Tabletop Review: Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition

Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition
Publisher: White Wolf
Pages: 529
Cost: $29.99
Release Date: 09/29/2011
Get it Here: DriveThruRpg.com

This summer I had a constant debate with myself over whether or not I was going to order the 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire: The Masquerade. On one hand, it was $99 dollars and I hadn’t played V:TM in roughly a decade as third edition’s changes and metaplot turned me off the game almost entirely. On the other hand, the most fun I ever had with either a tabletop RPG or a LARP was via V:TM. It was a huge book that would just take up space in my home but it was a pretty book with fabulous art and nostalgic memories too. In the end, I decided not to buy the thing due to my desire to go paperless and the rationale that eventually, White Wolf would put a PDF version of the book up on Drivethrurpg.com for me to purchase for less.

Then in late September, the PDF went live, and I still didn’t buy it. Why? Because the page for the PDF had a comment about a print on demand version coming. So I waited. And waited. Then I waited some more as the release date for the pod version kept getting pushed back. Eventually I didn’t have to purchase it as White Wolf sent me a free copy of the pdf a few weeks back. I’m guessing it was due to either my previous stint with them back in the day or because a few people over there read, liked, and commented on my review of Dust to Dust, the first published adventure for V:TM 20th. So after a few weeks of reading the book from cover to cover and comparing it to my complete run of 2nd Edition V:TM books to see what has changed, it’s time to review this puppy.

How is Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition? Well it’s not perfect as the book sports a few pieces of Revised/third that I wish had been staked along with the rest of that version, but as a whole it’s one of the best products White Wolf has put out in a long time – and easily one of the most cost effective. A big complaint with V:TM back in the day was that the game almost forced its metaplot on you all why saying “you don’t have to go this route.” The latter is nice, but with every published book being interconnecting and mostly talking about the ever approaching Gehenna and what WILL happen rather than what COULD happen, and it came off as mostly hot air being blown in a gamer’s face. There was also the problem that the books were published in a way that you needed to pick up most of the supplements (although not the campaign settings aka By Night books) in order to piece the game’s overall picture together. This strategy helped 2nd Edition and White Wolf to become the juggernaut tabletop game of the 1990s, but it also is was caused the downfall of the product with Revised and the reprinting of pretty much everything with the “you know need to own THIS VERSION” attitude. With V:TM 20th however, all that is pretty much gone. This books contains the most important bits of the Core Rulebook, the Player’s Handbook, the Storyteller’s Handbook, the Player’s Guide to the Sabbat, The Storyteller’s Guide to the Sabbat and tiny bits from other publications that were 90% padding and 10% important content everyone should have access to. This is wonderful as it gives V:TM fans most of the important stuff and all at a very reasonable price. Had V:TM gone this route with Revised, I honestly think a lot of the gamers that abandoned the product would have actually embraced it all the more instead.

Now that’s not to say that the book makes the best use of the 529 pages allotted. I would have liked a little more of an in-depth look at things like the True Black Hand, the Inconnu, the various clans and perhaps even some bits on variation locations. In return the could have excised a lot of the padding like “How to run a Chronicle (game)” and basic rpg fluff that everyone knows. The book definitely did this in the first half of things, even commenting that anyone who picks this up already known how to roleplay or is well versed in the ways of Vampire: The Masquerade, so it’s not worth wasting everyone’s time rehashing all that crap. So I’m not sure why they went back on that statement in the second half of the book. There’s so much more than could have been done there. Now this is a VERY MINOR quibble on my part and it’s only in regards to a few dozen pages, but again, I’d have rather seen those pages go to more specific V:TM based content than general RPG stuff.

Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition is divided into ten chapters. The book is laid out a little funny as the thirteen clans and the sects they belong to encompass chapter two starting with page 37. Chapter three covers building a character and chapter four covers the various Disciplines (vampiric powers). For some reason the book then goes into various rules before hitting chapter 10 which covers bloodlines (minor vampiric races) and the other disciplines they are known for. After that the book goes into Merits and Flaws, which many consider an integral part of character creation, and finally ghoul character creation. It would have made for a much better flow to have all of these in one area, say the clans, then the bloodlines, then all of the Disciplines in the game in one section and then character creation rules (with merits and flaws included) instead of scattering all these things across the book. The way V:TM 20th is laid out is very unfriendly, even to a long time V:TM player. The book comes across very sloppy in this regard. I’m sure the layout was done with some reason that makes sense to the people that put it together, but it’s going to be a bitch for a Storyteller to keep flipping back and forth instead of having everything of one aspect of the game in a unified spot. I can’t even imagine the wear and tear a physical copy of this book is going to go through because of the layout and it makes me all the more glad I didn’t drop a c-note on one. Someone really should have suggested a better grouping for this thing. Instead someone is going to be looking in the section on the Sabbat for information only to discover that a lot of that content is thrown into the last few pages of the book (hundreds of pages away from the other Sabbat info). It’s as if right before the book went to publication, someone said, “Holy crap! We forgot to put in XYZ!!!” and so it was shoved in at the end rather than placed in the areas that would have made sense. This is easily the most disappointing aspect of the book.

V:TM 20th starts and ends with letters from “V.T.” to “W.H.” Anyone reading this should instantly get who those initials are. I’ve always loved that about the core rulebooks and this is no exception. These two pages represent exactly what V:TM 20th is perfect: an intermingled love letter to fans showcasing the best the game has to offer whilst also being a repentant apology to those felt slighted, abandoned (or worse) when White Wolf ended the original World of Darkness and moved to Vampire: The Requiem. I admit, V:TR was never for me and that its popularity and sales are a fraction of what V:TM had, but it’s not a bad game and V:TM 20th proves both can co-exist simultaneously. I like that.

The interior art for V:TM 20th is jaw droppingly gorgeous. It mixes some of the best art from previous V:TM publications with all new work. My favorites are new new clan portraits that are interspersed throughout the book but honestly, who wouldn’t love these. Even people who don’t like V:TM or tabletop games in general will be impressed by the art in this massive tome. Just choosing what pieces to include in this review took a lot of thought. V:TM 20th is a wonderful to look at as it is to read, and that’s saying something.

So let’s talk changes. The changes are primarily in character creation, although the book also seems to wipe most of the previous canon metaplot of Revised out of existence. The Gangrel are back in the Camarilla, the Assamites are fully independents, and so on. The only things from Revised (Storywise) that seem to have survived are the Assamites freeing themselves from the curse the Tremere placed upon them and the horrible “Week of Nightmares” storyline. The former is optional and both versions of the Assamites are included for the sake of being able to use this book as a Dark Ages campaign. The latter…well, I have no idea why White Wolf would even remotely want to bring up what is almost universally considered the lowest point in V:TM history as well as the stupidest piece in the entire canon story of the game, but they did. Thankfully it’s optional but even the fact that it’s brought up has sent a shudder through anyone I know who has read it. For those unaware of what I am talking about you can boil WoN down to this, “The creator of the Ravnos vampires rose from slumber, killing tons of things left and right and even though it was basically a god, evil tecnomages ended up saving the day with a tactical strike of magical nukes. Yes, is it does sound like something a bunch of fourteen year olds would come up with while sitting around drinking Mountain Dew and getting buzzed on Pixie Stix. It’s considered the “jump the shark” moment for the game and where a lot of people gave up on V:TM entirely. Again, this is optional in V:TM 20 but why they didn’t wipe this bit out completely doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like the writers of the book wanted to say, “Thanks for coming back and giving us your money. Here’s some salt for those wounds.”

Character sheets are somewhat different. Some of the changes makes a lot of sense like folding “Body Alternation” into “Medicine. Only Tzimisce used the former and it kind of wasted Ability Points. Putting it into medicine was an awesome and far more useful move. On the other hand Linguistics has been moved from a Knowledge to a Merit. Remember me mentioning earlier how Merits are an optional part of character creation and kind of shoved to the very end of this book, far away from character creation? Well V:TM 20th has no other way to show how many languages a character knows which is poorly conceived in every way you can possibly think of. Thankfully any V:TM player or Storyteller worth their salt will ignore this change and write in linguistics on the character sheet.

In terms of Talents, Acting and Dodge are off the character sheet and are replaced by Awareness and Expression. This seemed really weird to me at first, but I can understand the changes. Dodging is now part of Athletics, which has always been there and Acting is part of the new Talent, Expression. Expression allows for things like writing, singing and other bits that were missing in previous character sheets. It’s a catch-all for Torreador types basically. Awareness however, is just plain odd. It’s kind of a combination of Alertness and Occult and honestly, it would have been smarter to just make this a Perception + Occult roll instead of its own Talent. It’s just a terrible idea across the board and like a lot of the changes in V:TM 20th, will just be ignored due to poor design.

Skills have several changes to them too. Security is replaced with Larceny, Repair is now Crafts and Music has become Performance. These are all changes for the better as they encompass more. You’re getting a more diverse Skill here than in previous editions. The “Knowledges” category has its share of changes too, and unfortunately they are all for the worse. Besides the terrible blunder that is moving Linguistics to Merits, Bureaucracy is gone completely, having been replaced by Academics. Academics is a catch all “liberal arts” category which is an interesting idea but Bureaucracy was a terribly important skill and it isn’t folded in anywhere else. Meanwhile they add Technology as a Knowledge while retaining Computers as its own Knowledge. This just boggles my mind. Many of the Ability changes involving creating larger, more diverse skills and yet Computer is separate from Technology for some reason. Just one of the many changes that are definitely for the worse and which will have me using V20th as more of a nostalgia piece than something I would actually run a game with. Too many bad decisions here.

Backgrounds however are as well done as Abilities are a hodge podge of ill thought design. It’s nice to see Alternative Identity get a place in the Core Rulebook as it’s a big thing in V:TM. Black Hand Membership (Sabbat Version) is here too. They’ve added a lovely Domain background and I especially enjoyed how it could be used as a collective Background, where players pool their points together.

Another great thing about the book is how it collects most of the Paths of Enlightenment along with the standard “Humanity” trait. Before, these paths were scattered all across various rule books and it would have cost you well over $100 (back in the day that is) to have all the books they were contained in. As oddly laid out as the book is, it’s nice to see all the Paths here and that the book is as useful to Sabbat players as it is to Independent or Camarilla players.

Then there are the Disciplines. This is a mixed bag. Some of the changes are flat out terrible and alone will keep me from being able to honestly recommend V:TM 20th as something to actually play rather than flip through. It’s like they kept the worst bits of Revised and continued to flush them down the crapper. Some of the other changes however, are quite nice and it’s also great to see ALL the Thaumaturgy paths in a single book. Well not all. A few are missing, but those had balance issues to being with (like Secrets) and they are gone for good reason. Unfortunately, for the most part, White Wolf went with the terrible decisions from Revised for Disciplines which again has me wondering who they made this book for as they’ve kept all the bits of Revised people I know disliked greatly, especially when compared to Second Edition.

Basically, a lot of powers are changed, the selection of abilities for Elder level abilities are nerfed and the choices are greatly reduced and they’ve stuck with only listing the first nine levels of each Discipline compared to ten in 1st and 2nd Edition. For the most part ALL the Disciplines in V:TM 20th are weakened or nowhere as well done as in 1st or 2nd. There are some exceptions where changes are for the better, like Vicissitude, but those are definitely in the minority. Disciplines that have been turned into shadows of their former selves include Potence, Celerity, Presence, and Serpentis while Fortitude has some really bad wording attached to it which if interpreted literally (rather than how it was meant) weakens it dramatically too. Mortis is gone completely, and Kindred that would have had that Discipline are forced into the version of Revised Necromancy which I always thought was a dreadful choice in the first place. The good news is that Necromancy is the one Discipline that has been expanded instead of trunicated. I’m still in shock they went with the Revised versions of the Disciplines. Why would you go with what brought you down rather than what brought you to the dance? This is like saying I’ll take Batman right after Bane broke his back instead of in his prime Batman. This is just bad balancing and design around and as much as I love this book. The Disciplines basically being worse versions of the mistakes made with Revised has me unable to recommend it except as a nostalgia piece to V:TM fans, or a curios to people still actively playing the game. What I would have liked to have seen were all the powers for each Discipline from each Edition of the game. This would have made this version of this game the definitive one rather than 3.5. If it’s an anniversary celebration, let gamers have the ability to see all the versions of the Disciplines. let them choose between Skin of the Adder and Mummify for Serpentis ***. Let Storytellers have all the options and choose which works best for them. There was definitely room for this and it would have made the book so much better.

Honestly, I’m really confused why White Wolf went with Revised rules, which is considered the low point of V:TM instead of going fully back to the extremely popular 2nd or 1st Edition. This book is meant to be a celebration of what made the game great after all. Instead it takes a few things from the older versions and instead sticks with the “too many cooks” 3rd Edition that many would say brought Final Death to the Masquerade in the first place. V:TM 20th has extremely high production values, wonderful art and is obviously a labour of love, but there are too many issues with the actual content, especially If you’ve played a lot of V:TM in the past or are even currently playing it now. If you’re brand new to Vampire: The Masquerade and aren’t bogged down with past history of the game you’ll love it. It’s also MUCH cheaper buying this PDF than going for the better quality 2nd Edition books. Everything is in one piece here and it’s all you’ll need to play a highly detailed campaign. Compare that to 2nd Edition where the core rulebook is almost seventeen dollars in pdf form and it only contains a fraction of the content that V:TM 20th holds. Now you could buy the actual 2nd Ed books en masse on Amazon for as much as this PDF (not including shipping) but then you have a lot of very heavy physical product you have to store somewhere and which is by no means as portable. All things considered, you get what you pay for. For $29.99, you’re getting a very pretty book and with all the rules you could want in one PDF, but you’re also getting sub-par rules and game design compared to earlier versions of the game.

Which is worth getting? Well, if you’re new to V:TM, I’d actually recommend this for the price and convenience. Even though the book itself espouses that it’s for long time fans, that’s actually the audience that will be the most critical of what’s here – especially those that left en masse due to the weirdness around Revised. If you already own a ton of V:TM books, there’s no real reason to invest in this, especially as you already have all the content this contains. If you want to support White Wolf or V:TM in general, then yes, by all means purchase this. If you’re looking for something to actually PLAY however, I can’t recommend V:TM 20th. There’s just too many issues plaguing this thing – from layout flow to inferior versions of Disciplines. I’m glad I have this and the V:TM fanboy in me is thrilled this exists and enjoyed reading every page, but the actual reviewer part of me that had to be critical in his analysis of the book sees too many flaws in the actual content.

At the end of the day, Kindred abilities and character creation have taken a notable nose dive here in terms of options and playability, but the core of Vampire: The Masquerade still shows off its greatness here. The history of the World of Darkness ,the information of the clans and the STORY are as wonderful as they ever were. It’s that story, rather than the actual mechanics of the game, that made V:TM so popular. It’s how the game captures the imagination and stirs the passions that drew in so many gamers. It certainly wasn’t the tedious combat rules. If you ever had fun with a troupe of players or can still remember events from a V:TM based LARP years after it has ended, Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition will no doubt fan the fires of those memories and fill you with nostalgic giddiness as you peruse its pages. That’s all I wanted/needed from it. I’m so glad I didn’t buy the $99 physical copy of this as I would have been extremely disappointed or even angry. But as a $29.99 pdf, it was wonderful to read even if I had a lot of issues with the rules and changes. Is it as good as the products White Wolf was churning out around 2nd Edition? No, it’s not. That’s the honest truth, but it is still a nice love letter to V:TM and its fans. Recommended for reading if you’ve ever been a fan of V:TM in any form – but not something I’d actually recommend for playing. I know I’ll happily pick the rest of the “Onyx Path” White Wolf is putting out. Hopefully the other things (like Dust To Dust) will be things I’d actually want to play rather than just read.

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