Note: this review was originally published in May of 2011 when the Kickstarter backers recieved their versions of the PDF
Back in 2011, White Wolf revived their slumbering franchise, Vampire: The Masquerade, and began releasing new content for it for the first time in nearly a decade. This revival of the original World of Darkness became known as “The Onyx Path.” In 2011, you could pre-order a copy of the core rulebook for a whopping $100, or wait until the end of the year and purchase a PDF or Print on Demand version. I thought V20, as it has come to be known, was merely okay. I loved the art and the fact the game was revived, but per my review, I was disappointed by a several of the changes, like the new rules for the physical Disciplines and I felt the layout was pretty terrible. I loved the artwork and the SHEER amount of content you were getting for your money. I was further impressed by the first (and only) adventure for V20 so far, Dust to Dust and it was one of the best adventures that I reviewed that year.
Come the end of the year, Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition won two Tabletop Gaming Awards from us: Best Remake/Re-Release and Best Art. So with all this in mind it’s probably no surprise to hear that I joined 1,134 other people in crowd-funding the Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition Companion over at Kickstarter. There were a lot of different reward options, but I just backed for a physical copy of the book and a PDF. The campaign was wildly successful and raised nearly $100,000 dollars, causing White Wolf to plan further Kickstarter campaigns, including Children of the Revolution which is currently ongoing. With an outpouring of love by V:TM fans and a dump truck full of money, everyone on all sides was expecting the V20 Companion to blow us away.
Unfortunately, when the PDF was released a few days ago, there was indeed a nigh unanimous reaction – but it wasn’t a positive one. In fact, if you read the comments from the backers, all but one is negative. Some are mildly disappointed about the page count, content, typos, and formatting issues while others are downright irate. The fact of the matter is that they SHOULD be upset on some level. White Wolf has released one of the most overpriced products they’ve ever put out, and what is here doesn’t really resemble what was promised at the start. In the condition that the book is currently in, I’m honestly a little embarrassed to have my name in the credits. In the days of Second Edition, a book of this size would have cost roughly ten to fifteen dollars (It’s the size of a Clanbook). Even with inflation, charging $50 for an eighty page book and $25 for a small PDF like this when that is the same cost for the 520 page core rulebook PDF is pretty much the equivalent of telling your fans to open their mouths and close their eyes and you’ll give them a nice surprise…which ends up being rancid diarrhea instead of something enjoyable. It’ll be interesting to see if the outcry of disappointment is as great as it appear to be, or if it’s mostly just sound and fury by a minority of backers. White Wolf was/is counting on Kickstarter to be a new business model for them, and it will be interesting to see if you actually have to deliver a quality product if you want to repeatedly use crowd funding or if people will blindly back a franchise via crowd-funding as they do with yet another movie/video game sequel. After all fool me once…
It’s also worth noting that White Wolf appears to be outright ignoring the complaints about the V20 Companion. They made an update on the 15th of May saying they will correct some typos and formatting issues, which is great as it’s better to catch the mistakes in the print version. It will be interesting to see if White Wolf takes the many criticisms about the quality and/or amount content to heart or if they’ll ignore the disgruntled. Will there be an apology to all the people who were expecting more in terms of page count and quality, and do the naysayers even deserve one? It’ll be fascinating to see how this plays out.
Now I won’t lie. I’m disappointed by what White Wolf put out as much as everyone else seems to be, but I’m still backing Children of the Revolution. Why? Because part of me is still optimistic that White Wolf will have learned its lesson from this faux pax and put out a really quality product. After all, the core rulebook was VERY pretty, even if I strongly disagreed with some rule changes and Dust to Dust was very well done. Maybe this was the one burp in the system. However as I look through this over and over for my review, I’m reminded of how much the “open development process” has become proof of the adage “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” I still have around three weeks to pull out of Children of the Revolution and the fact is, I will probably drastically lower my pledge if not pull out completely. For now though, let’s just focus on the V20 Companion itself and what went wrong.
Let’s start with the price. It’s not unheard of to have $25 PDFs or $50 books for a tabletop game. However, you’re generally getting far more content than you do with the V20 Companion. Here you’re getting eighty pages. Compare that to the core rulebook for V20, which is the same cost but 520 pages long. This is pretty skimpy for the cost. Even other companies that have $25 PDFs have a hell of a lot more content than this thing. Catalyst Game Labs just put out a $25 PDF for Shadowrun entitled Hazard Pay. That PDF is 170 pages long. The physical copy of the book is only $35 which means it’s slightly more than twice the length of the V20 Companion and only three-fourths the cost! That’s offensive to me, and it would seem, nearly everyone else. Even those that appear happy with the V20 Companion seem upset about what they got for the sticker cost. Another great cost comparison would be with Chaosium, makers of the Call of Cthulhu line of RPGs. Chaosium was well known for massively overpricing their PDFs until recently, when I wrote a commentary about them pricing themselves out of the digital marker, and they responded to me and the public at larging by dropping their PDF prices by 20%. This means something like Masks of Nyarlathotep which is 252 pages and considered to be one of the best adventures ever published in the industry regardless of system…is only $19.22 for the PDF. That’s over three times the length of the V20 Companion and a fraction of the cost, but it’s also a book on its fourth printing. We could also look at another recent PDF from Chaosium. Children of the Storm is eighty pages, just like the V20 Companion. It’s an exceptional supplement and adventure collection but the cost? Only $8.22 – a full THIRD of what the V20 Companion PDF costs. So as we see, people were expecting a hell of a lot more content for the price point because it’s what gamers are used to. White Wolf is now in a lose-lose scenario. If they lower the cost of the PDF for the general public when it is released, they will piss off the people who made the book possible EVEN Further and risk damaging their crowd-funding source to the point where this won’t be an option for them any longer. If they leave the book at the current price – people simply won’t buy it because it’s overpriced and the word of mouth on it is horrendous. Talk about your PR nightmare. White Wolf has pretty much blundered in every way possible from cost to content, but it’s also their first time using something like Kickstarter, so is this a one-time blunder or a quick cash grab? There’s no way to honestly know until we see Children of the Revolution.
So let’s look at the actual content now. What are in the eighty pages of the V20 Companion? Well, not much to be honest. The first ten pages aren’t even content. That means nearly 13% of the PDF is filler right off the bat. In these ten pages, you’re getting the cover, table of contents, a re-used piece of art from the early 90s and SEVEN pages of credits and acknowledgements. Now I’m fine with the backers getting their due and the usual White Wolf Credits page, but the pages thanking backers should have been in addition to content that were added on after everything was written. So if the book was planned to be eighty pages from the start, it should have been eighty pages of CONTENT and then White Wolf should have added on the acknowledgements as extra pages that they paid for above and beyond said content. God knows they raised enough money to do that and it’s what pretty much every other crowd-sourced RPG has done. Even worse is the formatting of the Kickstarter backers. It’s an eyesore to say the least. Proper formatting could have saved them half a page of room – at least. They could have used that half page for the standard credits and legal info and then voila! Another page of CONTENT. Sheesh. Thankfully this is being fixed in both the print copy and PDF, but man, what a bad first impression. Still, I’d rather see the errors caught and corrected in a soft release than in a mass one.
Besides this, the last three pages are devoted to what was cut and an explanation as to why. This is a complete waste of space that could have been a blog post. Instead it’s padding in a book that DESPERATELY needed content. All of the appendix is outright junk that could have been used in literally dozens of better ways. Then the last page of the book is a full page ad for upcoming Onyx Path products. Really? In a completely crowd funded project that is well aware of what is coming up, you’re going to waste a page on AN AD? If this doesn’t bother you on some level, than I don’t know what to tell you. So that means the first ten pages aren’t content and neither are the last four. That is a whopping EIGHTEEN PERCENT of the book that is padding instead of what people actually paid for. If you include full page art pieces as padding (which may or may not be your mindset), that jumps up to twenty pages of padding or a full fourth of the book. That’s horribly thought out and of the worst things I’ve seen in my nearly two decades writing for or about the tabletop industry. I personally don’t mind full page art in a book, especially V:TM as it tends to have some of the best art in the business, but honestly, when the page count is this small, these pages should have been put to better use. It also doesn’t help that said full art pieces are amongst the worst I’ve ever seen in a V:TM publication. Just…wow. I can’t believe that twenty-five percent of this book is padding. To put it another way, you’re basically paying eighty-three cents per page of content which is astronomical compared to pretty much every other RPG supplement well…EVER. Remember, that doesn’t even begin to touch on the pages that are one-third to one-half art in addition to content. Again, if this doesn’t make at least make you mildly disappointed my friend, than I don’t know what to tell you.
The rest of the book is divided into four sections: Titles, Prestation, Kindred and Technology and finally, A World of Darkness. Each section is of mild interest at best and it covers stuff that most V:TM players already know by heart (more or less). You may be asking yourself WHY White Wolf would publish a book for its most diehard fans that is full of content they already have or know by heart? Well, that’s a puzzler, isn’t it? The truth is that it’s not all a rehash. In fact, a lot of it is a new twist on old ideas. I applaud the concept, but not necessarily the end result.
“Titles” covers just that. They cover titles and what they mean in Kindred Society. You get a list of titles for the Camarilla, the Sabbat, the Anarchs and surprisingly the Tal’Mahe’Ra and the Inconnu. I’m really happy about the Black Hand titles as they’ve never really been covered in depth before. I’m a little disappointed they gave official titles and info on the Inconnu because they need to be mysterious and as open to interpretation as DC Comics’ The Phantom Stranger (which DC ruined recently anyway…). At least with the Inconnu, details about the organization as a whole aren’t given out and what’s here is vague enough to be interpreted in multiple ways, but there’s enough substance to make gamers know how to run one. The Cam, Sabbat, and Anarch titles have all been covered in depth repeatedly, so unless a gamer is new to V:TM as a whole, they probably don’t need this. Still, if you’re going to cover titles, at least you’re covering them all.
The big problem with the title section is the book gives rules for how to purchase them with EXPERIENCE POINTS. This revelation of course will annoy most fans of V:TM or the World of Darkness in general as it really goes against how the game is played and what it is all about. Titles are to be earned through role-playing, not purchased like a new power or enhanced skill. This actually made me a little ill to read. Thankfully the book talks about how to earn titles in-game but man, out of all the things to keep in, they kept in rules to obtain titles through experience expenditure? That’s just wrong. It’s mechanics that are neither needed nor wanted by most V:TM players. So the titles are a nice idea. The pages are through and descriptive, but you’ll be left baffled by the decision to let players purchase titles. Thankfully, most Storytellers will chuck that right out the window.
“Prestation” is a chapter that I’m still confused as to why it was put in the book. This section covers Boons, how to use them, transfer them, and get out of them. This is all standard stuff that any V:TM player should already know, so this amounted to little more than a dozen pages that could have been used better. Much like “Titles,” we get a list of how the different factions use boons and unfortunately, we also get optional rules for purchasing boons with experience points. Ugh. Again, I don’t know who would use these optional rules and I can see it pissing off a lot of V:TM fans who prefer the game for its light rules and emphasis on role-playing over character sheet micro-managing. I don’t know. On one hand, I think it’s nice that someone put a decent amount of effort into explaining boons in every way possible down to the most minute detail, but on the other hand, it’s a dozen pages that could have been put to better use as most fans of V:TM know this stuff like the back of their hand.
“Kindred and Technology” is my favorite section in the book as it’s not only the best written, but it’s the thing that most needed to be updated in game. Aftter all, VTM started two decades ago and the tech of 1991 is so vastly different from the tech of 2012 that it’s almost mind boggling to think about. Look at back then. The Sega Genesis was top notch in terms of video gaming. Cell phones were giant bulky things. Pagers were all the rage and how you contacted people in an emergency. Telephone booths were common-place. The internet was sparsely populated and BBCs were more frequently used. It was almost a different world entirely. This section of the book looks at those changes and what it means for the game. It talks about the use of trolling on the internet to protect/obscure Masquerade breaches, how a Kindred uses social networking, record and finance keeping with the cloud and other forms of digital storage (no more floppy disks!) and the like. I loved this section. If the entire V20 Companion was of this quality, people would be far happier with the product methinks. “Kindred and Technology” is a proper update, containing NEW information that longtime players and neophytes alike can make use of that hasn’t been covered elsewhere and is thankfully free of optional in-game mechanics (“It costs five experience points to buy a computer.”).
The final section, “A World of Darkness” is a good idea, but poorly written and badly implemented. It’s thirteen pages divided between twenty-five locations. That’s approximately three to four paragraphs per location. That’s nowhere enough room for a quality look at any of them. Several of these locations have been covered before in FAR greater detail, so it’s a bit insulting to see what we get here. If anything, each location should have had a full page to it, with greater detail and perhaps some story hooks or information about local Kindred. In truth, “A World of Darkness” should have been its own book, as it has been in the past, contained far more information about a great many more locations. To have it shoehorned in here with such sparse detail is an insult to the previous books by the same name and to the gamers that own them. Perhaps if you’re new this section won’t pale in comparison to what has previously been done, but how many people purchasing this will fall under that category?
All in all, the V20 Companion is one of the worst books (if not the worst) that White Wolf has ever put out in terms of getting what you pay for. In terms of actual content quality, it IS lackluster and a disappointment, but I honestly wonder if everyone who feels that way still would if the book had been stuck with a ten to fifteen dollar price tag. It’s the size of a Second Edition clanbook, but with less content and five times the price tag. What’s here is filled with typos (which White Wolf is already aware of and in the process of correcting) and lacks any real substance. Only one section is of any real quality (“Kindred and Technology”), while another (“Titles’) is equal parts good information and terrible ideas, and the other two sections are either not very useful or a pale mockery of things that have come before. I can see why quite a few backers are reacting to the Companion as if it was an insult to the Vampire: The Masquerade franchise and an even greater insult to the eleven hundred people who trusted and backed White Wolf in this endeavor.
To be honest, I can’t reccomend the V20 Companion at all, mainly due to the cost per page issue. There is no reason at all for anyone to buy a copy of this unless you absolutely must own anything and everything V:TM related. At best, the V20 Companion is a perfect example of how crowd-funding can go wrong. At worst, it makes you wonder what happened to the extra $50,000 White Wolf raised for the book (above and beyond the actual goal was), and what it was used for. Caveat Emptor indeed.
[3 of 5 Stars!]