Tabletop RPG Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition, recently released by White Wolf Publishing, is essentially an interactive story. Players will create characters from scratch, while another person, called the storyteller, will craft a narrative that involves all the player characters. When challenges arise, those involved will roll dice to determine the outcome.
That description can fit just about any other tabletop RPG, from Dungeons and Dragons to Shadowrun. But while other games can get bogged down with mechanics and suck players out of the experience, the newest edition of Vampire strikes a great balance between rolling dice and roleplaying, allowing players to hop right back into the action and explore the game’s alluring gothic setting.
Here’s what we liked about the latest release:
The Lore and Character Creation
The core rulebook of Vampire: The Masquerade contains everything you need to know about the lore of the game. The setting is essentially a gothic modern city with low fantasy elements, and the characters are vampires, either recently turned or veteran creatures of the night.
Aside from the usual info dump seen in most RPG rulebooks, Vampire also contains a solid 30 pages of research papers, letters, book excerpts, and more that are written from the perspective of characters within the game. It's an interesting way to get a feel for how the world functions and the opportunity is there for storytellers to incorporate the letters into the game if they want. As for the rest of the book, the writing was eye-rollingly edgy on occasion, but for the most part it was great at capturing the mood of the game.
Being that Vampire is a low fantasy game, most of the creatures you'll run into will either be vampires or humans. That means that character creation functions a bit differently than other RPGs, as traits are decided based on your vampire clan rather than your fantasy race. Each clan has their own unique abilities and personality quirks - the Toreador, for example, specialize in social affairs while the Gangrel lean into their primal nature to solve problems. I was surprised at how varied the abilities were in each clan, and I also loved the book's illustrations, as you can really get a feel for the clans’ personalities just by looking at them.
The Relationship Map and Roleplaying
One of my favorite tabletop RPGs ever is called Fiasco, and if you've ever played it before then the relationship map mechanic in Vampire should look familiar. You essentially write the name of each player character on a piece of paper, then draw lines to connect them. Next to the lines, players will write how their characters know each other. After that, players write down other important people in their backstories, such as the person that turned them into a vampire or any humans they trust. Arrows can be used to show who has power over whom, e.g. an arrow that points to a human may indicate that the human is the player's minion.
The relationship map is a really, really handy tool. Players can keep track of all the important people in the game, and storytellers can build narratives around straining or bolstering relationships. Even if you don't play Vampire, I'd highly suggest incorporating this mechanic into your RPG of choice.
As for as roleplaying goes, Vampire made a name for itself back in the 1990s for its unique approach to morality, and 5th Edition is no exception. Players will be forced to commit evil acts, as the only way to survive is to feast on humans. But the mechanics ensure that you understand the depravity of your actions.
If you go full-on murder hobo, you'll start to lose your humanity trait. And the lower your humanity gets, the more penalties you suffer. If you lose it completely, the storyteller takes control of your character forever. Conversely, if you ignore your character’s need to feast, you become hungry. That can lead to animalistic outbursts, or even death if you go without blood for too long.
Moral grey areas exist in other tabletop RPGs, but the way Vampire weaves it into the core of the game is pretty genius. From a narrative perspective, it's especially interesting to watch recently-turned vampires grapple with the ethics of their new lifestyle as they attempt to feast for the first time.
Combat and Ability Checks
Any obstacle you face in Vampire can be overcome with a roll of the dice, and the mechanics allow players to get pretty creative with the way they solve problems.
Say a player is trying to get into a nightclub, so they attempt to convince the bouncer to let them in. The storyteller will pick two traits, such as Charisma and Persuasion, and the player will be given a certain number of 10-sided dice based on what their character sheet will allow. For example, their sheet may offer four dice from their Charisma trait and three dice from Persuasion, giving the player a total of seven dice. From there, the storyteller will pick a number of "successes" you need to hit in order to pass the challenge. Every 1-5 roll is a failure, and every 6-10 is a success, so obviously the player wants to shoot for as many high numbers as possible. Also, if the player gets two matching tens, that's a critical success.
Your ability to pass challenges hinges on the fact that you continually feast on humans throughout the game. If you don't drink blood, then you gain "hunger" dice. In certain cases, those dice may cause you to roll "Bestial Failures" or "Messy Criticals," neither of which have favorable consequences for the player.
Based on the traits listed on Vampire’s character sheet, there are over 240 different combinations of abilities that can be used to solve any problem that the storyteller throws at you, whether it's fighting a rival clan, seducing a mortal, or racing through the city like Tokyo Drift. The system is great for players since it encourages creativity when it comes to rolling dice, as there's almost always a combination that suits what you're trying to do.
That being said, it's hard for players to know which traits they need to upgrade when it's time to level up. Moreover, experience points - which are needed for upgrades - are hard to come by. One or two points are given for every game session you play, and one point is given out for every story arch you complete. So you’re looking at 2-3 sessions before you’ll be able to boost one of your traits past the first level, and more advanced traits can take even longer.
Combat in tabletop RPGs tends to be slow, which is why I appreciate Vampire's commitment to keeping it swift. Those who are fighting will roll their dice at the same time, and whoever has the higher amount of successes gets to strike the other player. Also, the rules advise storytellers to wrap it up after three rounds, though fights can technically go on for as long as someone is still alive. It's up to the storyteller to figure out how to end things, whether they narrate the rest of the fight or introduce some other outside force that breaks things up. There are advanced combat rules for those who prefer to duke it out the old-fashioned way, but Vampire seems to reward players more for creativity over brute strength.
Roleplaying versus Rolling Dice
Ultimately Vampire: The Masquerade is a game that encourages players to create a story together, and the core rulebook makes it a point to encourage roleplaying over combat and ability checks since dice rolls tend to slow down the game. That may rub some players the wrong way - roleplaying to solve your problems can lead to subjective outcomes, whereas the results of a dice roll are undeniable. But there’s room for all gaming types in Vampire, and players are encouraged to talk with their storyteller about how much dice ought to be used in their campaigns.
In short, the lore of Vampire is darkly fascinating, and playing a creature of the night is too much fun for any gamer to pass up. If you have room for this game at your next tabletop meetup, I highly recommend giving it a whirl.
Final score: 9.4 out of 10
A copy of the Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition rulebook was provided by White Wolf Publishing for the purpose of this review.