“Roleplaying games, as one of the newest storytelling art forms, complete the arc from those first firesides to the modern monitor glow.” - Vampire: The Masquerade, 5th Edition
Whether you've been following Vampire: The Masquerade since its release in 1991, or joined your first Dungeons & Dragons group a month ago, this monumental game from White Wolf Publishing will have touched your life in some way- and you probably don't even realise it.
The revolutionary effect the original Vampire had on both the gaming industry and popular Vampire myth is unparalleled. If you've ever watched True Blood, the Blade films, or played a narrative-driven tabletop game, you likely owe that experience to Vampire: The Masquerade.
The fifth edition of Vampire (commonly referred to as V5), released on the first day of GenCon 2018, and I had the opportunity to sit down with some of the team from White Wolf Publishing and talk about the game.
Kenneth Hite is the designer of V5, and is well known for his work on the Call of Cthulhu. “Oh, I'm probably a Tremere,” he told me. “In that I'm a smartass and an occultist.”
A Tremere is one of the 13 Vampire Clans, which are analogous to character classes in other roleplaying games. Selecting your clan is arguably the most important decision when making a character for Vampire, and players often form a personal bond with a clan that speaks to them. Be it clan Brujah- gutter-punks throwing the seeds of anarchy, or clan Nosferatu- those cursed with hideousness, but retain more of their otherwise-lost humanity.
“Ventrue, always.” Producer Jason Carl said, handing me his White Wolf business card with the symbol of clan Ventrue printed right alongside his name.
Lastly, Lead Storyteller Martin Ericsson simply turned his wrist to show me the still-fresh tattoo of the clan Toreador symbol.
Vampire is an evocative game that has the power to leave a long-lasting mark on its players. In 1991 it stood apart from all other games because there was nothing like it. The original game was praised for the moody art of Tim Bradstreet, which went on to directly influence the look and feel of Blade (1998).
V5 takes a new approach to its visual design- the pages are filled with both photography and traditional art, depicting the different Vampire clans in a way that directly brings the visceral mood of the game into our reality.
“In '91 when Vampire came out, it was unique,” Ericsson said. “It was fresh. There were no huge fangs or anyone that looked like Dracula. It was contemporary. So how do we, today, in our visually-progressed field produce something that feels just as good? We want the 'Holy ****!' reaction.”
And White Wolf have got that reaction- There is no game on the market as visually stunning as V5. A casual flip through its 400-plus pages will have any roleplayer's mind whirling with possibilities for exploring this latest iteration of The World of Darkness.
“It was actually the first thing we talked about: What emotions should you feel when looking at a copy of the game?” Jason Carl added. “We talked about emotions long before we looked at anything else.”
The focus on emotion and storytelling in this edition of Vampire is more married to the mechanics of the game than it has ever been. V5 has done away with tracking arbitrary 'blood points' in order to fuel your vampiric powers, and no longer is the act of feeding reduced to a die roll to find a hapless mortal to drink.
“For me, that started when we were working on the MMO*- What's the grind? What do you do? The obvious answer is you hunt for blood- that in itself should be interesting.” Ericsson said. “Never forget that it's humans you feed off. That's the most dramatic thing.”
In V5, there is a much stronger focus on feeding. Players choose a 'Predator Type' during character creation, which denotes how they like to go about hunting.
“Predator Type has been in the game since the first edition,” Ericsson continued. “They're all there in the slang words like 'Alley Cat', but were never supported mechanically. How and who you hunt is very important to who a vampire is.”
Additionally, when a vampire feeds, they gain Resonance- a sort of 'flavour' to the blood which changes depending on the emotional state of the person they're feeding off. Mechanically, your Resonance can effect things like the strength of your powers. As such, players will have a mechanical incentive to focus on hunting the type of prey that will most benefit them.
“There is a reason that Resonance is emotional.” Designer Ken Hite said. “It means you're taking the emotions of your prey into account. We could have made Resonance dependant on Zodiac Signs if we wanted, but emotional states make the game about emotion.
“The approach was double pronged.” Hite continued. “Firstly, the game has to feel like Vampire. Let's stick to D10's, let's still have a dice pool and all that. The other prong is that mechanics have to do what the story says you're doing. The World of Darkness is a great setting and all this amazing stuff is happening, but it's a game, and you need to have mechanics for it.
“The system should both drive and reflect play.” Hite said. “That goes back to Sandy Peterson's Sanity mechanic from Call of Cthulhu- That mechanic drives play so hard that it defines what the game is about. Our game should have the same thing, and that's where things like Resonance and Hunger Dice come in.”
There is a clear emotional weight that accompanies playing games and telling stories with Vampire. It's been the same across all the titles White Wolf has produced for The World of Darkness, and V5 really leans into the aspect that has resonated with fans for over two decades.
“It had to be emotional.” Ericsson told me. “Pure and simple. This is not Dungeons & Dragons, it's something that should be able to deal with big subjects, personal subjects, and it should do so in a way that honours that feeling of awe so many fans have.
“A lot of us on the team have had a profound experience with Vampire over the years, and we've gone away and come back with the emotional maturity of being close to 50.” Ericsson added. “That was a thing- letting this game grow up with us without ostracising a younger audience. It's not nostalgia, it's something that's grown.”
Another key aspect to the earlier editions of Vampire was the concept that story would always trump mechanics. Players were encouraged to do away with any mechanic that they believed would get in the way of their ideal storytelling experience- and V5 is no different.
“You don't have to roll the dice.” Said designer Ken Hite. “You can play free form, with a mix. The game allows people to take whatever kind of approach. There is no right or wrong way to play it. Players often comment that entire sessions go by without anyone rolling dice.”
“You get that into the rules being modular and also self contained.” Ericsson said. “I did a lecture called 50 Shades of Darkness on the best way to play Vampire, and I went over 12 different ways.”
This modularity isn't just limited to the mechanics presented in V5- it extends also to the setting, and how players choose to interact with it to tell their stories.
“If you really love the international blood opera, this game supports it.” Producer Jason Carl said. “If you want the vampire version of The Wire with a vampire Stringer Bell, you can do that too.”
Vampire is just one of many games in The World of Darkness line, and with V5, we have seen all the ramifications of the 21st century effect the setting and the unlives of the vampires within it. The team assured us that fans of the other games should stay excited.
“The method White Wolf had back in the day was a regular release schedule,” Ericsson said. “World after world would get a focus, and it was a beautiful model.” He added, coyly; “lets just say that we think that was amazing.”
Reading between the lines, it sounds like fans of Werewolf and the other games may not have too long to wait before those titles get the 'V5 treatment.' However, the immediate focus is still firmly on Vampire.
“We started writing V5 as a three book product slated to be released together.” Ericsson said, referring to Vampire: The Masquerade, as well as the upcoming books Camarilla, and Anarch
“This first book is only a sliver of what is to come.” Ericsson continued. “I believe we have nailed the Anarch book especially. Between them all, you get a true global sweep of observations of off-the-wall vampire lifestyles, how they interact with the weird corners of vampire culture.”
Vampire: The Masquerade and the upcoming supplements are available for preorder right now at your local Good Games store. For more GenCon news as it happens, stay tuned to Good Games on Twitter and Facebook.
*[since cancelled by previous White Wolf owner, CCP]