Hello everyone, you are very welcome today! Last week my constant lurking on the Onyx Path Publishing blog yielded me more useful information about a gaming source book that I had been waiting for. Disclaimer, this post contains affiliate links. The source book was V20 Vampire the Dark Ages Companion. I hadn’t read an awful lot about the content of the book in advance, as I always assumed I would get it anyway since returning to Vampire, and embracing V20 Vampire the Dark Ages in a big way over the last six months. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, as the companion books for the Vampire line of products are a bit random, adding details to the game that never quite made the core rules for the current edition. I was looking forward to V20 Vampire the Dark Ages Companion and, for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.
V20 Vampire the Dark Ages Companion is a source book for the Dark Ages line of V20, a storyteller roleplaying game. The vast majority of the book is given over to descriptions of six cities/towns of the Dark Ages setting. These descriptions detail the vampires that live within their borders, their reasons for being there, the domain history and intrigues. There is also an entire chapter devoted to building new domains, a chapter giving more details on medieval weaponry and streamlining the combat system, and finally there are clan apocrypha covering various legends, stories and practices of the various vampire clans. I will talk about each, though for reasons that should become clear I am writing about them in an order that differs from the book.
The summons from the Prince had arrived the night before, an Owl dispatched via one of my agents in Cardiff. I was not over-keen to attend court as I was in the middle of excavating a shaft within my cave haven, however the owl that carried the message had been spooked by something greatly, so I deemed it wise to not ignore the summons. I gathered my travelling garb, instructed Ares and his pack to guard the haven whilst Athena and her brood served as eyes and ears. I reopened the gouge in my arm, now a corrupted and contorted mess normally hidden by armour, and spilled blood into the pool outside my cave. My jaunts to the city normally last several days and my creatures needed to be attended to. I howled into the night, signalling to Ares that I was leaving whilst also summoning Artemis to my side. I could only hope whatever errand the Prince had for me wouldn’t keep me away overlong.
The vast majority of V20 Vampire the Dark Ages Companion is given over to six chapters about domains. These are Rome, Bath, Bjarkarey, Constantinople, Mogadishu and Mangaluru. Each chapter details the geographic setting, and describes the visuals and other sensual details of the locations before launching into brief descriptions of the prominent vampire populations within. The chapters then discuss, in varying detail, the things that make the domains prominent. For instance, in Rome their is a vampire who revels in excess who styles himself the Anti-Pope. It deals with the Antipope and his lackeys and how they relate to the more pious members of vampire society, and also the potential for mortal inquisitors to become involved. The chapter on Bath deals with Mithras worship by the Vampire population in medieval England, whilst the Scandinavian island Domain of Bjarkarey is the setting of a tyrant queen devoted to Norse Gods, and those that practice others faiths secretly.
The strongest theme that came through in each domain was religion and the impact it had on medieval life. This was not the only theme, however it was the strongest. This is entirely fair and appropriate given the sway that religion had during the Dark Ages/Middle Ages, and the stories that can be generated as a result of the different religions/beliefs/cults coming into contact with other more accepted forms of worship are extraordinarily interesting.
As player of this game, on and off, for years there was also a lot of information available within these chapters about things that I hadn’t encountered in other source books, including the origins of the secretive and mysterious Inconnu, the practices of Mithraists and information on more exotic locations and where the rarer Dark Ages bloodlines of Vampires (Such as Ramanga and Bonsam) fit into the world.
I stood in the main annex of the Cathedral, Artemis waiting patiently for me outside the city limits. I was not alone. Elspeth, a new arrival to the domain of clan Gangrel, was present. She forced a smile. We hadn’t really spoken much since her arrival, a while back. She dresses in hunting leathers similar to mine, and tends to be more interested in function rather than form.
“Do you know why we are here?”
I shook my head, but before I could say anything Menw appeared. “Good, you have both arrived. I trust you have everything you need for a few nights work away?”
I glance at Elspeth and then back to my Elder. “We were summoned to see the Prince, I don’t know anything about any errand.”
“You won’t be seeing the Prince this eve, and count yourself lucky. He is in a foul mood.” He paused for a moment to let that sink in. The Prince was normally a rock of calm. “He received a visitor. An emissary of Mithras. Demanding fealty.”
Elspeth looked fearful at that name. “Who is Mithras?”
“A powerful Ventrue Elder, with an army of fanatical followers in England. They don’t take kindly to anyone who doesn’t blindly obey them…” The Gangrel woman seemed genuinely afraid of this Mithras.
“This is correct, but incomplete. He now casts his gaze westward. There is an army approaching. We must go, gain intelligence and slow it if possible.”
“Armies have scouts and if he is as powerful as you say, he must know you would be sent to spy on his forces. How are we to get to his army without being detected?”
Menw paused, and I swear he took a breath. “We can travel among the bones of the Earth.”
The clan apocrypha is interesting, though I have to admit I do not believe I got the full benefit of it all. Each Apocrypha has some flavour fiction, and given it was written in the style of neat medieval I found it very hard to read some of these bits of fluff. Which is a shame. The Apocrypha was a bit of a mixed bag, with some clans having new rules available for different variants of clan member, different story ideas based on the hidden machinations of the clan, and in some cases it included new powers (though there were not many of those) for said clan. The Ventrue Apocrypha listed all known Ventrue 4th Generation Vampires, the Methuselahs. This was interesting as this clan places a lot of stock in lineage. A Ventrue player wishing to go into a lot of detail about their character now has named Methuselahs to choose from in their lineage, with the optional rule to add advantages and disadvantages based on the bloodline. For the Nosferatu, the apocrypha was more of a story hook about Elder tunnels beneath the Earth where only the bravest and most knowledgeable venture. I won’t go into any more detail here on the other clan Apocrypha.
Menw was scouting ahead leaving Elspeth and myself. The tunnel was darker than a fiend’s heart, though this posed no problem to either of us. Elspeth’s eyes glowed red, casting the darkness back somewhat. The tunnel surface was smooth stone. Not dirt. Not piled stone. Smooth. And the wall was segmented, like the body of a worm. There was no wind or noise of any kind down here.
“Why did your elder call this the bones of the Earth? What is this place?” Elspeth was glancing around, her shifting eyes causing the darkness to shift and retreat wherever she gazed.
“There are secret ways buried deep beneath soil and rock. Older than civilisation, stretching anywhere you want to go.”
“Why don’t you use them all the time? If they go everywhere, like you say.”
I ignored her question. Something wasn’t right, Menw should have been back by now. I allowed my hearing to search ahead of us for any sign of threat. I heard clicking. Click, Click, Click, Click. Something was moving, something strange.
“Did you hear me, I asked-“
“Shush, and darken your eyes. Things live down here, and one of them is nearby. “
My statement was punctuated by a growl from Artemis cut off by my arts of Silence. Whatever I could hear, I could only hope it was in a different tunnel.
Perhaps the weakest chapter, in terms of how necessary it was, would be the chapter covering combat and Warfare. A large portion of this chapter is devoted to adding historical accuracy about weapons of the era, bringing specificity to the weaponry present, whereas the V20 Vampire the Dark Ages core book is a tad more generic. This is value added to your game, particularly if you are playing with a bunch of unforgiving history buffs, however, I didn’t feel it was necessary to go to this level of detail. That being said, none of the content is necessary to play the game, as you get all the rules you need in the core book. However, the section on weapons and armour is unlikely to make a huge impact on my games. It is good to know, but most players simply want to know if they have a sword or a bow, and how much damage they do. I suspect the reason for this was that a significant amount of mechanical detail on combat in Dark Ages already appeared in V20 Tome of Secrets. (It has rules on specific combat maneuvers, and even details on large scale warfare – and is definitely worth checking out)
However, the final pages of this chapter were incredibly useful in their presentation of rules to streamline the combat system. Any player of tabletop Vampire will confirm combat can be very clunky, with 4 rolls of the dice required to complete a single action. If you add super-speed to the mix, the game slows considerably (There is irony in that). The optional system cuts the number of dice rolls in half, and reduces the effect of random chance on aspects of combat that tend to be more annoying than anything else when cursed bad luck strikes. (for instance, it is possible to get an amazing hit with a sword on a peasant wearing no armour and still do no damage in the old system. This wouldn’t happen now.)
Basically, in the old system players roll to hit, the defenders gets to react, if the reaction fails the attacker rolls damage (and this is where the unarmed peasant survives if you roll low despite lack of armour) and then the defender rolls their soak (the point where someone in plate armour can be eviscerated by a butter knife due to poor roll of the dice). In the proposed system, Attack and defence rolls still happen, however damage is applied based on a “Hardened” value (I won’t tell you how to find that, you need to buy the book) and then reduced based on soak value. Thus the new system has 2 dice rolls rather than 4, with more realism added to damage. Each action will be faster to accomplish, however combat will potentially take longer (As stupidly lucky hits shouldn’t happen so much, or at all) which feels somewhere between realistic and cinematic.
The Mithraist Army camped in a clearing just beyond the forest. Three hours past midnight and six hundred men lay sleeping around the smoking embers of the cook fires, several guards walking the perimeter. Elspeth and I lurked in the shadows awaiting the next foot patrol, our orders to get into the camp and cause as much disruption as possible. Were I alone, that would have been easy. However, Gangrels do not have the same arts so we would need to use more standard intrusion methods. She lay flat on the ground, waiting.
The foot patrol was a solitary man using a spear more as a crutch than anything else. He approached her position, paying only minimal attention, his eyes droopy with fatigue. He passed the prone form of my companion who leaped to her feet, her clawed hands raking across his throat killing him instantly. She caught his falling form before it could disturb nearby sleepers. And then a second patrol appeared. He was more alert and saw what had happened to his companion. Turning away, he tried to run and raise the alarm. He did not see me hidden nearby, arrow ready. He didn’t hear the arrow fly, being taken completely unawares as it plunged into his back. He fell forwards unceremoniously with a thump, and I could see several sleeping forms starting to move in response to the noise. So much for stealth. I howled into the night, telling Artemis it was time for her to do her part.
Building your own Domain
Probably my favourite chapter within the entire book was Chapter 7, which was about how players can build their own domains within the game. For me, the appeal of V20 Vampire the Dark Ages has always been about creating a character and watching that character grow over the years. There is the image of Vampires accumulating vast wealth and legions of followers and lackeys as they grow older. This isn’t necessarily always the case, not entirely, however unless you want to play an entirely solo game then your character will make connections with mortals and may even deem a piece of territory as their personal hunting ground. For me, I actually like to play in mini stories in between the main chapters where my character is building alliances and networks necessary to stay one step ahead. The rules governing domain building are very useful in this respect. The chapter covers vassalage in the respect of the players controlling vassals, or even laying claim to settlements. There are augmented rules for building human ally non-player characters and even on making your personal domain more prosperous, defensible or easier to escape from (I really like the mechanism for applying “Secret Ways” to your domain.
The army was in disarray. Rumours had flown through the camp that the Lordling commanding it had slain his war council breaking the loyalty and morale of the troops. When the horses stampeded, spooked by a lurking she-wolf, the army had scattered. It would take days to reassemble, if it ever did. Menw, Elspeth and I made good our escape in the confusion. My Elder scouted ahead leaving me to talk with the Gangrel.
“Do you two do errands like this for the Prince often?” She asked.
“You could have been killed in the camp, or the tunnels. Why risk your life?”
“The Prince recognises my territory, and legitimises it which prevents other vampires staking a claim. Such recognition only happens with service.”
“He made it sound like it was the done thing. That the new prove themselves by dealing with immediate problems.”
“I was left with the same impression. However, he isn’t unreasonable. You were put in harms way for him. Maybe you should ask him to recognise your territory too.”
She looked skeptical. “He’d grant a Gangrel Domain?”
“He granted it to a fledgling Nosferatu who had more boldness than sense. I don’t see why not.”
The Good Stuff
Domain building stuff was great
Domain events was great
Parallel Domain backgrounds (Size, Defensibility, Secret Ways, Prosperity) was great
Streamlining of combat was great
Some of the Apocrypha were really interesting
Each domain had a unique feel
There were several supernatural adversaries given rules in this book, such as the Black Dog
Information on the Inconnu was welcome
Information on Golconda (a state of grace where a vampire is no longer ruled by its beast) was enlightening (This came as part of a the story of one of the cities)
Information on Saulot and his relationship to the Baali (an ancient, spiritual vampire who apparently also created demon worshiping vampires) was unexpected and interesting.
The Less Good Stuff
Most of the writing was good. There were some bits that irritated me (use of an ‘ to make a contraction that feels inappropriate, such as “The Sheriff’s unhappy,” instead of “The Sheriff is unhappy”.) This a personal opinion
Some of the flavour text was hard to read for me
I wasn’t keen on the handling of the Followers of Set, and the relationship between Set & Apophis (Apep)
The character bios for prominent kindred were quite short and had no character sheet attached. (I realise this allows gamesmasters the opportunity to create their own, but I like having the sheet for an NPC as I then take it is balanced right, or at the very least pitched at the right level)
The Combat Chapter felt a bit like an afterthought, perhaps suffering as a lot of the combat systems appeared in Tome of Secrets.
So, the good outways the bad both numerically and in terms of quantity. Most of the things I disliked were tiny niggles that I can get past. The various domains gave me quite a few ideas for my own stories, even if my players never make it to those specific territories. I have been planning a chronicle where players are encouraged to create their own domains and vassals, so chapter 7 was a boon. And the streamlining of the combat process, which is actually my least favourite thing about the game (I like games of intrigue and politics, with combat as a last resort or as a finale spetacle), was an absolutely welcome addition.
Currently (As of 24/05/2017), V20 Vampire the Dark Ages Companion is available as a PDF from Drivethru RPG, with the physical book being expected in the next month or so (purchase of the Advance PDF entitles you to a voucher that will allow purchase of the physical book at a discounted rate to balance the cost). V20 Vampire the Dark Ages Companion is a decent enough source book, though to fully benefit from its rules on Combat and Vassalage you probably want to get V20 Tome of Secrets too, if you don’t already have it (In many ways, Tome of Secrets is better value for money).
I’d say, if you are an avid player of V20 Vampire the Dark Ages, then it is worth your while. If you are only an occasional player of the system, it is less necessary.