Throughout my life as a gamer of multiple trades, I've only played Vampire: The Masquerade a handful of times because the game attracts a particular audience. It's not a bad thing or a knock against the game, it's simply a fact I've personally seen that this RPG has a specific feeling and pull, so it doesn't immediately grab the kind of audience you expect a game like D&D or Pathfinder to immediately find. It's a popular title, but one of the biggest issues I ran into was that everyone at some level wants to be Lestat de Lioncourt and no one wants to be an inferior vampire with flaws. So a lot of the groups I played with over the years fizzled out within a month or so. I honestly never thought I'd be playing this game again after it was canceled in 2004. That is, until White Wolf Gaming Studio finally released 5th Edition of the series, which we received a copy of to play.
So let's start off with the book itself. This is just over a 400-page guide. This is a thick tome of information, but it's not just a series of mechanics and possibilities, it's an introduction into the world of what Vampire: The Masquerade is. Before you get into playing the game, there is a good chunk of this book that is straight-up lore. And as much as some people may not enjoy reading that much content, it is a necessity for a couple of reasons. When you play a fantasy RPG there's usually a pre-conceived notion of the world you're in from the landscapes to the monsters to the towns. If you plop D&D in front of a new player, they have a general idea of what they're getting into. VTM is not your standard fantasy setting because it's done in modern time. As in right now, current day-and-age, the world we live in today, plus vampires. And that's a key element the game makers needed to establish right off the bat because this is the kind of release that will attract a lot of first-time players and they need those guidelines defined.
Character creation has been given an overhaul in both positive and negative ways. No matter what kind of character you create, there's always one defining trait you do not get to escape: you are cursed. Being a vampire may have its joys from a role-playing perspective, but from a character perspective, it is not supposed to be the greatest thing in the world. Immortality has a price beyond not seeing the sun and relying on humans as personal juice boxes. There is very little glamour in the idea of being a creature of the night who is doomed to feast off the living. That is reflected in how you build your character as for every amazing bonus you receive, you are also punished for being what you are, which is a source of evil. Something that most players aren't used to unless you have a taste for playing chaotic evil characters. You are not in this game to save the city or do good, you're surviving in a material world filled with inner politics and fellow beasts.
There are different clans you can belong to, all with their own set of rules and fashion style and problems they have to deal with that define who you are as a vampire. These help flesh out the personality of who you are and what you want more than actual attributes and skills that you'll add later on in the game. A good chunk of this book is focused on who you are because like any real-world person, a vampire is not a cookie-cutter archetype. There are rich and poor, politicians and soldiers, whores and junkies, creatives and slugs, and so on throughout the world of the game. Everyone has different upbringings, social skills, beliefs, desires, wants, and needs. This book gives you everything it possibly can to allow you to create that character. The downside to all of this is that there's just so much information that it can be overwhelming. I personally took the time over the course of a week to read the book as much as I could and even now I feel like I'm missing some things.
A good chunk of the book also delves into the politics of the underworld of which you are a part of. There are two prime sects that you'll have to either choose from or deal with in The Camarilla and The Anarch Movement. The former is what you would think of as the established governing body of the vampires who have found comfort in the modern world and have managed to keep things in a certain way so that most of what you do is undetected or hidden from mortal eyes. The latter, as you may have guessed, are not fans of the current status quo and wish to take over by any means necessary. Regardless of which side you take, secrecy is still their ultimate goal as they don't want the world to know of vampires and would rather leave them to myth, games, and poorly written romance novels.
As far as putting a game together goes, this is probably the most middle-of-the-road version of the game you'll ever encounter. Certain things about putting together a character and a campaign have been streamlined, such as finding the right attributes for your specific character based on the choices you've made to their personality and clan. But then actually trying to formulate all of that info on you a character sheet feels like a chore. It took twice as long for me to make a character in Vampire: The Masquerade than it did in the new Pathfinder 2.0 Playtest, and Pathfinder is notorious for being taxing when it comes to putting information together. The book feels like a lot of good ideas were put together into a solid encyclopedia of knowledge, yet someone forgot to put everything into an order that would make it easy to find. Even with the table of contents, I had issues locating what I needed.
When it came to creating an actual campaign within a bustling city the size of Chicago or Manhattan, that was relatively easy as they have specific rules and guidelines that you need to adhere to in order for there to be some sort of realism and consequences for being found out. Graffiti, social scenes, creating territories and places of worship were no big deal. If anything, creating a location was probably hands down the easiest thing to do in the entire book. Which is a benefit to people making a game as you need some kind of proper setting that doesn't feel like it requires a ton of explanation. Personally living in Salt Lake City, I had fun taking the small group I found to test this out with and basing it around where we live. Taking landmarks that mean something to us and twisting them for alternative purposes when the sun fades added to the experience in ways I couldn't have begged for in other scenarios.
Actually playing a game of Vampire: The Masquerade with all of this material in place was fun once we got over the initial hurdles. I'll discuss that in a moment but I do believe this needs to be examined. I had to pass my PDF copy around to the other players so they could take the time to read the material and create a character with the sheet as they needed. While this is no different than handing out a Players Guide to people in other games, but I felt more like a teacher handing out homework than a GM helping people build characters. There's a part of me that wishes some of what was put into this book was condensed or maybe parsed onto another guide later on, as there's just some material that serves no other purpose than to add flavor. Flavor isn't entirely a bad thing, but when it's the crux of half the discussion you're having with yourself when making a character, it can be daunting to get through.
The gameplay itself ran like clockwork. Once everything was in place, this was a treat. 5th Edition has actually made this game play the way you would expect it to be played, with intrigue and deception and bodies hitting the street after being drained of their life. Each character that the four players I tried this out with had unique backstories and reasons for wanting what they wanted. The campaign I ended up running had three of them choosing The Anarch Movement as their primary sect to support in the hopes of toppling the establishment in place, while the fourth sat on the fence and predicted complete anarchy and the fall of their kind as a whole if any of the local churches found out they not only existed, but they were a pestilence to be vanquished in the name of all that was holy. We got through a few sessions and a major plot point I had created which opened the doors for new possibilities.
Ultimately, I love the new 5th Edition of Vampire: The Masquerade, but holy crap is this book a chore to navigate. One of the key ideas of a handbook is to have everything be easy to find, and while that is the case in several areas, it's not what I would call properly organized for the first half of the book. I feel like a lot of this could have been removed and put into a totally separate book as a companion piece to dictate what this world is. Instead of an outline, I got a journal and a police report and a madman's ramblings all shoved together with twenty other documents and some flashy art… and it doesn't even get to the game. Once we got to the core of the game, this was an awesome book. That being said, if you've never played Vampire: The Masquerade, this is a fine introduction that will give you everything you need to put you in this world and help you build a character. It's worth the time to check out if you're looking for a darker tabletop RPG.