Saturday, February 28, 2015

Late Review: Clanbook: Toreador (Revised)

Clanbook:  Toreador (Revised)
By Heather Grove & Greg Stoltze
2000, 100 pages
            From the very first page, Clanbook Toreador recreates the image of the Clan of the Rose and Kindred society by offering a multicultural perspective that was not present in the previous edition’s clanbooks.   Players are exposed to a variety of different viewpoints on the Toreador, and those viewpoints are especially important in that they are well developed and completely untrustworthy.   Kindred are liars and deceivers who twist the truth into new forms that are not outright lies and that fact makes them far more dangerous.   Some truth is there which makes the lie far more believable.  The danger of these viewpoints in a book such as this is that players could consider a half-truth or an individual perspective as the gospel about the clan.   The half-truths and contradictory perspectives draw the reader into a gaming supplement that offers the same readability as a novel.  Despite the readability of Clanbook:  Toreador, it is uneven throughout and disappointingly leaves unanswered many questions about the Clan of the Rose. 
            Clanbook:  Toreador does not start off well, beginning with its weakest section, a mood setting story entitled Exodus and Embrace.  The narrator is an African Toreador named Anthony Sungbo who explains a piece of his art to a newly Embraced Toreador.  The painting features animals as representations of members of his coterie on the night that a messenger had brought news that a mortal archeological expedition was coming to explore the ruins were they lived.  This terrible news sends the resident Toreador searching for new homes to avoid inevitable discovery.  The story is told in first person, as if Anthony Sungbo is speaking to the reader, but the flashbacks are told in third person.  The shifting perspective distracts from the story’s intent.  Nevertheless, Exodus and Embrace sets the mood perfectly for the rest of the book.  The emphasis of the book is providing a voice for a clan that spreads like a vine and Embraces mortals for their art, for their beauty, or merely on a whim. 
 I couldn't find any interior art images.   So here is a great Toreador image.  Check out this deviant art page
            The Civilized Ones, the first chapter, offers some surprising new viewpoints from two sources:  Katherine of Montpellier, an ancient Toreador Methuselah and Anthony Sungbo, the African painter.  Katherine of Montpellier is newly awakened from Torpor and has no knowledge of the modern world.  She struggles to learn about the rapidly changing world of 2000 but despises anything that emits a noise such an alarm clock or television, making the modern world a nightmare for her.  She rarely leaves her new estate because of a fear of automobiles.  Katherine is being interviewed by a 10th Generation Toreador named Carmelita, and this section is laid out as an interview with Katherine answering questions about the origins of the clan asked by Carmelita.  The second section is an essay written by Anthony Sungbo who explains more recent history.  His views are no less deceitful.  Due to his own experiences as an African Kindred, Anthony’s perspective is anti-European, and he relates a revisionist history that decries the horrific effects of colonization and the Kindred’s part in those efforts.  Both narrators are unreliable as both have ulterior motives, as should be expected from a Kindred.
            Katherine is a petulant and spoiled aristocrat who retains the racist and ethnocentric views expected of a woman Embraced in 1140.  Carmelita, her interviewer, begins by asking about the first city, Enoch, and Katherine is more than happy to offer her version of the clan’s origin by asserting that the city’s name was not Enoch but Ubar.  Her version is an apocryphal tale in which she claims not only that Caine did not curse the Toreador but attempted to protect Ishtar (not Arikel) from reprisal from the rebellious Antediluvians who had been cursed.  Katherine’s rendition continues as she weaves together Sumerian and Greek myths into a story about Ishtar’s flight from the other Antediluvians.  She asserts that Ishtar was betrayed by Giglamesh, the king of Sumer, who chose the Gangrel Antediluvian’s offer of power over her own offer of beauty.  Ishtar escapes and travels to Crete where she is responsible for the creation of the Minotaur and the lightless maze from the myth of Icarus and his father Daedalus. 
            Katherine’s history of the Toreador leaves the realms of myth and enters into recorded history as she discusses the Toreador, Malkavian, and Ventrue influence over the city of Rome and the Roman wars with the Brujah who controlled Carthage.  Throughout this part of Katherine’s history, the Toreador are always portrayed as the smarter, better, wiser clan who look down on the thuggish way that the Ventrue dominate their servants.  When Rome falls it’s not because the Toreador have failed but because of Ventrue incompetence.  The most interesting section is Katherine’s views on the rise of Christianity from a mystery cult to the Roman state religion.  She emphasizes the early Christian’s faith and how dangerous that was to vampires.  Her awe of the power of religion makes sense because of her upbringing in the Twelfth Century and the Inquisition effects on her life.    
            Everything about Katherine’s story is rumor and conjecture.  She was not Embraced until 1140, and her version of the clan’s history most likely came from stories she’d heard after her Embrace from Kindred storytellers.  From that point forward, Katherine’s story becomes more concrete as she travels Europe supporting the arts and patronizing great artists.  The Catholic Church plays a large part in the history of Europe, and the Inquisition played an enormous role in the history of Kindred.  As the church grew, according to Katherine, the clergy became more pliable and lacked the power of faith that had made the early Christians such a danger.  Yet, the Kindred like to take credit for using the Catholic Church as a weapon against others.  Toreador hid amongst the monks in their monasteries inspiring them to copy and preserve ancient texts so that knowledge would not be lost.  Katherine claims that original Inquisition of the 1200s was a Toreador plot to attack their rivals amongst the Ventrue. 
            Katherine’s history ends at the 100 Years War, blaming the affair on scheming Ventrue in England who were attempting to maintain claims on their holdings in France.  Her discussion touches on the Battle of Agincourt which turned the tide against the French and Joan of Arc who Kindred could not approach within a league of or risk the power of angry God.  The 100 Year War marks the end of chivalry for Katherine, and the end of her history. Katherine remarks upon the switch from chivalrous battle with swords and knights on horseback to the use of gunpowder with sadness and longing for a return to ancient conventions.  It’s a sentiment that she carries with irony since we later learn that the same chivalrous attitudes that she misses were responsible for a marriage to brutal husband during her life. 
Definitely some inspiration for a Toreador anti-tribu
            Anthony Sungbo offers a different perspective on the events that follow.  His viewpoint is more cosmopolitan and modern than Katherine’s but no less deceptive.  Anthony also begins his history well before his own birth, discussing events of which he has no direct knowledge.  Anthony’s view is more appealing to readers because it is a modern, multicultural viewpoint that most would associate with current historiography.  Originally from Nigeria, Anthony has traveled throughout the Americas, the Orient, and Europe.  His version of Toreador history begins with the appearance of Europeans in Africa and the slave trade.  Cainites are the ultimate colonists bringing their own history, culture, and myths with them and overtaking the native culture.  European colonists brought with them their religion, and the Kindred are the ultimate proof of that religion as they are descended directly from the child of the first people, Adam and Eve. 
            As Katherine has constructed a synergy of Cainite and real world mythology to explain the origins of the Toreador clan and their importance over all other clans, Anthony deconstructs history and offers revisionists versions of modern myths such as the “discovery of America” and the founding of the United States.   Anthony sides with the colonized:  the Africans after the arrival of the Europeans, Jews in Spain in the 1600s, and the Native Americans when Columbus arrived.  His history of the clan calls into questions not only the motivations of the Kindred but also the motivations of mortals.  Unlike Katherine’s history, Anthony avoids explaining everything as part of a Kindred plot or plan.  The Kindred fall into the background of Anthony’s version becoming shadows and parasites who follow mortals across the globe. 
            Anthony also discusses new developments amongst the Toreador, such as the Electron Artists, who create digital art.  As of 2000 though, the average Toreador thought very little of this online collective.  Like other Kindred, Toreador are very slow to accept any change, especially in a new medium that few of their elders understand.   The controversies over what is and is not art and what is acceptable continue to dominate the arguments amongst many Toreador and Clanbook Toreador offers the first look at how the Toreador are adapting to their Neonates new interests. 
            Chapter Two, Aesthete Unveiled, delves into the facets of the Toreador as individuals and what it means to be a Toreador.  Like the previous chapter, it is also narrated by two separate Kindred who offer their views on what is and what is not a Toreador.   The first narrator identified only as Goddard discusses what it means to be a Toreador and the fine line that Toreador walk between being a Cainite and trying to appear human.  He argues that the core of a being a Toreador is their relationships to mortals.  Toreador, more so than any other clan, keep mortal lovers, befriend humans, and blood bond those necessary to maintain a “normal” life.  The emphasis in this section is on the importance of Toreador maintaining close ties to mortals to thwart their beast, what Goddard calls a Kindred’s “thwarted death.” 
            The second section of Aesthete Unvieled discusses the Toreador’s opinions and relationships with other clans.  Rather than being an alphabetical listing of each clan and a short paragraph about that clan, this section, narrated by Ferdinand Chu, an ancilla, focuses on the clans that the Toreador consider most dangerous or important rivals.  Ferdinand Chu’s opinion of the Tremere is that they are homely high school girls who know some dangerous magic tricks and are bound in their hierarchy.   The Assamites are diminished to brutes useful for their prowess in combat and easily tricked into accomplishing a smart Toreador’s goals.  The Giovanni are reduced to their grossest stereotype – incestuous necrophiliacs.  Most disappointing, due to the metaplot of the Revised Edition, the Ravnos are barely a footnote.  As refreshing as it is to see more in depth discussions of the Toreador’s opinions on a variety of clans and other supernatural entities, Ferdinand Chu believes that the other clans are tools to be used or foes to be avoided.  He is fearful of most other clans and dismissive of others. 
            New Disciplines are introduced in Chapter Two as well, including a new version of Auspex Six and another version of Presence Six for those playing character of Seventh Generation or lower.  The inclusion of combination Disciplines offers new powers for non-Elder characters that fit the themes of the clan.   Doubletalk, a combination discipline that requires Auspex 2, Celerity1, and Obfuscate 1, allows a Kindred to hide entire conversations in the pauses of an utterance.  Soul Painting which requires Auspex 4 and Presence 2 allows a Toreador to paint an individual and reveal the subject’s Nature.  Rules for using these abilities in Mind’s Eye Theatre are included as well for LARPers. 
Wouldn't the world make more sense if Bowie were a Toreador?
            The final chapter, The Registry, has a selection of pre-generated characters that players can select or use as the inspiration for their own characters.   It also includes the background of Katherine of Montpellier and other Toreador of repute.  From a thespian spy to a waitress to a go-between for Elders and Anarchs, players have plenty to choose from among these archtypes.  Thankfully, the authors didn’t include a Wareador concept in this chapter.  Unfortunately, none of the characters stand out.  Their backgrounds are well written and they are well designed, but none of these characters seem exciting. 
            The infamous Kindred detailed in The Registry include powerful elders such as Victoria Ashe who appears in Clan Novel:  Toreador and Katherine of Montpellier, introduced in Chapter One.  Katherine’s history reads like a Harlequin Romance novel with vampires.  Enver Frasheri, a sociopath known for killing artists more talented than himself, is the brightest and darkest of these famous Kindred.  His history is wild and disjointed.   Revenge is his art – revenge on those composers who outshine him and those who have wronged him.   He is a threat that the Elders can wield against their childer, and a tool they can use against the Sabbat.  Enver is such a perversion the concept of a Toreador that he outshines more famous Toreador like Victoria Ashe. 
            Clanbook:  Toreador is one of the most entertaining and easy to read supplements for Vampire:  The Masquerade.  Perhaps I found it so intriguing because I am a fan of the Toreador, but unlike any other clanbook or supplement I was able to read through it in a single sitting.  However, as a game supplement, I have some reservations about the materials offered.  The goal of any clanbook, regardless of clan, is to provide material to help players portray members of that clan.  However, due to the views of the narrators in this clanbook, players could be led to believe that the opinions of these narrators are the absolute truth and the “correct” way to portray a Toreador.  Clanbook:  Toreador’s narrators are too idiosyncratic and thus lack the ability to offer a balanced viewpoint or model for portraying a Toreador.  Toreador are too individualistic in their approaches to art and unlife to be easily categorized.  
            As well-written as this book is, I don’t believe that readers need another apocryphal version of the origin of the Kindred.   It adds nothing but confusion to the already messy history of the Classic World of Darkness and the Kindred’s myths.  What is most troubling to me is the lack of any real information on the Toreador Anti-Tribu.  Rather than discuss them, they remain ghosts lurking in the shadowy corners of the Toreador consciousness.  They are never addressed directly, except one pre-generated character, a pack priest.  The anti-tribu are more than simply world weary artists or sadists, and the clanbooks should embrace these divergent Kindred.  Exploring the antithesis of an idea (or a clan in this instance) can reveal as much about the idea as discussing the idea itself.  The narrators and authors of this book also discount the power of Toreador in politics.  The Toreador, while frequently dismissed as simple artists, have had a disproportionate number of Princes reigning over major cities.  Art, of any description, is emphasized but at the cost of the Toreador’s ability to manipulate not only mortals but other Kindred which has always made them powerful players in Elysiums across the world.  Ironically, the worst part of Clanbook:  Toreador is its art.  Other than the full page drawings that face the beginning of each chapter, the interior art fails to capture the mood of the Toreador or Vampire:  The Masquerade.  Even the cover image is reused from Vampire:  The Masquerade Revised Core Rule Book.  
            Despite these criticisms, Clanbook:  Toreador is one of the finest examples of the Classic World of Darkness line that I have read.  The authors have created distinct voices for their narrators which provide a large variety of perspectives on what it means to be a Toreador.  The inclusion of Anthony Sungbo as a narrator finally gives a non-Western perspective to the Toreador and Kindred outside of the Assamite clan.  I honestly could not stop reading it because I was so enthralled with the narrators. 
            I would recommend Clanbook:  Toreador (Revised) to any Toreador player or Vampire:  The Masquerade player.  The book is edition neutral except for a few Disciplines which could be easily brought into a Vampire:  The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition game. 
            Clanbook Toreador is available at DriveThruRPG as a PDF or Print on Demand or you can purchase an original printing from Amazon. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

D&D 5E Player Reference Sheets

            Ever since D&D 3.0 I have been a huge fan of player reference sheets, a couple of sheets of paper that summarize the rules for players and game masters.   Those few sheets of paper at the table save so much time wasted on looking up the basic rules of the system.  How many times has a combat stopped because the player or DM needed to look up the grappling rules or whether disarming an opponent provokes an attack of opportunity?  These sheets were never meant to replace a rulebook, but instead, they offer a quick reference of the rules as well as the page numbers for those rules if further clarification is necessary. 
            I’m currently running a D&D 5E game and I love the system.  It was only a matter of time before I got around to writing and posting a player reference sheet for the system.  Of course, these rules are owned by Wizards of the Coast.  No copyright infringement is intended, blah, blah blah.   These rules are not a substitute for the book or the basic rules PDF that is available to download for free here and a web viewable version here.  
            These Player Reference Sheets (Download here or click the Resources Player & Storyteller Tab above)   include rules on Advantage, Disadvantage, Actions in Combat, Combat rules, rules on Death & Dying, and a list of Conditions.  Basically, I’ve included any information that is regularly referenced during play.
I’ve already posted several player reference sheets on this blog, including one for Vampire:  The Masquerade 20thAnniversary Edition and WotC’s Star Wars Revised System.  However, I’ve never discussed how I intended for players to use them.  I don’t think that my intent is all that important, but it’s a chance to show off a bit.  Below are images of my girlfriend’s D&D 5E character sheet in a binder that I made for her which includes an image of her character, character sheet, and reference sheets.  I would show off one of my own characters, but I haven’t played a character yet.  
Character Image
Turn the page and you have her character sheet & spell list

Turn the page and she has a reference sheet for combat rules
Turn the next page, and she has reference sheets for other rules and Conditions
   Next, I’ll be adding some pre-generated PCs for Vampire:  The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition, finally putting together the second VtM player reference sheet, and a player reference sheet for Werewolf:  The Apocalypse 20th Anniversary Edition.  These aren’t high priority items, but I hope to have them all finished within the next few months. 
  If you find any errors, omissions, typos, or poor wording, please let me know via email or a comment below so that I can update these sheets.   I’d also love to hear from you if you’ve used these in your games!  As always you can follow me on Google+ or Twitter by clicking the links on the right.  

Friday, February 13, 2015

Becoming a Better Player

  I’ve tackled this topic before but only at its most basic level.  The previous article “How to Be a Better Playeroffered ten suggestions for how to be a better player.  I intended those suggestions for novice players, but what about the intermediate or advanced player who wants to improve.  Storytellers, Dungeon Masters and Game Masters have an overwhelming number of resources available including podcasts, articles, books, and videos that offer advice on how to improve their GM skills.  Yet, the most comprehensive advice that I’ve found on how to improve one’s skills on the other side of the GM screen is no more in depth than “Bring your dice” and “Try other classes.” 
Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League recently published an article with a similar lack of useful information for intermediate players.  Their article offered two pieces of advice for players in the Adventurers League Organized Play Events.  First they suggested that players try a wide variety of character classes and archetypes.  The rules for D&D 5E Adventurers League allows players to change their characters’ classes, archetypes, and many other attributes until their characters reach 5th level.  The second suggestion is that players should take advantage of the opportunity to meet and game with new players.  The intent of this suggestion is that players will become better roleplayers by observing and mimicking others.  Specifically, the article references tactics and combat situations. 
          Neither my article nor the Adventurers League article offer bad advice, but the focus is obviously on either rule comprehension or material that is obvious to anyone except beginning players.  I’ve been mulling this topic for several weeks and I have found very little information on how to be a better roleplayer.  Before I get further into this topic, I should clarify what I mean by a “roleplayer.”  For the purposes of this article “a roleplayer” or “roleplaying” will be used as system neutral terms that refer only to the aspect of the game that involves a player (or GM) “assumingthe attitudes, actions, and discourseof a character.  Mechanics, systems, and other rules, although important, will not be central to this article.  Unfortunately, I am not an expert roleplayer, and I have more questions than answers.  I hope that by asking these questions I can discover some answers myself and inspire others to look for those answers as well. 
Becoming Better

            How good of a roleplayer are you?  Do you find it easy to get into character and stay in character during a game?  Are your characters fully developed, three-dimensional personae?  Do you act in character regardless of whether or not the actions taken will result in negative consequences?   Do you play against type?   Do you play characters with a gender different of your own or sexuality?  Do you try to exercise your roleplaying skills by playing difficult characters? 
            These questions and many others represent the metacognitive thinking that I have been considering recently in regards to roleplaying.  The origin of these thoughts was a player in a D&D Adventurers League game that I was running late last year.  The player, who I will call Jon, plays a Lawful Evil, Drow, Wizard agent of the Zhentarum whose own personal goal have very little to do with stopping the evils of the Cult of the Dragon along the Sword Coast.  Instead Jon’s character acts an agent for a variety of merchants and traders, and he hopes to build connections in the towns that he visits.  His fight against the Cult of the Dragon is almost incidental, and his exploits in battle against the Cult serve to create a reputation that he exploits in his business dealings.   More so than Jon’s actions, he brings joy, fun, and excitement to the table.  He’s violent and mercenary and frequently argues with the other party members, but he inherently knows how much to argue without upsetting the other players.  He is the kind of roleplayer that I want to emulate and inspire other players to emulate. 
            Having had the realization that my skills as a roleplayer are lacking, how can I or anyone else become a better roleplayer?  I suppose the easy answer is practice.  The Adventurers League article isn’t wrong.  The only way to improve is through practice and playing different characters.  Where that article’s intent is improving tactical play, improving roleplaying requires more than understanding the fundamentals of a D&D cleric or choosing the best Disciplines for a Toreador in Vampire:  The Masquerade.  Mastery of character optimization is no longer difficult due to the prevalence of message boards dedicated solely to building a better character or ranking character classes.  Reading through threads on a message board is not going to improve one’s skill at roleplaying.
            Like being a Dungeon Master or Storyteller, the more time that a player spends playing the game should improve their roleplaying.  But how often can a person play an RPG?   Most of tabletop RPG players can only dedicate one night a week to gaming and usually no more than three or four hours.  Those hours are typically spent in one campaign playing one character.  Yet, the best way to improve is to play multiple characters with a wide array of attitudes and motivations.             
            The first step in becoming a better roleplayer is to build a better character emphasizing strong motivations, goals, and other characteristics that make the character more than a set of a statistics on a character sheet.  Roleplaying is also a collaborative game, it’s important not to allow your character’s motivations to disrupt the game or detract from the fun of other players.  So the character must fit in with the party and help advance the story rather than selfishly advancing his or her own goals to detriment of the adventuring party. 
Continuing Forward

            If the goal of this article was to provide information on how to become a better roleplayer, then I quite obviously failed.  So far all I’ve accomplished is admitting that I am not a great roleplayer and that I have noticed a lack of information for players.  I’ve suggested that practice and trial and error are obvious keys to improving roleplaying, but to fully explore this subject is beyond the scope of a single article.  So, that will be the focus of my blog over the next year:  ways to improve roleplaying with an emphasis on helping the intermediate gamer improve.  Future articles will include discussions of goals and motivations for characters, building better backstories, and some stories about my own failures and successes. 

            If you have any suggestions, stories or other comments about improving roleplaying please leave them in comments below.  I will also greatly appreciate any suggestions for books, materials, or other information regarding roleplaying.  As usual you can contact me on Twitter @Anthony_RTDB or email me