The Blood Hack makes Vampires old-school again
Remember Vampire: the Masquerade? Mark Rein-Hagen's broody vamp RPG crashed into the hobby in 1991 and changed everything. It established White Wolf as a major gaming industry name and their Storyteller System as an influential rules set. It opened the World of Darkness as a compelling modern day setting, with contemporary heroes exploring a 'Gothic Punk' version of the world we know where supernatural evils manipulate humanity from the shadows. Perhaps most importantly, it offered a radical new approach to roleplaying, with characters who were anguished in their psychology with vivid inner lives, a focus on storytelling and themes over action and tactics and a sort of bruised romanticism that hooked players at once. In Vampire, you play the monster, but you are horrified by what you have become and what you might turn into.
I was drawn in by V:tM's coffee-table chic. So minimalist. So teasing. The 1st edition cover gave nothing away beyond "A Storytelling Game of Personal Horror"
Vampire presented us a world familiar from '80s media - the American heartlands of Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, the world of Ferris Bueller, The Breakfast Club, the music of John Cougar Mellancamp and Bob Seger, the Blues Brothers, Halloween. Then it flipped it, focusing on the decaying industrial 'Rust Belt' and the hollowed-out cities. The internal mythology of feuding clans and warring sects, the historical revisionism that placed undead puppet-masters behind great events, the concept of a 'Masquerade' that exposed the wholesome suburbia of a John Hughes movie to be a cynical lie... That's a heady cocktail.
Vampire and its successor-games (werewolves, mages, wraiths and changelings) pretty much defined '90s roleplaying. Gone were the gritty, table-dominated high fantasy worlds of the '80s - take that, Rolemaster! - and in came improvisation, drama, roll-the-dice-then-make-something-up. Light candles! Play a Dead Can Dance CD! Wear a funny hat! Vampire didn't birth LARPing but it gave it focus and White Wolf threw itself behind the LARP trend with its 'Minds Eye Theater' line.
I loved Vampire as much as anyone. It probably sustained my post-university interest in roleplaying which would have faded away otherwise, under the squeeze from career and family and ennui with dungeons and, I suppose, dragons. The great thing about Vampire was that the scenarios wrote themselves. Session One, you awaken as a vampire and you have to go and find food. From this premise, everything else flows and the tragedies, misadventures and dilemmas of that first night on the prowl set everything else in motion. You have to hide a body. You've offended another vampire. You've been discovered by your boyfriend. You've been introduced to the vampiric Prince and he wants you to do a little job for him.
It wasn't perfect though. The Great Handfuls Of Dice (GHOD) offered a cluttered and blunt mechanic that didn't allow meaningful assessment of risk. No matter how many editions the game went through, they couldn't fix overpowered Celerity or underpowered guns.
Roll all these and tell me if you hit...
New Clans and Bloodlines were twinky and power-creeping and, from a 21st century perspective, problematic in the representation of race (so... Gypsies vampires are all thieves and the only two black factions are devoted to murder and demonism?).
Muslim vampires are assassins? Some privileges went unchecked there!
And of course, that intoxicating lore which was such a springboard for the imagination back in '91 got codified, nailed down, explicated and quantified. It became a straightjacket, with its canonical timelines and dominating conflicts. Although a supplement exploring the anti-human Sabbat sect was extremely imaginative, it took the Jungian 'Shadow' of Vampire and gave it a face and the night lost its mystery as a result.
There's a new version of Vampire: the Masquerade out - 2018's 'fifth edition' - and it's supposed to be very good. It takes a root-and-branch approach, restructuring the (terrible) dice system and Year Zero-ing the convoluted mythology. It can't overcome the game's '90s legacy, it seems, and has encoded characters with neo-Nazi iconography. Edge-lordery or Ass-holery? I can't comment. I've not read it.
The reason I'm not wading back into Vampire: the Masquerade is that I've discovered The Blood Hack.
I can buy the new 5th edition for £18 as a PDF - which is good value for a slick product - or The Blood Hack for £3 from drivethrurpg
Author Matthew Skail describes The Blood Hack as "a love letter to dark games of the 90's that allow you to play the monster!" So we know what he's talking about, right?
A bit of context. There are a lot of ...Hack RPGs out there, but the progenitor is David Black's The Black Hack (2013). The Black Hack is a super-streamlined retroclone of original D&D that takes a lot of liberties in order to capture the essence of Old School dungeon-bashing. It replaces all the tables and matrices with a simple mechanic: roll a d20 and get equal to or less than your relevant attribute (STR, DEX, etc). Players do all the rolling so you test STR to attack a monster and STR again to avoid being damaged by its attack. Saving throws are tests of CON or DEX or whatever. You might have penalties (actually, plusses, since you're trying to roll low) but the usual mechanic is to roll with either Advantage (roll twice, keep the lowest) or Disadvantage (roll twice, keep the highest).
Black's innovation is the Usage Die. If your character has a crossbow it might have a d6 Usage Die. Every time you fire it you roll your d6 and if you roll 1-2 your Usage Die shrinks down to a d4. If you roll 1-2 again, your Usage Die is gone. You're out of ammo. Black applies the Usage Die concept to things like ammo, supplies, rations and torches, to avoid the fiddliness of keeping track of individual arrows or oil flasks. However, imitators have gone much further with this design.
A Black Hack character, with Usage Dice
Because Black is writing under the Open Gaming Licence, he offers up his game as a 'Hack' and a living document, inviting corrections and additions. Before long, there is a Space Hack, a Zombie Hack and a Cthulhu Hack and many other adaptations of popular RPG properties into this streamlined OSR rules set.
Enter Matthew Skail, who takes up Black's distinctive approach and creates a sort of OSR Vampire game: Vampire but with levels and Hit Dice and the familiar six attributes of D&D, with the vampiric bloodlines as character classes. Obviously, intellectual property means that Skail cannot poach the Tremere and Gangrel, but his Anunnaki are sorcerers and Enkidu are shapeshifters, the Dracul are lordly warriors and the Lillim seductive manipulators: if you know V:tM, you can join the dots.
Usage Dice do a lot more work in Skail's game. You have a Blood Usage Die and whenever you use it (to power abilities or go without feeding) you roll it and on a 1-2 it shrinks. Characters start off with a d4 Blood Usage Die, so there's a 50% chance any vampy exertion will leave you bloodless and hungry. Top vampires have a d10 Blood Die and you can do a lot with that: it will shrink to a d8 then a d6 then a d4 before you end up bloodless. Have fun!
Feeding on a victim lets you take a step of their Blood Die (reducing a human from d4 to nothing) and add it to yours (boosting you from nothing to a d4). You can gorge yourself, taking your Blood Die to a step higher than your level-limit (ie. a d6 for first level characters). Feed on someone without a Blood Die and they die.
Morality is also a Usage Die, but this is a die that gets bigger when it rolls 1-2. You start of with a d6 Morality (basic human, nothing special) and when you drain someone dry you roll it and on a 1-2 it increases to a d8. Now you're coldly inhuman in many ways; you're tougher in combat but you need to feed every night and sunlight deals Killing Damage. Vampires with a d10 Morality are nasty, d12 are monsters and d20 are doomed to become NPC horrors. With each step up, you get more vicious in combat but more vulnerable to sunlight, silver and holiness.
Skail's vampires don't have reflections (I remember the brilliant 1998 TV series Ultraviolet and perhaps Skail does too because he's alert to the implication that vampires do not show up on film and their voices don't carry over telephones or the Internet).
This show rocked and, yes, that's Idris Elba
Skail also reinstates silver as a source of Killing Damage for vampires and downplays the idea that they're controlling the world: he presents his clans as engaged in little turf wars rather than directing massive corporations, but of course you can take the game in any direction you like.
There's a comprehensive set of Blood Gifts and you get more by going up levels. Some of these Gifts are permanent powers (you can climb walls!), some require victims to have no more Hit Dice than you (the commanding Voice) and others require a stat test and a Blood Usage die roll. Super-strength 'Might' is another Usage Die that exhausts as you use it and refreshes the next evening. There are Blood Rituals you can use as an Anunnaki or buy into through the Mysticism Blood Gift and these let you create Renfield-esque Thralls, protect your Lair, recreate your reflection and other cools tricks.
All of this is packed in to 54 pages with big typeface, lots of white space and some B&W art that's amateur but effective.
It's not a perfect document. If you hate typos, then sedate yourself, because Matthew Skail has autocorrect turned 'off'. The ordering of material is haphazard and would be baffling in a larger or more complex rules set. Some material has been ported in from other hacks in a rather undigested way: we get lists of firearms and vehicles and their stats and prices as if this was a set of skirmish rules. but only perfunctory rules on humans, Thralls and vampire politics. The assumption is that you're fighting other supernatural mooks in the night. But of course, you can make use of the game in any way you like.
I've found The Blood Hack to be a fantastic gateway back into vampire-themed roleplaying with a OSR aesthetic. It lets me ditch the baggage of the World of Darkness and construct my own vampy setting with vamps who are rather more mystical and varied than the White Wolf varieties. I've stated a campaign - Nights of Fire, set in London in 1940 on the eve of the Blitz - and of course that's going to end up hacking the Hack, with my own rules and variants, new clans, new powers, all of that stuff.
The Blood Hack doesn't have Malkavians! That so needs to be fixed...