Sunday, April 30, 2023

(V: tM) Clanbook: Assamite

You ever walk into the middle of an interesting-sounding conversation, pick up enough contextual clues to understand that it is indeed interesting, and then feel a sinking disappointment as you realized it would have been a lot more interesting if you'd been there from the beginning?

Yeah, Clanbook Assamite (by Clayton Oliver) has a lot going for it, but it never actually explains who the fuck Ur-Shulgi is supposed to be. Like, okay, there are facts - he is an ancient vampire, who lived thousands of years ago, and he was directly Embraced by the Assamite clan founder, so he was privy to a lot of the clan's mythic history, and he was apparently asleep for a long time, until quite recently, when he woke up and tore the clan in half, as he demanded obedience to his archaic ideas about its intended mission and values.

And that's technically enough. I can understand the Assamite Clan's internal conflicts, and the stakes of the schism in these dangerous final nights. It is meaningful to me when the book explains that the clan's formerly leading sorcerer, al-Ashrad, is leading the schismatics to join the Camarilla, even as Ur-Shulgi is driving the loyalists to new heights of anti-vampire fanaticism. And I can appreciate the unique social dynamic that comes from a largely Muslim organization (according to his book, Islam has a plurality of Assamites at approximately 33%) having to deal with a new leader who was born thousands of years before the creation of Islam. That's a tricky thing to navigate, what with vampires mostly being sacrilegious by nature (pretty sure that blood-drinking, specifically, is haram), but it's also an interesting thing to navigate - you don't instantly lose your faith just because someone turns you into a vampire.

I picked up on all that. I liked most of it. But I still don't know what Ur-Shulgi looks like or where he was born, or when he first fell asleep or how he's adapting to the modern world. And I couldn't help but come away with the feeling that I would know all of this, if only I'd been keeping current (retroactively, in the late 90s timeline) with all of White Wolf's various supplements.

I should probably just look it up . . . It took some doing, because the White Wolf wiki cited the reprint, but I guess I was only missing out on one relevant book: Clan Novel 7: Assamite, but maybe a lot happened there. In any event, the sensation I got from reading this book was that big events were happening and I had to jog to keep up. Unlike Time of Thin Blood, this doesn't feel like a virtue. It's definitely not a fatal flaw, but it is a flaw.

I also suspect that this clan book shares an agenda with many of Mage's revised tradition books, and that it's course correcting on an overly-simplistic presentation of the clan in previous editions. It's supposed to be really surprising that the Assamites have "viziers" who study science, technology, history, and the arts and aren't assassins at all (why they're called "viziers" and not "scholars" I can only speculate). The book actually calls the stereotype that all Assamites are warriors and assassins "the Great Lie," attributing it to propaganda from their enemies. That's a classic White Wolf move, making something kind of dumb and racist and then trying to cover by saying "no, it's because our characters were dumb racists). But unlike Mage, I wasn't actually here for the earliest part of the conversation, so I'm really just relying on pattern recognition.

Whether Clanbook Assamite got out from under mid-90s orientalism or not, I can't say. I mean, I literally have no idea. It seemed fine to me, but my knowledge of this subject is incredibly shallow.

So let's move on. I kind of wish this book was dumber (but only if it could do so without being more racist, obviously). The best thing in the entire book was the story of Zev Bennison, a Jewish vampire who, in the late 40s, led a team of vampire assassins to hunt down and slay Camarilla vampires who collaborated with the Nazis. And while that's not, strictly speaking, "dumb," on account of being awesome, it is indicative of a dumb tendency that I wish would have gotten more attention. The Assamites think they're better than other vampires, morally, and that they have a mandate from their founder to act as guardians for mortals (you're allowed to drink their blood, but not abuse them), and so they'll often act as judge, jury, and executioner for out-of-control vampires.

That's the sort of comic-book story that I'd want to see addressed head-on as a campaign model. Heroic vampire assassins, who hunt vampires. Maybe it shouldn't be Clan Assamite's whole thing, and maybe you'd want to relegate it to an alternate character interpretation, in order to stick to the dark and gloomy vibe of Vampire: the Masquerade as a whole, but it's undeniably the most fun it's possible to have with these specific guys, so it was kind of a shame that it only showed up by implication (I actually get the feeling that this book was written specifically to stop people from playing their Assamites this way).

Overall, a decent book. It didn't have anything to shock me (except one line about Hitler that was . . . hard to parse), but it also didn't bore me. I think the occult conspiracy and millenarian aspects of the Ur-Shulgi plot would have worked better if more of the pieces were present, but it worked fine as a political problem. I'm fairly sure I bought these clan books purely because they were on the shelf of my local bookstore, but I'm not feeling any particular buyer's remorse. 

Ukss Contribution: Once again, the best thing in the book requires real-world context that I'm not eager to import into Ukss, so I'll have to do something a little unconventional and just take vampire-hunting vampire assassins as a general concept. I'm thinking less Path of Blood and more Blade, though.

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