Vampire: The Masquerade is a tabletop role-playing game that has long been steeped in controversy. Since the first few editions were published in the early 1990s, the game has been criticized for its dark and erotic themes. Fans would say that detractors are simply missing the point.
This newest version, which will go on sale in early August, carries on the game’s dark traditions. But to what extent has the game system itself matured? And how have its designers worked to reframe the lore to align with modern tastes?
To find out, I invited White Wolf’s Jason Carl, producer on Vampire’s 5th edition, or V5 as it’s called, to run me through character creation and a short gameplay session. What I encountered during our one-on-one game was an intimate exploration of evil, a role-playing experience that was extremely intense. This is not a game for the faint of heart. Even experienced game masters should think long and hard about before bringing it to the table.
To be completely honest, I’m not sure that it’s a game that I’m interested in playing again any time soon. But that has as much to do with me as the content of the game itself.
Warning: This article contains a discussion of sexual assault.
In Vampire, players take on the role of modern-day vampires. Like any RPG, part of character creation is determining who you were before the game began. To inspire players, V5 offers up more than 30 pages of artfully designed background lore starting on page one. Rather than a boring info dump, in V5 that lore takes the form of unrelated scraps of paper being shuffled on a desk.
There, on the desk, first-hand accounts of vampires observed in the wild sit alongside minutes from secretly recorded telephone conversations. Medieval manuscripts mingle with contact sheets of bizarre, violent photoshoots. But one page in particular stood out to me; part of a script torn out of some kind of corporate training manual.
As most of you probably know, my name is Yvea von Eichel. I am the CFO of the Eichel Group, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to the inner circle.
You know that our company operates with different levels of trust. When you come in as a trainee, you work with corporate clients, municipalities, and foundations. You get to see some of the work we do and meet the more common types of clients.
As you work hard and rise in our ranks, you get to meet our more valuable clientele. Heads of state. Members of the European Parliaments. Some of the most established, wealthy families in Europe. Yet, as you worked with these people, you always felt that there was something still to come. You hadn’t quite ascended to the top yet.
Now you have. ... In front of you there’s a small cup. Drink its contents. ... This is the blood we live on.
That’s where my character began.
I imagined William Talbert to be a mid-level lobbyist in Washington, D.C., someone finally coming to terms with where the real power sits in our nation’s capital. Not with the senators or even with the President, but with a powerful cabal of blood-sucking vampires pulling the strings behind the scenes.
During our first meeting, Carl helped me to choose a vampire clan. Clans are Vampire’s version of the class system common in many tabletop and computer RPGs. Rather than a ranger good with a bow or a wizard casting spells, I became a Ventrue, a clan known for their wealth and power. The Ventrue clan is both arrogant and flamboyant in their dealings with other vampires and the humans around them. They believe that they are destined to rule, and I imagined William becoming infatuated with the idea of being part of those otherworldly political machinations.
After a few hours of working through his backstory and his skills, I felt like I had a good handle on who my character was. I imagined him as a pragmatic sort of henchman, someone willing to trade salvation for a chance at success in this world. To William Talbert, becoming undead was just a means to an end, a way to guarantee a legacy for him and his human family.
But being a vampire isn’t just about having superhuman strength and strange, mystical powers. As Carl explained it, Vampire is about drinking human blood. And that, for me at least, is where my problems began.
In V5, some vampires choose to mingle with mortal humans during the daytime. That was certainly true of my William, who I imagined lived with a wife and two kids in the D.C. suburbs. Only recently turned into a vampire, I saw him spending most of his days among human coworkers, moving from office to office on the Hill giving presentations and gaining influence for his organization.
But, at night, he transitioned into his true form as a powerful undead creature, working with and for the highest echelons in political circles to accomplish dark deeds on behalf of the Ventrue. Without blood, the fuel that his undead form ran on, none of that would be possible. So the next step was to determine how I found that fuel.
One of the new innovations in V5 is a character trait called Predator Type. It represents your character’s preferred method of feeding. It’s not a gameplay mechanic that requires the roll of some dice, and players are free to feed outside its restrictions. But they serve to inspire your role-playing, and each option is more sinister than the last.
From the rulebook:
Alleycat: “A combative assault-feeder, you stalk, overpower, and drink from whomever you can, when you can.”
Bagger: “You steal, buy, or otherwise procure cold blood rather than hunt, relying on the black market or your skills as a burglar or ambulance chaser.”
Blood Leach: “You drink from other vampires, either by hunting, coercion or by taking Blood as payment - the only truly moral way of feeding you can think of.”
Cleaver: “You feed covertly from your (or someone’s) mortal family and friends with whom you still maintain ties.”
Consentualist: “You never feed against your victim’s free will. You masquerade as a representative of a charity blood drive, as a blood-drinking kink-lord in the ‘real vampire community,’ or by actually telling your victims what you are and getting their permission to feed.”
Farmer: “You only feed from animals.”
Osiris: “You are a celebrity among mortals or else you run a cult, a church, or something similar.”
Sandman: “You rely on your stealth or Disciplines to feed from sleeping victims.”
Scene Queen: “You rely on your familiarity with a certain subculture and a well-crafted pose, feeding on an exclusive subculture that believes you to be one of them.”
Siren: “You feed almost exclusively during or while feigning sex, and you rely on your Disciplines, seduction skills, or the unquenchable appetites of others to conceal your carnivorous nature.”
Working with Carl, the game’s producer, I imagined William as a consentualist. A younger vampire, he had spent the last several years hiding his undead nature from his human family. To feed, he preyed on members of the opposite sex within his friend group, either family acquaintances or other business associates on the Hill whom he was comfortable with. Once he had earned their consent, however, he would use his vampiric powers to remove the memory of feeding from their mind. In this way he could uphold the grand masquerade, hiding vampire society from the humans around him, but also keep his marriage intact.
Choosing consentualist was an on-the-fly rationalization that I had made, a way of protecting the core concept of my character as an aspiring, though devious, family man. Most of the other Predator Types were profoundly unappealing to me on a personal level, and a quirk of the Ventrue clan disallowed me from choosing Bagger. So I found a Type that I thought I could shoehorn in and muddle through.
But the side effect was that, in a pinch, I was giving William all of the skills he needed to be a competent sexual predator. You see, in V5 — just as in previous editions of Vampire — feeding is a pleasurable act for vampires somewhat akin to sexual intercourse. For humans it’s described as an even higher form of ecstasy.
Gaining someone’s consent to feed from them, and then stealing that memory away, would prove to be one of the most uncomfortable moments I’ve ever had in gaming.
On the hunt
In the beginning of our first in-game session together, Carl gave me a difficult choice. Would my William start the evening low on blood, prone to lose control of himself and give in to the beast within? Or would he take the time to feed before he ran his errands for the Ventrue clan?
Ever the pragmatist, I, as William, opted to feed. I had him drive to a smokey, dimly lit bar that he often frequented and begin to make the rounds. Carl described who he found there.
Her name is Elena. She’s Ukrainian and you suspect that she might actually not be entirely legal. She is the wife of a rival lobbyist or a lobbyist who works at a rival firm. You’ve always hated these guys. Fucking ambulance chasers. There’s just — they don’t respect the game, they don’t respect the machine, they cut corners, take shortcuts. They’re just in it for the quick buck and there’s no art of the deal with these guys at all.
Elena has got a fake tan. You suspect it’s spray. She’s attired in clothes that are just shy of being too immodest for this place here. She’s pushing it. Hair is bottle blonde and she knows she’s all that. She’s totally cool and she knows it, but she’s bored and she’s left her husband at the bar to go talk to people.
Elena is immediately drawn to how cool you are. You go straight for her. You ignore the gentleman that she has been talking to. You present yourself square in front of her, fix her with your gaze. ...
You can feel the warmth of her human body, her human flesh against yours. And thank goodness you used Blush of Life [a power that allows vampires to appear human for a time] because you feel warm, too. If you hadn’t, you might feel a little cold, a little chilly and she might wonder in the middle of summer. ‘The air conditioning is not that cold here. What’s the deal?’ But you seem convincing. You seem human.
Over the next few minutes William coaxed Elena out of the bar for a cigarette and into the parking garage around back. Using little more than his personal charm, William brought her close for an illicit kiss.
Carl and I both rolled some dice, and that’s when William struck.
She leans in for what she thinks is a passionate kiss, but turns out to be a kiss of a very different nature. The fangs slide into her flesh and you experience that moment of ecstasy — the best thing in your world now — which is that first rush of fresh blood coming out of a human artery. She shudders, she moans, she stiffens against you and the ecstasy of the kiss takes over. She becomes blissfully unaware of what is happening to her and willingly consents to having her blood taken, stolen in this fashion. …
When the feeding is over — and this is takes, you know, four or five minutes — this passionate blood make out session takes a little while to get enough blood out of a very small bite in order to sate your hunger. When it’s over, she’s pretty weak. She’s pale. She leans against you because it’s hard for her to stand on her own feet. Her eyelids flutter and her pulse is thready. She’s not sure what’s happened. She looks confused and dazed.
At that point I, as William, chose to use several of my vampiric powers to remove the memory of feeding from her mind. All that remained was a fleeting memory of a stolen kiss, but William had taken much more. I had him hail a cab, give the driver her address, and help her into the back.
After closing the door, he adjusted his collar and got on with his night.
The session of Vampire: The Masquerade that I had with producer Jason Carl is unusual. It’s not really a game that’s designed for a single player. In actuality, the game is intended to be a shared experience. Players will gather around the table first to create their characters, building up a set of connections between themselves and the world around them. Like any RPG, it makes for an intimate experience.
Given the subject matter, as you can see above, V5 raises the stakes of that intimacy considerably.
And yet, the team at White Wolf have dedicated only a very small section of their book — about a third of one page — specifically to taking care of your fellow players at the table.
The section is titled “Individual Limits.”
In Vampire, you’ll be playing with evil. Your characters have to hunt for blood — an evil act in itself. They might slide further on the scale of morality, murdering and killing just to survive. As they go deeper into vampire society, they have to stand by as ancient monsters commit terrible crimes.
When you run a Vampire game, you’ll want horrible things to feel horrible, but you also want your game to remain playable and accessible to your players. The limits of which horrors are too much are very individual, and these boundaries are something you want to talk about as a troupe before the game starts.
The best way to approach this collaboration is not to hector your players, instead accepting the individual idiosyncrasies everyone has. Perhaps one of your players has just become a father and doesn’t want to see violence inflicted on young children, even in a horror story. Or maybe one of your players has been subjected to harassment online and doesn’t want to see those types of things happen in a tabletop game.
Our experience suggests that these individual limits have nothing to do with how severe any given evil act is. A player can be fine after a horrific torture scene, yet find even a suggestion of domestic violence to be too much.
There’s no easy trick to make horror always work for your players, but having an open discussion is a good way to start! The beauty of a tabletop roleplaying game is that you can tailor it for the specific individuals sitting around your gaming table.
In the moment, inhabiting William was kind of fun. I felt powerful using my character’s vampiric abilities. But it was very different than swinging an axe at a dragon. Elena felt much more real than most of the character’s I’ve encountered over the years. In a way, Carl created her based on the feedback I had given him during character creation. Having been in the shoes of the game master myself on many occasions, I know where that impulse comes from. At the table, you hope to give the players what you think they want. But, once I experienced that encounter, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do it again.
It was as if another part of my mind was experiencing a kind of pain during feeding. After it was over, the next day, I was uncomfortable with what had happened. I knew it was fiction, but it was a fiction that I helped bring to life. There was a part of me that wanted to take it back. I didn’t want to take advantage of Elena, even in a fictional way, and yet I had already done it.
As Carl explained to me, after our play session, White Wolf is planning to publish another game supplement. It’s a series of essays about caring for each other at the table, one that will cover issues of consent and before- and after-care for players who may be dealing with subjects that they find troubling.
But wasn’t it strange, I asked, not to include more of that kind of guidance in the core rulebook, a document that nearly every player at the table will have read and, presumably, understood?
“We saw it as a separate product, as a separate SKU,” Carl said. “I think the timing is inconvenient because we wanted to have it ready for Gen Con [when V5 will first be available for purchase] and I don’t know that it will be ready for Gen Con.” (This year’s Gen Con will take place Aug. 2-5 in Indianapolis.)
In V5 there are ways to remove certain triggering subjects from the game. During character creation, players are encouraged to make their feelings known about what kind of subject matter and gameplay is acceptable to them. There’s even a suggestion that the game master could gloss over the act of feeding entirely. But these sorts of recommendations are not always called out in a way that builds up the game master’s toolset. At times, they’re simply presented as options to speed up play rather ways to make your players feel more comfortable.
“It’s entirely possible, of course, that we have miscalculated and didn’t provide enough specific information on this topic for the average player,” he continued. “It’s hard to know what players bring to the table. Many people are familiar with vampire and horror role-playing and already know what to expect from a Vampire game. And some aren’t. I think it’s an entirely fair assessment that we might not have provided enough specific info.”
One solution to that problem is to finish the supplement as soon as they can and get it into the hands of players. But also, Carl said, White Wolf needs to show the game in action.
“Online streaming,” Carl said, “demystifies role-playing games.”
That potential oversight is, unfortunately, a pattern with White Wolf. During the production of V5 that team has made some unforced errors, including toeing the line of pedophilia in one early playtest adventure. There was also a recent episode where a writer accused the organization of catering to neo-Nazis and the alt-right, a claim that developer White Wolf Entertainment vehemently denies. For these, and other mistakes, Carl has said publicly that he and his team feel “stupid.” Regardless, the product is on its way from the printer as we speak and will be shipping out soon, both in a physical and a digital format.
From what I’ve experienced, the system itself is sound. Vampire: The Masquerade is an excellent role-playing product, ably accomplishing its goals of bringing dark horror to the tabletop. Its world feels fully fleshed out, and the mechanics are easy to teach.
Maybe it’s just not for me.
You can expect more actual-play sessions to appear on White Wolf’s Twitch channel very soon.
Update: After our story was published, White Wolf elected to add a new foreward to Vampire: The Masquerade’s fifth edition. It will contain the following content warning:
For the past several decades, Vampire: The Masquerade has addressed the darkness in the real world through horror stories: it has talked about AIDS, capitalist exploitation, sexual predation, the resurgence of far-right political extremism, religious fanaticism, state and private surveillance, and many other issues. This version of the game does not shy away from any of the above, and we believe exploration of subjects like these is as valid in roleplaying games as it is in other media. Including a problematic subject in a Storytelling game is not the same as glorifying it, and if you take the chance to explore it critically, it can be the exact opposite. If we understand the problems facing us, we are better armed to fight them.
[Vampire’s fifth edition] includes in-world references and expressions of the following: sexual violence, political extremism, physical violence and gore, mind control, torture, abuse, imprisonment and kidnapping, racism, sexism, and homophobia, to name a few. It’s a game about monsters. ...
But it is only a game.
Don’t use it as an excuse to be a monster yourself.
It will be accompanied by a new appendix, titled “Advice for Considerate Play,” which further encourages open communication and the discussion of consent. It ends with a short bibliography, referring readers to additional resources where they can learn more about those issues.