Saturday, May 20, 2023

(V: tM) Clanbook: Toreador

I have to repeat my conflict of interest disclaimer here, because Greg Stolze worked on this one as well. I would have spaced them out better, but how was I to know?

Anyway, after reading Clanbook: Toreador (Heather Grove and Greg Stolze), I've developed a theory about Vampire: the Masquerade's clans - they can basically be divided into two types: clans based on lore and clans based on vibes. The lore clans are the reason you read the books, but the vibes clans are the reason you play the game.

Broadly speaking, of course. Occasionally, this book will offer a tidbit of canon that makes for fascinating reading (Mozart was made into a vampire! And then immediately diablerized by an Assamite named Muhannad Muzabir, whose description still circulates among clan Toreador to this day!), but mostly the Toreador are at their best when they're communicating a feeling.

Where it gets tricky is that Toreador have both a lore definition (they're the "artist" clan) and a vibes definition (they're the clan you choose if you want to be sexy at the LARP) and sometimes those definitions work well together and other times they clash.

What I think is happening is that the Toreador fell victim to the palpable theater kid energy that sometimes creeps into White Wolf products. To a theater kid, there's nothing sexier than an art nerd, and thus this, the sexiest of all the vampire clans, winds up accidentally getting portrayed as a bunch of total nerds. The opening fiction has a vampire talking about the maps he draws, saying "this one was painted on my most expensive canvas."

Is that a thing normal people care about? Is it even something art enthusiasts would care about? Like, obviously the differing types of canvas have an effect on the final piece, and the comparison of these details can put the work into a historical and cultural perspective, but it's also something that only a nerd would ever think to say. We're nodding along because you're a sexy vampire, but you're not sexy because you know a lot about art, you're sexy because you have no visible need for a job.

(Although, let me say that on a personal level, I get it. I'm enough of a nerd myself to understand the appeal of someone who will blather on about trends in modern art for four pages of a 30-page history chapter. It's the same thing that gives my blog its intense erotic energy).

However, this repeated insistence that the Toreador are really into art, and recruiting artists, and debating the meaning of "art" (Is a serial killer a form of artist? Is it true that "military strategy can be an art?") kind of misses something essential about the Clan - the art is a prop. It's a tool for hunting human prey. You draw them in by waxing eloquent about the power of beauty and intimating a deep and unspoken passion . . . and then you kill them and drink their blood. Or maybe just drink a little bit of their blood over the course of a years-long relationship. But the endpoint is the same - you are a predator and you are relentlessly objectifying that which you claim to love. The exquisite beauty of your mortal lover is reduced to the same level as grading livestock. And the art is just bait in your trap. The spider is in the worst possible position to recognize its web is beautiful.

And I think the weakness of a vibes-based Clan like the Toreador is that it's easy to mistake an aesthetic for a culture. That's how you start with a group of sexy vampires that wears nice clothes, hangs out in high class surroundings, indulges in arch conversations and high-handed gossip, and just generally spends every night of their eternity in soap-opera mode, and then wind up with a group that will chew your ear off explaining the difference between baroque and rococo. What are those rich people chortling over at their elite cocktail parties? Must be something expensive that us plebs are too poor to relate too . . . um, art?

Which isn't to say I'm down on the connection between Toreador and art, but rather that I don't think the book quite manages to convey the psychology at work here. It says that many Toreador vampires are tragic figures because they were artists when they were alive, but being made immortal robs them of their creativity in some vague way, so that they have limitless time, but not inspiration. That's a compelling story when it happens once, but it's unsatisfying as a pattern. I think, if you're going to turn a one-off plot into a whole family of vampires, you've got to understand that you're not dealing with a collection of individual preferences, you're dealing with a cycle of abuse.

A vampire doesn't lose their creativity because creativity is a mysterious and transcendent product of a living soul. They don't even lose it because they are impossibly old and jaded to the turning of history and lost to the small moments that make up a life. No, they lose their inspiration because they are constantly hurting people.

Now, goodness knows that the question of monstrous wrong-doers creating worthwhile art is a whole conversation all on its own, but what I'm really trying to get at here is more akin to the malaise that seems to afflict many creators who become rich off their art, the reason "selling-out" is such a common pejorative - the transformation of art from an end-in-itself to a means to an end. It's a microcosm of what vampires do to people. What they eventually do even to themselves. Everything is a performance. Everything is an affect. Your reward for art, for maintaining relationships, for grooming and taking care of yourself and being sexy, it's just that you get to continue your immortal life. Art is a prop. Human beings are food. And you must maintain the Masquerade.

Where the psychology comes into play is that this process is not instantaneous and never 100% complete, so you can be long tormented by the memory of authenticity. Toreador are drawn to art and artists not because they are nerds, but because they are soul-sick and compelled to poke and prod the one thing that still has the power to hurt them. They are people who have lost art, and over and over again, throughout the centuries, they cause other people to lose it too. That's how Clan Toreador perpetuates itself, just a chain of wrongs going all the way back to the goddess Ishtar.

Clanbook: Toreador is at its best when it captures that sickness. It's intermittent, but it's there. Like, if you take the narrator as being full of shit when they say, "the true horror is boredom," then it's pretty obvious that it takes a lot of horror to get someone to the point where they'll say something so off the mark (I'm pretty sure the true horror is all the death and killing). The best part of the whole book is the "Toreador of Note" section at the very end. It tells three quick horror stories in the form of vampire biographies, and art is only a peripheral theme in any of them. They are about people who came of age in terrible situations, clawed their way up through oppressive social hierarchies through violence and treachery, and then became the very monsters that once tormented them. (Or, at least, two of them are. Enver Frasheri is just this reckless and remorseless killer who gained a reputation as a composer by murdering and plagiarizing promising young musicians, 42 over the course of the centuries, ironically making him the most platonically perfect Toreador imaginable.) And I think the reason these stories work is because they are rooted in specifics. They don't need to talk about art in the abstract, or artistic trends as a historical force. They can just talk about it as if it were a vampire's hobby. Which is all it ever really needed to be.

In the end, I'm left with my original ambivalence. I really like the Clan Toreador for its overall vibe, and I think they are at the heart of what makes Vampire: the Masquerade great as a game. When I think of this game, the one persistent image is going to be that single rose against the green marble background, in lieu of the busier and more grotesque covers of its various supplements, strangely perfect in its simplicity, and what better representative of the game itself than the group known as "the clan of the rose?" However, I'm not sure this book really adds anything to that. Everything appealing about the Toreador is inherited from Vampire: the Masquerade's "urban fantasy meets personal horror" premise. The Clan ranks as one of the greats because its the one that deviates least from the game's overall themes. Additional lore only serves to complicate that.

Ukss Contribution: The soul-painting power. Go into a trance and allow your vampire aura-reading ability to guide your hand as you draw someone's portrait. When you come to, you will have a painting (or sketch or doodle, depending on your level of artistic skill) that captures the subject's true essence, revealing the strengths and flaws of their overall character (in-game, their Willpower and Virtue ratings, as well as their Nature and Demeanor).

I like this because it's mystical, and easy to imagine in the fiction, but not easily operationalized outside of game mechanics. It sounds a lot like the plot to a Twilight Zone episode (in fact, I'm imagining something very similar to The Masks, which still gives me chills just to think about).


  1. This is a really good summary; it arrives at some conclusions that I tried to reach when I read the book and couldn't quite assemble.

    Anyway, I don't think you need to apologize for being a fan of Greg Stolze; everything he wrote for White Wolf was gold.

    1. Oh, I'm not apologizing for being a fan, I'm declaring a legitimate economic conflict of interest. I bought one of his short stories for a fiction anthology I edited, so I have a small, but real interest in promoting his work. I thought it was soon enough after the last time I mentioned it that I could just glide past it.