Vampire: Year One, Part I

A bit over a year ago, I backed Chicago by Night for Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition. In time, I received a backer PDF, and at the time of this writing, the hardcopy is in the mail. But I read the backer PDF, and it felt to me that it was too beholden to the old editions of the game, too hung up on the previous two Chicagos by Night. But this was but a hunch, as I had not read them. And of course, to read the first Chicago by Night, I would need to understand Vampire: The Masquerade 1st Edition, which I was unfamiliar with – I only came on board with Revised.

Years ago, someone told me that one cannot authoritatively talk about anything without understanding its history at least back to the 18th century. With this guideline in mind, I went on DTRPG and got myself some PDFs, and proceeded to read through the entire first year of Vampire: The Masquerade (except for the adventure that came with the Storyteller screen, because that’s not on DTRPG). Obviously, the immediate precursors are Mark Rein•Hagen’s and Jonathan Tweet’s Ars Magica as well as Shadowrun, where Tom Dowd came up with the dice pools, but today I’m starting here. This post is, incidentally, gonna have a lot of SPOILERS for “Baptism by Fire”, Ashes to AshesBlood BondAlien Hunger, the stories in The Succubus Club, and Blood Nativity.

This isn’t so much a review as a let’s read type thing, but more than that it’s just the rewriting and restructuring of a Facebook thread where I jotted down my observations into a blog post.

1991, and the book that started it all. An unsubstantiated (and likely unsubstantiable) rumour claims that for a single quarter around its release, it outsold Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It is said it is the first game that significantly evened out the gender balance of the hobby, bringing women to role-playing games. Some say that it ruined RPGs forever.

And yeah, reading this was an experience. The writer’s voice comes through strong and it depends on the reader whether it comes through as artsy and pretentious, or something that finally dares to take role-playing games seriously as an expressive medium or – dare I say it? – an art form.

Of course, while it’s easy to see why it became a classic, it’s also very obvious where it bears its age with less dignity. The Storyteller’s guidelines tell of advanced techniques that shouldn’t be used except with the most experienced and dedicated of role-players, such as flashbacks, dream sequences, and symbolism. The book is dedicated to Václav Havel. The recommended reading list contains, among others, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Hermann Hesse, Milan Kundera, and Ayn Rand. In the afterword, Rein•Hagen tells how Vampire is an attempt to delve into the nature of evil.

It’s also said that the combat system was deliberately written to be crap so people would not use it, and instead solve problems through social interaction and role-playing. Somehow, reading this book from 29 years ago, I finally felt like I understood how that could’ve made a weird kind of sense at an age when this kind of game did not yet exist and the hobby was weaned on AD&D. The rules are a bone dry read, and the meat of the game is in the setting, drama, and storytelling chapters. By today’s standards, the 263-page rulebook isn’t even big, but I felt it could’ve lost 30, 40 pages easily, and most of that from the crunchy bits. It’s hard to put myself in the position of a gamer in the year that I turned six, and try to see if they really needed this many examples of Ability+Attribute combinations to cover different situations. They feel so intuitive to me.

Going back to the first rulebook also shows me what was there at the beginning. It’s just seven clans here, all Camarilla – Brujah, Tremere, Ventrue, Malkavian, Nosferatu, Toreador, and Gangrel, plus the Caitiff. The Anarchs are a larger presence than they ended up being for most of the game. Sabbat are coyly mentioned, but we don’t really know who they are yet. A bunch of the independent clans are named but not detailed.

Finally, there’s the start of the metaplot. I’d played Vampire and read Vampire before, but before barrelling through these first eight titles, I hadn’t quite appreciated how tightly the metaplot wound through it all. The core rulebook has the short adventure – or story, in the World of Darkness parlance – “Baptism by Fire”, which is pitched as the start of the “Forged in Steel” chronicle. “Forged in Steel” is about the struggle of Gary, Indiana against the attempts of Chicago vampires to control the town. Only three of the nine Vampire titles that came out in 1991 don’t have a connection to this. (“Blood at Dawn”, the adventure that came with the Storytellers Screen is set in Gary.)

The metaplot is also visible in how the books refer to one another, which also establishes a kind of reading order. Ashes to Ashes comes before Chicago by Night, which comes before The Succubus Club and Blood Bond. I read these a bit out of order but this post is, in part, a way for me to structure my thoughts, so they’re presented as they’re “supposed” to be.

In “Baptism by Fire”, the coterie is at the New Year’s ball thrown by Prince Modius of Gary in a dilapidated mansion, with a bunch of other vampires present who could all be Malkavians for how well-adjusted they are (there’s a delightful paradox for you – Malkavians are insane but how else would a vampire be?). There’s some brouhaha and a bit of a kerfuffle and you get to meet all the movers and shakers, such as they are, and maybe run in with a vampire hunter. Then Modius is summoned to Chicago and he sends the coterie in his stead.

The story picks up in Ashes to Ashes, an 83-page adventure module, as the coterie gets to Chicago and tries to meet with Prince Lodin. Who has just up and disappeared. The crème de la Camarilla of Chicago considers the coterie if not likely guilty, then at least very convenient scapegoats and also expendable hicks from the sticks. They must solve this mystery! Hijinks ensue.

The whole complex picture also features Anarchs, vampire hunters, a methuselah in torpor who’s also kinda but not quite but really King Menelaos from The Iliad (but we’re not told this until Chicago by Night, because Vampire is coy like that), mortal Satanists, and a ghoul ram. Oh, and Harry Houdini, because if we’re going to have an expansive supernatural secret history setting, of course we need a few famous historical people as vampires. In some perverse way I find myself liking this, even though it’s a fairly hideous railroad and there’s at least one positively idiotic scene (“Hey come at the crack of dawn to this football field and we’ll airlift you out to the meeting this is not a trap honest.”). The railroad is kinda self-justified by the theme of everyone pulling someone else’s strings and the coterie being mere pawns in the game of unlife. There are some actual choices, such as the option to just let Lodin die. Which makes the follow-up interesting because in the metaplot he’s not supposed to cark before Under a Blood Red Moon.

Amusingly, since it’s 2020 and it’s trivially easy to check these things, I will note that the sunrise is listed about an hour too early. It caught my eye because the whole thing is explicitly set in the first few nights of January.

Ashes to Ashes also features an interesting structural experiment, a B-plot played in a series of flashback episodes from the villain’s perspective, intended to feed the players some of the backstory the coterie will likely stay in the dark about. I have no idea if this is remotely workable, but it’s exactly the kind of bold experimentation I am here for. The book also contains a lot of STing advice that at least looks useful, including random crap meant to be thrown at the player whose character had the least to do in a previous scene, usually with no plot significance. The intention is more to get them to participate in the role-playing rather than give some sort of experience of success.

Ashes to Ashes leads to Chicago by Night, the first of its name. Fun book. The city description feels a bit Lonely Planet, but it works, and there’s a map, and before reading this book I hadn’t actually understood that Gary, despite being in a different state from Chicago, is actually right there, like, 50 kilometres away. That’s a half-hour drive. So that was useful. There’s a cool overarching concept with the two ancient vampires vying for control of the city and nudging everyone else to do their bidding, one of them from torpor. The other one is Helena, who’s never said to be of Troy but come on now. She has a ghoul named Paris. I mean Prias. They mix the story up a bit which rather annoys me, since if you’re gonna have a bunch of characters from The Iliad in your 90s gothic vampire Chicago, you should own that shit. There’s also Al Capone, because of course there is.

There’s a lot of NPCs. For the most part they work, their story functions are clear and there’s relationship maps for who hates whom and who’s pulling whose strings. The Ventrue Horatio Ballard is a mind-boggling amalgam of John Spica from Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote. I wondered for some time why the Sabbat vampires’ clans are listed as just “Sabbat” until I realized that Tzimisce and Lasombra weren’t introduced yet, and wouldn’t probably show up until The Player’s Guide to the Sabbat. There’s also a demon here, a succubus. I’m not sure where she fits in with Demon: The Fallen, but she probably doesn’t.

Then there’s The Succubus Club, which is an introduction to a vampire nightclub where the masquerade isn’t quite as tight as most places, and a series of short adventures tying in to the club, and basically also the “Forged in Steel” chronicle. This book, incidentally, has the really filthy habit of referring the reader to Chicago by Night for NPC stats, which must’ve been a pain in the ass before they were released together as Chicago Chronicles, Volume I.

It’s an… interesting book. One of the first things we are introduced is the Blood Dolls, a youth subculture that’s about playing vampire and drinking each other’s blood, which is on one level laughably over-the-top extreme but also pretty horrifying on multiple levels. For an interesting historical footnote, in the year of this book’s release 28 569 people died of AIDS in the United States. The Succubus Club makes no reference to HIV. Somehow, when it’s vampires playing around with blood it’s distanced enough, but when it’s normal people doing it, that distance for me vanishes and it immediately contextualises with everything I’ve read about the HIV epidemic, with Angels in America, with Just a Little Lovin’ and Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves. There’s a moment of whiplash.

And then we’re on to discuss the layout of the club and the hidden haven of Helen of Troy, guarded by her three-thousand-year-old ghoul Paris also a giant ghoul scorpion.

The scenarios themselves are a bit uneven. The first one is “Annabelle’s Party”, which is about the Toreador primogen of Chicago, who has no artistic ability herself, throwing a party which is sabotaged to embarrass her. The party itself and the ways in which she’s embarrassed are pure gold – an unveiled sculpture is just a piece of a steam locomotive as a snide jab at a prior disagreement, and the bold new piece of music is just Beethoven’s Ninth (or some other unspecified but worn classic) upside down. The trail eventually leads to the rail yard and their Ventrue overseer who’s severely in denial about the importance of the railways in 1991 and plays with a model train set. There’s something about the portrayal of Edgar Drummond as a train-obsessed manchild that in 2020, when “carbon footprint” has entered our everyday vocabulary, feels subtly off. “Annabelle’s Party” also just sort of ends at act two without actually concluding.

Then there’s “Player of Pawns”, where two Elders play chess against each other, using subordinates as pawns. The Chicago player, Critias, of course fields the coterie. This one features a Finnish vampire named Killikillarven, which is not a Finnish name, whose role-playing instructions include: “Between sentences make a lot of grunts and “hmms.” When investigating things, scrunch up your right eye and stare with your bugged-out other eye (this is also what he does for the Evil Eye; see Spirit Thaumaturgy). You are not a happy immortal, so do not laugh often, but smile occasionally.”

“Player of Pawns” looks like it might be fun for a group that likes to fight a lot. Straightforward, clear structure.

There’s “Fundamental Differences”, in which a priest who has true faith comes to protest The Succubus Club with his flock. The elder vampires present want him dead, which is a problem because touching him is physically painful for low-Humanity Kindred. An additional problem is introduced by the man being actually a very nice and kind person. This one looks fun. The fourth one is “Death’s Sweet Sting”, where there’s an engineered strain of mononucleosis that kills vampires. It’s a bit too scifi for my liking, plus as written if the coterie fucks up it’s basically Gehenna right now, right here.

The Succubus Club is wrapped up by “Child’s Play”, a longer adventure where the coterie meets Nicolai, Chicago’s Tremere primogen who’s been around for centuries in the body of a nine-year-old. Think Damien Thorn and you’re close. First Nicolai tests whether they’re good enough by putting them on the trail of some vampire hunters and then tasks them with killing the vampire Ehrich Weiss, better known as… Harry Houdini! They are basically being set up to fail, both by the text and by Nicolai, which is an interesting decision.

As this text is starting to get long, the adventures Blood BondBlood Nativity and Alien Hunger, as well as The Players Guide, will be covered in a later post.

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