I bought the Vampire: The Dark Ages book and indeed the companion some years ago but have never had a chance to play it. That in itself is not a big deal – like many people, lifestyle and personal preferences limit my ability to play with others but I can buy books occasionally and play an occasional solitaire adventure. However, I have never successfully got around to doing this with the Dark Ages and have not come across a podcast of actual play. Consequently, I am really not sure what kind of experience people expect when playing the game – is it all the slightly effete social wrangling that it has been described as or is it, in reality, a variant of D&D with more powerful characters? I have heard various games being played via the wonderful RPGMP3 website but never vampires. So, I looked for what was available and came across Fountains of Bright Crimson, among others, and thought I would give it a go. If it was inspiring, I could use it as the basis of a solitaire adventure and, if not, at least I would have a better idea of what the experience would be like – and since it was just 32 odd pages fro five dollars, what could possibly go wrong?
Well, let me begin with the form and presentation. This is a pdf of course when the original was intended for print so that does make a difference. Print formats require compression of all content within a specific publishing space and that is evident here with the somewhat squashed appearance of the text – quite a lot is placed on a single page, that is, when a not insignificant amount of that space is occupied by margin art and by illustrations. The publishers (White Wolf) have been terrifically successful within the context of what might be achieved in this sector and clearly the majority of customers prefer this style or else they would have changed: people, self excluded, like a lot of pictures and illustrations and they get a reasonable amount here. Their playing experience is further supported by the presentation of NPCs – each of the dozen individuals here has a description measuring the best part of a quarter of a page or more. NPC descriptions include not just basic stats but appearance and demeanour. The descriptions range in level of subtlety but presumably a GM and players can use these descriptions to the extent that they want interaction. I was initially a little skeptical about this approach but have changed my mind (which is one reason why I try not to do reviews straight away) – a principal part of the game session satisfaction is, it would seem, the interaction with other creatures which are of substance in their own right. The clan nature of the setting dictates that creatures are of moment even if they can be brushed aside and destroyed as the D&D player in me would suggest. Working out the best way of dealing with them is part of play, therefore.
On the other hand, I was a little surprised by the tone and content of the adventure. Fountains of Bright Crimson is set in Jerusalem in the wake of the First Crusade, which took place a century earlier (there is a brief summary for those who do not know the history). The player characters are to be involved in the bloody aftermath of events then and drawn into the deep and dark secrets that partially shaped events. This is all well and good – who can resist running around as a vampire in Dark Ages Jerusalem? I visited a number of years ago and was certainly struck by the oppressive nature of the territory and archaeology, which of course lies like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
Yet I was somewhat surprised by the repeated injunctions of author Ree Soesbee to keep the players on a vehicle that is suspiciously like a train. I personally do not object to being railroaded – players taking part in a game universe created by others for their enjoyment (whether or not on a commercial basis) has a duty of politeness to follow the plot more or less, in my opinion. Yet I had expected something different from a Vampire game. Perhaps players are expected to enjoy the shackles of the clan setting to the extent that they justify going along with the flow, especially since the logic dictates that the GM can conjure out of thin air enormously powerful forms of the Deus ex Machina when required? Well, those who do stick with the plot will find themselves well rewarded, in my opinion, with the revelations to be found deep in the dungeons beneath Jerusalem.
On the whole, this is great fun – the more I have thought about it and tackled it, the more I like it. I would certainly recommend it and would look out for more work by the Soesbee.
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