Sunday, May 14, 2023

(V: tM) Clanbook Giovanni

First off, I have to declare a conflict of interest - I worked on a project with one of the authors of this book. Greg Stolze contributed a short story to my Creative Commons anthology, Tales of Clickbait. Now, this isn't something that's going to make me a ton of money (last time I checked, it had sold a total of 3 copies - out of the 600 I need to break even), but I do technically have a financial stake in going easy on this guy. To be absolutely above-board (and because some talented people did some good work on this project, and they deserve to be seen), I am going to include a free download link to the book.

There, now that that business is out of the way, I can tell you that a large portion of my experience with Clanbook: Giovanni (Greg Stolze with John Chambers) was waiting for the other shoe to drop, re: disgusting depictions of necromancy, and it never did. I realize now that what happened was that I mentally grouped together Clanbook: Giovanni with the description of Giovanni necromancy in Blood Magic: Secrets of Thaumaturgy. So I was remembering that the Giovanni were really gross, and when I read that previous bit of extreme grossness (a detailed description of surgically-augmented necrophilia), I thought, "whoa, if it's this gross now, in a book I remember as being relatively benign, what is it going to be like when I reach the book I remember as being really gross?" And the answer to that is just that I got some wires crossed. It turns out I'd already passed the thing I was dreading.

Which is not to let Clanbook: Giovanni entirely off the hook. It had its moments of grossness. There's something like half a page (page 26, to be exact - I wrote down the page number in my notes because I really didn't want to transcribe what I was reading) where it talks about the Giovanni indulging in the decadent pleasures afforded by extreme wealth and I'm sitting here thinking, "you know that these guys are supposed to be player-characters, right?"

I could spend several paragraphs harping on that half page, and it would all be entirely earned. It's got that weird, somewhat leering portrayal of incest where it pretends to be a consensual breaking of taboo instead of a monstrous abuse of familial trust. And it rattles off a list of the fucked-up shit the family gets up to and includes (slur words) gays and lesbians alongside rape and pedophilia. Some of that can be laid at the feet of the narrator, a conservative vampire gangster, who realistically would have that kind of attitude, but it was a real human being who chose that narrator, so it's only a half pass.

Though I don't want all of you to think I'm some kind of prude. I get that there's a genre thing at work here. "Depraved aristocrats, so far divorced from consequences that they lose sight of all morality and human dignity" definitely has a niche in horror. A good niche, even. If I think of the Clan Giovanni as a story, where a naive young scion gets ensnared by the "family business" and then gradually discovers layer upon layer of unspeakable family secrets, each more unspeakable than the last, then that's something I could see myself watching. I watched Game of Thrones up to season 6, so I don't have any call to be getting up on a high horse here.

It's just that roleplaying games feel a bit different from other forms of entertainment. You're encouraged to identify with the characters to a much greater degree than you would in more passive forms of media. Cersei Lannister is a compelling villain, but how are you supposed to feel when someone hands you her character sheet and tells you she's your PC for the upcoming campaign?

Conflicted, that's how. Just like I'm conflicted about Clanbook: Giovanni possibly being the best of the clanbooks I've read so far. It's not purely down to the quality of the writing (sorry, Mr Stolze), even though the narration does have an easy conversational style and distinctive voice. Rather, I think the Clan Giovanni was just an easier assignment than the Gangrel or the Brujah. Clanbook: Giovanni is the best for the same reason Clanbook: Assamite is almost as good - it is about a specific group of people, with a specific history, who did well-documented things for knowable motives. The Giovanni don't embody abstract and primordial principles like "rebellion" or "the animal nature of the predator." Their antediluvian has a street address.

And that makes it easy to immerse yourself in their history and culture. It's kind of absurd when the narrator declares his descent from the Roman Emperor Flavius Jovianus (and, also, the most clever of White Wolf's in-canon retcons - "Giovanni" is a conspicuously bland Italian surname because it wasn't a real surname at all, just a pseudonym, chosen for its superficial similarity to a real, but infamous name - "Jovian" becomes "Giovanni" and preserves most of the phonemes), but it's absurd in a way that makes sense. It doesn't take any great leap of logic to believe that these wealthy Italian vampires are descended from ancient Italian nobility. 

The only part that really lost me was when it started talking about the Giovanni's grand plan: The Endless Night. The Clan believes that if they can gather up 100 million ghosts, they can use that stolen spiritual energy to merge the worlds of the living and the dead, making their skill at necromancy the most powerful force in the universe. As a supervillain plot . . . it's fine. And if I were reading about it for the first time in Gehenna, I would have no complaints. It's just, in the context of a typical game of Vampire: the Masquerade, it's a bit too long-term and grandiose in its scale. I was actually kind of fine with the Giovanni being gross aristocrats who use their necromancy to gain wealth and power.

Overall, I'd say that I'm relatively satisfied with Clanbook: Giovanni. Reading all these Vampire: the Masquerade books has reminded me why I stopped playing the game and why I'm not particularly interested in going back, and this book did nothing to reverse that trend, but it paints such a clear picture of who the Giovanni are and what they do that my reasons for not playing the game feel similarly well-articulated.

Ukss Contribution: The narrator says that Augustus Giovanni killed his sire because that ancient vampire wanted to "diablerize God" and that was clearly a sign of dangerous megalomania. I thought it was such a fun turn of phrase that I was tempted to try and come up with a plot where someone actually tries it. Unfortunately, neither diablerie nor God are relevant concepts in Ukss (the setting has religions, but nothing analogous to Abrahamic monotheism). 

After that, all of the book's strongest impressions are things that I have no interest in replicating. So I think I have to go with something silly. The Shadow Walker flaw. Take it and you physically exist in both the living world and the Shadowlands, meaning random ghosts can attack you and you're constantly in danger of running into the ghost of a wall that was torn down years ago. Awkward, especially since the flaw gives you no way of seeing into the Shadowlands. A vampire that has to carefully tiptoe around their environment, lest they smack their face on an invisible obstacle is kind of a hilarious image . . .

Which is why, for the sake of tone, I'll probably just give Ukss' shadow walkers the ability to see the dead as well as interact with them. That's spooky, this strange group of mystics with one foot in the land of the living and one foot in the land of the dead.

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