, which is… interesting. There are stock photo resources used here and original photographic assets, which is a technique I’ve seen (and used – I do layout and graphic design for other RPGs) in other horror role-playing games set in urban settings during contemporary times. (Chill and Unknown Armies are two I’ve worked on that use this technique, so to me, it doesn’t look like anything out of the ordinary.) The layout is easy to read with a two- or three-column layout per page with plenty of whitespace and room for the copy to breathe. It’s light and open and suddenly those 400+ pages don’t seem like much of a threat.

We open with twenty-eight pages of in-world fiction presented as a collection of papers, screenshots on phones, and the like, collaged as if the reader is going through a stack of papers on someone’s desk. It’s very… clean? I recall in earlier editions of World of Darkness games, the front chapters were filled with hard-to-read in-world fiction, scribbles on notebook paper. Here, this serves to be an introduction to what vampires are in the game, that there’s a “masquerade violation” that’s got to be dealt with violently, and what clans are.

Oh, an early example of play before concepts are introduced. This is done rather well. It’s one of the best example of plays I’ve seen. A concept is introduced with a page reference to later in the book. We’re not just reading from a script like so many other games’ examples of play – we have a bit with dialogue, a summary of what’s going on, some decision points our game’s Storyteller is doing, a look at some of the mechanics, and a definite feel of how the game designers believe Vampire is to be run. Here’s a thing: players are adding world-building elements.

Onward: lots of quick overviews of clans and larger groups/movements. Rules seem simple: stat + skill to get a dice pool of ten-sided dice, 6s or higher are successes. Pairs of 10s are even bigger successes: 10s alone aren’t awesome, buckets of them are. You’re rolling against a target number; if you fail you don’t do the thing unless you want to, as long as something bad happens. Perhaps you took damage. Perhaps you were caught on a CCTV camera. Perhaps you didn’t notice you dropped your cellphone right there.

Combat in roleplaying games can take a long time to slog through. Vampire “strongly recommends” that you take no more than three turns to resolve an ongoing conflict. “Too much dice rolling slows down the drama and becomes harder and harder to describe creatively.” There’s an emphasis on getting more story in a game of Vampire than a second-by-second recording of blows and the whittling down of health stats. (Besides, there are plenty of other games for that.)

One third of the way through and it doesn’t feel like the size of the book is imposing. Continue through character creation and we see we’re using relationship maps, so yes, more emphasis on all the players helping to create the world you’re playing in. You should create your characters together, because that’s group play. First, create yourself as a human.

“And then, some monster kills you.”

That sentence is written in red with a lot of space above it and a lot of space below it. Yes, the game earlier did state that you’re not playing good guys in this game, but here, some monster kills you and now you’re going to play a monster.

Halfway through the book and we’re looking at life as a vampire and all the horrible things you must deal with: hunger, power, and your own humanity. A slew of optional rules come in (just in case you do want a blow-by-blow health attrition fight), and then we’re at Cities. Here’s how cities work. Here’s how domains work. Here’s several hunting grounds you might find. Here’s how to make your city into a city run by vampires.

We’re very close to the end of the book. There’s a whole section of Storyteller advice on how to run a game of Vampire. There’s a sample chronicle (campaign setting/storyline). A packet of opponents that might be thrown against your coterie of vampires. And we’re out.

All that lore, all that heavy weight of the past twenty-seven years of canon and metaplot? It’s not here. Just the basics of being vampires. Not a whiff of Werewolves, Hunters, Changelings, Mages, Mummys, or Wraiths. It feels like I, someone who knows nothing about the history of this game, could jump in and start playing a game where we’re all vampires.

So. For a gamer who hasn’t played Vampire, this looks… rather easy to get into.

A pre-release pdf copy of Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition was provided free for review by White Wolf.