Friday, May 16, 2014

Late Review: Clanbook Giovanni

Clanbook Giovanni
By Justin Achilli
1997, 68 pages

            In my long experience playing Vampire:  The Masquerade, I have never had a player decide to role-play a Giovanni nor have I used them as NPCs.  The Giovanni just weren’t a popular clan when I was playing.  I don’t know why that was the case, but like the Ravnos and other independent clans, I have very little experience with Giovanni.  Before reading clanbook Giovanni, I knew only what the Vampire:  The Masquerade Revised Corebook included, nothing more than a couple of paragraphs and the rules for Necromancy.  I suppose none of my players were interested in talking to Wraiths or creating zombies.  When I began reading this book, I had no biases towards or against the Giovanni.  I was excited to learn more about the Giovanni because Clanbook Ravnos and Clanbook Assamite created entire sects out of those clans.  Those books inspired me to play members of those clans. 
            If anything, Clanbook Giovanni gives me a few reasons not to play a Giovanni.  The book isn’t poorly written.  Overall, it’s an average clanbook with one major flaw, a terrible narrator.  Some of the Clanbook series, most notably Clanbook Lasombra and Clanbook Gangrel, were written from the perspective of a character explaining the beliefs of the clan, its history, etc.  Clanbook Giovanni uses the same narrative device, a single narrator who informs the player/reader of the history and current attitudes of the Giovanni, but the author’s choice of narrator was poor.  The narrator is a homophobic, racist, swaggering, bragging scumbag with no redeeming features whatsoever and seemingly only a passing knowledge of the clan.  If this narrator is supposed to be representative of a member of the Giovanni clan, I never want to play one. 

            Despite this significant problem, Clanbook Giovanni has some redeeming features.  The best part of the book is Chapter One’s introductory story, Family Matters about the producer of snuff films who is in a bit of trouble and wants to withdraw his savings from a group of Italians who have been keeping it safe for him.  The producer has an order for a new film, but he has no way to make it.  Fearful of the person who ordered the film, the producer is planning on leaving town immediately but he doesn’t want to leave behind the millions of dollars he has stored with his Italian bankers.  Instead of giving him the money, these Italians take him back to their manor outside of the city.  The producer becomes more and more afraid as the Italians drive him onto the property which has its own cemetery with ancient tombstones and crypts.  After meeting more members of this strange Italian family, the producer is led into the basement where the Italians set up a camera for him and bring in a young, unconscious girl.  I’m sure you can figure out what happens next.  Thankfully, the story also leaves it to your imagination.  Sometime later, the Italians invite the producer back to the manor where the head of the family blood bonds him and we discover that the Italians in question are the Giovanni clan. 
            The introductory story works because the producer is completely ignorant of what’s going on around him.  One would imagine that the producer of snuff films is used to be the weirdest and creepiest person in the room.  He’s kidnapped, tortured, and violently murdered women for the pleasure of others.  Yet, when he arrives at the Giovanni, he realizes how awful things can really get.  His thoughts are filled with false bravado as he tries to cope and maintain his dignity.  The atmosphere of mortal fear mixed with the producer’s attempts to retain some sense of courage makes this standout as one of the best of the introductory stories.  Choosing to have a mortal as the protagonist of the Giovanni introductory story was brilliant because the Giovanni are so closely tied to mortals, especially the Giovanni mortal family.   Through the narrator’s eyes, the author is able to lead the reader into the dark corners of a manor filled with monstrous Giovanni shining a light on this family of Kindred.
            The problem starts in Chapter Two when the author changes to a new narrator, a Giovanni who will be the tour guide through the history of the clan.  The issue with a tour guide is that they don’t really know much.  A tour guide leads the tour group through the exhibits, repeats the memorized speech, and really doesn’t have much knowledge beyond that. The tour guide can’t answer questions about the context of the exhibits.  The tour guide isn’t a historian.  Beyond the canned speech and maybe a few details, the tour guide lacks a depth of knowledge on the subject.  Clanbook Giovanni’s narrator is a tour guide as played by Joe Pesci.
Mr. Pesci isn't know for his oratory skills.
            The history of Clan Giovanni starts with Augustus Giovanni, a childe of the antediluvian  Cappodocius, diablerizing his sire thus creating the Giovanni Clan.  However, a lot of information is left out.  Who were the Cappodocians?  How did the Giovanni wipe out the Cappodocians who didn’t agree with Augustus Giovanni?  None of the Cappodocians escaped, supposedly, but the exact history of that is glossed over.  Augustus Giovanni diablerized Cappodocius, the Giovanni killed the Cappodocians, and that is all there is to know.  Augustus also diablerized the progenitor of the Lamia clan and destroyed the Lamia bloodline.  Who were the Lamia?  No idea.  Did any survive?  Nope.  How did the Giovanni accomplish that?  No idea. 
            The actual reasons why Augustus decided to diablerize his sire are actually interesting.  Cappodocius believed that he had found a ritual that would allow him to become a god or the God.  Augustus, fearing that his Sire had gone insane, diablerized him.  Later, Augustus determines that the ritual wouldn’t have turned Cappodocius into a god or God; rather, the ritual is supposed to break down the Shroud, the mystical barrier between the world of ghosts known as Wraiths and the world of the living.  Of course, Augustus decided that he has to perform that ritual but the ritual requires something like ten thousand ten thousand souls to be successful.  So, he and his clan start binding wraiths and improving their Necromancy with the goal of enacting this ritual in mind.  Augustus’ problem with Cappodocius wasn’t that he might destroy the world or something.  It was that Augustus was a different kind of megalomaniacal mad man and had no interest in godhood.  Augustus wanted to destroy the world. 
            Some time later, a stranger known only as the Cappuchin arrived at the Giovanni Estate with news that some of Cappodocius’ blood remained which also meant that some of Cappodocius’s soul remained as well.  Augustus realized that he hadn’t completely diablerized his Sire’s soul and started searching for something called the True Vessel which contained that blood.  Augustus spent years looking for the True Vessel to complete his diablerie of Cappodocius.  Originally, the Cappuchin told Augustus that this True Vessel was located in the Ericyes, a Cappodocian temple where that dead clan had stored many of its artifacts.  However, the Giovanni had already looted that temple and not found it.  Eventually, the Cappuchin located the True Vessel and sent it to the Giovanni under the care of the Baron (supposedly Baron Samedi).  However, the Followers of Set stole the True Vessel from the Baron while he was enroute to the Giovanni estate or so the Baron claimed.  Honestly, this sounds like the Cappuchin was running a con on the Giovanni, telling Augustus that his biggest fear, that Cappodocius survived, and that only the Cappuchin could help the Giovanni rid themselves of this threat.  The Cappuchin kept dangling possibilities of finally destroying Cappodocius, but they could never actually get the True Vessel if it existed.   
This is guy is like the Joker of the Classic World of Darkness.
Other books such as the Giovanni Chronicles and some Dark Ages Clanbooks explain more about the Cappuchin, the True Vessel, and the destruction of the Cappodocians and the Lamia.  Not having read those books, I don’t know how much better the Giovanni’s history is handled in those books.  It’s not that the history presented in Clanbook Giovanni is poorly written.  Instead, the problem is choosing a narrator who doesn’t actually know the history and doesn’t care about the history of his clan.  Although a gender is never assigned to the narrator, it’s obviously a “he” because of how misogynist the character’s explanations are.  The narrator isn’t obscuring facts about the clan; rather the narrator is just ignorant of his clan because he can’t be bothered to learn about his clan or share that history with the reader. 
Chapter Three discusses the inner workings of a family of vampires, ghouls, mortals, and wraiths.  The family is a perverse meritocracy.  Each member of the family slowly works his or her way up the pyramid from a mortal who has very little knowledge of the family’s secrets to a ghoul who is initiated into the first level of secrets, and finally after proving themselves, they are Embraced and become full-fledged vampires.  A family member who dies doesn’t stop serving the family.  The Giovanni draft their dead into service as wraiths bound to protect vital areas.  The clan is monolithic in a way that the Tremere wish they were.  The Tremere pyramid is riddled with secret societies and intrigues, but thanks to the Giovanni’s desire to blood bond everyone there is no dissension in the ranks. 
Ghouls make up the largest portion of the family with 75% being ghouls at any one time.  Those ghouls are the worker bees of the clan.  They keep the accounting books, run the businesses during the daytime, and expand the clan’s business.  The Giovanni rely heavily upon their ghouls and their ghouls even learn Disciplines beyond just the requisite Potence.  Some study Necromancy under their Kindred masters.  The ghouls of the Giovanni even have their own hierarchy because the status of the Kindred who hold regnant over the Ghoul is important.  This element of ghouldom in the Giovanni clan is the most interesting part of the clanbook because it establishes a hierarchy based on both blood and deed.  Those Giovanni who are successful rise in the clan and bring their ghouls and childer with them, but the childe of a Giovanni black sheep is reviled. 
The Giovanni Clan is made up of more than a single, large Italian family.  Across the centuries the Giovanni have added several family lines to their clan:  The Dunsirn, The Pisanob, and the Milliners.  The Dunsirn are cannibalistic Scottish bankers.  Formerly a family of Fianna kinfolk, an outcast portion of the family returned and corrupted the entire family.  The Pisanob were Aztec priests who regulated and performed ceremonies involving human sacrifice.  They practiced Necromancy and trapped the souls of their sacrificial victims in talismans.  In the modern nights they work as orderlies in hospitals throughout Mexico and Central America as a camouflage for their continued work in necromancy.  The Milliners are an American family that was involved with the Kennedy family in the early twentieth century.  They may have been involved in the JFK assassination and other tragedies of the Kennedy family because of an old grudge against Joe Kennedy, the father of John and Robert Kennedy. 
I didn't mention it but I loved the art in this book.
The three ghoul families are representations of the broad interests of the Giovanni Clan.  The Dunsirn are the business aspect, the Pisanob are the necromantic aspect, and the Milliners represent the clan’s conspiracies.  The Pisanob, however, are the only ghoul family that had any depth.  They are the poor, indigenous population surviving amongst their colonizers and maintaining their culture.  I wish that the Pisano had been better developed, especially given the Sabbat’s control of the region where the family is located.  The Dunsirn’s cannibalism is symbolic of the evils of banking, usury (interest), and finance.  The Milliner’s JFK conspiracy is tedious.  Aren’t their enough JFK conspiracies already? 
Clanbook Giovanni does offer some thoughts on the pre-Cappodocius diablerie elders.  The Giovanni refer to them as the Premascines who hide beneath the canals of Venice in the ruined foundations of the city.  No one is really sure how old these Elders (They could be 400 years old or they could 4,000), or what their goals are.  All that is known is that they study necromancy and are responsible for many disappearances along the canals at night.  The Giovanni, themselves, are unsure of the loyalty of these Elders; they are even unsure whether they are Giovanni or Cappodocians.  The Premascines could be used as the villains of any number of Chronicles involving Giovanni or other characters interested in Necromancy or even a Wraith Chronicle. 
            Clanbook Giovanni introduces one new Merit and one new Flaw along with two new high level Necromancy powers.  The new merit, Sanguine Incongruity, replaces the Giovanni weakness with the Cappodocian’s weakness of pale, corpse-like skin.  Giovanni with this Merit may find themselves black listed by superstitious members of their clan who fear a resurgence of the Cappodocians.  Inbred, the new Flaw, is distinctly Giovanni as well.  Inbreeding is a problem with the clan and the consequences of inbreeding are covered by this variable point Flaw.  Players can choose how inbreeding has affected their character and determine what mental, physical, or emotional defects their characters have.
            Severing the Ties of Death is a level 6 Necromancy Power that allows a Giovanni to remove a Wraith from the Shadowlands forcibly so that the Wraith can be used for later rituals.  The Wraith is essentially trapped by this Discipline and cannot escape.  Inurement is a level 9 Necromancy Power that allows a dying Giovanni to voluntarily become a wraith.  Inurement works more like a ritual than a Discipline as the Giovanni must create fetters (artifacts important to the character) and invest those items with Willpower Points over the course of many months.  These Disciplines are obvious expansions of Necromancy, but neither of these powers will be very useful during the course of a normal Chronicle because very few characters will be able to learn level 6 Discipline much less a level 9 Discipline.
            Cousins Once Removed is the Fourth Chapter and describes a variety of Giovanni character templates for players and Storytellers to use in their games.  Because of the monolithic structure of the Giovanni clan, all of the characters follow the same basic idea.  A Giovanni mortal becomes successful in their endeavors, becomes a ghoul, and is finally Embraced.  The tight-knit nature of the clan doesn’t allow much variation on that basic concept which causes these templates to lack the diversity of the other clan books.  There is no dissension in the clan but there is enough variation here to make some of the character templates interesting enough to use. 
The Ingenue is a character template that is a successful business person who is Embraced because of his/her skills in business; however, even after the Embrace the Ingenue is still naïve about the exact nature of the Kindred.  He/she knows about the Giovanni but knows nothing about the Camarilla, Sabbat or other Independent Clans.  This template has a lot of potential for players who want to play a naïve character and to explore the extent of the Giovanni’s control over their members.  What happens with this character meets other Kindred who have some choice in their lives?  Could a Giovanni turn Anarch?  Could a Giovanni join the Camarilla?  Would that character be accepted? 
Other character concepts are the Degenerate, a necrophiliac Giovanni who misses his/her sex drive but now gets to play with animated corpses.  That’s a character concept that I would only trust to be role-played by the most mature gamers.  I don’t think I could role-play that character.   The Tomb Raider and the Goodfella are self-descriptive and stereotypical, but playable unlike the Degenerate.
Art by Alexander Nysyos
The Appendix examines some Giovanni of Note including the Cappuchin, Augustus Giovanni, and others.  However, several of these descriptions are short and refer the reader to other books.  The entry for Augustus refers the reader to The Last Supper, and Ambrogino’s entry refers the player to The Giovanni Chronicles Two and Three.  The father of the Pisanob family, Pochtli, is described offering some more details on the Pisanob family reinforcing elements described earlier.  The Cappuchin’s description offers a hint to his true identity.  The first letter of each paragraph spells out the name “Lazarus.”  Is he the biblical Lazarus, still alive after centuries and using the Giovanni as a tool in a grand scheme? 
Clanbook Giovanni’s great failure is its choice of narrator.  The swaggering braggadocio and misogyny of the narrator pushes the modern reader away from the clan rather than persuading players to join the clan.  The other issue with this book and many other RPG supplements is the reliance on additional supplements to tell the whole story.  Lacking knowledge spread across Vampire:  The Dark Ages, Clanbook Cappodocian, and the Giovanni Chronicles series of four books, readers who are interested in Vampire:  The Masquerade will find this book confusing.  I’m not as upset at the reference to the Guilds from Wraith:  The Oblivion or the use of some of the terminology from that book.  Wraiths and the Giovanni are essentially inseparable.  However, that does add a seventh book that is necessary to untangle the knots in this Clanbook. 
Players like myself who were ignorant of the Giovanni will find this book disappointing.  Nevertheless, Clanbook Giovanni might be worth reading for the well-written introductory story Family Matters alone.  The addition of a ghoul families like the Pisanob gives some variety for players who want to create Giovanni characters that are not from the main Italian family.  Storytellers may find the book useful if they want to focus an entire Chronicle on the Giovanni family, especially if the Giovanni are the antagonists.  The monolithic structure of the clan and the focus on necromancy, incest, and infiltration of banking makes the Giovanni classic villains. 
Clanbook Giovanni is available for purchase on DriveThruRPG as a PDF or you can purchase an original printing from Amazon. 

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