Monday, September 16, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 8: Favored Edition

1st Edition

Generally when I run Vampire, I prefer to use the 2nd Edition base book with 1st Edition supplements, if any. The differences between the 1st and 2nd Ed base are relatively minor, and pretty much amount to different opening fiction, different example of play, and some editing. The basic theme, tone, art, and rules are identical.  So, when I refer to “1st Edition rules,” I’m really referring to the 2nd Edition base book, as the mechanics are identical. Hopefully this will become clearer as I describe my thoughts, especially when I finally work my way around to the supplements.

Part of my affection for this edition can be explained as this was the first version of Vampire I ever read or played. So, this preference could be explained away as simple nostalgia, as if that were necessarily a bad thing. Since my most recent experiences with Vampire have been with new players, another element is a desire to share my passion for the game, which was first flamed with these rules. Now, it is true that one of the main appeals to this version of the game is the way it brings me back to where I was when I was a teenager, and the game held seemingly limitless promise. Even today, flipping through the base book gets me excited and ready to play in a way that none of the other editions have ever matched.

But it’s more than just wanting to relive my youth when I look at these rules. I think my affection for these rules can be summed up as the tone and information in the basic book, the rules of the edition, the artwork, and finally the supplements themselves.  My most recent experiences with Vampire have tended to involve either primarily or solely groups of players new to role-playing, and as such I look for a game that caters to them, and is something they can understand and enjoy without needless additional complexity.

First off, is tone and information. The 1st and 2nd Edition books seem to me to be the only Vampire rule books that are explicitly designed for people who have never played Vampire before. Later editions have an element of “preaching to the choir” and seem to be focused on clarifying and cleaning up various legacy rules, as well as explaining a world where the “meta-plot” is in full swing. 1st  certainly gave plenty of information about the larger world, and hinted about some of the grand elements of the game, but it certainly wasn't a major factor. Since I tend to adapt a “ignore, use, or abuse” mentality to the meta-plot, I prefer if it is downplayed in the basic rules. I managed to pick a number of the basic books through used book stores and eBay over the years, and I feel comfortable lending these out to my players without needing to explain things I've changed or ignored.

So, that’s information. By tone I mean a greater focus on the local city and individual characters. Later editions seemed to get more wrapped up in the great struggle, and I feel the elements of “personal horror” or at least personal struggle got sidelined. I like to keep things focused on the local setting and the nearby characters, without worrying about what’s going on in the greater World of Darkness (unless of course, I think it would be nifty to bring it in later). Also, I like my “harpies” to be an insult to the partying class, and Sheriff is a specific dude in Chicago, not a generic term for “Prince’s Enforcer.”

More importantly, though, are the rules themselves. I like running Vampire for new players for two reasons. One, the basic concept is easy to “get” and the world is something that they can readily relate too (at least in comparison to D&D and other games (“what’s the difference between an Orc and a Goblin again?”)). Secondly, the rules are strong enough to effectively simulate reality, without being so crunchy that they get in the way of the game for new players. I find most new players don’t really care about the rules, and the less they need to look up or carefully think about, the better.

In Revised, by comparison, they added in a significantly more “crunch” to the rules. Things like, changing initiative from Wits + Alertness to 1d10 + [sum of Dexterity and Wits], or dividing normal damage between Bashing and Lethal, or requiring 1 blood point spent per dot of Celerity. Now, all of these may be fine changes and fix certain parts of the game. I assume that Revised initiative is more “balanced,” that the Bashing/Lethal split is more realistic, and the changes to Celerity keep it from being an “I win” disciple.
Personally, I don’t care. The basic mechanic of Vampire is Attribute + Ability, with certain things (virtues, backgrounds) being rolled on their own. By making initiative into something weird, I feel that they increased the complexity for very little gain. Sure, veteran players can make the change with little difficulty, but I've always seen players stumble and forget how initiative works. A similar thing happens with the Soak changes.

A short while ago, Anthony Jennings posted a very insightful article about role-playing and combat; specifically, about how “role-playing” tends to go out the window and players become hyper-competent killing machines once initiative is rolled. He raised a number of good points, but one thing I felt he underplayed was the issue of “crunch.” As you add more numbers to the combat portion of the game, fighting can quickly resemble a math equation, where this is a “correct” or “optimized” solution. And when combat feels like an exception to the normal rules, it ends up feeling like a different game. It reminds me of the Final Fantasy computer games, where you have one sent of “rules” or interface for running around the world, exploring the setting, and talking to NPC’s. When you start a battle, however, all that gets changed. Suddenly the game is about two groups on different sides of the screen swapping turns and trying to hurt each other.

Obviously, experienced or veteran players can overcome this change, but I find for new players having suddenly new mechanics takes them out of the game. I prefer to keep the switch from “role-playing” to “combat” as seamless as possible. I also don’t want to punish players for making the “wrong” choices (like using a baseball bat instead of a knife), if it’s based on their character and role-playing. In fact, I've started using an even more stripped down version of the rules, and it has worked pretty well.

The other issue is that, no matter how much “crunch” you add to it, the Storyteller system just doesn't do combat well. It is, however, brilliant at short, violent, and deadly bursts of action. My rule of thumb is that it is horrible as a combat engine, but brilliant as a murder simulator.

And that’s the thing—when I run fights, they tend to be rare and nasty, and often in the form of ambushes setup by someone you thought was your friend and ally, rather than two vamps meeting at the park at midnight. As such, a lot of the fixes don’t really apply to the games I run.

Also, I’ll admit, I LIKE having Bureaucracy as a skill. It got swapped out later for Academics, which is fine, I suppose. But I like having it in my games. I’m not sure if it’s the presence of the skill, the way I run my games, or the players I have, but I see players in my 1st Ed games doing a lot more “making false ID’s with paper trails” or “manipulating HR so I can work from home/at nights” or “tracking down campaign contributions.” In Revised and later, you can do this with, I suppose, Law or Finance skills, but I think Bureaucracy is much more useful of a skill than Academics, especially since you shouldn't need to be a lawyer to know how to work the Country Clerks office.

Next, I love the art in 1st. A lot of it got reused in later version, but some of the art in Revised just turns me off. A good example is the images of the Brujah in the 2nd Vs. Revised.

Brujah, 2nd Edition base book

Bruah, Revised base book

Brujah tend to be a pretty popular clan in 2nd. I’ve never seen a new player choose to play one with Revised. I think the art work is to blame.

Finally, is the supplements themselves. I missed out of most of these when the game was first released. I had the Storytellers Guide, and books like Hunters Hunted and Mummy, but that was it. Most of the By Night books and others I had were 2nd Ed. They were ok, but I was never a huge fan of them.

In the later 90’s though, White Wolf republished a number of the old supplements under names like “Chicago Chronicles” and “Cities of Darkness” and I was able to round out my collection. And I was amazed. Most of my issues with the 2nd and Revised were answered by 1st. I loved 1st edition Chicago by Night and Milwaukee by Night. Ashes to Ashes, Succubus Club, Blood Bond—all of these seemed to not only be alive with options, but also to really encourage the players to handle things their way, and not just follow the plot from one meeting with a powerful NPC to the next.

And that’s why I call myself a 1st Ed player rather than 2nd. You can keep your DC by Night, or Dark Colony, I’ll take Chicago or Alien Hunger. I don’t care for the narrative style of Giovanni Chronicles; I’d rather have the open ended adventures of Succubus Club.  And I want my hunters to be desperate, alone, and possibly mad—those who are doing what they must, not chosen ones. I want the freedom and ease of the 1st Edition, where things were still undefined and uncodified, and the world was what you and your group make of it.

Now, having said all that, I certainly don’t HATE later editions, and I’d play or run just about anything Vampire. I do like in Revised how they redid some of the Paths to make them more “mystical”, and I like how Requiem handled Age and jettisoned the meta-plot to the eternal fires of Hell (also, Requiem has some of my favorite supplements of all time—Damnation City, Mythologies, VII). But, push comes to shove, I’ll run with 1st, and borrow and steal from the best of the rest.

Session "0" for Scarlet Vampire

The tools are all in place. Now it is time to begin the game. Base Game: Vampire: The Masquerade (1st Edition)  Not familiar with Vampire...