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Mind’s Eye Theatre: Vampire The Masquerade rulebook review

Available on DriveThruRPG
Reviewing a book as complex as this one is a monumental task. It was published 3 days ago, and it's got a monumental 550 pages of content - luckily, a large part of it was familiar to me from "slices" they released before they published the book, and little has changed there. However, rules is relatively small part of this. The book is loaded with art, stories, tips, setting lore and more. This is a review of the book as a whole, and there's much more in it than rules. But let's start at the beginning.

Vampire the Masquerade larps have started all the way back in 1993 with the release of the first Mind's Eye Theatre, as a rework of the tabletop RPG published by the White Wolf Publishing (tabletop was published in 1991). The idea was to provide players with a way to play tabletop-like stuff in live format. Basically, like with tabletop, you buy the rulebook and run the game with your friends. And it worked really well - despite the system being different than the tabletop one, it provided the way to play nearly everything that was possible with the tabletop in larp format, with rock-paper-scissors and trait bid system replacing dice. Some parts worked even better than in the tabletop - the larp format was (and still is) better for portraying the actual society of Vampires, as well as their day-to-day unlife and struggles.

Yet the ruleset was not ideal. Some parts of it were quite unclear, and it had three quick revisions, until its' final version - Laws of the Night (Revised) - which was published in 1999., and remained the definite Masquerade larp version until now. However, many groups kept playing under older rules, and still some invented their own - sometimes based on the existing version of larp rules, other based on the tabletop version. Vampire was played extensively in both Americas and Europe, yet few people played it in exactly the same manner (some exceptions were large networks such as Camarilla/Mind's Eye Society and One World by Night).

Support for the classic World of Darkness ended in 2004, and new World of Darkness was published. Mind's Eye Theatre returned for nWoD in 2005, but both the tabletop and larp variants were quite different from their cWoD equivalents. New game - now called Vampire the Requiem - featured a vastly different setting than Masquerade, and community was split. While Masquerade was a well defined setting (with loads of lore which was published periodically, and some Mary Sue characters running around), Requiem had more of a toolbox approach, and was darker, more mysterious, low-powered and unknown - up to the storyteller's interpretation (Storyteller is a World of Darkness' equivalent to the GM). The tabletop and larp rules were streamlined, clarified, and very much alike. This time, larp felt much like tabletop with cards used to resolve conflicts instead of dice. Some groups moved to this system, while others kept playing cWoD larps. Basic system consisted of two books: Mind's Eye Theatre Core Rulebook, which was the base book for all World of Darkness systems, and Mind's Eye Theatre: Requiem, which provided a Vampire template, and it wasn't modified as much as the cWoD systems were.

Yet fans of the original setting remained numerous. White Wolf did not expect that, and in the end they made the financially viable decision - in 2011. they made a new edition of Masquerade (pen&paper version) as 20th Anniversary Edition (also called V20) - which was redesigned with new layout and art, helping it achieve the mood which was more serious and less comic-like than the releases in 90s. And now two years later, 20 years after first Mind's Eye Theatre was released, we got a new version of the Masquerade larp rules.

However, things changed since then. White Wolf outsourced its' publishing - the tabletop series would be published by the Onyx Path Publishing (who just released Blood and Smoke, the updated pen&paper Requiem, so nWoD lives on), while larp stuff - the Mind's Eye Theatre - was licensed to By Night Studios. The new version of Vampire the Masquerade rules was released after a very long and successful Kickstarter.

And it's now available - though in PDF form only, the printed edition, other language editions and special deluxe edition will come later. But what's in it? Despite the layout looking very much like V20, it took a very different approach. Instead of playing on nostalgia values, there was innovation. This is not just a revision of the old rules - it's in fact both a new version of the rules and an updated old setting. Here's the sales pitch that the authors put up about what's in the book:

  • All the clans. All the bloodlines. All the disciplines. This is a complete game, containing everything you need to enjoy Vampire The Masquerade in one of its most thrilling formats.
  • A streamlined character creation system that is quick, yet comprehensive.
  • A new cinematic yet mathematically-balanced rules system developed specifically to support the story and style of a live action environment for Vampire The Masquerade.
  • Detailed settings for Camarilla, Sabbat, and Anarch games, with custom rules designed to enhance the story of each setting.
  • Gorgeous new full-color art that faithfully depicts this dark and decadent world.
  • Support, guidance, and advice for Storytellers, covering everything from how to write plots, run engaging scenarios, or personalize a setting for your chronicle. Learn how to manage a chronicle in a world where players want to play 24/7 and to customize your setting for the story you want to tell in your chronicle.
  • A brand-new NPC creation system that allows you to quickly create allies and antagonists at the challenge level required for your chronicle.
  • A new equipment building system that allows storytellers to quickly recreate any real world item (such as weapons, equipment, and vehicles) required for the chronicle.
And yeah. The sales pitch is basically true. This book really provides everything. Compared to most other role-playing systems, it's like core books and half a dozen most popular supplements rolled into one book. The basic mechanics are simple (e.g. challenge and fight mechanic fits on two pages). The character sheet has been streamlined - having less stuff on it than the tabletop version, simplifying character creation which is really streamlined (and there are hints about it on the character sheet) and consists of simply following the steps. The system seems more differentiated from tabletop than in nWoD books (and in a good way), while also being more tabletop-like than the original system (again in a good way, as it avoids trait tracking). The basic mechanic involves both rock-paper-scissors (in limited numbers) and a test pool. This is compared to tabletop's handful of d10s, original rules' rock-paper-scissors (it looks like it from a distance, but the bomb symbol is not there anymore, and trait bidding and tracking system is replaced by a simple number), and nWoD MET's card draw system.

In Croatia, we tested the rules in three games (read more about the games 1, 2 and 3) and they work very well for their intended purposes and playstyle - just don't try running the combat with a lot of unprepared people... without using the mass combat rules. We'll be running them regularly starting January 2014 as part of the Camarilla Agram chronicle in Zagreb, so that's where you'll be able to play them if you're around (more info here).

Apart from the rules, the rest of the book's content is pretty much stunning. The number of mechanically different characters is astounding. Different clans and bloodlines not only provide what is similar to "classes" in some other games, but they also provide some hints on role-playing that character. And in a way, lot of things do. Hints and suggestions on role-play and character goals are pretty much all over the place. The clan and bloodline characterization, tons of available lore (both general, for your faction of vampires, and for your clan), the political system that's included, the boon economy, how XP system works and some very high-quality storyteller advice (which is if you ask me one of the best parts of this book, covering starting from scratch, how to organize stuff, how to write scenarios and plot, impact on players, tips, pitfalls, dealing with problem players, better involving other players, set dressing... an awesome section). If you simply run it by the book, you'll provide a lot of hooks for both players and characters to keep them engaged.

Art-wise, the book is impressive. The layout is awesome. The full-page photos are fine, though I liked those in V20 more. However, there will also be the Deluxe version featuring art by Tim Bradstreet - that should solve the problem. The print version will be in a leatherette cover, with sewn bookmarks and silver edged pages - it's a limited collector's edition, and the price is such. It's still available on the preorder page at the time of writing. But even the standard version feels rich and professional due to its' art - a huge step up from Laws of the Night.

The stock NPC creation system is fast, and will allow you to build an appropriate NPC (whatever the manner of creature it is) in a few seconds, saving you the trouble of building a full character. It also features the rules on building the creatures from other World of Darkness settings - hunters, werewolves, mages, fae, wraiths, demons - though they're not mechanically the most faithful renditions from their original systems, as here they're approximated with Vampire rules - but it's a decent approximation for most. The section also includes the rules for building vampires which were not included in the PC section (Methuselahs, Blood Brothers, Lhiannan, Nagaraja).

The lore was moved forward a few years, which brought it to an interesting point - it's familiar to previous Masquerade players, continued the storyline and keeping the richness of the setting in a slightly evolved form while removing the emphasis from the original meta-plot. And it's not just lore, layout or full-page art - the wording itself is often full of adjectives and describes things in such a way that the book oozes atmosphere. Intertwined between lore, mechanics and art are also a total of four short stories, written by Jason Andrew and Ree Soesbee. But that's always been the standard deal with White Wolf books. Plenty of lore and atmosphere. The PDF form has hyperlinked table of contents, index and several other places in text which works well for finding stuff quickly - though there are players who'd appreciate a shorter summary. There's a Quick Start Guide coming early in 2014, but I don't know how it will be organized in content. Personally, I hope for interactive character sheets (something like this one for V20). The page count of the PDF is also increased by sample equipment cards, included character sheet and a substantial listing of all the Kickstarter backers (I'm on page 529 :)).

Photo from the Embrace the Night 3 playtest of the rules

Final conclusion? Well, a larp can be many things. Many good larps rely on no or minimal mechanical rules - simply on a good plot and setup. I wrote some of them. Larps like this one are simply another type of the event, and they have an appeal of its' own. And Vampire larps can be very influential - not only that they're played in many countries across both Americas and Europe (and perhaps wider - that's the power of distribution), but there were also games like "Helsingin Camarilla", played in Helsinki in 90's (described in the Nordic Larp book), which set quite a few standards.

This book is a new chapter in the Vampire larp tradition. In my opinion, it's made better than any of the core Vampire larp books before it - simpler and more streamlined in way how it works, richer in its' options and better looking, an upgrade in almost every conceivable way. It's clear that a lot of research and effort has been put into it - it's not a "let's get some money quickly" scheme, a lot of stuff has been carefully rewritten for a reason. Additionally, during the development process the folks from the By Night Studios have shown themselves to be communicative, serious about the feedback and supporting their players, and displaying a good sense of humor. A plus in my book, and I hope they continue doing that.

If what I described sounds like a larp you want to play, than get the book. It's not perfect, but it's pretty good - and as advertised, it's all you need to start larping or join an existing game. If you're interested in Vampire, you'll get it anyway. If you're a tabletop RPG player who'd like to try larping, this is a style that you'll find familiar and non-threatening (and you can probably use it for tabletop play as well). For $25 in PDF, it's an excellent value, providing not only mechanics but also plentiful lore, good advice and cool stories in a wholesome, visually attractive package.

Next project that will be redone by By Night Studios


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