Those familiar with the history of pen and paper role playing games know that different games have different niches, and the niches often have nothing to do with the more mechanical aspects of game play. When White Wolf publishing created a name for itself in the gaming world, it wasn't based on a new system or even a refining of an old system. It was based on the audience that it reached out to, the theme of their RPGs, and to the higher literary and production values they put into their work. If you were to open any given White Wolf rule or source book, you wouldn't find endless tables describing how to roll against your rope skill based on whether there was a strong headwind. You would find some atmospheric art, and a well-written story describing the setting and characters you would encounter in the game.
White Wolf wasn't shy about producing wares for its enthusiastic fan base, and along with the usual supplements, they also decided to get into some novel publishing, based upon their World of Darkness, especially Vampire: The Masquerade, their most popular property. And part of that was the thirteen-story series of Clan Novels, each focusing on a different one of the clans that vampires are divided into. I read the eighth one of these, the novel focusing on the Ravnos clan. It is part of a continuing storyline, winding its way through all thirteen books and through the rather byzantine politics of vampires.
The protagonist of the book is one Khalil Ravnos, a vampire of the Ravnos clan, which means that in life he was a Rom, and that in both life and undeath, he was a thief and conman (a depiction that could be seen as very insulting). He has recently arrived in the United States from India, as part of a complicated plot to retrieve the Eye of Hazimel, an object that various vampire factions are fighting over. He wants to find it for himself, but is also apparently being controlled by a much older vampire who is still buried somewhere in Calcutta. The book's action follows Khalil as he murks along in the mortal and immortal treachery and amorality that is New York City. The life of a vampire includes lots of snotty posturing, interspersed with sudden extreme violence, and then lots of confusion about what to do next, since it is hard to tell who is double crossing who. Khalil, even for a vampiric protagonist, is fairly repulsive in his treachery and violence. By the end of the book, he has been taken down a notch or two, but not in any way that would redeem him.
The plot of the book is not that important, what is important is the characterization and creation of atmosphere. This is done fairly well, although in certain passages, such as this one:
That was mourning black, raven black, Hamlet black, crepe black--deliberate and romantic, or desperate and nihlistic. These people dressed in burnt black, iron black, tar black, coal black, dead black--just black.
it is carried to lengths that I certainly hope are at least mildly self-parody
. The book communicates all the angst and nihilism and apathy and greed and lust that have made vampires a draw for White Wolf and others, and does it with lots of urban decay
and with a gothic punk
mood. It is, in that, exactly what most fans would be looking for. And I won't deny that once I started reading this book, I got through it in two sittings.
The problem seems to be, however, that while White Wolf's writing style, focusing on character and atmosphere, seems very profound and literary compared to say, the writing that might fill in the gaps in a Dungeons & Dragons book, it is not really enough to seem serious and engaging in a 250 page book. The amorality and Machiavellian scheming, and the steely staring matches inside dark bars, seem somewhat silly after a while. Not to say that it is a bad book--like I said, I quickly wanted to find out how it ended up--just that it shows that what fascinates in terms of role playing does not fascinate in terms of reading.
Written, in part for Halloween Horrorquest 2008