RPG Reviews – Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition (Renegade Game Studios)

Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition

This is a game about monsters.

This won’t be a game for everyone.

In saying that I’m not commenting on its quality or trying to make any comparison between it and any other game, but rather that I cannot guarantee that every gamer will enjoy what this game provides, and that’s ok! Not everyone liked the previous editions either.

Some people don’t like horror games, some don’t like vampires, some don’t like it when those vampires are revealed to be the monsters they are.

This is a game about playing a monster.

When Vampire: The Masquerade first appeared on the gaming scene it was really different. It focused strongly on style and attitude, storytelling and drama, and on playing what had traditionally been the “bad guys.” It was edgy and transgressive, it was also inclusive and progressive. It brought many more people into the hobby who had not previously been attracted to it.

Recently, I completed my first run-through of the unfinished but amazingly-modded Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. It beckoned me into an alleyway and beat me about the head with nostalgia. I revisited my favorite ’90s tropes and a World of Darkness I hadn’t visited in a long time.

When I first got into the game at the age of 14, I was enthralled with the setting. I sunk my fangs into every book I could find and delighted with every new plot revelation. As this was the ’90s, metaplot and setting sometimes took precedence over gameplay, and Vampire had a rich setting. I played some tabletop, LARPed a lot, and played online frequently. As I got older I drifted away from it, enticed by a newer, redder version of vampire roleplaying, and converted over to Vampire: The Requiem.

When I first heard of Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition I was admittedly indifferent. The 20th Anniversary Edition provided everything a veteran Masquerade player like myself would want and I had a preferred toolkit vampire rpg in Requiem already.

After its release I read of controversies over certain content and it put me even more on the fence. But as time went on the problematic elements seemed purged and things got a little cleaned-up, so after playing Bloodlines I thought to myself that I should at least check it out. I was surprised with what I found, arguably the best expression of Vampire: The Masquerade yet.

One of the things I give Vampire: The Requiem credit for was really showcasing the horror of being a vampire, both in the text and in the rules. Earlier V:TM was good about that, but Requiem hit those notes perfectly for me. Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition makes no bones that it’s about political and personal horror, with huge rule emphasis on the personal part.

The product detail pages for this game have content warnings. The book has content warnings. While I rarely do brief reviews, I’m not shortening this one much, because in addition to the usual content I’d include, I want to be sure you, dear reader, know what you’re getting into when you enter the eternal night.

This is a game about monsters who try really hard to ignore that they’re monsters. As a player, you’ll get to experience that on a visceral level, because you can’t ignore it – the rules won’t let you.

Disclaimer: This title has been provided for purpose of review.

A World of Darkness

Vampire: The Masquerade takes place in the World of Darkness, a version of our world where monsters lurk around the corner, shadows grow longer, and misery runs rampant. It’s a world of secrets and hidden horrors. Players take on the roles of vampires, known as the Kindred, and tell stories of the eternal nights of their unlives, and how they navigate their Machiavellian world while attempting to maintain some semblance of their humanity. It’s about balancing need and want; the divide between morality and monstrosity. As a game, it focuses on storytelling and roleplay over mechanics. It doesn’t neglect the rules though, but uses them to encourage and foster roleplay.

The story of the Kindred begins with Caine and Abel. Their mythology tells that after killing his brother, Caine was cast into darkness in the land of Nod, where a series of angels offered him redemption. As he rejected each, they cursed him with one of the archetypal vampiric curses.

Caine created three childer, who in turn created 13 of their own and vampires ruled the earliest of human societies. However, infighting between the Generations caused the end of this utopia of the Blood, and divided their society. The 13 “Antedeluvians” sired a bloodline each, known as a Clan, and the Blood took on a specific incarnation for each.

Much of this is a lie, or so the powers-that-be would tell you. But it is the commonly accepted origin of vampire kind, though there are other beliefs.

Over time the Kindred learned to manipulate mortals, but also of the dangers they could pose. After the damage caused by the Inquisition, they vanished into the shadows, realizing it was safer to rule while hidden.

Being a product of the 90s, Vampire was one of a number of games that included a “metaplot” – a story that unfolded with the release of each sourcebook and new edition. Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition establishes the setting at more of a ground-zero for a metaplot, having resolved much of it prior to the current timeline. That’s great for new players, as they don’t have to catch up on a lot and old players can use it as they like.

I don’t feel that the status quo presented in this book is too difficult to break into – you don’t need previous knowledge to understand much of what’s going on. This edition refocuses the themes of the game to more of its original concept, making it much more newcomer-friendly. It refers to higher-level play but is at its core a street-level game.

The primary factions are the Camarilla – a centuries-old, archaic society that has its fangs in countless mortal institutions and considers all vampires to be its subjects, and the Anarchs – rebels who chafe under the oppression of the establishment and who aim to develop a society that works for all Kindred, not just its elders. A third faction, the Sabbat, is a bogeyman. A medieval death cult that reveled in its vampiric nature, it has recently retreated into the shadows after wars with the Camarilla, and refocused it’s efforts on the Middle East, where its Great War seems to be unfolding. This has also drawn a number of elder vampires, leaving a power vacuum for the younger Kindred (like yours) to enter.

Don’t get complacent though, human organizations have become much more aware of Kindred society in recent decades, and the Second Inquisition could prove your end if you’re not careful.

If you’ve already been playing the game for some time it’s apparent that an effort has been made to simplify the setting and I applaud it. They’ve done a very good job of honing in on the core concepts of Vampire and diminishing (but not eliminating) the elements that congested previous editions. I’ve read a number of recent editions of older games in the last while and have been frustrated that much of the game history focused on the metaplot that unfolded in latter years – essentially describing lots of cool stuff that happened which the players can’t be part of now. Vampire avoids that by not over-including the metaplot and through a mechanic that I’ll get into later.

Making Magnificent Monsters

Before even getting into individual player characters, much of character creation involves “session zero” steps – discussing character concepts, the coterie (your PC group) concept, the age of the PCs, and beginning a relationship map. These are all great steps to take and I like that they’ve been baked into the process in this edition. By the time the game starts, the Storyteller will already have so much background to work with based on player input that much of their job should just be connecting the dots.

While a more freeform method is possible, the default mechanics of character creation are more regimented than in the past. I see this as a good thing. You choose options that assign points to various statistics, thereby helping flesh out the character and giving them better focus. If you’re new to Vampire or modern-day gaming I can see it as especially helpful.

Your characters are made up of inherent Attributes (physical, social, and mental traits like Strength or Charisma), and learned Skills like Academics or Firearms. These are assigned points (as dots on the character sheet) to represent relative competence in that area. Players will also create Convictions and Touchstones – core moral principles that help maintain your humanity and the mortals that serve as examples of those values. All players must agree on each others’ Convictions, which is fantastic, as it helps create a more harmonious group (not necessarily Coterie though). You’ll also spend points on Disciplines (vampiric powers) and Advantages – allowing you to purchase Backgrounds (elements like Allies and Contacts or Resources), or special features that lie outside those structures.

Who your character was in life will affect your choice of Clan. Of the 13 total, only 7 are described in the core rules, the core of the Camarilla and the Anarchs. Others are being introduced in supplements. Clan determines your starting Disciplines, how the Blood Curse manifests specifically in you, and your general role in Kindred society.

Typical Camarilla clans are the:

  • Ventrue: Lords and leaders. Captains of industry and the nobility of the Kindred.
  • Toreador: Artists and patrons, obsessed with aesthetic value and beauty.
  • Tremere: Blood magicians who took their power from another clan centuries ago. Once influential worldwide their power has been broken by the Second Inquisition, leaving them similar to mercenaries.
  • Malkavian: Visionaries and madmen, possessed of oracular tendencies.
  • Nosferatu: Physically changed to a monstrous mien, they lurk in the shadows of even Kindred society, making excellent spies and information brokers.

Typical Anarch clans include the:

  • Brujah: Rebels and scholars, the Learned Clan aims to bring justice to all, while fighting a furious rage inside.
  • Gangrel: Animalistic hunters, they are the most in-tune with the natural world, even as it rejects their kind.
  • Caitiff: Technically the “clanless”, their Blood has not manifested as one of the major Clans, giving them little support in their unlife.
  • Thin-Blooded: Of a Generation so far-removed from Caine they barely qualify as vampires. But while they may lack in the gifts of Caine they also don’t suffer as strongly from the Curse, even to the point of being able to survive in sunlight.

Here we come to a few aspects of character creation new to this edition, which I think are brilliant. First is Loresheets. These are Advantages you spend points on which tie your character to events or elements of the setting. Remember I mentioned disliking PCs not being involved in the metaplot/history in other games? This is how you do it well. Loresheets make you allies of important Kindred, members of secret societies, veterans of the Sect Wars between the Camarilla, Sabbat, and Anarchs, or tell what happened to you during pivotal events of Kindred history. I loved these ideas when I saw them in Weapons of the Gods and I love them here.

The second thing I like is how Generation and vampire age is handled. In older editions, you could purchase a Background called “Generation”, which represented how close you were to Caine. It was given the same purchase cost as other Backgrounds but held potentially significantly more weight. Now, Generation and age are chosen by the group and all PCs are assumed to be of the same power level. This means you can spend your points in other areas without worrying about being overshadowed.

The last is a character creation choice which I feel really helps set the tone of the game. Your Predator Type determines how your character feeds – do they stalk and overpower their victim, seduce them, feed from animals, or use other methods? Your choice gives you Advantages and Flaws, Backgrounds and Disciplines, but most importantly – forces you to think of how your character hunts and feeds on humans. I feel this edition really focuses on how vampires hide their monstrous nature, but can’t escape it. Including this in character creation pushes home the idea that these are evil creatures, now matter how they may try to conceal that fact.

Coteries also get a creation process, which helps codify the decisions made earlier. They grant certain benefits based on the role the Coterie takes in Kindred society and is an excellent addition to the game.

How we play in the shadows…

Vampire: The Masquerade uses a familiar d10 die pool system to resolve challenges. At its core, this means rolling a number of d10 dice equal to the sum of two Traits (attribute, skill, two attributes, etc.) and counting the number of dice that roll over a 6 as “successes”, requiring a certain number to succeed (the standard is 1 or 2, called the “difficulty”).

Results derived from total successes or the die pool total allow the players to determine degree of success, achieving success but at cost, conflicts between characters, and even success without rolling (if the pool is high enough).

The basic system is abstract and easy-to-follow. The advanced rules provide more options and situations to help the Storyteller and players resolve conflict, most of which still resolve around the success economy. Therefore if you want grittier or more-specific situational rules, you’ll find them in the Advanced section. It’s a pretty decent way to present everything so as not to overwhelm players, especially those coming to

Combat will be deadly for mortals, less deadly for Kindred – unless their weaknesses are brought into play. Kindred will be able to heal most physical damage in a short enough time. Social combat also plays a role, which I always love and feel it’s crucial to include in a game like this – sometimes there’s only so far straight roleplay can get you, and not everyone can improv smoothly. Veterans of Vampire be mindful – there is no longer a resisted [soak] roll to absorb damage like in the old editions, the margin of success (surplus successes) is directly applied as damage. While brutal, it eliminates a roll entirely, keeping with the implied design philosophy.

Despite this, there is recognition that players may want systems for various vampiric activities, so there are adequately detailed rules for hunting, with your preferred feeding method playing a role; “Boons” – the favor currency that exists in Kindred society; “Memoriam”, some nice Highlander-esque “memories from your past benefit your present” rules, and some potentially controversial rules for Kindred Intimacy.

Sex has been a part of vampire fiction since at least nature can’t be easily ignored and many vampire games do ask the question: can vampires do it? In feeding on each other is a much stronger feeling than the physical act of sex, and when you have a game where characters can manipulate minds, things can get questionable and definitely controversial.

If you have a game where most of the rules are focused on combat, you get a combat-focused game, since that’s how you engage with the rules. So with that in mind, does including the Kindred Intimacy rules encourage Kindred to manipulate each other in the closest act of intimacy they’re allowed? Maybe – and then how will they feel after the fact? Will it remind them they are monsters or foster deeper distrust/paranoia among their kind?

Perhaps that’s the point of their inclusion – if combat rules in a game are incredibly deadly, many players will attempt to avoid combat if they can, at risk of losing their character. If players can see how risky intimate acts are for Kindred, maybe they won’t engage in them? If the rules weren’t there, groups could decide on their own, but this comes across as a decree that Kindred can do this to each other and it’s another example of how they’re monsters. I’m really not sure in the end – it’s something individual groups will have to broach themselves, based on their own comfort levels and with appropriate maturity and consideration.

A new set of rules for the 5th edition are Hunger Dice, Rouse Checks, and Blood Potency. Previous editions had characters spend points from their Blood Pool to power their vampiric abilities, heal, etc. and Generation determined the strength of their Blood (now marked with Blood Potency). Most any use of Blood, including waking at night, requires a Rouse Check. This is a single die roll. If it’s a success then nothing happens, but a failure adds a point of Hunger. When a character makes a roll while they are hungry, they add a number of Hunger dice equal to their Hunger points. These function basically like regular dice, but should they roll a 1 or 10 become Bestial Failures and Messy Criticals, representing the Hunger taking over and causing serious repercussions. I like how vicious this is, how it reinforces the themes, and also that Kindred can never be fully sated without draining a human. That’s fucked up.

The Concrete Jungle

Cities and the Kindred go hand-in-hand. Even for the Gangrel there is benefit to being among the throng of humanity. A canny vampire can stay hidden and easily feed, maintaining there unlife extensively. The Cities chapter highlights more of Kindred society – the use of coded graffiti and marks to communicate, how vampiric feudalism functions through the use of assigned domains, creating hunting grounds (with examples) to give more flavor to the feeding, and ways to build atmosphere and detail the impact of vampires on urban environments. It’s a really good chapter with solid advice and guidelines on how to build the setting for your game.

A Tale to Freeze Your Blood

There’s a definite voice of experience in the Chronicle chapter and it will be a benefit to first-time Storytellers or old veterans. Sample Chronicle concepts are included in sidebars to help get your game started.

A lengthy segment on the use of the Second Inquisition in a Chronicle follows the chapter which also unveils more detail about Kindred society and how it has learned to cope with the immensity of this new threat. Sufficient statistics are given for antagonists or side-players in a game.

Though they follow as Appendices, the rules and guidelines for long-term projects and considerate play are very good. For the former, it’s nice to have structure to downtime activities that represent the long-term goals the Kindred frequently engage in. For the latter, a game like this would be irresponsible if it didn’t discuss safety tools and how to manage the darkness in this world. I really appreciate their inclusion – what’s the point of a game where nobody’s having fun and you’re traumatizing the players?

Vampire: The Masquerade Fifth Editionupdates the game in some very smart ways. It presents a treacherous world where the protagonists walk on a razor‘s edge to balance being a monster and holding on to what makes them human.

The physical product is atmospheric and moody, with some excellent design elements and evocative art, though sometimes I had trouble with the 3-column pages and change from black-text-on-white to white-text-on-black. That could be better in print than in PDF though, as the text will be bigger and it won’t involve staring at a screen.

If you are ready to succumb to the siren call of the night, visit the Modiphius website or follow the Affiliate links below to purchase Vampire: The Masquerade and enter the world of the Kindred.

Amazon (Print)