Review : Darkages: Vampire Limited Edition

A new edition of the medieval vampire setting.

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.

Review : Libellus Sanguinius 3 – Wolves at the door

A Darkages clanbook with background for the Assamites, Setites and Gangrel.

By Jason Langlois (Gangrel), Michael B. Lee (Followers of Set), Clayton Oliver (Assamites), White Wolf, $15.95/£9.99

The Vampire clanbooks, and their Darkages counterparts the Libellus Sanguinius series, have always been of mixed quality. Some of them are well written, inspiring and involving, others put you off ever playing that particular clan again. Fortunately this book manages to do everything that it should, it lets you in on the background of the Vampire Clans presented, gives you some nice ideas on how to play them, broadens the scope for playing them and generally is a very good read. It covers the three clans who hide at the edge of cainite society, mainly for geographical and social differences.

Physically the book feels nice and thick, and a quick flick through reveals some good quality artwork, Gangrel and Assamite score the best for this, with some nice characterful artwork. The followers of Set section lets the book down, with some artwork of the rough scratchy type which I don’t think suits vampire too much.

The Gangrel section is full of backstory details, like why the Gangrel and Ravnos don’t get on, where the Lhiannan and Laibon fit in (at least according to Gangrel Legend). There’s a nice contrast with the older V:TM Clanbook Gangrel, which tended to portray them as, to quote a certain TV show “A bunch of tree huggin’ hippies”. We get a nice image of a group of pagan creatures, who do not consider themselves cainites, being slowly forced into a society they don’t want.

Rules wise we get a merit for hiding in forests and a flaw that means animals like you too much (which is a hilarious idea). They also get some nice combo disciplines and a number of higher level protean powers. Lokis’s gift lets them shapeshift to the last creature who’s blood they tasted, and revert the beast temporarily gets rid of those animal features. We also get a brief mention of the Mariner gangrel, as well as the Greek Gangrel, who seem to be proto-city Gangrel and get Animalism, Obfuscate and Protean. There are some templates at the back, only one of which was particularly inspiring, a failed martyr, who went to convert the Pagans and got “converted” himself.

The Assamite section of the book is wonderful, the main reason being it actually makes the clan playable. No longer are the clan solely a bunch of ravening fanatic assasins. This book strongly empathasises that the Cainites image of the Assamites as a group of assasins is purely a product of stereotyping, it’s the west looking at the east with blinkered eyes. The whole clan is nicely fleshed out into three bloodlines, the warriors (the traditional stereotype), who are the ones who travel west most often and therefore what the westerners assume is the entire clan. There are also the visiers, who are mainly political in nature and control cities and trade routes, and the sorcerors (as detailed in the Thaumaturgy book) who deal in strange eastern magics. It’s nice to see a clanbook actually make a difference to my perceptions of the assamites, while it was possible to play an assamite before, this book makes the options so much more intriguing. Apparently the guy responsible for this book will be doing the new revised Clanbook from VTM, so I have high hopes for it. As well as details on the Assamites, theres some detail of the middle east during the darkages, which is helpful for those of us who know precious little about it.

The rules section of the Assamite book includes lots of good stuff. Another path of assamite sorcery, and some rituals, make the sorcerors very playable, and make it obvious how the clan keep in contact so well. The paths cover a number of astrological powers, used mainly for fortelling (vaguely) the future. The merits and flaws cover the Assamites multi-cultural nature, as well as the origin of the thrist for Cainite blood that will later become the clan flaw. There are also some combo disciplines, some of which may be a little unbalancing, ie the ability to parry every attack made against you in a turn with full stat+skill, I can see the muppets queuing up for that one, or the blood tempering (+1 sword of vampire slaying anybody?). Still by and large this section is fun to read and no more gross than anything else published in the annals of Vampire.

The Setite section tries to portray the followers of Set as the misinterpreted on one hand, and the obviously corrupt on the other. They are only doing there gods work, attempting to right a cosmic wrong, or so they say anyway. The writing is good and enjoyable, but I was left with the nagging feeling that I didn’t know much more finishing the section than when I began. While it’s nice background, and good to see the Followers of Set’s take on events, there just didn’t seem to be enough for me. Perhaps the best idea is the fact that the Followers disdain the use of the bloodoath, for religious reasons, of course. The Followers of Set get a nice bit of sorcery of their own, as well as a nice background for networks of contacts. They’ve got some cultural flaws and the via Serpentis too. Otherall, the weakest section, but still worth a read.

Overall: I liked this book, it was full of nice tidbits of information and background, as well as interesting implementations of them in rules. Obviously the value of this book to you depends on your inclination when choosing a clan. For me the Assamites were the highlight. Anyway, it’s better value than a modern day clanbook, and a definitely one for Darkages storytellers.

Review : Clanbook Salubri

A vampire darkages clanbook.

By Cynthia Summers, White Wolf

Clanbook Salubri is the third of the clanbooks series to be produced specifically for Vampire : The Dark Ages. It gives an in depth view on the Salubri bloodline, from it’s history as healers and holy warriors, to it’s present nights, being hunted down by the Tremere.

It’s nice to finally see a book dedicated to the Salubri. Their tragic tale is one of the more compelling parts of the World of Darkness and they have long been deserving of greater coverage. Now we finally get some insight into how the bloodline operated before they were all but wiped out. The book adds to the background considerably, and avoids repetition from too many earlier supplements.

The book details the clans history, from it’s early wars with the Baali to the dark medieval times. We also get some gorgeous descriptions of the three Salubri factions, the healers, the warriors and the watchers. The healers are wandering helpers of man and vampire, as per modern day vampire.The warriors make an interesting alternative, being mystic crusaders against the infernal. The watchers are incredibly interesting, they keep an eye on the Tremere, but don’t do anything, as if they are waiting for something….

There’s some good quality background history here. Along with the standard space wasters of too lurid prose and concept suggestions, you get some very nice alternate powers, a good bit of detail on the organisation of the clan, and some very tasty pieces of info on the world of darkness “backplot”. The book is written as a report on a dwindling bloodline by one of it’s few remaining friends, which gives it a nice feel, without detracting too much. Scattered throughout are some very nice pieces of flavour text, which add to the atmosphere of the book (for a change).

Overall:This is a well written sourcebook, which puts many of the older clanbooks (Ventrue and Brujah, we are looking in your direction) to shame.