HLG Review: Beckett’s Jyhad Diary
System: Vampire the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition
Publisher: Onyx Path Publishing
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The summary on the back boasts “Beckett’s Jyhad Diary is as fascinating to read as to use in your game Chronicles.” This is absolutely not an exaggeration. BJD reads like a novel. In fact, being a collection of notes, audio recordings and journal entries, it’s remarkably similar to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which I can only assume was deliberate. I started reading the same night I got my hands on it. Before I knew it, it was four in the morning and I was 200 pages in. It routinely stole at least 100 pages of my time per night as I was working on this review, and I don’t regret a single moment. I can’t honestly say if I was so captivated because it was a world I was already deeply invested in, or if it was a compelling story in its own right, but either way I’ve never had that experience with a sourcebook before, and my library is not small.
First and foremost, this is a book for Storytellers, the name for the Game Master in World of Darkness games. Beckett’s Jyhad Diary offers little for players in terms of character options: A Merit that allows your character to tap into flashes of insight, the 16th Generation Flaw (gain extra points at character creation at the cost of starting considerably weaker), and the Dhampir, a new character type that severely weakens the character’s Disciplines (vampire powers) in favor of immunity to many of the vampire’s traditional weaknesses.
While these additions are awesome and have the potential to make for some truly memorable player characters, these tiny islands of crunch buried nearly 150 pages into the tome only serve to highlight the glaring omission of certain other mechanics, such as those for The Drowned Legacies, a new range of vampire Bloodlines with unique powers and weaknesses. BJD spends an entire chapter chronicling their exploits in South America, but it doesn’t include any of the crunch required to actually make one. Certainly, the brief descriptions given for each one provide enough information for an enterprising Storyteller to infer their various abilities, if they don’t mind building a few of their own Disciplines, but in twenty pages we’re given nothing concrete.
At first I thought that might be to keep them out of the hands of players. A vocal minority of the Vampire community objects to players having access to Bloodlines, (rare mutations in the various vampire genomes) as they feel it neuters something meant to add mystery and uncertainty to the world, quantifying their abilities for all to see. That thought went straight out the window when I saw the plot hook at the end of the chapter intended for players of Drowned Legacies characters. I considered it might be a way to allow the Drowned Legacies to retain their mystery, their powers differing entirely from game to game and Storyteller to Storyteller, an approach I would actually applaud. I gladly would have, if they didn’t use the same approach with the Laibon, the vampires of Africa.
This is what shoved me straight over the edge from “mysterious with many valid interpretations” to “annoyingly vague and frustratingly incomplete.” The Laibon have already been quantified for nearly 20 years at this point, since the release of the Revised Edition sourcebook Kindred of the Ebony Kingdom. All they would have needed would be an update to the 20th Anniversary Edition, and Vampire is not a game of great gulfs of difference in its various rule sets. Instead, BJD points to the Laibon’s precursor clans in Vampire 20th Anniversary Edition: The Dark Ages. Well, that’s great except their powers don’t match, their weaknesses don’t match, and we’re given little to nothing to infer what they actually do. When the legacy referred to as “The Shadows” don’t have access to the shadow Discipline, while a Shadows legacy NPC presented in the book is supposed to, I’m of a mind to believe that something has gone amiss. Also, counting the Followers of Set from the core book, that’s only six of the thirteen legacies BJD itself says are rumored to exist, and the nine showcased in Ebony Kingdom. Mind you, the Laibon are mentioned in two separate chapters. That’s two settings they expect us to use them in. Curiously, BJD never once refers the reader to KotEK as another source. Maybe there was an internal mandate saying the book wasn’t allowed to refer to sources outside the 20th Anniversary edition, or maybe they thought the handful of differences between Revised and V20 would cause too much confusion. As much as I truly love Onyx Path, however, I’d be lying through my teeth if I didn’t admit to the sneaking suspicion it might be because Onyx Path doesn’t see a cut of Revised Edition sales.
These issues could have been easily remedied with a few extra pages of Appendix. Assuming constraints prevented the book from being larger than it already is, weighing in at a hefty 559 pages, it’s not as if Onyx Path couldn’t have made room for it. I would have greatly preferred, by several orders of magnitude, a few extra pages of resources for my game than a two page spread of a pointless Freudian extrapolation, or an extremely awkward scene where an ancient vampire bites Beckett’s fingernails off. “A Brief History of Beckett” didn’t need to be its own chapter, as not only does it not provide any appreciable history of the character, (by “brief” they mean Post It Note) the salient bits of information would be better served in other areas. The information about the character Marie would have fit neatly in the chapter where she actually appears, and the plot hooks about hunting for rare books could have gone almost anywhere else, as Beckett spends the vast majority of the narrative searching for a rare book. As loathe as I am to admit it, since it’s my favorite setting in Vampire, the Chicago chapter is almost entirely superfluous. With the exception of a few minor nudges, most of which have already been covered in other V20 books, (namely V20 Companion and Lore of the Clans) Vampire’s Chicago is virtually unchanged from what it was in Chicago by Night 2nd Edition.
The book is organized into 31 chapters, most of which chronicle Beckett’s journeys through various vampire domains across the world. The narrative bits set up NPCs and settings for Storytellers to use in their Vampire games, each one culminating in a list of plot hooks and chronicle ideas. This is where the true value of the book lies. Most groups will require years to exhaust the material provided herein, and it’s exceptionally likely it will be used for years since the king’s ransom of story ideas will prove just as useful long after Vampire 5th Edition launches.
Several of the plot hooks deliberately contradict each other, or offer the Storyteller another possibility of “what really happened.” The World of Darkness is a place of nuance, mystery, and unreliable narrators. Allowing disparate groups to establish their own canons, all of them being equally valid, is an approach I applaud and would love to see other games attempt. I can’t help but wonder though, how this sweeping array of individualized canonicity will hold up in the future. Presumably White Wolf will have to at least figure out Saulot/Tremere at some point, let alone the innumerable other intrigues the book highlights. Then again, maybe they won’t. Martin Elricsson of White Wolf has stated before that he wishes to turn control of the metaplot over to the players. Perhaps the dangling plot threads truly won’t be resolved until we pick up our dice to do it ourselves. At this point, only time will tell.
The changing delivery methods help greatly to keep reading from becoming monotonous. The book attempts to differentiate between several in-universe contributors by having each one use different fonts, paper, ink colors, etc. Unfortunately, it’s not always perfect, as some of the fonts can look extremely similar and all rules go out the window when the characters start switching paper. Onyx Path used the opportunity to showcase a cast of Vampire’s iconic characters. Considering the Clan Novel series was published nearly 20 years ago, this was a great opportunity to introduce these characters to a new generation of fans. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely certain they did… The book will liberally introduce side characters who crop up in each domain, but after a mountain of margin notes, Lucita de Aragon (a character important enough to literally have her own action figure) doesn’t receive anything approaching an introduction before appearing as a major character for several chapters. Also, really, we’re not going to mention who Sascha Vykos is outside of a sideways mention of genital throwing? Fortunately, the narrative is far from impenetrable without prior knowledge of these characters. Indeed, perhaps the goal was to make readers want to find out more, in which case, well played. I just fear for readers with less patience being turned off at the prospect of yet another major character being mentioned without context.
Purists may dislike the way Onyx Path shook up certain sacred cows of the metaplot, such as an extant branch of the previously extinct Cappadocian line, however I appreciate the fact that they have. Beckett’s Jyhad Diary paints the picture of a World of Darkness that is changing, evolving, and one that challenges previous assumptions. Stagnation is a death sentence, and this newfound forward momentum can only lead to good things for the game.
The Appendix is a collection of advice for Storytellers on how to use the metaplot in their chronicles. Most experienced Storytellers will have already decided whether or not to use the game’s canon in their chronicles, and how they’re going to do so. This was the camp that I fell into, and as such I personally didn’t find anything particularly illuminating in this section, though I’m sure someone will. I did, however, greatly enjoy the overview of themes present in Vampire’s previous iterations. V20 attempts to merge the themes of the previous three versions, though it can be easy for them to become muddled when none are brought to the fore. This section allowed me to reflect on the themes I wish to bring forth in my own games, and while not strictly necessary, it was appreciated.
The art in this book is some of the best Onyx Path has ever produced. The half page illustrations are absolutely jaw-dropping, though unfortunately the portraits of the sample NPCs tend to run the gamut a bit more. Some of them, like Victoria Ash, Khurshid, and Christof Romuald (every time you mention it, someone will say “they made two VtM games?”) look great, with a certain Vampire: The Eternal Struggle vibe that sets my nerd heart alight with glee. Conversely, Smiling Jack is as cockeyed as a chameleon and looks like they colored him with crayons. There’s more amazing artwork than not, but when something is bad, it really sticks out.
I used to advise new Vampire Storytellers that after the core rules, their first purchase should be one of the city setting books, as it would keep them from having to spontaneously generate an entire community and provide an example of how vampire society interacts. Now, my recommendation lies firmly with Beckett’s Jyhad Diary. It offers a multitude of settings, years worth of plot hooks, a litany of sample vampires and a look at the societies of several different factions on multiple continents. BJD is not what I’d call perfect by any stretch, but it offers so much value that its few faults are easy enough to overlook. Unless you’re a collector or you frequently get your books signed at conventions, I’m not certain I’d recommend springing for the full hardcover treatment, as this is not the kind of book you’ll be carting to every session, let alone passing around the table. However, the PDF is a welcome addition to any Storyteller’s arsenal, and worth every penny.
Chaz Lebel is a fiction author and member of Caffeinated Conquests, a YouTube channel dedicated to nerd comedy and tabletop gaming. He and his team once produced some promotional videos for High Level Games that they probably wish they could forget. Chaz can be found on Twitter @CafConIsOn
Picture Reference: http://whitewolf.wikia.com/wiki/File:Beckett_for_V20_Beckett%E2%80%99s_Jyhad_Diary.jpg
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.