By White Wolf, £39.99 Print
Getting Medieval On Our Asses
Vampire: The Dark Ages, was one of my favourite White Wolf games. A curious blend of history and horror, mixed with a dash of mythology. It managed to set itself apart from it's parent game system, forging it's own path. Where Vampire: The Masquerade focused on personal horror, and the downward spiral away from humanity. Darkages made its path the pilgrims journey, a subtle shift in focus that made the whole game different enough from its predecessor to warrant its own line. Plus it had vampiric crusaders cutting a bloody swathe through turbulent times, and then agonising over it in a mindset peculiar to medieval times. It was written in a way that conveyed the feel of the times. This new version sets about reworking the Dark Medieval world top fit in with the Revised Edition of Vampire.
Lets start with look and feel. The book, being the limited edition, has a gorgeous feel. A slipcase containing a dark leather effect hardback, complete with red bookmark and shiny metallic logo. In addition to the main rulebook you get a thin artbook style introduction to the Dark Medieval world, told as a series of pilgrims tales, Geoffrey Chaucer eat your heart out. This game will look nice on your shelf, or coffee table. Was it worth an extra 20 quid? Depends how much you like strokable Ltd editions really. As a darkages fan, I happen to like it.
As ever the artwork is a mix of styles, tastes vary, I like some of it, was less impressed by others. John Bolton again gives us some wonderful chapter dividers, full of gothic menace. I'm pretty sure the clan pages were illustrated by Kieran Yanner, but he isn't credited, so I can't be sure. I didn't like these images to begin with, but they've grown on me. I suppose I just missed the old clan template illustrations, moustaches and all. There's a handy map of Medieval Europe illustrating the inside cover too, which is a nice addition. Layout is good overall, though the white text on black background sidebars are a bit stark, though they do draw attention to important side information.
The introductory fiction is a mix of mad prophetic ranting and the story of Caine. It's not overly annoying, and doesn't suffer from "cool dude with signature weapon" problem that many such intros do. I'm not a fan of introductory fiction, but this didn't detract from the book, and set the religious tone of medieval times quite well.
The Introduction gives us the standard run down of what the game is, what Vvampires are in this context, what a "storytelling game" is, gives us a chapter by chapter rundown and recommends some resources. Cadfael gets a mention, but not The Name Of The Rose, which I thought odd.
Chapter One gives us an overview of the setting. It's a nice mix of history, atmosphere building and background material. We are given the details of how Caine sired the race of vampires, how there are different clans of vampire which are caught in the eternal struggle, their stereotypes, the Traditions, Hierarchies, and so on. Details of how vampires work in the setting. The biggest difference here, is a stronger focus on the Roads (vampiric codes of morality) than previously. The writers have player up their importance, and filtered that into the setting nicely. We also get an introduction to the war of Princes, essentially an update of the setting to 1230 AD, which gives a stronger feudal hierarchy to the existing vampiric society structure and a good intrinsic conflict for player characters to become involved in. Now vampiric Princes hold Domains for Lords, who in turn hold their principalities for Monarchs. Clans have also been neatly divided into High and Low, essentially nobles and rabble. This chapter really hammers home the mindset of the setting.
Chapter Two explains the various vampire clans in more detail. Clans, for those of you not in the know, are vampire's equivalent of classes. They are thirteen styles of vampire, that give you a starting point for creating your character. The Brujah are mostly passionate warrior philosophers, the Tremere are secretive wizards, the Tzimisce are hoary eldritch fiends and warlords, the Malkavians are all mad; generic starting points which you can mould into your own concept. The descriptions try hard to avoid making each Clan seem too clichéd, and for the most part provide good introductions to the clans from which a player can springboard a variety of concepts. Some slip slightly, 10th Level Ventrue Paladin anyone?
Chapter three focuses on the Roads, our aforementioned vampiric codes of morality. Roads are given a solid introduction, that brings home how important these codes are to the setting. We get details of the five Roads followed by the majority of Europe's vampires: The Roads of Humanity, The Beast, Sin, Kings and Heaven. Each is given a two page summary, complete with coat of arms and a nicely evocative illustration. Each of the roads exemplifies a particular aspect of the setting, which is a nice touch. New rules have been added for "auras" for each of the roads, a mechanic that nicely rewards adherence to a road in game by giving you bonuses in certain social situations. For example, followers of the road of kings have a commanding presence, which helps them on social rolls related to giving orders.
The next chapter covers the basic rules. These will be familiar to anybody who's played before, you use a pool of ten sided dice, based of an attribute and an ability. For each dice that rolls over a difficulty, you get a success. Tens get re-rolled (now optional, oddly) and if you roll any 1s without getting a success, you botch. Personally I prefer the Exalted system, where there's only one difficulty, and number of successes is the difficulty, as this streamlines the system somewhat. But as dice rolling will probably be quite rare, this is not too much of an issue.
Chapter five covers the points based character creation, and also defines the skills, attributes and other statistics relating to characters. There's a nice section on "Thinking Medieval" here, which is a must for any player to read. I also enjoyed the addition of a set of "starting points", character templates useful for inspiring new players. These don't fall into White Wolf's normal trap of waffling on about a concept, they're clear and succinct, just enough to get creative juices flowing. This chapter details at length each of the abilities and what each level is worth. Though why they can't just give one table saying Poor, Average, Good, Exceptional and Outstanding, I'm still not sure. Each of the backgrounds, a vampires ties to external resources is also covered. The chapter is rounded off with a look at health levels, blood pool, humanity, willpower, and experience points. It's nice to see the maturation system making it into the main rulebook.
Chapter 6 details the vampiric disciplines. The cool powers and funky abilities that make vampires stand out (or in some cases hide away). For those of you who aren't familiar with the game, disciplines each cover a series of powers tied to a theme. Obfuscate covers hiding from sight, Potence is vampiric super strength, some are more tied to the traditional vampire myth than others, some are signature powers for particular clans. Each of the powers gets six levels of ability explained, with the exception of Mortis and Thaumaturgy which get a number of paths and rituals. Those familiar with the game will note that Celerity (vampiric speed) still follows the Darkages model of one action per blood point spent, rather than one blood point for all celerity actions, as seen in the modern day game.
Chapter 7 details "Dramatic Systems", which is to say, what rolls you make to achieve certain actions. I've always found it odd that a game focused so much on storytelling and character, gives you precise rules for how far you can walk a turn. I'd much rather they went with "as far as the plot demands" approach, than the 12 + dexterity yards they actually choose. It's handy for people new to the system I suppose, but seems to come more from a desire to simulate a reality, than a desire to tell interesting stories. Fanboys might say, "remember the golden rule, you can always change it", to which I say, wouldn't it be better if the rules practised what later chapters preached: Story, Character, Theme, and Mood. This chapter also deals with combat, again more detail than is really necessary in a "storytelling game". It works, but combats involving more than two people quickly degenerate into dice rolling competitions. It also provides rules for handling vampiric reactions to fire, sunlight, and a characters degeneration towards the bestial state and away from his Road.
Chapter 8 gives advice for the storyteller when preparing his game, or chronicle as it's called here. It covers how to convey the setting's atmosphere, themes, mood and get across the Medieval mindset. It also gives advice on controlling players, creating non-player characters and so on. At only twelve pages, it's a tad short for my liking, but no doubt there'll be a Storytellers Handbook out soon to remedy this, and the information given is enough for a beginner to get a basic grounding in the concept of setting up a game. One nice thing is that there's actually a section on "Letting Your Players Write the Story".
Antagonists and Allies is the title of the next chapter. It gives a rundown of the other denizens of the Dark Medieval world. It's got brief details on ghouls (vampire servants), The Church (inquisition included), Werewolves, Mages, Ghosts ,Demons and Fae. There's also a number of handy sidebars telling you what vampires know of these groups, even the informed ones, handy for gauging just how much characters should know of the setting. All this information should get a new storyteller filled with ideas for villains and other non-player characters.
The appendix covers the merits and flaws system. A series of handy traits for making characters unique and interesting, and always handy for hanging a plot off. Shame they're considered optional. There's also a Bestiary detailing common animals, and the weird creations of vampiric magic.
Overall: This is not a new game by any stretch of the imagination. It is a revision and repackaging. For this reason it is a game that will appeal more to newcomers to White Wolf and completists. Those of you who already know and love the game will find a few changes, but it is not a drastic update. The setting is excellent, the presentation good, but the rules system occasionally lets the game down.