Game: Victorian Age Vampire
Publisher: White Wolf
Series: World of Darkness: Vampire
Review Dated: 16th, November 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 6
Average Score: 6.00
Victorian Age Vampire is not a game in itself. This is not another Vampire: Dark Ages but in with a different historical focus. Victorian Age Vampire might have a solid hardcover, a price tag of $26.95, 220 pages, full descriptions of all the basic vampire clans (Camarilla, Sabbat and Indies) but it’s a sourcebook, its an expensive historical setting for Vampire: The Masquerade. There are quite a few different versions of Vampire: The Masquerade lingering on coffee tables and under candles in role-players’ houses across the world but it’s the latest of them (you know, that revision which is more than two but less than three) that you’ll need to get the most from the Victorian Age. The chances are that if you’re still buying World of Darkness books that you will have the latest Vampire anyway – but not necessarily so. Any problems here aren’t really White Wolf’s fault, I don’t really expect them to write every new sourcebook so it’s fully and easily backwards compatible with everything else they’ve ever written and if I did I would still be complaining about the Tremere. Nonetheless, if like myself you’ve been tempted back into the Darkness after a long period of absence to check out the new books coming out of the printers then this is something to keep in mind.
The cover of the book is this yellowish-greenish wash with the title of the book presented in huge letters as part of a wrought-iron style grill. The cover might be yellowish-greenish but inside you’ll find the text is completely purple. Purple prose is nothing new for a Vampire line but it seems especially hued in this particular offering. Since I’ve been away from World of Darkness for a while the first thing that struck me as I started to read was the size of the text. Compared the rather more competitive fantasy RPG markets Victorian Age Vampire is written in giant font and with canyons of white space between each line. The layout wasn’t something that I was still struggling with by the time I reached the designer’s notes so it can’t be all that bad. The purple prose isn’t all that bad either. As I’ve said, that style of writing isn’t particularly new to Vampire and to be fair it’s probably the very stuff of Vampire, that extra academic twist that appeals to gamer-intellectuals, goths, weekend poets and those people who like to really and truly escape the clichés of traditional fantasy RPGs. Here are a couple of my favourite examples of the style:
“To recapture the spirit of that bygone age, its very Zeitgeist, you must die and be reborn: You must see the world anew as a vampire’s childe. A deathless monster has exsanguinated you completely, in spirit as well as flesh.”
“In the past, the Brujah claimed a legacy of wisdom to temper their passion, taking up causes that echoed the still-burning fires in their dead hearts. Tonight, however, the Brujah sicken with a malady of soul that may prove their downfall if they are unable to heal it quickly.”
The book begins with a length prelude. A story of a vampire arriving back in London, corrupting a young innocent man, having him do worse to his fiancé and then helping to dump the body afterward. I can’t decide whether it is designed to make the game seem appealing, to make you sit up and take note or just a favourite story put in at the start of the book. It does seem to pander to typical vampire stereotypes: homoeroticism, pseudo-rape, innocent lost, self-confidence, decadence and death.
Chapter one begins fourteen pages into the book and sets out trying to describe the Empire of Queen Victoria as it was for the World of Darkness. It does pretty well, there’s a real attempt to explain the lifestyle and cities of the time. The focus is on London and that’s how it should be. London really was the centre of the world during Victoria’s reign in a similar way to who Rome was the centre of the Roman Empire. You don’t need to be a history buff to appreciate the book or get to grips with the atmosphere.
“Within the largest empire in history, ignorance and suffering are as widespread as syphilis and consumption. Children sweep away manure in the streets so that the wealthy may remain unsullied; many of these children die of horrific diseases long before adulthood.”
One strategy used often to describe and evoke the feel of the era for the reader is to make reference to famous characters; be they fictional or factual. This is the time in which the adventures of Sherlock Holmes are set. This is the time when Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of Whitechapel. If there ever was a character who has appeared in more vampire games than any other, then it’s Jack. This is also the time that people started talking about the ideas of Marx and the findings of Freud. Marx, Freud. Marx, Freud. At times I wondered whether it was possible to turn a page without seeing either one of those names, it’s enough to drive you, er, mad. With the excessive referencing of those two historical figures aside this is a valid tactic and a clever way of reminding the reader of how just how much the world was changing in this era.
You’ll have a good idea of what “Victorian” is by the time you reach the Clan chapter. The Clans aren’t rushed over, this is one of the core chapters of the book. There are about four pages for each one, perhaps a little less for the independent clans – but that’s done on purpose since this is a time when those few clans really didn’t interact much with the Camarilla. This is a time when the Camarilla really was at its strongest but the Sabbat is not neglected by the book. Each clan has an introduction and then a separate overview, their domains and interests follow suit too. Every Camarilla clan has a picture of a different “iron grill” for itself too. Why? I’m not sure. The famous list of stereotypical views of clans on other clans is not present though. I think that’s been done away with as no longer fitting with the open-minded storytelling philosophy of this brand of roleplaying. Besides, if one clan has a particular issue with another then it is talked about in the overview, domain or interests section in more detail and more fairly than any bullet point quote could do.
Artwork is a subjective issue, I know. It all depends on your point of view. My view is that the illustrations of the clan vampire that forms the centrepiece of the first page on any clan section in World of Darkness Vampire books is not up to scratch here. The black and white pencil sketches just don’t seem to do the writing justice. There isn’t a single illustration of the sample Clan vampire that gives me an idea for a character concept – and that’s the first time that’s happened. Mind you, we should be above such immature concerns as finding pictures we like. There are pictures I like in Victorian Age Vampire though; there’s a full page illustration that comes with the start (or end) of every new chapter and they’re all really good. They’re the sort of pictures that inspires you to think World of Darkness.
Tucked between the Clan chapter and the world details is the small “Characters” chapter. Character generation is quickly explained again, with the points adjusted for the setting where they need to be and the default Generation set to 12th. There’s a page of new natures and demeanors. Some skills, talents and knowledges need adjusting to make them fit for Victorian times and this is done over the course of a couple more pages. Backgrounds need tinkering too. Resources has a new table to highlight the vast differences between the very poor and the very rich. At three dots in resources you’re Bourgeois and will have 450 pounds to spend per month. How much will 450 pounds buy you? I have no idea. I smell a sourcebook coming. I hope I smell a sourcebook coming, if not then I’m off to try some very strange searches in Google. There are a handful of new merits and flaws too; which will secretly please many people.
Taking up as many pages in the book as the intensive study of the Camarilla, Sabbat and Independent clans is the tour around the Victorian world. The whole chapter is presented as the journal of a travelling vampire and so you get selected highlights of the cities he visits and the people he meets. There’s a strange little caveat grey box at the start of the chapter that explains that Great Britain isn’t England, nor is the United Kingdom Great Britain either. I really didn’t think anyone mistook England for Britain any more, not since that movie with Mel Gibson in. These sidebars pop up throughout the whole chronicle of the tour and explain when the fictional author has leapt to the wrong conclusion or point out interesting behind the scenes bits of information. I like this touch, it makes more sense than having someone tour around the world and uncover every supposed secret. I just get fed up with him being constantly referred to as “our esteemed narrator” or something similar. This is a comprehensive chapter. This is your value for money. If you don’t want to do London by Gaslight then you can do Edinburgh, Lisbon, Paris, Stockholm, Saint Petersburg, Venice, Vienna, Cairo or even New York. That’s naming just a few. There’s enough for every city for the Storyteller to pluck a plot from.
The Storytelling chapter is written at a suitable level. The assumption must have been made that you’re not a total rookie if you’ve bought this book and that’s a good call to make. With the exception of the oxymoron “Gothic 101” everything in here is pretty conversant. The main thrust of the chapter is to actually explain what the Gothic style is all about. The real Gothic style is explained and it is not the everything-dressed-in-black and ghosts of murdered children behind every door that the genre can be misunderstood as (some might say, a misunderstanding that occurs too often in official WoD canon). The supernatural is rare in traditional Gothic writing – Victorian Age Vampire does more than admit that, it encourages storytellers to work with that. The chapter studies typical themes and focuses in intelligent conversation. There is even a discussion about sexual elements in your vampire game. I generally flick through Storytelling chapters quickly, scorning each page with “yeah, yeah, know that, do that” – not because I think I’m the world’s best ST (oh! far from it) but because there never seems to be anything worth reading. This time its different. It’s almost tempting to encourage storytellers who only want to do the gothic-punk to buy this guide to Victorian-gothic anyway just so they can see presentation on Gothic.
The book moves from this intelligent chapter to give us stats for werewolves and witch hunters. I suppose such a chapter was needed. Actually, it’s better than I thought it would be. Some of the concepts in here look pretty tempting; there’s decent work on secret societies and as the book points out itself they’re all the rage at this point of time – think Golden Dawn. There’s fae here. If you want to stay true to Changeling: The Dreaming then that seems odd. Okay, we don’t actually have Changelings riding steam trains and sending telegraphs but there are different sorts fairy creatures kicking about.
Victorian Age Vampire is good but despite that it is best described as one for the fans. You don’t need to buy the book to run a Vampire game during the Victorian Age. Despite the strengths of the book there’s not quite one solid and compelling reason to buy it – not even if you want to try the era. The way I see it is that you’re either well read on this particular time in history or well read enough and then it’s a case that this book doesn’t really add to your knowledge very much. On the other hand, if you know nothing about the Victorian era then there’s probably a reason why it’s not interested you before and even if it interests you know you may struggle to work with just this book alone. So there are no compelling reasons to buy Victorian Age Vampire but there are some pretty good ones. The book is well written, the storytelling chapter especially so. If you want to try your hand at a Victorian game then with this book as your aid you shouldn’t get burned badly even if you fail – and having this book as your aid should seriously boost your chances of preparing a memorable game. This is a B+ book.