To begin with: don’t be afraid. Your first game is going to be “wrong” in some sense. So is your second. I’ve run six chronicles over the last twenty years, some of them running for years on end, and I still get to the end of some sessions and think “well, that could’ve gone better” or have to write off a chronicle because of something we didn’t spot early on.
You’ll make rules calls that don’t work when you think about them afterwards. You’ll not be able to land the same voice for that SPC two scenes on the trot, never mind for the whole chronicle. You’ll forget who the Ventrue Justicar was “canonically” established to be in Buttfuck (MI) By Night (1994). None of that matters. One time I forgot that the Bastille was, you know, no longer a place that existed and that was the point of Bastille Day, in a session called ‘Bastille Day’. I promise that nine times out of ten you can pause for the laughter to stop, shrug, say “my World of Darkness, my rules” and crack on.
Picking your city
My advice is to pick a city that you want to run the game in, get hold of a good tourist guide to that city – Dorling Kindersley do good ones in their Eyewitness series (you can mock this up with Internet trawling, of course, but I’m old and like books and there’s something to be said for having everything in one place instead of smeared out across a dozen tabs), and look for cool places for vampires to hang out.
That means places where there’ll be a high transient population (i.e. places where vampires can hunt), and historic moments that your older vampires can be involved in. (If you’re running a historical game, I highly recommend you lay hands on another book: At Day’s Close by Roger Ekirch,, just to get an idea of the early modern night life). Get an idea of the city’s districts, as these will be your major domains. Start thinking about which clans you really like and want to put into play even if no players pick ’em. BUT: don’t go any further until AFTER character generation is done.
(I can say a lot more about city building, and one day I’ll have the mental stamina to show my working.)
Character generation: no PC is an island
You’ll probably have an idea for the A-plot, the things that will happen in your setting over the course of play. This is fine. Just remember that all your B-plot comes from players. What they do, who they like and dislike, the Disciplines they want to learn and the Predator Type they’ve selected. Their characters will have sires, and their sires won’t exist in a vacuum, so you’ll need to give their clans a presence in the city too. Their Merits and Flaws and Advantages are all story hooks (especially in V5 where a lot of them say to the Storyteller: “generate this kind of enemy for me!”), so use them!
Don’t send people off to build characters alone: do it as a group, make a coterie, and sort out how these characters know each other and why/how they put up with each other before you start trying to make stories happen for them. This is also a good time to think about what characters are good at, what kind of scenes they stand out in, and what the players want to spend time doing.
Some groups work best if they treat clans like character classes in other games. If you have someone who usually plays a spellcasting class in D&D they might get along with a Tremere, if someone’s normally a Rogue they might find the Nosferatu suit them, if they don’t really use class features but like talking to NPCs then sort them out with a Ventrue. In V5, Predator Type lets them lean into particular functions by picking up out of clan Disciplines/higher level powers and specialities.
But, and it’s a big but, Vampire doesn’t really have strict optimisation pathways or locked-in bonuses like D&D does, and it can work really really well if all the players are from the same clan and some share the same sire. These dysfunctional family groups are really fun to play around with and come with some implied backstory and reasons to hang out with each other. What matters is that each character has a niche – something they bring to the table that the others need.
By way of example, my all-Toreador group had:
- one ambitious scrapper whose best dice pools involve Intimidation, Persuasion and Brawl and has more Dominate than any clan Discipline
- one sneaky cutie who’s packing good Athletics, Stealth and Larceny and has learned Fortitude because he’s tired of getting the shit kicked out of him
- one ‘face’ who’s rocking super-high Subterfuge and some niche skills like Occult and Technology that have occasionally saved everyone’s bacon, plus they’re learning Blood Sorcery from their Tremere
boyfriend fucktoycomrade with benefits
Even though they’re all the same clan, their stats, Predator Types and Discipline spreads make them very different characters in play.
Player responsibilities: help them help you help them have fun
On the subject of V5, Coterie Type puts some mechanical oomph behind the “why are we all friends?” statement, establishing the links between the characters in practical terms and allowing them to share each others’ Backgrounds and get more shit done. Meanwhile, Chronicle Tenets establish shared beliefs and values among the coterie. You, as Storyteller, are there to create situations which test those beliefs and values (while maintaining a respect for what your players have said they do not want the game to be about, safety first and all that).
While we’re talking about responsibilities: players need to learn some rules too. If players understand what their numbers mean they’re more likely to retain them, and it’s hell on wheels being the human CPU and GPU for three to five people who have apparently never looked at their character sheet before, spelling things out every single time you ask them to roll something.
That said: I have been known to make cheat sheets for particularly forgetful or numerically challenged players, with their biggest dice pools and standard difficulties for things like hunting, fighting, investigating and using Disciplines all worked out. This helps, especially since for some reason all my groups have someone with dyscalculia in them. Expect players to buy in, but don’t be an ableist knob lord about it. Help them help themselves in a way that doesn’t demand too much from you.
You may also have to teach players some lore – at the very least, about your particular city, even if they’re all veteran WoD spods who know their canaille from their ancillae. If you do have a table full of veterans, discourage them from playing know-nothing characters who are fresh out of the Embrace. Nothing slows a game down like “my character wouldn’t know” at the best of times and it’s so frustrating when real live people who know better are taking forever to get on with a session because they have to pretend they know jack shit. I’ve gotten into doing handouts for this: canva.com does basic PDF layout with a drag and drop interface that’s pretty easy to learn.
If you have a more novice-type group, build in ways to infodump over time. Encourage them to build characters who have a positive relationship with their sire, or put points into Mawla so they have another mentor figure. You can use these SPCs to dispense enough info to get by on, and worry about the nits and grits of their stats when they’re actually important. You can also kill the buggers off if you want to show things are getting serious (and once you think the players have found their feet) – it’s a good way to turn up the heat on a chronicle midway through.
However, I strongly advise against starting even the very newbiest of newbs as newly Embraced fledglings. The Embrace is the most intimate, life-changing thing that will ever happen to a player character. It’s too special to be done before the player has found their feet and their voice and gotten over the ‘early instalment weirdness’ (pardon my Troperese) of the first few sessions. I’ve started doing Embraces as flashbacks, bottle episodes later in the chronicle when players are more settled and confident, and it’s really paying off.
Keeping control: house rules to make your first game more controlled
Some Storytellers like to disallow certain things at character generation. I have three things that I generally lock down, not because they’re OMG BORKEN but because they distort the gameplay around themselves and make the game harder to run.
Unless all the players want to deal with the impact of some freshly turned neonate declaring themself Prince of the city, managing their career as a global pop sensation who can’t go anywhere without being papped, or throwing basically unlimited money at every problem or pissing and moaning when that doesn’t work, keep Backgrounds capped at three dots.
Don’t be afraid to bar certain clans from play. There are all sorts of reasons to be bothered by a particular clan, from “oof, that’s conceptually racist as hell” to “I never want to hear another guy talk about fucking his sister in a bad New Joisy mobster accent ever again” to “I literally don’t give a shit who’s really in the giant worm under Vienna, OK?” This is playtime. Even if you’re doing the “serious play” thing and confronting the dark heart of the human animal in a shared imaginative journey, there may be things you want to lock out.
Finally, for the V5 folks, steer clear of Loresheets on your first time out. These things come with an obligation to care about “the lore” and when you’re just starting out as a Storyteller, you need to find your own feet and style without being swamped by thirty years of overwritten world-building by people whose fanbase won’t let them just delete anything that doesn’t work any more or didn’t work in the first place. V5’s core gameplay works best when it’s focused on your characters in your city and not dragging in a bunch of big names who are better used at a distance, legends and celebrities who show things about the world without necessarily having a presence in your play.
In closing, I want to pass on Stevy’s Laws of Roleplaying, as they were passed on to me:
- Whoever has the idea will end up doing all the work
- Never rely on “you all have a grudge against X” to hold a totally disparate group together
- As long as you and your players are all enjoying yourselves, you’re doing it right
That’s your lot. Knock ‘em dead.