Friday, May 9, 2014

Late Review: Clanbook Lasombra

Clanbook Lasombra
By:  Richard E. Dansky & Elizabeth Ditchburn
1996, 68 pages

            Of the thirteen major clans of Vampire:  The Masquerade, all of whom pride themselves on Machiavellian scheming, the Lasombra most personify the calculated malevolence and power hungriness of the Kindred.  Also known as the Keepers, the Lasombra have their shadowy tentacles in the infrastructure of nearly every major mortal institution.  They claim influence over governments from Spain to Mexico to the Phillipines, numerous corporations, and even the Catholic Church.  They are the leaders of the Sabbat and have destroyed their Antediluvian progenitor.  They are capable, ruthless, and have a plan to not only defeat the Camarilla but to dominate the entire planet and more. 
             Clanbook Lasombra is a treatise on how to play a Lasombra, exploring the clan’s history, beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses and providing the background information for players who want to take on the role of a Lasombra or Lasombra-antitribu.  Rather than trying to explore the grand history of the Lasombra, this clanbook is an intimate examination of the process of becoming a Lasombra.  The narrators are former shovelheads (neonate Sabbat vampires) who have proven themselves and now they are being taught, along with the reader, the history and inner secrets of the clan.  The clanbook progresses through a series of narratives starting with a story of a Lasombra neonate’s final test to prove himself worthy of the clan’s secrets and ending with a lecture for a group of these young Lasombra being prepared for initiation into the clan’s inner circle, Les Amies Noir.  
            Told from the perspective of an unnamed Lasombra who is chasing his Sire through the outdoor market in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, the introductory story in Chapter One, Dusk in Marrakesh, sets the mood and the atmosphere for the entire book.  While his Sire slips from shadow to shadow amongst the booths of the market, the childe must locate her.  The childe knows that it is not a game but a test and is determined to prove himself and his worth.  From the shadows, his Sire tells him about Les Amies Noir.   The Sire, who is obsessed with mirrors and has a home filled with them, stops to admire a bronze mirror which the childe takes and later uses to reflect light and dispel the shadow that the Sire had just stepped out of, locating her and winning this game.  His reward is the honor of another test that awaits him the following night. 

            Dusk in Marrakesh condenses everything the reader needs to know about clan Lasombra.  The childe and most likely the Sire are being tested continually by their superiors.  Failure isn’t tolerated.  Setting the story in Marrakesh with Lasombra characters evokes the frequently forgotten history of the Al-Andalus and Arabic domination of the territories that would eventually become Spain and Portugal.  The Lasombra consider Spain their home, a great territory that is every bit as central to their clan identity as the Carpathian Mountains are to the Tzimisce, and although the Lasombra claim to have guided the history of their homeland, the history has also left its mark on them as well.  Clanbook Lasombra uses that history as subtext for explaining the roles of Lasombra within the Sabbat and within Vampire:  The Masquerade.  The Lasombra claim that their strength comes from their mastery of their inner darkness which is manifest in their use of Obtenebration, the clan Discipline that allows a Lasombra to control and manipulate shadows. 
            Entitled An Evening’s Discussion with Monsignor Alfonse, Chapter Two documents the pertinent history of the Lasombra.  Rather than merely having the narrator, Monsignor Alfonse, lecture to the reader on the history of the Lasombra, each section starting with the Lasombra’s role in the rise of Rome is also a lesson designed to teach young Lasombra, and also the player, how to act as a proper Lasombra.  Like the Brujah who dream of the glories of Carthage, the Lasombra hold the Roman Republic as the pinnacle of civilization.  They exalt a Rome ruled by a powerful oligarchy where only the nobles could fight in the Legion and a man had to show his scars to receive a seat in the Senate.  The wealth and power of Rome attracted other Kindred clans, the Toreador, the Malkavians, and the hated Ventrue.  When the Lasombra left to lead wars against Carthage and to spread the power of Rome, the Lasombra delegated the responsibility of maintaining the city of Rome to the Ventrue.  The Ventrue, not the Lasombra, were responsible for the fall of Rome and the Lasombra have never forgiven the Ventrue which began the feud between these two clans. 
            The core narrative of this chapter, however, is the diablerie of Lasombra by Gratiano.  After the fall of Rome, Lasombra had moved his haven to Siracusa where he slumbered and watched his children from afar.  Lasombra learned of a cunning mortal who he soon Embraced.  Gratiano became Lasombra’s youngest childe and Lasombra brought him to the fortress in Siracusa already filled with dozens of Lasombra’s other childer.  Being the youngest childe also put Gratiano at the bottom of the hierarchy within Lasombra’s keep, but he had no plans of remaining at the bottom.  With Tzimisce allies who taught him how to break the blood bond, Gratiano developed a plan to destroy Lasombra and claim the Antediluvian’s power for himself.  Lasombra’s most loyal childe Montano tried to warn his Sire but could not stop Gratiano.  Montano’s only success was escaping the keep and becoming the first Lasombra-antitribu. 
Taking shadow boxing to a whole new level
            Monsignor Alfonse claims that the Lasombra were instrumental in helping defeat the Moors and creating the Kingdom of Spain.  As the Spanish armies pushed the Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula, the Lasombra also sought out those Lasombra who followed Montano, many of who were of Moorish descent.  The Reconquista was successful, but the Lasombra who controlled the Catholic Church used that organization to create the Inquisition to hunt their enemies.  The Inquisition quickly grew beyond the control of the Lasombra, and the Inquisition, now known as the Society of Leopold, still hunts supernatural creatures in the modern nights. 
            Under the influence of clan Lasombra, the Spanish Court began funding explorers to travel across the Atlantic where they found new lands for the Lasombra to conquer.  In the New World the Lasombra spread quickly displacing the native populations and werewolves with the help of Spanish Conquistadors such as Cortez and De Soto.  Cortez’s conquest of the Aztec and their capital city Tenochtitlan was a boon to the Lasombra.  Now called Mexico City, no other city in the world has a higher density of Lasombra.  With arrogance only a Lasombra can claim, Monsignor Alfonse asserts that the Lasombra controlled nearly every aspect of the colonization of North and South America. 
            The most important part of the history of the Lasombra is what it leaves out.  The early history of Lasombra, Caine, and the Lasombra’s views on the other antediluvians is barely mentioned.  When questioned on the origins of Kindred and their Antediluvian, the narrator only replies that it doesn’t matter and whatever information he could give would be a lie or a legend.  Other clanbooks and other supplements have covered the history of Caine, the first city and the feuds of the Antediluvians.  The Lasombra believe they have severed their ties to those feuds and focus on the present.  They killed their Antediluvian progenitor, and the stories and myths of him no longer matter.  Lasombra is dead and buried, and it just doesn’t matter anymore. 
It was the '90s.  That's an explanation not an excuse. 
            Chapter Three’s narrative, An Evening at the Feet of Don Miguel, takes place in a classroom full of fledgling Lasombra who are being lectured by an expert on their clan.  This chapter discuss what it means to be a Lasombra and some of the variations that have occurred within the clan.  First and foremost the authors don’t break up the narrative to explain new game rules; instead, the rules are integrated into the text of the narrative mixing the “crunch” with the “fluff.”  I can’t say that this is 100% successful but it is a refreshing change from the usual abrupt shift in the other clan books where the author(s) drop all pretext of narrative to discuss new rules, merits, flaws, and high levels of clan Disciplines. 
            The most useful section of this chapter to most players and Storytellers will be the description of how the Lasombra’s clan weakness works.  Unlike other clan weaknesses, the Lasombra’s lack of a reflection can be a useful benefit when a Lasombra character is trying to avoid detection.  Clanbook Lasombra removes the ambiguity of this rules problem by clarifying exactly how the clan’s weakness works.  Essentially, Lasombra do not have reflections in mirrors, pools of water, silvery surfaces, etc., and more importantly nothing the Lasombra wears or carries appears in the reflection as well.  Conversely, a Lasombra’s image will appear in any mechanical or digital media such as videos, photographs and so on with the exception of black & white photos.  This section also includes a new Flaw, Image Obsession, wherein because a Lasombra can no longer see his or her reflection, he/she becomes obsessed with his/her appearance.  A new Merit, Faint Reflection, gives the Lasombra a translucent reflection in mirrors and other reflective surfaces.
            Two new levels of Obtenebration are also included in this chapter.  Obtenebration Level 6, called Shadow Parasite, is a variation on Arms of the Abyss, but rather than attacking the target, a tentacle slithers into the target’s body and rips him/her open from within.  I imagine it’s like giving birth to Cthulhu’s shadow.  Obtenebration Level 7 gives the Lasombra the ability to spy on others via shadows at great distances which is underwhelming for one of the highest level Disciplines in the game.  Although this Discipline allows a character to snoop on others at any distance, including across the world, the book doesn’t really describe the mechanism for how it would work.  Although having a paranoid Kindred who want talk if there are any shadows around would be amusing. 
            One of the themes for the Lasombra in this clanbook is a need for exploration and conquest.  They led the Romans on journeys of conquest from Italy all the way to the British Isles.  Once they had secured the Spanish throne, the Lasombra funded voyages across the Atlantic to discover the new world and subdue the peoples there.  Their desire for conquest and exploration has not ended.  The Lasombra’s plans don’t end with the destruction of the Camarilla.  The Jyhad is only one of the many wars that the Lasombra will fight.  After they have won the Jyhad and brought all over vampires to their banner, they will destroy the werewolves, the changelings, the mages, and even the wraiths.  Once all their enemies are buried or reburied as the case may be, they will leave the Earth behind to seek out new worlds to conquer amongst the stars. 
            That’s some mad scientist, super villain, pulp novel, comic book levels of evil.  It’s not so much a plan as it is a severe psychosis that an entire clan of vampires has contracted.  Unlike some of the other clanbooks, where an idea like this devolves into a catastrophic mess of giant mushrooms like Clanbook Nosferatu, the Lasombra plan to spread throughout the universe is the obvious end game for a clan this megalomaniacal.  It’s a great plot hook especially for Storytellers looking to integrate Mage:  The Ascension characters and Technocracy themes into a Vampire the Masquerade game or vice versa. 

            How, in a clan of power hungry megalomaniacs where personal power can be quickly gained by consuming the blood and soul of a clanmate, does everything not degenerate into a bloody free for all?  Intra-clan Diablerie is addressed in Chapter Three and the Court of Blood is discussed.  Rather than allowing a bloody melee for power, the Lasombra have set up a council of Elder members who hear arguments for why a Lasombra should be allowed to kill and diablerize another member of the clan.  Any Lasombra with a grievance may request to argue his or her case before the Court of Blood.  The court then decides if the case has merit and whether the Lasombra should be allowed to diablerize his target.  The target is never told that the council is deciding his fate.  The Court of Blood is an excellent way of keeping Lasombra players in line as the Court of Blood provides both a means for seeking to gain further power and provides a punishment for Lasombra who turn against their own kind without permission.  However, the court only decides intra-clan diableries; if a Lasombra wants to diablerize a Tzimisce or Toreador then there is nothing to stop him/her. 
            Clanbook Lasombra ends with a chapter dedicated to example Lasombra characters that players and Storytellers can choose from and an Appendix with noteworthy Lasombra NPCs.  These final sections are the weakest section of the book because none of these character templates or NPCs stand out as special.  The templates offer a selection of obvious archetypes lacking any real creativity.  There is a priest, a pirate and a child prodigy.  Also, these character templates are not very useful for players who have moved on to V20 because they use an alternate virtue, Morale, rather than Courage.  The archetypes are still useable but will require some reworking for players who want to use them in a V20 game, but I’m certain players can think of better characters than these templates.  The Noteworthy Lasombra found in the Appendix are not very noteworthy.  The two most interesting characters are Montano and Gratiano who are covered in an earlier chapter in the book and the Appendix redirects the reader to Children of the Inquisition.  As exciting and well-written as the rest of Clanbook Lasombra is, this section feels more like the authors were simply checking off a section on the list.  Templates?  Check.  Appendix with NPCs?  Check.  However, this is a small gripe with an otherwise brilliant book. 
Antitribu pirate.  I have nothing else to offer. 
            Clanbook Lasombra is a superb example of how a supplement focused on one clan should be written.  The personality of the Lasombra comes through the text and each section not only informs the reader about the clan but also provides information on how to role play a Lasombra.  Rather than having a section dedicated to “How to RP a Lasombra” the narratives themselves provide that information.  Anyone who wants to play a Lasombra should own this book.  It a must have.  Nevertheless, this book does have some problems.  Integrating the game mechanics into the narrative elements of the book meant that the new mechanics (Merits, Flaws, & Disciplines) were not explained as well as they could have.  The character templates section could have offered something other than clichéd character concepts.  Those are small problems in another wise excellent book.  This is the textbook on how to play a Lasombra and how a good supplement focused on a clan, tribe, or tradition. 
            Clanbook Lasombra is available for purchase on DriveThruRPG as a PDF or you can purchase an original printing from Amazon.


  1. Good review! I am nost sure because i didn't read this book, maybe because against many Spanish and Spaniards, i am not interested on Lassombras so much (too mainstream hahaha). Anyway, i think than this book was that one than any other Faction Book followed on Revised, with more or less accuracy. The Revised never wa traslated to Spanish.

    1. Thanks, Mario! I'm glad you liked my review. I'm looking forward to reading some of the Revised Clanbook as well, but I'm probably going to put that off for a while. It sucks that they never released Revised in Spanish.

  2. My favorite Clan and my favorite Clan Book. I agree very much with your assessment of the structure. The narrative gives a great insight into the Role-playing aspect of the character. Much more than any other source I've seen, for any clan. I have to disagree a little with your assessment of the final two sections though. IMO, the templates are just that, templates. Meant to do nothing more than give an ST some stock characters to run with when in a pinch and the Player a jumping off point for character creation. I have used these templates in this manner many times with huge success. Both as a Player and an ST. As for the NPC section, well, when the individuals mentioned are detailed in numerous other source books, novels and sundry writings, it's in the best interests of the publisher to direct the reader/consumer to those materials for details. As mercenary as that seems and sounds, it's just good business. And anyway, those other source materials are far more fun and interesting to read.

    As an aside, there were some jarring editorial mistakes in your writing that could have been overcome by just having a friend proof read before publishing. Not a criticism, just a friendly suggestion.

    Cheers :)

    1. Thanks for the kind words, and as I said, Clanbook Lasombra has inspired me to play a Lasombra.
      My problem with the Templates Chapter was that it compared poorly to templates in other clanbooks. I don't think any of the templates are necessarily bad, but simultaneously, I don't think any of them are great. They're average, and a bit of a let down compared to the rest of the book as well.
      I agree with you about the Appendix on Notable Lasombra, exploring those other books is a lot of fun. Nevertheless, I try to review the books as they are, and being redirected to another books is always going to be a point against the book I'm reviewing. I like supplements to be self-contained, but I do agree that directing readers to other books is a good business move.
      I apologize for the typos and other writing errors. I try my best to read through and catch those before publishing, but I miss some from time to time. And to be clear, that is criticism, constructive criticism, and I appreciate it! I'll try be more thorough in the future.
      I'm glad you enjoyed my article overall, and I look forward to more of your comments!