[V:tR] Vampire: the Requiem (Second Edition) – Readthrough

So I’ve only actually played VtR once, with randoms, which is not optimal for me (I like to RPG with people who already know and like each other out of game), and I only owned 1e, so I never really gave the current rulebook a proper combing over from an “I want to run this” point of view.

I also spent last weekend laid up with some sort of terrible gut acid experience, so I thought it high time to address this absence.

I don’t want to make too many comparisons to Vampire: the Masquerade because I’m tired of Requiem only being discussed in that context: “is it better?” comes up every couple of weeks on the White Wolf RPG subreddit and has done for years and I’m tired. I want to talk about Requiem on its own merits where I can. That said, I cannot avoid being an old hand who knew VtM first and has been playing V5 for two years: I’m bound to evaluate what I discover in terms of what I already know.

Images are from the book in question, sourced via the Storytellers’ Vault, spirit of fair use, purely for illustrative/visual handhold purposes.

A Date with the Night: world building

The onboarding is solid, with the key questions asked and answered (in sightly purple prose, but still):

  • what do we do in this game? (we predate, but we also philanthropise, we also party: we are trying to be something other than a machine that eats blood forever) 
  • what’s the internality of the characters like? (who you are as a vampire is precariously balanced with who you pretend to be as a human and you need to do both, in very practical terms)
  • what’s the core conflict? (Strix have existed for as long as Kindred have, they are the old-school pre-literary revenant vampires, and they hate you) (VtR 1e was pretty bad at this, it didn’t have a fallback for when your brain wouldn’t turn over, and the Strix answer this need: when you don’t know what to do with your players, throw a Strix at them)

I like that the Storyteller is introduced as a player with a different set of responsibilities, and that responsibility for making story happen is shared. It’s on the players to make suggestions for things that could happen; it’s not on the Storyteller to do literally all the creative work once character generation is over.

Clan presentation, again, really good. The focus on what kind of predator they are, how the human experiences them; the range of example personas presented; the recommendations on stats, sweet Jesus yes, it’s about damn time. The game explicitly says “hey this signature power uses those numbers and this one uses these, bear that in mind, here’s what priorities here or there on the sheet might look like as a character so you’re not feeling like the system mastery has crowded out your vision.”

Covenant presentation is a bit weaker; it doesn’t feel anchored into the processes of gameplay to the same extent, there isn’t that “hey, you’re Lancea et Sanctum, here are some Merits you might want to consider” – I don’t know why that might be yet but it feels a bit lacklustre after the very table-focused material on the clans.

I do like how the clan origin stories and the extinct clans and covenants suggest a metaplot without beating me over the head with it. There was a thing called the Camarilla in Rome, it was the first proper vampire society, it fell apart because historical pressures but also Strix, it survives in these ways. But there’s no Grician bias stuff here – no specifics for the brain to snag and snare upon, no numbers and no iconic signature characters into whose biography the game texts can deteriorate. As I read it I’m thinking “OK so how does that plug into the European history I’m interested in exploring, how far from Rome are we here?” or “OK but how does this place much further away talk back to any of that, we’re beyond the frontiers of Rome with this one, did they ever have a Camarilla or are we looking at Circle-Town from the year dot?” The covenants feel inspiring from a storytelling perspective but in terms of character generation they’re not quite made concrete.

The All Night Society is an in universe introduction to setting concepts like the Traditions, the processes of hunting and ghouling. I find this sort of thing accessible enough but there are bits where I’d like to be told how it works. The Cacophony, for instance: I can grasp the idea from this impressionistic and dreamlike prose, but mine is not a life of underground parties or graffiti tags, and I could do with this shit translated into Parochial Geek through the medium of concrete, at-table example. Just walk us through how it manifests in an example of play. Oddly I don’t get the same effect from Solace even though I’ve never been a habitual drug user.

There’s a shadow of things to come, with the spread on feeding grounds and havens, but it isn’t reified with recommended Backgrounds to represent that stuff. (I stand by Predator and Coterie Types as the quiet best innovation of V5, by the way, more definitive of how you do vampirism than any amount of sect allegiances.) All in, it’s a good chapter for hooks and eyes.

Building a Monster: chargen (and rules) (and then chargen again) (but also reference)

Laws of the Dead runs pretty long – character generation and all the Disciplines are in here. I’m going to stat up my old character (since I lost his sheet anyway and didn’t really know what I was doing when I made him) along the way for another perspective on all this material.

Aspirations are a useful early feature: pick three things your character wants to achieve in the game, one or two relating to Kindred existence and at least one relating to the human world. Characters need to want things, not just “be rounded” by events in their past – they need to be moving toward events as yet unresolved. Personally I think it should be one pre-mortem one post-mortem and one space to allow emergent gameplay, as I always end up going off down some strange tangent for session after session and then feeling bad because it’s not what I told the Storyteller I wanted to do with the game.

Adrian Royce is a Ventrue and a member of the Carthian Movement: his concept is “Weird Left Zine Correspondent”. His human-facing Aspiration is to pay off an enormous debt – he dug a deep deep hole of expenses researching his first book and he’s got to square that somehow. His Kindred-facing Aspiration is to uncover a secret that gives him leverage over/among his fellow Ventrue – I imagine he’s a bit shit by the clan’s standards, a wrong side of the tracks Embrace for all that he’s the best possible version of himself.

It occurs to me that, as ever, this is going to work so much better if you do this as a group, so the Storyteller can pick up on ideas or suggest things about a city build in progress, and the other players can interweave their concepts.

I’ve always liked the nWod/CofD “grid” of Attributes – cross-reference the kind of challenge (mental, physical or social) with the approach being taken (power, finesse, resistance) and you’ll know exactly which one to roll in a given moment. Couple that with a robust “let’s think about what this word means” approach to the Abilities and you’ll be calling the dice pools with confidence in no time. It does help to be up front about this approach, defining the Traits with players, just in case they think seducing someone is a Subterfuge roll by default when you see dice pools more as “what are you trying to achieve with this seduction – do you want to make someone believe you because you’re hot, or do you want something material out of it?” kind of decision.

Adrian isn’t a particularly finesse-oriented person – he gets what he wants through force of personality, occasional and necessary acts of violence, and sheer tenacity. He’s not particularly smart, although he works hard. Social prime, then Physical, then Mental. Mental Skills take a higher priority though, he’s well trained and makes up for his lack of exceptional smarts with a rigorous approach to investigation. Physical gets bumped down: he can handle himself in a fight and he’s picked or planted the odd pocket in his time, but he’s nothing spectacular. His specialties are in Investigation (Conspiracy Theories), Expression (Journalism) and Brawl (Boxing) – I’ve decided he has a hobby that makes him a little bit tastier in a scrap. His clan gives him an extra dot in Presence, which is a nice way to pick up a four-dot ability without sacrificing anything else, or compensate for a sacrificed dot somewhere.

Beats kind of sneak into the middle of character creation. These are super important as beats – as in story beats – convert into experience points. From the sessions I played a few years ago I remember beats coming thick and fast, a core part of the gameplay loop. Is the list of things that give a beat on the Storyteller Screen? It is not (they needed that space for half a page of grappling rules, obviously).

New Disciplines are sensibly gatekept – the clans’ unique Disciplines require a teacher and a sip of the ol’ vitae, the covenants’ unique Disciplines require a teacher, everything else is up for grabs.

There’s a list of archetypal Masks and Dirges (your pretend human self and your real Kindred self, respectively) that restore all or one of your Willpower points when you live up to them (I’m hoping Willpower is the ‘extra dice’ ‘reroll’ or ‘auto success’ generator it’s been in other versions of the game – I honestly forget how that works – but there’d better be lots of incentives to spend it!).

For Adrian, I chose Questioner as his Mask – he’s relentlessly inquisitive, unable to take anything at face value, always digging for a “real truth” that others don’t necessarily even believe in. He does this because, underneath, in the Dirge of his soul, he’s an Idealist – he holds to a belief that that a world of honesty and integrity is possible.

Touchstones appear here, but they’re both a little more nuanced (it’s acknowledged that they can be a place or a thing, although a glance at the ST screen has revealed that spending time around humans is mechanically enforced by the Requiem rule set) and a lot more developed (there’s a good two pages of examples for you to build off, why the hell didn’t V5 do this?).

I’ve adapted the “Former Patron” for Adrian. He has a close friendship with a ‘zine editor, the only person who’ll consistently employ him and pay him steady money for whatever he turns in on or about the deadline. Ricky – for ‘tis his name – isn’t stupid, he knows Adrian is Kindred, but he’s taken a “don’t ask don’t tell” approach and Ade is grateful for the mercy, since not being asked means he doesn’t have to lie.

At this stage we get into a cluster of more in-play rules, and…

On the whole, page for page, this book is beating V5. The layout is sensible and consistent, the art assets aren’t gratuitous, the artified text boxes generally draw the attention to a key idea summarised in direct and emotive text, and I haven’t ever had to follow two ongoing arguments across two sets of different coloured columns in a six column spread. But the information flow through chapters is just as bad as V5, and really shits the bed at this point: I’m trying to make a character and there’s page after page of core gameplay activities in the middle of the chapter between Touchstones and Merits.

If I’m walking someone through chargen and getting them to read the words so they understand what they’re doing with the dots (instead of just learning the summary and not really doing the process in full depth) this is bad, because it breaks flow and we lose momentum and concentration. If I’m looking for a rule during play, this is bad because core activities are clustered up in the middle of a section about something else and there’s no marshalling of information onto spreads or anything. This is just about acceptable in a PDF, with search and hyperlink at your side, but it’s rubbish in a physical book.

At least the writing’s good and clear. I wonder if two different people worked on this – like, if this is Hill and the setting stuff was Bailey or something like that.

We get into the rules for damage, and for vitae, and the Blush of Life casually tosses off that for one (1) vitae, vampires can keep a meal down for most of the night, or have sex. That’s that. No lengthy “at Humanity 4 you can’t get it up but you can fingerbang” granularity. Neat and tidy. It’s just another biological thing they might need to do sometimes.

Predatory Aura is also neat: an explanation for just why Kindred society has all these customs and all that elaborate rigmarole. Kindred know Kindred; the Beast stirs, and can be incited to lash out. This is the bare-fangs-and-hiss routine; this is the stagey, theatrical sexuality; this is the sneering and posturing behind polite words. And it’s got some simple, hard and fast rules keyed to Willpower and Power Attribute rolls.

Rules for posthumous Embraces and the rise of the corpse as a Revenant – nice touch. Another threat that can find its way in should the session or story need some sizzle, as anyone who’s been bitten can rise if they come into contact with vitae after death or are fully exsanguinated on a later feeding (which is how we get the Lucy-in-Dracula moments). Lovely stuff.

Feeding is in here: there’s the simple way, and the “well, you have to grapple first” combat option (ahh, that’s why grapple rules ended up on the ST sheet – but the beats would have been nice to have!) And certain chestnuts about blood and vitae are described explicitly: the physical fluid nourishes more or less depending on where it comes from, so different amounts are needed. I wish the exact processes and amounts were on the goddamn sheet (I won’t need weapon damage in every session, but I will definitely need feeding!) though. Finally an example of play as well, to cover the no-dice feeding option, which definitely needs it.

I’m going to stop complaining about the stupid ST sheet eventually, but why isn’t the frenzy modifier chart on there? Frenzies can come up in any scene, god damn it

Humanity is quite a bit more complicated and I’d have really appreciated a look-up table or some bolding on the modifiers for interacting with humans. (There’s no summary for these that I can see, which – again – this is going to come up a lot, this needs to be findable at a glance. Grr, argh.) The actual mechanic is pretty good: there’s a list of “breaking points”, things that happen to or around your character that matter at a particular level of Humanity, and the more severe the reminder that you’re not human, the fewer dice you have to roll to avoid losing Humanity. (It would be nice if the chapter that introduces “how to roll dice and how to read whether you succeed or fail” had come before the “make a roll” stuff, though! Yes, people want to know how to make a character, but they can’t make informed choices in that process until they know how the game works! I know I’m shouting but it’s been decades, we should have figured this out by now!! Thanks! Next!!)

There’s a long and disorganised list of Merits. Some of them – the Carthian Merits I’m trying to pick out for Adrian – come in multiple tiers and I can see the shape of the Loresheet system from V5 in there. They seem to have been sorted by “Kindred only” and “Mortals can take these too” but they’re the wrong way round (I’d put bedrock stuff like Contacts and Status up front, since a lot of the Kindred ones refer to these or have them as prerequisites). Also, the lack of sub-sorting means that if, for instance, I’m building a Carthian, I have to flip back and forth a lot just to figure out what all my options are and what I need to chain into this or that to make them go. Chalk this up to something Masquerade has always done better (either by skimming specific ones off into clan and sect supplements, or dumping a lot of them into an optional appendix and having the core focus on the important Backgrounds that locate your character in the world).

Adrian has ten Merit points to spend. I’m going to start with Human Merits, because they’re more concrete bread and butter assets like “living indoors” and “having money”, and go into the weeds of Kindred Merits once I’m happy that he’s grounded. He has a dot in Allies, representing the activist community who know and tolerate him because he occasionally turns up something extremely useful. Area of Expertise (Investigation) makes him really good at that due diligence and Barfly will help him blend in when he’s doing the legwork. True Friend doubles down on his relationship with his Touchstone, Ricky T: Adrian strikes me as a hard man to like, but faithful to the bitter end in return. Finally, I’m going to buy him some Carthian Status as a prerequisite to his Kindred Merits: I’m starting to feel like Adrian’s a bit of a sofa surfer, leeching off his covenant and repaying the favours with hard graft and the occasional truth bomb. Carthian Pull and I Know A Guy will work for this at low level, giving him access to the odd low tier ‘background’ dot in exchange for a story-generating favour. I have one dot left and pop back to the Mortal list to pick up Trained Observer, just to lean harder into that “works hard, pays attention” feel.

The chapter closes out with Disciplines, which I am absolutely not going to talk about at any length. I’m just going to remark that the multiplying XP costs of other Vampire iterations are long gone, that Devotions (what I know as Amalgams) are sidepieces with an experience cost based on the number of dots that go into them, and that every Discipline has a stat+skill+discipline pool as standard.

As a Ventrue Adrian has access to Dominate in-clan, so I’m going to go hard on it as his unique selling point. Two dots there give me the simple four word command and the option of chaining three of those together into a series of instructions or extended control. His dice pool for it isn’t great, so I go back and swap his Attribute priorities; three dots in Intelligence to make the Discipline go. Looking at his dots now, he’s got a powerful intellect and forceful personality but he’s not very quick or delicate in his approach, and while he can throw hands if he has to, he probably treats them a bit too much like an amateur boxing ring and starts shit he can’t finish. He gets a dot in Resilience to round him out, and give him a chance to stay on his feet in these tight spots.

And we’re done. That took longer than I’d have liked, largely because this felt like three chapters (some core rules, the Disciplines writeup and character generation) rammed into one poorly-organised whole. The writing is on point, the layout is good, the art assets are unobtrusive and feel relevant, but the flow is all over the place and I suspect it’ll be actively annoying to refer back to this section in play. At least now I know where things are.

Playing With Your Food (game rules) (the rest of them)

Rules of the Night (hopefully this will go a bit faster!)

Usual stats-n-skills breakdown, but I like the suggested equipment and sample actions that come along with each skill to guide use of them – that should avoid the dead dots problem where someone takes dots in Etiquette and the chronicle never uses it, since it’s a player’s responsibility to suggest things like dice pools in order to move the story along. (I mean, Etiquette is a tiered Merit here, but you get the idea.) A very good page and a half on commonplace activities and their dice pools, which is built into the section on dice rolls and doesn’t make weird claims about what kind of fuckin’ is good fuckin’ (V5, take note!). I don’t always like these (as I’ve said, sometimes seducin’ someone is Charisma and sometimes it’s Manipulation, the approach and desired outcome should set the pools) but if people want a usual roll, there it is.

Social Man… eo… that word I can’t spell

Good things about this system: it’s specifically for players to use on non-player characters.

Bad things about this system: it introduces trackables in the shape of Goals and Doors that need to be calculated, modified, and tracked in a long chain of rolls that may take days of in-game time to fully resolve. It’s a very roundabout way of figuring out how many rolls of varying types are involved in the extended task of getting someone to do what you want. It does reduce down to a formula (take lowest of Resolve or Composure, add 2 if a breaking point would be met, add 1 if an Aspiration would be thwarted, add 1 if a Mask would be compromised, you need that many successful rolls – not successes – to get what you want) and I like the concept of introducing not-social rolls to the process (on the grounds that fixing someone’s garage door will make them like you more and feel indebted to you) but it all feels a bit protracted.

There is the shape of something good here but I dramatically prefer the approach V5 takes of introducing Social Conflicts with Willpower as a “damage tracker”, resolvable in three rounds, each of which can be instantaneous or protracted.

I feel there needs to be a simple and direct “roll Presence + Manipulation, difficulty 6, you might need to Extend this one” application baseline for this sort of thing. I think if I ran this I’d treat the “doors” calculation as a way of establishing difficulties for social rolls.

Combat is fine, it’s the usual stat + skill – target’s defence dice pool. Dodging doubles your Defence and turns it into a dice pool you roll against your attacker, which I’m not sure about the odds on. I think I’d rather have the blanket dice penalty imposed on an attacker’s pool as not letting them roll dice is surely better than rolling my own to see how many 30% chances of cancelling out their dice I can muster. Perhaps Dodge is there because people roleplaying fight scenes want to be able to dodge, because they don’t want their character to throw hands. That seems more likely.

I am going to do another “V5 did this better” – I am trying to rein it in, I swear, I know this is an older game – and say that V5 has the only initiative system I will ever accept as better (for my theatre of the mind playstyle) than “just start with the player on my left and work around the table”. Instead of all this “roll dice add character trait bonus subtract weapon malus” stuff V5 works off the dynamics of the scene, ticking down through existing close combat between already engaged parties, then ranged, then fresh close combat, then everything else. This works because what’s important isn’t the realistic simulation of real combat or the random factor: it’s building scenes in a way that makes sense and helps everyone grok what’s happening and serves to organise who rolls dice when and in what order turns are taken.

Equipment is more granular than I’m used to but I don’t entirely hate it: it’s things that are useful, expressed in terms of the Merits needed to acquire them, and I think that’s a better way of using Merits than the rather vague “I have Resources 5 so I should be able to hire NPCs to do everything for me”. Availability is a dot rating which you can match with Merits or successes from rolls – so if something’s Availability 4, you need Resources 4 or you’re rollin’ to see if you can blag it somehow.

Conditions get bumped into an appendix for ease of reference. I’m ambivalent about these. Once you’ve got them into your head they’re probably fine but it might well be easier to just say “characters affected by this mind whammy get a -2 to Social Resistance rolls” than constantly cross-referencing to the Mind Whammied condition. I feel these work better with the reference cards – something tactile you can toss across the table so a player can refer to it, and hand back when it’s done – but I forget what it was like trying to wrangle them on Roll20.

The World Against Us (adversaries, locations and ref advice)

The Parliament of Owls introduces the Strix – terrifying and malevolent spirits out of dark prehistory, that possess corpses and amount to something like a Kindred but not – a disembodied vampire that hates the Kindred as pretentious perversions. Most of the folk-horror weaknesses and descriptors of the vampire, predating the rise of the Euro-American literary-filmic tradition, are assigned to the Strix. A system that’s “like Kindred but not”, with Shadow Potency that increases the level of embodiment they can manage, and a grab bag of powers with minimum Potency requirements creating a build-your-own-monstrosity toolbox. And page after page of ready built ones – including, in a delightful little moment for me, Sir Francis Varney! Basically: Strix are to Kindred what Kindred are to normal people.

The World We Die In takes us through a series of sample domains: Athens, Beijing (with a localised version of the Ordo Dracul), Berlin, Montreal, North Carolina (with a Jiangshi clan that remind me of the very heart of the old Wan Kuei from VtM), San Francisco, Swansea (Swansea?), Tokyo (with localised covenants – zaibatsu – replacing the familiar five)… I think this is a nice answer to “Requiem has no lore” and “Catholics and pagans are not global phenomena you Eurocentrist pillock”, which are pain points I know have been raised by a lot of people.

Storytelling is a busy but focused chapter, which talks about how to emphasise each aspect of play – Mask and Dirge, Aspiration, Blood Potency, Vitae, Conditions and so on – offering a Twist for each one that really brings it out of the morass of play. My favourites are the Vitae Twists with tokens passed across the table and no numbers said aloud when feeding, and an option to say “chuck the character sheet, Vitae are dice, you can roll as many as you want, but when you’re running low, you must feed”, with damage coming out of the Vitae pool as well, and a five-dice no-control Frenzy at the bottom. (I really like this one, it’s the most… vampirism is all that matters… of the whole lot so far.) I’d use that with the Blood Beats twist as, let’s face it, conventional experience doesn’t really matter here, what matters is accumulating experience to become More Vampire by adding Blood Potency.

I also like the Twist to replace health trackers with Conditions applied as characters take hits. The mathematics involved seems like it doesn’t so much replace the health tracker as add a layer to it – I think I’d base this on margins of success during combat rolls rather than doing sums to see how much each character can take.

And there’s a really neat mode for character generation – a 12 step programme for fleshing Your Dude out with the other players and the storyteller, basically a collaborative relationship map that you build during character creation. I love group character creation and I also like when players bring me NPC ideas. Colour me pleased with this. I’d want to do this before even putting dots down; basically, concept, then Climbing the Ladder, then building the characters and setting.

An appendix for ghoul characters (with unique ghoul merits – for the first time ever I might actually think a ghoul chronicle is worth doing, as an extended Prelude), an appendix for conditions, and we are done!

Will I be running this? Yes: I’ve approached the Vampire group with it as something to try out after our Sabbat game has run its course, which it probably will in the next month or two. It’s not perfect – the information flow of the rules is all over the place and I think the sense of what would matter and come up and need to be read at a glance was somewhat off – but those are the only two tooth-grinders, so it’s walking in with a credible 8/10.

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