Sunday, April 23, 2023

(Vampire: the Masquerade) Ghouls: Fatal Addiction

CONTENT WARNING: sexual abuse, animal abuse, child abuse

I suppose, when I got into this racket, I on some level knew that I'd one day read a White Wolf book where they waited until 3 pages from the end to introduce a character who commits casual bestiality. In fact, I've read this specific book once before, so it's possible that this very shock is part of what formed my overall impression of the company. It came as a surprise, because it's been 20 years and I only remembered the vague outline of Ghouls: Fatal Addiction (by Ronni Radner and Ethan Skemp), but it really shouldn't have been that much of a surprise. That's on me. I should have known that this would not be a fun way to follow up seeing Renfield in the theater. It's a White Wolf book. We're supposed to chuckle at the word "fun."

Nonetheless, the "Revolting Revenant" template threw me off balance. Up until then, I was mostly having fun. I look back at my notes and see something I chose to summarize as "p. 56 - gross, gross, gross" and, looking back, it was indeed super fucking gross, but it hits a bit different as a last impression. Up until about 20 minutes ago, my overall impression of the book was that it was a sometimes overly edgy soap opera that occasionally drifted into comic book territory. And I still think that's an accurate summation of about 90% of the book, but yeah. . .

I'm not even sure how much I should object to the grossness, though. Honestly, as much as there are things in this book that I absolutely would not depict in a game. As much as there are things that I wish I could scrub from my memory, it actually comes out ahead of many other White Wolf books in terms of responsibility. The gross things are here for the sake of being gross, but you don't get anything like the advice in Guide to the Sabbat or The Orphan's Survival Guide that suggests you should be gross as a player. So what is the horror genre, anyway? Is it that thing on page 56 about trapping pedophiles using a monster that looks like a child? Is it ancient families of inbred aristocrats, subject to horrific magical experiments that trap them in a shadow-life just short of true undeath, the madness of which occasionally inspires one of them to try and get impregnated by a dog?

I don't know. It certainly made me uncomfortable, but was I afraid? I guess I was afraid of being uncomfortable. Is that a thing? Horror fans would know better than me.

This book is also a guide to using ghouls (humans who have been fed vampire blood to become supernaturally loyal servants, like Renfield from Dracula) as player characters, and unlike their werewolf counterparts from Kinfolk: Unsung Heroes, it actually makes a case that there's a compelling campaign in the idea. Ghouls are motivated by grand and terrible passions, distinct from the vampires that created them. Even the best of them must navigate addiction, obsession, and a loss of control. They live in a moral paradox of being the vampires' most degraded victims while also abetting the worst of their atrocities, and if they somehow manage to escape, you have the irony of living humans hunting vampires in order to drink their blood. There are some great stories to be mined from this material, and the best part of this book is the Storytelling chapter (I know, I'm as shocked as anybody else).

The biggest weakness of the book, aside from the fact that it measures about 1.2 White Wolfs on the grossness scale, is that it focuses too much on vampires. Large portions of the book are devoted to giving a clan-by-clan breakdown of the ghoul experience, and that's really too much of the wrong kind of information. The ghoul's vampire domitor is an immensely important part of their story, to be sure, but canonically, it's rare for any ghoul to have specific information about the kindred. You need three dots in the Vampire Lore skill to even know the name of the local prince. A list of broad domitor archetypes (i.e. "the paramour," "the taskmaster," "the experimenter," etc), perhaps with a brief list of the Clans where they commonly appear, would likely have suited the book better. If the experience of being a ghoul is one of being thrust into a mysterious world, fraught with danger, perhaps a more mysterious tone would have gone farther in communicating that experience.

Overall, though, I'd say that Ghouls: Fatal Addiction ranks fairly high in terms of pre-revised content. It's kind of obvious now why the Ravnos got nuked in the Week of Nightmares (they were really using the Roma with a thoughtlessness that bordered on malice), and I think they might have overestimated how much putting offensive words in the mouths of villains might insulate them from criticism, but there is fun to be had here, which makes it better than some other titles I could name. Approach with caution, I guess.

Ukss Contribution: This is another one of those books that's on the bubble. White Wolf liked to push buttons for the sheer anarchic joy of being edgy. But, if I'm being honest, the edginess in this book was more disgusting than offensive. If someone came to me saying that it was over the line, I'd definitely back them up, but it wasn't over my line (which, I guess, would be the book explicitly coming out and saying that a lack of squeamishness is a virtue).

So, I guess my choice is the least problematic of the revenant families - the Obertus. Their whole deal is profane Lovecraftian scholarship and reckless mad science, and they secretly study their vampire masters in hopes of transcending their condition and gaining immortality without all the strings attached.

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