As a Scotsman, I always have to contend with the stereotype of being tightfisted. Thankfully, this isn’t the case – in fact, if you take a look at my RPG bookshelves my wife would probably prefer if I was…
However, tight-fistedness or not aside, it doesn’t stop me from wanting to shop around for a bargain and, after another mammoth session looking through Drive Thru RPG at the various amazing products that can be had for – literally – nothing I was compelled to put this together.
RPGs have become massively popular in recent years. Indeed, if you had told teenage-me that people would tune in in their millions to watch other people playing D&D I would have laughed. And then probably asked something searingly stupid like “I’m assuming this was on Channel 4?”
Truth is, shows like Critical Role – regardless of what you think of them – have played a huge part in making the hobby of tabletop gaming slowly inch its way towards mainstream acceptance. As a result, players numbers are booming – at last count, D&D alone claimed around 40 million of them!
However, for every player out there having a great time…well…playing, there are also folks who would dearly love to get involved, but can’t – and sometimes that’s down to the perception that this wonderful hobby of ours is a bit too expensive. Take a look online for D&D books and you’ll see what I mean.
Likewise, people in the hobby seem to love flashy dice. No, I’m not sure why – I’ve got the same mismatched collection of little plastic polyhedrals that I’ve used for years – but some people really crave the truly beautiful ones crafted out of stone, wood and metal. These bad boys will cost you a pretty penny and no mistake!
Is it therefore possible to get involved in roleplaying without dropping a hefty chunky of gold (presumably stolen from a dragon’s lair)? The answer is, of course, “yes” – otherwise this would be a pretty disappointing article! Below, I’m going to list various different systems – some of which we’ve covered on our podcast – and how you can get cracking in them for nothing.
However, before we start there, I’m also going to recommend one other tool – with the caveat that “other options also exist” – and that’s the wonderful Roll20. For those of you not in the know, Roll20 is a virtual desktop that allows you to play RPGs online. If you just want to play – and I’d imagine most people starting out in the hobby want to do just that and aren’t foolish enough to want to run their own game with zero experience! – this application has everything you need…and it’s free. Actually, it doesn’t have everything. You still need someone to run the actual game, but that’s a whole topic in itself…
Once suitably armed with Roll20 (or one of its peers) here’s how you can get involved with various other systems for free.
I’ll start here, as this is probably the system that most newcomers to the hobby are first exposed to. As I mentioned above, D&D books carry a pretty heft price tag. Is it real possible to start playing D&D for free? Of course it is – after all, they want to hook you in so that you can start buying those gorgeous, expensive books… If all you want to do is play, head over to D&D Beyond – Wizards of the Coast’s site for everything D&D related – and you will be able to find a basic version of the rules and an online character creation tool. There’s also starter adventures if you want to look at how they’re structured or your GM needs something simple to take you through. Think of these as being like “tutorial levels” in a video game.
Mention “horror gaming” to any long time roleplayer, and the most famous one that will come to mind is Call of Cthulhu. First publish waaaaaay back at the dawn of the 80s (that sounds like an RPG in itself), Call of Cthulhu was a bit of a break from the usual sword and sorcery fare. Instead, it thrust the players into the shoes of investigators – normal people following clues to solve a mystery; only these mysteries were set amidst the Cthulhu mythos created by early 20th century horror writer HP Lovecraft. Despite this, the game makes it quite clear that even though the “default” setting is 1920s New England with the Cthulhu mythos festering and bubbling behind the scenes, Call of Cthulhu can be set in any time or place – Cthulhu and his chums are essentially ageless after all. In addition, if you fancy more traditional horror fare – with vampires, werewolves and ghosts, that’s possible too. With very high levels of lethality, and much more focus on investigation than combat, Call of Cthulhu is a refreshing change of pace for players who don’t want another romp down a dungeon. I’m sure the orcs would be glad of the break too – it’ll give them time to clear the place up. The most recent version – 7th – has a free quick start here. It’ll also tell you how to pronounce “Cthulhu” (and various other weird and wonderful names too).
Without going into a ton of RPG archaeology here, when Wizards of the Coast bought TSR (the original makers of Dungeons and Dragons) they released an Open Game license that essentially allowed for the creation of “retro clones” of previous versions. Yes, it’s more complicated than that of course, but the end result is that there are a lot of versions of earlier editions of “the worlds most famous roleplaying game” out there. A personal favourite of mine is Old School Essentials by Necrotic Gnome. I did a review in an earlier episode of the podcast, and am guilty of periodically raving about it. OSE (as it is known to its friends) allows players to take part in adventures that have the mood and feel of those around at the birth of the hobby back in the 70s. It’s slick, it’s simple and it’s a lot of fun. While I can’t recommend the books more highly – seriously, they’re some of the best laid out products I’ve ever seen – Necrotic Gnome have their basic rules available for free here. Everything you need to get started in minutes!
Speaking of games close to my heart, next up on our list is SLA Industries by Nightfall Games. If you want the full scoop on SLA, check out our episode on the subject. For those of you happy with the tl;DR version, SLA (pronounced “slay”) has a futuristic setting; a nightmare universe ruled over by one omnipotent mega-corporation that controls everything. As part of this control, they employ operatives to ensure that everything goes according to their plan. Players take on the role of SLA ops, and game sessions see them investigating the various horrors and monstrosities that inhabit this awful setting. This is a rich and dark universe, and therefore might not be for every newcomer, but the quick start available here is the ideal introduction to the World of Progress. Watch your step in the sewers, rookie…
Vampire was White Wolf Game Studio’s flagship product for all of the 90s and the first part of the 21st century…
…then they killed it, and released Vampire: the Requiem in its place…
…then they released Vampire: the Masquerade 20th anniversary edition in 2011 to bring the old setting back and it ran alongside Requiem as a separate game…
…then a new 5th edition was released in 2018 by Modiphius that updated the setting and the rules…
…but this new edition is currently available on Renegade Games Studio’s website…
Vampire has a lot of lore – some would say an overabundance – but it is an extremely compelling premise. Rather than hunting or battling the monsters, you are the monster; a creature of the night, with alien hungers, trying to remain unseen by the humans whom you depend upon for sustenance.
With its unique, dark setting, Vampire lets you tell a ton of exciting and compelling types of stories, from the political machinations of vampires, to battles between undead monsters, to extremely introspective tales of personal horror.
There’s a reason Masquerade kept rising from the grave (pun very much intended) and it’s because of the setting.
If you’d like to get started with Vampire you can find the classic rules here or 5th edition here. I’m intentionally not including Requiem here as I, personally, don’t find the setting as compelling as the others and therefore won’t be recommending it.
So there you have it, five ways to get started for free in the wonderful world of tabletop RPGs. What are you waiting for? Also, if you’re a long time rolplayer, what quick starts would you recommend?
All images belong to the original copywrite holders. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.
When you look at the roleplaying games released at the beginning of the 1990s, a common trend emerges; fantasy was out and dark sci-fi was very much in.
“Corps” dealt with high tech conspiracies fuelled by super-science and magic, duelling with each other, whilst “Morpheus” covered a world where characters linked minds in a high tech virtual reality simulation. I’m sure the title and the setting are a coincidence and have nothing in common with a certain famous movie franchise…
“Reich Star saw the Third Reich and the Empire of Japan conquering outer space before settling into a Cold War with each other – kind of like the Man in the High Castle but with laser guns and aliens.
“Rifts” blasted its way onto the scene (presumably dealing MEGA DAMAGE in the process) and introduced us all to the Rifts Megaverse, while “Torg” saw the players take on the roles of heroic Storm Knights arrayed against the extra-dimensional entities that were lining up to invade earth. “Dark Conspiracy”’s demonic forces from beyond enslaved aliens and conjured up a global depression that plunged the global geopolitical and economic situation into ruin, allowing the forces of the Dark to slip into our world to feast and rampage.
However, if you want bleak and bold settings, “Timelords” is literally set at the End of Time!
Therefore, if you were a games designer at the turn of the nineties (I can picture the acid washed jeans and flock of seagulls haircut from here…) trying to conceive of THE setting for a game that would flip the gaming scene on its head, you’d probably go hog-wild with the elements that were proving popular and populate a barren, irradiated earth with aliens, demons, Nazis and knights. What you probably wouldn’t suggest as a setting would be “Gary, Indiana”.
Located around 25 miles from downtown Chicago, Gary borders lake Michigan and is typical of those US “rust belt” cities that saw their reliance on traditional industries cause them to enter an economic death spiral from the end of World War II onwards.
Yet, it was this cracked and crumbling landscape – with its boarded up houses, silent steel mills and crippling unemployment – that inspired a young games designer by the name of Mark Rein-Hagen to conceive of a game set in a world where such urban decay was the norm, and which was caused – at least partially – by the monsters who lurked in the shadows. Foremost amongst these monsters were the vampires – creatures of cunning and passion who controlled an unsuspecting human population from the darkness.
So far, so Dark Conspiracy.
In the grand scheme of things, this feels pretty similar to the other settings mentioned previously.
All we’re missing now are the heroes – and that’s going to be the players, right?
Rein-Hagen’s ideas were never conventional, and unlike other games designers who would simply have taken the idea and cast the players as humanity’s bold defenders, he decided to flip the concept and ask the question “What would it be like to BE the monster?”
By this, he didn’t mean “What would it be like to be a creature who can shrug off bullets, move extra fast and arm wrestle mecha-godzilla without breaking sweat”, but instead he focused on the psychology of the situation.
Just what would it feel like to BE a monster – a monster that used to be human? What would it be like to cling to that notion of humanity – the only thing you’ve ever known – while all the time wrestling with the monstrous, predatory urges that surge within you; urges that could sometimes bubble to the surface in the most bloody and tragic ways possible? What would it be like to exist in a society of creatures like this – each battling their own inner Beast?
The tag line of “A storytelling game of personal horror” was never more apt.
Vampire wasn’t Mark Rein-Hagen’s first game though. He had been involved in games design for many years prior to his vampiric epiphany, and perhaps the game he was best known for up to that point was Lion Rampant’s Ars Magica – a fantasy game set in “Mythic Europe” which revolved around a society known as The Order of Hermes and their interactions with a world in which the supernatural and magical were very, very real.
Unlike other fantasy games, this wasn’t simply an RPG about bad ass groups of magi swanning around the countryside frying their enemies with spells. Instead, it had an extremely strong focus on storytelling – positing the idea that the players made up a troupe, who took equal responsibility for the tale being told, rather than focusing on XP and loot taken from the cold, dead hands of the monsters. This idea resonated strongly with a lot of people, and two of the biggest fans were Steve and Stewart Wieck – publishers of a growing RPG magazine called “White Wolf”. Originally dedicated (like most other magazines of the time) to AD&D, White Wolf increasingly focused on more independent games and, in 1988, published a glowing review of Ars Magica. The focus on storytelling was seen as particularly praiseworthy and, as a result, nearly every issue of White Wolf from that point onward saw an article dedicated to the game. Rein-Hagen had big plans for Ars Magica. He loved the concept of a series of games set in the same consistent, immersive world. He also loved the idea of being able to set Ars Magica in the modern day – with magic slowly dying, and the magi facing off against creatures like – amongst other things – vampires…
However, it was not to be – Lion Rampant found themselves in financial hot water by the end of the eighties, and it looked like Rein-Hagen’s dream of a multi game world was doomed to die. Thankfully though, with the Wiecks such firm fans of the game, and with a growing business that was doing extremely well, it was logical that they would offer to merge with Lion Rampant and form White Wolf Game Studio to continue the publication and development of Ars Magica.
It was this series of events that led them to be in a car together, heading towards Gen Con ’90, and which would lead to Rein-Hagen’s vision of a world in which vampires were lurking in the shadows, and which saw his desire for a series of linked games taking a different direction.
You see, the journey to Gen Con took them through Gary, Indiana and – as we know – that’s where the idea for Vampire was born.
I have no idea what is involved in the development of a game system and the associated setting, but as a long time GM I know it feels like it takes forever for me to come up with an engaging adventure set in a world someone else has created. Therefore, I can’t even conceive what frenzy (no pun intended) of activity must have gripped White Wolf between Gen Con ’90 and the release of Vampire in 1991.
Set in the World of Darkness – a world just like ours but more corrupt, decaying and violent – Vampire saw the players take on the roles of the titular monsters, stalking amongst the human population and dealing with the night-to-night perils of unlife as undead, blood sucking monsters, the desires of the Beast within and co-existing in a society of alpha predators. “The Masquerade” in the title referred to vampiric society’s first, and most important law – namely never making humanity at large aware of the existence of vampires, and this prohibition was a masterstroke to stop players running amok in the World of Darkness.
Because of the Masquerade, there were no vampires wearing frilly shirts with lace cuffs and opera cloaks. The characters in this game had much more in common with those from Those Lost Boys and Near Dark than they did with Dracula. These guys weren’t the lost scions of noble houses, living in drafty Transylvanian castles who would “vant to drink yur blud” but much more modern both in their outlook and their aesthetic. There are some extremely evocative images by artist Tim Bradstreet that were used in both the main rulebook and the clanbooks of the types of vampire that peopled the World of Darkness. In a recent interview for a documentary on the history of White Wolf (called – surprise, surprise – World of Darkness and available on Amazon; well worth a watch!) Tim relates that when he was asked to do these drawings he simply called up his friends – most of whom were in a band – and asked them to pose…
As well as some fantastic interior art, the cover of Vampire was a testament to the beauty of simplicity. A simple slab of green marble with a single red rose on top of it and the game’s title above this it instantly captured imagination. Curiously, White Wolf had commissioned another cover by Dan Frazier – which can be seen as the cover of the 1st edition Players’ guide – but it was deemed too expensive and too “generically rpg” to be used for the main book. This was a great decision, for there is no doubt that the original, eye-catching cover drew a lot of people to pick up the game in the first place.
The book itself includes a lot of the kind of detail you’d expect from an RPG rulebook. There’s background and setting information, rules, and guides to character creation, but once those are out of the way there’s an additional 120 or so pages dedicated to drama and storytelling. Whereas other games would have guides to monsters and antagonists, and probably hints on writing “an adventure” Vampire’s focus was on creating a chronicle made up of stories that focused on character development and how the players interacted with this emerging narrative. You wouldn’t find any treasure tables, maps or XP guides for creatures defeated. Instead, there was information on setting the mood and tone of the story. There was suggestions on running individual preludes for the characters – where they started as mortal – so they could experience the daylight world and realise just what it felt like and meant to become an undead creature of the night. Guides to creating suspense and using advanced techniques such as flashbacks and foreshadowing were included. In short, it was an evolutionary leap in roleplaying.
This showed in the sales. Within weeks of its launch, Vampire was back to the printers for a second run…
Of course, not everybody was a fan. Some magazines at the time lampooned White Wolf’s style – citing the prose as purple and overwrought. There were elements of the – traditionally male – roleplaying hobby who chafed at the use of female pronouns throughout the book. Others felt that the use of the term “storytelling” rather than “roleplaying” and “storyteller” instead of “games master” was pretentious – after all, wasn’t this D&D with fangs? There was also a tendency to stereotype both the characters in the game and the people who played as hand-wringing goths, burdened by their angst and wearing waaaay too much eye liner.
Regardless of these opinions, the game’s sales were astronomical and the player base grew exponentially. Much like the growth of D&D in the seventies, Vampire blossomed in an age before the internet was widely and commercially available and thus its popularity can be very firmly attributed to the fact that what was being done here was new, exciting and well executed. By the end of 1991 White Wolf had published – in addition to the main rulebook – eight other supplements, including guides for the storyteller and players, adventures and a couple of books – Chicago by Night and Succubus Club – that gave a sample setting.
People still rave about Chicago by Night to this day, and that’s because it very clearly laid out – for this first time – how a city in Vampire the Masquerade worked. Not everyone would set their adventures in Chicago, but by using this book it was very easy to take the framework and base your own city around it. Because, let’s face it, every Vampire storyteller has set a game in their own city – I know I have. And this really was the beauty of the setting – rather than having to imagine a vastly different fantasy realm, populated by creatures of legend and peopled with folk who had names like “Golondriel” and who talked with faux English accents, how much easier was it to imagine your own city – only worse? I know when myself and my co-host Jason planned a Vampire chornicle set in the town we were living in it was very easy to look at some places and say “Oh yeah – that’s definitely controlled by Vampires…”
Come 1992 and Vampire was really making a splash. It won the Origins 1992 award for best RPG rules. Curiously, these were hosted in Milwaukee, and the same year saw the release of the second “city book” – Milwaukee By Night.
1992 also saw White Wolf experimenting with an idea that Mark Rein-Hagen had for Ars Magica many years before, namely that of combining different game lines within one cohesive world.
“The Hunters Hunted” was released in 1992 and included rules for playing normal humans who had taken to hunting vampires. Well, I say “normal humans” but this book did actually include rules for playing government agents, psychics, sorcerers and truly faithful inquisitors. The sample characters did include a normal woman out for revenge, but they also included a hundred and seventy year old ghouled witch hunter blazing with true faith, an actual vampire, a mage, a werewolf, and a TV celebrity who makes a living from debunking supposed frauds which are a far cry from “vengeful housewife armed with a sharpened broomhandle, a can of hairspray and a lighter”. As a long time fan of Hunter: The Reckoning and its focus on “the everyman” it used to always rankle me when people would say “Oh I don’t like Hunter with its fancy powers. I prefer Hunters Hunted with its theme of normal people hunting the supernatural…” This gripe aside, Hunters Hunted was a fun read, and it showed that Mark’s vision of a multi-faceted game world was possible. This was expanded upon in White Wolf’s second similar release that year – “Mummy” – which allowed players to take on the roles of very different kinds of immortals. 1992 was also the year the White Wolf released “Werewolf: the Apocalypse” and started a trend that would see White Wolf releasing a new main game line every year for the next three years.
By the end of 1992 second edition of Vampire had been released – something that many long time players still consider to be the high point of the line. With this we also got the release of a little book called “The Players Guide to the Sabbat”.
Up until this point, the default setting of Vampire had always been that of a Camarilla (or Cam-ah-ree-ah if you’re being traditionally Spanish) city. The Camarilla were the sect of Vampires responsible for the Masquerade and who upheld the rest of the Traditions. All the information in previous books about how cities worked, the hierarchies within them and the types of vampires that lived in them – these were all Camarilla. Both first and second edition included a page giving information about a rival sect of vampires known about the Sabbat, but there wasn’t much information about them other than the fact that the revelled in their undead nature, engaged in some weird blood rituals, played with fire and generally rampaged around like “baddy vampires”. This book, and it’s companion volume “The Storyteller’s Handbook to the Sabbat” were meant to change things and give us a proper look inside of the sect. The problem with these books, is that they did nothing but really give the Sabbat an image problem. If they were to be believed, the Sabbat was peopled with freaks and misfits who loved nothing more than murder, rampaging, murder, fire, murder, devouring the souls of other vampires, murder and murder. Oh, and the sect was riddled with infernalists. It was their control of places like Detroit, Miami and Mexico City that explained why these places were so awful. Right. That must have been fun for a resident of these cities to read…
The end of 1992 heralded the arrival of the first of Vampire’s “clanbooks”. Much like each player had a class in D&D, in Vampire each character belonged to a clan – a supernatural lineage that explained what strengths, weaknesses and vampiric powers a character had. The clans also had rivalry with other clans, which generated a lot of the game’s political content. This series of books would explain how each clan worked, what their social and political structures were like and would offer character creation and roleplay tips for people interested in playing a character from each clan. As a long time Storyteller for Vampire, I’ve made a point to own most of these and I can honestly say, with very few exceptions, after reading each one my mind would be going “Oooh! I really fancy playing one of those!” They really helped drag you into any given clan’s culture, and made them much more than a grab bag of vampire stereotypes.
By 1993 Vampire was proving unbelievably popular, and an aggressive publishing schedule saw more and more books about the World of Darkness falling into the hands of fans of the game. Clanbooks came rolling off the press in droves, more cities got the “By Night” treatment and “The Book of Nod” – the vampires’ creation myth – was published. This was pure setting material – there were no rules included – and it provided an indepth look at what many vampires believed was the literal truth of how they were created. It was also the beginning of what became known as White Wolf’s metaplot slowly creeping into the mainstream.
1993 saw what some consider to be a slight misstep on White Wolf’s part when they released Berlin by Night and included amongst the cast of the city’s vampires two real life Nazis – Herman Goering and Henrich Himmler. While it didn’t cause a hue and cry in the same league as the Satanic panic of the 1980s it did raise a few eyebrows.
One of the most interesting decisions of this year was the release of “The Masquerade” – or rules for playing Vampire in a live action environment. Now, I’m not going to go into Vampire LARPing here – that will be a separate podcast of its own – but this release slowly snowballed into an unstoppable force of its own and brought more people than ever into Vampire’s World of Darkness. Unlike other LARPs that saw people dressed like characters from Tolkein running around a muddy field whacking each other with foam weapons, this was a game that could be played in a club or a bar. The very nature of the vampires’ Masquerade meant that sharp wit and pointed conversation would serve you much better than a rubber sword. Plus, it was infinitely preferable (and less socially embarrassing) to wear a suit or your best clubbing gear to a LARP than running around looking like an overweight discount Legolas…
Vampire’s popularity continued unabated into the mid 90s. Yes, White Wolf had released rules for playing Werewolves, Mages, Wraiths and Changelings but none of them proved as popular as Vampire. People were eating it up so much that by 1994 White Wolf had released what can be considered the first – but most definitely not the last – Vampire merch in the form of Clan pins. Whilst fun in their own right, players often used to wear these to find others who shared the love of the same game. I know that I managed to meet a few like minded players who spotted my Lasombra pin at the student union and felt compelled to come over and say “Hey – you play Vampire too?”
It was also in 1994 that White Wolf released what can be considered one of their most controversial products. Not because it was offensive, or made light of any historical tragedy, but because it was so thematically at odd with what went before.
Mention “Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand” to most Vampire players and you’ll either get a response of “Man! I LOVED THAT BOOK!” or a sigh and a roll of the eyes. Dirty Secrets detailed a secret society that used another secret society as a front and which, whilst mainly vampiric, also included a hodge podge of other supernaturals from throughout the World of Darkness. It also introduced some new bloodlines of vampires, posited conspiracies behind nearly everything, and wrote in two or three shadow wars being fought on a nightly basis behind everything else that was going on.
The biggest complaint from detractors of this book was “What happened to ’The Storytelling Game of Personal Horror’?” Wasn’t that the cornerstone of this game, not battling against extra dimensional horrors called “souleaters”? While White Wolf didn’t specifically come out, hold up their hands and say “Ok – this was a mistake” they did LITERALLY nuke the cult outlined in this book in a later publication, so we’ll just leave that there.
1994 was also the year that saw White Wolf enter the collectible card game market when they licensed the rights to create a Vampire themed CCG. The result was “Jyhad” – named after the Vampire’s term for the political struggle amongst their kind – and unlike other CCGs of the day that were one on one duels, this game was designed around multiplayer play, and included politics as well as simple opponent smashing. In 1995 it changed its name to “Vampire: The Eternal Struggle” because…well…come on. Jyhad? Really?
1995 began with an innovation being introduced across the World of Darkness lines. From this year onwards, White Wolf would designate a theme to each year, and 1995 was to be “Year of the Hunter”. Sadly, rather than releasing a series of publications themed around hunters, what this meant in practice was that each game line got a single book dedicated to a group that hunted the main game line’s protagonists. For Vampire this was, unsurprisingly, “The Inquisition”.
White Wolf also introduced another innovation this year in the form of printing books under the “Black Dog Game Factory” imprint. Named after a company that existed in the Werewolf universe, Black Dog games were intended for a “mature audience”. Initially this was surprising, as White Wolf had always marketed themselves as “Games for Mature Minds” and some naysayers assumed that this was simply a marketing gimmick, and that any Black Dog publications would simply be regular White Wolf publications only drenched in gore and nudity. Thankfully, the naysayers were proved wrong – Black Dog games simply dealt with subjects that needed to be handled with maturity and which dealt with themes unsuitable for the less mature. Their first publication – an adventure called “The Last Supper” saw the players take on the roles of mortals who attended a feast where – unbeknownst to them – they were to be the main course for the other guests who were all vampires. This book dealt with themes such as sadism, powerlessness and having another’s will forced upon you, so it is not surprising that White Wolf chose to brand it as “for mature audiences only”! Handled by the immature, this game would horrific!
1995 was a high point for the World of Darkness. They had five games in their stable, and – next to TSR – they were the biggest RPG company out there. Oh, and Fox were going to be producing a TV series based on Vampire, with Mark Rein-Hagen as the writer. Things could only get better from here, right?
Unfortunately, the answer was “No”.
Various problems had begun to hit the book trade in 1995, and over the next couple of years the collectible card game bubble had burst; this was unfortunate as White Wolf had put out two CCGs of their own as well as licensing “Vampire: The Eternal Struggle” to Wizards of the Coast. In addition, apart from Vampire, their other game lines weren’t selling brilliantly. Wraith had been critically acclaimed but was almost dead in the water (pun very much intended).
Worst of all, “Kindred: The Embraced” – the Fox TV series – was a complete flop, and was canned after eight episodes. The producers wouldn’t listen to Rein-Hagen and ended up doing their own things thematically and story wise. As the man himself said “The show wasn’t as good as it could have been, if they only had listened to me more.”
All of these events led to a falling out between Mark, Steve and Stewart and as a result Mark – the man who had conceived of Vampire in the first place – left White Wolf. Production continued throughout 1996 and 1997 but it was clear that a change of direction was needed – amongst the publications during these years were various reprinted books and compilations of older material.
The change of direction came in 1998 with the launch of a Revised edition of Vampire the Masquerade. Unlike previous editions this one was FAR MORE focused on metaplot – meaning the ongoing background story that White Wolf was weaving through the World of Darkness. Beforehand, White Wolf were keen to give you the history of the setting and leaving it at that. Now? Now they were making changes that could affect your games! Examples of this over the years to follow include the Gangrel clan leaving the Camarilla, the True Black Hand being literally nuked, and the Ravnos clan being almost extinguished in a fratricidal orgy of bloodshed known as the Week of Nightmares.
Now, whilst I (and a great many players) had no problem with the Ravnos being wiped out, there was a genuine gripe from a lot of players that White Wolf had – intentionally or not – introduced an arms race into their games by focusing on metaplot. Many storytellers have examples of players turning up to games with the latest and greatest supplements, pointing at a change that the storyteller was unaware of, and asking to introduce it into their game.
However, on the flip side, the metaplot was exciting! Nobody likes a static setting, and it was great to see White Wolf breath (un)life back into their world with the introduction of changes that would affect the global scene. They also made a point of saying “Look – this is just our thing. If you don’t want to do it – don’t.” However, there was always the caveat of “…of course, later supplements will take this event into consideration…”
Along with the release of revised edition, White Wolf released guides to both the Sabbat and the Camarilla. As mentioned previously, the Sabbat had needed an image make over for a while, and this book was exactly that! Gone were the demon summonings – in fact, the Sabbat as a whole were dead against them – the mindless rampaging and the being-freaky-just-for-the-sake-of-being-freaky. Instead, we had a sect of vampires that behaved the way they did, not because they were “the bad guys” but because they were trying to stave off a vampiric apocalypse and saw the Camarilla as just the sort of saps who were enabling it. They didn’t attack Camarilla cities because they liked flipping cars and scaring mortals. Rather, they wanted to get at the elders who they knew were in league with the REALLY SCARY older vampires who were going to awaken soon and EAT EVERYONE. Their rituals were detailed and it was clear that, much like zealots in our own world, they fulfilled the purpose of reinforcing the member’s believes, ensuring their loyalty and strengthening the sect – usually in the most Darwinian way possible. It was a complete breath of fresh air. I remember devouring this book when I got it and then thinking “Wait – so the Sabbat are the GOOD GUYS?” I also more or less instantly set about planning a Sabbat game of my own… As the millennium approached, White Wolf started publishing their Clan Novel saga. Set over 13 books – one for each clan – this epic dealt with the unlives of dozens of vampires and the impact of a major Sabbat crusade across the east coast of the USA. The very first book in the series – Clan Novel: Toreador – caused everyone reading it to double take at the very end. All that metaplot advancing that I mentioned beforehand? Well, the end of this book saw it advance in the most gigantic and frightening way possible. I remember a friend lending it to me and saying “Not wanting to spoil things, but the Sabbat were right…”
Remember how I earlier mentioned that White Wolf had decided that each year would have a theme? The year 2000 was designated as “The Year of Revelations” – where the fall out from the previous year’s reckoning (which saw, amongst other things, the progenitor of the Ravnos clan awakening and destroying most of his filthy clan) would be addressed. However, taking a look back on what was released that year, it could very well be entitled “The Year of Merchandising Opportunities”. Amongst the “goodies” released for fans of the series were candles, letterheads for each of the clans, a chess set, Camarilla and Sabbat pieces for the chess set, tattoos, flasks, clan T-shirts, clan stickers, clan sweatshirts, a CD-ROM of various utilities and the first every Vampire: The Masquerade video game – Redemption.
Praise for the game is mixed. I remember buying it the day it was released and enjoying it, but it felt much more like a generic PC RPG like Diablo which happened to have Vampires as main characters. A lot of the tabletop game’s background is outright abandoned. For example, one of the Camarilla’s most important rules is the Sixth Tradition, which says that you won’t kill other vampires. Anyone who has ever played Redemption will know that you’re pretty much knee deep in dead vampires throughout it… 2001 and 2002 rolled along with many, many publications rolling out. When New York by Night was released shortly after the horrors of 9/11 White Wolf showed some very well-needed sensitivity and maturity by including in their introduction a note saying that they weren’t going to crowbar in the events of that dreadful day and try to pin it on some conspiracy of supernatural creatures. Doing so, they said, would be the height of insensitivity. They also pointed out that by not including the events of 9/11 in their book they were not intending to denigrate what happened through omission, but rather they were maintaining a respectful silence. A mature and well considered decision, and one that I applaud them for.
By the end of 2002 it was clear that White Wolf was beginning to struggle for inspiration when it came to supplements. They had already released two books about Blood Sorcery that read very much like D&D spell books, and an “Encyclopaedia Vampirica” which was…well…an encyclopaedia which referenced characters and places from everything that had been released for Vampire up until that point. However, I remember when “Havens of the Damned” was released a friend of mine asked “What next, Favourite Cars of the Undead?” What could they do to keep things interesting?
White Wolf clearly play by the law of “Go big or go home”, because in 2003 they announced “The Time of Judgement” where they were going to END the World of Darkness. Yes, the were killing ALL OF THEIR GAME LINES. Gehenna – the vampiric apocalypse – was going to get its own sourcebook in 2004. This wasn’t entirely unprecedented – White Wolf did the same for Wraith in 1999 with the release of “Ends of Empire” which killed off that game line, but it didn’t have Vampire’s popularity and, more importantly, it wasn’t White Wolf’s cash cow! Other game designers were scratching their heads in wonder and horror and settled down with all the glee of rubberneckers at a massive pileup. Fans of the game were incredulous, shocked and excited (sometimes all at the same time) and braced themselves for what to come. White Wolf did a great job of building up to this momentous event – over the course of 2003 a series of “Time of Judgement” books were released for each of their major game lines – sometimes crossing over – to show the World of Darkness slowly falling apart. They also put a news ticker on their website that included, from mid July onwards, daily updates that showed the rapidly disintegrating state of their universe. The vampire’s masquerade was crumbling, werewolves were preparing for the final battle, mages found reality constricting, demons were drawing up battle lines and hunters…well, hunters were having the biggest of “WE TOLD YOU SO” moments.
So it was, on January the 14th 2004, after thirteen years of continuous publication, that Vampire: The Masquerade came to a bloody and fiery end with the Gehenna sourcebook. I can still remember rushing out to get it on the day it was released and reading as much as I could in a single sitting and I genuinely liked what was there. It was sad seeing one of my favourite games ending, but this was a very, VERY fitting ending. I won’t spoil the contents of the book – there are people out there that won’t have read it and it is a fun read – but I was left thinking “Yup – I’m ok with that.”
Besides, White Wolf had already been promising “A brand new World of Darkness”. Like all other Vampire players out there I was awaiting this “Vampire: the Requiem” with bated breath, but I’m not ashamed to say I was a naysayer from day one. I had seen what had been teased to the pensive vampire loving public, and I didn’t like it.
This wasn’t “brand new”. It was a reskinned version of Masquerade. I was happy to be proved wrong though and, like many, many others I bought the rulebook as soon as it was released.
I won’t lie – it was pretty.
It also sold truckloads.
It just didn’t do ANYTHING for me.
The whole background was an amalgamation and reworking of various Masquerade concepts, all peppered with “…and nobody can remember what happened in the past so make it up”. I tried playing a game – even stuck with it for a few sessions – but it felt like Masquerade only gutted of everything that made it come alive. Yes, vampires aren’t alive – stop being pedantic, you know what I mean…
After that, I abandoned it…but wasn’t surprised when a 20th Anniversary edition of Vampire was published in 2011. Nor was I surprised when they continued to publish supplements for it as it proved popular despite saying they never would.
Vampire is now in it’s 5th edition – I’m guessing the 20th anniversary edition counts as the 4th – and I haven’t played it yet, but from what I’ve read and understand it’s a continuation of “classic” Vampire but with new mechanics. Reviews so far seem fairly mixed but I’ll keep an open mind until I actually play it. It’s also had its fair share of controversy attached it too, but I won’t go into that here…
It’s very difficult to understate the impact that Vampire made on the gaming scene. Back in the early 90s things were slowly moving away from the classic fantasy dungeon crawls to a far more open style of play, but Vampire was the first game to my mind to really focus on the social aspect of play over combat. It encouraged character arcs and personality development rather than the accumulation of powers (although I know plenty of Vampire players who were totally in it for the powers).
Most of all though, it will be remembered as the first mainstream game to stand up and say this is about the story – not the system. It encouraged players to be as invested in the tale being told as the storyteller. It encouraged those thinking of writing scenarios to focus on mood, theme and the how of storytelling rather than which rooms had traps and monsters in them and where the treasure was to be found.
In short – it encouraged a different style of play. Was it a better style of play? No, not at all, but it did show players and GMs that you weren’t constrained by ONE style of play.
Not bad for a brainwave prompted by a trip to America’s rust belt.
That’s probably why the city of Gary gets a dedication in the first edition…