As a literary genre, "Gothic" emerged from the Enlightenment. This makes perfect sense. Like its descendent, "Horror," the Gothic works by preying on the fears and uncertainties of its audience. During the Enlightenment, or "Age of Reason," Western civilisation pivoted from medieval religion and superstition towards science, philosophy, and humanism. The world stopped being a shadowy place populated by gods and monsters, and became instead something that observation and reason could make understood. The Gothic, however, suggested the horrible possibility that the Enlightenment got it wrong. At its core, the Gothic is about the Old World invading the New. It suggests that maybe the dark world of monsters wasn't banished...it just went into hiding. Pull back the curtain and the demons are still there.
The Vampire has always been the epitome of Gothic, representing all those things the Enlightenment tried to leave behind. Bundle up all the neuroses and stereotypes of the Middle Ages--the Aristocracy preying on the common classes, brooding castles, the mysterious scourge of the Black Death--and voila! We have the Vampire. Like the ruined abbeys and battered fortresses he likes to haunt, he is a medieval relic, vulnerable not to science, but only to the power of superstition and religion itself.
Because he is the perfect vehicle for the Gothic aesthetic, the Vampire shows up over and over again. From the 19th century forward, fiction has been swarming with vampire stories. The 20th century alone gave birth to thousands of novels, films, television programs, and games about the Undead. When Dracula came out in 1897, the idea of girls mysteriously losing blood might have been terrifying, but these days anyone over the age of eight knows it's time to pull out the garlic and crucifixes at the first sign of puncture wounds to the throat. Let's face it; the Vampire has been done to (un)death.
But every now and again, someone figures out how to revive him. Mark Rein-Hagen did this in a big way back in 1991, when White Wolf published Vampire: The Masquerade.
His secret ingredient? Cyberpunk.
Because, really, "cyberpunk" was the "gothic" of the late 80s and early 90s. Gothic preyed on the fear of the past, while Cyberpunk showed us our fear of the future. It envisioned a sort of new Middle Ages, where the megacorporate aristocracy ruled over an indentured worker class. "Science isn't going to save us," it whispered, "it's going to enslave us." Cyberpunk fed into the millennialism at the end of the 20th century, the fear of Y2K, the idea that the world was coming to an end. And at its steel and chrome heart, Cyberpunk and the Vampire had something in common...a fear of losing our humanity.
Rein-Hagen's Masquerade was an explosive cocktail of these two genres, a blend he dubbed "gothic punk." And it was a staggering success. Not only did Masquerade spawn sourcebooks and new editions, it launched eight sister games, and its influence over the broader vampire genre was immense. The elements it introduced into vampire mythology suddenly started turning up everywhere. Corporate vampires secretly pulling the strings of the world, rival vampire clans, vampires at war with lycans (werewolves), and terms like Sire and Embrace cropped up in Blade, Underworld, and Buffy. Everyone seemed to what a piece of it, making Masquerade one of the most successful RPGs of all time.
Nothing lasts forever. By 2004, a lot of what gave Masquerade its bite was passé. The year 2000 came and went without the Last Judgement, Jesus returning, or massive systems failure. The terrifying possibility of megacorporations running the planet was now a terrifying reality. Cyberpunk has lost some of its punch, and the gothic punk World of Darkness was looking a bit old. So publisher White Wolf decided to shut the whole thing down and reboot. There would be a new World of Darkness, with new vampires, werewolves and mages, and all that Cyberpunk stuff was going to be gone.
Vampire: The Requiem was the result. It was, essentially, Masquerade with the "punk" removed. White Wolf yanked out the millennialism Gehenna bits, the "vampire clan as megacorp" metaphor, the concept of generations and having to climb the corporate ladder over the bodies of your superiors, and kept all the Gothic elements intact. Now the Clans were really just vampire archetypes; the Seducer, the Shadow, the Monster, the Predator, the Dark Lord. Now the vampires were hunters and parasites rather than secret rulers of the world. Now you grew more powerful with age, rather than needing to off your elders. Now nobody knew where vampires came from. The punk was gone, but there was nothing new to replace it. And that's the the problem; we've all seen Gothic vampires thousands of times before. Requiem is by no means a "bad" game, but it brings nothing new to the genre. It reads--and feels--a bit like a generic knock off of Masquerade.
New publisher Onyx Path (created by White Wolf Creative Director Richard Thomas) decided to do something about this. Since the reborn World of Darkness was meant to be more of a toolkit setting to craft your own unique takes, Onyx Path decided to do just that. Starting with The God Machine Chronicle, which took the World of Darkness core rulebook and gave it a horrific new focus, Onyx Path took the de-punked World of Darkness and started putting new elements back in. The new secret ingredient?
If Masquerade was "gothic punk," Blood and Smoke: The Strix Chronicle, is "punk gothic." Masquerade was essentially a punk game with gothic flavouring, while Strix Chronicle is a gothic game with a punk aesthetic. Masquerade's third generation Get plays with the same pieces that made its Grandsire work, but arranges them in new ways.
Let's get the basics out of the way. Strix Chronicle is not a new game. It doesn't replace Requiem the way Requiem replaced Masquerade. And yet, it is an entirely self-contained product. You won't need The World of Darkness core rules or Vampire: The Requiem to play. Strix Chronicle is essentially just Requiem rewritten around a new antagonist, the shadowy and terrifying Strix, but also with a new attitude. Requiem was meant to be all things to all vampires; Strix narrows things down to a very specific vibe.
It starts right up front with the "inspirational media" section. Under the vampire fiction section Strix lists Already Dead, Carmilla, The Hunger, Near Dark, and Night Junkies. That, ladies and gentlemen, is it. There is no mention of Dracula, Anne Rice, or Nosferatu. Instead we get (in order) a book that presents the vampire as a junkie, an edgy tale about vampire lesbianism, ultra-modern and very chic punk vampires prowling Manhattan clubs, brutal vampire punks terrorising the Southwest, and (yet again) vampire junkies in London strip clubs. These are all stories about transgressing social norms, the very essence of "punk." And there isn't a Transylvanian accent in sight.
And then there is the writing. Strix is written loud, with a raw, in-your-face tone. Compare, for example, the origins of the Clan Daeva;
...Among Kindred historians, the Daeva are suspected of being one of the oldest clans of the Damned. Their moniker suggests a Persian mythological origin, and their abilities suggest that they could be related to the demons from which they take their name. A few ancient writings suggest that the progenitor of the line was a Kindred known as Aesma Daeva, but vampiric scholars debate whether this individual was actually undead or the writings merely draw comparisons to the Persian demon of lust and anger... (Requiem, p. 22)
And from Strix;
...The Serpents arose from the sticky musk of the ancient world. River tides teased the gaping valleys to frothing fertility. The elder nights throbbed with temple music. Priests and priestesses practiced their love arts for coin — communion of the cunt and the cock. There was no difference between god and demon or sex and worship. In that space between, the Daeva curse gestated. They reveled in that time and place where deities cared enough to do horrible things to you directly. But the world turned. The capital “G” God changed the paradigm. When they could no longer be gods, the Daeva became succubi and incubi. The world turned again. Tonight, when it is no longer practical to be a demon, the Daeva become zeitgeists... (Blood and Smoke, p. 14)
Get the picture? Strix gets what Masquerade knew; tone matters. The Strix Chronicle then comes dripping with attitude.
If you know Requiem, your pretty much know Strix Chronicle. It has the same Clans, the same Covenants, and pretty much the same rules. But they are all redone with a nastier attitude. Requiem leaned a bit towards Anne Rice's "dark angels of the night." Strix wants you to remember that you are a fucking blood-sucking corpse.
Take the Daeva again. In Requiem their Clan weakness is that they lose 2 points of Willpower for failing to indulge their vice. Makes sense. They are sensualists. In Strix, the Daeva become addicted to their prey. The more they feed on the same mortal, the stronger the addiction becomes, until they become obsessed stalkers or suck the mortal dry. That, brothers and sisters, is proper scary.
It is in the Disciplines that the new aesthetic shows itself best. They feel less like superpowers and more like holy shit what the fuck is that?!? Remember Auspex? The vampiric discipline of enchanted senses? What a lovely little discipline that was, with heightened senses, aura perception (oh! pretty colours!), psychometry, telepathy, and astral projection. Well, The Strix Chronicle laughs in the face of your pretty colours. Now Auspex gives you a predator's ability to sense danger to yourself and weakness in your prey, the power to discover your target's darkest secrets, the ability to read an object or area based on scents and impressions, the power to "read" a target's mind by aligning your thoughts with his, and yeah...astral projection. In short, the powers are pretty similar, but with the niceties stripped away.
Protean is another fine example. In Requiem Protean gave the vampire the power to project a bestial aura, to sink into the earth and slumber there, to grow claws, to transform into a bat or wolf, or to become a cloud of mist. Standard Count Dracula, really. In Strix, Protean is much more raw. The first level now allows you to sink into the earth, but here the two versions part company. At level two the vampire lets her Beast out a little, twisting her body and transforming her flesh. She gains animalistic features of her choice...running on all fours, a prehensile tail, the ability to breathe underwater, claws, feral senses. The idea is that every vampire's Beast is different...your might be sharklike, mine might be pantherish. At level three, the vampire can now transform into the form of any animal it has consumed. Sort of. Draining the blood of the animal turns you into an unholy, vampiric version of it. Not a dog but a hound of hell. Now a raven but a blood-sucking horror of a crow-like thing. At level four she can now really let the Beast out, her body warping into truly terrifying shapes, the kind of things we see in modern vampire films...gaping maws filled with fangs, loathsome, rubbery flesh that can stretch and twist, bat-like wings. And finally that nice mist form is still there...if you can call a foul, oily smoke from which occasional glimpses of eyes or fangs can be called "nice."
All the disciplines have been retouched this way, never straying too far from Requiem, but definitely ramping up the horror tone. These Kindred are really at their most monstrous.
But we can't complete a review of The Strix Chronicle without mentioning the Strix.
Way back in the beginning, Vampire: The Masquerade had the Sabbat. In the original game, players were meant to portray the Camarilla vampires...members of the seven clans practicing the Masquerade and clinging to their humanity. The Sabbat were shadowy antagonists, vampires that fully embraced their monstrosity. They were the black mirror reflections of player Kindred, the Joker to the Kindred's Batman. Unfortunately, Masquerade strayed from this vision and the Sabbat became the "cool clans" to play. The Strix Chronicle brings the idea of the shadowy opposite back, and this time with a vengeance.
The Kindred are human corpses, reanimated with a semblance of life and a thirst for blood. So too are the Strix, except of course that they were never human to begin with. The Birds of Dis are shadowy spirits that possess human corpses and drain life from living victims in the form of blood or breath. They have no humanity; they exist to devour it. They are the Sabbat vampires of old but far, far worse...true horrors that delight in torture and terror and death. And yet where they come from and their relationship to the Kindred is left for the Storyteller to decide. Were they once Kindred themselves, a clan destroyed by others and back for revenge? Are the Kindred themselves a bastard offshoot of the Strix? Whatever the case, they seem to be truly immortal and solitary, except for those horrible times when they call a Parliament and congregate in a city, bringing ruin and terror...
In the end, Blood and Smoke: The Strix Chronicle is more like Masquerade than Requiem. It doesn't try to be the vampire game for all people, but rather, the vampire game for some people. If you are looking for the romantic, sensual vampire, the Lestat or Frank Langella Dracula, you will not find it here. It is, however, ideal for people who associate vampires with death and decay rather than teen love triangles and sparkling. Like Masquerade, it has a punk edge that this time is more visceral and bloody. It's a vision less Queen of the Damned and more 30 Days of Night. By keeping a tight focus on a kind of uncomfortable body horror with shades of addiction and despair, Strix has what Requiem by design couldn't...a flavour. It just might not be the flavour for everyone. And that's just fine.
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