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[V:TM] Let's Read Vampire: the Dark Ages - 20th anniversary edition

John Doe-Smith

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I wonder if it will keep the 1996 statement about 'rules lawyers' who for some reason think more rules makes the game more realistic and the extreme disadvantages to that type of play, followed by a statement about 'freeform' play with no need for system at all (beyond a simple coin flip if needed)- an approach that is valid, but can result in a feeling that the game is arbitrary and subject to players' ability to entertain the Storyteller- thereby implying if not stating outright that fewer rules are better, even though the book is chock full of those icky rules that were frowned upon.


Armless Tiger Man
The introduction: which introduces stuff.

We have now seen the pretty pictures, and read the opening story and are now through to the introduction. One of the useful things here is that, on the opening page, the design goals are set out for the reader. This is a book that is supposed to be a nostalgic experience, an authentic experience, a new experience, a unique experience, and a supplemental experience. That it is a nostalgic experience is fairly clear; this is a book which has been through the kickstarter process, and has primarily appealed, thus far, to existing fans of the game. Yet the fact that it is a new experience means that it is written with, at least in theory, new ideas will be appearing in the following pages. As it is a new experience it also makes the claim for being a unique experience.

The slightly troubling design goals are that it is a supplemental and authentic experience. As the text says:

We offer some advice on storytelling, but we’re light on the fundamentals. We have all the rules, but we saved space on rule elaboration and examples so we could devote that space to more game content. V20 goes to great lengths to a lot of these places, and if you need further details, it’s a great read.
Which makes me wonder about what makes a complete game? Is it that a product provides all the tools and information which I will need to play? Or whether it includes all the cool powers? It’s a question which we will probably have to ask ourselves through the process of reading the book.

The other design goal which demands similar consideration is that the book provides an authentic experience. Authenticity is, of course, a synthetic and subjective property. It’s not something that resides within an object, but it imposed on from without by observers making a declaration of authenticity. It’s a stance, an interpretation, an argument for how particular things should be seen. Yet, it’s not of course intrinsically wrong for a game to assert the notion of authenticity. A superhero game might claim to present the authentic superhero experience which is, to say, it uses genre emulation to encourage a particular relationship between the player and the game. Interestingly enough, the White Wolf game which went most down this route of authenticity was the original Vampire: the Dark Ages, which presented itself as a gothic horror game. There, the players were encouraged to adopt a relationship with a literary representation of the medieval world. So, the notion of authenticity is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes me feel a little cautious particularly as I don’t think this book is good at articulating what authenticity means within this context.

Having the design goals here is good, as it will provide us with a yardstick against which this book may be measured.

The section on design goals is followed by a description of what vampires are within the context of this game, and the ways in which they correspond to, and differ from popular mythology (or rather, the popular mythologies established by Hollywood). It runs to just over half a page and is a very good brief summary of what vampires are like. This is followed by short sections on the Caine myth, the embrace, and the hunt. I appreciate concise writing in game books, as it shows a precision and focus which is appropriate for what are in reality reference book. A sign that this material is well written is that it manages to convey, in passing, important information about the background of the game. The section on Caine’s brood introduces the concept of generations, priming a reader unfamiliar with the setting for a piece of the game background which will (I suspect) be elaborated on in the next chapter. This is good writing and, I think, it’s worth pausing for a moment to understand the reasons why it’s good writing.

This is then followed by some not-so-good writing in the following section, on source material. The advice on source material is that it is easy to find source material. Why, thanks, I could have worked that one out for myself, were it true. It does offer The Crusades by Terry Jones as an off-the-beaten path suggestion, despite the fact that this is probably the book which is likely to be reached by following the most heavily-beaten and well-travelled road.

The introduction ends with a section on playing the game which, at five pages, takes up more than half of the chapter. It focuses on feeding, working through the vampire feeding cycle, using it as a metaphor for the game. The writing is expansive and a little colourful, though it manages to retain its focus. More importantly, it focuses on the right issues. Too often in the Vampire line, and particularly in the later books in the revised product cycle, it would be seemingly forgotten by writers that this was a game focusing on blood-drinking creatures. Feeding is, however, the focus here, and rightly so. Earlier I praised the material introducing the key concepts of vampires as being concise; the text at the end of the chapter is, by contrast, flowing and expansive, and is also good writing, with the writer showing an awareness of the prose style required for the purpose.

Here we reach the end of the introduction. The quality of the writing so far has mostly been very good though marred by some unevenness. In particularly, the story which began this part of the book, and the closing section of the introduction seem to come from vastly different games, ones which barely relate to one another. We are, at the moment, 20 pages into a 476 page book, so it will be interesting to see if this stylistic imbalance persists.


Armless Tiger Man
An interlude on candles.

Chapter one begins with an illustration of a rich, Northern European dude, writing by candlelight. We know that he’s in Northern Europe, as he’s using candles, and we know that he’s a rich dude because he’s using candles. More specifically, he’s using two wax candles.

Whilst candles are seen as a terribly medieval light source in the present day, they actually saw relatively little use in the middle ages. Most people in the northern countries of Europe who needed artificial light would use rushlights, rushes dipped in animal fat; more wealthy people would use tallow candles, whilst only the wealthiest would employ wax candles. In fact, quality candles will not become a cheap commodity until the end of the eighteenth century with the invention of the stearine candle. These were created by adding arsenic to tallow, creating a candle which burns like it’s made of wax, whilst being vastly cheaper. An unfortunate side effect was that stearine candles were incredibly poisonous, though at least it stopped the rats eating them.

Anyway, it is amazing as to how much historical baggage can be buried, even unintentionally within an illustration. It is, moreover, not wholly unrelated to the text of the book. We will come back to candle-man at some later date.


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Cassander - can you recommend a good book or source if you want to make your Dark Ages pseudo-realistic? Or just post everything you know :)


Robot Spider Queen
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The credits page lists 20 authors of this book, which, despite the fact it is 476 pages in length, seems a little excessive..
Far from it :) ! 20 authors on a book that size is quite reasonable, especially when you account for the fact that (based on other Onyx Path books, not experience with this particular one!) some of them only wrote a piece or two of chapter fiction, and some were hired in to rewrite pieces that another author wrote but didn't quite get quite right, etc.

OP books are made mostly by freelancers, which means that most writers you'll see in the credits did a small part of the book. It's then gone over with a fine-toothed comb by the editor, who makes sure it gels with the game line's style. It's sent back to the writer to rewrite it, sometimes heavily, and then resubmitted to the editor, who corrects it again and sends it back (this can take a few more passes in some circumstances). It's then sewn together into a coherent whole, and possibly sees some minor rewrited by the book's developer. If it's not good enough, then it's cut instead, or handed to another writer to re-write. In the course of this process, I already mentioned 4 potential authors, and this is just for the chapter 2 opening fic "Ye Olde Bitenteeth", total page count: 1.

Normally, you'll have some writer who focus on fluff and some who focus on crunch. It's not abnormal to have one of each type writing a single chapter together, coordinating with each other to get the work done. Each writer normally gets a discrete chunk of the book to write, usually a chapter or two, or a part of one, and thorough guidelines on what to do and not do. As a rule of thumb, though, anything less than 2 writers per chapter is eminently reasonable for any OP book, and more than that doesn't necessarily mean something bad. Hell, sometimes, someone gets hired in at the very tail end of a project to quickly whip up a page or two of text, and, bam, that's a writing credit, on equal footing with that guy who wrote chapters 7-10.


Armless Tiger Man
Chapter one: A Place in Time

Turning the page from candle-dude (as I will henceforth call him), we come to the first chapter, which deals with the background to the game. This is titled “A Place in Time”, and, in twenty pages, gives an overview of the world of Cainites. This is written entirely as an in-character monologue, which is pretty much my least favourite way of imparting information about a game. It’s written from the point of view of Grandmother Penne, one of the characters from the introductory story.

The chapter covers the basics of the game’s background, discussing the beast, age distinctions amongst vampires, clans, and so on. What is most interesting here is what it stresses, and what is mentioned in passing. For instance, the War of Princes and the split between High and Low Clans both get mentioned, yet neither gets overly stressed, and both aspects of the game are presented in fairly relative terms. For instance, the book begins its discussion of High and Low Clans in these terms:

You’re born into a family, and you take the lumps that come with it, aye? So too do you die into a clan, and with that clan comes centuries of weight trial and sin, as I’ve said. In general, we see clans as High or Low, depending on who’s in charge of the city, what the history is, and who’s done the most wrong and been caught in recent memory.
This is a subtle, but quite important, revision on how the distinction between High and Low Clans is managed within the game. Whilst there was a notion idea of the split within Vampire: the Dark Ages the idea of High and Low Clans was rigidly codified in Dark Ages: Vampire, to the point where there were certain books which told the reader that they were playing the game wrong if they ignored the division of Cainites into High and Low Clans. Yet hard rules about social distinctions make little sense, particularly since subtle social interactions are supposed to be a key feature of the Vampire game series. Thus, the movement away from a rigid divide between High and Low Clans here is a welcome shift from the last edition of the game.

Moving on, the section on clans is followed by a presentation of the Traditions, which are largely unchanged from earlier editions. Which is much as you might expect something traditional to be though, as any historian will tell you, “tradition” is a word which tends to be attached to innovations. Next, after the Traditions, we are introduced to the various Cainite posts, starting with the prince. It’s worth quoting the first paragraph here in full:

In my London and in many of the cities that neighbor the area, we are ruled a Prince Regent (sic), a vampire of considerable age and power who rules the lot of us with as tight a fist as he can get away with. Tradition, and the Traditions, say that the Prince ought to be the eldest of all the vampires in a city. I suppose the idea is that the oldest is the closest to Caine, the most powerful, and therefore the most fit to rule. Even in traditional cities like London, the Prince is rarely the actual eldest Cainite. Current, the city is under sway of the eldest’s childer; she rules as he devotes himself to esoteric studies. He can’t be bothered. Truth be told, if we practiced closer to Caine’s intent, the city would be chaos. The true eldest lost his mind some fifty years back or more.
Which is... Well, the word “useful” wouldn’t appear within my assessment of this paragraph. One of the problems with the World of Darkness is that writers decide that they dislike what has previously appeared, for whatever reason, and fervently try to re-write past publications. See, for instance, the ongoing discussions here about the Great Leap Outwards, and how it combined dubious orientalism, with a desire, somewhere within White Wolf, to dispose of the Anarch Free States. This revisionism process is unhelpful in that it means that the game background can become an unstable quicksand of ret-cons and metaplot. London is a particularly bad offender; as one of the most notable cities in world history, it has had a lot of material directly referring to it within White Wolf products, the resulting mess being discussed in passing within a thread found here. And, given that we’re talking about London, we can just name the prince as Mithras. We all know who we are referring to here.

(Incidentally, one of the main reasons as to why London ended up with a Methusaleh for a prince was that the character of Mithras, and the original descriptions of Britain in the World of Darkness, were created by Graeme Davis. A veteran RPG writer, Davis was brought in by Mark Rein-Hagen to give the polish to some of the early World of Darkness projects; it was Davis, for instance, who wrote the letters at the front of the first edition of Vampire: the Masquerade. Davis had worked heavily on Games Workshop’s edition of Call of Cthulhu, and had set the tone of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay when he wrote Shadows over Bogenhafen. From this, and from his chapter in A World of Darkness one can see that the powerful elders of Britain were supposed to be played like the more human Masks of Nyarlathotep; scary manifestations of immense power hiding behind facades of humanity. However, the directions in which the World of Darkness ended up heading meant that elders such as Mithras ended up becoming problematic anomalies.)

Anyway, back to our book. We are also told that Athens is not ruled by a prince, which should probably come as a surprise to Dionysus, Prince of Athens, and 5th generation childe of Japheth. Seriously, I don’t mind a bit of inconsistency within a game line, but it is somewhat ridiculous when it feels like the world is being reinvented from scratch every time a book is published.

We are also told that London has a rat catcher, who provides rats to London’s Cainites, which is interesting since the brown rat has yet to appear in Europe in 1242, and black rats don’t have permanent breeding colonies in northern Europe at this time. Rats are seriously more of a luxury than people.

Moving on we have a bit on the Caine myth, a couple of paragraphs on Amaranth, and a section on generations, Wassail, and Golconda. The chapter ends with some text on potential antagonists, such as werewolves and witches, and a lexicon.

The chapter is, overall, a fair introduction to the medieval World of Darkness, yet also is an extremely frustrating read in places. In large part this is a product of the in-character nature of the text, and a corresponding unwillingness to commit to details. We are regularly told that “...a Gangrel told me that...” or “...in Warsaw they approach this matter differently by...” but hard, firm details tend to be elusive. We aren’t even told that the only two Antediluvian names commonly known are Lucian and Mekhet. The frustrating style helps to disguise that there is good stuff in this chapter, such as the revision of the treatment of High and Low Clans, or the attempts to take wider view of the World of Darkness. Perhaps the most useful example of the strengths and weaknesses of this chapter are found in the section on generations, where it is stated:

If we are barely pawns in the games the Antediluvians play, the Fourth and Fifth Generation are the Knights. Useful, powerful, maneuverable, the most potent and dangerous holders of domain in Christendom come from these Generations, and we call them Methuselahs. In Arabia, they have another name, and so I understand, yet another in the distant East.
So, we are told that, in Arabia, vampires don’t refer to elders of the fourth and fifty generations as Methuselahs... and yet we are not told what term they do use in the region. The end result is that the reader is left wanting more clarity, precision, and detail.

The Red Baron

Because I gotta kill fast and bullets are too slow
Validated User
We are also told that London has a rat catcher, who provides rats to London’s Cainites, which is interesting since the brown rat has yet to appear in Europe in 1242, and black rats don’t have permanent breeding colonies in northern Europe at this time. Rats are seriously more of a luxury than people.
Source? While rats don't play a tremendous role in medieval literature, modern scholarship largely attributes this to disinterest in pests and linguistic difficulties (i.e. no way to distinguish between a rat and a mouse). The black rat was in England as early as the 1st century A.D. Rats were probably responsible for the Justinian Plague, just as you can blame them for the sequel, the Black Death. They've been our pests for thousands of years.


Staff member
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World of Darkness is an alternate reality where everything is more grimy, more fantastic, and more gothic. So it's totally cool with me that there are plenty of rats in London in 1242, just like it's cool with me that there's vampires and werewolves, or that there's gothic castle-like structures in 21st century American cities.

Susanoo Orbatos

Social Justice Huckster
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To be fair on changes to the setting the previous editions of DA were 1197 and 1230, while that doesn't fix the Mithras situation it does cover Athens.


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To be fair on changes to the setting the previous editions of DA were 1197 and 1230, while that doesn't fix the Mithras situation it does cover Athens.
FWIW, that was completely intentional. I guess it didn't go noticed as such. There was an explicit reason this chapter was written with an unreliable narrator telling stories, instead of the normal info dump.

In my mind, that would serve two types of reader:

1) For new readers, it wouldn't hurt them at all. It's just some passing references that don't much matter, and just serve to explain points.

2) For classic readers, it'd demonstrate the insular nature of vampires subtly, and show that not every Cainite knows the details of places outside their residences. And that vampires occasionally spin some bullshit because it works in the moment.

London's still London. We haven't retconned anything there. Our narrator in that case isn't painting a full and accurate picture. But that literally doesn't matter.

Re: Rats, I spent some time digging up legal records and the like during the early phases of this book. I found a couple of references to rats. Maybe those were inaccurate, because they were written by unreliable human narrators. But I don't know. That's a one-off reference I don't particularly think warranted extensive fact-checking. Rats feel authentic within the scope of gothic horror. So, there are rats in her story.
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