Earlier this year, I started running an Instagram hashtag featuring the covers of roleplaying game books sitting on my shelves (#bensshelf). Some of these books aren’t much more than glorified décor because I’ve never played or sometimes even read them. But there are a select few I’m not only quite familiar with, but have a meaningful emotional connection to my life.
This week, I featured a game that I have rather strong feelings about: Vampire: The Masquerade.
Now, I have to be very precise here. When I talk about this game, I’m referring specifically to the Second Edition hardcover released by White Wolf Publishing in 1992. This is an important distinction because the Revised Edition released in 1998 is a very different beast for reasons I’ll go into later. The Second Edition is, in my opinion, the best roleplaying game rulebook ever published. No other game combined a great concept, compelling writing, evocative artwork, and top tier production values as well as this book.
From the very beginning, Vampire: The Masquerade (VtM) is a game that sucks you in and doesn’t let go. I remember seeing the book on the shelf at a Waldenbooks (that’s an old mall-based bookstore chain for you younger folks out there) in the late 1990s and being immediately drawn in by the striking cover art. I knew it was a game because it was in the roleplaying game section, but the cover made it clear that VtM was somehow different from the other games on the shelf. When I opened the book and flipped through a few pages, I started to get a sense of just how different it was from its contemporaries. I’d been drawn into fictional game worlds before, but VtM presented a world that felt more real, more dangerous. It’s a bit of a cliché now, but at the time, VtM really did feel like a roleplaying game for mature gamers. This wasn’t a game about exploring dungeons or fighting hordes of orcs; it was a game about fighting the monsters of our inner nature. The world was dark, scary, and exciting in a way that even the gritty cyberpunk games of the 1990s (Cyberpunk 2020 or early Shadowrun) simply couldn’t match. After reading VtM, other games felt silly by comparison.
Presentation was a big part of the game’s appeal. The rulebook had an austere black and white format that put artist Tim Bradstreet’s work front and center. Bradstreet’s art forever cemented the look and feel of the World of Darkness for me. The images in that book are burned into my mind, and the rest of the book’s artwork felt like it was of a piece with Bradstreet’s style. This was a common trend in games back in this era. In the same way that Brom helped define the aesthetic of Dark Sun and Tony DiTerlizzi established the look of Planescape, Tim Bradstreet created a memorable vision of VtM that the series would never quite be able to recapture in later years.
The game’s setting was also unlike anything I’d seen in a roleplaying game. Vampire society was complex and shot through with political intrigue and bizarre traditions. It was a game about relationships and internal conflict rather than kicking down the door and taking all the treasure. For a teenager struggling with identity and social pressure, VtM was a dramatization of a world you already understood to some extent. The way the game incorporated various forms of vampires from fiction guaranteed that you’d find a vampire clan that appealed to you on some level. Each clan also loosely embodied a philosophy, which helped to make VtM a game about bigger ideas as much as personal identity.
Of course, in retrospect, the rules for VtM were a hot mess. The game used a success system with d10 dice pool, so you wound up rolling fistfuls of dice and tallying up successes against your opponent. It was simple, but clunky. And the way the game handled vampire powers was both inspired and terrible. On the one hand, it did a great job of explaining how the powers worked and what they could do. The actual implementation of those powers, however, was kind of a disaster. If you knew what you were doing, it was quite easy to create overpowered characters that took advantage of the rules to basically do whatever they wanted.
Now, this isn’t an entirely fair criticism of the game. The real problem was that VtM was never supposed to be a rules heavy game where you relied upon your character’s stats to accomplish your goals. Unfortunately, that’s basically how every roleplaying game of that era worked. Players accustomed to years of adversarial gaming in Dungeons & Dragons understood that optimizing your character to take maximum advantage of the rules wasn’t just a good idea, it was how you were “supposed” to play the game. That worked fine in a game like D&D, where you were locked in a physical battle for survival at almost every turn. But VtM was supposed to be a different type of game. Sure, you could game the rules to create a super character, but doing so would rob you of the core experience the game was trying to provide. It wasn’t a game about surviving against all odds and vanquishing your foes, it was a game about personal horror and social interaction. Creating super characters that could circumvent any challenge by leaning on the rules kind of defeated the entire purpose of the game. In order for that system to work effectively, you needed a certain type of player who wasn’t interested in the traditional form of character building and a gamemaster (or Storyteller, in VtM terms) who wasn’t afraid to crack down on players for exploiting obviously unintended loopholes in the rules.
Unfortunately, things kind of went downhill after Second Edition. By the time the Revised Edition came out in 1998, the game was already losing much of its original character. The artwork was more of a mixed bag and the game fell into the fatal trap of explaining too much of its lore, robbing it of the sense of mystery that made it so compelling in the first place. Where the early World of Darkness was a grim and scary place with deep shadows, it evolved into something resembling a conventional fantasy setting weighed down by a ponderous amount of backstory and detail that every player was expected to know. As player options expanded with each release, the core experience became diluted. By the early 2000s, VtM felt less like a game of gothic horror than a comic book superhero game featuring vampires. Instead of embracing the roleplaying concepts the original game emphasized so strongly, players built superpowered characters who bashed each other over the head with the rules in an effort to be the star of the show.
To its credit, White Wolf realized how far the game had strayed from its original concept and did a hard reset in 2004, discontinuing VtM and replacing it with Vampire: The Requiem (VtR), which tried to return the game to its gothic horror roots. While many longtime fans were angered, I always kind of liked VtR because I appreciated what it tried to do. As good as VtR was, though, it didn’t quite have the same magic as the original incarnation. In some ways, the game’s moment had passed. Vampire: The Masquerade was a game that came along at just the right time and tapped into something about 1990s culture that resonated with its audience in a way that VtR didn’t. It’s a good game, but it feels more calculated and self-aware than early VtM. There’s an honesty and integrity to the original VtM that is simply impossible to replicate.
While various versions of VtM have been published over the last decade by Onyx Path Publishing, none of them have the same resonance for me as the Second Edition rulebook. If I ever make good on my repeated threats to run an old school Vampire game, I’ll almost certainly be dusting off my twenty year old copy of Second Edition and tell the players that anything outside that book is strictly off limits.
Sometimes it’s good to stick to the simplicity of a classic.