[Games Anatomy] Veteran Of The Edition Wars – Vampire: the Masquerade vs. Vampire: the Requiem

Edition warfare is a funny old beast. Seems like you can’t produce even a fairly minor revision of your core mechanics and setting without your motivations for doing so being questioned, your approach to doing so mocked, and your efforts in doing so dismissed as the most vile and base calumnies ever to besmirch a gaming table. Woe betide you if it takes your fancy to make fairly major revisions, as White Wolf did in 2004 with the release of Vampire: the Requiem, the successor to founding father of the Entity: the Pompousness RPG naming tradition Vampire: the Masquerade.

I’m burbling about Vampire today because it’s the edition war in which I have actually fought, on both sides at one time or the other. Like the soldier of fortune I am, I spurn the customs and fashions of the time and pursue pure profit, in the form of an improved gaming experience for everyone unfortunate enough to sit down at my tables. The weird thing is that in the eight years for which this conflict has existed, I have never even managed to get a Requiem game played. Read on, and perhaps we’ll find out why.

SkullVTR

(Note: no guarantee of findings-out is promised. Not even I know where this is going to go.)

When Requiem came out, I was all over it like a cheap suit. I’ll talk about the reasons why, but I’ll also talk about why despite those reasons I’ve ended up treating Requiem as a set of house rules for Masquerade rather than a thing in its own right. There’s certainly the traditional edition warrior problem – Requiem was new and lots of people resented and resisted it because of that – and the usual problem of getting a group together, but there’s a little bit more to it than that.

 The first bit of more-to-it-than-that is the mechanics. As has been discussed previously, the core principles of the system involve your character having an Attribute and an Ability and adding them together and rolling that many ten-sided dice and trying to get high numbers. So far so good. What Masquerade did, however, was set variable target numbers based on, err, different things for more or less every occasion on which you had to roll dice, and occasionally remove dice from or add them to the core pool in certain circumstances as well. Keeping track of the difficulties involved in each ability meant you either needed a good memory or a fast and furious rulebook-indexing-finger, and given the size of White Wolf’s rulebooks and their propensity to tuck new rules into splatbooks, that was kinda awkward. So was working out the likelihood of success on a given action, or being able to say with confidence that your character was capable or incapable of attempting a thing.

What Requiem did was to set a target number of 8 for every die rolled, with 10s counting double. All modifiers came in the form of added or removed dice from the pool. Simple, consistent and elegant; you know that more dice equals more attempts at success without having to worry about whether you need to roll fours or nines on Charisma + Intimidation for this particular manifestation of the Presence Discipline. On top of that, it removed some less-than-useful Attributes like ‘Appearance’ and instead imposed the 3×3 grid of Mental, Social and Physical Power, Finesse and Resilience. Whatever you were trying to accomplish, you could find the appropriate attribute to use simply by working out what kind of challenge was involved and cross-referencing; so picking a lock is Physical Finesse, while a staring contest is opposed Social Power, and keeping your cool in a crisis is Mental Resistance.

What Requiem also did was remove the cool ‘ones cancel out successes, more ones than successes is a truly spectacular cock-up’ rule (thanks to Lo for pointing that out to me – for reasons which will become clear, I’ve kept this one in for so long that I’d kind of forgotten it wasn’t supposed to be there). I like this less. Fumbles are hilarious. Total cock-ups are hilarious. Hilarity is innately a good thing, even in a Storytelling Game of Personal Horror – the fourth pillar of happy gaming is irony, that capacity to look over your character’s shoulder and shake your head sadly at the state they’re into and know it’s because you can’t roll eights on a ten-sided die. Laughter provides the catharsis which allows fresh intensity to be generated. You can’t sustain a perfect emotional pitch all night long – that would be harrowing and hard and not really very much of a game at all.

The thing is that, mechanically speaking, there’s not much here that can’t just be ported wholesale into the Masquerade setting. I’ve been using the Requiem-style core mechanic for my Masquerade setting game for months and it’s proven perfectly viable, possibly because my gaming style isn’t terribly engaged with the absolute nitty gritty of the rules but mostly because it’s a fat sight easier to remember and it keeps things rolling. I’ve kept Masquerade’s ‘ones cancel’ rule because I like a good botch now and then.
If I were keeping score, and I am, I’d say something like Masquerade 1, Requiem 2. The 3×3 grid is elegant, the core mechanic is simple, but the new kid on the block is missing that chance of random catharsis. It’s not like there isn’t a Willpower resource that can be spent to avoid rolling dice if you want to avoid cocking up, now is there?

Beyond the core, there are the particular rules for supernatural stuff. Masquerade-era White Wolf, you see, liked the idea of crossovers between their game lines, but also liked the idea that vampires and werewolves and mages and demons and fairies and mummies and ghosts all worked in their own distinctive and individual way, operating within different sets of limitations. This, frankly, made for a bit of a headache, and so Requiem introduced a universal system; no matter what the supernatural thing is, it has a characteristic value from 1 to 10 denoting how powerful an example of whatever-it-is it is. This value adds to the dice pool whenever it’s trying to use a supernatural power on another supernatural entity, or resist the use of such powers on itself – so a new vampire, dead two weeks, with Blood Potency 1, will have the bugger of a time resisting the Dominate Discipline if deployed by the Blood Potency 8 Prince of London. Since the same 1-10 scale is present for mages and werewolves and stuff too, that means an elderly and powerful mage with Gnosis 8 has a similarly easy time of it against our brand new fledgling vamp.

So far, so tidy. The devil’s in the details. Blood Potency, you see, accumulates extra points the longer the vampire remains active, over a period of years, then decades, then centuries. The higher it is, the more powerful the vampire is, but also the harder to sustain – after about 4, animal blood just doesn’t do it for them, and at the 9s and 10s, even humans aren’t good enough; it’s the concentrated vitae of other vampires or bust. At this stage, many vampires go into a state of vegetative torpor for a while to let their blood thin out and their hunger quiet somewhat. This is still okay. I really like it. So far, so Anne Rice, and it’s not like the very phrase World of Darkness isn’t drawn directly from her earlier, less barking mad work.
This is all your fault, Anne.
The thing is, it replaced something equally nifty. The Masquerade’s unique and awkward system for vampiric power was Generation, a measure of how many links in the turning-people-into-vampires chain existed between your character and Caine, the very first vampire. Generation was static and unchanging, and dictated the ease with which many powerful disciplines operated, the quantity of concentrated blood-power or Vitae your character could consume and use at a time, and the cap on superhuman Attribute values or high-end Discipline powers. Basically, in Masquerade, you were your great-grandsire’s bitch for ever, unless you happened to devour and absorb the soul of an elder vampire and in so doing artificially raise your Generation. That’s diablerie. It means some vampires will hunt you to the ends of the earth, others will lionise you as an embodiment of their principles, and yet others will see you as a target for similar activities; it leaves a stain on your soul for those with the Disciplines to detect it, you see, even if you’re careful to hide that you’re suddenly a lot more capable with the old blood-powers.
Diablerie exists in the Requiem, but it’s a short-cut to something that will happen anyway if you can just stay awake longer than Vampire Dad. The temptation of power that can be acquired in no other way isn’t there, and that shuts down an interesting story option in favour of a rather tedious waiting game. Sure, you can always diablerise your sire to get them out of the way, if you really really hate them, but I sort of prefer these things when the narrative and mechanical lures for taking such an awful risk actually walk hand in hand rather than sitting around scratching themselves.
So which do I actually prefer?
On the one hand, Blood Potency does facilitate crossover play if you’re into that sort of thing, and it also eliminates the rather tedious genealogical book-keeping involved with Generation – lineage is a big part of Vampire characters, what with their clan and the number of ancestors they have in that clan being so definitive to what they can actually do in-game, and it feels a bit odd to have sixth and seventh generation vampires interacting with thirteenth generation vampires and not much in between.
You do end up drawing quite a few of these, if you’re tidy-minded.
Hark’s got one that covers every vampire Aziz has ever met, ever.

Generation doesn’t go up over time, and it evokes the dread that things will be this way forever, and presents the temptation to take a soul-slurping short-cut, which makes interesting things happen in game. Blood Potency does, and so diablerie lacks its previous appeal, and so sitting around outliving your sire becomes more attractive, and ironically enough things end up being the same way… for ages, if not forever.

If I were scoring on this ground, it’d be Masquerade 2, Requiem 1. Eliminating ball-ache for the GM is good, but I don’t actually run cross-overs very often; I like things to have some breathing room and really, vampires ought to be interesting enough on their own, and Generation helps them be more interesting.

‘How Interesting Vampires Are’ is, however, mainly shaped by the setting elements. Vampire: the Masquerade had what you might call an abundance of riches in terms of playable options. Thirteen core vampire clans, some of which were, ahm, less compelling and interesting than others. Many, many sub-clans called ‘Bloodlines’, rooted in some semi-obscure element of the clans’ convoluted histories. Dozens of moral codes that plugged into the game’s essential Character Vs. Self conflict – find something to cling to or plunge headlong into the ravenous hunger of the inner Beast. Two primary factions each with their own mess of alliances, betrayals, subfactions, dark secrets and hidden inner orders. A recurring theme of working out just what was true about the accumulated weight of pseudo-history, mythology, misrecollections and outright lies of which vampiric history was comprised. Over a decade of creative energy expended in fleshing out a complex world that made one wonder just how many vampires there had to be to inhabit all of these factions in any interesting capacity, and where the hell all these vampires were.

Requiem is much, much tighter. There are five clans, each one directly traceable to some pop culture incarnation of the vampire – there are no dodgy ‘gypsy vampires’ or ‘ninja vampires’ or ‘Mafia vampires’ in here. There’s the Dracula style lord on the hill ones, the Vampire Chronicles flouncy passionate sexy ones, the Nosferatu creepy ones who stand out like a sore thumb, the monstrous animalistic ones and the stealthy urban predator ones. There are five primary factions; the “we’ve always been in charge” one, the “we are God’s cursed/chosen” ones, the pagan blood magic ones, the modern “we’re all in this together” ones and the “let’s work out how this vampire thing works so we can break it” ones. There are splatbooks, but I tend to ignore splatbooks in any system I play – the core rules manual should, if it’s any good, offer endless potential for play on its own, and both the Vampires do… in theory.

And yet there’s something about Requiem that seems to breed inertia. Masquerade had a feeling of pressure to it – there were prophecies that the clan founders were going to wake up one day and consume their spawn, and there was a centuries-long cold war between people who believed that and people who didn’t, and then there were ancient feuds that still simmered away between clans who had wronged each other in the past, and then there was the actual mystery of whether Caine and the Antediluvians were really real or whether the elders had just made it all up or gone completely mad and started believing their own mythology.
Requiem has five factions who do have a few diametric oppositions – pagans vs. churchies, autocrats vs. democrats – but there’s no pressure to resolve any of that. There’s just an endless round of religious and political debates without the real kicker of some looming threat; vampire society in the Requiem has gone on for centuries and is likely to go on for centuries more, so what’s the point to any of it? There’s not even anything personal about it, as the millennia-long feuds of the Masquerade clans are absent, and the origins and history of vampire-kind have been lost thanks to the revolving-door nature of vampiric torpor (people tend to forget things while they’re buried in the ground waiting for their blood to dilute).
For all that the Masquerade is convoluted, and relies on the unreliable memories of ancients and the implausible survival of artefacts, and that it’s centred on a Judeao-Christian creation myth that canonically turns out to be right and shut down all the alternative intepretations (sigh), at least there’s something to do there. I’d score this at Masquerade 2, Requiem 1 – sure, the Requiem is nice and tidy and clever, but there’s no sense of motive or movement there. The material doesn’t animate itself – it presents you with things and says “do something with this”, while the Masquerade stuff has the feeling that the World of Darkness is active and alive, a place with a rich past and an ominous future, and it just says… come on in.
FINAL SCORE: MASQUERADE 5 – REQUIEM 4

I wrote this because I used to be an edition warrior. I was adamant that Requiem was vastly superior to Masquerade, and I didn’t understand why people would voluntarily play the old, clunky, cluttered-with-bullshit game, a byword for convoluted metaplot and slipshod design.

Running a Vampire game with a new group in the last year and a bit has finally made me realise what the Masquerade grogs have been on about for all these years. I wanted to give Requiem a try, I really did. I think it makes many advances as a game, and succeeds in its objective of pruning some of the mess out of Masquerade… but it prunes a bit too hard, and all that’s left are stumps. And who wants to argue with a stump when they could climb a tree, eh?

For more images of typical Vampire players up trees,
go here.

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