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Vampire: The Masquerade courts controversy once again, this time over ‘bleed’

Paradox’s World of Darkness studio will publish additional safety materials to strengthen consent-based play

Cover art from the Vampire: The Masquerade Players Guide book showing a woman with a bloody mouth walking down a brighly-lit strip at night. Image: Mark Kelly/Paradox Interactive
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Vampire: The Masquerade publisher Renegade Games shared a single two-page spread late last week that caught some in the tabletop role-playing game’s community by surprise. In it, Paradox Interactive’s World of Darkness studio invoked a sensitive role-playing concept called “bleed,” sparking commentary and, in some cases, outrage. On Wednesday, World of Darkness clarified that material with the release of more pages of content — and, once again, the promise of more thorough safety materials to be published at a later time.

When Vampire launched its 5th edition in 2018 many, including Polygon, were critical of developer White Wolf’s decision to include the game’s traditional themes of vampire-related sexual violence without a fulsome discussion of in-game safety and consent. Based on that criticism, White Wolf made the decision shortly before that year’s Gen Con to reincorporate safety materials it had previously intended to publish separately as a free supplement at launch. That appendix, titled “Advice for Considerate Play” is now included in all digital and physical copies of Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition Core Rulebook.

White Wolf, on the other hand, was effectively dissolved by Paradox following the mishap and a broader series of high-profile, unforced errors across multiple Vampire publications. Development of additional Vampire materials was brought in-house by Paradox for greater supervision, with publication managed by Renegade. The TTRPG has otherwise proceeded apace, buoyed by several seasons of a well-regarded actual play series.

Earlier this month, however, Renegade sent out a preview of its highly anticipated supplement Blood-Stained Love, a sourcebook intended to help add richer storylines involving romance to Vampire. In an email sent to customers, it touted “themes of love, control, and manipulation,” while at the same time invoking the concept of “bleed.”

A two-page spread describing the use of bleed in Vampire, including a sidebar titled “Playing for bleed.” Image: Paradox Interactive/Renegade Games

Bleed was formally defined by game designer Emily Care Boss in 2007. It’s the process by which the emotional aspects of role-playing can cross over into a player’s real-life and vice versa. Bleed is especially sensitive in the context of Vampire, which is known for its extremely intimate content. Feeding on blood is described as a sensual act for most vampires, and even more so for their human victims. But the game’s stock and trade also deals with the at times sordid relationships among vampires themselves, which can span centuries.

Bleed was previously mentioned in its 5th edition, including as a sidebar in Vampire: The Masquerade Players Guide alongside with guidance to check-in with other players in your group through “open, honest communication” and “established rituals of getting into and out of character.” The pages shared in Renegade’s email, unfortunately, made no mention of these safety tools in context, once again making it appear that the current designers of Vampire were not taking the wellbeing of players to heart.

Among the loudest critics of this particular invocation of bleed being shared without safety context was Jacqueline Bryk, the very same writer who authored the free supplement for Vampire’s core rulebook in 2018. Bryk shared their thoughts on the preview pages through TikTok, calling Paradox’s decision to include the material “irresponsible.”

@rufflejax #stitch with @improvgm Here I am, massively burned out on VtM, still talking about it even after being brushed aside. when did "This is a game about monsters, don't use it to be a monster yourself" become a cute little aphorism? #vampirethemasquerade #v5 #paradoxinteractive #renegadestudios #vtm ♬ original sound - Jax Romana

“Moralizing bleed like this is how we get creeps at the table,” Bryk said. “This is inelegant, irresponsible, and to be honest I don’t really want to see the influx of goth dudes coming to Vampire LARPs to play for bleed, or going the other way and deciding I’m too cool for bleed. [...] You’re going to get emotional constipation either way.”

Due in part to the comments of Bryk and others in the TTRPG community online, Renegade released three additional pages on Wednesday from Blood-Stained Love. These pages do a more thorough job of discussing the pitfalls of bleed, and give useful guidance on how to manage its use at the table — a process that it refers to as “calibration.”

At the same time, Paradox, through its World of Darkness account on X, also made a pledge to go deeper on the subject of bleed in a future release.

“We thank everyone from the community who contributed to the discussion about bleed last week, and what this word means at your tables,” Paradox said. “This discussion inspired us to bring you more materials on safety tools, usable across all World of Darkness settings. To give you more tools to navigate the subject of bleed and its calibration, we’re preparing an additional resource with the help of roleplaying research, additional sensitivity reading, and community feedback. This PDF will be available to download for free from our website when VTM: Blood-Stained Love releases!”

Vampire: The Masquerade - Blood-Stained Love arrives at retail in January 2024.