Wednesday 22 May 2024

Vampire 5th edition (review)

 (NOTE: This article was first published by Australian Tabletop Gaming Network back in about 2018. Republished here for love and posterity.)

Probably the biggest problem Vampire: The Masquerade 5th edition has to overcome is the game’s legacy. Vampire has a rich and successful pedigree, with all the inbred frailties that go with it. White Wolf could have taken the easy way out and gone the same route as the 3rd and 4th (20th Anniversary) editions; make an encyclopaedic condensation of the game with a few tweaks to the rules and some updated lore. Maybe take some of the rules and ideas from Vampire: The Requiem and Chronicles of Darkness to clean things up a bit. The fans would have complained that there was nothing new and interesting, but they would have lapped it up.

But from the moment you see the vibrant pink cover for the new edition of Vampire you just know they’re gonna be trying something different. Previous editions have all rested on the tried and true red rose on green marble covers, but the 5th edition seems to be declaring that they’re not your grandaddy’s Vampire, kid. No way, this ain’t your ’90s hip and edgy Vampire now bloated, blinking and shuddering through middle-age irrelevancy, this is an altogether newer, hipper and edgier Vampire for the late twenty-teens with all the… style and savviness and… modern ironic counter-counter-cultural sensibilities and… and… street-smart elegance that we’ve come to expect from… from…

From a suburban mid-life crisis, is actually the best analogy I can come up with. Because although Vampire: The Masqurade (and indeed the entire World of Darkness) can do with a new lease on life, there is something going on here that is ultimately a bit embarrassing. It isn’t all bad, of course; it’s nice to see Dad getting back out in the dating scene, buying some new clothes and trying to expand his outlook. But seeing him squeeze into a pair of jeans three sizes too small for him whilst discussing his newest hobby of attending gay feminist cinema (where he’s seen maybe two films and is now suddenly an expert) just makes you want to cringe.

It isn’t that it’s all bad, despite what many would have you believe. It’s just that it’s a mess. A well-intentioned mess, I must confess. It wants to change, but there’s so much baggage weighing it down. It wants to do something new, but it also wants to remain true to its past. It wants to be brave and groundbreaking, and yet it’s too afraid of disappointing its old fans. It wants to strike out in a bold new direction, yet just ends up dawdling aimlessly in circles. It wants to offer us a new way to play, but ends up being bogged down by the same design problems it always had.

Worst of all, however, there is so much that is good here. Great, even. For all that it has maxed out its Flaws it has also balanced them with some really solid Merits, and it’s simply a shame that all those good elements will be overlooked and ignored by those who so desperately want it to fail.

The simple truth is that this is probably both the best AND the worst edition of Vampire: The Masquerade yet released.

Sinking The Teeth In

Let’s get the simple stuff out of the way.

V5 is an update of the classic World of Darkness flagship game for the modern day, including a new Storyteller system that pays homage to all previous editions (including “new WoD”/Chronicles of Darkness/Requiem) whilst adding a lot of new features. Players take on the role of vampires coming to terms with a dangerous new phase in undead history. The once-unconquerable Camarilla and Sabbat have each lost their stranglehold on the Kindred population and are in damage control, leaving the Anarchs and Autarkis free reign to fill the power vaccuum. The Masquerade is fractured and a loose network of allied intelligence agencies, secret societies, and paranormal investigators have formed a covert Second Inquisition to counter the vampiric threat.

The core book contains a summary of the setting, overviews of the seven major Clans that comprise most of the Camarilla and Anarchs (as well as Caitiff and Thin Blooded), character creation, the Storyteller ruleset and a bunch of rules relevant to Vampire, and finally a bunch of tricks, tips, and tools to help you run the game. The book contains full-colour artwork, heaps of photography, and clocks in at just a touch over a whopping 400 pages. Two upcoming books detailing the Camarilla and Anarchs have been announced. The Sabbat and independent Clans largely remain ciphers; rather a surprising similarity to the first and second editions, actually.

The controversy surrounding the mature content and difficult subject matter has been addressed with a brief introduction addressing the matter and an appendix particularly dedicated to considerate play.

That’s the basics, but it wouldn’t be a White Wolf game without some Merits and Flaws, and this edition has ’em in spades.


·         Art, Illustration (2pt Flaw): White Wolf raised the bar for gamebooks in terms of art, and other RPG companies quickly took note. For the first time this edition has gone full colour rather than mostly black and white, and unfortunately it doesn’t quite work. Street scenes are mostly fine, but anything to do with a human/vampire figure simply doesn’t have the quality we expect of a White Wolf book. In fact, they might have been better if they were monochrome.

·         Art, Photography (3pt Merit): Surprisingly, the photography in this book is mostly fine. Good, even. It certainly isn’t the embarrassment that we suffered through in Minds Eye Theatre products. I expected to absolutely hate the photography, but I ended up actually liking most of it.

·         Writing Quality (4pt Flaw): One of the great aspects of reading a good White Wolf book was that the writing was pretty solid. They certainly had their hits and misses, but you could generally tell there was some solid talent with a clever editor riding shotgun. The writing here (especially in the vital early sections) just doesn’t have the flair, cleverness, or eloquence of previous editions. It improves in the latter sections (as so much else does) but the substandard fanfic taste doesn’t leave the mouth. Compared to what we’ve come to expect, so much of the writing comes across as amateurish. (There was quite a bit of controversy about this edition in the lead up to its release and my honest appraisal is that critics were simply able to cherry-pick from some very poor writing. The designers weren’t looking to make a problematic game or appeal to the dregs of humanity, they were just unable to express themselves properly and suffered for it.)

·         Text Layout (5pt Flaw): This is probably the most egregious aspect of the book. Sentences carry over onto new pages for no valid reason at all, despite the fact that white space and sidebars easily allow for paragraphs or even entire sections to be finished cleanly. There’s no excuse for this in a modern publishing house and even the least pedantic of readers is going to find it jarring. Completely unprofessional.

·         Size (1pt Flaw): I like a good hefty rpg book as much as the next grognard, but there is simply not enough content to justify the 400+ pages here, particularly when we consider what was in the 20th Anniversary books.


·         Introduction and Overview (2pt Flaw): The opening pages look great, filled with letters, documents, transcriptions, photos, and other interesting ways to introduce us to vampires in the World of Darkness, but once again the quality of the writing falls flat. As we move further along, the pages that give us an overview of the game seem cobbled together by different authors. There is not enough to interest familiar players, whereas newcomers will find terms and ideas that are barely explained and then abandoned. The intention is to offer brief descriptions and teasers for later sections of the book (or even other supplements) but it is performed with a clumsiness unbecoming of a White Wolf publication.

·         Updated World of Darkness (2pt Merit): Though it is only briefly explained, the direction the World of Darkness has taken in the last 13 years offers a great premise for the Vampire game. The Sabbat and Camarilla have both lost a great degree of their power and mortal agencies have managed to crack the Masquerade, which leaves the street level Anarchs and Autarkis with more power and more danger than ever before. The grand metaplots are making way for more intimate stories centered around your players, and the concept of a world balancing on a “knife’s edge” able to tip in any direction is far more interesting than the looming doom of Gehenna. The Second Inquisition (despite its histrionic name and its links with the Society of Leopold) is actually a very interesting idea, though I wonder how it will be implemented alongside the Technocracy once Mage is released.

·         Mood and Theme (1pt Flaw): These old storytelling tools are gone, which is a shame. Even the old Gothic-Punk term seems to be considered the domain of previous editions.

·         Clan Selection (3pt Flaw): A nod back to early editions here, we have the basic seven of the Camarilla… Except two of them (Gangrel and Brujah) aren’t really in the Camarilla, and another two (Caitiff and Thin-Blooded) are hardly considered vampires at all. In fact, only the Tremere and Ventrue can really be said to be solidly of the Camarilla any more (kinda like how the Lasombra and Tzimisce are the pillars of the Sabbat, but that’s enough Sabbat talk). The justification is that we’re focusing on the main clans of the Camarilla and Anarchs, the two major rival forces of this core book, but it seems wrong to offer both sides of this conflict to player characters. What would have been best would be to focus this book entirely on the Anarchs and Autarks, allowing the Camarilla to become a more potent antagonist detailed further in the upcoming Camarilla book. In fact, if the Tremere and Ventrue were excised from the book and replaced with maybe the Ravnos and Assamites (now seemingly called the Banu Haqim) it would have made for a much more compelling setting and a more defined focus on what this edition is really meant to be about. (On a side note, I’m surprised that they didn’t include playing ghouls as a PC option.)

·         Clan Descriptions (2pt Flaw): Clans are given little more than a few rudimentary paragraphs in way of description. However, various character concepts are offered to illustrate the variety within each Clan, which is nice, and the way they express their identity through their Disciplines is a good touch. Sadly, the stereotypes each Clan holds against each other has been ditched; a terrible shame. All in all, the lack of depth is truly disappointing.

·         Clan Outfits (1pt Flaw): Here’s something new, which was a great idea that missed its mark. Even though the book stresses that it is a tabletop game, the designers are aware of the massive LARP following the game has and a few winks and nods shine through. There’s a page at one stage mentioning fashion and how Kindred meetings tend to become elaborate affairs and the subtext is basically “kit up and go wild, folks.” Fantastic. Now come the Clan splatpages – a page to each showing a bunch of Kindred and their various outfits. It’s meant to offer inspiration for LARPers and cosplayers I guess, and I adore the idea; indeed, well done on an excellent idea! But two things let it down. The first is that it suffers the “unfinished concept art” factor of most of the book’s illustrations. The second is that after a while they all look a bit samey. It’s a great idea poorly executed. Oh, and the models all have identical body shapes with minimal diversity.

Core System 

·         Fundamental Storyteller System (4pt Flaw): This one is gonna be subject to your preference. Very simply, the base Storyteller system is mostly familiar, particularly for those of you who played Requiem. Roll a number of d10s equal to Attribute plus Skill, count how many hit 6 or higher and see if that is enough to succeed. For some people, this will be great, but I see it as a huge shame. The problem is that this has the same problem the system has always had; it isn’t a storytelling system, it’s a task-resolution system. Conflicts are determined by character competency and not by dramatic relevance. In the 27 years since Vampire first came out so many amazing advances have been made in creating narrative game systems, many inspired by the more dramatic mechanisms developed by White Wolf products (I’m looking at Backgrounds, Virtues, and the Passions and Fetters of Wraith.) This was the chance for White Wolf to reclaim its title as the forefront of narrative storytelling, and instead they took the easy way out, frightened by the fact that the traditional player base would have a tantrum. Sadly, they had it anyway. The only reason this Flaw isn’t a higher number is as a concession to the many people who actually like it.

·         Custom Dice (1pt Merit): Since we don’t have to worry about scaling target numbers, custom dice are being released (see picture). They aren’t essential (such as those used in many Fantasy Flight releases) but they give hardcore fans something fun for the shelf.

·         Win at Cost (1pt Merit): Speaking of other gaming systems, it’s clear that the designers have been looking at ’em, and here’s some inspiration from indie darling Apocalypse World (amongst others, but AW seems to get a lot of the glory right now). If you get at least one success but not enough to actually succeed, you can get a sort of mixed success/fail effect. It relies on the Story Teller, but is a worthwhile inclusion.

·         Botches (2pt Merit): Gone, for the most part (but see Hunger rules).

·         Critical Successes (1pt Flaw): For every two 0s/10s rolled, you get a critical success, which treats the two paired dice as four successes instead of two. But if you roll a third 0, it is simply counted as one success; you’ll need a fourth 0 to double up again to eight successes. I have no idea why they didn’t just decide to let every 0 act as two successes, and I’d guess that it will become a house rule for most groups.

·         SPCs (3pt Flaw): Okay, we’re fine with Storyteller or ST instead of GM, but did we really need a new word for NPC? SPC is short for Storyteller Portrayed Character and not only does it sound stupid, it is also completely unnecessary.

Character Traits and Construction 

·         Attributes and Skills (0pt Merit/Flaw): Basically Requiem. As mentioned earlier, this is a missed opportunity to overhaul the basics of the system. On the other hand, the majority of fans will be satisfied. I still don’t see why Brawl and Melee need to be distinct Skills. More interesting is how points are allocated. There are several options presented, but some will dislike the lack of freedom. I don’t find it to be interesting or problematic and declare this a draw, but only because I’ve already deducted enough points from the base system and the choice of Attributes and Skills is an artifact of that design choice.

·         Nature and Demeanor (1 pt Flaw): When it worked well, Nature and Demeanor was an important guide for roleplaying. Losing it isn’t a huge loss, but it is a shame to see it go. This could have been a much worse Flaw if not for the fact it was replaced with more interesting mechanisms…

·         Ambition and Desire (3pt Merit): And here are those more interesting mechanisms. Instead of determining who your character is or what your character has done, we’re working out what your character wants. The best part of this is that it gives your character momentum and motivation; a reason to be proactive. An excellent addition.

·         Convictions and Touchstones (3pt Merit): And even more interesting character development! Convictions are beliefs your character has and Touchstones are mortals that somehow remind you of your Convictions. This is one of a few different mechanisms seemingly lifted from Wraith concepts and they are really welcome. Vampires in this edition cannot forget that they exist alongside humanity, and this is but one of many different inclusions to remind you.

·         Flaws (1pt Flaw): There are only a small number of Flaws available, which isn’t so bad except that you must take at least two points worth of them and the limited selection means games will see a lot of repetition.

·         Advantages (1pt Merit): Merits, Backgrounds, and Loresheets are all lumped under the Advantage monicker. Merits have the same limited selection Flaws do, but since you’re using the same point pool to grab Backgrounds it’s pretty forgivable. Backgrounds themselves run the familiar gamut of Retainers, Herd, Resources, etc. Loresheets show how involved you are in major plotlines, and I’ll go into them later. For now, I’m in favour of a mechanism allowing you to declare your investment in a plot right from the start (it certainly is much better than Lore traits).

·         Predator Style (4pt Merit): Absolutely wonderful, and one of the more controversial elements of the game. Your Predator Style is a descriptor of how you generally obtain blood, and the fact that this relates to the roleplaying of scenes that include deceit, seduction, stalking, violation, violence, and all manner of other topics that could do with a trigger warning or two is yet one more reminder that this is a game about monsters. Each Predator Style comes with a suite of traits, including Advantages, Flaws, Skill Specialties, and even a Discipline (which could be from out of Clan). It is a wonderful idea and one that previous editions failed to give any justice. Glorious!

·         Coterie Creation and Chronicle Tenets (4pt Merit): Every WoD game had the idea of the small group of characters working together as a troupe, but apart from the pack structure of Werewolf it never really worked (well, maybe Sabbat packs and their vaulderie comes arguably close). Vampire had the concept of the coterie, and it is finally given some tools to help make it happen. Coteries will have a style and focus, along with their own Advantages and Flaws. These rules actively bring your characters together and give them common cause. In addition, your players will create a common set of Chronicle Tenets that determine the mood, concepts, and morality of the story. Yet one more brilliant design inclusion that was ignored in previous editions.

·         Disciplines (3pt Merit): All the basic Camarilla Disciplines are here (including the weird blood alchemy of the Thin-Blooded) and again the Requiem influence is noted (don’t go expecting Celerity to give you five extra actions, slugger). There are a couple of things that really stand out though. First there are multiple powers to learn for different ranks of Discipline; eg. taking rank one Dominate means you get to choose between the single word Compel power, or the Forget power (the other can of course be learned as well later). Another standout is Amalgam powers, which require training in another Discipline; eg. Potence’s Spark of Rage which requires Presence 3. Furthermore, some of the Discipline powers seem to prove support for the idea that some of the weirder, sillier, and less vampiric Disciplines are going to be abandoned or changed. For instance, Dementate has gone from a Malkavian standard to a Dominate/Auspex Amalgam power (Disciplines that the Malkavians have in-Clan). Likewise, Silence of Death is an Obfuscate ability which has interesting implications for what may happen with Quietus (and let’s be honest; Quietus was always a stupid Discipline with very little thematic qualities other than “it’s good for killing vampires.” I’m gonna guess that the Assamites/Banu Haqim are gonna lose it and gain either Potence or some form of Blood Sorcery/Thaumaturgy). And finally, the Discipline pages have the icons from classic CCG Jyhad/Vampire: The Eternal Struggle. Does this mean we’re going to be seeing a re-release of the card game? Are NPC (I refuse to use SPC) profiles going to make use of these icons? One can only wonder…

·         Freebie Points and Experience (2pt Flaw): Not balancing these two systems with each other was always a ridiculous oversight. There’s no reason not to.

·         Health and Willpower (1pt Merit): Willpower acts a lot more like Health, meaning you can have it suffer damage, including aggravated damage! So you can wear someone down emotionally until they are powerless to resist you. However, the poor writing shows its ugly head again here as weapons will “do points of damage” rather than the more evocative way they used to “inflict wounds.” It’s a simple change, but one classic line developer Justin Achilli would have have insisted any of his writers address.

Supplementary Systems

·         Hunger (4pt Merit): On the whole, the Hunger system is an excellent inclusion, despite a few issues. The old Blood Battery is gone and instead has been abstracted into the Hunger mechanic. For each dot you have in Hunger you replace a die in your pool with a Hunger die, which does wonderfully vampiric things whenever they roll 1s or 0s. This means every die roll can become a battle with the Beast, especially in stressful situations or when choosing to draw upon Disciplines or other vampiric powers which may increase your Hunger. Though the Rouse check to determine whether your Hunger rises is little more than a coin flip (boo!) the general idea of Hunger dice is fantastic and it is easy to see how it could easily be adapted to Rage, Paradox, and Shadow Dice in the upcoming WoD games. Where the struggle with the Beast was always given lip service, now it finally has come to the fore.

·         Blood and Resonance (2pt Merit): Apart from supernaturals and animals, every human used to be pretty much the same, but now every vessel will be a little bit different. Especially vibrant humans will have one of several Resonances, which allow you extra dice in certain situations or even the use of Disciplines you normally don’t have access to. Finding especially potent or powerful humans can prove a vital asset for a coterie and can provide a wonderful narrative hook. However, there just might be too many rules about blood and it can get a bit much after a while. Still, it’s great that a game about vampires reflects the importance of blood.

·         Humanity (1pt Merit): Much the same as it used to be. Violating Chronicle Tenets, losing Touchstones, Embracing children, and just generally being a pretty horrible person can see you losing Humanity. A rule stating that you can add a third of your Humanity rounded down to Frenzy tests is an example of one of the many ugly rules that sometimes creeps into this edition. Having a high Humanity actually makes you more human like, such as the ability to stomach food, stay awake during the day, heal wounds, or even engage in intercourse (yeah, there’s quite a bit of discussion on sex, but taken in the context that so much of this game has to do with hunting it seems relevant. Still, one page or so dealing with the matter might have been better than littering the topic throughout the book). In fact, it seems like Humanity seems to have similarities to Blood Potency from Requiem. Speaking of which…

·         Potency and Generation (4pt Flaw): So they’ve tried to integrate Generation and Blood Potency and it has ended up becoming a bloated mess. Each rank creates a whole heap of subsystems and derived statistics with a chart to catalogue them all. It’s ugly, awkward, and non-intuitive.

·         Combat (1pt Merit): Basic combat isn’t very exciting or interesting, but the advanced and alternate combat systems are actually pretty good. Treating social conflicts with the same system as physical ones is refreshing, and the “Three Turns and Out” rule reminds you that the game shouldn’t be about dice rolling. It’s a shame that the core systems don’t do this on their own, but you can’t have everything I guess.

·         Tick Words (1pt Merit): A throwaway idea mentioned as an alternative system for increasing Hunger seems to be the kind of thing that would work well in a LARP or freeform. Effectively, the Story Teller has a list of taboo words and actions. Any time a PC uses a word or performs an action they gain Hunger. It’s simple, but it’s intuitive and fun.

·         Relationship Map (3pt Flaw): This is a massive disappointment. V5 encourages you to make a Relationship Map of all the characters that have relevance to the PCs. It’s a similar idea to many other games, who may call them other names such as Character Webs or whatever. Unfortunately, this Relationship Map serves only as inspiration for the troupe and only the most basic advice is given in its use. Worse, there is no mechanical use for it in the game. Worst of all, no attractive template is given for it with only a hand-drawn example given. This could have been such a beautiful addition to the Storytelling toolbox, and instead it just shows one more time when the development team had a great idea and then had no idea what to do with it so they just threw their notes onto the page and called it a day.

·         Memoriam (1pt Merit): Also a disappointment, but this time not because it completely fails but because it only just manages to succeed. Basically this is a system to allow your character to revisit their past as a kind of playable flashback. Ideally this is a system for older vampires and should maybe have been reserved for the Camarilla book (ideally because it would have given it more development time). The idea is sound, but underdeveloped.

·         Loresheets (2pt Merit): Loresheets are basically the major metaplots of the game setting and taking points in them essentially invests you in them. Various books and supplements will add more Loresheets, and it is up to the Story Teller to determine which ones to allow or not. The core concept is great, but it runs the risk of making some characters more important than others, or introducing plots that only one character is interested in, or even giving players far more information than the Story Teller wants them to have. Worst of all, there are no tools or guidelines on how to create your own Loresheets for your own chronicle, which seems to be the obvious thing to include. It’s a really good idea, but not enough work has gone into it. Starting to see a theme here, folks?

·         50 Victims (5pt Merit*): The final pages of the book offer a list of 50 potential victims, each with an occupation, a couple of sample names, short descriptions on both who they are and what they want, and a Resonance option for their blood (including a justification as to why). For a game so dedicated to feeding on random people, this list is a vital appendix. Excellent work!

·         Appendix III (1pt Merit): By popular demand, advice for considerate play and dealing with difficult topics maturely has been added, along with some pretty clear comments opposing fascism and sexual assault. Practical tools such as X cards and the Lines and Veils approach are offered. Whether these will be useful to you will be a personal choice. I’m giving it a Merit point just because at least trying is a mark in its favour.

This leaves us with the grand total of 41 points in Merits compared to 40 points of Flaws. It might be a tight margin, but it seems that I have to call the book “of greater Merit than its significant Flaws might suggest.” Science proves it.

Going for the Throat

Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition succeeds in doing what every previous edition has claimed to do but failed at, whilst simultaneously failing to do what previous editions managed to actually pull off.

Previous editions of Vampire always claimed the same thing; it was “A Storytelling Game of Personal Horror.” Unfortunately, the game itself spent very little time dealing with the theme of personal horror at all. It was generally about super powered politics, and most fans of the game will undoubtedly regale you with tales of Player vs Player courtly intrigue and machiavellian subterfuge rather than anything remotely to do with romantic angst at the corruption of the self. Token mechanisms covering Humanity and Conscience were largely superfluous in most games of Vampire, and were entirely abandoned in Sabbat chronicles (where topics such as violence and violation tended to be treated either as par for the course or with all the maturity of a kindergarten food fight). They were really games of political horror where the strong consume the weak, the ruthless make the laws, and uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

V5 changes the claim to “A Storytelling game of personal and political horror” which is actually only half true. Although it is nice to see that the political horror is finally getting the honesty it deserves, this edition has yet to follow through on it. The Byzantine Jyhad is given only the most cursory of overviews, teasing some interesting ideas but not giving enough detail for new players to become invested or for old hands to find anything new. In fact, most readers will be confused as to what this game is actually meant to be about.

The penny finally drops about three quarters of the way through the book. What V5 is actually about is those very themes the original game always claimed; modern vampirism and personal horror. This game isn’t meant to be about ancient feuds and clandestine intrigue. It’s about surviving one night at a time, finding victims to slate your unholy thirst, and dealing with the consequences of your own horrific actions. The way you hunt actually helps define aspects of your character, the people you feed on affects the quality of your vitae, and for the first time ever your coterie actually becomes a vital necessity in your nightly struggle for survival. The stories are meant to be street-level, personal, and confronting as you portray gutter-rank neonates in a city that rests on a knife’s edge.

If the book had kept this focus in mind, it would have been fantastic, but it seems the team got frightened by playtesters and tried to cover a few more bases. In doing so, they dropped the ball.

Unlike many other folks I know, I hadn’t already made up my mind to despise the latest edition of Vampire due to the various controversies surrounding it, so it was refreshing to finally get my hands on it and find that I could despise it for a whole heap of other reasons. Now I can join in with the cool kids and snicker away at the many issues with it. But if you cherry-pick away at it (which so many are keen to do) you can actually cobble together a pretty damn good hack of a Vampire game from this fifth edition and in years to come this will be considered a turning point for Vampire and the World of Darkness as a whole.

Probably the most important thing I can mention is that V5 has made me want to play Vampire again, and not just any Vampire. I want to play the Vampire game hidden between the lines of V5, straddling that keen and dangerous gutter-level knife’s edge where the Masquerade is hanging by a thread and the stories are personal, intimate, and filled with blood. I want to strive against my Hunger, succumb to my thirst, revel in the moment, and cry into the night for all I’ve lost. I want to conquer the night and run desperately for shelter as the first rays of dawn creep over the horizon. I want that experience of being a vampire that the fifth edition offers…

… that experience previous editions failed to deliver.

Monday 11 March 2024

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: Jack the Ripper and West End Adventures (review)

 (NB: This review first appeared on and is reprinted here with permission and love for posterity.)

Ripper & West (to shorten that enormous title) is the sexiest game on the market. The soft whisper as you slide it from its case is almost intimate, seducing you with the promise of something special. The blood-red casebooks are as ominous and alluring as the most forbidden lover; one that demands you bring candles and liquor in tribute. It holds mystery and uncertainty, and even danger, but that just makes it all the more thrilling and irresistible.

If you’ve already fallen for Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective in the past (now being rereleased in its own sultry package as The Thames Murders), you’ll know just what kind of charm the game has and are likely eager for another dalliance. This stand-alone sequel contains four brand new cases based on the infamous Whitechapel murders of history, and reprints six more fictional cases last seen in the ’90s. And it still has the moves, honey; oh boy, does it still have the moves.


Looking Good

Ripper & West’s presentation alone sets the bar for quality. The difficult fancy fonts are removed, the annoying spelling errors are gone, and the solutions are either printed upside-down at the back of the casebook or sealed in delightful little envelopes so there’s no chance of accidentally reading something you shouldn’t before time. The map is now more colourful and the reverse shows the Whitechapel district, expanding the city. Even the directory has been cleaned up and reinvigorated (now with only one list for Public Houses, thankfully).

Pic lost. TBA.

Box dissection courtesy of Sir Jasper Meeks.

Best of all, the newspapers are more exciting than ever. As wonderful as Thames Murders is, after a few missions the various copies of The Times all start looking the same and keeping track of them becomes a ruddy chore (especially once you spill white wine all over them…). Ripper & West introduces different publishers, such as The Star and Pall Mall Gazette. The best is The Police News with all the slander, scandal, and sensationalism one could expect of that notorious rag. The variety is well appreciated and makes each new paper a treat.

I’ve only played one of the fictional cases so far (Doctor Goldfire) but found it to be equally as enjoyable as anything found in the Thames Murders, and possibly moreso. I played it with a brand new team of investigators and we not only managed to do very well but also still be surprised by the solution, which is exactly what I want from a good mystery.

But look at me. Chattering away like a nervous schoolboy, afraid to admit his own desires. We all know why we’re really here, don’t we?

We’re here to step into the gloom and the muck. We’re here to gaze into the abyss.

We’re here for Jack.


Pic lost. TBA.

Smoking kills. Elementary.

You Little Ripper

Jack the Ripper is arguably the most infamous serial killer of all time, and this isn’t the first time he’s been the subject of a board game, nor is it the first time someone has thought to match 221B Baker Street’s celebrated sleuth against him. But it is the first time that we’ve seen a Consulting Detective game based on true crime, and Asmodee are pulling no punches. Rather than romanticise the murders as many have done before, the designers have gone to great pains to present the murders as authentically as possible, which means we’re in for a darker journey for these cases.

Though this is no frivolous frolic, it’s no ghoulish guignol either. The facts are presented with a detached professionalism when you are confronted with them, and that simple approach makes the horror all the more human and appalling. Opening any of the Ripper cases has a sombreness that the regular cases lack, and it comes down to knowing that the victim of the crime you’re investigating was a real, living person. As soon as you read aloud the date and the name of the victim you feel as though you need to be respectful; as if you’re attending a funeral or walking through a graveyard.

Fans of true crime and the Ripper crimes in particular will appreciate the effort gone into researching the Whitechapel murders, and the justifications and revelations offered in the notes of each case are intriguing. As we investigate each case we discover more of the ugly underbelly of London, of a police force out of its depth, of a populace goaded by a gleeful press into a paranoid frenzy, of impoverished and vulnerable women who died inside long before the Ripper butchered them. Of all the ways to study the Ripper murders, this would have to be one of the most immersive.


Pic lost. TBA.

As played by Hugh Jackman.

New Methods and Old Tricks

It isn’t only the subject matter that makes the Ripper cases exciting. You see, Consulting Detective games owe a lot to the Choose Your Own Adventure style of gaming, and many of those old “paragraph books” developed little tricks to play with the format. An example that you’d likely find in a Fighting Fantasy gamebook might be that you discover a copper key with the number 62 on it. Later you encounter a copper chest and the book would instruct you that if you have a copper key you can unlock the box by turning to the paragraph number printed on it. That seems the exact kind of system that Consulting Detective could play with, and I always wondered what would happen if some of those clever devices were explored.

Without going into details, the Ripper cases do indeed borrow a few of these tricks and do so quite well. Furthermore, the designers have been happy to warp the format at times, with the first Ripper case having a different end condition to the base game. It’s fresh and exciting and full of suspense; just like any good murder mystery.

The Consulting Detective format has been adopted by various other designers with varying degrees of success, however none have significantly improved on the formula. The design of the Ripper cases likewise might not be called a vast improvement, but it is an improvement nonetheless, and one that should be applauded.


Pic lost. TBA.

The Thames Murders & Other Cases

From Hell

I’m only halfway through the Ripper cases (and still only one case into the West End Adventures) so I can’t yet attest to the eventual payoff, and that payoff is really the essence of any great mystery. This is curious, because the Ripper cases are another kind of mystery, and a sinister one at that. How can we have a satisfying narrative resolution to what legend and authority tells us is an unsolved case?

I trust the Consulting Detective team, and the Ripper cases are not only decent cases but the very best on the market (yes, even better than the original cases/Thames Murders). And lets not forget just how downright sexy it is.

However, there’s still a slight room for improvement, and if I could offer Asmodee my wish list for a new box set, maybe for next year, it would be threefold:

1.     More props! Have a sealed envelope for each case with extra handouts, such as train timetables, written notes, and the like. Maybe steal some Legacy concepts…

2.     More limited campaigns, or at least more standalone cases. The purpose is to minimise the intimidating stack of newspapers later on. In a single box, two campaigns of four cases each and two other standalones would be a solid set of ten cases.

3.     Dracula.