Friday, May 30, 2014

Late Review: Ranking the Clanbooks

            Over the course of nearly two years, I have been reviewing the first/second edition clanbooks as part of my Late Reviews series.  Many of these clanbooks I had never read before, but others were some of my favorite RPG supplements.  One of the reasons that I always played Toreador was because of my affinity for their clanbook, and that’s one of the things that I’ve looked for when I read each of the clanbooks – whether or not I was interested in playing the clan after I finished reading it. 
            When writing a review, I have tried to stay as objective as possible which wasn’t always possible.  I have a lot of bad experiences with Assamite characters and that will always bias me against the clan, but the clanbook was one of my favorites.  On the other hand, I tried to balance my love for my favorite clans, the Toreador, the Tzimisce, and the Ventrue, by remaining as critical as possible of those books.  Regardless of how objective I try to be, my biases are going to slip through.  I disliked Clanbook Giovanni because of its misogynistic, racist narrator, and I hated Clanbook Tzimisce because it over-emphasized body horror and comic book villainy. 
            More important that my biases, however, is an understanding of the process of how these books came into being.  The problems associated with the art for Clanbook Malkavian and the use of stick figure drawings are well-known in the Classic World of Darkness fan community.  The order in which the books were issued is also important.  The earliest clanbooks suffered because the authors and editors were struggling to define what a Clanbook should have.  Clanbook Brujah was the first of the series and introduced under the First Edition ruleset, and sadly, it is also the worst of the series.  The last of the series was Clanbook Giovanni which was much better written but had its own problems.  Rather than offering a series of qualifications for each book, I have taken each book as it is, and while that may be unfair, I have no other way of assessing each book now. 
            When writing my reviews I have avoided any type of numerical rating system as I think those kinds of reviews distill the entire review and the book itself into a single number.  My goal has never been to grade the books in this series, but rather, my purpose has been to explore the quality of these books, their usefulness to current players, and for my own entertainment.  None of these clanbooks are perfect and none of them are awful.  Although I offer recommendations in the following condensed reviews, I am not the final arbiter of the quality of these books and I recommend that everyone re-read these books with fresh eyes.  There are some surprising things to be found in each of the books. 
            Reviewing this series has been a time consuming but rewarding process.  Reviewing the clanbooks was my primary reason for starting this blog.  On the horizon are the Revised editions of the clanbooks, but it will be sometime before I begin those reviews.  I will review them but probably not until 2015.  The Onyx Path development team is currently working on updated versions of the Clanbooks for Vampire:  The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition, and  like many of you I can’t wait to read those books. 
            I have listed the clanbooks from best to worst and included a single paragraph summary of my review.  If you are interested in reading the full review, click on the book’s name. 

            Where other clanbooks only tell the history of the clan and offer some new game mechanics, Clanbook Lasombra acts as a textbook that provides both the clan’s history and uses that history to teach players how to role-play as a Lasombra.  Eschewing the typical portrayal of the Lasombra as tyrants who need to dominate all around them, the authors re-imagine the Lasombra as violent colonizers and the Sabbat as their conquistadors pushing into the domains of the Camarilla much as Cortez conquered the Aztecs.  More importantly, the introduction of Les Amies Noir and the Court of Blood reigns in the potential for intra-clan diablierie run amuck by offering a hierarchy and specific rules for feuds amongst clan members.  New mechanics are also included but the authors have integrated them into the narrative rather than setting them apart meaning that the information isn’t as well developed as it could have been.  Despite some small problems with the clichéd templates, Clanbook Lasombra is everything that a clanbook should be.  This is a must own for every Vampire:  The Masquerade player. 

From the most cliché of stereotypes, evil Muslim assassins, comes a surprisingly intriguing look at a misunderstood clan.  Rather than glorifying the violence of the clan, Clanbook Assamite explores concepts of colonialism and post colonialism by re-imagining Caine as the first colonizer in the city of Enoch.  After he arrives, Caine establishes a ruling minority over a populace overwhelmed by his superior and alien powers.  The clan itself is expanded with the introduction of an entire hierarchy and roles in the clan beyond just assassin.  With a complete history, new Disciplines, new Abilities, a variety of artifacts, and even new mechanics, Clanbook Assamite redefines and expands this clan to a complete sect within its scant 66 pages.  It isn’t perfect, but it’s the most comprehensive of the original Clanbook series.    

            Narrated by a non-ethnic Rom (or Gypsy), Clanbook Ravnos offers an entirely new perspective on the Ravnos Clan that addresses both the persecution of the Rom and the Ravnos.  By setting the Introductory Story around the events of World War II, Clanbook Ravnos begins building the reader’s sympathy for the Ravnos and establishes the Ravnos as culturally distinct from either the European or American cultures through which they travel.  The stereotypes of the traveling con artist or thief are forgotten, and these itinerant Kindred are re-imagined as guerillas defending their people from mortal persecutions and vampire predations.  The thievery and tricks of this clan have become the tools that the Ravnos use to protect themselves.  The only negative aspect of this book is that it relies heavily upon references to World of Darkness:  Gypsies, a book known for its racist portrayal of Gypsies.   Regardless of a player’s previous bias towards the clan, this clanbook will inspire anyone to play a Ravnos. 

With a mix of role playing advice, new mechanics, new Merits and Flaws, and new Disciplines, the Toreador have the most complete clanbook of the Camarilla Clans.  The author has given new depth to a clan usually considered superficial by creating two distinct groups:  the Artistes and the Poseurs.  Artistes are self explanatory, but the Poseurs are those Toreador who cannot create art or criticize other artists or spend their unlives partying or just look pretty.  These distinctions allow the Storyteller to create intra-clan conflicts and rivalries that explore the nature of the clan and the way it interacts with art.  This book has everything that a player needs to create and role-play a variety of Toreador characters from a horror writer to a martial artist to a televangelist.  Every Toreador player should own this book. 

            Unlike the other clans that nurture recently Embraced vampires before setting them loose on the world, the Gangrel prefer to leave their fledglings to fend for themselves before returning to explain what has happened.  Written as a guide for naïve neonates, Clanbook Gangrel explores what it means to be a member of a clan that eschews the safety of the city and travels through the wilderness.  The Gangrel claim that their Antediluvian was the daughter of Lilith who was raised by wolves making their progenitor also the first werewolf.  Although Clanbook Gangrel does reference some elements of Werewolf:  The Apocalypse, such as explaining how a Gangrel could associate with a pack of werewolves, readers don’t need to be familiar with that system to make use of this book.  The only serious complaint that I have about this clanbook is that it is narrated in parts by a Hunter S. Thompson proxy, known as Raoul King, but the writer chose not to imitate Thompson’s distinct style.  A Hunter S. Thompson proxy’s views on vampirism and the Jyhad would have been enlightening and entertaining.  Players who like playing Gangrel will want to own this book. 

Although other clans consider the Tremere’s mastery of Thaumaturgy to be the clan’s greatest strength, in truth it’s the clan’s authoritarian hierarchy which is their greatest asset.  Clanbook Tremere explains this hierarchy in depth because it is fundamental to understanding this clan, and an example of how the higher echelons of the North American hierarchy are structured is included.  The Tremere, however, are not a monolithic structure and many of the secret orders that infest the Pyramid ostensibly working to improve the clan are described.  At the very bottom of the hierarchy are the Tremere’s servants, such as Gargoyles to protect a chantry and corpse minions to consult on research, but the book offers no mechanics for explaining how these beings are represented in the system.  A system for creating new Paths of Thaumaturgy is presented, but the explanation lacks a concrete example that would clarify these rules.  Nevertheless, Clanbook Tremere offers so many options that players and Storytellers can create entire Chronicles just focused on this clan. 

            Because of their hideous appearance and deformities the Nosferatu are the pariahs of the Kindred; making their havens in the sewers of the great metropolises, they work as information brokers to the other clans.  Instead of shining a flashlight into the sewers and exposing some of the Nosferatu’s own secrets, Clanbook Nosferatu offers only enough information to frustrate readers.  The highlight of this clanbook is the Nosferatu’s retelling of the origin of vampires reinterpreting Caine and the Antediluvians as cave dwellers rather than the rulers of the first city. 
Despite this excellent start, Clanbook Nosferatu quickly devolves into a disappointing exploration of the archetypal Nosferatu warren that describes only three rooms. Discussions of subterranean horrors and giant fungi that don’t fit the tone of Vampire:  The Masquerade, and references to the Bat Boy from the Weekly World News further diminish the usefulness of this book.  Players and Storytellers who want to add more depth to their characterizations of Nosferatu should look elsewhere. 

The Ventrue consider themselves the masters of their domain, and in the paranoid world of the Jyhad they are the puppet masters.  But like the Nosferatu who fear the Niktuku, the Ventrue have their own bogey men, the Secret Masters, who could be pulling their own strings.  This may sound familiar as the Brujah also fear the true childer of their progenitor, the True Brujah.  While still maintaining the gothic sensibilities of the setting, Clanbook Ventrue’s interior art is a dramatic change from the art of other clanbooks and emphasizes the ancient warrior-king ideal of the Ventrue.  This clanbook, unfortunately, offers players no new Merits, Flaws, Disciplines or systems for players to use, this book relies on new and expanded information on the clan which is not only good but also useful for both Storytellers and players.  If you want a deeper understanding of the Ventrue, this is a great book, but without new mechanics it falls short in being a complete clanbook.

            The Giovanni are a clan of inbred, Italian necromancers and their clanbook is exactly as repulsive as their clan’s concept.  Although the book is well-written, it suffers from two problems:  a repulsive narrator and too many references to other supplements.  The narrator’s homophobic, racist, and misogynistic remarks are more distasteful than the Giovanni’s history of inbreeding.  The history of the Giovanni is bound to the Cappodocians and Lamia clans, and readers unfamiliar with Dark Ages:  Vampire will be confused by references to these groups.   Clanbook Giovanni introduces three new ghoul families to create some diversity amongst the clan but even with these new families, the clanbook presents this clan as more monolithic than the Tremere.  Although Clanbook Giovanni is not the worst of the series, it is the most disappointing, and other than the introductory story I do not recommend this book. 

The Tzimisce are mishmash of old world vampire lore such as Dracula and the body horror of Brian Lumley’s Necromancer series, but their clanbook is a carnival freakshow of one-note cartoonish villainy.   With strikingly ugly art, the book attempts to shock the reader with images of body horror rather than explore the Tzimisce’s loss of Humanity and their transcendental need to be more than human, more than vampire.  This book represents a missed opportunity to explore a complex clan that holds tightly to traditions but is desperate to reinvent themselves.  Instead of exploring this dichotomy, the reader is given Nazi NPCs because Nazis are evil and the Tzimisce have to be evil.  So, a Nazi Tzimisce is the most evil thing possible right?  The Sabbat needs more depth and motivation than just being the black hats to the Camarilla’s white hats. 

Steeped in Egyptian mythology, the Setites claim that they are descendents of Set, the brother of Osiris, who was wronged by Ra, their grandfather.  Following in their progenitor’s footsteps, the Followers of Set rebel against the veneer of goodness that other Kindred claim reveling in corruption and corrupting others.  The Followers of Set proudly wear the mantle of the villain.  Their clanbook, however, adds no depth to their reasoning.  They are evil to be evil.  This clanbook offers very little for players or Storytellers except a section on Setite havens and temples which describes everything from a luxurious temple in the jungle to a poor Setite’s personal shrine in his studio apartment.  Aside from this, Clanbook Setite offers only the obvious information about the clan with no depth or breadth.  The only usefulness that a Storyteller will find from this book is the section on havens and some information on the conflicts between Mummies and Setites.  This book is only recommended for the most fanatical Setite player or a collector who needs every book. 

The clan of lunatics has the most frustrating Clanbook.  Clanbook Malkavian hides useful information, such as two pages on how to role play characters with derangements, between its covers with annoying layouts like the backwards page and stick figure art.  Even this helpful information is overshadowed by the forced connections to Changeling the Dreaming and Mage the Ascension.  The author chose to portray the Malkavians as enlightened lunatics with the goal of overturning static reality (maybe), but this portrayal depends more on the themes of Mage than Vampire the Masquerade.  Because of the history associated with Clanbook Malkavian, it’s almost a must have for any Classic World of Darkness gamer for their collection, but other than an historical artifact, this book doesn’t add much helpful information for playing a Malkavian. 

Of all the original clanbooks, the Brujah have the most disappointing.  This book does nothing to expand the original concept of the Brujah as anarchists and street thugs.  Although some information is given on “academic Elder Brujah,” this separation is nothing more than a continuation of the Anarch/Elder themes from First and Second Edition, and adds no new depth to the clan.  The author’s attempt to contextualize the Brujah by connecting the clan to various historical revolutions, such as the War for American Independence, is too heavy handed and comes off as more comical than intriguing.  The only thing that stands out in this book is the introduction of Combo Disciplines, but these are poorly implemented and lack experience point costs making them perfect for abuse by power gamers.  Clanbook Brujah is recommended only for players who need to finish their collection. 

            Agree?  Disagree?  Please post your comments below. 

1 comment:

  1. While I agree that the Malkavian clanbook doesn't really offer useful RP advice for a clan that is actually hard to roleplay, strictly in terms of fluff, it is gorgeous. The insight of the Malkavians does shine through. I personally liked the elements relating to CtD and Mage. If you look into the Sidhe Kithbook, they even go on to say, I quote, "To the Malkavians, we might as well have never left", and some Unseelie fae "inspire" the Malkavian madness. It is their insanity that allows them to grasp the idea of a Changeling, which was very interesting. Because I've read only some of the clanbooks, I can't quite compare and contrast in your capacity, but I just wanted to point it out :D