Tabletop Review: Blood and Smoke: The Strix Chronicle (Vampire: The Requiem)

Blood and Smoke: The Strix Chronicle (Vampire: The Requiem)
Publisher: White Wolf/Onyx Path Publishing
Cost: $19.99
Page Count: 311
Release Date: 12/16/2013
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com

Well, it took me a while to get this reviewed, but here it is. It’s a shame that Blood and Smoke came out so late in the year. It was hit with more delays that some video games. The key thing is that the book is finally out and V:TR fans can rejoice. At first I thought it was too bad that Blood and Smoke came out the same time as a glut of other releases like FOUR different Werewolf: The Apocalypse titles, two Shadowrun supplements, a new Numenera game, a Deadlands Noir adventure, the launch of Accursed and so many other titles. However instead of having its sales cannibalized by all the titles hitting at once, Blood and Smoke sold like it was the cure for cancer. It’s been the #1 seller on DriveThruRPG.com since it came out and is one of the 100 best selling titles of all time on that site – an impressive feat for a product that has only been out for a month.

It’s worth noting that even though Blood and Smoke is being sold as a sourcebook, it’s actually a core rulebook for Vampire: The Requiem in the same was you get a new edition of D&D, Call of Cthulhu or Traveller. It’s also worth nothing that for the first time in New World of Darkness history, you don’t need the World of Darkness core rulebook AND a second rulebook for the type of game you want to play, like Mummy: The Curse or Werewolf: The Forsaken. Nope, all you need is Blood and Smoke. It has all the rules you need to play the game. You don’t even need The God Machine Chronicle and it’s rules update from mid-2013. It’s about time the New World of Darkness did this and it’s long been a complaint I’ve heard about the system. It only took a decade, but it’s nice to see all the rules in one spot, and is no doubt a big reason why Blood and Smoke is selling as well as it is.

I’ll admit, I never really cared for V:TR when it first came out. Besides the having to double dip for rulebooks unlike the OLD World of Darkness line, the writing just didn’t seem as good (while the mechanics were improved) and the more the line went on, the more disjointed and piecemeal it seemed to become. Over the past few years, things have started to tighten up and flow better. There seemed to be more cohesion and continuity between products and a definite uptick in terms of writing quality. A great example was last year’s Blood Sorcery which dramatically improved Vampire based magic in the game. Then this year, between Reap the Whirlwind and The Strix Chronicle Anthology, I was actually excited for V:TR for well..the first time ever. The stories being told and the new rules that were showcased had me convinced that Blood and Smoke would be the overhaul Vampire: The Requiem desperately needed. It turned out that it was. I’ve never been happier with the new World of Darkness between this, Mummy and The God Machine and 2013 was definitely the best year for the NWoD EVER.

Although Blood and Smoke rewrites Vampire; The Requiem from the ground up, much of the book is a retelling of things longtime V:TR fans already know. It’s all new writing and there are twists on the history, timelines and different interpretations of things from previous releases, so that means even people who own dozens of V:TR releases can pour through Blood and Smoke and find it to be a fresh new read. I’m also glad that Blood and Smoke retells all the basic details, the most minute mechanics and explains that the core theme of Vampire: The Requiem is, because that means the book is extremely accessible and inviting to new gamers. One of the biggest detractions the NWoD gets is that the books have been written in such a way that they assume you already own everything that came before it. There’s no explanations for newcomers and thus the releases have tend to drive more gamers away than they have brought in, thus leaving the NWoD extremely insular and with a much smaller fanbase that the Old World of Darkness had in its prime. Again, Blood and Smoke is proof that OPP is learning from the mistakes the NWoD has made over the past 10+ years. The game hasn’t been this wide open to new and old fans alike since its inception and again, another reason why Blood and Smoke is selling like hotcakes.

For those new to V:TR, the book contains everything you need to play along with copious amounts of back story, description and content. You have the five clans, Daeva, Gangrel, Mekhet, Nosferatu and Ventrue. There are also short write-ups of the three extinct clans: The Akhud, the Juli and Pijavica. The Tremere don’t show up anywhere in Blood and Smoke even though they occasionally are referred to as a “Lost Clan” in some books. For newcomers, you’ll have to look to Mage as they show up there regularly (They’re considered Liches in the NWoD for people who only know the V:TM version.). You also get six Covenants and four “broken” ones. By broken they mean, died out in a figurative sense. Covenants are how vampires group their allegiance in V:TR. Again, if your only exposure is Vampire: The Masquerade, think of Covenants as much smaller organizations like the Camarilla, the Sabbat and the True Hand, except these organizations all work together (to varying degrees) instead of being at each other’s throats.

Much of the book is about the mood, theme and atmosphere rather than mechanics. Don’t worry dice chuckers and ruleslayers; there are plenty of mechanics in Blood and Smoke for you. But World of Darkness games have always been about the story first and so the newest version of V:TR is no difference. The book takes you through what it means to be a vampire and how the longer you stay a vampire the harder it is to hold on to your humanity. The core concept of humanity is redone for Blood and Smoke instead of basically being a chart where you compare what act you did to your humanity rating and then rolling dice to see if you’ve become more of a “monster,” humanity in this latest version of the game is more of an immersive role-playing experience. You have touchstones, aspects of your former mortal life which keep your grounded and your baser instincts in check. A Touchstone could be anything from your gravestone to the children you had when you were a mortal. It could be the baseball stadium that you always had season tickets to or perhaps an opera. Regardless these touchstones give your character something to work with in-game as well as story thread potential for the person running the game. Maybe a subplot of an adventure is that a character’s touchstone is a park and some unscrupulous builder wants to turn it into condos. Here then, the PC can protect the touchstone which makes the adventure a metaphor for protecting his or her slowly eroding humanity. Now, that doesn’t mean touchstones should always be in danger of being destroyed or tampered with. That’s only something a lazy or unimaginative Storyteller would do. Touchstones exist for the character first and foremost and help keep them grounded. Constantly attacking or threatening them just turns the game into the unfortunate “Storyteller Vs Player” setting where no one ends up happy and to be honest, is kind of spitting in the face of what White Wolf style games are supposed to be like.

It’s also worth noting that Humanity also effects how a vampire takes sun damage. The newer a vampire is to their unlife coupled with how high their humanity is, determines how much damage you take from the sun and how often. Higher Humanity levels can tolerate the sun for longer periods and the same with being a younger vampire. Now this is the inverse of V:TM or most horror games like Ravenloft where the older a vampire is the more sun they can withstand. Personally as a folklorist, I prefer the pre-1922 vampire where sunlight was an annoyance at best and never lethal. Stupid Count Orlock. However, the past century has pretty much cemented sunlight as a weakness for vampires (unless they are sparklepires…), so as much as I was hoping that sunlight would be downplayed entirely, I do approve of this reworking of the weakness. In a sense, sunlight damage becomes a metaphor not for a character’s purity or how good they were as a mortal, but rather how much they are able to cling to the being they used to be. Humanity in V:TR isn’t where a ten rating equals Lawful Good Paladin from Dungeons & Dragons, but rather how much you have held it together in the face of your new existence. When you lose Humanity, you lose what you once were. Memories, emotional, connections, empathy and the like all erode. The less Humanity you have, the more bestial or instinctual a vampire becomes until they are an animalistic predator with no thoughts but the most basic on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So in this respect the more sunlight you can tolerate, the more of yourself you are and the more damage you take from it, the more you have slipped towards the embrace of the Beast.

Another unusual aspect of V:TR is Blood Potency. While this goes up with age, it can also go down from entering a deathlike sleep called torpor. Blood Potency not only determines a PC’s power level but also drawbacks as well. For example, the higher the Blood Potency, the more limited your feeding options are. You might lose the ability to feed off animals and then humans, leaving your only prey option to be other vampires. At this point, you might choose to enter Torpor to lose BP and thus feed normally. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of benefit Vs drawback and I enjoy the concept, but I can definitely see where others would have a problem with it, especially munchkin/power gamers. Blood Potency kind of prevents the min/max’ing you see in other games, which I personally approve of.
So two things. First, notice how in the previous paragraphs you have rules and mechanics, but without dice. They are pure storytelling. I love this. Sure, the option to roll or whatever is still available, but Blood and Smoke does put an emphasis on as little rolling as possible. It’s proof you can have the rules without bogging a game down with check on the exact implementation or stopping the pace or flow of an adventure every few seconds with rolling dice. This is kind of a throwback to older RPGs rather than the 3.0/Pathfinder era of games where there is a roll based mechanic for everything. Again, I prefer the limiting of dice to big moments and letting the group of players and Storyteller control the majority of the tale. That’s just me though so again, enjoyment of this play style may vary. Second, notice how in the previous paragraphs I also commented how a play mechanic is a metaphor for something else. This is constant throughout Blood and Smoke. I love this. I love games where mechanics flow into the story rather than run parallel with them. It makes the game a more immersive experience overall.

We also see Conditions make their return from God Machine Chronicle. Conditions are similar to derangements in that they are mental states a character can enter. Unlike derangements conditions can be temporary as well as persistent or permanent. There are nearly fifty Conditions, and each has their own way they can be developed and beaten. I like this because it ties a specific mental state down to the character and make them actual act it out. Too often I’ve seen people gain derangements and pay them no mind. We’ve probably all seen the one person who plays a Malkavian without any specific derangement and just has them be “crazy” which everyone else interprets as “annoying to the point of PvP occurring.” Some gamers might not like having a specific Condition forced on them, but I feel it makes for better role-playing potential and ensures someone will act out their insanity. Conditions feel a lot like the temporary insanities, phobias or philia you can pick up in Call of Cthulhu. Plus, you can gain a beat for some of these, which is a nice reward a la the GM Intrusion from Numenera. Beats are fractions of experience points by the way. Get five and they become 1 XP.

Okay, I should probably move on to the titular aspect of the book, which are the Strix. Although in previous versions of V:TR supplements and sourcebooks, information about the Strix has been contradictory and oddly defined. At times it felt like all of the people writing about the Strix didn’t bother to read what anyone else had written and so their entire history felt very poorly done (as a whole, some individual pieces were quite nice), disjointed and kind of like a flesh golem if it were words instead of people parts. If there was one thing I was really looking forward to being overhauled and getting some much needed cohesion, it was the Owls. After all, the Strix represent all the bits of folkloric vampires that the more Hollywood/20th century style Kindred lack. The overwhelming hunger, the pure monstrosity, the bizarre weaknesses, the ability to go out in the sun. Hmm. Vlad Tepes can go out in the sun in V:TR, yet he is NOT an owl. Or is he? So many possibilities there! Anyway, with the Strix, VLTR pays homage to the vampires from yesteryear as well as the modern incarnation. Even better, they’ve shored up what the Strix are instead of making them unstoppable boogeymen that just kill PCs left and right. Now, they’re still fearsome SEEMINGLY unstoppable creatures, but there weaknesses and powers are better laid out and more thoroughly defined. What this means is that a Strix is still a monster for the monsters, but that they can be defeated in a similar vein to Call of Cthulhu where investigation and knowledge helps a mere mortal stop the machinations of an being utterly alien to our own form of existence. Hmm. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy the changes to V:TR so much. I am a long time CoC fan…

There’s a lot more to Blood and Smoke than what I’ve covered. I mean, I’ve only written 2,500 words and the PDF is 311 pages long. I could touch on character creation, but it’s pretty much the same as any White Wolf game. Masks and Dirges are the equivalent of Natures and Demeanors. Disciplines, Frenzies, ghouls and everything else are similar to earlier incarnations of Vampire: The Requiem. Are they exact? No, but they are so close that the devil is in the details. Again, if you’ve never played V:TR before, this is definitely the book to get. It gives you all the rules and is as inviting to newcomers as it is full of references and telltale hints that only long time fans of the game will pick up. I honestly feel Vampire: The Requiem is SO MUCH BETTER than it used to be. The game has gone from my least favorite New World of Darkness setting to third or fourth (behind Mummy, God Machine and maybe Mage. I go back and forth on it. I absolutely think this is a step in the right direction and with these changes I am actually inspired to run a game of V:TR. I can’t think of the last time that has happened. This was just a fantastic job all around by the writing team. The question now is, where does V:TR go from here?

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